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Book Review: Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

Gender queerIn June of 2021, one of the city council members of the city where I work got upset because of the library’s pride display. (You can read about it HERE.) I cannot, as a city employee, express my opinion publicly about this, but I will say it has been painful on many levels. It brought the national trend of book banning, interference in libraries by people who are not, in fact, knowledgeable about libraries, and even book burning into a very personal realm for me.

Libraries are places that share information, regardless of the subject.

My library—where I have worked for the past 14 years and where I have checked out books since 1994—has always supported the concept of Freedom to Read.

But in these strange political times, where the MAGA influences spread by the dufus are influencing actual people who live and work in our communities, the threat to books, libraries, freedom of thought and speech, and access to information is growing.

In that light, I am working on reading the books that are currently receiving the most banning threats in American society, and none gets more press than Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, so I started there. My library does not own this book (there are only two libraries in the state of Utah who do) so I bought my own copy.

I have to be honest: with the furor over this book, I expected its pages to contain some very shocking content. And, sure. There are images of menstrual blood, “the bulge” as the narrator refers to it, boys kissing boys.

But absolutely nothing that should give rise to so much anger.

It is a memoir exploring the author’s growing understanding that e (the author uses the pronouns e/em/eir) doesn’t fit within the traditional boy/girl binaries of gender. E discusses eir explorations of gender and sexuality, mostly in books and discussions but with some actual sexual experiences. As this is a graphic novel, there are images on each page illustrating how e’s understanding grows and changes as e grows and changes as an adult.

One topic in the memoir that stood out for me was e’s experience with a gynecological exam. It was a horrifying and traumatic experience for e, and it made me think of my own experiences as a woman within our contemporary society. Especially within a very conservatively-religious society. It also sparked some discussions with friends, and I was surprised to learn (although I shouldn’t have been) how common my experiences are.

Pause there. A book that examines one person’s sexual identity sparked a discussion between two other people that might not have happened otherwise.

This is why the freedom to read is important. I, personally, am not a person who struggled like Maia struggled with identity. (I am a person who has never felt like I absolutely fit within the defined roles of “woman”: I struggle in groups of women to feel like I am normal, and every time I heard a church talk about how women are naturally nurturing shame grew deeper in me, because I am NOT naturally nurturing, not in the ways the church tells me I should be.) My friends who I’ve discussed the book with aren’t, either. But that writing about eirs struggles helped all of us understand ourselves better—which is secondary to the fact that it helped us understand er better.

Through reading we come to understand how lives that are different from ours are equally valid and full of worth. Those leaps of understanding are what the book banners don’t want to have happen.

They want us to stay constrained within one specific world view, which is the one that white Christian men continue to think of as “normal.” They don’t want people to understand The Other, because of we do that we might have to accept that The Other’s way of living is valid as well. And as the book banners cannot do that. Because they cannot imagine a world different from their own perspective, they believe that allowing the existence of The Other to have value will somehow threaten their way of living. They cannot imagine that society is large enough for white Christian men and people like Maia (or other LGBTQ+ people, or people of other races, religions, or nationalities).

If you live near me and would like to read Gender Queer, let me know. I’m happy to loan you my copy.

Book Review: How to Be Eaten by Maria Adelmann

            “Or, actually, you know what?” says Ruby. “Maybe don’t even be out there, on the street, not if it’s dark, not if you’re alone, not if you’re a kid, not if you’re a woman, not without a rape whistle around your neck, not without pepper spray clutched in your hand, not, anyway, if your’e wearing that outfit.”

                “But, I mean, don’t be a prude either,” says Ashlee.

How to be eatenI love fairy tale retellings.

It doesn’t matter if they’re set in the same historical setting as the original tale or told in a contemporary setting. They can be set in space for all I care—there’s just something that works for me in a retelling. It connects me with the kid I used to be, who checked out the library’s copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales so often the librarians noticed my affection and commented on it. Who’d sit somewhere comfy and lose herself in magical stories. But retellings also appeal to me because of who I am now, a person who understands more about stories, books, narrative structure, literary history. I love seeing what authors do with the foundational tale.

