REVIEW: Audre Lorde’s THE CANCER JOURNALS

lorde

The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde

San Francisco: aunt lute books, 1980

 

The Cancer Journals is a collection of essays by Audre Lorde about her diagnosis with, treatment for and healing from breast cancer and decision to undergo—and physical and emotional recovery from—a mastectomy. It contains and often riffs on excerpts from her personal journal in which she contends with her own fears and mourning, the inhumanity of the medical establishment, the warm support of the women in her life. These are powerful essays, insightful and unflinching and beautiful. Though she does not step back from the pain she undergoes, she speaks clearly about the power and support she finds, the connections to other women she intensifies, and the erotic experience of her own body. I’ve returned to this little book again and again and again throughout my adult life.

But these essays are about more than breast cancer, more than illness and disability. They are about strength, and hope, and feminism, and body politics, and power, and power, and power. Lorde frequently reminds the reader that these words are coming from a black lesbian poet, and this is important, I think—Lorde is positioning herself in the world, calling our attention to where she’s standing as she speaks. By doing so, she’s emphasizing the connection between lived experience, what one thinks about and what one is usually permitted to say.

If you’ve ever read an Audre Lorde quotation, chances are it came from this book. Remember “your silence will not protect you”? This book. If you have the T-shirt, you need to read the book, friends.

You may imagine that a book of essays about struggling with breast cancer would be depressing. This is not. Neither is it falsely uplifting (the expectation of a put-on-a-cheery-smile attitude, Lorde says, is a way of preventing women from knowing themselves and discovering their full power). The tone of the book lies smack in the middle: sometimes strong, sometimes terrified, sometimes mournful, sometimes pragmatic.  Extremely human. As a chronically-ill and disabled woman, I’ve heard Lorde’s words in my head numerous times—though I have never confronted breast cancer in my own body, Lorde speaks to my own experiences of illness and disability, and also to my experiences as a queer woman, a feminist, and even a writer.

Right now, reading these essays again (as I do every year or so), I’m finding them extra-chillingly-on-point. In this moment when institutionalized racism seems to be baring its teeth extra viciously at its targets, especially those who speak back to it; when American Black people in particular are endangered by our country’s own institutions, pResident and even some citizens; and when white folks, insisting on their “allyship,” are trying to divert attention to how white allies feel about all of this, Lorde’s words are frighteningly prescient.

“I have found that battling despair does not mean closing my eyes to the enormity of the tasks of effecting change,” she writes, “nor ignoring the strength and the barbarity of the forces aligned against us. It means teaching, surviving and fighting with the most important resource I have, myself, and taking joy in that battle. It means, for me, recognizing the enemy outside and the enemy within, and knowing that my work is part of a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and our power, and knowing that this work did not begin with my birth nor will it end with my death. And it means knowing that within this continuum, my life and my love and my work has particular power and meaning to others.”

She also sees clearly how such a profound threat to her life (she’s specifically talking about cancer, but is also obliquely referencing racism and sexism and homophobia) sap her energy, divert her away from exercising her own power in the world. It follows that those who have an interest in keeping down Black folks, women, queer folks, disabled folks—those whose lives are easier if all of us just sit down and shut up—also have an interest in not finding a cure for breast cancer or other chronic serious illnesses, or enacting safeguards against homophobia, sexism and racism. (And not, I might add, making complete healthcare available to all of us…) I’ve often said that taking care of a debilitating chronic illness (in my case, Multiple Sclerosis and Type I/Juvenile Diabetes) is a full-time job and leaves little energies for other things. Lorde writes:

“I am often afraid to this day, but even moreso angry at having to be afraid, of having to spend so much of my energies, interrupting my work, simply upon fear and worry. […] I resent the time and weakening effect of these concerns—they feel as if they are available now for diversion in much the same way the FBI lies are available for diversion, the purpose being to sway us from our appointed and self-chosen paths of action.”

