Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Best of the Best for 2011

During the span of days we now call 2011, I reviewed forty glbt themed books, and also partially read (but did not finish) another sixteen books. There was a nice blend of temporary fiction, historical fiction and nonfiction. Of these fifty six books, I’ve listed the five I most enjoyed, along with two honorable mentions.

This is not to say that these books are the best written or most interesting books of my year. My selection was based purely on my enjoyment factor, and are presented here in random order. So here are my favorites for last year:

Five Most Enjoyable Books:

True Stories by Felice Picano
This charming collection of memoirs by author Felice Picano is written in fifteen vignettes. The author recounts tales of his childhood, his experiences as a GLBT publisher, his co-founding the now-famous Violet Quill Club, his early years as a journalist, and his encounters with the rich and famous—including Bette Midler, Tennessee Williams, W.H. Auden, Charles Henri Ford, and the queen of Twentieth-Century fashion, Diana Vreeland. For the most part, the author tells his story via his relationships with an array of fascinating people that helped guide his destiny.

Moffie by Andree Carl van der Merwe
Like every gay boy in 1970s South Africa, Nicholas van der Swart must hide that part of himself that is different from other boys, especially from his father. Nicholas grew up fearing his tyrannical father, an abusive Afrikaner devoted to apartheid and all things manly. And Nick grew up being ashamed of himself, thinking he was an abomination against God.

Nick is conscripted into two years of mandatory army life when he turns nineteen years old. The military goes against everything Nick feels at his core. He is a pacifist, but the lure of freeing himself from an oppressive home life helps him cope with the reality of becoming a soldier fighting for a cause he doesn’t believe in.

But Nick finds that the nightmare of living at home is nothing compared to the hell of boot camp. Within his company, he is labeled a Moffie (a queer), and his superiors stop at nothing to destroy him. At the same time, he makes three close friendships, and even falls in love. Nick finds that the one thing that is more terrible than the physical abuse he endures every day, is the mental torcher of not being able to tell his close buddies and the person he loves what he really feels for them. He must keep that secret locked deep in his heart, or risk being shipped off to a mental hospital for shock, drug and hormone treatments.

After boot camp, Nick and his friends are shipped to the boarder where South Africa is at war with Angolan terrorist. On the battlefield, Nick learns a valuable lesson: to not ask God to help him, but merely to put his life in God’s hands, become an instrument of the Almighty, and accept God’s will. Within the depths of this military torture, bloodshed and his new religious faith, Nick is able to acknowledge his homosexuality and come out to the men he cares for. His coming out somehow helps him find the strength to survive.

The Abode of Bliss by Alex Jeffers

In a series of ten remarkable short stories, Ziya explains his erotic journey into manhood to Adam, the man Ziya loves. Raised in cosmopolitan Istanbul, Ziya is immersed in his Muslim family and traditions, yet he harbors a secret that goes against everything he knows. He is gay. His mother understands, and arranges for Ziya to attend college in the United States, where he will enjoy an easier time of being accepted and be free to live his life without pressure from family or religion.

Ziya’s journey takes him from Istanbul, through Europe, and finally to Boston where he tries to assimilate a new lifestyle, yet, he keeps being drawn back into his culture. This is a long and beautiful journey. Along the way Ziya encounters old friends, surprises from family members, one-night stands, rape, weddings and bashings and deaths, and in the end a chance meeting.

These ten stories are told in chronological order and build on each other, making this book read like a novel. This is nearly a perfect read.

First Person Plural by Andrew W. M. Beierle
Owen and Porter Jamison are conjoined twins—one body, two heads, two functioning brains, and definitely two very dissimilar hearts. Growing up, they see themselves as a single entity, but as they near adulthood they metamorphose into completely opposite personalities. Porter is pure jock, outgoing, and charismatic. He compensates for his abnormality by being the best red-blooded, all-American football hero in the town. Owen is cerebral, artistic, and a romantic. He compensates by withdrawing into his own world.

