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.
2012 • 212 pages • Beacon Press
I’ll be real: Outlaw Marriages was not the book I thought I would read first in 2016. I’d started picking at Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace, but I didn’t get much reading done while out of my mind with anxiety while Rory Eccleston, my beloved laptop, was in the shop. (He’s been sufficiently retooled and replaced that I am considering renaming him the Centurion, even though I don’t really watch Doctor Who anymore.) I’m also waiting on several books at the library, the main source for all my reading, to come in, now that the holidays are over and my holds aren’t stopping and starting like a faulty car.
It’s not that I didn’t want to read Outlaw Marriages—it’s likely been on my reading list since it came out in 2012. (That seems like forever ago, sitting here in 2016.) But I’d been kind of looking forward to quietly tracking the diversity of my reading for realsies this year, and starting 2016 off with a book written by a man, albeit a fellow queer human being, felt a little like a step back for me from where I ended 2015.
Which, I suppose, is a good sign for how lady-focused my reading was last year.
Women in Clothes
edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton
2014 • 528 pages • Blue Rider Press
I’ve started wearing blue lipstick recently. I’ve also started wearing purple lipstick—true, dark, royal purple, not berry or mauve—but they both get the kind of attention I want. With the warm tones in my face neutralized by how dark and cold they are, I look… different. Women are usually pleasantly baffled by it; men are repelled. Cute shop girls ask me where I get it. I leave fantastical, cosmic lip marks on coffee cups and apples. I actually had a teenage girl timidly touch me on the shoulder at a museum exhibit to compliment me on it, staring at my mouth like she’d simply never conceived of the idea before and found something inspiring about it.
What those lipsticks give me is something incredibly rare: power over the way other people see me. As a femme queer, I have so been long resigned to being visually misread that I’ve reached the point of just not caring and doing whatever I want, since people usually just begin and end with my hair anyway. Stumbling across something that disrupts what I had previously believed to be something completely static feels like finding a magic wand.
The decisions we make about what we wear, no matter how conscious or conscious, speak to how we interact with both the outside world and our inner world. Women in Clothes, a massive project undertaken by editors Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton, explores those decisions by asking over six hundred women (and a few male transvestites) what their clothes mean to them. Largely, they used a survey (which you can look at here), but there are also interviews, diagrams drawn by women about their bodies, maps of the discarded clothes left on the floor, and collections of similar clothing owned by one person, just to name a few.
2000 • 400 pages • Basic Books
Previously on the Literary Omnivore, I finished my review of Richard Ellman’s (widely considered) authoritative and eponymous biography of Oscar Wilde with a question—“can a biography make a sharper point”?
Joan Schenkar’s Truly Wilde is the biography that proves that they can. In illuminating the life of Oscar’s niece, Dorothy “Dolly” Wilde, the playwright and biographer asks what qualifies a subject for biography. By most mainstream standards, Dolly is not a conventional subject—she never published, she never edited, and she only occasionally deigned to translate. She’s difficult to track throughout history, vanishing from the historical record for years at a time and, when she did surface, always refusing to talk about her childhood. (She did have one story when pressed: a memory of dipping sugar cubes into her mother’s perfume and then eating them. Factual nor not, it usually got the mildly repulsed response Dolly seemed to want.) For all her comparisons (both hers and others) to her uncle and her sparkling, attention-seeking behavior (she once injected herself with a drug in the middle of an otherwise respectable dinner party quite on purpose), Dolly Wilde was a woman who avoided, by chance or by choice, the spotlight.
Or, as Schenkar puts it: “Dolly Wilde’s life offers a rare opportunity to look at what it means to live with the endowments but not the achievements of biography’s usual subjects: those obliterating ‘winners’—like Dolly’s uncle Oscar—whose notorious stories have almost erased interesting histories like Dolly’s own” (7).
by Richard Ellmann
2013, originally published 1987 • 736 pages • Vintage
How do you evaluate a biography?
