Tag Archives: Reviews

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.

Advertisements

Review: “Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness”

Ian Tattersall, paleoanthropologist par excellence, was the first person to make me feel that I had any grasp of evolution. I read his book on human evolution, The World from Beginnings to 4,000 BCE, in my Senior year. To have a subject so long obscured finally begin to clear (I say begin because to this day I am still baffled by evolution.) was a nearly miraculous moment in my high school life and I feel utterly in debt to Dr. Tattersall.

My fear when I started his 1998 book, Becoming Human, was that I’d placed Dr. Tattersall on a pedestal so high up that this book would be a let down. My fear upon finishing Becoming Human was that my admiration for the writer would cloud my judgement when it came time to write this review.

I really, really liked Becoming Human. Reading it felt like I was attending a marathon lecture from Dr. Tattersall. Written with an informal tone that conveys the subject with clarity and makes the material accessible to the layperson. A longer, more detailed account of human origins than The World from Beginnings to 4,000 BCE this book looks through not just our evolutionary history but what makes us human.

Part of why I’m such a fan of this book is the fact that Dr. Tattersall doesn’t just lay down THIS IS EVOLUTION AND HERE’S WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED. Rather he acknowledges the fact that evolutionary history is not so clearly defined and always tempers his statements with reminders that much of what we know could change at any moment with some new discovery. Another reason why I think this book is ace is the way in which Dr. Tattersall brings up theories that he doesn’t truly agree with. He presents major theories in modern paleoanthropology and then explains why he does or doesn’t think highly of them.

[Brief side note: One of the theories that Dr. Tattersall presents is evolutionary psychology. In gripping and destructive detail Dr. Tattersall disembowels most of evolutionary psychological theory. I’ve never been so happy in my life.]

Evolutionary theory is important. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s the truth or a bunch of hogwash but it’s a major topic in our cultural discourse and that makes it important. As a citizen it’ll behoove you to bone up on your human evolution knowledge. You’ll definitely stop asking the question, “If humans evolved from apes then why are there still apes?” You’ll stop asking this question because you’ll realize that this question makes ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE.

Anyone looking for a comprehensive but accessible introduction to human evolution should probably check out this book. I don’t know how much of it is outdated at this point and I can’t guarantee that you’ll become an amateur expert but you’ll definitely end up with some facts that’ll make you seem super smart at your next party.

Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness; Ian Tattersall; Harcourt Brace & Company, copyright 1998

Review: “Death Note, Vol. 1: Boredom”

I believe the last time I read manga was sometime in high school and I was a bit apprehensive about reading a whole book of manga after a few years of rest. It turns out that my eyes very quickly adapted to the right-to-left format that manga is written in.

Death Note is an entertaining book, although it is also pretty depressing. A death death demon drops his notebook, his Death Note, into the human realm and then everything goes pear shaped. Death Notes are the tools that the demons use to kill off the humans and for it to end up in the hands of a human, well, that’s a really bad idea. Naturally this Death Note is discovered by Light, an ambitious teenager with a very flexible moral code. Light, with the help of the meddling demon who dropped his book, discovers how to use his new toy to kill anyone he wants prompting him to start a moral, and bloody, purification of the human race. The police, with the aid of a mysterious private investigator, begin to pursue Light and the story takes off.

What separated Death Note from your everyday manga is the way in which it examines how Light handles his new power. There’s a sick pleasure in watching Light become consumed with his god-like abilities.

Let’s be real. I found Death Note to be a good read but not particularly exemplary.

Death Note; story by Tsugumi Ohba and art by Takeshi Obata; SHUEISHA Inc, copyright 2003

Three Minute Review: “Skin Deep”

Disturbing, dark, humorous. Skin Deep is a collection of three stories told in the macabre style of the 1950s horror cartoons that so outraged the red-blooded Americans. Horrific characters populate these stories, even the random background characters are disfigured or cruel. Not as gruesome as, say, Sandman but not light entertainment.

Skin Deep; Charles Burns; Fantagraphics

Review: “Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths”

The line between a good, or even great, biography and a really excellent biography lies in the biographer’s ability to tell their subject’s story and also connect it to the larger world. Nancy Marie Brown’s biography of the Icelandic poet and political schemer Snorri is an excellent example of biographies that tie together people and the times they lived in. Not only a biography of a Snorri Sturlason this slim book (It’s only 208 pages in the hardcover.) covers Iceland’s history and lore. Using the arc of Snorri’s life as her guide Ms. Brown tells the story of Iceland’s and continues to the cultural impacts of Snorri’s tales in the 20th century.

It’s refreshing to read a biography that wasn’t written by a sycophant. Ms. Brown addresses Snorri’s numerous flaws (primarily his self-serving nature) but she doesn’t try to explain them away or turn him into an overblown characterization of a villain. Her treatment of the Icelandic culture is similarly fair. Carefully making the point that the Icelandic Vikings were not the horned-helmet-wearing, looting and ravaging hordes that we remember them being she doesn’t hide their darker sides. Along with stories of Icelandic law courts and justice are stories of a six-year old smashing his playmate’s head open with an ax after losing at a ball game and the joy that this brings to his mother, glad that her son will be a true Viking when he grows up.

