Diva Reviews I

Jean Swallow
Spinster's Ink

There is an Editor's Note at the start of A Woman Determined that the author of this book, originally entitled A Cure For Bitterness, was 'not convinced that it worked'. The book has been edited and published posthumously, as Swallow committed suicide aged 42 in 1995. In addition a Note to the Reader informs us that this is a piece of fiction, 'although the author hopes you believe the events recorded actually happened'.

And it is utterly believeable. The book is a series of interviews by an unnamed journalist - intended as part of a series to exalt the lesbians who built community institutions - with two women, Margaret Donovan, founder and administrator of a women's health clinic in Seattle, and her attorney, Laura Gilbert.

Donovan is intitially reluctant to participate, angry at old rumours that she was involved with her ex-lover's embezzlement of a hefty amount of the clinic's funds. On the day she uncovered this impropriety, her knee was smashed to smithereens by a car driven by a plastic surgeon. A double-edged sword of acrimony and injustice then carves its way through her life, incising Gilbert, hired to fight for Donovan's compensation, in the process.

A Woman Determined shines a 100w light on the inequity of the American legal system. It also reveals a heap of truisms and a myriad of contradictions within lesbian society, a place where lesbians 'want so much from each other, a sanctuary, that we can't bear the slightest disappointment'. For a book written entirely in a first person narrative of two very different women connected by an extradorinary sequence of events, it is a remarkable tome. And Swallow was wrong. It works.

© Megan Radclyffe 1995-2001

Edited by Nicola Godwin, Belinda Hollows & Sheridan Nye

I really thought I would hate "Assaults On Convention" with a passion usually only reserved for expensive academic claptrap. Oh how wrong I was. This exploration of "lesbian misbehavour" is not only a timely tome but an unpretentious one as well. There is some fancy talk in the Introduction - stuff about needing to "periodically reassess and question our most fundamental values" - but the rest is just an eminently easy read. It ably tempers debate about lesbians having sex with men, selling sex, women boxers, the "post-modern" lesbian and spiritual breakthrough amongst other subjects.

You might be tempted to skip the chapters on the phenomena of the Cyberdyke (which - rather like the Internet itself - remains largely an inaccesible part of an advancing technology dominated by male concerns) and the umpteenth appraisal of why on earth Aileen Wournos killed seven men. Well don't. And don't flick past the opening chapter on "Lesbians and the Functions of Fandom" either. Godwin's piece on "mature, responsible women compelled by guileless ardour" is a delight.

One surprise is Valerie Mason John's article on anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating. It's quite rare to see pieces about fat lesbians and John (despite saying that those who "dared to challenge society" by being fat are "no longer desirable") has submitted an interesting and affirming essay.

Worth marking for attention is Belinda Hollows' piece "Private Hell" concerning domestic violence - another subject usually swept under the carpet. Mixing personal experiences with well researched psychological profiles, she presents a reasoned and logical case which might hopefully fuel a wider discussion of the issue - and about time too. "Assaults on Convention" contains a relatively decent level of introspection that isn't patronising. A three hundred word review would not give it the justice it deserves. It comes strongly recommended.

© Megan Radclyffe 1995-2001

Edited by Julia Penelope
Crossing Press

There is a chapter in "Out Of The Closet" that, above all others, describes the fundamental differences between the middle class and the common thread that binds the authors here. Turn to page 161 and read the letter by Lee Evans. Then carry on. Even if you're just hanging around in Waterstone's or Dillon's, pick the book up and read those ten pages. Evans succinctly but passionately puts the whole ideology of class war to shame.

It doesn't mean you don't have to read the rest of the heavily-scripted 471 pages. The stories of working (and middle) class dykes in "Amerika" are both captivating and terrifically emotional. From pink-haired Alien Nation's tale of eviction, through Merril Mushroom's "Camaraderie of the Toothless" and Terri de la Peña's "Case of the Lopsided Tortilla" to Nett Hart's "New! Improved! Classless Society", the narratives and theoretical writings are a powerful analysis of self-worth and ability.

One woman queries where the definition of "poor" ends and "Jewish immigrant" starts. Another tells of hiding her father's whiskey bottle and pills. They talk of poverty allowing no privacy for disagreements, of social class being constructed "like Spam", of beatings by their mother.
Dykes seem to make it their life's work to argue the toss about class: only lesbians can throw middle class privilege back in your face with the same effect as being doused with a bucket of scalding water. Some of the contributors are obviously pissed off with the ignorance and blatant classism they have encountered; others are more philosophical and turn that idiocy back on the perpetrators, while a few write from a "guilt-ridden... apologetic and defensive" middle-class standpoint. The essays reek of an indignation and confusion that is borne out in pride and tenacity.

I found myself tremendously angered and equally distraught reading the continual phobic response to and betrayal of these women by Government, organisations and individuals alike. In all, it makes for quite an astounding barometer of attitudes from those whose passion is finding alternative words to "poverty class" to those who criticise the "Life Isn't Fair" belief system. A "centrality of kin" is displayed - despite the cross-section of class and racial backgrounds - that means "Out Of The Closet" is certainly not a book to be read in a few sittings. Your sensibilties cannot help but be smashed to pieces by the absolute candour and intensity of it all.

