The holiday season is draped with traditions, and an enjoyable one that PGN undertakes each December is scouring bookshelves for the best of the best of new LGBT lit. From fiction to graphic novels to kids’ books, we’ve spent weeks delving into the pages of the hottest LGBT titles. Here, we give our readers a round-up of the best giftable books. Happy reading!
By David Crabb
Coming of age as a budding goth and gay teenager is probably hard enough under the best of circumstances. Having to do it in the late 1980s and early ’90s (pre-Internet, pre-iTunes, pre-mainstreaming of alternative music, pre-Columbine) probably didn’t help. Oh, and living in the conservative, sports-worshiping, Bible-thumping, conformity-loving, ammunition-passing confines of rural small-town Texas probably made this transition especially hellish.
Somehow, Crabb survived to tell his sometimes-harrowing and oftentimes-humorous autobiographical tale of self-discovery and identity. The pop-culture points of the era, the teenage hijinks and the reckless use of mind-altering substances of varying qualities and effectiveness will dredge up nostalgia for people who lived through that era and hopefully paint a compelling picture for the generations who came after it.
“Bad Kid” is an entertaining page-turner that manages to milk some laughs and life lessons out of some uncomfortable circumstances.
— Larry Nichols
“Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family”
By Amy Ellis Nutt
Philadelphia boasts a connection to Nicole Maines, the young girl whose family won an influential lawsuit against a school district in Maine for not allowing her to use the bathroom that aligned with her gender identity.
In July, just before starting college, Nicole traveled to Delaware County Memorial Hospital for her four-hour sex-reassignment surgery. Her twin brother, Jonas, and parents, Kelly and Wayne, came with her. Dr. Kathy Rumer, a nationally recognized transgender surgical specialist, performed the procedure.
Nicole “regretted that people who don’t understand what it means to be transgender focus so much on the surgical part of transitioning,” Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nutt writes in her 279-page book about the Maines family, which came out in October.
“It was for her just a final step, but a necessary one, and the chance, finally, to be conscious of her own body in a good way.”
Nutt, a health and science reporter for The Washington Post, spent hundreds of hours with the Maines family. Kelly and Wayne adopted their twins in 1998 and heard Nicole, named Wyatt at birth, identify as female since she was 2 years old. It was difficult for her to understand her identity conflict at such a young age.
“Wyatt didn’t know why he and Jonas both looked like boys, but only he felt like a girl,” Nutt writes. “Once, when Wyatt was asked yet again why he had hit his brother, he finally gave an answer: ‘Because he gets to be who he is and I don’t.’”
In addition to the family’s story, Nutt devotes at least a third of the book to research and experts in gender development. While a fetus’ sex organs typically develop around six weeks, hormones and other factors that impact gender identity take place much later and across multiple systems in the brain, Nutt writes.
The episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” in which Terry Gross interviews Nutt and Kelly and Wayne Maines, proves a nice companion piece to expand on conversations started in the book.
— Paige Cooperstein
“Bohunk’s Big To-Do”
By Julian Jones
“Bohunk’s Big To-Do” offers a comical exploration of the intersection of complex relationships — a story that many of us dealing with family chaos at the holidays can relate to.
The tale revolves around Bo’s (whose quirky mother christened him with the nickname “Bohunk” in childhood) trip to small-town Kansas to meet with his absent, and now-dying, father.
The theme of journeying persists throughout the novel, as Bo sets off to reconcile his past with his present. Along the way, he uncovers family secrets, struggles to cope with ongoing tensions — such as his mother’s marriage to his boyfriend — and comes to form his own meaning of the word “family.”
The novel is a fun coming-of-age story about a young man working to make sense of a past that is catching up to him. Rounded out by an eclectic cast of characters — whose eccentricities make them uniquely loveable — “Bohunk” illustrates the complexities of family ties, and the many ways in which they influence our present and future.
— Jen Colletta
“City in a Park: A History of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System”
By James McClelland and Lynn Miller
Oh wow, we really have all that in Philadelphia?
Unless you have a geek-level knowledge of Philadelphia history or have explored its parks like Indiana Jones searching for the holy grail, there is probably a great deal of information about Fairmount Park contained in this massive tome that you will find fascinating.
Whether delving into two centuries of the park system’s origins and history, marveling at the historical architecture of the houses and mansions along the Schuylkill or detailing the many public-art installations that can be found among the many acres, McClelland and Miller deliver this wealth of information with academic precision while keeping it compelling and entertaining.
If you want to know more about the park system of Philadelphia but either can’t be bothered to wear out your shoes and bike tires to do so, or want to study up on all the things you should see beforehand, this is an excellent book to add to your library.
