Casey reviewed Main Brides by Gail Scott

Gail Scott’s 1993 book Main Brides is less a novel than a series of snapshots, taken with the camera of the protagonist Lydia’s eyes.  She sits in a café-bar on St. Laurent in Montreal—also known as the Main, which the title refers to—observing the women who come and go.  These “women travellers, like sleepwalkers, move unerringly” and are “always packing up, and going here and there”; they are contemporary women in all their diversity, who “exert[…] great control on their existence.”  Lydia imagines these women’s life stories and histories while watching them, gathering what she can from their appearances and interactions.  She in fact creates their realities, wishing for a “history where anyone can enter”; the narrative actually often moves away from Lydia entirely and enters the reality of the watched women.  One of these women is a lesbian who has recently returned home from a vacation to Cuba with her sister, where they unsuccessfully attempted to move past—or perhaps run from and forget—the sexual assault her sister recently faced in their shared apartment.  Lydia also watches a lesbian couple, one a cowgirl from Alberta and the other a Montrealer, who is attracted to the cowgirl’s difference yet embarrassed to introduce her to her snobbish Francophone lesbian-feminist friends.  The Montrealer is especially embarrassed because, despite her efforts to assimilate into her intellectual lesbian-feminist circle, her cowgirl girlfriend can hear a twist of Albertan in her voice: a reminder that the Montrealer’s mother is actually from Edmonton.  Lydia herself also reads as queer: describing Z., a performance artist from Ottawa, her infatuation with this theatrical, “emaciated drag queen” of a woman is clear.

After we hear these fascinating, surreal stories—fragments, really, of these women’s lives—the narrative constantly returns to Lydia, who sits waiting in the bar, drinking coffee and then, as the day progresses, wine.  What exactly she is waiting for is uncertain.  Is there something in these women’s lives that she needs to discover before she can go home?  We also begin to feel uncertain about the veracity of Lydia’s stories: are they accurate?  Do we believe her histories of these women’s lives to be true, or not?  Is this woman’s life really how Lydia describes, or is Lydia just imagining it that way?  Does she have any reason to imagine their lives as one way or another?  Scott in fact leaves these questions unanswered; or, perhaps, they are not useful as questions.  If we are working with a sense that “anyone can enter,” and therefore change, history, then we have to let go of the safety of fixed identities and histories.  Lydia enters, explores, and creates the stories of the women she encounters, presenting the readers with a “smooth and gently moving” history, one that is nuanced, broad, and accessible, rather than mean and categorical.  It is this kind of attitude towards history and storytelling that is open to those identities and histories that have been often neglected—like those of lesbian and queer women, but also women more broadly.  Lydia’s imagined realities for these women are no less real than their own imagined realities, or her perception of her own life.  If you are in a kind of melancholy or meditative mood, and feel like exploding open your own sense of self, I’d recommend sitting down in a bar or café—preferably a dark and dingy place like the one Lydia has chosen—with a glass of wine or a mug of coffee and immersing yourself in the lives of the brides—queer and non-queer alike—of the Main.

Casey reviews Ana Historic by Daphne Marlatt

For a viscerally experimental and gorgeously postmodern glimpse at queer Canadian women’s herstory, there is no better place to look than Daphne Marlatt’s 1988 novel Ana Historic.  I say postmodern and experimental because the novel undoubtedly is, but this is not so much a warning as an invitation to watch Marlatt deftly and beautifully use words to carve out a space for queer women not only in Canadian history, but also in contemporary Canadian society.  This carving needs to take the form of Marlatt’s disarming poetics and rhizomatic, circular style in order to do the difficult and necessary work of counteracting the overwhelmingly masculinist history that the protagonist Annie—ironically or perhaps appropriately a failed history graduate student—begins to understand as only “a certain voice” (111).

