Connect with us

Books

The Front Runner is still in the lead

Patricia Nell Warren’s 1974 New York Times best-seller is a love story for the gay ages

Published

on

Patricia Nell Warren’s breakthrough novel, The Front Runner, changed the course of LGBT rights around the world and inspired a global out sports movement.

In 1974, not many people would have expected a novel about the same-sex romance between a college track coach and his star runner to attract much of an audience.

Thanks to Stonewall, the so-called “gay liberation” movement was enjoying a newfound visibility and millions who had previously been hidden in the closet began a generations long struggle for equality that continues to this day. But in 1974, as in 2017, visibility is not the same thing as acceptance, and nobody expected a book like “The Front Runner” to be embraced by  readers outside the “niche” market of the “gay”community.  

Yet embraced it was and resoundingly so.  

Patricia Nell Warren’s “The Front Runner” became a crossover sensation, drawing rave reviews and becoming the first “gay-themed” book to land on the New York Times’ prestigious Top Ten Bestsellers list.  It eventually sold over 10 million copies, yielded two successful sequels (with another on the way), and has never been out of print since.

For those unfamiliar, this landmark novel tells the story of Harlan, a former marine who now coaches track at a small New England college, and Billy a young runner who joins his program after being kicked out of a larger school for being gay.  Harlan, though gay, has always lived a closeted life; Billy has an openness about his sexuality that reflects the younger generation to which he belongs.  Their relationship blossoms, and the book details their love story over the course of several years, culminating in Billy’s triumphant – and tragic – journey to the Beijing Olympics.

The impact of Warren’s book, aside from its historic place as a breakthrough of gay culture into the straight mainstream, lies in the resonance it found with so many of its LGBT readers.  Its characters were not just gay, they were gay athletes, like millions of other men and women out there.  Forced to hide who they were in order to participate in the deeply homophobic culture of sports, they found Harlan and Billy not only imminently relatable, but inspirational.

The result was the birth of the “Frontrunners” club, an organization for LGBT runners that was started in San Francisco and has since grown into a worldwide network.  This group has been instrumental in fostering a movement of support and acceptance for “out” athletes, which in turn led to the creation of the Gay Games- which, in 2013, awarded Warren its Medal of Honor for writing the book that, in many ways, started it all.

So how did a novel about two men in love manage to defy seventies-era social taboos and become a national bestseller?  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Warren, a gay woman, chose to write a love story about gay men – a fact which, at the time, generated substantial controversy.  

The author herself is still amused by that today. “Patricia broke the rules” she chuckles, echoing the words of her long-ago critics.  “She wrote about men instead of writing about women.”

She goes on to explain why breaking those rules may have been the key to her novel’s success.  “There might be a tendency to look at it and think that it’s a men’s story, but one of the things about the book that I always appreciated is that it was read by as many women as men.  I know that in the book business there’s a lot of talk about targeting to demographics, but I think it’s important to appeal on a broader plane than that, so that we understand these are human things.  Those kinds of stories can inspire, and bind us together as a human race instead of dividing us into different demographics.  This story has done that, and I think it still does that.”

She also says this core humanity has allowed the book to continue reaching across boundaries throughout the years.  “I am always hearing from people who are reading it for the first time.  There’s been quite a raft of readers that have come in from the Spanish edition of the book, and it’s reaching a lot of people in South and Central America.  They’re reading it for the first time and that’s the way they’re approaching the story, as a human story.”

What about younger readers, those who are now growing up in a very different world than the one in which “The Front Runner” is set?  Does it still have relevance for them?

Warren certainly believes so.  

“The story deals with young people.  I think that the most important thing for young people today is what they encounter in the schools, which I think has certainly gotten a lot worse than in the 1970s.  There’s a lot of standing up that’s going on right now in our schools, by our kids, and fighting for change.  The schools have become major battlegrounds, not just for gay issues but other issues as well, and I think that’s part of the arc for today that our country has to figure out.  I hope that our kids have the heart for this fight, because it’s a really important one, and important for them to be involved.  They will see some of this in the story, because that was all starting in the 1970s.”

Longtime fans of the book, of course, have one particularly burning question: what has become of the long-awaited film version of “The Front Runner?”  The film rights were sold shortly the book’s publication, with none other than Paul Newman signed on as producer, but – unsurprisingly – Hollywood financiers balked at the risk of making a movie about gay men, so funding never came.  The subsequent years saw the project shuttled through an array of different would-be developers, but every attempt fell through.  After years in court, Warren regained the rights in 2002, and has held them ever since, waiting for the right offer to come along.

“I’m still hopeful,” she says.  “I think it’s a good moment for a movie like that; the way the country is going, probably the timing is better than ever.  I’m really concerned about all the negativity about LGBT people that is going forward in the country right now, and that certainly will rebound into what we do in sports, so, I’m still hoping that it will happen.  People approach me about it all the time.  I’m hoping for the people to come along who are the right fit for the story.  The question is, are they able to get the kind of job done that I would hope to see done, the story and the casting and so forth, and so that’s the important thing.  I think that’s what a lot of people want, and I think that willingness to attend the movie, when it’s finally out, is going to be based on if they feel that justice has been done to the story that they love so much, so I think it’s important to protect that.”

