Kalyanii reviews Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side by Rayya Elias

 

 

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After stumbling upon the announcement of Elizabeth Gilbert’s coming out last month, l thought I’d key a quick Google search in order to become acquainted with the woman who’d rocked her world. It took the perusal of only a couple results to discover that Gilbert’s relationship with Rayya Elias is no fly-by-night romance; rather, Elias has been her dearest friend and confidante for the past fifteen years. So, when I learned that Elias had published her memoir in April of 2013 (with an introduction penned by Gilbert herself), I grew determined to get my hands on a copy. Little did I realize at the time that Elias would rock my world as well.

Born in Aleppo, Syria, Elias and her family knew more than a modicum of luxury, residing in an eight-room flat, complete with long marble hallways and manicured gardens to look down upon from the several balconies above. Beyond a handful of secrets and emotional scars, the family made pleasant memories while surrounded by the warmth of its members, good friends and caring neighbors; yet, the relative ease of daily life began to slip away with the rise of nationalism as the Ba’ath Party came into power. Amid mounting religious and political tensions and threats to his financial security, Elias’s father decided they had little choice but to leave all they knew in order to seek safety and a better life in America.

Elias was only seven years of age when her family arrived in Warren, Michigan, near Detroit, and the transition was anything but easy. Not only was their standard of living well below what they enjoyed in their homeland, but cultural differences set Elias apart as the target of incessant and utterly relentless bullying. All the while, her desire to assimilate into American culture left her feeling alienated from her family and the local Arabic community within which they had found a sense of home.

It was only in her early adulthood that Elias’s fashion-forward outlook and talents, not only as a hairstylist but a musician as well, provided her the positive regard that enabled her to flourish. The club scene, with its techno new wave vibe, enlivened and inspired her while offering the promise of a world to which she belonged.

… this was the 1980s, my time, and I was enamored with both the music and the look. They allowed me to escape; with no rules or boundaries, I could express myself and be part of an underground culture that accepted my newfound ambivalence toward being “normal,” and make cross-gendered sexuality look cool. Instinctively, I got it. Everything about this genre spoke to me, and it was the first time and place in society that I felt cool and accepted by gentle, intelligent, creative, and like-minded people…. I’d found my clan, my own pack of wolves.

With two careers budding simultaneously, Elias began to wonder if she might be outgrowing Detroit. She craved an independence beyond her family’s protective embrace and the freedom to discover her most authentic means of self-expression, both creatively as well as sexually. Thus, Elias decided to petition the owner of the salon at which she worked for the opportunity to prove herself on the East Coast whenever one became available. As luck would have it, there was need for an artistic director in Stamford, Conneticut, just 45 minutes outside of New York City. If Elias wanted it, it was hers.

The bulk of Harley Loco follows Elias’s rise as a high-end hairstylist and cutting-edge musical force into her descent within the hell of hardcore drug addiction, complete with overdoses, arrests, evictions, threats to her life, homelessness and a well-remembered stint at Rikers Island. All along the way, she takes the time to introduce her reader to those who inhabited her world during those tumultuous years, from lovers, party buddies, drug lords and down-and-out junkies to fair-weather friends and guardian angels. She shares heartrending moments of the most intense love and desire for a woman amid several doomed attempts at navigating the ever-shifting terrain of polyamory, the no-strings-attached comfort of a stranger’s bed as well as the loss and devastation sustained within a committed relationship when another’s love, regardless of how true, cannot come close to competing with that initial high.

Aside from a handful of returns to Detroit, Elias’s memoir is set against the backdrop of New York’s Lower East Side as it was in the 1980’s and early 90’s with its underground clubs, drug-dealing bodegas, shooting galleries and dens. The seediness of Alphabet City, so vividly drawn through its cast of characters, proves enthralling as Elias proceeds to paint an utterly visceral portrait of what the neighborhood was prior to gentrification. Though I spent only one night amid those streets during that epic era, the experience remains permanently etched within my memory, for the edginess of the neighborhood was nothing less than mythic in its time; and, given her penchant for telling things precisely as they were, Elias reveals with uncompromising grit the reality behind the legends that we had all so naively romanticized from afar. Though narrated with an ambivalent air of nostalgia, Elias’s innumerable falls from grace are evidence of the true underbelly of a drug culture that film, literature and the other media of its day portrayed as captivating rather than demoralizing and often deadly.

