Category: Memoir

Nonbinary and Genderqueer Reads

Today I’ve got mini-reviews four books by and about nonbinary and genderqueer people, including two young adult novels, and two memoirs, including one graphic memoir. I’m part of a monthly bring your own book club with other library workers, and this month’s theme was “read a book by an author whose gender is different than yours.” Having read a lot of books by men already in my life, I decided to focus on books by nonbinary people instead!

I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver (they/them)

Cover image for I Wish You All the BestThis YA novel is a classic coming out narrative, but for gender rather than sexuality. Ben is thrown out by their parents after coming out as nonbinary, and is taken in by their estranged older sister, Hannah. Ben starts the last semester of senior year at a new school, where they decide not to come out as nonbinary because of the fallout from the fight with their parents. At the new school, Ben falls for their first new friend, the handsome and ebullient Nathan Allan. This quiet contemporary focuses on relationships and acceptance, including Ben’s growing feelings for Nathan, reconnecting with their sister, and their decision about whether or not to forgive their parents. One thing that I Wish You All the Best does really well is highlight just how unnecessarily gendered language can be in small, quotidian ways that creep into everything. From binary checkboxes on forms, to endearments like “little bro” or “dude” and “my prince,” gendered language is a minefield that is slowly killing Ben with a thousand thoughtless cuts.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender (he/they)

Cover image for Felix Ever After by Kacen CallenderWhereas I Wish You All the Best is a coming out story, Felix Ever After follows the story of Felix Love, who has already transitioned to male, but is still exploring their gender identity and coming to terms with some of the nonbinary options. Felix has never been in love, but has a deep romantic streak, and this novel sees him caught between an enemies-to-lovers epistolary romance via Instagram messages, and the possibility that one of his oldest friendships is actually romantic. Next to the romances, my favourite element of this book was the way it explored the complicated forms of homophobia and transphobia that can exist within the queer community where Felix is supposed to feel safe, such as his ex-girlfriend Marisol, and the anonymous bullies causing trouble at school and online. Felix’s best friend Ezra is the light of this book, and he reminded me a great deal of Nathan from I Wish You All the Best.

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe (e/em/eir)

Cover image for Gender Queer by Maia KobabeThis graphic memoir follows Maia Kobabe on eir exploration of gender, and how e came to understand that e was nonbinary, with colours by eir sister, Phoebe Kobabe. The book recounts eir confusion about increasingly gendered expectations in childhood, such as differences in acceptable swimwear for young boys and girls. As e gets older, there is an increasing focus on body dysmorphia, particularly body horror related to menstruation and gynecological exams. E confesses to secretly harbouring a guilty wish for breast cancer as an excuse for a mastectomy. Unaware of the nonbinary option, as a teen Kobabe wished for the ability to switch between genders at will, like in the cartoon Ranma ½. The memoir comes to an open ending, as Kobabe has realized eir nonbinary identity, but is still struggling with being open about it in various settings, such as the art class e teaches. The book concludes: “A note to my parents: Though I have struggled with being your daughter, I am so, so glad I am your child.”

Sissy by Jacob Tobia (they/them)

Cover image for Sissy by Jacob TobiaJacob Tobia is a gender nonconforming writer, producer, and performer based in Los Angeles. Sissy is their memoir about growing up in North Carolina, and their years coming into their gender identity and expression as a scholarship student at Duke University. Tobia is perhaps best known for their 2012 run in five inch high heels across the Brooklyn Bridge to raise money for the Ali Forney Center after it was flooded by Hurricane Sandy. Tobia has a loud love-me-or-leave-me style that you will either jive with, or not; in their conclusion they write “to this day, your divine conviction in your own self-love makes you kinda arrogant and a little bit of an asshole,” apparently aware of the inevitable dichotomy. Tobia likes humour and extended metaphors; for example, they propose that instead of the closet, the metaphor for coming out should be a snail coming out of its shell. Their tone is a whiplash combination of earnestness and irreverence, mixing insights about gender and socialization with jokes, dropping insights about toxic masculinity in the same breath as a dick joke. Tobia loudly pushes for more trans stories that go beyond the traditional gender binary, using their own struggles with their parents, their church, and their university to pave the way.

