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Mike Nichols’s creative, extraordinary life

New book explores career of iconic director, actor, comedian



Mike Nichols, gay news, Washington Blade
(Image courtesy of Penguin Press)

‘Mike Nichols: A Life’
By Mark Harris
c.2021, Penguin Press $35/688 pages

Few books will make you want to stop reading, break out the popcorn and start streaming movies ASAP as much as “Mike Nichols: A Life.”

I don’t mean that at all as criticism. Film historian Mark Harris’s biography of film and theater director, producer, actor, and comedian Mike Nichols is so entertaining that you’ll almost put it down to dip into Nichols’s work. To watch some of his iconic films such as “The Graduate” or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” stream his Emmy Award-winning version of “Angels in America” or listen to the albums of his groundbreaking comedy act with Elaine May.

Whether you’re 25 or 85, you’ve likely seen a play or movie directed or produced by Nichols. From mid-century to near the end of his life, Nichols, who lived from 1931 to 2014, worked with queer icons from Elizabeth Taylor to Cher. (He directed Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and Cher in “Silkwood.”) That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Meryl Streep (“Heartburn,” “Silkwood”), Robin Williams and Nathan Lane (“The Birdcage”) and Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon (in the play “The Real Thing”) are just a few of the stars of stage and screen who Nichols directed. He brought Whoopi Goldberg when she was unknown to fame and Broadway.

In lesser hands, “Mike Nichols: A Life” could well have become an over-stuffed, overwhelming, respectful, but deadly boring, mix of awards lists and hagiography.

Thankfully, Harris, author of “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood,” tells an engrossing story of a creative, extraordinary life. Harris, husband of playwright Tony Kushner (author of “Angels in America”), paints a three-dimensional portrait of Nichols. He deftly depicts not only Nichols’s gifts but his foibles.

“Aren’t all childhoods bad,” Nichols once asked.

After hearing about Nichols’s childhood, most of us would think: no – well, not as bad as Nichols’s.

Nichols was born as Michael Igor Peschkowsky in Berlin. His family, who were Jewish, had to flee the Nazis. At 7, Nichols and his younger brother Robert embarked on a boat by themselves to New York City. Their father, Harris writes, had already been in New York for almost a year. Their sickly mother, he adds “was still bedbound in Berlin.”

Later in life, Nichols would say that on the boat he knew only two English sentences, “I do not speak English” and “Please do not kiss me.”

Nichols’s story of his transatlantic crossing was “his first self-revelation-as-anecdote,” Harris writes.

Nichols would “refine” this approach “into a shield and a disguise, but also into a style of directing,” Harris writes, “a means of conveying an idea or a feeling or a circumstance to an actor that he deployed with precision and finesse over a five-decade career.”

Being a Jewish refugee in New York by itself would have made Nichols feel like an outsider. But an allergic reaction to a childhood whooping cough vaccination left him with “a complete and lifelong inability to grow hair,” Harris writes.

This was “says his brother, ‘the defining aspect of his childhood,’” Harris added.

Though he never stopped feeling like an outsider, Nichols became an insider’s insider. He and Elaine May performed with Marilyn Monroe at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party. Leonard Bernstein and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were among his friends.

In 1966, Jackie Kennedy accompanied Nichols to the Catholic League of Decency’s screening of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” “Jack would have loved it,” Kennedy said. Kennedy’s endorsement convinced the League to give the movie a B rating.

When Burton and Taylor were in Rome filming “Cleopatra,” Burton had to travel for a week. He trusted Nichols to show Taylor “a good time” while he was gone. Nichols was “unexpectedly touched by her openness and warmth,” Harris writes.

Once, Nichols asked Taylor if “it was ever a pain in the ass being so beautiful,” Harris writes, “And she looked at me and said, ‘I can’t wait for it to go.’”

If you miss going to the theater and hanging out with friends to discuss the play over drinks, “Mike Nichols: A Life” is the book for you.



