Julie Thompson reviews Butch Lesbians of the 20s 30s and 40s: Coloring Book edited by Avery Cassell and Jon Macy, Foreword by Sasha T. Golberg

From the publisher of The Queer Heroes Coloring Book (featuring a delightfully bedecked Edward Gorey on the cover) comes Butch Lesbians of the 20s 30s and 40s: Coloring Book, a collection of performers, mechanics, millionaires, and unknowns, from the 1920s through the 1940s. Nineteen artists, including Maia Kobabe (Louise), Avery Cassell, and Jon Macy (X Garage), bring these figures to life. The expressive takes on famous photographs and persons allow you to fill in each image with your own technicolor sensibilities, as well as fill in gaps in your own knowledge of queer history. The more time you spend with the woman or women on the page, carefully selecting just the right shade of purple for a suit jacket, the more time you end up spending thinking about who it is you’re looking at. Who is this defiant individual gazing back at me from a mugshot? What does it mean to find community in a public place, yet remain anonymous to history? I love the assortment of intimate moments between couples; the affability and charm exuded in solo portraits, coming across more as a conversation between the subject and the viewer; and the moments that project calm or exhilaration, and everything emotion in between. In the foreword, Sasha T. Goldberg, offers up her thoughts on butch identity and history. Goldberg acknowledges that the lens of experience and parameters through which she sees this collection and the identities of its subjects, may differ from yours.

Biographies of known persons and historical context for unknown persons, found at the back of the book, provide this collection with extra heft. A few of the images were familiar to me during my own readings of the eras covered here, such as thrill seeking heiress Joe Carstairs and the X Garage she ran with friends following WWI; night club performers, Gladys Bentley and Buddy Kent; and writers Djuna Barnes, Willa Cather, and Radclyffe Hall. There are a few historical figures that I’m unsure about, though, regarding their inclusion as butch lesbians. For instance, I haven’t found information about Bessie Coleman’s sexual preferences, though I admit I don’t know much about her aside from tales of her aviation prowess. The collection could also benefit from the addition of a book list for further reading. Readers and colorists will better connect with the writers’ and artists’ intentions of honoring these women.

I had a lot of fun (and plenty of hand cramps and that red indent on my ring finger) coloring in Louise and the X Garage crew. Coloring books for adults are seeing a surge in renewed interest, popping up as library programs, meditative exercises, and small gatherings. Does your book club need an excuse to spend afternoons coloring and discussing art and history? The end of the coloring book includes three discussion questions from Ajuan Mance about gender, how artistic visions influence a viewer’s interpretation.

I’ve included a list of titles if you’d like to learn more about these women’s lives or want a more general context of what life was like for queer people during the 1920s-1940s. The list is by no mean comprehensive and the asterisked titles reside on my TBR shelf. You can help grow this list by adding suggestions in the comments below.

Further Reading:

Megan Casey reviews When the Dancing Stops by Therese Szymanski

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This is advertised as a different kind of lesbian mystery, and it is. Brett Higgins is a young woman from the wrong side of the river in Detroit, who manages to work her way up to becoming the manager of a sleazy porn operation that has sidelines in drugs, lap dancing, and intimidation. She is as butch as they come, and as fearless. She also has a taste for 17-year-old babydykes.

If Brett doesn’t seem like a very sympathetic character it’s because she isn’t. And if the setting seems gritty and unappealing, it’s because it is. It’s hard not to get the feeling that Szymanski is making it as difficult as she can for the reader to like Brett and her job—and also that she seems to enjoy making the reader squirm. Well, an old professor of mine once told me that just because a certain book might not be to your liking doesn’t mean it’s not good. I’ve never quite agreed, but in this case, she might have a point.

For one thing, the author’s use of roving third-person point of view is one of the best I have seen—it may even be considered omniscient, which is the hardest POV to work with. The reader experiences what is going through the minds of several characters, but you are never confused about who is doing the thinking. She also limits herself to the points of view of only the important characters—which might seem a no-brainer, but evidently is not. The book is tough and honest and gives us a view of a world we rarely see in lesbian mysteries–or anywhere.

The problem is, though, I just don’t like Brett Higgins. The fact that she can get any lover she desires irks me, but I know enough about human nature to realize that this is not impossible; not even implausible. Many of my friends have gone off with people that I can’t for the life of me respect. It happens. But when Brett gets the hots for Allie Sullivan I can only watch with dismay, because Allie is one of the only halfway sympathetic characters in the book. I watch the relationship unfold with the eyes of a disapproving mother.

Along the way, Brett’s best friend and ex-lover are both murdered. Later, her boss it also murdered—allowing Brett to take over his shady business. She vows to find out who murdered them, but at the same time an obsessed cop with a vendetta against Brett vows to prove that Brett herself is the killer.

The book has twist after twist and a fairly surprising ending. Yet the climactic scene is not rendered very clearly and is improbable and forced. Yet none of this really maters—most denouements in mysteries are implausible, and we know which way this one is going to go anyway, even if the author has to transform the personalities of all the main characters midway through the book for it to happen. Everybody ends up questioning their life choices at the same time. Well, call it growth if you like.

As an intellectual, I would give this book a 3.5 or a little higher. As a reader, less than 3. As Allie’s mother, I am going to have to call my lawyer and have a new will drawn up. The original Naiad book was republished by Bella with 100 fewer listed pages. I’m sure it would be interesting to see if the book has changed much and to see how Brett fares in the next book under different circumstances. But I fear I am going to have to learn these things second hand.

For more than 175 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/  or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries

Amanda Clay reviews What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

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“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark, 
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken…”

If only.

Toni and Gretchen have been in love from the moment they met, dancing with each other’s dates at the Junior Homecoming Dance. They don’t differ, don’t disagree, don’t want to do anything but be together. Even after they graduate,   they’ve got it figured out: Toni to Harvard, Gretchen to BU and there will only be a few subway stops between them. Then Gretchen accepts a last-minute admission to NYU and suddenly everything changes. It’s not that she doesn’t love Toni, she just needs to find out who she is, who she can be on her own. And once Toni gets to Harvard and hooks up with the Trans* group, she starts to wonder who she is as well.   It’s a year of change, a year of discovery, love and loss. Who will they be when it’s all over? What will they be to each other?

What We Left Behind is a very good read. The story of Toni and Gretchen–  their actions and reactions, thoughts and feelings–  is not one we’ve read before. All the characters, main and supporting, are so well-imagined and well-presented the reader is at once drawn in to their world; the dialogue so realistically rendered it speaks in the ear.  You want to root for the girls, for their relationship, and for the people they are realizing themselves to be. The disconnect breaks your heart even as it breaks theirs. The only criticisms I have are small~ Toni’s quest for a gender identity label can sometimes seem a bit like a list of every gender expression tumblr has to offer, and in no part of Great Britain is Guinness ‘the ultimate British drink’, but these are minor quibbles and easily overlooked in a major work.  Beautifully done.

Anna M reviews “Air Planes” by Anna Macdougal

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“Air Planes” is a work of short fiction, the first in a series by Anna Macdougal called The Lock and The Key: Butch/Femme Erotic Romance. It’s the story of marketing consultant Stephanie, fresh from the triumph of closing a deal, and her erotic encounter with the chivalrous butch woman she meets at the airport. Their chance meeting leads to high-flying intimacy, and–perhaps–love.

As you might expect from the collection’s title, this story relies heavily on the mystique and appeal of the butch/femme dynamic:

A butch lesbian stood near the exit, browsing the New Titles display. Something happens to me every time there’s a butch woman in my vicinity. Each cell in my body instantaneously comes alive and urgent messages from my femme brain race through my entire nervous system.

If butch/femme dynamics are your cup of tea, you will be quite happy with this promising debut. I found that mentions of “the butch” and “the femme” as objects–stepping back from the interplay between interesting, relatable characters to delve more deeply into that archetypal aspect of lesbian desire–distracted me from the otherwise excellent writing. However, I enjoyed the story immensely and will definitely read anything else that Macdougal produces.

 

Danika reviews Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme edited by Ivan Coyote and Zena Sharman

I’ve been a fan of Ivan Coyote for years, so I had high expectations for this collection. It absolutely delivered.

It’s hard to sum up Persistence other than using its own subtitle. It contains a huge array of different kind of butches and femmes (and a futch, and some switches, and…), embodied by many different genders and sexualities.

The writing it top-notch, and there are a lot of big names:  Ivan Coyote, Jewelle Gomez, S. Bear Bergman, Joan Nestle, Sinclair Sexsmith… The content ranges from academic essays to poem and short stories. Some are incredibly personal, and some are political declarations. I really appreciated the amount of essays that approached how race intersects with butch/femme, and a few that also address class.

If I could guarantee one thing, it’s that at least one entry in this collection will piss you off. There are opinions all over the spectrum in this collection, and there is a lot to be debated. For example: do butch and femme constitute each other, or can you be a butch without a femme and vice versa? Are femmes more privileged by having “passing privilege”, or are they invisibilized, or are people just not looking hard enough for femmes? Is the concept of “butch” too tied to whiteness to be used in an antiracist way? Can other sexualities and genders by butch or femme, or only lesbians? Where do butch and femme fit into the trans* spectrum, or vice versa, or are they unconnected? It is the trans* questions that are particularly divisive. But I think this range is the strength of the collection: it is a good attempt to encapsulate a broad-ranging community that is entirely in flux. And the voices are strong, so even the essays that were actively angering me were still compelling.

I definitely recommend Persistence, even (especially?) if you’re not butch or femme or know very little about butch and femme. It is an important part of the queer community as a whole today, and lesbian history as well. There are quite a few contributors that I will now be seeking out in a longer format.