A Justice of Mysteries

Break Down
Sara Paretski
Putnam, $26.95
Paperback due December 2012

The Lost Women of Lost Lake
Ellen Hart
Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press
$25.95, cloth, Oct. 2011

Though Not Dead
Dana Stabenow
Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press
$7.99 mass market paperback

Ghost Hero
A Lydia Chin/Bill Smith Novel
S.J. Rozan
Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press
$25.95, cloth, Oct. 2011
$15.99 paperback, Aug. 21, 2012

Ill Will: A Micky Knight Mystery
J.M. Redmann
Bold Strokes Books
$16.95 paperback

If it’s a covey of quail and a murder of crows, perhaps a group of mysteries might reasonably be called a justice? In any case, there are those days/weeks/months when the national politic or the randomness of health or something equally maddening leaves a woman craving some justice and the likeliest place to get it is a good mystery.

In Sara Paretsky’s Break Down V.I. Warshawski gets one of those midnight calls from her niece, this one about some teenagers who have skipped out from their book club, and suddenly finds herself in the midst of the most recent Buffy-like craze, a hostile media campaign against one of the girl’s mother, a progressive running for the Senate, and conflicting versions as to what really happened and who was (or wasn’t) a hero in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. Paretsky’s worlds are never simple and therein lies the pleasure. As always, Lottie Hershel provides counter balance and patches up Vic as needed. And, as always, Paretsky offers a deep and satisfying social commentary on justice and and injustice in America. Or maybe I just have a weakness for aging (50ish) detectives who just won’t back down.

In Lost Women Ellen Hart offers a shorter and lighter read while also considering the impact of the past on the present and the complexities of our chosen families and our histories on the commitments of love. And she also takes the opportunity to dip into the legacy of the passions and politics of the anti-war movements and police brutality of the sixties. All while Jane Lawless (and Cordelia, of course) are visiting old friends to lend a hand at their lakeside resort. I have to admit that I enjoyed the journey more than the conclusion – except for the epilogue when Jane, finally, resolves her dilemma about being a PI or staying a restaurateur in a way the leaves room for plenty many more Jane Lawless tales to come. Hart’s Jane Lawless mysteries are a dependable pleasure.

Guilty pleasures: I have a serious weakness for Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugat series. Shugat, an Aleut, grew up and lives in a generic national Park/Native community in Alaska. Her primary relationship is with Mutt, a half-husky, half-wolf. Neither is lesbian (alas), but Shugat is picky about her men, and both have a particular passion for sticking up for battered and abused kids. In other words, she’s one of the finest, if undersung, of the tough women detectives that sprung full-blown out of the women’s movement. The books are as much about evolution of the complex history and relationships that make up community as they are mysteries. I long for a series this rich and complex about a lesbian community.
      This one Though Not Dead , the 18th in the series, digs into the history of the community. There’s another, Restless in the Grave, that I haven’t read (yet). If you haven’t read this series, it would probably be worth going back to the beginning. Enjoy.

I stumbled onto S.J. Rozan when I read that Ghost Hero had won the Dilys Award,  which goes to the book that mystery booksellers most enjoy selling. Who could resist that? It turns out it’s the eleventh in the series to feature 20-something American-Born-Chinese Lydia Chin and her 40-something white-guy colleague Bill Smith. Politics, culture, history, contradictions (just try being a PI while still living with your mother!), all while trying to track down the provenance of some new as-yet-unseen of new paintings by a Chinese artist who was killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. Delicious! And well-deserving of the Dilys.

Ill Willis the seventh in  J.M. Redmann’s series about Mickey Knight and the lesbian community in New Orleans. Still trying to sort out her relationship with Cordelia and life and work in the aftermath of Katrina, Mickey stumbles into a hornet’s nest of snake oil salesmen selling bogus miracle cures to people who’ve fallen under the radar of the city’s compromised health care system. I’ve always loved the politics and passion that inform Redmann’s hard-boiled tales. And, like many things in the post-Katrina years, the editing and consistency in this one are better than in the first book to come out after Katrina. Whew!

