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Review of Teaching the Cat to Sit

9781451697292‘Teaching the Cat to Sit’ by Michelle Theall
Reviewed by Sara Rauch
21 May, 2014 Lambda Literary

Michelle Theall’s new memoir, Teaching the Cat to Sit, brings some big topics—God, sexuality, abuse, loneliness, love, family—to the page. It’s a rocky ride, full of contentious conversations, frank disclosures, and plenty of struggle.

Teaching the Cat to Sit presents two interwoven narratives: first, adult Michelle’s struggle to get her adopted son baptized in the Catholic Church, her decision to pull him from the Catholic school he attends, and the ongoing battle to win her mother and father’s acceptance. The second narrative begins with Michelle’s youth—a journey that leads her through abuse, her grasping to understand her sexuality, a brush with a pedophile priest, her first relationship with another woman in college, her attempts to “turn straight,” her coming out, her leaving her home state, and the healing process that eventually leads her to her life partner. A lot happens in this book—and Theall moves through the circumstances of her life with remarkable dexterity.

Theall writes with compelling honesty about loneliness—in fact, the title of the book comes from a line she overhears her father say to her mother on that topic—and the feeling she so plainly articulates has real resonance. And while her loneliness hobbles and confuses her as a young adult, her ability to be alone is ultimately what heals her.

God plays a big role in Teaching the Cat to Sit. And this isn’t just any God; this is the Catholic God—not exactly touchy-feely, not exactly a paragon of acceptance. And those with major chips on their shoulder in regards to the Catholic Church and its treatment of gays may balk at some of what Theall says. But ultimately, Theall’s grappling with the God of her youth deconstructs a very real barrier between public and private. God is, on one hand, such a personal choice, and worship, while often done in public, is arguably one of the most private acts we humans do. For Theall, having been forced to keep secrets for most of her life—to protect herself, to gain her family’s love—privacy has too long meant silence. And the breaking of a silence she is no longer willing to bear becomes the ultimate act of bravery, one that threatens to crack the delicate acceptance she’s gained from her family.

There are moments when I wanted Theall to slow down, to let me in and show me a little more of her internal struggle—but a book of this scope, covering as much ground as it does, can make that sustained interiority difficult. Some of the moments Theall presents, especially her encounters with wildlife, allow us a telling window into her state of mind—those moments of understanding, of transformation and acceptance, are very powerful.

Read entire review and more at: LAMBDA LITERARY

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Feel So Mortal

9780226105277Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body
by Peggy Shinner
Reviewed by July Westhale
Lambda Literary

“The domestic made lethal – that’s the legend.”
-Peggy Shinner

We live in a society entrenched in matters of the body. Sexualization, fetishization, policing, ableism, movement, tangibility, and the body politic, our corporality is absolutely everywhere. Despite the fact that bodies are subject to intensive scrutiny, the historical origin of how bodies have been perceived throughout time (everything from feet to slouching to undergarments) remains mysteriously out of the realm of everyday knowledge. How is it, for example, that foot shape determined class and stature, traditionally? How has the body been commodified in times of martial economies (i.e., dowry economy)?

In her illuminating book of essays, Peggy Shinner tackles those exact discussions. Using the craft of braided narrative, Shinner weaves together historical fact, socio-political theory, and personal experience to create essays that grapple with our culture’s multitudinous interactions with the body. In her essay “The Knife”, for example, the reader is taken through Shinner’s personal experience as a martial arts teacher, the history of karate and fighting with weapons, the concept of arming oneself against a world that is marginalizing, and what it means to work with your hands in a world of abstract technological importance. Similarly, her essay on kleptomania offers insight into the history of the word (and how it was used to describe a sexual disorder, primarily occurring in women who found amorous rapture in stealing things from department stores), while laying the tracks for her own stories to shine through.

Truly, this is a collection of essays that takes the idea of making the personal global extremely seriously.

Read entire review and others at LAMBDA LITERARY.