Given that Elias lived to tell the tale, it’s probably safe to say that the unfathomably hard lessons learned while looking down a gun barrel, seeking shelter within Tent City at Tompkins Square Park or writhing, dope-sick, on the cement floor of a holding cell were all a part of a journey which awakened a voice within her—a voice which, at last, spoke with certainty, “Rayya, you don’t need to do this anymore. You can be free.”

Immediately after the acknowledgements, Elias includes a section entitled “Music Links,” which directs readers to her website, where they can access the six tracks that she considers something of a soundtrack to Harley Loco. As you might expect, I beelined to my laptop, keyed in the web address and promptly pressed “play.” With palpable harkenings of Aimee Mann, Portishead and early Sleater-Kinney, the tracks presented so satisfyingly meld that which influenced us back in the day with the hard-earned jadedness of the present. My favorite track, by far, is “Fever,” which boasts a chorus I simply can’t shake:  “Got a fever in my soul, cancer in my heart; never had any place to shelter, never had anywhere to start.”

According to Gilbert’s September 7th Facebook post, it was Elias’s diagnosis of pancreatic and liver cancer that brought her to crossroads, where, after fifteen years of friendship, she chose, what else, but love.

Death — or the prospect of death — has a way of clearing away everything that is not real, and in that space of stark and utter realness, I was faced with this truth: I do not merely love Rayya; I am in love with Rayya. And I have no more time for denying that truth. The thought of someday sitting in a hospital room with her, holding her hand and watching her slide away, without ever having let her (or myself!) know the extent of my true feelings for her…well, that thought was unthinkable.

It’s beautiful yet heartbreaking, isn’t it, that which brings us face-to-face with who we are and who it is that we truly love?

I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to come to know Elias through her memoir as well as her music, which has not only brought me back to the ecstatic sensation of inhabiting my own skin but provided me a sense of the badass that I always fantasized I’d been. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if her soundtrack were to end up playing a role in the creation of my own.

In conclusion, to quote Gilbert’s courageous coming-out post once more, “Truth is the force that guides us to where we need to be in life, but love is the power that heals us once we arrive there.”

With that in mind, I wish both Gilbert and Elias the most treasured of journeys together.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Danika reviews Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire by Lisa M. Diamond

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This was a life-changing book for me. The only thing I can compare it to in terms of reading experience is Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature by Emma Donoghue, which opened up a whole world of queer women lit throughout time to me that I had never heard of before. Instead of changing my view of lesbian and bi books, though, Sexual Fluidity revolutionized my entire outlook on sexual identity and orientation.

I wish that was an exaggeration. This was an incredibly affirming book, but it also frustrated me that it took this long for me to discover a different framework from which to view sexuality–one that viewed my experiences not as an aberration, but as a normal, valid example of how sexuality might flow over time.

Lisa M. Diamond follows a group of almost 100 women over the course of ten years, most of them lesbians or bisexual women, checking in several times throughout to see how their sexual identity and behaviour had changed. Although the standard understanding of sexual orientation would assume that these women would stay in the same categories after they came out, this wasn’t the reality. 2/3 of the women changed identities (lesbian/bisexual/heterosexual/unlabeled) at some point during the ten years. Most of that change was because of sexual relationships women had since the last interview. Diamond argues that typically it isn’t actually that these women’s orientation is changing–the interviewees generally reported staying in a fairly narrow range of attraction to their preferred gender(s)–but that instead these experiences were due to examples of sexual fluidity.

