I attended an LGBTQIA safe space training on behalf of BCPL a few weeks ago, and at one point a woman raised her hand from the front of the room. “You told us earlier that calling someone ‘queer’ is hate speech,” she pointed out. “But it’s right there in the acronym. So why is that okay?” The presenter paused. “Honestly?” she said. “It’s inclusivity versus exclusivity. There’s a big difference between someone reclaiming a hateful word from a place of power and someone calling someone ‘queer’ from a place of ignorance.” I lead with this because I want you to understand all the different types of ‘power’ at work in Laura Jane Grace’s new memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout — co-written by Dan Ozzi — because there are many.
The word ‘tranny’ is one that Grace returns to over and over again throughout the book. “I don’t want to wait until all of my youth is gone,” she writes at one point, struggling with her decision to transition from male to female. “I don’t want to end up a sad, old tranny.” That word, tranny, has its roots in hate, as something sneered at transgender individuals for decades, but most often directed with vitriol at birth-assigned men wearing women’s clothing. Like so many other words whose origins are founded in hate speech, it was reclaimed by the very community it was designed to hurt, but because of the common target, the word came to carry a very specific connotation. So when the author refers to herself as a tranny in the book, it’s important to understand that she isn’t saying she wants to be a man wearing women’s clothing — she wants to be a woman. That disconnect between a person’s identity and their biology is what’s referred to as “gender dysphoria,” and it occupies the heart of Laura Jane Grace’s story.
And it’s a hell of a story. Laura Jane Grace shifts seamlessly between the raw, untempered emotion of personal journal entries and the calmer, more methodical reflection of a memoir. More than anything else, Tranny showcases how dysphoria and dysfunction often go hand in hand, one informing the other and often feeding into each other. In an effort to feel normal and escape this ever-present notion of “her,” Grace documents her descent into hard drugs, alcoholism and (maybe worst of all) corporate punk, only to emerge triumphant in the third act and then...stop. Tranny is a unique memoir insomuch that it doesn’t end on a blindingly positive note that leaves the reader with the sense that they all lived happily ever after. Laura Jane Grace doesn’t “win,” not really. What she does do is close the chapter on an achingly and viscerally painful period in her life and begin a new chapter that’s arguably just as painful and hard, but also wholly worthwhile and finally true to who she is. Tom Gabel dies, but maybe that’s what he wanted all along. It sure seems that way.
If you love a good heart-wrenching biography, the not-so-secret politics of the music industry and/or especially self-aware sellouts, Tranny is the book you’ve been waiting for. It will break your heart and it will make you laugh and you will pump your fist when Laura Jane Grace screams at a pharmacist in Florida loud enough to silence everyone who ever had the audacity to say “you’re not a real punk.” Against Me!, Grace’s band, has a long, storied history, but are entirely worth listening to, particularly their two most recent albums: Transgender Dysphoria Blues and Shape Shift With Me, both of which are about as far from corporate as you can get. Laura Jane Grace remains an excellent human being to follow.
At the end of her life, Coretta Scott King shared her story with close friend, Barbara Reynolds, an ordained minister and journalist who was on USA Today’s founding editorial team. In her introduction to My Life, My Love, My Legacy, King notes that “There is a Mrs. King. There is also Coretta. Now I think it is time you knew Coretta.” Based on a series of interviews between Reynolds and King dating back to 1975, this is a detailed tribute to an elegant woman who played an important role in American history.
Coretta was born in the segregated town of Heiberger, Alabama, in 1927, where she and her family were regularly victims of racial harassment, including the burning of their house when she was 15. She found her escape from the South when she was one of the first black scholarship students at Antioch College in Ohio. She later followed her musical passion to the New England Conservatory in Boston. It was in Boston where she met the minister from Atlanta, whom she first thought to be “too short.” Coretta wanted to be a concert singer and definitely wanted to live in the more accepting North, but Martin Luther King Jr. wanted her to marry him and battle the segregated South on the front lines with him.
They did marry, and she was committed to his mission, all while raising their four children. Coretta is candid when talking about difficult topics, such as her husband’s rumored infidelity and her frustrations with the sexist leadership at the helm of the movement. Following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, we see that Coretta’s political activism and spiritual commitment only grew. This is the story of a loving wife, a devoted mother and a brave leader in America’s civil rights movement.
Are you doing BCPL’s Reading Challenge? This would be a great one for January’s challenge. Don’t forget to take a picture of yourself with the book and submit your entry by visiting Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and post or tweet the photo with the hashtag #bwellread. Camera-shy participants may post a photograph of the book they’ve chosen.
In 1943, Virginia’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory had a problem: It needed computers to help engineer better airplanes to guarantee American success over the aerial battlefields of World War II. The computers required were not the electronic devices we use today; instead, they were women with comprehensive mathematics backgrounds. Women who have largely been forgotten by history despite their role in shaping it.
