TALES OF THE CITY IT SEEMS LIKE everything is here in Gary Atkins' engaging, deceptively modest homo history Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging

"/>

Quick Reads This Week

Gary Atkins, Melissa Fay Greene, and Virginia Holman.

TALES OF THE CITY IT SEEMS LIKE everything is here in Gary Atkins' engaging, deceptively modest homo history Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging (University of Washington, $28.95). You get the big stuff and all the smaller trials that came to mean so much more. The struggles of troubled (likely lesbian) movie star and Northwest native Frances Farmer are intertwined with a shuddering recollection of Western State Hospital's lobotomist Dr. Walter Freeman. The development of Pioneer Square into a gay hood includes a vivid account of how a parade's cannon blast cost Shelly Bauman a limb in 1970 but won her a settlement that led to the creation of beloved gay hot spot and cultural force, Shelly's Leg. Atkins' sharp style is a fluid combination of observant, level-headed reportage and you-are-there storytelling. It's the kind of rich, accessible writing that will have you opening the book on any page, intending a quick skim, and finding yourself still reading an hour later. ("Shelly Bauman lay on Occidental Street, groping through blood, trying to pull the burning wad out of the left side of her abdomen. . . . [A doctor in the crowd] jammed his own hand inside her now-gaping intestines and with his fingers clasped shut an artery. . . . ") He also nails the crucial distinction between Capitol Hill's diverse "interweaving" and San Francisco's fabled Castro District, calmly rescuing the Hill from its overblown image as an exclusively gay mecca. (The cheery rainbow flag quotient has, thankfully, never really been the neighborhood's stock-in-trade.) Atkins does seem mainly concerned with a certain kind of gay populationthere's no meaty acknowledgement of the city's singular, carefully begrunged alterna-queers. He's also too fond of citing the Seattle Gay News; if you didn't know better, you'd come out of the book thinking the infamously typo-ridden, grammatically mangled weekly was the equivalent of The New York Times. Nevertheless, Atkins has accomplished something fine here: an important social document that feels less like dry history and more like life. Steve Wiecking Gary Atkins will appear at M. Coy Books (117 Pine St., 206-623-5354), 6 p.m. Wed., April 2. LIGHT AND DARK NATIONALLY TELEVISED disaster coverage is so common nowadays, it's easy to forget the very first such focus: the 1958 collapse of North America's deepest coal mine, in Springhill, Nova Scotia. As Melissa Fay Greene recalls in her powerfully detailed Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster (Harcourt, $25), media attention made that ordeal alternately heartrending and heart-warming. Of the 174 men who were working the three-level excavation when shifting rock suddenly destroyed it, 99 escaped alive. But 19 of those surviving miners were trapped underground for more than a week, in a lightless purgatory without food or water or any way to let the outside world know they still awaited salvation. Drawing on extensive interviews with many of this tragedy's principals, Greene (probably best known for her 1991 book, Praying for Sheetrock) winds together parallel story threads. She follows the heroic minerstrapped in two separate parties, divided by 400 feet of solid rockas they minutely divide candy bars, trying to maintain both health and hope. She also keeps track of their families, who watch aluminum caskets emerge from the mine entrance with demoralizing regularity. "It seemed like a malevolent factory operating in reverse: hoisting the dead in their coffins out of their burial, one by one," Greene writes. There are sections of Last Man Out that creak with the copiousness of Greene's research. However, her story benefits from an eccentric cast of charactersespecially Maurice Ruddick, a comradely black family man whom the media will dub "the Singing Miner," and Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin, the rabble-rousing racist who (along with TV host Ed Sullivan) will turn the rescued miners into minor celebs. As harrowing as their underground entrapment was, those men found themselves equally "lost" upon their release. Renown is fleeting, Greene makes clear, but being forgotten sticks with you forever. J. Kingston Pierce CHILD OF THE TIMES IF IT WERE ABOUT a conventional coming-of-age, Virginia Holman's memoir Rescuing Patty Hearst: Memories from a Decade Gone Mad (Simon & Schuster, $23) would be sensitive, poetical, evocative of the '70s epoch, and a first-rate rendering of a young life on the Virginia shore. Since it's about being raised by a clinically psychotic mother, the book is out of this world and halfway into another. "One year after Patty Hearst robbed Hibernia National Bank," Holman writes, "my mother lost her mind and kidnapped my sister and me to our family cottage in Kechotan, Virginia. Her reason was simple. My mother believed she had been inducted into a secret army. My mother, my baby sister, Emma, and I were foot soldiers entrusted with setting up a field hospital. We lived in that cottage for over three years." If Ireland hurt Yeats into poetry, the Kechotan cottage hurt Holman into autobiography. Her mother Molly's attempt to impose the narrative of her delusion on her daughter compelled the 8-year-old Holman to find her footing in the narratives of literature: first Nancy Drew mysteries, later Virginia Woolf. The bare facts are scary: Molly slipped in and out of delusion in a time when only overt physical violence could get you committed. Whenever she did something actionable (like feeding her child Clorox instead of milk), she'd snap out of it in time to feed her a raw egg to make her vomit, then retell the tale as one of her rescuing the child by quick maternal thinking. In the '70s, plenty of middle-class housewives were acting out like crazy, discovering themselves, doing odd things that didn't look so odd in the context of the upending of culture in general. Holman's book takes bitter note of the delusions of '70s social workers that her mother was sane; but mostly it just tells the incredible story of how she and her kid sister survived the madness of a parent and a decade. Even before she became a writer, Holman showed imagination. When her mother painted the windows black, she took a nail and etched in the Pleiades from her mythology book: "Sometimes at night, bright moonlight would filter through and there the sisters would be, glowing on the cement floor." Holman casts a stark light on her mother's mind and her nightmare childhood, but it's an artfully patterned light. This is literature, not just an Oprah show. Tim Appelo Virginia Holman will read at University Book Store (4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400), 7 p.m. Thurs., April 3. info@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus