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Richard Labonte | July 30, 2007

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary, by Monica Nolan. Kensington Books, 256 pages, $14 paper.

The 1950s. Virginal young women. Small-town values. Repressed deviant desires. Big-city temptations. No, it's not lurid new fiction from lesbian pulp pioneers like Ann Bannon or Paula Christian – though Nolan's campy novel is an exhilarating homage to their lusty novels of yore. Lois is an innocent high school cheerleader who "practices kissing" with her best friend, Faye; Faye dreams that the two girls will marry their football-playing sweethearts and live happily ever after. But Lois has ambitions beyond settling into suburbia. She wants to be a Career Girl, a goal championed by her busty guidance counselor, who recommends Lois for a secretarial position in nearby Bay City – and for a room in a woman's boarding house rife with sapphic trysts and sensible fashion tips. Nolan's novel is sort of a mystery, in that a girl who lived in Lois' room has disappeared, and foul play is feared. But its real charm stems from how deftly Nolan both comically parodies and lovingly replicates a genre of fiction that gave voice to a generation's lesbian longings half a century ago.



The Dust of Wonderland, by Lee Thomas. Alyson Books, 320 pages, $24.95 hardcover.

Pre-Katrina New Orleans is the setting for this stirring supernatural tale about ghostly queer spirits and ghastly sexual practices. When his college-age son is viciously beaten into a coma, Kenneth Nicholson – unlucky in gay love after closeted years of marriage – returns to the city where he once led a double life. He's soon haunted by nightmares featuring his one-time secret lover, the charismatic but callous owner of a notorious New Orleans party spot, Wonderland, where a couple of decades in the past several young gay men met gory deaths. The man has been dead for years, but Kenneth fears the malevolent spirit of his former master has resurfaced in the form of his son's mysterious girlfriend – pure evil incarnate, and now also stalking his ex-wife, his moody daughter, and the man Kenneth tried to love before he fled town in a futile attempt to escape his past. Eloquent writing, wholly dimensional characters, and spooky atmospherics power this compelling combo of chilling horror story and ultimately satisfying love story.



The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theories, by Kenny Fries. Carroll & Graf, 206 pages, $14.95 paper.

Since childhood, Fries has worn a series of made-to-order orthopedic shoes to compensate for his crippled feet. This poetic personal memoir is a history of how those shoes enabled him to lead a vigorous (and cheerfully queer) life. Over the years, he's white-watered down the Colorado River with other disabled women and men, trekked alone through Thailand, climbed a mountain in Maine and clambered through the jungles of Bali with his lover Ian, and scrambled across the Galapagos Islands – the last an arduous outing that he melds emotionally and intellectually with Charles Darwin's landmark theory of evolution. The linkage is memorably apt: just as life on Earth adapts to a changing physical environment, Fries has adapted to his changing physical limitations. The author's succinct account of the rivalry and eventual friendship between Darwin and Austin Wallace – whose work contributed to the development of a theory of evolution – is colorful enough to engage even readers familiar with Darwin's life and work. Just as engaging are spirited vignettes from Fries about growing up disabled, of being crippled and queer, and of life with his lover.



Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America, edited by Thomas A. Foster, NYU Press, 412 pages, $25 paper.

Scholarship focusing on the queerness of early American history isn't as revelatory – or as controversial – as it was when Jonathan Ned Katz published his groundbreaking Gay American History more than three decades ago. Half the 14 essays in this interdisciplinary study of 17th- through 19th-century America are reprints – though it's useful to have work that appeared in academic journals collected in one place. Among original work, Ramon A. Gutierrez's revisionist perspective on Native American berdache will raise the most eyebrows: Rather than exalt their same-sex spirituality, fashionable among gay liberationists and radical faeries alike, the author's theory is that they led lives of sexual "humiliation and endless work, not of celebration and veneration." Among the reprints, Caleb Crain's account of a romantic triangle among three Philadelphia men that began in 1786, culled from their diaries, is the sweetest. Several essays draw on court records dating back as far as 300 years to unearth queer lives, while others glean a glimpse of the past through a reading of Colonial-era fiction and journalism.



Featured excerpt:

But now, after walking with only my cane in Thailand's temples, after kayaking shoeless among the limestone islands of Phang Nga Bay, after searching for black monkeys in the Balinese jungle, after being Aqua Bootied along the Colorado, after Tom's molding and adjustment of my new black shoes, plus the addition of the GapKids padded slippers to use at home, I realize that because my body keeps changing there is no one perfect pair of shoes. As my body has changed, I now have different kinds of shoes. Eventually, I will get a wheelchair, another "pair of shoes." –from The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory, by Kenny Fries



Footnotes:

CHRISTOPHER RICE'S NOVEL Light Before Day – a noir thriller about kept boys, crystal meth, closeted Marines, pedophile pimps, and Los Angeles gay journalism – is Frontier magazine's pick for an inaugural Summer Book program. It's "a kind of citywide book club...to have all of gay L.A. read the same book at the same time," said Frontiers arts and entertainment editor Japhy Grant. "The story moves like hell," Rice said in an interview with the magazine. "I think in that sense, it's a perfect summer read."...
LAMBDA RISING CLOSED its Norfolk, Va., branch in June, after sales dropped precipitously in 2006, and projections for 2007 weren't any better, according to store manager Anthony Williams. Lambda Rising founder Deacon McCubbin said that, after nine years of slowly rising sales, revenues were off last year by 25 percent, "and we don't know why." Branches in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Rehoboth Beach are doing well, he said...
RITA MAE BROWN has sold three more books in her Mrs. Murphy mystery series, featuring a menagerie of cute animals, most notably a cat, as secondary sleuths. The most recent in the series, Puss 'N Cahoots, was released this past February by Bantam Dell, and book 16, The Purrfect Murder, is scheduled for next January.

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


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