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Edmund White’s latest a cornucopia of desire, adventure, wit

‘A Previous Life’ offers meta take on polyamory, bisexuality

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(Book cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing)

‘A Previous Life: Another Posthumous Novel’
By Edmund White
c.2022, Bloomsbury Publishing
$26/270 pages

If you’re jonesing for sex, polyamory, and gossipy confessions, don’t rush toward the bright young things.

You’ll find as much, likely more, lust, beauty, and love – spiced with fab gab, if you turn to Edmund White, the queer, 82-year-old, acclaimed novelist, essayist, biographer and memoirist.

In “A Previous Life,” his latest novel, White gives us enough passion to rouse even the stoniest heart. The novel, a work of metafiction set in 2050, features a polyamorous, bisexual married couple – Ruggero Castelnuovo, a 70-year-old, Sicilian, renowned harpsichordist, and Constance, 30, a wannabe American writer. One day, after he breaks his leg skiing, Ruggero is stuck in the chalet where he and Constance live. Constance cares for him as he recovers.

Ruggero and Constance have had quite a past. They have agreed not to talk to each other about their past sexual adventures and affairs. Too much honesty can only cause trouble, they believe. They agreed “soon after they met never to talk about their past lives;” White writes, “transparency had destroyed their earlier marriages.”

But, as Ruggero convalesces, the couple changes their views. They decide that transparency would be good, and agree to write and read to each other their “confessions” about their past – from one-night hook-ups to short, hot romances to long-term liaisons.

“A Previous Life” is a glorious, galloping romp through their sexual adventures. Gender fluidity and bisexuality are the norm for them. And for many others in their time (three decades from now – at mid 21st century).

Ruggero, whose parents died young, was raised in Sicily by his grandfather. Early on, he knew that he liked music and boys. He begins having sex as a teen with his hetero cousin Giuseppe. He adored showering with Giuseppe and gazing at Giuseppe’s butt. His cousin’s ass, Ruggero tells Constance, was “soccer round, luminously white, the cracks beckoning and furry and unsuspecting.”

Ruggero grows up to be a critically acclaimed musician and a bisexual, adventurous lover. Among Ruggero’s many affairs, was his romance with the deceased, perhaps passe, but historically important writer Edmund White. Before wedding Constance, Ruggero was married twice.

Constance, whose parents also die when she is a child, is raised by family friends in Bowling Green, Ohio. Her first experience with sex – when her “uncle,” her legal guardian, sexually abuses her – is traumatic. She gets herself away from this situation by getting a scholarship to Princeton. After college, she lives through two terrible marriages. One husband robs her of all the money she’s earned. Another husband, a pompous, closet-case writer, humiliates her. Like Ruggero, Constance has had male and female lovers.

White, a co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and of the 1980s queer writers group The Violet Quill, grew up in the Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s when you weren’t out if you were gay and knew no openly queer people.

When White began to write in the 1960s and 1970s, he was one of the first queer writers to write novels with gay protagonists — let alone queer characters who didn’t die or go to prison for their queerness. In that homophobic time, White was one of a very few queer authors who were brave enough to come out in their work.

White is best-known for his autobiographical fiction – especially, for his semi-autobiographical trilogy: “A Boy’s Own Story” (1982), “The Beautiful Room is Empty” (1988) and “The Farewell Symphony” (1997).

White is the main character of “A Previous Life.” Yet, the novel is meta. In it, White, the author, seems to grapple with his legacy. Because it’s set 30 years in the future, White’s able to imagine, from a distance of three decades, what his place in literary history will be. He wonders if the only people who will remember his work are a few “old queens.” There’s a biography out about his life but “scholars have worked more on [David] Sedaris.”

There’s little likelihood of White’s legacy ever being diminished. His work is too important to LGBTQ and literary history to be erased.

“A Previous Life” is a cornucopia of desire, adventure and wit.

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Books

New book chronicles founding of gay-owned Falls Church News-Press

Nick Benton emerged as major influencer and nurturer of local talent

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The History Press released a book by D.C.-area journalist Charlie Clark in October entitled, “The Life and Times of the Falls Church News-Press” (a 192 page paperback). 

The News-Press was founded in 1991 by journalist and gay activist Nicholas Benton and has published more than 1,700 consecutive weekly editions since serving the inside-the-beltway Northern Virginia suburb of the City of Falls Church, a mere seven miles from the White House.

