Teen Books for Pride That We Can Be Proud Of

Dealing with LGBTQ issues in young adult literature isn’t exactly new.  It made its first appearance with John Donovan’s I’ll Get There.  It Better Be Worth the Trip in 1969, and while the coverage has expanded and the material is less censored, the majority of teen novels covering queer experience has stayed firmly in the category of “Issue Book,” examining how you discover your own sexuality and how you and others deal with the Big Realization.

It looks like that’s starting to change.

In recent seasons, I’m hearing more and more about books that are pitched as science fiction thrillers or fictionalized memoirs.  At the very end I’m told “Oh yeah, and the main character’s gay.”  Even the books that are more traditionally about the gay experience are approaching it from totally new angles.  I’d like to highlight a few of the books from this exciting new realm of LGBTQ that can be found on the shelves of a bookstore near you.

Proxy by Alex LondonProxy by Alex London

Here’s that science fiction thriller I was talking about.  Proxy takes place in a dystopian future wear education has grown so expensive that the disenfranchised masses rent themselves out as proxies to the wealthy in exchange for tuition.  These proxies must suffer punishments on behalf of their counterparts, no matter what the wrongdoing.  While Syd has taken many a beating or work assignment when Knox gets into trouble, he’s not prepared for the deadly car crash that leaves him with the death penalty.  Both boys go on the run in an attempt to escape the constrictions of their present lives and find a brighter future.  Oh, and Syd’s gay.

Adaptation by Malinda LoAdaptation by Malinda Lo

This book opens with planes falling out of the sky after mass bird attacks and gets more dire from there.  When debate partners Reese and David wake up in the hospital after a crash caused by those same birds, they know things are different now.  Soon Reese is uncovering evidence of a vast government conspiracy.  All while cultivating an exciting new relationship with punk girl Amber and maintaining her crush on David.

Openly Straight by Bill KonigsbergOpenly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Hiding your sexuality, especially in the midst of a same-sex boarding school, is not exactly a new concept in YA lit.  But in Openly Straight, the twist comes from Rafe’s motivations.  You see, he’s been out to everyone he knows since the 8th grade.  And everyone’s fine with it.  But despite all the support, he still wonders what it would be like if he wasn’t “the gay guy” but just “a guy.”  So when he’s transferred to a New England boarding school, he leaps on the chance to reinvent himself, and ends up having to discover himself all over again.

Happy Families by Tanita S. DaviesHappy Families by Tanita S. Davies

Twins Justin and Ysabel are superstars.  Ysabel has a successful jewelry line that’s already getting acclaim in the art world.  Justin’s performances in class, clubs and sports have him fast-tracked for the Ivy League.  Sounds like it’s about time for one of them to be outed as LGBT and deal with the resulting fallout, no?  So why is this book different?  Because that’s not what happens.  Their perfect family is turned upside down when their father comes out as transgender and leaves home to try living as a woman full-time.  What follows is a look at whether all happy families actually do look alike.

The Chaos by Nalo HopkinsonThe Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson

This is another book where the main character isn’t queer.  But her best friend is a gay black man.  And early on, she teams up with a Filipino lesbian in a wheelchair.  Scotch herself is biracial–African-American/white Jamaican–which means she doesn’t fit in anywhere in Toronto.  Her brother is an ex-convict.  There are even three minor characters in a polyamorous relationship.  That’s an awful lot of diversity, especially for a book plotted around a cataclysmic event that brings a dreamworld logic into our reality.

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim FederleBetter Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle

Nate isn’t gay either.  Or maybe he is.  He’s only thirteen, and the way he sees it, he’s got a lot of time to figure that out.  But that’s not going to stop the kids at school from assuming he is (and taunting him accordingly).  In turn, that teasing won’t stop Nate from pursuing his dream of starring in a musical on the Great White Way.  Strictly speaking, this is middle grade, and a great way to start kids young on the concept of gender nonconformity.

Of course we continue to see more traditional coming-of-age novels about blossoming sexuality.  Those books hold a crucial place in a world where teens (and everyone else) have too few spaces to safely explore their feelings.  But it’s wonderful to see LGBTQ YA break the mold and branch out into other genres.  Just one more step in the long journey to equality.

Reading Group Roundup – July 2013

Looking for a good book this July? Left Bank Books hosts reading groups that are always welcoming to new members! If you have any questions or think you’d like to register your book group with Left Bank Books, please drop Jonesey a line at jonesey@left-bank.com. Enjoy!

