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YEAR IN REVIEW 2018 BOOKS: Best page turners of the year

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best lgbt books 2018, gay news, Washington Blade

‘Berlin 1936,’ time-bending ‘Tin Man’ among year’s strongest fiction

The year’s best books often came in unexpected places. Here are some highlights.

Fiction

Just about every person alive grew up feeling sorry for poor little Cinderella. In “All the Ever Afters” by Danielle Teller, we see the classic story from the POV of Agnes, the evil-not-evil stepmother. This novel is an eye-opener: there are always two sides to a story and both could be correct.

Another two-sides-to-the-tale tale is “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White, a novel of the woman who loved Victor Frankenstein. Or did she? Without him, she’d be homeless, broke and hungry. With him, she would always fear his temper and the horrible things she was discovering about him. It’s a dark-and-stormy kind of book, perfect for anyone who wants winter chills of a different sort.

A lot of mini-stories make up “Berlin 1936” by Oliver Hilmes, translated from the German by Jefferson Chase. It’s a multi-level tale of Nazis, gypsies, homosexuals and secrets in the infancy of the Third Reich, told in a conglomerate, slice-of-life sort of way that will make you forget that it’s all fiction.

Every year, it seems, scientists claim that humans will achieve immortality within a few decades. That’s a curse in “How to Stop Time” by Matt Haig.

In 1598, a man named Tom fell in love with a woman named Rose. They had a daughter and then Rose fell ill and died; Tom, however, survived because he’s an “alba.” Tom is more than 400 years old and there are two things he wants: to feel as normal as he did in 1598, and to find his daughter, who is also an alba. Romancy? Yes, but also part sci-fi, part history, a little drama, and a whole lot of wonderful.

To round out the fiction list, there’s “Tin Man: A Novel” by Sarah Winman. It’s also the story of Ellis, who lost his wife and his best friend, the former to a car accident and the latter to AIDS. Ellis misses Annie because she opened his world; he misses Michael because Michael pushed him to do things he would have never tried. But there were so many things Ellis never knew about Michael, until he finds Michael’s journal. Emotional, dramatic, also romantic, here’s a book that’ll make you curl up in your chair, stricken, for an hour after you’ve finished it.

Nonfiction

For anyone who’s ever wondered how that guy on TV does those illusion tricks, “Here is Real Magic” by Nate Staniforth is a book for you. Staniforth always wanted to be a magician but he wanted to do it big. Little coin tricks were old-school so, in this book, he goes on a journey to find out of magic is real or not. Hint: this isn’t a magic book. Read it and you’ll be left with answers you weren’t even asking for.

You may never see “The Language of Kindness” by Christie Watson on any other best of list and that’s too bad. Watson is a nurse, and this is a book about being ill, care-giving, living and dying. Beware that some of the stories are a bit gruesome, but this is a lovely book for anyone alive.

And not that there’s a theme here or anything, but you’ll also want to read “Natural Causes” by Barbara Ehrenreich, a book about the things we do to avoid dying. It’s informative, funny, wry and intelligent. Hint: rant, rail, avoid sweets, eat kale, do all you want, but you’re going to die someday anyhow.

There’s a ton of surprising gratitude inside “The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row” by Anthony Ray Hardin with Lara Love Hardin. The reason is that Anthony Hardin was put on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. First surprise: it took 30 years for him to be exonerated. Second surprise: this book holds a whole lot less anger than you’d think it would, and a whole lot of uplifting. Of all the books on this list, it’s the one you’ll never regret reading.

And finally, rounding up the nonfiction list, there’s “West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express” by Jim DeFelice. History fans will love this book because DeFelice focuses on the Pony Express but doesn’t ignore other major players in the Civil War era. Readers who like tales of little-known life will love this book, too, as will anyone who loves a good oater. Bonus: it’s one of those easy to browse books that will pull you in tight.

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‘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.

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‘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.

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‘The Risk It Takes to Bloom’ offers plainspoken inspiration

An accessible trans coming-out story

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

‘The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation’
By Raquel Willis
c.2023, St. Martin’s Press
$29/384 pages

The catalogs should start arriving soon.

If you’re a gardener, that’s a siren song for you. What will you put in your pots and plots this spring? What colors will you have, what crops will you harvest? It never gets old: put a seed no bigger than a breadcrumb into some dirt and it becomes dinner in just weeks. All it needs, as in the new memoir “The Risk It Takes to Bloom” by Raquel Willis, is a little time to grow.

