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.

Greetings From Janeland: Women Write More About Leaving Men for Women edited by Candace Walsh and Barbara Straus Lodge

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 6 years since I wrote my review of Dear John: I Love Jane. The Lesbrary was still a baby! In that review, I talk about how fascinated I was with it, namely because of it addressing sexual fluidity. In fact, the author of Sexual Fluidity wrote the foreword, and that inspired me to add it to my TBR. I wouldn’t read for 5 more years–not until I was experiencing my own sexual fluidity. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I waited that long: it was extremely helpful to read at that point in my life (review here).

Needless to say, I had some expectations starting the sequel to that pivotal book. And perhaps those expectations were a little too high. As I sad in my original review, I have a personal interest in those essays where authors address sexual fluidity: having their attractions shift over time. The majority of stories in the first book were not about that. They were about realizing that they were gay later in life, or at least coming to terms with it after having serious relationships with men. That’s even more true in Greetings From Janeland. The focus seems to have shifted to really be representing women who come out later in life. (Later than teenager, I mean.)

These are still interesting stories! They’re about how compulsory heterosexuality can cause people to live decades without owning up to their own desires and pleasure. They show the many different paths that people take to find their truths. They show the ways that their relationships with the men in their lives change: some are still close to them, and some have completely gone separate ways. Some follow up stories from the first book. For the most part, though, they follow a pattern: I was always a lesbian, but I didn’t come out until later. There are a few bisexual writers, but not a lot, and even fewer that address fluidity.

So this collection didn’t cater to my interested quite so closely, but I still think this is a great resource. The editors reference how women have written to them to say how life-changing the first book was for them. We do still have a very rigid idea of what a lesbian looks like, what a queer woman looks like, what coming out looks like. It’s good to have stories that stretch that, and show that it’s never too late to live your truth.

Susan reviews Spinning by Tillie Walden

Spinning is a graphic memoir by Tillie Walden about the ten years she spent as a competitive figure skater. It’s beautiful and compelling, but in some ways it’s a hard read.

Everything I know about skating I picked up from Yuri!!! On Ice fandom, so I couldn’t speak to how accurate it is, but her explanations of how figure skating, jumps, and synchronised skating works are fascinating. Especially because she does touch on the explicit feminine coding and potential toxicity of enforcing that on kids! But learning how different moves are structured and how much work goes in is fascinating! Especially because while it structures and shapes Tillie Walden’s life throughout Spinning, it’s not the only thing going on.

The narrative is very narrow in its focus – it’s very deeply into Tillie Walden’s experiences and feelings in a way that works well with the structure of the narrative. The afterword specifically says that it was deliberate; it was about “sharing a feeling” rather than the specific events, and it is definitely successful at that. It frees her from doing a linear chronology, and lets her group events by feeling or what makes sense, which means that it’s more of a coherent story despite being a memoir.

The specific events swing between hopeful and exciting to bleak within the space of pages – the demands of skating and Tillie Walden’s coping strategies to deal with exhaustion and despair are really well depicted. The bleakness and monotony of her feelings towards skating are really well contrasted with her feelings for art and music as her interests change and move; the fun she has with her friends and the validation she gets from winning contrast with her feelings of fear. Her relationship and and coming out also come under this, but neither of which go well so brace yourselves for on-page homophobia. The way that Tillie Walden talks about her first relationship bringing her fear as well as everything else young love is supposed to bring is heartbreaking.

Tillie Walden’s regrets – that her bully left the school before she found the courage to stand up for herself; that she wasn’t a better friend, that quitting skating was so anticlimactic – were all completely understandable and relatable, and the way the art conveyed them made me feel for her. The art is great, and it has a lot of the things that I loved about “i love this part” – it has a limited pallet of dark blue, grey, and yellow, which was used to great effect to convey the mood without words. I especially love the way that she’ll give a quiet moment an entire page to itself to let its emotional weight rest, especially because most of the book has a very regular page structure.

