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.