The cult of exceptionalism, like celebrity worship, is draining us of our humanity and joy, suggests high school teacher McCullough, whose expertise comes from having nearly three decades of teaching experience and four children of his own.
The author, son of the acclaimed historian, moves through the world with his eyes open, willingly empathetic to those deserving and dedicated to doing the right thing in all cases. In this book, an expansion of a 2012 commencement speech, he writes with crisp precision and light humor (“this was before Al Gore invented the Internet”). McCullough discusses the importance of authority figures’ butting out, letting kids govern their engagement with life and learn through trial and error. As he notes, we all fail, but we must get up and get back into the scrum, not allowing our expectations to cripple us. “Parents, you see, are people, subject to self-doubt, who don’t always have every answer, who are doing the best they can,” he writes. “And we are only as happy, generally, as our least happy child, only as successful as our least successful child.” McCullough ably conveys his genuine love of teaching, as well as its ups and downs, and demonstrates the significance of encouraging independence and the impulse to explore and take risks and discover those things that touch you deeply. He also digs into the perils of technology, “the breathless infatuation with hi-def, 3D, 5G, glued to the hand, glued to the ear, twenty-first-century cyber gee-whizzery.” The author tackles big issues, such as gender and race, with searching sincerity, open-heartedness, and a deft, light touch. “I like to imagine,” he writes, “[parents and teenagers] putting [this book] down…and reaching for another book, then maybe another, and, before long, getting up, heading out, taking great happy lungfuls of air, eager to do some good.”
Neither sage nor curmudgeon, McCullough is a thoughtful pre-Socratic without a schadenfreude-soaked bone in his body.
Another example of an author who might well reach a wider audience through a graduation speech than through anything else he has written.
Long revered among fans and fellow writers, Saunders saw his popular profile elevated through even greater attentions paid to (and accolades earned by) his most recent story collection, Tenth of December. In contrast to the playful postmodernism that often characterizes the work of the New Yorker writer and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, this meditation on kindness that he delivered in 2013 at Syracuse (where he teaches creative writing) is transparent in its message, which, he admits, is “a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.” His address took him eight minutes to deliver—it subsequently went viral, like that of a similar address by the late David Foster Wallace—and takes less time to read. But its self-deprecating tone is as pitch perfect as one would expect from Saunders, and the advice it imparts seems sincere and ultimately more helpful than the usual platitudes, as he explains how “most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving” and as they mature, perhaps become parents, begin to see how soul-deadening selfishness can be and how the struggles of ambition can put one on a seemingly endless cycle. There’s plainly a spiritual underpinning here, as the author writes in favor of “establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition—recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.” The loving selflessness that he advises and the interconnectedness that he recognizes couldn’t be purer or simpler—or more challenging.
Lightly disguised as one of the old versifier's fantastical journeys, a rueful survey of the pleasures and pitfalls along the road of life—a sort of commencement address for tots and their elders. The clever, tripping rhymes and whimsical creatures and landscapes here will draw the faithful as usual, though the illustrations are subtler than the good doctor has produced at his most ebullient—there are pages where the wide world looks as placid as a counterpane, and some the beasts that lurk in wait look as though they have their own troubles. Most beguiling, however, is the artful phrasing of the gentle message: caught in life's waiting games, we wait for "the mail to come, or the rain to go/or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow. . .or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants/or a wig with curls, or Another Chance." And, while there will be fun and fame, "you'll play lonely games too./Games you can't win/'cause you'll play against you." There is, of course, an upbeat conclusion: "You're off to Great Places!. . ./So. . .get on your way!" Montaigne pointed out that it's the journey that matters, not the arrival; here, Seuss explores the same philosophical message in his own inimitably wise and witty style.
In 1959, the 16-year-old author had an ineffable vision, which she here contextualizes and attempts to understand.
