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Book Review: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Audiobook narrated by Suzy Jackson)

June 7, 2014 2 comments

A woman submerged in water with her eyes closed. The image has a blue tint.Summary:
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world.  And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf.  But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf.  Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.

Review:
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness.  When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next.  This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.

Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning.  She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too.  Mental illness runs in her family.  She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying.  This is due to her schizophrenia.  Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself.  The reader is just along for this ride.  And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride.  Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness.  Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.

Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages.  This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):

All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking.  Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)

The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness.  Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life.  This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express.  It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence.  They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds.  Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.

Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)

There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character.  Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian.  She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people.  People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life.  Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition.  She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery.  The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir.  Eva Canning is bisexual.  It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous.  However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way.  Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous.  What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way.  Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.

The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened.  The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book.  The final third, though, takes an odd turn.  Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions.  That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful.  However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe.  I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted.  It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life.  Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function.  I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened.  The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.

The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar.  There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going.  Her voice is perfect for Imp.  She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years.  She sounds like the 20-something woman she is.  I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print.  Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.

Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal.  The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan.  Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically.  Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

May 8, 2014 2 comments

Blue cover with four diplomas on it.  The cover contains the title and author's name in purple.Summary:
Celia, Bree, Sally, and April wound up on the same small hall their first year at Smith College.  Celia is from a traditional Irish Catholic Massachusetts family, although she doesn’t consider herself to be Catholic.  Bree arrives at college from the south with an engagement ring on her hand.  Sally arrives full of mourning and despair over the recent loss of her mother to breast cancer, and April arrives as the only work-study student on their floor.  Paying her own way through school and with a whole slew of issues and causes to fight for.  Their friendship is traced from the first weeks at Smith through their late 20s.

Review:
I picked this book up because it was compared favorably to Mary McCarthy’s The Group (review), calling it a modern version of that story telling the tale of a group of friends from a women’s college.  It certainly revisits the concept, however, The Group was actually more progressive both in its writing and presentation of the issues.  Commencement is a fun piece of chick lit but it misses the mark in offering any real insight or commentary on the world through the eyes of four women.

What the book does well is evoking the feeling of both being in undergrad and the years immediately after graduation.  Sullivan tells the story non-linearly, having the women getting back together for a wedding a few years after college.  This lets them reminisce to early years of college and also present current life situations and hopes for the future.  After the wedding, the story moves forward to cover the next year.  The plot structure was good and kept the story moving at a good pace.  It feels homey and familiar to read a book about four women going through the early stages of adulthood.  It was hard to put down, and the storytelling and dialogue, particularly for the first half of the book, read like a fun beach read.  However, there are a few issues that prevent the book from being the intelligent women’s literature it set out to be.

First, given that the premise of the book is that four very different women become unlikely friends thanks to being on the same hall of a progressive women’s college, the group of women isn’t actually that diverse.  They are all white, three of the four are from wealthy or upper-middle-class backgrounds (only one must take out loans and work to pay for school), none are differently abled (no physical disabilities or mental illnesses), and not a single one is a happy GLBTQ person.  Given that The Group (published in 1963) managed to have an out (eventually) lesbian, a happy plus-sized woman, and a socialist, one would expect a drastic increase in diversity in a book considered to be an update on a similar idea.  Women’s colleges in the 1930s when The Group is set were extremely white and abled, but the same cannot be said for them now.  Creating a group of women so similar to each other that at least two of them periodically blur together when reading the book is a let-down to the modern reader.

The book has a real GLBTQ problem.  One of the characters has two relationships.  One is with a man and one with a woman.  She is happy in both and attracted to both.  She takes issue with being called a lesbian, since she states she definitely fantasizes about men and enjoys thinking about them as well.  Yet, in spite of the character clearly having both physical and romantic attractions to both men and women, the word bisexual is not used once in the entire book.  The character herself never ventures to think she might be bi, and no one else suggests it to her.  She struggles with “being a lesbian” and “being out as a lesbian” because she doesn’t think she is a lesbian.  The other characters either say she’s in denial in the closet due to homophobia or that she really is straight and she needs to leave her girlfriend.  It is clear reading the book that the character struggles with having the label of lesbian forced upon her when she is clearly actually bisexual.  This is why she is uncomfortable with the label.  But this huge GLBTQ issue is never properly addressed, swept under the rug under the idea that she’s “really a lesbian” and is just suffering from internalized homophobia.  The bi erasure in this book is huge and feels purposeful since the character’s bisexual feelings are routinely discussed but the option of being non-monosexual never is.  It’s disappointing in a book that is supposed to be progressive and talking about modern young women’s issues to have the opportunity to discuss the issues of being bisexual and instead have the character’s bisexuality erased.

The second half of the book makes some really odd plot choices, showing a highly abusive relationship between one of the characters and her boss.  It probably is meant to show the clash between second and third wave feminism, but it feels awkward and a bit unrealistic.  Similarly, the book ends abruptly, leaving the reader hanging and wondering what is going to happen to these characters and their friendship.  Abrupt endings are good when they are appropriate to the book and mean something, but this ending feels out of place in the book, jarring, and like a disservice to the reader.

Overall, this is a fast-paced book that is a quick, candy-like read.  However, it is held back by having the group of women in the core friendship be too similar.  Opportunities to explore diverse, interesting characters are missed and bisexual erasure is a steady presence in the book.  The ending’s abruptness and lack of closure may disappoint some readers.  Recommended to those looking for a quick beach read who won’t mind a lack of depth or abrupt ending.  For those looking for the stronger, original story of a group of friends from a women’s college, pick up The Group instead.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Golden Torc by Julian May (Series, #2)

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Image of a silver torc against a gold and black backgroundSummary:
The group of people who traveled from the future to the Pliocene past for a willful exile were split into two by the alien race, the Tanu, who, surprisingly, inhabits Earth.  Half were sent to slave labor, while the others were deemed talented at mind powers, given necklace-like torcs to enhance those powers, and sent to the capital city of Muriah.  In the first book, we followed the daring escape of the group sent into slavery.  They then discovered that the Tanu share the Earth with the Firvulag–an alien race from their home planet that has many similarities to their own.  They also organized an attack on the industrial city of Finiah.  This book at first follows the adventures of the other group, the one sent to the capital city of Muriah.  Through them we discover the inner workings of the Tanu, the intersections of humans and aliens, and the impact of the human/Firvulag attack on Finiah.  When the time for the Great Combat between the Tanu/human subjects and the Firvulag arrives, the survivors of the escaped slave group end up coming back into contact with the group of humans in Muriah. With dire consequences.

