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In ‘Manhunt,’ a virus turns males into monsters

Graphic new book will give you nightmares

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(Book cover image courtesy of Macmillan Nightfire)

‘Manhunt’
By Gretchen Felker-Martin
c.2022, Macmillan Nightfire
$17.99/304 pages

It’s just a little stick in the arm.

Just a poke, a tiny jab, a brief ouch, and you have your opinions about it. On one hand, you hate getting sick; on the other, well, it’s complicated. You don’t even like to see needles on TV but it’s obvious that viruses have a way of upsetting everything. And in the new book “Manhunt” by Gretchen Felker-Martin, this virus will make you howl.

Beth sometimes wondered where it came from.

Spreading the t. rex virus would have been easy, just a matter of leaving an open cannister by a heating vent somewhere or sprinkling it in a crowd. Who would do that, though? Who would release a virus that turned every post-pubescent male into a crazed, deformed, wolf-like killing machine?

Beth idly thought about it, as she and Fran tried to get back to their healer, and safety. Answers might never be knowable but no matter: they were too busy harvesting as many testicles they could get from the men-creatures they eliminated, so their healer could make the estrogen they needed. They had to stay safe and alive. Kill or be killed.

Sometimes, Fran couldn’t help but feel sorry for Beth — and for herself, for that matter. Fran’s transition was almost complete when the virus began spreading, when husbands, sons, and brothers suddenly became monsters. There was no time for bottom surgery but she was almost there, and she looked feminine. She might fool a TERF, but Beth never would. Beth was big, blocky, and still boy-muscled.

Robbie always felt that he was better off on his own. He had supplies and was self-sufficient, as long as the TERFs – cisgender women who’d created a fierce army – didn’t catch him. Though he was still menstruating, a trans man was a man.

And to the TERFs, a man, any kind of male no matter what, had to die.

You can take this as a siren, add fireworks: “Manhunt” is not a novel for everyone.

It’s not for anyone who can’t stand gruesomeness, or who hates having their heart seize due to explicit sex, surprises, cringey scenes, or jumpy scares. Don’t hand it off to anyone who can’t tolerate feminism or a happily-never-after.

What this book is, though, is for someone with a deep, affectionate fondness for all of the above plus pockets of plot brilliance, dark humor in a blow-them-all-to-pieces vein, buckets of blood and gore, and monsters that live among us. Some tolerance for plot holes is also needed for full enjoyment; author Gretchen Felker-Martin leaves readers with a few big WHY?s hanging over her smoking Armageddon, and while they’re mostly forgivable, they may still nag.

This book has the feel of a video game your mother wouldn’t let you have because it might give you nightmares. In this case, she was right: this truly is a keep-you-up-all-night story with streaks of modern day. Indeed, “Manhunt” is worth a shot.

Books

A balanced look at whether to have children

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

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(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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Hoover is a conflicted, flawed human in new biography

‘G-Man’ explores how he created an unrivaled personal fiefdom

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(Book cover courtesy of Viking)

‘G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century’
By Beverly Gage
c.2022, Viking
$45/837 pages

“We’re sorry we can’t be in the front row to hiss — no kiss you,” two fans wrote in a telegram to Ethel Merman in the 1930s when they couldn’t make the opening of one of her shows.

The Merman friends were J. Edgar Hoover and his “right-hand man” Clyde Tolson.

“G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century” by Yale historian Beverly Gage is the first biography of Hoover to appear in 30 years. Gage has done the unimaginable. She makes you want to read about J. Edgar Hoover. “G-Man” won’t make you wish you were one of Hoover’s BFFs. It’ll compel you to see Hoover, not as a villainous caricature, but as a conflicted, flawed human being.

“G-Man” is not only a fascinating bio of Hoover, who directed the FBI from 1924 until the day he died on May 2, 1972 at age 77. It’s a page-turning history of the United States in the 20th century.

Hoover, who played a key role in the “lavender scare” of the 1950s, hated and harassed Martin Luther King, Jr. and engaged in an anti-Communist crusade, has “emerged,” Gage writes, “as one of history’s great villains, perhaps the most universally reviled American political figure of the twentieth century.”

