Redefining Realness

Trigger warning: sexual abuse

In this profound and courageous New York Times bestseller, Janet Mock establishes herself as a resounding and inspirational voice for the transgender community – and anyone fighting to define themselves on their own terms. With unflinching honesty and moving prose, Mock relays her experiences of growing up young, multiracial, poor and trans in America, offering readers accessible language while imparting vital insight about the unique challenges and vulnerabilities of a marginalised and misunderstood population. Though undoubtedly an account of one woman’s quest for self at all costs, Redefining Realness is a powerful vision of possibility and self-realisation, pushing us all toward greater acceptance of one another – and of ourselves – showing us as never before how to be unapologetic and real.

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I’ve been a big fan of Janet Mock’s for a while now. I loved her Never Before podcast (the Kris Jenner interview!) and her journalism is fantastic, as is her jealousy-inducing Instagram account. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to reading her first memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More. I mean that title alone screams Lydia, READ ME.

I think sometimes my subconscious tells me to put off reading books until I’m ready for them, and that was very much the case with Redefining Realness. As someone who has spent much of the last year or so consumed by questions about identity (‘be yourself’ is about the most stress inducing advice a person can give me), reading Janet’s story hit me hard. So, next time you’re beating yourself up for not having got to a particular book yet – relax. You’ll read it when the time is right.

In Redefining Realness, Janet details her life from early childhood up until she goes to college and ends with her reassignment surgery. The book is a mix of Janet’s own story with contextualising elements regularly added to place her personal experience into the wider struggles that many trans women, and especially trans women of colour, deal with. She emphasises that her story isn’t representative of the entire community and acknowledges the spectrum of gender, particularly when it comes to parts like her need for reassignment surgery – a procedure that was necessary for Janet specifically, but one that she takes pains to explain is not necessary for all trans women.

Redefining Realness is a memoir that is also a great introduction to transgender identity, the systemic prejudices trans women face and the sometimes deadly consequences those injustices can have.

What I loved most about this book though, was the nuanced, compassionate and equally resentful way that Janet writes about her family. In writing about her parents, Janet navigates the dichotomy of the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parent with ease. Both of her parents were pretty disastrous, unreliable people while she was growing up. She quickly learned that she had to provide for herself, financially and emotionally, as both her parents had limited room for her needs because they were consumed by dealing with their own. Though both her parents at times appear villainous – her mother with her total focus on her own romantic life at the cost, repeatedly, of her children; her father similarly consumed by his own relationships, drug abuse and a need to impose his ideas of masculinity on the child he didn’t understand – they are also loving, complex people all of their own. Though both regularly let her down, they never let her go. Whether it was her mother nursing her back to health after her surgery, or her father’s response after she came out to him (defensively, aggressively) – “Your disrespect for me is apparent… But I’m the parent and you’re the child and it is not your job to love me the way I love you. My love for you is unconditional” – Janet shows that even in their neglectful moments, both her parents still proved their love for their daughter. Families are complicated, painful, delicate ecosystems and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that represented in a way that felt authentic to me until this book.

Janet’s unflinching commitment to describing every inch of the painful, frightening and vulnerable process of becoming yourself pierces right to the heart of the struggle of growing up. A sense of being in hiding from something is, I think, a state very familiar to many of us, and Janet’s gradual inching out of the shadows is inspiring to read as she comes to terms with the abuse, shame and hardship that led her to becoming the person she is today.

She is fucking epic.

Becoming a person is a long, hard process that requires an awful lot more patience than we ever imagined when we were young. Reading stories like Janet’s is a much needed reminder that struggle, pain and frustration are only one aspect of a long, complicated life. And, once again, that there is a lot of baggage behind even the most glamorous Instagram feed.

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July favourites

There goes another month. How has everyone’s summer been so far? Are you wearing sunscreen? I hope you’re wearing sunscreen. Sunscreen is important.

I don’t have much in the way of favourites at the moment. I’ve either been working or at the beach – it has been consistently sunny in England for several weeks now and people are starting to lose their shit.

Unless you’re a farmer, I think the sun is a strange thing to complain about seeing as it rains 90% of the time.

Anyway, on to this month’s faves (discussing the weather isn’t one of them):

Our Tiny Bees Vanilla and Honey Body Scrub

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetSo I know this is pretty far off normal topic but I recently started regularly using a body scrub and lemmie tell you: it is a game changer. The lovely one I use functions as both exfoliator and moisturiser leaving your skin feeling smooth and gorgeous and it smells great. Obviously be careful what brand you’re using – you don’t want to be sending anything awful down the drain. I would recommend going for something with more natural ingredients so you can be totally sure you’re avoiding any harmful plastic microbeads. This one, for example, is mostly made of sugar. So good.

