Kalyanii reviews Don’t Bang the Barista by Leigh Matthews

dontbangthebarista

If truth be told, my initial interest in Don’t Bang the Barista probably had something to do with my long-held crush on the red-headed, fresh-faced beauty who works the morning shift at the coffee shop a couple of blocks from my office. However, with the turn of the first few pages, it became clear that I had stumbled upon something special. Touted as “a fresh take on the classic genre of lesbian pulp fiction,” Don’t Bang the Barista proves intriguing, endearing and utterly captivating throughout.

Lest anyone be put off, the title is simply an allusion to the advice that Cass offers her friend Kate while discussing the politics of pursuing a barista crush. After all, imagine how awkward it could be if, after a few dates, it all went wrong. Who wouldn’t tread lightly? Yet, could it be that Cass’s concern has more to do with her feelings for Kate than a desire to protect the sanctity of their social space? Cultivating a burgeoning friendship via early morning conversations at the dog park, Cass and Kate enjoy an effortless rapport… until Cass begins to act a bit out of character.

Unable to figure out what lies beneath Cass’s tough-girl exterior, Kate assumes that Cass wants Hannah, the barista, for herself; yet, Kate is too preoccupied with her ex’s return to town to truly reach out and discover what it is that’s bothering her friend. All the while, Cass grows increasingly moody as well as distant. Though others find Cass’s feelings for Kate to be rather obvious, it is only upon determining with whom her own heart lies that Kate discovers it just may be too late.

For all of its light-hearted quirkiness, Don’t Bang the Barista does not shy away from an exploration of the challenges often encountered amid non-traditional relationship dynamics — without any disruption in the tone or flow of the narrative. The way in which Kate supports her bisexual friend, Em, in navigating her desire for a female lover while protecting her primary hetero relationship illuminates just as much about Kate and Em’s friendship as it does the validation of polyamory and conscious/consensual decision-making. The emotional impacts of in vitro fertilization, social alienation and heartbreak are investigated without for a moment compromising the novel’s hip and sexy vibe.

I was struck by the way in which the LGBT-friendly locale of East Vancouver allowed for a more nuanced presentation of the issues mentioned above and a more complex understanding of the characters who encounter them; whereas, in less accepting communities, identity issues — let alone physical and emotional survival — supercede more subtle human needs out of necessity alone. It’s basically a manifestation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once we feel safe within our environment, we are better able to enjoy the journey toward self-actualization, creating a meaningful and satisfying existence, which at the end of the day is precisely what the women of Don’t Bang the Barista are seeking.

[Editor’s note: also check out Danika’s review!]

Danika reviews Don’t Bang the Barista! by Leigh Matthews

dontbangthebarista

Kate is a twenty-something lesbian in Vancouver, still recovering from her last break up (which happened a year ago), and hopelessly crushing on her barista. The title is her friend Cass’s number one rule of coffee shop dating, but Kate thinks it might be worth breaking. Don’t Bang the Barista! follows Kate as she tries to figure out who she really has feelings for, and whether she’s truly over her ex.

I expected this book to be a bit of a guilty pleasure fun read. The back cover blurb begins with “Drawing on the classics of lesbian pulp fiction,” and I can definitely see the influence here. (Quick aside: don’t read any further in the blurb, because it gives away everything that happens in the first half of the book.) But for the most part, the tone is different than I’d expect. Kate is introspective and often seems to verge on being depressed. She is still dealing with a lot of issues from her last relationship and finds reaching out difficult. I also appreciated the detail given to secondary characters in the story. Kate’s group of friends all have their own distinct personalities and priorities, and they are all dealing with issues that are only tangentially related to her. They feel like real people in their own right, not just props in her narrative. There are a lot of details included that elevate Don’t Bang the Barista! from a modern lesbian pulp, making it seem realistic–like the ongoing inclusion of Kate’s dog Jupiter, and references to Kate’s work life, and even discussion of biphobia in the lesbian community. On a personal level, I also really enjoyed reading a book set so close to where I live. The west coast queer politics alluded to felt very familiar to me, and it was fun to recognize some landmarks while I was reading.

But this level of detail and nuance also raised my expectations for the novel. Sometimes the tone seemed to change, and what felt realistic would suddenly verge into the soap operatic. I could forgive that because it meant to be inspired by pulp, but it did feel inconsistent. Most of all, though, I was disappointed with the main romance of the novel. I could understand the attraction, but the love interest behaved pretty terribly throughout the book and by the end that seems to be forgotten in a way that genuinely confused me. Kate was initially angry, and then seemed to change her mind and blame herself. Because this is a romance at heart, this aspect really affected my enjoyment of the novel. The characters and detail were really enjoyable, but the romance I just couldn’t get on board with.