In “G-Man,” Gates, drawing on recently released files, tells the story of how Hoover came to power and used the tools of the “administrative state,” to, as Gage writes, “create a personal fiefdom unrivaled in U.S. history.”

But, Gage makes clear, it’s a misreading of American history to think that Hoover was a lone, evil rouge.

During his time as FBI director, Hoover had the support of eight presidents (four Democrats and four Republicans) and of Congress. Gage documents how much of the American public, for most of Hoover’s 48 years as FBI director, shared his racist, homophobic and rabidly anti-Communist views. 

Hoover, a life-long D.C. resident, “embodied conservative values ranging from anti-Communism to white supremacy to a crusading and politicized interpretation of Christianity,” Gage writes.

“Far from making him a public scourge,” she adds, “these two aspects of his life garnered him the admiration of millions of Americans, including many of the country’s leading politicians, for most of his career.”

Hoover never openly identified as gay. He sent FBI agents out to warn anyone gossiping that he was gay to stop spreading rumors. Once, Hoover learned a D.C. bakery employee  had said he’d “heard the director is a queer,’” Gage reports. Hoover dispatched FBI agents, Gage writes, “to threaten and intimidate him into silence.”

There’s no evidence of Hoover having sex with another man. A story (told in an earlier bio) of Hoover wearing a dress at a gathering lacks credibility, Gage says. Because the woman who told the anecdote had been arrested for perjury.

But, using sources that weren’t available to previous biographers, Gage argues persuasively that Hoover and Tolson were for decades what we would call, today, a same-sex couple.

Beginning in 1935, Hoover and Tolson plunged into a whirl of nightlife – going to nightclubs and hanging with celebrities, Gage reports. 

Hoover kept some things about his relationship with Tolson private, Gage writes, “yet what is most striking about their budding relationship is not its furtive quality but its openness, vitality, and broad social acceptance.”

Hoover and Tolson vacationed together yearly in Florida and California.

Officially, their friends and colleagues, said the couple was “too masculine” to be queer, Gage writes, “reflecting a mid-century view of male homosexuality as something for ‘sissies’ and outliers.”

But, “Everybody knew about J. Edgar Hoover,” Gage reports Ethel Merman recalled decades later of Hoover in the 1930s. “A lot of people have always been homosexual. To each his own.” 

Neither Tolson or Hoover married or thought about marrying a woman. When Hoover died, he left most of his estate to Tolson. We don’t know what they did in the bedroom, Gage says, but Hoover and Tolson behaved like spouses.

Unfortunately, Hoover’s feelings for Tolson didn’t stop him from playing a crucial part in the “lavender scare” or from having the FBI monitor the D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society.

“G-Man” documents Hoover’s racism in sobering detail. Gates doesn’t downplay Hoover’s racism, role in the 1919 or 1950s red scare; lavender scare; or  harassment of Vietnam war protesters.

In “G-Man,” Gage helps us understand how Hoover’s views were formed: from his shame at having a mentally ill father to the “muscular, masculine” Christianity of his childhood to his life-long connection to Kappa Alpha, a racist George Washington University fraternity that believed in the “Lost Cause” of the South.

“G-Man”is an illuminating and engrossing read – with movie stars, history, gangsters and a humanized villain. 

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Best fiction, nonfiction reads for your winter pleasure

11 picks sure to keep you riveted

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‘Manhunt’ was one of the most memorable reads of 2022.

It happens every year.

The decorations come down. The last of the Christmas leftovers have been eaten. Errant bits of ripped wrapping are found and discarded. You have no more holiday candy or cookies, you look around at your empty hands, and you wonder now what?

Now it’s time to settle in and read for the rest of the winter season. For your pleasure, here are the Top Five Bookworm Picks for the Best of 2022.

Fiction

Lovers of fairy tales are in for a big surprise with The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean (Tor, $26.99). It’s a dark, dark legend filled with evil dragons that look like men, princesses that are worse than second-class citizens within their realms, and a chase that will chill you. Book lovers will adore this tale, especially if you don’t necessarily need a happily-ever-after.