How to Be Eaten by Maria Adelmann tells the story of a support group for women who have experienced a trauma in a public setting. Those kinds of experiences that happen to people and the news gives them attention for a little while, but we never, as a news-consuming public, know the real truth of what happened, and we certainly don’t know about what happens after, when the traumatized people have to figure out how to live their lives. As we dig into their stories we discover that they are fairy-tale-esque: Blue Beard, Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin. Each chapter is told from the perspective of each of the five women, with interludes from the narrator, who is the therapist who organized the support group. (And who has some trauma of his own.)

While I was reading this book, I loved it. I enjoyed the way the women at first hated each other, but grew to understand each other as they heard their stories. I loved the premise of the support group, which is that telling your story in honest ways can help you process and heal. I especially liked Ruby and Raina. And the chorus of dead women, made into garish furniture, in Bernice’s story. They come to some insights together about what it means to be a woman in contemporary society that were just spot on.

But now that I’ve finished it and had some time to think, I’m kind of angry with it.

In the end, it’s a treatise about reality TV. Maybe that simply doesn’t work for me because it is not a genre of TV I enjoy. But it was more than that. The sum of the five women’s stories is less about how those whose traumas are publicized are damaged and more about how everyone is damaged, in some form or another, by contemporary society. Turning the focus away from that truth and toward the ills of reality television strips the story of its power.

I’m still glad I read it. I’m still thinking about it, which is the mark of an influential book. But I can’t say I loved it. I don’t think it fulfilled the potential it created.

Book Review: The Storyteller by Dave Grohl

And there is no love like a mother’s love. It is life’s greatest song. We are all indebted to the women who have given us life. For without them, there would be no music.

StorytellerI have a weird connection to the music of the early 90s. The music of the 80s was extremely influential to me—I’d go so far as to say it changed my life, in both ruinous and saving ways.

But in the early 90s, I was a young (young) newlywed, trying to create my new life as a Good Mormon Woman. I still listened to music. I still loved music. I paid attention to new trends and new sounds and new bands. But I almost never went to concerts (Tori Amos with my friend Chris being the exception) and I felt…outside of it, I guess. Watching music instead of participating like I did when I was a teenager. Maybe because, for me, part of the pleasure of participating in music was drinking and smoking and hunting for cute boys, and clearly as a GMW I couldn’t do any of that, and if I couldn’t do any of that then what was the point?

(If I could travel through time, one of the things I would absolutely do is go to a Lilith Fair.)

So while I knew who Nirvana was, and I listened to their music, and I remember the day Kurt Cobain died, I wasn’t emotionally invested in that music trend like I was the alternative music of the 80s.

But I absolutely loved Dave Grohl’s memoir, The Storyteller.

Let’s state this upfront: this isn’t Fine Literature. It’s a story best listened to—he narrates it himself—with no uptight expectations allowed. There’s a lot of swearing, which might put some people off. There’s one bit that really pissed me off, when he tells the story of his arrest in Australia for drunk driving and plays it off as no big deal.

But overall, I loved this reading experience.

Mostly what I enjoyed were his musings on creativity, on the way that one artistic person influences someone else just starting, and how that influence morphs into something entirely new.

I loved his voice, wry and self deprecating.

I loved hearing stories about other musicians and bands.

So even though I only know five or six Foo Fighters songs, and even though he doesn’t mention almost any musicians who are beloved to me (except Bowie and Joan Jett), I highly recommend Grohl’s The Storyteller. It is some great musical fun, and he loves his mom.

PS: If you listen to it on audio—as you should—let it keep playing after the credits. He tells one more story!

Book Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Tova wonders sometimes if it’s better that way, to have one’s tragedies clustered together, to make good use of the existing rawness. Get it over with in one shot. Tova knew there was a bottom to those depths of despair. Once your soul was soaked though with grief, any more simply ran off, overflowed, the way maple syrup on Saturday-morning pancakes always cascaded onto the table whenever Erik was allowed to pour it himself.

