An alcoholic’s confessional of life from buzzed adolescence to blitzed adulthood and the fellowship of recovery.
Educator, essayist, and novelist Jamison’s (The Empathy Exams: Essays, 2014, etc.) introduction to the alluring crackle of alcohol occurred innocently in her early teens, but her messy descent into full-blown addiction began years later with her first blackout. In her early 20s she began drinking daily to blunt chronic shyness and ease relationship woes while getting her master’s degree at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There, the author found “drunken dysfunction appealing” and identified with accomplished writers whose creative genius managed to function notably beneath the blurry haze of intoxication, something she dubs the “whiskey-and-ink mythology.” Throughout, the author references historical literary greats who were alcoholics, including Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman, Raymond Carver, Jean Rhys, and Charles Jackson, among others. Jamison examines the transformative patterns of addiction and how these authors, within their own bodies of work, attempted to “make some sense of the sadness that consumed” them. Saturated with unbridled honesty, her riveting chronicle expectedly slopes downward, as the author notes how she once believed that “passing out was no longer the price but the point.” After an abortion and persistent heart arrhythmias, Jamison eventually spiraled into the bleak desolation of rock-bottom alcoholism. Her ensuing heartbreaking attempts at rehabilitation ebbed and flowed. She relapsed after desperately missing the sensation of being drunk (“like having a candle lit inside you”), yet she also acknowledged that sobriety would be the only way to rediscover happiness and remain alive. Attending meetings, sharing her stories, and working the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous ushered the author into a new sober reality. Throughout Jamison’s somber yet earnestly revelatory narrative, she remains cogent and true to her dual commitment to sobriety and to author a unique memoir “that was honest about the grit and bliss and tedium of learning to live this way—in chorus, without the numbing privacy of getting drunk.”
The bracing, unflinching, and beautifully resonant history of a writer’s addiction and hard-won reclamation.
Born to extreme poverty in 1985 in war-torn Somalia, Iftin chronicles the extraordinary obstacles he overcame to obtain residency in the United States.
The author’s parents—and almost everybody of their generation in a lower-caste Somalian tribe—lived outdoors as nomads, raising camels and goats. They had never heard of the U.S. and only had a vague idea of Somalia as a diverse nation that had been colonized by Italy. Six years after Iftin’s birth and shortly after a devastating war with Ethiopia, Somalia descended into a tribal civil war that left millions dead, starving to death, or homeless. Amid a seemingly hopeless life filled with daily study of the Quran and corporal punishment from teachers if the memorization was less than perfect, a preteen Iftin became a combination of dreamer for a better life and street hustler to supply his family with scraps of food. He found a way into a ramshackle video store, where he violated Muslim tenets to view American movies, painstakingly repeating phrases to himself to learn English. “The things I saw in the movies seemed unreachable,” he writes, “but at least I could learn the language they spoke.” Eventually, the narrative shifts from his life of quiet desperation on the streets to his then-unrealistic plan to leave Somalia. The author reached a fetid refugee camp in Kenya and was able to obtain a visa to enter the U.S., where he knew nobody. Explaining how Iftin reached the U.S. would involve a series of spoilers, but suffice it to say that he did achieve entry four years ago, after which he found lodging, paid work, and formal education in Maine, where he plans to attend college. The author felt secure and optimistic there until the election of Donald Trump.
A searing memoir filled with horrors that impressively remains upbeat, highly inspiring, and always educational.
In which the veteran humorist enters middle age with fine snark but some trepidation as well.
Mortality is weighing on Sedaris (Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, 2017, etc.), much of it his own, professional narcissist that he is. Watching an elderly man have a bowel accident on a plane, he dreaded the day when he would be the target of teenagers’ jokes “as they raise their phones to take my picture from behind.” A skin tumor troubled him, but so did the doctor who told him he couldn’t keep it once it was removed. “But it’s my tumor,” he insisted. “I made it.” (Eventually, he found a semitrained doctor to remove and give him the lipoma, which he proceeded to feed to a turtle.) The deaths of others are much on the author’s mind as well: He contemplates the suicide of his sister Tiffany, his alcoholic mother’s death, and his cantankerous father’s erratic behavior. His contemplation of his mother’s drinking—and his family’s denial of it—makes for some of the most poignant writing in the book: The sound of her putting ice in a rocks glass increasingly sounded “like a trigger being cocked.” Despite the gloom, however, frivolity still abides in the Sedaris clan. His summer home on the Carolina coast, which he dubbed the Sea Section, overspills with irreverent bantering between him and his siblings as his long-suffering partner, Hugh, looks on. Sedaris hasn’t lost his capacity for bemused observations of the people he encounters. For example, cashiers who say “have a blessed day” make him feel “like you’ve been sprayed against your will with God cologne.” But bad news has sharpened the author’s humor, and this book is defined by a persistent, engaging bafflement over how seriously or unseriously to take life when it’s increasingly filled with Trump and funerals.
