Boss Up with Bevin Your dream life is at the end of your comfort zone

2013-07-02

Book Review: Freak of Nurture by Kelli Dunham

“Have you read my dead girlfriend’s book?” I heard near the end of the NYC Dyke March while a flyer for a book I’ve read (and reviewed on my blog) was thrust at me from behind, followed by the familiar meaty arm and dolphin tattoo of my friend Kelli Dunham. She had made fliers for her deceased girlfriend’s book as well as her own book on a reversible cardstock. It was really good looking and didn’t seem at all like it used any graphics software from Vista Print, one of Kelli’s favorite design aesthetics.

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An example of this design aesthetic from my archives.

Kelli continued her pitch, “Cheryl was my second girlfriend who died in five years. They both died of cancer.” At this point I was laughing hysterically, which is something Kelli has always been able to do to me, make me laugh uncontrollably. Once I threw her a birthday party potluck and I encouraged everyone to bring dishes named for her comedy. Mine was Spotted Owl Casserole, from her joke about not being invited to any more lesbian potlucks.

Probably most people wouldn’t be able to make seamless jokes about something so awful–the opposite of a miracle, she says, in her book Freak of Nurture. But that’s Kelli, she’s somehow got an incredible sense of humor and an incredible sense of humility, both are huge themes in the book.

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Kelli is very good at being from the Midwest and makes great casseroles.

Kelli’s book is a collection of essays from the life of an ex-Catholic nun, butch lesbian who is often mistaken for a boy of varying ages, a working stand-up comic with a penchant for misadventure, someone who readily and often talks to strangers, who had a really tender D/s partnership with a burlesque queen and legend of her time who passed in 2007 using Oregon’s right to die laws, who, against all odds, found love again and her girlfriend died of an incredibly curable form of cancer, who speaks Haitian Creyol and used those skills to go to Haiti to help after the earthquake and is left with little patience for hipster problems in New York City. And who once peed on the B train and makes comedy about it.

Kelli told a friend at the Dyke March, “Bevin and I have known each other for about a million years.” Which is almost true, where a million years is 12. I’ve found it really hard to “review” Kelli’s book. It’s amazing. It’s my friend who is hysterical and whose dysfunctional family stories alone are book-worthy. It’s a lot of stories I know because I was in Kelli’s life while they happened but still made me so wrapped up in them that I missed my subway stop two different times while reading it.

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Kelli and Cheryl at the Dyke March in 2009. Cheryl loved the Dyke March. You should totally read Cheryl’s book, too, if you haven’t.

I cried a lot, multiple times, especially at the chapter about her Queen, Heather MacAllister. It’s so clear how much they loved each other and what a beautiful and rich relationship they had until Heather passed.

Kelli is sarcastic and has great timing. There’s a chapter where she teaches a nun how to masturbate and a really endearing story about how she was working at a school for kids with disabilities in Haiti and they kept teaching her really lewd terms in Kreyol and she, to this day, has to tell people “I’m sorry, I learned Kreyol from children, is there a more polite way to say that?”

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Little known fact about Kelli: She will almost always say yes to a dare, especially when on stage. This is from the NO PANTS NO PROBLEM Rebel Cupcake. Photo by Kelsey Dickey.

I guess I keep waiting to have the “perfect” thing to say about Kelli’s book but I can’t so I will just say she is incredible at making very difficult things to hear easy to absorb. She speaks from a place of compassion for anyone who has felt like a freak in mainstream society (i.e. just about anyone). You should totally get her book from Topside Press! It makes a great gift for the lesbians, ex-nuns and intense nerds in your life or people who just like to laugh.

2013-03-14

Book Review: Nevada by Imogen Binnie

I was given a copy of the e-book of Nevada by Imogen Binnie to review by my friends at Topside Press. Imogen is one of those friends-in-law people I know to be awesome but don’t know personally, and I was excited to read her first novel.

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I seriously couldn’t put it down! Nevada was the first work of fiction I’ve read in a long time that made me want to keep reading more than go out, which is saying a lot for an extrovert party girl like me. Conversely, once I got toward the end of the book I couldn’t bear the thought of finishing it because I didn’t want it to end, I just wanted to keep hanging out with weirdo, angsty, heart-wrenching main character Maria.

Nevada begins with a sex scene that should be kinky and exciting but you can tell the main character, Maria, is bored out of her skull and can’t seem to find a way to tell her girlfriend. So she just fakes it. And so is most of Maria’s life, a series of her doing the same thing she’s done for five years, same bookstore job, same girlfriend, same apartment, and she’s faking it because she can’t stop the momentum and hasn’t stopped to figure out what she wants out of life.

We follow Maria, breathless as she bikes across the Williamsburg bridge, enduring some old-fashioned dyke drama, escaping her life through whiskey and monster movies. We participate as Maria makes some bad decisions, thinking it’s really going to change her life.

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Imogen Binnie

I thought Maria was entirely relatable, especially through her easy, colloquial language. “This rules” and strong opinions. Also, through her being stuck in a life she created but doesn’t really like anymore. I think no matter how amazing your life looks on the outside, folks can relate to feeling like they aren’t getting traction or going anywhere.

Maria ends up with nothing to lose, on a road trip in a sorta borrowed sorta stolen car. I can also relate to going on a road trip because everything in your life felt like it was all ending all of a sudden. Her real shifting point comes in Nevada, where through country music and a sense of “knowing,” meets a closeted trans woman working at Wal Mart.

Nevada is a book that, though it is way beyond coming out, provides essential trans narrative beyond the traditional. Maria’s been an out trans woman for years and has a palatable ennui that is relatable like the best 90s Liz Phair songs. One thing Imogen did that I thought was to the book’s great credit was tell Maria’s coming out story slowly, in pieces, rather than all up front. She also drops a lot of trans and queer 101 information in a way that both flows well with the narrative but also answers a lot of questions that readers might have. I mean, I know a lot of beauty rituals that folks who weren’t born female use because I’m in Femme community with trans femmes but probably not a lot of folks know about the boiling water before you shave trick.

When you’re a trans woman, patriarchal mandates about presentation get extra twisted up with narratives of disclosure, validity as a human being, violence, the possibility of ever being found attractive, and probably a bunch of other stuff you haven’t even identified yet. It makes it actually pretty complicated to leave the bathroom once you’re in it.

Totally relatable.

And you know what? Everyone who is trans does trans differently. Mainstream society, when it acknowledges trans experience at all, does not show more to the MTF trajectory than a traditional narrative of having the means to have surgery. A lot of folks don’t and therefore need to find ways to exist and thrive in the world that doesn’t depend on having cost-prohibitive procedures before you get to living an authentic life.

The end of the book took me by surprise. So much so that I immediately texted my friend/the publisher to make sure that he didn’t send me a bum e-book and I didn’t get all of the ending. But my investment in the book, the characters and the story was a testament to how great an author Imogen Binnie is. She’s incredible and I can’t wait to read her next book!!

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This is one of those books that you should really support the amazing, queer/trans lead publisher when you purchase. Topside Press offers not just a hardcover, ebook and paperback editions of Nevada, there are also limited edition support-the-author’s-book-tour covers and posters of the artwork from the cover! Check it all out here.

Imogen is on tour right now on the West Coast supporting the book! The NYC release is on April 2 at the QEJ offices at 147 W 24th St, 4th Floor at 7pm. East Coast tour dates will be announced soon. But don’t wait for the event to order your book, get it now! $17.95 makes a huge difference to indie publisher authors!

Also, if you’re like me and need to talk about this book (you should really just host a book club), join this group on Facebook!

2012-10-25

Book Review: Cheryl B.’s My Awesome Place

I am totally delinquent posting this book review since I read a preview copy from the publisher a couple of months ago during my Summer of Memoir. I’ll be honest, I’ve had a really hard time writing this review because Cheryl B., the author of My Awesome Place, was my friend and she is dead. This is not a spoiler alert, it’s in the first line of the foreward by Sarah Schulman. “Cheryl Burke died of medical malpractice in June 2011 at the age of 38.”

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Cheryl B., Diana Cage, Molly Equality Dykeman, Me and Kelli Dunham at Nerd Love in February 2011, Kelli and Cheryl’s Valentine’s Day show.

But the book is out and Cheryl’s friends and her literary executor put together her memoir work so that it could be published and we can know more about her life. Like what it was like to grow up in Staten Island and New Jersey in an alcoholic home with a controlling mom and a dad who broke a plate of spaghetti over her head when she told him she got into NYU. How she drowned her feelings in alcohol and drugs but also learned how to trust her creative spirit. How she became this amazing poet and performer and made a name for herself in the 90s on the slam poetry scene, touring the country and writing plays.

How she dealt with continuing a relationship with her family even though it wasn’t at all easy. Working through her father’s death. Watching her good friend go through cancer and acting as his caretaker. How she bounced back from a guidance counselor who told her to be a toll taker on the NJ Turnpike and clearly she is a genius artist (that part of the book actually made me angry).

It sounds like everything in the book is heavy stuff. And even though a lot of it is, Cheryl moves through the words with such energy it becomes easy to understand, move through it and laugh a lot. Cheryl’s really well known for her sarcasm and wit and that blankets the book.

I felt like it was such a gift, to get to know her better through this book. I had no idea what she lived through and how she managed to become the caring and wry person I knew. I knew she had been ten years sober but I didn’t know the extent of her survival.

I also enjoyed her journey to her sexuality. It’s trite to say it’s a coming out story, but it is a really compelling path to dating women and starting to have serious girlfriends and then having a boyfriend and navigating people’s reactions and judgments around queerness and bisexuality. I think folks who have experience dating across the gender spectrum will find this aspect very relatable.

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Similarly, she was fat as a teenager she talks about navigating in a world when she went to college and lost all of her weight and got skinny. I wish the book had gone into that more, but it is relevant to her story and dealt with sensitively and not like some kind of narrative where the main character gets skinny and suddenly everything is okay. Everything is certainly not okay with Cheryl when she loses weight.

Her cat is also a central character and I deeply appreciate that aspect. It seems sometimes that Sabrina the cat is the only thing keeping her alive.

Kelli Dunham, my friend and Cheryl’s widow, wrote the afterward about her cancer and finding the support network of her friends.

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Me and Cheryl at the Spelling Bee for Cheryl B. I organized with my fellow Re/Dress Shop Girls. She was heartily nerd identified and this was a great way for folks to show their support for Cheryl both monetarily and spiritually.

Writing this review I had a memory of Cheryl before the spelling bee coming to Re/Dress and changing behind the counter into these black patent leather stiletto boots and I remember thinking “Man, Cheryl is such a bad ass.” And there is a scene in the book where she walks up and down Manhattan in black stiletto boots looking for a job as a cocktail waitress and I thought “Man, Cheryl is such a bad ass.” And maybe that’s the message of this book. Cheryl was a bad ass and you can be, too.

It’s hard to promote a book when the author isn’t around to do a book tour or go on the Today Show or whatever. It’s also really awesome to support small publishers and Topside Press is really awesome and providing a venue for a bunch of queer and trans authors to get their voices heard. Buy Cheryl’s book! (If you order it before the end of Friday you can get a free ebook in addition to the paperback.)

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