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Graphic novel ‘Smahtguy’ offers timely bio of Barney Frank

Cartoonist Eric Orner makes policy suspenseful

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(Book cover via Amazon)

When he was in high school, gay cartoonist Eric Orner, who makes his graphic novel debut with “Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank,”  didn’t like the food in the school cafeteria. “The principal was always talking about how good we had it,” Orner told the Blade in a recent interview.

“But the food was deep fried – inedible,” Orner added, “even for us [teens].”

To protest the food, Orner called it out with humor in the comic strip he drew for the school newspaper. “Having this platform to express yourself subversively and sarcastically to authority,” Orner said, “gave me a buzz.”

Like a hound born to hunt, Orner has always loved to draw. A proclivity for subverting the powers that be with humor has been etched in his veins from birth.

“Drawing is what I love to do,” said Orner, who is in his 50s, “It’s been that way since I was a kid.”

If there’s a problem, Orner will sit for an hour and draw. “I’ve  been most brave – most outspoken when I’m drawing.”

Orner’s drawing and respect for outspokenness are in splendid form in his graphic novel “Smahtguy,” a biography of queer icon Barney Frank. 

As the House (at this writing), repeatedly fails to elect a Speaker, nothing could be more timely than “Smahtguy.”

Frank, who came out as gay in the Boston Globe in 1987, was a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Massachusetts from 1981 to 2013. 

When you hear “bio of a queer and political icon,” you might well think: boring, musty, wonky tome. But you needn’t worry. “Smahtguy” is a page-turner about Frank, a politician who disliked politics, but loved policy. Orner, in this bio, does the nearly impossible: he makes policy suspenseful. Orner makes you want to know how Frank used wonkiness in issues from housing to banking to help people.

Equally important, Orner makes you see and care about Frank’s personal life – from his background and family, to his coming out to his periods of loneliness to his marriage to Jim, his longtime partner. 

“Publishers Weekly,” in a starred review, called “Smahtguy,” “an astute, richly detailed profile” of Frank.

Orner jokes that he has “dual citizenship.” He has roots in two cities – Chicago and Boston.

He was born and grew up in Chicago. “My Dad’s family is in Chicago,” Orner said, “My Mom’s family is in Massachusetts.”

Orner, who lives now in New York and spends time with his partner in upstate New York, is acclaimed for his groundbreaking comic strip “The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green.”

The strip, first published in 1989, ran in 100 papers (gay press and about 25 alternative weeklies). “The Blade was the second paper to run it,” Orner said.

“The work of the gay press was so important to who we became as a people,” Orner said, “I’m Jewish. The Yiddish press was so important to Jewish people at the turn of the last century.”

In 1989, before “Queer as Folk,” “Modern Family,” let alone “Fire Island” or “Bros,” there was nothing like it. Except Alison Bechdel’s trailblazing comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which ran from 1983 to 2008.

Back then, you didn’t see drawings and stories about queer people in comic strips. Especially, narratives of LGBTQ people dating, being out, dealing with break-ups, coping with AIDS, working – living ordinary lives.

Ethan was a good, but not a fabulous, guy. He wasn’t a hunky athlete or movie star. Break-ups more than picture-perfect romances were his lot. You saw yourself when you read “The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green,” which was made into a movie of the same name in 2005.

Orner didn’t come out early in his life. “I knew early,” he said, “but the Midwest is a little more conservative.”

There was the Stonewall Uprising. But that wasn’t part of the culture at his high school. “My high school was so conformist,” Orner said, “it could have been the 1950s.”

After high school, Orner moved to Boston where he went to college and law school. “I’ve lived in Boston, New York, D.C., and Los Angeles,” he said, “but I’ve never lived as an adult gay person in Chicago.”

Orner’s father, now deceased, was a straight guy who revered Hugh Hefner and Sean Connery. “One of the most important cultural icons,” Orner said, “when my Dad was in his prime in the 1960s, was Playboy.” 

At first, Orner’s father just couldn’t conceive of the fact that he had a gay son. “But, my Dad was a contrarian,” Orner said, “weirdly, he was the sort of person who likes to upset the apple cart.”

If there was a rule that could be broken, he’d want to break it, Orner added.

“My Dad could not get his head around my being gay,” Orner said, “until my first Ethan Green book [a collection of his Ethan Green comic strips] came out.”

One day, one of Orner’s father’s law partners saw a copy of the Ethan Green book at a bookstore at O’Hare Airport. “The straight-laced partner had a meltdown in my father’s office,” Orner said, “over how terrible it was to see my Dad’s name on the book.”

Once Orner’s nonconformist Dad saw his partner’s pearl-clutching, Orner said, “he got his head around [his son’s being gay].”

Orner’s mother was very political. Politics runs in his family, Orner said.

“The minute I came out, unbeknown to me,” Orner said, “my Mom had joined PFLAG.”

Orner has great affection for Boston. He lived there for 25 years. He’d see the Orson Welles Cinema between Harvard and Central Square as he walked toward Bay Street. The first drawing Orner sold was to the “The Phoenix,” a (now defunct) Boston alternative weekly. 

He loved cartooning. But, “like most artists, I needed a day job,” Orner said.

Orner and Barney Frank crossed paths at a cocktail party. At that time, Cardinal Bernard Law (since disgraced because of his involvement in the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal) was the Archbishop of Boston.

