Sapphic Link Love #10

Elizabeth A Lynn, ‘Watchtower’ (1979) #20BooksOfSummer

Ryke wakes after the battle is over, to find Tornor Keep has been overrun by the forces of a Southern conqueror, Col Istor. As one of the few surviving warriors, his life is spared so that he can assist with the transition to Istor’s rule, his obedience secured only by the conqueror’s promise not to harm the old lord’s heir, Errel. Ryke agrees to the terms and is horrified when Errel is forced to act as the Keep’s jester.

Just as it seems that resistance is hopeless, a pair of sinister messengers arrive, bringing an offer of truce from another keep. Ryke is surprised when Errel proposes asking for their help to escape, but all is not as it seems, and Errel knows more than Ryke can imagine. So begins a journey South to meet the dancers of Vanmina, a journey that challenges everything Ryke thinks he knows about the world. But before too long they will have to return to the North and face Col Istor again.

Watchtower is the first book in Elizabeth A. Lynn’s acclaimed trilogy, The Chronicles of Tornor, and it won the World Fantasy Award in 1980.  Lynn is one of many well-regarded women writers who were publishing science fiction and fantasy before the 2000s, but whose work is now rather neglected and in danger of being forgotten. Considering the way that women writers have been treated by SFF, it seems sadly appropriate that Watchtower is partly set in a ruthlessly patriarchal society where women are not truly “seen”.

I really loved Lynn’s short stories in The Girl Who Loved the Moon, so I was looking forward to starting on The Chronicles of Tornor. Watchtower is superbly written, at least on a level with Le Guin’s Earthsea in terms of quality. It has a compelling story and interesting main characters. It even has queer characters and a lesbian couple, although this is not too surprising when you realise that Lynn wrote A Different Light, one of the first science fiction novels to feature openly queer characters, and after which a famous gay bookshop was named.

I’m not a fan of high fantasy, but I did enjoy Watchtower and will read the rest of the trilogy. If I have any criticisms, I thought the middle section dragged a bit and Ryke does have to “hold the stupid ball” a lot for the plot to work.

Just a note, there are some depictions of rape during war towards the end. It’s not too much, or too graphic, but just be aware if you’re thinking of reading this and it’s something you’d prefer not to come cross unexpectedly.

Recommended if you like high fantasy or want to explore the writing of women fantasy and SF authors from the 1970s and 1980s (who are not Ursula Le Guin).  

20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge

Jenny Factor, Unraveling at the Name (2002)

These dense, formal poems demand a lot of attention. They need to be read slowly and thoughtfully. Presented in three parts, Unraveling at the Name takes the reader on a deeply personal and uncompromisingly sexual journey through the experiences of young womanhood, marriage, awakening same-sex desire, divorce and single-motherhood. The experiences described by the speaker are common enough, but by elevating them through highly formal poetic structures Jenny Factor captures deep emotional truths about how life feels. Marilyn Hacker, blurbing the book, praisingly calls her use of the fifteen-sonnet heroic crown an “extravagant gesture”. and I think that’s the precisely the point.

Unraveling at the Name is Factor’s only collection and I really hope she publishes another one day.

Poetry Foundation, Jenny Factor

A Trip to Gay’s the Word

Photograph of 5 books in a pile, with titles by Sarah Schulman, Jane Traies, Jill Dawson and Amy Bloom

A pile of lesbian books!

We were in London briefly last weekend, me for a work conference and my partner, lucky thing, to see the new production of All About Eve starring Gillian Anderson and Lilly James. But of course we still found time to visit Gay’s the Word bookshop in Bloomsbury, where I treated myself to a few books that I’ve had my eye on for a while.

Sarah Schulman is one of my favourite lesbian writers and I bought her two most recent books. Maggie Terry (2018) is a crime thriller about lesbian PI with addiction issues, while The Cosmopolitans (2016) is a historical novel about the friendship between a black gay man and a middle-aged white woman in the 1950s.

I’ve heard good things about The Crime Writer (2016) by Jill Dawson and White Houses (2018) by Amy Bloom. The first has Patricia Highsmith moving to a cottage in Suffolk to try and finish a novel while also carrying out an unhappy affair, only to find herself the protagonist in a thriller. The second is a love story about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist, Lorena Hickok.

Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories (2018) is a collection of personal accounts from older lesbians edited by Jane Traies and looks absolutely fascinating.

I could have spent a lot more, but thought I’d better stop there. So much for not buying any more books until I’ve made a dent in my TBR pile!

