The Best in LGBT Literature of 2011—A Personal List

The Best of LGBT Literature, 2011—A Personal List

Amos Lassen

Compiling a “Best” list is very personal and I am including those books that I loved and in no particular order.  This was an interesting year and it seemed to me that there were not as many items published as the past but of what did come out, there was some really fine stuff especially in two areas that I love—homosexuality and religion and fiction. I was a bit disappointed that in the field of LGBT studies, there was not much. On the other hand, poetry is booming and we seem to be seeing more of it and of a very high level. What is noticeable about my list is that there are relatively few established gay writers mentioned—either they did not publish this year or what they did publish just did not hit me. Of course, Edmund White is here and he published two new books.

 

White, Edmund. “Jack Holmes & His Friend: A Novel”, Bloomsbury, 2012.

 It is always a cause for celebration when Edmund White has a new book come out and we have two celebrations now. Edmund White has two new books coming out—one a nonfiction collection of profiles of people of importance, “Sacred Monsters” and the other a new novel, “Jack Holmes & his Friend” which looks at love as expressed by two different men. One of the beautiful things about White’s writing is the way he creates characters and he does so yet again in the new book. We have two men, Jack Holmes and Will Wright, one straight, one gay. They both come to New York before the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and they both get jobs at The Northern Review, a cultural magazine and they become close friends. Jack introduces Will to the girl he will marry. But there is a problem. Jack also is in love with Will. Jack seeks help from a psychiatrist and dates several women and at the same time has sex with men. However, he does not lose his feelings for Will who maintains his heterosexual life and almost destroys his marriage.

 The beauty of the novel is, of course, the characters of the two men and we see them as they face different aspects of their lives and find their places in society. White gives us their story against the background of a turbulent decade that witnessed the birth of the sexual revolution alongside of the assassination of a much-loved American president. Looking at the themes of “friendship, sexuality and sensibility” we get quite the look at the period. The fact that we see it through the eyes of two men who lived through it and that makes it that much more real.

 Obviously Will must know how Jack feels for him and while he can return the feelings of friendship, he cannot do more and Jack faces the problem of not being able to feel for anyone else what the feels for Will. Will is from an old-established family and tends to enjoy being alone and working on his novel. Jack introduces him to the girl who is to become his wife but does not let on about his own feelings for Will. In order to really understand what is going on in the novel, it is helpful to understand the tempo of the times. The 60’s were an intense decade and America was experiencing the beginnings of the modern age. The old aristocracy stood on one side of the decade while the new Bohemia was on the other. It was a charged time during which the sexual revolution and gay liberation broke through and ushered in a new liberality that we had not seen before. It was during this period that Jack and Will found each other and a deep friendship.

 White’s description of the 60’s brings the decade back to life. White uses the background as a canvas against which to paint his characters and has them appear in the various social milieus of the day. Each character receives his own portrait in intimate detail and we are privy to their human sides as they come to life on the pages of the book. Along with the intense physical descriptions, White gives us a look at their sexuality and sensibility and we are never at a loss in understanding them. The book is both the exploration of these characters and the age in which they lived and loved.

 The idea of a straight/gay friendship is not new but the way it is treated here makes it read like a journey into the nature of life and love and an excursion into life as a libertine. Will, of course, realizes Jack’s affection and during the course of years from the 60’s to the 70’s, from the beginnings of gay liberation to the onset of the AIDS epidemic, he deals with his sensuality and his marriage is almost destroyed because of it. It seems to me that White tells the story from the perspective of a storyteller who fills his tale with metaphors and peppers his dialogue with philosophical views of humanity. While one of these perspectives would have been enough, to have all three gives us a wonderful experience as we read. White’s wit is present throughout and his observations on the way it was are brilliant. He gives us yet another wonderful read and a welcome addition to the gay canon. There is no doubt in my mind that this book will be on many of “THE BEST” lists this year.

Although these three books of poetry came out at different times, I discovered them just his year and could not decide on one of them to put on my list so I am including all three.

 

Taub, Yermiyahu Ahron. “Uncle Feygele”, Plain View Press, 2011.

The word “feygele” has always bothered me. I remember it as a term that my parents and their friends used to refer to gay men. I had not heard it for a very long time and then once when in a t-shirt shop, I saw a shirt with “feygele” written out in rainbow colors. I realized that I could make it a positive statement if I dared to wear it to temple which I did. I now regard that shirt as my way of saying that I am out and happy.

Taub’s collection of poems uses the same tradition for the word “feygele” by giving us poetry that comes from contemporary gay culture and Jewish tradition. The speakers are those who are not at home in either world but search for a place where they can live, a place where pleasure and responsibility exist side by side and where sexuality is not something to cause shame. Taub hits us hard with bold words that are both strong and beautiful and the poet moves us with his comforting sincerity and alarms us as he tells us what to do. As a gay Jew, I know just what he is writing about and for me, at times, the poetry is somewhat painful because it says so much about the way I have felt. (I must classify that by saying that the pain I felt was cathartic and that makes it fine).

Taub’s poetry is in your face and very “now” especially for those of us who live in more than one world. He equally writes about history and loss, memory and lamentation, melancholia and story. Many of us think too much while others do not think at all. Some of us have lost our sense of humor when we lost our foreskins. Taub brings that back to us and while his humor may be cutting, it is real– very, very real.

Taub brings the two separate worlds of Orthodox Judaism and homosexuality together by showing the struggles of both worlds. The Diaspora of the Jews gave us the Yiddish language just as the gay world has developed its own speech. As the Jews have seen dispersion, revolution and Eros so the gays have found “ghettoism”, liberation and promiscuity. Both worlds come together in modern times in that they both have had to bury impulses to survive; whether they be the dietary laws or being out in society. Many of us have or have had an uncle “Feygele” who was whispered about even when he sat at our table; he was the “other” who was there yet not there. We heard him only when he spoke through his nieces and nephews but we really did not listen—he was the fairy. We loved him in a way that we did not love others and though we thought we knew him, we did not and knew that we didn’t. Taub assumes the role of the nephew here and he speaks for all of our Uncle Feygeles.

