Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Month in Books: May

I've been really, really busy at work this month, so after April's dazzling fifteen book reading total I'm ending May back at a more normal, but probably still above average, reading level: I only read five books this month. I did try an experiment, though, which I will most likely not repeat, and read only non-fiction this month. I don't think I will repeat it because my brain reads better when I bounce back and forth from heavy/things I actually have to think about while reading to light/books that I can mindlessly devour.

I'm not going to finish another book between now and midnight, so here are the five books I read and some thoughts about them:

1) Axel Madsen's The Sewing Circle is out of print, and there's a good reason why: it's just not that good. The story of "Hollywood's greatest secret" (an arguable point in itself), it documents same sex relationships among a circle of actresses, writers, and other members of the film industry during the early years of Hollywood, but the book can't ever seem to decide what kind of tone it takes. Some pages are a matter of fact documentary style study, and other pages seem ripped directly from the tabloids. Not only that, but it doesn't build to anything. Everyone just keeps having relationships with everyone else, and then eventually they die. There's no climax, and it doesn't really push you to draw any conclusions. Is the closet terrible? Well, no, not always. Is it a wise career move? Well, no, not often. Is there a point to reading any of this? Well, no, not really.

When I originally picked this up I was planning to donate it to the OutReach LGBT and Ally Resource Center here on campus (which could really use your donations if you feel like making one), but now that I've read it I decided against it because the students won' know who most of the people mentioned are and this book is so boring and poorly written that it won't make them want to know. This is the most boring thing about Joan Crawford that I've ever read, and they somehow made Marlene Dietrich seem sad and quiet. I don't want the students to read this because I honestly don't want anyone to read this.

2) Jon Krakauer's Missoula was a fast, searing read. While people have tried to argue that the city of Missoula, Montana, doesn't have a problem prosecuting sexual assaults, facts are hard to argue with, and Krakauer documents case after case, a count that ultimately climbs into the hundreds. At the same time, he brings a humanizing tone to the story by framing his investigation with the specific stories of a few cases involving women assaulted by members of the college football team, which was apparently allowed to behave with impunity and without consequences. Sexual assault on college campuses, and the way that colleges respond to it, has been an increasingly debated topic within the past year, and this book highlights the reason why: things have to change.

One of the things I like about Krakauer's writing, and have since I read Into Thin Air, is that his narrative voice doesn't pull any punches. He gives credit where credit is due, but is also more than willing to assign blame when it's needed. While he does allow the reader to draw their own conclusions in some cases, his conclusion is also always obvious, and he doesn't flinch away from uncomfortable truths. This is a topic where too much is hushed up and made polite already, so it's nice to see someone acknowledge the parts of sexual assault that are horrible but also try to move the discussion forward beyond that, and to try to find ways to change things for the better. This is definitely a good read, especially for those working in higher education or with young adults in any capacity, but given the subject matter it probably goes without saying that this may also be triggering for some people.

3) Clayton Delery-Edwards' The Up Stairs Lounge Arson tells the story of the deadliest fire in New Orleans, which also happens to be the deadliest mass murder of LGBT+ people in US history. 32 people died in the burning of the Up Stairs Lounge in 1973, but most people haven't heard about it because the general response at the time was, "It was just a bunch of fags." While times have changed, it is a window into a time not so long ago when being out was illegal, when crimes against gay people were expected and unprosecuted, and when a city can fail to fully investigate the deaths of 32 citizens and most of the public won't care about how those people died because of how they lived.

I'm definitely going to donate this one to the Resource Center, which was my plan when I bought it, because I think knowing the history of the struggle of LGBT+ people in this country is important, especially if that history is well written. (Giving you the side-eye, book #1.) While we have made a lot of progress as a country, though, I also feel that it's worth thinking and discussing how many places and circumstances there are where we still have a long way to go toward achieving equality. In a time when legislators are pushing bills that will allow people to continue discriminating against LGBT+ people even after laws intended to safeguard equality are passed, it's worth looking at the kinds of things that happen when minorities are dehumanized and silenced.

4) As a doctoral student in sociology, Ashley Mears became a model for two agencies, one in New York and one in London, and studied a side of the modeling world that's rarely seen. In Pricing Beauty she breaks down some of the stereotypes about models (average male models, for example, make very little money compared to women and rarely collect a paycheck from their agency) but also shows how the modeling industry illustrates social norms about attractiveness, race, gender, masculinity, sexuality, and the value that we place on creative fields and the creation of art. Throughout the book Mears interviewed models, bookers, clients, photographers, and others associated with the industry, and gives a portrait that could only come from the inside.

I really enjoyed reading this, even if it got a little slow at times, because it made me think a lot about the ways in which our culture views youth, gender, and the worth of creative output and the people who produce it. Is the person who shoots catalog photos an artist? Is the model featured in them, chosen because she is blandly good looking in the most average way possible to appeal to the widest consumer audience, a star? Why is she making so much more than the man standing next to her in the picture? And why are neither of them likely to be a person of color? Even more basic, how do we define attractiveness in the first place? And how do we assign a value to it? The book doesn't answer all of these questions, and doesn't intend to, but it was interesting to think about them, and I'm glad the author asked.

5) There are probably better books about the Penn State scandal than Bill Moushey and Bob Dvorchak's Game Over, but this one was free so this is the one I read. The book reads like they ground it out as soon as they could to make money while the case was still in the news, especially since it ends with Sandusky out on bail and awaiting trial. Given that, this book seems to draw a lot of conclusions rather early in the whole scandal, and is probably not worth picking up now that there are other, presumably more complete books written about everything that happened. Some of the things the authors say are right, such as that this did tarnish Paterno's legacy and have a lasting impact on Penn State, but the point would be better illustrated by books that include things like the removal of Paterno's statue outside the football stadium and the imposition and subsequent partial reversal of the NCAA sanctions against Penn State. This book was probably outdated as soon as it was published, and no longer worth looking at now for people who are curious about the entire sequence of events and outcomes. I didn't hate reading it, but when I realized how outdated it really was I felt bad about wasting my time on it.

The used bookstore probably isn't going to give me any money for it, either.

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