THE LONELY HEARTS HOTEL

 

HEATHER O’NEILL

Two abandoned babies are dropped off at the orphanage run by sadistic nuns. Rose develops a gift for humour and movement; Pierrot for music. When they were young adolescents they were sent to rich people’s homes to entertain for generous donations to the orphanage. Escape seems possible, happiness imminent. They dream of creating their own circus together for fame and fortune. As the mother superior knows, though, happiness always leads to tragedy. Rose and Pierrot are farmed out as teens to separate homes, with no idea where the other has gone. And the Sisters make sure they never find each other. A good portion of the book is the two yearning for each other and almost crossing paths, so it is a delight when they find each other as adults.

Hotel reminded me of The Night Circus which was full of magic realism. O’Neill is a wonderful writer so Hotel is a page turner.

“Women were still strange and inscrutable creatures. Men didn’t understand them. And women didn’t understand themselves either. It was always a performance of some sort. Everywhere you went, it was like there was a spotlight shining down on your head. You were on a stage when you were on the trolley. You were being judged and judged and judged. Every minute of your performance was supposed to be incredible and outstanding and sexy.
You were often only an ethical question away from being a prostitute.”

All children are really orphans. At heart, a child has nothing to do with its parents, its background, its last name, its gender, its family trade. It is a brand-new person, and it is born with the only legacy that all individuals inherit when they open their eyes in this world: the
inalienable right to be free.” 

A TWO-SPIRIT JOURNEY: An Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojbiwa-Cree Elder

MA-NEE CHACABY

 No one should have to endure the shocking amount of sexual and physical violence this woman endured from childhood. As a child she had the support and guidance of her grandmother who saw the two spirits in her and knew she would have a difficult life. Her step-father taught her how to hunt, trap and survive in the wilds, yet ended up sexually assaulting her. Her abusive mother sent her to marry a man who would torture her for years. It is no wonder that she became addicted to drugs and alcohol. When she finally embraces her two-spirit orientation, she discovers that despite two-spirit teachings being a long-standing indigenous tradition, a new kind of abuse — virulent homophobia — soon comes her way, both from the aboriginal reserve community and from the white community residing nearby in Thunder Bay.

That all this sorrow and pain happened in this country is a national shame. The solution she puts forward, by the example of her exemplary life, is for our government and her own community to support the myriad of programs and teachings Ma-Nee Chacaby and women like her have introduced over decades. From groundbreaking and controversial AIDS awareness programs in the 1990s to the work she continues to do today, both with her own family and her extended reserve family, her life and this memoir ultimately serve as handbook of hope.

EVERYBODY LIES

SETH STEPHENS-DAVIDOOWITZ

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has written a fascinating book about social scientists using data collected by Google or Facebook in their research. Things to be learned from reading LIES:

  1. Some people use search engines as confessionals. They type complete sentences like “I am sad.” or open-ended questions like “Is my daughter ugly?”
  2. People assume machines (like the Google search engine) will keep their secrets. For sensitive topics, Google may generate more honest data than surveys. There are many questions asked to Google that I’m sure people won’t pose to a librarian.
  3. Google searches for “Obama” is frequently paired with “kkk” and the “n” word. The prevalence of racist searches does not exhibit a North-South divide – it’s East-West.
  4. As President of Harvard, Larry Summers spent quite a bit of time brainstorming with Economics PhD students on how to beat the stock market using new data. (And they came up empty-handed, or so they say.)
  5. Some economists found that going to Stuyvesant (a highly influential high school) conferred no meaningful benefit to one’s career – at least, this is the case for those who attain a score close to the cutoff in the admissions test.
  6. There are 6,000 searches on Google a year for “how to kill your girlfriend” while there are 400 murders of girlfriends.
  7. “Big data” does not provide any insights that surveys can’t at the aggregate level so people slice and dice the data to examine “micro” segments, which means they are analyzing a huge collection of small data sets.

I borrowed this interview from VOX’s interview with author Stephens-Davidowitz.

