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‘Fiona and Jane’ an enticing look at lifelong friendship

Two women bicker, fall distant – then meet again

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(Book cover image courtesy of Viking)

‘Fiona and Jane’
By Jean Chen Ho
c. 2022, Viking
$26/275 pages

“Fiona and Jane,” a new short story collection by Jean Chen Ho is an enticing New Year’s present. The captivating volume features secrets, family conflict, queerness, astute cultural observations, and above all, friendship.

We long to fall in love. So we lose our hearts to our lovers and go to pieces when our relationships break up.

Yet, especially, if we’re women and/or queer, we want a best friend as much, maybe more, than we do a lover.

Fiona and Jane, Asian Americans, grew up in Los Angeles. They’ve been best friends since they met in LA in second grade. Jane’s family emigrated to Los Angeles from Taiwan. Fiona, with her mother, came to LA from Taiwan when she was a young child.

In “Fiona and Jane,” Ho’s debut collection, the two friends over 30 years grow from second-graders to 30-somethings. Ho’s linked stories draw us into Fiona and Jane’s friendship as they become, at different times, incredibly close, then distant (both geographically and emotionally) from each other.

Ho, 41, has more writing chops than you can imagine. She is a doctoral candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Southern California where she is a Dornsife Fellow in fiction. Ho has an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her writing has been published in The Georgia Review, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, McSweeney’s, and other publications.

Ho was born in Taiwan, grew up in Southern California and lives in Los Angeles. But, “none of the things that happen to Fiona and Jane are autobiographical,” she said on the podcast “All of It with Alison Stewart,” “I didn’t mine my particular life experiences and put them in the book out of respect to my oldest and dearest friends.”

Fiona is hetero, smart  and attractive. As a teen, she earns enough money to buy a secondhand car (named Shamu, Ho writes, “after the Sea World killer whale because of the corroding white patches all over the black paint.”).

While Fiona’s mother isn’t religious, Jane’s Mom is devoutly Christian. Jane is bisexual. When she and Fiona are teens, they kiss  “to practice” – what kissing’s like. Though she doesn’t tell her Mom, Jane, when a teenager, has a romantic relationship with her female piano teacher.

When she’s young, Jane often does what Fiona does. Because Jane’s tall, she’s often thought of as “Fiona’s bodyguard.” As she grows older, Jane begins to rely more on herself.

Fiona is eager to leave LA. She goes to college, then moves to New York City with her first boyfriend. She enters law school, then drops out.

Jane stays in Los Angeles. She opts to take a gap year between high school and college. The gap year morphs into a couple of years. Jane has relationships with women as well as with Julian, a vet who has PTSD.

Though Fiona and Jane are quite different from one another, they keep circling back to each other. Despite their differences, they have one thing in common: they both have lost their fathers.

In one of the collection’s most moving stories, “The Night Market,” Jane speaks of her visit before she graduated high school to Taiwan where she has come to see her Dad. Her Dad has gone from LA to Taiwan for a temporary job. Jane learns that he’s going to stay in Taiwan because he’s fallen in love with a man there. Her Dad asks her to keep this a secret. But, in her pain at his revelation, she outs him. Jane blames herself for his suicide.

Fiona discovers as a child that she’s never known her father. Her mother raises her on her own.

Over the years, Fiona and Jane bicker, fall distant – then meet again. As teens, they help each other get fake IDs so they can drink. As adults, they help each other through moving apartments, love affairs and mourning.

 “Sixteen years since my father died, and I was still alive,” Jane thinks, “I got up, every morning. I lived, day by day. I had my best friend, Fiona Lin.”

Check out “Fiona and Jane.” Then, text your best friend.

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Books

R.K. Russell’s life, sport & bisexual awakening 

This Black queer former NFL player says he’s fighting “for us all to be seen, whether it be in the pages or on the screen”

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Courtesy R. K. Russell

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. – He’s tackled opponents on the gridiron, paved a path for out LGBTQ+ athletes and shared his unique voice in words and prose. Now R.K. Russell is celebrating the release of his long-awaited memoir, The Yards Between Us, as well as a Hollywood deal to bring his story to television viewers. 

It’s something Russell told the Los Angeles Blade he never dreamed would be possible, even as a child. 

“Grown me could barely imagine the book, let alone, little me,” Russell said. “It is something I have not seen before, and something that doesn’t really exist. Something that is so shocking even to me, this being my life. I think the reason that I continue to take these opportunities that come to use my platform and my voice and my talents, my gift, to not just tell these stories, but to hopefully champion other people in their story. To just fight for us all to be seen, whether it be in the pages or on the screen, everywhere people exist. We exist.”

As the Blade reported in August 2019, Russell came out as bisexual in a feature for ESPN. The NFL defensive end was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 2015 and played a few seasons for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Buffalo Bills. After coming out as a free agent, Russell wasn’t able to fulfill one of his dreams — to play professional football as an out and proud bisexual man. But at that time, he said all he was focused on was living his truth. 

“It was a powerful time in my life,” Russell told the Blade. “It was the first time I really felt that I was taking all this control and I wasn’t just at the mercy of the NFL or waiting for that phone call, or at the mercy of friends, family, lovers. It was my decision and my moment and my truth. And I got to express it in a form that felt very genuine to me.” 

