Tag Archives: LGBT

Maxie Mainwaring #LGBT #ownvoices

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Maxie Mainwaring #LGBT #ownvoices

Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante by Monica Nolan is the 3rd book in the pulpy Lesbian Career Girls series. While I maintained that Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary (LCG #1) and Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher (LCG #2) could each be read as stand alone novels, Maxie’s story is depending upon you knowing the characters from Lois’s story.

In Lois Lenz, we hear little about Maxie Mainwaring other that she has an allowance that she gets from her rich family. Happy to loan small town girl Lois some fancy clothes for her secretary job, Maxie appears to be a generous friend.

Yet, Maxie’s own story tells otherwise! In Maxie Mainwaring, she frequently cheats on longtime girlfriend Pamela with the excuse that she can’t be tied down. While her friends on the 5th floor of her apartment, the Magdalena Arms, count their pennies and hold down careers, Maxie spends indiscriminately and runs up tabs everywhere she goes. That is, until her mother sees her kissing another girl in the power room during a socialite gathering! Maxie is cut off and forced to find employment and learn to balance a budget. The girls at “the Arms” help Maxie out by loaning her work-appropriate clothes, teaching her basic finance skills, and encouraging her to hold down a job.

maxie

Maxie on the right and “the beautiful butch” Lon on the left.

I appreciated Nolan’s attention to women’s relationship to money, especially in this 1960s setting. It wasn’t until 1974 when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed in the U.S., allowing women to get a loan without a co-sign from a male relative. Maxie’s notices that she had “always made affectionate fun of the earnest ideologue [Phyllis, a statistician]; now she felt a new respect for her friend, who knew how to stretch a dollar until it screamed.”

But a dilettante by definition doesn’t typically “do” a career. Like it says on the cover, “She had experience in everything…except employment!” My guess was the plot of Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante would be the eponymous young woman struggling with job after job and failing in hilarious ways; it’s right in the title! However, Maxie has two actual jobs in the entire book: one is hilarious like I expected, the other is a highly-coveted position with a magazine, as if readers are to believe someone with no resume could jump into such work. To be fair, Maxie tries to freelance writing gigs, but neither play a big role in the book. Mostly, you’ll get mobs, FBI, tailing people, and girlfriends fighting. So little about employment! How disappointing!

If you’re wondering why I’m writing with so many exclamation points, it’s because Nolan uses this under appreciated punctuation mark to really amp up the camp, so to speak. The tone of the Lesbian Career Girl novels is always fun and dramatic. The book is full of puns:

“That’s government property. I know all about you and your madcap ways, Maxie Mainwaring — I’ve read your file. But this time, you’re playing with fire!”

“I’m a Campfire Girl from way back,” Maxie assured her. “I know how to stoke the flames and put them out.”

Although I enjoyed meeting new characters in the previous Lesbian Career Girl books, Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante overwhelmed me with names and occupations to remember. During a very brief stint writing for a volunteer-run magazine, Maxie is introduced half a dozen new women, though only one comes back later. I wished the book were shorter. By chapter 7, only 24 hours had passed! By chapter 13, I was having trouble remembering who did what and was related to whom.

Bursting at the seams, full of characters who come and go without consequence, Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante should be passed up in favor of the more cohesive Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher.

#BookReview The Summer She Was Under Water @QFPress @MichalskiJen

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#BookReview The Summer She Was Under Water @QFPress @MichalskiJen

The Summer She Was Under Water by Jen Michalski

published by Queen’s Ferry Press August 2016

*Disclaimer: I’ve known Jen for a number of years and consider her a friend. We’ve worked on a book tour together for her short story collection From Here; I used to write book reviews for her e-zine, JMWW; and one of my first stories ever published, “Hanged Cat,” appeared in JMWW. Therefore, I know I am terribly biased, but will be as honest as possible! Please check out Jen’s newest book available in both paperback and for Kindle!

jen michalski


As Jen Michalski shared in her most recent Meet the Writer feature, The Summer She Was Under Water was two novels that got woven into one. The main story is about Samantha Pinski. We quickly learn that her father, Karl Pinski, a heavy drinker and mentally unstable, was a violent man. The family learned to placate the monster that is Karl. That is, except Sam’s brother, Steve, who felt he was Sam’s protector, pinning his father down during violent episodes.

But now Sam is 33 years old, has a book published, teaches writing at Hopkins. Her book, which is woven into the main story, is about a man who is pregnant. By page 8, readers are told Sam’s book is actually about Steve. Though she sounds like a success story, her past won’t let her go. And now Sam is going to the Pinski family cabin for the Fourth of July weekend. She’s bringing her new friend Eve as a sort of buffer. Steve, who has been absent for years, may or may not come. Sam can mostly escape her family in her world of academia, but she’s alone and tends to destroy relationships before they destroy her.

Readers learn that Sam has recently broken off a two-year relationship with a man from a wealthy family, Michael. Karl Pinski is now heavily medicated and sober, so he’s like a deflated balloon of his former self. The entire story takes place Friday through Sunday, Fourth of July weekend, though we also get flashbacks to explain complicated relationships, in addition to chapters from Sam’s book.

Readers are taught to like Steve when he finally shows up that weekend. We align with him when we learn in a flashback that Steve took the blame for binoculars Sam lost in the lake when they were kids, which led to his father beating Steve during a family BBQ instead of Sam. Yet, Sam doesn’t know if she wants Steve to come to the cabin, so we know something happened that caused her to hate her brother. But what?

Then Michael shows up — yes, the Michael with whom Sam just broke up — because he was invited by Sam’s mom, Pat Pinski. Sam thinks of Pat as a sort of Shakespeare of romance, trying to arrange staunch individuals into couples. Michael’s into craft beer and soccer (totally unAmerican) and crosses his legs in such a way that suggests he’s effeminate. What did Sam see in him?

Steve quickly suggests Sam, Michael, Eve, and he go out in the boat so he can pull them behind on inner tubes. Michael is goaded into taking a turn, and Steve does his best to fling Michael off in an effort to humiliate the “rich boy.” Really, you’ll want Michael to fly off because you’re rooting for the protective big brother at this point, not the unwelcome ex.

But Michalski expertly takes readers back in time to when Michael and Sam were dating and he first met her family at Thanksgiving. The uneducated Pinskis embarrass Sam, but she feels safe there with Michael. When Steve shows up — late and drunk — he starts to make remarks about Michael not being “vetted” into the family yet, so Michael can’t take over protecting Sam. Michael defends her, saying Sam is a capable woman. Steve won’t listen to some new guy:

I’ve known Sam a hell of a lot longer than you, buddy, better than you ever will. She don’t need no fucking preppy wallet to come in and be all high and mighty to her family.”

Where does Steve’s possessiveness come from? We see time and again the suggestion that Steve won’t let another man care for his little sister. At 35, Steve seems too old to be such a bully. As a result of taking readers back in time to show Michael is a supportive man, my opinions swapped. I realized that I had been tricked into distrusting the outsider with money and different tastes. Once I understood Michael isn’t a stereotype, I became a more attentive reader and suspicious of Steve.

