Author Birthdays: Sackville-West, Spillane, Tharoor

March 9th marks the birthday of authors Vita Sackville-West, Mickey Spillane, and Shashi Tharoor.

Vita Sackville-West was an English writer and aristocrat who won the British Hawthornden Prize twice. Born to a Baron, she had lived in the famous Sissinghurst Castle during her lifetime. Among her most well-known books are The Edwardians, which is about two aristocratic siblings in the early 20th century, and All Passion Spent, about an octogenarian woman who spurns the Victorian ideals.

Sackville-West, a bisexual, was lovers with fellow authors Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf; some of her letters to Woolf have been compiled into a book, and a book on Trefusis also contains correspondence between lovers.

Mickey Spillane was an American crime novelist, best known for his detective character Mike Hammer. Spillane was also into film; his novel Kiss Me Deadly was made into a movie, and the author himself actually played a detective in Ring of Fear.

Spillane's work in the hardboiled fiction genre is a bit different than many others. A writer for the Washington Post said in 2001 that "Spillane never really wrote sex scenes; he wrote about sexuality in a way that was unapologetically sensual and often seemed more provocative than the act itself". A good example is his first novel, I, the Jury.

Shashi Tharoor is an Indian writer and advocate, as well as a member of Indian Parliament and former Under-Secretary General of the UN. He has written both fiction and non-fiction, and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in 1991. His novels include the award-winning The Great Indian Novel, and Show Business, called by Booklist "an animated and deliciously satirical critique of the Bombay film industry".

Among Tharoor's non-fiction works are The Elephant, The Tiger, And The Cell Phone: Reflections On India, The Emerging 21st-century Power, which discusses India's highs and lows, and Bookless In Baghdad: Reflections On Writing And Writers, a collection of essays which Library Journal described as resonating "with readers of any nationality, helping them understand the global purpose of literature, feel the inherent responsibility, and hear a call to action".

The Future of Gender

Futuristic Man 2Futuristic Man 2 What would the world be like if 90% of its population was gay instead of straight? How would an all-female society interact with mixed gender societies? What would aliens think about human sexuality if they could study us? Science Fiction has always been used as a tool to observe how we live and interact as people. The following books explore the weird, wide world of gender and sexuality, and what odd permutations of the human equation we may have to look forward to in the future.

Herland – Three men exploring what was thought to be wilderness discover an advanced society made up entirely of women.

The Forever War – A time-travelling soldier witnesses humanity’s evolution away from heterosexuality and towards a more peaceful clone-based society.

Woman on the Edge of Time – One woman realizes that her actions will determine whether the future is a utopia of equality and community, or a nightmare of sexism, classism, exploitation and poverty.

China Mountain Zhang – Award winning novel about the growth and changes in one man’s life, mirrored by the changes in a future where China is the world’s foremost superpower.

The Wanting Seed – War, cannibalism, persecution of heterosexuals. This is the solution to world overpopulation, apparently. Needless to say, this book is controversial.

Hero – The gay son of a former superhero finds himself forced to use his own superpowers to protect the same society that persecutes him.

Trouble and her Friends – Fans of Neal Stephenson should check this out. Think cyberpunk with a butt-kicking lesbian protagonist.

Author Birthdays: Buchan, Isherwood

August 26th marks the birthday of authors John Buchan and Christopher Isherwood.

John Buchan was a Scottish novelist and Governor General of Canada. He wrote mainly adventure fiction, five books of which contain the manly and MacGyver-like character Richard Hannay. Three other stories by Buchan feature the middle-aged reluctant hero Dickson McCunn, whose adventures start in the book Huntingtower.

Baron Buchan also wrote historical fiction, like the mystery Witch Wood, which features romance and religion in 17th century Scotland, and even a novel about a terminally ill man, his death and redemption, called Sick Heart River.

Christopher Isherwood was an English-born American author. One of his novels, Mr. Norris Changes Trains, was inspired by his life as an expatriate in Berlin in the 1930s. The main characters include the narrator, William Bradshaw, and the masochistic Arthur Norris.

Another of Isherwood's novels is A Single Man, which centers on a middle-aged gay Englishman and his recent partner's loss, which he must learn to cope with. It was recently made into a film by Tom Ford, and it stars Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.

Made in God's Image

Rainbow DoveRainbow Dove For Christians today there are few issues more divisive than that of LGBT people in the church. There are hundreds of books dealing with the intersection of homosexuality and Christianity. They all ask the same question: Is same-sex intimacy a defiance of God's will as given through the scriptures, or has a misreading of the scriptures led to a proscription of an aspect of our God-given sexuality? Many, many Christians have turned to reparative (conversion) therapy programs to change the homosexual impulses which they feel are unnatural into heterosexual impulses. These ex-gay ministries have been widely decried by almost all psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors, even the Christian ones, but for those who believe that they have no choice but to change, they offer a glimmer of hope. Do you know anyone who is struggling to reconcile their faith and their sexuality? Here are some items that will give you food for thought.

