Maximum Shelf author interview: Jennifer Finney Boylan

Following Monday’s review of Good Boy, here’s Jennifer Boylan: We’re Here to Love Each Other.


Novelist, memoirist and short story writer Jennifer Finney Boylan is also a nationally known advocate for human rights. She is the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University, and her column “Men and Women” appears on the op/ed page of the New York Times. Her 2003 memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, was the first bestselling work by a transgender American. From 2011 to 2018 she served on the board of directors of GLAAD and also provided counsel for the TV series Transparent and I Am Cait. She lives in New York City and in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, with her wife, Deedie. They have a son, Sean, and a daughter, Zai. Boylan’s memoir Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs, will be published by Celadon Books on April 21, 2020.

photo: Dan Haar

What inspired this book?

I think a lot of people, when they’re a little older, look back at their lives and wonder, how did I get here? It can be a challenge to connect who you’ve become with who you’ve been, for a transgender person like me. And yet it’s not a dilemma that’s unique to transgender people. I think we all seek to connect our pasts and our presents. When I look back, one of the constants in my life would be the dogs that I’ve had. And each of those dogs represents a particular phase of my life. There’s the dog I had in boyhood, there’s the dog I had when I was a nascent hippie, when I was a college boy, and then a young hipster, and a boyfriend and a husband and a father… it occurred to me it would be an interesting way to connect present to past, to talk about the dogs who were a constant over a very complex life.

How was writing Good Boy different from writing She’s Not There, more than 15 years ago?

With She’s Not There, it was all very new to me. Whereas at this point in my life, I’ve lived a third of my life as a woman, almost 20 years. She’s Not There is very much a book about transition. Good Boy in some ways is a book about dogs, but also about masculinity. About boyhood and manhood. It strikes me that a woman in late middle age who had a boyhood has a unique insight on what that experience was like. I have to be careful with this metaphor, because I don’t want to be insensitive, but I sometimes think that being a transgender person has something in common with immigration. I wasn’t born here in the land of women, but I do have my green card. I look back on boyhood and masculinity in the kind of way that my great-grandfather looked back on Ireland: a place remembered well but also a place you’re glad to have escaped from.

I’m able now to celebrate some of the joys of that life. It was a life I was delighted to escape, and I feel so lucky to have landed where I am. She’s Not There was a book of trouble–I was trying to solve a lot of problems over the course of my life with that book. I think I’m able to take a more generous look at masculinity, now that it’s so far in the past.

There is both pain and humor in your story. How do you balance those elements in storytelling?

I’ve always thought those two things come from the same well. Some of my favorite writing is the kind where you’re laughing one minute and in another you’re overwhelmed by a sense of sadness. American humor is funny–we think of humor as the lesser art form compared to tragedy. When was the last time that the winner of the Best Picture Oscar was a comedy? Was it Annie Hall, in ’76, ’77? The humor of fart jokes and frat boys is one thing, but the humor that comes from a life of trouble and absurdity is a much deeper form. I think that kind of writing and the literature of sadness comes from a very similar place.

It seems you and your family have sorted out the rules about sharing personal information. How do you negotiate that?

Well, I don’t know if we have it figured out. There are times when I just feel very sorry for them all, being stuck with me. One of the things that you learn in this book is that my older child came out as transgender a couple years ago, and that completely floored me. That’s not a story in which I come off very well, quite frankly. There are ways in which my own initial response to my child coming out as trans was not as generous as was my Republican evangelical Christian mother’s response to my coming out as trans 20 years before.

In the past I’ve written a lot about my children, and I’m sorry to say I think sometimes I’ve used the stories of their success in the world as kind of a way of proving to people that I am not that bad a person after all. And perhaps, in previous works, I might have waved that flag a little too vigorously. I did have my older child read the book. I had my wife read the book, to make sure everybody was okay with everything. But you still worry. I hope in the end that the people that I love and that love me have some respect for what I’m trying to do as a storyteller, and trust that what I’m doing essentially is done with love. My mother used to say, “It’s just as easy to tell nice stories. Why don’t you tell some nice stories instead?” I think if it were just as easy to tell nice stories I probably would. But the drive wheel of story is conflict. A true story that has conflict in it is going to be about people who at least at times are at loggerheads. You hope in the end that you show how people come to an understanding of themselves and each other, but it’s often a qualified resolution, and not everything being tied up neatly with a bow. There are some things that never get resolved.

