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movie: Milk (2008)

While I recognize it’s risky to learn history from a biopic, I really appreciated all I learned about Harvey Milk and his fine work in this movie, which was visually pleasing and well-done–through heart-wrenching–as well as educational. I do recommend it.

Milk begins with Harvey Milk’s fortieth birthday in New York, then quickly follows him to San Francisco, where he gets involved with politics, and through to his end by assassination. Sean Penn plays a beautiful Milk, and his partners played by James Franco and Diego Luna make striking, attractive characters as well. I found the acting all-around admirable. I loved the characters of Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg; and I appreciated the way Dan White was handled. He comes off not as a straight villain, but as a flawed, a troubled human being. His actions are hard to stomach. But I appreciate the nuance with which he was handled in this film.

San Francisco and the Castro feel real to me (and what do I know about how authentic they are here; but I bought it). The styles felt right for the time (same caveat). In other words, I was convinced and in fact spellbound by the whole thing; and that’s before saying that obviously I find Harvey Milk’s life and work inspirational, and his demise saddening. I would watch this movie again. You should watch it, too.


Rating: 8 votes.

guest review: The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, from Pops

Pops has been making his way through my backlist. See, while we’re at it, his comments on Dream Team. Here, he’s sent a full discussion of The Solace of Open Spaces, which I reviewed here (see his comments there, too). Thanks as always for weighing in, Pops!

Thanks for yet another good recommendation, although belatedly honored.

Ehrlich’s work is as special as you describe, although you commended it with one more cowboy than I might have, likely accounted for by personal taste and happenstance, that nebulous coincidence of reading the right book at the right time (or not).

Two other, little things I noticed. One is her occasional unabashed use of urban references in metaphors or similes describing wild and natural (albeit inhabited) places. This is not so typical in literary works about the wild, but it works well here supporting her personal story as a ‘straddler,’ as she once refers to herself, shifting between places.

The other is a brief mention in her chapter “To Live in Two Worlds,” a title with meaning for her book’s personal backstory, but also for the chapter’s subject describing the parallel Wyoming culture of native Indian tribes. She attends two tribal events; one is the annual Crow Fair, where an Indian friend remarks on tribal mythology about a ‘berdache’ (p.123), a French word which she parenthetically defines as transvestite.

I have read that the American Indian or First Nation usage of a French word derives from French voyageurs, the French trappers in early North American history who were the first European contacts with many native tribes, who then adopted many French terms in their learning of English. The voyageurs encountered the cultural fact of native gender ambiguity, and recognizing a common social reference, contributed their word to an emerging hybrid language of native, English and French words.

From multiple references I have read, Wiktionary seems to get it right: berdache is “a person who identifies with any of a variety of gender identities which are not exclusively those of their biological sex.” An added comment there goes beyond what I have seen elsewhere: “Considered offensive by many Native American communities because of its pejorative and non-American etymology, berdache began to fall out of use in the 1990s; two-spirit and various tribe-specific terms are now used instead.” The latter is wonderfully explicated here by a gay blogger in Montana.

Nevertheless, I find the history fascinating, including that last reference with very helpful context: the contemporaneous accounts, from both Indians and early explorers, suggest both surprising awareness and a more tolerant acceptance of a cultural and social issue that US culture still wrestles with today.

In reading northwest history I have seen berdache, as a word and cultural phenomenon, repeated in things I’ve read lately. Notable are two excellent works of creative non-fiction history, Jack Nisbet’s Sources of the River and Peter Stark’s Astoria. The narrative lines of the two books briefly but importantly overlap, and a berdache is, remarkably, at the center of that historical confluence.

Nisbet’s work references contemporaneous journals of Scot-Canadian David Thompson, who led (and amazingly, accurately mapped) the first European expedition from Columbia River headwaters in Canada to its mouth near Portland, Oregon, in 1811 immediately after Lewis & Clark journeyed overland to the mouth. In his journeys through true wilderness, meeting some tribal parties who have never seen a white person, Thomson first hears tales of a berdache, then meets the person named Qánqon – twice! First is early in the trip, near the headwaters; second is later, at the mouth.

Astoria describes a complicated American expedition of the same period (they and Thompson were vaguely mutually aware), which involved two groups, overland and by sea, converging on the mouth of the river. All three parties converge in the summer of 1811 at the Astorian camp near present-day Portland – and, defying odds, the mysterious Qánqon also arrives, with a companion, to make it four. This motley combination clashes to provide a bit of historical human drama and political intrigue. And it all makes for wonderful reading.

