Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What I Did On My Summer Vacation by Salem West

Photo by Couture Allure
Remember when you were young, and every fall, when you returned to school, one of your very first assignments was to write an essay on what you did over your summer vacation? 

As September approaches, you’ll notice that I have posted very few reviews on The Rainbow Reader over the last few months. The reason is simple, I took a short sabbatical from reading and reviewing lesbian literature to indulge in another passion of mine—that would be seeking out and reading books that feature strong narrative voices.

It was a nice counter-balance to the voices in my head…

A handful of the books I chose were rereads from my youth, and others were brand, spanking new to me. Some, but not all, fell under the somewhat ubiquitous umbrella of “southern literature,” which is a strange and wonderful cocktail of themes and metaphors built around concepts such as history, family, community, justice, religion, social class, and racial tension.

You know, the things peoples all over the world are STILL fighting wars over…

The rest of the books covered the spectrum from odd and uplifting to the seriously whackadoodle.

In almost all cases, the narrators were children or adults revisiting significant periods of their youth. Some were male and some were female. Some were gay and some were straight. Some had enviable childhoods, and others had their childhoods wrenched from them. A few of the narrators had distinct dialects and a few more spoke in the vernacular. All of them were Caucasian—I mention this last point simply because it just occurred to me.

The books I read covered a range of topics, and were written in myriad styles. But, the one thing they all had in common was that they were well written. The kind of well written that makes you stop when you to get to a particular passage and reread it—multiple times. The kind of well written that makes you fall in love all over again with words, syntax, semantics, and pesky pragmatics. They were the kind of well written that reminds once and for all why written words are powerful.

The bottom line is that I had a fantabulous time on my little journey, and my literary tank is pleasantly full to overflowing.

But, before I get back on that big horse that is The Rainbow Reader, I’ll share with you some of the highlights of my summer vacation. And, if you get a chance, drop a comment on this post to let me know what you read over your summer vacation.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The book I consider perhaps the most perfect story ever told. This Pulitzer prize-winning novel explores honor, justice, and coming-of-age in the days of virulent prejudice in America’s deep south. Narrated by the irrepressible Scout Finch, this novel is full of heart, humor, and history. If you’ve only seen the movie, I strongly recommend reading this book not only because there are significant variations between the two stories, but also because the storytelling is flawless. Ironically, not long after finishing this book for the umpteenth time, the race riots in Ferguson, Missouri took center stage in our collective consciousness—it was a big ol’ reminder that as much as things change, they surely do stay the same.

Best line: Scout Finch telling her Uncle Jack, “Pass the damn ham, please.”

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Putlizer prize-winning Author Elizabeth Strout explores desire, despair, jealousy, hope, life, death, and love through thirteen interrelated but discontinuous narratives that are focused around the terse and brazen Olive Kitteridge, a formidable seventh-grade math teacher in Crosby, Maine. Olive was a character who wasn’t always easy to like, but she was always as honest with herself and others as she could be. It is apt to say that the reader develops a begrudging respect and admiration for her. And, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I developed a deep and unexpected affection for Olive’s long-suffering and effervescently tragic husband, Henry. Great storytelling.

Best line: Olive sums up her philosophy of life when she declares “Hell. We’re always alone. Born alone. Die alone.”

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

Perhaps one of the best book titles, ever—and arguably as good as To Kill A Mockingbird. Set in Georgia, Cold Sassy Tree is about a post-Civil War family that is undergoing a rapid transformation. Told from fourteen-year-old Will Tweedy’s point of view, the story follows a family and a small town's reactions to the death of a beloved grandmother, and the quick remarriage of the widowed grandfather to the town’s presumed Jezebel, Ms. Love Simpson. Major themes include life and death, love and tolerance, and freedom and independence. This is one of those books where every sentence is better than the one before. As an aside, if you can find it, check out the made-for-TV movie staring Faye Dunaway as Ms. Love, and Neil Patrick Harris as Will Tweedy.

Best line: Grandpa Blakeslee says to young Will Tweedy while they look into Granny’s newly dug grave. “Livin’ is like pourin’ water out of a tumbler into a dang Coca-Cola bottle. If’n you skeered you cain’t do it.”