Imagine how much more productive, creative, brilliant Lorde could have been, how much more powerful, how much more of a threat to the status quo Lorde would have been, had she not had to expend so much energy just to stay alive. One might say the same for all ailing and disabled folks, poor folks, Black folks, LGBTQ folks, POC folks… And by making our lives harder, by not providing enough support and care to such folks, American culture/government is essentially sapping our strength and robbing itself of our contributions and active presence.

I feel this especially strongly during Pride month and in the midst of BLM demonstrations and our own pResident’s threats of violence and “crackdown” on demonstrators and dissenters. In this context, Lorde’s words, written in the 1970s, seem to predict this moment. But, of course, it is more likely true that, though much has changed, little has changed since Lorde wrote these essays. Our government is still under the sway of racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist agendas. Women, LGBTQ+ folks, disabled folks, POC, Black folks… all live with the threat of violence. All deal daily with a lack of fiscal, legal, intellectual and bodily safety and security. All need, desperately need, the brilliant, powerful, brave and true words of this book now more than ever.

 

Why you Should Read THE AMERICA PLAY AND OTHER WORKS by Suzan-Lori Parks

America Play

Suzan-Lori Parks has long been my favorite playwright and one of my favorite authors of anything. I used to teach “The America Play,” which students sometimes found confounding to read—perhaps due at least as much to my own inability to teach it properly as to its difficulty as a text. I think, if one were to see it on stage, perhaps it would be easier for some folks to grasp. (I know this was true for me of another Parks play, “Father Comes Home from the War,” one part of which I saw in a small off-Broadway theater and loved—it was, like many of Parks’ plays, a layered thing. In this one, meaning came not only from the actors’ words and actions and the mis-en-scene, but from text broadcast above the stage (given as stage directions and footnotes in the written play).)

Still, I’ve pulled The America Play and other Works off my bookshelf to write about today because it is a collection to which I’ve returned and returned, recommended infinitely, and loved so much my copy is just a series of loose pages held together by a rubber band wrapped around the cover. It’s a collection of Parks’ plays and essays which feels ever more relevant in the moment (though, to be clear, it never stopped being relevant, like a river running underground is still running even if you don’t see it, is still nourishing what grows in the soil above, still filling the wells from which we drink. But, knowing all this, I’d say the words feel as though they’re speaking to this current time.

The essays are deadly brilliant. “Possession,” “Elements of Style” and “An Equation for Black People on Stage” all are more than worth several readings. The ideas have guided me as a writer and as an audience/reader ever since I read them. “Equation,” for instance, begins with this assertion:

“The Bulk of relationships Black people are engaged in onstage is the relationship between Black and the White other. This is the stuff of high drama. I wonder if a drama involving Black people can exist without the presence of the White—no, not the presence—the presence is not the problem [.…] The interest in the other is. The use of the White in the dramatic equation is, I think, too often seen as the only way of exploring our Blackness; this equation reduces Blackness to merely a sate of ‘non-Whiteness.’ Blackness in this equation is a people whose lives consist of a series of reactions and responses to the White ruling class.”

Boom. Suzan-Lori Parks hits the nail on the head, but it’s a nail of which so many of us (including me) were ignorant until she hit it.

Perhaps my two favorite plays in the collection are “The America Play” and “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.” I won’t go into great specifics about each of these, simply because I’m hoping the titles alone will provoke your interest and lead you to read them for yourself. “Last Black Man” features some historical Black figures (like ‘Queen-then-Pharaoh Hatshepsut’) mixed in with some stereotypes of American Blackness (characters like ‘Black Man with Watermelon,’ or ‘Woman with Fried Drumstick,’ or ‘Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork’) speaking. They are reminders, they are mourners, they are echoes speaking back to us—as much as they also feel like just people. The whole scene is set in something called “the Great Hole of History” for which Parks gives no stage directions: how to set this scene? what does the Great Hole look like? In this Great (W)Hole of History (oh, golly, I love that pun, by the by) are all the narratives and people left out of Official Western History. The characters speak in near-poetry, unnatural and beautiful. It feels like a play, like a self-conscious display of something, and that is, I’d venture, pretty intentional. Though tempted, you’re never permitted to get lost entirely, to suspend disbelief. The work does not follow the conventional Western plotline, nor the conventional Western 3-act play structure. If you come to “Last Black Man” expecting the simple satisfactions of such a structure, you’ll be disappointed, and it will be your own fault. You’re always reminded: THIS IS A WORK OF ART. THIS BEARS THE ATTENTION OF INTERPRETATION. For this, I truly love it.

