Marthese reviews Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea


Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is yet another book I have been meaning to get into and the hype did not disappoint. This young adult fantasy book is set in Chelsea, Massachusetts and follows Sophia a teenage girl with Polish ancestry.

Sophia and her best friend Ella like to play the pass-out game because it’s the only thing to do in Chelsea. One day, when they are playing the game near the filthy creek, Sophia has a vision of a mermaid. Sophia’s mother Andrea is neglectful yet worried when Sophia admits to playing the game because she was freaking out. Something in her was coming forth. Sophia eats a lot of salt- this is a big element in the book.

At face value, this book is about Sophia coming into her powers and the people around her changing and being seen in new lights. Ella changes, people she saw often take on a new light and pigeons start to mean something nice, wonderful. On a deeper lever, this book tackles evil and sadness and the wrongness that’s in humanity- it treats elements like pollution and pain and sadness of both the oppressed and the oppressors. Humanity is caged, with seemingly no way out. This book plays on the readers understanding of these topics and offers lightness and hope. Sophia is supposed to help heal humanity from its corruption; her power allows her to see inside a person’s emotions and heal them. To heal humanity, that’s her mission.

Sophia discovers that she is a legend. She always knew she liked salt but now she understands why. Salt is an ancient preservative and measure- it makes sense to incorporate it into the story. Speaking about legends, this book beautifully incorporates different cultures and their ideas on witches. Chelsea is very multicultural.

This book also explores family dynamics: how generations can help each other or destroy one another. In Sophia’s case, it’s the latter; her mother is neglectful, her grandmother is worse. There are other positive family representations though. There’s Angel- who Sophia’s grandmother introduces as a guy but is in fact a girl- and her mother. There’s also Sophia’s lost relations which were in front of her the whole time.

This book features elements that at first you think are weird. Whoever thought that pigeons could be helpful main characters? Or mermaids making use of sea waste? All elements mash up well together. The sentences are constructed exquisitely, things like ‘She would submit to the grime, become like a feral cat wandering the heaps of trash’ offer a sense of aesthetic pleasure which Sophia, with all the awareness of her surroundings also shares with the reader. The illustrations, done in a simple style add more to the book experience.

The queer elements in this book do not focus on blatant relationships – although Angel for sure has a thing for Syrena the mermaid. Sophie is 13 but unlike Ella, she is not boy struck. She just values her friend.

I cannot wait to read the second book and see where the story goes. I definitely recommend this book to people that like fantasy, mermaids, pigeons, magic, character development and family dynamics and philosophical themes with some constructive criticism to the world that we live in.

Elinor reviews How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea

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.

Hannah reviews Mermaid In Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea


This book is a gift to the world. As I read it I imagined wrapping it up in pretty colored paper and giving it to someone I love, to imagine them discovering it for the first time. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is everything I’ve ever wanted from a Young Adult, “Chosen One” fantasy novel. I began this book looking for a light, summery mermaid read, and found something worth so much more.

Our protagonist, the realistic, sometimes-bratty-but-ultimately-good-hearted Sophie, is the daughter of a working single mother. Her mother is tired, burnt-out, and neglectful. Sophie feels unloved.

This was my favorite part of the novel, although it may seem depressing. I’ve never read a fantasy story featuring a neglectful parent before. Harry Potter has a nasty aunt and uncle and the Disney movie Tangled has an abusive mother – who is not, in fact, an actual mother at all. But in children’s fiction there is a dearth of children who are genuinely unloved or neglected by their biological parents but do amazing things anyway. The world needs these stories. We have an overabundance of dead parents in prose, but there’s always this assumption that these dead parents would have loved their children. Harry’s mother’s love reaches beyond the grave. And that’s a beautiful story, but it’s a story that many children can’t relate to. Give them something they can relate to, and then give them hope. Neglected children, too, get to be the Chosen Ones.

Onwards: I loved the fantasy elements mixed with stark realism. Sophie lives in a grubby city which contains a polluted creek. This creek is not only unimpressive, but thoroughly revolting. And yet it is here where the mermaid lurks, waiting to inform Sophie of her destiny.

The mermaid, herself, is perfectly magical, but she, too, is of this world: She’s from Poland, speaks accented English, and, what’s more, has a very foul mouth. A mermaid with a pirate mouth.

