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A worthy sequel to ‘Maurice’ revisits classic love story

After going to war, couple reunite in intriguing ‘Alec’



(Book cover image courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

By William di Canzio
c.2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
$27/336 pages

A sequel that’s nearly as good as the original! An intriguing queer love story! What more could you ask for as summer ends?

Today, on and off the page, queers fall in love, have sex, couple up, marry – embrace polyamory – as frequently and openly as politicos trade insults.

But, until recently, you rarely found LGBTQ+ characters in books. With few exceptions, when you encountered queer people in fiction, they were sick, dying, or in jail.

It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary it was for queers when “Maurice” by the queer, British writer E.M. Forster was posthumously published in 1971.

For many of us, it was the first time we read a love story in which queer lovers ended up alive – unrepentant and unpunished.

Forster, who died at 91 in 1970, began writing “Maurice” in 1913 and finished it in 1914. Yet, he felt it couldn’t be published during his lifetime.

Forster’s novels (especially, “A Passage to India” and “Howards End”) were critically acclaimed.

Forster lectured in England and the United States. Listeners heard him on the radio as he read his acclaimed 1939 essay “What I Believe.”

In this essay, Forster spoke of his belief in personal relations, endorsed the humanistic values of “tolerance, good temper and sympathy” and decried authoritarianism.

His assertion in “What I Believe, that “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country,” has been a credo for many.

Yet, because being queer was illegal in the United Kingdom for most of his lifetime, Forster didn’t want to publish “Maurice” while he was alive.

Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized in the United Kingdom until 1967.

Though he was out to some of his friends, Forster couldn’t be openly gay because of the homophobia of his time.

“Maurice,” which Forster dedicated “To a Happier Year,” doesn’t just have LGBTQ characters. Its two gay male lovers, Cambridge-educated, upper-class Maurice, and Alec, a gamekeeper, end up happily.

We may worry about what obstacles they’ll run into while living in such a repressive time. But we know that they’ve gone off together.

“A happy ending was imperative,” Forster writes in a 1960 “Terminal Note” on “Maurice,” “I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise.”

“I was determined that in fiction anyway,” he adds, “two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood.”

Forster’s legacy has had a reemergence in this century. “On Beauty,” the 2005 novel by Zadie Smith is an homage to “Howards End.”

Matthew Lopez’s play “The Inheritance,” which ran on Broadway, is, also, in part, an homage to “Howards End.”

Many sequels, no matter how well-intended, aren’t good. This is even more true when classic novels like “Maurice” are involved.

Yet, in “Alec,” distinguished, gay playwright di Canzio has pulled off an engrossing, lively, moving feat of the imagination.

In “Maurice,” we see things from Maurice’s perspective. On a visit to his friend Clive, a country squire, he meets Alec, Clive’s game keeper.

We know that Alec and Maurice, after both trying to blackmail each other, fall in love. But we learn little about Alec except that he loves Maurice.

In “Alec,” we view things from Alec’s eyes. Alec, in di Canzio’s reimagining, is a three-dimensional character with feelings, ambitions and a back story.

Born in Dorset, England in 1893 to working class parents, Alec loves to read. He knows, because of his class, that he won’t be able to go to college.

But he soaks up as much literature as he can at the library.

He enjoys reading about classic Greek myths and looking at pictures of art depicting the hunky, mythic heroes.

Early on, Alec knows that he likes boys and men. Though there’s no way he can be openly gay, he’s fine with his sexuality.

“It kept him out of trouble with girls,” di Canzio writes.

Following his father in his line of work, doesn’t appeal to Alec. His dad is a butcher. He doesn’t want to become a servant to rich people if he’d have to be at their beck and call inside their house. Knowing that he has to do some type of work, Alec becomes a gamekeeper for Clive, a country squire.

He and Maurice meet when Maurice visits Clive. As in “Maurice,” the lovers, after much angst and bungled blackmail attempts, go off together.

Up to this point, di Canzio is following the plot of “Maurice” – even quoting some of the dialogue from the novel.

In lesser hands, this might seem too plodding or too derivative. But di Canzio’s retelling the story, though a bit slow, is fresh. You want to keep reading.

The lovers live together happily for a time. They can’t be openly gay. Yet, they find people like themselves and LGBTQ-friendly folk in salons, clubs, and other underground queer spaces.

