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.”

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.

THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS

LAURIE FRANKEL

Penn and Rosie have four rowdy, rambunctious boys who they teach they can be anything they want to be. They want to have a girl but of course, they end up with another boy. But Claude is different. Claude is quieter and calmer than the other boys ever were. At three Claude starts wearing a dress and saying he wants to be a girl when he grows up. The family motto is you can be anything you want to be, so the parents take this in stride. For pre-school Claude wore pants to school then changed into his dress when he returned home. When Claude starts kindergarten he starts wearing dresses and skirts to school and adopts the name Poppy. After a playdate gone horribly wrong with a gun-toting homophobe father the family flees to Seattle for greater acceptance. There they tell no one that Poppy is both a girl and a boy. But secrets have a way of getting out.

Terribly well written, THIS IS a page-turner. It’s the best book I’ve read for some time.

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.

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.

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.”

WE ARE ALL MADE OF MOLECULES

moleculesSUSAN NIELSEN

Molecules is a light, young adult book that is laugh aloud funny yet still able to deal with some challenging issues. The story is told from two points of view: Ashley and Stewart. Stewart is a genius, gifted academically but stunted and awkward socially. Ashley is the complete opposite: she is the queen bee of her grade, doling out social blessings on those she deems acceptable. But her grades are all D’s and C’s. Their families meld because Steward’s Mom died a year earlier and Ashley’s Dad moved into the garage because he’s gay. Ashley is horrified of the thought that people at school might find out her dad is gay. In many ways the story is unrealistic but it is still fun. So when you are in the mood for something light….

ME BEFORE YOU

meJOJO MOYES

Louisa Clark is a relatively normal British girl, living with her family, waitressing with no great plans for her life. Her boyfriend is more interested in training for marathons than in her.  Will Traynor was an uber-athlete, high intensity, wealthy businessman until an accident left him an angry quadriplegic.  Their paths cross when Lou is hired to be Will’s caregiver. Will’s mother informs her that the contract is for six months because unless Will’s attitude changes at the end of that time he will go to Switzerland to end his life. Lou has alway been a ray of light but this is quite a challenge. Is she up to it? How does she feel about Will?

Laugh out loud funny and weepingly sad. Me Before You is a great read.

“I want to tell him that I don’t know what I feel. I want him but I’m frightened to want him. I don;t want my happiness to be entirely dependent on somebody else’s to be a hostage to fortunes I cannot control.”

“No journey out of grief was straightforward. There would be good days and bad days. Today was just a bad day, a kink in the road, to be traversed and survived.”

A WORK OF ART

MELODY MAYSONETwork

Tera is an artist like her dad. She has always worked hard for his approval. He has sculpted her and her abilities at the expense of the mother who he calls crazy. The father is manipulative and cunning, pitting his daughter against her mother. He convinces not only Tera that her mother is crazy, but also the mother herself. Tera is willing to do anything, even when it feels wrong, to win her father’s approval. Tera has been accepted with scholarship to a prestigious art school in France. She finally sees the pride in his eyes. Her world is coming together until her father is arrested for child pornography.  Tera puts her entire future on hold to prove his innocence. In the process she starts to doubt he is innocent. As she explores her budding sexuality memories that hold secrets from Tera’s past come to light. Nothing is right anymore and Tera must find her way through the mess of her life.

Well written Art is a page turner.

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.

TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME

wolvesCAROL RIFKA BRUNT

1987, AIDS is misunderstood and prejudice is running wild. At first I asked why would anyone want to document this sad and depressing time but of course we need to know where we came from to appreciate where we are now. June had a special relationship with her uncle and god-father, respected painter Finn Weiss. When he died of an AIDS related condition her mother pointed out the man who killed him, who gave him AIDS, Finn’s partner Toby. Gradually June and Finn begin to develop a relationship. June learns that the reason she never knew about Toby, essentially her uncle’s husband, was because it was the only way her mother would let her brother Finn have a relationship with June and her older sister Greta. It is interesting to see June assess the situation and come to her own conclusions.

“Toby was right. Finn was my first love. But Toby, he was my second. And the sadness in that stretched like a thin cold river down the length of my whole life.”

Wolves is a YA novel but has much to offer adults.

A PLEASURE AND A CALLING

pleasurePHILL HOGAN

Pleasure opens with one of the funniest first chapters ever written. Mr. Heming, a small town real-estate salesman, considers himself to be the town’s protector. When he reminds a dog walker to pick up the dog’s leavings and is told to piss off, he gleefully scoops up the poop, goes home to retrieve the walkers house key and leaves the shit in the middle of the man’s white carpet. He has keys for all the homes his company has ever sold.

But he is not a peeping Tom. He immerses himself in others’ lives.  “I don’t peep through windows. … I am not a stalker, or a voyeur. I am simply sharing an experience, a life as it happens.” “Among strangers’ belongings is where I am most at home…I know where they keep their private things, how they arrange their lives. I follow their plans and make mine around them.” 

