Tuesday, July 31, 2012

booknotes: just-before-august round-up

As we reach the end of July it's time for another catch-all post of mini-reviews for books I've read but haven't had time to substantively review. CrowGirl and I are busy with life in the upcoming months of August and September (among other things getting married and going on our honeymoon) so anticipate light posting around here until October.

Virgins: A Novel | Caryl Rivers (St. Martin's 1984; 2012). Rivers' novel about Catholic High School seniors coming-of-age in the 1970s is being re-issued this fall as an e-book; I received an advance review copy and read it on a sweltering afternoon earlier this month. It was a quick and satisfying beach (or in this case bathtub) read, and reminded me of nothing so much as the film Saved! -- though obviously with a different set of historio-cultural references. The characters are Catholic, not Protestant Evangelical, and no one gets knocked up by their gay friend while trying to turn him straight. Instead we have the earnest Catholic-college-bound Peggy, her boyfriend Sean (bound for the priesthood), and Peggy's looking-for-trouble Constance Marie ("Con"). Since I've started writing smut I'm more intentionally interested in how sex scenes play out in novels -- and I will say (mild spoilers!) I was pleasantly surprised by the positive and tender nature of what we're calling these days "sexual debut"; both Sean and Peggy are enthusiastic participants and neither appear to regret their decision -- nor attempt to bookend it with marriage. It's always heartening to see teen sex (or, you know, any sex really) portrayed in positive yet realistic ways.

The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousnesses and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice | M.G. Lord (Walker & Co., 2012). I picked up a $1 advance review copy of Lord's brief biography of Taylor at Brattle Book Shop after hearing an author interview on the RhRealityCheck podcast. I was particularly intrigued, listening to the interview, by Lord's description of the Production Code Administration and how Taylor's films were often a process of push-and-pull with the authorities over themes of gender non-conformity, defiance of religion, homosexuality, abortion, etc. Unfortunately, The Accidental Feminist spends less time on the evidence of censorship, revision, and defiance that can be mined in the archives and the films themselves -- and more trying to convince us, on precious little evidence, that Taylor herself was a driving force in ensuring "feminist" readings of the characters she portrayed on screen. While a fresh examination of Taylor's career may be in order, I felt throughout that Lord was over-egging the cake and that her case could have been strengthened -- or at least clarified -- by more attention to the historical context. Particularly surrounding feminism, in which Taylor came of age and rose to stardom. For example, in Lord's reading of  Giant (1956) she argues that Taylor's character -- the East Coast bride of a Texas rancher -- is somehow more feminist than the rancher's gender-nonconforming spinster sister, in part because Taylor's Leslie is more feminine. Troubling on multiple levels, this analysis ignores the way in which butch single women in cinema during this period were often coded dangerously lesbian, sociopathic, and feminist. To champion Taylor's character in part because of her gender conformity seems distinctly ahistoric as well as not very feminist, at least to my way of thinking! All in all, not recommended if you're looking for a cultural history analysis of the role Taylor and her filmography played in gender debates of the 20th century.

The Gay Metropolis: 1940-1996 | Charles Kaiser (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). For some reason, this past month, I found myself reading two of the standard histories of queer life and activism in America -- the first being Kaiser's history of gay New York from WWII through the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Like Marcus' Making Gay History (see below), Gay Metropolis draws heavily on personal reminiscences. I particularly enjoyed the stories told by interviewees who had come of age before gay liberation or organized activism -- men and a few women who recalled falling in love and having same-sex relationships in times and places were those experiences had little political resonance. Though obviously political ramifications if the individuals were caught, arrested, fired, blacklisted, or otherwise discriminated against. Despite the subtitle's claim that this is a history of "gay life in America," it focuses heavily on urban areas and largely on a gay male population that moves through various metropolitan areas on the east coast -- most notably New York City. Taken for what it is, however, this is a highly readable narrative with a number of valuable first person accounts of the social, cultural, and political experiences of gay and lesbian folks in 20th century urban America.

Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights | Eric Marcus (2nd ed.; Perennial, 2002). Originally published in 1992 under the title Making History, this ambitious oral history of gay and lesbian activism since the 1950s draws on over sixty interviews with prominent figures in the movement to tell an on-the-ground narrative of the fight for equal rights from the Mattachine Society to Lambda Legal and ACT UP. These oral histories are heavily edited into gobbets of personal reminiscence interspersed with contextual notes by Marcus. As with any "pure" oral historical narrative, I found myself wishing at times for more analysis. However, these oral histories will be invaluable sources for historians in years to come -- and I devoutly hope that Marcus has taken steps to ensure the unedited versions are secured in a repository somewhere to be accessed and utilized by researchers in perpetuity. His interviewees are both well-known names (Larry Kramer, Randy Shilts, Ann Northrup, Barbara Gittings) and lesser-known individuals whose actions have nonetheless had a profound effect on our understanding of the queer experience and often had a major influence in the political arena. For example Steven Cozza, a teenage Boy Scout who campaigned for the Boy Scouts of America to rescind their policy of excluding non-straight members, or Megan Smith, one of the techies behind PlanetOut -- an early Internet space for queer socializing and activism. I'm glad to have added this volume to my reference library.

(As a side-note, this book is responsible for the only literature-based pick-up I've ever experienced, when a waitress at the restaurant where I was waiting for Hanna saw me reading it and suggested I might enjoy Provincetown's "Girl Splash 2012"; after all the porn I've read on the subway THIS is what inspires the overtures? And they say history isn't sexy.)

Breeders: Real-Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers | Ariel Gore and Bee Lavender, eds. (Seal Press, 2001). I was pleasantly surprised by this anthology of essays by mothers about their journey to and through pregnancy and parenting. It contains a diverse mix of voices --a range of ethnicity and class, geographic locations, family shapes, and parenting styles. We get Allison Crews' meditation on teenage motherhood and her decision not to surrender her son for adoption ("When I Was Garbage"), Sarah Manns essay on the path she and her wife took toward adoption ("Real Moms"), and Ayun Halliday's heartbreaking "NeoNatal SweetPotato," scenes from the stay she and her daughter faced postpartum in neonatal intensive care. Stories of parenting in violence-ridden urban slums and yuppie enclaves, stories of parenting on the road and in the backwoods with no plumbing and (gasp!) no email. Stories of upper-middle-class striving and stories of precarious food-stamp subsistence. Every reader will find a few pieces irritation inducing, a few pieces deeply moving. Parenting -- and family life more generally -- is particular: We all make decisions based on resources and circumstance and what we believe is best for both ourselves and families. Because family formation is in the cultural spotlight right now thanks to wrangles over marriage equality, divorce, abortion, evolving gender roles, assisted reproductive technology regulation, etc., our personal decisions are interrogated and judged -- and usually found wanting by someone, somewhere. And in turn, we find ourselves judging the decisions of others. I'd say the strength of Breeders is that it gives us a series of windows into the myriad ways in which pregnancy, birth, and parenting intersected with the lives of women at the turn of the millennium.

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