Review:
I really enjoyed the first book in this series, finding it to be a delightful mash-up of scifi and fantasy.  When I discovered my library had the next book in the series, I picked it up as quickly as possible.  This entry feels more fantastical than the first, although science definitely still factors in.  It is richer in action and intrigue and perhaps a bit less focused on character development.

This is a difficult book to sum up, since so very much happens.  It’s an action-packed chunkster, providing the reader with information and new settings without ever feeling like an info-dump.  The medieval-like flare of the Tanu and the goblin/fairie/shapeshifter qualities of the Firvulag are stronger in this entry, and it is delightful.  Creating a medieval world of aliens on ancient Earth is probably the most brilliant part of the book, followed closely by the idea of torcs enhancing the brain’s abilities.  May has created and weaved a complex, fascinating world that manages to also be easy enough to follow and understand.  The sense of the medieval-style court is strong from the clothing, buildings, and organization of society.  She doesn’t feel the need to willy-nilly invent lots of new words, which I really appreciated.

The intrigue is so complex that it is almost impossible to summarize, and yet it was easy to follow while reading it.  Surprises lurk around every corner, and May is definitely not afraid to kill her darlings, following both William Faulkner’s and Stephen King’s writing advice.  A lot happens in the book, the characters are tested, and enough change happens that I am excited there are still two more books, as opposed to wondering how the author could possibly tell more story.  In spite of the action, sometimes the book did feel overly long, with long descriptions of vegetation and scenery far away from where most of the action was taking place.

The book is full of characters but every single one of them manages to come across as a unique person, even the ones who are not on-screen long enough to be fully three-dimensional.  The cast continues to be diverse, similarly to the first book, with a variety of races, ages, and sexual preferences represented.  I was surprised by the addition of a transwoman character.  She is treated with a mix of acceptance and transphobia.  I think, certainly for the 1980s when this was published, it is overall a progressive presentation of her.  She is a doctor who is well-respected in Tanu society.  However, she also is presented as a bit crazy (not because of being trans but in addition to being trans), and it is stated by one character that she runs the fertility clinic because it is the one part of being a woman that will always be out of her grasp.  I am glad at her inclusion in the story but readers should be aware that some aspects of the writing of her and how other characters interact with her could be considered problematic or triggering.  I would be interested to hear a transperson’s analysis of her character.

Overall, this entry in the series ramps up the action and more thoroughly investigates the world of the Pliocene Exile.  Readers disappointed by the lack of information on the half of the group heading to the capital city in the first book will be pleased that their story is told in this one.  Characters are added, including a transwoman doctor, and all continue to feel completely individual and easily decipherable, in spite of the growing cast list.  The fast action pace sometimes is interrupted by lengthy descriptions of settings far away from the action, but overall the chunkster of the book moves along at a good pace and remains engaging.  Recommended to fans of fantasy who want a touch of science in their stories and who are interested in the idea of medieval aliens.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Previous Books in Series:
The Many-Colored Land, review

Book Review: The Many-Colored Land by Julian May (Series, #1) (Audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne)

March 14, 2014 3 comments

Woman wearing a half-necklace standing in front of a mountain rangeSummary:
In the future, the universe exists in a peace-loving era that allows many alien races and humans to co-exist.  People are expected to act within the confines of acceptability and are offered various humane treatment options to help if their nature or nurture sends them the wrong way.  But some people don’t want to conform and would rather live in the wild, warrior-like days of old.  When a scientist discovers time travel but only to the pliocene era, these people think they have found their solution.  There’s only one catch. The time travel only works to the past.  For decades the misfits step into the time travel vortex, not knowing what is on the other side.  The government approves the solution, since it seems kind and no time paradoxes have occurred.  When the newest group steps through, they will discover just what really waits on the other side of exile.

Review:
I became aware of this book thanks to a review by fellow book blogger, Resistance Is Futile.  Imagine my surprise when going through my wishlist to check for audiobooks, I discovered a brand-new audiobook production of it featuring the audiobook superstar Bernadette Dunne.  This is a creative, action-packed book that truly encompasses both scifi and fantasy in a beautiful way.

Since this is the first book of the series, it takes a bit to set the plot up and get to know the characters.  People are sent through the time travel portal in groups, so we get to know everyone in one group prior to going through the time portal so we can follow them all after they go through it.  May spends the perfect amount of time familiarizing the reader with the future world, as well as the people who are choosing to leave it.  Some readers might be sad to see the imaginative future world left behind for the pliocene era, but it quickly becomes evident that the pliocene is just as richly imagined, albeit different.  The pliocene era is not as straight-forward as the exiles believed, and new problems quickly arise for them.  It’s not the lawless paradise they were envisioning, and while dealing with the realities of it in an action-packed manner, they also must deal with themselves.  Now that they realize there is no true escape to solitude or an imagined perfect past, they must address those aspects of themselves that led them to exile in the first place.  These deeper emotional issues are the perfect balance to the other, action-oriented plot.  I did feel that the book ends a bit abruptly.  However, it is part of a series and clearly the cliff-hanger is intentional.  I prefer series entries that tell one complete smaller story within the larger, overarching plot, but this is still a well-done cliff-hanger.

The characters offer up a wide variety of experiences and ethnic and sexual backgrounds, representative of all of humanity fairly well.  One of the lead characters is a butch lesbian, another is an elderly Polish-American male expert in the pliocene era, another a nun, another a frat boy style space captain.  This high level of diversity doesn’t seem pushed or false due to the nature of the self-selection of exiles.  It makes sense a wide variety of humans would choose to go, although the statistics presented in the book establish that more whites and Asians than Africans and more men than women choose to go.  Some of the characters get more time to develop and be presented in a three-dimensional nature than others but enough characters are three-dimensional that the reader is able to become emotionally invested in the situation.  My one complaint was in prominently featuring a nun in a futuristic scifi, yet again.  Statistics show that less and less people are choosing to become nuns or priests.  Given that this is set so far in the future with such a different culture, a religious leader of a new or currently rising religion would feel much more thoughtfully predictive of the future.

