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March 13, 2017

3 Novels I Want to Read Soon


I love non-fiction so much that it can be a struggle to get myself to read fiction as well. I find a good mix of genre/medium keeps me a happy reader, though, so I make an effort to push myself out of my non-fiction comfort zone. Here are three novels I currently have out from the library and hope to read soon.

(Note: Some of my blurbs include "spoilers," since I've read about the books in non-fiction works.)

Eva's Man
by Gayl Jones
Beacon Press, 1976

Eva's Man is analyzed in Trimiko Melancon's Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation, a book I read recently, as an example of--and maybe this is obvious from the title--a representation of a transgressive black woman. Eva survives sexual abuse at the hands of her father (and others), and ends up imprisoned for the brutal murder of a male lover. This book is notable for ending with Eva engaged in a sexual relationship with her woman cellmate; it's considered one of the earliest published novels to feature a black queer woman. As you can imagine, however, the portrayal is not universally celebrated. Beverly Smith, in the essay "The Truth That Never Hurts: Black Lesbians in Fiction in the 1980s" (which inspired the name of the collection of her work it's featured in, The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom, another book I finished recently), says Jones "has portrayed lesbians quite negatively" (49). With these variant perspectives, I'll have to read Eva's Man for myself.

Hanging by Her Teeth
by Bonnie Greer
Serpent's Tail, 1994

The novel takes its title from the Degas painting Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (1879), which
Degas, Miss La La Land at the Cirque Fernando (1879)
displays a black woman hanging from a rope by only her teeth. The longer you look at the painting, the more disturbing it becomes. The strength of the racist male gaze is overwhelming: you can't see the woman's face; she is not in the center, but off to the side; and her fantastic wardrobe serves only to accentuate her dehumanized resemblance to a caught fish hanging by a lure or a lynching victim.

The cover, however, does not display Degas' painting. Instead, it features a lush 1940 painting Nude (Mahlinda) by Harlem Renaissance artist William H. Johnson, which sends a completely different message. The woman here stares straight out at the viewer, a hint of a smile at her lips. She is confident. She is relaxed. She is as bold as the red and green and orange and blue and brown paints used by the artist.

Despite the differences in the perspective of the paintings, they are still both painting of women by men. I'm interested in finding out how Greer bridges the two disparate view points.

Her
by Cherry Muhanji
Aunt Lute Books, 1990

This book about different generations of black women in 1950s Detroit won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Debut. I don't know much more than that just yet, except that the person on the cover is dreamy. That's more than enough for me.

March 12, 2017

Currently Reading: Undocumented

General, open-ended, no-mission library browsing is probably my favorite way to find new books. There's something exciting about letting titles call out to you which you have no prior knowledge of or biases toward. Sometimes it can go terribly wrong, like when I borrowed a book about intellectual freedom on college campuses and it turned out to be about feminists and gay people "ruining" the college experience with their emphasis on "equality" and "political correctness." (Yiiick.) Most times, thankfully, I remember to read the back of the book and look at a couple of pages before taking it to the check out counter, which helps to avoid unfortunate situations. I came across Aviva Chomsky's Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal while browsing, and given our current political landscape, I'm sure I don't need to explain why it caught my eye. I told Amy about Undocumented before I read it--I had some other books to finish first--and she's already read AND reviewed it. I'm currently only on the introduction (page 18, to be specific), but so far it's engaging and highly readable. I look forward to finishing so I can read Amy's review and discuss it with her. Pro-tip if you find yourself dragging your feet on a book you want to read: get your pal to read it first and kindly poke you repeatedly to catch-up.

Next up: I have no idea. Maybe something with an uplifting title, like Women as Wartime Rapists or Doctors From Hell. Or maybe fiction; I find it harder to get myself to read fiction, but I really want to!

February 18, 2017

Authors I Read and Loved in 2016

In 2016, I finally unlocked the secret to a great reading year. I added poetry, plays, and picture books (great palate cleansers) to my usual mix of history, university press non-fiction, memoir, and literary fiction, and ended up with forty-three five star reads. I read 210 books in 2016, so that means I gave five stars to 20% of the books I read, and if that’s not an A-level nerd humblebrag, I don’t know what is.

My more focused choices--knowing what I like to read and picking the right books--lead to my biggest reading year since 2011, when I read 207 books and I was still blogging semi-regularly. It’s an embarrassment of riches, or at least, it is now that I’m writing it out with the intention of sharing the information with other people and realizing I am a Braggy McReader Braggerpants. But it's ok! With books, we all win. Right?

Stage Struck, The Cosmopolitans, Girls, Visions and Everything by Sarah Schulman

This sentence is kind of scary to write because I've resisted claiming a "favorite" for something like this, but who am I kidding, it's true: Sarah Schulman is my favorite author. She's an extremely prolific writer--I think we're on book 18 now, which doesn't include her plays or screenplays or articles or even her often masterful Facebook posts--an activist (ACT UP, Lesbian Avengers), and, as I think of her, the conscience of the queer community. 

In a true meritocracy, you'd be right there with me. In a true meritocracy, you'd be as familiar with her work as you are with the songs of the musical RENT. Well, in a true meritocracy, RENT wouldn't exist, at least the way we know it, because, oh boy, they plagiarized Schulman's novel People in Trouble to make it. Instead we'd have an (authorized) operatic adaption of People in Trouble with credible queer characters. Stagestruck chronicles Schulman's discovery of the plagiarism and her (spoiler alert) futile fight to be seen and acknowledged, within the context of the world of theater and the exploitation of queer folks in it. I often closed the book and sat there shaking my head at the injustice, the sexism and lesbiphobia, the absolute bullshit Schulman went through in this quest. For instance, when she writes about her (pre-RENT) attempt to collaborate with composer Strwart Wallace and librettist Michael Korie to adapt People in Trouble for the stage:
We worked for a while on a treatment for the piece and came up with one that opened with a romantic duet for two female voices. But when they presented the treatment to the director of the opera, he panicked. "I can't have dripping pussies on my stage," he said. "These women are not heroic."
And so our project was dropped, and Stewart and Michael went on to write the acclaimed opera Harvey Milk, featuring a male hero, which was subsequently recorded and played successfully in New York (at the New York City Opera), San Francisco, and Europe. 
Michael, however, was still interested in pursuing People in Trouble, and he sent copies fo the manuscript, the galleys, and finally, in 1990, the published book to a variety of composers, directors, and producers in New York and Europe. [...] [T]here was the famous gay male composer who turned us down because he said he couldn't write romantic music for two women. Then there was the straight woman director who was not sympathetic to the AIDS content. "Straight people have problems too, you know," she said. "My niece and her husband can't find a large enough apartment" (8-9). 
 See what I mean? Bullshit. And yet, thankfully for us, she keeps on. 

The Cosmopolitans, published in 2016, is a beautiful queer novel of true friendship. It's the only book I can remember ever finishing and wanting to immediately start reading again from the beginning. I can't blurb it; it deserves a full examination. But I did send it to my good friend Ana as a gift and she's reading it and enjoying it, and you should always listen to Ana. 

I think what I liked best about Girls, Visions, and Everything was the feeling it gave me--just joy over reading about so many different queer people of different races and backgrounds and their friendships. Sometimes, when you come across so many books that deal with the LGBTQ community in a stereotypical or token-minority way, it can be hard to remember better books exist. And have existed! This one was published in 1986.

Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America
by Sarah Schulman

I, the Divine, The Angel of History, and KOOL-AIDS by Rabih Alameddine

I, The Divine is the first book by Rabih Alameddine I ever read, and it gave me that feeling you dream of having when you read an author for the first time: what took me so long?! Each chapter is  written in a completely different style as a new draft of the main character Sarah's beginning attempts at a book (sometimes as a memoir, sometimes as a novel, sometimes something else all together) about her life. It's incredible how much the various formats reveal about her life and even about the writing process itself. Sarah Schulman has called it "a perfect novel" and, like usual, she's right.

The Angel of History was released in 2016 to great reviews, but I haven't seen any that really do it justice. It is unapologetically gay, global, smart, complicated, and historical. Satan, a cat lover, is a main character. Jacob, the main character, goes on the best rant about queer culture I have ever read.  It took me, someone for whom reading a book in two days is kind of long, over a month to read it, because there was so much to think about. I mean, I'm still thinking about it. The Angel of History is a book that begs to be read over and over again.

The copy of Koolaids I borrowed from the library didn't have a traditional cover, it had a full-page blurb from Amy Tan. I've never seen that done before, and when I saw it I was like...is this really necessary?? No disrespect to Amy Tan; it just seemed like overkill. (Oof. See what I did there?) Through genre-defying styles, Alameddine draws parallels between the AIDS epidemic and the Lebanese civil war. If I wasn't sure before, this book confirmed it for me: Alameddine is a genius. Oh, and don't worry, Scientologists: Tom Cruise shows up several times to assure us he is most definitely NOT a homosexual. Phew. (Also of note, Koolaids has a surprisingly detailed Wikipedia page for a post-modern book by a queer author. David Sedaris this is not.)
by Rabih Alameddine 

Zami, Sister Outsider, The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde
Today, February 18, 2017, would have been the great Audre Lorde's 83rd birthday. It is my sincerest hope that the recent success of the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro leads to a documentary about Audre Lorde. The transcript of Lorde and Baldwin's "Revolutionary Hope" conversation, originally published in Essence in 1984, highlights the importance of this.You should read it, and all of three of the Lorde books included here. She was--is--everything. 

by Audre Lorde 

Tell them about how you're never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there's always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don't speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.