Trans Representation in YA: When the Moon was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

Note: After some thought, I have decided to post YA reviews on Tuesdays and Fridays. The idea behind this is two-fold. First, I feel that although I hope to review any contemporary YA book that holds a strong sense of meaning, it will be a good way to raise more visibility for LGBTQ YA in particular. When I was a teenager, I wish we had as much access to queer YA novels as queer teens do now. With all these amazing books out there, I feel a need to spotlight them in case there’s a LGBTQ teen out there who needs it.

Second, it will also help me keep up with my reading goal this year (as I am currently a little behind). I hope you find these reviews helpful and give you a good idea of what to check out next from your local bookstore or library. Let me know in the comments if you have any book suggestions!

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Title: When the Moon Was Ours

Author: Anna-Marie McLemore

Rating: 4.5/5

Two-sentence summary: In a tale of magical realism that stings of emotions strongly felt in our world, close friends Miel and Sam are as equally unique as they are mysterious: roses grow and blossom from Miel’s wrists, and Sam hangs moons that he painted in the trees. When the Bonner girls, four sisters rumored to be witches, want Miel’s roses for themselves, Sam and Miel must face hard questions about love, identity, and the secrets we keep.

Review: Initially, I was drawn to this book because I read that one of the protagonists (Sam) was a transgender man. Although luckily, queer representation in YA fantasy is on the rise, I had yet to read a fantasy novel with a trans character (let alone a trans protagonist).

Yet the most beautiful thing about this book is that being transgender is just one aspect of Sam: it is a vitally important aspect of him, and throughout the novel he explores how to reconcile his gender identity, but he is also an artist painting moons to make the forest brighter, a son seeking love and acceptance from his mother, and a kind-but-conflicted boyfriend to Miel.

Too often in queer YA, it feels like the protagonist’s story is reduced to coming out as gay or trans–and while those stories are important to tell, people are so much more than their gender identity or sexual orientation. Sam and Miel, as well as the other characters, felt human. Overall, this book was very character-driven. As a reader, I felt so strongly pulled into the characters’ world that the emotions they felt, I felt alongside them.

Overall, this novel is about self-exploration and reconciling who you wish you were with who you are. It doesn’t present any easy answers, nor was it meant to, as we don’t often get those in life. The way this book handles social issues such as queer identity and racism is subtly well-done, with respect for these issues in reality evident in the way the author handles them.

What I loved: When the Moon was Ours is a work of magical realism, just as whimsical and beautifully-written as books in this genre tend to be. Blurring the edges between fantasy and reality allows McLemore to present powerful thoughts. The prose was as magical as the plot itself and gave a sense of allure and true magic.

Much of the story is told through metaphor and allusion: for those who prefer plot over character development, this may be a little frustrating, but for me it painted a vivid and compelling picture.

In addition to queer representation, the author also brought in themes of cultural identity and racism. Sam grapples with his identity as an Italian-Pakistani trans boy, realizing that his identity as male is so much more than the cultural role of bacha posh he had initially assumed. Miel investigates her identity through her Latina heritage through legends, language, and Spanish tradition.

In the author’s note, McLemore talks about her husband’s transition and how they as a couple came to know so much about one another as they grappled with difficult things. She wrote about seeing her husband’s struggle in his eyes as a teenager and how, though transitioning has been difficult as any challenge is, she has seen him become free.

I try to be a pretty strong person, but admittedly, I got a little teary-eyed as I read it. Someday, I hope to find someone as caring and understanding as the author is with her husband.

Quote: “He would never let go of Samira, the girl his mother imagined when he was born. She would follow him, a blur he thought he saw out of the corner of his eye when he stood at the counter, making roti with his mother. Or he would see the silhouette of Samira crossing the woods, wearing the skirts that fit her but he could never make himself fit. Maybe one day he would see her shape, her dark hands setting the lantern of a hollow pumpkin into the water, candle lighting the carves shapes.

“But this was what she would be now, his shadow, an echo of what he once was and thought he would be again. She was less like someone he was supposed to become, and more like a sister who lived in places he could not map, a sister who kept a light but constant grip on both his hand and his grandmother’s.