The Buffalo native called the experience “freeing.”  

“I didn’t think I’d realize how much I had been proverbially holding my breath until that moment. And then it just felt like such an exhale. It’s such a freeing thing, and the weight of the burden of that secret, of that shroud, or that shame,” he said. “I just realized how heavy what I had been carrying for so long. So, definitely a powerful and freeing moment.” 

Having already told part of his story to ESPN, The New York Times and other news outlets over the years, there was a reason Russell felt it was important to write the rest of his story. 

“That was just a very specific part of my life, and it showed me that maybe by sharing my whole story, my life and my journey and my truth and other parts could be just as impactful, if not more impactful,” he said. As he set out to write the memoir, he said he first experienced imposter syndrome, until he came to a realization. 

“The point that got me through was, ‘What would little R.K. read that would have helped him? What was a book that didn’t exist when he was young, and that he could have picked up and seen himself, or that people like him can pick up and see themselves? Or even people unlike him, to get a human connection to someone that does not look like them or doesn’t play sports?’ So, I think the huge, final push was, ‘What would I have liked to have read as a child?’ And hopefully that will help other people.”

The Yards Between Us traces not only Russell’s football career and his love for the game, for both men and for women, but also what it was like for him to keep his bisexuality secret and the tension between his private and public lives. As his weighs upon him, he’s dealt a devastating loss, an event that leads to an all-enveloping darkness, until finally he recognizes, it’s time to make a change. 

Since coming out, he’s found love with his boyfriend, Corey, grown closer to his mother and this September he’ll mark four years sober. 

Russell’s memoir has won him accolades from LGBTQ+ readers, but not just them. 

“I’ve also gotten a lot of support from people who aren’t LGBTQ+ who see the value in the story, but also see the value in the intersections of it all. Because I don’t just talk about being a bisexual, I talk about being a Black man. I talk about being a football player, defining masculinity and redefining masculinity. There’s a lot of intersections that my story crosses. And I think for people to see all of these layers also coexisting in one person, that’s important to see the bridges between these communities that at times can be put against each other, or it can be divided, to see them all exist within one person.”

While all that sounds very serious, Sony Pictures Television sees comedy gold in exploring Russell’s intersectionality of sports, race, sexuality and masculinity. His memoir is being adapted into a half-hour comedy series, as Deadline reported. Russell is co-writing and executive producing a half hour comedy series with Saeed Crumpler of “Flatbush Misdemeanors,” alongside Gabrielle Union, who is a producer in her own right as well as wife to Dwyane Wade and stepmother to their 15-year-old trans daughter, Zaya Wade. As the Blade reported last month, the Wades left Florida because of its anti-trans policies and laws. 

“She’s fantastic. Amazing,” said Russell. “If anyone wants to know what allyship looks like, Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade and their whole family, they’re so amazing. “ 

Union, he said, recognizes the importance of representation. “It’s important to have genuine representation, whether it be during Pride Month with companies and campaigns or in shows and books that our stories are coming from, that there are Black queer writers writing Black queer stories hopefully also in part started or acted by Black queer artists.” 

Long before he wrote a word of his memoir, Russell has been publishing his own poems, which he told the Blade was his “way to express life with words.” He said he started writing poetry following the death of his stepfather. 

“It was a way for me to kind of name grief, without naming it. I didn’t have that vocabulary, that word at that time, but I was feeling it so intensely,” he said.

One of Russell’s poems, Tributes, was an effort at explaining bisexuality and his experiences. “’Bisexuality,’ the word, means something slightly different to you, to me, or to someone else. I can talk about the experience in a way that is so varied and so broad and to me, so true and genuine.” Below, an excerpt from that poem: 

Love is freedom 

and the freedom to love is a birthright, 

or at least it should be. 

These years fill my canvas 

and I know too much of life to expect 

only one color to leave its strokes across my heart. 

Paint is intended to mix no matter the artist. Tributes, by R.K. Russell

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‘Harley Quinn: Ravenous’ a dark Gotham novel with a feminist warrior

New book awash in crazy action, humor, and superheroes

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(Book cover image courtesy Random House)

‘Harley Quinn: Ravenous’ 
By Rachael Allen
c.2023, Random House 
$19.99/349 pages

Forget about it.

Put it out of your mind; don’t worry about it. It’s likely nothing, so let it rest. Let it go and don’t be afraid because, as in the new book “Harley Quinn: Ravenous” by Rachael Allen, fear is how they make you scream.

Being a first-year intern at Gotham University was going to be the best.

Having completed the university’s gap-year program last year, Harleen Quinzel was practically bouncing. She’d decided on research, possibly psychology, as a career and first year program included mentorship and a chance to study some of Gotham’s worst, most notorious criminal minds. The Joker, Two-Face, King Shark, Mr. Freeze, she could be assigned to any one of them at Arkham Asylum.

First year was also going to be a bit of a relief.

Sure, she’d still have to put up with classmates like the jerk who kept asking if she was “straight now” (nope, still bi, today, tomorrow, last week) and she’d have to try to fit in, which was hard to do after what happened at the end of last year. Then, some of Harleen’s friends were attacked with a fear spray that made them scream and scream, and her best friend died from it. There was gossip but Harleen had her research to enjoy, she loved her mentor, and she was fascinated by Talia al Ghul, who’d tried to assassinate Gotham’s mayor. Talia was a great study-subject – even though Harleen wasn’t technically supposed to ever speak to her.

