Best of the year

by Richard Labonte

Book Marks

Bests are subjective, and Top 10s are limiting, but these are the books that stuck with me most in 2011. Some are examples of formal queer fiction or standard homo memoir/autobiography forms, several take a more daring - or daunting - approach to the art of literature; and, auguring well for the future, five of the 10 fiction titles are debuts. In fact, it was a good year for gay (male) debut fiction: among my other favorites are "Mitko," by Garth Greenwell; "Dirty One," by Michael Graves; "We the Animals," by Justin Torres; "Chulito," by Charles Rice-Gonzalez; "Songs for the New Depression," by Kergan Edwards-Stout; "Quarantine," by Rahul Mehta; "Moffie," by Andre Carl van Der Merwe; and "My Brother and His Brother," by Hakan Lindquist - not, technically, a debut, though it's his first novel in English translation. Kudos, too, to two novels by women: Jodi Picoult's formulaic but formidable "Sing You Home," in which the desire of two middle-aged lesbians to have a child collides head-on with Christian hatred; and Rebecca Makkai's daring and compassionate "The Borrower" (another debut), in which a young woman librarian befriends (well, kidnaps, in a good way) Ian, a precocious 10-year-old booklover and bound-to-be queer, when his parents try to de-gay him.

My 10 Favorite Fiction Reads of 2011

"The Empty Family," by Colm Toibin, Scribner.

Master Irish storyteller Toibin queers it up, after last year's essentially straight novel, "Brooklyn," in this collection of nine haunting stories set in different countries and different times, but linked by a pervasive sense of melancholy, longing and loss. There's not a single clunker in a no-word-wasted collection.

"The Fog: A Novel of Desire and Reprisal," by Jeff Mann, Bear Bones Books.

Sex is violence and passion is pain in Mann's relentlessly brutal yet irrepressibly romantic short novel. From first page to last, except for a redemptive epilogue, this pitch-perfect erotic novel epitomizes a thriller genre known as torture porn, though the poetry of Mann's prose imbues even the most intense scenes with tender moments.

"The Girls Club," by Sally Bellerose, Bywater Books.

Bellerose's warm debut embraces the concept of sisterhood with propulsive gusto - mostly the real deal of three very different sisters caring deeply for each other, even as they squabble, but with hints that the sisterhood of nascent feminism has reached the small town where they are realizing their emotional and sexual selves.

"Love/Imperfect," by Christopher T. Leland, Wayne State University Press.

As in real life, gay mingles with straight in Leland's first collection (after five novels). Seventeen sensual tales, linked by the thematic threads of intimacy, desire and love, depict worried mothers, absent fathers, inter-class sexual affairs and men afraid of their desires. Leland's supple prose marks him as a short story virtuoso.

"The Marbled Swarm," by Dennis Cooper, Harper Perennial.

A liturgy of salacious acts invested with luscious language and sly wit, this seductive, exhilarating labyrinth of a novel, with its secret passageways, elusive truths and elegant intricacies, is splendidly unlike anything Cooper has previously written, even as it echoes themes of earlier work

"The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse," by Lonely Christopher, Little House on the Bowery/Akashic Books.

The nine stories in this exuberantly nontraditional collection will challenge traditionalists who prefer their queer fiction come from formalists such as Ed White or David Leavitt. One hopes those readers will accept that challenge - homo fiction can always use more young writers who are queer in every sense of the word.

"The Metropolis Case," by Matthew Gallaway. Crown Publishers.

First-time novelist Gallaway strikes beguiling chords in this inventive blend of mystery, romance, music and, skillfully, the supernatural. Technically, it's a 2010 title, released at the end of December, close enough for 2011 - a cunning novel embracing the universal themes of searching for love, the meaning of life...and the glorious world of opera.

"The Two Krishnas," by Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla. Magnus Books.

A closeted husband, an unsuspecting wife, an achingly needy younger lover - the three pivotal people in Dhalla's second novel are stock gay-fiction standards transformed into wrenchingly real characters by the author's mastery of human emotion; in the story's nuanced universe, duplicity has consequences and tragedy is inevitable. This is not a happily-ever-after story; its heartbreak is cathartic and inevitable.

"Wingshooters," by Nina Revoyr. Akashic Books.

Xenophobia is rampant in rural Vietnam War-era Wisconsin, where tomboyish 10-year-old Michelle LeBeau, her small town's only non-white resident, confronts discrimination, bullying and isolation with admirable resilience. Revoyr writes about deep heartache, flawed characters and squandered anger with grace.

"Zipper Mouth," by Laurie Weeks, The Feminist Press at CUNY.

The narrator of this woozy, rapturous short novel, set in Manhattan's edgy 1980s, engages heroin and cocaine with dedicated delight, maintains a soul-crushing crush on her ambiguously straight drug buddy, Jane, and shares her angst in unrequited letters to the likes of Sylvia Plath and Judy Davis. It's an ecstatic debut.