Ehrenreich (Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, 2009, etc.) returns with a personal chronicle, a coming-of-age story with an edge and a focus: Who am I? What does any of this mean? In 2005, a Florida hurricane destroyed most of the author’s papers in her Florida Keys home, but one surviving document was her girlhood diary (kept somewhat regularly from 1956 to 1966). She transcribed that diary and alludes to and quotes from it throughout this account of a dawning consciousness. Ehrenreich came from a line of atheists—and remains one herself (at least in any conventional sense). Throughout, she dismisses monotheism and conventional religions, though, by the end, she’s professing a sort of polytheism that acknowledges experiences that so far escape scientific detection and definition. She writes about her troubled family (her father died of Alzheimer’s, her mother of an overdose), her childhood loneliness (the fate of many a bright youngster), her girlhood decision to pursue the why of life, and her journey from solipsism to social activism in the 1960s and beyond. She discusses only briefly her two broken marriages and children. Of most interest, of course, is that 1959 experience in Lone Pine, Calif., where, after spending the night in a car, she went for a walk at dawn and saw “the world [had] flamed into life.” A talented student (co-valedictorian in high school), especially in the sciences, Ehrenreich studied chemistry and physics in college and graduate school, a career path she abandoned during the era of Vietnam and civil rights. But ever resting like a splinter in her mind: that Lone Pine experience.
A powerful, honest account of a lifelong attempt to understand that will please neither theists nor atheists.
The latest installment of the travel-writing series upholds the tradition of world-expanding excellence.
Series editor Jason Wilson begins this collection with a tale of overcoming adversity. After years, he found volume editor Gilbert’s (Committed: A Love Story, 2010, etc.) schedule finally jibed with his, and thus, the 2013 collection was born. This is not a book full of traditional travel stories. Instead, under Gilbert's stewardship, the articles are tidbits from another place, time or culture, and one from the mind of a man who contemplated travel but never got around to it. Readers won’t find any pieces to help them plan a trip, but they will be inspired to travel somewhere. “Some of these stories find their authors flinging themselves into mad acts of danger and some do not,” writes Gilbert, “but every piece contains awe in strong enough doses to render the reader enchanted, delighted, compelled, or forever unsettled.” The stories range from typical subjects with atypical treatments—e.g., Kevin Chroust’s recounting of running with the bulls in which he examines not the thrill of the terror, but the sheer stupidity of it—to the completely unexpected—e.g., Sarah A. Topol’s “Tea and Kidnapping,” in which an event that should be terrifying is surprisingly giggle-inducing. “Travel should be just as much about light delights as about dark daring,” writes Gilbert, and both are represented here, well-balanced. So Grant Stoddard’s article about making up his own Manhattan tours and David Sedaris’ piece about his dentist in Paris slide into the collection seamlessly while offering a needed comedic break. Other contributors include Ian Frazier, John Jeremiah Sullivan and Christopher de Bellaigue.
The wonder continues in the fact that, regardless of subject, each story takes its place in the collection proudly and deservedly.
A comical travel memoir documenting a young woman’s attempt to find herself overseas.
After playwright and aspiring actress Shukert (Have You No Shame?: And Other Regrettable Stories, 2008) unsuccessfully attempted to gain entrance into New York's acting elite, she ventured to Europe with the promise of a fresh start. En route, an Austrian custom's official absentmindedly forgot to stamp her passport, essentially giving her free reign throughout the continent. The author’s charming romp across Europe led her on an array of misadventures throughout Austria, France and Switzerland, before she settled in Amsterdam, where she had it on not-so-good authority that an acting role awaited her. The role fell through, but Shukert's experience in Amsterdam's Red Light District and marijuana-filled coffee shops functioned as entry points for even greater mishaps involving a predictable cast of characters, locals and expatriates alike. While the author’s travels left a trail of one-night stands and failed relationships in her wake, the humor with which she recounts her experiences allows her work to transcend beyond the cliché of overseas-love-affairs-gone-awry. Shukert is at her best when she probes the depths of her own identity, both as a transplanted Nebraskan Jew and as a failed actress. The humor drives the narrative, but the rare poignant moments are intimate and well-appreciated. Though readers will root for the author, it becomes difficult as she continually traps herself in nets of her own making. Shukert acknowledges this shortcoming, admitting that “I had come to Europe to grow up, to fall in love, to become the kind of person that I wanted to be. But the person I was becoming was destroying the person that I already was.” This confliction of identity, though regularly masked behind cheap laughs, is what sets Shukert’s book above similar travel memoirs.
An entertaining and often laugh-out-loud—though not altogether atypical—story of soul-searching abroad.
Two best friends and fellow Brown University graduates deliver a candid epistolary account of their postgrad adventures "down the rabbit hole" of the real world.
