Jill reviews Carry the One by Carol Anshaw


Carry the One by Carol Anshaw received a ton of praise from the queer community last year, and it includes blurbs on its back cover from such heavy hitters as Emma Donoghue and Alison Bechdel, along with Publishers Weekly. And I agreed with everything they said–yet this was also a hard novel for me to read. It starts out bleak: a car crash after a wedding, a young girl dead in the middle of the woods. The story follows the three siblings that were all in the car–while, interestingly, none of them was the driver–and how their lives sprawl forward from the time of the accident. The writing is fantastic, never overwrought, tightly crafted yet often still lovely, and by the end of the novel, I felt deeply that this family was almost real, that I knew them and cared about them.

Yet the weight of the accident hangs over them, even decades later, even in non-obvious ways, even when Anshaw doesn’t explicitly mention the accident or the girl for whole chunks of chapters. You can still just feel it there, in the back of your stomach somewhere. And I know that was obviously the point, and proof that Anshaw has done her job well. But I occasionally just felt too depressed during this novel to truly enjoy myself. Even during the happy times–Alice, the lesbian sister, pursuing her art in Amsterdam was one of my favorite times to read about–things never felt 100% happy.

Alice is easy to love, and in a sense is the happiest character, even while she spends a majority of the novel pining over her fiercest love, Maude, who was also in the car that tragic evening. Nick, the only brother, is the truly tragic character, never able to shake the addictions that plagued him the night of the accident, yet reading about his struggles was fascinating to me, in a sad way. But Carmen, the oldest sister, is the one that sticks with me most for some reason, and the one that always made me the saddest. While not queer, Carmen is full of activist, feminist, liberal vigor, spending her days running shelters for women and going to protests, yet this passion she has for social justice never translates to her personal life, where she settles into marriages and things that never seem to truly make her happy, carrying out duties she feels like she’s supposed to do but never truly enjoys. Her close relationship with Alice seems to be the only thing in her life full of light, and one of my favorite parts of the book. I also did love the sheer amount of time that this book traversed, and mostly through Carmen’s activism, the critiques of the political and social atmospheres of the times that we got to see along with the inner turmoils of the characters.

Throughout the book, whenever I was feeling particularly depressed about it, I also questioned myself and my own read habits in regards to my own reactions. I don’t read “literary adult fiction,” that often, which I would definitely categorize this book as. (Which is not a bad thing at all; I only use the quotation marks because who really knows how we can truly categorize what’s “literary” or not.) But when I do, I feel like I often have that gut reaction of things just being too depressing. When I know logically there is nothing wrong with writing about depressing things, because life, a lot of the times, isn’t 100% happy. Children get hit with cars. So in the end, perhaps, it is just me.

For example, you can also read another less-weirdly-conflicted review of the book from Lindy Pratch from last year on the Lesbrary (http://lesbrary.com/2012/07/28/guest-lesbrarian-lindy-pratch-reviews-carry-the-one-by-carol-anshaw/). If anything is clear, it’s that Carol Anshaw is a superb talent who creates movingly complex characters. I perhaps am just still processing the depths to which they moved me. But I understand why this was on so many “best of” lists last year, and I’m glad I read it.

Jill Guccini reviews Beautiful Wreck: Sex, Lies & Suicide by Stephanie Schroeder

Stephanie Schroeder is a triple suicide survivor. Read that sentence again: triple – suicide – survivor. That is three more than anybody should have to deal with. Her memoir, released last year, takes us through the times that led to those attempts, taking place mainly in and around New York City from the late ‘90s through mid 2000s. The genuine, gritty New York feel of it reminded me a lot of Cheryl B’s My Awesome Place, but everything else about Schroeder’s story is fully her own. And there’s a lot of different parts to this story: being a young queer activist in the city in the ‘90s; struggling to make a living, from working at a shelter on Wards Island to making it in the corporate world; and then journeying on the path of being a writer. But mostly, it’s about juggling a variety of illnesses and depression, including Tourette’s and bipolar disorder, while also becoming attached to a series of toxic women. The most interesting parts of the book for me were her struggles to find therapists and psychiatrists who both treated her with respect and prescribed her appropriate medication. Add on top of this our wonderful American health care and insurance system, and you have quite the mess. When you think about both the love and the abuse that Schroeder experienced in all of her relationships with women, including a really interesting storyline about becoming an unwilling mother with one of her partners, “beautiful wreck” truly is an apt title.

