Danika reviews Orlando by Virginia Woolf

orlando

Orlando is the book that I’ve been most ashamed of never having read. It’s a queer classic! So when I was picking out which book should be my first read of 2016, it seemed the obvious choice. The funny thing about reading the classics is that I always go in thinking that I have a general idea what this book is about and what’s going to happen, and they always surprise me. The societal interpretation of the classics is never the same as the actual text. Which is all to say that I was pretty surprised when the book started with Orlando as a kid batting at a shriveled head strung up from his ceiling. Apparently, his ancestors had a habit of decapitating “savages” and keeping the heads as trophies. That’s the sort of bizarre and racist content that people usually don’t mention when discussing it.

This was my first Virginia Woolf book, and I spent most of the novel not sure whether I liked her writing style or not. It can be ornate, even long-winded or overwrought, but it’s also so clever and sometimes hilarious. The whole book is also framed as a biography, and the biographer narrating often interjects to talk about the difficulties of writing biographies, including one section where they explain that Orlando is not doing anything interesting right now, so they narrate what’s happening outside the window with the birds, instead. It’s her writing that takes central stage in the reading experience.

Orlando has some magical realism elements, including the sex/gender (conflated) change in the middle of the book, but also that Orlando lives for several centuries. This huge time range is accompanied with some odd pacing: often a moment will be described for several pages, even just to detail how little is happening, while decades pass within a paragraph. Enough happens in the first 50 pages that it could easily have been an entire novel to itself, but other points the action slows to a crawl. The machinations of the plot are fairly irrelevant, though: the focus is much more on Orlando’s internal life.

The unexpected highlight of reading this classic was the humor. I love Virginia Woolf’s winks throughout the novel, often feminist ones. One of my favourite things is when she pokes fun at her own writing, like writing–in the middle of a sentence that runs almost an entire page- “… nature, who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldly length of this sentence”. She also has an expert way of describing the ridiculous ways people behave, like Orlando’s housekeeper, after Orlando comes home a woman overnight, conspiratorially telling the other servants over tea that she always had her suspicions. But the character I had the most fun reading about was Orlando themselves, especially as a young person, because he is incredibly melodramatic. At some point he just lays facedown on the ice, contemplating death. Later, he gets a bad review of his poetry, and after burning all of his work, he bids his servants to go get two more dogs (with haste!) that he can sulk with in his study because he is “done with men”.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Orlando is worth the read as a classic novel and as a feminist one–but is it queer? I’ll wave away the magical sex/gender change, because the conflation of the two doesn’t seem to anything for trans representation, but is there queer content? Orlando is famously a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, but that aside, there are still some nods to Orlando as a queer character. She does get romantically involved with men as a woman, but there are two instances that suggest that she is still attracted to women:

And as all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she was herself a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.

Later, when Orlando mentions girls in her poetry, a “power” stops her, saying that the poetry about flowers is all well and good, “but–girls? Are girls necessary? You have a husband at the Cape, you say? Ah, well, that’ll do. / And so the spirit passed on.” but Orlando is extremely doubtful whether “if the spirit had examined the contents of her mind carefully, it would not have found something highly contraband”. Orlando feels that by marrying a man, she has escaped from being judged too harshly for her unorthodox inner life. The only disappointment I had with the book was the ending, which focuses on her husband in a way that doesn’t seem to reflect the rest of the novel. The romance and marriage between them didn’t really interest me, though it didn’t seem out of character, and having the story end with the spotlight on him seemed insincere.

I’m glad that I finally picked this one up, and I look forward to reading more Virginia Woolf (especially her diaries and letters). I wish this was one I had studied in school, because I’m sure I would get more out of it by digging a little deeper. I may have to have my own little study session around it! If you, too, have been putting off reading Orlando, consider this your signal to give it a try!

Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the color fades. The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life–(and so on for six pages if you will, but the style is tedious and may well be dropped.)

Rachel reviews Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller

patienceandsarah

First published in 1969 under the title A Place for Us, Patience & Sarah is a lovely classic lesbian novel by Isabel Miller. Like Nancy Garden’s Annie on my Mind, this book is one of the first and few books of the time to have lesbian female protagonists in love, and to have a happy ending. It is still popular today and one of the most beloved LGBT novels.

Taking place in Connecticut in 1816, the story follows the viewpoints of Patience White and Sarah Dowling. Patience is in her late twenties, which at that time labeled her as a spinster. She lives with her brother Edward, his wife Martha, and her little nieces and nephews. She not only helps Martha care for the children, Patience is a wonderful painter, which she would love to do for a living. Sarah Dowling is the second-oldest in a house full of sisters. Being strongest, her father picks her to help him do the “men’s” work. A hard worker and itching to buy her own land, Sarah one day goes to the White’s home to deliver wood, and she meets Patience. The two feel an instant connection as they share a meal together and look at Patience’s pictures. It’s love at first sight, and when Sarah reveals her plans to go to Genesee, New York, and start a farm, Patience asks to come too.

After sharing their first kiss, the two women are happily in love. However, their families find out about their love, and react badly. Initially worried about her reputation, Patience refuses to go with Sarah, and Sarah sets off, heartbroken and alone. En route to Genesee and disguised as a boy, she meets Parson Peel, a knowledgeable man in books and learning. After learning to read, Sarah returns to her community and reconciles with Patience. Finally accepting her feelings for Sarah, Patience travels with her lover to hopefully find a good life together.

