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Book Marks


Richard Labonte | October 23, 2006

Death of a Department Chair, by Lynn C. Miller. Terrace Books, 242 pages, $24.95 paper.

Institutional egos clash, political correctness abounds, well-educated lesbians get it on with much lust, and a bloodied body turns up in the Ivory Tower. The brilliant but difficult-to-like chair of the Department of Literature and Rhetoric has been bludgeoned to death in her office, and everyone's a suspect – including both her former lover, a departmental rival, and her current lover, a candidate for a teaching position at the university. Miller's atmospherically academic debut mystery – in the cozy tradition of the late feminist literature professor Carolyn Heilbrun's dozen Kate Fansler whodunits (written by "Amanda Cross") – is a deft dissection of professorial cliques and clashes, replete with wry allusions to Gertrude Stein, Arthur Conan Doyle, catty literary cocktail parties, and grad students dressed in black who stalk their thesis advisers. The story delves into the hot topic of racial diversity on American college campuses – but that real-world relevance never gets in the way of this tidy mystery's clever clue-strewn twists and turns.



When the Stars Come Out, by Rob Byrnes. Kensington Books, 336 pages, $23 hardcover.

D.C. writer Noah is attractive and personable, and comes from money, but he hasn't had a man in the year since his relationship ended. His flamboyantly closeted publisher is pestering him for a way-late manuscript about miserably closeted congressional staffers. Enter Bart, personal assistant to curmudgeonly closeted former movie star Quinn Scott, retired to the Hamptons with his understanding-to-a-fault longtime lover. Noah and Bart meet cute while both are visiting New York – and the shenanigans begin in this smart, tart novel about learning to trust your heart. The author's chewy third novel oozes dizzy characters, most memorably the elderly actor's vindictive movie star ex-wife, who will go to any length to quash the memoir that Noah writes when he abandons his political tome and turns to Quinn's tell-all tale. Under the breezily entertaining gloss of snappy wit – and despite scenes of sometimes-sappy sex – Byrnes has something substantial to say about how fine it is to come out of those darned closets.



The Epidemic: A Global History of AIDS, by Jonathan Engel. Smithsonian Books, 388 pages, $28.95 hardcover.

We're 25 years into the age of AIDS, so it's certainly time for an overview of the epidemic. This one, written by a fellow with a Ph.D. from Yale in the history of medicine, disappoints. It's thorough enough, touching on the monkeys that harbored the virus, gay America's heroic early response, Ronald Reagan's neglect, Rock Hudson's celebrity, Larry Kramer's crankiness, the AIDS quilt, the perils of AZT, the promise of drug cocktails, the heartbreaking impact of AIDS in Africa, the crisis to come in Russia and Asia, and much more. Engel certainly skims the highlights with a well-trained researcher's footnote-replete skill. But there's no drama to the story, no spirit, no real soul – and also a heterosexual outsider's anti-activist bias and an uncomfortable-with-sex perspective that are sometimes dismaying. ACT UP? Did more harm than good. Gay sex? Ugh. Condoms? Iffy. And any history of AIDS that describes former Reagan Secretary of Education William Bennett as a "moderate" voice, rather than as a homophobic hysteric, can't be fully trusted.



The Different Dragon, by Jennifer Bryan, illustrated by Danamarie Hosler. Two Lives Publishing, 32 pages, $10.95 paper.

In this bedtime storybook about a bedtime story, young Noah has two cats, one sister, one gerbil, three goldfish, and two mommies. But the focus isn't on the composition of the boy's nontraditional family, which is a pleasant maturing of the queer kids-book genre. This is about a young boy who learns to slay a dragon – snorting flames from flared nostrils, baring rows of razor-sharp teeth – with kindness. Turns out this is a "different dragon" who doesn't want to be fierce anymore. So instead of doing battle, Noah – a wise little boy – puts down his shield, wipes away the dragon's tears, and says, "There are lots of different ways to be a dragon, and being fierce isn't the only way you have to be...we could play badminton and eat ice cream instead." The moral: it's okay to be who you want to be, a fine lesson for all children, queer-parented or not. Bryan's prose has a rhythmic lilt that makes this a wonderful read-aloud book, and Hosler's fantastical illustrations will hold the attention of 3-year-olds who aren't too sure what the words mean.



Featured Excerpt:
For many gays, promiscuous sex was more than fun, and more than simply an effort at human bonding: it was the defining act of community building, "a force binding atoms into new polymers of affinity," Edmund White wrote. Gays began to see frequent anonymous sex as the bedrock of gay liberation – an emblematic endorsement of the great liberation they had won at Stonewall, as well as a vehicle with which to solidify communal bonds. "The belief handed to me was that sex was liberating and more sex was more liberating," reflected (Michael) Callen in 1983. –from The Epidemic, by Jonathan Engel



Footnotes:
"IT'S PRETTY CHILLING," says Dykes to Watch Out For cartoonist Alison Bechdel of an attempt to ban her graphic memoir, Fun Home, challenged as "inappropriate" in early October in Marshall, Mo. (population 12,500). "It's easy to be flippant about something like this, and to claim what a great honor it is," Bechdel said. "Yet if my book were banned, I have to say, it would lend a nice resonance to its content. One whole chapter of Fun Home is about Ulysses and its troubled publishing history, which included a long period of being banned. So I say, bring it on." For her part, Amy Crump, feisty director of the town library, was quick to defend the book: "I most firmly believe that our country was founded in an attempt to move away from censorship," she said. "It is every American patriot's duty to uphold the most fundamental documents of our country – the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment." Fun Home is a nonfiction look at Bechdel's closeted gay father and her own coming-out; also challenged was Craig Thompson's Blanket, a graphic novel about adolescent (and straight) first love...
L.A. NOVELIST and essayist John Rechy (City of Night, Rushes, Beneath the Skin) is the recipient of ONE Institute's first Culture Hero Award, announced in September, with a public ceremony on Oct. 28. ONE, with an extensive lesbian and gay book and periodical archive, is the longest-lived LGBT organization in the United States, founded in Los Angeles more than 50 years ago. For info: www.oneinstitute.org.

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


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