Gerry B's Book Reviews

The Bishop’s Man, by Linden MacIntyre

An intriguing, sometimes disturbing story of one priest, and a peek behind the cloth.

 

 

Blurb: Father Duncan MacAskill is called The Exorcist. Not in the traditional sense, however: at his bishop’s bidding, he drives out devils of a different sort – priests who molest children. He does not banish the devils to hell, nor to the police, but to discreet clinics or simply to far-off parishes to commence their sins anew. MacAskill’s loathsome bishop has a heart of ice. He refuses to see abused children as victims. They are merely troublesome complainers who need to be silenced. The Exorcist is more sympathetic, but still he obeys the bishop. Despite his own celibacy and sobriety issues, MacAskill is the closest thing to a hero in Linden MacIntyre’s riveting new novel, The Bishop’s Man, a searing indictment of the Catholic church. MacAskill is sent to a rural parish in his native Cape Breton, which is also the author’s native land. There, while wrestling with his own demons, MacAskill encounters a troubled young man who appears to be the victim of a notorious priest. MacAskill is determined to help this man, regardless of the consequences for the church. His subsequent investigation takes him on a sordid and surprising path.

Winner of the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Linden MaIntyre was born and raised in Port Hastings, Nova Scotia. After high school, he moved to Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from St. Francis Xavier University in 1964. He also studied at St. Mary’s University and the University of Kings College in Halifax. From 1964 to 1967 he worked for the Halifax Herald as a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. He continued in the same role with the Financial Times of Canada from 1967 to 1970. He was drawn back to Cape Breton after the death of his father in 1970 and for the next six years he lived there and worked as a correspondent for the Chronicle Herald.

He joined the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Halifax in 1976 and for three years he hosted a regional public affairs show called The MacIntyre File. It was while with this program that he launched a successful legal challenge before the Sipreme Court of Nova Scotia over access to affidavits and documents relating to search warrants. Later heard before the Supreme Court of Canada, the successful suit was a landmark case which set a precedent in support of public and media access to information in Canada.

In 1980, MacIntyre moved to Toronto, where he still resides, to work as a producer and journalist on CBC’s new flagship news program, The Journal. This appointment took him around the world preparing documentary reports on international affairs, preparing such notable features as “Dirty Sky, Dying Water” (about acid rain). Various jobs at the CBC through the eighties culminated in his appointment in 1990 as co-host of the weekly newsmagazine the fifth estate, with which he is still involved. In addition, he is a frequent guest host of The Current on CBC Radio One.

 

Review by Gerry Burnie

It has been said that priests, judges, etc., are “quite ordinary people charged with an extraordinary responsibility,” and The Bishop’s Man [Random House Canada, 2009] reflects this maxim in a most believable way. Indeed, it is almost an exposé of the ‘ordinariness’ of priests and, therefore, difficult to comprehend that it was written by a layman.

Some of the strong points of this story are the very interesting, complex and colourful cast of characters that populate it, i.e. the wily bishop – the quintessential ‘company man’; young Danny MacKay – the troubled teenager struggling with his sexuality and an uncertain future; Sextus Gilles – the not so happy-go-lucky, likeable rake; and Stella – Duncan MacAskill’s female friend and would-be romantic link. Each of them represents a segment of society confronting MacAskill’s isolated existence, and because of this each has an impact on him in a profound way.

Being an ‘East Coaster’ MacIntyre has also captured the outpost community of Creignish with delightful accuracy—the rustic quaintness of it, as well as the neighbourliness of the inhabitants. This includes, of course, an almost intimate knowledge of one another`s families going back several generations. However, no story about the East coast of Canada would be complete without it.

Having said that, the numerous flashbacks to MacAskill`s stint in Honduras were disruptive and even confusing at times. Moreover, apart from a reflection of the troubles in that part of the world in the 1970`s, I had difficulty understanding why these were even included. Albeit they were interesting enough, and not a major detraction from the overall story.

Altogether, I found The Bishops Man a thought-provoking story that compelled me to keep reading until all the intriguing plot lines had been resolved.

