Danika reviews Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

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I feel completely unqualified to talk about this book. After reading (and falling in love with) Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book of poetry Bodymap, I knew I had to read her memoir. The things I loved about Bodymap are present in Dirty River as well: Piepzna-Samarasinha’s strong voice, her sharp and precise words, and the deep dive into disability, queerness, poverty, abuse, and survival. Although this is prose, it’s clearly written by a poet: the imagery and language are evocative and precise.

This is a story that lays it all out on the table. It’s vulnerable and resilient. She explores what it means to survive. What constitutes healing or “getting out”. Dirty River tackles a lot, but it’s accessible and engrossing. I don’t have the words to contain Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s writing. Pick it up. These are the stories that nourish.

Danika reviews The Family Tooth by Ellis Avery

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As soon as I finished The Last Nude by Ellis Avery, I immediately added her to my mental list of favourite authors, despite the fact that it was the only thing I’d ever read by her. Some stories are like that. The Family Tooth is a very different book, but it definitely has helped secure her place on that list.

The Family Tooth is a memoir composed of linked essays. Some of these are available as Kindle singles, or the whole book is available zine-style in the author’s Etsy shop. At first glance, it can seem disconnected. The essays cover Avery’s grief over the death of her mother, as well as her journey through dealing with severe arthritis and later cancer, partly through radically restricting her diet. Because they do concentrate on different subjects, the essays can stand on their own, but I think they’re much more powerful when read in sequence.

In the introduction to this collection, Avery warns that part of this purpose of these essays is to detail her discoveries about treatment of her illness so that other people with similar symptoms can use her research to help in their own lives. She encourages the average reader to skip these dry medical passages. It’s a testament to Ellis Avery’s writing that I realized at the end of the book that I had totally forgotten this warning, and despite the detail given, I had never noticed any “dry” segments.

The book begins by discussing her mother’s death, and the complex relationship Ellis Avery had with her mother–an alcoholic and emotionally distant figure in her life. Later essays that are primarily concerned with Avery’s illness still bring in this processing, including thought-provoking parallels between her mother’s life and her own that recontextualize and complicate the initial impression we have of her.

It’s Avery’s writing that really makes these essays stand out. She knows just how to give a detail or mental image that elevates the whole narrative. She weaves in lines that link these disparate subjects together effortlessly. I found myself reading lines out loud to my roommate, and at one point we both paused after I read out a sentence and then said simultaneously “That’s such good writing.”

Grief memoirs and illness memoirs are not usually genres that I gravitate towards, but I will continue to read anything this author decides to write, and I would recommend you join me.

Danika reviews Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story by Jeanne Cordova

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I will admit, I find the idea of lesbian nuns fascinating. I love that there are multiple books on the subject. It actually makes total sense: historically, at least in the Western world, one of the few avenues that women had available to them if they didn’t want to get married to men and have children was to become a nun. Is it surprising that lesbians are over-represented in that number? In addition to this being a lesbian nun book, it’s also by an author I already enjoy. Cordova wrote a memoir about her activism titled When We Were Outlaws which I reviewed at the Lesbrary previously, so I knew that her writing style agree with me. It also ended up being an interesting prologue to When We Were Outlaws: I wouldn’t have guessed that passionate lesbian activist spent her childhood yearning to be a nun.

This isn’t as scandalous as the subtitle “A Lesbian Nun Story” would have you believe. In fact, it’s almost the opposite of that. Cordova as a postulant is hopelessly naive. The reader knows better, but young Jeanne wanders through training confused about why the church is so strict about “particular friendships” and what all the blushing and hand-holding is about between nuns she knows. More than a story about being a lesbian nun, Breaking the Habit is about Cordova’s disillusionment about convent life and about the plans she had been dreaming about since childhood. She describes wanting to be a nun as being in love with God, and primarily this is a story about falling out of love and about finding the world to be wider, darker, and also full of more possibility than she was aware of.

Overall, it’s a sweet story about coming out to yourself in an unusual setting. I think this works better as a prologue to When We Were Outlaws than as a standalone story, because it is fairly simple as a narrative. The writing is strong, though, and if you are intrigued by the premise, I don’t think it will disappoint.

Danika reviews Body Geographic by Barrie Jean Borich

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This is a very smart book. Sometimes I open a book and immediately realize that this has been carefully crafted and very well-written, which, oddly, can also mean that it may be a less instantly enjoyable book: it may take some time and energy to read as well as to write. Body Geographic is definitely one of those books. It is a memoir that uses maps and migration as metaphor in piecing together Borich’s life. There are occasional maps interspersed with the text, and sections are labelled things like “Inset of Bodies so Real” and “First is the Map of Withstanding”. Borich and her families’ stories are told in fragments like this, not in a linear order.

I got the feeling like I was getting snapshots of people: evocative, but not even close to the full story. As Borich circles back to the same people or time periods, more layers get added to these brief impressions, but I still didn’t feel like I really knew these people. One example that I kept thinking about was Linnea. Linnea is Borich’s wife of two decades, but we do not really get a full conversation between them in the whole book. Linnea only speaks a handful of times. It’s as if she is lightly sketched, though more detail does get added later. I’m used to memoirs where I feel immersed in the “characters”, in their personalities, but there seemed to be a distance between the people in Body Geographic and the reader.

I may not be the ideal reader of Body Geographic: I am ridiculously, embarrassingly bad at geography, and I am not a visual person. I definitely don’t think in maps. I did find the metaphor a very interesting one, especially weaving the stories of her ancestors’ migrations and her own migration between her two home cities (Minneapolis and Chicago), but I am sure that anyone who has a better appreciation of maps and geography would enjoy it even more.

This is an extremely well-written memoir that was obviously very carefully put together, and I would recommend that it be read slowly, to really savor the writing and the style of it. It is surprisingly easy to read, but the fragmentation does make it harder to really sink into the story. This is a book that I appreciated the skill of, but didn’t necessarily feel emotionally invested in.

A warning, though: although Body Geographic seems to try to be positive while mentioning trans people, Borich uses the terms “biological woman” and “tr*nny”. Also, most of these references are towards trans women sex workers. I know that most of this book takes place during the 60s and 70s, but that’s still not okay.

If you’ve read Body Geographic, let me know what you thought of it in the comments!

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.