Journalist Henderson chronicles her passionate but unlikely romance and marriage to Miles, a fighter pilot who fit the stereotype, “American by birth, Texan by the grace of God.”
In 2006, Miles’ helicopter crashed in bad weather, and there were no survivors. They had met three years earlier in Tallahassee, when he was still in training. A recent college graduate, she hoped to travel and become a writer. A chance meeting at a bar led to an immediate attraction, and soon they were commuting back and forth on weekends between her Florida apartment and his, near Fort Rucker. He was politically conservative and a regular churchgoer who joined the military after 9/11. The author describes herself as a vehement opponent of the Iraq War, a young liberal “more New Age-light than Biblical.” When Miles was reassigned to Fort Bragg, they decided to live together. The author describes the difficulties of her life, as he was frequently reassigned, and she could only find minimum-wage jobs and felt little in common with the Army wives she met. Despite this and his frequent absence on deployment, the growing bond between the two was deepening. She called her mother for help, describing her frustration and posing the question of whether she was wasting her education. When her mother asked, “Do you love him?” her reply said it all: “I love him more than anything.” They married in March 2006, and he deployed to Iraq in July. Henderson writes movingly of his poignant, last letter to her, to be delivered should he be killed. She recounts how he urged her to pursue her dreams and relates her struggle to do so, despite her grief. Henderson, who graduated from Columbia University’s School of Journalism and now works as a journalist, first shared her story in the New York Times “Modern Love” column.
A young writer reckons with his life after amnesia.
On Oct. 17, 2002, first-time author MacLean came to while standing in a crush of people on a train platform in India. He had no passport and no clue where he was or what his name was. He then panicked and blacked out again. When he regained consciousness, he was still standing on the platform, utterly confused and terrified, when a kindly police officer found and took him under his protection. Had the author not had his driver’s license with him, this memoir may never have been written. The 28-year-old MacLean was in Hyderabad, India, studying on a Fulbright scholarship, a world away from the state of New Mexico that had issued his license. In episodic bursts, the author relates moments he recalls from that day forward. Many of the scenes describing his wild hallucinations and slow return to relative sanity powerfully convey an immediacy, as MacLean and his parents, who rushed from the States to the neuropsychiatric institute where he was taken, learned the cause of his “acute polymorphic psychosis.” When MacLean was found, those who first assisted him assumed his amnesia and severe disorientation were the result of recreational drug abuse, but blood work soon revealed the culprit to be an allergic reaction to a prescribed drug with a grave history of inducing psychosis: mefloquine, the popular antimalarial drug better known as Lariam. Much of the memoir’s power comes from MacLean’s intense descriptions of the altered states he endured as he tried to rediscover his identity. Recalling the return to his parents’ home, he writes: “I felt myself slipping, worried that I’d never recover, that I’d be in this wood-glue-filled piñata for the rest of my life. And then if I did recover, if I got everything back, who knew if it would happen again? How many times would I end up touring the exhibits of my curated self?”
A mesmerizing debut. MacLean spares no detail in tracing his formidable reconstruction.
It takes a virtuoso writer to make another familial memoir of addiction seem as vital and compelling as this stunning debut does.
Where most memoirs have more of a novelistic, chronological continuity, Fiddleback senior nonfiction editor Nelson structures this book as a series of autobiographical essays, most of which could stand on their own; they are the nonfiction equivalent of a series of interconnected short stories. That form perfectly suits her story of a family in which “the roles have been pre-prescribed, written into our DNA.” The father will die young after long absences in jail or rehab or another relapse after a short stretch of sobriety. The mother will also self-medicate as she tries to sustain the illusion of family, one that is always falling apart. The son will inherit “the dead father’s legacy, this disease,” and is often missing and feared dead. The older sister will write this memoir after studying abroad, falling in love, earning her MFA in creative writing, teaching college, publishing in a number of highly regarded journals and maintaining a facade that masks her genetic code: “We are an imperfect people, full of contradictions. Do as I say, not as I do. That sort of thing. Outsiders see me as the most put together, but I harbor a secret: I am just better at faking it. I make it through the day.” Yet some days have been a whole lot tougher to make it through, to sustain a sense of “my real life, the one outside the theater of my brother’s addiction.” As it does in the cycles of recovery and relapse, prison and release, chronology jumbles, and verb tenses shift. The book’s excellent centerpiece, “A Second of Startling Regret,” unravels the family dynamic and illuminates the “self-sabotaging brain.” Even the occasional misstep into writerly precocity—“There is something heroic about fishermen—all that faith in the dark”—can’t compromise the author’s unflinching honesty and her story’s power.
