A Memoir of Medical Bias—Bless the Blood: A Cancer Memoir by Walela Nehanda

the cover of Bless the Blood

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Bless The Blood: A Cancer Memoir is a striking book that gets under your skin and stays there for days afterward. Though billed as a YA book, the writing and story hold a depth of feeling and insight that will engage far older readers, too. Hospitals, homes, intimate relationships and even one’s own skin are explored as sites playing host to complex histories. Framed by references to Cynthia Parker Ohene and Audre Lorde, Walela Nehanda threads a poetics of class, race and gender that shows how those constructs tangibly mediate who has access to certain spaces and their attendant expectations of care.

There is wisdom in Nehanda’s depiction of the ways relationships function as spaces for the people in them. And inversely, how spaces are shaped by the connections people make there. Some books really get to the heart of that old saying “a house is not a home”—this is one of the few that goes further by suggesting that a body isn’t always a home, either.

Teeming with generational trauma and an aching love-hunger that breaks through in paragraphs and poems about sickness, recovery, affection, intimacy, and history, this is a book that refuses to be reducible to inspiration porn. There is a lot of unvarnished pain here: it beats and seeps and leaps out of the page, sinking into the sorest parts of anyone who has ever found themselves at odds with their body, anyone who has ever felt the acute violence of having their bodies treated as alienable. 

But these recollections are accompanied by memories of healing and true connection that remind me of one of my favorite aspects of queer media: the defiance of portraying communal moments of revelry and unapologetic joy. These moments offer a small antidote to the seemingly incessant indignities Nehanda encounters in trying to access care through institutions that diminish compassion into a sort of charity contingent on the seeker’s performance of acceptable respectable acquiescence to unjust norms. It is a keenly relevant story, and only becoming more so as the conversation and activism around medical bias gains momentum.

The book’s archetypal figures and icons are also from a media moment that younger readers (I’m including twenty-somethings in this), will find timely. Close readers might be left wondering why there is more “prestige” in the exploits of long-dead hellenics than Captain American or Black Panther—and how our insistence on pretending that the former are more universal than the latter only goes to show how deeply those stories have been decontextualized in service of modern myths about what is “natural” or just.

I will admit fully that I am very partial to this sort of mythic deconstruction. I appreciate authors who staunchly refuse the opiate of presumed objectivity and instead fiercely reckon with the implicit messages and specificity of our shared stories. There is a passion in these pages that I found refreshing, and which I hope this review does justice to.

Who Will Enjoy This: People who thought The Remedy was poignant, timely and want to read more deeply personal stories about the struggles of accessing care (both medical and otherwise) as a gender-expansive person of color (here, a Black person in America). People who enjoy memoirs in verse, or poetry about the poet’s relationship with their body and others. People who think “formalism” is another word for “limitation”. People who enjoy science fiction metaphors for biomedical ideas.

(Seriously, Nehanda’s description of leukemia and their body as a besieged planet is all I’ve been talking about to anyone who will listen for the past week)

Who Might Think Twice: If you’re currently dealing with healthcare bias and difficulties of your own, this book will either reassure you that you are not alone or leave you emotionally exhausted. Your miles may vary. Nehanda pulls no punches in either their remembrances of or their viscerally unflinching depiction of their pain.

A Sweet Middle Grade Coming-of-Age: Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake

Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World cover

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Ivy Aberdeen’s life was already chaotic between her newborn twin brothers, her older sister’s odd behavior, and Ivy struggling with her own confusing feelings for girls that she can’t quite name. But then her family home is swept away by a tornado and Ivy’s world is completely upended without a home and without her trusted notebook filled with her secret drawings of girls holding hands.

That is, until the drawings from her lost notebook begin to show up in her locker, along with a note telling her she should talk to someone. Ivy doesn’t know what that note means, because obviously she’s fine. Ivy has to figure out who has her notebook and get it back, and maybe along the way she’ll figure out what those feelings even mean.

This is such a sweet middle grade story. I never knew that Ashley Herring Blake, author of the Delilah Green Doesn’t Care romances, wrote books for younger audiences! It has a lot of her charm and a love of quirky small towns, but there’s something about the formula that I find clicks even more when it comes to middle grade. Of course, I might be biased because I adore middle grade, perhaps because the explosion of LGBTQ+ middle grades are the very sorts of books that I wish I had access to when I was a kid. Luckily, they exist now, and the list is ever-growing!

Ivy is a character that feels so real as she struggles with her simultaneous love of and frustration with her family, her sometimes annoyance with her best friend, and the way she makes mistakes and oversteps and miscommunicates. All of this is written with such compassion for how hard it can be to figure out your place in the world. I also want to say that for a book that features deep grief in the wake of a natural disaster, it has such charm and humor in places that it doesn’t feel too overwhelming.  