Patience & Sarah is a simple read, but Isabel Miller conveys so much in her story: from what the characters are thinking and feeling to brief but beautifully written details of the scenery and other observations. The characters of Patience and Sarah balance each other out well, though there are personality clashes between them sometimes. At first, the idea of them deciding to move to New York together after only a second meeting seemed too quick and impulsive to me, but as the women’s story moved along, I was nonetheless still rooting for them.

The novel had a good cast of characters with their own personalities. Some of the more sympathetic and likeable ones were Sarah’s sister Rachel, and Parson Peel. The Parson especially was entertaining, with his acceptance of differences and his endless supply of facts from the books he read. He taught Sarah more than just letters; he showed her possibilities she hadn’t known existed.

The love story between the two women blooms as they travel and build their own farm. They endure some trials as well as their own worries and doubts, but both Patience and Sarah really are in love, and believe that as long as they have each other, they can get through anything. Their unyielding bond is admirable.

Isabel Miller based Patience & Sarah on two real historical women. Painter Mary Ann Willson and her companion Miss Brundidge settled together in Greene County, New York around 1820. Miller even dedicated her book to them, which I found very touching.

All in all, Patience & Sarah is a wonderful historical lesbian romance that warms the heart. Anyone who is interested in LGBT literature be they gay or straight, should take the time to read this amazing novel.

Rachel reviews Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Orangesarenottheonlyfruit

Published in 1985 by Jeanette Winterson, the classic novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit hits home on a young girl coming of age and beginning to question her sexuality.

The protagonist, Jeanette, has been adopted by stringent Pentecostal evangelists. As she grows up, she is expected to one day be a missionary. Her mother in particular pushes Jeanette to pursue this dream. Together, the family listens on the radio to missionaries converting unbelievers, attend church for intense sermons, and learn as much from the Bible as they can. Jeanette is an outcast at school because her beliefs set her apart from the other kids; her only true friend is Elsie, an elderly woman who encourages Jeanette in her work. One day however, Jeanette meets Melanie, and begins to feel the first stirrings of attraction. This causes uproar in her family and community, leading Jeanette to make her own decisions about her future.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a mixture of humor and sadness as the story follows Jeanette in her journey to awakening. And the journey is full of ignorance and a lack of understanding. Jeanette loves God and Melanie, but her pastor tells her she cannot love them both. She is surrounded by people who do not understand her; her mother and community believe she has allowed the devil to take her with “unnatural passions.” It was heartbreaking at times to read of how Jeanette was treated by people she had known her whole life. The homophobic remarks were infuriating. People fear what they do not understand, and the characters in this book were no exception.

Winterson brilliantly captured Jeanette’s struggles to find her own place while reconciling her attraction to women. As the novel progresses, Jeanette begins to question her beliefs and challenge her society’s rules. The reader can see her getting more independent with every page. Her growth from a young girl to a mature woman exploring the world around her was liberating in a way.

Throughout the book, there are stories interwoven with the main plot. These stories hold a message relevant to what Jeanette is going through. Every chapter of Oranges is marked by the name of a Bible story, starting with Genesis and ending with Ruth. My favorite chapter was Deuteronomy. Though short, in it Jeanette ponders questions about history and how easily people change it to match their beliefs.

Lesbianism is not the main subject touched on in the novel; religion and questioning are at the forefront. It’s no surprise; Jeanette’s beliefs are important to her and she built a lot of her dreams and plans on it. She works hard to make sense of her faith and the world around her. That makes her the strongest character of the book in my opinion, and more endearing.

I can see why Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a classic; the novel prompts readers to question society, religion, and prejudice. Some may find the subjects too heavy, but this book has important messages, and should be read by everyone, gay or straight.

Laura Mandanas reviews Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

A few weeks ago, I decided to bring a book into the tub for a relaxing bubble bath. When the temperature was right, I gingerly picked up the paperback and eased my way into the frothy suds, cautiously avoiding the slightest splash. I took careful pains to hold the book a deliberate 6-8 inches out of the water. I even piled up towels at the edge of the tub in case of slippery-fingered emergency. It didn’t matter; within 20 minutes the book was completely waterlogged. The culprit? Not bathwater, but tears. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg had me weeping by the end of the first chapter.
Stone Butch Blues is a beautifully written novel. The main character, Jess, is a young Jewish butch coming of age in the late ‘60s. Drowning in loneliness, Jess finds companionship in the queer community frequenting working-class gay bars. In this pre-Stonewall era, however, their mere existence is enough to prompt brutal attack from all sides. As the story unfolds, each of these characters weather hardships of an enormity I can barely comprehend.

Jess is a complicated character, and the book (thankfully) never backs away from this. I particularly appreciated the range of characters shown throughout in the book. “Butch” identity is not reserved strictly for lesbian women that present themselves in traditionally masculine ways; men, straight and bisexual women, and transgender people can all lay equally legitimate claim to the identity.

