Tag Archives: book reviews

Review: The Right Side of History

cover of The Right Side of HIstoryAs I read The Right Side of History: 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism (Adrian Brooks, ed., published by Cleis Press) I vacillated between feeling like this collection is an important addition to the queer U.S. history canon and wishing that it could be just a little bit more. I found the pre-Stonewall chapters quite refreshing, something different from a lot of the histories I’ve read that tend to be either highly academic and theoretical in discussing gendered behavior and queer urban geographies, or tightly centered around the specifics of the 1950s-1970s gay and lesbian movements. Several of those books have a place in my heart, Martin Duberman’s Stonewall in particular, but I’m always in favor of a new twist, and the opening chapters of this book deliver.

The Right Side of History falls in between anthology and single-author work, with about a third of the chapters written by Brooks and other authors taking up one or two chapters each. The topics coalesce around the theme of 20th century queer activism in the U.S., but also vary quite a bit, discussing people as much as movements and wandering between major historical figures and the more obscure. I particularly liked how the pre-Stonewall section of the book focuses on topics you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a history of queer or gay activism: Isadora Duncan, Josephine Baker, the 1934 Longshoremen’s Strike. There are some great threads picked up here around how anarchism, socialism, labor movements, and racial justice movements contributed to the development not just of queer activism in the U.S. but of a culture in which queer activism takes place.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find that those threads were consistently followed through to modern history in this collection. The mishmash of personal stories, interviews, and more removed histories is enjoyable, and there were certainly chapters I appreciated about movements post-Stonewall—Merle Woo’s chapter was a highlight, as was the inclusion of a piece by intersex activist Tiger Howard Devore—but the later chapters for the most part fail to deliver on the radical promise of the book’s introduction. While I appreciated the framing of actions in the 1950s and 1960s as radical for their time, I don’t love the way the book sets up an arc from truly radical movements to the 1990s and 2000s gay nonprofit-industrial complex as if interviews with Barney Frank and Evan Wolfson are a natural conclusion to this activist story. While inclusion of authors of color and trans authors is certainly a welcome relief in such a collection, I found myself bothered by the fact that Miss Major Griffin-Gacy’s account of Stonewall is the only chapter that gets a sort of disclaimer and is followed by other witnesses’ memories of the event. Certainly, there are a lot of debates around the facts Stonewall, but was this really necessary?

Overall, I think the book is a worthwhile addition to the canon, and I love the way it ties together political and social history with cultural and artistic history, jumping among perspectives, but it could have gone further. I’d have loved to see interviews with Reina Gossett or CeCe McDonald, for example, rather than so many snippets from Brooks’ personal history.

Review: Show Yourself to Me

show yourself to me by xan west coverI can honestly say that I’ve never read an erotica collection like this before. To me, this book is to other pieces of BDSM erotica as the full, messy, grown-up experience of BDSM play and practice is to the overblown kinky erotica fairytales I read at thirteen in the early days of the Internet, about ravishment as romance and mysterious silent doms who could somehow know everything about their submissives without asking and effortlessly make them fly. As Annabeth Leong writes in the book’s introduction, “[Show Yourself to Me] is about knowing that BDSM really can make you fly, but remembering how sore your muscles may be afterward from the effort of pumping your wings.”

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Review: Blackmail, My Love

I’ll admit to some initial skepticism when Cleis Press asked me to review a murder mystery, Katie Gilmartin’s Blackmail, My Love. Mystery is far from my favorite genre, but I was intrigued by Gilmartin’s background as an artist and former cultural studies professor, as well as advanced press promising a deep understanding of post-war queer San Francisco. A well researched piece of fiction, to me, is often as alluring as my preferred non-fiction social histories, and this book was no exception.

