Elinor reviews How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea

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My wife and I are currently trying to buy a house, which is surreal, and it’s made me wonder about what it means to be–or feel like–an adult. Like magic, I found a copy of Michelle Tea’s latest memoir on that very topic. Since I’m a fan of Tea’s other writing, I picked it up. I figured that Michelle Tea is always fun and this book would likely present an interesting take on being a grown up.
How to Grow Up primarily covers Tea’s late thirties and early forties as she stumbles into adulthood. In her late thirties, Tea is sober after years of addiction, re-entering the dating world after spending 8 years in a dysfunctional relationship, sharing filthy housing with twenty-somethings in San Francisco, and dealing with the psychological, emotional, and spiritual issues. Eventually she moves to her own grown-up apartment, starts trying to get pregnant as a single person, forms a healthy relationship with a great woman, and gets married. Though she doesn’t delve much into how she made it happen, Tea has an amazing career in the literary world, something she managed to start even before she got sober. I was surprised she didn’t spend more time on this topic, since I think that having a career is a huge measure of adulthood–and something Tea has a handle on.
How to Grow Up was fun to read, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. This memoir is not linear, broken up into 15 themed essays that aren’t strictly chronological. Tea isn’t the most linear person, so this fits her personality. The downside is that she sometimes tosses out references to events or issues the reader doesn’t know about yet, or retreads the same experiences in multiple chapters.
The other odd thing about How to Grow Up is that periodically the book veers away from Tea’s interesting life and into advice dispensing. A lot of these life lessons struck me as obvious (such as “Don’t date people who sell pills in bus stations”), particularly after you read Tea’s stories. While I liked reading about Tea’s adventure in Paris after her long-term relationship ended, I didn’t need the rules about “how to break up” that preceded it. Tea is a great storyteller, but she’d make a terrible advice columnist, and her attempts to be one drag down her book.
The book didn’t explore issues as deeply as I would have liked. Though Tea looks at class, privilege, and her own background as a working class person, she also name-drops designer brands and insists that her higher power wants her to have these expensive, unethically made items. Her analysis of the contradictions that she holds boils down to, essentially, that all people have contradictory values and impulses. I don’t entirely disagree, but I also wanted more of her thoughts about these issues and less ink about Fendi bags. At times her contradictions are baffling, something that could have been intriguing if looked at more closely.
This book is reassuring, though, and I did feel better after reading How to Grow Up. Everything worked out for Michelle Tea in the end, despite all the detours and the weird choices she made. I’d recommend this book to fans of the author and to people who feel like they’re failing at being grown-ups, with the acknowledgement that the book has limitations. I’d recommend skimming or skipping the advice and lingering instead in the stories.

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.

Audrey reviews Teaching the Cat to Sit by Michelle Theall

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Great title, right? It’s also literal. Poor Mittens. Michelle Theall’s memoir isn’t organized linearly, but intersperses chapters from childhood with chapters from adulthood. And as a child, she really did teach the family cat to sit. She writes poignantly of the deep loneliness that caused her to try to make the cat into something it was not, and manages somehow not to beat you over the head with maternal parallels.

Her establishing shot gives you this: a partner and a son, and iPhone contact with grandparents. Good! Also, the grandparents are due to arrive soon for the son’s baptism, which has been cancelled. Due to the priest’s sudden reconsideration of baptizing the child of gay parents. Also, the grandparents don’t know this. (Note: I use the word “gay” instead of “lesbian” because that’s what Theall uses, and she expresses dislike of the label “lesbian.”)

And then you get a snapshot of the beginning. Michelle was supposed to be Matthew; she notes that this was only the beginning of disappointing her parents. You see her as a young child in the Texas Bible Belt, learning that things she liked were inappropriate, and she herself, always, was inappropriate. Not concerned enough with femininity. Not modest. Always unacceptable and wrong. And then she was scarred by an experience that reinforced this self-perception. When she did finally begin to find herself, it was through sports, and her mother explained that not only do sports have no real value for girls in the real world, but that Theall’s ovaries would likely fall out (spoiler: they didn’t). And the rampant homophobia was so ingrained that homophobia wasn’t even a concept or a word. It was just life. Homosexuality was not a thing; it was wrong, it didn’t exist, it went against the natural order, it was against God.

