Kelly Blewett

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In their first book on racism, late-night talk show host Amber Ruffin and her sister Lacey Lamar primarily wrote to each other, exchanging stories in a comedy-infused back-and-forth. You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey emerged from the phone calls, texts and stories they shared from their respective positions in New York and Nebraska. (Let’s just say that Lamar’s experiences in the predominantly white city of Omaha were quite different from Ruffin’s in New York City.) They weren’t trying to persuade resistant readers about the ills of racism with their first book. They merely offered their own perceptions of people and incidents, whether it was an overzealous security officer from J.C. Penney or a rude doughnut maker—and the book was a huge success.

Now Ruffin and Lamar are back, and they’ve broadened their scope. “People honestly thought we didn’t have more stories,” Ruffin writes in the introduction. “So, it’s kinda like a dare.” In The World Record Book of Racist Stories, the other members of the Ruffin family—mom, dad, brother and two more Ruffin sisters—are brought into the fray. Their stories range from lighthearted misunderstandings with racist undertones to frightening instances of unchecked bias, and everything in between.

What’s super valuable here is reading how Ruffin and Lamar perceive these instances: how they frame them, connect them, share them with each other and, when they’re able, laugh about them. Each of these new stories is “the best” (or worst) of something—”Most Racist Bus Driver,” “Worst Reaction to a Nice Car,” “Worst Celebrity Look-Alike”—and as you’d imagine, it’s not an award you’d want to win. Readers do win something, though: They get unvarnished straight talk about racism from a Black family that has lived in predominantly white communities for decades. To read stories you won’t soon forget, told in a totally memorable way by some very funny and generous writers, check out The World Record Book of Racist Stories.

To read stories you won’t soon forget, told in a totally memorable way by Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar, check out the very funny The World Record Book of Racist Stories.
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In How to Read Now, Elaine Castillo models how to read not just books but also history, culture and the world with an eye toward understanding how the ideas that inform our reading lives came to be.


You write that your book’s title, How to Read Now, is both a comment and a question. Can you say more about that?
Like I say in the introduction, there’s some real ambivalence on my part in the title: a reluctance, a resistance even, to writing a book about the racial politics of our reading culture that might be assumed to serve as essentially a CliffsNotes on anti-racism for the edification of white readers. That being said, as a chronically bossy Virgo and an elder sister in an immigrant family, my love language, unsurprisingly, is 24/7 critique. (To paraphrase a favorite T-shirt I once bought from The Cut, which quotes art critic Jerry Saltz, “Criticism Never Sleeps,” lol.)

But at its core, the title feels most of all like the beginning of an investigation, an exploration. Someone once asked me if I felt that writing books was therapeutic, and—if we’re staying within the realm of clinical metaphors—I don’t feel that the relationship I have to the books I write is a therapeutic one exactly. By which I mean that I know the curative capacities of writing are possible, of course, but in my experience, they’ve always been unpredictable, unreliable, idiosyncratic; personal and fragile. What feels truer to me is that writing books feels laparoscopic, like exploratory surgery. Something’s going on; you’re not entirely sure what. You have to go in to find out.

You write that books were a waypoint on your journey to becoming a reader. Why is reading bigger than books?
While I was lucky enough to have one parent who was a voracious, mostly self-taught reader who passed his love of reading down to me, the majority of the people in my family would never characterize themselves as readers. In fact, in a larger immigrant family, the older generation’s confidence in reading either Tagalog or English is shaky. That said, those same people were some of the best readers of the world I ever knew or will ever know. They taught me by example how to read my way through the world: how they gauged interactions with a boss, how they sighed after a film, what places in the world they built internal altars to, what losses in the world they mourned. Like I say in the book, I don’t want a book called How to Read Now to speak only to people who had the largely middle-class benefit of the education and leisure space that allows people to become not just literate but literary-minded; but equally, I don’t want it to let off the hook the people (like those I love and come from) who say that books aren’t for them, that reading culture isn’t for them. The truth is, we read and are being read by the world every day, in a million languages, in a million minute ways. But How to Read Now is a slightly easier title than How to Dismantle Your Entire Critical Apparatus.

Read our starred review of ‘How to Read Now’ by Elaine Castillo.

