Bessie reviews The Red Parts and Jane by Maggie Nelson

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Nelson is a wonderful writer, whose memoir/queer theory explosion The Argonauts was probably the best book I read last year. It got me interested in checking out some of her earlier work, The Red Parts and Jane, which are very different from The Argonauts, and from each other, but both exceptional books.

I wasn’t sure about writing about these books here, because Nelson doesn’t address her sexuality at all, but they’re both so good. We’re more than a single aspect of our identity. Here Nelson is writing as a daughter, a niece, a young woman who sees herself in her aunt’s fate.

I read The Red Parts first, and it opened up the world of Jane to me. Though it was written later, I think I’d recommend this reading order. Both books deal with the story of Nelson’s aunt, Jane, who had been murdered thirty-five years before. The crime was never solved. Nelson grew up with this story as a part of her family history. It shaped her childhood in ways that she didn’t really understand until she got older. Jane is the book of poetry she wrote trying to understand her aunt and the murder. Just before Jane was going to be published a detective called Nelson’s family and told them that they had found the murderer. The Red Parts is the memoir she wrote about this news, the ensuing trial, and how Nelson’s perspective on the case shifted with new information.

The Red Parts is a really compelling mix of true crime/detective story, family history, and writer’s journal. Nelson’s relationship to Jane’s death is informed by the fact that she just spent years writing a book of poetry about it. She’s done the research, she knows the facts, she’s visited the sites. And now all of this information is being presented in the new context of a trial. From her family it is just Nelson and her mother who are able to attend every day of the trial. We also see how Nelson went about writing Jane. Having her describe the process that created these poems made me really want to read them.

That Jane is an artifact within The Red Parts informed how I approached it. It gave a backstory for how these words wound up on the page. In the poems she tracks down her aunt’s old boyfriend — we see more of how this happened in The Red Parts. It gives more history and context for everything that happened. While I’m sure the poems would stand on their own, having the memoir as well enriches the experience.

What really struck me reading Jane was the way it commented on the vulnerability of being a young woman. Jane was coming of age during the late sixties. She was rebelling from her parents, and starting to create her own life, which was suddenly halted because women, especially young women are vulnerable to male violence. While Jane was not raped, at the time her death was linked to a serial killer who did really horrific things to his victims. Nelson’s writing about violence against women, including sexual violence, is so raw. This vulnerability is something she shares with her aunt, something that has not changed or gone away. Both books riff off an Edgar Allen Poe quote wondering what the most poetic topic in the world is, and deciding it must be the death of a beautiful woman. That is almost the subject of Nelson’s poetry, but she’s equally preoccupied with asking what is it about our world that makes this a correct answer.

Both books are the sort of writing that sweeps you up and holds on. I didn’t mean to read The Red Parts in one night. I was going to read a little bit before bed, but not much, because I was worried about the true crime element giving me bad dreams. But then it was so good, and so compelling, and I couldn’t put it down. I spent a wonderful raining afternoon with Jane. It’s such a narratively gripping collection of poems. Even though I knew the story already from The Red Parts, I wanted to follow Nelson’s train of thought, and see where her poetic journey into her aunt’s murder lead. They’re beautiful, tragic books.

Katelyn reviews Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi

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When Portia de Rossi first released her memoir, I was just testing the waters of an eating disorder and six years past admitting to myself that I wasn’t straight. I desperately wanted to search the book for weight loss tips, but it had been described as so inspiring that I was afraid it would convince me to recover before I even got started (Plus I was afraid everyone would think I was a lesbian if they saw me reading a book by a famous lesbian). Throughout the next few years, I debated reading it, alternating between fear of recovery and fear of relapse. When I found it at a library sale a couple of weeks ago, I figured it was time and finally went for it, and I have to say, it surprised me.

First of all, I think it’s worth noting that I’m probably the healthiest I’ve ever been with regards to my mental health, and I participate in therapy regularly, and I found this book very triggering. The main focus of the memoir is de Rossi’s eating disorder and the time before her recovery, and this includes detailed descriptions of the methods she used to lose weight, her thoughts and feelings during this time—specifically self-hatred in the form of body image disturbance and internalized homophobia—and of course, numbers (weight, body measurements, calories, number of meals, number of exercises, and the list goes on and on as anyone with an eating disorder can tell you). If you’re thinking about reading this book to find some inspiration to work toward a healthier mindset and lifestyle, you will probably be disappointed.

