mini-review · stuff I read

In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

42188604._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
A startling, moving, and innovative memoir from the National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

For years Carmen Maria Machado has struggled to articulate her experiences in an abusive same-sex relationship. In this extraordinarily candid and radically inventive memoir, Machado tackles a dark and difficult subject with wit, inventiveness and an inquiring spirit, as she uses a series of narrative tropes—including classic horror themes—to create an entirely unique piece of work which is destined to become an instant classic.

In the Dream House is a phenomenal work of memoir, both in its unique construction and determination to shatter cultural myths about domestic violence in queer relationships. Machado chose to use second person as a point of view to show how her relationship with her “dream woman” slowly devolved into terror, a choice that both allowed space between herself and the incidents and also invited the reader to make those horrible situations personal, make them universal. In between these short vignettes/chapters are small essays about the recognition of domestic abuse in queer relationships and how, legally and culturally, it is still very hard to contemplate from a cis-het-patriarchal worldview.

I was privileged to hear Machado read over the weekend (and in conversation with Garth Greenwell) and she’s such a wonderful speaker and thinker. In the Dream House is both a quick (lots of white space) and slow (there are some incidents with her “dream woman” that are truly terrifying and give you pause) read but very much worth the time you spend on it.

Dear FTC: I read a galley that I requested from Graywolf Press. Thank you so much, Graywolf, for sending it.

stuff I read

Out Loud by Mark Morris, with Wesley Stace

44140366Summary from Goodreads:
From the most brilliant and audacious choreographer of our time, the exuberant tale of a young dancer’s rise to the pinnacle of the performing arts world, and the triumphs and perils of creating work on his own terms–and staying true to himself

Before Mark Morris became “the most successful and influential choreographer alive” (The New York Times), he was a six year-old in Seattle cramming his feet into Tupperware glasses so that he could practice walking on pointe. Often the only boy in the dance studio, he was called a sissy, a term he wore like a badge of honor. He was unlike anyone else, deeply gifted and spirited.

Moving to New York at nineteen, he arrived to one of the great booms of dance in America. Audiences in 1976 had the luxury of Merce Cunningham’s finest experiments with time and space, of Twyla Tharp’s virtuosity, and Lucinda Childs’s genius. Morris was flat broke but found a group of likeminded artists that danced together, travelled together, slept together. No one wanted to break the spell or miss a thing, because “if you missed anything, you missed everything.” This collective, led by Morris’s fiercely original vision, became the famed Mark Morris Dance Group.

Suddenly, Morris was making a fast ascent. Celebrated by The New Yorker’s critic as one of the great young talents, an androgynous beauty in the vein of Michelangelo’s David, he and his company had arrived. Collaborations with the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Yo-Yo Ma, Lou Harrison, and Howard Hodgkin followed. And so did controversy: from the circus of his tenure at La Monnaie in Belgium to his work on the biggest flop in Broadway history. But through the Reagan-Bush era, the worst of the AIDS epidemic, through rehearsal squabbles and backstage intrigues, Morris emerged as one of the great visionaries of modern dance, a force of nature with a dedication to beauty and a love of the body, an artist as joyful as he is provocative.

Out Loud is the bighearted and outspoken story of a man as formidable on the page as he is on the boards. With unusual candor and disarming wit, Morris’s memoir captures the life of a performer who broke the mold, a brilliant maverick who found his home in the collective and liberating world of music and dance.

Mark Morris is one of the most inventive and prolific modern dance choreographers. I don’t always like his work but it is always interesting to watch (he has incredible relationships with the music he uses). So I was quite happy to read Morris’s new memoir, Out Loud. He spares no one, including himself in his recollections. Being a kid who liked to dance, growing up in the sixties in Seattle as a gay kid, he did get bullied but he kept on dancing and learning. That’s probably my biggest takeaway from this book: that an artist should always keep learning and keep incorporating new things into their art.

