Monday, April 30, 2012

The Sea of Light by Jenifer Levin


Shining A Spotlight On Amazing Books From The Last Few Years

With Special Guest Reviewer, KATE CHRISTIE, author of SOLSTICE, LEAVING L.A., BEAUTIFUL GAME, and her newest title, GAY PRIDE & PREJUDICE

Book:  The Sea of Light
Author:  Jenifer Levin
Publisher:  Plume Books

Like many readers, I have on my “favorites” bookshelf a few books—very few—that I re-read once or twice a decade. Virginia Woolf’s collected essays reside there, alongside Zora Neale Hurston’s work, most of Austen’s novels, and, perhaps a bit incongruously, the Harry Potter series. Woolf I read for language and intelligence; Hurston for history and truth; Austen for wit and consummately-drawn characters; and J.K. Rowling for skilled storytelling that has moved a generation of children—and their parents—to eagerly await and devour multiple 700-page tomes.

After a long hiatus,
Jenifer Levin returns
with this Kindle Short
One of the lesbian fiction titles on my re-read shelf is Jenifer Levin’s 1993 novel, The Sea of Light, published by Plume Books the year I graduated from college. I have long considered The Sea of Light among my favorite novels, and was excited when, after many years away from writing, Levin recently released a an essay called Night of a Thousand Jeters that ruminates on race, parenting, the growing gap in America between the rich and the poor, September 11, and, yes, Derek Jeter. I downloaded the essay a few weeks ago and read it in one sitting, so when Salem offered me a guest blog spot on The Rainbow Reader featuring a look at an older book, Levin’s novel sprang to mind.

In The Sea of Light, Levin introduces her readers to Bren Allen, a Division II swimming coach at fictional Northern Massachusetts State (NMS) who has recently lost Kay, her lover of many years, to cancer; Mildred “Babe” Delgado, a former highly ranked collegiate swimmer who has lost all of her teammates, her boyfriend, her best friend, and a good deal of her physical and emotional health to a plane crash that she survived by staying afloat in the storm-tossed Sargasso Sea for fifty-one hours before being rescued; and Ellie Marks, senior captain of the NMS swim team, whose parents are Holocaust survivors who each lost spouses and children in the camps, and have passed on their vast sorrow and vigilant grief to her, their only child conceived long after the war in what Ellie refers to as an “act of love, or need, that produced me thoughtlessly—someone, anyone.”

Yet Ellie isn’t just anyone: She is the swimmer who has never won a big race; the lesbian who has never been in love; the daughter who is afraid she will lose her parents if she tells them what is really in her heart. And, ultimately, she is the central protagonist of this multi-faceted tale, the one who connects with both Bren, her coach, and Babe, a recent transfer onto the NMS swim team, playing witness to their stories as well as to her own.

At the book’s opening, the reader joins these characters (among others) in the aftermath of loss, and follows them through nearly a year as each works to recover her health, her sense of self, and her ability to love and feel joy.  Levin is not interested in the before of her characters’ lives, and reveals scenes from the past stingily in seldom-offered flashbacks. Instead, she keeps us grounded in her story’s present as her characters seek to move forward and make a fulfilling after, exploring at different points the power of fear, the intimacy of death, and the ability of love to heal and transform if not the body, then, at least, maybe, perhaps, the soul.

Babe, Bren, and Ellie aren’t the only characters who populate the novel. Levin offers the occasional chapter from the point-of-view of Chick, Bren’s somewhat preachy therapist best friend; Jack, Babe’s sixteen-year-old brother; Felipe (Phil), Babe’s father who fled Castro’s Cuba with his extended family and built a comfortable, secure life in his adopted country; and Tia Corazon, Babe’s Cuban refugee aunt in Miami, a self-professed witch with magical, curative powers. This varied cast of characters joins the story mainly to reveal additional facets of Bren and Babe; but only Ellie speaks for Ellie. She has no reflective friend or relative to tell us her secrets. In fact, her best friend, Danny, a childhood friend who has also ended up at NMS, is absent for much of the novel after the two argue intensely midway through the swimming season. For Bren and Babe, though, there are plenty of opportunities for ah-ha reader moments, given the plethora of lenses directed their way.

For the most part, Levin employs her chosen first person, present tense narrative to advantage. Her lyrical language allows her to largely avoid the most oft-cited pitfall of first person point-of-view—the tendency to directly tell the reader information, rather than show through dialogue or description—while present tense evokes the steady flow of time that none of her characters can escape, control, or alter, even as each seems to wish she could. That is the challenge Levin has set for the women of her story: to move beyond tragedy, to get on with living in the after, to seek not only to be loved but also to love. Healing is possible for Levin's characters only through acceptance and love: acceptance of fear in its many forms, of the past as it is; and love not only for the ones who have been lost, but for those who remain, be they new lovers, parents, siblings, or children.

Another central theme of the novel, possibly even the overarching theme, one could argue, is the metaphor athletic competition offers for life. The three central characters in the book are competitive swimmers, though only Babe has ever been considered “successful” in traditional terms. There is an apology of sorts from the other two for being merely hard workers, not truly talented. But it is their very willingness to work hard that sets them apart, Levin tells us on more than one occasion.

As someone who played a team sport for many years (soccer, the beautiful game), I am always interested in and slightly put off by Levin’s theories on sport. In soccer, you’re a member of a team, even as the goalkeeper. No win is ever yours alone, and you don’t train for months or years beside a teammate you eventually may have to try to defeat. But that is exactly the world of competitive swimming, a world that features individual winners and losers and those who see themselves as a product of their own abilities—or failures. Soccer players are, for the most part, saved from that level of pressure and scrutiny. Every time we step out on the field, we have ten teammates there with us to rely on, to support, to be supported by. Team sports and individual sports are very different endeavors.

But that, again, is one of the reasons I admire The Sea of Light—because it is different, and bold, and masterful, and offers me characters who feel almost foreign in surface ways, and yet who become instantly knowable and altogether unforgettable over the course of Levin’s beautifully written tale.

The Sea of Light is one of my old favorites, so I have to give it a 5.6 out of 6.0 on the Rainbow Scale. I would be curious to hear what rating Salem would give the book—turns out it’s an old favorite of hers, too. But as our blog hostess would likely tell you, if you are in the mood for a warm and fuzzy lesbian love story, Jenifer Levin’s Sea of Light probably isn’t the book for you. However, if you’re looking for a deeply inquiring and often enthralling exploration of sport, love, tragedy, and recovery, as experienced by a diverse cast of characters, then this is a book you just might want to read.

Blog Hostess Note:  Salem concur's with Kate's analysis, and is giddy that she stopped by TRR to share this mutual favorite.  After the blogger finishes her happy hostess dance, she's going to get busy reading and writing a review of In One Person by American novelist, John Irving.  This controversial book addresses a wide array of queer issues, including lesbianism, bisexuality, transsexualism, age, incest, and cross-dressing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sarah, Son of God by Justine Saracen

Book:  Sarah, Son of God
Author:  Justine Saracen
Publisher:  Bold Strokes Books

My father, Jimmie Wayne, passed away in 2005. 

In many ways, he was a simple man, driven by faith and a desire to do good deeds.  He was an Elder in the church, a schoolteacher, and a guidance counselor.  He delivered Meals on Wheels, served most of his adult life on the Board of County Commissioners, and worked until his final day to bring clean, running water to the rural farms and homesteads of the only place he ever lived.  He raised his children to be open-minded, and instilled an impressive work ethic through example.  He loved to eat, laugh, and tell stories.  More than anything, he loved to share lessons-learned­.

And talk.   Oh, how the man loved to talk…

I’m sure one of the hardest conversations he ever had was when he was forced to explain to his twelve year old daughter that despite her numerous trophies and impressive scores in Punt, Pass and Kick competitions, she wasn’t allowed to play football with the boys in high school, and she wasn’t ever going to play Linebacker for Notre Dame.

And, if I may be so bold, the Fighting Irish haven’t been the same since they lost out on my considerable linebacking services.

I bring this up because there remain few sacred places outside of sports and the more orthodox of religions where gender outweighs capability or capacity.   On April 5th, I posted a review of The Way by Kristen Wolf, which reimagined the life and death of Jesus through a cross-dressing young woman trained by a mystical and secret society of women hiding in the desert to follow the teachings and share the healing abilities of their ancient Mother Earth based sisterhood.  The Way is daring and compelling, and explores the fractured themes of transformation, betrayal, love, loss, deception, and redemption.

And as soon as I finished it, I knew I had to pull Justine Saracen’s Sarah, Son of God off the shelf and look at the similar yet different theme of lesbians, gender, and religion.

Sarah, Son of God tells the story of Renaissance historian, Joanna Valois and her transgendered translator, Sara Falier, as they travel to Venice to learn the story behind an intriguing set of letters written by Lenora, who escaped the Inquisition after publishing a heretical book brought to her by a Jew from Constantinople.  As the two read through the letters together, they learn that the author of the letters escaped by ship, dressed as a man, and was sailing to England to be reunited with her female lover.  The letters soon lead Joanna and Sara on a unexpected and convoluted quest for information that puts both their lives in danger and sends them on a daring journey as they seek to uncover and expose the truth behind the heretical book that cost so many lives.