There is plenty of debate around the topic of recovery when it comes to mental illness, especially among people with eating disorders, but I think people on all sides would agree that de Rossi’s outlook on her personal struggles and recovery are not exactly healthy. It could be that she was not far enough from the experience to look back with clarity, but it seems that she puts a lot of focus on a sudden and complete change brought on by her serious relationship with her ex-girlfriend and then maintained by her relationship with her wife. I don’t want to police people on how to handle their eating disorders, especially someone I don’t actually know personally, but I do worry about the message people who are in the depths of their struggle will take away from this, especially impressionable young girls.

Not to mention, there are some cringe-worthy parts in the epilogue that kind of stung, like the conversation between de Rossi and her wife, Ellen DeGeneres, in which Ellen calls de Rossi crazy, and a “poor thing” whom she wishes she could have “saved.”

“You did save me. You save me every single day.” I kiss her and get up off the bed to make her coffee. “I’m so proud of you, baby. It’ll help a lot of people.” As I pour the coffee, she suddenly appears at the doorway of the kitchen, her blond head poking around the door. “Just be sure and tell the people that you’re not crazy anymore.”

I’m sure there are people who will say I’m being too sensitive, but I’m also sure I’m not the only one who would be pretty upset if my significant other said something like that.

There is no perfect eating disorder memoir, just as there is no one, perfect and healthy way to recover from an eating disorder, and I respect that de Rossi’s story and methods are not the same as mine, but I can’t help but worry for her and for some of the people who might read this book.

However, even with my disappointment with the “recovery” aspects of the book, I thought the story was relatable, and de Rossi’s writing was simple yet captivating. She perfectly captured the experience of living with an eating disorder, from the life-altering moments to the mundane, stuck-in-traffic ruminations. One of my favorite passages is her description of the experience of eating nachos.

The blend of cheese and sour cream with the crispiness of the corn chips and creaminess of guacamole will always turn a sour mood into a happy one. A peace came over me when I ate food like that. Like life had no other meaning than pure enjoyment. I had nowhere to go and nothing to accomplish. For that moment, I could put life on hold and believe I was perfect the way I was. I was focused on the present—in the moment—and the moment was bliss on a corn chip.

The writing isn’t anything mind-blowing or particularly unique as it might be if written by a ghostwriter, but it is honest and real without the need to prove herself as a writer that is evident in other celebrity memoirs. Also unlike a lot of other celebrity memoirs, there isn’t a lot of name-dropping or bragging. Yes, a few stars are mentioned, as are award shows and paparazzi, but it’s done in a way so that it just feels like part of de Rossi’s job, just as it would if she was talking about working in a cubicle and talking to the guy in the copy room. So if you’re just looking for some Hollywood dirt or an inside scoop about Ally McBeal or Arrested Development, this probably isn’t the book for you.

This book also might not be for you if you’re just looking for a story about a famous lesbian’s coming out process. Although de Rossi puts a lot of emphasis on her experience in the closet and how it impacted her mental health, the actual descriptions of that experience are sparse and dull in comparison to the raw emotions behind her descriptions of her disordered eating and her relationship with her mother.

Unbearable Lightness wasn’t the inspiring push to recovery or the coming out story I was expecting. It’s not something I would recommend for people who are still feeling hopeless and trapped in their eating disorder, but it was still a breath of fresh air for me after deciding to leave my eating disorder behind once and for all. It made me feel less alone as de Rossi wrote the words that I’m still too afraid to speak. This also might make it a good read for anyone who has a loved one with an eating disorder so they can better understand what their loved one can’t explain. It could also start some healthy conversations. Above all else, it’s an interesting read and good as a memoir as well as a book about eating disorders. I just think it’s good to approach with caution.

