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SPRING ARTS 2018 BOOKS: Fact, fiction and beyond

Queer themes — especially trans memoirs — abound in spring book crop

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gay books spring 2018, gay news, Washington Blade

Out author Amber Dawn returns with her second novel ‘Sodom Road Exit’ on April. 3. (Photo courtesy Dawn)

In her much-anticipated memoir, “Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss and the Fight for Trans Equality” (Crown Archetype, March 6), Sarah McBride tells the story of how she went from closeted student body president at American University to the first transgender person to speak at a national political convention at the age of 26. One of the most prominent transgender activists of her time, McBride interweaves thoughtful analysis of contemporary political issues, such as bathroom access and trans health care, into her own triumphant journey. The book begins with a foreword by Joe Biden.

“Speak No Evil: A Novel” by Uzodinma Iweala (Harper, March 6) just might be the coming-out story of the year, and a Washingtonian one at that. Iweala’s heart-wrenching sophomore novel follows Niru, a seemingly charmed track star at an elite D.C. private school bound for Harvard. Only his best friend Meredith knows he is gay until his sexuality is discovered by his conservative Nigerian father. The repercussions are swift and violent, catastrophic for his relationship with his family and taxing in his friendship with Meredith. The novel is a visceral but compassionate portrait of what it means to be different within a family, let alone society at large.

In “The Affliction” (Four Way Books, March 6), award-winning poet C. Dale Young makes his fiction debut with a novel told in fantastical short stories, spanning the United States and Caribbean. Among the novel’s many memorable characters are a man who can disappear, a woman who can see the future and a man raised in a cult who believes he is doomed to die. Young is openly gay and of Latino and Asian descent. He is also very much left- and right-brained in that he is a full-time physician when not writing and teaching creative writing at Warren Wilson College.

“The Sparsholt Affair” by Alan Hollinghurst (Knopf, March 13) begins with a covert gay relationship at Oxford University in 1940 and spans three generations, masterfully unfolding the social and sexual revolutions that have taken place through present day. Instantly a bestseller in the U.K., the novel is anchored by David Sparsholt and Evert Dax, whose evening trysts at Oxford feel especially under the radar with the world at war. Hollinghurst, who won the Man Booker Prize in 2004, is an openly gay English author.

“Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August” by Oliver Hilmes (Brodley Head, March 27) is a fascinating historical account of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Hilmes, a gay German historian, paints an intoxicating picture of the city of Liza Minelli’s “Cabaret” where queer life flourished under the Weimar Republic — contrasted with the terrifying rise of Adolf Hitler. In addition to analyzing the events of the Olympic Games, namely Jesse Owens’ triumph, Hilmes also introduces us to the lives of ordinary (some queer) Berliners. The book is ultimately an ode to the city, which has since reestablished itself as one of the most dynamic creative queer capitals in the world.

Chelsey Johnson’s debut novel, “Stray City” (Custom House, March 20) is the queer anti-“Gilmore Girls” you didn’t know you needed. This warm, hysterical story follows 23-year-old Andrea Morales, who escaped her Midwestern Catholic childhood to create a life for herself in Portland’s vibrant lesbian community. One especially debauched evening, Andrea hooks up with a man and later finds herself pregnant. The novel jumps to a decade later, as Andrea’s precocious daughter Lucia starts asking questions about the father she’s never met.

“Written on the Body,” edited by Lexie Bean (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, March 21), is a collection of essays written by and for trans and non-binary survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. With contributions from Dean Spade, Nyala Moon, Alex Valdes, Sawyer DeVuyst and Ieshai Bailey, this book offers support, guidance and affirmation for trans survivors, whose stories are too often met with incredulousness and skepticism.

Amber Dawn, a Lambda Literary Award winner, returns with her second novel, “Sodom Road Exit” (Arsenal Pulp Press, April 3). This spellbinding paranormal thriller takes place in the summer of 1990 in Crystal Beach. Queer picaresque heroine, Starla Mia Martin, drops out of college and returns to find her lakeside village a ghost town after its beloved amusement park shuts down. Starla soon discovers an unnerving energy in the air — strange sounds, phantasmagoric sightings — and instead of hopping off the rollercoaster, she confronts every twist and turn head-on.

