Book Marks: Books by Emma Donoghue, Lee Houck, Josh Kilmer-Purcell, and more

by Richard Labonte

"Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature," by Emma Donoghue. Alfred A. Knopf, 271 pages, $27.95 hardcover.

There's more to lesbian lit than Radclyffe Hall's "The Well of Loneliness" or Patricia Highsmith's "The Price of Salt" - and novelist Donoghue ("Slammerkin" and the forthcoming "Room") has done the research to prove it. With completely accessible (and often witty) prose married to rigorous academic research, this is a treasure trove focused on writing about girl-girl relationships from the medieval to the modern. Donoghue's reach is broad, encompassing everything from Agatha Christie to the Marquis de Sade, H. Rider Haggard to Henry James, and Ovid to Ann Bannon, invoking the faintest of crushes as much as the most intense of lesbian gazes. Somewhat fancifully - though it does provide colorful structure - the book breaks lavender-hued prose into what the author calls "perennially popular" plots, including Travesties (cross-dressing that leads to accidental same-sex desire) and Monsters (wicked women). A chronological listing of book titles is useful for readers who want to graze the centuries of prose that Donoghue has uncovered, writing that ranges from the heights of Shakespeare and Jane Eyre to some truly horrific potboilers.

"Yield," by Lee Houck. Kensington Books, 288 pages, $15 paper.

Simon, the moody yet affable narrator of this engaging debut, shuffles dusty and dated hospital records while augmenting his income by selling blow-jobs, golden showers and other sexual favors to an array of clients - some more kinky than others. Among his friends are Louis, a breathtakingly beautiful model who in the course of the story is gay-bashed; Farmer, described as "everything good about humanity rolled into a squat, wrestler-like package"; Jaron, an enigmatic and anorexic self-mutilator; and, eventually, Aidan, a quirky client Simon met in the neighborhood Laundromat and with whom he gradually falls in love. Houck writes about these 20-something queers with perfect emotional pitch as they scramble to make their way in contemporary Manhattan, negotiating friendships that nourish them, embracing activism in reaction to the epidemic of gay-bashing that felled Louis, and navigating uncertain years of youthful drift. Houck's novel, a brilliant beyond-coming-out story, captures big-city New York hustle with the values of small-town heart.

"The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers," by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. HarperCollins, 320 pages, $24.99 hardcover.

One of the Manhattanites of the title is a retired drag queen with a flourishing career in advertising, and the other is a physician in the employ of Martha Stewart. Which is why this rollicking memoir opens with a belly-laugh description of poo-covered baby goats making an appearance on Stewart's TV show - it's all about marketing the men's goat-milk soap. And it all started when Kilmer-Purcell and his partner Brent Ridge, on the spur of the moment, bought a centuries-old mansion in rustic upstate New York. The mansion and its acres came with a caretaker, and the caretaker raised goats, and goats produce milk - and a business was born. Kilmer-Purcell's account of city boys settling into a rural setting - quite a gay-friendly one, however - has no end of hilarious high points. But there's a serious side to the story, too; the stress of holding down day jobs during the week while handling farm chores on weekends while launching an online business takes a toll on their relationship, a reality the author never shies away from.

""Where My Girls At?" Women in Blacklight 1979-1985," edited by Sidney Brinkley. Blacklight, 116 pages, $18.95 paper.

Brinkley, who edited the D.C.-based magazine "Blacklight" from 1979 to 1986, culled his archives for this evocative history of Black lesbians and feminists. It's an eclectic collection: fiction and poetry by filmmaker Michelle Parkerson, poetry and a coming-out account by Chiquita "Joe" Bass, essays by S. Diane Bogus (on Black lesbian invisibility) and Rev. Renee McCoy (on the failure of the Black church), and two interviews by Joseph Beam, editor of the groundbreaking Black gay anthology "In the Life." The first is a "conversation" with musician Linda Tillery, who shared stages with the likes of Buddy Miles, Iron Butterfly and Janis Joplin before launching her Olivia Records career; the second - the only piece that didn't originally appear in the magazine, though Brinkley notes he has no idea why it wasn't published - records an insightful encounter with poet and essayist Audre Lorde. Reports on Black lesbian conferences in 1980 and 1981 are potent reminders that the queer community gains of recent years are the direct result of the early cultural and political activism showcased here.

Featured Excerpt

Reading my way from medieval romance to Restoration comedy to the modern novel, mostly in English (but often in French, and sometimes in translations from Latin, Italian, Spanish, or German), I uncover the most perennially popular plot motifs of attraction between women. Here they are, in a nutshell. TRAVESTIES: Cross-dressing (whether by a woman or a man) causes the "accident" of same-sex desire. INSEPARABLES: Two passionate friends defy the forces trying to part them. RIVALS: A man and a woman compete for a woman's heart. MONSTERS: A wicked woman tries to seduce and destroy an innocent one. DETECTION: The discovery of a crime turns out to be the discovery of same-sex desire. OUT: A woman's life is changed by the realization that she loves her own sex.

-from "Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature," by Emma Donoghue

Footnotes

BOOKS TO WATCH OUT FOR: William Mann is following his biography of Elizabeth Taylor ("How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood") with "Hello, Gorgeous," about Barbra Streisand, coming from Houghton Mifflin in fall 2012... BILL CLEGG, author of the crystal meth-hell memoir "Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man," has signed with Little, Brown for a second book, "90 Days," about his "blurry" life after rehab... DAVID FRANCE, author of "Bag of Toys: Sex, Scandal, and the Death Mask Murder" and, more recently, "Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal," is working on "Morning in America," coming from Random House, about the evolution of AIDS from deadly plague to manageable medical condition - in the developed world, at least - through the efforts of ACT UP activists and others committed to challenging research orthodoxy and the pharmaceutical industry... TWO COLLECTIONS of new poetry are coming from W.W. Norton: "No Surrender," by Ai (who died earlier this year), and "Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010," by Adrienne Rich... "GANYMEDE UNFINISHED: A Tribute to John Stahle and His Journal Ganymede" is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press; the collection, with work by Perry Brass, Jeff Mann, Charlie Vazquez, Jee Leong Koh and others, also includes designs of the journal's final issue - Stahle died earlier this year.

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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