Dear Mr You by Mary-Louise Parker

I first came across Mary-Louise Parker when she played feisty feminist Amy Gardner in The West Wing. I loved her smart, witty character and the banter she had with sometimes-lover Josh Lyman (even though it was inevitable that he would ultimately end up with Donna Moss). Before I digress on to the wonderful drama that was The West Wing and the fantastic actors and actresses who starred in it, I’ll just say that Amy was one of my favourite characters and I thought that she was played perfectly by Parker. When I noticed that she was releasing an autobiography of sorts, Dear Mr You, I was keen to read it, and the premise of the book intrigued me.

Parker has written an innovative autobiography made up of letters to men of her past, present and future, imagined and real, to describe the highs and lows of her life so far.  Looking at her life in the view of these men and relating how she feels/felt about these men, she relives her fondest and saddest memories. Parker is often cryptic in terms of names of people she writes about or vague when it could be an unknown who falls into a particular category (I’m thinking in particular of “Dear Future Man Who Loves My Daughter”, one of my favourite chapters.) She also writes about men who she has met at a particular time of her life who she may only have met once, but the significance of the memory it provokes is important to her. There is no name-dropping as is common in a lot of autobiographies, just beautifully written stories, considering her deepest fears, happy moments and traumatic events in her life, as well as an exploration of her relationships with her family.

The narrative invokes a multitude of emotions from laughter to sadness. Parker is particularly moving in parts when she discusses her father, her relationship with him, his pride  in her achievements and his own internal battles over the years. She talks with great love about her own children, those she trusts and has her say about those who have let her down. She is self-deprecating, yet exudes a sense of self assurance. There is no sense of arrogance about her at all, which is refreshing in a celebrity autobiography.

Dear Mr You has an unusual format, which works exceptionally well as a structure, and the narrative is really well written. Parker strikes a fine balance of appearing to have the same worries, fears and insecurities as everyone else, whilst acknowledging that she has been privileged in many ways. There is a touch of feistiness in her writing, of absolute independence and individuality, with the confidence to barely acknowledge the business that she works in and is indeed, well-known for. There is a lot to admire in this book and had I not been aware of who Mary-Louise Parker was, I’d have still enjoyed it. I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t hoped for a little The West Wing set gossip, but in all honesty, the book is the better for it. I don’t read a lot of autobiographies because they do often tend to be a narrative full of “look how fabulous I am” anecdotes and bitchy stories about other celebrities. However, this autobiography was an absolute delight to read and I would recommend it wholeheartedly.

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America’s Conduct: Inner City Escort by Larry Davis

Following my review of Rob Lowe’s autobiography, Stories I Only Tell My Friends, I had a tweet from Larry Davis, who suggested I read his book, America’s Conduct: Inner City Escort. When an author takes the time to contact me to suggest I read their book, I will always endeavour to read and review their works as soon as I can.

As a UK citizen, any knowledge I have of American gangs is what I have seen in films and documentaries. This book takes the reader into the heart of American gang culture and explains how the gang members became a part of it in the first place. However, Davis takes this one step further in his book. He outlines the impact that their history has had on the decision-making processes of African-Americans and how he feels that while racial equality is promoted outwardly by the American authorities, this is not actually the case at all and that African-Americans are still facing prejudice by a system that has apparently been amended to abolish slavery and unfair treatment of African-Americans. Indeed, Davis often quotes relevant legislation that was put into place supposedly to make things fair for all American citizens, regardless of colour or creed. As the title of the book suggests, Davis feels that America should be held accountable for their conduct towards African-Americans which has led to many choosing a lifestyle which is ultimately self-destructive.

Whilst this book is largely autobiographical, Davis goes a few generations back to explain his family history and the prejudices that his family had experienced before him to illuminate that the situation hasn’t really improved over the years. This gives the reader a more complete picture of the depth of prejudice displayed by those who felt they were superior to African-Americans. Davis endeavours to explain how he was filled with hatred, largely as a result of his family’s history, and how he completely rejected the system that claimed to treat all men equally whilst demonstrating that this was not the case at all.

Davis writes his life story very well and his frequent quotes from various constitutional amendments further enforces the point that he is trying to make. He makes clear links between his own experiences to those of his family members from years earlier that also reinforces his argument. There seemed to be a tendency to stereotype, but perhaps this was not intentional and that he was presenting his argument with an unspoken assumption that not all white people were prejudiced against African-Americans and not all African American’s who embraced the system for better or worse were in denial and were wrong to do so. I also found it difficult to assimilate the person who was undoubtedly let down by the authorities and the person who speaks of stabbing and beating up people without any evident emotion for the purpose of furthering their standing within their gang. I struggled to see how one situation justified the other, although, at the end of the narrative, Davis acknowledges this to some extent. I also understand that in many cases, it was a case of attacking as the best form of defence.