Although I didn’t read this as a Christian memoir–but you could–Theall’s Catholicism, and her relationship with God, is one of the most important strands woven throughout the book. As she is fighting to have her son’s baptism rescheduled, Theall considers one of the focal points of the priest’s concern: “How do you reconcile your homosexual lifestyle with your Christian beliefs?” At that point, she thinks, she’s spent 42 years resolving that question. By then, her faith is a source of strength, not angst. (Faith. Not clergy. Faith.) Her tale of getting to that place of acceptance is powerful and filled with pain, uncertainty, lots of guilt, and some big epiphanic moments.

The religious aspect is tied in to a larger question of general identity. And this is all woven in with a third piece: Theall’s relationship with her (birth) family–particularly her mother. (In fact, separating these out makes for artificial distinctions, but is done for the sake of clarifying what you might want to keep an eye out for.) The reading group guide (included in the new paperback edition) says, “In order to be a good mother, Michelle begins to realize that she may have to be a bad daughter.” While reading this book, you will probably never be convinced that Theall feels she has any chance of being regarded as a good daughter. You will probably wonder if, now that this book has been published, Theall’s mother is still talking to her. You may cheer inwardly at the choice to publish, knowing full well what the consequences might be.

Trigger warning for sexual assault.

Jess reviews Facing the Music by Jennifer Knapp

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Despite the recent conservative controversy surrounding Vicky Beeching’s coming out, the Christian community is no stranger to revered spiritual musicians coming out. Jennifer Knapp’s memoir Facing The Music is a soul-searching, earnest examination of the Christian music scene and self discovery including her own coming out in 2010.

Knapp begins her life as a twin in a dysfunctional and divided household. As her parents were separated, she spent her youth navigating the complex conditions of custody, living predominantly with her father and step-mother and occasionally holidaying with her mother. Her first love is discovered and passionately explored as she teaches herself trumpet and becomes enamoured with music. Not being musical myself but living with a musician, I was enthralled in Knapp’s diligent and often demanding relationship with instruments. In fact, her first decision to learn an instrument comes at the direct expense of her limited time with her mum. Her passion continues as she breathes in instrument after instrument, ultimately leading her to study music teaching at college.

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After a period as a wild child, filled with sexual exploits and significant alcoholism (not explicitly explored), Knapp falls for the grace of God and begins to party Christian style; with worship music and religious conversation. Her account for her rise to Christian ‘rock-star’ status is told passively, as though everything just happened around her; her own involvement often reluctant and riddled with self-doubt. I feel this early Christian experience is written through the lens of a changed woman and wonder about the difference in explanation if one had been able to be transcribed at the time. Yet, this is how all memoirs are written; by the hands of current understanding, so I need not fault Knapp for that.

As a Christian myself, I recognised many of the evangelical experiences Knapp described and would advise non-Christian readers not to be put off by this inside look at the Contemporary Christian music scene. Her insights are often darkly described, almost in despising tones and I think Christians will have a harder time processing Knapp’s truths then non-religious individuals.

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Two thirds into Facing The Music, Knapp addresses her sexuality, her withdrawal from the Christian music scene and life as she knows it. She isn’t one to kiss and tell, so if you are hoping for long paragraphs of lesbian liaisons, this isn’t the love story for you. Instead, she recounts her internal coming out experience and the feelings associated with identifying as both gay and Christian, both personally and within the public  eye.

Knapp’s memoir is also littered with unexpected interesting insights, including her involvement with signing Katy Perry as well as adventures in outback Australia.

Personally, I strongly related to her difficulty fitting into certain circles in Christian churches, wearing cargo pants instead of skirts at church services. I also understood her difficulty with self-acceptance and the shame often associated with sharing an experience that strays from the acceptable testimony within church circles. I applaud her personal strength and faith to share her own story and to take her own time to do so.

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Facing The Music is written with honesty, integrity and emotion and will likely captivate fans, memoir readers, Christians and the questioning masses.

For those who enjoy Jennifer Knapp’s memoir, I would strongly recommend Chely Wright’s memoir Like Me, which explores coming out within the conservative country music world. You can also view the documentary Wish Me Away which follows Chely before and after coming out.

If you are looking for music to listen to while reading, Jennifer Knapp’s new album Set Me Free (released by Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records) is just out.

Danika reviews Lyme Light by Natalie H.G. London

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Lyme Light is a memoir by Natalie H.G. London that focuses on her experiences with Lyme disease. This is the first time I’ve read a memoir focused around an illness, and I’ll admit, I was skeptical about how much London could write about having Lyme disease without rehashing the same topics. I was definitely underestimating both London’s storytelling abilities and her circuitous route from first being infected to being diagnosed and treated.

