“Making a list, checking it twice, going to find out who’s naughty or nice.” Every year at this time, that refrain starts circling around my head. Mostly the list part. Because if you don’t give people a Christmas wish-list you end up with a very stiff smile on your face.
To save us all that kind of awkwardness, here’s a list of offbeat books I’d like this season. Wherever possible, I have chosen titles that are rare, expensive or just plain hard to find.
The Secret Life Of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna. Earlier biographies of Wilde have given us the man, the writer and the tragedy. This one gives us the dirt. A former editor of Britain’s Pink Times, McKenna delves deeply into Wilde’s life with rent boys and newspaper sellers, his connections with other prominent homos and the various contemporary sex scandals that shaped Wilde’s own life. Some reviewers have questioned McKenna’s facts and interpretation, but I’ll bet it’s a good read. One British reviewer, writing in The Guardian, remarked that, “anyone interested in the effect of Vaseline, semen and excrement on bed-sheets will find ample material.”
The Letters Of Lytton Strachey, edited by Paul Levy. The main New York Times review of this book was so astonishingly, perversely, puritanically American that I knew it had to be good. Deaf to the emotional and aesthetic ideals of Strachey and circle, the review was full of censorious nods to those true-blue American values, work and self-improvement. Too many parties, young man, not enough work. Strachey was of course the biggest bugger to emerge from the Bloomsbury brat pack, and he had lots of weird relationships and kinky sex and other good stuff that might appeal to a gay audience, but all that was lost on the reviewer, a novelist who seems to have freezed-dried her feminism in the 1970s. “Men turn the desired into a sex object, and then dare to suggest there’s something spiritual about it all. But does the beauty of every plowboy and rowing eight really have to be noted?” Well, it’s a start.
Anything by Sybille Bedford. Now in her 90s, this astonishing lesbian writer has always been circumspect about her sex life. A rapt sensualist, whose passions include food, wine and love, she has made a career of oblique understatement. In her first book, the utterly charming A Visit To Don Otavio, her female travel companion is known only as E, relationship unknown. More than 50 years later, in her latest book, Bedford still refers to E as E. Bedford’s first book is now available on the remainder tables of Book City for the cheap, cheap price of $5.99. Buy it. An idyllic view of Mexico in the late 1940s, it’s the perfect antidote to a Toronto winter. I’d welcome any of her other works, especially A Compass Error, reportedly her most lesbian novel, and her latest essay in autobiography, Quicksands.
Something Still To Find (1982) and/or Far Voyages (1989) by Douglas LePan. The poetry sucks as far as I can see, but these were the coming-out volumes for a major Canadian poet, diplomat and memoirist and I’d like them for the shelves. His official memoir, Bright Glass Of Memory, was considerably more reticent. First editions only, please.
The Collected Columns Of Paul Rudnick. This book doesn’t exist but should. As a screenwriter, Rudnick is hit-and-miss (Jeffrey, In And Out), but his humour pieces for The New Yorker are a must-read. Week after (occasional) week he inhabits the absurd from the inside out. Whether it’s teen-speak, celebrity perfumes or LeAnn Rimes’s audience with the Pope, Rudnick’s imagination is wild and wicked. One week he even imagined creation from the point of view of some multicultural divinities with truly divine taste. Turns out there’s more to the notion of “intelligent design” than the creationists have let on. Seconds after saying, “Let there be light,” the lord God pauses and says, “‘Wait, what if I make it a sort of rosy, sunset-at-the-beach, filtered half-light, so that everything else I design will look younger?’ ‘I’m loving that,’ said Buddha. ‘It’s new.'” If some enterprising publisher isn’t already collecting these hip pieces for future publication, they’re missing the boat.
The Drag by Mae West. West’s 1927 play about gay life in the 1920s played New Jersey but never made it to New York City – the state legislature banned theatrical homosexuality just in the nick of time – and it wasn’t published until 1997 (in the collection, Three Plays By Mae West, edited by Lillian Schlissel), but it was clearly ahead of its time. Acted and half-improvised by a largely gay cast, the play included a gay love story, a drag ball and lots of queens comparing notes. “Wait until you see the creation I’m wearing, dearie,” says one character, “Virginal white, no back, with oceans of this and oceans of that, trimmed with excitement in front.”
Unfortunately, the play is hard to find and the only library copy around is lodged in the central reference fortress, hardly the coziest place in the city in which to curl up with a bad book.