Casey reviews Licking the Spoon by Candace Walsh


Candace Walsh’s book, Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity, had me from the very first page, which features a sensual description of making seafood-mushroom risotto in a steamy, cramped New York apartment kitchen.  Right off the bat, Walsh displays her talent for evoking rich, palpable settings, and she continues to do so throughout the memoir, drawing full, memorable pictures of childhood homes in Long Island, sketchy college apartments in Buffalo, and airy, open New Mexico kitchens bathed in sunlight.  Food, of course, is central to each of these places and the different times in Walsh’s life.  Although Danika is right when she writes in her review that the memoir is less about food than food is an ongoing theme, Walsh very effectively uses food as a lens through which to examine and explore her life’s ups and downs.

For example, she manages to make even the most bare bones pea soup recipe appealing, clearly because the recipe was learnt from her straight college roommate, for whom she experienced a pining, unrequited love.  The soup, comprised of only peas, onion, water, and salt and pepper, has a kind of spiritual cleanliness and simplicity that Walsh was yearning for at that time in her life.  It’s also at this period that Walsh discovers the vegetarian cookbook writer Mollie Katzen’s books, which inspire her to this brilliant vision of “an orderly yet creative life”:

“I could wake up, do a series of yoga poses in my tidy, spacious bedroom, drink herbal tea in my kitchen, eat homemade yogurt and granola for breakfast, and ride my bicycle to campus, where my assignments would be complete in a satchel and my classmates would wonder about me, a mysterious human being who was winsomely beautiful and smelled faintly of lemon verbena and lavender.  I couldn’t have been further from that persona.”

The clincher, of course, is the last sentence.  There’s something about this idealistic dream of being a well-adjusted, serene person everyone admires that I deeply identified with.  You know in your heart of hearts that it’s unreasonable and unobtainable, and that it’s not even really you, but the hope persists.  This is a lot of what Walsh’s journey is about, actually: that convoluted route to a person and a life that is healthy, and good, and that feels right for you.  Part of this is her discovering her queer sexuality, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle.  In her review on AfterEllen, Jill Guccini aptly describes what else is going on: “the complex ties of family, … the sometimes cruel world of childhood and the demons that haunt the people you love the most … all those things you’re supposed to do once you finally escape the bubble of home: the alcohol, the drugs, and the exhausting career building in New York City in your 20s, struggling to find a worthy partner who won’t repeat the faults in your heritage.”

Somewhere amidst all these external happenings of her life, which also include disordered eating and emotional and sometimes physical abuse, Walsh makes her way towards a life that is finally the right fit for her.  I found the explanation of her decision to exclusively pursue women as romantic and sexual partners fascinating.  Indeed, for most of the book Walsh dates men, although there are hints of her Sapphic inclinations throughout.  The prologue actually disguises the gender of the person she has a crush on, who is attending a dinner at Walsh’s house while her husband is away at work.  I bet there were some straight people who picked up this book who were surprised to find out how much queer content was in it.  Anyway, I always appreciate hearing stories about women’s sexual identity that have a different narrative other than I’ve-known-since-I-was-five-and-have-always-been-100%-lesbian.  I think it’s really important to talk about the grey areas and actual queer women’s experiences.  Too often women coming out don’t feel that their experiences are reflected in cultural narratives of queerness (this happens, I think, because gay men’s experiences dominate these narratives) and then they feel somehow ‘inauthentically’ lesbian or queer.  I know I did.  Anyway, this is Walsh’s description of her sexuality (fittingly, she uses a really effective food metaphor):

“I loved sex with women way more than sex with men.  It wasn’t a stretch, or stressful, or a chore, or a performance … That’s not to say that I looked back and saw my sexual history with men as a disappointment.  I pursued, wooed, loved, and savoured men.  I just didn’t realize how much more there was to enjoy.  If you spend your whole life eating pork chops and applesauce with sauerkraut, you have no idea how much you prefer pork served with a mole of cacao nibs, six kinds of chilies, cinnamon, anise, cloves, coriander, ground almonds, pumpkin seeds, and garlic … until you try it.  I still found men attractive.  But all I wanted from even the most compelling man I saw was a really good hug.  The last man I had a crush on before I met Celine was Greek; he hailed from Lesbos.  I was on a track, all right.”

There’s a lot to love and savor in Licking the Spoon.  It’s the kind of honest, compelling memoir that makes you realize that most so-called ordinary peoples’ lives are actually quite extraordinary.  It’s a book that also makes you think that your very own life might be worthy of a memoir as well.

