Something Old, Something New, Makes Something Blue: A Review of Lise MacTague’s DEPTHS OF BLUE

depths of blueDepths of Blue by Lise MacTague (book one in the Deception’s Edge series) belongs to a few genres I don’t normally read: military science fiction, and romance. So I honestly wasn’t quite sure how much I would like this novel when I picked it up having been generously sent it by the Winnipeg-born, US-residing author (whose other talents as described in her bio, I might add, include being a librarian and hockey player). I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Depths of Blue: while it never did anything totally unexpected, I rather enjoyed going along on its smooth, well-trod road full of tropes like: mistaken identities, space opera-ish drama, mounting sexual tension, women passing as men in the army, big patriarchal bad guys, and that-thin-line-between-love-and-hate. Oh, and some pretty steamy sex scenes.

So here’s the set-up: outer space, way far in the future after humans have colonized other planets—although some of the societies look eerily like versions of Trump’s America. Jak Stowell is from one of these worlds, although from the more progressive half which has been at civil war with the really really bad patriarchal dudes for decades. She’s a soldier in her country’s army, a sniper. No one, now that her brother is dead, knows she’s a woman. His death has given her a war within a war to fight: she’s determined to find her brother’s killer in enemy ranks and bring him to justice. She’s stoic, rational, and used to keeping all her emotions and true thoughts under wraps; she hasn’t let anyone get close for ages.

Torrin Ivanov is pretty much her opposite (of course, we’re setting up for the opposites-attract romance here). She’s a bad-ass, motorcycle-riding, outspoken, openly lesbian illegal arms dealer who flies from galaxy to galaxy negotiating and selling her way to the big bucks. Morals aren’t exactly a priority for her. In fact, when she and Jak cross paths, Torrin had gotten herself into a dilly of pickle after having intended to sell weapons to the creepy rapist dude bros Jak’s army is fighting [definite trigger warning in some early sections for strong allusions to rape]. Jak’s mission had been to kill the arms dealer, but no one had told her—or even realized—that this dealer was a woman. Jak can’t bring herself to do it.

lise mactague

Lise MacTague, via amazon.com

Ah, so we have the old “assassin-falls-in-love-with-the-person-they-were-supposed-to-kill.” It’s classic, but it’s also a lot of fun. The main tension of the romance, of course, is that Torrin is a lesbian and Jak is a woman disguised as a man, but neither of them are aware of this. Torrin is feeling oddly attracted to Jak but very puzzled as to why she likes this apparently male person. Jak is totally falling for Torrin but thinking that there is no way Torrin could ever love her when she finds out Jak is not a man.

For the most part I really enjoyed the layers of the romance element in Depths of Blue and had lots of fun reading those parts. I do think, however, it would have been more plausible if Torrin had been bi instead of gay. I mean, if Jak passes as a man, it doesn’t really make sense to me that Torrin would be attracted to her, unless you believe in some kind of gender essentialism where you can just “feel” what someone’s true gender identity is even though they’re trying to hide it. Admittedly, this is also my own bisexual agenda. But why not, I say?

This book does a fine job of balancing the romance and military action as Torrin and Jak make their way back to Jak’s side of the civil war and figure out how the hell they’re going to recover Torrin’s ship—trapped within enemy lines—so she can get off the planet. Oh yeah, and somewhere along the way they figure out they’re head over heels for each other.  It’s fun, it’s escapist, it’s got some well-done sexy times: what more could you ask for? Depths of Blue does a great job pulling together lots of tropes you might have seen or read before and creating something new enough, but still plenty familiar.

If I could change one thing, I would have liked to see the SF setting play more of a role in the plot of the book; there are some cool details about Jak’s planet, where a lot of the plant life is blue and there are these super cool giant blue trees (hence the title), but otherwise the romance and military plots could have taken place in any 20th century war on Earth. Unfortunately, even the horrible fascist misogynists would fit right into our not-so-distant history.

Being the first book in a trilogy, Depths of Blue of course ends on a cliff-hanger, with Torrin and Jak not sure if their love or their lives are gonna make it. Maybe we’ll see more world-building-related action in the second book as they fly off into space. I can’t wait to read it!

