Reading List September 2005

Gender Bending

Men's books that women should read

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T. E. Lawrence (1926). I have yet to meet a female contemporary who has read this book—perhaps because Lawrence writes mainly about bone-jarring camel rides, blowing up Turkish trains on the Damascus-to-Medina line, and mooning over handsome Arab boys. Yet for insights into imperialism, the modern Middle East, and the kinky, coquettish personality of the twentieth century's strangest Englishman, this book is matchless. Men love other men in so many odd ways here; it's like getting into the Boys Only tree house. The intelligent female reader is freed into a pure and illuminating voyeurism.

The Face of Battle, by John Keegan (1976). Keegan's now classic description of what it was like to be an ordinary soldier on the Agincourt, Waterloo, or Somme battlefields is harrowing, humane, profound. Even the most pacifistic woman will be moved to new respect for the stunning bravery so many men have exhibited over the centuries in the face of horrific mass violence. The book is timely now in a new way, as American female soldiers are losing arms, legs, eyes—even their lives—in the world's latest horror show.

The Garden of Eden, by Ernest Hemingway (1986). Is there any great male writer more vilified (unfairly) by female critics? Why care in 2005 about a hairy-chested old fatty lording it over a swordfish? Because he's sleek and magnificent and ineluctably weird. This unfinished novel, published posthumously, features a painfully mixed-up hero, a knockout scene of fetishistic haircutting, and sentences so beautiful one could cry. How did he ever get a reputation for machismo? Ladies, prepare to fantasize with Papa. He wants you to humiliate him.

Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951). Now, here's an oddity: a butch lady novelist who's also one of the great gay-male writers of the twentieth century. She didn't like women, and it shows—especially in this, her masterpiece about the Roman emperor Hadrian and his beloved catamite Antinous. Gals just don't figure, but the misogyny, kooky and magisterial, is all part of the fun. The Académie Française got off on Yourcenar's mandarin prose and made her the first immortelle.

The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Seventh Edition, by Richard Cook and Brian Morton (2004). Jazz criticism, like jazz itself, remains almost all-guy terrain. It's time for women to trespass. Cook and Morton are in some ways typical male jazz fans: polymathic, fanatical, obsessed with outtakes and reissues and obscure Japanese imports. (They also write exquisitely.) But I can't help admiring their exacting overall appreciation for female jazz musicians—from Lil Hardin Armstrong to the sublime Marilyn Crispell. No one is forgotten, yet no special fuss is made either. It's as life itself should be.

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