Casey reviews Y: The Last Man


You’d probably expect there to be never-ending lesbian action in a science-fiction series that imagines a post-apocalyptic world where all mammals with XY chromosomes have suddenly and en masse dropped dead.  In the Y: The Last Man graphic novels, though, the women have a lot of other important things to do—you, know, like making sure humanity doesn’t die out entirely and all.  Also, they need to figure out why one single cisgender man and his pet male monkey have somehow survived this mysterious plague.  Ironically, the “last man on earth” is kind of a loser: an unemployed English major named Yorick (after the character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet) who’s an amateur escape artist.  His adventurous anthropologist girlfriend Beth is half way around the world in Australia while he’s back in the US when all the men die; for most of the series Yorick is obsessed with trying to find her, despite the fact that his life may hold the key for the survival of the human species and he needs to be doing other things.

Along for the journey with Yorick are two really amazing, dynamic, flawed characters.  One is Dr. Allison Mann (or “doc” to her two traveling companions), a geneticist and scientific genius who’s cynical and sarcastic and hilarious; she was definitely my favourite character.  She also happens to be a lesbian—as in, she actually identified as queer before the plague, after which women don’t really have any other options.  I appreciated a few things about how the books dealt with Allison’s sexuality: one) the fact that she’s a lesbian is definitely not the main focus of her identity; two) she’s Asian-American and I’m always pleased to see complex queer characters of colour in fiction; three) her gender probably falls under what I’d call chapstick femme and in comparison to other characters’ more masculine genders, I thought it was an unconventional and interesting choice to establish her as the self-assured lesbian.  Later on in the series, Allison gets a really awesome girlfriend who’s an Australian pirate/sailor with an eyepatch.  For serious.


The choice to make Allison gay is especially remarkable in comparison to the other member of the series’s trio, a government secret service agent whose real name is never revealed.  Known as “agent 355” or three-fifty to Yorick and Allison, she’s a no-nonsense, super tough butch African-American woman who pretty much kicks ass (literally) the entire series.  It was quite the twist, actually, to find out that Allison is a lesbian and 355 isn’t (happily, this doesn’t stop 355 from a bit of Sapphic dabbling though).  At one point she utters this brilliant line: “I am so goddamn tired of killing people.”  The evolution of her character is quite fascinating, as you watch her slowly form emotional attachments to Yorick and the doc, whom it’s her duty to protect as they travel the world.  Both women, actually, begin the journey relatively emotionally closed-off, for various reasons in their past that the comics explore through flashbacks.

If you enjoy stories that feature lots of action and tough, hot women kicking ass and saying ‘fuck’ a lot, this is definitely a graphic series for you.  Actually, if you like that kind of thing you’ve likely already read this (and own a copy of the movie Tank Girl like me).  But I think Y: The Last Man would also appeal to readers who wouldn’t say action and violence are their thing, or folks who wouldn’t call themselves comics fans.  Although its gender politics aren’t perfect—or rather, I wouldn’t say I always found it to be in line with my brand of feminism—Y: The Last Man opens up a really interesting dialogue about gender.  Namely, if you think a world made up of women is going to peaceful and loving and that women can’t be power-hungry or greedy or violent or cruel or militaristic, this book is a strong argument to the contrary.  In other words, patriarchal values don’t die with the men.

Some of the phenomena of the post-plague world are really fascinating.  For example, there’s an extremist so-called feminist cult who call themselves the Amazons who think mother earth exterminated men because she realized creating them in the first place was a mistake.  They basically go around burning down sperm banks and killing women who don’t agree with them/make the mistake of mourning men they loved.  Other women discover a new brand of sex work, cross-dressing as men and sleeping with (formerly) heterosexual women.  The what-if world of Y: The Last Man raises some intriguing questions about the nature of sexual orientation: are straight women still straight with no men around?  Are they some kind of situational lesbians now?  After a period of time of being necessarily queer, would these women be as heterosexual as they had been in the past if men somehow came back?  There’s a surprisingly romantic pairing at the end of the series (between two previously hetero women) that especially brought up these kinds of questions for me.

One thing I would have liked to have seen addressed more is trans issues.  The fact that trans men are still around (because they don’t have XY chromosomes) is mentioned occasionally and there’s one particularly bad-ass character who’s on a revenge mission because the Amazons, thinking he somehow managed to escape the plague, killed her boyfriend who was trans.  Regrettably, though, when this character is first introduced she refers to her boyfriend using feminine pronouns.  Very basic research by the authors would have told them no partner of a trans man would ever use ‘she’ to refer to him; thankfully, when this character is re-introduced much later, this pronoun issue is fixed (I’m guessing because a gazillion people told them using ‘she’ was totally not cool).  Like I said, this series is definitely not perfect—for reasons like the trans pronoun issue—but overall I recommend it as a thought-provoking science-fiction exploration of gender and sexuality that just happens to feature a ton of bad-ass gorgeous women.