Review of Falling Into Place

9780807009925Falling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home
by Catherine Reid
Review by July Westhale
23 March 2014
Lambda Literary

Borges says, in his literary theory, that there are more or less six themes that authors write about, six stories they tell, though the narratives may vary. All have to do with the human condition: how we love, how we live, how we make a life for ourselves, how we interact with the physical/metaphysical/spiritual, our literal and figurative place in the world. Following this metric, Catherine Reid’s newest collection of nature-centric essays, Falling into Place: An Intimate Geography of Home, is the perfect example of how the personal becomes global through familiar tropes. Utilizing her relationship to her home in the Berkshires as well as the deeply-crafted life with her partner, Reid juxtaposes her identity as a native New Englander with her otherness as a lesbian woman to create lyric tension that sustains the ambivalence of the narrative.

Such careful, intimate consideration of place is difficult to do in our day of technology. It is more common to see visitors experiencing the world through the lens of their iPhones or digital cameras than navigating nature through their known memory, as vessels (the body) contained in larger vessels (the natural universe). Reid manages to skillfully connect with the art of physically and primally knowing a landscape, as an animal might. Everything from her deep connection with the water (and thus, the scarcity) of her home to the catastrophes that have occurred over time (as in the story of the oil spill that would have wiped out an entire ecosystem within one river had it not been for the skillful navigation of a select beaver population), demonstrates the careful and intentional consideration of place as a character in the larger narrative of Reid’s life.

Read entire review and more at LAMBDA LITERARY

Kate Delafield in High Desert

9781935226659The Return of Kate Delafield
Posted on 19, March, 2014 by Victoria Brownworth
Lambda Literary

Some old friends you only see occasionally, but when you do, you realize how much you have missed them. I feel that way about Kate Delafield. It’s been years since I’ve seen her (eight, to be exact), but when I ran into her again in Katherine Forrest’s new novel, High Desert, I was very glad to see her.

Katherine Forrest is one of our iconic lesbian mystery novelists and Kate Delafield was our first out lesbian detective.

With nearly a decade since Forrest’s last foray into the seamy world of the LAPD, it may have seemed as if we wouldn’t see Delafield again.

But–she’s back. Not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with a full-throated cry of foul at the various hands she’s been dealt since we saw her last.

High Desert, the ninth in Forrest’s Delafield series, opens anomalously, sans crime. The detective is re-arranging herself in her own living room as she awaits a visit from her former lieutenant, now a captain, Carolina Walcott. The smooth, tough, driven, no-nonsense African-American Walcott is visiting a subordinate for a very specific reason:

She needs Kate’s help finding Kate’s former partner, Joe Cameron.

There’s no crime. Well, no new crime. There is, however, the ghost of an old case, one of those cases that breaks a detective. That case–Tamara Carter’s murder–has haunted Joe and by extension, Kate.

Captain Walcott needs to find Joe, who’s disappeared while on a leave of absence, and fast. Kate is now forcibly retired and she has issues. Her longtime partner, Aimee, has left her. Again. Alcohol has become her best friend. Another actual best friend, Maggie Schaeffer, owner of the Nightwood Bar that was the scene of one of Kate’s early cases, is dying of lung cancer in hospice care. And now the remnants of Kate’s life are all around her in an ugly, untidy, possibly unfixable mess.

Walcott’s visit is unsettling in the extreme because it rips right through Kate’s thin veneer (more like mask) of complacent retirement. After a quarter century on the job, the 60-something Kate is at a loss. Every time she thinks about what she should do next, the most obvious answer lies in a nearby bottle, of which she has many.

Walcott suggests therapy with Calla Dearborn, who may or may not be Walcott’s lover.

Like every loner addict, Kate is infuriated by the suggestion that she needs help. After all, she’s the one who has helped others all along. She wants to shove Walcott out the door, but the tantalizing lifeline that Walcott has tossed her can’t be ignored. She takes Dearborn’s card. And agrees to help Walcott find Cameron.

High Desert is proof there is life in the old gal yet–both Forrest, who is hitting 75 next month–and Delafield, who remains the complex and engaging character she always was.

This is solid detective fiction of the page-turning sort. If the early chapters feel too caught up in Kate’s personal turmoil, that’s essential to what comes next. As Kate takes on Walcott’s mission, we see how her detective skills have not diminished one iota.

