A noted young poet unexpectedly boomerangs back into her parents’ home and transforms the return into a richly textured story of an unconventional family and life.
After Lockwood (Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, 2014, etc.) discovered that her journalist husband, Jason, needed lens replacements in both his eyes, the pair “[threw themselves] on the mercy of the church.” This meant going to Kansas City to live with her mother and eccentric father, an ex-Navy man and former Lutheran minister–turned–deer-hunting, guitar-wielding Catholic priest. For the next eight months, Lockwood and Jason, who had met online when both were 19 and begun their peripatetic married life not long afterward, found they were like “babies in limbo”: dependent on parents after 10 years of living on their own. Throughout, Lockwood interweaves a narrative of those eight months with memories of her childhood and adolescence. Though not always occupying center stage, her father is always at the heart of the book. The author describes her “priestdaddy’s” penchant for creating “armageddon” with the guitar, which he treated like some illicit lover by practicing it “behind half-closed doors.” At the same time, she confesses her own uncomfortable proximity to church pedophile scandals and clerics that had been forced to resign. Lockwood treats other figures—like the mother who wanted to call the police after discovering semen on a Nashville hotel bed and the virgin seminarian “haunted by the concept [of milfs]”—with a wickedly hilarious mix of love and scorn. Yet belying the unapologetically raunchy humor is a profound seriousness. Episodes that trace the darker parts of Lockwood’s life—such as a Tylenol-fueled teenage suicide attempt; her father’s arrest at an abortion clinic sit-in; and origins of the disease and sterility that would become her family’s “crosses” to bear—are especially moving. Funny, tender, and profane, Lockwood’s complex story moves with lyrical ease between comedy and tragedy as it explores issues of identity, religion, belonging, and love.
A linguistically dexterous, eloquently satisfying narrative debut.
One of Canada’s most famous and successful restaurateurs chronicles the ups and downs of being a successful woman in a famously sexist industry.
Restaurant memoirs are notoriously salacious, from the escapades of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential to the rash of waiter memoirs of recent years. Here, one of Canada’s most well-known restaurateurs offers something different: a confessional, observational autobiography that is as unapologetic as it is instructive. Agg may not be a household name in the United States, but her charcuterie-based restaurant empire—including The Black Hoof in Toronto and Agrikol in Montreal—is legendary north of the border. The narrative opens on a busy night as the author observes the rhythms and swells of her restaurant. She also drops observations that seem casual but can be mapped back to give clues to her success. “Having the front and back function as a team rather than opponents begrudging each other at every opportunity isn’t just important, it’s essential,” she writes, “but it’s a new model, completely opposed to how it’s always been done.” Agg also offers a raw chronicle of her trials and tribulations, from burning out a starter marriage and suffering bankruptcy after her first venture to meeting her husband Roland Jean and launching The Black Hoof. To the delight of Toronto’s gossip circles, she also pulls back the curtain on her split with former partner and now celebrity chef Grant van Gameren. The book showcases a wealth of dichotomies, as the author is able to spin carnal anecdotes about sex and food but follow them up with an artful declaration of independence for every woman who suffers from sexism in the kitchen. Whimsical illustrations by friends and family of everything from a charcuterie board to a nude portrait of the author add to the book’s unique charms.
An inspiring, graphic, and funny memoir from an entrepreneur unafraid to tell it like it is.
The noted artist, collector, and visionary offers a personal anthology/memoir, complete with junior high photos and memories of the cul-de-sacs of Omaha.
