Danika reviews Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

juliettakesabreathI don’t usually buy new releases. I acquire so many books that I tend to stick to used books and the library for new acquisitions. But when the reviews for Juliet Takes a Breath began to pour in, I couldn’t resist! I bought it brand new and moved it to the corner of my dresser, ready to be the next book I picked up. And then it sat there for about six months.

In that time, I heard more and more of the book blogs and vlogs I follow mention Juliet, almost always positively. But somewhere along the line the hype began to have the opposite effect. What if I was one of the few that didn’t like it? And then how would I even talk about it? I wanted to like it so much that I was afraid to actually read it in case it disappointed me. It wasn’t until booktube started the #diverseathon that I decided to finally take the leap and pick it. (“Finally!” My partner said. “I  feel like I’ve been hearing about that book every day for our entire relationship!”)

As usual, my nervousness was completely unfounded. I can see why so many people fell in love with this book, and I can only agree. It may not be for everyone–its focus on feminist politics and how they intersect with race and other factors will feel unfamiliar to some readers–but I thought it did a fantastic job with that focus.

This is a coming of age story about Juliet, who’s just had her eyes opened to feminist ideals by a book titled Raging Flower: Empowering your Pussy by Empowering your Mind. She’s so blown away by this book that she writes a letter to the author and lands an internship with her. She hops on a plane and arrives in the alien world of Portland, Oregon: a very different place from the Bronx.

There are lots of things going on in this book, but what stuck with me is its recognition that people are complicated and flawed. You can have some things figured out and get others completely, devastatingly wrong. And it’s up to us to decide which people are worth sticking with despite their fuck-ups and which people are toxic for us despite the things they get right. I think that’s such an important and affirming thing to see in a book about social justice.

This also really captures the feeling of diving into feminism and social justice and just getting hit with waves of information that are counter to what you’ve been taught to believe, and the overwhelming process of trying to sift through all of these ideas and find what makes sense to you, what you’re not able to wrap your head around yet, and what’s actually hate wrapped up in the right vocabulary. There’s a lot of theory and discussion in this book, and that makes sense for what it’s addressing.

I loved this book, and I can’t wait for Gabby Rivera’s next one.

Stephanie reviews Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

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I can’t remember the last time I read a book in two days, but I have to admit that once I started reading Juliet Takes a Breath, I couldn’t put it down. I laughed, cried, raged, and wondered at Juliet’s antics and her naiveté, and fell more in love with this book every time I turned the page.

The novel’s protagonist is Juliet Milagros Palante, a 19-year-old Puerto Rican college student from the Bronx. She’s pretty sure she’s lesbian, and has been reading her feminist idol Harlowe Brisbane’s Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind, to help her learn more about feminism as well as her own sexual orientation. On a whim, Juliet writes Harlowe a letter and the author responds with an invitation to Portland to work as her intern for the summer.  After an awkward dinner where she comes out to her family, Juliet hops on a plane to Portland to try to figure it all out.

Harlowe is every white lesbian feminist hippie stereotype rolled into one. I have a feeling this was purposeful, since a good portion of the latter half of the novel is spent questioning Harlowe’s intentions and the one egregious act that sends Juliet away from Portland for a few days.  Still, Rivera’s characterization of Harlowe is hilarious as well as fodder for serious eye rolling. For example, when Juliet starts her period early, Harlowe tells her “My cycle is probably going to mentor yours.” Another gem:  After Juliet experiences a few intense days, Harlowe declares, “Not talking about a break-up can totally lead to a yeast infection.” There’s more of this, but again, I think the stereotyping is intentional; Rivera’s purpose is to question the universality of feminism and sisterhood, and Harlowe is the vessel through which she works through these issues in her novel.