Browse more LGBTQ+ reads

Canada Reads Along: We Have Always Been Here

Cover image for We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habibby Samra Habib

ISBN 978-0-7352-35007

Content Warnings: Sexual violence, homophobia, sexism, racism, child marriage.

“Azaad is a funny word in Urdu. In most instances, it means ‘freedom.’ Freedom from your captors, war, and oppressive regimes. But when used to describe a woman, it is meant to imply that she is too wild to be tamed by those who have the right to tame her: her parents and all the men in her life whose honour it is her duty to prioritize before her own desires.”

Samra Habib’s family came to Canada from Pakistan in 1991, seeking freedom from the oppression they faced as members of the minority Ahmadi sect of Muslims, which the Sunni majority does not recognize as a form of Islam at all. Along with her immediate family, they were accompanied by her first cousin, a young man about ten years her senior. When she was thirteen, she learned that her mother intended for her to marry her cousin when she turned eighteen. However, the marriage eventually took place when Habib was only sixteen years of age. For years, Habib lived a double life, secretly married to her cousin while still attending high school like an average Canadian teenager. We Have Always Been Here chronicles the complicated journey to reconciling her Muslim beliefs with her queer identity, and coming to terms with the choices her family made for her.

In this memoir about the intersection of family, religion, and sexual identity, Habib shows an extremely touching thoughtfulness about her relationship with her mother, from whom she was estranged for a period of time following her divorce from her cousin. She stands firm in both her acknowledgment of the wrong her parents did her, and her ability to try to understand the circumstances that made them into the kind of people who would take such a step. After all, she had “only ever been surrounded by women who didn’t have the blueprint for claiming their lives.” Habib’s memoir takes us deep into her own thoughts, feelings, and emotions, but cannot offer us quite the same insight into how her mother started as someone who would marry her minor daughter to her first cousin, and came to be a woman who could accept the fact that her daughter is queer, and dates all kinds of other queer people. “To better understand myself, I need to understand how she got here,” Habib concludes. “I intend to spend the rest of the time she’s alive finding out.”

Habib’s father is a fascinating contradiction, a man who refused to accept condolences for having three beautiful daughters before a son finally came along, but who was also known to bellow “Allah hates the loud laughter of women!” Habib’s portrait painfully illustrates how his confidence was unmade by the family’s move to Canada, where he is unable to reclaim the status to which he was accustomed in Pakistan as a successful businessman. He is the kind of father who disagrees with engaging a teenager to her first cousin, and obliquely offers to put a stop to it. But he is also mercurial enough that his adolescent daughter knows instinctively that there will be a price to pay for accepting that offer. Even though he was not the architect of her child marriage, Habib’s rapprochement with her father seems more halting and tentative. I was also deeply curious about the experiences of her sisters and brother in this same household, and how they were uniquely affected by growing up under similar circumstances. However, that is perhaps their own story to tell, and Habib does not dwell on it.

Although leaving Pakistan helped her family avoid one type of religious persecution, in Canada Habib still faced racism, homophobia, and anti-Muslim discrimination. “Sure, we were no longer afraid of being killed by religious extremists on our way to school, but not knowing whether we’d be able to make next month’s rent didn’t ease my mind either. We had our asylum and our government-issued blankets, but I still didn’t feel free to be a child,” Habib writes of the precarious transition to life in Canada. School was a mixed blessing. Though “people who devote themselves to learning have always been my people, my pockets of safety,” she experienced the transition from ESL classes with other immigrants to the mainstream classroom as a source of trauma. Education was her weapon, but school was not always a safe place.

