The Rise of the Vampire by Erik Butler

Cover of "The Rise of the Vampire" by Erik Butler. An all black background with the title in white at the top and the author's name in red at the bottom. There is a drop of blood that drips down the cover emerging from the bottom of the V in vampire.

The snapchat caption reads: "VAMP TIME"

I really didn’t know what to expect from this book. Despite my longstanding love of vampires, I’ve read more vampire fiction and folklore than I have any academia on the subject. Having read it now, my ultimate assessment is that if you’re looking for an introduction to the history of vampires as they exist today this is a very good starting place.

“The Rise of the Vampire” is entertainingly written analysis of the rise of the vampire in folklore and fiction and how they have prospered in some areas and not in others, but remain fixed—yet ever evolving—in the cultural conscious. I also enjoyed the frank, though limited, discussion of the anti-Semitic, racist, xenophobic and misogynistic tropes that pervade vampire fiction. 

Book quote: Visibility entails risk for the undead, but it can also mean peril for those who would track them. Vampires work by deception, after all. We should proceed with caution in this endeavour, lest we find ourselves entangled in a web of illusion that delivers us, helpless and exposed, into enemy hands." 

Snapchat caption: I'm living for the drama of the prose.

If I talked about everything I loved about the book my review would be as long as the book myself, so I’ll keep it to my absolutely favorite things. 

1. The origins of the vampire mythos in Eastern Europe as a way for the the native Serbian people of the region to assert some control during a time when their homeland was in the control of others. I found this fascinating, because I’ve only ever read about the origins and history from a perspective of “here are diseases that could have contributed to the vampire mythos.”

2. The utter evisceration of Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight.” I don’t mean Butler was derogatory or dismissive toward the series or tore it apart in a negative way. He treats it as he treats any iteration of vampire fiction, one with good aspects and bad aspects, but he takes it apart incredibly thoroughly and in a way that exposes that darker and much creepier aspects of the books, which I appreciated a whole awful lot. I will say, the one issue I had during his assessment was is use of the term “redskins,” when describing Meyer’s racist depiction of the Quileute Indian Tribe. I understand that he was trying to make the point that Meyer had done a bad job, but using a slur felt unnecessary. 

3. Maybe Abraham Van Helsing and Quincy Morris in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” are actually vampires. This blew my mind, particularly with regard to Van Helsing. Butler’s break down of his reasoning is incredible and it makes so much sense. The vampire hunter is a vampire himself. This makes me think, in particular, of dhampir lore, which says that the child of a mortal and a vampire will be a born vampire hunter. 

Book quote: "Whereas all the other characters suffer in some manner or other from the Count's machinations, Van Helsing does not. Could it be that Van Helsing knows so much about Dracula because he is a vampire himself?"

Snapchat caption: I am LIVING for this theory.

4. Spike my beloved. Butler’s assessment of Spike from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is so good. His analysis of Spike’s song (“Let Me Rest in Peace”) in the episode “Once More With Feeling” had me rolling. The line “The song teeters embarrassingly between sensitivity and machismo,” could honestly just be an assessment of Spike as a whole. There’s a big ass softie beneath that cold seeming exterior, which is exactly why he’s my favorite. 

Book quote: The whole song teeters embarrassingly between sensitivity and machismo. Abandoning his usual appearance of cool, Spike makes the melodramatic gestures of a Top 40 troubadour, clenching his fists, sweeping his arms and jumping onto a coffin to make a show of his feelings. When he bares his heart in this way, he can be wounded.

Instead of laying his torments to rest, Spike resurrects the bad poet who died. The vampire's potential for mystery and menace disappear utterly when he sings. Spike reveals a gooey, sentimental interior at odds with the image he otherwise projects."

Snapchat caption: Listen, this isn't a flaw, this is EXACTLY why Spike is so great. It's the layers.

One final quibble I will bring up is that this is a very European and American centric look at vampires. There are plenty of other cultures that have vampiric equivalents, even if “vampire” isn’t the word used for them. If this book can discuss non-vampire characters as vampiric in nature then, why not give a nod to some non-Western vampiric entities, say the obayifo of Ashanti folklore or the Malaysian penanggalan? Of course, there’s only so much room in the book and it already covers quite a large swath of time and location, but I would have appreciated at least some acknowledgment of vampire lore occurring in other cultures. 

