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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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It’s difficult to have a conversation with Ross Gay and not think of a moniker he’s picked up over the years: “the happiest poet around.” Gay is relaxed, genial and clearly excited about his second essay collection (and sixth book overall), Inciting Joy. With its 14 chapters, or “incitements,” covering subjects as disparate as death and losing one’s phone, Gay hopes his new book is proof that he can write—and in fact has always written—about subjects other than delight. “I feel like this book could also be called The Book of Rage,” he explains over our Zoom call. “Connection and holding each other through each other’s sorrow, to me, feels like an inciting force.” This is the premise of Gay’s powerful book, which begins with an imagined party for people and their sorrows, then segues into an exploration of sites where joy and solidarity defiantly abound.

Read our starred review of ‘Inciting Joy’ by Ross Gay.

In many ways, Inciting Joy feels emblematic of Gay’s most pivotal works in both poetry and prose, highlighting the beauty of everyday experiences such as communal gardening and enjoying music and the arts. For instance, Luther Vandross’ cover of Dionne Warwick’s “A House Is Not a Home” gets some well-deserved space, as does the comedic genius of Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Gay’s late father, Gilbert, affectionately known as “Poochie.” Meanwhile, other chapters explore equally familiar subjects but in surprising ways. For example, in “Insurgent Hoop (Pickup Basketball: The Ninth Incitement),” Gay discusses the necessarily anti-capitalist nature of the neighborhood court, which can only be reserved for one game at a time and where you might find yourself on the same team as someone you beat only moments before. “There’s never a spot or a time or a reason to have a fixed enemy,” he tells me. “We’re just here together for now. How do we decide at this moment, this group of people, how we’re gonna be together?”

Inciting Joy by Ross Gay

This question serves as a throughline for the book, manifesting itself in some of the most inhospitable places, such as the author’s father’s hospital room as the elder Gay was dying from untreatable liver cancer; on the makeshift skating ramps of his youth, where skaters were expected to share tools and protect one another from the wrath of cops and property owners; and most surprisingly, in the football locker room, where off-color jokes were plentiful but so, too, was tenderness. Players often shaved and administered balms to broken (and broken-out) bodies, even as they hurled insults and sexually violent threats to their opponents and to one another. In the longest and perhaps most moving chapter, “Grief Suite (Falling Apart: The Thirteenth Incitement),” Gay explores both the brutality and the brotherhood made possible in such spaces, and he doesn’t shy away from his own complicity in toxic masculinity as a young man.

“How do we decide at this moment, this group of people, how we’re gonna be together?”

These transparencies, says Gay, are not only par for the course but sit at the heart of what he hopes to achieve in Inciting Joy. It was only a few years before the publication of his first collection of essays, The Book of Delights, that Gay realized prose writing could be pleasurable for him—as long as it wasn’t about showcasing some sort of absolute wisdom. “Instead, it could be about leaving an artifact of my thinking and making that as beautiful as possible,” he says. “But ultimately, [I wanted to see] if there was some way to make the residue of my thinking available . . . the residue of my thinking also being the evidence of my changing.”

As a poet, Gay has always been keen on taking the reader on an ever-evolving journey of thoughts and images, and this feat is prominently displayed in the footnotes that populate Inciting Joy. Some of them are so carefully written that Gay himself describes them as “discrete essays.” He says he understands if folks are reluctant to read them, but he insists that readers will miss quite a bit of information if they choose not to. In fact, he likens the footnotes to pauses in conversations between friends, where one person stops the other to ask for more information, or where the storyteller pauses to offer information they feel is crucial to understanding what’s being said. In other words, the marginalia of Inciting Joy share communal knowledge by offering the bounty of the backstory, much in the way gardeners might share seeds or skateboarders might share bolts from their personal buckets of spare parts. “The footnote is like, I’m serious about this,” says Gay. “I want us to know something about each other.”

“Books that I love make me feel regarded. If anyone feels that way, I would be very happy.”

