A noted historian tells about her daring career move to become an artist.
At the age of 64, Painter (American History, Emerita, Princeton Univ.; The History of White People, 2010, etc.), president of the prestigious Organization of American Historians, former director of the Association of Black Women Historians, and author of seven books, enrolled as an undergraduate at Mason Gross School of the Arts of Rutgers University. In a candid, captivating memoir, the author recounts her experiences at Rutgers and in a Master of Fine Arts Program at the Rhode Island School of Design, which raised for her salient questions about identity, creativity, ageism, and racism. Some teachers proclaimed that she would never become an Artist because she “lacked an essential component, some ineffable inner quality.” Although as a professor she believed heartily that skills could be learned through seriousness, persistence, discipline, and hard work, she felt her teachers’ condemnation “piercing my student’s psyche,” causing her to question her ability and the quality of her work. Often discouraged, still she defiantly pursued two goals: “to make work that engaged the eye” and to celebrate, in portraits, her “intellectual women friends.” One teacher dismissed her second goal as mere “illustration.” As to the first, she discovered throughout her art education the vagaries of criteria used to assess quality. During her first year at RISD, she felt reduced to a “pathetic, insecure little stump,” unsure whether her teachers and classmates “were critiquing me, old-black-woman-totally-out-of-place, or critiquing my work, which was not good enough.” Painter admits having felt like a misfit in art school, which leads her to reflect about ageism and racism (both rampant in the rarefied art world). Awarded studio residencies, including an artist-scholar residency at Yale, she proved her worth. The author offers perceptive insights about the meaning of art: the difference between thinking like a historian and an artist; the “contented concentration” she feels when making art; and the works of many black artists.
A spirited chronicle of transformation and personal triumph.
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.
The president of Planned Parenthood recounts her life as an activist.
For decades, Richards has been at the forefront of anti-war, civil rights, labor, and women’s issues; as she demonstrates, activism and the desire to work for the common good run in her family. Her father was a labor attorney and environmentalist, and her mother, Ann Richards, was a fierce fighter for women’s rights who became governor of Texas. As a high school girl new to Austin (she was born in Waco), she made and wore a black arm band supporting the moratorium to end the Vietnam War. After graduation, she headed east to Brown University. She supported striking janitors and librarians, took a semester off to intern for the Project on the Status and Education of Women in Washington, D.C., and became a union organizer in New Orleans. There, she met and married labor organizer Kirk Adams and formed a family that has supported labor across the country ever since. After some time in Southern California, she went back to Texas to work for her mother’s campaign for governor, and she formed the Texas Freedom Network to fight against right-wing textbook censorship. Then it was off to Washington again to serve on Nancy Pelosi’s staff. The author sprinkles short asides throughout the book that alternate between genuinely instructional and boring—e.g., well-worn tips on work-life balance. However, the guidelines for starting any organization are spot-on: direct, down-to-earth, and highly practical. In 2006, Richards and her family moved to New York City so she could assume the lead role at Planned Parenthood in 2006, and she has made the organization instrumental in a wide variety of women’s-rights causes. In the past year, she has spent considerable time battling for her organization amid the Trump administration’s efforts to cut funding.
A memoir that makes palpable the immense influence of an organization that has improved so many women’s lives.
An Oscar-winning actress pays tribute to her mother.
When Harden’s mother began to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease, Harden decided to try to capture her memories before they were gone. In this soulful memoir, she pays homage to the woman who raised her. She tells stories from her earliest childhood days to the present and emphasizes the beliefs and values her mother instilled in her. Harden narrates chronologically, using the seasons as metaphors for the various stages in life. Chronicling her early life, she describes how her father’s work in the Navy required the family to move around, including stops in California, Greece, and Japan. While they were living in Japan, her mother learned the Japanese art of flower arranging, ikebana, an artistic method of flower placement that incorporates three principle ideas: heaven, earth, and man. Ikebana was clearly Harden’s mother’s passion, and the author skillfully blends in descriptions of the flower arrangements her mother made and the classes she taught on ikebana. She offers tales of how her mother gently encouraged her to audition for a play, which began her successful acting career; of going to the Academy Awards; and of traveling through New Zealand with her mom instead of her boyfriend. It’s abundantly clear that her mother was there for Harden through the good and the bad, so the knowledge that those memories no longer exist for her mother are especially heartbreaking. In keeping with the author’s flower and gardening motif, she describes her mother’s condition as “a weed run wild, slowly choking the path to memory.” One of her few points of solace is the fact that her mother “has somehow managed to keep [her dignity]. Her appreciation of beauty remains as a purifier for her spirit.”
Praise, love, and honor all play roles in this respectful, highly affectionate memoir about a spirited mother-daughter relationship.
The modern motherhood memoir in a series of sardonic spoofs.
