Review: Oreo

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Oreo
by Fran Ross

★★★★½

2015 (originally published 1974) • 240 pages • New Directions

After watching Amy Schumer host Saturday Night Live, I remain as ambivalent as ever about the comedian. It’s not that I’m not glad for Schumer—I am! And it’s not that Schumer isn’t making considerable strides for women in comedy that will heartily be appreciated by the comedians that follow her. But, as Katie Barnes at Feministing points out, while her comedy is feminist-minded, it’s not terrifically inclusive. And all things, especially comedy, benefit from an appreciation and understanding of intersectionality, as well as a broader perspective. Greater awareness and sensitivity to the world around you doesn’t inhibit comedy; it expands comedy.

Case in point: Fran Ross’ Oreo, a comic novel published in 1974 that promptly (and undeservedly) fell off the radar, which gleefully seizes upon the intersecting identities of and imposed upon Christine “Oreo” Clark, a half-black, half-Jewish girl from Philadelphia, as comic grounds. How before its time is Oreo? It includes a joke about doctors providing subpar health care to queer people… made by a gay character at the doctors’ expense.

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Review: Crazy Rich Asians

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Crazy Rich Asians
by Kevin Kwan

★★★½☆

2013 • 527 pages • Anchor Books

I never watched Gossip Girl, but I did read the odd Gossip Girl novel in high school (she said, instantly dating herself). I have a very specific memory of gobbling one up in math class in what felt like one go before handing it back to the girl who lent it to me. “They’re like crack,” she’d told me, and I feverishly agreed. Not to the point that I actively pursued the series any further, but to the point that I am not unfamiliar with the charms of a novel entirely about conspicuous consumption.

It’s really the best of both worlds—you get to rubberneck and disapprove at the same time, which appears to activate something mighty enough in the human psyche that this has been a genre for ages. (Joan Collins, anyone?) And the latest darling of conspicuous consumption narratives is Kevin Kwan, whose Crazy Rich Asians and its sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, have been making quite a splash.

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Review: Kushiel’s Chosen

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Kushiel’s Chosen
by Jacqueline Carey
★★★★½
2015 (originally published 2002) • 496 pages • Tor Books

Can Jacqueline Carey structure a trilogy or what?

I have a lot of opinions on how book series should be structured. I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to ask that a novel in a series be a novel unto itself—not that it needs to completely standalone, just that it needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end while setting up the board for the next installment. And yet, this seems to be a tall order, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. I have encountered plenty of trilogies whose structure seem based on The Lord of the Rings—which is a terrible idea, because The Lord of the Rings is a single novel, not a series.

But, mercifully, Carey understands this and avoids it by both structuring her books enjoyably and cramming them so full of incident that you cannot help but be satisfied by the time you’re finished. It’s astonishing to me that The Sundering is a very successful duet, despite duets being harder to pull off than trilogies, which at least can have the traditional three act structure mapped onto them. Reading a Carey novel is knowing you are in good hands.

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Review: Georges

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Georges
by Alexandre Dumas
translated by Tina A. Kover

★★★★☆

2007 (originally 1843) • 336 pages • Modern Library

You may have recently seen that The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones recently wrote an article about how the late Terry Pratchett was not a genius—where he cops to never reading Pratchett in his entire life before calling his work trash and not real literature. I’m not linking you to it, dear reader, because I want your day to go well, and also because we’ve been here a thousand times at the screeching ghostly foothills of the false dichotomy of high and low culture. To reiterate: the line between high culture and pop culture is largely imaginary and constructed mostly of ideas of whose work really counts (which is why dead old white guys are vastly overrepresented in the Western canon, a thing also agreed upon by dead old white guys.)

Case in point: Alexandre Dumas, one of the greatest writers in history, wrote a scene where a man fights a shark. It’s all art, baby.

Georges is one of Dumas’ most little-known works—so little-known that even some of his most devout English-speaking fans didn’t know it existed. Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, who both found Dumas and the relative racial freedom of France inspirational as writers of color, never seem to have read or heard of it. And Frederick Douglass, who loved Dumas’ work enough to make sure to see Dumas-related sites around France while visiting, criticized Dumas for never writing about race. Sometimes, there’s an air of gatekeeping around works in translation—there’s certainly something suspicious in the fact that The Count of Monte Cristo is so accessible to English speakers that it’s in American public domain but Georges is not. Continue reading

Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

danforthmiseducationofcameronpostThe Miseducation of Cameron Post
by Emily Danforth

★★★★½

2012 • 470 pages • Balzer + Bray

It’s been a long time since I read something as good as The Miseducation of Cameron Post. When I first realized this, I thought it couldn’t be true—2015’s been a pretty solid reading year so far, especially with my determination to read more lady authors than gentlemen authors this year. But it seems like the last books that I truly adored and found myself practically drowning in (Women in Clothes and Truly Wilde) were months ago, which, in nerd time, is practically an eternity. (See our attention spans regarding Fantastic Fours and Spider-Mans.) And both of those are nonfiction titles, which mean that I’ve been without a fictional character breathing in my ear with how weighty and real they seem for quite some time.

