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review 2018-06-25 10:35
Boy Erased - not really a Memoir by Garrard Conley
Boy Erased: A Memoir - Garrard Conley

This memoir should have started at least ten years later and told us how the young man who once signed himself up for "ex-gay therapy" (which we all know is pure bullshit) turned into a person who at least calls himself a gay man. His epilogue and bits of the memoir proper hint at the real story, but sadly it's just a sketch. I understand being so traumatized that you can't hold memories or be sure what is your memory and what is your intellect saying "this must be the way it happened," but I'm not entirely sure that's why this memoir is sketchy.


Ten years after an 8-day outpatient visit to Love In Action, the author hears his one-time group leader on a book/apology tour admitting that the therapy was nonsense. This, understandably, raises real anger. How can this guy with his vanity press book be on NPR and so cavalier about the lives he played havoc with? And this brings an aspiring novelist to write a "memoir" about those eight outpatient days. One gets the slight feeling, after reading the book, that part of the anger was that this guy was able to hawk his book on NPR while Conley was still struggling in various ways with no book or tour, but that's not the whole story, just a thought.


As someone who has done many outpatient stays (and several inpatient, locked ward ones too,) honestly, I doubt I could write a book about any of those visits. Now, my stays were overall more of a plus than a minus, and only rarely were they more traumatic than what brought me in. They also weren't trying to erase my person or self. Could any of us write a memoir about eight days? Maybe. There's just very little to recommend this book because nothing much happens and the author does very little to help us understand what exactly, beyond the horrific idea of conversion therapy -- which we already get -- what exactly traumatized him.


He makes a point in the epilogue that liberal America may not understand what would push someone to deny their sexuality just to "fit in." (He doesn't say that, but that's the truth I think he was pushing toward.) Many liberal lgbtq people have just as much trouble coming out. They don't typically seek this particular type of therapy, but many a liberal kid has gone into therapy at least to work through the fear and other emotions involved in coming out. Many kids are dead today rather than face up to our cultural disdain of anything less than toxic masculinity. You don't have to be an Evangelical to understand this is a tough time for many people, and only in recent years has coming out become slightly less than terrifying and often traumatizing.


As trite as this sounds to me: change is tough. When we finally allow our "outsides" to match our inner selves, to become more authentic, that can be excruciating even while it's healthy and holds the promise of a much better life - eventually. And that's true for anyone. It inevitably involves losing people and places that were comfortable and often affirming in other ways, not to mention our homes. Very often it involves estrangement of sorts with at least some, if not all, family members. I wanted to hear about the growth, or if not that, at least understand what created a traumatic reaction so bad that he's blocked it out. What I read was a family based in love. If they didn't express it fine, but they were there -- before, during and after (the final sentence in the epilogue is wonderful in showing this purely,) for this young man. When he finally left mid-eighth day, his mother didn't question him, she simply drove the two of them away. (She'd been staying with him in a hotel during the outpatient assessment.) That's a serious blessing, having your family stick by you, especially when their religion, culture, job (his father is a pastor) and upbringing tell them to do something very different.


My impression was that a lot of the trauma involved expectations -- both perceived and real -- that he'd internalized and struggled coming to terms with. That anger was displaced onto the therapy he sought out and willingly subjected himself to. He wanted to be someone other than who he was/is. THAT is the trauma. And that would make a much better memoir than incredibly florid, rambling prose and unstructured random memories (not about the therapy) ostensibly about an 8-day outpatient assessment. Also a serious thanks to his God that he was strong enough to see through the bullshit and walk out before someone compelled other drastic and inhumane measures we've now learned happened in many of these places.


One final thought, Love In Action and its parent corporation is, thankfully, now gone and very few similar programs exist in the US, but worryingly, they've taken their circus on the road to other countries (notably Uganda, complete with laws and real danger for lgbtq people)  - something the author mentions in one sentence and doesn't seem to see as a problem. "At least it's not me anymore" is not a pleasant trait in anyone, no matter their story.


I believe Garrard Conley has a real story to tell, about how he started hating himself, how he couldn't see a way for his authentic self to fit with his family and community, the fear and existential dread that must have accompanied many days, how fundamental Christian beliefs offer no room for difference or questions of any kind, how the fear of ruining his "eternal soul" has haunted him long past his heroic walk out of the treatment center's doors, how his family managed to overcome pressure from their church and community and whole lives to come to a place where this book could be written with his parents' blessing, how he functions as a gay man in the world when he was a kid from a very restrictive and fundamentalist background, etc etc: both the logistics and the emotional sides are interesting and important -- these are the types of stories that save lives. While I think the promise of a horror-show called "ex-gay therapy" is probably what gave this book the juice to get published, the real story still hasn't been told. 


