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


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


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


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


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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