In this captivating and intimate book, the editor of the Atlantic spares no detail about his lifelong struggle with anxiety and contextualizes his personal experience within the history of anxiety's perception and treatment.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in seven Americans currently suffers from some form of anxiety. Stossel (Sarge: The Life and Times of Sergeant Shriver, 2004), whose assorted phobias and neuroses began to manifest when he was a toddler, provides an exceptionally relatable and frequently hilarious account of a modern sufferer: the endless combinations of therapy and drugs, pharmaceutical and otherwise; the inevitable mishaps of a public figure who is terrified of flying, enclosed spaces and speaking in public; the delicate negotiation between managing psychological torment and being a husband and father. Alongside these anecdotes—one of which, involving the Kennedy family, is laugh-out-loud funny—the author explores how anxiety has affected humans for centuries and how there is still no “cure.” Instead, anxiety is a "riddle" with very personal and diverse factors and symptoms, and it affects people from all walks of life. Many great minds, including Freud and Darwin, documented their battles with anxiety. They also experimented with chemical interventions, testimony of a long history of sought-after relief from anxiety's debilitating effects. Stossel deftly explores a variety of treatments and their risks and successes, providing unique insight as both a journalist (whose priority is impartial investigation) and sufferer (whose imperative is to feel well). Throughout, the author's beautiful prose and careful research combine to make this book informative, thoughtful and fun to read.
Powerful, eye-opening and funny. Pitch-perfect in his storytelling, Stossel reminds us that, in many important ways, to be anxious is to be human.
One woman's melancholic search for herself amid the woods of Vermont.
Darling (Necessary Sins, 2007) takes readers on a slow journey of self-discovery, chronicling how she learned the ins and outs of living in rural Vermont. Once her daughter had started college, the apartment they shared in New York City after Darling's husband had died seemed too full of past memories. The author was ready to try her hand at a new adventure: "I would move to Vermont, to the little house I bought. I would buy a dog and live in the country. I would reinvent myself, a woman alone, solitary and self-contained." With that spirit, Darling packed up some belongings and moved to a small, owner-built, somewhat funky house tucked into the woods. Alone and dependent on her own resourcefulness, the author had to learn to navigate the tricky solar-power system and cranky generator, the mice in the ceiling and the collapsing roof on the woodshed. But she was stuck in limbo, unable to unpack, unable to write, unable to face the task of doing, so she ventured outdoors instead. The forest around her was an alien and unreadable landscape, as foreign as the woman she was trying to discover in herself. She stuck to the known paths while the narrow deer trails beckoned to her, egging her on to venture past the safe and narrow roadways. A routine doctor's visit and the unexpected diagnosis of cancer quickly catapulted Darling into foreign territory. From that point, she slowly and methodically discovered her route back to health and self-awareness. Haunting and lyrical, Darling's journey through unknown forests, both physical and emotional, resonates with longings, hopes, fears and a stalwart courage to conquer them all.
Evocative ruminations on getting older and discovering the links between nature and self.
Through stylistic understatement and perfect tonal pitch, this memoir somehow achieves its outlandish ambitions.
In lesser hands, a narrative steeped in obsessions with Moby-Dick and surfing and skateboarding would strain to make connections, especially when it’s also a coming-of-age, rite-of-passage memoir by a 30-something author who has trouble letting go of or committing to anything while recognizing that he should have grown up long ago. An avid skateboarder in Colorado with a graduate degree that lets him teach creative writing at the university level, Hocking (co-editor: Life and Limb: Skateboarders Write from the Deep End, 2004) gave it all up, along with a fulfilling romantic relationship, to move to New York for…what? He took a job delivering food and another reading manuscripts for rejection. He worked on a novel that was “basically going nowhere.” Incongruously enough, he discovered surfing, which offered a natural progression from his passion for skateboarding: “Like the majority of actual New York residents, I had no idea surfing was even possible here. Could you really ride the subway to the beach? If so, could you surf in the morning and hit the Metropolitan Museum of Art that same afternoon?” Thus New York allowed Hocking to develop a passion for surfing, which shared an ocean with his longtime obsession with Melville (whose paths through the city he retraced) and what appears to be an obsession with himself and with romance, coupled with an ambivalence toward commitment—to anything. “You know, you talk about loving everyone all the time like you’re some sort of enlightened being,” said the girlfriend over whom his obsession deepened after they split. “But the only reason you love anyone is to make yourself feel better.” Therapy, 12-step programs, a nervous breakdown, spiritual crisis and renewal, friends, career and geographical change, and some life-threatening experiences helped transform the author and deepen his appreciation of Moby-Dick.