Creative director and humor writer Harrington reversed the typical American experience of childbearing, working 60-hour weeks while taking care of her newborn children before staying home with them a few years later, when a layoff forced her into freelance work. Using plenty of swear words, as advertised, she chronicles her years on both sides of the mommy wars, tallying the insults of an unenlightened corporate culture and the exquisite tortures of working from home with kids. The narrative features blog-style recollections punctuated with “time-outs”: conceptual interludes featuring hashtags, listicles, pretend dialogues, and quizzes (“Radiohead Song or Accurate Description of My Parenting?”). The least successful of these experiments are still clever, and though her comedic timing often fizzles, the frenzy of styles and self-conscious gimmicks keeps things lively and justifies her career as a professional thrower of ideas at walls. Harrington embraces the bravado and casual irreverence of the advertising industry even as she mocks it, and she never tires of portraying herself as an ill-fitting matriarch, a Don Draper who awoke one day to find himself leading a Girl Scout troop. The author is at her wittiest when transforming her outrage—especially at the sorry plight of mothers in the United States and their “cultural irrelevance” after maternity leave—into absurd, acerbic commentary. Like all effective satire, Harrington’s best bits arise from deep anger, and she reminds readers that, more than meal trains or forced holidays, mothers desperately need policy reform. Too often, her essays switch unexpectedly into truisms and parenting advice for soul-weary breeders, saccharine (if sincere) messages of encouragement that do not pair well with a plateful of sarcasm. Even if many of her observations and experiences prove more common and less funny than the packaging suggests, her quirky, dissenting energy should resonate with parents who find little use for the usual mommy-blogger fare.
Record of a childhood in flight from war and terror.
“I hated that I had to eat,” writes Wamariya. “I hated my stomach, I hated my needs.” Growing children are always hungry, but the author, forced at the age of 6 to flee her native Rwanda during the genocide of 1994, was for years as a refugee never able to satisfy those elemental needs. Intercut with her chronicle of experiences in a series of refugee camps are moments from her new life in America, where she landed at the age of 12, adopted into a welcoming home in a bit of fortune that she did not trust: “I was callous and cynical….I thought I could fool people into thinking that I was not profoundly bruised.” She had reason to worry, for on a six-year trail that passed through one African nation after another, she witnessed both generosity and depravity coupled with the constant worry that the older sister with whom she had fled would decide that she was too much of a burden and abandon her. She did not: Her sister’s presence through one fraught situation after another is a constant. Wamariya’s experiences adjusting to life in a country where, her sister declared, beer flowed from faucets and people owned six cars at a time are affecting, and there are some Cinderella moments in it, from being accepted to Yale to appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s show. But more, there are moments of potent self-reckoning; being a victim of trauma means that “you, as a person, are empty and flattened, and that violence, that theft, keeps you from embodying a life that feels like your own.” The work of finding home and feeling safe—it’s something that every foe of immigration ought to ponder; in that alone Wamariya’s narrative is valuable.
Not quite as attention-getting as memoirs by Ismail Beah or Scholastique Mukasonga, but a powerful record of the refugee experience all the same.
A distinguished Iranian-born writer and creative writing professor’s memoir of her struggle with trauma, drug addiction, mental illness, and late-stage Lyme disease.
Physical and mental pain had always defined Khakpour’s (The Last Illusion, 2014, etc.) life. A child of the Iranian Revolution, her earliest memories were of “pure anxiety.” She survived the trauma of living in a war zone and moved from Tehran to Los Angeles. As she grew into adolescence, she writes, “everything about my body felt wrong,” and her feelings of dysmorphia remained one of the constants in an often chaotic life. In college, Khakpour, who had long been fascinated by the “altered states” that drugs could produce, began a “casual [long-term] relationship” with cocaine and cultivated the “heroin chic” look fashionable during the 1990s. In addition to her experimentation with drugs, the author endured harrowing experiences with sexual assault and depression. Khakpour’s post-collegiate life brought with it a series of difficult, sometimes-abusive relationships, graduate school at Johns Hopkins, psychotropic drugs to control anxiety, insomnia, and mood disorders, severe health problems initially diagnosed as autoimmune disorders, and “a seesaw of struggling to survive in New York and then running home to LA and then escaping back to New York.” Her life stabilized for a short time after she accepted a temporary position at Bucknell University. When her health began to fail again, she sought treatment in the New Age “healing vortex” of Santa Fe; but soon after she left, she once again became a prescription pill “drug addict.” It was not until she returned temporarily to California that a doctor officially diagnosed her with a case of late-stage Lyme disease, which would mean permanent recurrences of the breakdowns she had fought to overcome. Lucid, eloquent, and unflinchingly honest, Khakpour’s book is not just about a woman’s relationship to illness, but also a remarkably trenchant reflection on personal and human frailty.
A courageously intimate memoir about living within a body that has “never felt at ease.”