J.C. Leyendecker: A Book Review Sunday, Nov 6 2011 

After reading Hide/Seek, I became interested in illustrator J. C. (Joseph Christian) Leyendecker, so I looked around for a good book to read about him. Eventually, I settled on J.C. Leyendecker (2008) by Laurence S. Cutler, Judy Goffman Cutler, and the National Museum of American Illustration. This book is a wonderful collection of Leyendecker’s illustrations accompanied by excellent essays about the Golden Age of American Illustration, Leyendecker’s life, and Leyendecker’s distinctive work. I enjoyed reading (and looking at) it!

Leyendecker’s importance in the history of early twentieth-century American illustration can’t be overstated. He produced over 300 covers for The Saturday Evening Post and was one of, if not the, most popular advertising illustrators of the 1920s and 30s. His images became iconographic representations of sophisticated, urban American chic.

Leyendecker was also gay, and his illustrations often incorporate homoerotic imagery. I find the way this book discusses this element of his art to be very interesting:

Knowing that revealing his secret would threaten his popularity and success, Joe never came out of the closet…. He also attempted to conceal his sexual orientation in his work, which was often characterized by heterosexual female adoration for handsome males depicted in overtly erotic poses. Yet, ironically, he was the most manifest homosexual artist of the early twentieth century–a virtual hero–as his work clearly demonstrates to today’s enlightened audience.

To create such delicious illustrations, he smoothed oils on models’ muscles, enhancing the light reflecting on male surfaces he admired most: one model said that Joe always painted him in a darkened studio, with only candlelight highlighting the erotic qualities of his gleaming form. The gay subculture saw the irony in his work and appreciated the erotic images he lavished upon the world.

These homoerotic images appealed to heterosexual viewers as well, however. In a subtle subversion of heterosexual mores, unattractive men turned to them in their quest to be more appealing through the products being advertised. Sportsmen never saw the football players’ images as anything but manly, for they reveled in the enthusiasm created among the fans. College men, particularly Ivy Leaguers and prep school chums, were proud that their alma maters were highlighted. And most of all, women were drawn to Joe’s images, dreaming of intimacies with men who possessed “The Leyendecker Look.”

While Leyendecker was not publicly out, he did have a partner, Charles A. Beach (1886-1952), whose image is sometimes featured in Leyendecker’s work, as in this illustration, which is included in the Hide/Seek exhibit:

Beach is on the left. Beach is also the model featured in the book’s cover illustration.

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Hide/Seek: A Book Review Sunday, Oct 30 2011 

PJ and I missed the Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery earlier this year, so PJ ordered a copy of the catalogue. We’re going to have a chance to see the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in December, so I started reading the catalogue, which was edited by Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward.

This is the first time that I’ve read a book about an exhibit before seeing the exhibit. The book version of Hide/Seek is a great read, whether one ever sees the actual exhibit or not. In particular, Katz’s opening essay describing the exhibit and providing historical context for the works in it is a particularly fine essay.

For a couple of decades now, scholars have argued that before modern notions of sexuality became prevalent, “homosexuality” was coded as being effeminate and the penetrated partner in any sexual activity. Thus, a “heterosexual” man could have sex with a “homosexual” one without impugning his reputation as a straight man, provided he performed the masculine role of penetrating the gay man. Katz’s explanation of this theory is one of the best I’ve ever read.

Katz explains this concept in order to interpret George Bellows’s The Shower-Bath (1917):

He reads this image to explain why, even though it depicts an “obvious” homosexual in the foreground, it was an extremely popular. His reading is convincing, and it made me think about this period of American cultural history differently. This print is nearly contemporaneous with one of my favorite novels, Henry Blake Fuller’s 1919 Bertram Cope’s Year. Thinking about this novel in terms of Katz’s argument would be a very interesting way to approach the book.

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Sweet Like Sugar: A Review Sunday, Oct 23 2011 

Five years ago, I read and loved Wayne Hoffman’s first novel, Hard. So, I was naturally excited to learn that he had a new novel out, Sweet Like Sugar. It’s a really interesting novel, one that made me think. I really enjoyed it.

Sweet Like Sugar centers on Benji Steiner, a gay advertising executive who has started his own small company in the same shopping center as a rabbi’s Jewish bookstore. Benji is Jewish but has lost touch with his faith. He still practices a handful of Jewish observances, but in general he doesn’t really connect to his Jewishness any longer.

