2019 TBR Pile Challenge, coming out, Coming-of-Age, Lesbian Lit, LGBT, Poetry, pride month, Sarah Henstra, Young Adult

A Lesbian Classic & Walt Whitman

I wrap-up my Pride Month reading with two final pieces of fiction, one a classic adult novel of lesbian literature, the other a young adult novel inspired by Walt Whitman. Please feel free to check out the rest of my pride month reads. I had planned to read 5 LGBTQ books this month but managed to read 7, and I wasn’t disappointed at all!

Don Juan in the Village

Jane DeLynn’s novel, Don Juan in the Village (1990), is a classic of lesbian fiction. It follows the escapades and sexual conquests of its female protagonist, a lady Don Juan, as she travels the world and sleeps with as many women as she can. The narrative spans the course of 20 years, beginning sometime in the 1970s and ending sometime in the 1990s. There is a clear and stark, sometimes painful, contrast between the freedom of the post-1960s sexual revolution and the advent of what the narrator labels, “the plague.”

Each chapter is titled with the name of a different place to which the protagonist travels. Within, she describes not just the place she is visiting, but the women—and types of women—she meets there and makes love to. These experiences range from the soft and sensual to the nearly sadistic, but in any case, the narrator is almost always “very wet.” Yes, indeed, the story is that bold, that graphic, that open about sexuality, and female sexuality in particular. As a gay male, these experiences are about as far removed from my own as is possible, and yet the importance of this kind of text, particularly in the cannon of LGBTQ+ fiction, particularly in the canon of women’s literature, and particularly at a time when AIDS was devastating the gay community, is not lost on me.
So, while the writing style did not particularly appeal to me (rather dry, like a kind of Gertrude Stein meeting Ernest Hemingway at the middle of an intersection), it also makes sense: what better way to share taboo experiences to the widest range of readers as possible than in a clinically modernist way, as if “these are the facts, and if you can’t handle them, you’re the problem.” So, upon consideration, it’s an incredibly smart approach by an obviously talented writer. I think many readers will respond to this one, though it wasn’t right for me. That said, readers of LGBTQ fiction and those interested in LGBT literary history, as I am, should not pass it up.

This book is also one of my TBR Pile Challenge reads for 2019.

We Contain Multitudes

Sarah Henstra’s We Contain Multitudes (2019) is one of those rare novels that catches my attention right away, keeps it word-for-word, line-for-line, and page-by-page, and then upends everything just as I’m wondering if I could possibly love a book more. Somewhere about 75% into the novel (no, let’s be honest, I counted the pages and it was exactly 75% of the way in), the story takes an unexpected turn, one that I was not prepared for and one that I did not appreciate. It felt like my world was shattering. I understand how hyperbolic that must sound. IT’S JUST A BOOK, MAN, you’re probably thinking. Except that’s just it. This wasn’t just a book. This novel, these two young Whitman lovers, these two young Walt Whitmans, indeed, are much bigger than a story.

The novel is told in epistolary form, as a series of letters written between two high school boys, a sophomore and a senior. They are given an assignment to write to each other, typically with some kind of prompt from their English teacher. As they are in different classes, of different ages, and in wildly different social circles, they had never spoken to each other before, though they each knew who the other one is. This is because, in their own way, they are both wildly inconspicuous. What begins as a series of assigned letters, though, quickly drifts away from a mandatory task and into true, good old-fashioned letter-writing. Henstra adroitly creates two different styles and voices that match the two different teenage protagonists.

One struggle is that, given the design, the boys must re-tell each other the events to which they were both a party (otherwise, how would the reader know about them?) That said, even the author recognizes this complication and manages to address it through the characters’ letters as well. This is perhaps the only place where the author’s identity (or narrator’s, if we want to be more academic) can be felt. That said, a benefit to this is that the boys recount their shared experiences from their own perspectives, which turns out to be revealing to the reader, but also to the other person involved. A significant question that comes about, then, is how much can we really know another person?