“Eve Arnold: Magnum Legacy”
By Janine di Giovanni
A lavish coffee-table book of photos by and an essay about Philadelphia native Eve Arnold, this handsome volume is the first in the Magnum Legacy series, which is dedicated to celebrating the life of photographers and their work.
Chapters discuss her poor childhood, the start of her career, her life in London and her work in China. But it is her photographs that speak thousands of words.
Arnold’s pictures of Marilyn Monroe on the set of the film “The Misfits,” a mummified Joan Crawford getting a facial or a shot of gay artist Francis Bacon in his studio are all striking, impressive images. Equally haunting are her pictures from a Haitian insane asylum or a hospital in South Africa. Arnold’s images documenting social justice include a fabulous shot of a member of the order of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the queer transvestite nun activists in San Francisco.
“Eve Arnold: Magnum Legacy” is a terrific mix of portraits, from Queen Elizabeth to Mikhail Baryshnikov, as well as her commercial work for Yves Saint Laurent, and documents from Arnold’s extraordinary career. It is a marvelous keepsake.
— Gary M. Kramer
“Fox Tooth Heart”
By John McManus
This collection of short stories has such diversity in character and theme that reading more than one story in a sitting can be psychologically challenging. The best part about McManus’ writing in “Fox Tooth Heart” is that all characters are, while sometimes unsettling, very believable. The stories take leaps of faith, considering settings that at times twist society, history and science. Each story also has its own toe tag — murder, suicide, an accident and natural causes each make an appearance.
Consider first a world where pedophiles are kept at bay on the edge of prosecution via a “Gnat Line” that marks the perimeter of every school, and every member of the camp would kill or betray anyone for his or her own safety. Indeed, a murder/suicide around one campfire results in almost no reaction.
“Elephant Sanctuary” is a tale of guilt and reflection by a rock star who has just killed his girlfriend. Sometimes the clinical thought process alone is chilling.
And how you could not be grabbed by this opening sentence: “Before the first genetic clone of Thomas Jefferson turned 13, he would puzzle out the steps that had led to his conception, beginning with his mother Marissa’s debt.” You’ll have to read “Gateway to the Ozarks” to find how that works out.
There’s also a gripping account of a young man who states right off, “I first met Max on my way home from the Gulp, a bottomless whirlpool in the Everglades where people go to commit suicide.” From there he moves towards the fight to live, and live through exhilaration. But human nature can be challenging, as he finds his life accelerating toward more and more risky behavior, free-climbing El Capitan at the story climax. “Bugaboo” will keep you holding on tight all the way through.
To be sure, these are not light, festive, holiday tales. And McManus also nicely works in an LGBT character or situation in most stories without making being gay the focus of them. But as a collection, they are unsettling, amusing, curious and intriguing, and they will hold your mind firmly in their grasp. A couple of them, even as you sleep.
— Scott A. Drake
“Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights”
By Jerome Pohlen
Young adults can get a crash course in LGBT Rights 101 with “Gay & Lesbian History for Kids,” an engaging book that makes learning fun.
The book explores LGBT culture from ancient times through the present day, highlighting modern LGBT-rights milestones and figures. While many young folks today may know out entertainment icons like Ellen DeGeneres, this book does a commendable job of introducing readers to pioneers whose names they should also know, like Magnus Hirschfeld, Alan Turing and Christine Jorgensen.
Many of the topics covered in the book could be considered sensitive, but Pohlen expertly translates the events, people and issues he addresses into relatable and age-appropriate reading for young readers. As a bonus, the book contains more than 20 activities to help readers put what they’re learning into practice; for instance, in the section detailing the history of LGBT organizations like the Mattachine Society, it provides a how-to guide for forming a cause-related club.
While “Gay & Lesbian History for Kids” is designed for younger audiences, its neatly packaged abundance of information — supplemented by well-executed illustrations — would make it an engaging read for LGBT and ally audiences of any age.
“Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith”
By Eve Tushnet
Tushnet, an openly gay Catholic faithful to the church’s teaching regarding celibacy, has written a complicated book.
Part One offers a cursory sketch of her life. Tushnet came out as a lesbian at 13, participated in Washington, D.C.’s, thriving punk scene, and matriculated at Yale. Throughout, she drank too much.
In college she met Catholics whose faith impressed her. By her sophomore year, she had converted — much to the dismay of her loving Jewish parents.
Part Two functions as a spiritual guide. Tushnet argues for an expanded view of vocation, one offering more opportunities to Catholics than just entering the priesthood or marriage. “Spiritual friendship” is one such alternative. In her opinion, it is a vocation uniquely suited to gay Catholics. By “spiritual friendship,” she means a committed, loving, non-sexual bond approaching kinship. “Spiritual friendship,” she emphasizes, is about service, not sacrifice.
Clearly, Tushnet’s calling is not for everyone, but she raises issues of community, faith and sexuality that deserve a wider hearing.