Some parts of The Summer She Was Under Water are familiar: rich vs working-class families, an abusive father whose children turn into damaged adults, an overly-protective big brother, a mother who will always “stand by her man.” But the beauty of the novel is learning how it all really fits together. Why is Sam so miserable? Why did she break up with Michael? Why won’t Steve come home for years at a time? I thought I knew exactly what happened in the past based on contextual clues, but I was wrong. It’s much more complicated.

Summer She Was Under Water front only for screen

Eve, the “relatively new friend” Sam brought along for the weekend, is an interesting outsider at the Pinski cabin. She has a ragged past more like Steve’s, so she relates to him, which is meant to make readers relate to him and see Steve through eyes unclouded. Then, Sam starts to worry that her friend and brother are attracted to each other. Meanwhile, the narrative implies Sam herself may be attracted to Eve when we’re given flashbacks of Sam’s and Eve’s developing relationship. Michalski easily works in fluidity: lesbian, bi, straight, male, female, both.

I did wish that Eve and Steve’s names weren’t so similar. I can’t imagine these names were chosen accidentally — “eve” is a component of “Steve,” right? But for that very reason, my eyes would fill in “Eve” to be “Steve,” and vice versa, when I read. I wondered if Michalski actually changed her characters names a few times to get them just right. In a few places the wrong person is named (surely an error in editing), such as confusing Michael for Steve, and Carol (an aunt) for Pat Pinski. Although I hesitated and pieced together what the sentence meant to say, these errors are few and didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the story.

Don’t forget that there is a book within this book, too. The book Sam wrote has its own chapters written in italics. We meet a man who discovers he’s pregnant and wants to kill the baby. Then, a strange woman comes to help him prepare for the birth. The tone of Sam’s book is different from Michalski’s, which is a delight, as it wouldn’t make sense if Sam’s and Michalski’s voices were similar.

In a couple of places the chapters from Sam’s book are really far apart (about 60 pages), which could make it difficult to remember what was happening. I would flip back and re-read the last page of one of Sam’s chapters and then pick up at the next. Had Sam’s chapters been more evenly placed, the story of the pregnant man would be more familiar. It’s easy to flip around in the paperback version, though Kindle readers may have a more difficult time.

I do highly recommend this book, my friendship with Jen aside. Even now, I want to know what happens to Michael and Sam, to Eve and Steve, to Steve and Sam. Whose relationships strengthened, and whose died after that Fourth of July weekend? I keep thinking about them. The Summer She Was Under Water is an emotional giant.

*You can read an excerpt of the novel at The Nervous Breakdown!

Why We Never Talk About Sugar #bookreview #readwomen #science @aubreyhirsch

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Why We Never Talk About Sugar #bookreview #readwomen #science @aubreyhirsch


Why We Never Talk About Sugar 
by Aubrey Hirsch

published by Braddock Avenue Books, 2012

Aubrey Hirsch, who we previously met in a Meet the Writer feature, dishes out 16 pieces of fiction in this collection. The key themes were physics, being stranded, childlessness, and illness. I especially applaud Hirsch for having these themes without pounding me over the head, telling me in an obvious fashion that her stories are related. She trusts her reader.

The power of belief was a major factor in the stories about childlessness. In “Certainty,” when two lesbians want to have a baby, Cris decides she wants it to genetically be their baby, and that with enough belief it could happen, despite a zero percent chance. Her partner thinks about probability and the meaning of love:

If Cris and I could have a child together, I knew that kid would be the best, most interesting kid on the planet. But I also knew we couldn’t. Every time we made love, Cris looked at me with this intense longing. She was trying to make it happen. I could tell. And sometimes, right before I came, I almost thought it was possible.

Here, I could feel the intensity of Cris trying to make something with her love (and dare I say I wanted to believe it could happen in Hirsch’s world?).

The sadness in the stories involving multiple sclerosis were the ones that broke my heart. In “No System for Blindness,” a daughter stays with her father as his disease worsens. Some symptoms are permanent while others can be managed. When he wakes up blind, they cross their fingers that it will pass. Just the description of the two eating breakfast, and the careful way Hirsch shows us that the father is blind, gave me chills (and made me want to cry):

He stares past me, to my left, tapping the table in search of his glasses. There is powdered sugar in his beard. It makes him look older. He places his glasses back on the bridge of his nose. There is a greasy white streak across one lens, but he can’t see it.

An impressive part of Hirsch’s stories is her knowledge of physics. The formulas and ideas read more like poetry and were a way to talk about life and relationships. As an example, a young man gives a woman a birthday present, even though it is their third date, because one should always give birthday gifts. His present?

“It’s a picture of subatomic particles, through an electron microscope. The technical term is ‘hydrogen event in a bubble chamber.’ It’s what happens when two particles are smashed together at very high speeds. This one’s from the accelerator at FermiLab. The lines and spots are tracks made by the explosion.” He runs a bulky fingertip along one of the swirls. “See?”

What a moment, yes? My first thought, albeit inappropriate, was, “Why hasn’t someone given me a hydrogen event in a bubble chamber?” Hirsch has this way of bringing the reader into at least one of the character’s shoes in each story, grounding us 16 separate times.

I want to thank Aubrey Hirsch for sending me a reviewer’s copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.

Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher #20BooksofSummer #LGBT @KensingtonBooks #ReadWomen

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Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher #20BooksofSummer #LGBT @KensingtonBooks #ReadWomen

Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher (Lesbian Career Girl Series #2) by Monica Nolan

published by Kensington Books, 2010

I eagerly jumped into my second Monica Nolan book! Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary was a delight to read, though sometimes it felt just a tad silly. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher felt more grown up, in a way, because she knows she’s a lesbian. Lois Lenz took 80% of the novel to figure it out (despite making out with women through the whole thing). Thus, I enjoyed Bobby Blanchard’s story a great deal more. Mind you, you don’t have to read Lois Lenz first. However, I would recommend that you read the books in order (there are 4 lesbian career girl novels) for maximum enjoyment.

best lois lenz

It’s 1964 and we learn that Bobby Blanchard is a field hockey player. She played in high school and college, but then a stupid accident causes her to break a bone, leaving her unable to go pro. Now what does she do? Going pro was her whole plan, despite majoring in teaching in college. Miss Watkins, a guidance counselor (who was the guidance counselor in Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary) visits Bobby in the hospital and reminds the sad athlete of her teaching credentials — and says there is an opening for a gym teacher at Metamora Academy for girls! (By the way: Bobby and Lois did not go to the same high school, so Miss Watkins is a bit like a guardian angel guidance counselor for lesbians, which I find funny).

Bobby has concerns about being a teacher, though:

“But my grades — my brains –” Bobby struggled to express herself. “A teacher has to be smart.” How she’d sweated over those lesson plan assignments in Pedagogy II, how lost she’d felt when the class discussed the pros and cons of module-based teaching!

