Last June 16, when a reader asked the Washington Post for recommendations of “new gay books,” critic Dennis Drabelle responded in writing, “Not many of these are being published anymore, mostly, I think, because the great gay storyline — coming out — isn't such a big deal anymore and has been done to death.” Drabelle’s only suggestion was a British boarding school novel from 1967 long out of print.
Redressing that failure, Band of Thebes asked a few dozen authors ranging from eminently established prizewinners to emerging kickass wunderkinds to name the best lgbt books of 2009. In turn, their list of favorite reads will become readers' favorite resource for its staggering scope and illumination of the year's finest lgbt novels, story collections, essays, memoirs, nonfiction, graphic books, YA, and poetry. The eight most popular honorees depict queer lives in Egypt, Idaho, a Southern military town, Moscow, and Manhattan, and the other books are equally diverse. Collectively, the authors' backgrounds more or less encircle the globe.
Terrific as these titles are, many will be unknown to you. The problems facing all good readers looking for their next great book — shrinking review space, vanishing book sections, disappearing independent bookstores, smaller orders from chain stores, fewer literary titles from mainstream publishers, and limited publicity budgets at small presses — are tripled for anyone seeking lgbt storylines. Traditional media outlets ignore far too many of these books, and publishers often omit gay content from jacket copy for fear of alienating the larger straight audience. The most cited novel on this list was written by an openly gay man, with an openly gay editor, with an openly gay publisher, yet the flap copy only describes the gay character as a "misfit." Before word of mouth convinced me to read that wonderful book I had browsed it in a store and put it back on the shelf, turned off by its talk of Old Testament literalists, congregations, and missionaries.
So I'm especially grateful for everyone's participation in reclaiming treasures from the pervasive marketing closet and promoting the year's best lgbt books. Study the list and let yourself try something that you might otherwise have skipped. Their selections could occupy you for a year, just in time for 2010's annual survey.
Noel Alumit (Talking to the Moon): 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read, edited by Richard Canning. I recently contributed to this anthology exploring gay and lesbian books. Other writers involved include Edmund White, Felice Picano, Andrew Holleran and Stella Duffy. There were some obvious choices – Giovanni's Room, Death in Venice – but there were many I'd never heard of. This book will certainly spur me onto reading more!Kwame Anthony Appiah (Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers) Edmund White’s City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and '70s. (Full disclosure: he's a friend and colleague of mine.) Ed White has been mining his own life in both fiction and non-fiction for many years now, but he continues to amaze.
Neil Bartlett (Skin Lane): Two well-thumbed old favourites have sustained me on the road these past twelve months (opening four theatre shows in four different cities) – two very different kinds of gay writing; Marcel Proust's endlessly elusive, endlessly funny, endlessly marvelous In Search of Lost Time (don't be scared – just tell yourself you're only going to read the first volume, Swann's Way – the first twenty pages are the strangest, most haunting thing you'll ever read...) ; and Ricter Norton's anthology My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries – gay men finding their own words to pour out their hearts to the men in their lives, digging right back through the layers of our history. And it has a photo from my husband James Gardiner's picture-book A Class Apart on the cover... which reminds me of the man in my own life...
Christopher Bram (Mapping the Territory): It usually takes me a year or two to catch up with a book after it's published and I have not read any of the new LGBT books. However, I did reread A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood this year and was blown away by it. It's even stronger than I remember, quiet, real and profound, the best day-in-the-life novel since Ulysses. I heartily recommend that everyone read or reread it before the upcoming movie replaces it with a different set of images and ideas.
Nick Burd (The Vast Fields of Ordinary): My favorite LGBT book that I read in 2009 wasn't released in 2009. It was released in 1946. It's the The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. It was fascinating to see how far gay literature has come. Isherwood's tale is heavily coded and I'm sure there are readers who never caught the many gay references contained in the book. Isherwood does a fantastic job of making the reader feel the freedom and the terror his that characters experience in Berlin during the early days of Hitler's rise to power along with the bliss and confusion of love and friendship in its many forms.
Peter Cameron (Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You): Reading Vestal McIntyre's deliriously ambrosial novel, Lake Overturn, is like entering reader's heaven. It should come as no surprise to fans of McIntyre's brilliant stories that his first novel, with its Dickensian wealth of character and event, is so wonderfully good, but this book is constantly surprising. In fact I was shocked – shocked! – to discover an American novel about life in the late twentieth century that is this ambitious, this accomplished, this compassionate, this funny, and this wise. Lake Overturn is imbued with love, love of all sorts, and I loved it.
