memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation by Mimi Lemay

I think I discovered What We Will Become: A Mother, a Son, and a Journey of Transformation by Mimi Lemay (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019) from a book list last year. A letter she had written (and published) to her transgender son on his fifth birthday had gone viral, and this is the book that sprang out of that experience. I don’t remember seeing her letter when everyone was talking about it, but I knew that I had to read her and her family’s story once I read the premise of this book.

What We Will Become skips back and forth in time, detailing the struggles of parenting Em, Ms. Lemay’s middle child, and detailing her own life journey, growing up in a strict Orthodox home with an emotionally distant mother. Em is difficult to parent almost from the beginning, moody and temperamental, unhappy in her own skin. She’s two when she begins to insist she’s a boy; Mimi and husband Joe aren’t sure what to make of it, but they do their best to work with and around the challenges Em presents. Mimi’s childhood provides a similar story of struggle, of desperately trying to fit into a world who only had one role for her, of never feeling enough for her school or her mother.

As Em’s difficulties compound, Mimi realizes the meaning of everything she’s gone through in the past, of all the problems she’s dealt with and faced down, and how they’ve all lead her here, to be this child’s mother, to be the mother this child needs. And thus a boy named Jacob is born, confident where he never used to be, happy and giggly and authentically himself. It’s a story of transformation born from struggle, but one where everyone ends up exactly where they’re meant to.

This is a truly beautiful and extremely honest story of listening to your heart to know where you belong, and using the skills learned from there to listen to others’ hearts as well. It’s bravery, a story of having the courage to know when to walk away and when to stand and fight. Ms. Lemay took what she learned from her childhood- about the kind of person she wanted to be and the kind of parent she needed but didn’t have, and turned that into the kind of parent her son needed her to be. That’s extraordinary.

Her story of growing up fascinated me. Her mother was extremely emotionally distant and very religious; Mimi did her best to fit in and succeeded for a while as a teenager but then realized there wasn’t a place for her in that world. She left, wounded by her relationship with her mother, but with enough tools to carve herself a place in the outside world, one where she’s built a beautiful life for herself and her children. This is a story of transformation, of parents and children, and what not to do, but how to learn and grow from that until you figure out what TO do. I admire Ms. Lemay so much for that.

Such a beautiful book and a testament to how children can grow and thrive, as Jacob has done, when allowed to be who they are. May we continue to bend and shape the world into one that will always love him as fully as his parents do.

Follow Mimi Lemay on Facebook here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place (A Transgender Memoir) by Jackson Bird

With interlibrary loan not being available (and it won’t be for the foreseeable future *sob*), it was getting time to make changes to my reading challenge picks. I’m so grateful to Goodreads for making groups available where readers can discuss challenges and identify different picks for different prompts- makes things a LOT easier for me! The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge has a prompt for a book by a trans or nonbinary author, and after a little searching and checking my library’s ebook database, I settled on Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place (A Transgender Memoir) by Jackson Bird (Tiller Press, 2019). I love memoirs, I love nonfiction, and I love learning and especially learning about how to be a better ally, so this was a perfect choice.

Jackson Bird was assigned female at birth, but it became clear early on that this was a label that didn’t fit him well. Living in a very conservative area didn’t lend well to giving him the terms for what he was feeling, and he grew up in the days before ‘transgender’ was a common term. With the exception of an episode of Oprah and a heavily stereotyped Adam Sandler movie, Jackson’s education on all things transgender was as limited as anyone else’s of that time period, something that caused him considerable distress, as things do when you feel that alone.

Forcing himself to conform to female gender norms only compounded his gender dysphoria, and after the internet worked its magic and introduced him to more information on the topic, Jackson began the long, slow process of physically transitioning to the gender he’d been all along, finding love and support from his family and friend group along the way. Though not without difficulties, his journey made him realize he needed to help others along the way as well, something he’s forged into a successful career via YouTube, TEDTalks, and other well-known media outlets.

This is a GREAT book. If you’re transgender or questioning your gender and are interested in learning more and need to feel like you’re not alone, this is the book you need. If someone in your life has come out as trans and you want to learn more and understand how to be a better friend and ally, you need this book. If you keep hearing about transgender people and trans rights on the news but those headlines and malicious, hurtful jokes by family members constitute the entirety of your knowledge on the topic, this book is your primer. Go pick up a copy now.

Interspersed with chapters of his own story of coming out and transitioning, Mr. Bird includes educational sections that define terms and their proper uses and provide more in-depth knowledge on both issues that affect the transgender community (ie, how to purchase and use binders, how to prepare for top surgery, how to navigate employment as you transition) and how their friends and family can be better allies and work to make the world better and safer for their trans loved ones.

