7 Sapphic YA Graphic Novels I Read at Work

Alright, I didn’t really read these while at my job. Contrary to what many seem to believe, library workers don’t actually get to read on the clock (much to our chagrin). But I do see a lot while I am shelving, sorting, shipping, and receiving books, and graphic novels are especially eye-catching. Sometimes I’ll see a book go by and think, “Hey, that looks like it might be gay.” Sometimes I’m able to check it out and see, and sometimes I have to remember to look it up later. The following graphic novels I spotted while working at the library, and actually managed to get around to reading—on my own time, of course. Mostly.

Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu is a cute little story about professional witch-in-training Nova Huang and her childhood crush, runaway werewolf Tam Lang, reuniting when an unruly forest demon starts haunting their hometown. It’s all very surface depth—the romance is straightforward and without drama, the characters are likable in very obvious ways, and the story is a basic set-up and knock-down affair that practically advertises its happy ending. That said, the graphic novel is executed clearly and effectively, and it ends with a complete tale all told. A lot of people will be happy with the variety of representation on display here, and for what I think started off as a serial webcomic, Mooncakes isn’t half bad.

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up by Naoko Kodama (Amazon Affiliate Link)

I Married My Best Friend to Shut My Parents Up by Kodama Naoko is a short, stand-alone manga, punctuated with what seems to be the first chapter of a completely different manga over halfway through the book. It’s exactly what the title says—serious businesswoman Morimoto Machi enters into a domestic partnership with her lesbian friend Agaya Hana to get her parents to stop pestering her about finding a man. It’s certainly a bit contrived, although the manga does have some rudimentary exploration into the personal and societal forces that might push two people into the titular situation. Overall, though, I found the pacing awkward (it also ends rather abruptly), and the humor a little immature for my tastes. But while I can’t bring myself to call the writing good, it’s at least written with heart. I can see this being someone’s favorite manga, but I personally wouldn’t keep space on my bookshelf for it.

the cover of Kiss Number 8

Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw is a story about a teenage girl at a Catholic high school grappling with a crush on her best friend, conflicting pressures from her parents and peers, and a long-buried queer history in her own family. I’ll be frank, I did not like this book—largely for personal reasons, though I feel I ought to give a warning in case others might feel the same. A lot in Kiss Number 8 (especially the hook of seven poor kisses with boys, followed by the titular eighth with a girl) lead me to believe that the protagonist’s primary struggle would be that of a lesbian wrestling with compulsory heterosexuality. This is not the case; she is solidly bisexual, and in fact has sex with the brother of the girl she shared her eighth kiss with. This is not a problem in and of itself, but the surprise of it did sour my experience with the graphic novel.

the cover of What If We Were… by Axelle Lenoir

What If We Were… by Axelle Lenoir feels like a cross between a classic graphic novel and a collection of Sunday newspaper comic spreads, a la Calvin and Hobbes. It introduces us to teenage best friends Nathalie and Marie, who pass time imagining themselves as wildly different people in a variety of hilarious situations. This isn’t a metaphor or a rhetorical tool—many pages are just spent on the visual spectacle and humor of this (granted, quite cute and imaginative) game. It was the humor that I found fell somewhat flat; it relies heavily on absurdism and overreaction in a way that just didn’t click for me. The anxious teenage romance between Nathalie and her crush Jane Doe carried the rest of the story, but without it I don’t think I’d have much to say about the writing.

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash is a graphic memoir recounting the author’s first lesbian crush at an all-girls summer camp in the American South. Honor Girl was the first of these graphic novels that I felt really had something to say, where the pieces all came together to form something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s also just good memoir writing. Autobiography can be hard to nail, but Maggie Thrash has an excellent sense on which details to include and what moments to linger on, and they manage to weave a bittersweet and melancholy story without the sense of contrivance that a too-neat memoir can impart. Some graphic novel aficionados might pass Honor Girl by on account of the rough and raw art style, but if so, they’re missing out.

