How to be Both

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So the cool thing about this book is that it’s told in two parts. Well, actually, that’s not the cool thing – the cool thing is that two versions of How to be Both were published simultaneously, one version with one protagonist’s story first and the other swapped around.  It was pretty much left to chance how each reader would experience the book.

How to be Both is about George, a tomboyish teenage girl desperately trying to reconnect with her recently deceased mother through remembering a trip they took to Italy to see the works of the painter. It’s also about Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa, his life and works, and this strange boy who piques his curiosity by viewing and reviewing one of his portraits.

My thoughts on this book are twofold, because I read it in two parts. I got George’s story first, and as much as I enjoyed Smith’s writing and the story she was telling, it was really hard to get into. I think this was for two reasons: Firstly, I was in the midst of a really tough time, so I had trouble suspending my reality for long enough to really get comfortable in George’s head; Secondly, George was also going through a tough time, and it was really hard to relate to a character who was pretty much wandering around in a haze of grief, trying like crazy to make sense of a world that no longer had her mum in it.

George is constantly questioning the value of witness: one of the scenes that really stuck with me was how she stumbled across a pornographic film in which the girl didn’t appear to be having a good time, and so she swore to watch it every day in order to witness the girl’s suffering. On the other hand, her mum was paranoid that she was being watched, and George has inherited that paranoia.

One of the ways George tries to keep her mum’s memory alive is by travelling often to London to view del Cossa’s portrait of St Vincent Ferrer, remembering their trip to Italy to view the frescoes in the Hall of the Months at the Palazzo Schifanoia. It is through this that we see the connection between George and del Cossa: while George is viewing the painting, Francesco is viewing her. So we meet Francesco del Cossa, and learn about his life while he learns about George’s.

How to be Both spends much of its time drawing attention to the way we gender others. This is a thing we do constantly, without even thinking about it: breasts, girl. Long hair, most likely a girl. Hairy legs, boy. Short hair, most likely a boy. Francesco del Cossa, in this story, was born a girl, but such was her talent with colour and form that her parents disguised her as a boy to send her off to an apprenticeship; he spends the rest of his life identifying as male, and history identifies him as male as well. George is a girl, but her short hair and tomboyish clothes cause the artist to gender her as a boy, and so we only really know that she’s a girl because, for me anyway, I already had half a book telling me that she is.

I often say to people when I’m telling them about this book that I’d have enjoyed it more if I had read the artist’s story first, as he’s connected to the girl through her artwork, and there are elements of her story that bleed through. Chronologically, I think my story was in order, but I would have quite enjoyed reading about the artist and this queer boy he was haunting, then picking up and seeing what motivated George’s actions, rather than the other way around.

As I’m writing this though, it occurs to me – if this was a standard book; if this book had been printed in one version and one version only – there’s no way it would have occurred to me that I would have enjoyed the story the other way around. The sheer possibility that I may have, though – that it was mere chance that led me to read the story in the order it was presented – that’s making me really think about what it was that made this book tick, and whether or not I might have related to it better in a different circumstance.

A Mother’s Disgrace

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I have this thing that memoirs should be about people with interesting lives. No; I think that the best memoirs are about people with interesting lives. I can’t decide if this one fits the bill. Robert Dessaix has had a fairly humdrum life, but out of that humdrum life has come a plethora of interesting ideas, and he seems to know it. His memoir, A Mother’s Disgrace, isn’t driven by his loving suburban upbringing or his years studying Russian in Moscow or even his reconnection, late in life, with the birth mother who gave him up as a baby. No, Dessaix’s memoir is driven by the thoughts and ideas that surround and connect these events, and that’s what makes it so interesting.

So he doesn’t detail the everyday existence of his happy nuclear family and their frankly ordinary lives. No, he talks about his father’s love of language, the way he’d sit on the porch with a pitcher of lemonade and a French-English dictionary, something he did for his whole life because he never quite grasped it. Then he talks about how his father’s love of language, love of words, led to his own close examination of language and syntax, the way that in creating his own private language (as children often do), Dessaix began from an early age to inspect words from all possible angles, to discover that even though they use the same words, the meaning construed in “I love you” and “I love pizza” are completely different, and entirely built on context – both syntactical and cultural.

The topics Dessaix covers in A Mother’s Disgrace are many and varied – smuggling Western culture into sixties Russia; the burgeoning Sydney gay scene of the seventies; inherited versus learned characteristics (after realising that he carried himself the same way that his half-brother, whom he’d never met, did), and much more. I can’t say it’s much as a memoir, but as a collection of thoughtful essays on a wide range of topics, inspired by the events of his life – it’s en excellent read, and worth a try if you’re the kind of shower thinker who’s ever wondered if you’d have turned out different if <insert differing circumstance here>.

Queer Book Club

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At the beginning of this year, I went to this year’s Queer Book Salon, put on by Readings as part of Midsumma in January.