Two Fine Anti-War Novels: Sand Queen & People of the Whale

People of the Whale by Linda Hogan
WW Norton, $14.95 paperback

Sand Queen by Helen Benedict
Soho Press, $25.00

Libraries are such dangerous places: I was just scanning the shelves, not looking for anything particular, a few months ago, when People of the Whale slid into my hand. I knew the Pulitzer-nominated Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan’s work, of course, but somehow had lacked the courage to pick it up when it came out. Another day, a couple of months later, there was Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen sitting on the New Arrivals shelf.

Both are incredibly strong anti-war novels. Both tell the tales of young people who, on impulse, sign up for the US military. Thomas Witka Just finds himself transported from his far northern Native American to the jungles of Viet Nam. In pre-9/11 universe, nice Catholic girl Kate Brady, signs up to prove herself to her sheriff father, to her fiance, and most of all, to herself, and then suddenly finds herself in the midst of the Iraqi desert war, where the ideals of bringing honor to her family and democracy to the Middle East have nothing to do with her new reality.

In Sand Queen, Benedict gives us three tales: Kate’s as she tries to be the best she can be amidst the increasingly insane war, Naema Jassim’s, a student living near the military base, who is trying to find out what the Americans have done with her father and brother, and glimpses of a horribly damaged, post-deployment Kate, struggling to hold any part of her mind and soul together. Benedict, the author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, also gives us the story the military’s brutality toward its women soldiers, and the insanity of the war itself. It’s a book I’d to any young woman — or young man — even thinking about enlisting in the military in these times. For the rest of us, it’s a necessary education and a chillingly accurate look at this particular war. I could barely put it down until I finished it.

It took me several weeks to read the much complex People of the Whale. I had to keep putting it down, saving it for times when I could give it my full attention, when I could ride the many layers, absorb absolute poetry of the writing — and be willing hear the stories Hogan tells:

The stories of two young people, growing up in a remote fishing-based native community, of their parents, and grandparents and others who came before them, of the moment when the just-married Thomas and his buddies, on impulse (and on alcohol), sign up for that distant war in Viet Nam, of the war itself, as Thomas makes his way, of his MIA years living quietly, and with some peace, in a remote fishing and rice-growing village, of Ruth’s life, raising their son and fishing in the first village Thomas left behind, of Thomas’ impossible years in San Francisco after he is “rescued” from his Vietnamese village, of his years back in his original village, and the lives of the son Ruth raises and of his daughter, Lin, who travels from Viet Nam to find a different man than the father she remembers. Hogan gives us a profound look at that war, at it’s impact on the lives America’s most native sons and daughters, and at the breadth of the damage done.

There are no easy heroes in this book, but many, including both Ruth and Lin, who will continue to live with me for a long time to come. Even more compelling than Hogan’s Power.

___
* Lesbian content: One of Kate’s two female buddies is, to everyone’s understanding, a dyke. She is sexually harassed and brutalized even more than Kate is. Of the three women in her unit, only Kate is still surviving, and just barely, by the end of the book.

Best of 2011 lists

Every Fall Band of Thebes asks for a short list of fav titles for the year. Here’s the long version of what I said:

Nina Revoyr’s Wingshooters gets my personal Novel-of-the-Year Award for its brilliantly accurate portrayal of the everyday racism of rural America. I put Mikey on that special shelf next to Bone and Scout.

Best lesbian sub-plot least likely to be found by American readers: Six Metres of Pavement by Farzana Doctor. Best portrayal of patriarchal idiocy and why lesbians need(ed) the feminist revolution: Carolyn Cooke’s Daughters of the Revolution. Sweetest collection: My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community & Labor History by Allan Bérubé (edited by John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman). Wickedest read: Stella Duffy’s Parallel Lies, even if you think you’re not remotely interested in Hollywood and the lives of the rich and famous. Most unexpected lesbian character: Joseph Caldwell’s fine Irish tale,  The Pig Comes to Dinner. (But you won’t have nearly as much fun if you don’t read The Pig Did It first.)

