Danika reviews War of Streets and Houses by Sophie Yanow



An American artist witnesses the Quebec spring 2012 student strike on the streets of Montreal. The brutal police response and their violent tactics trigger an exploration of urban planning and its hidden connections to military strategies. Marshal Bugeaud’s urban warfare tactics in Algeria, Haussmann’s plan for Paris, planning and repression in the New World; theory and personal experience collide into an ambitious and poetic cartoon memoir.

I don’t usually post the blurb for books, but I don’t think I can describe what this book is any more concisely than that. I was both excited and a little bit intimidated to pick this one up. I love a lesbian political book, and I have a soft spot for queer graphic novels, so this promised to be a good read, but it also seemed very… smart. And it is a little bit academic for a comic memoir: there are even endnotes that cite sources! These ideas are presented pretty accessibly, though. War of Streets and Houses is a series of vignettes, not a continuous narrative. Some focus on Yanow’s witness of and participation in the Quebec student protests, while others ruminate on the nature of the city and how it can affect what social change is possible.

The art style is usually loose and undetailed, but it varies. Some pages show the city as an overwhelming force in the background. One of my favourite sections of the book describes Yanow’s adjustment to living in the city by erasing this background, showing Yanow as a small silhouette against the expanse of white. Some of these drawings show more of her own internal landscape than the physical architecture, which is an interesting contrast, because a lot of the book does focus on the physical layout of the city.

Yanow briefly touches on lots of ideas that are really fascinating, mostly around urban planning and control. She shows the link that urban planning has to military tactics and now police enforcement, and how wide, modernist spaces are also conducive to controlling the masses, while winding, narrow streets can help protect resistance. She also talks about feeling an inevitable draw towards the city because she is queer, because the city is supposed to be a place where being queer is a realistic possibility. We also see glimpses of Yanow’s queer community, and a small acknowledgment of how Yanow’s whiteness factors into her activism and feeling of safety.

This is a very short read, only a 64-page graphic novel, but it will leave you thinking. If the blurb sounds at all appealing, you should give War of Streets and Houses a try.

Danika reviews Falling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home by Catherine Reid



When I first picked up Falling into Place, I thought it was a memoir. While it can read like one, it’s actually a collection of related essays. This collection focuses in equal parts on Reid’s personal life and her love of nature, weaving in narratives about a particular otter, or the story of passenger pigeons, or Reid’s conflicting feelings on Canada geese. In the acknowledgments section, Reid remarks “In their shapes and meanders, the personal essay and the long walk have much in common, most notably in their valuing of the journey over the destination.” This is a good encapsulation of Falling into Place, which reads like a unhurried wander through wilderness. Personally, I can often get distracted when books include long descriptions of scenery, but though Reid’s collection focuses on nature, it never seems excessively “flowery”. Each bird or tree has a story, a narrative intersecting with Reid’s own. Where Licking the Spoon uses food and The Body Geographic uses maps, Falling into Place uses nature as a theme to frame her own story.

I loved the languid, poetic pace of these essays. Because each essay can stand independently, there’s no rush to reach the end. Still, the essays match together well, and can easily be read back to back with no feeling of lurching into a different gear. They have a quiet flow to them, feeling like different dimensions of the same story. They vaguely remind me of Ivan Coyote, one of my favourite authors, with their celebration of the landscape and the deep roots of home in place.

Although nature is the main focus of these essays, Reid does not shy away from mentioning her wife or her sexuality. It is not a major part of the book, but I appreciate that it is addressed matter-of-factly, from her family’s reaction to her coming out, to her choice to get married (but not have a ceremony), to everyday life with her wife.

I found this to be a thought-provoking, but oddly soothing read. It will make you consider the huge impact human beings have had on other animals and wildlife throughout history, but the writing style is so smooth that it a pleasure to curl up and slowly read. If you are a nature lover, or a fan of memoirs and personal essays, Falling into Place should be on your list.

