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All Memoir Coverage

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.

Robert S. McNamara served as secretary of defense in the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations and was the primary architect of America’s war strategy in Vietnam in the 1960s. Even as the war became increasingly unpopular, Robert continued to insist that progress was being made, that victory was just around the corner. He didn’t admit his mistakes, even when doing so could have changed history. Many veterans and protesters still believe Robert never fully apologized for his role in the war—including his only son.

Craig McNamara’s loving but brutally honest account of his difficult relationship with his father, Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, From Vietnam to Today, tells of his father’s reluctance or inability to engage him in serious discussion about the evils of the war, or to apologize to the country. Veterans wanted Robert to understand the true cost of the war in human terms of lost lives and limbs rather than “lessons learned in the war,” as Robert put it in his 1995 book, In Retrospect. When that book was published, Craig asked his father why it took 30 years for him to try to explain himself. “Loyalty” was his father’s only answer. For Craig, this meant loyalty to the presidents he served without regard for ordinary people. This loyalty to the system eventually got Robert appointed as president of the World Bank and led to other personal advantages. “Loyalty, for him, surpassed good judgment,” Craig writes. “It might have surpassed any other moral principle.”

After Robert was out of government, but as the war continued, Craig received a draft notice. During his physical, he was found medically disqualified to serve because of being treated for stomach ulcers for several years. Despite his opposition to the war, not going to Vietnam as a soldier still made him feel overwhelming guilt. To cope, he set off on a motorcycle trip through Central and South America.

Through life-changing experiences during his travels, Craig discovered his love of farming and began a new direction for his life. He is now a businessman, farmer, owner of a walnut farm in Northern California and founder of the Center for Land-Based Learning. By making different choices than his father, Craig has begun to make peace with his family’s complicated legacy. His mother always played a positive role in his life (the memoir is dedicated to her memory) and acted as a “translator” between father and son, but it took years for Craig to understand how dysfunctional his family was with respect to speaking the truth.

Because Our Fathers Lied gives readers a vivid, front-row view of the divisiveness in one very prominent family, and through that family, a view of the national divisiveness that continued long after the Vietnam War.

Many Vietnam War veterans and protesters still believe Robert S. McNamara never fully apologized for his role in the war—including his only son.

Much of Kim Stanley Robinson’s prodigious science fiction has ecological underpinnings—so it comes as no surprise that the oft-decorated writer has a real-life passion for wilderness. More specifically, Robinson loves the Sierra Nevada, the geological backbone of California, where he has lived most of his life. In The High Sierra, a capacious and truly original work of nonfiction, Robinson expresses his enduring appreciation for these mountains and the time he has spent there. A mashup of travelogue, geology lesson, hiking guide, history and meditation, all wrapped in a revealing and personal memoir (and illustrated with scores of gorgeous color photographs and illustrations), the book is, in essence, an exuberant celebration of finding purpose in nature.

The Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award-winning writer first visited the Sierra as a college student almost 50 years ago, and since then he has made more than a hundred return visits, spending untold hours in its eternal landscape. There have been group excursions and solo treks in every season. In his hippie days, he even enhanced the mountain high by dropping acid. Accounts of these experiences, sometimes risky, sometimes funny, but always deeply meaningful, give shape to Robinson’s larger narrative. The memories are intercut and augmented by chapters delineated by categories such as geology, Sierra people, routes and moments of being. These disparate chapters coalesce into a surprisingly seamless narrative that conveys the full measure of Robinson’s deep affection for the place and its past, as well as its significance to him personally.

Robinson’s writing is companionable and welcoming, never dry or preachy, as any field guide worth its salt should be. There is unconventional humor—he classifies place names as the good, the bad and the ugly, for instance, and his chapters on fish, frogs and bighorn sheep are all grouped under “Sierra People”—but cases of appalling human behaviors, past and present, are never glossed over.

Robinson introduces the usual suspects in the history of the Sierra—John Muir, Clarence King—but devotes equal attention to less familiar faces. He taps into the work of other Sierra-loving writers, too, including early feminist Mary Austin and the poet Gary Snyder, who is Robinson’s friend and mentor. He even shares some of his own youthful, heartfelt poetry, composed amid the elation of the mountain terrain.

