Sunday, February 26, 2012

For Me and My Gal by Robbi McCoy

Publisher:       Bella Books

"It was very hard to be a lesbian back then.  You had to lead a double life, a life full of lies and hypocrisy.... It seemed easier.  There was so much secrecy and shame too.  I know we're all proud now, but you can't really be proud in a climate like that.  I mean, you kept it to yourself.  You had to...."

Those are the words from a journal that will set Gwen Lawford on a journey of discovery and bring love into her life.  They are also words that should be remembered by lesbians today.

Gwen and Shelby Pratt are going to discover that their lives are entwined in more than one way.  Gwen is the director of a naval museum on San Francisco Bay and first meets Shelby when she unintentionally gets Shelby fired from her waitressing job.  After making amends for that, the women become friends.  When Gwen finds the journal of a Navy WAVE written in World War II, she and Shelby begin to unravel the mystery of who the woman was.  Shelby is in for a surprise she never expects, beside the fact that she's falling in love with Gwen.

This is a romance, both old and new, but the real story is about women during the war.  McCoy does an excellent job of showing how the war changed the lives of women, the jobs they were allowed to hold, the change of their positions in households and the expectations they held for themselves.  World War II would alter many people's ideas about the possibilities for various minorities in the United States and McCoy shows how women tried to cope with those changing beliefs.  Then she runs that plot simultaneously with one about lesbians in the military and how they were forced to hide an important part of themselves.  By bringing the story into current time, she makes a nice contrast with the period now following the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

The problem with history is that it is so easy to forget.  If something is not going on at that very moment, it tends to be shoved to the side and forgotten.  People who live in the present have a tendency not to understand how different or difficult things were before them and to judge things only by what they have experienced.  Many women today do not realize that women were ever segregated into their own units in the military.  Books like For Me and My Gal remind us of where we came from and how we got here.  That is an important service in giving the reader a chance to reflect and think.

For Me and My Gal has two romances, a bit of history and current topics.  Robbi McCoy is a masterful writer and she delivers more than one great story in this book.  The reader can feel confident in buying it and know that she's going to have a satisfying experience.

Entangled by Maria V. Ciletti

Publisher:      Intaglio Publications

Maria Ciletti chose a topic for Entangled that is bound to create mixed feelings for readers.  Where is the boundary between a teacher and her student?  When is it alright to cross that boundary to seek a relationship?  In a time when the news seems to feature a story every week about teachers who have violated that line, this book shows both how complicated and uncomfortable such a situation can be.

Hayden Crissman graduates from high school and is looking forward eagerly to starting college in the fall where she can study for a career in nursing.  She takes a summer job to earn extra money and that brings her back in contact with one of her former teachers, Abbey Spencer.  Abbey helped Hayden get into college and Hayden has a secret crush on her.  Abbey's life is spinning out of control.  Her long time relationship with one of her former college professors is breaking up over a man and Abbey's method for dealing with it is to turn to alcohol.  Hayden finds herself thrust into the role of caretaker for a drunken Abbey on more than one occasion and a new relationship develops between them.  The events of just a few weeks will tear Abbey's life to pieces and will have many people questioning what the proper behavior between a teacher and a former student is.

Entangled touches on more than one delicate issue.  First there is a woman who "decides" she isn't a lesbian anymore because it's not good for her career.  Ciletti does well at capturing her calculating personality.  Then there are the relationships of these teachers.  Every teacher knows that there is a constant awareness of the distance that has to be kept between the adult and the student.  That can be especially difficult when the people are close in age.  Gay teachers deal with the added knowledge that behavior in a private life can have serious consequences for a professional life.  Many places still consider homosexuality as grounds for instant dismissal from a job and too many people actually believe that teachers use their jobs to troll for "converts."  Gay teachers are still required in some places to live a double life that is disappearing in other professions.  Although Ciletti illustrates the situation fairly well, she doesn't really capture how dire the consequences can be.  It takes too long for Abbey to realize how serious what she is doing is.

There are no simple solutions to the events in this book and none are provided.  That at least is refreshing.  The real villain doesn't receive the punishment she deserves and the situation between Abbey and Hayden is open ended.  The characters needed more development, especially Hayden, and there was too much going on in the book to be dealt with effectively unless the book was lengthened.  The central topic is an uncomfortable one and Ciletti doesn't make the mistake of trying to make it anything else.  This isn't her best novel, but she does deserve credit for tackling subjects that many people would rather avoid.    