I won’t reveal what happens at that three-quarter mark, except to say that it crushed me. The book resolves in a mostly satisfactory way, in my opinion, but I personally had been so distraught over the major conflict, that I was—I still am—left reeling. In a way, this speaks to the brilliance of Whitman, first of all, and to the brilliance of this novel and its characters, too. Upon reflection, I realize that Adam Kurlansky is deeper and more complex than he is given credit, and far crueler than I am or could ever be. I realize that Jonathan Hopkirk is stronger and more flawed than he seems, and far more forgiving than I am ore ever could be. And so, in this way, the point is proven: they do contain multitudes. We all do. The poetry is the point, and the poetry is in us all.

I haven’t felt this connected to Whitman or to myself since, well, since reading Whitman. It is not without its pains, nor without its fearsome joys. When I finished reading, I could only think of Whitman’s poem, “To You,” which, unless I’m mistaken, does not make an appearance in this novel. And yet…

Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,

I whisper with my lips close to your ear,

I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you. O I have been dilatory and dumb,

I should have made my way straight to you long ago,

I should have blabb’d nothing but you, I should have chanted nothing but you.

-Excerpt, “To You” (Walt Whitman)

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AIDS, coming out, Coming-of-Age, Gender Identity, Historical Fiction, immigrant literature, Iranian-American, LGBT, pride month, Sexuality, Young Adult

Thoughts on Two LGBTQ Pride Reads

Like A Love Story

Abdi Nazemian’s young adult historical fiction novel, Like A Love Story, is the fourth LGBTQ-themed book I’ve read this month. Like the others, it has not disappointed. Every good coming-out-story, like every good coming-of-age story from Little Women to The Catcher in the Rye, manages to do this, to balance a personal, individual story with a unique experience in time and place and the larger issues this entails. What the author does best in this novel is to integrate powerful and accurate portrayals of two difficult events, the Iran revolution and the AIDS crisis, into a story about an immigrant boy’s coming-of-age and coming out. Magically, it is all held together by the unlikeliest but most appropriate of figures: Madonna.

Reza is that immigrant boy. He arrives in New York City, by way of Canada, after his family flees Iran. Reza has always been the good boy, the one his mother can depend on, while his older sister has always been the rebel and troublemaker. But when Reza meets the beautiful punk photographer, Art, and his best friend Judy, everything changes. Reza is thrust into a world that values independence and individuality, and into a sphere that is fighting desperately to survive. Judy’s uncle Stephen is dying of AIDS, and through his example of activism, friendship, patience, and counter-pop culture, Reza, Judy, and Art learn to thrive, to live, and to love.

Like A Love Story is not only a beautifully-written young adult novel, but it is a historically and socially important one. Nazemian reminds the reader just how hard gay and lesbian people had to fight to win their freedoms and equal protections, a fight that continues to this day and that is constantly under attack. The author includes several important historical lessons, weaving them seamlessly into the story of these characters’ lives, so that readers who give this work a chance will find themselves learning critical history that is often overlooked, forgotten, or under-appreciated, while at the same time enjoying an excellent story. At the heart of it are themes of friendship, forgiveness, and first loves, as well as first losses and the reality of mourning. These very human themes are so universal that the reader, while connecting with the fictional of it all, might find themselves relating to a story well beyond their own lived experience.

This is one of the most important and illuminating LGBTQ novels published in recent memory.

Symptoms of Being Human

The fifth book I read for Pride Month is Jeff Garvin’s The Symptoms of Being Human, a young/new adult novel about a gender fluid protagonist’s coming-out experience. Riley Cavanaugh’s father is a conservative politician in a conservative Orange County, California district, in the middle of a re-election campaign. Riley’s mother is kind and well-meaning, but much of her time is devoted to her duties as a politician’s spouse. Just as the election season is heating up, Riley suffers a kind of panic attack at an important event, after which they are hospitalized for attempted suicide. To ease some of the tension, Riley transfers out of her private Catholic school, where they were tormented, to a public school, where they hope to be better treated. Unfortunately, high school is still high school, conservative areas are still conservative areas, and plans often go sour.