the cover of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell is a wonderfully drawn and well-written graphic novel about a bad relationship. Freddy Riley loves Laura Dean, but Laura Dean neglects, isolates, takes for granted, and yes, keeps breaking up with Freddy. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me feels layered in a way that the other graphic novels here so far haven’t, and I really liked how the authors would just let certain moments or transitions breathe. That said, this book is never going to be a favorite of mine—and not just because it isn’t a happy romance. The characterization of Laura Dean clearly evokes the imagery of butch lesbians; it’s what makes her so “cool,” so desirable, but it’s also inextricably tied to what makes her a bad girlfriend. This isn’t to say that the story is invalid because I didn’t like how a character was coded; butches can, of course, be bad partners. But considering how poorly masculine women are still treated today, it honestly hurt a little to read Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me and see such an obvious elevation of queer femininity at their expense.

The Girl From the Sea cover

The Girl From the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag takes the cake, hands down, as my favorite graphic novel of the bunch. It’s about a closeted teenage lesbian living in a small island town, whose teetering life balance is completely upended with she falls in love with a selkie. Everything I saw the other graphic novels in this list reach for, The Girl From the Sea pulls off. The romance is adorable and sweet, but the characters have their own nuances that keeps it from feeling flat or predictable. The story is tight and well-paced, but there’s enough complexity going on that I don’t feel like a second read-through would be merely perfunctory. The art is great, the humor lands well, and I finished the book wanting more but feeling satisfied with what I had.

Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends most of her free time running Dungeons & Dragons (like she has since the 90’s), and has even published a few adventures for it. You can follow her @RainyRedwoods on both twitter and tumblr.

Susan reviews My Alcoholic Escape From Reality by Nagata Kabi

My Alcoholic Escape From Reality cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Nagata Kabi is back with My Alcoholic Escape From Reality! The mangaka behind My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness and My Solo Exchange Diary returns with another memoir, this time about being hospitalised for acute pacreatis resulting from her alcoholism.

My Alcoholic Escape From Reality feels a lot more like a diary comic than any of her previous works. The art style hasn’t changed, although the monochrome colour scheme has shifted to orange now, but the manga as a whole feels tonally lighter and more consistent. I assume that this is a side-effect of it being written as one piece rather than a collection, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise. Despite the lighter tone, the frankness that she has in her previous books continues here. She is very open about her alcoholism and her depression, neither of which is resolved by the end of the book. She’s not a perfect patient by her own admission – she relapses, she gets angry about the restrictions on her life, she lies to her doctors – and she’s very explicit about her understanding of what would make a satisfying narrative about her experience and how it compares to what she’s living. They way Nagata Kabi personifies and visualises her conditions is more emotive than medical, which works great and stops the entire manga being medical professionals explaining things. There is still a lot of medical details involved – if you, like me, have no idea what pancreatis is, look forward to being educated! But the explanations aren’t overwhelming, which I appreciated.

One of the threads of My Alcoholic Escape From Reality is creating while dealing with not only serious medical conditions but also guilt about her work. She feels guilt for creating memoir at all, and for enjoying it when she knows how negatively her family feels about her work. (Her compromise seems to have been only involving them in the most surface-level scenes, rather than delving back into her feelings about them.) The realisations she goes through about her work and what it means to her to do that work is lovely to read.

My general recommendation for Nagata Kabi’s memoirs are that they’re good in the same way that Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is good. They are both queer creators using their most raw edges and pain as entertainment, and cast an uncomfortable reflection back on the audience consuming that entertainment (… and the reviewer rating how well they depicted that pain, yes, please enjoy the mental knots I tie myself into). They are both funny and insightful, and that humour only makes their more serious points hit like a train. This ties into the point Nagata Kabi makes about narrative satisfaction – as a story, the most satisfying endings are the ones where she either relapses or recovers, and life isn’t that tidy; instead, it’s a narrative in progress, where she’s trying to be well and at least writing herself a smidge of hope for the future, and I respect that a lot.

If you want an untidy memoir told with Nagata Kabi’s usual bluntness and humour, I’d definitely recommend picking this up.

Content warnings: alcoholism, depression, hospitalisation and medical treatment

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found as a contributing editor for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business, or a reviewing for SFF Reviews and Smart Bitches Trashy Books. She brings the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Sheila reviews Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

“I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.”