“Does the world really need another printed tome about an artist, let alone one about an admittedly marginal and rather questionable graphic novelist/artist/writer who has already littered the recycling centers and used bookstores of his home country with dog-eared examples of his own self-regard?” So asks Ware (Building Stories, 2012, etc.), deep into a collection whose Greek-derived and “somewhat self-referential” title speaks to his usual custom: writing alone, tucked away in a dark corner with pens and books. NPR host Ira Glass, who provides the preface, got him out of the house a few years ago, Ware writes, and the exposure helped him become better known to readers, but it wasn’t as if he was a hermit. He worked as a newspaper cartoonist, a graphic artist, an illustrator, and, as he writes, learned on the job to be a social being and to pay attention to deadlines and requirements, all good things for a budding artist to know. Throughout, Ware peppers his narrative with other lessons he’s learned along the way: about technique, the history of art, the links between cartoons and cinema, and yes, about life, aging, and so forth; it’s good to change your horizons and see the world, as he reckons, because “artists don’t develop in a vacuum.” The oversized book is overstuffed with art, each page spread containing numerous images, cartoon strips, sketches, mockups, snapshots, scrapbook items, and other such treasures that will be of immense appeal to fans of Krazy Kat and Joseph Cornell alike. The text is as smart and illuminating as the images, and Ware has wise things to say everywhere along the way.
This collection has a last-word feel to it, offering a delightful summation of a fruitful and very busy last few decades. Fans, of course, will want much more, but this makes a great start.
A retired British neurosurgeon delivers the follow-up to his well-received debut memoir, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery (2015).
The author’s first book received rave reviews and sold well. While follow-ups to exceptional first books have a spotty record, readers who open Marsh’s sophomore effort will quickly realize that they are in the hands of a master. Now retired, Marsh looks back over his life and career but mostly recounts his volunteer work in Nepal and Ukraine, extremely poor nations with abysmal medical care. He meticulously describes his successes but, as usual, feels more distress at failures. Ironically, these occur too often because the patients in these countries often believe that doctors can work miracles, so they often insist on surgery even after a careful explanation that it’s unlikely to help. Operating on a cerebral hemorrhage or incurable brain tumor regularly converts a quick death to a slow, miserable one. American readers will note that this belies Marsh’s statement that “only in America have I seen so much treatment devoted to so many people with such little chance of making a useful recovery.” They will also learn of his admiration for American surgeons and his opinion—widely shared—that because they are paid each time they operate, they do so too often. In all his travels, the only nation where the subject of payment has never arisen is Britain. Marsh justifiably rages against elected officials who could eliminate the National Health Service’s most desperate need, money, by raising taxes but don’t because it might endanger their chances of re-election.
Another thoughtful, painful, utterly fascinating mixture of nut-and-bolts brain surgery with a compassionate, workaholic surgeon’s view of medicine around the world and his own limitations. Readers will hope that a third volume is in the works.
A veteran entertainment journalist shares the bittersweet story of his relationship with his husband and his tragic death from cancer.
In 2001, Ausiello, founder of TVLine.com, met and instantly gelled with handsome Christopher “Kit” Cowan. A hilariously described “aggressive form of CPR” between the two men sealed the romantic deal, and they became inseparable. Both would endure the navigation of sexual and bodily insecurities and some peculiar quirks like Kit’s assortment of sex toys and the author’s penchant for wine and an ever blossoming Smurf collection. Rough interpersonal waters would lead to a mutual “soft breakup” and to couples therapy before their world would be spun upside down by an unforeseen scare. The tone of the memoir changes when Kit discovers an abnormality in his colon, which brought up the same cancer fears Ausiello experienced in his youth when his mother and father both passed away by the time he was 22. Kit was diagnosed with a rare aggressive neuroendocrine tumor, which carried a hopeful if precarious prognosis. Faced with the possibility of his time with Kit ending, the author proposed marriage, and Ausiello describes the event in tear-jerking details and blubbering adoration. He intersperses the narrative with anecdotes from their evolution as a couple, sweetened by love and affection yet easily bruised by infidelity, personal differences, and petty bickering. As chemotherapy took its toll on Kit and the prospect of remission dimmed, the author remained a strong, dedicated husband. Kit succumbed to the cancer just 11 months later, leaving Ausiello feeling like “a chunk of me had broken off and attached itself to Kit as he drifted away.” Though he was left to deal with the expansive void left in Kit’s wake, the memoir’s conclusion is leavened with hope, healing, and enduring devotion. Tender, profoundly poignant, and cleverly written with equal parts wit and integrity, the book is grounded in the realities of modern relationships and the grim fate of mortality.
A heartbreaking memoir infused with dark humor and composed with true love.
