Elinor reviews Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

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As a long-time Sleater-Kinney fan and a Pacific Northwest transplant, I was thrilled that Carrie Brownstein had written a memoir. I picked up a copy of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl right away and I’ve been telling everybody about it ever since. I’ve been recommending it right and left and I’m excited to tell you why.

Brownstein’s book is at times devastating, insightful, and hilarious. It traces Brownstein’s childhood in a Seattle suburb through her early days as a fan making music with friends and onto her life as a touring musician and briefly features her life during Sleater-Kinney’s long (and at the time, seemingly indefinite) hiatus. Though Brownstein explores coming of age under the shadow of mother’s eating disorder and her father’s later-in-life coming out, the bulk of the book is devoted to her time in Sleater-Kinney.

This means that you’ll find out a lot about the miseries of touring in general and Brownstein’s variety of on-tour ailments in particular, including a torn ligament, a surprise food allergy that made her face swell up, and shingles. Brownstein deftly deflates any rock star mystique we may have projected on the incredible musician. Readers are treated to other tidbits about the band as well, including backstories to some songs, bands they toured with, and where and how they recorded.

Brownstein also shares some of the incredibly sexist media coverage Sleater-Kinney has gotten over the years. She exposes her still-raw pain of being outed, along with fellow band co-founder Corin Tucker, by a reporter from Spin. The report had never spoken with either woman about their sexuality or personal relationships and Brownstein was stunned when she learned of the article’s content. In her early twenties at the time and not out to her family, and not completely clear how she wanted to identify, the experience clearly hurt Brownstein deeply, made worse by the reporter’s portrait of her as Tucker’s gushing fan rather than a competent and creative musician in her own right.

Perhaps these negative media experiences help explain the one aspect of the book I found wanting: Brownstein’s guardedness around her personal relationships, especially about her relationship with Tucker. Tucker and Brownstein were dating when they formed the band and recorded its first albums. Though Brownstein writes about the break-up and the impact it had on the music–more than one song on the album Dig Me Out deals the fall out from their relationship–she doesn’t let readers know much about the relationship itself. Their connection is described somewhat ambiguously until their breakup, which is confusing and mutes its emotional impact on readers. Brownstein tells of the sometimes-difficult relationship she and bandmembers Tucker and Janet Weiss have had with one another over the years (the band briefly went to couple’s therapy lead by a pair of married lesbians), but you can’t help but feel a piece of the puzzle is missing. Obviously, staying a creative partnership with her ex brought challenges, especially as Tucker got into a new relationship, married, and became a parent while Brownstein got sick on tour, had a series of girlfriends, and considered going to grad school. As Sleater-Kinney is an active band with a new album to promote, it’s equally obvious why Brownstein seems a bit protective. Spilling every emotionally gory detail wouldn’t be good for the band that’s finally making music together again. Besides, Brownstein is open about her tendency to live in her head and intellectualize her experiences. It doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing as a reader though. When later in the book Brownstein paints a heartbreaking and horrific scene around losing her cat, I wished she’d tackled her personal relationships with people as intensely and vividly.

That being said, the book is great. This memoir turns the idea of a rock star on its head. Brownstein is an unabashed geek and a serious nonfiction writer, as well as an excellent guitar player and singer. She takes her music seriously, cares about giving a good show, and spent most of her career acting as her own roadie. Being on tour isn’t billed as glamorous or sexy or filled with groupies. When Brownstein breaks down before a show and sets in motion a hiatus that will last over a decade, I empathized. The band was hard work.

Those who know Brownstein only from Portlandia might be disappointed, as the show only gets a shout-out in a single sentence. On the other hand, the ideas the show explores pop up periodically in the book. More importantly, it’s a waste to only know Brownstein from her acting. She an amazing musician and a great writer. I highly recommend this book.

Danika reviews Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

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Audre Lorde is such an influential writer in lesbian, black, and feminist (and black lesbian feminist) literature and theory that frankly I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t read anything by her. I decided to finally rectify that by picking up her work that I’d heard the most about, Sister Outsider. This was an interesting read for me, partly because it’s a book that I’ve read many quotations from and paraphrases of, and partly because it’s a book for a specific period (1980s america) and audience (primarily other black women) that I don’t share.

This was the first book that I read by Lorde, and after reading a few essays and especially the interview, I regretted not starting with her poetry. I think Audre Lorde is known more now for Sister Outsider and Zami than her poetry, but she really self-identifies as a poet, and discusses poetry as basically her first language. Her theory and prose is inspired by and rooted in her poetry, and although I planned to pick up Zami after this one, I think I’ll be backtracking and reading a collection of her poetry first to get a better grounding in her work.

Much of what Lorde discusses is recent events and current politics at the time she was writing. Some of this doesn’t completely translates, but some is horrifyingly still current, such as her referencing recent shootings of unarmed black men by police, which could easily have been written yesterday. Overall, even if the examples that she offers are not current, the ideas are still very much relevant today. Some of it I felt like I was muddling through, and I knew I would need to reread it to fully absorb. Some ideas stopped me in my tracks. As a white reader, not all of the strategies and topics were meant for me, but I think that any reader will find Sister Outsider enlightening, even if they’re not able to engage with every subject.

This was a great mix of ideas and tones. I liked reading Lorde’s journal entry and interview alongside sharply honed essays. It’s clear that Lorde is a poet: she crafts lines carefully and I found myself noting many quotes that I wanted to post on the Lesbrary tumblr or just to remember for myself. Like this one:

We had to metabolize such hatred that our cells have learned to live upon it because we had to, or die of it. Old King Mithridates learned to eat arsenic bit by bit and so outwitted his poisoners, but I’d have hated to kiss him upon his lips! Now we deny such hatred ever existed because we have learned to neutralize it  through ourselves, and the catabolic process throws off waste products of fury even when we love.