Pick up a copy of Dot and Ralphie by Amy Hoffman (University of Wisconsin Press, $16.95) and it doesn’t look like much. But aren’t you glad you don’t judge a book by its cover?  This is a sweet tale of two elderly women, partners in life and love, and aging. It’s sweet and grumpy and charming, somewhat like a lesbian Honeymooners episode, only better.

Readers who are familiar with the thrillers that James Lee Burke writes will absolutely be stunned by Every Cloak Rolled in Blood (Simon & Schuster, $27) because in this book, the thrill is secondary to the main plot. Here, retired detective Aaron Broussard has lost his beloved daughter and it’s cut him to the core. Fiery, glass-sharp grief doesn’t stop crime, though, and so he still has crime to solve – whether real, or imagined. Read this book with an open heart and tissues at hand. It may be Burke’s best.

Lovers of clever, clever stories will love Sign Here by Claudia Lux (Berkeley, $27). It’s the tale of Peyote Trip, whose job on the Fifth Floor of Hell is to recruit new souls for eternity. But Pey has a plan to get out of his purgatory, which turns this funny, sharp-witted story into a shady mystery that will make you laugh a lot and squirm even more. 

Here’s a book that’s absolutely not for everyone: Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin (Macmillan Nightfire, $17.99) is a lesbian feminist dystopian thriller, which sounds like a lot and it is. A virus has hit every corner of the world, making men into wolf-like killing machines and sending the women into hiding. When two young women – one of them, trans – learns that a “healer” might be able to save her from the inevitable, they head out to find the woman but a makeshift band of warrior women get in their way. Again, this isn’t a book for everyone but if you’re looking for something very, very different, this is it.

BONUS: “Things Past Telling by Sheila Williams (Amistad, $25.99) is a novel of the memories of a 112-year-old former slave, who was also a pirate’s woman, a healer, and someone reaching for things her soul needed. It’s an adventurous book with the tiniest touch of fantasy and you shouldn’t miss it. 

Non-Fiction

You have questions. And All the Living and the Dead by Hayley Campbell (St. Martin’s Press, $29.99) has answers. When someone dies, what happens next? A wide variety of things, that’s what, and it’s someone else’s job to see that it’s done right. This book is careful not to be (too) gruesome but it is compellingly fascinating.

Charlie’s Good Tonight” by Paul Sexton (Harper, $27.99) is on this list because it could be the biggest surprise of the year for readers. It’s the story of the late Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, a man who really never wanted fame and often actively shunned the limelight. If you think you know all about the debauchery of your favorite rock ‘n roll band, think again and be totally charmed by one man’s life.

There are two business books on this list because they don’t at all read like business books; in fact, Think Like a Horse by Grant Golliher (Putnam, $28) and Meet Me by the Fountain by Alexandra Lange (Bloomsbury, $28) both seem more like snuggle-up-in-front-of-the-fire kinds of books. Golliher’s book is pure cowboy – he was a rancher and worked extensively with horses – and there are western-novel tones in his book on getting the most out of people. Lange’s book is a trip to the mall throughout history, including a good look at stores you may have visited through the years. These books are both great for the business-minded reader, but could be enjoyed by anyone.

And finally, an obsession: To Walk About in Freedom by Carole Emberton (W.W. Norton, $28.95) is a jaw-dropping memoir that hides in a history book. In the earlier part of the last century, the government paid writers to interview people for a WPA project. One of the interviewees was a former slave woman who offers up not only her life, but a real-life account of the end of slavery and how it impacted everyday, average people. This is a book you’ll be talking about well into the new year.

If these 11 books don’t fit your mood, then be sure to check with your favorite bookseller or librarian. When it comes to books, (s)he is a superhero.

Happy reading!

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Meet the gay couple that has saved countless dogs

‘Forever Home’ features stories of neglect with a happy outcome

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

“Forever Home: How We Turned Our House into a Haven for Abandoned, Abused, and Misunderstood Dogs – and Each Other”
By Ron Danta & Danny Robertshaw and Larry Lindner
c.2022, HarperOne
$27.99/262 pages

The leash is hooked tight.

