Nurses on the Inside (2019)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS

Matzer, E., and Hughes, V. (2019). Nurses on the Inside: Stories of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in NYC. Cincinnati: Tree District Books. 242 pp.

Nurses on the Inside (2019) is a multi-testimonial account of the AIDS crisis in New York City, USA. Haunting and prosaic, the book provides anecdotes of nurse-patient interactions, with a penchant for clear, technical language that helps to make sense of 1980s and 90s medical discourse(s). Matzer and Hughes, two seasoned nurses in some of NYC’s most trafficked AIDS clinics, demonstrate an unusual sense of emotional clarity and empathy. They impart a nostalgic, but commemorative, focus on the lives of their patients, attending to the most characteristic and rich elements of their interactions with those who died from AIDS-related complications. More than a graphic narrative about the immense loss of AIDS crisis, the authors illuminate the importance and impact of individuals (including patients, doctors, and other nurses) as they careen in and out of their professional and social lifeworlds. Perhaps most interesting about this collection is the ways in which the authors recall their involvement in patient lives. For example, in the final chapters, the authors return to the empty spaces of hospital wards, calling upon the dead to remember the at-times excruciating, but generally provoking, experiences of human resilience and determination.

Nurses on the Inside is an excellent portal into the histories of HIV/AIDS in the United States, particularly because it remains attentive to the time(s) and place(s) of affective, medical, scientific, social and cultural advances, which we now understand as seminal moments during the AIDS crisis. Nurses, doctors, and students of history, sociology, and medicine, will find this book appealing. Additionally, scholars interested in the discursive layers of HIV/AIDS histories will find this book useful for understanding how AIDS crisis is narrated using memory, testimonies, and technical expertise.

The Journalist of Castro Street (2019)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS, LGBT

Stoner, A. (2019). The Journalist of Castro Street: The Life of Randy Shilts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 266 pp.*

Andrew Stoner’s (2019) biography follows the life of American journalist Randy Shilts. Notorious for his critically-acclaimed, and also critically-lambasted, book And the Band Played On (1987), Shilts was also known for being one of the first openly gay journalists in the United States. Stoner’s text provides a wide-ranging history of Shilts’s life, including testimonies from his siblings, professional journalists, gay activists, scholars and historians. The first half of the book reads beautifully, with a narrative that recounts his childhood and early career.

When Stoner recounts Shilts’s journalism coverage of the AIDS crisis, things get messy. Stoner provides extensive reflections on Shilts’s AIDS-related writing and seeks to defend his journalistic integrity over the questionable image of the mainstream (hetero-centric) “AIDS scribe”. Alas Chapter 10 (“Strike Up the Band“) reads as if it’s been lifted directly from a PhD thesis in its attempt/s to follow previous academic scholarship. As such, it sometimes seems unreadable. Elsewhere, his descriptions of academics, activists and medical professionals (e.g. Dr. Richard McKay) vary so widely as to be introduced to the same thinker/s fifty different ways throughout a single chapter. The book could use some polishing in a second edition. Overall, the text provides some helpful insights into the life of the “AIDS scribe” and details important – often conflicting – responses to Shilts’s mythology of “Patient Zero”. Readers interested in journalism history, gay and lesbian history, and HIV/AIDS history will enjoy this book. It is a good companion text with Richard McKay’s (2017) recent book Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic.

*I was commissioned to review The Journalist of Castro Street for Media History in October 2019. Full review available here.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011)

Book Review, LGBT

Winterson, J. (2011). Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? New York: Knopf. 230 pp.

Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography explores her chaotic upbringing as an adopted child raised by Pentecostal parents in northwest England. She follows a linear trajectory, smattered with historical context, disturbing memories of neglect and abuse, humorous anecdotes to cope and tie together the narrative under the banner of “I am not a lost cause,” indeed, that she is and always has been loved. There are mundane moments when the text flexes between psychoanalytic and philosophical musing, and others when Winterson’s anger toward her upbringing blows the box off respectability politics and writing family histories. The text is not queerly, per se, but provides a nice approach to integrating – that is, making intelligible – her desires for women through the retelling of her personal history/ies. Especially surprising is her excellent grasp of working class conditions and how this class consciousness, in the end, drives her understanding of self even when she is faced with her origins. Why Be Normal is a light, easy read, compelling for its attention to historical detail and natural-sounding prose.

HardWear (1994)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS, SRE

Rigby, H., and Leibtag, S. (1994). HardWear: The Art of Prevention. Edmonton: Quon Editions. 176 pp.

Hugh Rigby and Susan Leibtag’s (1994) collection HardWear: The Art of Prevention presents a range of condom adverts, copy campaigns, and product packaging from the 1980s and 90s. It demonstrates rigorous tactical approaches for exposing sexual cultures to the necessity and usefulness of condoms. In addition to an excellent, short history of the condom in the introduction, the authors reflect on the purpose and centrality of condom use to sexual health histories. They then leave the various adverts and images to present their messages. Moving from issues of gay male substance use to the severity of AIDS illness among heterosexual couples, the collection compiles a variety of compelling materials for scholars and readers interested in the development prophylactic history and media representation. In short, HardWear is a simple and powerful collection of sexual history imagery. It is a very good companion for research and studies about HIV/AIDS and STIs.

Queer Intentions (2019)

Book Review, LGBT

Abraham, A. (2019). Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey through LGBTQ+ Culture. London: Picador. 327 pp.

Amelia Abraham’s (2019) Queer Intentions sets out to explore contemporary, global experiences of gay, lesbian, trans, gender-queer, intersex and queer communities. Speaking to a diverse cast of famous and lesser-known queer folk, Abraham dances through Berlin pride festivals, visits DragCon in Los Angeles, learns about trans activism and ball culture(s) in New York, and immerses herself in local queer life in Istanbul. Her narrative ranges from gloomy personal anecdotes to nuanced reflections on the intersections of theory and every-day life, providing a complex and compelling image of queer life. As many of her interviewees suggest, queerness might not be as different across societies as mainstream media leads us to believe.

Queer Intentions tackles difficult issues like gay pride and pink capitalism; the foreclosure of queer nightlife spaces; the gentrification of gaybourhoods; racism, misogyny and transphobia; monogamy, polyamory and queer family-building. Illuminating these issues across cultural, identitarian, political, economic and a/gender/ed boundaries, Abraham presents a strong analysis of how queer life might already operate within neoliberal, heteronormative society – even as it is at risk of becoming hegemonic under late capitalism (particularly, though not exclusively, in the West). Abraham does a nice job of paralleling her own life experiences through the process of writing the book. At times, it feels like she wants to say more, reserving herself in the name of journalistic professionalism. The book is very accessible, requires no special knowledge of queer theory (though that may help to recognise some of the nuances), and ends with a lovely – albeit brief – reflection on the distribution of queer/utopias in the present. Different than José Esteban Muñoz’s (2009) Cruising Utopia, Abraham’s Queer Intentions suggests that queer experiences today already live through and into the window/s that lead/s us to a better future/s. For some, a better time/s and a better place/s already exist in the queer(ish) present.

Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read (2016)

Book Review, LGBT

Morgan, N. (2016). Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read. London: Limehouse Books. 248 pp.

North Morgan’s (2016) novel Love Notes to Men Who Don’t Read provides a not-so-elaborate, but entirely parodic, examination of affluent, white gay-male life in the metropoles of the Western world. Seeking a tongue-in-cheek response, Morgan begs the reader(s) to open their eyes to the contemptuous nature of those part-time employed, luxury-leaning, circuit-party bound gym bunnies who seem to occupy the spotlight of the gay imaginary. He goes as far as to suggest that the narrator – a laughable and unlikeable hedonist with a penchant for racist, misogynist and xenophobic remarks that debase more than 95% of Western society/ies and, indeed, glorify the Neo-Nazis vision of the ascending Aryan races – might embody the celebrity aspirations of white gay men in the 2010s.

