REAL MAN ADVENTURES
By T Cooper
McSweeney’s, 274 pp., illustrated, $23
“I am a visible man,” T Cooper writes, riffing on the opening of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” What’s not visible, from the outside at least, is how contested and hard won his manhood is. Cooper, the author of three novels, here tells his own story — elliptically — and also excavates and examines the different definitions and demands of being a man. The task is complicated, but overall enriched, by the fact that Cooper was born female. “Real Man Adventures” is not a detailed memoir of a transgender journey. Cooper largely eschews descriptions of surgery and hormones, focusing instead on self-definition: how we construct our own identities, the pain when family members cling to abandoned personas, the perils of allowing others to apply the labels. Naturally these issues loom especially large for men who were once girls, but it’s hard to imagine any adult not relating to at least some of his struggles.
Combining essays, interviews, letters, lists, and illustrations — along with one of the coolest covers in recent years — this is a terrifically entertaining, often hilarious book. But it deserves to be taken seriously, too. In a country that increasingly respects differences in sexual orientation, gender identity is still fairly new territory for most. Cooper raises important questions about equality, justice, and safety for those whose gender expression doesn’t fit into simple categories (he and his wife use gallows humor to defuse their fear whenever he uses a public men’s room, but the danger is real). He ponders the problems of revealing or concealing his difference, wondering “if and when I’ll ever be just a man in this world.”
By Joyce Carol Oates
Mysterious, 240 pp., $24
One spring day, Dinah Whitcomb loses hold of her 5-year-old son’s hand in the mall parking lot as he’s taken from her by a stranger. Attempting to grab him back, she falls under the kidnapper’s van, breaking her limbs and ravaging her face. The abductor renames Robbie to suit his twisted religious interests. The boy will be called Gideon (following earlier stolen sons Deuteronomy, Nostradamus, and others); the man calls himself Daddy Love. An itinerant preacher, sometime farmer, half-hearted artisan, Daddy Love seems most impassioned in his role as child molester. Over the course of six years, he alternates abuse and affection, twisting and warping young Robbie/Gideon in ways many readers will find horrifying.
Good fiction writers are master manipulators, too, and Joyce Carol Oates is very, very good. This is one of her slighter outings — the book is slim and feels somewhat unfinished — yet it’s an effectively haunting nightmare. Affecting, too: the character of Dinah, whose loss marks “the defeat of her life as a mother,” and who covers her “desperate moods of wanting-to-die” by a stream of chatter, will break your heart.
THE KING YEARS: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement
By Taylor Branch
Simon and Schuster, 210 pp., illustrated, $26
Taylor Branch’s biographical trilogy (“Parting the Waters,” “Pillar of Fire,” and “At Canaan’s Edge”) stands as an indispensible guide to the life and times of Martin Luther King Jr. and the modern civil rights movement. This new volume culls 18 events or moments — with new introductions and transitions — from the earlier volumes, compressing them into a slim book aimed at least in part at “[n]ewer generations,” who presumably have a shorter attention span or less reading stamina. The result is mixed: Branch is as eloquent and trenchant as ever, but in some chapters so much context is stripped from the narrative that readers unfamiliar with the history will struggle to keep up without Wikipedia by their side.
At its strongest, the book recalls and revitalizes a history that deserves its details. Scenes of the debates among King and others in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, not to mention between SCLC and the activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, correct an oversimplified picture of black history that tends to be trucked out each February — where the highly organized and strategically sophisticated Montgomery bus boycott becomes “a quaint story of humble Negroes protesting with tired feet.” Branch’s assessment of white responses to racist atrocities is bracing; in the wake of the bombing that killed four little girls in Birmingham, he describes “a stab of sympathy and generalized remorse, followed quickly by resentment of exaggerated accusations and then a growing sense of innocence.” As in the longer books, King himself remains somewhat elusive, while striking figures like Lyndon B. Johnson and Bob Moses steal the show.