Books about gay and lesbian lives
BY DAVID VALDES GREENWOOD
If television shows like Will & Grace are any indication, there are only two ways to be gay: flamboyant (like Jack of Will & Grace) or asexually vanilla (like Will) — and, in either case, male. But real lives are hardly lived in such homogenous fashion, a fact better reflected these days in bookstores than on the small screen. Though no single book list could ever encapsulate every queer taste, the Phoenix has found a rainbow’s worth of diverse options for stuffing the stockings of eager readers, from Latina hipsters to S&M suburbanites, hormonal teens, brainy fetishists, and lesbian gunslingers.
SHERLOCK HOMOS: QUEER MYSTERIES
Lesbian detective Connor Hawthorne is back for a fourth round in Lauren Maddison’s Epitaph for an Angel: A Connor Hawthorne Mystery (Alyson, 2003; $14.95). Hawthorne gets the challenge of her life when she must investigate not one suspicious death, but three — including the death of her own mother. If that doesn’t sound ambitious enough, three-time Lambda Literary Award nominee Maddison traces her story from Colonial America to the Third Reich, and on into the present. The only mystery remaining at the end of the book will be how Maddison can top this.
For a less ambitious approach to the genre, Rick Copp offers up The Actor’s Guide to Murder (Kensington, 2003; $23). This boppy novel goes down like candy, easy snack food for the weary brain, as we follow the adventures of a Hollywood actor who gets caught up in murder. With gay former child stars (living and dead) at the center, it’s a romp with built-in irony and a winking sensibility. Copp was a writer for The Golden Girls and The Brady Bunch Movie, and his sense of humor is clear from the first page, when he describes LA as a place where "homicides occur every day, a network audition once or twice a month. If you’re lucky."
OUT IN TIME: GAY AND LESBIAN HISTORY
When a lesbian aesthete writes in her diary that she spent most of a cruise below deck, where she enjoyed "the most exquisite qualities of Gertrude [Stein]," the typical reader might expect the writer to be Alice Toklas. But the author of the above journal entry was actually Etta Cone, one of the subjects of The Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta & Claribel Cone by Mary Gabriel (Bancroft Press, 2002; $35). The Cones were a pair of Baltimore sisters who have been largely overlooked as historical figures, despite being art collectors who championed Cézanne, Degas, Picasso, and Matisse, helping to link the Modern masters and ensure each artist’s acclaim. Cone’s affair with Stein was brief, but they stayed in touch afterward, with Etta and her gal pal Nora visiting Stein and Toklas in France several times. It’s a fascinating account of fascinating women.
It might seem that the trials of Oscar Wilde have been so exhaustively described and analyzed in print, from nonfiction to drama, that little new remains to be said on the matter. But Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, has wisely decided to let Wilde — and his prosecutors — speak for themselves. In The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde: The First Uncensored Transcript of The Trial of Oscar Wilde vs. John Douglas (Marquess of Queensberry), 1895 (Fourth Estate, 2003; $27.95), the full court transcripts, never before published, are finally made available in all their glory and sadness. We see Wilde treating the court in the first trial as his own cabaret venue, but the witticisms begin to die after he jokes about how a boy’s looks limited his appeal — revealing too much about Wilde at the worst possible moment.
NARCISSISTS UNITE: MEMOIRS
When Prince Felix Youssoupoff decided to off the legendary monk Rasputin, he lured him with the deadliest of fine dining: cyanide-laced rose-cream cakes and poisoned Madeira. (Even so, it took a gunshot and drowning to finish the ghastly job.) Youssoupoff recounts his luxuriant young life and the consequences of his famous act in Lost Splendor: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin (Helen Marx Books, 2003; $21.95), a memoir first published 50 years ago in France and now reprinted in a new edition. Poor Felix wasn’t exactly a visionary: when the closeted Russian aristocrat killed Rasputin in 1916, it so riled the peasantry that historians now consider it one of the signal events leading to the Russian Revolution, which overthrew the prince’s Tsarist relatives — hardly the lad’s intent. But his memoirs are not remotely limited to the political, as he recounts a life of nightclubs, gypsy affairs, and high-end bohemianism — Felix’s mantra perhaps being power to the person, not to the people.