Sons of the Prophet: A PlayMonday July 8th, 7:30pm in the CWE store (downstairs) join Shane Read This Play on a brand new day! This month they will discuss Sons of the Prophet by Stephen Karam: A deeply humorous, unflinching portrait of grief and loss, Sons of the Prophet depicts a Lebanese-American family in rural Pennsylvania beset by an absurd string of tragedies. At the play’s center is Joseph Douaihy, a once-promising world-class runner now sidelined by injury. As Joseph confronts his deteriorating health, he is also forced to face the death of his father, an ailing Uncle, and a desperate boss beset by her own tragedies.

Two Towns in ProvenceSunday July 14th at 2:00pm at the Downtown Store, join Jonesey and Reading The World as they discuss MFK Fisher’s Two Towns in Provence: This memoir of the French provincial capital of Aix-en-Provence is, as the author tells us, “my picture, my map, of a place and therefore of myself…just as much of its reality is based on my own shadows, my inventions.” A vibrant and perceptive profile of the kinship between a person and a place.

Richard IIITuesday, July 16th at 7:00pm in the CWE store (downstairs) join Shakespeare Festival Reads in a discussion about Richard III: The final play in Shakespeare’s masterly dramatization of the struggle for power between the Houses of York and Lancaster. Treacherous, power-hungry, untempered by moral restraint, and embittered by physical deformity, Richard, the younger brother of King Edward IV, is ablaze with ambition to take England’s throne.

Written on the BodyThursday, July 18th at 7:30pm in the CWE store (downstairs) join the Lesbian Reading Group for a discussion of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body: The most beguilingly seductive novel to date from the author of The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. Winterson chronicles the consuming affair between the narrator, who is given neither name nor gender, and the beloved, a complex and confused married woman. “At once a love story and a philosophical meditation”.–New York Times Book Review.

The Man in the Wooden HatWednesday, July 24th at 12:00pm in the Downtown store join Kris and Novel Ideas for a discussion of Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat: A portrait of a marriage, with all the bittersweet secrets and surprising fulfillment of the 50-year union of two remarkable people, The Man in the Wooden Hat is fiction of a very high order from the author of Old Filth.

Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito RussoThursday, July 25th at 7:30pm in the CWE store (downstairs), the Gay Men’s Reading Group will discuss Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo by Michael Schiavi: The first critical biography of gay-rights activist Vito Russo. Celluloid Activist illuminates, through the life of this fascinating individual, some of the most explosive cultural revolutions in American history and significantly expands the fields of gay film studies, biography, and history.

Interested in something a little different? The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts is hosting a different kind of book club. Exhibition Bookshelf explores the power of color during the run of Donald Judd: The Multicolored Works. Discover how authors use color while you are surrounded by Donald Judd’s multicolored works within the contemplative spaces of the Pulitzer galleries.

Fun Home: A Family TragicomicThursday July 18th from 7:00pm to 8:30pm join Anton DiSclafani in an exploration of Alison Bechdel’s use of color in her memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, in which Bechdel lets us in on her complicated relationship to her father. Anton DiSclafani is the author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, which was released on June 4, was named a most anticipated book of 2013 by Publisher’s Weekly and The Wall Street Journal. Visit pulitzerarts.org for the full schedule. Contact Philip Matthews, programs coordinator, at pmatthews@pulitzerarts.org or 314-446-2057, to join the book club.

I’m Sorry Y’all

Dear Paula Deen,

I know you are having a BAD WEEK.  First, you get inexplicably outed by the National Enquirer for remarks that you think are perfectly ok. Remarks about people of color especially.  And then somehow, everyone gets all up in your business about it. These remarks, incidentally, display a deeply imbedded racism so obviously part of your cultural dna that you seem to be more confused than sorry.  You were so confused you were a no-show on the Today Show this morning.   Now the media, while simultaneously enjoying this moment of deep-fried dirt, can also put you on the “black”-list. Sorry Paula. That’s what it’s called.

Lawyer: Have you ever used the N-word yourself?
Deen: Yes, of course.

As if this weren’t enough, someone told you to make a You Tube video to apologize. Not your best recorded moment, I must say. You seemed, well bewildered to find yourself sitting in some random chair in some random room fiddling with your pinky and trying to say something your agent told you to say that might as well have been in Swahili it was so foreign on your tongue. Alas, to no avail. By the end of the business day, the Food Network announced it had cancelled your contract. I’m sure you are stewing over this. After all, you apologized! On You Tube! Much better than the Today Show, more potential viewers. Isn’t that good enough?