My 10 Favorite Nonfiction Reads of 2011

"Big Sex, Little Death," by Susie Bright, Seal Press.

You'd think that a memoir by a founder of the pioneering sex-positive lesbian magazine "On Our Backs" and author of the "Susie Sexpert" column would be all about sex (and there's that title). Sex there is, but Bright's account of a peripatetic childhood, of teenage radicalism, of labor organizing and, latterly, of contented motherhood is much more than a trip down orgasm lane.

"Halsted Plays Himself," by William E. Jones, Semiotext(e) Native Agents.

This slender but authoritative chronicle of legendary erotic performer and filmmaker Fred Halsted - he reigned back in the 1970s, when daily newspapers reviewed porn films - mixes serious research with sexual relish, fleshed out by reprints of reviews, interviews, a smattering of dialogue from Halsted's classic "L.A. Plays Itself" and - another side of the man - samplings of his erotic prose.

"Happy Accidents," by Jane Lynch, Hyperion Voice.

Always candid, never coy, Lynch's account of the happy casting accidents that led her to stardom - and, more recently, to love - is the work of a most talented woman. Odd fact: By age 12, Lynch was mostly mooning about girls, though she confesses in this charismatic memoir to a hormonal crush on 1970s-era Ron Howard.

"Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender," by Nick Krieger, Beacon Press.

Krieger's journey through and beyond gender, from Nina to Nick, from a large-breasted "her" with shaved legs to an after-top surgery "him" with hairy calves, is chronicled with a dash of wit, with nuanced wisdom, and with candid accounts of confrontations with parents - particularly the father - who are puzzled and pained at seeing their daughter become their son.

"Nocturnal Omissions: A Tale of Two Poets," by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard and Eric Norris, Sibling Rivalry Press.

Gavin lived in Hawaii. Eric lived in New York. Facebook brought them together. Gavin, a former porn star, life-long poet, one-time chef and sometime hermit in his 50s, responded to an admiring post from Eric, a poet 15 years his junior. This two-author collection of 111 poems is the result - playful and passionate, lusty and seductive, erotic and philosophical.

"Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme," edited by Ivan Coyote and Zena Sharman, Arsenal Pulp Press.

Twenty years after Joan Nestle's "The Persistence Desire: A Butch-Femme Reader," this rambunctious, truth-telling, gender-confronting anthology both honors its antecedent and pulses with contemporary, assured, personal and provocative prose about the personas of femme and butch within the queer community.

"A Queer History of the United States," by Michael Bronski, Beacon Press.

From the Puritan imposition of intolerant sexual mores on the land that was to become America, to angry activism in the face of the nation's initial neglect of AIDS, Bronski's cerebral hop, skip and jump assessment of LGBT presence across the centuries is an astute, succinct depiction of the truth that queers have always been everywhere - and everywhen.

"A Saving Remnant: The Radical Lives of Barbara Deming and David McReynolds," by Martin Duberman, The New Press.

Duberman has crafted a riveting account of the public lives and noble ideals of two fierce early to mid-20th century queers, Barbara Deming and David McReynolds, through which he threads both their commitment to civil rights, peaceful protest and anti-war activism and a well-mannered glimpse into their sexual lives.

"Taking My Life," by Jane Rule, Talonbooks.

Scholar Linda M. Morra came across an astonishing, never-catalogued find: a posthumous autobiography, handwritten on yellow foolscap paper, recounting Rule's first 21 years from the thoughtful, painfully honest perspective of old age. Best known for "Desert of the Heart," Rule wrote 10 other novels; anyone who has read even one - though every queer reader with taste ought to read them all - will relish revisiting her fluid prose.

"Tango: My Childhood Backwards and in High Heels," by Justin Vivian Bond, The Feminist Press at CUNY.

The most riveting of celebrated cabaret artist Bond's unorthodox memoir is the revelation that from the age of 11 the author was bullied at school by the boy with whom v (Bond's chosen subject pronoun) was having exuberant, albeit confused and sometimes violent, sex. But this free-form life story is at its best when it recounts the tension between a young trans soul and confused, distraught parents - a universal queer tale.

Footnotes

Though there are fewer gay (and especially lesbian, alas) titles coming from larger, mainstream publishers, smaller and newer publishers like Lethe Press (most venerable of the newcomers), Chelsea Station Editions, Tiny Satchel Press and Sibling Rivalry Press - to say nothing of ever-expanding Bold Strokes Books and some higher-quality self-publishing - are picking up the slack. At the same time, three of those presses are also publishing magazines, where novice authors and veterans alike can find an outlet for their work. Lethe's Steve Berman edits "Icarus," which focuses on speculative fiction; Sibling Rivalry's Bryan Borland edits "Assaracus: A Journal of Gay Poets"; and at year's end Chelsea Station's Jameson Currier launched "Chelsea Station," the most eclectic of the journals, filled with lesbian and gay fiction, interviews, poems and book reviews.

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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