Book I’m saving for a stretch of total indulgence: Jane Rule’s recollection of her first 21 years, Taking My Life, found as a hand-written manuscript among her papers after her death.

Book not yet written that I most want to read: A queer version of the brilliant The Warmth of Other Suns, which would name and honor the decades of lesbian and gay migrations away from ‘home’ to anyplace one could love, if not in peace, then at least with a lesser danger.

Best portrayal of patriarchal idiocy and its consequent cost to lesbians’ lives: When is a story one’s own (or one’s character’s own), and when is the story more accurately a tale of the forces of resistance against the very idea of her existence? See Carolyn Cooke’s Daughter’s of the Revolution. It focuses not on the (black, lesbian) female (!) student who integrates the previously all male prep school but rather on the forces of resistance to change: Those aging power-figures in the sixties and seventies who did everything in their power to keep women under thumb and to preserve the pleasures of power for men. As Judy Grahn wrote back in the day, it’s not lesbianism (nor even feminism) but rather the idea of ending domination “that makes everybody angry” (apologies for my paraphrase.)

Older books that I discovered this year: Shamin Sarif’s Despite the Falling Snow, a tale of love, betrayal, the cold war and, ultimately, hope. It haunted me for weeks. In Dodici Azpadu’s Living Room the very butch Carmen Khalise returns to Brooklyn and her very patriarchal family for her mother’s funeral. Throw in a few ex-lovers and too much alcohol. Both books from a 60-something perspective, looking back at the currents of one’s life. Hmmm. I could do with a bit more (a lot more?) of that persepctive.

For The Band of Thebes’ complete list of raves from 90+ queer writers and other literati go to: http://bandofthebes.typepad.com/bandofthebes/2011/11/the-best-lgbt-books-of-2011-1.html

For Richard Labonte’s Best of 2011 list go to: http://www.southfloridagaynews.com/arts-and-entertainment/book-reviews/5161-book-marks-my-10-favorite-fiction-reads-of-2011.html

Enjoy!

Would you repeat that (again)?

There’s not much in Queer Lit Land that’s inclusive of hearing loss. So, just to remind myself that one can be both queer and hard-of-hearing, I keep a copy of Alyson Press’ 1993 anthology, Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader on my reading stand. I think it was one of the last books published by Sasha Alyson, before the press was sold, and sold again, and sold again, alas.
But I’m not deaf, nor am I Deaf (culturally deaf). I have what they call “moderate” (What did you say?) hearing loss. It’s an amazingly common problem, but you wouldn’t know it to read our lit.

So I was thrilled to find Mean Little deaf Queer, Terry Galloway’s memoir about growing up in the fifties and sixties with fluctuating hearing loss, about making it through school (and not), about her theatre career, and, well, about growing up a dyke in the midst of it all. It’s fierce and wonderful and powerful on all fronts and is my go-to book for validating the anger that goes with hearing loss. I wish that everyone in the queer community would read it. It was published in 2009 and I’ve been eagerly awaiting a sequel. No luck yet, but I did see Galloway’s animated short film, The Performance of Drowning, at the gay film festival this year, a hilarious (and autobiographical and much too short) tale of the extremes a little queer girl will go to land in the arms of disabled-kid summer camp’s most beautiful swimming instructress.
I’m not the only one who liked it:

“This is a damn fine piece of work which is unbelievably powerful….true and passionate and fearless and funny as hell when it is not heartbreaking. I expect this book to charm the hell out of great numbers of people, piss off a few, and give hope to many more.” –Dorothy Allison. 

“Not your mother’s triumph-of-the-human-spirit memoir….. She’s also caustic, depraved, utterly disinhibited, and somehow sweetly bubbly, a beguiling raconteuse who periodically leaps onto the dinner table and stabs you with her fork.”–Alison Bechdel

More recently I found Brian Selznick’s brilliant Wonder Struck, a tale in text and illustration about two children, two generations apart, who experience their hearing loss differently, in their respective times. Ben’s tale of running away to New York to find his father is told in words; Rose’s story of running away (to New York) find her beautiful actress mother is told in pictures — the way she views the world. There’s no overt queer content (though I’d make a wager on young Ben’s future), but it’s richly informed by the author’s own outsider-queer worldview, and that works just fine for me. Writer and illustrator Selznick won the 2008 Caldecott Medal for The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Only $29.95 for 600+ pages. If you ever indulge in YA or late-grades lit, go for it!