Food historian Twitty, creator of the Afroculinaria blog, serves up a splendid hearth-based history, at once personal and universal, of the African-American experience.
The author accounts himself a citizen of the Old South, “a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are.” It is also, he continues, a fraught place where food controversies—whether to put sugar and not molasses in cornbread, say—pile atop controversies of history, all pointing to the terrible fact of slavery. Twitty’s book is not just about food, though it certainly covers the broad expanse of African-American cooking over the centuries and how it shaped the larger Southern American culinary tradition. The author delights in the “world of edible antiques” that his researches take him into, a world requiring him to think in terms of gills, drams, and pecks. Twitty also traces his own family history, beyond the eight or so generations that carry documents, to places all over the world: a white ancestor here, an Indonesian by way of Madagascar forebear there, Native Americans and West Africans and Anglos meeting in bloodstreams and at table. On all these matters, the author writes with elegant urgency, moving swiftly from topic to topic: on one page, he may write of the tobacco economy of the Confederacy, on another of the ways in which “the food of the Chesapeake grew legs as the culture of the Upper South was forced to branch out” beyond the Appalachians and Mississippi into new territories, such that “turkey with oyster dressing on a Maryland plantation became turkey with freshwater clam and mussel sauce on a slaveholding Missouri farmstead.” Drawing on a wealth of documentary digging, personal interviews, and plenty of time in the kitchen, Twitty ably joins past and present, puzzling out culinary mysteries along the way—e.g., “chickens got served to preachers because chickens had always flounced in the hands of African priests, and nobody remembered why.”
An exemplary, inviting exploration and an inspiration for cooks and genealogists alike.
An account of the lessons learned by a son and his father as they study the Greek epic together.
There have been plenty of gimmicky books about returning to the classics and unearthing the contemporary implications and timeless wisdom therein. This sharply intelligent and deeply felt work operates on an entirely different level—several of them, in fact. A frequent contributor to the New Yorker and New York Times Book Review and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, Mendelsohn (Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture, 2012, etc.) is also a classics scholar who teaches a seminar on The Odyssey at Bard College. His father, a retired mathematician and research scientist, had been interested in the classics during his school days and decided to continue his education by studying with his son. The two also embarked on an educational cruise that attempts to re-create the journey of Odysseus. This would seem to present challenges for a man nearing his 82nd birthday, but it proved to be more of a trial for his son. Ultimately, this is a book about what they learn about each other and what they know about each other and what they can never know about each other. The author uses a close reading of the epic to illuminate the mysteries of the human condition, and he skillfully and subtly interweaves the classroom textual analysis and the lessons of the life outside it. “That’s how I was trained, and that’s how the people who trained me were trained,” he writes. “If the work has real coherence, all these details will add up, even if they’re not noticeable at first and even if the big picture isn’t clear. Only by means of close reading can we understand what the big picture is and how the pieces, the small things, fit into it.” Revelations for Mendelsohn provide epiphanies for readers as well.
A well-told story that underscores the power of storytelling.
“I am a bipolar gorilla”: a tale of madness, self-destruction, and the stalwart presence of a family that, while not exactly the Waltons, is always there.
You’ve got to like a book that opens with a Granny who prays the rosary, digs the Stones, and calls the police “pigs,” as in, “Zachariah, look out the window. Is that the pigs?” If Granny is a person not to mess with, Grandpa is a whiskey-soaked philosopher, and Bird—well, that would be Zachariah’s mom, who is the toughest and most reliable of them all, a rock on whom whole cities could be founded. McDermott’s memoir is decidedly offbeat, unfolding like a country song. There’s the law, some good jokes, substance abuse, and love lost and found, but there’s also a keenly felt sense of justice for the people who can’t catch a break in this world, “the dregs, the castoffs, the addicts, and the Uncle Eddies,” the latter a relative who pioneered the author’s path into the mental health system all those years ago. It’s a system that McDermott describes from two vantage points, one as a public defender who represents emotionally disturbed persons and one as someone who has spent time on the other side of the door, committed for clearly valid reasons even as we come to understand that mental health is not likely to be encountered in mental health institutions—or, as he writes, “regaining sanity at a mental hospital is like treating a migraine at a rave.” That makes sense, for who could be healed in a place, as he writes, where the air is a fetid assault, inasmuch as “90 percent of our prescribed medications came with rancid and constant dog farts as side effects”?