In a book that’s likely far richer than the novel he shelved, Hocking ultimately transcends “the dark Ahab force.”
A New Yorker writer examines the arc of her life in the reflection of George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
This subgenre—examining personal history through the echoes of a singular work of art—can be riddled with land mines. When it works well—e.g., Alan Light’s The Holy and the Broken (2012)—the results can be marvelous. Obviously fleshed out from her New Yorker article “Middlemarch and Me,” Mead (One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, 2007) could have simply written a dense biography of Mary Ann Evans, who would go on to write some of the most enduring novels of the Victorian era under her pen name. In fact, Mead was wise not to omit herself from this story, as her feelings about the great work and its themes of women’s roles, relationships and self-delusion are far more insightful than a barrage of facts would have been. Mead discovered the book at 17, a critical time when the character of Dorothea Brooke, the aspirational protagonist forced to subjugate her dreams, truly spoke to her. In some ways, it’s easy to see how Mead’s life has paralleled these fictional characters she so admires, even as she repeats some of the same mistakes. It’s difficult not to admire the sense of wonder that she continues to find in the pages of a novel more than a century old. “It demands that we enter into the perspective of other struggling, erring humans—and recognize that we, too, will sometimes be struggling, and may sometimes be erring, even when we are at our most arrogant and confident,” Mead writes. “And this is why every time I go back to the novel I feel that—while I might live a century without knowing as much as just a handful of its pages suggest—I may hope to be enlarged by each revisiting.”
A rare and remarkable fusion of techniques that draws two women together across time and space.
An immigrant’s memoir like few others, with as sharp an edge and as much stylistic audacity as the author’s well-received novels.
The Russian-American novelist writes that after completing this memoir, he reread his three novels (Super Sad True Love Story, 2010, etc.) and was “shocked by the overlaps between fiction and reality....On many occasions in my novels I have approached a certain truth only to turn away from it, only to point my finger and laugh at it and then scurry back to safety. In this book I promised myself I would not point the finger. My laughter would be intermittent. There would be no safety.” That observation minimizes just how funny this memoir frequently is, but it suggests that the richest, most complex character the author has ever rendered on the page is the one once known to his family as “Little Igor” and later tagged with “Scary Gary” by his Oberlin College classmates, with whom he recalls an incident, likely among many, in which he was “the drunkest, the stonedest, and, naturally, the scariest.” Fueled by “the rage and humor that are our chief inheritance,” Shteyngart traces his family history from the atrocities suffered in Stalinist Russia, through his difficulties assimilating as the “Red Nerd” of schoolboy America, through the asthma and panic attacks, alcoholism and psychoanalysis that preceded his literary breakthrough. He writes of the patronage of Korean-American novelist Chang-Rae Lee, who recruited him for a new creative writing program at Hunter College, helped him get a book deal for a novel he’d despaired over ever publishing and had “severely shaken my perception of what fiction about immigrants can get away with.” Ever since, he's been getting away with as much as he dares.
Though fans of the author’s fiction will find illumination, a memoir this compelling and entertaining—one that frequently collapses the distinction between comedy and tragedy—should expand his readership beyond those who have loved his novels.
A revelatory and occasionally hilarious memoir by the New Yorker cartoonist on helping her parents through their old age.