Two weeks ago, I interviewed Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of Everybody Liesa new book that uses data on America’s Google habits as an insight into our national consciousness. Two findings from the book dominated the conversation: America is riddled with racist and selfish people, and there may be a self-induced abortion crisis in this country. But there was plenty more revelatory data in the book that we didn’t cover. So I wanted to follow up with Stephens-Davidowitz to talk about some of the other provocative claims he is making. I was particularly interested in sexuality and online porn. If, as Stephens-Davidowitz puts it, “Google is a digital truth serum,” then what else does it tell us about our private thoughts and desires? What else are we hiding from our friends, neighbors, and colleagues? A lot, apparently. Among other things, Stephens-Davidowitz’s data suggests that there are more gay men in the closet than we think; that many men prefer overweight women to skinny women but are afraid to act on it; that married women are disproportionately worried their husband is gay; that a lot of straight women watch lesbian porn; and that porn featuring violence against women is more popular among women than men. I asked Stephens-Davidowitz to explain the data behind all of this. Here’s what he told me.


Sean Illing

Last time we spoke, I asked you about the most surprising or shocking finding in your research. We talked about racism and the possibility of a self-induced abortion crisis in America. Here I want to dive into something a little lighter: sexuality and online porn. What did you learn about this?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Porn is the biggest development in sexuality research ever. I don’t understand how social scientists weren’t begging Pornhub for their data. I was one of the only ones. I sent some of my results to some of the most famous sociologists and sex researchers in the world. Many of them had no interest.

Sean Illing

Why does porn data offer such unique insight?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Well, to learn about sex, the main approach was to ask people. But people lie on sensitive topics such as sex.

Sean Illing

You combed through the data — what did it say about us?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

There’s a lot of variation in what people like. Probably 30 percent of people exclusively watch stuff that you would find disgusting.

Sean Illing

Why focus on sex? Were you initially interested in this, or did the data lead you to it?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s a book about human nature. Sex is a big part of human nature. Some reviews of Everybody Lies have criticized me for being obsessed with sex. Everybody is obsessed with sex. If they say they’re not, they’re lying.

Sean Illing

You point to some interesting data in the book about sexual orientation.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s clear that a lot of gay men remain in the closet. In places where it’s hard to be gay, such as Mississippi, far fewer men say that they are gay than in places where it’s easy to be gay, such as New York. But gay porn searches are about the same everywhere.

Sean Illing

This doesn’t necessarily tell us how many people are gay in these areas, but it’s a revealing data point.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I look at the data a whole bunch of ways and conclude about 5 percent of men are predominantly attracted to men.

Sean Illing

Can you really draw concrete conclusions from this sort of data? People search for things for all kinds of reasons, right?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think porn is a pretty good measure of people’s sexual fantasies, even if they never act on them.

Sean Illing

What’s your response to people who are skeptical of inferring anything from this stuff?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think watching a porn video is a lot more telling than answering a survey question. I agree you should be cautious in how you interpret it, though.

Sean Illing

Let’s talk about what married people are up to online.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

The number one question that women have about their husbands is whether he is gay. And these questions are much higher in the Deep South, where my research suggests there are indeed more gay men married to women.

Sean Illing

Do you think women are justified in their curiosity here? Is this a question they should be asking more often?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think women are too obsessed with their husbands’ sexuality. Women are eight times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is an alcoholic and 10 times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is depressed. It is far more likely that a woman is married to a man who is secretly an alcoholic or secretly depressed than secretly gay. About 98 percent of women’s husbands are really straight. Trust me.

Sean Illing

What are husbands secretly worrying about?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Whether their wives are crazy.

Sean Illing

What should husbands be asking Google? What would they ask if they knew what their wives were Googling?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Whether their wives are more physically attracted to women than men.

Sean Illing

Tell me about America’s suppressed sexual desires.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

There are still sexual preferences that people hide today, even in socially liberal places. About one in 100 porn searches are for the elderly. Hundreds of thousands of young men are predominantly attracted to elderly women. But very few young men are in relationships with elderly women.

Sean Illing

I’m not sure what I think about that. Any theories?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s interesting. Some sexual preferences I first learned about on The Jerry Springer Show,which featured really poor, uneducated people. People attracted to animals or family members or the elderly. But, now from seeing porn data, I realize those preferences also exist among wealthy, educated people. Wealthy, educated people are more cognizant of contemporary social norms, which means if you have such an attraction, you hide it.

Sean Illing

I recall something in the book about the sexual preferences we hide largely for cultural reasons or for fear of being judged. Can you talk about that?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

If you define being in the closet as picking partners based on what society wants rather than what you want, many people are in the closet. For example, I am certain a large number of men are more attracted to overweight women than skinny women but try to date skinny women to impress their friends and family members.

