queer

Readings: Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee

I started my vacation with a glass of wine, some Beatles’ songs (a break from Hamilton on never-ending loop), and a reread of Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive. I was working on the book floor for two days before Christmas, and in that time, I sold this book to two people, one friend and one customer. If I could sell it to everyone who came in through the door, I would.

When I was just coming out, my friend told me to read McBee’s column in the Rumpus called ‘Self-Made Man’. McBee writes a lot about masculinity and what it means to be a man, something that has always been my interest in and out of the context of trans experience. I pay a lot of attention to how men behave and think and how they are made to behave and think.

DEUG7991Thoughts on masculinity aside, McBee is a powerful writer. His sentences are so vivid, it’s like he is writing directly on your eyeballs, or perhaps directly on your brain. I read Man Alive in one sitting, unable to move, unable to leave the couch. I am glad it’s fairly short, because my bladder would not have been able to last for more than 170 pages.

At the time (I read Man Alive early in 2014, before its publication), I was still not exactly sure what I wanted to do. I was not yet on T, and while I wanted to be on T, I also didn’t know if I would like the change. It wasn’t the idea of sticking myself with needles, or being on hormones for the rest of my life. I was just always a fan of status quo and did not like to change anything, even if said change was going to save my life.

I found the same kind of uncertainty in the pages of McBee’s book, and I found answers. There were trans memoirs that helped me realize I was trans. There were trans memoirs that helped me come out. And then there was Man Alive, which described precisely how I felt and finally placed me where I wanted to be in the space-time continuum that my clusterfuck of life had become at that point. McBee and I came from different backgrounds and had different families, and our reasons for postponing our transitions were different, but there was a similarity of thought and feeling somewhere in both our cores.

…and I knew there wouldn’t be a divine intervention, no right time, no sign that testosterone would make me a good man, no test to confirm that I would be happier, or more whole.

After I came out to my closest friends, I remember crying a few times when my heart was full of both pain and hope: the time when I saw myself in a mirror wearing a binder, and it looked so right; the time when I realized I had to leave my family and live as someone I had always been on the inside; and the time when I read Man Alive and knew I had made the right choice, even if it took me more than thirty years.

In the meantime, the twin man in the mirror was growing more solid while my current, softer face became more and more transparent. I knew which body was a ghost.

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Readings: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

I bet a lot of reviews of Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On start with ‘I don’t really read fan fiction’. Well, neither do I, though not because I think it’s rubbish. Once upon a time I read fan fic, but I am no longer so deep into my fandoms that I seek extra stuff related to them. It’s also a time and reading online issue. I tend to forget about the fact that one can read things electronically. And so fan fiction needs to materialize as a real book for me to pick it up. Enter Rainbow Rowell with Carry On.

KRJF7220Carry On is a fascinating book because it’s sort of a self-aware, meta fan fiction. If you have read Fangirl, you will recognize the name Simon Snow, as he is the character in protagonist Cait’s fan fiction. Carry On does not hide the fact that it is fan fiction and in fact offers some interesting insights into its source (Harry Potter), as well as into main themes of said source (being the chosen one, prophecies, having a Scooby gang (sorry, mixing fandoms here) to help you save the world from evil dark things, and so on). Fan fiction gets all kinds of disdain from people who think it’s a low and silly form of literature, but let me be clear, Carry On is a good book regardless of its provenance. If I never read Harry Potter, I still would have loved Carry On. There are familiar Potterverse elements in it, but there are also differences and extras that give the book its own character (which is really what good fan fic and good books are all about).

Most of the reviews I’ve read stress this particular fact to convince the unbelievers – look, fan fic can be good! It can be published as a ‘real’ book! But there is a much more important side to Carry On. It fills the uncomfortable and very noticeable blank space that Harry Potter books have when it comes to queer characters. Sure, Dumbledore might be gay, but he was openly ‘outed’ after the fact, so to speak, and the only relationship of his mentioned in the books does not take place in front of our eyes. There are really no LGBTQ kids in the books (at least none I can think of), either out or rumored to be queer. I love Harry Potter, but LGBTQ characters is one of the few things so visibly missing from that universe. And so thank magic for Carry On, where queerness is very much there, in all its beauty and sweetness.

Recent books, briefly

First of all, Books Brains and Beer is back (-ish)! Or is he? He isn’t sure. But he has been reading up a storm and posted a bunch of flash reviews. I like short reviews. Every time I see some gigantic review spread in The New York Times, I have a feeling that I could save myself some time by skipping the review and reading the book instead.

Which brings me to my own brief bookish observations.

First of all, all those glowing reviews of Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho are quite right. I’m just going to say that it was Saturday night, and I had some red wine, and this book was perfect. You might want to replicate the setting. It wasn’t the kind of book that sucked me in and made me spent 12 hours on the couch. On the contrary, I kept picking it up, reading a bit, then putting it down. Perhaps it wasn’t the book’s fault and I was just feeling distracted that weekend. That said, I enjoyed myself immensely while reading it. It’s quite fun and also funny. Favorite quote:

‘I had no one to teach me better, you see.’