But back on  the adult side, lacking lesbian lit that deals with hearing loss, at the moment I’m making do with the straight male protagonist in David Lodges’ deaf sentence, in which a recently retired linguistics professor, one Desmond Bates, runs smack into all of the frustrations (and isolation) of increasing hearing loss and more than a few critical misunderstandings when he can’t quite make out someone’s words. Spot on accurate on the travails of hearing loss and hilariously funny if you’ve ever found yourself in any of these situations. And even if you haven’t. Published in the USA by Penguin.

Mean Little deaf Queer
Terry Galloway
Beacon Press
$16, paperback

WonderStruck
Brian Selznick
Scholastic
$29.95 cloth
Published Fall 2011, so a paperback edition may be out soon.

deaf sentence
David Lodges
Penguin
$15, paperback

 

 

Hawaii – Aug. 2011

What I read on my summer vacation: 

State of Wonder – Ann Patchett. Harper. Cloth.
OK, I’d walk a mile in the middle of the night for a new Ann Patchett novel. This is my favorite woman’s adventure novel since Lucy Bledsoe’s Big Bang Symphony.

Once Upon a River, Bonnie Jo Campbell. Norton, cloth.
Whew! The world just stopped for a lttle while when I first read Campbell’s story, “Family Reunion,” (in her collection American Salvage) much the same way it did when I first read Dorothy Allison’s “A River of Names.” (Which I carried around with me, in my pocket or my backpack, for a good six months after I first read it, back in the 70s.) Unlike Allison’s characters, Campbell’s women are positively feral.
Once Upon a River is the expansion of that story, the story of a girl/young woman sorting out rape, loss of family, and striking out on her own, on, of all places, the Kalamazoo River. Not that I’m overly identified with these characters, but I did play on islands in the Kalamazoo when I was a kid (and it stank to high heaven with paper-factory waste) and then canoed it as a teenager when it smelled less bad.
It pushes the boundaries of women characters to a new edge, very much the way that Bastard Out of Carolina did. Dorothy Allison had a readership, and Bastard had a whole women’s movement to celebrate its publication. I can only hope that Once Upon a River finds its constituency as well. That seems scarier and less likely than a couple decades ago. Do what you can to keep this one from falling between the cracks.

Dreams of Joy, Lisa See
   Everything you expect from Lisa See…. And an engrossing look at the emergence of Red China, as well.

Sister Gin– June Arnold’s wonderful novel from 1975 about booze, and lesbians, and the advent of gut-level feminism. One of the most important books that Daughters Ink ever published. Currently in print from The Feminist Press.

The Warmth of Other Suns  - Isabel Wilkerson.  A wonderful telling of America’s Great Migration, 70 years of African-American exodus from the South to the North, told through the lives of three individuals.  Warm, personal, profound-and deserving of every award.  It explained a lot about my own childhood and the girls I loved in the second and third grades, as well.

Water Ghosts by Shawna Yang Ryan (Penguin, paperback).
I don’t remember who put me on to this or where I picked it up. A rich, complex story, set in Locke, a Chinese immigrant town on the Sacramento Delta in the twenties — mostly about the women — Chinese, and white, how they came to be there, and about their lives, loves, strictures, laws, and mythologies that inform their lives. Includes a lesbian sub-plot/theme. A version of lesbian lit that I haven’t read before. Not a light read, but totally worth the journey.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan, Anchor/Doubleday. paper.
Just as rich and complex as everyone is saying. Brilliant? Yep. The writing deserves all the awards it’s getting.  And a tale that explains its times. So why didn’t I enjoy reading it more? Because it’s a generation after me? Made me realize how little I read that’s primarily about white, middle-class (even seeking/avoiding) and/or glam worlds. Not my interest area. Nor is the (straight, white?) music industry.
      The opposite of Water Ghosts, having a queer character here just pissed me off. Felt classically token: Need a character who suicidal? drowning in self-doubt,  unable to realize himself? Ah! throw in a queer! This poor guy doesn’t even get to come out, but drowns in pursuit of the guy he loves (who later Gets The Girl).  Do I remember correctly that this is the only queer character in the entire book?  Sheese! Another Dead Queer award book. URGH!!! Why is that still socially acceptable?