Another important setting is “the dump,” where Sophie discovers that a place filled with discarded items and heaps of broken glass is, just like the mermaid, enchanted: “The whole place was a mixture of sparkle and grit, sort of magical in an ordinary way…”

Throughout the novel the ordinary is made beautiful, the mundane and magical intertwined until the two become indistinguishable from one another. Reflecting this theme is the prose: Michelle Tea writes beautifully, but sometimes conversationally. Her characters, too, speak not like characters in a book but like real people. They curse and have accents and say ‘like’ too many times. This theme – the ordinary is deeply, profoundly beautiful – is reinforced by every aspect of the book.

Also, I know a lot of people don’t like pigeons, but I love them. Michelle Tea, too, has been fortunate enough to realize their beauty, and she writes about them in her book, putting them on the magical pedestal they deserve.

I saw on Amazon that a reviewer said this book would “have difficulty finding an audience.” This book includes American immigrants from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Poland; a lesbian mentor in the form of Angel; a girl with a single-parent household; and more. Sounds like Tea’s reached out to a pretty wide audience to me.

Also, teeny tiny side note: This book has no romantic lead. For a YA book, that is very, very rare. Plenty of YA authors need to insert a romantic subplot before their novels can be published. I was relieved and refreshed to see Sophie too busy with magic to be kissing mediocre thirteen year-old boys (or girls).

I hold this book close to my heart, now. I hope you will, too.

Jess reviews Coal To Diamonds by Beth Ditto (with Michelle Tea)



Coal To Diamonds (2012) is Beth Ditto’s raw and demanding memoir. Written with Michelle Tea, Ditto holds nothing back, sharing family history, The Gossip’s gossip and her thoughts on the world at large.

I’ll be honest, I went into Coal To Diamonds with no expectations. I didn’t know about the band The Gossip (sorry fans), I vaguely recognised Ditto’s photo on the front cover and I had some recollection of her name being linked to the word ‘lesbian’. The book had been marked down 80% and I’m not one to walk past a bargain!

Coal To Diamonds is a short book, perhaps reflective of having only 32 years to recap, but certainly packs the punches that most would expect from Beth Ditto. She passionately describes her musical journey exploring the influences of Riot grrrl, feminism, zines and friendship families. When talking about abuse, she emphatically explains its normalcy within her home culture. Her initial encounters are conveyed as normal and as the reader, I was confronted by the starkness of her experiences.

Much of the memoir recounts Ditto’s founding years, set in Judsonia, Arkansas, before shifting to Olympia, Washington. My geographical understanding of the United States is so limited (there are two coasts?) yet Ditto’s elaborative and vivid descriptions filled my head as though they were my own memories. Judsonia is presented as a tight community with many inbuilt, ongoing problems including abuse of every kind. Olympia provides Ditto with the ‘big city’ freedom she lacked back home and a challenging command of independence. Both play a key role in the development of Ditto as a woman and a musician, in areas she reflects on as the memoir continues.

Throughout Coal To Diamonds, sexuality shifts in thematic presence. As Ditto comes to terms with her own sexuality, deeper recollections of sexual abuse arise and are reflected upon. Her friendship family includes other queers and she occasionally passes comment on society’s lack of acceptance. One relationship, with the seven year senior transgendered Freddie, helps her come to terms with her own identity. “He made my gender identity make sense to me, and he made my sexual identity make sense to me.” (p113)

Structurally, the reader is presented with a non-linear narrative, roughly divided into the beginning, the middle and now. In ‘the beginning’, we see Ditto as a child between family houses, sexual abuse and a growing awareness of the world. During ‘the middle’, Ditto recalls her change in world view (from the insular family to the extroverted career) and her own self discovery. Then, as though picked up and thrown forward by a powerful tornado, we are dumped into the ‘now’, and with a sense of emergency to get the story up to date, Ditto’s current life is sketched out.

Despite having absolutely no personal understanding of Ditto, the band or the punk movement, I was moved by Coal To Diamonds. The emotional flavour of the memoir stayed with me for days after I finished. The determination of the protagonist in every single hardship is presented with a beautiful honesty that cuts past celebrity and connects intimately with the human heart. It was a quick read that is well worth the couple of hours that I devoured it within.

If you are already a fan of Beth Ditto (why have you not already read it!), I am sure you will completely love this memoir. If you are interested in people’s lives, Ditto’s certainly is an interesting life to read about. While her experiences involve things that will be removed from most of her readers (eating squirrels shot by her stoned cousin), the universal concepts of self acceptance, perseverance and family will outshine any unusual side-stories.

Beth Ditto is the femme, glam, queer, fat, fashion icon and musical powerhouse that we all see and underneath all that, she’s a truly remarkable woman. I guess I’ll have to check out her music next!

