Reading Resolution: “Awfully Devoted Women: Lesbian Lives in Canada, 1900-65” by Cameron Duder

  1. A book written in North/Central America: Awfully Devoted Women: Lesbian Lives in Canada, 1900-65 by Cameron Duder

Awfully Devoted

List Progress: 3/25

I do not tend to read a lot of non-fiction, as I usually find it pretty dry, but I’ve found myself getting more interested in queer history recently, and borrowing this book from my partner was able to foster that interest. Awfully Devoted Women: Lesbian Lives in Canada, 1900-65, written by Cameron Duder, is exactly what its subtitle says: a study of lesbian and queer women living in Canada before the rise of second-wave feminism. The little queer history I have read before was largely male-focused, so it was a great opportunity to read something so focused and detailed about everyday queer women’s lives. And for a piece of historical study, it is surprisingly readable and accessible, even if the editor in me wants to streamline some of the chapters.

The book is divided into two major sections, the first studying collections of letters from women in the 1900’s to 1930’s and analyzing their lives and relationships through their correspondence with their friends and partners. This part was the most fascinating to me, tracing the progression from the idea of a “romantic friendship” that was assumed to be nonsexual, to a pathologized view of lesbian women as sexology became a field of study. The sample size is small, as there are only so many letter collections that are going to survive the decades, but the analysis is pretty great. The second half is taken from interviews that Duder did with over twenty women who were at least somewhat active in the Canadian lesbian communities before 1965. Duder illustrates the divide between middle class lesbians the supposedly “respectable” house parties and private relationships, and how they considered themselves distinct and different from the disreputable lower class bar scene.

The chapters are divided into general subjects like Family Relationships or Professional Lives, with snippets from all of the interviews collected by subject. With this small of a sample size, I would have appreciated longer stretches of interview, as you get broken up snapshots of each woman’s life. One of the interviewees, Cheryl, was the victim of domestic abuse in her first relationship, was threatened by her partner with outing to her family, entered the air force after leaving her abuser, and spent years feeling comfortable in her queer identity again, but you lose all sense of narrative when this fascinating life is interspersed amongst a dozen other fascinating lives. I understand the impulse to give the biggest picture perspectives possible with this small of a group, but the group is small enough that you naturally end up identifying with individual narrators and craving more context. I am not sure what would be the ideal way to structure a study of this size, but I wish it had been tweaked a bit to find a comfortable middle ground.

I also would have appreciated a firmer-handed editor, as the last chapter ends up very repetitive, but these are largely nitpicks in what was overall a really pleasant reading experience. I learned a lot of things about the early Canadian queer scene that I would never have come across otherwise and I am glad for this flash of overlooked history. And it has made me very curious about what legacy the queer women of today will leave behind to those reading what we leave behind.

Would I Recommend It: Yes. It may not convert anyone without previous interest in the topic, but it is a great exploration of a niche historical interest.

Reading Resolution: “Sourdough” by Robin Sloan

9. A book recommended by someone:  Sourdough by Robin Sloan

List Progress: 1/25

You know those pieces of media where you reach the end and say “I don’t really know what the creator was trying to say”? Sourdough by Robin Sloan is definitely one of those. Received as a gift, I dove into this novel that seemed to appeal directly to my interests: it is about a hobbyist baker in San Francisco who gets caught up in the magic of making sourdough bread after she is gifted a very special starter. The book moves quickly and has a lot of things to say. I’m just not sure if Sloan sat down and decided what it was all supposed to amount to. As such, the end result feels somewhat (if you will forgive the bread pun) underproved.

The main character is a machinery programmer named Lois working at a tech startup in an incredibly detailed depiction of San Francisco. (Seriously, I live in the Bay Area and some scenes were spot-on descriptions of real world places I’ve been to, in both physical and tonal details.) Lois is feeling spiritually and mentally drained from the demanding yuppie tech world until she discovers a new takeout place that makes amazing soup and sourdough bread, run by two brothers of the “mysterious quirky foreigner” type. They develop a friendship and shortly thereafter the brothers have to leave the country, leaving Lois a parting gift of some of their sourdough starter. This all was maybe the first two chapters, and I would have preferred a book with a lot more of it, especially given the direction the ending goes in. But instead we get Lois’ entry into the world of foodie tech hipsters.

