Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Smith (Creative Writing/Princeton Univ.; Life on Mars, 2011, etc.) grew up in Fairfield, California, a solidly middle-class suburb, with four older siblings and doting, supportive parents. After a career as an Army engineer, her father worked in Silicon Valley; her mother, a former teacher, was a devoted member of the First Baptist Church. Sheltered by her community and family, Smith had little sense of her black identity until she spent two “sweltering and long” weeks visiting relatives in Alabama. Her grandmother, she learned, still cleaned for a white family; her own house smelled of “cooking gas, pork fat, tobacco juice, and cane syrup.” Suddenly, Smith was confronted with a new image of her parents’ Southern roots, and it frightened her. Back in California, though, that visit receded into memory as she excelled in school, had a chaste epistolary love affair with a teacher and racked up achievements for her college applications: various extracurricular activities, writing for the school paper and starting a Junior Statesman of America club. Teachers encouraged her, including one who remarked that as an African-American woman, she should “take advantage of the opportunities that will bring you.” Smith resented the idea that her success would be based on anything other than her own talents, but when she was accepted at Harvard, the comment gnawed at her. Besides being a candid, gracefully written account of dawning black consciousness, Smith’s memoir probes her relationship with her mother, whose death from cancer brackets the narrative. The author’s drive to leave Fairfield was fueled by her “urgent, desperate” need to separate herself from her mother; in college, she became militantly black, “caught up in the conversation about Identity” and judgmental about her mother’s beliefs.
Guilt and regret pervade Smith’s recollection of her mother’s illness and death, darkening the edges of this light-filled memoir.
A gay magazine editor and writer’s account of how he returned home to the Midwest from New York to care for his aging mother.
Hodgman never dreamed he would return home to Paris, Missouri, to become his 90-year-old mother Betty’s “care inflictor.” But the lonely life he led in New York City, “lingering between the white spaces of copy, trying to get the work perfect,” had soured; more than that, he was now unemployed. And Betty, who refused to enter an assisted living facility, could not continue living alone. Hodgman watched his mother confront her increasing confusion and physical fragility with dread. Inevitably, they bickered and fussed, but the author knew that Betty represented the home he was never able to establish for himself, just as Betty knew her son was her only steady source of support. Confronted on a daily basis with reminders of his past, Hodgman reviewed his life with both parents. Betty and his father could never quite accept that he was gay, and they were content with their lives and the simplicity of Paris. It was the author who was never happy with who he was and who felt a perpetual need to make up for being different by trying to do better. That struggle would lead him to a high-status, high-pressure job at Vanity Fair. But at what should have been the pinnacle of his career, he gave his life over to drugs and the Fire Island gay party scene. Hodgman’s recovery—not just from substance abuse, but also from old patterns of emotional disconnection—would take years. But when he returned to Paris, it was with a greater acceptance of who he was: not the son Betty might have wanted or expected, but the son who would see her through the “strange days” of her final years of life.
Movingly honest, at times droll, and ultimately poignant.
The story of how the author and his family dealt with the senseless murder of his older brother.
In 1973, 4-year-old Kushner (Journalism/Princeton Univ.; The Bones of Marianna: A Reform School, a Terrible Secret, and a Hundred-Year Fight for Justice, 2013, etc.), a contributing editor of Rolling Stone, was living with his parents and two brothers in a Tampa suburb where children roved freely and without fear. But then, Kushner’s 11-year-old brother Jon disappeared while on an errand to buy candy for his youngest brother. The family didn’t learn what happened until after police investigators found his brutalized body buried in a shallow grave. In thinking about the incident as an adult, Kushner realized that he barely remembered Jon and that the details others gave him about the death “didn’t stick.” However, it was clear to him even as a child that both his parents and his oldest brother, Andy, understood the horror of what had happened and grieved over the loss profoundly. Eventually, the family settled into an outwardly new, but inwardly damaged, normal while Kushner and Andy acclimated themselves to being two brothers instead of three. Yet the author and his family never forgot Jon, who haunted them all. More than 20 years after Jon’s murder, the family discovered that one of the men convicted of killing Jon was scheduled for a parole hearing. Kushner began an in-depth investigation of Jon’s murder, episodes of which he would not be able to piece together in narrative form after his father’s death in 2010. Much as the author desired closure, he realized it was a fantasy; what he sought instead was to understand how the grief he and his family suffered was “present and evolving” and how it had shaped them into the people they became. Kushner’s moving book is not only a memorial to a brother tragically deprived of his right to live; it is also a meditation on the courage necessary to live freely in a world riven by pain, suffering, and evil.
A probing, poignant memoir about tragedy, grief, and trying to cope.