The legal and political life of 13th century Iceland is carefully explored in Song of the Vikings and it may just the be the political nerd inside of me talking but it is absolutely fascinating. Ms. Brown takes us from the first days of Iceland’s founding by Scandinavians who chaffed under the rule of a king to the arrival of Christianity to the domination of Norway. She adeptly breaks down the legal system that allowed this small island to maintain its unity so that even a complete novice such as myself feels that I understand. As a strict agnostic with an interest in how Christianity spread and its interactions with the native religions I was delighted when Ms. Brown addressed this very topic. The frustrations of the Bishops who tried to maintain a Christian attitude over a population with a very strong “Don’t Tread On Me” mentality provided a nice example of the outside world trying to exert its control over Iceland.

Snorri wasn’t the rough and tumble Viking that one sees in popular culture. A portly writer with dreams of becoming the “Uncrowned King of Iceland,” a strong goal for a Chieftain living in a country ruled by a strong oligarchy that prickles at the idea of a one-man rule. His constant struggle to achieve greatness makes a fascinating tale and one that takes the reader from the intricacies of Icelandic local politics to the court of the young Norwegian king. Unlike his more aggressive neighbors Snorri uses his control over language to work toward his end. In his attempts to court the teenage king of Norway Snorri repackages the old myths of Iceland to make them Christian friendly and presents them as a symbol of his intelligence and craft.

Ms. Brown’s prose is clear and crisp with few unnecessary flourishes. This does not mean that the book is cold or stiff. Rather it is has the comfortable warmth that the Icelandic sagas also hold. Song of the Vikings makes the reader feel that the author understands them and wants to engage them. Ms. Brown even acknowledges the sexual allure of the Vikings, using descriptions such as, “we can imagine his long blond hair loose over his shoulders, his massive chest and manly thighs bared.” Wooof! You can see the grin that must have been on Ms. Brown’s face when she wrote this, a grin that’s quite similar to the one I had when reading it. I would suggest that if you, like I, don’t have a great head for proper nouns then you might want to keep a pen and paper handy to keep track of all the characters in this book. Not only are the names unfamiliar and somewhat similar sounding to an American like me there are also a fucking lot of important people.

The final chapter of Song of the Vikings links Snorri and the myths he preserved to major cultural and philosophical ideas today. Unlike some who make rash comparisons and stretch connections Ms. Brown puts together a thorough chain from the 13th century to the 21st and goes through the chain link by link. She uses concrete evidence to put together her claims and, in my opinion, does so very well.

Song of the Vikings is an entertaining book that adds dimension to a period of European history that has been flattened by simple stereotypes of Vikings. Not just a cultural history, not just the biography of a man who you can’t stop reading about, not just a political intrigue, not just an overview of Icelandic lore, Song of the Vikings is a comprehensive read that covers a wide variety of topics. Yes, the history buff and the folklore buff will devour it but so will the casual reader, who will discover a new interest in Iceland and might just pick up a copy of Snorri’s writing.

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths; Nancy Marie Brown; Palgrave Macmillan, copyright 2012.

Review: “The Partly Cloudy Patriot”

This review is going to be a bit short since I’m rather short on time. I have an estimated forty-hours* to say my good-byes to friends and family, tend to some personal business, pack up my books and clothes, have dinner out with the family, pick up groceries, beat this level of Candy Crush Saga, buy a bed online, and then move into my new room four-hours South of my home. Thankfully I’m reviewing a Sarah Vowell book so I don’t really have anything to say other than, “Ms. Vowell, why aren’t we friends and can we be friends and you’re one of the most brilliant people in America and let’s go play arcade games together and be liberal as fuck together.” Also, I’ve got a really shitty cold and my brain is foggy so I’m going to cobble this review together over the next few hours. Will this be posted on the 4th? 5th? 25th? Who knows?

The Partly Cloudy Patriot was first published as a soft-cover in 2003 so if you’re a fan of personal essays, social/political commentary and/or American history then you’re probably already familiar with this truly excellent collection of personal essays. If you’ve somehow missed out on the Patriot, or even on Ms. Vowell!, then you’re in for a treat.

With a sense of humor that jumps from dry to overtly comedic Ms. Vowell uses her own life experiences to discuss some of the big questions in American history, culture and politics. One of my favorite things about her writing is her ability to casually write about big topics without ever entering into that, “I Will Now Talk About The Big Questions That Our Generation Now Faces,” language that some essayists might be tempted to do. Reading over the past two sentences I feel that I’ve done a disservice to Ms. Vowell in my attempt to describe her work. The fact is that I’m in awe of Ms. Vowell’s essays; the manner in which she casually leads from “small”, intimate and personal anecdotes into American history/culture/government is seamless and highly intimidating to someone who is trying to begin writing personal essays himself.  For some great examples of what I’m talking about check out “The Nerd Voice”, a rambling but highly coherent essay that manages to connect Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Al Gore with ease, or “Pop-A-Shot”, a mediation on the importance of a great arcade game**.

