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I’m really behind on my reviewing! (And doing Book Bits!)

I just finished reading Two on the Aisle by Robbi McCoy, so wrote my review tonight while I was still thinking about it. It has been added to the Romance page in my Lezzie Books section, or you can go directly to the review by clicking here.

There have been a few other books that I’ve intended to review over the last few months, but kept procrastinating. Which then makes it difficult to write a decent review, since my impressions are no longer fresh. For two of them, I’ve added their titles to their respective Lezzie Books category pages and included links to my brief Book Bits comments.

Both of these books are highly recommended. They are: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson and Santa Olivia by Jacqueline Carey. They are both mentioned in my April 2012 Book Bits post.

Also mentioned in that Book Bits post (and also highly recommended) is Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, which has been added to my Miscellaneous category page. (I guess April was a good queer reading month for me!)

To find other lesbian and bi book reviews and recommendations click on the Lezzie Books tab at the top of this page.

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This is a bit different than the usual movie I post about. Hung is a short, and probably the only people who ever heard of it are ones who caught it at a queer film festival.

Hung is a well-executed indie short film. When it came up in my search results for free streaming lesbian movies through Amazon Prime I was dubious, but couldn’t resist giving it a try, and I ended up being pleasantly surprised.

The premise is that a lesbian obtains a magic potion that will give her a penis for one day. She got enough potion for five people, so that her four lesbian friends could join her on the little adventure. I don’t really want to say anything more, since it would give too much away.

Everyone who spends any amount of time viewing indie lesbian movies knows what it’s like to struggle through badly acted crap with crummy scripts and poor production values. Happily, that’s not the case here. Well, the low budget production part is there (most notably in terms of sound). But the acting is decent, the script is unexpectedly subtle and creative, the humor is spot on, and the editing is top-notch.

My only real complaint is that it’s too short. The actual movie time is only about 10-11 minutes, which means there’s not enough time to explore the experience as much as I’d have liked. It would be easy to go overboard and take the gag too far with a longer movie, but this was kind of like only being allowed to eat one appetizer when you’re hungry. Though, I suppose it could be argued that’s what makes it work so well.

Hung is definitely worth spending the few minutes it takes to watch*. If you’re anything like me, you’ll get several chuckles out of it.

* If you have Amazon Prime and can watch it for free, there’s no reason not to. If you aren’t a member, the purchase price for the digital download is $2.99. That’s kinda steep considering how short it is, but would be worth it if you end up watching it a few times. I’m thinking of buying it in order to support the filmmakers.

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I’ve added a new review to my Lezzie Books section. This one is for Erosistible by Gill McKnight, a lesbian romance novel set on the fictional island of Eros in the Aegean Sea. Click on the linked title to go directly to my review.

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This woman is Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, and she is the current Prime Minister of Iceland. She is the first female Prime Minister of that country. Impressive enough.

Jóhanna is also a lesbian. She became the first ever openly gay head of government in the modern world on February 1st, 2009. That’s really impressive. Her wife is Jónína Leósdóttir (an author and playwright). They entered into a civil union in 2002, then converted it to a marriage in 2010 when same-sex marriage was legalized in Iceland.

I must admit that, like most Americans, I am not exactly up on my foreign heads of state. I discovered her when I was reading this article about the fact that two of the approximately sixty world leaders attending a NATO Summit in Chicago are openly gay. The other is Elio Di Rupo, the Prime Minister of Belgium. He became the second openly gay head of government in December 2011, and is the only openly gay head of a European Union country.

Kudos to both of them, but especially Jóhanna, because this proves that lesbians rule. ;)

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I remember seeing a poster at the theater in 2005 for a movie coming out soon and I rolled my eyes. The poster was a picture of four young women dressed in short plaid skirts, and my immediate impression was that it must be a stupid teen exploitation movie. I didn’t give it another thought.

But then a funny thing happened. Quite some time after that I started seeing the movie mentioned in a lesbian context, and in a positive way! Obviously I had missed something. And who can blame me? Slutty school-girl outfits don’t scream “lesbian movie”, the two put together causes cognitive dissonance. Eventually I ran across a DVD copy in the discount bin at a video store, so bought it to finally see for myself what the deal was.

Yeah, I’d been missing something. I love D.E.B.S. At the IMDB it only has a 5 star (out of 10) rating and at Rotten Tomatoes it has a pitiful rating of only 39%. I don’t care, I love it anyway. It’s spoofy and over the top, but it’s also sweet and tons of fun.

The casting is great. Sara Foster and Jordana Brewster play the lead roles and they have amazing, natural chemistry. It doesn’t hurt that Jordana Brewster is droolworthy. (I seriously feel like a dirty old lady while watching her.) Jill Ritchie plays Janet and her expressions throughout the movie are pure gold.

Jessica Cauffiel as the assassin Ninotchka has hardly any screen time, but she makes the most of it. I crack up every time she does her arm movement when saying she really wants to be a dancer while on a blind date with Brewster’s character. Jimmi Simpson as Scud is a treat to watch. Meagan Good nails the part of Max, and the cherry on top is Holland Taylor doing a hilarious job as Ms. Petrie.

It appears that one of the major complaints from critics is that the plot is too thin to hold up a full length movie. And I have to say that on this point they aren’t wrong. Another frequent complaint is about the acting and dialogue, and here I have to disagree, at least in part. Some of the acting is off at times. And some of the dialogue is bad, though in this case I think maybe intentionally so. But for me, the great lines, the romance, and the funny moments shine through and provide more than enough entertainment to make up for the movie’s weaknesses.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched D.E.B.S. now. It’s one of those movies I can pop in when I just want to kill an hour and a half, have a few laughs, and feel good. It will never be considered great, but sometimes that’s all I need from a movie, and D.E.B.S. delivers on that score.

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New Page Added

At the top of the site you’ll see a new tab with the “Lezzie Books” label. I’ve started a project to list books with lesbian/bi characters or content. Currently it’s only a list, using a basic, three-category rating system. Eventually it will have active links to the Amazon book pages to get descriptions and reader reviews, and links to my own reviews or brief comments on this blog. The intention is to provide a place to help those looking for some good, or at least interesting, reading material.

All the linking, and copying of my Amazon reviews to blog pages, is time-consuming, so it will be an ongoing project for quite some time. I hope it will be of at least some use to readers!

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Words are powerful. They have the means to uplift or to tear down. Many words are only imbued with power because of how they are strung together or because the speaker/writer is charismatic or hateful. Some words are imbued with power because of how they have been specifically used. In the case of pejoratives, some have centuries of ugliness held within them.

I was coming out as a baby dyke in the 1980s, a time of reclamation for many words relating to being gay. Like “dyke”, for instance. It has always somewhat amused me that I never had any negative associations with the word “dyke” and I used it from the beginning. To me it’s a strong word, both in sound and meaning.

The word “lesbian” on the other hand flustered me. It was imbued with all sorts of emotions. Not negative, because I was lucky to escape internalizing any homophobia. But I think because I’d been questioning whether I was a lesbian or not for several years before coming out it was a word that was too personal at first, if that makes any sense. The first time I ever applied it to myself in a conversation with another person (who was a lesbian) I tripped over it. Embarrassing!

Because I had not had to deal with any real blatant homophobia directed my way, or internalized negative associations with being gay, prior to coming out, many of the historically pejorative words simply had no demeaning power for me. It helps that I was a teen in the 70s and coming out as a young adult in the 80s. I suspect my feelings may have been quite a bit different if I’d been struggling to accept myself in the 1950s.

So I came to the gay community at a time when “queer” was in the process of being reclaimed. And I liked the word. If you remove the emotional baggage of the word being hurled in hatred or disgust, you come up with a not-so-bad descriptive word. We are queer in the sense that we have our own subculture and we are only a small segment of the overall population.

But what I like most about the word is its inclusiveness. Rather than having to string out all the “alphabet soup” labels, I can say the word “queer” and it’s understood that it applies to everyone under the umbrella. Not only that, but it applies to people who are not so easily defined under one of the existing labels.

Personally I have no problem with the older labels, and in fact will have to admit that because of the time in which I came out, they have deep meaning to me and I cling to them. I am a lesbian and that label fits me perfectly, so I hold on to them even though the world has moved on and our understanding of orientation has expanded. The labels have lost some of their usefulness due to the fact they are in many cases too narrow or specific to accurately apply to many individuals.

Not so the word “queer.” No matter what your orientation (other than straight), no matter how muddled your self-definition might be because you’re not quite exactly this or that in how you perceive your own reality, the word “queer” covers it. And it covers not only orientation in regards to how you relate to other genders, but how you define (or refuse to define) your own gender. It’s a good, multi-purpose word that includes, rather than excludes, and I like it.

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Pembroke Park by Michelle Martin. One of my favorite Naiad Press books - published in 1986.

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I just found out that Barbara Grier passed away a week ago at the age of 78. I couldn’t let that go by without writing.

There are many people in this world who devote their lives to helping others and making the world a better place. I have benefited from many of those people, but it’s almost always in an indirect manner. Barbara Grier made my life and my world better directly. Without ever even knowing that I exist, she touched me in a very personal way.

Ms. Grier was one of the founders of Naiad Press in the 1970s. A small, independent publisher of books. Lesbian books. Books by lesbians, about lesbians, for lesbians.

As an avid reader in the process of coming out as a lesbian in the mid-1980s, one of the first things I looked for was books. Trying to find other gay people to associate with was important too, but that came second. Reading has always been my primary means for understanding the world, learning about new things, and sometimes, especially in this case, understanding myself.

I was already a regular shopper at the various independent bookstores on Capitol Hill in Seattle (there were many back then), and living on Capitol Hill I had some exposure to gay culture simply through osmosis. But as I became a little more convinced of my orientation I hungered for confirmation. Which led to those first nerve wracking visits to the sections with gay and lesbian books on the shelves.

There were several small publishers putting out quality gay books, but almost immediately I learned to recognize Naiad Press on the spines of novels. It was a signal and an invitation – here is a book for you.

Because Ms. Grier was a visionary and cared about making the world a better place for lesbians in a concrete way, by putting books especially for us in our hands, my life has been so much the richer. Naiad Press closed up shop a few years ago when Ms. Grier and her partner, Donna McBride, retired. But they left a lasting legacy. There aren’t words enough to say how much it meant to me over the years, and how thankful I am.

Wherever your spirit wanders on, Ms. Grier, I hope it’s a wonderful place, with lots of lesbians, and lots of books. You are one of my heroes.

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I just finished re-reading Patience & Sarah by Isabel Miller. I originally read it in 1985 and hadn’t read it again since then, somehow misplacing my paperback copy in the intervening years. I was very excited when I noticed recently that an ebook edition is now available, so downloaded it for my Kindle.

I enjoyed Patience & Sarah a lot more this time around. As an early 20s baby dyke desperately looking for lesbian reading material in the mid-1980s I read it because it was always mentioned as one of the books every lesbian should read. I liked it well enough, but it didn’t really grab me. I seem to recall thinking it was a bit dull at the time. I preferred lesbian books (and books in general, actually) with less literary quality. (I’ve always been a pretty low-brow reader for the most part.) But the mellowing of age has allowed me to truly appreciate things now that didn’t wow me when young.

The book was written in the mid-1960s, pre-Stonewall, and Miller (pen name for Alma Routsong) could not find a publisher for it. So in 1969 she and her partner published it, paying to print 1025 copies, all of which they sold themselves. McGraw-Hill (one of the publishers that had originally rejected it in 1967) picked it up in 1972. Times had changed enough in just a few short years to take a chance on it. I believe it has been in print ever since.

Patience & Sarah is a lesbian classic about two women in New England in the early 1800s who, after the requisite troubles, leave their families to buy their own farm and make a life together. The story was inspired by Routsong’s discovery in a museum of Mary Ann Willson and Miss Brundidge. Willson was a primitive painter and the information in the museum stated she lived on a farm with Brundidge, to whom she had a “romantic attachment.” Nothing much is known about these women, though Routsong desperately tried to research them.

