Review: LOVE STARVED by Kate Fierro

Love Starved by Kate Fierro (April 21, 2015); 304 pages.  Available from Interlude Press here .

I’m coming a little late to the reviewing party, since this book came out almost exactly a year ago, but perhaps it’s good timing, to be writing about this story when the initial flurry of reviews has quieted a bit.

It’s hard to say to which main character in this book the title refers—they both seem a bit “love starved.” Micah is a busy, successful writer and “information security” guy who’s alone because he’s sworn himself into it after a too-long bad relationship and subsequent breakup with a Class A controlling jerk.  He’s given the card of an escort called Angel, whose performance involves romance and attentiveness and things that feel like real dates (and, oh, by the way, really expert sex); in loneliness, Micah calls Angel. The two have some “dates,” or “encounters,” or whatever scare-quoted euphemisms might convey that they go out and they stay in and do kissing things together during which Micah’s head almost twists itself off from how lovely it is to be treated with such kind and caring attention.

But Angel keeps mysteriously cancelling on him, or running out at the smallest chirp of a text message, and everything festers awful when Angel can’t keep up the glossy veneer anymore and his body—quite literally—breaks down in front of Micah.

Angel needs rescuing, and Micah wants to rescue. But things can’t rest easy like that—the days of princesses in towers are over (if they ever were even under), and chivalry didn’t die so much as it got rejected for being rather imbalanced, power-wise. The story would be pretty damn disappointing if Micah were welcomed to swoop in, fix everything, and carry Angel off on his shoulder.

Instead, what happens is a more careful attempt at recognizing someone’s humanity, a negotiation in which both players have a say: not a rescue, but an offered hand-up and the choice to take it or not.  And afterward, there’s a rather messy mess to sort through. This is the loveliness of this story: it seems fully conscious of the path we expect it to take (because all love stories take that path, depending on a rescue and chivalry and the rejection of one form of prostitution for what usually resembles another… and if you can stand the gagging and irritation, you can re-watch Pretty Woman for evidence) and does not take that path.

I’m trying not to say too much about the plot here—except that it’s compelling, a path down which one races to discover what’s at its end.  The reader wants to do this, in part, because, in the best of ways, the story doesn’t fulfill expectations—it takes on the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope, but doesn’t become its servant. What I really want to talk about is how this all ends up, but I’m in a quandary, because doing so requires either that I give away the plot or do some fancy footwork to avoid that and still say what I mean to say.

I’m going to try the footwork, though I’m a pretty terrible dancer and I walk with a cane. Let’s watch me try:

The final chapter of this novel jumps ahead a bit in time, after the plot seems to have resolved itself, and lands in a pretty clichéd place. But then I kept reading, and it turned out not to be the place I thought it was, and I was so relieved, and so happy that it wasn’t that clichéd place the plot hadn’t seemed to earn yet.

(Phoo, getting winded from all this tap-dancing… I’m going to have to sit in a moment.)

What I’m trying to say: there is what seems to be a deliberate disobedience of formula at the end of the story that I just adored. This, from a story that had all the elements to make a Pretty (Wo)Man cliché but chooses, instead, to work at realness (see what I’m getting at here? It’s like the plot itself: fantasy escort dates that become, with effort, real love).  The fantasy of love, as Micah learns, as we learn reading along, is way less satisfying than the flawed, sticky, banged-up and difficult real deal.

The fantasy is tempting, for sure (in this case, it’s promised through a flashy special-effects business card that changes to be what you want as you look at it and comes with a gentlemanly, attractive package wearing a sport coat and carrying roses).  But this story takes, at each turn, the harder path, the more genuine one—it takes off the sport coat, puts down the flowers, and revels in the imperfection of its characters. And that, to bastardize Frost, has made all the difference.

(OK. Now I’m going to fold up my walking cane and take a rest here for a spell, maybe watch some YouTube videos of good dancers.)


Review: The Better to Kiss You With by Michelle Osgood

The Better to Kiss You With by Michelle Osgood (April 21, 2016); 182 pages.  Available from Interlude Press here.

This is the story of Deanna, who works for a company that runs a werewolf role-playing game called “Wolf’s Run,” and who falls for her very sexy neighbor called Jamie, who turns out—in a weird coincidence–to be an actual werewolf.

