Entries Tagged as 'Literary Fiction'

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


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 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



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.




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.”



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!)