World War I shatters their happiness. Serving under horrific conditions in separate places, Alec and Maurice don’t know if they’ll survive or find each other after the war.

“How many of our stories have been expunged – from history, from memory?” a friend asks the couple.

You’ll keep turning the page to discover how Alec and Maurice’s story ends.



Reading ‘Blue Hunger’ is like watching a Stanley Kubrick film

Lush, dreamlike, and you won’t be able to stop thinking about it



(Book cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury)

‘Blue Hunger’ 
By Viola Di Grado, translated by Jamie Richards
c.2023, Bloomsbury
$27/ 216 pages

You can’t stop thinking about it.

It’s been rolling around in your mind since it happened and you can’t stop. You replay it over and over, how it started, how it progressed, why it ended. You wonder if it’ll happen again and in the new novel “Blue Hunger” by Viola Di Grado, you wonder if you truly want it to.

Shanghai was not her first choice for a place to live. Sometimes, she wasn’t really even sure why she came there, except that it was Ruben’s dream.

For months and months, he spoke of Shanghai, showed her maps, talked of a life as a chef living in a high-rise apartment, and he taught her a little bit of the language. She never fully understood why Ruben loved China and she never thought to ask before her other half, her twin brother, her only sibling died.

She was brushing her teeth when it happened. Now, weeks later, she was in his favorite city, a teacher of Italian languages in a Chinese culture, alone, friendless. Then she met Xu.

It happened at the nightclub called Poxx and she later wondered, with a thrill, if Xu had been stalking her. Xu claimed that she was a student in the Italian class, but though she was usually good with faces, she didn’t remember the slender, “glorious” woman with milk-white skin and luminous eyes.

She did remember the first place she and Xu had sex.

It was a hotel, but Xu liked it outside, too; in public, on sidewalks, in abandoned buildings, and in crowded nightclubs. They took yellow pills together, slept together in Xu’s squalid apartment; she told Xu she loved her but never got a reply except that Xu starting biting.

Xu had used her teeth all along but she started biting harder.

Soon, she was bleeding, bruising from Xu’s bites, and seeing people in the shadows, and she began to understand that Ruben wouldn’t have liked Xu at all.

You know what you want. You’re someone with determination. And you may want this book, but there are a few things you’ll need to know first.

Reading “Blue Hunger” is like watching a Stanley Kubrick movie. It’s surreal, kind of gauzy, and loaded with meanings that are somewhat fuzzy until you’ve read a paragraph several times – and even then, you’re not quite sure about it. Author Viola Di Grado writes of sharp, unfinished mourning with a grief-distracting obsession layered thickly on top, of control and submission, and while the chapters are each brief, they feel too long but not long enough. There are so many questions left dangling within the plot of this story, so many small bits unsaid, but also too much information of the mundane sort. You’ll feel somewhat voyeuristic with this book in your hands, until you notice that the sex scenes here are humidly uber-fiery but not very detailed.

Overall, then, “Blue Hunger” is different but compelling, short enough to read twice, quickly. It’s lush, dreamlike, and once started, you won’t be able to stop thinking about it.

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A timely biography of drag queen Doris Fish

An eye-opener to queer life in Sydney and San Francisco



(Book cover image courtesy Amazon)

‘Who Does That Bitch Think She Is? Doris Fish and the Rise of Drag’
By Craig Seligman
c.2023, PublicAffairs
$29/352 pages

Tennessee, home of Dollywood, just passed legislation banning “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors.”

“If I hadn’t been a girl, I’d have been a drag queen,” Dolly Parton has said. (Make of that what you will, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.)

Nothing is more timely than cultural critic and writer Craig Seligman’s new work of queer history “Who Does That Bitch Think She Is? Doris Fish and the Rise of Drag.”

One day in the 1980s, Doris Fish, a San Francisco drag queen, sat for a shoot in a beauty salon. Sitting under a dryer, “curlers in his yellow fright wig, wearing a fuchsia top, turquoise pedal pushers, white peep-toe pumps and (too much) matching makeup, wide-eyed in what looks like despair,” Fish modeled for West Graphics, a local greeting card company, Seligman writes.

These greeting cards featured queer humor. “BOTH YOUR DOCTOR & HAIRDRESSER AGREE! THIS TIME IT’S GOING TO TAKE MORE THAN A COMB-OUT,” the caption to the card with Fish’s stunning beauty parlor photo, read.

