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[676] Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters

1velvet

” The truth was this: that whatever successes I might achieve as a girl, they would be nothing compared to the triumphs I should enjoy clad, however girlishly, as a boy. ” (Part I, Ch.5, p.123)

Sarah Waters’s debut novel is one that plays safe by following a conventional plot that begins in 1888. Tipping the Velvet focuses solely on homosexuality in fin de siècle England. In the nutshell, it’s an exuberant, lusty novel about a lesbian adventuress, at the mercy of fate, drifting through the underworld of Victorian London.

In the 1890s, the unassuming daughter of an oyster farmer in Whitstable, Nancy Astley attends the music hall performances, where she first falls in love with Kitty Butler, a comedy male impersonator at the show. That sarah has carefully selected her heroine’s background is both smart and strategic, for Waters never flinches in depicting Nancy’s serial encounters with sensitive body parts with allusions and innuendos pertaining to oysters.

After all, there are moments in our lives that change us, that discontent us with our pasts and offer us new futures. That night at the Canterbury Palace, when Kitty had cast her rose at me, and sent my admiration for her tumbling over into love—that had been one such moment. (Part II, Ch.10, p.250)

But of course, apropos of such conventional plot, Nancy wears her heart on her sleeves too easily. From performing duo to lovers, she is smitten. But Kitty cannot afford to lose her career—he chooses to protect her reputation by escaping into marriage to a man, and the abandoned Nancy, victim of gross betrayal by her only true love, finds work posing as a male street prostitute (or “a renter”) and undergoing undreamed-of sexual permutations and indignities as the kept mistress/boy toy of lustful rich widow Diana Lethaby.

To think of all the people you have known—and yet you have no friends. (Part III, Ch.18, p.430)

Waters’s debut is indeed entertaining, full of conflicting feelings—between the desperate pleasures to which Nancy’s drawn and her equally strong desire to become a regular girl. It brings out the universal theme in LGBT literature that one desires to be loved for what and who he/she is. One minor critique is waters’s hastening attempt to fit Nancy into all the different subsections of the homosexual population, for the Nancy reader gets to know in each section of the novel seems like a different person. But that said, I still find the circumstances by which Nancy finally finds true love are unpredictable and moving. Her search for identity and love is a raucous and passionate odyssey.

472 pp. Riverhead Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[505] The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst

” It was true of course that the lyric of grief was often attended, of followed soon after, by a more prosaic little compulsion, the unseemly grasp of the chance to tell the truth—and since the person involved could no longer mind . . . There was a special tone of indulgent candour, amusing putting-straight of the record, that wandered all too easily and invisibly into settling of scores and something a bit shy of objective life. ” (Part 5, Ch.1, p.412)

Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel in seven years since The Line of Beauty is about the life and legacy of a gay war poet, a minor one who enters into common consciousness more deeply than many great masters. The book, which consists of five parts and each occupies a different era over 90 years, shows how truth is compromised by the erasures of remembrance and history. The Stranger’s Child deals with the short but dramatic life and posthumous reputation of Cecil Valance, a Georgian poet whose lyrical outpourings are given huge poignancy by the carnage of the trenches.

Freda Sawle did say that Cecil had made a terrible mess in his room, and it had sounded petty of her, to say such a thing of a poet and a hero who had won the Military Cross. She alluded, in addition, to his ‘liveliness’ and the various things he had broken—widow’s mites, again, pathetic grievances. What she couldn’t begin to say was the mess Cecil Valance had made of her children. (Part 2, Ch.7, p.144)

In the summer of 1913, George Sawle brings Cecil Valance, a classmate from Cambridge with an aristocratic root, to his family’s home outside London. Cecil has an atmosphere and appeal of the unmentionable lust. The socially confident lad soon mesmerizes the entire family, including the servant who attends to him. he is George’s lover but soon after his arrival in Two Acres, George’s sister, Daphne, is equally besotted. She longs to be in Cecil’s company, but wanders off with George to the privacy of the wood. Hints of their fumblings become known to George’s mother when a bundle of letters arrive. The attraction between George and Cecil is amplified by its illegality in a way that makes it more powerful. The entire novel, as it unfolds over the next 90 years, hinges on that one weekend when Cecil Valance visits Two Acres and composes, for Daphne, on whom he takes a shine on, a poem that, after he is killed in the Great War, elevates him to fame.

