March 15, 2010
And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic
by Randy Shilts
I knew it was bad, though I knew that mostly from other readings, because essentially, I don’t remember a time before AIDS. I remember that in grade school, “Red Ribbon Week” was about saying no to drugs rather than AIDS awareness, but that’s pretty much it. When Ryan White was battling to attend school, I was in first grade. I can remember having assemblies in years not too much later where they talked about how you can’t catch HIV through casual contact, and we can still be good friends and hold hands and hug and everybody’s happy and no one discriminates against anyone! (Of course, that was all, to the best of my knowledge, academic; I’m not entirely convinced that people would have been so sanguine had someone with HIV or AIDS actually tried to attend the school). Read the rest of this entry »
November 4, 2009
Song of One of the Girls
Here in my heart I am Helen;
I’m Aspasia and Hero, at least.
I’m Judith, and Jael, and Madame de Stael;
I’m Salome, moon of the East.
Here in my soul I am Sappho;
Lady Hamilton am I, as well.
In me Recamier vies with Kitty O’Shea,
With Dido, and Eve, and poor Nell.
I’m of the glamorous ladies
At whose beckoning history shook.
But you are a man, and see only my pan,
So I stay at home with a book.
October 1, 2009
(Yes, I’m way more entertained than I have any reason to be by finding a way to title each blog entry this week with “I support…” Alternate titles for this post are “Thoughts on Banned Books Week” (*yawn*) and “Fear of a Gay Penguin,” which of course I keep accidentally mis-typing as “Fear of a Black Penguin,” though that works, too, I suppose…)
Here we are again: Banned Books Week. I support the goals of this week as traditionally stated, because I’m a big fan of the First Amendment, and I think more often than not people challenge books not because those books would truly be damaging to children/adolescents or the general public, but because they make them uncomfortable in some way. It’s intolerance, or it’s fear. I love the way commenter adipocere over at MetaFilter put it:
I love the thought processes behind banned books. “I find this offensive; I want you to remove this from my reality and everyone else’s.” It’s at once passive and blustery. MY FEATHERS ARE ALL PUFFED OUT; DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.
That said, though, it seems like the momentum for Banned Books Week isn’t there this year the way it’s been in past years. And I think, maybe that’s just me, I’ve been sick, I’ve been travelling, I’m tired — but then I see it reflected elsewhere on the web. Read the rest of this entry »
August 28, 2009
If you listen to NPR’s Morning Edition or read Shakesville faithfully, then you’ve already heard the news that Reading Rainbow is going off the air after a 26-year run. It’s not happening because LeVar Burton wants to retire (though who knows; maybe he does) or because every child in the US is so excited about reading that it’s no longer necessary. Here’s why it’s happening: Read the rest of this entry »
March 5, 2009
I’ve always thought that the best movie reviews describe both the movie and the reviewer’s reaction to and opinion on it, and those descriptions allow me to get a feel for whether or not I will like the movie. So, for example, while I might not always agree with Roger Ebert (indeed, I think I’ve disagreed with him more often than I’ve agreed), I’m generally able to figure out from his reviews whether or not I’ll like a movie. (Of course, he has the advantage of being the movie reviewer I’ve had far and away the most exposure to.)
I ultimately felt like I was able to glean more from Anthony Lane’s review of Watchmen than Evil Bender was, but not by all that much, and not really enough for me to understand the rancor with which Lane approaches the movie and its source material. And you know, I appreciate a snarky movie review. Lane gives us the cast of characters and a bit of plot summary, but spends a good chunk of time bringing the hate in a way only The New Yorker can, I suppose (Lane uses the phrase “metaphysical vulgarity” at one point, and it seems like maybe it’s tongue-in-cheek, but still…). And I can’t help but feel like that comes across as elitist, which of course gets my hackles up.
And really, does it make any sense at all to begin a review by lauding Maus and Persepolis, then end it by wondering why the comics aren’t funny anymore? (Topics of interest if one is actually interested in exploring a format with literary potential, rather than simply looking down one’s nose at a sort of unworthy outsider art form: graphic novels and the Comics Code Authority.) Read the rest of this entry »
October 14, 2008
The newest Obama-related scandal that the right wing is trying to push is the fact that a mentor referenced in Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, is actually Frank Marshall Davis, who was a poet and writer, was accused by HUAC of being involved with communist organizations, and authored, pseudonymously, a book titled Sex Rebel: Black. The National Enquirer (…I know…) describes Sex Rebel: Black as a “hard-core pornographic autobiography” and a “shocking tell-all” in which “Davis admits to seducing a thirteen year-old girl, voyeurism, exhibitionism, bisexuality, rape and sadomasochism.” Erick Erickson at Red State translates this information into wingnut for us in a post called “Obama’s Special Relationship”:
The National Enquirer now suggests Barack Obama had an underage, gay affair with a pedophile. Yup. That Frank Marshall Davis guy Barry says was his good friend? Turns out he was a perv of the first order and liked young boys.
How many things are wrong with that single paragraph? There’s no such thing as an “underage affair with a pedophile.” Affair connotes consent, something a child cannot provide. Calling it a “gay affair with a pedophile” conflates pedophilia with homosexuality, one of the oldest smears in the book. Davis was one of Obama’s childhood mentors, not his “good friend.” There’s nothing in the Enquirer article that suggests Davis “liked young boys,” which doesn’t mean he didn’t, but, to come to that conclusion, one must connect “pedophilia” with “bisexuality,” without regard for the former being an aberrant criminal proclivity and the latter being a healthy sexuality. It is a true clusterfucktastrophe of erroneous conclusions and fucked-up (possibly deliberate) misunderstandings about sexuality and sexual assault.
