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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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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.

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

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

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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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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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‘Seek’ shows how one tiny action can open big doors

New book could ‘transform your life and change the world’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Balance)

‘Seek: How Curiosity Can Transform Your Life and Change the World’
By Scott Shigeoka
c.2023, Balance 
$30/243 pages

Curiosity killed the cat.

That’s what Grandma said when you were a nosy little kid but hey, you needed to learn about your world. Asking questions, that’s what kids do – and so do savvy grown-ups. Curiosity may have plagued Grandma’s cat but as you’ll see in “Seek” by Scott Shigeoka, a lack of it could do you harm.

His friends worried about him.

When Scott Shigeoka quit his job to travel around America for a year, they figured he’d be the target of all kinds of bad things. As a queer Asian-American man, Shigeoka wasn’t searching for himself, and he surely wasn’t looking for trouble. No, he was looking for strangers, to see what we have in common with one another.

“I wanted to feel less scared and angry all the time,” he says.

Shigeoka’s interpretation of studies is that our general lack of curiosity about one another “is literally killing us.” With that in mind, he left his home and his job and headed out to small towns in the South, a reservation in Minnesota, a Trump rally, and a retreat center with nuns and millennials. He squashed his inner negativity, bravely swallowed his reluctance, approached people, and cultivated his curiosity by speaking with religious leaders, zealots, and everyday folks. In doing so, he learned to D.I.V.E. into his outward curiosity.

Detach, he says, and let go of “the ABCs”: assumptions, biases, and certainty. Even if you think you’re against racism, homophobia, or any other intolerance, you “still have unconscious biases that need to be… interrupted and challenged.” Learn to act with Intent. Know what questions to ask so that you can best learn about others and their thoughts. Show someone their Value by remembering that their political leaning, for instance, “is only one piece of a person’s life and personality.” And finally, learn to Embrace what’s in front of you. This will “open the doors” to “more fulfillment and happiness to your life.”

Does it sometimes seem as though today’s world is filled with awkward moments? Like you want to communicate with people you meet, but the rules have changed? Or maybe you have and if that’s the case, then author Scott Shigeoka has a fix. In “Seek,” he shows how one tiny action can open great big doors.

It seems kind of fun, actually: you meet someone new, show a gentle bit of interest and pay attention, ask a few open-ended questions, and voila! New friend or client. New, healthy lines of communication. New or enhanced working relationship. Big yay.

And yet – while this book is very useful, easy to grasp, and enthusiastic, Shigeoka has very few cautionary words to offer readers who may be too eager. Some of the ideas here, in the wrong hands, may be perceived as obnoxious or threatening. Understanding when to back off might have been good advice here, too.

Keep that in mind, know your target, open your heart, and have fun. If your curiosity needs fluffing up, “Seek” may be the purrfect book for you.

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‘Gender Pioneers’ reminds readers that trans people are not new

‘A Celebration of Transgender, Non-Binary and Intersex Icons’

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(Book cover courtesy of Jessica Kingsley Publishers)

‘Gender Pioneers: A Celebration of Transgender, Non-Binary and Intersex Icons’
By Philippa Punchard
c.2022, Jessica Kingsley Publishers 
$22.95/118 pages

Take a left at the first road, then right and right again.

It’s always a good idea to know where you’re going – but then again, getting lost can have its benefits, too. Veering off an easy path gives you a chance to see things, maybe even something better. You can get all kinds of directions for life but sometimes, as in “Gender Pioneers” by Philippa Punchard, you just gotta step off the road.

In 1912, French audiences were thrilled by the talent of a trapeze artist known as Barbette. The lovely Barbette flew over the heads of Parisians solo, gracefully, and the best citizens followed those performances avidly. By 1919, Babette added to the end of the performance the revelation that “she” was really Vander Clyde Broadway, a male performer.

We might think that being transgender is “new” and just “a Western thing,” but Punchard has reason to disagree: history is dotted with men passing as women, and women living as men. As Christine Burns says in the foreword, “Trans people are not a new thing.”

Some seemed to do it as a means to an end: Ellen and William Craft wore clothing of the opposite sex in order to escape slavery in 1848. Betty Cooper may have worn men’s clothing for the same reason in 1771. Neither case, says Punchard, indicates “classical” trans behavior, but we’ll never know for sure.

Biawacheeitchish, who grew up to be powerful, wealthy, with four wives, was kidnapped as a young girl and was encouraged by their Native American adoptive father to engage in male activities, perhaps because he’d lost two sons; in another time and place, Biawacheeitchish would’ve been called a “female husband.” Dora Richter, the first woman to receive vaginoplasty, was killed by “a Nazi mob.” Dr. James Barry, a highly renowned surgeon, used “built-up shoes and… padding to appear more masculine…” James Allen and Billy Tipton were both married to women before death revealed that they were female. And Mary Read was a girl, until their mother lost her only son.

