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A bisexual coming-of-age tale with heart

‘Things We Couldn’t Say’ offers pleasant surprises

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(Book cover image courtesy of Scholastic)

‘Things We Couldn’t Say’
By Jay Coles
c.2021, Scholastic $18.99/320 pages

You’d like an explanation, please.

Why something is done or not, why permission is denied, you’d like to hear a simple reason. You’ve been asking “Why?” since you were two years old but now the older you get, the more urgent is the need to know – although, in the new book “Things We Couldn’t Say” by Jay Coles, there could be a dozen becauses.

Sometimes, mostly when he didn’t need it to happen, Giovanni Zucker’s birth mother took over his thoughts.

It wasn’t as though she was the only thing he had to think about. Gio was an important part of the basketball team at Ben Davis High School; in fact, when he thought about college, he hoped for a basketball scholarship. He had classes to study for, two best friends he wanted to hang out with, a little brother who was his reason to get up in the morning, and a father who was always pushing for help at the church he ran. As for his romantic life, there wasn’t much to report: Gio dated girls and he’d dated guys and he was kinda feeling like he liked guys more.

So no, he didn’t want to think about his birth mother. The woman who walked out on the family when Gio was a little kid didn’t deserve his consideration at all. There was just no time for the first woman who broke his heart.

It was nice to have distractions from his thoughts. Gio’s best friends had his back. He knew pretty much everybody in his Indianapolis neighborhood. And the guy who moved across the street, a fellow b-baller named David, was becoming a good friend.

A very good friend. David was bisexual, too.

But just as their relationship was beginning, the unthinkable happened: Gio’s birth mother reached out, emailed him, wanted to meet with him, and he was torn. She said she had “reasons” for abandoning him all those years ago, and her truth was not what he’d imagined.

There are a lot of pleasant surprises inside “Things We Couldn’t Say.”

From the start, author Jay Coles gives his main character a great support system, and that’s a uniquely good thing. Gio enjoys the company of people who want the best for him, and it’s refreshing that even the ones who are villains do heroic things.

Everyone in this book, in fact, has heart, and that softens the drama that Coles adds – which leads to another nice surprise: there’s no overload of screeching drama here. Overwrought teen conflict is all but absent; even potential angsts that Gio might notice in his urban neighborhood are mentioned but not belabored. This helps keep readers focused on a fine, relatable, and very realistic coming-of-age story line.

This book is aimed at readers ages 12-and-up, but beware that there are a few gently explicit, but responsibly written, pages that might not be appropriate for kids in the lower target range. For older kids and adults, though, “Things We Couldn’t Say” offers plenty of reasons to love it.

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Books

Garbo: ubiquitous yet mysterious

An illuminating biography of screen icon and her time

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

Decades before Cher, Garbo became known by just her last name. “Garbo Talks!” said the ads for her first talking picture “Anna Christie.” “Garbo Laughs!” shouted the ads for her 1939 comedy “Ninotchka.”

Yet, 31 years after her death in 1990, Garbo, remains, as she was during her life, enveloped in mystery.

“Garbo,” by Robert Gottlieb, a former editor of The New Yorker, is a fascinating biography of the movie legend. Gottlieb, a critic, understands that much of Garbo’s life (her sexuality, her inner thoughts) remains mysterious.

Yet Gottlieb, a former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief and former head of Alfred A. Knopf, pens an illuminating portrait of Garbo and her time.

An extensive array of photos and movie stills add to the beauty of the book. A selection of articles by critics and contemporaries enhances our picture of Garbo.

Garbo was born (with the name Greta Lovisa Gustafsson) in 1905 in a poor neighborhood in Stockholm, Sweden.

Garbo was only in Hollywood for 16 years, and 24 movies, Gottlieb writes.

At just 36 years old, and still adored by her fans, Garbo suddenly retired from Hollywood. She didn’t give her public a very insightful reason for why she stopped making movies.

“I have made enough faces,” Garbo told actor David Niven when he asked her about it, Gottlieb reports.
After leaving Tinseltown, Garbo lived for nearly half a century, mainly in New York City, until she died in 1990.

Garbo wasn’t as popular as Charlie Chaplin or Mary Pickford, Gottlieb tells us in “Why Garbo,” his lively introduction to the bio, “yet the impact she had on the world was as great as theirs.”