We Have Always Been Here was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by actor Amanda Brugel. The book slid under the radar on the first day of debates, as the discussion that day centered on Radicalized and Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. However, Brugel was an engaged debater from the first, showing herself early on as one of the strongest defenders at the table this year. She came out swinging on the very first question, arguing vociferously against Radicalized by Cory Doctorow, saying that it centered the perspectives of angry men, and that the only woman of colour protagonist was less developed than the smart toaster in “Unauthorized Bread.”

Indeed, We Have Always Been Here faced little criticism over the course of a week of debates. The most notable critique came from Akil Augustine, who argued that Habib did not do a good job of explaining how she could remain a Muslim after she came into her queer identity. Augustine specifically felt that given the importance of the religious texts in Islam, she should have mounted a theological argument referencing the textual passages that supported her position, as this would be most effective in persuading other Muslims to her way of thinking. George Canyon also noted he would have liked more contextual information about Pakistan and her family’s history there.

Although she didn’t often use the term, Brugel also argued that her book was the most intersectional, and therefore best represented the widest variety of Canadians within a single story. Samra is a queer woman of colour, a Muslim, and a refugee, providing multiple points of entry into her narrative. In keeping with this year’s theme, Brugel felt the book had the potential to bring the largest number of diverse Canadian identities into focus, making them feel safe, seen, and recognized.

Brugel described reading this book as being like reading the diary of a soul mate she had never met, and the other panelists seemed to agree with her, especially after they became free agents. George Canyon praised We Have Always Been Here for the way Habib’s writing evoked the Pakistani setting in the first part of the book. Canyon also joined Akil Augustine and Kaniehtiio Horn in naming Samra as one of the characters from all the books that stuck with them most, and Alayna Fender named her the character that most embodied compassion for the messiness of being human.

Going into the finale, We Have Always Been Here seemed a clear favourite, never having had a single vote cast against it by any of the panelists. In her closing remarks, Brugel asked her fellow panelists to put aside the question of fiction vs. non-fiction, and instead vote for the book that changed them, and impacted their life after the last page. Despite a lively final day of debate, when the ballots were read, everyone except Son of a Trickster defender Kaniehtiio Horn had voted to name We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib the historic winner of Canada Reads 2020. This marked the first time since Canada Reads began in 2002 that a woman panelist defending a book written by a woman took home the top prize.

Thanks for joining me for Canada Reads Along 2020! Need to catch up? Start with Radicalized by  Cory Doctorow.

You can also browse for more Canadian reads, including past Canada Reads contenders! Past winners include:

Canada Reads Along: From the Ashes

Cover image for From the Ashes by Jesse Thistleby Jesse Thistle

ISBN 9781982101213

Content Warnings: Substance abuse, self-harm, sexual violence, child abuse.

“My words belonged to me. They were the only thing I had that was mine. And I didn’t trust anyone enough to share them.”

From the Ashes is the account of an unstable childhood, intergenerational trauma, and a young adulthood lost to the streets. After being abandoned by parents who struggled with their own demons, Jesse Thistle and his two brothers landed in the home of their paternal grandparents, where the boys were expected to work hard, were scolded for eating too much, or for any behaviour that reminded their grandfather of their wayward father. A lacklustre student, Thistle dropped out of high school, and was kicked out of his grandparents’ home when they caught him with drugs, beginning a decade-long downward spiral into homelessness and addiction. From the Ashes recounts his troubled childhood, his lost years on the streets, and his eventual recovery and journey into academia and Indigenous Studies.

Thistle’s chapters are often short and somewhat fractured, an accurate reflection of a disjointed life punctuated by black outs. It is a chronicle of poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak. Occasional interludes are more like poems, including a disturbing section in which Thistle envisions turning into a wendigo who then cannibalizes himself. Thistle’s account begins with crushing images of childhood poverty, including toddlers drinking half-empty beers (“brown pop”) because they were hungry, and trying to eat a raw turnip. Before disappearing onto the streets himself, Thistle’s father spent all their money on drugs and alcohol, and taught his three young sons to beg and steal to feed themselves.

