At last I’ve got to the first book in my 20 Books of Summer 2021 pile – after having started two books right at the end of May that I had to finish and review (here and here) first. Oops! But I got to it in the end and actually raced through it, probably because I had nothing to do apart from some gardening on Saturday so I could sit and finish a big chunk of it. I have started “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”, too, so feel I am making some progress. Hooray!

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having a good start to their pile, too!

Jonathan van Ness – “Over the Top: My Story”

(07 April 2020)

Learning to hold a safe space for people to share with me while maintaining my well-being is a delicate dance. (p. 5)

Van Ness is one of the “Queer Eye” Fab Five (I’ve already read the memoirs by Tan France and Karamo Brown, Antoni’s is mainly a cook book and Bobby hasn’t done one!) and he offers a memoir that’s perhaps a little deeper and more troubled than the others (though Karamo also has his moments, I recall). Opening with a description of what it was like to be suddenly famous, and characteristically kindly pulling a hyperventilating fan back onto the pavement before styling a photo shoot with her, JVN is soon expressing his fear that, as someone with a big personality who likes to share his opinions on politics and society as well as hair straightening and beard care, “if you knew all of me, you wouldn’t love me anymore”.

He then proceeds to share all of him, from the young boy who practised endless skating and gymnastics routines alone at home, whose dad (who he graciously says has grown and learned a lot) got stressed when he tried on ball gowns, who was abused by an older boy and had to suffer through the ramifications of this in a small town, to the teenager who tried to get on the cheerleading team as the first male cheerleader, who was bullied and who ended up dropping out of university and taking on sex work to survive, to a nascent then successful hairdresser who had to escape some toxic environments.

Van Ness addresses the issue I’ve seen in relation to Black lives as well as LGBTQI+ lives that their description involves a lot of pain – he states that “Joy and pain often occur all together” so it’s not possible to separate them out. He does have a lot of joy and good relationships and hilarious moments (when his parents tell him they’re getting a a divorce and he immediately demands his mum’s ring springs to mind), as well as pain and bad ones, so it’s in general a positive book. He also shares a lot about self-care and being kind to yourself and others which is important and positive for everyone: in fact, he says,

I hope sharing my story encourages people to be more aware and compassionate on issues that may not directly affect them and spread that compassion to more people who need it. (p. 256)

He talks about traditional/toxic masculinity and its limitations – “Being strong and masculine has everything to do with having the courage and audacity to be different” (p. 108) as well as the limitations his mum was pushed into by her gender. And I loved the mention of original “Queer Eye” and how he told in his audition that it gave him a way to talk about his sexuality with his family. And of course at the end he hopes that we still do love him after he’s shared all that he’s shared (I think we do).

It’s all either written directly by JVN in his own words or perhaps dictated and transcribed (he’s not clear on the process and doesn’t talk about a co-writer but thanks people at his publisher), it very much reads in his own voice, and while I think I would have enjoyed the audio book, too, I know from listening to his podcast that he talks at top speed! Slang phrases and iconic phrases abound and it’s a quirky read from that perspective. There’s a great resource list at the back of the book that is targeting to UK, Australia and NZ and Indian organisations, presumably for the UK market.

This was number 1 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!

The lovely blogger Bookish Beck has a Book Serendipity series she runs from time to time (the latest one is here) where she shares coincidences from books she is reading at the same time or close to one another. I’ve had a couple of these while I’ve been reading recently, including in this book, so here’s my little contribution:

  • In this book and Anne Tyler’s “Breathing Lessons” (being reviewed next), a mother reads a leaflet / sees an Oprah segment on drug use in teens and extrapolates the worst in relation to her child.
  • “Mrs Lorimer’s Quiet Summer” and “Breathing Lessons” both contain a character called Rona.