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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

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.

Writing the Female Sex

Doris Lessing: Writing the Female Sex
by Victoria Brownworth
Lambda Literary
19 November 2013

The New York Times wrote a sharp, seething, unpleasant four-page screed of an obituary about her that was both shocking and Doris-Lessingunsurprising. The piece reminded me of how much Lessing was loathed by many because her ideas were so strong, her vision so demanding, the inability to pigeonhole her maddening and misogyny still so rampant. Those of us who loved her work were often taken to task for it–much as the Nobel Committee itself was for choosing her in 2007. (The gay literary critic, Harold Bloom, said of her winning, “Although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable–fourth-rate science fiction.”)

The work of women, and how women live, is still diminished and demeaned, most especially if those women don’t play nice, which Lessing, famously curmudgeonly, did not.

Yet nearly three generations of women and women writers have been taught by Lessing and her brilliant, groundbreaking work since her first novel was published in 1950 and they–we–learned about ourselves and who we could be through her work. Because Lessing lived nearly a century, because her work seems always to have been with us–she’d been writing since before many of us were born or even before our parents were–because she went through a wide range of styles and published more than 50 books of note, it was easy to forget how defining and definitive her work was even now, memorializing her.

Lessing schooled most of the lesbian writers of my age as well as those of the generation before. Lessing taught us to love women’s sexuality in a way no one else has before or since, not even someone like Eve Ensler, who has put our vaginas so vividly on display. Lessing put women’s sexuality and female independence in the forefront of all her work. She wrote about women in ways no one had done prior to novels like her masterpiece, the 1962 novels-within-a- novel, The Golden Notebook.

Virginia Woolf had begun the task of flinging wide the door to a room of one’s own, but it was Lessing who walked through that door and dropped, cross-legged on the floor, pad and pen before her, and then wrote about things women were told never to even talk about, let alone write down. She was sexual, political, emotional, contemplative.

She was strikingly, amazingly new. She was the avante-garde of post-modernist feminism.

Where women writers of a previous era had kept female sexuality under their skirts and at bay, like Austen, the Brontes, the Georges Eliot and Sand, Lessing opened it up for us. She opened our legs and minds to self-examination and female agency

It’s difficult to imagine some writers existing without the path forged by Lessing. Did she not give birth to literary lesbian writers like Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Walters? Can intimations of her style not be read in the novels of Sarah Schulman or Elena Dykewomon? Years ago my late friend Tee Corinne, the writer, artist and photographer, and I talked about Lessing and her impact on Tee’s generation of lesbians. It was Tee’s contention that Lessing had bridged a chasm between the more outré lesbian writers of the Paris literary set in the 1920s and the later, fully fledged lesbian writers of second-wave feminism.

Second-wave feminism and the radical lesbian feminism that went hand-in-glove with it were in full foment when I was in college. So when my Women’s Studies classes presented me with Lessing (who was, I realize now, the same age as my grandmother), writing about sex in a way I had never even heard of, it was stunning.

Lessing, more than any writer I had read to that time, including those lesbian writers of that Paris set, taught me I could be not just a sexual creature, but that I could write about sex, too. Lessing clarified that I could write about femaleness and lesbian sexuality not as something to be hidden or suborned, but as something to revel in, explicate and illumine. Lessing’s Anna Wulf, the hera of The Golden Notebook, was an icon for women, a template for lesbians like myself trying to place our writing in the context of female-centered sexuality.

It seems like nothing now, but The Golden Notebook pre-dated second-wave feminism. As I think about her now, and all she wrote and told us about women and who they were and what they thought, I can’t help wondering: What made Lessing think she could write these things? What made her think she could write this:

“Her source of self respect was that she had not–as she put it–given up and crawled into safety somewhere. Into a safe marriage.”

Because marriage was what women were taught. No matter whatever else they did, marriage was the endgame, the stated goal for women. Which left lesbians out of every equation at that time. A woman who walked away from that–who was she? Were there more like her? Could we be among them?

This is the point then, about writers who break ground and do what hasn’t been done before. The Golden Notebook was written more than 50 years ago, but it’s still in print and has been all along. I took it down from the shelf to flip through it–it’s all marked up from my college years, notes in the margins, exclamation points after an outlined passage.

I want to know what I was thinking when I first read that book, when I first heard this exchange:

“Free women,” said Anna, wryly. She added, with an anger new to Molly, so that she earned another quick scrutinizing glance from her friend: “They still define us in terms of relationships with men, even the best of them.”

Even NYT obituary writers 50 years hence, apparently.