Alexander Chee (Edinburgh): Two books stood out to me as my favorites in a field of groundbreaking, original works of LGBT fiction: Thomas Glave's The Torturer's Wife, and Alistair McCartney's The End of the World Book. The Torturer's Wife is a follow-up from one of our community's very best short story writers, and The End of the World Book is a triumphant debut from an important new writer. If you're tired of shop and fuck novels about pretty boys who fall for the wrong guy all the time, these might be for you.
Staceyann Chin (The Other Side of Paradise): Lisa C. Moore (editor), Does Your Mama Know?: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Coming Out Stories. This book gave me a window into my own normalcy. It was the first time I had ever read a book in which there were Black characters dealing with being gay within the context of family. I recognized the people in the stories. I saw myself in them and saw that I was not disgusting or ugly or strange.
Jameson Currier (The Haunted Heart and Other Tales): The best gay-themed novel I read in 2009 was John Weir’s What I Did Wrong from 2006. I thought Weir’s novel captured David Feinberg, a friend of mine, with uncanny precision in the character of Zack, but it also vividly captured the narrator Tom’s grief and imbalance following Zack’s death. Tom’s “lost boy adrift” sort of life mirrors the lasting affect that AIDS has had on friends and survivors – in a way that doesn’t go away with aging and the passing of years. This is also a deeply felt book about having a New York relationship and the experiences of a certain generation living in the city. A profoundly good and satisfying read, the novel contains many passages where Weir’s prose is stellar and lush, particularly in its last, glorious paragraphs.
I fell in love with Joel Derfner’s Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead immediately and I couldn’t put it down. Derfner writes narrative essays about himself, and about learning knitting, making friendships, dating, dating, and dating, being a cheerleader, and his love of musical theater. He has the kind of engaging, talky, campy personality that you hope your best friend has. What sets this memoir apart from a lot of similar comic, gay essay books is Derfner’s intelligence and seriousness coupled with a delightful sense of irony and bewilderment of who he is and what he wants.
I was particularly enthralled by Ken Summers’ Queer Hauntings: True Tales of Gay & Lesbian Ghosts which came out in October. This is a non-fiction reference work of gay and lesbian ghosts and locations haunted by queer spirits. And I recommend the lgbt local history books published by Arcadia: Gay and Lesbian San Francisco by William Lipsky, Gay and Lesbian Atlanta by Wesley Chenault and Stacy Brankham.
Daniel Curzon (Dropping Names: The Delicious Memoirs of Daniel Curzon): My nomination of a LGBT title for 2009 is actually from 2000, but I just read it. It is Sellevision by Augusten Burroughs. It's a funny satire of the home shopping TV world, and is firmly on the side of Max Andrews, the gay host who accidentally exposes himself to the TV audience and has to make a career change. Very droll.
Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla (The Two Krishnas): My favorite read this year was André Aciman's Call Me by Your Name from 2007. Aciman's unflinching, at times unsettling exploration of intimacy, of first love and its joy and pain, make this a novel that will stay with me for a long time.
Tom Dolby (The Sixth Form): My two selections are both historical narratives, though told in different ways. The first is the visual memoir Gore Vidal: Snapshots in History's Glare; the second is David Ebershoff's compelling novel The 19th Wife.
Simon Doonan (Beautiful People: My Family and Other Glamorous Varmints): The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.
Mark Doty (Fire to Fire): My choice would be the two wonderful volumes of translations by Daniel Mendelsohn of the poems of C P Cavafy published this year. They give us, in bright and clear new versions – with wonderful notes a wealth of information – the work of one of the twentieth century's great poets, a bold and brilliant delineator of desire, memory and loss, and a prophet of the future of same-sex love.
Larry Duplechan (Got 'Til It's Gone): Unfortunately, the best lgbt book I read this year won't be published until March 2010. Perfect Peace by Daniel Black is the story of a mid-20th-century Southern rural black boy whose mother raises him as a girl. This novel deals with issues of sexuality, gender and race with such expert story-telling and beautiful prose, that I found myself wondering how I had the nerve to call myself a writer. The best published lgbt book I read this year is Stray Dog Winter by David Francis – not a good gay novel, but a very good novel whose protagonist is gay. If there were a "Worthy of Wider Recognition" category, I'd name my own most recent novel, Got 'Til It's Gone.