The last time Raquel Willis remembers being completely safe and loved without strings attached was at age five, at a talent show. Shortly afterwards, some elders began telling Willis to speak with “a particular brand of clear,” to move differently, to act differently. Willis was a Black boy then, and that was how her father worked against his son’s “softness.”

Willis didn’t know the truth about herself then, but other boys did. So, eventually, did the girls, as a grade school Willis “gravitated… toward” them. Young Willis prayed for God to “just make me a girl” but the bullying that had already begun only got worse.

She changed schools and things were no better; meanwhile, her father tried “even harder to correct who I was becoming.” Friends and online friends were encouraging and supportive, offering her courage to come out to her mother, who thought it was “a phase.” Her father was angry, then accepting. Other family members took Willis’s news in stride.

It was going to be OK. More than OK, in fact, because Willis was introduced to drag, and she started to feel more comfortable in women’s clothing than in men’s attire. To Willis, the drag troupe had begun feeling like family. She settled into life as a gay drag performer, because that was the “language” she had.

And then one day, while talking on the phone with an on-again off-again boyfriend, something important hit Willis, hard.

“I think I’m a woman,” she told him. “I’m a woman — I am.”

Sometimes, it takes a while to understand the person you really are. Half a book, in this case, because “The Risk It Takes to Bloom” is quite wordy: author Raquel Willis tells her story in excruciating detail, and it can get rather long.

And yet, the length allows for clues that readers can follow, to truly see the woman, the activist and writer, who penned this book. But is that enough to attract readers? What sets this book apart from other, similar books by star-powered Black trans women?

The answer lies in the approachability of its author.

Willis tells her tale with a more anchoring feel, more down-to-earth, like she could have lived up the street from you or sat in the last row of your high school algebra class. You could’ve known her. You could know someone like her. Or Willis could be you.

Indeed, this book might hold plainspoken inspiration for anyone who needs it. If that’s you, get “The Risk It Takes to Bloom,” find a chair, and plant yourself.

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‘Blood Sisters’ a lesbian thriller not to miss

Mystery ensues when a female skull is found in the crook of a tree

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‘Blood Sisters’
By Vanessa Lillie
c.2023, Berkley 
$27/384 pages

It’s the truth. Scout’s honor.

Pinky swear. Spit on your palms or prick your fingers, and shake hands. As a child, you had many ways to show that you intended to keep a promise when you made it and your word was your bond, but you’ve grown up. Today, you cross your heart but, as in the new novel “Blood Sisters” by Vanessa Lillie, you hope no one has to die.

She wasn’t looking for skeletal remains.

For Bureau of Indian Affairs archaeologist Syd Walker, such a find was very unusual but not unknown. Odd things happen during geological surveys on tribal lands everywhere. Still, the gruesome recovery in Rhode Island wasn’t top on Syd’s mind.

She’d gotten a call that her sister, Emma Lou, was missing in Oklahoma. Again.

Fifteen years before, as Syd, Emma Lou, and Luna, whom they’d considered a sister, were chilling in Luna’s family’s trailer, a group of men broke in. Wearing masks, the “devils” killed Luna and her parents, and the small town of Picher, was never the same.

Neither were Emma Lou or Syd.

As a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Syd was well aware of the problems near her hometown, the issues Native Americans had there with the BIA, and her own ancestors’ efforts to survive on land that was given and then snatched back. She also knew the fact that she had a wife at home in Rhode Island set her apart since she’d left. And drugs – too many people on tribal allotments were getting drugs too easily.

But someone wanted Syd to come home: a female skull was found in the crook of a tree with her old work badge in its mouth. Despite knowing that Syd had fled Oklahoma on purpose, her new boss at the BIA pulled strings to arrange the trip and assigned her the case.

Years ago, Syd had promised to protect Luna and Emma Lou. One of them was already dead. The other was missing. Was the skull a threat – or a warning?

Here is the best advice you’re going to get when you grab “Blood Sisters”: pay close attention to the minutiae. Without being a spoiler, little things mean a lot.

Unless you watch carefully, you’ll be cruising along at 200 miles an hour in a screaming run through pages and pages of barely bearable excitement when suddenly, your brain will make that scratchy sound like a stopped record. It’s there where author Vanessa Lillie drops three tons of TNT, right toward the almost-end of her story and whoa, Nelly. If you’re not paying attention, you may have to read the chapter multiple times to cut your “What the….?” down to a manageable level.