I was particularly relieved to find a lack of anachronism in the book’s treatment of gender roles in lesbian as well as gay male subcultures, and further interested in the way Gilmartin treats a broad cast of gender non-conforming characters across the spectrum. Within the foreboding noir tone that frames a plot around blackmail and a murdered brother, there are surprisingly coherent philosophical discussions around trans identity versus drag performance, gender identity over the lifespan, and the relationships between queer community members that might otherwise never meet. I had trouble following all the characters at times, but I really enjoyed the way Gilmartin blends historical accuracy and realistic anti-queer sentiment with a perspective on queer culture that includes racial diversity and more nuance than some accounts of 1950s queer communities might suggest. Gilmartin’s narrative brings alive the voices of very real San Francisco queers forgotten to history in the form of her fictional characters.

Gilmartin will be reading from Blackmail, My Love this Thursday at Good Vibrations in Berkley, 6:30 pm.

Review: The Big Book of Submission

Released this summer from Cleis Press and edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel, one of my favorites, it admittedly took me a while to read and review The Big Book of Submission. Why? Well, it’s not really a book made for reading all in one sitting. With a mishmash of genders, D/s dynamics, and points of view, these 69 stories are perhaps best for grabbing on the go one at a time, skipping those that hit your triggers and flipping through for the stories that hit your own submissive buttons.

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Review: Gaysia

gaysia cover

[crossposted from Radically Queer]

When I recently received a copy of Benjamin Law’s Gaysia to review, I admit I was a bit skeptical, given the title. I needn’t have been worried, however. Law blends an accessible journalistic style familiar to fans of travel writing with solid research and investigation into various queer cultures in the countries he visits. Each chapter focuses on a country, and I was happy to find that despite the cheeky title, the coverage is quite comprehensive when it comes to queer identities and communities. Law focuses quite a bit on transfeminine folks of various identities, as well as queer people involved in sex work, silenced lesbians, and even the often-abused wives of MSM in a repressive society, showing a refreshing willingness to consider queer life from all angles. The account is honest, as Law admits his own ignorance going into some situations, and thus particularly accessible to the reader who is interested in but not particularly familiar with queer Asian cultures.  I was eager to ask Law some questions about his process and what he learned in his travels.

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Review: The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Sex Toys

I was delighted to find The Adventurous Couple’s Guide to Sex Toys in my mailbox from Cleis Press. This slim volume, edited by Violet Blue, promised to be a quick and fun read, and toys are quickly becoming an important part of the sex postive activist’s arsenal as more advocates focus on the importance of toy safety and finding sexual pleasure through technology. But does this book deliver on quality information?

Yes, more or less. Blue provides a range of information on toy options as well as safety information, communication advice, and ideas for newbies. This guide is firmly aimed at the beginner straight couple, though. Folks who live in urban areas and are comfortable talking about sex out loud can get any of the toy-specific information for free from their friendly local sex shop employee, or with a little research from reputable blogs. The communication advice is solid, but nothing particularly unique. This book would be best for folks who want to “spice it up” with a partner and prefer to get all the information in one place, in written form, where they can read it in private.

Though it’s not indicated in the title or any introductory clarification, this book is specifically for straight couples. Some of the advice could apply to queer folks, but that’s not the audience. The language pretty much ignores trans people in terms of pronoun use, and there’s no helpful information about toys trans people might especially enjoy or about how some people consider “toys” part of their body (for example, in a section on dildos Blue notes that you can give a “mock blowjob”).

Finally, I would have appreciated a little more information about specific toy recommendations for specific physical concerns or about what different people may prefer. A lot of the language is general, and while there are caveats such as “most people like,” the book could use even more information about specific sensation preferences and how they relate to toys. For example, folks who prefer very powerful, concentrated stimulation often enjoy the hitachi, but those who are looking for deep but less intensely focused buzz might prefer one of the higher end models that do a more “rumbly” pattern, like the Lelo.

Overall, a good resource for the target market, but regular readers of this blog who are already well versed in sexuality topics may want to give this one a pass.

This post was originally published on the blog Sex Positive Activism, which has now merged to become the sex & relationships section of Queer & Now.