Spinning is a really interesting, emotional, and compelling memoir that works really well with the art to tell its story. It also left me completely emotionally drained by the time I was done with it, which is a recommendation if that’s what you’re in the mood for!

Caution warning: sexual assault, homophobia, bullying.

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.


Elinor reviews The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

I have long-standing love for Ariel Levy’s work, so I was eager to read her memoir The Rules Do Not Apply. For those who’ve read her essay “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” about her miscarriage at 19 weeks pregnant, you have some idea what you’ll be getting in this book. Essentially, it’s a brutally sad story told gorgeously. The memoir gives context to Levy’s loss of her pregnancy, marriage, and home, all within a single month, and delves into her life before, during and after this central tragedy.

Much of the book explores Levy’s adventures as a successful writer, interviewing fascinating people all over the world, and how her work informed her ideas about gender, family, work, queerness, marriage, and a meaningful life. Alongside this is the story of Levy’s personal life, from a childhood spent witnessing her mother’s long-term affair and the dissolution of her parent’s marriage, to dating men and women as an adult. When Levy falls in love with and marries a woman before such a marriage was legally recognized, you can feel the heady excitement. Together the pair bought a home and wrestled with question when and how to become parents. Though Levy’s marriage was loving, it was complicated by Levy’s destructive affair with a creepy ex and her spouse’s increasingly serious drinking problem. Still, when they decide to have a child after many years together, she believes that they have things under control, that they’d weathered storms and gotten bad behavior out of their systems. Then the unthinkable happens and the story takes a turn Levy never expected.

Levy resists the cultural rules for women throughout her life, managing to have brilliant ambition, professional success, lust, love, adventure and a rich domestic life. But those are only a superficial rejection of the “rules” that the title references. This memoir rejects tidy lessons, platitudes, and the idea that loss is avoidable. Often in stories like Levy’s, the unstated rule is that it all works out in the end, that there’s a silver lining, or that everything happens for some ultimately rewarding cosmic reason. Levy refuses to pretty up her pain or to resolve the story neatly. Here, there is no happy ending. In fact, the book ends ambiguously, with Levy stepping out into an uncertain future.

The rawness and incredible writing draw you in, and leave you unsettled. You might want to line up something soothing after this. I was very glad I didn’t read it until after my child was born, because if I’d been pregnant or trying to get pregnant I would have been an anxious wreck reading this book. Having said that, I still highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating, honest, unique book.

Elinor Zimmerman is the author of Certain Requirements, which will be released by Bold Strokes Books in Spring 2018. Her website is ElinorZimmerman.com

Danika reviews Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger, as the subtitle states, a memoir of a body. It follows Roxane Gay’s journey with her body, from when she was a kid to her present day, and how the trauma in her life has played out over her body. This is dark, sometimes brutal book. It talks frankly about her rape as a child and how she has lived with that experience for the rest of her life. It talks about the way our society views fat bodies, how that fatphobia affects her in so many ways. It talks about her disordered eating, the unhealthy relationships she’s had (as well as the healthy ones). The subject matter is intense.

Despite this, I ended up finishing Hunger much more quickly than I had anticipated. Gay writes in an approachable, casual style most of the time, as if she’s having a conversation with you. The chapters are very short–often just a few pages. And her writing is so compelling. Whether she’s talking about fat acceptance as a movement or discussing her dating life, I was completely pulled in.

She includes a lot of nuanced, complicated looks at subjects she returned to repeatedly. Often, she’d write “I don’t know why ___. Or I do.” (“I don’t know how I let it get this bad. Or I do.”) Because that’s how we look at our own lives. It seems completely random, out of our control–or it’s a concrete narrative, every step leading inexorably to the next. We don’t know why we do things (but we do). She talks about how she appreciates fat activism, body positivity, and the health at every size movement, but that doesn’t stop her from wanting to lose weight–that even the representation of fat bodies in these movements don’t represent people at her size and the struggles that she has with her body.

