Two Records of Bodily Transformation: Amateur and Shapeshifters


Amateur: A True Story about What Makes a Man, Thomas Page McBee

Thomas Page McBee was the first transgender man to box at Madison Square Garden. In his second memoir, which arose from a Quartz article entitled “Why Men Fight,” he recounts the training leading up to his charity match and ponders whether aggression is a natural male trait. McBee grew up in a small town outside Pittsburgh with a stepfather who sexually abused him from age four. In 2011 he started the testosterone injections that would begin his gender transformation. During the years that followed, other men seemed to pick fights with him fairly often, and he was unsure what to do about it. Finally, in 2015, the Manhattan editor decided to confront the belligerent male stereotype by starting boxing training.

What I most appreciated were the author’s observations of how others have related to him since his transition. He notices that he’s taken more seriously at work as a man, and that he can be an object of fear – when jogging behind a woman at night, for instance. One of the most eye-opening moments of the book is when he realizes that he’s been talking over his own sister. Thankfully, McBee is sensitive enough to stop and change, recognizing that kindness and vulnerability are not faults but attributes any person should be proud of.

I have a feeling I would have preferred his previous memoir, Man Alive, which sounds like it has more about the transition itself. Jonathan Eig’s biography of Muhammad Ali is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and in comparison I didn’t find the boxing writing here very interesting. Likewise, this pales beside two similar but more perceptive books I’ve read that have been hugely influential on my own understanding of gender identity: Conundrum by Jan Morris and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.

 My rating:

Amateur was published in the UK by Canongate on August 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.


Shapeshifters: On Medicine and Human Change by Gavin Francis

Gavin Francis is a physician with a practice near Edinburgh. His latest book is like a taster course in medical topics. The overarching theme is the modifications the body undergoes, so there are chapters on, for example, body-building, tattoos, puberty, prosthetic limbs, dementia and menopause. Over his years in general practice Francis has gotten to know his patients’ stories and seen them change, for better or worse. These anecdotes of transformation are one source for his book, but he also applies insight from history, mythology, literature, etymology and more. So in a chapter on conception he discusses the Virgin Mary myth, Leonardo da Vinci’s fetal diagrams, the physiological changes pregnant women experience, and the case of a patient, Hannah, who had three difficult, surprise pregnancies in quick succession.

We are all in the process of various transformations, Francis argues, whether by choice or involuntarily. (I decided on the link with McBee because of a chapter on sex changes.) I was less convinced by the author’s inclusion of temporary, reversible changes such as sleep, hallucinations, jet lag and laughter. And while each chapter is finely wrought, I felt some sort of chronological or anatomical order was necessary to give the book more focus. All the same, I suspect this will be a strong contender for next year’s Wellcome Book Prize because of its broad relevance to human health and its compassionate picture of bodies in flux.

My rating:

Shapeshifters was published by the Wellcome Collection/Profile Books on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.


15 thoughts on “Two Records of Bodily Transformation: Amateur and Shapeshifters

  1. Man Alive sounds interesting, thanks for warning me off the second book! There’s a good article by a trans man in the Guardian today – it seems relatively unusual to see this perspective.


    1. It wasn’t a bad book by any means, I just didn’t feel very engaged in the boxing training story and thought there could have been some deeper thinking. I appreciated it for those few moments when he steps back and realizes how other people are viewing him now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review, Rebecca! Amateur sounds interesting, as does the author’s previous memoir; I’ve been trying to read more trans memoir and theory, and I’ll have to check both out. Excited to start following your reviews and posts here, in addition to on Goodreads! Your blog and advice inspired me to make my own WP 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Two very interesting books. I was a bit surprised to see menopause in there but I can see why it’s also a transformation in a different way. Some of the other inclusions do seem a bit odd but I agree it sounds like it has prize-winner written all over it (or shortlist, at least), with all its lacks.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It would be nice if you’d gotten a head start on your Wellcome reading for next year! I love stories about transformation. All kinds. They can be very painful but there are also often stand-up-and-cheer moments too, and I love that. During a recent heat wave when it was simply too hot to move, we started watching Ru Paul’s “The Drag Race” and I am amazed at those transformations. Truly amazing! Also, I did not understand how complicated it is within the drag community to identify as trans, so learning a little more about that was an unexpected benefit.


    1. Jan (formerly James) Morris’s memoir really opened my eyes when I was in my early twenties. She writes that when she was five years old, sitting under the family piano, the thought came: “Really, I’m a girl.” You can’t argue with that!

      Liked by 1 person

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