All in all, this was a riveting and informational read and I would highly recommend to vampire lovers everywhere. 

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The Sawbones Book: The Horrifying, Hilarious Road to Modern Medicine (expanded edition) by Justin and Dr. Syndee McElroy

A picture of the front cover "The Sawbones Book" expanded edition

The snapchat caption reads: Bones!!!!

“The Sawbones Book” has been revised and expanded for 2020 and we all know what that means. No, not a lot of COVID-19 talk, but an expanded infectious disease section that includes historical pandemics, epidemics and global panics feat. some notes about how we’re totally handling this pandemic so much better than we did in the past, (spoiler alert, we’re uh, kinda not).

An excerpt from the book, the main text reads "This led, of course, to panic and a complete lack of coordination on a global level. Some thought it wasn't working because cholera was not communicable and that quarantine was ridiculous. Others just thought we weren't quarantining quickly or strictly enough. No one knew where cholera was coming from yet, so blaming whatever race of humans you didn't like was also very trendy."

An interjection blurb from Justin follows, "Isn't this all so weird and different from today? I'm looking at all this stuff about panic and confusion and blaming different cultures than your own, and it's just so foreign to how we're reacting to coronavirus in good old, super-smart 2020."

The snapchat caption reads "So strange."

The New:

An interjection blurb from Justin reads, "Oh, hachi machi does this next part ever get grody. I wish I hadn't read it, and I helped write it. Ugh. Also, if you notice any really obvious typos, it's because I was only half peeking from between my fingers while I was blasting some really soothing Sarah McLachlan."

The book is largely the same “Sawbones Book” as the previous hardback edition, but with additions, some rearranging, and the corrections of a bunch of typos. (Honestly, there were so many typos in the hardback that I’d assumed they were part of Justin’s “sorry if there were typos, I was trying to avoid looking at what I’m writing cause it’s gross” goof, apparently not.) 

The opening limerick to the section "The Contagious," it reads: "Come read of the times / When germs ran amuck / And ships quarantined in the bay. / Then strap on your mask, / The parade's almost here, / For the past is our present today."

The snapchat caption reads: "I only want to be presented with covid news in limmerick form from now on."

The biggest change is the addition of a “The Contagious” section that replaces “The Unnerving” as the first section of the book, which was bumped back to be section two, and has my absolute favorite opening bit. This new section includes new chapters, such as “Quarantine” and “The Deadly Parade,” and old chapters moved from other sections like “The Black Plague” and “Parrot Fever.”

The Old:

“The Sawbones Book” is a wildly entertaining look at a huge swath medical history. For fans of the podcast, it recaps some of the greatest hits and is written very much the way Justin and Sydnee speak. If you’ve got a brain like mine, you can basically hear them reading the book (and they did actually do the audio book too.) For newcomers, it’s an easy to read look at medical history with a humorous twist that is just missing from your average history book.

My absolute favorite story in the book is the story of Henry Bessemer’s (of Bessemer steel fame) seasick-proof saloon, a free swinging room within a ship designed to prevent seasickness. It went just about as well as you might expect. 

An excerpt from the main text, "Remember how the saloon was swiveling independently of the ship itself? Well, it didn't get the memo that it should cut it out when the ship tried to stop moving. The swinging of the cabin as the ship slowed down made it incredibly difficult to pilot the ship. An lo, did the SS Bessemer end its maiden voyage by crashing in to the pier."

The snapchat caption reads: "Ah yes, physics."

Most importantly, I think, is that this new edition of “The Sawbones Book”  has retained the same ending line, which I love so so much. It is the latter part of Justin’s response to a question from a “The Doctor is In” section, where Sydnee answers general medical questions, and it is simply, “This is, literally, the worst day of my life.” And I feel like that’s just the perfect way to close out having just spent 200 pages learning about hilarious, terribad ‘cures.’

The Verdict:

Go buy this book right now. It’s so much fun and it’s highly accessible to people without a scientific background. There are even handy dandy notes throughout to help you avoid the extra gross stuff, and although some of the page numbers weren’t updated to reflect the new edition, it hardly impacts the reading experience. 

Even if you already bought the previous hardback edition, treat yourself and get yourself the new edition too. It’s definitely worth it.

