Book Reviews Summer 2014

After a winter that seemed to last about nine months, summer is almost upon us. It’s time to get out of hibernation and get to the beach, the park or any sunshine-soaking spot, and what better way to while away the hours outdoors than immersing yourself in the latest LGBT lit? Take a look at some of the titles the PGN staff recommends (or doesn’t) this summer.

Dorothy Must Die By Danielle Paige Fiction

Yes. That Dorothy.

This is the story of a cleverly named girl who lives in a trailer park in Kansas and a tornado hits, yadda yadda, and she wakes up in Oz. Amy Gumm is the latest Kansian heroine who lands in Oz, but this is a much different Oz than it was when Dorothy arrived the first time.

Yes, that’s correct. Dorothy came back. There is an online prequel, “No Place Like OZ,” that you can ante-up a few bucks for if you want to know the back-story, but it isn’t necessary because the author deftly allows you to learn the short version and buy into it. I will admit that I am still contemplating reading it anyway, as the character development and storyline in this book are quite entertaining and well done.

Of course, there is a new collection of companions, but the Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow play significant roles here also, as well as the Wizard, Glinda and Ozma. Some are Dorothy followers by choice, others by decree and fear.

The Order is trying to kill Dorothy so that the magic of Oz that she has absorbed will return to the land and people.

For the most part, there is no way of telling who has allegiance to whom, if anyone at all.

Spoiler alert! The book is going to have at least one sequel, because there is no resolution at the end. Two would be the usual, but I suspect three sequels might emerge. And by then, who knows? Maybe Amy will find a way to restore the magic, return home and keep Dorothy alive.

“Dorothy Must Die” is definitely good enough to read the sequel, in my opinion.

— Scott Drake

Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair and Post-Punk from the Middle East to the Lower East Side By Rayya Elias Memoir

This is the type of memoir that keeps your blood pressure up.

In “Harley Loco,” Elias takes readers through the journey of her hard life, involving much heroin and many requited and unrequited lady lovers.

Elias immigrated to the United States from Syria with her family in 1967. Growing up in two cultures, Elias had to balance pleasing her traditional Syrian parents and her bullying American classmates.

She slowly found her way into the music and hair-styling world — changing bands and hair salons after every page turned.

Elias’ book is refreshing, especially living in a city that is so immersed in the drug culture. Elias’ insight into heroin addiction is painstakingly troubling, as she takes readers down the streets with her to “cop some dope” or through her emotions as her first same-sex relationship goes down the tubes.

Elias writes such an enthralling memoir that readers will cheer for her as she closes in on sobriety but will throw the book across the room the minute she relapses. She does an impressive job of taking her readers through the stages, the process and the acceptance of drug dealers, their family and their friends. You almost feel as though you are going through the motions with her. Readers will be frightened for her during her many stays in prison and will fall hard along with her during her breakups.

“Harley Loco” shows that all types of people fall to drug addiction, and perfectly illustrates the stages and waves it takes to come out of that addiction to become a new person.

— Angela Thomas

Hibernation Edited by Ron J. Suresha Bear poetry

When brought to my attention, I laughed outwardly. I cringed inwardly.

Bear-themed poetry. I hadn’t imagined a creature such as this

existed. And right on the shadow of the first thought was the second:

OMG, this is going to be awful.

There is a fascinating sense of self-awareness to enjoy something one didn’t expect to — learning something new, suddenly being surprised.

Free verse, some rhyme times, explore the vast array of life experiences that are centered on the bear community.

Self-awareness.

Sensuality and emotions.

Love, loss, looking, longing, lust.

Humor and pathos sometimes poignantly juxtaposed to poke at the intellect, prod the soul. Words showing that bears and poetry can mix.

Newly self-aware.

— S.A.D.

How to Succeed in Business without Really Crying By Carol Leifer Memoir

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying” is a book that people in all professions should read.

Written by comedian Leifer, who has appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” “Seinfeld,” “The Ellen Show” and “Modern Family,” the memoir details her own professional experiences.

Leifer’s book is full of lessons focused on breaking into, and staying relevant in, a challenging career field. Readers are taken on the journey through Leifer’s hardest defeats and her biggest accomplishments as a woman in a male-dominated field.

