Atheism, Biography, Books, Contemporary, Dan Brown, Fiction, Hillary Rodham Clinton, History, LGBT, Lisa Williamson, Literature, Memoir, Peter Ackroyd, Politics, Religion, Science-Fiction, Thriller, Transgender, Willa Cather

5 Mini-Reviews: From Willa Cather to Hillary Clinton

I’ll never catch-up on all the reviews I need to write for books I’ve read in the last 5 or 6 months. That’s that. But, I am going to make an effort to catch-up on the recent and then stay current moving forward. I do not intend to write a full review for every book that I read (I just simply do not have the time for that, and sometimes I don’t think the book needs it). Instead, I might write mini-reviews, like the ones below, so that I’ve at least shared some thoughts about my recent reading with you all and so that I have some record for myself, which was the whole point of beginning this book blog almost a decade ago! So, that being said, onto my thoughts for these three most recent reads:

Origin by Dan Brown: 3.0 out of 4.0

Origin is the latest in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, following Angeles & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, and Inferno. I really enjoy this series. The premises are usually clever and interesting, and of course I love the way the stories are steeped in history (apocryphal or not) and often pit science versus religion. There’s just something fascinating about that seemingly eternal struggle and the lengths to which some people will go to protect their particular worldview (or, in the case of this series, eliminate the “competition” altogether).

That being said, I think Origin is my least favorite of the series. It seemed to me to be trying too hard, and the plot spent a long time stagnating (the “big mystery” is built up for something like 200 pages before going anywhere). This is also the rare instance where I knew from the first few chapters both what the secret was and who the villain was, which made the unfolding of it all rather anti-climactic. I did want to love this book because the topic itself is certainly timely and relevant, but I think that was also part of the problem. It was, for me, too current. It seemed like the imaginative leaps Brown had to take in previous books were unnecessary, here, so the thrill was gone. 

There were some things I did enjoy, though. Brown rather sensitively treats a non-traditional romance, for one, and he also incorporates some interesting thoughts from people like Sam Harris. On page 290, for example, he writes: “The term ‘atheist’ should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘nonastrologer’ or a ‘nonalchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive, or for people who doubt that aliens traverse the galaxy only to molest cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” This particular passage triggered a thought experiment that I haven’t had nearly enough time to ponder; it made me wonder about the natural state of human existence and whether, if left to our own devices, separate from a social environment, would individuals default to religious belief to explain things like thunder, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc? Historically, we know that many cultures have created gods to do just that, but is that a social construct or an innately human one? Dan Brown’s Origins, in this way, did leave me with plenty to think about.

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd: 3.5 out of 4.0

I received this little gem from Melissa, who knows I’m a fan of Poe. To be honest, I didn’t even know this book existed! Peter Ackroyd is a world-class biographer who has won awards for his work on figures such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and William Blake. I was curious to see what he would do with a figure like Poe, whose life and times are much more a thing of legend than fact. There are so few extant (that we know of) factual records about Poe’s life, and much of what we do know has been exaggerated over the years, in keeping with the gloomy and mysterious aura surrounding the man. The first major post-Mortem written about Poe, for example, was a scathing, hyperbolic account of his personality, addiction, and talents, written by a man whom Poe had eviscerated in the press (as he did so often, to so many). The majority of that “biography” was wildly inaccurate and totally vindictive, and yet it is on this account that many have continued to base their opinions of Poe.

Ultimately, Ackroyd relies heavily on Poe’s works and letters to attempt to uncover the “real” man, beneath the facade. He also uncovers other written accounts of Poe, testimony from people who knew the author at various stages of life, such as former teachers, lovers, school “friends” (that term used loosely because Poe really did not get very close to many people, as he so often reminded everyone), and colleagues. The problem with these records is two-fold: first, that there are so few of them; second, that they are often contradictory. Some were even written or recorded well after Poe’s death, at which point time, distance, and the fact of Poe’s celebrity would all have influenced people’s perceptions. Was the myth making the man, or the man making the myth?