If the Joads were tanked up on Bud Light and Haldol and Steinbeck were under Hunter S. Thompson’s influence, this might be the result—rueful, funny, and utterly authentic.
A heart-rending debut memoir from the outspoken feminist and essayist.
Gay (Bad Feminist, 2014, etc.) pulls no punches in declaring that her story is devoid of “any powerful insight into what it takes to overcome an unruly body and unruly appetites.” Rather than a success story, it depicts the author, at 42, still in the throes of a lifelong struggle with the fallout from a harrowing violation in her youth. The author exposes the personal demons haunting her life—namely weight and trauma—which she deems “the ugliest, weakest, barest parts of me.” Much of her inner turmoil sprang from a devastating gang rape at age 12. “I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe,” she writes. Gay painfully recalls the “lost years” of her reckless 20s as a time when food, the anonymity of the internet, and creative writing became escapes and balms for loneliness. The author refers to her body as a “cage” in which she has become trapped, but her obesity also presents itself as a personal challenge to overcome the paralyzing psychological damage caused by rape. Broken into clipped, emotionally resonant chapters, Gay details a personal life spent grappling with the comfort of food, body hyperconsciousness, shame, and self-loathing. Throughout, the author is rightfully opinionated, sharply criticizing the media’s stereotypical portrayal of obesity and Oprah Winfrey’s contradictory dieting messages. She is just as engaging when discussing her bisexuality and her adoration for Ina Garten, who taught her “that a woman can be plump and pleasant and absolutely in love with food.” Gay clearly understands the dynamics of dieting and exercise and the frustrations of eating disorders, but she also is keenly in touch with the fact that there are many who feel she is fine just as she is. The author continues her healing return from brokenness and offers hope for others struggling with weight, sexual trauma, or bodily shame.
An intense, unsparingly honest portrait of childhood crisis and its enduring aftermath.
A sharply written, politically charged memoir of life in the data trenches by computer pioneer Ullman (By Blood, 2012, etc.).
“I once had a job where I didn’t talk to anyone for two years,” writes the author, who is known in computing circles for many things, not least her work on one of the graphical forerunners to Windows. As Ullman notes, programmers live in “mind-time” and not the ordinary time-space continuum the rest of us inhabit, and in any event they’re poorly socialized; one early boss had intended to hire her simply to inflict a woman on an underling (“evidently, Peterson was some manager he wished ill, and I was the ill”), then was demoted to the underling’s position and grudgingly had to supervise her himself. Early on, by her account, Ullman brought ethical considerations to bear on her work, reminding teammates on a project that veered into epidemiology that the best solution was not the Nazi one of killing off carriers of a particular disease, which earned her the sneer of a male colleague: “This is how I know you’re not a real techie.” More than a personal account, Ullman’s narrative is a you-are-here chronicle of the evolution of things we take for granted, from the early AI research of the 1970s and the first flickerings of the personal computer to the founding of Google—and now, to a decidedly dystopian present that is the real thrust of a sometimes-rueful confession. As Ullman writes without hyperbole, all the liberatory promise of the personal computer has been swallowed up by corporations. Corporate leaders may promise that they’re changing the world, but that proclamation is “but an advertisement, a branding that obscures the little devil, disruption, that hides within the mantra” and threatens to destroy what little civilization we have left.
What Anthony Bourdain did for chefs, Ullman does for computer geeks. A fine rejoinder and update to Doug Coupland’s Microserfs and of great interest to any computer user.
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.
A noted cookbook writer tells the story of her young-adulthood battles with mental illness and self-harming behaviors.