Danika reviews Lies About My Family: A Memoir by Amy Hoffman


Perhaps it’s unfair to read a book that you know you’re not in the mood for. Lies About My Family got positive reviews by Alison Bechdel and Anita Diamant, and I can’t say that it’s badly written… It’s just not a book I personally enjoyed very much. Lies About My Family is, of course, a memoir about Amy Hoffman’s family. They are Jewish immigrants, and Hoffman tells the stories of three generations of her family, primarily focusing on their identification and yet struggle with Jewish culture and religion, as well as the migration narrative. It covers many different people’s stories: some connecting, some just fragments. It is a compilation of stories that doesn’t seem to have a narrative thread of its own, instead grouping stories into nebulous categories that skip from person to person and across time.

I think that my problem is that I have read too many similar memoirs at this point. I suspect that more lesbians write memoirs than most of the rest of the population, because I have received many autobiographical books to review. Some are fantastic and have their own story to tell. Some don’t have a truly unique story, but are written so beautifully that it carries the book. I’m reminded of The Body Geographic, except that that memoir used the metaphor of maps to connect stories together, just as Licking the Spoon used food. I definitely think parts of this memoir were interesting, but overall I felt like some overarching thread was missing. I also feel like I’ve read a lot of family migration memoirs (though not really any with people of colour, oddly). As you can tell, this is an entirely personal preference. If you’re interested in a well-written Jewish lesbian memoir that also focuses on her family’s migration from Russia to the US, you will probably enjoy this book! It is also a pretty quick read: only 150 pages. It just wasn’t what I was looking for right now. I am still intrigued to read Amy Hoffman’s other book, An Army of Ex-Lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News.

Danika reviews Freak of Nurture by Kelli Dunham


I picked up Freak of Nurture, a collection of essays and autobiographical stories by comedian Kelli Dunham, because Dunham seemed to have a sense of humour I enjoy, the writing sounded strong, and so far nothing published by Topside Press has steered me wrong. And Dunham is funny! I wasn’t wrong about that. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was the sort of dark topics that Freak of Nurture covers, from her growing up with alcoholic parents to having two successive partners both die from the same (usually curable) cancer, to volunteering as a nurse in Haiti. This is not light material. And yet somehow, even when reading about this really difficult experiences, the writing style is so compelling that I could hardly put it down. I read almost the entire book in a day. The topics covered in this collection are really interesting, including Dunham’s genderqueer lesbian identity, her comedy career, and her attempts to become a nun in her twenties.

This collection covered such a range that I really think there’s something in here to interest anyone. I tweeted near the beginning of reading Freak of Nurture that I was enjoying it and would recommend it to anyone looking for a light, funny memoir. Well, it gets a lot more emotional later on, but there still is a comedian flare to these stories, and Dunham always managed to slip in some sarcastic joke even in a heartbreaking scenario. The last essay in this book is a conversation in which she repels cocktail party guests looking for funny quips from the resident comedian:

KELLI: I called my most recent girlfriend my miracle love because I thought I would never love anyone after my other girlfriend died. She developed, and then died from the same disease my first girlfriend had. Having two partners who die of cancer withing a five-year period is an extremely statistically unlikely negative situation, which is kind of the opposite of the concept of a miracle.


Kelli: Some people find irony humorous.

You may recognize Kelli Dunham from accepting Lambda Literary Award for best bisexual non-fiction on behalf of her late partner Cheryl Burke for Burke’s autobiography My Awesome Place. I would definitely recommend Freak of Nurture to just about anyone, whether you’re reading it for the bits about gender, lesbian jokes, nursing anecdotes, tales of a queer ex-nun, or just human experiences told well. Kelli Dunham has written several others books to do with nursing, but I hope that she comes out with other autobiographical collections, because I’ll definitely want to pick those up. And that’s another great read from Topside Press!

Danika reviews Body Geographic by Barrie Jean Borich


This is a very smart book. Sometimes I open a book and immediately realize that this has been carefully crafted and very well-written, which, oddly, can also mean that it may be a less instantly enjoyable book: it may take some time and energy to read as well as to write. Body Geographic is definitely one of those books. It is a memoir that uses maps and migration as metaphor in piecing together Borich’s life. There are occasional maps interspersed with the text, and sections are labelled things like “Inset of Bodies so Real” and “First is the Map of Withstanding”. Borich and her families’ stories are told in fragments like this, not in a linear order.

