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FALL ARTS 2019: BOOKS — ‘Revisiting Gilead’

‘Handmaid’s’ sequel, Van Ness and Rippon memoirs, posthumous Windsor bio, epic Sontag study and more among fall releases

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Fall Arts Books, gay news, Washington Blade
(Book covers courtesy of the publishers)

Inspirational “tell-alls” from athletes, activists and celebrities comprise many of the highly anticipated LGBT books slated for release in the coming months.

Kicking things off Sept. 3 was the release of former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan’s memoir “My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life.” O’Callaghan’s work reveals the physical and emotional pain driving his addictions and suicidal thoughts while struggling as a closeted lineman for the New England Patriots and later the Kansas City Chiefs. His journey to self-acceptance is challenging as it detours through the hyper masculine world of professional football.

“We are Lost and Found” by Helene Dunbar is a coming-of-age story of a group of gay friends struggling to find their identities against the backdrop of the early 1980’s AIDS crisis. This YA novel provides an interesting way for youth of all backgrounds to explore a dark history that is rarely discussed. It was released Sept. 3.

Finding poetry in Drunktown, N.M., where men “only touch when they fuck in a backseat” is exactly what Jake Skeets had done with “Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers.” This debut collection finds beauty in brutal sex against an unforgiving landscape, yet also reveals unexpected love. Blending Navajo history with mining culture, Skeets’ work was selected as a winner of the 2018 National Poetry series. It was released Sept. 10.

Also released earlier this week was “The Testaments: the Sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. Since the hit Hulu series captured fire, Atwood opted to finally write a follow-up to her acclaimed 1985 novel upon which the series is based. It picks up Offred’s story 15 years after the first book and weaves in strands of story from the show that weren’t in the original book.

“Sontag: Her Life and Work” by Benjamin Moser explores the writing, public radicalism and private thoughts of queer activist Susan Sontag, who wrote on feminism, homosexuality, drugs and fascism long before these issues went mainstream. She was there for the Cuban Revolution, the Vietnam War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. She covered it all while enduring intense relationships with glamorous lovers. This hefty work — it’s more than 700 pages — explores her public successes and private failures with an eye toward history that makes it a must read. Out Sept. 17.

Releasing the same day is “Space Between: Explorations of Love, Sex and Fluidity” by gender-fluid actor and model Nico Tortorella, who has had roles in “Scream 4,” “The Following” and “Younger.” It investigates love, sex, gender, addiction, family, fame and fluidity through their personal story and through the lens of their nonbinary identity. This memoir tells of their dark journey through pain and addiction toward sobriety and an unconventional marriage outside the gender binary. This title is available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

“Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness’s memoir “Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love” is out Sept. 24.

Poet (and regular Blade contributor) Kathi Wolfe’s new book “Love and Kumquats: New and Selected Poems” will be published by BrickHouse Books in October. She will read selections at Busboys & Poets (14th and V) on Oct. 20. 

“The Boy Who Listened to Paintings: A Memoir” by Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award winner Dean Kostos explores a point in his life when he was bullied to the brink of suicide and spent two years in the mental hospital where his mother had stayed. This work addresses mental illness in adolescents and celebrates the transformative power of art. Available Oct. 1.

Edie Windsor sued the U.S. government for the right to marry Thea Spyer, her partner of 40 years, and she won. “A Wild and Precious Life” is her posthumous memoir (she died in 2017) describing gay life in 1950s and ’60s New York and her longtime activism which opened the door to marriage equality. Available Oct. 8.

Selected by O Magazine, Marie Claire and others as one of the most anticipated books of fall 2019, “How We Fight For Our Lives” by Saeed Jones is a memoir about a young, black gay man coming of age in the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself in his family as well as his country. Fans of the film “Moonlight” will appreciate the honesty and vulnerability displayed in this work. Set for release Oct. 8.

Olympic medalist Adam Rippon’s memoir “Beautiful on the Outside” releases Oct. 15 and blends humor with history as he shares his journey through the world of competitive figure skating. 

Deborah Levy’s “The Man Who Saw Everything” is novel that blurs the sexual and political binaries of masculine and feminine while telling the story of a narcissistic young historian who travels to Communist East Berlin in 1988 to publish a story favorable to the regime. It’s slated for Oct. 15.

“A Year Without A Name” by Cyrus Grace Dunham is a memoir detailing their painful evolution from lovable little girl, to gay woman to nonbinary queerness. Dunham lays bare their personal experience to help readers feel the anguish of binary limitations but also the profound freedom of acceptance without resolution. Dunham’s book also releases Oct. 15 and is available for pre-order

Find Me,” the sequel to queer love story “Call Me By Your Name” by Andre Aciman, is slated for an Oct. 29 release and will let the world know what became of Elio, Oliver and Elio’s father, now divorced. The original novel inspired the 2017 film adaptation by Luca Guadagnino, which became a monster hit.