This is a fairly academic text, but it’s packed full of fascinating information. It covers the biological aspects and psychological aspect of this concept, drawing from a huge amount of studies. I apologize for this long-winded review, because this book was so central in changing how I think about sexuality that I’m determined to note it all down so that I can’t forget.

Diamond argues sexual orientation indicates not a rigid  prediction of the gender(s)/sex(es) you are and will always be attracted to, but instead indicated a range from which you can fluctuate–meaning that being attracted nonexclusively to a certain gender is not necessarily a bisexual orientation, but may be brought on by sexual fluidity. Basically, sexuality is not just a range from 0% same-sex attraction = heterosexual, 1%-99% same-sex attraction = bisexual, and 100% same-sex attraction = homosexual. Instead, orientation is only one aspect of sexuality. Here are some of the things she argues make up sexuality:

  1. Sexual orientation, which indicates a tendency to seek out sexual experience with a certain sex/sexes
  2. Degree of fluidity: the capacity a person has to react to triggers for fluidity. Where orientation determines someone’s already-existing attraction to certain sexes, same-sex arousability determines someone’s receptivity to environments that might trigger fluidity–like becoming emotionally intimate with a same-sex friend
  3. Exposure to environments that might trigger fluidity (usually exposure to certain genders/sexes in everyday life–an all-women college won’t offer a lot of opportunity for sexual fluidity towards men)
  4.  Capacity for “person-based” attraction: for some people, emotional intimacy with someone may lead to romantic feelings, which may then lead to sexual attraction, just as sexual attraction to someone may then lead to romantic feelings for them

I know that I am over simplifying and likely mangling that explanation, but that is my understanding. Diamond also explores the roles of “proceptivity” (sexual drive) vs “arousability” (receptivity to sexual cues) in certain people’s lives. For people who menstruate, the hormonal fluctuations mean that arousability plays a bigger part in day-to-day attractions than proceptivity (unlike cis men).

She also explains that the biological foundation for romantic love evolved independently from sexuality. So while sexual orientation evolved to encourage mating, romantic love evolved from infant-caregiver bonding, which means that the biological underpinnings are not gender- or sex-specific, which explains why people might more easily fall in love with someone who does not match the sex they are usually attracted to. (These are systems that evolved separately, but they are connected, which is how romantic love might develop into sexual attraction and vice versa.)

Sexual Fluidity contains some pretty controversial statistics. For example, 60% of the women who identified as lesbians in the initial interviews went on to have sexual contact with men in subsequent years. More than 50% of the women who continued to identify as lesbians had sexual contact with men over the course of those ten years, and 30% of the women who identified as lesbians in the first interview would go on to have romantic relationships with men (though the vast majority of these women then stopped labeling themselves as lesbians). There seemed to be an unstated agreement that over 75% attraction to women meant you were a lesbian–people who crossed that line tended to change how they identified.

As someone who identified as a lesbian since high school, who felt at home in that label for ten years, and then found myself in a romantic relationship with a man, this was revelatory. Where I had always viewed my history of attraction as somewhat embarrassing and out of the ordinary, this recast it as perfectly valid and not even uncommon. According to this framework, it still made perfect sense that I would have a lesbian orientation but be in a relationship with a man (though I won’t call myself a lesbian anymore–I know that wouldn’t go over well). It just meant that I have capacity for fluidity, even though I have a pattern of being attracted to women. I can’t explain what a relief it was to read about my experiences as…. well, normal.

The conclusion of this book proposes that we change the way we look as sexuality, especially women’s sexuality. One promising avenue is dynamical systems, which in a psychology context means that it views a subject by acknowledging that biology and environment are constantly influencing and changing each other: it is a system that is based in change and assumes that change will happen, rather than seeing sexuality as a fixed point.

It’s important that we teach about sexual fluidity, because despite the fact that the majority of the women interviewed were affected in some way by fluidity, they usually explained these examples with some embarrassment, feeling as though they were the exception to the rule. Diamond shares that when she speaks at queer events about this research, she always has women come up to her afterwards and “confess” their experiences with fluidity, and how they had felt alone in this. We should not be teaching that perfectly normal shifts in sexuality or “exception to the rule” person-based attractions are abnormal.