What’s one characteristic of a really good reader?
I think expecting that you could distill the essence of a really good reader to one characteristic is probably characteristic of a . . . not . . . great reader? I’m mostly kidding, but there’s some truth to the cheek. It’s a little like Logan Roy in “Succession,” which I just started watching (culturally I’m generally three to five years late on things), demanding his people tell him what the “protein” is in any given memo, discussion or article. That instinct to say, “Well, what’s the One Takeaway I can get from this?” is the driving force of reading under neoliberal capitalism: reading as a form of market competition and resource extraction, collecting pedagogical or ethnographic data—which is how so many writers of color, in particular, are typically read by white readers in this industry—as opposed to reading as a carving out of a uniquely intimate, uniquely vulnerable space in the world, in which a reader is as laid bare to a book as the world of a book is laid bare to her.

How to Read Now by Elaine Castillo

What’s one way that you have changed as a reader over time?
I think the most stark way I’ve changed is that I try to read more slowly—which, for someone who was the proverbial bookworm, a real devourer of literary worlds, hasn’t been easy. For my entire life, I’ve been someone who’ll read anywhere; most of my books as a kid had food stains on them from reading while I ate. Family members used to make fun of how they’d never see my face because it was always behind a book. And now, of course, with the advent of reading on your phone, it never ends. You’re always reading an article, falling asleep in bed reading The Age of Innocence on the Kindle, reading a friend’s PDF proof, reading a Reddit thread on how to find a Legendary Animal in Red Dead Redemption 2 or how to get through the Yiga Clan Hideout in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, reading another article on post-radiation care for senior dogs. (I adopted a senior German Shepherd a year and a half ago, my beloved Xena. She just underwent surgery and radiation, so that takes up a lot of my reading at the moment.) I’ve also never had strict taste boundaries when it came to reading. There was never highbrow or lowbrow; everything was on the table, everything was there to be read. So trying to read more slowly has been the great ongoing failure of my adult life.

“As a chronically bossy Virgo and an elder sister in an immigrant family, my love language, unsurprisingly, is 24/7 critique.”

You write that white supremacy is the “rot at the core” of the publishing industry and position this book as a reckoning. This reminds me of the book’s cover, which features a bomb in the O of the word Now; in the acknowledgements, you call the cover “tough, bold, and literally incendiary.” What’s one conversation that you hope blows up because of this book?
Going back to resisting the practice of reduction to the One, I’m going to say that for every essay in the book, there’s a conversation—and yes, potentially an incendiary conversation, as the best ones can be—to be had. A conversation about the hypocrisies of reading as an empathy machine, when we demand the safari treatment—translations, glossaries, maps—from writers of color yet bestow full artistic impunity on white artists. A conversation about the national myths we ask our monuments, our parks, our land to tell us, and the fury that erupts when people who’ve been expunged from those myths tell their own stories about how those monuments, those parks, that land came to be. A conversation about whiteness in the world of science fiction and fantasy, especially with respect to fables of oppression, difference and dystopia, inspired by the marginalized experiences of people of color, who are then erased from the tale. A conversation about the great presumed oracles of California, such as Joan Didion, and the settler colonial history that inescapably makes up the foundation of her work and worldview, not to mention the readers who venerate her. A conversation about writing pedagogy in an academic institution, especially one that will not protect its students from sexual harassment and assault, and its connection to other forms of silencing, intellectual and otherwise, in the power dynamics of a classroom. A conversation about the paucity of Representation Matters Art, and the failures of the drive toward positive representation generally. A conversation about our classics, and how they become so, and just what incursions we might make into the future of those classics.

Most of these questions do have a common thread, of course: Why do we read the way we do? How on earth did we get here? And how can we imagine—creatively, culturally, sensually, politically—an elsewhere; an otherwise?

You write that acknowledging politics in literature—such as the everyday presence of colonialism in fairy tales like “Cinderella”—is an act of expansion that opens up conversations rather than shutting them down. Why do you think some readers are so resistant to these kinds of conversations, especially when dealing with works by white authors?
This isn’t a great mystery, is it? Why do we think some people are resistant to critical race theory, an utterly benign label—much like “antifa”—that has been deformed and fetishized into demonic proportions by a politically successful and financially rewarded far-right white supremacist cultural lobby? Why do we think those same people are perfectly accepting of the white supremacist paranoia of espousing White Replacement Theory? The discussion makes me think of Jamaica Kincaid’s great line from Lucy, when the narrator wonders about her white employer who (in a familiar move) dubiously claims to have Native ancestry: “How do you get to be the sort of victor who can claim to be the vanquished also?”