Yeah, this is that kind of book, the kind that’s written with authenticity, an insider’s feel, and heightened tension that’ll keep you awake. The kind that you think you know how it’ll end and you’re wrong. For mystery lovers or thriller fans, “Blood Sisters” is the kind of book you should scout out.

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‘Fabulist’ chronicles the many lies of George Santos

New book a reminder to always follow the money

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(Book cover image courtesy of Atria/One Signal)

‘The Fabulist: The Lying, Hustling, Grifting, Stealing, and Very American Legend of George Santos’
By Mark Chiusano
c. 2023, Atria/One Signal
$28.99/320 pages

Feel that little tug?

It’s probably nothing to worry about, it’s not important. It’s just that someone’s trying to pull your leg, to make you believe something that’s not true or doesn’t exist. Just a little tug, right above your ankle, no problem. You might not even notice it unless, as in “The Fabulist” by Mark Chiusano, the wool’s pulled over your eyes, too.

A little more than four years ago, Mark Chiusano first spoke with former Rep. George Santos over the phone for a newspaper story, and red flags popped up immediately. Says journalist Chiusano, Santos kept offering conflicting stories about this or that in their initial interview and other, later, conversations featured uncomfortable inconsistencies. Soon, any contact with Santos began to have “an uneasiness to it.”

There was a reason: spinning stories, as it turned out, was something Santos had been practicing since he was young, and he was really good at doing it.

Santos was so good at tale-spinning that, while reporting on Santos, Chiusano watched as highly experienced detectives and other professionals accepted Santos’s lies as truth, though many of his stories were verifiably false. He was so well-practiced at lying, Chiusano says, that eventually, Santos’s habit of telling rich childhood whoppers grew into a talent for creating giant cons, including the biggest one of all: running for public office, and all that it entailed.

In politics, Chiusano notes, Santos was “suddenly surrounded by rich people” and they weren’t just random gullibles to cold call.

“Now,” says Chiusano,” they were at his fundraisers, or on his call lists.”

It’s been said that to know the story, follow the money but that’s not easy when you’re trying to understand George Santos. But let’s be clear, though: it’s not author Mark Chiusano’s fault here. The trail of allegations, cons, drag shows, pants-on-fire, money-grabbing, and tall tales is a long and convoluted one (or more), and it nearly requires a mathematical diagram to untangle. The difficulty lies in the lies that, as recounted in “The Fabulist,” are unrelenting, astounding, and (let’s be honest), ridiculous in flashing neon, which makes them almost ruefully funny in their brazenness.

Shake your head. Go on.

At just about every page, you’ll ask yourself how this ever happened at a time when claims can so very easily be fact-checked. Absolutely, this will lead to a thick air of disbelief in the sheer amount of cons that “George and Anthony and Devolder and Santos” is said to have pulled off – and one way or another you’re likely going to have emotions about that.

On that subject, Chiusano cautions readers not to be armchair psychologists. Indeed, while you’ll note a bit of extrapolating in what you’ll read here, Chiusano seems mostly facts-only neutral, outside of his author’s note and introduction.

Readers may marvel at that, and the Herculean effort that might have taken.

Followers of politics and readers who’ve been watching the saga of George Santos will devour “The Fabulist.” If you love a good, romping head-shaker, pull this one off the shelves.

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Invitation to ‘Dance’: An interview with writer Andrew Holleran

Groundbreaking novel reissued in new paperback edition

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(Book cover courtesy of Harper Perennial)

For countless gay men of a certain age, and many others in generations that followed, Andrew Holleran’s 1978 debut novel “Dancer From The Dance” is held in the highest regard. Groundbreaking, humorous, sexy, and tragic, with “Dancer From The Dance” Holleran paved the way for the gay literary boom of the early-to-mid 1980s that continues to this day. In other words, 45 years after its original publication, Holleran’s essential novel is as relevant as ever. In late 2023, following the 2022 publication of “The Kingdom of Sand,” Holleran’s fifth work of fiction, “Dancer From The Dance” was reissued in a new paperback edition featuring an introduction by gay writer Garth Greenwell (author of “What Belongs to You”). Holleran was gracious enough to answer a few questions after his appearance at the 2023 Miami Book Fair.

BLADE: Andrew, since “Dancer From The Dance” was first published in hardcover in 1978, it has been reissued in a few different paperback editions. Do you have a favorite among the paperback editions’ cover art?

