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More books for your COVID downtime

From history to LGBTQ studies, something for all tastes

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Young adults with a growing interest in politics will enjoy ‘Becoming RBG.’

This is part three of a three-part series spotlighting some of the best books to read while passing time during the COVID-19 quarantine.

HISTORY

If you’re looking for something empowering while you’re stuck at home, try “Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights” by Dovey Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe. During the Civil Rights Movement, Roundtree was an attorney who not only helped her clients but also took on a racist system in North Carolina and nationally. Another book to find is “Race Against Time” by Jerry Mitchell. As a reporter, Mitchell opened Civil-Rights-era crimes, and this is his story.

You might not find “The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh” by Candace Fleming in the adult biography section of your library or bookstore. You may find it in the Young Adult section, but that doesn’t mean this book is just for teens. Adults will thrill to the story of Lindburgh, his feats and accomplishments, his life and tragedy, and the beliefs he held that tarnish his legacy today.

Civil War buffs will want “Not Even Past: The Stories We Keep Telling About the Civil War” by Cody Marrs close by. Here, Marrs takes a look at that which has been written and told for generations, and why those tales still matter. Also look for “Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War” by S.C. Gwynne. The title is appealing, all on its own.

World War II buffs will thoroughly enjoy reading “Inge’s War” by Svenja O’Donnell. It’s the story of a story that O’Donnell learned as an adult, when she reached out to her grandmother and discovered family secrets, triumphs, and villainy.

Speed demons in need of a little zoom will want to find “Faster” by Neal Bascomb, a book about a race car driver who was the victim of racism; an automaker who was the victim of financial mayhem, and an heiress who dreamed of her youth. Add in a bit of history, Nazi Germany, and a fast-paced story and really, how can you resist?

If you love reading slice-of-life historical tales, then look for “The Jamestown Brides: The Story of England’s ‘Maids for Virginia’” by Jennifer Potter. It’s the true story of the women who left their homes in Great Britain in 1620 to join settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, the hardships they endured, and what it was like to live in America at the country’s very infancy.

LGBTQ STUDIES

OK, so you’re up for something unique now, and you can’t go wrong with “Uncomfortable Labels” by Laura Kate Dale. What makes it different is that Dale is a gay trans woman who is also autistic and this book is about her self-discovery and her life.

Here’s a book for parents, and for transgender readers: “What We Will Become” by Mimi Lemay, a story of a little girl who knew she was a boy, and his mother, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who loved her child enough to give up her old life.

Maybe when this is all over, a bit of poetry is what you’ll need, and “Daddy” by Michael Montlack will be what to look for at the end of this virus’ run. Some of the poems are musings, some are heartfelt, others read a bit like individual paragraphs, all are compelling. You’ll find “Daddy” available in later April.

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Books are great antidotes to being cooped up for weeks, and “Johnny’s Pheasant” by Cheryl Minnema, illustrated by Julie Flett is a good one to have. It’s the story of an injured bird, a grandma’s love, and a boy with dreams. Another goodie for little readers is “Bedtime for Sweet Creatures” by Nikki Grimes, pictures by Elizabeth Zunon. It’s a tale of goodnight, and it’s perfect for little sleepyheads.

For the middle-grader who worries about the earth, “Bugs in Danger” by Mark Kurlansky, illustrated by Jia Liu is a great find. This book looks at climate change, environmental issues, why the bug population has declined over the past few years, and what we can do to stop it. Another book to find is “Wildlife Adventure” by Coyote Peterson. It’s a book with facts and activities and it might make the time go a little faster.

Little biography lovers will be happy to sit home with Work It, Girl bios, like “Become a Leader Like Michelle Obama” or “Blast Off Into Space Like Mae Jemison,” both by Caroline Moss, illustrated by Sinem Erkas. These books offer a great story, plus learning, plus an update on the lives featured. For the 9-to-13-year-old, a bio couldn’t be better.

The child who loves to people-watch will enjoy reading “Hmong in Wisconsin” by Mai Zong Vue, even when there aren’t a lot of people around. This is a story of immigration, bravery, war, and learning in two different cultures.

The young adult with a growing interest in politics will enjoy “Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Journey to Justice” by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Whitney Gardner. It’s a graphic-novel-style biography on Justice Ginsburg, from her earliest years to her current battles.

A lottery ticket and all that comes with sudden wealth are at the root of “Jackpot” by Nic Stone. When Rico Danger finds a winning ticket and shares with “Zan” Macklin, it seems like every problem either friend has ever had might be over – but money changes things, especially relationships. Another book to look for: the coming-of-age “If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues” by Philip Cioffari. It’s the story of an 18-year-old, first love, and doing what’s right.

If the quarantine lasts a while, there’ll be time to read “Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio” by Derf Backderf. It’s a graphic-novel sort of history book about what happened on that horrible day in 1970, but be patient: this book releases on April 7, so look for it.

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Books

New ACT UP book is part history, part memoir

‘Boy with the Bullhorn’ chronicles hard work, grief, anger

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(Book cover image courtesy of Fordham University Press)

‘Boy with the Bullhorn: A Memoir and History of ACT UP New York’ 
By Ron Goldberg
c.2022/ Fordham University Press
$36.95/512 pages

The sign above your head shows what’s going on inside.

Last night, you made the sign with a slogan, firm words, a poke to authority – and now you carry it high, yelling, marching, demanding that someone pay attention. Now. Urgently. As in the new book, “Boy with the Bullhorn” by Ron Goldberg, change is a-coming.

He’d never done anything like it before.

But how could he not get involved? Ron Goldberg had read something about ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and he heard they were holding a rally near his workplace. It was 1987, he’d never participated in anything like that before, but whispers were everywhere. He and his friends were “living under a pervasive cloud of dread.”

He “was twenty-eight years old… scared, angry, and more than a little freaked out” about AIDS, he says.

Couldn’t he at least go down and hold a sign?

That first rally led Goldberg to attend a meeting, which, like most, as he came to realize, were raucous and loud and “electric.” Because he was “living fully ‘out and proud’,” and because he realized that this was an issue “worth fighting for,” he became even more involved with ACT UP by attending larger rallies and helping with organizing and getting his fellow activists fired up. He observed as women became involved in ACT UP, too. Monday night meetings became, for Goldberg, “the most exciting place in town.”

There, he learned how politics mixed with activism, and why ACT UP tangled with the Reagan administration’s leaders. He puffed with more than just a little ownership, as other branches of ACT UP began spreading around the country. He learned from ACT UP’s founding members and he “discovered hidden talents” of his own by helping.

On his years in ACT UP, Goldberg says, “There was hard work, grief, and anger, surely, but there was also great joy.” He was “a witness. And so, I began to write.”

Let’s be honest: “Boy with the Bullhorn” is basically a history book, with a little memoir inside. Accent on the former, not so much on the latter.

Author Ron Goldberg says in his preface that Larry Kramer, who was one of ACT UP’s earliest leaders encouraged him to pull together a timeline for the organization and this book is the result of the task. It’s very detailed, in sequential order and, as one reads on, it’s quite repetitive, differing basically in location. It’s not exactly a curl-up-by-the-fire read.

Readers, however – and especially older ones who remember the AIDS crisis – won’t be able to stop scanning for Goldberg’s memories and tales of being a young man at a time when life was cautiously care-free. The memories – which also act as somewhat of a gut-wrenching collection of death-notices – are sweet, but also bittersweet.

This book is nowhere near a vacation kinda book but if you have patience, it’s worth looking twice. Take your time and you’ll get a lot from “Boy with the Bullhorn.” Rush, and it might just go over your head.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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‘Before We Were Trans’ explores a complicated history

Scholars ‘need to tread carefully and responsibly’

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(Book cover image courtesy of Seal Press)

‘Before We Were Trans’
By Kit Heyam
c.2022, Seal Press
$30/352 pages

Yes or no: before there were rockets, there were no astronauts.

No, there wasn’t a need for them without a vehicle to go where people only dreamed of going. But yes – the word “astronaut” is more than a century old. Words and labels matter, as you’ll see in “Before We Were Trans” by Kit Heyam, and time is no excuse.

On the evening of June 8, 1847, John Sullivan was apprehended by gendarmes while weaving down a sidewalk in London. Sullivan was wearing a few women’s garments, and was carrying more, all of it stolen. Because it wasn’t the first time he was arrested, he spent 10 years in an Australian penal colony for his crime.

“Is this story a part of trans history?” asks Heyam.

There aren’t enough clues to determine Sullivan’s truth, not enough “evidence that their motivation for gender nonconformity was not external, but internal.” The answer’s complicated by the fact that “transgender” wasn’t even a word during Sullivan’s time. Presumably, Sullivan was white but even so, we must also consider “that the way we experience and understand gender is inextricable from race.”

Surely, then, Njinga Mbande, the king of Ndongo, can be considered trans; they were assigned female at birth but presented themselves as king, as did Hatshepsut of Egypt. In precolonial Nigeria, the Ekwe people were gender-fluid, to ensure that there was a male in the household. Do political and social reasons fit the definition of trans?

In England, it was once believed that to dress like the opposite sex was to become that gender. In prison camps during World War I, men participated in plays to ease the boredom, and some ultimately lived permanently as women. Early history shows many examples of people living as “both.” Were they trans or not?

Says Heyam, “historians need to tread carefully and responsibly when we talk about the histories of people who blur the boundaries between intersex and trans.”

Moreover, can we allow that there’s probably some “overlap”?

The answer to that could depend on your current situation and mindset. Absolutely, author Kit Heyam dangles their own opinion throughout this book but “Before We Were Trans” doesn’t seem to solve the riddle.

