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FALL ARTS 2016: ‘Looking’ for a good book?

Raising trans kids, Milwaukee’s gay history, queer Alaskan poets and more



book, gay news, Washington Blade

The ‘Looking’ coffeetable book features scenes from the memorable HBO series. (Photo courtesy First Third Books)

Before it was possible to Google terms like “gender creative,” Julie Tarney had to trust her instincts when her 2-year-old son Harry told her in 1992, “Inside my head I’m a girl.” “My Son Wears Heels: One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass” (out this week for $24.95) is Tarney’s story of unwavering support for her son by listening carefully, keeping an open mind, and putting Harry’s happiness before society’s edicts.

Originally chronicled in a serialized national column in the Guardian newspaper in the U.K., “Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques” (out Nov. 15, $19.95) provides an insider’s insight into gender politics and how popular media is either ignoring or distorting the transgender movement. Jacques also provides a completely honest account of her sex reassignment surgery at the age of 30 and the journey to redefine her life for her family, her friends and herself.

“Before Pictures” by Douglas Crimp (out Sept. 22, $39) ticks all the boxes for anyone who has followed the long career of art critic Crimp, who famously coined the term “The Pictures Generation” in reference to the postmodern work of artists like Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman during the 1970s and ‘80s. The memoir follows his experiences as a young gay man in New York City in the 1960s, partying alongside the Warhol crowd, and eventually becoming an activist as AIDS began to devastate both the gay and arts communities.

Running parallel to Crimp’s memoir, “Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983” by Tim Lawrence (out Sept. 30, $27.95) examines the intersection of New York City’s party and arts scenes in the early ‘80s, a world of intense creativity, risk and cultural crossover. Lawrence’s history outlines the convergence of disco, punk, hip hop, salsa and jazz with performance and visual art, video, film and fashion, all leading to the development of 21st century dance music.

Having “Looking” withdrawal now that the series and movie are over? Savor memories of the uber-gay HBO series with a coffeetable book of photos from the show. It’s out in October in two versions — one for $59 and another for $88 that features a DVD with interviews, behind-the-scenes footage from the movie and a signed cast photo. Jump fast if you’re interested — only 500 copies of each version are being issued. Details at

While New York or San Francisco might seem like the epicenters of America’s gay rights movement, “LGBT Milwaukee (Images of Modern America)” by Michail Takach ($22.99) seeks to correct that notion, highlighting the history of gay and lesbian culture that was evolving in the Rust Belt city of Milwaukee from the early 1960s. As part of the Wisconsin LGBT History Project, the book’s 150 photographs with detailed captions focus on secret back room hangouts to mega-discos to drag queen culture.

Becoming Who I Am: Young Men on Being Gay” (out Sept. 19; $27.95) is the result of extensive interviews with about 40 young gay men whose average age is 20. Author Ritch C. Savin-Williams explores their first inklings of same-sex attraction, first sexual experiences and their thoughts on love and long-term relationships.

Young Adult, or YA, fiction is the fastest-growing segment of the publishing market, continuing to offer sophisticated stories and viewpoints that are just as interesting for the over-18 reader. “You Know Me Well” by David Levithan and Nina LaCour  ($18.99) is a coming-of-age story set in San Francisco during Pride Week, as two high school classmates, Mark and Kate, who have never spoken, suddenly run into each other one night in the city while avoiding the people they want to be with. Mark is struggling with his unrequited feelings for his best friend Ryan, while Kate is fearful of finally meeting the girl she’s loved from afar.

Tippi Hedren, one of the most famous Hitchcock blondes, releases her memoir “Tippi: a Memoir” ($28.99) on Nov. 1.

“Girl Mans Up” by M-E Girard (released this month, $17.99) is another YA title that will resonate as Pen tries to navigate a world where the cultural expectations from people around her, from her parents to her friends, make it difficult for her to simply be who she is — a girl who isn’t interested in looking feminine, has strong feelings for other girls, and, at the heart of it all, is still a girl at the end of the day who doesn’t want to pretend to be something she’s not.

“It Looks Like This” (out this month, $16.99) by debut author Rafi Mittlefehldt is a tale of first love and loss, following Mike as he and his family move to a new city and he starts at a new high school, constantly urged by his father to give up art for sports as he befriends new kid Sean. Ultimately hopeful, the story doesn’t shy away from the fear that compels parents to send their kids to “straight camp” or the bittersweet need for acceptance from the people we love.