Enthusiastically recommended.

 

Progress on the rewrites to Coming of Age on the Trail – 163/170

July 25, 2010 Posted by | Canadian content, Canadian historical content, Fiction | 4 Comments

Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story, by Ruth Sims

A truly great story that reads like silk rippling across naked skin

Publisher’s blurb: COUNTERPOINT: DYLAN’S STORY is the story of Dylan Rutledge’s life, from the age of eighteen until his early thirties, and of the two men whose lives were intertwined with his at different times and in different ways.

At eighteen Dylan Rutledge has one obsession: music. He believes his destiny is to be the greatest composer of the rapidly approaching twentieth century. Only Laurence Northcliff, a young history master at The Venerable Bede School for Young Gentlemen, believes in Dylan’s talent and encourages his dream, not realizing Dylan is in love with him.

But Dylan’s passion and belief in his future come at a high price. They will alienate him from his family and lead him on a rocky path fraught with disappointment, rejection, and devastating loss that kills his dream. A forbidden love could bring the dream back to life and rescue Dylan from despair and bitterness, but does he have the courage to reach out and take it? Will he deny the music that rules his soul?

 

Ruth Sims has lived her entire life in conservative, Republican, tiny-town Midwest USA surrounded by corn, wheat, and soybean fields. It’s a strange place indeed for a Liberal Democrat to have sprouted. Like Emily Dickenson she’s never seen a moor and never seen the sea but she’s seen plenty of silos, Amish buggies, whitetails, and amber waves of grain. She’ll battle anybody who says the flat, fertile land of the Midwest doesn’t have its own kind of beauty.

Though many years past schooldays, her education is continuous and far-ranging, with interests ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, from Shakespeare to groan-inducing puns and limericks. Her library has many shelves of history, biography, drama, and reference books. Her special love of drama is apparent in The Phoenix, and her passion for Classical and Romantic music comes to life in Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story.

Words, imagination, books, music, and writing have always been the means by which she could slip into more exciting lives than her own. When the chance finally came for her to write full-time, she was able to focus on the stories that have been in her head for years. Her many characters are thankful to escape; it was getting crowded in there.

 

Review by Gerry Burnie

 In March of this year I had the pleasure of reviewing The Phoenix by Ruth Sims, and described it as, “A masterful piece of writing, credible and enjoyable from start to finish.” At that time I thought that I had exhausted all the superlatives possible on a novel, but with Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story [Dream Spinner Press, July 2010] she had surpassed even these. Indeed, Counterpoint has been described as “A symphony of words.”

It begins with a tasteful cover design by Alex Beecroft that captures the theme of the novel with just the right flare. Then the story opens like an insightful overture containing a glimpse of what is to come, but most of all it artfully introduces Dylan’s impetuous personality better than any descriptive narrative could do. Here we find Dylan playing one of his own composition illicitly on the main organ of the Bede College (for young gentlemen) chapel; an instrument that is almost the ‘proprietary’ province of the old-school, hide-bound choir master—ushering in one of nemesis in Dylan’s life; the first of many.

Chapter one also introduces us to Laurence Northcliff, a more liberal-minded teaching master—although, how ‘liberal’ remains to be seen in a later chapter.

In fact, the character development in this story is one of the very strong points of Ruth Sims’ writing; for they are all true to the period in their attitudes and way of thinking, credible for who and what they are, and consistent throughout. For example, Dylan retains his artless idealism throughout; Northcliff his maturity and understanding; Dylan’s father his ultra-conservative, middleclass standards; etc. I also thought it very true-to-life that his father would blame Northcliff for Dylan’s ‘downfall,’ referring to his homosexuality, because it couldn’t have come from his genes—plus ca change.

The setting, both in England and in Paris, deserve a special mention as well; for I find it quite remarkable that a gal who “has lived her entire life in conservative, Republican, tiny-town Midwest USA,” can create 19th-century, European settings that are so credible in detail and ambiance that they rival travel brochures.