One of the most skilled investigative journalists in American history shares his saga in compelling detail.
Hersh (The Killing of Osama bin Laden, 2016, etc.), who has won seemingly every major literary award and is often portrayed as gruffly relentless, shows his charming side as he recounts his Chicago childhood with a small-businessman father, a quietly supportive mother, and three siblings—a twin brother and twin sisters. A quick learner with a restless curiosity, Hersh began and abandoned several career paths while attending college. He slipped into a low-paying, unglamorous journalism job in Chicago, departed and returned to that career path several times, and then needed to figure out what to do after completing “six months as a grunt in the U.S. Army,” which “was not a transformative experience.” The city boy became a rural journalist in South Dakota, where his reporting initiative led to a book about controversial chemical and biological weapons, freelance investigative exposés about massacres of Vietnamese civilians by American troops (reporting that led to his Pulitzer Prize in 1970), and, in 1972, a position at the New York Times as a reporter with the Washington bureau. Hersh takes readers behind the scenes as he exposes corrupt U.S. foreign policy, Defense Department bumbling in numerous wars, political coverups during Watergate, private sector corporate scandals, and torture tactics used by the U.S. government against alleged terrorists after 9/11. The author shares insightful (and sometimes searing) anecdotes about fellow journalists, presidents and their cronies, military generals, and numerous celebrities. Readers interested in a primer about investigative techniques will find Hersh a generous teacher. He explains why he tends to be a loner, zigging when other journalists are zagging. Hersh discloses little about his wife and children, but otherwise, candor is the driving force in this outstanding book.
Rarely has a journalist’s memoir come together so well, with admirable measures of self-deprecation, transparent pride, readable prose style, and honesty.
A graphic memoir turns the search for identity inside out as it illuminates the creative process.
This multilayered narrative might best be categorized as a “meta-memoir,” a memoir about the writing of this memoir. New Yorker cartoonist Finck (A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, 2014) struggles to achieve cohesion and coherence within a story that remains something of a muddle for her. The artist within the narrative dubs this “a neurological coming-of-age story,” as she attempts to account for her lifelong feelings of “otherness” or “weirdness” and writes of losing her own shadow, which gave her some perspective on her life and some meaning to it. So she tries to keep returning to the beginning, with each chapter labeled “Chapter One” in a work-in-progress titled “Passing for Human,” something that the artist—or the artist drawn by the author—apparently feels she hasn’t done very well. Finck begins one version of this narrative with her mother, another with her father, and a couple with a soulmate who keeps on disappearing. Preceding each fresh start is an epigram—from the likes of Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson et al.—and within many of them is an earlier creation story, a myth, or a Bible story, one that might connect to her experiences. All of this continues to swirl through the artist’s head, reducing her art to a scrawl and her consciousness to a mess of darkness—until the epiphany, when the art itself becomes luminous, as the pages turn from white to black and the lines on them from black to white, and the artist has transcended, her “fears, unarticulated [which] gnaw at her like rats.”
In its ambition, framing, and multiple layers, this raises the bar for graphic narrative. Even fans of her work in the New Yorker will be blindsided by this outstanding book.
A memoir of a religious, gay black man coming to terms with his own nuanced achievement of the American dream in the new millennium.