When his former Hebrew school teacher, who now works in the rabbi’s bookstore, brings the aged and ill rabbi, Jacob Zuckerman, to rest in Benji’s office, it sets of a series of events that transforms both men’s lives.

Like many gay people who were raised in religious households, Benji’s coming out coincided with his rejection of his religious heritage. As conservative religious figures teach against same-sex desire, those of us who experience those desires as a real and immutable part of our lived experience question the value of religion more broadly as we reject the specific teachings we find homophobic.

My own experience was very much like this. My parents are very religious, and I was raised to share their conservative views. Once I began to accept my sexual desires rather than fear them, it called into question everything they had tried to teach me–if they’re wrong about homosexuality, are they wrong about everything else too? I think it’s a natural progression from one issue to the next (to the next and so on) that ultimately led me to reject the whole kit and caboodle.

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My Life as Laura: A Review Sunday, Oct 16 2011 

While recuperating from (very) minor surgery last week, I read Kelly Kathleen Ferguson’s My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself, which was just published by Press 53. Hilariously realistic and sincere, it was a great book to read while stuck at home and feeling kind of miserable. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Part of that enjoyment was no doubt due to the fact that I know Kelly and really like her. She took my graduate seminar on Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy two springs ago. Throughout that class, which wasn’t anything near the quality I would have liked due to the commitments of my day job (being an administrator doesn’t really leave one a lot of time to prep a grad course!), I was grateful for Kelly’s contributions and insights. Her easy, self-deprecating humor was a pleasant mask for her genuine insights into Sterne’s masterpiece. Whatever my students got out of that class was entirely due to their own efforts and participation in the seminar’s discussion. Kelly was a key part of that.

I should, perhaps, also note that PJ and I had recently heard Kelly give a reading from this memoir before I started reading it. That taste let me know that a) I was going to enjoy it and b) I could draw on my memory of Kelly’s delivery so that reading it felt like she was reading it to me. I always find that hearing the author’s voice in my head augments my pleasure as a reader. (I often “hear” Jane Austen’s voice when I read her books too!)

My Life as Laura is Kelly’s memoir of physically retracing the pioneer journey of her favorite writer as a child, Laura Ingalls Wilder. As she visits LIW sites throughout the Plains states, she examines her own life and tries to come to terms with the way things have turned out: she’s a 38-year-old woman who hasn’t “achieved” the usual milestones that 38-year-old women are supposed to “achieve”: she’s not married, she doesn’t have kids, and she’s not a doctor. Reflecting on the life and times of her idol, Kelly finds her own sense of purpose and achieves a different kind of goal: she becomes a professional writer. (Though the book is not an optimistic homage to Kelly’s successful achievement of that goal — it’s far more complex than that.)

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Star Wars: Death Star Sunday, Mar 27 2011 

I’ve been sick the past couple of days and, apart from a day trip over to Dayton to watch a women’s regional semi-final game between UT and OSU, I’ve pretty much just wanted to stay in bed. Fortunately, while PJ and I were in Columbus earlier this week I picked up a copy of Star Wars: Death Star, which I’ve been wanting to read since it first came out in 2007.

So far, I’ve refrained from writing much about my eternal love of all things Star Wars. I’ve mentioned it every now and then, but I really come out fully, so to speak, until now.

Besides reading Jane Austen rewrites, Star Wars novels are my favorite kind of books to curl up with. I’ll admit that there are some that I don’t enjoy–I’m not indiscriminate in my love of Star Wars. I haven’t been able to get into the bounty hunter ones or the “next generation” ones. I liked the Thrawn series and some of the ones that take place between the newer movies. But my favorites are the ones featuring Darth Vader or Darth Bane. Ever since I was a kid, I loved Darth Vader, and I enjoy the Star Wars novels the most when they let him be evil, which is also why I love the Darth Bane novels. Evil is interesting; Luke Skywalker is bland (except for when he dallies with the dark side, of course).

Star Wars: Death Star takes place just before and during the events of Star Wars: A New Hope. In essence, it tells the other side of the story: what Tarkin and Vader are doing in between their scenes in the movie. But it also introduces several new characters as well as gives us more insight into some of the movie’s supporting Imperial roles.