Ultimately we can’t keep rehashing—re-diagnosing, to go back to the clinical metaphors—the whys of white supremacy, white fragility, white grievance. It’s asking people of color to waste their time getting embroiled in bad faith process arguments.

People don’t like to talk about the history of empire and enslaved labor that underpins the Regency world either, including the work of Jane Austen, because it interrupts their romantic fantasy of white gentility and interrupts their ability to project themselves apolitically into that world. So we come up with arguments like “applying postcolonial theory to Austen is anachronistic!” despite the fact that Regency scholars like Patricia A. Matthews have shown us that abolition was a widely known topic of debate in Austen’s era and that Austen’s peers wrote abolition literature, wrote about interracial relationships in their fiction, etc. It’s not unlike how the white marble statues of Greek gods were fetishized by English and German classicists to corroborate stories about antiquity as a romanticized vision of pure, noble whiteness, conveniently leaving out the fact that all of those statues had, in their time, been painted a riot of colors. So what are people really invested in when they resist acknowledging these historical facts? Is it really Austen? Is it really Greek myth? Or is it, rather, the story they’ve been allowed to believe about themselves, and their world, through these deliberate interpretations and elisions?

“Trying to read more slowly has been the great ongoing failure of my adult life.”

Elaine Castillo
Headshot of Elaine Castillo by Amaal Said.

You are best known for writing fiction, especially your acclaimed novel America Is Not the Heart. How to Read Now is your first nonfiction book, and there’s a narrative quality to these essays, a feeling of following an ever-developing line of thought. Which of your skills as a fiction writer did you bring to crafting these essays?
I was just joking to someone—they were asking if writing a second book was easier, having already written a first—that I don’t know if any book helps you write the next one, really. With each book, what you learn is how to write that book, and that book specifically. The next is a new world, all over again. But if there is a narrative throughline to the book, an ever-developing line of thought, then it’s probably because, like I said earlier, I don’t really have fixed boundaries around my writing; much of what I bring to bear in a novel is also what I bring to bear as a critical thinker.

But it’s also just how the book came about. I wanted it to feel like entering into the personal history of someone’s reading life, while also following along as they think, ruminate, go deeper, swim in the dark, resurface again to take a breath. Some of my favorite nonfiction books read like that, like Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, or Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, or John Berger’s many essays on art and politics. The critical thinking in those works often feels like narrative storytelling, not only because all those writers are also fiction writers themselves but also because the voices in their books are so singular, because the urgency in them is so alive, so intimate, so to the bone.

In your concluding essay, you talk about Homer’s “The Odyssey,” particularly the scene with the monster Polyphemus. Readers are taught to identify with Odysseus, but what would it mean to identify instead with Polyphemus?
Well, besides pushing back against the idea that Polyphemus is a monster at all—isn’t Odysseus, in the end, also a monster? Or is that just dependent on who’s telling the story?—I’m resistant to the impulse of identification as the rhyme and reason for reading. Parsing the characters we’re tacitly meant to view as heroic, parsing the characters we’re implicitly assumed to identify with, and parsing them in ways that include discussions of their power in relation to others—their class, their race, their logics of violence—asks us to go beyond identification. To make a reference to the title of my essay on Joan Didion, “Main Character Syndrome,” the need to identify with Odysseus or Polyphemus is ultimately still part of that main character syndrome logic of fiction, part of the heroic impulse or, alternately, what Ursula K. Le Guin called “the killer story” in her essay “The Carrier Bag of Fiction”: “Lest there be no more telling of stories at all, some of us out here in the wild oats, amid the alien corn, think we’d better start telling another [story], which maybe people can go on with when the old one’s finished. Maybe. The trouble is, we’ve all let ourselves become part of the killer story, and so we may get finished along with it.”