I got the feeling like I was getting snapshots of people: evocative, but not even close to the full story. As Borich circles back to the same people or time periods, more layers get added to these brief impressions, but I still didn’t feel like I really knew these people. One example that I kept thinking about was Linnea. Linnea is Borich’s wife of two decades, but we do not really get a full conversation between them in the whole book. Linnea only speaks a handful of times. It’s as if she is lightly sketched, though more detail does get added later. I’m used to memoirs where I feel immersed in the “characters”, in their personalities, but there seemed to be a distance between the people in Body Geographic and the reader.

I may not be the ideal reader of Body Geographic: I am ridiculously, embarrassingly bad at geography, and I am not a visual person. I definitely don’t think in maps. I did find the metaphor a very interesting one, especially weaving the stories of her ancestors’ migrations and her own migration between her two home cities (Minneapolis and Chicago), but I am sure that anyone who has a better appreciation of maps and geography would enjoy it even more.

This is an extremely well-written memoir that was obviously very carefully put together, and I would recommend that it be read slowly, to really savor the writing and the style of it. It is surprisingly easy to read, but the fragmentation does make it harder to really sink into the story. This is a book that I appreciated the skill of, but didn’t necessarily feel emotionally invested in.

A warning, though: although Body Geographic seems to try to be positive while mentioning trans people, Borich uses the terms “biological woman” and “tr*nny”. Also, most of these references are towards trans women sex workers. I know that most of this book takes place during the 60s and 70s, but that’s still not okay.

If you’ve read Body Geographic, let me know what you thought of it in the comments!

Danika reviews Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family and Identity by Candace Walsh


One of the first books I reviewed for the Lesbrary was Dear John, I Love Jane edited by Candace Walsh and Laura Andre. I loved that book, both for the topic (complicating sexual orientation? Yes please) and the quality of the stories. So when I saw that one of the editors had written a memoir, I was excited to see if it lived up to the enthusiasm I had for Dear John, I Love Jane. I was not disappointed. I haven’t read any other food memoirs or food writing (… I don’t even know what the genre is called!), so I’m not sure how Licking the Spoon compares to the usual fare. The book isn’t about food as much as food is an ongoing theme; it adds a layer through which to interpret Walsh’s life, because her food choices reflect something about the way her life is going, whether she’s cooking up gourmet feasts or pennies-per-serving pea soup or frozen dinners.

Most importantly, I loved Walsh’s writing style. It flows well and kept me engaged regardless of what was being described. It’s funny, because Walsh describes being disappointed by her mother’s embellished stories about her family, but Licking the Spoon has such detailed, rich stories about her own life and previous generations’ lives that they can’t possibly be just the facts. Either way, it made it an absorbing read that I really enjoyed, and Walsh definitely has a life story worth telling.

I couldn’t find anything on the book itself that hints to queer content (though the Amazon description does), which I found interesting. The first chapter plays the pronoun game with her love interest. The queer content is introduced slowly, from hints in her childhood through dissatisfaction with her (heterosexual) marriage. I am always divided on this, because on the one hand, that makes it difficult for queer people to be able to find this book unless they’re researching online. On the other hand, I love the idea that straight readers could unknowingly pick this book up. It doesn’t categorize itself as only a queer book, and it isn’t! The memoir is much more about Walsh’s relationship with food, her family, and herself than it is about being queer. And it looks like this strategy was successful, because the Amazon ratings on this book are ridiculously high: of 39 reviews, 36 are five star and 3 are four star.

Whether you’re a foodie or a fan of lesbian memoirs, or you just like good writing telling a story well, I would definitely recommend Licking the Spoon and I hope to read more from Candace Walsh!

