Danika reviews The Family Tooth by Ellis Avery

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As soon as I finished The Last Nude by Ellis Avery, I immediately added her to my mental list of favourite authors, despite the fact that it was the only thing I’d ever read by her. Some stories are like that. The Family Tooth is a very different book, but it definitely has helped secure her place on that list.

The Family Tooth is a memoir composed of linked essays. Some of these are available as Kindle singles, or the whole book is available zine-style in the author’s Etsy shop. At first glance, it can seem disconnected. The essays cover Avery’s grief over the death of her mother, as well as her journey through dealing with severe arthritis and later cancer, partly through radically restricting her diet. Because they do concentrate on different subjects, the essays can stand on their own, but I think they’re much more powerful when read in sequence.

In the introduction to this collection, Avery warns that part of this purpose of these essays is to detail her discoveries about treatment of her illness so that other people with similar symptoms can use her research to help in their own lives. She encourages the average reader to skip these dry medical passages. It’s a testament to Ellis Avery’s writing that I realized at the end of the book that I had totally forgotten this warning, and despite the detail given, I had never noticed any “dry” segments.

The book begins by discussing her mother’s death, and the complex relationship Ellis Avery had with her mother–an alcoholic and emotionally distant figure in her life. Later essays that are primarily concerned with Avery’s illness still bring in this processing, including thought-provoking parallels between her mother’s life and her own that recontextualize and complicate the initial impression we have of her.

It’s Avery’s writing that really makes these essays stand out. She knows just how to give a detail or mental image that elevates the whole narrative. She weaves in lines that link these disparate subjects together effortlessly. I found myself reading lines out loud to my roommate, and at one point we both paused after I read out a sentence and then said simultaneously “That’s such good writing.”

Grief memoirs and illness memoirs are not usually genres that I gravitate towards, but I will continue to read anything this author decides to write, and I would recommend you join me.

Elinor reviews Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

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As a long-time Sleater-Kinney fan and a Pacific Northwest transplant, I was thrilled that Carrie Brownstein had written a memoir. I picked up a copy of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl right away and I’ve been telling everybody about it ever since. I’ve been recommending it right and left and I’m excited to tell you why.

Brownstein’s book is at times devastating, insightful, and hilarious. It traces Brownstein’s childhood in a Seattle suburb through her early days as a fan making music with friends and onto her life as a touring musician and briefly features her life during Sleater-Kinney’s long (and at the time, seemingly indefinite) hiatus. Though Brownstein explores coming of age under the shadow of mother’s eating disorder and her father’s later-in-life coming out, the bulk of the book is devoted to her time in Sleater-Kinney.

This means that you’ll find out a lot about the miseries of touring in general and Brownstein’s variety of on-tour ailments in particular, including a torn ligament, a surprise food allergy that made her face swell up, and shingles. Brownstein deftly deflates any rock star mystique we may have projected on the incredible musician. Readers are treated to other tidbits about the band as well, including backstories to some songs, bands they toured with, and where and how they recorded.

Brownstein also shares some of the incredibly sexist media coverage Sleater-Kinney has gotten over the years. She exposes her still-raw pain of being outed, along with fellow band co-founder Corin Tucker, by a reporter from Spin. The report had never spoken with either woman about their sexuality or personal relationships and Brownstein was stunned when she learned of the article’s content. In her early twenties at the time and not out to her family, and not completely clear how she wanted to identify, the experience clearly hurt Brownstein deeply, made worse by the reporter’s portrait of her as Tucker’s gushing fan rather than a competent and creative musician in her own right.

Perhaps these negative media experiences help explain the one aspect of the book I found wanting: Brownstein’s guardedness around her personal relationships, especially about her relationship with Tucker. Tucker and Brownstein were dating when they formed the band and recorded its first albums. Though Brownstein writes about the break-up and the impact it had on the music–more than one song on the album Dig Me Out deals the fall out from their relationship–she doesn’t let readers know much about the relationship itself. Their connection is described somewhat ambiguously until their breakup, which is confusing and mutes its emotional impact on readers. Brownstein tells of the sometimes-difficult relationship she and bandmembers Tucker and Janet Weiss have had with one another over the years (the band briefly went to couple’s therapy lead by a pair of married lesbians), but you can’t help but feel a piece of the puzzle is missing. Obviously, staying a creative partnership with her ex brought challenges, especially as Tucker got into a new relationship, married, and became a parent while Brownstein got sick on tour, had a series of girlfriends, and considered going to grad school. As Sleater-Kinney is an active band with a new album to promote, it’s equally obvious why Brownstein seems a bit protective. Spilling every emotionally gory detail wouldn’t be good for the band that’s finally making music together again. Besides, Brownstein is open about her tendency to live in her head and intellectualize her experiences. It doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing as a reader though. When later in the book Brownstein paints a heartbreaking and horrific scene around losing her cat, I wished she’d tackled her personal relationships with people as intensely and vividly.