Getting out of the killer story, getting out of the bind of identification, getting out of the heroic impulse, lets us enter into the much thornier realm of intimacy, and even recognition—especially unforeseen intimacy and unforeseen recognition. The truth is, I think most of us recognize parts of ourselves in both Odysseus and Polyphemus. The parts of ourselves that are charismatic, that love to tell stories; the parts of ourselves that are adventurers, or unfaithful, or great thinkers, or irresponsible leaders, or distracted by our lusts, our ego. The parts of ourselves that know what it means to have one’s home invaded, exploited, rendered unlivable; the parts of ourselves that have sought revenge, that have chosen violence, that long for retribution; the parts of us that have never been the hero. It’s easy to say, “Well, let’s just switch and identify with Polyphemus instead.” But that way lies more killer stories. Instead, to read Polyphemus’ story with the same attention that we read Odysseus’ means we might actually be able to understand a story like his—might give it the time and space that we otherwise lavish upon the stories of characters like Odysseus. And in doing so, we might be able to read both stories more truly, more fully. If we stop looking for heroes, we might actually find people.

How to Read Now takes our most aspirational notions about reading—that it builds empathy, that it combats prejudice—and turns them on their heads.
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Elaine Castillo’s How to Read Now is both a directive and a question. Castillo, a Filipinx American novelist (America Is Not the Heart), calls for readers to recognize and resist the ways that texts of all kinds center whiteness. But the book isn’t only a polemic; it’s also an investigation. How should we read now?

In critical essays that examine everything from fantasy novels to award-winning classic literature, Castillo outlines the limitations of America’s reading culture. Her voice is eviscerating, dramatic and funny as she lays out the ways that universalizing the white experience reduces writers of color to teachers of historical trauma and nonwhite cultures. What would it mean for publishing to be open to something new, to what Castillo calls “the unexpected reader”?

“Trying to read more slowly has been the great ongoing failure of my adult life.” Read our Q&A with Elaine Castillo.

In each essay, Castillo offers a specific and persuasive diagnosis of a problem and a sense of what the treatment might be. For example, the essay “Main Character Syndrome” explores how centering whiteness plays out in the work of recently deceased cultural icon Joan Didion, noting how Didion’s famous essays about California focus on the perspective of a settler, including her obsession with the ruts caused by wagon wheels. Castillo then counters with the work of Tommy Pico, showing what this Indigenous writer sees in the California landscape that Didion missed.

The effects of centuries of colonialism are dangerous and wide-ranging, as Castillo documents throughout How to Read Now. It’s important to make small ruptures in the system, she says—small acts of resistance through everyday decisions, including which stories we tell and value. In this book, Castillo argues that being a good reader means learning how to interrogate and interpret the stories all around us.

In How to Read Now, Elaine Castillo brilliantly argues that being a good reader means learning how to interrogate and interpret the stories all around us.
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As a mother of three, I can attest that parenting often feels like it comes at you fast: the meals and snacks, bedtimes and books, laundry and more laundry; the hat-straightening, screen time-monitoring, play date-booking and chore-reminding whirlwind of it all. That’s why it’s fantastic when someone thoughtful manages to hit pause on the relentless motion and reflect on what it all means. In Raising Raffi: The First Five Years, Keith Gessen does just that.

Covering everything from the surprises of a home birth to the days of desperately reading parenting manuals through a sleep-deprived haze, Gessen’s essays are at once intensely specific (he lives in New York, is the son of Russian immigrants and works as a literary writer and editor) and deeply relatable (even to me, a woman who lives in a suburb in the Midwest). For instance, he writes that fatherhood opened up heretofore unexamined aspects of his personality. Why, he wondered, did he want to speak to Raffi in Russian, even though all of their relatives are able to speak English? It is a mystery, more of a gut instinct than a bilingual regimen, that prompts his wife (the novelist Emily Gould) to nickname him “Bear Dad.” Throughout Raising Raffi, Gessen’s profound ambivalence over his Russian heritage feels pressing, heartfelt, sad and real. He also writes about the COVID-19 pandemic with a clarity that parents who have been raising young children during the last few years will appreciate and remember.

Gessen’s book raises the big questions: Who am I as a parent? What exactly am I passing down to my kids? And can I even really control what I pass down to them? Gessen’s essay about sports, for example, gently probes the pros and cons of getting Raffi to play hockey, eventually folding back and looking at itself as Gessen realizes that his own attachment to hockey wasn’t the best thing for him. Other essays, like his one on picture books, demonstrate the deep, abiding connection one can feel with a child through repeatedly reading poetry and stories.