At the time Patience & Sarah was written there had been less than a handful of novels published that contained positive portrayals of lesbians and that included happy endings. Most “lesbian fiction” of the time was published as pulp novels, in which the lesbians usually killed themselves, went crazy, ended up with a man, or in some other way were alone and unhappy. Two notable exceptions are The Price of Salt, written by Patricia Highsmith under the pen name Claire Morgan and published in hardcover in 1952, and Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule, published in hardcover in 1964.

What I really appreciated most in reading Patience & Sarah this time was Routsong’s writing style. It’s simple and unadorned, yet she crafts it into prose that is both beautiful and moving. Part way through the book I realized she also did some very interesting (and unusual) things with POV. Some chapters are written in first person, some in third person, and one particular chapter is actually written in second person present tense.

This edition of Patience & Sarah includes some really neat extras. At the beginning is an introduction by Emma Donoghue. At the end are a couple pieces written by people who knew Routsong, including her partner at the time she wrote the novel. There are also images of things like the invoice for the self-published printing run, and the first cover for the book, which originally carried the title A Place for Us.

Even though I didn’t appreciate the book nearly as much as a baby dyke I was always glad I had read it because Patience & Sarah is a significant part of lesbian literary history. I understood that even at the time. I’m even more glad that I have read it again and can now appreciate not only the story, but the very fine writing. If you haven’t read it yet, put it on your TBR list.

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I’ve been reading some of the essays in Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women over the last few days. I got a copy of the Kindle ebook for only 99 cents from Amazon’s Sunshine Deals sale, which going on until the 15th of this month. (I also picked up The Lavender Scare for $1.99, and Queers in History for $2.99.)

I’m not much of a non-fiction reader and I assumed that I wouldn’t be able to directly relate to the types of personal stories in this anthology. But for a buck I thought it would be a great chance to read about the experiences of women different than myself who still are queer.

I’ve only read about a third of the essays so far, but what is abundantly clear is that there is in actuality very little difference between many of the women in the book and me. Oh sure, the details are different. But the patterns revealed? It’s shocking to realize that if it were not for a few twists of fate I could easily be one of those women.

In essay after essay the women talk about childhood and teenage experiences that are familiar to almost every woman who has ever come out. The difference is, they didn’t have a critical aha moment before becoming heavily involved with a man, or men. Most of the women in the essays I’ve read have been (or still are) married.

I’ve often been frustrated with my own process of coming out because it took me so darn long in retrospect. I was twenty three when I finally proclaimed to myself, “Yes, I am a lesbian.” This was before I’d ever even kissed a woman, so I didn’t have any sexual experience helping me realize the truth. (I’d made out once each with a couple different men, but it hadn’t done much for me and at the time I considered it practice for when I met a man I really liked.)

Once I made the proclamation it was so easy to look back and see all the blinking neon signs, stretching way back into my childhood. So I’ve always felt stupid that I couldn’t see the obvious any sooner. Heck, some people around me saw it, but I was oblivious.

I have hazy memories of thinking to myself at least a couple times during high school, is it possible I’m gay? But it was a passing question without much weight to it. My internal answer was along the lines of, how could I be? Lesbians are so much more rare than gay men, and gay men are rare, so what are the odds I’m one? And, I would know if I was, wouldn’t I? (That rarity belief was a “gift” from the media. Gay men were so much more visible than lesbians that I honestly thought there was probably only one lesbian for every 50-100 gay men.)

This quotation from one of the essays exactly describes my thinking:

“I thought that since I lacked the sort of brazen knowledge about my sexuality that they possessed, since I wasn’t sure, that I must, by default, be straight. That if I knew, I would know. And since I didn’t know, I must not be. I didn’t have any internalized homophobia, I wasn’t worried about what others would think, I just didn’t want to be an imposter.”

 It wasn’t until my second year of college that I began entertaining serious questions about my orientation. I became consciously aware that I was at least to some extent in love with a woman who was one of my best college friends. I understood to an extent that any attraction I had to men was more on the theoretical and fantasy level, it never seemed to extend to playing itself out in reality. I wasn’t repulsed by the idea of having sex with a man. I just couldn’t seem relate to them on any meaningful level.