Few graphic memoirs are as engaging and powerful as this or strike a more responsive chord. Chast (What I Hate, 2011, etc.) retains her signature style and wry tone throughout this long-form blend of text and drawings, but nothing she’s done previously hits home as hard as this account of her family life as the only child of parents who had never even dated anyone else and whose deep bond left little room for this intruder in their midst. Yet, “the reality was that at 95, their minds and bodies were falling apart,” and these two people who had only relied on each other were forced to rely on a host of caretakers, their daughter in particular, and to move from the Brooklyn apartment that had been home for half a century into a series of facilities that provided fewer and fewer amenities at escalating expense. Chast rarely lapses into sentimentality and can often be quite funny, as she depicts mortality as “The Moving Sidewalk of Life” (“Caution: Drop-Off Ahead”) or deals with dread and anxiety on the “Wheel of DOOM, surrounded by the ‘cautionary’ tales of my childhood.” The older her parents get, the more their health declines and the more expensive the care they require, the bleaker the story becomes—until, toward the end, a series of 12 largely wordless drawings of her mother’s final days represents the most intimate and emotionally devastating art that Chast has created. So many have faced (or will face) the situation that the author details, but no one could render it like she does.
A top-notch graphic memoir that adds a whole new dimension to readers’ appreciation of Chast and her work.
Do we come from the sea? Hoare’s (The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea, 2010, etc.) absorbing book may well lead you to think so.
Could not man have come from the sea in search of the bounty of tidal beaches? Anyone who has an affinity, indeed a need, for the water will understand the author’s desire to swim every day near his home in Southampton, England, where “it is never not beautiful.” “At low tide,” he writes, “the beach is an indecent expanse laid bare by retreat, more like farmland than anything of the sea: an inundated field, almost peaty with sediment, as much charcoal as it is sludge.” No matter what country or continent he visits, the author makes a point to swim and become a part of that sea. He’s fearless as he leaps into oceans near and far to commune with any swimming mammal that may be near; whether whales or a superpod of 200 dolphins, the mammals of the sea circle him, inspect him and accept him. His travels and his meandering, humorous writing take us from the Isle of Wight to the Azores, Sri Lanka, and the nearly primeval Tasmania and New Zealand, and Hoare delivers delightful descriptions of sea creatures and shore birds, bemoaning animals newly and nearly extinct. This is not a book following the geography of the sea; nor is it a history of sailing. It is an attempt to establish and examine the oneness that the Maori have understood for years: There is no difference between life on land and life in the sea. While the author may digress occasionally, readers will relish his writing and devotion to nature and likely won’t begrudge him a bit of family history here and there.
A beautifully written memoir/travelogue with readable diversions into philosophy.
In this riveting memoir, Johnson (Trespasses, 2012) writes of falling prey to an act of terrifying violence and its aftermath.
In 2000, the author’s former boyfriend kidnapped her and held her captive, raped her and threatened her with death. Though she eventually escaped, it took years to free herself from the emotional and psychological damage she suffered. “Even what the mind forgets, the body remembers,” she writes. Written in an urgent first-person, present-tense voice, the narrative takes readers through the fear and rage as the writer lived it. Her painful memories, released in a nonlinear fashion, cut like shards of glass. It was 13 years after her abduction before she could get herself to go through the police report of her case. She read that the owner of the building where the crime took place was a friend of “The Man She Used To Live With” (perhaps for anonymity and to get some emotional distance, Johnson uses titles instead of names throughout the book) and would not reveal to the police where he had gone. The author also discovered that her attacker paid a student $100 to help him build the soundproof cell in which she was held. Later, she learned that her predator escaped to Venezuela, where he has family. Though she has lived in fear that he would contact her again, she writes, life went on. She got married, received a doctorate and had two children, and she has continued to fight depression, panic and emotional withdrawal. “I’m trapped on the other side of a wide, dark chasm,” she tells her husband. Writing the truth is her way to the other side. “This story tells me who I am. It gives me meaning,” she writes. “And I want to mean something so badly.”
Ferociously beautiful and courageous, Johnson’s intimate story sheds light on the perpetuation of violence against women.
A Mexican-American novelist’s wickedly compelling account of a dysfunctional childhood growing up “a full blooded American Indian brave” with five different fathers.
