Family Parables, by Boris Pintar, translated by Rawley Grau. Talisman House, 144 pages, $17.95 paper.
Translations from foreign-language books are rare. Even more rare is the availability of queer-interest writing from abroad. That’s reason enough to celebrate Grau’s English rendition of this 2005 story collection from Slovenian author Pintar, a translation that effectively captures the contrasts of a colloquial tone and a formal style. Even better, the stories are a fiercely fine introduction to queer lives in another culture. “Blossoms in Autumn,” about a lonely man’s frustrated search for love, is among the gayest of the stories; in “An Open Society,” the narrator is a gay man but the focus is on his family; “Slovene Athens” is narrated by a transman: “I still felt the same irrepressible desire for beautiful boys – women never did interest me – but now I, too, was a handsome man who knew how to seduce young men”; and in “The Symposium,” a woman falls in love with – and after their marriage accepts the male lovers of – a gay man. It’s a mix of most welcome queer voices, in a collection with depth.
He was rich enough to hire young men to come to his house to satisfy his desires, and he had done this a number of times, but still he longed for love. The men to whom he openly paid an agreed fee would maintain a certain distance toward him, as if he repulsed them. They expressed themselves mechanically; it might as well have been jelly doughnuts they were stuffing in a pastry shop. What do you like to do? What do you want me to do to you? Turn over! Did you come? Okay, see ya!
-from Family Parables, by Boris Pintar
After photographing a suite of 110 out queer student athletes – the “Fearless” project – Jeff Sheng received first one email from a closeted member of the American military, moved by finding the images online, and then several more. That’s when he decided to focus his digital gaze on the men and women of the armed forces – with one difference. Where the young athletes look fearlessly into Sheng’s lens, the identity of the active-duty individuals depicted in Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Volume One are veiled – by shadows, photographed from the back, their hands to their faces, their heads turned to one side – to protect their privacy, even as Congress debates the possible end of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that has seen thousands of queers discharged. In a New York Times profile in March, Sheng said his subjects – identified only by assumed first names – were people who “didn’t want to risk their careers, but who wanted to take some kind of stand.” The book, self-published, is available for $24.99 from dadtbook.com; it contains 20 pictures from 17 photo-shoots conducted, mostly off-base, between January and December, 2009, along with emails from several of the men and women who participated in the project. Several of the images are also available for viewing at jeffsheng.com.
The Big Bang Symphony, by Lucy Jane Bledsoe. Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press, 340 pages, $24.95 hardcover.
There are four memorable characters in Bledsoe’s novel about yearning and healing. Three of them are women. The fourth is Antarctica, which Bledsoe has visited three times – feet-on-the-ground research that captures the southern continent’s blend of mystery, menace and majesty with ravishing immediacy. Rosie is there for a third season on “the Ice,” a galley cook with nebulous dreams about a more rooted future; Mikala is there on an arts grant, hoping to find in the frozen landscape the musical muse that will heal her heart after the death of her lover – and perhaps to connect with the father she never knew; and Alice, a scientist to the core, is there to escape a clingy mother while finding her feet as a geologist. Bledsoe’s narrative of the women’s stint in polar isolation, confronting the emotional puzzles of their lives, is riveting in itself. But the subplots – most centrally Rosie’s self-exile from her family and Mikala’s childhood on a 1960s commune – add sublime texture to this crystalline novel.
The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet, by Myrlin A. Hermes. HarperPerennial, 372 pages, $13.99 paper.
Farce is prequel to tragedy in this comically giddy re-imagination of Hamlet’s younger days, a novel that draws heavily on what happens later at Elsinore Castle in Shakespeare’s play. But even readers unfamiliar with that theatrical mainstay (and if that’s the case, shame on you) can enjoy Hermes’ bawdy narrative in which Horatio, a poor but brilliant divinity scholar, is smitten by a young Hamlet’s flamboyant personality and ineffable beauty. Commissioned by a wealthy merchant, Baron de Maricourt, to write a play for his cheating wife, Lady Adriane, Horatio casts Hamlet as a ravishing girl. Soon after, he’s also composing sonnets wrenched from his soul about his love for the Prince – while resisting Lady Adriane’s seductions; she is also intent on seducing Hamlet. Shakespeare characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pop into the plot at odd moments – something of an in-joke for Shakespeare fans – while Hermes tosses in random lines from Hamlet. Eventually a mysterious poet, Will Shake-spear, appears as a rival for the affections of both the Prince and the Dark Lady. Based on a theatrical classic, this is classy silliness.
Vieux Carré Voodoo, by Greg Herren. Bold Strokes Books, 222 pages, $16.95 paper.
Scotty Bradley is a most unconventional private eye. He used to be a go-go boy, and is still admired for his muscle. His lover is a former FBI agent who wants to be a professional wrestler. His gay-positive parents are unreconstructed flower-power children, with the best pot in town. And in Mardi Gras Mambo, book three in an energetic series, Scotty was living in a lusty ménage-a-trois. These colorful elements contribute atmospheric flair – as does the setting of New Orleans itself – to the mystery of a Bradley family friend’s death. What at first appears to be a suicide takes on a more sinister aspect when Scotty discovers that the dead man harbored a murky past: he’s implicated in the theft of a revered spiritual artifact from a small Asian nation during the Vietnam War. Herren’s packed plot, as always in this imaginative series (he’s also author of five Chanse McLeod mysteries), revels in odd twists; for example, the third man of the ménage returns, revealed as a James Bond type. It all makes for a roller-coaster caper.