But it was all still a giant muddle. My feelings for my friend could have been specific to her and not an indication of lesbian orientation, right? And our cultural view of gayness puts all the emphasis on sex (homosexuality, sexual orientation, gay sex), not emotional bonding and romance. So if the idea of having sex with a man was okay with me then the mere fact that I only emotionally responded to women wasn’t enough to make me a lesbian, right? Plus, I was still hung up on the idea that if you actually were a lesbian, and not just someone wondering about it, that you somehow magically knew.

So by default I considered myself straight, maybe just not quite as completely straight as the women around me. This excerpt from one of the essays sums up that period of my process:

“Somehow I made it to adulthood without understanding that one could not know, that one could speculate and ponder but not conclude.”

 It took me another three years, and moving to Capitol Hill in Seattle where I was exposed to queers and queer culture for the first time, before I finally came out to myself in 1985. (And immediately following, to others.) I was slowly heading that way anyway, but one of the final pushes, my biggest aha experience, was reading personal stories from lesbians in the book Our Bodies, Ourselves*. I finally knew because their stories were my story, and they had already concluded.

So why this common thread of all the signals being there, yet still not knowing? How is it that so many women do speculate and ponder, but never reach the correct conclusion until much later, if ever?

It works that way because society is set to straight as the default and it takes an enormous amount of mental gymnastics to make the giant leap to understanding you aren’t personally set to the default. Even questioning is built into the straight default setting. How many times have you heard it’s normal for girls to develop crushes on other girls? How many times have you heard it’s natural to question sexuality/orientation during adolescence?

The underlying message in these statements of normalcy is that you can experience all these things and be completely straight. And so many of us buy that until we reach a personal tipping point where “straight, but with a few nagging questions” is no longer an adequate explanation.

Obviously some women never go through this process, or it’s a very abbreviated one. They fall in love as a teenager and recognize it for what it is. They always felt different, and were always very aware of this difference on a conscious level. Or better yet, they had actual physical proof of their orientation, even if it was just a single kiss with another girl.

But our heterosexual culture actively works to prevent that from being the norm. Despite all the gains made in gay visibility, gay rights, and understanding of sexual/emotional orientation, our culture intentionally keeps us ignorant. They require us to work arduously to understand ourselves. They want it to be next to impossible to make that giant leap. They want us to struggle indefinitely to overcome our ignorance. They don’t want to help us see. They hope that we never actually do. If it was made easy, oh my goodness, there would be a lot more queers running around out there!

By compelling us to be straight, think straight, and act straight until we reach the point where it’s no longer possible in any way for us to continue in that direction our culture exacts an extremely high price from non-straight individuals. Countless families and lives have been violently disrupted or destroyed because that delayed point comes too late. And countless more lives will be similarly affected until our culture starts to aid, not hinder, us in our process of self-discovery.

Another common theme in the essays is being married for several years before full understanding hits. And by then the woman has lost her chance at an easier transition. It’s not just about her, it’s about her husband too, one she might honestly love. And it’s often about children.

Coming out and finally being true to yourself, being fully who you are, is a powerful thing. It’s exhilarating, cathartic, and mind blowing. But if you’ve been living a straight life with all the accessories for many years it’s also devastating. Here’s another excerpt from one of the essays:

“You just stand there, more exposed than you ever thought possible, and say, “This is my truth.” It has been the most liberating and the most shattering of experiences. I am free, soaring high, authentic and true, and I am broken, on my knees, sobbing tears that flow without end. I am both more than and less than I was before.”

I wish I could force everyone to read this book and truly understand what these women are saying. All the pain of fractured families isn’t necessary. If they’d been helped to understand themselves before it was too late they wouldn’t find themselves in a life torn asunder. Our culture absolutely must find a way to ditch compulsory heterosexuality.

What I’ve taken away from my reading is that I shouldn’t be kicking myself for being so oblivious and for taking so long to figure things out. I should be thanking my lucky stars I figured it out when I did. If it weren’t for some of my specific experiences I could have been one of these women. Our histories and our thought processes are too similar for that to not be true. Far from being unable to relate to many of the writers in Dear John, I Love Jane, I can relate all too well.

* I linked to the current edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. But if you’re investigating buying a copy, from reviews it sounds like acquiring an older edition is probably a better choice. My copy is either the first or second edition, but you wouldn’t want to go back that far or you’d miss out on important updated info.

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