Tag Archives: Books

Speedy Book Reviews

(In an effort to improve my book reviewing skills I’m trying to post a review of every book I read. Right now I’m a bit behind so instead of three long reviews I’m going to do three shorter reviews.)

Moab is my Washpot 

Stephen Fry has been fairly well cemented as a secular saint and if you’re reading my blog you’re probably familiar with him. Moab is a moving autobiography  and Mr. Fry’s love of language makes it such a joy to read. Even if you’ve never heard of Stephen Fry I still highly recommend reading his autobiography. Do it, you’ll be thrilled with the results.

Stephen Fry, copyright 1997, Arrow Books

Shooting Victoria

When I first saw Shooting Victoria I immediately thought, “520 pages about the eight attempts on Queen Victoria’s life? Well that’s probably over-kill and only going to be interesting for a very narrow audience.” My second thought was, “I need this book more than I need my lungs.” Yeah, it turns out that I’m not bad at predicting things because my first thought was actually really wrong. Yes, this book is big enough to kill a child but it’s definitely not over-kill. Paul Thomas Murphy took the eight assassination attempts and used them to show how Queen Victoria’s reign began the transition into the modern monarchy. Well written and accessible and an all around wonderful read. Particularly recommended for fans of the British monarchy, European history and the Victorian era.

Paul Thomas Murphy, copyright 2012, Pegasus Books LLC

America Again

Friends, you know that I’m not Stephen Colbert’s biggest fan. Actually, you probably don’t know that. I’ve got nothing against Mr. Colbert, I’m just am not a huge fan. Reading America Again  was like watching an episode of his show. Yes, there were some moments that made me laugh pretty damn hard (which Americans he would eat if he needed was one of my favorite sections) but for the most part I found it to be mildly amusing. If you’re a fan of Stephen Colbert then yeah, I’d recommend it.

Stephen Colbert, copyright 2012, Grand Central Publishing

Review: “The Abacus and the Cross”

Pope Sylvester II (Gerbert) doesn’t have time for your lack-of-science-and-math bullshit.

Remember when I very enthusiastically reviewed Nancy Marie Brown’s Song of the Vikings? Well during the papal elections (I’m a not so secret Vatican/Pope fanatic. Not in the sense that I’m Catholic but in the sense that I am in love with the crazy shit that the Bishops of Rome used to get up to.) I picked up one of her older books, The Abacus and the Cross, which bills itself as “the story of the pope who brought the light of science to the Dark Ages.” Yes, this book is a biography of Gerbert (later known as Pope Sylvester II) but it’s more than the life of one man. In the same way that Song of the Vikings was a biography of Snorri that also told a grander story of Icelandic history and culture this biography uses Gerbert’s life to tell the story of the end of the first century in Christian Europe.

Gerbert is the sort of person who you have to feel bad for.  A peasant born monk who probably could have spent his life happily working away on various scientific and mathematical problems in the libraries of Europe Gerbert ended becoming involved in some of the big political kerfuffles of his time. The reader watches as the somewhat (Well, maybe more than somewhat) naive Gerbert is forced to learn the diplomacy needed to interact with kings and empresses and men with big tempers and even bigger armies. As Gerbert attempts to reunite the Holy Roman Empire it’s impossible not to want to hug him and say, “It’s alright, honey, you tried your best.”

Song of the Vikings helped provide a nuanced and more realistic portrait of Viking Iceland and The Abacus and the Cross does similarly for Plutarch’s “Dark Ages.” Following Gerbert’s travels to Spain we see the multicultural city of Corboda where Jews and Christians could advance to the upper levels of government in this Muslim city. There is no sugar coating in this book, no attempt to make the Dark Ages look like a “Kumbaya” singing group of multiracial people holding hands but it does put a clearer perspective on the cultural politics before the early 1000s.

Ms. Brown also preforms a service by reminding us of the importance of Muslims in not just preserving Greco-Roman science and culture but in adding to and advancing them to new heights. Indeed, Gerbert’s own achievements would have been impossible had it not been for the teachings of Muslim scientists and mathematicians. (Ms. Brown’s writings on the political motivations behind the demonizing of non-Christians that would follow only a few years after Gerbert’s death are also particularly interesting.)