Award-winning novelist, poet, and MacArthur Fellow Cisneros (Have You Seen Marie?, 2012, etc.) describes her first novel, The House on Mango Street (1983), as a series of discrete vignettes that could be read as a whole “to tell one big story…like beads in a necklace.” That description is apt, as well, for this warm, gently told memoir assembled from essays, talks, tributes to artists and writers, introductions, and poems, most previously published over the last several decades. “I am the only daughter in a family of six sons. That explains everything,” Cisneros once wrote as a contributor’s note. But she admits her identity has been shaped, as well, by her proud, stern Mexican father, “intelligent, self-taught” Mexican-American mother, and by her childhood in working-class Chicago. Although she exalts in her identity as a Latina, she realized on a trip to Mexico, when she was 30, that like other “naive American children of immigrants,” she was “filled with nostalgia for an imaginary country—one that exists only in images borrowed from art galleries and old Mexican movies.” Cisneros chronicles the creation of her first novel, begun in graduate school at the University of Iowa, when she was 22, and completed on the Greek island of Hydra in a whitewashed house with “thick walls, gentle lines, and rounded corners, as if carved from feta cheese.” Homes feature in many pieces: the apartments her family moved into, always looking for cheaper rent; the house they finally bought, where the author had a closet-sized bedroom; her house in San Antonio that she painted purple, raising objections from the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission. Besides reflecting on her writing, Cisneros discloses a period of severe, suicidal depression when she was 33; a tantalizing family secret; and eulogies for her parents.
A charming, tender memoir from an acclaimed Mexican-American author.
A journalist explores how “several thousand bikes…made an incredible journey” across the border between Mexico and the United States.
When Taylor (Drive Fast and Take Chances: Fair Warning from Surfers, 2013, etc.) discovered the “ownerless piles” of bikes that littered the Tijuana River Valley, he was as awed as he was curious. The bikes, which included mountain, racing, BMX, utility, clown, and children’s models, had been made all over the world and were in varying states of disrepair. Determined to uncover who had left the bicycles there and why, the author embarked on a multiyear private investigation. He met a motley assortment of individuals ranging from ranchers and environmentalists to ex-cons and a man who collected the bicycles to sell, no questions asked, to everyone from Mexican migrants to film studios. While it became clear that the bikes were used to help illegal immigrants negotiate the difficult, often dangerous terrain between Southern California and Mexico, Taylor became fascinated by the trajectory they had traveled, drawing “rude diagrams and flow charts” to help him better envision the journey. He discovered that, though pedaled over the border by illegal aliens, the bicycles had come from all over the U.S. and had also been ridden by farmers, convicts, actors, and soldiers. The author’s ultimate answers to the borderland bicycle riddle did not emerge until he stumbled into an unlikely friendship with an ex-con who had been gathering information from Tijuana smugglers about a mysterious young man named El Indio. Over the span of a few short years, he had built a multimillion-dollar business as a coyote who brought illegal immigrants into the U.S. on bicycles. As colorful and interesting as the characters and story are, the narrative is at times digressive and unevenly paced. But Taylor still manages to make the salubrious, if disturbing, point that no matter how divorced readers believe they are from border issues, they are still implicated in a system of human trafficking and exploitation.
Award-winning novelist Smith (Guests on Earth, 2013, etc.) recalls growing up in a small Virginia coal town and the indelible influence that background had on her adult life.
Situated in the mountains of southwest Virginia, Smith’s hometown of Grundy was beautiful but isolated. The author’s mother, a Virginia East Shore outsider locals called a “foreigner,” was a home economics teacher. Her father, a native son, owned the local dime store, where Smith typed on his typewriter and observed clients and employees from behind a one-way office window. “It was the perfect early education for a fiction writer,” she writes. As passionate as Smith’s mother and father were about each other, they each suffered from periods of the mental illness that would later strike Smith’s son. Yet the family household—and Smith herself—managed to stay whole thanks to the intervention of dear friends. Eventually, the author left Grundy for Hollins College, where she wrote “relentlessly sensational” fiction that deliberately avoided all references to her hometown. Only after attending a reading by Eudora Welty, a woman who “hadn’t been anywhere much either,” did Smith realize that the best stories truly did come from what she knew rather than from her fantasies. In her professional life as a writer, which eventually took her to an academic position at North Carolina State University, Smith learned yet another important lesson, this time from a palsied and eccentric creative writing student name Lou Crabtree. Unschooled as she was, Lou’s work evoked “a primal world of river hills and deep forest, of men and women and children as elemental as nature itself, of talking animals and ghosts, witchcraft and holiness,” and made Smith love and appreciate her “hillbilly” background more than she ever imagined. Candid and unsentimental, Smith’s book sheds light on her beginnings as writer while revealing her resilience and personal transformations over the course of a remarkable lifetime.
A warm, poignant memoir from a reliably smooth voice.
Gritty memoir with unusual connections to the criminal underworld, the legal world and Hollywood.