The anchor in the novel, Annie Torrent, is a contemporary Vancouverite disappointed with the ways in which her life has followed a conventional woman’s heterosexual plotline.  She becomes obsessed with a little-known historical figure, Mrs. Richards, a widowed British woman who emigrated to Vancouver in the late 1800s and determines to tell her story.  This telling is mostly directed at Annie’s mother Ina, at whom Annie is angry, perhaps most of all for the ways in which she begins to see their lives overlapping; like Ina, Annie is “in the midst of freedom yet not free” (54).  She realizes the life she is living, married with children to her former history professor Richard—whose name of course echoes Mrs. Richards’s name, which is the rem(a)inder of her deceased husband—is unfulfilling but she struggles to build a path that might lead out of it.  Luckily, Annie meets Zoe, an artist, in the archives while doing research for her project and Zoe becomes her first reader, challenging Annie both about her feminist politics as well as sexually. When near the end of the novel Zoe provocatively asks Annie what she wants, Annie boldly answers: “you. i want you. and me. together” (157).  The end of Annie’s story in the novel, then, is only her lesbian beginning.

Telling the life stories of Annie, her mother Ina, and Mrs. Richards, Marlatt creates an alternative queer feminist discourse that refuses to be tied down into either a linear narrative or conclusive characterization.  Indeed, although there are distinctions made between the three main characters, their identities are also necessarily blurred, in the same way that the novel refuses to draw boundaries between prose and poetry and between fiction and history.  At one point, Ina accuses her daughter: “the trouble with you, Annie, is that you want to tell a story, no matter how much history you keep throwing at me” (27).  This profoundly poetic novel insists, however, that history is nothing but men’s stories made fact and that women need to dismantle the fiction/fact dichotomy and “mak[e] fresh tracks” with their own stories in the snowy landscape of the past (98).  Women writing their stories, as Annie does for Mrs. Richards and Marlatt does for Annie (and perhaps herself?), is the “body insisting itself in the words” (46).  If you can look at the words of this novel as a woman’s body—that delightful and frightening unruly femaleness—then the sometimes bewildering experience of sifting through Ana Historic can become a delightfully ecstatic one.  There is an enormous amount of life in this novel; Marlatt presents us with the vivid image that books are “breath bated between two plastic covers” (16) and I’d encourage any reader to challenge herself to mingle her breath with Marlatt’s and her characters’ by picking up Ana Historic.

Mfred reviews Skin Beneath by Nairne Holtz

I cannot adequately explain the joy, the incredible sense of pleasure, I derived from reading this book. Even as the book’s plot unraveled a bit at the end, I enjoyed every moment of reading Nairne Holtz’s Skin Beneath. The first paragraph:

Sam unlocks the mailbox in the lobby of her building, takes out a single envelope, opens the back flap to discover a postcard inside. She reads the words on the postcard: “Your sister died while investigating a political conspiracy. Coincidence? How often do women kill themselves with a gun? Think about it.”

What an opening, right? First, the sentence is not a fluke– the entire novel occurs in third person, present tense. Which is just… amazing. In a lesser writer’s hands, it could have come across as gimmicky, or even intrusive. It was a little mesmerizing, instead, to experience the events of a book at the same time as the protagonist. And secondly, the subject matter! A dead sister! A conspiracy! Holtz not only writes well, she also imagines a great plot.

Interestingly, this is a difficult book to sum up because it’s only a mystery on the surface. Five years after her sister’s death by overdose, Sam receives a post card claiming Chloe’s death was not an accident at all, but murder. Still struggling with grief and guilt, Sam decides to trace the mystery of her sister’s last months by moving to Montreal and trying to figure out who Chloe knew, where she worked, what she did, etc., before dying in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. In Montreal, she becomes entangled with Omar and Romey, Chloe’s ex-boyfriend and ex-roommate– both of whom appear to have secrets of their own.