Taub vacillates between English and Yiddish and as he does he brings the worlds together but not as opposing forces. We can live together and we can gloss over the differences that are there but that is not the answer. No, toleration is not the answer.To me toleration is much different than acceptance. There are many things that I tolerate but do not accept. In fact, the more I think about it, the word tolerate is one of the most misused and misunderstood words in the English language—Uncle Feygele was tolerated (because he was family) but he was not accepted.

One of the things that Taub does here is to honor the “unnamed and unremembered”, the uncles and those in our past that we never bothered to notice and whose lives went by for them as if they were not even here. He also writes about Rosa Luxemburg as a social democrat and others and exalts them. However, for me, at least, it is much more important to remember those who touched our lives and then faded into obscurity because they did not fit and were not “tolerated”—the “feygeles”, the little birds who flew into and out of our lives. Taub gives voice to gay Orthodox Jews as both insiders and outsiders, living completely in neither world but with a foot in each. His poems are writings infused with beauty and longing and we watch Uncle “Feygele” become a person who shares what others share—desire, love, belonging, history—he is a bent straight man who is not oppressed but who is who he is. And we are he and he is us.

 Taub, Yermiyahu Ahron. “The Insatiable Psalm”. Wind River Press, 2005.

I was quite literally bowled over by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s “Uncle Feygele” so I made it a point to go back and have a look at his other writing. Poetry has the ability to pierce the emotions and with a poet like Taub not only does he enter our minds but our bodies feel what he writes. It is a feeling that I cannot really explain and it is something that each person must feel for himself.

“The Insatiable Psalm” is a collection that brings two worlds together as we read about how an ultra-Orthodox woman deals with her son who is not totally observant and is gay. Coming into this are the themes of Jewish culture and history. Mother and son are not named and I take them to be universal characters. They differ in many ways and cannot speak to each other directly. The voices we get are the mother, the son and the poet and we hear from them in alternating voices. We follow the mother in “Our Days Were Painted”, the first section of the book. It is a narration of her life from birth to death and through childhood, marriage and becoming a mother. We also get a look at the son and see that he realizes that he is gay.

The second section, “Archaeology of Sugar: Methods” deals with the writing that the poet has done.The son relishes his new liberation and his “enthusiasm for feminist theory” but realizes that his mother could care less so he must find a way to reconcile the two. Mother and son love each other but face conflict and this is what drives the poetry. They want to connect and realize it will take work to do so.

What is so amazingly beautiful about these poems is that every word seems to be perfectly chosen in order to express Taub’s feelings and I felt that these poems must be somewhat autobiographical (and I base that only on what I have read about the poet). There is a connection to sound  and feeling when the poems are read aloud, they seem to sing with a gorgeous resonance. In reading “Culinary Miracle”, I felt as if I walked into a room and was hit of the beautiful smells of the food while in “Tsholnt” my mouth watered as I read of the ingredients of one of my favorite foods. It is the cadence of the lines and the power of the imagination that brings Taub’s poems to life. Tsholnt or Cholent has been a staple for many Jews to enjoy on Shabbat afternoon and as I remembered the taste, I was taken back to my childhood when we sat together and ate potatoes, barley, onions, kishke, flanken and beans steamed together. We ate and sang for many hours and as our bellies filled, we also felt great love for the Sabbath and the two became linked. (I have tried to replicate the recipe here in Arkansas but something is missing, quite possibly the feeling of the glory of the Sabbath that is not experienced here like it was with family). Taub reminds me all too well of what I miss and what I want. I, on the other hand, remind myself of the reality of where I live.

I think why these poems are so important to me is because Taub hits the vulnerable spots that a Jewish gay man who grows up in a traditional Jewish home feels. While the circumstances may differ, the emotions are if not the same, similar. I so appreciate his work and there were times that not only did I feel like I was reading something very special but that I was also looking in the mirror. While the poet writes about his Orthodox home and about his mother, he also writes about all of us who have shared his experience to some degree. Just as Taub left Orthodoxy when he came out, it is likewise for many others who cannot reconcile their religion with their sexuality. Our memories are colored by confusion both religious and sexual. I just had an experience that brought it home to me. Just yesterday I was at an Orthodox synagogue for the holiday of Shavout and I was called to the Torah. Suddenly all of the emotions I had felt when I was younger and was called to the Torah came flooding back and I approached the bimah with visible tears in my eyes. It was a very special experience. I wonder if everyone there knew I was gay or maybe it just didn’t matter. It was a celebration for me and I remember coming home that day and openly weeping at what I have missed because I was afraid to admit to others who I am.

There was something akin to communion with a higher being as I read Taub. It was confessional and yet there was no direction to what I felt. Mixing sensuality and devotion is not an easy task but here the two walk hand in hand. One reviewer says that the poems answer questions and perhaps they do but they also asked me a lot of questions that I must think about. To capture a mother’s devotion to her son is not so difficult when they are alike but when the son has strayed into what his religion refers to as an abomination, the story becomes quite complex. There is a sense of tension in the poems as the mother is captured in verse. But above all else, there is honesty here and the poems speak of life and Judaism and love and identity. Here is Judaism reflected in the lives of mother and son and that reflection lit up my world.

 Taub, Yermiyahu Ahron. “What Stillness Illuminated/Vos shtilkayt hot baloykhtn”, Parlor Press, 2008.

One thing for certain is that life is not static and as we move through it we face many different choices. All of us have had our lives changed by the choices we have made and that is what poet Yermiyahu Ahron Taub shows us in “What Stillness Illuminated”. The poems are the beginnings and we are to take them beyond what is written so that the conclusions are ours.