“I was making wiseass shit about the Cardinal,” Orner said, “Barney said it was a funny cartoon – to call him if I needed a job.”

Orner took Frank up on his offer. For 20 years, on and off, he worked for Frank as staff counsel and press secretary for the House Financial Services Committee.

In between stints working for Frank, Orner worked for Disney. “Disney taught me to draw fast,” he said, “and to capture the essence of something – like a gesture – quickly.”

Frank was your classic tough boss, Orner said. “Barney was interested in policy,” he said, “he wanted government to be professional.”

Orner admires Frank, but “sometimes he makes mistakes,” he said.

“Smahtguy” isn’t an authorized biography.  After working on it for three years, Orner packaged it up and sent it to Frank. “Barney had only a few, 19, I think, minor corrections,” Orner said.

One was over a drawing of a daily racing form in Frank’s mother’s purse. “Barney said I had to change that,” Orner said, “because his aunts gambled, but his Mom never gambled.”

Orner strived to convey Frank’s greatness – his political achievement and personality – warts and all. “I very much didn’t want to do hagiography,” he said.

With the news as terrible as it often is now, Orner’s art is more needed than ever.

“I never feel things are so fraught or horrible that I don’t want to draw about them,” Orner said in an email to the Blade.

“And, a lot of my work over the past 10 years has been about Israel and Palestine,” he added.

In comics, creators are able to tap into the full range of human emotions, Orner said.

“Watching the House Freedom caucus somehow convert a single clown car into an epic interstate pile up,” Orner said, “is for this longtime Capitol Hill staffer pretty funny.”

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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‘Mean Boys’ raises questions of life, death, and belonging

“Mean Boys” can make you squirm. For sure, it’s not a beach read or something you’ll breeze through in a weekend

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(Boom cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury)

‘Mean Boys: A Personal History’
By Geoffrey Mak
c.2024, Bloomsbury 
$28.99/267 pages

It’s how a pleasant conversation is fed, with give and take, back and forth, wandering casually and naturally, a bit of one subject easing into the next with no preamble. It’s communication you can enjoy, like what you’ll find inside “Mean Boys” by Geoffrey Mak.

Sometimes, a conversation ends up exactly where it started.

Take, for instance, Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which leads Mak to think about his life and his inability to “cull the appropriate narratives out of nonsense.” Part of that problem, he says, was that his living arrangements weren’t consistent. He sometimes “never really knew where I was living,” whether it was Berlin or California, in a studio or high-end accommodations. The parties, the jokes, the internet consumption were as varied as the homes and sometimes, “it didn’t really matter.” Sometimes, you have to accept things and just “move on.”

When he was 12 years old, Mak’s father left his corporate job, saying that he was “called by God” to become a minister. It created a lot of resentment for Mak, for the lack of respect his father got, and because his parents were “passionately anti-gay.” He moved as far away from home as he could, and he blocked all communication with his parents for years, until he realized that “By hating my father, I ended up hating myself, too.”

And then there was club life which, in Mak’s descriptions, doesn’t sound much different in Berghain (Germany) as it is in New York. He says he “threw myself into night life,” in New York Houses, in places that gave “a skinny Chinese kid from the suburbs… rules I still live by,” on random dance floors, and in Pornceptual. Eventually this, drugs, work, politics, pandemic, basically everything and life in general led to a mental crisis, and Mak sought help.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” Mak says at one point. “Sometimes life was bad, and sometimes it wasn’t, and sometimes it just was.”

Though there are times when this book feels like having a heart-to-heart with an interesting new acquaintance, “Mean Boys” can make you squirm. For sure, it’s not a beach read or something you’ll breeze through in a weekend.

No, author Geoffrey Mak jumps from one random topic to another with enough frequency to make you pay close to attention to his words, lest you miss something. That won’t leave you whiplashed; instead, you’re pulled into the often-dissipated melee just enough to feel almost involved with it – but with a distinct sense that you’re being held at arms’ length, too. That some stories have no definitive timeline or geographical stamp – making it hard to find solid ground – also adds to the slight loss of equilibrium here, like walking on slippery river rocks.

Surprisingly, that’s not entirely unpleasant but readers will want to know that the ending in “Mean Boys” could leave their heads swirling with a dozen thoughts on life, belonging, and death. If you like depth in your memoirs, you’ll like that — and this.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

Rob Anderson knows you think he’s annoying

The Blade sat down with the Instagram comedian and “Gay Science” author about viral fame, cringe comedy, and why gay men can’t sit in chairs

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In an out-of-character moment, Rob Anderson is seated properly on the grand stairs in West Hollywood Park. (Photo by of Rob Salerno)

By Rob Salerno | WEST HOLLYWOOD – Rob Anderson understands why you might’ve blocked him. Over the last four years, Anderson has attracted more than four million followers across Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok.

But as he launches his latest book, Gay Science, collecting and expanding on his viral comedy video series that examines gay stereotypes through the “totally scientific method,” he’s become pretty blasé about the pitfalls of being promoted by the social media algorithms.

Anderson says he understands that despite his enormous success, the various social media platforms often push content at people who aren’t interested.

