BECOMING NICOLE: The Transformation of an American Family

Amy Ellis Nutt

At almost 3 years old, when Nicole was still known as Wyatt, he declared to his father, “I hate my penis.”  She alway knew she was a girl despite having an identical twin brother. Nicole’s mother, Kelly, supported Wyatt as he presented himself — a girl mistakenly incarnated as a boy. His father, Wayne, a man’s man: both hunter and ex-military, had trouble that his son was a girl. Eventually he came around and became a spokesman for transgender rights. “The world where he was a father and husband in an ordinary, hardworking, middle-class family had just blown up. He stood there stunned, unable to hear whatever was going on around him, as if deafened by the psychological explosion.” Nicole was bullied in school and the administration refused to protect her. The family sued the School Division for barring her from using the girls’ bathroom.

The author not only tells Nicole’s and her family’s story but also the medical and legal stories of transgender people. It is well research and well written.

“Lesson number one: “Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with,” he told Spack. “Gender identity is who you go to bed as.”

“other words, our genitals and our gender identity are not the same. Sexual anatomy and gender identity are the products of two different processes, occurring at distinctly different times and along different neural pathways before we are even born. Both are functions of genes as well as hormones, and while sexual anatomy and gender identity usually match, there are dozens of biological events that can affect the outcome of the latter”

“When it comes to that physical self, for a transgender person every waking moment, every conscious breath, is a denial of who they truly are.”

SERIAL MONOGAMY

KATE TAYLOR

SM tells the stories of two relationships where the men fall out of monogamy with much younger accolades. The story is narrated by Sharon Soleymani, a writer of popular novels. She and her husband, Al, a professor who is a decade older than she is, have young twin daughters and an easy life until their marriage is shaken first by his admission of an affair with a research assistant and then by her diagnosis of breast cancer. When Al first hears of the cancer, he heroically returns home to look after Sharon and his children. Ironicly Sharon married Al only after his first marriage was destroyed by his affair with her. When her treatment finished, Sharon begins to write a serialized novel about Charles Dickens’s affair with the actress Nelly Ternan, which began when Nelly was 18 and Dickens a married 45-year-old father of nine. Taylor balances the two stories well, alternating chapters. It is based on historic fact.

WALKING WITH OUR SISTERS

Travelling Art Display (it is not a book but it tells serious and significant story)w1

Walking With Our Sisters is a commemorative installation that features nearly 2,000 pairs of handmade moccasin tops, or “vamps”, to honour indigenous women, along with children and two-spirited people, who have been murdered or have disappeared in Canada. The vamps are made with love and longing by the women’s families.

The vision for the vamps is they’re unfinished, Vamps usually get sewn into moccasins. But they’re to symbolize lives that have been cut short. They are all beautiful works of art. The sadness is the realization is that each pair of vamps represents a murdered or missing first nations woman.They are not forgotten.  They are sisters, mothers, daughters, cousins, aunties, grandmothers, friends and wives.  They have been cared for, they have been loved, and they are missing. There is a special circle of small vamps for children who were taken from their families to residential schools who never returned.

w2Experiencing the exhibit is a ritualized process. Volunteers guide you so you get the most out of the experience. Women are loaned wrap-around skirts. People can smudge if so inclined. Women and men can smudge with sage. Sweetgrass is men’s medicine; only men can light the sweetgrass and used it to smudge. The smudging process cleanses and purifies. Next we were introduced to an elder, then given tobacco to carry in our left hands – closer to the heart – as we walked the exhibit. As we viewed the Residencial School Circle the elder came and told us her story of being taken from her family and sent to residential school. It was an incredibly moving experience.w3
Everyone should see this exhibit.

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THE REASON YOU WALK

WAB KINEW

“To be hurt, yet forgive. To do wrong, but forgive yourself. To depart from this world leaving only love. This is the reason you walk.” Deeply spiritual,
Wabwab2walk is a combination of biography of Kinew’s father and memoir of  his own spiritual journey. Much healing takes place in this history. It is a must read for anyone interested in First Nations issues. Kinew’s description of the Sun Dance ceremonies is particularly powerful. “I could feel the peg push through [ my pectoral muscles] and spun. I felt the blood dripping down. I sensed the air in the cuts; I could taste it. The elders say that when you are cut you are fresh and open to everything around you, vulnerable to the spirit world.”

Reconciliation on an individual level and the national level is an important theme. “Reconciliation is not something realized on a grand level, something that happens when a prime minister and a national chief shake hands. It takes place at a much more individual level. Reconciliation is realized when two people come together and understand that what they share unites them and that what is different between them needs to be respected.”

