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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 2018-06-23 15:55
Is Death owned by Big Business?
The American Way of Death Revisited - Jessica Mitford

The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford blew my freaking mind. There's no other way to say it. I took 4 pages of notes after finishing it and then bought my own copy so that I could reference back to it. As you might have guessed from the title this is another book about death culture and funeral practices in the United States. (Here are 3 more on the topic: Caitlin Doughty 1 & 2 and Bess Lovejoy.) Mitford gives a comprehensive look at the funeral industry in America up to the last update of her book in 1997. (A small portion of the book compares the US outlook on death with the UK and there is a stark difference.) She does not shy away from making her points about the injustices committed by those working in the funeral industry. She discusses the methods employed by everyone from funeral home directors to gravestone manufacturers. This book was a definite eyeopener in terms of what is actually legal when it comes to the handling of the dead. (Spoiler alert: pretty much everything.) 

Alas, poor Yorick! How surprised he would be to see how his counterpart of today is whisked off to a funeral parlor and is in short order sprayed, sliced, pierced, pickled, trussed, trimmed, creamed, waxed, painted, rouged, and neatly dressed - transformed from common corpse into a Beautiful Memory Picture. This process is known in the trade as embalming and restorative art, and is so universally employed in the United States and Canada that for years the funeral director did it routinely, without consulting corpse or kin. He regards as eccentric those few who are hardy enough to suggest that it might be dispensed with yet no law requires embalming, no religious doctrine commends it, nor is it dictated by considerations of health, sanitation, or even of personal daintiness. In no part of the world but in North America is it widely used. The purpose of embalming is to make the corpse presentable for viewing in a suitably costly container; and here too the funeral director routinely, without first consulting the family, prepares the body for public display. - pg 43

I include this lengthy quote (and another in a moment) to illustrate the importance of being educated about what your rights are both as the deceased and as the loved one making the arrangements after death. Mitford includes accounts of deliberate fraud by members of the funeral industry against the grieving. (Many funeral homes even include in their pricing grief counseling!) The frauds range from offering 'package deals' with no options for opting out, non-disclosed fees prior to invoicing, refusal to provide itemized statements for services, or inflation on pre-need arrangements (example: plots purchased well before death). I think this is a book that every single person should read because it discusses in depth a topic which is considered taboo in our country but until it is talked about openly and frankly as Mitford does the funeral industry under its many guises will continue to take advantage of the average consumer. Know your rights, people! 10/10

 

And speaking of rights I'd like to leave you with this bit of advice from the last chapter of Mitford's book:

Send a friend to two or more mortuaries to obtain their general price lists and casket prices. Ask for the cost of direct cremation, including transportation costs and crematory fees. Likewise, for the cost of immediate burial. Pay no money in advance. If death has not yet occurred and you wish to pay in installments, do so by setting up a Totten Trust, naming yourself or a relative or close friend as beneficiary. Remember, above all, that many funeral homes have a "no-walk" policy, which means simply that if and when you start to walk out, the fee will come down, down, down until a level acceptable to you is reached. - pg 274

 

 

What's Up Next: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows & Mary Ann Shaffer

 

What I'm Currently Reading: Condoleezza Rice: A memoir of my extraordinary, ordinary family and me by Condoleezza Rice

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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text 2018-06-22 14:48
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher - DNF
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (Digital Audio) - Kate Summerscale,Simon Vance

I suspect that this is probably a very interesting read and it would likely be fun to follow along with the revelation of clues and Victorian-era detective's investigation of this true crime. However, this book is only available from my library on audio, and I'm finding it a real snoozer. I'm not sure if this is due to Simon Vance's performance, which isn't bad, or if the narrative style is just a bad fit for the audio format. Either way, I'm not finding it compelling enough to knock any other books off my To Buy TBR list, so I'll just abandon the book at this point. I'm not assigning a star rating, since I think my dissatisfaction has more to do with the format than the quality of the writing or audio performance. 

 

DNF at 14%. Borrowed from my public library via Overdrive. 

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review 2018-06-22 03:09
Dear Fahrenheit 451 - librarians and their loves
Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks - Annie Spence

This was SO different than I'd imagined. I keep a BoB - so I'd imagined it would be more like "Life with BOB" (but somehow better - sight unseen I decided this was better based, I'm guessing, on the title.)

 

I started to read it like a regular old plotted book and decided NO! Then I actually kept reading, but what it really should be is more of a reference book about books you might love or want to buy for your nephew or something. 