Taub’s own experience as an artist’s model is the inspiration for this collection of short poems (with two in Hebrew as well as English and others in both Yiddish and English). The model experience explains the stillness and that very stillness is what the artist brought to life or illuminated. Taub in his short poems brings other “stillnesses” to illumination. Each poem shines in its own way and the light that each shares is based upon memories from the past.

Each poem is five lines but in those five lines is a great deal of power and detail. As we make our way through the poems, we make our way through those barriers to light—be they war, poverty, sexuality, whatever. As we come into the light and see the world, there is a sense of redemption.  Silence plays on sound as we are brought face to face with the emotions of change and fear, awareness and redemption, desire and completion. What grabs the reader are the images portrayed by the poems and reading them is like looking at a photograph rich in detail. Taub is mysteriously, almost playfully erotic as he fulfills his own challenge of brevity. He asks questions, gives few answers and he is able to give us in five short lines enough to lead us to think. Perhaps that is why this review is so short—I am still thinking about what I read and maybe one day I will come back and add something and maybe I won’t. Maybe you can add a conclusion. It seems to me that is what the poet wants us to do.

Bellerose, Sally. “The Girls Club”, Bywater Books, 2011.

 One of the highlights of Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans this year was meeting Sally Bellerose and hearing her read her award winning story. Now her first novel, “The Girl’s Club” has been released and it is another highlight of knowing Sally.

I have always loved coming out stories because they are such a challenge. Just finding a new way to relate a coming out story is important as our literary canon is filled with them. Bellerose has risen to that challenge with the story of Cora Rose LaBarre, a young white working class woman in the 1970’s, a time when coming out was met with fright and angst. Cora’s sisters think that her sexuality is sick, “a dreaded bowel disease” so Cora really has to deal with this on her own. Her religion provides no comfort as she tries to find a place to negotiate her feelings and her Catholic upbringing.

When Cora is caught in the arms of Stella, her best friend, she is as upset (for lack of a better word) and as a way to prove to herself and her sisters that she is “OK”, she gives herself to the first male that pays attention to her and by the time she is eighteen years old, she is already married and a mother.

As the plot moves forward, we deal with Cora and her sisters as they both support and turn away from each other as they come to deal with who they are and what their lives mean. Cora has to deal with both who she is sexually and the need for her sisters’ acceptance. Again, the time period in which the novel is set plays an important role here and I would even go as far as to say that the 70’s are another character in the novel. I do not believe that Cora would face the same anxieties if she were to come out in the early twenty-first century.

Cora meets and becomes involved with Anne, a woman she meets at “The Girl’s Club”, a bar and she eventually leaves her husband so that they can build a life together but things were not that easy. Aside from having to deal with her sisters, she fights to keep her child with her and has to find some way to deal with her Catholic upbringing.

Bellerose has created an “everywoman” with Cora Rose. She is such a real character that I expected to see her in the room with me as I read. Aside from creating very real characters, Bellerose shows great strength in writing dialogue and in giving us details. I have read novels with dialogue that just go over us and we do not pay much attention to it. Here, however, the dialogue is so very real that I found myself reading every word– it was almost like eavesdropping—paying careful attention to something that is none of my business. (Bellerose makes everything in the book the reader’s business).

The plot moves swiftly and the author’s knack for narrative is felt throughout. As we are pulled into the story, we are also pulled into the family and we are there as the three sisters deal with the realities of life. Bellerose gives us a wonderful debut novel that is not only exceptionally well-written but gives us another look at the coping process. After meeting Sally, hearing her read and then reading her novel, I understand why she is such a prize winner and if what I have said is not praise enough let me just add that I love, love, love this book.

 

Bram, Christopher. “Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America”, Twelve, 2012.

One of the new books coming our way is a book I cannot wait to read. It was World War II that acted as a catalyst for gay writers to become powerful in American letters and while coming out as gay could mean career suicide, several did and in doing so became the forefathers of what we have now. They totally changed the literary landscape of this country. Christopher Bram was lucky enough to be one who profited by what these brave men did. A wonderful gay writer himself, he now looks backwards at the men who opened the literary closet doors. By coming out in their writings, these authors also were responsible for a rise in gay consciousness.

Bram first looks at what he considers to be the first wave of major literary figures and it included Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg and James Baldwin. It was these men who set the stage for the future generations of gay writers and in that new generation are Armistead Maupin, Tony Kushner, Edward Albee and of course, the man who has remained at the steering wheel of gay writers, Edmund White. And there are others in both waves including the Violet Quill which was a group of gay writers who demanded to be heard. While Williams, Vidal and Capote were good friends that was not true for all of the writers and there were intrigues and feuds.

Bram takes us on a tour of fifty years of gay literature and he begins it at a time when being gay was a crime in forty-nine states and brings us to a period where gay marriage is legal in some of the United States. A book like this shows just how far we have come.

Pasfield, Scott. “Gay in America”, Welcome Books, 2011.

 “Gay in America” is finally out and it is every bit as beautiful as I thought it would be (and I don’t say that because I am in it). It seems like it was just yesterday that I met Scott Pasfield when he came to Little Rock to photograph me but it has actually been more than two years. He talked about his project of traveling all over America to take photos of gay men and put those commonly held stereotypes to bed. The result is a glorious look at gay life that shows regular guys with regular lives, people you see at the supermarket or the mall who are just a part of the society we call home.

