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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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I'm tempted to give this gem of a book five stars because it was literally the ONLY book of its kind that could be found when I needed it. Parenting a transgender teenager is, in so many ways, an isolating task and in those first few weeks, I clutched this slim yellow volume, feeling like Evelyn was my only friend. 

It was the third week after Ashlie's revelation when I accompanied her to the only transgender support group in our county. There, the woman who was facilitating the group pressed Evelyn's little book into my hands. I read the whole thing that same night.

And again, the next night. Something about her story made me feel like "YES WE CAN!" while everything else in my life was screaming "HOWTHEHELLAREWEGOINGTODOTHIS?!" I write as much as I do and as publicly as I do about our experiences for this precise reason, to add my voice to the emerging and loosely-connected community of families navigating the dangerous and often lonely waters of raising gender non-conforming offspring.

What the book perhaps lacks in depth, it makes up for in warmth, love and cheerleading. While Evelyn managed everything better than I was at that moment and her daughter was more even-keel and cooperative than mine was, I didn't begrudge her the smoother sailing, but rather held out hope that we'd get there soon enough. 

Just Evelyn remains one of my quiet heroines, the first trans-parent friend I had, even if the friendship was an imaginary one and "Mom I Need To Be A Girl" is a little yellow ray of sunshine in permanent residence on my shelf.

“Bumbling Into Body Hair” (A Review)

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Everett Maroon is a nice, geeky and sometimes-clumsy guy with body issues. Ok, so maybe those issues are more complex than most, but for the readers of “Bumbling Into Body Hair” that works in our favor. Maroon's memoir traces his occasionally fumbling expedition through the landscape of gender awareness and transition with wit, insight and the deft touch of a talented writer.

It is not a transgender story so much as a human story, one about embracing change, forging ahead when we're terrified, finding self-respect along the way and surrounding ourselves with people who give us the space and support to be who we are.

Having read a handful of transition-related memoirs, “Bumbling …” stands out as the most charming and accessible of the lot. To infuse such a weighty subject with this kind of poignancy and humor is a delicate task, which he manages to make seem effortless. (Battling a roll of plastic wrap, not so much.)

Maroon touches on the variety of isms he encounters as perceptions around him change but he does not labor over it. He puts his activism into practice rather than preaching it. Whether it's learning the secrets of the corporate men's room, chatting up strangers in public places like a real-life PSA or navigating the mad maze of the healthcare system, he does so with humanity and aplomb.

Not only would I recommend this book for people in the trans community, but I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a great story with a clear and unique voice, a hero you can't help but fall a little bit in love with and a heroine who clearly deserves the adoration of the masses. 

The journey of becoming who we've always been is invariably touched with sadness and yet, it is one of hope. In defining ourselves rather than letting other people define us, we come closer to the secret to joy and there is no question that Everett Maroon has achieved that. Joining him on this voyage through the laughter and tears is a rare treat. 

 

(You canpick up a copy of "Bumbling Into Body Hair" at Amazon.com and also check out Everett at Trans/plant/portation or follow him on Twitter @EverettMaroon)