 

Posted in Caribbean, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Romance, Science Fiction | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

“Unspoken, the questions were like childhood garments stored carefully for decades within a satin-lined trunk”: A Review of ALL INCLUSIVE by Farzana Doctor

All-Inclusive-high-resToronto-based, Lambda-award-winning novelist Farzana Doctor’s latest book All Inclusive is nothing short of extraordinary. As always with Doctor’s novels (this is her third), there’s her trademark sharp insight into the human psyche and this gentle, calming, empathetic lens as she explores her characters. You can see how she is also a social worker who practices psychotherapy. But her latest book is what I’ve come to expect from her and more. As cliché as this might sound, I’ve really never read anything like All Inclusive before. It manages to take so many different themes and kinds of people, throwing them together to make this kind of magical, delicious soup of a story when you imagined it would turn into some inedible slop. Here are some of the ingredients:

Ameera is our main character. (Or is she really? That’s a bit debatable). At any rate, she’s our first focus in the novel and she’s a woman in her late twenties who’s been working in the tourist / travel industry for years and is coming up to the end of a contract working at an all-inclusive in Mexico. Her life there is far from the expectations of paradise that the entitled visitors, who she has to work with every day, have created.  Since Ameera arrived, she’s discovered she’s bisexual and enjoys having sex with (mostly man-woman) couples, many of whom identify as swingers. She’s from Hamilton, ON and was raised by a single (white) mother, having had an absent (Indian) father. So she has the brown skin of her fellow Indo-Canadians but doesn’t really have much of a connection to that culture. If I had to pick one word to describe Ameera, it would be: lost.

But just when you’re settling into her story, maybe feeling a bit scandalized by the mention on the second page of Ameera sleeping with a bodybuilder couple, the perspective of the novel shifts, and we get someone named Azeez, but back in 1985 instead of Ameera’s 2015. If you’ve read the back of the book, you guess immediately that Azeez is Ameera’s father and you know that he’s never been a part of her life. But you’ll probably never guess what his story is, and why he disappeared. Be forewarned: spoilers abound after this point (although in my opinion, they’re not that crucial, as they are revealed fairly early on).

Again, just as you’ve settled in to the alternating perspectives of Ameera and Azeez, wondering how one day they will finally meet, Doctor pulls the rug out from under you: Azeez was one of the 329 victims of the Air India bombing on June 23, 1985. Ameera will never know her father because he died before he even knew he was going to be one. Or will she?

I admit, after Azeez died, I thought, how is Doctor going to continue the book now? Without skipping a beat, as it turns out. As a spirit, Azeez resumes telling his story, which is far from over. This is one of the many unexpected, fascinating turns that the novel takes. If you were expecting a sexy beach read full of threesomes, well, you’ll get that, but it’s not all you’re going to get. Because of Azeez’s story, All Inclusive also becomes a deeply spiritual story that asks (and answers) some difficult, basic questions: what happens to us after we die? What effect do our ancestors and deceased loved ones have on us? How do we remember and honour all of those people who died? Can we communicate with people who have passed away?

photo of Farzana Doctor

Farzana Doctor, via farzanadoctor.com

In addition to spirituality, All Inclusive also has a lot to say about sexuality. I really loved how Doctor wrote about sexual exploration and sexual identity in this book. In this really amazing interview with Shelagh Rogers, she says that one of her motivations for the story was that she wanted to write about people from communities who are on the margins and less understood and break stereotypes about them. She also talks about sex-negativity and slut-shaming in our society, about how so many of us think and worry about sex all the time but are not actually that comfortable talking about it. You feel those motivations running through her writing about Ameera’s sexuality. The sex scenes are sexy and liberating, but also sometimes messy and awkward. If you’re not non-monogamous or don’t know much about non-monogamy, you might find yourself a little challenged.

Ameera’s sexual journey and exploration are portrayed as vital aspects of her, but not the only interesting or important parts about her as a person. She’s not a sex-crazed, duplicitous person even though she’s bisexual and non-monogamous, two groups often accused of both. And the swingers she dates are also shown to be all sorts of different people: one or two turn out to be jerks, but most are these interesting, flawed, kind people. I imagine that for some readers, this is one of, or perhaps the only, book that reflects their sexual identity and exploration of their desires without condemning or vilifying them. Doctor is also keenly aware that Ameera’s sexual exploration is an essential part of her growth as a person, figuring out what her needs, wants, and boundaries are in all areas of her life.