And there was this shocking passage:

“I stood looking down out of the window. The street seemed miles down. Suddenly I felt as if I’d flung myself out of the window. I could see myself lying on the pavement. Then I seemed to be standing by the body on the pavement. I was two people. Blood and brains were scattered everywhere. I knelt down and began licking up the blood and brains”

The NYT obit sniffs a little at Lessing’s writing and quotes NYT reviewers who hated her work. It also dwells on her failings–yet it’s difficult to imagine an obituary of a male writer snarking in similar ways. Where is the commentary about the breadth of her work?

Rather, the comments about Lessing go directly to her femaleness; a half century after The Golden Notebook she is still not free of the restrictions placed on women writers that do not pertain to men. “She left her children!” is the most damning statement about Lessing, as if she dropped them on a street corner in the dead of night in a blizzard and ran away, leaving them to freeze to death in Dickensian fashion, when what Lessing actually did was divorce her first husband and leave their children with him because she had felt her own mother was cold to her and her brother because she resented her children and Lessing didn’t want to do that to hers. She noted that people really should have understood that of course there is pain involved in leaving one’s children.

Nevertheless, while leaving one’s children with one’s spouse is something male writers do all the time, it was the great scandal of Lessing’s life and has been noted in every article ever written about her as somehow more defining than the volume of her work.

But Lessing was a writer of note as well as merit. She catalogued an era–the cusp between World War II and the dawn of second-wave feminism–and defined the place of women in that period of time. She later crafted her own world when she turned to science fiction, which was, when she began her Canopus in Argos novels, becoming a new ground for women writers, in particular feminists and lesbians. But repeatedly and compellingly she came back to women and their lives, women and sex, women and politics, women refusing to be obedient, women breaking silence–as she did.

Lessing won a slew of awards before she was awarded the Nobel and even after. She wrote everything there was to write–poems, essays, short stories, novels, memoirs, even a libretto. She was immensely gifted, notoriously independent and never shied away from the political.

Her first book, The Grass Is Singing, published when she was 32, was a treatise on racism and colonialism, taking place in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where Lessing grew up.

In 1985, in The Good Terrorist, Lessing gives us Alice, who is in love with Jasper, who is gay. He leaves her periodically to have sex with men, then returns because he needs her, although he can’t stand to have her touch him. The two are Communists (as was Lessing for many years) and by the end of the novel, have become terrorists–Lessing addressing the issue of terrorism long before it was trendy and explicating why people kill for political ideology.

In one of her last novels, Love, Again, she returns to the subject of female passion (including lesbianism) as an older woman, 65-year-old Sarah Durham, tries to discern what place love, sex and passion have in her life and the lives of the women around her.

Lessing always broke with tradition. She left school at 14 and was self-taught. She left her family of origin as well as the husband she married at 19 and the two children she had with him. She rejected the tradition that said women belong to men and to children and to housekeeping. She lured other women with her declarative and ruminative prose that told women they could choose. Really, they could choose, as her protagonists Anna Wulf and Martha Quest do. Women could walk away from what was expected and do what was unexpected.

That’s what Lessing did. What was unexpected. She showed us how to be feminist even if she wasn’t sure she was feminist. She showed us how to be lesbian, even though she was heterosexual. She showed us how to be one’s self, regardless of what others think.

Read rest of article and others at Lambda Literary.

Nicola Griffith’s ‘Hild’

Nicola Griffith’s ‘Hild’
Reviewed by Susan Stinson
Lambda Literary
9 November 2013

97803742808711Nicola Griffith is a brilliant, prolific, entertaining, risk-taking writer. Her new novel, Hild, about the most powerful woman in seventh century Britain, is magnificent. In it, a girl whose mother has dreamed her to be the light of the world finds out more about what that means than most human beings could bear. Hild–so young, sharp and tall–is very much a human being, and her story grabs a reader like a king’s gesith grabs a sword. Reading Hild is an urgent, expansive pleasure.

Griffith has written five previous novels. She has also written short stories, essays and a memoir. Her work is full of women with gripping lives who have intense sexual and emotional relationships with each other. Her character Aud Torvingen, is the protagonist of three novels in which Griffith’s embodied meditations on grief, trust and communities of support include self-defense classes, cavernous bars, and spiky queer ways of dressing and being, along with subtle observations of city life. Griffith moves easily between genres, from science fiction to noir thriller and back, always with a taut language sense and an elegant, fast-moving story. In Hild, she has written a historical novel of thrilling depth.

