What does it mean to be a father? A mother? As a transgender woman who was a father for ten years and has been a mother for eight years and counting, Jennifer Finney Boylan is in a unique position to examine these roles from both angles, as well as a “third gender,” a reference to the in-between period during her transition.
Stuck in the Middle with You is not the author’s first memoir about her experiences as a transgender woman; though this book does discuss some of the details of her transition, it mostly focuses on how her gender shaped her experiences as a parent and spouse. Split into three parts, one for each gender-related phase of her life, the book also breaks with traditional memoir format by including interviews about parenting and gender with the likes of Edward Albee, Richard Russo, Ann Beattie, and Augusten Burroughs.
This was the first time I’d ever read any of Boylan’s work, and I was quickly entranced by her lyrical prose and thoughtful reflections. As a white, middle class woman with stable employment and a supportive environment, she’ll be the first to admit that, though far from smooth, her transition was a best-case scenario:
We’d waited and waited for some terrible doom, but the days had passed and we all continued to thrive. It had seemed incomprehensible to us, that the world could be as forgiving as we had found it, especially since I’d heard stories firsthand from other trans people who, in nearly identical circumstances, had found only cruelty and rejection. Some had found violence. On the whole, it was hard to deny that our family has been very, very lucky.
I knew I had to read The Feminist and the Cowboy as soon as I read the premise. New York Times bestselling author Alisa Valdes, of The Dirty Girls Social Club fame, did what sounded a hell of a lot like a feminist 180: exploring the world of online dating after her divorce, she meets a conservative cowboy — a real, live Manly Man™ — who makes her see the error of her ball-busting feminist ways. She doesn’t go down easy, but The Cowboy (that’s his name in the book) eventually manages to wrangle her in and teach her that traditional gender roles exist for a reason. Also? The original title of the book was Learning to Submit: How Feminism Stole My Womanhood and the Traditional Cowboy Who Helped Me Find It. So…yeah.
When I saw that premise, I laughed in disbelief (and wanted to read the book). Then the reviews started trickling in, and my amusement turned to horror when I heard about what happened behind the scenes of this “love story.” I won’t go into details because that could be a whole other post — you can read about it here (trigger warning) — but suffice it to say that this “love story” was abusive and involved at least one sexual assault. The book doesn’t mention any of this; the information came out closer to the book’s publication date, mostly via a blog post that Valdes has since taken down.
This information changed a lot for me. It changed the way I read the book: no longer could it be a purely amusing kind of read; there are red flags all over the book that are impossible to ignore. It also changes the way I review the book: “LOL WHUT?!” isn’t an appropriate response to some of the content, for obvious reasons. But the book is often frustrating and comically ridiculous. The feminism Valdes ends up so vehemently rejecting is like a bad caricature culled from all of the dumbest feminist stereotypes in an MRA playbook. I wish I were exaggerating.
Women’s History Month giveaway: Win a copy of this book!
When Chana Wilson was seven years old, her mother locked herself in the bathroom, put a rifle to her head, and pulled the trigger. The gun jammed and no physical harm was done, but her mother was immediately whisked away to a mental institution. It would be the first of many institutionalizations, and every time Chana’s mother returned from the hospital in a prescription drug-induced haze, it was Chana who would serve as her caretaker.
Beginning in the late 1950s, Riding Fury Home is Chana’s memoir of those years. Her parents’ marriage was already strained by the time her mother first attempted to commit suicide, and the stress of it all proved too much for her father. Unbelievably, he left the family to work in Europe for a year not long after his wife returned from the hospital. Chana’s mother was still severely depressed and on a number of medications that included sleep aids; at the age of seven, it became Chana’s responsibility to watch after her mother, who had a habit of falling asleep with lit cigarettes and who would again attempt to take her life under Chana’s watch.
It wasn’t until Chana was much older that she learned the source of her mother’s depression and the reason for her years in and out of mental institutions (many of which subjected her to electroshock therapy, and from which she would often call her husband and parents begging for them to get her out): her mother was a lesbian, and those “therapies” were focused on curing her of her “affliction.”
Women’s History Month giveaway: Win a copy of this book!
In 2009, as her father’s health took a turn for the worse, Raquel Cepeda realized that she might never get to know her family’s history. Her father recovered, but that seed was planted: she was determined to learn about her ancestry and parse through the painful and often contradictory aspects of her Dominican American background. Race and ethnicity can be touchy subjects for Latin@s, and as Cepeda explores, designations like “black” or “white’ can vary drastically from country to country. Rather than trace her lineage through genealogy, which can only get her so far, Cepeda turns to DNA testing to trace her ancestral roots and figure out how she became the person she is today.
