Book Review: Gender Outlaw – On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us

gender outlaw2Gender Outlaw – On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us
by Kate Bornstein
Memoir / Nonfiction / Gender Theory
299 pages
Published 2016 (1st edition pub. 1994)

This book has one of the best forewords I’ve ever seen. Bornstein explains that since 1994, when the book was first published, language has changed a lot, and terms that were used regularly then, like transsexual, are highly offensive now. So she has heavily rewritten the book to change the language, but she goes on to say that language is an always-changing thing, and in five or six years this edition, too, might be offensive in the language used. Then she apologizes for that. My favorite lines are one of the last paragraphs of the foreword:

Now, if anything you read in this book makes you feel bad or wrong or small and weak, then please know that I said something wrong. This book was written many years ago, and the culture I wrote it in is not the culture in which you’re reading it. So, if you find anything to be personally insulting, please accept my apology and keep reading with the knowledge that your identity and how you express your gender are correct only when you feel they are correct.

It was a wonderful note to start the book on. I just loved “if you are offended, if this invalidates your identity, then I AM WRONG.” Bornstein transitioned in the 80s, and has been an outspoken advocate of queer and trans people most of her life. She is definitely a figure in queer history that more people should read about.

The rest of the book is every bit as good as the foreword. Bornstein absolutely destroys the concept of gender in this book, dissecting it and looking at all the parts and pieces to attempt to figure out why society is so set on the binary system. She more than makes her case that gender is a spectrum, not an either/or. And not just a spectrum between “more male” and “more female” but a colorful kaleidoscope of gender expression and identity. She does not shy away from sensitive topics like surgeries and anatomy. She talks to the reader like she’s your favorite outrageous aunt, sitting in the family room gossiping over heavily-spiked tea.

The formatting was occasionally confusing; she has the usual justified text, but then she has left-aligned passages (usually quotes from other people) and right-aligned passages (side-bar like content; I’m unclear if these are notes she made on the original text or what, but it generally clarifies or alters what the main text is talking about.)

I would HIGHLY recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about gender issues. Bornstein has an incredibly entertaining way of writing, and she loves to challenge what we think of as gender.

From the cover of Gender Outlaw – On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us:

“I know I’m not a man . . . and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m probably not a woman, either . . . . The trouble is, we’re living in a world that insists we be one or the other.” With these words, Kate Bornstein ushers readers on a funny, fearless, and wonderfully scenic journey across the terrains of gender and identity. On one level, Gender Outlaw details Bornstein’s transformation from heterosexual male to lesbian woman, from a one-time IBM salesperson to a playwright and performance artist. But this particular coming-of-age story is also a provocative investigation into our notions of male and female, from a self-described nonbinary transfeminine diesel femme dyke who never stops questioning our cultural assumptions.

Gender Outlaw was decades ahead of its time when it was first published in 1994. Now, some twenty-odd years later, this book stands as both a classic and a still-revolutionary work – one that continues to push us gently but profoundly to the furthest borders of the gender frontier. 

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Book Review: My Life with Bob

my life with bobMy Life with Bob – Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues
by Pamela Paul
Memoir
240 pages
Published 2017

I need to read more books about books, because the few that I’ve read, I’ve really enjoyed! Earlier this year I read Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, and loved it. I have holds on Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books and The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe. (I also have a hold on The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, but I’m not sure that quite counts.) And, in looking up the links for those books, I just put holds on three more books about reading, since this is a genre I apparently enjoy!

My Life with Bob is about the author’s reading life. Bob is a notebook she uses to keep track of what she’s read. Just title and author, and whether or not she’s finished it. Very simple. But in looking back through what she’s read, she recalls where she was, and what she was doing or going through at the time. So the real story is how her reading choices fit into her life, and how being a bookworm affected her life.

I enjoyed the book, with the slight irritation (in the latter part of the book) of her insistence on calling Young Adult literature, Children’s Lit. Children’s books are picture books and books for young readers, not The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games. Those are Young Adult, and there’s a pretty big difference in my opinion. Maybe not in the professional world; she is the editor of The New York Times Book Review. But it’s frustrating to hear her talk about Kid Lit and lump Harry Potter in with a 36-page autobiography of a teddy bear written for kids under 10.

I was also a little shocked to learn (in the book!) she wrote a book about how porn is destroying the American family, and testified before Congress about it, sponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch and Sam Brownback. I normally don’t have a problem reading Republican authors – I often don’t know the exact political leanings of authors – but I’m reading about her reading choices, and suddenly they are all suspect. (She disliked Ayn Rand, at least, so that’s something.) The book was published in May of last year, so after the last presidential election. Anyone who acknowledges working with the GOP at this point, and isn’t embarrassed by it, immediately gets a black mark in my book.

So ultimately I’m torn on this book. I liked reading it. I dislike the author. (I will never even try to be non-political on this blog. Sorry-not-sorry.)

From the cover of My Life with Bob:

Imagine keeping a record of every book you’ve ever read. What would this reading trajectory say about you? With passion, humor, and insight, the editor of The New York Times Book Review shares how stories have shaped her life.