But most awful is the breathless reporting which implies that the possibility Obama was sexually assaulted somehow reflects badly on him. What terrible judgment he has, to have had “an underage, gay affair with a pedophile” at 10 years old! It’s a sentiment similarly proffered by another prominent rightwing blogger (to whom you can get via Brad) who wants to know: “When is someone going to question how these associations must have warped Obama’s views and render him unstable, and unsuitable for the Presidency?”
That’s all well and admirably said. Those issues aside, however, I still have questions.
A brief tangent: One of my academic interests when I was in graduate school (and currently) was (is) the area where fiction and nonfiction overlap: books like W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the roman a clef and memoirs of fictional characters, and so on. I find it interesting that we decide whether or not a book is true based on where it’s shelved in a library or bookstore, when it seems to me that the issue is so much more nuanced than that.
That said, then, by what criteria is the National Enquirer deciding the veracity of Sex Rebel: Black? I can imagine it’s written in the first person, but so are many novels, especially those written in the 20th and 21st centuries. Someone at the National Enquirer has purportedly read the book, while I’d never even heard of it before today, but I still wonder why they’ve decided that it’s the true story of Davis’s life, rather than the fictional life story of a character named Bob Greene (under whose name the book was published). Would these same people (both the folks at the NE and the wingnuts who are writhing in glee at this new information) believe that Humbert Humbert was actually a stand-in for Vladimir Nabokov, that Humbert’s life story was actually that of Nabokov? (I probably don’t actually want to know the answer to that question, do I?) Might it not be possible that Davis was attempting something in a similar vein?
The whole thing just frustrates me. And to be honest, I feel like a bit of a tool now for dignifying this rubbish with a response. Is this really what American political discourse has come to?
ETA: By following various links I came across this Telegraph article from August, which is apparently where the whole thing came up in the first place. It contains more information about Sex Rebel: Black, with the following passage probably being the most relevant (emphasis added):
In a surviving portion of an autobiographical manuscript, Mr Davis confirms that he was the author of Sex Rebel: Black after a reader had noticed the “similarities in style and phraseology” between the pornographic work and his poetry.
“I could not then truthfully deny that this book, which came out in 1968 as a Greenleaf Classic, was mine.” In the introduction to Sex Rebel, Mr Davis (writing as Greene) explains that although he has “changed names and identities…all incidents I have described have been taken from actual experiences”.
Now, I could be completely wrong on this. Sex Rebel could be the gospel truth of Davis’s life, and Davis might have published the book as Bob Greene for strictly practical purposes. But I remain unconvinced that this is not a situation wherein the author is being conflated with a character he created.
October 3, 2008
The publisher’s blurb for Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak reads as follows:
Melinda Sordino busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops. Now her old friends won’t talk to her, and people she doesn’t even know hate her from a distance. The safest place to be is alone, inside her own head. But even that’s not safe. Because there’s something she’s trying not to think about, something about the night of the party that, if she let it in, would blow her carefully constructed disguise to smithereens. And then she would have to speak the truth. This extraordinary first novel has captured the imaginations of teenagers and adults across the country.
The “something” Melinda is trying not to think about is the fact that she was raped at that end-of-summer party, which is also the real reason she called the police.* The rape, the way Melinda is treated by her classmates (including the rapist), and her reactions to both are a big part of why the book is assigned so widely in schools — for example, one summer (2002) when I was working at a bookstore the book was assigned as summer reading to a large number of local high school students. Of course, that content is also why the book is frequently objected to (a line from a one-star review on Amazon.com (the last review on the page): “This book should be for mature readers because of offensive language and adult subject matter”) and challenged (one such challenge is discussed by the author here). Read the rest of this entry »
September 26, 2008
Banned Books Week starts tomorrow! I’m thinking I’ll profile a few books that are frequently challenged or banned over the course of the week. If you have any suggestions, please don’t hesitate to let me know. The ALA’s list of the 100 most frequently challenged books of this decade (2000-2007) is here (pdf).
September 3, 2008
According to this Time article, Sarah Palin supports banning books from public libraries on the basis of offensive language:
Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. “She asked the library how she could go about banning books,” he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. “The librarian was aghast.” That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn’t be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving “full support” to the mayor.
It’s a third-hand account, so it could very well be false — does it really make sense for an elected official to be so bold about her motives? On the other hand, two paragraphs later the head of the local chamber of commerce is quoted as saying, “We like to call this the Bible Belt of Alaska,” so who knows. At any rate, it seemed worth mentioning, since it’s a subject near and dear to my heart.
UPDATE (9/10): It appears likely that Palin did indeed inquire about whether books could be removed from the library, but “[a] former town official and Palin ally says Palin’s questions were only rhetorical.” Okay, then.
August 4, 2008
Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women
by Susan Faludi
This is a powerful and worthwhile read. It gives a name to so many of the issues I’ve felt but not necessarily been intellectually aware of. Backlash provides a necessary history lesson, and most of the people, events, and situations discussed in the book have parallels in the United States today. My main concern with this book is the fact that it centers on middle class, white, straight women, particularly in the sections on entertainment and pop culture — for example, in the Epilogue Faludi states that men need women just as much as women need men, and the statement is part of a generally well-made point about men’s reactions to women’s struggles for equal rights, but it dismisses the Queer experience entirely, which I found troubling. That said, I would nevertheless recommend this book to anyone and everyone. Read the rest of this entry »