Saturday, July 19, 2008

Book Review of Since My Last Confession by Scott Pomfret

3 Stars out of 5 stars

When a devout Catholic, porn-writing, sodomite lawyer fights to protect the Massachusetts same-sex marriage laws, he finds that his main adversary is the same Roman Catholic Church he loves and supports with fervor. As the battle intensify, Pomfret reveals the church hierarchy’s gross hypocrisy, homophobia, rabid anti-gay political agenda, and the fear it instills in gay priest. Not surprisingly, this ugly side of the Church forces Pomfret to scrutinize his own beliefs, and to justify, or not, his continued support of a church that openly and actively discriminates against him.

Pomfret -- best known for the steamy, gay, pornographic novels that he co-authors with his partner Scott Whittier -- paints a funny yet ominous picture of the political power struggle going on in the church hierarchy, an underground gay movement organized by homo priest, and a church in transition (although transitioning to what is still a question).

This memoir is a serious romp, a humorous and intelligent look at the Roman Catholic Church under a magnifying glass, and an interesting look at one man’s attempt to justify his spiritual longings. I seldom laughed out loud, but I found something interesting and humorous on nearly every page. It made me laugh, it made me angry, it made me scrutinize my own beliefs.

Being a Zen Buddhist (which means I don’t believe in a God), I know little about the Catholic Church, and of Christianity in general. I suspect that Catholics will find this memoir much funnier than I, yet I found it an absorbing study of the Church’s teaching and workings. I especially liked the helpful, tongue-in-cheek sidebars that enlightened me on such topics as how to detect a gay Catholic, three easy steps to being excommunicated, and the ten commandments of reading gay porn.

I also was impressed Pomfret’s interpretations of church doctrines, including the following prayer which I found to be very Zen-like:
I don’t know what I want from You, God, if I want anything at all. I don’t want to beseech You, or thank You, or seek Your forgiveness or others’ salvation. I just want to stand naked before You, choked with wonder, uttering a prayer as joyful, guttural, sorrowful, agonizing, and inarticulate as an orgasm.

The one question that kept nagging me throughout this book, like a catchy jingle in my head that I can’t remember the name of, is how a gay man can justify supporting a church that actively discriminates against gay people. To me, that is equally as absurd as gay people supporting the Bush administration (and if you read this book, you’ll notice some not-so-surprising similarities between the two.) It was a question Pomfret asked himself and attempted to answer in the last few chapters, but I found his answer lacking, considering there are many alternatives for spiritual growth that don’t discriminate against anyone.
Mahatma Gandhi once said: “The various religions are like different roads converging on the same point. What difference does it make if we follow different routes, provided we arrive at the same destination.” But I, for one, disagree. I think that any church that actively discriminates against any portion of the population, including its own followers, impedes the whole human race from attainting that glorious destination.

But by all means, pick up a copy and judge for yourself. You won’t be sorry you did.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Welcome to the Family!

I wanted to share a funny comment that came my way this week, from my sister-in-law:

Herman and I have been partners for over fifteen years, and during that time he and I have attended every major gathering of his family: weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and Thanksgivings. I regularly go fishing with Herman’s brother and have done remodeling and yard work for several of his siblings. His family consists of thirty people spanning four generations, and although I don’t really fit in, I at least socialize with them every time we get together and everyone is cordial.

Last month, when it became legal for us to marry here in California, Herman and I were the first male couple to be married in Marin County. We posted pictures on our Chin Family blog, which let everyone know that we had tied the knot.

So to get to the point, this week we attended my mother-in-law’s 75 birthday party, a luncheon at a Japanese seafood buffet in San Mateo. We were the first to arrive and greeted everyone else as they came. Only one person there said a single word about our getting married, my sister-in-law, Diana. She gave me a hug and said, “Welcome to the family.” She said it with warmth, for which I was grateful, because she has never shown much warmth to me until now.

But my immediate response, which I thankfully did not voice, was what the hell would you call the last fifteen years? Does having a slip of paper from the government legitimizing our relationship suddenly make a difference? Apparently to her, it does. Diana, if you’re reading this it is not a slam on you, merely a comical look at how we as a society view relationships.

I was somewhat surprised, and perhaps disappointed, that Diana was the only in-law to mention it, but this morning I received the following note from another sister-in-law, which warmed my heart:

Alan and Herman

I once read somewhere that it was poor etiquette to acknowledge a marriage/engagement/shower by saying "Congratulations" or "Best Wishes". (I must not have manners, because these words come to mind at these occasions and I have to bite my tongue not to say them!)
That being said, Ed and I still desired to express our personal joy that we have for you both. I thought the appropriate way was to acknowledge the celebration of your life and future together, bound by love, health, happiness and peace. Many years of wedded bliss (in the Chin family!)


Monday, July 7, 2008

Cover Art For My Debut Novel, Island Song

I’d like to share an experience from last week that made me realize how deeply I feel about my art, that is, the stories that I write.

My publisher, Zumaya Publications, informed me that my debut novel, Island Song, is on schedule to be released later this month. After waiting over two years for its publication, I was doing cartwheels. When I calmed enough to read the rest of the email, I realized that they were asking for my input on the cover art. More cartwheels.
I filled out the form they sent, describing the story in detail and also some ideas I had for a cover. All that was forwarded to an artist contracted to create my book cover.