“I guess it is so annoying,” he says with a laugh. “So when people block me, I’m never like, ‘Ew.’ I’m like, ‘No, it’s annoying. I get it,” 

“When I first started making videos and then my followers were growing, I was blocking people left and right and for the same reason. I don’t hate them. It’s annoying to see this thing on my feed,” he says. “Those Instagay couples that were always taking pictures. I blocked all of them.”

Anderson spoke to The Blade in West Hollywood, where he’s in town to promote Gay Science at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books with a panel discussion on “The Gay Agenda” on April 21 – two days before the book becomes available at bookstores everywhere. 

He says he created the “Gay Science” video series to poke fun at and reclaim stereotypes about gay men.

“I made my first video about why gay men like iced coffee because I wanted to have fun with those sorts of stereotypes I find online. Like why do gay guys run like that? Why do they write like girls, you know, and then all the other fun stereotypes that we’ve kind of like made up about ourselves like why we can’t sit in a chair the right way, because apparently we love having stereotypes,” he says.

For the book, Anderson applies the same skewed scientific take to explain more than 50 different stereotypes across the entire LGBT spectrum. So the book has chapters that ask “Are Pansexual People Living Better Lives?” “Does College Make People Bi?” and “Do Lesbians Hate Electricity?”

“I challenged myself to write about everyone. I think everyone deserves to have something to laugh at because things are so awful politically. So asexual people, intersex, non-binary chapters. There’s a chapter ‘Did trans people invent pronouns?’ And, like everything else, the chapter proves that’s right.” 

Gay Science doesn’t take on the question of why so many gay men find Anderson annoying, but he has some theories.

“I attracted the attention of gay people, and some people choose to take that and give you back love, and then some people choose to take that and hate on you,” he says. “It’s really not even about me. It’s always about them, like something they’re going through.”

“And honestly, I get it. Being gay is hard and we had a lot of tough times growing up, and then once you come out, you struggle to feel accepted in a gay space.”

Maybe he can study this in Gay Science Volume 2.

And sometimes that backlash has just made Anderson even more powerful. 

Two years ago, when he was about to go on his first comedy tour, a Twitter user from Washington, D.C. shared a now-infamous opinion about Anderson’s $100 VIP meet-and-greet tickets.

“ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS TO MEET R*B AND*RSON? When I can see him sucking dick on the dance floor at the after party for free? I’ll pass,” wrote @livefreeordavid.

The tweet generated thousands of likes, retweets and comments – many of them even more hateful. But the upshot is that Anderson sold out his D.C. shows within days and the rest of his tour shortly after. Anderson says he only learned about the tweet months later, when someone tagged him in the thread.

“I just kind of kept it. I screenshot it. I’m like, I just need to remember this. When people hate on you, it’s gonna be good. And I had to bring that back up again recently because I was on [Watch What Happens Live] for Gay Science and someone on Twitter was like, ‘Oh, how embarrassing. He’s the bartender.’ They’re trying to hate on me for like being on TV.” 

Some of Anderson’s zen attitude to toward the haters can also be attributed to a recent successful shift in his content. While he was working on the book Gay Science, he paused making new videos in the series – all that new content is in the book. 

Instead, he started posting video recaps of movies and TV shows from his youth, which has attracted a broader audience. 

“I’d been rewatching Seventh Heaven and I was like, actually this show is ridiculous. I’m just gonna post about these shows. And those took off because it’s more universal. My audience has grown since then, and now it’s mostly not gay people.”

“I really feeling like the content that I’m making is still gay. Like I’m a gay guy and you can tell that I’m not straight, but I get a lot less hate. Isn’t that crazy?” 

“Not just supportive, but fun DMs that were like, ‘you need to do this movie because this is so fucking crazy.’ And it was because women are involved now and they’re just better than men,” he says. 

Maybe that’s another topic for future volumes of Gay Science.

Gay Science will be released in stores April 23.

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

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Out CBS reporter Jon Vigliotti recounts covering a warming planet

“I always loved storytelling,” said Vigliotti who grew up in the village of Mount Kisco in New York & now lives in Southern California

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CBS News national correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti has written a new book about climate change. (Photo Credit: Iván Carrillo)

By Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor | HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – In 2018, Jonathan Vigliotti was working as a foreign correspondent based out of CBS News’ London bureau. To say it was a coveted journalism job would be an understatement.

Yet, as he recounts in his debut book, “Before It’s Gone: Stories From the Front Lines of Climate Change in Small-Town America,” Vigliotti’s life would be upended professionally and personally by a warming planet. During a Cape Cod vacation that August with his family and husband, Iván Carrillo, Vigliotti fielded a call that had him making a hasty exit — leaving his lobster dinner untouched — to catch a flight for Southern California.

He was sent to cover a wildfire encroaching on the city of Lake Elsinore in Riverside County. The impromptu assignment led to him relocating to the national broadcaster’s Los Angeles Bureau the next year and taking on the natural disaster beat.

“In the time between then and now I have covered historic hurricanes, thermometer-shattering heat waves, record-breaking droughts, mega wildfires, back-to-back ‘hundred-year floods,’ unprecedented blizzards, and never-before-seen mudslides,” he writes in the prologue of his book.

Released in April by One Signal Publishers/Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc., the book not only recounts his experiences covering a warming planet these past six years. It also serves as a memoir of his rising through the journalism ranks, from working for the NPR station based on the Bronx campus of his alma mater, Fordham University, to now being a national correspondent for CBS News.