This book is thoughtful, companionable, funny and memorable. Readers will return to it again and again—and will hope, like I do, that Gessen publishes a follow-up about Raffi’s next five years.

Read more: Keith Gessen brings a sense of reassurance to the audiobook for Raising Raffi.

In his companionable, funny, memorable memoir, Keith Gessen hits pause on the relentless motion of parenthood and reflects on what it all means.
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Julissa Arce, who charted an unlikely course from banker to writer, doesn’t want to be seen as a model immigrant. Sure, now she has los papeles and owns a home, but she can’t help asking, “What is the real cost of success?” For her, it was not being able to visit her dying father in Mexico because her immigration proceedings were not yet complete. It’s reading textbooks that omit any mention of the roles Latinx people have played in American history. It’s boxes on the U.S. census that erase entire ethnicities and prompt many Latinx people to choose “White” as their race. In You Sound Like a White Girl, Arce argues that now is the moment for Latinx people to reject assimilation and its attendant misconceptions.

These misconceptions, what Arce calls “the lies we’re told,” concern whiteness, English and success, which are all presented as essential to American identity. In the face of this fallacy, Arce wants to recenter Latinx history, identity, culture and language within America. She has thought carefully about not only how assimilation has impacted her—prompting her to modify her name so that her white teachers could pronounce it more easily—but also how such erasures function on a larger scale, causing Latinx folks to miss out on histories that could empower and embolden them. For example, as a girl, Arce wanted to be a cheerleader in Texas. At the time, she was totally unaware of the history of Chicana cheerleaders in Texas or of student protests in 1968, during which students held up signs that read “Brown legs are beautiful.” Without these stories to ground her, she felt isolated among her white teammates. When she went back to her middle school to speak after the publication of her first book, My (Underground) American Dream, she told this story, hoping to speak many such histories back into existence for the next generation.

Ultimately, through these acts of reclamation—of history, language, identity and culture—Arce argues that the very definition of what it means to be an American can shift. On a Christmas trip to Mexico, Arce recalls asking her nephews what they pictured when she said “un americano.” They imagined “a tall white person with blond hair and green or blue eyes.” She replied, “What about me? I am a U.S. citizen. Am I American?” This question, intended to make her nephews think a bit more deeply about their assumptions, is a relevant one for anyone seeking to shed narrow notions of American identity in favor of something truer and more just.

By centering Latinx history and culture, memoirist and cultural critic Julissa Arce boldly challenges narrow notions of American identity.
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The losses continue to mount as we enter year three of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this grief is still new, weathering sorrow is as old as humanity. Four authors offer hidden paths toward healing.

Bittersweet

Like Quiet, Susan Cain’s bestselling book on introversion, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole eschews American cultural norms like mandatory happiness and productivity in favor of other more fertile traditions, such as Aristotle’s concept of melancholia. Cain asks provocative questions like, “What’s the use of sadness?” and seeks answers through academic studies, insightful interviews and vulnerable self-reflection. A standout example is her interaction with Dacher Keltner, a psychologist who helped Pixar understand the crucial role of sadness in Inside Out. Sadness, he says, is what brings people together and adds depth to joy.

Bittersweetness is both a feeling and a disposition. (The book includes a quiz for readers to determine if they are bittersweet by nature.) Experiencing bittersweetness heightens life’s poignancy, opens the door to transcendence and helps people acknowledge the impermanence of existence. It is reasonable to be sad, Cain explains, when one is deeply aware that life can change in an instant. Grief and trauma may even be inherited. But when we explore these bittersweet feelings, we begin to see ourselves and our world a bit differently, with more depth, and can finally find new paths forward. As one of Cain’s sources Rene Denfeld put it, “We have to hold our losses close, and carry them like beloved children. Only when we accept these terrible pains do we realize that the path across is the one that takes us through.”

Read our starred review of the audiobook, read by author Susan Cain.