Hopefully, the right people will come along soon.  In the meantime, fans of “The Front Runner” and its two sequels can look forward to a fourth and final book in the saga, which Warren refers to as a “post-Millennial finale.”  She says she’s about halfway done and that it’s “going along very nicely.”  

Keep writing, Patricia.  We can’t wait to read more.  

Books

K. M. Soehnlein’s Army of Lovers, a review

Army of Lovers is not just an account of political intervention, it is itself an intervention, a novel that preserves for future activism

Published

on

Courtesy of Bywater Books

By John Weir | NEW YORK – K.M. Soehnlein’s Army of Lovers is a novel of the lost generation. Not the early 20th century generation of survivors of the Great War, called “lost” by Gertrude Stein, their stories told in novels by Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf.

Soehnlein’s lost women and men, those who survived and those who did not, are from the last two decades of the 20th century, the so-called American century, when nearly 750,000 Americans died of AIDS. Young Americans: by 1994, and through 1995, AIDS was the leading cause of death for all Americans age 25 to 44.

At the center of Army of Lovers is a German Irish guy from suburban New Jersey, a kid named Paul, just out of college, whose journey to adulthood happens to coincide with a global epidemic – “a fucking plague,” Larry Kramer famously shouted – that maybe looks to us, from the distance of forty years and a new century, like a grim dress rehearsal for Covid.

That’s if your memory goes back that far. Soehnlein’s does, and his novel is a stunning act of remembering. It’s a visceral re-creation of the sights, sounds, smells, the feel of Manhattan from Wall Street to Times Square in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The bars, parks, restaurants, apartments. Parties and sex parties. The meeting halls where ACT UP New York met. The touch of friends and lovers and comrades, in street actions and crowded jail cells. The taste of ash in your mouth, literal ash, ashes of the dead. 

If you were in New York at the time, and involved even peripherally in ACT UP New York, the novel will feel like a series of home movies. (Full disclosure: I think I once shared a jail cell with Soehnlein.) The story starts at a die-in. Soehnlein’s narrator Paul and his fellow ACT UP activists are lying on the floor of Albany’s state senate building, its brutalist architecture an apt symbol of “the brutal world we’re shouting at, brutal and square and indifferent. The brutal indifference of the government led us here, to block the glass doors of the legislation chamber, demanding to be heard.”

“This is an action,” Paul says, excited, his arm linked through the arm of his best girlfriend Amanda. When his boyfriend Derek, a member of ACT UP’s media committee, comes over with a reporter and a cameraperson, Paul and Amanda deliver their sound bites – “Women with AIDS die twice as fast as men” – and then they wait for the police to close in and arrest them. They wait a while. 

With documentary clarity, Soehnlein renders the stop-and-start energy of political protest. Not only does he preserve for historical record an account of a series of actions and political interventions that took place forty years ago, he shows how it felt to be there. His characters feel the adrenaline rush of getting into a building that is guarded like a fortress. They hold hands, sometimes with strangers they will never see again, sometimes with lovers or ex-lovers. Rushing, chanting, they head for the marble hallway, or the floor of the train terminal, or the cold, cold ground, worrying they won’t get past the police barriers or the phalanx of cops. 

And once they have “taken the hill,” as it were, like actors in a war film from the 1940s, they wait. Wait for the police to come, for the senators to respond, for the reporters to arrive with camera crews to record their demands. And then, if they are not arrested, they get home in time to see themselves on the evening news. Or not!

Buy the book here: (Bywater Books)

It’s exhilarating. Soehnlein shows the exhilaration. It’s also sometimes kind of boring. He shows that too. Most of all, it changed lives. The novel chronicles the ways activism and AIDS and death and loss change Paul’s life. How he goes from being a newly out gay kid learning his way around a city “full of offerings,” including art and work and men (his initial approach to sex and love being: “Anything that starts with a guy and ends with an orgasm is what I’m into”), to a queer activist in a shaved head and black leather jacket facilitating ACT UP meetings and talking back to Larry Kramer.

A notable aspect of the novel is Soehnlein’s lack of sentimentality about the anointed “heroes” of the AIDS activism movement. “I hold him in awe,” Paul says about Kramer, but also, “Larry is the apocalyptic prophet who sees only doom. . . often incapable of hearing anyone else.” Soehnlein is equally clear-eyed about problems of burn-out that afflicted AIDS activists: 

Issues of racism and sexism that compromised AIDS activism; the painful awareness of many ACT UP members, almost their inability to grasp, that despite their unceasing, ingenious, and fearless activism, their friends and lovers would continue to die. 

Most poignantly, the novel shows an aspect of AIDS activism that I haven’t seen fully dramatized elsewhere. It happens in a conversation between Paul and his bestie Amanda, an aspiring filmmaker and lesbian activist. Grappling with the question of how to have a life at the same time that you’re trying to save lives, Amanda says, “It’s confusing to be so deeply identified with a community when you want to say something or make something that’s uniquely yours.”