Driving With Dead People: A Memoir by Monica Holloway

Monica Holloway’s memoir is chockfull of the deep, dark, insightful, compelling, and oddly humorous. Death is a theme for young Monica, from the untimely death of a young girl who looks like her, through her father’s grisly fascination with filming demise and destruction, to her best friend's family running the town mortuary. This memoir chronicles Monica’s chronic bed-wetting and compulsive lying, bitter anger and abuse at the hands of her father, the physical and emotional abandonment of her mother, and the ultimate revelation of incest. If a book can be laugh-out-loud funny, depressing, triumphant, and heartbreaking all at the same time, this is the one.

Best Line: “I'd been right, even when I was in fourth grade and saw Sarah Keeler lying in her coffin: When you're dead, no one can hurt you.” Monica, watching as her best friend’s younger sister prepares a corpse for burial.

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burrows

Where do you even begin to summarize Running with Scissors? For starters, it is the deeply disturbing and true-life story (even though there is some argument) of a young boy who took survival to a whole new level. As a youngster, Augusten Burrows was smart, neat, and oddly grown-up. However, when his Anne Sexton wannabe mother with supposed psychotic delusions divorced her alcoholic husband, everything began to spiral out of control. Augusten was given to her oddball psychiatrist (who looks like Santa Claus) and his extended family. His once neat and orderly world is turned upside down. The family lives in what can only be described as modern Victorian squalor, and near-farcical events begin to shape Augusten’s new world order. Too numerous to mention, these events include one of the doctor’s daughters believing her dead cat is reanimated, Augusten and another daughter playing with an old electro-shock therapy machine, and the doctor openly masturbating to photos of Golda Meir. Things take a turn for the worse when a thirteen-year-old Augusten enters into a widely acknowledged relationship with the psychiatrist’s 33-year old adopted son. At times humorous and others harrowing, this memoir walks the fine line between nightmare, depravity, and grand entertainment.

Best line: Augusten coming to terms with his mother’s idiosyncrasies, “My mother began to go crazy. Not in a 'Let's paint the kitchen red!' sort of way. But crazy in a 'gas oven, toothpaste sandwich, I am God' sort of way.”

A Handbook For Visitors From Outer Space by Katherine Kramer

What can only be described as a Pynchonian novel, A Handbook for Visitors From Outer Space takes place in the late 1970s or early 1980s, and is most easily boiled down into the story of family relations, incest, and a royal family in exile. Grandparents, parents and children all form a complex pattern of emotional distress, betrayals of trust and distrust—and in the end, a quite conventional and oddly classic story built around a mysterious, unlocatable war and concluding with an epic battle on the New Jersey Turnpike. Telling several tangentially related stories, we follow young Cyrus Quince’s road to adulthood while stopping along the way to ponder his loves and disillusionments. Cyrus is on a grand quest to collect all kinds of unimportant information so as to prepare a thorough handbook for aliens visiting earth. The central theme is that not only can Cyrus not explain human life to aliens, he can’t really explain it to his friends, his family, or even to himself. It should be noted that this book has a fantastic narrative voice, but it was the only book on my summer reading list featuring multiple and continuous narratives.

Best line: Bib Block contemplating the mythical status of one special roadway, “Sooner or later, he believed, at one stage of the journey or another, all roads led to the New Jersey Turnpike.”

The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett

When the charming, handsome, and terribly famous magician Parsifal, dies unexpectedly, Sabine, his widow and faithful assistant for more than twenty years, discovers his life was built on smoke and mirrors. Sabine was fine with knowing she was desperately in love with a gay man, and she was fine with sharing her married life with Parsifal and his late lover Phan. What she wasn’t fine with was learning upon Parsifal's death that his real name was Guy Fetters, and that he had lied when he claimed to have no living relatives. Instead he had a mother and two sisters living in his small hometown of Alliance, Nebraska. Sabine was prepared to dislike his family, because they must have done something terrible to make him want to deny their existence. However, when the four women meet each other, their combined love for Parsifal helps Sabine to accept the shocking events of his youth that motivated him to wipe out his past. And, in finding herself becoming part of his family, she learns much about her own desires, responsibilities, and potential.

Best line: “Where we are born is the worst kind of crapshoot.” Sabine coming to terms with Parsifal’s deception.

Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King

Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady is a must read memoir by the irreverent Florence King. Raised in Northern Virginia and Washington, DC, Ms. King’s path in life was planned long before she was ever conceived. The trouble is that she was never good at following instructions. From the minute she was born to her baseball loving, curse word churning mother and her musician, bartender British father, Ms. King did her best to stymie her Grandmother’s valiant attempts at rearing her to be a Perfect Southern Lady. Oh, she learned plenty of lessons along the way, but the rub came in that she would carefully pick and choose which lessons to mind and which conventions to break. And she broke a lot of them. Repeatedly. This memoir is frank, honest, and absolutely hysterical. A must read, whether you know what it means to be a failed Southern Lady, or lucky to have ducked that particular punch.