Grief Is Love

Marisa Renee Lee focuses on how grief is actually a painful expression of love in Grief Is Love: Living With Loss. When Lee was 25, her mother died of cancer in her arms. Afterward she held a beautiful memorial and started a nonprofit in her mother’s honor, yet she found herself unable to deal with the gnawing grief that clouded her inner life. Every big moment reminded her of her mother’s absence, especially her wedding and her miscarriage. Healing came, but all too slowly.

Grief Is Love is organized around 10 lessons related to grief, touching on topics such as safety, grace and intimacy. Lee carefully considers the impact of identity (gender, race, sexuality, class and so on) on mourning, noting at several points how society’s expectations of Black women—that they’ll be strong and keep their pain to themselves—slowed her own grieving process. Readers of this memoir will get a clear sense of how Lee’s grief rocked her world at 25 and continued to reverberate well into her 30s, but they’ll also appreciate the ways of coping she’s found since then—ones she wouldn’t have allowed or even recognized during those early days. Lee describes the long haul of loss and speaks directly and compassionately to those who are experiencing it. She also takes comfort in her faith and even imagines her mother and unborn child meeting in heaven.

The Other Side of Yet

Media executive and former television producer Michelle D. Hord explores the twin griefs for her mother and her child in The Other Side of Yet: Finding Light in the Midst of Darkness. Hord pulls the word yet from the book of Job, which was a lifeline following her daughter’s horrific murder by Hord’s estranged husband, the child’s father. The Bible describes how Job lost everything and yet still believed. This describes Hord, too, who treasures her “defiant faith.”

In The Other Side of Yet, Hord offers readers a framework for facing life after a traumatic event using the acronym SPIRIT (survive, praise, impact, reflect, imagine, testify). Though Hord’s book is not organized around these directives, her own story does follow this path. To read Hord’s memoir is to witness a mother who lost everything and yet stood to tell the tale and dared to remain vulnerable.

Take What You Need

Jen Crow’s life also fell apart, but not because she lost someone beloved. Instead, the sudden tragedy of a house fire provided the impetus for Take What You Need: Life Lessons After Losing Everything. Crow, a Unitarian minister, may seem an unlikely candidate for a spiritual guide: She loves tattoos and the open road and spent years defying anyone who got in her way as she ran from her difficult childhood. After settling down and finally feeling safe, a literal bolt of lightning changed her life in an instant.

Almost immediately after the fire, Crow realized that the way she and her wife talked about the tragedy would impact their children. “I wanted them to hear our gratitude, not our fear,” she writes. So they took special care in framing the story they told about the fire, never describing it as a form of punishment or “proof that hardship never ends.” As Crow searched for a better way to interpret their situation, she found herself learning from her children, who comforted each other instinctively, crawling into bed together and crying. Observing them, Crow considered that grieving might be as natural to people as any other process in life, and that they might already possess what they need to persevere.

Across these books about suffering and healing, there is a practical and poetic need to surrender to what is overwhelming. Each book points to the power of faith and spiritual traditions to guide people outside of their own perspectives, where they can finally see themselves with lovingkindness, accept their losses and keep going.

Four nonfiction titles offer comfort, empathy and wisdom to those who are reeling from loss.
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Amy Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimate relationships in her fiction (White Houses, Lucky Us), yet never has she gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her marriage. In Love begins, as Blooms puts it, with a “not quite normal” trip to Zurich. She traveled there with her husband, Brian, in January 2020, but the plan was for her to return without him. This is because her husband was pursuing a medically assisted suicide following his diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

In the compressed, gripping pages that follow, scenes alternate between the couple’s grim journey and the strenuous months that led up to it. “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” Brian commented within days of his diagnosis. Because he was already experiencing mild dementia, it fell to Bloom, who had always been strong and resourceful, to figure out the logistics of what came next. The window of opportunity was small: A key criterion of an accompanied suicide is that the patient should be capable of making an independent and firm decision. With pressure mounting, Bloom explored options on the dark web, wept with friends and therapists, and received deep, unshakable support from the people she loves, including her sister, who gave her $30,000 to cover the next few months’ costs. (Medically assisted suicide is not inexpensive.)

Bloom, in turn, was steadfastly present to Brian, though the couple’s emotional connection, she makes clear, flickered unevenly. The mundane was still inescapable. Words spoken hastily were regretted for months afterward. Suffering simply hurts, but Bloom shares the details without flinching. “Please write about this,” Brian exhorted her.