Skyhorse’s (The Madonnas of Echo Park, 2010) Mexican-born father left the family when the author was 3. Beautiful but prone to exaggeration, his mother, Maria, promptly renamed herself Running Deer and told her son that his father was an incarcerated Native American activist named Paul Skyhorse. While corresponding with her convict lover, the tempestuous Maria began bringing home a series of replacement fathers for her son who became “magicians, able to appear or disappear at will.” When the men finally left for good, each contributed to the hole in Skyhorse’s life that only “got bigger as [he] got older” and made him question his own ability to ever be a father himself. The stable but witheringly sharp-tongued center of the family home was Maria’s mother, June. While her daughter ran her own phone sex business and created the myths that substituted for Skyhorse’s true family history, June, a lesbian, “collect[ed] neighborhood stories and barter[ed] them” with everyone she knew. Guilt and anger kept the author emotionally tied to his mother even after he left home and Maria eventually died. He learned to accept himself as a Mexican “who happened to be raised as [his] mother’s kind of Indian,” but he struggled through broken relationships and bouts of depression. As he gathered up the shards of his life and began to make peace with all of his fathers, especially his biological one, Skyhorse realized the one truth that his storytelling mother and grandmother had known instinctively: that “stories [could] help you survive…and transform your life…from where you are into wherever you want to be.”
By turns funny and wrenching, the narrative is an unforgettable tour de force of memory, love and imagination.
Crais (History and African Studies/Emory University; co-editor: Poverty, War, and Violence in South Africa, 2011, etc.) suffers from chronic childhood amnesia, a condition that leaves him bereft of memories of his youngest years. “I am a contradiction,” he writes. “I am a historian who can’t remember.” This form of amnesia results from early childhood trauma—in the author’s case, his mother’s attempt to drown him in a bathtub when he was 3 after her husband abandoned her and their five children; and her attempted suicide a few years later. These two violent episodes punctuated a devastating youth. Crais lived for years with his alcoholic mother in a roach-infested apartment, hungry and neglected; from time to time, he was shunted among relatives. In his attempt to revive that period, the author decided to apply a historian’s methodology, interviewing his mother and sisters, examining photographs and public records, and visiting old neighborhoods. What he found unnerved him. “The past is a mess,” he writes, “a bloody terrible mess of infinite horror”: mental illness, suicide, alcoholism and poverty. He felt “dirty,” he admits, “not only from prying into the lives of others but by association—too close to a chasm of tragedies from which I want to escape but seem instead to be falling into.” Along with historical research, Crais turned to neuroscience to help him understand his own identity. “Trauma obliterates time,” he writes. “Trauma trips up the elaborate choreography of being….” Sadly Crais’ siblings have become casualties of the family’s history, living “in despair, with broken marriages, depression, abusive relationships, and substance abuse.” Yet the author has managed not only to survive, but to thrive.
This memoir of anguish and struggle is a story of remarkable strength and unlikely, inexplicable resilience.
A high school teacher who became a full-time writer returns to the high school where he taught for years.
Harper’s contributor Keizer (Privacy, 2011, etc.) chronicles his return to teaching at a rural Vermont high school 14 years after his departure. One of Keizer's former students was now the principal, all the students now possessed smartphones, and teaching to the test was more common than before. Some phenomena had not changed, however: the motivated students, the indifferent students, the time-consuming lesson plans, the seemingly endless grading of essays, the individual crises of students at home and in the hallways, as well as the occasional classroom revolts that any teacher would have difficulty controlling. Keizer is a sometimes-sardonic, sometimes-maudlin, always entertaining guide to contemporary high school atmospherics. The paperwork he must complete about each student's performance led him to conclude that it has become increasingly difficult to teach the actual educational substance of what the paperwork indicates should be measured by the curriculum. Keizer explains that even if teaching conditions were closer to ideal, many of the students come from homes where nobody previously has graduated from high school; thus, a higher education will not carry much value in the minds of older rural Vermont residents. Even though he often hoped for the school year to end, Keizer felt devoted to each student, knowing that the schoolwork was providing the acculturation that students lacked at home. The author never romanticizes classroom teaching, and he skillfully compares his own admittedly challenging daily tasks to the even more difficult tasks willingly undertaken by his wife and his adult daughter, who teach special needs children. “It’s fair to say that I have never gone to work in a school with what might be called purity of heart,” writes the author, “though much of what I know about purity of heart I learned there.”
A well-written, yearlong chronicle packed with humor, pathos and valued insights on nearly every page.
A writer’s wickedly droll account of how she came to terms with her WASP heritage and the impossible expectations of “mother” New England.
