Whipping Girl by Julia Serano

Sigh.

So, this would have been a good book for me to read five years ago. The first two thirds of the book are a solid readable introduction to trans issues. Serano covers a lot of history, and a lot of topics that continue to be important. As a GWSS graduate it’s stuff I’m familiar with, presented well, but not adding a whole lot. Maybe this would be a good book to pass along to my mother.

Generally speaking, I am not about this sort of theory. This construction, being about something or not, is something I picked up lately, and it’s so useful. It isn’t that this is bad or anything — I’m just not about it. This is not the kind of theory I’m interested in engaging with. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable, I don’t disagree with Serano on any big idea levels, but I’m not about this.

I kept on getting frustrated by how Serano never pushes as much as I would. She criticizes specific psychological ideas, or specific sociological studies, while I’m much more dismissive of both fields. She brings up very valid criticisms of how trans people are medicalized, but seems to believe there’s something salvageable in the system, instead of calling out the whole huge fucked up medical industrial complex. I am not about that.

I was also frustrated by the way she critiques pop culture. It’s easy to say that something is a bad representation, but I want to hear why we should care about these texts at all. How is this bad representation getting shown to the world? Are their redeeming artistic values, or no? Saying that something is a bad representation doesn’t give me enough information. This is about me, and what I want from a piece of theory, which isn’t something everyone wants, but it isn’t something I got here.

She has a lot of criticism of deconstructionism, which I am not about. She makes a good argument that some of Foucault’s work is exploitive, but he winds up with some really cool theory to think about. Yes, a lot of people misread Butler, and that’s terrible, it really is. But Butler herself is aware of how serious gender can be, and misreadings of Butler have still turned into some cool shit. I realize I’m saying this from a position of privilege, but… I care about interesting ideas. I care about theory that’s exciting to think about. You can critique something, you should critique something, and you can still get excited about it! I am not excited by Serano’s theory.

Serano is talking about serious stuff that can have serious life or death implications. Transmisogyny is a big deal. But I’m not about valuing theory that “matters” over theory that’s more… theoretical, and less connected to reality.

She spends a lot of time critiquing fucked up trans exclusionary feminists, which fair, they’re terrible. But there are two strains, the ones in the wild, who are around doing terrible things, and then the writers who she’s referencing as though they were still a strong voice in academic feminism. Which I feel pretty confident saying is not the case. These are not respected scholars. There are many valid criticism of academic feminism, but it actually isn’t a static field. Recognizing this history is important, but also, this is history. (I’m also sick of criticism of the second wave that talks about how fucked up they were without even faintly acknowledging that they made a big step. They were super fucked up about a ton of stuff, but if we’re writing about feminism they’re an important part of our lineage.)

I am not about her approach to identity politics. I’m not about most approaches to identity politics, and she didn’t offer anything to make me rethink this position. I’m so sick of talking about identity politics.

The last third of the book, which is essays, has a lot more of Serano’s own experiences and opinions, and is more interesting. But it does make the book seem more disjointed. It’s a lot of different ideas thrown together, and some of them are more compelling. She invents the word effemimania, which is useful and cool. Serano’s background in science shows, which brings a different approach to some issues, which was cool to see. This book is at it’s strongest when she is using her experiential knowledge to support or dispute other ideas.

Despite everything you just read, I did think this was a good book, and a valuable book. I also found it incredibly frustrating, but that probably says more about me than the book itself. This book would be a good introduction to someone who hasn’t read a lot on the subject, or if you’re specifically interested in thinking about trans misogyny and how femininity is constructed. I could see myself coming back to this book as a source if I was writing. It was also super fucking frustrating.

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Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock

 

This is a speculative fiction, a braided story following three different young women. There’s Antonia Uccello, based on a real person, the daughter of artist Paolo Uccello, who may have been a painter herself. In our own time there is Toni, who has an artist father as well, and a mother who has just died. In the future there is Toniah, an art historian working for an organization that reevaluates male artist’s contributions to the world. It’s light on plot, but offers three interesting character worlds. I’m not sure if by the end the three different threads all say enough to each other. I was waiting for something more that never comes.

That said, I really enjoyed it. The world building in the future section was great. Toniah comes from a parthenogenetic family, and her background is super interesting. I loved the way Charnock writes description, and the way she writes about art. Lots of time Writing About Art can turn stuffy and dull, but this doesn’t. It’s very passionate and fun.