If someone had told me, hey, this new book All Inclusive is a critical look at all-inclusive resorts, bisexuality, swinging and polyamory, spirituality, death, and terrorism, I probably would have said, are you kidding? That sounds like a disaster. If someone had told me that same book was a vehicle to remember the Air India bombing as a Canadian tragedy, resisting the racism that resulted in the people who died not being considered “truly” Canadian because they had Indian background, I probably would have just not believed them.

How is it that Doctor has managed to take all these disparate themes and create a truly engaging, affecting novel that is also smart, sexy, and funny? I don’t know, but you should pick up the book to experience it for yourself.

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, Farzana Doctor, Fiction, Queer, South Asian | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

Impossible Not to Love: A Review of BAND VS BAND COMIX by Kathleen Jacques

band vs band coverIn light of the recent horribleness of the Orlando massacre, I can’t imagine a better antidote than Band vs Band by Vancouver comic artist and graphic designer Kathleen Jacques, a collection of up-beat, adorable, femme-centric comics that couldn’t be queerer if it tried. It spans pretty much the entire rainbow, including L, G, B, and T identified characters. You might not guess who is what at the beginning of the comic, but as you continue to read, you’ll realize that pretty much every character is queer, which is like my favourite thing ever.

If you couldn’t tell from the title, Band vs Band is about a band rivalry: girl bands, to be specific, although technically each band has one boy. Jacques writes that the comic is her “elaborate love letter to everything [she’s] always found magical and appealing about bands as a concept, from real-life groups to ultra-stylized fictional depictions.” You’ll certainly recognize some of those magical and appealing elements as the comic reminds you of Josie and the Pussycats, and fully embraces stories like band road trip shenanigans where tour vans break down in the middle of the desert with band members contemplating cannibalism.

the candy hearts band vs band

Band # 1

So here’s the cast of characters: Honey Hart is the leader of The Candy Hearts and she couldn’t be more different from Turpentine and her band The Sourballs. Pretty much all you need to know about the bands are epitomized in their names. On the one hand, The Candy Hearts are all sweethearts who just want to do good with their sugary, poppy music, singing for charities about the importance of recycling and wearing sunscreen. The Sourballs, on the other hand, wear torn thrift store wedding dressing while singing punk songs. As Turpentine puts it herself: their songs are about such topics as “always remember to deny Christ and skip class,” “how I think I ate my twin in utero,” “surgery,” and “circus freaks.” Or as Honey calls them: “angry songs about vomit.”

the sourballs band vs band

Band # 2

The other band members are just as funny and interesting as Honey and Turpentine. I think my favourite is Atomic Domme, the bass player for the Sourballs. She’s a dry as fuck goth gender studies grad student who, when forced to take front stage when Turpentine passes out, takes the chance to educate the audience on early 20th century erotic feminist poetry. At one point, she forces her band to read through an experimental play that she wrote “about Victorian era social justice” featuring a character named “the patriarchy.” Second place goes to Damon, a self-described “arrogant and pretty” gay boy who always seems to be wearing his band costume of angel wings. At one point , he awakes from a dream in which he is married to a perfect clone of himself and sighs, disappointed: “ugh, this imperfect world.”

The format of the comics is unique and varied: sometimes you get a full page spread of a colouring page featuring the characters, or snippets from local newspaper articles about the bands, or random side stories about tangential characters, or, my favourite, a page helping you decide what your Sourballs and Candy Hearts names would be based on the initials of your real name. (Mine would be Minx Formaldehyde and Sugarcookie Soda, respectively).

what's your sourball name band vs band

What’s YOUR Sourball name?

Most of the time, though, the comics are about the cute, funny characters doing cute, funny things. When I say funny, I mean it: this comic is really, really funny. It had me laughing out loud many times with its dry, weird, on-point jokes. There are too many funny parts to name them all, but for example, while on stage at their first show after the whole band ate bad sushi, Turpentine yells “Yea! C’mon, let’s tear stuff up! We’re home and we’re no longer infested with parasites!” Her bandmate adds “Shout-out, east side drop-in medical clinic. You barely judged us.”

Slowly, slowly, as the comic goes on, Honey and Turpentine’s frenemy relationship develops. At some point, you’ll probably say to yourself “Ahhh, the lesbian sexual tension, I just can’t take it anymore!” Well you’ll just have to take it some more, and keep reading at the story unfolds, because Jacques’s careful timing is going to draw out this love/hate relationship to get the best out of it. You know the star-crossed lovers only ever get together right at the end, right?

Visually, this comic is as amazing as it is with characters, humour, and story. As Jacques puts it in the intro to volume one, she was going for “overtly feminine aesthetics and a fun design sense and retro inspiration.” These motivations are clear on every page, as Jacques’s detailed, 50s style drawings shine in the limited blue and red-pink colour palette. I mean, look at this:

bandvsband_72

In short, it’s impossible not to love Band vs Band. Get your copy of volume one here. You can also check out the more recent comics Jacques posts on her website every Monday.

Posted in Bisexual, femme, Gay, Graphic, Lesbian, Queer, Trans, Trans Feminine, Vancouver | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Radical, Heroic Vulnerability: A Review of DIRTY RIVER: A QUEER FEMME OF COLOR DREAMING HER WAY HOME by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

dirty riverDirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a difficult book for me to review, for a few reasons. For one, it’s written by and written about intersecting communities that I’m not and will (likely) never be a part of: anarchist/punk groups, queer and trans people of colour (South Asian in particular), immigrants, disabled folks, and people living in poverty. This is an immensely raw, vulnerable book where Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is laying bare so many things about her life and struggles, in the most bad-ass way that makes it seem like vulnerability is the most radical, heroic thing. Not having endured many of the things that she has, though, makes it hard for me to feel like I’m even qualified to say anything about this book. (By the way, I decided to write about it only because I want to spread the word).

Another reason this is a hard review to write is that this was one of those books that I was expecting to love more than I actually did. (I hate when that happens!). It was on my “especially-excited-about” shelf on Goodreads for a while before I bought it at Little Sister’s LGBTQ bookstore in Vancouver a few weeks ago and I was super pumped to read it after I brought it home. A lot of why I was so excited was that I loved Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s last poetry collection, Bodymap, which I reviewed here. Bodymap is full of these gorgeous poems, full of beautifully put hard truths and comforting words about finding your people. I loved Bodymap and so was expecting to immediately love Dirty River too. When that didn’t happen, I was just … kind of bummed.

So here’s what Dirty River is about: it’s an account of Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s early post-college years, those years of self-discovery, figuring out what your future is going to look like, and confronting your past. For Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, those years were also simply a time of trying to survive. Here you will find the rough, unfiltered details of living in poverty, being an immigrant, and living with a disability. She also writes at length about the challenges of being mixed-race and finding her cultural identity after not having much of it passed on to her, which I imagine would be so affirming and amazing to read about if you were mixed-race. I learned a lot in those sections.

This book is also a testament to 90s era queer punks of colour activism in Toronto, where Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha runs away to. In that way, the memoir is a super fascinating window into a particular time and place that in many ways no longer exists. It’s about her struggling to fit in and connect with people in these radical communities, but remaining, as the blurb says, “haunted by the reasons she left home in the first place.”

This is not an easy book to read, and should come with multiple content/trigger warnings: intimate partner abuse, racism, incest. Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha refuses easy answers and abuse narratives where people “get normal.” She writes in the preface that this memoir is “not an incest horror story book, and it’s not palatable either. In the end, I don’t get normal. I get something else.” She also writes that while her journey is heroic, it’s not heart-warming. This is definitely true, although I would say that it is, despite everything, hopeful. In second last chapter, she writes:

I’ll tell you a secret. Sometimes I stop and close my eyes and send all these pictures of my life back to the kid I was, who is still back there, trying to survive. Prayer is activism.

I tell her: this is waiting, waiting. It doesn’t get better (but it did), it just changes. I pray it to her, promise her, say ‘Stay alive. This is what’s waiting for you. You will make it come to be.’

leah

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (photo by Naty Tremblay)

I’ve thought a lot about what didn’t really do it for me in this book, and I think ultimately it’s this memoir just suffers from the unevenness of the quality of writing. This is a book that has been a long time in the making, and, like artists of all different sorts, Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s artistry has grown and expanded. For me, the writing in the early parts of the memoir just wasn’t the beautiful, mind-blowing style that I’m used to seeing from her. If there had been a narrative to latch onto, this might have carried me over to later sections, but Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha uses the style of short snippets of life and non-chronological telling (reminiscent of Lidia Yuknavitch’s beautiful memoir Chronology of Water which Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha acknowledges as an inspiration). Ordinarily, I can be really into that kind of thing—and Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha does this very well in the last quarter of the book especially—but because the writing wasn’t grabbing me in the first part, and there wasn’t a narrative to latch onto, the first sections of the memoir lagged for me. They didn’t lure me in with either beautiful writing or narrative and I had to push myself to keep reading, which I’m glad I did, the amazing second half being what it is.

Here’s a glimpse of what I loved in later parts of Dirty River; this is about being a femme and walking around New York in the early 90s not knowing anyone:

The air, the streets, the people touched me all over. I kept my eyes on some of them, flirted, looked away. I couldn’t find anyone to touch me, but in the meantime the air did, the world did. … Every cell of my body. Naked and tough, something new and beautiful, adorned. Learning these streets and how to walk down them. Learning how to find red silk in a bargain bin, to tighten straps to walk. To meet eyes. To swish my ass, to insist on the pleasure of thighs brushing together, glaring I will fucking kill you if you look at me.

More about being a femme:

For years I thought, a femme bottom—what is more common, what is more despised? Than a girl with her legs open. Wanting something. Just wanting.

I didn’t come up with this idea on my own. The whole world told me it was true. The whole world told me there was nothing  more common and stupid than someone feminine of centre with their legs open, wanting something more than a kick or a curse.

But what if there is nothing more precious than a femme with their legs open?

If our opening is a prayer it is for a world where opening without rape is possible

walk back
wade in the water
choose. every second. I choose to stay here. I learn to stay here.
I choose to open
every single second led to this.

I guess in the end what I really want to say about Dirty River is: while this wasn’t a 10 out of 10, life-altering book for me, I can really see that for folks who’ve gone through some of the same struggles, this memoir could be exactly that. If you think that might be the case for you, you should run, not walk, to get a copy of this book in your hands.

Posted in Bisexual, Canadian, disability, memoir, Non-Fiction, Postcolonial, Queer, South Asian, Toronto | Tagged | 3 Comments

“how to live with the baggage of life”: A Review of Jane Rule’s Memoir TAKING MY LIFE

taking my lifeI want to start off this review with a confession: Taking My Life, legendary Canadian lesbian writer Jane Rule’s memoir, was given to me as a review copy for this blog not long after I first began it in 2012. So, uh, it’s taken me like four years to read and—finally—review this book. I feel totally guilty for not holding up my end of the bargain, at least in a somewhat timely fashion. But I am finally writing this review in the end, and that’s got to count for something, right?

I’m not really sure why I put off reading Taking My Life. After all, Jane Rule is one of the foremothers of queer women’s writing in Canada and this memoir is her last known work. She’s a hella interesting early lesbian writer with a unique style, and if you haven’t read any of her books, you’ve at least heard of the film version of one of them, Desert Hearts. (The book, published in 1964, is titled Desert of the Heart and is an astonishingly complex look at a lesbian relationship). I’ve also reviewed another, (relatively) more recent novel of Rules’s Memory Board, which is set in Vancouver and is a fascinating look at a younger, more conservative Vancouver and a totally different generation’s understanding of queer identity.

Rule definitely has a distinct trademark style, which is evident even in Taking My Life. Her writing is dry, ironic, unemotional, and direct, yet understated. It is not the kind that you whip through; rather, it’s a languishing over, doubling back to catch the dry humour kind of prose. I find her style endlessly captivating while at the same time frustrating, like there are emotional truths and impact that Rule is just not giving me. After reading just the first paragraph of the memoir, I was taken aback, having forgotten what her writing was like:

Writing an autobiography may be a positive way of taking my own life. … I may be able to learn to value my life as something other than the hard and threateningly pointless journey it has often seemed. … No plan for a story or novel can rouse my imagination, which resolutely sleeps, feeding on the fat of summer. And so, I take my life, with moral and aesthetic misgivings, simply because there is nothing else to do.

jane rule

Jane Rule, via quotesgram.com

All right, so she readily admits she’s not really sure this whole memoir thing is going to work out; in fact, she likens the entire thing to suicide and claims that she’s only writing this account—which ends up telling the story of the first twenty-one years of her life—because she literally has nothing else to do and she’s bored. What a beginning.

On the next page, Rule calls her own mother “a materially spoiled and emotionally depraved only child.” On the next, this is how she describes her brother: “He was instinctively tactful, never made the blundering comments that were to become my trademark; yet he couldn’t distinguish between what had happened and what he made up. His teachers thought of him as overly imaginative. I suspect it was I, a moral primitive, who first called him a liar.”

Don’t hold back, Jane, tell us how you really feel. It’s this kind of refusal to beat around the bush and to get right to the psychological heart of her characters—real and fictional and, even in the case of this book, her own self—that make Jane Rule such a thought-provoking author. She’s never cruel, but she is brutally honest. It’s a trip to see her use these same strategies I recognize from her fiction when she’s writing about her family and friends.

young jane rule

A young Jane Rule in her college years; one of the archival photos from the memoir

Admittedly, this memoir likely won’t intrigue you much unless you’re already a fan of Jane Rule or you have a special interest in 20th century herstory. If you fall into either of those camps though, you’re in for a treat. Rule’s life, while not exceptional by any stretch of the imagination, is really quite interesting and it’s fun to look for the hints of her impending lesbian identity and career as a writer as she accounts for her early life. The book is also dotted with some lovely archival photos of a young Rule and a lot of her family members, friends, and lovers; as well, it sports an absolutely gorgeous cover featuring a painting of Rule by Ann Smith, who was a friend and lover of hers.

Like in her novels, Rule fills Taking My Life with some astonishingly acute observations about human behaviour. Take, for example, this seething, yet level-headed indictment of heterosexual norms:

Certainly most of the relationships I observed between the young women and men I knew had the same flavour of inauthentic romance I so mistrusted in Arthur [her brother]. The men wanted sex as cheaply as it could be had. The women wanted sex for as much as they could charge in attention, entertainment, and engagement rings. The women didn’t want to be known as cheap lays. The men didn’t want to be known as easy meal tickets.

In contrast, Rule describes her love—platonic and not-so-platonic—for women as completely different:  not self-interested, pure, and passionate. Looking back on her love for women, Rule writes that “I’m sure I was confused at the time. I seemed to hold two mutually exclusive views, that my love represented what was best in me and that it was a sin. Or more ambiguously and truly put, what was specifically good and generally bad.” Interestingly, Rule also writes at length about the non-possessive quality of her love for and relationships with women and how she and her lovers carry on relationships with other people at the same time as they move in and out of the same places in the world. The whole thing seems to me like a fascinating precursor to polyamory, before it was called that, of course.

sexy jane rule

And one more photo of Jane Rule, mostly because I think this one’s sexy (via amazon.com)

The memoir ends with Rule moving to England with a lover, having moved on from unrequited relationships, and ones where the women encouraged her to direct her love in a more suitable direction—i.e., men. It’s a shame that we don’t get to read more of her coming into her identities as a writer and a lesbian, because it seems like the memoir ends just when those parts of herself are really taking off. It makes me wonder what Rule would have thought about this distinctly unfinished piece of work. Taking My Life could have become a full autobiography, but it was published after her death, having been found in an archive in Vancouver by an academic (a fascinating story in its own right, I might add, that is told in the afterword). Did Rule not publish this because she didn’t want to? Would she not have wanted it published because it was unfinished? Did she not want to finish writing it?

But in the end, moral questions aside, I’m glad this work is accessible to the larger public, and in this gorgeous edition to boot. Rule has a lot to teach us, still, even after her death, about how “to learn how to live with the baggage of … life, its rhythms of failure and rebirth.”

Posted in Canadian, Jane Rule, Lesbian, memoir, Non-Fiction, Queer, Vancouver | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Dyke Drama, Bisexual Polyamory, and Queer Softball in Leigh Matthews’s Modern-Day Lesbian Pulp Novel GO DEEP

go deepMaybe people who live in cities like New York or L.A. get to read books and watch TV shows and movies that actually feel like they represent the places where they live, and all the different kinds of places one city can be to the diverse groups of people who live there. But as a Vancouverite, I’ve never read anything like Leigh Matthews’s All Out Vancouver series, a modern-day take on the lesbian pulp genre investigating the lives and loves of a diverse group of queer folks, mostly in East Vancouver. It’s such a treat to read a book that feels like an authentic representation of the Vancouver I know, describing pubs, parks, music venues, intersections, streets, and, most of all, people that I recognize.

The second book in the series, Go Deep, was just released earlier this month (the author is a friend, so I got a copy right when it came out!). If you haven’t read the first one, you must! And you should probably not read this review because there will be spoilers for the first book, which I review here.