One end on your dog’s collar or harness, the other end firmly wrapped around your wrist, and he’s not going anywhere without you. Rescuing this pupper was the best thing ever and now, as in the new book by Ron Danta, Danny Robertshaw, and Larry Lindner, he’s “Forever Home.”

It all started on horseback.

Danny Robertshaw, who’d loved horses since he was small, was well known as a rider and trainer up and down the East Coast. Ron Danta had moved his horses to South Carolina to a farm he’d purchased with the hope of launching a business. The two men had met but it wasn’t until their lives began to circle closer to one another that they became good friends; not long after they’d decided to become business partners, Danta divorced his wife and had an epiphany. The two men became partners in life.

It helped that both had deep and endless loves of horses and dogs. When both men were boys, growing up in separate states, their mothers impressed upon them the habit of adopting stray dogs and unwanted, unloved pups. All their lives, both men had picked up side-of-the-road, mistreated, or elderly dogs, rehabilitated them, and re-homed them.

It wasn’t cheap. The dogs they sheltered had varying medical problems, and many had issues stemming from fear, abandonment, and abuse. Danta and Robertshaw paid for the dogs’ vet bills out of pocket, then housed and trained each pup until the dogs could be properly adopted out as “Danny & Ron dogs.” That was a pure labor of love, but their house was soon wrecked and their furniture, shredded. At one time, having hundreds of dogs in their care, they turned their home into a “doghouse” – this, despite terrifying personal health crises; in the middle of hurricanes, filming a documentary, and their marriage; overseas, and in conjunction with causes and people close to their hearts.

“It’s good to know that rescue – being loved, living with dignity, belonging – is happening on more than one front.”

Few can resist an adorable puppy. But what about the dogs who’ve seen better days? Can you resist scooping them up? If the answer is “no,” then you’ll want “Forever Home.”

In a consistently upbeat manner, authors Robertshaw, Danta, and Lindner share the story of a movement that has saved the lives of countless dogs and other animals through the years, and the two men behind it. While these stories are sure heart-capturers, they’re also very repetitious, as if the animal’s name and breed are all that changes from tale to tale. Readers will notice, too, that there are lots of happy stories here but they’re quite often preceded by wincing accounts of abuse and neglect. Still, that’s not news to pet lovers. Heavy sigh.

Despite further confusion as to who’s telling the story, “Forever Home” will appeal to anyone who’s shared a bed with a dog, a sofa with a cat, or a ride with a horse. Open the cover, read a page, and you’ll be hooked tight.

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Sondheim book makes you feel like you’re having drinks with an icon

‘FINALE’ will be catnip to lovers of musicals

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperCollins)

‘FINALE: Late Conversations With Stephen Sondheim’
By D.T. Max
c.2022, Harper/HarperCollins
$20.99/225 pages

“My idea of heaven is not writing,” the iconic gay composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is reported to have said.

“On the other hand,” Sondheim, who died last year at 91, was, thankfully, as he reportedly said, “obviously compulsive about it.”

“FINALE: Late Conversations With Stephen Sondheim,” a new book by New Yorker staff writer D.T. Max is good news for Sondheim’s multitudes of aficionados.

“I’m not good. I’m not nice. I’m just right. I’m the witch. You’re the world,” Sondheim wrote in “Into the Woods.”

Whether you’re a teen in a production of “Into the Woods,” a Boomer who came of age with “Company,” an 80-something who fondly remembers “Gypsy” or an artist who identifies with “Sunday in the Park with George,” you know you couldn’t have hung out in Sondheim’s world.

Frequently, profiles of celebrities are take-downs or suck-ups. Max avoids these pitfalls.

In “FINALE,” sometimes Sondheim is witty, entertaining, hospitable (his staff offer Max wine) and generous (Sondheim tries to help Max find a puppy for his family). At other times, Sondheim talks hatefully about his mother (who sounds like a cool customer) and cops to not reading much, though he loves “The Catcher in the Rye” because of its dialogue. Sondheim veers away from the orthodox take on Hitchcock. “Vertigo,” he says, is overrated. His fave “Hitchcock” movie was “Shadow of A Doubt.”

