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.
by Jon Savage
2008 (originally published 2007) • 576 pages • Penguin Books
I always viewed the classical teenage experience as mainstream American media sold it to me by way of Saved by the Bell reruns as pure fantasy. It probably helped that any time Madame McBride caught me watching said show, she would always pause behind me and sigh importantly that it gave my brother “unrealistic expectations about high school.” Between being an angry, nerdy preteen too dumb to realize she was queer and the old McBride gene pool being so Catholic that it just fast-forwards all inheritors through puberty in about a week, none of it seemed particularly relevant to me and my experiences. Even the mischief my alternative kid friends would get up to seemed beyond me: my fear of my mother outweighed any desire for teenage rebellion. It was always glaringly obvious to me, the tallest girl in fifth grade, that adolescence was a social construct.
Of course, understanding that a thing is socially constructed does not mean resolving it right out of existence. (Blip!) As Rebecca Jordan-Young reminds us (while clearing up some misconceptions about gender theory), things that are socially constructed are nonetheless real. We simply have more access and agency in their construction than most social forces would like you to think. For instance, the English language is socially constructed out of historical encounters between several cultures. The English language is very, very real. But its invention and construction is obvious enough that I can yell a lot about how it is absurd that appellation is a word in English but the verb from whence it is derived is not.
So—the teenager, as we all know from the special edition DVD of Back to the Future, was invented in the 1950s for marketing purposes. But that’s only the label for a phenomenon that had always been with the human species.
by Adilifu Nama
2008 • 200 pages • University of Texas Press
As happy as I am that Star Wars: The Force Awakens seems to be committed to a diverse universe (there’s nary a white dude in the main trio!), I am still infuriated that the production cast Lupita Nyong’o, widely considered an astonishing force of style and beauty (as well as the baby Dazzler of my heart), and covered her up with CGI. And not to play a truly inhuman character who could only be executed with CGI (you can literally do anything; I was campaigning for a sentient black hole), but to play… a humanoid character whose most alien features are a lack of a nose and a long neck.
Covering up actors of color with prosthetics and CGI is, sadly, a trend in speculative fiction films, despite the fact that speculative fiction is an inherently progressive genre. Even my beloved The Lord of the Rings features nearly all of its Maori actors as orcs and Witch Kings. Thor: The Dark World cast Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Algrim the Strong, a dark elf who then goes on to be transformed into Kurse. Even Zoe Saldana, the inheritor of Uhura, one of the most groundbreaking roles in sf television, gets painted green in Guardians of the Galaxy. There is progress—we will soon see Luke Cage and Black Panther join Heimdall in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—but the conflation of aliens and people of color remains a troubling trend in sf cinema.
Individually, of course, there are always reasons for these choices. I imagine Nyong’o accepted the role because doing motion capture is an exciting and very different way of acting, on top of getting to be in Star Wars. As a white woman who benefits from racial privilege,it’s not my place to speak to that. But I can highlight the larger pattern of seeing, time after time, actors of color asked to play outrageous and othered creatures and ask: why?
Reading the Romance
by Janice Radway
1984 • 274 pages • University of North Carolina Press
In Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro’s conversation on genre, Gaiman recalls reading an essay by C.S. Lewis in which Lewis points out that the only people who seem to be unduly concerned with people reading escapist literature sound a lot like jailers. Gaiman is misremembering; it’s a Lewis essay (collected in On Stories), but the anecdote is actually Tolkien’s. Accusations of escapism have plagued the speculative fiction genre since… I’m gonna go with mid-century because we’ve had speculative fiction since the dawn of time. (Of course, nowadays it’s compounded by people complaining about speculative fiction isn’t escapist enough by being remotely inclusive. To quote MD Laclan, “if you think Star Trek is apolitical, I cannot help you.”) In fact, I’m struggling through Lydia Millet’s novel Mermaids in Paradise because the main character, whom I gather I am supposed to sympathize with, finds her husband’s fantasy gaming his only major flaw and expresses disgusted bafflement at his hobby. (She gets better, right? Right?) But speculative fiction is so hot right now, with the cultural ascendency of Marvel, Comic-Con, and the like. DC Studios’ woefully grim output is desperately trying to prove a point that we all already know: sf ain’t just for nerds anymore. (Actually, the secret is that we are all nerds for something in this beautiful life. But don’t tell Sadman.)
While speculative fiction is slowly and unevenly lurching to mainstream acceptance, however, its generic sister romance remains an eternal punching bag, even in the wake of the massively popular Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. (I always feel like I end up here, in this particular ditch, trying to defend certain parts of the Fifty Shades phenomenon while trying not to toss my cookies at its treatment of consent and implication that all kinksters are psychologically broken. Woof.) It’s a reputation the genre has suffered from ever since it coalesced into a neat marketing category, as we see in Janice Radway’s 1984 exploration of why women read romance, Reading the Romance.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
by Marie Kondo and translated by Cathy Hirano
2014 (originally published 2011) • 224 pages • Ten Speed Press
Once, in college, I helped my mother clean out her garage. We waited until my father was assigned a long trip at work to don our nastiest utility clothes and get to work. We put on work gloves and dug through childhood toys I’d long forgotten, badminton sets missing their parts, a complete set of vintage soccer magazines that was also almost completely decomposed. We had to ask my mother’s neighbors if we could put our trash out with theirs, because it would otherwise overwhelm her lawn. I uncovered a box that turned out to be a shrine to my father’s childhood dog, complete with photos of my father’s family with the dog and a lock of the dog’s fur. When we were done, the garage looked wonderful—and then we put the overflow of my dad’s book collection in there so we could breathe in the house.