Review: Best Sex Writing 2013

It’s time again!

Time, that is, for Best Sex Writing 2013, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel. This year’s anthology is just as good as the last one I reviewed, with another eclectic mix of journalist writing, memoir, and quirky pieces that are tough to categorize. This year’s volume covers topics from Jean Harlow to Tim Tebow, and features a number of the big names in sex as contributors–Madison Young, Patrick Califia, Julia Serano, Melissa Gira Grant, Carol Queen. It’s hard to sum up in a word, as the contents are so diverse, but I had a few favorite moments.

Carol Queen’s “Ghosts: All My Men Are Dead” is a must-read that is particularly poignant for me having gotten to know a little bit about Carol through the conference circuit. We owe this woman such a debt of gratitude as a sex-positive community, and this piece will slam into your heart as you read not only about the devastating effects of AIDS on San Francisco but about a much more complicated story with sexuality and identity at its heart. I’m reminded of a number of other essays I’ve read about San Francisco at the time, which taken together lead me to wonder what queer identity and art might have become if our communities hadn’t lost those particular people at that particular time.

Other pieces are gripping in a more humorous way. Seth Fischer writes “Notes from A Unicorn,” picking up on a surge of interest in bisexuality, and one of my favorite comments on queer identity comes from this piece:

The gay rights movement has been so successful because activists like Harvey Milk encouraged people to come out and tell the truth to their families, to their friends and to their coworkers, to be everything they were, to say “We’re here, we’re queer,” yes, but also, implicitly, to say, “We’re here, it’s complicated and probably it’d be good if we talked about this over tea.

While an amusing one-liner, it’s also a great summary of all my complicated feelings about the past decade’s emphasis on “coming out!” as a one-time defining moment in a queer person’s life. Embrace ambiguity, damnit. I also liked a comment from Ned Mayhem, on a similar note, discussing sexual subcultures in Rachel Swan’s polyamory piece “Sex by Numbers”:

Mayhem said that a lot of the people he meets in the so-called “sexual underground” are nerds in other parts of their lives–grad students, engineers, costume-party types, bookworms, live-action role players. They tend to be open-minded and well educated, but always a little to the left of what mainstream society would consider “sexy.”

Accurate! Can 2013 be the year of the sex nerd?

Finally, continuing on the nerdy theme, one of my favorite informative pieces in this anthology was Andy Isaacson’s long-form journalistic piece on the development of JimmyJane vibrators. The piece is very timely in a year of enthusiasm about high-quality, safe, environmentally friendly sex toys, and also just really interesting. It’s cool to think of vibrators as luxury goods on the scale of BMWs and stand mixers. I’m not really one for “normalizing” sex (keep sex weird!) but I found this piece rather appealing.

I’d recommend this anthology as a much more fun airplane or beach read than whatever else you were considering. Enjoy!

This post was originally published on the blog Sex Positive Activism, which has now merged to become the sex & relationships section of Queer & Now.

Review: Serving Him and Under Her Thumb

I have to confess that reading one of these two new books from Cleis Press made me more nervous than the other. Even with my objective reviewer hat on, trying to simply give you, the lovely reader, a peek into the world of an erotica anthology, I felt a bit antsy about reading Serving Him: Sexy Stories of Submission. Stories of cis women submitting to cis men are more likely to trigger me or make me uncomfortable than other things. But, trusting editor Rachel Kramer Bussel from her previous work, I decided to hold her literary hand and soldier on into this volume for the sake of comparison to the anthology I cover in the second half of this post.

Fortunately, author Lori Selke started me off easy with a story narrated by an eager female submissive and starting with a sexy blindfolded handfeeding scene. I love reading erotica where the enthusiastic consent of the players is obvious, and the playful tone of this story calmed my nerves quite a bit. “Never apologize for laughing,” the male dominant character says, “Even at me.” Good man.