Does this book have a moral or a lesson?

I think we all know that if we’re here for any reason at all, it’s to love one another. And yet it turns out that loving each other is not easy, and a lot of the time it’s something that we’re not good at. For men in particular, expressing love can be really difficult. For women, too, but my memory of masculinity is that a lot of serious things, and love not least, had to be expressed ironically or through understatement or through these long pregnant silences. And what dogs do is give us a way to express the love that’s in our hearts in a way that we don’t have to feel ashamed of. You can see the most serious, somber person in the world, and then they get a dog in their arms and suddenly they’re blubbering all over the place and kissing Bingo on the head. If there’s a message, it’s that we all should share the love that’s in our hearts, and if you find that difficult, get a dog.

A lot of times in this book, you’ll see a moment where I’m really messed up. My father is dying upstairs, or I’m out in the woods trying to figure out how am I ever going to get through transition, or I’m wondering how am I going to be a good parent to my daughter. And at those moments, the dogs are there. Lucy and Ranger and Brown. And they put their heads in your lap and you understand that you’re not alone. The message that they have for us is not that complex. Most dogs are not deep thinkers (unlike cats–cats are philosophers). Most dogs kind of know one thing. And that is that we’re here to love each other, and also maybe that it’s always good to have a snack.


This interview originally ran on January 22, 2020 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on January 22, 2020.


Jennifer Finney Boylan tells her life story with both sweetness and fierceness in Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs. A coming-of-age story, a tale of finding and owning of self, and an elegy to a series of delightful and frustrating mutts, this is an occasionally heartbreaking but ultimately feel-good memoir about life and love.

Boylan’s 2003 memoir, She’s Not There, about her trans experience, was the first bestselling book by a transgender American author. Good Boy differs in several particulars: for one, there are dogs. “This is a book about dogs: the love we have for them, and the way that love helps us understand the people we have been.” It follows the path of Boylan’s life, from a confused and troubled boyhood through various teen and young adult phases, to dating and marriage, and finally to the decision to transition and the recent happy years as wife and mother to two young adults. Through these years and epochs, seven dogs in particular helped Boylan mark time and observe change, and learn to love.

First came Playboy, “a resentful hoodlum who loved no one except my father.” He chases and attacks motorcycles and is happy to raise a leg or squat indoors. “My father thought this was kind of funny, but then he was never the person who had to clean it up.” (That person was Boylan’s mother, and she would continue the unenviable task of cleaning up for several dog lifetimes to come.)

Then there was Penny, aka Sausage. What eventually turned out to be a thyroid problem caused this Dalmatian puppy to grow enormously fat, but the young Boylan (at this point known as Jimmy) carries her around “like an unusually heavy rag doll.” Boylan loves her, despite the dog’s indifference. “I figured, if I kept being sweet to Penny all the time, eventually her heart would open, and she would love me as I loved her. No one told me this is never how it works.”

Matt the Mutt humps everything and everyone, human and non, and knocks people down as they enter the house. Despite being neutered, Matt has lots of sex with Sausage, while James–now in college–mostly avoids it, even though he has opportunities with female classmates.

Next comes Brown, whose perfectly plain (if descriptive) name the Boylans hoped would match a personality boringly normal and sane, as none of their dogs had been to date. But all Brown wants to do is eat her own paws, and so she must spend her days in the Cone of Shame, meant to protect her from herself. “Was Brown not so unlike me, driven to the ends of the earth simply because she could not quite do the thing that she was destined to do?”

Alongside the lives of these dogs, young Boylan wrestles with deeply hidden anxieties–about how well he belongs in “his” body, in an all-boys school, in the world he’s been assigned. James’s mother is a martyr to dog poop, and his father battles cancer. On his deathbed, Boylan Sr. tells his son, “Be the man.” That, of course, is the task James most struggles with.

Boylan describes herself as a gender immigrant, as having a life divided into more or less equal thirds: boyhood, manhood, womanhood. (Boylan makes clear that while some trans people would not use such terms, she does see the earlier parts of her life as belonging to a person others perceived as a boy and, later, a man.) Good Boy is in part a contemplation of these themes: What does it mean to be a man? Is it tied to one’s ability to change the oil in the car, build things, woo women?