“The America Play” centers on The Foundling Father (oh, Parks, your puns! I just adore!), a Black man who is a grave digger and an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. He becomes particularly popular among white people who want to re-enact Booth shooting Lincoln—even better if they can shoot a Black Lincoln to boot! The Foundling Father soon disappears from the stage, and becomes a central figure in absentia, like the Great Hole of History he’s tried to replicate: what has been removed is what makes the thing (like a hole is not a hole unless things have been removed to make a hole). Lucy, his wife, and Brazil, his son, spend the last act alone. They are professional mourners, hired to gnash and moan at funerals to make others feel the dead had been important. Their lives are full of death and mourning. Their business, all, is absence, is the hole, is acting as if rather than simply getting to be.

I could write forever about these plays, having taught them and thought about them for so long. (And just so we’re clear, teaching the text does not mean I know anything about it—teaching was a way of figuring things out, thinking about things, so I mention it only to suggest I’ve spent many years thinking about these beautiful plays. Even so, they exceed my ability to think through them—I never “get” the whole thing, because if I think more, I discover more in them.) I won’t dissertate. Instead, I’ll simply urge you to read them—or any of Parks’ writing, for that matter. They plays and essays are genius postmodern works, rife with wordplay and exactly-needed difficulty. They are passionate and deeply felt strikes at the world’s stoicism.

More people should know, read and (inevitably) love Parks’ work.

 

Find Suzan-Lori Parks at http://suzanloriparks.com/

Find her books everywhere. Here, try Alibris: https://www.alibris.com/booksearch?author=suzan-lori+parks&mtype=B

REVIEW: Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara

Gorilla my loveGorilla, My Love
Toni Cade Bambara
First published 1960

I first read this collection of short stories when I was in college, back in the late 1980s. It stunned me so deeply, I’ve remembered it—especially the title story—for decades. I should write a letter of thanks to the college professor who first turned me on to it, but I no longer remember who it was. Well, I’m sending thanks out to the universe, anyway, because the stories of Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara have rumbled around my head, flavoring everything I’ve written and everything I’ve read since.

Fifteen short stories, each told in the first-person voice of a different character (or sometimes a 3rd-person limited omniscient, as if privy to the thoughts of a character), make up the collection. It feels as if all the characters are neighbors, all know each other, and are all talking smack about each other (though the collection isn’t set up that way).

What resonates most for me about these stories is, first, the voices and, second, the rhythm.

The voices seem so believably right. The title story, “Gorilla, My Love,” is told by a young girl (Hazel) who feels betrayed by the adults in her world. She goes with her brothers to see a film she thinks will be a gorilla movie (perhaps like King Kong, but even better), but is furious to find out she (and the entire audience of rowdy kids) has been tricked. “So the movie come on,” the narrator says, “and right away it’s this churchy music and clearly not about no gorilla. Bout Jesus. And I am ready to kill, not cause I got anything gainst Jesus. Just that when you fixed to watch a gorilla picture you don’t wanna get messed around with Sunday School stuff.” She and her brothers—and the whole audience—start a little popcorn-and-kicking riot, the harmless kind of tantrum one is inclined to throw in the face of powerlessness and betrayal.

Layered in an around this narrative is the story of the narrator’s loss of her Hunca Bubba, who gets married and starts going by his full proper Christian name (Johnathan Winston Vale). He’d promised, probably jokingly, to marry the narrator when she grew up, and was always the adult she could count on for friendship and understanding. Suddenly, he’s gone deep into the adult world and she’s left on the outside. Hazel has nobody but the other kids, all of them feeling the sting of the things adults promise but don’t really mean.

