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Novel revisits real-life murder of gay couple in 1980

‘Up With the Sun’ a story of ambition, lusts, obsessions



(Book cover courtesy of Knopf)

‘Up With the Sun’
By Thomas Mallon
c.2023, Knopf
$28/352 pages

If you’re in your right mind, you’d stop reading a novel whose protagonist is as appealing as a snake oil salesman without the charm. Even if he’s gay, murdered, and the star of several 1950s stage and movie musicals. Unless the book is “Up With the Sun,” the newest novel from acclaimed author Thomas Mallon.

Mallon, 71, is renowned for writing enthralling historical fiction. Too often, such novels are like high school history classes (taught by snooze-inducing teachers). They’re worthy. But you just want to eat your kale and get to dessert.

Thankfully, this isn’t so with “Up With the Sun.” The novel’s story is based on the real-life gay actor Dick Kallman, born in 1933 and murdered, along with his partner Steven, in 1980.

Kallman appeared  on Broadway in 1951 in the musical “Seventeen.” In 1965-1966, he starred in the TV sitcom “Hank.” But though he replaced the lead in the Broadway show “Half a Sixpence,” and was a guest star on “Batman,” “Medical Center,” and a few other TV shows, Kallman never became a big showbiz success. By the 1970s, he’d left show business to work in fashion and as an art and antique dealer.

Much of “Up With the Sun” is about Kallman’s career in the second or even third tier of showbiz. It is a story of Kallman’s ambitions, yearnings, and lusts and obsessions: for success in show business, fame, money and Kenneth Nelson, who stars in “Seventeen.” Nelson, who is put off by Kallman’s personality, rejects his overtures.

Kallman is one of the creepiest characters ever brought to the page. He is so phony, such a social climber, that he’s described as being “aggressively ingratiating.”

When he appears in a show with Dyan Cannon, Kallman is ticked off with her. He feels she’s upstaging him. That happens sometimes, you think. Until Kallman, in his pique, smashes Cannon’s finger. You can’t agree more when Cannon tells Kallman, “you’re a sick bastard!”

The other protagonist in “Up With the Sun” is Matt Liannetto, a pianist who worked with Kallman in “Seventeen.”

In alternating chapters, Matt narrates the novel. Matt is as sweet and endearing as Kallman is off-putting and slimy. He isn’t Kallman’s BFF (who would be?). But his path has crossed with Kallman’s over the years. He’s over at Kallman’s apartment the night that Kallman and Steven are killed.

The police turn to him for help in identifying the suspects. During the investigation, Matt and Devin Arroyo, a charming police assistant years younger than him, fall in love.Mallon, who is gay and lives in Washington, D.C., is the author of 11 novels, including “Henry and Clara,” “Dewey Defeats Truman,” “Fellow Travelers,” “Watergate,” and “Landfall.”

In his fiction, Mallon  makes history as entertaining as a bodice-ripper, intriguing as a mystery and by turns, as comic and/or poignant as the best literary fiction set in the present.

In “Up With the Sun,” Mallon immerses you into the smells, tastes, sights, sounds, language, and characters (real-life and fictional) of the 1950s through 1981. Through his authorial sleight of hand, you come to care about not only kindhearted Matt and Devin, but self-serving Kallman.

Much has been written in non-fiction and fiction about the time periods and real-life celebs featured in “Up With the Sun.” Yet, Mallon makes this familiar material – from Judy Garland’s concert at Carnegie Hall to the beginning of the AIDS crisis – seem new.

“All my life I’ve loved the past as a place that can keep you safe from the present,” Matt says, “… a place that your imagination can make as pretty as the two-dimensional flats of the Seventeen sets.”

Mallon’s writing is as beautiful as the most gorgeous stage sets, yet there’s nothing safe or emptily nostalgic about his rendering of the past.

The police procedural aspects of the novel — identifying the suspects, the trial, etc. — are not as interesting as Mallon’s depiction of the protagonists, their quirks, supporting characters and period details. But this is a minor quibble.

Reading “Up With the Sun” is like eating potato chips. Once you start, you won’t be able to stop.

