Tag Archives: book reviews

“It’s like you had to split yourself in two to watch yourself”: 21 Moments in Lauren Levin’s The Braid

Lauren Levin‘s poetry collection The Braid (Krupskaya Books, 2017) is described by its publisher as “a fever dream of pregnancy and early parenting in the era of the police state.” Here are 21 moments and meditations, strung together from from this whirlwind text.

1. The Braid opens wondering, “what it means / to say we want our work to be vulnerable when we’re the ones who make it.” (13)

Vulnerability is the ultimate braveness, admitting one’s own insecurity.  Telling the truths we are not sure we can understand.  Standing in our uncertainty and being willing to speak from there. It is guts. This book has guts.

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A Tactile Encounter: A Review of Slabs by Brittany Billmeyer-Finn

Slabs Timeless Infinite Light Brittany Billmeyer-Finn

The book fits in your hand: it can go inside the back pocket of your jeans. It is truly portable, and the tactile encounter of the book, I believe, conditions the reading experience. There is that feeling of manageability, contrary to its title, Slabs, that is being invoked by poet Brittany Billmeyer-Finn‘s second collection, released in 2016 from Timeless, Infinite Light.

The book is arranged in two parts. The language is fragmentary—as a reader, it seems as though I am eavesdropping. The conversation has been going on long before the reader opened the book, and now we are entering in and out of the narrative at any given point. What is beginning? What is ending? How do I situate and locate myself in relationship to the text?

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“United, In Spite of Everything:” A Review of Julia Alekseyeva’s Soviet Daughter

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Julia Alekseyeva’s Soviet Daughter is an intergenerational memoir, a graphic novel that weaves the history of Khinya “Lola” Ignatovskaya, Alekseyeva’s great-grandmother from Soviet Russia, with Alekseyeva’s own story of coming-of-age in America. Lola—a fierce, independent, intelligent, and rebellious woman—draws us right in from the very beginning. Although violence, tragedy, and loss color Lola’s life, her headstrong and resilient spirit blazes through these hardships, giving us a heartfelt—but also empowering—narrative. Alekseyeva herself is also an indomitable spirit—Soviet Daughter demonstrates how female badassery can define and even steer family history and legacy, giving us a Marxist feminist analysis of war, labor, and domesticity.

In addition to witnessing the Russian Revolution during her younger years, Lola also gives a female perspective of World War II. Soviet Daughter intervenes into the genre of the androcentric war narrative, illustrating that the positionality of the male solider/comrade is not the only valuable perspective surrounding these events. Lola herself challenges the Marxist distinctions between the “productive” and “reproductive” labor spheres. Although Lola initially begins working in the household as a child and fulfills the feminized role of a reproductive laborer, growing up, she enters the productive workforce—becoming a factory worker and typist—all while still sustaining and supporting her family in the home. Lola shows how these labor spheres are not really separate and that powerful women throughout history have traversed these dichotomous theoretical frames. Lola—and countless other women during war—are not merely “left behind” by their husbands and fathers, but perform key productive and reproductive labor that maintains not only their households, but the very fabrics of the nation-state. Continue reading

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Two Books About Beauty: Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine and Sarah Jean Grimm’s Soft Focus

Khadijah Queen and Sarah Jean Grimm

“A very flat-chested woman is very hard to be a ten.” As we all know by now, the President of the United States said those words on the Howard Stern Show in the nineties. I still can’t get past that. I’m not sure if it’s because our president, like most middle school boys, believes in a rating system where women are appraised based on their physical traits, or if it’s because, as a flat-chested woman, I’m bummed I’m not a “ten.” I know that’s a sick thing to think, but of course being feminist doesn’t mean one is entirely free from the intense ideological beauty standards of our society. I think this is what it’s like to be an intelligent, feminist woman today: you can recognize the bullshit, you can feel angry, and you can also want to be recognized within that admittedly-bullshit system as a desirable object. I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On by Khadijah Queen and Soft Focus by Sarah Jean Grimm are two brilliant new poetry books that simultaneously celebrate and eviscerate the complicated landscape of American womanhood. While both books explore the traditional trappings of femininity—makeup, clothing, hairstyles—along with our newer gendered societal norms—selfies, Instagram, clickbait, celebrity culture—on a deeper level, Khadijah Queen and Sarah Jean Grimm each peel back the layers of multiple selves, masks, and metaphorical armor most women wear every day in order to simply survive.

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“Healing is Sparse and Concealed:” A Review of Cristy C. Road’s Indestructible

Cover of Cristy C. Road's Indestructible.