Until Talia said that she knew who made the fear spray. She needed information for information, tit for tat, and she hinted that she knew the truth about Straw Man, who was rumored to haunt Arkham and who had a hand in the fear spray, so…

So then Harleen woke up in the hospital, the victim of a bad accident and amnesia. But was it an accident? Were this guy, Win, and the adorable Ivy trustworthy? And the escape of Gotham City’s worst, most violent criminals — was Harleen at fault?

Let’s say a movie theater mushed its film to a pulp and made a novel from the leftover cells. Or they used the mush to paint a Ben-Dot artwork panel, but in words. That’s kinda how you could think of this book. As a part of the “DC Icons” franchise, “Harley Quinn: Ravenous” almost screams graphic novel or comic book.

So what’s the problem?

Nothing, as long as you know that before you pick it up because that’s the sort of feel you’ll get in what only looks like a regular novel. Nothing, if you relish a story that starts with action and peppers it with chaos before dropping readers into a land of dark monsters and crime. Nothing at all, if you’ve read author Rachael Allen’s novel-before-this-one – otherwise, you’ll be awash in humor, feminism, superheroes, and scrambling to find your footing. Be warned.

Overall, if you love a funny, crazy-paced dark-Gotham novel with a feminist warrior, you’ll devour “Harley Quinn: Ravenous.” As for a bookmark…? Nah, forget about it.

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Books

Zachary Zane is on a mission to destroy sexual shame

The bisexual influencer, sex columnist, & author of the memoir Boyslut opens up about his career, his anxiety, and his upcoming vasectomy

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Zachary Zane’s Boyslut: A Memoir and Manifesto calls for embracing sex without judgment or shame, but with responsibility. (Photo Credit: Rob Salerno)

By Rob Salerno | WEST HOLLYWOOD – Zachary Zane isn’t having fun this weekend in Los Angeles. 

While normally the Brooklyn-based sex columnist and bisexual influencer would have a string of sex parties lined up for a trip to his hometown, Zane says he’s had to restrain himself because he’s freezing his sperm in advance of an upcoming vasectomy. 

“This weekend is particularly boring,” he says with a broad laugh over coffees in Studio City. “There are a lot of fun sex clubs and parties here. It’s a lot of house parties that turn into orgies. That’s one of my favorite things.”

It’s the sort of frank, guileless admission that’s become the 33-year-old’s trademark through his “Sexplain It” column at Men’s Health and substack newsletter, which has made him an icon of the bisexual community and led to his book Boyslut: A Memoir and Manifesto.

Zane says he was motivated to get the snip after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling last year gutted abortion rights in the United States. 

“After Roe v. Wade got overturned, I kind of wanted to take control, and no longer have it be that the impetus has to be on the woman,” he says. “I do not want to have kids. I like having unprotected raw sex. I like being able to cum in my partners. Over the years, you have close calls, and the science is here, you don’t have to worry about it.”

And this too is surprising, given that Zane’s online presence seems to embody the “chaotic bisexual” character type. 

“My editors say I’m cautious and take calculated risks. I’ve never turned in a story late. In many ways I’m a sexually chaotic bisexual, but I’m also very on top of everything,” Zane says.

Reading Boyslut, Zane’s tendency for over-preparing, cautious planning, and protecting the feelings of others is evident and oddly refreshing, whether he’s writing about his struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxieties about his remaining sexual hangups, juggling polyamorous relationships, or broaching a truly shocking fetish with his partners (I’ll leave that for you to read about in the book).

If you were picking up Boyslut expecting it to be a polemic about sexual libertinism, you might walk come out surprised by the degree to which the book advocates for caution, comfort, and compassion as much as it’s an endorsement of reckless, uninhibited sexual pleasure.

Indeed, Zane says an early title for the book was “Cautious Slut.” And, lest you think the actual title is exclusionary, Zane defines a “boyslut” as “a person of any gender or sexual orientation who approaches sex without a lick of judgement or shame.”

“I’m trying to help people live unabashedly in whatever their relationship is with sex. It’s not just about being slutty and having sex with as many people as possible. If you are asexual I want you to own that,” Zane says.

Zane also makes a compelling argument for the importance of having a community of people you trust to overcome sexual shame. 

“Of course, I experience shame. I’m not superhuman. I live in society,” he says. “When I do experience shame, I try to differentiate between feeling shame or feeling guilt. When I’m feeling overwhelmed by it, I think a lot of the answer is having this community and friend group that I can call instead of going home and crying alone.”

It’s hard to imagine that the guy who regularly writes about his prodigious sexual escapades could suffer from shame, but Zane insists there’s plenty he still holds back. 

“I’m vaccilating between the things that cause me shame and things I don’t need to share with everyone,” he says.  “I feel very comfortable writing about very raunchy sexual experiences – me getting DP’d and my hairy asshole. But I don’t talk about my breakups online, my relationship with my family. Even when I talk about my OCD and anxiety, it’s usually from a humorous place and not like, ‘oh, this was crippling.’”