Every narrator’s voice feels true in this way, pulsing with the character’s needs, passions, anger. But it’s not a bitter collection in the least. It feels wistful. It feels true. It’s sometimes funny with a gentle, kind humor (the kind that doesn’t have to knock anybody down to make its mark).

As for the rhythm, I don’t simply mean the rhythm of the prose itself—though that is beautifully done. I remember when I was studying writing in college, and someone suggested to me that the major concern of poetry was at the level of the sentence and language, but the major concern of fiction was at the level of concept and story. I still think that’s wrong—good poets and good fiction-writers should always be concerned with both the big picture and the details. The best fiction writers, I think, compose every line of prose as if it were a line of poetry, that carefully. In Gorilla, My Love, words matter.

What I mean by “rhythm” is both the language-level rhythm (which, here, is masterful) and the ig-picture rhythm. Each story opens, build and closes in a sigh or a scream. The stories of the collection build upon one another to make a greater picture, so that the final story, “The Johnson Girls,” takes some of its effect from the momentum built by the stories that came before it. The last line—“’Right,’ say Gail, and lights my cigarette”—doesn’t sound particularly important until you’ve been carried to it by the story, by the whole book. Ending the collection on this line, then gives it extra weight, and I usually break into tears at the resignation it suggests.

I mean, you kinda have to be there (read it) to get it.

REVIEW: The Navigator’s Touch by Julia Ember

REVIEW: The Navigator’s Touch by Julia Ember (September 13, 2018); Interlude Press/Duet Books, 256 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

The Navigator’s Touch is the continuation of the story begun in The Seafarer’s Kiss; although you can read this one all on its own without reading the first book, why would you? I mean, more books, amIright? You can read my review of TSK here if you’d like—for brevity, I won’t sum that up now. Instead, I’ll tell you that while the first novel is told from the mermaid Ersel’s point of view, this novel is told from her human lover Ragna’s point of view. Ragna is a fierce warrior on a quest to find Ersel, the mermaid/Kracken (a punishment by Loki) who rescued Ragna when…

Let me back up. I’m going to be brief, because the novel itself contains enough of the backstory for you to understand what’s happening (and, even better, you can read the first book, The Seafarer’s Kiss, which is a new telling of the original Norse myth which Disney’s The Little Mermaid bastardized). Ragna is fierce. She’s also got a very special gift (she’s “gods-touched”): her arm contains a tattoo-like map that changes as she moves or as she wills it. In other words, she can find her own way from or to anywhere in the world, and she can even use the map to locate towns, people, things of value. She’s not the only one with this gift, and in an effort to kidnap the children who might possess it, a warlord burned her village and killed the adults (including Ragna’s family). Ragna’s own cousin is among the kidnapped, and part of Ragna’s quest in this novel is to find her.

Along the way, she falls in love with a mermaid, becomes captain of a sea vessel (and its disloyal crew) stolen from her captor, outsmarts the trickster god Loki, and does it all one-handed (she’s got a hook to replace a severed hand). It reminds me of that old saw about Ginger Rogers, who did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels. Ragna does everything the other sea captains do, but as a woman and with one hand. I’m pretty sure she wears boots, though.

Before I address the story itself, let me quickly address how it’s told: it’s a page-turner. The narrative voice melts into the story, and Ragna is such a smart, powerful character, one can’t help but want to hear her speak more and more. Neither overly dry nor too flowery, the prose just whistles through the adventure.

This strikes me as a particularly feminist novel. Not simply because it stars a woman in charge (though that certainly helps), but because it’s the story of Ragna figuring out how to be in charge without being oppressive, how to wield power without dumbly blunt force.

The love story between Ragna and Ersel, too, seems feminist: they are each independent beings who love each other, but that love does not cancel out all other duties or desires. There is longing, and there is cleaving (both to and from), and there is desire and beauty, but this is not a story in which everything is put aside for the romance, in which romantic love conquers all. It’s a story in which love helps the heroine conquer all, but it’s not just romantic love. There’s self-love, familial love, loyalty, friendship, intelligence (that is a way of loving the world, you know)… all of it drives Ragna, and all of it helps her get where she winds up.

