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Book Reviews

Table of Contents

Nonfiction

Being, Being Happy, Being Gay
Bisexual Resource Guide 2000
Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics
Blue Windows: A Christian Science Childhood
Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza
The Cancer Journals
Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About
Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay & Lesbian Russia
Out of the Blue: Russia’s Hidden Gay Literature. An Anthology


Review: Being, Being Happy, Being Gay: Pathways to a Rewarding Life for Lesbians and Gay Men

Being, Being Happy, Being Gay: Pathways to a Rewarding Life for Lesbians and Gay Men

Author: Bert Herrman
Publisher: San Francisco, CA : Alamo Square Press, 1990
125 p., illus.

This little volume follows a familiar format for self-help books, with chapters on various topics that pair observations from the psychologist author with case anecdotes from clients. In this instance, the author is gay and his clients gay or lesbian, but the focus of the book is universal: the path to achieving self-actualization, or one’s own unique version of a satisfying life.

The book begins with an introduction to the psychology of being and ends with a series of steps the reader can take to lay the groundwork for discovering his or her full potential. The chapters constituting the body of the book discuss the divergent paths one can take towards this goal, covering everything from Christianity and other religions to secular philosophies and community volunteer work.

Though it is not the only self-help book to use the perspective of Jung and other humanistic psychologists to meet the challenges of gay life, this book is unique in its non-technical approach that combines religious, psychological, and occasional New Age insights. While the clients introduced along with the presentation of the different topics lack diversity — most are male, professional, and middle or upper-middle class — the issue of finding meaning in one’s life has no social boundaries, so this book remains widely accessible. For someone just coming out and wondering what kind of life s/he can lead or for a gay man or lesbian looking to “find” him/herself, this book offers hopeful direction.

- Elizabeth G. Bridges 01/11/1999


Review: Bisexual Resource Guide 2000

Bisexual Resource Guide 2000

Editor: Robin Ochs
Publisher: Cambridge, MA : Bisexual Resource Center, 1999
303 p., illus.

As much as “bisexual chic” has done to convince people that bisexuality is cool, and even common, there does not seem to be an easy way to actually meet and talk to others who are bisexual. It is equally difficult to find bisexual people represented in books and movies.

The Bisexual Resource Guide attempts to change this by collecting, in one space, over 300 pages of places a bisexual person might turn to find other bisexuals. Short on theory but full of puns (by-lines become bi-lines and there is a Bi-bliography), the Guide is thorough. While the essay “What is Bisexuality” is much too short to be helpful at all, “How to Start a Bisexual Support Group” presents many useful practical tips. By far (bi far?) the most helpful section is “Bi the Book” — an annotated bibliography of fiction and non-fiction books, chapters, and articles which have something to do with bisexuality. There are books which discuss bisexuality, books which focus on bisexual characters, even books which include bisexuality in a minor way. This bibliography not only lists them, but also gives you a quick idea what each book is about.

Also included in the Guide are: a list of internet resources, a short list of “notable” films with bisexual characters, and a lengthy directory of bisexual and bi-inclusive groups around the world.

The Guide is not a thrilling read; if you are doing research on bisexuality, it couldn’t possibly be the only entry on your bibliography. However, it is a good starting point for any of your bisexual-related needs, be they social contact, political activism, scholarly research, or movie rentals.

- Lisa Keele 04/07/1999


Review: Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics

Bisexuality and the Challenge to Lesbian Politics

Author: Paula C. Rust
Publisher: New York, NY : New York University Press, 1995.
367 p., illus.

Readers who expect an analysis of gender and the fluidity of sexual orientation will be disappointed by this book. Instead of tackling the complexities of relationships between lesbian and bisexual women, it defaults to repeating old stereotypes.

One gets the impression that most lesbians are bitter viragos, suspicious of women who have any dealings with men, while bisexual women are either lesbians who can’t commit, or straight women who are “experimenting.” The comments from the interviewees often illustrate the negative extremes–between the “man-hating” lesbians and the angry bisexuals who feel unwelcome among the gay and straight community. There are very few comments from lesbians who feel neutral or positive towards bisexuals, and even the author characterizes bisexuals as apolitical, flighty, and promiscuous. There is very little analysis of “label vs. behavior,” i.e., do self-identified lesbians sleep with men? Can one say they’re a bisexual if they’ve never had a same-sex experience? As attitudes and behaviors do not always correlate, the sample might have been skewed by simply relying on self-reported beliefs rather than an investigation into actual sexual practices and emotional affiliation. The old argument that “feminism is the belief, lesbianism is the practice” is also repeated here, with many lesbians quoted as saying that destruction of heterosexual relations is necessary for true liberation, while bisexual feminists say that freedom also includes the right to love regardless of gender.