She tells her journey through humor, which softens a lot of the book, making it even more enjoyable to read.

“How to Succeed” is an engaging and comedic look at one woman’s greatest life lessons, and provides practical advice for people on all career paths about how to overcome those embarrassing moments, and take pleasure in the joyful moments.

— A.T.

I’ll Be Here All Week By Ward Anderson Fiction

This novel by comedian, author and radio personality Anderson pulls back the curtain on the world of standup comedy, which most of the time is not as fun and glamorous and many have been led to believe.

The story follows Spence, a working-class comedian navigating the ups and downs of life on the road, from the fading glory of past triumphs, decreasingly satisfying hook-ups, the diminishing financial returns, the dwindling prospects and the indifference of audiences, fellow comedians and managers. All the while he’s trying to find happiness and eventually love while living a lifestyle and dealing with realities and people that are seemingly hell-bent on hamstringing those goals and driving him insane with frustration.

The story has the typical hetero-male perspective but the novel got the attention of Philly Pride performance alum Aisha Tyler, who praised the book. “I’ll Be Here All Week” is to standup comedy what “Glengarry Glen Ross” is to salespeople. If you’ve ever been curious about what the real life of most comedians is like while they try to break big, this is definitely a worthwhile and illuminating read.

— Larry Nichols

I Loved You More By Tom Spanbauer Fiction

It has been seven years since Spanbauer’s last novel, but his exceptional “I Loved You More” has been worth the wait.

The story begins as a bromance between two writers — the gay Ben Grunewald and the straight Hank Christian. Their intense bond is cemented over two decades: at the Spike leather bar in New York City, encountering cops while visiting a friend’s house in Paoli or on a book tour in Idaho, where they have a magical experience in a sweat lodge. The chapters each function individually as magnificent short stories, but they are even more powerful as a novel. Spanbauer effectively repeats themes and phrases — Ben’s concerns with propinquity or the flickering filament of the “lightbulb in his chest” — to emphasize the characters and the drama. Two-thirds of the way into “I Loved You More,” Ben has AIDS and is living in Portland. He befriends Ruth, a writing student who becomes his caretaker. When their relationship evolves and devolves, Ruth becomes enamored with Hank, prompting Ben’s jealousy.

The title, “I Loved You More,” refers to how the person with the least amount of love in the relationship controls it. Spanbauer masterfully controls his characters’ romance, right up to its sucker-punch ending.

— Gary Kramer

In a New Century By John D’Emilio Nonfiction

The essays in this book are recent reflections on the meaning and trajectory of LGBT history from a historian who helped to invent the field.

D’Emilio’s scope encompasses local incidents and national events. His discussion of Chicago’s first public same-sex dance in 1969 is as engaging as his analysis of the 1979 March on Washington.

An activist and a scholar, D’Emilio knows firsthand the effort and ingenuity required to stage these actions. That dual perspective also lends his prose an accessible quality. Rather than write for academics, his ideal audience is the general public.

Change is a consistent theme. D’Emilio acknowledges the genuine progress made since Stonewall, but he cautions that single-issue identity politics may be outmoded. Evangelical Christians are an identity-based movement too, he notes drily.

D’Emilio is acutely aware that various forms of oppression are interconnected. Consequently, he criticizes the campaign for gay marriage, because it has monopolized the attention of LGBT activists. Surely, he argues, the effects of HIV/AIDS among people of color and protecting LGBT youth from violence demand attention.

D’Emilio returns frequently to Bayard Rustin, a civil-rights activist, pacifist and a homosexual. In his view, Rustin’s example offers hope and a model to follow.

— Ray Simon

Maggie & Me: Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland By Damian Barr Memoir

As a teen, Scottish journalist Barr describes himself as “6-foot tall, scarecrow skinny and speccy with join-the-dots spots [pimples], bottle-opener buck teeth and a thing for waistcoasts.” He then adds that he is receiving government assistance, and is gay.

This engrossing memoir belongs to the genre of “British Miserablism,” here renamed “Glasgow Gothic.” As a young, bookish gay boy, Barr dreams of finding “Mr. Hart” (as in the TV show “Hart to Hart”) and escaping from a childhood of poverty, divorced parents — Mum’s sick, Dad’s facing unemployment — as well as abuse in the form of his mother’s nasty boyfriends.