While I found much of this memoir to be incredibly courageous and true–courageous both in how it was written, including dark diary entries verbatim, for instance, and in the fact that Schroeder released it to the world at all–there were a few things I still wished for after I finished it. While I don’t want to deny the anger and bitterness Schroeder felt towards some of her ex-partners, as I think those emotions are actually really important to include in honest portrayals of our lives, I felt that sometimes her romantic dramas overshadowed the importance of her own mental health journey, and the latter was what I really cared about. While I feel people could relate to lots of different things in this book, including the love dramas, it’s the mental health stuff that has the highest potential to be both comforting and instructional to others going through the same thing.

Along those lines, I also felt that the book wrapped itself up way too quickly. Overall this book was a relatively quick read (not in subject matter, but in actual length), which I thought was great, until the very end. She does have this important note in her final chapter (spoilers!), that I feel is way too often ignored in other memoirs: “It seems artificial to wrap up this memoir with a neat little happy-ending bow. I’ve said elsewhere that I’m not sure anyone ever recovers from bipolar disorder, but it is possible to reach a better place.” This is so true. Yet I wanted so many more details about how she got to that at-least-better place herself. And after so many traumatic girlfriends, it seems like she does end up with a healthy relationship, but we don’t get to hear anything about that one but for the briefest mention. Perhaps she wanted this memoir to just focus on the dark days, but as a reader mentally, I really want, or perhaps even need, a balance of the heavy and the light for the journey to really feel worthwhile and to make sense.

Still, the things that Schroeder accomplished even while she was going through personal hell are remarkable, and this book is yet another achievement. It documents things a lot of people in our community have probably gone through, and I would be interested to see what she continues to produce in the future. Find out more about her work at stephanieschroeder.com.

Jill Guccini reviews If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan


Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine tells a story that I don’t think has ever been told in Young Adult fiction before, and it’s an important one. Set in contemporary Iran, it’s told from the point of view of 17-year-old Sahar, who has been in love with her best friend Nasrin for almost as long as she can remember. Luckily for her, Nasrin loves her back. Unluckily for both of them, homosexuality is illegal. But they can still share their love in secret, at least until the day Nasrin’s family announces she is to be betrothed–to a dude. While there’s nothing for Nasrin to do except go along with it, Sahar sinks into ever increasing despair, determined to stop the wedding at any cost. Her solution becomes this: transition to being a man, as gender reassignment surgery in Iran is, funnily enough, legal.

I was thrilled to receive an advanced copy of this book, as it’s been on my radar for a while. Yet I found myself slightly disappointed with certain things as I made my way through it. I found parts of it didactic, yet with books that introduce details about a culture to a (young) Western audience that more likely than not knows very little about it, I concede that basic explanations woven into the storytelling are necessary. I had also been nervous about how this would translate for the trans community, as it presents an excruciating conundrum: faking trans emotions seems offensive (obviously), but at the same time the fact that Nasrin would be pushed to such ideas necessarily highlights the painful absurdity of the entire situation. But in the trans community that Nasrin joins to get advice and encouragement in the novel, I found that Farizan was able to balance this well by showing trans folk who actually were living their truths, and the varying spectrum of pain that went along with that, whether their “condition” was “legally treatable” in their country or not.