Daphne always fell for different men who couldn’t love her properly—they couldn’t give her what she wanted. (Part 4, Ch.7, p.355)
Paul pictured George with the half-naked Cecil on the roof at Corley, and smiled distantly, at a loss as to how much of this she believed or expected him to believe; and to how much she might quite willingly have forgotten. (Part 4, Ch.8, p.370)

The Stranger’s Child is elegant, erudite, but also difficult and demanding. As Cecil’s slim reputation is fought over by scholars, ex-lovers, and a mother who makes a cult of him, an ambitious biographer emerges to unearth a tragic story that is spun over time, and its truth is known only to mother, daughter and son behind the door at Two Acres. The mysteries of the story focuses instead on the delusions of people around him. The true contours of lives—how they were truly experienced, disappears into haze. Daphne’s three marriages also render the paternity of her children mysterious. Hollinghurst recreates the life of Cecil through reminiscences of family and friends. He leaves readers to fill the vague well-intentioned space between those spoken memories and imaginings of them. I find his writing on buried homosexuality very repressed; and the book gets flatter as it paces steadily toward its revelations.

435 pp. Vintage International. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[494] Forbidden Colors – Yukio Mishima

” Yuichi did not believe in what is called tasting happiness; in his heart, it seemed, he secretly feared it. When he saw something supposed to be lasting, terror gripped him. ” (Ch.11, p.143)

Mishima’s allegedly autobiographical novel happens to be somewhat verbose, despite his skilled wording and numerous passages that are both lyrical and philosophical. Finishing at over 400 pages, Forbidden Colors feels unnecessarily long, consider it embraces many familiar themes attempted by other contemporary writers: sexual identity, homophobia, and moral confusion. This novel is very complicated, its prose full of tucks and pleats like the texture in sculptures. It has all the classic Mishima elements: beauty and the power it holds, and the misery one feels from such beauty. Only the beautiful emerge relatively unscathed—and they are usually men because men are what matter compared to the helpless women. The men’s shortcomings in other areas are obviously unimportant placed next to their aesthetic value.

Yuichi did not love a woman, and the woman bore Yuichi a child. At that time he saw the ugliness, not of Yasuko’s will, but of objectless desire in life. (Ch.26, p.330)

As much as the novel concerns with a character whose dazzling beauty turns many a head in both men and women, Mishima focuses on the notion of ugliness, and he associates old age with ugliness. Forbidden Colors initially focuses on an aging novelist, Shunsuke Hinoki. Embittered by a string of failed marriages, he has come to hate women, seeing them as creatures devoid of a soul. While pursuing his latest mistress to a hot-spring resort, he encounters Yuichi Minami, a handsome young man tortured by his desire for other men. The old novelist is so entangled in intellectualism as to be capable of despicable acts and self-deception. He sees in the attractive Yuichi a perfect instrument to exact his revenge on womankind and to mete out his punishment. He instructs the young man in misogyny, and binds him to his will by offering much financial succor.

Someone once said that homosexuals have on their faces a certain loneliness that will not come off. Besides, in their glances flirtatiousness and the cold stare of appraisal are combined. Although the coquettish looks that women direct at the opposite sex and the appraising glances they direct at their own sex have quite separate functions, with the homosexual both are directed at one and the same person. (Ch.7, p.96)

