Thursday, April 21, 2016

On Marriage, Italian, Detectives, and the Internet of Trees

by Annabeth Leong

Here are some of the books I've read recently that I've liked best. Apologies to those who follow me on Goodreads, since I've lifted the descriptions I wrote there.

Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships, and Identity
Edited by Carter Sickels

I wanted a book like this to exist so badly, and I was so excited to find it. This is a collection of essays that seeks to go beyond the simplistic "Love Wins" message that I've seen all over the place since marriage equality was instated throughout the U.S. I knew from the first line that this would discuss and engage with a lot of the discomfort I feel about how the marriage equality movement has played out in popular culture.

I have had a number of conversations with people who think that civil rights for queer people have been achieved because of that Supreme Court decision, so I know there are at least some people who have that impression. If so, they should read this book and get a fuller view of the landscape. For those who already know that marriage doesn't solve everything, who may have questions about marriage as an institution, who may want to think more about trans issues, race issues, class issues, bi issues, polyamory, and so on, this is also a great book to read.

I thought the collection splendidly avoided the echo chamber effect that can come about in collections of political works. All the authors are thinking beyond the obvious implications of same sex marriage, but they don't agree with each other, and their viewpoints are very diverse. That made this a compelling read throughout.

The editor notes in the introduction that trans women and people of color are underrepresented in the collection... and then I found myself pleasantly surprised by how many essays were written by trans women and people of color. It probably says something sad about the state of anthologies in general that what could be called underrepresented by the editor actually felt like rich diversity compared to what I'm used to reading.

I found myself constantly checking the contributor's notes to see if the authors had written other work or longer work, and I have a long list of books I now want to read. This book has introduced me to a lot of interesting thinkers and lyrical writers. While some pieces are dry, nonfiction takes on the subject, for the most part each piece is deeply poetic, which very much enhances the philosophical and political points being made.

I really needed this book.

All the Birds in the Sky
by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky is full of an exhilarating weirdness that constantly blew me away. The creative details of this weird world are vividly drawn, just askew enough from the world I know that it injects a sense of magic into my everyday life. But anchoring all that weirdness is one of the tightest, loveliest, Love Conquers All metastories that I've seen. I'd read a review that said there was something scattered about the book but that it's so cool you sort of won't care. I disagree with that review, though. To me, there was a beautifully simple underlying structure that anchored all the world's wild details and the story's far-ranging explorations.

The writing is absolutely lovely. Sometimes I felt so much for the characters that I was afraid I wouldn't be able to read on, but every part of the story was so worthwhile that I quickly learned to trust the author. The sex scenes were full of a pleasing, quirky emotion that made the romance feel real, personal, and intimate.

I stayed up late reading this one. I would instantly buy any book with this author's name on it in the future.

(Also, go look up the Internet of trees after you read this one. Articles about that came out at an oddly appropriate time.)

The Tattered Heiress
by Debra Hyde

Debra Hyde has produced a really satisfying lesbian historical. In Charlotte Olmes, we have the mind and obsession of Sherlock Holmes, with attention to the political and social realities of the times. In The Tattered Heiress, the central mystery is intercut with a narrative about how Charlotte and her partner Joanna were able to break free of society and be together, and that story is as perilous and suspenseful as the twisted gothic tale they're investigating.

Hyde obviously loves the New York setting, and peppers the story with rich detail that feels authentic. She hits all the beats of a classic mystery story, and provides a generous amount of scorching lesbian sex at the same time.

The only thing that mars my happiness is that the book really needed copy editing. It is rife with distracting errors—repeated words, spelling problems, and so on. A blurb on the cover claims that the series contains the hottest lesbian sex since "Nina" Gershon and Jennifer Tilly, and that bothered me every time I picked up the book. I don't want to hold the author responsible for that, but it made me sad to see it. I couldn't help wondering what this book could have been if it had been given the strong, careful edit it deserved.

In Other Words
by Jhumpa Lahiri

I think this might be the book I spend the whole year talking about. It fascinates me in multiple ways, for multiple reasons, and it's so well-written on top of that.

I picked it up as a language geek, because I'm really interested in the question of what fluency is, how one gets there, and what it feels like to function in another language. I was also attracted to the randomness of Jhumpa Lahiri's love of Italian. I'm currently studying Danish, which has a similar inexplicability, and I really liked her description of how it feels to be drawn to a language that one has no obvious connection to.

As a writer myself, I was fascinated by the fact that Lahiri wrote this book in her non-native language. That's an undertaking that awes me. I loved her descriptions of the process of writing and how it changed as she took it on in Italian rather than English.

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book contains a lot of discussion of living between worlds and cultures. Lahiri talks about how loaded language has always been for her—what does it mean at a given moment if she's speaking Bengali or English. Italian gives her an escape from being caught between cultures, and I felt that deeply. It really fascinates me that she notes that her writing is more abstract and universal in Italian, that she finds she gives her characters less cultural detail. I'll be thinking about that for a while.

At the same time, I was moved by the pain she describes of always being seen as a foreigner in Italy because of her looks, despite her love and devotion for the language.