Thistle has a knack for striking images. Early in the book, he describes himself homeless and addicted on the streets of Ottawa, fishing change out of the fountain surrounding the capital’s Centennial Flame. He is half-heartedly pursued by an RCMP officer who is obligated to chase him off, but less than invested in the endeavour. Occasionally his imagery can be overwhelming, such as gut-wrenching descriptions of medical horror. Thistle broke multiple bones after he fell off the side of a building, attempting to break into his brother’s apartment for shelter. On the streets, staying in homeless shelters, smoking against medical advice, his wounds became infected to the point that he was at risk of losing his leg. Eventually he deliberately committed a crime and turned himself in, in order to be sent to jail where he would have stable housing and medical care while his injuries healed.

From the Ashes was the only one of the Canada Reads 2020 titles that I listened to as an audiobook, simply because that was the only format I could get my hands on before the program was initially supposed to air back in March. The audiobook is performed by the author, who has a slow, extremely measured speaking voice. I don’t tend to speed up my audiobooks, as I prefer to listen at speaking speed, but for the first time ever, I listened to the entire audiobook at 1.25x. As this is published, I am currently rereading it in print form and overall would recommend reading over listening.

From the Ashes was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by country musician George Canyon, who appeared via video link from his home near Calgary. In his opening statement, Canyon highlighted the book as a hard story, but also one that is about love and redemption. Of the writing style, he spoke to its personal feel, saying that he felt like he was sitting down to coffee and hearing the life story of a brother, to the point that it felt rude to put down the book and interrupt the conversation. He lauded the uninhibited writing, and the vulnerability Thistle demonstrated in sharing such experiences. During his closing, he admitted that the book made him cry more than once, and held Thistle up as an inspiration for everyone.

With two novels and two memoirs left at the table, a debate ensued about building empathy through fiction and non-fiction, and which form is more effective. As the defender, Canyon argued for the realism of non-fiction, saying that it could not be dismissed as “just fiction” or not real, and that it would therefore be better at creating empathy. Alayna Fender advocated hard for the value of fiction, and the ability to identify with fictional characters, because you do not separate yourself from them in the same way you maintain separation from a person you know to be real. The fiction vs. non-fiction debate is a common sticking point in Canada Reads debates when both are brought to the table, and will likely remain an issue this week as one memoir and two novels remain.

Host Ali Hassan directed the conversation back into the hands of Indigenous panelist Kaniehtiio Horn, who incited controversy on Day One by referring to From the Ashes as “trauma porn.” Horn is championing the other Indigenous book at the table, Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson. She clarified that she felt that From the Ashes appealed to a non-Indigenous audience, and that for Indigenous readers, it would actually be all-too-familiar and even triggering to read. She agreed that the book could help build empathy, but also pointed to the idea that it might be so appealing because it holds up a colonial idea of success. Certainly Canyon’s choice to call Thistle inspirational points to that appeal factor playing into his choice.

When it came time to cast the ballots, once again the vote split down gender lines, with George Canyon and Akil Augustine voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. The accessibility of Coles’ writing remained a matter of hot debate on Day Two, and Augustine once again raised the subject of Coles having an axe to grind and whether or not people would actually read her story as a result. On the other side, Alayna Fender, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel voted together to make From the Ashes the second book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020. As Jael Richardson brought up, with this elimination, Canada Reads 2020 is set to make history this week. Never in the history of Canada Reads has a woman defending a woman’s book won the debates.

Tell Me How It Ends

Cover image for Tell Me How It Endsby Valeria Luiselli

ISBN 978-1-56689-495-1

“The causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country that no one can locate on a map, but in fact a transnational problem that includes the United States.”

Valeria Luiselli came to the work of interpretation by chance. Her family had applied for green cards, or permanent resident status in the United States, but while everyone else’s cards arrived, hers had been lost somewhere along the way. She hired a lawyer to help with her case, but soon after the lawyer quit to take a new job at a non-profit representing unaccompanied minors who arrived at the southern border of the United States to claim asylum. She had been recruited because the organization desperately needed Spanish-speaking lawyers. Almost as an afterthought, Luiselli asked her departing attorney if the organization also needed interpreters. And so, Luiselli found herself interviewing child migrants from South and Central America, following forty carefully scripted questions that would determine their fate.

