Bliss by Fiona Zedde is a finding-your-place story as much as it is a love story; or you could say it’s a love story between a woman and the self she’s supposed to be or the type of life she’s supposed to be living. It’s also highly erotic, reveling in the sensuality of its characters’ bodies, but in a respectful and almost reverential way that elevates ordinary body parts to a sort of glowing, visceral divinity.
Doesn’t it always seem that the books that you have the highest expectations for are the ones that let you down? That was my experience reading Give It to Me by Ana Castillo, this year’s winner in the bisexual fiction category at the Lambda Literary awards. This novel left me with a lot of mixed feelings, ones even two months or so after reading I haven’t managed to sort out.
Give It to Me is one of those hard to describe books. The tone is all over the place. On the one hand, it’s kind of a romp, with the main character Palma Piedras’s bisexual sexcapades featured throughout the story and lots of random antics, like being an extra in a Tommy Lee Jones movie and randomly meeting a Dalai Lama-like Buddhist guru who gives you life advice. So at first the novel feels like it’s going to be light-hearted and escapist. It is definitely not. On the other hand, this novel is aching with (be)longing, and Palma is so desperate at times beneath her façade it’s heartbreaking. There is also some serious shit that goes down in this book, some of which shows Palma in quite an unflattering light.
This is a book by a Latina author about a Latina woman, and the tone got me thinking about Latin American music, which I hear a far amount of because both my partner and a good friend are Latino. Sometimes what feels really foreign to me about that music is the combination of melodies that sound happy, and lyrics that are sad. Often sad Latin American music doesn’t sound sad to me. I felt similarly confused about this book. I think it’s quite likely this is an entirely cultural issue, and that my mixed feelings are a result of my white cultural and racial background. I’d be interested to hear what Latin@ readers think about the tone!
At times, Give It to Me is laugh-out-loud funny: Castillo has a dark, biting sense of humour that straddles the border between comedy and tragedy, much like the tone of the book. This was definitely one aspect of the book that I liked. Only a few pages in, I was chuckling to myself while reading.
This book also had a lot of smart, real things to say about gender, race, (bi)sexuality, and class. One of the more interesting parts was when Palma was thinking especially about being mestizo, a “Native red-brown” in comparison to a black friend/lover:
She’d have given anything to be that color. Or white as his porcelain toilet. Either black or white. The in-between thing hadn’t worked out in her most recent incarnation. The brown woman was taken for the chambermaid in hotels or the housekeeper .. . . Did she speak English? Spanish? Would she nanny for them? Did she clean windows? Maybe it was the look of the future owners of the world but not yet.
Despite gems like that, about halfway through the book I began to get tired of the meandering / lack of plot. I thought maybe in the second half the novel would pick up and would start going somewhere plot-wise, but I figured out three quarters through that what I was waiting for wasn’t going to happen, and then that felt too late to re-evaluate and change my expectations. It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that Palma ends up pretty much where she started at the end of the book, but it is a disheartening end when you’ve followed a character make bad decision after bad decision, fuck someone new every time as a coping mechanism, and then never learn anything. It’s not even that Palma has “lost her way”; it’s that at forty-something she has never found it. If that’s not a depressing thought, I don’t know what is.
One last note: there are two instances of sexual assault in this book (one with a man, another with a woman), both of which were dealt with (in my opinion) in a relatively dismissive way. The scene with the man especially was fairly graphic, and then there was little mention of it afterwards, which disturbed me. Palma does enact revenge on the woman, although this is after continuing to date her (mostly for her money) for months. I was pretty uncomfortable with how the book dealt with this.
I loved poetry as a teenager, but post-college I’ve hardly read any. As an adult, I read novels largely for escape and relaxation, and nonfiction for information and/or work and grad school. Poetry is a different animal, grounded in emotional truths, ideals, and sensations. It’s not something I make time for much anymore, but I jumped at the chance to review Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha‘s new book of poetry, Bodymap. I picked it up not because it’s poetry, but because it’s Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. I first read her work in Colonize This! as a college student. Her essays have popped up in many anthologies I’ve liked over the years, and I’ve admired Piepzna-Samarasinha for more than a decade now. Once I saw her at Femme Conference and it felt like seeing a celebrity. After you read this book, I think you’ll feel the same way.
Like her other writing, Bodymap is deeply personal and political. The poems are mostly short, rooted in her life as a Tamil/Burgher Sri Lankan and Irish/Roma disabled queer femme. Her life, love, activism, sexuality, identity, body, and family all tangle through pages. As in previous writing, she explores the difficulties and joys of chosen family and community, and brings generosity and maturity to the subject. In many ways, this was the book I wanted How to Grow Up to be. Piepzna-Samarasinha wrestles with real, difficult topics with emotion and intelligence. By the end of this book of poems, she is a parent with an impressive career, meaningful relationships, and more than a little insight into how to care for herself and those she loves. This book is wise without being preachy or self-aggrandizing, and loving without being cliche or saccharine. The writing itself is straight-up gorgeous.
The first night I read it, I intended to skim this book but got sucked in right away. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s descriptions are evocative, and at times made me cry. It also made me wonder if I should call my ex-best friend and try to talk things out. It made me want to read tarot cards and cook vegan food and whip up homemade beauty treatments. Reading this slim book was a wonderfully emotional experience that connected me to my values and priorities.