Stranger at the Gate - Written by Mel White, this book is a must-read. It was recommended to me by a counselor at my alma-mater, a nearby well-known Christian college.
For the Bible Tells Me So - A thoughtful documentary of several Christian families with gay family members. I liked how they showed parents of gay children at several different levels of acceptance.
Save Me - A beautiful movie about a man forced to attend a conversion therapy home, the woman who runs it, and each of their searches for hope and love.
Desires In Conflict - This book by Joe Dallas, the founder of Genesis Counseling, has been used and cited by conversion therapy proponents since its publication in the early '90s.
Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible - Lesbian pastor Nancy Wilson uses humorous anecdotes and biblical exegesis to deconstruct the "texts of terror" used as the basis of anti-homosexual Christian beliefs.

Stories of Christopher Isherwood

I had never heard of English-American author Christopher Isherwood until the opening of the recent film A Single Man, adapted from Isherwood’s novel. Christopher Isherwood tended to write stories that were at least partially autobiographical. For example, he and George, the main character of A Single Man (played by Colin Firth in an Oscar-worthy performance), were both Englishmen who emigrated to southern California and taught English literature at a large university. George also reflects Isherwood in terms of his mate. Each of them had a long-term relationship with a much younger man. Isherwood’s novel The Memorial was influenced by his own family history, specifically with his mother. His young life in Berlin was mirrored in The Berlin Stories, a pair of novels which became the basis for the film and musical Cabaret.

If you’re interested in a 100% pure biography, check out Chris and Don: A Love Story. This documentary tells the story of Christopher Isherwood and his longtime partner, Don Bachardy. Despite their large age difference, they lived together for more than 30 years.

A Single Man opens at the Michigan Theater this Friday.

Early December Books to Film

InvictusInvictus

A Clint Eastwood film, Invictus is based on John Carlin's Playing the Enemy : Nelson Mandela and the game that made a nation.

Set in post-apartheid South African, Matt Damon plays Francois Pienaar, a rugby captain entrusted by Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) with bringing socially unifying sporting glory to post-apartheid South African during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. (Dec. 11th)

The much anticipated The Lovely Bones is based on Alice Sebold's 2002 mega-hit. Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) plays Susie Salmon, a 14 year-old who has been murdered. As she watches over her family --- and her killer --- from heaven, she must weigh her desire for vengeance against her desire for her family to heal. Also starring Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon.

Academy-award Director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), a pre-eminent maker of fantasy and horror films, manages to bring "a kind of dreamy meditation on the fragile boundary between life and death", unexpectedly "soothing and solemn", visually stunning. Can't wait. (Dec. 11th)

A Single Man is based on Christopher Isherwood's novel of the same title. Set in Los Angeles in 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, it is the story of a British college professor who is struggling to find meaning to his life after the death of his long time partner. The story is a romantic tale of love interrupted, the isolation that is an inherent part of the human condition, and ultimately the importance of the seemingly smaller moments in life.

Colin Firth gives an award-worthy performance as George Falconer, and the all-grown-up "incandescent" Nicholas Hoult (cherubic in About a Boy) is Kenny - a lithe, graceful, angel of sorts. (Dec. 11th)

Up in the Air is based on Walter Kirn's 2001 novel about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate downsizing expert whose cherished life on the road is threatened just as he is on the cusp of reaching ten million frequent flyer miles and after he’s met a fellow frequent-flyer of his dreams. (Dec. 4th)

Beyond "Heather Has Two Mommies"

A few weeks ago, while working in the Youth department downtown, a patron asked me if the library had any books for young children that depicted “alternative families” (by which she meant LGBT picture books). Unsure about how to begin such a search in our catalog, I decided to start with the one book I could think of right away: Heather Has Two Mommies, by Leslea Newman. When I looked up the title, I found that we do indeed have it, but not where I thought it would be; it had been categorized not with the picture books but in the non-fiction section, in the area for “family issues”. That’s where I also found several other picture books depicting LGBT families. I figured that there must be other people in the community looking for these kinds of books, who like me don’t know where to look or even what’s out there. So I decided to conduct an assessment of the literature available for young children that portrays non-traditional families, particularly same-gender parents.

It turns out that this year, 2009, is the 20th anniversary of the publication of the famous (infamous?) Heather Has Two Mommies. It was revolutionary at its time: it was the first book published in the US that depicted a child being raised by two parents of the same gender. (The very first picture book on the subject was "Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin", published in 1981 by Danish author Susanne Bosche.) Since its publication, "Heather Has Two Mommies" has been a source of controversy; it was one of the most frequently banned books in the 1990s, according to the American Library Association.

