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Travel Bound
by Jim Gladstone
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Jennifer 8. Lee is as curious as her middle name. Her curiousity shines on every page of her trivia-and-travel-packed The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (Twelve. $24.99., an easy-reading meander through the world of Chinese restaurants. Or, perhaps more appropriately, “Chinese” restaurants, since Lee (herself the American daughter of Chinese immigrants) is quick to point out that the very similar dishes served by Trey Yuen Chinese Cuisine near New Orleans, Chopstix in Scarsdale, and makeshift restaurants in Baghdad’s Green Zone, bare only the faintest resemblance to meals served in China. “Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie,” Lee writes, “But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?” Lee, a New York Times staffer, eats her way around the world hunting for the origins of chop suey, the true identity of General Tso, the source of American Jews’ affection for Chinese restaurants, and the inventors of the fortune cookie. Lee’s middle name, 8, by the way, is a Chinese sign of good fortune. It turns out to be the readers’ good fortune that Lee ate so well.

“If there is a genre that is in some way quintessentially queer, it’s travel writing,” observes Raphael Kadushin in his introduction to Big Trips: More Good Gay Travel Writing (University of Wisconsin Press. $24.95. “Growing up gay,” Kadushin posits, “still means that even your own hometown is a slightly foreign, unforgiving country, and that in turn means every queer kid becomes a patient ethnographer who has to read his culture closely and decode the most subtle.” A smart, engaging editor’s introduction is a hallmark of well-built anthologies, letting the reader know that the selections to follow have been thoughtfully curated, rather than hastily assembled to fill a perceived market niche. Kadushin’s is so chock-full of piquant aperçus that you’d be right to assume this a stellar collection. From esteemed men of gay letters (Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Martin Sherman) to engaging experimentalists (Clifford Chase, Michael Klein) to emerging stars (Aaron Hamburger, Trebor Healey), Big Trips orchestrates a chorus of gorgeously contrapuntal voices, singing of destinations from Provincetown to Prague, Sicily to San Francisco. While not without shortcomings: Asia is strangely amiss here and the fiction pieces are not clearly labeled, Big Trips is a big winner; one of the strongest collections of gay men’s writing of the past few years.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, having bounced between four different presses with his past work, has landed at San Francisco’s storied City Lights Books with his latest, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly (City Lights. $15.95., and it seems an altogether appropriate crash pad. In 1956, City Lights helped define American counterculture with its publication of Howl, queer beat poet Alan Ginsberg’s hallucinogenic celebration of homosexuality, and indictment of industrial society. Over half a century later, Sycamore—an escort-activist who edited the non-fiction anthology That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation—picks up Ginsberg’s torch with this blazing autobiographical work. In this book, he struggles with the stunning economic gap between the Bay Area’s haves and have-nots, as well as the seductive yet depersonalizing impact of the Internet on gay life and the scourge of drugs upon those who have difficulty coping with either of these forces. Sycamore doesn’t whine. He transforms his troubles into a stream of sexy, funny, fluorescent prose that sashays a fine line between surrealism and self-indulgence: “I know it’s a relationship because we’ve reached an impasse: my asshole…there’s so much locked in there…I’m Cinderella in yellow gingham, pounding a frying pan on the washing machine…I’m a squashed frog, pulpy goo, and outside I’m a cat inside Cinderella’s head. I just want Jeremy to pet me.” Even ardent fans of Sycamore’s swirling style and repetitive sex-angst-sex-angst narrative will probably prefer to read this book in single chapter installments: So Many Ways To Sleep Badly is not so much a novel as a series of fever dreams.

Two slim new volumes provide reminders of activities that long-ago triggered many travelers’ wanderlust: reading and stamp collecting. Before most of us get to experience a wide variety of cultures in-person, we discover them through the gateway of books. Who has never been so entranced by the tiny image or strange language on a postage stamp that he wished to visit its place of origin? The crisply produced new edition of On Reading (Norton. $29.95.—originally published in 1971—features a portfolio of duotone photographs by the esteemed photographer Andre Kertesz. Each image captures a reader, enrapt. On park benches and on rooftops, in the middle of busy streets and the quiet of of calm cafés; in Budapest, Tokyo, New York, and Paris, each of Kertesz’s poetic images (shot between 1915 and 1970) evokes the absorbing, transporting potential of reading.

Collections of Nothing, by William Davies King (University of Chicago Press. $20.00., pairs a sense of passion with borderline insanity. King, a theater professor and incorrigible collector who started with stamps and moved on to all manner of ephemera, shares personal anecdotes while waxing philosophical and psychological on the human impulse to collect. There’s a relationship, he suggests, between an innocent desire to assemble mementos and a desperate need to control one’s world. A genuine eccentric, King veers toward the extreme end of that spectrum. After starting to collect stamps as a boy, King began to cut out and collect the blank squares on envelopes that say “Place Stamp Here” and “No Postage Necessary.” Then things started getting really strange.

[Published: November, 2008]

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