The memoirist Marijane Meaker doesn’t try to hide her own selfish nature in Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950’s (Cleis Press, 2003; $14.95). But she still comes off better than her former lover, Patricia Highsmith, the mercurial author of the Ripley novels. Both women were authors at the time, but Meaker often made lesbianism central to her work, writing pulp fiction under the name Vin Packer (Spring Fire) and nonfiction about lesbian life under the nom de plume Ann Aldrich. Though passionate and complex, the affair eventually gave way, with Highsmith’s racism, anti-Semitism, and mistrust of intellectuals easily trumping Meaker’s jealousy and fear of abandonment. Their reunion decades later is also part of the book, and, sadly, shows that time never mellowed Highsmith’s flaws.
THE AGE THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITS NAME: FICTION WITH PROTAGONISTS OVER 40
How did a former Peach Queen from Ohio end up limping through the streets of Manhattan with a petrified bull penis for her walking stick? Macy, the protagonist of Michelle Sawyer’s debut novel They Say She Tastes Like Honey (Alyson, 2003; $13.95), isn’t so sure herself. But she hardly has time to ponder the situation, what with needing to rescue the much younger roller-skate-wearing Sarah from a mugger. Romance naturally ensues (it is fiction, after all), not to mention culture clash, as the freewheeling middle-aged lesbian returns to the homey Ohio of her youth. But don’t assume that return is a bad thing, at least not in the hands of Sawyer, who still chooses to live in her childhood hometown.
For Henry Lewse, the famous British actor at the center of Lives of the Circus Animals (William Morrow, 2003; $24.95), it is city life that offers the complications. Author Christopher Bram already tackled the world of cinema in Father of Frankenstein (later the Oscar-winning film Gods and Monsters), and in his latest work, he takes on the theater community with great affection. An aging dramatic star, Henry lusts for Toby who lusts for Caleb, whose sister works for Henry and is loved by Frank, while everyone ducks the slings and arrows of critic Kenneth. The novel is the equivalent of a family holiday weekend: plenty of bad sex, good gossip, and dessert for all.
LOOKING FOR LOVE IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES: TALES FROM THE DATING TRENCHES
The only good thing about a bad boyfriend is the storytelling after the relationship’s over. In Kevin Bentley’s anthology Boyfriends from Hell: True Tales of Tainted Lovers, Disastrous Dates, and Love Gone Wrong (Green Candy Press, 2003; $14.95), 20 gay guys let fly with tales of the worst of the worst, from the thug who looked hot from afar but just crazy up close, to the one-night stand who came with a razor and ideas for some intimate trimming. You might think it’s unfair for a collection to lump vegan dates with stalkers, but as these writers make clear, hellish is all in the eyes of the beholder.
Leticia, the lead in Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties by Felicia Luna Lemus (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003; $23), knows all about bad girlfriends. Living in what the promo blurb describes as LA’s "post-punk, post-queer hipster" scene, Leti finds that new love, in the form of the memorable Edith, may not always be what it’s cracked up to be. (For one thing, her girlfriend reminds her of a Mexican spook, the Weeping Woman, which scares the shit out of her.) But there are other women out there and Leti finds one, a romance she tries to balance with the lasting influence of Nana, her traditional Mexican grandmother.
BABY DYKES AND XY BOYS: YOUNG-ADULT FICTION
For once, the person who needs to do the most growing up in a gay teen novel isn’t the protagonist. Sure, Kevin Doyle is balancing the familiar crush on a male friend and a female classmate’s crush on him, but the real adolescent here is his dad, Pat. In Brian Malloy’s The Year of Ice (Dimensions, 2003; $12.95), Pat is a philanderer whose infidelity might have inadvertently led to his wife’s death, which understandably enrages Kevin — and it only gets worse when his dad quickly decides to marry one pregnant paramour (even while fooling around with another). In this story, it isn’t only Kevin who needs to come of age.
In Keeping You a Secret by Julie Anne Peters (Megan Tingley, 2003; $16.95), high-school student Holland Jaeger is having a very cinematic senior-year experience: a handsome boyfriend and Ivy League prospects. Yet it isn’t long before out-lesbian Cece knocks Holland’s socks off, literally. From pinnacle to debacle, Holland’s experience contains all the usual horrors: anti-gay harassment, discrimination, and being thrown out of her house. But Peters is determined to show that suffering can yield growth, with Holland learning from Cece and, with the help of a local resource center, dealing with her new world.
BEYOND THE MISSIONARY POSITION: SPECIALTY EROTICA
The plethora of tastefully anthologized erotica for men and women over the last few years has led to a glut of mildly heavy-breathing prose which, taken together, blurs into sameness. Best Bondage Erotica (Cleis, 2003; $14.95), edited by Alison Tyler, hopes to undo that by exploring the various ways physical restraint can creep into fantasy, across genders. The 21 stories by men and women involve ropes and cuffs, of course, but also the power of a simple command. Happily explicit and sex-positive, these stories hope to arrest your attention.
While erotica typically concerns itself with the body, maybe one of the least explored erogenous zones is the mind. Ian Philips aims to correct that with his second collection, Satyriasis: Literotica II (Suspect Thoughts Press, 2003; $16.95), which aims to render erotica through the lens of intellectual humor, classical references, and a highbrow thinker’s view of what is playful. The collection almost defies description, so we’ll use the publisher’s summary: "There are stories about faeries and trannies and bears, oh my. Lesbians and Fellini-esque potlucks, s/m dentists, death-dealing dominatrixes." And when the book declares itself pansexual, it is not hyperbole: two of the stories involve the god Pan himself.
EASY READERS: QUEER COMICS
Can it really be 20 years since Dykes To Watch Out For first hit newsprint? Alison Bechdel’s lusty lesbians return in a 10th collection, Dykes and Sundry Other Carbon-based Life-forms To Watch Out For (Alyson, 2003; $13.95). Mo finds out that Madwimmin Books is in fiscal danger (a peril proven too true by the demise of New Words bookshop in Cambridge), as friends wrestle with Bush-era depression, and shift their gender and sexual identities. These dykes may be older, but they’re still as much fun to watch as ever.
In comparison, the Chelsea Boys (Alyson, 2003; $13.95) comic strip is a mere fledgling. Though the syndicated strip by Glen Hanson and Allan Neuwirth appears in print throughout the US, Canada, and the UK, this is the first published collection. In it, three gay roommates — nebbishy Nathan, sexy Sky, and sassy Soiree — discover the thrills and spills of city living, complete with sexcapades and broken hearts.
WILD CARDS: QUEER SPINS ON OLD GENRES
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Peggy J. Herring produces a queer Western. Herring’s fans — she authored a series of romances for Naiad — are sure to revel in the singular Distant Thunder (Bella Books, 2003; $12.95). In this Wild West tale, Cordy, a bank-and-train-robbing lesbian, woos noble Meg, who has been stealing to provide for her family. Fans of Louis L’Amour need not fear that the flavor of the old West is lost in this new spin; the feel of the land is authentic here, as befitting the work of an author who lives amid seven acres of her own mesquite-covered land in Texas.
Leaving such earthy terrain for the realm of fantasy, David M. Pierce’s Elf Child (Haworth, 2003; $19.95) is, get this, about a changeling who cannot age, a secret shared with his century-old mother, also a shape shifter. After many years of having casual sex in a host of physical incarnations, our mystical hero finally falls in love with a cute San Diego lad. Despite the magical sheen, painfully familiar issues come into play: bigotry, the pain of the closet, hate crimes, and family conflict. The protagonist may be a fairy, but the novel itself is no fairy tale.
FOR SANTA’S BABY: A QUEER HOLIDAY BOOK
All I Want for Christmas (Kensington, 2003; $15) brings together four of Kensington’s most popular gay novelists for a collection of holiday-themed novellas. Jon Jeffrey’s "He’ll Be Mine by Christmas Morning" follows magazine editor Carson’s attempts to win over writer Callum, who has just made himself over into a hunk. Chris Kenry’s "An Extra Large Christmas" involves the subculture of chubby-chasing, as a photographer known for his portraits of buff men in the buff finds himself lusting instead for a man of girth. William J. Mann explores the effects that new partners have on a circle of three friends in the poignant "If You Believe." And Ben Tyler wraps up the set with "Naughty or Nice," a rollicking tale of one woman’s quest to find her son a Mr. Right — a quest that readers might find sweet or terrifying, depending on their own familial relations.
David Valdes Greenwood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org