Mr. Bird’s story is one of bravery- not without its bumps in the road and its moments of self-doubt, but what story lacks those? His dedication and conviction, both to living his truth and to educating others, is admirable; I wish I had even a sliver of his courage. It seems as though he’s been extraordinarily fortunate in that his family and friends supported him and stuck by his side throughout, though it’s not difficult to tell why; Sorted is written in a style that makes his outgoing personality and friendliness apparent. You’ll be wishing you could hang out with him within a few chapters.

Sorted is a fast read- with as engaging as it is, how could it not be???- but it’s one that will stick with you and will have you speaking up the next time you hear someone making a crack about trans people. Jackson Bird is one of those people you’ll be sticking up for, and he and every other trans person out there deserve it. Don’t leave this one off your list; you’ll come away enlightened, educated, and determined to be better for trans people in every aspect of your life.

Visit Jackson Bird’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

Check him out on YouTube here.

fiction · YA

I Was Born For This- Alice Oseman

Fandoms. I’ve been part of them (nope, not saying which ones!), and I’ve also been an observer of them for something I was writing in the past. They’re complex, complicated, and far deeper than most outsiders are willing to assign credit, and when I learned about I Was Born for This by Alice Oseman (Harper Collins Children’s Books, 2018), which centers on a boy band (for lack of a better term) and one fan in particular, I knew I had to read it. And it just so happens that this book fits in well with one of PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge prompts: an author in their 20’s! Voilà, two boxes ticked off right there.

Angel Rahimi has embarked on the biggest adventure of her life: traveling to London to stay with her internet friend Juliet (whom she’s never met in person) in order to attend a meet-and-greet with The Ark, their favorite band. Angel and Juliet know everything about the boys in the band, and Angel feels them on a soul-deep level. The Ark is her life, so much that she’s skipping her ‘finished with high school’ ceremony for this trip, and her family is worried. Angel’s not, but the trip almost immediately gets off to a rocky start when she learns she’s not the only internet friend at Juliet’s.

Jimmy Kaga-Ricci is one of three members of The Ark, not quite nineteen, and the fame- the crowds, the pressure, the lack of privacy and the inability to have anything even resembling a life- is starting to get to him. Panic attacks, sleepless nights, fear of fans and flying, they’re making him hate his life, and cracks are showing in his relationships with the two other band members, childhood friends of his. The Ark is up for a new contract, and Jimmy feels sick every time he even thinks about it.

When Angel’s and Jimmy’s paths collide, both of them will learn lessons they’ve needed to learn for a while now: the difference between fantasy and reality and how to face it, what authenticity looks like, who you can trust when the chips are down, and who should get to decide their futures.

Alice Oseman knows fandom. If you’ve ever been involved in a fandom, especially a music fandom, you’ll recognize how superbly researched I Was Born for This is. She taps deeply into Angel’s adoration of the band, going so far as to nearly make The Ark her sole identity and being unable, or possibly just unwilling, to connect to the people at her school and real life. Jimmy is slowly being suffocated by the fame; his bandmates have different ways of reacting, but no one is doing well with this, and Ms. Oseman paints a desolate picture of the price celebrities pay in order to put their art and music out into the world. While I’ve never been famous (I’m far too boring for that!), I’ve done a lot of reading on fame and its costs, and her portrayal of The Ark’s terrifying success is spot-on.

But what really stands out here is The Ark’s fandom. There are so many different facets to fandom, and Ms. Oseman makes sure the reader is aware of that. The soul-deep fans like Angel, the fake fans like Mac, the casual fans, the over-the-top fans, the psycho fans (I know someone who pulled up to a celebrity’s mother’s house, got out, stole a leaf from her yard, then drove off. Plenty of us in this group were horrified by this), the “I’m so in love with you!!!” fans, the fanfiction writers, the ‘shippers, the fans who are seriously there for each other, it’s all here, and it’s so, so good. This is the book I needed back in my younger days, and the book that I would’ve loved to use as research back when I was writing something that involved a fandom.

There’s a huge amount of positive representation of so many groups in this book. Angel (real name Fereshteh) is a hijabi Muslimah; Jimmy Kaga-Ricci is transgender and gay and suffers from depression and panic attacks; Lister Bird (another member of The Ark) is bisexual; Rowan (the third Ark member) is Nigerian. And with the exception of Jimmy’s mental illnesses, none of these are presented as Issues To Be Dealt With; rather, Ms. Oseman paints each character fully and then sends them on their way. Being transgender or bisexual or religious is treated with respect, but nothing is ever made An Issue (my growing-up-and-reading-YA-in-the-80’s-and-90’s self still so appreciates this; back then, everything was A Very Serious Issue, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop being grateful for characters who are something other than straight, white, cishet, etc, just going about their days and not being made a massive fuss over because they’re in a subset of humanity). It’s just characters based on real people living their lives, and it’s the kind of book I’m here for.