I particularly enjoy Morris’s acerbic tone – he likes what he likes, he has opinions about art and the art form, and he doesn’t care if you like him or not for these opinions (he says he’s somewhat less antagonistic in these opinions these days but I would say the jury is out, haha). I also liked how honest he was in this memoir regarding the ups and downs of a career in the performing arts – read this for both the history of MMDG as a modern dance company and also for the work it takes to start and maintain a dance company.

Out Loud is out (haha) on October 22.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones

43682552Summary from Goodreads:
From award-winning poet Saeed Jones, How We Fight for Our Lives is a stunning coming-of-age memoir written at the crossroads of sex, race, and power.

“People don’t just happen,” writes Saeed Jones. “We sacrifice former versions of ourselves. We sacrifice the people who dared to raise us. The ‘I’ it seems doesn’t exist until we are able to say, ‘I am no longer yours.’ ”

Haunted and haunting, Jones’s memoir tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his mother and grandmother, into passing flings with lovers, friends and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.

Blending poetry and prose, Jones has developed a style that is equal parts sensual, beautiful, and powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze. How We Fight for Our Lives is a one of a kind memoir and a book that cements Saeed Jones as an essential writer for our time.

I have followed Saeed Jones on social media and read his articles for a long time so I was so excited when his memoir was announced. And then How We Fight For Our Lives got picked as a Barnes and Noble Fall 2019 Discover title.

Wow. Simply, wow. Not a word wasted, not a word out of place. How We Fight For Our Lives is a beautiful, spare, rich memoir about being black and gay and how little space is given to those men as they grow from childhood to adulthood, especially when they grow up in a very conservative town. Internalized self-loathing is so common among these pages that I can’t even imagine the work Saeed must have done to be able to bare those emotions for the reader. The book is also a love letter to his late mother, those last few chapters cut me to the quick. A must-read, one of the best books of 2019.

How We Fight For Our Lives is out today.

Dear FTC: I read an advance copy of this book provided to my store for the Discover program.

stuff I read

The Stonewall Reader edited by New York Public Library

41180913Summary from Goodreads:
For the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, an anthology chronicling the tumultuous fight for LGBTQ rights in the 1960s and the activists who spearheaded it

June 28, 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising – the most significant event in the gay liberation movement and the catalyst for the modern fight for LGBTQ rights in the United States. Drawing from
the New York Public Library’s archives, The Stonewall Reader is a collection of firsthand accounts, diaries, periodic literature and articles from LGBTQ magazines and newspapers that documented both the years leading up to and the years following the riots. Most importantly, this anthology shines a light on forgotten figures who were pivotal in the movement, such as Lee Brewster, head of the Queens Liberation Front and Ernestine Eckstine, one of the few out, African American, lesbian activists in the 1960s.

The Stonewall Reader is a small but very diverse anthology centered on LGBTQ+ experiences before, during, and after the Stonewall riots of 1969. It took a bit to read because the structure of some pieces wasn’t straightforward (there is a long, dense stream-of-consciousness piece by Jill Johnston that is a prime example). But the collection highlights how Stonewall came about – with all the ambiguity around exact events – how far we’ve come as a society in the intervening 50 years, and how far we still have to go.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book when it was published.

Read My Own Damn Books · stuff I read

Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg

36470806._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
Set in the eighteenth century London underworld, this bawdy, genre-bending novel reimagines the life of thief and jailbreaker Jack Sheppard to tell a profound story about gender, love, and liberation.

Recently jilted and increasingly unhinged, Dr. Voth throws himself into his work, obsessively researching the life of Jack Sheppard, a legendary eighteenth century thief. No one knows Jack’s true story—his confessions have never been found. That is, until Dr. Voth discovers a mysterious stack of papers titled Confessions of the Fox.