Perhaps the highest praise I can offer for Inciting Joy is that, for Gay and for me, it sparked a delightful conversation about the wealth of stories, characters, memories and subjects the book undertakes, building upon one another to create such a rich biodiversity on the page that I often found myself reading passages multiple times just to make sure I’d absorbed every detail. We chatted about everything from my anxieties about teaching and house hunting in a new city to the generosity of Mr. Lau, the father of one of Gay’s childhood friends who is briefly mentioned in the book and whose donation of clippings from his backyard garden in Pennsylvania now live as fully grown fig trees in Bloomington, Indiana, where Gay lives and teaches. 

As we end our call, Gay admits that he’s curious about how Inciting Joy will be received, but his hope for it is a generous one. “Books that I love make me feel regarded,” he says with a grin. “If anyone feels that way, I would be very happy.”

Headshot of Ross Gay © Natasha Komoda

The bestselling poet says his second collection of essays could have just as easily been called The Book of Rage.

Poet Ross Gay’s powerful sixth book and second collection of essays, Inciting Joy, opens with an imaginary house party to which people bring their sorrows as plus-ones. Soon the living room becomes a raucous dance floor, and in the middle of this unexpected mirth, Gay poses two central questions: What incites joy? And more importantly, what does joy incite in us?

Early on, Gay offers his own hypothesis that joy is “an ember for or precursor to wild and unpredictable and transgressive and unboundaried solidarity.” By holding each other through a range of emotions—grief, anger, curiosity and even hilarity—we co-create manifestos for survival, and we refuse to allow capitalistic ills like proprietorship and unbridled ambition to make our lives narrower and lonelier. During an interview with BookPage, Gay explained that the book’s goal is essentially “to study the ways and the practices by which we . . . care for one another. Probably with a sort of firm conviction that institutions do not do that.” He also mused that Inciting Joy could just as easily have been called The Book of Rage for its exploration of his own life at desperate moments, from the impending death of his father from liver cancer in 2004, to a period of deep emotional and physical distress that Gay, often called “the happiest poet around,” feared he wouldn’t survive.

Ross Gay shares how he hopes ‘Inciting Joy’ will make readers feel.

Yet, in the final chapter, joy reigns supreme, and the book ends with a very different kind of party: a potluck attended by members of the Dessalines Brigade, a group of Haitian farmers who, in the wake of the devastating earthquake in 2012, burned seeds donated by the agrochemical company Monsanto. These farmers’ joyful refusal of the gift, because it could have potentially introduced harmful chemicals into Haiti’s food supply, also speaks to the heart of Inciting Joy: that by regarding one another, and considering not only one’s own good but that of the greater community, we do more than incite joy. We save ourselves.

Poet Ross Gay’s powerful sixth book poses two central questions: What incites joy? And more importantly, what does joy incite in us?
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The name Rabia Chaudry is back in the news following the September 2022 release of Adnan Syed, the subject of 2014’s “Serial” podcast, from prison. Syed had been imprisoned since 2000 for the alleged murder of his ex-girlfriend, and Chaudry is a family friend who has long maintained his innocence. She even published a book in 2016 about it called Adnan’s Story. But Chaudry’s second book, Fatty Fatty Boom Boom: A Memoir of Food, Fat, and Family, is about a more private pain: her lifelong struggle with overeating and fluctuating weight.

Chaudry unabashedly relishes food. Over many chapters detailing favorite meals enjoyed by her extended family in Pakistan (recipes are included at the end of the book), as well as her favorite American fast foods, the reader will understand why. But this isn’t a simplistic narrative in which the narrator loves to eat and just won’t, or can’t, stop. Much of the memoir explores how colorism and sexism—specifically the fear that Chaudry, born dark-skinned and scrawny, would never attract a husband—put her under the microscope for constant improvement, beginning when her mother put her on a super-high-calorie diet as a newborn. Raw buffalo milk and bottles of half-and-half caused Chaudry’s body to grow at a rapid rate, but once she reached a size that her family deemed unacceptable, their relentless psychological abuse (the book’s title is a nickname her relatives taunted her with) and the accessibility of America’s tastiest junk food ensured that her weight continued to increase.

