Photo of the front cover of Whipping Girl by Julia Serano. A woman fastens a necklace while the words 'whipping girl' are branded in hot pink on her back.

I’ve just finished reading Whipping Girl by Julia Serano (I’ll post reviews of the books in the backlog when I have time but it makes sense to me to post reviews of more recent reads as I finish them, while they’re still fresh in my mind). My housing co-op has a small and growing library of books on class, gender, race, disability, sexuality etc for members to read. I’d heard of Whipping Girl before, so when it was added to the collection I decided I should borrow it and see what I thought.

It was published a few years ago now and in the intervening time I’d come across the main arguments that Serano makes in various articles and blogs and, hearteningly, in discussion within the queer/trans community. I imagine that it would have made more of an impact on me if I’d read it when it first came out. I’m certainly not as enthusiastic as some other folk who’ve read it but I’d say it’s well worth reading and thinking about.

Serano starts out with a Trans Woman Manifesto. You can watch Samantha from TrannyStarGalactica reading it out on the video below.

She rails against the discrimination that trans women face in a very clear, accessible way. Basically, she argues that society, including queer/trans subculture, devalues femaleness and femininity which means that trans women are faced with transmisogyny  on top of transphobia, cissexism and traditional sexism. She also spends much of the book explaining terminology and critiquing medical and sociological theories about  transsexuals, especially trans women. This didn’t grab me personally but I reckon it’d make a good primer for someone who is new to the ideas and issues.

What I most valued in this book was the argument that the trans movement must be a feminist movement: that as well as challenging the gender binary, we also need to challenge the notion that maleness is better than femaleness and masculinity is better than femininity. Transmisogny definitely a problem within the queer/trans movement and the feminist movement, as well as general society. Women’s events which implicity or, too often, explicity exclude trans women are all too common and it drives me up the wall when queer groups and events idolize hot, white, slim, androgynous bois to the exclusion of all else. I’ve seen more awareness of transmisogyny over the last few years but there’s a long way to go yet.

Also, in more timely news, they’ve amended the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and not only are trans people still disordered, they’ve massively extended the definition of Transvestic Disorder. As I understand it the diagnosis can be applied to anyone who is sexually active whilst wearing clothing that is incongruent with the sex they were assigned when they were born. That certainly covers me and most trans people I know, along with loads of lesbians, quite a few gays and bisexuals and even a fair few straight, cis folk. Does it cover you too? Read more about it on Serano’s blog here. Oh, and read the book!

Teddy bear seated in an armchair reading a pink book propped open on it's lap.

One day I came downstairs to find my younger sibling’s teddy bear reading my copy of ‘My Gender Workbook’

So, I’ve been more or less entirely neglectful of this blog but I haven’t forgotten this project! As I expected I slowed down a bit on reading new books after the initial burst of enthusiasm but I’ve nonetheless been reading a new book once a week or so. One of my housemates asked me how the project was going and I answered with vague enthusiasm but it prompted me to notice that I’m already struggling to keep track of what I have read for this project and we’re only 4 months into a five year project.

I sat down and wrote out a list of the new-to-me books that I could remember reading over the last few months. There are a few gaps and it might not be in precisely the right order but I think I remembered most of them. Have a look at the updated list here. I’ll try and write up reviews for the last couple of months’ worth of reading but it’ll obviously take me a while to catch up.

Oh, and don’t you just love this picture? My fab friend Rach gave me my very own copy of ‘My Gender Workbook’ by Kate Bornstein out of the blue. I brought it with me to a family Christmas holiday. One day I came down to find my little sister’s teddy bear, Brown, sitting in the armchair reading. So cute! I suspect my dad was behind it. This little anecdote is made better if you are aware that Brown was assigned a

female gender by my sister but a surprising number of people have attempted to insist that Brown is in fact male. What gender is your bear/favourite soft toy? Did you even assign it a gender?

Hand drawn logo - Q F in white one a black circle with dripping paint effect

I’m off to Denmark for Copenhagen Queer Festival and to visit a friend who has moved out there. I’m really looking forwrd to it but I’m not so sure about the journey. I made the decision not to fly a couple of years ago when I found out about the impact that it has on the climate so that leaves me with over land and sea travel. My budget isn’t up to the ferry over to Denmark so it’ll have to be the coach. I’ve done long overland journeys by train before (3 days to get to Romania!) and really enjoyed it but I doubt that 30 odd hours in a coach will be quite as enjoyable. (As an aside, in the sleeper car between Budapest and Bucharest I read Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ for the first time and managed to really creep myself out. Oops!)

Still, at least I’ll get lots of time for reading on the journey. Basically, I expect I’ll read as much as I can fit into my rucksack. I’m reading Moby Dick at the moment, at the recommendation of my uncle but that won’t last me so I went to the library to supplement my rather meagre supply of ‘books I have not yet read’. First I had to return a stack of eye wincingly overdue books. I’ve been an avid reader and regular library denizen since I was tiny but I’ve yet to get the hang of bringing my books back on time.

The librarian is a friend of mine and said they were (pleasantly) surprised but a little flummoxed to be asked about books rather than how to use the library computers 🙂 Still, they came up trumps and I’ve got eight books to try and cram into my case, ranging from Trainspotting to a crime thriller type book by Chris Brookmyre (did any other Christopher Brookmyre fans also not know that they also write more serious crime fiction?) I also took the opportunity to request a whole bunch of books from the list that they didn’t have in my local branch so that’ll be exciting to come back to (god, I’m such a geek!).

I mostly read Q on the train to and from a funeral which perhaps wasn’t the easiest circumstances foro a book to grab me.  Then again, Q doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of book that does grab you and drag you along page after page although it’s certainly worth reading if you’ve the patience for a 635 page political novel that is, ostensibly at least, about 16th century politics.
The source material is undeniably dramatic. The protagonist (who is never permanently named but adopts a series of names throughout the book) manages to find themself in several of the most interesting events of the Reformation; the German Peasants’ War, the Münster Rebellion and the contentious election of a new Pope. Gert-from-the-Well, one of the protagonist’s more enduring names, seemed to be designed as a cipher to allow the authors -yes authors, more on this further down the page- to explore this period of history and to draw out ideas that are relevant for us today.
This is a book about politics and an openly political book. Luther Blissett is the collective name of hundreds of arty activisty types who were active in Europe, predominantly Italy, in the late 90s. I think my favourite of their pranks was an extended piece of “homeopathic counter information” which fooled the media into reporting non-existant black masses and witch hunters. Then, in 1999, four Luther Blissetts published Q. They come from a slightly different political persective than me (I’m an anarchist, they’re more commonly described as ‘leftist’ or just plain radical) but there are enough similarities that I can find myself in pleasant agreement with the author on questions of capitalism and religion and corruption.

Perhaps the least subtle moment in the whole book comes in a chapter where Eloi explains to our protagonist how Belgian merchants would reimport English woollens to the UK for profit, and more significantly, how the Emporers and Princes of the time were able to take power and to crush Gert’s previous revolutionary endeavours. “Conflicting emotions pile up within me, anger, astonishment, even irony. I stop and let it all out: “Why has no one ever talked to me about banks before?””

The book is incredibly detailed and features a huge number of people (not many of whom could be really said to be characters, possibly due to the writing style or possibly due to the number of them).  It’s an impressive book in terms of sheer length and the amount of research that went into it although I found it a very slow, even plodding read for the first 200 or so pages. It did, and I mean this genuinely, get more exciting about halfway though. I am in awe of the work that it must of taken to bring this variety of subject matter, geography, politics, and authorial voice into a cohesive book. I do have a bit of a thing though about unsatisfactory endings (when I got to the end of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake I was so frustrated that I threw the book across the room!) and I don’t think the conclusion was really enough to balance out the rest of the book.

So, have you read the book? Did you make it all the way through? Also, people educated in the UK, did you learn anything in school about European history at this time or was it all Tudors, Tudors, Tudors?
Books read: 3/300

Open book showing title page and photo plate for Trasure Island

I can’t actually remember who recommended this book to me. It was before the idea of the 300 books challenge was even skirting at the edges of being a plan. A friend expressed surprise that I’d managed to miss out on this kid’s classic when I was growing up, especially considering that I was very fond of Enid Blyton and other old fashioned adventure stories. So, on day two of the challenge and having finished ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’, it seemed a good idea to pick up this copy as I was browsing the communal bookshelves in the living room.

This isn’t a clever book in the slightest but it’s a classic for a reason. Hawkins is a likeable protagonist although very much in the ‘Boys’ Own Adventure’ archetype. The language too is very much of it’s time which younger kids might struggle with but the story cracks along at a pleasingly swift pace.

