Arts & Entertainment
Book Marks: The Reluctant Daughter, Sugarless, The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You
by Richard Labonte
Originally printed 10/22/2009 (Issue 1743 - Between The Lines News)
"The Reluctant Daughter," by Leslea Newman. Bold Strokes, 256 pages, $16.95 paper.
A distant daughter's angst-filled filial obligation toward her emotionally absent mother is at the heart of Newman's new novel. It's a timely tale, considering that, outside of the pages of fiction, aging post-Stonewall queers are confronting end-of-life issues with their own parents. The perceptive story hinges on the matter of mortality - daughter Lydia at first shies away from flying across the country to comfort her suddenly stricken mother, from whom she has been more or less estranged for many years. But a daughter's duty - and the urging of Lydia's loving but sometimes exasperated partner - proves motivation enough to set in motion a sickbed reunion between mother and daughter that is more heart-to-heart connection than unsettling emotional confrontation. Newman tackles issues of personal vulnerability, missed signals and family discord - and above all the physical frailties and mental anguish of aging - with engaging intimacy and warmth. And though coping with growing old is the essence of this astute novel, its truths about how mothers and daughters might misread each other resonates for all ages.
"Sugarless," by James Magruder. Terrace Books, 274 pages, $24.95 hardcover.
Though Rick Lahrem is a high school sophomore relying on an allowance-limited collection of Broadway-cast LPs for his nascent gay-boy desires - the novel is set in the 1970s, when vinyl still ruled - Magruder's debut is too nuanced to fit into the young adult slot. Teens who come across it will of course find its coming-of-age, coming-out storyline enormously supportive, particularly if they're contending with parents prone to a fervent belief in the power of Jesus. But this is a grown-up read, focusing as much on young Rick's boorish stepfather and hapless mother as on the travails of the sexually questioning - and desperately horny - youngster. Rick finds friends and fame after joining the school's forensics team, bringing audiences to tears with his recitation of an excerpt from - what did his coach know? - "The Boys in the Band." He finds love - or an easy hormonal outlet - with a speech coach from a rival high school, a complicated relationship Magruder tracks with an up-front maturity about intergenerational entanglements that is most welcome.
"The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You," by S. Bear Bergman. Arsenal Pulp Press, 206 pages, $18.95 paper.
The autobiographical bits are enlightening and the analytical bits are illuminating in Bergman's second intellectually whip-smart and engagingly personal collection of essays about gender and its assorted - and sometimes confounding - permutations and combinations. As he notes in several of the essays, she was born Sharon, hence the S. As ze also indicates in others, that shift in identity is a constant in hir life, whether Bergman is encountering homophobic (or transphobic) attitude from a prissy airplane passenger or, less unsettling, sexual come-ons from both a boy and a girl at the local coffee shop. Bergman relocated from New England to Canada to marry hir man (also born a woman), and appreciation for both the Canadian health care system and for general Canadian tolerance is a repeated refrain - particularly when the masculine couple camp out at the fertility clinic, where they encounter more genial smiles than raised eyebrows or outright frowns. As with Bergman's first collection, "Butch is a Noun," this is a candid, self-effacing and generously instructive primer on proud transmasculine life.
"Bait," by Alex Sanchez. Simon & Schuster, 244 pages, $16.99 hardcover.
After a slew of acclaimed YA novels focusing on gay adolescents, Sanchez here inverts the formula. On the surface, the 16-year-old protagonist is a likeable lad. Inside, he's a teen tortured by secrets, molested as a child by his stepfather and afraid he'll turn out a molester himself - or, worse, gay. After punching out one too many of his schoolyard peers, including a gay classmate who looked at him "that way," young Diego MacMann - who also self-mutilates with a sharp shark's tooth - faces a choice: Probation or, after repeated offenses, time. Sanchez details the horrors of a legacy of abandonment, poverty and sexual abuse with a grim intensity that's often unsettling, but with which young readers from an abusive past will surely identify. Equally realistic is the boy's reaction when he discovers that the probation officer with whom he builds a bond of trust is gay. At first, Diego is enraged, but comes to acknowledge, in this graceful story about controlling anger and confronting fears, that depending on someone queer won't make him one.
In Wisconsin, at a hotel happy hour for business travelers, I accept a glass of a nice white and sit on a low couch. I'm facing a good-looking sturdy blonde woman with her briefcase and binder set on the seat beside her. "Nothing wrong with free wine," I remark casually. "I tried to get my husband to come down, but he's watching the game," she replies. I grin, and say, "I don't think my husband's ever watched a game in his life," even though we're not married yet. Suddenly she likes me a lot better, and we talk and drink wine for an hour. I remain unsure if I was redeemed as a straight woman or a gay man.
-from "The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You," by S. Bear Bergman
BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: Novelist Christopher Bram tackles the "oeuvre" of his fellow queer authors in "Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America," assessing the impact on culture - homo and otherwise - of writers ranging from Gore Vidal and Christopher Isherwood to Armistead Maupin and Tony Kushner; the book is coming from Twelve Press next year... ALSO SCHEDULED FOR next year, from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is "My Queer War," the fourth volume of memoirs by American-born biographer and memoirist James Lord, who died earlier this year at age 86 in Paris, where he lived for decades. Lord, who served in military intelligence during World War II, wrote three previous memoirs, drawn from a social circle that included Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim and Gertrude Stein - who, he wrote in one of his earlier memoirs, "made me think of a burlap bag filled with cement and left to harden".... CHARIS BOOKS & MORE in Atlanta is celebrating its 35th anniversary in November with appearances by bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Alice Walker, Pearl Cleage and Indigo Girls... LAMBDA LITERARY FOUNDATION board member Scott Cranin is organizing a Nov. 21 Read-a-thon at Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia, a fundraiser to help pay for rebuilding the bookstore's buckled wall. Confirmed readers include Radclyffe, Mark Merlis, Rob Byrnes, Paul Russell, Perry Brass, Thom Nickles, Victoria Brownworth, David Carter, Bob Smith, Eddie Sarfaty and others. Meanwhile LLF board president Christopher Rice resigned abruptly in September, and Alyson Books publisher Don Weise rejoined the board soon after.
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.