Casey reviews Among Other Things, I’ve Taken up Smoking by Aoibheann Sweeney


I expected to love Aoibheann Sweeney’s debut novel Among Other Things, I’ve Taken up Smoking (2007).  This, unfortunately, was not meant to be.  This is not to say that Among Other Things doesn’t have its good points.  It’s a novel whose queerness gradually sneaks up on you: a novel of subtlety above all else, and its approach to the main character Miranda’s coming of age and coming out is no exception.  It deals with the issues surrounding Miranda’s mother’s suicide, her father’s past, and his relationship with another man in the same mysterious, understated way.  I have to say, though, I appreciated this novel more when I was first reading it, and I grew to like it less as it progressed.   The reason for this, simply, is that I expected to get to know and sympathize with Miranda and it just never happened.  Also disappointing was the fact that the book never lived up to its clever title: Miranda does a lot more coffee drinking than smoking; she drinks so much coffee, actually, it’s as if she can’t think of anything else to do, even though she’s recently arrived in New York with a thick envelope of money.

Miranda is an extremely lonely character whose motives and emotions are often hard to pinpoint; she simply falls into situations and is moved around by circumstance and other characters’ decisions for the majority of the book.  At first, her loneliness intrigued me.  Miranda is a shy, solitary child who grows up on a tiny island off the coast of Maine.  She and her father, an academic immersed in the seemingly endless task of translating Ovid’s Metamorphoses, live in near isolation with only the company of one local man (Mr. Blackwell).   The parallel with The Tempest is obvious, and at times heavy-handed; I don’t see the point of literary allusion unless it’s really adding something to the text and I’m not sure exactly how The Tempest illuminates anything about Among Other Things.  In fact, Sweeney’s novel falls into the same pattern that made me find The Tempest one of Shakespeare’s least interesting plays: the female lead character (both named Miranda) is boring and practically characterless.  Sweeney also doesn’t make anything of the (post)colonial potential of the Caliban/Mr. Blackwell character.  She highlights many times (sometimes unnecessarily) that Mr. Blackwell is indigenous, but never addresses any of the political issues that Shakespeare so brilliantly and complexly sketches in his depiction of Caliban.  I could forgive the lack of attention to indigenous issues if Sweeney had addressed gender in a more complex way, but she doesn’t really do either, unfortunately.

Without a doubt, Among Other Things is full of gorgeous, restrained writing; but this doesn’t make up for its lack in emotional immediacy.  It’s hard to really care about Miranda a lot of the time.  Not because she’s unlikable, but more because you just don’t know enough about her.  I found my patience for dealing with this waning by the last section of the novel, even when the queer relationship finally picks up.  I had expected some kind of development to surface when Miranda leaves her small island for the bustle of another island: Manhattan.  But she continues to wander around in a perpetual daze, as if still caught in fog of the island where her father remains.  I wasn’t sure what either the man or the woman interested in Miranda saw in her: I mean, she’s supposed to be beautiful, but isn’t there anything else?

To give the novel some credit, there is one scene quite late in the novel where Miranda is finally emotionally vulnerable.  She experiences a revelation that Sweeney words quite beautifully:

It was a familiar feeling, anyway—being alone.  I hadn’t meant to expect more.  It had just happened, as if it were a part of growing up, wanting to be with another person.  When actually it wasn’t, when actually it only got harder, being with other people—pleasing them, disappointing them… It was just that I had never felt it before, that someone could be so close, like all you had to do was touch them, and they could see your life around them as if it were real, as if all the things you’d ever thought had made sense.

Like The Tempest, Among Other Things prominently features a storm that supposedly brings about a ‘sea change’ in the characters.  I’m not really convinced, though, by Miranda’s sudden transformation at the end of the novel, where she declares her intention of going to art school and chooses the girl over the boy.  Does the fog that surrounds Miranda ever really disperse?  Perhaps by the time it does, showing you a glimpse of Miranda’s character and motivations, it’s a bit late to make the effort to become invested in her life.  It’s unfortunate that a novel with some stunning lyrical moments is overshadowed by its shoddy characterization and predictable plot, but there it is.  I’d be interested to know if Sweeney writes poetry: it seems like a form that might showcase her talents to more advantage, if this novel is representative of what she can do with fiction.

Casey reviews The Last Nude by Ellis Avery



I picked up Ellis Avery’s latest novel The Last Nude after reading Danika’s glowing review of it earlier this year.  It’s not every author who can claim your lifelong allegiance after you’ve read only one of her works, but I agree with Danika that Avery is one of these writers and reading The Last Nude is enough to convince you.  This historical novel, set in Paris in the decadent 1920s period between the two world wars, is an easy book to sink into and love.From the first unassuming sentence (“I only met Tamara de Lempicka because I needed a hundred francs”), The Last Nude is captivating and delightful.  The writing is exquisite; the characterization rich; and the setting wonderfully and lovingly rendered in superb detail.