Sapphic Link Love #7

The Guardian, Pioneering Bollywood lesbian romance opens in India 

Duke University Press, Esther Newton, My Butch Career, A Memoir 

The Guardian, ‘It has made me want to live’: Public support for lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall over banned book revealed 

The Paris Review, Hunting for a lesbian canon 

Catapult Magazine, ‘I should hate forever to be a burden to you’: Lessons in love from Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West 

Lit Hub, The overlooked eroticism of Mary Oliver 

Sapphic Link Love #6

Ransom Centre Magazine, The Ransom Center will digitize the papers of British author Radclyffe Hall and partner, artist Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge

Autostraddle, Revisiting “Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist” in a World Needing Her More Than Ever

Terri Windling, Hen Wives, Spinsters and Lolly Willows 

iNews, The lesbian ‘blood sisters’ who cared for gay men when doctors were too scared to 

Sapphic Link round-up #5

Autostraddle, The 15 Best Lesbian and Bisexual Movies of 2018

them., Sarah Schulman Talks her new lesbian detective novel Maggie Terry

Lambda Literary, Looking for Lorraine: The Radical and Radiant Life of Lorraine Hansberry

Hannah Roche, The Outside Thing: Modernist Lesbian Romance 

New York Times Books, Alone with Elizabeth Bishop

Sapphic Link Love #5

June Jordan, ‘These Poems

Casey, The Canadian Lesbrarian, Viscerally Real Queers, Dyke Processing, Kink, and Disability in Jane Eaton Hamilton’s novel WEEKEND

KQED, Rebel Girls from Bay Area History: Pat Parker, Lesbian Feminist Poet and Activist 

New York Review of Books, Alone with Elizabeth Bishop

LA Review of Books, Taking Responsibility, An Interview with Sarah Schulman

Sapphic Link Love #4

Autostraddle, The Gay Love Stories of Moomin and the Queer Radicality of Tove Jansson 

NPR, New biography of Lorraine Hansberry

Autostraddle, Portraits of Lesbian Writers, 1987 – 1989  (these are awesome)

The Rumpus, The Queer Syllabus: The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye

Folk Radio, Grace Petrie: Queer as Folk review

Sapphic Link Love #3

The Rumpus, The Inadvertent Postmodernist: An Interview with Sarah Schulman 

Julie R. Enszer at Lamba Literary, Lying With Women: Meditations on Barrie Jean Borich’s Writing, Lesbians, and Liberation

Sandra M. Gilbert, The Treasures that Prevail: On the Prose of Adrienne Rich

Jana Funke, The World and Other Unpublished Works of Radclyffe Hall

Sarah Dreher, Stoner McTavish (1985)

I read the first book in Sarah Dreher’s much-loved mystery series in April. Stoner McTavish is an insecure butch lesbian, travel-agent and reluctant detective.  In this first outing, a friend of her eccentric aunt Hermione persuades her to investigate the man who’s married her granddaughter, Gwen. This results in Stoner following the couple on honeymoon to the Grand Teton National Park where she soon finds herself and Gwen in peril.

I really enjoyed the book, even though I thought it had quite a few flaws. I’ll get the criticism out of the way first. It felt a bit long for the amount of plot and the villain was very two-dimensional. This might be a personal thing, but I also found the tone a bit off because the cosiness of the mystery seemed to jar with the nastiness of the homophobic and misogynist abuse experienced by Stoner. Honestly, I found the love interest, Gwen, pretty bland too – she’s just kind of the “perfect woman”. Maybe she’ll get more interesting in the later books.

But the charm and humour outweighed the novel’s weaknesses. Stoner is delightful. Her insecurities can be little much at times, but we’ve all known (or been) someone like that.  Dreher is very good at writing quirky characters, witty dialogue and at creating a rich sense of place. I wanted to go and stay at the hotel in the park and sit by the fire drinking coffee.

Overall, a fun read and I’ll be trying the next book, Something Shady in which Stoner must go undercover in a rest home.

Sapphic Link Love #2

Some things I’ve found interesting recently.

Julie R. Enszer at Lamda Literary, Lying with women: Meditations on Barrie Jean Borich’s writing, lesbians and liberation 

Crime Reads, The Night Gertrude Stein met Dashiell Hammett (apparently she even had a go at writing a detective novel)

The Advocate, A 75-year-old lesbian discovery 

Emma Donoghue, Astray (2012)

Emma Donoghue is one of my favourite writers and I particularly love her historical short fiction.

The stories in Astray are based on fragmentary and marginal historical sources, such as news reports, letters, obituaries, legal records and museum exhibits. The overarching theme is people who are on the move, out of place, in transition physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The book is organised into three sections (‘Departures’, ‘In Transit’, and ‘Arrivals and Aftermaths’), and the characters we meet within them are immigrants and emigrants, drifters, adventurers and runaways.