In “FINALE,” Max makes us feel like we’re having drinks with Sondheim.

It wasn’t easy for Max to have informal, entertaining, illuminating conversations with Sondheim.

There’s always some drama, metaphorically, some seduction involved when a reporter attempts to interview a celeb. This was even truer with Sondheim, who zealously guarded his privacy.

“Profiles are fraught efforts,” Max writes, “Profiles of the famous famously fraught.”

Some writers don’t bring the difficulties of their work (from getting the interview to coaxing candor and new reveals from interview subjects who’ve been burned by social media) into their reporting.

But in “FINALE,” Max doesn’t just clue readers into the vexations involved in nailing and conducting his interviews with Sondheim. “FINALE” is structured around his quest to discover revelations about Sondheim. His search for insights into Sondheim’s life and creative process becomes, figuratively, a Broadway show. In this vein, the book’s chapter titles range from “Prelude” to “Audition, January 2016″ to “Opening Night, April 2017″ to “Closing Night, March 2019″ to “Curtain.”

The main focus of “FINALE” is Sondheim. But Max is a character in the narrative.

Sometimes this is off-putting. Do we need to learn where Max went to school, where he grew up or what movies he enjoys? (He agrees with Sondheim about “Vertigo.”)

Does it shed light on Sondheim when Max spills his feelings (from angst to enthrallment to disappointment when Sondheim cancelled appointments) around writing about Sondheim? 

But though, at times, there’s too much of Max, sometimes his presence adds to the story.

Max, like many who’ll read this book, grew up loving Sondheim. Max’s uncle was a playwright, and he was introduced to Sondheim, when his mother brought home a signed recording of “Side By Side” after a benefit. But he’s not an expert on musical theater.

He views Sondheim with the admiring, but unprofessional, gaze of many theatergoers. This serves readers well. It keeps the conversations lively and un-pedantic.

Most of the book is a series of one-on-one conversations that Max has with Sondheim at his home in New York City and his house in Connecticut. Sondheim’s dogs and husband Jeff Romley wander in and out. Sondheim talks about not being able to finish a musical that he’s working on. He remembers that decades ago, one day, Katharine Hepburn, then his neighbor, came by when he was playing the piano, composing. “Pipe down! she told him.

It’s doubtful that Sondheim, given the time when he grew up, would have talked about being gay. (Though he never denied his sexuality.) Still, I wish Max had asked him about it.

This is a minor quibble. “FINALE” will be catnip to lovers of musicals.

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Holiday gift guide: Books

Something for every reader on your list

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(Book cover images courtesy of the publishers)

The tree looks magnificent.

Your kids did a great job decorating the parts you assigned to them; you took pictures this year, because they really outdid themselves. So you’re ready – almost – for the holidays, except for those few tricky gifts that you just can’t seem to figure out.

How about books? Easy to wrap, happy to get, why not look for these great books?

For the person on your list who loves dark, gothic romance-mysteries, wrap up “Mourning Light” by Richard Goodkin. It’s the story of a man who can’t let go of the guilt he feels since his lover died. Coincidentally, that death happened on the exact same day he met another man that he can’t stop thinking about.

The person on your gift list who loves a good memoir will want to read “A Place Called Home” by David Ambroz. It’s a tale of homelessness, foster care, coming out, and how sheer determination put that all in one man’s past.

If there’s someone on your gift list who made a difficult decision this year, “Families We Keep” by Rin Reczek and Emma Bosley-Smith is a book to carefully wrap up. It’s a look at LGBTQ individuals who have decided to stick with their families, though there may continue to be a struggle for acceptance or a total lack of it. It means work, and this book might help. Know your giftee well before giving this book.

Until recently, there really haven’t been a lot of books about bisexuality, which is why you might want to give “Bi: The Hidden Culture, History, and Science of Bisexuality” by Julia Shaw to someone special. There’s a lot to know about the subject, from genetics to legalities, celebrities to monogamy.

