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All three of these gorgeous and talented authors have played pivotal roles in movies that are meaningful to fans worldwide. Their Tinseltown lives are glamorous, to be sure, but their heartfelt life stories reveal a darker side to fame, where inspirational journeys and cautionary tales collide.

★ Out of the Corner

Jacket for Out of the Corner by Jennifer Grey

Jennifer Grey knows that her life has been charmed from the beginning. As a child, her famous parents took her to holiday parties with the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Patti LuPone and Leonard Bernstein. But although she breathed in rarefied air, Grey felt lonely and lacking. The rising star of her father, Joel Grey, meant the family moved numerous times, and so many instances of starting over, with her parents largely absent, took a heavy toll.

In Out of the Corner: A Memoir, Grey writes, “I’d been so consumed by feeling abandoned that I hadn’t seen the ways I had abandoned myself.” In the decades before she reached that perspective, the actress searched—for affection, connection, approval—even as she achieved great fame.

Grey became America’s sweetheart in 1987, thanks to her indelible work as Baby Houseman in Dirty Dancing, but as she reveals with raw and moving candor, her sunny smile at the premiere belied her physical and emotional suffering. Just before the film’s debut, she and then-boyfriend Matthew Broderick were in a head-on car crash in which two people died. Even before that, her relationship with Broderick had turned toxic, and she’d had other unhealthy relationships earlier in her life. “My first drug of choice was romantic fantasy,” she writes. Other drugs followed, amplifying behavioral patterns from which she’s worked to recover—efforts she recounts with empathy for her former self and encouragement for those with similar struggles.

Grey also addresses what she calls “Schnozageddon”—when a revision rhinoplasty famously and irrevocably altered her face and professional identity—with bravery and clarity. And when she writes about dance, her prose sings with gratitude for the lifelong pursuit that’s taken her marvelous places, from Dirty Dancing to “Dancing With the Stars.” Time and again, Grey reveals herself to be tenacious and dedicated to the show going on—a fitting metaphor for a singular life, which she shares with wit, warmth and wisdom.

★ We Were Dreamers

Jacket for We Were Dreamers by Simu Liu

Simu Liu’s fans are enchanted by his previous work as a stock photo model. They loved him in the Canadian sitcom “Kim’s Convenience.” And they rejoiced when he landed the lead in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. He shares these stories and more in his engaging, uplifting memoir, We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story.

Liu has had an incredible journey so far, but as with any origin story, it hasn’t been without painful obstacles. We Were Dreamers begins with his 1989 birth in Harbin, China, where he lived with his loving grandparents for four years. Then his parents, engineers who had moved abroad after he was born, brought Liu to Canada to join them. After so many years of pursuing a better life, they were not interested in Liu’s dreams for his own life, and they emotionally and physically abused him when he couldn’t achieve their definition of perfection.

As a young adult, getting laid off from an accounting job for which he was spectacularly ill suited brought shame but also opportunity, as Liu finally felt free to try out performing gigs, from acting to stunts to playing Spider-Man at kids’ parties. He recounts his step-by-step approach, providing a helpful blueprint for other aspiring artists who lack a supportive family or industry connections. For him, this plan worked marvelously: He obtained life-changing work as an actor in the U.S. and became an advocate for Asian representation in media in the process.

As an adult, Liu forged a truce with his parents, and he writes that “families today could learn from us and steer themselves from the same mistakes.” A compelling case for pursuing an authentic life, We Were Dreamers provides fascinating insight into a newly minted Marvel superhero who wants readers to take to the skies along with him.

★ Mean Baby

Jacket for Mean Baby by Selma Blair

Since birth, Selma Blair has struggled to unstick the labels others applied to her. As an infant, she had a sneer on her tiny face that caused neighbors and family to call her a “mean baby.” As she grew older, her mother said she wasn’t enough—pretty enough, thin enough, good enough, talented enough . . . the list goes on. And yet, as Blair writes in her painfully lovely Mean Baby: A Memoir of Growing Up, “I lived for her approval.”

Although that approval was ever elusive, Blair loved her mother. However, she had learned from her mother that if she showed she was in pain, it would only be met with laughter. So even as Blair began to experience strange sensations in her limbs, facial pain and other ailments that lasted for decades, she told herself she was fine. Fans already know where this is going: In 2018, Blair was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As she writes with a poignant mixture of grief and relief, “There is great power in words. In an answer. In a diagnosis. To make sense of a plot you could hardly keep up with any longer.”

Blair writes about what fans may not know, too, such as her alcohol addiction that began at age 7 and surged and receded over the years. Blair also shares many thrilling Hollywood encounters, vividly conveying the profound feeling of disorientation that was her constant companion even as she starred in movies like Cruel Intentions, Legally Blonde and Hellboy; modeled for high-end fashion magazines; and developed friendships with the likes of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Karl Lagerfeld and Carrie Fisher.