Each story explores the opportunities and risks of movement and boundary-crossing, what’s gained and what’s lost. An elephant is sold to P.T. Barnum, much to the dismay of his zookeeper. A woman supporting her family through prostitution in mid-Victorian London considers making a fresh start in Canada. An eighteenth-century wife tricks her husband out of his fortune and disappears. Another wife persuades a slave to run away with her. A married couple’s new start in America is blighted by tragedy before they can be reunited. Two young men go prospecting in the gold rush. A frontierswoman drags a prodigal husband home. A child is adopted and sent abroad against her first mother’s will. A seventeenth-century puritan community grapples with accusations of sexual “deviance”. A child soldier is caught up in a campaign of organised rape. The daughter of a businessman in New York discovers that the man she knew as her father once lived as a woman. A lesbian artist contemplates her life as her partner descends into dementia.

I really enjoyed Astray and found the stories fascinating and poignant. Donoghue is an emigrant/immigrant herself, moving from Ireland to Canada to pursue a relationship. The ‘Afterword’, in which she talks about how this experience shaped the book, creates a real sense of empathy and resonance. As with much of her work, there’s a focus on the lives of women and queer people, as well as people who live on the margins and don’t really fit into any normative categories.

*** Just one word of warning: ‘The Hunt’ is a deeply disturbing story about rape and I think it could be extremely triggering for people who’ve experienced sexualised violence

‘Burning Hot Hope’: Karin Kallmaker on Dorothy Allison

Karin Kallmaker has posted the speech she gave for Dorothy Allison’s Golden Crown Literary Society 2018 Trailblazer Award Golden Crown Literary Society 2018 Trailblazer Award.  It’s a great and impassioned introduction to Allison’s essential work.

Elizabeth A. Lynn, ‘A Different Light’ (1978)

In a future in which most hereditary diseases have been cured, Jimson Allecca is one of the unlucky ones. His rare form of cancer is treatable only as long as he stays on the colony world of New Terrain. To leave the planet, he’d have to get on a star ship and go for a ride through The Hype. Doing this would quickly and fatally accelerate his condition.

Jimson is a celebrated artist with a privileged life, but he decides that his desire to experience “a different light” is more important than reaching old age. He undergoes a sinister telepathic examination and receives permission to leave New Terrain.  While hanging around in Port City, looking for a ship to take him off-world, he meets Leiko Tamura, an-out-of-work pilot who becomes his lover. Leiko introduces him to the Port Bar, Rin’s, where he meets Ysao, an engineer and a giant of a man.

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December Acquisitions

We didn’t buy each other any presents this year because we spent our December budget on going away for the holidays. However, any hopes that this decision would result in less stuff entering the house were quickly dashed by the presence of secondhand bookshops in the town where we stayed.

I was very pleased to pick up Elizabeth A. Lynn’s fantasy trilogy, The Chronicles of Tornor (1979 – 80), which I mentioned in my post about her short stories. You’ll often see one of these in secondhand bookshops, but rarely all three together.

Lynn Trilogy

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Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes (1926)

At the age of twenty-eight, Laura Willowes is quite content with her life. She feels no interest in marriage and lives with her father on the country estate, spending her time reading, brewing and indulging her fondness for botany. But then her father dies and she finds herself prevailed upon to move in with her brother and his wife in London.

There she lives passively, tucked away in the “small spare room”, helping to look after the children and being “indispensable for Christmas Eve and birthday preparations”. As Laura herself will observe of another woman later in the book, she has become the “typical genteel spinster” who spends “her life being useful to people who don’t want her”.

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London Book Buying

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Gay’s the Word is an essential stop for us whenever we visit London. This time around, we picked up Alexis De Veaux’s Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde (2004) in the used section for £5. The used shelves also yielded up a couple of good lesbian short story collections: Anna Livia and Lilian Mohan (eds.) The Pied Piper: Lesbian Feminist Fiction (1989), which contains stories by the likes of Gillian Hanscombe, Patricia Duncker and Mary Dorcey, and Ruthann Robson’s Lambda nominated Eye of a Hurricane (1989).

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Andy bought a new copy of Lolly Willows (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner. This is a novel about a middle-aged spinster who abandons her family responsibilities to become a witch. She also got Ash (2009) by Malinda Lo, which is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella and had the shop assistant raving. Apparently, he’s bought it for all his friends.

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Emma Donoghue, Life Mask (2004)

Life Mask is set in the world of late eighteenth-century British high society.  This period saw economic crises, impending war, and the threat of revolution, but also an increasingly educated population and more social mobility.  A few women were beginning to access careers, especially in literature and the arts, but they still lived in a world in which reputation was everything and entering public life remained extremely risky.