The photography is amazing as are the stories written by the men themselves. Pasfield traveled over 50,000 miles during two years photographing gay men from all areas of American life and the result is 140 men who are part of the fabric of America. It is the diversity here that is striking and the book punctuates that we are not all activists or known people but that we, in our own way, make up part of gay life that is, in turn, part of the American way of life. We are farmers, teachers, and salesmen and so on and we wake up every day and live our lives like everyone else and if there is a difference between us and others, it is that we love each other and other men. I think that is what many will find surprising here and it should not be. Like everyone else, we are diverse and like everyone else, we shop at Wal-Mart and walk our dogs, make our beds and relate to others. We pray or we don’t, we are husbands and fathers, we are involved in the dynamics of this country, we struggle and we are rich and we are poor. Some of us are fine with the way things are and some of us want to change them.


This is such an important book just for what I have said above—we need to be seen as part of this country and not separate from it. Pasfield captures who we are with great style and beauty. It is so interesting and important to see men who accept themselves and who are accepted by others and who live in Iowa, Montana, Missouri, Arkansas and all the other states and who live their lives openly. Because we love our own does not make us anything more or less than everyone else. This is our hope and it should be the hope of everyone and that the walls of discrimination and hatred will come down and we will all find a way to live in peace.

 

I personally know a lot of men like those in the book and now America needs to do the same. This is a great place to start and with Scott Pasfield’s beautiful book, it is now easy to do.  Here is a book that captivates you the moment you open it (and I have opened it many times since my copy came on Monday). It is a validation of who we are and how we live and it is an inspiration to the young who fear that there are no others like them– especially to those who live in rural America and have little access to city or gay life. We forget that not all gay men live in cities and that we do not all shop for designer clothes or have the newest automobiles. We drive trucks and tractors and sow and plant and go to the movies with friends or stay home and watch television alone. We are the reality of gay life and this book is our legacy to the future—we are all so lucky that Scott Pasfield stayed with this project and thereby provided this wonderful resource to our community.

I have been reviewing LGBT books for several years now and I am constantly being asked if I have any favorites. That is a difficult question as there is so much that I love. However, now all those books that I love have to make place for a new addition to my favorites’ list. Here is a book that shows us as we are and I do not think anything can be more important than that.

Hoffman, Wayne. “Sweet Like Sugar”, Kensington Books, 2011.

 I became a Wayne Hoffman fan after reading his novel “Hard” and have been anxiously awaiting another book from him. Finally we have one and it is one of the most beautiful books that I have ever read (and I read a lot). Hoffman manages to combine my two favorite topics—Judaism and gay life—in the most sublime of ways and written in glorious prose. I began the book on a Friday morning and did not leave my chair until I finished it Friday evening (with the exception of a few moments in which I shot Hoffman an email to let him know how much I was enjoying his book).

The theme of the faces of love that he uses is not new and could easily fall into melodrama or cliché but it goes nowhere near either. We start off meeting Benji Steiner, a twenty-something year old gay Jewish male who feels that his destiny might not hold love for him and he is indeed skeptical about meeting his soul mate. Then something very strange happens that changes his life forever. Steiner has am office at the same mall as Rabbi Jacob Zuckerman has his Jewish book store. The heat of the summer causes the Rabbi to tire easily and he uses the couch in Steiner’s office for rest. As he comes to the office, a camaraderie develops between the two and through this each man gains new understanding about “love and faith and honesty and belonging.”

Coming from an Orthodox Jewish family myself, I could easily relate to the novel—so much so that it was eerie at times. I was raised with the Yiddish idea of “bashert”—that there is an ideal mate for everyone and we will know when we find him or her. Like Steiner I was distrustful that it would ever happen, unlike Steiner it never did (or hasn’t yet).  Rabbi Zuckerman had his “bashert” in his wife Sophie who died. The Rabbi had a hard time dealing with the feelings of loneliness and grief. Benji Steiner realizes this and the two men build a beautiful friendship from which both men profit.

What is so interesting is that the Jewish religion has so many mysteries and is so beautiful that many do not realize what they have missed until after it is gone. In many cases, American Jews have become so assimilated that the religion becomes a twice a year affair. Being Jewish is not just a religion, for me, at least. It is a way of life that I have always adhered to and have always been proud of. Couple that with being and I can either have the best or worst of two worlds, depending on how you look at it. I think I have the best (or did until I came to Arkansas where both lifestyles are somewhat foreign). Reading about Benji Stein brought back so many memories that I actually thought that I might have been reading about myself.

One knows he is alive when he faces truth and both Stein and the rabbi reach that point together. As they move toward that. We see hope fate brings two very different people together and how we are both united and divided by religion. We also see that sometimes the prejudices we hold can disappear with learning about or from another person.

Benji Stein felt alienated from others because of his religion yet it also allowed him to feel connected to others. Interestingly enough I am writing this review during Passover, 2011 and Passover is the perfect example of what Benji experiences. The beautiful thing about the holiday is that when I sit down to Seder everywhere in the world Jews are doing exactly the same thing. On the other hand I am separated from the larger society because of the rules that Passover imposes upon me. Growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana in an Orthodox family, this was never an issue because of the large Jewish population there. Then I moved to Israel and lived there for many years and there was no problem However, in Arkansas, Jews are anomalies and those of us who keep our religion are looked at in very strange ways. So Passover becomes both a celebration and a burden—much the same way Benji felt about his religion. Like Benji, I found my place in both the Jewish community and the larger gentile society and I have no trouble now but it was not always so easy. We also see in the book the importance of Jewish holidays for maintaining Jewish identity and using Passover yet again, even the most assimilated Jews remember who they are at that time of year.

There is a great deal to think about here and the issues that are raised are the same issues that many of us face and I do not mean just gay Jews and religious Jews. This is a story that happens to be Jewish but it just as well could have been any religion. It is about resolving differences and making peace with them. The interaction between the rabbi and Benji are very similar to the interactions gay men have with their fathers when they are ready to disclose their sexuality.

