Catherine Hollis

The Garden Against Time: In Search of a Common Paradise demands to be read outside: in a garden, if you have one, or a public park, if you don’t. Author Olivia Laing is keenly aware of the differences between these settings. Gardens, she contends, should be a common right for everyone, but are all too often places of exclusion and privilege, a paradise for the few. 

“Paradise,” we learn, is a word derived from Persian for a “walled garden,” and Laing makes a compelling case for gardens as both utopian and earthly settings. She foregrounds The Garden Against Time in her work of restoring a historic garden in Suffolk, England, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and reaches back to the larger history of English gardens and gardening. With wit and generosity, Laing details how the work of weeding and clearing, and the thrill of discovering a half-buried iris bulb emerging from leaf cover, offers solace for heartache. 

Some earthly paradises, such as many of the 18th-century English estates designed by Capability Brown, were built with power and exclusion in mind, creating private Edens for aristocrats. Some were funded by the exploitation and brutality of slavery. Researching the history of Shrubland Hall in Suffolk, for example, Laing unearths a history of the Middleton family, whose fortune derived from the plantation economy in South Carolina. 

Other English gardens celebrate the idea that vegetal beauty is a human right. Laing’s focus on William Morris’ socialist gardens and Derek Jarman’s queer utopian garden, created while the filmmaker was dying of AIDS, movingly document the restorative function of gardening in hard times. In her own work repairing a long-neglected garden, Laing finds solace for the anxieties of the pandemic and family trauma. The Garden Against Time wears its erudition lightly, interweaving garden history with the cyclical work of planning and planting, decay and rebirth. It will inspire readers to get outside, shears in hand, to tend their own gardens, and invite others in. 

In the inspirational The Garden Against Time, Olivia Laing restores a long-neglected garden, and makes a case for sharing our outdoor spaces.

Acclaimed journalist Tracie McMillan’s muckraking, experiential methods have earned her prizes, acclaim and the special animosity of Rush Limbaugh, a sure sign of the power of her investigative work. With The White Bonus: Five Families and the Cash Value of Racism in America, McMillan offers a powerful and necessary exposé of the financial benefits of whiteness in the U.S.

In a style reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich, The White Bonus spotlights five working- and middle-class white families, including a very revealing and honest look at McMillan’s own. The book examines how zoning laws, discrimination in trade unions and the failure of school desegregation have rippled into the present, giving white families what McMillan calls the “white bonus,” a multigenerational “societal and familial security net unavailable to Black Americans.” In chapters focused on school, work, poverty and crime, McMillan develops case studies of how individuals and families benefit from whiteness even when they are accused of crimes or are scraping by on minimum wage. McMillan’s quantitative analysis starkly reveals how American institutions continue to benefit white people at the expense of Black Americans. 

Each case study is supported by extensive interviews and reporting, and presented with novelistic detail in a propulsive narrative. A chapter about the Becker family of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, illustrates “the steady reemergence of racially homogenous schools after a few decades of progress toward racial integration” that followed Brown v. Board of Education. The Beckers bucked the trend of white flight and sent their children to local public schools that had predominantly Black student bodies. While the oldest sibling benefitted from “gifted and talented” programs that primarily served white students in an otherwise diverse student population, the youngest sibling experienced a stark decline in educational quality at the same school after many of the white families left the district. 

McMillan’s own family story is told with admirable honesty, particularly regarding the impact of her father’s abuse after her mother’s death. These autobiographical chapters not only provide a detailed financial accounting of her own family’s white bonus, but also brilliantly shape a central insight that analogizes its dangers: The silence surrounding domestic violence is replicated in our society at large when we avoid addressing the impact of structural racism. Remaining silent about either is incompatible with morality.