If you’ve been inexplicably putting off reading Audre Lorde, I highly recommend you take this as your cue to pick up one of her books. Maybe start with some of her poetry, but either way, you’ll find a lot to consider in Sister Outsider.

 

Elinor reviews Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

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I loved poetry as a teenager, but post-college I’ve hardly read any. As an adult, I read novels largely for escape and relaxation, and nonfiction for information and/or work and grad school. Poetry is a different animal, grounded in emotional truths, ideals, and sensations. It’s not something I make time for much anymore, but I jumped at the chance to review Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha‘s new book of poetry, Bodymap. I picked it up not because it’s poetry, but because it’s Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. I first read her work in Colonize This! as a college student. Her essays have popped up in many anthologies I’ve liked over the years, and I’ve admired Piepzna-Samarasinha for more than a decade now. Once I saw her at Femme Conference and it felt like seeing a celebrity. After you read this book, I think you’ll feel the same way.

Like her other writing, Bodymap is deeply personal and political. The poems are mostly short, rooted in her life as a Tamil/Burgher Sri Lankan and Irish/Roma disabled queer femme. Her life, love, activism, sexuality, identity, body, and family all tangle through pages. As in previous writing, she explores the difficulties and joys of chosen family and community, and brings generosity and maturity to the subject. In many ways, this was the book I wanted How to Grow Up to be. Piepzna-Samarasinha wrestles with real, difficult topics with emotion and intelligence. By the end of this book of poems, she is a parent with an impressive career, meaningful relationships, and more than a little insight into how to care for herself and those she loves. This book is wise without being preachy or self-aggrandizing, and loving without being cliche or saccharine. The writing itself is straight-up gorgeous.

The first night I read it, I intended to skim this book but got sucked in right away. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s descriptions are evocative, and at times made me cry. It also made me wonder if I should call my ex-best friend and try to talk things out. It made me want to read tarot cards and cook vegan food and whip up homemade beauty treatments. Reading this slim book was a wonderfully emotional experience that connected me to my values and priorities.

Normally in my reviews I suggest who might and might not be interested in a particular book, but I think just about everyone should read Bodymap. If you read poetry, this book is a reminder why you love it. If you don’t read poetry, you should read Bodymap because it’s accessible and beautiful, written with deep maturity and open-hearted honesty. If you’re a long-time fan, you won’t be disappointed as she covers familiar topics with precise and vivid language. If you haven’t read Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work before, Bodymap is an excellent place to start.

Elinor Zimmerman is sometimes on tumblr at http://elinorradicalzimmerman.tumblr.com/

Danika reviews Colonize This!: Young Women of Color On Today’s Feminism edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman

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Colonize This! is a collection of personal essays by women of colour about feminism, womanism, and related topics. This is a collection that covers a wide range of experiences, and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of queer contributors–which shouldn’t really have been a surprise, since one of the editors is bisexual.

This is a book that really explores multiple intersections of racism and sexism, with homophobia forming another layer for many of the women writing. This was written in 2002, so many of the events mentioned are outdated now (9/11 is referenced as being a really recent event, for instance), but unfortunately the issues covered are still extremely relevant today. This is a very readable collection, though it tackles difficult subject matter. If you’re intimidated by picking up feminist theory, this is a book that discusses feminism while not having a lot of barriers to entry.

I really appreciated all the different perspectives in this collection, and how they combined to show some of the complicated ways that sexism and racism manifest in different people’s lived experiences. My only real complaint about this collection was that in contrast to bi and lesbian representation, there weren’t any trans voices or many that addressed disability. (I also thought that the collection had less focus on colonialism than the title would lead you to believe, but I can see how it’s an undercurrent.)

This is still one that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in social justice, racism and anti-racism, colonialism and decolonization, and sexism, feminism, and womanism.

Laura reviews Sister Spit edited by Michelle Tea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura reviews Red Falcon’s District by Leilani Beck

Red Falcon’s District is a historical fantasy novel by Leilani Beck. The story follows Bridget Caswell — a plucky young woman who has been on the run her entire life — as she takes sanctuary in an unusual, little known London district. A capable work by an emerging author, this book is an excellent choice for fans of beloved lesbian author Sarah Waters and queer-friendly writer Tamora Pierce.

Taking a page out of Waters’ playbook, Beck puts her intrepid Victorian era lesbian characters in situations highlighting racial and class tensions unique to that time. There are beautiful representations of complex human relationships, and several multi-layered character reveals that Waters fans will love. But on the whole, Red Falcon’s District actually much more reminded me Pierce’s work.

Though Pierce typically traffics in medieval knighthood, the fantasy elements of Beck’s world fall squarely in her court. The characters of Red Falcon’s District would be right at home doing magic with Daine in Tortall, or deploying their abilities alongside Briar in Emelan. Pierce fans will especially love Beck’s lively cast of unconventional characters. Their exceptionally practical concerns (How do these clothes impact my ability to run? How much are grapes at the market today?) are relatable and endearing. That Beck also manages to work in feminist themes throughout the work is just icing on the cake.

In a time when many ask where all the new lesbian authors are, Leilani Beck is a fresh, talented voice just waiting to be discovered. (The Washington-based author is not yet represented by an agent or publisher! Hint hint.) Style-wise, her writing can be a little clunky, particularly at the beginning of the novel. But if you can get past this, there’s a really fantastic story here, and I’m happy to have read it. I sincerely hope that you will give it a chance too.

Red Falcon’s District is available digitally for $2.99.