ANDREW HOLLERAN: For sentimental reasons, I suppose it would have to be the first, a Bantam paperback, white, with a shirtless young man in blue jeans looking out at us with a sweater tied around his neck — a model who, I heard, was alarmed that being on the cover might make people think he was gay.

BLADE: The new Harper Perennial reissue of “Dancer From The Dance” includes an introduction by Garth Greenwell. How does it feel to be a writer who now has a reissued book with an introduction written by another writer?

HOLLERAN: It’s an honor, though I never read things like that for fear of learning things about my writing I don’t want to know.

BLADE: Music and dancing play a significant role in “Dancer From The Dance.” You mention a variety of songs and artists in the novel. Were the songs that you chose personal favorites of yours that you wanted to include by name, or were they songs that were simply popular in the clubs at the time?

HOLLERAN: Those were all songs I heard played in the clubs at the time, they still give me goosebumps.

BLADE: “Dancer From The Dance” opens with a series of letters between two friends, one of whom is writing a novel. The letters are very funny, as well as still timely. For example, the line “the young queens nowadays are utterly indistinguishable from straight boys.” Also, the mention of sex work in the novel, and how that has in a way morphed into the age of Only Fans.

HOLLERAN: It’s funny, I just had dinner with a 24-year-old man who told me circuit parties are back (or perhaps never went away) when I asked what young gay men were doing for sex now. In other words, everything changes so that it remains the same.

BLADE: Speaking of timeliness, the subject of Malone’s death at the beginning of chapter one, and the narrator going through the dead man’s clothes, feels prescient in terms of what was to follow for many gay men beginning a few years later in the early 1980s. Does it feel that way to you, too?

HOLLERAN: I don’t know where that opening came from, since at the time nobody had ever heard of or could have imagined AIDS. But in retrospect, it seems a bit eerie.

BLADE: I’ve been streaming the gay-themed “Fellow Travelers” miniseries on Hulu. I know that you are a movie buff, so if “Dancer From The Dance” was adapted as a miniseries or movie, who would you like to see as Malone and Sutherland?

HOLLERAN: I do love movies, but since the pandemic, I’m out of it as to current actors.

BLADE: “Dancer From The Dance” is being reissued at a time when book banning is popular among (mostly illiterate) conservatives. Have any of your books been banned?

HOLLERAN: Alas, no.

BLADE: What would it mean to you to be banned?

HOLLERAN: Publicity [laughs].

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More queer books we love

Bellies: A Novel, Time Out and more for your gift list

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(Book cover images courtesy of the publishers)

For the person on your gift list who’d love a boy-meets-boy story, wrap up “Bellies: A Novel” by Nicola Dinan (Hanover Square Press), the tale of a playwright and the man who loves him wholly, until a transition threatens to change everything.

If there’s a romantic on your list, then you’re in luck: finding a gift is easy when you wrap up “10 Things That never Happened” by Alexis Hall (Sourcebooks), the story of Sam, whose job is OK, and his boss, Jonathan, who should have never hired Sam. Too late now, except for the romance. Wrap it up with “Time Out” by Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner with Carlyn Greenwald (Simon & Schuster), the story of a basketball player who’s newly out of the closet, and a politically minded boy who could easily get his vote.

For the person on your list who likes to read quick, short articles, wrap up “Inverse Cowgirl: A Memoir” by Alicia Roth Weigel (HarperOne). It’s a collection of essays on life as an intersex person, and the necessity for advocating for others who are, too.

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Our favorite books for holiday gifts

Hitchcock, Britney, Barbra, and more!

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(Book cover image courtesy of G.P. Putnam's Sons)

When it gets dark early, it’s cold outside and you want to spice up your life, what’s more intriguing than a book? Here are some holiday gift ideas for book lovers of all ages.

Who isn’t fascinated by the dark, twisty, sometimes, mordantly witty, movies of Alfred Hitchcock, or by Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Ingrid Bergman and the other actresses in his films? Hitchcock’s Blondes: The Unforgettable Women Behind the Legendary Director’s Dark Obsession by Laurence Leamer, author of “Capote’s Women,” is an engrossing story not only of Hitchcock, but of the iconic “blondes” he cast in some of his most beloved movies from “39 Steps” to “Rear Window” to “Vertigo” to “Psycho.” $29. G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Reading about Hitchcock, no matter how intriguing the book, is never as good as watching his films. Alfred Hitchcock: The Essentials Collection (Blu-ray $39.96. DVD: $32.40) features “Rear Window,” “North by Northwest,” “Psycho” and “The Birds.”