Using quotes about self-reliance from Thatcher (the Maggie of the title), Barr finds resilience and acceptance by doing well in school and befriending both another gay teen and a girlfriend.

“Maggie & Me” may be a highly personal tale, but the emotions are relatable and universal. This book is full of vivid episodes, such as a comic AIDS scare when Barr was 11 and a life-changing encounter with a man he meets through a gay personal ad. Barr captures the wonderful and horrible events in his life with candor and humor, which is why “Maggie & Me” is ultimately life-affirming.

— G.K.

Message of Love By Jim Provenzano Fiction

The sequel to the Lambda Literary Award-winning “Every Time I Think of You” reintroduces readers to Everett and Reid as they traverse the next phases of their relationship.

It is 1980 Philadelphia, and the couple has settled into their first year at Temple University, together exploring the city and campus and adjusting to dormitory domesticity. Everett’s wheelchair, the result of a traumatic injury that left him partially paralyzed, is a ubiquitous presence in their physical and emotional relationship, as they learn how to be intimate despite physical limitations and how to balance independence with assistance. In addition to grappling with late-teen relationship ups and downs, they also deal with family dynamics, especially Everett’s pedigreed mother who has ambitious aspirations for her son apart from Reid. And looming like a specter is a defining aspect of 1980s gay community, the HIV/AIDS crisis, subtly foreshadowed from the beginning until it becomes a focal point of the story later on.

Locals will love the Philly references, from Everett and Reid’s visit to Forbidden Drive to taking in “Rocky Horror” shows at TLA, and how the city shapes their relationship. “Message of Love” is a brilliant retelling of young love and the transformations it undergoes as lovers grow from adolescence to adulthood.

— Jen Colletta

Mistress Ginger Cooks! By Mistress Ginger Cookbook

Mistress Ginger has put her spicy ways to good use with this collection of “everyday vegan food for everyone.” Not being vegan but knowing many, I thought this would be a good opportunity to learn something about vegan dishes without being either bored or intimidated. I was right.

The light-hearted presentation of recipes, from baked goods to salads to meals, makes it easy to stay humorously interested while allowing even the most fearful of veganphobes to learn something about tasty vegan food combinations. In fact, it is pretty easy to imagine how many of the recipes taste without even making them. The accompanying images of food are scant, but camera-whore Miss Ginger is found in dozens of in-the-kitchen pictures.

A vegan friend and I decided that the “Sloppy Gingers” sounded the most interesting. We’d be able to tell you how it actually does taste once I learn more about where to find many of the ingredients. I can find ginger and flax seed easily enough, but still on the lookout for tempeh and toasted sesame oil. We’ll let you know in a week.

“French Kissed Toast” looks yummy via the photo and the description of “Down-and-Dirty Jambalaya” reads deliciously. Other recipes like the “Spicy Guacamole” and most of the salad dressings and smoothies aren’t anything unique, but still nice to have at the fingertips. There are also a few wordy passages at the beginning of the book on vegan foods, ingredients and the like that may or may not be helpful.

“Mistress Ginger Cooks!” is going to be on my shelf in an easy-to-reach spot while I try some of these in the coming weeks. It never hurts to have healthy options at your fingertips in shedding-clothes season.

— S.A.D.

The One-Way Rain By Cathy Jacobowitz Science fiction

The science-fiction novel is set in the dystopian future of 2023, when society is separated along the lines of race and class. People of color live walled off from whites and work in sweatshops barely scraping out a living while they create consumer products. Whites live out their materialistic lives in cities where brands are worshipped and even their food has ads printed on them.

Readers are introduced to Sterling Teacher, a white bureaucrat who hates the ad-driven society she lives in and secretly infiltrates and sabotages the companies that flood the modern world with products and ads. Her path crosses with Lore Henry, a black revolutionary from the other side of the wall. It isn’t love at first sight but the two end up in a complex sexual relationship, further complicated by the conflicting methods in which they choose to engage a world that they both believe is wrong.