Three days later I received a picture of the proposed cover. One glance at the picture and I wanted to vomit. The artist had used my concept -- a hunky Polynesian in a loin cloth chucking a spear with the sea in the background -- but they had made a cartoon-like rendering of it. And rather than a hunky, obviously Polynesian man, it showed what looked like a West Hollywood Queen dressed in a Las Vegas-style Hawaiian costume. It seemed to make a joke of my very serious, island romance story.

I sent an email to my publisher, asking that they make the man look more Polynesian and less Las Vegas, and could they make it less cartoonish. The next day I received a polite yet firm note explaining all the cover’s positive aspects, and for me to leave the art work to them.

I was thrown into a profoundly depressed state, but my husband, Herman, took the bull buy the horns. In a single day he took some pictures from our travel folders and superimposed a surfer onto a beach scene. It was perfect. Right out of my story.

I excitedly sent Herman’s picture to my publisher stating that this was exactly what I wanted and ask them to use it.

Again, I received a polite note back telling me that Herman’s picture is inappropriate for cover art, although they didn’t go into detail as to why. I did, however, come away with a small victory. My publisher explained that they had asked the artist to create another cover, based on a different, unnamed concept. Which leaves the door open for hope.

They say people don’t buy books based on the cover, but I disagree. From my own experience, I know that when I shop in a bookstore, or online for that matter, it is an appealing cover that makes me pick up the book in the first place. I turn to the back cover and read. If I find that interesting, I read the first page or two. If I’m still interested, I buy it. But it is the cover that initially makes me investigate a book over the other thousand books on the shelves. And for me, if the cover looks cheap, I feel that the rest of the book is probably less than stellar.

The thing that amazes me is how crazy I’m getting over this issue. My dreams of becoming a published writer are finally coming true, and yet I’m ready to trash it all simply because the book will look crappy and cheaply done. Go figure. It has to do with pride, I know. That I don’t want the years of work that went into that story to be marred by a cheap cover.

Pride? Vanity? Call it want you will. I want it perfect, damn it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Book Review of Moroccan Roll by Steven Stanley

2 Stars out of 5

Moroccan Roll follows the lives of six American and French teachers working at a government run school in Ain El Qamar, Morocco. The story primarily focuses on the frustrating attempts of these twenty-something teachers to satisfy their lust and find love while also trying to assimilate into an unfamiliar culture.
There is Dave, a gay man who falls in love with one of his students, Lateef, who just happens to be straight. And Janna, a woman who had an affair with a Moroccan student, then turns to drugs after he dumps her. And Kevin, who tries to forget the tragic death of his male lover back in the states, by finding comfort with a Moroccan man who is unable to return his affections. And Claudette, the forty-something French woman who is losing her looks and is desperate to prove to herself that she still has her charms. And, of course, Marcie, who falls head over heals for the local French playboy who beds any woman at the drop of a hat.
Then there is a host of supporting characters, including a power hungry and tyrannical school principle, a French couple who enjoy an “open” relationship, and a young student who stalks one of his teachers.

I found a few positive aspects to this story. The author seems to have an in-depth knowledge of Moroccan culture, and the story is often witty. That said, I had a list of issues with this novel, the main one being that the style of storytelling is to tell, tell, tell, and show very little. Rather than the author TELLing me that the lamb dish was delectable, savory, and delicious, I want him to SHOW me the character wolfing it down, sucking the burnt fat from his fingers, then licking the plate clean. Rather than TELLing me Dave loves Lateef, SHOW how tense Dave gets any time Lateef is in the same room, or how Dave stammers every time Lateef looks him in the eye. Letting the reader figure out a few things for him or herself is what engages the reader in the story. I felt like this story was being spoon fed to me, with no opportunities to feel engaged with the plot. This made the writing, in my opinion, feel amateurish.

The lion’s share of the conflict for each of these main characters had to do solely with their romantic troubles, that is, each character’s obsession with getting laid, or in some cases, dealing with unrequited love. I assumed that a group of French and American teachers, who found themselves in Morocco in the seventies, would have numerous issues adjusting to a rich and unfamiliar culture. But to my disappointment, those types of issue were mostly ignored and the story focused on these characters thrashing about over unreturned love. This gave each character a one-dimensional feel, and because of that, I never became interested in any of their situations.

Stanley does have a detailed knowledge of Moroccan culture, but rather than painting rich and exotic scenes, he often gives vague descriptions like: “The sight of wagons loaded with fresh fruit and vegetables was evidence that this was not yet a culture whose food was polluted with chemical preservatives and additives. Nor was the air impossible to breathe. Besides all this, there was also the special feeling a foreigner got whenever he observed the color and exoticness of Ain El Qamar, evident in its architecture, in the dress of its inhabitants, and the language they spoke.”
This kind of description tells me nothing. I wanted to know what kind of fruit and vegetables, and what kind of wagons for that matter. And what did the architecture look like? How did the air smell? How did the locals dress? What did the language sound like? Stanley seldom paints enough of a picture that I could imagine being there, which I found disappointing.

Over the last ten years I have traveled to over forty countries, and Morocco is one of my favorite destinations. I find the people and the culture engaging and charming, and the food is marvelous, so I came to this novel with high expectations, hoping that it would ignite all those wonderful memories. But sadly, I didn’t feel a spark of anything except disappointment. This is not a story that I can honestly recommend.