Sunday, July 24, 2011

Transition by Chaz Bono **

I am sure there are many good books about the transgender experience; this isn't one of them.

First, consider the "recovery" experience. As someone who has been to 1000s of 12 step meetings, I can recognize early recovery symptoms from the first narcissistic, optimistic fabrication. This book documents this chaotic, euphoric, and fragile, stage of early recovery.

12 step groups support this stage (Fake it 'til you make), but it doesn't make good reading with its irrational repetition of self-justification and fabrication - often simultaneously. People in recovery must learn to like themselves and take control of their lives. Support groups do just that: support - unconditional love.

A poignant story I still remember from decades ago was a women in her early 20s with many problems. After missing a few meetings, she returned and happily reported that she had had a hysterectomy because her current (inappropriate) boy friend didn't want children. We cheered. That was non-judgmental support and unconditional love.

The second problem is perspective. A FTM (female-to-male) transition is a major change and certainly requires some time to pass the gather perspective. This book was written to fund the necessary surgery, thus necessarily had to be started before the advance could be received to get that surgery. Thus, written in the midst of the transition, this book has all the perspective of reality television, but without the drama.

How can such a story lack drama? Though ghost-written by Billie Fitzpatrick, the book reads like the straight transcription of audio tape - jumping around in space and time, indulging in irrelevant tangents, and lacking narrative direction. As I said in the opening, I am sure there are great books written on the important subject of transgender people.

On a more personal note, I can clearly remember when Chastity Bono was born to Sonny and Cher in 1969. For me the 60s were coming to an end. I was working for the Department of Defense in a Top Secret research lab and planning to start graduate school (also funded by the DoD) in September. I remember thinking - Chastity? what an name to give a child? I wonder what will happen when she goes to school? [Historical note: Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" by Shel Silverstein, top the charts that summer.]

Well this book answers my question: Chastity rather quickly became Chaz - or Fred for a while - and the name was the least of her challenges.

Fun fact (without comment): Sonny Bono had four children (with first wife) Christy, (with second wife Cherilyn aka Cher) Chastity, (with third wife) Chesare and Chianna.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party by Alexander McCall Smith *****

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party is the newest No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novel by Alexander McCall Smith. In my previous post I gave a mini-rant against episodic novels where the characters never grow or change - much like the justifiably maligned sitcoms. Now, faced with another such novel, the 12th in this case, I support the art form because Precious Ramotswe and her assistant Grace Makutsi are just wonderful and I never want them to change.

In this peaceful detective story, the only violence is the maiming of a farmer's cattle - certainly serious in Botswana where a man's status and station might be judge by how many cattle he owns and how he treats them. While Mma Ramotswe is hired to solve the mystery of who attacked the poor cattle, she spends most of her time with a surfeit of suspects worrying about the social implications of accusing one or the other. Her challenge is to to discover the real problem and solve that problem, while maybe never solving the crime.

"She was not the sort of detective - or person, indeed - who needed to get anywhere fast."

As usual, Botswana is a traditional place where people live in small villages, and everyone knows everyone and is often related by blood through distant cousins. The book is delightful and the mystery solved quite surprisingly and satisfactorily.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Death of a Valentine by M C Beaton ***

Death of a Valentine by (Ms) M C Beaton marks police sergeant Hamish Macbeth's silver anniversary as a small-town bachelor in the Scottish Highlands. Due to the constraints of unending collections of episodes or sequels (as in the case of sitcoms for example, or James Bond), I'll assume you're new to Hamish Macbeth - because if you read the previous 24 volumes, you don't need a review of volume 25.

When I read one of these episodic installments (such as Sue Grafton's M is for Malice, or Batman whatever), I'm frustrated by the constraint for the main characters to live unchanged and unchanging forever for the sake of the franchise. One of the strengths of fiction is to illustrate and elucidate characters' growth and change - the essence and challenge of human existence. This is why the great novelists (you know who your favorites are) create new characters for each volume.

But there is a commercial pressure to exploit popular characters by featuring them in longer works, but even the Harry Potter series comes to an end (at least for the moment.)

Back to Hamish Macbeth the bachelor. When Josie McSween, the young policewoman, moves into town with her matrimonial guns aimed at Hamish, no astute reader imagines for a moment that she will be successful. But, just in case the reader might be a little slow, Josie turns out to be neurotic, incompetent, alcoholic, and generally unlikeable. It is as if the author feared she might develop a life of her own and snare Hamish, so the author guaranteed her failure from her first entrance.

Forgetting for a moment the literary drawbacks of sitcoms and other unending episodic works (what should they be called?), the writing is charming much in the style the Alexander McCall Smith (another Scottish writer - No 1 Ladies Detective Agency). An indication of the sweetness of the story is the fact that even with a high body count, the reader never feels anxious or concerns for any of the characters (nothing bad every happens in Disneyland).

Overall? Pleasant, but not the best investment of your reading time.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Time to Kill by John Grisham *****

A Time to Kill is John Grisham's first novel and clearly places the legal-thriller author in the class of talented writers who seemed to be fully matured and excellent from the very beginning. See Famous First Novels for more examples. I wonder if many (most) authors never get beyond that first novel regardless of the quality - excellent writers don't get worse and mediocre writers don't get better. The being a strong argument against the massive "writer's workshop" industry - if you're not Steven King or Jane Austen now, you're never going to be. What do you think?

This novel, also available as A Time to Kill (movie) with Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, and Samuel L Jackson, asks the question whether a father is justified in killing the men who raped his preteen daughter. Set in rural Mississippi, post-civil-rights racism, both benign (can there be benign racism?) and violent, is portrayed throughout - clearly a book targeted at mature audiences.

John Grisham fans will recognize his wonderful characters, suspenseful subplots, and, of course, detailed, dramatic descriptions of courtroom procedures. The one thing that separates this from his later works is the pat, conclusive, fantasy ending. While most John Grisham novels end ambiguously, as one should expect from legal battles, this one ends with an old testament meting out of punishments.

Regardless, if you are a John Grisham reader and missed this one, you should rush to your "Friends of the Library" used-book store and pick up a copy.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Dust to Dust by Tami Hoag ****

Well-dressed homosexuals, sensitive homosexuals, homophobic homosexuals, gay-bashing homosexuals, closet homosexuals, homosexuals with exotic sex habits, embarrassed homosexuals, proud homosexuals, homosexual murderers, dead homosexuals … homosexuals everywhere. It almost seems as if, in Dust to Dust, author Tami Hoag was challenged to see how many different characters can have their motivation explained by their sexual orientation. As the body count mounts homosexuals murder each other and anyone else who gets in the way.

If I wanted ascribe a moral to this story, it would be that homosexuals are just like everyone else (in Tami Hoag’s particular variation of the violent thriller).

Regardless, Tami Hoag is one of the best writers in this genre. Even when, halfway through, the mystery appears through the fog of red herrings and casual clues, the characters and subplots keep up the suspense and the pages turning. An excellent summer read for long plane ride or a short vacation.