A Canadian journalist covering the plight of Iraqis who fled to Syria a decade ago enlists the help of an Iraqi woman in Damascus—friendship and disaster ensue.
In 2007, Campbell (Creative Writing/Univ. of British Columbia), a three-time National Magazine Award winner for foreign correspondence, was working on a major story for Harper’s about Iraqi refugees when she first made contact with Ahlam, an Iraqi woman who served as her “fixer” (one who clears paths for journalists). Their professional relationship soon grew personal, and the author chronicles what went well and what went terribly wrong. Told principally in the first person, Campbell’s story includes not only her stark and frightening experiences in Damascus, but also her fracturing love life back home as well as background on the Iraq War and ensuing civil war and the frangible stability in Syria, the only country to accept large numbers of Iraqi refugees. As she worked on her story, Campbell’s friendship with Ahlam flourished and continued when the author left the country. Then Campbell found out that Ahlam had been arrested. The author, feeling profound guilt (was it because of her?), employed numerous strategies to find out why she was arrested, where she was being held, and what the charges were. Campbell’s text races along—catching readers’ hearts as it goes—and after the arrest, the author includes sections of “Ahlam’s Story,” grim third-person accounts about the experience of prison: deprivation, interrogations, violence, and terror. These sections increase the tension in readers, who have known since the beginning that dark things were on the way. The author sometimes veers a little toward the melodramatic near the ends of chapters, but it’s a small quibble in a powerful book.
In the stormwater’s swirl, Campbell has found a bright and tender leaf to follow, and the effect on readers will be transformative.
The piercing, fragmented story of how the author watched the horrific toll drug addiction took on her brother and his wife.
Granta publisher Rausing’s (Everything Is Wonderful: Memories of a Collective Farm in Estonia, 2014, etc.) brother Hans first became addicted to heroin in his late teens. Haunted by his history of drug abuse, the author chronicles Hans’ downfall while probing patterns in her family that made them all complicit in this tragedy. Born to wealth, Hans spent his young adulthood in and out of rehabilitation programs that, along with the other “props” of a privileged life—nannies, staff, and “sordid doctors”—could allow addicts to go on “in a twilight existence…for years.” He met his future wife, Eva, while both were recovering from drug relapses. When they married in 1992, they seemed determined to not let their respective pasts impact their future together: “They [went] to 12-step meetings…and they gave money to addiction charities.” But eight years into their marriage, both Hans and Eva stopped going to their meetings, “let go of solidarity with other addicts,” and began taking drugs. In the mid-2000s, still unaware of the extent of Hans’ resurgent addiction, Rausing and her family admonished Eva to seek help. However, in retrospect, the author saw that Eva “[no longer] believed in rehab” and still thought of herself as immune from total self-destruction. By 2007 and under court order, Hans and Eva’s children had gone to live with Rausing; by 2012, “all communications ceased.” Not long afterward, Eva was found dead of an overdose, and police arrested a dazed Hans on suspicion of murder. The narrative resonates because Rausing, a private person, shares intimate memories and expresses her sentiments about events that the media sensationalized. As she understands it, addiction is not only a family disease, but also an “endlessly revolving merry-go-round” that keeps addicts and family members trapped in alternating victim/victimizer roles of “guards and hostages.”
The veteran and much-honored chef and writer returns with a memoir that shows how bumps, bruises, and even youthful confusion and clumsiness can form the Yellow Brick Road.
Waters—founder and longtime owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café in Berkeley, California, and the author of numerous other cooking-related titles (My Pantry: Homemade Ingredients that Make Simple Meals Your Own, 2015, etc.)—came of age in the 1960s and lived her youthful years in such a free-spirited way that they seem almost to define, if not caricature, the era: France for a junior year abroad, where she rarely attended classes; numerous sexual relationships with evanescent commitments; some time teaching in a Montessori School, which she realized was not for her; and an almost magical life in Berkeley that has enabled her to meet celebrities in a variety of areas, including music, cinema, cooking, and graphic design. Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971—“chaos” and “mayhem” abounded—but it caught on very quickly and served as a launching pad for even greater success. Waters employs an interesting technique for her asides, divergent thoughts, flashbacks, and ruminations: she puts them in italics. They occur often and deal with such sundry things as a clambake, French bread, cheese, meeting Francis Ford Coppola and President Bill Clinton, and getting hooked on movies—a passion she now ranks right near cooking. The author does an artful job of showing how even the most apparently unrelated experiences helped lead her to her profession. She is also quite frank about her failures; her relationships with lovers, friends, and colleagues; and her pride in remaining a part of the 1960s counterculture that nourished her. She also writes affectionately about her parents and siblings and her colleagues.
An almost charmed restaurant life that exhales the sweet aromas of honesty and self-awareness.
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.
