Featured Book Reviews Razorcake 111—Sketchtasy, Dead Extra, Mr. Know-It-All, Revenge of the She-Punks

Aug 20, 2019

By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, 268 pgs.

In homage to David Wojnarowicz, Sycamore ripped my heart out and put it back together again (this book is dedicated, in part, to Wojnarowicz, and features his work as a cornerstone of queer grief and desire, and emulates him quite well). Sketchtasy is a whirlwind of tulle and coke and fucking. Sketchtasy is not light reading. Sketchtasy, may not, in fact, be the book for you. It does not cut corners, and does not hesitate to throw sucker punches or take a romp through the gutter. It’s a filthy story about queer struggle and resilience rife with run-ons—it does not stop to take a breath.

Sycamore is best known for her work editing collections such as Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots, questioning toxic masculinity and respectability within the queer community, and though this is fiction, it follows similar lines of questioning. What kind of queers are “respectable?” What kind of queers will always be on the margins? This question is answered in Alexa’s days and nights spent turning tricks in altered wedding gowns, stealing sleeping bags to give to the homeless, covering the walls in art about healing.

Major, major trigger warnings for this book regarding addiction, incest, and rape, but major props for dealing with them without turning it into either trauma porn or think-positive-thoughts bullshit, which none of us, at this point, need. There’s plenty of that in this world. Alexa suffers deeply; the people around her suffer deeply. They cope with drugs and booze, they fall on and off the wagon but they also love, and feel joy, and sometimes that joy is all your friends doing ecstasy in your sugar daddy’s jacuzzi, and sometimes that joy is the perfect song or perfect shade of lipstick for the moment. Much of this story is about seeking glamour, but not the runway, not riches, not fucking Ru Paul. Glamour, here, is celebrating survival in a world that wants you dead, glitter on your nails, twirling together on the dance floor.

As if there’s not enough going on, this is also an AIDS novel, starting with the disillusionment of late-’90s AIDS activism, recognizing the collective grief that’s never really gone away, not even now, and coming back around to the stories that were told, particularly, again, in Wojnarowicz. This is the kind of dauntless fiction we need. I’m tired of queer history being glossed over and made picture-perfect, an endless celebration. It wasn’t, and isn’t. The first Pride was a riot. We still need to throw bricks through the windows of cop cars, and we still need our stories and struggles told for what they were and are. Sycamore, I hope, is only part of the beginning of this. –jimmy cooper (Arsenal Pulp Press, arsenalpulp.com)

Dead Extra
By Sean Carswell, 253 pgs.

For most of my life, I didn’t realize I enjoyed detective novels. It should’ve made sense that I would enjoy them: noir is my favorite film genre. In reviewing Nelson George’s To Funk and Die in LA last year for Razorcake,I came to realize how much I enjoy the genre. I especially like books set in the 1940s, which is the beginning of the noir genre in film. Those set around L.A. are even better.

Thus, I found Razorcake co-founder and columnist Sean Carswell’s latest novel to be a perfect fit, as it checked all the boxes. A detective story, set in the 1940s in and around Los Angeles? I couldn’t have been happier.

The chapters go back and forth between the male lead, Jack Chesley, and his wife, Wilma. Jack comes back from World War II in 1946 after being in a POW camp in Germany to find that Wilma died a few years earlier. Wilma’s chapters take place in 1943 and expose the reader to the reasons for her demise. This back and forth not only gives one a path to follow along with the story, but also gives agency to a female character and allows her to explain her life instead of having it done through a male character’s lens. I appreciated that point of view because it gives the reader an opportunity to see things from a perspective that is atypical for detective books, which is normally male character dominated.

Detective stories are a new genre for Carswell, but one that he pulls off well. His prose is tight, as is the dialogue. While some of the typical language of many detective films and books from the ’40s was used (“dame,” “lugs” as another name for hired muscle, “kitten” as a name for a cute woman), it wasn’t heavy-handed.

Carswell’s talent for this genre is surprising and impressive. His ability to create an environment that is authentic immersed me in the tale. I had an understanding of the locations and a feel for what was surrounding the characters. The pace is quick and this is literally one of those times I can genuinely say I didn’t want to put a book down. Great stuff and highly recommended. –Kurt Morris (Prospect Park Books, 2359 Lincoln Ave., Altadena, CA 91001)

Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder
By John Waters, 384 pgs.

Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder is a memoir by John Waters, a filmmaker whose initial low-budget films centered on the lives of despicable but somewhat likable characters. His movies are notorious for exhibiting lewd conduct and illuminating bad behavior, if not downright cataloging it at times. Waters parlayed his unique point of view on life, fame, and the unusual nature of Baltimore natives into a Hollywood career; his biggest hit being 1988’s Hairspray, a comedy examining racial inequality on a regional Baltimore television show in 1962. The film was turned into a hit musical winning several Tony awards and is performed around the world.

Beginning with the filming of Polyester, Waters picks up where his first memoir, Shock Value (1981), left off. In Shock Value, the stories of decadence and chaos on the set of his independent films are described in detail with Waters’s uncanny ability to judge people’s character without using a standard moral compass. Know-It-All picks up in the years of Waters’s varying degrees of climbing the success ladder and traversing the more surreal landscape of Hollywood filmmaking and moderate fame. Some things never change as he lovingly recounts stories of his past glories and failures, graciously including love and praise to his greatest allies in the business while simultaneously giving hints to potential filmmakers as to what to expect along the road to potentially making a movie.