This isn’t a perfect book. Diamond acknowledges that more research is needed, especially in the biological aspects that she mentions, which are often based on animal experiments. My primary criticism is the cissexism: gender and sex are conflated, which explains my muddled use of both in this review. Intersex people and nonbinary people are erased–despite the fact that two of the participants went on to identify as nonbinary in some way. And, of course, this is all based on interviews of people during a specific time period, and from a fairly narrow sample. It isn’t perfect, but it did blow my mind and make me consider my worldview, so I can’t help but give it 5 stars. If you have ever felt like your experiences don’t fit into the standard explanation of sexual orientation, I highly, highly recommend reading this one.

Danika reviews Queer By Choice: Lesbians, Gay Men, and The Politics of Identity by Vera Whisman

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One of my favourite books is Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women edited by Candace Walsh and Laura André. There are some beautifully-written essays in the collection, but what really grabbed me were all the narratives that didn’t match the classic queer storyline: I knew since I was a kid, and it’s always been the same (though I might not have always known it and accepted it). My desire has been a constant in my life. I took that narrative for granted, even though it didn’t match my experiences, and it was only when reading Dear John, I Love Jane that I realized that there are many people who didn’t experience attraction or romantic love in that same way. Sexual fluidity exists! So when I saw the title of Queer by Choice, I was excited to revisit that. I wanted to read about people whose queer identities didn’t match the mainstream story, including those who did feel like they had a choice in being queer.

Queer By Choice was written as a doctoral dissertation, and it reads like one. The book is based around a series of interviews of gay and lesbian people centered around the role of choice in their sexual identities. The main conclusion Whisman draws is that despite the “born this way” party line, most people identify their sexuality as not entirely chosen or determined, but as a mix. Primarily, most people she interviewed saw their orientation as determined and out of their control, but that they demonstrated choice in how they dealt with this orientation, how and when they came out, and how they acted on their desire.

This was published in 1996, and the interviews were done in the late ’80s, which both makes this outdated and an interesting look at a particular time in queer community and politics. The interviews took place during the AIDS epidemic, and also during a time where many lesbian interviewees came out during the height of lesbian feminism. Most of the interviewees who identified their sexuality as chosen were part of the lesbian feminist movement.

For being written 20 years ago, Queer By Choice was more inclusive than I was expecting. It recognizes the role of race in identity narratives, and acknowledges the lack of bisexual participants. It also critiques the “gay ethnicity” model as racist. Unfortunately, its discussion of trans people is awkward, expressing surprise that a lesbian would still consider herself a lesbian while in a relationship with a “pre-op” trans woman.

My main complaint with this book is that I was most interested in hearing from people who do see their sexuality as a choice, because that is not something that gets a lot of attention in the queer community. Despite the title, the vast majority of this book discusses people who do not see their sexuality as a choice. The bits that do are interesting, including a section that explains that earlier in the queer rights movement, there had been a push to “free the homosexual in everyone”, and that the biological minority model “fails to interrogate the inevitability of heterosexuality”: it posits the hetero/homo (or generously, hetero/bi/homo) as natural instead of seeing queer rights as freeing all people to explore the possibility of their sexuality. Another point that I found interesting was when Whisman argued that because women are taught to contain their sexuality, the “choice” narrative is more appealing to them, while men are taught that their sexuality is an uncontrollable force, making the “determined” narrative more intuitive.

While there were some interesting points contained in Queer By Choice, the bulk of the book discusses some variation of the “born this way” narrative, which I didn’t find interesting. It also got repetitive, both in the sense of reiterating thesis points over and over, and in the repetition of quotes in different chapters. Although this is a short book, it felt padded. This is definitely a topic I’d like to read more about, but I wouldn’t highly recommend this particular title.

