Guest Lesbrarian post by Wendy!

A Gay in the Life of Melinda Finch is a new e-book that is now available on the Amazon Kindle and for general download at Smashwords.

The story is set in downtown Toronto. The main protagonist is Melinda Finch, a woman in her early thirties who can’t win when it comes to relationships. She also has a dead-end job at a small magazine company.

The interesting thing about this book is that Melinda is a heterosexual woman, but by an unexpected twist of fate her boss promotes her to become his new lesbian love advice columnist. He is convinced she is homosexual. Melinda takes the job and must go undercover as a lesbian to try to write a convincing column. Along the way, she meets other lesbians and the result is a zany and hilarious romp of a novel with a surprisingly poignant ending about love.

This novel is a humorous and enjoyable read. The characters are quirky and unpredictable and they grow throughout the span of the book. My favourite character was Bitchy (you’ll have to read it to find out what I’m talking about). In addition, there was good conflict and tension between the characters which added to the plot. Melinda comes off as a pathetic character at some points in the novel, but you just can’t help loving her because she is so zany and funny.

I definitely recommend this book.

Melinda also has a love advice/journal blog at: http://agayinthelifeofmelindafinch.blogspot.com/

Guest reviewed by Wendy, a member of the author’s writing group! Thanks, Wendy!

Kristi reviews Jukebox by Gina Noelle Daggett

Harper Alessi is the little rich girl being raised by her grandparents in Arizona; Grace Dunlop is the precocious English-born debutante. Fast friends from age eleven, Grace and Harper grow even closer as they get older. What’s love got to do with it? Everything.

This is Harper’s story–her story of meeting Grace for the first time in 1984 during tennis camp and of going to private school in Arizona, raised more by her grandparents than her world-traveling parents. Her world revolves around Grace, and most of the time she doesn’t even realize it. Harper knows she loves Grace, and as they pursue college and summer trips together, they finally admit their love for each other. Yet it is a love in denial: of course they love each other, of course they are intimate, but that doesn’t mean they are lesbians!

Or does it? As Harper slowly comes into her own identity, she finally admits the truth of her love. Can she and Grace take that final step to truly be together, or will their own privileged circumstances keep them apart?

Sometimes when a story features rich kid characters, it is hard to get in the mood. The privilege of Grace and Harper’s early years really sets the tone of most of the story. The money, the private school, the lack of financial issues in college, the summer trips abroad. It both scrapes at my nerves with the sense of entitlement that all the characters seem to have from the beginning and makes the story that much more believable when conflicts arise with Grace’s mother and boyfriend, and surrounding Grace’s trust fund.

While the start of Jukebox deals with the back story from their childhood to the fateful evening that Harper declares her love and identity to Grace, the second half of it is set twelve years later, in 2005, as both Harper and Grace deal with the choices and feelings of the past. For me, this was the hardest part of the book to connect with. While some of the underlying feelings are completely believable (who hasn’t pined for a lost love?), the way that Daggett set up and broke various plot lines and characters in the story were rather hard to read without rolling my eyes. I also struggled to feel any empathy for Grace. She reminded me of those brash, assuming men in the Harlequin romances that turn the woman inside out and then say, “Hey, guess what, even though I shredded your heart and disappeared for twelve years, I do love you!” Um, no thank you.

On the plus side, I did connect to Harper’s struggle with her love for Grace and denial of her sexual identity. I also enjoyed Daggett’s scene-setting throughout the years. As a girl of the 80s who loves a working jukebox, that was a big draw for me. It was the songs in the jukebox that let Harper first express herself, from “Lost In Your Eyes” to “I Hate Everything About You.” Chapters are not numbered, instead they are titled with expressive songs through the years. Any woman who has made a mix tape for her love will enjoy the weaving of music through the book.

Gina Noelle Daggett was a 2011 Golden Circle Literary Award finalist as a debut author for Jukebox.

Guest Lesbrarian Orange Sorbet reviews Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult

I know I will be judged for this, but Jodi Picoult is one of my favourite writers. She may not be a favourite of the critics, sure, but she has a huge fanbase nonetheless because people like stories that are plucked from the headlines. Stories that are relevant, stories that matter. Picoult has covered the death penalty (Change of Heart), “test-tube babies” (My Sister’s Keeper), school shootings (Nineteen Minutes), date rape (The Tenth Circle), so on and so forth – so it was really only a matter of time till she came to write about LGB issues.

The trouble with beginnings is that they have to end
Never thought I’d be the girl who said, “Remember when?”

Sing You Home tells the story of Zoe and Max Baxter, an ordinary couple trying for a baby. Their marriage eventually dissolves from the stress, and Zoe finds her way into the arms of another woman, Vanessa, while Max finds solace in an evangelical church that is – surprise! – strongly anti-gay.

There is a lot of ground covered in this book; you could probably label the overarching themes as “religion” and “sexuality” but the heart of the book lies in the finer issues: later-in-life lesbianism, fertility & birth, embryos vs. “pre-born children,” parental/familial support (or lack thereof), religious media grandstanding… the list goes on. It makes for a very compelling read to see how everything comes into play in the lives of the 3 main characters, and Picoult’s skill lies in making us feel for the real, ordinary people at the centre of this maelstrom who never asked for any of it. At the same time, I did also feel that the book was somewhat rushed and touch-and-go at some points, especially when compared to the much slower pace her other novels take. (Then again, this does tie in with the U-Haul lesbian stereotype.)

