What books did we read at Polari HQ in 2012?
Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America is the best book about contemporary gay fiction I can recall reading. Written by the novelist Christopher Bram – author of Father of Frankenstein, which was made into the film Gods and Monsters – it tells the story of US-based gay male writers from the late 1940s through to the end of the 2000s. It starts with Gore Vidal and ends with Michael Cunningham.
The book is a compelling read because it revels in the twists and turns of the story. There’s no political grandstanding, no overwrought literary criticism, and no trace of theoretical jargon. What Bram does is to measure the impact that post war writers had on how American society viewed homosexuality and how essential they were to the change in public attitudes. It’s a novelist’s rendition of an intergenerational saga. It may drop off a little at the end, but that’s only because the writers are no longer larger than life. Capote, Vidal, Baldwin and Williams tower over Albee, White and Maupin.
I can think of no other writing about the era that has sent me back to the books with such an acute understanding of their worth and their significance.
V.G. Lee – Ey Up and Away – Vicky Ryder
What can I tell you about Vicky Ryder’s, Ey Up and Away, to make you want to read it? It has a cover depicting a cowboy on a fine rearing horse. It’s full of humour and affection for the richly detailed, working class life of the 1950s and ‘60s. Within seventeen vignettes and poems, a childhood is brought to vivid life. This book is not just very funny. Through the wonderfully observed interactions and dialogue, we recognise the love that exists within this and our own families; the shared jokes and tragedies.
We know that the Nan has a dour sense of humour. “He wouldn’t know a cocktail from Ash Wednesday.” Open the book. “And now the purple dust of twilight time…” sang my father, as we sifted coal through the garden sieve…
Ey Up and Away is a gem.
Rupert Smith – London Belongs to Me – Norman Collins
London Belongs to Me is a boarding house novel, set in Kennington in south London during the Second World War, and one level it’s a superior literary soap opera – and an extremely entertaining one. But it’s also the closest I’ll ever get to travelling back in time to London in the 40s, a world that’s almost totally vanished now, but which still lingered on in the bedsits and pubs of my youth. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Walter Beck – He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices – Stephen S. Mills; This Way to the Acorns: 10th Anniversary Edition – Raymond Luczak
Picking out a favorite book of this year is also a challenge, so I’ll have to give this one to two.
My first pick would be Stephen S. Mills’ He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices. Mills is a native Hoosier and at the time of the book’s release was living in Florida, a far sunny cry from the plains of Indiana. His work presents the sleazy underbelly of gay life, featuring poems about letters from prison, violent hate crimes and raunchy sex. One of the highlights of the book is the second part, consisting of one twenty page poem “An Experiment in How to Become Someone Else Who Isn’t Moving Anymore”, a mini-epic to brutal self-transformation and discovery. With his no bullshit approach, Mills comes off like the gay bastard son of Charles Bukowski.
My second pick is Raymond Luczak’s This Way to the Acorns: 10th Anniversary Edition. Originally released in 2002, this volume is the polar opposite of Mills’ work, with Luczak (also a Midwestern native, originally from Michigan) painting a down-home portrait of life in the Midwest. Luczak’s work speaks of summers, old friends, family, local buildings and changing seasons in the same vein and passion as Robert Frost.
Michael Langan – Hilary Mantel, Jeanette Winterson and Kevin Powers
The best book I read in 2012 was, without a doubt, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the second part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. Mantel became the first British writer, and the first woman, to win the Booker Prize twice and it was a well-deserved honour. Another particular highlight was Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. I fell in love with Winterson’s writing all over again reading this and it’s a breathtakingly honest and original approach to life writing. A recent read that confirms the relevance and importance of the novel in these difficult and complex times was The Yellow Birds, written by former U.S. soldier Kevin Powers. Gripping and poetic, the novel tells the story of one soldier’s experience of war that is both specific to the particular horrors of recent conflicts in the Middle East, as well as being a great addition to the canon of war literature.
Andrew Darley – Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? – Jeanette Winterson
It’s lucky that I bought the hardback version of this book, as it’s one that will keep giving and unveiling itself upon each re-read. Although her life has been documented and fictionalised in her previous work, most notably in her landmark Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, this book lays bare Jeanette Winterson’s personal struggles, anxieties & life lessons of her childhood and adult life with a stark honesty that is both as heartbreaking as it is hopeful. Across fifteen sparse chapters, Winterson details her past with an intensely religious and abusive mother, coming to terms with her sexuality, her search for her birth mother and her journey in becoming a writer. Why Be Happy… emphasises the value of art and literature in people’s lives and how it can hold people together. When she was a child, books held out their hands to Jeanette to give her a lifeline between the covers and outside of her crushing reality. She poetically describes the gift and the trick in becoming, accepting and loving oneself, even in the most adverse circumstances. This memoir prevails over everything and everyone who tried to hold her back. It proudly subverts its own title and her adoptive mother’s enquiry of her sexuality: Why be normal when you could be happy?
Wendyl Harris – And The Band Played On – Randy Shilts
And The Band Played On is a moving and well-written dialogue about the early years of HIV/AIDS. It’s probably one of the most important documented records of our age, not just for those who lived it, but for every generation, every community.
I’ve had terrible struggles re-reading it, and wanted to close the pages and tuck it back on the shelf. I’ve found myself unwilling to read what is after all a very good book. This has opened my eyes to perhaps one of the reasons HIV/AIDS is becoming a growing problem again in London. If you were around back then you’ll remember it as a time of great horror, great pain, yet great ‘brotherhood’ and great love. And I wonder, as the years passed and the drugs rolled out and the worse abated a little, whether our main coping mechanism was just to file it all away. I wonder whether we’ve kind of psychically passed that attitude on to the younger generations.
The book isn’t just about HIV/AIDS, there is our history within its pages, tales of love and inspiration, tales of discrimination, and a reminder that there still is no ‘cure’ for HIV … 34 million and counting.