Different books do different things, but few have so specific a goal as the biography. A biography seeks to illuminate one human’s life; any adaptive readings… well, that’s what historical fiction is for. Group biographies do require a thesis (why do these stories need to be told plurally instead of singularly?) but the singular biography, especially the singular biography about an Important Literary Figure, needs no such explanation for its existence. And if the biographer doesn’t make themselves known or makes themselves intrusive (which are both two sides of the same coin), then I never really feel like a biography is a product of a specific biographer—it seems like just the facts, ma’am.
When I read nonfiction, I feel like I turn into my friend Science Princess, who is so enchanted and fascinated by our world that fiction holds little allure for her. Whatever literary flaws they possess usually get a pass, because I’m learning! After all, I’m a fan—I’m well-used to stripping narratives down for spare parts and scant representation. At least reality has a marrow for me to strip down to.
Scandals of Classic Hollywood
by Anne Helen Petersen
2014 • 304 pages • Plume
I am more than tempted to launch into a modified rendition of one of Mean Girls’ most memetic quotes (“Anne Helen Petersen… how do I begin to explain Anne Helen Petersen?”), but it will suffice it to say that Petersen is one of my favorite writers in my field of dreams, media studies. While I focus more on fandom and Petersen literally has a PhD in celebrity gossip, we’re ultimately trying to answer the same questions—what are people getting out of the narratives that they consume and what does that say about our culture at large? Or, in Petersen’s words:
I think that at any point celebrities are indicative of what matters to us at a certain moment. The images are always either acting out or trying to shore up ideologies under threat. You can look at our stars and see the things we’re trying to, as a society, figure out, in terms of femininity and masculinity and race performance and sexuality. The way we talk about celebrities is so illuminating.
The Queen of Whale Cay by Kate Summerscale
I’ve been so good about noting where I’ve picked up recommendations lately that it feels weird to not know where I heard about The Queen of Whale Cay. I assumed I picked up The Queen of Whale Cay from Autostraddle, as that’s where I get the bulk of my queer lady-focused reading, but a quick Google search disabused me of that notion. So where did this come from? Who told me about it? Surely my reading spreadsheet hasn’t gotten so big that it will start spontaneously generating book titles. (Yet, anyway.)
The Poker Bride by Christopher Corbett
America is a land of immigrants. I was always pretty aware of this basic fact as a kid, because I knew exactly where I came from. My paternal grandfather had a thing for genealogy, and, well, the rest of my grandparents were French. While I definitely absorbed the stereotype of an American being white, blonde, and blue-eyed, it puzzled me to some degree, because just looking at the world around me said different. As an adult, I know why: the 2010 census predicts that, by 2043, America will be composed of minorities as a majority. This pictorial featuring mixed race people in National Geographic offers a view of what the average American really looks like. This may seem like a new development to some, but that’s only because the American history taught in American schools is a little pale.
Cleopatra, a Life by Stacy Schiff
For me, learning about history is the process of filling in the spotty list inside my head known as “the sequence of human events.” Context, as I’ve said before, is the one thing that I absolutely crave. While my circumstances are unusual, I think that most people lack context for Cleopatra. Contrasted against the surviving documents of Roman history, we have precious few from her own hand or her own land. This means that the record on Cleopatra has been written by that most pernicious kind of historian—crotchety old white dudes. They are not the kindest to powerful, intelligent, rich, or mixed race ladies in general, these generalized gentlemen, so when one woman is all of those things… Well, that’s when we get Liz Taylor.
Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg
The dividing line between my furious childhood and my equally, if more problematically, furious adolescence (which I like to call the Wombat Years) is, undoubtedly, my preteen travels, a series of trips where I was essentially a large piece of angry luggage. (Anger was a big theme for the young Clare.) I really hate talking about it, as I feel like any way I try to express what a negative impact it had on me is either going to sound incredibly selfish (“Poor me! I had to travel as a child!”) or incredibly ungrateful (“How could my parents take me along with them?”). Instead of trying to navigate those waters, my coping mechanism has been repression. For the life of me, I could not tell you dates or locations; it’s just a blur of painful homesickness, fatigue, and endless waiting. (And anger, obviously, but that wasn’t a related condition, just a constant one.)