Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel is a lesbian cartoonist who famously gave us the eponymous Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel test, also known as the Bechdel–Wallace test, is a measure of the representation of women in fiction. It asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.

Fun Home

This graphic novel tells the story of her early life and the way she coped with her closeted father’s conflicted life and death. Later in the story, we see her struggle to come to terms with her own sexual identity.

It’s a very interesting and involved narrative. One part in particular really jumped out at me.

“Interstate 80 had just been blasted through the ridge beyond ours. On its way from Christopher Street to the Castro, it passed only four miles from our house…”

Christopher Street is a historically gay street and district in New York City.

Castro is a historically gay street and district in San Francisco.

Interstate 80 goes to neither Christopher Street nor Castro Street. In fact it doesn’t even go to either New York or San Francisco. It starts about 20 miles from Christopher Street and ends about 20 miles from Castro Street.

Still, as a metaphor, Interstate 80 accomplishes the manifest destiny that eluded America’s early imperialists. A person traversing this stretch of asphalt will come within eyesight of the Atlantic Ocean, to within eyesight of the Pacific Ocean. All of America lies in between, and at these two extremes lie places where gays can be gays, especially at the time of this text.

It is therefore ironic that her father killed himself on a highway that could have born him to a place where he could have lived honestly and happily. It’s also a larger irony that he didn’t choose to leave at some point and seek out happiness, rather than living a lie all his life until he chose to kill himself rather than address the problems he faced.

Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein

This book is very dense and very wonky. I wouldn’t recommend this to everyone. If you’re interested in power and politics, then this is a good book for you.

Why We're Polarized by Ezra KleinThe central thesis of the book is two-fold. Klein argues that polarization is different from sorting or categorization because of homophilies. If I know how you feel about abortion, then I know how you feel about guns, despite the fact that these topics are unrelated. Klein argues that this is because those groups are aligned together. This means that whenever discussion is happening, anything that touches one topic touches all aligned topics; we can’t talk about abortion without also implicitly talking about guns.

Polarization, Klein argues, is the magnification effect that happens when groups are aligned on different issues. If I am debating abortion, then the emotion behind my argument also includes my emotion about guns and everything else, because our culture only exists at two ends of a spectrum with nothing in between.

Klein shows evidence for the escalation of these effects over the course of the last century, and concludes that there is no way to stop this and it’s going to keep getting worse.

This brings up Alinsky in my mind. His Rules For Radicals seem to reflect both the causes and the effects of polarization. I think it might be interesting to launch a discussion group/book club which reads both this book and Alinsky’s book in order to discuss what it means about how we should talk to each other and discuss topics of interest. The pursuit of an answer to this question will come to define much of the discourse over the next generation, whether or not people are aware of these topics.

Burning Chrome by William Gibson

This is easily one of my favorite books. This was my first time reading it, and I found that I had to take breaks to reflect, and often reread chapters before moving on. Very excellent work by Gibson. I can see the way his thoughts moved in the direction of Neuromancer towards the end and then led into that series.

Burning Chrome is an anthology of short science fiction stories, some of which are set in the same universe and some of which are not. One of the stories is set inside a future soviet space program. One is about The Edge which figures heavily in Count Zero. Yet another is set in cyberspace and has had a dramatic effect on the way I imagine cyberspace and cyberpunk more broadly.

Burning Chrome

Anyone who likes science fiction should read this book. Anyone who loves cyberpunk MUST read this book. 10/10

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

In the 1970s, Michel Foucault was working on something unrelated and discovered an important memoir. Herculine Barbin had lived a short and noteworthy life as an intersex and transgender person in the mid-1800s. Foucault translated and published the memoir. It spread far and wide and impacted many people around the world.

Jeffrey Eugenides was one of the people it impacted. He says it was a main inspiration for the book Middlesex, though he believed the memoir evaded discussion about the anatomy and emotions of intersex people. He said in an interview in 3AM Magazine that he intended Middlesex to be “the story [he] wasn’t getting from the memoir.”


