Kristen’s Book Club for November 2016

Written by Kristen Lopez

The temperatures dropping and Thanksgiving is right around the corner. But that’s no reason to stop reading. Here are a few books worth picking up for when the family becomes too much for you.

Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908-1934 by Laura Horak

Since time immemorial girls and women have dabbled in the art of cross-dressing, look at Shakespeare’s Rosalind from As You Like It. The idea of disguising the female identity to either subvert gender roles or present pointed critiques against masculinity has been in film since its inception and it hasn’t been looked at with nearly as much depth as it is in Laura Horak’s Girls Will Be Boys. Horak’s painstakingly detailed exploration of early cinema, and the women who bucked gender norms, is a dense look at how early adopters of movies also enjoyed seeing women dress as men. The early ’10s and ’20s were rife with characters like “the female boy” or the “cowboy girl” and it wasn’t until the adopted of the Hollywood Production Code that these characters were seen as taboo and relegated to the shadows of film. Horak’s presented a dense tome that’s filled with movies I’d never heard of; many are sadly lost to time. It’s remarkable hearing about fleshed out characters who, unfortunately, no longer fill our movies.

The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture by Glen Weldon

I wouldn’t call myself a Batman expert, but I’ve watched the films and read enough of the comics to understand and appreciate what is and isn’t “canon.” But even I was surprised after reading Glen Weldon’s (author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography) exhaustive examination of the Caped Crusader and his fandom, The Caped Crusade. Originally starting out as the Bat-Man, a gumshoe take on Sherlock Holmes, Weldon charts the character’s transformation into Bruce Wayne and the various incarnations of the Boy Wonder. Throughout Weldon touches on historical landmarks like the Comics Authority, and the fear that Batman and Robin promoted an immoral lifestyle, the various character introductions and exits, and the eventual rise of the films and fan culture. Weldon’s book is funny at times but never at the expense of information. There is a sag as he outlines the introduction of the films, which tends to chart the production than providing insight into how specific changes influenced or irritated the fandom, but this comes from someone who grew up following these film’s production online; there’s little new for me to hear. The character’s endured so much, with a story retconned and revitalized more times than Lazarus himself. Any fans of the Crown Prince of Gotham would serve themselves well to read The Caped Crusade.

Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches by Marcia A. Zug

A market filled with both sadness and intrigue, the mail-order bride tends to play more as a myth to modern ears than anything based in reality. Marcia A. Zug’s Buying a Bride deconstructs the mail-order bride market, dividing the idea into two camps: those of frontier brides looking to find a new way of life, and the cautionary world exploitation and manipulation people my age always thought it was. Zug does fall into the trap of repeating her points every now and then. She also fails to properly deconstruct the negativity inherent in the market, particularly revolving around women of color. But if the idea of brides by mail has always fascinated you, this is one of the more definitive texts.

The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous & Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel by James Bone

It’s easy to assume artists and sculptors simply envisioned their creations, fully-formed, in their heads and created what they say in their mind’s eye. But that belittles the countless artist’s models whose visages grace the most seminal works of art and receive no recognition to this day. James Bone’s The Curse of Beauty charts the meteoric rise and fall of the most famous artist’s model, the “American Venus,” Audrey Munson. Her face and body were sculpted into some of the most enduring statues throughout New York City and other parts of America, yet her life was wracked with money woes, societal judgment and mental illness. Her end isn’t what’s fascinating – it’s a tale as old as time if you’re famous in any guise – but where Bone tells us a new tale is in the heady, fast-moving world of art in the early 1900s. Due to the limitations of sources, a fact Bone is open about, there’s a tendency towards filler with overly extended histories of side characters who obviously had more information available. It’s unfortunate that Audrey has such a minor historical footprint because she is fascinating and when Bone gives her enough attention it’s a thrilling read. In fact, reading about Bone’s research – involving a missing trunk and a call from the cops – could have been grafted onto the main narrative and enthralled just as much as Audrey herself. Regardless of how underwhelming Audrey’s story seems on the surface, Bone crafts a rich, textured world of the New York art and architecture scene worth reading.

Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep by Michael Schulman

Every actress’s dream is to be the next Meryl Streep. So how exactly did the legendary multiple-Oscar winner become who she is? It’s a question writer Michael Schulman seeks to answer, breaking down Streep’s early career leading up to her luminous appearances in Kramer vs. Kramer and The Deer Hunter. It’s almost mind-boggling to think of a time before Streep was the legend she is now; it’s almost easier to believe she was created, fully formed, like a modern-day Athena. Schulman’s narrative takes us through Streep’s time at Vassar, her early relationships (and heart wrenching time with actor John Cazale), all the while charting her work on-stage and film. If you’re seeking a more probing, chronological biography of Streep, Schulman’s tightly controlled tome focuses on a sliver of her extraordinary life. His intentions lie in showing her devotion to her craft and her chameleon-like nature, easily adaptable to what people in her life (and eventually audiences) would want from her. We may not become Meryl Streep, but we can catch of glimpse of a time before she was Meryl herself.

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