Elinor reviews The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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The Argonauts is an amazing book. It is a memoir but not a neatly narrative one. It’s been called “genre-bending,” which it certainly is. I’d describe it as a meditation of family, queerness, gender, love, bodies, connection, and a whole lot more. Nelson quotes academic theorists as readily as she shares visceral, personal details from her life. The book primarily focuses on Nelson’s relationship with and marriage to genderfluid artist Harry Dodge, being a stepmother to Dodge’s son from a previous relationship, and being pregnant with, giving birth to and parenting the couple’s younger son. Each of these topics is examined thoughtfully through multiple lenses, giving the reader plenty of food for thought.

This book offers up many intriguing questions without giving easy answers. Everything from assumptions about pregnant women, reified identity, personal expression, death, and the act of giving birth get a turn. I find it hard to summarize such an eclectic and fascinating book while truly doing it justice. It’s creative nonfiction at its best.

I’m also grateful that I read it exactly when I did, just after I finished graduate school and nearly at the middle of my pregnancy. It was the only book I’ve found that spoke about the personal experience of pregnancy, let alone queer pregnancy, in a way that rang true for me. The questions about parenthood and marriage that it raises were extremely relevant to me and I found myself jotting down references for further reading.

It can be fairly academic in places. I appreciated this, but others might not. It’s short but dense with ideas, and I’m glad I took my time reading it. Going slowly with it allowed me to absorb the subject matter and I doubt I would have enjoyed it as much if I’d read it in a rush.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in queer family and partnership, or just a truly unique memoir.

Kalyanii reviews Cooking as Fast as I Can: A Chef’s Story of Family, Food, and Forgiveness by Cat Cora

 

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For years, I’ve admired Cat Cora for her ability to take on the most notable male chefs of the day, all the while prepared with a quip in her Southern twang and sporting a smile that invariably brings me to my knees. Self-assured and deservedly so, Ms. Cora’s star had risen in the midst of Food Network’s extended heyday. Her commanding presence and newfound celebrity status offered an image of infallibility as well as culinary brilliance. Watching her throw down in Iron Chef’s Kitchen Stadium, there appeared not a chink in her armor.

When I opened to the first page of Cooking as Fast as I Can: A Chef’s Story of Family, Food, and Forgiveness, I expected a tidy yet endearing memoir, one that might recount a few challenges along the journey toward hard-earned culinary stardom. A work that would enhance her accessibility while painting a portrait of a woman who has let nothing get in her way. Yet, I was unprepared for the uncompromising honesty and no-holds-barred self-reflection that I encountered within its pages.

Born to an unwed teenage mother on April 3rd of 1967, Cat, initially named Melanie, landed in the Mississippi Children’s Home, where she was adopted by a loving couple one week later. Virginia Lee and Spiro Cora of Jackson, Mississippi provided her with a rather idyllic childhood, complete with strong familial bonds, Greek and Southern culinary histories and frequent family outings.

For the young Cat, however, some of the family’s travels were tainted by the sexual abuse perpetuated by AH, the son of a family friend, nine years older than herself, who had made a habit of molesting her from the time she was six years old, warning her not to tell her parents or they would hate her, stop loving her and think she’s “cheap trash.” Fortunately, or not so much, when Cat was ten or perhaps eleven years old, her father walked into the bathroom where AH had cornered and proceeded to have his way with her. Initially relieved that the secret was out, Cat grew heartbroken upon witnessing the disgust on her father’s face. Rather than having AH’s hide, Spiro Cora turned and walked out, leaving her alone with her perpetrator.

There is very little of the polite or demure within Ms. Cora’s narrative. She tells things as they were (and currently are) without sugar-coating or diminishing the gravity of any given situation. Her tone is intensely conversational throughout the book, bare-bones honest without a hint of the melodramatic. She even throws in an f-bomb or two, which I appreciated to no end. Within her memoir, there is no denying it, Cat Cora gets real.

Not once does Ms. Cora shy away from her appreciation for the ladies, the strength and vitality of her apparently impressive libido or an admission of the trysts enjoyed while in a steady relationship. Seemingly unconcerned with the potential of judgements passed, Ms. Cora tells it as she sees and, yes, lived it.