David Ebershoff (The 19th Wife): I hate to throw around a word as subjective as “best”, but any year with a new book by Edmund White is a good year for LGBT literature. He remains our master chronicler, the writer citizens of the future will most likely turn to when deciphering the gay sensibility in America in the past 50 years. White’s latest memoir, City Boy, chronicles his unsettled life in his 20s and 30s in Manhattan – the sex, the parties, the poetry – while he struggles to find his artistic self. White is a charmer; his massive talents cast the best possible spell over the reader. It is witty, gossipy, revealing, hilarious, touching, impeccably written, and filled – as all of White’s books are – with the deepest appreciation for our own history.
I first learned of Salvation Army by Abdellah Taïa from, appropriately, Edmund White, who wrote the introduction to the novel’s English-language edition. Taïa is a Moroccan novelist now living in Paris and writing in French. In Salvation Army he offers a fresh kind of gay story – the young man navigating the complex currents of poverty, Islam, colonialism, and individual vs. national identity. The book first drew me in because it was a story I hadn’t read before. But it took possession of my imagination because of its originality and moral power. I recommend it here because not only is it one of the best gay books of 2009, but also because it reveals, in its author, a potent young artist reaching toward literary greatness and mastery.
Evan Fallenberg (Light Fell): I would like to recommend Shawn Ruff's Finlater. It is a special book that deserves a wider audience.
Peter Gadol (Silver Lake): Marshall Jon Fisher’s A Terrible Splendor is both a riveting account of one of the most legendary tennis matches of all time – the 1937 Davis Cup match (played at Wimbledon) between the scrappy American great Don Budge and the elegant German Baron Gottfried von Cramm – and a fascinating history of European gay society between the Wars. Not only was von Cramm queer (and repeatedly in trouble with the Nazis), but so was his coach, the American icon “Big Bill” Tilden. Tilden has been written about a good deal and his later exploits are well known; but von Cramm is a figure whose history we risk losing. We’re therefore fortunate to have Fisher’s chronicle of a man whose real off-court heroism might have been managing to survive while staying true to himself. (Oh, and for tennis fans, it’s also great fun reading about how Suzanne Lenglen used to sip brandy on the change-over’s.)
Mary L. Gray (Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America): Here are a few titles on the top of my favorites list: David Valentine, Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category. Lee Badgett, When Gay People Get Married: What Happens When Societies Legalize Same-Sex Marriage. Nancy Polikoff, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law. Staceyann Chin, The Other Side of Paradise: A Memoir, and E. Lynn Harris, Basketball Jones (gotta love trashy gay novels!).Nicola Griffith (The Blue Place): Ash, by Malindo Lo. I would have killed for this story 35 years ago, just killed: fantasy, woods, fairies, girl-on-girl love. In this version of Cinderella, Ash, short for Aisling (pronounced ASH-ling), falls in love with a boy fairy and then with the king's huntress. Aisling's emotional journey, from loved and privileged girl child to despised young serving woman, is clearly and simply written, though never simplistic. (I particularly enjoyed her multi-layered relationship with her two stepsisters.) Ash's change is one many lesbians go through: head turned by some boy glam and the promise of belonging, followed by the understanding that the promise is not real, it can't be real, it's a fairytale. Malinda Lo makes that metaphor – fairytale love vs. reality – concrete. It's a lovely, gentle, yet unflinching book.
The stories in Day of the Dead by Victoria A. Brownworth (a Pulitzer nominee) are thronged by the lost and lonely – nuns and researchers, ghosts and vampires, students and succubi – abandoned by lovers, by the state, their own faith. People like us, searching for peace and redemption. And through it all steals the mist, the scent of the bayou, and the ringing of bells. These are stories of the lesbians of New Orleans – before, during, and after Katrina – and the fantastical monsters they meet (or are). Despite the otherworldly atmosphere, it's clear that in this fiction everything but the supernatural elements is deeply informed by Brownworth's personal understanding and journalistic knowledge of the real world. I've never been to New Orleans but I know, now, what it's like.
