I've read several good books this summer, including three non-fiction books, far and away my favorite genre: My Queer War, by James Lord, My Red Blood, by Alix Dobkin, and Young Man From The Provinces, by Alan Helms.
I'm fascinated by queer history, and I loved each of these books. I learned something significant about queer history from each one, so let me tell you why you should run right out and get your very own copies.
My Queer War, by James Lord, is a posthumously published memoir of a young gay man's experiences in World War II. Particularly fascinating to me were descriptions of gay life in the early 1940s, and the fabulous parties to which Lord was invited, where he conquered all. I began to realize that private parties were the only means of any gay social life, and that probably has some part in the significance of the "party" in contemporary gay life, which I never quite understood. The circuit parties and the White Party and the parties created by gay advocacy organizations -- I understood these as symbols of excess because of my ignorance of the historical context of gay life.
Sample sentences: "Across the smelly crowd in the hotel lobby, I'd already spotted a good-looking GI lost in the middle distance, and I thought, why not? He was wonderfully fair, features almost too fine, a Botticelli of angelic allure, tall and slender."
I'll talk about Young Man From The Provinces, by Alan Helms next, since it describes the next decade of gay life.
Originally published in the 90s, this contains fascinating details of gay life in the late 50's and early 60's. After a chaotic early life in Indiana, he went to college in New York City, where he increasingly became involved in gay celebrity culture, becoming, as he put it, a "Famous International Faggot" due to his good looks, intelligence and charm. He dabbled in acting and writing -- though "dabbled" might be the wrong word for someone performing on Broadway, but he never made a serious career of those. Instead, he was supported by a series of incredibly rich and famous and handsome boyfriends, traveled the world, and had close friendships with well-known celebrities like Noel Coward, Leonard Bernstein and Edward Albee. Unfortunately, rather than uplifting him as might be supposed, this life of reflected glory brought him to the brink of self-destruction. It does make for a fascinating story the way Helms tells it, He ultimately recovers, gets his Ph.D, and becomes a professor of literature at the University of Massachusetts. It's a fascinating journey.
Sample sentences: "Once I took up residence in Luchino's villa in Rome, I found myself living the most luxurious life I've ever known. Each morning, Ignazio, the majordomo, woke me with breakfast in bed, then vanished to supervise the running of the house with the help of five other domestics, a gardener, a night watchman, and a chef of fabled skill who prepared dinner for twelve even on nights when Luchino and I dined alone. With its paintings and tapestries, its Renaissance bronzes, its blackamoor floor lamps and Russian icons, the villa looked and felt to me like a friendly palace."
Alix Dobkin's My Red Blood is also a gay coming-of-age story, but from a different angle.
It's the story of her early life growing up in a Communist family and of her rise in the folk music scene. Dobkin gained later fame as a well-known lesbian singer-songwriter, as well as some controversy because of her strong opinions (which later changed) about feminism, lesbian culture and the trans community. I love Dobkin's music, particularly the groundbreaking 1973 album "Lavender Jane Loves Women," and the story is an interesting one. I was particularly fascinated by her descriptions of the 1950's music world of Greenwich Village, where she meets Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Bill Cosby, among many others.
Sample sentences: On another evening, in between sets, I was lounging at the top of the Gaslight steps when Bob [Dylan] rushed up and grabbed my arm. "C'mere," he whispered, and led me down the stairs into the darkness. During that period, Bobby informed me more than once that I was his "favorite female singer," a title that I believed I held for the better part of two years, unaware of other singers he buttered up to sing his songs."
If any of you know of other similar good books, I'd love to hear about them.