Hillingdon Libraries staff third literary challenge of 2016 was to read a book that had an LGBT theme.
As Hillingdon have been discussing a new LGBT stock collection to launch in the latter part of this year we thought it the right time to explore some LGBT fiction and non-fiction. One particular member of staff, while trying to put a collection together for a display, was surprised by how much we had. Hopefully we can continue to add to it.
We have 8 reviews from a very eclectic group of library staff – remember all books reviewed on this blog are available to borrow from Hillingdon Libraries. Check them out below and see if we can tempt you.
1. The Oldest Gay in the Village by George Montague
I am interested in LGBT history, have read a lot of books both fiction and non-fiction about the subject and expected to enjoy this. And whilst I appreciate the author’s candour, there was something lacking in this book. It promised a lot – the memoir of a man who was born in 1923, witnessed the clampdown on homosexuality, the legalisation and the freedoms subsequently won. He married and had a family but couldn’t deny his true self. A devoted Scout leader, he was forced to resign due to the appalling prejudice that equated homosexuality with paedophilia. It’s hard not to sympathise with him (or his wife), or to feel pleased that he found happiness later in life. But George Montague isn’t a born writer and he can’t make the more mundane anecdotes interesting, which someone with more skill can do. But the thing that left a really sour taste was the way he dealt with the biggest health crisis to affect gay men in modern times. The book is written chronologically, and I was struck by how absent any mention of AIDS/HIV was in his recollection of the 1980s. I found this is inexcusable. He finally mentions the subject when, in the 1990s, he contracts HIV himself. I found this a hubristic way of dealing with a momentous subject. I also didn’t appreciate George’s attempts to turn some of his anecdotes into universal life lessons, which verged on the hypocritical. Not everyone can be Peter Wildeblood and Quentin Crisp, standing up to be counted. But they also wrote wonderful books, had an ear for good storytelling, and I suspect they could have held a reader’s attention with lives half so eventful. George has the right and the experience to document his life, and I’m glad he’s done so. His book is part of a growing canon of LGBT voices, putting gay people into a national history they’ve long been censored from. Unfortunately, in my opinion at least, this is a worthy footnote rather than a cornerstone.
2 out of 5 stars
Darren – Uxbridge Library
2. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
This book has been referred to as “The Lesbian Bible” but I don’t know if that’s because there had been nothing written before, sympathising with a lesbian protagonist’s point of view or just because it was the first mainstream lesbian novel. I definitely do not think this should be an instruction manual for how to accept yourself as a lesbian or for people who are curious about how it feels. The word “lesbian” is actually never mentioned in the book, as “Stephen” the main character, identifies herself as an “invert” – thereby a heterosexual man trapped in a woman’s body – so in modern day terms she would be a transexual.
But pedantic bits aside, I was really moved by the fact that you can see the struggle as Stephen tries to come to terms with herself and her feelings, which are portrayed as intense romantic feelings that the most hardened of hearts could relate to, and her passions are described beautifully. While the writing is moving and the words poetic, I don’t feel that this book adds anything to LGBT society or confidence to people who are dealing with issues therein, but as a fictional novel it’s heart-breaking and beautiful.
3 out of 5 stars
Lara – Harefield Library
3. The Man Who Knew Too Much by David Leavitt
My interest in Alan Turing increased, after I watched the 2014 blockbuster . I normally don’t enjoy reading non fiction books, but “The Man Who Knew Too Much’ had me hooked, because it portrays Alan Turing with such humanity and covers all aspects of his introvert personality. It is well written and takes the the reader back in time, when Alan Turing solved one of the great mathematical problems and proposed an imaginary computer. The book shows how he helped win WW2, but at the same explores how his career was cut short, because he was openly gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal in England.
Definitely worth reading.
3 out of 5 stars
Franka – Hayes End Library
4. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
David Sedaris writes personal stories, funny tales about his life growing up in a Greek family outside of Raleigh, NC and about living abroad with his longtime partner, Hugh. All of which are expanded from his diary he’s been keeping since 1977. Books rarely make me laugh out loud, but this one did! David Sedaris’ self depreciating prose is sharp and scathing at times, especially musings on his ‘family life’. There seem to be some underlying biographical edge to most stories but some are just ‘out there’. The short essays are a delight for me as I keep reading ‘just one more’ before lights out. I particularly enjoyed his writings about being an American in England and attempting the life in the UK test (did you know you can’t sell milk if you’re under 16 years old?) It’s definitely opened up a new author for me, I’ve been catching snippets of his stories read aloud too! This is a hoot!
