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."