Sunday, August 7, 2016

Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions by Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka, 2016

★★★
Read from July 3 to 12, 2016. Copy free from publisher. 

It's been a while since I've responded so strongly to a memoir, but this is a tremendous historic document and I hope its rescue from a typewritten manuscript decaying in a corporate archives to nice contemporary publication will help it gain a wide academic and non-academic audience.

So who was Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka? In one sentence, the first transman to get a phalloplasty. Less crudely, a member of the British gentry, a doctor, an officer of the Merchant Navy, and the first White man accepted as a Tibetan monk. He wrote this set of memoirs as sort of a clap-back after he’d been outed, then mailed them off to a publisher. Sadly he died rather quickly thereafter of a sudden illness, before the package reached the publishing house, and then the manuscript was blocked from publication by his surviving brother. And has remained in legal limbo for 50 years, until now.

What I like best about Michael’s memoirs is that he’s such a warty human being and he either didn’t bother to disguise it, or was just totally oblivious to his own personal failings. I don’t know what he was doing in that Tibetan monastery before he wrote this but he sure as heck didn’t reach enlightenment. He cracks off these little dickish comments about The Poors, The Irish, The NHS, The [Any Non-British Ethnicity he met], Christians, Women, literally any identity that he is not, he in general doesn’t approve of, and why not write all that down he apparently thought, sitting in front of a typewriter in his Buddhist robes, typing out his memoirs. Why not indeed. Be who you are, embrace who you are, embrace your gender even if people tell you it's wrong, and embrace your personality, even if that personality is An Asshole. He also never for one second stops to think how uniquely privileged he was to be born independently rich and British, to get access to testosterone only a couple of years after its synthesis, how lucky he was to find a plastic surgeon (Harold Gilles) who would complete a mastectomy and phalloplasty on him. He sort of accepts these things in his life as his due, and let’s hear no more fuss about it. Which was the most challenging part of the memoir for me: I kept thinking, be just a tiny bit grateful you privileged butthole, do you know what other people suffered, but eventually I decided I was wrong and Michael was right. Why doesn’t he just deserve it? Why should he be expected to be grateful for a shot at an average life? He shouldn’t, and he wasn’t. Why should anyone?

He also totally fudges his own story, which is the mark of a truly fine memoir. What people omit from their own story is much more interesting than what they’ll ramble on about. In this case, Michael devotes lavish attention to his Oxford rowing career, how much he liked his Merchant Navy uniform (admittedly he works it), his fondness for chipping the paint off the sides of ships (not joking), and a blue and white bicycle he owned, while forgetting to mention minor details to his life like, oh, his entire relationship with the more household-name Roberta Cowell, who he secretly castrated (it was against the law at the time) so she could seek out her own plastic surgery, and who he wanted to marry, but she refused him. She’s not mentioned. At all. Which is very telling. But shhh. Brush up on your rowing terminology.

And here’s the “finale” to the book: he spent years “passing” and was as a member of the Merchant Navy, professes many times how he doesn’t care for money, and then, I guess on a whim, decided he’d better write off to Burke’s Peerage register to be next in line for his older brother’s title now that he’s got all that nonsense sorted out. And then he is shocked and appalled when someone eventually notices this, and then journalists come to his ship and out him in the British papers. Then he sees no choice but to faff off to be a Tibetan Buddhist monk for a few years before he can return to Civilization AKA Britain. And being an American; I sit at home reading his memoirs and just honestly cannot fathom what on earth went through his mind to do that. Michael you complete and utter ding dong, who cares about that moldy old title, you had freedom! But that’s precisely the sort of arrogant, idiotic, un-charming version of Bertie Wooster that Michael Dillon is. The sort of guy who registers for a British title after a hitherto very subtle legal sex change and is shocked that this has consequences. But he was born into the ragged edges of British nobility and he’s right, it’s his title to claim, and it’s the world that’s wrong.

