Saturday, June 29, 2013

Book Review: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Pages: 377

This book tells a fictional account of a real relationship between Mamah Borthwick Cheney and Frank Lloyd Wright. An interesting story, although too heavily a ‘chick romance’ book for my taste.

The author does her damnedest to make Mamah Cheney into a modern, noble woman—a woman who walked away from her lackluster marriage for a love affair with the famous architected. And yes, by today’s standards Mamah was a strong woman who went after what she wanted and stood her ground. However, this story takes place in the late 1800s, where she was labeled a whore and a home wrecker, and was shunned by proper society. By allowing themselves—Mamah and Frank—to let an infatuation develop into a love affair ruined two families and made them a topic of scorn on newspapers across the country.

I though the author did a splendid job of creating the mood of the era. What I’m sure she didn’t intend was how she projected Mamah after her affair became known. Mamah was shocked and saddened by the reactions (which would have been typical of the times), and in my view made her seem rather stupid, exactly the opposite of what the author intended. She should have had a very clear idea of the cold fate that befell her.

Indeed, I felt that both Mamah and Frank came off as arrogant, egotistical, and selfish. Still, a lot of research when into this book and I did enjoy it. Much of the prose is beautifully crafted. Brace yourself for a rather shocking ending.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

RIP DOMA & Prop H8

I normally post a writing tip on Wednesdays, but not today. It's an historic day for the equality movement in America. I’m so ecstatic that I can’t even begin to think about writing, writing tips, or any other damned thing.

I know that the equality fight in this country is far from over, yet in California (11% of the country) we are there. We are also there in a dozen other states. The high court has ruled that there is no reason to deny gay and lesbian couples the right to marry because it harms NO ONE. This will be the base for future rulings as, state by state, these trials are brought to the courts.

I’m thrilled and grateful. I’m most grateful to the men and women who have tirelessly worked every step of the way to defend the dream of equality in America. They are true heroes. These are the people we should be writing books about.

I’m also grateful to Barak Obama and his administration. They have applied pressure to drive these changes forward. Obama’s attitude change has transformed the thinking in people across the nation and across the world. He, also, is a hero. He is a man who leads with courage, unlike so many others in Washington.

Have a great, historic day and help keep the dream alive and moving forward.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: "The Plain of Bitter Honey" by Alan Chin

Now that I’m finally home from my month-long tour of France/Italy, I’m back on my blogging schedule, which means on Tuesdays I blog about my books. This week I’d like to share Echo Magazine’s review of my latest novel, The Plain of Bitter Honey.

Reviewer: Bob Lind, Echo Magazine
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books, June 2013
Pages: 225

Bravo … 5 stars out of 5.

Take a look at America in the year 2055. The fundamentalist Christians have taken over, and have brought government corruption to a frightening level. Banks failed, farms stopped producing, free enterprise no longer existed, and inflation made food and all goods a luxury. Rich people fled the United States in droves, until the government began to forbid it. Poor people, along with racial and religious minorities, and anyone gay or lesbian, were banished to guarded "slums" located in various locations, including what used to be The Castro in San Francisco. Most Americans felt powerless to do anything but comply, with the exception of a silent group of resistance fighters, which the government spent countless time and resources to try to destroy.

It is in this context that we meet Aaron Swann, a longtime resistance fighter, and his twin brother, Hayden. Hayden is gay, a lot less militant, but admires the work his brother does, and worries about him. When the government forces ambush Aaron's group, while Hayden was visiting, he takes off on his motorcycle to divert the attention of the attackers, and ends up in jail, where they believe he is Aaron. Aaron and his supporters vow to break Hayden out of jail, and then they can all retreat north along the coast, to a secret hideout of the resistance known as The Plain of Bitter Honey. The trip won't be easy, with the government monitoring their every move with a secret tracking device. They'll also need to contend with the Caliban, a rogue group of fierce cannibalistic fighters who control most of the land north of the Bay Area.

I've said in the past that Alan Chin is my favorite author, and that is still the case with this new book. It is best described as a sci-fi/speculative/political novel, so unlike any of his previous works I have seen, and he handles the genre with mastery. The story is action-packed, well-constructed and expertly told, with a diverse, developed cast of gay and straight characters working together in situations that risks not only their lives, but perhaps the future of this country. Bravo … five stars out of five.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Impressions of Rome

I’ve recently returned from a month in Europe, so recent that I’m still suffering from jet lag. One of the highlights of my trip was the city of Rome.

Resplendent Rome—a silky blue dome vaulting over sun-baked piazzas, Bernini fountains, crumbling monuments, stone cathedrals, and a labyrinth of shop-lined streets.