My favorite character is probably Juliet’s cousin Ava, who calls Juliet out on her obtuseness after she flees to Miami to process what happened at Harlowe’s reading at the bookstore in Portland. My favorite line: “Girl, c’mon you could have realized that she was some hippie-ass, holier-than-thou white lady preaching her bullshit universal feminism to everyone.” Welp. I have to admit, I’d been waiting for someone to say this to Juliet the entire novel.  Regardless, Ava helps her to understand that queer Brown communities just might be the place where she can be her entire Puerto Rican, feminist, queer, curvy, self.   Ava takes Juliet to the Clipper Queerz party, a Black and Brown people only space, where it’s “less about there being ‘no white people’ and more of a night for us to breathe easier.”  Black and Brown folks are often accused of being exclusionary when we carve out spaces for ourselves, and Rivera does a great job of making it clear why these spaces are necessary for our mental, emotional, and yes, physical health.

I really loved this novel. However, there were a couple of times where I shook my head in disbelief as I was reading. For example, while Juliet’s naiveté is mostly endearing, there are places where it’s a bit over the top. How has she not heard of Chicana feminists Cherríe Moraga or Gloria Anzaldúa? Even her white feminist lesbian girlfriend Lainie seems to have a better grasp of Latina activists than Juliet, given her knowledge of Puerto Rican history and Lolita Lébron.  I was also a little troubled by the scene where she bleeds all over the bed at Harlowe’s house. Let me be clear, the bleeding wasn’t my issue, but who on earth tries to clean blood off of sheets using deodorant? Juliet is 19, not nine, so it seems unlikely that she wouldn’t know how to get a bloodstain out of her sheets.  There were a couple of other minor snafus as well, (the novel was preachy in places, and we don’t know that the novel is set in 2002 until halfway through), but these issues don’t detract much from the story.

All in all, this novel is a welcome addition to lesbian literature that focuses on Latina experiences. It’s a “fish out of water” type bildungsroman, with a Queer Brown twist. Does Juliet figure it all out in Portland? Is she able to reconcile all the parts of her intersectional identity? Can all women truly be sisters? I can’t promise that Juliet Takes a Breath offers tidy answers to any of these questions, but I can promise that you’ll have the time of your life finding out.

 

Casey reviews Give It to Me by Ana Castillo

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Doesn’t it always seem that the books that you have the highest expectations for are the ones that let you down?  That was my experience reading Give It to Me by Ana Castillo, this year’s winner in the bisexual fiction category at the Lambda Literary awards.  This novel left me with a lot of mixed feelings, ones even two months or so after reading I haven’t managed to sort out.

Give It to Me is one of those hard to describe books.  The tone is all over the place.  On the one hand, it’s kind of a romp, with the main character Palma Piedras’s bisexual sexcapades featured throughout the story and lots of random antics, like being an extra in a Tommy Lee Jones movie and randomly meeting a Dalai Lama-like Buddhist guru who gives you life advice.  So at first the novel feels like it’s going to be light-hearted and escapist.  It is definitely not.  On the other hand, this novel is aching with (be)longing, and Palma is so desperate at times beneath her façade it’s heartbreaking.  There is also some serious shit that goes down in this book, some of which shows Palma in quite an unflattering light.

This is a book by a Latina author about a Latina woman, and the tone got me thinking about Latin American music, which I hear a far amount of because both my partner and a good friend are Latino.  Sometimes what feels really foreign to me about that music is the combination of melodies that sound happy, and lyrics that are sad.  Often sad Latin American music doesn’t sound sad to me.  I felt similarly confused about this book.  I think it’s quite likely this is an entirely cultural issue, and that my mixed feelings are a result of my white cultural and racial background.  I’d be interested to hear what Latin@ readers think about the tone!

At times, Give It to Me is laugh-out-loud funny: Castillo has a dark, biting sense of humour that straddles the border between comedy and tragedy, much like the tone of the book.  This was definitely one aspect of the book that I liked.  Only a few pages in, I was chuckling to myself while reading.

This book also had a lot of smart, real things to say about gender, race, (bi)sexuality, and class.  One of the more interesting parts was when Palma was thinking especially about being mestizo, a “Native red-brown” in comparison to a black friend/lover:

She’d have given anything to be that color. Or white as his porcelain toilet. Either black or white. The in-between thing hadn’t worked out in her most recent incarnation. The brown woman was taken for the chambermaid in hotels or the housekeeper .. . . Did she speak English? Spanish? Would she nanny for them? Did she clean windows? Maybe it was the look of the future owners of the world but not yet.