So that’s what I know about berdache. And thanks to Ehrlich for providing yet another reference to an interesting historical thread.

What a turn this review took! I did not remember the term berdache at all, so there you have it. (Also, that was five years and how many hundreds of books ago? Probably nearing a thousand?) Also, although we all know I do not have time for more titles added to my list, I love a review that comes with additional reading recommendations. Thanks as always for weighing in, Pops!

Quick list of LGBTQ reads

A graduate of my MFA program asked on a private forum,

Does anyone have suggestions of short stories, essays, and poems I could use in a Gender and Lit class that could introduce my students to LGBTQ lit and how it resists stereotypes and challenges the gender binary?

and I wanted to put together a quick list in response. But first, let me say: I think it’s interesting to consider who is qualified to answer this question. Part of me feels the need to disclose that I’m not a member of the LGBTQ community in the sense that I’m straight and cis-gendered. My colleagues & classmates who are members of this community by identity might have more authority in answering this request than I have. On the other hand, I hope that we can all recognize the reading that a) appears well-crafted and b) answers a certain need. I’m an LGBTQ ally. I try to recognize the nuances of (for example) stereotypes, as posed by the person who posted this request. I’m not perfect, but I’ve made an effort to be an informed reader of this and many other kinds of literature. Best efforts, then, with a stated sensitivity to the privilege with which I enter this work.

Here are the top nine books that I thought of. The original poster asked for shorter works, so my response is imperfect, but these are what I have to offer. (Two collections offer easy excerpting; more effort would be required to excerpt the longer full works, but it might be worth it.)

book list:

Others responded to this request with titles like Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean, a collection from Appalachia, and with some connections to my MFA program, edited by Adrian Blevins and Karen Salyer McElmurray–I own this book but haven’t cracked it yet, I’m afraid–and Andrea Gibson’s poem “Your Life.” Further:

Danez Smith and Qwo-Li Driskill and Ocean Vuong are poets that intermingled their race and their lgbt identity in their poems. Janet Mock. I mean technically a lot of the Harlem renaissance poets were always merging their otherness with their racial identity and their sexual identity. Such as Langston Hughes. Audrey Lorde’s Zami actually creates this almost mythos surrounding blackness and coming into this womanly identity and loving women. Leslie Feinburg is a bit heavy but ze is a prominent figure in the lgbt community. Allison Bechdel is a graphic novelist but graphic novels are still solid and easy to pick up on as a narrative.

Music is fun too! Rappers reclaim particular words and terms… Again still a bit heavy but Brockhampton and The Internet are fun and sometimes soft lyrical gay sounds. Where Mykki Blanco is… all weird trance-y edm bopping type sounds that scopes in on… the black lgbt club scene and their lingo and it’s just fun. I dunno if those are also lyrical structures to be explored. I think they are important but that’s just… how I perceive music as a social device. Especially in the black community.

And I just want to say, especially in response to that last post, that I think interdisciplinarity is a really important strategy in education. I think I would have been more engaged in high school if I’d better understood the ways in which science, art, literature, history, social movements, etc. happened in tandem, rather than in separate classrooms. Maybe it’s my interest in humans, but I think understanding that all these “subjects” are a part of human history and human experience, would have made each more interesting to me than they were at the time. Figuring out the interconnectedness on my own, later, was itself a fascinating process, but I might have been more excited about school at the time if interdiscplinarity had been made a bit more clear to me then. So, I support the inclusion of music in this class!

Well, that was a longer post than I intended; I hope it was helpful (to the original asker, or to anyone), and I’m very interested in what others may have to offer as well. Comment below!

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison

two-or-three-things-i-knowThis is a lovely, very brief but powerfully feeling memoir by the author of Bastard Out of Carolina, which I have not read.

It offers a look at the author’s life, and of the women in her extended family: chronological, but otherwise loosely attached to events, more musing and reflective than reportorial. Allison jumps in and out of time, so although events take place in chronological order, it’s not a straightforward start-to-finish narrative. She also includes family photos, and thus reminds me of Judith Kitchen’s Half in Shade. (This one came first.) Allison is concerned with the challenges these women have faced, and how they’ve handled them, with attention to place, culture, feminism and lesbianism; but family relationships are central. Her second-person address repeats “Let me tell you a story…” and weaves in the title line. This through-line provides another unifying tactic, like those I saw in essays by Van Eerden and McClanahan (here). Like Queen of the Fall (review coming up on Friday), Allison also offers some thoughts, and inspires some thinking, on women’s experiences and place in the world. Specifically in this book, that is the world of poverty-stricken Greenville, South Carolina.

At under 100 pages, this is a super-quick read; maybe too quick. I flashed through it in an evening and am left unsure of what I learned, although I enjoyed the experience. The good news is that a reread would be quick to do, too.


Rating: 7 quarter-miles.

Take Me to Paris, Johnny by John Foster

This beautifully written memoir of a lover’s life and death will impress readers with its lyricism and emotion.

take-me-to-paris-johnny

Originally published in Australia in 1993, John Foster’s Take Me to Paris, Johnny recounts the life of his lover Juan Céspedes, who died of AIDS in 1987. This Text Classics edition–the first in the United States–includes an introduction by critic Peter Craven and an afterword by Foster’s close friend John Rickard. While these supplementary materials provide context and develop Foster’s character, the original work gleams abundantly without their help.

Juan was a Cuban refugee studying dance in New York City when he met Foster, an Australian history professor, in 1981. A one-night stand became a summer-long affair and then a long-term, long-distance relationship, to Foster’s surprise. As the couple wrangled with the Australian immigration authorities to gain Juan’s permanent residence there, his illness became undeniably serious. He died in a hospital in Melbourne with Foster by his side.

This sensitive, perceptive memoir keeps Juan at its center, outlining his boyhood and escape to the United States before focusing on the love affair and Juan’s death; the final event receives due gravity without defining his life or the book. In a mere 200 pages, Take Me to Paris, Johnny achieves a full emotional range, sketches Juan’s rare and changeable personality and imbues a tragedy with poetry. Foster’s writing is exquisite: thoughtful, lyrical and with an eye for detail. While this is undeniably a sad story, Foster resists wallowing, choosing instead to celebrate Juan and even to laugh at their troubles. Take Me to Paris, Johnny is incisive, wry, loving and deeply lovable.


This review originally ran in the January 10, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 red gladiolas.

Teaser Tuesdays: Take Me to Paris, Johnny by John Foster

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

I am reading a beautiful, sad memoir about a love affair and the death of the beloved to AIDS. Juan was a Cuban refugee living in New York City and training as a dancer when he met John, an Australian history professor.

take-me-to-paris-johnny
John Foster tells this story with some lovely lines, like these.

I have one other memory of that November afternoon: the wind. It whipped off the river sharp and mean, and we were glad to step down from the street into the musty warmth of the subway on our way home. Juan was still living out of the bag of summer clothes that he had deposited, and since retrieved, at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Deceptively simple; but can’t you feel the wind? Whipping off sharp and mean really gets it there, for me. As I read this book, I feel like the tone of the title suits it: dreamy, sad, with some whimsy. Look for my review closer to the December pub date.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Women Lovers, or The Third Woman by Natalie Clifford Barney, ed. and trans. by Chelsea Ray

A sprightly, autobiographical 1926 novel of a Belle Époque lesbian love triangle, written in French by an American and appearing in English for the first time.

woman lovers

The works of Natalie Clifford Barney, an American who lived in Paris and wrote in French, are little known, and her 1926 autobiographical novel Amants féminins was published for the first time only in 2013. Woman Lovers, or The Third Woman is the first English translation.

A scholarly introduction by Melanie C. Hawthorne and a translator’s essay by Chelsea Ray place this work in the context of modernism and evolving gender definitions while detailing Barney’s biography. These introductory materials are revealing and absorbing in their own right, if a little dry in their academic tone. The novel, however, leaps energetically to life.

Barney’s protagonist N., who stands in for the author, believes in love among women as an ideal of pleasure and friendship. “Friendship is simply love without pleasure!” she declares. “Love is heavy for two to carry, and happiness is monotonous.” With a new lover, M., she establishes an “association” by which the two women will comfort those in romantic distress by sharing their affections. When she brings such a woman into her relationship with M., however, N. is unexpectedly left out, jealous and hurt.

Barney is perhaps best known for her aphorisms, and she uses such pithy fragments as well as screenplay-style dialogue, mock journal entries, a combination of first- and third-person perspectives and even drawings to tell her story. Woman Lovers, while brief, is thus a noteworthy and historically significant piece of experimental literature, queer theory and a captivating roman à clef all at once.


This review originally ran in the July 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 chestnuts.
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