The Skincare Bible: Your no-nonsense guide to great skin by Dr Anjali Mahto

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetI purchased this to keep me entertained on the long drive back from holiday last month and it exceeded my expectations entirely. Dr Anjali is just that – a doctor and trustworthy source  – and is all about debunking marketing myths and skincare fads (layering, anyone?) to help you find a routine that works for your skin – without spending thousands in the process. It’s a super informative read (did you know you should still wear sunscreen if you’re inside all day because the rays can still get to you behind glass?!) that avoids market-speak and jargon and left me feeling like I have a much better idea of what I should be doing for my skin going forward.

Podcast: Gossip

GossipI’ve been feeling a bit fatigued by my serial podcasts lately (does anyone else feel like the last season of The Bright Sessions lost its way? I sort of feel the same about Alice Isn’t Dead, as much as I don’t want to) so I was thrilled when I came across Gossip. Written by the brilliant Allison Raskin it spans the regular lunch dates of three friends who get together and gossip – about their neighbours’ polyamory, that time the mayor may have punched a florist in the face, but most importantly, whether or not the local priest is a serial murderer. Her friends think she’s mad but Bethany just can’t let it go…

What were some of your favourites this month? Any podcasts I should check out? I’m particularly interested in serialised stories like Gossip at the moment.

The Accidental

Arresting and wonderful, The Accidental pans in on the Norfolk holiday home of the Smart family one hot summer. There, a beguiling stranger called Amber appears at the door bearing all sorts of unexpected gifts, trampling over family boundaries and sending each of the Smarts scurrying from the dark into the light.

A novel about the ways that seemingly chance encounters irrevocably transform our understanding of ourselves, The Accidental explores the nature of truth, the role of fate and the power of storytelling.

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So, The Accidental by Ali Smith. This was a funny one – not necessarily in a good way.

I picked it up in a second hand bookshop while I was on holiday, recalling how much I loved There but for the (a story about a man who locks himself in a room inside someone else’s house during a terrible dinner party and doesn’t come out for months) ready for another whimsical, and, if the blurb was anything to go by, uplifting ride.

That is not what I got.

The Accidental is a book split into three parts – the beginning, the middle and the end. Each part is narrated in close third person in Smith’s typical stream-of-consciousness style by the Smart-Berenski family members; Eve, the mother and writer with a serious lack of inspiration; Michael, her cheating university professor husband; Magnus, Eve’s teenaged son; and Astrid, Eve’s 12-year-old daughter and by far the highlight of this book.

They are, as the blurb indicates, on holiday for the summer in Norfolk, ostensibly so Eve can get some writing done (she isn’t writing so much as napping in her ‘writing shed’ for eight hours before coming inside for dinner) and the family can have that specific sort of bonding needed when dealing with teenagers and stepparents – in other words, the kind of bonding that is largely unwanted by all parties (not speaking from experience or anything…).

The entire scenario is shrouded in a cloud of ennui. While the family aren’t exactly miserable (Eve has made her peace with Michael’s constant cheating), they are alienated from one another and themselves in a way that felt very realistic to me. Problems that persist (Michael’s cheating, Astrid and Magnus’s vanishing father) are never discussed. There is a sense that things could be better if any of the family members were willing to try, but as is the case in most families, nobody is. Then Amber, a stranger arrives. Michael assumes she has come to interview Eve about her writing, and Eve assumes she is one of Michael’s girlfriends/students and she ends up staying for several weeks (this is either Smith logic re. There but for the or a comment on Britishness in general – not sure). Amber supposedly blows the lid on the whole situation – I’ll get to my thoughts on that shortly.

First, because I don’t want to be a pessimist and out of a sense of loyalty to There but for the, which I genuinely really enjoyed, I would like focus on the positives. Primarily, Astrid. Her voice felt the most authentic in the whole novel – her meandering thoughts typical of an isolated 12 year old sore at spending her summer in a way she didn’t choose, stuck for companions apart from her brother (and who wants to hang out with their big brother?) and her video camera. Smith has a beautiful way of describing minute details of meandering thoughts that make them feel important and somehow make the reader feel seen in even in their most mundane moments. Astrid’s thoughts veer wildly between her dislike of Michael, resentment toward her mother, questions surrounding her father, the girls bullying her at school – to wondering about asteroids, terrorism (the novel is set in 2003), filming everything from dead animals to every sunrise and trying to figure out who put the racist graffiti on the Indian restaurant down the road. She feels young and petulant, unnecessarily difficult in all the ways you are when you feel like your family has become something you don’t entirely recognise. Reading her put me right back into being 12 and somewhere with my mother’s partner at the time and feeling dreadfully affronted when a stranger referred to him as my dad (cue petulant ‘ugh, he’s not my dad’ (don’t feel too bad for him. He was equally as keen to point out that I was not his daughter)).