The character of Benji’s aunt Irene also adds a whole new element to the plot as do other characters and soon we have all kinds of interactions going on. Most of us are intelligent enough to know that we tend to fear what we do not know. As people get to know each other, walls come down and understanding follows just as with the characters in this novel.

The book is so rich with ideas and I could continue writing about it for hours. However I am stopping here with the hope that you will pick up a copy when the book is released in September. You are on for a special treat and some of the most beautiful writing around.

Michaelson, Jay. “God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality”, Beacon Press, 2011.

I am often asked how I reconcile my faith (Jewish) with my sexuality (gay) and I simply answer that I do not need to reconcile anything. I am a gay Jew or I am a Jewish gay man and that is simply who I am. I feel no conflict and there are no questions to ask or to answer because I understand who I am. Others–many, many others are not so lucky and they spend much of their lives looking for answers to non-existent questions. We have allowed ourselves to be bullied into believing that as gay and lesbian people,  there is no place for us religiously and the ideas that are cited  and/or used are totally erroneous. Jay Michaelson says a great deal about this in his new book, “God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality” so if you are looking for answers, here is a good place to start

This is such an important book and it shows us that religion is a liberating force without regard to sexuality or religious belief. Michaelson examines Jewish and Christian teachings about homosexuality and he shows us that both traditions allow for the embrace of our LGBT brothers and sisters. Furthermore the book is a guide to understanding the debate in America about religion and homosexuality.

The idea that religion and homosexuality are opposites of each other is, according to Michaelson, a “pernicious myth” and that gay rights should be championed by religion instead of the opposite. Both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament stress love, equality and compassion and if we begin our reading of the holy books with that in mind, we soon see that the reading we get is much different to what comes at us from pulpits in this country. Moral principles found in these texts (please note that I use the term Hebrew Bible instead of Old Testament in order that there be no confusion that one is older and one is newer) are aimed at acceptance of all people, specifically the LGBT community and the verses that are usually cited against homosexuality by conservatives are ambiguous at best. It is now time to end the discussion on God’s view of certain people when there is nothing written to that effect at all.

Both the Christian and Jewish Bibles place a great deal on the concepts of love, compassion and equality and there is no denying that these call for the inclusion of members of the LGBT community. Using this as a jumping off point the author looks at gay rights and states that the morality  ideals presented in the holy books show that acceptance is necessary and that the verses that are espoused by fundamentalist Christians are taken out of context and misunderstood. It is time to get rid of the “God split”. Michaelson goes on to show the idea of God vs. gay has been misinterpreted and in actuality God and gay not only go together but they complement each other. It is time for religious alienation to end and we should move to spiritual wholeness and thereby move closer to God. The book shows us how to heal and move from rejection to inclusion.  Michaelson says what many of us have always felt and once the words are out, we will see the differences they make. By looking within ourselves and our souls and our traditions we can see that religion can free us from the suffering that we have had pushed upon us.

Jay Michaelson is certainly in a position to make these statements. He is both a religious scholar and a gay activist and the founder of Nehirim which is an organization that provides programming for LGBT Jews. He has been listed by Forward newspaper as one of the fifty influential Jewish leaders in America. What he has to say is timely and very important and it provides a great deal to think about. The book is long overdue and I sincerely hope that with its publication others will begin to write on the topic as well. When we consider the amount of damage to our community brought about by religion, we should want to read this just to make sure that it will never happen again.

Jaffe, Daniel M. “Jewish Gentle and Other Stories of Gay-Jewish Living”, White Crane Books, 2011.

Gay Jews are often called “twice blessed” and I have wondered exactly what that means. Where I live for example, in Arkansas, being gay and being Jewish are both anomalies to other Arkansans. I wish I could count the number of times I have been told that I am the first Jew that someone has spoken to and, how about. “You are the first gay person I have met”. I am just not sure that is a blessing. So what does it mean to be marginalized twice? That is what we learn from Dan Jaffe. But let me make one point clear—in areas where there are large Jewish populations, one is really only marginalized once unless there is anti-Semitism in the place.

I have been a fan of Jaffe since his first book, “The Limits of Pleasure” was published and while he may not remember it, I actually bought a copy from him directly when he was in New Orleans for the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival some years ago. I did not participate that year but I did go to O’Flaherety’s Courtyard, the area where the festival was being held and I saw his book. I did not know it was he who was selling it but I remember that day well.

I have always been drawn to Jewish literature so Jewish/Gay literature is just the thing to make me smile and when it is written by a good writer like Dan Jaffe, the smile becomes a big grin. He gives us the stories of our gay Jewish lives, stories we all know well but have never taken the time to write down. If you ask me what makes a gay Jew different from a gay Catholic or a gay Buddhist, I doubt I could give you an answer. I might be able to tell you so by example. There is no solid definition. As gay Jews, it is something we feel but when it comes time to vocalize it, it is impossible to do so.

I remembering being told when I was growing up that Jews are one big family and when you come out, you come out to the entire House of Israel. Surprisingly enough, most gay Jews can reconcile their faith and their sexuality and while this does mean that we are totally accepted religiously, we find a way to make peace. Everything else in the gay community is the same for us—dating, building a relationship and keeping it, HIV and AIDS, sexual identity and teen angst…we are like the immortal Bard of Avon said in “The Merchant of Venice”, we bleed when cut, just like everyone else but…there is something quite indefinable about being Jewish and reading Jaffe’s stories, you might just pick up on it.

American Jewish life is quite diverse and we see that diversity in the twenty-four stories in this volume. As Jews, our world view is different (and yes, we are complainers and suffer because of whatever). It is through the lens of Judaism that we read these stories. Dan Jaffe looks at all aspects of gay life—coming out, sex, romance, aging, HIV and AIDS, leaving this world. I can imagine that you are thinking to yourselves, “so what else is new”? What is new is that he looks at these events and happenngs from the Jewish point of view and while you do not have to be Jewish to see what he is doing, those who are will undoubtedly see some of themselves here. Something unique that Jaffe does is write in a non-linear way and it is up to the reader to put himself into a story and help give it meaning. Jaffe tells it like it is and while his writing is beautifully sublime, his plots are unexpected. Nothing scares Jaffe and he writes about what he feels and what he feels like– be it violent or even blasphemous.