I can see how Davis was drawn into gang culture. He grew up in the midst of a surrogate family of gang members who provided support to each other no matter what and fought for their beliefs against a corrupt system. To be part of this extended family must have been quite appealing to a boy who lost his beloved father at a young age and who was encouraged to make his own way in the world and not allow himself to be prejudiced against, having witnessed prejudice first-hand. Davis is evidently very intelligent despite his rejection of the education system; his writing style is testament to that. This book is intended to deter other young men from taking the path that he chose to take. He acknowledges the effects that his decisions and actions had on those around him; his family and friends and those who he attacked/maimed as a result of his ambition to represent the East Side Crips at the highest level. Whilst there is no evidence that the system is any less corrupt, Davis wants any potential gang members of the future to understand how it is self-destructive and not worth the potential end result: either being killed or incarcerated.

In consideration of the narrative itself, whilst it is very well written, I did find myself getting a bit lost when trying to keep track with who was who. There are so many elements to the gang structure and so many (often similar) names to attach to the various groups that I found it quite difficult to follow at times. However, as they all played their part in Davis’s story, this was likely a necessary evil to contend with and does not reduce the effectiveness of the narrative.

Overall, Davis makes his argument well, and I can see how anyone in Davis’s position, who felt that the system that was supposed to help him was actually working against him despite its promotion to the contrary, would attach themselves to a collective who can exert control and provide young men with a purpose, a support network and a way to fight back against a corrupt system. East Side Crips provided Davis with something to believe in and with a sense of ambition for the future. There were (and still are) errors on both sides. Crimes should not go unpunished, but without absolute proof that the person in the dock committed the crime, they should not be incarcerated for it either.  I can’t quite get my head around the violence between the rival gangs when ultimately it seems that their “enemy” was the same, i.e. the American justice system and the white Americans who continued to show prejudice against them. I could not offer any properly informed opinion on the subject matter of Davis’s book other than to say that I will never understand why people are treated any differently purely because of race, colour, creed, sexuality etc. I commend Davis for writing a fascinating, eye-opening narrative which has dual purpose: to show that while we may imagine that we are nearer to racial equality, this is not the case, and also to provide any young African-American with ideas of becoming a gang member a description of what the reality of this choice would be. I would recommend this book as an interesting, honest account of life as an African-American gang member who has suffered the injustices of a corrupt system, and who admits his own accountability for the choices he made and asks America to do the same.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe

A few weeks ago, I re-read and reviewed Love Life by Rob Lowe, inspired after I read an extract from the book in an article and reminding me of what a fantastic book it was. I loved reading this book and I really enjoyed reviewing it. So, after a predictably disappointing read  of the new EL James book, Grey, I wanted to read something I knew I would enjoy from start to finish. As it occurred to me that perhaps I should have reviewed Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe before I reviewed Love Life, I thought that I would make things right and guarantee myself a great reading experience.

I was bought this book by my better half for my birthday in June 2012 after leaving very explicit hints about what I wanted as a present ( I added it to his Amazon basket) and I read it in two sessions. I couldn’t put it down. This time, it was three sessions, but only because I couldn’t read it while I was at my day job! Before I read Stories I Only Tell My Friends, my knowledge of Rob Lowe was limited to the films and shows I’d seen and enjoyed. I was absolutely blown away by this book, not least because I got an insight to what a fascinating life he has led so far. Having only been born in 1978, I wasn’t aware of a lot of the events in the book, being more familiar with his career from Wayne’s World onwards, so I had been interested to learn what came before.

Stories I Only Tell My Friends could be described as a real-life bildungsroman of sorts. Lowe describes scenes from his life so far that he regards as turning points and indicators of where his life would lead him. Interestingly, however, he chooses to start his autobiography with a chapter mainly revolving around someone who he considered a hero of his, John Kennedy Junior. Effectively, our first story is Lowe describing his relationship with someone who he admired from afar and was fortunate enough to meet on a couple of occasions and who had a desire to showcase Lowe as the figurehead for the new political drama, The West Wing, against the wishes of everyone else involved. Lowe uses this particular story to great effect – he juxtaposes  John Kennedy Junior’s fame as a direct result of being a dead president’s son, albeit one of, if not the most influential president of the 20th Century, as a pre-cursor to telling tales of how his own parents influenced him over the years. Lowe describes how “[John Kennedy Junior’s] whole world has been shaped by the office, the service to it, and the tragic sacrifice in its name,” and is in awe of his “steadiness in the harsh, relenting spotlight, his quest for personal identity and substance, for going his own way and building a life of his choosing.” As the reader finds out in the coming chapters, this is exactly the process that Lowe goes through himself, when he chases, and achieves his dream of becoming an actor. Show-business isn’t always what it seems and while he learns his craft, he becomes well acquainted with its highlights and pitfalls.