“I always loved storytelling,” said Vigliotti, 41, who grew up in the village of Mount Kisco in New York.

Speaking with the Bay Area Reporter by phone, Vigliotti said he’s been a nature lover his entire life. He spent hours exploring the woods by his childhood home. When his parents joined the fight to stop a housing development that would have bulldozed his forested retreat, Vigliotti learned about the fragility of ecosystems and how collective actions can protect such places.

“It had a lasting impact on me,” he said. “My work as a professional journalist always has gravitated toward environmental stories.”

His book is broken into four parts centered on the elements of fire, water, air, and earth. The tragic events he’s covered are paired with solutions to mitigate the effect rising temperatures are having on communities across the U.S. (Vigliotti writes about reintroducing beavers to ward against wildfires in an excerpt of his book for this week’s Guest Opinion.)

“One of the reasons why I wrote the book is I feel climate change is abstract to people. Even people who may be climate deniers, I think that comes from a lack of understanding,” said Vigliotti. “One of the best ways to understand climate change is radicalizing our weather is to be there on the front lines. Through our reporting, I try to visually connect those dots for people.”

‘No warning’

A theme throughout the book is the oft repeated — and disingenuous — phrase, “There was no warning.” Time and time again local officials have known beforehand the threats their communities face from climate change, said Vigliotti.

“Why this happens is hard to say, but I do believe a lot of people find climate science to be overwhelming,” he said. “The solutions oftentimes seem daunting.”

Rather than dismiss climate change as “some politicized issue,” he hopes his audience sees it as the threat it is to their livelihoods and hometowns. He utilizes the term “habitat changes” in the book when writing about what is occurring due to changing climates.

“If saying climate change is a barrier for some people, maybe you don’t need to say it,” said Vigliotti. “As long as people understand weather is changing and an increased threat to communities on the front lines, the more people are willing to take action. That is my finding at least,” he said.

He believes the planet still has time before it’s gone.

“We are a very intelligent species, us humans. We have proven time and time again we have a unique ability to adapt, unlike some other species,” said Vigliotti. “I think we have an opportunity if we listen to the warning signs and take action to rebuild or upbuild our communities so they are resilient.”

Even more so than in his on air segments, Vigliotti is front and center throughout the book, talking to readers in the first person.

“I wasn’t sure how much of my own experience would be a part of this book. It documents my education and my understanding of the role climate change is having,” he said. “I felt like if I was going to invite readers into my world, I needed to be as honest as possible in those moments where I am sharing my personal experiences.”

Professionally, Vigliotti said he “never actively” hid being gay. But as he explains in the book, he routinely was “straightening out my gay” when sent to report in places like the Middle East.

An assistant news director at the Milwaukee TV station where he once worked advised him to “rein in the fagginess,” he writes. He also disclosed losing a network job “because the main anchor at the time didn’t like the way I ‘tracked.'”

Vigliotti told the B.A.R. he publicly came out in either 2011 or 2012. He credited gay CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who is also a correspondent for CBS News’ “60 Minutes” newsmagazine, for giving him the courage to do so.

“The role I think he had in giving a voice to other journalists who were also quote-unquote closeted … I don’t know him personally but I am forever grateful for that,” said Vigliotti. “It gave me a way forward and a way to be more authentic as myself and more transparent without having to hide parts of myself.”

Doing so in his book marked a departure from his usual reporting focus.

“I have always believed as a journalist my role is to disappear into the background and to give a platform to the people I am interviewing. I always naturally shied away from sharing too much of myself to begin with,” said Vigliotti.

To not reveal his own story in his book would have been a disservice to his interview subjects, he reasoned.

“I have come to expect so much from people who are often sharing the worst moments of their life with me. I felt it would be a hindrance to not return that favor,” said Vigliotti, who is at work on expanding his nightly news broadcast’s coverage of small-town America.

The book doesn’t mark an end to his coverage of natural disasters. He plans to continue heeding the call when such assignments break.

“I do love California and do find a sense of purpose covering these kinds of stories,” said Vigliotti, who lives in Hollywood. “I will continue covering extreme weather events.”

The book can be purchased online here: (Link)

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

The preceding article was previously published by the Bay Area Reporter and is republished with permission.

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New book offers observations on race, beauty, love

‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World’ is a journey of discovery

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(Book cover image courtesy of Tiny Reparations Books)

‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World: A Decolonial Memoir’
By Shayla Lawson
c.2024, Tiny Reparations Books
$29/320 pages

Do you really need three pairs of shoes?

The answer is probably yes: you can’t dance in hikers, you can’t shop in stilettos, you can’t hike in clogs. So what else do you overpack on this long-awaited trip? Extra shorts, extra tees, you can’t have enough things to wear. And in the new book “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” by Shayla Lawson, you’ll need to bring your curiosity.

Minneapolis has always been one of their favorite cities, perhaps because Shayla Lawson was at one of Prince’s first concerts. They weren’t born yet; they were there in their mother’s womb and it was the first of many concerts.

In all their travels, Lawson has noticed that “being a Black American” has its benefits. People in other countries seem to hold Black Americans in higher esteem than do people in America. Still, there’s racism – for instance, their husband’s family celebrates Christmas in blackface.

