Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Xtra recommends: best queer books of 2009

Marie-Claire Blais, John Barton, Zoe Whittall (& one cheat)

Joey Comeau

A novel that sneaks up on you, Overqualified builds an emotional storyline from what is essentially a gimmick. Written as a series of letters the hero writes, applying for jobs at various companies, they begin pithy and hostile (Dear New York Times, “I will make a very good editor for your company, whether you hire me or not.”) and grow more poignant as his family life and a terrible tragedy come slowly into focus.
ECW, $15.

The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You.
S Bear Bergman

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, as the song goes. S Bear Bergman (of Butch is a Noun fame) offers lessons without finger waving. He does this primarily through the use of narrative: telling rather than showing, and by keeping his didactic, theoretical passages on sex, gender and the role of family to a bare minimum. A sweet and tender collection — so don’t let the word “essays” get in your way.
Arsenal Pulp Press, $20.

Holding Still for As Long As Possible.
Zoe Whittall

Told in the voices of three lovesick 20-somethings, Holding Still hits all the high points of being young and sexy in Toronto. The cast — including a has-been rock star, a femme would-be filmmaker, and a trans ambulance driver — flits from apartment to apartment, bar to bar, party to party. A downtown hospital is a major set piece, and it all sounds very, very familiar. While the story may seem antiseptic at first, you’ll warm to Whittall’s bedside manner.
Anansi, $30.

The Steve Machine.
Mike Hoolboom

A hallucinogenic and slightly Jesus-like video artist rescues a newly-diagnosed PWA and helps him to shed his anger and self-pity. Or does he? The title character is named for real-life video artist Steve Reinke, but the novel’s Reinke is a bizarre blur, more spirit than plot point. His uninhibited, laissez-faire attitude and sexual bravado both attract and repel the narrator. Then, about two thirds of the way through, the snake eats its own tail and the blend of gritty realism and comic absurdity comes to a pleasingly emotional conclusion.
Coach House, $20.

Second Person Queer.
Richard Labonté & Lawrence Schimel, eds

It seems like a clever twist for an anthology: Gather the best and the brightest of Canadian queer writing and ask them to write a personal essay in the second person (using “you” rather than “I”). It’s not surprising that so many writers chose to write letters (eg, Dear Newly Bisexual Kid). Rather, what’s surprising is how intimate the whole project turned out to be. Look for pieces by Amber Dawn, Paul Bellini, Daniel Allen Cox, Stacey May Fowles and RM Vaughan among the highlights.
Arsenal Pulp Press, $20.

Sina Queyras

A booklength work in the tradition of the Canadian long poem, Expressway tackles big subjects, from urban life to personal loss, with expertise. Nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Awards, the book creeps through its early sections laying the groundwork for its stranger second half. Queyras, a Montreal-based poet and critic, writes circles around her contemporaries.
Coach House, $17.

John Barton

There are two competing forces at work in Hymn, John Barton’s ninth full-length collection of poetry. First, the narrator seems to have unclenched a little. Barton has always had an unflinching eye, but here, the narrator asserts himself with a new sexual confidence. Secondly, as the narrator has relaxed, the poems themselves have become more tightly coiled, flashier, more prone to wordplay and associative leaps. Hello, cowboy!
Brick Books, $19.

Valmiki’s Daughter.
Shani Mootoo

Okay, this one’s a cheat: It was released late in 2008, but it grew legs in 2009. Still, we couldn’t avoid mentioning it, since it was one of the most intoxicating queer-authored reads of 2009. Mootoo’s greatest strength is putting the reader in the same room as her characters. Sights, smells, colours and tactile details are her stock in trade. When combined with an eye for pacing, you get a novel that’s relentlessly well crafted. In Valmiki’s Daughter, Trinidadian family politics loom large as the vivacious Viveka struggles to find her place in the world. Her father, Valmiki, an upper-class doctor, proves a complex and memorable character, and their father-daughter relationship grows into the book’s central thematic hook.
Anansi, $19.

The Canadian War on Queers.

Gary Kinsman & Patrizia Gentile

New books on Canadian gay history are rare — and always a reason to celebrate. A new book full of deeply researched, never-before-seen information about our history is even more rare. Written for a general audience, it looks at how the Canadian government used (uses, I should say) coercive measures and state intervention to block gay sexuality. The release of The Canadian War On Queers is an important event for our communities — an opportunity to look both backwards and forwards.
UBC Press, $95 (hardcover). Paperback available Mar 1, 2010 for $34.95.

Rebecca, Born in the Maelstrom.

Marie-Claire Blais

The renowned Quebec writer Marie-Claire Blais has been living outside of Canada off-and-on for many years — here, the humidity of her Florida home has written itself into this dense novel. The fourth in her series of impossible-to-bookmark, chapterless books on contemporary North America, Rebecca, Born in the Maelstrom won the GG in 2008 when it was released in French.
Anansi, $22.

(Photo of Zoe Whittall by Jenna Wakani)