While Riley struggles to figure out who they are, some days feeling like a girl and some days like a boy, and other days not like either one, they also navigate the process of healing from self-harm, dealing with anxiety, hiding a powerful secret from their parents and, let’s face it, an entire district that has the Cavanaugh family under its microscope, and trying to make friends, or at least avoid making enemies, at a new school. Any one of these conflicts would be difficult but trying to deal with all of them simultaneously is beyond unlucky. To help, Riley’s therapist suggests that they start a blog and share privately and anonymously what cannot be shared publicly. To write is Riley’s true therapy, and as it turns out, they are very good at it. Ironically, this talent is what causes the largest crisis of all.

Somehow, Riley finds themselves with a popular blog that only grows in popularity as its presence is picked-up by one of the largest LGBTQ community websites online. Riley receives thousands and then tens of thousands of followers and is bombarded with comments of praise, questions for advice, and plenty of hate mail, too. Eventually, Riley’s identity is discovered, right around the time some of the advice they have given to a transgender teen goes terribly wrong, and suddenly they are thrust, with their secrets, into the glaring spotlight that is a political election season.

The major climax itself did feel unnecessary to me, in an almost troubling way. In my reading, the event felt manufactured to fit a gap in the construction of the narrative, rather than necessarily and organically manifested by the sequence of the story itself. It is also a device so often used in stories of sex/gender diversion that, at this point, it has become cliché. This is not to say the problem is not real, because it is very real and all too common, but the introduction and handling of it (and particularly the “fall out”) are even more important for that reason. This is the one element that pulled me out of an otherwise truly engaging, interesting, and important work that deals with gender fluidity, family, hate crimes, coming-of-age, and mental health.

One of the most incredible things about Symptoms of Being Human is that the author manages to treat Riley Cavanaugh’s gender fluidity with complete honesty throughout the course of the narrative. It is never revealed whether the protagonist was born biologically male or female, nor what their parents assume to be Riley’s sex or gender. This is an impressive feat. The story is well-paced, moving slowly and thoughtfully through the complex areas, then speeding up rapidly during moments of intensity. I was able to read the entire thing over the course of one round-trip flight, and rarely did I want to stop to put it down.


I’m currently reading Jane DeLynn’s DON JUAN IN THE VILLAGE, which will be my 6th book for Pride month (this one features a lesbian protagonists sexual experiences around the world), completing my planned reads for the month, though I hope to get one more snuck in under the wire. DON JUAN is also a book on my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge List. Check out my thoughts on earlier Pride Month reads, ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS as well as GEMINI and HOLD MY HAND.

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Addiction, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary American, LGBT, Literature, Ocean Vuong, pride month, Vietnamese

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

The irony is not lost on me that, just a couple of days after claiming that I no longer plan to write formal/lengthy book reviews for this blog, I finish reading Ocean Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It would be absolutely thrilling to think that I can articulate just why it is so necessary for me to write a full-length reflection about this novel, but the idea that I can do this book justice is ludicrous. Still, I’ll try my best.

Ocean Vuong is an acclaimed Vietnamese-American poet who has already won numerous prestigious awards, including the T.S. Eliot award for poetry. His collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, is one of the highest regarded contemporary collections on the market, which made the anticipation about this first novel all the more extreme. It is rare to see a talented writer in one genre, like poetry, crossover into another genre, like fiction, and even rarer still to find that she or he manages it expertly. Vuong is such a rarity.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is marketed as a letter from a Vietnamese-American boy to his mother, who cannot read. Taken literally, this is the case. Little Dog is writing to his mother about all the secrets he has kept, all the memories he has buried, and all the love he carries for his mother and his grandmother, both of whom are reeling from the traumas of war, immigration, loss of language, and Alzheimer’s. So, it is a kind of love letter to these women, to their past, but also to himself as a boy and to his future self, the man who will be made possible. He knows his mother cannot understand the words he writes, the language he speaks, so he shares without restraint and sends the letter to us all.

One of the reasons why I enjoyed and appreciated this novel so much is that it is written by a poet. This is clear not just in the language, but in the shape and delivery of the major themes and ideas. Vuong, through Little Dog, looks at the world through the eyes of the poet and describes what he sees in a way that only a poet could. The mundane is made miraculous, the painful is paradox, and the beautiful is wrenching. He manages to make the reader empathize with a host of characters, from the quietly rebellious protagonist, to his contradictorily abusive yet loving mother, and to his young boyfriend, a country redneck simultaneously terrified of yielding himself to another boy while still capable of treating his lover with the greatest compassion and tenderest care.

