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.

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