You'd think that with how much I read this would be old hat by now, but I always get a little bit anxious when a friend publishes something. What if iYou'd think that with how much I read this would be old hat by now, but I always get a little bit anxious when a friend publishes something. What if it isn't good? What if I don't like it? How do you walk that line between supporting their work and wanting to be honest about your opinion of their work? I've lost a lot of sleep over how to review books of this sort, that complex dance of criticism, the "well i liked this aspect, but this and this felt like they were superfluous" waltz of carefully worded critiques. Fortunately, when it comes to the stories of Casey Plett, this concern never even crossed my mind. I was in love from word one.
No stranger to the written word, Plett has previously written a column on transitioning for McSweeneys and had a story featured in Topside Press' 2012 anthology, The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard. Both marked her as a voice to be watched, a writer whose spare style and conversational approach evokes many comparisons to Michelle Tea's fictionalized memoirs of lesbian living. With the publication of her first short story collection, Plett makes good on the promise hinted at in her earlier stories, also reprinted herein, and offers us a sampler plate of the myriad ways that trans women are living, loving, and existing all throughout the country.
These girls are beautiful, at turns both fiercely strong and defiant against a world that loathes or fetishizes them and also so frighteningly fragile and vulnerable, so breakable that you'd like to capture them in a bell jar and keep them tucked away safe forever. Like Lisa, the recently single cam girl haunted by memories of her ex and crippling social anxiety, who ends up having a kink-fueled fling with an older lesbian in "How Old Are You Anyway?", a story which had me both titillated and nodding along in recognition as her conscious narrative devolved to a catalog of sensory input, those amazing spikes of pain that shoot from nipple to groin to neck and back again and all you want is for that ache to never end because for a moment you're so mercifully free of all concerns and actually home in your body and actually feeling and what does it matter that it's pain and hurt because for so long you've just felt nothing that to be able to feel anything physical at all is just so fucking transcendental. And then it's over. And the walls come back up and your thrice-damned thoughts come rushing back in and that blissful nothingness is just the faintest blissful memory.
Or the dynamics between "Lizzy and Annie," two Brooklyn trans girls negotiating their own uncertainty and fears to find love with one another, bouncing from bar to bed to breakfast all whilst ducking the attentions of chasers and the leering stares of their coworkers. Or the unnamed narrator of "How to Stay Friends" out for dinner with her ex for the first time since transitioning and simultaneously wanting to make a good new "first impression" and deconstructing everything that you did wrong and regret while you were dating and trying to maintain the facade of being a virile straight man. That particular story hit a little close to home and necessitated me putting the book down for a few minutes to catch my breath and get some distance from the material before returning. We all have those things we really regret from the times before transitioning, but it's always a bit disconcerting to see your own thoughts writ so clearly upon the page.
By far my favorite story is the largest, "Not Bleak," about Carla, a trans girl living in a small Mid-Western town near the Canadian border working at a book store and her friendship with Zeke, a mennonite trans girl who may or may not have stolen her hormones and her passport but who also really needed a friend and a community. Carla, ever of the warm heart and willing to extend the benefit of the doubt becomes close with her to the point of posing as her girlfriend and returning with Zeke to the small Mennonite community she grew up in so she could see her grandfather before he passed. Zeke utterly broke my heart, this poor little trans girl who was willing to hide her identity and be seen as a boy so as to preserve the links she had with her family. This girl who needs support so badly but who is her own worst enemy and continually brings people to distrust her. I want to say more but I don't want to spoil the story, but Plett's portrayal of an insular small-town queer community where everyone knows one another and has for years and how the lack of anything to do leads to some enormously silly hijinks in the name of entertaining yourself is absolutely spot-on. Of all the stories, this is the one that I've come back to and read several times more.