This is not just a description of having Lyme disease, however. Where Candace Walsh used food in Licking the Spoon and Barrie Jean Borich used geography in Body Geographic, London uses illness as a theme and framing device while exploring many different aspects of her life. She delves into being a musician, her time as a student in Columbia, as well as many different relationships (familial, romantic, platonic) forming and falling apart over time. Woven into this is the first appearances of symptoms and her attempts to self treat them, then eventual visits to numerous supposed professionals to get diagnosed, bouncing from psychologists to clinics to hospitals, getting different answers every time. Meanwhile, London discovers which of the people in her life are willing to stick around while she is going through this, and finds comfort in endless reruns of Roseanne and Beverly Hills, 9020.

It’s a fascinating read, both for London’s personal story and her skill at representing what it’s like to be chronically ill. It’s a story that definitely won’t give you a whole lot of faith in the medical profession, but it will give you an idea of what it’s like to have to deal with it. London has an understated humour in Lyme Light, which, along with her flowing narration, makes this a quick read despite dealing with extremely dark subjects.

One of the aspects that I enjoyed about this book was that it’s the first queer memoir I’ve read that doesn’t include a coming out story in any way. London is bisexual, but this is just taken as given the entire story. No one makes any comments, there’s no story of her telling anyone, it’s just casually stated. At one point, London starts flirting with a girl in front of her own mom, and when the girl leaves her mom says that she thinks the girl likes London. There’s not even an acknowledgement of “Yeah, my mom is cool like that”. As much as I do enjoy reading memoirs that do tackle that, it’s refreshing to have a narrative that doesn’t revolve around coming out.

There are some errors (typos, grammatical errors) in Lyme Light, and the writing is easy to read but not especially poetic or quotable, but it gets the job done. The story is definitely worth the read. I also found it intriguing when I was picking up the book that a) Natasha Lyone (from Orange Is the New Black) voices the audio book and b) multiple Roseanne (including Roseanne herself) and Beverly Hills, 90210 actors blurb the book very highly. So if the review doesn’t convince you, maybe a sample of the audio book will:

Kalyanii reviews My Awesome Place by Cheryl Burke

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It is not in spite of the grit, irreverence and sordid encounters that Cheryl B.’s life serves as an inspiration; rather, it is because of the rawness and honesty with which she relays each and every detail. Without apologies, Cheryl B. within her posthumously published memoir, My Awesome Place, recounts the most tragic and triumphant moments of her life, cut short by complications from the treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A legendary spoken-word poet, performance artist, writer and member of the queer community, Cheryl B.’s story continues to spur creative souls to live their truth and express it boldly.

Growing up in a working class family amid both emotional and physical abuse, Cheryl B.’s childhood was no age of innocence. The stories are heartbreaking, even as she tells them with her characteristic irony and cynicism. While Cheryl B.’s home life was a barrage of high-conflict drama and emotional neglect, school proved an exercise in invalidation as she was discouraged from the pursuit of higher education. Seeking direction with the college application process, she remembers, her guidance counselor even suggested that “someone like her” should set her sights on a career as a toll taker on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Undaunted, Cheryl B. moved to New York to attend NYU and later The New School, where she found herself surrounded by a plethora of kindred spirits and opportunities to create her art. She collaborated with one of her closest friends on her foray into performance art and began participating in the poetry slams at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which ultimately led to a legendary career amid what was later recognized as the heyday of spoken-word performance.

Thrust in the hub of New York’s arts culture, Cheryl initially declined the offers of cocaine, opting for a few drinks and bong hits, until one of her girlfriends persuaded her to give it a try. Impressed with its ability to “cut the drunk,” she let go of her resistance. Before long, all-nighters, lost memories and foggy interludes had become the norm as she grieved her father’s death and the loss of what never was while he was alive. Relationships ended, one of her dearest friends became very ill and her loneliness grew.

After he died, I slipped into an angry depression, what I later identified as a breakdown that lasted years. I drank to excess, turning mean and paranoid. I was incredibly needy but turned everyone away. I trusted no one, not even Chris, with whom I was in love. I was prone to crying fits. I once tried to punch out a store window in the East Village. The window won. I couldn’t concentrate on my writing; instead I spent my creative energy putting together slutty outfits from $10 store offerings. I broke up with my best friend and was sure my other friends were all talking about how crazy I was behind my back. Basically, the world was conspiring against me. I was drowning in self-pity, cocaine and tequila. My self-diagnosed existential crisis was nothing more than a drug-fueled alcoholic rampage.