But off to Metamora she goes. I’m not sure if all academies have the same labels, but instead of “gym teacher,” Bobby is the “Games Mistress.” Instead of grade levels, like 9th or freshman, the girls are “formers,” as in “4th formers.” I could never keep track of what each form meant, which made it hard to image the students’ ages. The alternative titles were something I did not enjoy.

Miss Watkins, the guidance counselor, almost never gets it wrong when she advises young lesbians! But not all the Metamora faculty are that excited by newbie Bobby, especially the new Math Mistress, Enid:

“And when you teach something as basic as gym, you can always tell them to do laps when you run out of material. . . .That’s what my high school gym teacher used to do.”

How insulting to Bobby! Author Monica Nolan seems to enjoy writing the prim, snippy, librarian-type. In Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary it was Netta Bean. In Bobby’s world, it’s Enid. When there is always a know-it-all with a secret and a grudge in Nolan’s novels, readers can predict that the librarian may let her hair down and whip off her glasses for some between-the-sheets fun. Sometimes, the stereotype helps with expectations, and Nolan uses the sexy librarian stereotype beautifully.

bobby blanchard

Another distinct aspect of the world Nolan created is that everyone is lesbian, gay, or bisexual. You can guarantee that married or not, man or woman, teenager or adult, everyone is (note that very few men appear in Nolan’s novels). Nolan doesn’t make her character’s sexuality much of a secret, either, which is interesting. You just keep reading and become part of a world in which no one is straight, and it all is perfectly normal. You don’t have to wonder who’s point of view is the focus; it’s the titular character, and she’s a lesbian who doesn’t feel shame. I still remember Lois Lenz declaring, “I’m a lesbian career girl, too!” and feeling very excited about such a world.

Nolan does add a lot of subplots and points of contention to keep the story going like a mystery novel. When the mystery was solved at the end of Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary, I thought it was a bit silly. Some subplots circling Bobby’s life are:

  • How to integrate “Angle,” a frustrated teen with divorced parents who are of different faiths, with the other girls.
  • The Headmistress whose lover fell (or jumped!) from the tower last term and was killed.
  • The new field hockey team with most inexperienced players that Bobby put together at Metamora that keeps winning — because terrible “accidents” happen to the other teams’ players.
  • The ghost on the glowing bicycle.
  • Who stole one of the girl’s beloved locket.
  • A student who keeps buying Ouiji boards to summon the dead.

There’s a lot to take in! I’m not sure why Nolan heaps it on, but she did in both Lois Lenz and Bobby Blanchard. Piling on subplots was something I noticed in the mystery novel Terror in Taffeta. I want to call the Lesbian Career Girls series “cozy mysteries.” There is sex, but it’s mostly off page. There is almost zero violence. Things are wrapped up happily in the end. Perhaps plenty of subplots to misdirect readers is a key ingredient of a cozy mystery, one that other readers will appreciate more than I did. On a positive note, the books aren’t about the mystery, though; it’s about watching the main character develop into a stronger woman (YES!).

Most notably, Bobby Blanchard is just plain fun and funny. She’s always using sports metaphors to explain her feelings about other women. Early in the book Bobby meets up with her girlfriend, Elaine, a young woman who refuses to be seen in public with Bobby. Elaine wants to marry a boy so her father, who has lots of money, will stop threatening to send Elaine to college if she won’t get hitched (Elaine loves being lazy and having money). In reality, Elaine says, she will keep sneaking off to have sex with Bobby and marry some guy with even more money! The gym teacher let’s her have it:

“You may not be off the team, but your team loyalty is certainly in question!” Bobby responded hotly.

Elaine’s temper, never placid, began to fray. “Maybe I need a more competent coach,” she shot back. “One who understands the point of the game!”

“What are you saying?” demanded Bobby indignantly. “Are you implying my ball-handing skills are slipping? Why, I taught you everything you know! Your technique, your wide knowledge of plays…”

Keep in mind, they’re talking about whether or not Elaine is a traitor to lesbians, and if Bobby is sexually experienced enough. The metaphor goes on for just long enough to have any reader in stitches!

Furthermore, Nolan includes other bi-sexual women in the book who want Bobby in bed but not public, giving the reader serious food for thought. There is no shame in the characters regarding their sexuality, but the 1964 setting means society may have something to say about two women (and at one point there is a raid on a lesbian bar). Society is never one character; it’s a presence, though, allowing Nolan to overlap her imagined world and reality. In a way, Nolan asks the reader to consider her attitude toward LGBT couples — and not just feeling liberal, but actually seeing LGBT couples in public and not making untoward comments.

Monica Nolan does some fun world building when Miss Watkins, the guidance counselor from the beginning of the book, runs into Bobby while she is with Netta Bean, one of the main characters of Lois Lenz! Netta is a teacher, too, so she tries to help Bobby feel better about yelling unreasonably at her students by sharing some mistakes she’s made, including when she “failed to take a student’s threat to the assassinate the principal seriously.” The author keeps the characters just over-the-top to move you to gently snort with laughter. And the cross-over of the author’s novels is such a delight to read! I feel like I’ve run into an old friend, since I learned so much about Netta before.

Bobby Blanchard is an enjoyable read, one that I was happier to pick up and read to my husband each night than Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary. Beware: Bobby’s story is definitely more risque: she knows she’s a lesbian, she is promiscuous, and at one point has a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old student (legal, but questionable ethically). Overall, though, a great, fun book!

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#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th.

Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore Review on Goodreads, as Grab the Lapels is a ladies only site! 🙂 I had to read Fluke earlier than I originally planned because book club was 8/28. *Rilla of Ingleside is still coming!*

The Girls of Usually #bookreview #readwomen #LGBT #Holocaust #20BooksofSummer

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The Girls of Usually #bookreview #readwomen #LGBT #Holocaust #20BooksofSummer

The Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz

published by Truman State University Press in 2015

Lori Horvitz’s first book is a memoir that chronicles her childhood as a New York City Jew, some of her travels in Europe and Asia, her creativity, and, mostly, her dating life. Horvitz dated men, then decided she was bisexual, then grappled with being a lesbian. As she mentioned in her Meet the Writer feature, Horvitz’s mother bought a photo frame from the store, but never removed the happy blond woman in the stock image. As a result, Horvitz wished to be (and later date) that blond woman. Horvitz suggests she stands out with her dark curly hair, Jewish heritage, and immigrant parents. As a kid, Horvitz loved to perform magic and hug her pet pocket poodle, the only living thing in her house she felt she could hug.

the girls of usually.jpg

I thought the book would proceed from childhood to college to adulthood, but I couldn’t make sense of the time structure in The Girls of Usually. I felt like someone had blindfolded me, relocated me, and when the blindfold was taken off, I had to re-learn where I was. Early, on page 35, Horvitz mentions a female college student she just met, who asks Horvitz if sex is good with her boyfriend. What boyfriend? I asked. He was never mentioned before. Soon, I realized this book is more like slice of life stories, one per chapter. The stories don’t always directly proceed chronologically. This drove me bonkers.

