This Week, I Read… (2021 #11)

#32 – Felix Ever After, by Kacen Callender

  • Mount TBR: 31/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Nonbinary protagonist
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

I am a cis white woman more than twice as old as the trans protagonist in this story. I have never doubted my gender identity in any meaningful way–when I see the memes about how girls who had a “tomboy” phase are all now either trans men, lesbians, or nonbinary, I shrug and say, “I’m bi, does that count?”

I’ve always thought my tomboy phase was not a rejection of my essential girlhood (whatever that means) but the terrible ’80s fashion imposed upon me by the society who created it, and my parents, who had no option but to clothe me in it. I still remember, with horror, some of the dresses I had to wear to church every Sunday.

Even my rejection now of some of the typical standards of feminine beauty are more about the cost (be it money or time) to maintain those standards. I’ve never had my nails done or my eyebrows waxed, I currently own no makeup because when I’ve flirted with it in the past I’ve never liked the hassle (or my lack of skill with it because I can’t be bothered to watch eighteen tutorials just to put on eyeliner.)

I say all this as a lead-in to this book review in order to establish that I am in no way, shape, or form the target audience, or someone who has experienced more than the merest sliver of this struggle. And yet, somehow, I still found it relatable in many ways, which I consider to be a triumph of the storytelling.

Some of the gender and sexuality issues brush up against similar things I’ve experienced on the road to figuring out my own bisexuality. Some of the growing pains the characters undergo feel a lot like the thoughts I was having as a teenager myself, no matter how different the various pieces of my identity are. And most of all, this captured the roller-coaster ride of personal drama and love-related woes that was my experience from when I started dating. I, too, have tried to go out with someone I only kind of liked, or convinced myself I could like, when I thought I couldn’t have someone else I was more interested in. I’ve never been in a full-blown love triangle centered on myself, but when one of my friends drew a schematic of the tangle of relationships our friend group in college underwent, we had to nickname it the “love dodecahedron” because it got so complicated.

So I got it, even if this wasn’t for or about someone like me.

All that being said, there were still issues I had. Because I’m the wrong generation, I’m not easy with all the underage drinking and all the pot smoking. I grew up during the War on Drugs, and while I’ve revised my views on marijuana in the legal sense (waaaaay too many people are in prison for it that shouldn’t be) I’m never going to be able to endorse kids lighting up constantly or getting drunk all the time. While I understand that writing about characters doing something isn’t the same as the author condoning it, there’s really no consequences in this to the teenagers drinking and smoking so much–it’s just presented as a fact of their life and basically okay behavior, and I’m not on board with that. (The constant swearing, which I’ve seen other reviews mention as excessive and off-putting, actually doesn’t bother me at all, I’ve always known people who swear as much or more, even as a teenager.)

My other issue is that no one had much characterization beyond their gender/sexuality struggles, and for a few of them, the constant labeling of their actions as “asshole” behavior, whether it was or not in reality. Okay, sure, Felix’s struggles are the central fact of the story, fine. But everyone else? Declan and Ezra both have similar rich-boy problematic backgrounds that do a little to inform their characters, but not that much, and everyone who populates their extended circle of friends is basically a name paired with a gender and sexuality assignment instead of a real person, and they talk accordingly. (Some of those “deep” conversations or arguments read like they came straight from Tumblr, and I say that with some affection because I’ve been on Tumblr for years, but still, that made them feel more like Very Special Messages than organic parts of the story or real things people might say to each other.)

Overall, it was good. I enjoyed it. It even made me cry a little once. But I found that being outside the age group, and only sharing the larger queer umbrella with these characters but not any more granular aspects of their identities, made the message a little more obvious and the flaws a little more perceptible.

#33 – Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper

  • Mount TBR: 32/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A book I forgot I had
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I have read a few books on the English language and its history. I’ve read even more about its foibles, its grammar and punctuation and general frustrations. I’ve even read a few books specifically about dictionary construction before, but this one takes the cake. (I wonder which subsense of “take” that idiom falls under? I’m sure Stamper could tell me, as that was one of her words, whose defining process was covered by an entire chapter.)

I don’t think I’ve ever laughed out loud more when reading nonfiction, even through one of my many rereads of Bryson’s Mother Tongue, which I think is fair to say was my previous high-water mark for the intersection of humor and informativeness in nonfiction about language. Bits of clever wordplay, fantastically hilarious turns of phrase, and the occasional well-placed reference to The Simpsons, and I’m sold.

As for the information it contains, I knew some of it (as I said, I’m not new to nonfiction about dictionaries) but this was a far more modern and internal viewpoint than others I’ve read, by someone working in the field now and not merely presenting research done about the process or its history. There’s a bit of history here too–of all the chapters, the one about the history of dictionaries is the one I was probably least interested in, and my eyes might have glazed over once or twice–but the nitty-gritty, daily-life details of a lexicographer’s existence, presented with humor and energy, more than make up for one chapter of the book being a little dry.

This is a somewhat niche interest that I can’t recommend widely–it would bounce right off some readers with its jargon and specificity and attention to detail–but it’s a real treat for absolute word nerds like me.

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