Chaudry skillfully narrates how overeating was a savior and a curse. Greasy, salty, fatty food made her feel good when nothing else did. Her skill at describing flavors and mouthfeel, and the intricacies of food preparation, suggest that if Chaudry weren’t an attorney, she might be a food writer. She also captures the exquisite pain of being treated as a disappointment by her family and the lifelong fight for their love.

Fatty Fatty Boom Boom never reaches an “and then I loved my body!” resolution, and that is the point. That particular happy ending was never coming, and only in adulthood did Chaudry understand that “it’s normal not to love your body. It is also healthy not to hate your body.”

Rabia Chaudry’s skill at describing flavors and mouthfeel in her memoir, Fatty Fatty Boom Boom, suggest that if she weren't an attorney, she might be a food writer.

Poet and author Juliet Patterson was in her 40s when her father, James, died by suicide. James was a child when his father, Edward, died by suicide. And Patterson’s mother, Carolyn, was raising young children when her father, William, died by suicide.

Patterson spent more than a decade trying to make sense of this family history, repeatedly visiting Pittsburg, Kansas, the city her father, Edward and William all called home. It’s an old mining town with a surface pockmarked by sinkholes, scars of past industry that may have also left marks on the town’s residents. As Patterson researched the men in her family tree and suicide itself, she wondered about the effect this wounded history could have had on her family.

The result of this meticulous research and soul-searching is Sinkhole: A Natural History of Suicide. The memoir is at moments reminiscent of Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Like Williams, Patterson surveys both the land around her and her inner emotional landscape. She searches for connections between the Industrial Revolution’s effects on society and her family’s repeated losses before ultimately recognizing that every tragedy stems from numerous influences.

Patterson’s poetic sensibility informs her prose as she weaves together ideas about family and research about land in a lyrical way. She’s looking for answers in Sinkhole, but the path that leads to a suicide isn’t linear. It’s more akin to a sinkhole, Patterson writes, spreading and consuming everything around it.

Juliet Patterson combines her own soul-searching with a decade’s worth of research in Sinkhole, a lyrical memoir about her family's history of suicide.
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The final separation of death is so frightening, so thorny and so difficult for humans to grasp that we tend to distill it into something simpler, with easy-to-follow directives and guidelines. Perhaps the most well-known guideline is that we do not speak ill of the dead. Instead, we rewrite history. Fights and foibles are mysteriously erased. Troubling moments dissolve into nothingness. We loved them, we say. We miss them every day. We do not know how to go on without their goodness. We would give anything to have them back again.

But in Rebecca Woolf’s case, her relationship with her late husband wasn’t just imperfect but toxic. Her memoir, All of This, eschews any such flattering postmortem revisions in favor of the messy, freeing truth.

Woolf had been planning to leave her husband, Hal, when he was diagnosed with an advanced form of pancreatic cancer and given only months to live. With four children, they had hacked it as far as they could through a relationship riddled with acrimony, casual cruelty and Hal’s control issues, which left Woolf feeling desperate and stifled. Their impending divorce felt like a rapidly approaching springboard to freedom for Woolf, until Hal’s diagnosis threw up a confusing and painful wall. Suddenly she found herself fulfilling the wedding vow she had been determined to escape: that she would stay until the end.

Woolf does not mince words or deal in niceties in this memoir. Hal was frequently difficult to like even as he was dying: He was demanding and childish about the fast-moving course of his illness. He was distant from his children, and the stress he caused his wife seemed deliberate. Shortly after his death, Woolf began looking for new partners, mostly brief hookups, as her joy and relief became braided with her grief. Along the way, Woolf reveals more of Hal’s humanity, showing that within the strife and heartbreak of their marriage, there were bright moments as well. Aptly titled, All of This is an all-encompassing portrait of a marriage that didn’t work, and Woolf is as unflinchingly honest about that marriage as she is about the experience of loss that terminated it.

“I loved this man once and then I hated him and then I loved him and then I hated him and then I loved him and then I hated him and then I loved him again, and then he died,” Woolf writes. “This was our love story.”

In All of This, Rebecca Woolf is as unflinchingly honest about her marriage as she is about the messy, freeing experience of her husband’s death.