The mystery of Chole’s death is the impetus for Sam to change her life — as she finds out more and more about the secrets of her sister’s life, she also has to deal with her own secrets, her own hidden truths. She also falls hard for Romey, even as she doesn’t quite trust her new girlfriend, or Romey’s relationship to Omar. It’s an incredible journey to follow, and I love the way new clues about Chloe reveal new sides to Sam and Romey. However, Holtz doesn’t maintain the momentum, and the end felt anti-climatic. It all kind of collapses in on itself, as some of the conspiracy revelations get a bit extraordinary in the last half of the book.

All in all, this was a great read that I highly recommend and I will definitely be picking up more books by Holtz.

Laura Mandanas reviews Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

A darker tale than one might expect, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith is a story of deception, double-dealing, and dysfunction. Opening in 1862 in a dilapidated London slum known as the Borough, we meet heroine #1: 17-year-old Susan Trinder. Orphaned at a young age, Sue has been raised as a fingersmith (pickpocket) by Mrs. Sucksby, a crooked landlady who trafficks in foundling babies dosed with gin. When a smooth talking tenant approaches Sucksby with a get-rich-quick scheme to swindle a sheltered young heiress of her fortune, Sue eagerly volunteers to help.

The young heiress, of course, is heroine #2: Maud Lilly. Also orphaned at a young age, Maud lives a safe but excruciatingly dull existence with her uncle on an estate called Briar in the English countryside. Bored to tears and fits of mindless cruelty, Maud is punished harshly and bullied into submission as she is trained to take over her uncle’s distasteful line of work. Needless to say, when an alternative unexpectedly presents itself, Maud jumps at the opportunity. Though the two women come from opposite positions of poverty and privilege, Sue and Maud are both women confined by their circumstances. Though both are admirably strong-willed and cunning, they are also naive; preoccupied as they are in setting their elaborate traps, they often don’t see the ones set for them by others. (And as you fall for their charms, I daresay, neither will you. The Byzantine twists and hairpin turns of plot in this book are absolutely breathtaking.)

Told as a first-person narrative alternating between Sue and Maud’s points of view, the nuanced characterizations were fresh and a pleasure to read. More strikingly, the descriptive atmospheric details are among the most beautiful and realistic I’ve ever encountered. Waters is clearly a woman at home doing research, and there’s a reason why–prior to writing fiction, she was in a Ph.D. program at Queen Mary’s, studying lesbian and gay historical fiction

Although Waters is famous for penning “lesbo Victorian romps“, the actual lesbian content in this book is “more or less incidental.” And in this setting, I didn’t even mind it. The subtle touch felt right, and honestly, probably played a role in propelling the book to its success with mainstream audiences. As far as I’m concerned, the more people that get to read this lovely book, the better!

Laura Mandanas reviews Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

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

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

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

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

Casey reviews In Another Place, Not Here by Dionne Brand

For readers unaccustomed to the Black Caribbean vernacular that begins Dionne Brand’s 1996 novel In Another Place, Not Herelike me—there’s a bid of an initial hurdle to leap over to sink into this book. But trust me, it’s worth it; and sink in you truly do. Brand is an exhilarating poet and although this is a novel, it’s definitely a poet’s novel. There is something deliciously seductive about the language, which rolls, rises, falls, and flows its way throughout the narrative. The rhythm and feel of the words are seductive to the point that their meaning at times seems secondary and, in fact, purposely elusive—a quality that might be frustrating for some readers. If you can give yourself over to the novel, though, make yourself vulnerable in a way that one of the main characters Verlia struggles to throughout the text, In Another Place, Not Here is a really rewarding read. Devoting each half of the novel to the story of one of the two women around whom the novel centres, Elizete and Verlia, Brand weaves an emotionally charged narrative that at times hits as hard as a physical assault, at others as softly as a warm wind. You read not so much to ‘find out what happens’ but rather to ride the tumultuous wave of both women’s intertwined emotionally and spiritually fraught journeys.