Best line: Ms. King explaining how deeply some aspects of her training as a Southern Lady were engrained, "No matter which sex I went to bed with, I never smoked on the street."

Thursday, July 3, 2014

TRR Takes on Poetry with Carbinela and Kaminski

Without a doubt, poetry is one of the most mangled and misunderstood forms of written expression. Whether with great intent or lack of thought, we are taught from a young age that poetry is rhyme. But in truth, poetry is a complex jumble of imagery, syntax, diction, rhythm, sound, metaphor, and theme. Even with its signature compressed and condensed form, poetry manages to convey a wide range of emotions and ideas to each and every reader. The use of devices such as assonance and repetition even allow some poems to achieve a near musical cadence. Regardless of what is and isn’t in any given poem, the careful layering of some-to-all of these effects generates what effectively becomes that poem’s meaning.

Super! Great! Fantastic! 

But how does the average reader determine whether a poem is good, bad, or ugly? Heck, how does the above average reader determine whether a poem is strong and successful, or weak, clichéd, and broken? And perhaps most pressing of all, how does a twitchy little reviewer determine if a book of poems reaches near mythical levels of greatness, or plummets into the darkest depths of seriously major suckage?

That, my friends, is the hundred thousand dollar question . . . .

Book: Attar: A Bouquet for You
Author: Rrrose Carbinela
Publisher: Regal Crest Enterprises

Poet Rrrose Carbinela’s collection, Attar: A Bouquet for You takes the reader on a thirty-year journey through one woman’s life, full-to-brimming with ecstasy, agony, life, death, and a few fleeting moments of whimsy. The poems that form this collection each take on a different emotion, and tell stories that form a well-lived life. The reader is offered small bites of first love and heartbreak, thunderstorms and desert skies, rants and meditations, Goddesses and vulnerability. A few poems are sweet and sensuous, while others are dark and edgy—a small handful even trickle slowly into the murky waters of anger, fear, war, and the loss of one nation’s collective innocence.

From a technical perspective, Ms. Carbinela’s descriptions are active and original, showing far more than they tell. And, while there was an abundance of end rhyme throughout the collection, several of the poems used unexpected and interesting rhyme schemes and clever line breaks to great effect.  The simplicity of presentation in many of the poems is appealing because it allows the statements to speak for themselves. For example, in “Initiation” the author’s solemn vow is offered up to any higher power that will listen:

And I am ready, I think.
And I am able, I know,
with your help,
and your guidance,
and your blessings,
To follow the path you will lead me on,
to serve,
to heal,
to bring good to those around me.

Beyond the collection of poetry, two special elements stand out in Attar: A Bouquet for You: First, while not unique, the author includes “Poet’s Notes” after the final poem. These charming little explanations offer a peek inside the poet’s mind, and allow for further insight and understanding into the inspiration and inner workings of each poem. And, since poetry is not an exact science, it was interesting to read the notes, and then compare the backstory to the imagery presented within each poem.  And, second, while the cover design is quite lovely and apropos to the content, the publisher’s choice to go with a matte cover versus a glossy cover was truly inspired—the muted colors soften the brightness of the red roses, and the matte texture simulates the feel of rose petals, both giving the reader a surprising and enhanced sensory experience.

Some lovers of poetry are drawn to the saccharin of sonnets, and others to the edge of rhythmic despair, and this collection manages to cover most of the real estate in between—sometimes offering direct experience, sometimes not, drawing on love, life, loss, history, and myth, Attar: A Bouquet for You is clearly a product distilled from the author’s most essential emotions and experiences.

Zine: The Queer Quartets and Other Poems
Author: Helena Kaminski
Publisher: House Hippo Press

Canadian author Helena Kaminski is largely unknown to traditional readers of lesbian genre poetry. While she writes on a broad range of feminist matters, her works have been accepted by the Gay and Lesbian Review, Worldwide, and the Gramsci Monument, a public arts project in NYC. She has been published in The Paris Review, New Directions, and AGNI, and studied with renowned poet, Thom Gunn of The Movement.

The West End. Bitterly cold out.
Everyone stamping their so-called boots.

Clockwise, it’s the fag end of Saturday.
Counter-clockwise it’s Sunday.

