Show me the books he loves and I shall know the man far better than through mortal friends - Silas Weir MitchellK.M. Soehnlein is not an author you find often around on the blog circus, but he is "silently" climbling all the best LGBT novels list with his "The World of Normal Boys", winner of the Lambda Award for Gay Men’s Fiction. And he is now out with a new book, Robin and Ruby, just released at the end of March with Kensington Books. Plus "The World of Normal Boys" is in working phase to become a movie script. An impressive list of achievements, and so I'm really glad to host Karl today on my LiveJournal as Inside Reader
Top Ten Gay Books, K.M. Soehnlein, For Elisa Rolle, March 2010
1) The Boys on the Rock by John Fox. You always remember your first love, and for me, John Fox’s coming of age novel was it. First-person adolescent narrators get compared to Holden Caulfield all the time, but Fox’s Billy Connors is one of the few who actually lives up to the praise. Set during the summer of ’68 (the guy Billy falls in love with is campaigning for Bobby Kennedy), this book buzzes with energy of the era right before gay liberation, when change was in the air but not yet a guarantee. Halfway through the book Billy tells the reader, “Maybe I’ll rewrite all this and unscramble everything and take out all the lies.” A narrator admitting half of what he says had been a lie—that was a revelation, and when I read it at the age of 20, it felt like model for truthful living. Related reading: Fox died before he published another book—a loss for gay literature—but if you can track down the 1985 anthology First Love/Last Love: New Fiction from Christopher Street, you’ll find two of his short stories inside.
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin (January 15, 1994)
Publisher Link: http://us.macmillan.com/theboysontherock
Amazon: The Boys on the Rock
Written with uncanny precision and wild humor, this is the story of Billy Connors, high school student in the Bronx, member of the swim team, and all-around regular guy, who in his sixteenth year has to face the fact that he's a little different from everyone else, a little "weird." Though he's sort of going steady with a girl and popular at school, he's always worried that the secret fantasies he has about men would set him apart and make him "different" if anyone knew about them. How Billy faces up to himself-and his friends-as he discovers the complexities of life, the exuberance of sex, and what it means to be an adult in our imperfect world, makes for a touching, wise, and very moving novel.
2) The Beautiful Room is Empty by Edmund White. Edmund White has always mixed the highbrow with the lowlife, the backroom with the salon, in books that are intelligent, frank, outspoken, and not politically correct. He strikes me as someone who has been a lightning rod for readers, who seem to love to pick his opinions apart, even though sentence for sentence, I think he writes better than almost anyone else today. This novel—the follow-up to A Boy’s Own Story—is the one of his I treasure the most. His autobiographical narrator wallows in self-loathing (including some painfully funny therapy sessions with a completely useless analyst) even as he’s having loads of covert sex (in men’s rooms everywhere), all the while inching toward self-definition. It’s a fearless portrait of the middle-class repressiveness that the ’60s obliterated. The novel ends at Stonewall. By the time you get there, you’re ready for a revolution. Related reading: In his memoir My Lives, he covers some of the same ground, but as nonfiction. It makes for a fascinating comparison.
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Vintage (October 4, 1994)
Publisher Link: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780679755401
Amazon: The Beautiful Room is Empty
When the narrator of White's poised yet scalding autobiographical novel first embarks on his sexual odyssey, it is the 1950s, and America is "a big gray country of families on drowsy holiday." That country has no room for a scholarly teenager with guilty but insatiable stirrings toward other men. Moving from a Midwestern college to the Stonewall Tavern on the night of the first gay uprising--and populated by eloquent queens, butch poseurs, and a fearfully incompetent shrink--The Beautiful Room is Empty conflates the acts of coming out and coming of age. "With intelligence, candor, humor--and anger--White explores the most insidious aspects of oppression.... An impressive novel."--Washington Post book World
3) Trash by Dorothy Allison. Very few writers make the case that writing saves lives the way that Dorothy Allison does in this short story collection. Writing with her loud, imagistic, Southern queer voice fine-tuned to the way the world works and how stories might make sense of life’s horrors, Allison pulls no punches. The opening story of this collection, “River of Names,” announces the writer as a force to be reckoned with, an artist who was never meant to survive her brutal childhood, and from there, this collection of unforgettable stories never looks back. Related reading: Bastard Out of Carolina, Allison’s breakthrough novel, the clear-eyed story of a defiant childhood.