Just as Bloom found comfort in watching videos made by families navigating this impossible situation, In Love now offers comfort to those who follow in her footsteps. People who are disturbed by the way death in the United States seems increasingly impersonal, or passionate about giving the people they love agency to do what they want to do, will strongly connect to this book—but so will anyone interested in deep stories of human connection.

Amy Bloom is known for examining the dynamics of intimacy in her fiction, but she has never gotten closer to the flame than in this memoir of her marriage.
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Ann Patchett’s new essay collection, These Precious Days, reinforces what many longtime fans like best about her writing: its levelheaded appraisal of what is good in the world. In one essay, she describes a photo of herself as “joyful.” She had given this photo to the Academy of Arts and Letters when she was inducted, and it brightly contrasted with the somber photographs of her colleagues. The photo was appropriate, however, since reading Patchett’s work does inspire a kind of joy—tempered by an awareness of what can be lost. When Patchett does convey fear or regret, it’s because she knows that life can change in an instant and that precious things need to be guarded. For instance, after Patchett became unexpectedly ill after a bad experience with psychedelic mushrooms, she apologized to her husband “for being careless with our lives.”

She writes in the introduction that what interests her at this stage in life is exploring the things that matter most. For Patchett, that means essays about friends and family (“Three Fathers” and “These Precious Days” are especially wonderful) and about reading (specifically, the works of Eudora Welty and Kate DiCamillo). She also pulls back the curtain on the writing life, letting readers see her daily habits (early-morning walks with the dog, restorative dinners, occasionally demanding travel), her work with publishers and her intense privacy while composing. She could write a novel, she says, without showing anyone a single page.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic threw everything into upheaval, Patchett found the work of a novel too overwhelming. Essays, though, were approachable, and she found herself returning to the form again and again. Though readers will cheer when her next novel emerges, this collection is a balm for the moment, a candle that sheds warmth and light during a dark season.

Ann Patchett's tender essay collection is a balm for the moment, a candle that sheds warmth and light during a dark season.
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Episodic, quirky, absurd: These are a few of the words that describe Emmy Award-winning comedy writer Georgia Pritchett’s memoir, My Mess Is a Bit of a Life: Adventures in Anxiety. Pritchett, best known for her work on “Succession” and “Veep,” writes in short bursts that pull the reader in with a manic sort of energy—but just as quickly push the reader away. This writing style echoes Pritchett’s anxiety, which is central to how she experiences the world.

Everyone in My Mess Is a Bit of a Life has a nickname. Pritchett’s mother is not her mother but The Witch. (She had a penchant for black hats.) Her father is The Patriarchy. Initially it’s hard to feel a close connection to the narrator because the vignettes fly by so quickly, even though they are zany and tilt-a-whirl fun. The memoir gains traction, though, as Pritchett transitions to her tentative forays into comedy writing. She describes climbing her way up and stepping around Oxford-educated men in a series of fascinating stories about the (somewhat familiar) experience of being the only female writer in the room. Pritchett’s natural reserve and distance served her well in those rooms; public criticism only made her more determined. With time, her steel began to shine through, though it was always tempered by sensitivity, kindness and a kind of off-center oddness that she treasured, protected and shared in her work.

Where I personally became fully immersed in the memoir was after Pritchett had her son, who has autism. She was told he wouldn’t speak. When she sent him to school, she sensed she was “putting him in a cupboard,” so she took him out of school and worked out a Plan B. Her poignant honesty in describing what she and her sons have experienced together, coupled with her fierceness and creativity, made me a true fan of the book, which is one that readers will not soon forget.

“Succession” writer Georgia Pritchett’s memoir is an episodic, quirky ride that readers will not soon forget.
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What do Tony Bennett, Dolly Parton and the movie It’s a Wonderful Life have in common? They’re each the focus of new books that are guaranteed to inspire, advise and entertain.