All the clubbers are screaming something from the B side of
When the brain cannot quite manage words.

Three women (good guess they’re gay),
Are taking the air, and it’s taking them ages.
For every breath they take in, they need a breather.

It’s that cold.

And so begins “I” from her most recent release, The Queer Quartets and Other Poems, a chapbook-style zine of queer feminist poetry published by the upstart House Hippo Press. This edgy and erotic collection features the “Queer Quartets, I-V,” and three other poems.

Kaminski’s poetry is raw and passionate, full of rhythm, imagery, and metaphor. Her voice is not just active, but aggressive, and her poems feature variable sentence structures, lively line breaks, and original rhyme. For example, in “III”, she uses her poetic style to balance the edge with the erotic, the cool with the contentious, and the stark with the sensuous.

They might have shared some weed, a drink and dance,
Topped up with a no-frills fuck.

What they haven’t done is click.

Standing there nursing her full-fat coke, super-sober
Where everyone’s high, drunk and
Off-duty, Ms Tall’s on patrol.

The cheesy great strobe light
Parceling out its diffused used psychedelics
To every last inch of a dance-floor and
Stage that flit unafraid between retro and techno

Tonight they all work for Ms Tall, on the house.
Slave accessories helping her play

I am an enigma
You’ll never break

But, heh, you go ahead, try.

Feminist writers come in many sizes, shapes, and packages, and Ms. Kaminski’s cadence, funk, verve, and experimental style bring to mind Post-Beat writer Anne Waldman, whose technique highlights the intersection of poetry, performance, activism, and feminism. The Queer Quartets and Other Poems isn’t traditional lesbian genre poetry, but it tells a familiar tale in a way that is not just compelling but enticing. These poems are loaded with heavy rhythm, improvisation, free association, rich poetic phrases, clever word play, and their own special slang—they border on the aggressive and “in your face,” and they make you want just a little more. I appreciate the look, the sound, and the vibe of Helena Kaminski’s poetry, and if there is one complaint of the collection, it’s simply that it wasn’t longer.


William Carlos Williams of The Red Wheelbarrow fame once said, “But all art is sensual and poetry particularly so. It is directly, that is, of the senses, and since the senses do not exist without an object for their employment all art is necessarily objective. It doesn’t declaim or explain, it presents.”

I love two things about his statement: First, it proves that he was a better poet than he was a philosopher. And, second, that appreciation of poetry—all poetry—good, bad, or ugly, belongs only to the reader.

It’s true with any form of writing, but never more so than with poetry.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Forty Years On with Dykewomon and Jacobs

Patty Hearst makes
a withdrawl

The year was 1974, and the world was a wild and wonderful place.

Earth’s population hit 4 billion people, and Patty Hearst used an M-1 Carbine to make an unauthorized withdrawal from the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. News anchor, Christine Chubbock demonstrated, all too effectively, how to commit suicide in a live broadcast. The last Japanese World War II soldier surrendered on the Indonesian island of Morota, 34 years after joining the Imperial Japanese Army.

Nineteen seventy-four was the year that welcomed the bouncing baby glitterati of Ryan Seacrest, Xzibit, and Victoria Beckham, while saying goodbye to tried-and-true legends like Cass Elliott, Duke Ellington, Bud Costello, and Agnes Moorehead. In the wonderful world of literature, panelists, Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson scandalized the Nobel Foundation by jointly awarding themselves the prize for Johnson’s "narrative art, far-seeing in lands and ages, in the service of freedom" and Martinson’s "writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos".

Of course they did. Apparently hack authors like Shel Silverstein, Patricia Highsmith, Maya Angelou, Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut, Zig Zigler, Gabriel García Márquez, and Judy Blume had absolutely nothing insightful or compelling to tell.

Nineteen seventy-four was also the year that Elaine Noble became the first openly queer individual to be elected to a state legislature when she joined the Massachusetts House of Representatives. One month later, Allan Spear, future President of the Minnesota State Senate, revealed to the world that he was a proud gay man.

And in Southern Illinois, a twitchy little blogger-to-be rocked the bowl cut, practiced her cursive, learned her multiplication tables, and began a love affair for the ages when she discovered homonyms.

But 1974 was notable for one other very important milestone: an passionate young lesbian published the groundbreaking novel, Riverfinger Women.