Despite gems like that, about halfway through the book I began to get tired of the meandering / lack of plot.  I thought maybe in the second half the novel would pick up and would start going somewhere plot-wise, but I figured out three quarters through that what I was waiting for wasn’t going to happen, and then that felt too late to re-evaluate and change my expectations.  It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that Palma ends up pretty much where she started at the end of the book, but it is a disheartening end when you’ve followed a character make bad decision after bad decision, fuck someone new every time as a coping mechanism, and then never learn anything.  It’s not even that Palma has “lost her way”; it’s that at forty-something she has never found it.  If that’s not a depressing thought, I don’t know what is.

One last note: there are two instances of sexual assault in this book (one with a man, another with a woman), both of which were dealt with (in my opinion) in a relatively dismissive way.  The scene with the man especially was fairly graphic, and then there was little mention of it afterwards, which disturbed me.  Palma does enact revenge on the woman, although this is after continuing to date her (mostly for her money) for months.  I was pretty uncomfortable with how the book dealt with this.

Danika reviews The Voting Booth After Dark by Vanessa Libertad Garcia

This book is a little difficult to review, because it’s not a novel. It doesn’t have a plot. It’s a collection of fragments, snippets, of different people’s lives. The description calls it a collection of short stories and poems interwoven into a narrative that follows a group of addicted gay & lesbian Latino club kids destroying themselves throughout the course of the 2008 elections. It’s unclear which fragments/poems are attached to which narrator. The narrators rarely get names.  Instead, you just get a sense of the overall frustration, self-destructiveness, and even despair of the group as a whole. In that way, all their lives weave together.

I found it a little like reading scraps of people’s diaries. The context wasn’t given, nothing was explained for you (including things that seem like inside jokes), and it wasn’t always grammatically correct. It felt authentic, but it also completely lost me a couple of times. Despite the blurb, the election wasn’t given as much attention as I was expecting. It’s more of a setting and context for the stories than the focus of them. The subject matter is dark, from addiction to suicide attempts. It’s definitely not a light read.

The Voting Booth After Dark is an unusual little book (only 70 pages), but if you enjoy taking a peek into the minds of people, you should find it interesting.

Joint Review with Rie: Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole

Rie of Friend of Dorothy Wilde was kind enough to read Down to the Bone by Mayra Lazara Dole with me, and then we discussed it together. I tried to mark the spoilers (ones just marked “spoilers” are just for Down to the Bone, and spoilers for other books are indicated) so that you have to highlight to read them. I’m sorry if you read the unedited version; it posted too quickly!

Danika: Hmm, I guess I’ll just throw out some general impressions and we can expand from there. Well, I was stunned by how fast-moving it is. The first chapter could stretch the whole novel for most of the lesbian teen books I’ve been reading. I’m not entirely sure whether that was a positive or negative for me. Not only do a lot of things happen in the book (which I like), but they all happen very quickly. There’s not really any room to absorb what’s happening. Of course, if she had spaced out the action, it would be a very, very long book.

I loved the culture in Down To the Bone (what’s with the title, anyway?). I’m so used to reading the same sort of story over and over (middle-class white girl come out), so I really appreciated getting this glimpse into Cuban culture in Miami (is that right, Miami?). The Spanish phrases thrown in flow perfectly, and I didn’t feel the need to consult the glossary at the back (actually, I didn’t realize it had one until I finished it).

It was also interesting to see the family dynamic. I spent the book hating her mother so much that I couldn’t understand why she would want to be around her. It’s also unusual that we have a story where the protagonist is thrown out of the house (which is something that happens way too often in real life, but is rarely represented in our novels), but she’s not actually homeless. She has these competing forces of a completely intolerant mother and classmates, but fantastic friends who are willing to take her in and take care of her, not to mention the brother that adores her.

I was on the fence about the representations of trans people in Down To the Bone. I appreciated that there was some mention, but at times it seemed disrespectful. I wish I could remember specific instances now, but it really was a whirlwind.

This is definitely completely different from Annie On My Mind or Hello, Groin, and I’m really happy to see that diversity. I think its strength and weakness is that it does seem more true to real life. There’s so much going on, and a whole fleet of characters being introduced and leaving at any given point, which can be hard to follow and overwhelming, but it’s also more honest and relatable, maybe even more interesting.