Indeed ‘ambiance’ is another aspect of her writing that is worthy of praise. It creates that period “feeling” that so many of her readers have commented on, including myself regarding The Phoenix:

“Not to be overlooked is the amount of research required to reproduce Victorian England to a credible degree is quite considerable—especially for a gal who, according to her biography, has never seen a moor! Well, the test of the ‘credibility factor’ is that I as a reader certainly believed it.”

Counterpoint: Dylan’s Story reads like silk rippling across naked skin, and the overall experience of it—the heights and depths of love, the highs and lows of life, the counterpoints of success and failure, and the triumph of the human spirit has left me with the afterglow of having read a great story!

See a preview of Coming of Age on the Trail

July 18, 2010 Posted by | Fiction, Gay fiction, Gay historical fiction, Gay Literature | Leave a comment

From the Closet to the Courtroom: Five LGBT Rights Lawsuits that have Changed Our Nation, by Carlos A. Ball

It is a truly fascinating study, superbly researched, and remarkably readable in spite of being a complex topic.

 *Non-fiction books of this nature do not fit the star-rating system.

Publisher’s Blurb: The advancement of LGBT rights has occurred through struggles large and small-on the streets, around kitchen tables, and on the Web. Lawsuits have also played a vital role in propelling the movement forward, and behind every case is a human story: a landlord in New York seeks to evict a gay man from his home after his partner of ten years dies of AIDS; school officials in Wisconsin look the other way as a gay teenager is repeatedly and viciously harassed by other students; a lesbian couple appears unexpectedly at a clerk’s office in Hawaii seeking a marriage license.
Engaging and largely untold, From the Closet to the Courtroom explores how five pivotal lawsuits have altered LGBT history. Beginning each case narrative at the center-with the litigants and their lawyers-law professor Carlos Ball follows the stories behind each crucial lawsuit. He traces the parties from their communities to the courtroom, while deftly weaving in rich sociohistorical context and analyzing the lasting legal and political impact of each judicial outcome.
Over the last twenty years, no group of attorneys has helped to transform this country more than LGBT rights lawyers, and surprisingly, their collective accomplishments have received relatively little attention. Ball remedies that by exploring how a band of largely unheralded civil rights lawyers have attained remarkable legal victories through skill, creativity, and perseverance.
In this richly layered and multifaceted account, Ball vividly documents how these judicial victories have significantly altered LGBT lives today in ways that were unimaginable only a generation ago.

About the Author: Professor Ball received his B.A. summa cum laude from Tufts University, his J.D. from Columbia Law School, where he was a Kent Scholar and the book reviews editor of the Columbia Law Review, and his LL.M. from Cambridge University, where he was awarded a “First.” He clerked for Chief Justice Paul Liacos of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and worked as a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society in New York City in the early 1990s. He joined the law school in 2008 after teaching at the University of Illinois College of Law for eight years and at the Penn State University School of Law for five. 
Professor Ball is also the author of The Morality of Gay Rights: An Exploration in Political Philosophy (Routledge, 2003), and co-author of Cases and Materials on Sexual Orientation and the Law (West, 2008).

 

Review by Gerry Burnie

If I were putting together a mini-course on the social history of GLBT discrimination in North America, I would definitely include Gay American History: Lesbian and gay men in U.S.A.- Johathan Katz , and Carlos A Ball’s, From the Closet to the Courtroom: Five LGBT Rights Lawsuits That Have Changed Our Nation [Beacon Press, 2010]. Moreover, at the risk of coming across as a ‘missionary’ for the cause, these two seminal works should be put on every GLBT individual’s ‘must-read’ list.

When reviewing a book of this nature it is necessary to say from the outset that one cannot possibly do justice to the amount of research and detail contained therein, in a few words. This is particularly so when dealing with a topic like constitutional law—probably one of the most complex but fascinating of all the areas of law. Nor should a review like this be read as authoritative in any way—i.e. the opinions expressed are not legal opinions.

Having said that, however, Professor Ball writes in a very readable style for legals as well as those with no legal training whatsoever. Therefore, the fact that it deals with law and judicial interpretation should not deter the average reader from reading and enjoying—and learning from—this important work.