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Freiheit! The White Rose Graphic Novel by Andrea Grosso Ciponte

Cover of "Freiheit! The White Rose Graphic Novel." Three people (left to right, Sophie School, Alexander Schmorell and Hans Scholl) sand in front of a Nazi insignia that has a white paint smear through it. Sophia is holding books, Alexander has a paint brush in his lapel and Hans is holding a paint can. In front of them is crouched another man, Christoph Probst, who is holding a pamphlet.
In the bottom left corner of the cover there is a note in red stating that this is an uncorrected proof and not for sale.

I was really excited when I first heard about “Freiheit! The White Rose Graphic Novel,” in part because it’s a part of World War II history that I’ve been interested in, but haven’t had the opportunity to read much about. I’d previously read several short articles about Sophie Scholl—one of the book’s lead protagonists—but they had been sparse with the details about her involvement with a larger group, making her seem like a lone martyr figure. I hadn’t even heard the name “White Rose” until I picked up this graphic novel, which, I think, makes the book all the more important and timely given the importance of history in resisting fascism.

Two panels. One partially obscured, shows a formal portrait of Sophie Scholl and her name in her passport. The next panel shows Sophie sitting crosslegged in a train car, saying "I'm a student at the university." 

The Snapchat caption says "In all the stuff I've read about Sophie Scholl, I'd never actually seen much about the resistance group she was part of."

The book is very engaging and pulls you into the story immediately right in the middle of the action with Sophie and her brother Hans dropping a stack of leaflets down from the top floor a building into the main hall, before jumping back to a flashback that shows you how everything began, how a small group of friends (Sophie and Hans Scholl, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf) eventually became the White Rose. 

The story then moves quickly, following Sophie, into her discovery of her brother’s and their other friends involvements with the White Rose, and how they continue that through their military service, until they are eventually caught. Despite how quickly things move, it doesn’t feel in anyway rushed. The book has a very artistic flow to it, there’s no real background exposition to speak of, drawing your focus to the art, dialogue and the limited quotations the serve as background for various scenes. 

My particular favorite quotation used is the English translation of the song “Die Gedaken sind frei,” (“Thoughts are Free”), that is overlaid on a scene of Sophie working in an ammunitions factory.

Full page spread of Sophie working in a munitions factory, she is holding a shell and there are more laid out in front of her. 

There is no dialogue, but the text overlay is partial English lyrics of the song "Die Gedanken sind frei." They read, "No person can know them/No hunter can shoot them/ With powder and lead/Thoughts are free.*"

The asterisk points to a footnote that reads "'Die Gedanken sind frei' traditional revolutionary song, forbidden during Nazism."

The Snapchat caption reads, "I learned this song at a German summer camp and had no clue about the history behind it."

I will say I was a touch confused by that scene as I wasn’t entirely sure of what I was supposed to take away from it. It’s a lovely scene and gorgeously illustrated, as is the whole book, but it wasn’t clear to me if it was meant to imply that Sophie was doing sabotage work. There is discussion earlier in about encouraging sabotage in their leaflets alongside passive resistance, so I had wondered if this was tying into that, but I can’t say I know for sure since there’s no background exposition to explain the scene. I think some added points of additional exposition would have been nice, but as a narrative the story does hold up just fine without them. 

Something that I’ve always found true when it comes to World War II studies is how angry and upset and heartbroken I feel when presented with personal narratives, be they biographical or autobiographical. That emotional pull is something that “Freiheit!” does incredibly effectively. There is an incredible amount of characterization for such a short book, we see Sophie living her life as a regular student, we see Christoph with his wife and children, we see the Scholl family’s response to their father being arrested, and you know through all of it how it’s going to end. Arrest and execution. 

But the book doesn’t leave you on a sad note, it ends on a hopeful one, with the fact that the British took the final pamphlet produced by the White Rose and used airplanes to drop 5 million copies across German cities. This drives home that what the White Rose did mattered and, especially in todays day and age, that activism matters. Not everyone can make the sort of sacrifices that the White Rose did, but what they preached, passive resistance against a terrible “norm” is something anyone can do.

A panel showing the shadow of an airplane in the sky dropping leaflets. The adjacent text reads "In July 1943 the British dropped five million fliers quoting from the sixth White Rose leaflet on cities across Germany."

The snapchat caption reads: "Words live on."