Yes, Lawson was married to a Dutch man they met in Harlem. “Not Haarlem,” Lawson is quick to point out, and after the wedding, they became a housewife, learned the language of their husband, and fell in love with his grandmother. Alas, he cheated on them and the marriage didn’t last. He gave them a dog, which loved them more than the man ever did.

They’ve been to Spain, and saw a tagline in which a dark-skinned Earth Mother was created. Said Lawson, “I find it ironic, to be ordained a deity when it’s been a … journey to be treated like a person.”

They’ve fallen in love with “middle-American drag: it’s the glitteriest because our mothers are the prettiest.” They changed their pronouns after a struggle “to define my identity,” pointing out that in many languages, pronouns are “genderless.” They looked upon Frida Kahlo in Mexico, and thought about their own disability. And they wish you a good trip, wherever you’re going.

“No matter where you are,” says Lawson, “may you always be certain who you are. And when you are, get everything you deserve.”

Crack open the front cover of “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” and you might wonder what the heck you just got yourself into. The first chapter is artsy, painted with watercolors, and difficult to peg. Stick around, though. It gets better.

Past that opening, author Shayna Lawson takes readers on a not-so-little trip, both world-wide and with observant eyes – although it seems, at times, that the former is secondary to that which Lawson sees. Readers won’t mind that so much; the observations on race, beauty, love, the attitudes of others toward America, and finding one’s best life are really what takes the wheel in this memoir anyhow. Reading this book, therefore, is not so much a vacation as it is a journey of discovery and joy.

Just be willing to keep reading, that’s all you need to know to get the most out of this book. Stick around and “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” is what to pack.

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Story of paralysis and survival features queer characters

‘Unswerving: A Novel’ opens your eyes and makes you think

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(Book cover image courtesy of University of Wisconsin Press)

‘Unswerving: A Novel’ 
By Barbara Ridley
c.2024, University of Wisconsin Press
$19.95 / 227 pages

It happened in a heartbeat.

A split-second, a half a breath, that’s all it took. It was so quick, so sharp-edged that you can almost draw a line between before and after, between then and now. Will anything ever be the same again? Perhaps, but maybe not. As in the new book “Unswerving” by Barbara Ridley, things change, and so might you.

She could remember lines, hypnotizing yellow ones spaced on a road, and her partner, Les, asleep in the seat beside her. It was all so hazy. Everything Tave Greenwich could recall before she woke up in a hospital bed felt like a dream.

It was as though she’d lost a month of her life.

“Life,” if you even wanted to call it that, which she didn’t. Tave’s hands resembled claws bent at the wrist. Before the accident, she was a talented softball catcher but now she could barely get her arms to raise above her shoulders. She could hear her stomach gurgle, but she couldn’t feel it. Paralyzed from the chest down, Tave had to have help with even the most basic care.

She was told that she could learn some skills again, if she worked hard. She was told that she’d leave rehab some day soon. What nobody told her was how Les, Leslie, her partner, girlfriend, love, was doing after the accident.

Physical therapist Beth Farringdon was reminded time and again not to get over-involved with her patients, but she saw something in Tave that she couldn’t ignore. Beth was on the board of directors of a group that sponsored sporting events for disabled athletes; she knew people who could serve as role models for Tave, and she knew that all this could ease Tave’s adjustment into her new life. It was probably not entirely in her job description, but Beth couldn’t stop thinking of ways to help Tave who, at 23, was practically a baby.

She could, for instance, take Tave on outings or help find Les – even though it made Beth’s own girlfriend, Katy, jealous.

So, here’s a little something to know before you start reading “Unswerving”: author Barbara Ridley is a former nurse-practitioner who used to care for patients with spinal cord injuries. That should give readers a comfortable sense of satisfaction, knowing that her experiences give this novel an authenticity that feels right and rings true, no faking.

But that’s not the only appeal of this book: while there are a few minor things that might have readers shaking their heads (HIPAA, anyone?), Ridley’s characters are mostly lifelike and mostly likable. Even the nasties are well done and the mysterious character that’s there-not-there boosts the appeal. Put everyone together, twist a little bit to the left, give them some plotlines that can’t ruined by early guessing, and you’ve got a quick-read novel that you can enjoy and feel good about sharing.

And share you will because this is a book that may also open a few eyes and make readers think. Start “Unswerving” and you’ll (heart) it.

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Mark S. King chronicles & celebrates 40 years of surviving with HIV

From addiction and recovery, fear to PrEP, stigma to fetish, King has seen it all. He will be in West Hollywood on April 8

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Mark S King (Photo by Darrell Snedeger)

By Rob Salerno | WEST HOLLYWOOD – Nearly forty years ago, Mark King tested positive for HIV in a clinic in West Hollywood. Back in 1985, there was no reliable treatment for HIV and a positive test was understood by many to be a death sentence. Many of the hundreds of thousands of young gay men who received an HIV diagnosis at the time began writing their wills. 

Mark King began writing essays. 

Since the early days of the HIV epidemic, King has been chronicling life with the virus in virus in My Fabulous Disease, a column that was syndicated in gay newspapers and magazines across the country – back when most cities in America had local gay news outlets – before moving to his blog

Now a selection of those essays has been published as My Fabulous Disease: Chronicles of a Gay Survivor, and King will be presenting readings of his essays by other well-known long-term survivors at “A Gathering of Long-Term Survivors” at the West Hollywood Library on April 8.  