Trigger warnings: death, suicide, parental death, divorce, sexual assault, war/military

As a queer woman, I have spent a large portion of my life knowing the name of Alison Bechdel (and the appropriately named “Bechdel Test”) without actually knowing anything about her. Fun Home details her childhood and early adulthood as the lesbian daughter of a closeted father; Bechdel is an incredibly talented writer, and the connections she draws between things are astoundingly complex. I spent the entire read of this graphic novel in awe of how she managed to connect each moment in later chapters to some of the earliest memories mentioned in the first.

This is a book for literature enthusiasts—especially lovers of classic literature. Each page references authors like Proust and Joyce, delving deeply into analysis of their works in order to make sense of Bechdel’s and her father’s life. At times, her parents are Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, off in Europe before life gets in the way of their way of life. Utilizing these famous (and fictitious at times) people to discern and understand her family is something I was able to relate to; at times, our parents seem more like collections of stories and past events, people just out of reach but never truly willing to be completely comprehended.

This is a heavy work, as one Bechdel’s father dies when she is in college—an event which she labels as suicide. Her inability to put herself past this event is further explored when she discusses that sometimes the lines of parent/child warped, making the child the parent, and vice versa. The Bechdel family’s running a funeral home is also ever present, something which Bechdel uses to align her family with The Addams Family. Death and bodies are constant throughout this work, both physically making an appearance in Bechdel’s life but also again in reference to authors and their literary works. 

Fun Home portrays an interesting comparison between the lives of lesbians and gay men. While there are more differences between Bechdel and her father than just those—such as military experience, age, and setting—Bechdel spends most of the book trying to find similarities between their experiences. Since her father died when she was 20, Bechdel has the rest of her life to ponder and overthink every experience she had with her father, every story she heard from or about him, to try to paint some sort of impossible, complete picture. More than anything, Bechdel is struck by the unknowns of her father. Even his darkest secrets (which include pursuing and assaulting teenage boys) are only viewed from an outside, limited perspective.

I had expected this graphic novel to feature Bechdel’s childhood, but more than anything it is a literary relationship between father and daughter. Now that I am in my 20s, I find my relationship with my parents changing (which I assume is a common occurrence). Somehow, they remain a glitching mix between person and caricature, real and unreal, known and unknown. Bechdel captures this confusion and mystery perfectly in every page of this graphic novel. While it is intense and dark at times, with difficult literary analyses at others, I cannot recommend this work enough.

Danika reviews The One You Want to Marry (And Other Identities I’ve Had) by Sophie Santos

The One You Want To Marry cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Link

I have to admit, I almost stopped reading this in the first chapter because of the secondhand embarrassment factor. That same impulse that nearly made me put down the book for good also kept me completely enthralled, peeking through my fingers (metaphorically) to read the next page, unable to look away.

The One You Want to Marry is Santos’s memoir about being a self-proclaimed “late bloomer.” Not physically, but in the sense that she, for example, fully believed in Santa and fiercely defended his existence until she was told at 13. More importantly, though, she didn’t come out until her 20s despite having some… pretty big clues early on. When she told her father, he said, “you always had good female friendships.” The book is then divided up into these intense female friendships of her early life, starting with her preschool best friend she would whisper to all nap time and wail when separated from.

It’s written in a casual, intensely readable style that reminds me of reading someone’s diary–complete with an uncensored look into every aspect of their life. In fact, I felt a little voyeuristic at times, like this person probably shouldn’t be telling me about their early adventures in masturbation (in painful detail). Santos does not shy away from sharing everything from her starting a strip limbo game at a childhood sleepover to her early 20s denial of being a lesbian even in the most… compromising situations.

It’s been a while since I read a straight up (if you’ll excuse the pun) coming out memoir, as opposed to a more general memoir with a queer author. This is a equally a coming of age story, but those are intertwined. This is a story about running from yourself, chasing mirages of who you are, and what happens when you’re finally forced to stand still and face yourself. Santos’s coming of age is centred around running away from her lesbianism–beginning with ignorance that later became denial–and then finding her identity as an out lesbian.