Just because the novel is beautiful, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t also without its delicious complexities. We are introduced to the whirlwind environment of 20s Paris, in all its queer, smoky glory, through the eyes of Rafaela Fano, an Italian-American Jew who is also experiencing it for the first time. Rafaela (her actual last name isn’t known) is a real historical person about whom we don’t know much except she was Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka’s model and inspiration for some of her most arresting works, including La Belle Rafaela, which graces the cover of the novel.  Rafaela is both sweetly naïve and street-wise, having survived her family’s attempt to arrange her marriage at age sixteen by trading sex for passage to Paris.  She’s survived in the city thus far by doing sex work, sometimes in more explicit scenarios than others; Rafaela is on the brink of a so-called respectable job at a department store when Tamara, seduced by her beauty on the street, recruits the young woman to model for her.

Tamara, as you might have guessed, is unbelievably sexy and glamorous; of course, she’s also a supremely talented artist with an insatiable appetite for art, wealth, and power.  Rafaela falls for Tamara, hard.  You know from early on, despite the fact that the story is related to us through Rafaela’s perspective, that Tamara’s motives are more complicated and less wholesome than Rafaela’s young, innocent heart wants to believe.  In fact, it’s not just Tamara, it’s the whole circle Rafaela is introduced to: we enter the exotic world of the queer, artsy, bohemian population and are by turns charmed and appalled bythem just as Rafaela is.  Like us 21st century readers, Rafaela is a stranger to this world, its hopeful possibilities, and its hidden sinister underbelly.

Despite the sense of apprehension you feel knowing that Tamara and Rafaela’s love affair is doomed, Tamara offers something to Rafaela that is priceless: she gives Rafaela her own body back and opens up her sexuality.  After the first time they make love, Rafaela recalls:

And suddenly I remembered a day when I was very small, before my brothers came along.  When my mother went out for groceries, I slopped … oil on the banister and slid down.  I climbed those stairs again and again, to get that feeling: how slick my knickers got, how distinctly I could feel the spreading wings of my little figa, how the shock of bliss pleated through me like lightning.  I had forgotten this kind of eagerness until now, as my body sobbed into Tamara’s hand.  Again, again!  I wanted to crow.  I was a giddy witch on a broomstick.  I was a leaping dog.  I was liquor; I was laughter; I was a sliding girl on a shining rail: something I’d forgotten how to be.

Later on, Rafaela tells us how she has learned to love and revel in her body:

Ever since my sixteenth birthday, my body had felt like a coin in an unfamiliar currency: small, shiny, and heavy, obviously of value to somebody, but not to me… My body felt coincidental to me—I could just as easily be a tree, a stone, a gust of wind.  For so long, I still felt like the ten-year-old me, skinny as a last wafer of soap, needling through Washington Square on her way to Baxter Street.  But my months with Tamara had worn away the lonely old questions and replaced them with a greed of my own: my body was just a fact, this night, a kind of euphoria.  I coincided with it, and with the dancing crowd.  Throbbing with the horns and drums, we formed a waterfall passing over a light, each of us a drop, a spark, bright, gone.  The music danced us, and I knew it wouldn’t last, this body I’d learnt to love.

If you’re at all familiar with famous lesbian/queer/bi expatriate women from this period, you’ll be delighted to see the literary couple Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, who ran successful bookstores and first published James Joyce’s Ulysses, function as Rafaela’s queer elders.  Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas make appearances too, as well as Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and Violette Morris.  If you don’t know who any of these women are, I suggest looking them up asap.  Ah, if only I could time travel back to one of their parties and chat with them, wearing smoky black eyeshadow and red lipstick, and smoking cigarettes out of a long classy holder without knowing the consequences.

The consequences of the way Tamara treats Rafaela don’t fully emerge until the second part of the book, much smaller than the first; this section is told from the perspective of Tamara as an old woman.  On the one hand,I felt robbed of the chance to see in her own words how Rafaela pulls herself up after Tamara’s betrayal and ‘follows her dreams.’  On the other, Avery had to do something to humanize Tamara for us, if only to complicate the view of her as a ruthless egotistical villain.  Although I can’t say I was completely satisfied with Tamara’s atonement, I was glad in the end to know that Tamara did care for Rafaela, amidst her self-delusions and guilt.  In a way, these revelations made the love story all the more tragic; they also made the novel even more complex, powerful, and poignant than it already was. This, considering The Last Nude is (lesbian) historical fiction at its finest, is quite an achievement.

Casey reviews S/he by Minnie Bruce Pratt


Do you know those books that come into your life exactly at the right time?  Minnie Bruce Pratt’s memoir S/he is just that book for me right now.  Although she’s a woman from quite a different time and place than me—she’s a white woman from the Southern States who came out as a lesbian in 1975—I found myself feeling like she was expressing a lot of what I’ve been thinking lately for myself in terms of my gender and sexual identity.  I would especially recommend this book if you’re a lover of butch/androgynous/masculine women and trans folks.  Also, I really appreciated it as a queer woman who’s (re)claiming and exploring femininity.  So if either of those things sound like you, then find yourself a copy of S/he.

