And the Band Plays On by Randy Shilts

I think that AIDS is a thing that queer people in later generations have to find a way to deal with. It’s this piece of living history that wiped out so many of our role models and would-be mentors. We need to find a way to mourn or understand or do something, how to live alongside this past.

It’s something I keep reading about, and I don’t always know how to handle about it, but it can’t be ignored.  It was kind of miserable to spend three straight days reading about how the Reagan administration let people die, but I couldn’t stop reading. It’s incredibly compelling.

This is very well done journalism. It looks at national organizations and political movements without ever losing track of the humans. It doesn’t just talk about the gay organizations, but really digs into the CDC and other medical organizations that were involved.

There are some parts that are dated. Africa gets called primitive too often, and a few other things that pinged me as odd reading in the year 2016, though I can’t recall exactly what now. Some of the language feels remarkably flowering for journalism, but I enjoyed that actually. It added character, made the book feel more beautiful and gay.

It’s definitely worth reading. It’s a really valuable perspective on a really important subject.


Bullies: A Friendship by Alex Abramovich

I absolutely loved this. The book started when the author reconnected with one of his childhood bullies, who had grown up to lead a motorcycle club in Oakland. They get to know each other again, and their complicated friendship is the center of the story. Abramovich and his girlfriend moved out to California and he gets involved in this scene.

I love how human relationships are woven through the history of the city, demonstrating how these things must be put in relationship to each other. The way we relate to other people is connect to space and location. It starts as the story of an odd friendship, it grows to be a portrait of a scene, before expanding to take on larger ideas of gentrification, history, and the occupy movement. It’s one of the best accounts of Occupy that I’ve ready, capturing the promise, frustration, and whimsy.

It’s wonderfully written, and gives you a lot to think about. It manages to hold on to a sense of scale incredibly well, always centering people in order to maintain perspective while looking at larger things. It’s about how people change and grow, and how Oakland is changing, and how these two journeys interact. It’s a really wonderful book.

Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari

I kind of need everyone to read this book. It’s really smart, and about something really important, and about something that I have a really hard time talking about.

One of the big things that I spend time thinking about and trying to live around is intoxication culture, which is basically the sets of cultural norms that exist around drugs and alcohol. Understanding the extremely fucked up way the war on drugs has been implemented is an important part of understanding and resisting intoxication culture.

So this book which is all about understanding why the war on drugs started and what it’s done is obviously a huge resource. It’s a very thorough, wide ranging book. Hari traveled all over to talk to people and see the different way the war on drugs has impacted the world. It’s very well researched, and goes very in depth. He uses stories of individuals to explain things that are happening on a systemic level. Looking at statistics and populations it can be easy to get impersonal, but Hari always brings it back to people.

The problem with how drugs are controlled and legislated is a huge problem, and it isn’t discussed as much as it should be, and so much of the discourse that is around is really unhelpful, uninformed, or actually damaging.

This should be required reading. It’s the best non-fiction book I’ve read in ages. It manages to be an accessible enjoyable read while explaining an important subject. I got it from the library, but I’m going to buy it so I can make other people in my life read it.

It took until the end of the book when he starts talking about legalization for me to realize what wasn’t quite clicking for me, where Hari and I were approaching these subjects from different directions. He came in with a history of drug use in his family, and accepted the common narrative that illegal drugs are worse than alcohol. I came I with a history of alcoholism in my family, so I know that it can be just as fucked, but the social norms around it are different.  He explains why our current system of criminalization doesn’t work, but he doesn’t really acknowledge how the current way that alcohol is regulated is pretty fucked up as well.

One of my issues with legalization is that if this country can’t manage a functional relationship with alcohol, why would it be able to do much better for other intoxicants? Hari almost touches on this when discussing prescription painkiller abuse, but he never really engages with whether America has a fundamentally unhealthy relationship with both legal and illegal intoxicants, which I’d say is true. Prohibition doesn’t work, but the regulations and culture around alcohol isn’t anything to aspire to. There doesn’t just need to be a legal change in how drugs are criminalized, but a cultural shift in how we approach intoxicants.

This isn’t a flaw of the book, it’s an example of divergent interests. He’s looking at the legalization/prohibition of drugs, while I’ve mostly thought about the social norms around intoxicants. He’s talking about incredibly important things, but doesn’t address everything I care about.