In adulthood, Boylan meets the woman she will marry, and they receive from their best man and childhood friend a dog that he can no longer care for. Alex is Boylan’s “guardian angel” and a “unique scholar,” apparently the first well-behaved dog to belong to a Boylan, but one who never gets over the loss of his first owner.

Happily married James adopts a “golden retriever” puppy that turns out to be anything but. This vaguely yellow mutt, Lucy, serves as witness to the beginnings of Boylan’s transition, finding herself and becoming Jenny. Initially distressed by the sight of her owner in dress, heels and wig, Lucy eventually counsels Jenny (in imagined dialogue) that, rather than losing everything, “Some things you will keep.”

Finally, Ranger is the dog of Boylan’s happy, settled life, a loyal black lab with a troublesome inability to avoid porcupines. In these later years, the author reflects on how well her conservative mother had handled her coming out, and Boylan herself must consider how to be the best mother she can be when one of her own children has news to share. Happily, well-adjusted Ranger is there to counsel the whole family as Boylan’s children grow up.

The mature woman who has penned Good Boy has much to reflect upon and lessons to share, many of them couched in the lives of good (and troubled) dogs. “There’d been this puppy I’d loved when I was eleven, but in time I’d turned my back on her, thrown my dog out of bed because her gelatinous sadness was a merciless chain tying me to the person I no longer wished to be.” Boylan’s dogs have taught her about love, and how its unconditional nature flows between humans and dogs. Good Boy is a story, first and foremost, about love, its many forms and the many directions in which we point it and receive it, and about how certain details, like gender, really matter very little in the end. If you have a family–and a dog–that love you, that’s the vital thing.


Rating: 6 cello suites.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Jennifer Boylan.

White Feathers: The Nesting Lives of Tree Swallows by Bernd Heinrich

A seasoned naturalist turns his thorough gaze upon a much-studied bird and makes fresh observations in this quietly lovely account.

Bernd Heinrich (Mind of the Raven, Life Everlasting) is a celebrated naturalist and birdwatcher. In White Feathers: The Nesting Lives of Tree Swallows, he turns his attention to a little-understood feature of a much-studied species. Tree swallows are considered a “model” bird for research, but Heinrich finds nothing in the literature to explain the phenomenon that intrigues him: Why does the pair nesting outside his door line its nest with white feathers–the hardest kind to find in the remote Maine woods?

Over eight summers, Heinrich observes the tree swallows that come to nest outside his cabin, where he installs nest boxes for their use. He is up by dawn each morning in season, and often earlier, at three and four a.m., to track them in the dark by sound. He takes meticulous notes on many dozens of matings, landings and takeoffs, calls and nest visits. He daubs red paint on one female to keep her identity straight, and designs numerous small-scale experiments, for example offering black and white feathers on both black and white tarps and on the plain ground, to test for color preference versus simple contrast against background. Dozens of other bird species are mentioned along the way, but in these pages, Heinrich’s attention is singularly tied to a handful of individual tree swallows: blue-green males and their more drab female companions, and the quickly fledged young they rear in the clearing outside Heinrich’s cabin.

White Feathers is an unusual book, in that its focus is so complete. Filled with extremely detailed notes, it will be of greatest interest to other tree swallow enthusiasts. But Heinrich’s occasional, lovely comment on the art of observation will charm anyone concerned with paying close attention. “My patience was tested by the now constant assault of black flies, which started soon after sunrise. But I could not stop. Many dots are needed before you can connect them into a picture of what it is like to be a tree swallow”; Heinrich is obviously passionately driven to see that picture. “Expecting constantly scintillating observations is the best guarantee of tedium. To be successful as a naturalist requires the mindset of a beggar, eager and thankful for every crumb of information.”

Intimately involved with the tree swallows, Heinrich nonetheless does not anthropomorphize, but explains what he sees by way of evolution and other natural forces. In the end, he offers theories as to the titular question of white feathers, but he illuminates many other nuances of tree swallow life as well along the way. The joy of White Feathers is in its careful concentration, its patience and attention to detail and in the obvious joy its author takes in the nesting lives of an unassuming bird.


This review originally ran in the January 17, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 spotted eggs.

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch

Dark stories about the disregarded misfits of the world force readers to look at “the in-between of things” and see beauty there, too.