 Stone Butch Blues is the winner of numerous literary awards, and its clear to see why. This book is an essential read — and not just for the person who “doesn’t identify as a man and is at least some of the time attracted romantically and/or sexually to others who do not identify as a man” (ha). This is a book for anyone with a soul.

Stone Butch Blues is one of the most widely read pieces of LGBT literature, and appears on the shelves of many major retailers.

Guest Lesbrarian Orange Sorbet reviews Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

When this novel was published in 1952, it was Controversial with the Capital and thus, naturally, immensely popular. Patricia Highsmith – apparently a pretty renowned author but not a particularly likable personality – wrote it under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan” and denied having anything to do with the book until much later on in life, when it was revealed that it was based extensively on her own personal experiences. It’s toted as dark and mysterious, and said to bear uncanny resemblance to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita – and it came first. Recipe for a perfect lesbian-themed book? I thought so.

Here’s the catch: I read it in 2010-2011 (seriously, I read it over New Year’s Eve), not 1952. I liked the book but I wasn’t enamoured by it.

…while we’re talking about enamour, though, let’s get to the good stuff first:

Carol kissed her on the lips, and pleasure leaped in Therese again. […] Her arms were tight around Carol, and she was conscious of Carol and nothing else. And then her body too seemed to vanish in widening circles that leaped further and further, beyond where thought could follow.

(I have to admit I didn’t choose this excerpt on my own – usually I would, but I’ve returned the book to the library so I just googled this.) Highsmith’s prose is powerful and elegant and I don’t only mean this in reference to the lovemaking scenes like above; I particularly liked her descriptions of the setting and the general feel of the book. New York in 2011 is charismatic and alluring, but New York in 1952 is downright sexy.

What I felt was lacking was character development, which is a pretty key element in any book but especially one that’s centred on just two individuals. (I know this sounds somewhat contradictory, but you can have powerful prose without similarly powerful plot progression, as anyone who’s read the original Frankenstein can attest to.) The premise of the characters is interesting enough – inexperienced but already cynical 19-year-old paired with a tired but not quite jaded middle-aged woman – and as I pieced together bits of their stories throughout the book it’s evident that they aren’t your usual lesbian clichés, but at no point did either Therese or Carol become real to me. I was especially frustrated by the lack of build-up to their relationship, because while I could understand (somewhat) why they’d be attracted to each other based on their lots in life, I felt like it was more my own filling-in-the-blanks rather than a narrative that was presented to me. I figure more emotional aspects of their story might have been glossed over in consideration of the era in which the book was written, maybe, because it is not altogether uncommon for characters in books of yesteryear to fall in love for no discernible reason. Nonetheless, I can’t say I didn’t care for the characters: I interrupted my pseudo-New Year’s celebrations to “see if my lesbians get a happy ending.” (Chances are if you’ve read about this book anywhere you’ll know the answer to this, but I didn’t and I try my best to write spoiler-free reviews so I won’t give it away.)

I have to admit that at the end of it, I’m still left in the dark as to why the book is called The Price of Salt. I know it’s mentioned a couple of times in the book but there appears to be no significant meaning to it and I can’t find a satisfactory explanation online either. (The actual price of salt, by the way, is not as easy to determine as you’d think.) This was, to me, quite a waste because it’s an intriguing title and it’s a big part of the reason I chose to read this book.

By way of coming-of-age lesbian novels, I’d still say that Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet takes the cake and then some but The Price of Salt is still an interesting piece in its own right. You’d also have to take my opinion with a heap of salt here because I haven’t actually read that many coming-of-age lesbian novels. This book would probably be better appreciated if actually read in the 20th century as intended, but there’s nothing any of us can do about that eh?

Thank you so much for the review, Orange Sorbet! You can find Orange Sorbet’s blog here, and the original post of this review here.

If you’d like to submit a guest lesbrarian review to the Lesbrary, click here!

Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden

I’ll try not to repeat myself too much, but look at the diligent notes I took! I had to do them justice! But I don’t think I have enough to do  coherent review that wasn’t already covered in the discussion Anna and I had. So instead, I’ll just post the thoughts I didn’t already express. These random snippets will be full of spoilers, so I’m not going to bother making you highlight for them. Consider yourself warned.

  • Annie is a reader! Pg 75 of my copy, she says “I read a lot.”
  • It was odd, after we got introduced to Annie’s grandmother, I was steeling myself for the inevitable awfulness of when she found out that Annie is gay. That… never happened.
  • AOMM was good for seeing into Liza’s strange, sheltered little world. I come from a very different environment, and not just because it’s several decades later. For example, Liza makes her whole high school time revolve around her getting into her university of choice. I don’t think that’s quite as prevalent in Canada, or at least not in the schools I went to. Getting into a “good” university was sort of a bonus, but most of the kids from my “gifted”/whatever program ended up at one of the universities we have here, which is good, but not huge on the international  map. I never gave a second thought to what university I wanted to be in when I was in high school, but maybe that was just me.
  • Also, Liza had a very privileged life. I couldn’t believe that she got suspended and then didn’t get grounded. Especially since her dad was so mad at first. What’s the downside to being able to not have to go to school and not be grounded? That’s not a punishment! But that was about as far as punishments went in her case, and she was devestated. I’d be celebrating, and I wasn’t even a bad student.
  • I liked the idea of how her school was supposed to run, though, obviously, it would have to be without the corruption. The sort of democratic system of running it seemed like a fair way to do it.
  • I loved when Liza literally played knight in shining armor. That’s such classic lesbian-in-love.
  • Liza and Annie, but especially Liza, are very odd. The make believe, the singing at the museum, and then at some point Liza growls at a homeless person. This is not normal high school senior behavior.
  • Baxter and Poindexter are so very pathetic.
  • There are actually a lot of points in the novel that I thought were foreshadowing, but didn’t really lead to anything. “Oh no, her brother is getting suspicious! … No, no, he’s over it.”
  • Sally takes a nose dive as a character. By the end I had a seething hatred for her.
  • AOMM has a great passage that describes exactly why I’m so into lesbian lit. “I felt as if I were meeting parts of myself in the gay people I read about. Gradually, I began to feel calmer inside, more complete and sure of myself […]” My favourite part of AOMM is the literature references.
  • I got absolutely furious in my notes when Annie and Liza get caught and lectured. Some excerpts: [to Baxter] “You absolute scum”, “**** you, Sally/Walt!” “How dare you!” and later: “Suck it, Poindexter!” … I swear I’m not usually like this. It was a very emotional part of the story.
  • Another example of Liza’s strange little life: she had never lied to her parents before the whole gay thing. Never. About anything.
  • Near the end of the book, Liza writes down “Running through my head – running through my head”. Am I the only one who couldn’t help thinking of the tatu song?

Have you read Annie On My Mind? What did you think of it?

Annie On My Mind Conversation

Remember that time that me and Cass of Bonjour Cass read Well of Loneliness and then talked/ranted/rambled to each other about it? Well, Anna of Future Feminist Librarian-Activist emailed be afterwards about doing something similar. We agreed to read Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden. It was published in 1982 and is pretty much the classic lesbian teen book. Here’s what we talked about. I tried to warn about spoilers, but I may have let some small ones through.

Danika: I remember when I first read AOMM I thought there was something a little bit off about their relationship […] And now I think I know what bothered me. I don’t know if it’s because it’s set in the 80’s, or if it’s Nancy Garden’s writing, but they both seem a lot younger than what they’re supposed to be

Anna:
Yes! They’re supposed to be, like, headed for college and they act like they’re in middle school

D: I know it’s in a sort of self-conscious “girls our age aren’t supposed to do this” way, but I still liked it a lot better once I started thinking of them as 13-year-olds instead of 17-year-olds. And it’s not just them: even her little brother seems at least 4 years younger than his given age! And her classmates!

A: Yeah. I don’t think I noticed it so much when I was younger, because I read it when I was about thirteen myself? It was about the only lesbian YA novel my library had (early to mid-90s). To be fair, that was before the real boom in queer YA fiction. AOMM was probably one of the few available. And not a bad one to have if you’re only going to have one (no one dies!) … but yeah, I agree with you that, especially this time around I was left thinking, “wow, and these are supposed to be seniors?” It’s not even Annie’s imaginary world … it’s more the school politics and so on.

D: Yeah, the ear-piercing!

A: Like, no one has a real sense of a world beyond the microcosm of the prep school

Exactly!

D: Again, I was thinking “Well, maybe it’s just because this was 30 years ago…?” But it definitely seemed a bit off

A: Part of it probably is the era … and the fact that Nancy Garden was probably, on some level, harkening back to her own teen years which would have been in, what, the 1950s? 60s? When maybe ear piercing was more risque?

D: Aaah, yeah, that might have been part of it

A: I also wondered if maybe part of it was an attempt to make the drama center around something other than the fact that Liza was discovering her sexuality? So she invented another drama about the prep school that seemed kind of forced?

D: Maybe, but it turns into it being about her sexuality anyway

A: True

D: I remember when I first read AOMM I thought the girls’ meeting seemed really forced […] And I definitely agree with that the second time around. The singing, the sudden friendship… again, it’s the sort of way children interact, not teenagers

A: Yeah — teenagers are more self-aware, and self … restrained? I made instant best friends with kids in art class when I was, maybe, six! Not when I was seventeen. At seventeen I was like, well, maybe going for coffee after class and see how that goes.

But since NG wanted the girls not to be at the same school, she had to find a way for them to run into each other.

I’d forgotten how much class is an implicit part of the story. The way Annie comes from a “bad” part of town and everything.

D: I forgot that, too!

A: I was thinking, vis a vis reactions to queer teens, that it was interesting that Liza’s sexuality was more controversial in her upper-class world than it seems to be in Annie’s world.

D: On the meeting: Still, I think she could have done better than “Don’t stop [singing]. Please.” “Oh, you startled me!” That just sounds really forced.

Yes, because everything was controversial in Liza’s little world. I guess the ear-piercing was supposed to highlight that, but it seemed odd anyway. The only question with Annie was whether she was going to tell her family or not, so I don’t think we ever see how her school would have handled it, but presumably they have more important things to worry about.

A: It would have been irrelevent in Annie’s school (I’m assuming); no one cared about her there. I got the sense she was nervous about telling her parents, but her family was portrayed as fairly accepting and encouraging. I got the sense that they would have been baffled and maybe a little worried or hurt, but there wouldn’t have been all the drama that Liza had in her family and at the school.

