January 06, 2019

Favorite Reads of 2018

I read 223 books in 2018, and to be very honest, I feel a little weird about it. Not because of the number (although I don't recommend bringing it up at parties, unless you are trying to be unrelateable), but because the overall effect of the full list of titles is...who am I? Compared to previous years, which usually end up with a majority of interesting lesser-known novels and plays and poetry that reflect the way I see myself, this year makes my "reading profile" almost unrecognizable. Who reads DuckTales comics and also ? What part of Ulysses was I on that led me to reading seven children's books in one day? In fact, why is James Joyce (and related titles) even on this list so many times? At least that one's easily explainable: it was for school. But even that is a limited excuse, since I did some extra James Joyce-related reading on my own because...otherwise he made no sense. And there were some very controversial opinions: for instance, I finally read Jane Eyre, which I've long put off reading because I assumed I wouldn't like it, and, surprise, I didn't like it.

Despite all of that, I did still enjoy a solid number of books in 2018. Here are the twelve I enjoyed the most (in no real order):

A History of Violence by Edouard Louis (translated by Lorin Stein)
I need to buy this so I can reread it and keep it on my shelf to inspire me. It's classified as a novel but it's really more of a creative non-fiction memoir. The use of language (no small feat for a book translated from the French!), the framing technique (Louis listening in on his sister explain his rape to her husband, and she doesn't know he's listening), the exploration of what the intersection of gender, race, and sexual orientation can mean for a rape survivor...brilliant, raw, powerful. My top read in 2018.

The Hour of the Star by Claire Lispector
I bought this on a whim because some friends and I were going to start a book club. The book club didn't happen, which is really too bad because this was a great book club choice for a bunch of post-modernism-loving nerds.

Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar
I'd had this book on my Goodreads TBR shelf for three years and finally read it after picking it randomly from the list. I can't remember how it got there in the first place, but I'm so glad it did. Devastating. You should read it too. It belongs on more book lists.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Another random selection from my TBR shelf. The Great American Novel of white poverty.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
A masterpiece that led me to learn more about the history of real servants in Britain. I read (and reread) it for class, and I'd have to agree with my professor's assessment: if it doesn't make you cry, you don't have a heart.

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Essential reading, especially for anyone who identifies as a feminist--know your history. (And when you're done, go read the classic collection All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us are Brave, co-edited by Barbara Smith, one of the original CRC members.)

Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic by Richard A. McKay
I had to read Randy Shilts' And the Band Played On for one of classes I took in 2018, and McKay corrects the falsehoods Shilts instilled in the communal memory of the history of AIDS--most notably placing the blame for the epidemic on a "patient zero." If you can get into academic non-fiction and care about the true history of AIDS, this is a must read.

Hit So Hard: A Memoir by Patty Schemel
I have a soft spot for celebrity memoirs, but I never expected this memoir by the original drummer for Hole to be one of my favorite reads of the year. I don't know if she had a ghost writer or what, but it was so, so, so well done. I also had no idea she was gay until I read this book, so that was a pleasant surprise. By the time I was done, I had spent a lot of time listening to Hole and I had a new understanding of heroin addiction from the user's perspective. There's also a documentary with the same title that I'll check out eventually.

A World Without "Whom": The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age by Emmy J. Favilla
I like to live on the edge of grammar, so reading this book was a no-brainer. If you have to deal with a style guide, BuzzFeed has the best one for our MODERN TIMES (in caps because I feel like it ok). It's definitely the most evolved on how to write about LGBTQ folks.

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss
Another surprise hit! I read this as a palate cleanser after (finally) finishing Ulysses. I expected John Oliver-style gay jokes, but instead I got totally wholesome content that made me cry. So good, so cute.

The Sophie Horowitz Story & Maggie Terry by Sarah Schulman
First, let me say: Sarah Schulman is my favorite writer and all of her books are good. (She has like seventeen and I've read fifteen of them at this point.) I'll try to contain my inner fan girl. Her first novel (The Sophie Horowitz Story, 1984) and her most recent novel (Maggie Terry, 2018) are both mysteries (starring lesbians!) and it was interesting to see the style changes over 34 (!) years. Maggie Terry is a lot of fun, especially if you like fully-fledged, complex gay characters in situations you don't usually find them--like, for instance, mystery novels. Also, I love a book where you can tell a character's morality or "goodness" by the books on their shelf.

Here's to more great books in 2019!

November 26, 2018

Classics Club Spin #19

Classics Club Spin #19
It's time for my first Classics Club spin challenge and—of course, because why not—it is CHUNKSTER themed! Per the announcement:
This is an extra special, super-dooper CHUNKSTER edition of the Classics Club Spin. We challenge you to fill this spin list with 20 of those HUGE books you’ve been putting off reading because you didn’t have enough time. With this spin we are giving you the time  – nearly 10 weeks in fact – to tackle one of those imposing tomes on your classics shelf.
This semester, I'm in a course on James Joyce, and I've been reading Ulysses for the past couple of months (79% done!), so of course (heh) "big books" is the theme of this challenge. Also, I just read Jane Eyre for the club, and it's definitely a chunkster, too. So many big books! Zoinks! I'm committed to participating in the spin, though, so I made sure to keep the one big book from my main list that I couldn't deal with having to read right now, The Odyssey, off of my short list. Now I'm ready to knock one of these books off my list. Bring it, spinner!
  1. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
  2. The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
  3. Genet by Edmund White
  4. Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
  5. Border Country by Raymond Williams
  6. This Child’s Gonna Live by Sarah E. Wright
  7. La Bâtarde by Violette Leduc
  8. Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko
  9. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  10. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  11. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  12. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  13. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  14. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  15. Journey to the End of the Night by Céline
  16. The Time of Man by Elizabeth Madox Roberts
  17. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  18. Kipps by HG Wells
  19. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
  20. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
Updated 11/27: And the number chosen was 1! Good thing I adjusted my list because I originally had The Odyssey as #1. Looking forward to reading Lady Chatterley's Lover, especially since it, like Ulysses, faced a long censorship battle.

September 23, 2018

Regeneration by Pat Barker

Regeneration by Pat Barker, 1991 (#9 on my list)
I added Pat Barker's Regeneration to my reading list because it's the first book anyone suggests when the WWI-era poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves--or even Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde's devoted friend and literary executor--are mentioned. A quick look at Wikipedia for any of these names will see their characterizations in the Regeneration series featured prominently in the entry. At least that was my experience a few years back, when I read Robert Graves' memoir Goodbye to All That for a class. Many of the figures from that book feature here, with Sassoon and W.H.R. Rivers, a psychiatrist best known for providing treatment to soldiers dealing with what we would now call PTSD, in starring roles. The growth of their friendship and respect for each other, despite their differences in handling their pacifist beliefs and their homosexuality in a time of war, forms a major story line. To avoid being pure slash fan fiction, there is also Billy Prior, a completely fictional character who is a working-class up-and-comer, an officer and a heterosexual. The difficult relationship between he and Rivers is a complete contrast to the buddy relationship Rivers shares with the Sassoon. Prior's struggles and burgeoning romance with a young woman comprise much of the focus of the novel.

To be honest, I probably wouldn't have gotten around to this book for a long while, if ever, had I not added it to my Classics Club list. I just couldn't summon the enthusiasm for a book I worried would treat the complex queer identities of real people unfairly. The series has a pretty devoted following, which bolstered me, and I did give the book a good faith effort. For instance, I took lots of well intended notes while I was reading Regeneration. But the things I noticed were not exactly positive. I couldn't help but count how many words were italicized for emphasis--no less than 22, in the six page-long first chapter. If I hadn't committed to finishing the book, I likely would have abandoned it. It has been a little over a month now since I finished the novel, and time hasn't given my experience any more enjoyment. 

That said, I may end up reading the other books in the series anyway. I hear Robert Ross has a larger presence later on, and there are too few books, fiction or non-fiction, about him.

Read August 2-12, 2018

In later life, Robert Graves became quite conservative. For him, even Robert Frost was too radical.
Additional Reading

August 14, 2018

Joining the Classics Club

Learn more about the Classics Club
Well, hello! After several years of watching from the sidelines, I've decided to join the Classics Club, an ongoing challenge for bloggers to read at least 50 classics of their own choosing within five years and write about each book they finish. I have been longing to rejoin the book blogging world, but I've been unsure of where to begin. I realized it would be far easier to hop back in with a clear-cut goal that includes an end date and a level of accountability to the club, if not to myself. I'm looking forward to working on it.

Another reason I am joining is because the challenge will help me with one of my other goals: reading more novels. My reading habits naturally lean toward non-fiction with titles like The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde, and the Queer Moment that really hook me. In order to read a balanced amount of fiction/non-fiction, I have to put a little effort in. A couple of years ago I separated my “To Read” list by fiction and non-fiction through shelves on Goodreads. Currently, there are 674 books tagged “tbr-nonfiction” and 303 tagged “tbr-fiction.” Although the tags make it easier to find titles, I still feel frustrated by how much time it can take to settle on one to find at the library. And then, because I read so much—I read 220 books last year and I’m reading at the same volume this year—the search-find-read cycle repeats in an endless loop. I figure the less time I spend on finding books to read, the more time I can spend writing about the books I read.

The books listed below were already on my "tbr-fiction" list (or, with a couple exceptions like the Brontë books, should have been). Most of them could be called queer classics. There are also six non-fiction titles I've been meaning to read and probably wouldn't get around to for a while if they weren't included on the list.

The Classics Club requires you to choose a finish date within five years of starting. My goal finish date is January 1, 2022.
  1. Maurice by EM Forster
  2. Faggots by Larry Kramer
  3. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  4. The Pure and the Impure by Colette
  5. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
  6. Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran
  7. Blue Heaven by Joe Keenan
  8. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
  9. Regeneration by Pat Barker
  10. The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy
  11. The Odyssey by Homer (trans. Emily Wilson)
  12. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  13. Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko
  14. Don Quixote by Kathy Acker
  15. The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
  16. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
  17. Journey to the End of the Night by Céline
  18. Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
  19. When Fox is a Thousand by Larissa Lai
  20. La Bâtarde by Violette Leduc
  21. The Time of Man by Elizabeth Madox Roberts
  22. Maud’s Line by Margaret Verble
  23. The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute
  24. Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin
  25. Women Lovers, or The Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney
  26. Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks
  27. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton
  28. Two Women of London by Emma Tennant
  29. Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen
  30. This Child’s Gonna Live by Sarah E. Wright
  31. The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara
  32. Ernesto by Umberto Saba
  33. The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks
  34. Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein
  35. Border Country by Raymond Williams
  36. The Green Carnation by Robert Smythe Hichens
  37. The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola
  38. Abeng by Michelle Cliff
  39. Miss Peabody’s Inheritance by Elizabeth Jolley
  40. Kipps by HG Wells
  41. The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
  42. The Crux by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  43. A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
  44. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
  45. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah
  46. Homer’s Daughter by Robert Graves
  47. Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis
  48. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  49. Wuthering Heights by by Emily Brontë
  50. Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles 
  51. Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner 
  52. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
  53. Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
  54. Changing Places by David Lodge
  55. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert & Susan Gubar
  56. Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz
  57. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation by Eli Clare
  58. Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
  59. Queer and Loathing: Rants and Raves of a Raging AIDS Clone by David B. Feinberg
  60. Genet by Edmund White

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.

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.