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Plume (September 24, 2002)
Publisher Link: http://us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780452283510,00.html?strSrchSql=0452283515/Trash_Dorothy_Allison
Including a new introduction, "Stubborn Girls and Mean Stories," and "Compassion". Trash, Allison's landmark collection, laid the groundwork for her critically acclaimed Bastard Out of Carolina, the National Book Award finalist that was hailed by The New York Times Book Review as "simply stunning...a wonderful work of fiction by a major talent." In addition to Allison's classic stories, this new edition of Trash features "Stubborn Girls and Mean Stories," an introduction in which Allison discusses the writing of Trash and "Compassion," a never-before-published short story. First published in 1988, the award-winning Trash showcases Allison at her most fearlessly honest and startlingly vivid. The limitless scope of human emotion and experience are depicted in stories that give aching and eloquent voice to the terrible wounds we inflict on those closest to us. These are tales of loss and redemption; of shame and forgiveness; of love and abuse and the healing power of storytelling. A book that resonates with uncompromising candor and incandescence, Trash is sure to captivate Allison's legion of readers and win her a devoted new following.
4) Another Country by James Baldwin. No novel has a better first chapter than this one: We follow Rufus, a down-on-his-luck jazz musician with a destructive temper and an ambiguous sexuality, through a long, loveless night, and then…well, I won’t spoil it, but everything that follows is a reaction to Rufus’s fate. As the novel moves among an interlocked group of friends, the writing here can veer into melodrama, and the characters sometimes sound like mouthpieces for the social commentary Baldwin was anxious to express. But he’s such a powerful writer, able to depict the combination of love and cruelty that infuses human relationships, that I wind up rereading this book again and again. None of his characters are blameless; all of them feel real and vital. Bonus points: straight-boy Vivaldo and gay-boy Eric get it on over the course of several metaphorically overloaded, passionate pages. Related reading: anything else by Baldwin. Anything. Just read him.
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Vintage (December 1, 1992)
Publisher Link: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780679744719
Amazon: Another Country
Set in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and France, among other locales, Another Country is a novel of passions--sexual, racial, political, artistic--that is stunning for its emotional intensity and haunting sensuality, depicting men and women, blacks and whites, stripped of their masks of gender and race by love and hatred at the most elemental and sublime. In a small set of friends, Baldwin imbues the best and worst intentions of liberal America in the early 1970s.
5) The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara edited by Donald Allen. This is supposed to be a prose list, but I can’t not give a slot to my favorite poet. Frank O’Hara died in the mid 1960s but reads like a contemporary voice. He wrote everything from wildly surrealist abstraction to clear, witty descriptions of the walks he took on his lunch breaks in midtown Manhattan. Artistic, arch, campy, lucid—O’Hara wore so many different poetic hats. I can pick up his Collected Poems (or the shorter Selected Poems, edited by Mark Ford) and find something to match almost any mood I’m in. There will always be a place in my heart from the poems he wrote directly to his boyfriends, which place him among the greatest writers of love poems ever: “the moon is revealing itself like a pearl / to my equally naked heart.” Related reading: Brad Gooch’s entertaining biography of O’Hara, City Poet; and Digressions on Some Poems By Frank O'Hara: A Memoir, by Joe LeSueur, who was O’Hara’s lover, roommate and bestie for many years.
Paperback: 586 pages
Publisher: University of California Press (March 31, 1995)
Publisher Link: http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/2903.php
Amazon: The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara
Available for the first time in paperback, The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara reflects the poet's growth as an artist from the earliest dazzling, experimental verses that he began writing in the late 1940s to the years before his accidental death at forty, when his poems became increasingly individual and reflective.