Remarkably bright creaturesRemarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt is a novel about a lot of different things: loss of a child, grief, loss of a spouse, ageing, friendship, the way lives intersect, taking chances on new relationships, possessions and what to do with them when someone dies. 

Oh, and an octopus.

It tells the story of Tova, a widow living in the Pacific Northwest who works nights at the local aquarium, cleaning the space. She’s friendly with all of the sea creatures, but especially Marcellus, the octopus. She lives alone, as her husband died a few years ago from cancer and Erik, their only son, died years ago as a teenager. She meets twice a month with her friends, who call themselves the Knit Wits. She’s mostly happy with her life, but when she receives word that her brother has passed away, she begins to grapple with her own mortality.

We also get the story of Cameron, an almost-30-year-old guy living in California. He struggles with holding a job and his friends are fed up with him, so when his roommate kicks up out after he can’t pay the rent, he decides to head out to the Seattle area on a tip that might lead him to his long-lost father.

And Marcellus, an extremely intelligent octopus who develops an affection for Tova and realizes he knows some of the answers about what happened to Erik.

I enjoyed this one quite a bit. It’s billed as a sort of A Man Called Ove remake, with a woman instead of a man, and while I see those connections it reads a bit differently. Tova isn’t as grumpy as Ove and the friendships are entirely different. But still with that “up lit” kind of feel.

I would say that I especially enjoyed Cameron’s story, as he gave me hope, but I really loved all of the characters’ story arcs. Especially Marcellus’s, as I have a deep affection for octupuses after reading The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. 

I’m glad I read it and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a fun-but-not-fluffy, well-written-but-not-too-literary read. 

Book Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostovo

It was strange, I reflected, as we went out into the golden evening of the Byzantine streets, that even in the weirdest circumstances, the most troubling episodes of one’s life, the greatest divides from home and familiarity, there were these moments of undeniable joy.

HistorianThere’s a little accidental club at the library where I work: Those of us who’ve read and loved The Historian. In January I was talking to a new coworker and he mentioned it, out of the blue, thus joining the club. That conversation came to mind when Nathan asked me for a book recommendation, and a little while later he listened to the audio version and couldn’t stop raving about it. So I decided I’d listen to it, too. My hold took forever to come up for me, but I finally got it near the end of July.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is about Vlad Tepes, the actual historical figure behind the vampire legend, and three historians who are trying to find and kill him. It is a layered telling, composed of one generation of historian’s letters, notes, and diaries being read by another one, who then in turn write their own letters, notes, and diaries. This is one thing I love about it, as it feels scholarly and relatable to me (a person who figures things out by writing about them). The historians in question are Bartholomew Rossi, his mentee Paul, and Paul’s daughter. They each find an old, small book embossed with the figure of a dragon, and after that discovery horrible things start to happen.

The hunt for Vlad traverses much of central and eastern Europe and, it turns out, time, as there is a group in Istanbul who has been protecting the city from vampires since Vlad’s supposed death. Much of the book happens in libraries and is a reflection of how books can transcend time.  (Which is why I think so many librarians I know love it.)

It was interesting to read this sixteen years after reading it the first time, in March of 2006. I’ve changed so much since I first read it. (I wasn’t even a librarian yet!) I’ve been to a few of the places mentioned in the novel. I’ve learned more about the world and about myself. But when I went back to read my original review (after finishing the audio) what made me laugh was that I wrote almost the same thing I thought upon this reading experience:

Awesome book right up to the end, which is absolutely anticlimactic.

I’d forgotten that.

It’s still a book I’d recommend to a specific kind of reader. One who loves libraries and who loves books as much as for the stories they make as the stories they hold. One who loves the intricacies of history, the way stories change (and also don’t) over time. Who wanted to be thrilled with a very specific type of fear.

And, yes, I suppose, one who will forgive a very long build up to a meh kind of end.