Berg (The Trial Lawyer: What It Takes to Win, 2003) has lived a full life, and it shows in his deft tonal balance between wry humor and embittered fatalism. Despite success as a well-known progressive lawyer, he remains haunted by the grisly murder of his venerated older brother Alan in 1968 by “card carrying” hit man Charles Harrelson (father of actor Woody). At the time, Alan was slandered as a degenerate gambler, which contributed to Harrelson’s acquittal. The author reconciles his brother’s failings with a larger, complex family story, in which the Bergs’ domineering father, having abandoned his traditionally Jewish first wife, labored to ensnare his sons in his own failed dreams. The vivacious hustler Alan joined his father in a tawdry “boiler room” carpet-selling operation aimed at Houston’s poor, a business path whose tangled dealings, Berg argues, actually provoked the murder. The author portrays 1960s-era Houston as a dangerous, seamy swamp, run by a good-ol’-boy network that tolerated violent men like Harrelson and a legal system in which favoritism and bigotry reigned. He shrewdly connects his own hard-knocks career development defending hippies and radicals in Texas with the longer arc of Harrelson’s crimes and eventual punishment, including the weird coda of his celebrity son’s belated efforts to win his release following conviction for a judge’s assassination. To unravel this long-ago narrative, Berg closely reconstructs the investigation and trial, noting how a novice prosecutor faced the state’s best defense attorney, a flinty eccentric known for winning at any cost.
Engrossing family history and an appealingly salacious tale, related in a bemused tone that does not hide the social ugliness and personal heartbreak underneath.
Life inspired by the buzzing humanity of a great city.
Gornick (Emma Goldman, 2011, etc.) takes her title from George Gissing's novel The Odd Women (1893), about a “darkly handsome, high intelligent, uncompromising” woman who scorns “what she calls the slavery of love and marriage.” Courted by a man who respects and excites her, she insists on independence, fears her own emotions and retreats from their relationship. Like Gornick, a “raging” feminist in the 1970s, Gissing’s heroine “becomes a walking embodiment of the gap between theory and practice: the place in which so many of us have found ourselves, time and again.” Regret, anxiety and nostalgia inform this finely crafted memoir, built of fragmentary reflections on friendship, love, desire and the richness of living in New York. For the author, New York is a city of melancholy, peopled by “eternal groundlings who wander these mean and marvelous streets in search of a self reflected back in the eye of the stranger.” At times, she walks more than six miles per day, daydreaming, observing and trying to “dispel afternoon depression.” She interacts with beggars and shopkeepers, overhears snatches of conversation and revels in a city that she admits to romanticizing. “If you’ve grown up in New York,” she writes, “your life is an archaeology not of structures, but of voices, also piled one on top of another, also not really replacing one another.” Gornick chronicles ephemeral relationships and thwarted love affairs and, in particular, her friendship with Leonard, a gay man who, like Gornick, has “a penchant for the negative.” They meet weekly, unfailingly, “to give each other border reports.” Her friendship with Leonard leads her to consider Henry James’ relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, “a woman of taste and judgment whose self-divisions mirrored his own.”
A fond memoir of life with a prolific writer of science fiction and pornography.
Screenwriter (True Blood, Weeds) and essayist Offutt (No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home, 2002, etc.) describes his father, Andrew, as “fiercely self-reliant, a dark genius, cruel, selfish, and eternally optimistic.” In the opening chapters, the author charts his father’s declining health and grave prognosis from alcohol-induced cirrhosis, which spurred the author to return home to Kentucky in the midst of his own divorce. Offutt delves deep into his father’s history as a former traveling salesman who carted his family around to sci-fi conventions and who harbored a temperamental persona with a penchant for creating alter egos. Beginning with an Old West novel written when he was just 12, Andrew was in many ways “an old-school pulp writer” whose early novels, penned in the hushed privacy of a locked home office and often under pseudonyms, helped finance Offutt’s desperately needed orthodontia. Upon his death in 2013, the mother lode of his father’s squirreled away gemstones, coins, and assorted clutter was unearthed, but it was the 1,800 pounds of manuscripts and papers bequeathed to Offutt that exposed Andrew’s true nature and later career as a “workhorse in the field of written pornography.” The author’s father produced an incredibly imaginative oeuvre of hard-core graphic erotica, from ghost porn to inquisition torture, incrementally (and chillingly) escalating in violence against women as time went on—something Andrew believed prevented him from becoming a serial killer. Admitting to his mother that his “Dad was the most interesting character I’ve ever met” speaks volumes about not only the kind of father Andrew was to his son, but also the kind of son Offutt became because of (and in spite of) the things he’d been taught.
Though his relationship with his father was distant, melancholic, and precarious, Offutt quite movingly weaves his personal history into a fascinating tapestry of a compulsive writer with a knack for the naughty.