Journalist Tracie McMillan’s latest investigates how five families—including her own—benefit from systemic white privilege.
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Shortly after 9/11, Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe’s great-grandmother, troubled by the state of the world, commissioned a symphony. A Coast Salish elder and Indigenous language activist, Vi taqʷšəblu Hilbert had no prior connection to classical music. Yet her belief that our broken world desperately needed healing resulted in “The Healing Heart of the First People of This Land,” which was performed by the Seattle Symphony in 2006. The work was built from the sacred “spirit song” of Chief Seattle, whose treaty with white colonizers resulted in the building of the city of Seattle on top of the ancestral estuaries and salt marshes of the Coast Salish people. Writer, poet and musician LaPointe believes that if her great-grandmother were alive today, she would say, “We need these healing songs again. We need to do something.”

Book jacket image for Thunder Song by Sasha LaPointeSasha LaPointe’s incandescent Thunder Song is shaped by Vi Hilbert’s life, work and legacy, as well as by the more complicated influence of Chief Seattle. LaPointe’s own connection to her hometown features in many of the essays collected in this volume: “I have this complicated relationship with Seattle,” the author tells BookPage, “[with] my experience of being enamored with the city and then realizing what it means to exist in [Chief Seattle’s] namesake city as a Coast Salish woman.”

While LaPointe’s 2022 memoir, Red Paint, focused more on her individual story of trauma and healing, Thunder Song turns her gaze outwards. “Out of the stormy sea of writing Red Paint, I felt better for the first time in many years,” she says. “But when it was all done, I washed up on the shore and looked around and was like, what is wrong with the world right now?” It was the summer of 2020, and among the Black Lives Matter protests, the severe wildfires in Washington state and the pandemic, LaPointe felt spurred to action: “None of this is good, none of this is right. The sky doesn’t look right. And I threw myself into examining these things I was deeply angry about and disturbed by.”

In the title essay, LaPointe considers Hilbert’s healing influence amid political chaos and Indigenous erasure. “There is this collective trauma and collective grief and collective anger,” she says. “And the thing that really grounded me emotionally was looking to all the amazing things that our grandmother did around that symphony.” Other essays in the book cover the colonial erasure of Indigenous identity, the loss of ancestral lands and the violence that has claimed the lives of thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Like her great-grandmother, LaPointe turns to music to alchemize grief and sorrow—in her case, the electrifying rage of punk.

“I threw myself into examining these things I was deeply angry about and disturbed by.”

In “Reservation Riot Grrrl,” LaPointe makes a pointed but ultimately loving critique of the whiteness of punk. Listening to Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna sing about assault and survival was a pivotal turning point for a young LaPointe, who left home at 14 to make her way to Seattle’s punk scene. “Finding that misfit chosen family absolutely saved my life,” she says. The Riot Grrrl movement in particular offered her strength and empowerment. But LaPointe grew to feel that her Native identity was “submerged” in the whiteness of the punk scene, a feeling brought to a head when two white punks questioned LaPointe for wearing the red paint of her Native ancestors while performing with her band. She writes that their assumption that she was not Native “rattled me to my core,” threatening her Indigenous identity in a venue meant to offer safe harbor for misfits of all kinds.

The concluding essay, “Kinships,” was one of the last essays that LaPointe wrote for this collection. “It really was the medicine that the collection needed and that I needed while writing it,” she says. “I was this charged ball of anxiety and anger and fear for the world, for our Indigenous people, for our sacred land.” As described in the essay, she learns that the antidote for these feelings is connection with other Indigenous writers and activists across the globe. She writes movingly of her friendship with Maori poet Tayi Tibble, with whom she bonds over the links between their canoe-based cultures, as well as through their shared work as emerging Native writers. With Julian Aguon, an Indigenous human rights lawyer and the author of 2022’s No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies, she finds another important relationship, especially when he asks LaPointe to deliver a petition to save sacred Indigenous lands in South Africa from development by Amazon. In these kinships, LaPointe finds seeds of hope: “We can be connected across the globe as Indigenous people who are fighting for our land and fighting for water,” she says.