Another example: at the end of chapter 10 Horvitz booked a cheap trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. In chapter 11, Horvitz starts with Rita, a woman she’s interviewing. Who is Rita?! I asked. Rita is a woman in her 40s. The chapter then goes back 20 years and tells the story of the Trans-Siberian Railway trip. Back when Horvitz rode the train, Rita stayed in the same compartment. The author explains that she ended up falling in love with Rita on this trip, the first time she realized she was into women. This timeline means that when we first meet Rita, Horvitz is in her 40s, too, not just out of college. Confusing! Why not end chapter 10 with saying she booked the trip, use chapter 11 to describe the trip, and have chapter 12 get into interviewing Rita 20 years later? Horvitz’s choice to tell things out of order is jolting and unnecessarily confusing.

At another point, Horvitz goes in circles. I bolded two parts to show you what I mean:

Upon my return to New York, Amy broke up with me and started dating a magician, a man she met while bartending at The Village Idiot, the tiny bar that used to be Downtown Beirut. Because of the poor economy and exorbitant real estate costs, just about every gallery in the East Village had closed down. Albert died, not from a gunshot wound but from AIDS. And Paula called to tell me about Barry, who just tested positive for AIDS. Two days later, she found out she was HIV negative. She remained friends with Barry and often brought him bee pollen and Spirulina, until ten years later when Barry was too sick to take care of himself, when he flew home to Indiana where his parents took care of him until he died in 2002, when his parents honored his request to be cremated but didn’t know what to do with the ashes. They sent them to Paula and, to this day, Paula’s not sure what to do with them. “They’re in a box in my closet,” she told me.

[paragraph break].

But now it’s 1989 and Amy just broke up with me.

Why are there so many people between the two mentions of Amy? If you’re wondering what role Albert, Paula, and Barry play here, or why it matters where Amy bartended, or that it used to be called a different name, I have no idea either.

In the last 1/3 of The Girls of Usually, Horvitz has a dog, a border collie/corgi mix, at her new house in North Carolina. In a later section, she’s getting the dog, which she learns is a border collie/corgi mix, because she moved into her house in North Carolina and can provide a pet a stable home. In an even later section, she describes her dog, a border collie/corgi mix, meeting a girlfriend’s dog for the first time. I started wondering if these essays were all published separately. If so, were they not edited for content? The reader is introduced to the dog three times! I’m providing several examples of the jumpiness of this book to show that it isn’t a one-time thing. This is the experience of almost the whole book.

Also in the last 1/3 of the book, the stories were all the same and with no indication if they are chronological. Here is the basic story of the author’s life: Horvitz chooses to enter the online dating world, Horvitz meets a new woman who is super crazy, Horvitz can tell right away the woman is super crazy (because she is obviously drunk, lying, evading, screaming, calling ex’s, etc.), Horvitz invests time and money in seeing this woman for long visits (sometimes two weeks) but ends up leaving early because crazy women are crazy. Horvitz explains her choices: she “suffers” the abuse of these women for far longer than she should because it gives her something to write about. Horvitz explains at least three times:

  • “But I was the writer, always in search of a good story, an interesting character. No matter the price. At least that’s what I told myself.”
  • “Maybe it was the writer in me who wanted to see this play out, to prove [my girlfriend] was nuts.”
  • Here Horvitz writes in second person: “You could have predicted all of this before you arrived; you knew the end of the story before it began, but you’re a writer, so you say, and perhaps you needed to get the details right.”

I found Horvitz’s excuse weak and mean-spirited in a way that helped the author avoid digging into her motivations. If she’s dating “crazy” women to get a story and be published, then she’s being exploitative. Perhaps Horvitz is justifying her dating choices in a way that doesn’t make her feel bad for not finding romantic love, but it was her choice to lead readers to believe she’s just in it for the story fodder.

At one point, she mentions she has a therapist. So, where is all the deep reflection one would do with a therapist? Why is it not in this book? The section with the therapist is written in second person (the only section!) as if it’s not really about Horvitz, so perhaps the work she’s doing in therapy isn’t quite ready to come out in book form. But that leaves the reader without much reason to read The Girls of Usually.

Horvitz’s childhood chapters (there are only a couple) were much more reflective. She gets a lot of negative feedback about what an LGBT person is when she’s a little kid. Because she’s shy, she’s called a “queer-o faggot” by the other third graders. Later, still as a girl, she sees on TV a woman argue against gay rights: “If gays are granted rights…next we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with Saint Bernards, and to nail biters.” These memories demonstrate to the reader how impressionable children are, which is important to keep in mind when we choose our words.

There are a few gems in Horvitz’s chapters about her adult life. She works as a mentor-friend for men with HIV, and she is assigned to Nestor. Nestor, rather than tell his family that he is gay and has HIV, which is the reason he has so many needle tracks in his arms, claims he is addicted to heroin. This, he knows, will go over better with his family. Pete, an abrasive straight man, actually gets HIV from shooting heroin. In his dying days, he says hateful things about LGBT people, but tries to smooth it over by complimenting a few gay people. In these examples, Horvitz captures the complexity of being a lesbian during the AIDS epidemic, and her first-hand accounts are valuable.

There is also a big about being Jewish sprinkled throughout The Girls of Usually. There’s mention of her family members who’d survived the Holocaust, and the time she visits a death camp, which makes it all more real. At one point, Horvitz reads tons of books about the Holocaust while dating a German woman who isn’t totally sure Hitler was a bad man because her grandpa always said Hitler fixed the economy. Again, there ins’t much reflection on what these moments mean. What does a mention here and there mean to the reader? Not much.

Overall, I don’t recommend this book. It’s unnecessarily difficult to follow, lacks deep emotional digging, and gets so repetitive in the end when she’s describing how crazy her ex-girlfriends are, even though she knew they had emotional issues she could exploit. During the last several chapters, I really just wanted the book to conclude.

I want to thank Lori Horvitz for sending me a copy of The Girls of Usually in exchange for a honest review.

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#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. The Thirteenth Earl by Evelyn Pryce
  9. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Of Zen and Men by Robin Stratton
  12. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of Avonlea
  14. Anne of the Island
  15. Anne of Windy Poplars
  16. Anne’s House of Dreams
  17. Anne of Ingleside
  18. Rainbow Valley
  19. Rilla of Ingleside
  20. The Brothers Karamzov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Meet the Writer: Lori Horvitz #writerslife #interview

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Meet the Writer: Lori Horvitz #writerslife #interview
Lori Horvitz

Lori & Belly

I want to thank Lori for stopping by Grab the Lapels! You can find out more about her at her website. Be sure to friend Lori on Facebook!

What would you like readers to know about your new book, The Girls of Usually?

It’s a collection of interconnected memoir-essays, a coming of age of sorts, although a friend joked about how I never quite came of age. The essays were written over a span of ten years, maybe more. I didn’t set out to write a book, but I kept writing about subjects that obsessed me—identity, connection, and love. I grew up ashamed of being Jewish and idolizing the “shiksa in my living room,” a blonde all-American girl whose photo came in a double frame and was displayed for a decade next to a family photo from a bar mitzvah. This was my world. One reviewer said my writing is “wickedly funny,” yet some stories are wickedly sad. Perhaps funny and sad simultaneously. Among other subjects, I deal with death (my mother’s sudden death in my early twenties, and friends who’ve died of AIDS), getting stuck in a love triangle in the middle of a Communist package tour in dictator-run Romania, dating a German who didn’t think Hitler was so bad, and all while trying to figure out who I am—sexually, ethnically, culturally.

Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?

Perhaps readers may get frustrated with my narrator (me), who they could see as repeating similar destructive patterns. Then again, haven’t we all been guilty of making stupid choices? Bad choices make good stories.

How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

My local community in Asheville (colleagues, friends, the queer community, writers, students) has been amazingly supportive. I did a book launch a few weeks ago at a local café, and two weeks later, I read at Malaprop’s, a great indie bookstore in town. Both readings were standing room only. A number of people came out for both readings. I was humbled and heartened. I sent my father the first few chapters of the book and he read them aloud over the phone. He said, “This is very nice.” My brother who lives on the West Coast ordered a bunch of copies and was the first to post a picture of the book on Facebook.

What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?

I felt good about my first published piece in a literary journal—a poem about my poodle getting mauled to death at a parade by a Great Dane when I was seven. I was in my twenties when the poem was published. Every time I read it aloud at a reading, my audience cracked up.

How have you developed creatively since then?

Since the publication of that story, I went back to school for an MFA in creative writing (in poetry) at Brooklyn College, where I worked with Allen Ginsberg and Joan Larkin. Both encouraged me to open up, to not hide behind metaphors and abstractions. I then went on to a PhD program at SUNY Albany, where I studied with language poets and began playing with language, taking more risks with form. For my dissertation, I wrote a novel. I got hired to teach fiction but soon after started writing nonfiction. I sound like Madonna. Always reinventing myself. Or at least my writing.

What kinds of writing do you wish you did more of?

I love live theatre and fantasize about being a playwright. I’ve always been interested in dialogue and getting voices down. Maybe one day I’ll write a musical.

Why do you think your book would be a good choice for a book club pick?

Everyone could relate to being an outsider, to not fitting in. Much of the book is about my character trying to figure out where she belongs in the world, always feeling like she’s just on the edge, not quite part of the mainstream. Most of us stumble along in similar ways. Maybe a reader hasn’t dated a pathological liar, or felt ashamed of her ethnicity/religion, or maybe she’s never ventured out of the U.S., but aren’t we all living as outsiders in some ways? By the end of the book, my character embraces that edge. Celebrates it. Life is about trial and error. And maybe I’ve experienced more error than trial. I’m hoping the reader can come along for the ride and connect as a vulnerable being in the world. Perhaps even recognize the beauty in bad choices, as painful as they are. And to have the courage to laugh, keep moving, and tell all.

The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

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The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

Naz over at Read Diverse Books has challenged everyone to read more diversely. If you have read a book that fits into the category, share it! If you haven’t, go find a book that fits into the category with the goal of reading it. Here we go:

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

Find a Book Starring a Lesbian Character:

I’ve got this one in spades. Books with lesbians come to me easily — or perhaps I seek them out? — but mostly, I look for excellent stories, and I never shy away from those stories if the protagonist is a lesbian. In fact, in some instances, the leading lady being a lesbian is what drew me in!

Checking out the following:

Find a Book with a Muslim Protagonist:

Okay, my reading is not as great in this area. There is one book that I have read probably half a dozen times and taught each semester for several years now: The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley. This book surprises my students because Malcolm is a Muslim minister for the Nation of Islam, which is a different branch of Islam than what you would encounter in the Middle East. After Malcolm did his pilgrimage to Mecca, he disavowed the N.O.I. and went Orthodox.

Looking at Goodreads, I would like to check out Ms. Marvel, a new comic book series. I also want to read Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah, which I saw in Barnes & Noble.

Find a Book Set in Latin America:

This is another category with which I have more experience. I’ve also seen Junot Diaz twice; the dude has stood two feet away from me (he likes to wander auditoriums when he talks). And my god, does he swear a lot (I love it). The last time I saw him, he asked where the Latino/as in the audience were. Then he asked where his Africans were. Very few people raised their hands, and he said that wasn’t his fault, but the college’s (we were at the University of Notre Dame). Here is my list:

  • Ayiti by Roxane Gay (Haiti)
  • Unaccompanied Minors by Alden Jones (Costa Rica)
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic)
  • Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth (Nicaragua)
  • Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros (Mexico)
  • Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

I have a number of books I’ve read by Latino/a authors who live in the U.S., such as Lolita Hernandez, Salvador Plascencia, and Desiree Zamorano. I’d like to read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara (Mexico).

Find a Book About a Person with a Disability:

This is a tough one because I feel awkward reading a book about a person with a disability written by someone without a disability. I’ve noticed that most of the books with people who have disabilities I encounter are on the mental health spectrum as opposed to a physical disability, so I’ll keep my eyes open for more books with people who have disabilities.

  • Half Life by Shelly Jackson (conjoined twins)
  • American Genius by Lynn Tillman (mental illness)
  • Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon (self-harm, anxiety)
  • Sweethearts by Melanie Rae Thon (deaf)
  • Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulemia by Marya Hornbacher (mental illness)
  • Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher (mental illness)
  • Annie’s Ghost by Steven Luxenberg (disabled legs and mental illness)
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (mentally disabled)
  • Lily of the Valley: Chateau of Flowers by Margaret Rome (blind)

Find a Science Fiction or Fantasy Book with a POC Protagonist:

I don’t read a ton of sci-fi or fantasy, but when I do, it tends to have POC in it. Perhaps because I find that when an author who is a POC writes sci-fi or fantasy, he or she includes deeper messages of race and gender than a white writer may.

  • Soul Resin by Charles W. Cannon
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Bald New World by Peter Tieryas
  • The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

I have Kindred by Octavia Butler on my list. She wrote so many sci-fi/fantasy novels with POC; she is ultra prolific.

Find a Book Set In or About An African Country:

Find a Book Written by an Indigenous/Native Author:

  • Ledfeather by Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet)
  • Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones
  • It Came From Del Rio by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones
  • After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie (grew up on Spokane reservation, but has heritage with several tribes)

Okay, so I’ve read a lot of Stephen Graham Jones. Technically, he would fit really well into sci-fi and fantasy starring a POC because he writes lots of mind-bending horror with time warps and craziness. I’ve read essays by Leslie Marmon Silko and Joy Harjo, and I would like to read Louise Erdrich soon. I’d also like to read Ojibwe authors, as I grew up on the Saginaw Chippewa reservation.