The narrative opens in 1999, with the 12-year-old author waiting for the end, praying nervously in his grandfather’s evangelical church before the turn of the millennium: “Lord, please take me with You when You come. That is all I have to ask of God, and I will get my answer soon. It is 11:57.” When midnight passes without incident, the meaning of the book’s title becomes manifest. The son of a star quarterback, Gerald grew up on the poor side of Dallas, where he also excelled at football, and he soon moved on to the distant planets of higher education and elite society. As he writes, “I have been so many things along my curious journey: a poor boy, a nigger, a Yale man, a Harvard man, a faggot, a Christian, a crack baby (alleged), the spawn of Satan, the Second Coming, Casey.” The author deftly navigates through the events shaping those identities: the months of his first true romance, his time at Yale and Harvard Business School, where he earned a master’s degree in business and was a Rhodes Scholar finalist; Wall Street; and a stint in Washington, D.C., on the strong career advice to “be a special assistant to someone at the top.” Along the way, Gerald examines the subtext underlying the clashing realities of his experiences and observations. “[I was] a boy defined by his circumstances,” the author writes in nearly the middle of the well-paced narrative, “perhaps we all are—just seven billion Eves made from the rib of our Adam-circumstance—but why do we lie about it? Why don’t we want to believe it? Is it that it shames us to admit how limited our power is, how much we can submit—have submitted—to the things we did not choose?”
Hardly a by-the-numbers memoir, this is a powerful book marked by the author’s refreshingly complicated and insightful storytelling.
A challenging memoir about black-white relations, income inequality, mother-son dynamics, Mississippi byways, lack of personal self-control, education from kindergarten through graduate school, and so much more.
Laymon (English and Creative Writing/Univ. of Mississippi; How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, 2013, etc.) skillfully couches his provocative subject matter in language that is pyrotechnic and unmistakably his own. He also uses an intriguing narrative form, directly addressing his divorced mother, a poverty-stricken single woman who became a political science professor at Jackson State University. As an obese black youngster, the author had to learn to absorb cruelty not only because of his size, but also because of his dark skin. The relentlessness of his mother’s love—she expected academic and behavioral perfection and employed corporal punishment with a belt—shaped Laymon’s character in ways both obvious and subtle. One of the main elements of the memoir is his resentment at white privilege and his techniques to counter it. “Every time you said my particular brand of hardheadedness and white Mississippian’s brutal desire for black suffering were recipes for an early death, institutionalization, or incarceration, I knew you were right,” writes the author. Of all the secondary themes, the impact of addiction—food, gambling, and drug use, but especially food—ranks next. Laymon hated himself for topping 300 pounds as a teenager. Then he got fanatical with exercise and near starvation, dropping down to 170—followed by a relapse of sorts as he began to approach 300 again. Far more than just the physical aspect, the weight he carries also derives from the burdens placed on him by a racist society, by his mother and his loving grandmother, and even by himself. At times, the author examines his complicated romantic and sexual relationships, and he also delves insightfully into politics, literature, feminism, and injustice, among other topics.
A dynamic memoir that is unsettling in all the best ways.
A graphic artist of German descent tries to come to terms with her family’s history before she was born.
Not only was Krug too young to have memories of the Nazi era, but her parents weren’t born until 1946. Yet she feels drawn to what happened before, a legacy that amounts to a search for identity, a pilgrimage to the homeland that risks guilt and shame. Neither of her parents seems to know much about their familial Nazi ties or to be inquisitive about learning more. Her father’s brother had died as a teenage Nazi soldier, and their sister and her father had since been estranged. Her maternal grandfather had also served with the Nazis, and the level of his support remained something of a mystery. Krug felt blood ties to her ancestors but had no idea how deeply (or not) they had been entangled. She also felt stigmatized by the common stereotype of her as a German and what this seemed to reflect about her emotions, personality, and overall identity. The narrative is a deeply personal—and deeply moving—dive into national legacy and family history, with more text than most graphic novels and a graphic presentation that mixes documentary photographs, illustrations, and memories that predate the author’s birth. Her obsession takes her from her home in Brooklyn, where she lives with her Jewish husband, to the Germany where her parents were born and raised, in search of documents and testimony. As she gets closer to something that feels like truth, she writes, “I feel a sudden pain, shallow but sharp and all-consuming as a paper cut, because even inherited memory hurts.” Krug’s efforts reunite a family and return to her a lost legacy.
As multilayered as memory, the book intertwines text, photo, graphic art, and thematic complexity into a revelation almost as powerful for readers as it must have been for the author.