Book:  Riverfinger Women
Author: Elana Dykewomon
Publisher: OpenRoads Media

In her debut, coming-of-age novel, Dykewomon presents Inez and her circle of friends—the Riverfinger Women—who are all struggling to find themselves amid the changing social mores of the Civil Rights era. Inez, who has known she was a lesbian since childhood, moves from the conservative confines of her boarding school to a Greenwich Village apartment populated by a host of moveable figures. It is in the Village that she encounters cascading new emotions—friendship, romance, longing, disappointment, and a sexual relationship, with schoolmate Abby. Along with their wide-open friend, Peggy, Inez and Abby begin a transition into womanhood, all the while confronting unexpected prejudices. As the story unfolds, the Riverfinger Women explore sexual violence, prostitution, drugs, love, and odd snippets of happiness during this unique time of personal and sexual discovery.

Many readers of contemporary lesbian literature tend to shy away from stories that make them work for a payoff. Opting instead for sexy romps between Barbie twins with impressive bank accounts, or high-adrenaline shootouts featuring tough and chewy butches with guns and the vulnerable hotties who love them. However, Riverfinger Women, penned by Dykewomon when she was only twenty-four years old, is both a feminist manifesto and hallmark of lesbian fiction. It manages to combine equal parts YA angst with cutting-edge exploratory fiction. It’s deep. It’s dark, It’s gritty. And, it’s a little bit salty. It starts out slowly, and builds into the powerful confession of a woman and a lesbian coming into her true self.

Riverfinger Women is a story that should be read by every lesbian “of a certain age,” because it deconstructs themes that have run through all of our lives. Dyekwomon’s women made the world what it is today, just as surely as she helped make us the women we can be today. But younger readers should read this novel, too. Specifically because it was written 40 years ago when life as a woman and as a lesbian were harder, when society was less tolerant, and when books like this were published in back rooms and mailed out in brown paper wrappers.

Forty-years ago, I was seven going on eight. I didn’t know what a lesbian was, but I’m pretty sure I was one. Elana Dykewomon, and a legion of strong, smart, and courageous women made sure that when I grew up, I could say “lesbian” without having to whisper, that I could marry the love of my life—legally, and that I could write a very public blog on the World Wide Web featuring books by, for, and about women just like us. We owe Elana and all of our foremothers the respect of reading the stories that helped change our world. This is our one, true birthright.

Book:  Time Fries! Aging Gracelessly in Rehoboth Beach
Author: Fay Jacobs
Publisher: A&M Books

Here’s one of the worst kept secrets of the Lesbiverse: I have a spouse-approved crush on Fay Jacobs. It’s true. When I grow up, I want to be Fay Jacobs. Until then, I’ll settle for being her Cabana girl. This is not an easy job. I have to be at the ready with a martini shaker, polarized Foster Grants, bleu cheese stuffed olives, and three different kinds of vodka—none of which I might add, are named “Popov.”

When I finally got to meet her in person a few months ago, I actually screamed like a teenage groupie at a Justin Bieber court hearing. I think I might have even jumped up and down, asked for an autograph, and thrown my bra at her. I can’t remember, what with all the swooning and giggling. Fay is a pro, though. She’s used to forty-something lesbians flinging black Wacoals in her path. Still, she had the good sense to be amused, sign an autograph, and get her picture taken with me before requesting a Temporary Restraining Order.

Our relationship is complicated, but it works for us.

Yes, I love me some Fay Jacobs.

I also love me some Time Fries! Aging Gracelessly in Rehoboth Beach. In this, her latest madcap memoir, Fay takes on technology, social media, catastrophic insurance, a passive-aggressive GPS, the repeal of DOMA, retirement, downsizing, and her very own Big, Fat Jewish Wedding.  Heck, she even cops to her own life-long, spouse-approved crush on the lovely and talented Angela Lansbury.

As with her three previous memoirs, Fay’s stories range from the warm, wise, and witty to the laugh-out-loud. Along the way, she reminds us how far we have come, but cautions at the distance yet to travel. As is her trademark, Ms. Jacobs approaches each essay with bracing honesty, homespun humor, and a hearty helping of self-deprecation. Her writing is crisp and clean, but her storytelling is epic.

While I might be a bit biased, it’s impossible to deny that Fay Jacobs is a national treasure. Time Fries! and its companions (As I Lay Frying, Fried & True, and For Frying Out Loud) really and truly should be read and savored. Fay’s stories are our stories—they’re just a little more zany, usually involve a marauding horde of Mini Schnauzers, and are served straight up in a martini glass.