With its “pristine town center, gleaming with historically correct colors,” Stuart’s (My First Cousin Once Removed: Money, Madness, and the Family of Robert Lowell, 1998, etc.) hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, seemed the embodiment of perfection. But as Stuart well knew, high-flying moral pretensions, hypocrisy, and an insatiable hunger for social prestige and high-priced real estate bubbled just beneath the deceptively charming surface. In this wry memoir, the author explores her relationship with her hometown and with a whole host of Concord notables, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathanial Hawthorne to Louisa May Alcott, whose fictional mother Marmee—and the perpetually miserable Alcott matriarch on whom she was based—represents everything good and bad about New England culture. A rebel who defied the WASP values of thrift, practicality and quiet snobbery, Payne fled Concord for New York after an early marriage. Yet within 10 years of leaving, her longing to return home became “obsessive.” Concord had “become a kind of utopia, where [she] would give her children the perfect childhood.” It also became a personal testing ground where she fantasized she could engage in error-free parenting while earning the approval of her own mother and father. Instead, Stuart found herself moving into larger and larger homes she and her husband could not afford and joining exclusive social clubs, all in the name of maintaining the facade of WASP success. Seeking enlightenment about her dilemmas and compulsions, the author examines her family’s personal history as well as Concord literary history. She learned that her pattern of feeling guilt and smugness on the one hand and seeing nonexistent coziness on the other were part of a heritage best survived through self-deprecating humor.
A young Armenian-American journalist examines her identity and personal history.
New York Times contributor Toumani grew up hating Turkey. She knew that between 1915 and 1923, nearly 1 million Armenians were massacred and another 1 million deported from the Ottoman Empire, a surge of violence that punctuated generations of oppression. She also knew that the Armenian diaspora was obsessed with world recognition of the conflict as genocide, a term that Turkey vehemently rejected. Even 100 years later, many Armenians are still ferocious in their abhorrence of all things Turkish. But for Toumani, that hatred had come “to feel like a chokehold, a call to conformity,” and she wanted “to understand how history, identity, my clan and my feeling of obligation to it, had defined me.” That search took her to Turkey, where she lived for more than two years, interviewing writers, historians, students, professors and activists about the fraught relationship of Turks to ethnic minorities. Cautious about admitting that she was Armenian, Toumani discovered that once she did, “the distance from ‘Nice to meet you’ to the words ‘so-called genocide’ was sometimes less than two minutes long.” Many Turks claimed to have Armenian friends, but stereotypes were deeply entrenched: Armenians were greedy, shifty and duplicitous. The murder of an outspoken journalist who worked to find common ground between Turks and Armenians brought political hatreds into stark view. Arriving with the idea that “soft reconciliation was important and valuable—that simply getting Turks and Armenians to interact as human beings seemed like a major step,” Toumani felt increasingly frustrated with the intolerance she encountered and with her own prejudices, which “seemed stronger than ever.” She came to believe that the term “genocide” is no more than a clinical label that dilutes the visceral reality of the past.
This remarkable memoir serves as a moving examination of the complex forces of ethnicity, nationality and history that shape one’s sense of self and foster, threaten or fray the fragile tapestry of community.
A journalist’s account of growing up between cultures and learning to embrace both her ethnic and bisexual identities.
Former ColorLines magazine executive editor Hernández (co-editor: Colonize This!: Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism, 2002) was raised as the first-generation American child of a working-class Colombian mother and Cuban father. For her, “everything real”—from family conversations to the observations of her beloved aunts to favorite TV shows—happened in Spanish. However, her family wanted their daughter to achieve more in life than they could, so learning English “to become white” and Americanized became the goal they impressed upon their daughter. Yet as Hernández came to understand, learning a language that was hers by nationality but not by ethnicity meant growing away from her family and adopting the attitude that she had “no history, no past, no culture.” The break was not easy; so much from her colorful dual heritage formed the bedrock of her identity. In her parents’ world, saints performed miracles, and cups of water could carry messages between the living and the dead. In that world, too, women married (or avoided) certain kinds of men. As Hernández grew into adulthood and sexuality, she fulfilled her parents’ desire to find a “gringo” boyfriend. At the same time, she discovered a desire for lesbian and transgender women. Her family castigated Hernández for her bisexuality but also lauded their daughter for finding middle-class success as a New York Times reporter. Striving to be true to herself as a queer (rather than queer and whitewashed) Latina, she eventually took a chance writing for a social justice magazine in San Francisco. Warm and thoughtful, Hernández writes with cleareyed compassion about living, and redefining success, at the intersection of social, ethnic and racial difference.