These stories are all about trans characters, which I love because there's a frightening lack of creative work by and about girls like me, but they appeal to a much larger crowd as well- those of us who have ever stood on the outside of a party and watched the interplay between people and wondering why it seemed so easy for everyone else, those of us who have ever dealt with fear, anxiety, or isolation, those of us who have ever gotten sloppily drunk in order to feel more at ease in social situations. Plett has an amazing eye for the fragile foibles nestled within everyone's hearts and I think that any reader, trans or cis, can connect with her characters. This is her first collection, but I'm certainly hoping it's not her last as Casey Plett's voice is one that is desperately needed within the realm of fiction. Her stories are the sort that I long to read. I don't know that I could ever recommend a book more highly....more
Earlier this year, when I first started to try to get people to understand what I meant when I said that I was transgender, I searched high and low foEarlier this year, when I first started to try to get people to understand what I meant when I said that I was transgender, I searched high and low for any texts that I could give people to describe the dissociation from my body, the self-loathing I carried with me everywhere, the complete sense of helpless panic mixed with the certainty that I needed to do something. I wanted to find just one text that could express all of that and help others understand why I'd undertaken, why I had very much needed to undertake, such a drastic process. I had a lot more optimism then. These days I don't really care if people understand me so long as they respect my wishes and don't call me by my old name, male pronouns, or "it." Real world interactions with people almost always lead me to lower my expectations.
So imagine my delight when people on the message boards I belong to started talking about a new book that finally "got" it. Words written from the heart of an eloquent trans woman who was able to finally express all of the things we'd been struggling to get across to people, words that helped this subculture of which I'm a part begin to define ourselves in language we all understand rather than relying upon clinicians and sociologists to observe us and make notes, like so many books on being trans have done already (I'm looking at you True Selves and My Brother, My Sister).
Instead, here was a fiery punk rock girl revealing the full tumult of living as a trans woman. Not just the before-and-after fixation that so much of the press likes to focus on, but the messy little details that are nearly always overlooked- like how do begin to navigate the world as a single woman, how do you begin try to work past being being physically present but mentally absent from nearly every social situation, how do you ever leave behind the pain and hurt of all those years fighting against yourself and manage to live a more open life? And to do so with whip-smart prose and a style that crackles with intensity and wit is all the more appreciated. Imogen Binnie is no mere niche author of a subculture only beginning to create its own culture, but a writer of superb skill (seriously you all should read some of the articles she's written for Maximum Rock 'n Roll) who I hope will become a household name as she continues writing.
Nevada is the story of Maria Griffiths, a trans woman living in Brooklyn who has just been simultaneously dumped and fired and is feeling quite adrift from her life and has no idea how to move forward and so steals her girlfriend's car for an impromptu roadtrip to the Pacific. Along the way she meets James, a boy working in a small town Wal-Mart somewhere near Reno and realizes that he's like she was at 20- lost, trying to present as a man but failing at it, stuck in a relationship he kind of just fell into, and hiding it all under a thick haze of marijuana. As she helps James face the specter of his own dysphoria and take those first painfully hard steps of admitting that he's maybe/possibly/probably trans, she also gets a chance to process through the ruins of her own life and realize the things that she's also been avoiding.
I wanted to write this review without falling into the mire of autobiographical reflections and over-sharing of very intimate details of my life because I feel as though I've done too much of that far too publicly this year and I'm kind of feeling pretty self-conscious about broadcasting it like I did and kind of really tired of thinking about myself on a constant basis. Yet the more of the book I read, the more I realized that it's impossible to extricate myself from this review because, more than anything, reading Nevada was an exercise in finding parallels with my own life. Barely a page went by where I didn't find myself nodding along with a thought a character has, wincing in shared dismay at an unfortunate event, and finding my eyes grow moist with tender recognition when the action moves out of Brooklyn and into the barren wastes of Nevada and we meet James, whose entire storyline reads as a fictionalised retelling of the three long and dark years I spent living in Tucson.
That's a big part of the value of this book for me. Until recently I didn't know many trans women and none well enough to where I felt comfortable asking about the very personal aspects of living that fill our days, so questions like "am I the only one who has to pretend that they're not having sex with another person in order to get off" or "how is it that I can argue vehemently for the rights and freedom of others but find it impossible to vocalize anything about my own personal wants and needs" or "why does this misogynistic porn seem to be one of the few things I find enticing" (btw: this book is worth reading if only for the chapter in which Binnie conclusively kills off the dated and oppressive concept of autogynephilia) were all just big question marks that I chalked up to "I'm crazy" instead of "I'm trans." Reading Nevada, though, really brought home to me just how similar my own road to accepting that I'm a trans woman is to nearly every other trans woman I've come to know. I may not be a beautiful and unique snowflake of dysfunction but I am also not alone. Which, when you've spent so many years fearing and hating yourself for things you can't wish, smoke, or drink away, is an incredibly relieving thing to find out.
