Thursday, February 11, 2016

Reading in the Borderlands

by Annabeth Leong

I always like to list the last several things I’ve read because I like to read all over the place genre-wise.

Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

You know a book is good when you have lunch with someone and spend the entire time just telling them about the book, story after story. This is a memoir about Suki Kim’s experience teaching at a school in North Korea (it’s a really big deal that she was there, because outsiders are rarely allowed in).

It captivated me utterly. Her love for her students is obvious, even as she fears them, knowing that at any time one of them could report her for saying something that breaks the many spoken and unspoken rules of the place. Her depiction of North Korea is fascinating and disturbing. I am a fan of dystopian fiction, and I’ve never read about a real place that seems like it would fit so well in a dystopian novel. At the same time, my fascination feels voyeuristic and weird since this isn’t fiction. I was compelled by her portrayal of the psychological effects of watching her words and action as carefully as she has to while she is there. Finally, her discussion of the history of the split between North and South Korea, both informative and personal, moved me deeply. I didn’t know much of anything about that before reading this book, but exile, diaspora, and separation are themes that always speak to me.

Her writing style is of the spare and poetic variety that I love the most.

I can’t recommend this one enough.

French Kissing by Harper Bliss

I downloaded the pilot episode of this for free so long ago that I don’t even remember doing it, and just never got around to reading it. Then I found myself waiting around somewhere with only my Kindle to entertain me and rediscovered it. I would describe this book as “lesbian drama in Paris,” and it’s set up as if it were a television series. It was just the sort of light, absorbing read I needed at the time. I started reading casually, but then my pace and obsession picked up, and before I knew it, I had devoured both seasons (and am now eagerly awaiting the third!).

There are not incidental resemblances to The L-word series. I picture Bliss’s Steph as played by Kate Moennig, absolutely (in other words, like The L-word’s Shane). Bliss’s Nadia and Juliette feel like the Bette and Tina of French Kissing.

However, Bliss makes all that her own, and doesn’t fall into the sorts of missteps common to long, dramatic stories. Steph is a womanizer, but her arc is really about true love. The L-word never used Shane so well.

I often find that drama gets either too tense or too repetitive for me. French Kissing, however, is excellently paced, and its conflicts feel fresh and distinct.

I’d recommend it for anyone to whom the idea of lesbian drama in Paris appeals. And you’d better believe I’ll be downloading season three later this month!

Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older

This is a solid urban fantasy with some twists that make it better than usual. Older’s voice is refreshing and musical. He’s going for a stylish noir, and he makes that his own, both checking the classic boxes and creating something different and satisfying in its own way.

A big part of that for me had to do with race. I was pleasantly surprised to see quotations from Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands introducing the book. As a mixed-race person who never feels like I belong anywhere, this book’s themes spoke to me deeply, and the Anzaldua quotes told me right off the bat to expect that.

The main character, Carlos, is halfway between living and dead, and Older uses that to explore all sorts of halfways. Being brown. Being open to emotion, but also sort of broken. Being weak and strong at the same time. This is the world I live in and know, and it meant a lot to me to read it. I loved his racial descriptions and observations because the US can be so literally black and white about race that I rarely encounter work that recognizes more complexity.

Though I was sold on the voice immediately, it took me a bit to get into the story. Once part three hit, however, I was in that state where you’re trying to wave people away so you can get back to reading. I’ve ordered the next Bone Street Rumba novel, and am looking forward to it.

Carol by Patricia Highsmith

I saw the movie, and (heresy time) did not love it as much as my favorite queer websites seemed to think I would. To me, there was a sterility between Cate Blanchett’s Carol and Rooney Mara’s Therese that made the love story difficult to accept. I also felt uneasy with their age difference—that’s a thing that tends to bother me.

In the book, however, it’s not sterility. It’s a sort of spareness and restraint filled with longing and questioning. It takes me back to when I loved a woman but didn’t really understand that it was possible to love a woman, when I had desires that made no sense to me because I had no context for them.

There is a strong literary sensibility to this book. There are scenes that feel significant but you’re not sure why. There’s a sense of mystery to everything that happens.

The writing surprises me. I notice inconsistencies of plot and detail, but somehow I forgive it all. I wonder how some of these things made it through editing, but they don’t seem to take away from the way the story captivates me. There is something so private and internal about this book that I’m not surprised the movie didn’t work for me.

I’m still reading this one and am about halfway through. I’m curious how I will feel in the end. In the movie, the end felt empty to me. I didn’t really want Therese and Carol to be together. I suspect it may be different for me with the book.

Your writing: For Coming Together: Positively Sexy

And finally, there’s what I plan to be reading over the next six months: submissions for the new book I’m editing. It’s for Coming Together, it’s a collection of erotica about characters who have STIs, and it will benefit the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health. You can read more about it here. Definitely ask me if you have any questions!