Abandoned and neglected by her mother and father when she was just 13, LeFavour (Pork: More than 50 Heavenly Meals that Celebrate the Glory of Pig, Delicious Pig, 2014, etc.) grew up virtually parent-free. Though never wanting for money, she began to experience depression in high school; in the years after college, her symptoms, which included irrational numerical fixations and bulimia, began to worsen. When the author was 24, she started therapy with a Vermont psychiatrist named Dr. Adam Kohl. The more she opened up, the more she discovered that she “wanted all of him—or none.” Taking masochistic pleasure in how “special” her own self-loathing made her feel, LeFavour began inflicting cigarette burns all over her body, which she only showed to Kohl. The marks were “[their] secret” but also a way for LeFavour to “punish” the psychiatrist for “activating my desire for him.” Their therapy sessions devolved into a contest of wills, with the doctor refusing to see an increasingly distraught LeFavour if she continued to self-harm. Told that their sessions would go on only if she went to a psychiatric hospital, the author voluntarily committed herself to Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Maryland, where she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. When she returned to therapy with Kohl, they probed her taste for humiliation, which she satisfied with damaged men or those who, like the doctor, were unavailable to her. Working against demons and an inner tyrant that often threatened to overwhelm her, LeFavour learned the lessons of self-forgiveness that helped her heal. Meticulously constructed from detailed physician notes and her own journals, the book is both disturbing and deeply cathartic. As LeFavour explores the destructive relationship between her mind and body in tandem with her unhealthy, quasi-erotic attachment to her psychiatrist, she lays bare the human hunger—no matter how perverse—for acceptance and love.
A fierce new memoir from the essayist and longtime New York Times contributor.
In her debut, Poser (2011), Dederer trained her keen eye and penchant for dry self-deprecation on yoga and motherhood. Here, the author turns to other topics, primarily sex and aging. It seems she had no choice. Ensconced in her apparently perfect life—comfortable house, kind husband, loving kids, career success and recognition—Dederer found herself intermittently and uncomfortably aware of her “chaotic past,” of the “disastrous pirate slut of a girl” who was “breathing down my neck.” One day when she was 44, for reasons not entirely clear, though maybe as simple as the encroachment of middle age or the scent of nostalgia in the air, the latent hungers and preoccupations of her sexually active youth came rushing back, “as if a switch is flipped,” and refused to disappear. A disruptive, unbidden kiss from a man who was not her husband widened the crevice in the wall between her libidinous past and relatively contained, conventional present. Informed by her own diaries—20 of them recovered from boxes scattered throughout the basement—the author dedicated herself to considering the “horrible girl” she once was, examining her from a variety of angles to face her head-on and bravely mulling disquieting questions of identity and purpose. With candor and humor, Dederer dives deeply into her sexual history, which began with an unwelcome encounter at age 13, continued through her teenage explorations based around Seattle’s University Avenue in the early 1980s, and into her unhappy time at Oberlin and beyond. Along the way, she contemplates power and victimhood and the battle, or balance, between freedom and safety. Dederer is unstintingly honest and unafraid as she excavates her motivations and reservations, her fantasies, and the implications of the choices she has made – and those she has yet to make.
Insightful, provocative, and fearlessly frank, Dederer seduces readers with her warmth, wit, and wisdom.
The third in the author’s series of riveting titles about the histories, activities, duties, and effects of biographers.
Holmes (Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, 2013, etc.), who has written major biographies of Shelley, Coleridge, and others, has published previously on his current themes (Footsteps and Sidetracks), and his new volume brings together thoroughly rewritten pieces that had earlier incarnations as speeches, essays, and various ruminations. Early on he reiterates his fundamental belief that biographers must pursue their quarry: follow their footsteps and explore their sidetracks. Holmes proceeds to do so again here in sections that revisit the lives of the celebrated (Wollstonecraft, Shelley—both Mary and Percy Bysshe—Coleridge, Keats, Blake), but he also reacquaints us with some lesser-known notables like Margaret Cavendish, Isabelle de Tuyll, and Mary Somerville. The author’s focus remains sharp throughout, as he sketches his individuals’ lives, discusses the published biographies of them (from the earliest to the latest), and reveals his theories and beliefs about the writing of biography, beliefs that he has used to develop graduate courses in biography. Holmes proves to be a generous critic of the work of his predecessors and contemporaries—the word “superb” appears more than once—and he evinces awe when he considers what some early biographers experienced and endured to complete their work. In a few chapters, the author revises what we have previously thought about Coleridge’s early lectures and about the importance of Shelley’s drowning. Most impressive, though, are Holmes’ erudition—is there a relevant text he has not read or a significant site he has not visited?—and his clear, sharply focused prose. Throughout, he manifests the patience and the persistence to do right by his subjects.