In her foreword, Burns says that there are “two awkward challenges” when we talk about trans people in history: were they intersex, rather than trans; and were they people – mostly women – who presented as the opposite gender to gain the benefits of the opposite gender? The questions demand more study and “Gender Pioneers” offers a launching point.

Open this book anywhere and you’ll see that the theme here is serious, but author Philippa Punchard also lends a bit of breeze. There’s no certain order to what you’ll read, and while the entries reach back to ancient times, they focus more on the past 300 years or so; each of the articles is short and to-the-point, and the soft illustrations invite browsing. For readers who want a quick read, this works.

Be sure to keep going through both appendices of this book, where you’ll find a wealth of further information and dates to remember. Historians and readers of trans history will find “Gender Pioneers” just right.

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‘The Risk It Takes to Bloom’ offers plainspoken inspiration

An accessible trans coming-out story

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(Book cover image courtesy of St. Martin's Press)

‘The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation’
By Raquel Willis
c.2023, St. Martin’s Press
$29/384 pages

The catalogs should start arriving soon.

If you’re a gardener, that’s a siren song for you. What will you put in your pots and plots this spring? What colors will you have, what crops will you harvest? It never gets old: put a seed no bigger than a breadcrumb into some dirt and it becomes dinner in just weeks. All it needs, as in the new memoir “The Risk It Takes to Bloom” by Raquel Willis, is a little time to grow.

The last time Raquel Willis remembers being completely safe and loved without strings attached was at age five, at a talent show. Shortly afterwards, some elders began telling Willis to speak with “a particular brand of clear,” to move differently, to act differently. Willis was a Black boy then, and that was how her father worked against his son’s “softness.”

Willis didn’t know the truth about herself then, but other boys did. So, eventually, did the girls, as a grade school Willis “gravitated… toward” them. Young Willis prayed for God to “just make me a girl” but the bullying that had already begun only got worse.

She changed schools and things were no better; meanwhile, her father tried “even harder to correct who I was becoming.” Friends and online friends were encouraging and supportive, offering her courage to come out to her mother, who thought it was “a phase.” Her father was angry, then accepting. Other family members took Willis’s news in stride.

It was going to be OK. More than OK, in fact, because Willis was introduced to drag, and she started to feel more comfortable in women’s clothing than in men’s attire. To Willis, the drag troupe had begun feeling like family. She settled into life as a gay drag performer, because that was the “language” she had.

And then one day, while talking on the phone with an on-again off-again boyfriend, something important hit Willis, hard.

“I think I’m a woman,” she told him. “I’m a woman — I am.”

Sometimes, it takes a while to understand the person you really are. Half a book, in this case, because “The Risk It Takes to Bloom” is quite wordy: author Raquel Willis tells her story in excruciating detail, and it can get rather long.

And yet, the length allows for clues that readers can follow, to truly see the woman, the activist and writer, who penned this book. But is that enough to attract readers? What sets this book apart from other, similar books by star-powered Black trans women?

The answer lies in the approachability of its author.

Willis tells her tale with a more anchoring feel, more down-to-earth, like she could have lived up the street from you or sat in the last row of your high school algebra class. You could’ve known her. You could know someone like her. Or Willis could be you.

Indeed, this book might hold plainspoken inspiration for anyone who needs it. If that’s you, get “The Risk It Takes to Bloom,” find a chair, and plant yourself.

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‘Blood Sisters’ a lesbian thriller not to miss

Mystery ensues when a female skull is found in the crook of a tree

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‘Blood Sisters’
By Vanessa Lillie
c.2023, Berkley 
$27/384 pages

It’s the truth. Scout’s honor.

Pinky swear. Spit on your palms or prick your fingers, and shake hands. As a child, you had many ways to show that you intended to keep a promise when you made it and your word was your bond, but you’ve grown up. Today, you cross your heart but, as in the new novel “Blood Sisters” by Vanessa Lillie, you hope no one has to die.

She wasn’t looking for skeletal remains.

For Bureau of Indian Affairs archaeologist Syd Walker, such a find was very unusual but not unknown. Odd things happen during geological surveys on tribal lands everywhere. Still, the gruesome recovery in Rhode Island wasn’t top on Syd’s mind.

She’d gotten a call that her sister, Emma Lou, was missing in Oklahoma. Again.

Fifteen years before, as Syd, Emma Lou, and Luna, whom they’d considered a sister, were chilling in Luna’s family’s trailer, a group of men broke in. Wearing masks, the “devils” killed Luna and her parents, and the small town of Picher, was never the same.