Read entire review at: LAMBDA LITERARY

Mrs. Madrigal Is Back

9780062196248‘The Days of Anna Madrigal’ by Armistead Maupin
Reviewed by Ken Harvey for Lambda Literary
27 January 2014

Reading The Days of Anna Madrigal (HarperCollins), the ninth novel in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, is a little like attending the reunion of one’s family–the logical rather than biological one, as Mrs. Madrigal might say. Characters some of us have known since the late 1970s are now in their sixties. Mrs. Madrigal’s former tenant, the now sixty-seven year old Brian Hawkins, is newly married to the big-hearted Wren, with whom he lives in a Winnebago. Brian’s former wife, Mary Ann Singleton, who returned to San Francisco in Maupin’s 2010 novel, Mary Ann in Autumn, is back (although briefly), as is Michael Tolliver, also known as “Mouse,” now married to the much younger Ben. And of course there’s Anna Madrigal, bestower of wisdom, still vibrant if not frail at 92, her life’s work now dedicated to “leaving like a lady.”

Many of the characters in The Days of Anna Madrigal may be from the past, but they fully inhabit a contemporary world. Maupin’s Tales of the City novels are nothing if not a reflection of the times in which they were written, and Anna Madrigal is no exception. Years from now, one can imagine a glossary at the end of these books to clarify what will become obscure references and dated language. Who will remember the Chick-fil-A boycott in fifty years? And what about expressions like “amazeballs,” “throw shade,” and “chillax”? Yet while Maupin has always had his finger on the pulse of contemporary language, he is also capable of elegantly written sentences that are so unobtrusive that their wistfulness and melancholy can almost go unnoticed. Of Mrs. Madrigal and her tenant and caretaker Jake he writes, “One afternoon last winter, after the first cold snap, he came home from the gym to find her asleep in her chair, the remains of an amethyst candle dripping off the end of the table like a Dali clock.” Of course it’s not just melancholy that Maupin weaves throughout the book. Also on display is Maupin’s trademark humor that emerges from the characters and situations: there are no clunky punch lines in this prose. Maupin’s wit is part of the novel’s fabric.

The Days of Anna Madrigal begins in present day San Francisco, but two road trips bring us to Anna’s hometown of Winnemucca and to Burning Man, the temporary city erected and destroyed in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert each year. Lasting only one week, the festival is among other things, an oasis of radical self-expression and self-reliance. Trips of a different sort are the flashbacks to Anna’s younger years, before she left Winnemucca at age sixteen. And so in addition to the former denizens of 28 Barbary Lane, we meet new people, too: the son of Anna’s childhood friend, revelers at Burning Man, and a different version of someone we’ve known for years, as we see Anna (nee Andy) in her pre-transition youth.

Quentin Crisp once referred to Maupin as “the man who invented San Francisco,” and it’s easy to see why. The city came so alive for its many readers that the books lured more than a few transplants to the Bay Area. If there’s an autumnal quality to The Days of Anna Madrigal, it’s not just its meditations on old age and dying (which, by the way, never weight the story down); it’s also because when Maupin sets his characters out on their road trips, we say goodbye to San Francisco, too. Maupin has announced that Anna Madrigal will be the last novel in the series, so it’s fitting that once we leave the city for Nevada, we don’t return.

Read entire review and much more at LAMBDA LITERARY

Portlandia Coming to Print

The Portlandia Activity Book
Posted on 13. Jan, 2014 by William Johnson in Features, News
Lambda Literary Review

portlandia_cover_FINAL_STOREWhen in doubt, put a bird on it. Next month, McSweeny’s is releasing The Portlandia Activity Book, a companion piece to the popular television IFC television show Portlandia. The book, written by Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen and Johnathan Krisel, provides fun-filled activities for the whole hipster family.

____________________________________

From the publisher:

This is The Portlandia Activity Book—a compendium of guaranteed enrichment for the Pacific Northwestern part of your psyche. Like a cool high school that prefers a sweat lodge to the traditional classroom, this book will expand your mind through participation, dehydrate you to a state of emotional rawness, then linger in the corners your bare soul.

Here you will find enough activities to get you through a year’s worth of rainy days, including: How to Crowdfund Your Baby, Punk Paint By Numbers, Terrarium Foraging, and so much more. With pages unlike any you’ve seen before, this is the kind of book that you can be yourself around. Shed the trappings of normalcy, let down your glorious mane, and take the deepest breath of your life. Portlandia is beckoning your arrival.