The book begins and ends with the sound of a bird call changing from “Outward! Outward!” to “Home now! Home!” The bird is a jackdaw, and that specificity matters very much to the story. Hild, daughter of a dead prince and a dangerous mother, learns to watch the natural world and listen carefully to the talk of all around her, whether it be in Anglisc, British, or Irish. There is a glossary that sings with Griffith’s power to bring readers as if lightly into far distant times, where a gesith is an elite warrior, October is Winterfylleth, and undern is the time from nine in the morning to noon. Hild is the niece of a king whose court travels the kingdom because a king and his power must be seen in every region which owes him tribute, so that stewards not be tempted to start taking too much tribute of their own. Hild is constantly crossing worlds: weaving and learning how to make medicine from onion and garlic mash, vinegar and ox horn with the women; riding on war marches with the men; watching the signs of the seasons; finding ways to be right when questioned by the king, with lives at stake and the whole world shifting around her. She is highfolk in a hierarchical world, but her place is uncertain and her life is shaped by women using every means they have to hack out more room for themselves and those they love in which to speak. Here, young women may be formally pledged to each other as gemaecce, which is not a sexual partnership (although these do come) but a powerful alliance with both political implications and emotional weight, making the women partners to weave and take counsel together for life.

It’s not only women, though. This is a fully peopled world. Hild, who comes to tuck her hair behind her ears and wear a cloak thrown back from her shoulders like a gesith, grows up play-fighting with sticks with Cian, the son of Onnen, who takes care of Hild and her sister, and is herself the cousin of a king. Soon enough, there is a sword for Cian. Hild’s fate, her wyrd, is closely tied to his, and to that of many people she likes, loves, sways or owns (for there are servants and slaves here) few of whom she fully trusts. Her experiences with war and raids leave her with growing numbers of followers, battle trauma, and knowledge of her own ability and willingness to fight.

Read entire review and more at Lambda Literary.

Tour of the Breath Gallery

9780896727946Tour of the Breath Gallery
by Sarah Pemberton Strong
Reviewed by Arielle Yarwood

Lambda Literary 6 November 2013

Read Tour of the Breath Gallery with a blanket and a stormy day, read it surrounded by strangers on the bus, read it in the sterile confines of a hospital room – wherever you happen to be, Sarah Pemberton Strong’s vivid lines of poetry will quiet and sharpen the life around you.

A Walt McDonald First Book winner, Tour of the Breath Gallery focuses on “the details / of duller things: a space / of silence, an opened window, / the moon-shaped crack / on the edge of this blue plate.” Strong’s book praises silence, and in doing so, allows the reader to hear what she has learned by listening.

The collection is divided into three parts, beginning with the heart and moving outward. The first section deals with the lessons learned in silence, that “sometimes the metaphor for suffering / turns out to be the suffering itself,” and that “if you want the world / to be less burdened with cruelty / and indifference, this moment you / are standing in would be the ideal / fulcrum from which to lift a finger.”

It advocates for the value of the physical, the tangible, and the self, particularly in womanhood. Strong’s version of the Biblical Delilah tells her daughter to “win / your own heart first, cherish every cell / of yourself,” and the contemplation of a teacup leads to the revelation that “you do not have to be clean, or whole, / you do not have, even, to be loved / to be radiant.” A sense of wonder and wholeness permeates this section, and the revaluation of self enables the persona to spread her awareness and compassion externally, toward child and community. Throughout the book and particularly in the beginning, a sense of interconnectedness binds not only the poems, but also the persona to her world.

The second section deals with the act of learning what was imparted in the first section; in essence, it reveals the beauty in the act of living. Several love poems are included in this section – “Nest,” the most striking and gracious, a missive to her trans lover, sings for “the slim green branches / and pale unopened buds / of the girl who / inside, you are.” Although there is always “the burden of our folded wings,” at its root, this is an utterly optimistic book, showing “that when / there is no light, our eyes open anyway: / searching for it, then for each other.” The second section concludes with the persona transformed into a goddess in steel-toed boots and overalls, gaining her power from learning the plumbing trade, using her hands to build and create and fix, imbued with the elements of the earth she inhabits.

Finally, the third section extends back to the past, to family and heritage, and looks at the ramifications of inheritance and death on life, the “breaking down / then subsequent repairing of the world.” Her relationships with father, mother, and friend are examined, revealing bonds that are fragile and yet resilient, like spider webs on grass “whose strength is that of steel, / yet can be torn like that / and then repaired;” bonds that extend behind and ahead, leaving traces of history, like a trail of footsteps in the snow or the fingerprints of the deceased that “still mark the doorknobs and teaspoons / of the living.”

Read entire review and other articles at Lambda Literary.

Lambda Literary Awards

26th Annual Lambda Literary Awards

“I work best after the deadline has passed, when I’m in a panic.” – Tony Kushner

For our authors and publishers: Don’t panic yet, but the December 1st deadline for Lammy submissions is less than a month away. If you want your book to be considered for a Lambda Literary Award, please review the Guidelines here and complete the online submission process TODAY.

