Thursday, February 5, 2009

Calorie-free, Wither-proof Books for Valentine's Day

Recently I've read some "clever, cynical" comments by folks who assume that Valentine's Day is a "commercial, materialistic, manufactured, unrealistic view of romance." I understand some of the sentiment. It can be argued that equating being alone with not being romantic, and lack of diamonds and roses making one a bad partner is simple commercialism. However, the idea of seeking to validate both the hormonal desire for intimacy (which drives us all on some level, regardless of how we express it) and to invest in the hope of spring is not exactly an invention of Hallmark. I'm old enough (just barely, thank you) to remember that Valentine's Day used to be "St. Valentine's Day" before the Catholic church cleaned out saints they considered apocryphal, rather than real, like St. Christopher et al in Vatican II. In the case of Valentine there is a question of which of the identified three early Christians martyrs actually deserve sainthood (which simply means that the Catholic Church knows their souls are already in Heaven, as proven by a long complicated process that is irrelevant to this little introduction).

However, one could easily suggest that our current view of Valentine's day is actually a long historic parade of co-options of which Hallmark and Zales are merely the most recent on the bandwagon. Current theory is that St. Valentine was set up to replace the Roman Lupercalia. Celebrated Feb 13-15th, Lupercalia was a fertility, purification and health festival dedicated to the Roman interpretation of the Greek god Pan (the original "horny devil" as it were). It also honored Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the twins Romulus and Remus. Part of the festival events included young men (think cabin-fevered, adolescent males who had eaten well and drunk a lot of wine) dressed in naught but goatskin and some sacrificial blood, running aroun
d the city, and striking with thongs clusters of young women, waiting just for their arrival, all to ensure their fertility. Remnants of this festival continued through the 5th Century, but by then Valentine had also arrived and his feast day was the 14th. By no coincidence, he blessed young lovers. St. V admonished lovers to exchange tokens and it is possible that the young men began wearing their beloveds' tokens on their sleeves at this time. Or that might have come later with the rise of chivalric love, but you get the idea.

And let's talk about those tokens. The Romans were not shy about their fertility
symbols, which included imagery of erect phalli entering vulvae. This oh-so-subtle image was morphed into a much more palatable one for the libido-suppressed fathers of the Catholic Church. It's everywhere this time of year: The "heart" being pierced by an "arrow." I mean really, does a "heart" look anything like the images you've seen of real animal hearts or does it look like a stylized female genitalia? Think about it -- you may never look at a Hallmark card quite the same way again!

Further, when Christianity crossed the Channel, it has been suggested that Valentine festivities combined some elements of the Celtic cross quarter celebration of the goddess Brigid known as Imbolc. Fire and light, female fertility and love are all part of Brigid's domain. (Although we also have a remnant of Imbolc in Groundhog day, but that's another story.)

To all of this I would add that February is a hard month in the Northern Hemisphere. We are weeks beyond Yule/Solstice/Hanukkah/Christmas. The sun light is returning but the snow is still falling. It's cold and the hope of spring is still mostly just that, hope. Thus is it any wonder that cultures for generations have tried to find SOMETHING to hang on to as they looked toward spring? Toward the quickening green, toward returning life -- and what is life without love?

There, having said my piece about Valentine, I would point out a favorite genre of lesbian fiction. It's lesbian romance. If as a genre, romance is "women's stories" then, in my not the least bit shy opinion, lesbian romance is the epitome of all romance. There are more writers of lesbian romance today than at any time in our cultural history. A fact to revel in! Thus, I'm taking a few moments to point out some recent titles and some old favorites (with titles linked to the full reviews). Some, I meant to review more fully, and haven't yet, nevertheless, I certainly suggest you consider them, for yourself and your girlfriend. What could be a more lasting and romantic statement? As Rayann in Karin Kallmaker's Touchwood suggests, the perfect Valentine gift is "calorie-free, wither-proof books."

MJ's box of assorted calorie-free, wither-proof books for your Valentine reading:

elements of Curious Wine, by Katherine V. Forrest, primarily to do with it's 1978 setting, may seem a bit dated. However, it is THE place to start to exploring lesbian romances in the last 25 yrs. This highly sensual, although not explicit, story is very romantic. Lane and Diane will steal into your heart and you might find that like me, the ticking sound that an electric heater makes will never be the same again. If you need another reason, Curious Wine is also makes a good compliment if you've recently seen the bio-pic, Milk, because these are the times.