‘Mean Boys’ raises questions of life, death, and belonging

New memoir wanders but enjoy the whiplash



(Boom cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury)

‘Mean Boys: A Personal History’
By Geoffrey Mak
c.2024, Bloomsbury 
$28.99/267 pages

It’s how a pleasant conversation is fed, with give and take, back and forth, wandering casually and naturally, a bit of one subject easing into the next with no preamble. It’s communication you can enjoy, like what you’ll find inside “Mean Boys” by Geoffrey Mak.

Sometimes, a conversation ends up exactly where it started.

Take, for instance, Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which leads Mak to think about his life and his inability to “cull the appropriate narratives out of nonsense.” Part of that problem, he says, was that his living arrangements weren’t consistent. He sometimes “never really knew where I was living,” whether it was Berlin or California, in a studio or high-end accommodations. The parties, the jokes, the internet consumption were as varied as the homes and sometimes, “it didn’t really matter.” Sometimes, you have to accept things and just “move on.”

When he was 12 years old, Mak’s father left his corporate job, saying that he was “called by God” to become a minister. It created a lot of resentment for Mak, for the lack of respect his father got, and because his parents were “passionately anti-gay.” He moved as far away from home as he could, and he blocked all communication with his parents for years, until he realized that “By hating my father, I ended up hating myself, too.”

And then there was club life which, in Mak’s descriptions, doesn’t sound much different in Berghain (Germany) as it is in New York. He says he “threw myself into night life,” in New York Houses, in places that gave “a skinny Chinese kid from the suburbs… rules I still live by,” on random dance floors, and in Pornceptual. Eventually this, drugs, work, politics, pandemic, basically everything and life in general led to a mental crisis, and Mak sought help.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” Mak says at one point. “Sometimes life was bad, and sometimes it wasn’t, and sometimes it just was.”

Though there are times when this book feels like having a heart-to-heart with an interesting new acquaintance, “Mean Boys” can make you squirm. For sure, it’s not a beach read or something you’ll breeze through in a weekend.

No, author Geoffrey Mak jumps from one random topic to another with enough frequency to make you pay close to attention to his words, lest you miss something. That won’t leave you whiplashed; instead, you’re pulled into the often-dissipated melee just enough to feel almost involved with it – but with a distinct sense that you’re being held at arms’ length, too. That some stories have no definitive timeline or geographical stamp – making it hard to find solid ground – also adds to the slight loss of equilibrium here, like walking on slippery river rocks.

Surprisingly, that’s not entirely unpleasant but readers will want to know that the ending in “Mean Boys” could leave their heads swirling with a dozen thoughts on life, belonging, and death. If you like depth in your memoirs, you’ll like that — and this.

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New book offers observations on race, beauty, love

‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World’ is a journey of discovery



(Book cover image courtesy of Tiny Reparations Books)

‘How to Live Free in a Dangerous World: A Decolonial Memoir’
By Shayla Lawson
c.2024, Tiny Reparations Books
$29/320 pages

Do you really need three pairs of shoes?

The answer is probably yes: you can’t dance in hikers, you can’t shop in stilettos, you can’t hike in clogs. So what else do you overpack on this long-awaited trip? Extra shorts, extra tees, you can’t have enough things to wear. And in the new book “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” by Shayla Lawson, you’ll need to bring your curiosity.

Minneapolis has always been one of their favorite cities, perhaps because Shayla Lawson was at one of Prince’s first concerts. They weren’t born yet; they were there in their mother’s womb and it was the first of many concerts.

In all their travels, Lawson has noticed that “being a Black American” has its benefits. People in other countries seem to hold Black Americans in higher esteem than do people in America. Still, there’s racism – for instance, their husband’s family celebrates Christmas in blackface.

Yes, Lawson was married to a Dutch man they met in Harlem. “Not Haarlem,” Lawson is quick to point out, and after the wedding, they became a housewife, learned the language of their husband, and fell in love with his grandmother. Alas, he cheated on them and the marriage didn’t last. He gave them a dog, which loved them more than the man ever did.

