By Les Tannenbaum
This is the time of year when publications like The New York Times come out with summer reading lists, hoping we will have extra leisure time, either through vacation or stolen moments on the back porch, to immerse ourselves in a good book. It’s a nice fantasy, and I still have fond memories of spending hours on the sun deck of a gay bed and breakfast in Puerto Vallarta, escaping into the imaginary world of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, however, I would guess a lot of us have leisure reading time that is not just seasonal. At any rate, not to argue with tradition, I have some summer reading titles to offer. Some are my own and some are from the Senior Pride Book Club, of which I am coordinator.
At the top of my list is a non-fiction book by young and upcoming queer scholar, Hugh Ryan, When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History. Ryan presents a highly readable and informative local history, at the same time presenting a research method that should inspire other LGBTQI+ historical researchers to follow in Ryan’s footsteps.
Another engaging gay history book is David K. Johnson’s The Lavender Scare. This detailed investigation of the persecution of gays and lesbians during the McCarthy era inspired a documentary film by the same name, sponsored in a January 2019 screening at The Loft Cinema by Senior Pride.
The Book Club also read and enjoyed three graphic memoirs, two by a lesbian: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (an LGBTQI+ classic by now) and Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel, and Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir by Roz Chast. We loved how these books combined words and pictures to fully engage us, pulling no punches about family life but in a way that was both sad and witty.
For those of you who prefer fiction, I heartily recommend The Great Believers: A Novel by Rebecca Makkai, a rich multi-character novel about the AIDS crisis in Chicago, which the Book Club members found to be incredibly compelling.
Another good read is Celia Laskey’s Under the Rainbow: A Novel, which creatively uses multiple narrators to tell the story of a group of LBGTQI+ activists who spend two years working in the most homophobic town in the United States, Big Burr, Kansas.
Besides these recent works, I have some older books to recommend:
Patricia Highsmith, author of the Ripley series and The Price of Salt, which inspired the lesbian film, Carol, is also well known as the author of Strangers on a Train, which the Book Club read and enjoyed immensely. Forget Alfred Hitchcock’s truncated and warped film adaptation of this already warped story and revel in the paranoia and gay subtext of a finely honed thriller.
For those of you who love Broadway musicals you might be interested in the backstory behind Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, which was based on John Van Druten’s play, I Am a Camera, which in turn was based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (that’s a mouthful, isn’t it?). Isherwood later published a memoir, Christopher and His Kind that finally gives the true personal queer background behind those stories and behind his earlier expurgated memoirs.
Isherwood’s brief novel, A Single Man, about an older gay man living in L.A. during the 60’s is equally readable and different from Tom Ford’s later film adaptation.
Finally, let me recommend one of my all-time favorite gay-themed novels, Was by Geoff Ryman. This novel is a spin on The Wizard of Oz, using the premise that there really was a Dorothy Gale, who was sexually and emotionally abused, and that she inspired L. Frank Baum to write The Wizard of Oz after he met her when he was a substitute teacher at a small schoolhouse in Kansas. That story from the past is intertwined with several stories set in more recent times: a gay man dying of AIDS who is searching for that schoolhouse, the life of Judy Garland, and the lives of several other related characters. It’s a stunning blend of history and fantasy that is hard to put down or forget.
None of these books is exactly “beach reading,” but these days the beaches aren’t healthy, anyway. So, enjoy them in the privacy of your favorite secluded spot, and have a great summer.
Les Tannenbaum is the Coordinator of the Senior Pride Book Club