Flynn’s girlfriend is missing, but that’s the least of his problems in “Last Seen Leaving” by Caleb Roehrig (Oct. 4; $17.99). This suspenseful mystery forces Flynn to confront his own demons while being scrutinized by cops and friends, with wit, grit and realism.

“Murder Ink” (Oct. 1; $14.99) is the first offering in the Dakota Jones, P.I. Mystery series, as Jones, the owner of Runaway Investigations, tries to spend a quiet holiday with her girlfriend Kris, a homicide officer, until Kris gets caught up in the investigation of the sordid murder of the proprietor of Fantasy Escorts, who Jones once worked for, back in the old days.

Alaska may, indeed, seem like another country, a place where people go to reinvent themselves in a fresh landscape, as evident in “Building Fires in the Snow: A Collection of Alaska LGBTQ Short Fiction and Poetry” (out this week, $29.95). The anthology gathers stories and poems from across the wide spectrum of Alaska’s LGBT community, shining a light on the everyday lives of gay and lesbian individuals and families within a historically diverse culture.

“The Sea Is Quiet Tonight: a Memoir” by Michael H. Ward (Nov. 1, $19.99) is, by turns, a painful reminder and inspiration tale of both the love and loss experienced by so many during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Ward details his partner Mark’s diagnosis and death with honesty, delving into the closeness that can develop between partners, family and friends, even as death is imminent.

Using a collection of characters from pop culture, activism, and academia, “Queer: A Graphic History” by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele (Nov. 15, $17.95) uses the graphic novel to guide readers through the history of identity politics, queer theory and gender roles. Fresh interpretations and clever illustrations help bring new life to academic constructs and an understanding of the intersection of biology, psychology, and modern culture.

‘My Son Wears Heels’ by Julie Tarney tells of her experiences raising a gender non-conforming son. (Photo courtesy University of Wisconsin Press)

‘My Son Wears Heels’ by Julie Tarney tells of her experiences raising a gender non-conforming son. (Photo courtesy University of Wisconsin Press)

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New book reveals that some secrets last a lifetime

‘All the Broken Places’ should be on your must-read list



(Book cover image courtesy Pamela Dorman Books)

All the Broken Places
By John Boyne
c. 2022, Pamela Dorman Books
$28/400 pages

It shall not pass your lips.

No, That Thing You Do Not Talk About is off-limits in all conversation, a non-topic when the subject surfaces. Truly, there are just certain things that are nobody’s business and in the new novel, “All the Broken Places” by John Boyne, some secrets must last a lifetime.

She hated the idea that she would have to adjust to new neighbors.

Ninety-one-year-old Gretel Fernsby wasn’t so much bothered by new people, as she was by new noise. She hated the thought of inuring herself to new sounds, and what if the new tenants had children? That was the worst of all. Gretel never was much for children, not her own and certainly not any living below her.

Once, there was a time when Gretel could imagine herself with many children. That was nearly 80 years ago, when she was in love with her father’s driver, Kurt. She thought about Kurt through the years – he had fallen out of favor with her father, and was sent elsewhere – and she wondered if he survived the war.

Her father didn’t, nor did her younger brother but Gretel didn’t think about those things. What happened at the “other place” was not her fault.

She hadn’t known. She was innocent.

That was what she told herself as she and her mother fled to Paris. Gretel was 15 then, and she worked hard to get rid of her German accent but not everyone was fooled by her bad French or her story. She was accosted, hated. As soon as her mother died, she sailed to Australia, where she lived with a woman who loved other women, until it became dangerous there, too. She practiced her English and moved to London where she was married, widowed, and now she had to get used to new neighbors and new sounds and new ways for old secrets to sneak into a conversation.

OK, clear your calendar. Get “All the Broken Places” and just don’t make any plans, other than to read and read and read.

The very first impression you get of author John Boyne’s main character, Gretel, is that she’s grumpy, awful, and nasty. With the many bon mots she drops, however, the feeling passes and it’s sometimes easy to almost like her – although it’s clear that she’s done some vile things in her lifetime, things that emerge slowly as the horror of her story dawns. Then again, she professes to dislike children, but (no spoilers here!) she doesn’t, not really, and that makes her seem like someone’s sweet old grandmother. ‘Tis a conundrum.

Don’t let that fool you, though. Boyne has a number of Gretel-sized roadside bombs planted along the journey that is this book. Each ka-boom will hit your heart a little harder.

This is a somewhat-sequel to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” but you can read it alone. Do, and when you finish, you’ll want to immediately read it again, to savor anew.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system



(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

A Place Called Home: A Memoir
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation



(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

The Family Outing: A Memoir
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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