Danika reviews Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

What a book. What a journey. Her Body and Other Parties is a short story collection that blends feminism, queerness, and fabulism into a haunting read. I have to say, when I saw this book included on queer book lists, I kept my expectations low. I was already sold on reading it (feminism & fabulism & that cover? I couldn’t resist), so I would be happy with any queer story in the collection. So it felt like an abundance of riches to keep reading and finding that almost every story had a queer woman main character! I believe there was only one story that didn’t? I especially enjoyed when in one story, the main character (a writer) is accused of writing a stereotype: the mad woman in the attic–the mad lesbian in the attic, even worse! She replies in frustration that she is writing herself–her gay, anxious self.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and although I enjoyed the experience for the most part, I think this is one I would prefer reading in a physical format. They’re thoughtful, metaphorical stories–women literally fading away and being imbued in objects, lists of lovers that turn into a dystopian narrative, ghost stories brought to life–and they would benefit from time to linger over them, instead of being steadily rushed onward by the narrator. On the other hand, I would desperately have like to skim the SVU novella. This was a riff on Law and Order: SVU, and although I liked the concept and elements of the story, I felt as if it dragged, and it was frustrating not being able to skim or at least see when the next story started.

I can see myself coming back to these stories again and again. The first few were my favourites: “The Husband Stitch,” which retells the classic scary story about a girl with a green ribbon around her neck, while also weaving in more urban legends and spooky stories, exposing the misogyny lurking at the heart of them. “Inventory,” which is a list of the main character’s lovers throughout her life. We slowly learn what lead her to this point of meticulous documentation.

Beautifully unsettling, Her Body and Other Parties cracks open familiar stories to expose the rot beneath. If you’re a fan of magical realism or fabulism, I would highly recommend this one. It will leave you unsettled and thoughtful.

Danika reviews Biketopia edited by Elly Blue

A smart person once told me that the key to having a good life in the face of world’s uncertainty is to find something that is meaningful for you and go all-in for it. For me, that’s the real appeal of both bicycles and science fiction–no matter how grim the world looks, each other can take you to a place where you can see another perspective, explore your options, and even if they each have the potential to create as many problems they solve, at least you’ve gone somewhere in a way that feels good.

The introduction to Biketopia 

If I’m being entirely honest, I’d have to admit that my favourite part of Biketopia is the cover. That’s not a slight on the stories! It’s just that the sight of this beautiful illustration of a badass woman raising a bike above her head is arresting. Add on to that these are speculative fiction, feminist, bike-centered stories? I’m sold several times over!

There are only two blatantly queer stories in this collection, but all the stories do focus on women and their relationships with each other. The premises range, including semi-utopias, horrific dystopias, classic sci fi, as well as settings that seem all-too-possible.

The first sapphic story is “Meet Cute” by Maddy Spencer, the only comic of the collection. It is wordless, and shows our main character bringing her bike-powered bookmobile through a town. Although we obviously don’t get a big backstory, this seems like a peaceful, cooperative place, and bikes look to be the only means of transportation (other than by foot or wheelchair). When her bikemobile tips over, an adorable mechanic with an artificial (robot? magic??) arm repairs it for her, and hands her a phone number while they both blush furiously. It’s very short, but super cute.

The other queer story is “The Future of Flirtation” by Leigh Ward-Smith. Mika runs a mobile shop in a post-climate-change, water-starved world. When a 6-foot-something muscled figure strides up to her stand, she is immediately smitten, even though she has no idea the gender or even species of the person behind the mirrored helmet. She spends the story attempted to flirt with them, while bartering over a cold can of Coke.

This was a fun read, and although there weren’t many stories that were incredibly memorable, I did find the variations on “feminist bicycle science fiction” stories interesting. They definitely went in different directions. This is actually the fourth volume of the Bikes In Space series, each of which explore feminist sci fi stories about bicycling, so that sounds like your style, you should pick one up! (Probably this one. It has queer stories and a sweet cover.)

Megan Casey reviews The Other Side of Silence by Joan Drury

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Tyler Jones is not the most social person in the world, so when she wins the Pulitzer Prize for journalism for a feature story about spousal abuse committed by members of the police force, she goes into semi-retirement, writing her newspaper columns from home. Because of her urgent concern about violence against women, she also spends time at a crisis center. But although her research and counseling brings her into contact with many forms of violence, her own life is rather uninteresting and predictable. That is until she finds a dead body in the park while out walking her dog.