Find a Book Set in South Asia:

  • Palestine by Joe Sacco (Israel-ish, depending on your viewpoint regarding what to call this territory)
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Iran)
  • Love in a Dead Language by Lee A. Siegel (India)
  • The Question of Bruno by Aleksander Hemon (Sarajevo)
  • Currency by Zoe Zolbrod (Thailand)
  • The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret (Isreal)
  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (India) I incorrectly remembered which book this was! It is mostly set in the United States and focuses on Indian-American families. My mistake 🙂
  • Of Marriageable Age by Sharon Maas (India, British Guyana)
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (India)
  • Dragonfish by Vu Tran (Vietnam) This book is half set in Vietnam and half in Las Vegas.

Find a Book with a Biracial Protagonist:

  • Sweethearts by Melanie Rae Thon (Crow/white)
  • The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss (almost every person in the book is biracial)
  • Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evens (black/white)
  • Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen (black/white)

Find a Book About a Transgender Character or that is about Transgender Issues:

  • Cloud 9 by Carol Churchill
  • Woman’s World by Graham Rawle
  • Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite

I also have Janet Mock’s memoir on my to-read list, of course!

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

#DiverseBookBloggers

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Recently, the hashtag #DiverseBookBloggers has been uniting book bloggers across Twitter who want to see not only more diversity in books, but in those who read and review books. The hashtag was started by Naz, a Texan book blogger who identifies as a male Latino. Read the story of how and why Naz started #DiverseBookBloggers.

Since most of the book blogging world consists of straight white women, I was sure that I didn’t count as diverse. Later, book blogger Darkowaa from African Book Addict tagged me on Twitter as an “awesome” diverse book blogger, and I wondered how that label held up. Yes, I only review books written by folks who identify as women. No, I don’t really limit what people send me (though I don’t take Young Adult lit; I am not the reviewer for this genre). Yes, I prefer to review books by women of color and who fall on the LGBT spectrum.

Yet, when I have submissions open, it’s almost always straight white women who are self-published. These authors’ requests flooded my inbox. I thought I could include diversity by accepting people who were too “edgy” or marginalized to be published through traditional means, but I soon learned that “self-published” can mean anything — from an author who wanted full control of her book, to those who have grown impatient with editing, submitting, and revising and put the book out into the world far too soon (editors do serve a purpose).

I promptly closed my submissions and started asking authors or publishers for books that sounded bold or diverse. Or, I would seek out books by marginalized authors from my library. I started Grab the Lapels because I wasn’t reviewing diverse books when I worked for magazines. If a book by an author who identifies as male grabs my interest, I publish that review on another fantastic blog — the blogger is great about letting me review what I want, so long as it’s from a small press.

But.

What does Naz from Read Diverse Books blog consider “diverse”? Do I live up to the label? Here’s what he says:

What do we mean by “diverse”? Who qualifies as #DiverseBookBloggers?

#DiverseBookBloggers are not white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied bloggers who write predominantly about authors of that same description.

They ideally blog about #ownvoices authors and advocate diverse reading habits for all. This includes white bloggers who write about diverse literature regularly.

They find themselves in the LGBTQ+ spectrum or are people with disabilities and blog about books that represent them when possible

The hashtag more generally includes any person who is LGBT, a person of color, or a person with a disability who also is a book blogger. But diverse reading is preferred.

Well…I’m pretty sure I don’t fit. I’m a straight, married, able-bodied (though a bit lazy and totally out of shape), middle class women. However, an examination of my Goodreads “read” pile for 2016 shows that 12 out of 27 books I’ve read are from diverse voices! I include books from victims, people of color, those on the LGBT spectrum, non-Christian religious, and authors who are not from the United States. Here are some of those books:


The Rabbi’s Cat and The Rabbi’s Cat 2

  • Graphic novels by French author Joann Sfar
  • Explore Judaism and Islam in Africa
  • Comments on colonialism
  • Translated from French
  • Wicked funny

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Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary and Bogeywoman and Blue is the Warmest Color

  • Star lesbians as the main character
  • Have strong women as secondary characters who help the main character
  • Explore coming out as lesbians

best lois lenzBogeywoman Covermaroh book cover


Powerful Days and Between the World and Me

  • Examine racial tension in the United States between black and white communities
  • Give anecdotal evidence of how violence against black bodies happens insidiously.

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Missoula and PHD to PhD

  • Both books examine sexual assault and what it’s like (as a result, both books can be very upsetting).
  • Describe how sexual assault victims are not taken serious because of the context of the assault, such as the victim was drinking, a prostitute, a drug addict, or friends with the perpetrator.
  • Explore how victims are ignored or not believed when facing their perpetrators due to their gender or race.

missoulaPo Ho on Dope


Explosion and A Decent Ride and The Normal State of Mind

  • These books are by individuals from countries that are not the United States (Russia, Scotland, and India, respectively).
  • Examine contexts that affect the characters, such Soviet Russia and the lack of human rights, the drug and HIV epidemic aftermath in Scotland, and the rights of women in India
  • Each book taught me something new about a country and culture I did not learn from reading books by authors born in American.
  • Note that Zabrisky and Welsh both live in the U.S. at this point in time.

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I want to thank Naz for starting the conversation about diverse bloggers! I made the comment on his site that I often try to avoid book bloggers who only seek out characters with whom they can relate. To me, “relate” is another way of saying “just like me.” If you are a blogger and you feel that you sympathize or empathize with a character, make sure you aren’t accidentally saying “relate” — empathy and sympathy shows growth in a reader and helps your audience know that you are open to and accepting of new ideas and different cultures.

Explosion

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Explosion

Explosion by Zarina Zabrisky

published by Epic Rites Press, October 2015

“Russians do not surrender…we suffer and survive.”

I can’t even remember how I was introduced to Zarina Zabrisky’s work, but we’ve been in contact for so long now that I consider her a friend whom I would love to meet some day. Zabrisky is a Russian-American woman living in California. Her work is art meets the political, a mashup of filth and beauty. I commented on the horror in her short collection, Iron. American decadence contrasts the difficulties of navigating government institutions in Russia in the novella, A Cute Tombstone. Later, Zabrisky asked me to put together a virtual book tour for A Cute Tombstone, and I learned more about funeral portraits in Russia and the band Pussy Riot. Zabrisky later asked me to put together another virtual book tour for her first novel, We, Monsters. The banner my husband created for the tour, made from two images, is so beautiful:

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Back when I had a Weebly address!