How to be a person in the midst of an all-consuming, life-threatening epidemic? How to be queer in America in the Reagan years? How to have a personal life when your life is devoted to the collective? Amanda chooses art as a form of activism. Paul has a life apart from AIDS, but it’s no refuge from painful questions of mortality and identity. His is mother dying of cancer. The poles of his life mirror each other, each with death at the center. Is he entirely himself in either community – the churchgoing suburban world where he grew up, and the activist world centering on ACT UP and his charismatic boyfriend Derek? 

When he breaks up with Derek and falls in love with Zack, who is dying of AIDS, Paul drifts away from ACT UP. “You’re a caretaker now,” Amanda tells him. Paul seems almost to arrive at the conclusion that caretaking is itself a form of activism. Or if it’s not, what is activism? Amanda decides to channel her activism into “making a movie that affects a lot of people.” Paul comes to a similar decision. After Zack dies, he moves to San Francisco and enrolls in a graduate writing program.

Soehnlein would appear to have made a similar choice. Army of Lovers is not just an account of political intervention, it is itself an intervention, a novel that preserves for future activism the history of a group of people struggling to survive an epidemic in the face of a government that was intent on denying its existence.  

Continue Reading

Books

New book reveals that some secrets last a lifetime

‘All the Broken Places’ should be on your must-read list

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy Pamela Dorman Books)

‘All the Broken Places’
By John Boyne
c. 2022, Pamela Dorman Books
$28/400 pages

It shall not pass your lips.

No, That Thing You Do Not Talk About is off-limits in all conversation, a non-topic when the subject surfaces. Truly, there are just certain things that are nobody’s business and in the new novel, “All the Broken Places” by John Boyne, some secrets must last a lifetime.

She hated the idea that she would have to adjust to new neighbors.

Ninety-one-year-old Gretel Fernsby wasn’t so much bothered by new people, as she was by new noise. She hated the thought of inuring herself to new sounds, and what if the new tenants had children? That was the worst of all. Gretel never was much for children, not her own and certainly not any living below her.

Once, there was a time when Gretel could imagine herself with many children. That was nearly 80 years ago, when she was in love with her father’s driver, Kurt. She thought about Kurt through the years – he had fallen out of favor with her father, and was sent elsewhere – and she wondered if he survived the war.

Her father didn’t, nor did her younger brother but Gretel didn’t think about those things. What happened at the “other place” was not her fault.

She hadn’t known. She was innocent.

That was what she told herself as she and her mother fled to Paris. Gretel was 15 then, and she worked hard to get rid of her German accent but not everyone was fooled by her bad French or her story. She was accosted, hated. As soon as her mother died, she sailed to Australia, where she lived with a woman who loved other women, until it became dangerous there, too. She practiced her English and moved to London where she was married, widowed, and now she had to get used to new neighbors and new sounds and new ways for old secrets to sneak into a conversation.

OK, clear your calendar. Get “All the Broken Places” and just don’t make any plans, other than to read and read and read.

The very first impression you get of author John Boyne’s main character, Gretel, is that she’s grumpy, awful, and nasty. With the many bon mots she drops, however, the feeling passes and it’s sometimes easy to almost like her – although it’s clear that she’s done some vile things in her lifetime, things that emerge slowly as the horror of her story dawns. Then again, she professes to dislike children, but (no spoilers here!) she doesn’t, not really, and that makes her seem like someone’s sweet old grandmother. ‘Tis a conundrum.

Don’t let that fool you, though. Boyne has a number of Gretel-sized roadside bombs planted along the journey that is this book. Each ka-boom will hit your heart a little harder.

This is a somewhat-sequel to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” but you can read it alone. Do, and when you finish, you’ll want to immediately read it again, to savor anew.

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

Continue Reading

Books

New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation

Published

on

(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.

Continue Reading

Books

Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

‘Place Called Home’ a powerful indictment of foster care system

Published

on

(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.

Continue Reading

Books

Queer film fans will love ‘Hollywood: The Oral History’

‘The most cruel, most despicable town in the world’

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy Harper)

‘Hollywood: The Oral History’
By Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson
c. 2022, Harper
$30/741 pages

Whether you adore old Hollywood, are fascinated by 1970s new Hollywood, intrigued by digital filmmaking or love to hate on Tinsel Town, you’re in luck this holiday season.

Hollywood is “The most cruel, most despicable town in the world,” assistant director Ridgeway Callow says, in “Hollywood: The Oral History,” by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson, a compendium of 100 years of gossip, reminiscences, and historical tidbits about Tinsel Town. At nearly 800 pages, it’s an intriguing, diverting doorstopper of a book.

Hollywood aficionados, especially Tinsel Town’s queer fans, will find it hard to resist this book. 

It’s often been said that there would be no Hollywood without us queer folk. “Hollywood: The Oral History” doesn’t explicitly mention Tinsel Town’s queer quotient. But you’ll find tantalizing hints of it, if you have queer radar.

