By Richard Labonte
"The Kind of Girl I Am," by Julia Watts. Spinsters Ink, 346 pages, $14.95 paper.
Watts brings fresh zest to a timeworn plot about an ambitious girl, born into gritty poverty, who draws on plucky intelligence and blazing beauty to escape her wretched family. Her climb to the top – and the terrible tumble that follows – is built on the willing backs of women whose sexual favors she sells to men: the lady is a madam. Vestal Jenkins fled her dreary Kentucky coal-mining town for an ill-fated marriage with the son of a wealthy shopkeeper, a union that ended badly when her husband's father tried to seduce her. Penniless again, Vestal heads for Knoxville, where her success is abetted by the financial backing of a childhood friend. As the Eisenhower era dawns, Vestal is running the classiest whorehouse in Knoxville, and is the very closeted lover of a freespirited young black girl working as her handyman. In a novel that spans from WWII to the early days of gay liberation, Watts captures America's social and cultural shifts – and the spirit of the South – with stylish storytelling.
"Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage," by Nancy D. Polikoff. Beacon Books, 256 pages, $24.95 hardcover.
In this persuasive analysis, professor of law Polikoff argues that marriage rights ought not be the endpoint of the struggle for same-sex rights. She suggests, rather radically, that the institution of marriage should have nothing to do with economic, medical, inheritance, immigration, or other legal rights – and that straight people as much as gay people are oppressed by the fact that most benefits are bestowed only on married couples. Polikoff peppers her provocative thesis with dozens of vignettes about how current law penalizes unwed couples: a gay man whose partner dies in the collapse of the World Trade Center is denied survivor benefits; a straight woman and man pool their resources to buy a house together, but when one of them dies, the property is reassessed and taxes become prohibitive for the survivor. Her exhaustively detailed state-by-state and country-by-country overview makes the case that a mishmash of marriage-anchored law devalues the reality of vibrant families who have chosen to build relationships and families without saying "I do."
"After the Fall," by Edward Field. University of Pittsburgh Press, 214 pages, $14 paper.
Field, a vibrant writer now into his 80s, is blessed with mischievous wit and spry whimsy: one of several cheeky poems in this collection is "In Memory of My Foreskin" (its "loss the price to pay of being a Jew"). He has his serious side, too, most notably in the long title poem, "After the Fall." It's a vivid emotional and political piece about the fall of the World Trade Center and ."..of the fragility/ of everything we depend on:/ our political institutions,/ which were already shaken by evidence/ of how elections are stolen." He's also a romantic, an unabashed emotion apparent in "Taking My Breath Away," a lovely paean to Field's partner of more than 40 years: "Yes, around other people he can look drawn and old/ but in private he sheds his clothes and his age/ to become the charming boy I met…" Quoting from these poems is irresistible, and reading them is a tonic. Field is a significant gay poet whose easygoing love of language renders deep feeling and wise thought utterly conversational.
"Forbidden Fruit: Psalms of a Black Master," by Will Kane. Kensington Books, 292 pages, $15.
It's no mean feat to assemble a collection of single-author SM stories in which whips, hoods, gags, razors, and shackles – along with lashed butts, stretched scrotums, pierced foreskins, pinched nipples, and un-lubed anuses – can constitute a breezy read. An imaginatively kinky and fiercely filthy (and usually condomless) read, of course. But Kane pulls off "breezy" with these 19 stories, too, because his characters – most of them accomplished professionals, bankers and brokers and the like, with an infectious yen for the sleazy side of life – always have fun, no matter how intense the action. The raunchy tales are connected thematically by rough, raw sex – involving mostly black, Latino, or Asian men – yet are masterfully varied in setting and style. The most creative is "Mastery," a faux oral history in which a doorman, a waiter, a bartender, and a DJ marvel at the torrid encounter between a spiffy Puerto Rican lawyer and a leather-clad black man. But singling out one piece is not to slight the rest: this is classy erotica, as literary as it is incendiary.
"Has a man ever tried to give you pleasure instead of just taking his pleasure from you?" "No, I don't suppose so." "See, it's different with two women. A woman like me gets her pleasure from pleasing the other woman. Her pleasure is my pleasure, you understand?" The thought of getting pleasure from giving pleasure was new to me; I was ignorant of anything that had to do with unselfishness. "If you let me share your bed tonight, I could show you what I mean." It was a fearless and probably a foolish suggestion, a black woman asking a white woman to share a bed with her in a time when blacks and whites weren't even supposed to share the same water fountain.
-from "The Kind of Girl I Am," by Julia Watts
TWO GAY BOOKS are among 10 titles honored by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights, which for 23 years has "identified books speaking of too-often erased histories and too scantily noticed ideas and strategies for a more humane future." Poet and essayist Kenny Fries won for "The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory," his memoir about growing up disabled; young adult author Alex Sanchez won for "Getting It," the story of a straight high school teen who turns in desperation to a gay schoolmate for a makeover so he can get a girlfriend… BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: Angela Robinson, an occasional writer for Showtime's drama "The L-World" (and director of "Herbie: Fully Loaded"), is collaborating with manga artist June Kim on "Girltrash!," "featuring the coolest bunch of bad girls on the mean streets of L.A.," for Three Stories Press… "A PERFECT WAITER," a translation of Alain Claude Sulzer's acclaimed German novel about a dignified man forced to come to terms with the memory of a young protege he loved in the Nazi era, is coming in April from Bloomsbury USA.