They’ve been to Spain, and saw a tagline in which a dark-skinned Earth Mother was created. Said Lawson, “I find it ironic, to be ordained a deity when it’s been a … journey to be treated like a person.”

They’ve fallen in love with “middle-American drag: it’s the glitteriest because our mothers are the prettiest.” They changed their pronouns after a struggle “to define my identity,” pointing out that in many languages, pronouns are “genderless.” They looked upon Frida Kahlo in Mexico, and thought about their own disability. And they wish you a good trip, wherever you’re going.

“No matter where you are,” says Lawson, “may you always be certain who you are. And when you are, get everything you deserve.”

Crack open the front cover of “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” and you might wonder what the heck you just got yourself into. The first chapter is artsy, painted with watercolors, and difficult to peg. Stick around, though. It gets better.

Past that opening, author Shayna Lawson takes readers on a not-so-little trip, both world-wide and with observant eyes – although it seems, at times, that the former is secondary to that which Lawson sees. Readers won’t mind that so much; the observations on race, beauty, love, the attitudes of others toward America, and finding one’s best life are really what takes the wheel in this memoir anyhow. Reading this book, therefore, is not so much a vacation as it is a journey of discovery and joy.

Just be willing to keep reading, that’s all you need to know to get the most out of this book. Stick around and “How to Live Free in a Dangerous World” is what to pack.

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Story of paralysis and survival features queer characters

‘Unswerving: A Novel’ opens your eyes and makes you think



(Book cover image courtesy of University of Wisconsin Press)

‘Unswerving: A Novel’ 
By Barbara Ridley
c.2024, University of Wisconsin Press
$19.95 / 227 pages

It happened in a heartbeat.

A split-second, a half a breath, that’s all it took. It was so quick, so sharp-edged that you can almost draw a line between before and after, between then and now. Will anything ever be the same again? Perhaps, but maybe not. As in the new book “Unswerving” by Barbara Ridley, things change, and so might you.

She could remember lines, hypnotizing yellow ones spaced on a road, and her partner, Les, asleep in the seat beside her. It was all so hazy. Everything Tave Greenwich could recall before she woke up in a hospital bed felt like a dream.

It was as though she’d lost a month of her life.

“Life,” if you even wanted to call it that, which she didn’t. Tave’s hands resembled claws bent at the wrist. Before the accident, she was a talented softball catcher but now she could barely get her arms to raise above her shoulders. She could hear her stomach gurgle, but she couldn’t feel it. Paralyzed from the chest down, Tave had to have help with even the most basic care.

She was told that she could learn some skills again, if she worked hard. She was told that she’d leave rehab some day soon. What nobody told her was how Les, Leslie, her partner, girlfriend, love, was doing after the accident.

Physical therapist Beth Farringdon was reminded time and again not to get over-involved with her patients, but she saw something in Tave that she couldn’t ignore. Beth was on the board of directors of a group that sponsored sporting events for disabled athletes; she knew people who could serve as role models for Tave, and she knew that all this could ease Tave’s adjustment into her new life. It was probably not entirely in her job description, but Beth couldn’t stop thinking of ways to help Tave who, at 23, was practically a baby.

She could, for instance, take Tave on outings or help find Les – even though it made Beth’s own girlfriend, Katy, jealous.

So, here’s a little something to know before you start reading “Unswerving”: author Barbara Ridley is a former nurse-practitioner who used to care for patients with spinal cord injuries. That should give readers a comfortable sense of satisfaction, knowing that her experiences give this novel an authenticity that feels right and rings true, no faking.

But that’s not the only appeal of this book: while there are a few minor things that might have readers shaking their heads (HIPAA, anyone?), Ridley’s characters are mostly lifelike and mostly likable. Even the nasties are well done and the mysterious character that’s there-not-there boosts the appeal. Put everyone together, twist a little bit to the left, give them some plotlines that can’t ruined by early guessing, and you’ve got a quick-read novel that you can enjoy and feel good about sharing.

And share you will because this is a book that may also open a few eyes and make readers think. Start “Unswerving” and you’ll (heart) it.

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