What holds it together most, what makes it a masterpiece, is its honesty. Words like “courageous” are often applied to novels like this one, stories that tell of family traumas, of coming-of-age and coming out. But Vuong’s honesty, here, is on a different level altogether. The way he describes his coming out and his growing up, his ever-progressing awareness of self, his first love and loss, moves beyond courageous. It is an act of total surrender, a giving up of everything that the world tells us should be kept to ourselves. In this way, Vuong allows Little Dog to reach the two kinds of readers who most need his story: the readers like Little Dog, who experienced or will experience the unique moments of gay life, of immigrant life, of life as an outcast, that can rarely be discussed in public, if ever. And the readers who know nothing of this type of journey, but who might learn what it means to be the someone else, the one without words or defense in a world that is terribly loud and aggressive. To be the dove in a crow’s nest.

For me, Ocean Vuong’s novel comes at a time when I am re-examining my own life and past. It comes at a time when Eugene Lee Yang releases his beautiful artistic articulation of a similar journey. For me, it seems, a universe of ellipses is falling into place at exactly the right moment, and to read a perfect book in a turbulent and confusing time is perhaps the most miraculous way to think of one’s place in that universe as intentional, purposeful, and necessary.

Notable Quotes:
“The nameless yellow body was not considered human because it did not fit in a slot on a piece of paper. Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are” (63).

“The children, the veal, they stand very still because tenderness depends on how little the world touches you. To stay tender, the weight of your life cannot lean on your bones” (156).

“To be clean again. To be good again. What have we become to each other if not what we’ve done to each other?” (206)

“The thing is, I don’t want my sadness to be othered from me just as I don’t want my happiness to be othered. They’re both mine” (181).

“The sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted” (238).

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100 Days Journal, Armenian, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary American, French, LGBT, Non-Fiction, pride month, Stonewall, writing, Young Adult

Writing and Reading Recently

I’ve been pretty busy with both reading and writing, lately. I guess I am thankful that it is summertime and, while I’m still working hard on course preparation and planning for the fall term, I at least have a break from teaching right now.

Writing

A little more than three months ago, I began what I called the “#100DaysJournal” project. The goal is pretty self-explanatory: write in my journal every day for 100 days. Although I missed a few days here and there, extending my finish date by about a week, I’m happy (excited? stunned!?) to share that I did finish the project today. I was also really pleased to hear that a few people on Twitter have taken up the call, too, and they are also getting back into writing. Hooray!

The most tangible outcome so far is that I wrote 250 pages by hand, filling almost two full journals. The writing covered a whole host of topics, mostly mundane things, but some really important personal breakthroughs, some professional planning and reflection, and some important writing (WIP) items as well.

I did have a box of prompts to draw from every day, but after about 30-days, I tended to look at the prompt, consider it, and put it away. This is why my earlier posts on this project petered out; I really wasn’t following the prompts anymore and I didn’t find anything “thematic” to write about every 10 days, as planned. But that’s okay. I think the project itself worked out really well.

For example, I began to build a writing routine that now seems mostly natural to me. I get up a couple of hours before I “need” to every day, and that is my focused writing time every day. I walk to a nearby cafe, find a seat (usually the same one, if I’m lucky) and grab an iced coffee, and then I write. That’s it. Without this writing routine and the daily practice, building myself back up to the stamina I once had, I don’t think I would have gotten to the place I’m at now, which is to say, working on my second book.

In the last week, that morning writing time also started to incorporate the writing of my current WIP, a young adult (probably? not really worried about genre classification right now) novel set in the mid-1990s. It centers on the relationship between three friends, each of whom is dealing with an important personal struggle. Currently, I’ve written the first two chapters and outlined most of the third. It’s a pretty exciting time for me. I like these characters. I like the setting. I feel like their struggles are important, and that they need each other. And maybe I need them, which means perhaps other readers might need them, too.