[spoilers below]

To be specific, I don’t understand why Kate (and everyone else, the end) blamed herself for Cass’s behaviour. Yes, I get that Cass is not used to serious relationships, and it’s not that her behaviour isn’t understandable, but that doesn’t make it acceptable. First she forcibly kisses Kate while she’s on a date with another woman (and might I add that Cass has never told Kate that she was interested before this point), then she has the gall to laugh it off when Kate confronts her on it? She acted like a complete asshole. And then Kate is the one who reaches out to her when she goes AWOL, and only then gives a half-assed apology. Then they go camping and Cass storms off in a huff because she heard that Kate talked to a hot girl. Then she holds hands with Kate, says it’s the happiest moment of her life, notices that she’s still wearing her ex’s ring, and then storms off again and goes and tracks down previously mentioned hot woman and sleeps with her, ignoring Kate the whole time, still not actually voicing that she likes her. Oh, and abandoning Kate with people she doesn’t even know. So after Kate finds her own way back, she runs into Cass while going out with her ex, and Cass’s first words to her are “Dude. What the fuck,” still with no apology for ditching her, and then gets pissed at Kate for getting back with ex and storms off again. (Side note, I also couldn’t believe that Kate didn’t get that Cass liked her at this point. She said holding hands with you was the happiest moment of her life and you don’t get the hint? She’s been acting like a jealous asshole 24/7?) At this point, Kate is like “Even if she likes me, this relationship could never work, since she can’t communicate at all” (paraphrase), which is completely accurate. Then Cass sees Kate and her ex at a coffee shop together and again storms off in a huff without saying anything. Kate still tries to seek Cass out, unsuccessfully, and then Kate emails her another half-assed apology and says “BTW I’m moving to Amsterdam BYE” (paraphrase). This is the point where Kate starts blaming herself, saying she pushed Cass away, and how could she do that when she now realizes that this is who she loves?? She waited too long! Kate again tries to seek out Cass, but she’s already moved out of her apartment. So she stakes out the airport to try to convince Cass to stay, but Cass brushes her off and won’t let her finish a sentence. Kate thinks “I could see how much I’d hurt her and I hated myself for it.” Because you got together with your ex when Cass had a) never voiced her feelings for you and b) just slept with another woman and ditched you to do so? You’re supposed to feel guilty about that? It might not have been a good decision, but it’s not because it hurt Cass’s feelings. If she wanted to get together with you, she should have stopped being an asshole and also asked you out. And then Kate’s friends tell her she should have told Cass how she felt earlier and Kate just wallows in guilt, apparently having completely forgotten that Cass has consistently been pretty much nothing but jerkish this entire book.

Sorry for the description of basically the entire plot between Cass and Kate, but I had to go back and make sure I wasn’t remembering things wrong. Where was I supposed to root for Cass? Why is Kate supposed to feel guilty? Why is it that them getting together is supposed to be the happy ending? And, might I add, they only get together because YET AGAIN Kate seeks Cass out on another continent this time. Like I said, I liked most of this book, but the romance is so baffling to me that I ended up rating it 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Not a Cass fan, and I don’t understand how I’m expected to be, given how she acts the entire novel.

Erica reviews Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan

BobbyBlanchard
In Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher, Monica Nolan playfully revives the genre of the 1950s lesbian pulp fiction novel. The protagonist is Bobby Blanchard, former field hockey star turned Games Mistress at a private all-girls school in rural Michigan. While her teaching skills are next to none, Bobby has no problem with instructing girls and young women alike in more salacious physical activities.

Indeed, upon her introduction to the rest of the faculty, it appears that at least every other faculty member (male or female) has similarly queer tendencies.  The question then becomes, who will be Bobby’s love interest? But before the reader can get too caught up in who might be doing whom and whose eyes are roaming over what bodies, there is a mystery to be solved. The Math Mistress suddenly and mysteriously died the summer before, and the more Bobby—and her rival, Enid, the new Math Mistress—uncovers, the more complicated the scene becomes.

Part murder mystery, part field hockey education, part bedpost notching, Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher, is as ridiculous as it is entertaining. For any reader who is looking for all the juicy details of Bobby’s conquests, you best look elsewhere. What the novel does offer though is brief and enticing glances into the passionate trysts wherever—and I really do mean wherever—Bobby might find herself! Add in a bit of isolation, teenage lust, and love triangles, and you’ve got yourself a pulp fiction novel that keeps the action moving.