From Bywater Books:
The Indelible Heart – Marianne K. Martin. I don’t read much genre fiction — but I always read Marianne Martin. This one offers a good reminder about the importance of activism.
I Came Out for This? Lisa Getlin

Sleeping Angel - Greg Herren.
Probably aimed at high school students suffering from queer-bashing/bullying, but a great read for anyone who’s been through it. Or who works with teens. Or who thinks that “words can’t hurt” or that homophobia in schools isn’t their business.  If I won the lottery I’d send a copy to every high school principal and teacher in the country.

PEOPLE OF THE BOOK


People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
Viking, US$25.95

I’d been ignoring this novel. There are so many reasons to not read a book: time, money, a small fit of intellectual laziness, the fact that nobody at Viking saw fit to send BTWOF a review copy…. The reviews I’d read were intriguing but…. And then I received this email from a friend:

“Well, I’m in big trouble now…last night I started reading People of the Book.  I’m now in that familiar, conflicted position of being deep into a book that calls to me day and night…and yet, there’s clients to see, dog to be walked, other aspects of life to return to. What a pleasure, though, to begin a book and immediately love the new world and new characters.”

That tipped me over the edge and did what none of the publisher PR or reviews had managed and I was out the door to the bookstore.  And now People of the Book went on my personal shortlist for Best Book of the 2008.

Here’s the gist: In Bosnia, during World War II, a Muslim risks his life to save one of his museum’s most precious possessions: a beautifully illuminated Haggadah from fifteenth-century Spain. When the book resurfaces in the mid-1990s, rare-book conservator Hanna Heath , a caustic Aussie loner of a heroine, is offered the job of a lifetime: to prepare the manuscript for exhibition. Brooks uses the clues Heath finds during her restoration of the book – a wine stain, a bit of insect wing, salt crystals, a white hair – to lead the reader back in time to unravel the travels and travails of the manuscript, its evolution, and glimpses into the lives of its people.

I admit that there was a brief moment when I found the flashback format irritating. And several moments when I felt that twentieth century values and drama shaped the twentieth century a bit more than I liked. (Yes, that’s a totally contradictory complaint - see my Book Club entry for details. I’m not giving anything away here.) But Brooks’ depictions of ultra-nationalist and religious fanatics and petty tyrants (and ramifications of internalized self-hatred), across the centuries, are brilliant.

Mainstream readers will find a wonderful, rich, layered tale that celebrates and (re-)connects the intertwined cultural histories of Jews, Muslims, and Christians. BTWOF readers will also appreciate her rich vision of women’s lives and history, and her exquisite (re-)writing of women back into the center of all of the eras she touches. I found the book to be a profound meditation on insider and outsider perspectives, on how essential the “outsider” is to history and culture, and also, perhaps, on how quickly the credit for the outsiders’ contributions disappears. Can a writer receive two Pulitzers?

Lesbian content: You have to read for it. And then reflect on it. Subtle. Deep. And, by my definition, exquisite. Don’t spoil it for yourself by skipping over to the Book Group entries.