You might know Pratt as the partner of Leslie Feinberg, author of the lesbian and trans classic Stone Butch Blues. Pratt is a powerhouse writer in her own right, though, and this beautifully written memoir is proof.  In fact, Pratt is a poet, and this work is extremely poetic, but not at all in an alienating way.   What Pratt wants the book to do, as she explains in the introduction, is to talk about feminist and queer theory in the real world.  She writes: “But we can not move theory into action unless we can find it in the eccentric and wandering ways of our daily life.  I have written the stories that follow to give theory flesh and breath.”  What is really great about the way that she does this is that Pratt mostly just actually tells stories and doesn’t directly refer to theory at all.  She just lets her writing speak for itself—and you lets you decide where and what the theory is.

The writing itself is phenomenal.  I find it interesting that Pratt writes that this book contains stories, because to me it felt like a collection of vignettes or sketches.  Each ‘story’ is only about a page long.  That’s shorter than even Ivan E. Coyote’s stories!  Also, these sketches don’t have the kind of narrative trajectory you expect from a short story.  They’re more like captured moments and memories, strung together through theme or association or sometimes for a reason I couldn’t quite figure out.  Pratt jumps back and forth in time, recounting her early heterosexual marriage, her coming out, her many lovers, her work—teaching at universities, writing, and as an activist, and her relationship with Leslie Feinberg.  As a reader you eventually absorb a lot about her life, but in a gradual, meandering kind of way.

Throughout the memoir, Pratt focuses on the policing of gender, of where the borders of masculinity and femininity are.  These boundaries, of course, intimately connected to the ones between hetero- and homosexuality.  Pratt also pays really close attention to race.  One thing I really identified with was Pratt’s expression of feeling not quite like a ‘real’ lesbian because she a) didn’t know she was queer from the time that she was five and b) she’s attracted to gender non-normative women.  She writes that the feeling that “No ‘real’ lesbian would be attracted to as much masculinity as I prefer in my lesbian lover” has plagued her.  Similarly, Pratt struggled with her gender identity and pressure to ‘look’ like one of these so-called real lesbians.  She chronicles her gender identity journey back to femme after dressing like a ‘lesbian’ for years in men’s clothes.

I loved this book.  In fact, I take back what I said about this book being for queer women attracted to masculinity/androgyny and/or who are exploring femininity.  It’s for everyone.  The beauty of this passage should explain why:

Under you I watch your eyes, all I have to cling to, that hold me steady as my body becomes molten, all words melted down into sensation.  I become nowhere and everything as you tell me over and over that you love me.  Thought dissolves, thought turns to feathers of ash rising from a fire.  I am nothing and everywhere as I carry us into the depths of my body.

Casey reviews Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson

Although Jeanette Winterson’s 1997 novel Gut Symmetries is a book about a bisexual love triangle, it’s nothing like what you might expect from that description.  For one thing, it’s not a straight forward narrative of boy meets girl, girl meets girl.  You know from early on that Alice, the main character, falls in love with both Jove and his wife Stella.  So, when the two women finally begin their affair, it’s lovely, but not surprising.  This is not a ‘read-to-find-out-what-happens-next’ kind of novel.  Rather, it’s a read-to-find-the-next-beautiful-piece-of-writing kind of book.  Although there are some beautiful passages early on in Jove and Alice’s love affair, it’s Alice and Stella who really capture you as a couple.

What is really stunning about all of the descriptions of love is the way that Winterson weaves together musings on love with those about the nature of living and being.  You see, both Jove and Alice are physicists, and this fact is not insignificant.  It allows Winterson to describe in gorgeous language how the mysteries of the universe are beautiful, and eerily similar to the mysteries of love and desire.  She writes: “Perhaps it seems surprising that physicists seek beauty but in fact they have no choice.”  This is because when you go far enough, science is a kind of poetry, and love is a kind of physics.  As Winterson chronicles these strange and passionate love affairs, the beauty and mystery of the cosmos become undistinguishable from that of love.  She writes: “from the music of the spheres a perfect universe is formed.  Lover and beloved pass into one another identified by sound.”  My favourite of these passages, though, is this one:

Walk with me.  Walk the 6, 000, 000, 000, 000 miles of travelled light, single year’s journey of illumination, ship miles under the glowing keel.  In the long frost the sky brightens and the rim of the earth is pierced by sharp stars.  After the leaf-fall the star-fall, the winter shedding of too much light.  Walk the seen and the unseen.  What can be rendered visible and what cannot.

Like a lot of Jeanette Winterson’s work, her novel Gut Symmetries manages to be both contemporary and mythological.  Stella tells us, for example, that her “mother, big with child, had strange longings; she wanted to eat diamonds.”  After retrieving the diamonds when they exit Stella’s mother’s system, her father’s friends (diamond dealers, you see) discover one is missing.  Stella, apparently, is carrying this diamond inside her.  Alice’s father, after marrying her mother, promptly tells her he will not sleep with her until he is made director of a line at his job; years later, he abruptly flies home to England from New York to do so.