Perfect for a holiday read, a book for the beach, or curling up under the covers to pass the winter nights. With Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher, Nolan offers a novel that fulfills all the gossip you ever hoped to hear about an all-girl’s school—and playfully reminds us that we really are everywhere.

Monica Nolan has also written Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary.

[Check out Erica’s other writing at her website.]

Danika reviews Lesbian Pulp Fiction edited by Katherine V. Forrest

I didn’t know what to expect from this book. I requested it from Cleis press after being blown away by their title Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue, and I hoped this one would be similar, but focused on lesbian pulp. Actually, it’s a collection of excerpts from lesbian pulp books from 1950-1965, with a short introduction that discusses lesbian pulp in general. I devoured the introduction, because if there’s anything I like more than lesbian books, it’s lesbian books about lesbian books.

Following the intro are excerpts from more than 20 novels. They are a great way to get familiar with the feel of lesbian pulp. I have always been amused by the lurid covers and overwrought descriptions of lesbian pulp, but this collection show that there is more appeal to this genre. Some excerpts show that there was great writing done between those scandalous covers, while others show the authentic representations of lesbian life that was being published alongside by-straight-men for-straight-men pulp. I was surprised at the variety in the collection. I had assumed there was a sort of formula for lesbian pulp: girl meets girl, girl gets girl, girl has tragic and sordid love affair, girl goes insane/dies. These stories don’t seem to all fit in the same mould.

I would not recommend trying to read these straight through–like I did–however. The excerpts are chosen well; they give you enough information to be able to piece together the general story, but they are only about 20 pages on average, and by the time you have figured out the thread of the story and gotten into it, it’s already ended. Unlike reading  a short story collection, these are not meant to be read in isolation, so they do require some mental energy to determine context. That is not a negative on the book at all, though! They just would be more enjoyable as something to dip into occasionally, not to try to absorb all at once. If you are interested in lesbian pulp fiction (and why would you not be?!), Lesbian Pulp Fiction should be on your list.

Mfred Reviews Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon

Laura goes off to college and meets Beth.  Beth inspires in her a frenzied, frightening passion, which she can barely contain.  Beth, in her loneliness, is drawn to Laura’s worship of her.  They start an affair.  Until Beth meets Charlie, and finally falls in love.

This is basically the plot of Ann Bannon’s Odd Girl Out and on this cursory, superficial level, I sort of enjoyed it.  It’s not the most well-written story I have ever read, and in particular, I found the narrative head-hopping from one character to the next jarring.   However, as a pulp novel, it satisfies.  There are a lot of trembling arms and heaving sighs, a lot of exclamatory statements and women on the brink of overwhelming desires.

As a modern day reader, I didn’t much like it.  Laura, for being the star of the scandalous lesbian plot, fairly disappears from the book for the last half.  When she is present, her character is presented as an underwhelming girl-child, always crying or about to cry.  Beth’s motivations for wandering in and out of a lesbian romance are explained in the most facile psych 101 terms (she wasn’t loved enough as a child!).  Charlie is an odd combination of tender and caveman, having his way in the name of Good & Manly Decision-making whenever the plot requires it.

As a modern day lesbian, I liked it even less.  I will say, that for something produced in pulp literature world of the late 1950s, Odd Girl Out is less judgemental and less condemning than I expected.  There is no happy queer ending, but on the other hand, Laura is able to achieve a sort of self-acceptance that is presented in an admirable light.  Beth and Charlie definitely win the narrative race to heteronormative success, but Bannon carves out a small space for Laura too, and I appreciated that.

Allysse reviews Women’s Barrack by Tereska Torres


Women’s Barracks
by Tereska TorrèsWomen’s Barracks is a novel by Tereska Torrès. It depicts the lives of a few women and girls who worked for the Free French Forces that existed in London during World War 2. The novel is a sort of collection of snapshots of their lives. It is based upon the journals the author wrote during her time in the Free French Froces.There is no plot per se but only the portraits of those persons trying to live through the war.

Our point of entry in the story is the voice of the narrator who was one of those women, who experienced everything with the rest of the protagonists in the book. However she never really takes any part in any of the actions. She is a constant presence, someone in whom everybody confesses their story and she merely relates them to us, always staying in the background herlsef, never involved in anything. She is just a witness relating what she saw and heard. It can be easily understood though. The novel was apparently the first pulp novel to candidly address lesbian relationships and the author married at the time might have not want to be associated with the lives of her characters. She even refused its publication in France (where she lived), but later on published her journals there under another title. I haven’t read or even had a look at her journals so I don’t know how much of the novel is based from her observations and reality compared to and how much she created for the novel.

