Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pandemics and Lesbians

Okay, so no pandemics and lesbians in the same book. I don't think.

I just finished reading Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters.

Set in the late 1880's, written in 1998 , Nan, a young woman, finds herself attracted to a 'masher', a woman who dresses up like a man and sings and dances on stage.

Tipping the Velvet: A Novel

Waters is a good story-teller. Nan, who is the narrator and main character, is believable and engaging. As the story begins, she lives with her family in Whitstable, serving oysters and fish in an oyster parlour. When she attends the theater and meets Kitty Butler, the masher, she describes her attraction..."When I see her, it's like - I don't know what it's like. It's like I never saw anything at all before. It's like I am filling up, like a wine-glass when it's filled with wine. I watch the acts before her and they are like nothing - they're like dust. Then she walks on stage and - she is so pretty; and her suit is so nice; and her voice is so sweet...She makes me want to smile and weep, at once."
"I felt as if my admiration for Kitty Butler had lit a beacon inside me, and opening my unguarded mouth had sent a shaft of light into the darkened room, illuminating all."

At first Nan struggles with her own feelings, afraid that she is too attracted to Kitty. Through the rest of the novel (not to give too much away), she realizes that her attraction to women is who she is.

I liked that it was set in the 1880's, enjoying a glimpse into theater life in the late 19th century. And while Nan did struggle with her lesbian sexuality in a culture constrained by sexual mores, it seemed to me that the struggle might have been a bit harder. Nan seemed to find little enclaves where lesbians were welcomed. As I was reading, I wondered how true that much acceptance would have been in Victorian England.

Sarah Waters did something interesting, which I don't think I've seen before. She used her own last name as one of the character's last names in the book. Walter Waters wasn't the most major character, but he was not a tiny-show-up-on-one-page kind of character either. I wondered if she might have identified in some way with that character, however Sarah Waters identifies herself as a lesbian, and Walter Waters was most definitely a heterosexual man, so if she did identify with that character, the reasoning wasn't obvious to me.

In any case, I enjoyed it and was thrilled to read a well-written novel primarily about lesbians. I received this book through Bookcrossing and some of the people who had read it before described it as racy. I wondered if people thought it was racy because the novel described sex between women and perhaps these readers hadn't experienced that. There were descriptive, sexual scenes with women, which I found lovely.

My partner and I are both, coincidentally, reading books about pandemics (and if there are lesbians in the books, we haven't met them yet). She bought me The Things That Keep Us Here by Carla Buckley.The Things That Keep Us Here

Centered around a family where the parents are divorcing, the book describes how the avian flu can become a pandemic and how they survive. (Okay, I don't know if they survive as I'm only a few chapters in, but I want to find out!)

Peter, the husband, is some sort of animal researcher. Early in the book he fills in for a professor friend and describes to a college class how a strain of avian flu can become a pandemic.
"That's what we're worried can happen with H5,: Peter corrected. "That's why WHO has issued alerts, why our health departments are stockpiling latex gloves, and why I'm freezing my butt off beside Sparrow Lake at five in the morning."
A ripple of laughter.
Someone called out, "Do you think we're going to have a pandemic?"
Peter regarded the young faces turned toward him. He thought of all those mute bobbing birds, felled by the same sharp blow. "What does science tell us?"
Silence. They were all thinking about this.
"Put yourself in the virus's place. If you had a good thing going, hooking up with everybody in town, would you move on?"
Nervous laughter.
"Of course you wouldn't. You'd hang around a slong as possible."
"So that means yes?"
"That means..." Peter reached over and shut off the projector. He faced the room. Every head was lifted, every pen stilled. "It's inevitable. Maybe not in my lifetime. Maybe not in yours or even your children's lifetimes. but sometime."
And my guess is that the pandemic will arrive sooner rather than later.

My partner is reading an advance copy of Justin Cronin's The Passage. The PassageA government project goes awry, causing a virus that changes people in a bad way.

Touted to be a cross between Stephen King's The Stand and Max Brooks's World War Z, this, they say, is supposed to be the book event of the summer. (I think they WANT it to be the book event of the summer.) Movie rights have already been sold, with Ridley Scott directing.


  1. Yeah... The Passage... I know little about it, but next time you're in Bookmaster read the reviews at the bottom of the page... one of them is the most convoluted piece of confusing garbage I've ever read.

    And on scenes of "raciness" in books... I often find that people will describe books that have scenes describing things they're not used to and\or uncomfortable with by using what I call "tip-toe" words. Racy, to me, sounds like a tip-toe word.

    Some of my favorite tip-toe words are "interesting" and "curious." They allow me to make a comment without having to say how I really feel.