Though he insists that he’s very sexually open, it was in fact his anxiety over sexual shame that led him to his current career. 

“I chose a career where, if my nudes leaked, that would be the best thing that happened to me. I wouldn’t get fired – I would get great articles from it,” he says. “I did that purposely because I didn’t want to have that fear and anxiety.”

So is that the answer? Share everything that causes you anxiety? 

“I think all of us have different levels of risk tolerance,” he says. “Engage with the amount of sharing you want to do. I’m talking about cultivating a friend group or community where you feel loved and embraced by people who really cherish you and know you. I’m not encouraging people to just overshare online and seek validation from headless torsos and strangers. It’s about having these more meaningful connections that matter more.”

Of course, not everyone has the luxury of a column in a national magazine to exorcise their anxieties into. 

But over the three years that Zane has written Sexplain It for Men’s Health, he believes he’s contributed to a culture shift both at the magazine and in the broader culture.

“Men’s Health has always been slightly gay, just by being a men’s fitness magazine with half-naked men on the cover,” he says. “A lot of closeted bi guys who’ve been married for twenty years, they don’t feel comfortable to read Out or Pride.com, but they do feel comfortable to go to Men’s Health and if they’re on the site and they see something, they’re going to click. So I’m reaching an audience who arguably needs it the most.”

“I was really part of this new generation at Men’s Health. They have a lot of queer men on staff, a lot of women on staff, and they’re making it more feminist and queer and intersectional.”

And what even qualifies Zane to be a sex advice columnist anyway? 

“First and foremost, I was a journalist. In the first Sexplain Its, I always reached out to an expert in the field.” Zane begins to explain how he reads every relationship book out there and sifts his reader submissions to only answer the questions he feels comfortable with. 

Then he gets wistful as he begins to tell a story that led him to believe he could write authoritatively on sex.

“It’s a weird thing about being a sex expert. I had a date with this woman when I was 22. She was like 50 and a sex expert/therapist. A funny thing was I was the same age as her kids. So, I was at the beginning of my career, trying to break into this, and I asked, ‘What constitutes a sex expert?’ And she goes, ‘For anything, being an expert is when you say you’re an expert and people believe you.’”

Boyslut: A Memoir and Manifesto is available in stores now.

********************************************************************************

Rob Salerno is a writer, journalist and actor based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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Chasten Buttigieg’s new book a comforting read for teens

Coming out tale told with an upbeat, fatherly calm tone

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(Book cover image courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

‘I Have Something to Tell You’
By Chasten Buttigieg
c.2023, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing
$18.99/209 pages

Experience, they say, is the best teacher.

Once you’ve done something, you can say you like it and you’ll do it again or not. The subject comes with a different viewpoint, once you’ve gotten a little experience with it. You’re wiser, more confident. As in the new book “I Have Something to Tell You” by Chasten Buttigieg, you’ll have the chops to offer valid advice.

If you’d have asked 8-year-old Chasten Buttigieg what life was like, he probably would’ve told you about his big brothers and how wild and daring they were. He would’ve said he didn’t have many friends and that he loved his parents. He wouldn’t have told you about being gay, though, because he had no frame of reference, no experience, or role models. He just knew then that he was “different.”

A year later, he watched “Will & Grace” on TV for the first time, and it was hilarious but he had to be careful. Already, he understood that being “someone ‘like that” had to be hidden. He watched Ellen and he was sure that “gay people weren’t found in places” like his Northern Michigan home town.

For much of his childhood, Buttigieg says he was bullied, but being lonely was worse. He was awkward, but he found his happy place in theater. “In school,” he says, “I felt a constant tug-of-war between where I was and where I wanted to be,” between authenticity and pretending. A year as a high school senior exchange student in gay-friendly Germany, then a “safe space” in college in Wisconsin clarified many things and helped him gain confidence and “broaden [his] perspective.”

By the time he met the man he calls Peter, “I felt at ease to present myself in ways I hadn’t felt comfortable doing.”

Still, he says, things may be better or they may be worse, “We’ve got a long way to go, but you, the reader, get to be a part of that promising future.”

Filled with an abundance of dad jokes and a casual, chatty tone that never once feels pushy or overbearing, “I Have Something to Tell You” may seem like deja vu for good reason. This gently altered version of a 2020 memoir, meant for kids ages 12 and up, says all the right things in a surprisingly paternal way.

And yet, none of it’s preachy, or even stern.

Though there are brief peeks at his adult life on the campaign trail with his husband, now-Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, the heart of author Chasten Buttigieg’s book is all memoir, set in a loving household in a small town. It’s lightly humorous but not trite; to this, Buttigieg adds a layer of subtle advice, and genuineness to a tale that’s familiar to adults and will appeal to young, still-figuring-it-out teens.

You can expect a “you are not alone” message in a book like this, but it comes with an upbeat, fatherly calm. For a teen who needs that, reading “I Have Something to Tell You” will be a good experience.

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When artists we love behave badly

New book ‘Monsters’ explores this common fan dilemma

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('Monsters' book cover image courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf)

‘Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma’
By Claire Dederer
c.2023, Alfred A. Knopf
$28/288 pages

Recently, I listened to an audio version of “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. I cheered when Rowling said Dumbledore is gay.