Reading

I have also been focused on reading LGBTQ+ stories this month, in celebration of Pride month. I’ve now read the first two books on my list of six, which are Gemini by Michel Tournier and Hold My Hand by Michael Barakiva.

Gemini is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It’s both beautifully written and an important and powerful exploration of philosophy, particularly a study in binaries and dichotomies. The novel is essentially about a set of identical twins, Jean and Paul, who are so similar that even their own parents call them “Jean-Paul” for ease. The brothers form an intimate bond, presumably in the womb, which lasts through their childhood, youth, and into adulthood. One twin, however, tries to sever that bond, and the other chases after him. Their twinship and their manufactured differences are then reflected in the oppositions that Tournier explores in the unfolding of his tale, including the relationships between city and country, war and peace, heterosexuality and homosexuality, filth and cleanliness, rich and poor, Europe and elsewhere. It is, in all honesty, a strange tale, but it is a fascinating one. Written in the 1970s and set decades before that, the narrative also remains highly relevant. Take this excerpt about the Berlin mall and those trying to flee East Germany for the West:

There was something simultaneously tragic and ridiculous in the spectacle of those terrified men and women compelled to hurl themselves into space because they had left it too late before deciding to change sectors. One thought kept haunting Paul’s mind all the time: We are not at war. There is no earthquake, no fire, and yet . . . Surely it is very sinisterly typical of our times that what is, after all, a purely administrative crisis should lead to such scenes? This is not a matter of guns and tanks, but only of passports, visas and rubber stamps.

While Gemini is a heady and sometimes disturbing (although, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny) read, Barakiva’s contemporary young adult romance novel, Hold My Hand, is quite the opposite, despite the tension caused by the two betrayals at the center of its plot. Alek Khederian is a young Armenian-American teenager who is on the verge of “going all the way” with his older boyfriend, Ethan. At the same time, he is attending Armenian Saturday school, learning more about what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. Just as Alek is celebrating his birthday, surrounded by his supportive family and his amazing boyfriend, and with the news that his “What Being Armenian Means to Me” essay has won top score at school, meaning he will get to read it at Christmas service, everything starts to fall apart. His boyfriend betrays him. His church betrays him. Alek is left to decide how far he is willing to go to repair the damage, how willing he is to follow the Christian tenant of forgiveness, and how capable he is in standing up for what is right, not just for him but for anyone like him. Despite an overwhelming number of proofing errors (there were dozens of places where I had to stop to edit a sentence — it was strange!), the story is compelling and edifying. I for one loved to read about a young person dealing with issues of faith, sexuality, and ancestry all at the same time, and I found learning more about Armenian culture to be one of the most rewarding parts about reading this book. It also reminds us just how difficult it is for anyone who is different to exist freely in public. Excerpt:

Holding hands now made something perfectly clear to Alek: that what he wished he could make the reverend father, his own parents, and all those well-meaning straight people understand was that he and Ethan would never really have the privilege of holding hands as a neutral gesture. The act, taken for granted by people all over the world, would never be just that for him and Ethan. Part of him mourned that possibility–of never knowing what it would mean to perform that act unitalicized. 

Currently, I’m reading Ocean Vuong’s new novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which I’ve been looking forward to. Up next is probably Jane DeLynn’s Don Juan in the Village. Next month I will be focused on poetry (reading it and reading about it), so please send me recommendations of your favorite collections. I’ll be starting with Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook.

From A Whisper to A Riot

I also wanted to mention that my book of literary criticism/history is on sale this month ($5.00 ebook/$19.69 print.) This is in honor of Pride month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which occurred in New York City in June, 1969. I was thrilled to learn that the book was Amazon’s #1 New Release in LGBT Literary Criticism!

I have also been overwhelmed and flattered by the great feedback the book has received online. I worked hard on it and am pleased and proud to have it out there in the public sphere, for others to enjoy and learn from.

 

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Abdi Nazemian, charity, Hope In A box, Jane DeLynn, Jeff Garvin, LGBT, Michael Barakiva, Michel Tournier, pride month

Pride and Hope in a Box

June is pride month and I’ll be spending it reading a bunch of LGBTQ+ books from new-to-me authors. I posted the photo above (of this month’s TBR) to Twitter a few days ago and received some fun replies, so I thought I would share it here as well. I’m also going to be sharing about/donating to some worthy causes, like the Trevor Project and Hope in a Box (more about this below.)