Then, most gay people weren’t proud or irritated by these greeting cards, reports Seligman in his captivating history of drag told through the life of Fish, who was legendary in San Francisco from the 1970s until he died from AIDS in 1991.

The greeting cards were just funny to queer people at that moment, Seligman writes, “which was how the rest of the country saw them, too.”

“Yet it’s hard to envision their taking off the way they did a decade earlier,” he adds, “The very people who might once have been appalled to learn they had a queer family member were snapping up these artifacts of gay humor.”

This is one of the many insights into cultural changes in attitudes toward queer people and drag to be found in Seligman’s illuminating bio of Fish.

Fish was born into a middle-class, Catholic family in 1952 as Philip Clargo Mills in Manly Vale, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. (Even the most ironic novelist wouldn’t have come up with that name!)

Doris considered himself to be what we, today, would call cisgender, Seligman reports. 

Fish’s Australian friends and family referred to Fish as “he” and “him,” Seligman writes.  When Fish’s queer male friends called him “she,” it was “Mary camp banter,” not “gender confusion,” he adds. For these reasons, Seligman refers to Fish with masculine pronouns.

After a childhood spent quietly drawing, Fish became a star of the Sydney drag queen scene. He performed with, what Seligman calls a “psyche troupe” of drag queens, Sylvia and the Synthetics.

After moving to San Francisco in the 1970s, Fish performed in the beloved drag shows “Sluts a Go-Go” and “Nightclub of the Living Dead” as well as the outrageous sci-fi drag film “Vegas in Space.”

Fish, Seligman makes clear, was complex, talented, and creative. Along with being a drag queen, he was a sex worker and artist. Fish was disciplined in all these areas of his life, Seligman writes.

“All three of those personas centered on his gayness,” Seligman adds, “at a time when homosexuality was just beginning to make its way toward the center of the conversation in both of the countries [Australia and the U.S.] he called home.”

Fish’s life and work were entwined with queer history – from Club 181 to Anita Bryant’s vicious anti-queer “Save Our Children Campaign” to the heroic role that Dianne Feinstein (as mayor of San Francisco) played during the AIDS crisis. Many queer histories, especially of the AIDS crisis, focus on New York. Seligman’s work is an eye-opener to queer life in Sydney and San Francisco. 

Seligman’s husband,  Silvana Nova, was part of “Vegas in Space.” A hat tip to Seligman for working his spouse seamlessly into this thoughtful history.

Drag shows aren’t just entertainment. They accomplish “satire’s deepest dream: not just to rail against society, but to change it,” Seligman writes.

If only Gov. Bill Lee and his ilk could be changed by “Who Does That Bitch Think She Is? Doris Fish and the Rise of Drag.” 

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‘Oscar Wars’ an exhilarating read for film critics and fans alike

Awards a conflict zone for issues of race, gender, representation



(Book cover image courtesy of Harper)

‘Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears’
By Michael Schulman
c.2023, Harper
$40/589 pages

Get out the guacamole! The game, beloved by millions — especially queers — is being played. This Sunday, the 95th Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles will be seen worldwide.

Few have written more compellingly about the ego, campiness, politics, and intrigue of the Academy Awards than Michael Schulman in his new book “Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears.”

The Oscars are “the closest thing America has to royalty,” writes Schulman, a staff writer at The New Yorker. “They’re the only thing forcing Hollywood to factor art into commerce.”

Schulman likens the Oscars to a horse race and a relic. The Academy Awards prop up Hollywood, a multibillion-dollar business, canonize movies and showcase fashion, he notes.

“They’re an orgy of self-congratulation by rich and famous people who think too highly of themselves.” Schulman adds, “They’re the Gay Super Bowl.” 

You can bet that every year, something will throw the Oscars off their game. Last year, it was the Slap (when Will Smith, upset by Chris Rock’s joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, hit the comedian).

There are the insipid production numbers and lackluster hosts. More seriously, there is the continuing racism and sexism in Hollywood.

You have to keep the Academy Awards in perspective, Schulman wryly notes. “The Oscars … are always getting it wrong,” he writes, “Twenty-four centuries after Euripides came in third place at the Athenian dramatic festival, Brokeback Mountain lost Best Picture to Crash, and the outcry will probably last another twenty-four centuries.” 

It’s tempting to view the Academy Awards annual bash as enjoyable froth. To lap up the glam, glitz, and camp. But in “Oscar Wars,” Schulman persuasively argues that the Oscars should, also, be taken seriously.