Out of filial duty, Yuichi is locked in a loveless marriage. Although he doesn’t love his wife, but later pondering her face at the pinnacle of suffering during childbirth, he develops a tenderness for her. He feels responsible for her suffering but she resolves to live in an impenetrable indifference. Throughout the novel, Yuichi struggles to maintain his dual life. While being a husband to a pregnant woman and an ailing mother, he carries on with a string of lovers—a former count who is a master seducer, a motor industrialist who later fears his ruin, and a skein of bar flames—who grow increasingly infatuated with him. They gay characters are miserable not because they are immoral; they are miserable because of their internalized homophobia. They impress me as being narcissistic and self-destructive. Yuichi’s callousness strains the barriers between the two worlds until his exposure seems inevitable. The repugnance that Shunsuke has built up inside him further complicates his pain. It’s almost too difficult for him to distinguish between his passion for determining the source of the repugnance and a desire, motivated by appetite and lust for the flesh to seek out the fountainhead of pleasure. This tension fuels the entire novel, stitching together different characters’ outlook and philosophy and offering a universal theme in LGBT literature: the struggle between expressing one’s true self and presenting a counterfeit self to the world to survive. To live within the society’s moral constraint, that is, a construct based upon heterosexual norm, is to be stripped of one’s dignity. This is what the novelist meant by “subtle evil is more beautiful than coarse goodness, and is therefore moral.” (336) Forbidden Colors is bleak and challenging, offering only the hope of freedom in conformity.

429 pp. Penguin. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[491] The Object of My Affection – Stephen McCauley

” Maybe I love you because I know I can’t have you. But maybe I just love you. ” (Ch.26, p.306)

This is a classic romance comedy that is McCauley’s forte. Like his other works, The Object of My Affection is largely about relationships and the family in the context of the changing parameters of gay-straight relations. Toward the end of a calamitously imperfect relationship, George, a kindergarten teacher, was kicked out by his selfish, philandering lover, Robert, George found himself at the door of Nina, a feminist who is working for her dissertation in psychology. George and Nina seem a perfect couple. They share a cozy but terminally cluttered Brooklyn apartment; they go to dancing lesson together—they love each other. The only hitch is that George is gay. Moving in with Nina is the perfect arrangement for lovelorn George, but he would never expect a more complicated relationship in store for him.

Of course, she was right: a love affair can be wonderful but a courtship is far more enduring. And our courtship endured, right through the love affair, until Nina became pregnant and raised the stakes somehow, tipped the delicate balance of our relationship. (Ch.5, p.74)

Nina is pregnant but she has no intent to marry her overbearing boyfriend. She instead finds in George, who is still reeling from the wound of his breakup, a perfect companionship in which they become best friends and make plan to raise the child. Their similar experiences—both have led lives that are shallowly rooted and marred by relationship woe have laid a solid foundation for this platonic courtship. In a sense they both try to evade further relationship mishap and find comfort and refuge in one another. Nina’s pregnancy prompts George into second thought about whether he will be a surrogate father. The arrangement seems compatible until he meets someone that George thinks would be the last person he goes on dates with.

Betraying her. And why? I’ll tell you: because you have taken on an obligation you’re not willing to admit to. (Ch.20, p. 224)

Richly nuanced with quirky humor and sarcasm, The Object of My Affection explores the meaning of relationship and interpersonal dynamics of a society that seems oppressive to both homosexual and heterosexual. Both George and Nina share a determination not to repeat the truly stunning mistakes of their parents, but, confounded as they are by the twin shipwrecks of the past and the present, it seems impossible. Throughout the novel, they grimly observe the foibles of society around them but feel hopeless to implement changes. Their desperate search for love (and safety) leads to the reinvention of courtly love. This book leaves me in contemplation of what the best approach to relationship might be. They neither find meaning nor a safe harbor, but happiness in a friendship that is a long and unconsummated courtship between two people with no expectations. What seems ideal must remain at a safe distance because all expectations are (probably) doomed to failure. The book really captures the confusion of our lives today: how to to strike a balance between self-interest and commitment, to reconcile principles with emotions.