Corona/Crown,” by D.C.-based queer poet Kim Roberts in collaboration with photographer Robert Revere, is a fab present for lovers of photography, museums, and poetry. Revere and Roberts were deeply affected by the closure of museums during the COVID pandemic. In this lovely chapbook, they create a new “museum” of their own. “This is what I learned when the pandemic struck,” Roberts writes, “when I couldn’t stop thinking about the artwork in all the museums, bereft of human eyes.” $21.25 WordTech Editions

Few things are as scary and/or captivating as a good ghost story. The Night Side of the River,” by acclaimed lesbian writer Jeanette Winterson, author of “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” and “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” is a provocative and engrossing collection of ghost stories. These deliciously chilling stories feature spirits, avatars, a haunted estate, AI and, pun intended, lively meetings between the living and the dead. $27. Grove.

Blackouts,” a novel by queer writer Justin Torres that received this year’s National Book Award for fiction, is a breathtaking book about storytelling, queer history, love, art, and erasure. A perfect gift for aficionados of characters that become etched into your DNA. $30. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

The Woman in Me,” the memoir by Britney Spears will be devoured by queers of all ages – from tweens to elders. Much of Spears’s story is known – from her youth in Louisiana to her rapid rise to fame to her conservatorship (when her father controlled her life). Yet the devil, as the saying goes, is in the details. In this riveting memoir, Spears reveals the horrifying and exhilarating aspects of her life: from how her father controlled what she ate and when she took a bath to the restrictions put on her ability to see her sons to her love of singing, dancing, and creating music. Spears writes of the queer community’s “unconditional” love and support for her.  $32.99. Gallery.

Few memoirs have been more eagerly anticipated than Barbra Streisand’s My Name Is Barbra.” In its nearly 1,000 pages, EGOT-winning (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), divine, queer icon Streisand, 81, tells seemingly everything about her life. She quarreled with Larry Kramer over filming “The Normal Heart.” It didn’t work out: Streisand thought mainstream audiences would be turned off by explicit sex scenes. Marlon Brando and Streisand were good friends, she loves Brazilian coffee ice cream and her mother was a horror show. Contrary to how some lesser mortals see her, she doesn’t see herself as a diva. The print version of “My Name is Barbra” is fab. The audio version, a 48-hour listen, which Streisand narrates, is even better. $47. Viking. $45 on Audible.

Chasing Rembrandt,” by Richard Stevenson is a terrific gift for mystery lovers. Richard Stevenson was the pseudonym for Richard Lipez, the out queer author, who wrote witty, engaging mysteries featuring the openly gay detective Donald Strachey. Sadly, Stevenson died in 2022. But, “Chasing Rembrandt,” a novel featuring Strachey and his romantic partner Timmy, was published this year. The idea for the story was sparked by a real-life incident when paintings were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. “Robbers wreak havoc, smashing the glass covers protecting masterpieces and slicing paintings out of their frames,” Stevenson writes at the beginning of this entertaining story, “They make off with thirteen works, including three Rembrandts and a Vermeer, worth more than half a billion dollars and beloved in the world of art. It is arguably the greatest property theft in human history.”

With the repartee of Nick and Nora and the grit of Philip Marlowe, Strachey works to solve this mystery. $16.95. ReQueered Tales.

Some books never get old. “The Wild Things,” the beloved children’s picture book written and illustrated by acclaimed gay writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak, was published in 1963. Sixty years later, the Caldecott Medal-winning classic is still loved by three to five-year-olds, their parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles. A new digital audio version of “Where the Wild Things Are,” narrated by Michelle Obama, was released this fall. Who can resist the Wild Things, when they plead: “Oh, please don’t go–we’ll eat you up–We love you so!”? Widely available in hard cover, paperback and e-book format. Audio: $5.50.

What’s more fun than playing a festive album while you’re reading during the holidays? Deck the halls! This year, queer icon Cher has released “Christmas,” her first holiday album. Highlights of the album include: Cher singing with Cyndi Lauper on “Put A Little Holiday In Your Heart,” Stevie Wonder on “What Christmas Means to Me” and Darlene Love on “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” and the rapper Tyga on “Drop Top Sleigh Ride.” The perfect gift for Cher aficionados.