Santos grew up in the 90s, as I did, and this provides some nostalgia and also embarrassment looking back at that time period. It seems to be aimed at young queer people, who presumably need things like same sex marriage being illegal explained. The entire framing feels a little bit 90s to me–while we still need queer representation, a lot has changed since then, which isn’t really acknowledged. (Also, all her mom’s closest friends were lesbians. She went to a lesbian commitment ceremony as a kid. She wasn’t without lesbian role models.)

She was an army brat, moving a lot and reinventing herself–always finding new, intense female friendships, of course. She also struggled with undiagnosed, untreated OCD and anxiety. We follow her through many of these reinventions, from a kid who dressed like a Backstreet Boy and kissed her best friend (as often as possible) “just for fun” to a pageant hopeful to sorority sister looking for an “MRS” to an in denial lesbian who paused mid-cunnilingus to say “I’m not gay” to the host of a show called The Lesbian Agenda.

I expected that once the book was through the awkward adolescent stage, we were out of the woods in terms of intense second hand cringiness, but I was wrong. She’s a mess even (or especially) in adulthood, especially when her untreated OCD and anxiety collide with PTSD. I appreciate her honesty, particularly when it comes to mental health as well as coming out. It’s a messy process, and this book embraces that.

I hope that young readers who feel like they’re doing it wrong, who are embarrassed about how long it took them to come out, or who are struggling to find stability in their adult identities find this book. It reassures readers that even when the road is bumpy getting there, you can still find happiness and fulfillment, including a partner who will go to great lengths to assuage your obsessive fears. (I will not spoil this scene, but it’s well worth reading this book just for the #RelationshipGoals moment.)

So if you can relate to being a “late bloomer,” or if you just want to be a voyeur into someone’s life, check this one out.

Meagan Kimberly reviews Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

Hunger by Roxane Gay

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

I posted a previous version of this review here. Trigger warnings for sexual assault and eating disorders.

Roxane Gay is an author known for her sharp and insightful thoughts on feminism and pop culture, as well as an established novelist and short fiction creator. This memoir added to her repertoire is no different.

With a book of essays dedicated to her personal body struggles, how she came to the relationship she has today with her body and herself, and a critical look at fatphobia, Hunger is brutal yet vulnerable. She makes a point early on to say that this isn’t a before and after story. This isn’t a story of triumph, of becoming overweight and fighting to lose it, and you won’t see a picture of her on the cover suddenly thin and glamorous. But this is a true story, and as I read it, I felt like it is many people’s story.

Since the first book of essays I read by her, Bad Feminist, Gay has been open about the sexual assault she endured as a child. She doesn’t shy away from it now, and in fact, goes into even more heartbreaking detail in this memoir than in Bad Feminist.

She starts her essays in this book with a look at her happy childhood and healthy family relationships, painting a picture of why she should have been a confident and strong girl, self-possessed. At least, that’s how I interpreted it, because I believe so many of us have been there. Like Gay, many of us look back on our lives and think, “Nothing happened that should have derailed my confidence or self-esteem, so why did I think so little of myself?” With simple sentence structures and plain language, Gay puts into words with such frightening honesty what it’s like in someone’s head. She doesn’t have the answers to our questions, nor to her own, but that’s not what she set out to do with Hunger.

As you read, you see her journey influenced by the terrible incidents of her past and how they shaped her relationship with food and her body. In an attempt to control what happened to her body, Gay details how she had to lose control of it in order to feel safe. She continuously explains in various chapters of the book that she ate because if she ate, she’d gain size, and if she gained size, she wouldn’t be so small and weak and easily taken over. Then again, she eats to fill the void, to satisfy the hollow left inside from the hands of callous boys who probably grew up to be abhorrent men, but no matter what she eats, it does not satisfy. It does not satiate. It just keeps leaving her hungry.

