The Danish Girl

I can’t help but feel that this story, loosely based on a real person from the past, should have been set in the future. The author treats his characters with such a high degree of dignity and compassion, coming not only from himself – which is wonderful – but also from each other, which leaves me a little confused and reeks of naive optimism. It’s a shiny fantasy story with surprisingly little conflict. Even the results of the stock market crash in 1929 are just barely given any acknowledgement and we feel like in 1930 one could just cruise, nevermind that the financial implications of the medical care that takes place. I’m pretty sure being self-employed as an artist has never come with full medical coverage, no matter what the level of success.

Every major character in this thing is a saint, and there’s exactly one real disagreement worth speaking of to be found between them in the entire thing, even with a divorce! To say this is startling is a major understatement, given subject matter that was virtually unheard of then, and is still an extremely delicate topic over 90 years later. The conflict we do get is token, and I just can’t believe anyone in Lili’s position could have it so easy. It’s like the author wanted some of the edginess that comes with trans issues, but then completely wimped out. In times like these when some empathy could really mean life or death, I find it a little disturbing. Even if I’m wrong and it’s not part of the problem, it’s definitely not part of the solution, either. This story is too nice and I was left wanting much more. More depth, realism, and struggle, but also that real life could be just a little more like it.

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Review-orama 2014

It’s that time again, so let’s take a look back at the last year in reading and see how my basic impressions stack up. Click on the book title to go to the full review, where I’ve written one.

1. British History for Dummies, finished Jan 4th. These books are always well-done and succeed in their intended purpose. The difficulty is that no matter how much you try to dumb it down, it still ends up being way too long.

2. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, finished Jan 14th. This book was fascinating and well worth the read.

3. Doctors From Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans, finished Jan 22nd. An important bart of the world’s past that I feel it’s important to know.

4. A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, finished Jan 28th. Not a waste of time, but those who are not incredibly interested in the history of feminism may find it boring.

5. Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn And Made America a Democracy, finished March 2nd. Damn, I sure read books with long titles. This book is important. Read it.

6. Madame Du Barry: The Wages of Beauty, finished March 14th. Surprisingly boring.

7. Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, finished March 16th. The content is fascinating, but the scientific descriptions were right over my head, and I got bored.

8. Push, finished March 17th. Very good, just like the movie.

9. Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518-1865, finished March 26th. Very interesting content, but the writing could have been less dry.

10. The Night the Defeos Died, Reinvestigating the Amityville Murders, finished March 31st. Hands down my favorite book of the year. Awesome.

11. Knocked Up: Confessions of a Hip Mother-To-Be, finished April 4th. This is just fluffy entertainment. Nothing that great or valuable here.

12. Twelve Years a Slave, finished April 13th. Very personal and moving.

13. High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly, finished April 21st. Totally boring.

14. The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, finished May 5th. Antonia Fraser is always a delight, but this book may be more suited to have around just as reference, or it can get very long.

15. The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture, finished May 8th. As I try to think of something to say here, it occurs to me that this book was forgettable. But I do remember liking it.

16. The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, finished May 10th. Maybe it’s just the authors I’m choosing, but I find comedy books to be more valuable than people probably give them credit for.

17. In Cold Blood, finished May 16th. Awesome. There’s a reason this book is a classic.

18. The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber, finished May 20th. Dark books are my weakness, but this was without any flavor at all.

19. African American History for Dummies, finished June 13th. Even though the For Dummies books are by different authors, my impressions of them are always the same.

20. Haunted: The Incredible True Story of a Canadian Family’s Experience Living in a Haunted House, finished June 17th. Mildly interesting, but not the least bit scary. Poop.

21. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, finished July 12th. Very interesting, very much worth the read.

22. Lord High Executioner: An Unashamed Look at Hangmen, Headsmen, and Their Kind, finished July 22nd. A surprisingly light read for such a dark subject.

23. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, finished August 29th. A valuable read for every kind of woman.

24. Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill, finished Sept 8th. Horrifying.

25. Sasquatch: North America’s Enduring Mystery, finished Sept 12th. A very complete explanation, but still a little meh :/

26. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, finished Sept 22nd. Both depressing and uplifting at the same time, and all around very impressive.

27. Dead Until Dark, finished Sept 23rd. Surprisingly fluffy and weak, considering such a great show came out of it.

28. The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women, finished Oct 6th. Pretty interesting, very engaging novel-like style.

29. Wicked River: The Mississippi When it Last Ran Wild, finished Oct 16th. Well-written, and cool information, but arguably with limited importance. That sounds bad…

30. Vittorio, The Vampire, finished Oct 24th. It’s an Anne Rice book, enough said.

31. Living Dead in Dallas, finished Nov 16th. More fun and interesting than Dead Until Dark, but still fluff.

32. Prince Lestat, finished Dec 5th. Well worth the wait.

33. Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, finished Dec 27th. Perfection.

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson

 

Nothing quite warms you up during the holiday season like a nice fire, a cup of hot chocolate, and a good book about some of the most brutal murders in the 20th century.