It was interesting to me how it was almost reversed … or maybe that’s not quite what I’m thinking of. But today, we think of urban upper-middle-class folks as fairly cool about queer sexualities, etc. Whereas we think of lower-class people as reactionaries. Culturally. And in this story, the opposite was the case. I doubt those stereotypes would hold up, but it’s interesting that she chose to write it like that.

D:
That is the framework we generally use. But Liza’s privilege paralyzed her. Her school was so caught up in itself that no one could step out of line. It was a weird relation between them.

A: Yeah. Maybe I’m just to midwestern to understand the world of elite prep schools!

D: Yes, it was really weird seeing into that strange boxed-off world.

On a slightly different note, I was writing down some thoughts as I went, and on page 49 of my version, I thought Garden was foreshadowing the reaction to her coming out. It was when the parents found out about the ear-piercing, and the mom is pretty accepting, but the dad freaks out. [mild spoilers, highlight to read] So it surprised me later when he was actually really great about it.[end spoilers]

A: Good point. I was really intrigued by a number of the adults in the story, actually … and the way in which adults were portrayed in relation to the young people.

D: How so?

A: Well, I was impressed that the adults at [mild spoilers] the hearing were not portrayed as monoliths, as monsters, and that a couple were standing up to the schoolmistress, even if for their own reasons. [end spoilers] And I thought it was an interesting (and positive) choice to [spoilers] give the girls such human mentors, themselves lesbians of an elder generation. [end spoilers]

D: Yeah, that’s very true. The thing that stuck with me most about AOMM has always been the [spoilers] teacher couple .  Actually, the thing that stuck with me the most was their book collection. Lesbian books inside my lesbian book! Wow! The teachers’ [end spoilers] presence really made the story.

A: [spoilers] I agree about the teachers. In contrast to the charicatured headmistress and the reactive parents, the two teachers came across really human, but also kind and supportive, generous, and sheltering without being controlling. I wondered in my notes whether this was a conscious attempt to counteract the specter of the gay/lesbian predator? and yeah, it was fascinating to have the books play such a role in a couple of key scenes … from what I’ve heard from queer people of earlier generations, that was often the case! that they first discovered language for who they were from books … all the more reason to be a librarian-advocate for lgbtq teens 🙂 [end spoilers]

D: [spoilers] Aaah, I hadn’t considered that! Of course! Because the lesbian teachers were fantastic teachers. If I may quote my favourite line from the dad’s reaction (though he goes on to say he doesn’t think gay people can be truly happy), “Oh, look. What difference does it make if a couple of teachers are lesbians? Those two are damn good teachers and good people, too, as far as I know.” I mean, wow! Surprise acceptance! [end spoilers]

A: [spoilers] Hehe. Yeah, exactly. Because there’s that interesting conversation between the girls and the teachers after the teachers have been fired where the women acknowledge that if they don’t press charges, they should be able to get good references … because the school won’t want to admit that they fired the women for being lesbian … but they also fear for their ability to be hired if they were really out. So a real catch-22 [end spoilers]

A: Since we’ve talked a lot about where the story felt kind of forced … one of the ways in which I was really impressed with it was the fact that it a) had a couple of really sweet scenes in which the girls clearly make love, even if off-screen (so to speak) and b) that this is really seen as 100% a good thing, despite [spoilers] what happened with their teachers[end spoilers]. Their sexual exploration doesn’t spell doom for them as individuals or for their relationship. I don’t think many YA romances with straight couples were that whole-heartedly enthusiastic about young love back in the late 1970s …

Even Judy Blume’s “Forever,” despite the positive sexual experience, ends with the relationship ending.

D: That’s true. It’s a bit of a bittersweet book, because [spoilers] Liza gets suspended, nearly expelled for being gay, the teachers get fired, [end spoilers] and we know the whole time that they end up drifting apart after they leave for university. But it’s also a lot more positive than most of the queer books (YA or not) available at the time. They do [spoilers] end up together at the end [end spoilers], and there’s a lot of support of same-sex love.

I also liked reading it for all the tropes and patterns that young queer love, young closeted love takes. Like how you could totally tell they were in love with each other before they knew. Like the classic game of “how much physical contact can we hace before it means something?” (shoulders touching, hand holding, etc)

Oh, and it was also nice that neither of them really “went straight”. Annie was pretty sure she was gay, and Liza wasn’t sure, but was definitely leaning towards accepting it

A: Yes! Which I feel like is something that is still confusing to kids (or perhaps I only speak for myself) … since you’re trained, culturally, to expect that opposite-sex intereactions are laden, but not same-sex ones, so you aren’t so self-conscious and things kind of sneak up on you way more than with opposite-sex relationships.

D: Yes, exactly!

A: re: going straight, I agree! That actually seemed a little dated (in a nice way?) to me, since I feel like if this book had been written today, you’d get this whole “am I bi? am I gay? am I just questioning?” thing going on. Which is absent entirely: Liza comes to the realization she’s “gay” full-stop.

D:
That’s true, it definitely has that all-or-nothing mentality that we’ve (thankfully) shaken off a little more by now

Oh, wait, I take it back: Annie did try to be straight! Back when she was younger. In her words: “It was ridiculous.” That made me laugh.

