By Richard Labonte
Throughout 2005, I reviewed 100 books in this column, and read as many more, and there are dozens of potentially good reads I haven’t gotten to yet. This offering of 10 fiction and 10 nonfiction titles is pared down from an initial list of almost 50; those cited here are decidedly personal picks – and some of my favorites of the year aren’t included at all, for assorted reasons. Frederic Prokosch’s “The Asiatics,” a gem of a travel book, is a reprint from seven decades ago, and only subliminally gay. I quite liked “God Jr.” by Dennis Cooper and “Branwell” by Douglas A. Martin, but I liked other books by them more. I deeply admired “Specimen Days” by Michael Cunningham and “The City of Falling Angels” by John Berendt, but when all else is equal, new writers like Vestal McIntyre and Ali Liebegott will win me over. And I laughed out loud at Mike Albo’s “The Underminer,” but can’t decide if it’s mostly fiction or mostly nonfiction, so it’s fallen between the cracks (except in this introduction). Any smart reader in 2005 could probably come up with a list that barely overlaps with this one – and that truth surely bodes well for the past year of queer literature.
Top 10 Fiction Titles of 2005
“Above the Thunder,” by Renee Manfredi (Anchor Books, $13.95 paper): The real charm of Manfredi’s first novel is how its textured characters – old and young, male and female, straight and gay – come to love each other deeply, despite assorted emotional quirks, sexual transgressions, meddlesome ways, and other all-too-human foibles.
“The Beautifully Worthless,” by Ali Liebegott (Suspect Thoughts Press, $14.95 paper): A hybrid work, here – half prose, half verse – about a queer girl who, accompanied by her cranky Dalmatian (aptly named Rorschach), flees troubled love in Brooklyn. Her destination: existential release, emotional solace, and a fresh perspective on life and love.
“Choir Boy,” by Charlie Anders (Soft Skull, $16.95 hardcover): This rollicking debut novel is a multi-layered marvel: a sweet coming-of-age story, a savvy consideration of gender exploration, a shrewd study of middle-school bullying, a smart critique of wrong-headed religious fervor, and a sly commentary on how crazy adults can be.
“Clearcut,” by Nina Shengold (Anchor Books, $13 paper): This grand and tragic debut, set in the Pacific Northwest in the free-loving ’70s, is about two men who love a woman, a woman who loves both men, and the two men who come to love each other, all with reckless, lusty passion.
“Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels 1950-1965,” ed. by Katherine V. Forrest (Cleis Press, $18.95 paper): Lesbian pulp fiction matters as literature, as history, and as erotica, too, says editor Forrest in her informed introduction to this grand sampling of writing by 19 pre-Stonewall dyke authors.
“Mother of Sorrows,” by Richard McCann (Pantheon, $20 hardcover): The elegant stories in this spare collection, written over 18 years but fitting together smoothly to make up one fine novel, flit across the narrator’s adolescent and adult years, from a 1950s boyhood, donning his mother’s dresses, to the present day, living with HIV.
“The Sluts,” by Dennis Cooper (Void Books, $50 hardcover): Not for the squeamish – this sick, hilarious fictional excursion into the depths of hustler fantasy is for readers who appreciate Cooper’s brilliant ability to dig truthfully into depravity. A paper edition was published in October by Carroll & Graf, but it’s not as handsome as Void Books’ original signed, limited edition.
“They Change the Subject,” by Douglas A. Martin (Terrace Books, $17.95 paper): This loosely linked cycle of lean and luscious tales – many aren’t much more than vignette-length expositions of a soulful erotic life – charts a young man’s quest for emotional identity and sexual fulfillment with an inventive, seductive style.
“You Are Not the One,” by Vestal McIntyre (Carroll & Graf, $15.95 paper): The eight very different stories in this breathtakingly well-crafted debut collection invoke emotional need in all its quirky forms; only a couple of the stories are explicitly gay, but a sensational thread of queerness runs through every tale.
“You Can Say You Knew Me When,” by K.M. Soehnlein (Kensington Books, $23 hardcover): In his textured and sexy second novel, the author invokes both queer slacker life in San Francisco as the dot-com bubble bursts, and a homophobic father’s flirtation – four decades earlier, during the Beat era – with the homosexuality he so despises in his son.