If you’re a poetry fan, “Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color” (Nightboat Books, May 1), edited by Christopher Soto, is a stunning celebration of the diversity of the queer poetry community, as varied in style and form as it is in the experiences held by each contributor. Soto launched Nepantla with the Lambda Literary Foundation as an online journal to share the work of queer and trans poets of color. This is its first time in print, featuring canonical pieces by legends like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin alongside their contemporaries, such as Natalie Diaz, Tommy Pico and Chen Chen.

Celebrated novelist Alexander Chee makes his nonfiction debut with “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” (Mariner Books, April 17). This revealing collection of essays is Chee’s manifesto on what it means to be a contemporary writer and gay man, Korean American, artist, activist, lover and friend. While tracing the most decisive moments of his own life, Chee also examines some of the nation’s biggest historical turning points, from the AIDS crisis to the election of Donald Trump.

“Little Fish” (Arsenal Pulp Press, May 1) is the debut novel from Lambda Literary Award-winning short story writer Casey Plett. The protagonist, Wendy Reimer, is a 30-year-old trans woman who discovers that her late grandfather, a pious Mennonite farmer, was likely transgender as well. In distracting herself from the problems in her own life and those of her friends — from alcoholism, to sex work to suicide — Wendy finds herself fully consumed by this familial mystery and the need to uncover the truth.

“SELF-ish: a Transgender Awakening” (Red Hen Press, May 4), a memoir by Chloe Schwenke, tells of her life and adventures living in five countries and working on projects in more than 40, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. This former Obama Administration appointee, has committed her life to assisting marginalized groups in some of the world’s most challenging countries.

If you haven’t gotten a chance to see it live, snag the paperback of legendary playwright Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” (Theatre Communications Group, May 8). The play opens with Gus Marcantonio, a retired longshoreman, who has gathered his family together to discuss his decision to commit suicide. Kushner, who wrote “Angels in America” and has won a Pulitzer and two Tony Awards, uses his signature wit in telling a story of revolution, family and challenging the systemic constructs we consider inherent to our society. It will be interesting to see how it translates to the page; Theater J’s D.C. production a few years ago felt like three hours of overlapping screaming.

Out playwright Tony Kushner has adapted his play ’The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide …’ to the written page. (Photo courtesy Berkeley Rep)

Other releases of note include:

“The Routledge History of Queer America” (Routledge Histories), edited by Don Romesburg, offers one of the most comprehensive overviews of LGBT U.S. history, featuring nearly 30 chapters spanning the colonial era to present day. The book is $210 and releases March 14.

“Post-Borderlandia: Chicana Literature and Gender Variant Critique”(Rutgers University Press) by Jackie T. Cuevas synthesizes Chicana/o studies with queer theory and transgender studies, exploring gender identity and expression using the Chicana feminist canon and contemporary thinkers and artists. The book is $26.96 and releases March 28. 

“Transforming: the Bible & the Lives of Transgender Christians” (Westminster John Knox Press) by Austen Hartke challenges the way readers conceptualize faith and the transgender experience, analyzing Biblical figures and providing representation to modern-day trans Christians. The book is $16 and out April 7.

“Picture Us in the Light” by Kelly Loy Gilbert (Disney-Hyperion) is a poignant gay YA novel about Danny Cheng, a young artist bound for college who finds himself inexplicably panicked that he’ll be moving far from his best friend, Harry Wong. He’s also shaken by a disturbing discovery in his father’s closet. The book is $17.99 and releases April 10.

“Not Here” (Coffee House Press) is the latest from critically acclaimed queer Vietnamese-American poet Hieu Minh Nguyen. Nguyen uses a wide variety of styles to provocatively confront whiteness, evoke both pleasure and pain, and find a sense of home in deep loneliness. The book is $16.95 and out April 10.

“The Bride Was a Boy” by Chii (Seven Seas, May 1) is a delightful autobiographical manga novel about a transgender love story, drawn in the style of diary comics. Chii, who was assigned male at birth, begins with her childhood and continues through her latest adventure: marrying the man of her dreams. The book is $12.59 and available May 1.

“Now the Night Begins” (Semiotext(e)/Native Agents) is gay French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie’s first foray into literature, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman. Adopting his signature film themes, the novel is driven by disconcerting, overpowering sexual desire, centered on 40-year old protagonist Gilles Heurtebise’s all-encompassing obsession with a 90-year old man in his neighborhood. It costs $24.95 and is out May 11.

“50 Queer Music Icons Who Changed the World” (Hardie Grant, May 15), written by Will Larnach-Jones and illustrated by Michele Rosenthal, is a beautiful tribute to the LGBT musicians who have been pushing boundaries since the 1920s, featuring everyone from Little Richard to Frank Ocean. It’s $14.99 and available May 15.

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Books

‘Playing the Palace’ a campy, fun rom-com read

What happens when a prince meets an event planner

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‘Playing the Palace’
By Paul Rudnick
c.2021, Berkley
$16/272 pages

If you loathe romance or hate to laugh, then skip this book.  

If you’re looking for a rom-com that’s as fab and campy as Provincetown or Rehoboth Beach on a summer night, “Playing the Palace” by Paul Rudnick is the book for you.

Reading “Playing the Palace” is like sipping a delicious frozen Daiquiri.

Carter Ogden, the neurotic, good-hearted, Jewish, funny, out, gay narrator of this frothy romance, becomes your BFF and drinking buddy at the opening sentence, “It’s still weird, waking up alone.”

The plot of the book is simple: Carter, 29, is an associate “event architect” (in plain English – event planner) in New York City. He makes ends meet by living with wacky, supportive roommates.

Carter, a native of Piscataway, N.J., and IHOP aficionado, is feeling dejected as he approaches his 30th birthday. His ex, an actor, has left him. He can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever find love again.

Until, at work, he meets Edgar, the Prince of Wales. Edgar has come over from the United Kingdom to speak at a charity event for a group that works to provide clean water to countries that need it. And, this being a fictional prince in a rom-com, Edgar is openly gay. 

As you’ve been forewarned, we’re not dealing with realism here.

Edgar sees Carter and asks him to give him tips on how he can get his speech across more effectively.  

From that moment on, the two – the IHOP-loving event planner and the future King of England — are in a fine romance. (Edgar is an orphan. His parents were killed in a plane crash.)

Their quest for the happily-ever-after involves pancakes, projectile vomiting, social media and a Thanksgiving meet-up of Carter’s Jewish aunts and Edgar’s grandmother, the Queen of England.

By itself, the story of “Playing the Palace” might seem predictable. What makes it sizzle – why you laugh out loud even as you root for the romance to work out – is its narrative voice.

“Playing the Palace” is a funny, sometimes touching monologue in the voice of Carter.

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to love Carter when he says he “addressed my problems to the framed photo of the late beloved Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the wall of my tiny, partitioned bedroom.”

Writing a whole novel as a monologue could fizzle out if other writers tried it.  

But, Rudnick a gay novelist, playwright, essayist, screenwriter and humorist, is a master of this form.

His plays, produced on and off-Broadway include “Jeffrey,” “I Hate Hamlet,” “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” and “The New Century.” He’s won an Obie Award, two Outer Critics Circle Awards and the John Gassner Playwriting Award.  

Rudnick’s novels include “Social Disease” and “I’ll Take It.” “Gorgeous” and “It’s All Your Fault” are among his YA (young adult) novels.

His screenplays include “Addams Family Values,” “In & Out,” the screen adaptation of “Jeffrey” and “Sister Act.” He wrote the screenplay for “Coastal Elites,” the comedic satire that debuted on HBO last year.

Something of a polymath, Rudnick is, according to his bio, “rumored to be quite close” to film critic Libby Gelman-Waxner, whose reviews have appeared in Premiere magazine and Entertainment Weekly.

A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, his essays have appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times and Vogue.

As you might expect, the volume is chock full of pop culture references and wit. “I took a shower using my new manly body wash,” Carter says, “which is exactly the same as the female version, only with simplified graphics and a steel-gray, squared-off bottle, as if it contains motor oil and testosterone.”

It’s not surprising that Rudnick told Entertainment Weekly that he’s working on a musical of the movie “The Devil Wears Prada.”

Reading “Playing the Palace” is like seeing a Broadway musical.  

“I was looking into eyes that were so radiantly blue I either wanted to faint or yell ‘just stop it,’” Carter says when he first sees Edgar.

“Playing the Palace” is a show-stopper.

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Books

Drew Pisarra’s ‘dangerously funny and queerly inventive brain’

‘You’re Pretty Gay’ shatters expectations and social mores

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Drew Pisarra’s ‘You’re Pretty Gay’ is just out from Chaffinch Press.

Is there anything more absurd than this, wondered gay poet and writer Drew Pisarra.  Pisarra, then, was an assistant to a paralegal at a toothpaste company.

Fiercely protective of the pattern on its toothpaste, they wrote letters to rivals who, they felt, were infringing on their copyright.