Picoult does her best to present all sides of the argument fairly, and I did enjoy reading the religious side of things because like anyone else, I am more receptive to words delivered non-threateningly on paper than yelled in my face, even if those words on paper talk about people in the book yelling things in other characters’ faces. The sheer amount of hostility in the Real World would make anyone hesitant to step out from their comfortable bubbles among like-minded folk so it’s always good to have more balanced reads. However, have no doubt that Picoult is firmly in the bleeding-heart liberal camp. Some of her pro-LGB arguments are delivered with the subtlety of a train wreck, and it is immediately apparent that the book slants this way. It might be easy enough for you to figure out how the book ends, but as with any other Picoult book in which plot twists greet you at every bend, don’t presume to know how it’ll get there.

Big Brother’s in my living room, offering critiques
Pastor yells and tells me I should turn the other cheek
Census taker says there is no label for my sin
Doctor’s office will not let me be the next of kin
It’s a different drummer, but still the same old song
What part of this ordinary life is wrong?

I am not a poster child, I am not a cause
I won’t be a scapegoat while you rewrite the laws
I know what makes a family, I don’t need it defined
What’s missing in your life
That makes you take away from mine?

My favourite part of the book is definitely the accompanying original soundtrack written by Picoult’s friend Ellen Wilber, available for download online. (The italicised bits in this review are lyrics and not text excerpts.) Before getting to Sing You Home, I’d read Melissa Etheridge’s The Truth Is…: My Life in Love and Music and thought that that book would be so much better with a soundtrack (for obvious reasons) – and then the next book I chose just so happened to have one! It may sound like a queer concept (pun intended), but Zoe is a music therapist in the book and so the songs actually blend in really well with the text as you follow her journey. You won’t miss out on anything if you choose to give them a pass, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that.

Every life has a soundtrack.

There is a tune that makes me think of the summer I spent rubbing baby oil on my stomach in pursuit of the perfect tan. There’s another that reminds me of tagging along with my father on Sunday mornings to pick up the New York Times. There’s the song that reminds me of using fake ID to get into a nightclub; and the one that brings back my cousin Isobel’s sweet sixteen, where I played Seven Minutes in Heaven with a boy whose breath smelled like tomato soup.

If you ask me, music is the language of memory.

Sing You Home isn’t the most powerful piece of LGBT literature – I’m sorry to say this, but at points it does become pretty clear that it’s written by a straight writer and a couple of tropes I thought were long dead were rehashed in the book – but it’s a good read and, I believe, an important one. Why? Picoult is a popular, respected mainstream writer. People who may have otherwise steered far, far away from these issues will be drawn to this book just because this #1 New York Times bestselling author wrote it, and she deals with it with more sensitivity and respect than I could have ever asked for.

It only seems appropriate then that I end with this: thank you, Jodi Picoult.

We wouldn’t have a future
If I never had a past
You may not be my first love
But you’re gonna be my last

Thank you so much for the review, Orange Sorbet! You can find Orange Sorbet’s blog here, and the original post of this review here.

If you’d like to submit a guest lesbrarian review to the Lesbrary, click here!

 

Guest Lesbrarian Orange Sorbet reviews Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

I am not a fan of purple prose (or anything even slightly resembling it); I much prefer stories being told as they are because I am very much a non-fiction kind of person. I didn’t expect to become a fan of Jeanette Winterson, for she has spoken of her discovery that “plot was meaningless to [her]” and that “[her] love affair was with language, not with what it said.” Neither did I expect to like Written on the Body much when I opened the book and was greeted by this:

I am thinking of a certain September: Wood pigeon Red Admiral Yellow Harvest Orange Night. You said, ‘I love you.’ Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear? ‘I love you’ is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them. I did worship them but now I am alone on a rock hewn out of my own body.

That’s not to say I didn’t like this quote, however. I did. Just a couple of paragraphs down (get the book!) and I was hooked in a way I could not have anticipated, in spite of the run-on sentences and quixotic references. I can’t really describe Winterson’s writing – and I apologise for this, because I realise this is part of the point of reviews – but it is at times sharp and witty, clever and observant, and unfailingly flowery and rich. I might call it self-indulgent, at times, but never quite lyrical; there is an awkward pace to her words, like the words are tumbling out of the narrator rather than flowing as you would expect a love story to. (Perhaps I am mistaken in labelling a “love story,” though, because it is very much more a one-sided narrative that often appears to be about love itself instead of any one particular love.) I will admit that I did skim through some parts, especially the latter part of the book, and I would be perfectly comfortable with it being a hundred pages shorter but I think this is more my impatience and discomfort with decorated prose rather than a fault of the book itself. I can imagine others enjoying this much more than me.

She nodded. ‘When I saw you two years ago I thought you were the most beautiful creature male or female I had ever seen.’

