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Few books are timelier than ‘Woman’

A rite of passage for generations of LGBTQ folk

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(Book cover image courtesy of Yale University Press)

Woman: The American History of an Idea
By Lillian Faderman
c.2022, Yale University Press
$32.50/571 pages

Until, I read “Woman: The American History of an Idea,” the fascinating new book by Lillian Faderman, the groundbreaking LGBTQ feminist scholar, I didn’t know that women who were hoboes felt more free during the Depression.

“For thousands of women, the Depression was oddly liberating,” Faderman, professor emerita at California State University, Fresno, writes. “They were poor and footloose, and they found a fresh way to snub conventions about how a woman ought to live.”

That’s just one of the many things that I learned from “Woman.”

I had no clue that housewives and mothers — June Cleaver, Harriet Nelson and Donna Reed — weren’t the only images of women on 1950s TV. Who knew that, as Faderman writes, “television offered up a few surprising counterimages?”

In the 1950s, women’s roller derby matches were on TV. “Reportedly 70 percent of the viewers were female,” she writes, “attracted perhaps by the bracingly bold image of woman as polar opposite to what she was supposed to be.”

“Woman” makes it clear that America has been freaked out by women having sex outside of procreation in a hetero marriage since the Puritans arrived here in the 1600s. 

“It’s “sex o’clock in America,” declared William Marion Reedy, a newspaper editor, in 1913. He worried that sex was everywhere – from theaters to the movies. “He opined that the purity of woman was being maligned,” Faderman writes.

“Woman” is a comprehensive history of the concept of woman in this country from the days of the Puritans to our #MeToo, gender fluid, non-binary era.

Few books are timelier than “Woman.”

In this age of Amy Coney Barrett,” when the future of Roe v. Wade is shaky, there is much to be learned from “Woman.”

“Woman” doesn’t  tell us how we can overcome the  backlash against feminism and civil rights movements (from Black civil rights to LGBTQ rights). No book, no matter how comprehensive could do that.

But “Woman“ gives us knowledge and perspective.

The belief that a woman’s role is to marry and have children didn’t begin with Phyllis Schlafly, the lawyer who led the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment.

In the 1600s, the Europeans who came to America believed that women’s place was in the home. In 1645, Faderman reports, Massachusetts Bay colony governor John Winthrop lamented in his journal that Edward Hopkins, governor of the Connecticut colony, had let his wife who had borne him no children, stray from “the place where God had set her.” He’d allowed her to “give her herself wholly to reading and writing,” Winthrop wrote.

There have been advances in and backlashes against feminism as the idea of woman has changed throughout American history.

Take World War II. During the War, Rosie the Riveter encouraged women to work. When the war ended, women were exhorted to change from their work clothes into aprons and return to their kitchens at home ASAP.

Too often, indigenous women, women of color, working class and immigrant women have been (and still are) excluded by white feminists from feminism and women’s history.

Thankfully, “Woman” goes a long way toward breaking this pattern of exclusion. 

Faderman writes of the cruelties inflicted on enslaved women by plantation owners, Asian-American feminist leaders, the racism of many white suffragettes and of how white people forced indigenous women to relinquish their culture.

Faderman, 81, who is white, writes movingly about her experience as a Hollenbeck Junior High School student in East Los Angeles. She was, Faderman writes, the daughter of an immigrant, “an unwed Jewish woman from Eastern Europe who made a living sewing dresses in a downtown LA garment factory.”

She felt a connection with her Mexican-American classmates, many of them, like herself, daughters of immigrants. In response to the “stifling mores” of their parents, many of them “engaged in petty out-lawry,” Faderman writes.

“I too was a juvenile delinquent of sorts,” Faderman, who is a lesbian, writes, “because I had already discovered my outlaw sexuality and would soon be going to gay-girls bars, flashing a fake ID that said I was an adult.”

I have two quibbles with “Woman.” Throughout American history, disabled women have lived with sexism and ableism. I wish  “Woman” had included disabled women in its mosaic of women’s history.

I would have liked to have seen in “Woman” more about what’s happening now with gender and its impact on America’s idea of women. But perhaps, Generation Z and its historians will be best able to speak to this.

Faderman’s books from “Surpassing the Love of Men” to “Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death” are touchstones for the LGBTQ community. “Woman,” too, will be a rite of passage for generations of LGBTQ folk. 

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Books

‘On Bette Midler’ is a divine new read

Part charming, part nostalgic, and very affectionate

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(Book cover image courtesy of Oxford University Press)

‘On Bette Midler: An Opinionated Guide’
By Kevin Winkler
c.2024, Oxford University Press 
$29.99 232 pages 

Superb.

That word’s appropriate in this situation. Fantastic, that’s another. Transcendent or celestial, if you’re of that mind, or perhaps anointed. There are many adjectives you can use for a performer who transports you, one who sings to your soul. Sensational, breathtaking, outstanding, or – as in the new book “On Bette Midler” by Kevin Winkler – another, better word may be more suitable.

Born in Hawaii a few months after the end of World War II, Bette Midler was named after film star Bette Davis. It was a perhaps auspicious start: despite a minor disparity (Midler’s mother thought the movie star’s first name was pronounced “Bet”), young Midler seemed at a young age to want to follow in her almost-namesake’s footsteps. By age 11, she’d won accolades and prizes for her performances and she “yearned to be a serious actor.” As soon as she could, she headed for New York to seize her career.

Alas, her “unconventional” looks didn’t help win the roles she wanted but she was undeterred. Unafraid of small venues and smaller gigs, she “just blossomed” in New York City. Eventually, she landed at the Improv on 44th Street; the owner there helped her negotiate some minor work. Another man became her manager and secured a job for her at the Continental, a New York bath house strictly for gay men. She was hired for eight summer nights, Friday and Saturdays only, for $50 a night.

Almost immediately, her authenticity, her raunchy language, and her ability to relate to her audience made her beloved in the gay community. Midler’s tenure at the Continental expanded and, though legend points to a longer time, she worked at the bath house for just over two years before moving on and up, to television, recording studios, movies, and into fans’ hearts. Still, asks Winkler, “Did it really matter what stage she was on? She touched audiences wherever she performed.”

In his earliest words – and, in fact, in his subtitle – author Kevin Winkler reminds readers that “On Bette Midler” is a book that’s “highly opinionated, filled with personal contemplations…” He is, in other words, a super-fan, but that status doesn’t mar this book: Winkler restrains his love of his subject, and he doesn’t gush. Whew.

That will be a relief to readers who wish to relish in their own fervor, although you’ll be glad for Winkler’s comprehensive timeline and his wide look at Midler’s career. Those things come after a long and fascinating biography that starts in 1970, takes us back to 1945, and then pulls us forward through movies, television appearances, stage performances, and songs you might remember – with appearances from Barbara Streisand, Barry Manilow, and Cher. It’s a fun trip, part confidential, part charming, part nostalgic, and very affectionate.

Despite that this is a “personal” book, it’s great for readers who weren’t around during Midler’s earliest career. If you were and you’re a fan, reading it is like communing with someone who appreciates Midler like you do. Find “On Bette Midler.” You’ll find it divine.

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Books

Architecture junkies will love new book on funeral homes

‘Preserved’ explores how death industry evolved after WWII

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(Book cover image courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press)

‘Preserved: A Cultural History of the Funeral Home in America’
By Dean G. Lampros
c.2024, Johns Hopkins University Press 
$34.95/374 pages

Three bedrooms upstairs. That’s a minimum.

You need a big kitchen, a large back room would be a bonus, you want lots of bathrooms, and if you can get a corner lot, that’d be great. The thing you need most is a gigantic all-purpose room or maybe a ballroom because you’re planning on a lot of people. As you’ll see in the new book “Preserved” by Dean G. Lampros, not all living rooms are for the living.

Not too long ago, shortly after he took a class on historic preservation, Dean Lampros’ husband dragged him on a weekend away to explore a small town in Massachusetts. There, Lampros studied the town’s architecture and it “saddened” him to see Victorian mansions surrounded by commercial buildings. And then he had an epiphany: there was once a time when those old mansions housed funeral homes. Early twentieth-century owners of residential funeral homes were, in a way, he says, preservationists.