Jews have always been known as wanderers—hence, the nickname, “the wandering Jew”. It is this wandering that links Jaffe’s stories together. There are other links, often subliminal, between the stories and I can’t help but wonder if that is because there are links between all Jews. I always use the example that the Jewish religion is a faith of tradition. There is something beautiful and amazing when I think that when I sit down to the Passover meal, Jews all over the world are doing the same thing or when I read Torah on Saturday morning, the Torah is being read everywhere else on a Sturday morning.

 I can classify Dan Jaffe as a storyteller but I can go one step further and classify him as a Jewish storyteller. Of course, we can also add that he is a gay Jewish storyteller or a Jewish gay teller of stories. It makes no difference what we call him– what does make a difference is that we have his writings to cast a glow on our lives. He gives us songs of life, his own personal “Five Books of Jaffe” and as we read we hear his gorgeous symphony in our minds. I wanted to get up and dance because the music/writing moved me so.

 I just want to say that when I review a book of short stories, I usually try to write a brief summary of each story. I could not do that here for two reasons—one is that it would spoil your read and secondly, these stories when taken together give us a look at gay Jewish mind and to separate them would be an injustice. While the stories have Jewish themes, being Jewish is not the motif—being real and being human are the main ideas and I believe that the purpose of this book is to see the world through the eyes of the characters. That they are Jewish is important but it is more important that they are part of a larger world in which they interact with others. The Jew was once “the other” himself and Jaffe shows that this is no longer the case.

Hennessy, Christopher. “Love-in-Idleness”, Brooklyn Arts Press, 2011.

I use the title of Hennessy’s first poem for the title of my review because it so beautifully describes the poems in this book. They represent the way he looks at life and at himself as he shares his desires with us. As he looks, we are with him on the journey that he takes and while at times we feel his urgency, we always feel the beauty of his written word. Hennessy seems to be searching for some kind of certainty, some kind of assuredness that lets him know that he is ok not only with others but with himself. If anything struck me as a reader, it is the reality and realism with which he writes.

There has been a lot of poetry written this year and I have been lucky to be asked to review it. Last year when I was asked to compile a list of my personal ten favorite books for Lambda Literary, my list contained four poetry collections. This year I am sure there will be at least six and I think that the reason for this is not that more poetry is being written but that more good poetry is being published. If there is anything that ties all of this new poetry together, it seems to me, at least, that it is the quest for self.

More specifically, Hennessy’s poetry takes us on a brief tour of his life with his poems of childhood and family to his more adult and erotic poems and I felt that he treated me as if I already knew something about him. Now he wants to share the rest. Not only does he want to share, he is determined to share and it is this use of language that pulls us in. Combining this beautiful language with his sense of “self” brings the reader and the poet to a point of intimacy that is quite difficult to reach, especially if the writer does not know the reader. Every word is specifically picked to give us lyricism that pulls us in and then shows us what sensitivity is all about.

Do I have favorites? Of course I do and I suppose I could quote them or mention their titles or even say what they are about. But this is not fair because what are my favorites might not be yours and to concentrate on a few poems takes away from the collection as whole. I would much rather that you read them all, draw your conclusions, find your own favorites and it would not surprise me if you love them all equally. I think that is what makes poetry special and each of us is free to interpret a poem that speaks to us.

Something else interesting about these poems is that Hennessy includes his notes and he shares with us a little about what the impetuses for some of the poems are. I have read other poems by Hennessy and I faithfully subscribe to his blog and while we do not “know” each other, I feel that I do know something about him and I surely hope that I keep learning more.

Walker, Robert. “The Buoyancy of It All”, Lethe Press, 2011.

Robert Walker says in his poem “Excerpts From the Memoir I’ll Never Write” that “I’m really only good at 3 Things: writing, making things up and performing fellatio”. I, however, did not have the chance to get him to prove either of the last two to me when I met him last weekend at Saints and Sinners Literary Festival so I can’t say anything about his making things up or performing oral sex but I can unequivocally say that he is not only good but he is brilliant at writing. I am a somewhat emotional person but it takes a good deal to make my eyes tear when I read. Robert Walker had me weeping with his absolutely gorgeous poetry. He does things with language that are just amazing.

Lately, gay poetry has begun a thrust forward. I have received four new books of poetry to review in the last week and reviewing poetry is a great deal different from reviewing prose. There is a certain satisfaction that I find when reading a poem that has so much to say and I usually find that poems are the key to unlock the inner soul. In Walker’s case, his poetry is very tongue in cheek but we also get the chance to see a beautiful person who can use just the right words to say just the right thing. He is passionate about his writing and that shows through his work. His passion, I believe, feeds his talent. He is going to be very important so keep your eyes on him (and he is quite pleasant to the eye as well). Unfortunately the only impression that I got of Walker was from a few short conversations but I could tell that he is a total poet and an intense person. He writes with a tongue in cheek humor that is difficult to do and he seems to know just the right thing to say. He merges good and bad together with wonderful results– this is not tame writing. It shocks and surprisingly enough, it also comforts. However what impresses me the most is the freshness of his voice and the vibrancy of his language.

I found it strange that I cried as I smiled but I do believe I was deeply touched by the beauty of his language and it takes a really good writer to be able to bring fellatio to be regarded as a heavenly experience (and we all know that it is but rarely speak about it in those terms). Walker’s poems are more than just funny, they are sincere and sensual, political and outrageous and more than all else they are an experience–one which is not quickly forgotten. Walker writes with compassion even when writing about himself and we see him as larger than life. Now I also must add that the poems are not exactly what you might read to your mother and it is very easy to feel yourself blushing as you read.

