November 27, 2014

‘Teaching the Cat to Sit’ by Michelle Theall

Posted on May 21, 2014 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

Michelle Theall’s new memoir, Teaching the Cat to Sit, brings some big topics—God, sexuality, abuse, loneliness, love, family—to the page. It’s a rocky ride, full of contentious conversations, frank disclosures, and plenty of struggle.
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‘The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America’ by Edward White

Posted on May 18, 2014 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

There is an odd shadow that falls over the posthumous reputation of anyone who once excelled at what posterity deems, spitefully, too many different things. This fate can afflict the living, as well: think of Hollywood stars who take up novel-writing. It is difficult to fully suppress one’s feeling that such people should be satisfied with the fame they already have.  An air of greed hangs over their output. Carl Van Vechten, the protean subject of Edward White’s wonderful new biography, would surely be chagrined if he could see how thoroughly his novels, best-sellers in the 1920s, have been forgotten since his death exactly half a century ago. White’s biography proves conclusively and entertainingly his contention that “the man is simply too contradictory to slot snugly into the established narrative of the American Century.” He was a critic, a reporter, an essayist, a novelist, a photographer and above all, a cultural impresario. His diminished fame is a victim of his own multifaceted career that spanned the first half of the twentieth century. This engaging, well-researched biography should change all that.

Carl Van Vechten was born in 1880 to a prosperous Cedar Rapids family. His parents, Charles and Ada, early champions of civil rights, insisted that their children address their gardener as Mr. Oliphant and their laundry maid as Mrs. Sercey. “Beneath his carefully managed image of the sophisticated iconoclast Van Vechten’s moral exemplars were his parents, whose bold stand on race relations kick-started his interest in African-American culture.” In 1906 Van Vechten moved to New York City, where he would live the rest of his life. He became the music critic for The New York Times, and was the first American critic of modern dance, promoting the careers of Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller and Anna Pavlova. In fact, he had an unparalleled talent for finding and publicizing all types of artists, both those emerging and those unjustly forgotten. He helped revive Herman Melville’s reputation as well as launching the careers of Gertrude Stein, Ronald Firbank, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Josephine Baker and George Gershwin, among many others. During the 1920s he published seven popular novels with Alfred A. Knopf, beginning with Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works, and including The Blind Bow-Boy, “a masterpiece of camp,” Parties, and Nigger Heaven. He befriended and promoted most of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, introducing white America and Europe to a vibrant indigenous art that captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. The book’s epigraph, a quote from its subject, perfectly encapsulates his correct belief that “Americans are inclined to look everywhere but under their noses for art.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, art and culture belonged to Europe. Three decades later Van Vechten’s indefatigable promotion of American art–in particular, black music and dance–had earned America a permanent place in the cultural firmament.

In 1930 he published Parties, his last and best novel, before setting fiction aside. The following year the Cuban illustrator Miguel Covarrubias returned from Europe with a Leica camera. When he showed it to his friend, Van Vechten quickly became obsessed with a new hobby. He set up a darkroom and portrait studio in his apartment and began photographing an endless procession of the century’s most brilliant people, including Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Joan Miro, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, W. Somerset Maugham, Gertrude Stein, Billie Holiday, Salvador Dali and Diego Rivera, to name but a few.  He had a gift for putting his subjects at ease and his skill as a portrait photographer earned him the admiration of such acknowledged masters as Alfred Stieglitz and Man Ray. Today most of his photographs are housed at Yale University and the New York Public Library.

His personal life was no less complicated than his professional one. His second marriage, in 1914 to actress Fania Marinoff, lasted fifty years, mainly because Marinoff was willing to share her husband with a succession of younger men. White stops short of claiming Van Vechten was exclusively homosexual: “He was able to feel physically attracted to certain women, but his sincere need for female companionship was much more emotional than physical.” Nor does the author gloss over Van Vechten’s less appealing attributes, among which were a jaw-dropping degree of self-absorption, childishness and possessiveness toward the artists whose careers he helped launch. At the same time, White demonstrates that very often it was precisely Van Vechten’s character flaws that fueled his remarkable achievements. His outsized appetite for reflected glory led him to discover and publicize many of the last century’s most talented people. After meeting twenty-three-year-old Langston Hughes at an awards ceremony, he sent to Alfred Knopf the manuscript of his first poetry collection. He suggested an order for the poems and the title The Weary Blues, and within two weeks Hughes had his first book contract. Although Van Vechten could all too often be obnoxiously insistent on linking his name to the artists he discovered, his crucial role in gaining recognition for America’s autochthonous modernism more than makes up for that. The Tastemaker is essential reading for anyone interested in how America emerged from the cultural shadow of Europe in the last century.