Following the early death of her boorish husband, aristocratic Anne Damer has been able to enjoy a relatively independent life and has made a name for herself as a sculptor.  Eliza Farren, meanwhile, has risen from her working-class origins to become a successful actress on the London stage, one of the celebrities of the period. The lives of these two women are linked by their relationships with a powerful man, Edward Smith-Stanley , twelfth Earl of Derby, an old friend of Anne’s and suitor to Eliza. Despite the difference in their social positions, Anne and Eliza become close friends, but when ugly rumours about the nature of Anne’s sexual preferences begin to surface, they threaten to bring scandal and ruin down upon all their heads.

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Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother? (2012)

There were moments, while I was reading this book, when involuntary exclamations would burst from me.  “Argh!” I would cry, and my partner, who had already finished it, would look at me sympathetically and nod her head.  Are You My Mother? came as something of a shock to my system, inducing far more powerful resonances with my relationship with my own mother than I expected to experience, and which I’ll be processing for some time to come.

This is Alison Bechdel’s second memoir; the first, Fun Home, took as its subject her relationship with her father who committed suicide when she was nineteen.  Her mother is a shadowy figure in that book, but in Are You My Mother? she takes centre stage (I use the cliché consciously – Bechdel’s mother is an actress).  One of the many things that impresses me about Are You My Mother? is just what a different book it is to Fun Home, in tone, style, structure and artwork.  It is most definitely not Fun Home ‘part 2’, but it’s clear that Bechdel is not someone who ever takes the easy route, in her life or her art.

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Dorothy Allison, ‘When feminism exploded into my life’

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When feminism exploded into my life, it gave me a vision of the world totally different from everything I had assumed or hoped. The concept of a feminist literature offered the possibility of pride in my sexuality. It saved me from either giving up writing entirely, or the worse prospect of writing lies in order to achieve some measure of grudging acceptance. But at the same time, Feminism destroyed all my illusions about Literature. Feminism revealed the city as an armed compound to which I would never be admitted. It forced me to understand, suddenly and completely, that literature was written by men, judged by men. The city itself was a city of Man, a male mind even when housed in a female body. If that was so, all my assumptions about the worth of writing, particularly working-class writing, were false. Literature was a lie, a system of lies, the creation of liars, some of them sincere and unaware of the lies they retold, but all acting in the service of a Great Lie — what the system itself labelled Universal Truth. If that truth erased me and all those like me, then my hopes to change the world through writing were illusions. I lost my faith. I became a feminist activist propelled in part by outrage and despair, and a stubborn determination to shape a life, and create a literature, that was not a lie.

— Dorothy Allison, ‘Believing in Literature’, in Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature, (New York: Firebrand Books, 1994), p. 167.

Crossposted to Feminist Quotes

Gertrude Stein, ‘The one thing that everybody wants is to be free’

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“The one thing that everybody wants is to be free…not to be managed, threatened, directed, restrained, obliged, fearful, administered, they want none of these things they all want to feel free, the word discipline, and forbidden and investigated and imprisoned brings horror and fear into all hearts, they do not want to be afraid not more than is necessary in the ordinary business of living where one has to earn one’s living and has to fear want and disease and death…. the only thing that any one wants now is to be free, to be let alone, to live their life as they can, but not to be watched, controlled and scared, no no, not.”

– Gertrude Stein

Found on tumblr

Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1886)

A woman writer returns to Maine in search of isolation.   She stays in a New England fishing village where she gets to know some of the local characters … and that’s about it really.  The Country of the Pointed Firs offers nothing resembling a plot, but Sarah Orne Jewett wasn’t interested in plots; she was interested in characterization and in describing a dying way of life, both of which she does beautifully.

The small self-sufficient fishing community depends upon close relationships between its members. At first it might seem that Jewett idealises the way of life (Mrs Todd’s mother is just a little too good to be true), but there’s a lot of darkness in the stories too.  Captain Littlepage believes he’s visited a city between this world and the next, Poor Joanna becomes a recluse to atone for what she believes to be an unforgivable sin, and in ‘A Long Shore’ the narrator visits a grieving fisherman.  Even her landlady, jolly Mrs Todd, harbours a broken heart because she wasn’t allowed to marry the man she loved.

Jewett was born in 1849 and published her first story when she was 19.  The Country of the Pointed First made her reputation. From 1881 she lived with another writer, Annie Fields, in a Boston Marriage.

From a feminist perspective, The Country of the Pointed Firs is interesting for its attention to the voices of women and the details of their lives.  Jewett is one of those writers who attracts that kind of coy, “Yes, we know she lived for most of her life with another woman in a Boston marriage, but we can’t possibly know if they had a sexual relationship, so we can’t possibly speculate about her sexual orientation” comment from critics.  However, I like to think that we can reasonably claim her for the team.   The narrator is striking for her assertion of her identity as a writer and refusal to define herself in relation to men.   She is mainly interested in other women and has total faith in their capabilities and while she’s sympathetic to men, she’s not in any way awed by them.

A nice read for an afternoon.