I guess my main issues with the novel were personal annoyances with the main characters themselves. While I started the book in extreme sympathy for Sahar, as she declines further and further into her desperate plans, she becomes single minded in a completely irrational way. When people repeatedly warn her of all the negative outcomes or futility of her desires, she seems to shrug them all away, essentially saying over and over–I don’t care. I need to be with Nasrin. On the one hand, I question whether I even have a right to criticize Sahar. The most obvious reason being that as a privileged white girl from America, how can I look down on how Sahar reacts to the harsh reality of a world I can’t begin to truly understand? How obnoxious am I?

And for another thing, we all know that teenage love does indeed make you completely irrational and single minded. So in reality, there was probably a large amount of truth to Sahar’s stubbornness. It was just a truth I find annoying. Because the thing that bothered me most was that I didn’t find Nasrin likeable at all. She’s consistently portrayed as a shallow, selfish girl who yes, probably loves Sahar very deeply on the inside, but doesn’t have the conviction to show it as Sahar does. So while Nasrin drove herself to insanity over this girl, I couldn’t even truly sympathize with her motivation. Maybe if the novel was longer, and we had more of a chance to really get to know both Sahar and Nasrin through deeper character development, I would have felt completely differently about the whole thing.

Because at this point in YA, I expect more. Yes, while teenagers can be irrational, I really wanted more internal struggle within Sahar about what she was doing to herself, her body, her mind, in exchange for a girl who might not deserve it. I wanted more rage not just at the boy who was set to marry her beloved, but at the system as a whole, at the government, at the wider world who lets it happen. Farizan proved she could show grit in her descriptions of some other minor characters and the struggles they bore to survive. I wanted more of that grit for Sahar.

This all said: Would I still stock this book in a middle school or high school classroom? Would I put it on display at libraries? Absolutely. It still opens the door to discussions that need to be had, and can educate a lot of young people who have grown up in an It Gets Better North American psyche who may have no idea of the struggles other young people just like themselves endure in different parts of the globe. And after getting through all the frustrating middle parts, I actually did really like the ending.

If You Could Be Mine will be released in August 2013.

Jill reviews Empress of the World by Sara Ryan


There’s something special about a good teenaged summer story, which is why human beings keep making movies and writing books about them. And Sara Ryan’s Empress of the World is our very own classic summer teen story, with the added bonus of queer sexual awakening. Published in 2001, it came out long before the apparent current tidal storm of gay YA (http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2013/03/new-way-gay-characters-y/63563/) that the world is suddenly paying attention to. I’ve been wanting to read it forever, and what a sweet and satisfying story to wait for.

Nicola Lancaster is our main girl, and we meet her as she’s just arrived at the Siegel Institute Summer Program for Gifted Youth–essentially, summer camp for nerds. So not only is it a summer story, it’s a summer CAMP story, which are even better (although they don’t do many camp-y things and mainly just take classes at the Siegel Institute, but go with it anyway), and it’s a summer camp for NERDS story, which is the best. As is wont to happen at summer nerd camp, Nicola soon makes some wonderful, interesting friends: the amazingly manic computer geek Kristina, awkward music theory wiz Kevin, sweet sleeper Isaac, and of course Battle, of the beautiful blonde hair and lovely green eyes. In between studying for her archaeology classes and practicing her viola (nerd!), Nicola quickly begins to realize that her feelings for Battle are perhaps not just-friend feelings, and that maybe Battle feels the same way, but is that even possible, since Nicola has spent so much time enamored with boys in the past? (We all obviously know the answer to that one.) Yet it’s never with shame or disgust that Nicola questions her new feelings, but more a bit of confusion, and mainly awe. But like all summer stories, summer has to come to an end eventually, making Battle a somewhat bittersweet love interest from the start.

Nicola and her friends are funny and likeable, and Empress of the World is a quick, great read that pulled me in right away. Perhaps the used, somewhat battered copy of the novel I have helped this notion, but the writing had an almost classic, genuine feel to it, like all of the YA books from the ‘70s I grew up reading and loving. Yet at the same time, it felt surprisingly undated. The only part that stuck out was one moment when only ONE of the friends owned a camera, being as this was still the age before they all would have flipped open their smartphones, but being history, science, and music nerds as teens is timeless, and Katrina’s interest in programming still completely works.

