“For who will testify, who will accurately describe our lives if we do not do it ourselves?”: Recent Lesbian Memoirs

I’ve been on a memoir reading binge lately. Every time I turned around there seemed to be another lesbian memoir demanding my attention. Below is a list of my recent reads. Though they range in time (the 1950s to the present day) and place (the LES to North Dakota), the issues these women grapple with are the same: coming out, coming into her own, breaking through silences, establishing relationships, becoming the subject of her own story—which is all we can all only strive for, really.

Happy reading.

9781580054324Riding Fury Home by Chana Wilson

A powerful mother-daughter memoir, contrasting the heart breaking, soul crushing experience of Wilson’s mother (until the women’s movement!) with Wilson’s own coming out. I wished her mom had written a book, but if this is the closest we’ll get, I’ll take it.

16065411My Awesome Place by Cheryl Burke

A survival story—from family dysfunction, drinking, and drugs to poet and powerhouse.




My Almost Certainly Real Imaginary Jesus by Kelly Barth

If you’ve been raised a certain way and defined by those beliefs, what do you do when you no longer belong? Who are you then? Barth stumbled and struggled down this long, twisty road and it is entirely worth it. Rejecting a particular religious doctrine is only the first step; finding a new theology and a community is just as important and harrowing.


Licking the Spoon by Candace Walsh

Food memoirs always have a place at my table and I really wanted to love this one more. It started out strong for me but as the author comes to terms with her sexuality, leaves her husband, and finds love again, I found myself skimming pages—and missing the food.

HOFFERT-PrairieSilencePrairie Silence by Melanie Hoffert

Maybe it’s just because I live in New York, but I think I’ve burnt out on the coming of age memoir on the wild streets of NYC in the 1950s/60s/70s/80s/90s. The winds of the North Dakota plains were very welcome here and Hoffert’s poignant sketch of rural life, coming out—and going back home—is a welcome new voice.

Posted in Nonfiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Wine Dark Seas: Thank You Mary Renault

king-must-die-renaultWorking my way down the library shelves after finishing the last Jean Plaidy on offer at my small local public library, I discovered Mary Renault. And I fell in love with her books on ancient Greece and mythology. From The King Must Die about Theseus to The Persian Boy told from the perspective of Alexander the Great’s lover, these books transported me and were some of the first books I read with gay content: Two men could be lovers. At the time, I had no idea Renault was a lesbian who lived with her partner in Cape Town, South Africa; I just knew she brought myth and legend to full-bodied life. She was a pioneer who affected many young readers, gay especially, and she should get her full measure.

$(KGrHqR,!i4FCsmhpe!4BQr8b55Qew~~60_35While her books still have a prominent place on my shelf—especially the first edition hardcover of The Mask of Apollo I picked up for a $1 at a garage sale—I hadn’t read one in years. And then I read Daniel Mendelsohn’s wonderful tribute to her in the New Yorker a few weeks ago (and video). Now my challenge is deciding which one to read first…after I finish Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles which brings the events of the Iliad to life through the eyes of Patroclus, Achilles’ closest companion and lover.

9780062060617In these dark days of winter, I encourage you to visit these wine dark seas.

Now if only there were some with lesbians…

Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Lesbian Lit Wish List 2013: And Party Like It’s Venice, 1713 at Masq

Sick of reading best of lists? So am I. Instead, I’m going to look ahead, to the books I’d like to read in 2013 (and beyond):

667ef0cb1f9e4ac199c39c97d31778eb1. Eminent Outlaws, the lesbian version. If you haven’t read Christopher Bram’s excellent and marvelously gossipy literary history of the gay (male) writers after WWII who shaped American culture, then I can think of few better ways to spend some cold January afternoons. As Bram rightly points out, we should write our own history. Let’s.

2. Random Family, the homeless gay teen version. Random Family, about growing up in the South Bronx, remains one of my favorite books of all time. I would love to see Rachel Aviv extend her feature on homeless gay teens that appeared recently in the New Yorker into a book. Maybe she already is; here’s hoping.