316 pp. Washington Press. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[490] The Man of the House – Stephen McCauley

” Like a lot of basically unfulfilled people with too much time on their hands, I’d fooled myself into believing that A Perfect Life and I were separated by nothing more substantial than a postage stamp. Maybe there was money in today’s mail, or an offer of a job in…Rome, . . . Or, equally likely, maybe Gordon, my ex, had come to his senses and written to tell me he’d made a mistake in leaving, the very words I’d been waiting to hear from him so I could finally forget about him and move on. ” (8)

This pretty much sums up the novel, which maintains an air of ennui and provides no clear resolution. The reading is like breathing through honey. Clyde is the inert, lovelorn gay man in his mid-thirties who finds his life stalled and unfulfilled. The numerous graduate programs, from humanities to arts, that he dabbled in but never completed earn him the perfect credential to teach at a posh but flaky (amateurish) adult learning center, where rich and well-heeled students bring their marriage problems into discussion of literature works.

Two years have passed since his lover walked out on him. Clyde is still reeling from Gordon’s departure, trying to figure out a way to patch his wounds. Although he’s not so thoroughly deluded that he’s keeping himself for the ex-boyfriend physically, I do sense that he is deluded about feeling unresolved about a relationship that is over for good. Why? I have experienced the same and everyday for two years I have pined for a sign of resolution, in terms of an explanation, if not resurrection. To pin this feeling of unease and refusing to let go McCauley is right on the dot.

In the next hour, Agnes and I picked our way through a minefield of topics that produced only minor invitation when we veered too close to anything real or significant . . . It was probably ridiculous to think that Agnes and I might ever develop a truly open and intimate relationship . . . It was as if all the things we shared, all our common longings, formed a wedge between us instead of drawing us together. (213)

As much as Clyde wants to dodge his family, Agnes, maddeningly insecure and scarred by a failed marriage, bears the news of his irascible father’s being in love. While Clyde tries to confront his father’s mysterious romance, his friend from college, Louise Morris, an eclectic writer, breezes in to his house with her son and a dog in tow. The question of the boy’s paternity nudges Clyde back to the terrain of his own father. As he strikes a friendship with the boy, he also becomes concerned with his roommate, who has spent ten years in his dissertation and too many fizzled relationships.

I’s said it to be polite, because he was taking up an increasing amount of time, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized they were true. Perhaps that was why some people need children and pets and spouses, to bring order to the chaos of their lives. (128)

I always gravitate to McCauley’s writing because he is a keen observer of relationships and their dynamics. I can always relate to his gay protagonist(s) who is less than perfect, is either wallowed in romantic woes or slightly jaded by the lack of fidelity in the gay dating world. The snippy and self-deprecating Clyde would keep himself in check and he knows his life has fallen short. McCauley’s depiction of Clyde’s intertwining relationships demonstrates his grasp of the bonds that connect the straight and the gay in the maze of life’s daily dealings. That said, the narrator’s sluggishness in the face of these concerns can make readers impatient. McCauley should have tightened up the rope.

287 pp. Washington Square Press. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

LGBT Books for Gay Pride

The local indie Book Smith has a fabulous display of LGBT literature in observance of Gay Pride Month in San Francisco. Click on this link to like Book Smith on Facebook.

And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole (Children’s Book)
(R) The book is based on the true story of Roy and Silo, two male Chinstrap Penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo. The book follows the six years of their life when they formed a couple and were given an egg to raise. This book had been reportedly banned in public libraries across the country.

Valencia by Michelle Tea
(W) Valencia is the fast-paced account of one girl’s search for love and high times in the drama-filled dyke world of San Francisco’s Mission District. Through a string of narrative moments, Tea records a year lived in a world of girls.

Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots? edited by Matilda Berstein Sycamore
(W) This book plumbs the most important question facing queers in the 21st century: how the hell did we go from forming a crucial part of the ’60s ‘lib’ rainbow, and from mastering, refining, and successfully deploying nonviolent resistance with ACT UP, only to end up creating for ourselves a world of martial and marital law every bit as sterile, constricting, and amoral as the world we once fled like the plague?

Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality by Hanne Blank
In this surprising chronicle, historian Hanne Blank digs deep into the past of sexual orientation, while simultaneously exploring its contemporary psyche. Illuminating the hidden patterns in centuries of events and trends, Blank shows how culture creates and manipulates the ways we think about and experience desire, love, and relationships between men and women. I mentioned that LGBT books are under-represented in the blogging community, I hope bloggers should take advantage of Gay Pride Month to celebrate with us.

The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to their Younger Selves by Sarah Moon
In this anthology, sixty-three award-winning authors such as Michael Cunningham, Amy Bloom, Jacqueline Woodson, Gregory Maguire, David Levithan, and Armistead Maupin make imaginative journeys into their pasts, telling their younger selves what they would have liked to know then about their lives as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgendered people. Through stories, in pictures, with bracing honesty, these are words of love and understanding, reasons to hold on for the better future ahead.

Tales of the City by Artmistead Maupin

Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz
Wojnarowicz gives us an important and timely document: a collection of creative essays — a scathing, sexy, sublimely humorous and honest personal testimony to the “Fear of Diversity in America.” From the author’s violent childhood in suburbia to eventual homelessness on the streets and piers of New York City, to recognition as one of the most provocative artists of his generation—this book is his powerful and iconoclastic memoir.

Invisible Monsters Remix by Chuck Palahniuk
Palahniuk’s fashion-model protagonist has it all—boyfriend, career, loyal best friend—until an accident destroys her face, her ability to speak, and her self-esteem. Enter Brandy Alexander, Queen Supreme, one operation away from becoming a bona-fide woman. Laced in are new chapters of memoir and further scenes with the book’s characters.

Gypsy Boy: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies by Mikey Walsh
Mikey Walsh was born into a Romany Gypsy family. They live in a secluded community, and little is known about their way of life. After centuries of persecution, Gypsies are wary of outsiders, and if you choose to leave you can never come back.

Little Birds by Anaïs Nin
(W) Evocative and superbly erotic, Little Birds is a powerful journey into the mysterious world of sex and sensuality. From the beach towns of Normandy to the streets of New Orleans, these thirteen vignettes introduce us to a covetous French painter, a sleepless wanderer of the night, a guitar-playing gypsy, and a host of others who yearn for and dive into the turbulent depths of romantic experience.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde Review
Celebrated novel traces the moral degeneration of a handsome young Londoner from an innocent fop into a cruel and reckless pursuer of pleasure and, ultimately, a murderer. As Dorian Gray sinks into depravity, his body retains perfect youth and vigor while his recently painted portrait reflects the ravages of crime and sensuality.

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel
Mother: voracious reader, music lover, passionate amateur actor. Also a woman, unhappily married to a closeted gay man, whose artistic aspirations simmered under the surface of Bechdel’s childhood . . . and who stopped touching or kissing her daughter good night, forever, when she was seven. Poignantly, hilariously, Bechdel embarks on a quest for answers concerning the mother-daughter gulf.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
In essay after essay, Sedaris proceeds from bizarre conundrums of daily life-having a lozenge fall from your mouth into the lap of a fellow passenger on a plane or armoring the windows with LP covers to protect the house from neurotic songbirds-to the most deeply resonant human truths.

Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire by Eric Berkowitz
Writer and lawyer Eric Berkowitz uses flesh-and-blood cases—much flesh and even more blood—to evoke the entire sweep of Western sex law, from the savage impalement of an Ancient Mesopotamian adulteress to the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde in 1895 for “gross indecency.” The cast of this book is as varied as the forms taken by human desire itself: royal mistresses, gay charioteers, medieval transvestites, lonely goat-lovers, prostitutes of all stripes, London rent boys. Each of them had forbidden sex, and each was judged—and justice, as Berkowitz shows, rarely had much to do with it.

Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women by Candace Walsh, Laura Andre and Lisa Diamond
This book is a timely, fiercely candid exploration of female sexuality and personal choice. The book is comprised of essays written by a broad spectrum of women, including a number of well-known writers and personalities. Their stories are sometimes funny, sometimes painful—but always achingly honest—accounts of leaving a man for a woman, and the consequences of making such a choice.

Batwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III
Batwoman battles a madwoman known only as Alice, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, who sees her life as a fairy tale and everyone around her as expendable extras! Batwoman must stop Alice from unleashing a toxic death cloud over all of Gotham City — but Alice has more up her sleeve than just poison, and Batwoman’s life will never ever be the same again.

A Queer and Pleasant Danger: A Memoir by Kate Bornstein
Scientologist, husband and father, tranny, sailor, slave, playwright, dyke, gender outlaw—these are just a few words which have defined Kate Bornstein during her extraordinary life. For the first time, it all comes together in A Queer and Pleasant Danger, Kate Bornstein’s stunningly original memoir that’s set to change lives and enrapture readers.

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
(W) This is the famous lesbian love story by Patricia Highsmith, written under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. The author became notorious due to the story’s latent lesbian content and happy ending, the latter having been unprecedented in homosexual fiction. Highsmith recalled that the novel was inspired by a mysterious woman she happened across in a shop and briefly stalked. Because of the happy ending (or at least an ending with the possibility of happiness) which defied the lesbian pulp formula and because of the unconventional characters that defied stereotypes about homosexuality, The Price of Salt was popular among lesbians in the 1950s.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin Review
Set in the 1950s Paris of American expatriates, liaisons, and violence, a young man finds himself caught between desire and conventional morality. With a sharp, probing imagination, James Baldwin’s now-classic narrative delves into the mystery of loving and creates a moving, highly controversial story of death and passion that reveals the unspoken complexities of the human heart.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
(W) When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl. But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different—especially after the arrival of a cowgirl.

The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography by Stephen Fry
Stephen Fry arrived at Cambridge University as a convicted fraudster and thief, an addict, liar, fantasist, and failed suicide, convinced that any moment he would be sent away. Instead, he befriended bright young things like Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie, and he emerged as one of the most promising comic talents in the world. This is the engrossing, hilarious, and utterly compelling story of how the Stephen the world knows (or thinks it knows) found his way.

In One Person: A Novel by John Irving
(W) A compelling novel of desire, secrecy, and sexual identity, In One Person is a story of unfulfilled love—tormented, funny, and affecting—and an impassioned embrace of our sexual differences. Billy, the bisexual narrator and main character, tells the tragicomic story (lasting more than half a century) of his life as a “sexual suspect.”

Huntress by Malinda Lo
Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people’s survival hangs in the balance. To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Tanlili, the city of the Fairy Queen.

Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas by Dale Carpenter
(W) No one could have predicted that the night of September 17, 1998, would be anything but routine in Houston, Texas. Even the call to police that a black man was “going crazy with a gun” was hardly unusual in this urban setting. Nobody could have imagined that the arrest of two men for a minor criminal offense would reverberate in American constitutional law, exposing a deep malignity in our judicial system and challenging the traditional conception of what makes a family. Indeed, when Harris County sheriff’s deputies entered the second-floor apartment, there was no gun. Instead, they reported that they had walked in on John Lawrence and Tyron Garner having sex in Lawrence’s bedroom.

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
In her most exuberant, most fanciful novel, Woolf has created a character liberated from the restraints of time and sex. Born in the Elizabethan Age to wealth and position, Orlando is a young nobleman at the beginning of the story-and a modern woman three centuries later.

It’s Okay To Be Different by Todd Parr (Children’s Book)
This book cleverly delivers the important messages of acceptance, understanding, and confidence in an accessible, child-friendly format featuring Todd Parr’s trademark bold, bright colors and silly scenes. Targeted to young children first beginning to read, this book will inspire kids to celebrate their individuality through acceptance of others and self-confidence.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
(W) This is a memoir about a life’s work to find happiness. It’s a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in an north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the Universe as Cosmic Dustbin.

This is a wonderful list of books that would contribute to my reading ideas for the rest of the year. (R) denotes books I have read. (W) denotes books I want to read. John Irving is high on my list since I have already had The History According to Grady Harp in my pile. Jeanette Winterson is another author I want to read this year. Flagrant Conduct is also in high priority.

