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Richard Labonte | February 15, 2006

Sweet Creek, by Lee Lynch. Bold Strokes Books, 360 pages, $15.95 paper

There's a heady sense of '60s back-to-the-land communal idealism and '70s woman-power feminism (with hints of lesbian separatism) to this spirited novel – even though it's set in contemporary rural Oregon. Partners Donny (she's black and blue-collar) and Chick (she's plus-sized and motherly) are both in their 50s, owners of the dyke-centric Natural Woman Foods store, a homey nexus for Sweet Creek's expansive cast of characters. Among them: Rattlesnake, the mysterious matriarch of womyn's land; Sheriff Sweet, the sort-of-closeted town sheriff; free spirit Jeep, who lives for her music; wanna-be tranny Abe, Donny's best but weirdest friend; and a slew of gay radical faeries, sympathetic straights, homophobic loggers, and quirky townspeople. The result is a wonderfully textured read. Lynch, with a dozen novels to her credit dating back to the early days of Naiad Press, has earned her stripes as a writerly elder – she was contributing stories to the lesbian magazine The Ladder four decades ago. But this latest is somehow sublimely in tune with the times.



Secret Anniversaries of the Heart, by Lev Raphael. Leapfrog Press, 248 pages, $15.95 paper.

Readers with long memories will sense something familiar about half the stories in this compelling collection: A dozen are reprints from the Lambda Literary Award-winning 1990 book, Dancing on Tisha B'Av. The earlier work has aged well: Raphael's writing has matured over the years, but even early on he was one of the best storytellers among the generation of queer writers who succeeded the likes of Felice Picano and Andrew Holleran. Anti-Semitism and homophobia, and the conflict between Jewish identity and queer desire, are themes common to many of the stories, among them "Welcome to Beth Homo," in which a self-loathing young Jew nonetheless longs for an all-gay synagogue. The lives of Holocaust survivors haunt others, including the title story, in which a son reflects on his late mother's painful memories. These are serious topics, to be sure, but they're leavened with a smattering of erotic passages and flashes of quiet wit. In recent years, Raphael has turned to mysteries as his main outlet, but this passionate collection is a fine reminder of his range as a writer.



Words To Our Now: Imagination and Dissent, by Thomas Glave. University of Minnesota Press, 264 pages, $25.95 hardcover.

The essays in this politically and poetically powerful collection, though they cover a lot of ground, have in common an abhorrence of racism and homophobia, a celebration of black gay sexuality and creativity, and a never-gratuitous, well-directed rage. Glave, author of the acclaimed short story collection Whose Song?, writes with amazing grace about topics both personal and universal: hateful prejudice in the Bronx, where he was born, and in Jamaica, where he has lived; how the AIDS death of poet Essex Hemphill affected him; how the horrors of sanctioned torture at Abu Ghraib affected him; about the ice-pick slaying in 2004 of Jamaican gay rights activist Brian Williamson; and about the 1999 dismemberment of young Steen Fenrich – "not a candidate for Matthew Shepardhood" – by his homophobic stepfather. Among the most stirring pieces: Glave's address in 2002 to the first Fire & Ink black gay literary conference, where he called on his peers to build on the "moral imagination" of writers like Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Assotto Saint, and Essex Hemphill to "nudge into life words" that will be passed on to others.



Tales: From a Distant Planet, by Felice Picano. French Connection Press, 252 pages, $18.75 paper.

The title suggests that this is a collection of science fiction stories set in outer space, but the book ranges across more genres than that. The longest, "Ingoldsby," is a time-travel tale with queer overtones that brings to mind the fabulist fiction of Ray Bradbury. In "One Way Out," the spookiest story, a young man opts to live inside a horrific hallucination induced by doctors in the real world. In "The Guest in the Little Brick House," the ghost haunting his home seduces a beautiful man, and "The Perfect Setting," as much mystery as psychological thriller, is about landscape paintings depicting crimes never witnessed by the artist. Picano does eventually get interplanetary: "The Lesson Begins" is a first-person oddity told in the voice of a camera that has landed on Mars; "Secrets of the Abandoned Monument" is an AIDS allegory about a dying race on a distant world; and "Food for Thought" sets space travelers down on a seductively dangerous planet. Readers familiar with Picano's gay memoirs and novels will find this collection a quirky change of pace.



Featured Excerpt:
As a black male who is also gay, I and my brothers and our black lesbian sisters are considered "disposables" throughout the world, throughout time past and present, in our own black communities and in white ones. This is clearly the case in Jamaica and most other Caribbean nations, and it is certainly true in the supposedly more "progressive" United States. What will the force of this virulent hatred mean for our futures, and who will decide once again which of us is disposable? And: will we stand together when the time comes for us to face that machine-gun fire? All of us? Beyond our prejudices? –From Words to Our Now, by Thomas Glave



Footnotes:
VESTAL MCINTYRE and Patrick Ryan, each with one gay-interest book to his credit, are among the 50 fiction and creative nonfiction authors recently awarded 2006 Literature Fellowships in Prose – and $20,000 – by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). McIntyre's debut story collection, You Are Not the One (Carroll & Graf), was named both an Editor's Choice year-end title by the New York Times – and a Top 10 fiction title by this reviewer. Ryan's debut novel, Send Me (The Dial Press), just published, is about a single mom raising four off-kilter kids from two marriages, including youngest son Frankie, "an endearing, eccentric sci-fi freak who's been searching since childhood for intelligent life in the universe," while, says Publishers Weekly, cheerfully embracing his belief that he's gay...
BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: The conflicted gay life of Japanese novelist and ultra-nationalist Yukio Mishima – he committed hari-kari 30 years ago after participating in a failed coup d'etat – is considered in Christopher Ross' fall 2006 biography, Mishima's Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend (Fourth Estate), based on interviews with people who knew him.

Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about queer literature since the mid-'70s.


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