Boy Meets Boy

Boy Meets Boy
David Levithan
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from Amazon:

“This is the story of Paul, a sophomore at a high school like no other: The cheerleaders ride Harleys, the homecoming queen used to be a guy named Daryl (she now prefers Infinite Darlene and is also the star quarterback), and the gay-straight alliance was formed to help the straight kids learn how to dance.

When Paul meets Noah, he thinks he’s found the one his heart is made for. Until he blows it. The school bookie says the odds are 12-to-1 against him getting Noah back, but Paul’s not giving up without playing his love really loud. His best friend Joni might be drifting away, his other best friend Tony might be dealing with ultra-religious parents, and his ex-boyfriend Kyle might not be going away anytime soon, but sometimes everything needs to fall apart before it can really fit together right.

This is a happy-meaningful romantic comedy about finding love, losing love, and doing what it takes to get love back in a crazy-wonderful world.”

It’s a little strange that such a flamboyant novel has such an unassuming name, but it actually fits pretty well. Beneath the campy exterior is a surprisingly deliberate and thoughtful coming-of-age romance with a meaningful message. Drag queen quarterbacks and harley-riding cheerleaders aren’t just there for comic relief (though they are often humorous), they also represent a utopic vision of society, one in which the star quarterback could be a drag queen. And that’s more or less what Boy Meets Boy is about. It’s delightful to explore Paul’s improbably progressive town and school and see the ways in which Levithan sets about subverting heternormative society as he creates his queer paradise. But unlike many other gay YA novels, he never forgets about the way things actually are. Paul’s friend Tony lives in the next town over, a town which more accurately reflects the actual societal attitude of 2003, and has very religious, very controlling parents. Tony serves as a constant reminder that, while Paul’s life might be charmed, the world still has its problems.

Paul’s character is particularly notable for being pretty much the only person in the novel not completely riddled with teenage angst. In contrast to most other YA protagonists, his life has been downright easy, something Levithan makes a point of emphasizing. Paul never struggled with his sexuality, his parents were accepting, and he’s never faced any social or physical consequences for his orientation, but most of his friends can’t stay the same. It’s a little weird reading a story from the perspective of the one person who’s just completely fine. Watching him solve problems thoughtfully and maturely was a bit bewildering at times because it’s so out of character for the genre. I’m not entirely sure why this aspect of Paul’s character is important to Levithan, but he’s pretty clear that it is. I suppose Paul’s ability to handle emotionally challenging situations caused me to reflect on similar situations in my life and to examine the reasons I might respond the way I do. How much of my behavior is colored by experiences grappling with my sexuality or the consequences of it? Paul could also be viewed as a bit of an instruction manual, demonstrating the right way to behave instead of validating more typical, emotionally charged responses. Regardless of the reason, Paul is a large part of what makes Boy Meets Boy stand out from the (admittedly small) gay YA crowd.

Warchild

Warchild
Karin Lowachee
Difficulty: Easy
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Ender’s Game was my absolute favorite book as a kid. I read it over and over, even listening to the audiobook while I was falling asleep. I’m not sure exactly why I was so into it, but, being the obnoxious child I was, it probably had something to do with the too-smart-for-you kid protagonist whose intelligence alienated him from his peers. Still love that book to death. Anyways, Warchild is channeling that same child-prodigy-in-a-space-opera energy and it’s still awesome. Joslyn Musey is only eight years old when he’s orphaned in a violent pirate attack and taken captive by one of Earthhub’s most infamous pirate captains. Suddenly finding himself in a hostile environment without family or friends to turn to, it will take all the strength and resolve Jos has to stay alive, but an unexpected turn of events delivers him from his captivity… straight into the arms of the alien strit, Earthub’s longtime enemies. Now he’s caught in the middle of an interstellar war and discovering that everything he thought he knew about it was wrong.

Warchild is first and foremost a story of trauma. It’s a deeply psychological and character driven military drama that departs from the traditional sci-fi focus on technology and society in order to concentrate more on individual people. Jos is not alright, but he’s trying to be, and that’s what Lowachee is exploring. What really gives the story its edge is the sexual dimension of Jos’ abuse. We’re never really told exactly what happened, but we can observe its effects on his character. The world of Warchild seems to be one of sexual fluidity, with little distinction made between hetero- and homosexual relations, but Jos himself displays little inclination towards either sex. It would be inappropriate to make assumptions about his sexuality given his past experiences, but his behavior at least tends towards asexual. 

After I finished rereading Warchild I was reflecting on how strongly the book stayed with me and how much I enjoyed it. I tend to shy away from too-tragic or depressing stories (a side-effect of reading too much classic gay literature) so why am I fine with this one? I guess I don’t really think it’s that depressing; it’s a story of trauma but it’s also one of recovery, and I find that really uplifting. I also wonder how much the sexual component of the book contributed to that. I’ve never had an experience remotely similar to Jos’, but many years of denying a core part of yourself must cause its own type of damage. If Jos can recover, why shouldn’t the rest of us be able to?

Waterways

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Waterways
by Kyell Gold
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from the Amazon page:

“Kory was having enough trouble in high school. His girlfriend just dumped him, his poetry made him a target for ridicule, and college applications were looming. The very last thing he needed was to fall in love with another boy.

Waterways is the complete novel from award-winning author Kyell Gold that includes his beloved story “Aquifers”. Join Kory as his feelings and faith collide, washing away the life he knew. His brother Nick, friends Samaki and Malaya, and Father Joe are there to help, but it’s Kory who has to navigate the thrills and perils of the new waterways that make up his life.

