Eliza McGraw

“Happy” earned his nickname. He was a fun-loving baseball player with a pretty girlfriend and hilarious buddies, the catcher on the Macalester College team who liked to joke with his worried mom. As Alex Lemon writes in this by turns harrowing and hopeful memoir, “I’ve always been an all-star.”

Written in the present tense, Happy takes readers rushing along as its narrator realizes that his headaches and vision problems are not just the classic signs of over-indulgence in college partying, but an actual medical condition. Alex goes from being another student enjoying the rare spring sunshine to another patient in the hospital undergoing tests from MRIs to neurological exams. When told that he has undergone a stroke, Lemon and his family are predictably unbelieving at first, but then begin the journey to diagnosing and controlling his multiple health crises. His divorced parents and step-parents all weigh in and attempt to find their own ways to offer support, which range from an enforced rest in North Carolina to a prolonged visit from his mother.

A road trip, a priest and Hurricane Floyd all make appearances in this headlong and compelling memoir, along with alcohol and drug abuse. Yet even with its fascinating story of a young man battling outsized enemies, it is Happy’s language that truly sets it apart. Lemon is a poet, and every paragraph shows it, from a description of walls that “smell like melting gumballs and kerosene” to an unforgettable image of a son’s beloved mother: “Ma turns to me and smiles and my blood gathers and swells.”

Lemon shies from nothing, which can make for grueling (and graphic) reading, especially given the gravity of his subject matter. But he never uses his difficult topic for shock value; instead, thanks to his considerable poetic gifts, it becomes an avenue for exploring the human experience at its most dire. 

Eliza McGraw is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

“Happy” earned his nickname. He was a fun-loving baseball player with a pretty girlfriend and hilarious buddies, the catcher on the Macalester College team who liked to joke with his worried mom. As Alex Lemon writes in this by turns harrowing and hopeful memoir, “I’ve always been an all-star.” Written in the present tense, Happy […]

“Stereo Sue” sounds like the handle of a fast-talking disc jockey, but Susan Barry, author of Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist’s Journey Into Seeing in Three Dimensions, is actually a neuroscience professor. On top of that, she is probably her own most famous experiment. Oliver Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, wrote an article called “Stereo Sue” for the New Yorker, and also introduces this book.

Barry was born with crossed eyes, and the vision centers in her brain compensated by allowing her to see without double vision. Her condition—seeing, essentially, in two dimensions—is called stereoblindness. It was not until Barry was in her late 40s that she undertook the developmental optometry that taught her, through perseverance, to see in three dimensions. In Fixing My Gaze, she chronicles this process with plenty of illustrations and scientific terms, explaining each phrase for her lay readers. A complete glossary also helps readers understand some of the necessary language.

Filled with clear diagrams that illustrate the difference between how the stereoblind and normally sighted people see, Fixing My Gaze introduces readers to a rare but interesting disability. It is also a testament both to human physiology and spirit that permits someone to live with—and then change—a uniquely altered view of the world. As Barry writes, “What a magnificent feeling it is to take control of your own vision and solve your own problems.”

My own seven-year-old son is currently working with a developmental optometrist to help him with his “tracking.” He does not naturally see from left to right, or top to bottom. Instead, his eyes jump all over the page. His reading tutor recommended vision therapy, and we hope it will help him as it helped Barry. This book opens up the possibility that people can change their physical limitations, and that it is never to late to try.

Eliza McGraw writes from Washington, D.C.

“Stereo Sue” sounds like the handle of a fast-talking disc jockey, but Susan Barry, author of Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist’s Journey Into Seeing in Three Dimensions, is actually a neuroscience professor. On top of that, she is probably her own most famous experiment. Oliver Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For […]

The thing about The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead is that it sounds like a very depressing book. Instead, however, it's an involving read, an unusual blend of science, culture and family history.

In his ninth book, David Shields uses sources from around the world and from his own life to consider what it means to be alive and human. This is a far-reaching quest: Lyndon Johnson, Arthur Schopenhauer, Shields' cat Zoomer, Wallace Shawn, Kurt Cobain, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Neil Young are all here, offering momentary points of illumination for Shields' often obscure search. Shields frames his unruly investigation in terms of his relationship with his 97-year-old father, and frames his book in terms of the human life cycle. At 51 years old, the author is preoccupied with mortality and encroaching death, while his aged father, fascinated by survival, also typifies it.

The author begins, naturally enough, with a chapter about infancy, and the chapters march along chronologically with discussions of adolescence, middle age and old age. Within several sections, there are chapters called "Decline and Fall," an echoing reminder of how different stages of life prefigure or recall others. Just as a 40-year-old realizes that his 30s, his most creative years, are behind him, a 65-year-old has to grapple with the loss of one-tenth of his brain cells. Each stage of life comes complete with its own downfall.

This is not necessarily an uplifting book, simply because its author's questioning of and sadness at the relentless nature of aging are too prescient to allow anyone to feel entirely carefree while reading it. But the book is not without hope, and Shields' constant probing is no less a means of survival than his father's tenacity. "He's strong and he's weak and I love him and I hate him and I want him to live forever and I want him to die tomorrow," Shields writes of his father. What, really, could sound more alive?