When it comes to present-day dynamics, Ms. Cora remains forthcoming in her remembrances regarding events that pertain to her life with her wife, Jennifer, and their four young boys. She tackles head-on the challenges of motherhood, the residue created by several jet-set years as a celebrity chef as well as the fallout from her excessive alcohol consumption, which is truly where the rubber meets the road and I found myself most astounded by her willingness to self-disclose.

Even in conclusion, Ms. Cora chooses not to flaunt her involvement in twelve-step meetings as resolution in her relationship with alcohol nor as a happy ending to her marriage nor, for that matter, any other aspect of her life. She simply invites us to meet her where she stands, preparing dinner for friends while her wife is away, practicing yoga, and the boys play underfoot.

Elinor reviews Saving Delaney by Keston and Andrea Ott-Dahl

saving delaney from surrogacy to unexpected family ott-dahl cover

Saving Delaney: From Surrogacy to Unexpected Family is an interesting memoir and an unusual story. Written by Keston and Andrea Ott-Dahl, it’s told from Keston’s perspective as she and her partner, Andrea, become parents to a daughter with Down syndrome. Their daughter, Delaney, was longed for–but not by them. Andrea had been a surrogate for a lesbian couple who’d tried unsuccessfully to become parents other ways. The couple, Liz and Erica, were thrilled when Andrea became pregnant through insemination. Then prenatal testing revealed that the fetus had Down syndrome and the doctor predicted the fetus also had other serious disabilities and the pregnancy would likely end in miscarriage or stillbirth. Liz and Erica made the heart-wrenching decision to terminate the pregnancy. But Andrea wouldn’t. Her research suggested that the doctor was wrong in his most dire predictions and he was using standards of typical prenatal development when he should have compared the baby using the standards of prenatal development of babies with Down syndrome. Andrea decided to keep the baby and raise it herself if Liz and Erica wouldn’t, Keston got on board, and that’s exactly what they did.

Andrea and Keston’s backgrounds make the story even more complicated. Keston is sixteen years older than Andrea and has one adult child slightly older than Andrea, and a teenage son who has all but left the house when the couple meet. Andrea has two young children and is recently out of an abusive marriage to a man. Like Andrea, Keston’s children were both conceived in relationships with men and without difficulty. They aren’t prepared for the challenges of non-intercourse conception when Andrea excitedly volunteers to be a surrogate for a couple in their extended social circle. Andrea wants to be a surrogate to help the couple, and for the money it would bring in. Secretly she’s also hoping that carrying a child for another couple would help her ease the guilt she feels over an abortion she had years earlier, when she was preparing to leave her violent husband. Keston’s struggling with the recent death of her mother and the choices she had to make at the end of her mother’s life. This takes an important role in the book, as Keston’s imagined conversations with her late mother guide her and reveal her inner feelings. Some of those feelings include hate and fear of people with disabilities.

The story is largely framed around Keston’s journey away from prejudice and toward advocacy for her daughter. It’s moving, but it’s also not the most useful or nuanced frame. Plus in her pre-Delaney days, Keston says and thinks horrible things about people with disabilities. If you pick this up, be prepared for slurs and worse. If you don’t want to slog through that, don’t force yourself. I appreciated that Keston was ultimately educated, thanks to Andrea, and that she did bring some compassion when others initially weren’t accepting. It didn’t make her early beliefs or comments easier, though.

Keston tried to tell this complex story fairly, mostly avoiding easy villains, but there are some slip ups. For one thing, some of the drama of the situation could have been avoided with a little caution, planning, and communication. Keston and Andrea don’t read the contract carefully before agreeing to surrogacy, and Keston, Andrea, Liz and Erica don’t have the tough conversations they ought to before deciding to go forward with surrogacy. Tension starts before the pregnancy too, as it takes over half a year to get pregnant, they all decide to add known sperm donors into the mix without a clear legal agreement in place, and the doctor they work with isn’t a great fit for Andrea and Keston. When Keston and Andrea decide to keep the baby and raise her without Liz and Erica, they aren’t as sensitive as they could be to Liz and Erica’s devastation, or the shock Andrea’s already leery family is experiencing. It’s occasionally tiresome to read about somewhat unnecessary complication, but the many, many bumps in the road do add intrigue to the story and keep it moving along.

