Category Archives: 100 Must-Read LGBTQIA Non-Fiction Books

In The Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado Title: In The Dream House: A Memoir
Author: Carmen Maria Machado
Publisher: Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1644450031
Genre: Memoir, Gender Studies
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I had read a couple of short stories of Machado before picking up this memoir. I was also aware that this memoir, to a very large extent, would make me see my life and what I had gone through in a toxic relationship. Abuse need not be physical. In fact, the worst kind of abuse is the one that isn’t physical. The kind where no bruises are exposed, no scars are seen, no indication of violence is made known, and the one that isn’t heard or we feel that we cannot talk about it, as it is our own doing that got us here.

 In the Dream House is a book of abuse, hope, and resilience. It is a book about emotional exorcism which we all need to undertake once in a while, no matter the relationship or the intensity or lack of it. It is a memoir of Carmen’s toxic relationship with her first girlfriend and also a history of queer domestic violence. The chapters alternate from one to another. Some chapters read like parts of a larger fairy tale, while others are just downright horrific.

 And what is not surprising at all is the downright honesty of Machado’s writing. She is aware. She knows. The writing spills the heart on to the page. There is manipulation, deceit, a lot of heartache, and in all of this, she gives us glimpses of love. Love for which you stay. Love for which you are willing to perhaps forgive, till you realize that even that cannot change anything in the relationship or the person.

In The Dream House is beautiful and ugly. It is the kind of writing you want to shy away from but you cannot because you are engrossed, absorbed, and not as a voyeur but as someone who has been there (in my case) and knows every word, feels it, and can sense the pain it may have caused.

 There is grace – a lot of it, and then the candour springs on you from these very pages and grabs you at the throat. There is the Dream House as a Lesbian Pulp Novel, Dream House as Epilogue, Dream House as American Goth, Dream House as Sci-Fi Thriller, and Dream House as Ending. Dream House could be anything and is – a beautiful relationship, an abusive one, a one that won’t let go of you, family history, remembrances, queer history, and the author’s life at the core of it. The story she chose to tell and the manner in which she is telling it.

 In the Dream House is confrontative. It enters a territory which doesn’t get spoken about – queer domestic abuse. Machado also mentions at one point that we think queer folks are good and beautiful, but that’s not the case. We are as capable of ugliness. We are after all only human. The past is called on. The bits and sections are not clichéd narratives. There are no stereotypes here. What is there though: A gut-wrenching, redemptive story of the writer’s experiences. A story that needed to be told, and needs to be read.

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When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History by Hugh Ryan

When Brooklyn Was Queer Title: When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History
Author: Hugh Ryan
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
ISBN: 978-1250169914
Genre: LGBT Nonfiction, Social and Cultural History
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I had never read something like this before – yes cities and the queer culture did merge in books and I have read parts of it, but nothing like this book. I honestly also believe that every city’s culture needs to be talked about through the people who live on its margins, and maybe that’s why this book hit a nerve the way it did. When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History by Hugh Ryan is the kind of book we all need to read, irrespective of orientation and labels.

The story begins in 1855 with the publication of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and ends in the 1960s when Brooklyn’s queer identity declined, due to several factors. You have to read this book only because the way Ryan unearths how there was a systematic erasure of the queer history of Brooklyn. What must one remember then? Who decides that? What is at the core of people’s histories and more than anything else of places?

Not only this, this book is fantastic if you want to get to know people’s voices and lives – queer lives – right from the famous drag kings and queens of the 1800s, of a black lesbian named Mabel Hampton and how she worked as a dancer, of a WWII gay spy scandal and so much more between its pages.

Ryan’s writing is never just a dry documentation of facts. There is so much more to it. There is tenderness and empathy and above all it is a voice that strives to let people know more. Also, the nuances of gender identity, orientation, and sometimes even race are handled with such a sense of larger understanding of issues, that it makes you want to read more.

More than anything else it is about resistance and no matter what governments do or stand for, people will always continue to live the way they want to, which should be at the core of every identity battle. Ryan’s research is spot-on, so much so that you instantly feel that you are in that world, the minute you start reading the book. He shares letters, diary entries, and publication excerpts to support and validate his arguments of what was erased and how it was found.