The momentum continued to build until she awakened one Sunday morning to the realization that “not only had I been blacking out, acquiring facial rashes, neglecting my cat and sleeping with men I barely knew and rarely remembered, there was also a bad conceptual art factory beneath my bed” comprised of a Snapple bottle half-filled with tequila, a constellation of cat hair, Ziploc bags, pretzel parts and discarded condoms among other treasures. Flushing the drugs down the toilet and pouring the alcohol down the kitchen drain, Cheryl B. decided that the time was ripe for change and committed to sobriety for 30 days, which became 10 years shortly after her diagnosis.

Cheryl B. left a working draft of this memoir upon her death in June of 2011. As a tribute to her life and her work, her partner, Kelli Dunham, and members of her writing group made use of notes and emails to pull together the completed work. The writing is often far from clean, verb tense inconsistencies abound and typos crop up more than a time or two; but, these apparent flaws only serve as a reminder that in the end Cheryl B. was robbed of the opportunity to edit the manuscript herself.

More information about Cheryl B.’s literary accomplishments can be found in a piece entitled “Remembering Cheryl B.” at www.lambdaliterary.org. Video footage of her readings can be accessed at www.youtube.com.

Danika reviews War of Streets and Houses by Sophie Yanow

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An American artist witnesses the Quebec spring 2012 student strike on the streets of Montreal. The brutal police response and their violent tactics trigger an exploration of urban planning and its hidden connections to military strategies. Marshal Bugeaud’s urban warfare tactics in Algeria, Haussmann’s plan for Paris, planning and repression in the New World; theory and personal experience collide into an ambitious and poetic cartoon memoir.

I don’t usually post the blurb for books, but I don’t think I can describe what this book is any more concisely than that. I was both excited and a little bit intimidated to pick this one up. I love a lesbian political book, and I have a soft spot for queer graphic novels, so this promised to be a good read, but it also seemed very… smart. And it is a little bit academic for a comic memoir: there are even endnotes that cite sources! These ideas are presented pretty accessibly, though. War of Streets and Houses is a series of vignettes, not a continuous narrative. Some focus on Yanow’s witness of and participation in the Quebec student protests, while others ruminate on the nature of the city and how it can affect what social change is possible.

The art style is usually loose and undetailed, but it varies. Some pages show the city as an overwhelming force in the background. One of my favourite sections of the book describes Yanow’s adjustment to living in the city by erasing this background, showing Yanow as a small silhouette against the expanse of white. Some of these drawings show more of her own internal landscape than the physical architecture, which is an interesting contrast, because a lot of the book does focus on the physical layout of the city.

Yanow briefly touches on lots of ideas that are really fascinating, mostly around urban planning and control. She shows the link that urban planning has to military tactics and now police enforcement, and how wide, modernist spaces are also conducive to controlling the masses, while winding, narrow streets can help protect resistance. She also talks about feeling an inevitable draw towards the city because she is queer, because the city is supposed to be a place where being queer is a realistic possibility. We also see glimpses of Yanow’s queer community, and a small acknowledgment of how Yanow’s whiteness factors into her activism and feeling of safety.

This is a very short read, only a 64-page graphic novel, but it will leave you thinking. If the blurb sounds at all appealing, you should give War of Streets and Houses a try.

Danika reviews Falling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home by Catherine Reid

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When I first picked up Falling into Place, I thought it was a memoir. While it can read like one, it’s actually a collection of related essays. This collection focuses in equal parts on Reid’s personal life and her love of nature, weaving in narratives about a particular otter, or the story of passenger pigeons, or Reid’s conflicting feelings on Canada geese. In the acknowledgments section, Reid remarks “In their shapes and meanders, the personal essay and the long walk have much in common, most notably in their valuing of the journey over the destination.” This is a good encapsulation of Falling into Place, which reads like a unhurried wander through wilderness. Personally, I can often get distracted when books include long descriptions of scenery, but though Reid’s collection focuses on nature, it never seems excessively “flowery”. Each bird or tree has a story, a narrative intersecting with Reid’s own. Where Licking the Spoon uses food and The Body Geographic uses maps, Falling into Place uses nature as a theme to frame her own story.

I loved the languid, poetic pace of these essays. Because each essay can stand independently, there’s no rush to reach the end. Still, the essays match together well, and can easily be read back to back with no feeling of lurching into a different gear. They have a quiet flow to them, feeling like different dimensions of the same story. They vaguely remind me of Ivan Coyote, one of my favourite authors, with their celebration of the landscape and the deep roots of home in place.