“More than any inheritance, more than any sacred item, more than any title, the legacy [my father] left behind is this: as on that day in the sundance circle when he lifted me from the depths, he taught us that our time on earth we ought to love one another, and that when our hearts are broken, we ought to work hard to make them whole again. This is at the centre of sacred ceremonies practised by Indigenous people. This is what so many of us seek, no matter where we begin life. This is the reason you walk.”

Read this book!

 

FISH: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison

parselltj-fishT J PARSELL

Within days of entering the prison system Tim was drugged and gang raped. He could not report the rape to authorities because prison code states that snitches will be killed. So at that time he accepted the protection of a man, a husband who would protect him from the advances of other prisoners in exchange for sexual services. If he had not been protected he would have been  fair game for any other prisoner or group of prisoners. He was lucky his man treated him gently and had money to buy him clothes and other things from the commissary. All of this at the tender age of seventeen and he was still trying to decipher his own sexual orientation. Relationships don’t last forever in prison; inmates get transferred from one institution to another for whatever reason. But a person’s story follows with him. When Tim realized that his first husband had orchestrated his gang raped to force him into seeking his protection, he was devastated.

When finally released Parsell has been working with Stop Prison Rape. This book should be read by all at risk teens.

My understanding is that Canadian prisons are not as severe as American prisons.

NOT MY FATHER’S SON

ALAN CUMMINGalan

Cumming’s memoir begins on the Panmure estate in Carnoustie, Scotland – not a council estate but the leftovers of a country house where his dad runs a saw mill: “It was all very feudal and a bit Downton Abbey, minus the abbey… Looking back on it, it was a beautiful place to grow up, but at the time all I wanted was to get away as far as possible.” His father was brutal, taking all his pain and anger out on his youngest son Alan. “Soon, my head was propelled forward by his hand, the other one wielding a rusty pair of clippers that he used on the sheep…They were blunt and dirty and they cut my skin, but my father shaved my head with them, holding me down like an animal.” He made up a story about cutting his own hair for the teachers and students at school the next morning. Scariest of all are the calms between the storms: “That was the worst bit, the waiting… I never knew exactly when it would come, and that, I know, was his favourite part.”

“Our family had always been one of secrets, of silences, of holding things in.”  And Alan keeps secret his father’s many affairs. “Memory is so subjective. We all remember, in a visceral, emotional way, and so even if we agree on the facts – what was said, what happened where and when – what we take away and store from a moment, what we feel about it, can vary radically.” It is through a British reality TV show that Cumming learns the truth of his maternal grandfather who avoided the family when WWII ended and eventually died in Malaysia. Also Alan’s father told Alan’s brother that Alan is not his son. He claims Alan’s mother had an affair before he was born.

It is memoir of mysteries. Well written. Well worth the read.

US CONDUCTORS

us conSEAN MICHAELS

Us Conductors , is a fictionalized account of the mid-section of Termen’s life. Dubbed the “Russian Edison” for his brilliant, wide-ranging innovations with electricity, Léon Termen née Lev Sergeyvich (1896-1993) invented the electronic instrument known as the theremin by chance while working on an early motion sensor prototype. Beginning and ending in the Soviet Union, the novel’s prime focus is the decade Termen spent enjoying the fruits of capitalism in Depression-era New York, where his invention made him, for a time, the toast of the town. Termen lived at the Plaza Hotel, hobnobbed with Einstein and Glen Miller, and — in Michaels’ telling at least — danced and drank till dawn at the speakeasies that flourished during Prohibition. That Michaels has Termen narrate much of the novel from the hold of a Russia-bound cargo ship on which he’s held captive on the eve of the Second World War offers a nudge that the good times didn’t last.

The cornerstone of Michaels’ story is Termen’s unreciprocated love for fellow Russian émigré Clara Rockmore, the theremin’s beautiful foremost virtuoso. (All that’s really known of their relationship is that Termen proposed to her, and was turned down.) Michaels sometimes overplays the geek card here: “It was you I felt in my electromagnetic field,” he moons.

There’s no mistaking the pride in Michaels’ Author’s Note declaration that Us Conductors is “full of distortions, elisions, omissions, and lies.” Most readers, however, won’t know where the truth ends and the lies and omissions begin.

Termen’s biography abounds with enough improbable elements that it hardly requires fictional enhancements. In 1938, he was reportedly abducted from his New York studio by Soviet agents and sent — unbeknownst to his friends and wife, the African-American dancer Lavinia Williams — to perform hard labour in a Siberian gulag as an enemy of the state (which he wasn’t). Later, he was moved to a science prison, where he helped develop espionage technology, including the bugging device known as “The Thing”: a wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States that hung conveniently inside the American Embassy after it was presented to the ambassador by Russian schoolchildren.