The key twist – or gimmick, if you’re so inclined – of this book is that you know practically nothing of the narrator. In particular, readers are kept guessing at the narrator’s gender and sexuality. I loved this concept, and I loved reading a narrative about love and infatuation and sex without gender thrown in the mix. It was never an issue that took away from the story and was instead a persistent curiosity that kept me turning the pages.

There is something significant I think you must understand before reading this book: because the picture of the narrator is so incomplete, your biases will influence the way you read this book very strongly. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it kind of book, and which side you fall on could change on any given day. I did not for a moment feel that the narrator was anything but female and young – I could’ve imagined it, but I was sure then that I was picking up on a fair bit of misandry and stereotypically youthful foolishness (if I am to be allowed some amount of ageism here) – but I have heard of those who thought otherwise. Experiments with gender aside, this is still a love narrative first and foremost and one of the most intense, obsessive kind, nonetheless: I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it if I were feeling particularly alone or nauseated by coupledom (see: Valentine’s Day). You will be, after all, essentially listening to someone go on and on about a newfound love interest, albeit with more fluency and fluorish than I’m sure your real life infatuated friends can manage in their varying states of enamour. Finally, if you are conservative, or maybe just squeamish? Stay far, far away.

All in all, I would definitely recommend reading this book. It’s not for everyone, but I’d say it’s worth a read because it’s different and something that you might just enjoy exploring.

In bereavement books they tell you to sleep with a pillow pulled down beside you. […] Who writes these books? Do they really think, those quiet concerned counsellors, that two feet of linen-bound stuffing will assuage a broken heart? I don’t want a pillow I want your moving breathing flesh. I want you to hold my hand in the dark, I want to roll on to you and push myself into you. When I turn in the night the bed is continent-broad. There is endless space where you won’t be.

Thank you so much for the review, Orange Sorbet! You can find Orange Sorbet’s blog here, and the original post of this review here.

If you’d like to submit a guest lesbrarian review to the Lesbrary, click here!

Guest Lesbrarian Rie reviews The Chelsea Whistle

Previous to reading The Chelsea Whistle, I’d attempted a memoir by a smothered-but-privileged writer. This history of Tea’s youth soared where that failed.

It’s all those adjectives given to books that end up written by a mom in the midwest–raw, gritty, real, hopeful–but this one’s real. It’s the brutality of childhood that we all experience, the confusion of adolescence, the disillusionment of young adulthood. It’s climbing into a forbidden creek and seeking validation from a psychic teahouse in Boston, neon costumes and pop-punk anthems that give you a glimpse of a world beyond Chelsea, a string of loser boyfriends before convincing yourself that you’ve fallen in love with the most beautiful flapper-girl-artist ever, a bad high at the first Lollapalooza, rejecting and then uniting with your sister over shared abuse. The end has been construed as depressing by some, but it’s not, when you realize this is only the beginning of her life in print. (It continues with The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, Rent Girl,  and Valencia).

So beautiful and ugly that it hurts, Tea’s memoir is for those who want a true slice of life, a coming-of-age of a queer feminist force of nature.

Thanks, Rie! You can find more of her reviews at friendofdorothywilde.blogspot.com!

Guest Lesbrarian Orange Sorbet reviews Unbearable Lightness by Portia De Rossi

I thought Teri Hatcher’s Burnt Toast: And Other Philosophies of Life had poisoned celebrity autobiographies for me forever, but when I first heard of Portia’s Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, I knew I had to get it. (This may or may not have had to do with how cute I think she is.) I had simultaneously high and low hopes for this book — high because of all the hype surrounding it, which I suppose is only natural when the author’s one half of the most famous lesbian couple and probably on Oprah’s speed-dial; and low because this still is a book written by an unproven author, after all.

In Unbearable Lightness, Portia details her struggles with eating disorders and her sexuality. As mentioned in her interviews, she wrote it from the “perspective of a sick person” and so most of the book tracks her intense obsession with weight loss and increasingly extreme behaviour until she reaches an all-time low of 82 pounds (about 37kg).

I decided not to eat the egg whites. I didn’t need them. As they slid off the plate and into the trash, I felt a surge of adrenaline. I felt invincible, powerful. Not eating them was incredibly difficult and by not eating them I had just proven to myself that I was stronger than my basic instincts, that I could deny them. I wouldn’t give in to the desire to eat, because after all, isn’t that what fat people do? They give in to desire? They know they shouldn’t eat the brownie, but they just can’t help themselves.

What immediately struck me was how readable the memoir was. When writing about mental illnesses in particular, I believe, authors have to work doubly hard to have their readers empathise with being in a position most people aren’t usually sympathetic to while at the same time avoid writing a piece that is excessively intense or triggering. Let’s put it this way: when dealing with someone with depression, people instinctively think, “Why can’t you just be happy? It’s not that hard.” Portia deftly brings her readers into the mindset of an anorexic/bulimic without overwhelming them, and the overall effect is that you get a story about a life you will never experience — and never hope to — but with a person in the middle of it whose battles you can strongly relate to.

