The story of the popular Native American author’s difficult upbringing.
Alexie (Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories, 2012, etc.) won the National Book Award for his semiautobiographical young-adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007). Readers of that book will recognize some of those stories in this hardscrabble memoir about growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. In 142 chapters that combine poetry and prose, he goes back and forth in time as he riffs on his early years and his often verbally cruel and emotionally unpredictable mother and the conflicted relationship they had. In the early 1970s, Alexie’s parents and six children moved into a one-bedroom reservation house that lacked indoor plumbing or electricity. Later they moved to a “shoddily constructed” HUD house. Both parents were alcoholics; his mother quit drinking a few years later. Born hydrocephalic, Alexie had brain surgery at 5 months and again when he was 2. He suffered epileptic seizures until he was 7. Four soft burr holes in his skull remain, as well as a “Frankenstein mess of head scars.” He had “epically crooked teeth” and would “stutter and lisp.” He was constantly ridiculed. Always poor, his mother quilted to make money. His father did odd jobs, spent time in jail, and had numerous car accidents when drunk. When Alexie was 17, his father disappeared on a drinking binge. After seven days, he had to go look for him: “It was a family rule.” On the reservation, “violence is a clock, / ordinary and relentless. Even stopped, it doesn’t stop.” Alexie is related to “men who hit women, and to men and women who hit children.” Written in his familiar breezy, conversational, and aphoristic style, the book makes even the darkest personal experiences uplifting and bearable with the author’s wit, sarcasm, and humor.
Despite some repetition, this is a powerful, brutally honest memoir about a mother and the son who loved her.
Raw glimpses of the humorist’s personal life as he clambered from starving artist to household name.
For years, Sedaris (Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, 2013, etc.) has peppered his public readings with samples from his diaries, usually comic vignettes with a gently skewed view of humanity. Those are in abundance here. “Jews in concentration camps had shaved heads and tattoos,” he writes after learning about a Chicago skinhead’s arrest. “You’d think the anti-Semites would go for a different look.” Forced to trim his toenails with poultry shears for lack of clippers, he writes, “that is exactly why you don’t want people staying in your apartment when you’re not there, or even when you are, really.” The diaries also provide Ur-texts for some of the author’s most famous stories, like his stint as a Macy’s Christmas elf that led to his breakthrough radio piece, “The SantaLand Diaries,” or the short-tempered, chalk-throwing French teacher in Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000). But though the mood is usually light, the book is also a more serious look into his travails as an artist and person: Sedaris is candid about his early ambitions to succeed as a writer, his imposter syndrome as a teacher, his squabbles with his never-satisfied dad and mentally ill sister, Tiffany, and his alcoholism. Even that last challenge, though, is framed as comic, or at least the stuff of non sequitur: “Today I saw a one-armed dwarf carrying a skateboard. It’s been ninety days since I’ve had a drink.” While Sedaris’ career took flight during the period this book captures, success didn’t change him much; it just introduced him to a broader swath of the world to observe and satirize. He can hardly believe his good luck, so he’s charmed by the woman who, upon escorting him to a packed bookstore reading, exclaims, “goodness, they must be having a sale.”
A surprisingly poignant portrait of the artist as a young to middle-aged man.
A former gender studies professor’s memoir about living and remembering her life in the face of dementia.
