Category Archives: LGBT Must Reads

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.

 

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What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

What If It's Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera Title: What If It’s Us
Authors: Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera
Publisher: HarperTeen
ISBN: 978-0062795250
Genre: LGBT, YA,
Pages: 448
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

It is a classic boy-meets-boy story. Of the universe, of things working out, of some things not working out as you go along, of an age of rapidly increasing technology and yet believing in destiny, fate, and knowing that you met him and that he met you for a reason. Arthur and Ben are teenagers who meet, but will they stay? Has the great wide universe planned it that way for them at all?

I know exactly why I read queer-theme based YA novels, even though I am not a teenager, even though I am nowhere close to being one. Because I never had this while growing-up. This kind of comfort that love and companionship is possible amongst two boys or men was unknown to me. The 90s were all about ignoring, of not seeing, of the queer community being invisible. Thankfully, that’s not the case today. We need more Indian LGBTQIA voices though and that discussion is for a later day. Today, it is about What If It’s Usby Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera.

What I love the most about What If It’s Us is that while it is a queer-themed novel, it also moves beyond that and includes larger themes of friendship, family, and love on a scale that we do not seem to gauge when we are teenagers (or do we?). And of course, you cannot, the almost BIG WRITING COLLAB of all-time – Adam Silvera meets Becky Albertalli. I love their individual works, and this one is even more special because its two of them who have worked on the same book.

Arthur is an out-of-towner in New York on an internship, in his mother’s law firm. Ben is a New Yorker who is trying to get his grades up and is studying in the summer. Arthur has never had sex, let alone be in a relationship. Ben is just getting over a recent break-up with Hudson. The setting is perfect. Summer in New York and they met, and what happens next is what obviously I am not going to tell you. You have to read the book.

The writing is crisp. The context of each character could get long, but it doesn’t bother you all that much. You don’t realize which parts are Albertalli and which Silvera, but you don’t have to, because the book merges wonderfully in these collective voices. Every character is sketched well and doesn’t seem excessive. The writing is real and relatable. The teenage angst, the crush that turns to love and what happens next will make you want to not stop turning the pages.

What If It’s Us is a book that is real, kinda bittersweet, and mostly full of possibilities. The writing doesn’t become mushy. It is real. You can relate to it, because you know people like Arthur and Ben and their friends. You can also relate to it because more than time you have also looked at a stranger, who you randomly bumped into and thought: What if?

 

 

The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara

The House of Impossible Beauties Title: The House of Impossible Beauties
Author: Joseph Cassara
Publisher: Ecco, HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0062676979
Genre: Literary Fiction, LGBT Fiction,
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Authors need to write more in the LGBT space. I know a lot is being written, but, I also think that a lot is still not enough. Books such as “The House of Impossible Beauties” make you see, realize and understand that. I had been wanting to read this one for a while now and I am so happy that the wait paid off because I absolutely loved this gem of a book. There are some books that stick with you, no matter what and this will for sure be one of them.

“The House of Impossible Beauties” is literally that – a house of people living on the edge in the ’80s of New York – a time riddled with confusion, mayhem, and change. From all that I have read and understand, I know it isn’t easy to write an AIDS novel, but this one is so much more than just that. In so many places in the book, I had to put it down and breathe a little, because I could see myself in its pages and not just when it came down to one character or one incident. It was an amalgamation of it all. And yes, I did weep, if not cry while reading it.

At the center of this gregarious, big-hearted novel is Angel – barely seventeen, new to the drag world and ball culture, with a big heart to care for those who need it the most – people who are like her and those without love. She falls in love with Hector, who shares the dream of forming the House of Xtravaganza, the first-ever all-Latino house in the Harlem ball circuit. When Hector dies to AIDS, Angel decides to build the house all by herself and she does.

And this is where it all begins in the book. Part One is about introducing these characters who inhabit the house – Angel, Venus – the trans girl who just wants someone rich to look after her, Daniel who in a way saves Venus and himself and Juanito – the quiet one who is in love with fabrics. The marginality of these characters – of not just being gay or trans but also Latino in the ’80s (and even today it isn’t easy, being either or both of these) shines – almost jumping out of the pages. Cassara opens you to a new world (if new to you that is) and merges it beautifully with characters who sear through your heart.

The writing is not only taut but also funny in so many places. The book is not without humour and perhaps we need more of it to get through the day. The novel is, of course, raw and you wish certain things didn’t happen to them, but they do and through all of it, the House of Xtravaganza stands tall, sheltering them, and how the shifting views of people regarding LGBT population, gives it a totally different form and shape. What I loved is the history of LGBT interspersed far and few in-between the pages, quite cleverly by the author.

“The House of Impossible Beauties” should be read by one and all and not only the LGBT population. It is a novel about empathy, kindness, forgiveness and above all just being who you are, without fear or inhibitions. I only wish I had a house like this to go to when I was growing-up and needed a friend, a mother, or even a lover.

 

 

 

Don’t Call Us Dead:​ Poems by Danez Smith

Don't Call Us Dead Title: Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems
Author: Danez Smith
Publisher: Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555977856
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

I think for the longest time I avoided reading poetry as a genre because I was scared. Prose will kill you. Let me correct that: Good prose will kill you. Great prose will leave you bereft. Or the other way around, but once poetry gets into your veins, you are an addict my friend! There is no way out of it. I was introduced to Neruda. Never say never also might work brilliantly as an adage.

Circa 2018. I love poetry. I love poems that seize my heart and wring it with ease. Sometimes brutally. I failed to keep my promise. Why am I saying all this? Well, because I have just finished reading a brilliant book of poems and I want to let you know how I feel about it. The book in question: “Don’t Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith.

This collection isn’t an easy one to read. If you are planning to read it at a stretch or even in one-sitting, my recommendation is you don’t. Smith doesn’t make poetry floral or sweet-smelling or even bearable for that matter. When it comes to me, I agree with him. Poetry like most form of art only reflects what exists around us and should with very good reason.

“…paradise is a world where everything
is a sanctuary & nothing is a gun…” 

Just by reading these two lines, I was moved like I haven’t been moved in a while. The idea that every place is sanctuary (so remote, isn’t it?) and that nothing is a gun couldn’t have rung truer than it does now. The now that we live in that Danez writes about so and that hits so hard.

Smith’s voice is much needed for everyone, but more so for the black men, for the young black man, the gay man, the kind who have endured a history of oppression and violence or have heard of it. It is for everyone who wants to change the world by reading and understanding and that empathy shines through Danez’s poems. The beauty in all of them is striking, almost heartbreaking even.

Take this one for example, where the loneliness of the gay man is stark and evident, universal that it strikes a chord one way or the other.

“everyone on the app says they hate the app but no one stops

I sit on the train, eyeing men, begging myself to talk to them

 He whispers his name into my lower mouth
I sing a song about being alone”

Danez Smith does not shy away from expressing. Some poems run into pages and lots of pages (and for good reasons) while others are explained briefly and they are as effective as any other poem in the collection. This isn’t micro-poetry. This isn’t slam poetry. It is life, that seeps, bleeds ad yearns through the veins and the pores.

“Don’t Call Us Dead” is set in a time – our time, which is equal parts scary, liberating and melancholic. Let me remove my proverbial hat and tip it for Smith.

 

 

 

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.