I really wish this man well. I know he's lived through some very tough things, but I don't know any of that from reading this book, and there's the rub. We shouldn't require people to morph bad moments into freak shows for them to tell their stories. He will write another book. I'm betting my life on that one. I'm sure he's writing as I type. He's wanted to be a writer and has an MFA in creative writing. I just want him to write from a more fearless place next time. 



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review 2018-05-06 18:29
Less - The Horrors of Turning Fifty
Less: A Novel - Andrew Sean Greer

What a delightful book! I will definitely read this again, just because I have a feeling there are things I missed this time. It may be one of those books that's actually better once you know the ending. Dunno - I will figure that out later. Meanwhile...


The tone is so waggish that hefty subjects get piled one on top of the other, yet it never feels like reading a heavyweight book. There were several times when I didn't just laugh, but laughed so loudly that I shocked myself. I mean like Ha!!! really loudly! The writing feels just perfect, but never twee or overdone.


I was drawn to this, not because it's about a writer, but because I'm very in touch with the horror that befalls a single person on the dawn of fifty -- it ain't pretty. Less is so on target about this, despite the hugely different circumstances between me and our protagonist, that at times it was a relief to know I've already lived through the horror and will never have to do it again. (For anyone who hasn't gone through it, the second you embrace the new decade, it's just fine. Remind me of this when I'm about to do 60 and 70 please.) Arthus Less is a very lucky guy, despite his complete unwillingness to see that. (Honestly, if writers are this self-pitying, I'm very glad I only read them rather than hanging out with them. When a woman tells Mr. Less that nobody will feel sorry for his protagonist - gay or not - I nodded right along with her.)


It's OK that Arthur Less is so absurd and pathetic - because we all are, deep down. And because we're dealt a narrator whose treatment of the protagonist is both hilarious and kind. That's a rare thing, and it's a good read. There were some things that I saw coming and that made it a bit less magical. One question I have is how this rose above so many other novels to win the Pulitzer. It didn't feel like a particularly "important" book, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much.


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review 2018-04-29 14:52
America Is Not the Heart (neither is this book)
America Is Not the Heart - Elaine Castillo

I wanted to LOVE this book. Showing up on every list of anticipated books for months, I waited for the release, ordered it from the library to make sure I'd be first in line, ran there the day it was processed, and loved the opening.


Then the character on whom we focus completely changed after the brief opening, and the story became a sort of Filipino in California Outsiders meets West Side Story without the romance, the dancing or the good story, so all we're left with is grit.


I was looking forward to a book about the immigrant experience from a Filipino view, especially given the timeframe in the 1990s, running from a dictator and brutality, a refugee experience, but none of this was examined in detail, if at all. Instead we get a play-by-play of "we went to dinner at this place" and "we saw these people" - very ordinary. While my life is exceedingly ordinary, and I have an interesting back story as well as some unique challenges, I wouldn't subject anyone to a book about my daily life, which is sort of how this read.


There were some slightly interesting parts involving her sexuality, which happens in most coming of age novels, and there were some gorgeously written passages, but overall, this book was not moving or compelling in any way. I'm still a bit stunned that I made it all the way through, and two months later I can only remember the broadest of themes, like her hands - which happened outside the covers of the book!

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review 2018-03-30 17:47
SPEAK NO EVIL -- acceptance, tragedy and love
Speak No Evil : A Novel - Uzodinma Iweala

There is so much emotion and so many important themes packed into SPEAK NO EVIL, it's impossible to properly cover everything Uzodinma Iweala touches upon. Any one of the themes could be a full novel, so when we leap into this book, it's a bit like leaping into a boiling pot of water. That felt uncomfortable and even false at the beginning. By the end it all fit into place.


First and foremost, it's a book about a young gay black man. Niru is the privileged son of Nigerian immigrants living in Washington DC. He is as American as apple pie, but his father still calls Nigeria "home" and like many immigrant parents, he worries that his son is becoming too American. This American influence is a conflict that runs through most immigrant families and yet it's always individual. It's treated both seriously and with humor. It's easy to imagine any of the words coming from many people living in similar situations.


Then there is the story of a young black man who lives in Washington, drives a nice car, attends a private school. His best friend Meredith is white, and it is within the context of a teenaged sexual encounter that he reveals he is gay. Meredith does what any young liberal BFF would do and signs him up for all the gay dating apps. She's preternaturally optimistic and blind to the conflict that might come from jumping with two feet and no thought.


Niru wants to stay rooted in his family and community, but he is who he is. Steeped in Christianity, headed to Harvard, Niru is torn between love for his family, long-held beliefs, comfort with the way things are and his sexuality. They don't seem to be allowed to fit together. This is made clear when his father drags him to Nigeria where Reverend Olumide has found people who can "deliver" him and "clear this abomination" from Niru.