That being said, the book is great. This memoir turns the idea of a rock star on its head. Brownstein is an unabashed geek and a serious nonfiction writer, as well as an excellent guitar player and singer. She takes her music seriously, cares about giving a good show, and spent most of her career acting as her own roadie. Being on tour isn’t billed as glamorous or sexy or filled with groupies. When Brownstein breaks down before a show and sets in motion a hiatus that will last over a decade, I empathized. The band was hard work.

Those who know Brownstein only from Portlandia might be disappointed, as the show only gets a shout-out in a single sentence. On the other hand, the ideas the show explores pop up periodically in the book. More importantly, it’s a waste to only know Brownstein from her acting. She an amazing musician and a great writer. I highly recommend this book.

Danika reviews Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story by Jeanne Cordova

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I will admit, I find the idea of lesbian nuns fascinating. I love that there are multiple books on the subject. It actually makes total sense: historically, at least in the Western world, one of the few avenues that women had available to them if they didn’t want to get married to men and have children was to become a nun. Is it surprising that lesbians are over-represented in that number? In addition to this being a lesbian nun book, it’s also by an author I already enjoy. Cordova wrote a memoir about her activism titled When We Were Outlaws which I reviewed at the Lesbrary previously, so I knew that her writing style agree with me. It also ended up being an interesting prologue to When We Were Outlaws: I wouldn’t have guessed that passionate lesbian activist spent her childhood yearning to be a nun.

This isn’t as scandalous as the subtitle “A Lesbian Nun Story” would have you believe. In fact, it’s almost the opposite of that. Cordova as a postulant is hopelessly naive. The reader knows better, but young Jeanne wanders through training confused about why the church is so strict about “particular friendships” and what all the blushing and hand-holding is about between nuns she knows. More than a story about being a lesbian nun, Breaking the Habit is about Cordova’s disillusionment about convent life and about the plans she had been dreaming about since childhood. She describes wanting to be a nun as being in love with God, and primarily this is a story about falling out of love and about finding the world to be wider, darker, and also full of more possibility than she was aware of.

Overall, it’s a sweet story about coming out to yourself in an unusual setting. I think this works better as a prologue to When We Were Outlaws than as a standalone story, because it is fairly simple as a narrative. The writing is strong, though, and if you are intrigued by the premise, I don’t think it will disappoint.

Danika reviews Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22 by MariNaomi

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Right off the bat I have to let you know that this isn’t a lesbian book. MariNaomi seems to be attracted to more than one gender, but the vast majority of this book deal with her relationships with boys and men, with the occasional experiment with girls, though there are hints throughout the book that she accepts a queer identity later in her life.

Kiss & Tell is a graphic memoir that spans MariNaomi’s life from childhood to 22, with brief (usually only a page or two, sometimes a handful of pages) stories about each of her romantic interests, whether they lasted a day or years. The art style is similar to Marjane Satrapi’s in Persepolis, and the style and storytelling really grabbed me, even though each story is so brief. By following these romantic interests through the years, we get a sketchy look as her life in general, and it’s one that’s intriguing and occasionally melancholic. Although the art style is usually fairly basic, there are sequences that receive a lot of detail and are even more affecting for the contrast.

Although I’ll admit that I was expecting a little bit more queer content from this collection, I still ended up really enjoying it. This was a really quick read and totally engrossed me; I read it in two sittings. Despite the book chronicling dozens of characters, each was drawn distinctly enough that I never mixed them up, and the stories never felt repetitive. I’ll definitely be picking up more of her books in the future.

Rachel reviews Two Teenagers in Twenty edited by Ann Heron

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Coming out and living as a gay or lesbian teenager can be hard. Or it can be liberating. Everyone’s stories are all different, and Two Teenagers in Twenty, a compilation of true coming-out stories by homosexual teenagers, touches on all the emotions. From acceptance and understanding to fear and disgust, this book is a must-read for any gay, bisexual, or lesbian teen.

