Sunday, July 22, 2018

#CBR10 Review #37: Boy Erased: A Memoir by Garrard Conley

As you might imagine, this memoir is not a fun one to work through, but that fact doesn’t mean it is not a good or doesn’t have significance. I was drawn to reading it after just finishing a YA novel focused on sexuality in a majority Mormon community, only to see that the trailer for the film adaptation for Boy Erased just dropped. And watching it was a lot to handle at a moment where I was already emotionally compromised, but I figured it would be worth it to read the source material and see just how Garrard Conley’s story played out in his own words before being altered to suit a different medium.

Boy Erased: A Memoir focuses on a brief period of time for Garrard Conley when he was 19 years old and entered into conversion therapy for his homosexuality; the son of an aspiring Baptist pastor, living in the Bible Belt of the United States, Conley is shown through flashbacks struggling with his sexuality and the negative messages he has received throughout his life in regards to his identity. After being outed to his parents after leaving home for college, Conley is given the choice of being disowned or attending specialized therapy/treatment to cure him of his homosexuality. This is where we learn about the Love in Action (LIA) ex-gay program, and the type of treatment Conley was subject to there. These moments at LIA are interspersed with a great deal of Conley’s personal narrative at home, before he became subject to LIA’s treatment, which makes the actual setting of conversion therapy almost secondary in nature to the rest of Conley’s story about struggling to understand and accept himself in the environment of his upbringing.

Now, I know that I sometimes write reviews that are unnecessarily long: they don’t need to be in-depth analyses or my personal journal on what I experienced/thought about while reading a book. Yet this always seems to happen because as it turns out, I actually like articulating my thoughts through writing more than I realized. And for that I apologize because in this instance, I apparently have a lot to say regarding what this book make me think about.

In a way, because of the way this memoir markets itself, you would expect there to be a lot more about the actual conversation therapy that takes place, yet his experience there was simply during a trial assessment period that lasted all of 8 days: we don’t see any physical abuse that has become synonymous with the concept of conversion therapy, and we see other people who have been there for years. I can see this expectation of more falling short for some reader, but I ask myself, is that really something I want to read about? Why do I want to hear about that kind of suffering? We see other subjects of conversation therapy as presented by Conley, and we see the psychological strains of subjects being unrelenting told they are disgusting in the same boat as pedophiles in terms of sin. And that kind of mindset is damaging: just because something doesn’t hurt us physically doesn’t mean it isn’t doing irreparable harm inside of us.

Really, the events that Conley himself went through in conversation therapy are more or less a catalyst for this book to be written, and for a conversation about something bigger. Because while the stance presented on the harm done by conversion therapy is clear here, there is so much more to be said about Conley’s memoir and the experiences and struggles he allows us to bear witness to:

This book feels like it is in some ways a major outlet for release, processing, and catharsis for Conley… but for me, this book made me feel like I was suffocating.

The entirety of this novel (besides the tiniest conclusion at the end) has such an oppressive feeling of oncoming dread at every moment. It details a life of messages of wrongness, and we see Conley working through so many distorted ideas about himself and his faith and his family. These destructive thought processes continue throughout Conley’s life and experience at LIA, hurting him in such subtle ways that ultimately lead to a breaking point. They also compound with experiences of trauma, most significantly a sexual assault that I don’t know if Conley really had the opportunity to process fully before sitting down to write this: he says a line after explaining what he remembers of the incident that absolutely broke me, about feeling as if what was happening to him was punishment for what he was (not to mention what happens with his abuser after the fact which lays out his path to LIA). This kind of thinking was so painful to read, as he struggled to handle what happened and to know where to go from there, and it is a product of years of oppressive messages from his Church, community, and family.

The mood of this memoir is obviously not a fun one, and it was hard for me to want to get into at times. There were also some facets of the writing that I had a hard time with: the second portion of the novel seemed to drag in some ways, and the pacing was incredibly chopping, switching from one moment in the past to the next without a very coherent timeline. There is also less info given about his time at LIA that I think would be very beneficial for people to hear about. That being said, I think this memoir really came through to me as more of a process for Conley to work through what he himself needed to (even reading the acknowledgements at the back, this is the sense I get). So who am I to begrudge anything that he needed to express in writing. Having a background in studying art therapy (in addition to other expressive forms) I understand how helpful this kind of articulation through writing this can be when dealing with a trauma: as I mentioned earlier, it’s almost as if he never tried to deal with his sexual assault and how this affected his sense of self and the path it led him on either. So I accept and bear witness to what Conley is giving to us as the readers of this memoir. There is a power in words and in having our expressions and stories seen, and that is really what the purpose of this book is.

In addition, of course, there is the idea that it can present to people more knowledge of the experience of conversation therapy, counseling about sexuality, and even the oppressive messages of some religions. That said, I understand this and don’t per say need to read about it more. But that said, would the people who would benefit or should be privy to this kind of thing really want to engage in this novel or even listen? It’s hard to say.