As Portia’s weight steadily decreases, the narrative alternates between her life in Hollywood (particularly on the set of Ally McBeal, the show which catapulted her to fame) and her childhood in Australia. She tells the story of how a desperate desire to constantly remake herself pushed her to change her name on a whim at age 15 — Portia de Rossi was actually born Amanda Lee Rogers — and to ditch her “perfectly worn black leather engineers’ boots” in favour of more feminine Capri pants and high heels years later as she faced celebrity-dom.

The story of her sexuality, or more specifically, her quest to hide and/or deny it, is interwoven with her life with EDs. While I did find that this issue sometimes felt forced and didn’t quite gel with the rest of the narrative, I don’t think the memoir would be complete without it because there is no doubt in my mind that having to hide such a big part of yourself would have an incredibly destructive effect on your sense of self, leaving you particularly vulnerable to things like EDs. Also, it leaves for some pretty brilliant I-like-other-girls-but-I’m-not-a-lesbian anecdotes, and there’s of course the beautiful irony that she constantly looked to Ellen DeGeneres as an example of why she couldn’t afford to come out as a lesbian and… well.

My girlfriend had to be heterosexual because I didn’t want to be a lesbian. If she was heterosexual, then it suggested that I was also heterosexual. Also, I was scared of lesbians. In fact, I would cross the street if I saw one coming toward me. One time I didn’t cross the street and I ended up sleeping with a lesbian because I felt sorry for her. She had just lost her girlfriend in a car accident and I was devastated for her. Nothing sounded worse to me than losing your girlfriend; that the one precious connection that you had made in your whole life was gone, wasted, lost in a car wreck. It sounded so much worse to me than a wife losing her husband — it was worse than anything. I found this woman to be quite unattractive. She was overweight and had a shaved head and facial piercings. But I had to sleep with her. It was only polite.

N.B. I would like to know exactly how she identifies those lesbians coming down the street, because I really suck at that. And while it does sound like Portia may have been conned into believing a sob story so that aforementioned lesbian could get into her pants, Ellen actually had a girlfriend who died in a car accident when she was 21.

The only gripe I have about the book is that at the end of it, I still felt there were a fair number of loose ends that needed to be tied up. She mentions her father quite a bit both in the book and her interviews and it is evident that his death when she was a child severely impacted her (naturally), but I don’t know what kind of father he was or what their relationship was like. (In contrast, I found the portrayal of her mother as a figure of many contradictions — nurturing but pressurising, caring but also careless — amazingly realistic.) This might be a minor point but I would also have liked to know more about Bean, her dog who was her sole companion for many years. Most significantly, the book is a lot more about “loss” than it is about “gain,” and there is very little about her recovery.

To be frank, if it weren’t for Portia’s name and fame — or perhaps more accurately, Ellen’s — this (audio)book would not be #1 on iTunes. It probably wouldn’t hit any bestsellers list; it is not particularly insightful, clever, or even especially original. It is honest, though, and it is that refreshing straightforwardness that kept me turning the pages. I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend this book, but it’s definitely worth a read.

Thank you so much for the review, Orange Sorbet! You can find Orange Sorbet’s blog here, and the original post of this review (complete with adorable pictures of Portia) here.

If you’d like to submit a guest lesbrarian review to the Lesbrary, click here!

Guest Lesbrarian Orange Sorbet reviews Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

When this novel was published in 1952, it was Controversial with the Capital and thus, naturally, immensely popular. Patricia Highsmith – apparently a pretty renowned author but not a particularly likable personality – wrote it under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan” and denied having anything to do with the book until much later on in life, when it was revealed that it was based extensively on her own personal experiences. It’s toted as dark and mysterious, and said to bear uncanny resemblance to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita – and it came first. Recipe for a perfect lesbian-themed book? I thought so.

Here’s the catch: I read it in 2010-2011 (seriously, I read it over New Year’s Eve), not 1952. I liked the book but I wasn’t enamoured by it.

…while we’re talking about enamour, though, let’s get to the good stuff first:

Carol kissed her on the lips, and pleasure leaped in Therese again. […] Her arms were tight around Carol, and she was conscious of Carol and nothing else. And then her body too seemed to vanish in widening circles that leaped further and further, beyond where thought could follow.

(I have to admit I didn’t choose this excerpt on my own – usually I would, but I’ve returned the book to the library so I just googled this.) Highsmith’s prose is powerful and elegant and I don’t only mean this in reference to the lovemaking scenes like above; I particularly liked her descriptions of the setting and the general feel of the book. New York in 2011 is charismatic and alluring, but New York in 1952 is downright sexy.

What I felt was lacking was character development, which is a pretty key element in any book but especially one that’s centred on just two individuals. (I know this sounds somewhat contradictory, but you can have powerful prose without similarly powerful plot progression, as anyone who’s read the original Frankenstein can attest to.) The premise of the characters is interesting enough – inexperienced but already cynical 19-year-old paired with a tired but not quite jaded middle-aged woman – and as I pieced together bits of their stories throughout the book it’s evident that they aren’t your usual lesbian clichés, but at no point did either Therese or Carol become real to me. I was especially frustrated by the lack of build-up to their relationship, because while I could understand (somewhat) why they’d be attracted to each other based on their lots in life, I felt like it was more my own filling-in-the-blanks rather than a narrative that was presented to me. I figure more emotional aspects of their story might have been glossed over in consideration of the era in which the book was written, maybe, because it is not altogether uncommon for characters in books of yesteryear to fall in love for no discernible reason. Nonetheless, I can’t say I didn’t care for the characters: I interrupted my pseudo-New Year’s celebrations to “see if my lesbians get a happy ending.” (Chances are if you’ve read about this book anywhere you’ll know the answer to this, but I didn’t and I try my best to write spoiler-free reviews so I won’t give it away.)

