Ren reviews We Were Witches by Ariel Gore

We Were Witches by Ariel Gore cover

TW: self harm, violence against women, sexual assault

‘Beautiful’ does not even begin to encompass the captive, rhythmic style Ariel Gore possesses. I found it difficult to read quickly despite it being a relatively short work; every few pages there would be a line simple in structure but devastating in truth. I would be left raw, and was often forced to take a few minutes of sitting quietly before I could pick it up again. Reading this book was not always comfortable, but it was always very real. Her revelations discomfit, the view of an unkind world is gutting, and I am so glad to have found and read it. This will not be the last time.

It begins with Ariel at age 19, delivering Maia in a hospital in Italy. The following chapters delve into her confusion and uncertainty as she returns home for the first time in a long time, and she slowly finds her footing in a world that is not good to her. It becomes an anthem for all that is endured silently for the betterment of privileged fragile men. Reading this book, I was angry, and I was heartbroken.

Poor little male violence
You can climb my hair.

The book is made of rage. And writing when you have rage is important (as is reading about rage when it’s so similar to your own) because more often than not, that rage is turned inward. Because suffering as one’s own island is what women have been groomed to do. There are endless layers and contrasts to Ariel’s explorations as she grows from teen to young adult, and she pulls no punches in her descriptions of suffering (and betrayal after betrayal). Nothing is easy. There is prejudice and rigidity even in the broader spaces in which she tries to make a home.

Ariel goes to college, baby in tow. She studies the witch trials extensively. Outlines the trends in accusing poor, unmarried women of witchcraft and executing them. Paints a picture of women who mattered so little, the only way to find their stories is by the court records of their trials.

Very few people in power really care about other people’s sexuality. They care about money. But shaming sexuality is easier because that realm is so vulnerable. And of course if you control sexuality, that’s power that can be transmuted into more money.… my public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escape the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine.

Different is dangerous. Different needs to be leashed.

College teaches Ariel lessons in taking up space. She makes a few key friends. Finds some cute girls to make out with. Her Women’s Studies professor encourages her to explore feminism, and Ariel’s automatic rejection is, ‘feminists just get abortions’. I was taken aback, but equally appreciative of Gore’s ability to be honest about her growth. Because we aren’t born good feminists, and it is hard to accept a label often thrown like an accusation when you are too young to know it should be worn like a badge of honour.

She gains confidence in her desire to be a writer because here, at this women’s college, people do not laugh at her dreams. But she also learns that the people in her new home carry their own flaws. Her intro to (White Girl) Feminism gives her creative freedom and embraces her talent, but it does not account for poverty. It advocates for queer rights, but does not care for butch representation. Ariel’s employer stages a gay wedding between two femme white girls (one hetero, the other with no interest in marriage) – rejecting a butch couple actually looking to get married – because the butch couple are too gay for the kind of press this ‘feminist magazine’ is hoping to garner.

Ariel learns that feminists can be terrible too, when they are not willing to change. When their idea of Feminism is the only Feminism.

Also, honourable mention goes to Ariel’s crush on her Women’s Studies professor. Been there, Girl.

We Were Witches reads like a novel and you want it to be a novel, because in a novel, when the writing is this good, the ending always satisfies. But when my Kindle told me I was 70% through and things were still getting worse, I wanted to cry.

Ariel gives birth to a daughter, and the doctor mutilates her without thought.

The only alive the doctor knows is crying.

She goes home to a mother who will not let her forget the ‘shame’ of being a teenage mother. She takes Maia and branches out on her own and tries to finish college, only she needs welfare assistance to do so. And the woman she tries to befriend throws her to the wolves (the wolf being the woman’s asshole husband who shouts welfare/single mother-shaming abuses at Ariel, then escalates to threats, prompting her to pack her things and leave the city). She moves to a new college. A queer friendly, women’s college.

It does not get better.

Her ex-boyfriend punches through the glass window in her door to break inside. She phones the police. The police show up and Lance charms them, painting Ariel as hysterical. She tries to file a restraining order. But ‘children need their fathers’ and suddenly the choices are share custody with Lance, or have Maia taken away.

As the book progresses, a very clear picture begins to take shape. Here, we explore the pieces:

The police refusing to believe Ariel and Lance aren’t married. Refusing to believe that Lance broke down the door and was ready to hurt her.

Passing as straight for the courts because queer mothers have their children taken away from them.

Ariel’s friend raped – at 14, by a police officer – and told her rapist has visitation rights.

A childhood friend of Ariel’s, raped during her first year of college: her push against the college for laws of consent to be clear and mandatory are made into jokes on the radio.

The witch trials have not ended. And this is as bleak a reality as it is an important one to remember. Fighting when you’re tired, when you’re exhausted – because you’re fighting your fight and the fight of queer/poor/unmarried/underrepresented people before you, even preceding the witch trials, and you were brought into this world fighting – is important. The alternative is death. This book is about intersectional feminism, motherhood, male privilege, violence, the burden of emotional labour, and the one hundred other aggressions dealt with daily to varying degrees by anyone who is not a cis-white male. Everyone needs it.

One final note, and then I promise I will stop hyping it up. I’m a sucker for reimagined fairy tales; there are some brief retellings throughout the book, but the Rapunzel retelling wrecked me. I won’t spoil it, but it wrecked me. Do not read this book until you are in a place where you are okay feeling every feeling. But please read this book.

Danika reviews The Gifted Ones by Lisa Vaughn

I think I might be a little burnt out on self-published books.

The problem is that I always have the same problems with them, and almost all of those problems can be summed up with “not enough editing.” The Gifted Ones (a memoir), unfortunately, fits in that category. The typos are numerous, including two ones that I noticed repeating. The first is mistaking “of” for “have” (“should of” “could of” “Wouldn’t Peggy of been proud?” (pg 171)), and the second was “towing the line.” There was also a lot of unnecessary emphasis (lots of bolding, underlining, italics, all caps).