Although Robinson’s mountaineering focus is the Sierra, he does take readers on brief forays into the Swiss Alps (including an account of his ascent of the Matterhorn). But The High Sierra should not be narrowly viewed as a book only for the die-hard outdoorsperson. Robinson’s greater project, at which he succeeds splendidly, is to share the magic of his personal happy place, to promote not only its admiration but also its preservation. When asked why this is a lifelong project of his, Robinson says there is no satisfactory answer, except to pose a question of his own: Why live?

The venerable sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson shares his lifelong devotion to hiking the high Sierra in a kaleidoscopic love letter to a majestic landscape.

You don’t need to know anything about the titular subject of Courtney Maum’s The Year of the Horses to appreciate this candid and engaging memoir of how rediscovering a long-abandoned passion helped lift her out of a crisis.

Four years after the birth of her daughter, Nina, novelist Maum found herself drowning in a whirlpool of insomnia-fueled depression, creative stasis and dissatisfaction in her marriage to Leo, a French filmmaker. “I am a blob,” she writes, “struggling through the hours with eyes that will not close.” In search of the relief that even medication and a wise-beyond-his-young-years therapist couldn’t provide, Maum turned to one of her childhood pursuits: horseback riding.

It had been 29 years since Maum abandoned riding lessons at age 9, but she never lost her love for these majestic creatures. Her first lesson as an adult—when “the heat of that beast underneath me, the breadth of his body and the pump of his great heart, had touched something primitive inside”—instantly rekindled her affection. That encounter eventually led her into the “weird sport” of polo, where she learned that putting aside the futile quest for mastery in favor of simply having fun was the path to finding joy.

Through flashbacks to her privileged childhood in Greenwich, Connecticut, Maum also explores some of the roots of her adult angst. Her parents divorced when she was 9, and her younger brother, Brendan, developed some rare and serious medical problems that added to the family’s stress. She traces how some of her more troublesome personality traits from that period—notably a perfectionism that eventually expressed itself as anorexia—continued to manifest in adulthood.

Maum emerged from finding her footing in the world of horses “clearer and braver regarding what I needed in my marriage,” simultaneously discovering a focus and patience that allowed her “to reconnect with the daughter I’d lost track of.” While Maum’s prescription isn’t for everyone, her story reveals how “what pulls us out of darkness can be surprising.” The Year of the Horses shows how the willingness to put aside fear and take on a new challenge in adulthood can unlock a happier life.

You don’t need to know anything about horses to appreciate Courtney Maum’s engaging memoir of rediscovering this long-abandoned passion at a moment of crisis.

As we age, most of us will experience a debilitating or life-threatening illness at some point. Two nonfiction books take an unflinching look at this reality while painting a compassionate picture of how we and our health care providers could approach illness and death with more empathy, honesty and courage.

Healing

Cover of Healing by Theresa Brown

Healing: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient is Theresa Brown’s searingly honest and deeply personal account of her experiences as a breast cancer patient. Brown, a registered nurse with a Ph.D. in English literature, has written and lectured extensively about the American health care system. As a former oncology and hospice nurse, Brown knew that patients often got a raw deal, but only after her own diagnosis did she realize how needlessly cruel that deal could be.

Brown has profound gratitude for her family, friends and medical team, who all supported her as she recovered, but she is also angry. She faced a host of necessary evils during her treatment, including invasive diagnostic procedures, painful surgeries and debilitating side effects from chemotherapy. But in a series of devastating vignettes, Brown also details the many unnecessary evils she endured in a system that favors profit over the needs of the patient: Diagnoses were delayed, questions left unanswered, test results undelivered. She was even forced to negotiate byzantine regulations on her own because her health care providers were stretched too thin to ensure that these basic duties were fulfilled effectively or graciously. Even though Brown was a seasoned health professional with extensive knowledge and professional contacts, she had to fight to be treated humanely. One can only imagine the obstacles less experienced patients must face every day.

Healing is both a moving memoir and a clarion call to action. When health care becomes a profit-making industry, dominated by hedge funds and corporate interests, we all lose. Instead, Brown argues, we must return to a system where meeting the patient’s needs—physical, emotional and social—is the priority.