If you believe that compiling a comprehensive history of Hollywood is a frivolous endeavor, you may well want to think again. 

Hollywood has been, and still is, (despite some progress) sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic. Not to mention its distortion of body image. And, that’s just a sampling of its sins.

Yet, Hollywood is everywhere. Whether you love movies (Old Hollywood films or the newest digital offerings), or loathe even the mention of the word “celluloid,” your life has been shaped by Hollywood.

Tinsel Town is in our DNA: from the words of endearment we whisper when we’re in love to the shade we throw during break-ups to the clothes we wear to our gestures of affection or rage.

In 1969, the American Film Institute held the first of a series of “intimate conversations” between AFI conservatory students and Hollywood professionals, Basinger and Wasson write in the introduction to “Hollywood: the Oral History.”

These conversations were named the Harold Lloyd Master Seminars “in honor of their very first guest,” Basinger and Wasson report.

During the past half century everyone from actors (including Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and, thankfully, Bette Davis) to directors (including George Cukor who directed Hepburn and Garbo), to costume designers (including Oscar-winning Edith Head) to producers as well as stunt men and women have talked about Hollywood.

“They speak with the attitudes of their own time,” Basinger and Wasson write, “but they speak with authority.”

Wasson and Basinger were given “unprecedented access” to the Harold Lloyd seminars, oral histories and complete archives. The more than 300 interviews for this remarkable book were culled from more than 3,000 seminar guest speakers and nearly 10,000 hours of conversation, the authors write.

The people speaking in this entertaining history aren’t actually hanging out – being interviewed together. Yet, it feels as if we’re a fly on the wall at a Tinsel Town pool party, as stars and their director/producer Hollywood pals sip martinis and gossip.

“The press did everything in the world to see that Joan Crawford and I had a big fight,” Bette Davis says.

“Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” was made in three weeks, Davis says. There was no time for a feud, she adds. But, who knows what would have happened if “Baby” had taken three months to make, Davis asks.

This is just one of the many fun quotes in the fascinating interviews in “Hollywood: The Oral History.”

A caveat: Wasson, author of six books on film, including “Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.,” “Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and the “Dawn of the Modern Woman,” and Basinger, a trustee of the AFI and distinguished film scholar, offer scant context on the interviews in the book. There is, for example, little comment on the racism in “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” or on homophobia in Hollywood. It’s understandable that the authors wanted the interviewees to speak for themselves (as part of their time). Yet, some historical context would have been welcome.

If you read “Hollywood: the Oral History” from beginning to end, you’ll likely feel that the party is going on too long. But if you read it in short bursts or dip in and out of it, you’ll find it a delicious treat.

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

Continue Reading

Books

Geena Davis kicked ass onscreen long before she did in real life

Iconic actress revisits her ‘Polite’ life in new memoir

Published

on

(Book cover courtesy Harper One)

‘Dying of Politeness: A Memoir’
By Geena Davis
c.2022, Harper One
$28.99/288 pages

Years ago, a colleague videotaped me as I apologized for bumping into a desk. “I’m sorry,” I said to this inanimate object, “I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings.” 

If you’re terminally polite, love kick-ass movies and worship bad-asses, you’ll lap up “Dying of Politeness: A Memoir” by badass, feminist, Academy-Award-winning actor and activist Geena Davis.

In the memoir (Davis’s debut as an author), Davis, 66, tells  entertaining,  sometimes moving, stories about her wide-ranging life: from her childhood (her parents were more polite than Emily Post ever dreamt of) to her acting career to finishing in 24th place in archery in the 2000 Summer Olympics trials.    

Davis, a queer and feminist icon, has been in many movies. Her awards include an Oscar for best supporting actress for her portrayal of dog trainer Muriel Prichett in “The Accidental Tourist,” the adaptation of the Anne Tyler novel of the same name. Davis watched her boyfriend (Jeff Goldblum) turn into an insect in “The Fly” and played Barbara in the comedy-horror picture “Beetlejuice.”

Davis is loved by LGBTQ folk for her work in two 1990s classics.

In 1991, she was Thelma (Susan Sarandon was Louise) in “Thelma and Louise,” the classic film that made many women cheer and a lot of men squirm.

Just a year later, Davis was Dottie in the movie that’s still a fave of hetero and queer girls and women — “A League of Their Own.” Unlike the series with the same name recently released by Amazon Prime, the film has no explicitly queer characters. But with Madonna (Mae) and Rosie O’Donnell (Doris), the picture has a fab queer quotient.

You’d think, after watching Davis as Thelma and Dottie, that the Oscar-winning actor leapt from her mother’s womb as a badass.

But it’s clear from the get-go that it took more than a minute for Davis to emerge as her badass self. Davis could easily have titled not only the first chapter of her memoir, but the entire book, “My Journey to Badassery.”

“I kicked ass onscreen way before I did so in real life,” Davis writes.

But, “Dying of Politeness” is a more than apt title for the memoir. Her parents were loving, but polite to the point of absurdity.