Things get intense when Deanna gets stalked by a person on the Wolf’s Run message boards who claims to be an actual werewolf (they are EVRYWHERE!) angry about the portrayal of werewolves by the game. Deanna appeals for support to her best friend Nathan and—eventually—to Jamie, since the stalking becomes terrifying because, well, it’s STALKING.  Things escalate—there’s frighteningly bloody stalker photographs, and actual blood, and creepy leering orange eyes—and everything comes to a head at the annual role-playing competition hosted by Wolf’s Run.  It’s night, and there are hundreds of fans crowded into a small area, many of whom will be running around in the dark woods howling like wolves and trying to win a prize.  Crywolf, Deanna’s stalker, appears to be there, but slips into the crowd before Deanna can do anything about it and, well, you probably see a confrontation coming, and you’re probably on the right track (yes, that’s a wolf-on-a-scent-trail-joke… it’s probably lame because I don’t get many opportunities to make those).

This is a tense story—not only does it have the will-they-won’t-they-budding-romance appeal of a good love story, but it has this jarringly-thrilling other plotline about the wolf-guy stalking the girl-girl, like Gamergate, but with fangs. I read this in a couple large gulps, because I needed to know what was going to happen in both plotlines, and because it was just that kind of shivery fun.

It’s probably no secret by now that I balk at supernatural stuff; I may be the only 45-year-old American lesbian who wasn’t into Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  But this novel works so well for me, despite my anti-supernatural prejudice—mostly because the plot, the characters, the ideas, they all have lives outside of the supernatural thing.  (When I was an undergrad creative writing major at a…ahem… snobby private university with a kilt-wrapped theme and a Scottish founder… no names mentioned here, but the initials were CMU… we writing students were taught that “genre” stories were bad because they usually eschewed the fundamentals of good storytelling… not so this one, folks, so CMU can go fly a kite, which is more awful a wish than it sounds, because of the kilts and the wind.)  The world of this story is incredibly believable. The characters are people in whom you want to invest your faith and love (boy, did I love Nathan, the BBF (I don’t mean BFF, nor do I mean your clichéd Will & Grace GBF, but a BBF, a bi best friend with his own real life and personality)).  In fact, Nathan is a great example of why this novel works so well: werewolves, bi best friends, lesbian love interests… it all has the potential to become cliché, too easily dealt with, usable for the story’s purposes, but it just doesn’t.  This story doesn’t use its characters, but lets them be who they are, do what they will, even if it means that they grow fangs and fur.

The supernatural part is present, but it’s not the only important thing, and doesn’t dictate how you can read this story—you can read it because of the werewolves, the lesbians, the were-lesbians, or just the dang good storytelling.

REVIEW: Black Dust by Lynn Charles

Black Dust by Lynn Charles (April 7, 2016); 312 pages. Available from Interlude Pres here.

Black Dust by Lynn Charles tells the story of Emmett and Toby, who were high school sweethearts until a car crash left Emmet permanently disabled, their friend Scotty dead, and Toby wracked with guilt (he was driving, and made it out physically pretty ok).  Now, so many years later, Toby and Emmett have gone their separate ways and have made very separate lives, one in Ohio, one in New York. The story begins when they find each other again, and must heal their relationship (there’s still so much love there) and find a way to mourn their friend Scotty’s death.  To do that, they must confront their own culpability in his death, and in the death of their relationship—all of this comes to a head when Toby visits Emmett in Ohio, and must revisit the most painful territory of his entire life.

It’s a novel about chickens coming home to roost.  If I say “literally,” perhaps that isn’t correct—there are no broody barn birds here, even if a lot of the story happens in Ohio.  But Toby’s spent his life terrified to face Emmett (who, with his cane and his limp, is a constant reminder of the crash), the scene of the crash, and all the places Scotty’s ghost still haunts. Toby’s chicken to do so; he chickens out in earlier attempts—perhaps it’s correct to say this is a story about metaphorical chickens literally going home to roost.

But this is also a story of creation, and the labors that takes, the pain and the joy involved in making something.  Toby and Emmett are both musicians, and Toby has been hiding from the composition he began to write for Emmett. In pressing on to finish, to find the ways to determine the direction of the piece and resolve it, Toby’s finding a way to tell the emotional story of his love, the subsequent crash, of everything he lost.  It’s as beautiful a metaphor for healing as I’ve ever seen: healing oneself as a form of creation, as a creative act. I think that’s right.

Here, right here, is why I love this metaphor. Emmett and Toby have just begun to reacquaint and rekindle their once-love, and Toby has just let Emmett hear his still-in-scraps attempts at musically confronting their past.  Emmett says, “You have an outstanding love letter, Toby. The harmonies are rich, the rhythmic patterns you have going on—with just the piano—are amazing. But if you want to tell a love story, you have to include all of it.” What Toby needs to find, Emmett suggests, is the dissonance that will make this piece (and this story) complete, allow it to make sense. By avoiding the discomfort of dissonance, Toby is actually not allowing the piece to find resolution.