Casey reviews Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea


I feel a bit like a terrible literary queer when I say that I haven’t read much of Michelle Tea—I actually saw the film version of Valencia when it was recently at Vancouver’s queer film festival, and I haven’t read the book yet!  While Michelle Tea was in town for the screening, though, I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing her read from her latest (young adult) novel, Mermaid in Chelsea Creek.  I was sold.

First things first, the book itself is beautiful.  It has a great nineteenth-century feel both on the outside and the inside.  The hardcover is deep blue scattered with pictures of birds and a silver silhouette of a girl.  Throughout the book in the corner of certain pages, and sometimes taking over an entire page or spreading onto the next one, are illustrations of birds, people, plants, trailers, and other random locales in the dirty, urban climate of Chelsea, Massachusetts where the novel is set.  If you like beautiful books, this is an awesome one to have in your collection and it’s only twenty bucks, which is a steal for a hardcover!

Okay, onto the content of Mermaid in Chelsea Creek.  This novel has a fantastic combination of a lot of things I love in literature: tough yet vulnerable teenage girl protagonist, gritty urban setting, magical creatures, girls saving the world, feminism, gender play, witches, and talking animals.  Our everyday girl chosen for a special destiny is Sophie Swankowski (yes, that’s a Polish last name and I was excited to read about Polish immigrants to North America, since it’s not something I’ve encountered much and I have Polish background myself!).  I know the chosen one shtick in fantasy has been done a lot (Harry Potter, etc) but I love it.  I love how Sophie, being the uncertain, messy-haired teenager that she is, is pretty reluctant about taking on the responsibility of ridding the world of evil.  Her guide is a cussing mermaid who appears out of a filthy river to her during a vision she has while playing the pass-out game with her friend.  I’d be weirded out too, Sophie.

In addition to her bad-ass mermaid mentor, Sophie also discovers a long-lost great aunt masquerading as the owner of a musty old convenience store, that her grandfather is not really dead but has been turned into a dog by her evil grandmother, and a Puerto Rican genderqueer teenager named Angel who has been waiting for her at the previously mentioned evil grandmother’s trailer at the town dump.  Angel is where the queer part comes in, although, admittedly, it’s pretty subtextual.  Angel is there to help Sophie and teach her about her powers, and the interactions between them are really cute.  Ideally, I would have liked a little more romance here, but I get it, okay: Sophie has that whole saving-the-world-from-itself thing to do.  I’m a sucker for romance, what can I say.  I hope we get to see more of Angel in later books!

This novel is also a fantastic blend of genres:  sometimes I find fantasy worlds a little too clean, but Mermaid in Chelsea Creek injects a healthy dose of gritty realism, particularly about the sexist shit teenage girls have to deal with.  While there’s no over threat or mention of sexual assault, it and violence against women more generally linger in the background of the novel and I would definitely give a trigger warning, for sexual assault and self-harm.  Sophie’s world is magical, but there’s also poverty, and misogyny, and animal cruelty, and alcoholism, and racism, and immigration, and single moms doing the best they can.

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is the first book in a trilogy, so we’re left just when Sophie is embarking on her journey with the mermaid.  I can’t wait to find out what happens next!  We still need so many of these stories, of women as agents of their own destiny and leading the story and kicking ass and being messy, complex human beings.  When I was at Michelle Tea’s reading in Vancouver, there was a group of gay men there who had read the book in their book club.  They were obviously eager to discuss it, but unfortunately were totally unaware of how male-dominated the q&a became when they took up all the space.  One of them even complained about how there weren’t any so-called nice male characters in the book.  Hello!?!  So many men’s stories have been told—it’s time for stories about women, like Sophie, to be told.  Prioritizing women’s voices is one of the things this novel is all about—if you didn’t get that, you better read it again.

Laura reviews Sister Spit edited by Michelle Tea


In the introduction to Sister Spit: Writing, Rants & Reminiscence from the Road, editor Michelle Tea proudly writes that Sister Spit is what she did instead of college. Reading this collection is like digging through a pile of her study group’s crumpled looseleaf notes at the end of the semester. It’s enough to get the gist of the lesbian-feminist-trans-vegan-poet-artist-addict-activist-adventurer curriculum, but by no means will you gain any mastery of it. You’ll just wish you’d enrolled in the classes, then lie awake at night questioning every major life decision you’ve ever made. In a good way. Really.