As a reviewer, I have been writing about lesbian literature for three-and-a-half years. Until now, I’ve had one simple, ironclad rule: with so many established and emerging authors, I will only review each author once. This rule has served me well. But every now and then I long to revisit an author because the writing is something special, or because the work contains something that I want to put on the collective radar of the lesbian reading community. With this blog entry featuring Elana Dykewomon and Fay Jacobs, I’m breaking my own rule, and writing for a second time about two of our community’s greatest riches.

I chose Dykewomon’s coming-of-age Riverfinger Women because it has been re-released as an e-Book on its 40th anniversary. Dykewomon, a Jewish lesbian activist, is a trailblazer in lesbian literature who fiercely navigates an unkind world through her essays, poetry and fiction—all the while giving women and lesbians a strong voice and positive imagery. However, the general lesbian reading community tends to see Dykewomon more as a feminist who writes about lesbians, rather than as a lesbian who writes about women. The simple truth is that her voice is poetry, her message is positive, and she helped change how we read lesbian fiction today.

Besides my spouse-approved crush on Fay Jacobs, I chose Time Fries! because it captures brilliantly the profanity of the everyday world through the eyes of a mature woman. Jacobs, another Jewish lesbian activist, is likewise a trailblazer in lesbian literature who has flung open the doors to her life, teaching us lessons about faith, trust, love, survival, and dignity. She’s not just smart and funny, but passionate, sincere, and wide-open. She’s the premier storyteller of our writing community. Through her stories, everyone—male and female, and gay and straight—learn how provocative our everyday lives truly are.

Two books and two authors who span a writing generation.

Dykewomon, writing as a 24-year old, gave us a deep, dark, moody coming-of-age novel with a happy ending.

Jacobs writing as a 65-year old takes us on a celebration of life, and all that we hold holy: family, friends, community, the right to marry, and gay-friendly martini bars.

And the world is a very different place.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Last Salute by Tracey Richardson




Book: Last Salute
Author: Tracey Richardson
Publisher: Bella Books

Viet Nam Soldiers Returning Home
by Larry Burrows
Sometimes you read a book that is set in the present but it throws you back into your past. Tracey Richardson’s Last Salute, a story that is centered on the death of a doctor in Afghanistan, made me return to the day I learned a co-worker had lost her fiancé in the Viet Nam war. It also brought back memories of the burial of a friend, a recipient of the Silver Star during the Viet Nam War, in Arlington a few years ago.

Most striking about Last Salute is the way that both communities and the military treat the combatants of today, as opposed to the way combatants of that war some forty years ago were treated. The interactions of Army personnel and civilians in this book would not have happened quite the same way four decades ago, and the actions of the community that mourned and paid respect to their military dead would not have happened either. As hard as any death at any time is to comprehend and accept, in many ways Ms. Richardson has shown those of us who remember times past that things do indeed get better.

In Last Salute, Tracey Richardson shows us the devastation that the loss of Laura Wright, a doctor with the rank of Major serving in Afghanistan, has upon her younger sister and the girl she left behind when she went off to medical school and then joined the Army.

Dr. Pamela Wright is the younger sister who is left without her hero and her only family when Laura is killed. Already questioning her specialty in emergency medicine, and her place in a Chicago ER, Pamela is left adrift by the news of her siblings’s death. Pamela does manage to make one very important decision when she chooses to have services for Laura in their hometown of Ann Arbor. It is a decision that will alter her own future.

Trish Tomlinson, a teacher who never left her hometown of Ann Arbor, hears of Laura’s death and is shaken to her core as well. Laura was her first love, the girl she never quite got over. When Laura chose the Army over a life they could have shared, Trish was terribly hurt and was left in an emotional limbo. She had long since given up on the hope of Laura returning to her, but Laura’s death brings a finality that she has she was wholly unprepared for.

Reunited at the funeral parlor, Trish and Pamela cling to each other. They provide emotional support for each other, as well as that literal shoulder to cry on. Pam is reminded that Trish is the first big crush of her life, as well as the woman her sister was too foolish to stay with. Trish comes to see that Pam is more than Laura’s little sister, and has grown into a smart, talented, and attractive woman.

In the process of burying their shared loved one, the two women come to grips with the past and begin to search for a future where Laura exists only in the past as memory. That path is not an easy one, and leads the two women to take a trip into the war zone where Laura died. What they see and learn there gives each woman the closure needed to move forward.

