Sunday, November 21, 2004

Speaking of Lesbian Fiction

This was something my friends in college would say whenever we wanted to change the subject. i.e.:

Friend A: Blah, blah, blah, have to write a paper, yucky weather, blah blah.
Friend B: Speaking of lesbian fiction, want to go into Philly this weekend?

Oh, we were so witty.

A few days ago Robin at The Other Mother asked for readers' favorite lesbian novels. I couldn't limit myself to just one, so I made a list. And I annotated it because I'm a lunatic. So here it is, divided into categories for easier perusing, but in no particular order except the last one:

Americans

Aquamarine, by Carol Anshaw
Three possible lives for one woman, all stemming from one fateful moment when she was eighteen. What I love about this is the "alternate selves" concept; who hasn't wondered about that ghost self who stayed in your hometown/lit out for the territories/didn't go out on that second date/took that job?

Cecile, by Ruthann Robson
Not really a novel, but a series of short stories about a woman, her partner, and their son, Colby, as they move from Florida to the Bay Area to New York. Wry, funny, dark, and bitter.

On Strike Against God, by Joanna Russ
I found this book by chance when I was in college and was hooked by its passion and rapier wit. Joanna Russ mostly writes science fiction, but this is a sharp, smart, and probably autobiographical coming-out story from the '70's lesbian-feminist era

the Cook and the Carpenter, by June Arnold
Another oldie but goodie, set on a lesbian-feminist commune. The characters fall in love, break up, create theater, fight racism, and try to take over a building. Quite moving about politics and the potential for change, but not doctrinaire. If you've ever been in any kind of collective or political group, there are scenes here that will make you laugh and cringe simultaneously. Extra bonus: gender-neutral pronouns used throughout (except at the end, deliberately). Long out of print, alas.

Alma Rose, by Edith Forbes
A thing of quiet beauty, like its heroine. Pat Lloyd is a loner in a small town in the West, whose life is changed when Alma the truck driver sweeps her off her feet. But this is not your standard girl-meets-girl romance; what Pat does after Alma leaves her transforms her, and her whole town, even more.

Brits

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
Sarah Waters started writing novels after finishing a graduate thesis on lesbian historical fiction, and she's got the genre down. This Wilkie-Collins-esque thriller has it all: love, lust, revenge, twisted family histories, insanity, and plot twists so convoluted that by the end I wasn't entirely sure what had happened, but I didn't care, it was so good.

Accomodation Offered, by Anna Livia
Anna Livia is the best writer you've never heard of. Really, she's brill [as they say in her native country]. She's written a ton of great books that are mostly next-to-impossible to find in the States. This one is my favorite, about three women sharing a London flat: one is an academic coming out of a bad breakup, one is a bus conductor who likes going to the laundromat, and one is from South Africa and is going crazy. Literally. Two of them hook up but I'm not telling you which ones.

The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson
For a while in the late '80's and early '90's this was the book to be seen reading in a cafe if you had pretensions to being a Young Literary Lesbian. (Um, maybe that was just me. And this woman I saw ostentatiously reading it at the Wildrose once.) Anyway, it's got gorgeous, lush writing, and a couple of love stories full of passion, betrayal, and regret. And Napoleon. And it's set in Venice. And it's a polemic against war as well as a love story. And it's short! Oh, just read it already.

The Dyke and the Dybbuk, by Ellen Galford
Rainbow Rosenbloom, London lesbian cinemaphile and taxi driver, meets Kokos, centuries-old demon of Jewish legend. With a setup like that, what's not to like?

Young Adult This is gonna have to be its own separate post someday. I have to sleep sometime, ya know.

Books I Like By People I Know

The Terrible Girls, by Rebecca Brown
I will quote from the back-cover blurbs because they're better than anything I could come up with: "haunting parables of betrayal and love"; "sharply, spookily written, fierce and intelligent"; "a powerful account of erotic love". Darker than most stuff I read but with occasional flashes of humor. NB: Rebecca Brown is a kickass writing teacher, too.

Love Like Gumbo, by Nancy Rawles
Grace Broussard is ready to fly from the nest, but is her sprawling, exasperating, idiosyncratic Los Angeles Creole family ready to let her? A rich stew that will make you hungry for gumbo.

The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories, by Alisa Surkis and Monica Nolan
This book cracks me up. It's not a novel at all, but a collection of short stories parodying various, um tropes [hey, ma, look! Fancy literary-analysis word!] of mainstream lesbian fiction, each set in a different era. There's one set in WWI, and a Depression one ("Oreola thought about the raisin that each of the children had found in their Christmas stockings this past year.."), and, my favorite, "The Chosen Horse," set among the immigrants of New York's Lower East Side (with an intelligent cart horse who saves the day). My friend Monica co-wrote it. She has always been this funny; it's a little scary.

Special Honorary Mention for a Book By a Guy

Random Acts of Senseless Violence, by Jack Womack
A dystopic look at the near future (as of 1993) through the eyes and diary of Lola Hart. At the outset Lola is a relatively happy 12-year-old girl who lives with her literary, professional, harried-but-loving parents and little sister on Manhattan's upper east side. By the end, her city and her world have deteriorated beyond recognition, and she's a feral street punk, stealing and running with a gang to keep herself and her mom alive. Oh, and she likes girls. This male author nails an adolescent girl's voice and perspective so uncannily that I was spooked. I especially love the way Lola's written language transforms as she loses her sheltered innocence.

My Very Favorite

Girls, Visions, and Everything, by Sarah Schulman
Sometimes you find a book that's a kind of literary touchstone for a period in your life. Girls, Visions, and Everything is like that for me. My oldest friend and I used to call each other up just to read pertinent chapters aloud. A lot of it is personal: Sarah Schulman captures the lurch and swell and roar of my favorite city in the world, during an era that I just missed. The heroine, Lila Futuransky, lives a version of life that I thought for a while I would have. (My real year or two in New York was quite different, of course.) In her mind, she's Sal Paradise in a lesbian On The Road, but her road is the city, with its old friends, new lovers, activist gardeners, junkie neighbors, crazy performance artists, and most of all, always, girls doing cheap theater for love.

Favorite quote from GV&E, and my motto for many years:
"When your heart is breaking, write it down. When a relationship ends, what do you have? You have nothing. But if you write it down, you have material. That's the best a girl can hope for in these troubled times."

4 Comments:

Blogger Robin said...

I've only read half of these so I have some catching up to do! I like serveral of these a lot--Aquamarine, The Passion, and Girls, Visions, and Everything. I read Aquamarine around the time I read The Sea of Light by Jenifer Levin. Have you read it before?

10:53 AM  
Blogger Udge said...

An interesting list, I'd only heard of Jeanette Winterson before (but then I'm not the target demographic :-) I'll have a look for "Aquamarine" when I'm on your side of the Atlantic over Christmas.

11:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Els, what a pleasure, I have to order them all through inter-library loan. Some of my favorites which didn't make your list:

Desert of the Heart(s?), Ann (Jane?) Rule, as a New Mexico girl I love her portrayal of the enormous loneliness of Nevada.

All the Barbara Wilson mysteries, especially the travel mysteries, most especially the one in Romania--Trouble in Transylvania. And the non-travel mysteries are set right in Seattle.

--Angela

5:54 PM  
Blogger westvillageidiot said...

Have you read "The Passion of Alice" by Stephanie Grant?

1:29 PM  

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