“The One-Way Rain” is a quick read and storytelling is lean and efficient, which fits the no-nonsense worldview of the main characters. There’s a feel to the story reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut in its style and pacing. Maybe the world Jacobowitz created could use a little more fleshing-out and more backstory, but otherwise this novel in a fascinating and fast-paced read.

— L.N.

On Loving Women By Diane Obomsawin Graphic novel

Obomsawin presents a diverse collection of quirky, humorous coming-out stories in “On Loving Women.”

The graphic novel features an assortment of comics based on women describing the first time they realized they were attracted to the same sex.

“On Loving Women” draws from a variety of perspectives and experiences of Obomsawin’s friends, illustrating both the similarities and differences that exist among LGBT foks.

It is relatable to all lady-loving ladies who remember their coming-out process — the awkward crushes, the interesting first dates and the heartbreaking experience of rejection.

Obomsawin takes all the stories and creates strange, whimsical imagery — readers may not be sure what the characters are (bunny rabbit? dog?) — But the way she writes is very straightforward, which readers will appreciate.

“On Loving Women” is sure to take readers back to the day when they were first discovering their sexuality, but it will also help individuals who are just starting to emerge into their identity.

— A.T.

QU33R Edited by Ron Kirby Graphic novel

This anthology featuring new comics from 33 different creators covers a diverse amount of territory, making for a rich and interesting read throughout. The art, ranging from high-concept to fittingly childish and lowbrow, alone is worth taking a look, but the stories brought to life run the emotional gamut. Some of the stories are meditative and somber coming-of-age tales like Eric Orner’s “Porno” and “Justin Hall’s “Seductive Summer.” Other tales like “So Young, So Talented, So What?” by Jennifer Camper and Michael Fahy are downright depressing.

The comics that are grounded in more mundane stories resonate well, like Steve Macisaac’s bullying revenge fantasy “Vacant Lots” or Amanda Verway’s funny and awkward attempt to woo Paula Poundstone in “Burger Meister.”

But this collection is at its best when it pushes the boundaries of visual style and off-the-wall storytelling, like in Tyler Cohen’s abstract and trippy fever dream that is “Flux” and Ed Luce’s heavy metal-infused tale, “Kindness of Strangers.”

Some of the stories tread territory that might be a bit too racy and/or dark for younger teen readers but, overall, “QU33R” is full of compelling and visually stunning art and stories for all walks of life.

— L.N.

Queering Anarchism Edited by C. B. Daring, J. Rogue, Deric Shannon and Abbey Volcano Nonfiction

This provocative collection gathers essays by more than 20 authors who combine queer theory with anarchist practice. Although the authors disagree about particulars, they all believe that liberation from oppression is imperative, whether it is found in the bedroom, the boardroom or beyond. Influenced by Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin, they espouse an anarchism that emphasizes autonomy, mutual aid and solidarity.

Their principal target is the artificial binaries instituted by capitalism, racism and patriarchy, which include male/female, gay/straight and black/white. To dismantle these stultifying categories, they enlist queer theory, which opposes traditional conceptions of normalcy and recognizes gender as a social construct. They view queerness as a “position,” describing some gays and lesbians as well as others whose sexuality marginalizes them, everyone from transgender people and devotees of BDSM to straights who “disidentify” with heteronormativity.

The contributors generally look askance at the mainstream LGBT movement. Same-sex marriage and gays in the military, they argue, are misguided goals that only reinforce existing forms of privilege rather than eradicating them.

Fellow anarchists are subjected to equally trenchant criticism. Two egregious examples are the pressure to be polyamorous and the refusal of some within this milieu to accept other individuals’ chosen gender identities.

— R.S.

The Reappearing Act: Coming Out as Gay on a College Basketball Team Led by Born-Again Christians By Kate Fagan Memoir

College is, for many, a time to evaluate ideas and ideals, with the goal of emerging on graduation day ready to enter the world more in touch with one’s true self. But for Fagan, the closer she came to self-discovery, the further away she had to pull herself from the life she knew.

In “The Reappearing Act,” Fagan explores the four formative years she spent at University of Colorado. While she was a standout on the basketball court, internally Fagan was weighed down, trying to come to terms with her blossoming sexuality and reconcile it with the faith community in which she was immersed.