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Don't lose the history

I recently finished Robbi McCoy's For Me and My Gal.  As I'm finding out, I enjoy each of Robbi's books, for different reasons.  This one is a historical novel, always something close to my heart, and I'll write about that in a review.  There were two paragraphs though that rang a bell with me and that, I think, speak to a concern I have.  Let me quote them first.  One of the characters, who started a US Navy career during World War II, is speaking in the present about why she left a woman she loved.

"It was very hard to be a lesbian back then.  You had to lead a double life, a life full of lies and hypocrisy.... It seemed easier.  There was so much secrecy and shame too.  I know we're all proud now, but you can't really be proud in a climate like that.  I mean, you kept it to yourself.  You had to....

.....You might think this is funny, but I never even knew the word 'lesbian' until I was your age, late twenties.  I mean, I was one, but I didn't know what I was.  I didn't know what to call it....The thing is, if you don't have a label, you can't form a united front.  Some people think labels are destructive, but there are a lot of instances where a label gives you a community, and a community gives you strength.   If you don't even have a name for what you are, you don't identify with others like you.  We lived very private and lonely lives.  That was the worst thing.  We lived in shadows.   And we had no idea how many of us there were."

I worry sometimes that we're losing our history.  I see it in the intemperate words that characters sometimes say in the books when they rail against people who are closeted or the comments that are sometimes made on groups by younger members who say they don't understand why people are concerned about being identified.

I hear this all the time from my students.  The African American students know practically nothing about the civil rights movement and even less about what came between the end of the Civil War and Montgomery.  The female students don't understand why there was a women's movement.  Every year several of them will tell me that they are accepted at a particular college and then they look at me with a total lack of comprehension when I say that I wanted to go there, too, but that school didn't accept female students when I was applying to college.  When I tell my students that I remember when the medical profession finally declared that being homosexual isn't a medical disease, they don't understand why anyone would think that in the first place.

I understand that it's a normal process.  Those who never experienced something can't really appreciate what it was like.  For those who lived through the experience however, it's difficult to hear younger people talk about how much easier it is now, to say that they don't understand it, or, worse, that they don't remember anything about it.

As a lover of history, I would wish that none of us would ever forget what came before us.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

96 Hours by Georgia Beers

Publisher:        Bywater Books

Writing a book about the tragedy on September 11, 2001 will never be easy.  The horror, pain and suffering caused by the events on that day make it a topic that many don't want to read about.  It has to be handled with great caution to avoid being too maudlin or a nationalistic rant disguised as a patriotic story.  Georgia Beers used her considerable talent to approach the subject by dealing with a side event that reflected the best of humanity instead of the irrationality of the terrorist attack.

Erica Ryan and Abby Hayes are just two people trying to get to New York.  Erica is returning from a business trip and Abby is on another leg of her aimless wandering around the world.  Their flight is routine until they suddenly find their plane landing in Gander, Canada.  This small town finds itself inundated with people as US air space is closed and planes are diverted to other airports.  For ninety-six hours these refugees are stranded outside of the US as they desperately try to contact their families for information.  Their support system becomes the people of Gander who open their homes, stores and facilities to care for total strangers.  Erica and Abby are brought together by a special couple who take in four of the passengers.  Erica is a realist who doesn't believe in lasting relationships, but she finds the warmth of the Gander people reaching into her and she begins to connect with others in a way she hasn't felt in a long time.  Abby, an eternal optimist and free spirit, experiences just the opposite.  As she is drawn into the tragedy by the scenes on television and the fear of the people around her, she loses touch with her basic values and attitudes.  The women are drawn to each other for support, but they only have ninety-six hours and there is no guarantee that what they feel will last beyond that time.

Beers set herself a difficult time constraint.  Her characters only have four days to show their personalities, interact and create a plot.  Things have to happen more quickly and intensely.  The combination of fear and uncertainty from the attack and the confusion of being in a strange place heighten the emotions and the characters' willingness to form instant relationships.  It also makes all of it believable.

While this is a romance, it captures another story about the people of Canada.  A reader might think that Beers is exaggerating the openness and friendliness of the Canadians, but anyone who has spent time in the country knows that she did them justice.  That they would respond so freely to help the shell-shocked passengers indicates the quality of their national character and why they make such good neighbors for the US.

96 Hours tells a unique story that was lost in the chaos that followed the attack and it shows how life altering just a moment in time can be for people who are caught on the fringes of a historic event.  Beers captures the confusion and terror of that time, but tempers it into a palatable story of some heroic people and two women who fall in love.  This definitely ranks as one of her finest books.