Before 2010, when doctors told her that she had microvascular disease, one of the leading causes of dementia, Saunders had it all: a successful career and a thriving, multigenerational family. She retired from the University of Utah two years later with “no whimpering, no whining, no despair,” fully aware that hers had been a fortunate existence. Hoping to offer something that “could be actually useful in the world,” Saunders began keeping a journal about her “lurch into that ‘strange Country’ ” of memory loss. She started by recalling everything she could about an early life that had begun in the rural Transvaal region of South Africa. By “flesh[ing] out [her] shrinking self with former selves,” the author would become “Doña Quijote,” the madwoman questing for truth. Drawing on literature, scientific research, her family’s collective memory, and her own experiences, Saunders crafts an eloquent, often lyrical book that, in its fragmentation, becomes increasingly affecting over the course of the narrative. As she speaks about growing older and wearing clothes that express “the way I feel rather than look,” for example, she intersperses her reflections with “Dementia Field Notes” journal entries that bluntly address all the difficulties she must face on a daily basis due to her condition. The author’s candor is especially evident in the way she addresses the way her dementia has and will continue to dehumanize her the longer she lives with it. Not wishing to be relegated into a zombielike “neither-dead-nor-alive” status, Saunders discusses the plans she and her family have made to help her die with dignity when her quality of life has dwindled too far. The book is remarkable not only for its fiercely honest, sometimes-poetic portrayal of mental decline, but also for the way the author effectively celebrates “the magisterial of a mind, the grant of an interval to sound the ordinances of a world without being.”
A courageous, richly textured, and unsparing memoir.
A poet explores her experiences as a mother, teacher, black woman, and “conscientious outsider.”
In this frank, revealing, and often lyrical memoir, Dungy (Creative Writing/Colorado State Univ.; Trophic Cascade, 2017, etc.) chronicles her travels across the country with her daughter, recording her thoughts on their place in American society. Whether she ponders why so many people are startled by the volume of her infant daughter’s hair, the history of the Civil War as it related to the rural farmers of Maine, or the loss of place and home when developers built behind her childhood home, the author’s voice rings out loud and clear. As a black woman who travels in circles that are often nearly all white, she has fears that others may never perceive. When she injured her ankle while hiking, she fretted about whether her weight was too much for the men in her group to handle in making it back down the mountain. When she flies, she has to rely on strangers to help with her stuff and her child, and she worries about who will take care of her daughter while she is teaching. On a powerful visit to Ghana to see the slave-holding pens along the coast, she considers her daughter's inability to pay attention to the horrific history all around them. Dungy also discusses the many surprises of being a mother, including the joys of nursing and watching her child learn new skills, which has opened her own eyes to new wonders. Each essay flows smoothly into the next, and they are all interlinked with themes of race, fear, joy, and love, bringing readers eye to eye with the experiences of being a black female poet, lecturer, mother, and woman.
Forthright, entertaining, often potent essays that successfully intertwine personal history and historical context regarding black and white in America.
A blogger (Bitches Gotta Eat) has to laugh to keep from crying—or maybe killing somebody—in this collection of essays from the black, full-figured female perspective.
The second collection of essays by Irby (Meaty, 2013) explores what it means to be “fat and black.” Though she has an active and diverse sex life, the author seems to prefer staying home with her cat, with whom she’s “trapped in this mutually abusive codependent relationship.” She watches a lot of TV and eats a lot of junk food while watching junk TV. She prefers writing jokes for online consumption rather than interacting with so-called real people in the so-called real world. “People are boring and terrible,” she writes. “I am boring and terrible. My funny runs out, my cute runs out, my smart sometimes hiccups, my sexy wakes up with uncontrollable diarrhea. I have an attitude. And a sharp edge!” Irby shows her sharp edge throughout a collection that touches on topics ranging from the potential pros and cons of living in a small town, her employment adventures at an animal hospital, her upbringing with an alcoholic, abusive father and the mother he exploited, her preoccupation with death, and her unpredicted path to lesbian marriage. She responds to a pre-marriage questionnaire that asks, “how important is sex to you?” with “Is there such a thing as ‘the opposite of important?’….Hopefully lesbian bed death is real and not another unattainable fantasy the Internet has lied to me about, like poreless skin.” Though the collection is uneven, and many of the pieces strain for effect, some are very funny, some of them ring painfully true, and the best do both. Consider the essay about what happens when all of Irby’s friends have reached the birthing and raising children stages, and she has no experience around kids: “I forget when they’re within earshot and say mean things about dead people or recount in excruciating detail the highlights of my most recent gynecological exam.”
Personal embarrassment provides plenty of material for in-print or online entertainment.