Middlesex is a very strange story to read. I think that’s the idea. It’s a psychedelic and jarring journey back and forth through time. It tries to accomplish the personal story of a fictional intersex person struggling to discover what it means to be intersex and how to navigate life from that perspective.

Initially I was a little uncertain about reading the story of an intersex person which was written by someone who is not intersex, transgender, or even queer. But this was required reading for an LGBT Literature class so I soldiered through it. It has inspired me to put the Herculine memoir on my reading list at some point when I have time.

Down Girl by Kate Manne

As a sociologist, this was an interesting read. This book explores the issue of systemic sexism from a philosophical perspective rather than a sociological perspective. It also articulates a normative ethical framework for considering the issue, and the implications for what duty we have in response. This is exactly the topic I most wanted to explore and learn about at SFSU.

Imagine the question, “Why is it wrong to sexually harass women?” It’s very difficult to answer this question logically, because most logical frameworks we have today include sexism, being created by proudly sexist religions or cultures in the past. Logic fails the task of answering the question from most historical perspectives. Even the perspectives that make the attempt fall short.

Manne argues that down-moves (or moves that subjugate) are bad because they steal agency from subjects and force them to be objects instead of subjects. This is her fundamental claim.

Down GirlThe book assumes from feminism the claim that systemic sexism exists as an aggregation of microaggressions. These microaggressions are necessarily misogynistic, having the form of “down-girl” moves. These are acts which subjugate women on the basis of gender. Manne calls this argument the ameliorative approach, because it implies that the duty is not to discuss statistics about inequality, but to directly confront misogyny. Rather than talking about the social construction of inequality, we can focus on ameliorating acts that subjugate women.

I really like this argument because it implies a larger issue for all systems of oppression. If there are down-girl moves then there are down-black moves and down-gay moves. It’s easy to see how Manne’s ameliorative approach shifts the focus from measuring and discussing disparate impact to instead finding and ameliorating the root cause of that disparate impact.

This has really changed the way I think about budgeting the energy I spend working on these issues.

Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

Wikipedia gives the summary, “Stone Butch Blues is a novel written by the revolutionary communist Leslie Feinberg about life as a butch lesbian in 1970s America.”

Generally with a book like this, I try to get the background and plot before I read it, so that I’m able to absorb it all. I started doing the background research on this book, and quickly felt overwhelmed. I decided to just dive in. I’m glad I did it that way because the style is very unusual and I think the best way to go through this text is just to do it, and then follow up with the research.

Stone Butch Blues

It’s written as a straight-narrative. There are no time jumps or anything. It just goes through the coming out story or a person who seems very similar to Leslie Feinberg. Jess works in factories, figures out that she’s a lesbian, works some more, figure out that she’s a man, transitions, and then continues his life.

There are several moments that really stand out in a memorable way for me:


“We’re supposed to dress up,” Ed yelled.

“Yeah, of course.”

“No,” she shouted. “You know, like girls…”

“II don’t put on a dress for nobody!” She told me we were going to a funeral home to see a body, not knocking on heaven’s gate to get let in. I couldn’t put on a dress. I shuddered at the thought. Besides, it was a moot point — I didn’t own one.

This is a fascinating moment. A respected older lesbian has died. It’s bizzare to think that the older lesbians in the group would expect the younger members to compromise their identities as a way of showing respect. This felt like strong foreshadowing that Jess was more than just a lesbian.


“It’s just incredible. I can’t believe you’ve given me the sky to sleep under. But I can’t tell if it’s dawn or dusk you’ve painted.”

She smiled up at the ceiling. “It’s neither. It’s both. Does that unnerve you?”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, in a funny way it does.”

“I figured that,” she said. “It’s the place inside of me I have to accept. I thought it might be what you need to deal with, too.”