I don’t want to say it was all bad, however. I really think it has potential. I found the childhood part slow, but the story after that is compelling.

I think I might be able to be a little more coherent in point form.

Positives:

  • I really think there is enough action for a novel-length story. Everyone thinks their life story is interesting, but not everyone actually has enough happen to fill a whole book.
  • I loved the budding romance. It seemed very natural. I also thought the first kiss was memorable. The scene was striking.
  • [spoilers] I was impressed that Vaughn gave her romance with Selina the weight she did, considering it one of the two true loves of her life, not just a passing fling on the way to heterosexualville. I really appreciated that. [end spoilers] 

Negatives

  • It’s a lot like reading a diary, but without the immediacy. I really would have liked to see a little more of a critical eye instead of just detailing what happened, how she felt at the time, and the occasional speculation.
  • A lot of things are over-explained (but that’s my pet peeve in books, so it may just be me).
  • Swearing in dialogue between teens makes perfect sense, but having it in the narration was odd. Again, it’s somewhere between being a first-person, in-the-moment account and a more reflective account with the knowledge gained over time. It don’t quite achieve either, which makes it awkward.
  • The word “retard” is used, again, not just in dialogue, which is understandable in the 70s, but uncritically in the narration, which really made me cringe. It happens more than once.
  • There is some heavy-handed foreshadowing (something like “But we had no idea how bad it would get!” at the end of a chapter).
  • Her childhood, which was pretty typical, got a lot of space and detail, but [spoilers] her engagement and marriage was summed up in a few paragraphs tacked on to the end. [end spoilers] There didn’t seem to be a coherent conclusion, which made me wonder what the focus of the memoir was.

Oddly, I think if this had simply been her diaries from the time, I probably would have enjoyed it more, because I love reading diaries and journals, but it wasn’t quite as immediate as that, or as critical as I would like out of a memoir.

Overall, Vaughn’s romance is compelling, and her later partying lifestyle–as well as dealing with anti-gay bigotry in the 70s and 80s–is more than enough material to form a great story, but The Gifted Ones just needed far more editing to achieve that, including paring it down so that it had a clear goal.

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.

Danika reviews Missed Her by Ivan E. Coyote

Ivan E. Coyote is one of my very favourite queer writers. When giving recommendations for les/bi/etc books, Sarah Waters and Ivan E. Coyote are at the top of the list (though their styles are pretty different). Ivan is often described as a “kitchen table storyteller,” and it’s true. Their stories read as if one of your good friends is relating an anecdote to you, if your friends are really good at telling stories. If you ever get the chance to see Ivan perform in person, I highly recommend it. In the meantime, pick up their books.

Missed Her is a collection of semi-autobiographical stories–Ivan treads the line between memoir and fiction. Some common themes run through the stories, including being queer in a small town. I find this especially interesting, because when the “It Gets Better” project was getting a lot of coverage, there was some criticism about how many of the stories talked about getting out of small towns, and how it didn’t address how rural communities can change, or the positive aspects of them, or even how constantly moving queer people out of rural environments and into urban ones just perpetuates any bigotry in hostile towns (not that anyone has an obligation to stay in a threatening environment, I want to clarify). We’re used to queer stories being set in the big city, so it’s interesting and pertinent to have another narrative. (Ivan currently lives in Vancouver, so it’s not all small town, but growing up in the Yukon made a strong impression on them.)

Ivan presents a different image of being queer in a small town. Their family was supportive, and they appreciate that the people they meet in these towns are more likely to simply ask what they’re thinking instead of skirting around the issue. They have a story set in a small town in which a bunch of men gather around so they can teach them how to properly tie a tie. They do still acknowledge the disadvantages and even dangers of some of these small towns, however, especially when they describe trying to find a rural doctor accepting of their gender presentation.

Ivan’s stories have all sorts of variety, though. There’s some heart-breaking ones and some hilarious ones, though usually it’s a bit of both. (Some topics: looking for an old-fashioned barber in Vancouver, teaching memoir-writing to seniors, repeatedly being mistaken for a gay man, stories about their family, and musings on their butch identity and the policing of the label.)

There’s not much more to say than that I highly recommend it!

May I Kiss You On the Lips, Miss Sandra? by Sandra Bernhard

May I Kiss You On the Lips, Miss Sandra? was one of the few books that weren’t packed during my move, so I decided to give it a try.

I don’t like to give bad reviews, because I know that just because I didn’t like a book, doesn’t mean that other people won’t enjoy it. So I’ll just try to give you my perspective.

I didn’t realize until the book was in my hands how disjointed May I is. Most sections are only a couple pages, and some are only a sentence. They don’t seem to have any relation to each other, except that sometimes sections seemed loosely grouped by a subject, like “smell”.

Much of May I deals with being a celebrity, which isn’t really something I personally find very interesting, and a lot of discusses other celebrities. The problem with that is that May I is from the 90s, and most of those references just don’t translate well 20 years later, though that might be my age talking. And I couldn’t quite tell which parts she was actually trying to claim happened (sleeping with the president?) and which parts she was just joking about.

I don’t really know much about Sandra Bernhardt, but judging from this book, her humor doesn’t really click with me. Actually, it doesn’t seem like most of May I was trying to be funny, but I didn’t feel very connected to the emotional moments, either.

Bernhardt has a few sections that have beautiful writing, but I found them to be the exception to the rule. Her attempts at poetry, I hate to say, seemed mostly juvenile. I think possibly the best written sections were about shoes.

I know that other people had different opinions on this book and I’d love to compare notes.