Also in “Kinships,” LaPointe found herself once again guided by her great-grandmother’s spirit. Hilbert spent time in Hawai‘i working with Indigenous language revitalization groups, and when LaPointe visits the islands with her partner, she finds herself coincidentally and profoundly retracing her elder’s footsteps. Indeed, both Red Paint and Thunder Song are powerfully animated by the “spirit songs” of LaPointe’s matrilineal line; her writing is both a celebration and continuation of the work of her foremothers, in a Native punk mode all her own.

“We can be connected across the globe as Indigenous people who are fighting for our land and fighting for water.”

When I asked LaPointe who she was writing for, she immediately thought about “14-year-old Sasha out on the rez who desperately needed this book.” The response to Red Paint from Native readers was particularly gratifying: “When I consider an audience, I think of the folks who have reached out to me from tribal communities saying that reading my book helped them in some way.” Although LaPointe is primarily focused on these readers “who motivate me and bring me to the page,” there’s a larger audience for LaPointe’s work as well. By transmitting the healing songs of her great-grandmother through her own creative work in prose and performance, LaPointe offers all readers a chance to acknowledge and be changed by Indigenous voices and values.

Photo of Sasha LaPoint by Bridget McGee Houchins

Read our starred review of ‘Thunder Song’ by Sasha LaPointe.

Sasha LaPointe’s memoir in essays, Thunder Song, continues the work of her foremothers, in a Native punk mode all her own.

Sasha LaPointe’s 2022 memoir, Red Paint, offered readers a profoundly moving glimpse into trauma and healing through the Indigenous perspective of a Coast Salish punk. Now, in her powerful new collection of personal essays, Thunder Song, LaPointe expands her poetic lens to take in the collective healing needed in a world shaped by colonization, structural racism and a global pandemic. These vibrant essays are grounded in the personal but committed to the political, moving from grief to righteous anger and activism.

The essays in Thunder Song are shaped by the city of Seattle, built on top of the tidal lands that are the ancestral home of the Coast Salish people, and LaPointe’s beloved great-grandmother, a Coast Salish elder committed to preserving Indigenous languages. The central themes are entwined in the titular essay, in which Grandma Vi convinces a composer to write a symphony shaped by the orations of Chief Seattle, who witnessed the sale of Native lands to white settlers.

Like her grandmother, LaPointe believes in the healing power of music for a world in crisis, as seen in her work as a vocalist and lyricist in Seattle-area punk bands. In essays like “Reservation Riot Grrrl,” LaPointe offers a loving but necessary critique of the whiteness of the Seattle music scene. Her attentiveness to the erasure of Indigenous identity and landscape in the region acts as a corrective to colonialist histories of the Pacific Northwest; the essay “Tulips” is a particularly stunning revisionary reading of the flower as settler colonist.

“Swan Creek” and “Basket Woman” suggest that new growth may still emerge from the ruins of loss and violence. In the former, LaPointe’s sensitive meditation on miscarriage twines individual grief with creative expression, while her focus on the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the latter expresses a communal need for all Native women to believe themselves worthy of safety.

Thunder Song proves LaPointe is a dynamic emergent voice in Native arts and letters, arguing that collective art and activism, powered by love, among Indigenous peoples around the globe is the medicine this planet needs.

Read our interview with Sasha LaPointe on Thunder Song.
Thunder Song is an essay collection full of sensitive meditations and powerful observations from Coast Salish author Sasha LaPointe.

As evidenced in her breakout How Should a Person Be and 2022’s Pure Color, Sheila Heti writes books that explode the boundaries between nonfiction and fiction. Alphabetical Diaries is a compellingly weird new experiment, this time in diary-keeping. Creating a nonlinear timeline, Heti organizes the sentences of 10 years of her journals alphabetically by the first letter of each sentence.