About the author: Novelist Geraldine Brooks, who won a Pulitzer for March, also has a past life as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East. She obviously likes to take compound, complex issues and tease them apart, to find their roots, to consider the way the past shapes the present, and to celebrate the rich complex diversity that makes up the world. And she brings it all and, in this case her Aussie upbringing, to her fiction. May there beanother novel, and soon! Meanwhile check out March, her consideration of possibilities of the heart and mind of the (absent) father of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women – a profound re-reading of the Civil War, slavery, and women’s lives. Year of Wonders, of which Publishers Weekly said: “Discriminating readers who view the term historical novel with disdain will find that this debut  is to conventional work in the genre as a diamond is to a rhinestone.”  Brooks’ nonfiction includes: Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women and her autobiographical Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over.

Aug. 10, 2008

-Carol Seajay

American Salvage

Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage includes the best girl-getting-her-own-back (after sexual abuse) story I’ve read since, oh, Bastard Out of Carolina.

It’s a great collection. I picked it up because of its references to Kalamazoo, Plainwell, Comstock, and other small towns of my youth, references that, in another mood, would have sent me screaming from the room.

These are towns that don’t often make it into the pages of literature. And neither do Campbell’s characters, but they are so vividly realized and familiar that I found myself wondering if Campbell went to my high school. Except that if she did, it was a generation later — the drugs are more contemporary than the ones I remember; lesbians exist, and are visible on the fringes of these stories in a way they weren’t when I lived there. Women (and the male characters, too) have complex, difficult lives, and the complexity of their lives is well realized. These stories took me back to a life that I might have lived. They remind me that the expensive choice of leaving was a bargain. They remind me that the line between working poor white (Is it politically incorrect to say White Trash yet?) and escape into a kinder existence is as narrow as one good teacher, a scholarship, a pair of glasses, or the dumb Russian Roulette luck of not getting pregnant in a particular moment.

There are too many lesbian mentions in this book and they are too kindly for coincidence. Maybe, later in the collection, there’s a story with lesbians characters front and center, I’ll let you know if I find it.  But in the meantime, get your hands on a copy of the story “Family Reunion.” Circulate it among your friends and to all the women you know who survived some nasty something with adult male relatives back in their youth.

And someday, when someone puts together an anthology of girls-getting-(well justified)-revenge tales, let this be the lead story. I admit that it took me a good 24 hours after I read it to laugh. But I did laugh out loud when I went back to read it again. Campbell’s aim is that incredible, and her target is just perfect. 

PS: For another great, well justified (although much slower to arrive) rape revenge story, dive into Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood. It’s Atwood at her wicked, insightful, brilliant (and feminist) best.

Margaret Atwood signing 600 copies of Year of the Flood at NCIBA. Photo by Carol Seajay
American Salvage
Bonnie Jo Campbell
WW. Norton
$13.95 pb Dec 2009

The Year of the Flood
Margaret Atwood
Doubleday
$26.95 cloth Sept 2009

Margaret Atwood signing 600 copies of The Year of the Flood at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association office. Photo by Carol Seajay.
 

 

 

 

 

Coventry

Coventry

by Helen Humphreys

Norton, March 2009, $23.95 cloth, 177 pages

  

Coventry coverSweet, tender, short and not a word awry. And one of the best anti-war novels I’ve ever read. Just what we need, right now, as we’re settling into to Obama’s “next 100 days,” with none of the wars ended and another one emerging in Pakistan. Coventry reminds us what it means to live (work, marry, love, eat, sleep, die and survive) under a rain of bombs.

 

Coventry, for those of you whose WW II history is no better than mine, an industrial city in central England, was the subject of one of the most infamous bombing raids of that war. The terror and destruction were used, in turn, to justify Allied bombings of urban areas – people’s homes – in Germany. Based on accounts of survivors of that brutal night and on eyewitness accounts of the bombing of Baghdad, it offers an immediate and very current reminder that war begets war, and that bombing, however rationalized, begets terror and death and destruction and, inevitably, more bombs. Something that the survivors of bombings know, instinctively, and something that most Americans, despite 9/11, have yet to understand. Send this book to your Congressman/woman and Senator.

 

But read it first, for the story. If Sarah Waters, in The Night Watch, asked what happened to those fine, brave women (lesbians in that case) who spent the War risking their lives to save others’ lives, In Coventry Humphreys is asking about that spark of connection between women – named or not – that sees them/us through.