Aaron Hamburger (Faith for Beginners): Lake Overturn by Vestal McIntyre. I'm a sucker for those thick multi-character-based 19th Century novels, like the ones Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy wrote, so it's exciting to see a contemporary writer working in that same vein. McIntyre doesn't just tell a story, he creates a world for readers to explore. In this case, that world is the depressed fictional town of Eula, Idaho, a place I probably wouldn't want to visit in real life and yet is made vivid and fascinating by McIntyre's vivid descriptions. However, the true glory of this book is its cast of characters, including the sweetly earnest Enrique, one of the most sympathetic gay kids I've met in fiction. I was sorry when this one was over.
Trebor Healey (A Perfect Scar And Other Stories): G. Winston James’ Shaming the Devil: Collected Short Stories. I met Glen briefly a few years back and he asked me to blurb the book when it was close to coming out. After reading the stories, I was very impressed and have thought about them a lot ever since. They delve deeply into the inner recesses of the human and the gay heart and they shed light on an aspect of gay life that doesn't get much light, ie the African-American gay experience with no holds barred.
Gary Indiana (The Shanghai Gesture): Essentialist fiction writers disgust me. I like the novel So Many Ways To Sleep Badly by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore.
Wayne Koestenbaum (Jackie Under My Skin): I recommend Ronaldo V. Wilson's new book, Poems of the Black Object. I applaud Ronaldo Wilson's pathbreaking movement into what has never, never, in history, been said. About sexuality, in particular, these poems speak with incorrigible and raving clarity. And, always, they display intellectual curiosity, and an impatient, gorgeous readiness to make language new.
Richard Labonte (Best Gay Romance 2010): The Pure Lover, by David Plante. When a writer as profoundly able as David Plante pens a lament for his lost companion, the result is a fierce encapsulation of grief, the fundamentally private wrought wrenchingly public. Plante and his partner, Nikos Stangos, were together for 40 years before brain cancer invaded; this remembrance – more a compilation of memory fragments than a linear life story – evokes a whole man (in truth, two whole men) out of scraps of memory and flashes of moments. And it’s the intimacies – shared beds, special dinners, the occasional spat, the odd infidelity – that express the sublime measure of both men.
And Body Surfing, by Dale Peck. Two best-friend teen boys are at the heart of this sex-driven gorefest from the author of the queer classic Martin and John, but they aren’t destined to get into each other’s pants. Into each other’s bodies? Sort of. This labyrinthic literary thriller is monstrously original.
Other memoirs I liked: Lev Raphael's My Germany, Terry Galloway's Mean Little deaf Queer, and–though it's not that well written, it is great chatty fun, Alix Dobkin's My Red Blood. Blake Bailey's bio of Cheever, too. As for fiction –- again, lots of favorites, by Stacey D'Erasmo (The Sky Below), Douglas A. Martin (Once You Go Back), Peter Gadol (Silver Lake), Vestal McIntyre (Lake Overturn) and Derek McCormack (The Show That Smells).
Joan Larkin (My Body): I'd like to name both Judy Grahn's new and selected poetry collection love belongs to those who do the feeling and Christopher Bram's essay collection, Mapping the Territory. Both books are new this year but are also retrospective, encompassing the arc of gay history and the evolution of our consciousness over the decades. Both books are by first-rate writers whose words have always inspired and grounded me.
David Leavitt (The Indian Clerk): James Magruder's fine first novel Sugarless.
Ali Liebegott (The IHOP Papers): I think that I would have to say Eileen Myles' The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art would be my pick for 2009. It's a collection of essays and writings that cover a myriad of topics, not just Iceland. She's a genius. Pick this book up, it's on semiotexte.
Paul Lisicky (Famous Builder): No one writes a better love poem than Gabrielle Calvocoressi. ("I love you like Elvis loved pistols, / stroking you in the television light....) But they don't stop there; they take in everything from the boxing ring, to Matthew Shepherd, to the crises of our time. Erotic, witty, dire, optimistic, Apocalyptic Swing moves with the wonder of an artist coming into her power.
Jaime Manrique (Our Lives Are the Rivers): My favorite lgbt book of 2009 is Sarah Schulman's The Mere Future. Here's the blurb I wrote for the novel: "In the latter part of the 20th century, Sarah Schulman was the American novelist who wrote scorching dispatches from the front about the AIDS epidemic. A formidable Swiftian, she continues to lampoon the absurdity of our mores and the world we live in. But Schulman's calm, measured voice in The Mere Future is startlingly new–prophetic, wise and true."