Given the constraints of the alphabetical form, the book nonetheless forms a coherent narrative with recurring themes: writing, money, sex, clothes and conversations with friends. Heti’s ambition and intelligence weave through many of these entries as she balances a desire for the peace necessary for writing with the restlessness of her desire for sex, love and travel. Just because her diary entries are nonlinear doesn’t mean they don’t tell a profoundly personal story about a glamorous young writer. Knowing this going in, the reader can relax and enjoy the ride. 

Daring and revealing, Alphabetical Diaries, which was first published in part in the New York Times, will appeal to anyone who has ever kept a diary and wondered “Why am I writing about the same things, again and again?” Each of Heti’s relationships, for example, repeats the patterns of the past. Her lovers and friends appear and reappear, as the reader gradually pieces together Heti’s intense relationships.

Lots of writers’ diaries are fascinating because they reveal the underside of the published books: the work and doubt and insecurity the writer faces from conception to publication. Alphabetical Diaries has put a glorious twist on the genre, highlighting a more circular and repetitive logic to diaristic writing. Only Heti could have written this book, the latest in an oeuvre that is marked by increasingly profound experiments in language and storytelling. Personal and profane, quietly and radically subversive, this unusual version of a writer’s diary offers readers an often-comic glimpse into experiments in prose. 

Sheila Heti’s memoir, Alphabetical Diaries, gloriously explodes the genre with her signature experiments in language and storytelling.

Intense and kaleidoscopic, Secrets of the Sun tells the story of author Mako Yoshikawa’s physicist father, Shoichi Yoshikawa. A brilliant researcher into nuclear fusion, a man with bipolar disorder, and a violently abusive father and husband, he does not have a story that can be approached linearly. His daughter’s choice to structure this book as a memoir in essays reflects her fragmentary knowledge of him, as well as her emotionally complex mission to understand the forces that shaped him. 

In the decades after Mako’s mother, an accomplished artist and author, “packed us up and fled his house under police protection,” Shoichi’s adult daughters negotiated partial estrangements from him. Mako learned of his death from natural causes the night before her wedding, to which Shoichi had not been invited. This memoir is particularly brilliant at capturing the grief, guilt and fear adult survivors of childhood abuse face when deciding how or whether to maintain a relationship with their abusive parent. The love beneath these more difficult emotions animated Mako’s pursuit of her father’s mysterious inner world.

The many facets of Shoichi’s personality emerge through these essays: his genius as a Princeton University physicist, his early optimism that he would be able to channel the power of the sun into usable energy here on Earth, his arrogance and resentment as funding for fusion research dried up, his love for cross-dressing, his experiences with racism as a Japanese immigrant living in 1960s Princeton, New Jersey, and his dangerous manic episodes. After his death, his former colleagues praised his brilliance and mourned the mental illness that destroyed his career. 

“My Father’s Women,” Yoshikawa’s award-winning 2012 essay published in The Missouri Review, forms the foundation of Secrets of the Sun. Unwinding her father’s relationships with women is one way that Yoshikawa seeks to understand him. “He’d been adored by wives, lovers, and girlfriends,” she writes. “Had my father ever loved anyone? I doubted it, but the truth was I didn’t know.” Perhaps the most important of these women is Mako herself, whose memoir seeks to understand, with love, a father devoted only to the stars. 

In her kaleidoscopic memoir, Secrets of the Sun, Mako Yoshikawa pursues the mysteries of her brilliant, abusive father’s mind after his death.

Intellectual noise-rocker Thurston Moore’s long-awaited memoir offers much more than a recounting of his 30-year tenure in the band Sonic Youth. Encyclopedic and capacious, Sonic Life is no less than a history of U.S. underground arts and culture, from ’70s punk to ’80s hardcore, from college rock to grunge and beyond, told through the prism of one band.

Moore’s sentimental education took place in late 1970s New York City, when suburban teenagers could educate themselves by hanging around record shops and bookstores or venturing out to nightclubs like Max’s Kansas City or the Mudd Club. Musician-poets like Patti Smith offered a gateway drug to what Moore calls “rock ’n’ roll transcendence,” a mystical devotion to sonic creativity.