Sarah, Son of God is a story within a story within a story—a literary matryoshka doll.  The pursuit of the story behind Lenora’s letters sends Joanna and Sara on a crusade that leads them to the heretical book and the truth within it.  The reader is transported from New York to Venice to Munich to Jerusalem, and through the use of letters, the reader is allowed to see and feel and experience everything Lenora and Sarah do.  Ms. Saracen manages to provide the reader with not only a romantic and picturesque view of Venice, but also with the stench of infected wounds and the sounds of brutal torture.

Through Sarah, Son of God, Ms. Saracen has delivered four complex and fully satisfying characters.  Joanna is a lesbian, somewhat butch and with a jaunty Fedora; Lenora wishes to marry her female lover and wonders if she will like her as a “man,” Sara is transgendered and unsure of whether she is a transsexual or a transvestite, and Sarah dresses as a man because she wants to and ultimately needs to.  Gender and sexuality, for all four, quietly shape the overall story and lend a welcome credence to the translated codex, and the ultimate sacrifices of Sarah.

And, in case you’re wandering, Sara and Sarah are two different characters with more than a few similarities across the centuries.

Sarah, Son of God can lightly be described as the “The Lesbian’s Da Vinci Code” because of the somewhat common themes.  At its roots, it’s part mystery and part thriller.  The reader will find a romance, bad guys with deep connections, and an academician uncovering a two-thousand-year old cover-up that will surely blow the lid off the very concept of Christianity.  However, Ms. Saracen’s story is involving, intriguing and constantly seems on the edge of startling revelations––not so much related to religious truths as it is related to sexual dynamics and fluidity throughout history.

Sarah, Son of God is an engaging and exciting story about searching for the truth within each of us.  Ms. Saracen considers the sacrifices of those who came before us, challenges us to open ourselves to a different reality than what we’ve been told we can have, and reminds us to be true to ourselves.  Her prose and pacing rhythmically rise and fall like the tides in Venice; and her reimagined life and death of Jesus allows thoughtful readers to consider “what if?”

Much like my statement at the conclusion of the review for Kristen Wolf’s The Way:  If you are a bible purist or looking for a warm and fuzzy lesbian love story, Justine Saracen’s Sarah, Son of God isn’t the book for you.  However, if you’re looking for a well-written, thought provoking, interesting read that is sure to liven up a few water-cooler conversations at work, then this is a book you will assuredly want to read. 

I’m giving Sarah, Son of God a 5.0 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Way by Kristen Wolf

Book:  The Way
Author:  Kristen Wolf
Publisher:  Crown Publishing

I was born in a small, dusty hamlet where people’s cars typically cost more than their homes, where the first day of hunting season is an official school holiday, and where the only road that runs through town is named Church Street.  It’s the kind of place where “Junior” is a given name, not a nickname, and where they still print the Senior Citizen Center menu in the newspaper every week.  On any given day, if you walk into the Stop-N-Shop to do your trading, you’ll likely meet any one of several Wandas, Almas, Delberts, or Elberns; and when someone makes a 911 call, the volunteer first responders are just as likely to show up on a tractor as they are in a fire truck.

It’s the kind of place where people firmly believe that in addition to faith and works, you have to bring a covered dish if you expect to get into heaven.

Gender roles are, for the most part, fairly well and “traditionally” defined––men fill the roles of electrician, plumber, truck driver, and carpenter, while women perform the duties of secretary, cook, caregiver, and maid.  Within the structure of the local churches, men are Elders, Deacons, and Ministers while women play the piano, teach Vacation Bible School, and make coffee and cookies for the Wednesday night prayer meetings.

Curiously, though, one of the places the lines of gender become blurred most often is on the farm, where it’s not uncommon to see women driving tractors in the fields or loading bales of hay onto wagons during the hot, dry summers. 

Though my parent’s personal and political beliefs list wildly towards the conservative right, they somehow had the vision and wherewithal to instill the ethic of reciprocity within their children.  And, whether they know it or not, they taught their children to be liberals, free thinkers, and twitchy little dykes.

Well, the twitchy part more so than the dyke part, which really only relates to me.

So, while philosophers such as Kant and Nietzsche argued that it is impossible to presume to know how others want to be treated, I submit that it’s not impossible to presume that people want to be valued, respected, and treated equitably, regardless of racial group, religion, sexual orientation, disability, class, ethnicity, nationality, age, sex, gender identity, social status or political affiliation.

Pfft!  Take that John Tanner!