 

 

 

 

The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America
By Edward White
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374201579, 352 pp.
February 2014

‘Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol)’ by Breanne Fahs

Posted on May 7, 2014 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

 Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.

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‘Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill and the Battlefield of AIDS’ by Martin Duberman

Posted on March 22, 2014 by in Bio/Memoir, Nonfiction

Erasure is a central concern when it comes to representations of AIDS—be it in the face of hegemonic narratives, or absence. Historian Martin Duberman addresses this in his new book, Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill and the Battlefield of AIDS (The New Press, 2014). A dual biography, the book profiles Michael Callen and Essex Hemphill, both gifted, successful, HIV+ gay men who came of age in the Reagan years and with the onset of AIDS in America. The primary difference between the two being Hemphill was black and Callen was white, a fact that did not save either from needlessly early deaths, but one that does impact how they lived and how they are remembered. (more…)

‘The End of the Sherry’ by Bruce Berger

Posted on March 16, 2014 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

During the three years he spent on the Iberian Peninsula in the mid-1960s, Bruce Berger encountered the following joke: “If Franco is at the helm, the Guardia Civil is on the prow, the priests are on the poop and the ship sinks, who is saved? Spain.” (more…)

‘The End of Eve’ by Ariel Gore

Posted on March 10, 2014 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

“I remembered what my friend China wrote in her punk parenting zine when we were young moms. ‘I want to be the female Bukowski, the female Burroughs, but instead I’m just the female.’ In that elevator right then, I felt like such the female—the caregiver.” –Ariel Gore, The End of Eve

In this illuminating new release by Ariel Gore, prolific writer and editor of Hip Mama Magazine, the entire concept of caretaking between female relations is brought to the forefront. Chronicling her years spent caregiving for her mother, Eve, as she declined with stage IV lung cancer, Gore manages to hit on all cylinders of the complex ambivalence of love and relationships. In this memoir, the reader obtains access to a nontraditional narrative of caretaking: Gore takes on the task of seeing her mother through her dying days, while also confronting cycles of abuse and manipulation in their relationship. (more…)

‘The Tooth Fairy’ by Clifford Chase

Posted on March 9, 2014 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

A fat dog overjoyed with the plastic steak in its mouth. How Neil Young sounds like an alley cat. People-watching on the subway. Overheard snippets of conversations. The PR job, full of positive words, that’s starting to bring him down after fifteen years. The pills he must now take to maintain his body. An eight year relationship yet no shared apartment. These are some of single-sentence paragraphs of stray observations and journal notes that build up to a portrait of the uneasy stasis that is Clifford Chase’s life in New York City during the early months of 2001. (more…)

‘Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger’ by Kelly Cogswell

Posted on March 3, 2014 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

From a dank upstairs room in New York’s LGBT Center to marches on the streets of Paris, Kelly Cogswell takes us deep between the pages of the Lesbian Herstory Archive and between the frames of the documentary, Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too, to bring us her insights and memories of the influential and fierce international grassroots outfit.

Cogswell was among the founding members of the New York City based lesbian action group, The Lesbian Avengers, which turned into one of the most important, vociferous movements on the queer liberation front. In her memoir, Cogswell details the assembly, growth, and eventual demise of the legendary dyke activist collective.

She describes this accomplished and diverse assembly of women ready to get down to business. At “the first Avengers meeting,” she admits, “I was really just there to be among girls, and to find out if I belonged. I wanted to. Anybody would.” The matter of belonging or not, reoccurs throughout the book both in personal and in larger political contexts. It is this anxiety around belonging that is evident not only Cogswell’s persistent questions about who or what is a citizen, but also in the disintegration of the Avengers.