At stake? Nothing much — just a chance at true love and happiness. And he still has to graduate from high school…”

It’s unfortunate that the focus on anthropomorphic characters drives so many people away from this book. There are hundreds of gay coming of age novels out there and they’re all valuable for depicting unique experiences, but some are definitely better written than others. This is one of the better ones, and skipping it for fear of its “furry” content is ridiculous. I don’t remember having any qualms with anthropomorphic characters butchering each other in the Redwall series so I don’t see why that should suddenly change because this time they’ve got sexuality too. A good book is a good book and deserves to be read. Besides, the animal characteristics help make for a very interesting setting. Kory and his friends and family live in a contemporary society much like ours, but with numerous accommodations for the many different species which inhabit it. For example, since Kory’s family are otters, their house somewhat resembles a dam, where inhabitants swim from room to room instead of walk. Learning the species of each character can also tell a reader a lot about them before they ever open their mouth. A bull might have a more fiery temperament, or a cat might be less likely to get along with a mouse. I’d even say it makes for a more vibrant world, but at the very least it helps set Waterways apart from countless competitors.

In terms of actual narrative, Waterways is much more conventional. There’s a lot of angst and some mooshy high-school romance, along with a fairly standard spread of teenage problems involving school, family, work, and friends. Kory is likable and relatable, and I appreciated that his life was fairly stable besides his emerging sexuality since some coming of age stories have a tendency to pile a ton of extra problems on their protagonists and make them (and by extension, the reader) miserable. One aspect I particularly liked in this book was Kory’s struggle with his faith. Much of gay fiction won’t even touch that topic unless it is the explicit theme of the book. It seems that the popular view is that religion and homosexuality are incompatible, and I think that is a lamentable oversimplification of the problem, and not very helpful to those stuck in the middle of it, which means books like this one are more valuable for tackling it.

The Velvet Rage

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The Velvet Rage
by Alan Downs
Difficulty: Easy
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Personally, I don’t read a lot of self-help books. I am never comfortable with their implicit claim that they know who I am and what my problems are and how I can solve them, because they so often don’t. The Velvet Rage was no exception for me, but I’d heard numerous testimonials from other gay men that the book changed their lives, so here we are. In my estimation, this book assumes the reader is a somewhat financially successful (presumably white) gay man living in a big city, but of course it can still be valuable to other demographics too. Even while shaking my head at some of the assumptions Downs makes (no, I didn’t have a neglectful father and an over-validating mother), some others definitely struck home.

Downs asks the question: why, when gay men have made such important progress toward social acceptance and equality, do so many us engage in self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, sex addiction, and even suicide? He locates the problem as stemming from a deep, enduring, and often unacknowledged shame about being gay, and The Velvet Rage is an attempt to guide gay men through the process of recognizing and cutting it away so that we can live more authentic, fulfilling lives.

The goal of any self-help book should be to encourage self-reflection in its reader, so even if it doesn’t get everything right (love you Dad!), if it’s making you think then it’s succeeding on some level. I think Downs’ focus on shame is very valuable to think about. When I came out, I insisted to myself and to others that it wasn’t a big deal, that my sexuality, and the years I spent repressing it, were just a small part of me and didn’t control my life. But as the years have passed I’ve come to realize how incredibly untrue that is (for me). It seems to me that everything I’ve done in the years since I came out can easily be seen as attempts to compensate or even just comprehend the shame of my sexuality. My reading, my scholarship, even this blog, all of these are part of this personal journey. So even if the journey Downs prescribes isn’t for everyone, it’s still worth reading and thinking about.

Dark Reflections

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Dark Reflections
Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Hard
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From the Dark Reflections Goodreads page:

“Arnold Hawley, a gay, African–American poet, has lived in NYC for most of his life. Dark Reflections traces Hawley’s life in three sections — in reverse order. Part one: Hawley, at 50 years old, wins the an award for his sixth book of poems. Part two explores Hawley’s unhappy marriage, while the final section recalls his college days. Dark Reflections, moving back and forth in time, creates an extraordinary meditation on social attitudes, loneliness, and life’s triumphs.”

Dark Reflections might have been a better known book if it weren’t for an unfortunate publication history. Right before its release, Carroll & Graf, its publisher, was purchased by another company and Delany’s editor was laid off. As a result the book received very little publisher support, but still managed to pick up nominations for the Stonewall Book Award and Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction. There are depressingly few African-American authors writing gay fiction. To my knowledge, only three have done so successfully and at length: James Baldwin, E. Lynn Harris, and Samuel R. Delany. But while Delany has written many people of color into his science-fiction, the experiences of those characters sometimes feels far removed from the experiences of people of color today, which is why this book is a valuable one.

While Dark Reflections stands very well on its own, the book takes on interesting new dimensions when considered in the context of the author’s life and work. Arnold Hawley is something of a dark reflection of Delany himself, an exploration of the ways his life may have gone had he been a different person, and the ways in which it might be the same. Chief among these differences is Arnold’s rejection of his sexuality, something Delany wholeheartedly embraced. But Delany is careful to present Arnold’s life in an unbiased and neutral way. While I personally found it to be very sad at times, I’m not sure if Arnold would have considered it to be sad. The reverse chronological structure of the story created some interesting foreshadowing moments and gave the narrative a natural velocity that made it easy to read through to the end, even if the beginning can be a bit slow at times. The book definitely doesn’t deserve its obscure status, and I hope that future readers and critics will recognize its value.