These two remarkable women meet in New York City for dinner, after Stella receives a letter telling her that her husband Jove is having an affair with fellow physicist Alice.  Shortly after their first encounter Alice tells us that “Stella turned towards me and crumpled my heart in her hand”; she asks Alice, “‘Do you fall in love often?’”  When they sleep together, Winterson cleverly reworks that old Freudian theory of homosexuality as narcissism through her description of Stella’s experience:

Her breasts as my breasts, her mouth as my mouth, were more than Narcissus hypnotised by his own likeness.  Everybody knows how the story changes when he disturbs the water.  I did disturb the water and the perfect picture broke.  You see, I could have rested there beside her, perhaps forever, it felt like forever, a mirror confusion of bodies and sighs, undifferentiated, she in me, me in she and no longer exhausted by someone else’s shape over mine.  And I had not expected such intense physical pleasure.  Why then did I trouble the surface?  It was not myself I fell in love with it was her.

Although this twisted love story takes an odd and grotesque turn near the end—you wouldn’t believe me even if I told you—I finished the novel with memories of Winterson’s exquisite deliberations on the nature of love, desire, and, dare I say it, the meaning of life.  I was particularly left with this heartening statement:  “Capacity for love in its higher forms seems to be peculiarly human although even in humans it is still peculiar.  This love suggests there is something beyond self-interest.”

Casey reviews Dare, Truth or Promise by Paula Boock

I read New Zealand author Paula Boock’s young adult lesbian novel Dare Truth or Promise (1997) in one day, practically in one sitting.  I have a soft spot for queer YA anyway, but I really loved this book for its sweet, simple style.  Boock writes in a very straight-forward, deceptively plain way that is reminiscent of New Zealanders themselves, at least what I learned about them when I was there for four months a few years ago.  In fact, I’d say this book is a lot like Kiwis and Kiwi culture: humble, charming, quietly proud, and not inclined to boast of its own merits but rather to simply display them as if reassured of its own value.  (Side note: for those readers not familiar with Kiwi culture or English, there is a glossary of terms at the beginning of the book).

Dare Truth or Promise is essentially a teenage love story.  Willa is the bold red-headed daughter of a former-country star-turned-pub-owner, an aspiring chef, and a loving dog owner.  Louie is a charismatic, self-assured actress, stellar student, and frequent poetry quoter from a well-off Italian family.  Boock makes a few interesting (and in my opinion great) choices: she makes Louie Willa’s second same-sex relationship; Willa already knows she’s gay, even though she’s still a bit confused about it.  She also makes the girls come from notably different class backgrounds, which is something I haven’t seen dealt with very much in YA fiction.  Both Willa and Louie have a feminist sensibility about them as well: for example, Willa threatens to cut off the “goolies”—balls—of her work supervisor who tries to pretend patting her on the ass is no big deal—awesome!
I love how the book opens with their first meeting, but presents a little realist twist on the love-at-first-sight trope: “There was a moment, later, that was a lightning strike.  But the first time Louie saw Willa she had just begun the coleslaw.”  Louie and Willa meet, you see, while working at a takeaway (that’s Kiwi speak for fast food restaurant).  The understated way that Boock tells their love story makes the revelatory moments in it stand out all the more:

“I’m in love with that girl,” [Louie] said out loud in amazement, because she knew that this was a life-changing thing and life-changing things should be said aloud, should have a moment in time, and a place in the air, some molecular structure to make them real. I’m in love with that girl, she heard as it reverberated inside her head. And it was a truth, she realized, as things are which you don’t think, but discover have always existed.

The way Boock describes Louie’s sudden realization is so authentic and lovely, don’t you think?  The description of their first kiss is also moving and genuine:

When Willa turned and kissed her, Louie thought in her head, this is my first kiss.  It wasn’t, of course, she’d kissed a number of boys, and done more too, but she’d never, ever felt as if she were falling off a cliff.  She’d never felt before as if her body were being turned to water from the inside out, or as if they were both whirling through space into an airless black vortex.  Louie felt all of these things, and, above all, a disbelief, a wild, terrifying disbelief that this should be happening—no, not that she was in love with a  girl, for it seemed suddenly absolutely natural that she should be in love with this girl—but that, god only knew how, this girl should love her back!

There’s just something that Boock really gets about first love, regardless of gender, that really shines through the whole novel.  I also really loved the realism of the secondary characters’ reactions to the girls’ relationship, in that there were those that were negative and (sometimes surprisingly) those that were positive.  I was especially delighted—spoiler alert!—that Louie’s Catholic priest actually ends up being her ally and that Willa’s mother is supportive from the get-go.  In the end, the book really sustains the idea that teens having to lie about their sexuality and hide who they are is what is harmful to their relationships with their families, not their actual queerness.  Although this is obvious to older LGBTQ folks, it’s a really important lesson for teens just coming out, and for the straight folks around them, and it’s one that Boock puts forwardly firmly but eloquently in this poignant novel.