I’ve read numerous reviews of this book that exclaim over its violence and, yes, there’s some intense violence described, but really, how do you read a book about pillaging pirates and war and not see the violence coming? It would be disingenuous if there were none, I think. When I think back on some of the “classics” I had to read in junior high and high school, I have to laugh at the statement that young folks should not read anything violent because that’s not how we did it in the 1980s. I also remember lots of repression, lots of denial on the part of adults who told me that the violence I experienced in real life (as a daughter, as a young woman in the world) was not fit to be discussed, or did not happen, or was not a worthy social concern. Denying the violence is a big lie, and it sets young women (in particular) up to fail when they inevitably meet it. How much better, then, to give them the gripping story of strong heroes like Ragna who meet, survive, and even triumph over that violence?

REVIEW: Running with Lions by Julian Winters

REVIEW: Running with Lions by Julian Winters (June 7. 2018); 320 pages. Available from Duet Books, an imprint of Interlude Press, here.

When I was coming up, queer YA was not available. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when my adolescence was in bloom, I felt lucky to have access to Daniel Pinkwater’s quirky, witty novels and novels like Forever, Ahbra (by Mary Anderson) as an alternative to my mom’s old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. I never dreamed books could be written about real kids—queer, of color, smart, struggling, complex reflections of me and the other kids I knew.

As an adult, I’m not one of those avid YA readers. I’ve moved on, and there’s so much not-good YA out there… I like complexity in a novel, darkness, a bit of grit and no melodrama, and that order seems in short supply in most YA. All this is to say I’m not a die-hard YA reader like some adults I know, but I can really appreciate a great YA story when I come across one.

Found one, friends!

Running with Lions by Julian Winters hits the spot for me. It’s many things that did not interest me as a kid: boy MCs, sports… well, I guess that’s the list. Nevertheless, it’s a beautifully-written, softly suspenseful queer young-person romance, by turns tender and stubbly and gently humorous. It’s not deliberately wallowing in ignorance of the world (which is what turns me off about many YA books—young folk know what’s going on, and they feel it intensely; no need to pander, authors).

Sebastian Hughes goes to training camp for his high school soccer team, the Bloomington Lions, and comes face-to-face with his former childhood bestie, Emir Shah, with whom Sebastian had fallen out of touch. Emir is sort of a social reject, both because he’s crusty and scowly, and because he’s not very good at soccer. (I marveled-cheered because the fact that he’s gay and brown and Muslim did not factor at all into his exile. I mean, finally.) At first Emir pushes everyone—including Sebastian—away. But Sebastian persists, offering to help Emir train and practice at night, alone, on the field. Sebastian has to fight through that prickly exterior to get to the soft, nougaty center that is the Emir he remembers, but it winds up worth it; slowly, Emir cracks open.

Sebastian, who identifies as bisexual, has never been in love with a boy before, but he falls for Emir (who has). The rest of the novel is a slow, careful unfolding of their relationship, little advances and retreats, skittish acceptance and unpredictably cold rejections. It’s rather like watching someone try to trap a feral cat, but in a good way.

What, perhaps, appeals to me most now, as an adult looking back, is that not only is the queer romance front and center, respected for its complexity and not just used for its queerness, but the major problem in the romance isn’t homophobia, it’s history and mistrust and other interpersonal complications. Queer people, in other words, get to be just as interesting as straight ones, and we get our full and difficult-human story here. The other players don’t care about the queerness, and even the coach is supportive and doesn’t pay mind to his players’ sexuality or masculinity. (How different from Mr. S–, the coach at my high school who giggled and eye-rolled his way through teaching sex ed like a frat boy and never once even mentioned queerness.)