You see, this book is about a white woman using a personal gift of a man of color’s culture (as in bacterial culture, but the book draws the wordplay parallel many times) and using it as a tool of personal discovery and financial gain. It is so on the nose that I was assuming the book was going to make a point of it, especially as Lois stumbles into the professional culinary success that the chef brother Beoreg is consistently denied, but…nope. It goes without comment. I’m not even sure if author Robin Sloan realizes the situation he painted here, but the nomadic foreign brothers exist only to give Lois a new perspective and lease on life. And considering part of the novel’s conclusion is a debate about ownership of the starter between Lois and a different character entirely, it’s a bit of an uncomfortable dynamic.

Weird cultural appropriation subtext aside, the book has a muddled view of who it is rooting for, with sides in culinary debates being declared antagonists with no real rhyme or reason. Oh no, this character wants to mechanize and bring science into the magic of the starter! Ignoring the fact that Lois uses a tech startup robot in the production of her bread… Oh no, that character has stuffy, affected old-world ideas about food! Ignoring that Lois’ journey is all about her hand-making bread, one of the most affected old-world things you can do these days… It all just comes across unclear and muddled about what the book is trying to say, if it’s trying to say anything at all.

Sourdough is the epitome of a beach read. The prose moves fast, the characters are quirky and fun, the settings are well-painted and the escapist fantasy of giving up your soul-crushing job to bake bread and talk to foodies all day is fun to indulge in. But if you’re looking for something to dig into, try to find something with a bit more meat. (Had to get one more food pun in, sorry.)

Would I Recommend It: Yeeees, but not highly. Good to read during a long plane trip or sitting on a beach.

Introducing my Reading and Watching Resolution Lists!

Happy New Years! So for the last couple of years, I have set a New Year’s Reading Resolution for myself, along with a couple of friends. We read books that fit in certain categories, in an attempt to push the boundaries of our reading habits, and write up little reviews of what we have read. As the year is starting fresh with a new list, I have decided to share my book reviews here, to hopefully spark some good literary discussion in 2018.

In addition, I am giving myself the extra challenge of a movie-watching list as well; I will be the first to admit that I have lost the determination to sit down for full movies, and I hope this will push me to try more of the medium over the course of the year.

If you would like to try this list for yourself, feel free to jump in. I will be updating this post as I complete parts of the list. I wish you all a happy year full of good reading and viewing!

2018 Reading Resolution

  1. A book written in North/Central America: Awfully Devoted Women: Lesbian Lives in Canada, 1900-65 by Cameron Duder
  2. A book written in South America:
  3. A book written in East Asia: My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Nagata Kabi
  4. A book written in South Asia:
  5. A book written in Africa: The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu
  6. A book written in the Middle East:
  7. A book written in Australia/Oceania
  8. A book written in Europe/Russia:
  9. A book recommended by someone: Sourdough by Robin Sloan
  10. A biography: Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson
  11. A non-fiction book: On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman
  12. A collection of short stories: Biketopia: Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories in Extreme Futures edited by Elly Blue
  13. A collection of poetry:
  14. A play:
  15. A graphic novel:
  16. A book older than 100 years: The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher
  17. A debut novel: Behrouz Gets Lucky by Avery Cassell
  18. A novel by a famous author, other than the one(s) they are best known for:
  19. A book we have lied about reading:
  20. A book we read in high school/college and hated:
  21. A book we read in high school/college/law school and loved:
  22. A book by an author you have never given a fair shot: The Shining by Stephen King
  23. A 2017-2018 New York Times bestseller:
  24. A book you’ve started but never finished: The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat
  25. Wild Card: The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston

List Progress: 12/25

In addition, I am trying a film list again!

2018 Film Watching Resolution

  1. A foreign film:
  2. A black and white film:
  3. A silent or dialogue-free film:
  4. An animated film:
  5. A film based on a true story:
  6. A documentary:
  7. A film based on a book: Room (2015)
  8. An Oscar-winning movie:
  9. A trashy movie (B-list, straight to DVD): The Decoy Bride (2012)
  10. Your best friend’s favorite movie:
  11. A children’s film: The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
  12. A film released in 2018: Love, Simon (2018)

List Progress: 4/12