Casey reviews Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon

Ann Bannon’s pulp novel Odd Girl Out (the first of the famous Beebo Brinker series) is the first, and so far only, 1950s lesbian pulp novel I’ve read.  I knew vaguely going into this that things didn’t usually work out so well for the lesbians in these books—publishers usually insisted on a distinct lack of happy endings, you know, in case someone thought they might be advancing a homosexual agenda!  But I was trying to reserve my judgement until I’d actually read one of these pulp novels, and I naively got about a third of the way through Odd Girl Out thinking, wow, this love story is actually quite adorable and Bannon’s observations on the social conventions of 50s college life are actually quite fascinating.  Of course, Bannon had to go and ruin it by making one of the girls eventually fall for the so-called superior charms of a man; but, I’d like to see if I can tease out something a bit more positive that I can take from this novel.  Here goes!

Essentially, Odd Girl Out is the story of Laura, a sheltered young woman who has just started college; she’s intrigued by and then falls for her roommate, the tomboyish, confident older student Beth.  The erotic tension in the early stages of Laura and Beth’s relationship is quite well done; I vividly remember the scene where they go to the movies together and shyly begin to hold hands.  So cute!  Bannon really nailed the excitement/terror of delirious young love that produces that ‘I think I might be sick but I’m really happy anyway’ feeling.  In a way, the fact that Beth and Laura’s relationship is initially so sweet makes Beth moving onto Charlie—aptly described by Mfred in her review as “an odd combination of tender and caveman, having his way in the name of Good & Manly Decision-making whenever the plot requires it”—all the more brutal, but I’m willing to give Bannon some credit here.  She does a great job showing us why Beth is so attractive, and I was actually surprised that it was her who ended up dating a man, and not Laura, because Beth is definitely more masculine; I’m guessing that allowing the more feminine Laura to embrace her queerness—as much as that’s possible in 1957—would have been revolutionary and unexpected for the time.  You end up cheering her on at the end.  I wanted to tell Laura as she head off to Greenwich Village by herself after being ditched by Beth at the last minute: “Don’t you worry about that traitor Beth, you’re going to find lots of cute dykes in NYC!”

The subplot involves Beth’s friend Emmy, who is kicked out of college for (gasp!) wearing a sexy costume that ‘accidentally’ reveals a bit too much at a party and then having pre-marital sex with her boyfriend whom the college forbad her from seeing.  This story is actually quite illuminating.  Can you believe that post-secondary institutions really had that kind of ridiculous control over female students?  After Emmy is forced to leave school, her boyfriend Bud promises to marry her, but Bannon leaves a distinct amount of doubt as to whether Bud is really going to do anything of the sort.  She makes it clear that Bud is privileged, able to continue school and to pursue his career as a musician while Emmy is sent home and punished.  Emmy is caught in a double bind: she’s booted out of school for her relationship with a man, but then her only hope for redemption is marriage.  So, Bannon is actually pointing out the flaws of heterosexual patriarchy, the very thing that Beth so happily accepts at the end of the novel.  There aren’t any explicit links drawn between Beth and Emmy’s situations, and likely Bannon intended Charlie to epitomize ‘one of those few good men left in the world,’ but I couldn’t help but wonder whether Bannon wasn’t really slyly critiquing the ways that patriarchal societies, on the one hand, teach women to depend only on men and to use their sexuality to secure one, and, on the other, punish women for their so-called weakness and call them sluts for expressing their sexualities.  In the end, the lesbian Laura is the only female character free of these restraints.  Now that is something I—and I think other modern readers—can appreciate, despite this novel’s dated flaws.

Casey reviews The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

I read Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt soon after finishing Ann Bannon’s lesbian pulp novel Odd Girl Out (1957), so I was understandably feeling jaded and a bit guarded.  Bannon’s novel, for those of you who haven’t read it, ends quite depressingly when one of the two lovers, Beth, decides that lesbianism was a mere phase for her—caused by a lack of love when she was a child, surprise surprise—and the protagonist Laura is left alone to go to New York city, where hopefully she’ll find some real queer ladies to love and hang out with.  The Price of Salt begins in New York, so this more queer friendly setting made me initially hopeful.  In fact, Highsmith’s well-written novel is very different from the melodramatic pulp that Bannon writes, although it does have some similar problems for contemporary readers reading lesbian novels from the 1950s.