The subject of the Church and its relationship with science and math and logic and reason (I’m working really hard to keep my agnostic evidence based snarky bastard side in check right now.) isn’t a new discussion but Ms. Brown provides more context by discussing how a Gerbert, a scientist who would become pope, found his faith and his science came together like one big happy family. By using him as an example for the more traditional faction of the Church that viewed science and math as forms of better understanding God versus those who were beginning to look at arithmetic as Devil worship Ms. Brown describes the contrasting sides quite nicely. The look at how this scientist pope was treated after death when those that disagreed with his views on science and math became the dominant voice is a fascinating way of understanding the shifts that occurred with the Church.

The Abacus and the Cross might not be as accessible as Song of the Vikings (I mean, the latter is about Vikings and who doesn’t love Vikings?) but if you give it a chance I think that most readers will find themselves engrossed in this book. This book could also be perfect for any reader who is looking for a solid history that provides nuances to their understanding of the history of the Catholic Church.

The Abacus and the Cross; Nancy Marie Brown; Basic Books, copyright 2010

Sod Off (Give Away)REMINDER: I’m giving away two copies of this print for free. Details are here.

 

 

“Star Trek: Federation” [Review]

Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens have written a book

If you’re a fan of Star Trek it’s worth a look

We’ve got Cochraine, Kirk and Picard all keen

Going up against a minion of Colonel Green

Although sometimes the technobabble is gobbley-gook

This picture doesn’t really have anything to do with the story but I am a big fan of it. By NBC Television (eBay itemphoto front photo frontpress release) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sorry, I’ve got to get this book back to the library and don’t really have much to say about it. Enjoyable and not entirely canon as it was published before several of the TNG movies came out. Maybe the authors reach a bit far in their attempt to create an epic space opera but it’s enjoyable.

Star Trek: Federation; Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens; Pocket Books; 1994

Review: “Trans/Love: radical sex, love & relationships beyond the gender binary”

I don’t know when I first heard of Trans/Love but I do know that at some point I got it into my head that it was a collection of beyond the binary erotica. Last week a friend met me for coffee and they lent me a copy for my train ride up to Vermont. I read the first story somewhere South of Brattleboro, Vermont, and went, “Meh.” As I plodded through the second story something clicked in my head and I went back to read the introduction. I was entirely wrong: These were not erotic stories but rather personal essays of, to quote the subtitle, “radical sex, love & relationships beyond the gender binary.” In that moment everything changed. I had been reading as if I was reading erotic stories designed to get me off and once I realized that these were non-fiction essays I found them intensely more engaging.

I’m not going to review every single essay in this anthology. Frankly I think that these essays work together to create a beautiful entity. I’m not saying that there aren’t any that can stand on their own but as a whole these essays weave tell stories from the East Coast to the West, from people of varied ethnic backgrounds, from privileged and not-privileged backgrounds, and from a variety of identities. There are 29 stories, the majority only a few pages long, and they touch upon almost any non-binary gender and sexual identities you can think of. From this highly enjoyable collection I’d like to showcase a few that I found to be particularly wonderful.

You know what we need more of in our progressive and positive communities? Acceptance and representation of “other” bodies. Joelle Ruby Ryan’s “Fat, Trans and Single: Some Thoughts from an ‘Othered’ Body on Control, Alientaion, and Liberation” talks about their experiences as a “fat, single, genderqueer, transfeminist, writer, teacher, [and] activist.” Beyond discussing the experiences of fat or otherwise differently bodied queers they also do an excellent job of addressing bi- and asexual erasure.  For some this essay might be a wakeup and for others it might be a reminder but no matter what it’s a damn important essay.

Speaking of building inclusive communities- There’s a two-and-a-half page excerpt from Imani Henry’s play B4T (before testosterone) that tells of a non-binary sexual encounter between two people of color. Alright, it’s actually so much more complicated than that but I’m going to say that you need to read this piece to fully take it in. Jennie Kermode’s “Getting It Out In Public” tells the story of their discovery that they are intersexed. Their story is interesting as is but I highly appreciated their discussion of their intersex identity as I feel that this is an identity that is far too frequently left out.

