Sunday, June 29, 2008

We Know Where You Blog...

Being a very minor figure in the Blogosphere, I don't get a lot of e-mail feedback. However, when I do, it tends to be interesting. In ye olde beginning, with an air of overwhelming optimism, I had started two blogs: my current one and one focussing on gay themes , which is now on hiatus. My first e-mail response ever stemmed from the first article I put up on that blog, a tongue-in-cheek guide to making an effective online profile for dating sites. The e-mail came from an editor at a local, bilingual gay magazine (Gay & Night) asking me if he could publish it. I happily agreed, making a Dutch translation and spinning it off into an ongoing series of articles about dating, relationships and sex for gay men. I will try to convert these into a book at some point (to all publishers out there: contact me if interested).
Next I received a compliment from sex advice columnist Dan Savage about a piece I had written about him on my gay blog. But to be honest: I had pointed him towards the article, which was very positive about him. So that was more of a mutual pat on the back.
Then arrived a puzzling e-mail from a woman in the US, who was looking for a ghostwriter for her autobiography or - failing that - someone who could hook her up with a publisher. Her life story was indeed an interesting one and she managed to condense it into two paragraphs. In rambling, semi-literate English she told me how she had gone to jail for killing her husband, even though it had been self-defence. She defended the act to me as if I was on the jury at her trial and it had obviously escaped her attention that I was on the other side of the Atlantic. I briefly considered pushing her for more details on this juicy story, but in the end I decided that leading on a convicted murderer was probably not a good idea, even if she wasn't on the same continent. I ended up telling her my connections in the US were limited and that she should probably try to find someone local.
Last week I received an e-mail from someone doing publicity for Ocean's 7-11. This is a series of 8 webisodes about the shenanigans of a group of 'North Hollywood misfits', as the press release states. The first part aired in January and the second one goes online on the 28th of June. The series parodies Ocean's 11 while paying homage to the people who made it. The first webisode was picked as a Featured Video by Yahoo and this got the video 30.000 hits within one day. I have taken a look at the first webisode and my one word review of it would be 'charming'. Mostly though, I am puzzled that I was targeted to spread the word about this series. As far as I know, I have racked up nowhere near 30.000 hits in the years I have been online. The makers of the series apparently are fans of my blog - the publicist said so in the e-mail anyway - but I don't think I ever heard from them before. Maybe I am just paranoid but it made me wonder: do I have fans? If so, where are they, as they never call, they never write, they never fax and in general don't make a peep. So someone please tell me: am I really famous but you guys forgot to clue me in? Anybody reading this? Anybody out there? Hello?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Book Review: I Am Not Myself These Days

I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell taught me a few things about myself: I would make a lousy drunk and an even lousier drag queen. The irregular hours and lack of sleep would totally derail my tight schedule and the black-outs would also put me off: waking up not knowing where I was, with possibly a naked stranger next to me. Plus, I doubt I would be any good at walking in high heels.
Josh's book is a memoir of sorts - but the names, descriptions and some of the events have been changed to protect the not necessarily innocent. The book describes a highly problematic though at times oddly sweet romance he lived through - barely - with a male prostitute.
At night Josh glammed up New York's club scene in outrageous outfits as AquaDisiac, whose trademark was a set of see-through breasts in which live goldfish swam. Aqua/Josh consumed a fair amount of alcohol on these nights, waking up trashed and confused, only to have to stumble to a day job at an ad agency. Quite how Josh managed to get through the days while seriously sleep-deprived and drunk or hung over baffles me. As a control freak, I almost experienced anxiety attacks just reading about his constant state of restlessness and inebriation. The process of becoming Aqua was tortuous, as was being in her fantastic outfits, the pain leading to more drinking to cope with it. Reading along, you wonder where the drive to do it was coming from. The motivation seemed to be: to prove that I can.
During a night out as Aqua, Josh ran into Jack, a male escort who shortly afterwards moved Josh into his fancy apartment. Jack was fascinated with Josh for being a fuck-up, and he did indeed seem very together himself by comparison, even though he led a strange life. A variety of mostly unattractive men paid him to realise their often bizarre s&m fantasies. Surprisingly perhaps, there was no actual sex during most of these meetings, but still this 'job' was illegal and off the books. Because of that, a big pile of money had to be simply hidden away in a closet: Jack couldn't officially exist. He was also booked occasionally for large parties - with multiple escorts - that could last for days. Some of these parties required him to take drugs, which was ultimately how he lost control and became self-destructive.
Before things took a bad turn, Jack was attentive and romantic to Josh and for a while the drunken drag queen and drugged male escort actually seemed to keep each other in a nice balance. But for Josh, coming home every day meant a possible surprise beyond the front door: there might be a pile of people having sex or a naked man tied up on the floor.
Josh describes these events with ironic detachment, the bizarre becoming oddly normal, sometimes even comforting. I love the style in which the book is written: no-nonsense, unapologetic, but self-aware and with a dry, sassy wit always at the ready. The book is a captivating glimpse into a life that seems to illustrate the Chinese curse 'may you live in interesting times'. Especially if you are uptight like me, experiencing the life of a drunken drag queen is best done vicariously.
A podcast interview with Josh Kilmer-Purcell about this book can be found here.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Television Review: Torchwood