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Architecture junkies will love new book on funeral homes

‘Preserved’ explores how death industry evolved after WWII



(Book cover image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press)

‘Preserved: A Cultural History of the Funeral Home in America’
By Dean G. Lampros
c.2024, Johns Hopkins University Press 
$34.95/374 pages

Three bedrooms upstairs. That’s a minimum.

You need a big kitchen, a large back room would be a bonus, you want lots of bathrooms, and if you can get a corner lot, that’d be great. The thing you need most is a gigantic all-purpose room or maybe a ballroom because you’re planning on a lot of people. As you’ll see in the new book “Preserved” by Dean G. Lampros, not all living rooms are for the living.

Not too long ago, shortly after he took a class on historic preservation, Dean Lampros’ husband dragged him on a weekend away to explore a small town in Massachusetts. There, Lampros studied the town’s architecture and it “saddened” him to see Victorian mansions surrounded by commercial buildings. And then he had an epiphany: there was once a time when those old mansions housed funeral homes. Early twentieth-century owners of residential funeral homes were, in a way, he says, preservationists.

Prior to roughly World War II, most funerals were held at home or, if there was a need, at a funeral home, the majority of which were located in a downtown area. That changed in 1923 when a Massachusetts funeral home owner bought a large mansion in a residential area and made a “series of interior renovations” to the building. Within a few years, his idea of putting a funeral home inside a former home had spread across the country and thousands of “stately old mansions in aging residential neighborhoods” soon held death-industry businesses.

This, says, Lampros, often didn’t go over well with the neighbors, and that resulted in thousands of people upset and lawsuits filed. Some towns then passed ordinances to prohibit such a thing from happening to their citizens.

Still, funeral home owners persevered. Moving out of town helped “elevate” the trade, and it allowed Black funeral home operators to get a toehold in formerly white neighborhoods. And by having a nice – and nice-sized – facility, the operators were finally able to wrest the end-of-life process away from individuals and home-funerals.

Here’s a promise: “Preserved” is not gruesome or gore-for-the-sake-of-gore. It’s not going to keep you up all night or give you nightmares. Nope, while it might be a little stiff, it’s more of a look at architecture and history than anything else.

From California to New England, author Dean G. Lampros takes readers on a cruise through time and culture to show how “enterprising” business owners revolutionized a category and reached new customers for a once-in-a-deathtime event. Readers who’ve never considered this hidden-in-plain-sight, surprising subject – or, for that matter, the preservation or re-reclamation of those beautiful old homes – are in for a treat here. Despite that the book can lean toward the academic, a good explanatory timeline and information gleaned from historical archives and museums offer a liveliness that you’ll enjoy.

This book will delight fans of little-know history, and architecture junkies will drool over its many photographs. “Preserved” is the book you want because there are other ways to make a house a “home.”

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‘Mean Boys’ raises questions of life, death, and belonging

New memoir wanders but enjoy the whiplash



(Boom cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury)

‘Mean Boys: A Personal History’
By Geoffrey Mak
c.2024, Bloomsbury 
$28.99/267 pages

It’s how a pleasant conversation is fed, with give and take, back and forth, wandering casually and naturally, a bit of one subject easing into the next with no preamble. It’s communication you can enjoy, like what you’ll find inside “Mean Boys” by Geoffrey Mak.

Sometimes, a conversation ends up exactly where it started.

Take, for instance, Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which leads Mak to think about his life and his inability to “cull the appropriate narratives out of nonsense.” Part of that problem, he says, was that his living arrangements weren’t consistent. He sometimes “never really knew where I was living,” whether it was Berlin or California, in a studio or high-end accommodations. The parties, the jokes, the internet consumption were as varied as the homes and sometimes, “it didn’t really matter.” Sometimes, you have to accept things and just “move on.”

When he was 12 years old, Mak’s father left his corporate job, saying that he was “called by God” to become a minister. It created a lot of resentment for Mak, for the lack of respect his father got, and because his parents were “passionately anti-gay.” He moved as far away from home as he could, and he blocked all communication with his parents for years, until he realized that “By hating my father, I ended up hating myself, too.”