Explosion is more like Zabrisky’s earlier short collection. There are 14 short stories (some several pages, others very short) in Explosion, and all are from the point of view of a Russian. Sometimes the setting is California, but it’s almost always Russia.zabrisky explosion

Right away I notice all the drug use; there is so much heroin. “Why?” I ask. Truthfully, my knowledge of Russia is as deep as a puddle, so I made use of my college’s database and started hunting around for articles. Hours and hours later, I felt mad but a bit enlightened. John M. Kramer, author of the article “Drug Abuse in Russia,” notes that a study from 2010 found”Russia has almost as many heroin users (1.5 million) as all other European countries combined (1.6 million)” (31).

While most of Zabrisky’s stories have characters addicted to heroin, the story with the clever name “Heroines” stands out. The narrator speaks to the reader, explaining that she wants to tell us about her friends. She says, “I have a lot of friends. I’m Russian and my girlfriends are Russian.” Next is a list of tragic stories: Alina, dead from a heroin overdose; Marina with Hep C (“We all got Hep C together”); Anna, whose husband abandoned her and their daughter, forcing her to marry again (“In Russia, if you don’t have a man, you’re a waste”); Lana the mail order bride. In many of the 14 stories, women must attach themselves to men to survive. While most of the stories aren’t about drugs, it’s always there, always present, and Zabrisky captures the essence of the setting because so many Russians are actually addicted. 

Disease, like Marina’s Hep-C, is a massive problem. According to Gregory Gilderman, author of the article “Death by Indifference,” a study conducted in 2009 found that somewhere “between 840,000 and 1.2 million are HIV-positive” in Russia, which has a population of around 143,000,000 (44). A lot of the spread of HIV has to do with dirty needles. While some countries like the U.S. have needle exchange programs to slow the spread of people contracting HIV or hepatitis, “nongovernmental organizations [in Russia] that advocate harm reduction strategies—needle exchanges, providing condoms to sex workers—face police harassment and criminal penalties” (Gilderman 45, emphasis mine). Zabrisky’s collection of stories points out the dark times of the Soviet Union resulting from the leadership, without being an in-your-face condemnation that comes off as “preachy.” Truthfully, based on the articles I read, Russia today and the Soviet Union aren’t really that different.

If you’re using or dealing drugs, mum’s the word. But in Explosion, if you’re thinking anything you shouldn’t, you must be silent, too. A girl in 1986 writes in her diary, “Be silent, hide and keep secret your feelings and thoughts. … The thought spoken is a lie.” When the girl starts asking her father, a scientist, questions, he praises her, but the mother scolds them both for saying things that are not acceptable in the Soviet Union, including questions about God. The mother also warns, “And you better only discuss such things like [God] at home, not at school.” More research reminded me that the Soviet Union declared the nation atheist, so God talk was forbidden.

Silence, silence everywhere. In another story, a woman won’t phone the police at the request of a foreign man because she believes the police and the bad guys are the same thing. He asks, “Are you refusing to call?” and she thinks, “I’m refusing to die.” Zabrisky, ever the supporter of Pussy Riot, also fits the story of the band recording their punk prayer into one of her stories. “For the government, men with voice are more dangerous than drug pushers,” she writes, “And women with voice — even more so.” Sometimes, Zabrisky’s voice is more forceful, such as the reference to Pussy Riot, which stands out as being obvious protest in literature, but the subtle undercurrent of silencing remind me again of 1984 and the Thought Police. Such moments are as quite as the citizens, creating a parallel in content and the message.

zabrisky pussy riot

Explosion creates an array of women surviving the Russia that Pussy Riot protests. “You have big boobs and speak English,” one woman is told. She could work as a prostitute and get intel from foreigners. “The just under one million sex workers in Russia, for instance, live at the whim equally of pimps and the police, and have no practical recourse if they are raped or assaulted,” Gilderman writes (48). The other option is to marry foreigners. “What’s love?” one woman asks her sister, “I’ll find you a husband. I’ll get you out of here.” Women have no autonomy in Zabrisky’s collection, not even when they move away. “Unfortunately, for many adolescent boys and even adult men, the shaping of their male identity involves the debasement and suppression of girls,” (61) adds T.A. Gurko, author of “Underage Females’ Experiences Of Sexual Relations, Motherhood, And Married Life.”

Women are often seduced by the promise of marriage because they are “whores” and “sluts” and compromise Russia’s traditional values when they are single. One character is in love with a drug dealer, who promises to marry her. She feels no concern when she discovers she’s pregnant, but T.A. Gurko notes, “As the men [in the survey] put it, ‘promising her you will marry her does not mean you will.’ At best he may offer to get her an abortion; at worst he will do everything he can to cut off the relationship” (67). I don’t mean to imply that I’m fact-checking Zabrisky’s work; men abandon women in all countries. But the situations present in her collection, because they reoccur so much, made me want to learn more. Very few books encourage me to be more knowledgeable. In this case, gaining information made me sympathetic for the plight of women in Russia — they didn’t even have tampons, one character points out.

Poverty is a big factor in survival, especially for women and their children, who are almost always abandoned in these stories. Poverty can be conveyed in simple descriptions, and Zabrisky always picks just the right images: “watery mud covered everything in view: a playground with iron bars and broken swings, homeless dogs, and a skinny cow by the broken fence, chewing on a plastic bag.” That bag may not mean much to you (except concern for what it will do to the cow’s intestines), but check this out:

If Russia represents poverty, America is wealth. A young girl covets a plastic bag a schoolmate has — I know, right? — and finally trades a great deal for it. She is so happy:

I took the bag and sniffed it. It definitely didn’t smell of all-purpose Russian soap … the smell of grease, dirt, and poverty. … This bag smelled like chewing gum, like a dream: foreign, delicious, the aroma of unknown tropical countries, coconuts and pineapples I have never tried, of exotic sea ports. … Weakly, vaguely, the bright plastic smelled of America.

Zabrisky mentions good teeth and iPhones as symbols of doing well in America, choosing examples that are subtle, but easy for this American reader to compare.

Again, the theme is subtly in each story, but over 14 stories it adds up to a strong, unmistakable picture of an oppressive, anti-female Russia. There isn’t a single quote that can capture the feel of the whole collection, but when it adds up, you start to get a gross feeling in your stomach — a totally appropriate response to the massive injustices, poverty, starvation, dismissed lives, and deaths that could have been prevented. Though it is an unpleasant feeling, imagine the people who are living it and remember that literature is meant to teach us about those unlike ourselves, to open our worldview and do something about it.

I want to thank Zarina Zabrisky for a copy of Explosion in exchange for an honest review. Click HERE to read an interview I conducted with Zabrisky about her newest collection!

SOURCES:

Gilderman, Gregory. “Death By Indifference.” World Affairs 175.5 (2013): 44-50. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 May 2016.

Gurko, T.A. “Underage Females’ Experiences Of Sexual Relations, Motherhood, And Married Life.” Russian Social Science Review 45.3 (2004): 58-77. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 May 2016.

Kramer, John M. “Drug Abuse In Russia.” Problems Of Post-Communism 58.1 (2011): 31. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 13 May 2016.