Sonic Youth’s influences were eclectic, rooted in the apocalyptic noise of No Wave, but also inspired by free improv jazz, poetry and the visual arts. The early section of Sonic Life tracks these influences in exquisite detail, evoking a lost era of New York’s then-gritty downtown music scene. Once Kim Gordon enters the picture, the narrative zooms in to vivid descriptions of the off-kilter tunings and experimental musical chemistry between Moore, Gordon and Lee Ranaldo, the creative nucleus of Sonic Youth.

Sonic Youth’s 30-year passage through the music scene sees the band move through record labels and music festivals, evolving from noisy enfants terribles to influential elder statespeople. When the band broke up in 2011, along with Moore and Gordon’s marriage, a generation of fans were devastated.

Any band’s story is a collective story. Sonic Life offers Moore’s perspective on rock music as a quasi-religious vocation; it belongs on the shelf next to Kim Gordon’s own 2015 memoir Girl in a Band. Both books offer a prismatic view on the musical democracy that was Sonic Youth.

Thurston Moore’s long-awaited memoir offers a prismatic view on the sonic democracy that was Sonic Youth.

Following on the success of his 2017 memoir, Cured, Lol Tolhurst returns with what he calls a “memoir of a subculture.” Goth: A History is Tolhurst’s compendious exploration of the music, art, literature and fashion that made up the dark side of post-punk. The Cure—which he co-founded as drummer with Robert Smith and Michael Dempsey—is often seen as one of the instigators of the movement, alongside bands like Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Joy Division. Richly illustrated with flyers and photos from Tolhurst’s private collection, Goth is a coffee table book for the discriminating vampire.

Goth was always more than black eyeliner and black clothes; in Tolhurst’s reading, it reflects the bleak social and political context of Margaret Thatcher’s England. As a philosophy, it suggests a melancholic point of view and a willingness to contemplate obsessive love, madness and death. In Goth, Tolhurst catalogs the poets and artists whose work appeals to those who also love goth music. Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar was a massive influence on Tolhurst, as were the poets T.S. Eliot and Anne Sexton. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is obviously goth, as are the death- and madness-drenched poems of Charles Baudelaire. David Bowie, Alice Cooper and Marc Bolan of T. Rex each have goth elements and were also early influences on Tolhurst.

Inevitably, a good part of this book focuses on Tolhurst’s time with The Cure as the drummer and later keyboardist. (He left the band in 1989). He dwells on The Cure’s three early albums, culminating in the magisterial fourth, “Pornography,” as exemplary goth music. But he is also generous in his assessment of other bands, tracing the continuation of goth music from the post-punk era in England to the Los Angeles goth scene and beyond. Structured as mini essays, Goth can feel disjointed, and Tolhurst at times is repetitive. But fans will find themselves immersed. It’s a beautiful book, full of concert photos, portraits and band flyers. Tolhurst is a passionate storyteller and an elder goth statesman worth listening to.

The Cure’s Lol Tolhurst explores the influences and impact of goth music and culture in an immersive new coffee table book.

Goldie Taylor’s absolutely stunning memoir is dedicated to “the women who made me.” Taylor’s mother, her Auntie Gerald, Auntie Killer and Grandma Alice come to shimmering life in this tough and tender book. The Love You Save depicts Black life in East St. Louis in the 1970s and ’80s, evoking Taylor’s family’s voices and experiences with cinematic detail and novelistic prose.

Taylor has a robust public role as a news correspondent at MSNBC and CNN, a journalist, an editor and a human rights advocate. These professional successes, however, are shadowed by a legacy of childhood sexual abuse. This memoir tells the whole story of Taylor’s experiences with rape and sexual violence, which were terrible for her as an individual and terrifyingly common in her community.