I love Roxane Gay’s writing even when I’m disagreeing with her, and I felt like Hunger was the strongest work I’ve read by her. I have enjoyed every book I’ve read by her, but I really felt affected by this one. It’s definitely not as big a focus as some of the other themes going on, but there is queer content in Hunger. Roxane Gay is bisexual, and she talks about her coming out as well as some of her relationships with women.

I rated this 5 stars, and it’s one of my favourite books I’ve read this year. I’d definitely recommend it, as long as you are prepared for the discussion of rape, disordered eating, and negative body image.

Anna Marie reviews Sea-Witch Volume 1: may she lay us waste by moss angel witchmonstr

“I have nothing to fear from monsters.

It was people who broke my teeth with rocks.”

[Before I get into the review I think its important to let folks know that I am not a trans woman! and therefore dont experience transmisogyny like moss angel does]

Sea Witch is a wild and transformative novel about love, community, girl-ness and pain. It speaks to the experience of Sara and the time she spent living inside a witch god named Sea-Witch. It’s also about family and Sea-Witch’s community of sisters and the 78 Men Who Cause Pain (78MWCP) via making laws and being cops and fighting against so called monsters like sea-witch. The story is told through scribbles and sigils, words and drawings and photographs.

It’s experimental fiction, it’s occult queer trans being stories, it’s a fragmented memoir and a graphic novel, it’s about being a fuck up, being mentally ill, being a trans woman.

It’s for all of us freaks who are interested in mythology and regularly create our own. It’s for all the queer witches, for all the Sapphic sea lovers. It’s about fucking up systems of power and trying to build through care, hope and positivity. Its about being marginalised and what oppression does to you, what it inscribes on your psyche and your body, on your community and your imagination.

Sara is living inside an oceanic gay witch god in an intense trans girl world which is both bewildering and makes complete sense. In its upside down logic and reworking of bodies it’s validating and poetic, beautiful in its descriptions of nature and witchcraft and sisterhood. The way time is treated also provides a tumultuous space of fluidity and fragmentary, exciting narrative–because time is distorted a normative transition narrative is subverted–Sara is in sea-witch always and never, it’s a space that is present and not present simultaneously, a little like when you look back at the past and realise you are trans and you have both always been and always known this and also not had a clue about why you felt like such a weirdo, like such a monster.

There are interesting symbols and repeated signs, or what look like sigils that mark some of the images in Sea-Witch. These flourishes of witchcraft were something that I really really enjoyed. What do all these symbols mean? What can they do? Some of them look like ropes tied together, box crosses over images, like nets that are both for capture and also for protection. Maybe that’s a little like being in Sea–Witch.

The novel ends with a sigil by Claire Diane for hope and resistance and care, (and hot trans make outs!) and that’s a nice touch too: maybe it’s an invitation to become your own sea-witch, or dog-witch or dirt-witch or strawberry-witch (and the list goes on!). An invitation to make our own community mythologies real, to fight the 78MWCP and all the despicable laws against our bodily autonomies and our lives.

Sea-witch is like an ocean, a dreamy, flowing and ebbing of thoughts and narratives and rhythms. In dreams and realities it opens new possibilities of girlhoods and healings and traumas and relationships!

You can read up to date writing from Moss Witchmonstr on her patreon and volume 2 will be published in September, which I really am looking forward to!! 8deadsuns.tumblr.com is Moss’s tumblr so definitely check her out and $upport her work!

Lastly, fuck the 78MWCP!!!!!

https://www.patreon.com/monstr

Megan G reviews Kiss Me Again, Paris by Renate Stendhal

Never has a memoir enraptured me as completely as Kiss Me Again, Paris. Renate Stendhal reached through the pages and took me by the hand, pulling me back into Paris in the 1970’s and into her skin. To read Stendhal’s account of her life in Paris is to live it. Never has reading a book felt so much like watching a movie. Every intricate detail she dives into came alive before my eyes, not just through her masterful prose, but through the gorgeous pictures scattered throughout the memoir.

Although there are two explicit love stories present in Kiss Me Again, Paris, the implicit love stories between Stendhal and her friends, and Stendhal and her city are the most visceral. Paris is Stendhal’s mistress, more so than any of the lovers she describes, and her love for the city and the life she lived there is breathtaking. I myself have only been to Paris once, but after reading Stendhal’s memoir I feel as though that is not the case. I have never yearned for a city as I yearned for Paris while immersed in this book.

During many scenes depicting Stendhal and her friends, I knew I should feel like an outsider, privy to a conversation far too intimate for my perusal, but that was never the case. I will admit, I had a bit of a hard time keeping track of all the women in Stendhal’s life–which backstory corresponded to which name, and with whom had she slept? Still, the closeness of her tight-knit group of “Sinners”, as they called themselves, made it easy to forget my confusion. Regardless of backstory or personal history, the love Stendhal felt for these women shone through. These are friends who can call each other whenever one is in need, and within minutes they are at each other’s doors. They dance together, they drink together, and they love together. The atmosphere of Paris just adds another layer of decadence to their lives.

Stendhal’s feelings toward the two women her heart aches for in her memoir–a fickle actress named Claude and a mysterious red-headed woman who keeps re-appearing in her life–are the strongest throughout the memoir. She lays it all bare for her audience. Every lustful thought, every prickle of jealousy, every irrational moment of hope or despair. I craved more knowledge on the so-called “Woman in Red”, desperate as Stendhal was to know more, to be near her. As the story unfolds, I often found myself looking up Stendhal and her life-partner Kim Chernin on Wikipedia, hoping to gain even the smallest hint that Kim Chernin was the “Woman in Red”. Unfortunately, I found none, and it makes me wonder how such a deep, wonderful, all-consuming love story could have eventually found its end. I was hooked on Stendhal’s every word, and my heart pounded with every emotion she felt. Her frustration with Claude, yet desire to continue seeing her. Her questions about the “Woman in Red”, her obsession with learning more about her. It was as though Stendhal had a hold of my heart, making me feel all the anguish, hope, and love that she herself felt.

The book is not perfect, of course. It is riddled with casual transphobia that would have been common-place in the 1970’s, but feels rather shocking to read in a book published in 2017. There is, as well, at least one racial slur for Romani people within the text, and a prolonged and explicit scene depicting a girl between the ages of twelve and fifteen being photographed entirely nude.  Still, despite these short-comings, Kiss Me Again, Paris brings the author’s experience to life better than any other memoir I’ve read. The specificity in the detail is astounding, and the decadence in the language will leave you begging to read more.

Kiss Me Again, Paris by Renate Stendhal will be available for purchase on June 6, 2017.

Danika reviews Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote

“I was not ladylike, nor was I manly. I was something else altogether. There were so many different ways to be beautiful.”

– Michael Cunningham, A Home at the Edge of the World, epigraph to Tomboy Survival Guide

I am in love with this book, as I am in love with Ivan Coyote’s writing in general.

First of all, this is a beautiful book just as an object. I love the cover, and there are lots of small details that really add to the design, including the back cover edge being usable as a ruler. Throughout the book, between essays, are diagrams, including a disassembled stand mixer, knot-tying, and pastry-making.

I love Ivan Coyote’s writing because it’s both easy to read and deeply moving. Most of their stories come out of a rural setting, often up north, and they combine that often harsh environment with a kindness and generosity that underlies all their words. In one story, they talk about being one of only two people in a trades class that wasn’t a cis guy, and the harassment they faced. One day, they came in to find that someone had pissed in their toolbox. They cleaned it before class so no one would see them flinch at this.