To accommodate the space available, what follows is a sample of some of the cases covered, and a more detailed summary of one of them. You may want to take note of the dates to appreciate the fact that these legal break-throughs have been relatively recent in coming.

Harassment

Jamie Nabozny was a seventh-grader (age 11, 1988) when the harassment started with some of his school peers taunting him with words like “faggot” and “queer.” The harassment grew progressively worse over a four-year period—including one instance where he was knocked into the urinal in the boys’ washroom, and then peed on—and culminated in finding himself lying on the floor of his school’s library as a boy repeatedly kicked him in the stomach while other kids cheered. During these intervening years Jamie and his parents complained on countless occasions to the school administrators. However, the officials refused to get involved; in fact, no student was ever disciplined for verbally or physically harassing Jamie.

In 1993 (now a university student)  Jamie contacted a lawyer who filed a complaint again the school district, the two principals involved, and the assistant principal, on the basis that school officials had refused to take the necessary steps to protect Jamie from harassment because he was gay. It also alleged sex discrimination by contending that school officials would have responded differently to the harassment had Jamie been a girl (records showed that one of the boys who had tormented Jamie had been suspended for calling his girlfriend a bad name). 

The Federal Court, however, ruled that there was no evidence suggesting that Jamie had been treated differently because of his sex.

It was then that Jamie contact Lambda lawyer Patricia Logue, and although no student had ever succeeded in suing school officials for failing to protect him or her from anti-gay harassment, the facts in Jamie’s case were so compelling that the lawsuit might serve as a test case for the benefit of other GLBT youth across the country.

Logue therefore argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals that government officials (i.e. the school district, school principals and vice-principal), for discriminatory reasons, had failed to provide him with the protection from violence and harassment to which he was entitled under law. She also told the court that the defendants had discriminated against Jamie both because he was gay, and because he was a boy.

Jamie had offered evidence of such discrimination, including his contention that school officials had told him on several occasions that he was to blame for the harassment because he insisted on being openly gay in school.

Logue also pointed out that it was difficult to imagine that the school officials would have ignored the level of abuse and harassment to which Jamie was subjected if he had have been a girl.

The outcome of the U.S. Court of Appeals appeal was that the three-judge panel agreed with the appellants (Logue and Nabozny) and ordered a new trial.

Now that the case was going to trial (before a jury) it was decided to add an experienced litigation lawyer to the team, and David Springer (an HIV positive individual) signed on to represent Jamie in the fall of 1996.

At the trial the lawyer for the school board’s insurance company argued that the officials were all basically good people, and that these experienced professionals had no recollection of Jamie Nabozny or of his complaints; therefore, the alleged complaints were a “pack of lies.” However the issue was not whether the defendants were good or bad people. Instead, the case was about whether the defendants had failed to address antigay harassment against a gay boy in the same way that they had in the past treated harassment against heterosexual girls. Moreover, the apparent inability of the defendants to recall anything related to Jamie Nabozny whil he attended their schools, including incidents of serious physical assaults was just not credible.

After deliberating for just under four hours the jury returned a unanimous verdict that the school officials had intentionally discriminated against Jamie because he was a gay boy.

The impact: To emphasize the impact of the Nabozny decision, the author quotes several studies that attempted to bring attention to the prevalence of antigay harassment in American public schools. For example, a 1993 survey of Massachusetts high school students reported that 98 percent had heard homophobic remarks at school and that more than half had heard school staff were five time more likely to have missed school on account of safety concerns, and four times more likely to have attempted suicide than straight students.

Professor Ball points out that it is not an exaggeration to say that the Nabozny lawsuit changed much of that when the news media reported the almost $1 million settlement, and school officials across the country scrambled to prevent what happened to Jamie from being repeated. In addition, insurance companies were now insisting that their policy-holding schools implement programs to prevent multi-million dollar, antigay lawsuits.