What this memoir is about goes beyond hunger of the body, though the body is the vessel we take to journey through her various desires. She hungers for food. She hungers for comfort. She hungers for safety. She hungers for warmth. She hungers to be understood. She hungers for love. In short, she is a person, like all of us. All too often the world forgets that about fat people and acts like we don’t want the same things everyone else does; like we don’t deserve those same things. Hunger is a reminder to Gay herself and to others like her, that shaping the mind is just as important as shaping the body. More importantly, it is a necessity to be kind to ourselves as much as we are kind to others. It’s alright to hunger, but don’t let it consume you.

Danika reviews The Secret To Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Fun Home is one of my favourite books, which will come as a surprise to absolutely no one. It’s a deeply introspective graphic memoir about books, coming out, and lesbian books. What’s not to like? While Fun Home is suffused with literature references, though, Are You My Mother? is equally concerned with psychoanalysis, which was a lot harder for me to relate to. In Bechdel’s newest graphic novel, she examines her life-long love affair with various exercise phases with references to transcendentalists and Buddhism.

There’s something comforting and familiar to me about reading an Alison Bechdel book. Her thoughtful introspection and constant ruminating about how best to live in this world feels like a mind I can relate to. While her previous graphic memoirs focused on her father and her mother, this one takes a long range look at exercise as a coping mechanism through her whole life, separated into decades. As a child, she saw an ad in a comic book that promised the “secret to superhuman strength.” It turned out to only be an inaccessible Jiu Jitsu pamphlet, but she continues to look for this secret her whole life: through running, karate, skiing, cycling, yoga, and more–always in the hopes of escaping the inevitable conclusion that she is interdependent and mortal.

Alongside this journey of physical transformation–always looking for more strength and inexhaustible endurance–Bechdel also goes on a spiritual exploration of the self. She tries to grapple with this question by looking at artists and writers through history, including Jack Kerouac, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Perhaps the appeal of these exercise regiments, though, is that she can track notable changes, while the psychological and spiritual journey feels more like one step forward and two steps back. In one striking panel, Bechdel realizes she only though she’d been dealing well with her father’s death because she hadn’t dealt with it at all; she hadn’t allowed herself to feel anything. She approaches fitness and her work with the same intensity, damaging her body and her relationships in the process.

Aside from following the fitness fads Bechdel has participated in over the years, this is primarily a story about yearning, a striving for transcendence, for finding the secret to living well. It’s about not just physical strength, but also the emotional endurance necessary to be human. It’s about looking for the secret of how to best live–so there’s no real neat conclusion possible. This is a story still in progress.

I didn’t feel the same way about The Secret To Superhuman Strength as Fun Home, but that’s an impossible hurdle to clear. I did connect more to this than Are You My Mother?, despite being as far from a fitness fan as possible. I also appreciated being to able to get a wider scope of Bechdel’s life, including how the publication of her graphic memoirs (especially Fun Home) changed her everyday reality. It’s at times painful to read, because I feel so much sympathy for her, but that just shows how effective it is.

Danika reviews I’m a Wild Seed: My Graphic Memoir on Queerness and Decolonizing the World by Sharon Lee De La Cruz

I'm a Wild Seed by Sharon Lee De La Cruz cover

I’m a Wild Seed is a short graphic memoir exploring the author’s exploration of her identity. It’s about how her “coming into queerness,” but it’s also about her relationship to her racial identity and decolonizing gender and sexuality.

Because this is so short, it often reminded me more of an in-depth essay than a graphic memoir–that’s not a complaint! It’s packed full of memes, diagrams, and other visuals that I’m familiar with on the internet than I am in books.

De La Cruz shares not only her personal story, but also the history and context she’s learned along the way. It’s through this background that she can better understand her own identity, and she’s clearly eager to share these with the reader. She also discussed how her freedom is tied to Black trans women’s: that no one is free until the most vulnerable of us are.

She comes out at 29 because she spends her early years trying to understand her racial and cultural identity: how can she be Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Black? What does that mean for her? Where does she fit in? She explains that because it was so difficult to understand and come to terms with that, she had no time or space to question her sexual identity or gender.

This is a quick read, but it’s insightful and thought-provoking. My only complaint is that I would have gladly read a version of this book twice or three times as long!