Normally in my reviews I suggest who might and might not be interested in a particular book, but I think just about everyone should read Bodymap. If you read poetry, this book is a reminder why you love it. If you don’t read poetry, you should read Bodymap because it’s accessible and beautiful, written with deep maturity and open-hearted honesty. If you’re a long-time fan, you won’t be disappointed as she covers familiar topics with precise and vivid language. If you haven’t read Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work before, Bodymap is an excellent place to start.
Elinor Zimmerman is sometimes on tumblr at http://elinorradicalzimmerman.tumblr.com/
This book was not what I thought it was going to be. It’s a young adult novel, and it’s only 165 pages long, but it’s not a light read. Because this is such a short book, I feel like it’s easy to spoil, so I’ll keep the description short. This is about O (Opal), who’s just finishing up high school and is madly in love with her best friend M (Marianne), but M is more interested in being a cheerleader than in her. O has plans to save M from this small town after graduation, but what happens when those careful plans fall apart? This book reminded me strongly of two others: [spoiler, highlight to read] Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson [end spoiler] and another short YA book I read recently, The House You Pass On the Way by Jacqueline Woodson. The writing is fairly simple, but I found it to be evocative:
Marianne looked over at me and flashed her pearly whites, her hair wildly whipping about her face like so many snakes. I told myself not to fall into the pit of her, but she reached over and squeezed my thigh, making me scream inside. I wanted to throw myself out the car. I wanted to throw myself into her. I bit my nails instead.
Throughout this story there is another narrative, a folk tale about a runaway slave named Hannah. The two stories interact with each other, and the resulting whole is thoughtful, subtle, and heart wrenching. It has a lot to say about racism (and its progression from Hannah’s time to today), homophobia, and family. All the characters seem fully formed, all with their own pasts and motivation. I especially loved how O’s family informally adopted M, treating M and O as a pair, and M’s grandmother’s understated defense of O’s identity. There is a lot going on in this novel, including O’s struggle to find her own identity and motivation. It wasn’t the light, YA lesbian love story I thought it was going to be, but it was really well done, and I think it’s one that would benefit from rereading.
Black Girl Love is a collection of short stories and poems about, unsurprisingly, love between black women. Each story is very short, usually just a tiny snippet of a relationship. Sometimes they are love stories, sometimes they are erotica, sometimes break-up stories, and sometimes quite dark explorations of interactions between women. I liked the variety and the themes introduced, but personally I felt like there wasn’t enough time to get invested in each story, so there were few stories that I felt really invested in. I did enjoy one series of stories in which we got three different perspectives on the same story, partly because it allowed for more depth in that narrative.
There were a couple of moments that tripped me up, including the only mention of trans people being a narrator saying “transgender my ass” about her ex, as well as the only story that addresses mental health [spoiler, highlight to read] ending with the mentally ill person killing her ex[end spoiler]. There were also quite a few typos scattered throughout. Overall there were a lot of parts that intrigued me about this collection, but I didn’t feel like I could really dig into it. At the same time, I have to acknowledge as a white reader that this isn’t a book that was written for me, and I expect that other readers will get something different from it.
I have to start out by saying that I love this title (and the cover is nice as well). Every time I would glance over at the title I’d think Right? What a great encapsulation of the lesbian high school experience. (I also had a Facebook friend comment on my Goodreads post that I had finished this book by saying that she thought this was a link to an advice column and was disappointed that she was not actually going to read advice for how a crush should feel. Someone get on that.)
This is a lesbian young adult book about Leila, and Iranian-American girl who goes to a prestigious academy, and she is already fully aware of her own gayness, no one else knows it yet. She isn’t ready to come out to her traditional Iranian parents, but at least her closeted life is made easier by the fact that she’s grown up around most of her classmates and has no romantic interest in any of them. That is, until the new girl show up.
Most of this book I really enjoyed. Leila is a great main character, and because she’s already self-aware of being a lesbian, we great these great mental jokes about being the unknown queer in the group. Typical for YA, this is a really quick read, and even most of the side characters seem developed and interesting. Overall, it didn’t totally blow me away, but it got me to thinking that maybe I’m starting to have more difficulty getting into YA books as I’ve gotten older. I think most teenagers would enjoy this, and I am glad to see YA with a lesbian of colour main character.
Unfortunately, I did have one issue with this book, and it’s a spoiler. Highlight below to read.
It’s funny that one of the minor characters in this book aspires to be a vampire, because Saskia, the initial love interest, seems act like one. I saw the twist coming, but even still, she becomes an almost cartoonish villain. And that’s not entirely unrealistic–I don’t want to say that people like her don’t exist–but it seemed out of place when the rest of the story is more about subtle changes, from Lisa dealing with her grief to Leila finding the strength to slowly come out to a selection of trustworthy people.
I also wondered if Saskia fit into the villainous bisexual trope. Part of Leila’s anger is because, at least in her view, Saskia cheated on her with a guy. (Her best friend, to be precise.) Saskia may identify as straight, but she certaintly plays the role of this villainous bisexual seductress (see the vampire analogy?) This might have been compensated for by Lisa identifying as bi, at least evening out the representation, but although the word “bi” is mentioned in the book, Lisa rejects it, saying she doesn’t want a label. (Which is fine for an individual to say, but bi representation in media has notoriously shied away from actually using the word “bisexual”.)
So I found that part disappointing, and it overshadowed the book for me.