It strikes me as very right. What I love about the discomfort of, say, Stravinsky (a favorite composer of mine) is, yes, the boldness of bringing on discomfort, but also the relief of having that discomfort resolved, of this returning to “rightness.” That feeling would never happen without the discomfort first. This novel grabs that small truth and amplifies it, lets it run wild, lets it really be. What results is gut-wrenching discomfort and the relief and rightness of resolution, a beautiful story, and—at least on this reader’s part—quite a few tears and deep-heaved breaths of relief.




Fakakta Fix

After careful thought & a discussion that included all us authors, Interlude Press (publisher of my own novel SWEET & lots of other great books) has decided to show at the Asheville Zine Fest in NC; rather than boycott, they are RAISING $ FOR Equality North Carolina TO HELP OVERTURN the transphobic “bathroom bill” called HB2.

Here’s how you can help us:

Method 1: Book Junkie:  buy an IP book (or books!) either at the Asheville Zine Fest or online between 4/29 and 5/1, and IP will donate $1 to Equality North Carolina to help in their efforts to overturn HB2. May I suggest Sweet?  Of course, if you’re an awesome person, you probably already own 6 copies of Sweet, but there is a whole gorgeous catalog of fantastic LGBTQ+ fiction on the IP website.  (Or, if you ask, I can suggest some titles I really enjoyed reading…)

Method 2: Shy Prince-Style Donation Without Personal Gain (No Book-Hoarding):  you can donate directly to ENC by using the handy donation page at the Interlude Press web store starting today (no purchase necessary). OR you can link directly to Equality NC’s own donation page from IP’s website.

At the end of the day, kids, it really doesn’t matter how you make support happen, just that you do. This is extremely important to me–those of you who know me, or even those who’ve followed the stuff I post on The Tumblr, are probably quite aware of just how important I think transliberatory/transpositive politics/support is. Especially right now.

The trans and genderqueer folk we love–and even those we don’t know–need every bit of our support at this moment, when ignorant forces seem to be working hard to oppress, deny, humiliate and hurt them. The world those ignorant folks hope for is NOT a world in which I could live, nor is it a world in which many of my students, colleagues, neighbors and/or friends could survive.

Two-Fisting Lit

Currently, I’m two-fisting my novels.  (Ok, well, actually three-fisting, but that sounds wrong.)

Right now I’m reading THE BETTER TO KISS YOU WITH by Michelle Osgood (released TODAY!!), BLACK DUST by Lynn Charles and LOVE STARVED by Kate Fierro, all from Interlude Press.  I wish I had the time to slowly savor each one (summer’s coming, so I SHALL return…) but right now, it’s book bingeing for me.  I will be posting some book reviews soon, but in the meantime…

I’d tell you to go get your own copies and race me, but I also am reading a crap-ton of stuff for teaching, plus am inclined to linger rather than to be speedy with books I love (I really HATED the speed reading techniques I used to teach because I ENJOY reading with sweet slowness), so it wouldn’t be much of a contest for you.

Better yet, run to the Interlude Press online store, grab copies of these great books for yourself, read, and then tell me what YOU think! I may not be speedy, gur, but I can DISCUSS books with great pleasure!

Dear HuffPost Twitter…

I’d like respectfully to suggest that you stop posting stories (2 within hours of each other today!) about women who find “cute” ways to announce the “gender” of the babies they are expecting to birth.

It strikes me as pretty hypocritical, given than your off-shoot, HuffPostQueer, is simultaneously posting articles about various assaults on personal safety and dignity (they’ve been called “bathroom bills”) at the very same moment you are celebrating heterosexual families (at least the ones in the articles today) who find “fun” ways to announce (declare) the sex of their in-utero baby.

This kind of cis-privilege is hurtful to those of us who grew up trans or gender nonconforming or otherwise queer. It celebrates the very moment when parents declare to the world the sets of expectations they intend to put on their child–and the sets of expectations they condone the world using as well–until that child is old enough or brave enough or strong enough (or, might I remind you, not-dead enough) to make a self-crafted declaration about gender.

