Becoming Nicole



I was attracted to Amy Ellis Nutt’s Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family because I can’t recall the last time I read a book written by a Pulitzer Prize winner. The critics’ review that “it’s the story of a family struggling with – and embracing – a transgender child” and “more than that, it’s about accepting one another, and ourselves, in all our messy, contradictory glory” also served as enticement for reading.

There is a quote at the beginning of the book from Michael Proust’s Time Required: “What we have not had to decipher, to elucidate by our own efforts, what was clear before we looked at it, is not ours. From ourselves comes only that which we drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unknown.” And I’m further intrigued by Ommia mutantur (“All things are changed.”) from Ovid, Metamorphoses, which appears one page just before the Prologue, in which it is revealed how at two years old, Wyatt is mesmerized by the shimmering sequins on his pink tutu.

Identical twins Wyatt and Jonas were adopted by Wayne and Kelly Maines who thought their lives would now be complete. Wayne and Kelly had been married for five years, and for three of these years Kelly suffered through multiple miscarriages as well as months of tedious and painful fertility treatments. Kelly’s 16-year-old cousin was “in trouble” and didn’t want to have an abortion but was also too young to raise a child on her own. It wasn’t long before Wayne and Kelly noticed a marked difference between the twins: Wyatt loved everything Barbie while Jonas loved everything Star Wars, Power Rangers and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Wyatt was obsessed with Ariel and at three years old told Wayne that he hated his penis.

Wyatt turned out to be different so Kelly dressed him in girls’ clothes. Kelly searched online and found ‘transgender’ which sounded like Wyatt. Wyatt referred to himself as a “boy-girl”, and asked Kelly ‘when do I get to be a girl’ and ‘when will my penis fall off?’ Wayne didn’t know how to deal with the situation.

Wayne wouldn’t allow Wyatt to wear his favourite pink princess dress for the family party but Kelly was “allowing” Wyatt to act like a girl. Kelly didn’t know any other boy (than Wyatt) who so consistently thought and acted like he was a girl. Wyatt was seven years old when he saw a therapist; he said, “you know, I can have an operation that would fix me”.

Wayne didn’t want to deal with his feelings about Wyatt so he handed everything over to Kelly. Jonas told Wayne: “Face it, Dad, you have a son and a daughter”. Almost everyone else in Wyatt’s orbit accepted him for who he was – a boy who wants to be a girl – but sometimes people don’t understand. His greatest fear was going to high school looking like a guy. The closer he got to puberty, the more anxious and upset he was.

Wyatt had to undergo psychological tests before taking puberty-blocking drugs so that he would never have a visible Adam’s apple, no deepened voice, no accelerated height, thicker bones, or facial hair. Even before he legally became Nicole Amber Maines, Wyatt  wore skirts to class, was elected class vice president, and signed up for choir and violin lessons. But he was bullied and experienced real depression.

It was decided that Kelly and the twins would move to another city for middle school. Wyatt attended camp for transgender girls. After Wyatt came out as Nicole, she became a minor celebrity. It was hard for Jonas, the other twin without the unusual story. He didn’t have his own story. His life revolved around Nicole’s; he’d had to make sacrifices being Nicole’s brother. Jonas found solace in music and poetry.

Nicole was scheduled to have her surgery in her senior year in high school when she was 17 years old. she would need to take female hormones the rest of her life and she would never be able to have her own children. Well, as long as she is happy…

It is a very enlightening book. I think everyone should read it, especially those who profess to be good Christians yet are biased against a LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender) person, for , quoted early in the book is a verse from 1 Samuel 16:7But the lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height… the lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the lord looks at the heart.”


Breaking Free


Breaking Free: True Stories of Girls Who Escaped Modern Slavery by Abby Sher was published in 2014. This is important to know because in 2012 & 2013, there were allegations in The Cambodia Daily and in 2014 Newsweek , there was a cover-story that Somaly Mam (the inspiration of this book, and whose story is recounted here) had fabricated stories of abuse about herself and others. These allegations were reported in The Straits Times five months later when Mam resigned from her position to help rescued girls. The author, Abby Sher, thus, cannot be faulted for not doing a good job in her research about modern slavery.

I have no idea what has happened to Mam or what she is doing now, but her story still tugged at my heartstrings. An example of telling fiction from fact is this: An “orange woman” is a young girl who sells oranges in the public gardens of Cambodia, but when a man buys an orange, he also buys the right to fondle the girl. Add another 25 cents and he can have sex with her. I believe that even if Mam had fabricated some parts (she might or might not have been an “orange woman”) of her story, a large part must be true. In any case, her dedication and vision for a mission in speaking for the girls still imprisoned (for surely there still are), in helping newly rescued girls who come to the shelter shocked and confused, in attending hearings in court on cases against traffickers and in helping to advocated for victims’ rights to protect young women are all very noble.