Even though the controversy over this particular book has died down in recent years, there is still conflict over books that portray gay/lesbian couples raising children. The picture book And Tango Makes Three, about the Central Park Zoo “gay” penguins, was the most banned book this year. Perhaps for that reason, not many books have been published on this topic in the last 20 years. Fortunately for the patrons of the AADL, we carry many of the titles that do exist. I read most of them, and would like to offer some recommendations and critiques of the ones that may be less familiar:

Daddy’s Roommate (1990) – A little boy talks about all the fun things he does with his daddy and his daddy’s new roommate Frank (since his parents got divorced). While it was probably groundbreaking at its time by being one of the first books to show a happy, loving, gay couple raising a child, the book is actually rather boring and didactic.

Asha's Mums (1990) – Asha is looking forward to going to the Science Centre with her class, but her permission slip has two mothers' names on it. Will her teacher still let her go? This cute story comes from Canada, and features an African-American family and multi-racial classmates.

My Two Uncles (1995) – Elly loves her favorite Uncle Ned and his friend Uncle Phil, but doesn’t understand why her Grampy doesn’t want Phil to come to the family party. Elly’s dad explains both being gay and prejudice against it in a way that shows compassion for both Ned and Phil and for Grampy.

King & King (2000) – A new twist on an old fairytale. The queen tells her son the prince that he must get married, but he isn’t interested in any of the princesses… and then he meets the perfect prince. An intriguing idea, but poorly executed: the writing is awkward, the characters are barely developed, and the multimedia collage illustrations are overly bright and cluttered.

Antonio's Card (2005) – Antonio is making a card for Mother's Day, showing himself with his Mami and his mother's partner, Leslie. But he is afraid to let his classmates see it after he hears them making fun of how Leslie looks. This bi-lingual book tells the story both in English and Spanish, with bright colorful illustrations.

Uncle Bobby’s Wedding (2008) – When Chloe learns that her favorite Uncle Bobby is getting married, she worries that she will no longer be as special to him. As Chloe spends time with Bobby and his boyfriend Jamie, however, she realizes that she will always be special – to both her uncles. This cute story is an excellent addition to the genre because the fact that both Bobby and Jamie are male is not ever an issue.

In Our Mothers’ House (2009) – A new book from Patricia Polacco, who is well-known for her picture books depicting interracial friendship and understanding. From the School Library Journal review: “The narrator, a black girl, describes how her two Caucasian mothers, Marmee and Meema, adopted her, her Asian brother, and her red-headed sister. She tells about the wonderful times they have growing up in Berkeley, CA.” This book is currently on order.

Coming Out in the Movies

Coming Out Day 2009Coming Out Day 2009The week of October 4-12 is National Coming Out Week. LGBT visibility and acceptance has changed drastically over the course of cinematic history and is still changing today. Need proof? Check out these documentaries. The Celluloid Closet uses clips and anecdotes from over 120 films to show the changing social climate towards homosexuals in the movies. Fabulous! The Story Of Queer Cinema provides an overview of the history of gay and lesbian cinema of the past 50 years.

There have been many great films telling the stories of people coming out of the closet and facing their sexuality with honesty and courage. Here are a few of my favorites.
Beautiful Thing - teenage love in England.
Big Eden - city dweller readjusts to small town life.
Transamerica - a road trip full of discoveries.

For real life Coming Out stories, try these documentaries on for size.
A Jihad for Love - Islam like you've never seen it.
Being Gay: Coming Out in the 21st Century - a look at people's first steps.
Just Call Me Kade - transitioning as a teen.
Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World - a glimpse of an emerging global movement.

Alison Bechdel's Bittersweet Biography

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, is one of the most poignant and touching memoirs I have ever read. Her autobiographical graphic novel centers on her relationship to her father, the discovery of his homosexuality (and her own), and his death. The name of the book refers to the family home, a funeral home run by Bechdel’s father, Bruce. Bechdel spent seven years writing and illustrating Fun Home and it's packed with detail, allusions, and pop culture references. The novel pulls off the difficult feat of being simultaneously a quick and easy read and a complexly layered piece of literature. Fun Home was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award, in the Autobiography/Memoir category, and won the 2007 Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work.

Alison Bechdel is also the author of the popular comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.

Affinity

Margaret Prior, an upper class woman in Victorian London, begins visiting the women of Millbank prison after a failed suicide attempt. She finds herself drawn to Selina Dawes, a spiritual medium sent to prison after the death of a woman during a séance. Margaret begins to believe Selina’s claims of occult power after a series of mysterious gifts appear. As the women’s relationship grows deeper, Margaret starts to develop a plan to free Selina from Millbank.

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