Luiselli uses the structure of the immigration interview to scaffold her book, but it is as much about what the children do not say, as what they do. For example, many are young enough that they struggle to answer basic questions like where they are from, and why they came to the United States. Some of them speak Spanish as a second language. There is also the context that the children cannot know but which Luiselli becomes terribly familiar with; the lawyers are scanning each transcript for key information that may help them build a case to keep the child in the country. There are too many children, and not enough lawyers—they must pick and choose. A special, expedited juvenile docket was created under the Obama administration, giving the non-profits only twenty-one days to find a lawyer and make a case. Children are entitled to a representative if they can find one, but the state is not obliged to provide. Those who do not find representation are almost always removed. Luiselli catches glimpses of many stories, but rarely knows the final fate of those she tries to help.

Nothing highlights the transnational nature of this problem quite like Luiselli’s discussion of the gangs. Gang violence and recruitment is one of the major factors driving young people to flee their homes, and it can help cement an asylum application. For its part, the US traffics guns south, into the hands of gang members, and feeds the demand for drugs flowing north. Luiselli highlights MS-13’s origins in Los Angeles, and how deportations helped transnationalize the gang, as members were sent back to the Central American states they tried to escape. Children arriving in the United States may well be faced with international members of the very same gangs they fled. As one child Luiselli interviewed put it, “Hempstead [New York] is a shithole full of pandilleros just like Tegucigalpa.” Although he was required to attend school per the terms of his asylum application, the boy wanted to drop out as soon as possible to get away from them. He had run two thousand miles, but it was not far enough.

As a Mexican herself, Luiselli also grapples with Mexico’s role in the migration process. Riding La Bestia—the big freight trains on which migrants hitch a ride—Central American asylum seekers must cross Mexico to reach the United States. Most of the migrants Luiselli interviews are from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. There are mass graves of migrants who die in transit scattered across the country of her birth. Rape is so common enroute that young women “take contraceptive precautions before they begin the trip.” There are also various programs and agreement with the Mexican government to try to prevent migrants from reaching the US border in the first place. The Mexican government “is getting paid to do the dirty work” before an application for asylum can even be made. Yet between April 2014 and August 2015, Luiselli recounts that more than 100, 000 unaccompanied children reached the border.

Tell Me How it Ends is brief, but illuminating, highlighting a problem that long predates the current US administration, and which swiftly exposes the interconnected nature of the refugee crisis which America persists in viewing as an external problem.

No Ashes in the Fire

Cover image for No Ashes in the Fire by Darnell L. Moore

ISBN 978-1-56858-940-4

“Like so many other black boys who would grow up to love and lust after other boys, I would have died if I had not found safety in my imagination. I maneuvered through my days smiling, even as I suffocated in a world that refused to let me breathe.”

Darnell L. Moore was raised in Camden, New Jersey, a predominantly Black and Hispanic city across the river from Philadelphia. When Moore was born in 1976, Camden was a formerly prosperous industrial city that had developed a reputation for violence after a civil uprising against the murder of Horacio Jiminez by two police officers in 1971. But as Moore grew up, facing a fraught relationship with his father, a difficult relationship with the church, and deep denial about his own sexuality, he was largely unaware of that cultural history. Camden was merely home, a place full of his family, but also full of dangers for a boy who didn’t quite fit in. No Ashes in the Fire is an intersectional memoir at the confluence of being a gay Black man in the United States that recounts Moore’s long journey to self-acceptance.