The second story is Minh Dang’s. She grew up in a quiet suburb of California, was abused by her parents (overwhelmed with fear and pain, she had been sexually abused by her father from the time she was three years old, ‘condoned’ by her mother) and sold to local brothels for most of her life (her parents forced her to work in the back private rooms of a cafe for people to pay to use her body however they liked). Dang had sleepless nights and was exhausted and depressed. Her parents were her torturers: what they did to her was cruel and unacceptable, brutal and inhumane. It was only in college that she started to feel empowered to change her life. She learned all the essential skills to become a trained therapist and social worker; she saw how she could start over and how she could help other people her age discover truths. She not only survived but also made her life all about giving when so much had been taken from her. The responsibility of being a survivor spokeswoman was a lot to carry on her shoulders.

The third story is about Maria Suarez, the 11th of 14 children in her family. He father was a farmer and her mother always busy. When she was 15, her father announced he needed to go to Los Angeles to get an American residential card; she begged to go along. There, she was approached by a kind-looking woman who asked if she was looking for a job. She was then sold to a brujo (a witch who practised black magic) for $200 and held in captivity for almost six years. She was framed for the murder of the brujo and sentenced to 25 years’ jail. University courses were being offered in the prison and she signed up for English, computer science and social work. When she was released from prison 20 years later because it was proven that she had nothing to do with the murder, she was sent to a detention centre to be deported as the law had changed while she was in prison. When she was finally freed three years later, she was introduced to a network of other survivors and former inmates who were starting their lives.

The three stories are harrowing but inspiring. They are told with care and compassion, highlighting a courage and resilience of each woman. The message is that even in the most tragic of circumstances, the unwavering hope and compassion of the human spirit can and will shine through.

Aches and Pains


I know Maeve Binchy as the author of several novels I read about two decades ago (eg Circle of Friends and Tara Road), so when I saw the non-fiction Aches & Pains I just had to borrow it, especially since I’m experiencing some sort of aches and pains every day.  Also, the cover has an illustration (by Wendy Shea) that promises more quirky ones within the pages in the book. (True enough, some of the drawings are simply hilarious.)

Even before the Foreword, there is quote by Gertrude Stein: Considering how dangerous everything is, nothing is really very frightening.

In her Foreword, Binchy gives her reasons for writing this book;

  • to raise some funds to support the good work of the Arthritis Research Campaign from the proceeds from the sale of the book;
  • coming to terms with the fact that our bodies are not invincible at all;
  • it’s only human to be anxious and doubtful and sometimes just outraged that parts of us aren’t working properly;
  • partly for social survival, but partly for sheer self-preservation, we learn to cheer up;
  • written with great sympathy, a fairly light heart and a genuine believe that nothing is quite as bad as it seems.

Here are some of the things I like in the book:

Relax . . . Let Them Look After You – People are always offering to help; with clever and funny illustrations, these are some jobs for people who have offered their help: eg. cutting the grass, doing the ironing, taking out the trash, making a soup, taking the dog for a walk, vacuuming the floor, cleaning the fridge.

Some Terrific Things to do About Getting Old – Tell every one you are ten years older than you are. If you say you are 75 when you are actually 65 people will unaccountably be overcome with admiration. Never for a moment pretend to be younger. Be eccentric; you are allowed now.

Be a Good Friend to your Feet – A quarter of the 206 bones in your body are in your feet.

Gadgets for the Wise – A lot of the aids for the disabled or elderly are extremely useful for those who as yet have no official need for them. It’s a wise person who becomes familiar with such items early. Egs: A safety rail for the shower. (It’s very helpful when you’re blind washing your hair and are blind as a bat.); Those book holder things they have for recipe books also work splendidly for your own reading. (This is what I’ve been doing for the last three years.); Long-handed shoehorns (which I’ve been using for almost a decade) and elastic shoe laces make good sense at any age. ; Velcro fastenings are a lot easier than buttons in places that are hard to reach. (I’ve been wishing for a long time that there are more such items available!)

Nerves – The body has 45 miles of nerves…

You are Your Doctor (a poem) – Remember the doctors are all on your side. If you want to get better, have nothing to hide. / The doctors have heard every story before – They will not keel over, and show you the door. / When asked do you drink, then you must not be shy – Admit that you’d drink any harbour quite dry. / If they asked about cigarettes, don’t make a joke. Don’t say a few puffs, if it’s fifty you smoke. / Doctors are often obsessed about diet. If you eat like a glutton, then don’t keep it quiet. / But tell the bad news about chocolates and fries – It’s not going to come as a total surprise. / If you think you’ll forget the things that they tell, Try writing them down in a notebook as well. / Doctors can’t be clairvoyants, you have to explain Just where you are feeling the ache or the pain. / Say what tablets you’re on, and if you are able, Bring in the right bottle, it’s name on a label. / Though their writing is hopeless, they’re really quite kind – they’re doing the best the solutions to find.

A sneeze can travel as fast as 100 mile per hour.

Arthritis is not just malingering. It is debilitating, destructive and not at all part of a so-called natural ageing process.

This book is insightful as well as humorous (and some of the illustrations are so funny they make me burst out in laughter). When I was hospitalised recently after a fall, I wrote twenty poems (The Wait, Observation RoomA Short StayStill PuzzledA Tracking DeviceExcellent ServiceAn Unexpected FindA CT ScanAn MRI ExperienceECG MonitoringTandem WalkingThe Healthcare TeamPamperedAngelsAgeingFrozen ShoulderFood at Ward 13Hospital Wrist TagsThe Ward Physiotherapist and  Discharged ) in the ward and one more upon discharge (Maria Veronica * to thank the nursing staff), and someone mentioned that it was the first time she came across such a patient. Well, apparently Binchy did something better long before me!





The Vow



This 2012 movie stars Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum and is inspired by a true story.

Paige (McAdams) and her husband Leo Collins (Tatum) are on their way home when an accident plunges Paige into a deep coma. When she regains consciousness, she has lost all memory of the last five years of her life. She does not know Leo is her husband, not understanding how he would not have met her parents before; she can’t remember why she quite law school halfway; she does not remember that she is a sculptor; she does not remember her broken engagement to Jeremy (Scott Speedman); she does not remember why she has not been in touch with her parents and her friends.

Paige needs evidence that she is married to Leo, and decides to go back with him, hoping it would help her regain her memory. Instead she becomes more confused and stressed, so she calls her mother (Jessica Lange) and decides to stay with her parents as her sister (Jessica McNamee) is getting married soon. Under the influence of her father (Sam Neill), Paige goes back to law school and Leo signs the divorce papers.

This is when the past starts to come back to Paige. After a chance meeting with her former best friend (Sarah Carter), she confronts her mother who makes a rather shocking revelation. Paige leaves the family home and goes back to her own apartment. Six months later, Paige discovers her wedding vows stashed away in a box among her art supplies. She then goes and look for Leo…

I did not have any expectations (because I’ve always thought movies with Channing Tatum in them always don’t have a good plot, though I may be biased), so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie. This could be partly due to the fact that it is based on a true story (photographs of the couple and their children are shown just before the end credits). I like how the plot weaves in and out of different time periods seamlessly, how there are many layers to the story, and how charming (and sometimes funny) it is. There is nostalgia, and it touches the heartstrings (I especially love the scene in which Paige confronts her mother and the answer given – that is one of the most touching scenes and affirms Lange as a great actress). I also like that the ending is open, yet optimistic.

Lady Stuff


Lady Stuff: Secrets to Being a Woman by Loryn Brantz is a brightly coloured, adorable comics kind of book the finds  humour in the awkwardness of simply existing. There are five different sections:

Grooming and Habitat Maintenance – eg. It is important to look your “best” in any light;

Life Ambitions – egs. Stop and see the beauty in everything & Don’t overthink things;

Mating Habits – eg. For a  healthier relationship, take turns with chores.

Self-care – egs. Always get a good night’s sleep; It’s okay to wrap yourself in a blanket and feel hopeless today. There will be a tomorrow; Take a moment to appreciate life’s little successes;

Social Conduct – egs. Respect your elders & Making new friends can be hard.

All are well-illustrated and, not just because I cannot draw for peanuts, I find the art cute and funny. I actually burst out laughing upon seeing some of them! It’s a nice change from all the thick, wordy novels I’ve been reading. (But I still find reading a wordy novel more satisfying.)



Despite my aversion for anything scientific, I was drawn to Chemistry by Weike Wang because I’m always curious about a Chinese writing in English and I also hope that, as Wang is a PhD holder in Chemistry and that the book won awards, the book would be something more than just science, perhaps containing metaphorical themes.

The novel is about a young female scientist in the third year of her graduate study who is tormented by her failed research and reminded of her experiences with her peers, her advisor and her Chinese parents who have always expected excellence from her throughout her life.

Despite the numerous accolade this book has garnered, and the number of raving reviews included here, I must say I’m not duly impressed; instead, I’m really disappointed. And this has nothing to do with science. I do not like the choppy style of writing. I’m confounded as to why Wang uses the present tense when the context is obviously in the past. The book does not come across like a story, but like a monologue, and a disjointed one at that. I didn’t like the protagonist, who seems to understand very little about herself and the people and the world around her.

Maybe someone who is pursuing a PhD in Chemistry could relate better and appreciate the voice of a protagonist (a PhD student in Chemistry). In fact, the only interesting thing for me is the little titbits of amusing things about science scattered throughout the book.

Shelter from the Storm



Shelter from the Storm is a novella by Lori Foster. Since I’ve enjoyed a number of her novels, I decided to borrow the anthology of six original stories in The Promise of Love, just to read this.

Everyone has secrets; Sabrina Downy works with abused children but she’s got harsh memories to deal with – abuse, death, displaced in the system. She utilised her unique ability and empathy for others in need. Roy Pilar’s parents (neighbours to the Downys) had gotten custody of Sabrina when she was 15 and Roy 19; and the entire family had opened their arms to her, and she would for ever be in their debt. Roy, now a vet, is director and founder of a nonprofit organisation that championed animal rights. Because of the vocation they’d each chosen, they would for ever be reminded of human cruelty.

I thought this has the potential of being turned into a full novel, what with Sabrina’s fear of storms and always running to Roy for reassurance and how supportive he is and how they grow to become romantic partners as adults many years later. Their feelings and their relationship could have been further explored, though this short story is sweet.