So oftentimes a coming-of-age focuses on romance as the way for a person to figure themselves out. That certainly exists—it’s partially about Ivy’s struggle with her feelings for the new girl in class, after all—but it’s also about how families evolve and grow, how you can find community in unexpected places. It’s a lovely testament to the bravery and power in being true to yourself and I would highly recommend as a heartwarming read for a bit of hope.

Trigger warnings: natural disasters, childhood illness, grief, references to homophobia

A Queer M/F Romance of Healing and Reconciliation: A Shot in the Dark by Victoria Lee

the cover of A Shot in the Dark by Victoria Lee

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This novel is a masterful exploration of various themes, ranging from consent and communication during intimate moments to faith, substance abuse, and power dynamics. The author’s ability to delve into these topics with depth and sensitivity truly impressed me.

The novel shines in its approach to consent and communication during sexual encounters. Lee’s portrayal of characters navigating these conversations felt both authentic and refreshing. The way the characters navigate their desires and boundaries is a testament to the importance of open dialogue in relationships.

Furthermore, the exploration of faith and its impact on one’s identity within the context of the Orthodox community adds another layer of complexity to the story. Lee handles this topic with great care, highlighting the struggles and conflicts faced by Ely as she grapples with her past.

Substance abuse is tackled with a nuanced perspective, portraying the protagonists’ journey through recovery with empathy and realism. Lee’s portrayal serves as a reminder of the challenges individuals face on the path to sobriety, and how recovery is a continuous process.

The examination of power dynamics is another highlight of the novel. The teacher-student relationship between the characters introduces a layer of tension and complexity that is brilliantly executed. The internal struggles of the characters as they navigate their feelings while maintaining a professional boundary is both engaging and thought-provoking.

In conclusion, A Shot in the Dark is an exceptional read that skillfully weaves together a myriad of important themes. Victoria Lee’s ability to approach subjects such as consent, communication, faith, substance abuse, and power dynamics with sensitivity and depth is truly commendable. This novel is a must-read for anyone seeking a captivating story that sparks introspection and provides a platform for meaningful discussions.

Trigger warnings: substance abuse, alcohol, overdose, transphobia, abusive parent, antisemitism, drug use, religious trauma, relapse, death of a parent, domestic violence

Elinor reviews How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea

howtogrowup
My wife and I are currently trying to buy a house, which is surreal, and it’s made me wonder about what it means to be–or feel like–an adult. Like magic, I found a copy of Michelle Tea’s latest memoir on that very topic. Since I’m a fan of Tea’s other writing, I picked it up. I figured that Michelle Tea is always fun and this book would likely present an interesting take on being a grown up.
How to Grow Up primarily covers Tea’s late thirties and early forties as she stumbles into adulthood. In her late thirties, Tea is sober after years of addiction, re-entering the dating world after spending 8 years in a dysfunctional relationship, sharing filthy housing with twenty-somethings in San Francisco, and dealing with the psychological, emotional, and spiritual issues. Eventually she moves to her own grown-up apartment, starts trying to get pregnant as a single person, forms a healthy relationship with a great woman, and gets married. Though she doesn’t delve much into how she made it happen, Tea has an amazing career in the literary world, something she managed to start even before she got sober. I was surprised she didn’t spend more time on this topic, since I think that having a career is a huge measure of adulthood–and something Tea has a handle on.
How to Grow Up was fun to read, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. This memoir is not linear, broken up into 15 themed essays that aren’t strictly chronological. Tea isn’t the most linear person, so this fits her personality. The downside is that she sometimes tosses out references to events or issues the reader doesn’t know about yet, or retreads the same experiences in multiple chapters.
The other odd thing about How to Grow Up is that periodically the book veers away from Tea’s interesting life and into advice dispensing. A lot of these life lessons struck me as obvious (such as “Don’t date people who sell pills in bus stations”), particularly after you read Tea’s stories. While I liked reading about Tea’s adventure in Paris after her long-term relationship ended, I didn’t need the rules about “how to break up” that preceded it. Tea is a great storyteller, but she’d make a terrible advice columnist, and her attempts to be one drag down her book.
The book didn’t explore issues as deeply as I would have liked. Though Tea looks at class, privilege, and her own background as a working class person, she also name-drops designer brands and insists that her higher power wants her to have these expensive, unethically made items. Her analysis of the contradictions that she holds boils down to, essentially, that all people have contradictory values and impulses. I don’t entirely disagree, but I also wanted more of her thoughts about these issues and less ink about Fendi bags. At times her contradictions are baffling, something that could have been intriguing if looked at more closely.
This book is reassuring, though, and I did feel better after reading How to Grow Up. Everything worked out for Michelle Tea in the end, despite all the detours and the weird choices she made. I’d recommend this book to fans of the author and to people who feel like they’re failing at being grown-ups, with the acknowledgement that the book has limitations. I’d recommend skimming or skipping the advice and lingering instead in the stories.