Thursday, December 30, 2021

BOOKS! (Harbor + The Secret Lives of Church Ladies)

Well, what do you know? Look at me writing two book reviews in one month! For the holidays I've been chilling in Louisville, and my only real goal for these last few lingering days of December has been to write another book review before "this year" becomes "last year". So here I am doing just that! This review features two novels, each of which I read cover-to-cover in two days, and one of which is the last book I'll be finishing in 2021. Both of them were written by Black women and both contain romance in varying degrees of graphic detail. First up is a very NSFW romance novel about a polyamorous relationship that forms between three Black 30-somethings who've lost their significant others in the same murderous incident. And then, a collection of stories about Black Southern women who grew up in church yet find themselves bucking tradition in favor of desire, self-discovery, and doing what they want simply because it feels good. 

Harbor by Rebekah Weatherspoon
I'm not going to divulge the real reason why I chose to read this book, because I don't want to tell on myself (at least not any more than I already have in nearly 9 years of keeping up this personal blog, amirite?). So I will just say... previously I've mentioned how I became aware of Jasmine Guillory because her name seemed to be everywhere in the online spaces I frequented around 2019, which made me want to know what the hype was about. I found out about Rebekah Weatherspoon, another Black woman who writes romance novels, in much the same way. And when I looked through Weatherspoon's bibliography, Harbor (part of her "Beards & Bondage" trilogy) seemed to be her most prominent example of a romance between Black people. But not between just two Black people, oh no. Three. Harbor is a standalone novel and also the third and final part of what Weatherspoon calls, "This sort of bizarre, extremely horny romantic suspense trilogy" in her very succinct thank-you paragraph at the end. In this review I will occasionally refer to the book's characters by their first initials: VS = Vaughn and Shaw. CVS = Corinne, Vaughn, and Shaw. VBS = Vaughn, Brooklyn, and Shaw.
Vaughn is a patent and trademark lawyer living in Boston, and his boyfriend Shaw lives on Cape Cod crafting custom wood furniture for wealthy clients. Brooklyn, a Bronx native, is an assistant district attorney living in Brooklyn. There's no reason for VS and Brooklyn's paths to cross, until VS's girlfriend Corinne and Brooklyn's fiancé Josh are killed in a double murder-suicide—Corinne was being stalked, and the stalker killed her and Josh while they were in bed together. In other words, Brooklyn and VS learn of their significant others' deaths and their infidelity at the same time. Blindsided, they each mourn their dead lovers while nursing their anger at being lied to and cheated on. (From the little I've learned thus far about polyamorous relationships, being polyamorous doesn't necessarily mean that partners can have sex with whoever else they want, whenever they want, and without discussing it first. Every relationship is different, and poly partners often have their own agreements and boundaries set in place. For CVS, being polyamorous meant that they were all in a committed relationship with each other, and so Vaughn and Shaw rightfully feel betrayed by Corrine's secret involvement with someone else.) 
Feeling emotionally raw and desperate for answers, Vaughn seeks Brooklyn out at Josh's funeral, and they agree to meet at a Boston hotel with Shaw reluctantly in attendance as well. Although Shaw doesn't initially think any good can come from this meeting, and the concrete answers that Vaughn and Brooklyn seek will elude them forever, the trio find unexpected comfort in each other since only they know exactly what it's like to be dealing with this uniquely messed-up predicament. And although VS are attracted to Brooklyn and vice versa—while in Brooklyn's hotel room, they all acknowledge that each one of them is foine—the three agree that the loss is too new, and that they're too close to the situation to become sexually involved with each other so soon. They don't want to "trauma bond" (at least not yet), so Brooklyn and VS go their separate ways, but not before Shaw returns to her room to make out with her a little bit. Sixteen months later, Brooklyn randomly texts Shaw about just having "the worst sex of my life," and Shaw invites her to spend a weekend at his house on the Cape so that he and Vaughn can rectify that for her. Thus begins Brooklyn's introduction to Vaughn and Shaw's BDSM lifestyle, which includes a secluded beach, Shaw's sex dungeon, and agreed-upon terms and conditions.