Personal storytelling at its most authentic and heartfelt.
Think you've heard it all about the grueling, fatigue-driven years suffered by interns and residents once they get their degrees? Think again.
Holt (In the Valley of the Kings: Stories, 2009) came 20 years later to medicine than most of his peers, choosing a writing career first. Whatever the reasons for that latter-day commitment, the result is a beautiful, riveting book that puts readers on the spot in the ward, in the ICU, making the rounds, talking to families, making hospice calls and participating in the “bedlam” of a “Code Blue” resuscitation. What Holt set out to do was to convey the “un-narratibility” of hospital life (“too manifold, too layered, too many damn things happening one on top of the other”) in parables that would condense and transform the experience, as he himself was transformed. To that end, he uses composites of many different cases. In the process, he has created unforgettable portraits of the gravely ill or dying: the obese woman hospitalized for a “tune-up” to rid her body of excess fluids; the young woman who should have died from too many Tylenols but was saved by a liver transplant; the hospice patient whose face was covered by a surgical mask to conceal the loss of most of her lower face to cancer. “Nothing happens in these pages that doesn’t happen every day in a variety of ways in hospitals everywhere,” writes the author. “I have had to simplify what defied narrative form, and alter or suppress whatever might have compromised the respect patients deserve. But in making sense of residency within the constraints of narrative form and human decency, I have hewed as closely as possible to the lived reality of the hospital.”
Holt says that he wrote the book over a period of 10 years. Let’s hope for a shorter duration before we next hear from this gifted writer/physician.
A distinguished NYU law professor and MacArthur grant recipient offers the compelling story of the legal practice he founded to protect the rights of people on the margins of American society.
Stevenson began law school at Harvard knowing only that the life path he would follow would have something to do with [improving] the lives of the poor.” An internship at the Atlanta-based Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in 1983 not only put him into contact with death row prisoners, but also defined his professional trajectory. In 1989, the author opened a nonprofit legal center, the Equal Justice Initiative, in Alabama, a state with some of the harshest, most rigid capital punishment laws in the country. Underfunded and chronically overloaded by requests for help, his organization worked tirelessly on behalf of men, women and children who, for reasons of race, mental illness, lack of money and/or family support, had been victimized by the American justice system. One of Stevenson’s first and most significant cases involved a black man named Walter McMillian. Wrongly accused of the murder of a white woman, McMillian found himself on death row before a sentence had even been determined. Though EJI secured his release six years later, McMillian “received no money, no assistance [and] no counseling” for the imprisonment that would eventually contribute to a tragic personal decline. In the meantime, Stevenson would also experience his own personal crisis. “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it,” he writes. Yet he would emerge from despair, believing that it was only by acknowledging brokenness that individuals could begin to understand the importance of tempering imperfect justice with mercy and compassion.
The transgender author delivers a unique, powerful rite-of-passage memoir.
Plenty of writers have written about the experience of making the transition from one gender to another, but most haven’t also dealt with child molestation, paternity issues and a mugging by a man who would soon commit murder—not to mention a partner who has mixed feelings about the author’s becoming a man. Resisting the inclination to sensationalize (or sentimentalize), McBee interweaves the various strands of the narrative, exercising plenty of restraint. The first section alternates between the author as a 10-year-old girl wrestling with sending a man to prison, and the mugging almost two decades later, when the author (who, still female, could pass for a man) is attacked with her partner by a stranger who would soon make headlines for another crime. In each case, there’s a theme of forgiveness, a quality of mercy that does not seem strained. “The world seemed to me a place of beautiful, damaged things and I wanted to love them all,” explains the author early on. Whether his father—or the mugger, for that matter—affected his attitude toward men in general and his decision, with deep ambivalence, to live a life after 30 as a transgender man isn’t subject to pat psychology here. Instead, the author writes in matter-of-fact detail about the tension and love shared with a fiancee and about self-discovery pilgrimages to explore bloodlines and paternity.
“The world is vicious and beautiful and, to some extent, unexplainable,” writes the author. “But that doesn’t stop us from wanting a story.” This is quite a story, masterfully rendered.