Rie:Isn’t it just? I can’t believe how fast it moved, for how long it was, but I also didn’t want it to end. Some plot threads (whatever happened to El Gringo?)  did seem to wander off into the blue yonder, but life’s like that; sometimes your friend has a new boy for the blink of an eye. What struck me about the novel as a whole is that it’s very, for lack of a better word, teenager-y. Sure, they are excellent novels that have an authentic teen voice, this book really immersed me in the worldview of an actual teenager. Their days fly by, they love things passionately, they describe themselves by what they like. It’s a very endearing quality, though I do agree that sometimes I would have liked to slow down and enjoy the scenery a bit.

In the very last paragraph, Laura says that she feels loved down to the bone. 😀 The original title was Act Natural after the scene where Tazer is talking about his friend’s screenplay. Mom discovers her daughter in bed with another girl, and one of them yells “Act natural! Act natural!” It’s a good title, but too subtle for teen readers, I think.

Doles got some criticism for the book, that the emotions ran too high and the story was too dramatic. What did you think? I can speak from personal experience, raised Italian-Roman-Catholic, that no, that’s not an exaggeration, not at all. My family is a little bit more open-minded:  they want me to ” Mother of God, Mary most holy, please marry a nice Italian girl, no more  mamadell’ puttannas [skanky bitches].”

Speaking of, wasn’t it interesting to read about a queer teen with such a strong support network? I read another coming-out book whose climax was much like this book’s opening, but she ended up in a home for gay teens that had been kicked out–even the school guidance counselor had a vendetta against her! There was something really comforting in reading about Laura making a new family with people who aren’t blood family. I also think it’s important to have a narrative where friend-family picks up when your blood family can’t be trusted because they stop loving you.

And how awesome was it that Laura [spoilers] stuck up for herself and said she’d continue her relationship with her little bro, no matter what? [/spoilers] They were so cute together and it broke my heart when he talked about how it was terrible that he couldn’t see her or her puppy, and he was being punished even though he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Regarding trans folk in Down to the Bone, when I got a little cranky about certain words and how they were used, what helped me was thinking of the story through Laura’s eyes instead of immediately thinking OMG MAYRA LAZARA DOLES IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET. 😛 She’s 16 and completely new to the Miami queer scene, of course she doesn’t get that feminizing a genderqueer dude could be really disorienting for him. To his credit, Tazer took it in stride, and having him want to change for her showed his youth; don’t we all have the experience of wanting to be different for someone we really care about?

Also, how hot is Tazer? It’s been a couple years since the book came out, he’s legal now. 😀

Danika: I felt the same. When I picked it up I was like “Wow… that’s a big teen book”, but it really whipped along, and it could have even been longer. Yeah, exactly: it felt very true to real teen experiences, though that can be a little intimidating to rad.

Oooh, okay. That makes sense, I must have just missed it. I think I would have preferred Act Natural, but Down to the Bone works too. I thought that scene was hilarious.

Hmmm, it’s funny, because apparently Beth Goobie got some criticism for her book Hello, Groin (the last joint review I did) for being too cheery, which it really isn’t, since she spends the whole book struggling with her sexuality. I really don’t think you can win. The problem is that idea of the problem of one story. If you’re taking any book to be a representation of all people’s experiences, than it’s never going to live up to that. But if you take it as just one story of many, it makes more sense. I think that it’s an exaggeration for some people, but totally accurate for others, and since we so rarely see those stories (being kicked out when you come out, having a Cuban and Catholic family), I think it’s really important to represent that side of things. Some people are genuinely that emotional, and there’s no reason that their story shouldn’t be told. Besides, I got a definite semi-autobiographical scent off Down to the Bone, so I doubt Dole’s story is far off from her own (she’s also originally from Cuba and moved to Miami).