The Day I Die

Cover of The Day I Die by Anita Hannig

In The Day I Die: The Untold Story of Assisted Dying in America, anthropologist Anita Hannig takes a different but no less passionate approach to her examination of death and dying in America. After becoming interested in how Oregon’s assisted dying law worked, Hannig embedded herself in a volunteer group that helps terminally ill patients take advantage of the law. She soon realized that the law, with its many hoops and barriers, could be like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s girl with the curl on her forehead. When it works, the law is very good. Hannig’s case studies of patients who have enough luck and resources to meet the demands of the statute demonstrate that assisted death can be, paradoxically, life-affirming. Autonomy can be restored to patients who have long been at the mercy of their diseases, and knowing when one will die can be an opportunity for reconciliation, reunion and gratitude.

But when things go bad, the law can be horrid. It is reasonable to have strict conditions surrounding assisted dying to ensure that the decision to end one’s life is freely made. But those conditions can have devastating effects upon patients who desperately want to die but cannot meet the requirements. Patients with ALS, for example, might lose their ability to communicate their assent before the deadline. Advanced Alzheimer’s patients are categorically denied access to assisted dying because they have lost the ability to fully understand their decision. Hannig rigorously details these and other situations in which people’s physical or mental deterioration, lack of resources or sheer bad luck result in a painfully prolonged life and terrifying death.

In her introduction, Hannig acknowledges the anthropologist’s dilemma: The act of observation is an imperfect tool for research, since it can change both the observer and the observed. However, it can also change the reader, since it is impossible to read Hannig’s book without being moved. Regardless of your stance on assisted dying, The Day I Die will make you reconsider how dying could and should be.

The personal stories in these nonfiction books set a more humane benchmark for patients and providers.

When Zain Ejiofor Asher was 5, her father—a larger-than-life personality who was training to be a doctor—was touring his Nigerian homeland with his 11-year-old son, Chiwetel. Not long before they were expected home in London, Asher’s pregnant mother, Obiajulu, received a life-changing phone call: The pair had been in a car accident, and only one had survived. Obiajulu had to fly to Nigeria to find out it was her husband who had died.

As Asher writes, “There is tragedy in my story, but my story is not a tragedy. It is a story of grit, grace, and perhaps above all, an extraordinary story of extraordinary triumph that I want to share with the world.” Where the Children Take Us: How One Family Achieved the Unimaginable is an ode to her parents—who both achieved success despite facing civil war and famine—and especially to her mother. Asher is a master storyteller as she interweaves both of her parents’ life stories with her own upbringing. Thoughtful emotion and striking immediacy fill every scene, making for a mesmerizing read from start to finish.

Asher’s parents owned a small pharmacy in London, which Obiajulu continued to run after she became a widow. Meanwhile, her life’s work became ensuring her children’s success, following her firm belief that formal education was key to survival. She began a family book club, requiring each child to read and discuss a book every week. She plastered their walls with inspirational photos of “uplifters”—successful Black people, especially Nigerians. When 9-year-old Asher experienced racism from her peers, her mother sent Asher to live with relatives in Nigeria for two years, a common practice among Nigerians known as “shipping back.” There, she had to walk a mile to a river to fetch water for her family. Electricity was rare, and discipline was omnipresent. As Asher reminisces, “Nigeria, for all its faults, was the perfect place to toughen me up. It was an elite training ground for resilience; the West Point academy of perseverance. Survive in Nigeria for ten years and you can survive anything. Thrive in Nigeria and you can change the world.”

Thanks to Obiajulu’s determination, Asher and her three siblings are doing just that. Asher is an Oxford-educated news anchor for CNN International. Her sister is a physician; her oldest brother, an entrepreneur. And Chiwetel Ejiofor is an actor who received an Oscar nomination for his role in 12 Years a Slave.

It’s important to note that Obiajulu, for all her single-minded focus on achieving excellence—and her sometimes shocking strategies—doesn’t come off as overbearing. She empowered her children to believe in the seemingly impossible and to focus on personal achievement, not competition. Where the Children Take Us is an enlightening and entertaining read that will likely challenge readers to reexamine their views on child rearing and education.

Where the Children Take Us is an ode to Zain E. Asher’s determined, driven mother, full of thoughtful emotion and striking immediacy in every scene.

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