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2019 Gift Guide I: Pop culture Christmas

Old albums new on vinyl, lavish box sets and more make great gay gifts — for others or yourself!

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Tired of sifting through the heteronormative glut that feels like it’s about 99 percent of what’s stocked at area malls? Wanna make it look like you did a little more than swing by the Hickory Farms kiosk? There are some queer gems — if you know where to look.

Yvonne Craig as Batgirl (a la the ‘60s “Batman” TV show) gets her own Hallmark Keepsake Ornament this year. $16.99 at hallmark.com.

We mentioned this release last year on CD but now Diana Ross’s compilation album “Wonderful Christmas Time” is out on black or translucent cherry red vinyl. It’s out now for $34.98 at shop.udiscovermusic.com. Heads up — Miss Ross plays the Kennedy Center with the NSO Pops Jan. 9-11. 

Janet Jackson released her ’86-’01 classic albums (plus a double-disc remix compilation) in both black and color (or photo) sets. “The Velvet Rope” (1997) is $24.98 in black or $29.98 in red at janetjacksonshop.com. Also, 90 (!) “Rhythm Nation” remixes were gathered in September and released digitally.

Cheap Queen” is the debut album (out in October) from unabashedly queer artist King Princess. Look for her on “SNL” this weekend (Nov. 23) and on tour in 2020 with Harry Styles. Look for it at kingprincessmusic.com or anywhere music is sold or streamed. 

R.E.M. celebrates the 25th anniversary of its classic album “Monster” with several configurations — a remix album from producer Scott Litt, previously unreleased demos, a ’95 concert, extensive video footage and new liner notes. Lead singer Michael Stipe is queer. Bundles range from $22 for the standard vinyl reissue to $135 for a set with T-shirt, socks, hoodie, patches and more at store.remhq.com

Mariah Carey has a bounty of tie-in goodies to go along with the deluxe anniversary edition of her classic ’94 album “Merry Christmas” Get the two-CD set with this stocking for $39.98 at mariahcareyshop.com. She plays MGM National Harbour Dec. 9-10. 

Revisit early gay iconography with the coffeetable book “Peter Berlin: Icon, Artist, Photosexual” ($37), a tribute to the early ‘70s provocateur. Available at Amazon, etc. 

The Movie Musical!” by Jeanine Basinger ($45) bills itself as “irresistible and authoritative.” Available at Amazon, etc. 

Got a “Drag Race” fan on your list? “The Ultimate Fan Guide to RuPaul’s Drag Race” (hardcover, $16.99) came out this summer. All 127 queens featured in seasons one-10 and “All Stars” seasons one-three are profiled. Available at Amazon, etc. 

Anybody on your list having “Game of Thrones” withdrawal? “The Complete Collection” drops on Blu-ray Dec. 3 for $282.99 at shop.hbo.com

Charlie’s Angels: the Complete Collection” is out on Blu-ray this week. It lists for $169.98 but look for discounts at Amazon, etc. Proceed with caution though — some fans pointed out that a previous DVD release featured syndication (i.e. edited) versions of the episodes. No word yet if they’ve been restored for this set. Let’s hope complete really means complete.

Here’s one you may have missed. “The Harvesters” (aka “Die Stropers”) is set in the Free State region of South Africa where 15-year-old Janno’s world turns upside down when his fanatically religious mother brings home Pieter, an orphan, who inadvertently awakens Janno’s sexual identity. This debut feature from Etienne Kallos was an official Cannes selection. Hollywood Reporter said the gay-themed coming-of-age story is “one of the the year’s major acting discoveries.” It releases on DVD ($24.99), Blu-ray ($27.99) and streaming formats Dec. 10 at Amazon, etc. 

If you want a rougher, more complicated (and unexpected!) gift this season, you could do worse than giving out the “Cruising” soundtrack, new on a three-vinyl (black, blue and white), which came out this summer. William Friedkin’s notoriously gay-themed 1980 serial killer movie starring Al Pacino features the complete music from the film from Waxwork Records on 180-gram vinyl featuring the original masters from composter Jack Nitzsche. $65 at Amazon, etc. The controversial film, dubbed “technically a mess” in a 1980 Blade review, has become a cult favorite. 

Got a Barbie fan on your list? (We’re looking at you Freddie Lutz!) Mattel celebrates a late, gay New York artist/legend with “Keith Haring x Barbie.” It’s $50 at barbie.mattel.com.

Joni Mitchell is one of the rare popular acts who may have a roughly equal following of gay men and lesbians among her devotees. The singer/songwriter has just released “Morning Glory on the Vine,” a book of early lyrics, poems, drawings and paintings. It’s widely available, retailing for $40. 

Need something fast? Wait too long to order something? Fun options still abound at brick-and-mortar retail despite the apocalypse. At a recent outing to 2nd & Charles (locations in Woodbridge, Va., and Hagerstown, Md.), some fun finds were this Maleficent backpack ($64.99), “Frozen II” merch galore (various prices), multiple used copies of a lavish LP box set called “The Immortal Judy Garland” (going for less than $10 each).

At Books-a-Million (locations in Leesburg, Dulles, Winchester, Hagerstown, et. al. — sadly our Dupont Circle location is long gone): Ruth Bader Ginsburg hand puppets ($9.50), “Downton Abbey”-themed cocktail book, calendar, Christmas tree ornaments, cookbook, “Official Film Companion” et. al. (prices vary). Sadly, I’m still waiting on the Thomas (Robert James-Collier) spin-off sequel, pictorial calendar or guide to dancing the Black Bottom.

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Photos

PHOTOS: Superstar Drag Review

Bombalicious Eklaver leads the show at Selina Rooftop

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Superstar Drag Review (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Bombalicious Eklaver held a Superstar Drag Review at the Selina Hotel Rooftop on Friday, Nov. 25. DJ Juba provided the music.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Books

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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Books

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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