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Books

Cunningham’s ‘Day’ is one of the best books of the year

Characters are resilient, even hopeful, in the midst of disease, death

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(Book cover image courtesy of Random House)

‘Day’
By Michael Cunningham
c. 2023, Random House
$28/273 pages

“She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day,” Virginia Woolf, the groundbreaking, queer, gender-bending, feminist, novelist and essayist, writes in “Mrs. Dalloway” of Clarissa, a society woman, wife of a Parliament member and mother, who’s giving a party on a June day in 1920s London. 

Since the pandemic, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, during the Lavender Scare, going back to the dawn of time, who, especially if they’re queer, hasn’t often felt like Clarissa? Even on lovely June days.

“Day,” a new novel by Michael Cunningham, his first novel since “The Snow Queen” in 2014, beautifully and eerily reflects this feeling. Its characters are fearful and fragile, yet, resilient, even hopeful, in the midst of disease and death.

Like “Mrs. Dalloway,” “Day,” takes place during one day – April 5. Only, the day is spread over three years.

The morning of the day is in April 2019 – before the pandemic. When no one’s talking about, let alone heard of, COVID.

The afternoon of the day is in April 2020 – at the height of the pandemic. Before the COVID vaccines have been developed. When everyone (except low-income, essential workers) is locked down by themselves or with their loved ones. 

The evening of the day is in April 2021 when people, wondering what to make of the “new normal,” are beginning to emerge from the pandemic.

As it is in several of Cunningham’s novels, the main characters of “Day,” are a family (along, with a few friends and relations, who are supporting characters).

As with “Mrs. Dalloway,” and with Cunningham’s luminous “The Hours,” in “Day,” the city, New York, and the passing of time, itself, are characters.

“A man pulls up the metal shutter of his shoe repair shop,” Cunningham writes in “Day,” “A young woman, ponytailed, jogs past a middle-aged man who, wearing a little black dress and combat boots, is finally returning home.”

Dan, his wife Isabel, and their two children — five-year-old Violet and 10-year-old Nathan — live in a brownstone in Brooklyn. Dan is a musician. He’s had his struggles with cocaine and has performed in a rock band. Now, he does a lot of house husband/child care tasks as Isabel, a photo editor, works hard to keep her magazine from dying.

Isabel’s charming younger gay brother lives in their attic loft. It’s a New York City real estate/break up thing. Robbie, a sixth grade school teacher, has just broken up with his boyfriend. He can’t afford to live on his own. He questions why, 15 years ago, he decided against going to medical school.

Dan and Isabel decide that Robbie has to move out and find a place of his own because their kids are too old to share a bedroom.

Though, “Day” references George Eliot, it’s a 21st-century narrative. When Robbie, after the virus (never explicitly called COVID) enters the world, gets stuck in Iceland, he develops Wolfe, an idealized version of himself on Instagram.

You never see the word “COVID” or “pandemic” in “Day.” Yet it’s clear that a virus (likely COVID) has entered the characters’ world. Their world, as with real life at the time, has reminders of AIDS. Rob develops a cough that’s reminiscent of a symptom at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Dan and Isabel’s marriage is becoming strained. They are both in love with Robbie. Thankfully, it’s not what you think! It’s not a lust thing. Robbie represents something ideal to them.

Few have more evocatively channeled the sensibility and style of Woolf than  Cunningham. 

Woolf – her awareness that a novel about a day featuring nothing more than a woman giving a party; a man, at a street corner, taking off his hat to greet a woman he knows; or a wife trying to calm her husband, a “shell-shocked” World War I vet; can be as interesting as  murder-and-battle-filled fiction –  is as tightly etched in Cunningham’s DNA as a pair of skinny jeans.

As a teenager in Pasadena, Calif., he devoured Virginia Woolf’s novels as avidly as his friends turned on to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, Cunningham told me when I interviewed him for the Blade before the release of “The Hours,” the 2002 movie of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name.

(“The Hours” was adapted into an opera with the same name in 2022.)

But Cunningham, who is married to psychotherapist Ken Corbett and Professor of the Practice in Creative Writing at Yale University, is no mere imitator of Woolf.

The alchemy of Cunningham’s talent is his own. “Day” was well worth waiting almost a decade for. It’s one of the best books of this or any year.

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Books

Queer allyship figures prominently in Streisand memoir

‘My Name Is Barbra’ filled with dishy revelations about Hollywood, D.C.

