Film / TV



Book Marks

Richard Labonte | July 18, 2005

Choir Boy, by Charlie Anders. Soft Skull, 256 pages, $16.95 hardcover.

Thirteen-year-old Berry is one kooky kid. For instance: for him, being a choirboy is a passion to live for, not an after-school penance. So when his pure boy's voice starts to crack with the onset of puberty, he panics – and attempts self-castration. With the help of a transsexual guardian angel, and much bluster, he then cajoles a street clinic into prescribing him testosterone-inhibiting meds. His wondrous voice is back. But breasts ensue – along with thoughts that he might be a boy who wants to be a girl. Anders' rollicking debut novel, laced with moments of emotional intensity and tinges of graphic violence, is a multi-layered marvel: it's a sweet coming-of-age story, a savvy consideration of gender exploration, a shrewd study of middle-school bullying, a smart critique of wrong-headed religious fervor, and a sly commentary on how crazy adults can be. The kids, for all their adolescent confusions, are the sane ones in Choir Boy, as they fumble their way through the harrowing reality of being 13 going on all grown up.

Above the Thunder, by Renee Manfredi. Anchor Books, 336 pages, $13.95 paper.

Found families are familiar territory for many queers. Strangers coming together as a clan – that's less instinctive terrain for a cautious, straight, middle-aged widow. Anna, lamenting her late husband and unhappy in her medical work, is the heart of the found family in this magical debut novel, which also includes her mystical 10-year-old granddaughter, her flaky and artistic son-in-law, and troubled gay couple Jack and Stuart. Jack is the randy, handsome one with AIDS; Stuart is the less self-assured homebody; the poignant, dramatic, and often hilarious subplot detailing their falling in and out of and back in love is heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure. Their story is a graceful reason any gay man ought to read Manfredi's assured, bold book. But the real charm of Above the Thunder is how its gorgeously textured characters – old and young, man and woman, straight and gay – come to love each other deeply, despite (or perhaps because of) assorted emotional quirks, sexual transgressions, meddlesome ways, and other all-too-human foibles.

The Tall Boy, by Jess Gregg. The Permanent Press, 232 pages, $18 paper.

Unremarkable lives – on the surface, at least – can yield remarkable stories. One such is told in The Tall Boy, an unassuming but completely captivating memoir by novelist and playwright Gregg. He was 22 when he was arrested, more than 60 years ago, for soliciting a cop along Hollywood Boulevard. He survived the humiliation – many gay men back then did not – and went on to a slight but satisfying writing career, publishing the last of his three novels and realizing the production of his play, The Seashell – with a hunky young Sean Connery in the cast – more than 30 years ago. He shared a lunch counter with Agnes de Mille, worked with Gower and Marge Champion, and orbited luminaries like Tennessee Williams, John Gielgud, Jean Cocteau, and Colette – all of whom he writes about with gentle affection and wry detail. More gaily, Gregg also recounts his adventures in the social and cultural world of his younger years, as a strikingly tall and passably handsome man living a quiet, cultured gay life.

Just Add Hormones: An Insider's Guide to the Transsexual Experience, by Matt Kailey. Beacon Press, 176 pages, $21.95 hardcover.

This assertive hybrid of informal memoir and informed how-to guide is both a serious account of one person's transsexual experience and a genial exploration of gender transition. Kailey – a 42-year-old straight woman when he began therapy, surgery, and testosterone shots – never claims to speak for every trans person, and consistently acknowledges the trans community's diversity. Nonetheless, the FTM raconteur's wide-ranging discussion of the ramifications of reassigning one's sex ably addresses the medical, physical, and emotional issues for anyone considering it. Parts of Just Add Hormones dwell, wittily, on the author's own experiences – he's changing his own tires now; he's considered odd if he coos at a new-born baby; and nontrans friends aren't "copping a feel" when they touch his breast-less chest. Other chapters offer a cheeky insider's discussion of pesky pronouns, pants-packing, bathroom blues, and on-the-job jitters. But the real worth of Just Add Hormones stems from its thoughtful analysis – at times philosophical, at times political, and at times polemical – of a life-changing decision.

Featured Excerpt:
Over the past few weeks Jack had determined that he must be in love with Hector. There was no other explanation for the heartsickness he felt for the boy. It was, though, a different kind of love from what he and Stuart shared: he felt Stuart's presence everywhere, in every thought, but Hector was all about absence, the blank space where Jack could spill over, bleed past the careful outline he maintained with Stuart.
– from Above the Thunder, by Renee Manfredi

R.I.P., YET ANOTHER gay bookstore: Seattle's Beyond the Closet, opened in 1988 by former A Different Light employee Ron Whiteaker, is closing its doors in a few weeks – the third queer bookstore to go out of business this year, after Sacramento's The Open Book and Tampa Bay's Tomes & Treasures. Countering the trend, however, is The Reading Grounds, a new LGBT bookstore and coffeehouse that opened June 1 in Omaha – "a place that embraces diversity and stimulates independent thinking," said founder Cindy Collins. Gourmet coffee is also promised.
BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: Saturday Night at the Baths is Steve Ostrow's account of how in the 1970s he turned the steamy Continental Baths into a Manhattan hot spot, incidentally kick-starting the career of fag fave Bette Midler; it's due next year from Chamberlain Brothers. Alexander Chee's second novel, The Queen of the Night, is also due next year, from Houghton Mifflin; his first novel, Edinburgh, about molestation in a boy's choir, garnered him a 2004 NEA Fellowship in Literature and a 2003 Whiting Writer's Award. No Way Renee is the clever title of Dr. Renee Richards' forthcoming memoir for Simon & Schuster, about how she's faring 31 years after her transformation from Richard Raskind to Renee, her legal battle to compete on the women's tennis circuit, and her legendary match with tennis pro Billie Jean King.

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

Previous edition Book Marks [04/07/2004]


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