They insisted that Davis say “no thank you, I’m not thirsty” “even if someone was handing me an already poured glass of ice water,” Davis writes.

One of Davis’s childhood memories was of the time her 99-year-old great-uncle drove her and her family to his house. The relative kept veering into the oncoming “if blessedly empty,” traffic lane, she recalls. Rather than saying anything, “my parents simply moved me to the spot between them on the back seat,” Davis writes, “thinking, I presume, that when the inevitable head-on collision occurred, I’d be killed a little less in the middle.”

The humor in this anecdote of a childhood brush with death is typical of the wit sprinkled throughout “Dying of Politeness.”

Davis, who grew up in Wareham, Mass., decided at age 3 that she wanted to be in the movies. After studying acting at Boston University, Davis left college and moved to New York. 

Davis may have been as she writes, “a cripplingly polite New Englander,” but she wasn’t lacking in chutzpah. 

In New York, Davis worked as a Lord and Taylor sales clerk. On a dare, she joined a group of mannequins in a café scene in the department store window. Soon, people lined up to watch her perform in street theater.

Davis got her first movie role in “Tootsie” after Sidney Pollack saw her pictures in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Dustin Hoffman, starring in the movie, mentored her. He told her not to sleep with her co-stars.

The memoir is more than entertaining. Davis writes of sexual harassment, her effort to create inclusion in Hollywood by founding the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and how her dad cared for her mom when she had dementia.

It’s hard to think of a timelier book than “Dying of Politeness” in our current political climate. Badassery is needed now more than ever.

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

Continue Reading

Books

‘Working Girls’ offers over-the-top advice on the workplace

Drag stars tell you how to get along with co-workers, ask for a raise

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy Plume)

‘Working Girls: Trixie & Katya’s Guide to Professional Womanhood’
By Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova
c.2022, Plume
$28/224 pages 

You want stuff.

A nice wardrobe, say. Decent dishes, nice lamps, food and drink. Somewhere to relax and a place to sleep. You want stuff, and a home to put that stuff in, but that generally takes money, honey, and it usually comes from a j-o-b. Fear not, though: help is on the way with “Working Girls: Trixie & Katya’s Guide to Professional Womanhood” by Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova.

If you must work, at least you should find a job that fits you, right? So grab Trixie and Katya’s guide and start with the career aptitude test. You might be surprised – or you might “qualify for 0 percent APR financing.”

Next, think about what you really want to do with your life. How about a career of service as a cleaner who removes “the carnage of lowly grifters, criminals, and monsters”? You might rather hang out with kids as a nanny, or be a “tipped laborer.”

Remember, always tip the waitstaff.

You could work in publishing, “big tech,” financing, whatever you choose, always dress for the job. If that means drag, “grab a wig, some fabric, and two lashes… and poof!” You’re ready to hire.

But wait. First, you’ll have to go through an interview, so think about the skills you want to showcase, then “reel them in” with thoughtful answers to those silly interview questions. Once you’ve got a job offer in hand, be forearmed with the handy guide to the types of coworkers you might encounter. Remember: work is not like college, where you can avoid “germs, viruses, and nonessential enzymes named Carol from Accounts Receivable.”

Know how to ask for a raise (do you even deserve one?). Be glad if they ask you to do a Zoom meeting from home. Know how to manage your time, know when it’s time to leave your job, and know how to be graceful if it wasn’t exactly your idea. Learn to recognize work scams. And then prepare for retirement. Yeah, you do deserve that.

It should be crystal-clear by merely looking at the cover of “Working Girls: Trixie & Katya’s Guide to Professional Womanhood” that this book pokes plenty of fun at the world of work. It’s funny, saucy, and over-the-top and it actually includes surprisingly decent advice, too.

Just be willing to read between the lines, although that shouldn’t be a problem. Readers who are old enough to handle the theme of this book should be smart enough to know when authors Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova aren’t exactly trying for Dear Abby here; there’s an overload of snark and sarcasm in these pages, and it’s in neon. Still, the fact remains that there are usable nuggets inside this book – on working from home, on getting along with coworkers, on asking for more money, and on how to quit.

Bring your sense of humor when you tackle this book, but bring your resume, too. “Working Girls: Trixie & Katya’s Guide to Professional Womanhood” is funny and useful, and, well, you want it.

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

Continue Reading

Books

Book about lesbian affair is steamy erotica with thin story

‘Mistakes Were Made’ delivers heat but the romance falls flat

Published

on

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

‘Mistakes Were Made’
By Meryl Wilsner
c.2022, St. Martin’s Press
$16.99/346 pages 

It was so not cool.

And yet, you owned it because it was your error, there was no denying it, and you can’t go back in time and undo it. It wasn’t cool, but it happened. Then again, was it really such a misstep, or was there something good inside the something bad you did? As in the new novel, “Mistakes Were Made” by Meryl Wilsner, will it all turn out right in the end?