“… a god at play.”

I loved how it starts off hilarious then gradually becomes creepier and creepier.

Anyone who reads this thriller will want to change their locks anytime they buy a new house.

THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN

“SHERMAN ALEXIEalex                                           Junior finds himself straddling two worlds when he decides to leave his reserve to go to school in the near by city. One day at school he is given a new textbook except the book is not new – it belonged to his own mother. That’s how old and poor the supplies are at the reserve school. Filled with sense of foreboding, Junior throws the book and it hits his teacher. In the aftermath, the same teacher impresses upon Junior the need for him to GET AWAY and make something of his life. He enrols at the all-white school and he is the only Indian attending it, if you don’t count their mascot. Surprisingly, he has a harder time with his fellow Indians back at the Rez for making this decision than he has with the white kids. Nothing comes easy for Junior. Some days his family is able to drive him the 20 miles to school. But when his dad is on a drunk or the car won’t start, he hitchhikes or walks. When tragedy strikes, and there is a lot of tragedy in his life he misses more school. But all the time drawing cartoons helps lift his spirits. “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” “I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,” I said. “By black and white. By Indian and white. But I know that isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not”. “But we reservation Indians don’t get to realise our dreams. We don’t get those chances. Or choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are. It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that somehow one deserves to be poor. You start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.” Both laugh out loud funny and heartbreaking. A book not to be missed.

FOR TODAY I AM A BOY

fortodayiamaboyKIM FU

Peter is a Chinese-Canadian boy with a secret: he is truly a girl. He calls his penis the thing. He tells his sisters, “I want to be pretty like you.” All three girls sense their brother’s secret, but it is the eldest Helen who brings reality to it. “You can be handsome, like Father or Bruce Lee.” The father is overjoyed to finally have a son and does all he can to make him into a  true male. He complains that Peter cries more than his sisters.  Mother is not much of a presence in the household, so dominated by her husband she is. When Peter offers to help with supper clean up father stops him, “It’s women’s work.”

When he moves to Montreal as a young adult he is more able to explore who he is. When he meets some young friends he surmises,  “What right had they to be born into a world where they were taught to look endlessly into themselves…To ask themselves, and not be told, whether they were boys or girls?”

Fu has written an excellent and challenging first novel. It will be interesting to see where she goes from here.

BELZHAR

belzharMEG WOLITZER

“Words matter. This what (the teacher) has basically been saying from the start. Words matter. All semester we were looking for the words to say what we needed to say. We were looking for the our voice.” Belzhar is about the power of writing and the power of books. The narrator of the novel, Jamaica “Jam” Gallahue, is enrolled at The Wooden Barn in Vermont, an institution dedicated to the care of “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent teenagers.” The Wooden Barn is the type of sanctuary a sensitive, difficult and well-to-do teenager is shuttled off to when, as Jam’s mother puts it, “We don’t know what else to do with you, babe!” She has been chosen for a peculiar class, Special Topics in English, where only a few select students will study with a respected, older teacher, to study only one writer in-depth. This year the poetess Sylvia Plath has been chosen for study. Journals are distributed for twice weekly writing about any topic. Each student in the group has suffered a life-altering calamity and when they write in their journal they go back to the time of their trauma to relive the time before it happened. Belzhar (pronounced BEL-jhar in homage to Plath’s “The Bell Jar”) is their code name for this trance state. When they return from Belzhar exactly five pages have been written in their journals, about what they did in the trance.

Wolitzer is a great writer. At times Belzhar was a page turner. Had I known it was a young adult book I likely wouldn’t have read it. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.

NORTH OF NORMAL: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Counterculture Family, and How I Survived Both

Cea Sunrise Person northofnormal

Cea’s grandparents, Papa Dick and Grandma Jeanne moved the whole family, including Cea’s young single mother Michelle, pregnant at 15, from California to northern Alberta. The grandparents could no longer put up with corporate America. The family lived in a teepee, grew pot and lived off the grid in relative isolation, except for the endless parade of hangers-on, and drifters that complicated the family drama and provided sexual partners for all and sundry. When the police would find their pot plants then it was time to move deeper into the wilderness usually on the edge of a first nations community. Beyond living on the land and surviving on nothing the family was dealing with depression, poverty, sex, drugs and kids rife with physical, social and mental problems. One  son is almost never out of a mental institution; he is never visited by family. The beginning is a relatively happy period of the book, as nature has a way of buffering the family chaos. Cea comments on another child who’s mother is alway taciturn and never affectionate whereas her mother always has open arms and cuddles for her. When Michelle leaves her family and the wilderness for a series of badness men the book takes on a new level of sadness. Cea has to endure the plain old stupidity and bad choices of her elders, who are either too doped-up, too confused, too self-centred or too single-minded to know better.

Cea is a good writer. North is worth reading.