It’s radical that a queer love story for young folk is not centered on homophobia. (In fact, much of the team is either gay or bisexual, and sexuality is hardly an issue.) I mean, it’s really, truly radical. Everyone—kids and adults—needs stories like this.

In some ways, this idea (that a teen’s queerness is not an issue, that there are these queer-majority sports team-havens for kids) seems like a fantasy. Yet all fiction is fantasy (that’s kind of the point). Every single novel contains a made-up world and made-up people. As long as we’re fantasizing, how about a new fantasy with better values, one that doesn’t depress or scare the boop out of young queer kids just coming into their own, one that gives them something to dream about and wish for?

School librarians, please grab this book for your stacks. Parents, slip this into your kid’s bookshelf. Request it at your local bookstore and library. Tell them an unathletic old queer lady sent you.

REVIEW: He Mele a Hilo by Ryka Aoki

he mele a hilo

REVIEW: He Mele a Hilo: A Hilo Song by Ryka Aoki (May 5, 2014); Topside Signature; 342 pages.
As a U.S. mainlander and a non-dancer, I don’t know much about hula or Hawaii, so this novel, at first, felt kind of beautiful-mystical-foreign to me. It follows primarily the lives Noelani Choi and members of her halau (a troupe of hula dancers) in Hilo, Hawaii. But the aura of strangeness soon dissipated, and I was pulled in to the jostling constellation of relationships in which the novel’s webbed. Hula may be the presenting situation, but it’s not the point here; thinking about hula helps sharpen and guide the point, and the novel is certainly generous enough to allow the uninitiated to understand what’s what, but it isn’t the point itself; or it’s not, at least, the only point.

In fact, one of the loveliest things about this novel is that it’s generous. The reader is admitted into the secret lives and points-of-view of several very different characters, and it becomes almost a Babel of voices (in several variations of English and pidgin), perspectives and temperaments and motivations, yet the reader is always drawn near, made able to understand and empathize with the characters.

At heart, it feels like a folktale: specificity and detail vibrate on a larger, more universal scale. The novel pulls together a sensual celebration of food, dance, love and nature, mixes it with some magical strangeness and reality-rule-bending, and makes it all hum together as something larger, both pleasurable and meaningful.

REVIEW: Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan

REVIEW: Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Reprint edition: April 9, 2017); Broadway Books; 306 pages.

 

I’ve known of Jennifer Finney Boylan as an activist and scholar from my days as a professor teaching queer theory. What somehow eluded me all those years was that she also writes fiction. I discovered this quite by accident when I happened upon mention of her novel Long Black Veil (yep, the title is a nod to Johnny Cash) and picked it up, mostly because I knew who she is and I was really curious.

 
I’m glad dumb luck led me there, because I stumbled on a book I wound up really loving.
Long Black Veil is a sort of mystery, though It’s not a whodunnit by any means. It’s about a group of young folks who get lost in a creepy old jail and one of them winds up gone and is later found dead. There’s suspense for a while, until you find out who was responsible for her death and why, but that isn’t really the point. It’s about the fallout, the way all the other characters deal with loss, guilt, survival and moving on.
This horrible moment in the past is juxtaposed against the narrative of a trans character who, rather than come out to her friends as trans, winds up disappearing herself in a flaming car wreck so she can establish her transition and emerge a new person, with a new name and a new life.

 
These two enormous events, both in some measure traumatizing, wind up informing each other—at least for this reader. Judith, who is trans, winds up in a similar situation to those who are guilty of bringing about her friend’s death—she must “kill” her former boy self, then cover up her tracks and keep the secret forever, even from those she loves most (like her husband and son). In doing so, she loses connections to her former friends, and must grieve in secret, telling neither her former friends nor her new family. She winds up alone and in pain, and must struggle with the fear of losing (or having lost) those she loves if ever her true, whole self is discovered.

 
I pounced on this book not only because Boylan wrote it, but because the description I’d read suggested it is queer magic realism—a category I had, up until recently, thought I may have invented. It just seems so right to me, since magic realism is about the natural and the fantastic juxtaposed, the realness of something that we believe cannot be real; and since magic realism’s initial incarnation was as a form of protest against repressive political systems. But please, reader, please gliss past my hubris here, because it turns out queer magic realism is a thing already.

