by Jim Gladstone
READ OF THE MONTH
Best known in the US as playwright of the 2006 Tony-winning History Boys, gay Brit wit Alan Bennett has delivered a bonbon of a book in Smut (Picador, $14. www.picadorusa.com/smut). This petite volume of two smirk-out-loud stories can easily be read in its entirety on a single flight, then tucked between the pages of a Skymall catalog to provide a future passenger more pleasure than he'd ever get from a motorized corkscrew or vibrating sleep mask. The Wedgewood blue-and- white cover by designer Henry Yee and illustrator Christopher Neal features what can only be described as Tea Cupulation: two dainty vessels pairing off in a lively variety of positions. This art perfectly sets the tone for Bennett's biscuit-dry dissection of modern British sexual mores, in which old-fashioned propriety is only a superficial veneer over newfangled reality. The matronly title character of "The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson," is a suburban widow who tries on new identities as a role playing fake patient in a med school training program and a first-time landlady who none-too-reluctantly ends up as an observer in the bedroom of her student lodgers. In "The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes," a family contorts itself into sham marriage and deluded prevarication to avoid discussing a grown son's rather obvious homosexuality; it all leads to blackmail by the local police department's gay community liaison officer, whose liaisons are as ridiculously twisted as the Forbes family's own behavior. Pinkies up and reading glasses on!
With spring fever and a new baseball season about to begin, it's the perfect time to crack open one of late 2011's literary gems, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (Little, Brown and Company, $25.99. www.hachettebookgroup.com); a rare sports novel with broad enough perspective to celebrate gay romance among the many splendored glories of male bonding. At the heart of the story is Henry Skrimshander, a small town boy and gifted shortstop whose recruitment by a tony private college opens his eyes to a wider world. Exhibit A: Henry's black, gay roommate, Owen. Neither Owen or Henry is played as a token by Harbach, whose tender handling of even his quirkiest characters brings to mind John Irving. Like a good ballgame, this novel has a smooth, stately pace, pleasantly interrupted by surprising bobbles and unexpected turns of events. If you're the book-loving counterpart of those baseball fiends who are helplessly addicted to statistics and locker room gossip, you'll also want to check out How A Book Is Born: The Making of the Art of Fielding, an expanded, 19,000-word Vanity Fair article offered through Amazon as a Kindle single (Amazon, $1.99. www.amazon.com/Vanity-Fairs-Book-Born-ebook).
In July, 2003, legal scholar Dale Carpenter wrote in a Houston Chronicle editorial: "National Review, the flagship magazine of American conservatism, opposes sodomy laws. Conservative commentators such as William Kristol do, too. Even Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative Catholic, thinks sodomy laws are 'uncommonly silly.' But the leaders of the Texas GOP are no ordinary conservatives, or even ordinary social conservatives for that matter. They are theocrats, devoted to the idea that there is no proper distinction between God's law and civil law." That same month, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling, effectively declaring all anti-sodomy laws throughout the United States unconstitutional and unenforceable. Nearly a decade later, as election-year demagogues continue in their refusal to move forward with the tides of history, Carpenter has published Flagrant Conduct, The Story of Lawrence v. Texas: How a Bedroom Arrest Decriminalized Gay Americans (W.W. Norton, $29.95. www.wwnorton.com), an exhaustively researched and acutely observed study of the tide-shifting case. In addition to carefully analyzing the legal details, Carpenter delves into the personal stories of the interracial couple at the center of the case, as well as those of the Houston cops who unexpectedly found themselves in a national spotlight. Flagrant Conduct occasionally suffers from an academic tone, but it does provide enough perspective on gay American life in the late 80s and early 90s to remind readers that social as well as legal change has taken place in this country since then, despite the persistence of fringe conservatives.
One can never be quite sure how a national economic crisis will play out for you as a tourist. If you're considering Greece in 2012, there's a chance that there will be bargains for the taking, with local hoteliers and restaurateurs feeling pinched for income, not to mention a weaker Euro. On the other hand, strikes, protests, and curtailed transit schedules may force you to be more flexible with your day-to-day itineraries than you'd prefer. If you need a little extra push to say "What the hell!" and go, Hellenic, pick up The Most Beautiful Villages of Greece (Thames & Hudson, $26.95. www.thamesandhudsonusa.com), photographer Hugh Palmer and travel writer Mark Ottoway's collaborative exploration of both the mainland and islands. From the Isle of Paros, where a profusion of outdoor staircases and buildings that bridge narrow flagstone alleys create a happy sundrenched version of an Escher painting; to the monasteries dizzily perched atop high rock promontories in mainland Meteora; to the emblematic whitewashed walls of Mykonos, the inviting combination of agrarian and seaside life is utterly alluring. Surveying the dozens of small towns showcased here, readers will be reminded that, contrary to the abstracted chaos of global financial panics, there remains soothing pleasures to the simpler, slow-to-change rhythms of village life—something well worth tapping into on a vacation.
How'd you like to enjoy some mind-expanding substance along with a helping of hot sex? Editor Tristan Taormino's Take Me There: Trans and Genderqueer Erotica (Cleis Press, $14.95. www.tristantaormino.com) offers a dizzying collection of short stories that will challenge readers with its rich banquet of pronoun salad. A tongue-twisting, limb-tangling compendium of gender exploration that will broaden your ideas of gender and sexuality. This anthology, like everybody's sexuality, is truly one of a kind.