“Freiheit! The White Rose Graphic Novel” is being published through Plough and will be released in February 2021. 

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Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity by C. Riley Snorton

The first thing I learned reading this was that I’m very out of practice when it comes to reading academic theory. The second was that I need to broaden the academic theory I read. Thankfully, “Black on Both Sides” has a deliciously robust bibliography which I have marked up for future reading. 

Now I will say, this may be a somewhat challenging read for those who don’t have a background in academic theory, but I think it’s doable if you’re willing to stop and google things, which I still had to do myself despite my academic background. Regardless, I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in gender studies, even if you haven’t delved into much theory yet. C. Riley Snorton has done an incredible job of pulling together a wide range of theories to curate his discussion of race and gender, and moreover, he explains those theories well.

Quotation:  Heeding her call, my analysis here is particularly attentive to the possibilities of valorizing--without necessarily redeeming--different ways of knowing and being, as it is also invested in reviving and inventing strategies for inhabiting unlivable worlds. It is an attempt to think more precisely about the connections within blackness and transness in the midst of ongoing black and trans death and against the backdrop  of the rapid institutionalization of trans studies.

Snapchat caption: Nothing grabs my attention faster than reference to "different ways of knowing."

As you may have already guessed, “Black on Both Sides” is not your run of the mill history book. It is a history, certainly, but one that goes one step deeper than just telling history. It asks questions about and provides an analysis of the history of Black gendered experience and how that has developed from slavery through to today. 

The first chapter begins with a discussion of the Black female body as an object in the historical context of the origins of the medical field of gynecology. Major warning in this chapter for discussions of unethical experimentation and medical abuse. 

"Relaying another variation of the experimental trials, Sims tells his readers that he 'was fortunate in having three young healthy colored girls given to me by their owners,' while also noting that he performed 'no operation without the full consent of the patients."

Snapchat caption: Spot the contradiction.

The second chapter follows this, with a discussion of how “ungendering blackness” provided ways for fugitive slaves to use crossing gender boundaries in their movement toward freedom. This chapter uses two early slave narratives as examples of this and continues with a discussion of literature into chapter three, where Snorton moves on to discuss the female presence in post Reconstruction narratives of Black individuals.

Chapter four delves into the lives of several Black trans individuals and how the media portrayed their gender and transitions in the years surrounding Christine Jorgensen’s rise to fame. Snorton hits, quite early on, one of the major problems I have with the Jorgensen narrative, namely that it plays heavily into the tropes of the “good trans” who upholds white heterosexuality. 

Lastly, chapter five discusses the the Humboldt killings and the Brenden Teena archive, the tragedy behind the documentary “The Brenden Teena Story” and the feature film “Boys Don’t Cry.” 

I was particularly excited for these final two chapters, 1) because they brushed up with things that I’ve studied more in depth, and 2) because they offered different perspectives to the dominant narratives surrounding both Christine Jorgensen and the Brandon Teena archive. For the latter in particular I have gotten rather sick of cis feminists touting “Boys Don’t Cry” as The Best Trans Expression In Film as if it isn’t about the rape and murder of a trans man. Snorton’s look into the Humboldt killings prioritizes Philip DeVine, the Black disabled man who was murdered alongside Teena and Lisa Lambert, and who notably was removed wholesale from the narrative of “Boys Don’t Cry.”

I could go on and on about everything I loved about this book. It’s a very careful and detailed breakdown of queer theory as it pertains to Black and trans history. But as I do have to end this review, I will direct you to where you can get this book so you can experience it for yourselves.

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Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century by Graham Robb

Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century by Graham Robb, front cover

If you’re interested in the gay history of the 19th century, but have absolutely no idea where to begin, “Strangers” is a really solid place to start. It not only covers the whole of the 19th century (and swings into the  20th century), but unlike many books in the field, it goes out of it’s way to cover the lives of both men and women. Many books about gay history tend to limit themselves to either talking about men exclusively or talking about women exclusively, and there are certainly good reason for tackling those issues separately, however I really enjoyed getting to see the lives of men and women side by side. 

"It is often said that gay men and women are more adept at expressing themselves than heterosexuals, or more eager to do so. There were more likely to invent stories, to play roles, to rehearse a variety of relationships with the rest of society."