Porn featuring overweight women is surprisingly common among men. But the data from dating sites tells us that just about all men try to date skinny women. Many people don’t try to date the people they’re most attracted to. They try to date the people they think would impress their friends.

Sean Illing

That says something truly awful about our cultural pathologies. People should be free to like whatever they want, but the pressures to conform are overwhelming — and ultimately unhealthy.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s also inefficient. There are a lot of single men and single overweight women who would be sexually compatible. But they don’t date, while the man tries and fails to date a skinny woman even though he’s less attracted to her. And then there are women who practically starve themselves to remain skinny so their husbands won’t leave, even though their husbands would be more attracted to them if they weighed more. The desire to impress people causes all kinds of inefficiency.

Sean Illing

All right, give me a couple of unusual desires you noticed — one from men and one from women.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It is really amazing how much tastes can vary. There are women who just watch porn featuring short, fat men with small penises. There are men who just watch porn featuring women with enormous nipples.

Sean Illing

How about other countries?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

The number one Google search in India that starts “my husband wants …” is “my husband wants me to breastfeed him.” Porn featuring adult breastfeeding is higher in India than anywhere else. In just about every country, just about every Google search looking for advice on breastfeeding is looking how to breastfeed a baby. In India, Google searches looking for breastfeeding advice are about equally split between how to breastfeed a baby and how to breastfeed a husband.

After I published this finding, some journalists interviewed people in India. Everyone denied this. But I am sure, based on the data, that there are a reasonable number of adult Indian men desiring to be breastfed. It is really amazing that this desire can develop in one country without ever being openly talked about.

Sean Illing

Any other findings from countries not named America?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Japanese men have recently become obsessed with tickling porn. More than 10 percent of Pornhub searches by young Japanese men are for “tickling.”

Sean Illing

So basically all of humanity is united in its weirdness?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Yeah, basically. Some people respond to Indian men wanting to be breastfed and are like, “Indian men are so weird.” That’s not the right response. The data from porn tells us that everybody is weird. Thus, nobody is weird.

Sean Illing

And yet we all feel weird because we assume (wrongly) that no one else is as weird as we are.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Sometimes I think it would be a good thing if everyone’s porn habits were released at once. It would be embarrassing for 30 seconds. And then we’d all get over it and be more open about sex.

Sean Illing

Any other surprising findings about women in America?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

About 20 percent of the porn women watch is lesbian porn. A lot of straight women watch lesbian porn.

Sean Illing

That’s not very surprising.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Porn featuring violence against women is also extremely popular among women. It is far more popular among women than men. I hate saying that because misogynists seem to love this fact. Fantasy life isn’t always politically correct.

The rate at which women watch violent porn is roughly the same in every part of the world. It isn’t correlated with how women are treated.

Sean Illing

Let me ask you this: Has all of this research changed how you think about sexuality in general?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I have always wondered how homosexuality made it through evolution. Like, isn’t evolution supposed to make people desire heterosexual sex with fertile people? But after studying porn, I realized homosexuality is hardly the only desire that doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary perspective.

Less than 20 percent of porn watched these days features vaginal sex to completion among two people who can conceivably have a healthy baby. Cartoons, anal sex to completion, oral sex to completion, foot sex to completion, incest, elderly porn, tickling, animal porn, sex with objects, etc.

Sean Illing

Sex is clearly about a lot more than procreation, and I’d say a lot of needless suffering has resulted from our confusion about this.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think the reason is we are growing up under very different conditions than we evolved under. Hunter-gatherer kids didn’t watch The Simpsons. And hunter-gatherer adults didn’t watch Simpsons porn. I think we are evolved so that if we grew up in hunter-gatherer conditions, just about all people would have an overwhelming desire for vaginal sex. But modern conditions take sexuality in all kinds of directions. I’m becoming more convinced of that the more data I look at.

Sean Illing

So what’s the future of online porn? Where is it going?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I think anal sex will pass vaginal sex in porn within three years. That’s what my data models suggest.

Sean Illing

Somehow that feels like a perfect point on which to end.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

People should buy my book. There’s a lot more!

BLOOD, BONES AND BUTTER: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

GABRIELLE HAMILTON

Even if you are not into food and cooking, read this memoir for the writing. The prose sings it’s so fine. Hamilton writes vivid and precise descriptions of anything from a maggot-infested rat to a plate of beautiful ravioli. “You could see the herbs and the ricotta through the dough, like a woman behind a shower curtain.”  She starts with her childhood when her French mother spent her days at the stove cooking marvellous meals. “The lambs roasted so slowly and patiently that their blood dripped down into the coals with a hypnotic and rhythmic hiss, which sounded like the hot tip of a just-blown-out match dropped into a cup of water.”  After her parents divorced, when Hamilton was 11, she essentially went out into the world on her own, a precocious adolescent with a badass attitude. She began washing dishes in a hometown restaurant at 13, moved on to waitressing in Manhattan, and has worked, off and on, in professional kitchens ever since. In 1999, Hamilton has owned Prune, a 30-seat East Village bistro. The driving impulse behind her desire to open a restaurant, she explains, was to “harness a hundred pivotal experiences relating to food — including hunger and worry — and translate those experiences into actual plates of food,” to reproduce the sort of hospitality she’d experienced travelling “from Brussels to Burma.” The chapter on leaving her lesbian lover for the man who becomes her husband and fathers her children is priceless. When visiting her mother-in-law in Italy, cooking becomes the language of their communication. I only hope she continues writing.

THE END OF EDDY

EDOUARD LOUIS

EDDY is an autobiographical novel of violence and brutality, racism, misogyny and homophobia. It is set in a small manufacturing town in northern France but it could have been in a mining town in Great Brittin or in the southern USA. Into this mileu of active and passive hate grew an unusual boy, Eddy Bellegueule (pretty-face) the birth name of the author, effeminate with a high pitched voice. He instinctively loathes the food, sexuality and clothes of his peers. In consequence, he is beaten, abused and terrorised. As a “faggot” or “homo” he is the lowest of the low; lower than women, lower than even an Arab, Jew or Algerian. He makes repeated attempts to assume the proper masculine role that his culture requires of him, but despite his brother’s teachings, every time he fails, he assumes the fault is entirely his. He lives and breathes unqualified self-loathing. He describes his mother, “She was often angry. She’d take any occasion to voice her indignation, railing day in, day out, against the politicians, against new regulations reducing welfare payments, against the powers that be, which she hated from the deepest fibres of her being. And yet she would not hesitate to invoke those same powers she otherwise so hated when she felt ruthlessness was called for: ruthlessness in dealing with Arabs, with alcohol, with drugs, with any kind of sexual behaviour she didn’t approve of. She would often remark that ‘what we need is some law and order in this country.’ ” His father took pride in the fact that he didn’t beat his wife but the walls were full of holes where he had punched the walls in rage. His older brothers didn’t treat their girlfriends so kindly. “I would see my father, after one of our cats had a litter, take the newborn kittens and slip them into a plastic grocery bag and swing it against some cement edge until the bag was filled with blood and the meowing had ceased. I had seen him butcher pigs in the yard, and drink the still-warm blood he was collecting in order to make blood sausage (blood on his lips, his chin, his T-shirt). ‘It’s the best, the blood you get from an animal right when it dies.’ ”

EDDY is well written but not an easy read.

HELPLESS

BARBARA GOWDY

Rachel is an usually beautiful nine-year old girl, dark skinned with “miraculous chromium yellow” hair. Celia is a single mother, working hard at two jobs to make ends meet. Luckily they have Mika in their lives. He is their landlord who gives them a great deal on their apartment but is also a friend and almost an uncle to Rachel.  Ron is a nerdy appliance repairman who drives around town looking at young girls. One day he spots Rachel. “Yes, he said to himself, something happened. I fell in love. Only as he thought it did he realise it was true. A ripple of terror went through him … he began to see himself for what he was: a man gearing up for suffering.” He began stalking Rachel. He created a back story for Rachel that her life at home was terrible, full of verbal, physical and sexual abuse. He convinced himself that she would be better off with him. Ron begins to convert the basement of his home into a girl’s bedroom, awaits his chance while promising his baby-hungry girlfriend that they will adopt a child.  The night of a blackout he gets his chance and steals her away. He convinces his girlfriend to help him care for Rachel.

I don’t want to reveal more of the plot but Gowdy is an excellent writer. All the main characters are helpless in their own way. It’s a great read.