Published in 1994 as a sequel to One Teenager in Ten, both edited by Ann Heron, Two Teenagers in Twenty was made to show the lives of coming-out teens and the reactions of their families and friends. Though outdated (the stories in the book range from the 1980s-1990s), the hardships and fears young gays and lesbians face still resonates deeply today. The youth in these stories are between twelve and twenty-four years old, but each of them had to deal with realizing their sexuality, coming to terms with it despite society’s negative portrayal, and telling their loved ones.

This book accurately showed how different each individual’s story was. You get to know the plight of Joanne, a young woman raised by her parents and her school to believe homosexuality is wrong; Jim, whose mother and father react badly to his being gay; Robin, a girl exposed to only negativity about gays and must come to terms with herself; and Jennifer, a bisexual woman into gay rights activism. Though some stories are short, the authors clearly describe their troubles and their triumphs. You get to know each person, and you cheer them on or grieve for their problems and sadness.

The stories these brave teens tell can be shocking and, at times, appalling, making you disgusted with homophobes and bigots. Some kids here have dealt with being picked on at school, beaten up, rejected by their parents, isolation, and suicidal thoughts and attempts. Tragically, one young lesbian girl who shared her story in this book succeeded in ending her life. Suicide was and still is a huge problem for gay teens because of the lack of understanding and the hatred directed at them.

A lot of the stories do offer hope. Some parents featured in Two Teenagers in Twenty were accepting of their children, and even marched with them in Gay Pride parades. Some teens were able to find resources and books that showed homosexuality in a positive light, and some were able to meet other teenagers like them. And many of the teens were combating homophobia and trying to raise awareness for gay rights. Some good things have happened for gay rights since this book came out, but there is still a lot to do.

Two Teenagers in Twenty provided homosexual teenagers with people their age to relate to, hope for their futures, and also provided some good resources. At the back of the book are lists of fiction and non-fiction books for gays and lesbians. Granted, some are very old now, but that doesn’t take away the enjoyment of them. As for Two Teenagers in Twenty itself, it’s a wonderful book that still has potential to help gay and lesbian teens and young adults who are coming out to themselves or their loved ones. It’s touching, thought-provoking, and ultimately, hopeful.

Danika reviews Body Geographic by Barrie Jean Borich

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This is a very smart book. Sometimes I open a book and immediately realize that this has been carefully crafted and very well-written, which, oddly, can also mean that it may be a less instantly enjoyable book: it may take some time and energy to read as well as to write. Body Geographic is definitely one of those books. It is a memoir that uses maps and migration as metaphor in piecing together Borich’s life. There are occasional maps interspersed with the text, and sections are labelled things like “Inset of Bodies so Real” and “First is the Map of Withstanding”. Borich and her families’ stories are told in fragments like this, not in a linear order.

I got the feeling like I was getting snapshots of people: evocative, but not even close to the full story. As Borich circles back to the same people or time periods, more layers get added to these brief impressions, but I still didn’t feel like I really knew these people. One example that I kept thinking about was Linnea. Linnea is Borich’s wife of two decades, but we do not really get a full conversation between them in the whole book. Linnea only speaks a handful of times. It’s as if she is lightly sketched, though more detail does get added later. I’m used to memoirs where I feel immersed in the “characters”, in their personalities, but there seemed to be a distance between the people in Body Geographic and the reader.

I may not be the ideal reader of Body Geographic: I am ridiculously, embarrassingly bad at geography, and I am not a visual person. I definitely don’t think in maps. I did find the metaphor a very interesting one, especially weaving the stories of her ancestors’ migrations and her own migration between her two home cities (Minneapolis and Chicago), but I am sure that anyone who has a better appreciation of maps and geography would enjoy it even more.

This is an extremely well-written memoir that was obviously very carefully put together, and I would recommend that it be read slowly, to really savor the writing and the style of it. It is surprisingly easy to read, but the fragmentation does make it harder to really sink into the story. This is a book that I appreciated the skill of, but didn’t necessarily feel emotionally invested in.

A warning, though: although Body Geographic seems to try to be positive while mentioning trans people, Borich uses the terms “biological woman” and “tr*nny”. Also, most of these references are towards trans women sex workers. I know that most of this book takes place during the 60s and 70s, but that’s still not okay.