“The Oscars are a battlefield,” Schulman writes, “where cultural forces collide and where the victors aren’t always as clear as the names drawn from the envelopes.”

“In recent years,” he adds, “the Oscars have become a conflict zone for issues of race, gender, and representation, high profile signifiers of whose stories get told and whose don’t.”

Thankfully, Schulman’s nearly 600-page book isn’t an Oscars encyclopedia. Volumes of Oscar facts and trivia already exist. Even if you’re a movie buff, these books will make your eyes glaze over. “Oscar Wars” is filled with Schulman’s painstaking research and in-depth reporting. It’s not surprising that he’s said in interviews that he worked on the book for four years.

Schulman, author of “”Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep,” is a powerhouse. While writing “Oscar Wars,” Schulman produced numerous hard-to-put-down profiles at his New Yorker day job. Tongues are still wagging over his profile of actor Jeremy Strong (Kendall Roy in “Succession”).

In 11 intriguing installments, Schulman illuminates how, from the first Academy Awards in 1929 to our present #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo era, conflict has been embedded in the Oscars.

The Academy Awards was started in an effort to squelch labor unions in Hollywood. Spoiler alert: the effort of Louis B. Mayer and other Hollywood moguls to stop the unions flopped as the awards caught on.

There’s much in “Oscar Wars” to engage Old Hollywood aficionados. There’s the sad tale of Peg Entwistle, a 24-year-old actress, who, in 1932, played Hazel in “Thirteen Women, a movie about a group of former sorority sisters. Hazel stabs her husband. Entwistle’s 16 minutes in the movie were cut to four, Schulman writes, because the Hays office felt “that her scenes with another actress had unacceptable lesbian undertones.” After a series of horrible events, the actress killed herself.

There is the story of how one of Bette Davis’s husbands divorced her because she read too much.

It’s well-known among cinephiles that Bette Davis (for “All About Eve”) and Gloria Swanson (for “Sunset Boulevard”) were up against each other in 1951 for the Oscar and lost to Judy Holliday (for “Born Yesterday”). But Schulman brings new depth and insight into this saga.

The Academy Awards are steeped in Hollywood and entertainment. But Schulman makes it clear that the Oscars, from the Black List of the 1940s-1950s to the racism of “Gone with the Wind” to sexism to homophobia, are entwined with cultural attitudes and politics.

“Citizen Kane” was one of the greatest films ever made. Yet, there was no way it could have won an Oscar because the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst was furious that “Kane’s” protagonist was based on him.

One of the most campy, but poignant, accounts in the book is that of Allan Carr, who produced the 1989 Oscars. Carr, who was gay, dreamed up a tasteless, unintentionally campy production number. It featured Rob Lowe and Snow White (Google it.) Yet, he created, Schulman reports, some innovations that are still part of the Oscars (such as the red carpet).

“Oscar Wars” is an exhilarating read for everyone from film critics to fans.

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Spring break books for every taste

From young adult to engaging histories, check out these reads



(Book cover images via Amazon)

Spring break is coming, and who says young adults get all the fun? There’s plenty of enjoyment for readers this spring, so why not spend your pre-summer months enjoying a few great books?

Start your spring reading with “Confidence: A Novel” by Rafael Frumkin (Simon & Schuster, out now). It’s the tale of two friends-sometimes-lovers, Ezra and Orson, who meet at Last Chance Camp, which is where bad boys go before they’re placed in Juvenile Detention. But rehabilitation isn’t on Ezra and Orson’s minds; pulling off the con of the century is. This book is a clever tale, a suspense novel, and the perfect caper all rolled into one.

For something more tangled, catch “The Humble Lover” by Edmund White (Bloomsbury, May 2). Eighty-year-old artist Aldych West could afford to have exactly whatever he desires – and when he sees ballet star August Dupond, well, West wants him. But West is not the only one who falls for Dupond; a wealthy woman West knows becomes smitten with the dancer, too. Imagine the situation, and then read this book.

Coming-of-age-novel fans will want to find “The Adult” by Bronwyn Fischer (Algonquin, May 23). When 18-year-old Natalie moves to Toronto to start college, she’s lonely and quite unsure of herself. Everyone else seems so at ease; why isn’t she? Natalie is relieved when Nora, an older woman, takes an interest in her and enfolds Natalie into her life – but Natalie can’t help but feel that Nora’s not telling her the truth about something. How’s that for a book you can’t stop reading?