My point is, I loved Astrid, and I was always sad when her sections ended – they were by far the most engaging of the book.

My main issue with the novel came with Amber. The Accidental, friends, is a classic example of a manic pixie dream girl story. And, as I have covered on various occasions before, I just can’t stand that particular trope. The way that Amber changes the lives of all these family members has really very little to do with her actions (apart from fucking Magnus, which she does wildly and with abandon), but more to do with the ideas and thoughts that are ascribed to her by Michael, Eve and, to a certain extent, Astrid. Amber has very little agency, almost no backstory, save a couple of chapters where Smith is at her most ‘experimental’ (read: incomprehensible. To me, anyway) that, regardless, don’t really tell you anything other than that Amber has some sort of spiritual connection to movies because she was conceived in a cinema. She is one dimensional, hyper sexual, aggressive and without any sort of personality that you can pin down – MPDG down to a T.

Ali, I expected better. I am tired of this trope. I am tired of women being seen as a service – to make people feel a certain way (sexually and in terms of ego), look a certain way and be, somehow The Answer (you are not the answer*). It exhausts me, and nothing turns me off a book faster.

*This is a reference to The Type, one of my all-time favourite poems by Sarah Kay (and in general). You should read it. It’s like the anti-manic pixie dream girl read. I’m going to go read it now.

In all, The Accidental was a disappointment – even more so because I was prepared for full on book love. Sigh.

Never World Wake

Bee hasn’t spoken to her best friends since her boyfriend’s mysterious death. Now, a year later, she needs to face them. They’re beautiful, rich and deadly. She is certain one of them holds the truth about what really happened to Jim.

A whirlwind night leads to a narrowly missed car collision and a sinister man knocking at the door as a storm rages outside, to deliver a world-shattering message.

As secrets unravel and time backbends, the five friends must make a shocking choice.

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So that was three weeks. I apologise.

I am in kind of a weird place with reading right now. I was in a fairly sustained slump (had to give up reading The Idiot but I will get back to it at some point. Does anything ever actually happen? I was around 150 pages in and as yet nothing had) which lifted briefly while I was away so I could read The Closed Casket (a new Hercule Poirot novel by my love, Sophie Hannah) and the book I’m reviewing  today, Never World Wake by Marisha Pessl (Belletrist pick. Amazing, as always), but then I moved into The Accidental by Ali Smith and the slump has descended once again. I think I have the summer blues (that’s a thing, right?). If you have any cheering reading suggestions please throw them my way. I would like to get out of this slump for good.

Anyway. Never World Wake. This book came as a total surprise to me in all of the best ways. It’s the first YA book Belletrist has picked, and it is a stunner. We have ALL of my favourite ingredients: rich boarding school kids (with the obligatory outsider scholarship kid obviously), mysterious death, unreliable characters (all these fuckers do is lie) and magic.

Don’t judge it by its pretty cover. This book is one intense ride.

So we have a bunch of recently reunited rich teens – the aforementioned hedonistic rich kids and Bee, the scholarship student and the “good girl”, torn apart by the mysterious death of one of their group (Bee’s boyfriend), Jim a year prior. They come together for one final night of partying before they all depart for college, and on the way home driving in a collective drunk stupor they almost have a head on collision with a truck.

This is when shit really hits the fan.

They return home to their mansion, only to be visited by a strange elderly man (The Keeper, as we will come to know) who tells them that actually, that collision wasn’t a near miss. It was a direct hit. The five of them aren’t so much home and clear as, in actual fact, lying dead in that car, trapped in something called a Never World Wake. The way to escape? Only one of them can. The group have to unanimously vote on which of their number lives to see tomorrow. The rest of them die forever. In the mean time they are doomed to repeat the same day until they can reach a consensus on which of them will survive.

From this explosive beginning, Pessl takes the narrative in so many winding and shocking directions, with the storyline of the Wake and the mystery of Jim’s tragic death running concurrently, meeting and diverging during the absolute roller coaster ride that is reading this novel. Watching how each of the characters deals with the Wake – from trying desperately to reach a consensus and escape to losing themselves in the distractions that you can find in a consequence-less world that resets every 23 hours – is a fascinating insight into the worst of human psyche in a claustrophobic nightmare about survival at all costs or total self-destruction – depending on who you are.

