Audrey reviews Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

honorgirl

Mild spoiler warnings–nothing you wouldn’t get from reading the jacket copy, though. Reading Honor Girl is painful in the way that reading your old diaries is painful. Not the “Wow, I was stupid-shallow” parts, but the moments of earnest hope where you can see the younger you before your first real, crushing heartbreak, before you knew what it was like to feel hollow inside because of another person.

Maggie’s 15, spending her summer in Kentucky as she always does, at the same camp her mother attended, participating in the same rituals and traditions. During the school year, she lives with her upper-crust family in Atlanta. She floats between these worlds, and her most solid anchor is her love for one of the Backstreet Boys.

This summer is different, though. This summer she’s finding her place, finally, on the shooting range. And this summer, there’s Erin. The shooting might be okay, but at this very Christian, very Southern camp at the beginning of the new millennium, the slow realization that she’s attracted to Erin–and that Erin returns the feeling–is very not okay.

Maggie’s not terribly uncomfortable with her feelings, but she’s deeply uncomfortable with other people’s reactions, especially when they seem to get Erin in trouble. Maggie’s choices during that summer make this book feel in part like an expiation, and the ending is quietly devastating. This is being touted as a book about a girl going to summer camp and discovering she’s a lesbian, but what she discovers about her character, and how that knowledge informs her life afterward, is crucial.

Having been one of those kids who got along better with adults (i.e., I found camp traumatizing in and of itself), I did a little looking around. Maggie Thrash considers that summer to have been an “idyllic bubble” and a quick Google search for Honor Girl turns up adjectives like “hilarious” and “heartwarming.” In the same interview linked above, Thrash notes that the memoir isn’t about being held down by her peers, but crushed by older people.

Because this is a graphic memoir, it’s pretty much a one-afternoon kind of deal. There are more memoirs coming out in this format now. This story is particularly suited to it. Thrash clearly remembers what it’s like to be 15. It’s exciting, terrifying, funny, boring, fleeting, excruciating, and brilliant. Sometimes within the space of a few minutes.

Two people read this in my house. My fiancee borrowed it from the library and read it, then told me I should. How was it? “It was okay. It was good. Quick. You’ll finish it in like an hour and a half,” she said. I finished it and was, as I phrased it earlier, quietly devastated. This is definitely one of those books that, once set free in the world, is going to mean different things to different people, regardless of what its creator/subject intended. Good on its own; excellent conversation starter. Great for book clubs (teens and adults). Book is currently cataloged as adult bio. I’m moving it to where the YA crowd will swarm.

Audrey reviews Teaching the Cat to Sit by Michelle Theall

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Great title, right? It’s also literal. Poor Mittens. Michelle Theall’s memoir isn’t organized linearly, but intersperses chapters from childhood with chapters from adulthood. And as a child, she really did teach the family cat to sit. She writes poignantly of the deep loneliness that caused her to try to make the cat into something it was not, and manages somehow not to beat you over the head with maternal parallels.

Her establishing shot gives you this: a partner and a son, and iPhone contact with grandparents. Good! Also, the grandparents are due to arrive soon for the son’s baptism, which has been cancelled. Due to the priest’s sudden reconsideration of baptizing the child of gay parents. Also, the grandparents don’t know this. (Note: I use the word “gay” instead of “lesbian” because that’s what Theall uses, and she expresses dislike of the label “lesbian.”)

And then you get a snapshot of the beginning. Michelle was supposed to be Matthew; she notes that this was only the beginning of disappointing her parents. You see her as a young child in the Texas Bible Belt, learning that things she liked were inappropriate, and she herself, always, was inappropriate. Not concerned enough with femininity. Not modest. Always unacceptable and wrong. And then she was scarred by an experience that reinforced this self-perception. When she did finally begin to find herself, it was through sports, and her mother explained that not only do sports have no real value for girls in the real world, but that Theall’s ovaries would likely fall out (spoiler: they didn’t). And the rampant homophobia was so ingrained that homophobia wasn’t even a concept or a word. It was just life. Homosexuality was not a thing; it was wrong, it didn’t exist, it went against the natural order, it was against God.

Although I didn’t read this as a Christian memoir–but you could–Theall’s Catholicism, and her relationship with God, is one of the most important strands woven throughout the book. As she is fighting to have her son’s baptism rescheduled, Theall considers one of the focal points of the priest’s concern: “How do you reconcile your homosexual lifestyle with your Christian beliefs?” At that point, she thinks, she’s spent 42 years resolving that question. By then, her faith is a source of strength, not angst. (Faith. Not clergy. Faith.) Her tale of getting to that place of acceptance is powerful and filled with pain, uncertainty, lots of guilt, and some big epiphanic moments.

The religious aspect is tied in to a larger question of general identity. And this is all woven in with a third piece: Theall’s relationship with her (birth) family–particularly her mother. (In fact, separating these out makes for artificial distinctions, but is done for the sake of clarifying what you might want to keep an eye out for.) The reading group guide (included in the new paperback edition) says, “In order to be a good mother, Michelle begins to realize that she may have to be a bad daughter.” While reading this book, you will probably never be convinced that Theall feels she has any chance of being regarded as a good daughter. You will probably wonder if, now that this book has been published, Theall’s mother is still talking to her. You may cheer inwardly at the choice to publish, knowing full well what the consequences might be.