This little book of less than 200-pages is divided into 11 chapters, each focusing on a particular time period in Poe’s life. With titles like “The Victim,” “The Bird,” and “The Women,” it is clear to see that Ackroyd did uncover certain themes and momentous occasions which help to explain who Poe was, what was important to him, and how he became the legend that he is today. By all accounts, Poe was very well-regarded by the literati and critics alike. He was considered, even in his time, as the father of American literature, the first true “American” voice of the new continent, wholly distinct from our British forebears. So, where does the idea come from, that Poe died forgotten, under-appreciated? Well, as Ackroyd explains, Poe himself had a whole lot to do with that final assessment. Ackroyd’s biography is, I think, a must-read for any true Poe fan. Still, someday, I dream of discovering a cache of Poe history that will help illuminate so many of the unexplained questions about Poe, his life, and especially his final days.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton: 4.0 out of 4.0

Is my affinity for Hillary Clinton coloring my review? Probably, in part. I admire this woman, I always have, and I found much to connect with and appreciate in her latest memoir about the 2016 election. But, there is so much more to it than the title suggests, and much more than the “liberal media” (ha!) suggested in their never-ending attempts to stir the pot and grab the ratings. It’s pretty disgraceful, really, to think about the way they treated the release of this book, but it’s also completely unsurprising considering the way they have treated Hillary Rodham Clinton for the last 30 years, since she first entered the spotlight as First Lady of Arkansas.

Clinton covers a number of topics in this book, things that are important to her and which should also be important to us. She has a chapter on “Perseverance,” for example, which outlines the long and arduous process of deciding to run, and run again, when she may have much preferred to stay at home with her grandchild and garden. There’s a section on women, including historical influences and current issues for women in politics. There are thoughtful, painful, crucial explanations about how our election process has been compromised by domestic and foreign influences, and warnings about the continuing danger of big money influence in our politics. She talks about the very real divisions in our country and shares some of her thoughts as to why and how these things have come to be, and how we need to self-assess before it is too late.

Finally, though, she ends with a section titled, “Resilience.” She writes about Love and Kindness. She writes about her faith and her continuing attempts to grow and evolve and do better. And she ends with a chapter titled, “Onward Together,” wherein she asks all of us to keep going and keep trying, even when all seems lost, even when we are at our lowest, because that’s when the world needs it most. She closes by quoting Max Ehrmann, who said, “Whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul” (468). I think Clinton is trying to do just that in writing this book and inviting us into what must have been a terribly difficult time and process.

People who already like Hillary Clinton are bound to like this book, and to experience the deep pain of her loss all over again. But they will also be reassured that their vote was the right one, and in more ways than most of us could have realized in the first place. People who don’t like Hillary Clinton probably won’t give this book a chance; but if they did approach it with a truly open mind and sense of fairness, I think even they would come to see that what she writes about is true and honest, that she admits to many of her failings while raising the alarm about many of our failings, and that it is indeed possible to do both of these things at the same time.

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson: 3.0 out of 4.0

I’m so thrilled to be seeing more and more diversity in YA literature, and especially titles with main characters who are transgender, bisexual, and persons of color. Philip Pullman called this one, “a life-changing and life-saving book,” and I can see what he means. For a lot of people, especially young transgender teens who are beginning to understand what their feelings mean and to articulate to themselves just how they are different, books like this are incredibly important. Representation, feeling like you are a valid and “normal” person, rather than some bizarre aberration, can certainly be more than affirming, it can be everything.

Everyone thinks David Piper is gay. He is effeminate, he likes to wear girls’ clothes, he enjoys doing stereotypical girl things. Only his two best friends realize, though, that while David does like boys, he is not gay: he is transgender. When a new kid named Leo shows up to their private school, David feels an immediate affinity for him but can’t explain why. He’s not really attracted to him, and yet he can’t seem to shake the feeling that they share something, that they should be friends. Soon enough, David (and the readers) learn that Leo is different in his own way, too.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of both David and Leo, some chapters being told from one point of view, and some from the other (conveniently labeled “David” or “Leo” to let us know). While I appreciate the subject matter and Williamson’s smooth narrative style, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, here. I think the goal was to suggest some of the very real struggles that transgender people face in their daily lives and in the transition process, while maintaining an uplifting tone and commitment to a positive and affirming message. This makes complete sense to me, but it seemed to get in the way of the story-telling, somewhat. David and Leo have their struggles, there are definitely some dark elements and disappointments, but for the most part, the characters seem constructed to fit a role rather than to develop a story. I just couldn’t connect with David or Leo, and most of the secondary characters (parents, friends, siblings) seemed there only because they needed to be there (because people have friends and families, so it’d be odd not to write them in?).