— Ray Simon
“God in Pink”
By Hasan Namir
First-time author Namir has penned a gripping and poignant story of two Muslim men coping with life and religion in 2003 war-torn Iraq.
Ramy is a young gay man who is being coerced into a mixed-gender marriage by his brother. Ammar closeted his homosexual feelings and followed traditions and religion, shunning his sexuality and marrying a woman, fathering a child. “Pink” is the word that Ramy is told to wait to hear from the sheikh during prayer, signifying an ally to talk to.
The story alternates between Ramy and Ammar, each looking for solace in his own way and each struggling with a society that would just as soon kill them for being “lotee.” How each man reconciles his sexuality within the strict religious teachings is only part of the day-to-day living. They must confront family, friends and members of the community who whisper, pray and threaten their suspected lifestyle — including reacting to outside verbal and physical stimuli, including women.
The angel Gabriel appears to each man at times, probing what he considers private thoughts and feelings, and drives each to continue his own self-identification. The encounters are thought-provoking and draw the reader into a personal internal dialogue.
The stories run parallel for much of this short, powerful book. When the two finally meet and open up to each other, their encounter stirs thoughts, loins, emotions and trouble. Ramy seeks guidance from Ammar, Ammar stands his personal ground and yet is torn between counseling Ramy religiously versus sympathetically. What to do?
Reader alert: There are some very graphic moments in this story. It is, after all, a tale of a group of people who have strong beliefs and feelings and have no qualms about settling affairs through violence — against others or themselves. Ramy finds someone to run away with in school friend Sammy, but they are stopped by a patrol and Ramy is devastated by the encounter, which haunts him.
This book should be on everyone’s shelf — religious and non-religious alike. It is a raw, passionate, gritty tale of not only these two men who chose different paths, and are still making choices, but also of the many people around them who make their own life decisions to love, hate, accept, kill, tolerate or repel them. “God in Pink” makes one pause to consider how many other countries and cultures differ in so many ways that sometimes one feels there are only two options: have a loveless marriage or die rather than live a lie.
“I Can Give You Anything But Love”
By Gary Indiana
Indiana, an accomplished gay author, turns a gimlet eye on his youth in this anti-memoir, which recalls both his New Hampshire childhood and Manhattan’s downtown scene of the 1980s without nostalgia.
But the book’s focus is the years 1969-76. Dropping out of Berkeley, Indiana joins a commune of druggy aesthetes who talk revolution and make porn films. Unfortunately, he’s raped at their San Francisco pad by a Hells Angel, prompting a breakdown.
After recovering, Indiana moves to Los Angeles, where he works at dead-end jobs, engages in emotionless sex and does a lot of speed. L.A.’s arty-punk movement jumpstarts his ambition, but even there he remains an outsider.
Throughout, that narrative is intercut with present-day reflections written from Havana, where Indiana turns for refuge and for the hustlers. There’s minimal name-dropping — usually other avant-garde artists he admires, like Werner Schroeter — but he’s highly critical of Susan Sontag, whom he knew well.
All in all, a flinty, cerebral read.
“Kyle’s Bed & Breakfast: Without Reservations”
By Greg Fox
If you’d rather consume your “Kyle’s Bed & Breakfast” comic strips in large quantities instead of having them parceled out to you every two weeks in PGN, good news! The latest volume of the popular gay comic strip has hit the shelves in time for the holidays.
Set in the picturesque harbor town of Northport, on the North Shore of Long Island, the titular B&B owner Kyle remains the calm center among the drama, romance, intrigue and sometimes-humorous situations surrounding the colorful cast of characters, including closeted baseball player Brad, businessman Lance, party boy Richard and college student Eduardo.
It really does work better telling its stories and fleshing out the characters as a full-color graphic novel instead of a bi-weekly and often black-and-white comic strip in the pages of this newspaper. So curl up and take a virtual weekend getaway this holiday season.
“Me Being Me is Exactly as Insane as You Being You”
By Todd Hasak-Lowy
Early in Hasak-Lowy’s young adult novel, “Me Being Me is Exactly as Insane as You Being You,” Darren finds out his dad is gay. It’s the reason his parents divorced two years ago.
In a chapter called “10 significant implications of the new situation Darren considers while staring out of a CTA bus window, which causes him to totally miss his stop and have to walk more than half a mile to get home,” Darren lists every reaction he has, from wondering if he’s gay because his dad is, to thinking of guys his dad could be dating.
The novel came out in March and unfolds entirely in run-on lists.
It’s not the kind of prose that obsesses over how gay people think of and talk about themselves. Darren certainly doesn’t worry about saying the right thing as he processes his shock. He mostly wants to avoid his father after the latter comes out during a conversation over chocolate doughnuts.
