2019 TBR Pile Challenge, coming out, Coming-of-Age, Lesbian Lit, LGBT, Poetry, pride month, Sarah Henstra, Young Adult

A Lesbian Classic & Walt Whitman

I wrap-up my Pride Month reading with two final pieces of fiction, one a classic adult novel of lesbian literature, the other a young adult novel inspired by Walt Whitman. Please feel free to check out the rest of my pride month reads. I had planned to read 5 LGBTQ books this month but managed to read 7, and I wasn’t disappointed at all!

Don Juan in the Village

Jane DeLynn’s novel, Don Juan in the Village (1990), is a classic of lesbian fiction. It follows the escapades and sexual conquests of its female protagonist, a lady Don Juan, as she travels the world and sleeps with as many women as she can. The narrative spans the course of 20 years, beginning sometime in the 1970s and ending sometime in the 1990s. There is a clear and stark, sometimes painful, contrast between the freedom of the post-1960s sexual revolution and the advent of what the narrator labels, “the plague.”

Each chapter is titled with the name of a different place to which the protagonist travels. Within, she describes not just the place she is visiting, but the women—and types of women—she meets there and makes love to. These experiences range from the soft and sensual to the nearly sadistic, but in any case, the narrator is almost always “very wet.” Yes, indeed, the story is that bold, that graphic, that open about sexuality, and female sexuality in particular. As a gay male, these experiences are about as far removed from my own as is possible, and yet the importance of this kind of text, particularly in the cannon of LGBTQ+ fiction, particularly in the canon of women’s literature, and particularly at a time when AIDS was devastating the gay community, is not lost on me.
So, while the writing style did not particularly appeal to me (rather dry, like a kind of Gertrude Stein meeting Ernest Hemingway at the middle of an intersection), it also makes sense: what better way to share taboo experiences to the widest range of readers as possible than in a clinically modernist way, as if “these are the facts, and if you can’t handle them, you’re the problem.” So, upon consideration, it’s an incredibly smart approach by an obviously talented writer. I think many readers will respond to this one, though it wasn’t right for me. That said, readers of LGBTQ fiction and those interested in LGBT literary history, as I am, should not pass it up.

This book is also one of my TBR Pile Challenge reads for 2019.

We Contain Multitudes

Sarah Henstra’s We Contain Multitudes (2019) is one of those rare novels that catches my attention right away, keeps it word-for-word, line-for-line, and page-by-page, and then upends everything just as I’m wondering if I could possibly love a book more. Somewhere about 75% into the novel (no, let’s be honest, I counted the pages and it was exactly 75% of the way in), the story takes an unexpected turn, one that I was not prepared for and one that I did not appreciate. It felt like my world was shattering. I understand how hyperbolic that must sound. IT’S JUST A BOOK, MAN, you’re probably thinking. Except that’s just it. This wasn’t just a book. This novel, these two young Whitman lovers, these two young Walt Whitmans, indeed, are much bigger than a story.

The novel is told in epistolary form, as a series of letters written between two high school boys, a sophomore and a senior. They are given an assignment to write to each other, typically with some kind of prompt from their English teacher. As they are in different classes, of different ages, and in wildly different social circles, they had never spoken to each other before, though they each knew who the other one is. This is because, in their own way, they are both wildly inconspicuous. What begins as a series of assigned letters, though, quickly drifts away from a mandatory task and into true, good old-fashioned letter-writing. Henstra adroitly creates two different styles and voices that match the two different teenage protagonists.

One struggle is that, given the design, the boys must re-tell each other the events to which they were both a party (otherwise, how would the reader know about them?) That said, even the author recognizes this complication and manages to address it through the characters’ letters as well. This is perhaps the only place where the author’s identity (or narrator’s, if we want to be more academic) can be felt. That said, a benefit to this is that the boys recount their shared experiences from their own perspectives, which turns out to be revealing to the reader, but also to the other person involved. A significant question that comes about, then, is how much can we really know another person?

I won’t reveal what happens at that three-quarter mark, except to say that it crushed me. The book resolves in a mostly satisfactory way, in my opinion, but I personally had been so distraught over the major conflict, that I was—I still am—left reeling. In a way, this speaks to the brilliance of Whitman, first of all, and to the brilliance of this novel and its characters, too. Upon reflection, I realize that Adam Kurlansky is deeper and more complex than he is given credit, and far crueler than I am or could ever be. I realize that Jonathan Hopkirk is stronger and more flawed than he seems, and far more forgiving than I am ore ever could be. And so, in this way, the point is proven: they do contain multitudes. We all do. The poetry is the point, and the poetry is in us all.

I haven’t felt this connected to Whitman or to myself since, well, since reading Whitman. It is not without its pains, nor without its fearsome joys. When I finished reading, I could only think of Whitman’s poem, “To You,” which, unless I’m mistaken, does not make an appearance in this novel. And yet…

Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,

I whisper with my lips close to your ear,

I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you. O I have been dilatory and dumb,

I should have made my way straight to you long ago,

I should have blabb’d nothing but you, I should have chanted nothing but you.

-Excerpt, “To You” (Walt Whitman)

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Contemporary American, E.J. Runyon, Ethnic American, Gender Identity, Gender Studies, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, Latin American, Lesbian Lit, LGBT, Monthly Review, Regionalism, Sexuality, Short Story

Review: Claiming One by E.J. Runyon

14576593Claiming One by R.J. Runyon
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 23

Full Disclosure:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Inspired Quill, with whom I have a working relationship; however, I was not in any way involved in the editing, publishing, marketing, proofing, or submission review process for this book.  In fact, I only received a copy because the editor-in-chief mentioned that this writer comes recommended by Catherine Ryan Hyde, who is a favorite writer of mine, so she thought I might like to take a look.