That’s I think what’s so strong about these memoirs. The title is a lie: he’s not out of the ordinary. Not at all. He’s such a very average human being. I would probably find him extremely irritating as a co-worker. The thing that’s on the surface most interesting about him, proves to not be very interesting at all. Which is a nice message in its own way.

To be succinct, everything about this book is excellent and cool. The historical framing and introductory sections? Excellent. The fact that they happen to frame this rare historical document, rescued from legal death-by-a-thousand-cuts in some corporate archives? So cool. Pick it up this winter, try on another human being’s skin, view his warts and moles, compare them to your own. If you don’t, you’re missing the release from Archives Captivity into the Academic Wild of one of the most fascinating memoirs in modern times, soon to be used and abused in undergrad papers worldwide, and you’ll regret not reading it fresh yourself before it gets picked to death by other people’s analysis. 

Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady by Susan Quinn, 2016

★★★
Read from July 29 to August 1, 2016. Copy free from publisher. 

This is going to be one of the blockbuster popular histories of the fall, certainly to be featured on NPR and other big book promoters like that, so I was super excited to get an advanced copy. But unfortunately I was quite let down, because the book was actually kinda flat, and I was disappointed in it, though I’ve thought about it for several days and I still can’t totally put my finger on why it seemed so meh. I am slightly crazy about Eleanor Roosevelt, who is America’s greatest politician who never was, and I’ve always just accepted, in my post-everything-child privilege, that she was A Lesbian with some dumb cheating man who wouldn’t give her a divorce and that her partner was named Lorena Hickok, and that’s that. But the book, despite its stated thesis of documenting this great love affair, kinda made me question what I’d grown up “knowing” about Eleanor Roosevelt instead. Technically, the book was completely fine: The historical methodology, totally fine for pop history, the writing, unexciting but fine, the balance of the twin-biographies, fine. There's nothing structurally wrong with the book.

I think some of the problem is actually the subject matter and the historic materials at hand. While the author lavishes you with quotes from both sides of their 30 years of correspondence, it is just plain hard to squeeze too much spice and sex from the Eleanor-Hick letters, they are decidedly not like James Joyce to his mistress here. The evidence presented supports a romantic affair, with a lot of XOXO letters, U-Haul daydreaming about getting a sweet cottage together, a “special friendship” ring, and some cozy sleepovers in Eleanor’s sweet gayborhood apartment where we can infer human beings did natural human being things, but it’s striking how quickly it faded out to just correspondence about their political work and their health, far from the devoted lifetime romance the blurb promises you.

It’s also pretty plain this was an unbalanced love, Hick loved Eleanor more than she was loved in return. Hick quit her hard-won AP reporting job and devoted most of her life to her, pushed away other nice women she could have built a more emotionally satisfying life with, Eleanor… actively courted other emotional intimacies and didn’t give up anything that I could notice. I have been forced by this book, in short, to come to terms with the knowledge that Eleanor Roosevelt was a Bad Lesbian, and I’m not very happy about it. Which is fine, that’s history for you, always crushing your history-crushes, but the blurb promised me “a vivid portrait of love” and I got something more like a depressing series of blurry paparazzi photos of Eleanor taking a good woman for granted.

I do think the author, however, has put together the most complete set of stories about Hick yet published, including fresh interviews with people who knew her in her final years, which is probably the main value of the book. I didn’t know anything but the bare facts about Hick before reading this, and I now am kinda crazy about her, this grumpy looking woman with a fat cigarette hanging out of her mouth just doing her thing, working hard for 30 years and never being sure if she’d gotten a single position after being with Eleanor on her talent and without nepotism. There’s also some decent research on the other lesbian couples Eleanor and Hick hung out with, though I’d have liked more work on them, if only because it’s comforting to know Eleanor and Hick knew other lesbians in (what we’d consider today) more healthy relationships, and fights the general historical misconception of ye olden days being nonstop lonely closeted homosexual tragedy. So get the book if you want to read more about the beginning of women's involvement in Democratic party politics and a particular badass lesbian journalist, but temper your expectations of a great inspirational romance, because it’s just not here.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Road Trip: A Pocket History of Indiana by Andrea Neal, 2016

★★★★
Read from July 8 to 16, 2016. Copy from library. 

Did you know it’s Indiana’s 200th birthday this year? If you didn’t, you ain’t from around these parts, because oh boy, the Hoosier Industrial Complex, she is a’booming. And of all the crap being produced this year, this book is decidedly in the less-stupid half.

The angle of this book is history-themed road trip guide, and it’s written by an Indiana high school history teacher under the auspices of the Indiana Historical Society, and while a lot people might poo-poo a history book written by a high school teacher, I think her unique perspective on Indiana history is actually what makes this book excellent. Just think: this woman teaches the exact same history to a shifting sea of unhappy children every year, over and over forever, Historical Groundhog Day. Wuugghgh. But her annual repetition and constant distillation of all that is INDIANA down to its (common) core parts for children, it really gives her a unique broad-picture view of public history in the state as well as a grasp of what is and isn’t interesting. The book has some really finely selected physically-visitable high points for the state, with balance between the unique Native American history and prehistory here, to covering the important Black history that happened in Indiana both before and after slavery, and then of course some of your usual Log Cabiny White settlers history. But it’s a thoroughly modern public history book in its balance. So the book will suggest things like walking some of the stretches of the old bison migratory path that are still accessible and then also invites you to visit the remaining patches of the Indiana Canal and contemplate it’s unexpected legacy to the state (tl;dr it’s the reason why Indiana is constitutionally prohibited from going into debt.)

The only problem with the book? A lot of the most important historical sites don’t even qualify as wide spots in the road, and this road trip, were you to execute it in its entirety, would be extremely lame. I mean, Mary Clark is super cool and important, but is anyone with literally anything else to do in their life going to drive to see just a historical marker? Hell no. Also some of the most important historical events of the state simply aren’t physical. How do you select a site to exemplify the fiscal importance of Unigov? It's probably the single most important event in the history of modern Indianapolis (and by extension Indiana) history, but how do you visit the concept of “kill the sprawl by becoming the sprawl?” I, being a smart ass, would direct you to visit St. Louis, she directs you to visit 28th floor of the City-County building, the same glamorous venue where you apply for a marriage license and other such civic sundries, and which will also confiscate any tweezers you may have in your makeup bag which is annoying. I suppose this is the most fair selection you can make, but damn that's a crap place to visit. In general she favored Good History over Good Tourism though, and I respect that enormously, even if I’m not driving to visit a historical marker, like ever.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Vegetable Butcher by Cara Mangini, 2016

★★★★
Read from June 12 to 18, 2016. Copy free from publisher. 

I'm really digging the emerging trend of non-recipe cookbooks, like the groundbreaking Flavor Bible and Vegetarian Flavor Bible. And here's a new entry to the fold, sure to be one of the most popular cookbooks of the year with: a really cute title; attractive, informative pictures, and a focus on familiarity with purchasing, processing, and cooking vegetables.

Some other reviewers thought that the book had too few vegetables represented, myself I guess Indy is lame or something because I'd never heard of some of these vegetables and couldn't think of any that weren't covered. For my money I would have preferred more "classic" recipes for the vegetables (no 'slaw to accompany the cabbage?) but the recipes do present a good variety in complexity and style. The main value of the book, however, is the encyclopedic elements, the recipes are mostly I think to remind you that the plant stuff can also be eaten after you cut it all up.

So am I going to immediately stop buying those delightful frozen bags of pre-cut butternut squash cubes after reading her instructions for cutting those darned things? Well, no... but I am going to try to hunt down a celery root!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A Gentleman's Position by K.J. Charles, 2016

★★★★
Read from March 17 to 18, 2016. Copy free from publisher.

Have you ever asked yourself "What if the Jeeves and Wooster books were like, less comedy, and more romance, and also explicitly gay instead of just subtexty gay?" Well if you haven't, you're probably more normal than me, but if you perhaps have gotten tripped up on Wodehouse's strangely tender portrait of a man and his valet just trying to live together without the constant interference of managing women, are you in for a treat!

This book completes the "Society of Gentlemen" trilogy, which is a strangely generic and restrained series title for the highest-quality regency romance on the market today. These aren't your mom's regencies, where you could make them a contemporary romance with just a few find-and-replace jobs on the clothing. K. J. Charles' books have that particular English sensibility where class is always there in the room when any two or more people meet up. (Very noticeable to all True Americans, because as you know we don't have class, haa...) All of the romances in this series have explored class in some major way, from class mobility in the first book, to class politics in the second, and finally in the last book, we get the most extreme class problem, and we have to decide how two people who will never be anything close to equal in class can nevertheless find human (and sexual) equality between them. And what is more unequal than a servant sleeping with his lord and master? Or is it...

As a bonus, the author has identified one of the characters as demisexual. Google "demisexual," then come back and read the book. Oh, and I can be crude enough to mention this, the ebook is only $3. I've certainly spent twice that on books I haven't liked half so much.

I'm crossing my fingers we get a little shoot-off novella for the side characters Will and Jon, who run the classy gay clubhouse all the characters hang out at. Plz.

Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis, 2016

★★
Read from April 12 to 13, 2016. Copy obtained through library. 

Some quite interesting themes at work here, and some good historical research - Esterházy, Haydn, musicians in service to one man, difficult sibling relationships, and a second-chance love story - but the book overall is unfortunately held back by lack of rhetorical chops and sloppy plotting.

This is an adult novel, but the author has cut her teeth on YA and unfortunately it shows. The book had sort of an uncomfortable Degrassi vibe to it - adult themes coming at you in squeaky teen voices. The writing reads exactly like it should for a YA novel. It's very simple. No complicated rhetorical structures, no big words, short sentences. This is not how adult novels are typically written. I stopped reading YA fic more than once or twice a year when I aged out of it, so the combo of adult things + teen writing really jumped out at me. Grown-up YA readers (and there are a ton of you guys) will probably not bat an eye at the style though, so ignore me if you read them on the regular! The narrative also head-hops around constantly to maybe 7 total characters, which I found very off-putting, it's a crude technique if you can't manage multiple-character development any other way.

The plot is about 50/50 split between a romance (between Carlo, World's Greatest Castrato (tm), no relation to that other guy named Carlo, and lonely widow Charlotte) and a magical mystery, which frankly I am still confused about. The romance has some very sweet moments, including a gender-bending masqued ball scene where they dance with each other both dressed as men, which is a bit heavy-handed on the gender-bending theme but it still quite decently done, and is probably the best scene in the book. But the romance is drastically underdeveloped, so that at the end of the book, you are so uninvested in their relationship (which is made up of two erotically charged duets, that dance, and a single kiss) you're just as confused as any of their contemporaries as to why exactly they claim to be in love.

The magical elements in the book are the real Achilles heel though, as they are the backbone of the mystery plot which keeps the whole narrative moving along, yet they are entirely undeveloped. You have none of the key questions about any magical world answered - What is magic? How does it work? Who can do it? What are its limits? These questions are like Fantasy Writing 101 stuff, and I'm very suprised an accomplished author skipped them.

But overall an interesting bridge book for YA - Adult readers showcasing some underexplored historical settings, just a few weak points.

The Catch Trap by Marion Zimmer Bradley, 1979

Read from May 5 to 9, 2016. Copy obtained through library. 
Let me start this book review with a picture not of the cover of the book, which is more conventional for book reviews, but instead a picture of my particular copy of the book, which I think is worth looking at.

Wow that’s an ugly book you probably are thinking. Welllll. Yes. But to a library groupie this book is more than ugly. This is the first edition of this novel, and has been rebound (badly, the text block is crooked) in a hideous lime green patterned buckram. For some reason which eludes me, library-grade bookbinding buckram traditionally comes only in colors of extreme uglyness. When I worked circ I honestly never quite got used to getting books back from being repaired and seeing what cruel punishment the bookbinders had laid down on books that merely had the misfortune to be loved too much. It’s not fair to make good books be ugly! Yet they usually are, in a big library that’s old enough to have had a few old books pile up. And so, behold this ugly ass book from my public library, drink it in, for what we have here is … A Weeding Survivor.

One of the secret pleasures of living the library life in a city with a large and long-established public library system is that you occasionally end up with a Weeding Survivor in your hands. Weeding, for those who have managed never to work in libraries, is when libraries periodically go through the collection and remove books that are not longer being checked out. You probably don’t know about this, because you shouldn’t, good weeding is unnoticeable except you see more good books on the shelf and less old and crappy ones. Usually you pull from the catalog a list of all the books that haven't been checked out in 5-10 years, or some time period like that, and you evaluate them for things that are no longer relevant or accurate (for the non fiction, in particular health books) and that should be replaced with new books in the subject; or for fiction that is no longer being read, it's just removed, and sent to the book sale. This is the bulk of weeding, fiction. Most fiction has a short life span of when people will choose to read it. More of it is constantly being written too. Public library readers don’t want every dumb novel ever published. They want the hot fresh dumb novels. Fiction goes in and out of the library collection in periodical waves, except for those we deem Classic. There are libraries that never weed and just get more buildings, but they are a different story. 99% of well-run public libraries in America weed with vim and vigor.

So, when you have a novel survive in a major US city’s public library collection from when it was purchased in 1979, to today, 37 years later, without either being removed from the collection or replaced by a new copy, it means two interesting things:
  1. This book has maintained enough regular circulation among the good people of Indianapolis to remain un-weeded for 37 years
  2. Yet, conversely, after being rebound (likely in the mid 80s from the style), it has not circulated enough to get worn out and replaced with a new edition, which does say something about the power of industrial buckram
Steady, yet low, circulation, makes for a Weeding Survivor. Weeding Survivors are generally very interesting books for this paradox of readership. They may be cult classics. They may be more legit classics that just get this unique status in your particular town. I doubt many other cities in America are still rocking the first edition in their public library, it’s either gone from the catalog or in a reprint. But Indianapolis is special. So, this ugly smashed-Skittle of a book has enjoyed low, steady circulation for 37 years, and that’s something worth taking a second look at. My check-out (and also not ripping the book in half, dropping it in the bath, or eating a burrito over it) has almost certainly ensured it will now make it to 40 years.

So keep an eye out for Weeding Survivors at your own public library. They are special. They are a unique delight of the physicality of shared reading material. Put your fingers in someone else’s (you hope to god) chocolatey fingerprints, imagine when and why they read this, what they thought about it. I once heard an old lady talking about how she loves ebooks now and only checks out ebooks because sharing books is sharing germs. I resented sharing air with her in that moment, for it’s the same thing. Life is sharing physical space, physical items, germs. There’s nothing I like more than reading a weird or controversial book and seeing from the physical book that other people in my town have read it too. What could be more comforting that you are not alone, and are never alone, even through time, that you can touch hands with someone on a book owned by the citizens of your city for more than three decades. And I’m afraid it’s your Last Chance to See. Public libraries do not rebind as much anymore, as it is usually cheaper to replace now. And it will be entirely lost when popular reading moves to ebooks. So go check out an old book.

ALSO, aside from a fascinating physical existence, this book had words inside it, which is pretty common for books, so now I shall review these words and not just talk about buckram.