Lidia Yuknavitch (The Book of Joan; The Chronology of Water) evokes a wide range of strong and subtle emotions with Verge: Stories, a collection dealing with “the spaces between things.” These stories are shocking, stark, pulsing; their power lies in their realism, even when the tone turns dreamy and approaches magical realism. Yuknavitch’s clear voice, with its unflinching demand that her readers recognize pain as well as beauty, is as precise and distinctive as ever.

“Verge” as a noun means an edge or border; as a verb, to approach (something) closely; be close or similar to. Here, Yuknavitch pushes readers to approach closely the uncomfortable edge of many subjects they may be accustomed to avoiding. Addicts, sex workers, traumatized children and adults, queer people, immigrants and other misfits are centered in narratives that some people might like to look away from, but shouldn’t, and in Yuknavitch’s compelling and often oddly lyric telling, readers can’t. She writes about the bright points in a dark world, and while the stories in Verge indeed lean decidedly toward the dark, those memorable points of light define them.

The earthshaking opening story, “The Pull,” features a swimmer whose “shoulders ache from not swimming” in wartime, one of two sisters “twinning themselves alive.” It feels as if set in a world far from the average everyday–until the final, heart-dropping line. Verge most frequently features female characters, but some male, including a couple of tender stories starring gay men. There are traumas–violent, sexual, emotional–and revenge, as well as quiet recoveries and acts of grace and mercy.

Other stories deal with children employed as black-market organ runners; men working at a fish processing plant in Seattle; a man seeking recovery both physical and psychological in an eye-opening cross-country drive. In “Shooting,” a woman’s want feels “like a mouth salivating… like the weight of an arm. Like the next sentence.” In “Street Walker,” a woman makes a telling slip in confusing one word for another. In “The Eleventh Commandment,” a strange girl protects an awkward, bullied boy using the power of story. In “Cosmos,” a janitor at a planetarium collects the detritus left behind by teenagers, building his own model world, until he finds himself perhaps overinvolved in his own work. In the longest story, “Cusp,” a young woman wishing to connect with her brother reaches out to the men in a newly constructed prison. In “Second Language,” “those bought-and-sold Eastern European girls are learning [something] besides English: They are learning to gut themselves open so that others will run.”

Disturbing and essential, these stories emphasize the forgotten, the pushed aside, the marginalized. Yuknavitch’s storytelling is urgent, raw and inspired, and if Verge is a love letter to those on the edge, it is equally important for all of us.


This review originally ran in the January 10, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 elevated tunnels made from cans and paper.

The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg

A keen, thoughtful inquiry into relationships, place and the forces that contributed to a 1980 crime.

In The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia, Emma Copley Eisenberg offers a true crime story as well as a painful look at misogyny and estrangement; a gorgeously rendered memoir of human relations; and a sensitive, perceptive profile of a misunderstood region.

In 1980, two young women were hitchhiking to a Rainbow Gathering (one of a series of events that attracted as many as 20,000 hippies) when they were killed and left in a remote clearing in southeast West Virginia’s Pocahontas County. A third young woman had parted ways with her hitchhiking companions just before they died. Eisenberg’s title points toward her fascination with this character: the one who, apparently by a stroke of luck, lived. Locals told conflicting stories about what had happened. More than a dozen years later, a local man was tried and convicted, then later won his freedom in a new trial. An imprisoned serial killer claimed responsibility, but was considered a less-than-reliable source and was never tried for these crimes.

The Third Rainbow Girl is an incisive, thoroughly researched work of true crime reporting. Eisenberg visits those close to these events–the accused, witnesses to the trial, lawyers, police investigators and local bystanders–and forms her own loose theories, while acknowledging how much will never be known. The book’s mastery, however, is in how much more it accomplishes. “If every woman is a nonconsensual researcher looking into the word ‘misogyny,’ then my most painful and powerful work was done in Pocahontas County. It could have been done in any other place, because misogyny is in the groundwater of every American city and every American town, but for me, it was done here.” Importantly in this region that is oft maligned, Eisenberg lived in Pocahontas County for a time, forging relationships and grappling with her place in the world; she begins to bridge the differences between Appalachian insider and outsider. Part of her work is indeed to study misogyny, the relationships between genders and the responsibilities and challenges of those, like herself, who wish to enter a troubled place and “do good.” This book is as much about gender and political and social relations as it is about a specific crime. In brief sections, it also contains an outstanding account of the historical forces that shape present national attitudes toward Appalachia.