In his portrait of his youth, Moore characterizes himself as a smart but not exceptional child, albeit one who drew the attention of his peers for his subtle failures to fit in. Moore points to the value of his education even as he critiques the system in which it took place. As a boy, he took his report cards to the guidance counsellor, and demanded to know why he wasn’t in the school’s gifted and talented program. He was admitted, but “unfortunately my individual ascension would be of no consequence for all of my peers who still had to return to the overcrowded classes I left.” Rather than casting himself as exceptional, he critiques the inevitable inequality of per pupil funding that relies heavily on local property taxes. Moore admits that “the better story would be one where I am portrayed as an exception, a student more worthy of better schooling than others,” but rather than giving into this narrative impulse, he firmly states, “I was no more gifted than they were.”

Moore is the son of young parents, who welcomed him into the world when they were still teenagers themselves. But his father, who had once defended his mother from beatings at the hands of her own father, eventually became her abuser. The violence in their home drove Moore deeper into himself, and into denial, and he notes that “the real tragedy of living with routine acts of violence is the way each act deadens emotions.” When his mother finally left his father for good, their relationship was essentially severed, even as his ghost haunted Moore’s choices. Yet “the selfish ambition to outshine my dad was not enough to spark self-transformation.” One of the most aching bits of prose in the entire book describes a chance encounter Moore had with his father as an adult: “To say I hated him would only reveal a surface truth. I hated my need to be loved by him. And I hated the way my heart opened in his presence because I knew he wouldn’t enter even if invited.” His absent father is a constant presence as he struggles to define and differentiate his own manhood.

Church had always been a feature of Moore’s life. He was attending a Catholic university when he suffered a heart attack in his first year, after which he “leapt into the depths of a shallow faith,” becoming deeply involved with youth ministry at the expense of his schoolwork. But while he “poured my love into a god I worshipped while slowly denying love to myself,” he secretly hoped to be cured of his desire for men. Eventually, he found that what the church was really instilling in him was self-hatred of the gay part of himself, even as it bolstered his “attraction to patriarchal rule” through its emphasis on masculinity and authority. For Moore, the church proved to be a false respite, and he eventually came to the realization that “the first, and most important revolution I needed to push was an upheaval of the systems within myself.”

No Ashes in the Fire is a story of the complex collision of multiple identities in a world that defaults to straightness and whiteness, and chooses to see some identities as inherently better or more worthy than others. Too many people are consumed by the twin fires of self-loathing and persecution. The fight for justice and equality continues.

You might also like Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles Blow 

Unfollow

Cover image for Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roperby Megan Phelps-Roper

ISBN 978-0-374-71581-6

“Doubt was nothing more than epistemological humility: a deep and practical awareness that outside our sphere of knowledge there existed information and experiences that might show our position to be in error. Doubt causes us to hold a strong position a bit more loosely, such that an acknowledgement of ignorance or error doesn’t crush our sense of self or leave us totally unmoored if our position proves untenable. Certainty is the opposite: it hampers inquiry and hinders growth.”

Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in Kansas, a member of an extremist Christian church composed largely of her family members that would become infamous for their deliberately provocative public protests. Her grandfather was the fire and brimstone pastor, a man who underwent a shocking transition from civil rights advocate to publicly raging bigot after losing his bar license. Her mother, also an attorney, was the church’s chief organizer and spokesperson. As part of the family’s third generation, Phelps-Roper helped lead the church’s charge into the social media space, becoming a regular and outspoken presence on Twitter. But ultimately it was her online proselytizing that led her to ask questions about her faith that she had never allowed herself to consider before. Unfollow tracks the unexpected twists that would lead her to leaving the church in her late twenties, along with her younger sister Grace, and build a new life out in the secular world she had been taught to abhor.

Phelps-Roper was born and raised in the family church, and was only five years old when their “picketing ministry” began. As a result, she was expected to publicly represent the church’s doctrine from an extremely early age. In Unfollow, she has explained the church’s positions and ideas with such articulacy and immediacy that it was hard at times to believe that she didn’t actually hold to them anymore. The Bible verses from the King James Version still roll out effortlessly to underpin and elucidate each position. For most of the book, she uses the pronouns “we” and “our” to narrate events. It was only towards the end of the book that I began to feel her narrative identity separating from that of the church, but it still felt immediate and raw. I have to admit I would be curious to read another book ten years from now, and see what additional insights and perspectives more distance brings.