Blair drew from her journals, her favorite books and her love of writing to craft this memoir, which is an elegiac contemplation of her life through the lens of a chronic illness that only recently made her past clear. For those seeking a similar sense of enlightenment, reading Mean Baby is a worthy and affecting undertaking.

Memoirs by Jennifer Grey, Simu Liu and Selma Blair reveal that even out-of-this-world stars have down-to-earth problems.

Puzzles are big news—and big business—these days. With their capacity to entertain, challenge and provide a distraction from the stresses of daily life, puzzles have found a wider audience than ever before.

In the introduction to his new book, The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, From Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life, journalist, bestselling author and invenerate puzzler A.J. Jacobs (The Know-It-All) shares the euphoria he felt upon learning that his name was featured as a clue in a New York Times crossword puzzle. He’d made it to the big time! But, alas, it was a Saturday puzzle, one of the hardest of the week. So, not a household name just yet, just an obscure clue.

However, Jacobs may find his name appearing in clues more often as puzzle lovers old and new discover this timely and entertaining exploration of why we love (and, yes, often become addicted to) all sorts of puzzles—from the word puzzle books we gobbled up in childhood, to jigsaw puzzles on card tables during family summer vacations, to the world’s recent embrace of a simple daily word game. (You know the one.)

A.J. Jacobs shares how he solved the hardest puzzle yet: motivating himself to finish writing ‘The Puzzler.’

Jacobs covers a wide variety of puzzles, including anagrams, mazes, math and logic puzzles, Rubik’s Cubes, Sudoku, riddles, ciphers and, of course, crosswords—his first love. He admits to knowing the exact time the New York Times crossword puzzle appears online each day. He’s also honest about the emotions involved in puzzle-solving. Frankly, it’s not all enjoyment; there’s frustration, drama, despair and even humiliation. “And sometimes there’s terror,” Jacobs writes, speaking of the creeping fear that getting stuck portends mental decline.

The Puzzler isn’t simply Jacobs’ personal journey, however; it’s also an exploration of the history of puzzles and their role in society. Along the way, Jacobs meets and interviews some fascinating puzzle lovers, including Jeff Varasano, who created his own algorithms to solve a Rubik’s Cube as a teenager back in 1980, and a young woman named Sydney Weaver, a “speedcuber” whose cubing has helped her with pediatric arthritis. Readers also meet crossword maker Peter Gordon, who, when asked why he thinks we’re addicted to puzzles, replied, “Well, life is a puzzle.” Indeed, as the late Maki Kaji, often known as the father of Sudoku, believed, puzzles are a journey. Jacobs’ wonderful book reminds us that puzzles help us to be present in the moment and connect with others on the same journey.

A final note: The Puzzler would make a fabulous gift as a physical copy simply because it includes original puzzles by Greg Pliska for readers to solve. But don’t despair; the answers are in the back.

Puzzle lovers old and new will be thrilled to discover this entertaining exploration of why we love (and often become addicted to) all sorts of puzzles.

I was only six months late turning in The Puzzler to my publisher. I say “only” because, honestly, I’m shocked I finished writing this book at all. 

This is for two reasons. First, like most writers, I hate writing. By which I mean, the actual act of writing: sitting in a room alone, hunched over the keyboard, struggling through sentence after sentence with no feedback for weeks or months. I much prefer, as Dorothy Parker quipped, having written.

Second, I love the subject matter of my book. This may not seem like a problem at first glance, but it turned out to be a huge challenge. The trouble was that I loved the topic too much.

Read our starred review of ‘The Puzzler’ by A.J. Jacobs.

I’ve been a puzzle nerd since childhood, when I’d spend my days poring over Games magazine and drawing huge pencil mazes that filled up my living room. When I decided to write a book on the history, joy and science of puzzles, it meant my research would consist of, in part, doing puzzles all day—crosswords, Sudoku, jigsaws, mazes, logic puzzles. I’d start my morning of “work” by doing a crossword puzzle. But after finishing one from the Wall Street Journal, I’d tell myself, “Well, I should probably do the crossword from New York Magazine too. It’s research, after all!” After I finished that, I’d say, “Maybe I should also do the crossword from The Week.” This went on for hours every day.

Was this useful research that would yield insightful passages in my book? No. But I’m a puzzle addict, and I’m good at self-delusion. So I’d continue my “research.”

The thing is, I’ve always preferred researching my books to writing them. As a nonfiction writer whose mission is to immerse myself in my topics, I like nothing better than diving deep into a subject. I wrote about religion in a book called The Year of Living Biblically, which is exactly what it sounds like. I spent a year following all the rules of the Bible as literally as possible, from obeying the Ten Commandments to growing a huge Moses-like beard. The research was a joy; I relished learning about every obscure part of the Bible.