As Porter begins dating a high school cheerleader, Owen becomes painfully aware that he has no interest in girls. As Owen explores his feelings, he admits to himself, and then to Porter, that he is gay, which causes a riff between the brothers, but of course, sharing one body, they can’t very well ignore one another. At first Owen is content to settle for unrequited crushes, but soon finds himself exploring his desires with other gay guys. This, naturally, widens the riff between the brothers and expands Porter’s fear that people will assume he is also gay. To survive, they must somehow learn to give and take, to be supportive as well as take what they need. But when it comes to something as personal as sex, can they do that?

Yu by Joy Shayne Laughter
Ross Lamos has built a successful career in dealing with Asian art and antiquities. His specialty is jade carvings, and his astonishing gift is his psychic touch, that is, whenever he holds jade, the stone’s yu (its internal chi power) reveals its history to Lamos. He sees visions of what the stones have witnessed.

The story begins when a mysterious woman enters the antique shop where Lamos works, asking him to appraise three carved jade stones. The stones are all from the same period, Han Dynasty, and worth millions on the black market. Lamos has never worked with such exquisitely crafted carvings before. They are the work of a master craftsman. But more than the stones’ value, Lamos is intrigued by their history.

One by one, he holds the stones, and they tell three connecting stories of a forbidden love in China’s Imperial Court during the Han Dynasty. Within this unfolding tale, Lamos comes to realize that both he and this mysterious woman, in their former lives, played a part in this unfolding drama.

Each stone presents a piece of the puzzle that tells of a love between a prince and his father’s concubine, and the poet caught up in the middle of a deadly game of intrigue. But which former life did Lamos play? He will do anything to find out.

Two Honorable Mentions:

For The Ferryman by Charles Silverstein
Charles Silverstein is not a name that I’ve heard pop up in discussions about the Gay Rights Movement, yet he quite possibly may have had more impact on securing equal rights for the lgbt community than Harvey Milk and others more famous. In this fascinating memoir, Silverstein uses the first half of the book to recount his career of fighting for gay rights, particularly in the psychiatric community, and he uses the second half of the book to narrate his twenty-five-year relationship with his life-partner, William Bory.

Silverstein’s most important contribution to the gay community was his historic 1973 presentation before the “Nomenclature Committee” of the American Psychiatric Association which led to the removal of homosexuality as a mental illness from the diagnostic manual, which eventually was responsible for decriminalizing gay sex between consenting adults. He went on to establish two gay and lesbian counseling centers in New York, and also was the founding editor of the Journal of Homosexuality, now in its fifty-seventh volume.

Silverstein is best known for co-authoring the groundbreaking 1977 The Joy of Gay Sex with Edmund White, and co-authoring the sequal 1992 The New Joy of Gay Sex with Felice Picano, which brought the original book up to date with regards to the AIDS crisis. Silverstein also authored a book geared to the parents of gay youth: A Family Matter: A Parents’ Guide to Homosexuality, 1977. So as you can see, the author is no lightweight. He has had a tremendous impact on gay rights, and the personal accounts of his activism are both fascinating and inspiring.

Bob The Book by David Pratt
Bob is a book about pre-nineties gay porn, complete with many hot pictures. He is delivered to a Greenwich Village bookstore, where he goes on sale beside another book, Moishe, whose title is Beneath the Tallis: The Hidden Lives of Gay and Bisexual Orthodox Jewish Men. Bob and Moishe fall in love, but are separated by an unlikely buyer.

As Bob journeys through sales tables, used book bins, different owners, and lecture halls, he meets a variety of other books and people, but he’s always hunting for Moishe.

Bob finds himself in a peculiar position; both he and his owner are searching for love. Both seem to find something, but it’s not ideal for either of them. Can Bob, being at the mercy of people, somehow find fulfillment? Can his owner find the same contentment? All I can say is, it’s not easy being a book in love.

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