Neither were Emma Lou or Syd.

As a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Syd was well aware of the problems near her hometown, the issues Native Americans had there with the BIA, and her own ancestors’ efforts to survive on land that was given and then snatched back. She also knew the fact that she had a wife at home in Rhode Island set her apart since she’d left. And drugs – too many people on tribal allotments were getting drugs too easily.

But someone wanted Syd to come home: a female skull was found in the crook of a tree with her old work badge in its mouth. Despite knowing that Syd had fled Oklahoma on purpose, her new boss at the BIA pulled strings to arrange the trip and assigned her the case.

Years ago, Syd had promised to protect Luna and Emma Lou. One of them was already dead. The other was missing. Was the skull a threat – or a warning?

Here is the best advice you’re going to get when you grab “Blood Sisters”: pay close attention to the minutiae. Without being a spoiler, little things mean a lot.

Unless you watch carefully, you’ll be cruising along at 200 miles an hour in a screaming run through pages and pages of barely bearable excitement when suddenly, your brain will make that scratchy sound like a stopped record. It’s there where author Vanessa Lillie drops three tons of TNT, right toward the almost-end of her story and whoa, Nelly. If you’re not paying attention, you may have to read the chapter multiple times to cut your “What the….?” down to a manageable level.

Yeah, this is that kind of book, the kind that’s written with authenticity, an insider’s feel, and heightened tension that’ll keep you awake. The kind that you think you know how it’ll end and you’re wrong. For mystery lovers or thriller fans, “Blood Sisters” is the kind of book you should scout out.

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‘Fabulist’ chronicles the many lies of George Santos

New book a reminder to always follow the money

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(Book cover image courtesy of Atria/One Signal)

‘The Fabulist: The Lying, Hustling, Grifting, Stealing, and Very American Legend of George Santos’
By Mark Chiusano
c. 2023, Atria/One Signal
$28.99/320 pages

Feel that little tug?

It’s probably nothing to worry about, it’s not important. It’s just that someone’s trying to pull your leg, to make you believe something that’s not true or doesn’t exist. Just a little tug, right above your ankle, no problem. You might not even notice it unless, as in “The Fabulist” by Mark Chiusano, the wool’s pulled over your eyes, too.

A little more than four years ago, Mark Chiusano first spoke with former Rep. George Santos over the phone for a newspaper story, and red flags popped up immediately. Says journalist Chiusano, Santos kept offering conflicting stories about this or that in their initial interview and other, later, conversations featured uncomfortable inconsistencies. Soon, any contact with Santos began to have “an uneasiness to it.”

There was a reason: spinning stories, as it turned out, was something Santos had been practicing since he was young, and he was really good at doing it.

Santos was so good at tale-spinning that, while reporting on Santos, Chiusano watched as highly experienced detectives and other professionals accepted Santos’s lies as truth, though many of his stories were verifiably false. He was so well-practiced at lying, Chiusano says, that eventually, Santos’s habit of telling rich childhood whoppers grew into a talent for creating giant cons, including the biggest one of all: running for public office, and all that it entailed.

In politics, Chiusano notes, Santos was “suddenly surrounded by rich people” and they weren’t just random gullibles to cold call.

“Now,” says Chiusano,” they were at his fundraisers, or on his call lists.”

It’s been said that to know the story, follow the money but that’s not easy when you’re trying to understand George Santos. But let’s be clear, though: it’s not author Mark Chiusano’s fault here. The trail of allegations, cons, drag shows, pants-on-fire, money-grabbing, and tall tales is a long and convoluted one (or more), and it nearly requires a mathematical diagram to untangle. The difficulty lies in the lies that, as recounted in “The Fabulist,” are unrelenting, astounding, and (let’s be honest), ridiculous in flashing neon, which makes them almost ruefully funny in their brazenness.

Shake your head. Go on.

At just about every page, you’ll ask yourself how this ever happened at a time when claims can so very easily be fact-checked. Absolutely, this will lead to a thick air of disbelief in the sheer amount of cons that “George and Anthony and Devolder and Santos” is said to have pulled off – and one way or another you’re likely going to have emotions about that.

On that subject, Chiusano cautions readers not to be armchair psychologists. Indeed, while you’ll note a bit of extrapolating in what you’ll read here, Chiusano seems mostly facts-only neutral, outside of his author’s note and introduction.

Readers may marvel at that, and the Herculean effort that might have taken.

Followers of politics and readers who’ve been watching the saga of George Santos will devour “The Fabulist.” If you love a good, romping head-shaker, pull this one off the shelves.

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