Although many readers still retain mental scars from Shirley Jackson’s chilling story The Lottery, fewer are familiar with the woman who wrote it. For those readers, Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life tells the story of one of America’s most controversial and tragically short-lived authors.
Who is Shirley Jackson? Even her fans can’t agree on that. Was she a serious writer of literary fiction such as We Have Always Lived in the Castle? Was she a practicing witch who wrote ghost stories like The Haunting of Hill House? Or was she the musing housewife who wrote humorous essays like Life Among the Savages? This fractured identity would suit one of her characters, who were often women pushed to their mental limits by society. And Jackson was not without her demons. She felt the judgment of others sharply — her two most vocal critics were her mother and her husband, which unfortunately would lead to her agoraphobia late in life. But Franklin’s biography doesn’t make the mistake of confusing Jackson with her characters. Instead, it presents her as a modern master whose talents harnessed, but were not indebted to, her demons.
Franklin’s book is not without it’s shades of light. We’re also treated to samples of the cartoons that Jackson drew of herself and others (yet another side of her creativity) and stories of Jackson’s troublemaking sense of humor (she would frequently present herself as a witch to the press and claim to have cast spells on critics of her work). It’s a biography worthy of one of America’s best and most debated writers. And it pairs well with The Lottery: The Authorized Graphic Adaptation, a visual retelling of her most famous story by artist Miles Hyman, Jackson’s grandson.
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.
One pill makes you larger. And one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all. — Grace Slick.
Except in this case, the mother is author Ayelet Waldman, and she is giving herself not a pill but two drops of LSD, under the tongue. And while she’s not 10 feet tall or seeing white rabbits, she does get to be happier, as she writes in A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My Life.
Hallucinogenic drug use conjures up images of swirly colors and dancing at Grateful Dead concerts, whereas Waldman describes herself as a straight-laced lawyer, author, wife and mom of four, who rarely drinks and has never been a recreational drug user. Recreational is the key word, though, because Waldman’s suffered from a mood disorder and insomnia throughout her life. Add in a painful middle-aged frozen shoulder, and she’s been prescribed and taken myriad pharmaceuticals from SSRIs to opioids, while pursuing calm promised by anything from meditation classes to mindfulness apps. In her 50’s, Waldman became increasingly desperate for a solution, feeling that her inability to control her emotions and behavior might irreparably damage her family and, most disturbing to her, alienate her beloved husband, author Michael Chabon. When Waldman came across James Fadiman’s book The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic and Sacred Journeys, which espouses the therapeutic use of hallucinogenic drugs taken in order to induce a more relaxed frame of mind, she was ready to try it.
For 30 days, Waldman journaled her experience as she followed Fadiman’s microdosing protocol, taking a miniscule amount of liquid LSD once every three days. Her dose was far too small to trigger a groovy trip, but she did find it stimulated creativity and enhanced her composure — in short, giving her many really good days, albeit with occasional side effects. She also explores the consequences of the “war on drugs," which she argues shut down promising research on medical use of psychedelic drugs, illogically demonizes many less harmful substances while pushing dangerous and addictive medications and continues to influence a judiciary which proffers draconian punishments meted out disproportionately to people of color. Waldman is frank that her microdosing would have continued beyond a month if she’d had a reliable source where she could purchase it, but her fear of criminal prosecution stopped her from pursuing one. Thought-provoking and rather funny thanks to Waldman’s snarky asides, A Really Good Day is a fascinating look at an unconventional therapy.
You don’t have to be a fan of The Young and the Restless to appreciate this honest memoir from one of that show’s biggest stars, Eric Braeden. In I’ll Be Damned: How My Young and Restless Life Led Me to America’s #1 Daytime Drama, Braeden shares his life story, including his almost four decades on the number one daytime television show as the charismatic Victor Newman.
Braeden was born in 1941 in a dark, airless hospital basement in Kiel, Germany. Allied bombs sounded in the air and the ground shook with repeated explosions. Days after his birth, the hospital was destroyed in yet another Allied attack. But Braeden’s childhood was a happy and privileged one. His parents were loving, he had brothers to play with and developed a love for sports, especially track and field. His father’s sudden death when he was 12 changed his life forever. The family was forced to sell their beautiful home and possessions and move into a house with no central heating, no hot running water and no showers or toilets that worked.
While struggling through these hard times, his family never gave up, and Eric continued his education and his track and field prowess. He jumped at the opportunity to go to America when he received a partial track and field scholarship to Montana State University (now University of Montana). While there, he and his friends participated in the filming of a documentary film, which led him to Los Angeles and his destiny as a television star. This rags-to-riches immigrant story is an uplifting tale that takes us from Nazi Germany to modern Hollywood. It is the story of one man shaped by war and deprivation who dedicated his life to his art, his family and humanitarian work.
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.