 
The novel has elements of this—it is a beautifully strange landscape of events, ripped up by the frequent intrusion of the everyday. Sometimes there are ghosts and visions, and sometimes they are just mirrors—characters are haunted by the ghosts of their pasts, but also by visions of themselves. Dead folks are not the only ghosts, friends, and they’re often not the ghosts most haunting us.

 
Perhaps I’m not making it sound so, but the writing is quite deft, very smart, and entirely believable, no matter how strange it gets. At its heart, it’s about loss and rejection—both of friends and family, but also of one’s history, one’s identity, one’s self. It’s about how you remake your life in the face of gut-ripping change. It’s about how you grow into newness, and what happens to the old parts of you when you do grow into something new.

REVIEW: Beulah Land

Beulah Land by Nancy Stewart (November 16,. 2017); 250 pages. Available from Interlude Press/Duet Books here: https://store.interludepress.com/collections/beulah-land-by-nancy-stewart

There is something about a tough, smart girl in fiction or film that just melts me. Perhaps it’s because I always felt scrappy inside, but was never that brave. Perhaps it’s because every young lesbian girl like me grows up knowing she will have to fight just to keep herself intact–this feeling is acute and transforming, whether or not that fight ever comes. One feels oneself always endangered. For that matter, most “normal” girls do, too. Whatever it is, Violette Sinclair feels like my better self.

Violette is the voice of Beulah Land, and it’s her story. She’s too smart and too gay to be growing up in the small Ozarks enclave she is in is a place where the ruling clan of nasty, dog-fighting, gun-toting jerks is related to the sheriff and there’s little hope of a girl like her surviving. Beulah Land might be a young adult novel, but like the best of those, it makes for good adult reading as well.

Violette has not only her own toughness but the backup of a popular, football-star best friend to help her out. Not only is she bent on rescuing the dogs abused and discarded by the semi-secret dog-fighting ring, but she needs to discover and fix her own family: her father was murdered when she was younger (and she needs to know what), her mother has a secret past (Vi wants to learn what it is), and her sister is resentful and sometimes cruel to her (one wants a tearful apology and reunion).

The story is told in the voice of Vi, who is determined, tough, take-no-crap and smart. Hers is a great voice to guide us through her own story, and it’s satisfying that she gets to have that control. There’s a comfort, too, through all that awfulness, to know she comes out well enough to tell us the tale.

This is a coming-of-age story in which the coming-of-age is rougher than the one most people experience. All the elements familiar to most of us–secrecy, trauma, helplessness and fight–are there, just writ larger and more dangerous for Vi. It’s about a girl coming to own herself–she’s a lesbian and an animal lover with a strong sense of justice, and all of that gets her in trouble in her small neck of the swamp. One gets the sense that she’s loved despite these things instead of because of them. But she fights on to find happiness and peace, not only for herself but for those she loves. This is no small thing for us queers, and we need narratives that give us this.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there weren’t narratives like this available to me. As a young girl, I didn’t even know what a lesbian was, because nobody spoke of it… ever, anywhere. There were no lesbians on TV, or in the movies outside of porn (and porn didn’t really present a real picture, I knew), or in novels available to me as a kid. In college, I found The Well of Loneliness, Stone Butch Blues and Mrs. Danvers, none of which gave me very much hope. As a result, it took me longer than it might have otherwise to recognize myself and come out as queer. I knew I was different, and I figured there was something wrong with me because I could not feel complete, deep love for my boyfriends. I have a feeling this story is not uncommon. I felt fight in me, and wildness, and passion, but had no way to express it in the real world. I wish there’d been a Violette Sinclair for me to find. I’m glad there is now.

REVIEW: The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic by F T Lukens

The Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic by F. T. Lukens (September 7, 2017); 256 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.