Walker’s voice is the voice of reality and while some of the ideas may appear to be only reasonable within the imagination, Walker gives them life and they walk off of the page straight into the mind and the psyche of the reader. He is brave and tackles what many others shy away from whether he writes about his current boy friend or fags or filling his bike with gas. The short poems waste no time saying what few can say while the longer poems are little stories rendered beautifully in the language and the imagery of the writer. He can just as easily write about Ginsberg’s cock as he can about the bogeyman or acting in pornography.

I am still reeling with joy over this debut collection and I recommend it totally, especially for those who say that they hate poetry. This will totally change your mind.

Smith, Bob. “Remembrance of Things I Forgot: A Novel”, University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.

A new book by Bob Smith is cause for celebration and this is one celebration that seems like it has been a long time coming. I first heard about this book a couple of years ago and I immediately wrote to Bob to make sure I was on the reviewers’ list. But the publisher went under and none of us knew if this book would ever see the light of day; However, when you are an author like Bob Smith, doors open and the book is finally (although you will have to wait until the end of June to read it). I just finished reading the advance proof and honestly, I was sad to close the covers (but I know I can go back and read it again and again and probably will very soon).

Partially borrowing his title from Marcel Proust, we know that we are going to be taking a wonderful ride as we did with “Selfish and Perverse”. We know we will laugh as we did with “Openly Bob” and “Way to Go, Smith” and we are pretty sure we are going to get something new. As a standup comedian, Smith broke barriers and as a biographer, he let us into his life. As a novelist, Smith seduces the reader and his poetic comedy wows.

In this book, Smith takes on politics, time-travel, family and dysfunction, romance, aging and life in general. Our hero is John Sherkston, a comic-book dealer who suddenly finds himself twenty years earlier in time and has a change to repair the mistakes he has made in life. He might even be able to stop that Republican, George W. “What’s His Name” from attaining the highest office in the land. John has a plan that involves a cross country road trip by which he can correct the errors and make it back to the place where he is supposed to be. However, as he begins he has enemies and villains chasing him and this makes it a whole new ball game. If you have ever wanted a second chance, you should read this book and then decide if that is what you really want.

So often youth becomes lost and we try to regain it, thinking that by doing so, everything will be all right. Bob Smith tells you how it is in a way that will keep you laughing and thinking at the same time. The characters that Smith give us are so real that when you look up from the page, you try to see them in the room. The prose is sublime, the dialogue gorgeous and the book is a true experience. But that is not all—Smith gives us a political satire that makes you say, “Whoa!”

Set in 2006, we meet Sherkston as he is breaking up with his boyfriend, a physicist, who tells him that he has invented a time machine for the government. John is mystified by it and hops aboard and is transported back to 1986 where he meets Junior, who is nothing more than himself but younger. He also finds his boyfriend at a younger time and together they comes up with the road trip and the three, John, Junior and Taylor are off to save the world. John not only comes face to face with his own problems but with the problems of America and this second chance teaches him that there are always problems.

How do we classify this book? Is it comedy, science fiction, satire? It is all of these and so much more. It is a view of life and an adventure that has a great deal to say about the way we live. Read it and thank Bob Smith for writing it. I have a very strong feeling that it will become the book of the year for our community and for others as well.

Sherman, Scott. “Second You Sin (A Kevin Connor Mystery)”. Kensington Books, 2011.

I wondered if we would hear from Scott Sherman again after his successful Kevin Connor novel, “First You Fall” and then that very same day I got his new book, “Second You Sin” and Kevin Connor is back. In this novel someone who is killing the hottest of New York’s hustlers and Connor is determined to find out who is doing so. Kevin himself is not only a part time detective; he is a full time call boy. Now Kevin Connor is a hot looking guy with quick wits and he can take on any situation and act it to the hilt. Now he has a rough job and that is to catch and stop a killer. He has plenty suspects and motives and as he closes in on the truth, he is trapped in a web of secrets where everything becomes a blur.

Sherman won the Lambda award with his first book so he already had a challenge when he sat down to write but he succeeds in making this book every bit as good if not better than its predecessor. When we let Kevin in the first book, he was with his friend, Tony, a New York City cop and was still hustling. However we get the sense that those days will soon be over and he seems to really care about Tony. Obviously a novel with the theme of sex for hire could be very dark but Sherman keeps it funny and fun as well as has a strong message about gay family values and while some of you may think that the novel is a bit “fluffy”, you will have to agree that the fluff is very well written.

Myers, Andrea.”The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days”, Rutgers University Press, 2011.

Rabbi Andrea Myers is really something and reading about her journey is an inspiration. We see that she is a person with many different sides to her identity and she manages to bring them all together to give us an exceptional person.

Her mother was Sicilian Catholic; her father, German Lutheran and she is not only Jewish but a rabbi (who is married to another rabbi who also makes her a rebbitzen). She came out as a lesbian when she was a student at Brandeis, she converted to Judaism in Israel and she studied in New York to get a smichah as a rabbi. She is also a mother, a teacher and a writer. Her memoir is “The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days” and you can feel the love in the book. The book is extremely readable and if you know me, right up my alley.

Myers is a classical Reform rabbi but she studies in the traditionalist structure. She respects the dietary laws in her own way since she has a hard time understanding why we should eat as was done some thousands of years ago. She was encouraged to write her book when someone asked her partner the source of a story she told from her pulpit one night and she begins her book with the High Holy Days with a chapter based on her partner’s sermon.

An interesting statement that she makes is that there is no way she would be Jewish had she not been gay. She qualifies this by saying that she understands “what it means to be hated for what you are and proud at the same time, to belong to a people as old as the world and to have a community wherever you go”. For Myers, coming out allowed her to examine her own journey and then to accompany others as they make theirs.