Nothing in this novel is what it initially appears – what you remember as the grand love story of your life might actually turn out to have been a house of horrors, precious objects become rusted, broken and dangerous on closer inspection and the person you always felt was the strongest and the coolest under pressure? They will be the first one to break.

Pessl’s writing is rich, sensual, poetic and infused with a brutal darkness that really appealed to me. If you enjoyed We Were Liars by E. Lockhart or The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll be into Never World Wake. It’s a truly gripping read.

“We swear we see each other, but all we are ever able to make out is a tiny porthole view of an ocean. We think we remember the past as it was, but our memories are as fantastic and flimsy as dreams.”

Gone fishing

I am on holiday.

I had this whole plan where I wrote enough posts to cover my time away or even – gasp – blogged from the safety of my holiday bed, but it is becoming increasingly clear, after the first thing didn’t happen that the second won’t either.

I am lazy.

See you in a couple weeks x

 

The Raven King

For years, Gansey has been on a quest to find a lost king. One by one, he’s drawn others into his mission: Ronan, who steals from dreams; Adam, whose life is no longer his own; Noah, whose life is no longer a life; and Blue, who loves Gansey… and is certain she is destined to kill him.

Nothing dead is to be trusted. Now the endgame has begun. Nothing living is safe.

Dreams and nightmares are converging. Love and loss are inseparable. And the quest refuses to be pinned to a path.

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For some reason I left it over a year between reading Blue Lily, Lily Blue and The Raven King.

I am bad at finishing series. There are several reasons for this, I think. Endings are disappointing in the majority of cases, and I prefer living in a world where what ultimately happens to the characters I’ve spent 2+ books getting to know is as yet undefined. If I don’t know how they end up, then I don’t have to live with that nagging sense of dissatisfaction that comes with finishing most book series. I also didn’t want anyone to die, and was almost certain that someone was going to, so put off reading for that reason as well. Kind of stupid – the character is no less dead for me not having read about it yet, but it makes me feel better somehow. I stopped watching Jane the Virgin a few episodes before Michael died. I just didn’t want to see it. I know they told us he was going to die very early on in the first season, but it went so long with him not dying I sort of stopped believing it.

You see why I took me so long to get to The Raven King.

Leaving it so long was a mistake. It’s a plot heavy series and it took me half the book to reacquaint myself with Henrietta and its various magical complications. This might be why, despite my love for this series, I didn’t enjoy its finale as much as I’d hoped I would.

Overall (though, sadly, for me, it did not escape the end-of-the-series-disappointment syndrome) I really enjoyed The Raven Cycle. In a market where a lot of the bestselling series lack originality, it carved a space for itself where it examined class, gender, sexuality, family and grief against a backdrop of a magical world so atmospheric that whatever train or bus I was on at the time of reading fell away. There was only Henrietta, 300 Fox Way and Cabeswater and I was wandering through them in real time.

I adore the way Stiefvater uses language. While reading these books I could really feel how much she enjoyed writing them. As each larger than life new character arrived (Laumonier? Really? Because Piper just wasn’t enough?) I felt like I could see her at her keyboard, cackling to herself, just revelling in the enjoyment of her own imagination. The way she plays with words and phrases appealed to me, and I loved the repetitive, ‘depending on where you began the story, it was about…’ that peppered the chapters as the heroes and villains of Stiefvater’s world finally converged on the same spot for the novel’s climax.

I loved her characters, and I think that’s where this final instalment disappointed me the most. While we got plenty of face time with the main gang (my ships sailed, I was very pleased), I was saddened by how little time we spent at 300 Fox Way and the almost complete lack of Calla was very upsetting to me. After they spent so much of the previous book trying to find her, I also would have liked to have seen more of Maura and The Gray Man. I just felt that after building a series with such a wonderful array of side characters with their own complicated lives and personalities it was a real shame that they fell somewhat by the wayside in this last one.

Speaking of characters, I was also disappointed in the villain of this book, which was much more a demon without personality than it was Piper, who I really enjoyed in Blue Lily, Lily Blue. Every book in the series has had a very compelling Big Bad, and although the demon in The Raven King was in many ways the most destructive baddie so far, it was also the least engaging, and it’s defeat, despite it all, not that dramatic really.