 

To that end, ideally this book would have a great index of both titles and genres at least. It doesn't, but I decided to keep it because it may be better at conveying why I love The Virgin Suicides than I've ever been (nobody has ever read that book on my ridiculous recommendation, and everyone should!) It's also the most random collection of titles in the world. This woman has no shame. She admits to doing the goofy calculator tricks we all did long before there were things called "computers." Someone who does that clearly has no worries about what we think of her favorite books. 

 

There is a certain glee to her takedown of the 50 Shades books, but best of all are her observations on the people who take home the books - the introduction. Hopefully she'll write the next book of letters to all of us who hang out at the library. People like that woman who pretends she's only getting that book for her husband (then prays they don't look up vital statistics which show her husband has been dead for longer than I've lived in this library's neighborhood...) 

 

Here's to all the librarians, their love of books and lack of judgment on readers.

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review 2018-06-21 07:59
James Comey in his own words and my poor confused libtard brain
A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership - James Comey

I'm a lefty in the old-fashioned sense of the word. I was raised with the holy trinity of MLK Jr, JFK & black Jesus on our walls,  COINTELPRO stories were the first thing I learned about the FBI, and my Catholic grade school taught liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor before I went off to Baltimore City public schools and really got indoctrinated ;). Of course all of this was pre-FOX news and in an era when truth was a real thing. My older sister married a very "law and order" type and most of my family is conservative. Only my youngest sister and I remain the good liberals we were raised to be. At work we usually have CNN in the background, and I've been known to sneak into patient rooms to get a hit of Rachel Maddow. Given all of this, I had a complicated relationship with the idea of Comey before I started this book. It was finally available from the library this week. I'm pretty conscious of the way Democrats suddenly became lovers of the intelligence community when that became anti-Trump, and I try pretty hard not to fall into "I like x because you hate it" and vice versa. But damn it can be hard. 

 

I've completely stopped watching TV news except the Maddow hits and VICE when I remember I have access to it. I start the day with a non-US newspaper and keep online subs to WaPo & NYTimes that I access on a reasonable level (more than 10 times a month though.) So I have been thinking that I'm living in my normal east coast liberal bubble, but at least trying to stay "truth-based." Because of that, one of the first big realizations from this book is how the narrative/propaganda of the president and FOX news has infiltrated my brain despite the fact that I know better and thought it was constitutionally impossible. (I experienced a bit of this earlier this year when I finally could read "What Happened" by Hillary Clinton without dissolving into tears and found it - lacking, but I didn't see that as a case of right/left - more, "I can't listen to another email story" and the book needed a better editor.)

 

All that set-up is to say that I learned a lot about James Comey from this book, and I thought I knew everything necessary before I started it. I honestly thought "do I still need to know anything about Comey? Do I care?" To learn anything given the all-Comey all-day life I lived for that weird year or two before I gave up TV in favor of keeping a shred of sanity says something for the book. Someone had put an idea of Comey in my head - and only a little bit of it seems to be at all true.

 

This is Comey's book, and it's flattering to Comey, of course. One of the first things I learned was that he's human, and his life hasn't been a cakewalk. He was bullied a lot as a kid (and since then hates bullies - you see where this will end up.) Also he and his wife lost a child to a completely preventable disease (and went on to change medical testing policies in the US - letting many more infants live, while theirs did not.) So he's quite human and has a little bit of a sense of humor. I wouldn't call him a riot, but he's not overly religious or preachy. He does, however, have a few lessons he has learned that he's clearly taken to heart in a way that may be less flexible than he imagines. He also has a habit of psychoanalyzing presidents (all three that he worked with) and other leaders that comes off as overly simplistic even while it may be based in truth. It also is sort of jerk-ish.

 

Reading this I learned how Comey ended up being That Guy during 2016. His decisions all make sense even before he explains them because he tells us how he became the person he is. He's a man who seems to be always trying to improve himself - a trait I adore in people. The fly gets into the ointment when he over-learns a basically good lesson - let's just take one example:

 

Between government jobs, Comey worked in the private sector for a company that used "radical transparency." He learned that it's best to always be honest - even when you might prefer to be "nice." In fact, it's not always "nice" to avoid the harder things - reprimands or hard truths. I call this the "spinach in my teeth test." Meaning, if you really respect me, I expect you to tell me when I have spinach stuck in my teeth, not let me continue walking around that way. This basic test can do wonders for close working relationships as well as all the personal relationships we have. It doesn't always work in every situation though - it requires the ability to read people and situations. I'll go out on a limb and say that Trump is not a person who might thank you for pointing out he has spinach in his teeth. Anyone can see that. Anyone except James Comey. Or even if he could see it, he couldn't change his "radical transparency" policy to fit his new boss. He is clearly baffled by Trump from the start.