If lighter fare is more to your liking, why not try a Young Adult book?

Getting stuck in a time-loop is nobody’s idea of a good time and that’s the case for a boy named Clark. But in “If I See You Again Tomorrow” by Robbie Couch (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, April 18), the loop ends on a surprising Monday and he meets a new boy named Beau. They’re able to spend the whole day together – is the time-loop broken? – but Clark must be careful. You can’t have a future with someone you might never see again. Meant for kids ages 12-and-up, a book like this can be fun for a grown-up who craves something easy-breezy.

If history is your thing, but uncovering a path to explore sounds good, too, then look for “Lesbian Love Story: A Memoir in Archives” by Amelia Possanza (Catapult, May 30). After Possanza moved to Brooklyn, she began noticing queer stories everywhere. She was alone in her new neighborhood; could the tales of lesbians in Brooklyn steer her to love, friendship, and happiness? Try this absorbing book; even if novels are your “thing,” you won’t be sorry.
And finally, for something totally fun, reach for “A Very Gay Book: An Inaccurate Resource for Gay Scholars” by Jenson Titus (Andrews McMeel Publishing). Who – and what – is gay? The answers will surprise and delight you.

For more must-have books to celebrate spring, check with your favorite bookseller or librarian. Then settle in; Spring Break Reading is for everybody.

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Author wrestles with the nature of lies in ‘Girl I Am’

Gibney imagines her life as a series of struggles with her birth mother



(Book cover courtesy Dutton)

‘The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be’
By Shannon Gibney
c.2023, Dutton
$18.99 245 pages

It’s OK. You’ll just make it up.

Not the right toys when you were a kid? No problem, you had your imagination. No impressive friends to brag on? You can always pretend to know the rich, famous, or infamous. Boring job, cheap house, hoopty car? It’s fine, you can conjure whatever you want and who cares? As in the new book, “The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be” by Shannon Gibney, it’s all a fantasy anyhow.

There are facts. Provable, honest facts.

Shannon Gibney was born Jan. 30, 1975, in Ann Arbor, Mich. So was Erin Powers. Both were daughters of a Black petty criminal, and a white lesbian mother who struggled to give them up.

Another fact: Shannon was Erin, before she was adopted.

Shannon grew up in a middle-class white family with two brothers, a good education, toys, vacations, and stability. She had a “short relationship” with her birth father when she was an adult, and a longer (but shaky) one with her birth mother, which made her wonder what life might have been like, had she been raised as Erin.

When Erin was 19, she learned that her mother was dying of breast cancer, and wasting what life she had left. At 10, Erin had to learn to get along with her mother’s latest girlfriend; and she had to listen to racism from the white side of her family. Also at 10, she saw a spiraled portal and another girl who looked like her, but she didn’t entirely understand it.

Every year on her birthday, her mother mourned an adoption she never wanted to happen.
When Shannon was 10 years old, she was cruel to a boy who liked her, and she wasn’t sure why. When she was 19, her parents loaned her their car so she could visit her birth mother and her birth mother’s partner. And at 35, she was reminded of the legacy her mother left her, one she must be “diligent” about for the rest of her life.

A dozen pages or so into “The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be,” author Shannon Gibney wrestles with the nature of lies, explaining that her book does, and does not, use “manufactured literary devices.” In other words, get ready for one really weird read.

And it remains as such, until you understand what’s going on: the story here is fiction mixed with fact, an imaginary life framed by a real one. “Erin” is the fiction, as Gibney imagines her life as a series of struggles, personal and otherwise, living with her birth mother. “Shannon” is Gibney’s story of finding out who she is and where she came from. The tales merge and diverge, neither with a lot of sense until you’re well past the halfway mark of this book.

Can you stick with it that long? Readers ages 15 and up might at least try; you’ll lose a little time adjusting to “The Girl I Am, Was, and Never Will Be,” but don’t worry. You’ll make it up.

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Everyone has a story and this one’s fascinating

‘Waterfalls, The Moon and Sensible Shoes’ follows one lesbian life



(Book cover image via Amazon)

‘Waterfalls, The Moon and Sensible Shoes’
By Jill P. Strachan
c.2021, $12/225 pages

Everybody has a story.

