Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review Tuesday: The Harder She Comes

Edited by D.L. King
Cleis Press, 2012

I'm probably not the ideal reviewer for The Harder She Comes. I'm bisexual and I definitely enjoy lesbian erotica – I've written some myself. However, I'm pretty clueless about lesbian sub-culture, with its myriad labels, roles and self-identifications. Sure, I've heard the terminology – baby butch, boi, high femme, transman, and so on – but I don't have the first hand experience, the sociocultural background if you will, to fully appreciate the intended distinctions. It's a tribute to D.L. King's acumen as an editor that I enjoyed (and understood!) most of the stories in this book despite my ignorance.

A simplistic definition equates “femme” with feminine traits, appearance, and behavior, and conversely, “butch” with masculine attributes. One of the messages of this collection, however, is that the real meaning of these terms varies dramatically with the individual. On the one hand, we have Evie, the slinky flapper in Evan Mora's “Speakeasy”, and Jay, the dressed-to-the-nines “gentleman” who claims her during Roaring Twenties night at the local lesbian salon. The roles are well-defined, with Evie literally swept off her high-heeled feet by Jay's confident conquest. At the other extreme, there's the unnamed narrator in Aimee Herman's “Channeling Charles Bukowski”. Impersonating the notorious poet from the title for a Halloween dress-up day at work, she is discovered in the men's room by Emily from accounting, who has changed her usual feminine garb for a cowboy costume. In the steamy encounter that ensues, it's not at all clear who's playing what role – but it doesn't matter.

Up until now, I had never let a girl go there, minus a few times in college. I am a top, wrist grabber, dominant thruster. Allowing anyone down there puts me in too vulnerable a position. But I'm not me today; I'm not political butch bull dyke; I am a man who was too boozed up and covered in poems to say no or to have a type, so I just let go.

Suddenly, I understand what it feels like to be bisexual – the best of both worlds – except my genitals are sexual multitaskers, transforming shape and desire. My dick wants to be sucked on, to stick itself into something, someone. My pussy wants to be stuffed, filled, suffocated.

In between these two poles, The Harder She Comes offers a million variations along the two dimensions of male/female and dominant/submissive. “Winner Take All” by Andrea Dale features a shy, sincere butch who's trying to win a truck for the animal welfare non-profit where she works. Teddie's only real competition is Grace, a petite, glamorous woman who distracts poor Teddie by whispering the most filthy, kinky suggestions the poor butch has ever heard. Ultimately Teddie wins the truck, and Grace takes Teddie as her own prize.

It's So Peaceful Out Here” is a funny, sexy story about a naughty femme going camping with a bunch of butches. Flirty, exhibitionistic Frankie is bound, clamped and brutally fucked by her Daddy, just the punishment she deserves – and just what she wants.

Manchester 2000” by Stella Sandberg describes a New Year's Eve encounter between the butch narrator and a voluptuous straight woman who apparently believes she's screwing a biological man – or does she?

Valentine” by River Light is hard-core BDSM, again with the femme on top. Silvia, the narrator's mistress and lover, presents the butch narrator to her own top, Casey, as a Valentine's gift. The physical trials Casey inflicts are not nearly as difficult to endure as the fear that the narrator has been abandoned.

In “Farmhand”, Miel Rose creates a confusing but delicious ménage involving a married butch/femme couple and the butch young woman whom they hire to do farm chores in return for rent. From one scene to the next, the power shifts in unexpected but exciting ways. “Official” gender roles are discarded in the pursuit of pleasure and connection.

Two of my favorite stories concern long-term relationships, in which the butch/femme roles are not really the focus at all. Kathleen Bradean's (literally) luscious “Tamales” is a snapshot of a couple's Christmas traditions, which involves cooking and other sources of heat. “The Bucket List” by Charlotte Dare deals with the unrequited love between a thirty-something butch and her married fifty-something best friend, highlighting the nonsensical barriers to their own happiness people sometimes erect.

The cocky butch in Valerie Alexander's “A Date With Sharon Date” seems at first to epitomize the stereotypes. Yet her determination to win back the affections of her ex-girlfriend Shandra (who left because of a lapse in the narrator's fidelity) reveals a level of need she can barely admit.

In Anna Watson's “Bienvenido”, Daisy doesn't just want to play a masculine role; she's desperate to actually be a man. Wade, an unusual consultant, tutors the young butch in male attitudes, behavior and manners, turning his protegé into an accomplished Southern gentleman well-equipped to satisfy a lovely lady.

Other contributors to this collection include Shanna Germain, Beth Wylde, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Sinclair Sexsmith, C.S. Clark, Crystal Barela, and Teresa Noelle Roberts. The fact that I haven't specifically called out their stories should not be interpreted as negative. I want to leave some tales for readers to discover on their own! Also, these stories in many cases reprise strong themes of dominance and submission that I've already mentioned, sometimes with the butch on top, sometimes the femme.

Overall, D.L. King has done a great job with this anthology. Whether your criterion of excellence is deft writing, intriguing characters, sizzling sex, or all three, you won't be disappointed by The Harder She Comes.


Annabeth Leong said...

Great to read this review! The Harder She Comes is one of my all-time favorite collections, and it was wonderful to revisit it virtually with you. (By the way, I love your Tuesday reviews in general, though I often don't comment).

Lisabet Sarai said...

Thanks, Annabeth!

Actually, I started this feature in order to motivate myself to write NEW reviews... but so far I have mostly been posting older ones. Oh well!

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