Douglas A. Martin (Once You Go Back): The book I've been most excited by for some time is Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America by Mary L. Gray. A clearly expressed and defined sign that my way of growing up gay might be more a generational, known thing of the past. So that's refreshing. Also now that I'm both out of school -- where once one might have gone as one method of escape -- and the American South, middle-of-nowhere Georgia, I'm trying to a read a book like this every month or so.
Blair Mastbaum (Clay's Way): This is my only 'gay' book I read and it's only rumored she was gay and it's super old but I love it and I think it deserves attention. It has a HORRIBLE cover which might be why it's somewhat ignored. A Lost Lady by Willa Cather. It's mostly about a teenage boy.
Stephen McCauley (Alternatives to Sex): The Hour Between by Sebastian Stuart. It's smart and funny with a cast of memorable characters and references to Deborah Kerr AND Mick Jagger. The dialogue is crisp and often hilarious, it's exactly the right length, and, oh yeah, it's dedicated to me.
David McConnell (The Silver Hearted): Edmund's White's genial City Boy cuts through the earnest pomposity that passes for intellectual life in this fearful and defensive age. I always pay close attention when this most important of writers slyly appears to shrug off his own importance in order to chat with us. I loved it. I'm also keen to read Derek McCormack's The Show That Smells, which came out this year. His The Haunted Hillbilly, a cheery sort of fusion of Firbank and Les Chants de Maldoror is one of my favorite recent fictions.
Vestal McIntyre (Lake Overturn): David McConnell's The Silver Hearted [forthcoming, February 2010] is a small masterpiece of paranoia and desire. It reminds me of Kafka's The Trial in that, months after reading it, scenes from it still come to me at odd moments, like flashes of a bizarre dream.
Manuel Muñoz (The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue): Randall Mann, Breakfast with Thom Gunn. As a fiction writer, I've made no bones about turning to poetry when I need a reminder of how playful and sharp language can get when it's made to adhere to space and subject to precision. It's always the poets who inspire me most. This year, I deeply admired Breakfast with Thom Gunn and Mann's ability to wring such truths from his vision while sustaining a commitment to formalism. It's a coy, terse, sly, but ultimately loving valentine to San Francisco.
Lesléa Newman (Heather Has Two Mommies: 20th Anniversary Edition): My favorite recent book is love belongs to those who do the feeling: selected poems 1966 - 2006 by Judy Grahn. Judy Grahn is a pioneering lesbian poet whose book Edward the Dyke, published in 1971 changed my view of poetry (and life) forever. This book contains so many classic Judy Grahn poems, "The Common Woman Poems," "She Who," "a funeral: plainsong from a younger woman to an older woman" etc. It is remarkable to see the growth and movement of a major poet over four decades. This is a must-have book for anyone seriously interested in lesbian poetry.
Jamie O’Neill (At Swim, Two Boys): I regret to say I haven't read any books this year, save Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (again). There are a few gay bits in that, but they're mostly hidden in the Latin.
Lou Pizzitola (Hearst Over Hollywood): In The Talented Miss Highsmith, author Joan Schenkar sheds light on mystery writer Patricia Highsmith’s pan sexuality and pan-creativity, while at same time exploring as Schenkar writes, “the underworld of homosexuality in mid-twentieth century America: so darkly lit, no one could see anyone else’s face.” This big, challenging and rewarding new book, by Schenkar, a playwright, reminds us of the courage it takes to be a biographer in shrinking times increasingly impatient with enormity.
David Plante (The Pure Lover): My choice is the translations of the poetry of Constantine Cavafy by Daniel Mendelshon, both for their beauty and for my personal reasons: my partner of forty years, Nikos Stangos, introduced to me the poetry of Cavafy when we first met in 1965 with his own sensitive translations, published with etchings inspired by Cavafy by David Hockney. There is meant to be irony in the poetry of Cavafy, the irony of things in fantasy being different from things in reality. The irony of Cavafy’s love poetry is lost on me: he made his lovers, still young, separate or die, as if his fantasy lovers were incapable of sustaining the reality of love, whereas the reality of the love Nikos and I had for each other kept us together for a life-time until he died, and now, in my continuing love for him, beyond his death. My charge against Cavafy is: for all the wonder of the voluptuousness of his love poetry, he expressed nothing about the facts of day to day love. But the charge is minor: the nostalgia for voluptuousness in his poetry still enthralls, and fills me with the longing for the high voluptuous moments in Nikos’ and my lives together.