 

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary

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Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary by Monica Nolan

published by Kensington Books, 2007

I picked up this book on a recommendation from Chance Lee, one of my Goodreads buddies whose reviews are funny and insightful. I couldn’t get over the title and so further looked into Monica Nolan’s work. After Lois Lenz comes Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym TeacherMaxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante; and Dolly Dingle, Lesbian Landlandy. There’s also the superbly titled The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories. According to her Goodreads profile, she “has experience in three out of the four careers she’s written about.” Please, please, let Monica Nolan be an ex-gym teacher! I bought all four of the lesbian lady novels.

monica nolan

Monica Nolan

Monica Nolan’s whole “Lesbian Career Girl” series borrows from the old pulp novels, from the writing style (lots of shocked characters yelling with exclamation points) to the cover. According to the NewYorker, Robert de Graff started Pocket Books in 1939 and switched to cheap paper — pulp — to make them affordable and mass-marketable (the first press to do so in America). Finally, feeling that it wasn’t enough to have Americans ordering their books from catalogs because there were so few bookstores (only about 2,800), he decided to cash in on the “more than seven thousand newsstands, eighteen thousand cigar stores, fifty-eight thousand drugstores, and sixty-two thousand lunch counters — not to mention train and bus stations.” According to the author of the article, “People who didn’t have a local bookstore, and even people who would never have ventured into a bookstore, could now browse the racks while filling a prescription or waiting for a train and buy a book on impulse.” (Fun Fact: de Graff felt books should never cost more than a pack of cigarettes).

Suddenly, books with titles like Hitch-Hike Hussy and The Daughter of Fu Manchu were available, along with “whodunit?” novels, hard-boiled detective fiction, and romances. Pulp novels are especially famous for their covers:

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Image from pulpcovers.com

 

 

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Image from pulpcovers.com. Can you image reading this on your commute to work??

Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary follows in the tradition of having an eye-catch pulp cover (though I must add the quality of paper is very good):

best lois lenz

The novel, I’m pretty sure, is set in the 1950s, when women are starting to do things out of the house, but it’s looked down on as selfish. Lois and her best friend, Faye, are about to graduate high school in Walnut Grove, home of the Nutshells. The plan is for them to go to a junior college together, marry their high school sweethearts, live next door to each other, and have babies!

But something happens when the guidance counselor, a strong women (possibly a lesbian), tells Lois her grades in filing and typing are fantastic and that she should consider going to live in the “big city” to get a job as a secretary. It’s interesting to watch an 18-year-old girl get so excited about being a secretary. Faye is mad and Lois’s mom scoffs, but the guidance counselor says she has a job and a supervised boarding house — the Magdalena Arms — lined up for Lois. Lois is going to miss all the practice kissing she does with Faye, but her boyfriend is no big deal (it turns out he’s using Lois as a cover to date an African American girl…I mean, it’s like having a “beard,” but for race). Lois bucks tradition and goes…to the hot, stinky city to find the Magdalena Arms is pretty dumpy. Her room on the 5th floor is shabby, too.

At lot happens the first night in the Magdalena Arms when the friendly girls of the 5th floor have some drinks in one of the rooms. This book is full of puns. When Lois is asked if she likes girls, the author uses the verb “queried” Get it? Queer-ied? The Magdalena Arms is described as “quite a special atmosphere — so gay, so liberal, yet closely supervised and cared for all the same.” After Lois discovers an older girl, Pamela, who was on her cheerleading squad in Walnut Grove, visiting the Magdalena Arms, the whole 5th floor does a toast to old friends:

“To the Nutshells,” everyone echoed, and drank.

“Pamela had the highest kick in the state!” Lois told them proudly.

“I’m not surprised,” drawled Maxie. “Pamela’s always been very limber.”

Predictably, Lois very quickly gets drunk, for she is not used to alcohol, and Netta puts her to bed. Lois slurs, “You’re not a white slaver, are you?” and Netta — sweet Netta with her hair in a bun and glasses — replies, “No, I’m a school teacher.”

The next morning, Lois goes to her first day on the job. It turns out she will not be working in the typing pool as she thought she would; she’s going to be the personal secretary to the boss, Mrs. Pierson — whose nicknamed the hyena. When she gets home, Lois tells a 5th floor girl, Dolly, about it: “A promotion practically before you started…You’re going straight to the top, kid, straight to the top — even if you have to ride the hyena to get there!” These kinds of sexual puns are everywhere, and they make the story that saucy kind of light-hearted fun you want every so often.

Most of Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary is clear to the reader — namely that Lois is a lesbian, and so is almost every other female in the book. Lois doesn’t recognize what’s going on, so she’s often confused. There are also twists and misleading clues, such as why no one can go in the filing room at work, what happened to a girl who used to live on the 5th floor, where a sexy photo came from, why there was a break in at the Magdalena Arms, and who is a communist.

Yes, Lois is paranoid about communists. Her mother read in the newspaper about communists and “white slavers” in the big city and warned Lois not to take the secretary job. But when the girls of the 5th floor all go out to dinner, they make fun of Lois’s mother for her paranoia. But then things get more serious:

“But honestly, that attitude has ruined thousands of innocent lives,” said Phyllis earnestly, pushing her classes back up on her nose.

“Yes, it is sad,” agreed Netta, twirling her spaghetti expertly around her fork. “One of my professors at Teacher’s College in Minnesota was forced to resign, just because he’d signed some petition about the Scottsboro Boys!”

Lois spoke up. “But Netta, if they asked your professor to leave his position, he was probably much more deeply involved than just signing a petition. Why, he might have been a sleeper agent, teaching you Communist doctrine without you even realizing it!” Lois had read selected chapters from J. Edgar Hoover’s masterly Masters of Deceit her sophomore year and had been vigilant about the Communist conspiracy ever since.

“It was a class called ‘Math Methods for Junior Learners,'”said Netta dryly. “If he could squeeze any Communist doctrine into that, he deserved a prize.”

Lois is so quick to believe anything that she would have been an ideal party member in 1984. Her paranoia, though, is pretty funny. She even believes smoking some weed will land you in the hospital addicted to heroin.

The author doesn’t shy away from Lois getting intimate with many women (while still not realizing she’s a lesbian). The scenes are mostly described as kissing and biting and touching breasts; nothing overly graphic is described in detail. Serious intimacy is loving and sensual. The less serious intimate situations are funny; women try to be super sexy by asking Lois about typing or filing as foreplay. Lois loves secretarial duties more than anyone you’ve ever met; she even files when she’s upset!

Finally, the book does something that caused me to be incapable of putting down any R.L. Stein book ever: it has cliffhanger chapters. Something is always suspicious or surprising in the last line, which made me feel like I was right back to when I was younger and snuggled into books like they were bean bag chairs.

I’m excited to read the next three books in the Lesbian Career Girl series. Both Dolly Dingle and Maxie Mainwaring are characters in Lois Lenz that I liked who will get their own books.

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