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The year's best LGBT nonfiction

by Tim Pfaff

The year turned into an avalanche of superb LGBT nonfiction comparable to the torrent of stand-out LGBT fiction in 2016. Much of it bent genres as well as genders.

None did so more than Daniel Mendelsohn's "An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic" (Knopf). What, from the pre-publication excerpts, looked like a compelling memoir of the last great adventure of a gay classics scholar and his cantankerous father grew in scope and depth like some recombinant molecule of the atoms of time and love.

The particles Mendelsohn puts through the centrifuge of imagination are Homer's "Odyssey," his own scholarship on Homer's "Odyssey," a seminar he taught on Homer's "Odyssey" attended by his father, a voluntary if recalcitrant participant, the trajectory of their lives together and apart, and touchingly, a post-seminar cruise they took together that followed the geographical route of Odysseus' voyage home from Troy.

He doesn't just teach Homer's underlying technique of "ring composition" - telling a story in a non-linear way to impart time-cured depth - he uses it in this beautifully structured "memoir." It would be wonder enough if it were not also so deeply felt.

The same to-the-bone honesty infuses Ariel Levi's "The Rules Do Not Apply" (Random House). The event on which her memoir pivots is her minutes of lesbian single motherhood as her baby boy is born on the floor of a hotel in Mongolia, where The New Yorker writer has sent herself on assignment in late-ish pregnancy. The baby dies minutes later - but not too soon for this stunningly self-aware writer to have known motherhood. Like Mendelsohn's memoir, it's about countless other things, too, but in the end it's about being there for the whiplash changes life throws at you.

Since Mendelsohn's father had died before his memoir was complete, that's a lot of death handled by writers who took it on board for seasoning - the way time and air season chopped wood. Add to it, then, Bill Hayes' "Insomnia City: New York, Oliver, and Me" (Bloomsbury), whose pivot - if again by no means its single topic - is the death of the love of his life, Oliver Sachs, the octogenarian, legendary neuroscientist-writer whose own homosexuality was revealed only in his own, late autobiography "On the Move."

Hayes, whose recorded journey begins in a San Francisco readers will recognize, writes searchingly and with quiet, sometimes startling eloquence. To bring this saga full circle, at year's end came the publication of "The River of Consciousness" (Knopf), a collection of Sachs' essays rounded out with a previously unpublished late piece, "The Creative Self."

Benjamin Taylor, an esteemed journalist and Proust scholar, weighed in with his own memoir, "The Hue and Cry in Our House: A Year Remembered" (Penguin Books). The year is 1963-64, the pivot the assassination of JFK, but the substance is a deep, bittersweet reflection on coming of age as a gay man in turbulent mid-60s Middle America.

The esteemed LGBT historian Martin Duberman also bridged genres with "Jews Queers Germans" (Seven Stories Press), a novel best described by the musical category "historically informed." Duberman examines the intersecting lives of five men who, in the decades bridging the 19th and 20th centuries, helped found and define what we now call gay culture. It reads so smoothly and compellingly, it's easy to overlook what a daring stretch of the imagination this novel also represents.

Two gay musical figures won informed and immensely readable books about their lives and art. In "When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn's Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath" (Knopf), piano scholar Stuart Isacoff takes a balanced yet unflinching look at the truncated career and tortured sexuality of America's most renowned musical celebrity. "Gay Guerilla: Julius Eastman and His Music" (U. of Rochester Press), a collection of specialists' essays, brings acute scholarly attention to a true New York renegade composer-performer whose music is having a major revival now, decades after his sordid death a quarter-century ago, that is as unlikely as it is deserved.

If any 20th-century creative genius warrants a 1,000-page biography, it's Jean Cocteau, master of many trades, influencer of artists arguably his superiors, and, against all odds, a breathtakingly high-achieving opium addict. Claude Arnaud's extraordinary biography (Oxford), newly translated from the French, turns an authoritative history that seems to leave out nothing into a bona fide page-turner. Fair warning: this is the kind of scholarly book that could cost you additional money, tracking down and re-examining the multiple facets of Cocteau's art, all of which Arnaud writes about with deeply informed delectation.

Before we learned that it was an Arab prince who had "made off with" Leonardo's late painting "Salvator Mundi" for a cool 450 million at auction, Walter Isaacson wrote a biography of Leonardo da Vinci (Simon and Schuster) that carefully considered all the aspects of Leonardo's creative genius (including some stirring pages about "Salvator Mundi"). Not only was the book, beautifully produced with richly reproduced art, open about Leonardo's homosexuality, it made his sexuality a natural part of life and work.

"An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic" author Daniel Mendelsohn. Photo: Matt Mendelsohn

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