“Top 10 Nonfiction Titles of 2005”
“American Ghosts,” by David Plante (Beacon Press, $24 hardcover): With bracing honesty – and not a whiff of self-pity – France details an emotionally tumultuous life spent coming to terms with complex ancestral and familial legacies, and with confusing spiritual and sexual impulses, in a lean, unflinching memoir.
“February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof In Wartime America,” by Sherill Tippins (Houghton Mifflin, $24 hardcover): There are hundreds of gossipy nuggets in this delightful history of an improbable, short-lived (1940-1941) experiment in artistic communal living. Squabbles over dirty dishes, smelly cats, and all-night parties abounded. But creativity flourished amidst the chaos.
“Gore Vidal’s America,” by Dennis Altman (Polity Books, $19.95 hardcover): Australian academic and 1970s gay-liberation pioneer Altman has written a marvelous meditation on what novelist, essayist, and polemicist Vidal means to America; much more than a mini-biography, it’s a generous assessment of a curmudgeonly man of letters and his amazing six-decade career, from chronicling American history in his sweeping novels, to imagining Myra Breckenridge, to inveighing against the Iraq War in more recent writing.
“Quicksands: A Memoir,” by Sybille Bedford (Counterpoint Press, $24.95 hardcover): Bedford claims that a lifetime of “serene inertia” kept her from writing much. That confession of creative sloth is belied by the lyrical passion of her compact body of work and by the grace of this beguiling remembrance, published as the author turned 94.
“The Long Arc of Justice: Lesbian and Gay Marriage, Equality, and Rights,” by Richard D. Mohr (Columbia University Press, $22.95 hardcover): That Mohr and his partner of 25 years were able to get married at last (in Canada) is the linchpin of this eloquent articulation of what gays deserve from American society. But his optimistic perspective – his “long arc” – predicts that there are cultural breakthroughs yet to come.
“Luncheonette,” by Steven Sorrentino (Regan Books, $24.95 hardcover): Sorrentino is harrowingly and humorously forthright about his own queer emotional ups and downs, but the heart of this compassionate memoir is the complex relationship between an astoundingly resilient father and a remarkably loyal son.
“My One-night Stand With Cancer,” by Tania Katan (Alyson Books, $15.95 paper): Playwright Katan’s one-night stand with cancer stretched over a decade. This would not seem an experience to laugh about – except that’s exactly what she does, in this feisty memoir about toxic girlfriends, crippling chemotherapy, her neurotic Jewish family, her loving gay male friends, and coping with and conquering daunting medical odds.
“The Tricky Part: One Boy’s Fall from Trespass into Grace,” by Martin Moran (Beacon Press, $23.95 hardcover): Moran, seduced at 12 by a Catholic camp counselor 20 years his senior, was sexually active with him until age 15. This transcendent memoir confronts “the tricky part” head on – the then-insecure adolescent relished attention from an older man, and there were times, recalls the author three decades later, when he enjoyed and felt empowered by the sex.
“Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco,” by Peter Shapiro (Faber & Faber, $26 hardcover): The Village People and John Travolta didn’t kill disco – but they did it grievous musical harm, according to this deeply informed and incredibly comprehensive history of the music, its star DJs, and its queer heartbeat.
“Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho and Art – The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks,” by Diana Souhami (St. Martin’s Press, $29.95 hardcover): This poetic, impressionistic biography about two remarkable women – drawn from hundreds of their letters, as well as from Romaine Brooks’ never-published memoir – vividly recounts a remarkable love story that arced across five decades.
Readers, writers, and publishers have until Dec. 31 to nominate books for the restructured Lambda Literary Awards, though the process is somewhat more demanding this year, according to information on the Lambda Literary Foundation’s new website (www.lambdaliterary.org). All nominations must be accompanied by a $20 fee – and by four copies of each book for every category in which it is nominated. In previous years, award organizers asked that books be sent only if the titles were selected as finalists. Organizers have also streamlined the number of categories: Because of a dearth of titles, Drama has been dropped; so has the Visual Arts/Photography category, to focus the Lammys on literary accomplishment. A new category, Belles Lettres, incorporates the old categories of memoirs and autobiographies, as well as “collections of essays, literary criticism, letters, travel writing, and graphic novels, among others.” In addition, fiction and nonfiction anthologies, formerly nominated in two separate categories, have been combined into one Anthology award.