• Victoria A. Brownworth

Lesbian Reads for Autumn Nights

September 16, 2021 Philadelphia Gay News


Infraction by Yvonne Zipter


Rattling Good Yarns Press


316pp $17.49pbk


If you love Russian novels, historical fiction, intrigue, math and lesbians, Yvonne Zipter’s “Infraction” is the blini for you. Zipter, best known for her poetry and syndicated newspaper column, takes on the mysterious world of numbers and forbidden lesbian love in this debut novel set in 19th century Russia.


The title is the fundamental query posed by the novel: Is the infraction in Marya Zhukova’s life wanting an independent career as a mathematician or is it her desire to be partnered with another woman instead of a man?


The enticements of her dual loves leave Marya (and the reader) reeling. She’s wildly smart and creative, and life in Russia (and the world that is discovering first-wave feminism) has changed just enough for her studies to be possible, but her career–despite her acumen–remains just out of reach. Thoroughly and completely out of reach, though, is a “marriage” with another woman. For all the seeming advancements into women’s rights, acceptance of that love that dare not speak its name is, in 1875 St. Petersburg, anathema.


Zipter approximates the simmering complexities of classic Russian novels, as well as the parallel storylines that Tolstoy, Pushkin and Dostoevsky are known for. And there is, of course, conflict.


Marya is forced, like so many Russian heroines before her — and so many lesbians of other eras — into a marriage she doesn’t want. But Marya’s Aunt Lidia never married and she wants to ensure that her niece not suffer the “fate” of spinsterhood. Lidia is dying, and dying wishes are difficult to refuse.


But few men are willing to enter into marriages in which there is an agreement to friendship only. And while Sergei has pledged to keep his hands off Marya, was that ever a reasonable request or expectation?


Concomitant with Sergei’s frustration is the heart of “Infraction”: Marya’s deep longing for and growing passion for Vera.


And then there is Grigorii, Marya’s mathematics mentor. In Marya he sees the chance to achieve all the accolades the field has to offer by being the mentor of a young and female star.


The roiling emotions and incipient dangers in each of Marya’s complex relationships churn through the novel, where deceit, frustration and betrayal all ultimately converge.


“Infraction” is steeped in atmosphere. Zipter’s poetic nuances are on full display in this novel of intrigue and longing. St. Petersburg is a central character and Zipter gives a fully realized sense of what the city was like in the years leading up to the Bolshevik revolution that would change Russia forever. There is the food and the ballet and the streets of the capital — the reader is steeped in the experience and history of the era and how women were in tantalizing proximity to autonomy, yet could not quite access it.


The opening chapters of “Infraction” are a bit slow as Zipter sets the stage for her drama and immerses the reader in atmosphere, but as anyone who’s read Russian novels knows, that is the small price one pays to open out the rich tapestry of drama to follow. And there is drama to spare in this powerful story of a woman beset by longing and imperiled on all sides by the expectations of others.


You can hear Zipter give a compelling reading of the opening chapter on YouTube.


Milk Fed by Melissa Broder


Scribner


304pp $16.60 hardcover


Just as the High Holidays end, Melissa Broder proffers “Milk Fed,” a novel of intense Jewishness and even more intense longing. In her funny, irreverent, sexy af and deeply moving new novel, a hip, queer variation on an “Eat, Pray, Love” theme, Broder tells the story of Rachel, a 24-year-old with an eating disorder who finds food and love and most of all sustenance.


“They say the perfect is the enemy of the good, that if you strive for perfection you will overlook the good. But I did not agree. I didn’t like the good. The good was just mediocre. I wanted to go beyond mediocre. I wanted to be exceptional. I did not want to be medium-size. I wanted to be perfect. And by perfect, I meant less.”


Rachel is striving for the perfection her toxic, controlling, dismissive and demeaning mother has taught her is the only goal in life. She counts calories, over-exercises, fixates on food and lack of food, and leads a tightly organized life with no room for deviations. But when her therapist tells her to detox from her mother for 90 days, Rachel embarks on what for her is a terrifying, yet also freeing journey into which she is forced to rethink boundaries and what they mean.


When Rachel’s mother, with whom she is in almost obsessive contact, fails her again when Rachel gets a new job that is important to her, Rachel agrees to detox. But then what? Thinking about her mother, she muses, “My mother had never known me either, though it wasn’t because I hadn’t given her a chance. I’d given her a lot of chances. What was saddest was that she didn’t seem to want to know me, not as I was on the inside.”


On the road to self-actualization, Rachel meets Miriam, an Orthodox Jew who is round and sexy and as full of life as she is full of godliness. Miriam is the antithesis of both Rachel and the life Rachel is living. She is super hot and Rachel yearns for hotness in all its forms.


Rachel discovers the breadth of influence food — and her Jewishness — have had on her life and how the twin rituals of eating and praying hold surprising meaning for her. Broder’s descriptions are powerful and rich and full of erotic intensity.


“I smelled something roasting, some kind of meat, and immediately thought, Turn around. Run. The intimacy of it, the smell of another family’s life, was terrifying.”


“Milk Fed” is fun and funny, hot and sexy and full of yearning. It will fill you up in all the best ways.


How to Wrestle a Girl by Venita Blackburn


Macmillan


224pp $13.85pbk


Venita Blackburn is one of those rising literary stars whose work is so good, you want to be sure you start reading her now, so that you can tell everyone about her work.


In her new collection of short stories, “How to Wrestle a Girl,” Blackburn plays with form, with ideas, with characters, with her reader’s head. She does flash fiction, she literally re-shapes stories to look like a grief log, a crossword puzzle, a quiz. It’s fun and frolicsome and sometimes doesn’t quite hit the mark.


But there is also a deeper side — this is work that is both immersive and yet also skips along briskly, not waiting for you to catch up. Blackburn explores every avenue of body (especially body; there are a lot of fat-related stories) and spirit. She traces the trajectories of girlhood to what makes us who we are.


This collection of 30 stories is in two parts. The first is individual tales, the second is interconnected stories told by a narrator whose father died recently, leaving her, her sister and her mother struggling and adrift. (This same narrator was also in stories in Blackburn’s previous award-winning collection, “Black Jesus and Other Stories.”)


In these stories, the narrator is coming to terms with both her body and her sexual orientation. She is deeply attracted to her friend Esperanza. That fresh young love and her life with her friends at school and her sports teams are all woven together in her quest for identity and a sense of place and belonging.


In these stories Blackburn delves into what shapes girlhood, and tragedy and violence both play a disturbing role in that. How men treat women and girls is very much a theme here and it’s not good; the trail of sexual abuse is as normative as learning to wrestle and play softball and worry about body fat.


Blackburn is superb at exploring race, queer and trans identities (there is a good story about a young trans woman with a new trans roommate), what community means and who gets to belong where. Blackburn is by turns funny and dark, raw and polished, yet always hits a nerve. A compelling collection which makes one yearn for more Blackburn — and a novel with that young narrator.


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