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Book Marks

By Lavender April 10, 2009

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Ruins
by Achy Obejas
Akashic Books
212 pages
$15.95 paper

The hero of this magical, mystical novel is middle-aged Usnavy, so named because his mother could see the ships of the U.S. Navy from their home near Guantanamo Bay. Born in pre-revolutionary Cuba, and a true believer in Castro, his life nonetheless remains intertwined with the crushing reality of America. He is devastated when his closest friend boards a ramshackle raft for Florida in 1994, and he scrabbles ashamedly for black market dollars to support his wife and daughter by driving American tourists around a crumbling Havana. Cuban-born Obejas’ previous novels, particularly Memory Mambo, focused primarily on the lives of people—young lesbians among them—who escaped to America. The story here, exquisitely noble and fiercely illuminating, is of daily life in a Cuba where old blankets are marinated in weak beef stock and spices to be sold as sandwich meat. Queer content is slight—one muscular male character’s sexual identity is shadowy—but lesbian author Obejas has crafted a haunting novel about physical deprivation, emotional exhaustion and spiritual strength that resonates with queerly familiar defiance.

Straight Lies
by Rob Byrnes
Kensington Books
336 pages
$15 paper

Is this over-the-top caper novel fun? Somewhat. Is it in any way plausible? Not a chance. Suspend all belief in narrative coherence, ye easy-going readers who chance to crack the cover. Chase LaMarca and Grant Lambert are queerly incompetent petty thieves who think they’ve scored the ultimate blackmail target: Aging, heroically gay actor Romeo Romero, acclaimed for championing gay causes onscreen and off, is in truth a flaming heterosexual. The criminally inept duo of LaMarca and Lambert has proof of Romero’s devotion to dalliances with heavy-breasted damsels on unwieldy videotape (whatever happened to the simple camera phone?). Alas: an equally inept associate loses the tape, and it falls into the hands of an unscrupulous tabloid gossipmonger, now also intent on exposing Romero unless he forks over big bucks. Outrageous coincidences and unlikely plot twists ensue, as the comically charming crooks and the venally crooked journalist joust with each other. Fans of a good-humored comedy of errors with scant literary value will enjoy this featherweight trifle; anyone with a yen for substance best pass on it.

Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division
by Jon Ginoli
Cleis Books
298 pages
$16.95 paper

Since the early 1990s, Pansy Division has rocked the queer musical world with a ribald sense of humor and a rowdy enthusiasm for sex. Band founder Ginoli brings both qualities to this chipper, chatty mix of memoir and journal, along with a savvy insider’s perspective on the indie music scene and the world of queercore rock that the band helped create. The book is at its most introspective as memoir, where Ginoli writes about his pre-San Francisco days and his life off the road. Journal sections, written with rollicking immediacy as Pansy Division toured, bring to life both the band’s heady days opening for Green Day, and less exhilarating nights playing in front of homophobic (and often small) crowds in dive bars with crappy sound systems. He and longtime musical compatriot Chris Freeman are still making music—That’s So Gay was released this year, 16 years after the first album, Undressed—but Ginoli is genially sanguine about the band’s current low-key career. And, judging from this laconic but absorbing account, he’s the furthest thing from a tormented rock star.

Metropolitan Lovers: The Homosexuality of Cities
by Julie Abraham
University of Minnesota Press
380 pages
$29.95 hardcover

It would seem to be an intuitive given that gays are having sex in the cities of the world, to say nothing of congregating in discrete neighborhoods, gentrifying inner cities, fomenting political change and artistic ferment and weaving “social webs.” This analysis does nothing to challenge that belief. Rather, with a deft synthesis of literary, cultural and urban history, Abraham tracks how homosexuals changed cities, and how cities changed homosexuals. Her research ranges from 19th century Paris, London and, surprisingly, Los Angeles, to social scientist Richard Florida’s 21st century assertion that the economic potential of cities depends in its cultural qualities—best provided by queer “social bohemianism.” While the author’s exploration of shifting urban forces and evolving cultural perceptions buttresses her theories, this academic study is most accessible when Abraham focuses on queer writing about the city. Armistead Maupin’s journalistic Tales of the City, James Baldwin’s use of New York neighborhoods, and Samuel Delany’s musing on the one-time sex trade of Times Square are among a long list of queer authors cited for their use of urban environments.

Richard Labonte has been reading, editing, selling, and writing about queer literature since the mid-’70s. He can be reached in care of this publication or at BookMarks@qsyndicate.com.

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