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 Lesbian Conception 101 by Kathy Borkoski

lesbian conception 101

My wife and I decided a few months back to try to have a baby. Naturally, I’ve been reading everything that exists on the subject. There aren’t a ton of books out there for queer women trying to get pregnant. One of the most accessible is Lesbian Conception 101: An easy-to-follow, how-to get started guide for lesbians thinking about getting pregnant tomorrow or in a couple of years by Kathy Borkoski. Borkoski doesn’t preach about the way you ought to things. She lays out your getting-pregnant options, and offers some cost-saving tips and exercises for figuring out what you want. The book focuses exclusively on conception, which can keep things from being overwhelming when you’re starting the process.

Lesbian Conception 101 isn’t the most comprehensive book about getting pregnant that exists. It’s very short–less than 100 pages–and some of that is devoted to the voices of women who’d gone through the process. While these personal stories are interesting and at times reassuring, they typically don’t delve into a lot of details that you can apply to your own life. It’s decidedly written for cisgender lesbian couples and if this isn’t you, your mileage may vary. Sections include deciding who will carry, ways to get sperm, and options for insemination. Borkoski includes options for using known and unknown donors, and insemination choices from low-tech at home up to IVF.

I wish Borkoski had included more suggestions for further reading. If you want more information about tracking your fertility, for example, a few more resources would have been nice. Also, some of your experiences might be different from the book. Borkoski’s description of intrauterine insemination involved much more medical monitoring than I experienced. Likewise, the section on questions you’ll be asked, while a good way to prepare yourself, might not be anything like the questions you’ll actually be asked. (The weirdest question my wife and I got was, “Are you two adopting or using a surrogate?” To which I got to reply, “We’re going to try to use one of the two uteruses we have between us.” Also, multiple people asked if we could chose the sex of our baby). Still, it’s a good starting off point. If you aren’t interested in ever getting pregnant or having a pregnant partner, you don’t need this book. But if you are, this is one of the easiest books out there about lesbian baby making.

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

dirty-river

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.

Audrey reviews Ask a Queer Chick by Lindsay King-Miller

ask a queer chick

Obviously, it’s an advice book. Yes! It’s based on an advice column from the website the Hairpin. Ask a Queer Chick is in chapter format, not Q-and-A, so it’s nicely conversational, but it’s derived from a whole mess of questions from a whole phalanx of queer chicks (and not queer chicks) of varying degrees of queerness. One of the book’s challenges is finding its audience, as it’s not easily targeting the asker of one question, but a sea of readers, whose makeup, never mind experience, is unknown.

King-Miller confronts this challenge by making this more of an “I think I might be…so what do I do now?” type of book, and she includes lots of food for thought. It’s tough. She’s not selling this as the newbie manual that I should have gotten when my girl got yet another toaster, which is at the level of ally-moving-into-needing-to-know-practicalities, and she’s also not marketing this as relationship advice from a guru among the flock. This title will probably best fit those exploring a newly discovered or claimed identity. There’s a lot of self-empowerment, a lot of self-protection, and a lot of context.

There are some big strengths here. I love reading advice books, especially when the advice is heartfelt and real, and when the advice giver clearly cares for the welfare of her readers. That’s the case here. There are sections on coming out, queer subculture, queer sex, breaking up, discrimination, marriage, and looking at your life with an eye to making it amazing. One of the biggest strengths of the book is in chapter 6, “Bi Any Means Necessary: Notes on Non-Monosexuality.” Please, someone, correct me loudly on this if I’m wrong, but I found the book in general to be nonbinary-positive and affirming.
Ask a Queer Chick should be a good resource for a few different groups of readers. Those who are questioning, those who are allies, and those who simply want some support can all draw excellent stuff from this volume. Additionally, King-Miller notes right off that she’s a cisgender queer chick, so she’s not claiming to be an authority on trans issues; however, she still thinks for trans chicks whose “sexual and romantic compass (doesn’t point) dudeward,” there’s plenty of useful material herein.