‘So you have found someone to teach you worse!’

Lest you think it was just an amusing romantic historical romp, here’s a brief list of topics it touches upon: Class. Race. International politics. Colonialism. Gender roles. Education of girls.

My other read was quite in contrast. It was Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door, out next January (can I even talk about it yet?). It was a magically beautiful memoir about love, grief, friendship, and how all those things change and are experienced at different points in life. The whole book feels like a quilt made of gossamer. It jumps in time, holding all these fragile pieces together. The sentences are almost translucent at times. For some reason I always find descriptions of male companionship and love incredibly heart-achy and touching. Perhaps it’s because I myself am a queer man. Perhaps this kind of love still feels forbidden from a larger society’s point of view, marriage decision notwithstanding. The Narrow Door has quite a few of those, and I was glad I had a glass of bourbon at hand. I’ll definitely mention it again closer to its release because it is already on my list of 2016 favorites, and we aren’t even in that year yet.

Other books briefly:

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman. Here’s what you should do. Read this book while listening to electronica. The combined effect of that music genre and Kleeman’s writing style make you feel as if time no longer exists. Or it makes reality feel like a continuous straight line with no beginning or end in sight, with no changes whatsoever. Maybe that’s why, sadly, I abandoned it. I couldn’t handle the depersonalization effect it seemed to have on me.

Saga # 5 by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan. For some reason, I refuse to read Saga in single issues. I like the trades. I wasn’t a fan of #4, but this one is pretty good.

IMG_0598Currently reading:

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson. Yesterday was its release day, and I spent most of it with a giant raccoon cutout as we shot videos and took pictures for marketing purposes at work (if you don’t get to stage mock battles with human-sized cardboard raccoons at your place of employment, I feel sorry for you). I’ll be honest, Furiously Happy is better than Lawson’s first book, but it did give me an anxiety attack. I woke up at 2 am last night, convinced that some shit was going down. Apparently reading about other people’s mental issues reminds me I also have mental issues. But I’m not giving up, because the book is immensely funny and full of taxidermy, two things I look for in all books and find in so few.

I know you wanted a picture of me with a giant raccoon. You’re welcome.

One Upon a Time VIII: The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan

Steel RemainsSometimes I have to overcome my bookseller’s instinct to sell you ALL THE BOOKS. Because let’s be honest, you don’t actually want all the books. You want a select set of books that were written just for you. You know, the ones where authors looked inside your brain and wrote down exactly what they saw.

So let me just say that if you can’t tolerate swearing, gruesome things, violence, or graphic sex scenes (though rather well-written, in this case) you probably won’t like The Steel Remains, the first book in Richard K. Morgan’s The Land Fit For Heroes trilogy. It’s rated R all the way. I’m not going to say ‘if you like’ such things, because honestly I don’t really ‘like’ gruesome stuff, but I can take quite a bit of it in my fiction. I do enjoy swearing if it’s done well (I’m Russian, I believe there is such a thing as the art of swearing).

Ringil is probably one of the best characters I’ve had the pleasure of knowing in fantasy literature. He is irreverent, cynical, and misanthropic. He is also queer. Not only is he queer (and fairly openly), he is queer in the world that does not tolerate that kind of, hrm, lifestyle choice. He is protected from some more drastic punishments by being a member of a noble rich family, but he is not protected (well, as much as a guy with a giant sharp sword is not protected) from insinuations and name-calling.

9780345493064The Steel Remains is a rather slow-moving volume. It’s also one big setup for more things to come. The dust jacket blurb leads you to believe the book is about some dark lord rising. In fact, we don’t get into even a mention of said dark lord until well into the book. Ringil is asked by his mother to assist in finding a family member sold into slavery. This is somewhat complicated by the fact that selling into slavery and prostitution is now legal, and Ringil can’t just go about bashing heads in to save his cousin (that doesn’t stop him, by the way). There are also mysterious attacks, some shadowy otherworldly forces, and a vanished race, all the good sword-and-sorcery (sworcery?) stuff. In fact, I quite enjoyed the world, and the book definitely satisfied my need to read about people poking each other with sharp implements.

The trilogy continues with The Cold Commands and concludes with The Dark Defiles, out in October. I am a big fan of authors finishing their series, so continuing to follow Ringil now seems even more attractive.

A couple of days ago, NPR had a post on what other fantasy works would make a great ‘Next Game of Thrones’ series. One of my bookgroup members pointed out that if HBO picked up The Land Fit For Heroes books, they wouldn’t have had to put in all the gratuitous sex scenes.

And thus I complete the first of five books I set out to read for Once Upon a Time VIII. Head over to Stainless Steel Droppings to discover Once Upon a Time participating blogs, or sign up yourself (it’s not too late).

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