They are super cute when they are together and happy.

A: Yeah, and as you say there was that added element of the reader being “in the know” in part because Liza’s spoilered it for us at the very beginning with the framing narrative.

What do you think of the function of the framing narrative as a literary device? Do you think it adds anything to the narrative that we kind of know it ends badly (at least in the short-term) before the story begins?

D: I was pondering that the whole book. I kind of get why she did it, because she needed the drama to keep the story moving through the happy couple parts, but it did add this element of doom that, frankly, no queer book really needs any more of. I guess it works overall, because we get the [spoiler] happily ever after following the long(ish) separation [end spoilers] and we process it with Liza as she processes (and processing is a classic lesbian thing to do), but I’m a little divided on it. What did you think?

A: Hmm. Tough question. Retrospective narratives can sometimes work pretty well, but I agree with you that the last thing any queer teen book needs is more angst! That’s why I adore David Levithan’s work so much — his love stories are so ebullient. As a kid, I always felt like the way Liza blamed herself for [spoiler] the punishment exacted on the teachers (or, more accurately, for having made love in their home while she was house-sitting … what the hell was so shameful about that?) [end spoiler] was really exaggerated. Like, shouldn’t she have been pissed at the secretary who had the vendetta? And the schoolmistress, etc.?

But maybe that’s a personality thing — I always had an over-developed sense of self-righteousness as a child 🙂

D: Ah, I loved Boy Meets Boy for that! It’s like a combination of cotton candy and sinking into a hot tub. It’s just so refreshing to read a happy queer love story. I still want my lesbian version of that.

Well, I can see why they were a little ashamed. [spoiler] In the teachers’ bed…? That’s bad taste. What I couldn’t see, though, was why they opened the door! They didn’t have to answer! -sigh- The secretary was definitely over-the-top. The absolute poision she was spitting out was painful to read.[end spoiler]

A:
re: Boy Meets Boy, totally! I feel like YA lesbian fiction is still waiting for its Daniel Levithan (if you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them!)

[spoiler] re: teacher’s bed … I guess. I did a lot of house-sitting in high school and college and I always slept in the homeowner’s bed (clean sheets, granted) so it didn’t feel so weird to me. but that wasn’t in the deal Liza made with the teachers, so I guess that is a little different. Oh, totally with the door! *headdesk* why oh why did she have to answer????[end spoiler]

D: I don’t know of anything quite so positive, though I have read some good ones. Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie is my favourite.

[spoiler]Especially before getting dressed![end spoiler]

A: Despite [spoiler] the secretary’s religiously-motivated poison [end spoiler], I was actually surprised by how little religious conservatives and the religious right as a force opposed to sexual expression appeared in the novel (contrasting, again, with the way it figures in some Levithan stories) … I think that’s another way this dates the story, since it was set just as that force was gathering.

D: True, I mean, [spoiler] when she faces the commitee/council/whatever that was, they basically say “Hey, this is none of our business”, which is pretty good for the circumstances. [end spoiler]

A: Yeah, I think it’s interesting how the battle-lines are drawn ever-so-slightly differently than we’re used to in our generation. The religious element not quite so strong, the class element more so. Being queer still being a threat to one’s overall reputation/status even in secular society. (Not saying that’s totally gone away, but you wouldn’t think in Liza’s New York or at MIT it would be an issue!)

D: Hmmm, yeah, I can see that… Honestly, I’m kind of surprised Liza wanted the school to survive. I know she has sentimental attachment to it, but even before [spoiler] they knew she was queer [end spoiler], Poindexter (got to love that name) was absolutely heinous, from the patronizing way of talking to running the meetings when Liza was supposed to be running them.

A: Yes. Again, another way in which they seemed young for their age. By 17, you’d think she’d have more perspective. I can see a younger child being invested in the school that had been a second home, but most seventeen-year-olds I’ve known (including myself!) are a bit more jaded!

D: Very true. By 17 I had distrust for all authority, definitely including my school

I don’t know if you read my review and conversation about Well of Loneliness, but I saw a couple of comparisons between it and AOMM that surprised me […] Well, for one, both the protagonists were horrified at people hating them being gay, because they both felt that their love was the “best part” of themselves, or some variation on that. […]  Also, both have a scene with the couple being happy that is described as an “illusion”. It’s just funny because WoL is mentioned in AOMM as [spoiler] part of the teachers’ book collection [end spoiler].

Oh, and also, on an unrelated subject, I had to laugh at the note Liza found in her locker. “Lesie”? I wouldn’t even be sure what that was trying to refer to.

A: Yes, it was fun to see the lesbian classics appear on their shelves

D: Especially Patience & Sarah, because Liza and Annie read it, and this time I have, too!

A: I read once an essay that was talking about how generations of queer folks locate themselves in history through alternate means than family ties, since so many of them don’t come from families where the parents are themselves queer — and literature was one way.

Oh, I haven’t! Is it any good? Maybe we should read that next!

Re: Lesie, no, it took me a second. Dated slang. 🙂 A perennial bane of YA lit, I think

D: That’s exactly why I feel that queer lit is so important. It is a foundation to the queer community.

I liked it! It’s a little more cheery than you’d expect from historical lesbian lit. I’d definitely be up for reading it with you!