3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?/Gone Girl, the lesbian version. It doesn’t even need be that dysfunctional but I want a book about lesbian relationships, warts and all, fights and all, wittily and well told—or at least a page-turner.

4. More memoirs like Jennifer Hauseman’s recent Modern Love piece in the New York Times. Basically, more non-celebrity, non-coming out (though I do still love a good coming out story) looks at lesbian lives or interesting lives that happen to be led like lesbians.

And just for the record, my favorites this year:

Nonfiction: Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Fiction: Avery’s The Last Nude

My best book of 2013 overall:

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Now if she would turn to a lesbian figure in history….

But let’s have some fun in the meantime—and support an eminently necessary organization. Join me for what promises to be an awesome evening of elegant dress, mysterious masks, and old fashioned mayhem on Sat, Feb 2 at the Bowery Hotel to support The Center (the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, NYC). Here’s the link to purchase tickets. If you are coming, please list me (Julia Pastore) as a host. Would be fantastic to see you! Well, without your mask….


Posted in Fiction, Nonfiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pass the Chaos, Lesbian Edition

As the folks at Zola Books rightly point out, ‘tis the season for feasting and family dysfunction and there are an abundance of excellent books on the many ways a family can be unhappy. This got me thinking about the uniquely lesbian version of this: dyke drama. And so, herewith, my top 3 books on the kind of doomed, tragic, drama-filled relationships that are infinitely better to read about than live through:

#3 The Last Nude by Ellis Avery

What is it they say about never getting involved with actors? Well, Rafaela Fano gets a quick, brutal lesson on the dangers of artists.

#2 Aimee & Jaguar by Erica Fischer

A German housewife married to a Nazi officer meets a Jew living underground in Berlin during WWII. This was never going to end well even if Lilly “Aimee” Wust wasn’t a study in delusion and dysfunction.

#1 Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Love it or hate it, if you’ve ever sat on the sidelines, forgotten, watching a lover go from “table to table, from drink to drink, from person to person” you’ll feel for Nora Flood.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

If the purpose is connection, embrace digital: To Sinister Wisdom and any other heretofore-unknown lesbian journals I wish I could easily access

Lambda Literary recently interviewed Julie Enszer, the co-editor of Sinister Wisdom (awesome name!), the oldest surviving lesbian literary journal now celebrating 37 years of publishing. First off, who knew? I for one did not. I had never heard of this journal of fiction, reviews, photography, and poetry before and am pretty damn impressed at its ability to continue on for nearly four decades—with volunteers, a shoestring budget, and minimal (truly a pittance) subscription fees, no less.

But I won’t be reading the content any time soon. Why? Because the journal is only available in a physical edition and I can’t be bothered mailing away for a hardcopy subscription. I don’t want to wait and I don’t want any more paper piled up in my apartment—saturation point has been reached. That may sound obnoxious to some but I doubt I’m alone. If the journal was available digitally (on the web or as an ebook/download) or parts of it were, I’d be all over it—and I’d pay for it like I do for the well-done long-form journalism at The Atavist among other digital content I consume.

But Sinister Wisdom is committed to publishing only in physical format. Why?:

“Because we love print. We love having objects to hold in our hands. We love creating things for lesbians to hold, caress, and cherish. The tradition of Sinister Wisdom has been as a journal and we are continuing that tradition. I hope that it won’t be necessary economically to move to publishing online only. Though we have just upgraded our website at www.SinisterWisdom.org and we see the web as an important way to reach people. But we also see the value of print journals. They require us to think carefully about words and arguments. On the web, publishing is a bit more ephemeral—mistakes can be corrected quickly and easily—but it is less portable. Books can go anywhere and mistakes that we make are in them forever. Book publishing is slower and in some ways more permanent. That’s why we continue to publish in print, because we want there to be a permanent record of lesbian lives and concerns.”