The rest of the book delivers on this first story’s promise. I found almost all the stories scorchingly hot, and I particularly appreciated how much most of the stories connected the reader to the female submissive, offering an intimate look at these relationships and their motivations rather than a detached or cliched view of female submission. The women in these stories have a range of motivations from the girl who needs to run away and be caught to the girl asking her daddy to “play a game” to women who brazenly take what they need from their dominant partners. The dynamics also vary greatly, with female submission and desire being the only real constant among the narratives.

In my favorite story in this collection by Teresa Noelle Roberts, a dominant man challenges his girl’s notion of what D/s roles mean when he encourages her to penetrate him with a Feeldoe. It’s a gorgeously intimate take on a character’s confusion and ultimate desire to please, neatly subverting assumptions with some really hot porn. I also loved, despite some problematic elements (namely unsafe sex and a disregard for lube) Maxine Marsh’s story about a woman who “auditions” a potential partner through initiating a wrestling match. In the female character’s words, “I know how much I need, how much I want. I need to find someone who’s all right at this level. Someone who can bring me right to the edge. Someone who can love me while they’re hurting me.”

Switching gears, Under Her Thumb: Erotic Stories of Female Domination is the flip side of this coin, edited by D.L. King. I found this anthology absolutely delightful, showcasing the humanity of realistically-portrayed dominant women rather than relying on everyone’s favorite bitch goddess in heels that practically hobble her trope. This is another anthology that starts with a very strong first story, Andrea Zanin’s “Quiet,” and I love how the protagonist acknowledges this trope and the struggle of being a female dominant in public playspaces.

Tonight, she has been on display. This was not her intention. It doesn’t matter that she dressed up for her own pleasure [… ,] the public clubs are full of people who do not know what they are looking at. They are populated by men who see only their fantasies come to life, not the flesh-and-blood women in front of them. These men do not notice his devotion, or his beauty. They see only her, and only her contours, at that.

The same story also looks at how male submissive beauty is either ignored or fit into incorrect assumptions.

This is not humiliation. There is nothing humiliating about being beautiful or about being feminine. She, herself, is both of those things, and many more. She cannot fathom how encouraging these qualities and others could possibly be shameful or worthy of mockery. There is also nothing humiliating about submission. It is a gift and all the finer when given selectively.

I want to put that quote on my bedroom wall, just saying. Another highlight of the anthology is Rachel Kramer Bussel’s “Subdar,” a delightful first-encounter story featuring a salt-and-pepper instinctive sub whom you kind of just want to take home and cuddle (or do dirty things to, perhaps simultaneously). I love the quiet power of the female character as she has him simply kneel in a public restroom while she’s on the toilet. On a completely different tone, I appreciated the downright dirty multiple-femmes-on-blindfolded-boy queer story, “The Dinner Party,” which Anne Grip opens with a lovely image of a woman’s floral party dress showing off the silhouette of what she’s packing underneath.

Bottom line? Both these volumes are likely to arouse the kinky reader’s cough prurient interest.

This post was originally published on the blog Sex Positive Activism, which has now merged to become the sex & relationships section of Queer & Now.

Review: The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure

I recently ran into Charlie Glickman at Catalyst Con and was reminded that I’ve been remiss in posting a review of his latest book, The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure, co-authored with Aislinn Emirzian. My tardiness is certainly not due to a dislike of the book, which covers all the bases in a friendly and professional manner that draws in prostrate-owning readers and folks that play with them alike.

This thorough instructional guide includes all the expected information about anatomy and how to find the damn thing, but it goes well beyond that. Reading it, I was reminded of when I first read The Whole Lesbian Sex book thinking a book couldn’t possibly teach me anything new about queer ladysex and was delightfully proven wrong. I suspect even old pros will find something to learn here, and it’s an excellent guide for beginners, warming the reader up with answers to frequently asked questions, quotations from a range of ordinary folks discussing what they love about prostate play, a reassuring chapter on hygiene, and interesting sidebars on topics such as the root chakra and names or images for the prostrate (avocado seed!!)

