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Title: On Tuesdays, They Played Mah Jongg
Publication Date: 2005
Book Condition: Very Good
About this title
For two decades, Michael Bern, a gay television writer in Hollywood, has stared at an unfinished screenplay sitting on his desk. After attending a friend's funeral in his hometown of Newport News, Virginia, Michael returns to Hollywood and finds there is more than a screenplay that is unfinished in his life. He finally confronts what the screenplay represents -- memories and stories of the sometimes sad, often hilarious characters of his past, especially his mother and her four closest friends. Florence, Hannah, Rona, Arlene and Doreen -- five more fascinating, menopausal, Jewish women one would never meet. They were friends for more than forty years and saw each other through life's triumphs, tragedies and multiple spouses. Yet, there was only one constant in their lives. On Tuesdays, they played Mah JonggReview:
I believe almost everyone would recognize the women in this book, regardless of their ethnicity. From hot flashes (appropriately nicknamed "personal summers"), to their dyed-and-teased hair, bright clothes, and heavy makeup, to their kibitzing and weekly Mah-Jongg games, the women of Milton Stern's "On Tuesdays, They Played Mah-Jongg" are our aunts, our mothers, our sisters, our friends, and our neighbors. In Stern's characters we find the quintessential 80s menopausal woman, from their big, teased hair to their complaints about their sex lives - or lack thereof - to the secrets they keep. Stern perfectly captures the post-retirement lifestyle in small towns particularly during the mid-eighties in the South, which serves as the setting for the story.
I found this book to be a fun, fast read, with a few twists that actually gave me pause because I never saw them coming. I liked Stern's style - the story is told in a series of flashbacks as Michael, the narrator, explores his past in therapy - which I found different from what a I normally expect to see in a novel. The device works for this one, and Stern's attention to detail is marvelous, adding depth to both the characters and the world they live in.
The only thing I found a bit disconcerting was the head hopping - the bouncing from one character's thoughts to the next within the same scene, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. It still wasn't anything that kept me from enjoying this novel from start to finish.
All in all, I fell in love with Stern's characters, his settings, and most all, his sense of humor, which truly shines in this novel.
--Kiernan Kelly, STARbooks Press Contributor
Review of On Tuesdays, They Played Mah Jongg, by David C. Muller
Here's what I liked about this book: Michael, the main character, is forty plus years old, (usually in gay fiction men stop aging at thirty), and he's not addicted to sex or substances, (Michael never drinks and it's not until the sequel that he starts smoking cigarettes). I also liked that Michael was Jewish, from Virginia, and surrounded by middle-aged Jewish women. The parallels to my own personal life are striking, but I digress. Main character Michael has, in the story, just returned to Los Angeles where he's worked for many years as a television comedy writer after a trip to his native Virginia to attend the funeral of one of these Jewish women. This trip back to Newport News comes after many years of absence, thus triggering issues from his childhood, which in turn has thwarted the completion of a screenplay he's been writing for nearly two decades. He starts therapy with a Jewish doctor called Mikowsky and unloads the tales of woe and wonder, hopes and desires, of these five Jewish women and their stories from his childhood form the story basis of a screenplay he's been unable to finish for nineteen years.
This is one of the few "gay books" that I've read that does three major things not known in gay publishing: first of all, comparatively this is not so much of a "gay story; " yes Michael, the narrator is gay, as is the therapist in the story, but the -ahem- meat of the story is not particularly gay at all, (if an adjective had to be used "Jewish" or "Southern" might be more appropriate than "gay"). Second of all, the story is decidedly about the lives of five Jewish Southern living through trials and tribulations, loveless marriages and occasional divorces, births and deaths and trips to the hair salon, in Newport News, Virginia in the eighties. Third of all, the main character, Michael, who is telling the stories of the women to his therapist through a series of somewhat non-linear flashbacks, is not a late teen early twenty-something. He is forty plus years old and stable with a career as a television writer in Los Angeles. The book is not a ruse to take the dear reader from one trite sex scene to another equally-as-contrived coital conquest, not at all; instead the story is largely about resolving issues stemming from one's past as they negatively affect their present.
This book is a departure from the gay-themed erotica that Starbooks is known for publishing. On Tuesdays, They Played Mah Jongg is, in short, about Jewish Southern women and their lives together as friends told from the reflective perspective of a narrator named Michael. Michael is telling their stories to his therapist Dr. Mikowsky thereby allowing the author to tell the story from the always-popular-in-modern-gay-fiction first person perspective. The author then shifts, as does the font, to a sort of third-person omniscient perspective as the stories of these five Jewish women- Florence, Hannah, Rona, Arlene and Doreen. The end result is a combination between two different styles of narrative delivery that is both traditional, (dare I say it), and innovative as well.
Milton Stern's writing style is clean and simple, easy to read and compelling. For readers not endowed with a passing knowledge of Jewish terms and Yiddische-mama slang that peppers daily dialogue among Diaspora Jews, here and there they might be something slightly unclear for a moment, however the tale is a delightful one. Each woman, and even one or two of their husbands, have some really great one-liners that only a Jewish woman from the American South could say. Their use of the word "fuck," for instance, is expertly written: when Michael hears one of them drop the word casually in conversation during their weekly Tuesday Mah Jongg game, he finds it unusual and he's surprised at how easily the word becomes a mainstay as an adjective among them, as one might think they'd object to the word totally only to find out even they, as old Jewish women, can most definitely not find a better word to lament their frustrations. It's a good read and I enjoyed it. Later on, after this book, Milton Stern revisits this Michael character he's created in a sequel, Michael's Secrets, the follow-up to On Tuesdays, They Played Mah Jongg, and that's where things get a bit more steamy. --David C. Muller, STARbooks Press Contributor
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