The Way by debut author Kristen Wolf tells the story of Anna, daughter of a carpenter from Nazareth named Yoseph and his wife Mari.  Local heretic, Zahara is asked by Mari to assist in the birth of her child, but Zahara is unable to save the baby. A distraught Yoseph blames Zahara for the death of his son, and rallies the townsmen to stone her to death, claiming she is a tool of the devil. Yoseph’s life is destroyed by the death of his beloved son, Jesus; and Mari is unable to physically or emotionally recover from the traumatic childbirth and dies.  Angered by the very thought of his androgynous daughter, Yoseph dresses Anna as a young boy and sells him to a group of shepherds, led by Solomon and his impetuous cousin, Judas.

In order to protect her identity as a boy, Anna takes on the name of her stillborn brother, Jesus, and befriends Peter, another young shepherd.  A woman violated Peter before he was sold to the shepherds, and he harbors a sharp hatred towards all women.  As the two young shepherds become teens, their friendship deepens and Peter becomes confused by his feelings toward Jesus.  While crossing the desert, Solomon, who knows the secret Jesus harbors, senses it is time and sends him off on a mission to bring food and water back to the other shepherds. 

While wandering through the desert, Jesus is injured and wakes up in a cave, surrounded by hooded figures.  While healing, the secret Jesus hides is uncovered, and Anna learns of the Sisters, a sect of religious women who worship the Mother and uphold the ancient earth-centric religion simply called "The Way".   Anna becomes a shepherd for the Sisters, and slowly begins to learn the tenets of The Way, and why the people who believe in a male-based God seek to destroy them. 

While leaving her guard post to show Sister Tabitha a silly little lizard, the Sisters’ enclave is attacked.  Anna, Sister Tabitha, and Sister Ruth run for their lives, but find that three unescorted women in ancient Palestine in 33 A.D. are not welcome.  Once again, Anna becomes Jesus, and much to everyone’s surprise, is able to begin healing the masses and spreading the philosophies of The Way as a man.  Old friends return, secrets are discovered, love begins to blossom, treachery and betrayals ensue, and lives are forever changed as Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Peter, Judas, and the Sisters make their way to Nazareth.

If you read The Rainbow Reader on a regular basis, you know that I rarely review works published by mainstream publishers, and never review anything Oprah Magazine calls a “Title To Pick Up Now.” 

Well, never, until now.

The Way doesn’t fall into the traditional definition of “Lesbian Fiction”, which I loosely define as “by, for or about lesbians.”  But it is such a compelling story, and one that is chock full of queer symbolism, and frighteningly relevant to the political debauchery of our current world that it needs to make its way to the reading lists of women and lesbians everywhere. 

In terms of the queer symbolism, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Peter has a sexual attraction to Jesus.  Likewise, it’s hard to deny that Jesus and Mary Magdalene appear ready to embark upon a physical journey together.  Similarly, while Anna is living with the Sisters, she notices their sensuality and intimacy, and finds herself having thoughts of the lushness of the female body.  In contrast, it can be argued that Anna, being androgynous, feeling comfortable in the skin of Jesus, and believing that “women possess a gracefulness in their being that I do not”, could be considered transgendered.

As for the relevance to the political debauchery of our current world, it occurs to me that the theme of the subjugation of women in The Way is painfully ironic in terms of the current attacks on women’s rights.  As a young girl and as a woman, Anna is forced to hide her face, is seen as worthless, and is considered ‘damaged’ if she is unescorted by a man.  However, as a man she is free to have thoughts, opinions, and make decisions. 

As a man, Jesus has value.  Yet as a woman, Anna has value only as chattel. 

One doesn’t have to work too hard to see the similarities between the current war on women–the Catholic Church equating contraception to abortion, the attempts to require trans-vaginal ultrasound prior to having a legal abortion, and companies, institutions or health care providers denying contraception based on “moral conscience”–and the long list of inequalities, inequities, and humiliations suffered by Anna and all women in 7 A.D.

The Way is a bold and powerful story of self-empowerment and faith in things greater than our limited lives.  Ms. Wolf considers the imprint and role of nature in our lives, challenges the reader to focus inward to acknowledge our true self, and reminds us to never stop asking questions when we are presented with thoughts and ideas that run counter to logic and reason.  Her prose is sensual, at times lyrical; and her daring retelling of the life of Jesus forces us to widen our perspectives of our place in this world.

If you are a bible purist or looking for a warm and fuzzy lesbian love story, Kristen Wolf’s The Way isn’t the book for you.  However, if you’re willing to dive head first into a thought provoking read that is sure to make its way into your conversations and contemplations for weeks to come, it is a must read.  I’m giving this amazing and audacious book a 5.6 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.

Kristen Wolf has generously provided TRR a copy of the trailer: