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A high-five for ‘Singled Out’

True story of Glenn Burke is important gay baseball history lesson

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(Image courtesy of Philomel Books)

‘Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke’
By Andrew Maraniss
c.2021, Philomel Books $17.99/320 pages

“Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke” by Andrew Maraniss is the perfect read for you if you’ve been jonesing during this pandemic winter for baseball.

The affection queer fans have for baseball is intermingled with sadness and anger. Because, historically, Major League Baseball has been homophobic.

“Singled Out,” written for readers age 12 and up, sheds light not only on homophobia in MLB but on LGBTQ history. Maraniss tells the story of Glenn Burke, a Black, gay man who was in Major League Baseball from 1976 to 1979 (playing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, then with the Oakland Athletics).

Burke, who was born in 1952 and died in 1995 from complications of AIDS, was the first openly queer MLB player. Though he didn’t come out until after he stopped playing with the MLB, his sexuality was an open secret. His family, friends and teammates know he was gay.

“Singled Out” is a page-turner for teens and adults. Maraniss, whose first book “Strong Inside” received the Lillian Smith Book Award for civil rights and the RFK Book Awards’ Special Prize for social justice, makes Burke come alive.

In lesser hands, Burke’s story could have been a dull history lesson. Thankfully, Maraniss, who lives with his wife and children in Nashville, transforms Burke’s story from a historical footnote into a vibrantly lived life.

Burke, born in Oakland, Calif., loved being in the limelight even when he was a child. From early on, he was a terrific singer as well as a fab athlete. At age nine, he was among a group of Berkeley kids who sang in the chorus of a recording of a live album by the popular folk group the Limeliters. He’s on the album cover wearing a gold sweater.

As a student at Berkeley High School, Burke was a star baseball and basketball player. LA Dodger coach Junior Gilliam, after watching Burke play, said Burke was the next Willie Mays. After playing for one season in the Dodgers farm system, he played with the basketball team at Nevada-Reno for a few games in the 1974-1975 season.

Burke was a highly touted prospect for the Dodgers. He was popular with his teammates, who loved the way he played his music and made them laugh. He started in center field in Game 1 of the 1977 World Series.

On top of that, Burke invented the high five. In the last game of the 1977 season, Dusty Baker hit his 30th home run. Burke greeted Baker with a raised hand as Baker crossed home plate. Baker slapped Burke’s hand. This was the first high five. When Burke, too, hit a home run, Baker greeted him with the second high-five in history.

Though Burke was closeted, he lived as an openly gay man in San Francisco during the off-season. But he discovered that “fame came with a price,” Maraniss writes.

“In the baseball world, he worried he’d be shunned because he was gay,” Maraniss adds, “In the gay world, he resented that his fame was the only reason some men cared about him … otherwise he’d just be another gay Black man facing two layers of discrimination.”

The Dodgers offered him $75,000 if he would get married. “To a woman?” Burke asked as he turned down this proposal.

After being let go by the Dodgers and leaving the A’s because of homophobia, Burke struggles with homelessness and drug addiction. In fast-paced, short chapters, Maraniss writes of Burke’s pain and of his legacy. He sets the homophobia that Burke encounters within the context of the 1970s – Anita Bryant, sodomy laws – the decade after Stonewall. This is particularly helpful for young readers who would have little or no knowledge of that time.

Burke was posthumously honored at the 2014 All-Star Game and inducted into San Francisco’s Honor Walk in the Castro in 2017. Last year, the MLB paid tribute to Burke during Pride month. In December 2020, Oakland’s LGBTQ Community Center’s wellness clinic was named after Burke.

Without being preachy, Maraniss deftly tells Burke’s story. A high-five for “Singled Out.”

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Books

Seeking love and community in Nicaragua

‘High-Risk Homosexual’ explores author’s youth, coming out

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(Book cover image courtesy of Soft Skill Press)

High-Risk Homosexual: A Memoir
By Edgar Gomez
c.2022, Soft Skull Press
$16.95/304 pages

Here. Try this.

It fits you, but the color isn’t flattering. It’s too long, too short, too tight, too loose. That’s not your style, so try something else until you find the thing that looks like you. The perfect thing is out there. As in the new book “High-Risk Homosexual” by Edgar Gomez, when something’s right, it’s right.

He was 13 when he figured out that he was a problem to be solved.

Edgar Gomez’ mother had left him in her native Nicaragua with his tíos, just for a while because she had to return to Florida to work. He wasn’t there without her for long, but it took years for him to understand that his time with his uncles was meant to make him more masculine.

In retrospect, he says, nobody wanted him to be a man more than he did. He wanted to be liked by other kids and so he told lies in school to make himself stand out. He wanted his mother to see his love of pretty things and say that it was OK. He wanted his brother to acknowledge that Gomez was gay, and to tell him that he loved him.

Instead, after his brother left for college, Gomez got his first boyfriend, a boy he came out to but who couldn’t come out to himself. He was called names in school. He came out to his mother, who freaked out about it. He befriended a drag queen, but “Princess” used him.