Taylor’s traumatic personal history ran parallel to Taylor’s adolescent accomplishments as a gifted student and public orator. Her intellectual development via public libraries and a few good teachers buoys the narrative, as a young Taylor reads James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. The reader will cheer as her teachers recognize Taylor’s exceptional intelligence and grit, even as Taylor reminds us that Black excellence is often forged in the crucible of systemic racism and sexual violence.

This memoir is an important read for several reasons. It shows how complex trauma shapes a person’s life and psychology, especially someone who is a high-achieving public figure. It also shows how important public schools and libraries are as places to cultivate children’s creativity and intelligence, particularly for low-income and BIPOC children. And finally, in its portrayal of a Black family’s dynamic women, it offers a vibrant portrayal of survival and love.

Goldie Taylor’s absolutely stunning memoir depicts Black life in St. Louis, Missouri, in the 1970s and ’80s with cinematic detail and novelistic prose.

Journalists estimate that between 1 and 3 million Uyghur people are currently being held in detention camps by the Chinese government as an act of cultural genocide. That we in the U.S. know about this is largely due to the courageous reporting of Uyghur American journalists such as Gulchehra Hoja. In her stunning memoir, A Stone Is Most Precious Where It Belongs: A Memoir of Uyghur Exile, Hope, and Survival, Hoja recounts her childhood and education in East Turkestan, as well as her love for her family, language and culture, precious things that she has had to leave behind as an activist in exile in the U.S.

Located in the northwestern corner of mainland China, East Turkestan is the homeland of the primarily Muslim Uyghur, whose culture is rich with ancestral traditions in music and dance. Coming of age in an educated and musical family, Hoja trained as a dancer before turning to acting. She produced and hosted the first Uyghur language children’s TV show, gradually becoming aware of the increasing censorship and control the Chinese government exerted over both Uyghur people and the media. A trip to Europe in 2001, and a first glimpse of an uncensored internet, led Hoja to immigrate to the United States, where her journalistic skills quickly landed her a position at Radio Free Asia. 

Hoja’s exile in the U.S. and persistence in reporting on the suppression of the Uyghur people by the Chinese government has resulted in grave consequences for her family back home. A Stone Is Most Precious Where It Belongs dramatizes the violation of Uyghur human rights by grounding the political in the personal. Family and friendship are as much a part of Hoja’s story as the larger national and political context, reminding readers that every missing Uyghur is a person with a story of their own.

Uyghur American journalist Gulchehra Hoja’s stunning memoir recounts her love for her family and homeland, both of which she had to leave behind.

Ice climbing and mountain guiding require endurance, organization, ambition and a high tolerance for physical discomfort. Founding an international conservation organization requires similar talents, with an emphasis on logistics and fundraising. Professional climber and conservation activist Majka Burhardt has been successful in both endeavors, developing a skill set that should have helped when she became a mother to twins. As she recounts in her emotionally raw memoir, however, Burhardt found that motherhood is far more psychologically and physically demanding than the hardest climb.

In More: Life on the Edge of Adventure and Motherhood, Burhardt wrestles with the impossible task of balancing the call of adventure and the necessity of work with the whirlwind of pregnancy and childcare. Written in the present tense as a series of letters to her beloved twins, More sets out to tell the visceral truth of early parenthood, from pumping milk at a belay station on an ice climb to ugly sobbing in the car. Like urgent dispatches from risky terrain, these entries are brutally (painfully!) honest about how motherhood changes everything—especially Burhardt’s feeling about her husband and mother. Burhardt’s frank assessment of resentment and ambivalence in these otherwise loving relationships rings so very, very true. 

Mountaineering literature is filled with tales of men having adventures, sometimes fatal ones, and the women and children who are left behind. Only recently have female climbers begun to write about the risks and rewards of climbing as a woman or a mother—about a passion for mountains as strong as the primal bond with a child. Burhardt wants it all, mountains and motherhood, but the pressure to hold it all together is intense and unrelenting. Her boldly candid memoir charts a path into a new territory in adventure writing, with motherhood as the ultimate journey.