The mystery of why Garbo lived in “self-imposed seclusion” after retiring from Hollywood was irresistible, but “almost a distraction,” Gottlieb writes.

Many of her movies were “cliched or worse,” Gottlieb points out. At first, MGM presented Garbo as a vamp, “luring men on with her vampish ways,” Gottlieb reports, “but she hated that.”

Eventually, Garbo became an icon. “But none of that goes to explain,” Gottlieb writes, “why more than any other star she invaded the subconscious of the audience:”

Wherever you look in the period between 1925 and 1941, Gottlieb adds, “Garbo is in people’s minds, hearts, and dreams.”

Garbo is referenced in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and in the letters of poet Marianne Moore. More recently, allusions of Garbo have appeared in the song “Bette Davis Eyes” and even in “The Simpsons.”

Her Hollywood peers loved Garbo as much as movie audiences. “Other Hollywood stars … were as eager to meet her,” Gottlieb writes, “or just get a glimpse of her as your ordinary fan.”

Her work is “pure witchcraft,” Bette Davis said of Garbo. “I cannot analyze this woman’s acting.”
While Gottlieb is respectful of and fascinated by Garbo, his biography isn’t hagiography.

Garbo, who grew up in poverty as a child, could be cheap. In New York, she was known for being stingy with tips and salaries for people who worked for her and shopkeepers.

Perhaps, due to shyness or to her lack of education (she had to leave school at 14 to help support her family), she wasn’t a great conversationalist.

She had relationships with men and women – from actor John Gilbert to queer fashion photographer Cecil Beaton to writer Mercedes de Acosta. But the extent to which (or if) these relationships were sexual isn’t known, Gottlieb reports.

It is known that Garbo, offscreen, dressed in men’s pants, shirts, and shoes. “How ironic if ‘the Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ really would rather have been a man,” Gottlieb writes.

Reading “Garbo” is like sipping whiskey (or ginger ale) with the iconic star. Drink up!

‘Garbo′
By Robert Gottlieb
c.2021, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
$40/448 pages

Few icons are more ubiquitous in the cultural landscape, yet more mysterious than queer icon Greta Garbo.

Even if you’ve never seen “Grand Hotel,” you likely know that in this 1932 film, Garbo famously said, “I want to be alone.”

Even the most fervent teetotaler would savor watching Garbo say, in the 1930 movie “Anna Christie,” “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby!”

Decades before Cher, Garbo became known by just her last name. “Garbo Talks!” said the ads for her first talking picture “Anna Christie.” “Garbo Laughs!” shouted the ads for her 1939 comedy “Ninotchka.”
Yet, 31 years after her death in 1990, Garbo, remains, as she was during her life, enveloped in mystery.

“Garbo,” by Robert Gottlieb, a former editor of The New Yorker, is a fascinating biography of the movie legend. Gottlieb, a critic, understands that much of Garbo’s life (her sexuality, her inner thoughts) remains mysterious.

Yet Gottlieb, a former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief and former head of Alfred A. Knopf, pens an illuminating portrait of Garbo and her time.

An extensive array of photos and movie stills add to the beauty of the book. A selection of articles by critics and contemporaries enhances our picture of Garbo.

Garbo was born (with the name Greta Lovisa Gustafsson) in 1905 in a poor neighborhood in Stockholm, Sweden.

Garbo was only in Hollywood for 16 years, and 24 movies, Gottlieb writes.

At just 36 years old, and still adored by her fans, Garbo suddenly retired from Hollywood. She didn’t give her public a very insightful reason for why she stopped making movies.

“I have made enough faces,” Garbo told actor David Niven when he asked her about it, Gottlieb reports.

After leaving Tinseltown, Garbo lived for nearly half a century, mainly in New York City, until she died in 1990.

Garbo wasn’t as popular as Charlie Chaplin or Mary Pickford, Gottlieb tells us in “Why Garbo,” his lively introduction to the bio, “yet the impact she had on the world was as great as theirs.”

The mystery of why Garbo lived in “self-imposed seclusion” after retiring from Hollywood was irresistible, but “almost a distraction,” Gottlieb writes.

Many of her movies were “cliched or worse,” Gottlieb points out. At first, MGM presented Garbo as a vamp, “luring men on with her vampish ways,” Gottlieb reports, “but she hated that.”