A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author gives a familial face to the mystique of Martha's Vineyard in this unfailingly charming reminiscence of summers spent on the island.
Blais (Journalism/Univ. of Massachusetts-Amherst; Uphill Walkers: A Memoir of a Family, 2001, etc.) chronicles the final days and robust history of a prominent family's time at their vacation home. The author makes clear she was not born into wealth, nor did she feel that marriage to John Katzenbach, son of former U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, afforded her any special entitlements, on the Vineyard or anywhere else. Much more than an account of the privileged class enjoying its privileges, this story of the “shack” at Thumb Point is an engaging tale of a place that, for family or visiting friends, meant a leisurely but active lifestyle raised to an art form. “After a few days by the pond,” she writes, “you became a happy animal, scampering barefoot, feral, and fortified.” A great strength of the book are the author’s portraits of her mother-in-law, the formidable Lydia, writer Phil Caputo, and publisher Katharine Graham, the latter sketch sounding a dirge on the decline of newspapers. Other principal players, including her husband, father-in-law, and year-round islanders, provide additional anecdotes. Readers will forgive the name-dropping because it is largely unavoidable; it serves as a gateway to a more complete picture of Vineyard culture, how seemingly fancy folk enjoy relatively modest lives in decidedly rustic surroundings. The book has the flavor of a finely observed travel book, with Blais offering a brief history of the island and a thorough inventory of its hierarchy, traditions, and manifest (sometimes eccentric) pleasures. In her hands, it is an endearingly quaint community, though not without a tinge of snob appeal, which she gamely dissects.
If not quite as funny as billed, there remains much gentle humor and a certain elegiac sweetness that more than compensates—that, and a touching coda.
The account of a transformational South American odyssey that tested the author and her husband to the limit.
In March 1973, having missed their boat after surviving a plane crash at a remote outpost in Peru, FitzGerald and her husband were forced to take a makeshift raft down Rio Madre de Dios to Riberalta, Bolivia, en route to Brazil. What was supposed to be a journey of a few days became a harrowing ordeal. The author’s story of the inexperienced rafters being swept by a storm into a tributary they could barely escape, their extreme privation and miseries—weeks trapped in a jungle swamp without shelter, food, or fresh water—is vivid and consistently compelling. FitzGerald often writes fine, lyrical descriptions, especially of nature, though when mooning over her husband, the prose turns purple and overwrought, better suited to a romance novel than a gritty survival adventure. However, considering what the couple endured, the periodic spasms of over-the-top romanticism and superstition can be forgiven, and readers will admire their remarkable fortitude. FitzGerald is at her best when detailing their many challenges or suggesting states of mind. “Despite my physical debilitation,” she writes, “my mind had achieved a heightened clarity. My vision of life was now stripped to the bone. As starvation consumed my body, its effects also trimmed the fat and gristle from my thoughts.” Since her journal was lost early in the trip and FitzGerald had to record their trial by other means, some readers may question the accuracy of her moment-by-moment recollections, and occasionally, credulity is strained. We also learn little of the young couple’s remarkable globe-hopping before and after the disaster, apart from listings of places visited.
FitzGerald overcomes her book's few flaws to produce an absorbing tale of survival, love, and the generosity of people who helped save their lives.
An accidental porn journalist reflects on her role mining the sex and politics of the adult film industry.
