Across the Page: Justin Vivian Bond, Linda Morganstein and Patricia Highsmith

This month’s column features two new releases — Justin Vivian Bond’s memoir Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels and the third installment of Linda Morganstein’s Alexis Pope mystery series On A Silver Platter.  Also, thanks to a recommendation by reader Shortypants, I’ll now review a book from the past in each column. For the first one, I chose Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt—one of my all time favorite books.

Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels by Justin Vivian Bond (Feminist Press)

Performer and artist Justin Vivian Bond — also known by the gender-neutral name V — has been starring in and producing theater and cabaret for over twenty years. In 2007, V’s Kiki and Herb Alive on Broadway, which the New York Times called a “hyper-magnified cabaret concert,” was nominated for a Tony Award.

In a new memoir Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels, V captures the perspective of a transgender child in raw, honest and candid detail. After an enlightening introduction by The New Yorker writer Hilton Als, who says, “Justin Vivian has, finally, talked about bodies in a way all of us can understand,” the book opens with the image of V as a child dancing around the house. When V’s grandfather calls out, “Hey, Fred! Where’s Ginger?” V is thrilled by the comparison but also confused: “Couldn’t I be both Fred and Ginger?” It’s a good question — and one of many that V continues to explore in the book.

At forty-six years old, V was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder after taking a friend’s supply of Adderall and discovering that suddenly basic tasks like making it to an appointment on time or deciding to take a nap when exhausted were no longer arduous. “Once I had my prescription,” V writes, “I began to reevaluate my past through the lens of this recent discovery.”

V is also inspired to contemplate the past when learning about the recent arrest of childhood neighbor Michael Hunter for impersonating a police officer. The news causes V’s stomach to “flutter” and for good reason.  Between the ages of eleven to sixteen, Hunter and V were lovers. Though the two were intimate behind closed doors, Hunter was also V’s tormentor at school. The relationship between the two is complex and packed with pain and discovery, but ultimately V is thankful for the lesson Hunter distills: “One thing I was sure of was that after Michael Hunter I would never have sex with anyone who didn’t love me.”

V shows us how these stories from the past affect the present. In the end, as Als writes, “Justin Vivian has learned to dance with V’s self, to wear the heels and the suit that fit V’s being, all cut and formed to suit V’s soul, having earned it as so many of us earn it, through being brutalized and suppressed and sometimes through love, too.”  Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels tells an important story and it tells it well.  Highly recommended.

On A Silver Platter by Linda Morganstein (Regal Crest)

Linda Morganstein’s Alexis Pope mystery series is filled with intrigue, humor and genuine suspense. The series opens with Ordinary Furies where we meet self-defense instructor Alexis Pope (Alex) after the death of her husband. When Alex relocates to Guerneville, California, she begins to explore her attraction to women while also helping to solve the mystery surrounding the recent attacks that occurred at a local resort.

In the second book of the series, Harpies’ Feast, Alex relocates to a smaller town where she meets an intriguing pair of strangers — a teenage actress and a beautiful lesbian playwright — who are visiting as part of a local theater production. The teenager becomes the target of bullying by a group of girls in town, which leads to a tragic event that brings Alex and the playwright closer. 

Morganstein’s latest installment, On A Silver Platter, takes Alex into new territory. When a production team hires Alex to work as a stunt double on a low budget horror film — “the tale of alien invasion based roughly on the beheading of St. John the  Baptist” — she once again is forced to return to her “amateur” sleuthing skills when tragedy strikes the set.

As with the two previous Alexis Pope books, On A Silver Platter continues to explore Alex’s late-blooming sexuality and her struggle with intimacy. However, it is also clear in this installment that Morganstein is allowing Alex to grow in new and interesting ways. 

On A Silver Platter stands on its own as a captivating story, but begin with Ordinary Furies if you’re looking for a new series to enjoy.

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (Norton)

Last year, I wrote a review of Joan Schenkar’s Patricia Highsmith biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith, and said that it was “so engaging that I was sad when I got to the end of the 600-plus-page book.” The reason I love Schenkar’s in-depth look at this iconic lesbian author is not only because it is comprehensive and revealing, but also because The Price of Salt is one of my all time favorite books.

Written under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, The Price of Salt was first published in 1952. The story focuses on Therese Belivet, an aspiring stage designer who recently moved to New York City and who falls in love with a beautiful, older woman named Carol Aird. Carol is the middle of a messy divorce and when her husband meets Therese he is immediately suspicious and takes their daughter to live at his apartment. 

Carol and Therese soon set off on a road trip across the United States — Terry Castle of The New Republic believes that Nobokov was inspired by their cross-country journey when writing Lolita. While on the road, the women realize that a private detective is following them. The detective was hired by Carol’s husband and threatens her with the choice of staying in a relationship with Therese or getting custody of her daughter.

A cult classic, The Price of Salt challenged preconceptions about lesbians and the book’s ending (I won’t give it away) was radical in its own right at the time. But more than all of this, it’s just a really great book featuring dynamic characters, a love story between two women that is as sexy as it is sad, and car chases. What else could you ask for?

What are your favorites from the past? Tell me!

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