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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Review: Hideous Love

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Hideous Love
by Stephanie Hemphill

★★☆☆☆

2013 • 320 pages • Balzer + Bray

Oh, Mary Shelley. Daughter of fundamental English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, inventor of science fiction, and all around literary—dare I say it—monster. I only grow fonder of her the more I learn about her. I even might be biased towards The Bride of Frankenstein not for the Bride herself, but for the film opening with Elsa Lanchester’s Mary Shelley primly accepting Lord Byron’s stilted praise in one of the most stunning gowns of early Hollywood. (Even if it’s mostly to underline that there’s a moral point to the proceedings to free it from guilt.) I note the century-spanning gap of eighty-one years between that depiction of Shelley and the forthcoming dueling 2016 biopics A Storm in the Stars and Mary Shelley’s Monster with the most cutting of side eyes.

So Stephanie Hemphill’s young adult novel about Shelley, Hideous Love, with its near pre-Raphaelite cover of a redheaded young woman bent in a pose that recalls both Atlas and Prometheus, was catnip to me. I was always happy when the economies of space allowed me to face it out in the young adult nook back at the Tattered Cover. But, as ever, I dragged my feet about actually reading the darn thing. Although “drag my feet” is a poor metaphor for my reading habits—“got distracted by other books like a concussed magpie” is more like it. It’s a useful, if disorganized, methodology, because it lets me come to books fresh.

So fresh, in fact, that I had no idea that Hideous Love is a verse novel.

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Review: The Fault in Our Stars

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The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green

★★★½☆

2012 • 313 pages • Dutton Books

The thing about my incredibly long lead time on most media (imposed on me by both library wait lists and my own reticence to do as I am told) is that I get to see both the thing itself and the response to it. When The Fault in Our Stars dropped in 2012, it was hot. White hot. So white hot, in fact, that even while I was working at the Tattered Cover a year later, we could barely keep the damn thing on the shelves. (To be fair, the post-humously constructed Esther Earl memoir This Star Won’t Go Out had just been released, boosting sales.) I still have the occasional waking nightmare of the rickety overstock stacks I had to make over the John Green section in the young adult nook. Tumbling, bright blue, entirely hardcover overstock stacks.

But, to quote The Dark Knight, The Fault in Our Stars has lived long enough to become the villain. Specifically, John Green has. Where he was once recommended to me, he’s, of late, been side-eyed. Some of it is his own behavior—Green’s misjudged breathless declaration that the kiss in the film adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars is the first lady-initiated kiss in ALL OF CINEMATIC TEEN ROMANCE, anyone?—but a lot of it is how the work of a cisgendered straight white dude is being used by the mainstream to legitimize young adult fiction. (Which is not his fault, obviously, but is still something to take into account.) This backlash eventually came to his books, especially The Fault in Our Stars. After the film hit, I saw many a tumblrina rolling her eyes at “metaphors,” although I had no idea what they were talking about.

So when I finally got around to reading the darn thing, I was prepared for the worst. After all, I did not care for Will Grayson, Will Grayson, his collaboration with David Levithan, whose work I otherwise enjoy. And fifty pages into it, I may have immediately texted a known Green unfan of my acquaintance that Augustus Waters was a total turd.

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Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon

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Throne of the Crescent Moon

★★★★☆

2012 • 288 pages • DAW Books

Where is the God in fantasy?

There are speculative fiction novels that deal with faith and spirituality—while I haven’t read it yet, I am told that Mary Russell’s The Sparrow touches on it. But I don’t mean faith and spirituality as a core theme of a text; I mean faith and spirituality as both worldbuilding and character building. In my experience, fantasy worldbuilding is often predicated on the existence of gods or goddesses. There is no question that the gods exist. Their decisions make be questioned or influenced or what have you, but they made the world, they exist, and that is that. Depictions of faith and religious practice tends to be dramatically diverse—the dwarves worship their god, and the elves theirs—

It’s something I’ve never really thought about. My only religious training as a kid was pointedly not being actively Catholic with no viable option presented, so religion as a whole was never on my radar. (My mother once panicked before a family funeral and tried to make me learn the Lord’s Prayer. I was what, eighteen? Nineteen? It did not take.) Since organized religion has never played a role in my life, I’ve never wondered what kind of role it can play in secondary worldbuilding.

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Review: The Locusts Have No King

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The Locusts Have No King
by Dawn Powell

★★★☆☆

1998 (originally published 1948) • 303 pages • Steerforth Press

I was introduced to Dawn Powell through her journal entries included in Teresa Carpenter’s sublime The New York Diaries. In those entries, she gives off the impression of being a hard-working woman leaning into the wind, a little in the vein of Dorothy Parker. She makes strong decisions about her next novel (always, given her prodigious output, on the horizon); she paints quick caricatures of character she meets; and she swoons over New York, bolstered by her dreams of the city during her early life in Ohio.

It’s that last one that gives Powell her power as sharp observer of life in New York City. Her 1948 novel The Locusts Have No King does technically have a plot, in the reversal of fortune between Mrs. Lyle Gaynor, the famous and successful playwright, and her lover Frederick, an intellectual but ignored writer whose latest book finds success. But Powell is far more interested in the nooks and crannies of New York than the internal lives of her much-mocked characters. She roams far and wide, dispensing the little details that make her New York come alive—roommates squabbling over the phone, foul weather friendships, and, as always, those damn hipsters taking away the real New York.

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