I felt for Liz and Erica a lot and wished I knew more of what happened after they and the Ott-Dahls stopped speaking to each other. The doctor had painted a pretty bleak picture aside from Down syndrome, and I couldn’t imagine paying thousands of dollars for a surrogate to carry on with a pregnancy that a doctor said likely wasn’t viable. The couple had already gone through fertility treatments, cycles of hope and disappointment, and had at least one adoption fall through. It made sense to me that they weren’t as optimistic as Andrea and Keston and that they wanted to have some control over the process. Trying to add a child to your family, however you go about it, can be scary and leave you feeling powerless. From their perspective, this is not a heartwarming tale.

One thing I hated in this book–and another reason that I’m a bit hesitant to recommend it–was the way Keston wrote about Liz and Erica’s infertility. More than once Keston, Keston’s imagined mother, or Andrea says something like, “Some people aren’t meant to be parents,” or implies that the couple’s struggles to have a child means that they shouldn’t have one. It was interesting to me the way this attitude connected to Keston’s self-proclaimed prejudice around ability. The idea that some experiences aren’t “meant” for a person because that person needs assistance or their body works differently is a common theme in justifying ableism. Also, the ability to get pregnant is in no way correlated with the ability to parent and I think we all sort of know that. Still, if you’re trying to conceive or have experienced infertility, reading those comments in the memoir will be horrifying, depressing and/or rage-inducing, and you might want to steer clear.

If you aren’t dealing with that and you can roll with some harsh language and inaccurate ideas about folks with disabilities in the earlier chapters, you might like this book. It’s a unique situation and it makes you think. It is an easy read, it’s fast paced, and parts of the story are pretty moving. But think carefully before picking it up, because this book is not for everyone.

Danika reviews Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

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I feel completely unqualified to talk about this book. After reading (and falling in love with) Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book of poetry Bodymap, I knew I had to read her memoir. The things I loved about Bodymap are present in Dirty River as well: Piepzna-Samarasinha’s strong voice, her sharp and precise words, and the deep dive into disability, queerness, poverty, abuse, and survival. Although this is prose, it’s clearly written by a poet: the imagery and language are evocative and precise.

This is a story that lays it all out on the table. It’s vulnerable and resilient. She explores what it means to survive. What constitutes healing or “getting out”. Dirty River tackles a lot, but it’s accessible and engrossing. I don’t have the words to contain Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s writing. Pick it up. These are the stories that nourish.

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.

Casey reviews Red Azalea by Anchee Min

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This year I’ve been doing a reading project of only authors of colour, pretty much all LGBTQ.  I’ve read a ton of great stuff, and one of the best things this challenge has made me do is discover some authors that I never would have encountered otherwise.  One such writer is Anchee Min, whose memoir Red Azalea I read a few weeks ago.  I was totally and utterly blown-away by the gorgeous, unique writing and the page-turning, I-can’t-believe-this-is-true plot.  I can’t believe I might not have found this book if I hadn’t made an effort to research books by queer people of colour.  Shame on me for not reading this earlier.

Red Azalea follows Anchee (note: I decided to refer to her by her first name since it feels weird to call the character in the book by a last name!)  growing up in the last days of Mao’s China, during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s.  It was a movement to “purge” remaining capitalist and traditionalist elements in what was now a communist country.  As a child, Anchee was part of the Red Guards, a youth military group dedicated to enforcing Maoism and the Cultural Revolution.  In her late teens, she was later forcibly sent from the city to work at a communal farm—as were millions of other urban youth to work brutal days from 5am to 9pm.  After a few years, Anchee was miraculously plucked from obscurity to partake in the Chinese propaganda film industry in Shanghai, where she encountered a whole other host of problems.  She eventually left China for the US in the 80s.