Torchwood is a spin-off of Doctor Who, a British series that has a fan following as fanatic as Star Trek. It has been around since the sixties and after a long time off the air, it was recently revived to great success under the skilful guidance of Russell T. Davies, best known for creating Queer as Folk (the original UK version). Doctor Who is about a time traveller from another world, who jumps back and forth saving the universe, with blatant disregard for the butterfly effect and on a fairly low special effects budget. In the second season of the current revival, the Doctor ran into Queen Victoria, who set up an organisation to keep an eye out for this strange character. Scrabble players may note that Torchwood is an anagram of Doctor Who. Torchwood quickly broadened its scope to secretly studying all sorts of freaky phenomena and alien encounters. There are various incarnations of the organisation in different parts of England (and - of course - in alternate realities), which are working 'outside the government, beyond the police' according to the opening credits. The Cardiff team stars in this series and they are lead by the literally immortal Jack Harness (John Barrowman) who has his own past with the good Doctor. Then there are: Gwen (a policewoman drafted into the organisation in the first episode), Toshiko (a tech wiz), Owen (a doctor) and Ianto (concierge/handyman).
Torchwood is deserving of the ‘wood’ in its title, both in the sexual meaning and with regards to the acting. When there is a choice between overacting and underplaying, the cast rarely goes for the latter. Worst offenders in this regard are unfortunately the two leads: Jack and Gwen. I like Barrowman, because the actor is an openly gay charmer, known for flashing his apparently impressive naughty bits on set. And there is an anecdote he tells with enthusiasm, about highkicking on stage towards the audience, while he had diarrhoea. Feel free to fill in the messy blanks. But as Captain Jack he often comes over as smarmy where he should be likeable. Actrice Eve Myles (Gwen) has a tough job, as her character has violent mood swings in between episodes and sometimes even within an episode. Gwen is supposed to be 'the caring one' but regularly makes bad judgement calls and can be alarmingly irrational. Nevertheless, Gwen has at least four guys who really, really fancy her over the course of the first two seasons (26 episodes).
This brings us to the topic of sex. There is a lot of it in Torchwood, but it often feels sledge hammered into the plots, as if the writers feel that it is necessary to make the show feel more ‘adult’. But when everybody seems to want to bed everybody else, things start to feel silly. In the second season there is more of a feeling of continuity to the relationships/flings in the series, but there are still the occasional lapses: in one episode Ianto (the pretty boy of the group) is crying over his recently deceased girlfriend, in the next he is shagging - hey, ho - captain Jack, who is his sex buddy. This is all the more bizarre as he was also doing it, in retrospect, while the girlfriend was still alive. And yes: Ianto is bisexual it seems, but then so is everybody else in the cast. All the main characters have had at least one encounter with someone of their own gender. Now, I like to see gays and lesbians represented on television, but it should make some psychological sense and not completely disregard continuity.
Death is also a recurring theme in Torchwood and it ends quite a few episodes on a downer. But the series has an odd concept of an afterlife: there is something, but this something is a vast darkness in which apparently nothing happens. It seems a bit half-hearted as afterlives go. However, death does kick off the most interesting storyline of the second season, starting with the apparent death of one of the main characters. The psychological consequences make for an interesting arc that is actually carried through to the finale.
Torchwood tries to be ‘gritty’ and ‘real’ while telling stories about monsters. In many ways it is the Angel to Doctor Who’s Buffy. It even ‘pays homage to’ Buffy’s concept of a Hellmouth: a pseudo-scientific rationale that is given to explain why so many strange things happen in Cardiff. The link with these series is made stronger by two welcome appearances of James Marsters (who played 'Spike' in both Buffy and Angel) in the second season, as a former lover of Captain Jack. As he jokes in the second season finale: ‘It’s all about sex with you people.’ Ironically, Torchwood feels sillier than Doctor Who, because the latter is a full-on, high adventure science fiction series where anything goes, while Torchwood makes unsuccessful grabs at realism. These only serve to make the moments when major threats are averted with some vague techno-babble stand out more. Frequent and obvious plot holes also make it hard to lose yourself in the stories.
There is a lack of coherence to the world of Torchwood, as if no one has thought the whole thing through, to bring all the elements together. Torchwood is a Top Secret organisation, but as the series goes on, apparently every single police officer has heard of them. They drive around in a big black car, semi-inconspicuous, but the windows aren’t tinted and there are bright blue lights on both sides of the front window, sure to catch everyone’s eye. Are they trying to hide themselves or to stand out? It also does not make much sense that their large underground complex is run by only five people, who are frequently the only ones standing in between the world and total disaster. The series takes a stab at addressing this by saying the Cardiff branch is estranged from the others for unspecified reasons, meaning they are on their own. Why head offices would allow a rogue branch to continue is not clear however and it makes you wonder where all the money for the high-tech gizmo's is coming from. The first season was very uneven but with the second series, Torchwood is becoming more polished: it has more of a sense of humour about itself and better continuity. In the beginning, the characters were just jumping through the hoops of the plot, being made to act in unbelievable ways. But the characters seem to be wrestling control away from the plots and gaining dominance, which is a very good thing. Torchwood is still on hiatus, but I would like to see it renewed, so that it gets a chance to reach its full potential.

