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It’s that time again! I’ve been reading, gorging my brain on others’ leavings, and now I have to burp about it.

Portrait in Sepia

Oh my God. I first encountered Isabel Allende’s writing while studying: I read The House of the Spirits. And it didn’t blow me away. Beautiful and interesting and unlike anything else I had read? Totally. But (*wrinkles nose, clutches handbag with both hands and tilts chin in towards the chest*) a little violent. Honestly, I’m starting to think anything I said between the ages of 19 and 22 must’ve have been damn near impossible to distinguish because my head was up my arse the whole time. I’m also not proud of how I dressed, but that’s another story. My point is that I recognised some of the good points of The House of the Spirits, but I didn’t let that get in the way of being haughty and superior. I regret it. I’m glad I gave Portrait in Sepia a whirl, because it is incredible. In. Cred. Ibble.

The story covers three generations of the del Valle family, told by Aurora del Valle as she tries to find a cause — and solution — for her recurring nightmares. From this starting point, you’re lead through a beautiful and fascinating family history. The characters are rich and lively: when I finished the book, I felt like I’d just come back from a lengthy stay with them. One of the best things about the realism of these characters is that there aren’t really any classic villains or heroes or anything like that, they are alive, complex, flawed and wonderful people. Some you like, some you love, some you dislike, some you despise: but you always understand them. You know them well enough to see the morals and reasons that contributed to their decisions and actions. Brilliant stuff.

It’s a luscious and sensual book, too: the sexual relationships between characters are discussed and give you unmatchable insight into the individuals — their motivations, attitudes, and the dynamics between them. There are references to foods and comforts (and discomforts) that only heighten the reality of the world you’re in while reading. The roles and status of women in Chilean culture (of the time — the book is set during the first half of the twentieth century) is explored in a wonderfully unintrusive way.

This is such a good book. I’m so glad I read it.

Evolution’s Rainbow

From my non-fiction pile! Evolution’s Rainbow (by Joan Roughgarden) is an exploration of diversity of sexuality in animals and humans. And what a hoot! It’s fascinating to read about the many ways sexual/reproductive/family behaviour is revealed in the animal kingdom and leads you to wonder how anybody ever came to think of homosexuality, bisexuality or transsexuality as aberrant, as they’re so widespread. Reptiles, fish, birds, mammals — including primates — get frisky in such a huge variety of ways that we as an observing species seriously need to scrap heteronormativity. It’s downright laughable to assume that the slot-A-tab-B approach is the “right” one, and yet that is exactly the perspective that has coloured all zoological observations for the last umpteen centuries.

The book moves on to discuss the diverse expressions of sexuality in humans, and it is really interesting stuff. This section discusses sex and gender in relation to embryonic development, which was pretty eye-opening for me, and then goes on to discuss particular issues in human sexuality. From debunking the idea of the “gay gene” to discussing genetic research, this section talks about sexuality from a genetic level, and damned interesting it is, too.

The third section discusses cultural variations on the two-gender model, looking at different cultural approaches to transgendered, intersexed and homosexual folks. Really interesting and revealing stuff, especially if, like me, you’ve been reared in a pretty heteronormative world. There are also some horrific statistics on violence against transgendered folk, a matter that gets less attention than it should because, frankly, a lot of people aren’t sure where they stand on the matter of transgender. So the media aren’t sure how they want to spin it, viewers/readers/listeners aren’t sure how to respond to it, and the incidents tend to get quietly swept aside as “too hard”. Which emphasises the importance of this book: people aren’t sure about transgender and intersexuality (hell, a lot of people are still struggling with homosexuality) because we have been taught, for centuries, that the heterosexual approach was the Right Way, across the entirety of species on the planet, except for maybe plankton, mushrooms and viruses. Homo-, bi-, trans- and intersexuality have all been underreported or pushed aside during zoological study, reinforcing the myth that they’re genetic cockups.

Finally, Roughgarden wraps things up with an Appendix of policy suggestions: adjustments to education and research approaches that would create a world more inclusive and respectful of a greater spectrum of sexualities. Which is pretty awesome: Roughgarden has taken a solid body of research, presented compelling arguments, and then outlined a set of strategies to implement this new knowledge. It’s great. This is a fantastic read: illuminating, fascinating, eye- and mind-opening, and very well-written. Juicy stuff for your brain to chomp on.

Numinous Subjects

While we’re talking non-fiction, I also read Numinous Subjects, by Lucy Tatman, which you can download for free from the ANU in a range of formats and. Well. Whoa. It’s all about the three traditional sacred female figures (in Judaeo-Christian-based theology): the virgin, the whore and the mother. I downloaded and read it on a whim and it’s pretty mind-blowing stuff. Far from being a dry academic text, it rockets along with bursts of euphoric, free prose that explore the sacred vs religion (the unbound vibrations of the numinous vs a structure that tries to make sense of it) and the roles of women in religion. It celebrates the virgin-whore-mother figures, exploring their roles and their sexuality in relation to divinity. I had a barrel of fun reading it: it felt electric and involved and exciting.

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