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.
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.
Shapeshifters was published by the Wellcome Collection/Profile Books on May 2nd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Hard to believe, but I’ve only been blogging for three years as of today. It feels like something I’ve been doing forever, but at the same time I still consider myself a newbie. This is my 382nd post, so I’ve been keeping up an average of 2.5 posts a week.In general, if I think back to this time last year, I’ve been comparing/pressuring myself less – though I still push myself, e.g. to finish a few books on a topic by a certain date – and enjoying it more. I’ve had success in working towards certain goals like participating in shadow panels (for the Wellcome Book Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award) and blog tours (I’ve done 11 so far and have another seven coming up by July).
I’ve particularly enjoyed doing author Q&As and highlighting seasonal reads, novellas, books about cats, and physical book traits. I especially like writing up bookshop visits and other literary travels, and discussing literary prizes. My supply of graphic novels seems to have dried up; for new releases I focus on literary fiction, historical fiction and memoirs.
Straightforward book reviews have always been less popular than book lists and other more tangentially book-related posts. Library Checkout posts are consistently well-liked, as were the “Books in Brief” sets of five mini-reviews I used to do. As I’ve noted before, my posts on abandoned books are always perversely popular.
The numbers of likes seem to be less than informative as they simply reflect a growing number of followers – many of my recent posts have averaged 20–25 likes – so I prefer to look at comments, as it means people are truly reading and engaging. In terms of numbers of comments, my top posts of all time appeared in the last year and were:
- Bibliotherapy appointment
- Books in Brief, May 2017 (featuring books by Sebastian Barry, Tracy Chevalier, Thomas H. Cook, Nicole Gulotta and Elizabeth Hay)
- (Tied for 3rd) Booker Longlist 2017 & Jacob’s Room Is Full of Books review
Thanks to everyone who has supported me this past year, and/or all three years, by visiting the site, commenting, re-tweeting, and so on. You’re the best!
The first book I ever reviewed on this blog, nearly three years ago, happened to be Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of the Pill. It was the strength of the writing in that offbeat work of history, as well as rave reviews for this 2017 biography of Muhammad Ali (1942–2016), that led me to pick up a sport-themed book. I’m the furthest thing from a sports fan you could imagine, but I approached this as a book about a cultural icon and read it with a spirit of curiosity about how Eig would shape this life story and separate the facts from the legend. It’s a riveting account of outliving segregation and developing a personal style and world-beating confidence; it’s a sobering tale of facing consequences and having your own body fail you. I loved it.
Today would have been Ali’s 76th birthday, so in honor of the occasion – and his tendency to spout off-the-cuff rhymes about his competitors’ shortfalls and his own greatness – I’ve turned his life story into a book review of sorts, in rhyming couplets.
Born into 1940s Kentucky,
this fine boy had decent luck – he
surpassed his angry, cheating father
though he shared his name; no bother –
he’d not be Cassius Clay much longer.
He knew he was so much stronger
than all those other boys. Racing
the bus with Rudy; embracing
the help of a white policeman,
his first boxing coach – this guardian
prepared him for Olympic gold
(the last time Cassius did as told?).
A self-promoter from the start, he
was no scholar but won hearts; he
hogged every crowd’s full attention
but his faults are worth a mention:
he hoarded Caddys and Royces
and made bad financial choices;
he went through one, two, three, four wives
and lots of other dames besides;
his kids – no closer than his fans –
hardly even got a chance.
Cameos from bin Laden, Trump,
Toni Morrison and more: jump
ahead and you’ll see an actor,
envoy, entrepreneur, preacher,
(though maybe things got out of hand).
Ali was all things to all men
and fitted in the life of ten
but though he tested a lot of walks,
mostly he just wanted to box.
The fights: Frazier, Foreman, Liston –
they’re all here, and the details stun.
Eig gives a vivid blow-by-blow
such that you will feel like you know
what it’s like to be in the ring:
dodge, jab, weave; hear that left hook sing
past your ear. Catch rest at the ropes
but don’t stay too long like a dope.
If, like Ali, you sting and float,
keep an eye on your age and bloat –
the young, slim ones will catch you out.