Professional rock and ice climber Majka Burhardt’s memoir captures all the ways motherhood is more psychologically and physically demanding than the hardest climb.

Are lesbian bars endangered places? Down from a high of 206 bars recorded in 1987, there are currently only 20+ of these beloved, sticky, red-painted bars left in the U.S. Moby Dyke, the chronicle of Krista Burton’s obsessive quest to visit each of these remaining bars, offers readers a hilarious and affectionate investigation into the past and future of queer gathering spots.

Traveling from San Francisco to New York City, from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to Mobile, Alabama, Burton visits both historic neighborhood bars and newer nightclubs, talking to owners and patrons about why they love these bars and who is welcome there. Virtually every bar Burton visited is lesbian-owned but welcomes everyone, including the full range of queer identities: trans men and women, nonbinary folks and the emerging generation of gender-diverse young queers. Burton also asks why so many gay bars for cisgender men continue to thrive as exclusive spaces, while lesbian bars thrive on inclusion.

An accomplished and very funny journalist, Burton is able to track serious issues around queer belonging in a fresh and lively voice. The personal narrative underlying her pursuit of lesbian bars—including her marriage to Davin, a trans man, and coming out to her conservative Mormon family—is as topical and good-humored as the interviews and reportage contained here. 

Burton’s road trip was also shaped by COVID-19, and her experiences reveal how the isolation of the pandemic stoked a real hunger for the joy of being with others in crowded, sweaty rooms, singing karaoke, partaking in dildo races and people-watching (after showing a vaccination card, of course). Even the details about the economics of Burton’s quest (such as how to fund a road trip on a book advance while still working a day job) offer a fascinating glimpse into the reality of a writer’s life. 

Burton’s portrait of the evolution of lesbian bars into communal spaces offers a timely and engaging snapshot of queer life in America.

Krista Burton’s obsessive quest to visit each lesbian bar in the U.S. offers a hilarious and affectionate investigation into the past and future of queer gathering spots.

Kate Zambreno’s work blends memoir, art criticism and literary history/gossip to brilliant effect, and in recent years, her books have become even deeper and richer as they have been suffused with the experience of early motherhood. The Light Room, like her 2021 book of literary criticism, To Write as if Already Dead, records the impossibility of finding time and space to write as a new mother. But instead of suffering from these restrictions, the book blossoms because of them, written in furious spurts that both describe and embody the stolen moments between feeding, waking and sleeping.

The Light Room offers readers who are new to Zambreno a perfect entry point into the patterns of thinking and writing that her work is known for. As it follows a daily record of Zambreno’s life with small children during the COVID-19 lockdown—the groceries, the laundry, the mess, the exhaustion and the outings to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York—the book also considers the developmental experience of pandemic babies who see unmasked faces only at home and who haven’t yet met their extended families. Zambreno tracks experiments in early education during a pandemic as well, from an outdoor “forest school” to using Montessori methods at home. 

The unending domestic care work, however, is balanced by Zambreno’s reading, writing and thinking. Nursing at 4 a.m. while reading Yuko Tsushima’s novel Territory of Light about single motherhood in 1970s Japan conjures a sense of “cozy dread.” A child’s collection of found objects evokes visual artist Joseph Cornell’s box art. Translucent building blocks suggest a literary form for the book itself: a mother writing in tiny increments, stealing bits of time to build, entry by entry, a chronicle of “seasons and exhaustions.”

The restrictions, fear and grief of parenting during a pandemic are ultimately measured against moments of joy and glimmers of beauty, what Zambreno calls “translucencies.” Thinking through Natalia Ginzburg’s 1944 essay “Winter in the Abruzzi,” Zambreno approaches a vital truth that lies at the heart of this memoir: What if these days of domestic constraint turn out, in the long run, to be the happiest time in a family’s life together?

Kate Zambreno’s memoir The Light Room measures the fear and grief of parenting during a pandemic against moments of joy and glimmers of beauty.

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