Yet, I wondered, should I read the Potter books (no matter how much I love them) when Rowling has made hurtful remarks about trans people?

That is the question many fans ask today: What do we do when artists make art we love, but behave badly? 

“Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma,” by memoirist and critic Claire Dederer delves into this  vexing question.

This perplexing query has no “right” answer that works for everyone. Yet, if you enjoy art, you’re likely to keep wrestling with it. 

A book delving into this conundrum could be as outdated as the last news cycle. The  cancel culture debate has engulfed social media for eons.

Yet, Dederer’s meditation on the relationship between art and its fans is provocative and entertaining. Reading “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma” is like downing two, three, maybe four espressos after a couple of cups of strong coffee.

One minute, you may feel that Dederer has it exactly right. The next moment, you might wonder what planet she’s on.

I applauded Dederer when she wrote, “There is not some correct answer…The way you consume art doesn’t make you a bad person, or a good one.” 

But I wanted to throw the book across the room as I read that Dederer preferred Monty Python over queer comedian, writer, and actor Hannah Gadsby. “Listen, I’d rather watch the Pythons than Gadsby any day of the week,” Dederer writes.

To be fair, Dederer opines about Monty Python to make a point about the “monster” of exclusion. “None of these guys has the bandwidth,” she writes about Monty Python, “to even entertain the idea that a woman’s or person of color’s point of view might be just as ‘normal’ as theirs, just as central.”

Dederer, the author of two critically acclaimed memoirs “Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning” and “Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses,” struggles, as a fan and critic, with many types of monsters.

Dederer, who started out as a movie critic, began grappling with monsters in 2014. Then, “I found myself locked in a lonely–okay, imaginary–battle with an appalling genius,” she writes.

The “appalling genius” was filmmaker Roman Polanski, who, Dederer reports, raped a 13-year-old. Despite her knowledge of Polanski’s crime, “I was still able to consume his work,” Dederer writes, “[though] he was the object of boycotts and lawsuits and outrage.”

Her gallery of monsters contains the usual hetero male suspects from Bill Cosby to Woody Allen. Dederer deplores Allen’s behavior, but considers “Annie Hall” to be the greatest 20th century film comedy. She finds “Manhattan” unwatchable because Allen’s character dates a high school girl, but considers “Annie Hall” to be better than “Bringing Up Baby.” (Mea culpa: I love “Annie Hall.” But, better than “Baby?)

For Dederer, monsters aren’t only male or hetero. She wonders, for instance, if the brilliant poet Sylvia Plath, was a monster because she abandoned her children for her art.

Dederer muses about the actor Kevin Spacey (who will be on trial in June for alleged sexual assault in the United Kingdom), Michael Jackson, and J. K. Rowling.

“One of the great problems faced by audiences is named the Past,” Dederer writes, “The past is a vast terrible place where they didn’t know better.”

‘But, Dederer reminds us: sometimes they did.Queer writer Virginia Woolf (author of the luminous “Mrs. Dalloway” and the gender-bending “Orlando”) is a god to many queers. Yet, Dederer reports, Woolf, though married to Leonard Woolf, who was Jewish, made flippant anti-Semitic remarks in her diaries. You could say Woolf was just “joking” as people in her time did. Yet, Dederer reminds us, gay author E.M. Forster wrote in a 1939 essay, “…antisemitism is now the most shocking of all things.”

I wish Dederer, who writes of racism and sexism in art, had written about the homophobia in art (in the past and present). I’d have loved it if she’d mused on the brilliant queer, anti-Semitic, racist writer Patricia Highsmith who gave us the “Talented Mr. Ripley.”

I’d liked to have seen some mention of Islamophobia, ableism and racism against Asian-Americans and indigenous people in art in “Monsters.”

Despite these quibbles, “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma” is a fascinating book. There’s no calculator (as Dederer wishes there was) to tell us whether we should go with the art we love or renounce the work of the artist whose behavior we deplore. But, Dederer turns this dilemma into an exhilarating adventure.

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Nonbinary poet unmasks society’s gender expectations in new collection

Karen Poppy’s ‘Diving At The Lip Of The Water’ debuts next week

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'Diving At The Lip Of The Water' by Karen Poppy will be out from Beltway Editions on May 1.

“I started to compose poetry around the age of three – before I could even write,” poet Karen Poppy, 47, told the Blade in a telephone interview. “My Mom would write my poems down.”

“I had the good fortune,” added Poppy, whose first, full-length poetry collection “Diving At The Lip Of The Water” will be out from Beltway Editions, a Washington, D.C. area press, on May 1, “My Mom read poetry to me. The first poem was about a nightingale. Maybe she read Keats to me.” (John Keats was the 19th century Romantic poet who wrote “Ode to a Nightingale.”)

Poppy has written a book “that will rough a reader up and then wrap their scraps in silk,” poet Francesca Bell has said of “Diving At The Lip of The Water.” For Poppy, who identifies as queer, nonbinary, lesbian and an artist, coming out has been a lifelong process. “I’ve come out many times in many ways,” Poppy, who grew up in Foster City, Calif., and now lives in the San Francisco Bay area, said.

April is National Poetry Month. In every month, Poppy thinks often of Walt Whitman, one of the United States’ greatest poets. Thought by many to be queer, Whitman, a nurse in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, is best known for his groundbreaking work “Leaves of Grass.”