Eventually, Garbo became an icon. “But none of that goes to explain,” Gottlieb writes, “why more than any other star she invaded the subconscious of the audience:”

Wherever you look in the period between 1925 and 1941, Gottlieb adds, “Garbo is in people’s minds, hearts, and dreams.”

Garbo is referenced in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and in the letters of poet Marianne Moore. More recently, allusions of Garbo have appeared in the song “Bette Davis Eyes” and even in “The Simpsons.”

Her Hollywood peers loved Garbo as much as movie audiences. “Other Hollywood stars … were as eager to meet her,” Gottlieb writes, “or just get a glimpse of her as your ordinary fan.”

Her work is “pure witchcraft,” Bette Davis said of Garbo. “I cannot analyze this woman’s acting.”

While Gottlieb is respectful of and fascinated by Garbo, his biography isn’t hagiography.

Garbo, who grew up in poverty as a child, could be cheap. In New York, she was known for being stingy with tips and salaries for people who worked for her and shopkeepers.

Perhaps, due to shyness or to her lack of education (she had to leave school at 14 to help support her family), she wasn’t a great conversationalist.

She had relationships with men and women – from actor John Gilbert to queer fashion photographer Cecil Beaton to writer Mercedes de Acosta. But the extent to which (or if) these relationships were sexual isn’t known, Gottlieb reports.

It is known that Garbo, offscreen, dressed in men’s pants, shirts, and shoes. “How ironic if ‘the Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ really would rather have been a man,” Gottlieb writes.

Reading “Garbo” is like sipping whiskey (or ginger ale) with the iconic star. Drink up!

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Books

After 1,000 pages, you’ll hunger for more Highsmith

Acclaimed queer novelist revealed in new tome of diaries

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on

(Book cover photo courtesy of Liveright)

‘Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995′
Edited by Anna Von Planta
c.2020, Liveright
$39.95/1,024 pages

“The unfortunate truth is that art sometimes thrives on unhappiness,” queer novelist Patricia Highsmith, who lived from 1921 to 1995, wrote in her journals.

Fortunately, for aficionados of charming murderers, Hitchcock and queer folk on the cultural scene decades before Stonewall, this was true for Highsmith.

The creative process will always remain mysterious. Yet, in “Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks: 1941-1995,” brilliantly edited by Anna Von Planta, we gain insight into how Highsmith made art while living a hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-loving life. Along with gossip and fascinating glimpses of Highsmith’s travels.

But fair warning: seeing how literary sausage is made isn’t always pretty.

Highsmith lived an often unhappy, misanthropic life. As she got older, she came to prefer snails to people and dedicated one of her books to her cat.

Yet, Highsmith created more art than most of us could even dream of.

Over half a century, Highsmith wrote numerous short stories and 22 novels. Some of her best-known works are embedded in the cultural landscape.

Her novel “Strangers on a Train” was made into an unforgettable movie with the same name by Alfred Hitchcock. If you can sleep soundly after watching the amusement park scene in “Strangers,” you’re a more intrepid movie fan than I.

Her 1952 novel “The Price of Salt” (later reissued as “Carol”) is one of the first novels to feature lesbian characters with a happy ending. (The characters don’t die or go to prison.) In 2015, “Carol” was made into a movie by Todd Haynes.

Her Ripley novels featuring the captivating murderer Tom Ripley have also been adapted into movies.

If you’re entranced by murder, you’re likely a Highsmith fan. And, you’re in good company. Gore Vidal called Highsmith “one of our great modernist writers.” Graham Greene dubbed her “the poet of apprehension.”

Sometimes an iconic writer’s work stops being relatable. Not so with Highsmith.

Her novels, in which murderers routinely disguise themselves and identities shift, are more timely than ever in this age of avatars and catfishing.

A film adaptation of HIghsmith’s novel “Deep Water,” starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, is forthcoming in 2022.

Yet, despite her popularity, during her lifetime, Highsmith hid much of her private life.

Born in Texas, she went to Barnard College and lived in Greenwich Village in New York in the 1940s. After that, she lived in Europe.

Her last home in Switzerland, her friends said, was “practically windowless.” They likened it to “Hitler’s bunker.”

It’s not surprising that Anna Von Planta has said that it took 25 years to edit Highsmith’s diaries and notebooks.

