Between The Covers

By Terri Schlichenmeyer, April 2020 Issue.

It’s worth a try.

Under the Rainbow by Celia Laskey
c.2020, Riverhead Books $27.00 / higher in Canada 288 pages

You never know what’s going to happen when a new endeavor begins. You only know what it’ll cost: time, money, effort, and a lot of patience for a great unknown. This experiment could end well, or it could end very badly but either way, as in the new novel Under the Rainbow by Celia Laskey, it’s worth a try.

It was a scientific fact: Big Burr, Kansas, was the most homophobic place in the U.S.

That was the determination made by Acceptance Across America, an LGBTQ nonprofit that needed to know before launching its grand experiment. For two years, AAA hoped to keep a task force in Big Burr to live, work, integrate, and to see if it was possible to change bigots into open-minded, rational people.

Much to her dismay, that’s why Avery was taken from her very happy California home: one of her moms volunteered to head the Acceptance Across America experiment. Karen was a lesbian and a feminist. Avery was straight and she hoped that nobody in her new high school would ever think otherwise. It was bad enough that Billy Cunningham’s hate-fueled gang found out who her mother was.

Celia Laskey; photo by Leonora Anzaldua.

Bible-quoting, mom-blogging Christine Petersen tried to have Acceptance Across America’s billboard removed from downtown and when that didn’t happen, she took matters into her own hands. Pastor Jim preached against homosexuality; the police ignored hate crimes; and Arturo, having recently moved to Big Burr from New Mexico because of health issues, struggled to accept his son’s husband.

But things weren’t all bad in Big Burr. Linda, who recently lost her son in an accident, was delighted to find friends who didn’t treat her like broken china. Lizzie finally seized the happiness she’d been putting off. Elsie, who hadn’t seen her children in years, found Harley, who was a good substitute and a good friend. And Gabe Cunningham learned that the newcomers to Big Burr would open more than just a few minds.

Here’s a bit of advice: just before you start reading Under the Rainbow, take a deep breath. It may be the last one you get until you’re finished.

That’s because author Celia Laskey will knock the wind out of you with the pearl-clutching folks in the fictitious town of Big Burr, the authenticity of their thoughts and actions, and the real-life things they do to deny this (almost implausible) social experiment. Better yet, the haters are only half the story. Laskey’s tale is also told through a series of first-person points-of-view of some of the activists who serve as glue to hold everything together.

This all amounts to a bunch of concentric circles that are tangled like a cheap necklace in a small box. Everybody’s tale is tied to half the town through barely-kept confidences and they all know it — although, like any good novel, secrets ultimately become not-so-secret.

For lovers of novels with bite, just the first page is this book will snare you and keep you rapt. Absolutely, Under the Rainbow is worth a try.

Words can never hurt you.

What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He & She by Dennis Baron (He/Him/His)
c.2020, Liveright $25.95 / $34.95 Canada 304  pages

Even as a child, that last half of the retort to playground taunts never made sense to you. Of course, sticks and stones broke bones but even then, you knew that there’s no sharper weapon than a word said in anger or misunderstanding. In the new book What’s Your Pronoun? by Dennis Baron, you’ll see that some of those weapons go way back.

Language is a funny thing. Words hurt, they sooth, and in today’s world, a “pronoun without sex is … sexy.” We ask ourselves, and others, which ones to use as “an invitation to declare, to honor, or to reject, not just a pronoun, but a gender identity.”

Dennis Baron; photo by Iryce Baron.

Generally, though, and until relatively recently, “he” was the default pronoun used by many to indicate both masculine and undeclared gender. As far back as 1792, neutral “he” was thought to be confusing, however; one writer even suggested that “one” might work better than “he” to indicate gender neutral.

“They” was brought up for consideration in 1794.

A century later, and with mostly men controlling law and business, “he” was firmly the pronoun of choice, and it had become politicized; when women protested that “he” clearly didn’t include them, lawmakers stated that “he” also implied “she.” Women countered that if “he” could hold office, then it was implied that “she” could, too, and, well, you can imagine the arguments — not to mention the injustice of three masculine pronouns (he, his, him) but just two for the feminine (she, her). Oh, the scandal of it all!

Through the decades, other words have been suggested (zie, hir, thon) to indicate gender neutral or unknown but none have seemed to stick. Many felt that there simply was no good way to signify neither male or female, or a separation of gender-neutral and nonbinary, and some bemoaned the lack of a “missing word” that was easily understandable. Says Baron, though, in sifting through the possibilities, we’ve had the word all along.

Sometimes, as author Dennis Baron points out in his introduction, people today offer their preferred pronoun without being asked, so ubiquitous is the question. Still, we sometimes struggle with the right word, but in What’s Your Pronoun? he offers a solution of which readers may be skeptical.

First, though, it’s true that this etymological history is a good read, especially for word nerds. It’s not college-lecture level; Baron writes with a lighter hand and doesn’t preach, and the occasional threads that spring from the stories here are explored appropriately and in an inviting way that displays no drudgery. It’s like sitting down at a workshop you’ve eagerly anticipated and being more delighted than you hoped you’d be.

And yet, there is such a thing as information overload, and the obvious solution isn’t so obvious. Proof is at the end of the book, in which we see more than two centuries of verbal wrangling.

So: em, thon, zier, they? We haven’t heard the end of it, but maybe we’re close; certainly, reading What’s Your Pronoun? couldn’t hurt.

Some people collect glassware.

Name Drop: The Really Good Celebrity Stories I Usually Only Tell at Happy Hour by Ross Mathews
c.2020, Atria Books $26.00 / $29.99 Canada 225 pages

Others collect books or sweaters or Santa statues or fancy cars or any one of a million things there are more than two of. Scientists say that, as a species, we’re hard-wired to do it, even if you just collect friends. And in Name Drop by Ross Mathews, some of them might even be famous.

From the time he was a little boy growing up in a farm community in Washington state, Mathews wanted to have friends that were celebrities. He imagined what it would be like to hang out with them and gossip … and then it actually happened.

Now, he says he hates when people “name drop,” but “honey,” he has stories.

His celebrity circle started when he was an intern on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, which sent him to report on the Olympics three times, which led him to start a blog, and that’s how he became BFFs with Rosie O’Donnell. They’ve been fast friends ever since, though it was she who “made” him “sleep with a Republican.”

He worked with Chelsea Handler on Chelsea Lately and because of where the show was filmed, he met and became friends with the Kardashians, who were filming their reality show in the same building. The Chelsea gig also gave Mathews the opportunity to be on the sidelines when his beloved Seahawks won  the Super Bowl in 2013.

That was the year he also got to play celebrity matchmaker.

He had a chance to meet two of the Spice Girls. He got a quick-click photo op with Celine Dion. He met Omorosa and scooped every rabid reporter on TV; he met “Liza with an OMG” and spent all night talking with Christina Aguilera.

But “not every celebrity story is going to end like a fairy tale where the famous person and I end up bonding,” says Mathews.

Especially when it’s Barbara Walters, Faye Dunaway, or Elizabeth Taylor.

No doubt about it, Name Drop sure is fun.

It’s got the feel of a Friday night at your bestie’s house, where the snacks on the kitchen counter are bottomless and so are the skinny ‘ritas, and you scream yourself hoarse in mock horror and real laughter at the stories you’re told. It’s got the kind of gossip you want about the stars you love (or love to hate), spilled with a little snark and a charming amount of awe. It’s got an absolute (and absolutely relieving) sense that being famous sometimes doesn’t make a person act famous — although sometimes, it does. And it’s got “Rossipes” (Rossipes!) you can make to go along with your reading.

Like a red-carpet walk with a broken heel, though, Name Drop sometimes limps. Author Ross Mathews is funny and punny, but not both simultaneously: alas, the puns are too much, too overwhelming, so feel free to groan and ignore them. The dishy tales you get in this book are way more fun; in fact, if you love boy-meets-girl-celebrity tales, you’ll find that “Name Drop” is a great collection.