Antonia and Toni are both very young, thirteen and twelve respectively, and their stories are a lot about reaching an age where you can start to have your own identity, where you can chose what you are, and have some influence on what your life is like. I wonder if this might be a book I could share with my cousins who are around that age. It isn’t a must read, but it’s pleasant if you’re into the things it’s about.

january

january has mostly been worrying about money and watching project runway and not feeling nauseous. putting the under back in under employed. I lost a fair amount of weight when I got sick last fall, and since then every pair of pants I own needed to be worn with a belt. today I went shopping with my mother and bought three pairs of second hand jeans that actually fit right — one pair is even borderline too tight, and makes me feel sexy as hell. if that was the only thing I managed to do in the month of january I’d be proud, but I have written things, I have read, I have seen people. it’s been good. I am an accomplished adult. fuck it.

what makes a good week

this week has been really weird. there have been two weeks in a row where I didn’t have any hours at work, and last week I wrote a lot, and read stuff, and felt all accomplished. this week I barely wrote anything? I mostly just lay on the couch and watched tv, which I sort of feel bad about. but it’s also been two straight weeks of sleeping alright, eating alright, and not feeling nauseous. this week I even hung out with friends a lot. that’s at least as important as writing anything, maybe more so. if I’m creating things, but feeling miserable, that isn’t good. ideally there’d be some sort of balance, where I can do work I’m proud of and have my health. but I need to slow down and remember that health on its own is something to celebrate and appreciate. I’ve done a lot of being sick but still feeling alright about my life cause I managed to get some writing done. that was good, that helped — there were days when I was sick all morning, miserable all afternoon, but managed to put some words together before bed, and that made the whole day worthwhile. I need to recalibrate so days where I do nothing but feel good are valued too.

plus, it’s not like this week was a waste. I watched all of Making a Murderer. I started knitting another hat. my cat slept on my chest for hours. that’s enough.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

This book was not really my jam, but it was incredibly well done. The writing is incredible. It’s very dense, stream of consciousness, Joycean prose, that isn’t exactly inviting, but remarkable for what it is. A lot of it is written to reflect characters Jamaican dialects, which makes it even less clear, but does a ton to show what these characters are like. It’s a book of many voices.

The initial action is focused on the days before Bob Marley (here always referred to as “the singer” in a nice piece of mythologizing) played a peace concert in Kingston. The plot is rooted into his attempted assassination, and the fallout of this event that goes on for decades. The different goals of rival gangs, local politicians, the CIA, and ordinary people are all in play. It’s creates a complex web.

This isn’t a piece of history I’m particularly knowledge about or interested in. If you are you’ll probably get more out of it. There were gay characters, which was awesome, but not many women.

I admire this book, and I’m glad I read it, but it didn’t really speak to me, which is fine. It’s important to take in art that’s outside of our passions.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Man, does Amazon need to get their shit under control. I was vaguely aware that this book existed, but then Amazon turned it into a show, and had a huge super gross advertising campaign through of Nazi imagery, which obviously did not go over well.

I know that a lot of old classic sci-fi is hella racist/sexist/pick your poison problematic in all the different ways it can be. But I hadn’t remembered seeing much about Dick, or this book in particular. So I was interested in seeing what the deal with it was. What about this inspired such terrible promotional choices?

My big conclusion is that Amazon is just shit. Which really, I knew that already, and I feel bad about how much money I give them (I read this through kindle unlimited). I don’t know what they did with this book to their ad campaign. Bad things.

I read the book, and thought it was interesting, but  I’m not sure if it ever really coherers. The different threads only barely come together. It works, but only just. The whole time I was waiting for some sort of payoff, some sort of action sequence that I would understand inspiring a big action tv series. It never came.

I feel like the show must completely lose the meta aspect of the novel. The title, The Man In The High Castle refers to the author of a book within the novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is an alternate history where the Allies win World War Two.

The thing is, that in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the Allies win, but it’s still a dystopia. America and England wind up fighting, things don’t work out, and it’s basically World War Three. It’s a dystopian novel inside a dystopian novel, which makes us ask whether our world is a dystopia too? Like, it’s good that the Allies won the war, but what about everything that’s come since?