The one thing that slightly bothered me was, as the book wore on, the gang as a whole but particularly Battle, gave Nicola a lot of guff for being over-analytical, for always having to name and classify and understand every situation and feeling and thing, to the point that it seems it might draw Battle and Nicola apart forever. Yet I personally didn’t think Nicola was over the top in this regard at all; she actually seemed rather normal for a teenaged girl. And I felt like Battle’s harping about it simply made Nicola feel ashamed of her sensitivity and thinkiness, instead of simply being okay with, and proud of, her open, vulnerable soul.

While the conclusion is somewhat open ended, a sequel to Empress of the World came out in 2007, The Rules for Hearts, and I would definitely be interested in checking it out one day, along with some short stories that were released in an updated, deluxe edition of Empress of the World last year.

Jill Guccini reviews My Awesome Place by Cheryl Burke


Reading My Awesome Place felt like a bittersweet experience from the start, a fact that has nothing to do with the writing itself, and everything to do with the story behind it. It’s a series of autobiographical tales written by New York City performance artist/poet/playwright/overall writer and liver of life Cheryl B, mostly covering times of sex and love (with both women and men, often destructive either way), drugs, alcohol, and survival in the city in the ‘90s. Yet the collection wasn’t put together until after her untimely death in 2011 at the age of 38 from complications related to Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, the pieces selected and reprinted with obvious love and care by her friends. While I was always glad that the book existed and that I was able to read it, there was still that knowledge that she would never see its existence that served me with slight discomfort somehow at the beginning, to pure rage by the end.

It took me a brief moment to really get into the book, perhaps because the first essay, Winter Wonderland, deals with her childhood growing up first in Staten Island and then New Jersey, overweight and unhappy under an abusive father and a chain-smoking, not-helping-the-situation mother, and things felt so bleak for Cheryl at that point that I felt anxious for the later stories that I knew must be coming, the tales of lust and adventure in the city. But I also always wonder when I have a hard time getting into a book if it’s not my own mind’s preoccupations at the time as opposed to the words themselves that are the problem, and this glimpse into her youth, while difficult, proves to be a necessary building block for all that comes after. Indeed, while the stories of the lovers and the various addictions later on in her life are fascinating, it’s her connections to her family, no matter how strained, that hit the reader in the gut the hardest, and that obviously meant the most to Cheryl. By the second essay on, I was hooked, and while I had been looking forward to absorbing life in New York City in the ‘90s (two of my favorite things), it was her returns to New Jersey that I ultimately found most compelling. The heart of the narrative is her father’s quick death from cancer; she explains her grief in unsentimental yet powerful terms, and it’s a grief that seems to quietly dictate everything else in her life.

On a surface level, there are a few flaws in the editing of the book which may bother grammar hawks. For instance, there seemed an excess of commas where there should’ve been periods, which jarred me at first. But when I began to read it as being purposely indicative of her performance art style, I was no longer bothered. And in any case, at that point I was wrapped up enough in Cheryl’s life that the oddities in the print were barely noticeable. Michelle Tea says in her blurb for the book that reading it “is like meeting your new best friend,” a notion I would agree with–you do feel like Cheryl is your friend by the end, or at least someone you want to root for, someone you wish you could see perform tonight. She’s not perfect and she doesn’t hide it, but she’s trying really hard, as a writer, as a human. And who doesn’t relate to that?

All of which is why my discomfort at the beginning morphed into my rage at the end. At the end of the last essay, I felt like shouting, “But–but that’s not fair.” The collection of essays is loosely termed her “autobiography” on the cover, and while the essays do run chronologically, I felt there was too much missing for it to truly be the tale of her life. The book mainly covers her 20s, yet she lived for almost another decade after that, and I wanted more. I wanted to read about her falling in love with someone that really mattered; I wanted to know what happened to her mom. I wanted to know more about her cat. I wanted to hear more than just this one book. Her partner, Kelli Dunham, details her tragic physical demise in the afterword, and there is something that seems distinctly Not Right about it all–that such a vibrant artist would spend many of her last days in hospital beds, struggling to breathe, all before the age of 40. That’s not how it was supposed to go down. She deserved to not only see this book come to fruition, she deserved the time to write ten more. (But seriously, you should read this one.)