Yes, some of us have a slightly different idea of what constitutes good leisure time. Or maybe this is just more appropriate Festivus reading than Christmas reading. But who really cares, anyway. A good book is a good book. I must say, despite never having read any other books about Charles Manson, I really don’t feel the need to read any others after this. Jeff Guinn is a truly engaging writer, and the 60s really come alive in this story of death and delusion.

I found that actually to be one of the most compelling parts of the book. We can always get a much better grasp on people’s thoughts and actions when we have an understanding of what was going on in the world around them, and thanks to far more than just these murders themselves, the 60s were an incredibly turbulent time in history. Without going off on long tangents that feel irrelevant to the main point, here we can become fully immersed in the atmosphere of the time, warts and all. Whether you lived through a certain period or not, there’s a real tendency to romanticize and look back on times past as being idyllic, better than the time we’re living in now. The 60s in particular can really fall victim to this, as we envision Woodstock, peace and love, and a virtually unlimited supply of weed. How could such an environment possibly spawn such a dark dude? But there’s no nostalgia here, only raw, honest truth. This is one of those books that take you on a mental road trip back in time, but doesn’t bore you with tours about shit you don’t care about.

This fair and well-rounded approach isn’t exclusive to the 60s, but also to Manson himself. I’m not saying that the book is sympathetic to him. That would be insane. But Guinn does do what he can to explain just how such a person could grow up to become what he did. The amount of research this involves is impressive, but the book is never bogged down by dry facts. We almost want to feel sorry for the guy, at least when he was still a kid. His life was far from easy. But when it really comes down to it, nothing is an excuse. There are of course innumerable people who have had it worse and didn’t turn out to be bad people at all, and really, Manson seems like the kind of person who was just plain born bad. Disappointed as they were, his family from what we can tell didn’t seem all that surprised to hear of what he had done.

The big question for me then, is what Manson himself truly believed. He spent a lot of time telling other people what to believe, including that he was the second coming of Jesus, but did he know it was all bullshit, or was he really just that delusional? The answer doesn’t seem to be found here, and maybe it’s something we’re just not meant to know. It’s a mystery that will ensure as long as the memory of those horrible crimes.

Rather just see the movie? Check out Helter Skelter.

Prince Lestat

Wow, I bet none of you were expecting this; an eleventh Vampire Chronicle long after the series was said to be over. And considering the last one was so relatively anti-climactic to be so positioned in the series, now we finally have a book worthy of being called a finale. Though of course you may have heard that this is not in fact going to be the last one, and another is already planned for next year. And I could not be happier.

This is very much a “where are they now” kind of book, and we get updates on characters major and (very) minor, and even some completely new ones. Of course a lot of time has passed since Blood Canticle, and this book positively revels in it. Are the vampires Mac or PC kind of people? Do they carry cell phones, do they send emails? The answers to these seemingly irrelevant questions are actually deeply etched into the plot, so that the newness of it all is much more than just a gimmick. This is brilliant storytelling, and fresh on many levels. We’re treated to Anne Rice’s signature romantic style without being bogged down by endless poetry. This is a book where things really happen. Of course I do still have to wonder if they like Netflix as much as I do.

Now, what’s a “where are they now” story without some review of where they’ve been? The Vampire Chronicles have always been written in such a way that if you read them out of order you won’t be lost, but they sure do sell each other. This game plan is in effect here more than ever, and Anne Rice seems to especially recognize that since it’s been so long since the last book, our memories might need a little refreshment. But this is done expertly here, not as a long-winded recap but with just enough tantalizing details to thoroughly involve earlier books into the latest plot. And as I said before, things really do happen. It’s not just an update, but it’s filled with fresh new events and dramatic plot twists worthy of M. Night Shamyalan that do more for the series as a whole than any of these books since Blood and Gold. And trust me, if this is the first Chronicle you read, you will be driven a little nuts with curiosity. The series has really evolved here, and all the references to the ways of the contemporary world don’t seem the least bit out of place but blend almost seamlessly into a storyline we’ve grown to love over the past almost forty years. This is brilliant, especially since this addition is sure to attract some new readers who are too young to have read the earlier books the first time around.

But I’m bad for not giving away spoilers. I can’t even buy someone a gift without telling them about it as soon as they payment has been processed. So let me meet you a fraction of the way. There’s science in this book, and it results in multiple conversations you would only expect to hear on Coast To Coast. Whereas the others have been purely about history, religion, art, and all the things included in your typical Bachelor of Arts curriculum, this new and unexpected subject actually gets a place at the head of the table here. After all, at least once science course is required in a B.A. So this may be perfectly appropriate for the latest lesson in our education about the Vampires.

Now aren’t you just positively thirsting to pick this one up? 😉

Vittorio the Vampire

Well, what can I really say. It’s an Anne Rice book. That should probably tell you all you need to know. As this was the only one of her vampire books (with the exception of the upcoming Prince Lestat) I can confirm that your expectations will probably prove to be correct.