It might be the fact that I’m baby/toddler crazy at the moment but I am in love with the two family-with-children focused essays in this anthology. “Milk, Please” by Patch Avery is a lovely meditation on fatherhood, queers in “traditional” family models, and being brown in America. “Out Loud and Pride Six Months Before Surgery” by Dee Ouellette is also lovely but focuses on her experiences as a “queer tranny […] mother” and her own process with adopting the labels that felt right to her.

“City Hall,” the story of Phyllis Pseudonym’s green-card marriage, gave me the warm-cuddlies all throughout my body. This snapshot of her life, the few hours in the morning that follow along with her wedding, was, well, well it gave me a hope for my own romance. Besides finding her writing to be enjoyable to read I also found myself envious of her relationship. Alright, maybe not envious since I’m happy with my life right now but it gave me comfort to know that there are other people in the world who are looking for the same sort of relationships that I am.

I don’t want to say that I had a favorite essay but, um, yeah, I’ve got two favorite essays. While I was touched and inspired and brought to tears and to laughter throughout this collection there were two that I found particularly relatable and significant. Don’t know if you’ve picked up on this yet but I’m fascinated by the act of sex and how sex is important to us as individuals. “Made Real” by Sassafras Lowrey and “Resexing Trans” by Kai Kohlsdorf are both on this subject. Please just read them, they come highly recommended by me.

Look, I really think you should read Trans/Love. Buy it, borrow it, steal ( well, no, don’t steal it), do what you need to do to get your hands on it. This anthology is important, and not just for members of the queer community. There are so many topics and themes brought up that don’t receive enough attention from us, whether we’re queer or straight. For many of you this slim collection of the stories of people from a wide variety of marginalized sexual/gender identities will end up educating you and expose you to new ideas. Some people might be afraid of the words “radical sex” on the but if you can handle HBO or George RR Martin then you can easily handle Trans/Love.

Trans/Love; Morty Diamond, ed.; copyright 2011; Manic D Press, pub.

Review: “God’s Secret Agents”

I’m going to lay this out right here and now: God’s Secret Agents is the best non-fiction book that I’ve read this year (Song of the Vikings is an exceedingly close second) and this review is going to be heavy on the praise. The Cliffnotes version of this post reads something like this: You should read God’s Secret Agents.

In God’s Secret Agents Alice Hogge has produced a book that hits full marks for every aspect I judge history books on. Text is accessible and engaging? Yes. Presents a point of view that is as objective as possible/acknowledges potential biases? Yes. Offers a new interpretation or understanding of subject? Yes. Provides insights into modern culture? Yes. 10 out of 10, you go Alice Hogge.

God’s Secret Agents follows Catholics in England from the early years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign when Catholicism went from the state religion to the religion of traitors up until the extremely unsuccessful Gun Powder Plot that made Guy Fawkes so famous. Though the book’s cover implies that it is focused just on the Catholic priests who fled England to study in Europe and then risked their lives to return to England in an attempt to bring their home back to what they saw as the true and proper faith the book’s subject is far more expansive. While the narrative of these priests would be fascinating by itself Ms Hogge goes above and beyond by providing a history that puts the idea of the “revolutionary priests” in the context of its time and lays out the driving forces of all parties involved.