I love Rome. Like San Francisco, it spreads over seven hills, but the similarity ends there. The architecture, climate, even the inhabitants’ musical chatter whiffing down the narrow streets all have a different texture. Romans are charmingly unhurried; they lounge in piazzas, trundle down sleepy back streets, and take joy in simple things. They love drama and seem to over-emphasize everything just so they can make an eloquent show in the telling. This is the Rome I wandered in for seven days, its ancient beauty and expressive people, half enchanted isle and half tourist trap. It infused me with an intoxicating sense of adventure.

I’ve traveled to Rome several times in the last twenty years. All my previous visits occurred in the September-October time frame. This trip, however, came in June, the beginning to the hot, tourist season. I will not make that mistake again. Rome in summer is uncomfortably warm (this coming from a man who lives in the So-Cal deserts) and unpleasantly crowded with young tourist, mostly of the American genera.  Unlike Venice, Rome is spread over a wide area and has hoards of cathedrals, monuments, piazzas, and restaurants so visitors are spread thin. It also has an underground train that crosses the city so seeing it all is no problem. The only issues I had with crowding was at Vatican City and the Trevi Fountain.

On this trip I visited Rome after spending a week in Venice, a first for me. The differences are quite startling. Car traffic seemed to be the biggest dissimilarity. Compared to the city of canals, Rome is loud, bustling, and smells of exhaust fumes. The traffic seems endless and the drivers are aggressive. Also, I thought the churches in Venice were overly lavish, but they can’t compare to the wealth on display in any of the Roman churches.

Sadly, the churches are so over-the-top opulent that they seem to be the main tourist attractions, so much so, that it seems they are no longer places of worship. Even during times of Mass, tourist wander the chapels, seemingly enjoying the show as if it were being put on for their benefit.  I’ve seen this in Asian Buddhist temples as well, tourist paying little or no respect for places of worship.

Speaking for myself, while in Italy, I find that I spend an inordinate amount of time eating. Meals can last three hours—which is partly due to slow service and mostly to do with nothing here is rushed, especially eating. I see a lot of tourists wolfing down pizza, but the seafood and pasta are the best dishes by far.

The only real negative I can mention has to do with all of Europe, not just Rome. Everything is tremendously expensive. We were typically paying $70 to $120 per meal for two, and that was just a salad, pasta, and glasses of house wine. A can of coke could run $5. It adds up rather quickly.

Rome is a grand old lady who I will revisit time and again, and never get enough of.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Book Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Reviewer: Alan Chin
Publisher: Modern Library (2012)
Pages: 509

Cloud Atlas is a collection of six stories which all happen at radically different times in history, yet all entwined in such a way as to explore fundamental questions of reality and identity, and how the two link over time.  On a secondary level, it is a study of oppression, of overcoming man’s worst enemy—himself.

It begins in 1850 as an American notary, Adam Ewing, voyages across the Pacific. Ewing falls under the care of a corrupt doctor, Dr. Goose, who treats him for a rare species of brain parasite, but has dark intentions. The second story jumps to Belgium in 1931, where an impoverished, gay composure, Robert Frobisher, takes a job helping an infirm maestro compose the last works of his life, and is seduced by the composures wife. Story number three takes place on the California coast in the 1970s. A troubled reporter for a third-rate paper, Luisa Rey, stumbles upon a corporate plot surrounding a nuclear power plant.  She becomes tangled in a web of greed and murder that threatens her life. The next story is a tragic/comic tale of Timothy Cavendish, a publisher who’s brother locks him away in a mental hospital in present-day England. The most creative story is a futurist story in Korea where neocapitalism has run amok, and slaves are cloned to perform all service tasks. An underground uprising is in the works to free the slaves, and their only weapon is truth. The final story is set in a post-apocalyptic age in Hawaii, where survival is based on brute strength and cunning.

One of the things I loved most about this novel is that each story is told in a unique and purely captivating voice. Likewise, the characters and settings in each story are equally as distinctive. It felt like reading multiple stories from six different authors all on a common theme, yet all these disparate characters connect, their fates intertwine, and their souls drift across time like clouds across a globe.

I confess that Robert Frobisher’s story stood out as my favorite. Told in the form of letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith, it is one of the most touching gay love stories I’ve read in years. The letters create an intimacy that is both moving and poignant. Still, all six stories are superbly executed, equally captivating.

This book has everything a reader could ask for, as fun and wild as a rollercoaster, as mysteriously wise as a Zen koan. It is grand and fearless, foreign and strange, yet strikingly intimate. I can’t wait to read it again.