Whitman comes to mind to Poppy when she talks about her identity. “As an artist,” Poppy said in reference to how she identifies, “I’m everyone and everything.”

When Whitman talks about the self containing “multitudes,” “He’s not just speaking of individuals,” Poppy said, “he’s saying that poets-artists enter into everything.”

“As an artist – a poet,” Poppy said, “I don’t like to be put into boxes.”

Poppy celebrates Whitman’s creative spirit, refusal to have limitations placed on him and, what she called, “his joyous experience of limitlessness and connectivity with everything.”

As a young child, Poppy sensed that she was different. “I knew very early on,” she said, “I wanted to be like my mother and my father.”

She wanted to be glam like her mom. “My Mom’s family’s nickname for Mom was Miss America,” Poppy said.

She wore her Dad’s leather jacket, cowboy hat and cowboy boots. “Early on, I got in trouble for trying to smoke a cigarette,” Poppy said, “I put it in the wrong way. I was lucky I didn’t burn my mouth!”

“I cut my mouth, trying to shave as a toddler,” she added, “I was already creating my own gender identity.”

At a time, when people were far less out and proud than now, Poppy crushed on her girl babysitters. “In kindergarten, I got in trouble with my best friend at the time,” she said, “because I told her that I was interested in her physically.”

“I think she was very kind about it,” Poppy added.

That same year, Poppy was reprimanded by her teacher for kissing a boy. “The boy and I were in line waiting to go back to the classroom,” she said, “he kissed me back.”

During that era, Poppy didn’t have the words to name or describe her feelings. “I have a gay cousin who’s older than me,” she said, “and a lesbian aunt. But because they weren’t exactly the way I am, I didn’t realize I was queer, too.”

In Foster City, when she was growing up, people didn’t talk openly about being queer. “We talked about it in euphemisms and negatively,” Poppy said.

A poem is never just the story of what happened or the recitation of fact, poet Sheila Black, a 2012 Witter Bynner Fellow, said in an email to the Blade.

Poppy’s poetry, like that of many poets, at times, channels her life. Though, it’s not autobiographical in a literal or linear way. Like Whitman’s work, it contains multitudes from individual and collective experience.

Her searing, moving collection “Diving At The Lip Of The Water,” unmasks society’s gender expectations and family systems. Poppy’s poem, “No One was Gay Back Then,” draws us into what it’s like to have to hide your sexuality. “We used to make fun of you/You, making out with Michael/in the grass. 5th grade recess,” the poem begins.

“Michael liked Matt. So in 5th grade,” Poppy writes in the poem, “already seeking cover-ups/Trying to convince everyone and ourselves./Our small town. No one was gay back then.”

As a tween, Poppy not only realized she was queer (though she didn’t have the word for it); she knew where she wanted to go to college. Poppy was determined to go to Smith College because Sylvia Plath went there.

 “When I was 12, I started to read Sylvia Plath,” Poppy said. “Plath has been a profound influence on me throughout my life.”

“Because of her fearlessness in speaking her truth,” Poppy added, “and her high level of poetic virtuosity.”

Poppy’s dream came true. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Smith College in Comparative Literature and Spanish in 1998.

At Smith, Poppy began to come out about her identity. But, there were pressures. “I was pressured into cutting my hair short,” she said, “the feeling was if I kept my hair long, I wasn’t a dyke.”

Poppy cut her hair. “I did cry,” she said, “there was a pressure to conform to a certain aesthetic. You had to be super femme or butch.”

It was another box that she had a hard time escaping from. “I realized boxes are not for me,” Poppy said.

She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after she graduated from Smith. After a short stint as a chef apprentice, Poppy could tell that being a chef for the long term wasn’t for her.

Like most poets, Poppy knew being a bard rarely brings financial stability. “I wanted to have security and I wanted to help people,” Poppy said.

“I went to law school and studied international law,” she said, “A lot of my early focus was on immigration and helping refugees.”

Poppy graduated from UC Hastings College of the Law (now known as UC College of the Law, San Francisco) in 2003 with a J.D. degree in international law.

Today, Poppy works for The Hartford in the area of workers’ compensation.

Poppy kept writing from her childhood into her 20s. “But then, somebody said something really cruel about my writing,” she said. “The ridicule chilled my creativity.”

For 17 years, because of this cruelty, she didn’t write. “I was in a creative silence,” Poppy said.

A traumatic event compelled her to go back to writing. 

Since 2017, when her creativity was restarted, Poppy’s poetry has been published in literary journals, anthologies as well as the chapbooks “Crack Open/Emergency,” “Our Own Beautiful Brutality” and “Every Possible Thing.” She’s written three unpublished novels and short stories. 

One of her writing projects is Whitmanesque in its intersections of identities.

Poppy is working on an opera libretto. “It takes place when Handel [the German-British Baroque composer] was alive,” she said.

It’s about a merboy who’s washed to shore. He’s young, Black and queer.

“A family takes him in,” Poppy said, “they want to make him a form of income.”

The family forces the merboy to become a castrato, Poppy said, “they make him wear a mask to hide his dark skin. When he’s older and has a relationship with a man, he has to be closeted.”

