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BOOK REVIEW: "Mother, Stranger" by Chris Beam, Lambda Literary Award winner

Author Cris Beam’s first two books were published the traditional way. Lambda Literary Award winner Transparent: Love, Family and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers (paperback, Harcourt, 2007) is a nonfiction passage through the lives of four transgender teenagers coming of age in Los Angeles. I Am J (hardcover, Little, Brown, 2011) is a young adult novel that explores the isolation and transformation of J, born a girl but certain he is a boy.

It is with Beam’s third book, Mother, Stranger, that she has abandoned tradition — no paper, no binding, no book jacket — to produce a profound and precious memoir, available as an “enhanced” ebook. Mother, Stranger was released by The Atavist in January, and the relatively new boutique publisher (launched in 2011) has helped Beam create a hauntingly beautiful book — or maybe “literary experience” is more accurate.

Atavist publishes original nonfiction works in a digital format that incorporates a blend of media. Atavist’s unusual platform combines Beam’s ebook with an audio book read by the author, optional background music, graphics that range from a newspaper clipping to pages of Beam’s diary written in her seventh year, video, and “Inline Extras” — links to a rich resource of background and supporting information. The experience of “reading” this format is fascinating and enjoyable, even for the reader who remains a diehard fan of turning literal pages and smelling a book’s glue, and it is selling: Beam’s ebook has become a hit on Amazon, making the top ten list of Kindle Singles Bestsellers.

Surprisingly, the multimedia extras — extras that are likely to become the norm in digital books — are not a distraction from the book’s text, perhaps testament to Beam’s lean and compelling language. Mother, Stranger captures the simple pain of childhood with a tormented and abusive mother and the achingly complex sorrow and confusion that tailed Beam into adulthood. In Mother, Stranger, Beam recounts learning of her long-estranged mother’s death and searching for understanding. She wrote the following explanation of her memoir on her blog:

“I know that for some people, an obituary is the green light to finally release the monsters from the closet, since you can’t libel the dead. But I also know that keeping mum on the monsters doesn’t help anyone. Audre Lorde once said, ‘your silence will not protect you.’ She was right, but still, silence can sometimes serve as an incubator for memoirs too raw or unformed for display. Until one day, maybe after a death in the family, that silence cracks and you’re writing, writing writing, like your own life depends on it. Because it probably does.”

The result of Beam’s cracked silence is a short memoir unique in voice and experience and universal in the desire to recover and thrive.

Read on an iPad 2, there were a couple minor technical glitches with the optional background music and turning Beam’s childhood diary pages. But ultimately, they did not detract from Beam’s story; they couldn’t. The honesty and revelations of Beam’s memoir would succeed in any format.


Author’s website: www.crisbeam.com

Mother, Stranger is available with all multimedia features from The Atavist and in iBook format for $2.99; text only from Kindle, Nook and iBooks for $1.99.

Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and is republished by SDGLN, The Ocean Beach Rag and The Progressive Post. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize while working for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at kbgressitt@gmail.com.