Short Reviews

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Prince Harry: Boy to Man
by William Kuhn
Montgomery St. Press. 310 pages, $14.99

 

This novel reads like an Enid Blyton adventure story crossed with Elizabethan comedy, the cast braving dire odds en route to love. Lieutenant Harry Wales, antic prince with a somber core, deploys to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, or at least to make a show of it for crown and country. His fellow officer and good friend Mustafa Khan, whose parents had emigrated from Afghanistan to England after making a fortune in the opium trade, is secretly gay. In Kabul they meet Reed, a handsome young CNN reporter embedded with a U.S. combat unit. His full name is Cindy Reed; he’s actually a woman masquerading as male to qualify for the hazardous posting. All three characters have things to hide, and so does Frances de Mornay, a church-group aid volunteer whose mysterious past includes a private Olympic-size swimming pool. She drinks, but she’s formidable. Her accent alone can bring affairs of state to a grinding halt.

William Kuhn’s debut novel, Mrs Queen Takes the Train, a tale of the monarch on the lam in mufti, delighted anglophiles. His new offering will do the same with slyly fond pokes at the niceties of Spode china, sitting-room décor “on the Surrey-Sussex border,” and tiffin. (What is tiffin? I have no idea.) Prince Harry fans will get a kick out of Kuhn’s deft descriptions. For example: “His rusty hair looked electric and hot to the touch.” And there’s this: “His underwear clung to him like the skin of an aquatic mammal.” Oi!

Lewis Gannett

 

 

“The Man Who Thought Himself a Woman” and Other Queer Nineteenth Century Short Stories
Edited by Christopher Looby
Pennsylvania. 311 pages, $24.95

 

Christopher Looby, professor of English at UCLA, has put together an interesting collection of 19th- and early 20th-century short stories written by well-known, semi-known, and obscure writers, including Willa Cather, Henry James, Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Octave Thanet, not to mention the “Anonymous” author who wrote this book’s title story. In his excellent introduction, Looby introduces his notion of “queerness” and his thesis that the short story is the embodiment of this concept in relation to the novel. The stories explore and celebrate the variety and diversity of gender identities, erotic expressions, friendships, and other attachments that can make for complicated relationships. The narratives are free of the categorization and medicalization prevalent in 20th- and 21st-century depictions of gender and sexuality, presenting different ways of describing gender, desire, and sexual orientation. What’s most refreshing about these stories is their oddness, their quality as outliers—in short, their queerness. The narratives do not conform to any rules of what is permissible to write about. They are remarkably free from contemporary repression and angst. Some of them read like science fiction, or fantasy, or gothic tales. This fine collection offers a window into a variety of imaginative worlds: queer worlds filled with plenty of outliers.

Irene Javors

 

Guide to Manly Health & Training
by Walt Whitman
Ten Speed Press. 123 pages, $14.99

 

There is certainly nothing explicitly homosexual about Walt Whitman’s Guide; but somehow the book is “gay” through and through. The fact that Whitman has written this book at all, exclusively about men, and the delight he takes in describing the characteristics of a manly man, is a good place to start. Indeed, the total absence of women in a complete primer about masculine pursuits—which delves into everything from a man’s toilet to exercise, diet, dress, and sports, including baseball (thumbs way up!)—is surely an omission that no straight male writer would make. For him, the guide would be all about how to become a fit gentleman so as to attract the finest ladies (this is 19th-century America).

One can assume that the author of “Song of Myself” is essentially touting the habits and virtues of one Walt Whitman most of the time. Still, at other times he seems to be describing his “type,” declaring himself “a student of the body” and “realizing that a broad chest, a muscular pair of arms, and two sinewy legs, will be just as much credit to you” as various professional achievements. The book is presented as a series of aphorisms with era-appropriate drawings by Matthew Allen. Here’s a gem: “One ambition … is the desire and determination to put your body in a healthy and sweet-blooded condition—to be a man, hearty, active, muscular, handsome—yes, handsome—for it is not for nothing that throughout the human race there is the universal desire that the body should not only be well but look well.” It is part of Whitman’s charm that he relentlessly universalizes his own private sentiments, assuming here that his own fascina- tion with beautiful men is shared by everyone. But who is to say that he’s not right?

Richard Schneider Jr.

 

Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings
Edited by Clare Croft
Oxford. 315 pages, $35.

 

This book is an amalgam of academic analysis, artists’ manifestos, and personal essays seeking to upend the heteronormative and Euro-centric paradigms prevailing in dance and performance scholarship. The collection grew out of a dance festival curated by the editor, Clare Croft, in 2015, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Complementing the book is a website featuring videos of performances and interviews with contributing writers. Transgressive improvisers, a country western cowboy, hip-hop, street and erotic dancers, clubbers, drag kings, and performance artists are among the outlaws tackling artificial binary notions of gender, sexuality, and desire in performance. Transcultural perspectives are added by a Bollywood drag queen, a kathak dancer, a taiko musician, and an Irish step-dancer. Balletic and modern classics from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s are examined through a revisionist queer lens for their innuendo and latent coded references. While the anthology promises an expanded discourse for dance and queer studies, ultimately it is too insular for that, with artists, scholars, and theorists speaking primarily to each other. Academic arguments obfuscate and hyperbolic jargon loses the reader. Unfortunately, promising theses don’t always translate into compelling narrative.

John R. Killacky

 

 

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