6) The Wild Creatures: Collected Stories of Sam D'Allesandro edited by Kevin Killian. Sam D'Allesandro wrote a bunch of poems, sketches and short stories and then died just as he was starting to get them published. His powerfully written, humorous and sexy stories (many set in San Francisco) were first collected as The Zombie Pit, which went out of print for years, until this expanded volume was published in 2005. His stories seem so frank and vulnerable, even though he sometimes poses as a tough guy. One of the most memorable is an homage to James Baldwin, “Giovanni’s Apartment,” in which a casual street pick up leads to an obsessive affair. The narrator drops out of his life and stays in the apartment of his lover for weeks, and you feel like you’re inside that apartment with him, so saturated with this new love that you don’t want to venture out again. Related reading: anything by Kevin Killian—who edited this volume, was a friend and contemporary of D'Allesandro, and shares his romantic/trashy/hopeful/fantastic sensibility.
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Suspect Thoughts Press (October 30, 2005)
Publisher Link: http://inverte.typepad.com/suspectthoughts/2009/03/the-wild-creatures-collected-stories-of-sam-dallesandro.html
Amazon: The Wild Creatures
The Wild Creatures brings together all the stories of Sam D'Allesandro, a young voice whose life was tragically snuffed out at age 31 at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1988. This new collection includes all of D'Allesandro's published stories (including those first collected in the out-of-print cult classic The Zombie Pit) as well as unpublished stories found among D'Allesandro's papers years after his death by his editor, the poet and novelist Kevin Killian, who worked with the literary estate to create this extended edition of his writing. The Wild Creatures explores a strange terrain of urban legend, the power of sexual obsession, and the thin line where the too-cool becomes the too-hot. Sam D'Allesandro's focused, vivid writing is the stuff of legend: writing so powerful it drags the reader in by the neck.
7) The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket by John Weir. OK, I recognize that this is a very New York-centric list, but New York is where I first spread my queer wings in the late ’80s, and no novel captures what it felt like to be alive and young at that time as well as this one. Eddie is half-employed, wasting long days soaking in the tub while “waiting to emerge.” Then an imbalanced love affair and some bad medical news intervene. Weir is a naturally gifted writer, funny and realistic (and sometimes surrealistic, as Eddie converses with a talking pig who serves as his warped, antagonistic id). His sentences charge along entertainingly and then stop you short with sudden devastating flashes of brutal truth. Related reading: What I Did Wrong, Weir’s second novel, written many years later, looks back on Eddie Socket’s era from the point of view of a survivor who can’t quite believe he survived.
Paperback: 296 pages
Publisher: Alyson Books; 1 edition (August 15, 1999)
Amazon: The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket
"It's me, John Weir, responding to the guy/girl who hated my book so much (on Amazon). Yo: I hate it, too. It's over-written, and I didn't make nothing in royalties. Plus, where was the hype? Was I hyped while I wasn't looking? Dude, it sold 4000 copies. Dave Eggers is hyped. I'm a clown who wrote a book. I won't argue that it's "silly" or, whatever, "trivial." Anyway, those are two of my favorite qualities. As for exploiting AIDS, well, I gotta ask: do the words "dying homosexual" make anyone *you* know run to the nearest bookstore? If I was gonna exploit something for laughs and personal gain, I would've picked a topic that sells. I wish I were more of an exploiter! Then I could pay the Parking Violations Bureau. It is of course true that all - count 'em - six of my blurbs were written by my friends and students. Apparently they hadn't heard that I give *A*s to everyone anyway. You should know that my next book is one long grim and unrelenting dirge about tragedy and loss. Of course, it's set in New Jersey. Bringing fine fiction to satisfied readers for over a decade, I remain, your humble author, John Weir."