The characterization of Tyler is very subtle, and we often have to rely on small clues to get a true picture of her. We know that she broke up with her last lover ten years before and that she is more comfortable working at home than at an office. This may be explained by the fact that she describes herself as “hefty,” “robust,” and “fat.” Not in the way a fashion model might think she has to lose a pound or two, but because Tyler is truly overweight. Yet she mentions this only in passing—never dwells on her weight issues. We also know that she is a recovering alcoholic who is often badly in need of a drink. The fact that Drury gives us no backstory on any of this is an omission that might be rectified in the two subsequent books about Tyler Jones.

Here’s another thing we know about Tyler but have no real backstory on: she has little use for men (except for her contact at the newspaper) and blames them for much of the violence that goes on in the world—especially against women. As she says, “I am, with reason, suspicious about men—especially when it comes to violence.” In fact, Tyler makes her living writing about the subject. She produces a weekly column for her newspaper and is writing a book-length oral history. And hey, Tyler is a writer who actually writes. We are not just told about a column, we get to read it, too. Likewise chapters of her book, which are convincing and heartfelt.

So does this mean that men won’t like this book? Umm. Many won’t, but that’s their loss. The history of feminism and the ongoing violence against women is a subject that everyone should take a serious interest in. The fact is, The Other Side of Silence is one of the most well-crafted mysteries I have ever read. It just continues to develop until the very unusual (but maybe not totally unexpected) ending. The fact that Tyler (and Drury, who was the editor and publisher of Spinster’s Ink for 10 years) have an important agenda is all the better.

The plot has to do with Tyler finding the body of a man in the park next to her house. The man happens to be a spouse abuser who once attacked Tyler physically when he found out that she was using her apartment as a safe house for his wife. Who would kill such a man? Everyone? Maybe it was Tyler herself—the police certainly think so. And of course to prove her innocence, Tyler has to uncover the perpetrator on her own. Unlike many books with this motif, however, Tyler’s experience and skill as a reporter gives her the tools she needs to actually investigate in a believable manner.

Oh, there’s a glitch or two, but they are so subtle it would be hard to prove they even exist. I’m willing to let them go and to give this novel a solid 4 stars. It certainly gave me reason to buy and read the other two novels in this series. It is one that should be on most people’s to-read list.

For more than 200 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

Danika reviews Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

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Audre Lorde is such an influential writer in lesbian, black, and feminist (and black lesbian feminist) literature and theory that frankly I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t read anything by her. I decided to finally rectify that by picking up her work that I’d heard the most about, Sister Outsider. This was an interesting read for me, partly because it’s a book that I’ve read many quotations from and paraphrases of, and partly because it’s a book for a specific period (1980s america) and audience (primarily other black women) that I don’t share.

This was the first book that I read by Lorde, and after reading a few essays and especially the interview, I regretted not starting with her poetry. I think Audre Lorde is known more now for Sister Outsider and Zami than her poetry, but she really self-identifies as a poet, and discusses poetry as basically her first language. Her theory and prose is inspired by and rooted in her poetry, and although I planned to pick up Zami after this one, I think I’ll be backtracking and reading a collection of her poetry first to get a better grounding in her work.

Much of what Lorde discusses is recent events and current politics at the time she was writing. Some of this doesn’t completely translates, but some is horrifyingly still current, such as her referencing recent shootings of unarmed black men by police, which could easily have been written yesterday. Overall, even if the examples that she offers are not current, the ideas are still very much relevant today. Some of it I felt like I was muddling through, and I knew I would need to reread it to fully absorb. Some ideas stopped me in my tracks. As a white reader, not all of the strategies and topics were meant for me, but I think that any reader will find Sister Outsider enlightening, even if they’re not able to engage with every subject.

This was a great mix of ideas and tones. I liked reading Lorde’s journal entry and interview alongside sharply honed essays. It’s clear that Lorde is a poet: she crafts lines carefully and I found myself noting many quotes that I wanted to post on the Lesbrary tumblr or just to remember for myself. Like this one:

We had to metabolize such hatred that our cells have learned to live upon it because we had to, or die of it. Old King Mithridates learned to eat arsenic bit by bit and so outwitted his poisoners, but I’d have hated to kiss him upon his lips! Now we deny such hatred ever existed because we have learned to neutralize it  through ourselves, and the catabolic process throws off waste products of fury even when we love.