Overall, I loved it. Hari mentioned an ex-boyfriend in the first chapter and knowing that he isn’t straight made me trust him instinctively, which might be weird, but whatever. Figuring out a better way to deal with intoxicants and addiction is something that needs to happen because the current model is so dysfunctional. Having an informative and interesting book like Chasing the Scream as a resource is awesome if that change is going to come.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

I really love Sarah Vowell, and I really love Lafayette. This goes back to Liberty Kids, a public television show about the American revolution. With terrible animation and a very impressive list of voice actors, this show was incredibly formative to myself and I believe much of my generation. My best friend used to record episodes on VHS. She grew up to be a history major focusing on American history in the 18th century. I don’t think these things are unrelated. Lafayette was one of the stand out characters of the show, and became probably my favorite figure of the American Revolution.

Hamilton, with the gorgeous and talented Daveed Diggs as Lafayette only made this worse. I was listening to Hamilton while I was reading, and reached the battle of Yorktown at the same time in the music and the book, which was such a perfect alignment.

Sarah Vowell spends a whole books explaining why my childhood fascination with Lafayette is all a part of a much bigger thing. He’s been a idol to Americans since immediately after the revolution. She focuses on a trip he took as an older man, touring through the country he helped to liberate, being greeted as a hero. From there it goes all over the place. It is a Sarah Vowell book after all. She wanders through Lafayette’s life and legacy in a very entertaining manner. She looks at the other rag-tag team that made the American revolution happen.

It’s a great book. Very funny, very accessible, I think I learned something. She continues to do a great job at tackling American history, and connecting it to what America is today. Definitely worth your time.

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

I really like Sarah Vowell. She reminds me of my best friend, who is also a very grumpy history nerd. She’s the kind of person I’d like to hang out with. This is her book about presidential assassinations, and it’s a lot of fun. I know that sounds weird, but it is, that’s her thing. She makes presidential assassinations fun. I learned things from this book, and it made me laugh and think a lot. This book is ten years old, and came out towards the start of Bush’s second term. Her political concerns reflect this, which mean they’re pretty different than my own right now, but I remember this time, even if I was young. She does a really good job at tying current events back to historical happens, showing how America’s past created its present, and why we shouldn’t fuck up the future. Very good book.

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.

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

I don’t know what this book was, but I loved it. I need to read it at least three more times, and discuss it in a classroom setting, and make my sweetheart read it, and discuss it lying in bed with her. I want to soak up this book more, and carry it around with me, underline parts, and write notes in the margins. I’ve read it through once, pretty much straight through during a shift at the bookstore, with a break in the middle to get a slice of pizza, and that isn’t enough interaction. That was enough to know this book means something, that it could be important to me, but not enough to break down the hows or whys.

The way Nelson weaves through theory and autobiography is mesmerizing. Far too often there is a divide between theory and life, which kind of defeats the point. Nelson’s living her theory, trapped by it sometimes, changing it to face the reality of day to day existence.

Nelson is writing about family, especially motherhood, especially what it means to be a queer feminist mother. Nelson is figuring out what it means to be a part of queer family when family means two parents and children, like a “normal” family, instead of the vastness of queers as family that is a common metaphor. This naturally leads to writing about homonormativity, which is something Nelson doesn’t want to be a part of, even as that conflicts with her desire for a comfortable domestic life.

Queer’s one of those big words that means a thousand different things to a thousand different people, which means it always has to be defined. Nelson’s definitions really worked for me. I really wish I had written it down before I had to give it back to the library. I appreciated her perspective about what it means to be queer, and what it means to navigate a partner’s queerness when it’s different than your own, which can be something really big, and is something I’ve been thinking on, but isn’t something I see discussed very often.

Nelson is simply a great writer. I wish I could write like this. It’s a perfect mix of passion and honesty with academic writing. That’s very close to my ideal prose style. There are moments, especially early on, where things seem confused, and it isn’t clear who she’s writing to, but it gets more sure as things go on. Overall the cut and paste nature of the text adds a lot. It makes the book more playful and less predictable. I really need to read it again. I’m not done with this book, not even close. I have more things to say about it, and it has more things to say to me.