To get back to the characters… they are a mix of women and girls, all of them out of their country with no home and no family. Dynamics soon takes place between them, the older women trying to protect the younger ones, to educate them. It is an extraordinary time – in the sense of out of the ordinary – and as time goes by and the war doesn’t end there is a loss of hope for everyone. War is becoming the everyday life, chaos normal, and the island that is the Free French Forces constitutes the home of those women and girls. They seek confort among each other, security and reassurance in a world that is becoming familiar, filled with people they understand and that understand them.

The author mentions a few “real” lesbians but they are merely in the background of the novel, appearing here and there but never really taking the main place in the novel. However the author describes to us the relationships of other women who sleeps with other women but are not normally lesbians. I actually like how she describe those relationships. For Claude and Ursula for example it is a simple relationship of love/control/fascination. Claude being much older than Ursula she is sort of her teacher that Ursula idolized. As for Claude and Mickey it is pure amusement. Mickey is depicted as a lover, as a woman always having fun and making the most of life. She simply loves anyone regardless of their gender.

I really enjoyed the novel but I have to admit that at first I expected it to be more scandalous. But then, I remember that I am a reader in the 2010’s and that I definitely don’t live in the same cultural environment and experience as people in the 1950’s.
But still, I didn’t find the novel really shocking and to me it is not about the lesbian relationships that happened during World War 2 between the women of the story. It is a story about people who were all lost in some way, seeking comfort and warmth among each other, clinging to what they knew, to what felt familiar and safe. It is also a novel about life trying to keep on as normal in extraordinary circumstances, a world in which games of love still happened. I especially like this quote “There seemed to be only frenzied sexual adventures, promiscuity, or these sad, strange inversions. I wondered unhappily wether love could exist in out upset wartime world, the plain, faithful love between one woman and one man.” because I feel it sums up the novel quite well. In spite of everything all those women are simply looking for love but don’t know how to find it in a world in which your lover could be taken away from you and die at any moment.

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!

Joint review: Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon

If you haven’t read one of my joint review posts, this is how it goes: me and another blogger both read pick a lesbian book to read at the same time, then we discuss it, either through instant messages or by email. Anna from the feminist librarian read Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon with me, though I’m very late in posting our conversation. I mark for spoilers, so highlight if you’d like to read them, or head over to the feminist librarian for the uncensored version.

Anna: As a starter question, I’d be interested to know what you thought about the way Bannon portrays her character’s discovery of her same-sex desires (especially the way it is mediated to some extent by her mentor/roommate). It was an interesting contrast to the way the girls in our YA novels came to terms with their sexual orientation — primarily through their interaction with other girls and their own internal self-reflections.

Danika: You’re right, Beebo Brinker does explore a different way of coming to terms with her sexuality. It reminds me of the Well of Loneliness-style inversion theory of lesbianism, because she seems to really see her own (masculine) body as almost dictating her sexuality, and femme lesbians in this book, too, seem to be at least a little bit doubted, or seen as less queer. Beebo seems to discover her sexuality because of her appearance, not so much in relation to other people, which is interesting from a modern perspective, because we’ve really been trying to separate sexuality from gender identity. These earlier novels don’t do that, and it’s hard to separate a character’s gender identity from their sexuality, especially since they don’t even have the vocabulary for it.

The roommate is interesting, too, because it offers another instance of queer community, which has had different portrayals in the joint reviews I’ve done. Beebo Brinker has a primarily positive portrayal of community, with Beebo’s roommate as a mentor and guide, but it may also be because her roommate was a gay man, and therefore wasn’t directly competition…?

Anna: I think you’re right about Beebo (the character) being written in a way that signals her sexual orientation through her gender identity. That is, she’s a tomboy therefore she’s going to be gay and like girls sexually. There’s a fancy term for that concept of gender and sexual identity that I’m completely blanking on right now, but basically it’s a way of mapping sexual orientation onto the binary system of gender so that lesbian women = masculine (male-identified) and gay men = feminine (female-identified). This even turns up in science — like actual scientific theories — about brain chemistry. The assumption is that the brains of lesbian women will be organized more like the brains of straight men than they will straight women. That was an assumption that was pretty popular in the mid-twentieth century (and still is today). I imagine Anne Bannon didn’t even notice she was making those assumptions when she wrote the character. Whereas to us they’re glaringly obviously and seem clunky and stereotypical.