As a gender and sexuality nut, I was glad to find that the authors addressed the range of prostate-having folks immediately in the introduction, rather than sticking a “some women have prostates too!” note at the very end, which always feels like a “don’t get mad at us!” or “please don’t sue me!” caveat to me. They use male language thoroughout for convenience, but acknowledge that most material applies to any gender and also include some specific information about trans women’s varying gender identification experiences around the prostate and hormonal differences in a sidebar, encouraging partners of trans women to (gasp!) communicate about these things.

For those needing nitty gritty, this book delivers. Multiple how-to chapters cover the mechanics of penetration, finding the prostate, prostate massage, perineal massage, toys, and PIA or anal strap-on sex. There’s also a lot of information on emotions, communication, and psychology throughout, addressing stigma around anal play, where prostate play fits into a sex life generally, how mental state affects play, how to walk a partner through finding the prostate, and how to bring up the idea of prostate play, among other topics.

To be perfectly honest, I try not to write book reviews this glowing, but I had trouble finding things to criticize in this guide. It makes me think of a sexy textbook, with all the hints and sidebars and how-tos. If you’re interested in prostate play at all, I definitely recommend you take it to class.

This post was originally published on the blog Sex Positive Activism, which has now merged to become the sex & relationships section of Queer & Now.

Review: Best Women’s Erotica 2013 and Best Bondage Erotica 2013

Pop quiz: what, exactly, is women’s erotica? This is a question I always have to ask myself when I see these “best of” anthologies. I kept it in mind when I read the first of two anthologies Cleis Press sent me to prepare for the new year: Best Women’s Erotica 2013 and Best Bondage Erotica 2013.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have a bit of a bias against the first collection’s editor, Violet Blue. What I’ve heard from her just rubs me the wrong way in terms of gender, sexuality, and other things. But I was willing to give her collection a shot, and I found myself pleasantly surprised. From her introduction, it’s obvious that Blue wanted to capitalize on this past year’s Fifty Shades craze and focus on explicit sex aimed at women. The stories she chose are just that, and refreshingly well-written. The language can get a bit romance novel-y at times, but there’s a clear message from Blue’s curation that “erotica for women” has as many meanings as there are female readers. There’s a mix of kinky and vanilla, and though most of the pairings are straight, there are a couple of lesbian stories included. One features a trans woman, which was awesome to see. I even got some guilty jollies from stories that might not seem to comply with my gender politics, such as Serafine Laveaux’s “Road Crew Cock.” The last story did make me desperately hope that the author is a person of color, and I was disappointed in a piece about a secret college spanking society that went from gender subversion to slut-shaming, but on the whole I would recommend the collection to women and other readers alike.

Best Bondage Erotica 2013 is more obviously up my alley, and Rachel Kramer Bussel does not disappoint. Graydancer says in a forward that “The bondage is not the point. […] It’s the other bonds in this book that make it more than porn. The bonds of marriage. The ties of duty and the prison of horrific memories associated with military service. The burden of years wearing down relationships, the tight restriction of repressed desires. You find all of these in the book, and it is the mixture of them with the hot bondage that makes the keepers of the cultural status quo squirm.” As a geeky emotionally-driven player for whom plot is porn, I say bring it on!

Annabeth Leong’s “This Is Me Holding You” does a beautiful job of conveying the emotional significance of rope for kinbaku enthusiasts, while other stories in the collection appeal to the more “tie em up and fuck em” style rope fanatics. Other stories feature handcuffs or more DIY restraint, with first times as well as long-time couples included. I appreciate that the gender and orientation range includes gay male stories, which are often left out of “general” erotica anthologies geared towards female readers. The tone of the stories varies from angry to romantic to melancholy to fun, and I imagine most bondage fans will find at least something they like here.

This post was originally published on the blog Sex Positive Activism, which has now merged to become the sex & relationships section of Queer & Now.