“I’m not happy.” Those three words set the end of novelist Elizabeth Crane’s marriage into motion. After 15 years of repeated promises from Crane’s husband that he wasn’t going anywhere, he changed the narrative. During those years, he had also promised to tell Crane before he became involved with someone else. That promise he kept.

But a relationship is a living thing, and as Crane writes her way through her marriage, she reveals shifts that were taking place all along. In This Story Will Change, Crane uses her narrative skills to excavate her relationship.

Crane (The History of Great Things) writes in the third person, creating emotional distance as though she can objectively describe the dissolution of her own marriage. This technique makes the memoir read more like a novel, akin to Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation with short, punchy chapters and unflinching self-analysis. (One chapter is, appropriately, titled “Doesn’t This All Seem Pretty Common and Not Unusual or Even Awful at All in a Long-Term Marriage?” Another chapter, which is only three sentences long, acknowledges that this is a one-sided story, the wife’s story.) But the occasional shift into first person jars the reader into recalling that this intimate recollection is actually the author’s own experience.

Repeating themes surface throughout this retelling, just as a couple often revisits the same arguments throughout their relationship. Among them is Crane’s husband’s claim: “I don’t think you’d be a good mother.” These words haunted Crane for years—until she spent time with an old journal and realized her husband had never actually said that at all. She had sharpened his actual comment—that she would be a good mom but would worry a lot—into a weapon she used for self-flagellation for years. Memory is unreliable, and our own stories shift through faulty recollection.

As Crane recounts separating from her husband and setting up a temporary home with a friend in New York City, pleasure mingles with pain. Sublimely happy moments—a first Christmas without her husband—dissolve into her sadness at being alone. But a post-split tattoo reveals Crane’s ongoing optimism: “It says love. With a period after it, like a decree,” she writes. “I still believe in it. Sometimes like Santa. But I do.”

A relationship is a living thing, and as Elizabeth Crane writes her way through the end of her marriage, she reveals pleasures mingled with pain.
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Is there anything original left to say about persevering through a dysfunctional upbringing? Normal Family: On Truth, Love, and How I Met My 35 Siblings by Chrysta Bilton takes this question almost as a dare and shows readers that the answer is yes.

Bilton is one of at least 35 children conceived by her father, Jeffrey. He became an incredibly popular sperm donor for many families—a fact that may have been lost to history if not for the wonders of at-home DNA testing, Ancestry.com and Facebook. Yet that bizarre tale is only one small piece of Bilton’s extraordinary life; in fact, contrary to what the subtitle implies, the memoir is mostly about experiences that have nothing to do with her prodigiously fertile father.

Bilton’s mother, Debra, was full of chutzpah and sparkle. She was a lesbian, a local LGBTQ icon in Los Angeles, an activist in progressive politics and a friend and paramour to countless celebrities. (The actor Warren Beatty was temporarily in the running as a sperm donor candidate.) But Debra kept some devastating family secrets to herself: She was addicted to drugs, a profligate overspender and an enthusiastic supporter of pyramid schemes.

The narrative heart of this memoir is Bilton’s bond with Debra, as well with her younger sister. The tight threesome navigated LA’s wealthiest environs as one of the few openly queer families in the late 1980s and early ’90s. This particular struggle may resonate with readers whose family structures are marginalized in today’s society. And the author’s complicated relationship with her mom—exasperation mixed with admiration—will also be familiar to many.

Normal Family is about one of the most atypical families one can imagine, and in that way, it’s certainly a page-turner. For most of the book, readers will simply have no idea where this wild tale is headed. But it also demonstrates that the most normal thing in the world is for a family to have—and overcome—its secrets.

Is there anything original left to say about surviving a dysfunctional upbringing? Normal Family by Chrysta Bilton takes this question almost as a dare.

Families separate for many reasons, but when war rips them apart, their longing for one another can be especially acute. Sometimes family members completely lose contact with each other, never knowing if the other is living or dead. In her riveting Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, Zhuqing Li narrates the dual biographies of her aunts, who were separated by the Chinese Civil War.

At the center of Li’s story is the Flower Fragrant Garden, the idyllic setting where sisters Jun and Hong grew up in relative security in the early 20th century. Li writes that the compound was “one of Fuzhou’s biggest and richest homes. . . . The main building was a grand, two-story red-brick Western-style house rising from the lush greenery of the rolling grounds. A winding path dipped under the canopy of green, linking smaller buildings like beads on a necklace.”