 

MEN WE REAPED

menJESMYN WARD

“Life is a hurricane,” states Ward, for African-American people living in the south, especially the men. There is a lack of the options available, industry is in its death throes – almost one in 10 young black men are in jail and murder is the greatest killer of black men under the age of 24. When a reporter came to interview people in the building where an 18 year old man was shot in the head, one woman told the journalist she “was happy that her 14-year-old son was locked up because it was safer for him to be incarcerated than to live in the neighbourhood”. Jesmyn Ward attempts to give both humanity and context in her memoir, in which she relates the unconnected deaths in the space of just four years of five young men who were close to her. “By all the official records,” she writes, “here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing.” “That’s a brutal list in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.”

Reaped is really a story of what it is like to grow up smart, poor, black and female in America’s deep south, Ward memories are somber and introspective. She watched her mother be both protective and disappointed in her father.  “[As a child] I saw the tight line of my mother’s mouth when my father was absent and couldn’t be accounted for … To an impressionable nine-year-old trouble for the black men of my family meant police. It was easier and harder to be male; men were given more freedom but threatened with less freedom.”

“Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.”

“We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”

“Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless.”

A must read. I thought about the First Nations experience here in Canada, although different there are many similarities.

FUN HOME: A Family tragicomic

ALISON BECHDELfun home

Bechdel writes some of the most thoughtful graphic novels and graphic memoirs of our time. Fun Home is her dealing with her father’s closeted  homosexuality and her less than great childhood. The hopelessness of this desire is deepened by the fact that Bruce Bechdel was hit by a truck and killed shortly after his daughter wrote her parents a letter that announced, “I am a lesbian.” Robert Bechdel was a funeral director (hence fun house) and high school english teacher. Alison believes his death was a suicide, brought on in part by her own confession. She draws herself beside his coffin thinking: “I’d kill myself too if I had to live here,” in small town Pennsylvania. Her father was obsessive about the house so the family lived in a virtual museum created around them and by them but with out their permission. When Alison’s room was wall papered in flowers she thought to herself how she hated flowers.

Bechel’s writing is unusual for a graphic novel. “But how could he admire Joyce’s lengthy, libidinal ‘yes’ so fervently and end up saying ‘no’ to his own life? I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.”

“The sudden approximation of my dull, provincial life to a New Yorker cartoon was exhilarating.”

“Then there were those famous wings. Was Daedalus really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea? Or just disappointed by the design failure?”

It is a great quick read.

CATARACT CITY

cityCRAIG DAVIDSON

AKA: The Rough Side of Life

And very rough it is.Dead end lives. Cataract follows the lives and relationships of two boys/men Duncan and Owen. The novel opens with Duncan being released from prison for some unspecified crime. The first person he calls is his old friend Owen, now a police officer who was instrumental in jailing Duncan. When they were around 10-year-olds they were taken — essentially kidnapped  — by their wrestling hero, Bruiser Mahoney while their fathers got in a fight with some local bullies. Their hero gets them lost in the bogs and forest around Niagara and dies — leaving them to find their way home, dodging pedophiles and overcoming hunger.   The ending eerily echoes the beginning episode. Their nemesis is a most repugnant man Drinkwater who adds to the hell of their lives.  “He was a scientist, you could say, and his field of study was suffering.” Yet they keep returning to him for various reasons. Duncan is able to create and maintain a relationship with a woman but of course she is unwilling to wait the years he is in jail.

Cataract City is a nickname for  Niagara Falls.  — It’s based on the Latin word for waterfall. Cataract is well written, frequently a page turner but not for every one.

THE INTERESTING

meg-wolitzer-c-nina-subin_custom-4da4177b6dd25d3c33e0943f3cb170032a99329a-s3-c85MEG WOLITZER

It was at summer camp for gifted kids that the interestings met, formed life long bonds and named themselves. Jules Jacobson is a love-interest of The Interestings’ most conventionally successful male character, Ethan. “You’re just so much yourself,” Ethan tells Jules, as a smitten teenager. “You’re not all neurotic like some girls … pretending to be a little less smart than a boy. You’re ambitious, you’re quick, you’re really funny, and you’re a good friend.”Finally a book which recognises that people fall for other people because they actually like them. There’s beautiful, ethereal theatre-loving Ash and her gruff, charismatic brother Goodman; Ethan, an ugly, talented animator; Cathy, a dancer, entrancing to all teenage boys; Jonah, the introspective son of a famous folk musician, and Jules – a suburban kid with a bad perm, a recent bereavement, and a minor skill in comic acting.

The action jumps back and forth in time, largely following Jules and Ethan, as well as Jonah, and Ash – who unexpectedly falls in love with and marries Ethan. We follow the twists and turns of their friendships as they go to college, have relationships and children, get jobs. Some careers take off; others crawl along. Gifted children grow up into adults who have to pay the bills and don’t always make the best choices. One of the themes of the novel is that no one is perfect.

Makes for an interesting read.