Even when their competitors were in countries in the middle of a civil war, “They would write back, ‘we can’t respond now, we’re in a war,’” Pisarra said.

But that didn’t soften the heart of the toothpaste company. They’d insist that “this most important matter be dealt with as soon as the war ends,” Pisarra said.

If you think that authors don’t encounter the absurdity and grit of everyday life or that all writers do is drink coffee (or sip stronger libations) while looking at the sunset, you haven’t met Pisarra.

Pisarra, 56, whose new short story collection “You’re Pretty Gay” is just out from Chaffinch Press, has worked at everything from ventriloquism to domestic work.

The word “unique” is so hackneyed that it’s a cliche to say it’s a cliche. But there’s no other way to describe “You’re Pretty Gay.”

This collection “is a prime example of Drew Pisarra’s dangerously funny and queerly inventive brain,” said Kevin Sampsell, author of “This Is Between Us.” “Each story is its own performance, its own shattering of expectations and social mores.”

Pisarra, who lives in Manhattan, gives readers a mosaic of wit, surrealism,  sex, queerness, memory, mortality and self-discovery.

In “You’re Pretty Gay,” there are gay bars in New York and New Orleans.

You’ll find everything from adolescent bullies fighting over a rare caterpillar to a character taking an AIDS test and, later, meeting up with Mrs. Claus.  

“Mrs. Claus I didn’t even know you were alive,” says the narrator of “Arctic Chill.” “I didn’t even know you were real. I haven’t received a gift from you or your husband in ten years.”

Another of Pisarra’s tales revolves around a trip to hell. “I love traveling,” says the narrator of “The Hat from Hell, “I got this hat when I was in Hell back in 1992.”

In “Granny,” siblings gather after their mother’s death. “All anyone could remember of her was that chair, how she sat in it for the last 40 years,” Pisarra writes, “immobile as ‘Jeopardy’ and the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ glared at her night after night.”

Pisarra’s characters yearn to find love, sex, and who they really are.

“In my quest to bed mankind, I tended to avoid perfection’s rejection,” says the narrator of “Every Man for Myself.”

Pisarra, whose first short story collection “Publick Spanking” was published in 1996, was born in Orange, N.J. When he was in the third grade, he moved to Maryland. There, except for living in Oxon Hill for a year, he grew up in Silver Spring.

When Pisarra was growing up, being gay wasn’t even remotely on the horizon. “There was such denial in the culture then,” Pisarra said.

From early on, he had feelings for men. “I had a crush on a boy in kindergarten,” Pisarra said.

He consulted books and a priest, which wasn’t helpful. They said he’d grow out of it.

“As a teenager, I recognized that I hadn’t outgrown it,” Pisarra said.

Pisarra was a college freshman when he came out. “I sobbed the night I came out,” he said.

He was out in college, Pisarra said, “but I wasn’t getting laid.” That changed when he moved to New Orleans after college.

Pisarra graduated from Hofstra University in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in theater.

In college, a professor had the students sit in a circle. Then, the teacher told them how she thought they’d be cast. 

“She told me, ‘you’re a grotesque,’”Pisarra said, “‘You won’t work until you’re in your fifties. Because your face and body don’t match.’”

Pisarra was relieved to hear this. His sense of relief was related to being a young gay man in the late 1980s.

“I wasn’t interested in being closeted,” Pisarra said, “I wrote. I wanted to perform.  I wasn’t interested in conforming.”

Since then, Pisarra has been creating – performing and writing his own material. Some of the stories in “You’re Pretty Gay” were originally created for the stage.

“I don’t write that often,” Pisarra said, “I started writing the stories in ‘You’re Pretty Gay’ 20 years ago.”

A prodigious reader, Pisarra has always “written to some degree,” he said.

Pisarra got turned on to writing poetry when he went to a meeting of a gay and lesbian writers group.

“There were, like, 10 people in this apartment,” Pisarra said, “there was a terrible woman sitting next to me.”

He would have dropped out of the group, if he hadn’t met writer Mare Davis, now his close friend.  

“I said to her, ‘I never want to see any of these people again except you,’” Pisarra said, “She inspired me to get into poetry.”

Davis wrote the introduction to Pisarra’s poetry collection “Infinity Standing Up” (Capturing Fire Press).

Released in 2019, the volume of sexy, playful sonnets received glowing reviews from the Washington Post, the Blade and other outlets.