If you’ve read Body Geographic, let me know what you thought of it in the comments!

Laura reviews Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation by Urvashi Vaid


Have you been on the internet at all in the past two weeks? Yes? I’m guessing the cover of this book probably looks familiar to you. If not, try it in red:

That’s right: we’re talking about gay marriage! Marriage equality! A hot topic for around the world right now. While we won’t hear the US Supreme Court’s verdict until June, that certainly isn’t going to stop the internet from deliberating.

Speaking of which, have you seen this one?

Or maybe this one?


They’re symbols being posted, generally, by queer people who don’t support gay marriage or the HRC. When I first saw these symbols making the rounds, I admit – I was baffled. So I did what I always do. I bought some books.

Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation by Urvashi Vaid begins with a history lesson on gay political activism in the United States. Vaid writes,

“Throughout the history of our resistance to prejudice, gay people have clashed over a fundamental question about the overall goal of our movement. Are we a movement aimed at mainstreaming gay and lesbian people (legitimation), or do we seek radical social change out of the process of our integration (liberation)? Gay and lesbian history could be read as the saga of conflict between these two compatible but divergent. Legitimation and liberation are interconnected and often congruent; the former makes it possible to imagine the latter. But our pursuit of them takes different roads and leads to very different outcomes.”

Today, proponents of legitimation argue to the straight world that gay people are just like straight people, with the one small difference of who we are attracted to. They lead the fight for gay marriage, arguing to straight people that we are merely a minority, and that prejudice against us is irrational and unconstitutional.

Proponents of liberation, on the other hand, often believe that marriage is part of an oppressive sexual and political order. They argue that vast set of protections available to married people should also be available to single mothers, unmarried couples, single people, etc. Many feel that gay marriage should not be the top priority for the LGBT movement and would prefer to push for broader social change, in which “racism, homophobia, sexism, economic injustice, and other systems of domination are frankly addressed and replaced with new models.”

Of the two camps, Vaid is more of a liberationist, but certainly not an unquestioning one. Throughout the book, she deliberately lays out the limitations of both approaches. (Legitimation: elitist, preoccupied with single-issue politics, tends to leave many groups behind, does not make society more just. Liberation: idealistic and impractical, slow moving, not easy to relate to, tends to be disorganized.) She sternly calls out those making personal attacks, and the movement’s tendency to tear down our political leaders. At the book’s conclusion, Vaid calls for a new understanding among gay people, and for more debate among all political sides in the LGBT movement.

Although Virtual Equality was published in 1995, Vaid’s analysis is relevant, and indeed, anticipated many of the issues that the movement now faces two decades later. Her clear-eyed analysis of the supremacist right as a totalitarian regime is one I believe has only increased in relevance over time. So, too, her exploration of the economy of queerness, with the queer as consumer, and its corollary, the selling of gayness.

One other prescient point that I thought Vaid articulated particularly well is why the “born this way” argument is misleading and ultimately not politically advantageous for LGBT people. She writes,

“Homosexuality always involves choice – indeed, it involves a series of four major choices: admitting, acting, telling, and living. Even if scientists prove that sexual orientation is biologically or genetically determined, every person who feels homosexual desire encounters these four choices.”

Further,

“Because we choose to engage in gay behavior, says the right, we are not entitled to legal protection. Gay activists most frequently respond to this argument with an assertion that homosexuality is innate. … But in doing so, we radically limit the original reach of our political movement. Where we once sought to free the homosexual potential in everyone, by making it safer to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual, we now assert the conservative view that all we want is the freedom to be our biologically determined selves. History shows that the shelter of biology has never protected a people from persecution. The right does not care that we were born gay; they object to us because we are not straight.”

I like to imagine how differently her anthem might have turned out if Lady Gaga had read this book before penning her pop hit. Or how much further we might be if this book was required reading for every LGBT person about to enter a leadership role. Or what would happen if every Facebook activist changing their profile picture were to read this book. (Do our allies really understand the full historical weight of the symbols they’re using? Do we? I know I didn’t.)

I have a lot of respect for the work Vaid did as the director of NGLTF, and her decades of queer activism. If you’re even remotely interested in LGBT history, involved in social activism of any kind, or just want to put political discussion about LGBT issues into context – I can think of no better source than Urvashi Vaid and Virtual Equality. I highly recommend this book to you.

Bonus: for further reading, Vaid just put out a new book called Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics. I’m excited to pick it up.