But The Miseducation of Cameron Post put that to rights. It’s a title I remember from my bookstore days, trying to give it the much-desired face out. I knew it centered on a young lesbian who ended up being sent to “pray the gay away” camp, but it’s… I hesitate to say so much more, because I think that every queer story is valuable. But some queer stories have become louder than others: the tragic lesbians of midcentury pulp novels whose affairs can only end in degayification or death (via, of course, a “properly” heterosexual man), white, cisgendered, genteel gay men who just want to settle down and raise a baby (just like you, straights!), and the coming out story.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a coming out story, in the sense that we are introduced to Cameron as a middle schooler as she and her best friend, Irene, start exploring a more romantic side to their relationship… days before Cameron’s parents die in a car accident, leaving her in the care of her grandmother and her born again Christian aunt, Rita. But once the teenage Cameron has a more serious relationship with Lindsey, an out and proud lesbian from Seattle whom she meets through competitive swimming, Cameron embraces being gay as much as a kid in Miles City, Montana, in the early nineties can. The rest of the novel, then, is about Cameron learning—learning about lesbian culture through missives of Lindsey and obsessive movie watching, learning about the adult world that lies beyond her, and learning about herself when she’s forced to attend God’s Promise. It’s about Cameron growing up.

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Review: Ladies Almanack

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Ladies Almanack
by Djuna Barnes

★★★½☆

1992, originally published 1928 • 91 pages • Dalkey Archive Press

This is what I was reading when the Supreme Court of the United States (I will never say SCOTUS, because it makes me giggle like a twelve year old) ruled that same-sex marriage was constitutional on June 26th. I’ve talked a little about how I, a pretty quiet nerdly type who occasionally transforms into the hissing GOTH QUEEN OF THE INTROVERTS at the drop of a hat, often feel alienated from mainstream queer culture because I don’t like to party, drink, or stay out late. (This is why events like FlameCon are so incredibly important to me.) But what a time for pride and Pride. Watching the New York Pride March make its thundering way south on Fifth Avenue out of a foggy, rainy morning felt like watching us all march out of history.

Which is, of course, where we’ve been this whole time. Reading loosely over the dissenting opinions of the court, I was miffed to discover the age-old argument that same-sex marriage is a something brand new and totally alien to the human concept of matrimony. (Which also smacks of the strange idea that queer folk were invented in the seventies.) I’d like to point everyone to the late medieval French practice of affrèrement (“brother-making”), which was used to unite property owners (so, dudes) who wanted to pool their resources, which was the basic concept of marriage for most of human history. The idea was that it would be used for literal brothers who needed certain legal rights (i.e., sharing property and becoming each other’s legal heirs). But the idea that two men wouldn’t have used it in the context of a loving relationship is absurd. I point you to Wikipedia for more information on same-sex unions in other cultures.

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Review: Mermaids in Paradise

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Mermaids in Paradise
by Lydia Millet

★★☆☆☆

2014 • 304 pages • W.W. Norton & Company

Let me begin this review by popping up on my soapbox, whipping out my megaphone, and bellowing at the top of my lungs, “PUNCH UP, NOT DOWN.”

If there’s one thing I cannot stand in comedy, it’s cruelty. As much as I am enjoying my journey through early Saturday Night Live, sometimes I want to scream into a pillow. Like, for instance, when there’s a sketch that centers solely around screwing a blind black man out of a law scholarship to make a muddied point about how affirmative action is crap. I can see no comedic value in privileged groups mocking marginalized groups. (I do want to stress there’s a difference between this and internal, loving parody, a la Portlandia.)

But that’s the kind of comedy that runs rampant through Mermaids in Paradise, which is, I gather, meant to be a light comedic trifle about a honeymooning couple who discover mermaids at their Caribbean resort. It’s told from the perspective of Deb, who applies a patronizing and slightly cruel gloss to everything she sees.

For instance: during the lead-up to the wedding, Deb despairs of everything related to weddings, calling them infantile and pedophilic. (Of course, her analysis stops at side-eying women who like that kind of thing, instead of interrogating the system.) Her beloved Chip loves World of Warcraft, which she constantly points out as a huge problem and a major sacrifice that she’s made in the relationship. (It’s also really apparent Millet did no research for the handful of times Deb is describing what Chip is doing in the game, which begs the question—why not just invent a game if you’re just going to crap on it? It just ends up implying that Millet assumes her readers will similarly have never played such a game but have immediately dismissed it.) When an indigenous employee shows Deb and Chip to their rooms, Deb immediately starts rhapsodizing about the woman is “embodying a primordial womanly grace, with her darkish, gleaming complexion and earthen-toned sarong” (62). And there’s a “comedic” set piece centered around Janeane, a fellow vacationer, who clearly suffers from panic attacks, a non-specific anxiety disorder, and may have survived some sexual trauma. At a resort-wide dinner, she begins suffering a panic attack and her partner tries to soothe her, but the way he touches her arm re-triggers her. Hilarious!

(Vomit.)