 

Add to that bafflement and wildly different personal style the culture of DC - these men (and almost everyone is a man, though more on that in a second) who hold massive amounts of power (all the IC chiefs heads of various other government institutions, non-political government bigwigs all) don't seem to know what to do when things don't go exactly as planned. So they all just stay quiet and discuss things later or write memos and cover their arses instead of saying at meeting #1 (which we hear about in this book in detail.) It struck me that if a group of our nation's IC leaders couldn't tell the Trump team not to talk political strategy with them in the room -- all choosing to stay silent and do nothing while looking at their shoes -- then we have far larger problems than any of them are aware of. Or even the childish idea that it would be better for the other IC guys to just send Comey in alone to tell Trump about the "dossier." Why not have all four of them in there - disperse the vitriol everyone knew was coming.

 

Powerful men who can't say, "Hey - we're not political appointees. Let's stick to the topic," even to an incoming president, are already way off course. This happens again and again - silence and furtive gestures instead of awkward but at least instructive basic information: we aren't your political team. We can't hang out, Mr. President. If you won't try to deal with this situation, Mr Atty General, then to whom should I take this issue? It's not just Comey who doesn't speak up - it's every single person in every single room. And of course, it's all blown up or about to. Mr Trump may not want to hear about the spinach, he may choose to ignore the information, but at least give him the benefit of making that decision.

 

So Comey says he's transparent, but that's not the case when he's not the boss. He's still an awkward and fretful kid in those situations. Every country needs people willing to tell the emperor that he's not wearing clothes and he has spinach in his teeth. Radical Transparency goes out the window sometimes, then comes pouring back in when the coast is more clear. (To which I'd say, that's not really radical transparency at all)

 

I'm not being clear b/c it's late and this book has complicated situations, but there's lesson in here for everyone who has ever dealt with sticky interpersonal situations: don't put them off in hopes they will just go away. They usually don't. And don't jump on the high horse AFTER you stared at your shoes instead of speaking up.

 

Some of the good things Comey did while in government were: immediately upon taking over the FBI noticing that the agency was 83% white and immediately starting a big push to change that. So far it's been effective and it's still going on. He also recruited more women. He created a class taught at the academy about the way the FBI treated MLK as a lesson in not being a powermonger that continues to be one of the favorite classes of incoming recruits and does sound like an interesting class.

 

He seems to have liked and respected Obama, of course. But he also learned from him, specifically about language used in law enforcement and how some of these phrases are heard through ears that aren't white, cisgendered and male. 

 

He is willing to learn - to think about things as much as he can from other people's shoes. It was instructive to hear his thought processes about the rise in the murder rates in many (but not all) American cities following the Baltimore uprising (and similar events since Mike Brown's death.) Here he falls down language-wise. I got very upset at the way he relitigated Mike Brown's death - it was unnecessary and cruel, frankly. His editor did him a disservice in leaving that in the book - it is the only time he sounds ridiculously out of touch.

 

He doesn't have the language always for things like race relations in the US, but you can tell he really is thinking and working toward improvement. His speeches were imperfect and headlines only caught the bloopers, but his heart was in the right place, I believe, and even more - the problem still isn't solved and James Comey along with President Obama were the only two people in power who seemed to think about this rising number of dead black (mostly) men with any nuance. Hearing their frank discussion (albeit only from one side) made me hopeful.

 

He ends the book on hope too. Despite what he calls a "time of anxiety" he likens the current administration to a forest fire. Yes it's devastating and destructive, but it may be clearing  the way for new growth. (I'm pretty sure we'd all prefer a different way to grow, but OK.) All in all, while this wasn't the best book ever, it added a fuller picture and new shades to my knowledge of each situation already covered in the press and added a whole person to the idea of James Comey. What makes me most sad is that I considered not reading it because I thought "how much more do I really need to know?" That fatigue and malaise scares me. Maybe I don't need to know about Comey himself, but I need to keep thinking and protesting and writing letters and oh yeah - this week is early voting in Maryland. It reminded me that no matter how much I hear about anything, there's always more to learn, and I need to guard against propaganda more carefully than I've apparently been doing.

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