Two gay books: A great stocking stuffer, and one a sorry bit of coal

A Little Fruitcake by David Valdes Greenwood 2007, DaCapo Press, pp. 182. $14.95.

In and Out of Hollywood by Charles Higham. 2009, Terrace Books, pp. 306. $29.95

For 11 months of the year, you barely think about it. But every Christmastime, the memory of it fills your brain with the feelings you had that holiday way back when, that morning Santa brought you the one thing you wanted more than anything else. Or maybe you didn’t get what you want, and it still stings after all these years.

We all have unforgettable Christmases, but only the brave put them to paper. Author David Valdes Greenwood is one of them, and in A Little Fruitcake, he shares 12 memories of Christmas past — and a few that should have just been passed.

Starting with his fifth Christmas, Valdes Greenwood remembers how much he wanted a doll of his very own. His newly-divorced mother was prepared to wrap the toy and put it under the tree until his formidable Grammy, a small woman who seems (in the book at least) 10 feet tall, put a stop to it. The first chapter, "The Powder Keg Under the Tree," speaks to the child in us who captured the gift most wanted, despite adult misgivings.

A little later in a kid’s life comes the time when he questions the presence of a Santa on every street corner. Has the truth been deduced? In "Bad to Santa," Valdes Greenwood and his older brother figure it all out, but instead of being nice about it, they’re definitely naughty.

And who can forget those old sibling skirmishes at Christmas? Grammy was famous for her fudge, her divinity and her fruitcake, and in "The War of the Fudges," she finds an unusual (but very practical) way to even out the "he’s got more than me" battle.

There’s also the time when a kid realizes he’s not a kid any more, and Christmases are changed forever. In the last chapter, Valdes Greenwood remembers the end of his childhood and the sudden realization that his nutty-as-a-fruitcake family was actually way more than just half-baked.

This time of year, when you’re about finished fighting the crowds and listening to the umpteenth rendition of "Jingle Bells," there’s an antidote to all that perfunctory cheer: Real cheer, in the form of a book like this one.

A Little Fruitcake will make you laugh out loud at some of the universal, almost-from-a-movie memories that Valdes Greenwood shares, including messing up at Christmas programs, being the kid most picked-on, and the oh-no feeling you get when you know that precious last crinkly paper-wrapped package under the tree contains (ugh) new socks. Later on, the memories sober up a bit but are no less appealing in their everyman feel.

If you cherish any memories of Christmas past, let this book help you remember and laugh. A Little Fruitcake is the gift that keeps on giving.

Born to affluence in 1930s England, Charles Higham was raised mostly by nannies while his aloof, divorced parents lived their lives. After his father died and his stepmother sexually abused him, Charles moved back with his mother unsuccessfully: She didn’t want him and so he interfered with her new marriage and succession of lovers.

Tall, wan and sickly, Higham shunned sports and college in favor of working as a clerk in a bookstore. He started writing poetry and was published, but thought he might have a better life in Australia, where he worked for newspapers interviewing celebrities.

Although he married, Higham came to terms with his own attraction to men; perhaps not coincidentally, his wife fell in love with a woman.

In 1963, on behalf of the newspaper for which he was working, he was sent to Hollywood where he saw Orson Welles’ fabled unfinished Brazil-shot docu-drama It’s All True.

All of which sounds fascinating. In fact, Higham’s biography In and Out of Hollywood would be a thrilling adventure if it weren’t so darned tedious.

As a biographer, Higham makes the life-stories of others seem much livelier than he makes his own. Yes, he shares plenty of anecdotes of brushes with Hollywood’s (long-dead) best and (once) brightest, but the stories are presented abruptly and almost as an interruption of another thought, which serves to keep a reader either surprised or annoyed.

If you’re a rabid old-movie fan (or know one), you might like this book. If you prefer your H-wood buzz fresher, though, In and Out of Hollywood is a bit like coal in the stocking. •

— Terri Schlichenmeyer

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 27, 2009.

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