Book Review: Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in Man's Prison

T.J. Parsell has written a book called Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man's Prison which tells the story of the truth behind all those 'dropping the soap in prison' jokes. Parsell was locked up in 1978 for a couple of years when he was a fairly naive 17 year old boy. His family was poor and uneducated and his crime, robbery with a fake gun, was misguided and stupid more than anything else. But even if his crime had been more severe, he did not deserve to be gang-raped early on during his stay and systematically forced into sex throughout his time in prison. Being a 'fish' (a 'first-timer' or 'new arrival' in prison slang) he was an easy target.
Many years after his release, Parsell was the president of Stop Prisoner Rape and he is currently a consultant to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. His experience in prison is rule rather than exception; that much is clear from the beginning of the book. Lock a rowdy group of men in together without a sexual release and they turn into sexual predators, the strong preying on the weak. 'Boys' are forced to find a 'man' to protect them in return for sex. This is not loving sex or erotic sex, it is a business-like transaction at best, a violent transaction at worst. If they don't find a man to protect them, they are more likely to be assaulted and raped on a regular basis. Both straight and gay 'boys' find themselves pushed into this role, or 'turned out' (to stay with prison terminology).
Parsell's story becomes more complex, because he was starting to realise that he was gay around the time that he was locked up. Just as he was beginning to be aware of sexual feelings for men, he was forced to act on them against his will. For a long time he still stayed 'in the closet' however, as there are odd double standards in prison. Very effeminate gay men, especially transvestites, are seen as precious commodities, as they are the closest a lot of the inmates will get to a 'real' woman until they are released. But if you are known to be gay, flamboyant or not, it is assumed that you won't mind having sex with pretty much any guy, meaning you are fair game. Following this logic, a heterosexual woman would want to have sex with any and all men she encounters.
Boundaries between gay and straight blur in prison. Most straight men there do not mind getting a blowjob from a guy or being on top and do not consider that to make them gay in any way. They are simply taking care of a basic need. It is a very 'down low' way of thinking. But to be on the receiving end of oral or anal sex or to masturbate a guy would make you gay and would be a blow to your manhood and reputation. Therefore the 'boys' who have been 'turned out', be they straight or gay originally, are seen as fundamentally lacking in masculinity because of what they do. Two 'boys' having sex together would not be seen as a threat to their men because it would be seen, in a deeply twisted way, as 'lesbian' sex.