Putting aside any of the very real practical considerations like the additional money and womanpower needed to publish electronically, I’d like to unpack this reasoning:

“Because we love print.”: And that’s a very good reason to print a physical edition but it shouldn’t exclude a digital one as well. I love print too (note saturation point above), but I like good content more. Making the journal a beautiful object should not mutually exclude making the content accessible to the widest possible audience through a digital edition as well.

“They require us to think carefully about words and arguments.”: Any writer or editor worthy of the name thinks carefully about their words and arguments before presenting them to an audience in any format (if their name is attached to it). Digital publishing is not inherently sloppy or ill conceived. It can be, just as any physical book can be. If anything else, publishing digitally is more risky as the audience is potentially much larger and the response quicker and more viral.

“It’s less portable.”: Totally true before the ereaders, tablets, and smartphone explosion but my kindle and iphone are much more portable than a lot of the hardcovers cramming my shelves.

“A permanent record.”: Barring catastrophic meltdown, digital files are much more permanent than print.  We just don’t make books (paper, really) like we used to—your average one will yellow, break, and crumble within a few years. The major libraries and universities (and google) know this which is why the conversion of their collections to digital is so important. Believe me, I’d rather be in the Bodleian with a fifteenth century illuminated manuscript between my linen gloved fingers but if the choice is between no access and digital access, I’ll take the digital.

I don’t want to pick on Sinister Wisdom. They have a lot on their plate already and maybe digital seems like one more “to do” on an already impossibly long list. Or maybe they really don’t see the value of digital publishing. But I hope they’ll reconsider. Their hope that that “Sinister Wisdom has the effect of encouraging and nurturing lesbian creativity so that lesbian writers and artists can use their work as a platform to connecting with the LGBTQ communities and with broader reader communities as well” is an admirable one and I’d like to do my part to encourage, nurture, and connect. But a lot of connections are happening online now and I think it’s crucial to go where the connections are. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to share, like, FB, tweet, or otherwise engage with this content across our various networks?

I mean, I did find out about them through a blog after all.

Happy reading.

Posted in Fiction, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

All We Know: “If you want the damn ball keep it, don’t throw it away.”*

How many books with lesbian subjects are reviewed—let alone glowingly reviewed—in mainstream publications as diverse as The New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, WWD, The New Yorker, and Business Week? (And for a gem from across the pond, see the London Review of Books.) Very, very, very few as far as I can recollect. In fact, I can’t recollect any off the top of my head. A Jeannette Winterson perhaps? Certainly helps to be published by FSG. Be that as it may, now we can point to Lisa Cohen’s recently published biography of three bold women Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta and Madge Garland (at left), All We Know.

That so many publications have taken notice of Cohen’s work is cause enough for celebration but how satisfying and encouraging to read so many unmitigated raves? Very.

So, if you have any interest in the lives, loves, failures, frustrations, and style of little-known lesbians of the early twentieth century or are an avid reader of biographies, you will find a lot to like here. I sure did. Cohen has done an incredible amount of research and it shows on every page. The original interviews, primary research and period details bring these women and their milieu vividly to life.

But by giving each woman her own section, Cohen created a disconnect between these figures that no amount of cross-referencing could ever bridge for me. And then there is the biggest question—what story is the biographer trying to tell with her subjects? If it’s to simply resurrect them from the tomb of history then mission accomplished. But Cohen seems to be after something much bigger here, reflecting on big themes like the nature of failure, modernism, art, and camp as well as the nature of biography itself.

“By bringing these three footnotes into the spotlight, Ms. Cohen allows us to look deeper into our definitions of failure, identity and modernity, while also reappraising the stature of artfulness as opposed to art.”—Wall Street Journal

I felt she was less successful here, raising issues only to have them drift away without any real conclusion (I hoped, in vain it seems, for a closing chapter to bring these many threads to some cohesive whole). And sometimes, it felt as if the ideas were driving the book, with elements of these women’s lives slotted in to prove a particular point. Cohen is hanging a lot on these women and often, as with Murphy and de Acosta particularly, they shuddered under the weight.