  1. When you say your reading is diverse, you're not kidding!

    I didn't know you were editing a CT book. That's fantastic! A difficult theme, though.

    1. Do you have a deadline for this collection? I skimmed the CFS without finding one.

    2. Yeah, the call literally just went up, so I'm still spreading the word! Glad you're interested. The deadline is July 31st (it's off to the left under the picture, so a bit of a weird spot).

      So glad you enjoyed the post. :)

  2. I'm not familiar with Carol (book or movie), but I'm interested in your take on the age-difference element. (My take is that wide age disparities can be part of an unhealthy template of one kind or another—such as "trophy" partners or unrealistic hero worship—but that it doesn't have to be that way.) Do you tend to feel uneasy with age disparities in fiction specifically (as opposed to real life)—like it tends to be wielded as a narrative element in a problematic way?

    (I have a second comment—a question/suggestion about your antho—but I'll write to you privately. Congratulations on that! [On the antho, that is, not on getting private e-mails from me. (:v>])

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jeremy!

      Private email answered.

      As far as age differences, my discomfort has to do with real-world experiences (both mine and those of my friends) that involved power dynamics that felt coercive/abusive. I think it's very hard for the power dynamics to be right when there's a large age gap. I also experimented briefly when I was 18 with being someone's hot young thing, and it felt really horrible to me. So I just can't picture that kind of relationship feeling good and I'm very alert to those unhealthy dynamics.

      My discomfort in fiction is my real-world discomfort spilling over.

      In the movie, I read Therese and Carol as very far apart in age: Therese around 19 and Carol in her 40s. (Perhaps because Cate Blanchett is 46). In the book, though Therese is 19, and Carol is 32. I found that age difference bothered me a lot less. You're no longer talking about someone who could actually be a parent to the other partner.

    2. Ah, I see. I can imagine it being healthy depending on the individuals, but I understand the scenario you're describing as a potential risk. I know at least one apparently well-functioning long-term couple with a 20+-year age differential. I will mention, though, in case it's relevant, that the couple I'm thinking of got together when the younger party was close to 30 and was an established professional who'd been living an adult life for a long time—which of course is a big difference from being 18.

    3. You're right that there are people who seem to be in that sort of situation and handle it well. I meant to be clearer that I personally can't picture how that works but that I allow it might be the case for others. I do think it's a big difference when people initiate a relationship with an age difference when they're already adults.

  3. The Suki Kim book sounds along the same lines as Milan Kundera's The Joke, which I've just begun.

    And... Annabeth... There will be a time when mixed-race people will be the norm. It's a matter of survival for human beings. A wider gene pool produces a more perfect human being.

    Of course, all that hinges on whether or not we kill ourselves off first.

    1. But is Kundera's non-fiction?

      As far as what you're saying about mixed-race people, I'm really not sure what you mean by it.

  4. I can see being uncomfortable with the age difference--I'd be uncomfortable with it myself--but as someone so far along on the age scale as to be pretty much insignificant, I'm looking forward to seeing "Carol" partly because older women, even those as relatively young (to me) as Cate Blanchette, so rarely get to be the focus of movies involving sexuality.

  5. I look forward to seeing the movie version on Valentine's Day with my sweetie. I think it's important to remember that the novel was published under a pen name in the early 1950s, when lesbians were very closeted. I see the older woman/younger woman dynamic is being almost necessary for several reasons: women in general didn't earn much money, and "out" lesbians often found it hard to survive at all. An older woman with access to a husband's money could pay for dates and enable a woman/woman couple to consider living together. In some cases, the older woman would have valuable knowledge about the culture of a hidden lesbian culture to pass on to a protegee. In other cases, the younger woman (who might be more butch, and therefore more "out") could rescue the older woman from married conformity. The diversity of this couple could give them a fighting chance. What I think I'll find problematic about the movie is Carol's willingness to give up her child to be with her lover. This probably seemed like a necessary sacrifice in the 1950s (and judges would have enforced it in custody hearings), but IMO it would make the mother wonder if leaving "respectability" behind was worth it.

    1. These are all good points, Jean. I think that the thing you bring up (about the mother giving up her child) is actually much stronger in the book than the movie. In the book, Therese seems to need that proof of Carol's love, and that did bother me.

  6. Now that I've seen the movie, I agree: the love between Carol and Therese looks unconvincing, though the movie is a beautiful period piece.

    1. And I've now finished the book. It feels much more real there, and the ending made way more sense to me because I understand the thought process behind Therese's return much better.

  7. Someone just pointed me to this:

    1. (In case that looks like spam, this really is Jeremy, linking to a Carol parody.)


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