Things he wanted: a real boyfriend. Love. A ban on the stereotype of a macho Latinx man.

Things he still had, while in college: his mother and older brother. A tormentor-turned-mentor. A part-time job. His weirdness. His virginity.

Things he wanted to lose, while in college: his room at his mother’s house. His virginity, but that wouldn’t happen until later, during a painful one-afternoon-stand with a hot man who said he had a girlfriend. That hurt, both physically and emotionally but like so many things at so many times, Gomez tried not to think about it.

If he never considered what he didn’t have, he says, “I wouldn’t miss it.”

In a way, you could say that “High-Risk Homosexual” is a book in search of a point. It’s really quite random and told (mostly) linearly, but not quite. It has its peaks, but also low valleys. And you won’t care about any of this, because you’ll be enjoying every bit of it.

Yeah, this memoir is good: author Edgar Gomez’s literary wandering makes it feel much like an honest conversation with readers. There are wince-worthy moments that allow empathy here, and experiences that are unique but oddly ubiquitous, that leave space for a sense of sympatico. There are passages that are so wistfully uncomfortable that you might squirm, or start “snort-laughing,” or want to stop a moment and just think.

And there’s room for that, too, so take your time. “High-Risk Homosexual” is an affable book with just enough seriousness to make it worth a try.

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Books

A lesbian Baby Boomer’s relatable story

‘Audacity of a Kiss’ a warm, familiar biography

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The Audacity of a Kiss: A Memoir
By Leslie Cohen
c.2021, Rutgers University Press
$24.95/235 pages

Don’t move.

Stay entirely still, don’t even breathe. You’re about to become a symbol of something that’s bigger than you are, something you’ll be proud of for the rest of your days. Don’t flinch, scratch, or sneeze, just don’t do anything. Don’t. Move. Unless it’s to turn the pages of “The Audacity of a Kiss” by Leslie Cohen.

Behind every statue is a story, and the one behind those representing four people in Christopher Park in New York’s Greenwich Village is no different. But to explain how this monument came about means also telling a long love story and a tale about a nightclub.

Leslie Cohen’s mother was her very best friend, although there were misunderstandings in the relationship. Seven-year-old Leslie couldn’t see why she received pink girly things for her birthday. In later years, she couldn’t understand why her mother deferred to Leslie’s father and endured his abuse.

The one thing Cohen did understand was that once puberty hit, the boys in her neighborhood were no longer pals to roughhouse with. She was supposed to want to date them and it didn’t entirely make sense, but Cohen went along with it even after she left home for college. She went out with boys and lost her virginity to one, but meeting Beth was the most remarkable thing about higher learning. She was sure she was in love with Beth, but Beth was obsessed with a boy and so Cohen moved on.

She moved on to other men and then women, at a time when women loving women was unthinkable, and the Summer of Love. Cohen embraced her lesbianism, fell in and out of love, and went into a partnership with three other women to open New York’s first lesbian club, where lesbians and straight feminists were welcome to dance and drink.

To be sure, it was a heady time. Cohen worked nonstop, gained confidence and learned to run a bar business. She was busy, but happy.

And then Beth came back into her life.

Let’s face it: author Leslie Cohen’s life story is basically like that of a lot of lesbians born at the beginning of the Baby Boom. A solid childhood, confusion, self-awareness, entrepreneurship all make a somewhat familiar story set apart by one abundant thing: warmth.

Indeed, “The Audacity of a Kiss” is an easy tale. It’s comfortable, like a crackling fireplace and a glass of wine on a cushy sofa.There are accomplishments here, told so that you really share the pride in them. Readers are shown the struggle that Cohen had, too, but experiences are well-framed by explanations of the times in which they occurred, with nothing overly dramatic – just the unabashed truth, and more warmth. Opening this book, in a way, then, is like accepting an invitation to own the recliner for an evening, and you won’t want anything else.

Younger lesbians will get a lot from this book, but anyone who’s been there will relish it. Get “The Audacity of a Kiss,” then sit down and don’t move.

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Books

The best books of 2021

Our favorites in fiction, non-fiction and children’s lit

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There’s still a lot of winter left.

That’s the fact staring you in the face. Once the holiday decorations are down, the toys are all put away, and you’ve rediscovered your gift certificates, what do you do with them?

You buy books, of course. And to get you started, here are a few sure-fire picks for the Best of 2021:

FICTION

What would you do if life throws you a curve-ball? In “The Guncle” by Steven Rowley (Putnam, $27.00), gay man, former TV star, Palm Springs fixture, no-responsibilities Patrick is asked to take care of his niece and nephew for the long-term. He never wanted kids at all. He never wanted to fall in love with them, either. Cute, sweet, funny, heartfelt – what more could you want?

You don’t have to have read any of the other Cork O’Conner novels to want “Lightning Strike” by William Kent Krueger (Atria, $27.00), which takes readers back to 1963, and a murder in small-town Minnesota. Cork O’Conner is a young teen then, the son of the local sheriff, and he knows that Big John Manydeeds couldn’t have possibly hung himself. But how does a boy go about proving something like that? For fans, that’s a can’t-miss question. For new fans, it’ll send you racing toward the rest of the Cork O’Conner series.

Watchers of “The Handmaiden’s Tale” will absolutely devour “Outlawed” by Anna North (Bloomsbury, $26.00). In a small corner of Texas, at an unstated time, 17-year-old Ada is struggling to give her husband children, which embarrasses him, and that’s something only witches do. And so Ada is cast out of the community and heads north, to safety, where barren women are outlaws. This dystopian, feminist Western is dangerous and delicious.

“Raft of Stars” by Andrew J. Graff (Ecco, $26.99) is a coming-of-age story of two boys who are best friends, and one of them is abused by his father. Tired of seeing his friend hurt, the other boy shoots the man and both boys run away to escape what surely will be legal trouble and maybe even jail time. They’re running toward a lie, though, and they’re heading for a waterfall they don’t know is there. This is one of those books with heartbreakingly beautiful prose in a story that’ll leave you with sweaty palms.

And finally, have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you’d taken a different path? In “The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano” by Donna Freitas (Pamela Dorman Books, $26.00), one woman has many options in her life, each one ending in a way she never thought possible. It’s like “Groundhog Day” with a twist that’ll roll around in your mind for days…

NON-FICTION

For every kid who grew up with a pile of comic books next to the bed, in a drawer, or in the closet, “American Comics: A History” by Jeremy Dauber (W.W. Norton, $35) is a must-have. Here, Dauber follows comics from their political roots to today’s activist cartoons, and how we went from Katzenjammer Kids to MAD Magazine to comix as we know them. The bonus is that Dauber puts comics into fascinating historical perspective.

Did you buy your lottery ticket this week? If you did, it’ll make a fine bookmark for “Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live – and How Their Wealth Harms Us All” by Michael Mechanic (Simon & Schuster, $28.00). You might think twice about the burdens of wealth after reading this book – and you might re-examine your thoughts on what one person’s wealth does to everyone else.

Readers who love memoirs will enjoy “Punch Me Up to the Gods” by Brian Broome (HMH, $26), who writes about growing up, being in love with the boy who abused him, and the father who did, too. It’s a coming-out tale that’s sometimes funny and always graceful, one that will sometimes make you gasp, and that you’ll be glad you read.

You know that feeling you get when you come across a stack of old magazines in the attic? That gentle, hometown, old-time feeling is extra-rich inside “The Ride of Her Life” by Elizabeth Letts (Ballantine, $28). This is the story of Annie Wilkins, aging, ailing, and alone, and the audacious cross-country ride she decides to take on a horse she’d just purchased. This feel-good story is set in the 1950s, and its neighborliness might make it be the perfect antidote for today’s world.

Lastly, “The Redemption of Bobby Love” by Bobby and Cheryl Love with Lori L. Tharps (Mariner Books / HMH Books, $28) might be the most unusual memoir you read this winter. As a young man, Walter Miller ran away from a prison bus and to New York, where he renamed himself Bobby Love and went into hiding in plain sight. Love kept to the straight-and-narrow, fell in love, got married, and raised a family but 40-some years later, the law caught up with him. This astounding, impossible story, told alternately between both Loves, is one you’ll, um, love.

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Based on a real event (the Mexican Revolution), “The Barefoot Dreams of Petra Luna” by Alda P. Dobbs (Sourcebooks, $17.99) is the story of a young girl who becomes responsible for her Abuelita and her little sister when the Federales destroy their village and their home. This causes the trio to run north, one step ahead of those who wish to kill them, on a race to reach the border and make it to America. It’s an exciting read for 8-to-14-year-olds.

Kids who love silly stories will enjoy “Egg Marks the Spot: A Skunk and Badger Story” by Amy Timberlake, the second in what appears to be a series. A whirlwind named Skunk and his very staid, very reticent friend, Badger are at odds again – this time, over a missing rock from Badger’s collection. There are chickens involved, a bit of a mystery, dinosaurs, and a lot of fun for your 7-to-10-year-old. Hint: find the first Skunk and Badger book; your child will want that one, too.

For teens who enjoy unique memoirs, “Violet and Daisy: The Story of Vaudeville’s Famous Conjoined Twins” by Sarah Miller (Schwartz & Wade, $17.99) is the story of the Hilton sisters and their careers and lives. Born conjoined at the bottom of the spine, Violet & Daisy were “adopted” by a woman who ruled their lives. When she died, the girls were passed on to that woman’s heirs, who mishandled their careers and left them nearly penniless. This is a thrilling tale of legalities, Vaudeville, and two women determined to make their own ways, despite that they were conjoined forever. It’s the perfect read for any 14-and-older reader, including adults who love memoirs.

So now, get to the bookstore. Hunt at the library. Don’t miss these excellent books for adults and kids – and Season’s Readings!

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