Though The Raven King ultimately fell a little flat for me, I’ve loved reading this series. Maggie Stiefvater’s unique writing style, funny, weird and complicated characters and stellar magical world building created a saga I know I’ll return to one day. 300 Fox Way is up there with The Burrow in the leagues of favourite fictional family homes.

Welcome to Lagos

TW: sexual assault

Five runaways ride the bus from Bayelsa to a better life in a megacity. They are unlikely allies – a private, a housewife, an officer, a militant and a young girl. They share a need for escape and a dream for the future. Soon, they will also share a burden none could have expected, but for now, the five sit quietly with their hopes, as the billboards fly past and shout: Welcome to Lagos.

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Once again I have the fantastic Belletrist book club to thank for Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo. This was an absolutely delightful take on moving to the city/coming of age story set in the city of Lagos, Nigeria. Two military deserters, one former militant with aspirations to be a radio star (and a fake American accent), a student and a homemaker on the run from her violent husband come together as an dysfunctional family during their escape from the violence ridden Niger Delta. War wounds (from spouses, militants and corrupt military generals) weighing heavy on them all, they follow their (somewhat) reluctant leader Chike into their new fast paced, mystifying, occasionally beautiful (but mostly nonsensical) Lagos life.

In addition to our core runaway family, the novel also tells the story of Ahmed, upper middle class UK educated editor of the anti-government (and anti-money. It is totally failing and only allowed to continue because Ahmed’s father used to be pretty high up in the (corrupt) government he is so against) newspaper the Nigerian Journal, and Chief Sandayọ, the (not so) Honourable Minster of Education for the Federal Republic of Nigeria, recently vanished with most of the Ministry’s money.

Realities come crashing together when Chike and co. move into an apparently deserted basement apartment that just so happens to be the secret hideaway of that (not so) Honourable Minister. And the stolen money.

Welcome to Lagos an excellent portrait of survival in a city that wants to eat you alive. In equal parts funny and tragic, we see Onuzo’s complexly realised characters fight to be better in an environment that really only calls for them to be worse. Chike, who, after deserting the army that was his purpose for so long (until his superiors starting ordering kills of anyone who dared disagree with them) is searching for a new cause, anything he can cling to to make it all worth it; Isoken, the student searches for some means of survival after a violent sexual assault; Fineboy the wannabe DJ and the only male member of his family not to have committed suicide fights to see a different end to his story; and Ahmed, so determined to see an end to corruption in his country yet a beneficiary of his father’s corrupt money when he needs it. It’s a novel heavy on irony, with every character swimming the wrong way in a strong current but refusing to be swept away – it’s about the belief that the world can be better despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

“Then Funkẹ had had her religious experience and all that suffering had been put in an unsettling perspective. The sooner the world unravelled, the sooner the second coming of her saviour. Earthquakes, famine, war: all signs and precursors to glorious rapture. It was a rationale to explain a world that never got better. Despite one’s best efforts, despite one’s highest hopes: the world did not change.”

Despite it all it’s not a pessimistic book. It’s a book about trying, even when trying is stupid, even when trying seems to make the situation worse. It’s a book about redemption, and it how it can be found in unexpected places. Most of all it’s a book about not allowing yourself to be lost in the rush of a system or a city much bigger than you, a ‘how to’ guide for keeping your head above water.

“Most likely his doubts would return, with activity, with employment, but he would not regret these days of belief, these moments of faith when all seemed plausible and the world was made in seven days.”

THINGS TO NOTE

If you don’t know anything of Nigeria’s political history (I did not) it is easy to feel disorientated in this story. Fortunately for us, we live in the age of Google so things like this are pretty easy to rectify. You are not going to understand the entire complicated political history of Nigeria since its independence in an afternoon, but you can certainly learn a few things. Here are a few sources I found helpful:

A timeline of key events in Nigeria (starts in 800BC, which is a little early for our purposes but it interesting nonetheless)

This 2011 piece by Remi Adekoya is a good whistle-stop tour of the origins of Nigeria’s problems, particularly with regards to the effects of colonialism and the country’s crude oil, which is mentioned in Welcome to Lagos a few times

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an amazing book you should read anyway, but also paints a picture of Nigeria in its infancy as an independent country. Obviously I’m not saying read this one first, but having read it it gave me a bit more context for the history of Nigeria that was helpful while reading

As with any analysis of a country, all should be read with a critical mindset and an awareness of the authors’ biases, but the above helped give a bit of context when, during my reading, I would find myself feeling like I was misunderstanding vital bits of plot because of a lack of basic knowledge about the country I was reading about. Yay Google!