Unparalleled research, transparent prose, and wide eyes can serve as a model for other biographers—indeed, for all other writers.
In her debut, journalist Kapsambelis builds a compelling narrative about Alzheimer’s disease around one North Dakota extended family.
In sections alternating among sagas of specific families, research in medical laboratories, and sweeping explanations of dementia, the author demonstrates beyond doubt that although Alzheimer’s acquired its name in the early 20th century (first described by Alois Alzheimer in 1906), it has devastated human brains for thousands of years. Much of what used to pass for old-age senility has actually been virulent dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is a specific type. A normal path of this abnormal disease starts with inconsistent memory, moves to the loss of motor skills, and culminates in a drawn-out, heartbreaking death phase. Alzheimer’s can rip apart families, often compromising the physical and mental health of the caregivers as well as the patients. Kapsambelis focuses largely on early-onset Alzheimer’s, which sometimes manifests as early as age 35. By focusing on the DeMoe family of rural North Dakota, the author was able to spend time with family members while they were still lucid. When Gail, an accomplished, lively young woman, married her husband, Galen DeMoe, she had no idea he harbored a mutant gene that would doom him and maybe any children they birthed to early-onset Alzheimer’s and excruciating declines. As detection techniques to spot the specific mutant gene progressed, each of the six children born to Galen and Gail had to decide if they wanted to be tested. Some of the six wanted to know quickly, while others delayed. If they carried the mutant gene, they also had to decide if they would risk having children of their own. In addition to clear discussions of the disease’s history and research, Kapsambelis successfully portrays Gail, Galen, and their extended family as fully fleshed individuals.
An educational and emotional chronicle that should resonate with a wide variety of readers.
An eloquent plea for a more humane approach to death and a moving meditation on the life that leads to that end.
Taylor (My Beautiful Enemy, 2014, etc.) was never a prolific novelist, but she makes every word count in this short memoir, published in her native Australia shortly before she died in the summer of 2016. “I’ve put off using my death as material for a long time, mainly because I couldn’t find the right tone,” she writes. “I’m not even sure I’ve found it now.” Despite that note of uncertainty, the author’s command of tone is masterful; her precise observance and unsentimental reflection take readers through the final stages of her fatal melanoma. It left her with so much gratitude at the richness of her life and significant regret over the loss of control a dying person experiences, given society’s tendency to want to prolong life as long as possible. There are three parts to the memoir. The first focuses on Taylor’s medical treatment, what led to it, and how she procured a drug from China that would allow her to commit suicide or to at least have that choice. The second encompasses the lives and deaths of her parents, whose marriage ended in tumult never resolved, and how the arrangements after those deaths intensified tension among the author and her siblings. There is a cautionary tale in this, a lesson she doesn’t want her own loving family to have to learn. The third section evokes the author’s childhood, what she remembers earliest and most vividly, and how life toward its end brings us full circle. “It’s often said that life is short,” she writes. “But life is also simultaneous, all of our experiences existing in time together, in the flesh.”
There is an ever expanding body of literature on coming to terms with mortality, and this entry ranks with the best.
The noted novelist and memoirist reflects on her marriage and the elusive nature of time.