Go Deep picks up right where we left off: Kate is living in Amsterdam with Cass, who continues to be sexy and funny and hot but also plagued by a perpetual Peter Pan syndrome. To go with the running softball metaphors in this book, can Cass step up to the plate and be a real grown-up in a real grown-up relationship, or is she going to let Kate down? What makes matters worse is that Kate has to suddenly return to Vancouver, leaving Cass alone in a foreign city. Can Kate trust Cass not to go all self-fulfilling prophecy and do something reckless, ruining their relationship while she’s gone?

When Kate gets back to Vancouver, you’re (re)introduced to a bunch of your favourite queers from the first book, plus you get a meet a few more! Em, your favourite bisexual, is still dating Steve and Hanna, and they’re officially, as they affectionately say, a trifecta.

This is kind of an aside, but reading about a triad—a ‘couple’ made of three people—as a monogamous person honestly kind of puzzled me, made me feel like I’m not sure I understand this! Part of it I guess is that I’m also bi and it’s happened a few times that people have assumed I’m poly, I think, because I’m bi and in a relationship with a guy, and I’m like, damn, do I have to be poly to show that I’m bisexual? But that’s clearly my own shit that I’m projecting. Anyway, while I was sitting there thinking that I could not fathom having two partners, let alone two partners who are also involved with each other, I had this revelation: oh my god, is this what uninformed straight people think when they read about queer people for the first time? That was pretty telling! So I’m glad that I got a little glimpse into what was a totally new world to me by reading about Em, Steve, and Hanna. If you don’t know much about polyamory or triads and/or don’t know anyone who is poly, this wildly entertaining book will also be educational for you!

leigh matthews

Leigh Matthews, via goodreads.com

But not to harp too much on education, because, like its lesbian pulp foremothers, Go Deep is all about queer drama. What I love about this series is how it fulfills that desire for a lighter, beachier kind of read, but is also smart, well-written, and full of characters who are never caricatures. Back in Vancouver, Matthews runs her characters through all manner of excitement and commotion. Women are dumped, new relationships are formed, people end up in the hospital, and softballs games are lost and won. There’s a new minor character named Afra who’s genderqueer and who I hope shows up more in future books! Kate’s ex Janice is still around too, and in typical queer women fashion, becomes entangled in a web of dating, relationships, and hook-ups that eventually all lead back to the new flirtatious queer in town, Scout.

Strangely enough, Scout is a dead-ringer for Cass, down to the softball playing, masculine of centre gender presentation, and lady killing. In fact, ex-lovers of Cass’s have literally been confusing Scout with Cass! What is going on? Who is Scout? Who’s going to end up with who? And most importantly, when is Em’s cat Thunderpuss going to get the screen time he deserves?

Of course, you’re going to have to pick up a copy of this delightful, funny, page-turning novel yourself to find out! You can buy copies online on CreateSpace and Amazon.

Posted in Bisexual, Fiction, Lesbian, Queer, Vancouver | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

“But how I suddenly loved the question”: Looking for Answers about Love, Spirituality, and Family in Sigal Samuel’s THE MYSTICS OF MILE END

Mystics-of-Mile-End-webcoverThe Mystics of Mile End by Sigal Samuel is, above all, an amazing book, such a sure-footed, beautifully written novel that it’s hard to believe it’s her first. It’s one of those books that was so good I’m not quite sure where to begin describing it. But, I’ve got to try. Here goes! [By the way, I’m going to keep hidden some of the details that are even on the back of the book, because in my opinion they are spoilers. So if you really want to get the full effect of this novel, I suggest NOT reading the back cover!]

At its core, The Mystics of Mile End is a story about a family. Lev and Samara Meyer live with their father David in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, a curious mix of Hasidic Jews (a branch of Orthodox Judaism) and young hipsters. Samuel lovingly and richly sets the scene of Montreal; you can feel the thick humid summer air, smell the coffee at funky neighbourhood coffee shops, and hear the Hasidic Jews call to each other in Yiddish and Hebrew as they walk in groups to and from synagogue.

David is a cynical professor of Jewish mysticism at McGill university, but has rejected the Orthodox faith in part because of his wife’s early death; as children both Lev and Samara have to hide their interest in Judaism and spirituality, Samara even keeping her preparations for her bat mitzvah—which is happening one year later than it should—a secret. Lev and Samara share a close bond, a comfortable intimacy that does not need to be spoken, which only makes their distant father feel more separate from them.