Kayla Bell reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar 

Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

Love is an Ex-Country is part memoir, part essay collection. It touches on a variety of topics, from racism to queerness to fatphobia to Arab identity, while always keeping an engaging, almost playful tone. There are many reasons why it worked for me so well. Before I get into the review, I want to say that as a white, Christian, American that has no interest in kink I am definitely not the reviewer to understand the intricacies of this memoir. I encourage you to seek out reviewers from different backgrounds than me to get a fuller picture of this book.

The memoir is in the form of various chapters examining the author’s travels. It takes place in the summer of 2016, when Randa Jarrar decided to take a solo cross-country road trip through the United States. However, most of the book has nothing to do with the road trip, and is a series of her reflecting on past memories. This book examines the reality of living as a fat woman of color in the United States. Jarrar has experienced a lot, including being doxxed by a mob of alt-right trolls after calling out white feminism in regards to Barbara Bush’s death. I truly respect how open and honest they were about this traumatic experience, even offering examples of the vile, racist hate mail she received. This authenticity carries throughout the narrative.

The first thing that stood out to me is that Jarrar never fails to examine her positionality in the situations that they describe. They are quick to own where they lack and have privilege, and never fail to call out bigotry in the situations they describes. One example that particularly stood out to me was when they were faced with the racism and xenophobia of a white woman at a rest stop. The woman assumed Jarrar was white and spouted off stereotypes about Black people and Syrian refugees. Jarrar did not entertain the woman’s bigotry and swiftly called her out. This book was a great example of how to think about intersectionality.

Another thing I loved about this book was Randa Jarrar’s matter-of-fact writing style. It is so refreshing to read a voice that is so unapologetic in the face of so many people that want her to hate herself, as well as tumultuous world events. Reading this book inspired me to start having more of that self-acceptance in my own life. While the things she did are not always likable, she does make the reader understand her thinking. This attitude makes the writing engaging throughout. At the same time, the unflinching look at Jarrar’s life events makes the parts of the book where they describe being abused and mistreated harrowing. I do not think this is a negative, I think this actually is a strength of the memoir. However, it could be a lot for some readers to handle.

Readers should know before they pick up this book that this memoir describes instances of racism, prejudice against Arabs, misogyny, violence, fatphobia, abuse from a parent and significant other (including child sexual abuse and domestic violence), forced dieting, and eating disorder behavior. It also includes graphic descriptions of sex and BDSM and instances of interactions with the police.

Overall, this book is a great examination of one woman’s experience of the world, made up of small, seemingly disjointed narratives that piece together beautifully. If you can handle it, you might enjoy it.

Danika reviews Love is an Ex-Country by Randa Jarrar

I can’t resist a book with a Carmen Maria Machado blurb, so I picked this up knowing very little about it. In theory, this is about Randa Jarrar’s road trip across the U.S., inspired by Tahia Carioca’s cross-country road trip. It took place in 2016 as a way to re-engage with her country, trying to find some connection with it after the alienation of Trump’s election. I say “in theory” because this book actually has very little to do with that trip. It’s an exploration of being a fat queer Arab woman in America through vignettes of her life.

Jarrar discusses what it’s like to be a white-passing Arab woman in the U.S., including having white people expect her to agree with their racist comments. She describes being pulled over by a police officer who is sympathetic, and even trying to convince him to give her a warning–she knows she is safe, being read as white. When she goes home, she discovers that Philando Castile was pulled over that same day. She also traces the history of tropes and stereotypes about Arabs in the U.S., and how that racism has transformed over time, often enforcing contradictory ideas.

While this is a memoir, it reminded me of an essay collection meets poetry: Jarrar often writes in short paragraphs juxtaposing different topics. In the space of one page, she examines dolls from half a dozen perspectives: as playthings, as childhood punching bags, as used in therapy, as gifts, as sexualized muse by certain artists, and being treated as one. It feels like there are spaces between these ideas for the reader to fill in, to actively make those connections.

This is a book that requires a lot of trigger warnings. She includes harrowing details of her abuse, including physical abuse by her father, domestic abuse, and reproductive coercion. She was briefly infamous for a tweet that was critical of Barbara Bush after her death, reacting to her feed praising her, saying, “Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal. Fuck outta here with your nice words.” In response, she received a barrage of hate mail, including vitriolic death threat emails that are included in this collection. She was doxed, and her critics attempted to get her fired–unsuccessfully, because she had tenure, but the university put out a statement denouncing her comments.

