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.
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.
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.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
by Caitlin Doughty
2014 • 272 pages • W. W. Norton & Company
My entire life, I’ve had what I called “death scares”—existential panic attacks brought on by obsessively thinking about death. (Much like being queer, being what I believe is technically referred to as hellaciously anxious was blindingly obvious to everyone but me throughout my childhood.) I have a very specific memory of having one at the age of twelve, standing in the doorway of my childhood bedroom, staring out into the dark hallway, frozen in fear by the idea that it could all end. As an adult who enjoys her life, they’ve slowed down to maybe two a year (I suspect they’re much more about “WHAT IF I’M WASTING MY LIFE?!” rather than fearing the biological process of death), more if I read too many Cracked articles about unsolved murders.
(By the by, have you ever heard of the 1920s Hinterkaifeck murders? The murderer was probably living in their attic before the murders and definitely living in their house after the murders. Look, if I can’t sleep, you can’t sleep.)
When my anxiety is not in the driver’s seat, though, I have a more holistic approach towards death; after all, contemplating the ramifications of actually living forever renders me near catatonic. Death gives life meaning, to be trite (and quote Hannibal Lecter, that great humanitarian). My mother and I have had long conversations, her enthroned on the structurally compromised orange leather couch that dominates her living room and me lolling on the floor with the dog, about how it’s nothing to be scared of, because it’s a natural part of life and there’s nothing we can do about it. Fear isn’t useful when it comes to death.
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.