Tony Bennett’s Life Is a Gift will be a hit with anyone who loves anecdotes about famous people (and, let’s admit it, that’s all of us!). From Cary Grant to Aretha Franklin to Lady Gaga, Bennett’s famous friends span the century, but readers will recognize them all, and his stories about them have the ring of someone who truly cares. Subtitled “The Zen of Bennett,” the book also offers nuggets of advice on many topics, including maintaining good relationships, insisting on a quality product and having fun. There are also a few surprises: Did you know that Bennett is an accomplished painter whose work is hanging in the Smithsonian? Did you know it was Bob Hope who coined Bennett’s stage name? This book is full of joyful appreciation for the life Bennett has lived and the audiences he’s served. His loving and happy attitude will linger in your ears like the sweet notes of his treasured music.

Dolly Parton keeps Dream More short and sweet—and very funny. There are four core pieces of advice the “Dolly Mama” (as she sometimes calls herself) offers: dream more, learn from everything, care for everyone and be more. These principles also guide the Imagination Library, an organization she founded that provides free books to children, first in the Smoky Mountains and now across the country. This book makes you want to cheer for Parton. For instance, she doesn’t just give books away to lower-income kids, but rather to any child in a participating community who signs up. She knows from experience that charity only directed to the poor can make the receiver feel “less than.” Parton dedicated this book to her father, who, as she puts it, “never learned to read and write, paid a dear price for that, and inspired me not to let it happen to others.”

Speaking of everyday heroes, Bob Welch’s new book celebrates one of America’s favorites, George Bailey, whose life forever changes his hometown of Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. From this classic Christmas film, Welch pulled 52 Little Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life. Be prepared to find morals in moments you might not even remember, like the transformation of George’s mother-in-law. These lessons are cut from the same life-affirming cloth as the film itself, and stitched lovingly together by an author who is clearly an affectionate fan.

What do Tony Bennett, Dolly Parton and the movie It’s a Wonderful Life have in common? They’re each the focus of new books that are guaranteed to inspire, advise and entertain. Tony Bennett’s Life Is a Gift will be a hit with anyone who loves anecdotes about famous people (and, let’s admit it, that’s all […]
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Whether interested in religious history or prayer, heaven or the Holy Land, readers will find in these four books a wealth of information and personal stories to enrich their own spiritual journeys.

Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers is a book for just about anyone who has felt compelled, at one point or another, to raise her eyes to the heavens and murmur some words to a Higher Power. Never one to get caught up in religious specifics, Anne Lamott offers a variety of hilarious titles by which her friends have referred to God, such as “Howard,” “Mother” and “H.P.” She celebrates the divine, and poetically explains why we frail humans are in such desperate need of it. Of the three essential prayers, help seems to be the one closest to Lamott’s heart. Fans of her previous books such as Bird by Bird will again enjoy candid conversation from a writer who feels like a friend.

While Lamott’s book may be characterized as a book about faith for doubters, Heaven Changes Everything by Todd and Sonja Burpo is a book about faith for believers—and a follow-up to the best-selling Heaven Is for Real, which related the story of their four-year-old son’s visit to heaven. Here the Burpos share more about Colton’s miraculous experience and what it’s been like for their family since making it public. Organized into 40 short, devotional-style readings that open with a quote from Colton and close with an action point, it is sure to please readers eager for the next chapter in the Burpos’ story.

In What Would Jesus Read?, Joe Amaral takes readers through the Scripture in the way Jesus might have read it: in short portions that combine a selection from the Torah (the first five books of the Christian Bible) and the prophets (a number of Old Testament books). Each week, Amaral assigns a portion of the Bible and offers daily insights on the reading. These insights are very brief, conversational and theologically non-denominational. As a Christian who lives in Israel and guides tour groups through the Holy Land, Amaral is in a unique position to help American readers understand the perspective of the Middle East and the traditions of the ancient Jewish world.

For readers interested in learning more about the world of Jesus, In the Footsteps of Jesus is another good place to begin. Published by National Geographic, this full-color and visually impressive book offers a more scholarly perspective on the world Jesus walked through and how we experience it today. The scope of the book—which combines political history, anthropological context, biography and an exploration of the contemporary Holy Land—is truly ambitious. Illustrations include photographs of artifacts, paintings, pull-out quotations and richly detailed maps. This worthy book could be read alongside the Gospels or could stand alone as a historical work.

Whether interested in religious history or prayer, heaven or the Holy Land, readers will find in these four books a wealth of information and personal stories to enrich their own spiritual journeys. Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers is a book for just about anyone who has felt compelled, at one point or another, […]

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