Most engaging to me is how the book mixes scifi and fantasy.  Without giving too much away, the book offers a plausible scientific explanation for human myths of supernatural creatures such as fairies, elves, and shapeshifters.  The presence of the inspirations for these myths give a delightful, old world fantastical feel to the story, even while May offers up scientific explanations for all of it.  This is not a mix I have seen in much scifi or fantasy, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

Overall, this is a delightful new take on time-travel that incorporates some fantasy elements into the scifi.  Readers looking just for futuristic hard scifi might be disappointed at how much of the book takes place in the ancient past, but those who enjoy scifi and fantasy will delight at the mixing of the two.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Series Review: Sookie Stackhouse / Southern Vampire Mysteries Series by Charlaine Harris

March 7, 2014 6 comments

Introduction:
I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books.  It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole.  These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another.  Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.

Man in cloak floating in the airSummary:
Sookie Stackhouse is a waitress in the rural town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, and she has a secret.  She’s a telepath, and it’s ostracized her from most of the people in her town.  But when vampires come out of the coffin, Sookie discovers that she can’t read their minds.  Mind reading made her dating life non-existent, for obvious reasons, but with vampires, Sookie can feel somewhat normal.  She soon starts to get pulled into their supernatural world, which contains more than they’re letting on to the mainstream public.

Review:
I first want to make it very clear that this series review is talking exclusively about the books and not the tv show inspired by them, True Blood.  There will be no spoilers for the show and no comparisons between the books and the show.  The show diverged very quickly from the books, so I think it’s fair to keep discussion of the two separate.  Moving right along!

coverclubdeadThis series takes the mystery series whodunit in the vein of Agatha Christie and drenches it in the supernatural and the American south, utilizing it to tell the overarching story of one woman choosing who she wants to be.  Perhaps because of the presence of some handsome leading men and the occasional sex scene, some mistake the series for a romance one.  But this series is truly not a romance.  Sookie’s romantic life (and sex life) is really secondary to the mysteries she solves and her slow discovery of who she is and who she wants to be.

The whodunit plots are generally murder mysteries.  The violence is moderate.  If you can handle a vampire biting someone or knowing someone is being beheaded without actually getting the gore described to you, you can handle the violence in this series.  The whodunit plots start out engaging but gradually become more repetitive and ho-hum, almost as if the author was running out of ideas for situations to place Sookie in.  Similarly, Sookie gets kidnapped and has to get saved by her supernatural friends kind of a lot.

coverdeadasadoornailThe setting of a supernatural American south is well imagined and evoked.  Both small town, rural lives and larger southern cities like Dallas and New Orleans are touched upon.  The American north is visited once, however, Sookie has a strong aversion to northern women that sours the representation of the north in the book.

The characters can sometimes feel like overwrought caricatures.  While some characters are given depth, most are not.  This is odd, since Sookie can read minds.  one would assume that she, as the first person narrator, would have a very three-dimensional view of those around her.  And yet she doesn’t.  Sookie likes to say that she’s for equality and seeing the good in everyone but she actually judges people very harshly.  For instance, she thinks it’s a shame that women who are not virgins wear white wedding dresses.

Sookie’s character does develop, albeit minimally, over the course of the books.  Characters should grow and change, coveralltogetherdeadparticularly over the course of 13 books, but unfortunately Sookie’s character changes to become less and less likable.  This is extra frustrating when the book is told from her perspective.  Instead of becoming more powerful and strong (emotionally, mentally) over the course of the series, Sookie becomes less and less able to handle the things going on around her.  She also continues to act shocked and appalled at the wars and violence she doesn’t just see, but participates in, in spite of it now being a normal part of her life.  Perhaps if she was just repeatedly a victim this mentality would make sense, but Sookie enacts violence on those around her and then acts disgusted at what the vampires/werewolves/etc… do, which comes off as hypocritical.  Either own your own actions and validate their necessity or stop doing them.  Don’t do certain violent actions then deny your involvement while simultaneously judging others for doing precisely what you just did.  The fact that Sookie slowly becomes this hypocritical person makes her less and less likable.  Similarly, she starts out the books with a firm belief in social justice and equality for supes but over the course of the series clearly comes to believe that humans are better than supes.  I don’t blame her for wanting a quiet life or for wanting to stay human or wanting to have babies but she could have Blonde woman in blue standing between two pale men in black capes.done all of those things without coming to view supes as inferior.  It is frustrating for the reader to have a main character in an almost cozy style mystery series gradually change into someone it is difficult to empathize with.

There is a consistent presence of GLBTQ characters, albeit mostly in secondary roles, throughout the series.  Homophobia is depicted in an extremely negative light since only the bad guys ever exhibit it.  Unfortunately, there is an instance of bi erasure in the book.  One of the characters is identified as gay but everyone also acknowledges that he periodically sleeps with women.  Even the character himself calls himself gay, so this isn’t just a case of the author writing a realistic amount of the realities of bi erasure into the book.

The sex in the book is not well-written.  It is just awkward, cringe-inducing, and laughable most of the time.  But the sex scenes aren’t very often, and they do fit in with the rest of the book.  Just don’t go to this series looking to get really turned Cartoon drawing of a blonde woman in a green dress upside down with burning paper near her.on.

This sounds like a lot of criticism for the series but some of these things, such as the campy, two-dimensional characters, are part of what makes the series enjoyable.  It’s kitschy, not to be taken too seriously.  It’s a series to come to and read precisely to laugh and roll your eyes.  To be utterly bemused at the sheer number of supernatural creatures and the ridiculousness of how they organize themselves.  To sigh in frustration at Sookie as she gets kidnapped yet again or is oblivious yet again to who the murderer is.  It’s a series that’s candy for those who enjoy camp and not too much violence with a touch of the supernatural in their mysteries.