I have to admit that at the end of it, I’m still left in the dark as to why the book is called The Price of Salt. I know it’s mentioned a couple of times in the book but there appears to be no significant meaning to it and I can’t find a satisfactory explanation online either. (The actual price of salt, by the way, is not as easy to determine as you’d think.) This was, to me, quite a waste because it’s an intriguing title and it’s a big part of the reason I chose to read this book.

By way of coming-of-age lesbian novels, I’d still say that Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet takes the cake and then some but The Price of Salt is still an interesting piece in its own right. You’d also have to take my opinion with a heap of salt here because I haven’t actually read that many coming-of-age lesbian novels. This book would probably be better appreciated if actually read in the 20th century as intended, but there’s nothing any of us can do about that eh?

Thank you so much for the review, Orange Sorbet! You can find Orange Sorbet’s blog here, and the original post of this review here.

If you’d like to submit a guest lesbrarian review to the Lesbrary, click here!

Guest Lesbrarian Shanna

This is a new author who has written a beautiful take on the Cinderella story, with a twist.

Ash’s mother is dead, and, following in the tradition of almost all Disney movies, epic poems, and fairy tales, her father dies soon after.  She’s left at the mercy of her stepmother, forced to clean and look after her stepsisters: all events that closely follow the original Cinderella.  Ash absorbs herself in a single book of fairy tales her mother bequeathed her, and spends all her time searching the woods for a fairy troupe that is rumored to connect people with their dead loved ones.

Wait, the good part’s coming: Ash soon becomes torn between the fairy Sidhean and his dark promises to reunite her with her mother, and Kaisa, the Queen’s Huntress.  When Kaisa and Ash meet in the woods one day, something within Ash changes.  Ash and and Kaisa fall in love in a natural and charming way.  However, Ash still must reckon with Sidhean and his claim on her.

Ash’s world:

Fans of fairy tales will enjoy the book.  I was not necessarily a fan of the unwieldy triangulated relationship between Ash, Kaisa and Sidhean, but I really loved the dark, slightly creepy, slightly sad feeling to the book.

If you’re looking for a light fantasy read, try it out.

Lo, Malinda. Ash. Little & Brown: New York, 2009. 272 pp. ISBN: 0316040096

 

Thank you to Shanna for this Guest Lesbrarian review! Check out her book blog, Fortitude and Patience.

Also see Emily’s Guest Lesbrarian review of Ash.

If you’d like to do a Guest Lesbrarian review, shoot me an email!

Guest Lesbrarian: Stefanie

This guest lesbrarian post is brought to you by Stefanie and was originally posted at Elevate Difference. Thank you so much, Stefanie!

Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s The Big Bang Symphony begins with one big bang and ends with another. A plane crashes on its way to McMurdo Station on Antarctica while carrying several of the continent’s summer residents, including Rosie Moore and Mikala Wilbo, two of the three female protagonists of the story. Everyone survives except for one unnamed woman; we find that her death and the crash subsequently inform the lives of the main characters, as we follow Rosie, Mikala, and Alice Neilson as they attempt to carry out their respective work on “the Ice.”

Each woman has come to Antarctica in search of something: for Rosie, a constant traveler with strained family relations, it is money toward the purchase of her first stable home; for Mikala, a renowned up-and-coming composer, it is a father she never really knew and an escape from the grief still following her after her partner’s death three years prior; for Alice, a geologist and the youngest among them, it is evidence that the earth has survived previous global warmings and will continue to do so. Each search revolves around at least one man in the characters’ lives, though the women’s burgeoning relationships with each other come to dominate and fortify one another in achieving their separate quests.

Rosie makes a strong impression on Mikala in the aftermath of the plane crash and ignites her romantic, sexual, and musical interests. Mikala cannot get Rosie out of her mind, even as she struggles each day to write the first music she has composed since her partner’s death. Rosie, in the meantime, becomes obsessed with one man, all too married, and distracts herself with another. Alice, committed on several levels to her advisor, finds herself pushed beyond her comfort zone and begins to emotionally react in ways she has never let herself do before. When an emergency strikes, the women are tested and find themselves opening up to experiences that had previously challenged them, causing them to change in a setting hostile to most growth.

The reader will quickly find that Bledsoe’s choice of setting—the gorgeous, yet deadly landscape of Antarctica—figures as a main character in and of itself rather than simply as a background against which the action of the novel plays out. Indeed, it is the ways in which the characters live on and with such an inhumane environment that propels each to reach out to one another to attempt to accomplish their goals and survive the short, harsh summer at the South Pole. Bledsoe consistently, if occasionally awkwardly, imbues each chapter of the novel with the themes of life and death, music, travel, and the relationship between an individual and the cosmos.