Perhaps my anger is an immature response to this book; I know there must be larger lessons to take from it, about taking advantage of the time we have, of living and writing all of it, as much as we can, while we can. And Cheryl did do just that–she was constantly writing and putting her words into the world, if just not in pure book form until now. (And books aren’t the only things that count, a fact that all of us book people need to remind ourselves of, sometimes.) The book, perhaps, is a testament to not just preserving and paying tribute to an amazing writer and member of the queer community–and also to the worth of having good friends who continue to believe in your talents, even through and after cancer–but as a reminder to all of us, to live and write it all, and if we do want to put it into book form, to work our darndest to make it happen. Or maybe you don’t want to write a book, but you want to do something else. So go out there and do it. Even if you’re surrounded by people who tell you your only option in life is to be a toll collector on the New Jersey Turnpike. Cheryl didn’t listen to them, and we shouldn’t, either.

Jill Guccini reviews The Narrows by M. Craig

The world of the M. Craig’s The Narrows (http://narrowsthenovel.com/) contains a lot of elements you’ll recognize: full of bicycles and outcasts, skinny jeans and crowded cafes, and of course, a healthy dose of beer, its streets very much resemble a Portland or a Brooklyn of today. Yet then there’s the Other Stuff. There’s dragons and fairies; mysterious names of cities and faraway lands; wars with ogres; wands and swords and black magic–familiar fare for the fantasy junkie. There’s elements of steampunk weaved in, too, with a badass magic-sensing pair of goggles amongst other gadgets, and plenty of abandoned and creepy factories in a very urban setting. All combined together, it creates an atmosphere and story that’s unique and engaging, well crafted and well written. I have to admit that the Brooklyn-But-With-Magic vibe threw me off at first, but perhaps that’s just because I opened this book really not knowing quite what to expect. But the more I got to know the Bikeway Narrows, and the more I got to know the story of our protagonist, Sim, the more I cared about all of it, and the more I wanted to know more.

We meet Sim right after she’s run away from a not-so-pleasant upbringing in the home of the powerful Nogron, stealing an important and mysterious wand in the process. She and the wand are lucky enough to run into a lad named Cader in a train station on her way out of town, and he generously offers her a place to stay in the city of Terresin. Herein we get to know the second most important setting after the cafes and bars in the neighborhood of the Bikeway Narrows, the house where Sim and Cader live along with two other women, Pru and Kai. Between its large, mystical garden, the delicious dinners Kai concocts, and the amount of time Sim spends drinking coffee and reading books inside of it, I wanted to BE in this house. I especially wanted to be next to Pru, a cynical, dark-but-tough woman who becomes a steadfast friend to Sim, especially when it’s revealed that they are both real big lesbians. They especially need to form solidarity as homosexuality is looked upon with scorn and disgust by the majority of society. Yet their friendship is just perfectly that, with the romance in their hearts reserved for others. While Pru spends too much time with too many ladies she doesn’t actually care about–sort of the Shane of Terresin, unkempt short dark hair and all–Sim is over her head entranced by Wood, a local college student who she meets with everyday at their favorite coffeeshop. There’s only one problem: this love is only apparent to Sim. Cue heartache central.

Other minor characters we meet are also essential to the plot: there’s Azzer, the lovably eccentric old dude whom Sim works for, who makes gadgets and fixes bikes, and then there’s a strange girl who Sim keeps running into, who keeps warning her: stay away from the Bikeway Narrows. Along with these ominous warnings, both Azzer and Wood constantly talk of revolution, of injustice, of impending environmental and societal ruin in Terresin and beyond, problems that are easy to parallel to our own imperfect world. Whereas Wood believes change is possible, Azzer rests more on the side of defeat, wondering if they can ever be strong enough to conquer Nogron and those in power. Sim lies somewhere in the middle, unsure of exactly what to feel, but increasingly sure that evil forces are at work, and that they may all be in danger–and perhaps Sim most of all.