Trigger warning for sexual assault.

Danika reviews Gay Lives edited by Robert Aldrich

I’ve got to say, as far as first impressions go: this is a beautiful book. It has a gorgeous, soft-to-the-touch dustjacket and tons of high quality photos throughout and thick pages… ah. Sorry, book geeking.

As far as the actual contents, Gay Lives is a collection of short biographies of gay men and women throughout history. I don’t want to get into the argument of calling people “gay” when the term didn’t really exist yet, because they address it, and honestly I find that conversation kind of boring. Gay Lives attempts to cover a large span of time (as in, most of recorded time) and show a global history of gay lives. The biographies themselves are fairly short and succinct, well-written, and interesting. They range from well-known figures (Sappho, Harvey Milk, etc) to more obscure historical figures. They also attempt to show a variety of professions throughout the book.

And this is my main complaint towards Gay Lives: I don’t feel like it was successful in its attempts at diversity. Every time I read a book that claims to be “gay and lesbian” or “LGBT” or some variety, I like to keep track of the content that actual represents each of those categories. In the case of this book, by my count, the number of gay male biographies to lesbian biographies was more than 3:1, and getting close to 4:1. And despite this book containing biographies from a larger range of countries than these sort of collections usually have, the vast majority of the people featured were European. And again, although there are samplings of different professions, the majority of people included are artists (photographers, painters, writers, etc).

I feel a little divided, because this collection does show that they clearly trying to make a more inclusive collection, but having one biography try to sum up all of Africa’s history with homosexuality (or one explaining all of China’s, and one for all of South America’s–Japan gets a chapter) doesn’t quite work. I understand that it is a lot harder to find historical records on lesbians and non-Western queer people, but because the introduction stated that “a particular effort has been made to embrace lives from outside Europe”, I found it to disappointing that the majority of the people featured were Europeans. Often even the more “international” biographies are about Europeans living abroad.

I also didn’t really connect to the structure of this collection. Biographies are roughly grouped by categories, starting off mostly chronologically, then a chapter on women (yes, a contained chapter… sigh), and then chapters on “Visions of Male Beauty”, “Diverse Callings”, “International Lives in the Modern Era”, etc. It didn’t really provide a thread throughout the book. I would have preferred to either see them arranged chronologically or by location.

So on the one hand, this is a beautiful book, well-written, with interesting stories, and admittedly a broader range of subjects than most collections of its kind. On the other hand, I don’t think it exactly lives up to its introduction, and felt a little scattered. I would recommend this if you’re interested in gay male European biographies, but if you’re just in it for the lesbian biographies, I would look for another collection.

Laura reviews All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen

Much as I despise cold weather, there’s something really wonderful about the rituals of early autumn. You pack up your shorts and sundresses. You begin wearing scarves and boots. You convince yourself that flannel is fashionable outside the lesbian bar. You slurp Oktoberfest ales every evening, and pumpkin spiced lattes every morning. You reach for increasingly heavier blankets at night. You stack books high beside your bed, snuggle in, and read, and read, and read. This fall, make sure All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen ends up in your stack.

All We Know is a triple biography exploring ideas of ephemerality and what it meant to be a woman in the anxious modernist moment of the 1920s and ‘30s. It tells the stories of three lesbians:

  • Ester Murphy – A verbose intellectual who played an integral part in the literary scene of New York.
  • Mercedes de Acosta – A muse, collector, seductress, and devoted fan who connected with some of the most celebrated actress and dancers of the twentieth century.
  • Madge Garland – A powerful woman who was a key figure in building the fashion world in London and Paris as we know it today.

Despite their impressive influence and notoriety at the time, Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland are now largely forgotten. A brilliant biographer, Cohen deftly captures them in all their complexity, and writes a compelling analysis of how the era these women came of age in impacted the course of their lives.

Writes Cohen, “It was at this fraught moment that an American woman could first be said to have failed at something other than femininity and motherhood.” An important time for all women, this era holds special significance for lesbians and bisexuals. Particularly with the publishing of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (discussed on the Lesbrary here, here, and here), lesbians were a newly visible group in society. Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland all struggled with questions of exposure and discretion at various points in their lives — and this on top of being part of the first generation of independent women who had left home without marrying, setting out in a still largely misogynistic world to pursue other interests. Simply living through these times was an accomplishment, never mind all the actual successes they had.

So why have these women been forgotten, and why did the author choose to bring them to light now? In part, the answer lies in how society views the fields that these women excelled in. Over and over, Cohen questions the boundary between the inconsequential and the important. Why are fashion and interior decoration characterized as trivial, while painting is elevated as fine art? Why is talking seen as commensurate with failure, while writing and publication is seen as a mark of success? Why, when fans and stars both need and desire each other, is one dismissed while the other is lauded with accolades? From a certain perspective, the accomplishments of Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland can be seen as case studies in “beautiful uselessness.” Lisa Cohen asks readers to consider: why?