In its masthead, the News-Press says of itself, “Since 1991, an award-winning LGBT-owned general interest community newspaper.” It has been named the Business of the Year twice and Benton the Person of the Year by the Falls Church City Council. These are selected excerpts from the Clark book: 

“Its founder, Nicholas F. Benton, is a native Californian, college baseball player, degreed master of divinity, gay activist and journalist born “with printer’s ink in his veins” – or so he suspects. He launched the Falls Church News-Press largely as a one-man band. But with unflagging energy, he emerged as a major influencer and talent nurturer.

“Benton knows the key players, hosts frequent parties and can be see walking the streets and dining at eateries that make Falls Church homey. In editorials written every week by Benton himself, the editor strives to protect the city’s prize schools by pressing for property tax revenues and favoring development in the occasional battles with traditionalists who treasure the residential village. He made his mark on zoning disputes over how to tastefully attract commercial development. News-Press news sections combine small-town intimate coverage – plenty of photographs of smiling residents lined up for the camera – with exclusive accounts of action by the city council and the school board (at whose meetings Benton is sometimes the only member in attendance)….

“Some say it’s a miracle that Benton’s close-to-home news organ – backed neither by inherited wealth nor corporate investors – has survived three decades, given the current death knells for local news outlets…. The book you hold relays the tale of how Benton pulled things off. He takes virtually no vacations (beyond a few weekends). He pays staff writers (and offers health insurance) rather than engaging too many volunteers. He hires and mentors high school students. He gives the paper out for free and publishes letters that criticize. He donates to charities and cultivates youth readers by boosting high school and Little League sports, holiday parades, scouting and local history. His team covers charities, efforts to aid the homeless, published authors, theater productions, demands for low-income housing, struggling small businesses, gay rights and wars over parking. And Benton invites the public to his office parties..

“The News-Press is one of the things that make Falls Church special,” Mayor Dave Tarter told me as this book was in preparation. “The paper reinforces and enhances the sense of community of shared experiences” in covering stories that the Washington Post would not make space for. “It is a labor of love for Nick Benton, and it shows. Whether you love it or hate it, everyone reads the News-Press…” 

“…Benton enrolled at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley (class of 1969). This brought him to the University of California’s flagship school at the height of the antiwar, civil rights and student power protests, a time when the smell of the national guardsmen’s tear gas was familiar on campus. Benton was awarded his master of divinity diploma cum laude on June 13, 1969 (it is framed and displayed today in the News-Press office. He worked as a youth minister for three years at seminary but never pursued that as a career. He would later consider his newspaper ownership a close substitute to ministry…

“Benton remained in the Bay Area and worked for the famous alternative weekly, the Berkeley Barb, enjoying the freedom to publish on counterculture subjects from women’s liberation to rock music…While at the Barb Benton also came out as gay, just before the 1969 Stonewall Riot in New York’s Greenwich Village that launched the gay right movement. His articles, he later wrote, “promoted the notion that fully actualized, gay liberation had the potential to be socially transformative.” He penned the editorial for the first edition of the Gay Sunshine newspaper, and he coproduced a pair of issues of his own fledgling gay newspaper, the Effeminist…

“… By 1987, he had incorporated his own news service…It became the context for his decision in early December 1990 to launch the News-Press. He would pull it off by charming volunteer labor and combining it with his own seven-days-a-week style. Another secret to Benton’s success: he is “frugal.” There were no desks in the office, just boards and folding chairs. “Editor in Chief Nick Benton is too modest to blow his own horn,” wrote reader Robert O. Beach in a letter published in March 1998. “But he deserves tremendous credit for the vital contribution the News-Press makes to our community.”

“Environmental consultant and history activist Dave Eckert goes further. “The News-Press became the focal point of Falls Church,” he said in 2022. “Nick Benton wanted to do good journalism, get readers and advertisements, but in many ways the paper brought the city together. And in many ways it drove it apart.”

“… ‘We worked all night on that first issue,’ Benton recalled, ‘and as the deadline approached, as dawn began to break on March 27, we looked out our second-story windows to see that the cherry blossom trees on North Virginia Avenue had blossomed overnight. That was our sign to press ahead.’

“After the proverbial all-nighter, his team of three drove to Gaithersburg, Md., to the Comprint Co. plant to witness the maiden print run. ‘When the press bell rang and everything started to move, it was a very special moment,’ Benton remembered. ‘As the papers started chugging onto a conveyor belt, I couldn’t help but stand on a box and loudly exclaim, ‘Let every tyrant tremble!’ The noise of the press drowned me out so that only a couple of pressmen gave me funny looks.’

“Back in Falls Church, young O’Brien had walked the streets crowing, ‘Have you heard the news? Come March 28, Falls Church is going to have its own newspaper!’”

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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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Books

‘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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