Danika reviews I’ll Call It Like I See It: A Lesbian Speaks Out by Sheila Morris

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I was expecting I’ll Call It Like I See It to be a memoir, but it’s actually a collection of essays (though most of them are autobiographical). The collection reads almost like a compilation of a local newspaper article, or a personal blog–which makes sense, because the author does have a blog by the same name. The essays cover a range of topics, and they were pretty hit or miss for me. A lot of time is spent setting the stage, establishing background for stories that don’t really go anywhere. (A couple of times, this background included statistics about cities, including citing a website in the text body.) There were also essays that concerned recent political events, which I’m sure would be interesting context ten years from now, but seemed redundant at this point. I do feel like I would probably have enjoyed or at least understood this book more if I had read her earlier books, which I understand are more traditional memoirs. This volume mostly concerns recent years and recent events. Topics like the commercialization of Christmas or the ups and downs of local football teams just didn’t capture my attention, though I’m sure they’d be more interesting if I knew the people or places involved.

There are some interesting tidbits here, though. I think the strongest element of I’ll Call It Like I See It is in the author’s relationship with her mother, and the detailing of her mother’s dementia. Morris also skims over really interesting material, which makes me wonder if they are covered in other books. For example, she mentions an affair with a preacher’s wife. Her description of her maternal grandmother makes it sound like she deserves a book of her own: this grandmother was widowed and raised her children during the great depression, while battling her own personal depression. Although this collection isn’t one of my favourites, it has made me curious enough about the author’s previous books that I might just pick one up anyways.

Danika reviews First Spring Grass Fire by Rae Spoon

From about the first page of First Spring Grass Fire, I was already frustrated, for three reasons: 1) it is very well-written, 2) it is very short, and 3) it is, at the moment, Rae Spoon’s only book. I was dreading getting to the end of the book pretty much the moment I started it.

I first discovered Rae Spoon’s music by their tour with Ivan E. Coyote. I adore Coyote’s storytelling, and Rae Spoon’s music was a great match. I still listen to their music all the time, especially “We Become Our Own Wolves” and “Come On Forest Fire Burn the Disco Down”, so when I heard that Spoon was coming out with a book, I was really excited. First Spring Grass Fire does not disappoint. In a lot of ways, their writing does remind me of Ivan E. Coyote’s. Both talk about fictionalized (?) short stories from their own lives. Both have very easy-to-read, casual styles that simultaneously are deeply moving. Both discuss growing up queer in rural environments.

But Rae Spoon has a style all their own, as well. There are moments of almost poetry in their work. There is also a rawness and urgency to First Spring Grass Fire that is far away from Coyote’s usually positive remembrances of her childhood. Rae Spoon describes growing up trans and queer in a very conservative environment, but that pales to their childhood with their abusive and schizophrenic father. It is definitely, as the back cover says, “quietly devastating, heart-wrenching. . . “, but of course there is also a strength and hope to their memoir, knowing that Spoon escapes and thrives.

This book is intensely personal. Rae Spoon invites the reader into the most painful and difficult moments of their childhood, and shields very little. We get moments, quickly jumping from time to time and location to location. They are incredibly evocative, but they are only brief excerpts. As I have said, it makes me eager to read more of Rae Spoon’s work. I very much hope that they will be writing more, because from this slim collection alone (along with their beautifully written music), Rae Spoon has already been added to my list of favorite, just as emily m. danforth managed to do with her debut book. In case it isn’t obvious, I highly, highly recommend this one, especially for Ivan E. Coyote fans and for people looking for more stories of trans young adults.

Danika reviews Drawing Love by Juli Jousan

Drawing Love by Juli Jousan treads a fine line. It could easily seem overwrought or juvenile. Drawing Love alternates between the present and a description of the main character, Mo, having a dramatic high school relationship. By relating that in flash backs, and showing that Mo has moved on and grown up since then, it avoids being completely mired in the drama of the situation. Throughout the book are Mo’s drawings, which I don’t really feel comfortable commenting on, because I don’t really know enough about art to critique it. They are mostly line drawings.

Some of the writing, like the dialogue between Mo and her mother, seems a little stilted, but it manages to avoid that most of the time. Drawing Love offers a brief glimpse into a life, mostly showing a college relationship with the flash backs to provide context. There are lots of drawings, large font, and wide spacing throughout the novel, making it an easy 2 hour read.