Finally, I don’t want to express any hatred towards any religion, but I do have a lot of anger for those who hold unbending thoughts which can cause so much psychological harm to others, giving them messages of being unclean or not worthy of God’s love after being brought up to want to seek this very love. And yet, there is a beauty in Conley’s memoir in that he doesn’t seem to want to place any blame on one particular person or even the Church: maybe it’s not right for him anymore, but that doesn’t mean others can find love or comfort in religion, though sometimes that may be hard to remember when we see messages of hatred and unacceptance being spread.

Ultimately, Boy Erased: A Memoir is a book that is not per say enjoyable, in fact it is frustrating and disheartening at times, in addition to having some flaws in the way the novel is broken up in telling its story. But there is a power in how personal it is, and it really does seem like something Conley needed to do for himself and for his mother to really process his life and experiences. There is also a bravery in choosing to share that difficult and personal processing with others. So I will take what Conley has given here, and hold it gently to my heart, thanking him for what he has been willing to share from his life, and hope that perhaps some good will come from the sharing of these experiences for more LGBT+ people in the future as we live and grow in this complicated world of ours. Because even at the end of this book there feels like a weight has been lifted off of Conley in regards to these experiences. And for that, I hold on to my sense of hope.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]


Monday, July 16, 2018

#CBR10 Review #36: Autoboyography by Christina Lauren

It seems like I've been on a bit of a YA romance kick this year, and I think it's because there is nothing quite like a sweet story about first loves. And this thoughtful novel by writing-duo Christina Lauren delves not only into this area of young love, but also largely focuses on what it means to grow up queer in a largely religious area that doesn't support this facet of humanity.

Autoboygraphy is largely from the point of view of a teenager named Tanner, who moved about 2 years earlier to Provo Utah: back home, he was openly bisexual with both his family and the community there, but upon moving to this largely Mormon city in Utah, his mother has urged Tanner to be careful about outing himself, after her own negative experiences with the church in the past. While a bit stifling for Tanner, this is all well and good until the mentor for one of his writing courses that graduated the year before strikes something in his heart: this being Sebastian, the local bishop's son, who immediately has a rapport with Tanner, who now can't help but complicate things in having his heart flow out onto the autobiographical pages of his writing assignment.

What we have here is a story about attraction, falling in love, and all the complications that can come with it. In this case, we have a boy who is secure in his sexuality but feels the need to stay closeted where he is, paired up with another who is exploring his own sexuality in relation to the religion that he grew up in and continues to surround himself with; looming over all of this is the constant threat of accidentally being outed in a place and situation that neither boy really wants to deal with at this time, but also the wondering about whether or not they want to stay secret and how much this may be harming them internally.

Something I love about this novel is how thoughtful it is, and how it manages to balance both the fun rapport between the two boys and the deeper more serious conversations they need to have in order to understand exactly what their relationship is and what it means to each of them. One of the things discussed that I really appreciated was on the subject of bisexuality and how this is often perceived by others; in many of books I've read in the past where the protagonist has had attractions of multiple genders it has been boiled down to "I like kissing girls and I like kissing boys and that's just how it is" which is a great way to feel as an individual, and I wish it really were that simple. But here we actually get to see some more of the complexities and misunderstandings a lot of people have being discussed.

There is also a strong feeling portrayed in this novel of the overbearing nature to the Mormon church, as well as that of being on the side of supporting those queer people who are affected by the oppressiveness of it. Yet the authors do not make an outright villain of religion or the Mormon faith: while we see the struggle and feel for what Sebastian is going through, a point is also made to explain why he feels drawn to his faith and what it provides for him in terms of prayer, family, and sense of larger community. 

All of these aspects develop into both a meaningful yet sweet story. The only thing that I really have to complain about is how the story unfolds in the later sections of the novel. After being from Tanner's point of view for almost the entire novel, we suddenly switch to Sebastians; this at first is a little jarring but ultimately I think the reader benefits from seeing his thought process in regards to his faith and relationships. And then, because of how effective it is, I wish there were more from Sebastian's viewpoint, either throughout the novel or at least more during the closing sections. There is pretty pivotal moment for Sebastian near the conclusion which we see the leadup to but not the ultimate action and confrontation for, which I believe would have really rounded everything out rather than switching directly back to Tanner's POV at this crucial moment. 

That said, I very much enjoyed Autoboyography; there are many layers to this young adult story that are very well-balanced in my opinion, and and I would not be surprised if I found myself looking to read it again in the future. 

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, July 12, 2018

#CBR10 Review #35: Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

I could see this book being involved in some good classroom discussions. I can also see certain communities resisting this, and not for the right reasons.