“It turns out that if you live long enough and you write long enough you gather a volume of work along the way,” King tells me over Zoom from his home in Atlanta. “I just wanted to tell the story from that time till now because as the years have gone on, the story changed about what it’s like to get up and live again.”

King has also lived long enough to see the social perception of people living with HIV transition from them being tragic angels into a looming threat, a shift he chronicles in his essay “The Sound of Stigma.”

“In the early days, we were innocent tragic victims they didn’t have to think too much about because we were going to be dead soon anyway, so you might as well feel sorry for us. Then as we became healthier, and suddenly we returned to the social scene and to the dance floor and to the bathhouses, that’s when HIV stigma really started to rise again because we wanted to be amongst the rest of you,” he says.

King is quick to name PrEP as one of the most impactful developments in how queer people face HIV. He says the once-a-day pill that can be taken to prevent acquiring HIV shifted the burden of the disease onto people who are HIV-negative. 

“HIV-negative people were being mocked and criticized and shamed for even considering to take PrEP. What’s wrong with you? How big a slut are you? Why don’t you use a condom?” he says. “It was ironic because suddenly HIV-negative men were getting the same shit thrown at them about their worth and their sexual lives as those of us living with HIV had.”

“What was so threatening about prep is that it put prevention into the hands of people who do not have HIV, as opposed to always having the burden on those of us living with HIV.”

King’s writing about HIV is both a significant historical artifact of what life was like under the greatest crisis to afflict our community, and a prescient accounting of who we are today. Through his essays about pornography, sex, fetishes, dating and more, King reveals that the more the community changes, the more it stays the same. 

King says that the speaking tour in support of his book has shown him how relevant his essays remain to newer generations of gay men who haven’t had to come of age with the specter of HIV.

In the unique format of King’s book tour, he’s invited other queer men to read his essays, which he says puts a new spin on things.

“A young man [at a reading] in Chicago read my piece, ‘Probing my Analphobia,’ about when I was just a little twink and one completely disastrous douching,” King says. “Anyway, I ruined his entire bedroom. I mean ruined ruined it. And it’s all very explicit in the essay and I was really just doing it for laughs and to see what I could get away with telling this terrible story. 

“And when he finished reading it, he said, ‘I really want to thank you for writing this because I was so ashamed of the mechanics of gay sex. I didn’t know what I didn’t know and you have lifted the veil in this essay. You make it okay,” he says.

Some of the notable people presenting readings of My Fabulous Disease in West Hollywood include city council member John Heilman, ABC News Broadcaster Karl Schmid, and actor Dean Testerman.

A Gathering of Long-Term Survivors will take place at the West Hollywood Library Meeting Room at 625 N San Vicente Blvd, on April 8 from 7-8:30pm. My Fabulous Disease is available in paperback or ebook.

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

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Books

Examining importance of queer places in history of arts and culture

‘Nothing Ever Just Disappears’ shines with grace and lyrical prose

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‘Nothing Ever Just Disappears: Seven Hidden Queer Histories’ 
By Diarmuid Hester
c.2024, Pegasus Books
$29.95/358 pages

Go to your spot.

Where that is comes to mind immediately: a palatial home with soaring windows, or a humble cabin in a glen, a ramshackle treehouse, a window seat, a coffeehouse table, or just a bed with a special blanket. It’s the place where your mind unspools and creativity surges, where you relax, process, and think. It’s the spot where, as in the new book “Nothing Ever Just Disappears” by Diarmuid Hester, you belong.

Clinging “to a spit of land on the south-east coast of England” is Prospect Cottage, where artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman lived until he died of AIDS in 1994. It’s a simple four-room place, but it was important to him. Not long ago, Hester visited Prospect Cottage to “examine the importance of queer places in the history of arts and culture.”

So many “queer spaces” are disappearing. Still, we can talk about those that aren’t.

In his classic book, “Maurice,” writer E.M. Forster imagined the lives of two men who loved one another but could never be together, and their romantic meeting near a second-floor window. The novel, when finished, “proved too radical even for Forster himself.” He didn’t “allow” its publication until after he was dead.

“Patriarchal power,” says Hester, largely controlled who was able to occupy certain spots in London at the turn of the last century. Still, “queer suffragettes” there managed to leave their mark: women like Vera Holme, chauffeur to suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst; writer Virginia Woolf; newspaperwoman Edith Craig, and others who “made enormous contributions to the cause.”

Josephine Baker grew up in poverty, learning to dance to keep warm, but she had Paris, the city that “made her into a star.” Artist and “transgender icon” Claude Cahun loved Jersey, the place where she worked to “show just how much gender is masquerade.” Writer James Baldwin felt most at home in a small town in France. B-filmmaker Jack Smith embraced New York – and vice versa. And on a personal journey, Hester mourns his friend, artist Kevin Killian, who lived and died in his beloved San Francisco.

Juxtaposing place and person, “Nothing Ever Just Disappears” features an interesting way of presenting the idea that both are intertwined deeper than it may seem at first glance. The point is made with grace and lyrical prose, in a storyteller’s manner that offers back story and history as author Diarmuid Hester bemoans the loss of “queer spaces.” This is really a lovely, meaningful book – though readers may argue the points made as they pass through the places included here. Landscapes change with history all the time; don’t modern “queer spaces” count?