Now, as the author of several books, Waters has surpassed his legacy as a filmmaker in recent years. His previous books Role Models (2010) and Carsick (2014) both made The New York Times Best Seller list. Waters is a gem as a storyteller and comes across in his writing as one of the most affable people you could hear tell about show business. The road to Hairspray becoming a musical is filled with amusing anecdotes, but Waters’s writing is as congenial when recounting smaller and less successful events. There’s always a story and the large appeal in Waters’s writing is his ability to consistently appear to be having a good time. His stories about chaos are told with a guru level of calm. His life is very different from the rest of us, but he never lets you forget he takes a great interest in the world around him, particularly when that world takes place in Baltimore. –Billups Allen (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History from Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot
By Vivien Goldman, 193 pgs.

Vivien Goldman has put together the perfect book for the streaming generation. Using identity, money, love, and protest as chapter headings, Goldman makes interesting and sophisticated connections as she discusses dozens of woman-fronted punk acts. Some of these, like Crass and Patti Smith and the Raincoats, will be familiar to Razorcake readers. The newer ones—like Pragaash and Big Joanie and Skinny Girl Diet—might not be as familiar, but are no less vital.

Goldman has been around since punk’s inception, and effectively merges her own experiences with interviews and research throughout. I think her intention here was to tantalize: as I read, the aforementioned stories—and especially the connecting thread of framework—made me dive back into bands I already knew, and dig to find out more about those I didn’t. Goldman puts the ball in the reader’s court to tremendous effect throughout. Awesome! –Michael T. Fournier (University of Texas Press, utexaspress.com)

Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties, Augmented Edition
By Ellen Sander, 296 pgs.

Ellen Sander was one of the first wave of American rock critics, during a time when “the rock n roll press… consisted of anyone who was low enough on the staff totem pole to be sent out to cover a rock group. A handful of determined freelancers challenged all that, puddle jumping publications until the savvier periodicals took notice.” Her work appeared in Vogue and Hit Parader, and her essay about Led Zeppelin was anthologized. Despite all this, I only knew her through her poetry: my broadsheet journal Cabildo Quarterly published some of her stuff a few years back. She mentioned via social media that a collection of her rock essays was to be re-released by Dover Publications.

The augmented edition of Sander’s Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties is a revelation. Through her essays, interviews, and reviews, she casts a critical light on the decade through its musical and cultural progression, starting with immersion in the early 1960s folks scene, moving through Monterey Pop and Woodstock, to the calamitous signpost that was Altamont.

Often, essay collections like this lack cohesion. They don’t always need a throughline, if the writing is good enough to keep readers engaged. Sander’s writing is consistently excellent throughout: she’s able to shift from discussions of the general feelings of her generation to the specifics of gigs and songs without a hitch. In addition to this, she befriends and follows several different musicians, which adds a kind of story arc to her narrative. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds (endearingly referred to throughout as Jim) and David Crosby pop up throughout Trips in different permutations of their careers. But beyond this, the decade is the throughline: folk and hippie scenes are discussed both in terms of music and lifestyle before rock establishes itself as a cultural phenomenon—and, sadly, after rock becomes a lens through which the most regressive, sexist behaviors filter. Sander’s essay on Led Zeppelin’s tour, during which band members assault Sander, is harrowing and absolutely crucial.

I held my nose and watched the Epix four-part punk rock documentary a few months back and was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn’t entirely horrible. Sure, the punk origin narrative is fairly hidebound at this point, but as more time passes, voices beyond all the standard white dudes are being not only heard but integrated into the canon. It’s encouraging. I mention the doc in this book review because our perception of history is constantly being reexamined. It was great to see Jayne County and Palmolive and Kathleen Hanna in the discussion, as they should be. When we reconsider the history of rock music as a whole and consider where punk music and culture fits into it, we need a polyphony of voices. Ellen Sander is such a voice.  –Michael T. Fournier (Dover, doverpublications.com)

Why Karen Carpenter Matters
By Karen Tongson, 138 pgs.

Karen Carpenter was one half of the brother-and-sister ’70s soft-rock duo the Carpenters. Their best-known song is probably “Top of the World.” Carpenter herself is probably best-known for starving herself to death. Musicians with songs about her include Young Fresh Fellows, Sonic Youth, and Dave Alvin.

According to author Karen Tongson, the Carpenters are more than just “popular” in the Philippines:

Karen Carpenter matters to Filipinos and Filipino Americans like me, whose movements through the megalopolis of Manila, to and from the Philippines’ rural provinces, and eventually to distant places for overseas labor, are scored to Karen’s voice: one redolent of tears, even when she sings about unbridled joy.

Why Karen Carpenter Matters
weaves Carpenter’s life as an American musician (and, for a time, superstar) with Tongson’s life as the child of Filipino musicians. It also features music criticism and cultural criticism.

Tongson is an excellent biographer and an eye-opening music critic, though while I understand why she connected strongly with the Carpenters’ music, I came away unconvinced that she explained the Philippines’ connection to it. As an example of her task, she addresses journalists’ attempts to explain why so many Latinos love Morrissey, which love can probably be explained by Morrissey’s sounding like the cantantes his Latino fans grew up hearing (consider that the next time you hear “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”)—maybe Carpenter’s voice triggered a similar kind of memory?

In the chapter titled “Queer Horizon,” the word “Queer” refers to gender. Tongson explores the weird contemporaneous perception of Carpenter as a “tomboy”—no one I know would call her that—and it’s in this chapter that Tongson most closely examines Carpenter’s anorexia and death.

Why Karen Carpenter Matters is a short book, part of the University of Texas Press’ Music Matters series (reminiscent of the 33 1/3 series in which each book is devoted to a single album). –Jim Woster (University of Texas Press, UTexasPress.org)


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