What I loved the most was the beautiful prologue – a short one at that but so effective – a glimpse into the lives of Gypsy Rose Lee and Carson McCullers, and from thereon begins what it means to be “queer”.

When Brooklyn Was Queer is one of those rare books that makes you want to sit up and take notice of what’s going on in the world. The past, present, and future merge seamlessly in this account of what history allows us and what it doesn’t. The small joys, sorrows, the sacrifices made, the lives that carry on regardless, and most of all what it means to be queer is what this remarkable book is about. Do not miss out on this read.

 

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst Title: The Sparsholt Affair
Author: Alan Hollinghurst
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1101874561
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

To read an Alan Hollinghurst novel is to give in. I realized that when I read “The Swimming Pool Library” for the first time and that was also the first time I read a Hollinghurst novel. I was exploring my sexuality. I was learning what it was to be gay and sometimes all you need is another’s experiences – fictional or real to help you tide through and that is what Hollinghursts’ novels did for me. They gave me hope and joy, made me cry, and at the end of all it, made me realize my potential and myself.

“The Sparsholt Affair” – his latest novel is expansive, huge, overwhelming, and a mirror of the changing attitudes of the British toward the LGBTQIA community. The book starts with the arrival of David Sparsholt at Oxford in October 1940 – a handsome athlete, who has everyone taken by him. Hollinghurst wastes no time in getting into the book – we see David through the eyes of his friends and acquaintances and this is how we see Britain as well.

Please do not treat this novel as being just another LGBTQIA novel. It isn’t just that. There is so much more – the universality of emotions that only ring true and nothing else. Hollinghurst has a knack of letting new characters in and old ones disappear just one you’ve started growing comfortable with them. It used to irritate me initially but then I started enjoying it. What the book also does is sort of draw an arc of gay history from the 40’s to 2012. It is magnificent the way Hollinghurst maps it all – from nothing to iPhones and dating apps to the loneliness we all feel and yet there is no one to speak to.

I loved how nothing was served on a platter in this book. Alan makes you work very hard to pick up the clues, to make sense of what is happening and as usual he returns to Henry James one way or the other (I thoroughly enjoyed The Line of Beauty because of the innumerable references to The Spoils of Poynton). “The Sparsholt Affair” is melancholic and hopeful, almost at the same time. Hollinghurst is the master of depicting nostalgia in his books and this one is no different. Read it. Please read it.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel - Essays by Alexander Chee Title: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays
Author: Alexander Chee
Publisher: Mariner Books, HMH
ISBN: 978-1328764522
Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It isn’t easy to write a book of essays that charts life. And when you come across a work that is so lucid, questions the world and has so many identities rolled into itself, that you just have to sit up, take notice and devour it cover to cover. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” by Alexander Chee is one such collection of finest essays of our times and that is mainly because it is as honest as it can get. There is something about books that come from the heart – they manage to get through to you breaking all pretense and that’s what this collection of essays does to you. It gets through.

Alexander Chee’s writing was only known to me through his earlier literary fiction works, “Edinburgh” and “The Queen of the Night” which I loved immensely. This is his foray into non-fiction and I just hope that he continues writing many such essays. What I found a notch above the essay collections I have read in the past couple of months in this one was just the candid and heartwarming way in which they are written.

Chee doesn’t shy from talking about his life, his struggles and his perception of the world at large. When you write non-fiction, you become more susceptible to judgment than when you write fiction. Everyone may not have an opinion about the storyline or characters but one sure does have an opinion (maybe more) on the world and its issues.

Chee’s essays range from growing-up in America and how different identities take over his life – a son, a Korean American, a gay man, a student, a teacher and a novelist amongst others. I loved the way he connected his life to his country and its issues and everything just seemed one. For instance, the section on AIDS and then again on 9/11 were most hard-hitting to me. When he speaks of literature (there are so many references throughout the book), you just want to sit up and listen. I for one, remember re-reading so many passages about writing and what it takes to be a writer.

Alexander Chee’s essays are wry, real, political (everything is political in today’s time and age), and above all makes us ask questions of art and life and what happens to it all, when they come under attack. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” is hands down one of the best essay collections of 2018 and I am not speaking too soon.