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SPRING ARTS 2019 BOOKS: Stonewall 50th inspires new books

Dustin Lance Black shares memories of growing up gay and Mormon in ‘Mama’s Boy’

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2019 gay books, gay news, Washington Blade
Stonewall milestone inspires spate of new books.

In I.M.: A Memoir (Flatiron Books, just released), American fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi shares his experiences growing gay in a Syrian Orthodox Jewish family, living through the AIDS epidemic and struggling with weight, insomnia and depression.

In their highly anticipated Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 5), LGBT rights activist and host of MSNBC’s Queer 2.0 Jacob Tobia reflects on their relationship with gender from being labeled male at birth to identifying as genderqueer today.

Love and Resistance: Out of the Closet into the Stonewall Era (W. W. Norton & Company, March 5) brings together over 100 powerful photographs from the LGBT liberation movement, with a focus on queer activism in the ’60s and ’70s. Put together by Jason Baumann, Kay Tobin Lahusen and Diana Davies, the book will come out just in time for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall.

First released as a play at the Young Vic Theatre in London, Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance (Faber & Faber, March 5) gives a glimpse into the lives young gay men living in New York City after the peak of the AIDS epidemic.

When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History (St. Martin’s Press, March 5) takes a new look at LGBT life in Brooklyn from the mid-1850s to modern day. Written by queer historian Hugh Ryan, the book explores LGBT history in New York beyond Greenwich Village, Harlem and the rest of Manhattan.

In Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States (Little, Brown and Company, March 5), Daily Beast reporter Samantha Allen offers a glimpse into LGBT life in Red America. A trans woman who holds onto an undying love for “flyover country,” Allen shares the incredible stories of the activists and everyday Americans who chose not to leave their homes for the coasts. 

In The Last 8 (Sourcebooks, March 5), debut YA author Laura Pohl tells the story of Clover Martinez, a bisexual aromantic girl and one of the few survivors of an alien invasion on Earth. After the invasion, Clover meets a group of other teens her age but suddenly becomes conflicted about her decision to join them when she learns they don’t want to fight back.

Award-winning playwright and debut author Mariah MacCarthy introduces us to Jenna Watson in her novel Squad (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, March 12). A cheerleader whose life turns on its head when the girls she views as her best friends stop inviting her out with them, Jenna starts to date a trans boy and explore life beyond cheer.

Award-winning writer and former public school teacher Mathangi Subramanian provides a glimpse into queer life in India in her first work of literary fiction. A People’s History of Heaven (Algonquin, March 19) tells the story of a group of five girls — queer, trans or otherwise marginalized — who fight back against the government officials who want to tear down their homes in the 30-year-old slum they call Heaven. 

In Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience (Atria Books, March 26), former U.S. Marine Captain Anuradha Bhagwati reflects on her experience as a bisexual woman growing up with strict Indian parents and her fight that ultimately allowed women to serve in combat roles in the U.S. military.

In This One Looks Like a Boy: My Gender Journey to Life as a Man (Greystone Books, March 31), Canadian writer and former police officer Lorimer Shenher shares the story of his transition, from his gender dysphoria and struggles with alcohol to his decision to be open about his identity and receive gender reassignment surgery in his 50s. “This One Looks Like a Boy” is Shenher’s second book, following “That Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away.” 

In He Said, She Said: Lessons, Stories, and Mistakes from my Transgender Journey (Harmony, April 2), famous beauty Youtuber Gigi Gorgeous shares the story of her transition, from her early years as a self-described “high school mean girl” to her decision to be open about her gender identity and sexuality. 

Soraya Zaman’s American Boys (Daylight Books, April 2) showcases a visual representation of trans-masculine identity across the United States. With an introduction from trans porn star, director and icon Buck Angel, the book offers a new look at gender expression and what it means to be a man.

In The Meaning of Birds (HarperTeen, April 16), young adult author Jaye Robin Brown gives a glimpse into Jess’s world after the love of her life Vivi passes away. Jess abandons her plans to attend art school and finds some new friends as she processes her grief. 

Gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black won an Academy Award for his work on “Milk,” the 2008 biographical film that depicted the life of Harvey Milk. He also comes from a Mormon family that didn’t initially want to accept him. In Mama’s Boy: A Story from Our Americas (Knopf, April 30), he tells the story of his coming out and how his family remained close in the years following.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, The New York Public Library put together The Stonewall Reader (Penguin Classics, April 30). With a forward from gay novelist Edmund White, the book shares diary entries, literature, articles and more from the years preceding and directly following the uprising.

Debut author Arabelle Sicardi is giving LGBT kids a few icons of their own in Queer Heroes (Wide Eyed Editions, May 7). The children’s book shares the lives of 52 prominent LGBT figures throughout history, from Audre Lorde to Frida Kahlo. 

Debut author Tanya Boteju’s Kings, Queens and In-Betweens (Simon Pulse, May 7) mixes drag, identity and self-discovery. In the novel, Nima Kumara-Clark grows bored with her life in Bridgeton and heads to the other side of town for a change in scene. She becomes wrapped up in a world of drag and learns more about herself than she expected. 

The much-anticipated coffee table book We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation (Ten Speed Press, May 7) takes a sweeping look at queer history from the pre-Stonewall era to modern day. Written by the creators of the widely popular @lgbt_history Instagram account, Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown, the book combines about 300 photographs with extensive historical narrative to provide a new and more comprehensive window into LGBT life and resistance. 

In Red, White & Royal Blue: A Novel (St. Griffin’s Press, May 14), first-time author Casey McQuiston tells the story of America’s First Son’s meeting with the Prince of Wales and the international ramifications of the love the two develop for each other.

In Like a Love Story,” (June 4) Abdi Nazemian details the teenage years of Reza, an Iranian boy who moves to New York City in 1989. Reza begins to date a girl named Judy but soon realizes he must find a way out of their relationship when he falls for her best friend Art. 

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New book reveals that some secrets last a lifetime

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

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(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

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(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

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(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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