And a core group of these "hidden figures" were black.
Using research and interviews, Margot Lee Shetterly highlights the lives of three “human computers” in particular — Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson — who worked at Langley during the war and, once it was established, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In doing so, she returns these women and their fellow “computers” to their proper place in the tale of one of mankind’s greatest achievements: space travel. The intertwined stories of each woman provide a deeper insight into the ingenuity, hard work and determination from all involved — male or female, black or white — that took us from airplanes to space shuttles.
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race isn’t just about a group of mathematicians and engineers whose efforts helped break the sound barrier and put a man on the moon. Shetterly also delves into how the environment these women worked in was impacted by the racial and sexual politics and tensions of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s and what it meant for each woman to gain the position she did. She celebrates these women and what they achieved despite the discrimination they faced due to their skin color and gender.
When you’re finished with the book, you can check out the movie, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, in theatres January 5, 2017. Also, readers wanting more information on the contributions of African Americans and women to the space race should check out We Could Not Fail by Steven Moss and Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt.
Trevor Noah leapt to prominence in the U.S. when he succeeded Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show. Now, at age 32, he’s published his memoir. If that seems premature, it’s only because you haven’t read it yet. The title of Noah’s book, Born a Crime, is an indictment of the apartheid system into which the South African comedian was born.
More than an autobiography, Born a Crime is a child’s eyewitness account of life under apartheid and the upheaval that followed when that regime ended. The book’s also a tribute to Noah’s feisty, outspoken mother, Patricia. A member of the Xhosa tribe, Patricia defied the law by having a relationship with white businessman Robert Noah. Once Trevor was born, the couple couldn’t be seen in public as his parents. They enlisted a mixed race neighbor to pose with Robert and Trevor for “family” photos. The Black woman standing in the background of those photos, pretending to be the nanny, was Trevor’s real mother.
Noah finds humor and pathos in this bizarre upbringing. On a more serious note, he also speaks out strongly against domestic violence. Many years after her relationship with Noah’s father, Patricia married Ngisaveni Shingange. Noah recounts in chilling detail the gradual escalation of violence in the household and his mother’s struggle to leave Shingange. The decision almost led to her death. His stepfather’s threats against Trevor’s own life were one of the reasons the comedian turned his sights to a career in America.
Clearly, Noah has packed a lot of living into his short life — and this book only covers the first 25 years. Fans of books by The Daily Show alumni Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart will enjoy reading Noah’s autobiography, but it will also be of interest to anyone curious about life under apartheid.
Author Beth Macy, former reporter for The Roanoke Times, used to hear rumors about local African American brothers who’d been kidnapped by the circus. Impenetrably shielded by their family, the brothers’ fate remained private until their grand-niece Nancy Saunders agreed to allow Macy to share their history. The result is Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South.
Brothers George and Willie Muse were born in the 1890s in Truevine, VA, a rural and impoverished community of former slaves and their descendants — where Jim Crow reigned and “justice” might have meant lynching. Both brothers were born with albinism, which gave them golden hair, milky skin and light-sensitive pale blue eyes, which were a curse for children expected to toil in tobacco fields under the broiling sun. One day, the little Muse boys disappeared...the same day a White man in a carriage was seen riding through Truevine.
Before television or radio, America had the circus. Traveling circuses large and small entertained folks with their performers, animals and, though appalling by current sensibilities, sideshow acts. Featured along with giants, fat ladies and pinheads were the headliners billed as the Ambassadors from Mars, or sometimes as the sheep-headed cannibals Eko and Iko, aka George and Willie Muse, who eventually traveled the United States and abroad as part of the “greatest show on earth.”
Macy gives the reader two stories in Truevine. One is of the Muse brothers and their mother Harriet, an amazing woman — a Black domestic worker who repeatedly used the deeply racist legal system to challenge the influential entertainment industry to recover her children and end the exploitive working conditions under which they were held. The other, tightly entwined with the Muse narrative, is the historical detail on the circus and its freak shows, a microcosm which reflected broader societal norms. Well researched, fascinating and profoundly moving, Truevine is a story which needed to be told.
Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson… a love story? Really? You may change your mind after reading Donald Bogle’s compelling bio Elizabeth and Michael: The Queen of Hollywood and the King of Pop — A Love Story. Using interviews and diaries from close friends, employees and family members, he delivers an honest, realistic portrait of these two entertainment icons.
To understand Taylor and Jackson’s 20 plus year relationship, Bogle begins by recounting their early years as child stars and breadwinners for their families. Both had mothers with strong religious convictions. Both knew how to be a “star.” Taylor was groomed by MGM studios while Jackson was taught by Motown founder Berry Gordy. But most importantly, both missed out on being a kid, which deeply affected their adult lives and relationships.
