Book Marks

By Richard Labonte

Branwell: A Novel of the Bronte Brother

By Douglas A. Martin. Soft Skull Press, 256 pages, $13.95 paper

Branwell, the overshadowed Bronte brother of Charlotte, Anne, and Emily, was an immensely troubled lad, dead at age 31of an addiction to alcohol and opium - and failure. This mesmerizing fictional realization of the young man's tragic life hews closely enough to the factual: Branwell was haunted by the early deaths of his mother and a sister, dabbled in painting and poetry but never found his muse, disappointed his clergyman father, and lost a succession of jobs - including that of tutor to the young son of a prominent family. Martin suggests that Branwell's romantic longing for the lad led to his dismissal, but the power of this story derives from how its wonderfully evocative prose style - as hallucinatory and hypnotic as opium dreams are said to be - fiddles with the reality of the Bronte boy's physical desires. Though Martin's deft mix of the biographical and the fanciful centers on the celebrated writing family's troubled only son, this concise novel also delivers a knowing portrait of the domestic dramas that fueled literary accomplishments.

Featured Excerpt:

There's a letter quoted that will never be seen. A few facts were always open to another interpretation. Branwell will tell them what it says, all of its black contents, how and why the Robinsons want to get rid of him, want to get him away from Edmund. They must trust him. From the swells and hollows of the mossy turf, he is returning. Branwell is returning for good this time. Emily will be happy to have their brother home again.

-from "Branwell," by Douglas A. Martin

Celebrating Hotchclaw

By Ann Allen Shockley. A&M Books, 290 pages, $17 paper

There's a comfortably fusty feel to this good-natured romance about cutthroat college politics, closeted faculty members, and African-American women falling in love. Shockley, whose pioneering 1974 novel, "Loving Her," was something of a dyke literary shocker in its time - with its murderous husband, tragic deaths, and conflicted, interracial lesbian passion - is a more mellow writer here. The fictional setting is Hotchclaw College, a tiny HBC (Historically Black College) founded in 1890, which on the eve of its 100th anniversary is in dire financial shape. Angela, with a lineage that connects her to the white slave owner who founded the college, is enamored of Michael, a handsome professor. And Michael - this really isn't a plot spoiler - is actually a woman, dismissed when her gender-busting subterfuge is discovered, a revelation that leads Angela to realize that she can love a lady. Shockley's brisk history of black colleges makes for an interesting backdrop to the story; her occasionally hyperbolic depictions of secondary characters add comic panache to an offbeat but entertaining tale.

Katharine Hepburn: The Untold Story

By James Robert Parish. Advocate Books, 328 pages, $24.95 hardcover

Was Katharine Hepburn sapphic as well as sassy? That's what Parish - who has penned unofficial biographies of Rosie O'Donnell, Gus Van Sant, Whoopi Goldberg, and... Jet Li - sets out to prove in this professionally seamless cut-and-paste life story. The book is woefully short on personal interviews and way long on secondary sources, but the author crafts a not entirely risible case for the flinty, extremely private performer's leg-over preferences. Much is made of Hepburn's early-career reliance - while she was married to a bisexual man - on the close company of socialite Laura Harding, and of a later long-term friendship with "faithful" Phyllis Wilbourn. Meanwhile, the claim is made that several of Hepburn's sensationalistic sexual liaisons - with Howard Hughes and John Ford in particular - were more PR stunts than real relationships. And that storied romance with Spencer Tracy? Almost purely platonic, surely, probably, opines Parish. In the end, those who wish it were so will likely find this "untold story" fulfilling. Skeptics will likely not become converts to the cause of Kate's queerness.

Kings in Their Castles: Photographs of Queer Men at Home

By Tom Atwood. Terrace Books, 90 pages, $35 hardcover

Novelist Edmund White is munching an apple. Composer Ned Rorem is sitting at a piano. Painter Ross Bleckner is yawning in his studio. They're among the gay celebs whose at-home poses grace this lush depiction of the private worlds of several public people. But not all of the 59 gracefully unstuffy fine-art photos are of big queer names: Former White House staffer Sean Maloney and partner Randy Florke, who restores homes, are playing with their two children; massage therapist Hush McDowell is "explaining action figures to his dog"; teachers Tom Valette and Darrell Wilson are conversing in sign language. By choosing to photograph only New Yorkers, Atwood has crafted a book that goes beyond mere portraiture. Glimpses of the likes of Edward Albee and Tommy Tune at home are interesting enough, but "Kings in Their Castles" has a grander purpose - to show how creative queers, choosing to live in a cramped urban environment, are able to craft homes (even sculptor Tobi Wong's 8-by-9-foot apartment) that are whimsical, tasteful, and eclectically distinctive.

Footnotes:

CARROLL & GRAF editor Don Weise and former Southern Tier Editions editor Jay Quinn - whose second novel, "Back Where He Started : A Novel," was published this year by Alyson - are two of the literary personages on "Out" magazine's list of the "Out 100" in the December issue. Other word-working honorees are Martin Moran ("The Tricky Part : One Boy's Fall from Trespass into Grace"), Jeffrey McGowan ("Major Conflict : One Gay Man's Life in the Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell Military"), Bret Easton Ellis ("Lunar Park"), Han Ong ("The Disinherited : A Novel"), Larry Kramer ("The Tragedy of Today's Gays"), Gregory Maguire ("Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West"), Liz Smith ("Dished"), and Anthony Rapp ("Without You : A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical Rent")... FIVE YEARS AFTER launching Bookspan's InsightOut book club for lesbian and gay readers - and after 16 years at the company - David Rosen is moving to art book publisher Harry N. Abrams, as editorial director. "I'm really looking forward to the new gig - Abrams publishes stunning books, as you know, and this year's "Male Desire : The Homoerotic in American Art," a history of homoerotic art, is a real standout," he said of his new job. "And next year's "Gay Day," about the New York Gay Pride parade, will be another fab one..".. ALEXIS DE VEAUX, author of "Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde," is the 2005 nonfiction-book winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, worth $10,000, which honors "books by writers of African descent."

Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about queer literature since the mid-'70s. He can be reached in care of this publication or at BookMarks@qsyndicate.com.

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