Tracey Richardson has done a wonderful job of depicting the emotional turmoil of unfair loss, as well as the survivor guilt these two women struggle with as they gather the threads of their lives, and move on to a future without the woman who meant so much to both of them. While not all of us have felt the firsthand loss that war inflicts, we have all suffered the loss of someone we hold dear.  The emotions and events depicted in the book ring true, and make the reader stop and revisit old feelings of loss, anger, and sorrow.

Last Salute is a marvelous story that gives readers an insight into so many of the men and women who serve in our all volunteer armed forces, as well as a view into the emotions of family and friends when a loved one is wounded or killed in action.  As a reader, I liked the way the story provided a glimpse into how the comrades of the fallen are given a chance to honor and mourn, and I was even happier to see how the military has become solicitous of the families of those who are lost. 

For those of us who remember Viet Nam, it is affirming to know that those who serve our country today are treated with greater respect and dignity than their parents and grandparents were years ago.

Tracey Richardson
The romance in the story works so well because the author takes the time to let it grow. These women are dealing with both personal and professional issues when they come together to mourn. They come to terms with not only their loss, but their burgeoning feelings towards each other a bit reluctantly, yet in a way that is natural and believable. One of the things I liked most about this book was the way Ms. Richardson allowed the feelings and the emotions between Trish and Pamela to build organically.   
If you’re looking for a romance that takes its time, allows you to get to know the women involved, and gives you a chance to understand the emotions and the events that drive them, then I highly recommend Last Salute. Tracey Richardson has done a wonderful job telling this story, and showing us that once in a while our past may hold a path to our future.  Last Salute is a finalist in the Lesbian Romance category for the Lambda Literary Foundation’s 26th annual awards.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Paths of Marriage by Mala Kumar

Book: The Paths of Marriage
Author: Mala Kumar
Publisher: Bedazzled Ink Publishing

On a late August afternoon in 1984, my corn-fed parents packed up the Delta 88 with all my worldly possessions, and deposited my twitchy little butt into Room 718 of Lawson Hall on the campus of Eastern Illinois University.

American manufacturing at its finest
By-the-by, Oldsmobile’s official tagline for the Delta 88 was, “A nice surprise for families who didn’t think they could afford a car.” Really.

For the most part, it was the first time I’d really left the farm.

For anywhere.


My first-year roommate was a born-again, bible-thumping biology major, I had no clue why Wednesday was “Prince Spaghetti Day,” and I rocked the big glasses and home perm. I was a hayseed. An outsider. A freak. I had a South Midland accent that clashed horribly with Chicago’s Northern-City-Vowel-Shift. I had no clue why the dining hall always served fish on Friday, and the only Polish phrase I knew was “Warsaw Falcon,” a spurious brand of kosher pickles stocked in the local IGA.

To say college was a culture shock, is a bit like saying “Black Death cast rather a gloom over the 14th Century.”

But, over the course of that first year, things started to sort themselves out. I met a great gal from Northbrook, who was a fellow outsider and freak. The only difference was that “outsider” and “freak” were badges of honor for her. She was deceptively smart and well read, and her sense of humor could sharpen a shillelagh at forty paces. She took me under her wing, introduced me to REM, and spent more nights than I can remember sitting under the stars with me, talking about life and everything in between.

My glasses eventually got better, but I would endure another decade of increasingly bad hair don’t’s before I finally learned to quit loving the box perm, and get a real hairstylist.

It’s a nice story, I know.

But, as hard as it was for me, I had it easy…by far.

Imagine what it would feel like being that 17-year-old girl, and encountering a cultural chasm where your religion, cuisine, family and gender roles, celebrations, marriages, music, clothing, language, and societal hierarchy—all or in large part—were outside of the excepted norm.

Yeah, kind of daunting, right?

In Mala Kumar’s debut novel, The Paths of Marriage, three generations of Indian/ Indian-American women wage battles against discrimination from within themselves, the outside world, and each other. Lakshmi was born Shudra in the South India city of Chennai. A smart girl, her parents made every sacrifice to see that she would live a better life than they had. Lakshmi faced brutal discrimination from a society that did not value her place in the world, her sex, or her lack of wealth. After the murder of her father, and the suicide of her best friend, the reeling Lakshmi meets Shankar, a kind-hearted young man who is intent upon marrying for love and not for tradition. After a whirlwind romance, the young couple immigrates to the United States, where Shankar takes a job as a doctor. They struggle to learn the ways of their new world, finding success, joy, heartbreak, and discrimination, before eventually settling in a small town in West Virginia to raise their two daughters.