THE HUNGRY GHOSTS

SHYAM SELVADURAI

“In Sri Lankan myth, a person is reborn a peréthaya [hungry ghost] because, during his human life, he desired too much” When his father died,six-year-old Shivan’s mother and sister moved with him into his maternal grandmother’s house. Daya was an angry and demanding woman who refused to talk to her daughter. Shivan, the grandson, became the golden boy, the reason she would take the family in. While he soaked up his grandmother’s recounting of ancient Buddhist tales about ghosts who haunt their future selves until past wrongs are redeemed, Shivan also chafed against her hold on him as he aged. He persuaded his mother to move the family to Canada, as much to get away from Daya as to flee the escalating conflict in Sri Lanka. Not that he could really escape—neither his grandmother nor his troubled country were anywhere near finished wreaking havoc in Shivan’s life. On an extended visit back to Sri Lanka, Shivan was taking over his grandmother real estate business until his grandmother had his lover killed.

Ghosts is a well written book. But when Shiven’s affair with Michael goes south I wanted to tell the young men to grow up. It could have used some paring down.

THIRTEEN REASONS WHY

JAY ASHER

Having thoroughly enjoyed the show on TV I wanted to read the book and I wasn’t disappointed. In many ways the book is more coherent than the show which gets caught up in too many time changes and flashbacks. Hanna Baker is a high school student who commits suicide. She leaves behind thirteen cassette tapes, each directed at one person, each giving a reason she had for killing herself. She talks about the rumours and the betrayals she suffered at the hands of people she longed to call her friends. She mails the tapes to Tony who supervises that they get sent on to the next person. Each chaper of the book is the contents of the tape with minimal backup from Clay the boy who tried but failed to befriend her.

The book is as gripping as the tv show. Maybe more so.

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.

COMPANY TOWN

MADELINE ASHBY

Go Jung-Hwa is unusual. She is completely organic. No augmentations, as most people have added to their physical selves. Hwa is a skilled fighter and bodyguard for the sex workers’ union but she hates her body because of a birthmark that stains her skin. Zachariah Lynch, one of the wealthiest people in the world, hires Hwa to protect his heir, his youngest son and genius, Joel.  Joel and Hwa are stalked by an invisible serial killer who targets both them and the sex workers Hwa used to guard. How do you defend yourself against an invisible agent?

If you enjoy dystopian fiction, this novel is for you.

THE PARCEL

ANOSH IRANI

“I am reviled and revered, deemed to have been blessed, and cursed, with sacred powers.” Madhu is a eunuch, a hijra, a third sex living in a community of hijras. Once she was the crown jewel of the brothel.  Her “arsehole,” she recalls, “was a cash crop.” Now at 40 she begs on the street. One day Madhu receives a call from Padma Madam, the most feared brothel owner in the district: a “parcel” has arrived – a young girl from Nepal, betrayed and trafficked by her aunt -“And the truth was a ten year old girl had been sold into slavery.” And Madhu must prepare her for her future of prostitution. Madhu took pride of opening the parcel gently much differently than the pimps would do, though the parcel was still kept in a cage.

“Born and bred to mortify,” Madhu is a breathtaking figure, admirable despite that fact that the “very things that made one human – love, hope, health – had been ripped from her calmly and precisely, the way a syringe extracted blood.”  The Parcel is not an easy read but it does grip you by the heart and squeeze.

 

ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS

ELAN MASTAI

Tom Barren lives in 2016, in a utopia. In 1965 a generator of clean of unlimited energy was invented. It generates energy based on the earth’s movement. The earth spins on its axis as it revolves around the sun, as it turns in the milky way galaxy, as it flies through the universe in the ever expanding universe. With all that energy the world created a reality that was predicted by futurists of the 50’s and 60’s: flying cars, robot maids, peace. Tom’s father is a genius who is building a time machine. His idea is to return to the past to witness origins of the generator that allowed such a utopia to be created. But when Tom goes back in time he disturbs the timeline to return to 2016 as we know it. How can he restore the world to the utopian future it could and should be?

What a great concept! Great speculative fiction. All the way through the book I thought this would make a great movie, then I read that the author was a screenwriter as well as a novelist.

THE BREAK

KATHERINE VERMETTE

The Break is a haunting book full of both love and hate. On a cold winter night, two girls are violently assaulted in an empty lot. One was raped with a beer bottle. The Break shows how the violence affects the families and community, a large rock thrown into a body of water. The raped victim’s aunt saw the assault from her house and called the cops but being night did not comprehend what was really happening. Could she have done more? The girl who was the ringleader of the assault reminds me of Serena Nicotine a troubled sociopath I taught in grade two, who when a teen drowned a little girl, then later when in a halfway house stabbed the attendant to death.