Dated 1724, the manuscript tells the story of an orphan named P. Sold into servitude at twelve, P struggles for years with her desire to live as “Jack.” When P falls dizzyingly in love with Bess, a sex worker looking for freedom of her own, P begins to imagine a different life. Bess brings P into the London underworld where scamps and rogues clash with London’s newly established police force, queer subcultures thrive, and ominous threats of an oncoming plague abound. At last, P becomes Jack Sheppard, one of the most notorious—and most wanted—thieves in history.

Back in the present, Dr. Voth works feverishly day and night to authenticate the manuscript. But he’s not the only one who wants Jack’s story—and some people will do whatever it takes to get it. As both Jack and Voth are drawn into corruption and conspiracy, it becomes clear that their fates are intertwined—and only a miracle will save them both.

An imaginative retelling of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, Confessions of the Fox blends high-spirited adventure, subversive history, and provocative wit to animate forgotten histories and the extraordinary characters hidden within.

Confessions of the Fox snagged my attention in catalogs last year and I started trying to read it as a digital galley. However, the structure of Confessions of the Fox is such that it makes digital reading very hard – there are MANY footnotes – so I waited to pick up a hardcover to try and read it. And then I realized that it required some involved reading time given the nature of how the story is told. So I started this book several times before I finally parked my butt on the couch during 24 in 48 and read the entire thing in one sitting.

This. Book. Is. Wild. 

The book opens with Dr. Voth, ostensibly telling the reader that the manuscript we are about to read was discovered as the university he works for emptied the stacks to make way for fancy administrative offices and that it is a ground-breaking work. The manuscript is purported to be the memoirs of one Jack Sheppard, a legendary outlaw in eighteenth-century London who serves as the inspiration for The Threepenny Opera and Mack the Knife. As “Jack” tells his story, the details of his life twist away from known sources. In this source Jack is a transman and his girlfriend Bess refers to herself as “lascar,” making her a woman of South Asian descent. As the narrative shifts and twists it seems to grow beyond the page…but is it real? Is Jack a narrator we can trust? Or Bess?

In between Jack’s story we get two sets of footnotes: 1) the annotations made by Dr. Voth noting deviations in the text from known facts about Jack Sheppard and explanations of seventeenth-century slang and 2) Dr. Voth begins to narrate the absurd twists his life takes after his discovery of the manuscript. As a transman, Dr. Voth is deeply invested in a manuscript that, if authenticated, would bring a significant contribution to trans and queer literature and history. And it is this emotional connection to the manuscript that opens Dr. Voth to manipulation by less-than-savory sources. It creates a second narrative within a frame around the Jack Sheppard narrative.

Jordy Rosenberg has given us a novel that is at once a purported eighteenth-century memoir and a narrative that morphs into a rallying cry against the commoditization of bodies, of prison abolition, of anti-colonialism, of anti-racism, of trans self-determination. Surrounding this is a framing narrative in footnotes of the professor annotating this tale and his fight against a university increasingly beholden to shady corporate and pharmaceutical interests, veering from Sterne-ean to Vonnegut-like levels of absurdity. Confessions of the Fox is a very complex book but well-worth the read.

I will give a trigger warning for this book. There are several instances where cis characters express an intrusive (and in one instance, gross) interest in a transman’s genitalia. There is also a scene of a surgery that is very appropriate to the historical setting in its details. Given that Rosenberg is a professor of queer and gender theory as well as eighteenth-century literature, I think the subject matter and situations in this book were handled very well. 

Dear FTC: I started reading a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss but wound up having to buy a copy because of the formatting.

Austenesque · mini-review · stuff I read

Austentatious: The Evolving World of Jane Austen Fans by Holly Luetkenhaus and Zoe Weinstein

cfacdfe7-e9a7-45da-a4ee-119630f54791Summary from Goodreads:
The amount of fan-generated content about Jane Austen and her novels has long surpassed the author’s original canon. Adaptations like Clueless, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Jane Austen’s Fight Club, and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries have given Austen fans priceless opportunities to enjoy the classic texts anew, and continue to bring new and younger fans into the fold. Now, through online culture, the amount and type of fan-created works has exponentially multiplied in recent years. Fans write stories, create art, make videos, and craft memes, all in homage to one of the most celebrated authors of all time.