3.5 out of 5 stars

A blonde woman stands among flowers and tomatoes with the sun either setting or rising behind her.Source: Amazon, PaperBackSwap, and Audible

Books in Series:
Dead Until Dark, review
Living Dead in Dallas, review
Club Dead, review
Dead To The World, review
Dead as a Doornail, review
Definitely Dead, review
All Together Dead, review
From Dead to Worse, review
Dead And Gone, review
Dead in the Family, review
Dead Reckoning, review
Deadlocked, review
Dead Ever After, review

Book Review: Something Spectacular: The True Story of One Rockette’s Battle with Bulimia by Greta Gleissner (Audiobook narrated by Dina Pearlman)

January 24, 2014 2 comments

Line of dancers in white papercut against a bronze background.Summary:
Greta Gleissner finally achieved her lifelong dream of making a living just from her professional dancing. She landed the prestigious job of being a Rockette in the New York City show.  She hoped that this newfound stability and prestige would cure her of her bulimia. What was there to binge and purge about when she was living her dream? But her eating disorder she’d had since a young age won’t just disappear because of her newfound success.  Soon, her bulimia is putting her job–and her life–at risk.

Review:
I was immediately intrigued by the elements of this eating disorder memoir that make it different from the, sadly, so many others that exist.  Greta’s eating disorder peaks in her 20s, not her teens.  She was a Rockette, and she’s a lesbian.  An eating disorder memoir about someone in their 20s in the dance industry who is also queer was very appealing to me.  What I found was a memoir that gives insight to having an eating disorder, the impact of homophobia, and an inside look at the professional dance world told in a non-linear, honest, and engaging manner.

Greta tells her memoir in the framework of a play. There are scenes, acts, overtures, etc… This lets her address the story in a non-linear way that still makes sense.  The overture, for instance, shows a dramatic moment when her eating disorder was at full tilt and destroying her life.  Then she backs up to the few months before she became a Rockette.  The time of auditioning then being a Rockette is interspersed with flashbacks to help us better understand her life.  Finally, she enters an inpatient clinic, where we get flashbacks in the context of her therapy.  It’s a creative storytelling technique that brings a freshness to her memoir.

Honesty without cruelty to herself or others is a key part of her narrative voice.  Greta is straightforward, sometimes grotesquely so, about her bulimia and what it does to her.  The eating disorder is not glamorized. Greta takes us down into the nitty-gritty of the illness.  In fact, it’s the first bulimia memoir I’ve read that was so vivid and straightforward in its depictions of what the illness is and what it does.  In some ways, it made me see bulimia as a bit of a mix between an addiction and body image issues.  Greta was able to show both how something that was helping you cope can spiral out of control, as well as how poor self-esteem and body image led her to purging her food.

Greta also is unafraid to tell us about what goes on inside her own mind, and where she sees herself as having mistreated people in the past.  I never doubted her honesty.  Similarly, although Greta’s parents definitely did some things wrong in how they raised her, Greta strives to both acknowledge the wounds and accept her parents as flawed and wounded in their own ways.  You can hear her recovery in how she talks about both them and her childhood.  She has clearly done the work to heal past wounds.

The memoir honestly made me grateful the dancing I did as a child never went the professional route.  It’s disturbing how pervasive body policing and addictions in general are in the dance world, at least as depicted by Greta.  Similarly, it eloquently demonstrates how parents’ issues get passed down to the children, and sometimes even exacerbated.  Greta’s mother was a non-professional dancer who was constantly dieting.  Greta also loved dancing but her mother’s body image issues got passed down to her as well.  Food was never just food in her household.

One shortcoming of the memoir is that Greta never fully addresses her internalized homophobia or how she ultimately overcomes it and marries her wife.  The book stops rather abruptly when Greta is leaving the halfway house she lived in right after her time in the inpatient clinic.  There is an epilogue where she briefly touches on the time after the halfway house, mentions relapse, and states that she ultimately overcame her internalized homophobia and met her now wife.  However, for the duration of her time in the clinic and the halfway house, she herself admits she wasn’t yet ready to address her sexuality or deal with her internalized homophobia.  It was clear to me reading the book that at least part of her self-hatred that led to her bulimia was due to her issues with her sexuality.  Leaving out how she dealt with that and healed felt like leaving out a huge chunk of the story I was very interested in.  Perhaps it’s just too painful of a topic for her to discuss, but it did feel as if the memoir gave glimpses and teasers of it, discussing how she would only make out with women when very drunk for instance, but then the issue is never fully addressed in the memoir.

Similarly, leaving out the time after the halfway house was disappointing.  I wanted to see her finish overcoming and succeeding. I wanted to hear the honesty of her relapses that she admits she had and how she overcome that. I wanted to hear about her dating and meeting her wife and embracing her sexuality.  Hearing about the growth and strength past the initial part in the clinic and halfway house is just as interesting and engaging as and more inspiring than her darker times.  I wish she had told that part of the story too.

The audiobook narrator, Dina Pearlman, was a great choice for the memoir. Her voice reads as gritty feminine, which is perfect for the story.  She also handles some of the asides and internal diatribes present in mental illness memoirs with great finesse.

Overall, this is a unique entry in the eating disorder memoir canon.  It gives the nitty gritty details of bulimia from the perspective of a lesbian suffering from homophobia within the framework of the dance world.  Those who might be triggered should be aware that specific height and weight numbers are given, as well as details on binge foods and purging episodes.  It also, unfortunately, doesn’t fully address how the author healed from the wounds of homophobia.  However, her voice as a queer person is definitely present in the memoir.  Recommended to those with an interest in bulimia in adults, in the dance world, or among GLBTQ people.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Sleepless by Charlie Huston (Audiobook narrated by Ray Porter and Mark Bramhall)

January 18, 2014 2 comments

A city in sepia tones with the title of the book in fuzzy white letters over the black sky.Summary:
In an alternate 2010, the world is slowly falling into disarray, partially due to terrorism, but mostly due to a new deadly illness.  SLP makes the sufferer an insomniac, unable to sleep for years, until they fall into a state of insanity known as the suffering.  The sleepless, as those with the illness are known, change the structure of society. Movie theaters are now open 24/7, there’s an increase in sales of odd and illicit things, as the sleepless get bored.  Most importantly, the sleepless have moved much of their energy into online MMORPGs.  Some spending countless hours gold farming there, making a good buck with all their hours of alertness.

Park, an old-fashioned cop, is determined to save the structure of society, one bust at a time.  He’s committed to his work, in spite of his wife being sleepless and being increasingly unable to care for their infant daughter.  So when his boss asks him to go undercover to look for people illegally selling the one drug that can ease the pain of the sleepless–dreamer–he agrees.