Eliza McGraw is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

The thing about The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead is that it sounds like a very depressing book. Instead, however, it's an involving read, an unusual blend of science, culture and family history. In his ninth book, David Shields uses sources from around the world and from his own life […]

Interspersed with autobiographical observations, Jennifer Ackerman's Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body is both a personal and generalized tour of the human body. Ackerman's work is fascinating, and it's easy to focus on the parts that most interest the reader like, why can't I sleep at night? (It might be just part of the aging process.) Or, what makes that woman so attractive? (A direct gaze, symmetrical face, full lips and dilated pupils.) But the whole book is worth investigating for its explorations of appetite, sexual urges and nightmares, among other distinctly human experiences and expressions. The book is divided into times of day morning, midday, afternoon, evening and night and then subdivided into germane topics. The system of organization works well because it keeps readers conscious of the rhythms of the body, so formed by the rhythms of the day. The section on Wit, for example, is in the morning part of the book, when many of us are sharpest, and a section on how we interpret different faces is in the Dusk portion, when many people attend parties or other social events. The Afternoon section includes The Doldrums and In Motion, encompassing both the torpor and production that the post-lunch period seems to engender. Ackerman's latest is full of intriguing facts, including that coffee's flavor is 75 percent due to its odor. Jaws can put as much as 128 pounds of pressure on teeth during chewing. Laughter rouses the brain's most primal reward circuits, which is how it relieves stress. Regular moderate exercise may relieve the symptoms of depression as well as therapy, and humans are the only species that can override the body's natural sequence at will, forcing ourselves to stay awake, or denying hunger pangs. Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream offers fascinating insight into the workings of our often inscrutable bodies. It's also amazingly comprehensive. As Ackerman writes, From caress to orgasm, multitasking to memorizing, working out to stressing out, drooping to dreaming, it's here.

Interspersed with autobiographical observations, Jennifer Ackerman's Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body is both a personal and generalized tour of the human body. Ackerman's work is fascinating, and it's easy to focus on the parts that most interest the reader like, why can't I sleep at night? (It […]

Why do we remember some advertising jingles and not others? How did we learn to wear seatbelts? Why do we scan food labels looking for trans fats? Because of sticky ideas, the memorable messages that catch and hold our attention. Dan Heath, an educational publisher, and Chip Heath, a Stanford Business School professor, offer these examples and many more in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The brothers Heath praise companies such as Southwest Airlines, Wendy's and Subway for making their company identities memorable. (Who can forget Southwest's peanuts, the phrase Where's the Beef? or Jared, the man who lost weight by eating only Subway sandwiches?) The chapters are devoted to the principles of stickiness (a concept derived from Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point): simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories. Naturally, the book itself is full of unforgettable phrases, such as, the Sinatra test, which divines whether one example alone will prove a point, named in honor of Frank Sinatra's assertion that if he can make it in New York, he can make it anywhere.

Fantasy, the Heaths write, is an important part of creating unforgettable ideas. When you go to a store, for instance, and the employees are called team members while you are referred to as a guest, you can enjoy the fantasy that you're not really there to exchange your hard-earned money for overpriced goods; you're visiting with a collegial bunch of pals.

Made to Stick is about achieving aspirations, both in business and in our personal lives. How do we make people care about our ideas?, the Heaths ask. We appeal to their self-interest, but we also appeal to their identities not only to the people they are right now but also to the people they would like to be. Eliza McGraw is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

Why do we remember some advertising jingles and not others? How did we learn to wear seatbelts? Why do we scan food labels looking for trans fats? Because of sticky ideas, the memorable messages that catch and hold our attention. Dan Heath, an educational publisher, and Chip Heath, a Stanford Business School professor, offer these […]

The boy in question in Deborah Digges' riveting new memoir The Stardust Lounge is her son Stephen, a reckless young boy who, by the age of 12, was bringing home guns and mixing with street gangs. With a turbulence that goes well beyond everyday teenage rebellion, Stephen tries his mother's patience but never her love. Digges, in desperation, attempts everything to help her son. Following Stephen while he prowls the city streets, she watches as he takes the subway and sprays graffiti on the walls of the Massachusetts town where they live. She goes to counseling with him, tries to help him make his own way in the world and shares with her readers the tribulations and unexpected joys of parenting a very troubled adolescent.

Digges' memories of her son's growth are often painful, but she is unflinching as she recalls both Stephen's actions and her own. She ruminates on why he is her more difficult son compared with his polite and studious older brother: "Why is he so troubled? Why does he act out in this way? How can two sons of the same mother and father be so different?" But she never lets herself off the hook, either, writing that "I am someone I never imagined, an isolated, bitter, defensive mother navigating by shame the deep waters of her son's adolescence." With this sort of candor, Digges, a successful poet whose skill with language pervades her prose, provides insight into the many different sides of her and Stephen's situations.

Digges' own marriage and career ultimately take a back seat to Stephen and his problems. She devotes countless hours to keeping the boy in school and to making their home a place she and her son can share. As The Stardust Lounge progresses, the rewards of being Stephen's mother become more apparent to the reader. Through her honest storytelling, Digges conveys the special connection she and Stephen share. "Not so deep in Stephen's blood a wildness endures," she writes, "Good luck to the world, I laugh to myself, with Stephen in it." Eliza McGraw writes from Cabin John, Maryland.

The boy in question in Deborah Digges' riveting new memoir The Stardust Lounge is her son Stephen, a reckless young boy who, by the age of 12, was bringing home guns and mixing with street gangs. With a turbulence that goes well beyond everyday teenage rebellion, Stephen tries his mother's patience but never her love. […]

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