Unfollow also describes an internal power struggle within the church not unlike what has happened in other new churches when the founder transitions away from leadership. Phelps-Roper was her mother’s right hand, and her mother was the right hand of her own father, the head of the church. Her mother and grandfather are forceful personalities in the narrative; her own father is largely a narrative afterthought until the power shift begins, and as a male head of household he is made part of the new council of elders, albeit the least powerful one. The internal coup aimed at consolidating power to the older, married men, removing women from positions of authority, and increasing the subjection of wives and daughters within the church. To some extent, I think this gave Phelps-Roper a taste of what it was like not to be in a position of privilege within the highly controlling structure of the church, and opened the door to further doubts and questions about hypocrisy, theology, and finally the very divinity of the Bible itself.

Ultimately, the church’s media savvy and penchant for garnering public attention proved to be a double-edged sword. It exposed one of its spokespeople to the very sinners she was supposed to be repudiating. Instead of finding monsters, she found beautiful, messy, wonderful, empathetic people with a tremendous capacity for forgiveness and understanding. She met Jews whose familiarity with havruta made them uniquely suited to debating her, and gay people who knew what it meant to make a choice that would result in losing one’s family. Surprisingly, the tactics the church had traditionally used to garner attention proved counterproductive, “I could watch a Twitter conversation derail in real time whenever I included personally disparaging language,” Phelps-Roper admits, “The exchange would swiftly devolve from theological debate to a playground quarrel.” Slowly but surely, she began moving away from the church’s more radical positions and tactics.

I have some mixed feelings about reviewing this book, despite the fact that it was an emotionally raw and well-written account of Phelps-Roper’s exit from the church and her extended family. If this book made one thing clear to me, it is that the church she left behind thrives on our attention. Counter-protesters just make things exciting; opposition makes them feel validated; retaliation makes them feel righteous and oppressed. The church is engaged in a relationship of exchange with the media, which loves them for their shock value; they are screaming, singing, sign-waving click-bait, and as a result they are regularly able to make world-wide news despite consisting of only about eighty members. Ultimately I recommend this book on the grounds that it is truly insightful about the experience of being raised in such an environment, and the factors that can contribute to dismantling the resulting mindset, but I remain cautious about granting the church more attention than it deserves.

You might also like:

Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler

Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

A Queer and Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein

Becoming

Cover image for Becoming by Michelle Obama by Michelle Obama

ISBN 978-1-5247-6313-8

I was ambitious, though I didn’t know exactly what I was shooting for. Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”

Michelle Robinson Obama, a future Princeton graduate, lawyer, hospital administrator, mother, and First Lady of the United States, grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Her father worked for the municipal utility company, and was slowly losing his health to multiple sclerosis. Her mother Marian stayed home with Michelle and her brother Craig while they were growing up, and then returned to work at a bank. Eventually, Marian would live quietly in the White House with her daughter and granddaughters. Michelle’s post-White House memoir, Becoming, chronicles her childhood, her education, her marriage, and their journey to America’s most famous address.

I was personally most interested in the section of Becoming that comes between Michelle going off to college and meeting her husband, and their arrival in the White House. I rarely enjoy reading about people’s childhoods, and the period of the election and her husband’s time as President were pretty well known to me already. The section in between, however, offered a vulnerable glimpse into the sacrifices involved in being married to a rising political star, and the difficulty of trying to find your passion when you go to sleep every night beside someone whose “forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing” your own. Michelle Obama’s path to career and motherhood was a rocky one, but she breaks taboos by sharing her decision to quit practicing law despite an expensive Ivy League education, and also talks openly about her miscarriages and fertility treatments, sharing that “a miscarriage is lonely, painful, and demoralizing almost on a cellular level. When you have one, you will likely mistake it for a personal failure, which it is not.”