Poppy is looking for a composer to work with her on her libretto. If you’re interested, contact her through her website karenpoppy.com.

Poppy’s interest in immigrants is personal as well as professional. Poppy is Jewish. Some of her family were murdered in the Holocaust. “Others in my family left Europe before the Holocaust because of pogroms and poverty,” she said.

When her family came to the United States in the early 1900s, they were “very poor,” Poppy said.

Her paternal grandmother, Poppy said, told her to make sure her son always had food, “because hunger would make his stomach hurt.”

We’ve come to see that the American dream is in many ways an illusion, Poppy said. It’s not accessible to all, and it’s slipping away.

“Elizabeth/The fifth of ten children/Who crossed the border, then/Still a child/,” Poppy writes in her poem “Elizabeth,” “Only sixteen and wanting to stay alive/To be the breath that survived.”

Poppy worries about the rise of anti-Semitism. “It comes in waves,” she said. “We have to remind each other to make sure it never happens again.”

It’s important for artists to take care of themselves, Poppy said. To get enough rest between creative projects. To be an athlete. So their minds and spirits can be in top form.

Poppy does yoga and loves to run. “A poem is a short lap,” she said, “writing a novel is like long distance open water swimming.”

“We write out of our humanity,” Poppy added.

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Infidelity becomes an art form in ‘Love, Honor, Betray’

New book’s final act feels disrespectful to gay readers

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(Book cover image courtesy of Dafina)

‘Love, Honor, Betray’ 
By Mary Monroe
c.2023, Dafina $26/320 pages

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Those are words you hear when someone is about to testify in a court of law. They put the “sworn” into sworn testimony, and you’ll also find the phrase in courtroom dramas, legal thrillers, and Perry Mason. You don’t hear those words in a marriage ceremony, but in the new book “Love, Honor, Betray” by Mary Monroe, maybe you should.

He could’ve looked all over Lexington, Ala., for the rest of his life and Hubert Wiggins wouldn’t have found a more fitting wife than his Maggie had been.

Before he met her, she’d been sexually assaulted and though she wanted to repeat her vows with someone special, she vowed that she’d never have relations again, which was fine with Hubert. He preferred to sleep with men anyhow, so their marriage was perfect.

Alas, Maggie died just over a year ago and Hubert needed a new wife.

Jessie, Maggie’s best friend, had her sights set on Hubert the day he put Maggie in the ground. In order to land him, she lied to him, said that he’d raped her when he was drunk and now she was pregnant, even though Hubert swore that he was traumatized by loss and couldn’t perform in bed because of it.

Jessie was sure she could cure Hubert’s problem. In the meantime, she wasn’t above having a fling when a fine man made it possible.

It was 1941, and sneaking around to see his boyfriend, Leroy, was a challenge for Hubert, especially when the police were doubly rough on a Black man in a nicer car at night. They didn’t care that Hubert was a respected businessman in Lexington’s Black community. They didn’t care that he was a funeral director, that his business had buried almost all the murder victims of a serial killer loose in the area.

The police might have had something to say, though, if they knew that Hubert and Jessie had murdered a woman named Blondeen.

Love a wild romp between the pages? Then you’ll be overjoyed with the opening two-thirds of “Love, Honor, Betray,” where infidelity becomes an art form.

It’s rowdy and fun, in fact, until the book’s pinnacle, at a point where author Mary Monroe might seem to be wrapping things up. But look: there’s a chunk of book left, and that’s where everything falls apart.

It’s as if someone took a hammer to the plot here and busted it to pieces. Characters act contrary to the personalities that were built up for them for 200 solid pages, and they do things that feel disrespectful to gay readers. This destroys the sense of fun that accompanied the everybody-sleeps-around chaos early in the book. Is it merciful or irritating, then, that the story doesn’t tie up loose threads, but it just ends?

Readers who are comfortable not finishing a book will enjoy this one, if they put it aside before it’s done. Go too far into “Love, Honor, Betray,” though, and you’ll be sorry you finished the whole thing.

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New book traces an icon’s journey into clothes, clubs, couture

‘Pat in the City’ tells story of SATC costumer Patricia Field

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(Book cover image courtesy Dey Street Books)

‘Pat in the City: My Life of Fashion, Style, and Breaking All the Rules’ 
By Patricia Field
c.2023, Dey Street Books
$35/272 pages

The shirt’s just a little too big.

But that’s no problem; you’d rather your shirts be looser anyhow. Pants, they’re another matter; they need to be snug all over. You have your own sense of style, and you wear it fabulously. In the new book “Pat in the City” by Patricia Field, read about an icon’s journey into clothes, clubs, and couture.

Almost from the time she was born, little Patricia Haig (later, Field) knew that clothing made a statement. She knew it while wearing her cowgirl outfit to play, when she clothes-shopped with her aunts, and when recalling her father, who was “handsome, sweet, and mild” and who died when she was small. Adoption later changed her surname, but not her love of clothing.

Working in her mother’s dry-cleaning “shop” as a kid, Field learned all about fabrics; her aunts’ forays into fashion taught her even more. She “always had beautiful clothes,” although a pair of men’s-style pants discovered in a small boutique in the mid-1950s was life-changing.

Field entered college and landed dual degrees in philosophy and political science, though she says “style came easy to me.” By then, she’d turned away from ’50s femininity, preferring an androgynous look. She also learned that she preferred women as partners.

One of them was a partner in Field’s first business, a small shop near NYU in Manhattan that opened in 1966. In 1971, they opened a larger store, calling it “Patricia Field.” Partly due to her contacts with designers, Field sold inventive, trendy, “nouveau glamour” outfits to clubbers who made Studio 54 the “high-octane” place it was then. Field dressed a lot of celebrity clubbers, too, which led her to the ballroom scene, where she became a House “Father” and a part of vogueing history. And then someone suggested to someone else that Field would make a great costumer for an upcoming movie.

If you could somehow take two books by a good author and smash them together to make one, that’s what you’d have with “Pat in the City.” This book is divided almost clean in two, and almost with separate reader-audiences.

In the first part, author Patricia Field shares her biography, her childhood, her formative years, and the awakening of her personal sense of style. Fashionistas won’t be able to put those pages aside, nor will anyone who attended any New York City club with any regularity back in the day. This half of Field’s book drips with disco lights and ballroom “reads.”

Celebrities stretch into the second half, as Field writes about being the costumer for “Sex And the City,” the friendships she struck up with its cast, and how the iconic opening scene came to be. This part of the book – likewise glittering with big names and big productions – is for younger readers and Hollywood watchers.

Reading this book is like time-travel to the ’70s, and a backstage peek at your favorite show. If you love clothes and people who love fashion, then get “Pat in the City.” It fits.

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Ari Shapiro’s new book reveals true tales that even a novelist couldn’t imagine

‘The Best Strangers in the World’ recounts NPR star’s multi-faceted life

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

‘The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening’ 
By Ari Shapiro
c.2023, HarperOne
$28.99/256 pages

Maybe in your dreams, you’ve been to an underwear party with Alan Cumming on Fire Island or, from a seat on Air Force One, noticed the razor bumps on Barack Obama’s neck.

These dreams are part of everyday life for Ari Shapiro, host of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” In his memoir “The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening,” he tells true tales that even a novelist couldn’t imagine.

From early on, Shapiro, who sings with the band Pink Martini and performs in the stage show “Och and Oy” with Cumming, has been both an outsider and someone who loves the spotlight.

Shapiro, 44, began speaking in public when he was a first-grader in Fargo, N.D. He and his older brother were the only Jewish kids at their elementary school. At Christmastime, “he and I would go from classroom to classroom with a menorah and a dreidel, explaining to children descended form Scandinavian immigrants what Hanukkah was,” he writes.

This was his first experience of explaining the unfamiliar — of, as Shapiro writes, “making the foreign seem a bit less strange.”

Shapiro’s parents were professors at North Dakota State University. They encouraged Shapiro to be curious about the world.

When he was eight, Shapiro and his family moved from Fargo to Portland, Ore. At 16, Shapiro came out as gay. His parents were supportive.

Though he hadn’t even kissed a boy, Shapiro writes, there were rumors among his peers about his sexuality. “I decided that the best approach was to drown out the whisper campaign with a bullhorn,” he writes.

He plastered his locker with postcards of Tom of Finland drawings and photographs by Herb Ritts and Tom Bianchi. “On Halloween, I came to school in drag,” Shapiro writes, “After that, my calculus teacher stopped calling on me when I raised my hand in class.”

His hair, he recalls, was parted in the center, and fell to his chin in a “sort of Nirvana-meets-Prince Valiant bob.”

Shapiro, refreshingly, is not too self-serious about his coming out. Yet, when he notes that he carried Mace because “not everybody was excited about having a gay classmate,” you remember how homophobic it was then.

Shapiro, after graduating from Yale with a bachelor’s degree in English, came to NPR through an internship with Nina Totenberg. “Grow a pair,” Shapiro writes, Totenberg told him when he hemmed and hawed while asking a source for an interview.

Most journalists are known primarily for their reporting. But journalism is just one facet of Shapiro’s life.

In “The Best Strangers in the World,” Shapiro lets readers in on what it’s like to have a multi-faceted life. Where one moment, he’s reporting from Washington, D.C., and the next day he’s singing with Pink Martini at the Hollywood Bowl.

Reporters, usually, don’t want to become part of the news. In 2004, Shapiro worried about that when he and his boyfriend Mike Gottlieb got married in San Francisco. “I thought I should ask permission from my employer, NPR,” Shapiro writes, “I was about to step into the middle of the culture wars at a time when the country was undecided on whether gay couples should be allowed to legally commit to a life together.”

“As a journalist,” he added, “I would be …becoming a participant in a major news story.”

At times, Shapiro almost comes off as being unbearably privileged – as someone’s who’s had everything go their way from love to their career.

This impression is erased when Shapiro reveals that he sweats as much as Aaron, the anxious reporter in “Broadcast News.” Or, when he writes movingly about covering the Pulse massacre in 2016. As a gay man, Shapiro writes, he brought “lived experience” to his coverage of Pulse. “I had been bar hopping in Orlando more than a decade earlier,” Shapiro writes.

Then, he’d made friends with bartenders at a bar. Twelve years later, while in Orlando, Shapiro realized that that bar was Pulse.

“The Best Strangers in the World” is the best read this spring. 

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

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

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(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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