Elizete, whose story begins the novel, is an exploited sugar cane field labourer living in Trinidad—Brand’s mother country, though she is now a long-time Torontonian—who meets the revolutionary Verlia, also a native of Trinidad but recently returned after an emigration to and residence in Canada. There is an immediate attraction between the two women and a following relationship; Elizete describes her feelings for Verlia breathtakingly: “I sink into Verlia and let she flesh swallow me up. I devour she. She open me up like any morning. Limp, limp and rain light, soft to the marrow” (5). Erotic passages such as this are stunning, almost as if you had stumbled upon a scene truly not meant for anyone except the lovers’ eyes. Their intensity of feeling, however, collides with the seemingly insurmountable obstacles before them: racism, the legacy of slavery, misogyny, homophobia, and capitalist exploitation. Verlia has committed herself to political activism, having been part of the 1970s Black power movement in Toronto, but even her increasing radicalism cannot sustain her in the face of the placelessness and lack of belonging that plague her. Elizete too, feels this diasporic suffering: in search of meaning behind her loss of Verlia she journeys to Toronto from Trinidad but is told there by Verlia’s ex-lover Abena to “Go home, this is not a place for us” (230). There are no answers, let alone easy ones, to both Verlia and Elizete’s search for another place, not here, but their stumblings along the path looking for such a place are gorgeous, both in their sensuous highs and their devastating lows. Such a stumbling, difficult journey makes, in the end, a more worthwhile, truthful novel than a straightforward, but simplified, one would. Highly recommended!

Casey reviews Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

The worth of something as delicious as Shani Mootoo’s novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, would be hard to overestimate. I’ve honestly never read anything that had such a sensory effect on me: the lilting rhythm of the language, the bittersweetness of the narrative twists, everything about this novel felt so visceral. Amazingly, Cereus Blooms at Night is Mootoo’s first novel, but you would never guess; the writing as well as the plot is so richly and confidently woven. An Indo-Trinidadian-Canadian author, Mootoo sets her novel in the fictionalized island Lantanacamara—clearly a stand-in for Trinidad—and the luscious environment of the island is really a character unto itself. The dripping gorgeousness of the buzzing insects, blooming trees, and vibrant flowers—especially the central image of the illusive cereus flower—are imprinted on my mind. That said, the people in this novel—most of them queer—are as unforgettable as the tongue-twisting fictional name of the setting. Our narrator is the precocious nurse Tyler, a fighting spirit of a feminine man (or a trans woman? the text is uninterested in such labels) who works at an Alms house and is the caretaker of a mysterious elderly woman, Miss Ramchandin, who has quite the history in this small town ironically called Paradise. Gradually this woman’s heart-breaking story, a difficult and complex one in which colonization, misogyny, and homophobia have all wrecked havoc on her life, is told to us through the eyes of the sympathetic and endearing Tyler. His/her story begins to intertwine with Miss Ramchandin’s when an important person from her past and his son come to visit and a romance blossoms between the two younger folks. This queer romance is mirrored by a lesbian one (see if you can guess it coming!) that occurs in Miss Ramchandin’s past. Both are beautifully drawn and emerge all the more powerfully in juxtaposition to some of the truly horrific violence the novel depicts. While this message, one that insists on the intersectionality and interrelatedness of oppressions such as racism and homophobia, is important, it is rather with a sweet message of hope—that a clipping of “cereus will surely bloom within days”—that the novel ends. Queerness in the novel, also, begins to emerge not as a an obstacle which one must overcome but something from which characters such as Tyler draw strength and through which they are able to make connections with others. I can’t recommend Cereus Blooms at Night highly enough: instead of eating a meal of coconut curry or dessert of mango ice cream, read this! It’s just as satisfying and perhaps the taste will linger with you a little longer.