Bow out before too many bouts.
Ignore the signs if you so choose
(ain’t got many brain cells to lose –
these blows to the head ain’t no joke);
retirement talk ain’t foolin’ folk,
can’t you give up on earning dough
and think more about your own soul?
Just like Malcolm X always said
Allah laid a call on your head:
To raise up the black man’s status
and ask white men why they hate us;
to resist the Vietnam draft
though that nearly got you the shaft
and lost you your name, your title
and (close) your rank as an idol.
Was it all real, your piety?
Was it worth it in society?
Nation of Islam was your crew
but sure did leave you in the stew
with that Vietcong kerfuffle
and Malcolm/Muhammad shuffle.
Through U.S. missions (after 9/11)
you explained it ain’t about heaven
and who you’ll kill to get you there;
it’s about peace, being God’s heir.
Is this story all about race?
Eig believes it deserves its place
as the theme of Ali’s life: he
was born in segregation, see,
a black fighter in a white world,
but stereotypes he hurled
right back in their faces: Uncle
Tom Negro? Naw, even punch-drunk he’ll
smash your categories and crush
your expectations. You can flush
that flat dismissal down the john;
don’t think you know what’s going on.
Dupe, ego, clown, greedy, hero:
larger than life, Jesus or Nero?
How to see both, that’s the kicker;
Eig avoids ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stickers
but shows a life laid bare and
how win and lose ain’t fair and
history is of our making
and half of legacy is faking
and all you got to do is spin
the world round ’till it lets you in.
Biography’s all ’bout the arc
and though this story gets real dark,
there’s a glister to it all the same.
A man exists beyond the fame.
What do you know beneath the name?
Less, I’d make a bet, than you think.
Come over here and take a drink:
this is long, deep, satisfying;
you won’t escape without crying.
Based on 600 interviews,
this fresh account is full of news
and fit for all, not just sports fans.
Whew, let’s give it up for Eig, man.
I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at choosing books that are sure to suit me, but sometimes it’s still a matter of ditching the duds when it becomes clear they’re not working. Here’s the small (digital) pile of abandoned novels I’ve amassed over the last couple of months. I’d be interested to hear if you’ve read any of them and thought they were worth persisting with.
Mrs. Houdini by Victoria Kelly
Perfectly serviceable historical fiction, but with no spark. I felt like I was just being given a lot of information about the two major time periods (1894 and 1929). Alas, scenes set at a séance, a circus, and an insane asylum are not nearly as exciting as they promise to be. And, as is often the case with these famous wives books – a genre I generally love but can also find oddly disappointing from time to time – the protagonist tries but fails to explain why she finds her husband so fascinating. “His eyes danced. There was a madness to his passion, but he was not insane. There was something real and familiar about him. … Harry was promising her a life of possibility, of magic, and it was unlike anything she had ever imagined for herself.” [Read the first 40%.]
Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman
Another case of expectations too high and payoff too little. Fictionalized biographies can be among my favorite historical fiction, but the key is that they have to do something that a biography doesn’t do. They have to shape a story that goes beyond the chronology of what happened to whom and when. This novel about contraception activist Margaret Sanger failed to tell me anything I didn’t already know from The Birth of the Pill, a more engaging book all round. If anything this left me more confused about why Sanger consented to marriage and motherhood. These cringe-worthy lines try to explain it: “His [Bill’s] sex upended the world. His love filled the hole my childhood had carved out of me. Maybe that was the reason I married him.” [Read the first 26%.]
Vexation Lullaby by Justin Tussing
This started off very promising, with Pete Silver, a doctor in Rochester, New York, being summoned by ageing rock star Jimmy Cross for a consult. Jimmy knows Pete’s mother from way back and wants to know if he’ll accompany him on the airplane during this comeback tour as his personal physician. However, after that there was a lot of downtime filling in Pete’s backstory and introducing a first-person voice that didn’t feel relevant. This is Arthur Pennyman, a fan who’s seen every Jimmy Cross show and writes them up on his website. I didn’t care for Arthur’s sections and thought they pulled attention away from Pete’s story. That’s a shame, as the plot reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. [Read the first nearly 100 pages.]
Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks
Entirely decent historical fiction with a flavor of Ron Rash or Virginia Reeves (Work Like Any Other), but it felt so slow and aimless. Irenie Lambey is married to a harsh fundamentalist preacher named Brodis. She longs for their son to get a good education and hopes that the appearance of a USDA agent may be the chance, but Brodis cares about the boy’s soul rather than his mind. On night-time walks, Irenie stores up artifacts and memories in a cave – desperately trying to have a life larger than what her husband controls. It could well just be my lack of patience, but the believable dialect and solid characters weren’t quite enough to keep me reading. [Read the first 16%.]
And now for the one I should have stopped reading at about the 25% point. I have an expanded version of this review on Goodreads; click on the title to read more.
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047 by Lionel Shriver
Shriver does a good line in biting social commentary. Here she aims at Atwood-style near-future speculative fiction and takes as her topic the world economy. I had big problems with this one. Worst is the sheer information overload: tons of economic detail crammed into frequent, wearisome conversations. Instead of making America’s total financial collapse a vague backdrop for her novel, she takes readers through it event by agonizing event. This means the first third or more of the novel feels like prologue, setting the scene. When she finally gets around to the crux of the matter – the entire extended Mandible family descending on Florence’s small New York City house – it feels like too little plot, too late. Everything Shriver imagines for the near future, except perhaps the annoying slang (e.g. “boomerpoop”), is more or less believable. But boy is it tedious in the telling.
The development of the birth control pill: this seems like an odd topic for my first book review on the new blog, but I’ll go with it. I have a special love for nonfiction that incorporates many different genres: history, biography, popular science, sociology, and so on. (See my next-to-last paragraph for some other examples of books that do this well.)
This is an epic adventure starring four unlikely heroes: two middle-aged doctors, Gregory Pincus, fired by Harvard, and John Rock, a Catholic; and two older ladies, Margaret Sanger, who left her first husband and family and grew increasingly addicted to alcohol and prescription pills, and Katharine McCormick, whose mentally ill husband died and left her with a huge fortune she dug into the birth control movement.
From testing progesterone on rabbits to the desperate hunt for human test subjects in Puerto Rico and in a Massachusetts mental hospital, it is a tale full of surprises. When first presented to American doctors and the FDA, the contraceptive pill – then known as Enovid – was billed as an infertility drug: It regulated periods to make it more likely that women would then get pregnant after going off it. Pincus et al. conveniently failed to mention that it also prevented ovulation. I never would have expected a Trojan horse story.
Margaret Sanger was given a hero’s welcome on every trip to Japan, but she also had an unfortunate association with the eugenics movement – an inevitable offshoot of concerns about overpopulation? She once said that parents should have to apply for the right to have children just like immigrants have to apply for visas. The best random piece of trivia I came across here was that Prescott S. Bush, father of George and grandfather of Dubya, was the treasurer for Planned Parenthood’s first nationwide fundraising campaign in 1947. You can bet the Bush family has tried to cover that one up!
“Religion is a very poor scientist,” John Rock was known to say. The fight to have the Catholic Church change its position on birth control is an important background narrative in this book. The sexual revolution and the personal decision to contravene Catholic doctrine regarding contraception is also a major component of Quite a Good Time to Be Born, David Lodge’s recent memoir. It’s always fun when similar ideas come up in multiple books at the same time.
Jonathan Eig was previously known for his sports biographies, and there’s plenty of action and narrative here. Like the best science writers (Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, David Quammen in Spillover, Atul Gawande in Being Mortal, or Siddhartha Mukherjee in The Emperor of All Maladies), he tells a story rich with three-dimensional characters.
We have a family legend about a Swiss ancestor who admitted herself to a mental asylum (then euphemistically called a sanatorium) in upstate New York in 1922 rather than have more children. She already had nine kids (one more died in infancy); she was tired and overworked. If this was what it took to keep her husband from making her pregnant again, so be it. She and thousands of housewives like her never could have guessed that one day (in 1960, to be precise) a simple pill could limit their family size. This is what this book is all about: the quest to give women control over their lives.