The Big Bang Symphony was a compelling read from the start, save perhaps the initial chapters written from Alice’s perspective, which can be frustrating in terms of her double devotion to both her mother and to the fastidious nature of science. Rosie’s and Mikala’s stories easily make up for this, however, and as Alice comes into her own on Antarctica, I soon found her narrative equally complex and interesting. In Rosie, Mikala, and Alice, Bledsoe clearly created characters who never would have met had it not been for the coincidence of living on the Ice together; their obvious differences make their incipient and meaningful friendship all the more captivating over the course of the story.

If you’d like to submit a guest lesbrarian post, email me at danikaellis@gmail.com

Joint review: Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon

If you haven’t read one of my joint review posts, this is how it goes: me and another blogger both read pick a lesbian book to read at the same time, then we discuss it, either through instant messages or by email. Anna from the feminist librarian read Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon with me, though I’m very late in posting our conversation. I mark for spoilers, so highlight if you’d like to read them, or head over to the feminist librarian for the uncensored version.

Anna: As a starter question, I’d be interested to know what you thought about the way Bannon portrays her character’s discovery of her same-sex desires (especially the way it is mediated to some extent by her mentor/roommate). It was an interesting contrast to the way the girls in our YA novels came to terms with their sexual orientation — primarily through their interaction with other girls and their own internal self-reflections.

Danika: You’re right, Beebo Brinker does explore a different way of coming to terms with her sexuality. It reminds me of the Well of Loneliness-style inversion theory of lesbianism, because she seems to really see her own (masculine) body as almost dictating her sexuality, and femme lesbians in this book, too, seem to be at least a little bit doubted, or seen as less queer. Beebo seems to discover her sexuality because of her appearance, not so much in relation to other people, which is interesting from a modern perspective, because we’ve really been trying to separate sexuality from gender identity. These earlier novels don’t do that, and it’s hard to separate a character’s gender identity from their sexuality, especially since they don’t even have the vocabulary for it.

The roommate is interesting, too, because it offers another instance of queer community, which has had different portrayals in the joint reviews I’ve done. Beebo Brinker has a primarily positive portrayal of community, with Beebo’s roommate as a mentor and guide, but it may also be because her roommate was a gay man, and therefore wasn’t directly competition…?

Anna: I think you’re right about Beebo (the character) being written in a way that signals her sexual orientation through her gender identity. That is, she’s a tomboy therefore she’s going to be gay and like girls sexually. There’s a fancy term for that concept of gender and sexual identity that I’m completely blanking on right now, but basically it’s a way of mapping sexual orientation onto the binary system of gender so that lesbian women = masculine (male-identified) and gay men = feminine (female-identified). This even turns up in science — like actual scientific theories — about brain chemistry. The assumption is that the brains of lesbian women will be organized more like the brains of straight men than they will straight women. That was an assumption that was pretty popular in the mid-twentieth century (and still is today). I imagine Anne Bannon didn’t even notice she was making those assumptions when she wrote the character. Whereas to us they’re glaringly obviously and seem clunky and stereotypical.

The other thing that’s stirred into the mix, although Bannon doesn’t come out and use these terms (at least not that I remember) is the butch/femme subculture of the pre-Stonewall era. We still have butch/femme as a subculture today, but it’s only part of the much larger queer community. From what I understand, the lesbian subculture of mid-century America was pretty saturated with butch/femme identities and role-playing. Even if you didn’t necessarily feel comfortable with either of those roles, you sort of had to pick one in order to situate yourself within the lesbian subculture. I’m probably overgeneralizing … but as I was reading Beebo I did think of that, and about the way in which Beebo is set up from the beginning as a masculine-identified lesbian, whereas her lovers are all female-identified.

And at least two of them (as you point out) are bi- or fluid (in today’s terminology) … the femme fatale whose name I’m temporarily forgetting and Venus, the film actress. Paula, from what I remember, is pretty confirmed in her interest exclusively in women, and seems interested in both femme women and butch women. So there aren’t necessarily any hard and fast rules in Bannon’s literary world about butch women only dating femme women, or vice versa. But there does seem to be a fairly firm … shall we call it a “typology” of lesbians being outlined in the novel? It sort of reads as an identification guide in places. For young lesbians in New York: here are your options!

Placing so much emphasis on Beebo’s appearance and on other people reading her as a dyke even before she herself is consciously aware of her same-sex desires is in some ways distinctly at odds with our present-day understanding of sexual orientation — that it is something which we know from within ourselves, and that we each have the right to self-identify our orientation and gender. On the other hand, the willingness of outsiders to identify Beebo as queer is certainly a phenomenon that’s alive and well in our culture — both among the queer subculture and within the mainstream population. We still very much read gender as a mark of sexual orientation even if we distance ourselves from that sort of conflation of sex and gender. As much as we like to say we’re beyond assuming that queer people fit certain stereotypes, we still enjoy (as a culture) crowing “we knew it all along!” when someone who’s gender-nonconforming turns out to be queer, and, conversely, expressing our disbelief when someone who is very gender-conforming comes out as a person with same-sex inclinations.