The trans reader on your gift list will want to own Fat, Crazy, and Tired: Tales from the Trenches of Transformation by podcaster Van Lathan, who writes that being fat was harder than being Black. Needless to say, this book is funny and inspirational, and your giftee will love it. Pair it with Side Affects: On Being Trans and Feeling Bad by Hil Malatino. If your giftee sometimes struggles, this book is great acknowledgement.

For the reader who loves history, The Women’s House of Detention by Hugh Ryan could be the perfect gift this year. It’s the story of a prison in New York’s Greenwich Village which, for nearly 45 years, was the landing place / home / jail for thousands and thousands of women, gender-nonconforming people, and transgender men. Angela Davis was there. So was Afeni Shakur. This book takes your giftee there, too. Wrap it up with Manifesting Justice: Wrongly Convicted Women Reclaim Their Rights by Valena Beety.

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

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

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Courtesy of Bywater Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy the book here: (Bywater Books)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New book reveals that some secrets last a lifetime

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

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(Book cover image courtesy Pamela Dorman Books)

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

It shall not pass your lips.

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

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

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

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

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

She hadn’t known. She was innocent.

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

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

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

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

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

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New book explores impact of family secrets

Her father was hiding his sexual orientation

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(Book cover image courtesy HarperOne)

‘The Family Outing: A Memoir’
By Jessi Hempel
c. 2022, HarperOne
$27.99/320 pages

Don’t tell the children.

For most families in America in the last century, that was the maxim to live by: the kids are on a need-to-know basis and since they’re kids, they don’t need to know. And so what did you miss? Did you know about familial philanthropy, rebellion, embarrassment, poverty? As in the new memoir, “The Family Outing” by Jessi Hempel, did secrets between parent and child run both ways?

“What happened to me?”

That’s the big question Jessi Hampel had after many therapy sessions to rid herself of a recurring nightmare. She had plenty of good memories. Her recollection of growing up in a secure family with two siblings was sharp, wasn’t it?

She thought so – until she started what she called “The Project.”

With permission from her parents and siblings, Hempel set up Skype and Zoom sessions and did one-on-one interviews with her family, to try to understand why her parents divorced, why her brother kept mostly to himself, how the family dynamics went awry, why her sister kept her distance, and how secrets messed everything up.

Hempel’s father had an inkling as a young man that he was gay, but his own father counseled him to hide it. When he met the woman who would eventually be his wife, he was delighted to become a husband and father, as long as he could sustain it.

Years before, Hempel’s mother was your typical 1960s teenager with a job at a local store, a crush on a slightly older co-worker and, coincidentally, a serial killer loose near her Michigan neighborhood. Just after the killer was caught, she realized that the co-worker she’d innocently flirted with might’ve been the killer’s accomplice.

For nearly the rest of her life, she watched her back.

One secret, one we-don’t-discuss-it, and a young-adult Hempel was holding something close herself. What else didn’t she know? Why did she and her siblings feel the need for distance? She was trying to figure things out when the family imploded.

Ever had a dream that won’t stop visiting every night? That’s where author Jessi Hempel starts this memoir, and it’s the perfect launching point for “The Family Outing.”

Just prepare yourself. The next step has Hempel telling her mother’s tale for which, at the risk of being a spoiler, you’ll want to leave the lights on. This account will leave readers good and well hooked, and ready for the rest of what turns out to be quite a detective story.

And yet, it’s a ways away from the Sherlockian. Readers know what’s ahead, we know the score before we get there, but the entwining of five separate lives in a fact-finding mission makes this book feel as though it has a surprise at every turn.

Sometimes, it’s a good surprise. Sometimes, it’s a bad one.

A happily minimized amount of profanity and a total lack of overtness make “The Family Outing” a book you can share with almost anyone, adult, or ally. Read it, and you’ll be wanting to tell everyone.