While this book makes an attempt at balancing, the sheer number of negative quotes and sterotypes overwhelm the author’s periodic statements that things aren’t all that bad. The occasional happy story is included, but the lasting impression is that of enourmous hostility towards bisexuals among the gay community. Perhaps the author was honestly reporting what she found in her 470 interviews, but her sample may also only represent the true extremes, and not everyday lesbian and bisexual (and heterosexual) women who relate to one another with few problems.

- Laura Taflinger 02/02/1998


Review: Blue Windows: A Christian Science Childhood

Blue Windows: A Christian Science Childhood

Author: Barbara Wilson
Publisher: New York, NY : Picador USA, 1997
344 p.

In junior high Barbara Wilson’s English teacher gave her class a daunting assignment: write your autobiography. Paralyzed by the concept of telling the truth about her family, unable then to write or even fully acknowledge her life as it existed, Wilson made up an imaginary family complete with a wildlife preserve in the backyard. Now, years later, Wilson has written a compelling autobiography full of truth and understanding.

I was pulled into Wilson’s narrative almost immediately. Her writing style is very friendly, comforting, as if she is just talking to you over coffee. I cared about her, wanted to see that all was resolved well, and to learn what it is she has to teach. She easily integrates her experiences as a Christian Scientist child with research and analysis she has done as an adult. The two are interwoven so well that the reader, even without any previous knowledge of Christian Science, begins to have an understanding of the theoretical and personal implications and meaning of this religion. Wilson’s point is that she cannot understand her history, her life, or who she is, without understanding Christian Science. (And by extension, that none of us can understand ourselves with out understanding and coming to terms with the contexts in which we were raised).

The most definitive episode of her pre-adolescent life (perhaps her entire childhood) is when she sees her mother, a devout believer in healing oneself through God, have a nervous breakdown, be diagnosed with breast cancer, try to kill herself by drinking Drano and be placed in a mental institution. Wilson’s life, understandably, is thrown into a tailspin. Having spent her entire life learning that evil does not exist, pain does not exist, and believing that a cut or sore will go away if you pray for it, she is now faced with a mother who is dying of visible and invisible sores. These events were impossible for Wilson to understand as a child with no one to talk to, and became more and more impossible to comprehend the further she drifted from her mother’s religion.

The second part of the book deals with Wilson’s life after her mother dies and her father re-marries a mentally and emotionally abusive alcoholic. She relates the humiliation and horror that she lived through, and the cost of surviving hell in a frozen emotional state. I read quickly through this part, simply wanting to know that eventually she would be “OK.” The interweaving of history, analysis and narrative are gone; this section relates the horrors of her adolescence in the manner one by one. But the solid strength and interweaving come back at the very end as Wilson connects with images of Medusa, and develops an understanding both of Christian Science and the notion of going mad as a means to comprehending her childhood. There is no sense that “all is well that ends well” but I do feel satisfied that finally, after much work, Barbara Wilson is again “OK.” And I learned at least some of what Wilson has to teach about the cost of feeling once you’ve been frozen, the value of sorrow, and understanding our families.

So, why, you ask, is this book in the GLBT Library? Wilson is a lesbian, and while her sexuality is not a major component of this autobiography, she certainly does not shy away from including childhood crushes on other girls, or the amazing healing impact her lesbian relationship has had on her life.

- Carmen Wargel 05/28/1998


Review: Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza

Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza

Author: Gloria Anzaldua
Publisher: San Francisco, CA : Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987
203 p.

