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Within a week, I read two narrative non-fiction books that were deeply connected in theme and evoked a powerful emotional response. Both Man Alive and The Other Wes Moore examine the journey to manhood; what it means and how it is achieved.
For the two Wes Moores, whose stories are traced in The Other Wes Moore, this passage was fraught with peril, poverty and the absence of fathers. Growing up in West Baltimore and The Bronx, the boys had similar struggles and yet their lives diverged greatly, one going on to become a Rhodes scholar, Army officer and accomplished writer/speaker, while the other is serving a life sentence for a heist in which an off-duty police officer was killed.

Do you think that we’re products of our environments? I think so, or maybe products of our expectations. Others’ expectations of us or our expectations … I realize how difficult it is to separate the two. The expectations that others place on us help us form our expectations of ourselves.

A series of letters and visits between the two are the basis of Moore’s analysis as he examines what manhood meant to each of the boys and how they faced the approaching need for responsibility – caring for family, trying to better themselves and their lives, sometimes achieving, sometimes failing.


Thomas Page McBee’s
path to manhood, chronicled in Man Alive is likewise fraught with obstacles. As a female-bodied man bearing the scars of family trauma and reeling in the fresh vulnerability of surviving a mugging, McBee’s experience is unique and his insight, broadly relevant.

It seemed possible to me, in the dry heat of that courtroom, that heaven was a metaphor for the grace of perspective you get when you die.

Through intertwined narratives of past and present, McBee explores both the perception of and his internalized messages about what it means to be a man. In a story that could be full of heroes and villains, we find instead nuance and complexity. McBee comes to terms with the humanity of his abusive father and mugger, freeing him to embrace manhood on his own terms.

I highly recommend both books and hope you will read more about Thomas Page McBee and Wes Moore.

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Everly_posterI know. it’s early. I probably should have written SEASON, instead of YEAR, but I’m still riding out the tail end of the adrenaline rush I got from Joe Lynch’s wham-bam action flick staring the ever-awesome Salma Hayek. It’s possible I’m harboring an adrenal-bias.

And perhaps you’ll argue that I’m stretching the definition of Chick Flick here. Wikipedia defines the term Chick Flick as pertaining to “films that are heavy with emotion or contain themes that are relationship-based” and Everly is all of those things, while also being funny, gory and one hell of a thrill ride.

Salma Hayek’s Everly has got mother problems, daughter problems and ohmygod you wouldn’t believe the backstabbing bitches she works with. To top it all off she’s got a slave-driving boss who is so demanding that Everly hasn’t had a day off in years. What good are to-die-for shoes if you never get outside in them?

With notable support from Akie Kotabe, Laura Cepeda and Hiroyuki Watanabe, Salma Hayak carries the film effortlessly and it is only when the angelic Aisha Ayamah (as Everly’s daughter Maisey) is on screen, that you can tear your eyes off of her.

The script, co-written with Yale Hannon, is smart, funny and lean in all the right places. Unsurprisingly for fans of Joe Lynch’s previous films as well as The Movie Crypt and Holliston, there’s a horror sensibility at work here, and yet there is also restraint. Near the end, a exquisite scene with Hayek and Aisha Ayamah busts out of any genre mold you try to stuff Everly into. This breathless moment is indicative of that balance. Yes, Lynch grew up in the church of Tarantino but here he has succeeded in carving out his own space and it’s kind of fantastic.

Premiering at Fantastic Fest last September, Everly was released on iTunes and VOD January 23rd in advance of its February 27th theatrical release. In general, the trend of flip-flopping release dates has confused me, until now.

Who’s going to head to the theater to see Everly when they can watch it at home? This girl, and her shoot-em-up-lovin’ sister and every woman we know who’s been done wrong by a bad bad man and will take great pleasure in the vicarious revenge. See, I told you it was a chick flick.

(Jules Vilmur is a former film writer for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Occasionally she comes across movies that make her wish she still had that column. This is one of those.)

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lifes-that-wayIntensely personal stories often illuminate universal truths. Writer and actor Jim Beaver’s memoir is one of those. In October 2003, his wife Cecily was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. In an effort to keep loved ones abreast of the situation, Jim began sending a nightly e-mail to 125 friends and family members. These messages, eventually reaching an audience of nearly 4,000 and spanning a year, are the basis of “Life’s That Way”.

Jim writes: “I’ve attempted to flood the path with light where I could, and where I could not I’ve wanted at least to hold up a candle so that others coming this way might not stumble too painfully.” And indeed he has. The first 1/3 of the book traces the course of Cecily’s illness, painting her so vividly that her death in early March is a punch in the gut, even to the reader who met her a mere 125 pages earlier.

The remaining 2/3 of “Life’s That Way” deals with the aftermath in a way that is immediate and intimate. Beaver continues the nightly e-mails, processing his experiences, sharing the struggle of raising a young daughter alone and mourning his beloved wife. “I will bear this grief. I will endure it. I will reach a point where it doesn’t kick me down an abyss whenever I turn my back on it.”

As someone who still deals with the abyss of grief on a daily basis, I found this beautiful book wrenching and yet somehow hopeful as Jim Beaver weaves wisdom and humor into his story and their lives. I recommend it highly, not only to those who have faced such grief but to anyone who someday might. As Beaver so pointedly writes: “Some kind of Providence keeps us blind to the intensity of suffering so as to keep us sane, until that day when the suffering is our own or that of someone we love beyond imagining.”

But taking this journey with Jim, Cecily and their daughter Maddie has made me more acutely aware of the necessity for life beyond the grief. 

[You can find “Life’s That Way” now on Amazon or GoodReads.]

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Stuck“A father for six years, a mother for ten and for a time in between, neither, or both … a parental version of the schnoodle or the cockapoo…” Jennifer Finney Boylan’s parenting credentials are unusual to say the least, and her newest book Stuck In The Middle With You; A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders is extraordinary.

The book explores Boylan’s experiences as both father and mother to her two sons and as daughter and son to her own parents. Within that framework, she examines parental roles on a wider scale. The naked adoration and accompanying holy terror shared by most parents is evident and immediately relatable.

The flow of the book is broken up by three sections of conversations with other writers (Richard Russo, Ann Beattie and Agustin Burroughs among others) and a handful of other parents with extrordinary stories to tell. I expected this format to be jarring but found it quite the opposite as she weaves these conversations into her own narrative with a deft hand and they inform the bigger picture rather than detract from it.

I’ve read all three of Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoirs. My mother-in-law gave me a copy of I’m Looking Through You; Growing Up Haunted shortly after Ashlie died and we both read on through She’s Not There; A Life In Two Genders. Boylan’s quirkiness and honesty coupled with her ability to paint a picture so clearly that you can smell the coffee and taste the waffles solidified her as one of my literary heroes. That she, like my daughter and a number of dear friends, is transgender, is incidental.

Stuck In The Middle With You builds upon the foundation of Boylan’s earlier books, but doesn’t depend on them for context. Those who have read her previous memoirs will enjoy catching up, while those who are reading her for the first time may well be motivated to delve into the backstory.

I expected this to be one of those books I’d recommend to a small circle of friends – specifically my trans friends who are, or hope to be parents. As it turns out, Stuck In The Middle With You is one of those books that I’d recommend to every parent I know.

Throughout the book and explicitly in the afterward (a conversation with Anna Quindlen, Jennifer and Deedie Finney Boylan) the question arises whether Jenny’s personal transformation has effected her children negatively. In the deepest part of every parent’s heart, a similar question burns – How will my children survive my own failings or complications?

For me it is a question which will remain unanswered – unanswerable. Would my daughter have had a penchant for pharmaceutics if I didn’t drink so much? Would she still be alive if I’d paid more attention and guessed her true gender sooner? Does my son have a chance in hell of surviving this family and going on to thrive in the outside world?

Every parent has some fear they keep under wraps – that this thing or that thing in their lives will negatively affect their children. It’s one of those things we don’t talk about and yet Jennifer Finney Boylan dares to openly address hers, allowing us to do the same. She is not a parent with all the answers but she’s asking the right questions and that’s half the battle. This may well be her most intimate book and I recommend it with all my motherly heart.

[Buy it HERE and check out Jenny Boylan HERE.]

 

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Last week, I was scouring the library for resource books on Memoir. I didn't come up with much beyond the handful I'd already dug through, but later the same night, while re-shelving my own books in our new office, I tripped over Tristine Rainer's “Your Life as Story; Discovering the New Autobiography and Writing Memoir as Literature”.

It's one of the books I bought while researching my thesis on Therapeutic Writing a decade ago and the spine is familiar as any other on my shelf, but I haven't cracked it since September of 2002. I picked up the book, flipped through it and laughed. If I'd found it in the library, I'd have declared it “Exactly what I was looking for!” and clutched it to my chest while running for the check-out line. Instead, it was waiting casually to be remembered and rescued from deep shelves five feet from where I sleep.

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