The point is, my parents like to hold onto things. It makes sense. My father grew up in a military family and became a military man himself, which meant that moving was a near-constant. And my mother immigrated to the United States with, from what I hear, a sundress and an encyclopedic knowledge of antiques to her new name. For them, their younger lives were characterized by the constant need to compromise on their possessions—what can survive the move to new housing? A new state? The move to France? The move back? The luxury of having a more or less permanent home where they never have to worry about that must be such a relief.
Having grown up in an environment like that, it took me a while to realize that I’m not like that and that’s okay. I do get sentimental about some objects—you will pry my Agnes Scott beer stein from my cold, dead hands, and then I will zombie-punch you in the face—but I feel emotionally and almost physically oppressed by having too many things around. To combat the oppression of accumulation, I regularly clean, recycle, and just throw out. I’ve had to become ruthless in my assessment of my material possessions.
Saturday Night Live: The Book
by Alison Castle
2015 • 500 pages • Taschen
Having worked in a bookstore, Taschen, the boutique art book publisher, is practically legendary. When I worked at the bookstore, we had a few stands to display art books out of their shrink wrap for customers. The James Bond Archives held court for several months, a gorgeous book so heavy I could hear its fall from clear across the building. I sometimes dawdled and flipped through it, deeply reverent of the paper’s very finish. Taschen books are often about art, but each volume is a work of art in and of itself—the codex itself as art.
So when I discovered that there was a Taschen outpost in New York, I immediately visited. (While Rory Eccleston, my erstwhile laptop, was being held hostage at the nearby Apple Store, I spent a lot of time there.) And it was everything I hoped. Even the paper bags they provide customers to tote their purchases home features art from one of their many art books.
Of course, Taschen books cost a pretty penny, although they do have an annual sale to clear out their warehouse. (Pro-tip: it’s actually better on their website than in the store.) While I always wanted a Taschen, I knew that my first Taschen would have to be worth it.
And then they announced they were doing a Saturday Night Live book for the show’s fortieth anniversary. I took one look at the book’s listing on the sight, starting tearing up because Stefon’s wedding means a lot to me okay?, and decided that it was going to be baby’s first Taschen. On my birthday, I retrieved my copy and carried it home. It took me weeks to open it, because I needed to be in the right space and have time to go over it. (It’s hardly commute reading, as you can imagine.) Which explains why I’m getting around to reviewing it now, in June.
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 Samira Kawash
2013 • 416 pages • Faber & Faber
“Do you have an opaque bag?” I asked the Best Buy employee. “It’s a gift for my dad and I don’t want him to see what it is,” I completely lied, and she handed one over. I immediately stowed my true prize inside—an economy pack of Juicy Fruit gum.
I hid it in my nightstand drawer, alongside my copies of Princess Princess. I had two pieces a day, the better to draw it out. It satisfied both my sweet tooth and my constant, anxious fidget, so I could stop picking at my nail beds or sucking on my teeth and gums. I chewed and chewed until I was left with a flavorless, stiff putty. It was a marvelous week, until I came home from school to find my mother ominously still at the threshold of my bedroom.
It was as if Madame had caught me with a stash of hash. It was immediately confiscated, of course, and a sharp eye was kept on my gum consumption. Later, she began to soften, but I still spent many trips to the grocery store reading ingredients off of gum wrappers to her to make sure they weren’t going to give us cancer. Candy always came into my childhood home with suspicion. (Whereas chocolate was only ever suspect for being milk or, worse, white. Blurgh.)
Samira Kawash opens Candy with a similar story: at a playdate between her son and a friend, another parent implied that she was poisoning her child with a handful of jelly beans. The idea that a little candy—a little kid’s fistful of jelly beans!—could ruin her son’s life sat with Kawash, until she became the Candy Professor and started looking into both the history of candy in America and the history of Americans’ relationship with candy.
by Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik
2003 • 508 pages • Syracuse University Press
As I have mentioned time and again, my parents’ relative disinterest in American pop culture was one of the dominant flavors of my childhood. Attempting to piece a picture together out of the fragments that grabbed my attention yielded a particularly blinkered education, an education heavily focused in Pokémon and completely lacking anything on film, music, comedy, or television. (I mean, I did figure out that shows aired in a consistent fashion on the same channels eventually. I’m not going to tell you how old I was, but I will tell you I learned to braid hair at the age of eighteen, so that should give you some idea.) That utter lack of any context for American media from the end of World War II to roughly 1995 is something that haunts me, in a friendly fashion. Upon discovering that I was a fan (which is to say, that I am someone who thrives on a critical engagement with pop culture) during a seminal screening of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I vowed to correct this painful oversight. (Some might say that I am pursuing the impossible goal of American pop culture omniscience. Let’s just say that I’m a mad social scientist.)
To this end, I have curated extensive lists of movies, albums, and television shows to watch. Of the three mediums, however, I’ve found television to be harder to come to grips with. I can’t just make a list and plow through it; there’s just too much of it to do that, even if I just narrowed it down to something simple, like “NBC sitcoms.” I mean, I’ve been working on Star Trek: The Next Generation for over a year and I’m still only in season four. I may be proof that you must be taught how to marathon.