While gay men didn’t figure so heavily in the novel, what did you think of the way Jack and his boyfriends were portrayed? Do you see similarities and/or differences between the portrayal of lesbian identity and gay male identity in the novel?

Danika: Yes, it’s funny how that theory seems to carry through that seriously flawed theory from the ’20s to the ’60s. And you’re right, we’re still seeing traces of that. Gender identity and sexuality continue to be tangled together, and that’s with our attempts to separate the two. Beebo Brinker was also still in the early days of lesbian literature/pulp, when you couldn’t really have cliches, because there wasn’t enough to compare to. In those days, that assumption didn’t need to be explained: it seemed like common sense. It definitely doesn’t look that way from 2011, though.

I definitely saw some underlying butch/femme dynamics in Beebo Brinker. Again, it just seemed like common sense at that point, I think. Beebo was really aligned more with straight men, so of course she’d want a feminine woman. That was the standard for lesbian pulp, from what I remember. They tended to put two very feminine women on the covers, but the stories inside would be strictly butch/femme. It sort of suggests that they found it difficult to really wrap their heads around same-gender relationships, and would therefore try to slot it into heterosexual frameworks. Of course, butch/femme relationships in reality are rarely mere imitation of heterosexual relationships (they have great potential to challenge and subvert heterosexual norms), but the fact that they didn’t seem to be able to imagine a same-sex relationship that wasn’t butch/femme seems to suggest that lesbian pulp tried to imitate.

Hmmm, you’re right that there were some bi/fluid/pansexual/who-can-really-assign-a-sexuality-to-a-fictional-character characters, but weren’t those characters portrayed fairly badly? The femme fatale (I’m blanking, too) is clearly a villain and Venus [spoiler-ish] seems to be trying to get the best of both worlds: to hold onto a husband for security but still go out looking for women [end spoiler]. It doesn’t seem to be a very positive portrayal of bisexuality.

I think femme/femme relationships are touched on, but I don’t think we saw any butch/butch ones. I think in that era butches were more common, but femmes were more desirable in the bar world? So a femme dating a femme would be fine, but according to that ranking system, a butch wouldn’t want to be with a butch? Maybe I’m reading in terrible messages that aren’t really there at this point.

There’s definitely a “The Lesbian Guide to Lesbians in NY” aspect to it. In fact, apparently lesbian pulp pushed that a lot: Greenwich Village was painted as this almost mythical, utopian place for queer people, where you could find your community and a partner and be accepted. It supposedly encouraged a lot of women (like Beebo) to leave their hometown and go on this pilgrimage to Greenwich.

I think it’s the that order is reversed in our current conception of gender/sexual identity versus appearance. For Beebo, her appearance determined and shaped her gender and sexual identity, whereas now we think of people are expressing their gender/sexual identity through their appearance. I say gender and sexual identity because there are many ways to be read as lesbian (or gay or queer) through appearance: shaving one side of your head, or having short hair, or wearing rainbow accessories, etc. Gender expression through appearance is pretty obvious.

“As much as we like to say we’re beyond assuming that queer people fit certain stereotypes, we still enjoy (as a culture) crowing ‘we knew it all along!’ when someone who’s gender-nonconforming turns out to be queer, and, conversely, expressing our disbelief when someone who is very gender-conforming comes out as a person with same-sex inclinations.”

I agree completely. I’m not particularly femme (more a T-shirt/hoodie and jeans sort of person), but I’m far from butch, so I get a lot of disbelief when I come out, even to fellow queers. It gets old fast.

Jack as a character is positive: he’s sympathetic and seems real. As a representation of gay men, though, I’m not sure. He likes younger men, he takes in vulnerable people (which is kind, but also puts that person in a difficult spot, if he’s attracted to them), and [spoiler-ish] he doesn’t seem to be able to have a long-term relationship [end spoiler]. It’s odd, because he’s neither the stereotype of the white picket fence gay guy who’s been in a relationship for decades and had a kid, etc, or the stereotype of the complete sleeping around gay guy. He falls in love and he takes his relationships seriously, but they’re short. And they’re usually with younger, vulnerable men. I’m really not sure how I feel about it. What did you think?

Anna: Whew! Lots of good thoughts. I’ll try to take them in order.

On the subject of the prevelence of butch/femme dynamics in lesbian pulp specfically, I was thinking as I read about the tension between writing sexually-explicit lesbian stories for a lesbian audience, and writing novels that would get passed the censors … and which might possibly have a cross-over audience? I have no idea if lesbian-themed novels had any non-lesbian readers (i.e. straight men), the way girl-on-girl porn has today. But that might be one reason why constructing lesbian sex in a basically hetero fashion might be a selling point. And the same thing for the covers which show feminine women, regardless of the narratives inside them.

Reading Beebo has definitely made me interested in learning more about the history of lesbian pulps and the role they had in both queer and straight culture during the mid-twentieth century.

