Three books and some whales on San Juan Island


What could whale watching for a week on San Juan Island and the books I’m going to review, Blood and Beauty, by Sarah Dunant (Random House, 2013), Stuck in the Middle with You, by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Crown Publishers, 2013), and The Witness Wore Red, by Rebecca Musser (Hachette Book Group, 2013), possibly have in common?  Other than the fact that I brought the books with me to read while I reflected on retirement from a thirty year teaching career, an empty nest, and how I would go about reinventing myself, all while scanning the horizon from my rental house every day for whales, it would seem the answer is “Not much”.  But as I watched and learned about Orca Whales during the day and read these books by night, it occurred to me that they do have a very important common denominator:  the myriad ways in which “family” can manifest itself in our world.

Orca whales move almost exclusively in matrilinear “pods”, where several generations hunt, rest, raise youngsters, and play together. One pod of Transient Orca whales we watched actually included a 90 year-old female and her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren!  We humans have developed decidedly more complex family structures.  Blood and Beauty narrates the story of one exceedingly “inappropriate” family:  the Borgias, of Renaissance fame.  Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI in 1492, made no secret of his illegitimate children, and tales of their debauchery have titillated readers through the subsequent centuries.

Sarah Dunant is one of my favorite historical novelists, and she does a brilliant job in this book of teasing out the more lurid parts of the Borgia legacy from the probable reality.  Dunant’s books are always solidly researched, and in this novel she takes the approach of viewing the Borgias as similar to a modern celebrity family, showing how references to them in the existing documents from the era could be misconstrued for political gain by the various players in the continuous chess game that was late medieval/early Renaissance Europe. Given that Popes weren’t supposed to even have children, the blatant attempts by Rodrigo Borgia to elevate his family legacy at the expense of church doctrine has made this family endlessly fascinating through the centuries.  I especially liked the way Dunant portrayed the infamous Lucrezia as less a sex-crazed siren and more a young woman manipulated by the political whims of her father and brother.

From 1492, fast forward 500 years.  Stuck in the Middle with You, tells the very modern story of how transgender author and college professor Boylan transitioned from being a father (James) to being a mother (Jenny) of two young sons, all while managing to keep her marriage and family together, in effect creating an entirely new family construct with two non-lesbian mothers.  The book is memoir writing at its finest.  I really empathized with the pain this individual and couple experienced, and developed a deep respect for the way in which they created a loving and stable home for their sons, all while challenging some of society’s deepest assumptions about gender and family.  What struck me repeatedly was how matter-of-fact the boys were about this change, even coining the name “Maddy” for Boylan as a way of acknowledging the new reality of Daddy as Mommy.

Interspersed through chapters narrating the author’s childhood and realization that she needed to be her most authentic self as a woman are interviews with noted authors and friends like Edward Albee and Ann Beattie, in which they discuss all the ways in which families shape us.  I liked the way in which each interview revealed an entirely different perception of family and parenthood.  I have lately had many of my own assumptions about what my family should look like be challenged, and this book helped me embrace these challenges and see them as a way to grow as a mother and as a person.

Boylan is a gifted writer, with a genuine, thoughtful voice.  Her story is alternately funny and heartbreaking, and I emerged with a new understanding of transgender issues and the basic reality that while we are all products of our families, we can always chose how we respond to our past as we strive to shape a better, more honest, and more fulfilling future.   (FTC disclaimer:  I received the book Stuck in the Middle with You, by Jennifer Finney Brown (Crown Publishers, 2013)  for free from Blogging for Books for this review.)

Stuck in the clothing and original Mormon teachings of  the 1800’s, The Witness Wore Red looks at an entirely different, but also unconventional family structure, that of the FLDS (Fundamentalist Later Day Saints) group presided over by the now-imprisoned Warren Jeffs.  Author Rebecca Musser grew up in this culture, and was the 19th wife of Jeffs’  father, Rulon Jeffs, considered a prophet by this sect.  When Rulon died and Rebecca was being forced into another polygamous marriage, probably to Warren, she took the courageous step of leaving the group.  In her determination to save the thousands of women and young girls being exploited by the increasingly bizarre religious edicts of Jeffs, she eventually ended up being a key witness in the trials that sent Warren and several of his cronies to prison.

While the FLDS sect expounds on the ultimate in “family values” as an integral part of achieving salvation, Musser narrates a childhood of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her father’s first wife and family, and then the Jeffs family.  I admire her ability to think through the inconsistencies between the words and actions of the sect’s leaders, and her decision to seek her own truth.  In this way she actually has quite a bit in common with the transgender Jennifer Finney Boylan. It seems that Musser is determined to raise her own children in a healthier, more loving setting, and I found myself thinking that the unconventional, but exceptionally stable and loving family built by Finney Boylan is a decidedly much better example than most that Musser could find in her supposedly deeply traditional family of origin.

When my dear friend and I returned to her home in Portland after our week of whale watching, her husband asked me if I had experienced any sort of revelations about my retirement.  At the time I couldn’t think of a good answer, and I’m still not sure I have one – other than the realization that after thirty years of teaching, I’m just plain TIRED!  But my unconscious choice of reading material did help me to reflect on my empty nest, on the family I thought I would have and the one I actually ended up with, and on the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what your family looks like as long as there is deep love, acceptance, and support.

And looking at this in writing, it seems like that’s a pretty good thing to have accomplished!  Plus, I got to see whales three different times, and bald eagles pretty much every day.  Oh, and I learned that I love sea kayaking.  🙂




“Kiwis Might Fly” in a visit to New Zealand

When I’m not actually traveling I love thinking about traveling, and books like Kiwis Might Fly, by Polly Evans (Random House, 2007) scratch that “armchair travel” itch quite nicely.  Although the book is a bit on the older side, it still reads very relevantly, and I love Evans’ writing style.  The author heads to New Zealand after having read that the typical “Kiwi bloke” is an endangered species, and that the backcountry, resourceful, man’s man the country is famous for is a thing of the past.  While the premise seems a bit flimsy at first, it actually makes for an interesting approach to travel, and I enjoyed “meeting” the cross-section of New Zealanders Evans encounters.  (Spoiler alert:  she does actually find an elusive  “Kiwi bloke” eventually…a big, white, fluffy cat!)

I had read It’s Not About the Tapas, Evans’ narration of a bicycle trip around Spain, and loved every minute.  In New Zealand, Evans decides to travel by motorcycle, thinking it will make her more credible to Kiwi men.  Her eventual mastery of the motorcycle, the interesting situations it engenders across her trip, and the sights, sounds, and smells it helps her to fully experience make for engaging and funny storytelling.  Evans is British, and her dry humor throughout the book makes you feel like you’re sitting next to her in a pub.  She is not afraid to share self-deprecating details like being pinned against a gas pump by her motorcycle, or becoming so exhausted by a morning helping to shear sheep that she spends the next day in bed in her hotel with a glass of wine.  Her descriptions of the breathtaking scenery are the best I’ve read anywhere, and in the end I feel a bit like I’ve actually been to New Zealand.

Evans has other books that I’m looking forward to reading.  In On a Hoof and a Prayer she explores Argentina by horseback, and in Mad Dogs and an Englishwoman she plunges into Canada by dog-sled.  I like this approach of using a different means of travel for each country, since it makes the experience more unique and, if the two books I’ve read are any indication, entertaining.  I’ve read some pretty bad travel writing recently, so it’s a real treat to be in the hands of a gifted and funny writer.  The only traveler who writes better is my friend, Pam Roberts.  Still working on that book about your Camino de Santiago pilgrimages, Pam?  🙂