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Memoir reveals gay writer’s struggle with homelessness, rape

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

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(Book cover image courtesy Legacy Lit/Hachette)

‘A Place Called Home: A Memoir’
By David Ambroz
c. 2022, Legacy Lit/Hachette
$30/384 pages

For David Ambroz, 42, author of the stunning new memoir “A Place Called Home,” one of his childhood recollections is of himself and his siblings walking with Mary, their mother, on a freezing Christmas morning in New York City.

Today, Ambroz, who is gay and a foster parent, is a poverty and child welfare expert and the head of Community Engagement (West) for Amazon.

But, on that morning, Ambroz remembers, when he was five, he and his seven-year-old sister Jessica and six-year-old brother Alex were freezing. Mary, their mother was severely mentally ill. They were homeless.

Ambroz draws you into his searing memoir with his first sentence. “I’m hungry,” he writes in the simple, frightened, perceptive voice of a malnourished, shivering little boy.

As it got dark and colder, Ambroz recalls, he walked with his family, wearing “clownishly large” sneakers “plucked from the trash.” 

Five-year-old Ambroz remembers that the night before his family got lucky. They had dinner (mac and cheese) at a church “with a sermon on the side.”  

“We heard the story of the three kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus,” Ambroz writes.

But the next day they’re still homeless and hungry. Talk about no room at the inn.

Young Ambroz doesn’t know the word “death,” but he (literally) worries that he and his family will die. Frozen, hungry and invisible to uncaring passersby.

Ambroz’s mom, a nurse, is occasionally employed and able to house her family in dilapidated apartments. But she’s soon ensnared by her mental illness, unable to work. Then, her family is homeless again.

Until, he was 12, Ambroz and his siblings were abused and neglected by their mother.

Ambroz doesn’t know as a young boy that he’s gay. But, he can tell he’s different. Instead of playing street games with the other kids, Ambroz likes to play “doctor” with another boy in the neighborhood.

Mary tells him being gay is sinful and that you’ll die from AIDS if you’re queer.

His mother, having decided that he’s Jewish, makes Ambroz undergo a badly botched circumcision. At one point, she beats him so badly that he falls down a flight of stairs.

At 12, Ambroz reports this abuse to the authorities and he’s placed into the foster care system.

If you think this country’s foster care system is a safe haven for our nation’s 450,000 kids in foster care, Ambroz will swiftly cut through that misperception.

From ages 12 to 17, Ambroz is ricocheted through a series of abusive, homophobic foster placements.

One set of foster parents try to make him more “macho,” rent him out to work for free for their friends and withhold food from him. At another placement, a counselor watches and does nothing as other kids beat him while hurling gay slurs.

Thankfully, Ambroz meets Holly and Steve who become fabulous foster parents. Ambroz has been abused and hungry for so long he finds it hard to understand that he can eat whatever he wants at their home.

Through grit, hard work and his intelligence, Ambroz earned a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, was an intern at the White House and graduated from the UCLA School of Law. Before obtaining his position at Amazon, he led Corporate Social Responsibility for Walt Disney Television.

But none of this came easily for him. Coming out was hard for many LGBTQ people in the 1990s. It was particularly difficult for Ambroz.

In college, Ambroz is deeply closeted. He’s ashamed to reveal anything about his past (growing up homeless and in foster care) and his sexuality. 

At one point, he’s watching TV, along with other appalled students, as the news comes on about Matthew Shepard being murdered because he was gay. Ambroz can see that everyone is enraged and terrified by this hate crime. Yet, he’s too ashamed to reveal anything of his sexuality.

Over Christmas vacation, Ambroz decides it’s time to explore his sexuality.

Telling no one, Ambroz takes a train to Miami. There, he goes home with a man (who he meets on a bus) who rapes him.

“I run in no particular direction just away from this monster,” he recalls. “When I get back to my hotel room, I’m bleeding…I order food delivered but can’t eat any of it.”

“A Place Called Home” has the power of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Ambroz’s writing becomes less powerful when he delves into the weeds of policy. But this is a minor quibble.

Ambroz is a superb storyteller. Unless you lack a heartbeat, you can’t read “A Place Called Home” without wanting to do something to change our foster care system. 

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