Pamela Paul has kept a single  book by her side for twenty-eight years – carried throughout high school and college, hauled from Paris to London to Thailand and from job to job, safely packed away and then carefully moved from apartment to house to its current perch on a shelf over her desk. It is reliable if frayed, anonymous looking yet deeply personal. This book has a name: Bob.

Bob is Paul’s Book of Books, a journal that records every book she’s ever read, from Sweet Valley High to Anna Karenina, from Catch-22 to Swimming to Cambodia. It recounts a journey in reading that reflects her inner life – her fantasies and hopes, her mistakes and missteps, her dreams and her ideas, both half-baked and wholehearted. Her life, in turn, influences the books she chooses, whether for solace or escape, information or sheer entertainment. 

But My Life with Bob isn’t really about those books. It’s about the deep and powerful relationship between book and reader. It’s about the way books provide each of us the perspective, courage, companionship, and imperfect self-knowledge to forge our own path. It’s about why we read what we read and how those choices make us who we are. It’s about how we make our own stories.

Book Review: Seriously…I’m Kidding

seriously i'm kiddingSeriously…I’m Kidding
by Ellen DeGeneres
Memoir/Comedy
241 pages
Published 2011

As part of Pride Month, I’m spotlighting books by or about GLBTQIA+ people. Ellen is one of the most prominent lesbians here in the US, between coming out on a sitcom, having her own daytime talk show, and her judging stint on American Idol. This is her third book, but the first one I’ve read. If the other two are like this one, I need to read them!

Seriously…I’m Kidding is a really funny book. It reads a little bit like an ADHD squirrel, but that’s part of its charm. I read the print version, but this is one book I might have to get the audio version of, mostly because of the one chapter she wrote specifically for the audio version:

“Anyway, since you have the benefit of being able to hear this, I thought I would include some bonus material of me making strange noises. For those of you who are reading this the old-fashioned way and can’t hear me, I’ve printed the noises below and I encourage you to use your imagination to think of what they might sound like coming out of my mouth.

Meeeeee
Faaaaaa
Cooooo
Gooooood Morning
Bowwwww
Babowwwww
Yelowwwww
(more strange noises listed)”

The book covers a lot of ground, from producing her show to judging on American Idol to coming out as lesbian to hosting dinner parties. It also varies wildly chapter to chapter, from brief short stories (less than a page) to haiku, to coloring book pages of odd things like toasters, to prose, wandering chapters that are an interesting look at Ellen’s thought process.

I really enjoyed this book, and it’s definitely worth reading because it’s just FUN.

You can find all my Pride Month reads listed here.

From the cover of Seriously…I’m Kidding:

Welcome to my third book. Inside this book you will find an assortment of wonderful things – words, pictures, advice, tidbits, morsels, shenanigans, and in some copies, four hundred dollars cash. So you might want to buy a few.

I’m so happy you’re holding this book in your hands right now and reading its jacket or flap or whatever you want to call this little extra part of the book. Jackap or Flacket or Flapjacket. Whatever, really.

I don’t have enough room on this flapjacket to tell you all the reasons why you should buy this book, but I can tell you this and it’s a guarantee: If you buy it, you will feel better, look better, be happier, grow taller, lose weight, get a promotion at work, have shinier hair, and fall madly, deeply in love.

And as an added bonus feature I’d like to point out that this flapjacket doubles as a bookmark. So you’re paying for a book and you’re getting a bookmark absolutely free. Where else are you going to find that kind of deal?

Now, before you begin reading, if you’d like to learn more about me please turn to the back flap. (Back flap sounds weird, doesn’t it? The more you say it the more it sounds like something you try to get rid of through exercise and eating right. Anyway, please read on.)

Book Review: The Black Rose

black roseThe Black Rose
by Tananarive Due
Biography/Fiction
373 pages
Published 2001

The Black Rose is the lightly fictionalized story of the life of Madame C. J. Walker, America’s first black female millionaire. Tananarive Due seems to have taken over the project from Alex Haley, the acclaimed late co-author of Malcolm X’s autobiography. Due is a wonderful storyteller; many biographies I’ve read have been dry and uninteresting, but The Black Rose is technically a novel, and kept my attention through the entire book. Madame Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, is an incredibly charismatic figure. She was born to former slaves just after the Civil War – the only member of her family born free – and the book chronicles her entire life. From her parents’ deaths, to her early years working in a cotton field, to being a washerwoman, cook, then finally an entrepreneur. According to Wiki she had four brothers; the book only mentions one. Wiki also mentions a marriage in between her daughter’s father and CJ Walker; that one wasn’t mentioned in the book at all. So there are some differences.

The Black Rose is an engrossing look at an influential woman whose name seems to be largely forgotten. Or perhaps it’s only forgotten because we’re not taught nearly as much African-American history as we should be in this country. Madame Walker’s company was a path to economic freedom for thousands of black women in the early 20th century. Besides the jobs she created, she also made many charitable donations and was active in politics and civil rights, participating in marches and, once, visiting the White House to speak with the president. (According to the book, the president declined to speak with her group, though.)