But I think we’ll have to wrap up this convo so I can catch my bus. Any last thoughts?

A: Not that I can think of — other than that I really enjoyed the chance to re-read this with someone else, and I’d totally be up for doing it again!

D: I would, too! Just let me know!

And that was our conversation about AOMM! I really like doing these discussions, because I love lesbian lit, but I don’t have many people I can talk to in real life about it. Anna and I want to make this a regular feature, probably once every two months or so. Next we’re reading Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie, so we can compare it to AOMM to see how lesbian teen lit had changed. If you’d like to read or re-read a lesbian book with me and discuss it like this, just email me and let me know! If you’d rather read our conversation without having to highlight for spoilers, Anna has it in full on her blog. Besides, you should be reading her blog anyway.

I’ll be posting my review of Annie On My Mind Wednesday.

Conversation About Well of Loneliness

As you may recall, Cass from Bonjour, Cass challenged me to read The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, that old depressing lesbian classic. I accepted the challenge. What we also did, though, is discuss/rant about the book together. We had two conversations about it. I’ll be posting excerpts of the first one (when I didn’t have notes) and Cass will be excerpting from the second one (when I did have notes and we were both a little more organized). Here are the highlights, with spoilers marked. I’m sorry to say that we started at the end, so the beginning is a little spoiler heavy. Spoilers are up for interpretation, though, so I hid plot points but showed who the major romantic lead is and general things like that.

Danika: […] Okay, so, to get started… overall impressions? I liked Stephen as a character right up until the end, where she started doing stupid, manipulative, controlling things. I thought she was really sympathetic until maybe the last tenth of the book, when I lost a huge amount of respect for her.

Cass: Stephen’s a bit of a jerk. [highlight to read spoilers] Who’s she to decide Mary wants to marry a man even Stephen didn’t want to marry? I appreciate Hall’s argument for tolerance and acknowledgement (“Give us also the right to our existance!”), but the ending is frustratingly …something. Paternalistic, maybe. [end of spoilers]

[…]

D: That’s exactly what I thought! In the end, I realized that Stephen is pretty sexist. She had that whole “I know what’s best for you better than you do” attitude. I wasn’t impressed. [spoilers] But what’s-his-name (see, this is why I took notes), the romantic competition, was just as bad. I was furious at both of them.

C: Martin! Martin is a big dumb jerk, too.

D: Ah, yes, Martin. I looooved Martin when he first came on the scene. (I live in BC, so I was like “Yes! Trees!”) Then, like Stephen, he took this nose dive as a character in the end. Sigh.

C: Stephen’s whole “Mary would be so much happier with a man” plan (without, you know, consulting Mary) [end of spoilers] really examplifies the problem with the Inversion theory.

D: Inversion theory?

C: Inversion as opposed to lesbianism. Like, an invert is a masculine woman or a feminine man. And they are doomed to forever fall in love with people they can never be with. Since of course they can’t be with one another.

D: Oh, yes. That really is pushed in WoL, huh? Because Mary is feminine and (by our current labels) bisexual, or even straight-with-an-exception, because you can’t be exclusively attracted to women if you’re feminine.

C: Oh, I don’t know about that. I think we put Mary in a lesbian bar circa-1955, she’d be all over the butches.

D: Probably. But I think that’s how Stephen sees her. I guess I think Stephen doesn’t really know her all that well at all, or at least doesn’t respect her. Because I think Stephen thought that without her influence, Mary would be “normal”.

C: Yes. Oh, inversion. How I shake my fist at you.

D: Definitely. So, again coming at it with 2010 labels, do you think WoL first more under a trans umbrella or a lesbian one? I think they can be read from both perspectives, but do you think it fits more into one than the other?

C: I really don’t think it’s fair to push our labels onto a book from 1928. Trans- identities are, by definition, personal and self-definied/understood, that I think it’s impossible to decide whether or not Stephen Gordon is a trans character. We’d have to ask her. But if I had to make a decision, I’d say it’s a lesbian novel. And even though I’d love to, I’ll still resist calling Stephen a butch, for the same reasons.  But I know you think of it as more of a trans novel. Care to rebut?

D: A very good point. Not that Stephen would be able to tell us, because she didn’t have the language. It’s odd, though, because the first half of the novel I was very, very sure that Stephen’s gender was more of an issue for her than her sexuality. I mean, by… what was it, 7 or 9? Something like that. As a kid, at least, she got a crush on a woman, so her sexuality did come up early, but her gender seemed to be an issue even earlier. I mean, even before she was born her parents were sure she was a son (not that that was unusual for the time). She was named Stephen. She hated anything feminine, any feminine clothing, her long hair, etc. She spent a long period in her childhood dressing up like a boy. There’s a great quote somewhere (I have it in my notes) where she asks her father if she could be a boy/man if she really tried hard, or if she prayed hard enough. She looks exactly like her father. I mean, it’s hard to tell if she really is “butch” (again, I know it’s silly to apply 2010 labels to 1928, but for the sake of argument) rather than trans. And, who wouldn’t want to be a man in 1928? It was a better life. So I’m divided, but I think there’s a good argument for it being a trans novel.