If I were a gawky teenage boy and had to climb the side of a house to get a job working for a weirdo Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-Watcher-Type-Guy who got smelly-slimed by trolls frequently and had a 1960s-ish nutjob secretary and a couple of junk-food-obsessed pixies living with him, and this job put me in situations in which I was chased by gore-furious unicorns and nearly killed by unfriendly mermaids, then… I don’t know what. I guess I’d be the star of this book and my name would be Bridger. Unlike the star of this book, I probably wouldn’t have the fortitude and determination to press on after that first mermaid attack.

But Bridger, like many a hero of young adult novels, is stronger and more determined than I. He bumbles into a job helping someone who’s charged with ensuring the world’s myths (like the Loch Ness Monster and a unicorn and a manticore) remain in their proper places (that is, hidden from “regular” folks) and the world’s humans are safe from their magic. Lovely enough for the reader, but unfortunately for poor Bridger, those mermaids, that manticore and all the other myths are pretty dangerous—that unicorn is definitely NOT a My Little Pony hearts and rainbows sort. Bridger discovers there’s magic in the world, but it’s not the fantasy magic he read in storybooks—it’s real, terrifying, and the only way the “normal” world stays in balance is if it remains ignorant of it.

This is an adventure story (Bridger, and many of the other characters, have quests and Joseph Campbell-like arcs to complete) and a love story (Bridger falls for football hero Leo) and a tale of chivalry (Bridger must rescue not only the world, but Leo, so that he may ride off happily into the sunset with him, and the two rescues are in direct conflict). The novel is knowing, and softly humorous at the same time that it’s gripping and tense. It puts me in mind of Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time quintet—believably weird, starring outsider teens who come into their own through intrigue with odd creatures and helpful-but-strange mentors.

 

 

REVIEW: Absolutely, Almost Perfect by Lissa Reed

Absolutely Almost Perfect by Lissa Reed (August 3. 2017); 256 pages. Available from Interlude Press here.
 
The third book of Reed’s charming Sucre Couer series, Absolutely Almost Perfect returns to the love story of Alex Scheff, a nervous and acerbic American photographer, and Craig Oliver, a level-headed British ex-pat baker, though this installment leaves behind all the previous settings (the Sucre Couer bakery, Seattle) for the Oliver household in England when Craig brings Alex home to meet his family and celebrate the wedding of his brother.
 
But things, as they often will do when family is involved, do not go perfectly. (You know this; the title hints at this.) To start with, Alex must deal with meeting the family of his love. Anyone who has done this knows how terrifying it can be—probably more so when visiting that family also means having to navigate a foreign culture. Plus, Craig’s very attractive ex is floating around, still in the family’s good graces, and Alex is going to have to contend with meeting him, too. But wait, there’s more! Craig gets along with all his family (his feisty mother, his steadfast father, even the younger twin girls who, like most teenagers, are, well teenagers) with the glaring exception of his oblivious-to-mean-spirited prankster older brother. They’ve had a contentious, bitter relationship since Craig was born, one that has only gotten worse with time.
 
To top it all off, there’s a wedding in the mix, with all the stress and family weirdness that tends to bring on.
 
As I began by saying, the books in this series are charming. The characters—especially, but not only, Alex and Craig—are completely realized and so well-drawn I feel as though I know what they’ll say and do next (I usually don’t, but the feeling itself is significant to me). Craig himself is charming (Alex more closely harmonizes with my taste for the acerbic and sweetly bitter—being a native of the US East Coast will make a person distrustful of the effusiveness or polite restraint preferred in other regions… put that way, I now see that our taste in coffee (strong to the point of bitterness) reflects our social tastes as well).
 
Great characters aside, what really grabs one about this book is the plot—once I started, I was heroin-level hooked by the drama and urgency of the goings-on. At the heart of this book is love, with dose of reconciliation. Though Alex and Craig are certainly the center of gravity here, it is how a family comes to fit together that matters: anger, jealousy, forgiveness, joy, care and protectiveness all wrap around them and sometimes, as it often is, it’s an ill fit, but it still manages to hold.