Paula Deen's new book
the bible of southern hospitality

But what’s worse, at least from my bookseller’s point of view, you’ve got a big new cookbook coming out this Fall from Random House. Paula Deen’s New Testament. The announced print run is 750,000 copies. Somebody got a nice advance! I am pretty sure that you have just ruined a few publishing executives’ weekend, if not their entire year. I’m pretty sure that employees of the Random House will not be seeing that $5,000 bonuses they got last year for the stupendous sales of the 50 Shades of Gray “erotic” novels again this year for the anticipated sales of your book.  At 750,000 copies, it has the largest announced advance print run on Random House’s entire fall list.  I just bought that list today and the next biggest print run I recall came in at less than half that.

But it is possible that as I write this, Random House has already stopped the presses on Paula Deen’s New Testament.  I feel bad for them. I like the folks at Random House. They publish some of my favorite writers, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and Jeanette Winterson and Gertrude Stein. Black, and/or gay, and/or Jewish.  What a pickle you have gotten yourself in Paula!

You must be extra confused about this. As you testified in a court case last year, you saw no problem with your brother Bubba making anti-gay/Semitic/black jokes or looking at porn in front of his and your employees.  Yet last year, everyone at Random House got Christmas bonuses for selling porn, and you will probably be lucky if your book gets published at all just because of something you said. Something you also said everyone else says. Everyone you know, that is. Apparently in your world, it’s acceptable to make racist jokes and download porn at work. I’m sure it must feel like a double standard. But of course, Random House hasn’t issued a statement as to how it is handling your new book. Maybe you still have a chance. Especially if you keep your mouth shut.

But Paula, the real reason I am writing to you is that I have an apology of my own to make.  An apology and an immodest proposal. When I spoke to you at a Random House party a few weeks ago, I complimented you on how good you looked. And you do. You look great, especially for someone who was single-handedly responsible for elevating butter to its own place on the food pyramid. You have managed to take the inevitable diabetes diagnosis and turn yourself around. I expect that took a major effort. It wasn’t just your birthright and lifestyle, this advocacy of a diet that kills, it literally made you millions of dollars. I admire your fortitude. I admire the fortitude of your staff who most likely coordinated your new diet for you.

But that’s not what I have to apologize for. When we spoke, you had just met a high-ranking suit from the company that will be selling your book, if it gets published, to Walmart and Hastings and Target and the like. He promised to sell a ton of your books. (Of course, that probably isn’t all that many, calorically speaking.) He turned and left immediately and you turned to me. I told you that Left Bank Books wouldn’t be selling a ton, but we’d probably sell a half ton.  You seem satisfied with that.

So here’s the thing: we won’t be selling a half ton. We wouldn’t have sold a half ton even if you hadn’t revealed your true colors. And now of course we won’t be selling any. Because I didn’t order any today, when ironically, your book was being presented to me by my Random House sales rep, right about the time you were posting your “apology” and the Food Network was cancelling your contract. Talk about timing! So sorry, Paula, but I sort of lied when I saw you last month. You could say I “misspoke”. That’s a term you might want to borrow from your conservative friends, incidentally. You can use it to pretend that you didn’t mean all those things you said that got you into trouble.  It’s like saying you told a little “white” lie.

Paula Deen, I don’t think you are ever going to learn anything from this experience. You have lived in a bubble of Southern hospitality, a phrase I have come to see as meaning, “well honey bunches, I think you are a piece of deep-fried doo-doo and I have no intention of accommodating your wishes but I am going to slather you in buttery falsehoods so greasy that when you manage to stand up and wipe yourself off, you will think I was actually nice to you”.

And because you have perfected the art of Southern style “playah”, you have come to believe your own pretenses of actual compassion. There may be a way out of this for you, Paula. But you are not going to like it. I make this proposal inspired by where I live, St. Louis, Missouri. We are not regarded as a healthy town. We have high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, the very sorts of health problems that result from following the diet you have profited from promoting all these years. And black folk, the very ones you seem to think make decorative slave motifs for wedding parties, suffer the most.

So why not use this opportunity to make it up to us, Paula? Why not—wait for it— give away your new book to poor communities and communities of color? Why not lead free community cooking classes in those communities to teach better dietary choices to the folks who have been harmed the most by your previous food religion?

No cheating either. No new syndicated “Feed My People” show. You have to actually look people in the eye. The revolution will not be monetized. After all, you can afford to do this. The only thing more over the top than the amount of butter you have consumed over the years is the amount of money you have made preaching its virtues. Could you do that, Paula? Could you go among the common people and do the right thing?