And then there was club life which, in Mak’s descriptions, doesn’t sound much different in Berghain (Germany) as it is in New York. He says he “threw myself into night life,” in New York Houses, in places that gave “a skinny Chinese kid from the suburbs… rules I still live by,” on random dance floors, and in Pornceptual. Eventually this, drugs, work, politics, pandemic, basically everything and life in general led to a mental crisis, and Mak sought help.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” Mak says at one point. “Sometimes life was bad, and sometimes it wasn’t, and sometimes it just was.”

Though there are times when this book feels like having a heart-to-heart with an interesting new acquaintance, “Mean Boys” can make you squirm. For sure, it’s not a beach read or something you’ll breeze through in a weekend.

No, author Geoffrey Mak jumps from one random topic to another with enough frequency to make you pay close to attention to his words, lest you miss something. That won’t leave you whiplashed; instead, you’re pulled into the often-dissipated melee just enough to feel almost involved with it – but with a distinct sense that you’re being held at arms’ length, too. That some stories have no definitive timeline or geographical stamp – making it hard to find solid ground – also adds to the slight loss of equilibrium here, like walking on slippery river rocks.

Surprisingly, that’s not entirely unpleasant but readers will want to know that the ending in “Mean Boys” could leave their heads swirling with a dozen thoughts on life, belonging, and death. If you like depth in your memoirs, you’ll like that — and this.

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New book offers observations on race, beauty, love

‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World’ is a journey of discovery



(Book cover image courtesy of Tiny Reparations Books)

‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World: A Decolonial Memoir’
By Shayla Lawson
c.2024, Tiny Reparations Books
$29/320 pages

Do you really need three pairs of shoes?

The answer is probably yes: you can’t dance in hikers, you can’t shop in stilettos, you can’t hike in clogs. So what else do you overpack on this long-awaited trip? Extra shorts, extra tees, you can’t have enough things to wear. And in the new book “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” by Shayla Lawson, you’ll need to bring your curiosity.

Minneapolis has always been one of their favorite cities, perhaps because Shayla Lawson was at one of Prince’s first concerts. They weren’t born yet; they were there in their mother’s womb and it was the first of many concerts.

In all their travels, Lawson has noticed that “being a Black American” has its benefits. People in other countries seem to hold Black Americans in higher esteem than do people in America. Still, there’s racism – for instance, their husband’s family celebrates Christmas in blackface.

Yes, Lawson was married to a Dutch man they met in Harlem. “Not Haarlem,” Lawson is quick to point out, and after the wedding, they became a housewife, learned the language of their husband, and fell in love with his grandmother. Alas, he cheated on them and the marriage didn’t last. He gave them a dog, which loved them more than the man ever did.

They’ve been to Spain, and saw a tagline in which a dark-skinned Earth Mother was created. Said Lawson, “I find it ironic, to be ordained a deity when it’s been a … journey to be treated like a person.”

They’ve fallen in love with “middle-American drag: it’s the glitteriest because our mothers are the prettiest.” They changed their pronouns after a struggle “to define my identity,” pointing out that in many languages, pronouns are “genderless.” They looked upon Frida Kahlo in Mexico, and thought about their own disability. And they wish you a good trip, wherever you’re going.

“No matter where you are,” says Lawson, “may you always be certain who you are. And when you are, get everything you deserve.”

Crack open the front cover of “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” and you might wonder what the heck you just got yourself into. The first chapter is artsy, painted with watercolors, and difficult to peg. Stick around, though. It gets better.

Past that opening, author Shayna Lawson takes readers on a not-so-little trip, both world-wide and with observant eyes – although it seems, at times, that the former is secondary to that which Lawson sees. Readers won’t mind that so much; the observations on race, beauty, love, the attitudes of others toward America, and finding one’s best life are really what takes the wheel in this memoir anyhow. Reading this book, therefore, is not so much a vacation as it is a journey of discovery and joy.

Just be willing to keep reading, that’s all you need to know to get the most out of this book. Stick around and “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” is what to pack.

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