John Rechy (About My Life and the Kept Woman): The invitation to list one's own work is irresistible, although often resisted out of imposed "modesty." So my unabashed contribution to your listing is my own The Coming of the Night a novel that describes one long day and night in the sexcruising areas of Los Angeles right on the brink of AIDS.
Christopher Rice (Blind Fall): The Lacuna by Barbara Kingslover. Told almost entirely in journal entries and archivist notes, the novel gradually illustrates the perils of closeted sexuality while offering up riveting discussions of Socialism and art. Some gay readers may be disappointed by it's lack of sexual explicitness, but the book is ultimately about the personal toll we must pay when we excise portions of our own personal history. I was incredibly moved by it.
Patrick Ryan (Send Me): Christopher Bram's Mapping the Territory. It's one of the most interesting, varied, and utterly charming essay collections I've ever read and I want it to get into as many hands and heads as possible.
Alex Sanchez (Bait): Naturally I'd like to nominate my own book, Bait. But I'd also like to nominate Nothing Pink by Mark Hardy. This slim novel tells a tender story of first love set in late-1970s Virginia. The book is subtle yet forceful, both moving and heartwarming. I loved it!
Rakesh Satyal (Blue Boy): Lake Overturn by Vestal McIntyre. For full disclosure, I was Vestal's editor on this book, but that is all the more reason why I believe in it, and Vestal, so passionately. This book brims with the scope and lyricism of a British novel of the late nineteenth century, and Vestal, as ever, is perfectly attuned to the finer points of human sexuality, longing, and loneliness. His depiction of Enrique – young, adolescent-adjacent, sensitive, smart – is unique and unforgettably moving. But it is the pantheon of other, often dark characters that fully solidifies this novel's status as a great American story. Every reader, regardless of orientation, must read this book – and will see why it is deserving of the term "instant classic."
Joan Schenkar (The Talented Miss Highsmith): In The Price of Salt (first published in 1952), Patricia Highsmith created a situation evocative of Lolita (except that the affair is between two women and she wrote her book three years before Nabokov published his masterpiece) – and then surrounded her lovers with images redolent of German fairy tales and noir stalking. The novel is dangerous, personal, and unsettling – and Highsmith never wrote anything like it again.
Ariel Schrag (Likewise: The High School Comic Chronicles of Ariel Schrag): I would like to nominate my book Likewise.
Kirkus (starred review): “The artist’s senior year is full of profound changes, and it’s no accident that the strip invokes Ulysses, Infinite Jest and The Brothers Karamazov. This installment has an epic scope and scale as it deals with everything transpiring in Schrag’s life, mind, and art while she prepares for the transition from high school to college. The complications inherent in this rite of passage are compounded by Schrag’s unrequited–or less requited than she would like–love for Sally. Now a college student, Sally seems more hetero than bi, while Schrag alternately questions and embraces her own homosexuality… There’s also a meta-comic dimension here, as the artist confesses to ‘all the lies’ in her previous volumes and confuses dreams and fantasies (many of them masturbatory) with reality. Toward the end, some of her experiences become so fragmentary that chapters are only two panels long. A big leap of artistic ambition and self-discovery; Schrag saved the best for last.”
Sarah Schulman (The Mere Future and Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences): Edward Carpenter by Sheila Rowbotham. Not only a truly personal and understanding biography of the gay rights/feminist/socialist leader, but also really the first truly insightful work on gay liberation by a straight person since Evelyn Hooker.
Bob Smith (Selfish and Perverse): I loved Vestal McIntyre’s beautifully written Lake Overturn, Edmund White’s amusing City Boy, and Christopher Bram’s terrific Mapping the Territory, but my favorite book of the year – LGBT or not – and it is G – is my friend Eddie Sarfaty’s collection of comic essays Mental: Funny in the Head. Why? Well, partly because I nagged him into writing a book and as Eddie would tell you: I’m usually the friend begging you not to write a book. (So I don’t have to read it.) Eddie writes what I feel comic essays should be: he tells stories. He doesn’t just riff on a topic or write standup comedy on the page. Eddie also subscribes to my other belief about comic writing. It should be razor sharp but appear effortless and make you see the world in a new way through the use of comic similes and metaphors. Oh, and Eddie writes great dialogue also. But most importantly, when a sad or poignant moment occurs in a story, as it does in life – which is a comedy with an unhappy ending – great comic essayists like Eddie or David Sedaris or David Rakoff include the painful often heart-breaking moments also. Eddie proves that just because you write a sentence that’s a perfectly crafted line doesn’t mean it’s a one-liner. Many of his made me think, Damn, I wish I thought of that! Here's Eddie in Rome: “The number of baby Jesus paintings is staggering, and I imagine God as the annoying new papa, ready to pull a hundred canvases out of his wallet and bore anyone unwittingly congratulating him on the new arrival.”