The other thing that’s stirred into the mix, although Bannon doesn’t come out and use these terms (at least not that I remember) is the butch/femme subculture of the pre-Stonewall era. We still have butch/femme as a subculture today, but it’s only part of the much larger queer community. From what I understand, the lesbian subculture of mid-century America was pretty saturated with butch/femme identities and role-playing. Even if you didn’t necessarily feel comfortable with either of those roles, you sort of had to pick one in order to situate yourself within the lesbian subculture. I’m probably overgeneralizing … but as I was reading Beebo I did think of that, and about the way in which Beebo is set up from the beginning as a masculine-identified lesbian, whereas her lovers are all female-identified.

And at least two of them (as you point out) are bi- or fluid (in today’s terminology) … the femme fatale whose name I’m temporarily forgetting and Venus, the film actress. Paula, from what I remember, is pretty confirmed in her interest exclusively in women, and seems interested in both femme women and butch women. So there aren’t necessarily any hard and fast rules in Bannon’s literary world about butch women only dating femme women, or vice versa. But there does seem to be a fairly firm … shall we call it a “typology” of lesbians being outlined in the novel? It sort of reads as an identification guide in places. For young lesbians in New York: here are your options!

Placing so much emphasis on Beebo’s appearance and on other people reading her as a dyke even before she herself is consciously aware of her same-sex desires is in some ways distinctly at odds with our present-day understanding of sexual orientation — that it is something which we know from within ourselves, and that we each have the right to self-identify our orientation and gender. On the other hand, the willingness of outsiders to identify Beebo as queer is certainly a phenomenon that’s alive and well in our culture — both among the queer subculture and within the mainstream population. We still very much read gender as a mark of sexual orientation even if we distance ourselves from that sort of conflation of sex and gender. As much as we like to say we’re beyond assuming that queer people fit certain stereotypes, we still enjoy (as a culture) crowing “we knew it all along!” when someone who’s gender-nonconforming turns out to be queer, and, conversely, expressing our disbelief when someone who is very gender-conforming comes out as a person with same-sex inclinations.

While gay men didn’t figure so heavily in the novel, what did you think of the way Jack and his boyfriends were portrayed? Do you see similarities and/or differences between the portrayal of lesbian identity and gay male identity in the novel?

Danika: Yes, it’s funny how that theory seems to carry through that seriously flawed theory from the ’20s to the ’60s. And you’re right, we’re still seeing traces of that. Gender identity and sexuality continue to be tangled together, and that’s with our attempts to separate the two. Beebo Brinker was also still in the early days of lesbian literature/pulp, when you couldn’t really have cliches, because there wasn’t enough to compare to. In those days, that assumption didn’t need to be explained: it seemed like common sense. It definitely doesn’t look that way from 2011, though.

I definitely saw some underlying butch/femme dynamics in Beebo Brinker. Again, it just seemed like common sense at that point, I think. Beebo was really aligned more with straight men, so of course she’d want a feminine woman. That was the standard for lesbian pulp, from what I remember. They tended to put two very feminine women on the covers, but the stories inside would be strictly butch/femme. It sort of suggests that they found it difficult to really wrap their heads around same-gender relationships, and would therefore try to slot it into heterosexual frameworks. Of course, butch/femme relationships in reality are rarely mere imitation of heterosexual relationships (they have great potential to challenge and subvert heterosexual norms), but the fact that they didn’t seem to be able to imagine a same-sex relationship that wasn’t butch/femme seems to suggest that lesbian pulp tried to imitate.

Hmmm, you’re right that there were some bi/fluid/pansexual/who-can-really-assign-a-sexuality-to-a-fictional-character characters, but weren’t those characters portrayed fairly badly? The femme fatale (I’m blanking, too) is clearly a villain and Venus [spoiler-ish] seems to be trying to get the best of both worlds: to hold onto a husband for security but still go out looking for women [end spoiler]. It doesn’t seem to be a very positive portrayal of bisexuality.

I think femme/femme relationships are touched on, but I don’t think we saw any butch/butch ones. I think in that era butches were more common, but femmes were more desirable in the bar world? So a femme dating a femme would be fine, but according to that ranking system, a butch wouldn’t want to be with a butch? Maybe I’m reading in terrible messages that aren’t really there at this point.