If you’ve been inexplicably putting off reading Audre Lorde, I highly recommend you take this as your cue to pick up one of her books. Maybe start with some of her poetry, but either way, you’ll find a lot to consider in Sister Outsider.

 

Elinor reviews Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

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I loved poetry as a teenager, but post-college I’ve hardly read any. As an adult, I read novels largely for escape and relaxation, and nonfiction for information and/or work and grad school. Poetry is a different animal, grounded in emotional truths, ideals, and sensations. It’s not something I make time for much anymore, but I jumped at the chance to review Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha‘s new book of poetry, Bodymap. I picked it up not because it’s poetry, but because it’s Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. I first read her work in Colonize This! as a college student. Her essays have popped up in many anthologies I’ve liked over the years, and I’ve admired Piepzna-Samarasinha for more than a decade now. Once I saw her at Femme Conference and it felt like seeing a celebrity. After you read this book, I think you’ll feel the same way.

Like her other writing, Bodymap is deeply personal and political. The poems are mostly short, rooted in her life as a Tamil/Burgher Sri Lankan and Irish/Roma disabled queer femme. Her life, love, activism, sexuality, identity, body, and family all tangle through pages. As in previous writing, she explores the difficulties and joys of chosen family and community, and brings generosity and maturity to the subject. In many ways, this was the book I wanted How to Grow Up to be. Piepzna-Samarasinha wrestles with real, difficult topics with emotion and intelligence. By the end of this book of poems, she is a parent with an impressive career, meaningful relationships, and more than a little insight into how to care for herself and those she loves. This book is wise without being preachy or self-aggrandizing, and loving without being cliche or saccharine. The writing itself is straight-up gorgeous.

The first night I read it, I intended to skim this book but got sucked in right away. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s descriptions are evocative, and at times made me cry. It also made me wonder if I should call my ex-best friend and try to talk things out. It made me want to read tarot cards and cook vegan food and whip up homemade beauty treatments. Reading this slim book was a wonderfully emotional experience that connected me to my values and priorities.

Normally in my reviews I suggest who might and might not be interested in a particular book, but I think just about everyone should read Bodymap. If you read poetry, this book is a reminder why you love it. If you don’t read poetry, you should read Bodymap because it’s accessible and beautiful, written with deep maturity and open-hearted honesty. If you’re a long-time fan, you won’t be disappointed as she covers familiar topics with precise and vivid language. If you haven’t read Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work before, Bodymap is an excellent place to start.

Elinor Zimmerman is sometimes on tumblr at http://elinorradicalzimmerman.tumblr.com/

Danika reviews Colonize This!: Young Women of Color On Today’s Feminism edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman

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Colonize This! is a collection of personal essays by women of colour about feminism, womanism, and related topics. This is a collection that covers a wide range of experiences, and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of queer contributors–which shouldn’t really have been a surprise, since one of the editors is bisexual.

This is a book that really explores multiple intersections of racism and sexism, with homophobia forming another layer for many of the women writing. This was written in 2002, so many of the events mentioned are outdated now (9/11 is referenced as being a really recent event, for instance), but unfortunately the issues covered are still extremely relevant today. This is a very readable collection, though it tackles difficult subject matter. If you’re intimidated by picking up feminist theory, this is a book that discusses feminism while not having a lot of barriers to entry.

I really appreciated all the different perspectives in this collection, and how they combined to show some of the complicated ways that sexism and racism manifest in different people’s lived experiences. My only real complaint about this collection was that in contrast to bi and lesbian representation, there weren’t any trans voices or many that addressed disability. (I also thought that the collection had less focus on colonialism than the title would lead you to believe, but I can see how it’s an undercurrent.)

This is still one that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in social justice, racism and anti-racism, colonialism and decolonization, and sexism, feminism, and womanism.

Laura reviews Sister Spit edited by Michelle Tea

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In the introduction to Sister Spit: Writing, Rants & Reminiscence from the Road, editor Michelle Tea proudly writes that Sister Spit is what she did instead of college. Reading this collection is like digging through a pile of her study group’s crumpled looseleaf notes at the end of the semester. It’s enough to get the gist of the lesbian-feminist-trans-vegan-poet-artist-addict-activist-adventurer curriculum, but by no means will you gain any mastery of it. You’ll just wish you’d enrolled in the classes, then lie awake at night questioning every major life decision you’ve ever made. In a good way. Really.