This book is a complex and thoughtful discussion of language and all that comes with it. It's framed around a premise that seems quirky on the surface but that gets deep with examination. I relate to it in a very personal way, but I have the feeling that this is one of those magical books that's universal at the same time and open to giving a lot of readers that feeling.

I couldn't have been more interested in this, or more absorbed by it.

I'm embarrassed to say I've never read Lahiri before, but I'm definitely going to look for more of her work now, whatever language it's in.

(And I'll have comments coming to others later today. I saw your request, Suz!)


  1. All four of these are going on my TBR list. (Sigh...) Sometimes when I contemplate aging, I console myself with the notion that maybe I'll finally have time to read everything I want to!

    1. My TBR list is also massive and growing.. I think that's just the way of things for those of us who love books!

  2. Also, with regard to Untangling the Knot, I recently got into a discussion/argument with a gay male author who claimed that the focus on gay marriage has made traditional gay sexual practices (cruising, etc.) somehow illegitimate, and that this was in some sense a violation of gay culture. I thought his position was rather strange, but then, I'm not a gay male. I'm wondering whether anyone in this book addresses the "monogamization" of queerness has affected the LGBTQ world.

    1. This book definitely addresses that topic. There are many poly authors or authors who would prefer not to get married or various other perspectives.

      I can't speak to the feelings of a gay male, but I think the marriage equality movement has involved a lot of homogenization that made me uncomfortable. Queer people are "just like you," mainstream person... We just want the white picket fence, etc. We're just queer because we don't have a choice.

      A lot of that stuff is weird from where I'm standing. I'm not monogamous. I'm not comfortably in any label or identity. There is a way in which I do have a choice, because I can choose to be with more socially acceptable partners (I have enough attraction to men for that). But I don't seem to be happy that way... I just think a lot of what got popularized around this movement flattened queerness and packaged it neatly, and I appreciate the complication of the way Untangling the Knot discusses things.

  3. Thanks for reminding me to read The Tattered Heiress! It's one of those things i've been meaning to do, so now I've ordered it. I liked the first one in the series, Of White Snakes and Misshaped Owls (rather too obscure a title, I think), and reviewed it. Debra and I have been friends and colleagues for many years, and hang out from time to time. I've heard wonderful things about All the Birds in the Sky, too, and definitely want to read it. I should take the summer off from writing (or pretending to write) and get some reading done.

    1. agreed on the obscurity of white snakes as a title. I read and liked it, but when I tried to tell people about it I couldn't remember what it was called!

      I thought The Tattered Heiress was a more satisfying read. It was more substantial and had more room for plot and characterization.

  4. I reviewed that first Charlotte Olmes mystery too, and I noticed that The Tattered Heiress has been nominated for a Golden Crown award. That's high on my list of books to be read when I have a spare moment.

  5. I would like to read Untangling the Knot as well. As a refugee from a heterosexual marriage that was uncomfortable and scary, I became one of those who wanted same-sex relationships to be out of reach of legal restrictions and conventional assumptions. Marriage (like prison) was not something I ever wanted to enter again. In the past, same-sex relationships were simply invisible to the government, the law, employers, and all other authorities. This meant that two men or two women who had lived together for 60 years were considered "single," and any private agreements between them were no one else's business. Then something started happening (at least in Canada): all levels of government began treating long-term same-sex couples as "married" for the purpose of denying tax deductions and even unemployment benefits, even though none of us could claim any of the benefits of legal marriage. (Crucially, the partner of someone who needed emergency medical care or who was dying could be kept away by the blood relatives, even if they had disowned the sick/injured gay person years before.) This situation was scarier than marriage! This is why I changed my mind and eventually tied the knot. I'm sure some other gay people are still not convinced that marriage is ever in our interests (& I'm not sure if there is a gender gap in the pro vs. anti same-sex marriage debate).

    1. The changes you describe sound really disconcerting and cruel. Untangling the Knot definitely discusses situations like this, and the ambivalence they bring out.

  6. What you say about the Debra Hyde book was a recent topic on the ERWA Writers list. People complaining that self-published material is often put out there either poorly edited or maybe not edited at all. A good editor is indispensable. Like Lisabet!

    And the Lahiri book just made it to my TBR. Thanks for that, Annabeth

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Debra's book isn't self-published, but I think problems with editing dog certain ebook publishers and small presses as well.

      I loved the Lahiri book! I hope you do, too!

  7. Debra's book isn't self published, but yes. I've noticed the problems. It's published by Riverdale Avenue Books, a New York press of fairly recent origin (maybe five years at this point) headed by an agent/editor who used to be involved with Ravenous Romance. Cecilia Tan publishes with them sometimes, too, but I haven't been impressed by the editing.

    1. Ravenous was notorious for terrible editing.

    2. Agreed on both counts. I picked up one (printed) book published by Riverdale Ave and saw serious formatting errors while flipping through it quickly to see how long it was. They publish a lot of great writing, so I'm sad about how this might be hurting them and their authors.

      I loved Juliet Takes a Breath, for example, which is a queer YA novel out from Riverdale, but it, too, needed better editing.


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