Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 29 December 1997

THE BOOK NOOK


By Jesse Monteagudo


This is the time of year when I go through a pile of books that, for one reason or another I did not review during the course of the year. These books have nothing in common save for the fact that they are books by and about lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender people, which, of course, is what The Book Nook is all about. So without further ado. . .

WHO'S A PRETTY BOY THEN? ONE HUNDRED & FIFTY YEARS OF GAY LIFE IN PICTURES (Serpent's Tail, 224 pages, $40.00).

A photographic history of gay men in Britain from 1851 to the present. Author James Gardiner culled the 600+ photos in the book from his own collection of photographs and ephemera. "This book is about what gay men looked like, and what gay men looked at," writes Gardiner. "It ... is my own personal and idiosyncratic view of what it has felt like to be a gay man in England." Gardiner is as idiosyncratic when it comes to language, and his use of "queens" to describe gay men is likely to cause a semantic war on both sides of the Atlantic. My objections to the book are more substantial, like the dearth of explanatory text to accompany the photos, for example.

Having said that, I admit that I enjoyed Who's a Pretty Boy Then? As you might expect, the books leans heavily toward famous entertainers, pretty boys (often nude), and drag queens - and drag is BIG in Britain. The first photo in the book, a full-frontal nude circa 1880 is, according to Gardiner, a capsule history of sorts, for it "was given by Oscar Wilde to Robbie Ross, who gave it to Duncan Grant, who gave it to Simon Watney, who gave it to my lover." A comely lad indeed, and when you compare it to more recent photos - like the 1991 shot of the pop group Take That (p. 192) - you will see that the Male Art Form hasn't changed much in over a century. Which is just fine with me.

Though the U.K. has it over us in so many ways, its obscenity laws are restrictive even by U.S. standards - no erections are allowed. Male sex can only be depicted if it is for educational purposes, which brings us to

THE GAY KAMA SUTRA, originally published by Labyrinth Publishing in London and then brought to the States (at $24.95 each) courtesy of St. Martin's Press. Author Colin Spencer, who in his salad days was himself a sight to see - see My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters for a full-frontal shot of the young Mr. Spencer in 1956 - now writes about the gay life he knows so well, in both Homosexuality in History and the present tome. The Gay Kama Sutra has been written with great respect for the original. It is also a passionate plea to promote gay love in all its depth and ecstasy and, especially, the ongoing struggle for justice and equality in today's society."

For the record, The Gay Kama Sutra is not the first book to give a gay twist to the Indian classic - The Kama Sutra of Gay Sex (another British import) did it first a couple of years ago. But Spencer's book promises to reach a wider audience than its predecessor, which was largely limited to specialty mail-order houses.

Although the text leaves a lot to be desired, the photos are good and the drawings are even better-- though the "contemporary Indian homoerotic miniature[s] in the Mughal tradition" have got to go! In short, The Gay Kama Sutra works better as a coffee table art book than as a gay sex manual, though I found the section on "Stimulants and Relaxants" quite interesting.

The five years since John M. Clum wrote Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama have been the most productive period in gay theater - witness Angels in America, Love! Valour! Compassion! And Jeffrey, just to name a few. Small budget plays by unknown authors can get lost in the shuffle, which is why I am glad Clum edited

STAGING GAY LIVES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY GAY THEATER (Westview, $30). Perhaps the best collection of gay plays since William M. Hoffman's 1979 Gay Plays, Staging Gay Lives combines works by well-known playwrights -- like "A Madhouse in Goa" by Martin Sherman, author of "Bent" with plays by new-comers like Patrick Wilde, Chay Yew, Guillermo Reyes and Clum himself.

San Francisco writer Jim Brogan first made the literary scene with the self-published Jack and Jim: A Personal Journal of the 70's (1982). A San Francisco classic along the lines of Dan Vojir's The Sunny Side of Castro Street, Jack and Jim made "Jimmers" a household name in that city (I found an autographed copy in a used book shop in North Beach when I visited SF in 1993). Brogan's latest novel, A TIME TO LIVE (Equanimity Press/GLB Publishers, Box 78212, San Francisco, CA 94107; $13.95) is another Brogan's-eye view of the city that he loves so much.

What has changed since Jack and Jim of course is AIDS, and though Brogan has fortunately survived, he (like all of us) has lost too many friends and lovers to this epidemic. The act of surviving in an epidemic means that those of us who remain will grow old lonely, which is the case with Brian, Brogan's middle-aged persona. Getting old can be depressing in the best of times, and A Time to Live is an often-depressing book. What keeps the book from being a total downer is Brogan's vivid depictions of San Francisco, especially the nude beaches where the still-attractive Brian escapes from his travails. Like Jack and Jim, A Time to Live is a celebration of gay San Francisco, its many charms and its unique community. In spite of AIDS, Brian - and Brogan - refuse to live anywhere else.

Lawrence Schimel is one of the brightest talents on the gay literary scene today. Though still in his twenties, Schimel is a prolific author and the editor of over twenty anthologies.

THE DRAG QUEEN OF ELFLAND (Ultra Violet Library; $10.95) Collects some of Schimel's best fantasy and science fiction stories from sources as different as the Sword and Sorceress series and Honcho Overload. The result is a collection that stretches the reader's imagination as it redefines the genre. Schimel has the knack for telling a story well, and telling it briefly - he does more with ten pages of text than other authors do with a hundred. Each reader will find something to enjoy in The Drag Queen of Elfland. My favorites (and I do have them) are the title story, the gayrotic classic "Burning Bridges" and the deceptively short "Calvinism".

Schimel the editor joins forces with Carol Queen to produce PoMoSexuals: CHALLENGING ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT GENDER AND SEXUALITY (Cleis Press, $14.95).

Schimel, Queen and the contributors -- which include Kate Bronstein, Pat Califia, John Weir and the late Marco Vassi go beyond labels to explore the shifting boundaries of sexuality and gender. "We do hope this book makes people question and rethink their own identities - not necessarily with the intent of changing them, but of better understanding other identities." At the least, this collection of queer essays will make you think, which is more than you can say about most books today.

Next: The Book of 1997 (can you guess?)

1998 BEI; All Rights Reserved.
For reprint permission e-mail gaytoday@badpuppy.com