The collection is made up of seventeen short stories of varying length, some of which deal with the same characters and all of which deal with the same general region (southwestern United States / southern California) and the same type of people (struggling poor/working-class ethnic and sexual minorities).  Most of the stories are incredibly interesting and well-written.  There were a few stories in the bunch which did sometimes feel stressed or project-like, reminding me a bit of a bad hair day (not that the stories were bad, but that one starts with a good head of hair and, no matter how you tease it, yank it, or play with it, it just will not do what you want it to do).  That being said, these few stressed stories were definitely the exception, not the rule.  In fact, I wrote a ranking next to each story in the index (Poor, Good, Very Good, Great) and of the seventeen stories, only two were anything other than Good.

What struck me first about the writing is the narrative voice.  It is distinct, commanding, and engaging.  The first story, “The Giant Rubber Gorilla,” opens the collection with a perfect sense of what is to come. The reader quickly recognizes these people who will be explored, the situations that might be examined, and the tone which can be expected throughout.  Similarly, the collection closes with “Dandruff as Tall as Donald Duck,” which, in conjunction with the lengthier story which immediately preceded it, was a great way of wrapping-up the collection, reminding the reader of its major themes and the general determination of these people to survive, despite the perpetual road blocks placed in their way.

Some of the stories went even beyond good story telling.  “Mother’s Tongue” and “Secrets of the Days and Nights,” for example, were stand-outs in their creative approach and in the slight inkling toward hopefulness they emulated, which is not an overarching theme in this collection.  The stories work together the way a great fashion show should:  The collection has a primary theme, it starts with bang, and then has its lulls and explosions throughout, and finally ends with a reminder of what the collection was all about, leaving the memory of it strong in the mind.  Each story, like each piece in a fashion collection, simultaneously stands on its own and fits into the larger theme of the work.  In this case, the theme is a restless disappointment among a class of people on the margins.  There is a small, flickering light of hope that blinks throughout, meek but ever-present.

My personal favorites were the stories about Duffy and her family.  They were the most powerful and seemed to work almost like the back-bone of the collection. It would be very interesting to see Duffy and the others in her life appearing again in future collections.

With this first collection, Runyon is following in the tradition of the great regional American writers.   Flannery O’Connor, John Fante, Bret Harte, and Sinclair Lewis all wrote stories about a particular group of people in a particular region of the United States, and their stories stayed true to the people and their particular plights and successes.  The triumph of their stories was due in part to the writers’ craftsmanship and vision, but also to the honesty of the narrative which grounded the fictive worlds deeply in reality.

If Runyon continues to write about this world and these people, we might be witnessing the start of a very special body of work.  E.J. Runyon is a new writer to watch, and I applaud Inspired Quill for recognizing this talent and taking a chance on sharing it with the world.

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Events, Gay Lit, GLBT, Green Carnation Prize, Lesbian Lit, LGBT, Literary Others Event

The Green Carnation Reading Project

Hello, Readers!

I wanted to share some information about The Green Carnation Prize.  This might be of particular interest to those who participated in last month’s “Literary Others” reading event.  I’m also working with a group of book bloggers on a “Green Carnation Project.”  Essentially, we’re reading the short-listed books, talking about them, and posting our reviews – and those reviews will be going up next week!

About The Green Carnation Prize:

“The Green Carnation Prize is a literary prize for any form of the written word by an LGBT writer. The prize got off to a great start in 2010 as the first award that celebrated the best fiction and memoirs by gay men. It provoked debate, produced an intriguing shortlist and chose a worthy winner in Christopher Fowler’s ‘Paperboy’. In 2011 it was followed by Catherine Hall’s ‘The Proof of Love’” (the prize also “opened itself to any LGBT author worldwide” in 2011).

About The Green Carnation Reading Project:

As many of you know, I was a panelist for this year’s LGBTQ Category of the Independent Literary Awards.  One of the other panelists contacted me with the idea of reading the books that had been short-listed for the Green Carnation Prize, conversing about them, posting reviews for them, and sharing our thoughts with our readers.  It sounded like a great idea to me, so I hopped board!  All of the books on the short-list this year sound good to me (seriously), so I’m excited to be a part of this and to hopefully share with you all (and the readers of the other project members’ blogs) some great new books/authors!

The Project Readers:

Cass of Bonjour Cass

Jodie of Book Gazing

Ana of Things Mean A Lot

Mat of MatLee Reviews

Adam of Roof Beam Reader

The Short List:

Jack Holmes and his Friend – Edmund White (Read by Adam. Review Date: Dec. 3rd)

Scenes from Early Life – Philip Hensher (Read by Ana. Review Date: Dec. 4th)

A Perfectly Good Man – Patrick Gale (Read by Mat. Review Date: Dec. 5th)

Carry The One – Carol Anshaw (Read by Cass. Review Date: Dec. 6th)

Moffie – Andre Carl Van Der Merwe (Read by …. Review Date: Dec. 7th) *We are looking for someone who would be interested in reading this book in the next few days and reviewing it by December 7th or 8th.  If you’re interested, please comment or e-mail me!

Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Before He Stole Me Ma – Kerry Hudson (Read by Jodie. Review Date: Dec 8th)

We are all really looking forward to discussing these books, sharing our thoughts with you all, and waiting impatiently to see who will win the prize (will we be able to predict the winner!?).  Hope you all enjoy the ride!  🙂

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