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(Book cover image courtesy of Viking)

‘My Name Is Barbra’
By Barbra Streisand
c.2023, Viking
$47/970 pages

Have you been told you’ll never amount to anything? That an angry rodent is better looking than you?

If yes, don’t worry.

Barbra Streisand (hello, Gorgeous!), the EGOT-winning (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), divine, queer icon has been told and called much worse.

“An ‘amiable anteater’?,” Streisand, 81, writes in “My Name Is Barbra,” her eagerly anticipated, recently released, memoir, “that’s how I was described at nineteen in one of my first reviews as a professional actress.”

She was then playing a “lovelorn” secretary in the show “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” Streisand recalls. “I could see the comparison,” she writes.

But the demeaning comparisons kept coming. Over the next year, she remembers people  likened her to “a sour persimmon,” “a furious hamster,” “a myopic gazelle,” and “a seasick ferret.”

Streisand worked on “My Name Is Barbra” (whose title is the same as her acclaimed album and TV special) for more than a decade.

At nearly 1,000 pages, it makes “War and Peace,” seem like an Instagram post.

Streisand name-drops more often than your nutty uncle curses during Thanksgiving dinner. Rarely a paragraph goes by without a dishy mention of celebs and politicos she’s friends with, slept with, argued with, been mistreated by, or worked with: from her BFFs Bill and Hillary Clinton to Warren Beatty to Stephen Sondheim to Larry Kramer to Sydney Chaplin.

Take Beatty. Streisand and Beatty have been friends since they were young and in summer stock. Yet, “Did I sleep with Warren,” she wonders about Beatty, who’s known as a ladies man, “I kind of remember. I guess I did. Probably once.”

Sidney Chaplin starred with Streisand in the Broadway production of “Funny Girl.” After Streisand rejected his efforts to begin an affair, he harassed so much, that Streisand, for the first time, developed stage fright. She worried that she’d throw up on stage.

Streisand’s memoir is sprawling. There’s an ellipses, seemingly, every nanosec.

If it were written by almost anyone else but God, the Queen of the Universe (Streisand), you might think: this is too much. The audio book of the memoir is a 48-hour listen; it’s a couple- day read in hard cover or e-book format.

But, “My Name Is Barbra,” wasn’t penned by one of the lesser mortals. It’s by Streisand, the greatest, or among the greatest, in the pantheon of queer icons.

With her talent, persistence and guts, she’s earned the right to name-drop, to safeguard her legacy and to go on as long as she wants. Why rain on her parade? 

“Looking back, it was much more fun to dream of being famous than to actually be famous,” Streisand writes. “I didn’t like all the ridiculous stories they made up, or the envy my success provoked.”

Reading “My Name Is Barbra,” whether in print or as an audio book, is like spending an intimate evening with Streisand. It’s Streisand talking to you (and, maybe a small group of your queer friends and allies).

You’re there, drinking it in, as she dishes on everything from her mother (who makes Mommie Dearest seem like June Cleaver) to her love of coffee (it has to be Brazilian coffee) ice cream.

In “My Name Is Barbra,” Streisand doesn’t explicitly call herself a queer icon. But her connection and allyship with the LGBTQ community are a through line in the memoir.

Streisand notes that queer people were the first to see her when she first performed at the Lion, a gay bar, and the Bon Soir, a small  club in the Wet Village in New York.

 “I believe we all have certain needs in common,” Streisand writes, “we want to be happy, we want to be loved, we want to be respected, no matter what our sexual orientation…No one should have to live a lie.”

Streisand was an executive producer of “Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story,” a 1995 TV movie about an Army nurse who was discharged because she was queer.

Sometimes, Streisand has had arguments with other LGBTQ legends. She wanted to make a movie of Larry Kramer’s iconic play “The Normal Heart.” But she and Kramer had different views of how the film should be made. Kramer, Streisand writes, wanted more explicit sex scenes, than she did in the movie. She feared that if it was too graphic, the film might turn off the mainstream audience.

She was disappointed that she couldn’t film Kramer’s play. “There are some love affairs you never quite get over,” Streisand writes, “I fell in love with a play…pursued it, won it, lost it.”

Streisand, Jewish, female, creative, assertive, born poor in Brooklyn, refusing to have a nose job, is the ultimate outsider in a culture that prefers women to be docile, middle-class and to conform to cookie-cutter beauty standards. Is it any wonder that queers are drawn to her?

Whether you’re queer, hetero, an outsider or insider, you’ll be riveted by “My Name Is Barbra.”

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