From what I can see, Jewell Parker Rhodes’ body of work consists largely of novels dealing with current events and social commentary, aimed at children, and Ghost Boys is no different: in this novel, we follow the spirit of a young black boy named Jerome, after he has been shot by a police officer while playing with a toy gun. Jerome’s spirit both recounts the events leading to the incident, as well as follows his family and the trial surrounding his death. This is where he meets the daughter of the officer who killed him, as she tries to understand her father’s actions and look towards making things better in the future. Jerome also meets the spirits of other young black boys who have been killed over time due to discrimination and racism, most notably Emmett Till from 1950s Mississippi.

The novel brings up real-life events, such as that of Emmett Till, Trayon Martin, etc in relation to this fictitious tale, which illustrates the point of the story very clearly. It also acts as a conduit for increasing further real-world discussion with the intended audience. Being that the anticipated demographic is young, the writing of the novel is clear and the themes are present in a very direct manner without much subtlety, but I don’t think this is too much of a negative factor here: it opens up a few different layers to examine in regards to police violence and racism that I think are clearly presented in order to promote discussion and change.

The only thing, though, is that after all these incidents, I can see this novel as seeming like it’s preaching to the choir for people of color: this understanding of police brutality and systematic discrimination is needed more in predominantly white communities, but I could see these ones as being those that reject this novel for their preferred narrative.

Alas, there is also a peaceful factor to this novel, and a sense of hope that perhaps in the future things will be better as more people come to understand and change. But of course the question ever is, why can’t things just be better now? In any case, Ghost Boys as a novel for young people is real, heartbreaking, but also not completely one of despair. It shows that there is undeniable injustice in this world and urges the reader to recognize this and not just brush it aside, in the hopes that we can all change for the better, and hopefully our future generations will have less to fear as they grow old if only we can learn and teach along the way.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

#CBR10 Review #34: The Mermaid by Christina Henry

Coincidentally the second piece of media released recently that I've taken in having to do with the historical figure of PT Barnum; one more and it's a pattern. But in The Mermaid, the story is not per say about him, but rather about a fictional recounting of a mermaid who finds herself in his exploitative employ (inspired by the infamous Fiji mermaid hoax). But despite the magical elements therein, this novel is more of an introspective exploration of personhood, freedom, and human cruelty.

The Mermaid begins with what almost comes across as an old legend told about one of the inhabitants of a small town: a mermaid (Amelia) who wanted to explore the world and ended up leaving the sea, only to find love and a quiet home amongst the people there. But just as she longed to see more than just the sea, she eventually also wants to see more of the world of humans beyond her small coastal village, and ends up sought out to become a new exhibit for PT Barnum's museum in New York. Here, she learns more about the ways of the human world, and finds herself not liking all that she sees, once again wanting to leave the place she initially sought out but found was not ultimately right for her.

The action and plot of the novel very quickly tells almost a whole story in itself within the first section, only to then drag on a bit through the major center, and then quicken up at the end again. This didn't leave a lot of breathing room or time for development during this back section of the novel, where many of the changes of heart and development of major relationship changes took place. Despite this, however, the progression of the story made sense and the conclusion felt nicely wrapped up, if perhaps a little quick to come to at the end.

One of the major strengths of The Mermaid is how many issues of humanity are touched upon, illuminating certain hypocrisies and things about our North American world which don't entirely make sense or do any good: we see the dynamics and gendered roles of women versus men, the differing of others in harmful ways, the wanting to push one word and truth of religion upon those who are happy as they are, exploitation from people who just want to make money off of others, etc etc. This is often taken up through the voice of Amelia herself, as she tries to learn about human life but struggles to see why certain things must be the way that they are, though of course we also see this through the cruelties and manipulations of PT Barnum (while technically a historical fiction novel, I'd wager this portrayal is pretty accurate of him).

While I did love the way these topics were woven into the story, however, a major sticking point for me with the novel is almost a sense of distance between the characters and myself: glimpses of their inner selves and introspections would come to light only to be quickly snuffed out. And within a novel that doesn't per say have action ripping through every chapter, there could have been a way to develop more of a connection with the reader. In particular, Amelia is our conduit throughout the novel (though the point of view does switch from time to time), and we are to understand she is different and a sense of how she understands things is somewhat developed, but there is a bit of an impenetrable coldness there. This coolness of Amelia is mentioned by other characters, but I feel like as the reader trying to break into her point of view, this was a bit frustrating when it extended to myself. Perhaps this was just me, but I think it is a case of a distance in the tone of the writing? It's hard to explain.