“Like most writers, I hate writing.”

But this book on puzzles was on another level. The research for this one was just too alluring, like brain candy. I embarked on this puzzle book after spending several months working on another book, about the post-truth era, and finding it slow going. So my agent, who knows I’m a puzzle-head, suggested I write about my passion, and my editor at Crown kindly let me switch topics. 

Immediately, I was joyfully overwhelmed. I went down hundreds of rabbit holes. I even went down a rabbit hole about the phrase “rabbit holes,” which is from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book that contains dozens of puzzles. For my chapter on secret codes, I spent three days trying to decipher the encoded teenage diary of legendary psychologist Abraham Maslow. That ended up resulting in about five words in the final book. 

Then I started researching a chapter on Sudoku and other Japanese grid-based puzzles. The problem is, there are many, many variations on Sudoku—hundreds of them, with names like “Moon or Sun” or “Two Not Touch.” I convinced myself I should try them all out for the sake of comprehensiveness. That took days out of my schedule. It was as if I were a food writer doing an article about spaghetti and had convinced myself I had to try every form of pasta ever created, from tagliatelle to pappardelle.

But I couldn’t help myself. I love the feeling of doing puzzles. I love the aha! moment, that rush of dopamine, when you solve it. I love that feeling of certainty in this increasingly uncertain world: There is a right answer, and I’m going to find it!

“I’m a puzzle addict, and I’m good at self-delusion.”

I knew I had to eventually distill all this research into a written text, but I dreaded it. I find the writing part lonely, depressing even. As James Joyce said, “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.” 

Partly, the pain is due to the lack of feedback. After having written, I love to give talks at bookstores, where I can see the audience’s faces. I can see if they’re laughing or if their eyes sparkle—or if they’re busy looking at their phones. I love the immediacy of it. During the initial writing phase, though, months often go by before I get any response.

So how’d I finally buckle down and write the darn thing? I give credit to puzzles. 

A few months into writing The Puzzler, I had a conceptual breakthrough: What if I reframed the act of writing? Instead of seeing it as a chore to finish, what if I saw the act of writing itself as a puzzle? When I had to arrange the chapters, I decided to see them as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and this was empowering. It was, if not fun, at least not torture.

“I love that feeling of certainty in this increasingly uncertain world: There is a right answer, and I’m going to find it!”

As I solved each writing problem, I focused on the aha! moment and learned to relish it. Consider my chapter on secret codes, for example. Much of it is devoted to a sculpture on the grounds of the CIA’s headquarters, part of what is considered one of the hardest unsolved puzzles in the world. (The sculpture itself contains a secret code that not even the CIA has cracked.) “Well,” I thought, “what if I wrote this chapter as if it were a spy thriller?” Puzzle solved. I got my dopamine hit.

And it turns out, reframing problems as puzzles became one of the big themes of The Puzzler. I’m an advocate of what I call the Puzzle Mindset. Instead of seeing the world as a series of hard-to-win battles, I try to view it as a puzzle—to see the world through the eyes of an engineer, not a warrior. Even using the word puzzle can help. When I hear about the climate crisis, I want to curl up in a fetal position. But if I think about the climate puzzle, I feel motivated to find solutions.

Without the Puzzle Mindset, this book would still only be about 10% written—if that.

It was all fun and games until he had to actually sit down and write his latest book.

Tajja Isen’s debut essay collection reveals her as a multihyphenate talent—voice actor, singer, editor, writer, law school graduate—with a delicious knack for wordplay and language. In Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service, Isen writes about the disparity between the “token apologies and promises” made by white people and what Black people actually want and take for themselves.

The strongest essay, which lends its name to the book’s title, examines the relationship white women have to power and pain, which Isen dubs the “aesthetics of vulnerability.” Continuing a thread from the previous essay about the popularity of Black trauma writing, Isen looks at how self-indulgence has been romanticized by white female artists. “If you’re always in pain you’ll never want for material,” she writes of these white artists’ impulse to glamorize their sadness.

Another standout essay is “Hearing Voices,” Isen’s personal exploration of voice acting as a transformative and potentially empowering art form. In addition to outlining her own experiences as a Black voice actor, she discusses “Big Mouth,” “Central Park” and “The Simpsons,” three animated shows that cast white actors to voice nonwhite characters and then apologized for this choice in 2020.

This essay also underlines a central weakness of the book: It already feels dated. Scanning the table of contents feels like reading a list of Twitter’s most popular trending topics from 2020. In the churn of the modern news cycle, it seems inevitable that not every moment referenced would have cultural staying power, but it’s especially frustrating when Isen chooses intentionally ephemeral data points, like viral trailers for made-for-TV movies or deleted Instagram posts.