I might also remind you that many people who study and teach this stuff (people like me) find an important difference between the terms “sex” and “gender”.  While the assumptions we make regarding “sex” are flawed enough (“sex” intends to refer to biological condition, which is never as clear or as neat as we like to pretend), it’s extremely myopic to assume you can assess someone’s gender by knowing what sex they were assigned at birth (“gender” is used to refer to “the significance a sexed body assumes” in culture, according to scholar Judith Butler–essentially, it refers to the expression of a sex in the world, but doesn’t have to correspond to the assigned “sex”).  This disjunction between sex-assigned-at-birth and lived gender (whether or not it is publicly expressed) can be the source of so much pain and suffering and difficulty for folks when they are not supported by family and community.  Why are you celebrating parents-to-be who seem to be declaring that they aren’t able or willing to make an effort to support or understand their own kids?

I should also point out that the disjunction between one’s assigned-at-birth sex and one’s lived gender can also be the source of much joy, love, creativity and political motivation… especially when someone is supported in their efforts and thinking.

I was raised the child of two language teachers. English grammar was sutured into my bones from a young age. If I, at middle age, can adopt “they” as a personal, singular pronoun out of respect for a person’s desire to define the way in which they might be referenced in language, certainly the Huffington Post can get with the program to (1) learn the difference between sex and gender and (2) stop celebrating what is often felt as a misgendering at the least, and very often an act of insensitivity or hostility towards gender non-conforming and non-heteronormative folk of all sorts.

When the couple filled cupcakes with blue icing in order to announce that they were expecting a boy, they were announcing their expectations for that child before that child was even in the world. “Expecting” is right.

Also, as a little aside from me to you: before WWI, the meanings of the colors pink and blue were reversed from what we assign them now: pink was for boys, because it was a version of red, which is considered a “stronger” color than blue (which, in its softness, was assigned to girls).  So the only thing those cupcakes could mean reliably is… sweetness.

Oops. Sorry, cupcake parents. If it’s a boy, he won’t be sweet. He will be really masculine and tough and intelligent and a thinker not a feeler. That crap is for girls. You shouldn’t have filled that cupcake with blue icing, you should have filled it with snails and puppy dog tails and the tears of a thousand conquered enemies. And a much higher salary.

Writer to writer: Dale Cameron Lowry Interviews Moi

Heyyyyyy, kids! Dale Cameron Lowry (author, most recently, anthologized in SIMMER from Dreamspinner Press: ) just posted a really lovely interview with me in which I manage to be simultaneously brilliant, insightful, lovely and funny.  Go! And check out the website, too!

Soft! What Lies Through Yonder Window Break?

Ok, so I’m effing with Shakespeare, but I feel I’m justified.

The Huffington Post online Twitter recently tweeted (twat? twoted? twore?) a link to an article about a man who was ejected from his seat on an airplane because he was too fat and the person next to him was uncomfortable.

I have never heard of this happening to a very tall person whose knees were digging into the back of the person in front of him. I have never seen the airline refuse to allow a person who uses a wheelchair to use a wheelchair to get onto the plane.

Furthermore, the tweeted reactions to this story were also incredibly fat-phobic and blaming.  Cf, the bile below:

@DonnaforValues wrote: “Pushing 400 pounds, that is a disgrace to allow himself to become that size, how could people around him be comfortable??”

@JDrewCampbell simply tweeted “Good”

I can’t even bring myself to quote any more of this stupidity, though there was certainly plenty of it.

One person tweeted that the man should have bought two seats.  Imagine saying this about a person of color whose ethnicity made the bigot next to her uncomfortable: “Hey, lady, sorry that guy called you a racist slur and said that you smell weird and refused to sit next to you, but what you should do is pay DOUBLE what everyone else paid for a ticket so you can have the row to yourself and the racist asshat won’t have to sit next to you, and therefore won’t make such a fuss.  Everybody’s happy!”

I’ve scrunched uncomfortably in on myself because the drunk dude next to me hogged the armrest and talked loudly to his companion about crap that burned my ears with its ugliness. I’ve sat in front of a child who threw a screaming fit and kicked my seat for 2 hours because he was scared or his ears hurt or something (kid, I totally empathize). I even sat on a plane in which FIVE ROWS of passengers (me included) were disallowed eating peanuts because someone in one of the rows was highly allergic to peanuts.

Let me emphasize this: I was denied my right to free airline peanuts because somebody near me was allergic to them.

There are so many points I’d like to make in response to the gross, hateful ugliness that people felt free to post in response to the story of a Fat Man, but I’ll limit myself to two here:

You believe your bigotry is acceptable because (a) it is against a fat person and not a worthy thin person who “can’t help” being Black or a little kid who “can’t help” being scared and (b) your bigotry is socially condoned.