For example, I spent most of my adult life thinking that I couldn't be trans because I didn't fit the constrained and narrow view of what I thought, of what society tells us, that trans girls are. By which I mean the outdated and discredited Harry Benjamin Standards of Care that dictate that all trans women always present as super femme, always sit down to pee, and if they find women's bodies attractive well, they couldn't be lesbians, they're just perverted men. I could never fit into that definition and lacked any other examples as to how I could approach my own femininity so could never make the mental leap from seeing others being fulfilled by properly experiencing and expressing their gender to imagining myself so fulfilled and it tore me apart whenever I'd think about it, which was pretty much constantly. To avoid having to think about it I would just shut down and not process. I drank whiskey like water, smoked enough weed to fund an entire Mexican drug war, and hid in my apartment obsessively reading pretty much anything that fell into my lap (hence my Goodreads account being the social media site I've belonged to the longest), hating everything, and dissociating from my every day existence as a boy. Yet here it turns out that all of the fucked up weird shit that I did to cope or to process or to deny is pretty much a checklist that nearly every other trans woman I have come to know has done as well.
Which explains why every trans woman I know who has read it says that if you want to know about being trans, read Nevada. This is an important book, for me personally, for trans women as a group, and for a society raised on caricatures of trans women like Silence of the Lambs' Buffalo Bill or the sexually predatory trans woman who wants nothing more than to trick a man or a lesbian into sex (seriously, how do people not understand just how very sexually dysfunctional most of us are?) that has no idea how to consider us as complex multi-faceted people....more
I always find it worth remarking upon when a book I pick up completely at random complements whichever book I've just finished. So it was with ThreatsI always find it worth remarking upon when a book I pick up completely at random complements whichever book I've just finished. So it was with Threats, which is so similar in theme and style to Viola di Grado's award-winning 70% Acrylic 30% Wool that I think a case could be made for plagiarism had the books not been published nearly simultaneously in different countries and written in different languages. I'm just going to have to chalk it up to circumstances similar to those that created the pairings of Armageddon & Deep Impact, or Dante's Peak and Volcano. I had heard nothing about Amelia Gray's first novel before the very alluring cover caught my eye whilst perusing my local bookseller a few days before Christmas and a salesgirl, seeing me transfixed by the cover, had told me that it was "probably the best thing I've read all year, a really twisted story of loss and mourning." That was all I needed to hear, Threats needed to come home with me.
It wasn't until I was about 40 pages into it that the similarities started smacking me in the face. David, a dentist who lost his license after a malpractice charge, is struggling to cope with the death of his wife, Franny, under some rather mysterious circumstances. Or, at least, we're meant to assume they're mysterious as nobody ever quite gets around to explaining the cause of death. All we get are David's scattered recollections of the early days of their marriage, some vague allusions to a childhood trauma that may explain why the police are sniffing around David like he's a suspect, and the threatening notes of the title that appear in the most unexpected places- in a bag of sugar, behind several layers of wallpaper that had been hung years ago, typed on a receipt stapled to the back of a painting.
Like 70% Acrylic, the chapters are exceptionally brief and resist any impulse the author may have had toward linearity or cohesion. David, like Camelia in 70% Acrylic, is coping with the shocking loss of a family member by retreating into his house, his world, the only thing he can guarantee is safe and secure and, like Camelia, he is an incredibly unreliable narrator, constantly injecting his warped viewpoint into the scene and causing havoc among his supporting cast. As I read through the parallels continued to pile up until, ultimately, I reached the end and was left in the same state of bewilderment I had when finishing Di Grado's novella.