The story begins with the group’s heyday when, as Cogswell writes, “…the Avengers were running like the well-oiled machine you hear so much about and almost never see… It was like magic…” The description of the iconic moment, when, at a demonstration in memory of two queers burned alive in their home in Oregon, a line of Avengers lit torches on their tongues and then extinguished the flames in their mouths, is nothing short of electrifying: “We raised our flames triumphantly into the air, leaned back, and swallowed them down. The crowd cheered, a little uncertainly, at watching a circus trick transformed into a sacrament.”

As the group continued to grow, spread their message, share their skills, and build community around actions, racial and cultural misunderstanding, in-fighting, and horizontal hostility brought the group to a slow crumble. The diverse membership began accusing one another of being racist, classist, exclusive, unforgiving, manipulative, and worse. The presumption of goodwill was non-existent. Through a series of coalitions and new branches, the Avengers struggled to maintain their cohesive identity as “a direct-action group focused on issues vital to lesbian survival and visibility.”

As a way to contextualize these tensions, Cogswell relays an encounter on a Brooklyn subway soon after she shaved her head. “…A bunch of black men surrounded me on the train once, asking, ‘Happy about Bensonhurst, you racist skinhead?’ Until one guy finally said, ‘It’s just her ‘do, man, like that singer,’ and they moved off…” This incident highlights the ways that difference (in this case Cogswell’s shaved head) are read and misread and how identifiers shift meaning depending on the context. Later in her story, Cogswell encounters similar questions as she struggles to unravel what it means to be a citizen of the United States, or of anywhere else for that matter.

Eating Fire is a reminder, an homage, a call to rally, and a plea to this generation of queer women. Change, Cogswell seems to insist, is not only not a process any of us can afford to sit out, but that our participation as women, as queers, as immigrants, as people of color, is fundamental to our collective freedom.

This book swells with astute observations about what the Internet did to and for activism and the difficulty of creating movements that are at once diverse and community-specific. While the book leaves us with more questions than answers about how we should proceed toward liberation, it does gesture toward two possibilities.

First: eat fire. While the Lesbian Avengers actually did this as part of demonstrations, eating fire also provides a powerful metaphor not only for the total bravery of acting, but also the physical and spiritual demands of those actions.

Secondly: return home. Done without an ounce of sentimentality, Cogswell provides a shard of hope in her final recalling of a trip back to Kentucky where she meets a small group of young queer locals: “We stared at each other in mutual awe. They thought it was cool I was living in New York and had been a Lesbian Avenger and had made it as far as Paris. I was impressed that they were still at home. In Kentucky. Smack-dab in the middle of the Bible Belt.” This homecoming leaves readers with the feeling that belonging and being seen are possible.

While this story is tenacious in some moments and vulnerable in others, it is always triumphant.

Inspiring and absolutely heroic. This story belongs to us all.

 

Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger
By Kelly Cogswell
University of Minnesota Press
Paperback, 9780816691166, 256 pp.
March 2014

‘Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris’ by Edmund White

Posted on February 9, 2014 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

Living in a “transitional” city like Washington, DC—especially as a member of the gay community—you get used to having a certain subgroup of friends: the inevitable expatriates. Sometimes these individuals announce themselves openly—we all know people who are at any given time, according to them at least, anywhere from two weeks to six months away from moving to New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland (either one), Austin, or any of a host of innumerable more-attractive international destinations—while others just seem so constitutionally incompatible with their current surroundings that we know it’s only a matter of time before they take flight. (more…)

‘In Bed With Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood, and the Private World of an American Master’ by Tim Teeman

Posted on February 3, 2014 by in Bio/Memoir, Reviews

A really good biography is a gateway drug that sends readers immediately in search of more works on and by its subject. For those unfamiliar with Gore Vidal, Tim Teeman’s book should trigger an irresistible urge to learn more about the life and literary output of the brilliant controversial writer who died in 2012 at 86. At the time of his death Vidal had been in lamentable condition for years, demented and alcoholic, mourning the loss in 2004 of Howard Austen, his companion for over half a century. When asked how their union had lasted so long, Vidal said the secret was simple: they didn’t have sex with each other: “I’ve always made a point: never have sex with a friend.” The biography supplies so many more examples of Vidal’s ornery provocative statements that reading it feels a bit like sitting next to him at a drunken dinner party—maddening sometimes, but still an experience one would regret missing. (more…)