He is angry with Meredith, blames her meddling, rails against his parents, then wonders if spiritual counseling might not be helpful? He wants to meet men, fantasizes about being away at school where he can meet them, then wonders if he is truly abominable. Maybe he has spent too much time in the US soaking up awful things. Maybe a week with Nigerian prayer warriors will cure him? Or not. Niru is clearly torn and conflicted. His friendship with Meredith is strained to the point of breaking.


Then something happens and the tone of the book changes in every way. The story of a young gay man's struggle for individuality and belonging morphs into something else entirely. The narrator changes and everything is thrown into a different light. The issues remain but are now on a back burner. The angles have all changed. It is abrupt but didn't knock me away from the book. Instead it drew me in.


In many ways this is an extraordinary book. Every character is in serious conflict. There are no easy answers ripped from slogans here. No fake happy endings or flat personas. Both Meredith and especially his parents, who could have become caricatures in less deft hands, are fully-formed. The change of narrator and of plot to a large extent could have been a train wreck, but it worked for me. I cared about the characters, and if I didn't like them at first, I felt empathy for all by the end. It is a weighty book, with loads of heavy issues, treated with varying heft at various times. Nothing is solved, but it's all laid bare, asking the reader to understand.

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review 2018-03-12 22:30
bell hooks is more optimistic than me
Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics - Bell Hooks

A decent primer on feminism, with the goal of explaining why feminism actually benefits everyone. hooks defines feminism as "a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression." I wish she'd included a statement about equality of opportunity, since we're still working toward that in so many ways.


hooks agrees, I think, with my concern about opportunity, but she states early and often that feminism is not "always and only about women seeking to be equal to men." Of course we're not "equal to" men (in many ways, beyond the obvious, we're superior ;) I just want equal opportunity. However, I witness men and women disregarding the distinction between "equal to" and "equality of opportunity." It's subtle, but meaningful.


hooks says that by naming "sexism" the enemy, she shows how feminists aren't against men. We aren't, not that I'm aware of (my husband never thought so.) She does rail against the patriarchy, and I worry that many men will simply read this as "men." hooks puts these failures of vocabulary and understanding a product of "patriarchal mass media." I'd agree in some ways. Certainly since very early days, there has existed a vision of crazy, nearly hysterically loud women demanding inane "benefits" like the vote. [snipped long diatribe about equal pay, laws and the (still-only-a-dream-in-the-US) ERA.]


hooks has an excellent point that most of the feminists portrayed in mass media are still white, educated and very privileged. Despite the many changes since the 1960s, most of today's world still divides itself down lines enshrined during the tumult of the 60s and 70s. This makes feminism (or any -ism) seem like something bored housewives and students do to find meaning or something. While definitely filtered through the media, it's also a product of reality. Many women of color and women from different socioeconomic stratas simply feel they aren't welcome in the "feminist movement." These are the women who say they "don't have time for" or "can't afford" to be feminists. If you need your job/paycheck/home/whatever, how likely are you to put up a fight about anything? Sadly these are the women who most need the benefits a feminist reality would bring.


This book covers the basics of feminism and goes further, providing a chapter on many facets of the feminist movement. hooks offers prescriptions for how we can structure the mass education of everyone in these important areas. It's a nice dream, but I have zero belief it will actually happen. Again, how many people can afford the luxury of even purchasing this slim but expensive book, let alone taking the time to read it, then to organize, sign up, show up and participate in feminist consciousness raising? How many men would actually do that? Yeah, my thought too. hooks has been living feminism, and all that entails, for many decades. I don't disagree with many of her premises in chapters on everything from violence to class struggle to sexual politics to actual equality in the home (read any number of 2018 news articles on this one.) I might simply have different expectations of what is actually possible. Maybe I'm just a pessimist. Maybe hooks and I just use different words for much of it.


This basic primer on feminism actually may be too advanced for some. It may feel too "radical" or go too far for some. Some chapters may be offensive to some women while the same chapter may be a lifeline to others. I fear that these very minute differences all given equal weight may cause some who otherwise agree with the larger goals to turn and run from feminism as a whole, rather than agree with much and simply disagree with other parts. Surely every woman of every race, creed, nationality, religion, etc cannot agree on every single thing.


So while this is meant to be a welcoming book that explains there is nothing to fear of the F word, more and more I wished for an even more simple book. When I imagined what that might look like, I decided something very akin to an intro chapter and a glossary or dictionary on all of these words that have been loaded and warped through the years. I may find some things more important than hooks does and vice versa. This is to be expected, because while we're all women, all feminists, we're all still human and seeing through our own individual lenses.

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