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The Ask: What Money Means to Me Sunday, Jan 23 2011 

I’ve just started reading Laura Fredricks’s The Ask: How to Ask for Support for Your Nonprofit Cause, Creative Project, or Business Venture for work. Whether I like it or not, a large part of my job is fundraising, and my success or failure will largely be measured by my ability to raise money for my college.

There are a lot of obstacles to this goal. Not the least of these is the fact that I have no experience asking for money. Even so, my first year as dean was fairly successful in terms of external gifts to the college: we had an increase of 50% over the previous year. This fact is misleading, however, since the previous year’s giving was relatively small — it didn’t take much to surpass it.

I also have a bit of a cushion this year: one planned gift for which the paperwork was completed this year almost made up my entire goal of the year. But as a planned gift, my college won’t see any of it until the donor passes away, not something that we’re hoping for anytime soon.

While these first two years have therefore technically been successful, my college increasingly needs cash money. Our university’s budget, like everyone else’s, is in the crapper, and the only way I’m going to be able to continue funding some programs is if they receive external support.

My boss would like for me to attend a workshop in Florida next month about fundraising, but the simple fact is that I don’t have a travel budget that will support both going to a workshop and doing actual fundraising. So, I’ve had to choose the latter over the former — I’ve already made one short alumni/development trip since the beginning of the year. In the next few months, I will be making additional ones to Cleveland and San Francisco for sure and to Missouri, Boston, Chicago, and New York potentially.

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Death on the Nile (2004): A Review Sunday, Nov 28 2010 

Yesterday, PJ and I went to Columbus to do a little sales shopping. Mostly, we bought clothes. PJ’s recently gotten back into reading Agatha Christie novels, and at some point while we were shopping he mentioned something about Hercule Poirot and Death on the Nile. This started us off on a quest to find a DVD of it.

Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, my family enjoyed watching the Joan Hickson Miss Marple series and then the David Suchet Hercule Poirot series. So, I was particularly desirous of finding the Suchet version of Death on the Nile, which I had never seen (at least that I can remember). While looking at Barnes and Nobles, we found a multi-disk collection of the episodes for about $100, which seemed like a lot more than we really wanted to pay. But then PJ pointed out that, if we were really going to watch all of the episodes, then it would be worth purchasing. So we did.

So, last night we watched Death on the Nile, which I thought was wonderful. Death takes place mostly on a cruise on the Nile. Simon Doyle and Linnet Ridgeway are celebrating their honeymoon. The couple would be perfectly happy if it weren’t for one little problem: Linnet’s former friend (and until quite recently Simon’s former fiancée) Jackie is hounding them in revenge for Linnet stealing her man. Every where they go, she pops up to torment the new couple. And her taunts and jeers seem to be getting increasingly irrational and potentially violent. Everything comes to a head when a murderer strikes during the cruise.

I had seen the 1978 movie version, which starred Peter Ustinov, Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Mia Farrow, Maggie Smith, and David Niven. Here’s a clip from that adaptation:

This version is rather campy and even comical, but it’s also fun and engaging.

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Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion: A Review Sunday, Sep 26 2010 

This past summer I read Regina Jeffers’s Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion, a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion from Wentworth’s perspective. Originally published as Wayward Love: Captain Frederick Wentworth’s Story in 2009, this novel is a welcome addition to the ever-increasing number of Jane Austen rewrites, continuations, and adaptations.

I’ve written before about how much I like Jeffers’s previous novels, Vampire Darcy’s Desire and Darcy’s Passions. Since Persuasion is my favorite of Austen’s novels, I was eager to see what Jeffers would do with it. She does not disappoint.

Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion begins shortly after Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot’s marriage. Napoleon has escaped from Elba, and Wentworth has been called back into service to captain a ship. Anne is with him on board when her husband is wounded during an attack on a French frigate. As she nurses him back to health, he recalls their original courtship and then their reunion eight years later. Through his flashbacks, we see the events of Austen’s novel from his point of view.

Two things immediately appeal to me about this narrative method. First, I like that Jeffers constantly moves back and forth between the past and the present. This back and forth tends to build suspense as we aren’t sure of the outcome of Wentworth’s wound. And even if we assume that Jeffers isn’t going to kill off our hero, we still don’t know where this plot will take us. I like that a lot — it makes for a much more interesting read than a straight up rewrite of Austen’s tale. Jeffers then takes the story a step further by moving beyond the war, letting us know what happens to Anne and Frederick afterward.

