Book Review: A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today by Kate Bornstein (Audiobook narrated by Alice Rosengard)
Kate Bornstein is a playwright, gender theorist, and queer activist. She chose to write a memoir as a way to reach out to her daughter, Jessica, who is still in the Church of Scientology, and thus, must not speak to her. Her memoir talks about growing up Jewish in the 1950s, feeling like a girl inside a boy’s body. It then talks about why and how she joined Scientology (still identifying as a man, Al), climbing Scientology’s ladder, marrying, fathering Jessica, and finally getting kicked out of Scientology and becoming disillusioned. From there the memoir explains to Jessica how and why Al decided to become Kate and talks about the person behind the queer theory, trying to explain who the incredibly unique parent she has truly is.
I was feeling bad about how far behind I’ve fallen in writing up reviews for the books I’ve finished reading, but with the historic DOMA ruling in the US yesterday (giving official federal support to marriage equality), I’m really glad I had a GLBTQ book in the queue ready to be reviewed. And not just any GLBTQ book. An amazing one! You can’t read that title and not be intrigued. It’s impossible. I spotted it on tumblr and instantly knew I had to read it. A memoir about a transwoman who was a member of Scientology?! It’s the intersection of three topics I find fascinating.
Kate is unabashedly honest about the fact that this book exists as a letter to her daughter, Jessica. The prologue explains that this memoir came about as a way for Kate to reach out to Jessica and her children, even after Kate has passed away. This lends a tone to the book of an elderly neighbor sitting down to tell you their life story, and you finding out gradually that your elderly neighbor is, in fact, a bad ass, and age has nothing to do with how cool a person still is to this day. And Kate doesn’t hold back because of this perspective. If anything, she is more brutally honest than she might otherwise be. She wants Jessica to have a whole, clear picture of who she is. Flaws and all. One technique that I thought was brilliant for a memoir and helped establish trust in truth between the reader and the author was the fact that Kate would tell a family story she heard growing up and then say, well, that was a lie. I thought it was true, but it turns out what people told me was a lie. Given that, how can we ever know what really is true? Just because we think something is true doesn’t mean it is. It’s an excellent grain of salt to be given in a memoir.
After the prologue, Kate tells her story chronologically. Her story can be roughly summarized as the following sections: growing up a gender queer person, joining Scientology, break-down after getting kicked out of Scientology and coming to terms with her queerness, transitioning, life as a lesbian trans activist, finding BDSM, and overcoming depression and suicidal thoughts. It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride, and one cannot help but feel empathy for this person just struggling to find a place in the world. Personally, I think Kate’s life story is an excellent argument for breaking down the binary gender divide. A lot of Kate’s struggles come from the rigid gender norms and expectations placed upon her by others. It would have been much simpler for people to have let her be gender fluid, and indeed, Kate in more recent years has come to be an activist for gender fluidity and queerness (as is evidenced by her book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us). This memoir of course explores trans issues, but it also is an amazing gender queer memoir.
The Scientology section was surprisingly mundane compared to what I thought actually happens in Scientology. Yes, there was abuse and lies and many other things going on that demonstrate the fallacies of L. Ron Hubbard, but honestly none of it was that much worse than religious extremists of any religion. Scientology expects its followers to cut themselves off from people deemed poisonous and to proselytize non-stop. It takes over the lives of the people in the upper-echelons, controlling every aspect of their lives. We can see all of this in Kate’s years in Scientology, and while it was interesting, none of it is shocking to anyone moderately informed on Scientology. I actually was more interested in how Kate wound up joining Scientology. Scientology teaches the the soul is genderless, and you also reincarnate. Everyone has been in both male and female bodies. Kate (then Al) found this incredibly comforting. It’s possible that his soul was just more frequently in female bodies, and so that’s why he felt like a girl inside. What an appealing concept to a confused, unsupported trans or gender queer young adult. I think this part of the book demonstrates clearly why it’s important for families and loved ones to be supportive of their glbtq teens and young people. You don’t want a harmful group of people snapping them up with promises of understanding and caring and information that sounds more supportive than the people they live with.
Interestingly, the much more shocking section was the one in which Kate discusses discovering BDSM and getting pleasure from pain. Kate was part of a BDSM triad for quite some time, and this is addressed. It does, however, come with a warning for Jessica and readers who might not want to hear the details so they can easily skip over it and still get the most important information without getting all the details. I thought that was a nice touch from Kate, showing her maturity and openness. Of course, I read that section, and I will say that Kate had a more intense BDSM relationship than you tend to see in literature, and it was interesting to read about.