Danika reviews Prairie Silence by Melanie Hoffert


I have a strong draw towards rural queer stories. I’m not sure why, because I grew up in a mid-sized liberal/hippie city, but I find myself seeking out and basking in stories by Ivan Coyote, Rae Spoon, emily m. danforth and now Melanie Hoffert. I think it’s because the traditional narrative of queer lives is to leave behind small towns, that they are small-minded and irreparable. I like narratives that challenge that. Prairie Silence is about Hoffert’s journey back to the prairies where she grew up. She left as soon as she could, feeling stifled as a queer person, but keeps feeling that draw to go back. Throughout the book, Hoffert tried to reconcile her complex feeling about this geography.

I found that Prairie Silence took a little while to find its feet. Sometimes the metaphors seem to get away from her, and there isn’t really a structure for the first part of the book. Soon, though, Hoffert begins to cycle between telling her childhood stories of growing up queer and her present-day attempts to figure out her home state. Faith ends up playing a big role in the book, because she was deeply religious as a young person. I liked the stories about her past the best, especially with the contrast of her present. Part of the present-day action in Prairie Silence consists of trying to figure out small town America. Hoffert sort of takes tours of towns around her hometown. It oddly reminded me of the (non-queer) book America Unchained, and the mix of romanticization and pessimism rubs me the wrong way, for some reason. I guess because it’s people’s everyday lives as tourist attractions (which isn’t uncommon).

Overall, I really liked Prairie Silence. (The title addresses the don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude around uncomfortable topics that Hoffert feels consumes the prairies.) I found myself going back and re-reading passages, just to let them sink in. I also thought that the narrative wrapped up well, when Hoffert comes to terms with the prairies not necessarily meeting her expectations. I definitely think this one is worth picking up.

Oh, and if you want a romance novel that addresses similar themes (but in a completely different writing style/genre, obviously), I really liked The Long Way Home by Rachel Spangler (link leads to my review).

Danika reviews I’ll Call It Like I See It: A Lesbian Speaks Out by Sheila Morris


I was expecting I’ll Call It Like I See It to be a memoir, but it’s actually a collection of essays (though most of them are autobiographical). The collection reads almost like a compilation of a local newspaper article, or a personal blog–which makes sense, because the author does have a blog by the same name. The essays cover a range of topics, and they were pretty hit or miss for me. A lot of time is spent setting the stage, establishing background for stories that don’t really go anywhere. (A couple of times, this background included statistics about cities, including citing a website in the text body.) There were also essays that concerned recent political events, which I’m sure would be interesting context ten years from now, but seemed redundant at this point. I do feel like I would probably have enjoyed or at least understood this book more if I had read her earlier books, which I understand are more traditional memoirs. This volume mostly concerns recent years and recent events. Topics like the commercialization of Christmas or the ups and downs of local football teams just didn’t capture my attention, though I’m sure they’d be more interesting if I knew the people or places involved.

There are some interesting tidbits here, though. I think the strongest element of I’ll Call It Like I See It is in the author’s relationship with her mother, and the detailing of her mother’s dementia. Morris also skims over really interesting material, which makes me wonder if they are covered in other books. For example, she mentions an affair with a preacher’s wife. Her description of her maternal grandmother makes it sound like she deserves a book of her own: this grandmother was widowed and raised her children during the great depression, while battling her own personal depression. Although this collection isn’t one of my favourites, it has made me curious enough about the author’s previous books that I might just pick one up anyways.

Danika reviews Before the Rain: A Memoir of Love & Revolution by Luisita Lopez Torregrosa


Before the Rain is a beautifully-written memoir that is just what the subtitle promises: about love and revolution. It focuses equally on Torregrosa’s experiences as a newspaper editor and reporter overseas in the 80s, as well as her almost a decade long love affair with a woman named Elizabeth. From the beginning, their relationship comes across as passionate and compelling, but with a note of inevitable tragedy. At times it reminded me of a lesbian pulp in the dramatics and emotion, though it was completely believable. I was also reminded of Jeanne Cordova’s memoir When We Were Outlaws. Both balance an intense and often destructive relationship with high-stakes politics. Cordova’s activism takes place in the US, however, while Torregrosa covers political climates in several countries, mostly the Philippines. (Both are also memoirs written by Latina women, coincidentally.)