4 out of 5 stars
Marie-Louise – Hayes End Library
5. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
I read this book maybe ten years ago, and perhaps in the wake of the TV serialisation, as it was chosen by a small, library reading group to which I then belonged. My interest in 19th Century Fiction – Dickens and all the rest – was the prime mover for my looking at it at all, as I wish to establish whether pastiche / parody / homage etc, was going on via the use of the historical novel genre / convention. But, Waters seems to efface these elements? In terms of narrative Julie Myerson says in the back cover blurb inter alia “…an unforgettable experience”. This for me highlights the subjectivity and partiality of any reading experience, as I have very largely forgotten all the twists and turns, sexual incidents and denouement! But, I do have a generalised feeling of admiration for Waters, who is obviously well-at-home with the Victorian panorama of low life, deceit, crime, familial dysfunction and individual strivings. On the other hand, I had been hoping for some sort of textual equivalent of a PreRaphaelite painting; which did not really ever emerge from the writing, and left me somewhat denied by my deluded expectations! Having not seen the TV version, I cannot comment on how the book might thus translate. I have not read any other of the author’s stuff, but may give The Paying Guests (2014) a go; and this is described genre-wise, in a Guardian review, as a pastiche of the domestic novel, set in London in the 1920s. Interesting?
3 out of 5 stars
Len – Harefield Library
6. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Until these mini-challenges I knew nothing of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit except the lesbian theme. I was surprised to find that it is concerned at least as much with religion as with sexuality. The young heroine’s lesbian awakening takes place against a backdrop of evangelism in which she herself plays a key role as a lay preacher, and there are are obvious parallels between her realisation that there are other sexualities and that there are different takes on religion (not to mention other fruit). The novel is semi-autobiographical and Winterson is very funny, though forgiving, about the absurdities of a devout religious community dealing with the ungodly world. Highly recommended.
5 out of 5 stars
Mike – Eastcote Library
7. Spectacles by Sue Perkins
The autobiography of the wonderful Sue Perkins. I have long been a fan of Sue (and Mel), both intelligent and funny women. This autobiography was not as hilarious as I may have hoped but was an enjoyable read and very amusing in places. Sue actually covers some heavy topics, her Dads suffering with cancer, her illness and the death of her beloved dog. I actually felt quite emotional reading parts of this book, which I had not anticipated. The order the book runs in is a bit erratic, jumping from different stages in her life, back and forth. Sue talks a bit about her relationships and her current girlfriend, and about her mum’s reaction to her being gay. After reading this autobiography I like Sue even more as she seems to be a very warm and loving person. The love she feels for her family, girlfriend and best friend Mel really shines through.
4 out of 5 stars
Siobhan – Uxbridge Library
8. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Was Walt Whitman actually homosexual? Several people have debated this without ever coming up with a definitive answer. He has been described as being drawn emotionally to men rather than women, even omnisexual – certainly complex. He had a number of recorded close male friendships, and his own notebooks list men he met while walking out, and whom he ‘slept with’. But Whitman was always wary of the 19th century American press, and was deliberately guarded about that aspect of his private life. My feeling is that Walt may well have been gay, in that he was physically attracted to other men. Whether he slept with any of them is beside the point. This attraction can be felt throughout his most famous poem, ‘Leaves of Grass’. The poem is a vast, sprawling examination of the America of his time, and of his own ‘soul’. To read it is to embark on Whitman’s own out of body experience as he travels his homeland, pausing at times to examine its inhabitants more closely. The men he describes in ‘Leaves of Grass’ are part human, part god – they are sweaty, grimy archetypes. Some he views from a distance – ‘The young mechanic is closest to me, he knows me well…the farm-boy ploughing in the field feels good at the sound of my voice’. Some he tastes close up – ‘The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, It ran from their long hair, little streams pass’d all over their bodies’. One man’s ‘glance is calm and commanding’. These men then are more like photographs in a gay magazine – motionless, out of reach, just so much eye candy. It is quite possible that this is how Whitman viewed men in general. His possible homosexuality is not the real reason you should read this poem though. ‘Leaves of Grass’ is a brilliant, breathtaking work of language and imagination. Walt saw himself as a prophet declaring the bond between body and soul, the tangible and intangible, even past, present and future. The poem is a 60 page wonder-filled meditation on the unity of all things – partly on the bond Whitman feels with other men, whether physical attraction or just companionship – partly on his connection as a poet with all things – his innate love for the American landscape and people. During the poem, he pauses in his description of his country to ask just what grass is. He goes on to describe it as ‘the handkerchief of the Lord’, ‘the beautiful uncut hair of graves’, that it transpires ‘from the breasts of young men’. In short, he sees ultimately that life, death, youth and old age are all one – everything, including sexuality, is part of the big experience of life. A leaf of grass, in short, ‘is no less than the journey-work of the stars’. And that, whatever Whitman’s sexual preference, is quite a thing to come out with. (‘Leaves of Grass’ is part of Walt Whitman’s ‘Collected Poems’).
5 out of 5 stars
Paul – Uxbridge Library
Why don’t you read an LGBT book this month and let us know what you think?
Thanks for reading!