After she cuts off her hair and buys her own clothes, though, those issues seem to fade to the background and her sexuality becomes the big issue. There is one passage where she looks in the mirror and hates her body, but hating your body is a genderless problem, so again, hard to say.

[…]

C: The term ‘homosexuality,’ while in use in 1928, didn’t yet have its modern definition or its now understood division from gender. Inversion, on the other hand, completly tied sexual orientation to one’s gender and gender expression. A person labelled female at birth could not, by defition, be an invert without displaying masculine traits and masculine leanings. Therefore, in order to be a novel ABOUT inversion, Stephen has to be masculine. If we are using our modern lens here, then we can agree that, despite her masculinity, Stephen is not automatically male. The fact that her parents gave her a traditionally male name is out of her control. Lots of girls who continue to identify as women like to dress in pants rather than dresses because they are easier to walk and play in. Looking “like a man” or being masculine doesn’t make a person a man.

The conversation with her father is trickier, but if she has a crush on a girl, and thinks that only men and women can have relationships together, it’s logical that she would want to be a man in order to be happily in love with a woman.

D: True, but coming from a modern perspective, that assumes that you are by default the gender you were assigned at birth and only the opposite if there is overwhelming evidence. We don’t have overwhelming evidence that Stephen would identify as a man, but we have a lot less evidence than there is for Stephen identifying as a woman. She can’t stand to even be around women, except the ones she falls in love with.

That makes sense, but it isn’t just around having a partner that Stephen is frustrated at being labelled a girl. In fact, as some point she said “Being a girl ruins everything” (not an exact quote)

C: […] [H]er gender and gender expression can be on the trans-masculine spectrum without her necessarily being trans. In 1928(ish), being a girl DID ruin everything!

I think you are the gender you understand yourself to be, but sadly I can’t ask Stephen. 😉

D: Oh, and I meant to say in that first paragraph that of course she doesn’t hypothetically have to identify with either or just one. If I’m assigning modern labels, Stephen is probably more butch or genderqueer than transman, but you’re right in that it’s so very much a personal definition that it’s pointless to guess at that.

[…] I definitely think think Stephen would be in the trans-masculine spectrum, but isn’t that under the trans umbrella? Of course, it depends on how wide we’re making the umbrella, because under a lot of definitions Stephen would be included there by default because of her refusal to conform to gender norms in dress, hair, attitude, etc.

That’s a big part of the problem in trying to assess Stephen’s discomfort with her gender. Is it because she feels more trans, or is it just a natural reaction to the restrictive nature of being a woman at the time?

[…]

D: Okay, did you notice that animals can practically talk in WoL?

C: Why do animals always die in gay books? Why? And what is with LESBIANS and HORSES. Excuse me. INVERTS. Inverts and horses.

[…]

D: I thought that one of the ongoing themes in WoL is that aging is a tragedy. Everybody gets old and it is terrible.

[…]

C: Do you think TWOL is still important reading?

Hall hates the feminine ladies. Poor Mary. Do you think Lady Una gave Hall a good talking to after she read TWOL?

D: Yeah, I got definitely get a whiff of misogyny from WoL.

I think so. I mean, like I was saying in my post, it’s amazing/depressing the things that are still relevant. Stephen actually makes a pretty good case for same sex marriage, letting queer people serve in the army, and letting gay people adopt. It’s a sympathetic plea, partly because Stephen is so traditional other than her “inversion”.

I hope so. I wonder what Hall’s other books are like, if they all have this feminine = weak theme

C: I will be honest. I just hate BEING GAY IS SO HARD books. I know it CAN be hard and there are problems, but these books make it sound like we’re the most miserable bunch ever.

D: Ugh, I know. And the unhappily ever after queer books. When you’re already dealing with a tough time coming out or something, you don’t want to read about “DON’T BE GAY OR YOU’LL DIE/GO INSANE”. Of course, being gay in 1928 would be pretty awful.

C: Granted, 1928, not such a good year for the ole inverts.

[…]

C: What’s your favorite happy ending lesbian book?

Rules: 1) No one can die. 2) No horses 3) No rape.

Okay, commence. […] ( I can’t think of any.) […] Are you stumped because I am stumped.

[…]

D: THOUGH, and this is one of my issues in the book, Stephen could have had it so easy! You’re freaking rich, Stephen! You can lavishly support your hot young girlfriend! You can go on vacations and hold big lesbian parties! Why so sad?

And that was about it for our first conversation! I cut out the slightly off-topic meanderings (talking about the WoL covers, other lesbian books covers, and some other lesbian books), but if anyone’s interested in reading our random babbling, I can post that, too.

Check out more of Cass and I talking and complaining (I kid, I like it despite some of its issues) at Bonjour, Cass!

And hey, if anyone wants to do something like this with me again, just let me know! I’d probably be up for it. You don’t even need to be a book blogger. In fact, feel free to email me about lesbian books anytime (my email is in the About Me) section. It is my favourite topic! You can also ask me questions (even anonymously) on my Formspring.

Bi & Lesbian Book Recommendations

If you’re not sure where to start with queer women books, 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 lesbian 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. 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 transgender, not a lesbian. Lesbian (or transgender?) author.

Young Adult

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 Brownrigg

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 rumored 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 Home by Alison Bechdel cover2) 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).

Thanks for reading!