Family

When Leslie Blanchard died of AIDS (September, 1986) at Newark, New Jersey, he did so in the arms of his partner of ten years, Miguel Braschi. As loving partners the two men had lived together in a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan, with only Blanchard’s name on the lease. sHowever, three months after Blanchard died the landlord threatened Braschi with eviction because he was not a “surviving spouse of the deceased tenant or some other member of the deceased tenant’s family who has been living with the tenant.

As far as the landlord was concerned, Braschi was not Blanchard’s spouse nor a member of his family. He was therefore not legally entitled to remain in the apartment after Blanchard died. However, although none of the precedent cases had gone to appellate courts, the cases nonetheless showed a tendency to recognize committed same-sex relationships with deceased tenants were entitled to anti-eviction protection.

The job of ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] lawyer, Bill Rubenstein, was to show he appellate court that it was appropriate and necessary to define the meaning of family functionally by focussing on the extent of the emotional and financial interdependence of the parties rather than formalistically by focussing on whether the parties were linked through ties of marriage, blood, or adoption.

In the end the court did what Rubenstein had asked it to do by rejecting a definition of family that only looked to whether the individuals have “formalized their relationship by obtaining, for instance, a marriage certificate or an adoption order.”  Furthermore, it went on to say:

[T]he intended protection against sudden eviction should not rest on fictitious legal distinctions or genetic history, but instead should find its foundation in the reality of family life.

The impact: One of the beneficial things that the Braschi case achieved was that the highest court in New York provided considerable legitimacy to the claim the GLBT were as capable of forming loving and lasting familial ties as were straight people.

Marriage

Glenora Dancel and Nina Baehr were born in Honolulu in 1960. Some years later (1990), after discovering their sexual orientation as lesbians, they met, fell in love, and made a decision to get married. At almost the same time Baehr had to be rushed to the hospital regarding a serious infection, and because she had no health insurance Dancel later tried to add Baehr to her employer’s health insurance. That is when she learned that such a benefit was available only to the spouse and children of employee. She also tried to buy life insurance and name Baehr as beneficiary but was told the beneficiary could only be someone related to her be blood, marriage, or adoption. Nor was it possible for same-sex partners to register as domestic partners because domestic partners were not recognized under Hawaiian law. This meant, basically, that a serious illness could mean bankruptcy, and if either one of them was hospitalized the other could be denied the right to visit or to help make decisions about their treatment.

American laws criminalizing same-sex conduct goes back to colonial times, but it was only in the 1990s that some states started to prohibit the recognition of same-sex relationships as marital. Up until this time the courts had taken the position that thee plaintiffs were denied the opportunity to marry not because of their sex, but “because of the recognized definition of that relationship as one entered into only by persons who are members of the opposite sex.”

At issue:  Lawyers Evan Wolfson of Lambda, and Daniel Foley—a non-gay, ACLU advocate—saw the pursuit of marriage equality as the most effective way of changing the terms of debate over GLBT issues—i.e. putting the relationships and families of GLBT people front and centre, show there was just as much love and devotion there as with straight relationships.

The outcome: After the state court had rejected the initial lawsuit, the case was then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals (1992) by Wolfson and Foley, and as part of its reasoning the Court held that the plaintiff’s legal challenge had nothing to do with sexual orientation. In its opinion  that “homosexuality and same-sex marriages are not synonymous” because under the law of Hawaii a gay person could marry someone of thee opposite sex while a straight person could not marry someone of the same sex. This showed that they Hawaii’s marriage law classified individuals according to their sex and not their sexual orientation—something that was clearly wrong.

As mentioned above, these are just a sampling of the important milestones that have been achieved by courageous individuals willing to ‘stand-up and be seen’ for the good of the movement, and the very fine lawyers who gave of their talents in the pursuit of justice for all. It is a truly fascinating study, superbly researched, and remarkably readable in spite of being a complex topic.