Lowe enlightens the reader on his childhood that, whilst wasn’t necessarily unhappy, was tumultuous at times. He pinpoints key occasions in his early childhood that he feels had a significant effect on his future; a chance question to his mother in a hardware store, an often-absent father following his parents divorce, a move to Los Angeles and a mother who was fighting her own battles with her health and wellbeing that as a young boy, were beyond his understanding.  However, not all the stories he tells are negative. Far from it, in fact. Whilst Lowe relays these stories and his feelings at the time, he always finds the positive aspects of the effect that they had on him and while these events may have profoundly affected his outlook at the time, he shows an infinite determination to make his own way in life and create his own success throughout.

We are given a brief family history prior to Lowe’s birth and he writes of his mother and father with great affection. His tough lawyer father and his English teacher mother have obviously given Lowe his strength of character, his fight to obtain his career goals and his natural skill for writing. Lowe writes with incredible wit, clarity and a true storytelling style. I can imagine him sat in his office reliving each moment of the stories he has opted to write about, good and bad, and writing a train-of-thought account of these events and the effect they have had on his life. Obviously, I have no idea if this is how he wrote this book, but it is an image that his writing style invokes.

Lowe is self-deprecating a lot of the time but not in a way that is intended to make the reader feel sorry for him. He relays these stories to show that he is human, that he has made good decisions and shocking decisions and how his desire to “people-please” almost caused him to self-destruct. After all, Lowe was only a teenager when he acted in his break-out movie, The Outsiders, and he admits he had no-one to guide him in the world he had opted to be a part of and in a desire to get the next big part, he worked hard and played harder. He recalls words of wisdom by people such as Cary Grant, Liza Minnelli, Lucille Ball and John Belushi, to name but a few, and describes these meetings with a sense of incredulity, much like any other fan meeting a famous person that they have looked up to. I think that this is what makes Lowe’s stories so endearing. He often writes as if he is just as surprised as the reader that he is the main protagonist in these stories. No airs and graces, just the events as the happened, how they made him feel and what he thinks with the wonderful gift of hindsight.

There are great stories of romantic liaisons and friendly banter among Lowe and his “competition”. The “frenemy” relationship he relates with Michael J Fox is a particularly funny chapter. However, I loved the stories that involved the Sheen/Estevez family. As Lowe made friends with Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen as a young teen, who were to be up and coming actors in their own right, inevitably he developed a relationship with their father, Martin Sheen, who he was to eventually co-star with in The West Wing. Lowe calls him his surrogate father, and being a massive Martin Sheen fan, I love the idea of the two of them chewing the fat and Sheen imparting his experience in the industry to a wide-eyed young Rob Lowe as he embarks on his dream career. Also, Lowe gives the reader an insight into some of the big actors who were rising up the movie ladder with him. A young, but uber-focussed Tom Cruise, an eager-not-to-ride-on-his-father’s-coat-tails Emilio Estevez and an enthusiastic, generous Patrick Swayze are all regulars in Rob Lowe’s early career stories and the stories are often funny and always interesting.

However, the hero of this book is actually a heroine, Rob’s wife Sheryl. She saw in Rob what he couldn’t see in himself and, without any drama on her part, she made him see clearly where he wanted to be as he searched for the answer in a continuous alcoholic, sex-fuelled haze. She was his friend, first and foremost, and promised that this would always be the case whatever happened between them romantically. She didn’t make demands of him, just provided the support as best she could. She backed off when he overstepped the mark, making him realise what he stood to lose and she stepped up to the plate when he needed her the most when he took the brave step of going into rehab. It is easy to see why their marriage has stood the test of time when so many stars are married then divorced in quick succession. Sheryl Berkoff saw Rob Lowe at his worst and bore the challenge of being his shining light with integrity and grace, helping him to put his life back on track with her love, support and determination as he recognised that the excesses of his life had to be eradicated so he could fulfil his true potential as a husband, father and in his developing career. Their marriage and the birth of their two sons have undeniably made Lowe the man he is today and he seems more than happy to give her the credit.

The candidness with which Lowe has written these stories is truly commendable and I would love to be sat in a room with him listening to him tell more tales with the passion he puts into this book. I can picture a Rob Lowe of the future in Cary Grant style, advising young actors and actresses of the pitfalls of show-business whilst encouraging them to work hard and look after themselves. Perhaps this book, and Love Life, are his way of passing on his knowledge to those wanting to follow in his footsteps in the same way that he received little nuggets of advice along the way. To my mind, these potential stars couldn’t have a better role model. Rob Lowe has lived the dream, suffered the nightmare and has been awoken by a woman he loves and who loves him to become the man, husband and father he always hoped to be. It will be a crying shame if Love Life is the last book that Rob Lowe intends to write. He engages the reader so well with his stream-of-consciousness, honest, intellectual writing style and I would absolutely be first in line to read and review it. I suspect that there are plenty more stories where these came from and I, for one, would be fascinated to read them.