Us conductors won the Giller Prize. It is a must read.

I borrowed much of this review from the Toronto Star.

HOW ABOUT NEVER – IS NEVER GOOD FOR YOU? My Life In Cartoons

neverBOB MANKOFF

When I first ordered this book I thought it would be mostly cartoons instead it is a musing on the nature of humour mixed with a mass of cartoons. It is also a memoir of Mankoff’s development of cartooning skills and style.  Mankoff submitted hundreds of cartoons to The New Yorker before selling one. He was a freelancer for the magazine for 20 years before stepping into the cartoon editor’s shoes. Like most of the New Yorker cartoons the humour is dry but there are many that are laugh out loud funny. His motto is  “Anything worth saying is worth saying funny.” A great motto.never2

THE BOSNIAN LIST

KENAN TREBINCEVIC and Susan Shapiro

The Bosnia List is one of the best memoirs I have read. It describes the events leading to his Muslim family’s flight from Brcko, Bosnia, Kenan was a boy, 11, living in the city of Brcko when the Balkan war started in the former Yugoslavia. The Serbians, Orthodox Christian led by the convicted war criminal Milosevic wanted a larger county of citizen purely of their kind. So they attacked the roman Catholic Croatians and Muslim Bosnians. Bosnia was 45% Muslim, 32% Serbian and 17% Croatian. The war turned into a genocide with concentration camps, torture, mass killings and rape as a form of warfare. In Bosnia it was neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend. Kenan had to do the shopping and chores because if his dad or older brother were seen out side they could be shot or take to a concentration camp. “Although I was only 11,” he writes, “letting my family down made me feel like a failure.”bosnia  “The first sacrifice of war was her flowers,” he writes of his mother. “We kept our shades closed to avoid being sprayed with bullets. Without sunlight, her cactus and hibiscus withered.”  Kenan’s teacher caught him outside, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger but luckily the mechanism jammed. His beloved karate coach Pero, who he loved and respected, threatened to kill him. “Everything he’d ever taught me about brotherhood and unity was a lie.”

Trebincevic returns to Bosnia armed with a list — the people he wants to confront because of their betrayals, and the places he needs to visit because of their childhood significance. First on the list is his need to accost Petra, a former neighbour across in their apartment building, who stole from Trebincevic’s now-deceased mother. “You won’t be needing that soon,” she would say as she took the mother’s possessions. They were scared of her because Petra could turn them into the military. They see that they are doing much better that the people left behind in Bosnia and that is a type of revenge in itself.

Although the descriptions of his family’s experiences during the war are gripping, the power of the book comes from the change in Trebincevic’s thinking and emotions as he moves through his anger and revenge fantasies. Trebincevic gradually remembers the help his family received. For every neighbour or friend who betrayed them because they were Muslim, another Serb neighbour or friend reached past religion and ethnicity to help — often at great personal risk. Ranko who was a torturer, rapist and mass murderer for some reason spared this family. Zorica and Milos, the neighbours who bring them food, propane and money.  This is definitely a must read.

THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength and the Power of Family

librarinanJOSH HANAGARNE

Josh Hana­garne is a librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library which the way he describes it must be the most beautiful library ever. Hanagarne the Dewey Decimal System as chapter headings. We’re treated to personal stories that fall into the Dewey taxonomy as topics such as 011.62 — Children — Books and Reading; 616.89075 — Diagnosis, Differential; 289.3 — Mormons Missions; 613.71 — Bodybuilding; 155.432 — Mothers and Sons; and 616.042 — Abnormalities, Human. It was a clever tactic and it illustrates the wide range of topics covered in this memoir. Hanagarne is born into a mormon family and you couldn’t ask for a more supportive family. His parents “had a knack for making everything into a game. Learning was a reward. And when I came home from school, instead of asking, ‘How was school today?’ they’d ask, ‘What did you ask today?’ ” His love of books started early. On his first visit to the bookmobile, he grabbed the biggest book in sight, “The Tommyknockers,” by Stephen King, which “was full of swearing and I was uneasy during a section in which a woman’s picture of Jesus began talking. People had sex, lost their skin, murdered one another, and wrecked their town. And there were aliens. I couldn’t get enough of it.” Adolescence brought the first signs of Tourette’s: tics, blinking and yelping, as well as involuntary noises, including the “hooting baby owl sound and the slobbering dog just finishing a round of wind sprints.” And of course he loves libraries. “Libraries have shaped and linked all the disparate threads of my life. The books. The weights. The tics. . . . The library taught me that I could ask any questions I wanted and pursue them to their conclusions without judgment or embarrassment. And it’s where I learned that not all questions have answers. As a librarian, saving lives and worlds isn’t in my purview, although if I could put those on my resume with a straight face, I would,” concluding that “at its loftiest, a library’s goal is to keep as many minds as possible in the game, past and present, playful and in play.”

