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Book Marks


Richard Labonte | March 26, 2007

Mississippi Sissy, by Kevin Sessums. St. Martin's Press, 320 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

The shelf of queer coming-out confessionals is certainly crowded – almost as many gay memoirs (25) as gay novels (30) were eligible for a Lambda Literary Award nomination this year. But this account of growing up a Southern sissy is a decided standout. Sessums was butch enough to play football with some talent in 1960s Mississippi, but he preferred dressing up as actress Arlene Francis, whose long-running stint on TV's What's My Line captured his little fag heart. His parents died within a year of each other when he was 10. A Bible-thumping Baptist minister molested him in his early teens. Racists who cheered Martin Luther King's assassination surrounded him. But young Kevin's instinctive gay radar led him to a "found" family of actors, artists, and writers – including Eudora Welty – who nurtured his more fey interests. Sessums' poignant but celebratory memoir ends at age 20, when the older gay man who mentored him was murdered by a trick; the author left the South soon after, to become an editor at Interview and a writer for Vanity Fair.



Shakespeare's Sonnets, by Samuel Park. Alyson Books, 240 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

The time is 1948, the place is buttoned-down Harvard, and the boys in this literary love story are scandalous dandy Jean and closeted rich kid Adam. Jean's scholarship is slipping away as he parties with the campus lavender set; Adam is on course for an academic career, a fine marriage, and a life of privilege. Their prickly first meeting becomes a tentative friendship and then a passionate, private romance – the story arc of any number of novels about young men and forbidden attraction. But Park adds lyrical texture to his take on the genre with the suggestion – not all that shocking now, but scholarly heresy six decades ago – that Shakespeare's sonnets were written for a beautiful young man. That historically daring research topic is what binds the young men together in this sweet, smart novel. (A short film based on the book has made the festival rounds and is available on the DVD Boys Briefs 3).



A Poem for What's Her Name, by Dani O'Connor. Spinster's Ink, 180 pages, $14.95 paper.

The "older woman" in this easygoing lesbian romance is a sarcastic, closeted-at-work college professor, not yet 30, whose love life since leaving her marriage has been something of a shambles. The "younger woman" – by six years – is the impishly out daughter of a wealthy hotel-owning family. The two meet online, date cutely, fall head over heels for each other, cavort rambunctiously, confront the differences in their incomes, buy a house together, remain not so decorously raunchy, and finally live happily ever after. In short, there's not a lot of dramatic tension here. There is some playful shtick over the couple's age difference; there are a few moments of doubt – but no real angst – about the integrity of their relationship; and there is one miserable meal with the professor's homophobic mother that's as comic as it is uncomfortable. O'Connor's amiable debut is a sassy depiction of two women in love, but it's all surface, with more charm than substance.



The Album That Changed My Life, by Jeffery Conway. Cold Calm Press, 180 pages, $14.95 paper.

The title poem in this hybrid collection of accessible poetry and prose – a paean to the New Wave music that liberated a queer boy's soul – is a delightful distillation of Conway's concerns: it's sexy, melancholy, witty, nostalgic, and intimate. Poems in the first section touch on boys and their tattoos, the poverty of poets, time spent on Fire Island, and memories of HIV and death; those in the closing section offer intimate autobiographical glimpses. Between them is "Starstruck," a 20-page prose remembrance of dozens of Conway's encounters, mostly as a bartender and a cater-waiter, with a galaxy of celebrities. He snatches Lauren Bacall's snot-soaked and lipstick-stained tissue for a souvenir, cruises a "hunky" but unrecognized Alec Baldwin, purloins a pair of Gregory Hines' underwear when he's changing into his caterer clothes, and swipes extra shrimp for his poetry professor – Allen Ginsberg – when Ginsberg shows up at a party Conway is working. The vignettes are a pithy pleasure, mini-essays with the same casual depth as the poems that bookend them.



Featured Excerpt:
A tired looking queen and his entourage crowd into the cocktail lounge. I look up and he motions me over. "We'd like some champagne please." I start to place cocktail napkins on the small table. I'm thinking, I know that voice. I realize it's David Bowie, and I'm fascinated to discover that his hair is bleached the same color as the gold label on the bottle of Cristal he orders. –from The Album That Changed My Life, by Jeffery Conway



Footnotes:
Gay's the Word, the London gay bookshop that opened in 1979 and weathered a storm of obscenity charges – and its first financial crisis – a few years later, is close to closing. A rent increase, sagging sales, and the fact that the store is off London's beaten gay path – it's in the Bloomsbury neighborhood, not Soho – have all contributed to the current crisis. Gay's the Word needs to raise 20,000 pounds – more than $38,000 – to stay in business. "It's a case of use us or lose us. We are on the verge of closing," said manager James MacSweeney. "People came to us when we were the only shop selling gay literature. But times have changed." MacSweeney is pinning hopes for a rescue on the store's celebrity customers, including Patrick Gale, Jake Arnott, and Sarah Waters. "I could never have produced fiction of my own if Gay's the Word had not been there first, supplying me with other gay writers' books," said Waters, author most recently of The Night Watch. "It was not just a bookshop, but the hub and affirmation of a whole community. As a young lesbian new to London I remember arranging to meet people there, drinking coffee there, finding accommodation through its notice board."

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


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