As someone who is also interested in DNA testing for these purposes, I thought Bird of Paradise was fascinating. The first half of the book is more of a straightforward memoir about Cepeda’s youth. She recounts her parents’ whirlwind relationship, which starts out passionate and quickly turns abusive, especially once they move away from family in the Dominican Republic to build a life in New York. Cepeda is born in Harlem, and her youth is a series of upheavals: she’s sent back to the Dominican Republic to be raised by her grandparents. She’s soon brought back to the states to live with her mother, who is by then in a different abusive relationship. The mother and daughter never get along, and ultimately Cepeda is sent to live with her father and stepmother back in New York. Through the years, Cepeda must deal with her father’s violent mood swings. She must also deal with his rejection of their Dominican identity, something she also encounters among her classmates.
Like many people, I fell in love with Vogue‘s creative director, Grace Coddington, after watching The September Issue. She was often portrayed as the fiery counterpoint to Anna Wintour’s stoicism, a woman not afraid to challenge her notoriously difficult boss. So of course, when I discovered that Coddington was writing a memoir, I simply had to get my hands on it.
Coddington begins her memoir by addressing her post-September Issue fame. I wouldn’t say that the Coddington we saw in the documentary was an act, but it was definitely a Coddington with the volume turned up: she had adamantly refused to be a part of the film at first and decided to “swear like a trooper” in hopes that the film crew would find the material unusable. She finally gave in and agreed to be in the film on the condition that no one would get in the way of her work, but little did she know that she would become one of the film’s stars. She finds her newfound fame bizarre and is mostly amused by the fact that she’s now recognized wherever she goes.
The September Issue, however, is just one tiny chapter in the life of a woman who has been a part of the fashion industry for over fifty years. Once she addresses the film in her prologue, she mostly ignores it throughout the rest of her book, choosing instead to reminisce about her early years as a model (which includes the story of why she has no eyebrows). It must have been an amazing time; through networking, colleagues, and smart career decisions, she was able to spend the 1970s rubbing elbows with up-and-comers like Manolo Blahnik and Karl Lagerfeld, or partying with celebrities. She went through two marriages — I had no idea she’d once been married to Michael Chow, of Mr. Chow fame — but has been with her current partner, Didier Malige, for over thirty years.
Most children latch on to the security of objects, but I went further. I was obsessed with cabinets of curiosities, historical efforts to catalog and control nature’s oddities….Collecting information and talismans is a way of exercising magical control. You can hold a lucky charm and know everything about nature’s creatures yet still be terribly lonely.
Stephanie LaCava was always happy to stay immersed in her own world as a child. She kept a collection of objects, latching on to the items as well as the stories behind them. Admitting from the start that she had always been a strange and awkward child, she writes about a period of her life when this strangeness consumed her. At the age of twelve, her father got a job in France and the whole family moved to Le Vesinet, a suburb of Paris. Thrust into a school with other expats, she was an outsider who retreated further into her world. At the age of thirteen, her depression could no longer be ignored.
Now an adult, LaCava looks back on these troubling years through the prism of her unique perspective. As she retells her story, she breaks up the narrative much like her younger self would have done at the time, giving anecdotes or a detailed history of the object in question in footnotes. Of her ancient Egyptian sarcophagus-shaped pencil case, for instance, she trails off into a footnote about mummy powder, the Greek origins of “sarcophagus,” and Egyptian burial practices. Accompanying many of these breaks in the narrative are illustrations of the objects in question.
On Valentine’s Day in 1989, Salman Rushdie was handed a death sentence: the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, claiming that Rushdie’s then-recent release, The Satanic Verses, was blasphemy against Islam. As such, Khomeini demanded that Rushdie — and anyone else involved in the publication of the book — be killed. He was advised by authorities to lie low for a few days until the whole thing blew over. What he could not have possibly have known at the time was that he would have to “lie low” for nearly a decade, moving from place to place in secrecy protected by teams of armed officers.
More than twenty years have passed since that fateful Valentine’s Day and over a decade has passed since Rushdie regained his freedom, but aside from interviews and a few published essays, Joseph Anton is the most complete narrative Rushdie has given of his experiences. Titled after the Rushdie’s alias from his days in hiding — Joseph for Joseph Conrad, Anton for Anton Chekhov…he wasn’t allowed anything “too Asian” – the memoir begins with the day the fatwa was issued, jumps back in time to when Rushdie left his family in India to go to school in the UK, then works its way forward as he becomes a literary darling with Midnight’s Children. The release of The Satanic Verses should have brought more of the same; it had generally been well received and Rushdie had been planning a book tour when the fatwa was issued.