She takes her rabbinic principles from the late Rav Kook who was the first chief rabbi of Israel who said that modern Jews have the task of “making the old new and the new holy” which is interpreted to mean that ancient traditions need to be updated but in a holy way; to transform what has been given.

She writes of God and of identity and she does so with wit and I often found myself laughing as I read. Myers shares real stories and she has had a wonderful life so far. The question I have is that if she writes a memoir as a 39 year old, does that mean that other books will follow. What is here is wonderful but I did not want it to end. I surely hope I do not have to wait 39 years for a sequel.

Nolan, Nick. “Black as Snow”, Amazon Encore, 2011.

When I reviewed Nick Nolan’s “Strings Attached” several years ago I thought to myself that he is an author that is going to go far, He cemented that with “Double Bound” and put icing on it with “Black as Snow”. Nolan has the ability to take a well known story, “Pinocchio” or “Snow White” and turn it around so that it becomes relevant for us. I remember by reaction to his “Pinocchio” Redux in “Strings Attached” and to do something like he did takes real talent. In this new book he takes the Snow White story, deconstructs it and turns it into an adult novel by adding sex and violence and making it as dark as black snow. Nolan goes one step further and throws religion in and I am sure that this will make people sit up and take notice.

Snow White becomes Sebastian Black and he is a messiah like figure who ushers in a religion that “celebrates evolution and the coming of the next species of Man”. The dwarves are those people who sit on the edges of society but subscribe to what Sebastian has to say. Born to an evil mother, a religious prophet, Sebastian is as dark in character as his last name. Sebastian is incredibly handsome and extremely charismatic; his clairvoyance adds to his mystery. It is his mother, Kitty, who lets the world know that her son is special and the world listens. Kitty and Sebastian form the movement that is to become the new religion and it celebrates what is referred to as “divine evolution” and warns against a holocaust of “mass extinction”. Mother and son gain fame and wealth until an accident fells one of their disciples and the Christian right becomes increasingly heard.

Sebastian takes flight and runs from his mother to San Francisco and he wants peace and freedom to be. As he meets “common” man, he is amazed and their simple and uncomplicated lives and they share love and compassion. Each person (a handyman, a college jock, a lesbian couple, a meth addict, a gay teen, etc) that he meets effects him profoundly and he continues to move away from his mother and as he does, Kitty becomes more intent to bring him back.
Do not worry though—all is not dark and there is some wonderful humor here and the sex scenes are quite funny. Nolan, himself, believes in the inevitably of a new human species and he wrote about how he envisioned it to be. This is how Sebastian was created—he is clairvoyant, he is brilliant and he is very good looking yet he is imperfect in his perfection. His arrogance is a turn off and his selfishness shows his vulnerability.

The religious theme of the book is Nolan’s way of protesting religious evangelicalism. Most of us would enjoy some kind of spirituality but instead we get those who try to force their religious views down our pants and convince us that we are not worthy to believe. These fundamentalist views are quite explosive and could quite certainly blow up. I would not be surprised if they do but then look at the Catholic Church that protects its pedophile priests yet refuses to admit gays into union with God.

The story is actually a love story and I am sure that you have yet to see any evidence of that in my review and you won’t—just take my word for it. If I tell you everything you have no need to read the book and that is what I want you to do. There is a lot to think about here and Nolan presents it to us in sublime prose. There are lessons here aside from love and for me the major thing to be taken away from the book is that life is beautiful and it is beautiful because of those who came before, each generation works to make it better and we owe it to those people to remember them. While we may have lost people, we have gained heritage and that heritage is what makes us special. Yet we must remember that they have given us a gift and that gift is to be cherished.

So here is the new “Snow White” but now the suspense is real and the power of love can make everything fine. Once again I commend Nick Nolan as he has written something very special here. I have known it was coming but Nolan never spoke of what it was about. I believe that many of us will be talking about it for a while and I urge you not to look just at the story but at the way Nolan constructed it and then gave it to us as if each word was especially chosen.

 

“Boisvert, Donald and Jay E. Johnson. Editors. “Queer Religion” [2 volumes], Pager, 2011.

 

I just heard about what looks like is a very important book, the two volume, “Queer Religion” and hopefully I will get a review copy so I can tell you all about it. If you read me regularly, you know that religion is one of my favorite topics and I try to read everything I can about homosexuality and religion. I, like the editors here, believe that the two can be compatible and spirituality has long been a part of LGBT life. We are well aware of the tensions that exist between us and some branches of organized religion but we must remember that religion is simply the conduit to God for many but it does not have to be. No one needs to be a member of a religion to be spiritual—it is purely individual. The tension that exists is of course in part responsible for what has been happening in the LGBT movement and queer theory.

I understand that this book(s) will give us a “systematic and detailed overview of challenges and issues that the intersections of religion, same-sex desire, and gender variance have generated” at the present time and through history. The work looks at how there is an overlap between and among areas and it does so by examining three historical periods—the modern age, the period of liberation and the rise of queer theory and analysis.

The work is a collection of essays that delve into the relationship between us and religion and analyzes the cultural and theological slants. We get an inside look at the issue by examining the diverse perceptions on the three major issues here—same-sex desire, gender variation and religion.

2 thoughts on “The Best in LGBT Literature of 2011—A Personal List

  1. Sally Bellerose

    Amos,
    What a thrill to be on your list and in such wonderful company. I am especially happy to be listed with Bob Smith and the amazing Rabbi Andrea Myers.
    Thank you for fabulous support of writers and literature. Sally Bellerose

    Reply
  2. Amos Post author

    Robert Walker’s book of poetry, “the buoyancy of it all” is out of print at Lethe Press but is being republished in February from New Sins Press,

    Reply

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