I also found the book very accessible, you don’t need an academic background to understand “Strangers.” There’s a lot of queer and gender studies texts that get locked up in the ivory tower simply because they’re written in language not readily parsable by people outside of the field. “Strangers” certainly doesn’t avoid using academic language, but it’s understandable even if this is the very first book about gay history you’re picking up. In general, I think history books tend to be better at this than theory books, but “Strangers” has a particularly conversational tone that feels very welcoming and it’s not just a dry slog through a series of facts. It’s an engaging read and does a good job of holding your focus.

For what is ultimately a fairly small volume, “Strangers” covers multiple European countries, Britain and the United States. It succeeds in this, I feel, by focusing on specific people, Walt Whitman, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Oscar Wilde, to name a few, and then using these people and their words to dig into the culture at large. Does it cover each person absolutely comprehensively, of course not, there just isn’t room for that, but it creates an incredibly strong foundation for life during these times. 

'Walt Whitman and his rebel soldier friend Pete Doyle' the two men are looking at each other very fondly.

The one thing I would have liked to see more off, was the overlap of cross dressing and transvestism as it came to be known in the early 20th century. It is touched on a little bit, but I would have liked to see a bit more. This is relatively minor however, because on a whole the scope of this book is huge and there’s only so much you can fit in and do justice to. 

On that note, the one big problem I had was with how to book treated Native American two spirit identity. It lacked the background and nuance that was given to the discussion of western identities, and I can’t tell from the works cited if any Native voices were actually consulted. This is a case of trying to include diverse outlooks on same sex attraction and gender diversity, and having it fall short. The proper space isn’t there to go into nuance about this and two spirit identity cannot be equally conflated to western ideas about homosexual or transgender identity. If these incredibly brief moments had been left out entirely, I don’t think the book would have suffered for it. 

I don’t want to imply that I think this ruined the entire book, it’s a well researched, accessible and incredibly informative book, about 19th century Europe and white America. I just think that these discussions of Native identity could have been handled better.  

“Strangers,” can be found for purchase here.

I’m going to end this by recommending further reading about Native American gender and sexuality studies. 

1.  “Transgender Warriors” by Leslie Feinberg – While Feinberg is white, ze makes it clear in hir section on Native identities that ze recognizes that privilege and hir research is thorough and emphasizes Native voices wherever possible. I also like this book because it’s accessible to the lay person.

2. Literally anything by Qwo-Li Driskill. Ze is the author of the poetry collection “Walking with Ghosts” and the book “Asegi Stories: Cherokee Queer and Two-Spirit Memory,” and co-editor of “Sovereign Erotics:  A Collection of Two-Spirit Literature” and “Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature.”

3. “Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology” edited by Will Roscoe, a collection of fiction.

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On Demand Books: How to Acquire Them

While I did not go to school to become a historian, I’ve always loved history and 9 times out of 10 it winds up playing an important role in what I do, be it my queer studies or simply fan projects. It may not come as a surprise, considering my recent posts about “The Terror,” that I have fallen down  a research rabbit hole. The sexy thing about working with texts from the 1800s is that sometimes they’re freely available to read online, the unsexy thing is that I vastly prefer reading hard copy books and don’t always do well reading books on a computer screen. Enter on demand book printing. 

Google books has an option that allows you to find a bookstore with on demand printing services to print public domain books that also let you to order online. The availability of these books does depend on things like what stores are currently offering services, but so far I have acquired two books this way to great success. “Lieut.  John Irving, a Memorial Sketch with Letters” edited by B. Bell (John Irving was a lieutenant aboard HMS Terror during the ill-fated Franklin expedition) and “Passages From the Life of a Naval Officer” by Edward Philips Charlewood (BFF of Commander James Fitzjames, captain of HMS Erebus on the Franklin expedition).

I had used Google books before, but had not known this magical secret. So I am going to take you through  the steps I took, so that you too can acquire old out of print books. I’m going to use “Passages from the Life of a Naval Officer” to take us through the steps.

Step one: Google your book and find the Google books listing.

Step two: Once you’ve clicked that link you should see a page like this:

Now head over to the bar on the left  hand side of the screen and click the blue link that says “Get this book in print”

This will lead to a pop up menu, where you can then select “On Demand Books,” which is the second  option on the list.

Step three: Once you’ve selected “On Demand Books” you will be brought to the Espresso Book Machine page. Where you can select a book store.

I’ve been using Schuler Books in Michigan, because they’ve given me the best price with book cost and shipping, but another location might work better for you. 

Once you’ve made your choice hit  “Get it”

Step four: Add that book to  your cart and check out!

Once you’ve reached this stage, if  you realize that the shipping costs don’t work for you, backtrack to step three and pick another option! (Shipping costs were why I went with Schuler Books over the Harvard Bookstore, even though the listing price for the Harvard Bookstore was cheaper.)

This isn’t foolproof, the book I tried to first use for this tutorial, didn’t have any print on demand options despite it being published in the 1700s, which was sad. However, if you prefer hard copies to ebooks or have trouble reading on screens, this might be a good easy way to get a hard copy of a book you want or need. 

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The Terror: History and Fan Works

So you watched “The Terror” and now you don’t know what to do with yourself. Well, congratulations, you have like so much content available to you, both academic and historical and fannish, you’re gonna have a great time. I have compiled a handy dandy guide to learning about the Franklin expedition and/or participating in Terror fandom.

Let’s start with history. 

  1. Thanks to a friendly neighborhood Tumblr anon,  @radiojamming has made up an “Intro to the Franklin expedition” book list. This list includes books like “James Fitzjames: Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition” and “Captain Francis Crozier: Last Man Standing?,” both of which I mentioned in my earlier review,  as well as a link to a number of excellent online resources. 
  2. DJ (radiojamming) has also done considerable research into Lt. John Irving who served on the HMS Terror under Francis Crozier.  They made a nice little write up about him on their blog. And you know how I mentioned in my review of “The Terror” that Irving doesn’t have a biography yet? Well, DJ’s working on changing that. 
  3. DJ has also done and excellent write about about John Hartnell, one of the men buried on Beechey Island.
  4. Tumblr user @indifferent-century has been regularly posting snippets of the Fitzjames journal that we have. It’s all very handily tagged on their blog.
  5. Pertaining to Captain Crozier, @handfuloftime recently posted the most complete published version of Crozier’s last letter to his best friend, James Ross. It can be found a few different places, but this is the best version of it I’ve found.
  6. We also have a nice write up about the images we have of Lieutenant James Walter Fairholme, courtesy of @ltwilliammowett.

Leading into “The Terror” analysis

  1. Harry Goodsir, assistant surgeon aboard  HMS Erebus, claims in the show that he’s dissected 20 corpses. @pottedmusic tells us in this delightful historical post, why that scene’s actually kind of funny.
  2. DJ (radiojamming) is back with excellent meta analysis about Tom Hartnell as a symbol of death.
  3. @septembriseur also provides an excellent analysis of the entire show from beginning to end, dealing with the Tuunbaq, Carnivale and ratboy Cornelius Hickey.

Further fan works!

Fitzjames and Crozier in front of their biographies.
  1. Illustrator Kristina Gehrman has a number of Franklin expedition related pieces in her portfolio and is also the author of “Icebound: Franklin’s Lost Expedition,” which is available to read online in English or as a hardcopy in German.
  2. @sinnaminie is another fan favorite content creator with her excellent plushies! I’ve ordered two myself, a little Crozier and a Fitzjames in a dress. Her plushies also have the approval of “Terror” actor Jared Harris (Crozier), who has his own little Crozier plushie!
  3. Do you like football/soccer? Even if you don’t, the Terror & Erebus Football Club AU a is wildly hilarious and entertaining creation from numerous minds that deserves a mention here.
  4. The last fan work creator I will mention is Kami, his art is just incredible and he’s currently got preorders going on for a Fitzier (Fitzjames x Crozier) artbook!

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Early Trans and Intersex Narratives

Three books in a row. From left to right they are: "Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth Century French Hermaphrodite" compiled by Michael Foucault; "Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress" by Magnus Hirschfeld; and "From Female to Male: The Life of Jack Bee Garland" by Lou Sullivan

Continuing with the theme of trans and intersex narratives, I have made up a short master post of early memoirs and biographies of trans and intersex figures that I am familiar with, including the ones I discussed in this month’s review. I am here defining early as having been born in the 1800s, even if their text wasn’t published until later. They are listed in order of age range.