Jasper is an elderly ex-military private investigator without much of an eye for sticking to the rule of the law who is asked by a client to hunt down and return to her a thumb drive that was stolen.  He slowly discovers that that thumb drive ended up in the middle of much more than some art thieves and finds himself sucked into the world of illicit dreamer.

Review:
My partner and I both enjoy a good noir story, so when we saw this summary on Audible, we thought it would make an entertaining listen for our 12 hour holiday road trip.  The story was so bad, we could only take it for about an hour at a time and eventually just turned it off so I could read out loud to him from a different book.  I eventually soldiered on, though, because I honestly just had to finish it so I could review it.  In what should be a fast-paced noir, there is instead an overwrought amount of description of unimportant things that slow what could have been an interesting plot down to a crawl.

Noir as a genre is a thriller that generally features a hard-boiled detective (sometimes a hard-boiled criminal).  It’s fast-paced and usually short featuring a lot of grit and mean streets.  One thing Huston does that puts an interesting twist on the noir is he incorporates both a cop who is being forced to turn detective and a criminal-style private investigator.  He features both sorts of main character.  This intrigued me from the beginning.  However, the writing includes far too much description of unimportant things for a crime thriller.  For instance, there is an at least 5 minutes long description of a computer keyboard.  I could literally space out for a few minutes and come back to the audiobook that was playing the entire time and miss literally nothing. It would still be describing the same chair.  This really slows the plot down.

A golden robot holding a gun.On top of the overly descriptive writing, the narration is overwrought, like a stage actor trying too hard.  The best explanation I can make for the narration is, if you have ever seen Futurama, the narration switches back and forth between being Calculon and being Hedonbot.  Now, I admit, the audiobook narrators played these parts perfectly. In fact, I had to check to see if they’re the same voice actors as Calculon and Hedonbot (they’re not).  I really think the audiobook narrators are what saved the story enough to keep me reading.  I kept laughing at the visual of Calculon and Hedonbot doing this overwrought noir.  But that is clearly not what makes for a good noir.  The tone and writing style were all wrong for the plot.

In addition to the writing style, there’s the plot.  In this world that Huston has imagined, gamers have become all-important.  When people go sleepless, they become intense gamers.  If they don’t do this then they become zombie-like criminals.  I don’t think this is a realistic imagining of what would actually happen if a huge portion of the population became permanent insomniacs.  Not everyone is a gamer or a criminal.  There’s a lot more options in the world than that.  Additionally, in this alternate 2010, the art world now revolves around MMORPGs as well. The art work that is now sold is thumb drives of the characters that people make in the games.  There is a long speech in the book about how making a character in an MMORPG is art.  Yes, somepeople might think that. But it is incredibly doubtful that the entire world would suddenly overnight start viewing character building in an MMORPG as an art form.  I won’t explain how, because it’s a spoiler, but the gamers also come into play in the seedy underworld of illegal drugs.  At the expense of a plot that follows the logic of the world the author has created, gamers are made to be inexplicably all-important.

hedonbot holding grapes and apologizing for nothingI also must point out that the science in this book is really shaky.  SLP was originally a genetic disease that suddenly becomes communicable.  That’s not how diseases work.  Communicable and genetic diseases are different, they don’t suddenly morph into one or the other.  Additionally, in the real world, there’s no way an illness would be given a scientific name that is an abbreviation for the common name (SLP for sleepless).  Think about swine flu.  The common name is swine flu, the scientific name is H1N1.  Similarly, the drug to treat SLP’s official name is DR33M3R, which is just the street name, dreamer, in leetspeak.  This isn’t fiction based in true science.

One thing I did appreciate in the book is that the semi-criminal private investigator, Jasper, is gay.  He’s extremely macho, ex-military, and he bangs his also macho helicopter pilot.  I like the stereotype-breaking characterization of Jasper.  It’s nice to see a gay man given such a strong role in a thriller.

Overall, this alternate 2010 noir gets too caught up in overly long descriptions of mundane things and an overwrought narrative style to keep the plot moving at a thriller pace.  The plot features an unrealistic level of importance for MMORPGs and the gamers who play, as well as unsound “science.”  One of the hardboiled main characters is a stereotype-breaking gay man, however, which is nice to see.  Recommended to those who enjoy an overly descriptive, overacting narration style with gamers featured unrealistically at center stage who don’t mind some shaky science in the plot.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh (Audiobook narrated by Kevin T. Collins, Eileen Stevens, and Ali Ahn)

January 11, 2014 2 comments

An ambiguously Asian looking woman is seen through a foggy glass pressing her finger down.Summary:
In the future, you can live forever. But only if you can afford to pay to be medically resurrected and any injuries sustained fixed.  The rest put everything they have into freezing insurance, getting cryogenically frozen in the hopes that one day, someday, they might get resurrected.  At the very least, they wont’ die.  But beautiful women who die too young (and too not filthy rich) get a different sort of a second chance.  They get awoken and given the choice of going into the cryogenic dating facility.  Men will come through and pay to wake them up and talk to them, and if they fall for them, they’ll pay to have them resurrected and their injuries healed.

In this world, three different, yet intertwined stories are told.  There’s Rob. A once-musician who accidentally struck and killed a jogger in the middle of his break-up with his reality star-esque wealthy girlfriend.  He proceeds to take out a loan to visit the jogger to apologize but slowly the guilt turns into something more.  Then there’s Veronika, a dating coach with a bad case of unrequited love and a need to feel like she’s doing some good in the world.  And finally, Mira.  A lesbian who was placed into the heterosexual cryogenic dating pool back at the beginning before they bothered to wake the women and ask them if they wanted to be there.

Review:
I was immediately intrigued by this book’s premise and then realized I’d already read another scifi book by Will McIntosh and enjoyed it.  That book, Soft Apocalypse (review), is actually set in the same universe as this one.  Although they’re not a series, technically, Love Minus Eighty takes place a bit in the future after the events described in Soft Apocalypse.  I enjoyed the future imagined there, so was happy to return to it once again to see where things have gone since everything fell apart for Earth.  And oh my have they taken an interesting turn.