Unfortunately, The Break was the first book voted off the Canada Reads program on CBC. I would have enjoyed hearing the discussion of this great book.

TOMBOY SURVIVAL GUIDE

IVAN COYOTE imgres

Tomboy Survival Guide, by the Canadian writer, performer and musician Ivan Coyote, is of well-told tales about the author’s experiences growing up as a transgender person in the Yukon. Adapted from Coyote’s successful stage show of the same name, these stories are entertaining but also impart serious messages and offer the reader a window into the experiences of a transgender person who became a successful writer and performer. Like many transgendered people, Coyote prefers the pronouns they and them. Coyote describes grandmother Flo, a devout Catholic, as “not a cuddly woman” and as someone who was “far more likely to cuff the back of your head than she was to pat the top of it.” Yet Flo was perhaps the first person to reassure Coyote that, while they might not be just like everyone else, they was just fine the way they was. As Coyote remembers it, Flo said that “Some of us have hard roads, but the Lord never gives anyone a burden without also giving them a gift. Your job is to find out what that gift is and use it, y’hear me? God doesn’t make mistakes. Never forget that. You are exactly who God meant you to be.”Public bathrooms and change rooms for me have always been a choice between very uncomfortable and potentially unsafe, so I try to be polite about it because if I get angry it become so much easier for them to

Public bathrooms and change rooms for me have always been a choice between very uncomfortable and potentially unsafe, so I try to be polite about it because if I get angry it become so much easier for them to dismiss me, plus an angry someone who looks like a man in the ladies’ change room? Then I am seen as even more of a threat. Then it is even more all my fault.

coyote-tomboy-survival-guide-s650But my day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body. A am not trapped in the wrong body. I am trapped in sa world that  makes very little space for bodies like mine. I live in a world where public washrooms are a battleground where politicians can stand up and be applauded for putting forth an amendment barring me from choosing which gendered bathroom I belong in. I live in a world where my trans sisters are routinely murdered without consequence or justice. I live in a world where trans youth get kicked out onto the street by their parents who think their God is standing behind them as they close their front doors on their own children. Going  to the beach is an act of bravery for me. None of this is a battle between me and my own flesh. For me to be free, it is the world that has to change, not trans people.

BECOMING UNBECOMING

UNAurl

Una uses her own experiences with sexual assault and the background of the Yorkshire Ripper, in the 70’s to examine rape culture where women are made to feel guilty for being a victim. Through image and text Becoming, Unbecoming explores what it means to grow up in a culture where male violence goes unpunished and unquestioned. Una explores her experience, wonders if anything has really changed and challenges a global culture that demands that the victims of violence pay its cost. The police tried to justify the Ripper’s horrific crimes by publicly questioning why the women were out of their homes in the first place. Rather than following up on explicit physical descriptions and leads provided by one of the Ripper’s surviving victims, police instead chose to focus on gathering evidence that the murdered women were prostitutes or otherwise had “loose morals.”

This is a book all men and women should read.

SUCH A LOVELY LITTLE WAR: Saigon 1961-63

MARCELINO TRUONG978-1-55152-647-8_suchalovelylittlewar-1

Both a memoir and a history, War is an informative window to what we call the Vietnam War; in Vietnam it is called the American War. Truong’s father was a Vietnamese diplomat in Washington, his mother a French woman with bipolar disease.During his early childhood in Washington, DC, the Truongs enjoyed a peaceful life in “a quiet middle-class suburb, something Norman Rockwell might imagine.” Truong describes this period as nothing short of idyllic: jazz on the car stereo, picnics by the water, white Christmases. When the father was called home, he became interpreter to Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. His mother had not wanted to leave the US and was unsettled in her new home. In Saigon, the children live a sheltered existence, punctuated by the war. When the Americans escalate the conflict by sending more weapons and troops, the Truong boys become increasingly more enthralled by the grandiose machines of destruction. They are disturbed more by their mother’s emotional outbursts and irrationalities than the war in the background. We also have the unique perspective of his father who had extraordinary access to the inner workings of power thanks to his role as President Ngô Dinh Diêm’s interpreter.

