In Will Schwalbe’s memoir We Should Not Be Friends: The Story of a Friendship, the wry writer of books-about-books (see The End of Your Life Book Club and Books for Living) turns his attention to an unexpected friendship that originated in a secret society at Yale. Unlike any secret society I’ve heard of, this one aimed at connecting very different folks in a purposeful community during their senior year of college. And members Schwalbe and Chris Maxey could hardly have been more different.
Early in the memoir, Schwalbe differentiates between nerds and jocks, positioning himself (theater kid, gay, literature major) in the former category and Maxey (wrestler, scuba diver, avid motorcyclist) in the latter. When the two met, they repelled each other like misaligned magnets; something about Maxey’s boisterous masculinity put Schwalbe on edge. But they began to listen to each other, due in part to the rituals of the society, and an unlikely trust began to form.
We Should Not Be Friends then veers from this nostalgic origin story into the rushing sweep of adulthood. Early dreams and uncertain beginnings gather momentum and fling the two friends through various adventures and, as time unfolds, into the stressful compression tunnel of middle age. Health concerns, financial concerns, marital concerns, dreams realized and abandoned, open communication and years of silence: All of it unfolds here, controlled through Schwalbe’s careful narration as he effectively shows how an fragile alliance in college yielded years of rewards.
As Schwalbe and Maxey share their lives, it’s obvious how much they support and even change each other, in part because of how different they are. “Had it not been for Maxey, the me that is here today wouldn’t be me,” Schwalbe writes, and he goes on to illustrate the peculiar familiarity that emerges between long-haul friends who have known each other across life stages, geographies and decades. If you are someone who appreciates the people in your life, especially those whose presence seems serendipitous, this book will feel at once fresh and familiar.
Will Schwalbe’s memoir captures the peculiar familiarity that emerges between long-haul friends who have known each other across life stages, geographies and decades.
“I am out with lanterns, looking for myself” reads the epigraph to poet Maggie Smith’s memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful. Fans of Keep Moving, Smith’s bestselling self-help book based on tweets she wrote during the period following her separation and eventual divorce from her partner of 19 years, will be eager to hear about her search for and ultimate reclamation of herself.
Written as a series of prose vignettes, You Could Make This Place Beautiful recounts the narrative of Smith’s divorce, beginning on the evening that Smith found a postcard in her husband’s work satchel that revealed romantic intimacy with a stranger. This prompted a whirlwind of couples therapy, arguments and reflection on how the relationship had soured prior to the betrayal. She compares their marriage to a fruit whose pit of love is pure but surrounded by rotting flesh. As the images and metaphors for loss gather momentum, the book simultaneously doubles back on itself, asking unanswerable questions: How to heal? How to carry this trauma forward? How to set it down? How to forgive? How to grieve?
As these queries show, this memoir is both the story of the dissolution of Smith’s marriage and also an inquiry into the act of telling that story—how to determine the beginning and the end, how to locate the center, how to represent the brokenness and beauty, and even how to find moments of solace. Music plays an important role throughout this book, and I loved listening to the songs Smith referenced as I was reading. (As it turns out, Smith’s story inspired the song “Picture of My Dress” by the Mountain Goats, which began as a Twitter exchange between Smith and songwriter John Darnielle.) In Keep Moving, Smith addressed the role that art and artists have played in her search for herself, and in You Could Make This Place Beautiful, she offers readers a personal playlist.
Smith’s memoir is a beautiful example of how metaphor and imagery can capture the essence of experiences that are difficult to explain, and it will lead readers to think more deeply about the relationships in their own lives.
Fans of Maggie Smith’s poetry and other writings will be eager to read this tender memoir of reclaiming herself after her divorce.
Have you ever wanted to visit space? Reading public astronomer Philip Plait’s Under Alien Skies: A Sightseer’s Guide to the Universe is the next best thing. Beginning with that closest rock, the moon, Plait describes at length what it would feel like to land on the lunar surface, from the bizarre sensation of shuffle-walking because of the difference in gravity to the pesky bits of crushed-up rock, called regolith, that would inevitably dust one’s spacesuit. His vivid imagination combines with his deep and specific scientific knowledge to engage—and educate—lay readers.
As the book progresses, Plait moves from the familiar—the moon, Mars, Saturn and even Pluto—to wilder reaches and more conceptual destinations. My favorite chapter imagines a spaceship landing on the surface of the Star Wars planet Tatooine; the movie clip of Luke Skywalker standing at dusk beneath a sky with two suns provides the basis for Plait’s enthusiastic explanation of what conditions could lead to a sunset that looks, well, exactly like that. This was a moment, he points out, when Hollywood actually got space right (unlike their interpretations of black holes, which he explores in a later chapter).