Librarian is a good read. You’ll like it.

CHE: A Graphic Biography

cheSPAIN RODREGUEZ

Everyone is familiar with the iconic photo of Che (Esterno Guevara). It is on t-shirts, posters, movie marquees and the list goes on. It is known all over the world. But while most people recognize his picture they don’t understand his background and why he is famous. Most don’t really understand what his picture represents because it means different concepts to different people. Rodreques graphic bio is a great way to fill in those blanks.

Che wasn’t Cuban thought it was in Cuba that he was a revolutionary leader and later a government leader in health and education. He was born in August, 1928 in the Argentine city of Rosario to an educated and middle class family. In medical school he took special interest in leprosy and allergies, the later because he was asthmatic. When he was dumped by a woman from a wealthy family he took a much celebrated motorcycle trip through much of South America where he learned much about racial and class inequality. He published a book che4

Che is an easy read and good history. Well worth the time to catch up on some of the history of South America and the U S involvement.

THE SECRET LIFE OF OSCAR WILDE

wildeNEIL MCKENNA

wilde2This is riveting and heartbreaking biography of the wonderfully talented and genius Oscar Wilde. At the heart of the book is the trial that broke down Wilde and ended up in his outrageous incarceration. McKenna has left no stone unturned, and you almost feel, reading those pages, as if he was not only in the courtroom, but also in Wilde’s bedroom, in his friends and nemesis’ houses, in the cell where he was locked down. That, of course, makes for a great read – and McKenna is clever enough to show all of Wilde’s faces, revealing a complex and tortured man behind the facade. But more than that, this book is also a passionate cry for compassion, justice, and tolerance, three things that, sadly, Wilde was denied in his lifetime. The humiliating treatment he had to endure for just being gay is, for us in this day and age, really horrifying. And there are few things sadder than Wilde’s last year in Paris.

I’M YOUR MAN: The Life of Leonard Cohen

cohen1

SYLVIA SIMMONS

I’ve been a Cohen fan for all my adult life. In high school I wrote an essay on his poem and later song, Suzanne. So I had a lot of fun reading his bio. I put my ipod on his music, read and savoured. Cohen is a genius and it was provocative to get a glimpse into the workings of his genius. This bio is 558 pages long so it needs a lot of skimming, especially the beginning where his childhood and youth are discussed. Though even here some of the facts were interesting: Leonard was a leader at school and youth groups – he was actually senior ring for his high school. A fact that surprised me was that he was never intimate with the Suzanne of the song; extraordinary given the fact that he was known as a ladies’ man. I hadn’t realized how little success Cohen had in the US. Even his more successful albums didn’t sell well until more recently. His most beautiful album, Various Positions, which features the song Hallelujah, was not released in the States because the record cohen2company feared it wouldn’t sell well. So if you’re a fan put on his music and enjoy.

ODDLY NORMAL:One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality

oddly oddly coverJOHN SCHWARTZ

NORMAL is an important book. It tells the story of the difficulties he and his wife faced while trying to help their son, Joe, accept his homosexuality. There were signs that Joe was gay came early: the desire to play with Barbie dolls, the need for a pink feather boa and pink light-up shoes, the love of glitter and costume jewelry and the lack of interest in sports. Joe had other special needs; when he started school, though, behavioral problems developed. Specialist and teachers suggested ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, sensory disorders and autism. The parents had to learn to advocate with the school system for appropriate education and help for their son. I know what that is like trying to get schools to challenge my bright son. It can be extremely frustrating. When he came out at school one spring day in 2009, rode the bus home, shut himself in his bathroom, and downed way too many capsules of Benadryl. What a horrible situation for his parents who were so supportive of their differently normal son. The final chapter, written by Joseph, is the entirety of a children’s book he wrote for class called “Leo, the Oddly Normal Boy,” which is about a boy who likes a boy.

Normal makes me think of the blog Raising My Rainbow.   Adventures in raising a fabulously gender  creative son.  How wonderful that these special children have such understanding parents.

 

BANGKOK DAYS: A Sojourn in the Capital of Pleasure

bangkok daysLAWRENCE OSBORNE

AKA: Bar Bouncing in Bangkok

DAYS awoke in me my longing for the exotic East. In 1990 I spent a couple of weeks in Bangkok exploring the temples, the side streets, the canals and the erotic. DAYS makes me want to return. Osborne walks the streets of Bangkok, sometimes exploring the culture, but mostly going to bars. Which makes this book uneven at best. It is best when describing cultural Thailand. He has interesting insights into the Buddhist interpretation of transgender ‘kathoeys‘ or girly-boys. He muses on how easy it is for Westerners to remake themselves in the East, as did the 19th-century English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens did when she tutored the royal children of Siam and fashioned herself into a literary figure of the King and I. Bangkok serves as an existential crossroads for a cast of British, Australian and Spanish expatriates who are haphazardly searching for and running away from responsibilities trying to find themselves and have pleasure.

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ALL GONE:A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia, with Refreshments

all-gone-alex-witchel-author-photo1
ALEX WITCHEL

AKA: Life with Mother

Looking back Witchel can see that there was much foreshadowing of her mother’s dementiaAll Gone showcases a daughter’s unconditional love towards a mother who has forever been placed on a pedestal. Looking back Witchel can see that there was much foreshadowing of her mother’s dementia. Forgotten names, unusual anger. Her mother had been a professor of psychology.

When she was almost 70, this lifelong smoker and Type 2 diabetic started showing signs of mental slippage. Witchel, as the only child without young children (her two stepsons were grown), stepped in. CT scans showed evidence of strokes, the scar tissue from which was contributing to depression and “emotional incontinence.” For years after her mother’s diagnosis of stroke-related dementia, Witchel is a barely contained “muddle of anguish, anger, and self-pity.” She also writes about the comfort she’s found in her mother’s tried-and-true menu staples, and then includes these recipes in her book.  “Housewifery in the age of Betty Crocker.” Comfort food.

An interesting memoir especially for children of aging parents.

HEAVEN IS FOR REAL: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back

jesuscoltonburpo TODD BURPO with Lynn Vincent

HEAVEN is a rare jewel of a book. It will appeal to readers of a spiritual bent particularly Christians.When Colton was young, very young, under four, he was seriously ill with a ruptured appendix. I had a friend die of a rupture appendix; this is a grave condition. After two surgeries he pulled through and thrived. As he got better he started telling his pastor father and righteous mother about his time in heaven. He could tell them where Jesus sat. That God sent him back to earth to answer his father’s prayers. He met his great-grandfather, Pop, in heaven. Pop had died long before Colton was born. He also met his stillborn sisters who waits for him.

“…when I was angry at God because I couldn’t go to my son, hold him, and comfort him, God’s son was holding my son in his lap.”

This book isn’t for all. Personally I believe in the fundamental truth that is in all religions. If you have similar beliefs you will want to read HEAVEN. The picture on the left Colton says looks like the Jesus he met in heaven.

ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

esczpe

BLAINE HARDEN

The story of how Shin Dong-Hyuk, after crawling through a lethal electrified fence over the insulating dead body of a companion, made it out of a North Korean prison camp and eventually into the U.S., is a remarkable. But so is Shin’s early life.  He was born in the concentration camp to parents who were rewarded with a type of marriage. They didn’t live together but could have sporadic conjugal visits. He started working as a slave at 3 years old. His body carries the scares of the deprivation and torture that he survived in the camp. When his mother and older brother tried to escaped he was taken and tortured for a month even though he had turned them in the the authorities. Later he watched their executions. His growth was stunted by malnutrition. His right middle finger is missing, cut off with a kitchen knife as punishment for dropping a sewing machine. Still worse was the damage to his psyche. The incessant, driving need for food dominated Shin’s life. He stole his mother’s rations, and was brutally beaten by her for it; he scooped spilt soup off filthy floors and picked undigested corn out of cow excrement.

Escape is not a well written book but it is most interesting.

torture

OUTLAW MARRIAGES: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples

RODGER STREITMATTER

Outlaw looks at 15 couples during a time when being gay was against the law. Several of the couples had one person famous and the other partner was muse and or caretaker to his or her famous spouse. That was the case with Walt Whitman and his beloved streetcar conductor Peter Doyle who was much younger than the great poet. Doyle was Whitman’s muse when he wrote Leaves of Grass. Greta Garbo was outraged when her partner and social and career advisor Mercedes do Acosta published a memoir of their time together. The book included topless photos of the great beauty. Frank Merlo “stabilized Tennessee Williams life so his creative juices could begin flowing again. Alice B. Toklas was instrumental in getting Gertrude Stein‘s writings published.

A great read.