There’s definitely a “The Lesbian Guide to Lesbians in NY” aspect to it. In fact, apparently lesbian pulp pushed that a lot: Greenwich Village was painted as this almost mythical, utopian place for queer people, where you could find your community and a partner and be accepted. It supposedly encouraged a lot of women (like Beebo) to leave their hometown and go on this pilgrimage to Greenwich.

I think it’s the that order is reversed in our current conception of gender/sexual identity versus appearance. For Beebo, her appearance determined and shaped her gender and sexual identity, whereas now we think of people are expressing their gender/sexual identity through their appearance. I say gender and sexual identity because there are many ways to be read as lesbian (or gay or queer) through appearance: shaving one side of your head, or having short hair, or wearing rainbow accessories, etc. Gender expression through appearance is pretty obvious.

“As much as we like to say we’re beyond assuming that queer people fit certain stereotypes, we still enjoy (as a culture) crowing ‘we knew it all along!’ when someone who’s gender-nonconforming turns out to be queer, and, conversely, expressing our disbelief when someone who is very gender-conforming comes out as a person with same-sex inclinations.”

I agree completely. I’m not particularly femme (more a T-shirt/hoodie and jeans sort of person), but I’m far from butch, so I get a lot of disbelief when I come out, even to fellow queers. It gets old fast.

Jack as a character is positive: he’s sympathetic and seems real. As a representation of gay men, though, I’m not sure. He likes younger men, he takes in vulnerable people (which is kind, but also puts that person in a difficult spot, if he’s attracted to them), and [spoiler-ish] he doesn’t seem to be able to have a long-term relationship [end spoiler]. It’s odd, because he’s neither the stereotype of the white picket fence gay guy who’s been in a relationship for decades and had a kid, etc, or the stereotype of the complete sleeping around gay guy. He falls in love and he takes his relationships seriously, but they’re short. And they’re usually with younger, vulnerable men. I’m really not sure how I feel about it. What did you think?

Anna: Whew! Lots of good thoughts. I’ll try to take them in order.

On the subject of the prevelence of butch/femme dynamics in lesbian pulp specfically, I was thinking as I read about the tension between writing sexually-explicit lesbian stories for a lesbian audience, and writing novels that would get passed the censors … and which might possibly have a cross-over audience? I have no idea if lesbian-themed novels had any non-lesbian readers (i.e. straight men), the way girl-on-girl porn has today. But that might be one reason why constructing lesbian sex in a basically hetero fashion might be a selling point. And the same thing for the covers which show feminine women, regardless of the narratives inside them.

Reading Beebo has definitely made me interested in learning more about the history of lesbian pulps and the role they had in both queer and straight culture during the mid-twentieth century.

I agree with you that the bisexual (or similar; the labels were different back then) characters were depicted pretty shabbily in the narrative. This seems to me like an ongoing tension within lesbian subculture … that is, who “counts” as lesbian or whose sexual desires for women are legitimate (and why). We saw this to a lesser extent in the two previous books we’ve reviewed — both of which were coming out / coming-of-age narratives dealing with adolescents. Although Beebo is (I think?) a teenager, age eighteen or nineteen, she’s on her own with a job and everything — not a highschoolers, the way the girls in Annie on My Mind and Hello, Groin! are.

I felt like the character of Jack was even more of a charicature than the women in the story — he’s there as Beebo’s guide/mentor but his personality sort of melds with Greenwich Village. He’s a stereotype: “Gay Man of the 1950s” rather than a fleshed out character, I thought. Almost a metaphor for gay life in New York as it’s portrayed in popular culture? Less of a person than a literary trope.

I’m curious what you thought of the sex scenes in Beebo? I was particularly charmed by the first scene between Beebo and [spoiler] Paula [end spoiler], which actually read like it was written by someone who has had and enjoys lesbian sex! It was one of the scenes in which the butch/femme dynamic seems the least present, actually. Thoughts?

Danika: Yes, lesbian pulp was definitely aimed at a straight male audience in much the same way as girl-on-girl porn is now. Most lesbian pulp was written by straight men. And as for censors, lesbian pulp fiction (and gay pulp fiction and other queer pulp fiction) had to, by the end of the book, be read as condemning this behaviour in order to slip past the censors. Hence the usual story of one or both of the lesbian dying or going crazy or straight. [spoiler-ish] I guess Beebo Brinker was a later pulp, and that’s how it got away with a fairly happy ending? [end spoiler] [spoiler for Price of Salt] The Price of Salt was the first pulp with a happy ending (though I didn’t find it particularly happy, since I wasn’t a big fan of the relationship), and it was written in 1952, so I guess by the time Beebo Brinker was written it was more acceptable. [end spoiler] I do find pulp fascinating, not to mention entertaining in a totally over-the-top ridiculous way. I guess I can laugh at it now because I personally never had to deal with it being the main portrayal of lesbians, which would make it less funny.