The Price of Salt is essentially a love story, but it becomes a kind of thriller, like Highsmith’s other more famous non-queer works; the narrative turns into a chase where a private investigator follows the two women in love, Therese and Carol, around the U.S. while they are on a road trip.  Therese is a woman in her early twenties who is an aspiring theatre set designer, just starting out in New York; she is working at a department store over the Christmas season to make some extra cash.  She meets a striking, assertive older woman, Carol, while at work, and impulsively sends her a Christmas card.  Thus begins their initially tentative relationship.  After their romance finally starts to flourish on a vacation they take together, Carol’s ex-husband interrupts their new-found bliss by having the investigator trail them; Carol is in fact in the middle of divorcing him, and arranging the custody of their child.  Her ex is trying to collect evidence that she is a “homosexual” to use against her in their custody battle.  What’s worse is that he knows about Carol’s previous Sapphic background.

The eventual denouement of the narrative is relatively disappointing, from a twenty-first century perspective at least: Carol is forced to choose between custody of her daughter and any further contact with Therese, or any similar relationships with women in the future.  Deciding she has already lost the battle, Carol gives up trying to have a relationship with her daughter.  While realistic, Carol’s defeat in court with her ex-husband is devastating; however, there is evidence at the end of the novel that Therese and Carol might actually have a chance to “end up happily ever after,” a far cry from the required dead-or-married-to-a-man plot structure of other 1950s lesbian novels.  I was actually expecting a more depressing ending, so I was pleasantly surprised by what Highsmith chose to do.

What bothered me about the novel instead is that I felt like both Carol and Therese were emotionally and psychologically just out of my reach as a reader.  I never felt like I really got to know them, or understand their personalities, feelings, and motivations.   An earlier reviewer on the lesbrary, Orange Sorbet, has a similar problem feeling like the characters were ‘real.’  The setting and atmosphere of the novel actually felt more like characters than Carol or Therese did.  The smoky, eerie feeling of New York City streets at night, the sterile, lonely ambience of restaurants and department stores, and the tension and fear of being on the run are all quite clear in my mind still, even though I read the book a few months ago.  Perhaps the new film version in the works, starring Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska, will help make these two women as vivid as the exhilarating narrative and haunting atmosphere.

Casey reviews The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth

The first sentence of emily m. danforth’s much-talked about debut young adult novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is one of those opening lines you’ll never forget, like Jane Austen’s brilliant opening to Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  Danforth begins her novel with this equally dazzling and stunning statement: “The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.”  The rest of the novel, to my delight, absolutely lived up to the promising beginning.  Cameron’s teenage tale is both a coming-out and a coming-of-age story, but it’s also more than that.  It’s a story about a teenager, who happens to be a lesbian, dealing with the death of her parents, the infiltration of her smarmy yet well-meaning Christian fundamentalist Aunt into her life, the disintegration of her earlier bond with her grandmother, and, of course, the realization of her sexuality.  Significantly, the novel also deals with (spoiler alert!) Cameron’s experience in a gay conversion camp.  Props to danforth for including a disabled lesbian—who hides pot in her prosthetic leg, the coolest drug-hiding spot ever!—and a two-spirited teenager—who explains to the white kids what exactly his identity is—in the part of the novel that deals with the camp.

I couldn’t help being brought back to my own teenage and high school years while I was reading about Cameron trying to sift her way through life; danforth has a definite talent for evoking the specificity of Cameron’s late 80s/early 90s adolescence and for expressing the simultaneously reckless and terrified feeling of being a teenager—particularly in a rural place.  I also couldn’t help but love Cameron.  In many ways, she’s the kind of queer teenager I wish I could have been, if I’d been less clueless, more brave, and funnier.  Plus, Cameron dates a ton of girls!  As Danika pointed out in her review, it’s rare that an LGBTQ young adult novel treats relationships as anything less than the defining point of the main character’s life, so it’s really refreshing to see Cameron’s queerness celebrated, not because she finds her ‘one true love’ at the ripe old age of 16, but because it’s simply part of the amazing person that she is.  I cannot wait to read what danforth writes next, and her upcoming projects sound just as awesome as this novel (she talks about what she’s working on with another amazing queer YA author Malinda Lo here).

 Cameron Post has been in some ways controversial, because it’s been marketed as a young adult novel and the book deals with some pretty heavy stuff, especially what happens at the gay conversion camp her aunt sends her to.  The novel, by the way, deals with this topic compassionately and intelligently: danforth depicts the ex-gay leader of this camp in an honest, but difficult, way.  Yes, these camps are misguided, disgusting, and dangerous, but danforth refuses to let us make the individual director into a monster and forces us to look at the larger social contexts at work.  To get back to my original point: some librarians and booksellers are wondering if this book should be sold/catalogued in young adult sections.   In addition to the ex-gay camp, the book contains underage drinking, swearing, pot smoking, and queer sex!  Heaven forbid teenagers should read about what teenagers actually do!  I don’t really have time for these arguments.  This is a beautifully written, exciting, important novel; anyone with it in their hands should be doing all they can to get it into the hands of readers, especially queer teenagers—especially, queer teenagers whose parents wouldn’t want them reading it.  If you’re reading this, you should not waste any time getting your hands on it soon too.