Despite David’s avowed disinterest in religious practice, however, his children begin to notice strange behaviour as he (and they) grow older that suggests his spiritual, in addition to his intellectual, interest in Jewish mysticism is returning. The concept David is becoming increasingly obsessed with is the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. The Tree of Life—as I’ve learned from this novel—is a mystical symbol representing different stages of enlightenment: at the bottom is ani (“I,” associated with the ego or unified self) and at the top is ayin (“nothingness,” associated with the annihilation of the ego), with many layers in between. The study of the Tree of Life and the consequent urge to ascend the Tree are supposed to be restricted to scholars over the age of forty, because, as the neighbourhood’s wise teacher says, young people who have recognized the meaning of the Tree’s holy vision have been “consumed by fire.” In other words, they go crazy.

Eventually, Samara sets out on the same dangerous path as her father, to disastrous results, and it is up to her family and friends—including her girlfriend Jenny, Lev’s best friend Alex, and neighbour and Holocaust survivor Mr. Glassman—to save the Meyers and bridge the communication gaps that keep them apart and threaten to destroy their family.

sigal samuel

Sigal Samuel, via sigalsamuel.com

If The Mystics of Mile End sounds complex, that’s because it is. It’s a profoundly spiritual but also intellectual novel, the kind of book that is full of emotional truths that ring true. While you don’t have to know much about Judaism, Kabbalah, or the Tree of Life to enjoy this book—I certainly didn’t—Jewish readers and/or those with a special interest in spirituality and mysticism will certainly connect with The Mystics of Mile End. Even if you don’t think of yourself are a spiritual person or someone attracted to spirituality, though, this novel has a lot to offer about human relationships, family, grief, queer identity, and, as trite as it might sound, the meaning of life. Samuel wonderfully sketches out some the ugly and beautiful truths of life and the similarly ugly and beautiful things human beings say and do.

What I really loved about this book, in addition to its musing about the nature of our world and life itself, was how Samuel sketched such complex, fascinating, authentic characters that were allowed to be unlikable sometimes, allowed to be contradictory, allowed to be sympathetic despite everything. The novel passes over a decade of time, and through the minds of Lev, David, and Samara, taking on their first person perspectives before moving onto an omniscient standpoint from the point of view of the neighbourhood itself. Changing viewpoints like this is a challenge for veteran writers, but Samuel totally triumphs. Here’s an excerpt from 10-year-old Lev’s section, talking about his sister’s Torah reading from her bat mitzvah:

And there it was, the weird something in her voice. It was not too fast or too quiet but slow and steady, as if she had all the time in the world, as if it was just for her, just for this moment, that the whole world had been created. I closed my eyes. Inside her voice I could hear each letter, and each silence between each letter, and I felt happy and sad and lonely, because in each perfect silence was a smaller, hidden silence, like dolls inside dolls that go on and on forever, and inside the smallest doll I could suddenly see the list curled up, the list of all the reasons, the reasons for my sister’s sadness.

This is David, in the throws of spiritual revelation:

I had wanted an answer. But how I suddenly loved the question, black coffee and the smell of books, and a fine wine on a white table-cloth and the middle-of-the-night bicycle rides, and middle-of-the-way forays into old age, and the pale blue dot on Val’s left leg, whizzing away into infinity, and the new manuscript waiting to be written, and the old silences waiting to be spoken, and the girl attacking her copy of Zizek with a highlighter, and all of the trunk drawers full of jewelry and sadness, and the telephone ringing all day, and my children. My children. And Valérie saying, ‘You might as well stay, if you want to. I mean here, if you want to. You can.’

And finally, Samara, in love:

I touched her face and, one by one, her features sprang away from the cracked wall behind her. I held her by the hip and the grey drained away. I pushed her against the wall and she laughed a vermillion laugh, feral and throaty, her mouth stained red. I kissed her there and the colour spread–she was amaranth, cadmium, cerulean, herliotrope, atomic tangerine–and I pulled her into bed and inside the walls were raining, paint was pouring down, and outside the sky was darkening to a deep pitch black. In the morning, when I held the mirror up to her face, she wept the impossible tears of one who has never known what it is to see her own body.

Whether what piques your interest is the earthly everyday details of Montreal, the transcendental possibilities of Kabbalah, or the eternal struggle to connect with your fellow humans, The Mystics of Mile End will not fail to enchant.

Posted in Fiction, Jewish, Lesbian, Montreal, Queer | Tagged , , | 5 Comments