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Book Marks

By Lavender October 23, 2008

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The 19th Wife
by David Ebershoff
Random House
514 pages
$26 hardcover

The murky history of the Mormons and the abusive reality of polygamy’s dark past and its outlaw present constitute the primary storyline of this compelling collage of a novel. But a powerful queer current also runs through Ebershoff’s mix of historical fiction and contemporary murder mystery, embodied by Jordan Scott, the 20-year-old gay narrator of the present-day story. Excommunicated from his breakaway sect’s harshly polygamous community at 14, and a hustler through his teen years, he’s now centered with construction work—until he’s drawn back to his reclusive hometown when his birth mother, his father’s 19th wife, is accused of murdering her husband. Jordan’s involvement with a gay Mormon hotel manager provides a crackling queer counterpoint to Ebershoff’s central story, a fictionalized version of the life of Ann Eliza Young, the wife—also the 19th—of Mormon patriarch and polygamist Brigham Young. After her headline-making divorce from Young, Ann Eliza’s fiery lecture tour and fierce autobiographies pressured Mormon leaders to disavow plural marriages by 1890—a riveting real-life story Ebershoff re-imagines through fictitious newspaper clippings, academic theses, and personal letters.

Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel
by Edmund White
Atlas & Co.
208 pages
$24 hardcover

As a lad, writes the author of this compact biography, he was elated when his conflicted adolescent queer self discovered the revolutionary poetry of 19th-century bisexual badboy Arthur Rimbaud. So it’s fitting that, 50 years later, the sexually precocious (and, in his elder years, still sexually unabashed) White has written an “Eminent Lives” account of the young French poet who, by age 16, had caught the eye—and captured the heart—of his then-married mentor, Paul Verlaine. As literary biography, the nimble book charts the highlights of Rimbaud’s live-fast-die-young persona: his startling beauty, his alcohol and drug addiction, his turbulent sexual intensity, his tumultuous emotional temperament, and how—but not why, a lacuna shared with other biographies—he abandoned literature at age 21 for a life of entrepreneurial wanderlust, before dying at age 37. But White adds critical value to the nuanced life story with fresh translations of Rimbaud’s verse—an astute critical assessment of how a fallen angel’s flirtation with themes of sexual taboo have made him an enduring icon for generations of literary and sexual rebels.
Intersex (for Lack of a Better Word)
by Thea Hillman
Manic D Press
156 pages
$14.95 paper

Gays do it, lesbians do it, bisexuals do it. Write memoirs, that is. Hillman’s collection of short, sprightly essays adds an intersex’s story—please don’t call us hermaphrodites, pleads the author—to the queer literary spectrum. In some of the pieces, Hillman recounts her somewhat medically chaotic childhood, as she and her family coped with her “otherness”—a genetic disposition for physically masculine signifiers. In others, she tracks her own coming-out process as both a self-identified intersex—someone born with chromosomal or genital conditions that are neither clearly male nor clearly female—and her emergence as an intersex activist. And, as befits any honest memoir, she writes about the women—and the men—in her life, from sizzling sex club encounters to more settled periods of domesticity. Hillman’s profoundly personal life story, which instructs as skillfully as it entertains, mixes the political and the poetic to demonstrate that gender isn’t a simple binary, male-female situation.
The Decade of Blind Dates
by Richard Alther
iUniverse Editor’s Choice
284 pages
$17.95 paper

Pre-Internet personals, dogged perseverance, and a life-long swimmer’s eye-catching, muscular build all pay off for the narrator of this engaging episodic novel about a rural artist’s decade-long search for heart-connecting love. Peter Bauman, a 45-year-old just-divorced painter with a loving ex-wife and supportive children, has come out at midlife, eager to plunge into the community of queers. But finding his gay feet isn’t easy: he lives in the country, far away from gay bars and other social centers—and he’s looking for more than one-night hookups and sweaty sex. Alther’s word portraits of the men Peter meets along the way—a Nordic-god New Age bodybuilder with a dull-black toupee, a burly Bear with a bagful of erotic toys and a minuscule member, and a reclusive basket-weaver with magisterial forearms—are as humane as they are hilarious. Coming-out narratives are a queer-lit constant, but Alther brings welcome wisdom, an obvious autobiographical realism—and a happy ending—to this refreshingly original work of sexual and social history.
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 [email protected]

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