Author: Will Betke-Brunswick
Publish Date: November 15, 2022
Publisher: Tin House
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1953534453
Author website: https://willbetkebrunswick.com/about
Book Review by Kevin Wolf
“I love you more when you fail, because that’s when you need love more, [page 132]” Will’s mom, Elizabeth or ‘Mumin,’ tells them (Will’s pronoun) at age 15 at junior varsity hockey. A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings—in blue and orange—is Will Betke-Brunswick’s memoir. Pros and Cons provides stories back and forth in time from childhood to early (college) adulthood when their mother’s aggressive colon cancer was treated. Chapter breaks occur from an opening song, then delineated by months from March through December in Mumin’s last year from diagnosis to shortly beyond her funeral. Though the medical aspects have little depth, the short stories are touching, comforting, funny, and protective; all the more so with the non-family characters anthropomorphized as birds and the immediate family as penguins. Mumin is very supportive of Will as they grow up and come out; and Will reciprocates with this memoir as part of Mumin’s legacy. I recommend Pros and Cons for its soft-spoken, emotional tugs, and brief snippets of life, love and loss.
In April, back in time for Will at age 9; we see Will swimming and playing in the water with their mom; Piano lessons; mom throwing fairly difficult math problems at them. Age 11, Will asks Mumin about fractions and rather than answer Mumin brings out Unifix cubes to provide visuals to help Will solve fraction problem themself. There’s two pages of eleven characters’ fun nicknames with images (I’m speculating on which name goes with each immediate family member based on the drawings); for Will’s Sister there’s Lena Lou or Magookis, for Will there’s Dooger or Tooj or Tooj McGrooj McGroy or Peach, for Dad there’s RPB 8 or Coach or PJ, and for Mom: Mamma Llamma or Muminmamman or Magookis. Marci and Barry (Kiwi birds, I believe, and native of New Zealand) were Mumin’s and Dad’s best friends; later Will develops a pros and cons list (title source) for spending a semester abroad in New Zealand.
Will provides early acknowledgment of questioning their sexual orientation. Their mom was very supportive (e.g., writing a note on picture day so they, age 9, could keep their hat on). Though not fully cognizant of their desire, they asked at age 10, “Can I be a boy?” with Mumin’s response, “No, the world needs more women engineers .” Dad, who was a doctor, asks Will is “…there anything you want to say to your mom … I just don’t want you to have regrets.” They approach Mom, “I think dad wants me to tell you I’m a boy. … But I’m not, I’m genderqueer.’ And she says “I know. Maybe you should read the Wikipedia page on genderqueer out loud to him [your dad] .” Will’s mom makes Will a crossword puzzle (not sure if clues were included) with some answers being: “a gender,” “fluid,” and “androgyne.” Dad is questioning, when he says “I had patients who regretted their sex change operations .” I use “they” throughout this review because no pronouns are used for Will, except their current one on the back cover.
Some medical aspects are mentioned around Elizabeth’s diagnosis and treatments. In March, Dad gets a call and the only words Dooger and the reader hear are: “innumerable tumors … colon cancer … chemo might give her time … [Dooger doesn’t want the prognosis] …stage IV. ” In May, Elizabeth used a portable chemo pump (likely for fluorouracil, according to MD Anderson) while getting a quite short haircut. Elizabeth gets a blood clot and is hospitalized. And later ginger is supposed to reduce nausea but makes it worse for Will’s mom. Marijuana helps bring back her appetite. Mumin gives virtual hugs, not due to the pandemic, but because of Mumin’s weakened immune system.
There are pop culture references to Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, Will and Mumin’s song “I Knew I Loved You” by Savage Garden (Will would call their mom whenever he heard it), and the Lord of the Rings’ movie. At times we see tears welling in Will’s and Dad’s eyes. Pros and Cons sometimes uses metaphors such as jigsaw puzzle pieces (for family friends to figure out how their helping might fit in); and funny moments (e.g., Mumin says “Maybe Vickie and I should race each other ” when both are using walkers).
The work becomes more poignant as Mumin spends time distributing her possessions. Will finds his parents tearfully streaming William & Mary (2003-5 TV Series; “We exist at the opposite ends of life ” as undertaker and midwife, respectively. There’s a final family vacation, and we watch Dad help Mumin down to a lake pier to sit on a bench and share the solitude. Pros and Cons gently leads the reader to Mumin’s death with her family there for her and after ….