This most influential book explores, performs, and exhibits the experience of living simultaneously in two places, cultures, languages, realities at once. Probing autobiographically into the mystical perceptions, strategic possibilities, sexual pleasures, and gender displacements of being a lesbian chicana or border person living and working in the anglo culture of the modern United States, Anzaldua brings assumptions about the rigidity of sex, gender, language, fiction, and identity into question. Mixing lyric and prose, myth and autobiography, spanish and english, past and present, Anzaldua crafts a collage which invites its reader to experience the clash of cultures, the uncertainty of position, and the wealth of alternative border people must contend with to live their lives. Because Borderlands undertakes an examination of a position which seems to undercut or defy most of the binaries–gender, race, class–of modern Western culture, its figure of the borderland was adopted by many feminist critics in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a way to bring such binaries into question and offer a site from which to begin to think a world differently organized.

- Judith Roof 04/30/1998


Review: The Cancer Journals

The Cancer Journals

Author: Audre Lorde
Publisher: San Francisco, CA : Aunt Lute Books, 1980
104 p.

In 1980, Audre Lorde copyrighted the book The Cancer Journals. The Cancer Journals chronicles Lorde’s battles with cancer, not just as a woman, but as a Black Lesbian feminist. Lorde believing that post-mastectomy women’s feelings need a voice in order to be recognized, repected and of use, breaks the silence giving voice to the anger, pain and fear that she felt about cancer. Lorde refers to silence as a tool of seperation and powerlessness. But through her voice she reclaims her power by speaking of the “travesty of prothesis, the pain of amputation, the function of cancer in a profit economy, her confrontation with mortality, the strength of women loving and the power and rewards of self-conscious living.”

This book is a powerful piece in which Lorde gives the reader a peek into her reality of being diagnosed with cancer by weaving excerpts of her personal journal throughout the book. In reading the excerpts from Lorde’s journal the reader rides the same roller coaster of emotions that Lorde rode. The reader feels the same sense of loss and emptiness that Lorde feels due to the discovery of cancer, and the physical and mental pain due to the loss of a breast. One feels the confusion she feels as she wonders why such a thing would happen to her. The reader experiences her astonishment as she realizes that the world has told women that a lost breast should be camouflaged and not talked about. The reader’s chest explodes in anger right along with Lorde when she realizes that the American Cancer Society is not as concerned with finding a cure as it is with treating the illness once it shows up. The reader senses the love and support that Lorde feels as the women in her life rally around her to help get her through this obstacle that obstructs her once clear path. Finally, the reader experiences Lorde’s triumph when she finally comes to terms with her own mortality and begins to live her life in a more self-conscious manner.

By taking the reader into the world of cancer and walking you through it step by step, Lorde helps the reader to gain a better understanding of what those who are cancerous may be going through. The book is not only informative, but gives one a ray of hope. The reader learns that despite the harshness of cancer, one can survive the experience and still live a full life. Audre Lorde sums it up best: those inflicted with cancer may “work with consciousness of death at their [my] shoulder…and it doesn’t matter whether death comes next week or thirty years from now this consciousness gives their [my] lives a new breadth.”

- Sheila Higgs 02/06/1998


Review: Chicana Lesbians

Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About

Editor: Carla Trujillo
Publisher: Berkeley, CA: Third World Press, 1991
202 p., illus.

Too often women are silenced by their culture. To be a woman and to be heard shows great strength, but add being Chicana and lesbian and having a voice is practically a miracle. However, the writers in this compilation of artwork, poems, reviews, and short stories show us that they have a very powerful voice and are willing to shout until we listen. Their stories are so engaging and real, even for those who have never been a triple minority, that not listening is impossible. They speak the universal and individual truths of being in love, growing up, loss, and coming to terms with their identies. Each piece of work gives the reader a glimpse into what being between worlds and cultures means to those who exist in the divide. We realize the basic similarity of experiences all women share as well as the compounded difficulties facing Chicana lesbians. Readers will be grateful these writers have reclaimed their voices.

- Rachel Greven 08/18/1998


Review: Cracks in the Iron Closet / Out of the Blue

Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay & Lesbian Russia
Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay & Lesbian Russia

Author: David Tuller
Publisher: Boston, MA: Faber & Faber, 1996
313 p.

Out of the Blue: Russia's Hidden Gay Leterature. An Anthology
Out of the Blue: Russia’s Hidden Gay Literature. An Anthology

Editor: Kevin Moss
Publisher: San Francisco, CA: Gay Sunshine Press, 1997
415 p., illus.

For generations, gay men and lesbians as well as other sexual minorities in Russia and the Soviet Union have received little scholarly attention. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and especially since the 1993 repeal of Article 121, the law against sodomy in the USSR, both scholarly and popular attention have increased. The two books reviewed here will permit even a non Russophile to acquire an understanding of the environment of our Russian counterparts.

David Tuller, a journalist based in San Francisco, in Cracks in the Iron Closet, combined his Russian heritage with his gay identity. I recommend this to non-specialists, who with Tuller’s smooth writing will see not only Russian gay and lesbian life, but a mirror reflecting one American’s gay identity as well.

Like most works in the travel genre, this one follows the author’s coming to terms with Russia and how this reflects his American experiences. Interestingly, many women people this narrative. Tuller’s “dacha life” (a dacha is similar to a summer cottage), which played a central role in the narrative, consisted of Ksyusha, Lena and Sveta, all women, and Vitya, who considered himself a lesbian in a man’s body. As the book progresses, this work delves deeply into Ksyusha and Tuller’s relationship. Tuller eventually overcame the rigidity of his own gay identity and tested the waters of romance with her, but by the end of the book, Kevin Gardner, Tuller’s American roommate in Moscow, says it best: “Hey, Dave, have you two gotten this over with and slept with each other yet?”

While Tuller hoped the work would be used by sociologists, his reliance on “national characteristics” will make it problematic for scholars. Tuller should be commended, however, for his bibliography, which includes (in English only) both general works and specific works, such as those of Simon Karlinsky, the intellectual father of the study of gay and lesbian Russia in the United States.

Professor Karlinsky played a large role in Out of the Blue, in which he not only wrote a concise and thorough review of Russian gay literature, but also translated many pieces. The title refers to the word “goluboi”, blue, which is used in Russian as slang for “gay man.” Unlike Tuller’s work, this work consists solely of work about men who have sex with men, although some of the characters, like “Misha the Beautiful”, do not consider themselves gay at all. Some of the works included in the anthology were written by “gay friendly” authors like Pushkin and are presented to illustrate attitudes toward gay men in nineteenth-century Russia. In addition to prose, poetry and a play, there are a few pieces of literary criticism as well as illustrations and photographs.

This anthology beautifully brings its readers directly into the world inhabited by the authors. Some of the people mentioned in Tuller’s work can be found in Out of the Blue, speaking for themselves. Also included are emigres, one of whom moved through China before coming to rest in Brazil. The insight here is diffierent, for most of these works were written for a reader within the Russian cultural sphere. Diaries offer particularly poignant witness to the lives these men led.

One of these diaries is among the most lyrical of the prose pieces: “Selections from [Ryurik] Ivnev’s Diaries.” His description of a couple meeting as a “patch of human happiness” and a longer description of a man getting picked up at two am on a (then) Leningrad street corner will be recognizable to urban Americans and powerful in its familiarity despite the difference in time — the piece was written in 1931 — and place. The quiet beauty of this selection should be experienced by anyone who appreciates writing which conveys powerful emotions without abundant trappings, and for its insight it will hopefully be added to Russian literature courses everywhere.

For those who desire access to the Russian gay press, but don’t know Russian, Kevin Moss has adeptly translated “Letters to the Editor” of two gay periodicals, Tema and 1/10, capturing their hopes, pride and anxieties, including tales of discovering one’s sexual side. Even those looking for delightfully written soft-core porn will find it in the later works, like “The Bench.”

However, this is not a text with which the poorly read will have an easy time. While some of the works are heavily footnoted, others are not explained at all. One footnote, very catily gives “Notes for the clueless” (p. 341): explaining “ghazel” (normally spelled “ghazal”) and “fakir”, noted as a “wonder worker.” Given the incorrect English spelling and the incorrect definition — a fakir means “poor” in Arabic, and has many meanings in Islamicate languages, including “commoner”, “poor man”, or “mystic” — I find it incomprehensible that the note’s author — the author? the editor? the translators? Okay, I’m clueless! — would be so disdainful. The note’s author, instead of giving spurious “Arabic” translations, could have explained just the Russian, where the spelling “gazel’” is correct and “fakir” is a synonym for “dervish,” commonly misunderstood as “miracle worker.”

In the end, whether you are interested in being an armchair traveler or entering into Russian gay male intellectual life, you can indulge your curiosity in these two works. Both are well worth the investment of time and money, providing dividends in cultural understanding of our old Cold War enemy.

- Vika Gardner



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