What exactly is happening in those factories that border the Narrows? Why exactly is their society at war with the ogres? And what is so special about that wand that Sim was able to steal? And, you know, will there be any lesbian happy endings? While some questions are answered by the end of The Narrows, there’s still plenty left open–and I now, of course, lay in wait for a sequel.

Aside from the story and the writing itself, I must say that the design and cover art of this book is splendid. Small presses can be a mixed bag at times, but I loved the whole look and feel of this novel once I held it in my hands–and it was a further delight when what was inside didn’t disappoint either. My only plea to Miss Craig for a sequel, or if there’s ever a reprint of this one, would be a good map of Terresin, the Narrows, and its environs included at the beginning–because heavens knows I love a sweet map at the beginning of books that invite you into new worlds as this one does. If you’re looking for a different, enjoyable read, this one is definitely recommended.

Jill Guccini reviews Girl from Mars by Tamara Bach

Miriam is a 15-year-old girl living in a small town in Germany, and like a lot of 15-year-old girls in small towns, she spends her life waiting for something to happen. She fights with her mom; passes her schooldays in boredom. She goes to parties and drinks when she has the opportunity yet never really enjoys herself. She has friends but when she thinks about it, doesn’t even know if she really likes them. As she describes it::

“I’m Miriam, I’m tired, and that’s it. No more, no less. Ordinary. My mother says I’m lazy. My math teacher says I’m not stupid. Sometimes I’m like this and sometimes I’m like that.”

And then, unexpectedly, there’s something interesting, and that something is Laura. And who is Laura? Miriam doesn’t quite know herself. And she doesn’t know exactly how she feels about Laura, either, other than she likes being with her, and that life is weird.

“Then I look at her and she looks at me, and it’s different again. Not bad different, but weird, like when you hear a new song that sounds strange but not in a bad way. And at some point you find yourself humming along, and you remember the words as you lie in bed, thinking of Laura and smiling into the dark, because the song is good, better than the others, and because it makes your heart beat faster, and it reminds you of yourself.”

Sorry to include so many quotes from Girl From Mars within the first two paragraphs of this review, but Tamara Bach just says it so well. Originally published in Germany in 2003 and first translated into English in 2008 by the Canadian publisher Groundwood Books, Girl From Mars won a number of German book awards such as the Oldenburg Young Adult Book Award and the Deutsche Jugendliteraturpreis (German Youth Literature Prize). As I read it, I kept getting hit with Skins or Show Me Love vibes, and thinking to myself, is it just me, or does Europe really just get teens right? There’s a certain darkness, a complexity, that permeates the language that, speaking as an American, isn’t always allowed here. It hits a tone that almost makes you uneasy, a dangerous feeling to many people who believe we need to look out for the delicate flowers of youth.

Or perhaps Miriam’s malaise strikes all the right chords for me because I relate to it too well. Oh, the ache of growing up in a small town when all of your insides feel so much bigger than your surroundings! Yet there are things that you like, the pretty things about your environment that you allow yourself to appreciate once in a while. But then you remember that everyone you know has known you since you were in diapers, and maybe you don’t want to be that person anymore. Maybe you want to be someone new. Maybe you want to make out with a girl named Laura.

As soon as I saw the cover of this book, I knew I would like it–the plain girl on the right who fears she’s boring, glancing at the girl on the left with the crazy hair and the confident smirk, wanting all that she is. Miriam’s heart is my heart.

This is a quick read and a relatively simple story plotwise, yet the conclusion is a bittersweet one. It’s one with no clean conclusions, proving that first loves can be just as confounding as later loves, if not more, and that for better or worse, sometimes the people we love are the same people we will never be able to truly know.