In this same class, the same day, a guy asks them for relationship advice. They proceed to give possibly the best relationship advice I’ve ever heard, including detailed instructions on both dinner preparation and cunnilingus. The guy came back the next day and gave them the only hug they’d ever seen him participate in. He was beaming. Coyote absorbs this environment’s cruelty and still offers kindness–kindness that pays off, that is multiplied.

This conviction to remain kind even in a cruel world is inspiring to read. It’s not laid out as a philosophy; it’s just apparent behind every story. In one essay, they talk about forgiving their mother for “squeezing” them into things, recognizing that what they read as shame for all those years was actually fear–and wishing that their mother had named it then.

Once I came out, I stayed out. I got a regrettable pink triangle tattoo on my shoulder and plastered Queer Nation stickers on my leather jacket and went to kiss-in protests at the old coffee shop on Commercial Drive. I wanted to fight homophobia everywhere, in everyone. I wanted to Act Up, to act out, to have sit-ins, and not stand for it anymore.

I wish now I has been kinder to my mother about it all.

Ellen moved into a big house in East Vancouver and started to date a guy who played trombone in her jazz quintet. I told her I couldn’t spend too much time with her and all her straight friends anymore lest I by homogenized by their infectious heterosexuality. My politics didn’t leave anyone, including me, a lot of room for nuance, or grey areas.

I wish I had been kinder to a lot of people about it all, come to think of it.

Queer and trans people are often depicted in media as being perpetually teenagers or twenty-somethings. That’s another reason that I appreciate Ivan Coyote’s place in queer lit. They are in their 40s, which means both that they offer a look into a possible queer future for ourselves (it’s hard to imagine your future when none are depicted in media) and that they offer a more nuanced view of queer politics.

One essay that really stood out to me talked about the response they got from their Slate piece about gender neutral bathrooms, and about the harassment they face in public bathrooms. Their piece got shared at the same time on two sites: one, a pray-away-the-gay site, and the other, a “radical feminist” anti-trans site. The odd thing, they said, was how difficult it was to tell from the hateful emails which site the person was from. These are supposed to extreme opposite ends of the political spectrum, and yet the “radical feminists” and ultra right-wing camp sound almost identical. There is an unfortunate amount of TERFs (trans-exclusionary/trans-exterminatory “radical feminists”) on tumblr, and I’m constantly stumbling on their posts and remarking at how conservative their stances are, with minor vocabulary changes.

Of course, as the title would suggest, most of this collection has to do with gender.

But my day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body. I am not trapped in the wrong body; I am trapped in a world that makes very little space for bodies like mine. I live in a world where public washrooms are a battle ground, where politicians can stand up and be applauded for putting forth an amendment barring me from choosing which gendered bathroom I belong in. I live in a world where my trans sisters are routinely murdered without consequence or justice. I live in a world where trans youth get kicked out onto the street by their parents who think their God is standing behind them as they close their front doors on their own children. Going to the beach is an act of bravery for me. None of this is a battle between me and my own flesh. For me to be free, it is the world that has to change, not trans people.

I think this would be an excellent book to give both trans/butch/gender-nonconforming people, especially teenagers, but also to give to someone who wants to learn about trans politics and lives, but doesn’t know where to start. Coyote is generous and forgiving in their writing, and despite the almost endless opportunities to respond to a situation with rage, there is very little anger in this book.

Basically, I can’t recommend Ivan Coyote’s writing highly enough, and Tomboy Survival Guide is a superb example of it.

Julie Thompson reviews A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout

“I expect our letters to be someday public property, and, though I write with little self-consciousness about being overheard at some future date, talking intermittently to you and to myself, it seems to me what has concerned us is richly human and significantly focused on the concerns of our time and our tribe.” – Jane Rule to Rick Bébout, August 2, 1989 (Intro, xiii)

Some of the most powerful love stories occur between friends. I have always longed for a bosom buddy, someone who would stand by my side fending off the zombie apocalypse and navigating ethical dilemmas. A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout edited by Marilyn R. Schuster, presents fourteen years (1981-1995) of correspondence between Jane Rule to Rick Bébout, two such friends. Margaret Atwood, a longtime friend of Jane and her partner, Helen Sonthoff, penned the foreword and is mentioned with affection in the letters.