Parsell's story is well-written and gives a fascinating glimpse into the world of sexual politics in prison. The story gets more complex as things turn semi-romantic with his 'man' and later on in the book, Parsell falls in love for the first time with another 'boy'. Racial relations and well-intentioned but illogical laws also factor into the story. The memoir has a somewhat open ending, stopping at a point that makes narrative sense but leaves you wondering what happened during the last years in prison. There is a short follow-up, telling us what the most important people from the memoir are up to these days, but the last years in prison remain a blank spot. There is also a bittersweet correspondence between Parsell and his first real lover and a short explanation of the reason why Parsell decided to drop his previous career to become the 'poster child' for prison rape.
What I missed was a more extensive update on the state of affairs in prisons these days, many years after Parsell's incarceration. From what he does say however, the things he wrote about still go on, because the guards are lacking in numbers or turning a blind eye and because sexual offenders are not prosecuted. People's psyches are still being violated and not just their minds: rates of HIV infection among prisoners are estimated to be five to ten times higher than outside of prison. Parsell's book serves its purpose both as a gripping read and a call to action. Let's hope that the people in charge will be able to get over their secondhand shame, stop averting their eyes and start facing the problem.

Book Review: Persepolis

Running from Iran and back again - How do you find home when you don't know where your heart is?

Persepolis tells the story of a smart and rebellious girl who finds herself growing up without a place to call her own. It is the autobiographical tale of Marjane Satrapi, who put it down on paper as a black and white graphic novel and has recently converted it into an animated film. As a young girl, her parents joined protests for a republic in Iran, but when the Shah is finally dethroned and the Islamic Revolution rolls around, things go from bad to worse. A small group of Holier Than Thou's, aided and abetted by a large flock of sheep, force their strict religious beliefs down everyone's throat. All liberal elements are seen as hostile and therefore violently suppressed. Marjane's parents send her to Europe to escape the regime but without any close family to fall back on, she has trouble finding a place that feels like home. When she admits defeat and travels back to Iran, to the comfort of her parents, she doesn't fit in there anymore either. The obligatory veil, the inequality of men and women, the large posters of martyrs all over the cities and the prohibition of free expression add up to a sense of alienation. At one point she is admonished by police for trying to catch a bus because her behind makes 'obscene' movements when she runs. 'Well then don't look at my ass!!' she yells at them in exasperation. They are too stunned to arrest her. Will she stay in Iran, where any exposed skin is assumed to automatically lead to wanton lust, or will she head abroad once again?
Persepolis gives a fascinating perspective on Iran. Rather than a unified country of zealots, there are different groups and opinions within the country, even if they can't make themselves heard. Satrapi humanises the country and manages to make you smile regularly even though her story is tragic at the core, many lives being pointlessly destroyed. She published more graphic novels after Persepolis (which was originally published in two volumes) and after having read this one Embroideries, Chicken with Plums even the children’s book Monsters are Afraid of the Moon have risen to the top of my to-read list.