Thursday, April 19, 2012

Amazing Biographies

I love biographies. I especially love biographies of women. I particularly and especially love biographies of women reporting back from the dark side of drugs, sex, rock and roll, hideous abuse and underdog struggle! 
Of course I love these books with the full understanding that there is no such thing as an objective memoir. As Lidia Yuknavitch put it so well in her book you can't take memories out and handle them repeatedly without changing them. I don't confuse a good biography or autobiography with hard fact. That isn't really the point as far as I'm concerned. 

Man enough to be a Woman - Jayne County
This is a great book about a NYC punk legend. Part of its interest is that it straddles a couple of interesting worlds including the underground punk scene in NYC in the 70s; the Warhol underground; and the journey of Wayne County transitioning to Jayne in the public eye. 
The great thing about this book is she writes really frankly; she's not delicate in any way. And she's seen every sleazy joint in the world. I saw her DJ in Toronto in the early 2000s; it was great. She has also suffered poverty for most of her life and is incredibly tough. 
She winds up playing 'every toilet' in England and kind of bottoms out in Berlin in the drag scerne. 

It's basically a cross section of completely fascinating subcultures. There is also the requisite Max's Kansas City gossip including details of Jayne's ongoing feud with Handsome Dick Manitoba from the Dictators who gave her a really hard time about her gender transition. And all kinds of run ins with famous underground types. 

Whipping Girl - Julia Serano
I'm always interested in gender issues. This book has aspects of memoir but the author is also a scientist, biology researcher and an academic and basically deconstructs gender. Serano is a transwoman and as such has a lot of insight into the experience of living as a man and also as a woman. She talks a lot about cultural expectations and prejudice she experienced during transition. A couple of things stuck with me about this book; namely she gets into the issue of compounded sexism she experienced as a transwoman. Basically she found that in becoming female and giving up male privilege she was subject to a unique brand of scorn; in the case of transmen they are basically 'trading up' in society's eyes. She makes a convincing arguement that transwomen deal with another level of scorn and are trivialized for their desire to join the 'weaker' sex. There is also a part where she kind of takes heterosexual women to task for rewarding chauvinism; she observes both as a male and a female that men who posture in typical macho ways are rewarded with sex and attention by women. Her point is that if we purport to want men who are more egalitarian and more sensitized to gender issues; we should actually date those men and have sex with those men. I found that interesting. In many ways it's difficult or impossible to rejig what you find attractive in the opposite sex; I just thought she made a good point on this one.
A similiar book came out a few years ago. Written by Norah Vincent, Self Made Man  is sort of the reverse; this female journalist lives as a man for a year and writes about her experiences. It was also really interesting but I liked Serano's better I think because of her analysis. Vincent didn't transition to male either, it was basically an experiment. She does discuss the privileges she experienced as a man but I don't recall her actually dating.

Paradoxia: A Predator's Diary - Lydia Lunch
I love Lydia Lunch. She started out at age 15 in NYCs No Wave moment of the late 70s/early 80s singing in Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. She really is a one of a kind. She writes, performs spoken word and does some music too. I had the good fortune to see her a couple of times in the past few years, first at Pop Montreal with Teenage Jesus who had regrouped for the occasion. She's always amazing, totally charismatic, I'll never forget her literally kicking some emo kid off the stage with her boot. If you're not familiar with her work, I envy you actually because you can run out and experience it now! Her writing/spoken word are really aggressive, violent, sexual, visceral--she kind of presents herself as a Kali* type woman--just searing, destructive, relentless, pitiless and fucking angry. Even better she writes really well! 

*Kali: Goddess of destruction and dissolution in Hinduism; known for destroying ignorance

Sister of the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha - Dr. Ben Reitman
This is a great account of female 'hobo' during the depression, basically doing what she has to to survive.Evidently it's an actual biography transcribed by a doctor. It's the story of Bertha Thompson who became known as 'Boxcar Bertha' because of riding the rails. She gets involved in the sex trade, free love movement in radicalized NYC in the labour movement. I loved this book because it seems like you don't see many first person accounts of women living in poverty especially from the early part of the 1900s; those stories don't get told much. Bertha is also highly intelligent despite her lack of formal schooling. It's a great read. 

Edie: An American Biography - Jean Stein
This is a total classic in biographies. It's in a league of it's own, it's such an amazing account of Edie Sedgwick; the Warhol 'it' girl from the mid 1960s. It's an oral history meaning it's written from interviews with hundreds of people who knew her. She was a socialite who became an integral part of the Warhol factory in New York. As Warhol's muse she was at his side all the time, modelled and acted in his films and took absurd quantities of uppers. She sort of epitomized the best and worst of that creative scene, blowing the doors of artistic convention and being part of this merger of visual art, film and music (the Velvet Underground got their start here too). But because she's a socialite there is another element of the disapproval and extreme eccentricity of her wealthy family. It's just a great read. I remember reading it as a teenager and just being obsessed with this lens on New York as being so decadent, creative, exciting and dangerous. Edie wound up leaving the factory scene and moving to California and sort of becoming a hippie. Eventually she died of a abarbiturate/alcohol overdose. It's a very sad story. I  have to read this book again, it's that good. She was also incredibly stylish and still inspires the fashion world today. 