Though the writing was, at times, brilliantly stylized and many of the writer's ruminations on love and loss were especially evocative, I still can't say that I enjoyed reading it. It started off rather good but as the story wound down to its final pages and characters I had thought were stable begin to go off the rails as thoroughly as David, it just grew to annoy me. Gray is a hell of a talented writer and I'll likely continue to read her works in the future, but Threats just left me a bit disappointed at the missed potential. ...more
If this were any other author, I would have probably rated it higher. But it's not just any author, it's Christopher mother-f*cking Moore who wrote thIf this were any other author, I would have probably rated it higher. But it's not just any author, it's Christopher mother-f*cking Moore who wrote this and my expectations were high. Because when your previous works include a new gospel of Christ's missing years, the story of an antiques dealer turned soul stealer, and a trilogy of the most delightfully irreverent vampires ever to drain a rat for blood, you have some mighty big shoes to fill.
So what went wrong? Well... it's hard to put my finger on it but it just... well, it just wasn't funny. You'd think with a cast like this- Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, Henri Toulouse Lautrec, Camille Pisarro, Claue Monet, basically every impressionist you could think of- that the laughs would come ripping off the page. I mean they're debauched painters who get roaring drunk at every opportunity and spend nearly every waking minute in brothels! How could you miss with this? By focusing instead on the love story of a moon-eyed baker who wants to be a painter and his model/lover/muse/tormenter who is hiding a mysterious past and is accompanied by a penis-waggling cretin known only as the Colorman.
It's not that it's not entertaining. It definitely has its moments of ribaldry and I found myself chuckling at bits, particularly when the young painter visits a professor who is attempting to train rats and mice to reenact the chariot race from Ben Hur, but for the most part I was just left with a feeling of *meh* throughout most of these pages. I don't want to say that Moore has lost his magic touch, but Sacre Bleu just does not live up to his previous feats. I'm hoping that this is merely a stumbling block along the road to much greater hilarity down the line....more
I have to admit that I had not heard word one about this book before its delightful cover caught my eye on the Powell's sale shelf and somehow leapt iI have to admit that I had not heard word one about this book before its delightful cover caught my eye on the Powell's sale shelf and somehow leapt into my hands. I mean look at it- stark black and white coloring with just a splash of red- how could it not grab my attention? Likewise, I had very little knowledge of Cooperstown, New York, (aside from it being the home of the baseball Hall of Fame) before cracking open the pages of this volume.
So imagine my surprise when I learned in the opening pages that Cooperstown was founded by the father of American author exemplar, James Fenimore Cooper. Far from simply writing about Mohicans, though, Cooper had also written a series of stories set in a thinly-veiled surrogate of Cooperstown that he referred to as Templeton, a conceit that author Lauren Groff has adopted to tell her touching tale of people searching for identity in their twisted family histories, the bonds of a small town, and a prehistoric lake monster whose death forms the allegorical backdrop of this book.
Willie Upton returns to her hometown of Templeton in a bit of disgrace- she is pregnant with the spawn of her research adviser and may or may not be wanted for attempted murder after trying to run her adviser's wife (who also happens to be the Dean of students at her university) down with a small single-engine Cesna. Needless to say, she arrives home in a bit of a funk. To help draw her out of her pity party of one her mother, Vi, dangles a tantalizing carrot in front of her: Willie is not the result of months-long dalliance with an ever-changing assortment of men in a 1970s San Francisco commune, but a one-off affair with a Templetonian shortly after she had returned to her home town. Refusing to give more than the solitary clue that her father is related to the town's founder (and Vi herself) through an unreported branching of the family tree, Willie finds herself digging deeply into the town, and her own, history using all of her carefully-honed research skills.
Part family drama, part detective novel, The Monsters of Templeton is a fun read that really helped draw me out of the reading funk I had been in for a time before this. Groff draws in all sorts of fun arcana from Cooper's past, even throwing in a real life representative of Davey from Mohicans, which now has me wondering how much Cooper had been drawing from real life when he was writing. Unfortunately, Groff leaves any questions of historical accuracy to the academics here, she is more interested in crafting what turns out to be an enormously captivating tale of family secrets and redemption found generations later. For a spur of the moment purchase, The Monsters of Templeton turned out to be quite the engaging read. I will certainly be searching out more of Groff's works in the time to come....more