© Megan Radclyffe 1995-2001

Chris Savage King
Pulp Books

So this is contemporary London - a forbidding and ultimately affecting place - seen by an author whose previous work has been described by The Guardian as 'raunchy, nasty and fucked up.' I assume that's a plaudit or Savage King's writing has ripened because Do What You Want is a truly peachy read.

Concentrating on the core members of a circle of ambitious friends, Savage King weaves a complex tapestry of events. So complicated, I offer a quick guide to save you feeling, like one of the main protagonists, that 'the world has gone mad and she'd been left out'. Jonathan, a thrusting, thriving city dealer, had a fling with Daniel, a gay tour guide recently returned from Rome, but Daniel doesn't know about Patti, Jonathan's new conquest. Maxine lives with Lydia - an artist and a singer - (no, they're not) who work part time at a victually experimental tofu-based café. Maxine fancies Robert, an architect, whom she met at a party held by Jonathan's Aunt and Uncle, Claire and Anthony, the latter who had abused Jonathan as a child. Deanna, a lesbian food consultant, has just dumped Paula, is feverish for Consuela, and has to fight off Claire and Boo Radley, a young 'niece' with no idea of lesbian etiquette. Is that everyone? Well no. There are peripheral characters who drift in and out, but everyone, absolutely everyone, scrambles around each other 'living on fear'.

What I adored about the book was Savage King's power of description. Her view of London's art world, full of Damien Hurst style wreckage, is acerbic and incisive, and her perception of lesbian lifestyle is irreproachable. I particularly liked her parodies of a lesbian-feminist direct action group and her panorama of Maxine's exhibition debut: the characters take themselves rather too seriously, and Savage King's illustrations reveal the futility of this. I wasn't looking forward to reading a tale of arty young London folk, but found Savage King's first novel mightily impressive.

© Megan Radclyffe 1995-2001

An Interactive Workbook And Guide To A Loving Lesbian Relationship
Gwen Leonhard, M.Ed & Jennie Mast, MSW, BCSW
Rising Tide Press

Our home lacks feathers. It lacks carpet, heating and a washing machine at the moment as we've just moved house, but I digress. My relationship with Jane (2 years and 4 months) needed ruffling a bit, so we opened Feathering Your Nest to see if it really could 'rekindle the romantic spark' and show us 'how to enhance sexual desire'. We both have desire: we just don't have the time or the energy.

The book is designed to 'assist lesbian couples who want a long-lasting, secure relationship', It is not designed to be 'put away to collect dust'. As the author says: 'Making the commitment work is not job for wimps!' She continues: 'Did you notice the words "job" and "work" were mentioned in the last sentence? That's right!' and I found myself 27 years younger, sitting cross-legged in front of my primary school teacher.

It took us a week to find time to start making 'a warm, sweet nest filled not only with love and devotion, but also with fun and excitement.' Does that give you goosebumps? Yes, it scared the shit out of me too. Exercise 1 (of 41) was simple: Do you like to cook? Are you generous? Are you critical of your lover? Thrice yes with an apology to my lover for the last one. Yay - it's working!
We trundled on, filled in each other's interests, compared our memories of our first meeting, defined the terms of our commitment (yes, we expect each other to be sexually faithful, and yes, former lovers are welcome in our circle) and then we hit Exercise 5, Trust. I marked 'No' to one question and was informed, 'Your relationship could be in serious trouble... Seek professional counselling.'

Moving right along. We skipped the 'Pledge Of Commitment' ('You might write something like "I join you in life to enhance your existence"') and established some traditions (we haven't got a porch to have coffee on, and anyway I don't drink coffee) and sorted out the household chores. The washing up's still in the bowl, but we know whose responsibility it is. We called each other loyal, kind and creative. We compared our backgrounds (she's thin, I'm fat, she's got buckets of qualifications, I haven't etc), and we 'generated goals' together because 'There Must Be Laughter! There Must Be Dreams!' And then, the chapter on Fighting Honourably loomed before us.

We're quite good at fighting. We've done a lot over the past year, and although very experienced at it, it never gets us anywhere. Heartened by the realisation that, 'You will not always agree with one another. What a refreshing thought!' we tried to 'laugh about the ludicrous nature' of our rows and tried to confront anger squarely, knowing it would 'fester and get real nasty' otherwise. The authors suggest that, should one partner have left an empty milk carton in the fridge, she should say, 'I mustn't have been thinking. Sorry for my inconsiderateness. I'm really sorry and I promise that I'll be more conscious of leaving empty containers in the future.' What it didn't say was whether she was supposed to be licking boots or simply on her knees. The 10 Rules For The Honourable Fight seemed fair enough ('Keep your arguments focused, never fling out insulting tags, offer solutions...') and tried to keep it in mind that 'Harmony And Love Lead To Shorter Arguments'.

Finally, we tried to 'Fan The Flames Of Romance' flipping through the 50 Expressions Of Love. We rejected wiping each other's genital area with a warm (not hot) cloth after sex, and skipped over singing to each other but we forged a few ideas. I must remember to be attractive for my woman. Can't physically achieve it, but I'll bear it in mind.

Feathering Your Nest didn't really tell us anything we didn't already know and although it wasn't exactly fun (especially having to trawl through some of those peculiarly American didactics) it did lead to some nice memories and some compromises. The book may end up covered in dust, but we realised in the end that yes, There Is No Warmer Feeling Than Coming Home To A Feathered Nest, and it has bugger all to do with warm cloths.

© Megan Radclyffe 1995-2001

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