As one reviewer writes, “This book is pessimism branded as brave honesty, but I wonder to what end.” Indeed, to what end does this pacification of gay life serve? To characterise gay life as such – to reprimand the vulgarities of consumerist image(s), which are not specific to gay life, but rather endemic to consumers who choose to participate in image cultures that enable the largely uncritical (and thus unconfronted) discourses about what qualifies as “petty,” “superficial” or “vain” – is to solve nothing and provide no values for growth, emotional and mental support or ideations of healthy futures. In other words, by blowing open the box on the gay elite (which has elsewhere been undertaken with fewer spelling and grammatical errors and greater nuance), Morgan attempts to deepen a conversation about the central ideologies, objects and values of “gay life,” not unlike Alan Downs’s (2005) seductive The Velvet Rage or Matthew Todd’s (2012) “revolutionary clarion” Straight Jacket. We are left with a stark portrait, without hope, a wasteland of the gay male body; to ascertain from the broken pieces with which the narrator ends the limited capacities to imagine that gay life, far from a perpetual cycle of drugs, sex, boredom and social media obsession, might also make room for critical awareness of non-consumer life. In short, the novel ends before it begins. It leaves no room for a future, and because of this, the book loses its critique and its impulse to grow sideways into other ways of living.

I Look Divine (1987)

Book Review, LGBT

Coe, C. (1987). I Look Divine. Berlin: Bruno Gmünder. 126 pp.

Christopher Coe’s (1987) novel I Look Divine provides fleeting insight into the life of two brothers: Nicholas, a proclaimed narcissist of the highest degree, and an unnamed brother, a whimsical, perhaps audacious and incredulous, onlooker on the sudden life and death of lyrical beauty. A retrospective narrative, the brother reflects upon Nicholas’s orientation toward the mirrored-edges that surround the Wildean portrait of his life. The novel ventures no further than Nicholas’s apartment, though transports the reader through time and space, across the Western world, into the geographical possession and dreams of the gay cultural elite at the heart of gay-male literature of the 1980s. It crescendos, as David Leavitt suggests in the 2013 edition, in the ultimate death of self-seduction. The excess of beauty (Nicholas as symbol) is overcome by its intimate ties with youth. Though we see indirectly the purpose and actualisation of his demise, we know too familiarly the demise of Dorian Gray, from which the book springs, and thus beg nothing of the author for post-mortem clarity.

Unlike the pensive, oft repetitive and lugubrious passages in his later novel, Such Times (1993), I Look Divine speedily ushers the reader through the waning of physical beauty so fundamental to gay-male life in the 1970s. Arguably, this portrait remains foundational to the coherence of gay-beauty standards today, which have tip-toed not an inch further from the mirrors that surround our desire to remain youthful even when threatened with the cultural construction of “gay death”. Parallel to this fear of beatific death is, as Leavitt poses, the presence and prevalence of HIV/AIDS floating in the novel’s margins. This at once periodises the novel whilst making it all the more timely for men who, today, remain bound to the logics of biomedical realism (i.e. ARVs, PrEP), and seek cultural validation through sexual desire regardless of age and beauty tropes. Far, now, from the present it unfolds, I Look Divine reminds its readers of the lasting legacies of gay-male beauty and the intimate affairs and aspirations of capitalism bound up in physical attraction. It is a text in line with Andrew Holleran’s beloved Dancer from the Dance (1978): an image culture in which we engender the reification of youthful beauty above and beyond the narratives of sexual and romantic excess.

Surrogate Humanity (2019)

Book Review

Atanasoski, N., and Vora, K. (2019). Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 240 pp.*

In Surrogate Humanity (2019), gender and critical race scholars Neda Atanasoski and Kalinda Vora argue that present-day racial capitalism sustains prior racial and gender imaginaries through the engineering and coding of technological innovation. They examine the racial logics of categorisation, differentiation, incorporation, and elimination (p. 5), and explore how new technologies, including war drones, sex robots, and domestic AI, serve as a surrogate for a “racialised aspiration for proper humanity in the post-Enlightenment era” (p. 10). Rather than simply “freeing” or “liberating” humans from burdensome and unfulfilling work, the incorporation of new, personalised (they equate the personal with enforced slavery and contract labour) technologies sutures states of freedom and unfreedom together within a “violent process of extraction and expropriation” in the name of universality (p. 11). In short, the authors unpack the colonial, imperial and racial logics encoded within technological innovation and resist technological futures, which they call technoliberalism, that reify contemporary neoliberal capitalism. Surrogate Humanity is an advanced text for students and scholars interested in science and technology studies, neo/liberalism, critiques of Enlightenment, and technical modernities.

*I was commissioned to review Surrogate Humanity for Fantastika Journal in August 2019. Full review forthcoming 2020.

Old Futures (2018)

Book Review, LGBT

Lothian, A. (2018). Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility. New York: New York University Press. 333 pp.*

Alexis Lothian’s Old Futures (2018) returns to an archive of utopian, dystopian, and speculative artefacts to reflect on the insurgence of “futures” in the contemporary mediascape. Asserting the predominance of certain gendered, racialised, and reproductive visions of the future, Lothian looks closely at the uneven distribution of futures in the past and present. She argues that returning to “old futures” created in the past may enable her readers to navigate alternative futurities in the present to deepen their imaginative capabilities of the future. For Lothian, such notions look especially queer and resist the tantalising investments of neoliberalism, financial speculation, and capitalism’s foreclosures of risks yet to come. More than an attempt to reflect upon failed utopian ideations or speculative realisms in literature and visual media, Lothian incorporates creative practice into her discovery and analysis of old futures. Lothian takes from her own practice(s) to argue that vidding is a queer methodology which allows certain themes about race, gender, and sexuality to take priority over the dominant frames of mainstream media. Vidding elaborates upon the undercurrents of desire, pleasure, and futurity that emerge for subjects and viewers who experience (and are often displaced by) the normative messages of media cultures (p. 250). Readers interested in queer theory, Science Fiction studies, future studies, and feminist theory will find this book compelling. Lothian’s academic voice is full of passion, lending a familiar queer inclination to her investments in future-imagining projects.

*I was commissioned to review Old Futures for Fantastika Journal in April 2019. Full review is forthcoming 2019.

Positive Images (2018)

Book Review, HIV/AIDS, LGBT

Kagan, D. (2018). Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘Post Crisis’. London: Bloomsbury. 320 pp.*

Representations of HIV and AIDS grew sparse and laden with imperatives of recovery, respectability, and individualism during the 1990s and 2000s. For Dion Kagan, this period of “post-crisis” was a time in which gay men sought to redeem themselves from the “narcissistically sexual” construction of homosexuality which preceded the HIV pandemic. In Positive Images, Kagan undertakes a detailed study of the ways in which gay men negotiated this “post-crisis” period. He defines post-crisis as life after the introduction of effective antiretroviral medicines. His careful attention to cultural trends, using HIV prevention studies, queer theory, gay and lesbian studies, and television and film studies, provides a comprehensive look at how these men lived with a virus turned chronic illness, and how their lives impact gay communities today. This text is appropriate for scholars and graduate students interested in the HIV/AIDS historicisation project, histories of safer sex, media and television studies, and the politics of representation. Kagan’s writing is concise and exceedingly accessible for those concerned with the development of HIV histories and sexual politics today.

*I was commissioned to review Positive Images for The Journal of Homosexuality in March 2019. Full review forthcoming 2020.