Although this is Michelle’s memoir and story, Becoming also offers an intimate portrait of the former President from the person who sees his most human side, and is not a bit dazzled by him. “For me, it had always been important that people see Barack as human and not as some otherworldly savior,” she writes of her husband. One clear illustration of his priorities comes from her recounting of how Barack blew his deadline for his first memoir because he kept putting it off in favour of his work as a political organizer. They had to repay the advance, and it would be several more years before Dreams from My Father was completed, and released by a different publisher. Overall she does a wonderful job of evoking what his intelligence and ambition have meant for their lives, particularly in passages where she writes about “sleeping in the same bed with it, sitting at the breakfast table with it,” and later, “Barack’s potential rode along to school with the girls and to work with me. It was there even when we didn’t want it to be there, adding a strange energy to everything.”

Many people have enthused about the idea of the former First Lady running for office herself, but Michelle seems thoroughly uninterested in starting a political dynasty. She is the more practical, if not the more cynical, answer to her husband’s hope and optimism, a man who “seemed at times beautifully oblivious to the giant rat race of life.” At the municipal level, she writes, “I had never been one to hold city hall in high regard. Having grown up on the South Side, I had little faith in politics.” Even of her husband, she believed he could have a more profound impact by continuing to work as an organizer, or for a non-profit, rather than running for office. While she gave her blessing for him to run for President, she did not in her heart believe that America would elect a black man. Trying to put rumours and speculation to rest, she closes baldly, “I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever. I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that.”

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What Matters Most

Cover image for What Matters Most by Chanel Reynolds by Chanel Reynolds

ISBN 978-0-06-268943-6

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“It turns out the hardest thing I’d ever had to do wasn’t removing medical support; it was figuring out how to tell Gabi his dad was dead.”

In July 2009, Chanel Reynolds’ husband José was struck by a turning vehicle while riding his bike in Seattle. For a week, he hovered on the cusp of life and death, long enough for Chanel to realize that they absolutely, definitely did not have their shit together. Their wills were written, but unsigned. She didn’t know how much insurance they had, or what it covered. She couldn’t even remember to bring a copy of his insurance card to the hospital. She didn’t know how to reach the paternal side of his family without the passcode to his phone. The list went on and on. They had a mortgage that absolutely required two salaries, and now they had no salaries at all, as managing his medical care, and then his funeral, became her full-time job, along with caring for their five-year-old son, Gabriel. What Matters Most follows Reynolds through the weeks and months after the accident, as she navigates the convoluted bureaucracy of death in America today.

The larger part of What Matters Most consists of Reynolds’ memoir about her husband’s accident, the decision to remove medical support, and the fall-out from his death. She is brutally honest about the mistakes they unwittingly made in the nine years of their marriage leading up to it, as well as her struggles in the days, weeks, and even years that followed. Grief is a strange country, but Reynolds takes us there vividly, through all the wild ups and downs, and unexpected turns of such a loss. This account also follows her into single motherhood, and through picking up the pieces of her life, and having to imagine an entirely new future for herself and their son. Her style is forthright, and occasionally irreverent, but still very affecting; she had me in tears more than once. The memoir portion stands well on its own and is worth reading quite apart from the advice Reynolds also provides.

Interspersed with the memoir sections are chapters drawn from the work Reynolds has done on her website, Get Your Shit Together. Several years after her husband’s passing, she felt compelled to share what she had learned, and try to help others avoid finding themselves in similar circumstances in the wake of a tragedy. Reynolds is not a lawyer or a financial planner, so her lists and advice are broad and general, hitting highlights such as insurance, wills, powers of attorney, and so forth. Her suggested tasks are as small as updating the medical and emergency information in your cell phone, and as big as writing, signing, and notarizing your last will and testament. While intended for an American audience, it would likely provide food for thought, and a kick in the pants to anyone who doesn’t have their affairs in order, regardless of nationality. In modern society, death has become an extremely bureaucratic and paperwork intensive event, placing significant mental demands on people who are already struggling with the emotional consequences of loss. What Matters Most encourages readers to help spare their loved ones this additional burden so that they can focus on grieving and healing.

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