Prior to roughly World War II, most funerals were held at home or, if there was a need, at a funeral home, the majority of which were located in a downtown area. That changed in 1923 when a Massachusetts funeral home owner bought a large mansion in a residential area and made a “series of interior renovations” to the building. Within a few years, his idea of putting a funeral home inside a former home had spread across the country and thousands of “stately old mansions in aging residential neighborhoods” soon held death-industry businesses.

This, says, Lampros, often didn’t go over well with the neighbors, and that resulted in thousands of people upset and lawsuits filed. Some towns then passed ordinances to prohibit such a thing from happening to their citizens.

Still, funeral home owners persevered. Moving out of town helped “elevate” the trade, and it allowed Black funeral home operators to get a toehold in formerly white neighborhoods. And by having a nice – and nice-sized – facility, the operators were finally able to wrest the end-of-life process away from individuals and home-funerals.

Here’s a promise: “Preserved” is not gruesome or gore-for-the-sake-of-gore. It’s not going to keep you up all night or give you nightmares. Nope, while it might be a little stiff, it’s more of a look at architecture and history than anything else.

From California to New England, author Dean G. Lampros takes readers on a cruise through time and culture to show how “enterprising” business owners revolutionized a category and reached new customers for a once-in-a-deathtime event. Readers who’ve never considered this hidden-in-plain-sight, surprising subject – or, for that matter, the preservation or re-reclamation of those beautiful old homes – are in for a treat here. Despite that the book can lean toward the academic, a good explanatory timeline and information gleaned from historical archives and museums offer a liveliness that you’ll enjoy.

This book will delight fans of little-know history, and architecture junkies will drool over its many photographs. “Preserved” is the book you want because there are other ways to make a house a “home.”

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Books

‘Mean Boys’ raises questions of life, death, and belonging

New memoir wanders but enjoy the whiplash

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(Boom cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury)

‘Mean Boys: A Personal History’
By Geoffrey Mak
c.2024, Bloomsbury 
$28.99/267 pages

It’s how a pleasant conversation is fed, with give and take, back and forth, wandering casually and naturally, a bit of one subject easing into the next with no preamble. It’s communication you can enjoy, like what you’ll find inside “Mean Boys” by Geoffrey Mak.

Sometimes, a conversation ends up exactly where it started.

Take, for instance, Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which leads Mak to think about his life and his inability to “cull the appropriate narratives out of nonsense.” Part of that problem, he says, was that his living arrangements weren’t consistent. He sometimes “never really knew where I was living,” whether it was Berlin or California, in a studio or high-end accommodations. The parties, the jokes, the internet consumption were as varied as the homes and sometimes, “it didn’t really matter.” Sometimes, you have to accept things and just “move on.”

When he was 12 years old, Mak’s father left his corporate job, saying that he was “called by God” to become a minister. It created a lot of resentment for Mak, for the lack of respect his father got, and because his parents were “passionately anti-gay.” He moved as far away from home as he could, and he blocked all communication with his parents for years, until he realized that “By hating my father, I ended up hating myself, too.”

And then there was club life which, in Mak’s descriptions, doesn’t sound much different in Berghain (Germany) as it is in New York. He says he “threw myself into night life,” in New York Houses, in places that gave “a skinny Chinese kid from the suburbs… rules I still live by,” on random dance floors, and in Pornceptual. Eventually this, drugs, work, politics, pandemic, basically everything and life in general led to a mental crisis, and Mak sought help.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” Mak says at one point. “Sometimes life was bad, and sometimes it wasn’t, and sometimes it just was.”

Though there are times when this book feels like having a heart-to-heart with an interesting new acquaintance, “Mean Boys” can make you squirm. For sure, it’s not a beach read or something you’ll breeze through in a weekend.

No, author Geoffrey Mak jumps from one random topic to another with enough frequency to make you pay close to attention to his words, lest you miss something. That won’t leave you whiplashed; instead, you’re pulled into the often-dissipated melee just enough to feel almost involved with it – but with a distinct sense that you’re being held at arms’ length, too. That some stories have no definitive timeline or geographical stamp – making it hard to find solid ground – also adds to the slight loss of equilibrium here, like walking on slippery river rocks.

Surprisingly, that’s not entirely unpleasant but readers will want to know that the ending in “Mean Boys” could leave their heads swirling with a dozen thoughts on life, belonging, and death. If you like depth in your memoirs, you’ll like that — and this.

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