Guest Lesbrarian Orange Sorbet reviews Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

I am not a fan of purple prose (or anything even slightly resembling it); I much prefer stories being told as they are because I am very much a non-fiction kind of person. I didn’t expect to become a fan of Jeanette Winterson, for she has spoken of her discovery that “plot was meaningless to [her]” and that “[her] love affair was with language, not with what it said.” Neither did I expect to like Written on the Body much when I opened the book and was greeted by this:

I am thinking of a certain September: Wood pigeon Red Admiral Yellow Harvest Orange Night. You said, ‘I love you.’ Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? ‘I love you’ is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them. I did worship them but now I am alone on a rock hewn out of my own body.

That’s not to say I didn’t like this quote, however. I did. Just a couple of paragraphs down (get the book!) and I was hooked in a way I could not have anticipated, in spite of the run-on sentences and quixotic references. I can’t really describe Winterson’s writing – and I apologise for this, because I realise this is part of the point of reviews – but it is at times sharp and witty, clever and observant, and unfailingly flowery and rich. I might call it self-indulgent, at times, but never quite lyrical; there is an awkward pace to her words, like the words are tumbling out of the narrator rather than flowing as you would expect a love story to. (Perhaps I am mistaken in labelling a “love story,” though, because it is very much more a one-sided narrative that often appears to be about love itself instead of any one particular love.) I will admit that I did skim through some parts, especially the latter part of the book, and I would be perfectly comfortable with it being a hundred pages shorter but I think this is more my impatience and discomfort with decorated prose rather than a fault of the book itself. I can imagine others enjoying this much more than me.

She nodded. ‘When I saw you two years ago I thought you were the most beautiful creature male or female I had ever seen.’

The key twist – or gimmick, if you’re so inclined – of this book is that you know practically nothing of the narrator. In particular, readers are kept guessing at the narrator’s gender and sexuality. I loved this concept, and I loved reading a narrative about love and infatuation and sex without gender thrown in the mix. It was never an issue that took away from the story and was instead a persistent curiosity that kept me turning the pages.

There is something significant I think you must understand before reading this book: because the picture of the narrator is so incomplete, your biases will influence the way you read this book very strongly. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it kind of book, and which side you fall on could change on any given day. I did not for a moment feel that the narrator was anything but female and young – I could’ve imagined it, but I was sure then that I was picking up on a fair bit of misandry and stereotypically youthful foolishness (if I am to be allowed some amount of ageism here) – but I have heard of those who thought otherwise. Experiments with gender aside, this is still a love narrative first and foremost and one of the most intense, obsessive kind, nonetheless: I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it if I were feeling particularly alone or nauseated by coupledom (see: Valentine’s Day). You will be, after all, essentially listening to someone go on and on about a newfound love interest, albeit with more fluency and fluorish than I’m sure your real life infatuated friends can manage in their varying states of enamour. Finally, if you are conservative, or maybe just squeamish? Stay far, far away.

All in all, I would definitely recommend reading this book. It’s not for everyone, but I’d say it’s worth a read because it’s different and something that you might just enjoy exploring.

In bereavement books they tell you to sleep with a pillow pulled down beside you. […] Who writes these books? Do they really think, those quiet concerned counsellors, that two feet of linen-bound stuffing will assuage a broken heart? I don’t want a pillow I want your moving breathing flesh. I want you to hold my hand in the dark, I want to roll on to you and push myself into you. When I turn in the night the bed is continent-broad. There is endless space where you won’t be.

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!

Laura Mandanas reviews Pink Steam by Dodie Bellamy

Pink Steam by Dodie Bellamy is a cross-genre collection of prose written over two decades. Contradictorily classified as fiction/essay/memoir, the 22 pieces are arranged into what the author has described as “a fractured autobiography in which the culture I live in is as much my autobiography as are the ‘facts’ of my life.” For her, there is no self separate from culture.