In the book’s most compelling moments, Isen makes the churn the point: Whatever Starbucks or Lena Dunham did and subsequently apologized for in 2020 is something they’ll do again in 2030. Rather than revealing a new issue, the “Big Mouth” casting controversy confirmed something Isen had already learned early in her voice acting career: “The problem is the ivory grip on what Black sounds like.”

Throughout the collection, Isen engages the greatest hits of leftist Twitter discourse but with the type of nuance that’s impossible in 280 characters. She admits to “keeping an eye on the writers at the vanguard, seeing what kind of behavior gets rewarded,” and that’s reflected in the originality of Some of My Best Friends’ content—but it’s Isen’s original perspective and clever language that will win over readers.

Tajja Isen’s debut essay collection reveals her as a multihyphenate talent with a delicious knack for wordplay and language.

★ Refuse to Be Done

I’ve been following writer and professor Matt Bell on social media for years, eagerly tuning in for the wisdom he shares from the many (many) books and author interviews he has read, and frankly awed by his fierce, upbeat dedication to his writing practice. Bell’s new guide for aspiring novelists, Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts, gathers his wealth of knowledge and motivational zeal into a volume that deserves a spot on every writer’s desk. He advocates for a three-draft approach, while recognizing that “draft” can mean many different things. His chief goal is to keep you from giving up—to provide the fuel and structure to get you through the inevitable slog of novel-writing. As I embark upon another revision of a novel I’ve been working on for years, I’m thankful to have this book riding shotgun. 

Anna Spiro

It’s been a minute since we’ve featured the work of an interior designer. Anna Spiro: A Life in Pattern turned my head with its springy, floral-print linen cover, just the thing to spiff up a side table. Inside, the fun continues: The photographs are spirit-lifters one and all, awash in bold colors, textures and, as is Spiro’s trademark, pattern on pattern on pattern, with glorious examples of how to avoid being matchy and yet make everything harmonize. Fans of the ebullient mix-and-matching of Justina Blakeley will also delight in Spiro’s maximalist, vibrant style. If you’ve had a hankering to try a pop of wallpaper, this book will take your face between its hands and say, “Go for it, friend!” Do you love being surrounded by your precious things? Spiro understands, and she encourages shaping your personal style around those beloved objects. “Above all, your goal should be to create an environment that is reflective of you, your life and taste,” she writes. “Collect art, furniture and other items that have meaning to you.” 

Love and Justice

Model, actor and activist Laetitia Ky has amassed a significant Instagram following over the past several years, posting images of her incredible hair sculptures. She twists, bends and shapes her own hair into faces, animals, bodies, trees, breasts and other body parts, and much more. This hair art is striking at face value, but in Love and Justice: A Journey of Empowerment, Activism, and Embracing Black Beauty, Ky frames her sculptural work within personal narratives that dig into issues of mental health, internalized misogyny, African heritage, sexism, self-care, Black beauty and other themes close to her heart. As a member of a new global guard of young creatives who refuse to separate their work from their beliefs and values, Ky is poised to become a strong role model for young people finding their way in the world. 

Let your artistic side run wild with three inspirational books about novel writing, interior design and activism.

Joining recent memoirs by Elissa Washuta and Terese Mailhot, Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe’s Red Paint illuminates the stories and experiences of Indigenous women from the Pacific Northwest for a 21st-century audience. Red Paint offers a poetic narrative of trauma and healing through ancestral rites and punk rock, both of which prove to be potent medicine during LaPointe’s excavation of family legacy and matrilineal power.

Named for her great grandmother, Violet taqʷšəblu Hilbert, LaPointe bears not only her relative’s Skagit name but also the strengths and wounds of her maternal line. Haunted by childhood sexual abuse and periods of teenage homelessness, LaPointe initially found solace and community in the punk scene. But as she came to recognize her trauma as a sickness of the spirit, LaPointe leaned into the Lushootseed language and the curative practices of five generations of her Coast Salish ancestors.

A large part of LaPointe’s healing involved recovering and reimagining the life stories of the women she’s descended from, including Comptia Koholowish, a Chinook woman who witnessed the death by smallpox of her entire community in the early 1900s. Aunt Susie, a medicine worker and storyteller in the early 20th century, is another powerful woman whose words and example come to life in Red Paint.

The wearing of red paint is a ceremonial act for the Coast Salish people, identifying the bearer as a healer. LaPointe’s quest to wear the red paint of her ancestors in the context of her own life as a poet and performer integrates the twin strands, past and present, of this stunning memoir. For LaPointe, restoring the self to health is entwined with restoring Native women’s voices that have been erased throughout history. She uses her own luminescent voice to tell their stories, wielding language, words, ritual and community as tools of contemporary and ancestral healing.

With Red Paint, Sasha LaPointe offers a poetic narrative of trauma and healing through ancestral rites and punk rock.

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