It’s heavily religious. The main character claims that he’ll speak naturally instead of like some… I don’t know, let’s call it a fancy-ass guilded flower. And of course, he lies. It’s not that big a deal that he tends to be long-winded though, as this isn’t a particularly long book by anyone’s standards. But I’m a little confused about the part where the plot just breaks off and starts again as though nothing happened in between scene A and scene B… it makes no sense, unless maybe someone can explain it to me. And the scene where he (finally!) gets made a vampire is unusually anti-climactic. It disappointed me, and it’s odd for a book like this. And the romance part…. Anne Rice is no stranger to romance, but usually it’s dark and gothic. This is somehow oddly sappy and just plain strange. It seems somehow quite out of character for Vittorio. Ursula’s spell over this guy must be pretty powerful, because he just doesn’t seem the type, at least in the face of all that he experiences here. But Vittorio is a good guy, I don’t want to say I dislike him as a character. He’s not particularly annoying, as can sometimes happen. And his personality fits well with the period in which this all takes place. No, there’s not a whole lot to complain about here, besides maybe that it doesn’t really break any new boundaries despite being the only vampire book truly cut-off from all the characters and events we’re otherwise familiar with.

If you’re into this sort of thing, definitely give it a go. If you’re not, then don’t. That’s about all I have to say about it.

Mad in America

 

For as long as we can all remember, insane asylums (to be totally un-PC) have been a staple of horror movies. They come up as haunted locations almost as much as houses do. And there’s a very good reason for that. Because the history of mental health care in America is not only very dark, it’s shockingly so in ways you might not expect.

It’s normal to hear of old remedies for illness that just don’t make any sense. Remedies that are far worse than the illness they’re supposed to treat. But what about when torture isn’t just a result of unfortunately misguided medical practice, but the actual aim itself? Believe it or not, torture of various kinds were once thought to ameliorate mental health issues for the very fact that they were so traumatic. Shock treatment and lobotomies are of course described in detail, but near-drownings, the inducement of extreme fear, unnecessary teeth pulling, and other incredible things feature here as well. Combine this thought process with a period in history when eugenics was thought to be a legitimate thing and you have a recipe for true horror. This book isn’t a horror story in the traditional sense. It doesn’t explore the ghosts that haunt particular institutions. But it does lay out the history of mental health and describe ghosts of a more metaphorical sort, ghosts that might still haunt us today.

My only real complaint is that there’s a lack of information here about what was considered mental illness at different points in history. There’s no way that these things could have been the same that they are now. It also tends to focus disproportionately on specific illnesses, like schizophrenia, without really describing much about what these illnesses are. It’s frustrating, but doesn’t seem to make the book any less interesting.

We can only progress and move forward from learning from the mistakes of the past, and this book is full of the most unbelievable mistakes you may have ever read about. If it weren’t so damn sad it would be hilarious. As it is, it serves as a very important reminder of the past that we shouldn’t dare ever forget.

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity

One of the things I hate most is when people talk about shit they know nothing about as though they’re experts. We’ve all witnessed it. And Julia Serano is a woman after my own heart as far as this goes. Because there are certain experiences that need to be lived in order to be properly and fully understood. Here she is calling out all the so-called “experts” on gender and transsexuality for their ignorance and hypocrisies, and you can feel her anger.

So is this a book by an angry lesbian feminist? Yes. But the more you pay attention the more you’ll realize that this is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s very much a good thing. Because one thing I didn’t expect this book to be was sad. To learn about all the ignorance this subject is steeped in and the very real negative effects this has on the great many people living it day in and day out is nothing if not upsetting. If the revelations herein don’t upset you, then I have to wonder how much you really care about this subject, and why then you decided to pick up this book. It should also be said that issues of feminism affect men, and likewise issues of transsexuality affect cis people. We’re all part of this world together and we don’t live in a vacuum.

This is a relatively new kind of gender-studies book in that it’s written by a feminist lesbian trans woman. This is a look not from the outside in, but from the inside out from someone who is in a position to experience discrimination, often perhaps unintentional, due to her inclusion in three different groups. To use the language of Hubbub‘s Emily Cockayne, she is an inpert, as opposed to an expert, as she relates to us her knowledge from first hand experience. She’s incredibly intelligent and makes her points very well, but she’s also completely unashamed of herself, and her personality – and anger – reverberate through the pages. This woman has earned her attitude and the right to speak authoritatively on this subject, and it’s for this reason that I really love this book.

Not only is this book heavily saturated in personality and real-life experience, but it brings to mind issues that many of us have probably not considered, as well as how these issues effect all of us as a whole. Julia Serano opens up and allows us to take a deeply personal look into her life as she experiences it and experienced it during the various stages that she went through on her journey to becoming the person she is today. This might sound especially appealing to those very curious people who want a look into something somewhat “taboo,” but while it’s definitely interesting, it also has a way of deeply humanizing this subject, and in the process showing us how very important it is for this to be done. Julia Serano is not only incredibly smart, but incredibly brave, not just in that she has been extraordinarily true to herself but in that she’s offered us the chance to see things from her own perspective in such an unashamedly honest way. By the end of the book you’ll no doubt see femininity and LGBT* issues from an entirely new perspective, and this to me is what makes this book an utter success.

Have a look at the video below for a discussion with Julia about her book.