That’s true, there does seem to be a sort of policing of the boundary around the label “lesbian” and who counts as a real lesbian. It reminds me of the inversion theory view of lesbians in Well of Loneliness and others, which looked down on feminine lesbians as not being as legitimate as butch lesbians in a similar way that bisexual/fluid characters don’t seem to be seen as legitimate in Beebo Brinker. I wonder if this has shifted in a different way in modern times, with the greater acknowledgement of trans* identities. I wonder if this policing takes place in the opposite way now, in which masculine lesbians may be seen as trans*, and therefore not “real” “legitimate” lesbians? I really am just wondering, because I have no idea if that is true, or if the same standards of femmes = not lesbian enough hold today. Or if maybe the label has gotten even narrower. I’m not sure. I think it probably depends on the community. Well, that was a bit of a tangent.

Beebo is supposed to be a teenager/young adult, yes, but I think we see a very different view of youth in Beebo Brinker than in Annie On My Mind or Hello, Groin. These more recent teen lesbian books seem to view being a young adult as a continuation of childhood. AOMM, especially, seemed to conceptualize the characters as being quite young and childish. In Beebo Brinker, and I think it’s probably a reflection of the time period, Beebo is really a young adult. She is an independent adult, though she is new to the situation. Of course, that might also be because she has struck out on her own and is not living with her parent. I’m not sure which direction causation is there.

That does make sense. I can definitely see how Jack is a personification of Greenwich Village.

I would hypothesize that the sex scenes in pulp are probably the easiest way to see whether the book was written by a Real Live Lesbian who has actually had sex with another women rather than a straight man who’s just imagining it. The sex scenes did seem quite sweet and without any troublesome power dynamics, from what I can remember. They just seemed to explore each other, which is refreshing. I also found it interesting that they contrasted each other’s bodies (I can’t remember which part of the book this was, though). Often in scenes of lesbian sex, there are descriptions of how similar the partners are, but in Beebo Brinker, Beebo’s body is seen as… not exactly male, but definitely masculine. So their bodies are seen as complementary, not identical. I’m still not sure how I feel about that (inversion theory peeking through again?), but it was sort of refreshing in that scene.

I think I’ll leave it to you to wrap it up, if that’s okay? I think we’ve given it a pretty good look. I really like doing these joint reviews with you; they always make me see new things in the books. Thanks again for the great discussion!

Anna: “I would hypothesize that the sex scenes in pulp are probably the easiest way to see whether the book was written by a Real Live Lesbian who has actually had sex with another women rather than a straight man who’s just imagining it.”

I like the way you put this, and couldn’t agree more! Even in non-pulp fiction, I’ve read “lesbian” sex scenes in fiction written by people who clearly have no idea how women make love. It’s embarrassing to read! And indicative of how little folks in general seen to understand about women’s sexuality and women’s bodies. I often wonder if gay men have the same frustration when reading about sex between men written by non-queer authors?

Yes, I think we have plenty for a post! Thanks to you, as well, for taking the time during your midwinter break to have this conversation, even though we were both a bit rusty on the details of the book.

If you’d like to do a joint review, even if you’re not a book blogger, feel free to email me and set one up!

Guest Lesbrarian: Shanna

Another guest lesbrarian post! I love these. Please, please feel free to submit your own! Thank you, Shanna!

“‘And those awful rumors the students are spreading,’ Laura continued in a whisper. ‘Half the student body should be in the care of a psychiatrist, in my opinion.’”

So, at one point in my not-too-distant history, I was actually locked in a garage.  That is, someone locked me in the garage.  Yes, and it is all the fault of vintage lesbian pulp fiction.  I was out there, just hanging out and reading this giant encyclopedia of cheesy, bosom-heaving goodness, when my housemate thought it would be terribly funny to lock me out.

Whatever.  I promise that is related to this post. My point is, this stuff was bestselling back then because of it’s awesome, raunchy, over-the-top plots and forbidden love.  And you know what?  It’s still awesome, and I want to kiss Monica Nolan for bringing it back.

I’ll admit, I was sucked in by the amazingly campy cover of this book, perched enticingly on the new books display at Central Library.  This “First Shocking Printing” of Nolan’s third novel didn’t disappoint, either, and once again, I am rewarded for judging books by their covers.