This is the earliest written memoir I have found in my studies. The actual memoir portion of the book is quite good, though pieces are missing due to mishandling. It’s the extra “dossier” at the end of the book, along with the introduction, that Foucault added full of legal and medical reports and a fictional story based on Barbin’s life a that I find deeply fetishistic. As it is a book that gets taught in queer studies classes, you may be able to find a pdf online without having to spend money on it or, if you’re at university, the school library might have it. If you do want to buy it, I would recommend buying used. 

First published in German in 1910 and later translated into English in 1991, the book spends pages 17 to 123 going into 17 case studies of trans people who have detailed their lives for Hirschfeld. It can be a slow slog through dated and a bit technical language, but I think ultimately very enjoyable for someone interested in trans history. 

This is the one genuine biography out of the set. Published by trans man and activist Lou Sullivan in 1990, he was drawn to Jack Garland after hearing about him in a presentation. Unfortunately, this book is out of print and can be difficult to find. To my shame, while I do own this book, I haven’t read it yet. Perhaps it will appear as a future review.

  • 1882-1931 – “Man into Woman” compiled by Niels Hoyer

Lili Elbe’s memoir is an interesting case, written in third person with identities masked and compiled by a third party. Outside of some of the cases in Hirschfeld’s “Transexuals,” this is the only genuine memoir I have found of a trans woman. This can be found in a number of ways, I own the new ebook version “Lili: Portrait of the World’s First Sex Change” as well as a facsimile reprint of “Man into Woman.” Getting your hands on an original copy can prove difficult and pricey.

Update 6/15/20: “Man into Woman” was recently republished in a comparative academic edition that goes hand in hand with an online archive.

Published in 1907 and reprinted 100 years later with a beautiful afterward detailing the man behind N. O. Body. See review for more information.

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Memoir of a Man’s Maiden Years by N.O. Body/Karl Baer

Cover of "Memoirs of a Man's Maiden Years" 
Snapchat caption: History time!!!

If you’re interested in the genre of early trans memoir, then I cannot recommend this book enough. While much of the content does reflect the conventions of early trans memoirs, it is important to remember that N. O. Body/Karl Baer, was also intersex. This fact cannot and should not be overlooked in the reading of the memoir. Of the early trans/intersex memoirs I have read, I would recommend this above “Herculine Barbin” as presented by Michael Foucault.

The memoir deals in the early years of Karl Baer’s life as he is raised as a girl. A Jewish man, Baer disguised his identity in his memoir writing under the pseudonym N. O. Body, and making himself of Catholic French decent. While this obscures some details of his life, the underlying message is clear, this is a book, published in 1907, with support of some of the leading medical minds of the time, calling for understanding and acceptance. This call for acceptance and emphasis on medical professionals is quite typical for early trans memoirs and remnants of this can still be seen in the genre today, though it’s much less present than it was. 

Obscuring details is also common in these very early memoirs. Lili Elbe’s “Man into Women” was also published with her name changed in the text, as well as it being written in third person like a novel. Additionally, her memoir passed through multiple hands after her death, so it is unclear what was her editing and what other people’s edits were. In this sense, despite the changes made by Baer himself, it’s almost a more genuine narrative, due to less ambiguity surrounding the who wrote what. 

Another instance is of this is “Herculine Barbin,” which is presented by Foucault in an incredibly fetishistic manner. Including medical and “scientific” reports about Barbin as well as a fictional story based on their life along side Barbin’s memoir, it is therefore even more unsettling when you learn that the Barbin’s narrative is incomplete. A large portion was lost by one of the many doctor’s fascinated with Barbin’s case. Ultimately, the focus of the book is on the tragedy of Barbin’s life and death and the fetishistic fascination with their genitals.

On the opposite side, Magnus Hirschfeld’s epilogue to Baer’s memoir not only discourages this kind of treatment, but encourages understanding, with quotes like “The sex of a person lies more in his mind than in his body” and “For far too long, adults have underestimated … children and their significance as human beings,” this short epilogue written in 1907 seems positively modern. I find the positive messages that can be attained from reading “Memoirs” is vastly above “Herculine Barbin.”

Quote: "The sex of a person lies more in his mind than in his body, or to express myself in more medical terms, it lies more in the brain than in the genitals."

