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‘To Paradise’ is an unforgettable masterpiece

Hanya Yanagihara’s new novel consists of three novellas

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‘To Paradise’
By Hanya Yanagihara
c.2022, Doubleday $32.50 / 720 pages

“To Paradise,” the new novel by Hanya Yanagihara, editor-in-chief of T: The New York Times Style Magazine and author of the bestselling novel “A Little Life,” is unforgettable.

Yanagihara, 47, an Asian American woman who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Hawaii, is known for writing about queer (especially, gay male) characters.

Some in the LGBTQ+ community think that Yanagihara portrays queer characters as stereotypes! Others love Yanagihara’s work. Queer author Edmund White has compared “To Paradise” to Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

“To Paradise” is a “War and Peace”-like masterpiece.

But with Tolstoy, you know how things end — what happens to Pierre, Prince Andrew, Natasha and their families.

“To Paradise” consists of three novellas. It takes place over 200 years and features characters with the same names in different time periods and families.

It’s beautifully written. You’ll care about the characters. But, at the end, you won’t know what will happen to them.

The first novella “Washington Square,” is an homage to the Henry James novel with the same title, takes place in 1893 in Greenwich Village in New York. It is much like a James or Edith Wharton novel. It’s upper-crust families are preoccupied with status, wealth and ensuring that their children marry well.

In Yanagihara’s reimagining of American history, America didn’t become a unified nation of states after the Civil War.

In her imagining, after the war, America became a loosely connected set of territories. New York is in the territory called the Free States. In the Free States, both same-sex marriage and arranged marriages are legal.

David Bingham, who is gay and prone to “nervous troubles,” lives in a mansion with his grandfather. His grandfather is concerned that David will have difficulty finding a husband because of his “illnesses.” He arranges for David to marry Charles Griffith, a rich man. Charles falls in love with David.

But David doesn’t want to marry Charles. He loves Edward Bishop, a poor man who teaches music. David longs to escape from his grandfather — to live “in color.” He and Ed are set to go to California, where, unlike in the Free States, life is risky for gay people.

The second novella of “To Paradise,” “Lipo-Wao-Nahele,” is set in late 20th century New York in the same Greenwich Village mansion and in Hawaii.

In the first section of this novella, a paralegal, also, named David Bingham, lives with his wealthy lover, also named Charles Griffith.

David struggles with his conflicted feelings about Charles.

“He knew he should feel infantilized by how obviously unequal their life together was,” Yanagihara writes, “and yet he didn’t … it was a relief not to think.”

David grew up in Hawaii. He became estranged from his father, a descendent of Hawaiian royalty.

The second, and longest, section of this novella is in the form of a seemingly endless letter from David’s father to David. “To Paradise” is a gripping book. But reading this letter is like being a child traveling with your parents. You keep wondering: are we there yet?

“Zone Eight,” the third novella is set in 2093. It spans several decades (going back to the 2070s) over a serious of pandemics. New York is now Zone Eight and run by an authoritarian government.

There is no Internet, access to books is restricted and flies monitor conversations. Pandemic life in “Zone Eight” makes our COVID-19 era seem like carefree.

In “Zone Eight,” yet another Charles Griffith, a research scientist, tries to keep his granddaughter Charlie safe.

“Zone Eight,” is narrated by Charlie and by Charles. Charlie is in an arranged marriage to a gay man. At age 10, she became intellectually disabled from medication she received when she had a virus.

Charlie is an interesting character. She works at a lab and knows what’s going on in her life and world. She wants to be loved.

But Charlie’s voice is often flat and childlike. I can’t help but think that there’s some ableism in Yanagihara’s depiction of Charlie.

Despite this quibble, “To Paradise” is an enthralling book. It may make you cry or squirm, but you won’t stop reading it.

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Books

Love of baseball unites father, gay son

‘Magic Season’ explores family life after a tragedy

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(Book cover image courtesy of Hanover Square Press)

‘Magic Season: A Son’s Story’
By Wade Rouse
c.2022, Hanover Square Press
$27.99/ 304 pages

You’ve always looked up to your dad.

Sometimes it happened literally, like when you were a child and “up” was the only way to see his face hovering over yours. You’ve looked up at him in anger, embarrassment, dismissal, and yeah, you’ve looked up to him in the best ways, too – never forgetting, as in the memoir “Magic Season” by Wade Rouse, that sometimes, the hardest thing is seeing eye-to-eye.

Wade Rouse threw like a girl.