It’s also interesting to note that from the prologue Kate is honest with the reader about being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder years ago. This is not something I knew coming into the book, and I don’t think Kate’s mental illness played very much into the book. I certainly think she would have had a better time coping with her mental health issues if she had had a supportive environment for her queerness. Even within the GLBTQ community, she was ostracized for some of her less mainstream beliefs within that community. It’s sad that even a community of people ostracized by the larger society, people can still be unaccepting and unloving. In spite of the fact that the book talks a lot about depression, self-injury, and other mental health issues, I am hesitant to label it as counting for my Mental Illness Advocacy Reading Challenge. I don’t want the casual reader to think that I’m equating being queer with having a mental illness. However, the fact remains that Kate herself states she was diagnosed with BPD, and trans and queer people certainly can have mental illnesses. One does not cause the other, although certainly I think lack of acceptance and loving increases symptoms of mental illnesses. In any case, for this reason, I am counting this read for the challenge, but I want to be crystal clear that this is due to Kate’s BPD and NOT her queer/trans orientation.
The narration of the audiobook was perfect. Thankfully, they chose to use a female narrator throughout, which fits perfectly with the image of an older Kate Bornstein telling her life story to her daughter. Alice Rosengard was a perfect narrator. She became Kate in my mind, and there’s not a better complement you can pay a narrator than that.
I feel like I’ve rambled a lot about this book. It’s hard to succinctly discuss a memoir as unique as this one, let alone a book you love as much as I loved this one. It’s amazing. It’s unique. It does exactly what a memoir should do. It tells a unique life story in an engaging way that forces the reader to put herself into someone else’s shoes and feel empathy and maybe even come out of it with a changed worldview, however slightly. I strongly recommend this book to everyone, really, but especially anyone with an interest in GLBTQ history/theory/studies or an interest in the first few decades of Scientology. I will definitely be reading more of Kate’s works, myself, and want to thank her for being a pioneer, in spite of everything.
5 out of 5 stars
Miriam hasn’t touched a person and seen a new death in months. She’s settled down in Jersey with Louis, and part of the deal is no touching. But her fingers are twitching for a vision, and quickly a regular afternoon turns into a horrifying one. Still. Louis suggests a way for her to use her gift for the good. Prove to a hypochondria that she isn’t dying. But this hypochondriac happens to work at a problem girls boarding school, and when Miriam touches one of the girls, all hell breaks loose.
I was so glad to jump back into Miriam’s gritty world that is so unique in urban fantasy, although at first I was surprised by how settled down she seemed to be. Thankfully, that quickly changes, and a disturbing, rollicking plot comes into play.
What makes this series is the characterization of Miriam. She is not a nice girl. And she’s not bad in some fake-ass way designed to appeal to a hormonal teenage boy. She doesn’t run around in tight leather pants proclaiming her badness while batting her eyes and tossing her hair. Miriam is dark and brutally honest. She has a delightfully foul mouth. She wears what she wants to wear whether or not people like it or it’s in fashion. She doesn’t care if she’s attractive. She can be bitingly mean. But she still works as a heroine because she truly has a good heart and is willing to inconvenience her entire life to help other people. Reading Miriam is deeply refreshing to me, as a woman reader. She’s allowed to be precisely who she is without any restraints of gender norms by the author. Here is just a sampling of Miriam’s voice in the book:
Home Again, Home Again, Fuckity-Fuck (location 259)
A tattoo is an expression of your inner self inked on your outer self. It’s some deeply spiritual shit. (location 2143)
The plot this time at first appears to be purely about who is killing young girls, but slowly it becomes apparent that we’re learning more about Fate or what I think of as the crazy birds that control Miriam’s life. It appears that Fate is displeased that Miriam fucked with it by saving Louis, and now it’s out to get her. Although this addresses some of the issues I had in the first book about how confusing Fate is and what exactly the rules for this universe are, I must admit, I still found a lot of the information revealed to be a bit fuzzy, albeit wonderfully creepy. The fantasy information was better than in the first book, but it was still a bit too at arm’s length. I don’t want to have to wait out the whole series to finally understand even one significant aspect of what is up with Miriam.
One plot issue to do with the murders bothered me. Spoiler ahead!
*spoilers* I have a very hard time believing that after being fooled once by the killer who can imitate other people’s voices like a mockingbird that Miriam would fall for it a second time. She’s smarter than that, and it felt like a very clunky plot device to me. *end spoilers*
That said, the mystery was dark, gritty, and nail-biting. A lot happened, and Miriam’s story definitely moved forward. There is a self-contained mystery within this book, but the overarching plot got more traction as well.