I think this is a critical moment in the text. Basically, it could be seen not just as a microcosm for the entire story, but for the story of every queer person. In Ruth’s words, “It’s the place inside of me I have to accept. I thought it might be what you need to deal with, too.” Queer people grow up living a lie in self defense and spend out lives deconstructing the lies to search for the truth underneath.

In some ways this is a universal human struggle, and maybe at least in that way, everyone is a little bit queer. No one is exactly who they want to be, and no one is exactly who society wants them to be. Drawing the lines between all these things and coming to understand the similarities and differences between who we are and who we’re supposed to be is one of the most fundamental and important aspects of life. Freud called this Cognitive Dissonance. Foucault called in Panopticism. Sociologists call it performativity or strain. They’re all talking about the same thing, and this passage does an excellent job of concisely explaining this core human process.


This book was hard to read, and hard to understand, and I think I will recommend it to people.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

This book was very interesting to read. Reading this book showed me how little the POC experience is represented in the curriculum. This is part of what inspired me to pursue Race and Resistance Studies at SFSU in my later educational career.Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae BrownThis book is an autobiographical narrative. We go with the author through her own coming of age story. She travels, has misadventures and learns a lot about herself and the community. She ends up in school for film. We get an inside look at the challenges facing black film makers, lesbian film makers, and woman film makers.

There are many interesting parallels to people like Dorothy Arzner (who was active at the same time) struggling even as a white lesbian to produce films in a fiercely racist, sexist, and homophobic culture.

In the text, the character compares herself to Kenneth Anger, a gay white man who made films even earlier and had some limited success at the time but was shut out of the mainstream.

This is a great book which I will certainly recommend to people.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Giovanni’s Room is not a true story, but it parallels the author’s life. It’s somewhere between a fictionalized autobiography and historical fiction. It’s a very sad story which I really related to.

Giovannis Room

The story follows a young man in Paris who falls in love with another man, much to his own surprise. Everything goes horribly wrong and it doesn’t end well for anyone. 8/10. Would recommend.

Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. This is a very strange and interesting story. Written almost 250 years ago, it takes place in two-dimensional space which makes it challenging to even consider at first. Once you get the idea, it explores many interesting sociological concepts from class mobility to gender.


The two-dimensional nature of the characters and plot leads to many odd discussions. For example, class comes from the number of sides a shape has. A square is of higher class than a triangle and so on. Children rarely rise to a higher class than their parents, and it takes many generations to achieve higher class.

A triangle is distinguished by the acuteness of its smallest angle. Pointier triangles are a natural weapon, and best suited to fighting-jobs like policing or soldiering.

This will be a difficult book to recommend. I think it will have to be a very particular sort of person who I will one day recommend this to.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

  1. The Difference EngineI have waited a long time to read this book. I’ve also waited about a month since I finished reading it before writing this post. This book is a lot. It is considered the seminal work of the steampunk genre. In it, Gibson and Sterling present a world where Babbage found wide success with his Analytical Engine and ushered in the computer revolution in the early 1800s.

Babbage Analytical Engine

Babbage invented this device, the Analytical Engine in 1837. It was the first Turing-complete digital computer, a century before that phrase would even be invented. In reality, Babbage had very poor success because of a number of factors. If he had been more successful with his invention, the computer revolution might have happened over a century sooner. This book tells the story of a world where that is the case; a dark and messy early-industrial world of steam and gears and engines.

Behind the main story, another story progresses in the shadows. It sort of follows Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and the scale problem of computation attempting to describe itself. This idea isn’t really resolved in the story, but it is overcome by the end of the book, if not in specific terms. The idea is that no system of language or mathematics can completely describe itself. People are trying to develop smarter and faster machines which are self-aware, but the problem of imperfect and incomplete mathematics and language becomes a barrier to further development. This problem is also modeled in several parallel social conflicts in the story.

This is a very complex and involved narrative. It will take a lot of future reflection and re-reading to really come to terms with what it’s trying to accomplish and to understand the meaning behind this multilayered work.