Stranger Than Fiction

DYKE DRAMA

Jeanne Cordova, a pioneering journalist-activist in the lesbian-feminist community of Los Angeles in the 1970s, has written a meaty autobiographical book about that time. In When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution, the twenty-something Jeanne appears to be remarkably articulate and community-minded on a political level.

Then there is her love life. Oh. My. Goddess.

In several chapters, the author describes what can happen when a dyke who dismisses monogamy as a kind of sexual ownership falls in love (in her own distinct way) with a newbie in the lesbian community while continuing to live with her long-time lover. The newbie, called “Rachel” in the book, wants more of Jeanne’s time and attention than she is getting. After confronting Jeanne several times about her relative unavailability, Rachel decides to date other women too.

When Cordova (as she was more generally known) comes face to face with Rachel’s new fling, it is a showdown between two butches, like a scene from the Old West. The author has allowed Rachel to borrow her signature hat, and this item serves as a focus for Cordova’s frustration:

“I thought of Rachel preening in my hat, but she was in Jacki’s arms—in Jacki’s bed. Rachel, who loved to fuck when she was drunk, just like tonight. Only tonight, she’d fuck Jackie. The thought filled me with a rage I’d never felt before. 
 
I darted past BeJo [Cordova’s primary lover, or roommate] on the stairs tore out of the Woman’s Building, yelling to her, ‘I gotta find my hat!’” *

It gets worse, or better. In a grimly humorous account of a sleepless night, Cordova drives to Jacki’s house and breaks in, holding a large kitchen knife with a serrated blade. She explains to the reader that the thought of plunging the knife into anyone’s flesh makes her nauseous, but the knife feels comforting in her hand.

Jean Roberta

Jean teaches English in a Canadian prairie university, where she is also a consulting editor for the literary journal.

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Disturbed by Her Song

Title: DISTURBED BY HER SONG
Author: Tanith Lee, writing as and with Esther Garber and Judas Garbah
Publisher: Lethe Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-1590213117
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 4 Stars

Tanith Lee is a legend among fantasy writers and the author of over ninety novels. Her work has been attracting a cult following since the 1970s, when she sold her first book to DAW Press. Her tales are elaborate, but her words are as carefully chosen as precious jewels. Her eccentricities can be forgiven.

As an example of her quirks, she claims that this collection of stories was co-written by two other people. In “Meeting the Garbers,” Tanith Lee claims:

“I first met the Garbers in the 1990s; that is, I met Esther [who then ‘wrote’ two books], and her brother, Judas. Anna didn’t turn up, though she subsequently sent me a polite and kindly note.”

Why Anna chose to send the author a note instead of ‘turning up’ is a mystery. None of the Garbers (two Jewish sisters and their half-Arabian half-brother, who spells the family name differently) is real. They are two or three alter egos of Tanith Lee.

Jean Roberta

Jean teaches English in a Canadian prairie university, where she is also a consulting editor for the literary journal.

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The Last Nude

Title: THE LAST NUDE
Author: Ellis Avery
Publisher: Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 2011
ISBN: 978-1594488139
Genre: Literary
Rating: 4-stars

Paris in the 1920s was a glittering refuge for expatriate artists, hedonists, the sexually unconventional, exiles and runaways of all sorts. Its soundtrack was le jazz hot. The author of this novel, who teaches fiction writing at Columbia University in New York, has brought this milieu back to life in words that seem as carefully chosen as a palette of colours.

The “last nude” of the title is a copy of one of the six paintings of “beautiful Rafaela” made in the 1920s by an actual painter, Tamara de Lempicka. In this novel, seventeen-year-old Rafaela is Tamara’s model, her muse, and the primary narrator of their story. Their affair is redeeming and inspirational for both, even though it is characterized by dishonesty and betrayal.

Rafaela recounts her short history without self-pity: the child of a scandalous marriage between a Catholic mother and a Jewish father who eloped from Italy to New York in the early twentieth century, Rafaela becomes the outsider in her family after her father dies and her mother marries a socially prominent man in the local Italian community and gives him four sons. By the time Rafaela is sixteen, her lush beauty is distracting and disturbing to her stepfather and her mother. To “protect” her and get her out of the way, they plan to marry her off to a relative of her stepfather in Italy. Her step-grandmother agrees to escort Rafaela to her new home. On a trans-Atlantic ship, Rafaela attracts the attention of a much older Frenchman who helps her to escape to Paris.

Jean Roberta

Jean teaches English in a Canadian prairie university, where she is also a consulting editor for the literary journal.