Place definitely takes a central role in this book. Torregrosa and Elizabeth travel a lot as foreign reporters, and each place has a huge impact on their relationship. They spend most of their time in Manila in the Philippines. Torregrosa has a skill with establishing mood and setting with small details, and Manila is established as a significant character in the story. This, plus the segment of the book that takes place during monsoon season, reminded me of Miss Timmins’ School for Girls (despite that being a novel). Elizabeth and Torregrosa feel stifled in big cities, feeling much more free and real where the poverty and revolution of Manila was at their front doorstep. In some ways I felt as if they were romanticizing the poverty and upheaval described, however, because Torregrosa and Elizabeth both have lives that partly consist of hanging out by the pool and going to cocktail parties. Manila may have seemed more real to them, but they were also sheltered from the negative aspects, even when they were reporting on it. But there’s a romance to travel in general in the book, as well as in writing.

As a warning, this isn’t a narrative that really feels like there have been major changes from the beginning to the end. It’s not so much a linear “plot”-driven memoir, but more like a long meditation on a relationship. It’s like Before the Rain starts with the question that most break-ups come to, “What went wrong?” but wrote out the entire story, not just a rough sketch. In the beginning, I found Torregrosa much more sympathetic in their relationship. She seemed passionate, though sometimes explosive, versus Elizabeth’s coldness. Elizabeth came across as secretive, moody, and distant. As the story progressed, however, Torregrosa’s passion seemed to manifest more into rages and moods, and I began to find myself sympathizing more with Elizabeth.

From the beginning, their relationship seems fraught, and there never seems to be a way that it could end well. By the end (spoilers?), though the relationship ends in the mid-90s and this book was published in 2012, the author doesn’t seem to have distanced herself from it. She describes still imagining Elizabeth there with her, and I got the general sense of only a short period of time passing, maybe a year, not more than a decade. (But she does describe Elizabeth not fully leaving her life, so I suppose that explains it.)

The strength of this book is in the lyrical writing, and its ability to establish place and mood in a nuanced, compelling way. If you are okay with a memoir that is more of a contemplation of a passionate, deeply flawed relationship than it is a progression from point a to point b, I highly recommend this one.

Danika reviews First Spring Grass Fire by Rae Spoon

From about the first page of First Spring Grass Fire, I was already frustrated, for three reasons: 1) it is very well-written, 2) it is very short, and 3) it is, at the moment, Rae Spoon’s only book. I was dreading getting to the end of the book pretty much the moment I started it.

I first discovered Rae Spoon’s music by their tour with Ivan E. Coyote. I adore Coyote’s storytelling, and Rae Spoon’s music was a great match. I still listen to their music all the time, especially “We Become Our Own Wolves” and “Come On Forest Fire Burn the Disco Down”, so when I heard that Spoon was coming out with a book, I was really excited. First Spring Grass Fire does not disappoint. In a lot of ways, their writing does remind me of Ivan E. Coyote’s. Both talk about fictionalized (?) short stories from their own lives. Both have very easy-to-read, casual styles that simultaneously are deeply moving. Both discuss growing up queer in rural environments.

But Rae Spoon has a style all their own, as well. There are moments of almost poetry in their work. There is also a rawness and urgency to First Spring Grass Fire that is far away from Coyote’s usually positive remembrances of her childhood. Rae Spoon describes growing up trans and queer in a very conservative environment, but that pales to their childhood with their abusive and schizophrenic father. It is definitely, as the back cover says, “quietly devastating, heart-wrenching. . . “, but of course there is also a strength and hope to their memoir, knowing that Spoon escapes and thrives.

This book is intensely personal. Rae Spoon invites the reader into the most painful and difficult moments of their childhood, and shields very little. We get moments, quickly jumping from time to time and location to location. They are incredibly evocative, but they are only brief excerpts. As I have said, it makes me eager to read more of Rae Spoon’s work. I very much hope that they will be writing more, because from this slim collection alone (along with their beautifully written music), Rae Spoon has already been added to my list of favorite, just as emily m. danforth managed to do with her debut book. In case it isn’t obvious, I highly, highly recommend this one, especially for Ivan E. Coyote fans and for people looking for more stories of trans young adults.