The memoir takes readers through each step of Fagan’s coming-out process, but goes far beyond the buildup to or fallout from confessing that one is gay to friends and family. Fagan delves deeply into the psyche of her college self to tell a story that deftly fuses her emotions and perspectives of the time with her more self-actualized understanding, illustrating the chasm she needed to cross to truly accept herself.

“The Reappearing Act” doesn’t tell the coming-out story as a finite tale with a definitive beginning, middle and end. While by book’s end Fagan had accepted she was gay and had begun acknowledging such to friends and family, and later coworkers and employers at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the story illustrates that coming out is a continuous journey, with peaks and valleys.

For that, the memoir is an excellent companion piece for any LGBT person. But, the story can also be a valuable tool for those struggling to reconcile their own world views with a loved one’s LGBT identity. The book puts a face to the “sinner” in the “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality, respecting one’s capacity to employ that approach while exploring the real-life impact it can have.

— J.C.

A Thing of Beauty By Jake Jaxson and RJ Sebastian Erotic photography

Big, bold and — truth in titling — very beautiful, “A Thing of Beauty” is a gorgeous coffee-table book of erotic photography featuring the CockyBoys. The crisp, bright, artfully composed images are sensual, seductive and playful. Sebastian masterfully captures episodes of intimacy that tease or excite — especially in the way some of the models look at the camera, almost daring the viewer to look back at them.

The guys, seen in various states of undress, are a mix of younger and older, tattooed and hairy; they are alone, in couples or in a group. Their un-self-conscious poses are appealing. The impression readers get is that of a celebration of gay-male sexuality, not something prurient, though there certainly are some explicit pictures. As for the text, Jaxson outlines his “rules” for being a CockyBoy and includes an essay on the company, as well as behind-the-scenes reports on several CockyBoy productions.

But the main interest will be the photographs and stills from the CockyBoys’ webseries, “A Thing of Beauty.” This lavish volume should appeal to discerning connoisseurs of erotic photography. It deserves to be on display on the coffee tables or in the bedrooms of Rehoboth and Fire Island beach houses.

— G.K.

This Day in June By Gayle E. Pitman Illustrated by Kristyna Litten Children’s

From the American Psychological Association’s children’s publishing company comes a beautifully illustrated, and beautifully explained, look at Pride through the eyes of a child.

“This Day in June” contains a brief rhyme on each two-page spread about the sights and sounds of a Pride parade. From “Motors roaring, spirits soaring” to “Dancers jumping, music pumping” and “Fancy dresses, flowing tresses,” the words on each page are brought to life in vivid illustrations.

The tale carries readers through the Pride experience for a child, focusing on the jubilance, excitement and wonderment the parade can bring, while subtly showcasing the diversity of the LGBT community to youngsters. Each page is filled with people of all genders, sexual orientations, races, ages and with various connections to the community (parents of LGBT people, gay couples with children, children with gay parents) and interests (folks in leather, marchers wearing HRC shirts, drag queens). The story does an excellent job of turning images that some frame as negative — men dancing together, interracial couples, nonconforming gender presentations — into aspects that should be celebrated.

And for parents, the book includes a guide to help them explain aspects of LGBT culture that are referenced through the pictures, such as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence HIV/AIDS activism. It also contains a guide for how to talk to young people about LGBT issues at different ages.

The book ends with the words, “This day in June, we’re all united!” an inspiring message that should be just as uplifting for adults as it is affirming for youth.

— J.C.

X-Rated Dolls By Larry Singer Photography

When approached to review a book of photography called “X-Rated Dolls,” I was certain I was in for a treat. Cool, two of my favorite pasttimes in one book. (That’s photography and sex, by the way, not photography and dolls.)

Man, was I wrong.

I looked at these pages over and over but my conclusion kept coming up the same: Great idea, weak execution. There are a few interesting ideas, to be sure, but far too many uninteresting ones. There are also so many that are similar that they could be edited out. Additionally, the printing seems to be a lesser grade than one would desire from a book of photographs.

If you run across a copy somewhere, flip through it. You will be amused a few times.

But you probably won’t be amused enough to want it on your bookshelf.

— S.A.D.