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 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.


  1. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS LISTEN TO CASS. Seriously, thank you so much for introducing me to Sarah Schulman - she's been so important to me already, and there's so much more to read and discover <3

    I read/reread all three Audre Lorde books you mention in 2016 too, and yes, yes, she is everything.


    1. So what you're saying is, you're ready to check out Rabih Alameddine? :D

  2. Such excellent authors! I loved what I've read by Schulman in the past, and actually picked up The Cosmopolitans based on your comments - I definitely need to read it this year. I haven't read all of the books you list by Audre Lord so more again to read this year! Which means, if I love both of them, I clearly need to check out Rabih Alameddine as well.

    1. Even if you don't! He's fantastic.

      So glad to hear you picked up The Cosmopolitans--every time I talk about it I want to reread it, and you know I'm not a rereader.

    2. I always forget that fact about you. What is life without rereading?!?!

    3. I suppose that is generally the less strange option. At least with books I usually read new things. I would rather watch a movie I've seen previously than a new movie 9.5 out of 10 times (except documentaries, they are exempt).