There’s also the question of who wrote The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is the driving force through one plotline. The answer might be that it was written following the directions of the i-ching, which characters frequently consult in the novel. It’s a whole thing. It’s much a 1960’s Philip K. Dick novel.

The book takes place in Japanese controlled California, and in the independent Colorado. The Nazi’s may have won, but they aren’t in charge where this story is taking place, at least not directly. So all the Nazi imagery the show packed into the promos is its own invention, extrapolating the world in a very unpleasant direction.

I honestly don’t know where this show is going. I don’t know what characters it wants to use. I don’t know what plotlines could be turned into compelling tv. The cast of the book includes a jewish man, his ex-wife, and Japanese official. I thought the characters were interesting, but never connected with them too much. They exist to be in service of the plot and the world, and aren’t so compelling on their own. One of the more interesting storylines is about making jewelry, and like, uniqueness in art. I don’t know how this would fit into a tv show?

Honestly, after reading this book I might check out the show just to see what the hell they turned into. The one review I read didn’t make it sound like my cup of tea, but maybe. Probably not though — there are like a dozen episodes, and I don’t really have the time to invest in that sort of hate watching.

My sense is to stay the hell away from the show, but the book is an interesting alternate history that asks some interesting questions and is worth picking up.

Eminent Outlaws: the Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram

This was absolutely fantastic. I stayed up until three in the morning reading this, which okay, a lot of that was insomnia, but it was also an incredibly compelling literary history. I’ve been talking about it to everyone I know, and added what seems like dozens of things to my reading list.

The introduction does recognize the need for a similar project on lesbian writers, but Bram feels that it would widen the scope of this book too far. I need that book in my life, but I also agree that the focus works here. Many of these writers were moving in the same circles, gossiping and influencing each other’s work.

This book covered a lot of canonically writers that I knew very little about. I had never read or thought much about Gore Vidal before this book. I’ve seen some of Tennesse William’s work, but hadn’t studied him. I’m the sort of English major nerd who likes to know things about Big Important writers, even if they aren’t necessarily writers I care about.

The biographical details, including the more gossipy parts, were very enjoyable. There’s something fascinating about Vidal and Truman Capote, two important intellectuals in their time, feuding and being petty about each other. It’s a very humanizing history. It covers their works and influence, but also their romances and relationships with the media. The earliest generation considered here had a very different relationship with the mainstream in a time when it was less acceptable to be openly gay and when public intellectuals meant a lot more. The transition from this to writers who were more open and political about their sexuality is very interesting and well explored here.

In something like this there are always going to be things that get left out. There’s one sentence about Samuel Delany, who’s a fantastic and influential writer, as well as one of my personal favorites. As a part of new wave science fiction Delaney expanded the style of writing that was found in sci-fi, doing something very literary and beautiful. Thomas M. Disch goes unmentioned. I’m used to sci-fi being ignored by more ~literary~ endeavors, but it sucks.

I also don’t know if I’m content with what it makes the Beats. While Ginsberg is an important figure, and obviously gay, the rest of them are just… I don’t know? The vague queerness of Burroughs and Kerouac is a bad fit for a book about gay writers that I don’t remember ever bringing up the idea of bisexuality. This kind of not-straight sexuality is worth exploring; I understand how doesn’t fit neatly in a history of gay writers, but I don’t want to see it erased.

I’m sure other readers would pick up on other omissions. A history that doesn’t leave anyone out is an impossible undertaking. This is just what I was sad find missing.

It was a joy to walk through books I had read and enjoyed, and be reminded of biographies of authors that I used to know. It had been years since I read Christopher Isherwood for school, and I had forgotten that I wanted to read more by him. I remembered how much I love Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, which is simply one of the most joyous beautiful lively literary adventures I’ve ever encountered. The next book I read after this was Maupin’s The Night Listener, which absolutely blew me away. I spent a couple weeks last summer reading Edmund White, and hadn’t thought of him much since. I got to think about how great The Normal Heart is. The Normal Heart is so great guys. It might be the only play that got to me when I just read it, where it was just me and the book and my imagination, not seeing it on stage or screen. This book got me really excited to read other books, and plays, and even some poetry.

If you’re into gay history, or literary history, or are looking to add to your to-read list this is a great thing to check out. It’s a really good resource, and can definitely see coming back to it for academic reasons, but it’s also a very enjoyable cultural history.