Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Disclosure: Mesha is a visiting faculty member at my MFA program and a friend.


Sugar Run has been getting a lot of press, and it’s well deserved. This is an astonishing novel.

Jodi was seventeen years old when she was sentenced to life in prison. Eighteen years later, she is surprised to find herself paroled. She never thought this would happen, even as the lawyers and appeals pressed forward around her. Now she steps out the gates and is surprised to see that she’s been surrounded by mountains all these years in Georgia – mountains she couldn’t see, but that make her feel just that much closer to the mountains of her West Virginia home.

Jodi heads south before going home, though, to track down a boy she should have helped all those years before. She is surprised to find him transformed into a man she does not recognize; if time stood still for Jodi in prison, it hasn’t for the rest of the world. In short order, Jodi collects as well as a partial family in crisis; as she drives a new friend’s Chevette into rural West Virginia and up the mountain she calls home, the life and hopes she’s building may already be falling apart.

In flashback sections, we learn as well about the past, chiefly the buildup to the crime that got Jodi life in prison as a minor. The cast of characters is not small: Jodi’s mother, father, beloved grandmother, and younger twin brothers; Paula, a woman important to Jodi in her youth, along with her parents and brother; Jodi’s new friend Miranda, estranged from her pop singer husband, with three young sons and a coterie of associates; and the inhabitants of the West Virginia hilltop Jodi returns to, from fracking workers to activists and the locals she’s known all her life – or at least for its first seventeen years.

It’s a remarkable story. For one thing, the lives of Appalachian lesbian women are not much seen in literature, and women in prisons are somewhat underrepresented as well. (Mesha teaches writing in a women’s prison, so she has the research to back up that element.) But equally importantly, as a plot, it rips. From Jodi to Miranda, from past to present, the reader is kept totally absorbed (I would like to thank Mesha for getting me through six hours in the waiting room of an auto shop). It’s a fully realized world to fall into.

I also appreciated the strong sense of place. Jodi is deeply committed to her late grandmother’s cabin and property on a hilltop threatened by extractive industry: a classic West Virginia story, in a way, but one thoroughly fleshed out and real here. The place itself is described as carefully as the characters are. I realize that I’m portraying this book as both character- and plot-driven; it is also about the sentences, which weave and wend and take their time painting pictures as much as moving either plot or characterization along. Pacing-wise, it might be mid-range. The plot has momentum and keeps me turning pages; but the sentences take time for beauty.

This is a fine and multi-faceted novel, and I love it. Congrats, Mesha.


Rating: 8 hands.

When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan

Thorough research, engaging storytelling, fascinating stories and a history of obscurity make this investigation of queer Brooklyn a compelling, essential read.

When Brooklyn Was Queer achieves everything one could want in a history: meticulous research, easy-reading narrative, fascinating small events within significant larger ones, and personal interest. Hugh Ryan, founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, investigates a very specific slice of history all but erased by prejudice and the passing of time.

The idea of Brooklyn, N.Y., having a significant queer history surprises many present residents, but Ryan cracks open what looks like a blank slate and finds richness there, beginning with the 1855 publication of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman represents an early association with Brooklyn and with white men who have sex with men (people of color and queer women did not appear in the historical record yet). From here, Ryan covers periods of growing visibility through turn-of-the-century newspapers and the theater; the rise in criminalization and persecution of queers in the 1910s; and the quick expansion of both the queer scene and Brooklyn at large in the 1920s.

The Depression, the end of Prohibition and the Hays movie code brought new strictures on a vibrant world of bars and cruising venues. Mobilization for World War II offered great opportunities for queer people, as men joined the armed forces and women went to work in factories and shipyards like the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Following the war, a societal move toward conservatism, the suburbanization of New York City and the shutdown of Brooklyn’s waterfront lead to what Ryan calls “the great erasure” of queer community and history.

When Brooklyn Was Queer considers the lives and contributions of well-known artists like Hart Crane, Marianne Moore and Truman Capote, and numerous lesser-known performers, businesspeople and blue-collar workers. Painstaking research and attention to detail highlight the richness and mystery of stories that have been largely hidden until now. Ryan is careful to point out the challenges of this kind of research. During many of the years covered here, homosexuality as a concept was unknown: a man could have sex with men but be “normal,” or he could be a “pervert,” based solely on appearance or mannerism. Vocabularies for such identities were at first nonexistent and varied over time. And much of the information collected about queer people in history is deeply problematic, recorded by hostile and prejudiced organizations, and presumably with limited cooperation by the people being studied. Finally, Ryan is sensitive to the intersecting limitations faced by women and people of color.