The future is a near dystopic mess of most of the wealth being in the hands of the few.  While some people have foregone civilization to live off the land, the rest of the have-nots spend their time in body suits, called systems, that are basically like a full-bodied smartphone.  They reminded me a bit of Google Glass.  Their systems filter out all the unsightly aspects of where they live, including garbage, and they also block pop-up ads that otherwise accost you on the street.  Everyone pours their little bit of money into their systems because without one you fall entirely off the social stratum.  This is already creative enough to be intriguing, but then McIntosh tosses in this idea that cryogenics and resurrection has been figured out but only the wealthy can afford to be resurrected and everyone else pours all the rest of their money into freezing insurance.  Then we get the cryogenic dating program aka bridesicles, and oh wow.  Any scifi reader can see what an interesting setting this is.

On top of this setting, McIntosh weaves three different, yet ultimately intertwined narrators.  It’s a narrative structure I enjoy but only when done well, and McIntosh mostly pulls it off.  Some things sometimes felt a bit like too much of a coincidence, but for the most part the intertwining made sense.  All three narrators have unique voices and perspectives.  They are well-rounded with flaws, even Mira, who is frozen a lot of the time, but they also are still likable.

The plot is complex and truly had me on the edge of my seat for the last third of the book.  I was rooting for the characters and did not know what would happen.  An unpredictable, yet satisfying, ending plays in perfectly with the plot.

I am of two minds about the presence of Mira in the story.  On the one hand, I appreciate that McIntosh took the time to think about how the heteronormativity of the bridesicle program could affect a lesbian.  On the other hand, it frustrates me that she and her girlfriend have their agency removed and spend most of the story frozen and at the whim of the heterosexual people around them.  Having lesbians rescued by the straight folks just kind of rubbed me the wrong way.  I sort of wish there had been some modern day queer person who helped them out in some way.  That was the other thing that bothered me.  The only queer presence was from the past in the form of Mira and her frozen girlfriend.  In such a sweeping narrative with so many characters that is also set in a city, it seems odd to me we never encountered another queer character.  Particularly when one of the main characters is a dating coach.

The narration of the audiobook was wonderful.  Having a different voice for each narrator really helped keep the stories straight, and each of the narrators did a wonderful job bringing their characters to life.

Overall, this book presents a richly imagined near-dystopian scifi future that gets the reader to think about if living afraid of death is truly living.  The three-narrator structure lends a complexity to the plot that keeps it engaging and consistently moving forward.  One of the plot choices might rub some readers the wrong way, but if the world building and narrative structure appeal, it shouldn’t be much of an issue.  Recommended to scifi fans who enjoy a city setting and some romance.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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2013′s 5 Star Reads!

January 4, 2014 Leave a comment

Since 2011, I’ve been dedicating a separate post from my annual reading stats post to the 5 star reads of the year.  I not only thoroughly enjoyed assembling the 5 star reads posts, but I also go back to them for reference periodically.  It’s just useful and fun simultaneously!  Plus it has the added bonus of giving an extra signal boost to the five star reads of the year.

With no further ado, presenting Opinions of a Wolf’s 5 Star Reads for 2013!

Image of a bicycle with a bag of money on its back is under the title of the book in red.The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future
By: Chris Guillebeau
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Crown Business
Genre: Nonfiction Lifestyle
Themes: independence, success, small businesses
Summary:
Guillebeau investigated what makes microbusinesses (small businesses typically run by one person) successful by conducting a multiyear study interviewing more than 100 successful microbusiness entrepreneurs.  Here he presents his findings on what makes for a successful microbusiness and offers advice on how you can become a successful microbusiness entrepreneur too.
Current Thoughts:
I refer to things I learned in this book at least once a week.  Guillebeau offers practical advice for the aspiring small business owner on everything from choosing an idea that will work to setting the right price to marketing.  The things I’ve been able to try from the book so far have worked.  This book shows what happens when a nonfiction book bases its advice on solid research.

Black silhouette of birds and trees against a moon and a red background with a face just discernible in it.The Curse of the Wendigo (The Monstrumologist, #2)
By: Rick Yancey
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Genre: Horror, YA
Themes: love lost, the nature of good and evil
Summary:
Will Henry, 12 year old orphan and assistant to renowned Monstrumologist, Pellinore Warthrop, is shocked to find a refined woman on Warthrop’s doorstep.  She is the wife of Warthrop’s best friend who has now gone missing in rural Canada while looking for the elusive wendigo (aka werewolf).  Warthrop insists that there is no such thing as a wendigo, but he agrees to go looking for his missing friend anyway, even if he believes his mission was ridiculous and an affront to monstrumology’s reputation.
Current Thoughts:
What I remember when I think about this book is the beautiful language and the dual setting of the horror.  Setting the book both in rural Canada and urban New York is part of what made it feel so unique to me.  A horror that travels instead of being trapped in one setting isn’t seen as often.  The book is beautiful and grotesque at the same time. A rare find.

Image drawn in largely dark colors of a man's plasticene face with rectangular wings behind him.Man Plus
By: Frederik Pohl
Publication Date: 1976
Publisher: Orb Books
Genre: Scifi
Themes: transhumanism, artificial intelligence
Summary:
The first Earthling reworked into a Martian would be Roger Torraway.  Martian instead of Earthling since everything on him had to be reworked in order to survive on Mars.  His organic skin is stripped off and made plastic.  His eyes are replaced by large, buglike red ones.  He is given wings to gather solar power, not to fly.  All of which is organized and run by his friend, the computer on his back.  Who was this man? What was his life like? How did he survive the transformation to become more than human and help us successfully colonize Mars?
Current Thoughts:
This has a scifi plot that both explores an issue I’m interested in (transhumanism) and managed to surprise me at the end.  It’s a short book that makes you think and has compelling three-dimensional characters.  I’ll definitely be keeping this one and seeking out more of Pohl’s writing.