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Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme

Title: PERSISTENCE: All Ways Butch And Femme
Edited by Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman
Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press, Canada, 2011
ISBN: 9781551523972
Rating: 4-Stars

This thick collection of essays and manifestoes, with some poems, short fiction and brief autobiographies mixed in, is a current report on the diversity of queer gender identities in the twenty-first century. Its title is similar to that of an earlier book, The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, originally published in 1992. Joan Nestle, a legendary femme writer who remembers the early Gay Rights movement, edited the first anthology. As she says in the foreword to the current book:

When Ivan and Zena told me of their soon-to-be-published collection, which you now hold in your hands, I did not react well.

As she explains, the title seemed too close to that of her own book. However, Nestle eventually calmed down. She came to believe that the current book, like the earlier one, represents a certain zeitgeist:

The voices of another generation, of other cultural positions, new possibilities of gender discourse, and erotic adventuring are presented here, and these extend in complex ways the passionate and embattled conversation of the now out-of-print Persistent Desire.

The cover image of the current paperback says it all: a drawing of an androgynous-looking brown person of unclear ethnicity seems to be looking into a mirror as s/he applies lipstick (fuschia, slightly darker than the pink background) to her/his full lips. This person is either contemplating her (?) own image or that of the viewer. The artist, Elisha Lim, has said with lines and colour what the other contributors say in many words.

Jean Roberta

Jean teaches English in a Canadian prairie university, where she is also a consulting editor for the literary journal.

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The Ultimate Guide to Orgasm for Women

Title: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO ORGASM FOR WOMEN
Author: Mikaya Heart
Publisher: Cleis Press
Foreword by Violet Blue
Genre: Self-Help
Rating: 4 Stars

This book has an interesting history. In her introduction, the author explains:

“In 1998, I published the first edition of this book, which was titled When the Earth Moves: Women and Orgasm. Since then, I have received numerous letters from readers telling me how much their sex lives have improved as a result of this book.” She goes on to explain that the 2011 edition is designed to be more user-friendly. She also explains that in the current edition, “I have deleted my personal story of healing from a childhood of sexual abuse, as that story is now available in my memoir (My Sweet Wild Dance), although you will still find many references to my own experience throughout the text.”

The author doesn’t introduce herself as a lesbian, but her references to her own sexual experience make it clear that she now has sex with a woman/women.

The biggest difference between this book and the earlier edition, aside from the paring-down of the author’s own story, seems to be the generous number of quoted comments from readers.

The author explains: “In the course of writing this book, I interviewed twenty-six women and three men in considerable details about their sex lives. My questionnaire (see Appendix C) was posted online and circulated by hand.

The italicized comments from a range of respondents really illustrate the diversity of sexual experiences among women. Part of the author’s mission is to debunk the fear of many women that their visible sex organs, their fantasies or their feelings are “abnormal.” According to this book, the “norm” doesn’t really exist.

This book as a whole is an engaging mixture of practical advice and spiritual (in a broad sense) discussion. A number of the respondents describe having orgasms simply as a response to a fantasy, a thought, or even the beauty of the natural world, without being physically touched at all. Some respondents have described orgasms as waves of energy that don’t all seem to centre in their genital organs. The author discusses chakras (energy centres) as well as biological structures.

As a survivor of abuse, Mikaya Heart puts her finger on the reasons why so many women either reach a plateau of sexual arousal without reaching orgasm, or rarely feel sexual at all.

She explains: “To have really good sex, we must be in touch with our intuition, that sense in our gut of what is right and wrong, good or bad. We need to be able to feel sensations in a way that we have been trained not to.

In a chapter on “elusive” orgasms, she says: “One difference between penetration and having an orgasm is that the former can be forced and the latter cannot. This may be why some women’s bodies are reluctant to orgasm; it is the one place where they are able to say, ‘This is my body, and I’m not giving it up!’”

There are chapters on the importance of sex with the right partner, whether this is oneself alone, a long-term Significant Other or the perfect stranger who doesn’t bring any shared emotional baggage into the bed. To reach the release of orgasm, assuming that is a woman’s goal, requires the right conditions. The author emphasizes the importance of deciding what is right for oneself at the present time.

In general, the advice in this book focuses on choice and empowerment. Although the described orgasms sound worth the vulnerability that goes with them, the author also points out that every woman is entitled to “the power of no.”

“You may decide that you don’t want to have sex at all. Channelling your creative energy into some other area of life is a perfectly valid choice, and you may still be able to maintain a loving partnership.”

Mikaya Heart acknowledges all sexual orientations, including asexual.

This book has eleven chapters including a resource section and diagrams of female sexual plumbing shown from the front and the side. The chapters are subdivided into sections, and the entire layout of the book is clearly outlined in the Table of Contents. If you collect the “Ultimate Guide” series of sexual handbooks from Cleis Press, this book is a must-have.

Jean Roberta

Jean teaches English in a Canadian prairie university, where she is also a consulting editor for the literary journal.

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