Only in his introduction and epilogue does Ryan share his personal connection to these stories, his own history in Brooklyn and his heartfelt desire for this history to be told. While the rest of his book takes the style of traditional history writings (no “I” pronoun), he reaches out in the final lines: “I look forward to having a future where we can also have a past, and I look forward to creating it with you.” Having been engrossed in these pages, his reader feels that same connection and hopefulness.


This review originally ran in the January 31, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 windows.

movie: Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway (2008)

I first saw Rent when I was in high school. My dad and I traveled to New York City to investigate that city among a few others where we thought I might go to college. He got us tickets to see Rent at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway. I already knew that I loved musical theatre at that time, but this production really changed something for me. It was the first time that I cried at a stage production or at any piece of art other than a book. The subject matter felt especially meaningful and timely for me, as I had friends still discovering their sexuality and coming out to their parents. It was an event that resonated. I immediately bought the soundtrack and it still makes me cry today, twenty years later.

The friends I am visiting with now expressed an interest, and so we rented this version: a live taping of the final performance of the Broadway production, after a twelve-year run. The actors are almost entirely different (every major role was filled by a different actor in this version, from the one I saw). And I guess I had really invested in the first cast; but I have to say, this one was admirably close to the original, so even someone like me was able to be open to the new. Most cast members were very close in physical details as well as in talent; I was able to settle into this production and feel at home.

It’s still everything I remember, after all these years. Musical theatre does tend toward the theatrical (go figure) expression of emotions, but for the few moments of somewhat self-conscious hand-wringing that I might skip, there is such raw power… and the singing and dancing is amazing. I still find this play to be full of all the love, drama, angst, grief, rage, and passion I found there in the first place. It made me cry, again.

As a production, too, I think it works well – that is, both as a stage production (filmed live, with audience and applause) and as a cinecast. Unlike The Wiz and more like National Theatre Live, the camera angles varied and moved around, working for perspective and providing close-ups as appropriate. I don’t recall noticing that the cinematography in itself was extraordinary (as I often do with NT Live), but it was plenty serviceable. Since the chance to see Broadway’s version of Rent has passed, I’d strongly recommend this version.

It’s interesting to think about the extent to which an experience like this is about that original experience. I was probably 16 years old (maybe 17, but I think 16) sitting in the upper rows of the Nederlander Theatre, far from the stage. The words and lyrics and music and dramatic portrayals, the singing and dancing and kissing, took me so powerfully. I’ll never forget; I’ll also never have the same experience again, but every time I hear a song from Rent or see another production (even the 2005 movie, which I remember finding a disappointment), it refers to that original experience just enough to tap into some of those emotions. Still gets me.

In contrast, I have a friend and fellow writer who strongly dislikes Rent. He calls it a singing telegram to AIDS. Dave’s a few years younger than me, and I believe has never seen it live. I’d like to dismiss his opinion on these counts, but think I should give him a little more credit than that. Dave’s also a gay man, and some part of me feels I should defer to his opinion as being a part of a certain demographic – the play is about the AIDS crisis and has more queer characters than cis-het ones. (Another part of me knows that my own opinion & tastes remain worthwhile here.) At any rate I find it interesting, since I respect Dave’s approach to art and we often share interests and tastes. I wonder if he had gotten to see the play live at age 16 how it would have affected him… Then again, maybe the concern is that this is too serious an issue to get all song-and-dance about. That would be a position worth considering.

Local issues aside, Rent remains an important part of my personal understanding of art and value. I’m still hooked. Keep singing.


Rating: 8 samples that won’t delay, for its value in my personal mythology.

If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter

Another beautiful recommendation by Jeremy Jones. Thank you, Jeremy. And thank you Jessie for cuing me to watch this one for its organization. Jessie has not read the book, but she knew that organization of an essay collection is what I need right now and she somehow knew this was the right fit. (Trust in Jeremy, perhaps? What a fascinating, beautiful world.)

This is an essay collection about the narrator’s finding out that he is gay and eventually living as a gay man. These linked essays appear in almost perfectly chronological order, and the bulk of them take place in childhood or young adulthood (while he’s still living at home). The discovery and coming-out processes took time for this individual, and those twenty-three years (I think) therefore take up most of the book. A few essays cover his adult life after coming out; one essay (although a long one) covers an eight-year relationship, which is his first, and this is one of my favorite essays.

These pieces are nicely linked and ordered, with sensible transitions and little repeated information. Each essay within itself tends to feature repeated images or symbolism that work well to make a point, to come to a conclusion–if anything, perhaps a hair more neatly than I’d prefer, but these points are always clear, and maybe that’s the side to err on. As a collection, it’s a beautiful profile of the narrator and a life, tender and thoughtful, and admirably fair to the flawed but loved parents.

I had a few favorites, of course. The opening piece, “First,” is lovely, and I remember it – I assume Jeremy sent it to me during our semester of working together, because I don’t know where else it would have come from. It’s a quick scene, riding in the car as a small boy, and an early (anti-gay) lesson given by his mother. This is a perfect capsule: scene, scrap of dialog, reflection, and back out again. The final line of the essay reads, “We all just sit and wait and watch our own views of the road–the parents see what is ahead of us while the only thing I can look at is what we have just left behind.” Van Meter is really good at final lines. This is one that I’d say approaches the too-neat conclusion, but doesn’t quite go there. Instead, it’s a perfect summing up and cue to the reader of the meaning of this painful scene we’ve just witnessed. It inspires a sigh, a murmur of recognition.

While most essays feature narrative storytelling, with their points subtly made in the narrator’s reflection, one essay was different. “To Bear, To Carry: Notes on ‘Faggot'” is much more an assaying essay, with the narrator musing on a particular nasty word, its etymology and uses and effects in history and in his own life. There are anecdotes, but the essay concentrates on a concept and not a story. While I loved the storytelling style throughout, I thought this essay was both well-written and well-executed, and well placed in the collection. It is the one, I think, that comes out of chronological order–but that’s appropriate because it’s not nearly so rooted in the chronology of the writer’s life. It showcases a different kind of writing skill, and zooms out to give the reader a different perspective on his life. It cues us to a more zoomed-out view of that life, too: from here on the essays will cover much more time compressed in each one. Childhood has ended and adulthood has fully begun. From here, the narrator is no longer struggling to know that he is gay and come out, and begin his life; now he is living.

I think my clear-favorite essay is the one that follows. “The Goldfish History” is one of the longest in the collection, and it’s the one that compresses that eight-year relationship, using as vehicle a pet goldfish. We learn about the narrator’s best friend and that relationship, which has its troubles over the years in question. We meet the first real boyfriend and follow their romance and break-up. Through it all it is the goldfish that holds the threads together and in some very real ways, the people as well. While every essay in this collection has something to teach and much to admire, this is the one I most climbed inside of and loved.

Very readable (in one sitting, in fact, and what a relief following Goldbarth) and highly recommended, for its individual essays and for its organization overall. A tender, heartfelt, generous, brave portrayal of finding one’s way. As sometimes happens when we read personal essays, I feel like I want to be friends with the man who wrote these words.


Rating: 7 stilt-walkers.

The Rope Swing: Stories by Jonathan Corcoran

Disclosure: this author, Jonathan Corcoran, is a repeating visiting faculty member at my MFA program, and one of my favorite people. I always aspire to tell you exactly what I think of a book, but I can’t claim objectivity here because I think Jon is wonderful.


That said, The Rope Swing is also a wonderful book. This is a collection of linked stories, sharing not characters, so much (although there are some glancing exceptions), but setting and theme. Most of the stories take place in a small town in West Virginia; the last two take place in New York City, where a native of the small town has resettled. Some of the stories are told in first person, some in third, and the first story, “Appalachian Swan Song,” is told in first-personal plural, using the ‘we’ pronoun. I appreciate this choice. This first story is really about setting the scene and the tone for the rest of the book: we are in a small town that is seeing a twilight of sorts, on the day the last passenger train leaves town. It is a mood of elegy, and with some conflicted feelings about the place. The use of a collective pronoun is perfect, because this story focuses on no person in particular, but on the town and its inhabitants collectively. In this story we see a few characters very briefly who will star in their own stories later; but this collection doesn’t follow anyone in particular. The title story, “The Rope Swing,” is referred to in a later story, but it’s a quick glance.

The theme-thread that unites these stories is the experience of LGBTQ characters in this particular setting. There are a few characters that the town acknowledges as a little different, like the florist, who was “funny, we knew, in a light green shirt and a darker green ties the color of a rose stem, but he was also harmless.” Others have a harder time, like the young man who leaves for New York City.

The strengths of the collection are as broad as these characters. Having heard Jon read a few times, I was not the least bit surprised to find lovely writing at the sentence level; he has clearly paid close attention to sound and rhythm and word choice. The small actions and attentions of his characters portray lots of personality economically. About a woman who has inherited the house of a close friend, who had in turn inherited it from his parents:

She had thrown everything out of the refrigerator. She didn’t care if the jam was good for another year; that jam didn’t belong to her. In this way, she had claimed dominion over an appliance.

The place as character is one of my favorite features of the book; I love a strong sense of place, as you know, but also it’s just so beautifully done here. The book opens, “We had forgotten how much we loved our mountains in the summertime.” Such a simple sentence, but it has a definite beat and lilt to it. And what follows is description; but description with momentum and pull, easy to read and easy to see and feel. Perhaps the key is that all the details–“young leaves of the maples and sycamores,” “rivers of meltwater sprint[ing] down the cliff faces”–are experienced by the ‘we,’ seen and heard and felt and thought and remembered, rather than just delivered to us as exposition.

This author knows how to use metaphor, as in this lovely image, when a grieving woman looks up at a tree:

But then, there was the thing she hadn’t noticed before: the end of that same branch had begun growing up again, at a right angle, the wood bending toward the sky.

But it’s not heavy-handed. My quick impression is that this is not a book that relies much on metaphor, but rather, it tells the world as seen and experienced, and leaves it to the reader to make meaning. That may be a deceptive impression. If I were to go back over these stories looking for literary devices or tricks like metaphor, I might find many. But their subtlety only speaks of their power.

I appreciate, too, how these stories are organized. As I work, this semester, to write a thesis in the form of an essay collection, I’m thinking a lot about organization. I have the impression that these stories come chronologically, although that feeling is somewhat loose, since we don’t follow a single character. The timeline feels organic, though. And most impressively (as I struggle through my own work!), there is a definite feeling of accretion: each story references oh-so-subtly what’s come before, builds on the details of the town or a single image from three stories ago, to increase its impact.

Clearly, a fine example of many skills: sentence-level writing, characterization, setting, subtlety in theme, organization and structure. I’m deeply impressed, and that’s not something I would say just because I like Jon. As a bonus, this is a region, and particularly a set of experiences within a region, that’s not been written about enough. Do check out The Rope Swing. It’s well worth your time.


Rating: 9 mottled leaves of the philodendron plant.

A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson

A concise, friendly, illustrated guide to gender-neutral pronouns written by a likable pair of friends.

The coauthors of A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns are friends. Archie Bongiovanni identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns; Tristan Jimerson (he/him) knew them before they came out as nonbinary, so Bongiovanni asked him to help communicate with a mainstream population who might have trouble with the concept. Bongiovanni and Jimerson make a jolly, jokey team in this graphic how-to manual, with Bongiovanni’s illustrations, but despite their often playful tone, they take this topic seriously. They agree that being told one’s pronouns don’t matter is “basically telling you that you don’t matter.”

A Quick & Easy Guide addresses what a pronoun is; why people might want to use gender-neutral pronouns; how to ask for and give one’s pronouns; how to change one’s language and how to handle mistakes; and how to integrate these lessons into professional and retail settings. It’s written both for a general readership that may be confused by they/them pronouns, and (in a special section by Bongiovanni) for nonbinary folks. It even includes sample scripts and signs to post in places of business.

This is a short, easy-to-read, affordable guide, because the authors hope it will be widely distributed and handed out on the street. It meets its goals neatly: just the facts, but in a friendly, approachable tone, enhanced by the true friendship of its authors. A Quick & Easy Guide is for everyone, because as Bongiovanni and Jimerson point out, we encounter nonbinary folks every day, whether we know it or not.


This review originally ran in the July 10, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 arrows of good intent.

movie: Milk (2008)

While I recognize it’s risky to learn history from a biopic, I really appreciated all I learned about Harvey Milk and his fine work in this movie, which was visually pleasing and well-done–through heart-wrenching–as well as educational. I do recommend it.

Milk begins with Harvey Milk’s fortieth birthday in New York, then quickly follows him to San Francisco, where he gets involved with politics, and through to his end by assassination. Sean Penn plays a beautiful Milk, and his partners played by James Franco and Diego Luna make striking, attractive characters as well. I found the acting all-around admirable. I loved the characters of Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg; and I appreciated the way Dan White was handled. He comes off not as a straight villain, but as a flawed, a troubled human being. His actions are hard to stomach. But I appreciate the nuance with which he was handled in this film.

San Francisco and the Castro feel real to me (and what do I know about how authentic they are here; but I bought it). The styles felt right for the time (same caveat). In other words, I was convinced and in fact spellbound by the whole thing; and that’s before saying that obviously I find Harvey Milk’s life and work inspirational, and his demise saddening. I would watch this movie again. You should watch it, too.


Rating: 8 votes.
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