Snapchat caption: Good old Aunt Magnesia

Additionally, if you are looking for a positive story, “Memoirs” has a happy ending, while the memoirs to primarily focus on Baer’s “maiden years” the end is optimistic and hopeful for the future and, more than that, Hermann Simon has been able to uncover the trajectory of Karl Baer’s life through the lucky coincidence of his mother knowing Karl Baer and his wife when she was a child, followed by years of painstaking research. His afterward to the 2007 edition is an excellent supplement and he takes you back through the memoir as he uncovers the reality behind what Baer disguised. 

The book can be found here.

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Snap of book page. "There were at least six printings of the book after 1907, followed by two silent film versions... Only the earlier film has been preserved, although at some point in time, the opening credits from the later film were attached to it."

Approaching Judaism as a Queer Trans Man

A Rainbow Thread by Noam Sienna

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with religions. One that has been inherently distrustful even before I realized I was a queer trans man. Yet something about a higher power and the magic of religion has always fascinated me. I wasn’t raised religious, except in the vague Christian-normative way most secular families are. Christmas might not have been a “religious” holiday for my family, but it’s still a religious holiday underneath. You’d be hard pressed to find a wholly secular “Christmas” holiday, though the McElroys’ Candlenights does try its best, it’s ultimately pan-religious rather than secular.

Despite the fact that I wasn’t raised religious, religion was always an option. My mom, an ex-Catholic and religious history and comparative religion double major, made it very clear that religion was an option, should I ever want to pursue it. As a result, I had Hanukkah books and Kwanza books alongside my Christmas books, ate latkes and knew how to play dreidel, but also sang Christmas carols and got a new Christmas ornament every year. I also remember spending at least one holiday with a Jewish friend when I was in kindergarten or first grade, though I could not for the life of me tell you what holiday it was.

Torah Queeries edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser and David Shneer

After briefly looking into what conversion would mean when I was in college, I didn’t actually make the decision to look into converting formally until I moved away from home. Approaching Judaism is not easy, it’s a journey, but it’s one I feel prepared to make, due to the fact I’ve made a similarly massive transition before with my gender. Just like with gender transition, converting to Judaism isn’t a massive change in my worldview, it’s just a change in how I approach the world. 

That said, just because Judaism is what feels right to me doesn’t mean that it’s still not easy to grapple with the historical stigma that chases queer and trans people wherever they go. Noam Sienna’s “A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969” presents an incredible historical record, but it’s also one that isn’t wholly happy. In between loving homoerotic poems and stories, you also have first hand records documenting the persecution of queer people in history. While court or arrest records are sometimes the only historical documents that remain of queer presence, it doesn’t make it any less challenging to read them, especially when they come from a religion you are looking to join.

Balancing on the Mechitza edited by Noach Dzmura

However, the way Judaism has evolved into it’s various branches means that the Judaism of then is not the Judaism of now and there is absolutely space in Judaism for queer people. This is made apparent through the existence of books like “A Rainbow Thread” and “Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentary on the Hebrew Bible,” as well as through the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, which is a congregation in New York City that is explicitly for the LGBTQ community.

One other book that I have found particularly important in twining my conversion and gender together is “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in the Jewish Community,” edited by Noach Dzmura. It’s designed with a readership of transgender people in mind and as a result is an indescribably cathartic read. Some might find the terminology dated, because the book is almost ten years old at this point and many of the authors writing are older, but that doesn’t detract from the messages that the book brings.

If you’re interested in pursuing something that isn’t Judaism. Some other books I would recommend are:

  1. “Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality & Black Magic in Brazil” by Kelley E. Hayes, which “examines the intersections of social marginality, morality, and magic in contemporary Brazil by analyzing the beliefs and religious practices related to the Afro-Brazilian spirit entity Pomba Gira.” Pomba Gira being a figure who has been linked with trans women and gay men, which if memory serves is either talked about on in the book or in the accompanying DVD, “Slaves of the Saints.” 
  2. “In from the Wilderness – Sherman: She-r-man” by David E. Weekly. “In from the Wilderness” is a memoir, that details Weekly’s life as a transgender man holding religious office in the Methodist Church. 
  3. “Omnigender: A Trans-religious Approach” by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott. I haven’t read this myself, but I have heard very good things about it. It seems to be a more Christian approach, but I can’t tell if it’s geared toward any one specific denomination.

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