Pride Month Reading

I’m currently reading Michel Tournier’s GEMINI and, so far, it is quite the trip. First of all, it is brilliant and beautifully written. It’s about a forbidden love between identical twins, but much of the story so far (and I’m about half-way through at this point) is narrated by another character, Alexandre Surin, who inherits his brother’s estate and becomes a kind of city refuse guru (yes, a genius trash disposal man). He’s also a gay man with wild disdain for heterosexuals, which is often articulated in hilarious ways. This one is hard to describe, but maybe I’ll have more words when I’ve finished (otherwise I’ll just share a bunch of insane quotes from the novel itself to help me explain it.)

In the top left, there is Jane DeLynn’s DON JUAN IN THE VILLAGE, which I assigned for my Queer Lit course last year. Unfortunately, that class required a last-minute change and I never got around to reading this one, so I’m going to do so now and hopefully re-assign the book again in the future. Spring 2020? It’s apparently a lesbian, Latina masterpiece of dark comedy, so I’m looking forward to it.

In the top right is Jeff Garvin’s SYMPTOMS OF BEING HUMAN, which is the story of Riley Cavanaugh, a non-binary person’s coming out and coming-of-age. I’m particularly looking forward to this one after reading and enjoying Mason Deaver’s I WISH YOU ALL THE BEST, another story about a non-binary individual’s coming out journey.

In the bottom left is Abdi Nazemian’s LIKE A LOVE STORY, which is blurbed by Mackenzi Lee (author of The Gentleman’s Guide to Virtue and Vice) as a book “for warriors, divas, artists, queens, activists, and anyone searching for the courage to be themselves.” What’s not to love about that? The book is about growing up gay (and otherwise) in 1989 New York City and is narrated by Reza, a gay Iranian immigrant boy.

Finally, to the bottom right, is the book I’ll probably read next. It’s Michael Barakiva’s HOLD MY HAND, and the book is about Alek Khederian, an “out and proud” gay Armenian-American who is about to celebrate his six-month anniversary by losing his virginity to his boyfriend, Ethan.

One of the things I’m most “proud” of in selecting these texts for pride month reading is that they cover a lot of bases, from stories about immigrants and white gays, to coming out and coming of age; from gritty Latina lesbians to non-binary teenagers, and from historical perspectives to the present day. I’m pretty excited about my June reading plans!

Hope In A Box

The other thing I wanted to write about today is an organization called HOPE IN A BOX. This is a group that “collaborates with rural public schools to make English classrooms more LGBT-friendly.” They take donations from individuals and corporations and turn those funds into libraries and resources for classrooms and teachers that need it the most.

In addition to making physical books with LGBT-themes available to students in rural communities, Hope In A Box also designs inclusive curriculum guides and provides coaching for teachers and educators.

As the organization makes clear, “This lack of representation has proven consequences for LGBT youth. At school, 66% of LGBT students experience discrimination. One in ten have been threatened or injured with a weapon. Such victimization is linked to lower GPAs, graduation rates, and college matriculation.”

Hope In A Box “works with librarians, teachers, and administrators to cultivate environments that put lgbt students on track for success.” Their “goal is to help every student—queer or straight—feel comfortable celebrating their identity.”

This is an incredible organization doing important work, and I hope you will consider learning more about them and, if you can, making a contribution to their cause. They are my new charity of choice this year.

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LGBT, Mason Deaver, non-binary, Young Adult

I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver

Ben De Backer is your typical modern American teenager. They have a pretty good relationship with their parents, at least as good as a parent-teenager relationships tend to be. They have an estranged sister who they miss and close friends who they met online and dream of meeting in person someday. And they have a big, life-altering secret. Ben De Backer is non-binary.

The fallout from this confession, which seems like it will go well at first, is swift and severe. Ben is forced out of his house and must scramble on a late winter’s night to find somewhere to go. They reach out to the first and only person that comes to mind, a sister who left years ago, without explanation.