Red lettering on a yellow background stating "A Queer and Pleasant Danger" black lettering around the edge says the subtitle of the novel, "The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today"A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology, and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today
By: Kate Bornstein
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Beacon Press
Genre: Memoir, GLBTQ
Themes:  religious abuse, trans rights, gender, Borderline Personality Disorder
Summary:
Kate Bornstein is a playwright, gender theorist, and queer activist.  She chose to write a memoir as a way to reach out to her daughter, Jessica, who is still in the Church of Scientology, and thus, must not speak to her.  Her memoir talks about growing up Jewish in the 1950s, feeling like a girl inside a boy’s body.  It then talks about why and how she joined Scientology (still identifying as a man, Al), climbing Scientology’s ladder, marrying, fathering Jessica, and finally getting kicked out of Scientology and becoming disillusioned.  From there the memoir explains to Jessica how and why Al decided to become Kate and talks about the person behind the queer theory, trying to explain who the incredibly unique parent she has truly is.
Current Thoughts:
This memoir is engaging right from the title and stunning in the level of honesty Bornstein displays.  Bornstein eloquently presents the reality of being trans, entering a leaving an abusive religion, and the complexities of gender.  An incredibly readable memoir that stays with you.

Woman standing in front of electrical storm.Succubus Dreams (Georgina Kincaid, #3)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: the grayness of good versus evil
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, has a lot on her hands between dating her human author boyfriend, Seth, (and not sleeping with him to protect his life energy), adjusting to her new managerial position at the bookstore, and her usual succubus requirement of stealing good men’s life energy by sleeping with them.  So the last thing she needs is another new assignment from hell, but that’s what she’s getting.  Seattle is getting a second succubus, a newbie she has to mentor.  When she starts having dreams about having a normal, human life and waking up with her energy drained, it all turns into almost too much for one succubus to handle.
Current Thoughts:
This series glows in my mind as a favorite that I will return to again and again.  This book is where I truly began to fall in love with it.  The third entry shows that urban fantasy can be more than monster of the week.  It does what genre does best.  Ponder real life questions in an enjoyable wrapping.

Woman in white and wearing a cross standing in front of a foggy sky.Succubus Revealed (Georgina Kincaid, #6)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: soul mates, forgiveness, personal growth
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, is incredibly happy to be back together with her previously ex boyfriend, Seth Mortensen.  But getting back together with him came at the price of hurting his once-fiancee and having to leave her previously loved position managing the bookstore.  It’s all worth it to be with Seth, though.  But then a transfer notice comes in, sending her to her dream job in Las Vegas.  It’d be a dream come true, except Seth can’t come with her because his sister-in-law has cancer.  Georgina starts to wonder just why so many elements seem to keep coming together to try to drive her and Seth apart.
Current Thoughts:
This an amazing series finale that reveals so many aspects of the overarching plot that I wanted to go back and re-read the whole series immediately just to look for more of the overarching plot that I was oblivious to the first time around.  It’s a wrap-up that is satisfying without making everything too perfect for the characters.  It has a lot to say about love and redemption. And it made me cry.

Redheaded woman in a sexy leather top standing in front of fog.Succubus Shadows (Georgina Kincaid, #5)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: facing your past
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, cannot believe she has been roped into helping plan her ex-boyfriend’s wedding.  It’s enough to make anyone depressed.  But she can’t afford to be depressed, because every time she starts to feel down, a mysterious force tries to lure her away to what must be a dangerous place.  Georgina is fed up with all of these mysterious attacks on Seattle.  It just doesn’t make sense.  What is making them target Seattle? And seem to be maybe targeting her?
Current Thoughts:
The penultimate book in this series isn’t afraid to go dark places with tough questions.  It also addresses the issue in urban fantasy that a lot of people joke about: gee that’s sure a lot happening in this one town!  Mead addresses this in a tongue-in-cheek manner that also ties into the overall plot.  I was amazed at how well this series incorporates both all the things that make urban fantasy fun (demons! sex! supernatural battles!) and an overarching plot that tugs at the heart strings and makes some of the bizarre things that happen make sense.

Simple cover image containing a broad off-white background on the top third of the cover and a red background on the bottom two thirds. The book's title and author are printed on the background.The Time Machine
By: H. G. Wells
Publication Date: 1895
Publisher: New American Library
Genre: Scifi, Classic
Themes: dystopia, time travel, evolution, class divides
Summary:
Nobody is quite sure whether to believe their eccentric scientist friend when he claims to have invented the ability to travel through time.  But when he shows up late to a dinner party with a tale of traveling to the year 802,700 and meeting the human race, now divided into the child-like Eloi and the pale ape-like ground-dwelling Morlocks, they find themselves wanting to believe him.
Current Thoughts:
I’m so glad I added this scifi classic to my list of books I’ve read.  I of course had heard of the general idea of the Morlocks and the Eloi, but reading about them for myself, I was easily able to see how this became a classic.  It kept me on the edge of my seat, concerned for the scientist’s safety, even while exploring issues of inequitable class divides and pondering the future direction of the evolution of the human race.

A green and white book cover with an image of a woman and her reflection.Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers
By: Karyl McBride
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: Free Press
Genre: Nonfiction Psych, Nonfiction Relationships
Themes: overcoming adversity, mother/daughter relationships, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, abuse
Summary:
A guidebook for adult women raised by a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).  Dr. McBride is a therapist with many years of experience treating daughters of NPD mothers and also with treating people with NPD.  Additionally, she herself is the daughter of a woman with NPD.  The book is divided into three sections to help the daughters of mothers with NPD to heal and take charge of their lives.  The first section “Recognizing the Problem,” explains what maternal NPD looks like.  The second section, “How Narcissistic Mothering Affects Your Entire Life,” explains the impact NPD mothers have on their daughters, both as children and as adults.  The third section, “Ending the Legacy” is all about healing from the NPD mothering and breaking the cycle of Narcissism.  Dr. McBride offers clinical examples from her practice as well as detailed, clearly explained exercises to aid with healing.
Current Thoughts:
This is one of the best books I’ve read for adult survivors of abusive childhoods.  It works because it focuses narrowly on one type of relationship and one type of dysfunctional, abusive childhood to be overcome.  McBride explains what happened to the adult survivor when they were a child, how that affects them now, and how to overcome it.  She does this while neither excusing nor demonizing the mother’s behavior.  A great book for anyone with an interest in how mothers with NPD affect their daughters.