Trans novelist (and former D.C. resident) Alex Myers returns with his sophomore novel “Continental Divide,” about a trans protagonist heading West to Wyoming in search of a new life, in November. 

Carmen Maria Machado, winner of the Lambda Lesbian Fiction Literary Award for her debut short story collection, “Her Body and Other Parties,” has a new memoir coming out Nov. 5 called “In the Dream House.” This work is an account of an abusive relationship with a charismatic but volatile woman. Throughout the memoir Machado struggles to make sense of what happened to her and how it shaped the person she would become. “Dream House” is available now on Amazon for pre-order.

“Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman” is Abby Stein’s memoir about being raised in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn. But instead of becoming a leader of the next generation of Hasidic Jews, she leaves her home, her family, her way of life to become the person she was meant to be. Stein’s memoir releases Nov. 12.

The alternative historical drama “Legislating Love: the Everett Klippert Story” by Natalie Meisner blends fiction with queer history as it tells the story of Maxine, a Canadian social policy researcher, who discovers the story of Everett Klippert, the last Canadian man jailed for homosexuality. Fascinated, she interviews the people who knew him while navigating her own relationship with Tonya. Set for release Nov. 15.

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Books

‘Seek’ shows how one tiny action can open big doors

New book could ‘transform your life and change the world’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Balance)

‘Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World’
By Scott Shigeoka
c.2023, Balance 
$30/243 pages

Curiosity killed the cat.

That’s what Grandma said when you were a nosy little kid but hey, you needed to learn about your world. Asking questions, that’s what kids do – and so do savvy grown-ups. Curiosity may have plagued Grandma’s cat but as you’ll see in “Seek” by Scott Shigeoka, a lack of it could do you harm.

His friends worried about him.

When Scott Shigeoka quit his job to travel around America for a year, they figured he’d be the target of all kinds of bad things. As a queer Asian-American man, Shigeoka wasn’t searching for himself, and he surely wasn’t looking for trouble. No, he was looking for strangers, to see what we have in common with one another.

“I wanted to feel less scared and angry all the time,” he says.

Shigeoka’s interpretation of studies is that our general lack of curiosity about one another “is literally killing us.” With that in mind, he left his home and his job and headed out to small towns in the South, a reservation in Minnesota, a Trump rally, and a retreat center with nuns and millennials. He squashed his inner negativity, bravely swallowed his reluctance, approached people, and cultivated his curiosity by speaking with religious leaders, zealots, and everyday folks. In doing so, he learned to D.I.V.E. into his outward curiosity.

Detach, he says, and let go of “the ABCs”: assumptions, biases, and certainty. Even if you think you’re against racism, homophobia, or any other intolerance, you “still have unconscious biases that need to be… interrupted and challenged.” Learn to act with Intent. Know what questions to ask so that you can best learn about others and their thoughts. Show someone their Value by remembering that their political leaning, for instance, “is only one piece of a person’s life and personality.” And finally, learn to Embrace what’s in front of you. This will “open the doors” to “more fulfillment and happiness to your life.”

Does it sometimes seem as though today’s world is filled with awkward moments? Like you want to communicate with people you meet, but the rules have changed? Or maybe you have and if that’s the case, then author Scott Shigeoka has a fix. In “Seek,” he shows how one tiny action can open great big doors.

It seems kind of fun, actually: you meet someone new, show a gentle bit of interest and pay attention, ask a few open-ended questions, and voila! New friend or client. New, healthy lines of communication. New or enhanced working relationship. Big yay.

And yet – while this book is very useful, easy to grasp, and enthusiastic, Shigeoka has very few cautionary words to offer readers who may be too eager. Some of the ideas here, in the wrong hands, may be perceived as obnoxious or threatening. Understanding when to back off might have been good advice here, too.

Keep that in mind, know your target, open your heart, and have fun. If your curiosity needs fluffing up, “Seek” may be the purrfect book for you.

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

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‘Gender Pioneers’ reminds readers that trans people are not new

‘A Celebration of Transgender, Non-Binary and Intersex Icons’

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(Book cover courtesy of Jessica Kingsley Publishers)

‘Gender Pioneers: A Celebration of Transgender, Non-Binary and Intersex Icons’
By Philippa Punchard
c.2022, Jessica Kingsley Publishers 
$22.95/118 pages

Take a left at the first road, then right and right again.

It’s always a good idea to know where you’re going – but then again, getting lost can have its benefits, too. Veering off an easy path gives you a chance to see things, maybe even something better. You can get all kinds of directions for life but sometimes, as in “Gender Pioneers” by Philippa Punchard, you just gotta step off the road.