The experiences might be similar, but never the same. One person can relate their experiences, someone else can share, and a third person had totally a different viewpoint, even if they were all in the same place at the same time. In “Waterfalls, The Moon and Sensible Shoes” by Jill P. Strachan, you’ll read about “One Lesbian Life.”

For most of her life, Strachan was a child of the world: her father was a diplomat, and she spent most of her childhood in Pakistan, playing with the children of other diplomats, embassy staff, and workers. Strachan says they “amused themselves” with games they made up, and she liked to write in her diary. 

When she was almost 12 years old, she was sent to a boarding school in Virginia, and while it was fun at first, “the shine of being on my own wore off within one month,” she says. Getting along with teachers was not easy; “loneliness, difference, and angst” were also issues she had to tackle. She joined the basketball team, learning to her chagrin that the rules of play stateside were different for boys and for girls.

Other things were different, too: She began dating boys and suffering heartbreak from it – until college, when a younger, “vibrant,” outspoken, brave and brassy girl asked Strachan if she’d ever “‘thought about being a Lesbian.”

Strachan says she “sensed danger” and waived the girl away, but by 1974, the two of them were in a relationship that they had to keep hidden, furtively sneaking in and out of one another’s rooms to avoid detection.

“What we were doing was illegal and we, ourselves, were illegal for loving each other,” says Strachan. “To be together, we were forced to be clandestine, but this hardly diminished our individual desires.”

Everybody has a story. 

Stepping back six decades or more, author Jill P. Strachan tells hers, through diary entries, letters, and notes. Anecdotal memories also feature strongly in “Waterfalls, The Moon and Sensible Shoes,” giving readers a large sense of what it was like for one woman to come to terms with her sexuality at a time when societal acceptance was nil. 

While readers may struggle with the non-linear telling of this life story, Strachan entertains with her tales of travel and of meeting people who would impact her life. She writes of the men and women she loved, including men she helplessly watched die of AIDS; she also writes of the activists she knew, and of the partner she loves now.

“Waterfalls, The Moon and Sensible Shoes” is a widespread book that may be a challenge to follow but Strachan’s experiences can’t be missed. Find this book, because everyone has a story and this one’s fascinating. 

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Novel revisits real-life murder of gay couple in 1980

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



(Book cover image courtesy of Knopf)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Fieldwork’ is food for thought — and the soul

Michelin chef Iliana Regan on the art of foraging, addiction and grief



(Book cover image courtesy of Agate)

‘Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir’
By Iliana Regan
c.2023, Agate
$27/329 pages

Nature makes me queasy. Reading about poison ivy or mosquitoes makes me itch. I don’t see myself in the woods enjoying the beauty of a pack of wolves. I adore eating all kinds of foods, but would I, in my wildest dreams, forage for mushrooms in the forest?

Sipping Starbucks coffee, eating a croissant I hadn’t baked, I came to “Fieldwork: A Forager’s Memoir” by Michelin chef Iliana Regan with a food lover’s fascination and a city-aficionado’s trepidation.

I’m glad I foraged into “Fieldwork.” The book, Regan’s second memoir, is a mosaic of memory, hope, fears, family, love, gender identity, respecting the land, food,and hospitality.

Regan owned and operated Elizabeth, the acclaimed Chicago restaurant, from 2012-2019. She passed on Elizabeth to collaborator Tim Lacey in 2020. Each year of its operation, the renowned eatery earned a Michelin star.

In 2020, Regan and her wife Anna Hamlin left Chicago to open the Milkweed Inn in the woods of northern Michigan. Regan forages in the forest and nearby river for the food that she feeds their guests. This brings Regan full circle to her roots – to her ancestors, birthplace, and childhood.

Regan’s first memoir “Burn the Place” was long-listed for the 2019 National Book Award. This was the first book of writing on food to be so honored since Julia Child won the Award in 1980. 

Even as a tot on her family’s farm in Indiana, Regan didn’t feel like a girl. The youngest of four sisters, she dressed in a shirt and tie. Her Dad, who she foraged with for mushrooms, berries and other foods in the woods, called her “the son he’d never had.”

“I always thought I was a boy,” Regan writes, “even before Dad ever said I was.”

Regan, born in 1979, grew up with a heritage of foraging, Eastern European ancestors, feeding people, love, and addiction. Her father’s grandmother Busia helped her family run an inn in Eastern Europe. Later, she settled in Gary, Ind., where she told stories of the forests in her native land. In Gary, she opened Jennie’s Café, frequented by generations of steelworkers.