How Jackson courted Taylor to win her friendship is hilarious. He invited her to his concert, but the seats were not up to her standards, so she left. Eventually, they did meet and formed an unbreakable bond. With no fear of being exposed, they shared confidences freely — something rarely done with those outside their families. Such was Jackson’s devotion that he showered Taylor with expensive jewelry. The joke was that if he wanted her to attend an event, he presented a diamond and she would show. So he did — more than once! Tales of each other’s extravagance will amaze you — who gives someone an elephant? Elizabeth Taylor does, that’s who! But you will be most impressed with Taylor’s loyalty and devotion to Jackson. Never once did she waver in her support for Jackson, publicly denouncing the molestation accusations levelled against him as ridiculous.
Bogle’s bio is informative and entertaining, allowing us to go behind the curtain of these two Hollywood icons. Resisting the urge to be tawdry, he gives Taylor and Jackson the respect they deserve. Fans of Taylor, Jackson and Hollywood stories must put this book on their want-to-read list. Finally, was their relationship a love story? Check out a copy today and decide for yourself!
In the summer of 2008, a Somali sprinter finished last in her heat in Beijing. Almost four years later in the spring of 2012, she drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Italy. Her name was Samia Yusuf Omar.
Giuseppe Catozzella lends his voice to Samia's story, going back to a young 8-year-old girl who longs to be an athlete in Don't Tell Me You're Afraid. Catozzella focuses on the friendship between Samia and her coach, who also happens to be a child and a Darod, named Ali. In order to train, the children go out under the cover of darkness to practice in a bullet ridden stadium. To reach the stadium, Samia and Ali must evade Al-Shabaab's twitchy child soldiers enslaved by a drug named khat. Their efforts pay off, and eventually Samia achieves a national victory. Meanwhile, the city of Mogadishu crumbles and her coach is forced out of town due to his Darod ancestry. Upon her return from Beijing, Samia is faced with the reality that without a proper diet and training she may never become the athlete she was born to become. Then Al-Shabaab strikes. Catozzella deftly conveys the energy and longing that propelled Samia to Beijing and indignity and anguish she endured on the journey.
Reinhard Kleist introduces us to Samia, as she fails in her quest to be one of the greatest sprinters on earth in Beijing, with his stunning illustrations in An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar. Kleist conveys the deep disillusionment on Samia’s face as she realizes she must leave Somali not only to achieve her Olympic Dream but for her own safety. Fans of Kleist’s work will also enjoy his earlier graphic novel The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft.
Readers suffering from Olympic withdrawal can explore the lives of past Olympians by checking out Today We Die a Little!: The Inimitable Emil Zátopek by Richard Askwith or Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics by Jeremy Schapp.
When you pick up a copy of Saving Alex: When I Was 15 I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay, and That’s When My Nightmare Began, you do so already knowing that author Alexandra Cooper grew up Mormon, that she came out to her parents at a young age and that the results were disastrous. What you might not realize is how profound, life-changing, community-changing and uplifting the journey Alex took after her “nightmare” was, and what a powerful effect this young woman has had over one of the most complicated and tightly knit communities in our country.
One of the final strongholds that has continued to uphold discrimination against gay Americans, and gay youth in particular, has been the establishment of the Church of Latter Day Saints. According to Mormon doctrine, which includes but goes beyond the Old Testament, gay individuals cannot belong to sacred family units, or the Church, or reach Heaven. Certain belief in this is what frightened Alex’s parents to hysterics when, at 15, rebellious and strong-willed, she told them that she was dating another girl, and that she was a lesbian. They had taken action to discipline their “problem” child before, but this time their choices were devastating. They sent Alex away from their home in California to live with a family in St. George, Utah —a family that promised to help “cure” Alex of the sin of homosexuality. Alex found herself isolated from her friends, unable to use any methods of communication outside the strangers’ house, and, when she acted out in desperation for freedom, beaten, enslaved and made to carry heavy burdens and stare at a wall for weeks at a time without rest.
Alex tells her story with such love and tenderness that it’s mortifying to realize what cruelties she endured. Despite her trauma, Alex speaks with clear-headed empathy for her family as well as the culture she was raised in. She expresses an understanding for the fear and anxiety that led her abusers to treat her the way they did, even if she now knows they were wrong for trying to change her. Alex’s case made very recent history in Utah in 2011 by overturning legislation that enforced a parent’s right to try to change or reform a child’s sexuality against their will. Saving Alex is a hard book to read, but is ultimately a triumph, ending as reality often does — broken but hopeful, with some things lost and some things gained. Alex did not lose her life, family or rights, as so many before her did. She hopes to gain the same for the youth of the future.