That’s a fair question to ask, one that could bring these “hidden” histories full-circle: We often preserve important monuments from history. In memorializing the actions of the queer artists who’ve worked for the future, the places that inspired them are worth enshrining, too.

Reading this book may be the most relaxing, soothing thing you’ll do this month. Try “Nothing Ever Just Disappears” because it really hits the spot.

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Books

Upcoming books offer something for every reader

From a history of the gay right to a look at queer women’s spaces

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(Book cover images courtesy of the publishers)

Daylight Savings Time has arrived, giving you more sunlight in the evening and more time to read. So why not look for these great books this spring?

If your taste runs to historical novels, you’re in luck. When Yorick spots his name on the list of the missing after the Titanic sinks, he believes this to be an omen: nobody’s looking for him, so maybe this is his opportunity to move to Paris and open that bookstore he’s been dreaming about. In The Titanic Survivors Book Club” by Timothy Schaffert (Doubleday, $29.00) his decision leads to more than a bucolic little business. Out April 2.

If you’re looking for something a little on the lighter side, discover Riley Weaver Needs a Date to the Gaybutante Ball by Jason June (HarperTeen, $19.99). Young adult books are perfect light reading for adults, and this one is full of high-school drama, romance, comedy, and more drama. What fun! Out May 23.

Can’t get enough of graphic novels? Then look for Escape from St. Hell: A Graphic Novel by Lewis Hancox (Graphix, $14.99). It’s the continuing story of Lew, who just wants to live his life as a guy, which he started doing in the last novel (“Welcome to St. Hell”) but you know what they say about one door closing, one door opening. In this new installment, Lew grapples with the changes he’s made and how his friends and family see things, too. This book is fresh and honest and great for someone who’s just transitioned. Out May 7.

For the mystery lover, you can’t go wrong with Clean Kill: A Nicky Sullivan Mystery by Anne Laughlin (Bold Strokes, $18.95). As the manager of a sober living home in Chicago, Nicky Sullivan has her hands full with 10 other residents of the home. But when one of them is murdered, Sullivan reaches back into her past as an investigator to find the killer by calling on her old partner. Fortunately, he’s still working. Also fortunately, he’s got a new partner and she catches Sullivan’s eye. Can love and murder mix? Out May 14.

Can’t get enough of politics? Then you’ll be happy to find Coming out Republican: A History of the Gay Right by Neil J. Young (University of Chicago Press, $30). In the fractious political atmosphere we have now, it’s essential to understand how gay conservatives have influenced politics through the decades. Find this book before November. It may be one of the most eye-opening books you’ll read. Out April 3.

The reader who loves her “space” will want to take A Place of Our Own: Six Spaces That Shaped Queer Women’s Culture by June Thomas (Seal Press, $30) there to read. It’s a book about historically safe places for queer women to be themselves – and some are surprisingly very public. Interviews with iconic feminists and lesbians round out a great look at the locales that queer women have claimed for their own. Out May 28.

And now the housekeeping: Release dates can change and titles can be altered at the last minute, so check with your favorite bookseller or librarian. They’ll also have more recommendations if you need them because there’s a lot of time for reading now.

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A travel memoir with a queer, Black sensibility

Nonbinary author Shayla Lawson is the Joan Didion of our time

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‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World: A Decolonial Memoir’
By Shayla Lawson
c.2024, Tiny Reparations Books
$29/320 pages

Joan Didion, one of the greatest writers and journalists of the 20th century and 2000s, wrote superbly crafted essays – telling engaging stories about the places she traveled to. Reading her, you sensed Didion reacting personally to her travels, and, as a writer, clocking it. To write in stories for her readers. 

Shayla Lawson, a nonbinary, Black, disabled poet and journalist, is the Joan Didion of our time.

Their new work, “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World: A Decolonial Memoir,” is a provocative, impeccably crafted, hard-to-put down, travel memoir in essays. (Lawson uses they/them pronouns.)

Lawson is author of “This is Major,” which was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle and the LAMBDA Literary Award, and the author of two poetry collections, “A Special Education in Human Being” and “I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean.”  They have written for New York Magazine, Salon, ESPN and Paper, and earned fellowships from the Yaddo and the MacDowell Artist Colony.

Yet, despite this impressive track record, Lawson, who grew up in Kentucky, and has lived and traveled everywhere from the Netherlands to Brazil to Los Angeles to Kyoto, Japan to Mexico to Shanghai, had to wait nine years before a publisher would wrap their head around releasing a travel memoir in essays.

Thankfully, Lawson had the  chutzpah to persist in seeking a home for her memoir. Kudos to Tiny Reparations Books for valuing Lawson’s writing and publishing ‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World.”

From the get-go of their memoir, Lawson draws us in. We’re with them on the plane. Right away, we’re with Lawson – a writer who’s clocking it  – telling their story – while they’re on the plane. At the same time, we’re reading the story that Lawson’s writing. 

In a few nano-secs, we get that Lawson’s stories have a queer, Black sensibility.