Regan’s mother married young. (Regan’s parents’ union was in many ways not a happy marriage.) On her mother’s side of her family, there was alcoholism and domestic strife.

Even as a child, Regan was careful to stay away from her father’s brother, her Uncle George. Early on, she sensed that this uncle was a predator who should be avoided.

“Fieldwork” has much lyrical writing about mushrooms, forests, the wind, honoring the land and animals. But Regan, who earned an M.F.A. in writing from the Art Institute of Chicago, is at her best when she writes, with unflinching, trenchant honesty, about we, humans, with our stew of strengths, resilience, sadness, joys, addictions and flaws. Regan is a magician with images. She’s a wizard at using metaphors of foraging and food to draw us into the stories of the people, past and present, in her world.

Regan remembers her mother as being like “the kitchen” and her father as seeming like “the forest.” In the middle of the two, she was “the sheep’s head — wily, twisting — and the honey mushroom–Stretching, symbiotic,” Regan vividly recalls.

Regan had three older sisters. She and her family were devastated when her sister Elizabeth, struggling with addiction, died in jail at age 39. “Grief may be the worst thing I’ve ever experienced,” Regan writes, “and at the same time the only thing that keeps me going.”

“Fieldwork” will convert even the most nature-averse into a respect for the land and the animals that inhabit it. Yet, the memoir is free of new age woo-woo.

Sometimes, memoirs about addiction are too pat. People in them often end up in seemingly untroubled recovery. Regan avoids this pitfall. Without pretense or self-recrimination, she describes how, during the pandemic, she began drinking again after becoming sober.

Regan forages as much into her memories and dreams as she does into the forests. “Fieldwork” is food for thought and the soul.

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New bio illuminates Liz Taylor’s decades of support for queer community

‘Without homosexuals there would be no culture’



(Book cover image courtesy of Harper)

‘Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon’
By Kate Andersen Brower
c.2022, Harper
$33/513 pages

In the mid-1980s, actor Roddy McDowell threw a dinner in honor of Bette Davis’s birthday. Davis, a queer icon, thought it was “vulgar” when Elizabeth Taylor and actress Pia Zadora, tried on each other’s diamond rings. “Oh, get over it, Bette,”  Taylor, an actress, philanthropist and queer icon, told Davis.

One Friday in 1998, Taylor learned that a friend of her assistant had died, alone, with no money for his burial, from AIDS. Taylor wanted her business manager to arrange for the man who had died to be buried. She was outraged when she learned that this couldn’t be done ASAP. “We will not fucking wait until Monday,” Taylor said, “We will do it right now.” 

These are two of the entertaining, moving, and revealing stories told about Taylor in “Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit & Glamour of an Icon” by Kate Andersen Brower.

Many bios written about celebs have the shelf life of a quart of milk. Thankfully, this isn’t the case with Brower’s bio of Taylor.

Taylor, who lived from 1932 to 2011, was, for most of her life, not only a celebrity – but a household name, a worldwide subject of admiration, titillation and gossip.

But Taylor was so much more than catnip for the paparazzi. She was a feminist, an often underrated actress, businesswoman, senator’s wife, addict, mother,  lover of animals, a proponent of gun control, an opponent of anti-Semitism, philanthropist and queer history hero.

Yet, despite the hype, glam and all that’s been written about Taylor, many aren’t aware of the multi-facets of her life.

In “Elizabeth Taylor,” Brower, a CNN contributor, who’s written “The Residence,” “First Women” and “Team of Five, “First in Line,” gives us an informative, lively bio of Taylor.

It is the first authorized biography of Taylor. Usually, this is the kiss of death for a biography. Few want their family members to be revealed as three-dimensional people with not only talent, but flaws.

Thankfully, Brower’s Taylor bio escapes the trap of hagiography. Brower began writing the biography after talking with former Sen. John Warner, who was married to Taylor from 1976 to 1982. (Warner died in 2021.) 

Warner was one of Taylor’s seven husbands. He and Taylor remained friends after they divorced. Warner connected Brower with Taylor’s family who wanted the story of Taylor to be told. Brower was given access to a trove of new source material: to Taylor’s archives – 7,358 letters, diary entries, articles, and personal notes and 10,271 photographs. Brower drew on unpublished interviews with Taylor, and extensively interviewed Taylor’s family and friends.