Regarding (a): American culture assumes a kind of moral failing in the fat person that few (outside of certain American religions regarding “sons of Ham” and religious AND non-religious misogyny/homophobia) allow regarding other aspects of identity. Not only do we assume that a fat person has no self-control and believe we fully understand the reasons for that person’s body’s shape, but we assume a kind of moral hierarchy (self-control = superior to gluttony, for instance, or thin=superior to fat).

Our logic, then, is flawed on several counts. It reminds me, too, of the hostile turn-of-the-previous-century cartoons depicting women in hoop skirts as space-hogging, aggressive, selfish witches, forcing men off the sidewalk to make way for their fashion apparatuses.

But it’s morally justified to hate fat people for taking up too much public space (or to hate women whose voices are too strident, or gays who insist on “flaunting” their sexuality in public (I had an advisor in PhD school who leveled this criticism at me when my wife hugged and kissed me after I passed my oral exams)). Meanwhile, I am a bad person if I don’t like the way peoples’ children take up physical, aural and psychic space in public (or the way they smugly look at me, waiting for me to exclaim how cute their kid is, when the kid says/does something precocious), or the way middle-class white suburbanites insist on having a baseball team’s worth of kids and then driving a gas-guzzling giant car to transport them all, or the way most bookstores allotted an entire aisle for wedding books long before marriage was legal for all of us.  Public space, in other words, is not really for the public—it’s for the anointed few. And those few get to be irritated with the rest of us for daring to use it (or pee in public restrooms, ahem).

Regarding (b): Though bigotry CERTAINLY still runs rampant (visit a Trump rally or a college class for proof) against identities marked by a certain ethnicity, social class, gender, sexuality, immigration status, or other factor assigned a “value” in our culture, few of these bigotries are socially-condoned on such a wide scale that DOCTORS feel safe in perpetrating it upon their patients (“your skin is so dark… have you tried bleaching it?” or “Your penis is so small, have you thought about an operation to make it bigger?” or “You’re kind of ugly… have you considered plastic surgery?”). It would not be acceptable for a newscaster to blatantly state how disgusting he finds a certain ethnicity (though I am certain it happens), or for a public US airline to force women to sit in a special section because they make the male passengers uncomfortable. It would not be acceptable for Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow to make a film mocking, say, paraplegic people and for Paltrow to then defend this choice in the press by saying, “But [being paraplegic is] unhealthy!”

Though as a disabled person, I’m often dismayed by how disabled bodies are used in film and advertising (or not shown at all), I would press to say that this kind of cultural hate is far less widely-condoned and accepted than is the hate and ignorance concerning bodies deemed too fat. If the kind of vitriol I saw in the comments of the HuffPost tweet were spat at a disability, a gender, a social class or even a sexuality, there would be public blowback, and the publishing entity probably would have responded now.

Look, it’s not a competition. Hate is hate, and it all is awful for the individual and group against which it’s leveled, and the culture that allows it. I don’t write this to compare depths of suffering, but simply to link this widely-accepted bigotry to other, less-accepted bigotry in order to make the point that it IS bigotry and it should be unacceptable.  Studies have shown unequivocally that fat people are more often denied jobs for which they are qualified than are skinny folk, and as a group earn less money than skinny people (short people earn less than tall folk, too). Fat people are more often denied competent, thorough healthcare, no matter their ability to pay. Fat people are rarely represented in advertising, film, television and the plastic arts except as the butt of a joke or as a bad example/warning or as a go-to metaphor for greed, selfishness or gluttony (hello, have you seen Wall-E?).

Imagine if we lived in a culture in which we routinely assumed all men of a certain ethnicity were more likely to be criminals or rapists. Imagine if we always assumed that poverty indicated a personal flaw. Imagine if everyone of a certain ethnicity was forced to shop at a special store that carried clothes for “non-whiteds,” and could not buy clothes at a mainstream store. Imagine if we assumed that women who get raped must have been “asking for it,” or that transwomen are men in dresses wanting to sneak into women’s bathrooms so that they can rape women. (Rape is horrifying when it’s transwomen raping (not ONE reported case, mind you), but totally fine when it’s cis-gendered frat boys or Catholic priests, apparently.) Imagine if we assumed that women are lesbians because they are man-haters or all gay men are confused and want to be women.

Wait. What? We do? Oh. Huh. I assume you think that’s pretty wrong. Then it should be really easy to understand the point I’m making here.