DARLING DAYS

imgres-1iO TILLETT WRIGHT

At age 6, Wright declared: “My name is Ricky. And I’m not your daughter anymore. I’m your son.” Days is iO’s exploration of his tumultuous upbringing and struggles with identity and sexuality. Wright grew up in a chaotic downtown Manhattan apartment, a place that “stood out for the refinement of its violence, for its kaleidoscopic intensity.” What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. “Sleep doesn’t happen much in the house, what with the plays and things late at night, plus Ma is in a real bad way. It’s like she has a night personality and a day personality.” As time passes her Mother’s mental illness worsens. The building they live in is crazy too. “Our building repels ‘normal’ people. They’d have to love cockroaches, scalding radiators and thin walls . . . they would have to establish their own niche in the zoo and defend it.”

Darling Days is one wild ride. “I don’t want to wear my tragedies on my skin, in my teeth, in my walk. I want something different than what I’m inheriting, but I’m going to have to make that happen for myself.”

THE WONDER

EMMA DONOGHUEimgres

Wonder like Donoghue’s previous novel, The Room, is about the lengths a person will go to protect a child. Lib, an English nurse, trained by Florence Nightingale, is hired to see if Irish girl, Anna O’Donnell, said to have gone four months without sustenance, is truly fasting. Anna, the 11-year-old daughter of a poor farmer in a desperately poor region, is surviving (her family claims) on a diet of water and prayer. Lib’s task is to watch over her to see whether she is telling the truth. She’s to report her findings to a committee of local people eager to refute criticisms that their community is perpetrating a backwater fraud. They want to believe that, in these years of privation and difficulty after the potato famine, they’re witnessing a genuine miracle.

In an author’s note, Ms. Donoghue explains that the novel was inspired by several dozen cases of the so-called Fasting Girls in Europe and North America, who claimed to go for long stretches of time with no food.

The ending is great! An excellent read.

OLEANDER GIRL

CHITRA BANERJEE DIVAKARUNIgirl

Girl tells the story of clashes of classes, ages and sexes. Korobi has been raised in a happy home, in Kolkata, by her grandparents because her mother died in childbirth and her father died in a tragic car accident. Her fiancée Rajat comes from a wealthy business family. But he is conflicted. Is he ready to leave his bad boy bachelor ways behind him and settle down to work and commit to one woman? When Korobi finds a love letter from her mother to her father that was never sent she sets out on a mission to find her father in America where her mother studied as a young woman. Will Rajat and his family still have her when they find out the truth about her father?

COUNTRY OF RED AZALEAS

DOMNICA azRADULESCA

Azaleas takes place during the Bosnian War (1992-1995), when Serbian soldiers practiced systematic genocide and raped an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 Bosnian women in “rape camps.” In spite of the violence, Lara and Marija — a Serb and a Bosnian, respectively — remain closer than sisters, even in the face of separation and tragedy. The two meet when both are schoolgirls in Belgrade and become inseprable. As college students, they spend hours in cafés discussing politics and philosophy. When war breaks out, Lara leaves for the United States with her new American husband, Mark, while Marija returns to Sarajevo to become a war reporter behind Bosnian lines. Mark tries to help Lara adapt to American life. Some of the most amusing parts of an otherwise unsettling novel are Lara’s attempts to understand concepts such as stay-at-home mom and take-out food. After having a baby, Lara begins a doctorate at the university and throws herself into her studies. At a conference in Paris, Lara meets a handsome, North African named Karim, with whom she has an affair, leading to a devastating divorce. When Marija surfaces in California, Lara races to join her, but finds her vastly changed. Still gorgeous, wild, and irreverent, Marija now has a glass eye and a reconstructed face. Furthermore, she suffers moments of deep dejection and fits of sobbing. Marija presses Lara to help her find her child born from violent rape.

“When I looked at her,” says Lara, “I saw the full horror of that day in July 1995 displayed glaringly on her face. The gushing of blood, the obscene panting, the muffled screams, flesh, organs, guns, screams begging for death, sighing for death, screaming the sharpest scream across the black earth. It all passed for one second on Marija’s face like an apocalyptic cloud. The next second it was gone.”

Despite some horrific scenes, Country of Red Azaleas is an uplifting and optimistic novel. The strength and determination of both protagonists, their love for one another, and their yearning to create a better future for themselves and their children surpass the traumas they have suffered.