In her post-collegiate years, G. found herself writing about porn by necessity: she desperately needed a job to stabilize her life in Manhattan. The self-described “country girl with a flair for the dramatic” was raised conservatively on a farm where educative books about sex were hidden away. A traumatic sexual assault compounded the author’s repression and tainted her view of bodily pleasure. When confronted with work on an adult magazine, G. briskly became accustomed to life as a paid porn journalist. What had formerly been her “greatest source of shame and satisfaction” had now become her livelihood. Co-founding Whack! magazine and a column as a “pervy outlier” at McSweeney’s in 2009 solidified her resolve to pursue writing as a career. Though definitely not for the sex-shy, the narrative has a breezy, conversational flow even when the author graphically discusses shock-value gonzo porn or the history of dildos. G. remains consistently affable, never flinty, despite moments of work-related exasperation such as her marked revulsion toward an overly forward Ron Jeremy at an industry expo. In addition to the more erotic personal experiences she shares while a media fixture on the adult industry circuit, G. also amassed a wealth of knowledge about how individualistically it functions, the misconceptions of those involved, and issues of racism, homophobia, and condom use. She also provides thought-provoking chapters on feminist porn and obscenity laws. As a writer with definitive feminist leanings, working in porn left G. internally conflicted as she asked herself, “could I really be a feminist and not only watch this type of sexual behavior—but profit on it?” Her answer, and the ways she reconciles this and other adverse aspects of her life, plays out through the remainder of a cleverly seductive, straightforward, unapologetically carnal chronicle of an unconventional working life.
An intelligent, provocative, and indulgent insider’s view of the contemporary porn industry.
Accomplished Norwegian historian, journalist, and photographer Strøksnes invites readers into the fantastical ocean environment of his quest to capture a Greenland shark.
More than just a chronicle of two men (the author and his artist friend, Hugo Aasjord) discussing their surroundings as they drift along off the coast of Norway, the narrative follows the pair’s lofty goal of snaring one of the world’s largest beasts from their small rubber boat. A few of the strange qualities of their prey include its ability to dive to more than 4,000 feet, “sawblade teeth” and “suctioning lips that ‘glue’ larger prey to its mouth while chewing,” and poisonous flesh that smells like urine. They can also live to be 400 years old and weigh more than a ton. During their endeavor, whether on the ocean or sidelined on the rugged land due to inhospitable weather, Strøksnes and Aasjord tackled a variety of existential questions while contemplating the magnificent, complex mysteries of the ocean. Their conversations range over subjects as diverse as mythology, poetry, history, literature, and science, all interspersed with their observations. In the hands of a less skilled storyteller, readers may have felt burdened by the amount of information, but Strøksnes handles it well. Following the philosophical proclamation that “life cannot exist without death, and the cycle of life is what keeps the planet in harmony,” the author explains how the men planned to use the decomposed carcass of a Scottish bull as bait, after which he provides an enlightening vignette on the history of that hardy breed. While tracking down the rotting carcass, the author also describes the surrounding countryside, including the ancient sacrificial altars he encountered.
Whether the author is opining on mass extinctions, the importance of plankton, the history of lighthouses, or the epicurean treat of boiled cod tongues, readers will happily devour this smorgasbord of delights.
An exploration of the borderlands that deftly mixes memoir, groundbreaking sociology, deep reporting, and compelling writing.
A child of the parched Texas-Mexico border, Elizondo Griest (Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines, 2008, etc.) found herself teaching on a Mohawk Indian reservation that straddled the frigid New York state–Canadian border. At first, the author could not perceive any significant similarities between the two border experiences other than the deep roots of Catholicism. However, as the months passed, she began to realize the commonalities between borderlands shot through with poverty, cruelty by law enforcement agencies, language wars, environmental degradation, poor schools, ill health, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and extraordinarily high death tolls, including suicides. As Elizondo Griest documents the plight of border occupants, she struggles with defining herself within her mixed-race background. She has thought of herself as a mix of Tejana, Chicana, and Latina, but people outside her family usually viewed her as a gringa due to her unusually light skin and blue eyes. But as she began to understand, the borderland existence is the most defining factor of all. Portions of the author’s findings as a reporter are graphic, especially as she chronicles her travels with law enforcement officers to retrieve rotting bodies of Mexicans who died trying to cross rugged territory in Texas or Arizona to establish a life in the U.S. Perhaps the most revelatory portions of the book are the sections about the already existing wall on stretches of the U.S.–Mexico border, barriers predating the rise of Donald Trump. The chapters about the Mohawk struggles are quite likely to seem revelatory, too, given the dearth of national journalism coverage of that region.
In this well-conceived book, the author demonstrates unforgettably that national borders constitute much more than lines on a map.