by Richard Labonte
“The Moonlit Earth,” by Christopher Rice. Scribner, 368 pages, $25 hardcover.
Terrorist bombings, family secrets, sibling conflicts, corruptive wealth, maze-like conspiracies, a closeted 18-year-old Muslim scion and a handsome homo flight attendant: Rice stuffs a whole lot of plot into his fifth novel. The story is somewhat dense, with oodles of expository asides, but nonetheless zips along at a page-turner pace. When West Hollywood party-boy flight attendant Cameron is caught on video fleeing a Hong Kong hotel bombing, accompanied by a shady Middle Eastern character, his slightly estranged but still loyal sister, Megan, sets out to prove her brother is no terrorist. Despite Cameron’s proclivities – and his interaction with a young, hedonistic Saudi Prince, Aabid, who tries to buy Cameron’s affections with an envelope of cash – there’s less queer content than in Rice’s previous books. Instead, in fine thriller fashion, the novel tackles the murky, menacing world of great wealth, overarching egos, the politics of oil, the strictures of religion and the riveting intersection of greed and power. It’s a mega-tale balanced nicely by the evolving relationship between a sister and a brother who, growing up, learned to depend on each other.
“Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher,” by Monica Nolan. Kensington Books, 304 pages, $15 paper.
Three, three, three genres in one. It’s a murder mystery – who killed the elderly professorial companion of Metamora Academy’s befuddled but benign headmistress? It’s a romance – with which of the sometimes sultry, sometimes standoffish teachers will fledgling gym teacher Bobby Blanchard find the sexual and emotional connection she longs for, after she’s dumped by her closeted, class-conscious girlfriend? And, as with Nolan’s hilariously saucy debut novel, “Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary,” it’s a campy homage to the classic lesbian pulps of Paula Christian, Ann Bannon and Vin Packer – set at an elite boarding school for often snotty girls, where newcomer Bobby decides to revive the school’s once-formidable field hockey team. Looming over the action is the school’s historic bell tower, exuding mystery and menace, from which the former Math Mistress plunged to her messy death. Nolan’s pell-mell pastiche of varied genres – add outrageous humor to the mystery, romance and pulpy homage – is great fun, both on the playing field and off.
“Madre & I: A Memoir of Our Immigrant Lives,” by Guillermo Reyes. University of Wisconsin Press, 288 pages, $18.95 paper.
Reyes, an accomplished playwright and theater professor, bares his soul with searing candor in this graceful memoir about growing up as a Chilean immigrant in America. It’s as much the story of his mother’s life in a new land as it is his own. The book recounts tenuous ties to a father and family he barely knew back in Chile, until later in life; his mother’s work as a house cleaner and a nanny, forever putting her son’s interests ahead of her own; and his years-long, self-conscious struggle with same-sex relations and body image, despite the fact that pictures of a young Reyes in his 20s show him to be a handsome fellow. As a boy, he wouldn’t go to the beach, for fear of exposing his body to the ridicule he assumed awaited him; and though he had high school and college crushes, disrobing for sex was always traumatic. The author’s honesty about coming to terms with his fears is expressed with a compelling combination of poignant honesty and rueful wit, a tone that infuses this spirited life story.
“Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead,” by Paula Byrne. HarperCollins, 384 pages, $25.99 hardcover.
The secret of Brideshead isn’t much of a surprise: they were all poofters, as British biographer Byrne recounts in this delectable blend of meticulous (and truly original) literary research and wickedly entertaining social and sexual gossip. Waugh was a middle-class public school lad whose wit, style and bisexuality gained him admission at Oxford to an inner circle of well-born gay intellects. That’s where he met Hugh Lygon, the dissolute son of Earl and Countess Beauchamp, whose ancestral home of Madresfield, and whose scandalous ways – Lord Beauchamp was exiled from England after his many affairs with servants were exposed – provided fodder for Waugh’s best-known novel, “Bridheshead Revisited.” It’s Byrne’s contention, solidly backed up with quotes from letters between Waugh and his contemporaries, including two of Hugh’s sisters, that the author gravitated to the Beauchamps in search of a sense of family. Byrne also concludes that Waugh wasn’t the curmudgeonly misanthrope and ambitious social climber other biographies have depicted him to be, but was a more complex and rather honorable fellow.
Harold Nicolson, the diplomat and diarist, recalled an astonished fellow guest at Madresfield who asked: “Did I hear Beauchamp whisper to the butler, ‘Je t’adore?'” “Nonsense,” Nicolson replied. “He said, ‘Shut the door.'” But Nicolson, bisexual husband of Vita Sackville-West, knew that the other guest had indeed heard correctly. The Madresfield butler, Bradford, was an exceptionally handsome man. Not all the servants were homosexual, although many were. One day a heterosexual servant, finding the door locked to the drawing room in the family’s London home, peeped through the keyhole to find the earl and his doctor sexually engaged on the sofa.
-from “Mad World,” by Paula Byrne
The Publishing Triangle, an organization of queer book professionals, has honored Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook with the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement (named after a legendary gay editor of the 1970s and 1980s). The third volume of Cook’s epic biography is forthcoming; volume one was published in 1992, and volume two, in 1999. At its annual awards ceremony, April 29 in New York, the Triangle also honored veteran book publicist Michele Karlsberg with its annual Leadership Award, created in 2002 to recognize contributions to lesbian and gay literature by those who are not primarily writers. Before turning to publicity more than 20 years ago, Karlsberg was co-founder, with the late writer and editor Stan Leventhal, of Amethyst Press, described by Sarah Schulman as having published “the most interesting collection of gay male writing in the history of our literature.” As a publicist, Karlsberg has worked with Kate Clinton, Bob Morris, Jewelle Gomez, Felice Picano, Ellen Hart, and Shawn Stewart Ruff, as well as the two most recent winners of the Publishing Triangle’s Bill Whitehead Award, Katherine V. Forrest and Martin Duberman; she also produced the first Olivia Book Expo on the Holland Americas line, and is the co-editor of the anthologies “To Be Continued” and “To Be Continued Take Two.”