The Art of Being Normal is a quick and easy read, oftentimes sweet and sometimes maddening, and it is an important addition to the YA LGBTQ+ library as well as the YA offerings more generally. But it’s not something I would read again.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather 3.5 out of .0

Oh, my dear, sweet Willa Cather. How do I love thee? Okay, pardon the sap. I do enjoy Willa Cather so much, though. This novel was the September selection for the Classic Book-a-Month Club. I have to say, I’m still not quite sure what to say about it. I always enjoy Cather’s writing style, and this time was no different. She somehow combines naturalism with a rare, auditory elegance. Her descriptions of the land are beyond compare, so much so that her characters almost always come second to the landscape. I enjoyed this one in particular because it is set in the American southwest, a region that I love and that I just recently moved to myself; there was much to relate to. 

On the other hand, the story itself felt extremely distant this time. I just couldn’t connect with it, though I recognize it was beautiful and recounts an important history. At the center is the story of two Catholic priests who come to minister to the native people of the greater-New Mexico area. They must learn how to communicate with Native Americans and Mexicans, to tame the land, and to respect local customs while fulfilling their roles as missionaries. The book is split into nine separate sections, each with a particular focus, so that the novel reads more like an extended play with nine acts. To some extent, I appreciated this because it allowed me to focus on each individual scene, beautifully crafted, and to try to appreciate the purpose of that scene as I was experiencing it; on the other hand, unlike the dichotomy set-up by the structure of Cather’s A Lost Lady, for example, I did not find these segments particularly helpful in telling the priest’s story. And maybe that’s my issue. If I were to go back and read this again, I think I would approach it as a story about the land, and not a story about the Archbishop.

The narrative digressions, flashback recollections, and fictional accounts of actual historical figures and events added interesting context and complexity to an otherwise leisurely Cather work. I find in Cather’s works that she wants, more than anything, to tell the tale of a land, a time, and a people, and that is certainly the case here. The Hopi and Navajo people are treated sympathetically, and the recounting of the “Long Walk of the Navajo,” is both important and brave. Cather does not dull her criticism of the American government and rightly calls them to account for the way they treated our native populations, shuffling them around from one increasingly barren and uninhabitable region to the next. She also makes suggestions about the intimate and powerful relationship between religion and politics. Ultimately, I think I’m going to have to read this one again to fully appreciate it, preferably during a break when I can really sink into it.

Book Review, Coming-of-Age, David Levithan, Depression, Family, Favorites, Fiction, Gay Lit, Gender Identity, GLBT, Homophobia, Homosexuality, LGBT, Relationships, Transgender, Young Adult

Thoughts: Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

17237214Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD:  51

When you look at the cover for Two Boys Kissing, you get a pretty good idea of what this book will be about.  Then you read the synopsis on the inside cover and your idea becomes a bit more defined, a bit clearer.  Finally, you sit down to read the book, only to discover that your first impressions were of the vaguest kind.  In Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan brings back the literary chorus of old.  The narrative guides of Shakespeare and Ovid at long last reappear, this time through the collective voice of our “ancient” gay predecessors.  These are the men and women who bravely pioneered the social frontier, the rainbow-clad Lewis & Clark who pressed love onward – quietly or with booming voice- and who were lost to one of the greatest tragedies of our day, the AIDS epidemic.

As our guide, this chorus reveals to us a day in the life of multiple contemporary gay youths, in many iterations of the “type.”  The main couple, Craig and Harry, are the two boys kissing, but they are not a couple at all (although they used to be).  Their goal is to stand up for equality by breaking the world’s record for longest kiss – hoping that the process and the end result of two boys’ names together in a permanent book of world record will get people thinking, if not change the world entirely. They are also standing up for their friend, who was violently and viciously beaten for being gay.

In addition to their primary story, the chorus also gives us a peek into the worlds of Peter and Neil, a young couple who are learning what that word, “couple,” means; learning how to navigate life for themselves and for each other, including, most importantly, how to understand and respond to one another, sometimes without words.   We also meet Avery and Ryan, both of whom have their demons, past and present, and who must confront the idea of what it means to be different, even within the same “gay world.”

Finally, we see Cooper, the boy who no one sees and who refuses to be seen.  Cooper’s story is where the chorus truly rallies – where these spirit guides are needed most, lest we forget that where we came from and where we are going are inextricably linked.  Technology advances, and these advancements change our perspectives and our possibilities, but for boys like Cooper, the loneliness and isolation only grow deeper, more vacuous.