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Vampire Darcy’s Desire: A Review Monday, Jan 25 2010 

I’m a total nut for (some) rewrites of Jane Austen’s novels. As I’ve blogged about before, I love Susan Kaye’s rewrite of Persuasion from Captain Wentworth’s point of view and Pamela Aidan’s rewrite of Pride and Prejudice from Darcy’s point of view.

But I’m also a bit of a purist when it comes to my Austen rewrites. I’m not interested in rewriting the novels’ plots — no alternative endings. I’m also not a fan of the next generation type novels — Darcy and Elizabeth’s daughters, for example. And I’m definitely not a fan of time travel Austen novels — Elizabeth coming to the present or a contemporary woman traveling back into the novel.

While PJ and I were in New York last month, I looked around for an Austen rewrite to read — I especially like reading Austen and her emulators while I’m traveling; it makes me feel more comfortable or something. I stumbled across Regina Jeffers’ Vampire Darcy’s Desire. This book should have immediately fallen into the second category I described above, the this-is-an-abomination category, but I read a page or two while standing in the bookstore and was immediately impressed with Jeffers’ writing style. In fact, her prose quickly captured my interest and made me want to keep reading. Here’s how the first chapter opens (there’s a prologue before this that describes Darcy’s rescue of Georgiana from the vampire Wickham):

It took more than a day to explain it all to Georgiana. At first, she did not believe him, but the truth lay all around them. He explained what he knew of her acquaintance with Wickham–how she met the pretender one day in a village shop–how she saw him several times about the estate–how she thought him to be a friend of her brother’s. Slowly, with Darcy’s explanation, Georgiana realized Wickham offered her no future. (7)

I’m a firm believer in the idea that, if a novel doesn’t grab me pretty quickly in the opening page or two, it’s not going to appeal to me so I don’t read it. (This often has as much or more to do with my disposition at the time than the novel — a book that doesn’t appeal to me at one point in time might be perfectly fun to read 6 months later, for example.) What I liked about this opening paragraph is that it could have been a straight rewrite of Pride and Prejudice rather than the beginning of a vampire novel. It signals that Jeffers knows what she’s doing.

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Frederick Wentworth, Captain: A Review Sunday, Sep 27 2009 

Frederick Wentworth, Captain is a two-volume novel by Susan Kaye that relates the events of Jane Austen’s Persuasion from Captain Wentworth’s point of view. The first volume, None but You, came out from Wytherngate Press in 2007; volume two, For You Alone, was published in 2008.

Persuasion has been my favorite Austen novel for about 20 years now. I first read it as an undergraduate. I enrolled in a summer class that surveyed the second half of Brit Lit. All we read was novels Austen, Dickens, Hardy, and Waugh. Up to that point, I had never read any of Austen’s books. I immediately fell in love.

In retrospect, I’m not sure why I felt this way, but I immediately felt that I was like Anne Elliot waiting for my man to come back to me. (I was also a big fan of Somewhere in Time, so maybe I just liked the come-back-to-me theme.) I was still a closeted gay boy back then, who was scared to face his sexual desires. Maybe that made me feel like a woman who was watching life pass her by. Whatever the case, I loved the novel and it’s been my favorite ever since.

So, I was looking forward to reading this novel from Wentworth’s point of view. As I’ve written about before, I love Austen rewrites, but most of those seem to focus on Pride and Prejudice and Mr. Darcy. He’s great, but he’s no Wentworth. If we’re all honest about it, we’d admit that Darcy’s falling in love with Elizabeth makes no sense — Austen doesn’t really explain his conversion and personality transplant very well. But Wentworth’s love for Anne is all there for us to follow. We understand his recognition that they belong together, even though the original story is from Anne’s point of view.

What I’m getting at is that Austen gives someone like Susan Kaye a little more to work with than she does the re-writers of Pride and Prejudice. Kaye has inherited strong, believable characters and a plot that is romantic and realistic. Her task, then, is to take these elements and make something new out of them. She more than succeeds. Frederick Wentworth, Captain is arguably one of the best adaptations of any of Austen’s novels to date.

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