Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Favorites of the Year

Favorite Gay Novel: I’m usually behind in reading new books — often by a year or more — unless I’m asked to review a specific title or I am judging an awards category. The best gay-themed novel I read in 2009 was John Weir’s What I Did Wrong — which was published in 2006. I’d avoided reading the book in part, because I knew there was a character based on David Feinberg, a mutual friend I shared with Mr. Weir, and in part, because I had enjoyed Andrew Holleran’s novel on the same theme, Grief, but felt that Holleran was often repeating himself too much in all his writings — he keeps writing the same story over and over, even though they are always gorgeously written and insightful and terrific reads — and I was worried that Weir’s novel might be a re-tread of his first novel The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket, which I admired a great deal. What I Did Wrong was much better than I had expected it to be. I thought Weir’s novel captured David with uncanny precision in the character of Zack, but it also vividly captured the narrator Tom’s grief and imbalance following Zack’s death. Tom’s “lost boy adrift” sort of life mirrors the lasting affect that AIDS has had on friends and survivors — in a way that doesn’t go away with aging and the passing of years. This is also a deeply felt book about having a New York relationship and the experiences of a certain generation living in the city, in the same way that Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Bright Lights, Big City or Slaves of New York are about New York experiences. My only qualm was that I wished Mr. Weir had written a little more about his and David’s ACT UP experiences as activists — but of course that is me projecting my knowledge of some of the facts of both men and the events of their lives and not necessarily what Mr. Weir wanted to include in his novel — or should have included in it. But this was a profoundly good and satisfying read for me; in many passages of this novel Weir’s prose is stellar and lush, particularly in its last, glorious paragraphs.

Favorite Gay Memoir/Autobiography: I fell in love with Joel Derfner’s Swish immediately on opening it and I couldn’t put it down. Derfner writes narrative essays about himself, and about learning knitting, making friendships, dating, dating, and dating, being a cheerleader, and his love of musical theater. He has the kind of engaging, talky, campy personality that you hope your best friend has. What sets this memoir apart from a lot of similar comic, gay essay books is Derfner’s intelligence and seriousness coupled with a delightful sense of irony and bewilderment of who he is and what he wants. I’ve been recommending this book ever since I finished it.

Favorite Short Story by a Gay Author: Later this year Lee Thomas has a collection In the Closet, Under the Bed being published by Dark Scribe Press and I had a chance to read an advance copy of this. These are fifteen horror tales, many of which find gay male protagonists battling supernatural forces. I think that this will be a classic horror collection because Thomas does the kind of “guy fiction” that Stephen King does, only he is doing it with gay characters and themes. The best story in the collection has no paranormal gimmicks to it at all to it — “Crack Smokin’ Grandpa” — just a mounting sense of dread as the clues and truths behind the evolving relationship of a gay man and an older one come to light. It’s a powerful and unsettling story.

Favorite Discovery: I’ve blogged about this before, but I think that more readers need to know of these books — the gay and lesbian line of local history books published by Arcadia. I read Gay and Lesbian San Francisco by William Lipsky (and loved it) and then discovered Gay and Lesbian Atlanta by Wesley Chenault and Stacy Brankham (and could not put it down because I grew up in Atlanta).

Favorite Re-Discovery: I sometimes pull down from my shelves a favorite book that I had read years before—sometimes for enjoyment, sometimes to study an author’s technique. This year I had the joy of rediscovering Allan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library. I remember when I first read the book in 1989 I was awed by the author’s prose style and his unabashed depiction of gay life in London. It was a marvelously sexy book. I had always been hesitant about revisiting this book, in part because I was probably one of the few people who had been disappointed by The Line of Beauty. But I will only say this: my rediscovery of this book was as magnificent as my first reading of it.

Favorite Guilty Pleasure: I have developed a tremendous affection for ghost stories and this year I spent a lot of time reading both new and old ones — literary short fiction — in an attempt to compile an historical and chronological list of ghost stories that feature gay characters and which were written by gay authors (i.e. “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” by Tennessee Williams, “Dr. Woolacott” by E.M. Forster, and “The Circular Valley” by Paul Bowles). So I was particularly enthralled by Ken Summers’ Queer Hauntings: True Tales of Gay and Lesbian Ghosts which came out in October. This is a non-fiction guide/reference work of gay and lesbian ghosts and locations haunted by queer spirits. Summers also maintains a Web site at Moonspenders.com which details queer paranormal events and locations.

For a glance at what other gay authors have revealed as their favorite reads of the year, visit Stephen Bottum's terrific blog, Band of Thebes.