There is one thing where Ms. Vowell and I run into trouble: her sentence structure, or more specifically, sometimes I get lost during her sentences. I first noticed this when reading Unfamiliar Fishes, her book on the American Christian missionaries in Hawai’i that I highly recommend, but I’ve chalked this up to artistic differences and can deal with the occasional need to re-read a sentence or two. Besides, I’m totally aware that my sentences aren’t always put together in a way that makes sense to most people but I’ve just come to live with it***.

In this collection Ms. Vowell takes on Presidential Libraries, family visiting for the holidays, the mind of a liberal during the Bush presidency and Tom Cruise. Not only does she bring humor to her work, she also brings an observant and analytically adept brain. To have only humor is good, to have only a brain is good, but to have both is wonderful. Basically I love The Partly Cloudy Patriot. It appeals to the side of me that wants a “Don’t Tread On Me”-flag and the side that still gets teary eyed over Al Gore’s 2000 defeat. The neurotic in me appreciates it and the pretentious teenager I like to pretend I’ve left behind even likes it. There’s a place for the side of me that gets civics-boner and would rather drop a kitten into a meat-grinder than miss any of my NPR shows. And the historian up to his elbows in centuries of gore? Oh, he adores it.

A brief side note- As much as I enthuse about this book I really think that Sarah Vowell is at her best when writing histories. There’s Uncommon Fishes about American missionaries in Hawai’i, Assassination Vacation about her exploration of the various Presidential assassinations and The Wordy Shipmates about the American Puritans (all come highly recommended from me).

The Partly Cloudy Patriot; Sarah Vowell; Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, copyright 2003.

*I’m writing this paragraph at 9:49 a.m. on the 3rd of the month. Who the fuck knows when this post will actually be finished and posted.

**The one where you throw little basketballs into a hoop as fast as you can, you know, that one.

***Well sure, I guess I could edit my work but let’s face it, I’m a smidge lazy when it comes to editing…

Review: “Dreaming In French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis”

The primary myth of self-identification that we Americans have created is one of independence. Despite the fact that our nation and its culture are drawn from nations and cultures around the world we like to see ourselves as self reliant, the shining city on an isolated hill, a group of hard-up settlers who transformed the wilderness in paradise with nothing but our own hands. While most of us can probably agree that this myth holds little truth it can be disturbingly easy to lose ourselves in this myth. If Alice Kaplan’s new book achieves only one thing it is that this book reminds us that our intellectual and cultural leaders do not exist in an America-only vacuum. The book is divided into three biographies that explore the relationship between their subjects and France, specifically focusing on the year or two that each spent in La Belle France.

The American notion of France is divided. We have, among others, the glittering lives of the 18th century nobles (and their subsequent bloody end); the easily dismissed effeminate French with their black and white striped shirts and the men sporting ridiculously thin mustaches; the Paris with panache; the France of Jean-Paul Sartre and the France of Julia Child. Of course these attempts of reducing a nation, a people, to such simple strokes is obviously absurd. France, like America, like Guinea, like every nation in the world, is a complex mixture of culture and history that can only be fully described in a 2,000 page tome*. Ms. Kaplan’s choice of subjects helps to show the diversity of the French identity. Yes, Ms. Sontag and Ms. Davis both are notable social commentators (although this is only one part of each of their identities) but Ms. Kennedy? (One can almost hear, “One of these things is not like the other,” playing in the background.)

The France that Ms. Kennedy arrives in is rebuilding after the horrific Nazi occupation. Not only is the nation rebuilding itself structurally and economically but also socially as it tries to figure out what sort of nation it now is. Ms. Sontag’s Paris is the Paris of the great American expatriates who spoke English in their tiny flats and over cheap croissants. Her Paris is not the more chic Paris that Ms. Kennedy experienced but it is the physical location of an American counter-culture. It is the France of Ms. Davis that I found most fascinating as it is the farthest from the France that I’m familiar with. When she first arrives she enters into the world of existential philosophers but soon she is caught up in the French-Algerian dynamics that would influence her revolutionary ideals. Ms. Kaplan deftly shows  how Ms. Davis’ experiences with the race relations of a foreign culture would become useful not only in forming her ideas on society but also useful in her activism.

Readers who pick up this book looking for standard biographies of these three remarkable women will not find what they went looking for. Rather they will find Ms. Kaplan putting forth (and persuasively arguing) a thesis on how Paris helped to shape the lifestyles and politics that Ms. Kennedy, Sontag and Davis would become known for. If I was forced to pick a fault with this book, to lay out a major critique, it might be that Ms. Kaplan’s thesis is grander than the argument she puts forward. Except, except that might be the exact reason why this book is important. In our hero worship of our American Greats we dismiss the possibility that they relied on others (particularly foreign others) to help them form their identities. We need to be reminded that even our 20th century cultural and intellectual leaders did not spring fully formed from their mothers’ wombs.

Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis; Alice Kaplan; The University of Chicago Press, copyright 2012

*I believe you can see the hyperbole in this statement. It doesn’t necessarily need to be 2,000 pages or even a written tome but I think you get the idea. Nations aren’t simple, folks.