In her 79 years, Taylor did and lived so much, that telling the story of her life is like trying to put the Atlantic Ocean into one bottle of water. Yet, Brower makes Taylor come alive as an earthy, glam hero with flaws and struggles.

Taylor, who performed with Burton in Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” was as proficient at cursing as the Bard was at writing sonnets. “I love four-letter words,” Taylor said, “they’re so terribly descriptive.”

She was renowned for caring for friends and strangers. During Sept. 11, Taylor was in New York. She paid for a toothless woman, who was looking for a job, to get teeth, and comforted firefighters. A firefighter wondered if Taylor was really at his firehouse. “You bet your ass, I am,” Taylor said. 

Taylor loved her children. Yet, her kids were often (due to her work) left with nannies or enrolled in boarding schools.

Due partly to life-long back pain sustained from an injury she sustained while filming “National Velvet” when she was a child, Taylor struggled with a life-long addiction to pills.

In “Elizabeth Taylor,” Brower illuminates Taylor’s decades of support and friendship with the queer community. Early in her career, she formed close friendships with queer actors Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift and James Dean. “Without homosexuals there would be no culture,” Taylor said.

Decades later, it’s easy to forget how horrible things were during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s. Brower vividly brings back the horror and the tireless work Taylor did for AIDS research. At a time when people wouldn’t use a telephone touched by someone with AIDS, Brower reports, Taylor would hug patients with AIDS in hospices. She jumped into bed to hold her friend Rock Hudson when he was dying from AIDS when no one would go near him, Brower writes.

“I’m resilient as all hell,” Taylor said.

There couldn’t be a better time for “Elizabeth Taylor” than today. In our era, when many would like to erase LGBTQ people, Taylor’s legacy is more important than ever. 

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A balanced look at whether to have children

New book, ‘So When are You Having Kids?’ makes no judgments



(Book cover image courtesy of Macmillan)

‘So When are You Having Kids?’
By Jordan Davidson
c.2022, Sounds True, Macmillan
$28.99/356 pages

Your mother lingers way too long in the children’s department.

She sighs over tiny suits and little sneakers, running her fingers along soft blankets, hugging plush animals. You know what she wants but you’re not ready; she might be sure but you’re not. Maybe baby for you or, with the new book “So When are You Having Kids?” by Jordan Davidson, maybe not.

It’s the thorniest of decisions, “one of the biggest you’ll ever make.” It’s personal, but even strangers want to know; the questions start in your 20s and end when you’ve acquiesced or aged, although having kids is not a given or a thing-by-committee. So how do you quiet the busybodies and make the right decision for yourself?

First, says Davidson, ask yourself if you even want children, and after you’ve looked inward, “it’s worth looking outward” at expectations, culture, and things that “shape our understanding of parenthood.” Ask around, to see why others had children but don’t be surprised if you get cliches. Throw out the idea that children fulfill you or that they’ll take care of you when you’re old. Know that genetics, religion, and your parents’ parenting styles will affect you; and that if you’re queer or Black, there’ll be other factors involved in having and raising a child.

Should you decide to the positive, you may still have reservations.

Don’t give in to the romance of having kids; it’s hard work, and expensive in both money and time. Remember that perceptions of good parenting have “shifted over time” and that having a childhood exactly like yours probably won’t be an option for your kids. If you have a partner, communicate your thoughts, hopes, and divisions of household labor and childcare.

Finally, decide how you’re going to become a parent. Will you give birth, choose IVF, adopt, foster, or kick the decision down the road?

Says Davidson, the mere ability to ask these questions and decide “is in many ways a privilege.”

Chances are that if you hear a screaming baby, you have one of two reactions: you cringe and look for an exit, or you notice and shrug. Either way, “So When are You Having Kids?” is a book for you.

There are many, many parenting books on miles of shelves, and a number of books on being childless, but author Jordan Davidson pulls the two subjects together here with thoughtfulness, candor, inclusiveness, and a refreshing lack of judgment. This is a book that doesn’t promise answers, though: it’s meant to give readers – whether they want kids, don’t, or are ambivalent – an in-one-place, balanced look at myths, truths, pros, cons, and rarely-considered points for an informed decision. It also, perhaps most importantly, offers comforting reminders that there is no right or wrong, no matter what Mom says.

“So When are You Having Kids?” is like having a big sister to bounce ideas with, or a break-out session in your living room. It’s like asking Baby Maybe questions you didn’t know you had. It’s help when you need it in that department.

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