Yes, I thought that was really interesting. It was a good balance, because we got the story of “What if your parent/s don’t take it well? What if you get kicked out? What if they never come around?” without having it turn to utter despair. And considering how sickeningly often that happens to queer kids, I love that Down to the Bone offered an alternation to “blood” family, showing that there is more than one place to find safety and community. I’m definitely of the belief that “blood” is not nearly as important as how you are treated. I see stories about people who just keep coming back and begging for their intolerant families to accept them, and it makes me sad, because they deserve better. You’re right, it’s a good representation of chosen family, and of how you can find acceptance and community where you aren’t expecting it (Soli’s mom has a similar religious and cultural background as Laura’s mom, but doesn’t think it’s in opposition to accepting Laura).

Aaaww, I know, the little brother part was so hard, because I wanted her to just ditch her mom, but she loved her little brother so much! [spoilers] I’m glad she refused to compromise there and realized her own strength. [/spoilers]

It’s true, it does make more sense when you realize that Laura is unsure of what she’s talking about, but it still was a little flinch-worthy at times. Yes, it totally makes sense that Tazer would be willing to compromise a bit because he likes Laura. He was really laid back about everything, actually, far more than I would be. (You don’t want to be seen with me in public?! No, I’m not going to just put up with that.)

Rie: It’s funny–if you go back over the text with the original title in mind, you can see characters making comments about acting natural or what is natural and what’s good, and why people believe different things.

I’ve just read Hello, Groin myself (and Annie on My Mind is an old friend), so I’ve been thinking about the three protagonists, all lesbian, all around the same age, and how they approached their sexuality. It’s remarkable how much of a difference almost 30 years makes, no? But at the same time, how sad that teens still struggle with the same issues. Laura, for all of her insecurity about her sexuality, seems to be the most self-aware of the three. She has a very solid sense of who she is, and what she wants. Her comments about how Tazer is too sexually and emotionally agressive, and how she wants an equal partnership in bed and out of it, just floored me. It’s a very mature distinction to make in a relationship. Dylan has a healthier, more progressive awareness of queer sexuality itself, but Laura is more mature overall, more than likely from dealing with the death of her father and taking care of her family while her mother worked three jobs.
 
Speaking of, I saw the death of her father being one of the main reasons why she wanted to go back to her family, that unspoken feeling that her family was broken enough, and she didn’t want to lose what she had left. It does not excuse her mother’s behavior, but I understand why Laura was so desperate to seek her approval, especially since it seemed like she had a pretty decent relationship with her Mami before she found out.
 
Can we talk about Laura, Liza, and Dylan, and their choice in partners? [spoilers for Hello Groin, Annie On My Mind, and Down to the Bone] All three books end with the protagonist happily paired off, and [/spoilers] the relationships themselves have some striking similarities, but also key differences. Laura, for all her maturity, has a very [spoilers for Down to the Bone and Annie On My Mind] Liza-and-Annie storybook relationship with Gisela [/spoilers], while Dylan [spoilers for Hello, Groin] got together with her best friend, only now they kiss. [/spoilers] To be honest, I never quite saw what Dylan saw in Joc; she’s an old and true friend, but Dylan is such a curious, intelligent girl and Joc is kind of a flake (though I much admire her bravery and championing of the underdog, which happened a few times in Hello, Groin.).

Danika: Ooh, I’d like to re-read it with that in mind. Fascinating.

Oh good! I’m glad we can compare them, then! Hmm, I’m not sure which one I would consider the most mature… Laura does seem very self-aware, but all three of them are pretty introspective. Dylan is more aware of queer sexuality than Liza and Laura, maybe, but I think Laura is the only one to really find any sort of home in the queer community. Yes, Liza [spoilers for Annie On My Mind] has mentors in the teachers [/spoilers], but other than books, the community doesn’t really get any larger than that. Dylan is aware of the queer community, but rejects it, and never even seeks out queer media. She and Liza both seem to come at it from a place of “this is just who I am, it’s a very personal thing”, whereas Laura starts out that way but then becomes more aware of the queer community and seems to begin to reconcile that individual nature of being queer with being part of a queer community. I think that integration, the individual approach, is a perfectly valid thing to do, but I did like that Laura had a better opinion of the community aspect as well.