8) The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village 1960-1965 by Samuel Delany. Samuel Delany’s science fiction books—there are many of them—have always been sort of impenetrable to me, though my friends who read a lot of speculative fiction swear by him. The Delany that I’ve most loved is this memoir of the author’s early 20s, when he was an emerging writer in the Village (sorry, back in NYC again), cruising for sex with men while carrying on a close relationship with the (not yet lesbian) poet Marilyn Hacker. The prose is very direct, almost conversational, and so loaded up with everyday details that you feel like you’re living life alongside of him, making your way through the world, unsure what the future holds. Bonus reading: Hacker, quite the love-poet herself, wrote a breathtaking, structurally rigorous poetic sequence called Taking Notice.
Paperback: 440 pages
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press; 1st University of Minnesota Press Ed edition (April 2004)
Amazon: The Motion of Light in Water
"A very moving, intensely fascinating literary biography from an extraordinary writer. Thoroughly admirable candor and luminous stylistic precision; the artist as a young man and a memorable picture of an age." —William Gibson. "Absolutely central to any consideration of black manhood. . . . Delany’s vision of the necessity for total social and political transformation is revolutionary." —Hazel Carby. "The prose of The Motion of Light in Water often has the shimmering beauty of the title itself. . . . This book is invaluable gay history." —Inches Magazine. Born in New York City’s black ghetto Harlem at the start of World War II, Samuel R. Delany married white poet Marilyn Hacker right out of high school. The interracial couple moved into the city’s new bohemian quarter, the Lower East Side, in summer 1961. Through the decade’s opening years, new art, new sexual practices, new music, and new political awareness burgeoned among the crowded streets and cheap railroad apartments. Beautifully, vividly, insightfully, Delany calls up this era of exploration and adventure as he details his development as a black gay writer in an open marriage, with tertiary walk-ons by Bob Dylan, Stokely Carmichael, W. H. Auden, and James Baldwin, and a panoply of brilliantly drawn secondary characters.
9) Rose of No Man’s Land by Michelle Tea. Sometimes you just need to laugh, and this novel is truly laugh out loud funny. Tea’s 14-year-old heroine, Trisha, has no money, a fucked up family, an obnoxious, overachieving older sister, and a bedroom full of empty beer cans—in other words, she has nothing going on. Then she decides to set out on an adventure with a seductive, chain-smoking girl named Rose. The reader will smell trouble from miles away, but hapless Trisha is hungry for what Rose seems to promise, and she doesn’t see what’s coming until she’s way in over her head. I’ve recommended this book to a zillion people and every one of them has loved it. Bonus reading: Valencia, Tea’s breakthrough novel of underground queer San Francisco in the ’90s, where every day is a new wild ride.
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Harvest Books (February 5, 2007)
Publisher Link: http://harcourtbooks.com/bookcatalogs/bookpages/9780156030939.asp
Amazon: Rose of No Man’s Land
Fourteen-year-old Trisha Driscoll is a gender-blurring, self-described loner whose family expects nothing of her. While her mother lies on the couch in a hypochondriac haze and her sister aspires to be on The Real World, Trisha struggles to find her own place among the neon signs, theme restaurants, and cookie-cutter chain stores of her hometown. After being hired and abruptly fired from the most popular clothing shop at the local mall, Trisha befriends a chain-smoking misfit named Rose, and her life shifts into manic overdrive. A “postmillennial, class-adjusted My So-Called Life” (Publishers Weekly), Rose of No Man’s Land is brimming with snarky observations and soulful musings on contemporary teenage America.
10) Geography of the Heart by Fenton Johnson. This memoir reads like a novel, with all the suspense of a love affair blossoming against the backdrop of terminal illness. It’s the early 1990s, and Johnson, who is HIV-negative, hesitates to get involved with Larry, who is HIV-positive, even though they’re falling in love, knowing what that might mean in this pre-AIDS-drugs era. Of course, he does get involved, sharing travel, love of literature and a very personable cat, and the more their lives enmesh, the closer the author comes to confronting his fears about loss. This is one of the most beautiful romances ever written—a look at mortality that avoids being morbid. Bonus reading: Keeping Faith, Johnson’s nonfiction account of the Catholicism he left behind, the Buddhism he tries to adopt, and the larger questions of belief that haunt the thinking person who rejects religious doctrine.