What transpires in the pages that follow is the story of Ben’s slow and painful coming out and coming to terms with what it means to be Ben-the-person. This is the kind of story that reminds me just how important the “own voices” movement is right now, especially in Young Adult literature, where so much powerful and significant work is being done to help readers (young and old) make sense of the ever-more complex world around us.

Mason Deaver’s novel is groundbreaking for its portrayal of a non-binary protagonist, but it is also simply a darn good story. The author crafts a complicated narrator with a difficult background and invites the reader to figure things out right along with them. We cannot always root for Ben, or at least this reader couldn’t, because they sometimes overreact and make mistakes, sometimes become too self-pitying or indulgent, and sometimes seem to judge others a bit too harshly even though they, too, are in pain for being judged by others. But that’s the beauty of it. Ben, the character, is a real person. We can all, cis or not, gay or straight, young or old, recognize a bit of ourselves in Ben’s coming-of-age, because none of us did it quite as well as we could have.

I first heard about I Wish You All the Best some few months ago and added it to my “to read” list right away. I knew that reading a non-binary character’s story as written by a non-binary author was going to be a powerful and enlightening experience, and that certainly proved true. While I sometimes felt like I was missing too much of the backstory, particularly regarding Ben and his sister’s relationship with their parents, I found the story enjoyable overall. It is also helping to fill in a critical missing piece in contemporary fiction.

Ben’s struggle to balance privacy and authenticity, to find and accept love when they haven’t yet accepted themselves, and to pursue a path of their own rather than the one laid out for them, is an inspiring journey, and the added reality that this is a non-binary person dealing with all these very human experiences made the reading experience even richer.

This is the kind of book to be enjoyed for its universal appeal and for its specific concerns, ones that very few people can fully understand, but from which we all can learn.

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Bill Konigsberg, LGBT, Young Adult

The Music of What Happens by Bill Konigsberg

Bill Konigsberg’s THE MUSIC OF WHAT HAPPENS takes its name from a Seamus Heaney poem, titled “Song.” In the final couplet of that poem, Heaney’s poet tells of, “that moment when the bird sings very close / To the music of what happens.” And, in a nutshell, this is the same song, the same spirit, at the heart of Konigsberg’s surprising young adult novel. 

I was not prepared to enjoy this new release as much as I did. Indeed, about 60-pages into the book, I wondered if it and I were ever going to “click.” And then something very strange began to happen. I started picking up the book more frequently. I started refusing to put it down again. I started sneaking in bits of reading between grading papers, running errands, or watching news segments, muting commercials so I could read for 90-seconds before Rachel Maddow popped back onto my television screen. The beauty of an experience like this is that it feels so natural. Without realizing it, I was myself immersed in the music of what happens in Max and Jordan’s lives, in their bumpy relationship, in their sometimes cozy but sometimes horrid home worlds, and in the circles of their friendships, which sphere separately and then converge. 

The two protagonists take turns telling their parts of the story, in an intercalary format that has become ubiquitous in the YA genre. Max is a handsome, popular, masculine latino teenager who seems to have everything going for him. He is gay but only selectively out. Jordan is quieter, a poet. He is gay and more openly out, though as an introvert, he doesn’t talk to many people besides his two best friends and his problem-ridden mother. They come from very separate households and backgrounds, but the magic of a 1980s food truck brings them together, and the rest is the music that develops as their two souls and experiences meet. They learn from each other; they learn how to be with each other and they learn to bring their two worlds into harmony. Like all good stories, and good romances, though, there are struggles along the way. Max must deal with an absent father and a painful secret. Jordan must deal with a single mother who acts more like a child, and with worldly inexperience that leaves him possibly unable to help Max when he needs it most. 

Race, gender, masculinity, friendship, family, economics, sex and romance, sex and assault, first loves, first jobs, first times. I’m not sure what else a novel could tackle, but this one seems to do it all. Yet, far from being overwhelming or overstretched, Konigbsberg allows Max and Jordan the time and space, the introspection and extroversion, needed to experience, process, and grow from all of these experiences. It’s a near-masterful coming-of-age novel in this way, and an equally delightful romance. A book I will hang on to, to learn from and to enjoy again someday. 

 

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