“It’s completely unclear if the whole concept of bisexuality, whatever that means, exactly, would make any of this any better at all,” Darren lists at one point, before adding, “It’s got to feel pretty weird to know you were married to someone for so long who doesn’t (and maybe even didn’t ever really) like your gender, in a sexual way.”
Still, the book captures a specific reaction. Darren undertakes the mission of getting to know his dad, possibly for the first time in a real way. The 561-page book is a quick read; all the listing leaves plenty of white space.
“Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men”
By Jane Ward
Queer Theory/LGBT Studies
Plenty of straight guys have sex with other men while protesting vehemently that they are “not gay.” This provocative book is an attempt to understand that phenomenon.
Ward, an unabashed queer, reviews earlier scholarship on tearooms and military-initiation ceremonies. She’s also watched plenty of “fraternity hazing porn.”
In her opinion, the construction of heterosexuality actually requires lots of homosexual contact. To rationalize this, the typical “str8 ex frat jock seeking same” found on Craigslist claims that his same-sex encounters were repulsive, experimental or done under duress.
Ward labels this “hetero-exceptionalism,” an alibi, essentially, allowing straight men to have gay sex without surrendering their privilege or acknowledging that these hookups are pleasurable.
What makes straight men who have sex with other men heterosexual, Ward argues, isn’t what they do in the bedroom. It’s their investment in heteronormative culture, a way of life considered normal and natural, even if it is sustained by homophobia, misogyny and racism.
What’s Ward’s antidote? Queer solidarity.
“Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg”
By Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
When a millennial journalist and a social-media-savvy law student get together to tell the story of a newly minted feminist icon, the result is the buzzy “Notorious RBG,” which came out in October.
Knizhnik, the law student, started a Tumblr blog in 2013 comparing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Notorious B.I.G., the East Coast rapper who was murdered in 1997. Carmon, the journalist, has interviewed Ginsburg and others close to the justice.
Their 191-page coffee-table book offers a Twitter-friendly life story of Ginsburg, the second female justice on the Supreme Court (Sandra Day O’Connor was the first). Ginsburg became an Internet sensation in recent years in the wake of strong dissents against court opinions that curbed reproductive rights and the Voting Rights Act. She also voted in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide.
In her dissent for Shelby County v. Holder, the case that gutted a pivotal portion of the Voting Rights Act, Ginsburg wrote that the decision was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Carmon described how Ginsburg tempered her zinger with pragmatism: “RBG quoted Martin Luther King directly: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’ she said. But then she added her own words: ‘if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.’ Not exactly poetry. But pure RBG. On or off the bench, she has always been steadfast, and when the work is justice, she has every intention to see it to the end.”
Carmon wrote the book and culled the images, while Knizhnik helped with reporting. The images help sell the book with illustrated timelines of Ginsburg’s life and court documents from early in her law career.
The chapters, named for lyrics from Notorious B.I.G. tracks, can be read in almost any order. The book serves as a celebration of RBG for people who already know and love her, or a broad jumping-off point for people to decide where to read further.
“The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House”
By John Whittier Treat
This debut novel, set in 1983, has Jeff, a history professor, relocating from New York (where his friends are dying of AIDS) to Seattle. He eventually meets Henry, a younger man with a self-destructive streak. Meanwhile, Nan buys the titular Yellow House after getting divorced. She opens it up as a meeting place for gay men with addictions. Jeff, a drunk, and Henry, a junkie, eventually move into Nan’s house to try getting clean and sober.
Their efforts — and their relationship — are continually tested, and the book is best when they talk candidly about their feelings. Henry is tempted to use by his drug-dealing half-brother Greg, and his ex, Ryan, a Jeff lookalike; Jeff is afraid of AIDS, but has risky trysts in bathhouses and elsewhere.
Treat captures the hope and fears of his characters with an authenticity that makes readers care about them — even when they make bad decisions about drinking, drugging and unsafe sex. “The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House” may not be an uplifting novel, but it is a compelling one.
“Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel”
By Sara Farizan
This perceptive young-adult novel — written for teens coming to terms with their sexual identity — features Leila, a curvy Persian-American 16-year-old who already feels “different.”
As such, she is not quite ready to discuss her lady-love inclinations with her classmates or her conservative family. A junior at Armstead Academy, however, Leila can’t suppress her desire for a glamorous new student, Saskia, who takes her bra shopping, kisses her and also toys with her affections. While Saskia’s behavior is often questionable, Leila finds surprising comfort and support from her childhood friend, Lisa.
Farizan captures the voice of teenage angst well as Leila experiences embarrassment, shame, desire and fear in equal measure. Life in high school may be the stuff of high drama, but “Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel” engages as Leila develops her confidence meeting other gay and lesbian students, confiding in an understanding teacher, working on the school play and attending the big dance. Farizan’s book is charming as Leila gets both wisdom and a girlfriend. n