Indeed, throughout much of the book, the only sure “facts” I knew came as I sorted through the scattered debris of pop culture tidbits. (Yes! Carrie did wreak havoc at the prom with her telekinesis. No! Rosemary did not birth a son too pure for the devil to possess.) As for the arcane autobiographical details, no matter how many notes I scribbled in the margins, full understanding was tantalizingly juuuust out of reach. (Why did the protagonist suddenly begin calling herself Carla? It’s because of the demon fucking, right? Or is it the memory of the abortion? Are you taunting me on purpose, Bellamy?)

Ordered semi-chronologically, the essays begin in the early ’60s. Young Dodie is in a furtive relationship with Nance, her best friend who lives down the street. Writes Bellamy, “In the industrial Midwest of my youth, strong lines were drawn between inside/outside, normal/abnormal, natural/freak – and those lines were brutally enforced. In high school I was a lesbian, i.e., on the wrong side of all those slashes.”

Things do not stay this way for long. To placate her mother, with the summer of ’74 comes Dodie’s decision to be straight — a self-declared categorization that seems to hold for the book’s remaining essays. At the same time, she is never hesitant to describe her unfulfilled longing for women, in a manner reminiscent of Quasimodo’s longing for Gina Lollobrigida in the 1956 The Hunchback of Notre Dame (a theme tenuously threaded throughout the book). So, who knows. Who cares? There’s a little somethin’ somethin’ for everyone in this book; let’s just leave it at that.

Bellamy’s prose is a gorgeous, sometimes nonsensical tidal wave of words. The text is flooded with grocery lists and song lyrics and imagined film scripts and fantasy and horror and science fiction and poetry all at once, mid-narrative. Though I usually shy away from experimental bullshit, as a reader, I was swept away by book’s fabulously imaginative approaches, drawn in by its shifting undulations of tense and perspective.

Basically, this book is awesome.

In “Sex/Body/Writing”, Bellamy writes: “I’m working toward a writing that subverts sexual bragging, a writing that champions the vulnerable, the fractured, the disenfranchised, the sexually fucked-up.” As far as I’m concerned? She’s there. She’s got it. She’s flaunting it. And I absolutely love it.

Pink Steam seems to be out of print, but if you do a little hunting around you should be able to find it. Enjoy.

Kelly reviews Inferno by Eileen Myles

Inferno: A Poet’s Novel, Eileen Myles

If the flight from Minneapolis to Vancouver had been just a little longer, I would have finished this book in one sit. Not because of the plot—basically nonexistent—but because of the feeling, thought, feeling. Plus, the hot and sometimes hilarious sex, of course.

Though subtitled “A Poet’s Novel,” this piece is only vaguely fictional, referring to real figures from Myles’ life and incorporating previously published poems. Myles brings a poet’s precision to this semi-fiction, semi-memoir. Take these opening lines:

My English professor’s ass was so beautiful. It was perfect and full as she stood at the board writing some important word. Reality or perhaps illusion. She opened the door. With each movement of her arms and her hand delicately but forcefully inscribing the letters intended for our eyes her ass shook ever so slightly. I had never learned from a woman with a body before. Something slow, horrible and glowing was happening inside me. I stood on the foothills to heaven. She opened the door.

After introducing Dante to the class, this English professor asks students to write their own infernos. The class groans. Eileen writes hers alone at the kitchen table at home. Her professor’s public response to Eileen’s poem makes her wonder, could this poetry gig be a job? There is little plot in the book, but that is not the point. When I heard Myles speak in Vancouver, she said she wrote this book to explain being a poet. It is a thorough and provoking explanation.

In many ways, this book has nothing to do with the original Divine Comedy. Dante’s judicial nature and firm vengeance are absent; Myles is not teaching us how to be good; and other than a dose of guilt, there’s nothing Catholic about this piece. However, like Dante, Myles is a poet on a journey, through a spectacular and sometimes grotesque universe; and though there is no single Beatrice, it is women who bring Myles through. Her discovery of her sexuality is written in glorious detail: the awkwardness and the joy resonate equally.