While Vaughn is the one to initiate contact with Brooklyn and he technically has sex with her first (at Shaw's instruction), to me Brooklyn and Shaw still seemed to have a more intense connection between just the two of them. What Corrine did is clearly called "cheating", but when Shaw visits Brooklyn alone and kisses her, that's not considered crossing a line, and I was confused about that. V knew S was going to visit B's hotel room again, and V knew S probably wasn't going there just to talk, but it's not clear whether V and S discussed the kiss afterward or not. Additionally, there are two occasions where B and S play without V (one occasion V knows about and is partially present for via FaceTime, the other one he's completely left out of and doesn't know about until after the fact). So jealousy is briefly addressed within VBS's arrangement, but it wasn't always clear to me what counted as boundary-crossing for them and what didn't. 
There's an obstacle that's somewhat randomly thrown in to manufacture what I now understand to be a common or even expected trope in romance story structures: The couple (throuple?) break up or otherwise separate in the third act, making it all the more rewarding and meaningful when they manage to find their way back together again by the story's conclusion (happily ever after/happy for now). One of the detectives investigating the double murder-suicide shockingly rolls up on VBS when they're at brunch during one of their kinky weekends on the Cape, and he clearly questions and disapproves of VBS being together. This scares Brooklyn and VS into ceasing contact so as not to raise further suspicion and potentially be treated as suspects in the case. However, that obstacle arises and disappears in a matter of 13 pages (I counted). The more important conflict lingering from that scare is B and VS needing to admit that they want more than just sex with each other; they want to be a polyamorous "unit", even with the emotional and professional risks that come with being committed to (and public with) such a relationship. For Brooklyn in particular, who's new to this and whose career would be most at stake out of the three, the run-in with the detective forces her to decide whether she's willing to break norms and potentially be exposed in order to pursue love with these two men.
Speaking of their love, I would've liked to read more of VBS's relationship after they made up, like how they grew to further understand each other's likes and dislikes (one more play scene wouldn't have hurt). We go from them reconciling on Brooklyn's sister's farm to them having a commitment ceremony—as close to a wedding as they can get, since their union won't be legally recognized—on that very same farm 16 months later. And Brooklyn does recap the major happenings of that in-between time, but I wanted to know more of the details. For example, there's a specific act that B keeps thinking about once she and VS first start doing their kink stuff together, and she finally gathers the nerve to request it, only for S to insist on delaying it until the three of them have discussed all the health concerns related to it. Which I thought was excellent! A thoughtful approach to doing-the-do safely. Wonderful. But then it never comes up again. I'm sure that over the 16-month course of this trio's revived relationship leading up to the commitment ceremony, B got to experience the act that she wanted done to her, but it just seems strange to keep mentioning something, as if the reader is being primed to look forward to it, and then never actually show it happening.
I learned so many new things from reading Harbor, and one of them is a potential reason for why some folks prefer poly relationships in the first place. This was fascinating to me because as an introvert with no romantic experience, being in a relationship with multiple people at once is not the first idea that comes to mind when I think about dating. And admittedly, in the past I did entertain the heinously ignorant supposition that bisexual, pansexual, and/or polyamorous people might simply be indecisive or greedy. But thankfully, Vaughn helped me consider that there are some people who overflow with so much love and affection that they can't help but want to share it with as many others—selected and vetted others, in Vaughn's case—as possible. Furthermore, if that's the case, then perhaps it's necessary to share one's affection with multiple partners, rather than risk smothering one partner with all of that love and the needs that come attached with it. That's an idea that had literally never occurred to me before, and through Vaughn, Rebekah Weatherspoon presents it in a way that makes perfect sense.
Something else that I find brilliant about Harbor is how it contests whether bonding over trauma is really so dangerous if the parties involved prioritize honesty at every step. The novel contains lots of talk about feelings, as VS and VBS are constantly checking in with what each person needs or wants in the moment. "What do you need?" is a question that is asked quite frequently. Brittany, Vaughn, and Shaw are each recovering from the trauma of death and infidelity as they probe the potential of this new entanglement, and they want to take care of each other while still processing their respective emotions as authentically as possible. Not too long ago, I read a Korean webtoon called "Ouroboros" (by Songhyel) that was somewhat similar to Harbor in framing polyamory as a means of exploration and healing amidst PTSD. A cop is abducted, held hostage for days, and repeatedly raped by his brother-in-law, and after losing his wife and being suspended from his job, he starts dating a younger colleague and a rich heir/party boy at the same time. And what you assume is a love triangle gradually morphs into a poly situation where the colleague and the heir's respective desire to have the cop to themselves takes a backseat to them collaborating to support the cop through the trauma responses he's exhibiting. In hindsight, I'm glad that I read that webtoon before arriving at Harbor, because it enabled me to approach the novel with a more open mind. If you're curious about kink/BDSM, recovery from loss, and how a polyamorous relationship might play out between 30-something Black professionals, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"But none of that is going to happen 'cause as it turns out this motherfucker was cheating on me... and I can't even take this giant diamond ring off my finger and throw it in his face, because he's dead" (15).
"I can want good things for myself. I can want real happiness. I can want whatever the fuck I want. If I want sex to be a part of my life again, why wouldn't I want it to be good? No use in wishing for mediocre" (71).  

"On top of that, she's a plus-size Black woman. How many times a day do you think she's getting some messaging that she's undesirable? Fifty? A hundred?... So, I think it makes sense that if we want her to be with us in any long term way we prove to her that we aren't using her and that her needs and her very real fears are being met" (151).
"Trust me. It's part of the process. You've done the mourning. It's time to do something stupid. It's another signpost on the road to better health" (205).

"You don't have to apologize for getting off" (210-211).

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
I've been hearing about this story collection almost nonstop since it was published in 2020; people have been raving about it, and apparently it was a surprisingly huge critical and commercial hit for West Virginia University Press (a relatively small publisher). With the beginning of summer 2021 came my copy of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, one of four books that I ordered from Harriett's Bookshop in Philadelphia as a 3rd podcast anniversary present to myself, thanks to a gift card from my very generous friend Marlee. (See also While We Were Dating.) I called myself starting to read it in November, but set it aside, then re-started it on Christmas Eve, and finished it the day after Christmas. Also, I would like to add—purely for bookworm and slight fangirl purposes—that I posted this photo of my dog Julia with my Harriett's purchases on IG (see the bottom of this review), tagged the authors of each one in said photo, and Deesha Philyaw followed me as a result! That was on August 20th, and as of this writing she's still following me! How cool is that? I've never had a famous author follow me before. But let's stay on topic. Moving on!

In nine stories ranging from the 1980s to Y2K Eve to the present, Black Southern female characters (ages 14 to super grown) narrate their romantic and sexual discoveries. They give into temptation with intention, hone in on the desires of their hearts, and amend or discard the limiting beliefs they learned from growing up in church as need be. From two closeted 40-year-old teacher besties having an annual New Year's Eve date-night-in at a hotel far from home, to a real estate agent entertaining her man friend while her Eddie Levert-obsessed and dementia-diagnosed mother sleeps in the next room, every story in TSLOCL makes some direct or indirect mention of women getting it on, enjoying sexual pleasure even in taboo or supposedly forbidden situations. In fact, seven of the nine stories include characters who sleep with married men, or used to. (There's even a story titled "Instructions for Married Christian Husbands", which is one woman's detailed set of stipulations that married men must agree to before she allows them to have sex with her.) Such characters are not "chosen" in the way that Black women are conditioned in church to value being chosen, but then again, becoming someone's wife isn't an objective that they've based their entire identities and personalities on anyway.
Of the stories, an undeniable standout (and the source material for the book's peach-focused 2022 UK cover) is "Peach Cobbler". Marvelously, it uses a girl named Olivia innocently confusing the local pastor for God—the married Pastor Neely to whom her mom secretly provides both culinary and carnal sweets for over a decade—to examine how often grown church ladies also treat their male church leaders like God, and how silly that is. Olivia's mom even treats Pastor Neely as if he's the head of her own household, letting him hit it once a week, not allowing Olivia to badmouth him or ask questions about his presence in their home, and making a peach cobbler every week (EVERY WEEK!) that only he gets to eat when he visits, otherwise it gets thrown in the garbage. The titular peach cobbler works as a metaphor or stand-in for, to put it most plainly, pussy. ("My mother's peach cobbler was so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife", "You got the best cobbler in the world right here", and so on.) Peach cobbler also represents sweetness, something that Olivia's mom intentionally deprives her of. Whether that sweetness be a taste of the dessert her mom expertly makes, or permission to attend her wealthier classmate's birthday party, or her mom being a little softer with her sometimes, Olivia mustn't grow up expecting too much from life. Or so her mom asserts.
Come to think of it, Olivia and her mother remind me of Dana and her mother Gwen from  Silver Sparrow (Tayari Jones), wherein Gwen welcomes Dana's polygamist father to her home like a king once a week while Dana is expected to stay in a child's place, abiding by this arrangement and not revealing their existence as her dad's secret second family to anyone. Gwen at least cares a bit more about how her relationship with her man impacts her daughter. But Olivia's mom doesn't seem concerned at all about the uncomfortable and unfair circumstances that she's forced her daughter into, practically screwing the pastor right under Olivia's nose, well into Olivia's teenage years! And just like I did with Gwen, I tried and failed to not judge Olivia's mom for her choices. Granted, I've never been "sick with desire" or taken under by it, as Olivia describes her mom in the story. So maybe I just don't get it due to lack of experience. Maybe it's just something about certain Black women of a certain age from a certain time period (much of the action in both Silver Sparrow and "Peach Cobbler" takes place in the 1980s and early 1990s, in the South). But come on! What kind of subservient behavior are these characters modeling for their daughters, prioritizing men's pleasure and security over their own just to hold onto a fraction of said men's time and attention? Don't mothers owe their daughters better than that? Lord have mercy, did "Peach Cobbler" blow my socks off and horrify me at the same time.
Despite the amount of time I've just spent addressing "Peach Cobbler", my favorite story in TSLOCL is actually "How to Make Love to a Physicist" for the same reason that my favorite story in Love in Color (Bolu Babalola) was "Thisbe". It's about a plus-sized Black woman finally learning to feel more at home in her body, while taking hold of the fulfilling kind of love and physical intimacy she's just now realizing she deserves. Extra points for this particular Black woman (Lyra) working with a therapist to overcome her self-sabotage—she and the handsome physicist she's met at a STEM conference are feeling each other, but she ghosts him twice—ditching the girdles and the sucking-in that her super religious mother has always insisted on, and being a late bloomer at owning her curvy and jiggly body at 42 years old. With all that said, "Peach Cobbler" is definitely a close second favorite. And my goodness, these character names! Caroletta, Tasheta, Arletha, Mayretta, Kachelle, Timna, Lajene... and those are just the names I'd never heard of. Others I'd heard before but hadn't anticipated seeing in print, attached to characters in a much-publicized, much-nominated, and much-awarded novel like this one. Now that I have, I couldn't be more delighted. Another delight was recognizing quite a few names that Deesha Philyaw listed in her acknowledgments, and I was most pleasantly surprised to see Bassey Ikpi (I'm Telling the Truth, But I'm Lying) and Melanie Dione mentioned. Before I realized they were writers and also friends of TSLOCL's author, I was first introduced to them both via podcasts (Bassey on the "This Too Much" spin-off from The Black Guy Who Tips, and Melanie on The Bad Advice Show).

Earlier this week I encountered an application question asking me to talk about a Black woman, femme, or non-binary person I've learned from, and I impressed myself with my response, so I'm including it here to conclude this review:  
Speaking of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, there is one story called "Eula" where Deesha Philyaw likens cunnilingus to prayer, and another called "How to Make Love to a Physicist" where she likens consummation to consecration, and I have never read the sexual and the spiritual juxtaposed in that way before, the way she does it. I no longer subscribe to the purity culture I was raised in, but I was still surprised to read the comparisons that Philyaw made. I am still thinking about those comparisons, and I feel myself being challenged to more deeply contemplate sex—especially unmarried and non-heterosexual sex—as sacred and holy.  
If you've ever questioned the faith you were raised in (especially its rules about what women and girls  should or shouldn't be doing), longed for someone to love you back, wanted to act on your desires without being judged, or if you want to read these stories before they're adapted into an HBO show written and executive produced by both Deesha Philyaw and Tessa Thompson, then read this book!
Favorite quotes:
"Do you think God wants you, or anybody, to go untouched for decades and decades? For their whole lives?... all those women at church who think they have to choose between pleasing God and something so basic, so human as being held and known in the most intimate way. If God became human once [then] why would he make rules that force such a painful choice?" (9-10).

"Closed mouths don't get head!" (25).
"'So you don't have to worry, anymore, Mama,' I said, 'about me wanting to be anything like you. I swear, my life won't be anything like yours. Because it will be sweet, and it won't be crumbs'" (74). 

"I say all of this to say that sometimes wheels are set in motion long before the spark is manifest. Is that the same thing as fate? I don't know, but I do know that rare, brilliant events take time" (113).

"You, the infantilized husbands of accomplished godly women, are especially low-hanging fruit. Ripe for the picking with little effort on my part... I build monuments to my impulses and desires on the backs of men like you" (146, 153).

"You're not a nobody, Mama... You're... someone who can't give me what I need. But you're not nobody" (174).

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