Sister Spit was formed in 1994, when Tea and Sini Anderson created a girls-only open mic night to get away from the Bukowski-worshipping bros dominating the San Francisco literary scene. Their show ran every Sunday for two straight years before they picked it up and hit the road. Together, Tea and Anderson led a roving band of queer poets and storytellers across the country in couple ramshackle rental vans, stopping in a new city every night to give live performances.

“Most Sister Spit shows are about class,” writes Tea. “About class and being female, or about class and not being female, about being trans, a faggot. There is feminism in everything, a punkness too.” The same gut feeling is also true for the works contained in Sister Spit (the book), and it is a pleasure to read.

Covering 15 years of Sister Spit’s best work, this anthology shows incredible range. The collection starts off strong from the very first piece: “Star,” a violent, bitchy, improper, fabulous poem by Samuel Topiary. A little further in, I loved “Training for Goddesses,” in which the hilarious Kat Marie Yoas describes her experiences at a dominatrix training camp. And “Real Paper Letter” by Tamara Llosa-Sandor was funny and wonderful in a gentler, contemplative sort of way.

My favorite piece of writing in Sister Spit is “High Five for Ram Dass” by Harry Dodge. Consider:

Chuck Mangione, Late Zeppelin and a Streisand are stuffed under the bleachers in a throbbing gyroscopic heap. Late Zeppelin’s head is banging into the aluminum bench at a pace that makes me feel like doing “The Bus Stop.” I watch them for a long minute and the crickets rev up their nighttime calypso. Buttes the color of ash and pumpkin ascend until mercifully, they eclipse the sun. A totally relaxing primal event. I feel looser. The air is soft, exactly the temperature of my skin and fragrant to boot. Orange blossoms. Tuna. Whimpers, screams, yells replace the metallic fuck-gonging and before long the trio emerges into the soft dark night smiling. Stumbling on loose hips.

Beautiful, isn’t it? It’s from a story about formerly feral children resynthesizing into contemporary culture.

Perhaps my least favorite segments in Sister Spit were the ones “from the road.” I found the constant name dropping to be distracting and annoying. Still, I loved reading the tales. I love knowing that these people — interesting, creative, inventive and resourceful as they are — existed and exist. I love that they’ve documented their stories and that I can access them whenever I want. And, okay, “Where Is My Soul?” with Cristy C. Road’s reflections from the road, equal parts inspirational and relatable, are pretty wonderful. “How do you do this?” she asks. “How do you grow so gracefully, achieving levels of confidence and success while maintaining your grit and spirit? Your anger and identity? How do I become Eileen Myles?” Oof. This. Or alternatively, how do I become Michelle Tea?

Sister Spit’s Spring 2013 literary tour begins in just a few short weeks! For a full list of tour stops, check out the City Lights website.

Laura reviews Red Falcon’s District by Leilani Beck

Red Falcon’s District is a historical fantasy novel by Leilani Beck. The story follows Bridget Caswell — a plucky young woman who has been on the run her entire life — as she takes sanctuary in an unusual, little known London district. A capable work by an emerging author, this book is an excellent choice for fans of beloved lesbian author Sarah Waters and queer-friendly writer Tamora Pierce.

Taking a page out of Waters’ playbook, Beck puts her intrepid Victorian era lesbian characters in situations highlighting racial and class tensions unique to that time. There are beautiful representations of complex human relationships, and several multi-layered character reveals that Waters fans will love. But on the whole, Red Falcon’s District actually much more reminded me Pierce’s work.

Though Pierce typically traffics in medieval knighthood, the fantasy elements of Beck’s world fall squarely in her court. The characters of Red Falcon’s District would be right at home doing magic with Daine in Tortall, or deploying their abilities alongside Briar in Emelan. Pierce fans will especially love Beck’s lively cast of unconventional characters. Their exceptionally practical concerns (How do these clothes impact my ability to run? How much are grapes at the market today?) are relatable and endearing. That Beck also manages to work in feminist themes throughout the work is just icing on the cake.

In a time when many ask where all the new lesbian authors are, Leilani Beck is a fresh, talented voice just waiting to be discovered. (The Washington-based author is not yet represented by an agent or publisher! Hint hint.) Style-wise, her writing can be a little clunky, particularly at the beginning of the novel. But if you can get past this, there’s a really fantastic story here, and I’m happy to have read it. I sincerely hope that you will give it a chance too.

Red Falcon’s District is available digitally for $2.99.