Okay, that’s the story, but that’s not really the story, you know.  This is such an emotionally and lyrically rich memoir, evocative but never showy, and intensely erotic without ever being cheesy or cheap.  In a scene in part one, Anchee is manipulated into publicly humiliating a beloved teacher for being an enemy spy in front of her entire school.  Ten years later, she finds the teacher, and goes to her, intending to apologize.  She receives this chilling response:

I am very sorry, I don’t remember you. I don’t think I ever had you as my student.

It’s in the second part of the book that Anchee is forced at age 17 to part with her parents, who “stood there like frosted aubergines—with heads hanging weakly in front of their chests” as the truck drives off, their daughter riding in the back.  It’s at the communal farm that Anchee meets Yan, a legend, a heroine renowned for her brute strength on the farm and dedication as Comrade Party Secretary.  This is Anchee’s first glimpse of the woman she later falls in love with:

She had a pair of fiery intense eyes, in which I saw the energy of a lion.  She had weather-beaten skin, thick eyebrows, a bony nose, high cheekbones, a full mouth in the shape of a water chestnut.  She had the shoulders of an ancient warlord, extravagantly broad. She was barefoot.  Her sleeves and trousers were rolled halfway up.  Her hands rested on her waist.   When her eyes focused on mine, I trembled for no reason.  She burned me with the sun in her eyes.  I felt bare.

As the two women’s relationship develops, Anchee begins to realize just how sexually repressive the regime is, in addition to the isolation, alienation, and general mass psychosis.  I’m not talking just about queer sexuality: the system does not allow the young women at the farm any sexuality at all.  A friend of Anchee’s is mentally broken and eventually commits suicide after being interrogated and humiliated after being found with a male lover.  What’s fascinating and disturbing is that the party officials present this type of action as feminist, and declare they saved Anchee’s friend from being raped.

When I say this book is beautifully, uniquely written I especially mean the way Anchee Min writes about her growing love for Yan.  It’s Yan who makes her feel write this: “I stood in the sunshine, feeling, feeling, the rising of a hope.”   A hope like this:

She asked me to feel her heart.  I wished I was the blood in that chamber.  In the hammering of her hearbeat, the rising and falling of her chest.  I saw a city of chaos.  A mythical force drew me to her.  I felt the blazing of a fire inside me.

When Yan and Anchee finally kiss, it’s beautiful, and sexy, and just everything you’ve been wanting in a love scene.  Trust me.  Okay, don’t trust me: read this quotation:

She said, I want you to obey me.  You always did well when you obeyed me. She licked my tears and said this was how she was going to remember us.

I moved my hands slowly through her shirt. She pulled my fingers to unbutton her bra.  The buttons were tight, five of them. Finally, the last one came off. The moment I touched her breasts, I felt a sweet shock. My heart beat disorderedly. A wild horse broke off its reins. She whispered something I could not hear. She was melting snow….The horse kept running wild.  I went where the sun rose.  Her lips were the colour of a tomato.  There was a gale mixed with thunder inside me.  I was spellbound by desire.  I wanted to be touched.  Her hands skimmed my breasts.  My mind maddened. My senses cheered frantically in a raging fire.

There’s something about the phrases and metaphors that Anchee Min creates that are strikingly different from any other writing I’ve read in English.  If my calculations are correct, she was about 30, maybe a bit younger when she moved to the US, with only a minimal knowledge of English; this means she was relatively old (in terms of language learning) when she started writing and speaking in English.  The lovely, strange way she writes made me think about what kind of effect speaking more than one language has on your writing.  As an ESL teacher, it made me wonder if teaching English students to write and speak like native speakers might be detrimental to their creativity, that minimizing the different ways in which they speak English might actually be a bad thing.  I can’t imagine a native speaker of English coming up with some of the images Anchee Min does, and that’s what makes it such a beautifully written memoir.

I feel like to discuss part three of the memoir would spoil some things that must not be spoiled—in my opinion, anyway—so I won’t get into too much detail.  Once I got about half way through this book, I couldn’t put it down, while I wanted to savour the language at the same time.  You’re in for stunning, sensual writing right until the end, even or perhaps especially in Anchee’s despair and heartbreak: “I could hear the sound of my dream’s spine breaking.”

You should move Red Azalea to the top of your reading pile.  I promise, you won’t regret it.