Book Marks: 'Celluloid Activist' offers thrilling history of gay liberation

by Richard Labonte

"Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo," by Michael Schiavi. University of Wisconsin Press, 366 pages, $29.95 hardcover.

Last year erotic pioneer Samuel Steward, this year film enthusiast and AIDS activist Vito Russo - the queer biographies get better and better. Thirty years after its first edition (it was revised in 1987) and two decades after Russo died, "The Celluloid Closet" remains in print, chronicling how lesbians and gay men were for so long rendered invisible - or demonized - by Hollywood. This impressively researched biography, based on in-depth interviews with intimates and drawn from Russo's exhaustive archives, is both a thrilling history of early gay liberation days - Vito witnessed the Stonewall riots - and an overdue reminder of one man's outsize impact on gay culture and AIDS politics. Schiavi's admiration for his subject's life infuses the book, but the author doesn't overlook the warts - Russo was often unlucky in love and was sometimes quick to anger. He was also beloved by his community: not long before he died, Russo "waved "like Evita" from Larry Kramer's balcony as Gay Pride marchers below shouted out their love for him. This knockout biography honors, in Lily Tomlin's words, a darling and daring man.

"My Brother and His Brother," by Hakan Lindquist. Bruno Gmunder, 160 pages, $15.99 paper.

Teenager Jonas, 18 when this slim but emotionally complex novel ends, never knew his older brother Paul, just 15 when he died, two years before Jonas was born. For years, a picture of Paul has stood on top of the family TV. Even as a toddler, Jonas sees "a secret smile" on the lips of the boy in the photograph. As the years pass in Lindquist's impeccably profound, lyrically gripping story, Jonas focuses more intently on Paul's life, first after gazing at a cache of faded family photos, next when he discovers a creased letter in the pocket of the jacket Paul was wearing when he died, then by talking with family friend Daniel, a middle-aged man who knew Paul - was, in fact, his confidante - before he died. Finally, Jonas comes across a diary his brother secreted in the bedroom he inherited that unravels both the mystery of Paul's death and the joy the boy found, before tragedy struck, in his relationship with another young man. Translated from Swedish by the author, this is a romantic gem.

"Fall Asleep Forgetting," by Georgeann Packard. Permanent Press, 264 pages, $28 hardcover.

A trailer park on Long Island Sound circa 2001 is the odd-character setting for Packard's haunting novel about fearless dying, bitter bigotry, religious fervor, sexual intimacy, rocky marriage and really luscious food. Restaurant owner Paul is dying of cancer, and worries that his withdrawn wife, Sloan, will be emotionally and erotically adrift after he's gone. So when park ranger Claude (a woman) becomes entangled in their lives, Paul - planning his suicide - is content to nurture her relationship with his wife. Packard adds a slew of colorful characters to the mix, most notably transvestite Cherry Pickens, who lords over the ramshackle trailer park with muscular mate Barton; Saugerties, a homophobic Korean war vet; flirtatious Rae, who has goo-goo eyes for Cherry's hunky man; and precocious nine-year-old Six, Rae's daughter, a mini-seer whose independent ways link all the characters. Packard's prose, lush and mystical, is also sometimes challenging; shifting points of view invite a close reading. This isn't a book to skim, it's a read to savor.

"Torn Apart: United by Love, Divided by Law," by Judy Rickard. Findhorn Press, 272 pages, $20 paper.

Part memoir of anguish and part call to action, this timely book tackles an issue that incorporates two contemporary LGBT concerns - same-sex marriage and immigration rights. Rickard, an American, and her British partner, Karin, met online several years ago, were soon committed life partners, and to stay together have become domestic vagabonds; Karin's stays in the U.S. are limited by visitor visas, and she never knows whether she'll be granted the next one. Rickard chronicles their travels, their border-crossing traumas and their determination to stay together in the book's first third; the heart-wrenching stories of more than a dozen lesbian and gay couples denied the right to live together in America follow. Some couples, like Judy and Karin, bounce from country to country; others live with student or work visa expirations looming; one man has opted to live in the country illegally, but faces deportation if he's caught. Adding the political to the emotional, the last third of this poignant and powerful book offers a wealth of information on how queers fit into comprehensive immigration reform.

Featured Excerpt

Then I found the first note about Petr...: "Thursday 13 March, 1969. What an incredible day! The last period was a double lesson in Art. Hakansson told us we'd do something we had never done before. We'd draw from a model. And I thought we were to draw each other. But as we entered the room there was a guy waiting for us. He looked so fine I just blushed. He was wearing a thick dressing gown, and when Hakansson was through talking, he took off the gown and sat on the desk. And he was completely nude. I just stared. He seemed in a way even more naked than the guys do in the locker-room. I had a hard-on."

- from "My Brother and His Brother," by Hakan Lindquist

Footnotes

"AND TANGO MAKES THREE," a 2005 pre-school picture book by gay fathers Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, is number one on the American Library Association's list of the top 10 books challenged in 2010 by conservative parents and right wing organizations, drawing more attacks than the likes of "Brave New World," by Aldous Huxley, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America," by Barbara Ehrenreich, and, last on the list, "Twilight," by Stephenie Meyer. "Christopher, the Hugging Lion" by the same authors is a finalist this year for a Lambda Literary Award in the Children's/YA category... THE PUBLISHING TRIANGLE honored British novelist Alan Hollinghurst ("The Swimming Pool Library," "The Line of Beauty" and the forthcoming "The Stranger's Child") with the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement at its April 28 ceremony in New York; the organization's Leadership Award went to "The Gay & Lesbian Review/Worldwide," and a judges' Special Award in Nonfiction went to "Gender Outlaws," edited by Kate Bornstein & S. Bear Bergman. For winners in the fiction, poetry, and nonfiction categories: publishingtriangle.org... PLAYWRIGHT EDWARD ALBEE and British mystery writer Val McDermid will receive Pioneer Awards at the Lambda Literary Foundation's 23rd Annual Lambda Literary Awards ceremony in New York on May 26, hosted by comic Lea DeLaria, where winners will be announced in 24 literary and genre categories. For ticket information: lambdaliterary.org.

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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