“Cohen’s book itself is one of these odd, wayward, portentous things; you don’t quite know where it’s come from; you are stunned by its depths; and you hope its excellence and pertinence and originality will not lead, doomfully, to its sinking without a trace, as fine things connected with the subject of lesbianism have had a way of doing for so long.”—Terry Castle in the London Review of Books

Despite my reservations, this book passed my “Am I better for having read this?” test with yards to spare (though if you are struggling with writer’s block, do yourself a favor and skip the Murphy section for now. horrifying.) and hopefully, with the kind of review coverage any author would bleed for All We Know will attract enough readers to keep it afloat for a good long while.

*Madge Garland

And the unforgettable Beth Ditto’s memoir, From Coal to Diamonds, comes out Tuesday. Looks like a little jacket presto-chango since the book was originally announced. Common enough but which do you prefer? I like the original one, on the left, better. More personal and intimate.

Either way, happy reading.

Posted in Nonfiction | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Two Lesbian Writers Who Rock: Sarah Diemer and Malinda Lo

It’s tough being a writer these days, especially a lesbian writer so I’d like to give a shout out to two authors whose work I hope you read if you haven’t already. One is a new discovery for me, and someone who embodies all of the creativity, verve, and spirit of the modern writer making and sharing her art on her own terms. And the second is one whose career I’ve followed from the start and whose mid-career transition to novelist and evolving style continues to impress me.

First up: Sarah Diemer who describes herself as a YA author who “writes novels about girls who love girls, who kick ass and take names, finding the courage to fight for what they believe in, and experiencing a little magic and monsters along the way.” Who could possibly not like that?

I just finished reading The Dark Wife, her re-telling of the Persephone myth with a lesbian twist and while I didn’t love it—the ending left me wanting and I admit to skimming pages once the basic premise was established—I did love and admire how unique, inventive, and richly imagined the world she created was.

Check out the audiobook of The Dark Wife which is available for free download here.

Her new book, The Bone Girl, is coming out shortly on Sept 25, but she has an abundance of paranormal, sci fi, and fantasy novels and short stories to choose from on her website. And, she and her wife have just launched an ambitious short story project on their blog to put out, twice weekly (Mondays and Fridays), free YA stories with lesbian heroines.

Their can-do spirit is infectious, and seriously, she and her wife couldn’t be cuter.

Next: Malinda Lo. The author of Ash and Huntress has just released a new and very different book, Adaptation.  I had been hoping for more in the Ash/Huntress vein of YA fantasy but I appreciate an author who continues to grow and change and push their boundaries, in this case into science fiction. I am sure this will be a reading group pick in the near future and if anyone’s read already, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Check out this Autostraddle interview where she talks about the new book and publishing books with gay characters.

She’ll be in NYC over the next few days (Brooklyn Book Festival!) so check her out if you can. For more events, look here.

Sept. 22, 2012 at 12 p.m. – New YorkOut of This World Teen Fiction — A signing with Jessica Shirvington (Entice), Wesley King (The Vindico), Karsten Knight (Embers & Echoes) and Sarah Beth Durst (Vessel)
Books of Wonder
18 West 18th Street
New York, NY 10011

Sept. 23, 2012 at 5 p.m. – BrooklynBrooklyn Book Festival — “Ghosts, Goddesses, and Wolves”: A panel with Kendare Blake (Anna Dressed in Blood) and Andrea Cremer (Nightshade), moderated by Jessica Shirvington (Entice)
Location: Youth Stoop (Brooklyn Borough Hall Plaza/Columbus Park)
209 Joralemon Street
Brooklyn, NY

And if you haven’t seen her it gets better video with her partner Amy, talk about another cute couple.

And there must be something in the air. Check out Autostraddle’s reasons to read Santa Olivia immediately. It is definitely climbing up my list.

Happy reading and writing.

Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments