by Richard Labonte
Userlands: New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground, edited by Dennis Cooper. Little House on the Bowery, 376 pages, $16.95 paper.
Two years ago, Dennis Cooper set up a personal blog. Within months, it had attracted an eclectic community of inspired "commenters" drawn to the sexual intensity of the writer's eight novels (most recently, The Sluts). They were eager to share their own creative work in the course of what became an artistically dramatic and intensely personal dialogue between Cooper and his audience. Thus was born Userlands, a roller-coaster anthology featuring 41 mostly unknown authors. Several, like Joshua Dalton, deserve to become well known: the 18-year-old writes about the pain of unrequited passion with piercing precision. Will Fabro is another: he writes about the emotional and physical brutality of a relationship with astonishing clarity. James Champagne's contribution is something else entirely: a bitter and hilarious howl about the horror of working at Barnes & Noble, surely autobiographical though it appears in a fiction collection. It's in fact unfair to single out just those three: their prowess with prose is shared by dozens more of the contributors - many under 30 - whose exuberant work is a tonic.
Behind the Moon, by Hsu-Ming Teo. Soho Press, 372 pages, $13 paper.
Justin is the gay son of overprotective Chinese immigrants. Tien-Ho is the biracial daughter of a Vietnamese mother and an absent African-American father. Nigel is the chubby son of a physically active native Australian family. The trio, miserable outsiders at school, have turned to each other for companionship, and all is well until a few years past puberty. That's when romantic Nigel - foolish lad - becomes infatuated with Tien-Ho's dainty mother, and Justin turns to washroom sex to satisfy his yearnings, before making an unwanted move on his very straight best friend. The trio's friendship fractures, though the families try to bring the teenagers back together during a farcical and disastrous "Dead Diana Dinner" - with Princess Diana's funeral as the emotional background noise. Not until Justin is hospitalized following a brutal gay bashing do the friends bond again, a sobering moment in Malaysian-born Hsu-Ming's novel about the heartbreak of friendship and desire, the intricacies of self-image and sexual maturity, and the alienation of immigrant families in Australia.
Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, by Jennifer Baumgardner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages, $24 hardcover.
The sexually personal and the culturally sexual make for beguiling bedfellows in this thoughtful blend of pop-culture consideration and heart-on-her-sleeve memoir. Baumgardner's thesis is straightforward: bisexuality is an honest self-definition rather than a not-yet-lesbian, not-yet-gay equivocation. Since falling hard for a "girlie girl" when she moved to Manhattan in the early '90s to intern at Ms., she's been in love - and in bed - with a parade of women and men, a few of whom she writes about with unabashed honesty. That's the vulnerable personal part of this snappy study, and a smart stepping-off point for the book's broader analysis of bisexuality in contemporary life. Singer Ani DiFranco is exalted as the model bisexual for our times, and the TV character Buffy, the author declares, slayed sexual stereotypes as well as vampires - and, in the process, encouraged bisexuality in a generation of younger women. Baumgardner is less provocative when she pays homage to an earlier generation of feminists who were open to the truth of bisexuality - who "looked both ways" - including Alix Kates Shulman, Angela Davis, Robin Morgan, Charlotte Bunch, and Audre Lorde.
Bob Mizer: Athletic Model Guild, American Photography of the Male Nude 1940-1970, edited by Volker Janssen. Janssen Publishers, 112 pages, $49.95 paper.
Before porn videos and Blueboy, gay men could rely on Bob Mizer's Physique Pictorial, the essential beefcake magazine, to satiate sexual need. Starting 60 years ago, from what became the Athletic Model Guild (AMG) compound in east L.A., Mizer captured the muscular appeal of thousands of cocky young men, compiling an archive of a million photos and thousands of films before his death in 1992 (the studio is still in business). This collection represents a mere smattering of Mizer's work, but it's a gorgeous sampler. Poses from earlier years, when models packaged their privates behind small pouches - or, in one charming instance, behind a duck - titillated without being explicit; the young men's innocence was a turn-on. In later years, when relaxed obscenity rules allowed full-frontal nudity, the models - even the street toughs - still projected playful accessibility. Many even smiled. This fine pictorial history is ably augmented with a warm overview of Mizer the man and AMG the studio by David Hurles, whose own Old Reliable studio, also based in Los Angeles, is still in business.
I think of Anne Heche as the Bad Bisexual, the one who left America's lesbian sweetheart, having destroyed (at least temporarily) Ellen's career by encouraging her to be so public and out and gay! Ellen finished up 2000 shell-shocked and sitcom-less, while Anne married, had a baby, and wrote a book all in the same year. But just as there is a good witch to counteract the bad, there is a Good Bisexual icon, and she is, of course, Ani DiFranco. The first time I saw her perform, at a folk festival in New Jersey, I was shocked by her lyrics - she sang as if she felt exactly the way I felt.
-from Look Both Ways, by Jennifer Baumgardner
A CHARACTER BASED on Rosie O'Donnell, the host of ABC's talk show The View, figures prominently - and not so nicely - in Little Pink Slips, a sharp-edged satirical novel by Sally Koslow, who lost her job as editor at McCall's when the venerable woman's magazine morphed into the short-lived Rosie. Publishing gossip reports that in the novel's first 15 pages the Rosie-like character is a brash, foul-mouthed TV personality named Bebe Blake, with "lady wrestler legs." The book is coming in April from Putnam... NOMINEES FOR the Violet Quill award for best debut novel in 2006, awarded by the InsightOut Book Club, are: 50 Ways of Saying Fabulous, by Graeme Aitken; The Manny Files, by Christian Burch; A Scarecrow's Bible, by Martin Hyatt; The Zookeeper, by Alex MacLennan; Crashing America, by Katia Noyes; and Send Me, by Patrick Ryan... BOLD STROKES BOOKS is a sponsor of the first annual Palm Springs Lesbian Book Festival, running Feb. 14-17, with readings by Bold Strokes authors, including Jennifer Fulton, Ronica Black, Julie Cannon, and prolific BSB author/publisher Radclyffe. For info: www.boldstrokesbooks.com.
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.