Read entire column and other stories and reviews at LAMBDA LITERARY.

I Like Writing About Sex

Donna Minkowitz: Growing Up and Writing It All Down
Posted on 15. Dec, 2013 by Sarah Burghauser
From Lambda Literary

Donna-MinkowitzThis past October, former Village Voice contributor and activist journalist Donna Minkowitz released her hot-blooded new memoir, Growing Up Golem (Magnus), about her struggle with the inhibitive physical condition RSI, her injurious family history, and the intimacy of abuse.

In an email exchange with the Lambda Literary award winner, Donna discussed the roles of fantasy, identity, and writing sex in Growing Up Golem.

I’d like to start with a quote from your book: “I have never felt particularly Jewish or lesbian. I identify much more, I say, as a sort of sexy, holy kid on a motorcycle. The kid may be male. He’s an effeminate boy with long hair. I think he has pork remnants on his fingers.”

When I read these lines I began to wonder if you consider your book to be more of a queer memoir? A Jewish memoir? A disability memoir? Or something else entirely? In other words, is there a particular part of your story that you see as the northern star? A theme more naturally fertile or interesting to you as a writer?

The reader should bear in mind that I’m saying these words at a very particular moment in the book; this is not always how I feel. (In the book, I’m saying those words as a member of a panel on “Jewish Lesbian Writers,” and of course I immediately feel the ways I don’t fit in that box.) Actually, I find I’m feeling both more “Jewish” (in terms of culture, not religion) and more “lesbian” as I get older. As to the rest of your question, the book is all of them and more! It’s also a memoir mixed with Tolkien-style fantasy. It’s impossible to separate the different aspects of it, just as it would be impossible to separate me into the queer Donna, the working-class Donna, the fantasy geek Donna and so on. Which is appropriate, because it’s a book about becoming whole.

When you read your book now, do you still see the Donna Minkowitz in the book as yourself or as a character? How much distance do you have now, or did you have during the writing process, from the “protagonist”?

Someone said about memoir, the writer must know more than the narrator, and the narrator must know more than the character. So there are really three Donnas here, the writer, the narrator (the voice telling the story), and the character (the person described as going through the events in the story).

I needed to have a great deal of distance during the writing process, because I think the whole point of doing a memoir is to really observe yourself and attempt to write about yourself with some insight. That’s only possible if you try to step away and really look at the things you do.

But of course, it’s also me. The Donna in the book does all the things I did, and goes through the same travails.

The sex scenes in the book are very powerful–the writing really stands out in these scenes. Can you talk a little bit about the experience of writing sex, specifically with this character?

I like writing about sex, and in particular, writing about real sexual and sensual experiences. Partly because I think the reality of sexual experiences is often elided in writing into something less ambiguous or ambivalent than sexual experiences often feel. All of the emotions and sensations you may feel at a particular time of having sex – fear, discomfort, and annoyance or anger, as well as excitement, ecstasy, connection and fullness – need to be written about. The other piece of it for me is that I just really like to convey sensual experiences of all kinds through words. I think descriptions of touch and smell can be some of the most lyrical writing there is, and I think they can give memoir more of a concrete base; a base in the physical world.

In reading, it seemed as though a lot of your healing and processing through your abuse happened during the actual writing process. As a reader I felt like I was watching your thoughts unfold before me. In the moment. Did it feel raw writing it? Does it still feel raw now? Or was this the effect of a highly calculated and arranged tone/approach to give readers that illusion?

I would say it’s almost entirely an illusion. I’m glad you felt like you were watching my thoughts unfold before you in real time, but that was definitely an illusion! I worked on the book for eight years, and almost all the events in the book had been over for a long time before I wrote about them. I mean for the book to feel raw – that was my goal. It is almost a book about feeling raw, as though you don’t have a protective outer layer. The main character doesn’t, or at least she starts out that way. One of the many meanings for “golem” in Hebrew is embryo… one of the newest, rawest and most vulnerable things there is. “Golem” also means fool, and it is partly a book about starting out not knowing how to run your own life, and then perhaps gradually learning how.

Read entire interview and much more at Lambda Literary.

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