The bar wasn’t one she usually frequented, but it was as far from the dorm as Cassie Klein could possibly get. It was Family Weekend at college, she’d graduate soon, and the whole “family” thing was ridiculous. No, the bar was a better place to be and she was preparing to get drunk, until she started watching the older woman who was watching her.

She bought the woman a drink and one thing led to another, which led to the back seat of the woman’s car, the exchange of first names, and a semi-public one-night stand that Cassie was sure she’d never forget.

Erin Bennett had hoped being at Family Weekend might heal the broken bond she had with her daughter, Parker. She knew Parker was still angry that Erin had filed for divorce from Parker’s father, and Erin wished she could explain things but she wasn’t exactly sure herself why the divorce was important. She was mulling this over when Parker arrived at breakfast with one of her closest friends in tow – a friend that Erin had never officially met, but that she knew very well.

Intimately, in fact.

It was the woman she’d had sex with the night before.

Clearly, this was awkward and Parker could never find out what had happened. While the obvious thing to do was to put the brakes on, that was impossible – especially after Parker wouldn’t take “no” for an answer when she invited Cassie to her mother’s house for Christmas break. Being in the same home together was hard enough, but being in the same room, and in pajamas? How could anyone resist that?

There are really two basic ways to perceive “Mistakes Were Made.” It’s either an overly long, mostly-bare-bones story that contains some explicit bedroom scenes. Or it’s soft erotica with a tissue-thin story between steamy trysts.

Could it be better? Well, that, too, will depend on what you want in a novel.

Author Meryl Wilsner’s bedroom (kitchen, back seat, living room) scenes are hotter than a baked potato straight from the oven. They’re steam-your-glasses hot and there are enough of them to seize your interest and handcuff it to a bedpost – if that is, indeed, your interest. Come to this novel for a romance-y tale, though, and you could be bored because, while girl-meets-girl is all over this book, it’s frustratingly slow getting to it.

And so, know what you want before you pick up “Mistakes Were Made.” If erotica is your thing, stay for the heat. If you want a good story, though, it’ll leave you cold.

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

Continue Reading

Books

“Grace: Barack Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America”

Obama speechwriter reflects on marriage, Charleston shooting in new book- Cody Keenan revisits 10 critical days from unique vantage point

Published

on

Cody Keenan (Photo by Melanie Dunea)

WASHINGTON – Cody Keenan, director of speechwriting for President Obama, had a prominent vantage point in the White House during an eventful 10 days that included recovery from a violent memory underscoring lingering issues with racism.

Those 10 days, which saw the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage and upholding Obamacare as well as Obama’s speech in the aftermath of a racist shooting at a Black church in Charleston, are now encapsulated in his new book, “Grace: Barack Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America.”

The Washington Blade spoke with Keenan about his book in an interview on Tuesday that includes an exchange the author and this reporter shared from different perspectives during Obama’s speech in the Rose Garden after the Supreme Court’s ruling for same-sex marriage.

Read the full interview below:

Blade: Why was the time now for this book?

Cody Keenan: There’s a couple of reasons for that. No. 1 is sort of technical. I was still working for President Obama up until the beginning of 2021. And so I didn’t feel appropriate to start writing a book that’s largely about him as long as he was paying me. So that’s the technical answer.

The other is I’d just been rolling these 10 days around in my head for a while. You know, it doesn’t coalesce all at once. You don’t wake up in the morning after marriage equality and Charleston and say, “OK, I’m going to write a book.” It really took the Trump years to actually crystallize it in my head because suddenly we were living through the opposite. We come through this kind of amazing 10-day burst of progress. That, of course, is not limited to 10 days. It was a result of decades of effort, and then the backlash to it. It makes it seem all that more sharp.

Blade: I think our viewers are going to be very interested in the discussion on the marriage ruling and the potential outcomes that you depict in the book. Looks like there was a lot of anxiety behind closed doors about the decision as well as the possible decision on the Affordable Care Act. Do you think that anxiety was shared by President Obama?

Cody Keenan: I’ll never know for certain. He didn’t show his hand like that. He never looked at the drafts we wrote the kind of ‘in case of emergency break glass’ drafts. He just he never did. Not on election nights, not on Supreme Court rulings. It’s not that he’s cocky, he was confident. I think it was more confident in the ACA decision because he knew that it shouldn’t have been there in the first place. So, I don’t so I don’t know how he felt about the marriage equality ruling coming in. I know how he felt about it after the fact. You can watch his remarks on YouTube, which are pretty extraordinary.

They were fairly short as written and then he decided to keep going, which is always interesting as a speech writer, knowing that the remarks are over. I love watching him ad lib, but when the remarks are over, and he just keeps going and there’s no runway to land that plane and that’s always a little interesting. On the page, it’s not a lot but he was really thinking as he was saying the words, as he was tying it to the countless small acts of courage with people who came out and parents who love their kids in return, people who just who made this happen through decades of efforts. And then, he tied this into Bobby Kennedy, which is really exciting. So that was kind of fascinating to watch.

I’ve always thought that he was genuinely moved by the fact that America had come so far and, relatively speaking, so fast on the equal rights issue like that. … I asked him later why he ad-libbed all that and why he was talking so slowly. He just he said he was up too late, reworking my speech, which isn’t true, because he gave it back to me like 11 p.m. But no, I think he was genuinely proud of the country, and then a whole lot of people at that point.

Blade: Yeah, I remember that day very well because I was actually right in front of Obama as he was giving those remarks. I’m a White House reporter, so I wanted to be able to see these remarks firsthand. I was at the Supreme Court and I rushed back to the White House. I actually missed the call time just by ever so slightly but a when the White House staffer saw me there, she escorted me to the Rose Garden. And I was seated there, then press saw me there and they knew how important it was to me so they allowed me to take the seat in the front row where normally the major news stations sit. I was a few feet away from Obama, as he was saying those words.

Keenan: Oh wow. Well, this isn’t a two-way interview, obviously, but I’d be very curious afterwards as to how you were feeling that morning before and then.

Blade: For me, it was a very surreal and very powerful experience to have this issue that has been a really important issue for so many people, and really animated my work for so long, to more or less reach its conclusion. And one thing that really stood out to me was it just seems to me like when I was writing about marriage equality, it was really of interest to a certain group of people and other people really weren’t that interested. But on that day, it was a reminder that that wasn’t the case. Because remember, President Obama gave his remarks and then the entire White House staff circled around the perimeter of the Rose Garden and gave applause and it was just it was very touching, very moving. I don’t think they did that for the ACA speech. It struck me just how powerful it was because people wanted to embrace that decision with that reaction.

Keenan: The difference there is that we had — this is who people are, we had so many colleagues that — I just dreaded the idea of having to look a colleague in the eye or a friend had it gone the other way. There was anxiety and we were also relieved and excited that it went the right way. There was anxiety that morning. I guess I can always speak for myself, but as a Democrat and as a Chicago sports fan, I am never satisfied until it’s over…I’m always hopeful we’re gonna win, but I don’t ever expect. So until that really came down, I was pretty anxious for sure.

Blade: Was there anything during that speech that surprised you. I think you said Obama said a few things you didn’t think he was going to say but just anything that otherwise happened that just really opened your eyes on that either after the ruling or in his remarks?

Kennan: The remarks didn’t surprise me…I just thought it was so interesting that he kept going. He always gave long speeches, but for a speech to be over on paper and for him to not want to stop. You know, he didn’t want to stop and just wanted to say more, and I thought that was so fascinating and awesome and exciting, and then obviously five minutes after that we need to head down to Charleston.

Blade: I do want to ask you about Charleston, but one thing I want to ask you about was that was the night that the White House was lit up in rainbow colors. And I’m just wondering if you were part of the discussion, if you aware of that, if you remember your reaction to that?

Keenan: I was not a part of the discussion. I didn’t know what was going to happen until that morning or the morning after, I can’t remember. We were on the Rose Garden for the remarks, and Denis McDonough came up and told me, “God, that’s cool.” It’s one of those things where you wish you thought of it because it seems so obvious. I’ve talked to a lot of people for this book. I talked to Jeff Tiller and Tina Tchen. [Jeff Tiller was an Obama White House LGBTQ media liaison.] And one of the coolest things Jeff told me was he was the one that kind of spearheaded this whole thing and found funding for it, found quotes from contractors and was out there kind of tearing his hair out when the lights weren’t necessarily working.

But the coolest thing he said is they were talking about what to do if the Supreme Court ruled the other way. Do they light it up? And Jeff said, “Yeah, it’s even more important then.”

Blade: That’s definitely something that was planned for. I was really surprised at how they were able to keep it under wraps for so long. It was a surprise to everyone I think.

Keenan: The only bummer is that Obama was gonna fly around the front of the White House on Maine One to look at it. But I don’t think anybody remembered this was like the longest week of the year daylight-wise. So we’ve been back for maybe two hours before it actually started, before colors actually started getting visible.

Blade: So on the Charleston speech, a much more somber moment, do you think having the nation’s first Black president at the time offered us something unique in that moment?

Keenan: Sure. I talk a lot about how difficult it was to write about race just because we haven’t all lived the same experiences. It may have actually been more difficult to write that speech had it been for a white president to deliver. The fact that a Black president gave that eulogy was pretty remarkable. It’s not just that he is a walking sign of progress and change, and a lot of people didn’t like that, hence some of the backlash we’re living in now.

….He can speak to race and the possibilities of reconciliation and change, I think, more so than a white president could have in that moment. It’d be easy for a white president to just condemn it, but for a Black president to go up and find the words is easier symbolically. It might have been more difficult on the page. I really don’t know. But it was a quintessential hit, what he did to the text, using the lyrics to Amazing Grace to kind of create the space for people to change their minds, the space for people to — the whole song was written by a slave owner who changed his ways, to repent. And it’s sort of the same thing, if anything’s ever going to wake us up to the long legacy of racism and to what gun violence is doing, that’s what the Confederate flag means to some people. It has to be this. So in some ways, I don’t know the answer as to whether it be easier or harder, but he did bring something unique to it just by virtue of his experience.