Instead, of course, his life was thrown into disarray. One of the things I liked most about the book was its sense of displacement. Rushdie’s experiences as an immigrant play a large part of this: he was sent away to school when he was still relatively young, and being perceived as an Other played a big role as he matured. Once the fatwa was issued, he had to leave his home because it wasn’t safe, but it would be years before he was allowed to settle again. Simple things like seeing his son (from his first marriage) became a battle since they always had to rendezvous in secret. With his second marriage rapidly crumbling, he was alone. To make matters worse, he was banned from India because of the fatwa, and it would be years before he was allowed to return to the country of his birth.
If I’m rich or if I’m poor
I will always get my way
and my word is my law
I’m without throne or a queen
nor anyone that understands me
but I will keep on being the king
– Lyrics from “El Rey” (“The King”) by José Alfredo Jiménez, translated
Domingo Martinez’s couldn’t have written a more appropriate prologue for The Boy Kings of Texas. Referring to Jiménez’s song as “the lyrical genome for machismo,” which “mapped the emotional DNA of the border male,” Martinez perfectly establishes the tone of his painful memoir. Martinez came of age in the south Texas border town of Brownsville — as south as you can get in Texas before hitting Mexico — and he grew up steeped in the culture of Mexican/Mexican American machismo.
The Boy Kings of Texas is about coming of age in the Rio Grande Valley (south Texas) in the 1980s but never quite fitting in. Martinez and his siblings were only the most recent members in their family’s generations-long cycle of dysfunction, violence, and abuse, much of it stemming from the culture in which they were raised. Given everything that happened in his life, it probably would have been easier for Martinez to write a straightforward retelling of what his life. Instead, what Martinez produced was a powerful book that often feels more like a series of related vignettes rather than a standard memoir.
Role Models is the most recent book by John Waters. Marketed as a memoir, it’s really more of a memoirish collection of essays paying homage to the numerous role models Waters has looked up to over the years. Of course, if you’re at all familiar with Waters — a.k.a. the Sultan of Smut/King of Bad Taste/Pope of Trash — you might already have the feeling that his role models aren’t exactly of the Oprah Winfrey, Mother Teresa variety. No. Instead, Waters’s role models run the range from Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo and her Comme des Garçons clothing line to the “freaks” he grew up around in Baltimore. Being a prolific writer in addition to being a filmmaker, Waters has had the chance to meet many of his role models over the years, and it is from these encounters that he culls many of the stories in the book.
In the interest of keeping my word count down (I love Waters and this is still gonna be a long post, y’all) and the review PG-13ish (him being the Sultan of Smut all all), I’m only going to touch on a few of my favorite essays in the collection. Fascinating as I found “Outsider Porn,” that one did not make my cut.
I’ll start with “Little Richard,” which appears in the last half of the book but gives some funny, interesting insight on what Waters was like as a child. He was a handful early on, and Little Richard was an early role model (in fact, that’s who inspired Waters’s trademark pencil mustache). Of all the people Waters has interviewed in his life, Little Richard was one of the people he most wanted to meet since he idolized him growing up. He writes:
When getting ready to start her own family, Priscilla Gilman envisioned a charmed life and looked forward to the pleasures and discoveries that motherhood would bring. Her father had held children in high regard while she was growing up, and she had always been encouraged to express herself creatively whenever possible. As a Wordsworth scholar, her work provided her with plenty of romantic images of what childhood entailed. Everything seemed perfect: she and her husband were both doctoral candidates at Yale, and both were determined to put family ahead of everything, even if it meant making sacrifices in their fledgling careers in academia.
When their son Benjamin was born, he began to immediately challenge the romanticized vision Gilman had always dreamed of. There were some obvious behaviors — like the fact that he hated to be held, therefore making bonding a lot harder — but he seemed normal enough that his parents brushed off their unease. Even so, Gilman always had a nagging suspicion that there was something different about Benjamin that she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
As Benjamin got a little older, it became apparent just how different he was. By the time he was a year old, he could recognize letters on the television screen. By the time he was two, he could read entire books and recite poetry; he also showed a talent with numbers and shapes. Still, however amazed his parents were, they seemed to accept Benjamin’s gifts in stride. Gilman writes: