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The Best Books For October 2021 | PASSPORT Magazine

by Jim Gladstone
Best Books of the Month October 2021

Our favorite books for October cover a wide swath of styles and LGBTQ life.   From lesbian writer and activist Sara Schulman we have a nuances and contradictory history of Act Up from 1987 thru 1993 (Let The Record Show); From West Hollywood’s first official Poet Laureate, Steven Reigns, we get what we term a True Crime Poem (A Quilt For David); and from queer comic treasure, Paul Rudnick we have a wisecracking romantic comedy (Playing The Palace). There are a lot more options also  to thrill, chill and warm you this fall.  Read On!

Let the Record Show - Best Books of the Month of October 2021The speed and superficiality of mainstream contemporary culture can let a thin stream of memes, shorthand summaries, and soundbites replace complex historical understanding. The prolific lesbian writer and activist Sarah Schulman powerfully fights such simplification in Let The Record Show (Farrar Straus Giroux. $40. www.bit.ly/jgbound), her nuanced, contradiction-filled history of ACT UP New York from its founding in 1987 through 1993. “AIDS has been grossly misrepresented and mis-historicized in many ways,” writes Schulman who aims to reframe it in this masterfully shepherded synthesis of over 180 interviews, extensive research, and her own personal experience as a queer journalist on the frontlines of AIDS coverage. “There are now two generations whose primary exposure to AIDS comes from a number of works…including the Oscar winner Philadelphia and the Pulitzer winner Angels in America, both of which show…a homophobic straight person who heroically overcomes their prejudices to support the poor gay man who has no community and no political movement to protect him.” But Shulman argues that “the opposite was true: gay men with AIDS were abandoned by most straight people…and they were defended by their community.” The evidence she presents in this simultaneously kaleidoscopic and laser-focused book shows the community to have been powered as much by women and people of color as by the white gay men who have inaccurately become the faces of AIDS activism in the public eye. The book interweaves riveting first-hand stories with keen analysis of protest tactics that activists for any cause would do well to study. Schulman refuses to accept the conventional, and minimizing, perception of ACT UP as a part of queer history; instead, she argues that it is an essential part of American history akin to the women’s movement, civil rights movement, labor movement, and other nation-shaping triumphs of grassroots over government.

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A Quilt for David - Best Books of the Month October 2021Steven Reigns, a Los Angeles-based writer and psychotherapist who was the first official Poet Laureate of West Hollywood, blends literary genres to stunning effect in his spare and powerful new work, A Quilt for David (City Lights. $14.95. www.stevenreigns.com). It’s a book that can fairly be classified as True Crime Poetry, deserving of shelf space alongside Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder. In fewer than 100 pages, Reigns revisits the largely forgotten case of Dr. David Acer, a gay Florida dentist who, in the late 1980s, was accused by eight patients of infecting them with HIV. While Acer was never proven to be the source of their infection, he nonetheless was tried and handed a guilty sentence by an AIDS-phobic media, with one of his accusers, Kimberly Bergalis, even featured on the cover of People magazine. Reigns, who lived in Florida during the period of Acer’s public humiliation, has long been haunted by it. Over the course of 10 years, he returned there to scour local newspaper and government archives and to interview sources close to the story. Reigns’ findings infuse every taut line of this gut-punching prose poem, revealing previously unexposed shame and secrets that may have driven Acer’s patients to seek a scapegoat in their dentist, demonizing him for being gay, rather than having empathy for him as a fellow victim. Reigns slowly reveals many painful, poetic ironies in the lives of Acer, his patients, and the loved ones they left behind. This artistic relitigation of the Acer case offers readers a warning against hysteria, and is a call for compassion. It is a true American tragedy that bears reading, not repeating.

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Rainbow Revolution - Best Books of the Month September 2021British photographer Magnus Hastings, the creator of the eye-popping 2016 photo book Why Drag? Is back with an even richer new volume of queer portraiture, the greatest hits of his multi-year #gayface project, for which Hastings invited queers from all walks of life to pose within stark white 6’ 5” square boxes, dressing up both the boxes and themselves to express their individuality. Rainbow Revolution (Chronicle. $40. www.magnushastings.com) features over 300 images that are supersaturated with color and with joy. Hastings playfully showcases a full spectrum of genders, sexualities, skin tones, and physiques, bringing out a sense of good cheer and self-confidence in every one of his subjects. This book will turn any coffee table into an every day Pride parade.

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The Joy of Sweat - Best Books of the Month October 2021Speed dating is old hat, but smell dating? Take a whiff: At smell dating events, a roomful of strangers does some high intensity aerobics. Each wipes their armpits with a cotton pad. The pads are then placed in anonymized containers by the organizers, who invite participants to nuzzle in and rate each one for its aromatic appeal. When two singles mutually give each others’ odors a high rank, it’s a match! This is just one of the oddball real life situations you’ll encounter in science journalist Sarah Everts’ The Joy of Sweat (W.W. Norton. $26.95. www.saraheverts.com), a sniffariffic compendium of the science, history, and cultural significance of perspiration. Surprisingly witty and entertaining, the book delves into the musky mysteries of why some people are attracted to sweat, while others find it repulsive; how perspiring benefits our health; and why people sometimes sweat in Technicolor. Everts confers with experts in biology, psychology, and sociology as she works up a sweat of her own, globetrotting from Finnish saunas to an English police department that investigates crime with sweat forensics to New Jersey deodorant testing labs. Its pungent fun for everyone!

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Sex with Strangers - Best Books of the Month October 2021Michael Lowenthal drops eight emotional bombshells over the course of a scant 150 pages in his slim, potent new story collection, Sex With Strangers (University of Wisconsin Press. $17.95. www.michaelloewenthal.com ). Slimness and potency are among the subjects obsessed over by Keith, the 29-year-old doctor at the center of the opening story, “Over Boy”; he’s painfully caught up in gay culture’s reverence for youth to the extent that he “preemptively” breaks up with a boyfriend who casually notices a gray hair on his chest. “Keith had hoped that, just as his childhood yen for grape juice had yielded to cabernet, his sexual tastes, too, might mature.” And yet, despite his better instincts, he continues to opt for Twinkies over vintage. “You Are Here” finds a recently ordained priest adrift: During his stint as a cruise ship chaplain, a vacationer confides that she’s considering leaving her husband for another woman, and his own pre-priesthood flame shows up on board incredulous about his vow of celibacy. Other stories here touch on pornography and pedophilia, but at the center of them all is a mesmerizing cross of passion and perplexity. Lowenthal employs clean, clear prose and humane generosity in suggesting that every one of us contains a volume of mystery stories.

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After Parties - Best Books of the month September 2021The snappy, sizzling life force of Anthony Veasna So’s prose makes it all the harder to accept that this queer Cambodian-American yarnspinner’s first collection of short stories will also be his last. Afterparties (Ecco. $27.99. www.bit.ly/jagBoundSo), his posthumously released debut (So died at 28 last winter from a drug overdose) offers a rollicking plunge into life as a child of genocide-surviving immigrants in the blue collar confines of Stockton, California. Rather than offering readers another of the aching identity quests that are common in accounts of first generation American life, So leans into the use of humor as a survival skill, with characters proudly referring to themselves as “Cambos” and cracking wise about Killing Fields. The gay narrator of one story wittily articulates the subtexts society attaches to interracial sex: “I felt like bottoming. And didn’t feel like being a hypocrite by letting a white predator colonize my rectum. His slangy, stop-start dialogue and colorful characterizations contribute to a ragged, slightly heightened realism that keeps Afterparties feeling like a celebration even when it touches on sorrow.

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Cuier - September Best Books of the MonthIn his poem “Saturday”, Marcio Junqueira achingly depicts an unfulfilled mutual crush between two brainy, sensitive teenage boys. The now-adult narrator recalls trying to seduce the object of his affection not with sex, but with nerdy esoterica; passionately scavenged knowledge of “books and songs and films and quotes.” That his books include poems about Brazil by Elizabeth Bishop, the American lesbian poet, points to a clever, multi-layered artistic vision that Junqueira seems to share with editor Sarah Coolidge who has assembled Cuíer (pronounced queer) a lively collection of contemporary Brazilian LGBTQ writing (Two Lines Press. $16.95. www.twolinespress.com). American readers will easily connect with the universality of queer experiences portrayed, from romance, to coming out, to struggling with identity and with AIDS, but will find them enlivened and made fresh again by uniquely Brazilian details: The carnaval setting of the late Caio Fernando Abreu’s story, “Fat Tuesday”; references to the music of Caetano Veloso; distinctive descriptions of a rural harvest festival; and of course, the original Portugese text of each piece, which appears on alternating pages with its English translation. Given Brazil’s past allure as a destination for queer travelers (currently dimmed by the combination of Covid and Trump fanboy President Bolsonaro), the selections here will surely stir up some wanderlust. That said, the book’s appeal is somewhat diminished by the egregious lack of an introductory essay. In a short volume that ambitiously mixes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, it would be helpful to have an editor’s perspective on how and why these specific pieces have been selected to represent Brazil’s queer literary landscape.

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AIRPLANE READ OF THE MONTH

Paying the Palace | September Best Books of the MonthPaul Rudnick is a queer comic treasure. Among the zinger-slinging scribe’s scores of credits are the plays Jeffrey and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told; the screenplay to the Kevin Kline classic In & Out; frequent humor pieces for The New Yorker; and the in-development musical adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada (with a score by Elton John). But back in 1989, before striking showbiz gold, Rudnick published I’ll Take It, a sidesplittingly funny debut novel about shopping, shoplifting, and family ties. A second, Social Disease, followed in 1997, but until now, excepting a pair of low profile Young Adult titles, readers have been deprived a full-on Rudnick novel for the entire 21st Century. So, fanfare please for Playing the Palace (Berkley. $16. www.paulrudnick.com) the wisecracking romantic comedy about the unlikely love match of Carter Ogden, a Jersey-born Manhattan event planner and Prince Edgar, a first-in-line heir to the British throne. Given the melodramatic take on the monarchy on television’s The Crown and the alternately maudlin, malevolent, and righteously woke aspects of the Oprah-goosed Harry and Meghan juggernaut, Rudnick’s royal affair is a glossy, giggly breath of fresh helium. Our heroes struggle with differences in their social status, family interference (Edgar’s mother, a lurking ogresse, is intent on dispatching his commoner comrade), and, of course, the relentless tabloid press. Sure, the plot is familiar, but that leaves Rudnick room to run with laugh-aloud set pieces like a sex scene on the royal jet and Carter and Edgar’s special guest appearance on “The Great British Baking Jubilee.” Rudnick, who has always excelled at snark, adds a welcome sweetness to this manly romance. A crown prince of comedy has grown into a cuddly queen.

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