That, Paula, would be what the folks in AA call making amends. THAT would be a real apology.

Not holding my breath,

Another 60+ year-old white woman

We’ll Always Have Paris: Your Bookseller’s Guide To Les Misérables

On September 9th, Eleanor Sullivan will be joining us at our Central West End store to talk about her new Singular Villages mystery, Graven Images. Here’s a thing you need to know about Eleanor Sullivan: she claims Les Misérables as one of the five Broadway shows that changed her life.

Here’s a thing you need to know about me: I am obsessed with Les Misérables.

As my coworkers know all too well, I actually can’t shut up about it. I’ve watched the musical more times than I care to admit. I saw the movie four times in theaters. Some version of the soundtrack is a permanent fixture in my car’s CD player. My dream cast involves an actor that sings entirely in Spanish. My favorite character is, 50% of the time, not even said by name in the libretto. I’m currently in the middle of reading two different translations of the book.  My cat’s name is Valjean.

That’s how far gone I am, friends.

This summer, the Muny is doing a production of Les Misérables, and you might plan on going to see it (I highly recommend it, as my personal dream cast member Norm Lewis is playing Javert). I’m here to tell you that before you do, you should really read up.

Are you crazy?! you ask. You want me to read a 1400 page novel by July?!

Not….necessarily. You have options.

For Newbies (to the show):

ImageSaw the movie in theaters and can’t seem to get enough of Fantine and co.? Check out Les Misérables: From Stage To Screen. This gorgeous and fairly comprehensive guide tracks the show from its conception through Broadway runs, international productions, touring companies, and anniversary specials, concluding with a rundown of the making of the Oscar-nominated film. What’s really special about this book, though, is that it has pockets chock full of replica memorabilia, from ticket stubs to posters to original costume sketches to libretto samples (with director’s notes!) to movie call sheets. This is your one-stop-shop for catching up with all things musical.

For Newbies (to this world):

Want to share your love of Les Misérables with your young children, but don’t think they’re quite ready for Hugo’s classic novel? Cozy Classics has an absolutelyCozy Classics adorable board book version, illustrated with beautiful needle-felted figures, that gets the point across in a lot fewer words, while helping teach your children about such important thematic elements as “Poor,” “Run,” and, of course, the central message of Les Mis, “Love.”

For Newbies (to the novel):

Les Mis SignetYou’ve seen the musical, you’ve seen the movie, and now, you think you’re ready to give the novel a try. Maybe you attempted to read it in high school, and balked at its length (or you had to return it to the library before you could finish). I would suggest reading the Signet Classics paperback edition, translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee. It’s the edition I started with, and retains all the elegance of Hugo’s prose without making it dense and unreadable. Plus, shorter chapters for easy breaking points! Trust me, it’s a book you’ll want to stop occasionally and reflect on for a while before picking up again. It’s not abridged, so you’ll still have to wade through the 100 page digressions on the Battle of Waterloo and the Paris sewer system, but you’ll also emerge with a much better understanding of your favorite musical characters, the June Rebellion (not the French Revolution!), and the story’s central message of optimism, love, and redemption. (Also, getting through Waterloo is like a badge of honor. They should make t-shirts!).

For Seasoned Veterans:

Have you, like me, seen countless viewings of the musical, film, and have already torn through the book at least once? Time to pick up the Word Cloud Classics edition! Les Mis CloudNot only will it look spectacular sitting on your bookshelf, but the translation by Isabel Hapgood is a bit loftier, probably reminiscent of the prose of Hugo’s day, and will make for some fascinating comparisons to the Signet Classics translation. Plus, no matter the translation, your second reading of Les Mis is always more fun, and more revealing, than your first!

See? You have options. Don’t think of Les Mis as that book your professor wanted you to read in college and you Spark Noted (and after all, you’d already seen the musical). Think of it as delving into a complex and fascinating new (old) world, full of remarkable characters and themes still entirely resonant today, that you’ve only scratched the surface of. That’s the wonderful thing about Les Misérables: 150 years later, and there’s still more to see, more to talk about, more to learn, that’s just as fascinating now as it was then.

Sad News About a Good Friend

We called her “our knitter,” but really we had to share her with the rest of the world.   Sharon Coleman, who lead a Knitters Reading Group at our store and who was responsible for various “Guerrilla Knitting” projects in the St. Louis area passed away on May 23.