Despite the fact that I’ve never read this book before, it is so embedded in the culture that I was already familiar with sizeable portions of the plot and characters. Who wouldn’t recognise Long John Silver with his peg leg and parrot who sits on a shoulder squawking “pieces of eight!” Incidentally, apparently the “fifteen men on a dead man’s chest” from the mysterious Captain’s shanty refer to a mutinous crew who were marooned by Blackbeard on an island with only a cutlass and a bottle of rum each. When Blackbeard returned, 15 had survived the expected carnage.

The book doesn’t come anywhere near to passing the Bechdel Test and has all sorts of dubious messages about masculinity and patriotism and class but it’s a fun read if, like me, you harbour a secret yearning to be one of the Amazons of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ fame.

Have you read Treasure Island? Did you read it forst as a child or as an adult?

Books read: 2/300

Copy of 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' resting on a blue hardback

Noirtier de Villefort from ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ is, according to Bauby, ” literature’s first — and so far only — case of locked-in syndrome.” It would seem fair to say that Bauby themself is perhaps the second. Aged 44, Bauby awoke from a coma with a fully functioning mind but only able to communicate by blinking their left eye. In the time that followed Bauby dictated this slender but beautiful book Claude Mendebil, crafting each sentence in their head before spelling it out, letter by letter.

This mode of communication may have made quips and repartee impossible for Bauby but a clear sense of humour is displayed in the book and what could be an unrelentingly grim account becomes moving and amusing and thought provoking. Touching descriptions of phonecalls from a father they will never see again contrast beautifully with the wry labelling of other, severely ill but not locked in, patients as “tourists”.

I was particularly struck by the descriptions of food in the memoir, not least because I think good food would be something that I would particularly miss were I to be in a similar position. After a failed “feeding test” of some lemon flavoured water and a little yoghurt, Bauby is tube fed but the “butterfly” of their mind feasts on the most perfect dishes; “The boeuf bourguignon is tender, the boeuf en gelee translucent, the apricot pie possesses just the requisite tartness.” Later, a trip along the seafront has an unexpected destination in mind.

Accounts of Bauby’s life as a fashion editor demonstrate how alien Bauby’s experience was from mine, even before the stroke but even someone as uninterested in fashion as me can empathise with their decision not to wear hosptial issue gowns but to ” see in the clothes a symbol of continuing life. And proof that I still want to be myself. If I must drool, I may as well drool on cashmere.”

I feel a little cheeky for choosing such a short book for the first of the 300 before 30 challenge but it’s certainly given me much to think about.

Have you read the book or seen the film? What did you think? And do you think I should watch the film?

Books read: 1/300

Yesterday was my 25th birthday and the start of what I hope will be a very bookish and enjoyable five years. I know most people who make ‘Things to do before I’m 30’ lists put rather cooler and more exciting things on their lists (like threesomes and bungee jumping and foreign travel) but my plan is to read 300 books that I haven’t yet read before my 30th birthday.

I read a lot. We didn’t have a tv when I was growing up and so I a) got very used to spending a lot of time reading and b) got pretty fast at reading. Lately though I’ve noticed that I’ve been re-reading old books rather than reading new ones and just generally getting lazy in my reading habits.  That said, 300 books in 5 years is only a little over one new book per week, which while being enough to be a challenge also gives me time for some comfort reading and revisting of old favourites.

(You know the effect where you use a particular word densely or frequently and it begins to seem odd to you? I’m experiencing that with the word ‘reading’ right now.)

I definitely don’t have a list of 300 books in mind yet and I don’t even really expect to have fully confirmed what the 300 books will be until I’ve read the 300th book. I do know that I want to read a variety of books:  classics,  new writing, page turners, works of great literature, radical political texts, all sorts of different genres, both fiction and non-fiction. It doesn’t seem to me that a poetry collection would be particularly suitable but an epic poem or a play would probably be fine, and while I’m happy to include substantial graphic novels on occasion I’m going to discount children’s picture books that I read to kids.

What I would like is for the books I read to be recommended to me in some way. Over the past few days I’ve been asking friends and relatives what their favourite book is and what books they think I should include in my list. I’ve got some great suggestions so far but I need more. What is your favourite book? Have you got a sci fi classic or radical left wing propaganda or exciting new writing to recommend to me?

Books read so far: 0/300