Just before BFFs Pan and Kapelke-Dale graduated from college, they made a pact to stay in touch via email and give each other all the details of their post-collegiate lives. Jobless but hopeful, Pan went to Beijing to have an adventure and learn Mandarin. In the meantime, Kapelke-Dale began working for a narcissistic art gallery owner in Manhattan since New York City was “just where you were supposed to go after college.” Excited and intimidated by adulthood and also deeply uncertain about their futures, both young women fumbled through their lives. After a stint as an underpaid peon in a Chinese PR firm, Pan found work as an editor at a Beijing magazine for English-speaking expatriates. In New York, Kapelke-Dale moved into a better job at a nonprofit art gallery, but that soon became a dead end. As Pan navigated the tricky realm of love and sex with colleagues, Kapelke-Dale tried to work through unresolved romantic issues with old flames. Pan’s path led her to a charming Englishman and a life “ultimatum”: commitment or footloose singledom. For her friend, the choice boiled down to facing her fears and taking a risk to leave NYC for life and graduate study abroad in France and then England. Told in two genuinely winning voices, the book presents a unique view of what it means to come of age as educated females in the chaos of a modern transnational world. Young women just starting out on their own “adventures in wonderland” will find it especially appealing. At the same time, however, older women may also enjoy the way this narrative celebrates the sustaining power of committed woman-to-woman friendship.
A female buddy book with intergenerational appeal.
A sensitive portrayal of distant love, broken affinities and culture clash by Nigerian novelist Adichie (Purple Hibiscus, 2003, etc.).
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, it’s said—but as often it makes the heart grow forgetful. Ifemelu, beautiful and naturally aristocratic, has the good fortune to escape Nigeria during a time of military dictatorship. It is a place and a society where, as a vivacious “aunty” remarks, “[t]he problem is that there are many qualified people who are not where they are supposed to be because they won’t lick anybody’s ass, or they don’t know which ass to lick or they don’t even know how to lick an ass.” Ifemelu’s high school sweetheart, Obinze, is too proud for any of that; smart and scholarly, he has been denied a visa to enter post-9/11 America (says his mother, “[t]he Americans are now averse to foreign young men”), and now he is living illegally in London, delivering refrigerators and looking for a way to find his beloved. The years pass, and the world changes: In the America where Ifemelu is increasingly at home, “postracial” is a fond hope, but everyone seems just a little bewildered at how to get there, and meanwhile, Ifemelu has to leave the safe, sheltered confines of Princeton to go to Trenton if she’s to get her hair done properly. The years pass, and Ifemelu is involved in the usual entanglements, making a reunion with Obinze all the more complicated. Will true love win out? Can things be fixed and contempt disarmed? All that remains to be seen, but for the moment, think of Adichie’s elegantly written, emotionally believable novel as a kind of update of Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale.
Soap-operatic in spots, but a fine adult love story with locations both exotic and familiar.
Advice for one of life’s most important transitions: stepping out into the “real” world after four years of college.
Of course, it is not an easy task for anyone, and leaving that insulated world with no clue of the future can be daunting. "Not getting a job right out of college felt like the lowest point in my life, but what it really did was force me to learn so much about myself,” writes Schwarzenegger (Rock What You've Got: Secrets to Loving Your Inner and Outer Beauty from Someone Who's Been There and Back, 2010). Here, she chronicles her interviews with men and women who successfully navigated the often unnerving moments of post-college life. From Anderson Cooper to DJ Armin van Buuren to the founder of Sprinkles Cupcakes, Candace Nelson, each interviewee expresses his or her aha moment, when they found their passion and followed it to the fullest, despite setbacks and bad odds, and launched into a career they truly enjoy. Some chose not to attend school but jumped into the fray and used life as their education; others worked in crummy jobs to pay the bills while consistently chugging forward on their personal goals; some wound up in places and jobs they'd never dreamed of simply due to the fact that they were open to all possibilities. As fashion model and designer Lauren Bush Lauren writes, "a college degree isn't what makes you smart; it's curiosity and the desire to seek answers and practical knowledge to help guide you in your field of choice." Each narrative shows the emotional doubts, anxieties and joys felt while starting a company, becoming a philanthropist or climbing the corporate ladder. Although geared toward young college graduates, the advice is relevant to anyone who's been laid off from work or is in search of a new direction in life. Other contributors include Eva Longoria, Bear Grylls and Jillian Michaels.
Inspirational tidbits on work and life from productive and happy people from diverse backgrounds.