In 1912, French audiences were thrilled by the talent of a trapeze artist known as Barbette. The lovely Barbette flew over the heads of Parisians solo, gracefully, and the best citizens followed those performances avidly. By 1919, Babette added to the end of the performance the revelation that “she” was really Vander Clyde Broadway, a male performer.

We might think that being transgender is “new” and just “a Western thing,” but Punchard has reason to disagree: history is dotted with men passing as women, and women living as men. As Christine Burns says in the foreword, “Trans people are not a new thing.”

Some seemed to do it as a means to an end: Ellen and William Craft wore clothing of the opposite sex in order to escape slavery in 1848. Betty Cooper may have worn men’s clothing for the same reason in 1771. Neither case, says Punchard, indicates “classical” trans behavior, but we’ll never know for sure.

Biawacheeitchish, who grew up to be powerful, wealthy, with four wives, was kidnapped as a young girl and was encouraged by their Native American adoptive father to engage in male activities, perhaps because he’d lost two sons; in another time and place, Biawacheeitchish would’ve been called a “female husband.” Dora Richter, the first woman to receive vaginoplasty, was killed by “a Nazi mob.” Dr. James Barry, a highly renowned surgeon, used “built-up shoes and… padding to appear more masculine…” James Allen and Billy Tipton were both married to women before death revealed that they were female. And Mary Read was a girl, until their mother lost her only son.

In her foreword, Burns says that there are “two awkward challenges” when we talk about trans people in history: were they intersex, rather than trans; and were they people – mostly women – who presented as the opposite gender to gain the benefits of the opposite gender? The questions demand more study and “Gender Pioneers” offers a launching point.

Open this book anywhere and you’ll see that the theme here is serious, but author Philippa Punchard also lends a bit of breeze. There’s no certain order to what you’ll read, and while the entries reach back to ancient times, they focus more on the past 300 years or so; each of the articles is short and to-the-point, and the soft illustrations invite browsing. For readers who want a quick read, this works.

Be sure to keep going through both appendices of this book, where you’ll find a wealth of further information and dates to remember. Historians and readers of trans history will find “Gender Pioneers” just right.

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

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‘The Risk It Takes to Bloom’ offers plainspoken inspiration

An accessible trans coming-out story

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(Book cover image courtesy of St. Martin's Press)

‘The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation’
By Raquel Willis
c.2023, St. Martin’s Press
$29/384 pages

The catalogs should start arriving soon.

If you’re a gardener, that’s a siren song for you. What will you put in your pots and plots this spring? What colors will you have, what crops will you harvest? It never gets old: put a seed no bigger than a breadcrumb into some dirt and it becomes dinner in just weeks. All it needs, as in the new memoir “The Risk It Takes to Bloom” by Raquel Willis, is a little time to grow.

The last time Raquel Willis remembers being completely safe and loved without strings attached was at age five, at a talent show. Shortly afterwards, some elders began telling Willis to speak with “a particular brand of clear,” to move differently, to act differently. Willis was a Black boy then, and that was how her father worked against his son’s “softness.”

Willis didn’t know the truth about herself then, but other boys did. So, eventually, did the girls, as a grade school Willis “gravitated… toward” them. Young Willis prayed for God to “just make me a girl” but the bullying that had already begun only got worse.

She changed schools and things were no better; meanwhile, her father tried “even harder to correct who I was becoming.” Friends and online friends were encouraging and supportive, offering her courage to come out to her mother, who thought it was “a phase.” Her father was angry, then accepting. Other family members took Willis’s news in stride.

It was going to be OK. More than OK, in fact, because Willis was introduced to drag, and she started to feel more comfortable in women’s clothing than in men’s attire. To Willis, the drag troupe had begun feeling like family. She settled into life as a gay drag performer, because that was the “language” she had.

And then one day, while talking on the phone with an on-again off-again boyfriend, something important hit Willis, hard.

“I think I’m a woman,” she told him. “I’m a woman — I am.”

Sometimes, it takes a while to understand the person you really are. Half a book, in this case, because “The Risk It Takes to Bloom” is quite wordy: author Raquel Willis tells her story in excruciating detail, and it can get rather long.

And yet, the length allows for clues that readers can follow, to truly see the woman, the activist and writer, who penned this book. But is that enough to attract readers? What sets this book apart from other, similar books by star-powered Black trans women?

The answer lies in the approachability of its author.

Willis tells her tale with a more anchoring feel, more down-to-earth, like she could have lived up the street from you or sat in the last row of your high school algebra class. You could’ve known her. You could know someone like her. Or Willis could be you.

Indeed, this book might hold plainspoken inspiration for anyone who needs it. If that’s you, get “The Risk It Takes to Bloom,” find a chair, and plant yourself.

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

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