It was excellent. I heard about an author who writes historical romances, ensuring that the lesbians who were always there got their turn in the spotlight. I heard about the plethora of gay men who are well known for their writings, and considered the idea that being gay does affect your writing – even if you’re not writing romance stories.

Which, when I think about it, is kind of obvious. I mean, of course the fundamentals of who you are and who you love affect your writing. My writing is as affected by the fact that I’m straight but confused as it is by the fact that I’m white and a woman and grew up Catholic.

I was so struck by this that I decided to join Readings’ Queer Book Club this year; once a month, for ten months, we’d get together and read books by and about queer people, and discuss them in an open environment. I loved this idea of getting to know the culture I felt I was being thrust into, of experiencing more of the issues and feelings and ideas that queer people have.

Reading that sentence, you might feel a bit uncomfortable. Like I’m treating queer people like I might treat French culture, or Arabic, or Jewish. Foreign and worth studying, for their differences as well as their sameness. Well guess what – I realised that as well.

We were discussing Holding the Man, Tim Conigan’s memoir of love and AIDS, and I was struck by this feeling that I was being a total voyeur. Sure, I had good intentions – how could I be a good partner to a queer person if I didn’t understand what they were facing? But that’s not how it ended up. It ended up with me retreating even further into my heterosexuality, knowing that in this situation, I could be an ally, but I would always be Other.

I’ve only been back once since that session – too afraid to say what I think, lest it be wrong or offensive. I feel like the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, invading safe spaces for my own voyeuristic pleasure. I don’t even really read the books anymore – it’s taking me longer to be able to pick them up, to shake off this unease and remind myself that it’s just a book and your intentions are honorable. Now that I have the idea in my head, though – all I can think is the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

So far, I’ve enjoyed every book I’ve read as part of my queer book club. They’re all great stories about interesting people, trailblazing and honest and just great writers and characters. Self-consciousness aside, being in this book club has enabled me to read more widely than I have before, given me a vehicle for motivation, great recommendations, and encouraged me to challenge my reading in a way that I might not have otherwise had the energy to this year. So yeah, it’s been a great seven months, and I’m looking forward to the last three.

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What I really wanted to say with this post was that you may notice a new queer book club tag floating around. I think it’s important to branch out in one’s reading, to pick up books you might not have otherwise. I certainly wouldn’t have picked up any of the tagged books without the prompting of the book club. So if you’re looking for something a little different, but essentially the same, click on the queer book club tag and see how you go from there.

Bad Behaviour

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Reading Bad Behaviour was like reading Looking for Alibrandi for the first time. Here was a book that was about an Australian teenager, going to school in a system that I recognised, experiencing an adolescence that was actually somewhat like my own.

Bad Behaviour is Rebecca Starford’s memoir of her time in the abovementioned year-long separation from the world. You know how high school is like real life in a microcosm? Well this Year 10 program seems to be high school in a microcosm. It seemed like Starford was stuck on a year-long camp with her entire year level, and let me tell you, a week out in the bush hiking and bonding with my peers was plenty long enough for me.

Everything about this book rang true to my experience of secondary school. I lived in the country, so the warped gum trees and dry grasses and bitter, foggy cold of winter mornings was all so familiar to me, it was like actually being back in Year 9. As I was reading – particularly the first few chapters, where Starford introduces the school and the landscape and the girls – I was thinking, yes. This is what school was actually like for me. After years of reading as much YA as I could get my hands on, finally I’d found a book written by someone who was like me, who’d had my experiences. None of this casual-clothes-wearing, A-Level-fretting business that goes on in English and American YA novels. Bad Behaviour was a book that I actually connected with.

The book starts explosively, with the kind of prank that actually made my stomach drop with secondhand fear. From there it’s mostly chronological, and Starford doesn’t shy away from the nastier and more confusing aspects of adolescence – getting bullied by the popular girls, doing out-of-character things to get your peers to like you, worrying about being called a baby just because you were a little homesick.

In Bad Behaviour, Starford looks at that one defining year of her adolescence – and let’s face it, Year 9 is a pretty defining year in most peoples’ lives – and how it affected the rest of her life. How her willingness to compromise her principles and side with the bullies, to check herself and get bullied in return; how her attempts to reach out to her mother, tempered by long silences from both ends; all added up to shape the woman she became.

It’s an interesting thought. When I was in Year 9, I wanted to be a lawyer. I was terrified that I’d never get a boyfriend. I spent hours upon hours reading the same books alone in my room. Now, I’m in law school. I’ve been in a relationship for ten years. And I blog about books, because I still spend hours upon hours reading alone in my room.

Bad Behaviour rang true for me because it’s set in my world. It discusses the very true fact that fourteen is when we start becoming who we are, and how the experiences we have at that age shape the adults we become.