He couldn’t catch a baseball, either, and he wasn’t much of a runner as a young boy. He tried, because his father insisted on it but Rouse was better with words and books and thoughts. He was nothing like his elder brother, Todd, who was a natural hunter, a good sportsman, and an athlete, and their father never let Rouse forget it.

And yet, curiously, Rouse and his dad bonded over baseball.

Specifically, their love of Cardinals baseball became the one passion they shared. The stats, the players, the idea that “Anything can happen,” the hope that there’d be a World Series at the end of every season was the glue they needed. It was what saved them when Todd was killed in a motorcycle accident. When Rouse came out to his father, Cards baseball was what brought them back together after two years of estrangement.

In between games, though, and between seasons, there was yelling, cruelty, and all the times when father and son didn’t communicate. Rouse accepted, but didn’t like, his father’s alcoholism or his harsh life-lessons: his father didn’t like Rouse’s plans for his own future. Rouse admits that he cried a lot, and he was surprised at the rare times when his father displayed emotion – especially since an Ozarks man like Ted Rouse didn’t do things like that.

Until the time was right.

Love, Wade Rouse says, is “shaped like a baseball.” You catch it, throw it, or hit it out of the park, but “You don’t know where it’s going.”

Just be sure you never take “your eye off it, from beginning to end.”

Oh, my. “Magic Season” is a 10-hankie book.

First, though, you’re going to laugh because author Wade Rouse is a natural-born humorist and his family is a great launching-pad for him despite the splinters and near-clawing despair of the overall theme of this book. That sense of humor can’t seem to let a good story go, even when it’s obvious that there’s something heartbreaking waiting in the bullpen.

Which brings us to the father-son-baseball triple-play. It may seem to some readers that such a book has been done and done again, but this one feels different. Rouse excels at filling in the blanks on the other, essential teammates in this tale and, like any big skirmish, readers are left breathless, now knowing the final score until the last out.

If you like your memoirs sweet, but with a dash of spice and some tears, here you go. For you, “Magic Season” is a book to look up.

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Books

Calhoun and O’Hara give us hope that art will still be a life force

New memoir ‘Also a Poet’ will inspire readers

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(Book cover image courtesy of Grove Press)

‘Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me’
By Ada Calhoun
c.2022, Grove Press
$27/259 pages

Families. Especially if your parents are acclaimed writers and artists, they can get under your skin. They love you, but sometimes withhold praise and suck the air out of the room. You wonder if you’ll end up as a second-string imitation of your famous folks.

That was what growing up was like for writer Ada Calhoun, author of the new memoir “Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father and Me.”  

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy wrote in “Anna Karenina.”

If you’re queer, you know not only how right Tolstoy was, but that family tension makes for riveting reading.

Calhoun, a lifelong New Yorker who grew up in the East Village, doesn’t disappoint. 

Her parents are creative and talented. Her mother Brooke Alderson started out performing stand-up comedy in lesbian bars. Later, she was an actress whose most well-known roles were in “Urban Cowboy” and “Family Ties.”

Her father Peter Schjeldahl, born in 1942, is a poet and The New Yorker art critic.

Schjeldahl is far from a pompous gasbag. As The New York Times book critic Molly Young said recently, in his book “Hot, Cold, Heavy, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018,” Schjeldahl received, perhaps, the most awesome blurb ever. “Bruce is no longer the Boss; Schjeldahl is!” Steve Martin said of the volume.

Not surprisingly, Calhoun didn’t have a typical childhood.

Gay writer Christopher Isherwood, author of “The Berlin Stories,” was among those who Calhoun’s parents hung out with. “One of the most agreeable children imaginable,” Isherwood said of Calhoun when she was a child, “neither sulky nor sly nor pushy nor ugly, with a charming trustful smile for all of us.”

Most of us as kids see “The Nutcracker” with an aunt or grandma. Calhoun saw the holiday classic with a “dreamboat” poet. An artist posing topless so other painters could paint her wasn’t shocking to the young Calhoun.

While Calhoun’s Mom makes several memorable appearances, “Also a Poet” is focused on Calhoun’s relationship with her father.

Relationships between daughters and fathers can be difficult. But they’re often more fraught when the dad is a renowned writer. Especially when Calhoun, born in 1976, was growing up.

Then (thankfully, to a lesser extent, now) if you were a male writer, life in your household centered around you. You didn’t help with housework or pay much attention to your spouse and kids.

Though Calhoun was raised in the sophisticated East Village, life with her father fit this pattern. One day, Schjeldahl let her go alone, with no directions, at age eight on a bus to a friend’s birthday party. 