Jane Rule (1931-2007) was an author and social commentator, a tidy summation of the innumerable roles and contributions she made to the Arts and LGBT+ community. Among her novels, she is perhaps best known for her 1964 romance, The Desert of the Heart (later produced as the 1985 film, Desert Hearts). Rule emigrated with Sonthoff from the United States in the 1950s and made their home in Galiano, British Columbia.

Rick Bébout (1950-2009) wrote prolifically for The Body Politic (TBP) (a Toronto-based publication written for LGBT+ readers, on social issues and culture) and contributed to other publications, as well; tirelessly advocated for the rights and respect of queer folks. He assembled through AIDS education materials for the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) and the Hassle Free Clinic, among others. A fellow American expatriate, Bébout moved to Canada during the Vietnam War and later gained Canadian citizenship.

Rule’s and Bébout’s relationship began as that of writer and editor, when she submitted articles and pieces for her column, “So’s Your Grandmother”, to TBP. As managing editor, Bébout lived and breathed the magazine; the ebb and flow of his life was dictated by the publication cycle. He juggled multiple hats and personalities at TBP. Over the years, a deep friendship developed. Topics they discussed run the gamut, including racism, same-sex marriage, violence against women, freedom of expression, and the effect of fantasy on behavior.

Rule and Bébout weathered the heartbreaks of losing friends to AIDS, the frustration in fighting for equal dissemination of health information and access to health care, career changes, and more. They offered strength, solace, and safe space. More than once, Rule and Sonthoff bought Bébout round-trip plane tickets to Galiano Island, where he could relax at their home and elsewhere on the West Coast of Canada. Subtle clues about the evolution of their relationship manifests in subtle ways, such as how they sign-off their letters. The transition of Rick’s sign-offs from the semi-formal “sincerely” (1981) to the more companionable “love” (1985), for example, shows a shift of sentiment.

It’s not only the sweeping scope of events and issues, but the more mundane, everyday pleasures of life, that draw me into their story: Helen and Jane reading aloud to each other at night; swimming at a community pool; and Rick meeting and making friends at gay bars in Toronto. Between the two writers, they show the joys and challenges of rural and city lives.

“We die bravely and well, so many of us, giving all the way to the end – and those of us left mourning hold to that and cherish it and grow from it. But dammit, the end is too soon, and children born today will never know things they might have known if the end were not so soon for so many of us. That’s my rage, that’s what my grief is for: what’s lost.” —Rick Bébout, 1988 (Introduction, xxv).

Rule and Bébout were cognizant of the potential posterity of their letters, given their high visibility within the Arts and LGBT+ community. When Schuster approached them with her idea of publishing the letters, they not only approved, but facilitated access to materials in various formats. Headnotes and endnotes for each chapter (how I refer to sections encompassing a calendar year) enrich the two friends’ discussions. A “Dramatis Personae” section details persons of note found in the letters. It is also worth noting the immensity of Schuster’s project. Her skilled editing chiseled 2,700 pages of correspondence into a coherent and engaging volume representing twenty-five percent of the original total.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to “watch” their friendship grow. I highly recommend A Queer Love Story for folks interested in LGBT+ history and fans of Jane rule, in particular. If you want to learn more about Jane Rule and view her through the autobiographical lens, check out her posthumously published memoir, Taking My Life  (2011), reviewed last year by Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. You can learn more about Rick Bébout via his website, http://www.rbebout.com/. A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout is available for purchase on May 1, 2017.

Page numbers refer to the uncorrected proof received from the University of British Columbia Press and are subject to change at time of publication.