Ultimately, this is a lovely story about finding freedom and navigating the strange waters of humanity. But it all seemed to clip along without letting me totally in a wall in the way. Nonetheless, still enjoyable and not a difficult read by any means, and I may be inclined to take a look at some other novels by Christina Henry to see if it's just the writing style that doesn't grab me, or if it was the story and characterization all along.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Monday, July 2, 2018

#CBR10 Review #33: The Art of Starving by Sam J Miller

Upon first seeing the title of The Art of Starving, I thought there could only be two major things it would be about; either following the trials of a person struggling through famine/poverty/war, who struggles to survive these hardships while literally starving, or it would be some romanticized tale of an eating disorder, possibly with some “love heals all” thrown in there too which I’ve seen far to many times when regarding stories about mental illnesses. But while perhaps The Art of Starving is closer to the latter, it definitely isn’t a sanitized or pretty thing: this novel is ugly, which is ultimately both a strength and a weakness for it.

In Sam J Miller’s acknowledgements at the end of the novel, we see him mentioning his own eating disorder as a teen, and reminiscing about how seldom this is recognized in teenage boys vs girls, hence the subject for his novel here: The Art of Starving is about a teenager named Matt, who suffers from an eating disorder, but this is only one piece of the puzzle and pain of his life. We see Matt enduring the homophobia and loneliness of his small-town life, the shame of seeing yourself compared to those who exist in a higher socioeconomic class, the fear of his single mother losing her job, his family history with addictive behaviors, and most pressingly for Matt, the loss of his sister in his life after she has seemingly run away from home. Matt is convinced that someone hurt her, causing her to run away, despite the brief contact from his sister stating that she is okay from time to time. Matt’s desire to find his sister thereby comes directly face-to-face with his eating disorder through that fact that when Matt starves himself, he discovers new abilities and heightened senses that he thinks he can use to find out what really happened to her. And I know you may be thinking, “Superpowers through starving yourself? That sounds… problematic,” because that’s what I was thinking at first too! But rather than make it seem like these powers are a good thing, the novel delves more into their implications for Matt, and how he chooses to use them.

What I really got out of this novel was a story about anger, pain, and trying to hold on to some form of control in this world that no one has any sort of power over. It’s not a pretty thing, and I am glad in some ways that Miller does not shy away from going deeply into Matt’s anger and destructive thought process. But this is also where this novel is difficult to read: not because it is bad, per say, but because it is hard to get through. It’s kind of similar to what I’ve heard from a few people in regards to The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, in that it’s difficult to get inside the head of someone who is destroying themselves. It is painful and can bring up a lot of different emotions, none of which are good. I found this here with the character of Matt, as well, as he slowly destroys his body, and tries to explain why he is doing what he is doing; I wanted to shout at him to stop his quest to hurt those he held any sort of anger towards, as well as scream “can’t you see what you are doing to yourself??” at him over and over again. But clear as day, presented within Matt’s narrative point of view we see the distorted and obsessive thoughts, the ones so hard to break out of no matter how much we might recognize they are destroying us. I understand what’s going on, but man is it frustrating to witness.

In many ways, this novel is a lot to handle, and there are a lot of subjects to deal with. I wouldn’t say it was a pleasing read, but also wasn’t a bad one. But there were some things that maybe could have been finessed a bit more for my liking. One small aspect was the predictability of certain elements, so then the reveals weren’t so impactful (though to be honest, I didn’t find these leadups too distracting from the novel overall, just one of them which seemed like it was supposed to be a big twist or turning-point that I saw coming from a mile away). But one of the bigger issues I had in this novel in particular was the subject of the superpowers: it goes to a bit of a bizarre place, and while there is maybe some ambiguity as to whether or not Matt actually had some sort of abilities, or if it was just delusions. I think the consensus at the end is that he did develop some powers, but they are hard to understand the nature of and how this fantastical element really is supposed to fit within the narrative or thematic context. It’s just a bit of a bizarre mix of such down-to-earth and human themes, then paired up with the supernatural.

So in the end, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about The Art of Starving. Because it is so real and compelling, yet also so frustrating and difficult to take in all that destruction and pain; and then it also throws you on a bit of a bizarre loop at the end as well. But I loved the themes presented, and think for the most part they were handled well. Matt’s issues are not solved with a quick fix, and they aren’t pretty or quirky. They are dirty, and recovery is shown to be a hard process: love doesn’t solve all your problems, and sometimes people have their own issues or have trouble sticking with people when they are deep in their own. Sometimes we can’t stop something once we’ve started, and clinging onto your secrets seems safer than revealing them, no matter how they destroy you.

This novel is a strange ride, both following certain tropes I’ve seen many times before, but also super unique in a lot of ways as well. I can’t say that I loved it or hated it, but I cannot deny that there are a lot of strengths to be found within. I  definitely feel like it would be worth a reread in the future. But I leave you now, with this quote near the end of the novel which truly struck me:

“Being better isn’t a battle you fight and win. Feeling okay is a war, one that lasts your whole life, and the only way to win is to keep on fighting.”

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]