The book is a campy mystery at an elite boarding school for girls.  Who killed the companion of the Metamora’s headmistress?  Did she jump from the tower in the middle of the night, or was she pushed?  Who is the glowing bicyclist that the students report seeing in the forest?  Are some of the girls actually able to communicate with the spirit world?  And how is it possible that girls from St. Mary’s were able to defeat the Metamora field hockey team?

The book is pure fun: full of sports puns, pulpy girl romance, and a funny cast of characters.  I am delighted to see the lesbian pulp fiction genre resurfacing with this light-hearted author, who doesn’t disappoint when she serves up this intrigue-laced romance against the perfect backdrop of the terribly cliched boarding school.  What’s not to like?

Happy Reading!

Nolan, Monica. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher. New York: Kensington Books, 2010.  290 pp.

Author’s website: http://www.monicanolan.com

Thanks again, Shanna! You can check out her blog here.

Lesbrary Lust: Lesbian Pulp Fiction

Well, I haven’t read any new lesbrary books since last post (I’m still working through a stack of library books), so I thought I’d introduce a new feature: Lesbrary Lust. Lesbrary Lust posts are about books I desperately want to read, but don’t yet own and can’t get through my library. This Lesbrary Lust post is about two books on a central theme: lesbian pulp fiction.

I’ve had a fascination with lesbian pulp fiction for a while now. I have lesbian pulp fiction magnets and the lesbian pulp address book, though I’ve only read three of the actual books: Another Kind of Love and Love is Where You Find It by Paula Christian, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, and Spring Fire by Vin Packer. That’s because those were at my public library (yes, I have an awesome library) and honestly, they were pretty forgettable. Regardless, just the covers of these books are enough to fascinate me. Just look at the Strange Sisters collection of lesbian pulp covers (wow, I’m using a lot of links this post). The women are almost always at least partially undressed, and often there’s a shadowy, sinister man in the background. The titles are also something, like the classic Satan was a Lesbian, now going from $300-500, though it first sold for 95 cents, which explains why I haven’t read more of it: lesbian pulp fiction tends to be expense, at least $30 for a small used paperback.

It seems odd that lesbian pulp is such a major part of lesbian history, considering it was primarily written for and by straight men. They were considered pretty scandalous for the time, so to get around obscenity laws, these books had to Lesbian Pulp Address Bookhave a moral. Usually this moral was “homosexuality is wrong”. That meant that the vast majority of lesbian pulp ended terribly for the lesbians involved. One or both of the women either died or went crazy. A popular ending was a terrible car crash. Often the remaining partner was swept off by that shadowy man in the background of the cover, having learned her lesson.

Lesbian pulp wasn’t all bad news, though. Regardless of the content, they were proof of one thing: we’re not alone. Closeted lesbians in the 50s and 60s would squirrel these away under their mattress, or pass them between friends. They also advertised a sort of queer mecca, a wonderful place where you could be out and happy (Greenwich Village). Besides, there were even a minority of lesbian pulp writers who were lesbians themselves, or at least sympathetic to them. The Price of Salt was the first lesbian pulp to have a “happy” ending (as in, not a terrible ending), proving that lesbian pulp helped to pave the way for more lesbian literature.

So, to sum up: lesbian pulp is a) campy and hilarious and b) an important part of our collective history. How could anyone not be fascinated by that? Obviously, I want to read more of it, but I don’t have the money to build a collection (at least not yet). I’d be happy to just read more books about lesbian pulp, though, which brings us to the books I’ve been lusting after.

Lesbian Pulp Fiction by Katherine V. Forrest provides a collection of excerpts from 23 of some of the best lesbian pulp out there, as well as a brief overview of lesbian pulp in general, I think. This has been really highly rated and seems to be the book on lesbian pulp, so I obviously want it quite desperately. Well, hopefully I’ll find the cash for it soon, as well as for my next object of lesbrarian lust: Strange Sisters by Jaye Zimet.

Where Lesbian Pulp Fiction is about the best stories lesbian pulp has to offer, Strange Sisters is an examination of the artwork. Strange Sisters includes about 200 different hilarious and sexual covers. Although my lesbian pulp address book has a bit of this (it has about 26 covers and a brief description of the plot), but it’s only a taste; I would love to be able to look through all of these.

Have you read any lesbian pulp, or Lesbian Pulp Fiction, or Strange Sisters? What did you think of them?

Also, feel free to send me a review! I haven’t had any guest lesbrarian posts yet, and I’d love to put one up! It’s easy: just click on the Guest Lesbrarians link at the top (or click here) for details.