Though Hodgman has been a bestselling author with his books of “fake facts” (That Is All, 2011, etc.) and has written weekly for the New York Times Magazine, his renown is less literary or journalistic than multimedia, in which everything pretty much cross-promotes everything else. Many fans know him mainly as a correspondent for the Daily Show, which resulted from his books, or his podcast that also builds on his demographic reach and extends it. He has perhaps been most widely seen through his Apple campaign, in which he portrayed the stodgier PC to the hipper computer devices. Having exhausted his fake facts through his earlier books, Hodgman turns to the feeling of being a white man in his 40s, a Yale graduate with a wife who has long been with him and two children he refuses to name to avoid feeding their egos. He reveals to readers, “the central conflict of my life and this book…is this: I OWN TWO SUMMER HOMES.” One is in Massachusetts, bequeathed by his family, and the other is in Maine. Little wonder that a friend once described his work as “white privilege comedy,” though the author actually came to his privilege late. He grew up in a middle-class household and scuffled through a freelancing life and a stint as a literary agent. Hodgman’s comedy is more deadpan than laugh-out-loud funny, aimed at a too-hip-to-chuckle readership for whom this might be metacomedy, in which the very notion of trying to be humorous is the big joke. The author senses an affinity with “Maine Humor,” which elicits “a kind of low inner chuckling, so dry and so deep inside you that you may not realize it is happening.” Though Hodgman explores the landscape of his area of Massachusetts, the title refers to Maine, where he struggles with critters and their waste, ordering propane, and getting along with the locals when you’re “from away.”
The inside story of the Russian rock revolutionaries and the trial and prison ordeals that followed their arrest.
Alyokhina is no more a writer than she is a musician or an “official enemy of the people” of Russia, as she was charged under the Putin administration. She is an artist (whose drawings underscore the droll humor of her perspective), a mother, and, more recently, the recipient of the LennonOno Grant for Peace and the Hannah Arendt Award for Political Thought. The slapdash breeziness of this memoir shows the absurdity of Pussy Riot’s imprisonment for subversively performing a protest song in a church. The news of their arrest and the seriousness of the response to what was labeled a “criminal conspiracy” made their action all the more effective and gave it longer-lasting impact. Their first protest was, if anything, more outrageous, as they gave an impromptu performance of “Putin Peed His Pants” in Red Square while setting fire to “a poster of Putin kissing Qaddafi.” “The cops got us afterwards for trespassing,” she writes. “We told them we were drama students.” Their next performance had more serious consequences, as they performed inside a church, shooting a video that they would post on the internet of a performance of a song with the lyric, “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Be a feminist! Be a feminist!” They escaped from the church, but once the video went viral, the search intensified as the band mates conducted interviews by cellphone from coffee shops or wherever else they stopped while on the run. However, they refused to leave Russia because “revolution is a story. If we fell out of it, disappeared, it would be their story, not ours.” Here, the author reclaims and extends that story, showing how one woman’s refusal to stop agitating, even while incarcerated, gave the Russian government a lot more trouble than it had anticipated.
An inspirational memoir about youthful idealism and the power of popular culture to challenge the status quo.
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.
An accomplished and long-respected comedian, Maron is perhaps best known for his wildly popular eponymous podcast WTF with Marc Maron, which premiered in 2009. Throughout the podcast’s successful run, Maron has shown a unique knack for getting famous (and semifamous) people to talk. And talk. As they talk, his guests reveal amazing—and often previously unexplored—depths about their personal experiences. In the process, they also reveal a great deal about life in general, especially the many difficulties in navigating all the absurdity, drama, and tragicomedy. Maron did the majority of the work to get these words out there, as they are drawn from his podcast, but he strongly implies that the transcription was someone else’s job. It is unclear who made perhaps the most important decision of all: organizing these transcriptions by theme. The book coalesces around chapters about such timeless themes as family, sex, addiction, mortality, and success and failure. Many of Maron’s subjects are among his professional colleagues and friends—among dozens of others, Robin Williams, Judd Apatow, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon, Garry Shandling, Kevin Hart, Cheech Marin, Sarah Silverman—but he has interviewed a wide range of people from other walks of life, including Terry Gross, Melissa Etheridge, David Sedaris, Paul Thomas Anderson, and even then-President Barack Obama. As readers will expect, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but what is more surprising and refreshing is how many profound and powerful insights Maron manages to draw from his guests. Many of the most tragic situations come from the comedians, and some of the funnier moments come from those whose job is not necessarily to make people laugh.
An insightful collection of interviews about what it means to be human. This book, it turns out, helps explain W is TF.
Professional tennis celebrity Sharapova relates her remarkable immigration saga and writes candidly about her career, family, and personal life.
The author’s father, Yuri, became interested in tennis by chance as an adult. When young Maria started tagging along with him to watch matches, Yuri recognized her natural ability and decided he would devote his life to developing her into the world’s top female tennis player. Yuri persuaded his wife to surrender seeing Maria for at least a couple of years, and he and 7-year-old Maria spent the family savings on airplane tickets to Florida, where top youth tennis camps, especially the IMG Academy, trained future stars. Yuri and Maria spoke no English, did not contact any of the academies in advance, and had no idea how to find a residence, but through a series of fortunate, unlikely occurrences, Maria gained entry into IMG. With fierce determination, she drilled every day with her father and coaches, and eventually her mother was able to obtain a rare visa to enter the U.S., reuniting the family. After a major growth spurt, the young Sharapova quickly ascended the youth ranks. At age 17, she defeated the top seed, Serena Williams, to win Wimbledon, becoming the third-youngest woman to win the prestigious tournament. Williams appears often throughout the remainder of the book, as she becomes Sharapova’s chief rival and the most dominant force in the women’s game. For tennis players and fans, the memoir is filled with solid insights about on-the-court strategy and off-the-court psychology. “I can get fancy and sweet about it,” she writes, “but at bottom my motivation is simple: I want to beat everyone….Ribbons and trophies get old, but losing lasts.” For readers with no interest in tennis, the author delivers an impressive immigration tale, an inspiring coming-of-age narrative, and a host of useful advice on navigating celebrity culture.
Sharapova demonstrates consistent dedication and impressive wisdom for her age.
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.