Par Femme Book Club: Writer Rose Howard

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Welcome to our Par Femme Book Club: a safe space for well-read women to reveal the titillating, back-arching, lascivious literature that's been ruling their worlds. To give you some warning, there's a high chance this week's reviews will have you impulse buying every book on this list. Proceed with caution. Take it away, Rose!

1. Book of Longing
 (2006) by Leonard Cohen

As with most things the late Leonard Cohen touched, Book of Longing is coloured by melancholic irony, and at times I think, Wow, here’s a master drowning in a shit black mire of romantic fixation. In Bluets (see below), Maggie Nelson even goes as far to call him “lugubrious and opaque,” (as a term of endearment, though) and really, you’ve got to admire the guy for his uncensored overtures; in our age of irony and Internet memes, emotional sincerity can come off as ribald as a clandestine affair. The collection of poetry and free verse published late in his prolific career maps a sensual and at times spiritual wasteland of love, loss, sexual desire, hard liquor, cunnilingus, and Nag Champa. Sometimes charmingly pieced together in smutty couplets like this, you know, for the ‘comic’ relief.

Need the speed
Need the wine
Need the pleasure
In my spine

Need your hand
To pull me out
Need your juices
In my snout

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Living my best faux-European life.

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2. Bluets (2009) by Maggie Nelson
As with Gemma Janes (who also included Bluets in her Book Club list), this dense yet sweeping collection of prose poems was given to me by a man; not by an ex, but by a friend I made on the internet, because 2018. He liked gifting books to friends, he said over beers a while ago at a pub somewhere, before scrawling a message on the blank second page and marking a verse toward the back. It took me a while to read it from cover to cover, and when I recently did, I found a small asterisk next to 238:

I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.

In the most meta of ways, this copy became a love letter within a love letter. Cerebral and affecting in equal measure, Nelson proves a master at skirting the soft and heavy stuff with highbrow meditations on Goethe’s Theory of Colours, blue colour-blindness of Acycanoblepsia “a tier of hell, to be sure,” Joni Mitchell, Andy Warhol, and Oedipus vs Milton. Setting the pace, she traces round and round and round before finally slicing through with a resounding erotic sob, a sexual apparition, as penetrating as Cohen’s couplets.

3. Future Sex (2016) by Emily Witt
Funny. This is my second pick, also included by a member of the Par Femme Book Club (cc: Laura Bannister). Great minds, or dirty minds? My best friend brought Future Sex back from New York as a gift a few years ago, and I ended up devouring it end-to-end within a month. At the time, I’d just finished Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream by Jay Stephens. A great chunk of the exhaustively researched tome captures the cultural upheavals that transformed San Francisco and America in the Sixties; side-by-side, Witt’s description of the Bay Area at the frontier of the technological boom is particularly striking. This time around, she finds young Google neophytes rehashing the hippie dream of self-discovery through sexual liberation. Cue Burning Man, polyamorous sex parties in penthouses, orgasmic meditation, oh my!

4. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde
From free love to witch hunt, The Picture of Dorian Gray can, and has been, read in many ways—the most subversive reading underscored by homoerotic longing and desire. Subversive then, because being gay was not cool, nor was it even meme-worthy, back in 1890. They hated sexual pleasure, too, those Victorians. In fact, a few years after its release, they got quite flustered over Basil Hayward’s admiration for the nubile Dorian Gray, calling the whole thing a “gross indecency” (read: euphemism for homosexuality). Maybe they secretly liked it? We’ll never know: Wilde was soon charged and imprisoned. This novel, his only novel, and widely believed to be his most autobiographical work, offers a wry glimpse into a great mind caged in by the moral shortcomings of his time. The prose is potent, moving, and laced with the piercing wit for which Wilde is known.

The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.

Male-on-male desire aside, I really got off on the part where he spends the better part of two pages describing musical instruments from all over the world in the most astute detail. I mean, you guys, I have Google and even I don’t know WTF an Amazonian turé is “sounded by the sentinels who sit all day long in the high trees, and can be heard, it is said, at a distance of three leagues.” If that doesn’t get you going, I don’t know what will.

On that note, I’ll leave you with one of Wilde’s many dictums to live by: “A dirty mind is a joy forever.”

—Rose Howard

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Read Par Femme Book Club: Carly Rogers.

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