This is a good example of why I’m trying to diversify my reading. I didn’t know the name C. J. Walker. I had no idea where she came from, or the scope of the company she built and the people she helped.

Excellent, educational book.

I actually really don’t like the cover, though, so this is my pick for “ugly cover” for the 2018 PopSugar Reading Challenge!

From the cover of The Black Rose:

Born to former slaves on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker rose from poverty and indignity to become America’s first black female millionaire, the head of a hugely successful beauty company, and a leading philanthropist in African American causes. Renowned author Alex Haley became fascinated by the story of this extraordinary heroine, and before his death in 1992, he embarked on the research and outline of a major novel based on her life. Now with The Black Rose, critically acclaimed writer Tananarive Due brings Haley’s work to an inspiring completion. 

Blending documented history, vivid dialogue, and a sweeping fictionalized narrative, Tananarive Due paints a vivid portrait of this passionate and tenacious pioneer and the unforgettable era in which she lived.

Happy World Poetry Day!

Today, March 21, is World Poetry Day. Started in 1999 by UNESCO, World Poetry Day is meant to celebrate linguistic diversity. I actually didn’t realize this was a thing until yesterday, so I don’t have any recent poets to talk about. I do, however, have a copy of T. S. Eliot‘s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats on loan from the library at the moment! I actually did not know until very recently that Cats, one of my husband’s absolute favorite musicals, was based off a book of poetry! It seems that many, if not most, of the songs from Cats are almost direct lyrical pulls from the poems. If you haven’t seen Cats or read the book, well, first, FIX THAT! (I can’t seem to get the entire thing to embed, but you can follow this link to the playlist of the entire musical.)

The book is tiny, only about 50 pages long. It’s a fun little read about different cats, from the obstinate Rum Tum Tugger who only wants the opposite of what you’ve offered him, to the lazy Gumbie Cat who sits around all day but teaches the mice manners at night. There’s our badass alley cat Growltiger, and the magical, mysterious Mr. Mistoffelees. If you’re a cat lover, you’ll enjoy the poems. They’re cute.

And then there’s this twitter thread I ran across today that I was amused by – and it eventually mentions my T. S. Eliot book!

Are you reading anything for World Poetry Day?

Book Review: The Clothesline Swing

clothesline swingThe Clothesline Swing
Ahmad Danny Ramadan
Fictional Memoir?
288 pages
Published April 2017

I had to force myself to finish this book. It was okay at the beginning – I was hoping it would get better, and it did not. The Clothesline Swing is the the story of two gay Syrian refugees. It’s an interesting framework; the narrator, one of the two, is telling stories to his husband to keep him in the world of the living. (The husband is dying from an unnamed illness.) There’s a catch, though – Death is also with them, as an actual presence that can be talked to and interacted with. He smokes a joint with the narrator at one point, and tells stories of his own – even plans a party – at another point. The story flicks back and forth between their past and their present with some unpredictability as the narrator tells his stories.

Because of the presence of Death, and the kind of hazy, in-between space that the stories reside in (between life and death, between awake and asleep, between fantasy and reality), the entire book is a little dream-like. I don’t particularly enjoy ever-shifting books that don’t have some kind of solid foundation for me to start on.

The book did a good job of showing the dangers of being gay in middle-eastern society, and also showed how hard it is to be a citizen of a country at war with itself. The list of friends who have died in violent ways is threaded through the entire book of stories. She was caught in a crossfire in an alley – he killed himself after being forced to marry a woman – he died when his office was shelled – she died from a car bomb.

I don’t know. It’s a strange book. I’m hesitant to say don’t waste your time, because it covers important topics, but the dreamy quality just ruined it for me.

Ramadan is a Syrian refugee living in British Columbia, making this book part of my Read Canadian Challenge. It’s also my pick for “book about death or mourning” for the Popsugar 2018 challenge, and “unconventional romance” for the Litsy Booked Challenge.

My other Canadian reviews:
1. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
2. The Red Winter Trilogy
3. Station Eleven
4. The Courier
5. The Last Neanderthal
6. American War
7. Next Year, For Sure
8. That Inevitable Victorian Thing
9. All The Rage
10. this book!
11. Saints and Misfits
12. Tomboy Survival Guide
13. The Wolves of Winter

From the cover of The Clothesline Swing:

The Clothesline Swing is a journey through the troublesome aftermath of the Arab Spring. A former Syrian refugee himself, Ramadan unveils an enthralling tale of courage that weaves through the mountains of Syria, the valleys of Lebanon, the encircling seas of Turkey, the heat of Egypt and finally, the hope of a new home in Canada.

Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, The Clothesline Swing tells the epic story of two lovers anchored to the memory of a dying Syria. One is a Hakawati, a storyteller, keeping life in forward motion by relaying remembered fables to his dying partner. Each night he weaves stories of his childhood in Damascus, of the cruelty he has endured for his sexuality, of leaving home, of war, of his fated meeting with his lover. Meanwhile Death himself, in his dark cloak, shares the house with the two men, eavesdropping on their secrets as he awaits their final undoing.