Just My Type
2011 (originally published 2010) • 384 pages • Gotham
I was at Michael’s the other day with a friend, in search of black wrapping paper to cover the shoeboxes I have lying around my apartment. (They have to be black to go in my room, you see, so I can put stuff in them. I have a system. A very goth system.) I always end up gravitating towards the cheap tchotchkes, and I discovered a cute little journal emblazoned with the phrase (and title of a very catchy Selena Gomez song) “Kill them with kindness.” Well, it would have been cute, if the font had been a dreamy, Pinterest-worthy script and not terrifyingly sharp block letters.
It’s things like this that remind me of the importance and beauty of typography, and it’s kind of a coincidence that I was halfway through Just My Type and seeing serifs the way David Krumholtz’s character sees patterns in Numb3rs. (That’s, like, a hip reference, right? I am so disconnected from the television landscape and yet, I save absolutely no time.)
2010 • 256 pages • Riverhead Books
While I’ve cooled on all but one, my love for advice columns once led me to subscribe to three at once—Dear Sugar, Ask Polly, and Captain Awkward. These days, Dear Sugar has evolved into a podcast (which I don’t have room for on my current podcast rotation, sadly), Ask Polly has moved from the Hairpin to the Cut, and Captain Awkward is still chugging away. I now only subscribe to the good Captain, but I’ll occasionally drop by the Cut to see what Ask Polly author Heather Havrilesky is up to. Like when I dropped by a few weeks ago, and discovered this gorgeous gem that summed up a lot of my interpersonal issues:
What you don’t know when you’re young and single is how personal it feels to live at the whims of someone else’s bad habits.
It’s this kind of writing that really resonated with me, especially given my issues regarding control and agency. So, inevitably, that led me to add Havrilesky’s memoir to my reading list. Disaster Preparedness focuses on key incidents in the young Havrilesky’s life, growing up in the late seventies and early eighties, that highlight the dysfunction of her family. As she grows up and starts to learn that other people don’t operate the same way that her family does, she finds herself running into obstacles between herself and her ability to connect with other people.
Havrilesky writes Disaster Preparedness with the same clear-eyed wit and wisdom as she writes her column. Mostly, she marvels at the ways in which her family have pushed aside the world to cling together as a unit, in ways that damage them personally and publicly. She writes of her family life at a distance of both years and knowledge.
It’s all very well done. Nonetheless, I am left with one question: how do I review a book that pushed me into a dissociative funk for a weekend?
Madonna: Truth or Dare
1991 • 122 minutes • Miramax Films
Of my problematic faves, Madonna is probably one of the most high-profile. I’m not sure when I fell for Madonna. I know when I first became aware of her—the morning after the 2003 MTV Music Awards, during which she kissed both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera during a performance of “Hollywood” staged as homage to her twenty year old performance of “Like a Virgin” at the inaugural MTV Music Awards. What was edgy then (well, edgy to a bus full of middle schoolers in Georgia in the early aughts) is now obvious as queerbaiting.
That’s the problem with provocation for the sake of provocation—it doesn’t age well. See how I recoiled from Madonna’s early nineties ouvre when I finally sat down and plowed through her discography a few years ago. But Madonna has never been just provocation. I enjoy her songwriting, her inventiveness, her willingness to explore, and her ability to stay relevant through sheer willpower. I like strong-minded women, who could have possibly guessed. Nonetheless, as much as I’ve been enjoying her recent work, I have been fixated of late on Madonna’s first incarnation: the club kid captured in Desperately Seeking Susan.
The Book of Margery Kempe
translated by John Skinner
1999 • 343 pages • Book-of-the-Month Club
I am as frankly surprised as you are that my reading has taken on a religious bent these past two weeks. I threw The Girl of Fire and Thorns into my bag yesterday morning, and only remembered once I started it that I had wanted to read it because it was the rare fantasy novel that actively deals with faith. (Verdict so far: yes, good, continue.) I’ve suddenly become dissatisfied with everything I currently have out of the library, so we’ll see if this trend keeps up when I refresh my selections. (I imagine it won’t, because I have Kieron Gillen’s Darth Vader on hold and cannot wait to read it.)
But I originally wanted to read The Book of Margery Kempe because it’s often considered the first autobiography written in English (and by a woman!). Although, of course, autobiography wasn’t really a genre in the fifteenth century—it’s more accurately an autohagiography. Still, it offers particular insight into the life of a middle-class laywoman in medieval England, as Kempe experienced her call to Christ after the birth of her first child.
2005 • 368 pages • Counterpoint
Ever since I watched Jesus Camp as a teenager, church camp has kind of spooked me. And I don’t mean regular, normal church camp. (I assume regular, normal church camp is pretty chill. I would have no idea, as Madame didn’t want me growing up Catholic and ashamed of my everything, but never settled on an alternative beyond “let the poor kid sleep in.”) I mean the camps bordering on indoctrination, the “pray away the gay” camps, the ones that feel like they’re preying on children. I just can’t understand why anyone would put their child through that.
This morbid fascination is why I alighted on Julia Scheeres’ similarly titled Jesus Land, a memoir of her and her brother’s time at Escuela Caribe, a “Christian boot camp” that’s a cross between those camps and the kind of camps that kidnap kids in the middle of the night to “straighten them out.” (These are real and they are horrifying.) It’s been on the Behemoth long enough that I no longer recall who recommended it to me, just that I came across in the little Carnegie library I used to live across from in Denver long afterwards. (Man. I used to live in Denver. Wild.)
by James St. James
2003 (originally published 1999) • 288 pages • Simon & Schuster
Quoth—or paraphraseth—Snatch Game: RuPaul’s Drag Race is so mainstream… (How mainstream is it, Clare?) RuPaul’s Drag Race is so mainstream that it won’t let you watch the current season online if you don’t have a cable subscription. Wherefore, RuPaul’s Drag Race? Why does being a millennial without a television mean that I must sacrifice the pleasure of worshipping at Kim Chi’s beautifully shod feet? Why can I not contribute to the eternal engine of RuPaul?