“Devour me! Think me not some crazy nut!,” Pisarra writes in one of his sonnets.

With lines like these, he gives Shakespeare a run for his money.

Pisarra has held a variety of jobs – many of which have involved the arts. He has helped homeless people with mental health issues to find housing.

“I ran a writers group for them,” Pisarra said, “I encouraged a super-talented woman to send her work out.”

The woman and Pisarra submitted their work to the same magazine. “Her work was accepted. Mine wasn’t,” he said, “I was thrilled!”

In an unusual career twist, Pisarra, who received a literary grant from the Café Royal Cultural Foundation, toured a ventriloquist act entitled “Singularly Grotesque.” He created the act after the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art commissioned him to develop a new solo piece.

“I was wandering around the library aisles and I found two (self-help) pamphlets on talking with ‘multiple’ selves,’” Pisarra said, “and I thought this is ventriloquism in a nutshell.”

Pisarra hadn’t watched much TV.  But that didn’t keep him from interviewing with AMC to be its director of digital media.

“I thought why not,” Pisarra said, “it would be a chance to see what else is out there in the world.”

He worked on the websites for “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”  “It was a pleasure to be part of the online team for these cultural phenomena!” Pisarra said.

With Molly Gross, Pisarra co-founded Saint Flashlight. In this project, he and Gross find inventive ways to get poetry into public spaces.

One of the project’s most innovative efforts has been putting haiku on movie marquees.  It’s fun to see people, looking up, counting the syllables, Pisarra said. You sweat when you put the letters up on the marquee, he added.

“It’s part of the fun! It makes you feel like you’re making something matter,” Pisarra said.

He doesn’t want poetry to be confined to “The New Yorker.”  “It should push the envelope,” Pisarra said, “It’s not just for the upper crust.”

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Books

‘The Guncle’ never wanted kids but now has two

Novel is as charming as they come with a surprise ending

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‘The Guncle’
By Steven Rowley
c.2021, Putnam
$27/326 pages

The situation you’re facing isn’t one you wanted.

You had no wish for it; in fact, it’s 100 percent the opposite. Not your circus, not your monkeys, as they say. So usually, you’d follow your instincts and run but this time, you surprise yourself by stepping up and taking ownership. Now it is your problem but, as in the new novel, “The Guncle” by Steven Rowley, that’s more than OK.

Sara had been his friend first.

Patrick wasn’t exactly happy when she married his brother, Greg, but she managed to make it work and he loved her for it. He loved her first, actually, and he never let her forget it.

But now she was gone and Greg had asked the impossible: would Patrick – gay man, former TV star, Palm Springs fixture, no-responsibilities Patrick – take Greg and Sara’s kids, nine-year-old Maisie and six-year-old Grant, for the summer so Greg could go to rehab while grieving the death of his wife? Could the kids’ GUP (Gay Uncle Patrick) step up?

No. There was no way that Patrick was taking temporary custody of two kids – but then his older sister, Clara, copped an attitude, rolled her eyes, and told him he was “off the hook.”

PfftRight.

And so Greg headed to rehab after the funeral and the kids went home with Patrick to Palm Springs. It would be a long 90 days.

Grant was cute but full of questions; Patrick learned to make things up. Maisie was nobody’s fool and Patrick learned to hide his passwords. He gave them “Guncle” Rules (gay + uncle = guncle), life lessons, and stories about their mother – but past that, what does a gay man who never wanted kids do when he suddenly has two of them?

He takes them to the museum way too often, that’s what. He takes them to five-star restaurants and cringes when they order kid food. He lounges with them in the pool, gets them a dog, lets them put up a Christmas tree in July, hugs them, and throws a party.

And he loves them.

There are four words that best describe “The Guncle”: A. Dor. A. Bull.

That’s it. This novel is simply as charming as they come and don’t be surprised if you can almost hear your favorite actors as any of the characters here. Don’t be surprised, either, if you spend your vacation racing to reach the ending you think’s coming and you’re wrong.

Indeed, author Steven Rowley offers the perfect mix of snorts and sobs here, snarky fun one minute and pathos the next but neither emotion is belabored or forced. That gives readers room to enjoy the tale as it unfolds and grows like an inflating pool toy, and to watch the characters twisting wistfully in irresistible, concentric circles.

Your ticket’s in your hand, your suitcase is packed, your destination is close, but you need a book to get you there. If you’d love to immerse yourself inside a sweet novel like “The Guncle,” then step right up.

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