Candy Girl: A Year in the LIfe of an Unlikely Stripper - Diablo Cody
I read this book in an evening in the bathtub; it's that type of book. Cody is really relatable, you kind of relate to her and she's identifiable enough that you can see yourself looking at this world with the same perspective as her in a way. She was a bit of a fish out of water in the stripping world, as a midwestern woman with a natural body. She kind of fell into it on a whim. She's a great writer, and I say that with previous reservations because I really didn't like Juno, or Jennifer's Body. (I did love Young Adult however.....) She worked in a few clubs for a year in Minneapolis. She doesn't pretend she was a super successful stripper but she does give a great credible insider view into that world. I like reading memoirs by sex workers, I just find it fascinating. The nice thing about this book as I said is that the writer is relatable. I've read dozens of books by sex workers and sometimes the POV isn't anything you can relate to; sometimes the writer is so busy trying to convince the reader that sex work is real work, or that the workers are all law students or whatever. This one doesn't make those assumptions that the reader is prejudiced against the work. Maybe becaue Diablo herself was such an 'unlikely' stripper, I'm not sure. Anyway warm up the bathtub for this one! 

The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright - Jean Nathan
This is a really sad story of mother-daughter pathos; plus a nice portrait of New York in the 40s-50s and the life of an introverted artist. Dare Wright (this must be the most glamourous name ever?) wrote a classic kids book called "The Lonely Doll"  which is an ok children's book but became notorious because of some vaguely S+M type doll + stuffed bear scenes. There is a scene in the book where a stuffed bear gives a doll a bare bottom spanking. In writing it doesn't sound that scandalous but it does read a bit strange in the book. Needless to say it's a must buy for any friends who have little kids. But her biography is really sad; she couldn't really individuate from her mother and basically just devolved into a life of destitute alcoholism. At the end she's almost homeless and really ill. I find this type of book really fascinating, love reading about creative types going off the deep end. 

The Last LIving Slut - Roxana Shirazi
This one is published by Neil Strauss who I have come to love for his amazing music bios (he wrote "The Dirt" about Motley Crue--one of the best books EVER, plus "The Long Hard Road out of Hell" about Marilyn Manson--another eye popper; AND another good book of essays called "Everyone loves you when You're Dead" which compiles a whole bunch of music interviews and is excellent). But this book by Shirazi is completely insane. In the best way. This woman started out in Iran, raised Muslim and then flees to 
London during the Iranian revolution. She describes herself as being really sexually precocious and flirtatious basically her whole life; as a teenager she gets into exotic dancing and from there immerses herself in the life of a rock groupie. At the same time she earns a Master's degree in English, and has sex with every third string roadie in the Western hemisphere. It's a strange story because although she drops a few names of huge bands like G'n'R, Motley Crue and Velvet Revolver, it becomes clear that she has a LOT of sex with either roadies or other people peripheral to these bands or with other musicians in metal bands I had no knowledge of. I'm not a metal aficianado but clearly this is not the groupie big time. I found it fascinating only in that she seemed really compulsive about her sexual behaviour and I sort of felt like she was using the 'groupie' thing to just act out sexually in response to some psychological problem. It's true that the book makes Pamela DesBarres sound chaste. I'm sure Pamela would be appalled by this. I love seeing the rare interview with DesBarres where she's all 'We were MUSES!'---or trying to distance herself from the newer generations of rock tramps. HA! Anyway, This book is entertaining. 

How to Make Love Like a Porn Star - Jenna Jameson
This is a Neil Strauss joint, and another completely insane book. Aside from the basic interest in how Jameson came to superstardom as a porn actress, producer and mega product; there is something fascinating about how un-self aware she comes across. She describes being happy and well adjusted and then two pages later she's wasted down to like 80lbs due to a crystal meth addiction. Later after her recovery she goes on an exotic dancing club tour and seems to have come completely off the rails again on drugs. It's almost like she can't decide whether to focus on how successful and happy/heatlhy she is or to focus on the more fucked up aspects of her business. The porn world has clearly changed so much since she started her career and she obviously was in the right place at the right time, and is a hard worker/great performer etc. (I say this mostly from reading the book and understanding her place in the cultural zeitgeist, I'm not that familiar with her porn work) This is a huge book and it is well edited. Jameson comes across as a real chameleon. There are lots of photographs in the book and I was struck by how different her face looks in each one, and not from plastic surgery. I think she just has a really mutable face that looks different. Probably an asset in her field. The book is interesting if you are curious about her but also if you're interested in the world of porn/sex work in general. There is lots of gossip and drug use and general insanity.

A Piece of Cake - Cupcake Brown
This is an amazing story about someone who started life with the decks completely stacked against them. Brown basically suffered every nightmare that a childhood could from her mom dying; her dad giving her away; and every kind of abuse in the foster care system. She winds up as a gangbanger in her early teens, then later gets introduced to crack cocaine and completely bottoms out. Eventually she gets some work in a law firm and balances her drug use with a straight life. Finally she gets help from her boss who assists and encourages her to clean up her life; go back to school...and become a lawyer. She writes really well, it's pretty amazing to read about this kind of total transition. The horror story of her early life is fascinating, and it really is inspirational to think she came so far from so little. Girl gangbanger makes good--what else do you want in an autobiography? 

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