 

See Journey to Big Sky by Gerry Burnie

July 11, 2010 Posted by | Gay Literature, Non-fiction | Leave a comment

Two Spirits: A Story of Life With the Navajo, by Walter L. Williams and Toby Johnston

An entertaining and fascinatng tale of historical and socialogical significance

 

 

Publisher’s blurb: [Lethe Press, 2005] Twenty years after publishing his groundbreaking The Spirit and the Flesh, anthropologist Walter L. Williams breaks his silence and publishes another book on Native Americans by teaming up with award-winning writer Toby Johnson. Together they have produced a work of historical fiction that is striking in its evocation of Navajo philosophy and spirituality. Set in the Civil War era of the 1860s, this novel tells the story of a feckless Virginian who finds himself captivated by a Two-Spirit male highly respected among the Navajo. It is a story of tragedy, oppression, and discrimination, but also an enlightening story of love, discovery, and beauty. Two Spirits illuminates the truth of what the United States did to the largest indigenous people of this nation. Full of suspense, plot twists, and endearing romance, this novel will captivate readers.

Review by Gerry Burnie

This is a novel that admirably fits the category of ‘historical fiction’.

The history: Set in the rugged Territory of New Mexico in the 1860s, it tells the story of a tender love that blooms against a backdrop of shame, cruelty, corruption and death.

In 1864 twelve thousand Navajo (Diné) were forced to march from their homeland in Canyon de Chelly (now Nevada) to Bosque Redondo Reserve outside Fort Sumner; a distance of 325 miles in the dead of winter. More than three thousand individuals died en-route, and because the soil was so unfertile at the Reserve another quarter of the population may have died as a result of starvation.

This ill-fated scheme was the brainchild of General James Carlton, a so-called “Indian Fighter” who regarded the Navajo as “savages,” per se, and promptly set about embezzling money and supplies from them; making their existence even more precarious.

The fiction: William Lee is a young, idealistic and confused young man, who is literally cast out into the world after being caught by his fundamentalist father having exploratory sex with another youngster. Now disowned, he is assisted by a sympathetic member of the community and eventually sent to New Mexico as the apprentice to the Indian Agent at Bosque Redondo—more-or-less a banishment from the God-fearing, white society.

Unbeknownst to Washington or William Lee, the Indian Agent has ‘disappeared’ from his post, and Lee therefore becomes the acting Agent in his absence. Well aware of his inexperience, General Carlton sets about moulding his character by treating him like a novice clerk whose only function is to maintain the status quo of Carlton’s making.

Early in William’s experience he encounters a mysterious, but strikingly handsome ‘woman,’ named Hasbaá—in reality a Two Spirit, possessing both male and female spirits. Such individuals were considered a blessing sent by the Great Spirit, and possessed very powerful medicine for healing and other religious ceremonies. Of course William is unaware of any of this, and his confusion is only exacerbated when he discovers the Hasbaá has the body of a man. Nonetheless, Will and Hasbaá are drawn together, and the two of them eventually fall in love.

William then goes on to learn the ways of the Navajo, assisted by an old woman who acts as his interpreter, and at the same time he begins to learn about himself—ultimately accepting his homosexuality. His curiosity doesn’t end there, however, because he goes on to enquire into the discrepancies that are becoming apparent at the Fort—an inquiry fraught with intrigue and danger.

***

The question that always accompanies historical fiction, is: Is it history, or is it fiction? In fact the resolution between these two fundamentals is a very tricky business, indeed. The ideal, of course, is a more-or-less 50/50 split; provided the two are woven seamlessly into an integrated whole. Only then, in my opinion, has the writer achieved harmony.

If I have one criticism of this novel it is that the fiction does not always measure up to the history; seeming at times to almost be a contrivance to introduce a fact, etc. Moreover, the ‘old lady’ character who is charged with interpreting some very complex Navajo beliefs, while obviously needing to be wise, is far too articulate to be credible as a woman with no educational background.

Having said that I hasten to add the pluses far outweigh the negatives, and I therefore recommend Two Spirits: A Story of Life With The Navajo as an entertaining and fascinating tale of historical and sociological significance.

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See a preview of Coming of Age on the Trail

July 4, 2010 Posted by | Fiction, Gay fiction, Gay historical fiction, Gay Literature | 2 Comments

   

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