How Star Wars Conquered the Universe
2014 • 450 pages • Basic Books
Sometimes, I feel for George Lucas.
As a fan, watcher of cinema, and eighties freak, I am, of course, absolutely infuriated by Lucas’ long history of “improving” his films and refusing to release the original theatrical cuts on DVD. (I know, I know, they’re available as “special features” in one of the Special Edition’s DVD releases. But let’s be real, that feels like a slap in the face.) But I do feel for the guy. I’ve always gotten the feeling that Lucas’ career got railroaded by Star Wars in a spectacular way, a feeling that How Star Wars Conquered the Universe confirms.
It’s easy to forget that the story of Star Wars is not just a story of a film franchise and its fandom, but also the story of Lucas’ career up until the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012. But Chris Taylor’s well-balanced How Star Wars Conquered the Universe makes sure to tell all three in remarkably readable fashion. And by readable, I mean that I started tearing up a little when Taylor concludes the book by describing the only things we could know about Star Wars: The Force Awakens: the iconic introduction. Damn you, John Williams! You can get me even when I’m reading something in perfect silence!
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.
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles
2008 • 320 pages • Twelve
It makes sense that my last read of 2015 (I had no room in my suitcase or laptop backpack for books, quite frankly, which is probably another reason I don’t like traveling) was food-related: I finished it just before visiting my family for the holidays, which always involves executing Christmas dinner with all the professionalism of a mad scientist. (I have an almond cake cooling on the counter as I type. Can you replace olive oil with almond oil one-to-one? I GUESS WE’LL FIND OUT!)
Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is an exploration of Chinese food in America. Spurred on by the strange and strangely common phenomenon of multiple lottery winners getting their winning number from fortune cookies, Lee, a journalist by trade, uses her investigative chops and her Mandarin language skills to investigate how American Chinese food came to be. Along the way, she encounters truckers who think Chinese restaurants make for more consistent dining experiences than fast food chains, travels to China to find a Chinese Jewish woman to answer the question of why Chinese food is so central to American Jewish culture, and tries to divine the true origin of fortune cookies, among many, many other things.
by Lisa Eldridge
2015 • 240 pages • Harry N. Abrams
Makeup artist and current Lancôme Global Creative Director Lisa Eldridge came to my attention a few months ago when she posted a video to her popular YouTube channel wherein she opened up some of her precious vintage Biba cosmetics to demonstrate what they looked like on a human face. Eldridge talks with such obvious love for what Barbara Hulanicki did with Biba in the early seventies—really pioneering the first wave, in Western culture, of nontraditional colors (red, white, and black being those colors) for makeup—that it’s infectious.
Eldridge’s love of the history of makeup isn’t limited just to the early seventies; see her “Best and Worst Makeup Moments in History” video for a greatest hits of Western cosmetic history. So when her vast knowledge of makeup history acquired through years in the industry culminated in her new book Face Paint, I had to check it out. (I have a feeling I am one of the first people to read it in my library system; given that I put it on hold while it was still on order. Go, me!) I was really hoping for a book about the history of cosmetics with an eye on its political and cultural context—how it was made, why it was used, and the various things that it can mean. After all, there’s a world of difference between my desire to paint myself blue (…good heavens, I’m Irish) and the very gendered cultural pressure I feel to cover up my acne scars to look “professional”, and the way that desire has been exploited for various reasons through human history is a fascinating subject.
But it’s not the subject of this book. Continue reading
by Susan Maushart
2003 (originally published 2002) • 270 pages • Bloomsbury
One of the most amazing things that happened on the Internet in 2015 was the epic conversation about gender and emotional labor on Metafilter in July. And when I say epic, I don’t say that carelessly—it boasts over two thousand comments, ran for a month, and took me nearly three whole days to get through. (Touchingly, several of the last comments are commenters essentially raising a glass to how much the thread meant to them). It really changed the way I think about emotional labor and helped me identify my own problems with identifying and articulating my emotional needs.
Naturally, a lot of the discussion in the thread is about different-sex marriage by married women, and several of them mentioned Susan Maushart’s 2001 book, Wifework, as a text they’d read and found useful in the context of this discussion. Eager to continue the discussion after the thread closed, I sought it out.
I myself have a very medieval view of marriage—marriage is about pooling resources or, to put it slightly more romantically, heaving together in this strange thing we call life. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to escape internalizing a lot of the social narratives of marriage flying about Western culture, but I imagine it has plenty to do with being queer and being an introvert who doesn’t like to share. (I’d need to get to a point where I’m willing to share my pizza before considering a lady wife.)
Wifework does end up reading a lot like a less sweary Cliff Notes version of that Metafilter thread. (Alas that Maushart had no concept of Crone Island at the time!) Baffled by the inequity in her marriages despite being a card-carrying feminist, American expat Maushart explores the theory of wifework—the vast, interconnected list of things that a wife is expected to do for her husband. This ranges from everything to putting a hearty dinner on the table when he comes home from work (regardless of her schedule or the kids) to heavy emotional labor (like being the one to remember the important dates of his family members) to putting his needs first at all times almost instinctively. Maushart lays it all down in her accessible but workmanlike prose, occasionally interjecting personal stories when they’re relevant. None of this is new territory if you’ve done any reading on emotional labor, but if you haven’t? This can be world-changing.
by Amy Poehler
2014 • 329 pages • Dey St.
The best story another person tells about Amy Poehler comes from Tina Fey’s Bossypants: it’s the story where Poehler and her BFF Seth Meyers are doing a bit in the Saturday Night Live writers’ room, and Poehler does something gross as part of the bit. Jimmy Fallon complains that the bit isn’t cute, and Poehler drops the comedy to snarl, “I don’t fucking care if you like it,” before getting back to being hilarious and gross. Fey writes about this incident with a peculiar, admiring radiance, like someone writing about the origin story of a beloved superhero, and uses it to jumpstart some discussion about women in the workplace. (The moral of the story? Be more Amy Poehler. This is a very good moral.)
The best story Amy Poehler tells about herself is as follows: during the promotion blitz for Baby Mama (or as we call that movie at the Church of Bowie, Labor Day), Poehler is having lunch with a non-comedian friend. Her face is plastered across taxis and buses and buildings in New York City and her friend is absolutely amazed. He asks her if she can believe that this happening. Yes, she answers—because she’s been working for a decade to get up to that point.
by Maggie Thrash
2015 • 272 pages • Candlewick Press
I’m always fascinated by stories about the messy process of becoming a person, whether that’s by developing one’s own identity outside of one’s parent, developing a sense of morality, or developing a sense of one’s desires. Chalk it up to a sheltered childhood or a belated coming out, but that process is fresh enough in my own narrative that I’m always hungry to see someone else’s just to compare notes.
Maggie Thrash’s Honor Girl, a graphic memoir about Thrash’s experiences at Camp Bellflower and her first crush on a girl, falls perfectly into that category. Every summer, Maggie (as I’ll call the Thrash in the memoir to avoid confusion with the Maggie who wrote it) has attended the all girls camp as one of the few out-of-towners for years. She loves it, but, one summer, when she’s fifteen, she develops a crush on Erin, a nineteen year old counselor. Confused by both her first all encompassing crush and the fact that it’s on a girl, Maggie tries to make it through the summer like normal—but, of course, she can’t.
Maggie spends the bulk of Honor Girl puzzling out what’s happening to her, in a space that’s meant to be a safe haven for girls. But there are edges and limitations to even that, since it’s not a truly liberated context. Girls excitedly police each other’s gender presentation; Erin fights constantly with a girl named Libby over the ultimate safe space of the firing range; girls ritually tease and humiliate each other about crushes on the male members of staff. Once her crush on Erin becomes known to the main counselor, the counselor tells her that not only is being gay distasteful to talk about, but it’s an active threat to the innocence of the other girls around her. Because, I guess, queer kids aren’t entitled to innocence and safe spaces. Vomit.
based on the book by Jon Savage
2013 • 77 minutes • Oscilloscope Laboratories
How many ways can you actually make a documentary?
I mean, in that most perfect world, one would assume the genre variations are practically infinite. IFC’s loving parody Documentary Now! has found six ways to riff on the genre, with more to come in its second season. (I haven’t seen a frame of that series and I want to see it so bad.) And yet, most mainstream documentaries tend to stick to the talking heads (be it interviews or readings from primary sources) and footage (be it a primary source or a reconstruction) model.
Teenage sticks to that model as well, but just barely. The readings from primary sources are thrown into a blender and poured into a handful of vaguely distinct archetypes—a white American girl, a white British boy, an African-American boy, and a white German girl—all voiced by professional and, in the cases of Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw, high-profile actors. These archtypes end up functioning as a pack of royal teen wes, staying the same age from the 1900s to the 1950s (the eras Matt Wolf and company have contemporary footage of). Their words are paraphrased from primary sources in a script meant to hit the high points of Jon Savage’s original book, except when they’re taken from the autobiographies of contemporary teenagers. Those segments are illustrated not with the original footage dug up for the film, but recreations that are only distinguishable as such by their well-fed actors and slightly too high quality.
Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold
Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis
1994 (originally published 1993) • 464 pages • Penguin Books
Bowie among us, it hasn’t been that long since I read a book by academics for academics. I read Black Space like two months ago! And yet, reading Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold brought me straight (HA!) back to my days at Agnes, powering through academic texts because I had to.
Not that I am not interested in the subject of Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold—queer history (specifically, the 1940s and 1950s working class lesbian community of Buffalo, New York) with a heaping helping of oral history? Yes please. It’s a major academic text in queer history. But—emphasis on the academic. I’ve been so used to accessible, even lyrical writing in nonfiction and queer history (this is as good a time as any to recommend J. Bryan Lowder’s Slate epic, “What Was Gay?”) that coming back to the precise and polite hemming and hawing traditional academic writing demands just feels a little weird.
The Empathy Exams
by Leslie Jamison
2014 • 256 pages • Graywolf Press
I do hope that all fans of Cheryl Strayed, Dear Sugar, and Tiny Beautiful Things have discovered the existence of Dear Sugar Radio. That’s right, dear readers, Sugar has taken to the airwaves—both of them, in fact, as original Sugar Steve Almond is along for the ride. Together, and usually with the help of a colleague over the phone, they tackle exactly the same kind of letters people sent to Sugar during her original run.
It’s a wonderful podcast and a regular part of my podcast rotation, but I find myself missing the conspiratorial, motherly, and challenging tone of the original (alright, semi-original) Sugar, who shared her hard-earned wisdom with us just as much as she shared the things that she was still struggling with.
In that light, Leslie Jamison, whom you may know from her searing “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” reads like a younger Sugar, one with harder, pricklier edges. (Which makes perfect sense, given that The Empathy Exams were recommended on a recent episode of Dear Sugar Radio.) Jamison’s theme, as you might be able to guess, is pain: the pain of understanding, not understanding, and not being understood, the pain of suffering an illness that doctors dismiss, the voluntary pain of extreme runners, the involuntary pain of the incarcerated and the wounded, and the pain we co-opt for our own purposes and pleasures. And, with the welcome inclusion of “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” in this volume, how to actively engage with female pain when it has been turned into flattening, dehumanizing metaphor for centuries in media.