LammySeal-actualsize_2013-e1377558848107

The 26th Annual Lambda Literary Awards are open to works published in 2013, so if your book will be published after December 1 but on or before December 31, it is still eligible for Lammy consideration. You just need to complete the initial submission process before the December 1st deadline and send a request to awards@lambdaliterary.org for an extension so that you will have time to send your books to our office as soon as they are printed.

If you believe your work has already been submitted for Lammy consideration, it’s still a good idea to go to our online submissions list and make sure that your book is listed and that it has been entered in the correct Lammy category. Sometimes a form is correctly filled out, but for some reason never gets sent. Sometimes an author believes the publisher has submitted the book and the publisher believes the publicist has submitted the book and the publicist… well, you know the rest.

For our readers: We’ve received more than 300 submissions from 170 publishers, but the bulk of the submissions will come in right before the deadline (like, one minute before…). You can help us ensure that every eligible book has the opportunity to be considered for a Lammy by checking out the Lammy submissions list and making sure that your 2013 favorites are all accounted for. If they aren’t, please let the authors know right away so they can submit their books before the December 1st deadline. Or write to us at awards@lambdaliterary.org and we will contact the author/publisher.

Send comments or queries to awards@lambdaliterary.org.

Kathleen DeBold, Administrator
Lambda Literary Awards

The Warmest Color

9781551525143‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ by Julie Maroh
Reviewed by Paige Cohen
From Lambda Literary 24 October 2013

The long-awaited English translation of Blue is the Warmest (Arsenal Pulp Press), originally published in French as Le bleu est une couleur chaude, is a deeply compelling story, in large part due to its thorough exploration and attention to character. The graphic novel is told almost entirely in retrospect, as the formerly blue-haired Emma reads through the diaries of her deceased lover, Clementine. The diaries begin in 1994 France when Clementine is a fifteen-year-old sophomore in high school and continue over a decade into the future, though they focus largely on the rocky development of her and Emma’s relationship when Clementine first begins to discover her attraction towards women and struggles to accept her sexuality. With close-minded conservative parents and only one gay friend to confide in, the teenage Clementine internalizes her desire for Emma, caught in a wonderful and terrifying limbo that many queer youth are likely to relate to, one between discovering lust and feeling ashamed by who you lust after, between falling in love and self-hate.

“Coming out” and “first love” stories seem like difficult territories for any author to navigate as they have been told time and again and are challenging to portray in new and interesting ways. Though the plot of Blue is the Warmest Color is not necessarily new, it is specific to the experience of its characters, and the writing is without a doubt at its strongest when it is filtered through Clementine’s unique perspective.

This rings true in a beautiful scene that takes place twelve pages into the novel when Clementine agrees to go on a date with a cute boy from school after being pressured by her friends. Maroh’s delicate and comprehensive drawings, detailed only in shades of gray, portray Clementine walking through an outdoor plaza in apprehension of her date. In the hand-written diary entry visible in the corner of the illustration, Clementine writes, “My heart beats fast when I think about what’s going to happen.” This line not only reveals Clementine’s state of mind, but it is also written in a voice that is particular to her character. While a different fifteen-year-old girl might say, “My stomach hurts,” or, “I can’t stop sweating,” the words here belong to Clementine and they resonate because they read as true. In the following illustration, Clementine looks ahead into the crowd of people rushing past her. The gray shading gives way to a speck of blue in the distance – Emma’s hair barely visible over the dark shoulders of the passing people. This is the first time that the two girls see one another, and in this instant, the prose fade completely, allowing the reader to focus only on the visuals which reveal Emma through Clementine’s eyes. That night Clementine dreams of blue hands moving all over her body. No words are necessary. We are simply in the moment, experiencing lust as Clementine does. The majority of the novel succeeds in a similar manner as this scene.

The writing is just as successful in depicting the confusion and turmoil of Clementine’s coming out as it is in its depiction of her falling in love. In several scenes, Clementine is shown curled in the fetal position, or hunched over the pages of her diary, the gray walls of her bedroom closing around her. She writes, “I feel lost, alone, at the bottom of a pit. I don’t know what to do,” or, “…I hate myself and I bury myself in the ball of fire that is screaming to get out of my guts.” While these lines might seem affected in the voice of a different narrator, they read as honest in the voice of Clementine, as if she is expressing her emotions as best as she is able—perfectly capturing her loneliness and her desperate want to be free of angst and to gain peace and acceptance. These moments interweaved with the happier moments when Clementine is able to accept herself or the peaceful moments when she is wrapped in Emma’s arms—moments made rich with descriptions such as, “I felt as if light were running through my veins”—beautifully render the complexity of her character, and of human beings in general. These scenes suggest that while there are no permanent states of happiness or peace, there are moments when happiness and peace are absolute.

Read entire review and other stories at Lambda Literary

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