In 1937, during Japan’s war with China, the sisters were forced into exile and left their garden behind. Then, in the political turmoil that followed the war with Japan, Jun and Hong followed different paths, separated by the Nationalist-Communist divide that erupted after the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949. Jun moved to the Nationalist stronghold of Taiwan, where she became a successful teacher and later a businesswoman whose acumen brought her to America. Hong became a prominent physician on China’s mainland, “famous as a pioneer in bringing medical care to China’s remote countryside, and later the Ôgrandma of IVF babies,’ in vitro fertilization, in Fujian Province.”

Hong left her family behind completely as she embraced her life in the new People’s Republic of China, but Jun longed to reunite with her sister. In 1982, the two met again for the first time in 33 years, and through their conversations, Jun began to understand the reasons Hong had to pledge her unwavering support to the Communist party in order to survive. After that, the two sisters never met again. Jun died at 92 in 2014 in her home in Maryland, and in 2020, where the book ends, Hong was still seeing patients in China at the age of 95.

In Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden, Li eloquently tells a moving story of her aunts and their resilience throughout one of China’s most fraught centuries.

Zhuqing Li tells the moving story of her aunts, separated by the Chinese Civil War, and their resilience throughout one of China’s most fraught centuries.

Every childhood is unique, but Ada Calhoun’s, as portrayed in her fearless new memoir, Also a Poet, stands out for its blend of adolescent freedom and paternal neglect. The daughter of art critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl, Calhoun grew up at the vortex of New York City’s East Village bohemia, a world she wrote about in the history St. Marks Is Dead. Young Calhoun, eager and precocious, craved nothing more than the approbation of her father, a complicated, emotionally distant man famously given to saying the wrong thing—a trait from which his daughter was never spared. One piece of common ground that Calhoun and her father shared, however, was a love of the work of Frank O’Hara, the legendary New York School poet who died in a freak accident in 1966.

One day in 2018, Calhoun was searching for something in the basement storage of her parents’ apartment building when she found dozens of loose cassette tapes from the 1970s, labeled with the names of famous artists like Willem de Kooning, Edward Gorey and Larry Rivers. Her father said they were interviews he had conducted with O’Hara’s friends because he’d intended to write a biography of the poet. Circumstances—not least of all a roadblock erected by O’Hara’s sister, Maureen—had killed the project. Schjeldahl told his daughter she could use the interviews for her own purposes, and Calhoun envisioned a new biography of the iconic poet based on these priceless recollections. But the book took on a new shape as she proceeded—in part, again, because of the obstruction of Maureen, who serves as her brother’s literary executor.

As Calhoun began to delve into the interviews, short portions of which she shares in Also a Poet, she began piecing together a multifaceted portrait of O’Hara, greatly loved by friends who painted him as gregarious, whip-smart, generous, sexually fluid and happily promiscuous. (The latter two assessments are most likely at the core of his sister’s posthumous protectiveness.) But the interviews also provided Calhoun with insight into the interviewer: her father.

Frustrated by the ways Schjeldahl had sabotaged his own project, Calhoun plunged back into their often difficult father-daughter relationship with fresh eyes. Lifelong resentments resurfaced as she viewed her father with redoubled awareness. When the aging Schjeldahl, who had smoked three packs a day for decades, was diagnosed with lung cancer, his solipsistic reaction to his illness rankled Calhoun, even as she dutifully stepped in to help.

The unexpected convergence of the challenging O’Hara book project and her father’s sudden decline provide Calhoun with a singular perspective on the timeless issues of family relationships, most especially the vulnerabilities of following in a father’s eminent footsteps and the elusive possibility of ever fully understanding our parents. Calhoun’s honesty and willingness to push beyond her own resentments make Also a Poet a potent account of a daughter reaching out to a perhaps unreachable father before it’s too late.

Ada Calhoun’s literary biography of the poet Frank O’Hara unexpectedly transformed into an absorbing and insightful personal memoir about her father.
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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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