 

Humphreys has explored this war before, in her lovely The Lost Garden. Her most recent novel, Wild Dogs, BTWOF’s 2005 Novel of the Year, asks some of the most interesting questions about (lesbian) relationships – about love and work, and about commitment, freedom and passion as it applies to both – of any book I’ve ever read. Humphreys doesn’t believe in easy answers. So I took the liberty of reading her new novel as an exploration of that spark between women that might, in another time or place, evolve into something differently intimate. Or might not. It’s a covenant that’s rarely named and even more rarely honored. Humphreys has given us that gift with Coventry.

 

 

Lexicon:

Perhaps, if we had a word for these relationships, they would more often and more fully honored? Coventry? As in “I had coventry with her.”

 

Trivia:

Coventry was also remembered as the home of Lady Godiva, who rode naked through the town in effort to persuade her husband not to tax the townspeople so heavily, back around 1050. A daring woman if ever there was one.

 

Also just published:

In January Delacorte (Random House/USA), published Humphrey’s short stories, The Frozen Thames, which was published in Canada in 2007. I’m saving them as bribes to get myself to spend time on the exercycle at the gym. (Hey, it worked with Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy and Jumpha Lahiri Unaccustomed Earth!)

TLE’s Novel of the Year 2005

Wild DogsWild DogsWild DogsWild DogsWild Dogs is the ultimate stealth (lesbian) novel. If introducing this novel to a wider lesbian readership was the only thing I accomplished in two and a half years of publishing this rag, it would be worth it.

Let’s start with the PR — while I sympathize with the publicists’ dilemma (there’s almost nothing you can say about this rich novel without giving something away), the catalog and jacket copy make the book sound like it’s about people so sad and lonely that even their dogs won’t speak to them. I’ve spent forty years searching out good lesbian reading and I just couldn’t get past the promo until Emma Donoghue wrote, in TLE’s “Best Books of 2005” issue, “Helen Humphreys’ Wild Dogs — about a group of people whose dogs have run off to the woods — is a ravishingly written novel about the contrary pulls of danger and home.” I bit the bullet, ordered a copy and dove in.

Donoghue is right: This is one of those rare books you haven’t read before. Luckily I read it just in time to insist that it be added to the Lammy’s Lesbian Fiction shortlist. (Winner to be announced May 18.) So, hopefully, it will yet land in the lesbian reading community.

Humphreys explores the edge between when we think we’re wild young things cherishing freedom and independence and that awkward moment when the attraction of the domesticated life begins to frighten, or worse, when we discover we’ve already failed at settling in. She looks at how people (mostly women, but some others as well) build relationships in the context of the everyday, seemingly banal, damage all too commonly inflicted in our cultures. In the end she redefines success living in that context. That alone would make this a breakthrough novel.

But I also love the way Humphreys plays with the gender of the beloved throughout the initial sections of the book – she certainly kept me on edge for those first 50 pages. Everyone will read this section differently, depending on their own assumptions and experiences, which makes this a perfect reading group book. The relief, when it comes, is a throwaway line from the least expected quarter. Others have used this device before (Jeanette Winterson, Rebecca Brown, and June Arnold come to mind), but here it’s an aspect that leads the reader deeper into the book, not the central conceit. Humphreys holds the tension just long enough to keep it interesting.

But more fun, even than that, is her wickedly spare prose. A few seemingly backhanded sentences describe childhoods that others have spent entire novels documenting. A short riff, early in the book, on jobs and boyfriends past and on the confines and traps of each is encyclopedic in its insight. I keep expecting to come across it as a broadside somewhere.

Don’t look here for a simplistic, romantic resolution. Humphreys’ exploration of loss and betrayal and love is much more complex; her characters dream in conflicting visions, and a single, shared future won’t suffice. That’s a story that is rarely told, rarely told well, and when it is, the characters are much too rarely women. In Helen Humphreys’ Wild Dogs we get all three. Paper: June 5, $13.95, Norton, 0393328422; cloth $22.95, Norton, 0393060152.