Indestructible, via Microcosm Publishing

As a queer brown girl, adolescence was cruel and oftentimes ruthless. But in Cristy C. Road’s Indestructible: Growing Up Queer, Cuban, and Punk in Miami, queer brown adolescence is rebellion, self-discovery, and self-determination. Indestructible is an illustrated novel exploring the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality within the feminist punk rock scene of 1990s Miami. For Road, punk subculture was more than loud music and DIY fashion. It provided avenues for subverting misogyny and normativity, in reconstituting female pleasure and sexuality, and in navigating the cultural barriers and discrepancies between America and Cuba. Set in a typerwriter-esque font and Xerox-style printing that mirrors zine-making, Indestructible redefines the growing-up narrative, giving it a new form, a dissonant voice, and a queer aberrant body.

The memoir begins with Road expanding the interpretation of coming-of-age, stating, “[T]he enticement of adolescence [goes] beyond any new pubes and first kisses” (11). For Road, adolescence was first orgasms, defying white and Cuban beauty standards, and negotiating the collisions between girl/womanhood and queerness. Road poses the questions I was too afraid to ask as an adolescent: “‘Why do women compete?’ ‘Why do men abuse power?’ ‘Why doesn’t anyone think it’s normal that I masturbate?’ ‘Why does the way I pee, the way I fuck, or the way my chest looks dictate the language that’s acceptable for me to use?’” (28). These questions are not only explored and answered through Road’s various musings and conversations, but the many one-page and two-page black-and-white spreads illustrate the experimentation, aberration, and resistance of queer punk bodies to normativity and authority. The bold, black lines that curve around brown female bodies and the intricate patterns and textures of clothing aid in transporting the reader into Road’s world of Latinx punk subculture. Art and DIY manifesting in and on punk bodies was essential to the movement, and Road does a stunning job demonstrating this reality through graphic storytelling. Continue reading

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To All the Young Adult Novels I’ve Read Before: A Look at Jenny Han’s Lara Jean Song Covey Series

 

Jenny Han's series about the charming Lara Jean Song Covey

I was skeptical when I first picked up Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the first volume about Lara Jean Song Covey, a Korean American girl living in the suburbs of Virginia with a single dad and two sisters. I don’t usually read young adult fiction, but when I saw that the novel was about a biracial girl, I decided to give it a go. It’s not everyday when Asian American girls are stars of YA novels, and as a scholar of Asian American Studies and literature, I knew I had to give the world of YA a shot.

Lara Jean is a dreamy-eyed baker, scrapbooker, middle child, and high school junior. Dreamy-eyed because instead of running around chasing boys, she writes a heartfelt letter to every boy she has ever loved and stows it away in her hatbox. She is a master at the art of scrapbooking, claiming: “A good scrapbook has texture. It’s thick and chunky and doesn’t close all the way.” She looks up to her older sister, Margot, and cares for her younger sister, Kitty, completely devoid of the middle child syndrome that plagued me during my teen years. She is kind, creative, intelligent, prone to accidents, and gets a little too lost in her head sometimes, but other than that, she is a charming, well-rounded character. Continue reading

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White Space, Banana Ketchup & Karaoke: A Review of Kimberly Alidio’s After projects the resound

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I was introduced to Kimberly Alidio at Effie Street in Silverlake, Los Angeles, at a quaint reading in the backyard of a professor’s house. I was intrigued by the book Alidio held in her hands—a sky blue volume with a longhaired figure on all fours, seemingly ingesting or expelling pink and orange confetti. Soon I was even more jarred and enthralled by the pieces she read aloud, poems speaking, stuttering, and singing about empire, migration, diaspora, and queerness—subjects I had become familiar with as a queer Filipina American and budding academic. After projects the resound (Black Radish) does not only interrogate these concepts, but transforms them, remakes them, and melds them through reverberating word play, experiments with sound, and even through the strategic use of white space. The final stanza in “All the Pinays are straight, all the queers are Pinoy, but some of us” demonstrates this:

                                                                      I will never not 

want to be violent with you (dare you to say 

this isn’t love, queen)

pray for

her resurrection every easter

  

“I’m just so bored and so pretty and not white” (66)

Although you may need to take a second to comprehend what is occurring, the sleek alliteration of the “w” and “n” sounds in the first two lines allows the poem to roll off your tongue, a slow, accentuated, but nevertheless pleasurable foray into the complexities and obscurities of Pinxy queerness. The enjambments, line breaks, and spaces in between help anchor and pace the reader, allowing us to appreciate the various intonations of sound. These rhetorical, sonic, and spatial devices showed me that I did not need the convenience of clarity to enjoy and appreciate Alidio’s work. Her delightfully playful and musical words and sounds, for me, emulate the witty banter between Pinxys as we process the intersections of Catholicism, queerness, and brownness together in conversation. Continue reading

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FROM THE STACKS: The Honesty of Jean Rhys

From the Stacks is a new series on Weird Sister wherein we pull a book—old, new, or anything in between—from our bookshelves, and write something about it.

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The Collected Novels of Jean Rhys

The Collected Novels of Jean Rhys #feministshelfie

I recently had a conversation with a man about Bukowski. Had I read much Bukowski? I said I’ve avoided a lot of the bro-writers: Bukowski, Burroughs, Miller, Kerouac (though I’ve come to love Kerouac). He said, Yeah, those guys are great writers, but, you know, they’re not really great toward women.