Blade: Did you think the Charleston shooting represented the last dying breath of racism in the United States, or that it was a prelude of things to come?

Keenan: I don’t think either. I could see the argument for each but I don’t think either. We’ve obviously endured racial violence for centuries. A Black church was set on fire in Massachusetts the day Obama was elected. He had more threats against him than any other president. It’s what we live with. So it definitely wasn’t the start, and it’s not the end. I mean, in a lot of ways, the fact that Donald Trump announced his candidacy the day before the shooting, it’s just kind of an awful reminder that a president’s words can unleash a lot of bad things, and at their best they can inspire the best in people, at their worst they can turn people against each other and kind of let loose the country’s worst demons and create permission structure for people to act out their political violence.

What kind of linked those things that week, and even Obamacare to a lesser extent, is who are we? Do we stand up to white supremacy and bigotry? Or do we allow this to continue, do we allow state legislators to fly the Confederate flag over where Black people live and work and worship? Do we allow the Supreme Court to basically codify bigotry by saying, “No, you can’t get married”? Do we allow them to say sorry to millions of poor people and working people you don’t get to have health insurance unless you’re wealthy? And like all those things just came to a head in the same week.

Blade: So my final question for you is what kind of impact would you like for your book to have?

Keenan: There’s kind of three buckets here. One is first I really do think it’s an important story to tell for history. I want people to read about this some day as this kind of amazing spasm of progress that is not due to one president, but to two generations of people who marched and fought and bled for this. I also teach speech writing at Northwestern, I want young people who are in college now and look at politics and think, “Why would I want to do that?” and change their minds. I want them to think this is a place that’s worth my time and effort. It can actually be fulfilling and collegial and fun.

And anyone else myself included who’s started to feel really cynical in recent years, and there’s plenty of reasons for it, I wanted to throw that up. I’ve gotten some of the greatest feedback so far from a couple strangers who reached out to say they sign up to knock on doors and one of my former colleagues texted this morning to say just reminded me in politics in the first place, and that’s what I want. I want people to read it and say, “You know what, for all the awfulness out there and for the act of undermining of our democracy and the heinous cruelty, we’re still in charge.”

{Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length.]

Continue Reading

Books

New ACT UP book is part history, part memoir

‘Boy with the Bullhorn’ chronicles hard work, grief, anger

Published

on

(Book cover image courtesy of Fordham University Press)

‘Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York’ 
By Ron Goldberg
c.2022/ Fordham University Press
$36.95/512 pages

The sign above your head shows what’s going on inside.

Last night, you made the sign with a slogan, firm words, a poke to authority – and now you carry it high, yelling, marching, demanding that someone pay attention. Now. Urgently. As in the new book, “Boy with the Bullhorn” by Ron Goldberg, change is a-coming.

He’d never done anything like it before.

But how could he not get involved? Ron Goldberg had read something about ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and he heard they were holding a rally near his workplace. It was 1987, he’d never participated in anything like that before, but whispers were everywhere. He and his friends were “living under a pervasive cloud of dread.”

He “was twenty-eight years old… scared, angry, and more than a little freaked out” about AIDS, he says.

Couldn’t he at least go down and hold a sign?

That first rally led Goldberg to attend a meeting, which, like most, as he came to realize, were raucous and loud and “electric.” Because he was “living fully ‘out and proud’,” and because he realized that this was an issue “worth fighting for,” he became even more involved with ACT UP by attending larger rallies and helping with organizing and getting his fellow activists fired up. He observed as women became involved in ACT UP, too. Monday night meetings became, for Goldberg, “the most exciting place in town.”

There, he learned how politics mixed with activism, and why ACT UP tangled with the Reagan administration’s leaders. He puffed with more than just a little ownership, as other branches of ACT UP began spreading around the country. He learned from ACT UP’s founding members and he “discovered hidden talents” of his own by helping.

On his years in ACT UP, Goldberg says, “There was hard work, grief, and anger, surely, but there was also great joy.” He was “a witness. And so, I began to write.”

Let’s be honest: “Boy with the Bullhorn” is basically a history book, with a little memoir inside. Accent on the former, not so much on the latter.

Author Ron Goldberg says in his preface that Larry Kramer, who was one of ACT UP’s earliest leaders encouraged him to pull together a timeline for the organization and this book is the result of the task. It’s very detailed, in sequential order and, as one reads on, it’s quite repetitive, differing basically in location. It’s not exactly a curl-up-by-the-fire read.

Readers, however – and especially older ones who remember the AIDS crisis – won’t be able to stop scanning for Goldberg’s memories and tales of being a young man at a time when life was cautiously care-free. The memories – which also act as somewhat of a gut-wrenching collection of death-notices – are sweet, but also bittersweet.

This book is nowhere near a vacation kinda book but if you have patience, it’s worth looking twice. Take your time and you’ll get a lot from “Boy with the Bullhorn.” Rush, and it might just go over your head.

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

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts

Advertisement

Follow Us @LosAngelesBlade

Advertisement

Popular