There are two points that I feel Ms Hogge deserves extra praise on. The first is that she takes apart the whole concept of the Catholic priest plotting to kill the Monarch and bring the Roman Catholic faith back into England. Priests in elaborate hiding holes and Guy Fawkes (who wasn’t a priest) style agents dominate our notion of this time period but Miss Hogge explains how this notion is rooted in the English government’s propaganda which was itself rooted in paranoia and not so much in fact. Yes, there were certainly some who did want to kill Elizabeth (and later James) but from the accounts of the active Catholics themselves these seem to be a minority. Despite a Papal decision that could be interpreted as allowing the assassination of Elizabeth most of the priests who traveled incognito throughout England were more concerned with the spiritual salvation of their countrymen than with Elizabeth’s life. Indeed the idea that a Catholic could not be a true Englishman loyal to his country was much more firmly held by the English government than the Catholics, many of  whom didn’t see such a firm contradiction between holding onto the old religion and supporting their Queen. This is not to say that all was peaceful but it was certainly more complex than we like to imagine. Another important distinction that we tend to forget is that it wasn’t just Catholic priests (Jesuit or otherwise) who were active in trying to restore the Catholic religion to England.

The second point that I thought Ms Hogge addressed very nicely was how violent and terrifying this period could be. While the reign of Bloody Mary is well remembered for the persecution of Protestants and Puritans the reign of Queen Elizabeth has been more sanitized (I have two pet theories on why this is: Our desire to remember elevate Queen Elizabeth to impossibly high standards and the fact that Catholics never returned to power.) Ms Hogge introduces us to an England where suspected Catholics faced not just financial persecution but also gruesome tortures and executions. Indeed this is an England where one nobleman felt that if his friend had been a murderer or thief or pirate or anything other than a Catholic he would be able to ask for leniency from the courts but since his friend was accused of being a Catholic he would be risking his own life in asking for leniency that would not be served. This book is an important and strong reminder that even golden ages can be filled with horrific details that we try our best to forget.

Ms Hogge’s final chapter is a particularly important aspect of this book as it presents one of the best connections between the past and present that I have ever seen. She first dismantles the connections frequently made between this period and modern events and then offers up more reasonable ones that actually, you know, make sense. Her history on the evolution of Catholic identities in England from the Tudor/Stewart era to modern politicians is also highly fascinating.

God’s Secret Agents is a thorough and comprehensive history that brings light into an aspect of history that has been obscured by retention to the propaganda of the time and should engage even the most casual student of history.

God’s Secret Agents; Alice Hogge; HarpersCollins, 2005

I Went to the Library Today

I nearly started to cry in the library today. Inside the fiction stacks I began to feel the familiar pressure build in my chest and I blinked rapidly, not wanting to lose the dignity that I cling to so obsessively. It was all too much.

The heaters and humidifiers hummed as they worked to keep the temperature stable. Behind the ajar door marked “Interlibrary Loans- Staff Only” came the sound of heavy, thick piles of books being moved from wooden tables to metal carts. Newspapers rustled and computer keyboards, muffled by the rows of shelves that separated me from them, clicked. Occasionally  there was a faint laugh and more frequently someone coughed. Winter coats made the sound that only synthetic waterproof fabric can make, a scratching sound that I cannot stand.

This library-induced need to cry isn’t an isolated case. I’ve been in libraries before. Some not as beautiful as this and some more elaborate than this. Larger and smaller libraries. Louder and quieter libraries. All, at one time or another, have brought me close to tears. When my mood becomes unstable it’s easier for me to become swept up in the quiet tragedy of the library. My mind becomes obsessed with reports of dwindling numbers of patrons; of famous authors calling their local library “obsolete” and calling for them to close; of memories centered around searching through the physical card catalogue, memories that can no longer be lived. It’s all I can do not to tear books off of their shelves to see the last time they were checked out. Of course the black ink dates stamped in the back will be out of date as the modern library uses scanners and e-mails now.

Do not think of me as a regressive librarian who is grumbling at newfangled changes. I enjoy how online catalogs and barcodes make my trips to the library run more smoothly. What I miss is the tactile sensation of flipping through well worn index cards to find the book I want. (Or do I miss my childhood which is to always be associated with standing on tip-toes to reach the upper drawers of the card catalog?) I don’t get angry at people who only come to the library to use the computer and have never checked out a book. I believe that providing internet access to the local communities is one of the most important responsibilities of a library and that this responsibility falls well within my ideas of what a library is. It’s not the modern library that makes me want to cry, it’s the chemicals in my brain forcing me to focus exclusively on the sadder aspects of life that makes me want to cry.

Standing in the stacks I find it all too much. The books around me become large, no, they’re always larger than their physical presence. Books are the size of their authors, of their history, of their readers, of their story and right now they’re too big. It’s not that they’ve grown but rather that at this moment I’m shrinking. There’s not enough room for me in this world. Ideas I harbor of writing, of becoming a librarian are instantly dismissed as utterly stupid. How could I ever think that I could become involved with this world? I’m not a mortal who looks to Olympus, I’m in the Asphodel Meadow and longing to be alive (longing for life must be stronger than the river Lethe.)

This shell of unneeded tragedy cracks as I touch a book’s spine. If this was a fairytale this moment when the pad of my finger touches the plastic cover would be the moment when Spring returns to the kingdom, when my family awakes, when my true love transforms from crow to Prince. This is not a fairytale and this is the moment when I realize that I need to go to the B’s. I’m in the G’s, only two rows away from where I need to go. It’s the Brontes that I want. Their stories will pair well with the winds and grey sky outside of this stone library. More importantly they’ll connect me to a world I can relate to.

There are no books by the Brontes. I’m so shocked that I check the shelves twice more, touching every book from “Bo” to “Ca” just to make certain that my eyes aren’t lost. The online catalog informs me that the Brontes are located in the lower level in the 800s. The shame I feel at needing this computer to tell me where to go is unbearable. I should have known that 19th century literature wouldn’t be located in the fiction stacks, I’m not your average library patron. Mortified I walk down the stairs. Here the shelves are metal and some have large posters from the 90’s that offer simple breakdowns of the Dewey Decimal Code. I dawdle in front of them, slowing down my pace to touch each laminated poster and feel the return of library classes from many years ago. In fact I suspect that this yellow poster with white lettering is identical to one used in my school library, or close enough to make me feel nostalgic for my early days in libraries. Those were the days when I believed that librarians could be dragons, that swords could fall out of books, that Dewey’s order was the thin line that separated us from anarchy. I still believe these things but they’re less literal and more metaphoric now.

In the 800’s I make a point of looking at every book. I suspect that these titles don’t get the attention that they were once used to and I feel guilty that I don’t visit more often. Chaucer, Hardy, Eliot and their compatriots are interspersed by biographies of these authors.

The Brontes no longer seem so important to me. I look over their titles, consider re-reading Wuthering Heights and then inspect Jane Austen. Maybe Doyle? No, too modern. I pick up Cranford. It’s a title that I’m familiar with only in the sense that I know of references to the town it takes place in. The first page is intriguing (a town in the early 1800’s that’s run by Amazons?) and soon I’m smiling, not just at Elizabeth Gaskell’s humor but at the similarities I feel between this town and my rural home.

With Cranford in hand I head upstairs. I’m not ready to leave the library and I go to the third floor for no other reason other than the sign that says “Special Collections/Robert Frost/Emily Dickinson/Third Floor.” The door to the special collections is closed. I think I could just push it open and go in but I suddenly can’t face Frost, so unhappy at Amherst, or Dickinson, too emotional for this moment. Fingers dragging along the polished railing I go back downstairs.

I’m a Yankee and uncomfortable with displays of emotion in public. Hell, I’m uncomfortable with displays of emotion even when I’m completely alone. That’s why I need libraries, that’s why I need Elizabeth Gaskell. This visit has taken me through emotions that I repress. In the presence of Virginia Woolf and Junot Diaz and Piers Anthony I admit to anxieties and fears that I regularly refuse to admit to myself. Libraries are the repository of the human experience, of the full range of our emotions, of the Marquis de Sade and Danielle Steel. They are the closest I’ll ever come to so many parts of life as they collect the sum of our existence into something accessible. In libraries I find prayer, salvation, hope and Cranford.

An Open Letter to Alison Bechdel (Review: “The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For”)

Dear Alison Bechdel,

By Michael Rhode (101_3633 Alison Bechdel) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Thank you.

I know, I know, you’ve received ten-thousand letters like this but let’s make it ten-thousand-and-one, shall we?

I grew up a queer outcast in a very heterosexual little rural farming town. My exposure to any sort of queer identities was limited to the occasional “let’s be nice to people” discussion in class. At a very young age I identified as not comfortable with how I related to heteronormativity. True, I didn’t always have the vocabulary to express my thoughts on my gender/sexual identity but I was aware enough to recognize that I was different.

I didn’t have the sorts of role models that my normative friends had. Where were the male superheroes that wore pink and why couldn’t Luke and Han make out? (Answer: Because Luke’s a weenie and Han and Leia are bad-ass soul-mates.) What I did have was 7-Days, the alternative paper that my parents brought home every two weeks. I thank my agnostic deity(ies) that I was introduced to 7-Days while in elementary school. Not only did their “Hot2Trot” personal section help guide me through puberty but it introduced me to your comic.

When I read Dykes to Watch Out For I had role models, I had superheroes. A bearded dad in a utility kilt and a transgender teen and people of color (I’m from the second whitest state in the union so this point is particularly important) and liberal intellectuals and queersDykes to Watch Out For was my exposure to the idea that queers came in all shapes and sizes and that we didn’t have to confirm to stereotypes. Yes, I was a male with same-sex attractions but that didn’t mean I had to be limp wristed and lisping (though I do have a bit of a Jon Inman wrist). There’s nothing wrong with happening to share characteristics with society’s ideas of queers but you helped me see that I didn’t need to let it define me.

For a young boy who was being introduced to sex primarily by his male, similarly aged friends (all of whom had very cis-centered, heterosexual, patriarchy themed ideas about sex that they wanted to share) Dykes to Watch Out For also expanded my ideas about what sex could mean. Your cartoons regularly covered discussions about sex as well as depictions of responsible and healthy sex. I can distinctly remember reading a strip featuring masturbation and realizing, “Oh! I can do that! And that’s not a bad thing and in fact it seems like it’s a good thing!” So on behalf of the sexually frustrated adolescent who relied on masturbation to help get him through years of celibacy I must offer you a tremendous THANK YOU.

One thing that I can’t thank you for is inspiring in me the idea that I could easily find a community like the one you wrote about. First of all I assumed that all the action in DtWOF took place in Burlington, a mere forty-five minutes from my house. I believe it was sometime when I was in high school and your book Fun Home was being promoted that I found out that the city was probably somewhere near Michigan. (I was actually really upset when I found this out.) Even with the knowledge that Burlington wasn’t the city you were writing about I still figured that if I went to a medium/small-sized liberal city then I’d find the queers. Well, Ms. Bechdel, I went to the University of Vermont for a year-and-a-half and didn’t meet as many queers as I would’ve liked. My own antisocial nature and reluctance to interact with humanity might have been a stumbling block but if Mo could find friends like that then why couldn’t I? (Side note- I’m now in Amherst and there are a lot more active queers so things might not be as bleak as I once thought.)

Reading The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For brought me back to my days of smuggling a 7-Days into my room and losing myself in the black-and-white lines of Mo and Co.’s endless pursuit of life, liberty and the perfect lentil soup. I tore through The Essential (even setting aside the book on Catholic priests in Protestant England I was currently reading, so you know, it was pretty serious) only to find myself reaching the end far too soon. When I closed the book I could feel my heart sinking as I realized that the lives of characters who I love and adore were frozen in perpetuity. The ending wasn’t all pain though as I found the fire you helped to light all those years ago suddenly flare up as it feasted. Not only was there a rekindling but a new fire was lit. I’m older and a different person than when I first read DtWOF and I’ve found new ways to connect with the work. Now I’m super-charged and ready to take on the patriarchy. I’m looking for my own Mad Wimmin Books and searching for my own Stuart/Ginger/Clarice (Hey, it’s not my fault you wrote such wonderful characters that I want to be in relationships with.) It’s time to be subversive and time to be radical and time to kvetch over hummus.

Thank you, Ms. Bechdel.

 

Yours most humbly and sincerely,

Samuel Aloysius Zaber

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For; Alison Bechdel; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Company, copyright 2008.