Out Magazine Recommendations

The Reader’s Digest of Out Magazine has a lit year round-up of literary favorites. I always keep my eyes on this special column for books/reading ideas that keep my gay card up-to-date. The 2011 selections have been culled by John Waters (director of Hairspray and A Dirty Shame), Edmund White (my literary guide to Paris), and Tarell Alvin McCraney (author of the Brother/Sister plays).

To support the local indies, I bought the entire haul from neighborhood bookstores:

Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany Rudolph Herzog. Was anything ever funny if you were a Jew under Nazism? A quick riffle through this book decides that it’s for keep. Don’t be misled by the title. This is seriously and sober study of the most historically notorious event.
Full Frontal Feminism Jessica Valenti. Critic says this book should be “feet-wetting for everyone, especially men” because it explores how we see, distort, treat and undermine ourselves into gender.
The Pregnant Widow Martin Amis. I have avoided Amis because of his increasing popularity. That Edmund White calls this a rapturous, Nabokovian account of a horny teen’s summer closes the deal for me.
The Lazarus Project Aleksander Hemon. The classic story of a contemporary Bosnian in Chicago who tries of sort out the story of one of his fellow countrymen who was mistaken for a dangerous anarchist. The man was shot to death by the city’s police chief. This sounds like a very gripping read.
My Prizes: An Accounting Thomas Bernhard. Never heard of the book nor the author. But bought it anyway since, out of coincidence, both Out and the indie recommend it.
The Stranger’s Child Alan Hollinghurst. This is the one book that I most look forward to reading. Booker Prize winner Hollinghurst is known for lyrical, sumptuously descriptive, and contemplative prose. The new novel, his first since The Line of Beauty, actually covers English history for over 100 years. It concerns with the recipient to whom an important is dedicated.

[371] Alternatives to Sex – Stephen McCauley

” During the scattered periods of my life when I’d been in long-term relationships, I’d been ashamed by adeptness at fidelity, which had made me feel unmanly. I’d used evasive language and innuendo to convey the impression that I was leading a wildly promiscuous life. ” (13)

Set in a “posttraumatic time of uncertainty and anxiety for the whole country,” (5) Alternatives to Sex zooms in on the human nuances of a morally ambiguous America when people, awakened to the sharpened sense that life is indeed short, choose between combating the evil of mankind by putting selfishness aside and doing good, and relinquishing altruism altogether and doing whatever it takes to please themselves.

At the center of this heightened awareness is William Collins, a Boston real estate agent whose sales figures take a huge plunge during a housing market boom due to obsessive-compulsive cleaning binges and a penchant for nightly online cruising for hookups. He decides to practice celibacy to save his career.

My problem was that I’d let an activity become a habit, a habit become a distraction, and a distraction become an obsession. After a while, it had become like eating vast portions of flavorless food at every meal, simply because it’s on the plate or because there’s nothing good on television. Oh, one more bite, you think. Why not? (117)

Lurking in the back of his mind is tender thought of his best friend Edward, whom he’s certainly not in love with, but for whom he has harbored feelings. Three years ago, after being on the wrong side of a long-term relationship, William, jaded, has been using that as an excuse to go out with elaborately inappropriate people. He is protective of his relationship with Edward (platonic, that is), because friendship has a way of enduring while romantic relationships could perish quickly.

What depressed me so profoundly was that they’d constructed a twisted moral code that allowed them to behave horrendously while still believing they were doing good. (225)

Into his life comes Samuel and Charlotte, wealthy and happy suburbanites looking for the perfect city apartment, shortly after his new resolution to be celibate. Soon the outwardly having-it-all-together couple reveals the true colors that, despite their sophisticated lifestyle, they are not above the tedium of marriage squabbles.