I Was Born for This is fun, moving, thought-provoking, and bursting with the kind of YA energy that teenagers deserve. Every time I read YA like this, I’m so jealous of the quality of writing teens are offered these days. I wish books like these, full of honest stories that speak to real teenagers, who they are and what they want and need, had been available when I was younger, but I’m even more glad that they’re available now. This book is a joy, and a treasure.

Visit Alice Oseman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster- Sarah Krasnostein

A book read just because I wanted to read it? Nearly unheard of around these parts! A friend of mine read The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) earlier this year, and although it was different from what she expected it to be, I was still intrigued by her review. Since then, I’ve seen it on numerous blogs, and so this Saturday morning, I downloaded a copy from my library- before the library was even open (!!!). For those of us who are old enough to remember the days when the library closed its doors at 4 pm on Saturday and didn’t reopen again until Monday morning at 9 am, being able to get new reading material in this way will never stop being utterly miraculous. 🙂 (For the record, I feel the same way about the internet when I wake up at 2 am Sunday morning, wondering what the capital of Liechtenstein is.)

The Trauma Cleaner is a biography of Sandra Pankhurst, an Australian woman who is and has been many things during her time here on earth. These days, she’s head of her own business that cleans after grisly death scenes, hoarding situations, and fires and weather-related disasters, but Sandra hasn’t always been Sandra. Her assigned gender at birth was male, and in order to differentiate between her past and present, Ms. Krasnostein gives Sandra’s past self the name of Peter (which is not her actual deadname, but that name is something Sandra prefers to keep private). Peter was adopted by a family that had recently lost a child; he was that child’s replacement (I have NO idea how people think this is a good idea), but instead of providing him with a loving home, that family abused him horrifically. They beat him, starved him, forced him to sleep in a shed out back, refused him entry into the house past 4:30 pm, and he wasn’t allowed to use the bathing facilities or the toilet. All his teeth had to be removed by age 17 due to malnutrition, which was the same year the family threw him out for good. Desperate for love, Peter married at 19, but almost immediately, it was clear this was a terrible decision. Nevertheless, Peter fathered two children with his wife before leaving to live a more authentic life under a variety of aliases, eventually settling on Sandra (the Pankhurst came after another marriage which was later voided by the state).

Sandra’s life is chaos, broken up by brief periods of stability. Like many transgender people, she engages in various forms of sex work in order to earn money (there’s a content warning here for a fairly graphic description of rape and assault). Her attempts at more mainstream employment sometimes work out and occasionally end in disaster, but Sandra eventually finds her niche and opens her own business dealing with the clean-ups that others refuse to do. It’s here that she thrives, but even with that success, her future is uncertain: Sandra lives with terminal lung and liver disease.

The details of each clean-up scene are fascinating, horrifying, and grotesque, and Sandra has the amazing gift of being able to work with hoarders with the goal of restoring order to their homes and lives with the least amount of mental anguish possible. Gently and respectfully, she engages each occupant and meets them at whatever place they’re coming from and helps them move forward. She can tolerate abominable conditions and has no qualms about walking into houses piled high with urine and feces-soaked furniture, bugs, rats, mold, all the hideous detritus that signifies a deeply distressed inhabitant, or the blood, decay, and rot that stems from a tragic and/or unnoticed death. These are remarkable qualities, but my biggest takeaway from this book is how very, very complex humanity is. Sandra has suffered massive trauma herself, from her adoptive parents, through her sex work, from the society that declared her very existence a perversion and attempted to force her out of every viable means of both labor and human connection, and the upshot of this is that at many times in her life, Sandra has been kind of a terrible person. As Peter, she cheated on her first wife and left her two sons without a further word; as Sandra, she cheated for years on the husband who gave her the last name of Pankhurst. She’s made terrible decisions, done terrible things, and still she exhibits remarkable qualities in her work as a trauma cleaner. Her friends and neighbors seem to adore her.

We’re quick to write people off for doing or being certain things- I know I’m guilty of this, I think we all are- and at times, it’s necessary to create distance in order to protect ourselves. But The Trauma Cleaner is a wonderful example of how we grow and change, of how many people we can be throughout our lives. Who we are and how we’re seen by one group of people may be entirely different than the person we are and the way we’re seen by another group later on. And that’s not a bad thing, I think.

What a fascinating book about a complex woman. I’m definitely glad I read this.

Learn more about Sandra Pankhurst at her website here.

Visit Sarah Krasnostein’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.