Two Boys Kissing is the gay anthem for our day.  It is the very book created from the very inspirations that many of us have been waiting to read for a long, long time.  Levithan pulls stories from the real world and links them to our present and our past.  He does this through the eyes of a compassionate yet devastatingly helpless and sometimes forgotten chorus of our forbearers. Levithan, since the publication of his wonderful short novel Boy Meets Boy ten years ago, has veered from the idyllic and romantic, to the daring and experimental (Every You, Every Me), and the exploratory (Every Day), right into the real, the raw, and the historical.  He keeps getting better, and Two Boys Kissing is a triumph indeed.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: YA+
Interest: LGBT, Transgender, Relationships, First Loves, Coming-of-Age, Interconnected Plots, Family, Depression, Hate Crimes.

Notable Quotes:

“We thought of magic as something that existed with or without us. But that’s not true. Things are not magical because they’ve been conjured for us by some outside force. They are magical because we create them.”

“You spend so much time, so much effort, trying to hold yourself together. And then everything falls apart anyway.”

“It is hard to stop seeing your son as a son and to start seeing him as a human being. It is hard to stop seeing your parents as parents and to start seeing them as human beings. It’s a two-sided transition, and very few people manage it gracefully.”

“What strange creatures we are, to find silence peaceful, when permanent silence is the thing we most dread. Nighttime is not that. Nighttime still rustles, still creaks and whispers and trembles in its throat.  It is not darkness we fear, but our own helplessness within it.”

“Our bodies don’t have to be touching to be connected to one another. Our heart races without contact. Our breath holds until the threat is gone.”

“You grow. Your life widens. And you can’t expect your partner’s love alone to fill you. There will always be space for other things.”

“Here we are, thousands of us, shouting no, shouting at him to stop, crying out and making a net of our bodies, trying to come between him and the water.”

“There is the sudden. There is the eventual. And in between, there is the living.”

Bisexuality, Book Review, Coming-of-Age, Death, Family, Fiction, Fictional Memoir, GLBT, John Irving, Literature, Sexuality, Transgender

Review: In One Person by John Irving

In One Person by John Irving

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 18

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Irving is known for his bold approach to sexuality and the social/familial “other.”  This latest is no exception to that well-established reputation.   Meet William Dean Abbott, a teenage boy with a speech impediment.  And meet the first love of his life, Miss Frost, the town library.  William (or Bill, or Billy, depending on who we’re talking to) develops at a young age a love for reading and writing – the answer to that primordial question “What do you want to be when you grow up,” is, for Billy, “A Writer.”  He divulges this secret to just one person, Miss Frost.  It’s no wonder that a boy who loves to read and write might develop a crush on the town librarian, an attractive middle-aged woman.  Except, there might be quite a bit more to Miss Frost than meets the eye.  The story is essentially a fictional memoir, with Billy as narrator looking back on his life and works.  It takes us along Billy’s journey from boyhood to manhood and into old age.  We watch as he comes to terms with and explores his bisexuality and particular interest in transsexuals. Along the way, the reader is exposed to a variety of Billy’s friends, family members, and lovers – some male, some female, and some transgendered.  There are marriages and divorces, deaths and rebirths, supportive folks and terribly antagonistic ones.    

3 – Characters well-developed.

The characters in this book are one of its greatest charms and, simultaneously, one of its greatest issues.  While one can expect, from Irving, a blunt and over-the-top approach to any sensitive topic (in this case, bisexual & transgender people), what I found disturbing was the overabundance of both.  Billy, for instance, is a bisexual who finds himself attracted primarily to transgender women (“the best of both worlds”).  As it turns out, Billy’s father just happens to be gay – the effeminate kind, and Billy’s grandfather also thoroughly enjoys dressing up as a woman.  Billy’s mother, too, has sexual peculiarities of her own, though I will leave those for the reader to discover, since they are a particularly interesting aspect of the back-story which is revealed later in the book (it’s not the biggest mystery in the world, but it’s fun to let it unfold naturally).  One could say this might just be an odd family, but considering Billy’s best friend, Elaine, their mutual love interest, Jacques, others of their schoolmates (revealed later in the book) and the town librarian are all either bisexual, gay, or transgender – well, maybe there’s something in the water in First Sister, Vermont! The plenitude of sexually “other” characters was not wholly believable and, for me, even detracted from Billy’s journey a bit (the main theme seemed to be about a bisexual writer calling for tolerance in a world of normalcy, yet most elements of his world, with the exception of a few people whose negativity seems less than bothersome to Billy, are largely the “other” world rather than the “standard” – so where is the conflict?).  That gripe aside, the majority of the characters are more than interesting – as Irving’s characters usually are.  There are a plethora of personalities, from the butch lesbian to the effeminate old man, to the teenage boy trying to figure out what he is.  There are overbearing mothers, alcoholic uncles, and hilarious foreigners who can’t pronounce anything right, especially when they’re excited.  Although one might find it hard to believe that virtually every person Billy meets could actually be in some way queer, the journey itself and Billy’s interaction with all these people are still worth the ride.   