Pooja, their oldest daughter, grows up an outsider in her West Virginia town, and learns upon high school graduation that she is destined for an arranged marriage. While not happy with her parents’ decision, she reluctantly tries to rise to the expectations set for her. After marrying Anand, who takes a residency position in Orlando, Pooja gets an opportunity to follow her dream of studying architecture. But soon Anand must take another position in New Orleans, and Pooja’s dreams are uprooted. Eventually, she enrolls in a new architectural program, and life rights itself again. That is, until she finds herself falling in love with one of her professors, and drifting away from her husband. To make matters worse, the object of her affection is proudly gay, and has no interest in her other than as a friend. Newly single, broken-hearted, and pregnant, Pooja walks away from her academic dreams, and embarks upon a journey to give her daughter the life she never had.

Deepa, is a third generation Indian-American, and a lesbian. Living in New York City, she is out and proud. However, with her mother and grandmother, she remains firmly in the closet—understanding that her grandmother lived a hard life, and that her mother made many sacrifices for her. After meeting the woman who could be the love of her life, she struggles to understand what it means to love someone enough to risk losing everything. Deepa’s eventual coming out is complicated by the circumstances of being a gay minority woman, and it splits the seams of her family wide open. Each woman must then find a way to use her own set of experiences to form empathy for the others.

For the Indian-American community, The Paths of Marriage is a one-of-a-kind story, and its themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in literary works of many cultures.

Chief among them is the challenge of cultural translation—the various narrators (Lakshmi, Pooja, and Deepa) meditate on their inability to translate concepts and sentiments from one culture to another—Indian to American, Privileged to Peasant, First Generation to Second Generation to Third Generation, Straight to Gay. The barriers that exist between the mothers and the daughters are often due to their inability to communicate with one another, sometimes through language, sometimes through life experience, and sometimes through cultural establishment.

The second is the power of storytelling—because the barriers between the Indian and the American cultures are exacerbated by imperfect translation of language and experience: the mothers use storytelling to circumvent these barriers and communicate with their daughters. The stories they tell often warn against certain mistakes, or give advice based on past successes. In effect, storytelling is used to communicate not just life’s lessons-learned, but also to illumine the basis for decision-making and steadfast belief. The problems arise when each of the characters has heard the others’ stories so often that they quit listening, and lose the importance of the message.

The third is the issue of immigrant identity. At some point in Ms. Kumar’s story, each of the major characters expresses anxiety over her inability to reconcile her Indian heritage with her American surroundings. While the daughters in the novel are genetically Indian, they also identify with, and feel at home in, modern American culture. Still, as the novel progresses, the daughters plan a special trip to visit both Paris and the Taj Mahal—showing, perhaps, that they are amalgams of their unique tastes, habits, hopes, and ambitions more so than creatures of their genetic sequences.

And finally, the characters use their own sets of experiences to form empathy toward others. Lakshmi survives a brutal youth. Pooja gives up her dreams to fulfill the dreams of her parents. And Deepa embraces life as a lesbian. Each woman becomes so focused on her personal demons, that she fails to understand and accept the messages she is hearing from the others. As each woman finds herself poised on a precipice of nothingness, she must choose either to change her trajectory, or to step forward. These acts of personal sacrifice speak to the power of the mother-daughter-granddaughter bond—despite being weakened and tested by cultural, linguistic, and generational gulfs. The sacrifices these women make prove that the bonds they share will not be destroyed.  

Mala Kumar
The Paths of Marriage is a richly textured story full of bountiful detail, well-defined characters, and unexpected cultural and social insight. It expresses a rare fidelity and beauty, while having the heart to show both the dark underbelly of Indian and American cultures, as well as the bright lights they share. Ms. Kumar speaks to the ongoing struggle to control our own destinies, the blight of sexism on both historical and contemporary cultures, and the bonds that strengthen when you are willing to sacrifice for love.

In the hands of a less passionate writer, such thematic material might easily have become didactic, and the characters might have seemed like paper doll cutouts from a Bollywood knockoff of The Joy Luck Club. But in the hands of Mala Kumar, who has a wonderful eye for detail, an ear for dialogue, a soul-deep empathy for her subject matter, and a gently colloquial style of writing, they form the beautiful and compelling story we’ve waited a long time to read. The Paths of Marriage is a must read, not just for members of the Indian-American community, but for lesbians, feminists, and women of all sizes, shapes, colors, and beliefs.

The Paths of Marriage is scheduled for an October 1, 2014 release date.