Although nature is the main focus of these essays, Reid does not shy away from mentioning her wife or her sexuality. It is not a major part of the book, but I appreciate that it is addressed matter-of-factly, from her family’s reaction to her coming out, to her choice to get married (but not have a ceremony), to everyday life with her wife.

I found this to be a thought-provoking, but oddly soothing read. It will make you consider the huge impact human beings have had on other animals and wildlife throughout history, but the writing style is so smooth that it a pleasure to curl up and slowly read. If you are a nature lover, or a fan of memoirs and personal essays, Falling into Place should be on your list.

Danika reviews Lies About My Family: A Memoir by Amy Hoffman

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Perhaps it’s unfair to read a book that you know you’re not in the mood for. Lies About My Family got positive reviews by Alison Bechdel and Anita Diamant, and I can’t say that it’s badly written… It’s just not a book I personally enjoyed very much. Lies About My Family is, of course, a memoir about Amy Hoffman’s family. They are Jewish immigrants, and Hoffman tells the stories of three generations of her family, primarily focusing on their identification and yet struggle with Jewish culture and religion, as well as the migration narrative. It covers many different people’s stories: some connecting, some just fragments. It is a compilation of stories that doesn’t seem to have a narrative thread of its own, instead grouping stories into nebulous categories that skip from person to person and across time.

I think that my problem is that I have read too many similar memoirs at this point. I suspect that more lesbians write memoirs than most of the rest of the population, because I have received many autobiographical books to review. Some are fantastic and have their own story to tell. Some don’t have a truly unique story, but are written so beautifully that it carries the book. I’m reminded of The Body Geographic, except that that memoir used the metaphor of maps to connect stories together, just as Licking the Spoon used food. I definitely think parts of this memoir were interesting, but overall I felt like some overarching thread was missing. I also feel like I’ve read a lot of family migration memoirs (though not really any with people of colour, oddly). As you can tell, this is an entirely personal preference. If you’re interested in a well-written Jewish lesbian memoir that also focuses on her family’s migration from Russia to the US, you will probably enjoy this book! It is also a pretty quick read: only 150 pages. It just wasn’t what I was looking for right now. I am still intrigued to read Amy Hoffman’s other book, An Army of Ex-Lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News.

Danika reviews Freak of Nurture by Kelli Dunham

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I picked up Freak of Nurture, a collection of essays and autobiographical stories by comedian Kelli Dunham, because Dunham seemed to have a sense of humour I enjoy, the writing sounded strong, and so far nothing published by Topside Press has steered me wrong. And Dunham is funny! I wasn’t wrong about that. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the sort of dark topics that Freak of Nurture covers, from her growing up with alcoholic parents to having two successive partners both die from the same (usually curable) cancer, to volunteering as a nurse in Haiti. This is not light material. And yet somehow, even when reading about this really difficult experiences, the writing style is so compelling that I could hardly put it down. I read almost the entire book in a day. The topics covered in this collection are really interesting, including Dunham’s genderqueer lesbian identity, her comedy career, and her attempts to become a nun in her twenties.

This collection covered such a range that I really think there’s something in here to interest anyone. I tweeted near the beginning of reading Freak of Nurture that I was enjoying it and would recommend it to anyone looking for a light, funny memoir. Well, it gets a lot more emotional later on, but there still is a comedian flare to these stories, and Dunham always managed to slip in some sarcastic joke even in a heartbreaking scenario. The last essay in this book is a conversation in which she repels cocktail party guests looking for funny quips from the resident comedian:

KELLI: I called my most recent girlfriend my miracle love because I thought I would never love anyone after my other girlfriend died. She developed, and then died from the same disease my first girlfriend had. Having two partners who die of cancer withing a five-year period is an extremely statistically unlikely negative situation, which is kind of the opposite of the concept of a miracle.

RANDOM PARTY GOER: (VERY LONG SILENCE)

Kelli: Some people find irony humorous.

You may recognize Kelli Dunham from accepting Lambda Literary Award for best bisexual non-fiction on behalf of her late partner Cheryl Burke for Burke’s autobiography My Awesome Place. I would definitely recommend Freak of Nurture to just about anyone, whether you’re reading it for the bits about gender, lesbian jokes, nursing anecdotes, tales of a queer ex-nun, or just human experiences told well. Kelli Dunham has written several others books to do with nursing, but I hope that she comes out with other autobiographical collections, because I’ll definitely want to pick those up. And that’s another great read from Topside Press!