I hadn’t considered that, but that’s a very good point. That would definitely influence how her and her mother reacted. Her Mami would be trying to cling onto some semblance of a “normal” family and balk at any violation of that, and Laura wouldn’t want to further splinter her family. That makes a lot of sense.

[spoilers] Yes, I think the happily-paired-off ending is still mandatory in queer-positive teen books. We’re still getting over lesbian pulps’ endings. [/spoilers] I also was sort of puzzled by Dylan’s adoration of Joc. She has her moments, but she could also be pretty harsh. I think I just decided that the Joc featured in most of the book was different from the Joc that Dylan had started liking, because Joc was so deeply closeted (it really can eat away at you), and Dylan could still see the real Joc through that. [spoilers for all three] It’s funny, I think in all of the endings, you’re not really sure if it will work out. I mean, Joc seems pretty unstable, Annie and Liza went through this big traumatic experience and stopped speaking to each other for a while, and Laura just has this mysterious attraction to Giselle. We’re told characteristics about Giselle that seem like they would fit with Laura, but we don’t really get a chance to see them acted. It makes sense to end them that way, though, because most of us don’t end up with our high school sweethearts, but it is interesting. [/spoilers]

Rie: Community is something I thought about rereading this book, and thinking back over the lesbian YA lit that I’ve read. Down to the Bone really shines in showing that a queer community can be a really positive and empowering to experience. A lot of teen books have protagonists that are very “Oh, I’m a lesbian, but I’m just normal,I don’t need to hang out with other queer folk.” I can see how this is important to teenagers, who want to be just NORMAL, but I think that it also perpetuates the idea that hetero culture is what’s normal/the default. My outlook vastly improved when I discovered media about woman-loving women, and I think that having friends that are queer and connecting with other queer youth is a healthy and good thing. Laura was skeptical, of course, because of her upbringing, but she did seem to respect (and be a little jealous of) Tazer’s strong community bonds, and how well Soli slipped in as an ally and friend to the gay scene in Miami.

One really cute line was when Laura mentioned that she wished there was a club for lesbians to hang out and talk about books, art, activism and the environment in a really chill setting. I often wish the same thing!

A plot thread that I wish had some resolution was [spoilers] the fate of Marlena. She’s now presumably stuck in a loveless marriage, trying her damndest to be somebody that she’s not to keep her family’s love and acceptance. And she’s so young! You’d think that Paco would have brought up how their marriage was going, seeing how close he was to Marlena’s dad, so it’s odd that she’s never mentioned again after the wedding.

What did you think about Laura  dropping out of school to become a full-time gardener? I very much liked an alternative narrative (that Laura could have a fulfilling job without going to college), but wonder if it could build false hopes for young readers. After all, Laura was lucky in that she was close to Paco because of Marlena, and that she had a gift for landscape design. [/spoilers]

Danika: Yes, Down To the Bone’s positive portrayal of queer community is really one you don’t see much in other teen lesbian books. We’ve heard that line “We’re just like everyone else” so much that I think it can be damaging when we try to form queer communities, but “we’re the same as you” isn’t really true, for a variety of reasons. And you’re right, whether you find queer culture through the internet, books, movies, other media, or real life, it is often one of the first steps in really coming to terms with being queer. It’s hugely important (hence my obsession with lesbian books).

That was adorable. My girlfriend tried starting a lesbian club once… it quickly imploded in lesbian drama, which I wish was always just an inaccurate stereotype.

[spoilers] Yeah, it is odd that Marlena drops off the face of the planet, but I don’t what else could really be done with her character. She refused to talk to Laura anymore, and the rest of her story is implied: she fakes it in a loveless marriage. It is odd that the author decided to keep Laura connected to Marlena’s family, though. It creates this sort of suspense the whole book that never really amounts to anything.

I was surprised that she never went back to school, but Down To the Bone has so many “alternative” stories that I don’t think any of them can really be taken as something the author is pushing; they all just seem to be Laura’s individual life, not an experience that can be generalized. [/spoilers]

Any final thoughts on Down To the Bone? I’m really glad you recommended we read it. Thanks for discussing it with me; this was really interesting!

Rie: I think that’s a good note to end on!

Have you read Down to the Bone? What did you think of it?