At some 1,000 pages, the volume is a lot to read. Yet, after Highsmith died, 8,000 pages of diaries and notebooks were found.

Unless you’re an indefatigable, insatiable scholar or fan, you wouldn’t want to read Highsmith’s diaries and notebooks in one sitting. It would be like eating five holiday feasts without a break. No matter how delicious, the food would be too filling, and, boring, by the fifth go-around.

These journals and notebooks are meant to be dipped into and savored morsel by morsel.

In her diary entries, Highsmith recorded the events of her life – the gossip, the sex, the drinking, the break-ups – the parties.

“Why can’t I go to a resort, pick up a girl, have a whirl, and drop her?” Highsmith writes in her diary in June 1950.

Highsmith’s notebook entries contained her thoughts on writing and writers. “Why writers drink: they must change their identities a million times in their writing,” Highsmith writes in a August 1951 notebook entry. “This is tiring, but drinking does it automatically for them. One minute they are a king, the next a murderer, a jaded dilettante, a passionate and forsaken lover.”

In her journals, Highsmith is witty, observant, bitter, narcissistic and bigoted (as, when, as she aged, she became increasingly anti-Semitic). But, she is, always, alive.

“I am ravenously hungry for a woman” she writes in her diary in 1950.

Long after reading Highsmith’s last journal entry, where she writes “death’s more like life, unpredictable,” you’ll hunger for more Highsmith.

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Books

‘Capote’s Women’ is catnip to older pop culture fans

Revisiting iconic author’s seven ‘swans’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Putnam)

Capote’s Women
By Laurence Leamer
C.2021, Putnam $28/356 pages

Her lips are locked tight.

Your best friend knows all your secrets, and she’s keeping them; you told her things you had to tell somebody, and she’s telling nobody. You always knew you could trust her; if you couldn’t, she wouldn’t be your BFF. But as in the new book “Capote’s Women” by Laurence Leamer, what kind of a friend are you?

For months, Truman Capote had been promising a blockbuster.

Following his success with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” he was “one of the most famous authors in the world” but he needed a career-booster. The novel he was writing, he teased, would be about “his swans,” seven wealthy, fashionable women who quite personified “beauty, taste, and manners.”

His first swan was Barbara “Babe” Paley, whom he’d met on a trip with the David Selznicks to Jamaica. For Capote, “Babe was the epitome of class,” simply “perfect” in every way; it helped that the famously gay writer was no threat to Paley’s “madly jealous” husband.

Babe’s “dearest friend” was Nancy “Slim” Keith, who quickly learned that if a lady wanted her confidences kept, she didn’t tell Capote anything. She shouldn’t have trusted Babe, either: When Slim left for a European trip, Babe asked if Slim’s husband could accompany Babe’s friend, Pamela Hayward, to a play.

Slim was aware of Pamela’s predatory reputation, but what could she say?

Of course, Pamela, another of Truman’s swans, stole Slim’s man, a scandal that Capote loved.

Gloria Guinness was highly intelligent, possibly enough to be a spy in Nazi Germany. Lucy “C.Z.” Guest was an upper-crust “elitist” with a “magical aura.” Marella Agnelli “was born an Italian princess”; Lee Radziwill, of course, was Jacqueline Kennedy’s sister.

Through the late 1960s, Capote claimed to be writing his masterpiece, his tour de force based on his swans, but several deadlines passed for it. He was sure Answered Prayers “would turn him once again into the most talked-about author in America.”

Instead, when an excerpt from it was published, his swans got very ruffled feathers.

Every time you stand in line for groceries, the tabloids scream at you with so much drama that you either love it or hate it. Or, in the case of “Capote’s Women,” you cultivate it.

And that’s infinitely fun, as told by author Laurence Leamer.

Happily, though, Leamer doesn’t embellish or disrespect these women or Capote; he tells their tales in order, gently allowing readers’ heads to spin with the wild, globe-hopping goings-on but not to the point that it’s overdone. While most of this book is about these seven beautiful, wealthy, and serially married women – the Kardashians of their time, if you will – Capote is Leamer’s glue, and Truman gets his due, as well.

Readers who devour this book will be sure that the writer would’ve been very happy about that.

“Capote’s Women” should be like catnip to celeb-watchers of a Certain Age but even if you’re not, find it. If you’re a Hollywood fan, you’ll want to get a lock on it.

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