“No one could make him be Samira. Not him. Not the Bonner sisters. Not the signatures on that paper.”

Recommended: Highly. While this book is of course excellent for trans or queer-identifying readers, the way it handles identity is pertinent for anyone who’s trying to discover themselves in a conflicting world.

With prose so beautiful and characters so nuanced as these, I have to recommend this for all lovers of magical realism and an emotionally-charged story. I may, however, recommend this more for older teens because it does have some sex scenes (although with minimal detail and tastefully-handled).

A Monster Calls: Truths, Regrets, and Letting Go

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Last weekend, I saw A Monster Calls in theaters with my mom. I’m a little biased since I’ve been waiting in anticipation of this since 2014, but it was probably one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen in a long time. The special effects drew heavily off the striking nature-based book illustrations, and the acting was emotional and very-well done.

A Monster Calls follows the story of a boy named Conor whose mother is dying of a terminal illness. He comes to terms with losing his mother and the conflicted emotions surrounding this through a monster, who tells him a story each night that broadens his understanding of life. “Stories are important,” reminds the monster, “They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.”

While driving back to my university, we talked about how well the movie applied to anyone who must overcome loss in life, whether that’s loss of a loved one or something else. She asked me if I remembered a specific scene from the movie, when the monster confronts Conor about letting himself feel the truth: that his mother is dying and he must face his feelings surrounding her loss before they consume him. Conor cannot bring himself to face it.

He begs the monster to let him hide from the truth, crying that if he lets go of her, the truth will kill him.

“It will kill you,” exclaims the monster, “if you do not!”

Conor feels as to his mother is falling and he cannot catch her, and he struggles to face this but, at last, he does it. He faces the truth after months of repression and anguish.

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He lets go and he is finally, finally free.

This scene stuck with my mom, and it stuck with me, too. We both, as so many do, have regrets in life. We have moments we wish we could have changed, and lying behind these moments are painful truths. We know that no matter what, we can never return to where we used to be or who we once were. We wish we hadn’t experienced certain situations, some of which may even be our fault.

And yet, such is life. No person is perfect. A Monster Calls even notes the complexity of human nature and notes that most people aren’t good or bad but “somewhere in-between.”  While we dwell in the in-between, we go through experiences we wish we never had to face. But face them we must, or they will destroy us from inside out.

Neither my mom nor I fully understand why we go through hard things after watching the movie. It didn’t really answer that. Maybe sometimes there’s a reason, or maybe sometimes suffering is a part of mortality that is beyond our understanding or control. But in response to suffering, we have two choices: we can either ignore it and let the pain consume us, or we can embrace it. The latter hurts more than anything but in time, we heal.

I especially love the monster as an analogy of this process. Nothing is more horrifying than the truth, but nothing is more important, either. Often we think of pain as demons we have to struggle against at every cost, but I like the idea of embracing them, instead, and letting them go.

I’m not particularly good at facing truth but want to remember this, especially when I feel dysphoric or guilty. Pain isn’t the enemy nor something that we need to hide from. We have to face it so that we can let go.

Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson

Note: I received a copy of this book in exchange for a fair, honest review via Blogging for Books.

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Shylock is My Name: A Thoughtful Shakespeare Retelling

Author: Howard Jacobson

Rating: 3.5/5

One sentence summary: In a retelling of the Merchant of Venice, a conflicted modern-day Shylock (Simon Strulovitch) engages in conversation with his Shakespearean counterpart as the novel explores concerns of relationships and Jewish identity  as relevant today as it was in the sixteenth-century.

Review: Shylock is My Name follows the story of an art collector named Simon who finds himself facing a lot of similar problems to the Shakespearean character. His relationship with his daughter is, at best, rocky and at worst, dysfunctional. Although he cares for his wife deeply, he does not know how to connect with her following a traumatic incident that left her changed. He feels a little helpless in a world he doesn’t quite feel like he belongs in or understands, nor does he quite know how to process his Jewish identity.

He decides to visit his mother’s grave and, while doing so, runs into none other than Shylock. The two meet first as strangers, then as friends when they realize just how deeply they understand each other. Shylock follows Simon home and the two have deep, revealing conversations on relationships, Jewish identity, and family.

What I loved: I loved this book’s language. Jacobson’s word choice is beautiful and often poetic. He paints vivid mental imagery, each one giving the readers an insight into Simon and his very human emotions.

Although the premise of a modern-day Shylock meeting his fictional counterpart sounds a little strange, Shylock is My Name takes the idea and runs with it. Jacobson presents the mild absurdity of the situation as if it was ordinary and, in doing so, it becomes ordinary. As a reader, we are left focusing on the conversations than necessarily where Shylock came from and what he’s doing here.

What I didn’t love: Sometimes I felt like the language was a little too grandiose for my own liking. At times, vocabulary shifts felt unnatural and out-of-place among the rest of the prose. Though I don’t think this was the author’s intention, I felt like the prose was at times complex for the same of being complex rather than genuinely profound. This distracted me at times and took me out of the otherwise intriguing story.

Overall:  All-in-all, excellent contemporary adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Despite a few language hang-ups, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to those who love a good contemporary Shakespeare adaption. After all, who doesn’t?

 

Resolutions

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Happy New Year’s Day! As tumultuous as 2016 was, I’m kind of going to miss it. What began as one of the hardest years of my life became one of the most worthwhile. Over the past twelve months, I have officially come out as transgender, finally (finally) attended an Aquabats concert, and started work as an RA alongside wonderful co-workers and residents.

Last January, I was struggling to overcome a bad bout of depression. My new year’s resolution was simply this: “Stay alive to 2017.”

Since I (somehow) completed last year’s goal, I have hopes. We’ll see how it went in 365 days. Here’s to a good, insightful year!

1.Write 1500 words per day.

From what I’ve heard, establishing a steady word count goes a long way. 2000-3000 would be a good end goal, but I want to work my way up to that. 1500 seems realistic with just enough challenge to make it interesting.

Going along with that, finish NaNoWriMo in November. This year is my year. I can feel it.

2. Read (at least) 100 books in 2017.

That evens out to (approximately) 1 books every 3-4 days. Hopefully, this will help clear out the backburner of books I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten around to.

Beyond simple pleasure, I’ve heard that reading helps people become more empathetic, and reading improves your own writing skills. With any luck (and a little audiobooks to get through study sessions), this will be a do-able goal.

3. Every day, get to know someone better.

On the spectrum of extroversion and introversion, I lean towards reserved by a wide margin. Sometimes, instead of getting to know and develop relationships with people, I keep to myself because it’s easier when I really could do more.

Relationships are the most important aspect of our lives. They are our main (and, really, only) source of happiness. What I hope to gain from this is getting to know and understand people on a deeper level, both those I already know and those who I meet in everyday circumstances.

In terms of application, I want to try pushing myself to talk to others and listen to them as well as working to develop closer relationships with them.

4. Maintain the six dimensions of wellness each day.

Initially, this goal was going to be “eat less cookies and not be single.” But when I informed a friend about this, he said that it might be more helpful to focus on overall health and wellness rather than… those goals in particular.

Focusing on the six elements of wellness (occupational, physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and intellectual) may help overall well-being more than the prototype goals.

In practice, I’m thinking of trying to do an activity that promotes each of these dimensions. For physical fitness, this might mean exercising or, well, eating less cookies. Spiritual wellness might involve yoga or reading from a spiritual book. And so on.

5.  Overcome evil with good.

A couple of days ago, I came across this quote: “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

For me, this is not necessarily a moralistic thought. In 2016, there were some dark moments: both on the worldwide and the individual moments. When faced with hardship, sometimes I worry that the bad will overcome the good, and I lose hope.

Yet last year, despite painful moments, goodness always came through. It came through the people and the kindness they showed me. In the end, the little things outweighed the bad. When hardships happen this year, I hope to respond with compassion and try to bring light to my life and the lives of others.

And there we are, five resolutions. 2016, we hardly knew ye. Good luck in 2017! I hope it’s a prosperous year for you and that you’re able to accomplish whatever resolutions you have, or at least make progress in this crazy thing that we call life.