Best books of '08

by Richard Labonte

Book Marks

At this time last year, two major gay-interest publishers - Harrington Park Press and Carroll & Graf - were defunct, and smaller queer presses were reeling from the financial fallout of a major distributor's bankruptcy. Good news follows bad: Some of the Harrington slack was picked up (along with a few of its orphaned titles) by Lethe Press, which greatly expanded its catalogue in 2008; Bold Strokes Books, already producing an eclectic line of lesbian genre fiction, started to publish gay male novels; and in November, Don Weise - formerly at Carroll & Graf - was named publisher of floundering Alyson Books, which earlier in the year was sold by Planet Out to Regent Media, owner of Here TV and Gaywired.com.

Top 10 Fiction Titles

"The Hakawati," by Rabih Alameddine (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95)

The single most luscious novel of the year is a stunning, modern-day "Arabian Tales," luminously crafted by a gay Lebanese storyteller ("Koolaids"). It's a fabulist patchwork of magical tales that marry ancient Middle Eastern fables to a contemporary Beirut family's life.

"The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For," by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin, $25)

This exhilarating chronology of comic wisdom, spanning 25 years of Bechdel's unfolding dyke narrative, touches on nearly everything that has mattered in queer passion and politics, from when independent womyn's bookstores were indispensable, to contemporary days, when gay marriage seems to matter.

"Map of Ireland," by Stephanie Grant (Scribner, $22)

Grant's doubly transgressive coming-out novel, about a 16-year-old working-class white Irish lass with tough-girl courage - and a crush on her black basketball teammate and her black Senegalese teacher - challenges racial and sexual norms in the era of Boston's contentious forced busing.

"We Disappear," by Scott Heim (HarperPerennial, $13.95)

Stripped of overt gay sexuality but bristling with seductive prose, Heim's novel is a hallucinatory thriller about dying mothers, childhood traumas, crystal meth addiction, kidnapped children, and boys shackled in family basements - strange stuff, in all the right ways.

"My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park," by Steve Kluger (Dial Books, $16.99)

This lyrical, laugh-out-loud epistolary novel - about first queer love, high school hijinks, a passion for both Broadway and baseball lore, and plain old growing up - was targeted at a young adult audience. But it's smart, charming, and giddily mature enough for readers of any age (and sexual persuasion) to savor.

"The End of the World Book," by Alistair McCartney (Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin, $26.95)

McCartney's debut novel is an unconventional literary dazzler. From chapter A to chapter Z, it charts the author's obsessions (knives, razors, young men, porn, horror films, hair), quirky cultural observations, major literary touchstones, and - blurring fiction and memoir - his Australian family and his American partner, several hundred entries linked by quizzical, comic threads.

"The Conversion," by Joseph Olshan (St. Martin's Press, $24.95)

Unrequited romantic love, terrifying terrorist threats, compelling literary intrigue, intoxicating Italian history, queer sex with a handsome bisexual Frenchman and a muscular Italian policeman - all conveyed with crisp, elegant prose. Olshan's eighth novel is a textured pleasure, intricate and intelligent.

"So Many Ways to Sleep Badly," by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. (City Lights Books, $14.95)

Sycamore's fabulously flamboyant (and totally untraditional) novel charts the insouciant life of a politically spirited, sexually tempestuous under-30 San Francisco gender-queer activist - and sometime hustler - with bitchy wit, careful attention to hairstyle, and a lush prowess with prose.

"The Stone Gods," by Jeanette Winterson. (Harcourt, $24)

Winterson masters the science fiction genre in this loopy futuristic fable about rebellious heroine Billie Crusoe and Spike, a sexy, feminine Robo sapiens; their evolving emotional bond and unusual physical relationship - in one of the novel's three sections, Spike is a head Billie carries around in a sling - is the one constant in a kaleidoscopic tour de force.

"The Distance Between Us," by Bart Yates (Kensington Books, $24)

A wine-sipping septuagenarian is haunted by the memory of her dead gay son. A sweet-tempered, mostly closeted college kid rents a room in her elegant Victorian manse. Together they come to terms with her emotional guilt and his sexual self-acceptance, in a powerful novel about family dysfunction that transcends "gay" to achieve emotional universality.

Top 10 Nonfiction Titles

"My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy," by Andrea Askowitz (Cleis Press, $14.95)

In this memoir about "40 weeks and five days in hell," Askowitz milks self-professed misery over her pregnancy for captivating comic effect. The ordeals of becoming a single mother - finding sperm, inserting it, week after dateless week - are chronicled in a diary that's winsomely whiny and harrowingly honest.

"Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America," edited by Mitchell Gold with Mindy Drucker (Greenleaf Press, $23.95)

These personal accounts of rejection by parents, renunciation by churches, and ridicule from and physical attacks by peers link generations and genders through their depiction of the heroism of survival. In a perfect world, every school library would have a copy.

"Intersex (for Lack of a Better Word)," by Thea Hillman (Manic D Press, $14.95)

Hillman's sprightly essays add an intersex's story - please don't call us hermaphrodites, pleads the author - to the queer literary spectrum. The author writes about a muddled medical childhood, her emergence as an intersex activist, and the women (and men) in her life, neatly blending the political and the sensual.

"The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy," by Robert Leleux (St. Martin's $23.95)

Debut memoirist Leleux bests both David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs as a raconteur of wacky family tales with this rollicking story of growing up queer in East Texas. The author confesses to taking some license with veracity, but depictions of his gold-digging mother's fashion and surgical excesses, and of how he found himself falling in love with a Cajun choreographer, resound with wickedly sincere truths.

"About My Life and the Kept Woman," by John Rechy (Grove Press, $24)

Rechy writes with eloquent elegance about growing up Mexican-American in El Paso, where "Juan" often passed as "Johnny" because of the light skin he inherited from his angry Scottish father; about the double life hiding his poverty from better-off friends; about shying away from his true sexuality while in the military during the Korean War; and, most compellingly, about how he became the street-wise, tough-guy hustler of "City of Night."

"Sex Talks to Girls: A Memoir," by Maureen Seaton (Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press, $26.95)

As "Molly Meek," poet Seaton tracks her passage from religious orthodoxy to sobriety and sexual exuberance - a journey marked by drag kings, butches, all kinds of over-indulgence, and a couple of kids to care for along the way - with writing that is heroically revealing and often very funny.

"King of Shadows," by Aaron Shurin (City Lights, $16.95)

Shurin's brief essays reveal a multitude of selves: the young student diving with sensual pleasure into sexual San Francisco; the homemaker enthralled by how sunlight adds sheen to his natural pine floors; the "lovechild of Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan" dedicating his soul to the purity of poetry. Resonant fragments coalesce into a vibrant mini-autobiography.

"Sparkling Rain and Other Fiction from Japan of Women Who Love Women," edited by Barbara Summerhawk and Kimberly Hughes (New Victoria, $16.95)

Two fascinating books are crammed - small type, narrow margins - into this groundbreaking anthology. The first: illuminating essays on the sexual, social, and literary culture of Japanese women. The second: revelatory short stories (plus poetry, manga, and a screenplay) about women loving women in an overwhelmingly patriarchal culture. Part fiction, part nonfiction - but the latter makes this one special.

"The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience," edited by Louis-Georges Tin (Arsenal Pulp Press, $44.95)

More than 70 scholars contributed 160 mini-essays to this wide-ranging survey of where and how in the world homophobia continues to resonate. It's an invaluable eye-opener for North American-centric queer activists who believe that many battles have been won. Originally published in France in 2003, this ambitious translation from a small Canadian press is an honorable achievement.

"A Prophet in His Own Land: A Malcolm Boyd Reader, Selected Writings 1950-2007," edited by Bo Young and Dan Vera (White Crane Books/Lethe Press, $30)

Over the years, Boyd has written or edited more than 30 books, from which the editors have carefully culled the prose and the prayers comprising this rich reader of a gay elder's always-questioning, never-faltering activist faith - selections spanning more than 50 years that distill Boyd's wisdom wonderfully.

OTHER BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR:

Top 10 lists are by definition exclusive. For every "best," there are many just-as-goods; compiling these rankings is a subjective balancing act. And this year, it would have been entirely possible to anoint almost nothing but young adult novels; it was a very good year for teen queers. Kluger's book made the list because of its endearing graphic originality. But there's much to recommend these: "The Sixth Form," by Tom Dolby; "The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second," by Drew Ferguson; "Nothing Pink," by Mark Hardy; "Out of the Pocket," by Bill Konigsberg; "Twelve Long Months," by Brian Malloy; "Cycler," by Lauren McLaughlin; "My Tiki Girl," by Jennifer McMahon; "Band Fags!," by Frank Anthony Polito; "Thinking Straight," by Robin Reardon; "Drama!: Show, Don't Tell" and "Drama!: Entrances and Exits," by Paul Ruditis; "Finlater," by Shawn Stewart Ruff; "Dishes," by Rich Wallace; "What They Always Tells Us," by Martin Wilson; and "Love and Lies: Marisol's Story," by Ellen Wittlinger. That's another Top-10-and-a-Half. If young gays and lesbians really are reading these titles, queer fiction has a future.

Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about queer literature since the mid-'70s. He can be reached in care of this publication or at BookMarks@qsyndicate.com.

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