Sister Spit was formed in 1994, when Tea and Sini Anderson created a girls-only open mic night to get away from the Bukowski-worshipping bros dominating the San Francisco literary scene. Their show ran every Sunday for two straight years before they picked it up and hit the road. Together, Tea and Anderson led a roving band of queer poets and storytellers across the country in couple ramshackle rental vans, stopping in a new city every night to give live performances.

“Most Sister Spit shows are about class,” writes Tea. “About class and being female, or about class and not being female, about being trans, a faggot. There is feminism in everything, a punkness too.” The same gut feeling is also true for the works contained in Sister Spit (the book), and it is a pleasure to read.

Covering 15 years of Sister Spit’s best work, this anthology shows incredible range. The collection starts off strong from the very first piece: “Star,” a violent, bitchy, improper, fabulous poem by Samuel Topiary. A little further in, I loved “Training for Goddesses,” in which the hilarious Kat Marie Yoas describes her experiences at a dominatrix training camp. And “Real Paper Letter” by Tamara Llosa-Sandor was funny and wonderful in a gentler, contemplative sort of way.

My favorite piece of writing in Sister Spit is “High Five for Ram Dass” by Harry Dodge. Consider:

Chuck Mangione, Late Zeppelin and a Streisand are stuffed under the bleachers in a throbbing gyroscopic heap. Late Zeppelin’s head is banging into the aluminum bench at a pace that makes me feel like doing “The Bus Stop.” I watch them for a long minute and the crickets rev up their nighttime calypso. Buttes the color of ash and pumpkin ascend until mercifully, they eclipse the sun. A totally relaxing primal event. I feel looser. The air is soft, exactly the temperature of my skin and fragrant to boot. Orange blossoms. Tuna. Whimpers, screams, yells replace the metallic fuck-gonging and before long the trio emerges into the soft dark night smiling. Stumbling on loose hips.

Beautiful, isn’t it? It’s from a story about formerly feral children resynthesizing into contemporary culture.

Perhaps my least favorite segments in Sister Spit were the ones “from the road.” I found the constant name dropping to be distracting and annoying. Still, I loved reading the tales. I love knowing that these people — interesting, creative, inventive and resourceful as they are — existed and exist. I love that they’ve documented their stories and that I can access them whenever I want. And, okay, “Where Is My Soul?” with Cristy C. Road’s reflections from the road, equal parts inspirational and relatable, are pretty wonderful. “How do you do this?” she asks. “How do you grow so gracefully, achieving levels of confidence and success while maintaining your grit and spirit? Your anger and identity? How do I become Eileen Myles?” Oof. This. Or alternatively, how do I become Michelle Tea?

Sister Spit’s Spring 2013 literary tour begins in just a few short weeks! For a full list of tour stops, check out the City Lights website.

Mfred reviews Valencia by Michelle Tea




What to say about this book?  I can’t quite put my finger on Valencia, can’t pin it down or summarize my reaction to it.

Perhaps my first mistake was to read the introduction.  My copy is a reprint, with Tea adding commentary on her own ambivalent feelings regarding the semi-autobiographical story of being young, queer, drunk and high, in love, broken-hearted, hungover, penniless, jobless, restless, in San Francisco.  Starting the book with that strong sense of ambivalence may have colored my reading of it.

Each chapter in the novel is a new girl, or a new party, or a new job, told explicitly and graphically, in stream-of-consciousness style.  Sometimes the story blazes and sometimes it falters.  Sometimes it even dawdles and loses the thread completely.  By the end, it becomes quite lyrical and emotive, and I felt drawn to Tea’s narrator where she had annoyed and alienated previously.  But I was also angry!  Why was all this beauty confined to the very last chapter of the book?!

Published in 2000, I’m not sure the book has the same impact today.  Would it win awards or receive so much praise if written in 2011?  There have been quite a few “women-on-the-verge” confessional-style memoirs and stories since the late 90s/early 2000s — maybe this one stands out for being Capital-Q Queer?  But reading it, I was even reminded of books by Kerouac and Diane DiPrima.  In this sense, Tea’s explicitness when detailing all of the the sex, drugs, and aimlessness of her life, felt stale.

Or, maybe it’s me?  Maybe if I was younger and less settled in my life, Tea’s meanderings between girlfriends and emotional crises would have resonated more.  One thing I can say for Michelle Tea, I was not indifferent to her writing.

It took until page 164 for me to find a passage that I truly liked:

As long as I was able to keep my mind from my heart, it seemed like a pretty cool situation. Brave and exciting. But my heart was a whirling, starving void that sucked and sucked like a terrible black hole, and when it gobbled up my logic it made what I was doing look lonely, and sleazy. I laced my Docs and grabbed my leather jacket.