by Jean Roberta
Where to start? My to-be-reviewed pile of books grew higher during the past semester, when I had to grade more and longer student assignments than ever before (partly because of the new rules of the committee that vets course outlines). I managed to read several review books on the bus to and from the university where I teach.
I recently sent my review of Coal to Diamonds, a biography of punk-rocker Beth Ditto, to The Gay and Lesbian Review. Apparently this book was written “with Michelle Tea,” a current chronicler of the urban lesbian working class. The book itself is marvellously clear and outspoken about the culture of Arkansas, where Ditto grew up (and where the abuse of women is described as both rampant and invisible as abuse), but the two names on the cover are confusing. Who, exactly, is the “I” who tells the story? Luckily, anyone who wants to hear Beth Ditto’s actual voice can easily do that, since she is a singer.
Lethe Press is one of the generous publishers that sometimes send me piles of books, including unedited review copies weeks before the official release date, in the hope of getting them reviewed. How to Greet Strangers by Joyce Thompson is a forthcoming must-read from Lethe, and I definitely plan to post a review of it wherever I can.
In the first paragraph, the narrator introduces the reader to his world:
“Faith’s a tide. A poet said that and I read it in English class in my Freshman year at UC [University of California] Santa Cruz. I think it’s true.”
Here Archer Barron, the unusual narrator of this novel, comments on his loss of faith in the African gods of Santeria, a widespread religion that first came to the Western Hemisphere on slave ships. Archer’s madrina (godmother/mentor/priestess) has just been murdered, and Archer is one of the suspects. Even before her death, he was mourning his loss of faith in what she taught.
Archer is clearly referring to “Dover Beach” by English poet Mathew Arnold, first published at the height of the Victorian Age, in 1867. The speaker of Arnold’s poem gazes at the English Channel and laments the current state of the world:
“The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full,/And round earth’s shore lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled./But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,/Retreating, to the breath of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear/And naked shingles of the world.”
Archer Barron finds himself pulled into the mystery of his godmother Michaela’s gruesome death, not only to protect himself but to help others who also had faith in her, and who were also victimized. Archer, as a gay man who loves to do “drag,” and who can pass as a woman in public when he chooses to, identifies his various feminine identities as parallel to the loas (gods, spirits) who possess the faithful during ceremonies of the religion he still loves.
The multiplicity of identity is a theme that runs through this complex murder mystery. The burning question at the heart of the investigation is: Who was Madrina Michaela, and what did she really believe in? Archer remembers her as cold and controlling, and he (along with others of his “house”) is queasy about her advice to her godchildren to pay for expensive rituals rather than medical treatment for serious illnesses.
After her death, it is discovered that “Michaela,” originally known as Michael Ann, was not exactly who she claimed to be (duh), but does this mean she was a con artist and nothing more? For that matter, as Archer’s own life is unpeeled like the layers of an onion, questions about dating ethics in the gay community and the spread of AIDS arise; how did things get this bad, and who is responsible?
Throughout the plot, the presence of the Pacific Ocean off the California coast (or Yemaya, sea-goddess “mother” of the narrator and the author) can be heard and felt, much like the rhythmic sound of waves that runs through the verses of a Victorian poet.
This novel, like all the major characters, has more than one identity, and it stretches the definition of “mystery” or “whodunit.”
Meanwhile, for a complete change of pace, I’ve been reading My Mother’s Wars by Lillian Faderman, an incredibly detailed reconstruction of the life of the author’s Latvian-born Jewish mother who immigrated (by carriage, train and ship) alone to New York in 1914, at age 17. Granted, it was arranged that she would live with relatives, at least until she could find work (and, hopefully, fame) as a dancer. The lure of the stage turned out to be deceptive, and one of the questions repeatedly raised by the author is: Who in that time would allow a teenage girl to travel to a foreign country alone, and why? The disturbingly probable answer is that the girl’s loving parents wanted to send their daughter away from the anti-Semitic violence and limited life-choices she faced at home.
The author, who is probably best-known for her study of “romantic friendships” among women of the past, Surpassing the Love of Men, and her own autobiography, Naked in the Promised Land, stops short of trying to reconstruct the sex life of her parents, “Mary Lifton” (her mother’s anglicized name) and Moishe (or Morris) Federman. Moishe was apparently irresistible to Mary, but he repeatedly told her that he couldn’t afford to marry her yet. At length, Mary realized that he never would, and she bravely chose to raise their love-child without him. This story would be heartbreaking even without the author’s brief news flashes at the beginning of each chapter (like the newsreels shown at the beginnings of movies in the 1930s) about the buildup to war and the Holocaust in Europe.
In due course, my review of My Mother’s Wars will be sent to The Gay & Lesbian Review.
I really need to find time to write a review of Screaming Yellow by Rachel Green of Derbyshire, England, another murder mystery that stretches the definition of the genre. To get a taste of it, read Rachel’s two spoofs of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” in Ashley Lister’s post on the Erotic Readers and Writers blog, here:
www.erotica-readers.blogspot.com. Our own Lisabet has also written a kinky spoof of the classic poem.