Eisenberg’s gaze is unflinching, whether turned on a traumatized community, an unlikeable but probably innocent man or upon herself and her own tendencies. Her prose is incandescent, precise, descriptive and often lyrical: a medical examiner testifying at trial has “a face so pink it looked slapped” and her first time spent
working in West Virginia at a camp for girls is “dense and crackling.” The narratives of the murders, of the investigations and trials and of the author’s Appalachian life intertwine and comment on one another. The result is a subtle, steadfast examination of the sources of pain and trauma.


This review was written for Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade, but is published for the first time here.


Rating: 9 music nights.

One of the things I appreciated here is that Eisenberg was sensitive to the local perspective and her position as outsider (because even after months or years here, you go easy declaring yourself to be an insider). Unlike Ramp Hollow, this book cites sources from within the community (like Sugar Run!).

The Magical Language of Others by E. J. Koh

Letters from mother to daughter shed glimmering light on reunions, reconciliation, immigration, heritage and familial love.

Poet and translator E.J. Koh grew up in California’s Bay Area, the daughter of Korean immigrants. Her parents moved back to Korea when she was 15, leaving her to live with her angry, taciturn 19-year-old brother. By the time her parents returned to the United States, Koh was off to graduate school in New York City. During those years of separation, a flurry of letters from mother to daughter sketched a yearning over distance.

The Magical Language of Others revolves around these letters, translated from occasionally English-spattered Korean. Koh read them as arrived, but it wasn’t until much later, in their rediscovery, that she came to understand what they offered. In a small box she has kept for years, Koh finds exactly 49 letters: “In Buddhist tradition, forty-nine is the number of days a soul wanders the earth for answers before the afterlife.”

As Koh studies Korean and Japanese, and eventually adds a graduate degree in Korean translation to her graduate poetry studies, she works as well to translate the love, longing and abandonment of generations of women. Her paternal grandmother’s memories of Jeju Island are first idyllic and then filled with trauma from the massacre in 1948. Koh’s privileged but heartbroken maternal grandmother, after several suicide attempts, left her cheating husband in Daejeon and took an apartment in Seoul. She loved it there, but eventually relented and moved back home to a family that begged for her return. “Coming to one home, she had abandoned another.”

Meanwhile, in Koh’s own lifetime, she deals with young adulthood with her antagonistic brother. She makes frequent trips to see their parents in Korea, where she shops and visits the bathhouse with her mother, formally studies languages and informally studies people. “He waved not a hand but a blank page, and I knew it was gestures like this one that meant nothing.” Such luminous prose is evidence of an unusual mind.

This slim book is a memoir–of the years Koh spent quasi-orphaned in California; her visits to Korea; finally sharing a continent and eventually a home with her parents again in adulthood. It is also a study of generations of women before her. Koh considers how people make poetry out of imperfect lives, and how they interpret and generate love. In startling, lyrical, imaginative prose, Koh wrestles with the meanings of devotion and duty, and with the challenges of language and translation. Her final lines are as heartbreakingly beautiful as the entire book deserves. The Magical Language of Others is a masterpiece, a love letter to mothers and daughters everywhere.


This review originally ran in the November 25, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 parentheses.

Unforgettable Portraits by Rosamund Kidman Cox

Lions, tigers and bears–and more–light up the incandescent pages of this collection of stunning wildlife photography.

Unforgettable Portraits is a beautiful, large-format collection of images from several decades of the international Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Each stunning photo–close-ups and dioramas; elephants, leopards, ants and springtails–gets accompanying text explaining the species, the context, the photographer’s equipment and technique, with an emphasis on endangered species and climate change. Readers meet the Atlantic wolfish, the spotted-tailed quoll and the Namib Desert’s welwitschia, and learn that spirit bears have “a mutation of the same gene that gives rise to red hair in humans” and that the photographer must be part wildlife scientist to get these shots, designing blinds and lying in wait for days, weeks and longer.

These 70 stunning images, by more than 50 photographers from more than 20 countries, would make a wondrous gift for any lover of wildlife, strangeness and beauty.


This review originally ran in the November 5, 2019 gift issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.


Rating: 8 whiskers illuminated.
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