Early in the book, Cohen describes Murphy’s belief that history links the elusive past to the equally elusive present, and that some biographies can be written and read only at certain times, “not because of censorship or some progress toward openness, but because of what is was possible to understand when.” This fall — against the gorgeous backdrop of the changing leaves and continued (completely awful and depressing) political debate over women’s bodies and behavior — is the perfect setting to take in the lives of these women, and to try and understand.

All We Know is available in hardcover and for the Kindle. An excerpt is available on the publisher’s website. Lisa Cohen is giving a reading on the 16th at KGB bar in New York.

General Recommendations

If you’re not sure where to start with Lesbrary (queer women) reading, here are some of my favourites.

The Classics

1) Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae BrownRubfruit Jungle

This 1970s novel is not only a lesbian/queer women classic, it also entertaining and challenges social norms even to this day. I still remember the day I realized I needed to read more queer women books. It was when my mother found out I had not read Rubyfruit Jungle and said “And you call yourself a lesbian.” I’m glad she shamed me into picking it up. Lesbian author.

2) Patience and Sarah (or A Place for Us) by Isabel Miller

Written in 1969, but set in the early 19th century, this queer classic also manages to tell a romance between two women without being depressing. It also influenced my very author’s work: Sarah Waters.

3) Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Do not let this be the first Lesbrary book you read. If I was doing this list by order of which is most classic, I would start with this one, but it violated my cardinal rule: don’t be depressing. Once upon a time, any books that had queer content had to demonstrate that they were not actually advocating for queerness, so they had to either go straight, die, or go crazy. Often a combination of these three. I recommend Well of Loneliness because it’s a classic (published in 1928), because it was actually surprisingly not very difficult to read, and because it was judged as obscene although the hot lesbian love scene consisted entirely of “And that night they were not divided”, but it’s not a pick-me-up book. In fact, if it wasn’t such a classic, I never would have read it at all; I refuse to read books that punish characters for being queer. I also got the suspicion while reading it that the protagonist was transgendered, not a lesbian. Lesbian (or transgender?) author.

Teen

Aaah, what is more lesbian than the coming-out story…

Hello, Groin1) Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie

I found this book after my teens, but I still loved it. Hello, Groin deals with the protagonist’s attraction to women as well as censorship at her school. A book theme inside a lesbian book? I’m in love. It also is well-written and optimistic. I highly recommend this one.

2) Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden

The classic lesbian teen book. I read this a while ago, so all I really remember is that I thought they fell in love awfully fast, but I enjoyed it, and it’s definitely a must-read for the well-read lesbrarian.

General Fiction

1) Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

This is my very favourite book, queer or not. Sarah Waters has a writing style that I can just sink into, and despite the fact that I rarely seek out historical fiction, I fell in love with Tipping the Velvet. The ending is such a perfect representation of the odd, complicated nature of love. Plus, this is a coming-out story, that classic trope. Fingersmith is a very close second, which also has lesbians, but includes an absolutely killer, twisting plot. If you’re not shocked by the direction this takes, you are much more clever than I am. Lesbian author.

2) Pages for You by Sylvia BrownriggPages for You

This is an odd book for me. In the beginning, I thought, “this is sort of clumsily written”, but by the end I was blown away. I’m not sure what it is, but I really loved this book.

3) Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

This isn’t my favourite of Winterson’s books, but it is, again, a classic. Jeanette Winterson has a beautiful, dream-like way of writing, and I plan to read all of her books eventually, though she is quite prolific. This one is rumoured to be semi-autobiographical, and it’s definitely worth reading. Lesbian author.

4) Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

I have a soft spot for fairy tale re-tellings, so it wasn’t surprising that a lesbian fairy tale re-telling made the list. What is surprising, though, is not only Donoghue’s readable writing style, but her ability to weave each story into the next, creating a whole tapestry connecting some of your favourite fairy tales. Lesbian author.

Memoirs/Biographies

1) anything by Ivan E. Coyote

Coyote is not exactly woman-identified, but ze’s not man-identified either, so that’s good enough for me to make the list. I love Coyote’s style, and the stories including in any of the collections (One Man’s Trash, Close to Spider Man, Loose End, The Slow Fix) are short, to-the-point, and always affecting. Queer author.

Fun Home2) Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel is the creator of the famous lesbian comics Dykes to Watch Out For. In her graphic autobiography, she illustrates her childhood, constantly drawing comparisons to her father. It may violate my “don’t be depressing” rule, but the comics alone are worth reading it for, and perhaps the uneasy feeling you’ll get afterward. Lesbian author.

3) Aimée & Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin 1943 by Erica Fischer

I actually read about half of this thinking it was a really elaborate fictional story, so that should tell you how well it was written. Plus, a lesbian love story in Berlin, 1943? You know it’s going to be interesting at the very least.

That’s all I can think of for now, but I hope to get some real reviews up soon! Feel free to start sending in reviews (more lengthy than these general recommendations, hopefully). Just click on Guest Lesbrarians at the top.

Thanks for reading!