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Review: Monster High

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Monster High
by Lisi Harrison

★½☆☆☆

2011 (originally published 2005) • 272 pages • Poppy

Have I mentioned how much I love Monster High? Because I love Monster High. I have a passing but passionate interest in fashion dolls; I keep a lazy eye on collector grade Barbies, used to buy issues of Haute Doll, and I even went through a brief period in high school where I tried to save up six hundred dollars to buy my very own ball-jointed doll. When Monster High, a line of dolls meant to be the children of old-school horror monsters, debuted, I was delighted to find a technicolor parade of little monster girls in the toy department at Target whose flaws weren’t “being clumsy” but “actively trying not to suck anyone’s blood.”

What I like about Monster High, besides its nostalgic-to-me sugar horror/baby goth/alternative kid aesthetic and its commitment to truly, truly atrocious puns, is that it’s about teen girl friendship. (Surprise!) And not just in the vague sense that I recall from my own childhood Barbies. Monster High is not just a line of dolls—it’s a franchise, with music, a Flash animated web series, CGI-animated direct-to-DVD television specials, a movie musical that will supposedly come to pass, and, as we can see from today’s selection, a line of young adult books. I watch the web series and CGI specials from time to time, and I’m always impressed by how they emphasize the girls’ friendships over anything else. In one web series episode, Frankie (as in Frankie Stein) feels like she’s falling behind because she, unlike some of her friends, doesn’t have a boyfriend. She, naturally, creates a fake one in her dad’s lab and brings him to school, where her friends are quick to reassure her that she doesn’t need to date someone to fit in with them. (And then she chucks him in the garbage, which is when we discover she actually gave him sentience. Whoops.) Even the mean girl, Cleo de Nile, evolves over the course of the web series, from a stereotypical mean girl to someone who appreciates her friends and defends them.

So it’s incredibly infuriating that the first Monster High book (as of this writing, there have been two series: this one by Lisi Harrison and a younger-skewing Ghoulfriends series by Gitty Daneshvari) ends with two girls shaking hands over, essentially, a declaration of war over a boy. Barf.

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Review: Persona

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Persona
by Genevieve Valentine

★★★★☆

2015 • 307 pages • Saga Press

The best part of awards season is sometimes not the awards themselves at all. (I mean, we can’t have Matthew McCaughney take us to church every year.) What I get most excited for are Genevieve Valentine’s Red Carpet Rundowns. It’s not just the snark, the battle between the Stylists’ Guild and the Necklace Makers, or the incredibly elaborate sci-fi plots. It’s Valentine’s eye for the way fashion, makeup, and styling is used as a mechanism (or weapon, if you want to be combative) to construct a star image in the constant war for visibility, glamour, and prestige that is modern Hollywood. (Man, it was easier during the studio era, when studios just told you who was classy.) Much like Our Lady of Celebrity Gossip Anne Helen Petersen, Valentine understands both the mechanics and cultural implications of celebrity—in short, the story it can tell and what that story can do. As she says, “the red carpet goes beyond a fashion event to become coded messages about the careers of the people who walk it.

Persona is all about those coded messages, centering it by having the International Assembly of the near future composed entirely of Faces who represent their countries. International diplomacy (and, of course, espionage) is now conducted in the language of celebrity. Everything, from press coverage (conducted along the lines of the studio era of Hollywood, with the paparazzi considered TMZ at best and politically dangerous at worst) to supposedly wild nights out to relationships, are coordinated by the Faces’ teams of handlers and stylists to send all the right messages about the country.

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Review: Dear Committee Members

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Dear Committee Members
by Julie Schumacher

★★½☆☆

2014 • 192 pages • Doubleday

When we talk about well-rounded female characters, we often talk about allowing female characters to be unlikable. (Hell, we also talk about allowing female characters to look like actual human type women, which is such a broad category that it’s really amazing how often the mark is missed.) Even when female characters express unlikable traits (which, let’s be honest, are often considerable desirable or at least neutral traits in male characters), they’re often punished for it, by both the narrative and the audience. As much as I’ve been enjoying How Did This Get Made, their episode on A View to a Kill features the whole crew comparing Grace Jones’ superhumanly strong May Day to a shaved horse. It’s why Amy in Gone Girl is such polarizing; she may be, in a certain slant of light, a misogynist’s hysterical nightmare, but she gets to be selfish, hateful, cruel, violent, and dispassionate in a way few female characters are. (And the crowning glory: she gets away with it.)

But there is a B side to that argument, much shorter than the much more important single: why do we allow male characters to be unlikable? Specifically, why am I so often asked to sympathize with, idealize, or otherwise just plain tolerate male characters whose behavior is self-indulgent, passively cruel, and generally awful without any redeeming characteristics? I am fine with unlikable male characters in the abstract. I am, after all, quite an active fan of James Bond, the last three films of which franchise have been entirely about an already unstable man being built into a horrifically amoral monster. (And it’s so, so great.) Unlikable characters, as we’ve established, can be riveting and revelatory. What I’m taking issue with is when I am presented with unlikable male characters and told, by both the text and paratext, that I should like him.

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