It’s not surprising we have a whole genre of literature by men who disrespect, objectify, reduce, and silence women. A more interesting question is, who are the women—especially the early women writers—of whom we might say the same: they aren’t really great toward men, you know, but they’re still worth reading.

I posed this question to a brilliant poet friend, who responded that while male writers are often being sexist when they write about women, women are often being honest. So the comparison doesn’t really work, she said, laughing. She then made some contemporary suggestions: Dodie Bellamy. Kathy Acker. Rebecca Solnit.

But what about going further back into the archives?

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Cure for the End of Summer Blues: A Review of Mall Brat

Mall Brat Laura Marie Marciano
I met Laura Marie Marciano at a reading in an eminently Instagrammable and chic bookshop in Chicago. My partner noticed how taken I was with her work, and encouraged me to introduce myself. Marciano’s work has a clarity of voice and vision to which we can all aspire to.

She read from her book, Mall Brat (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press, 2016), a collection of poems defined by its unflinching approach to sexuality and memory. Mall Brat’s forward (framed as “From the author at fifteen”) sets up the book brilliantly with details of a summer romance between the speaker at fifteen and a man six years her senior. The facts are excruciating to a reader aware of the power imbalance, begging for someone—anyone—to step in and save this child. Instead, Marciano forces the reader to inhabit the speaker’s thought process at that age, and to remind us that our own was equally short-sighted and precarious:

“I was the type of girl who might be featured in some virgin porn, just a little bit plump, with a second day tan, and extreme insecurity—but, also, smart, because I had read a lot and I had an older brother.”

As I read these poems, I find myself returning to a line from Dorothy Allison’s book of essays, Skin: “I can write about years in a paragraph, but the years took years to pass.” There is often a human desire, and a tendency in some poetry, to simplify the past and obscure it with language—to decide on a narrative that is easy to repeat with a few totemic details for emphasis.  Marciano refuses a smooth rendition of the past and honors those years, reaching into their layers and maintaining eye contact “as i sink my hand deeper/into the barrel of stones.”
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FROM THE STACKS: Oriental Girls Desire Romance by Catherine Liu

From the Stacks is a new series on Weird Sister wherein we pull a book—old, new, or anything in between—from our bookshelves, and write something about it.

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Oriental Girls Desire Romance by Catherine Liu #feministshelfie

Oriental Girls Desire Romance by Catherine Liu was first published in 1998, then re-issued in 2012 by Kaya Press, which specializes in Asian Pacific Diasporas. This book fell into my lap at just the right time; my best friend, who worked with Liu at UC Irvine, mailed it to me. (Isn’t it always the surprise-gift books that seem so magical, so resonant?) Catherine Liu is a professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine, and she’s published a number of books of theory. I haven’t read her theory, but when I looked into her work a bit more, I found that this book didn’t receive the rave reviews I would have imagined. It seems to have been a little before its time, though I could see Oriental Girls Desire Romance fitting right in as an Emily Books pick today. The novel is poetic and not very plot-driven, with long, meandering prose detailing the thoughts of a unnamed young woman in New York City in the 80s. Through flashbacks, we come to understand that she has graduated from an Ivy League school, traveled to China to teach at a university for one semester, and returned to NYC, where she then begins graduate school in French and takes a lot of classes on theory. She dates men—a series of short, difficult relationships—and has one relationship with a woman during her last year of undergrad; what’s interesting is how little Liu dwells on this lesbian relationship. While the protagonist often interrogates her identity as a woman and as a Chinese-American, she does not contemplate the question of her sexuality. It seems she just momentarily fell in love with a woman, had some great sex, and then had her heart ripped out when she realizes it’s over. I really appreciated this nonchalance toward what is, essentially, a bisexual character, or what we could call, in today’s terms, a queer novel.

Liu’s protagonist deals with questions of identity, often trying to figure out “how to be a woman.” Recalling a childhood memory of playing chess with her brother, the memory quickly melds into an astute metaphoric observation:

“I said again that I hated the game and he said I was stupid. He told me I was just like a girl.

I did feel stupid. I felt just like a girl, though I had tried so hard not to be stupid, not to be like a girl.

I once overhead two students who looked like football players talking in the streets of our college town. One of them said to his friend, so she says to me, just like a girl she says, oh come on, let me suck your dick. Can you believe that?

I walked around the months saying, thinking, come on, oh come on, let me suck your dick. I was trying so hard not to be just like a girl, but it wasn’t working. Being a girl seemed to be about being tricked into playing games you couldn’t win and then being called stupid for it. Being a girl meant that you could be misrepresented and misquoted by a man in order to enhance his reputation. I was determined to find a way of being a girl that would get everyone back for such gross injustice. […]

Being a girl was beginning to feel more and more dangerous.” (22-23)

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