This book explores online fan spaces in search of “Janeites” all over the world to discover what fans are making, how fans are sharing their work, and why it matters that so many women and nonbinary individuals find a haven not only in Jane Austen, but also in Jane Austen fandom. In relatable chapters based on firsthand experience, the authors explore how Austen fandom has and continues to build communities around women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. Whether Janeites are shrewdly picking up on the latent sexual tension between women in Emma or casting people of color in leading roles, Luetkenhaus and Weinstein argue that Austen fans are particularly adept at marrying fantasy and feminism.

New book about Jane Austen and fan culture? Where and when? *grin* This is very much my jam.

Austentatious is a fun yet academic examination of Austen fan culture, from fanon, online communities, and shipping to book-to-screen adaptations and queer representation. I really appreciated Chapter 2 about the adaptation of Austen’s Emma into the movie Clueless (total Betty!), which probably shows my age. There are good chapters near the end about Austen and LGBTQ+ themes/ships which provided some interesting perspectives about how the canon novels can be interpreted and how they are adapted via shipping. The book is a little short, with only nine chapters, so I would have liked a few more chapters poking into more crevices.

Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.

stuff I read

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

41880609Summary from Goodreads:
Poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.

Would you like to be slowly, tenderly, and exquisitely murdered by a novel? If yes, read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. If no, read it anyway.

This debut novel is a beautiful extended letter from a son to a mother who may not ever choose or be able to read it. Little Dog’s narrative is damn near plotless but reveals very slowly, like attempting to peel off a Band-Aid, so many traumas and scars left by war, racism, homophobia, poverty, mental illness, and addiction. We get vignettes of Little Dog’s grandmother Lan raising a biracial child, of Little Dog witnessing his mother abused by his father, of Lan lost in a haze of PTSD and schizophrenia, of Little Dog’s mother working herself to the bone as a manicurist, and of Little Dog himself as he deals with racism from other children and homophobia from his first lover, a boy named Trevor who is also a victim of the growing opioid crisis.

If you liked Alexander Chee’s writing, particularly Edinburgh, you will love Vuong’s writing.

Dear FTC: I had to buy a copy of this book because I was savoring it too much to merely just read a digital galley.

stuff I read

When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita

39987021Summary from Goodreads:
When Aidan was born, everyone thought he was a girl. His parents gave him a pretty name, his room looked like a girl’s room, and he wore clothes that other girls liked wearing. After he realized he was a trans boy, Aidan and his parents fixed the parts of life that didn’t fit anymore, and he settled happily into his new life. Then Mom and Dad announce that they’re going to have another baby, and Aidan wants to do everything he can to make things right for his new sibling from the beginning–from choosing the perfect name to creating a beautiful room to picking out the cutest onesie. But what does “making things right” actually mean? And what happens if he messes up? With a little help, Aidan comes to understand that mistakes can be fixed with honesty and communication, and that he already knows the most important thing about being a big brother: how to love with his whole self.

When Aidan Became a Brother is a heartwarming book that will resonate with transgender children, reassure any child concerned about becoming an older sibling, and celebrate the many transitions a family can experience.

When Aidan Became a Brother is a lovely and wonderful #ownvoices picture book about a little boy, assigned female gender at birth, who is about to become a Big Brother (very important) but worries about getting everything “right” for the new baby. A big worry for Aidan is what happens if this baby is also assigned the wrong gender at birth? It’s something that he has to discuss with his parents. Aidan is brought to life with beautiful and fun illustrations by Kaylani Juanita, making this an intersectional book. Aidan is a brown child, with a brown family. This is a wonderful picture book to add to every library, preschool, kindergarten, and personal collection. Books are windows and doors and mirrors – there are children who might need to hold this book to see themselves or to look through and see a sibling or friend. I sincerely hope I see this book on the ALAYMA award lists come 2020.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.