Judging by the narrative here, though, it’s possible that it may be forever unsolvable. There’s a lot to untangle, often in the form of partially recorded tales that hark back to antiquity and that are shaky with a lack of knowable details. Even Heyam seems to admit sometimes that their thoughts are best guesses.

And yet, that tangle can leave readers with so much to think about, when it comes to gender. Ancient attitudes toward trans people – whether they were, indeed, trans or acted as such for reasons other than gender – absolutely serve as brain fodder.

This is not a quick-breezy read; in fact, there are times when you may feel as though you need a cheat-sheet to follow similar-sounding names. Even so, if you take your time with it, “Before We Were Trans” may put you over the moon.

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‘Knocking Myself Up’ a hilarious, hopeful read

Queer writer Michelle Tea reveals struggle to get pregnant in memoir

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(Book cover image courtesy of Dey Street)

 ‘Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility’
By Michelle Tea
c.2022, Dey Street
$28.99/304 pages

Most books, no matter how fab, can be put down. For meals, naps, dancing, binge-watching – sex.

This isn’t how it goes with queer writer Michelle Tea’s new book “Knocking Myself Up: A Memoir of My (In)Fertility.” Once you start it, everything else will stop until you finish it. Then, you’ll still be inhaling Tea’s captivating memoir.

Recently on YouTube, I came across the mid-century TV sitcom “Leave It to Beaver.” The show featured an archetypal 1950s family – the Cleavers: white, middle-class, straight – with a Dad (Ward) who worked at “the office,” Mom (June), a homemaker, and two sons – Wally and Theodore (a.k.a. Beaver). They lived in a house with an immaculate lawn and a white picket fence.

This isn’t to dis the Cleavers, who were beloved by many Boomers (queer and non-queer). R.I.P., Tony Dow! (Dow, who played Wally, died last month.)

But June Cleaver, the epitome of white, hetero, middle-class motherhood, would be thunderstruck by  “Knocking Myself Up.”

After being childless, Tea, 40, and living in San Francisco, single, with no health insurance, after much soul-searching, decided to have a child.

From the first word – Tea sucks us into her story.

“Hello,” Tea writes, “This is your narrator, Michelle Tea.”

 “I’m about to bring you into my inner world,” Tea continues, “during a period of time when that space was as wild, messy, hopeful, dizzy, tragic, terrifying and open-hearted as any era I’ve ever lived.”

Tea has become iconic for her queer wit, intelligence and searing interrogation of herself, the people in her life and the culture.

Tea, born in 1971 in Chelsea, Mass., grew up in a working-class background. She struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness (which ran in her family).

Her family members aren’t monsters. Tea’s mother and sister love her. But growing up for her wasn’t a sitcom odyssey.

Her stepfather copped to spying on her (in her bedroom – in the bathroom) through a hole in the wall.

Tea became a scribe when she was in second grade and, since then, has never stopped writing.

She’s the author of more than 12 books, including the cult classic “Valencia,” the brilliant essay collection “Against Memoir” and the speculative memoir “Black Wave.”

Tea has received awards from the Guggenheim, Lambda Literary and Rona Jaffe foundations; Pen/America; and other distinguished institutions. Along with being a prolific writer, Tea has been an intrepid cultural interventionist.

She started Drag Queen Story Hour, co-created the Sister Spit queer literary performance tours, and was the founding director of RADAR Productions, a Bay Area literary organization for more than a decade.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of, what Tea’s bio calls, her “cultural interventions.”

Tea has helmed the imprints Sister Spit Books at City Lights Publishers and Amethyst Editions at the Feminist Press. Tea produces and hosts the Your Magic podcast where she reads tarot cards for Roxanne Gay and other artists.

But Tea’s dazzling  literary status doesn’t prevent her from running into obstacles when she tries to become pregnant and give birth. Professional cred is no match against heteronormality.

Opting to have a baby is a rollicking ride no matter who you are, Tea writes. “You’re setting out to conjure a life,” she adds, “and in the process, deeply unsettle your own.”

But having a child is a hell of a lot more unsettling, Tea discovers, if you’re queer, single and have no health insurance — even if you live in San Francisco (the epicenter of queerness).

Tea finds that fertility clinics are set up for straight people.

During her quest to become pregnant, she finds love and marries Orson, who’s nonbinary. Yet clinic forms and personnel refer to Orson as her “husband.” Because they’re queer, Tea and Orson (unlike straight couples) are required to talk to a mental health professional.

Tea worries that even though she’s married, she’ll have to legally adopt her baby.

Despite Tea’s no-holds-barred stories of these difficulties, “Knocking Myself UP” is far from a downer.

It features a glam drag queen sperm donor, a witch, Tea’s loving sister and tons of info on everything from ovulation to implantation.

“Knocking Myself Up” is a hilarious, compelling, hopeful read at a time when hope is scarce as gold and fleeting as the wind.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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