At my age, I was living in the cold waters of semireality, trying to swim from one set of delusions to the temporary safe harbor of the next. (73)

Despite an abundance of wry humor, Alternatives to Sex delves into the heart issues that confront everyone: love, monogamy (in the Webster’s sense, not the flushed don’t ask-don’t tell monogamy), and moral boundaries. It is a comedy of manner that tries to answer questions about whether love lasts, as the notion of love has been undermined by compromise on moral standard. Fidelity is trampled on as unmanly. As McCauley navigates readers through the confusing world of complicated human relations, I also see glimpses of myself in them. These people are all in transitions of their lives, career- or relationship-wise. William is witty and perceptive despite his own self-destructiveness. Anxious to be unhappy and hurt again, he opts for no-string-attached escapades with men instead of following his heart feelings. He is slow to come to terms with the real reason for his unhappiness. Consider the few psychological depth of the characters, McCauley are employing them very well to give his commentary on modern culture, where the desire to do good is constantly being tripped up by the need to feel good. The use of real estate as a literary device is also very clever—the way people never sacrifice the hopefulness for a done deal serves both real estate and relationship very well.

289 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[296] The Hour Between – Sebastian Stuart

” I wanted to live in safe little rooms like that, busy with small domestic chores, away from the pull of my fevered needs and confusion of my future. ” [11:93]

The Hour Between reads like an amalgam of different coming of age stories. Set in 1960s New England, the charmer of a novel is well-written and rife with all the usual ingredients: class difference and anxiety, celebrity, vanity, counter-culture experimentation, suicide, alcoholism, and drugs. On the heels of his expulsion from a Manhattan prestigious college preparatory, Arthur MacDougal, who is really a good kid who struggles to come out to his parents, is sent off to a boarding school run by Christian Scientists in Connecticut. There he meets Katrina Felt, troubled daughter of a Hollywood movie star, and with whom he forges a tender friendship as both are poised on the cusp of adulthood.

The truth was that while I pretended to myself that being gay was no big deal, words like pervert, abnormal, sick rattled around in my psyche. Plus everyone said it would ruin your prospects in life, but that didn’t bother me much, I mean it wasn’t like I was planning to run for Congress or play for the Yankees—in fact, being an outsider was my favorite part about being gay. [8:69]

As Arthur struggles with his sexuality, he also becomes a Holden Caulfield-like figure—a protector to Katrina, who is pulled down by the heart-breaking secrets and sorrows of her past. The scene in which Arthur speaks to the shrink about helping Katrina rather than his homosexuality is both funny and touching. Although a classmate constantly taunts him with a masculine sexuality that is deprived o affection, his coming to terms of his sexuality is rather downplayed in the novel.

Part of me was thrilled but I was also sad—Katrina was going to have a big-time life and I doubted there would be much room in it for her nerdy little high-school best-friend-du-jour . . . She had chosen me to be her friend because I was easy, needy, and available. I was eminently replaceable. [25:182]

The Hour Between is about friendship and self-discovery in the age of early adulthood. It reinforces the stereotypical rich kid behavior: boozing, doing drugs, spending huge money, spinning out of control. Thankfully it does not steer into a continuous trance of debaucheries that reminds me of Less Than Zero.

248 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Gift That Enlightens for Years to Come

My friend Alan has maintained the same morning routine since I first met him at the local cafe. A bookseller who has Mondays and Tuesdays off, he spends cozy mornings reading New York Times and the current book over tea and bagel. No sooner had I become a regular did I notice one particular book that he always, and repeatedly, reads in rotation before getting to his current reading. It’s a book called A Few Tricks Along the Way (Daily Reflections for Gay Men, Queer Boys, Magnificent Queens & the People Who Love Them) by Gary J. Stern. To call it Chicken Soup for gay men is a bald understatement that risks of oversimplification—but you get the idea what the book has to offer. It touches on delicate subjects like forgiveness, coming out stages, masculinity, and sex. I’ve been eying at this book as Alan scrupulously peers over the daily entry that run for one full year like a devoted disciple of an organized religion. I’m surprised and disheartened that the book is not more widely read among members of the gay community. When Alan comes to coffee with a gift copy for me (during the trying time), I can never be more grateful for his generosity and friendship.