She had been our one-woman knitters’ group since not long after we opened the downtown store, sometime early in 2009. Off and on we would have several women join her but for a long time, it has just been her.

Undaunted by a serious cancer diagnosis  a few years before we met her, Sharon poured herself into her knitting full throttle. She told us it was the thing that kept her going. And keep going she did. She was three years beyond a “you have  weeks to live” diagnosis, and we enjoyed her company for 4 years more.

yarnbombShe knitted complex and lovely pieces that she donated to us to sell to support the River City Readers Program.  We had  a display at our downtown store for a long time.  She also yarn-bombed the store, wrapping columns in various colors and textures.  We looked forward to Fridays when we could see what surprise she left the night before. Some favorites are the rocks she covered in fabulous lavender and glam frizzy gold, or red curly-cue stitches that have served us a bookshelf stops.

Our last encounter with Sharon was at our Central West End store, where she had moved her group.  Kris was there and chatted with her about her latest project.  She was knitting apple cozies, great little pockets the perfect size for an apple. Kris thought it was the perfect gift for teachers and the two of them talked about her making some in quantity.

Sharon loved Left Bank Books and was passionate about River City Readers. Through her knitting, she found purpose. She found life. She fought illness with courage and grace. We are grateful for her support and friendship. She will be missed.

There will be a memorial service at Bopp Chapel this afternoon.  You can count on us to be there.

Sedaris 101: Diabetes and Owls for Newbies

Blasphemy alert: Two weeks ago, I’d never read anything by David Sedaris. I’d never heard anything by David Sedaris. “Not even the elf thing, at Christmas, on NPR?” you ask, disbelief in your voice, your eyebrows rising into your hair? Nope. Not even the elf thing, at Christmas, on NPR.

It’s not that I had anything against David Sedaris. On the contrary, customers and coworkers alike raved that he was spectacularly, side-splittingly, tears-in-your-eyes-can’t-breathe-right kind of funny.  But when you work in a bookstore, your To Read list has the tendency to, er, get away from you a little. Get away from you like the distance runners got away from me, a last minute 800 meter relay substitute, during my 8th grade track championship: quickly, and painfully, and dramatically.

So when I found myself scheduled to work David Sedaris’ May 25th event with Left Bank Books for his new book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, an event which sold out in less than 24 hours, prompting us to shut down a section of Locust Street and pipe his talk out for the masses, I was pretty excited. I hadn’t had the time to read any of his books, but now I had the opportunity to get a taste of what all the fuss was about. “You just have to hear him,” people would say to me, “and you’ll understand.”

Ladies and gentlemen, consider me a convert.

You’re looking at David Sedaris’ newest fan. And it’s not only because he’s hilarious. I mean, he is hilarious. So hilarious that it was actually hard for me to do my job – manning the book table outside the store for the listening party, which numbered around 300 strong – because I was laughing so hard. And it’s not only because his fans are so awesome, as all the ones I met were – from the group who ordered pizza and brought wine and set up their own picnic in the street, to the couple who traveled from Kentucky to hear him, to the two young Mormon men on their mission trip who wanted to personally thank Sedaris for getting them out of a tough spot, to the toddler who clapped at all the right moments and was especially interested in our May events calendar.

No, the real reason I’m now a card-carrying member of the David Sedaris fan club is because of how absolutely wonderful David Sedaris was to all his fans, and how generous he was with his time. He engaged with each and every person that stood in line to meet him. He listened to life stories with genuine interest, and tailored his book personalizations for each person with stickers and references to funny anecdotes and details they’d revealed in their conversations. This was much more than a signature and a handshake. This was an experience.

And this experience lasted until 3 am, which is when a still chipper and friendly and invigorated Sedaris ran out of people to sign books for. I clocked out around 1:30, because I had to open the store the next morning, and he signed my audio book, purchased for my upcoming trip to Texas, “To Lauren, Who Quit Early” (all in good fun, of course). Sedaris, it seems, isn’t about to forgive you for leaving his party.

But really, where else today can you get that kind of experience? More and more, people are expecting less and less. In this era of now, now, now, of e-books and smart phones and having the whole world available at your fingertips, who’s still going to sit down and have a face-to-face, one-on-one conversation with you, not only about a book, but about what a book means to you?

David Sedaris will. And for that, I consider myself a fan. I might be a few years behind the curve, but I’ll be devoting six hours on the road to Me Talk Pretty One Day because of my David Sedaris experience.

And next time, I won’t quit early.