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Book Marks

By Richard Labonte

"Us Ones In Between," by Blair Mastbaum. Running Press, 208 pages, $14.95 paper.
Less is more in Mastbaum's compact, superbly controlled second novel. His first, "Clay's Way," dwelled – as do many stories by new writers – on the feverish consequences of coming out. This is cooler stuff in terms of story. But it's no less emotionally intense, no less intellectually alert, and no less evocative of place – in this case, a hot Manhattan summer. Instead of the explosion of teen sexuality that marked his Hawaii-set debut, the focus here is on the physical and spiritual ennui of a mid-20s queer man clinging with bored desperation to his youth. Kurt is a wannabe writer, his creativity stalled as he obsessively stalks a bisexual ex-boyfriend, not sure whether he misses the sex, or the glamour of a relationship with a New York-scene rocker. And as he veers enigmatically between slacker reality and murderous fantasy, someone in New York is pushing young men in front of subway cars – and Kurt's not sure it isn't himself. Mastbaum's ironically comic depiction of East Village youth culture is spare, intelligent, and psychologically smart.

"Fucking Daphne," edited by Daphne Gottlieb. Seal Press, 256 pages, $14.95 paper.
The conceit is a treat: Daphne Gottlieb edits a collection of stories – all about Daphne Gottlieb. A less skilled editor might have corralled less talented contributors – but readers luck out with this nervy anthology, where it's hard to tell which tales are fact and which are fiction. Does it really matter if Bett Williams did or did not have sex with Daphne after they shared a reading stage, as told in "New Friend"? Or if Lori Selke really was seduced at age 20 by Daphne – and a bag of Hershey's chocolate kisses – as revealed in "Kiss and Tell"? Marlo Gayle's story about Daphne marching in a parade dressed as a bondage bunny ("Why Things Hop") is rooted in some truth, as Gottlieb reveals in her introduction. But Justin Chin's imaginative "The Meow" – about what Daphne's cat thinks about Daphne's sexual partners – well, that's fiction, of course; cats aren't people, so they can't write, right? The 29 delightfully smart stories in this erotically playful anthology straddle the real and the imaginary with delectable, delightful zeal.

"Mouths of Babes," by Stella Duffy. Bloody Brits Press, 216 pages, $14.95 paper.
Saz Martin is a contented, stay-at-home lesbian mom, settled into domesticity with physician partner Molly, her private investigator days behind her. But the unruly past has a way of catching up with respectable people – and not just Saz, but also Will, now a TV celebrity, who 20 years earlier was the sexually charismatic leader of a gang of schoolyard sadists, while Saz was tag-along "Sally." In cahoots with pals Andrea and Daniel, they relentlessly bullied Janine, a plain-jane girl, humiliating her sexually. That episode left a fifth member of the gang dead, and Janine emotionally scarred – a past that threatens Will's fame and Saz's sedate relationship with Molly when the woman they bullied resurfaces, ready to blackmail them all. The U.S. debut of this popular British P.I. series is a winner on several levels, with its intricate plotting, its literate writing, and, most remarkably, its portrayal of Saz as a sympathetic character despite her flawed past.

"Hollywood Babylon: It's Back!," by Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince. Blood Moon Productions, 408 pages, $24.95 hardcover.
The salacious fun never stops in this overflowing plate of hot Hollywood dish. Who did Nancy Reagan dally with when she was still Nancy Davis? Answer: Marlon Brando, Milton Berle, Spencer Tracy, Yul Brynner, Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, and Clark Gable. So much for "Just Say No." From the first chapter, "Well-Hung Hollywood," to the last, "The Saga of Tom Cruise, et al." – speculating on queer content in the lives of Cruise, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ewan McGregor, and Ronald Reagan Jr. – authors Porter and Prince deliver a torrent of scandalous vignettes. Winston Churchill's one-night stand with actor Ivor Novello; Pope Paul VI's fellatio on an unwilling but accommodating Marcello Mastroianni; James Cagney's seduction of World War II hero-turned-actor Audie Murphy – these are just few of the hundreds and hundreds of believe-it-or-not gossip nuggets compiled by the indefatigable authors. This monumentally exhaustive collection of sins, foibles, failings, and sexual adventures is the ultimate guilty pleasure – and publisher Blood Moon pledges that it's merely volume one.

Featured Excerpt:

A lanky boy walks up behind me, well, not a "boy" really, he's probably around twenty-five like me, but he surely looks healthier and cheerier and more alive than me, but who doesn't? He's wearing the standard black Che Guevara revolutionary cap with tufts of dark brown hair sticking out both sides in front of his ears, and once he gets close enough, I see three woodpeckers tattooed on his forearm – not the Woody Woodpecker cartoon type, but the kind you'd see in a science book. He's listening to an iPod, so everything is probably like a movie to him. New York can be so epic with the right song playing.

-from "Us Ones In Between," by Blair Mastbaum

Footnotes

THE COUNTRY'S OLDEST women's bookstore, Amazon in Minneapolis, is closing at the end of June, after general manager Barb Weiser – who is leaving after more than 20 years to join the Peace Corps – was unable to find a buyer for the cooperative, and no one on its nine-member staff was able to take over. In an e-mail to customers on May 29, the store staff wrote: "We, like many independents, have struggled to keep up with the proliferation of chains and online mega-retailers (you know the ones)…we cannot go on." Amazon was founded on the front porch of a woman's collective in 1970… NOVELISTS ROBERT GLUCK ("Jack the Modernist"), Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet," "The Night Watch"), and Stella Duffy (the Saz Martin lesbian P.I. series), and poet and essayist Betsy Warland ("InVersions: Writings by Dykes, Queers, and Lesbians") are the announced judges for an international writing contest sponsored by the British-based queer literary journal "Chroma," the lesbian arts and literature magazine "Velvet," and TransFabulous, a London-based organization championing transgender arts. Deadline for submissions in three categories is Sept. 1. Winners of the Chroma Award, for either fiction or poetry, will receive 300 pounds (about $600) for first place, 150 pounds for second, and 75 pounds for third; winners of the Velvet Award for flash fiction – stories no longer than 150 words – will receive 200 pounds (about $400); and winners of the TransFabulous Award – for fiction by a transgender writer or exploring transgender themes – will also receive 200 pounds. For information on how to submit work: http://www.chromajournal.co.uk.

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