Sunday, September 27, 2009

Curious Wine, Katherine V Forrest

I imagine that getting a lesbian love story published in 1983 must have been quite a chore.  After all, you couldn't really even talk about being a lesbian in 1983.  Writing a book about a lesbian affair, especially one with as much graphic sexuality as Curious Wine, seems pretty courageous.  So let's take a moment to honor that courage...ok, moment over...let's begin...

Curious Wine is the story of Diana and Lane, two women discovering they love women over a long weekend at a cabin in Lake Tahoe.  Drawn together by fate and irresistible desire, and unbeknownst to anyone else, they create a small lesbian oasis in the room they share.  Surrounding these two are a group of women, mostly in their 40s, in varying states of relationship with men.

The fact that this book was published in 1983 shows in the way that the characters relate to each other.  I had to think of the book the same way I think about an exhibit in a museum.  Dated, an object from another time to examine and study.  For a third wave feminist such as myself, it was hard to feel a kinship with any of the women, defined as they are by their relationships (or lack of relationships) with men.  There was Liz, the bitter divorcee; Madge, the "progressive" woman in an open marriage, though only her husband ever dabbled;  Chris, the spinster; and Viviane, who decided to forgo staying at the cabin with the rest of the women so she could stay in town with her boyfriend.  The main characters were equally stereotypical.  Diana had just come out of a bad break-up, a relationship which followed a bad marriage.  In trying to deny her lesbian feelings, she picks up a man in a bar who ends up assaulting her, thereby driving her into the arms of a woman.  Lane had briefly had a wonderful relationship with a man, only to be devastated when he died in Viet Nam.  She then spent the next several years being rather promiscuous, which I think the author wanted us to perceive as forward thinking and strong on her part, but which came off as desperate.  At one point in the book the women play some encounter games, the kind popular in the 1970s, and all of the negative female stereotypes of competition, jealousy, and apologizing for having ideas and opinions comes out clearly.  Maybe the author herself was struggling with how to be a woman in the age of the ERA-if so, her struggle is evident in her portrayal of these women.

As a lesbian myself, I hoped to feel some kinship with the two woman-loving women in the book.  I did feel a connection with Lane's character, a take-charge lawyer who refuses to be drawn into the other women's drama during the encounter games.  Lane was the character most like me.  As a teen and young adult she had intense feelings towards other girls, but didn't recognize them for what they were, or suppressed them out of guilt and fear about being a lesbian.  I didn't recognize my own first crushes for what they were, either, though I was saddled with WAY less guilt and shame coming out in 2000.  Sadly, that is where any identification I felt with the characters ended.  Do I think that trying to run away from your same-sex feelings and hiding from the world is historically accurate?  Of course.  I just don't think that this novel does a great job of making the reader feel like they are part of the story, and therefore experiencing the past in a way that speaks to the now.  Anyone who has read Stone Butch Blues or Ruby Fruit Jungle has had that experience.  This novel just didn't rise to that level.

I looked up this author before writing this post, and she has written many books and won numerous awards from gay literary organizations.  I suppose there is something to be said for reading Curious Wine as a primary source for the development of feminism and gay identified literature.  In that sense, it is very much like a museum exhibit-you'll learn something about the past, but in such a way that you can't really touch it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Second Glance, Or How to Fit Ghosts, Eugenics, Suicide, and Native American Civil Rights into One Book

Now, I'm all for complex story lines in books. When I'm in the mood for mental gymnastics, I pick up some epic fantasy novel or intricate period piece. I don't usually expect to work quite that hard on a book of popular fiction a la Oprah's book club. So imagine my surprise when I picked up a new-to-me Jodi Picoult book, Second Glance, and discovered a story that stretched both my suspension of disbelief and my ability to keep the facts straight almost to the breaking point.

Now, mind you, I like Jodi Picoult. I find her writing style engaging, and her characters fairly well-developed considering the kind of fiction that she writes. It's hard to have really nuanced characters when most of them are meant to stand in as archetypes for some segment or other of our society. I also appreciate that her books are usually about something, in that they examine various real-life issues in our society. You have the "should we allow people to have babies just to save their other children?" book, and the "what makes kids shoot up a school?" book. And who can forget the "atheist is converted by little girl who performs miracle" book? (OK, so I'm not quite as jazzed about that one, being an atheist myself and all, but you get my point.)

According to the book jacket, this book is about the power of family and love. Well, I suppose I can see that. The story revolves around a cast of characters in a small town in Vermont, who for one reason or another are drawn to try and solve a 70 year old murder. There is the suicidal Ross, who also happens to be a ghost-hunter, looking for the fiancee he lost in a tragic accident. There is his sister, Shelby, mother to a young boy with a rare genetic disease that will cause his early death. We meet Az Thompson, a 100 year old Native American with a secret past, and Meredith, a genetic researcher who helps couples eliminate genetic abnormalities from their unborn children. The real star of the show is Lia, who...well, if you decide to you'll just have to read about Lia yourself. All of these characters find themselves drawn together through familial or romantic love, and set the stage for one of the central questions of the book-if you love someone enough, will you follow them even into death?

I say one of the central questions, because this book poses many. What is the nature of faith? Can love outlast life? What are the moral and ethical ramifications of genetic manipulation? What does it mean to be haunted? Is suicide ever justified? Is there one soulmate for each of us? What does it mean to be "family? And not only do we examine these questions through some fairly splintered narrative, we also get treated to a history lesson on the eugenics movement in America in the 1920s and 1930s. While I was horrified by the things I learned, I didn't feel like I could give the topic the attention it deserved because too many of my brain cells were occupied trying to keep track of who was who, when they lived, how they were related to everyone else, and whether I could buy the whole ghost thing.

Despite all of this, I was invested enough in the story to see it through to the end, but whether that is because I was truly engaged or just stubborn is up for debate. I'm going to call this one a "read it if someone gives it to you for free and you don't have anything else to read" book.

Welcome to My World!

I have what some may consider a pathological love of books. I surround myself with books the way some people surround themselves with friends-in fact, there are times when I love my books more than I love some of my friends! I love the way they feel in your hand, the way they smell, the weight of them on your lap...for me reading is not just an intellectual but a sensual practice. Nothing is better than sitting in a cozy chair with a cup of coffee, soft music on the iPod, book in my lap, and another world on my mind. I like to say I measure my wealth not in money (which is good, since I don't have much money!) , but in the number of books I've read and owned.

I call it an addiction to the written word. And I am certainly not the only one with this affliction. Despite the best efforts of television and the internet to draw us away from books, last time I checked my local Borders was doing OK. I was trained up in my addiction by a long line of the previously addicted. Heck, my mother is my supplier-I get a box or two of my best product from her every time I see her. And I am proud of my addiction, something that can't be said for drug or porn addiction. Best of all, I can share my addiction and not feel like a creepy old man saying "Come here little girl and try some of this!"

So allow me to do for you what my mother and others did for me. Allow me to introduce you to the wonderful world of book addiction. How, you may ask? Well, the only thing I love almost as much as books is my own opinions, and this blog will be full of them. This blog will be all about the books I love, the books I can live with, and the books that should never have been allowed to see the inked side of a printing press. And despite my deep down gut feeling that I am always right, I know that people will disagree with me from time to time, and I hope that we can have lively discussion about those disagreements here as well.

Sit back, kick up your feet, grab your coffee, and let's take a hit of reading together, shall we?