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Kalyanii reviews The Raging Skillet: The True Life Story of Chef Rossi

 

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After reading The Raging Skillet, I’m not certain whether I’m desperate to marry the legendary culinary mastermind known simply as Rossi or to live within her skin. It would be futile to deny my appreciation for the handful of openly lesbian chefs whose careers have blossomed in spite of – or perhaps due to – their determination to manifest a passion for food while remaining true not only to their culinary sensibilities but to the very essence of who they are. Gabrielle Hamilton, even amid the rumors surrounding her personal life, most notably comes to mind. However, none have inspired within me the spirit of resilience, determination, creativity and authenticity to quite the extent that Chef Rossi has. Her journey’s not been an easy one; she earned every bit of her success. And, the woman who’s lived to tell the story holds my admiration as well as my most heartfelt gratitude, for I just may be something more of a force in my own right for all that she’s endured.

It is to the introduction of the microwave oven that Rossi attributes her professional destiny, for once the appliance found its way into her family’s home, seldom did her mother serve any of the Hungarian faire that had graced the table, day in and day out, prior to its arrival. Unimpressed with the flavorless, prepackaged dinners that took the place of her mother’s slaved-over kosher dishes, the young Rossi began inventing and presenting concoctions that gleaned the enthusiasm of her family, later the adoration of her stoner friends and eventually the devotion of the drunks to whom she served avant-garde nachos in an attempt to sober them up before last call. It didn’t take long for her to realize where to access her influence.

Aside from a two-week bartending course, Rossi embarked upon her culinary career with no formal training. However, her chutzpah landed her positions in the food industry shortly after she ventured out on her own as a teenager, fleeing the oppressive Hasidic expectations of her family and religious community. Beyond a stint selling subscriptions forThe New York Times, a gig on The Matthew Rousseau led to both dive and ultra-trendy establishments until she found herself named by Zagat “the wildest thing this side of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

Her anecdotes pertaining to her mother’s frugality and over-the-top kitchen dynamics inspire laugh-out-loud snorts and giggles against a backdrop of poverty, friends lost to AIDS and the challenges of proving herself in what was, especially in the 80’s, very much a man’s world. Rossi’s sense of humor proves caustic while still rather cornball, a combination I found to be terribly endearing.

I appreciated that Rossi opted for a less sentimental approach to her hardships and losses, for their gravity is evident in simply being what they are. In addition, the objectivity with which she addresses painful circumstances serves as indicative of her forward focus and innate refusal to become mired within the muck of a life lived well and boldly.

Though Rossi admits to a tendency to kvetch, or complain, the reader never sees it. She attributes the wise words “Sweetie, I come here to work, not talk about what hurts. What does not? Everything hurts. This is life… so forget it. Make some gorgeous food!” to Niko, a chef who over time assumed the roles of brother, son, wife and prodigious butter-plater, but I suspect that his guiding principles are as much hers as his own, even if she hesitates to give herself credit for it.

The chapter pertaining to her time spent at Ground Zero was perhaps, for me, the most profound of them all. Rossi does an outstanding job of capturing the essence of 9/11’s early aftermath and humanizes what remains, for anyone born post-WWII, the most jarring event of our lifetimes.

Each chapter of The Raging Skillet is accompanied by a couple of recipes associated with the events described within. Viewing the measuring cup as a “soul-crushing” instrument, Rossi notes amounts in plops and coffee cups of a given ingredient, making the recipes incredibly accessible; however, I would have given anything to learn more about her technique and creative process, secrets and all. I’m just that greedy… though it doesn’t stop me from noshing “Riverboat Guacamole” even as I pen this review.

Within the acknowledgements, Rossi thanks her girlfriend, Lydia, for “filling a void in my heart that I didn’t know was there,” so I won’t hold my breath for a proposal. However, I will continue to ponder the lessons that Rossi’s learned, share her story with fellow foodies and remind myself, when push comes to shove, within or beyond the kitchen, to hold my own when it matters and find humor in the rest.