I agree with you that the bisexual (or similar; the labels were different back then) characters were depicted pretty shabbily in the narrative. This seems to me like an ongoing tension within lesbian subculture … that is, who “counts” as lesbian or whose sexual desires for women are legitimate (and why). We saw this to a lesser extent in the two previous books we’ve reviewed — both of which were coming out / coming-of-age narratives dealing with adolescents. Although Beebo is (I think?) a teenager, age eighteen or nineteen, she’s on her own with a job and everything — not a highschoolers, the way the girls in Annie on My Mind and Hello, Groin! are.

I felt like the character of Jack was even more of a charicature than the women in the story — he’s there as Beebo’s guide/mentor but his personality sort of melds with Greenwich Village. He’s a stereotype: “Gay Man of the 1950s” rather than a fleshed out character, I thought. Almost a metaphor for gay life in New York as it’s portrayed in popular culture? Less of a person than a literary trope.

I’m curious what you thought of the sex scenes in Beebo? I was particularly charmed by the first scene between Beebo and [spoiler] Paula [end spoiler], which actually read like it was written by someone who has had and enjoys lesbian sex! It was one of the scenes in which the butch/femme dynamic seems the least present, actually. Thoughts?

Danika: Yes, lesbian pulp was definitely aimed at a straight male audience in much the same way as girl-on-girl porn is now. Most lesbian pulp was written by straight men. And as for censors, lesbian pulp fiction (and gay pulp fiction and other queer pulp fiction) had to, by the end of the book, be read as condemning this behaviour in order to slip past the censors. Hence the usual story of one or both of the lesbian dying or going crazy or straight. [spoiler-ish] I guess Beebo Brinker was a later pulp, and that’s how it got away with a fairly happy ending? [end spoiler] [spoiler for Price of Salt] The Price of Salt was the first pulp with a happy ending (though I didn’t find it particularly happy, since I wasn’t a big fan of the relationship), and it was written in 1952, so I guess by the time Beebo Brinker was written it was more acceptable. [end spoiler] I do find pulp fascinating, not to mention entertaining in a totally over-the-top ridiculous way. I guess I can laugh at it now because I personally never had to deal with it being the main portrayal of lesbians, which would make it less funny.

That’s true, there does seem to be a sort of policing of the boundary around the label “lesbian” and who counts as a real lesbian. It reminds me of the inversion theory view of lesbians in Well of Loneliness and others, which looked down on feminine lesbians as not being as legitimate as butch lesbians in a similar way that bisexual/fluid characters don’t seem to be seen as legitimate in Beebo Brinker. I wonder if this has shifted in a different way in modern times, with the greater acknowledgement of trans* identities. I wonder if this policing takes place in the opposite way now, in which masculine lesbians may be seen as trans*, and therefore not “real” “legitimate” lesbians? I really am just wondering, because I have no idea if that is true, or if the same standards of femmes = not lesbian enough hold today. Or if maybe the label has gotten even narrower. I’m not sure. I think it probably depends on the community. Well, that was a bit of a tangent.

Beebo is supposed to be a teenager/young adult, yes, but I think we see a very different view of youth in Beebo Brinker than in Annie On My Mind or Hello, Groin. These more recent teen lesbian books seem to view being a young adult as a continuation of childhood. AOMM, especially, seemed to conceptualize the characters as being quite young and childish. In Beebo Brinker, and I think it’s probably a reflection of the time period, Beebo is really a young adult. She is an independent adult, though she is new to the situation. Of course, that might also be because she has struck out on her own and is not living with her parent. I’m not sure which direction causation is there.

That does make sense. I can definitely see how Jack is a personification of Greenwich Village.

I would hypothesize that the sex scenes in pulp are probably the easiest way to see whether the book was written by a Real Live Lesbian who has actually had sex with another women rather than a straight man who’s just imagining it. The sex scenes did seem quite sweet and without any troublesome power dynamics, from what I can remember. They just seemed to explore each other, which is refreshing. I also found it interesting that they contrasted each other’s bodies (I can’t remember which part of the book this was, though). Often in scenes of lesbian sex, there are descriptions of how similar the partners are, but in Beebo Brinker, Beebo’s body is seen as… not exactly male, but definitely masculine. So their bodies are seen as complementary, not identical. I’m still not sure how I feel about that (inversion theory peeking through again?), but it was sort of refreshing in that scene.

I think I’ll leave it to you to wrap it up, if that’s okay? I think we’ve given it a pretty good look. I really like doing these joint reviews with you; they always make me see new things in the books. Thanks again for the great discussion!

Anna: “I would hypothesize that the sex scenes in pulp are probably the easiest way to see whether the book was written by a Real Live Lesbian who has actually had sex with another women rather than a straight man who’s just imagining it.”

I like the way you put this, and couldn’t agree more! Even in non-pulp fiction, I’ve read “lesbian” sex scenes in fiction written by people who clearly have no idea how women make love. It’s embarrassing to read! And indicative of how little folks in general seen to understand about women’s sexuality and women’s bodies. I often wonder if gay men have the same frustration when reading about sex between men written by non-queer authors?

Yes, I think we have plenty for a post! Thanks to you, as well, for taking the time during your midwinter break to have this conversation, even though we were both a bit rusty on the details of the book.

If you’d like to do a joint review, even if you’re not a book blogger, feel free to email me and set one up!