K.M. Soehnlein (You Can Say You Knew Me When): I spent a lot of 2009 finishing my next novel, Robin and Ruby (a sequel of sorts to my first, The World of Normal Boys), which comes out in April 2010. When I'm deep in writing-mode, seeking out new books tends to take a back seat, and so I read less of my contemporaries' work than usual. The new novel I enjoyed most this year was Rakesh Satyal's Blue Boy, which is narrated by a funny, convincing, and pop-inflected young Indian-American, but with touches of obsession and subterranean anger that kept the voice from being too glib or superficial. A lot of my reading was organized around a college course I taught called "Gay Love in Literature." To prepare my syllabus, I reread a lot of gay fiction classics – A Single Man, Another Country, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, Dancer from the Dance, The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket – and included novel excerpts and short stories from younger writers like Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Trebor Healey, Vestal MacIntyre, Thomas Glave. 2009 was also the year I finally tackled Proust. Reading Swann's Way while on my honeymoon in Paris last April was probably the most satisfying literary experience, queer or otherwise, I've had in a long time.
Diana Souhami (Wild Girls): I've just read Patricia Highsmith's The Glass Cell. She's very good on the psychology of sadism. She was lesbian though rather tortured about it.
I've also read - or read again – Dag Hammarskjold's Markings with a foreword by W.H.Auden. Auden was sure he was gay though Hammarskjold is never explicit about this. It set me thinking about gay sensibility, the sense of being apart on some level from mainstream preoccupations.
Gertrude and Alice which I wrote twenty years ago has just been republished with a new introduction by me. It's about the long and happy marriage between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Reading it again I was impressed by how freely and openly they got on with their eccentric relationship and their wonderful life together. The world had no option but to accept them as they were.
Sebastian Stuart (The Hour Between): My favorite gay book of the year is Life with Sudden Death: A Tale of Moral Hazard and Medical Misadventure by Michael Downing. The first part of Life with Sudden Death is a memoir of growing up gay – and incredibly bright – as the youngest of nine in an Irish Catholic family in the Berkshires in the 1950s. Downing's father died suddenly and inexplicably when Michael was three; in 2003 one of his brothers died the same way. Downing had genetic testing done and found out he had a mutant protein that could could cause his heart to stop beating at any moment. The second half of the book describes his medical misadventures with an implanted defibrillator. I found the book a great read – sharp, funny, fascinating, harrowing.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (So Many Ways To Sleep Badly): Once You Go Back by Douglas A. Martin. Remember that time in your life when you didn’t know if you would ever learn how to breathe? No, you knew you were breathing, but you wondered if it would ever feel like it was supposed to. Douglas Martin nails the claustrophobia of growing up, somehow succeeding at delivering an adult’s voice with a child’s awareness, a voice at once aloof and familiar. Martin steers clear of the typical nostalgia in order to convey a loneliness so intimate that even a catalog of deteriorating home life becomes something almost like hope. And, the best part is that he doesn’t fuck it up at the end with some kind of tidy closure – yay, thank you!
Peter Tatchell (We Don't Want to March Straight: Masculinity, Queers and the Military): Committed: A Rabble-Rouser's Memoir is the autobiography of the inspirational Dan Matthews, the out gay head of campaigns at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), one of the world’s most high profile and effective pressure groups. It’s a story full of ideas, action and loads of gossip about the many celebrities who support PETA’s work. Off-beat, hilarious, irreverent, and highly ethical, Committed is a damn good read. It shows how direct action can raise consciousness and secure social change – and be lots of fun.
John Morgan Wilson (Spider Season): My favorite LGBT book that I read this year was Stray Dog Winter by David Francis.
Ellen Wittlinger (Love & Lies: Marisol's Story): Dale Peck's YA novel Sprout.