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by Richard Labonte
“The More I Owe You,” by Michael Sledge. Counterpoint Press, 336 pages, $15.95 paper.
Fascinating fact is transformed into sumptuous fiction in Sledge’s debut novel, based primarily on a slice of poet Elizabeth Bishop’s life – the 15 years she lived in Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s, tumultuously in love with the aristocratic architect and activist Lota de Macedo Soares. Drawing on Bishop’s letters and journals – though not her correspondence with Soares, which was destroyed by Soares’ ex-lover Mary (who lived for a time with the two women) – Sledge re-imagines the poet’s South American years with extraordinarily atmospheric prose and unflinchingly emotional intimacy. Both women were beset by demons: Soares, manipulative and controlling, was prone to tantrums; Bishop struggled with alcohol and bouts of deep, paralyzing depression. Brazil itself is depicted as intensely as the central characters, as Sledge infuses the story with the country’s political turmoil of the time while evoking both the urban bustle of Rio de Janeiro and the lush landscape of the remote mountain retreat where Soares designed an eccentric glass-walled house.
“The Twin,” by Gerbrand Bakker, translated by David Colmer. Archipelago Books, 343 pages, $16 paper.
Middle-aged Dutch farmer Helmer lives a life of unfilled loneliness. For companionship he has his invalid father, who he loathes and loves in equal measure; a neighbor and her young son, who chat with him on occasion; and two donkeys, bought in a fit of whimsy. The hole at the center of his heart is Henk, his identical – but far more outgoing – twin brother, dead decades earlier in a car accident. As boys, Henk and Helmer slept together – whether sexually is never made clear – until Henk fell in love with a girl. That first separation pained Helmer; his brother’s death shattered him. But when Henk’s former lover contacts him after many years to ask if he will house her wayward teenage son, also named Henk, the lonely farmer’s life takes on new dimension – particularly in one of many powerful connections between past and present – when teenage Henk slips into bed with Helmer one night. Bakker’s brilliant novel – yes, brilliant, and sublime, and subtle, and seductive – is a triumphant balance of delicacy, complexity and simplicity.
“Inferno (A Poet’s Novel),” by Eileen Myles. O/R Books, 256 pages, $16 paper.
A young girl, dazzled by English professor Eva Nelson’s ass, relocates from sedate, Catholic Boston to the mad mix of creative genius and sexual exploration that is Manhattan as the era of punk dawns. She works in a bar, sleeps with men, drinks in taverns, smokes dope, meets women, discovers Patti Smith, segues from “female” to “hunk” to “dyke,” and over the years evolves into the poet-as-rock star. That is, she grows up to be Eileen Myles, narrator of this gruff and graceful work of artistic self-examination. “The place I found was carved out from sadness and sex and to write a poem there you merely needed to gather,” she writes. The result is this comic and melancholy collection of gathered memories, a lusty, vivid chronicle of a rowdier time and place. The book will be hard to find in bookstores (the publisher even eschews amazon.com) but can be ordered directly from www.orbooks.com – and there’s even a choice of two different covers, one literarily sedate, the other quite fiery.
“Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation,” edited by Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman. Seal Press, 302 pages, $16.95 paper.
Transpeople. Genderqueers. Trannies. Sex/gender radicals. Transsexuals. They’re all represented, in many forms and flavors, in this prose-and-poetry collection of intense, painful memoirs and breezy, joyous mini-biographies addressing the fluidity – sometimes hard-won and often wholly fabulous – of the sexual self. Back in 1994, Bormstein published “Gender Outlaw,” a frank critique of society’s attitudes toward the transgendered, based on her own sexual and artistic life. In this eclectic collection of almost 50 essays, older generation meets newer as younger writers address the same landscape – or, more appropriately, genderscape. Every contributor illuminates an aspect of identity: Kyle Lukoff writes about gender confusion contributing to an eating disorder; Joy Ladin writes about the “Daddy voice” coming from the woman she has become; Mercedes Allen honors the “aesthetic beauty of the transfemale body”; Cory Schmanke Parrish wonders, wittily, “what does my wiener do on the days I don’t wear it?” This anthology of many voices mulling a singular theme brings today’s gender outlaws into the queer literary mainstream.
The poet’s life is just so much crenellated waste, nights and days whipping swiftly or laboriously past the cinematic window. We’re hunched and weaving over the keys of our green our grey our pink our blue manual typewriter maybe a darker stone-cold authoritative selectric with its orgasmic expectant hum and us popping pills and laughing over what you or I just wrote, wondering if “that” line means insult or sex. Or both. Usually both.
-from “Inferno (A Poet’s Novel),” by Eileen Myles
BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: “Menudo” boyband boytoy and adult-crooner hunk Ricky Martin’s memoir, simply titled “Me,” will be released by Celebra Publishing – in both English and Spanish – on Nov. 2, and expect quite a bit about that newish gay thing: “Writing this book allowed me to explore the different paths and experiences that have led me to be who I am today,” he says about the book. “I’ve had to tie up loose ends that I’d never attempted to tie up before, to work deeply into memories that were already erased from my mind.”.. ALSO DUE NOV. 2 is another queer-celebrity memoir, actress (and spouse of Ellen DeGeneres) Portia de Rossi’s “Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain,” about which publisher Simon & Schuster says only “…de Rossi shares her struggles with eating disorders and her sexuality” – though gay memoirist Augusten Burroughs is featured in promotional material with: “This book of courage, power and significance will serve as life-changing inspiration for many young women, and a fascinating and riveting read for anyone.”.. AND BLOOD MOON plans to publish three more breezy, heavy-breathing and queer-centric celebrity biographies this year: a revised and expanded edition of “Humphrey Bogart: The Making of a Legend,” by Darwin Porter; “Damn You, Scarlett O’Hara: The Private Lives of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier,” by Darwin Porter and Roy Moseley; and “The Kennedys: All the Gossip Unfit to Print,” by Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince.