Between The Covers

By Terri Schlichenmeyer, December 2019 Issue.

Nobody said it would be easy.

You have your eyes set on something but doing it will take time, sacrifice, and effort. You’ll get things right, but you’ll also get in your own way before you get to where you want to be and if you don’t believe that, then read Me by Elton John.

On and off through most of his life, Elton John had a tumultuous relationship with his mother. She was sometimes angry, sometimes abusive, rarely loving, but she did one important thing for him: she introduced him to Elvis Presley music.

Though John says he’d wanted to be a musician since he was very small, the 78 RPM his “mum” brought home opened a window for a huge record collection, a passion for seeing live music, and a dream of playing in a band onstage. Soon, he was gigging with regional bands and accidentally meeting people who would help his career.

At 19, he was still a virgin, still naïve about being gay, and rather blithe about his natural ability to write music. That was okay, though; he’d met Bernie Taupin, who wrote lyrics over breakfast and together, they’d pen hits by lunchtime.

At 22, John had fallen in love with a man, was no longer a virgin, and “things [professionally] were starting to move, very gradually.”

Just one year later, he performed for the first time in America.

Author Augusten Burroughs. Photo credit: AXB

Through his early career, stardom gave John a delightful platter of surprises and he seized most everything that came his way: singers he admired praised him, famous people he’d watched wanted to meet him. He later hobnobbed with royalty, both the music kind and the Buckingham Palace kind. He fell in love, married, divorced, and fell into an obsession over something that made his life so, so much harder.

There is a certain aura surrounding the first third of Me, and it’ll charm the socks off you: author Elton John writes about his childhood, quickly, before he leaps into the bits about his early career with a sense of wide-eyed awe at what life had just handed him. If he’d said, “Gee whiz!” even once, you’d understand.

Me by Elton John c.2019, Henry Holt $30.00 / $38.50 Canada / 375 pages

Alas, after the kid-in-a-candy-store naiveté evaporates and his career takes off, John’s account of his young-manhood seems jaded; he says he was “exhausted” by constant work and pressures, and the second third of his book shows that in the voice readers see. Here — in the stories of parties, recording sessions, and industry goings-on — the tale starts to slip into that which plagues so many star biographies: name-dropping and seemingly unnecessary sameness. It would mar the book, were it not for the sense of droll humor that John continues to pack around his anecdotes.

By the final third of this book, we get a settled John who’s clean, happier, less frenetic but still funny. Here’s where readers reach what is likely familiar, as though we’ve read this book before. But, of course, you haven’t because Me is John’s first and only autobiography and enjoying it is easy.

Halloween is over this year, but not for you.

Your decorations are still up because the season is young. There’s plenty of time left for skeletons, monsters, and wind that howls like a banshee. You can still hear spirits high-stepping in your upstairs. Most important of all: as in the new book, Toil & Trouble by Augusten Burroughs, witches walk among us.

At just eight years old, Augusten Burroughs learned that he was a witch.

Riding the bus home from school, he’d had the sudden realization that something happened to his grandmother; he knew without knowing, saw without seeing, and he rushed to his mother in a panic. Matter-of-factly, she calmed him; she was a witch, too, and had sensed that her younger son had “the gift,”

“It was the strongest bond my mother and I had when I was young,” Burroughs says.

Toil & Trouble by Augusten Burroughs
c.2019, St. Martin’s Press $27.99 / $34.99 Canada 320 pages

Most people think of Hollywood magic or crones on brooms when they think of witches but those are just myths, he says. The truth comes in three parts: witches have existed for as long as have humans. They’ve “always been misunderstood.” And yes, “witches are real,” and each is a little different, as Burroughs learned when his Aunt Curtis (a witch) introduced him to a root woman (another witch) who told him something about his future.

Witchcraft isn’t perfect, though. It didn’t help much while Burroughs was bullied as a boy. Sometimes, spells took longer to work than he hoped they might. It isn’t for revenge or hurtful purposes, although there is a way to influence how things turn out and patience is key. “Magick” worked when he wanted to move from Manhattan to his beloved New England; it didn’t work when he wanted to talk to a friend on the phone. It warned him of a possibly-bad situation near his new home, but there were no details. It helps find lost objects, but not lost confidence.

And when his magick went missing as his husband fell seriously ill, Burroughs learned that “Things are not as they appear. They are much, much more.”

When starting Toil & Trouble, you could be forgiven for thinking that author Augusten Burroughs is pulling your leg. He does, after all, write with humor and this witch stuff is conjured, right? Isn’t it?

After a few more pages, it won’t matter. You’ll be so engrossed by this tale of the magick of life and so caught up in the stories Burroughs tells, that witchcraft really becomes no big deal, no less normal than blue eyes or brown hair. And while it’s the main reason for this book and everything attached to it, it’s more of a magically delightful, meaningful backdrop for tales of family, growing up gay, falling in love with a man, finding home, and forgiving.  

Toil & Trouble is not a dark-and-stormy-night kind of book, and it won’t make you jumpy. There are, however, a few hair-raising pages that’ll make you squirm but mostly, it’s funny and sweet and charming, a cauldron full of goodness.

Give the gift of books. Here are a few LGBTQ-themed options:

First, we have She He They Me by Robyn Ryle this year. It’s a book that acts a bit like those old “choose-yourown-adventure” as it examines and explains gender, its definitions, and the way it’s been perceived historically. Hint: this is fun, and it’s who’s questioning.

If your giftee is exploring the ideas and limits of gender, you can’t go wrong by wrapping up Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity, edited by Micah Rajunov and Scott Duane. This is a book filled with tales of those who’ve examined (or are examining) questions of gender, sexuality, age, and race.

For the child with two Mommies or two Daddies, and for the kids in that child’s preschool session, The GayBCs by M.L. Webb will make a great class gift. It’s the A-B-Cs, but with terms familiar to the LGBTQ community and their families, so it’s for them, too. Or it might make a great gift for the adult who still possesses the wonder of a child. Or for an adult, just because.

For the newlywed (or the about-to-be-wed), The Gay Marriage Generation by Peter Hart-Brinson is the book to give. It looks at how same-sex marriage became law across the country, and how it changed the way America looks at gay men and lesbians. The gay giftee might also like Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives by Walt Odets in that same wrapped gift.

The person on your list who enjoys reading short stories will love Every True Pleasure: LGBTQ Tales of North Carolina, edited by Wilton Barnhardt. It’s absolutely filled with tales from the South and from the heart.

For the parent of someone who’s come out this year, consider giving Embracing the Journey by Greg and Lynn McDonald, with Beth Jusino, foreword by Greg McDonald Jr. It’s a guide, really, for Christian parents who learn that their child is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, and how it fits with your spiritual beliefs.

The movie buff on your list will love reading Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films by Arthur Dong. This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of Chinese and Chinese American actors from the first films shot in Chinatown, to modern times and contemporary film professionals.

For the giftee who is searching for new meaning in life, wrap up My Buddha is Pink: Buddhism for the Modern Homosexual by Richard Harrold. It’s a book of essays being a gay Buddhist and reconciling old beliefs with a new way of mindfulness and fulfillment in a new lifestyle.


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