To write openly about an enduring intimate relationship requires courage and tact; it’s a balancing act that can trip up the most seasoned of writers, not to mention potentially damage the sacred bond at stake. In this compelling account of her 18-year marriage, Shapiro (Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, 2013 etc.) carefully exposes the vulnerabilities that have subtly begun to surface within the relationship and, individually, within her husband and herself, over the years, sensitively addressing how time, age, and the fluctuations of success continue to impact their lives. This is the third marriage for the author. Her husband, referenced here as simply M., is a screenwriter and formerly a foreign correspondent who was based in Africa. Together, they live in a rural setting in Connecticut with their teenage son. Shapiro moves back and forth in time from their first meeting at a cocktail party in Manhattan and their subsequent wedding and honeymoon in France through the various trials they’ve faced within their marriage. These include the near-death of their young son, deaths of parents, struggles with finances, and difficulties navigating the career demands and frequent disappointments of two writers sharing their working lives from a home base. Throughout, the narrative demonstrates Shapiro’s finely tuned, poetic skills as a writer. “The stumbles and falls; the lapses in judgment; the near misses; the could-haves. I’ve become convinced that our lives are shaped less by the mistakes we make than when we make them,” she writes. “There is less elasticity now. Less time to bounce back. And so I heed the urgent whisper and move with greater and greater deliberation. I hold my life with M. carefully in my hands like the faience pottery we brought back from our honeymoon long ago….We must be handled with care.”
A sharply observed and frequently moving memoir of a marriage.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Powers (Mark Twain: A Life, 2005, etc.) presents two searing sagas: an indictment of mental health care in the United States and the story of his two schizophrenic sons.
Having previously published notable books in the realms of biography, media criticism, small-town ethnography, investigative journalism, and memoir, the author once again demonstrates his versatility. The unforgettable title of his latest book derives from a callous comment made by a politician in 2010. As Powers demonstrates through in-depth reporting and his own personal experience, even when those in positions of authority sincerely believe in the importance of helping those who are mentally ill, meaningful care tends to receive short shrift at budget time. The author never wanted to write a book about mental health because of the nightmares that would arise discussing highly personal matters. However, he decided that the urgency for improved mental health policy and funding in this country compelled him to forge ahead with a manuscript. By the time of his decision, nearly a decade had passed since his younger son, Kevin, had hanged himself in the basement of the family home a week prior to his 21st birthday. Then, as Powers and his wife continued in the grief and healing process, their only remaining child, Dean, began to show signs of schizophrenia. A psychotic break on a Christmas morning melted away the author’s resolve to refrain from writing this book—and readers are the beneficiaries. Powers intends for the book to comfort families dealing with severe mental illness, to shock general readers with examples of atrocities befalling the mentally ill, to show that “crazy people” are rarely dangerous to anybody but themselves, and to push for significant reform. “I hope you do not ‘enjoy’ this book,” he writes in the preface. “I hope you are wounded by it; wounded as I have been writing it. Wounded to act, to intervene.”
This hybrid narrative, enhanced by the author’s considerable skills as a literary stylist, succeeds on every level.
Insights and images combine in a meditation on loss, grief, and the illusions of permanence.
Sarabande Books managing editor Radtke isn’t an artist who also writes a little or a writer who scrawls but a master of both prose narrative and visual art. Like memory, the narrative loosens the binds of chronology, playing hopscotch through the author’s girlhood, college, formative years as an artist, and apocalyptic fantasy of her current home in New York. A strain of heart failure seems to run in Radtke’s family, and the key to this memoir is the death of her favorite uncle, who was recovering from the surgery that ultimately killed him and whose death made the author and her family all the more concerned with the family medical history. The event also planted the seed for this book and its larger thematic focus, as Radtke became “consumed by the question of how something that is can become, very suddenly, something that isn’t.” On her return home for the funeral, the author discovered an abandoned mining town that she would later revisit. During art school, she became fascinated by Gary, Indiana, a city in ruins, where she discovered the photos of someone whose attempts to document the city led to his death. She left a fiance and what she imagined to be a “stagnant future” for vagabond travels taking her from the ruins of Italy to the ravages of Southeast Asia, while her own heart condition gave notions of impermanence and loss a personal emphasis. “I couldn’t comprehend why the dead couldn’t be made undead,” she writes. “Why a heart that caved couldn’t be filled out again.” In a way, what she has done in this impressive book is to revive the dead and recover the lost while illuminating a world in flux, in which change is the only constant.
Powerfully illustrated and incisively written—a subtle dazzler of a debut.