If you like your romance liberally laced with laughter, then Saxon Bennett's
Date Night Club is an excellent choice. Her best work to-date, in the opinion of this long time fan, Bennett creates a funny, charming and very human ensemble cast of lesbians, all looking for love, then carries her readers through an arc of challenge and growth with them. I laughed out loud several times, you might too. It's a delightful story.

Love's Melody Lost is Radclyffe's tribute to the classic Gothic romances with an unabashed lesbian twist and is still my favorite of her stand alone romances. Graham is a concert pianist and composer who has gone into seclusion since losing her sight ten years ago in an auto accident. A graduate student in Landscape Design, Anna is the woman in transition who embraces life and possibility of love. The music these women finally create is rich and erotic.
What could be more perfect than a romantic confection from the Queen of Lesbian Romance, Karin Kallmaker? Sugar is that yummy treat! After months of no social life Sugar Sorenson suddenly finds herself under the romantic notices of not one, but three attractive, dynamic women. She is also temporarily without a home and under deadline to enter a cook-off contest that could make or break her nascent speciality bakery. With ingredients like that classically Kallmaker witty dialog, thoughtful insights and erotic moments make Sugar is mixed to be an excellent sweet.

Landing by Emma Donoghue juggles a long-distance relationship between women who couldn't be less alike. Jude is a 25-year-old archivist and self-proclaimed Luddite from rural Ontario, Canada. Síle is a globetrotting, biracial, tech-hound, cosmopolitan woman in her 40s. Unusual happenings have their flight paths cross, develop friendship, and slowly fall in love. But a Long Distance Relationship can be a flight fraught with turbulence. Landing is a lovely contemporary romance.

Last year's Lambda award-winning romance was Out of Love, by KG MacGregor. If you haven't tasted MacGregor's writing, this is a brillant place to start. Out of Love introduces two intelligent, career-focused women who fall fast and then struggle with the long distance relationship and a range of complications, personal and professional. MacGregor's wry wit shines. You won't want to fall Out of Love.

Lambda winning romance writer Georgia Beers is one of the rising stars in the lesbian romance genresince her debut novel, Turning the Page. First released in 2000, Turning the Page is a charming romance with interesting, intelligent, funny women, a richly detailed setting, and lots of captivating chemistry. Melanie and Taylor's falling in love also marks a period in the history (or herstory) of fan-doms, as Xenite Taylor introduces Mel to the Warrior Princess and her Bard. Mel's new career choices soon have her owning a women's bookstore and as Mel's coming out process evolves there is a respectful nod to Curious Wine among the lesbian cultural references. While not as polished as Beers' more recent works, Turning the Page is still a fine Valentine treat.

From the pen of the venerable Lee Lynch is a dyke hybrid of Keillor's Lake Wobegon stories and Maupin's Tales of the City. Sweet Creek aka "the poor dyke's Palm Springs" is a small town in the Northwest where an assortment of quirky (mostly queer) characters provide insight and entertainment to each other and to readers. Some characters find love, some find themselves, and others find peace in Sweet Creek.

Okay, the truth be told, Ruth Perkinson's Piper's Someday is not really a lesbian romance story but it is a kind of love story. Piper's Someday is the heartwarming story of Piper, a young girl who survives the deaths of her parents and sibling and the neglect of her grandfather through the love of her dog, Someday, and the help of some wonderful, strong lesbian role models. This touching, funny, grounded tale of the Southland is on my list of favorite young adult titles. Perkinson's literary nods to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird are thoughtful and evocative. If you've ever had a furry friend who held a part of your heart in those liquid love puppy eyes, you'll enjoy reading
Piper's story.

There you have it: A lovely box of assorted tales of lesbian love and romance for you and yours to explore for Valentine's Day. Calorie-free, wither-proof books, as good as falling in love.

Happy Valentine's Day

MJ, not your average Cupid


Dar said...

Great list MJ! I couldn't agree more. I'm glad I found your blog. It looks like a very fun read. Where do you find the time?

MJ Lowe said...

Thank you! I'm afraid I haven't had as much time for a while, but I try to add in from time to time.

Anonymous said...

LOve your blog! I agree on all counts for book choices - Will have to get Landing - sounds like my kind of novel - thanks!


Anonymous said...

LOve your blog! I agree on all counts for book choices - Will have to get Landing - sounds like my kind of novel - thanks!


Layce Gardner said...

Fantastic blog! I can never get enuf of a good phallic symbol!