Yes, RuPaul’s Drag Race, RuPaul, LogoTV, and World of Wonder have become awful cuddly as of late—presumably the result of natural aging, a more welcoming society, and higher production values. (Although I still spend a lot of episodes murmuring, “Man, remember when Mac was a sponsor?”) But they weren’t always that way. Once upon a time, RuPaul and the personalities of World of Wonder were young, tough, and viciously glamorous. Case in point: James St. James,
The Price of Gold
2014 • 78 minutes • ESPN Films
Figure skating is the only Olympic sport I’ve ever actually gotten behind, culminating in the 2010 Winter Olympics being a very strange centerpiece to my sophomore year of college. (To this day, I have a macro of a tanning bed bellowing “FEED ME EVAN LYSACEK” that makes me laugh out loud.) Of all the sports represented at the Olympics, it’s the most overtly aesthetic and artistic. It’s also one of the most aggressively coded feminine sports, alongside gymnastics.
That makes figure skating densely symbolic in ways that other sports aren’t (or are in different ways), especially in terms of gender and class. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, two Canadian commentators said that Johnny Weir should take a gender test because his skating style was so flamboyant. (They later apologized.) I remember being particularly fascinated that year with American figure skater’s Evan Lysacek’s performance of gender—a lot of the material surrounding him seemed hilariously anxious to prove his masculine bonafides, especially in counterpoint to Weir. Lysacek won gold that year, soothing American masculinity’s precious nerves.
Similarly, the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding rivalry in American women’s figure skating in the early nineties was both about the two skaters and about acceptable performances of gender, class, and physical prowess. On one hand, there’s elegant, graceful, feminine Kerrigan, an ice princess of the highest order. On the other hand, there’s athletic, tomboyish, sometimes abrasive Harding, from the wrong side of the tracks. And then there’s the famous act of violence that linked them together forever and affected their lives in very different ways.
My Life in France
by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme
2006 • 317 pages • Alfred A. Knopf
Oh, did I ever need Julia Child this past week.
For reasons I don’t particularly want to go into, my ever-fluctuating confidence in myself was quite shaken last week, so being able to escape into My Life in France was an absolute godsend in terms of both general stress relief and relieving my anxiety. (I don’t think I’ve ever read myself out of being nauseous from nerves before, so that was a novel experience.) I’ve never been a particularly ambitious woman, which, combined with being a queer introvert who doesn’t want children, sometimes makes me feel disconnected from the usual cultural milestones my culture tells me I should be hitting to qualify as a real person. So spending my commutes reading the words of a woman who found her true, passionate calling late in life, never had children, and pursued her passion in life simply because she enjoyed it? It was heartening on a spiritual level.
While I’ve never read Mastering the Art of French Cooking and have never been an active fan of Julia Child—I’m young enough that I only really know her from pop cultural osmosis and a viewing of Julie and Julia—I’ve long thought of her fondly, to the point that I can summon her voice in my ear despite not having heard her voice in years. (How odd, to put it that way, since she passed away in 2006. Memory is such a weird and wonderful thing.) Anastasia is actually the reason I hunkered down and put My Life in France on my reading list three years ago, and her recommendation was quite successful.
Rock She Wrote
edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers
2014 (originally published 1995) • 496 pages • Plexus Publishing
Have I ever mentioned how much I love reading women’s voices in chorus? I always love learning about women in community, especially when it involves women that the powers that be prefer to isolate, such as Jane Austen in the Western canon (did you know Jane Austen was influenced by Fanny Burney?) or Dolly Wilde as a footnote in Oscar Wilde’s history. Anthologies of women’s writing can sound a little dry, but something like Women in Clothes can be so astonishing just by the sheer variety of voices it entails. Feminine experience is multifaceted, varied—we’re so often denied this truth in even supposedly progressive media that to encounter it all at once is a choice experience.
Rock She Wrote fights back against the (white, straight) boys’ club of criticism by presenting a sample of over thirty years’ worth of writing on rock, pop, and rap. Editors Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers, in the introduction, describe both the motivation for curating the collection and the treasure hunt of tracking down authors, soliciting recommendations, and hunting for lost fanzines. (As someone who dreams of discovering some secret trove of eighties Star Wars slash zines, I can relate.) And, blissfully, it’s not just a collection of straight white female authors—women of color and queer women also have their voices represented here.
Forty Million Dollar Slaves
William C. Rhoden
2006 • Crown • 304 pages
It may not come as a shock to you that I am not a sporting woman. I may enjoy sunshine and long walks nowadays (having come to terms with the fact that, in many respects, I am a glorified dog), but, in childhood, I aligned myself against organized sports after a coach mocked me for sulking behind my long hair instead of participating in fourth grade. I deeply suspect that sports is a bit like religion: it really helps if you were in the thick of it as a kid, although it’s obviously not necessary.
So, despite being a pop culture junkie who gnashed her teeth at the demise of Grantland, sports has never been a part of my life. I only understand sports through the lens of fandom (we are not so different, you and I, Cheeseheads), but even that’s through a lens dark with my culture’s toxic narratives about masculinity, violence, and race. But I had no idea how far that rabbit hole went until I came across Adrienne Elyse’s post on Feministing wondering how to square feminism and just plain ethics with sports fandom. What utility does sport serve us as a cultural practice, and why is that utility served with exploitative practices such as looking the other way when it comes to violence against women? In that post, she specifically names Forty Million Dollar Slaves as a good resource into understanding how modern American sports exploits young black athletes.