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

As with characterization, the overall experience with Irving’s prose was positive, but there were some elements which irked me, two in particular.  First, the narrator had a penchant for repetition.  He would re-tell certain parts of the story multiple times, like an old man reminiscing with his friends or grandchildren about life-gone-by, sometimes forgetting that he had already told parts of the story twenty minutes ago.  The second issue was his tendency to skip around in the timeline.  The narrator is writing this as a memoir, looking back fifty or sixty years, but rather than following a clear trajectory through boyhood, the teenage years, manhood, etc., he often skips around so that one moment he is a college student in Europe, and the next he is a boy again, getting ready for his school play.  This, at times, disrupted the flow of the story so that it was difficult to relax and sink-in completely.  That being said, there was also an endearing quality to it, when all was said and done.  The language and prose itself matched the characterization in that it was clever, witty, and sharp.  The dialogue was often the most interesting element of the story, and Irving’s ability at description certainly shows – it is perhaps the glue that holds the entire novel together, when it seems to be jumping around.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What I found most difficult about this novel is that it is written by a heterosexual man who seems to be trying too hard.  Granted, Irving certainly has a history of exploring sexuality and human nature; still, because it was so over-the-top (almost every character had to be at least a little “gay” in someway) it almost felt like Irving was pandering to a particular audience.  That being said, Irving is also doing what his narrator is accused of doing by some of the more bigoted characters: He is demanding tolerance.  This I respect to the utmost and, in the end, I was able to put aside the fact that almost everyone in the book carries a “Different and Proud” card because so many moments in the book were pure, sensitive, and hopeful.  The story tackles the specific difficulties that bisexual men and women face, separate from general homophobia; for example, that they are distrusted by the gay community and treated with prejudice by the straight community.  Ultimately, this book puts bisexuality and transgendered people on center stage in the literary world, in an empathetic and intelligent way.  There are very few examples of high literature approaching these topics (few examples even in the YA or other genre categories, to be honest), so Irving’s In One Person is a welcome addition both to the LGBT canon but also to contemporary literary fiction in general. 

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Gender, Sexuality, Coming-of-Age, Transgender, Transvestite, Cross-Dressing, Family, AIDS, Death & Dying

 Notable Quotes:

“We are formed by what we desire.”

“Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.”

“All I say is: Let us leave les folles alone; let’s just leave them be. Don’t judge them. You are not superior to them – don’t put them down.”

“Don’t forget this, too: Rumors aren’t interested in the unsensational story; rumors don’t care what’s true.”

“Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t. It simply files things away; it keeps things for you, or hides things from you. Your memory summons things to your recall with a will of its own. You imagine you have a memory, but your memory has you!”

Catherine Ryan Hyde, Coming-of-Age, Family, Friendship, Gay Lit, Gender Identity, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, GLBT, Homophobia, Monthly Review, Transgender, Young Adult

Review: Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde

In honor of the paperback release of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s fabulous novel, Jumpstart the World, I wanted to re-post my review of the book.  Let me know what you think, and head over HERE to learn more about the author and the book. If you follow Catherine on Twitter (@cryanhyde) you will also find links to recent guest posts about the book and some awesome giveaways happening! 

Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 11

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

Catherine Ryan Hyde’s touching and daring Jumpstart the World is all about life and its many complications and confusions. Fifteen-year-old Elle is dumped off in her own apartment, by a mother with seriously troubling narcissistic/co-dependency issues. She chooses her new love interest over her own daughter, and while mom and her man are off on a cruise together (during Elle’s sweet sixteen birthday, no less), Elle is left to learn to live on her own – she gets a cat (Toto, a cat with a face only an adopted mother can love); she meets a few people at school and slowly starts to form friendships, sort of; and she introduces herself to the young couple living next door, Frank and Molly. There, the real trouble begins. Frank is not exactly who he appears to be – he is a sweet, kind, intelligent man, except that he was not always a man. Elle’s new friendships are tested when this information comes to light, and she must learn to accept others and deal with her own confusing romantic feelings, or return to that lonely, isolated world she had just begun to break free from.

3 – Characters well developed.

There are so many interesting characters, from Elle and her mother, to Frank and Molly, right down to that strange, sad little cat and Elle’s surprisingly new-found best friend, Wilbur. What is great about each of the characters is that they truly are identifiable and independent from one another – they each have their own quirks, personalities, and annoyances. There is definitely some room for growth, though. With so many interesting people interacting with one another, I definitely found myself wishing that the book was 50 or 100 pages longer, so there would be more time to learn about all these wonderful and interesting people. Wilbur, for instance, and Frank – there seemed so much to know about each of them – so much history behind each of their present personalities, but that history was reduced to one or two descriptive lines. Powerful descriptive lines, no doubt, but unbearably short. Elle’s relationship with her mother, too, was dynamic and intriguing – one of the most realistic and authentic relationships in the book, but it was kept somewhat on the periphery. Overall, I loved the characters in general, except, if I am being honest, for the main character. Elle was the one that bothered me most – she seemed so incredibly self-centered and juvenile. Of course, she was only sixteen and she clearly had a lot of growing up to do, but this did not prevent me from wanting to shake my fist at her on more than a few occasions. Still, when a writer can make you that irritated by or exasperated with one of her characters, that is typically the sign of a job well-done.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Hyde’s prose moves along wonderfully well. It is evenly paced and fluid. The narration seems genuine and believable. Probably the greatest achievement is the narrative voice, which resonates strongly as that of a teenage girl, muddle-minded and working things out on her own for the first time. I do not typically relate to female narrators or main characters, so I rarely find myself reading books with these components; however, it was very easy to relate to Elle and the single-best reason for this was the narration – it draws you in and it appeals to or calls to mind that little outsider within every one of us, asking us to remember that we are all the same, really – people just looking for a place, similar in most ways, including in the way we all often self-consciously feel different from the rest.

Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

This is the second book I have read that dealt with the issue of gender identity and/or gender reassignment, the first being Eugenides’s Middlesex . Unlike that book, though, which deals with a hermaphroditic main character coming to realize who he is and how he was born “different,” this book is the first I have read which deals with Female-to-Male transgender reassignment or identification. The only minor complaint I have is the idea that “transphobia” does not exist in the GLBT community. When Frank is hospitalized, Elle stays with him because of his fear of being abused or mistreated there (due to the possibility of nurses/doctors not reacting well to his gender identity versus biology). When a male nurse comes to check on Frank, he identifies himself to Elle as a gay man and thus, one of the “community” – so therefore will have Frank’s back. Unfortunately, the issue is not so cut-and-dry and transphobia does exist, even within the GLBT community. Again, it is a minor complaint, as there are genuinely decent gay/straight people out there who would come to the aid of someone in trouble, as that nurse did, and I definitely do not think the author would actually argue that this issue exists in such a binary; but, I do wish the issue had not been championed on one side in the manner that it was. One of the greatest achievements of the book is its inclusion of diverse characters, from straight women and men, to gay women and men, to questioning youth and transgender adults. There are also the separations within the subcategories – the ultra-feminine gay teen male who still identifies as male in juxtaposition to the masculine female who reassigns as male. There are also the two Bobs (or Bobby’s) – the somewhat under-explained but distinguishable masculine/feminine roles in a male-male relationship. All of these different people exist in life together – never in harmony, because life is too chaotic for that, but in reality. We are what we are and we are who we are, seems to be the message. The issue of transgender-phobia and homophobia, too, is examined, but so are the ideas of coming-of-age and discovering one’s self and one’s passions – things like art, photography, mental illness, and independence.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Teenage YA, Adult

Interest: Gender Identity, GLBT, Homophobia, Family, Friendship, Coming-of-Age

Notable Quotes:

“Love always looks nice.  I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t enjoy it when they see it.  Anyone who doesn’t, I don’t really want to know them.”

Originally posted on 2/26/11 at 10:48pm