Jarrar is Palestinian, which informs her politics. She describes trying to visit Palestine, and the terrifying hoops she had to jump through. She spent the weeks before travel studying on exactly what to say to the Israeli border guards, whose names to use, which reasons were acceptable for visiting. She is detained by teenage Israel boys, who seem bored. They are kept for hours for seemingly no reason. Their passports are taken away. After facing a long line of bureaucratic hurdles, they can still be sent back to the U.S. for no apparent reason, unable to step foot in their home, kept out by another country.

Sexuality is fraught in Jarrar’s story, often accompanied by abuse. When she finds BDSM, it opens up new doors for her: “Until BDSM, a lot of sex felt like assault.” In this community, boundaries are respected. Everything is negotiated in advance, and nothing is taken for granted. Kink meant consent and safety, knowing exactly what to expect. Through it, she is able to reclaim sexuality, and finds empowerment both in taking control and being able to safely relinquish it.

This memoir left me with a lot to think about. Jarrar describes suffering through so much abuse in her life, and feeling trapped and powerless. She discusses racism and misogyny and how they underpin so much of American society. At the same time, there is hope here. She is also a proud fat queer Arab woman, unafraid to speak her mind. If you want a thoughtful, challenging memoir that will leave you thinking, definitely pick this one up.

My second husband did not want me to be on top. He made sounds, squirming and uncomfortable, when I was on top. He told me a year after we’d gotten together than my body crushed his. His body was smaller than my body. One afternoon, in bed, he nonchalantly told me that I needed to lose a hundred pounds. To shrink myself for him. (Conceivably) to be his equal. I would marry him, cry for years, and leave him, before I realized he did this because he could never make himself big enough–intellectually, financially, sexually–to be my equal.

Shannon reviews Half Broke by Ginger Gaffney

Half Broke by Ginger Gaffney

I’m not much of a nonfiction reader, but the synopsis of Half Broke, a memoir written by Ginger Gaffney, peeked my interest. It’s not a story about being a lesbian. Rather, it’s a heart-warming story about a woman who loves horses and how she uses that love to change the lives of a group of convicted felons. Ginger is a lesbian, and although her sexuality doesn’t play a huge part in the overall story arc, it’s an important part of who the author is, and I’m so glad she didn’t choose to shy away from discussing it.

The story starts with a call for help. Ginger, a well-respected horse trainer, is asked to assist a group of prison inmates serving out their sentences on an alternative prison ranch in New Mexico. It seems the horses on the ranch have been exhibiting some strange and dangerous behaviors, and since no one on the ranch has much practical experiences with horses, they’re in need of professional help. Ginger, who is somewhat of an introvert, reluctantly agrees to assess the troubled horses and help out if she is able. She’s not sure what to expect when she arrives on the ranch, but it soon becomes clear she’ll be able to make a difference in the lives of both the animals and the prisoners.

The ranch is run almost exclusively by the prisoners themselves. There are numerous rules and policies that keep things running smoothly, and it takes Ginger some time to truly become comfortable in this new environment. Fortunately, her strong desire to promote healing for the horses serves as a sort of in-road for her, and she eventually comes to care deeply for a number of the prisoners and all of the horses.

This could have been a really sappy book, but Gaffney’s approach is wonderfully down-to-earth. She doesn’t paint herself as the white knight, sweeping in to save the day. Instead, she reflects on the numerous ways people and animals were able to work together, creating a better world for all involved. Her strong sense of personal responsibility toward those she works with shines through, as do her personal vulnerabilities. Her life hasn’t always been easy, and she’s quite candid about the mistakes she’s made along the way.

At its core, Half Broke is a love letter to horses and those who work tirelessly to partner with them. It’s an unflinching look at the American justice system and how it both helps and harms those who get caught up in it. Certain chapters proved painful to read, but I’m so glad I stuck with it. It was exactly the book I needed this fall.