Book Review: A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today by Kate Bornstein (Audiobook narrated by Alice Rosengard)

June 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Red lettering on a yellow background stating "A Queer and Pleasant Danger" black lettering around the edge says the subtitle of the novel, "The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today"Summary:
Kate Bornstein is a playwright, gender theorist, and queer activist.  She chose to write a memoir as a way to reach out to her daughter, Jessica, who is still in the Church of Scientology, and thus, must not speak to her.  Her memoir talks about growing up Jewish in the 1950s, feeling like a girl inside a boy’s body.  It then talks about why and how she joined Scientology (still identifying as a man, Al), climbing Scientology’s ladder, marrying, fathering Jessica, and finally getting kicked out of Scientology and becoming disillusioned.  From there the memoir explains to Jessica how and why Al decided to become Kate and talks about the person behind the queer theory, trying to explain who the incredibly unique parent she has truly is.

Review:
I was feeling bad about how far behind I’ve fallen in writing up reviews for the books I’ve finished reading, but with the historic DOMA ruling in the US yesterday (giving official federal support to marriage equality), I’m really glad I had a GLBTQ book in the queue ready to be reviewed.  And not just any GLBTQ book. An amazing one!  You can’t read that title and not be intrigued. It’s impossible.  I spotted it on tumblr and instantly knew I had to read it.  A memoir about a transwoman who was a member of Scientology?! It’s the intersection of three topics I find fascinating.

Kate is unabashedly honest about the fact that this book exists as a letter to her daughter, Jessica.  The prologue explains that this memoir came about as a way for Kate to reach out to Jessica and her children, even after Kate has passed away.  This lends a tone to the book of an elderly neighbor sitting down to tell you their life story, and you finding out gradually that your elderly neighbor is, in fact, a bad ass, and age has nothing to do with how cool a person still is to this day.  And Kate doesn’t hold back because of this perspective.  If anything, she is more brutally honest than she might otherwise be.  She wants Jessica to have a whole, clear picture of who she is.  Flaws and all.  One technique that I thought was brilliant for a memoir and helped establish trust in truth between the reader and the author was the fact that Kate would tell a family story she heard growing up and then say, well, that was a lie.  I thought it was true, but it turns out what people told me was a lie.  Given that, how can we ever know what really is true? Just because we think something is true doesn’t mean it is.  It’s an excellent grain of salt to be given in a memoir.

After the prologue, Kate tells her story chronologically.  Her story can be roughly summarized as the following sections: growing up a gender queer person, joining Scientology, break-down after getting kicked out of Scientology and coming to terms with her queerness, transitioning, life as a lesbian trans activist, finding BDSM, and overcoming depression and suicidal thoughts.  It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride, and one cannot help but feel empathy for this person just struggling to find a place in the world.  Personally, I think Kate’s life story is an excellent argument for breaking down the binary gender divide.  A lot of Kate’s struggles come from the rigid gender norms and expectations placed upon her by others.  It would have been much simpler for people to have let her be gender fluid, and indeed, Kate in more recent years has come to be an activist for gender fluidity and queerness (as is evidenced by her book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us).  This memoir of course explores trans issues, but it also is an amazing gender queer memoir.

The Scientology section was surprisingly mundane compared to what I thought actually happens in Scientology.  Yes, there was abuse and lies and many other things going on that demonstrate the fallacies of L. Ron Hubbard, but honestly none of it was that much worse than religious extremists of any religion.  Scientology expects its followers to cut themselves off from people deemed poisonous and to proselytize non-stop.  It takes over the lives of the people in the upper-echelons, controlling every aspect of their lives.  We can see all of this in Kate’s years in Scientology, and while it was interesting, none of it is shocking to anyone moderately informed on Scientology.  I actually was more interested in how Kate wound up joining Scientology.  Scientology teaches the the soul is genderless, and you also reincarnate.  Everyone has been in both male and female bodies.  Kate (then Al) found this incredibly comforting.  It’s possible that his soul was just more frequently in female bodies, and so that’s why he felt like a girl inside.  What an appealing concept to a confused, unsupported trans or gender queer young adult.  I think this part of the book demonstrates clearly why it’s important for families and loved ones to be supportive of their glbtq teens and young people.  You don’t want a harmful group of people snapping them up with promises of understanding and caring and information that sounds more supportive than the people they live with.

Interestingly, the much more shocking section was the one in which Kate discusses discovering BDSM and getting pleasure from pain.  Kate was part of a BDSM triad for quite some time, and this is addressed.  It does, however, come with a warning for Jessica and readers who might not want to hear the details so they can easily skip over it and still get the most important information without getting all the details.  I thought that was a nice touch from Kate, showing her maturity and openness.  Of course, I read that section, and I will say that Kate had a more intense BDSM relationship than you tend to see in literature, and it was interesting to read about.

It’s also interesting to note that from the prologue Kate is honest with the reader about being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder years ago.  This is not something I knew coming into the book, and I don’t think Kate’s mental illness played very much into the book.  I certainly think she would have had a better time coping with her mental health issues if she had had a supportive environment for her queerness.  Even within the GLBTQ community, she was ostracized for some of her less mainstream beliefs within that community.  It’s sad that even a community of people ostracized by the larger society, people can still be unaccepting and unloving.  In spite of the fact that the book talks a lot about depression, self-injury, and other mental health issues, I am hesitant to label it as counting for my Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge.  I don’t want the casual reader to think that I’m equating being queer with having a mental illness.  However, the fact remains that Kate herself states she was diagnosed with BPD, and trans and queer people certainly can have mental illnesses.  One does not cause the other, although certainly I think lack of acceptance and loving increases symptoms of mental illnesses.  In any case, for this reason, I am counting this read for the challenge, but I want to be crystal clear that this is due to Kate’s BPD and NOT her queer/trans orientation.

The narration of the audiobook was perfect.  Thankfully, they chose to use a female narrator throughout, which fits perfectly with the image of an older Kate Bornstein telling her life story to her daughter.  Alice Rosengard was a perfect narrator.  She became Kate in my mind, and there’s not a better complement you can pay a narrator than that.

I feel like I’ve rambled a lot about this book.  It’s hard to succinctly discuss a memoir as unique as this one, let alone a book you love as much as I loved this one.  It’s amazing. It’s unique.  It does exactly what a memoir should do. It tells a unique life story in an engaging way that forces the reader to put herself into someone else’s shoes and feel empathy and maybe even come out of it with a changed worldview, however slightly.  I strongly recommend this book to everyone, really, but especially anyone with an interest in GLBTQ history/theory/studies or an interest in the first few decades of Scientology.  I will definitely be reading more of Kate’s works, myself, and want to thank her for being a pioneer, in spite of everything.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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