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Scribner (June 1, 1997)
Publisher Link: http://books.simonandschuster.com/GEOGRAPHY-OF-THE-HEART/Fenton-Johnson/9780671009830
Amazon: Geography of the Heart
From the author of the award-winning novels Crossing The River and Scissors, Paper, Rock comes a powerful book about the transformative power of love. Fenton Johnson recounts the history of "how I feel in love how I came to be with someone else, how he came to death and how I helped." Johnson interweaves two stories: his own upbringing as the youngest of a Kentucky whiskey maker's nine children, and that of his lover LarD Rose, the only child of German Jews. survivors of the Holocaust.
If I’d had room for ten more titles: Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg; Old Rosa by Reinaldo Arenas; Horse Crazy by Gary Indiana; Aquamarine by Carol Anshaw; Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran; The Hours by Michael Cunningham; Querelle by Jean Genet; Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim; Queer by William Burroughs; The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin.
About K.M. Soehnlein: K.M. Soehnlein is the author of The World of Normal Boys, winner of the Lambda Award for Gay Men’s Fiction; You Can Say You Knew Me When, praised by The L.A. Times’s Regina Marler as “a dense, enjoyable read, like one of those famed Beat road trips: pedal to the metal until the next inspired digression”; and the forthcoming Robin and Ruby, a sequel to The World of Normal Boys set during one eventful weekend in the summer of 1985.
His stories and essays have appeared in the anthologies Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys; Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up; Love, Castro Street; and Bookmark Now. His journalism has appeared in Out, The Village Voice, San Francisco Magazine and more.
The World of Normal Boys is currently in development with Telling Pictures, the production company of Oscar-winners Rob Epsteing and Jeffrey Friedman (co-directors of the upcoming Howl, starring James Franco). Soehnlein has been tapped to adapt his novel for the screen.
Raised in New Jersey, K.M. Soehnlein now lives in San Francisco, where he teaches at the University of San Francisco and enjoys life with his husband, Kevin Clarke.
Robin and Ruby by K.M. Soehnlein
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Kensington (March 30, 2010)
Publisher Link: http://www.kensingtonbooks.com/finditem.cfm?itemid=16460
Amazon: Robin and Ruby
In his award-winning bestseller The World of Normal Boys, K.M. Soehnlein introduced readers to the richly compelling voice of teenager Robin MacKenzie. In Robin and Ruby, he revisits Robin and his younger sister, masterfully depicting the turbulence of the mid-1980s—and that fleeting time between youth and adulthood, when everything we will become can be shaped by one unforgettable weekend.
At twenty-years-old, Robin MacKenzie is waiting for his life to start. Waiting until his summer working at a Philly restaurant is over and he’s back with his boyfriend Peter…until the spring semester when he’ll travel to London for an acting program…until the moment when the confidence he fakes starts to feel real.
Then, one hot June weekend, Robin gets dumped by his boyfriend and quickly hits the road with his best friend George to find his teenaged sister, Ruby, who’s vanished from a party at the Jersey Shore. For years, his friendship with George has been the most solid thing in Robin’s life. But lately there are glimpses of another George, someone Robin barely knows and can no longer take for granted.
Ruby is on an adventure of her own, dressing in black, declaring herself an atheist, pulling away from the boyfriend she doesn’t love—not the way she loves the bands whose fractured songs are the soundtrack to her life. Then a chance encounter puts Ruby in pursuit of a seductive but troubled boy who might be the key to her happiness, or a disaster waiting to happen.
As their paths converge, Robin and Ruby confront the sadness of their shared past and rebuild the bonds that still run deep. In prose that is lyrical, compulsively readable, and exquisitely honest, K.M. Soehnlein brilliantly captures a family redefining itself and explores those moments common to us all—when freedom bumps up against responsibility, when sex blurs the line between friendship and love, and when what you stand for becomes more important than who you were raised to be.