By Richard Labonte
“The Sealed Letter ,” by Emma Donoghue. Harcourt, 416 pages, $26 hardcover.
As she has with two previous novels, “Slammerkin” and “Life Mask,” Donoghue reaches into Britain’s past for scraps of fact and transforms them into wholly engaging historical fiction. Prostitution by the desperate poor and dalliances among the aristocracy were the focus of the previous entertainments. Here, it’s all about the middle classes – and of course sex, with a side order of insight into the early days of the19th-century feminist movement, in the person of rights pioneer and 29-year-old spinster Emily “Fido” Faithfull. The factual basis for the novel is a lurid divorce trial that gripped England in 1846, pitting fun-loving but reckless Helen Codrington against stiff-necked but oddly sympathetic Admiral Harry Codrington when Helen’s affair with a junior officer surfaced. Fido, who nursed a passion for Helen since their own affair a decade earlier, came to Helen’s defense during the trial – loyalty that saw Fido shunned by her sister women’s-movement activists. Donoghue injects dramatic juice into the trial transcript, crafting flesh-and-blood characters and a riveting courtroom drama out of the pages of history.
“The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal,” edited by Jay Parini. Doubleday, 480 pages, $27.50 hardcover.
“Selected” indeed – all but three of the 24 essays in this Vidal-lite offering of sparkling thought were included among the 114 (!) pieces in 1993’s “United States: Essays 1952-1992.” Even at just 20 per cent of his fighting weight, however, Vidal remains a champion man of letters. Half the selections cover literary criticism: Vidal cherishes Tennessee Williams, Dawn Powell, and Edmund Wilson, and he savages Thomas Pynchon, Herman Wouk, and John Updike, among others. The other half focuses on social and political commentary – the dark side of the Kennedy legacy, the sissy side of Theodore Roosevelt, and the function of pornography. Included among the three newer essays is “Black Tuesday,” a caustic, cranky, and controversial condemnation of the Bush administration’s imperial ambitions in the wake of Sept. 11 – proof, though there’s certainly no real doubt, that the fires of umbrage burn bright in an old literary lion. If there are any intelligent readers out there unfamiliar with Vidal’s self-assured eloquence, this volume is a fine, albeit skimpy, introduction.
“My Trip Down the Pink Carpet,” by Leslie Jordan. Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, $21.95 hardcover.
Pint-sized playwright and TV actor Jordan, memorably typecast as fiercely fey “Beverley Leslie” in the sitcom “Will & Grace,” is everything in print he appeared to be on screen: a scrappy queen. The self-described “gayest man I know” fled his conservative Tennessee family for Los Angeles, determined to escape a stultifying childhood, complete with a disapproving Dad and days filled with bullying. Much like Paul Lynde, one of his predecessors as Hollywood’s obvious homosexual, Jordan masked a self-loathing interior with a high-camp exterior, until his penchant for anonymous sex and serious substance abuse caught up with him. Boy George – who taught him how to say “I have a big dick” in Japanese – George Clooney, and Beverly D’Angelo are among the Hollywood personalities who make cameo appearances. But the real star of this life-laid-bare memoir is Jordan, whose remarkable candor about a stint in jail, the rigors of recovery, and how he came to love his sissy self, is alternately vulnerable, hilarious, wistful, and optimistic.
“Me and Mickie James,” by Drew Gummerson. Jonathan Cape, 208 pages, $18 paper.
There isn’t an iota of plausibility to this inventively offbeat British novel about a gay musician, his much-more talented hunchback boyfriend, and their wacky adventures on the way to fame – or maybe not – as the power-pop duo Down by Law. And that’s its greatest charm. The two musical hopefuls almost make it in London, where hunchback Mickie appears as Quasimodo in a low-rent stage show, and the unnamed narrator films a cosmically unfortunate porn cameo so they can afford to eat. They almost make it in Iraq, where they’re caught up in the search for weapons of mass destruction. They almost make it in Japan – until the porn tape surfaces, alienating the parents of their prepubescent female fans. And they almost make it in Vietnam, after penning a protest song about the wartime use of Agent Orange. The pace is frenzied, but Gummerson anchors this charmingly quirky novel with exuberant storytelling and effervescent dialogue – and through his characters’ faith that true love will survive all travails.
When I was little, I think both Peggy Ann and Mary Lucille took one look at me and thought, “He’s going to need some help!” They circled the wagons, as only true Southern women can do, and created a secret garden where it was okay for little boys to play with dolls. How sweet is that? It was also okay for little boys to read about Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew instead of those rambunctious Hardy Boys. And it was okay for little boys to make potholders and sew doll clothes. I was “artistic,” and they encouraged me in that arena. But somehow, even at a young age, I knew it was best to not let Daddy into our little secret garden.
-from “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet,” by Leslie Jordan
Bywater Books wants to know what the most important lesbian books of the last century were – anything published between 1900 and 2000 – and has launched “The 20th Century Big Lesbian Read” to find out. “Which books changed lives? Changed our views of the world? Changed the world? Changed literature? Which are the classics? Which books were just our favorites?” Publishers Kelly Smith, Marianne K. Martin, and Val McDermid want to know. They considered quizzing a panel of experts, but the real experts, they concluded, “are the women who read the books.” So they’re asking readers to nominate as many books – or literary journals, magazines, even lesbian newspapers – as they want. And what’s a lesbian book? “You’re the expert,” they say. “If you think it’s a lesbian book, it is!” Nominations close Aug. 31, and voting follows from Sept. 1 to Oct. 15 at www.bywaterbooks.com. A long list will be offered for voters to make up to five “favorite” selections, and an undetermined-length short list will be announced Oct. 17 at the Bywater Celebrates Lesbian Lit event at Women’s Week in Provincetown. “There’s a whole new generation of readers out there who don’t know this literature at all – we think this is a good way to bring more attention to lesbian books and literature,” says Smith,” identifying which books need to be kept in print and passed on to the next generations of lesbian and queer readers.”