“Our story starts in an airplane,” Lawson writes in the opening of the memoir, “with the sound of long acrylic nails tapping on laptop keys, the sound of black femme poetics…”

“Only connect,” writes queer writer E.M. Forster in his 1910 novel “Howards End.”

Lawson’s daring memoir is a dazzling mosaic of connections between race, class, gender, sexuality, death, queerness, love, disability, grief and beauty.

Lawson met Kees, their ex-husband, a white man from the Netherlands, when he was in Harlem during a layover on a flight to Brazil for a six-month back-packing trip through South America, Lawson recalls. They meet cute over pizza, fall in love, and marry.

In the Netherlands, Lawson has to learn a new language and is stuck living in a beautiful, but boring village. They volunteer at a refugee village, that Lawson discovered had been an “insane asylum.” That village, Lawson thought, wasn’t  beautiful.

Lawson discovers beauty and sexuality when she meets up with a hunky gondolier in Venice.

In post-dictatorship Zimbabwe, they experience what it’s like to hang out with other Black people, where everyone is Black. 

In one of the memoir’s most compelling chapters, Lawson visits artist Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico City. Kahlo was disabled. She had spina bifida.

At age 39, Lawson was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. They have chronic pain from the disability.

A doctor (with the bedside manner of Attila the Hun) told Lawson that they would die. “It’s a strong presentation,” Lawson remembers the doc said to her.

Often, disability is left out of storytelling. If included, it’s put in a box – separated, disconnected, from other intersections of the narrative (gender, sexuality, race, class, sexual orientation, etc.).

One out of five Americans is disabled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Lawson writes, post-COVID that 60 percent of Americans have been diagnosed as chronically ill.

Lawson brings ableism out of the shadows.

I’m white, cisgender, queer and legally blind. I’m one of the many for whom Lawson’s experience of ableism will ring true.

They’ve “called me a bitch,” for moving slower, Lawson writes.

The last time Lawson traveled when “I didn’t return in a wheelchair,” was 2019, they write.

But that won’t stop them from traveling, Lawson writes.

“How do I want to live,” Lawson asks, “in such a way that someone will be honored by how I die.”

“How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” is exhilarating, but sometimes discomforting reading. Lawson makes you think. If you’re white and, using all the right pronouns, for instance, you can still be clueless about racism or being entitled.

But Lawson’s memoir isn’t a hectoring sermon. It’s a frisson of freedom, liberation and hope.

“No matter where you are, may you always be certain who you are,” Lawson writes, “And when you are, get everything you deserve.”

Check it out. You won’t be able to get it out of your head.

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Gay author takes us on his journey to fatherhood in ‘Safe’

One man’s truth about the frustrations and rewards of fostering

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(Book cover image courtesy of Atria Books)

‘Safe: A Memoir of Fatherhood, Foster Care, and the Risks We Take for Family’
By Mark Daley
c.2024, Atria Books
$28.99/304 pages

The closet is full of miniature hangers.

The mattress bumpers match the drapes and the rug beneath the tiny bed. There’s a rocker for late-night fusses, a tall giraffe in the corner, and wind-up elephants march in a circle over the crib. Now you just need someone to occupy that space and in the new book, “Safe” by Mark Daley, there’s more than one way to accomplish that dream.

Jason was a natural-born father.

Mark Daley knew that when they were dating, when he watched Jason with his nephew, with infants, and the look on Jason’s face when he had one in his arms. As a gay man, Daley never thought much having a family but he knew Jason did – and so, shortly after their wedding, they began exploring surrogacy and foster-to-adopt programs.

Daley knew how important it was to get the latter right: his mother had a less-than-optimal childhood, and she protected her own children fiercely for it. When Daley came out to her, and to his father, he was instantly supported and that’s what he wanted to give: support and loving comfort to a child in a hard situation.

Or children, as it happened. Just weeks after competing foster parenting classes and after telling the social worker they’d take siblings if there was a need, the prospective dads were offered two small brothers to foster.

It was love at first sight but euphoria was somewhat tempered by courts, laws, and rules. Their social worker warned several times that reunification of the boys with their parents was “Plan A,” but Daley couldn’t imagine it. The parents seemed unreliable; they rarely kept appointments, and they didn’t seem to want to learn better parenting skills. The mother all but ignored the baby, and the child noticed.

So did Daley, but the courts held all the power, and predicting an outcome was impossible.

“All we had was the present,” he said. “If I didn’t stay in it, I was going to lose everything I had.” So was there a Happily-Ever-After?

Ah, you won’t find an answer to that question here. You’ll need to read “Safe” and wear your heart outside your chest for an hour or so, to find out. Bring tissues.

Bring a sense of humor, too, because author and founder of One Iowa Mark Daley takes readers along on his journey to being someone’s daddy, and he does it with the sweetest open-minded open-heartedness. He’s also Mama Bear here, too, which is just what you want to see, although there can sometimes be a lot of tiresome drama and over-fretting in that.

And yet, this isn’t just a sweet, but angst-riddled, tale of family. If you’re looking to foster, here’s one man’s truth about the frustrations, the stratospheric-highs, and the deep lows. Will your foster experiences be similar? Maybe, but reading this book about it is its own reward.

“Safe” soars and it dives. It plays with your emotions and it wallows in anxiety. If you’re a parent, though, you’ll hang on to every word.

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