The writing continues to be a mix of beautiful and grotesque that would keep me coming back even if the characterization of Miriam wasn’t so strong. Wendig’s description powers are truly stellar.
Her mouth brimming with foulness the way a soup can bulges with botulism. (location 2460)
They invited her to move back home but she’s not going to do that, oh hell no, she’d much rather snap her tits in a bear-trap than go back to that hell. (location 1633)
She gets on her tippy-toes and kisses him. Long, slow, deep. The kind of kiss where you can feel little pieces of your soul trading places as mouths open and breath mingles. (location 3722)
How can you not read a book with writing like that?
Overall, fans of the first book in the Miriam Black series will not be disappointed by this entry. Everything that made the first book unique in the urban fantasy genre has returned with strength, particularly the writing style and the characterization of Miriam. The overarching plot moves forward at a pace fast enough to maintain interest, although not enough about the rules of the fantasy world is revealed. The self-contained plot is gritty, dark, and sufficiently mysterious, although one moment detracts from it a bit. Miriam and the writing more than make up for it, though. Wendig fans will not be disappointed.
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: The Walking Dead: The Road To Woodbury by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga (Series, #2) (Audiobook narrated by Fred Berman)
Lilly Caul’s father shoved her into a bus escaping town just as the doors were closing. They closed on him and zombies ate him while she watched. Haunted by the feeling that everyone caring for her puts their own lives in danger, she’s struggling to survive among a rag-tag group of survivors, including her high school friend, Megan. Slowly her small group of friendly survivors, headed by a big strong black man, Josh Lee, who has feelings for her, breaks off from the main group and find their way to Woodbury. There, the sinister side of the town gradually reveals itself.
My understanding of this print companion series to the graphic novel one was that it was going to follow the life of the villain The Governor. The first book told the backstory of The Governor and brought him to Woodbury, so I was expecting a book showing how he came to rule the town with an iron fist. Instead this entry covers the backstory of Lilly Caul, and how she comes to Woodbury. Although it’s always fun to visit this post-apocalyptic land that Kirman and Bonansinga have created, this entry just didn’t have the energy and appeal of the first book in the series.
I have to admit, although I recognized the name Lilly Caul, I couldn’t for the life of me remember who she was at first, so I spent quite a bit of time scratching my brain trying to figure out why we were following her around. I finally remembered that she’s one of the gang of Woodbury folks who go head-to-head with Rick Grimes’s gang in the graphic novels. A check of the wiki reminded me that she’s the one who shoots and kills Lori and Judith. Eh, this explains why I have no strong feelings about her. I hated Lori and felt nothing about Judith, so I certainly didn’t view her as a memorable villain. I now get it that the series is trying to show how all of Woodbury happened, not just the tale of The Governor. But the thing is that if you could tell the story of a compelling figure like The Governor why talk about the girl next door? It made for a boring book. There is nothing extraordinary about Lilly. She’s just a cowardly girl trying to survive an apocalypse, and she does it by leeching on to people who care for her but she seems to be lacking the ability to truly care about anyone besides herself. She also spends a lot of time slut shaming her “best friend” Megan, which pissed me off to no end. So we have a woman playing with people’s hearts for protection but simultaneously judging Megan for sleeping with people for protection. Yuck. Given all of these aspects of her character, I also found it really unbelievable that she would *spoiler warning* lead a rebellion against The Governor. *end spoilers*
When we finally do get to Woodbury, The Governor is already in charge, although he has yet to call himself The Governor. We do get to see what led to the establishment of the gladiator-style arena with the zombies, and we also see more reasons as to why the town folk trust and respect him. But we see all of this through Lilly, Megan, and Bob’s eyes. I honestly wanted to know more of the inner workings of The Governor, so I found this third person perspective disappointing.
There’s nothing new or ground-breaking in the horror. There is one massive swarm of zombies that is clearly supposed to be terrifying, but it did nothing for me. Maybe I’m just getting acclimated to this world, but neither the characters nor the level of horror increased the intensity enough for me.
That said, even though I didn’t enjoy which characters were focused on or how the plot was constructed, we do learn more about the world of Woodbury, and the post-apocalyptic world in general. We learn how and why the gladiator ring started, how The Governor won people over, and more about how the weather impacted the survivors on that particular winter. Long-time fans will find value in reading this book, even though it is by no means a thrilling or thought-provoking entry in the series. Skim it quickly to get the important bits and move on. For that reason, I would recommend the print over the audio, in spite of Berman’s talent as a narrator. He was better than the book he was given.
3 out of 5 stars