Plait could dance circles around what most of us know about space. He has a Ph.D. in astronomy and has even professionally analyzed images from the Hubble Space Telescope. And yet, through the imaginative premise of this book, Plait finds ways to talk about how an everyday person would experience space: what Saturn’s rings would look like up close, how the landscape of Mars might stir associations with the barren, red scenery of the American West, why some stars appear blue and some appear red, what it might feel like to land on an asteroid. By grounding his prose in bodily sensations and then explaining why he believes something would look or feel a certain way, Plait doesn’t just look up at the sky and dream but really envisions what it would be like to spend a summer among the stars.
Have you ever wanted to visit space? Reading public astronomer Philip Plait’s Under Alien Skies is the next best thing.
New York City-based book publicist-turned-writer Amelia Possanza dedicates her book “to all the queers, ordinary and extraordinary, whose names have been destroyed by history, and to the rosy-fingered custodians of the queer archive.” Possanza is one such rosy-fingered custodian, a queer person attracted to the archives not just to understand history but also to understand her own story. “I was certain that if I uncovered enough lesbians in history, they would reveal a message or a lesson, a blueprint of how I might build my own life,” she writes.
Possanza’s debut book, Lesbian Love Story, is part archival research and part memoir. It includes seven chapters, each of which historicizes a lesbian love story. While the chapter on Sappho harkens back to antiquity, the other six span the 1890s through the 1990s, offering a lively lesbian mix: golf star Babe Didrikson Zaharias, groundbreaking memoirist Mary Casal, Chicana activist and writer Gloria Anzaldua and others. Possanza digs into the details of their lives with passionate engagement, frequently turning the narrative from the archival subject back to herself and exploring personal topics vis-a-vis these historical women: gender identity, the vagaries and politics of cross-dressing, the insidious narrowness of second-wave feminism, friendship, power dynamics in relationships and, most of all, obsessive love.
“In case it isn’t obvious yet,” Possanza writes in a late chapter, “I am an unforgivable romantic. I love love. Not as a means to an end, a steppingstone on the path to marriage and children, but as a surrender to passion, even when it’s surely doomed. Obsessive, selfish love that feasts on its own ruin.” As she unearths these romantic stories, Possanza also identifies the gaps within them, the moments when she wants to know more. To fill these silences, she imagines the scenes she longs to see, engaging with history not as a disembodied historian but as a young lesbian who wants answers, who wants to find her people. Though a blueprint does not, and cannot, neatly emerge from this sea of stories, Possanza does find the space, movement and complexity provided by a multifaceted past to buoy her ongoing becoming.
Amelia Possanza weaves her own memories through seven moving lesbian love stories from the archives in her debut book.
There’s only so much of the sweet stuff to go around, and in The Sugar Jar: Create Boundaries, Embrace Self-Healing, and Enjoy the Sweet Things in Life, wellness expert Yasmine Cheyenne helps readers consider their own sugar reserves. Sugar is “all the sweet parts of you—your time, your energy, your attention, your money, your expertise/education, and every single part of you that can be given or exchanged.” Paying attention to one’s own sugar jar entails thinking carefully about where the sugar is going—and how you might better guard it in order to enjoy life.
Cheyenne’s guiding metaphor, the sugar jar, is immediately understandable. Some jars might have cracks. Other jars might not have lids and are therefore susceptible to anyone helping themselves. Cheyenne shows how a lack of boundaries may be holding readers back from understanding and pursuing what really matters to them, and she offers many questions to transform idle observations into deeper reflection and action.
Cheyenne also devotes several chapters to how aspects of identity—such as race, class and family structure—impact our sugar jars. In the chapter “Black Healing,” Cheyenne offers insights specifically for Black readers, noting that the wellness field is often not a welcoming space for people of color. In “Healing as the Parent and as the Child,” Cheyenne acknowledges that parents are, in a sense, continually monitoring the sugar jars of their kids, which can be a unique and draining job. Throughout the book, Cheyenne offers personal stories to bring principles to life and connect with the reader. In all, The Sugar Jar is an accessible and thoughtful discussion of boundaries from a wellness advocate who has both talked the talk and walked the walk.
The Sugar Jar offers an accessible and thoughtful discussion of boundaries from a wellness advocate who has both talked the talk and walked the walk.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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”?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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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