When she was young, Calhoun wanted to escape the Village literary life. “My typical answer was farmer because that was the most tangible, least cosmopolitan option I could think of,” Calhoun writes, when as a kid, people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. 

But Calhoun couldn’t evade the clutches of the writing bug. From early on, she wanted to get away from her father’s shadow. So her work could be judged on its own merit. She changed her last name from Schjeldahl to her middle name Calhoun.

Despite their difficulties, one thing bonded Calhoun with her dad: their love of Frank O’Hara, the openly queer poet and Museum of Modern Art curator, who died at 40 in a Jeep accident on Fire Island in 1966.

In the 1970s, Schjeldahl, who like so many poets, writers and artists then and now, idolized O’Hara, tried to write a biography of the beloved poet. But O’Hara’s sister and executor Maureen Granville-Smith derailed his attempt to write the bio.

But all wasn’t lost. Decades later, Calhoun discovered the tapes of the people (from Larry Rivers to Willem de Kooning) who Schjeldalhl had interviewed for the project in the basement of her parents’ building. 

In a magnificent Rubik’s Cube of literary history and memory, Calhoun weaves a tale of family and of making art. 

The memoir will inspire you to read O’Hara. O’Hara wrote funny and moving poems out of the pop culture and sadness of his time (from the “The Day Lady Died” on the death of Billie Holiday to the hilarious “Poem” – with the line “Lana Turner has collapsed!” to “Personal Poem” about Miles Davis being beaten by cops).

“His life force was on the page,” Grace Cavalieri, Maryland’s poet laureate and the producer/host of the radio show “The Poet and the Poem, said of O’Hara in an email to the Blade.

In this “Don’t Say Gay” era, Calhoun and O’Hara give us hope that art will still be a life force.

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Books

New queer biographies make for ideal summer reading

Array of options, from somber to outlandish

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‘How You Get Famous’ by Nicole Pasulka is a fun read about drag in Brooklyn.

Another Pride month is in the can.

All that planning, preparation and execution of events is done, and now you find yourself with lots of time on your hands. So why not reach for one of these great memoirs to read?

A little bit of memoir, a little bit of sympathy, advice, and several biographies are at the heart of “Here and Queer: A Queer Girl’s Guide to Life” by Rowan Ellis, illustrated by Jacky Sheridan (Quarto, $14.99). This book leans mostly on the serious-but-lighter side, with plenty of colorful artwork and suggestions for teen girls on figuring out who they are and what it means. There are fun activities, quizzes, essays, and tips inside; readers will find plenty of one-liners to take away, a comprehensive timeline of LGBTQ history, and biographies that reflect women of many ages and races. That all makes this a book that even adult women and, perhaps, some questioning boys will appreciate.


Speaking of lighthearted, try “Start Without Me (I’ll Be There in a Minute)” by Gary Janetti (Holt, $27.99). TV producer, writer, social media star, and sometimes curmudgeon Janetti is annoyed. Mighty annoyed in several essays here, but his aggravation is not meant to bring readers down. It’s meant to make you laugh and – with very funny, wry takes on finding the perfect tan and the perfect man, friendship with a nun, hotel rooms, mothers-in-law, “The Wizard of Oz,” vacations, weddings, and more – you will.


For something a little more somber, reach for “Side Affects: On Being Trans and Feeling Bad” by Hil Malatino (University of Minnesota Press, $21.95). Honesty is at the root of this semi-biographical look at being trans: if you are trans, says Malatino, you may struggle with several righteously negative feelings you have — disconnect, anger, fear, numbness, burnout, exhaustion — feelings that exist, in part, because of the times in which we live now and the transphobia that seems to be everywhere. Counteracting these feelings – or, at least being able to survive and thrive despite them – may be as simple as some type of activism, and Malatino explains the details as he shares his own story as well as many case studies.


And finally, if you love watching or participating in drag, then you’ll absolutely love “How You Get Famous” by Nicole Pasulka (Simon & Schuster, $27.99). This book tells the story of a coat-check boy who loved performing in drag and who talked her bar-owning boss into letting her host a drag show in Brooklyn. But this was no one-night stand and soon, the event had a lot of fans – among them, dozens of “kids” who sneaked into the club to practice their acts next to experienced performers. But when you’re on the edge of what’s about to be a popular kind of entertainment, amateur status doesn’t last long enough – and neither does this upbeat, wonderful book.


And if these don’t fit the bill, be sure to ask your favorite booksellers or librarians for help. They’ve got your next best read in the can.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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