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Just as immersion in nature inspires a mix of profound awe and renewed curiosity about this Earth we call home, so, too, does filmmaker and novelist Priyanka Kumar’s mesmerizing essay collection, Conversations With Birds—rendered in finely wrought prose, steeped in memory and thrumming with endless curiosity.

Kumar reflects on her childhood in northern India, formative years during which she enjoyed lush nature every day. As a young adult studying film at the University of California, Santa Cruz, she realized that she had become alienated from the natural realm that once brought her such joy. An impromptu bird walk and fortuitous encounter with a long-billed curlew reshaped the way Kumar has experienced the world ever since: “My hunger to know more about the bird was like a bridge that would one day lead me back to nature’s elusive womb.”

In the years since, Kumar has embarked on journeys far and near to commune with birds (cranes, owls, tanagers, eagles) and other creatures that inhabit the American Southwest. She chronicles her encounters thoughtfully and with passion, dotting her work with references to Orpheus, Henry David Thoreau, Ravi Shankar and more.

But travel isn’t necessary for engaging with nature; just looking up at a tree that you walk by daily could reveal new wonders. Kumar and her family have only to sit by the large round window that looks out on their Santa Fe backyard, where they might observe a passing bobcat or the beheaded remains of flowers that were eaten by deer.

However, birds remain Kumar’s truest loves. “How is it that we can love birds . . . and not be attentive to how bird habitats all around us are being fragmented or overgrazed or paved over with concrete?” she writes. It’s a question that circles through Conversations With Birds from beginning to end as Kumar celebrates the creatures that live among us and urges us to consider our role in protecting our collective future. After all, she knows from experience that “the seeds of transformation lie dormant in all of our hearts. Sometimes it just takes the right bird to awaken us.”

The essays in Conversations With Birds are rendered in finely wrought prose, steeped in memory and thrumming with endless curiosity about nature.
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American Wildflowers

American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide exists at the intersection of two important movements: the protection of native plant populations from climate change and shortsighted development, and the decolonization of literature. Editor Susan Barba has gathered a captivating bouquet of plant-inspired writings, with prose and poetry from contemporary greats like Jericho Brown, Lydia Davis and Aimee Nezhukumatathil alongside the words of perennial canon-dwellers like Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. “The best writers closely observe not only the plant but our words in relation to it, and in doing so they focus our attention and clarify our intentions,” writes Barba. What first drew me to this book were Leanne Shapton’s atmospheric watercolors of pressed flowers, which are as ephemeral as the specimens they interpret. A significant addition to the tradition of writing about plants, this anthology urges us to notice the lessons offered by the tiniest bluet.

The United States of Cryptids

Speaking of overlooked (possibly) living things, I can’t get enough of the names of creatures featured in The United States of Cryptids. Snarly Yow? Snallygaster? Woodbooger? Wait, back up. What, you ask, is a cryptid? It’s “a creature or species whose existence is scientifically unproven,” and that right there is a freakishly wide net, folks. But author J.W. Ocker’s emphasis is on the lively lore surrounding Bigfoot creatures, et al., and how these tales both shape and are shaped by the animals’ supposed stomping grounds. “Wherever cryptids are celebrated, the story is so much more important than the science,” he writes, and boy does he have a lot of fun telling said stories. There’s even a “world’s largest chainsaw-carved bigfoot” in a state otherwise light on cryptids (looking at you, South Dakota), a wooden beast born of idle hands during the COVID-19 pandemic. Seems about right for a contemporary cryptid.

Toil and Trouble

Toil and Trouble examines the ways in which women throughout history have found agency, self-expression, financial gain and political influence in witchcraft, tarot and other practices with a spiritual element. Remember Joan Quigley, astrologer to Nancy Reagan? She’s among the fabulous cast of characters included here, along with the witches who hexed Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler, spiritualist Achsa Sprague, Voodoo queen Marie Laveau and so many more. Ultimately, authors Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson (Monster, She Wrote) argue that the occult offers women a way to rebel against the patriarchal Christian constructs of womanhood. Anyone who has dabbled in the craft by way of #witchtok will deepen their knowledge immensely by reading this book, which is as historically thorough as it is fueled by the modern ascendance of the occult in popular culture. With a final chapter titled “100% That Witch,” you know you’re going to learn a lot and have some fun.

This month’s lifestyles column runs the gamut from nature-inspired beauty to straight-up monsters. Brush up on your preferred form of magic with the help of these three enchanting books.
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By and large, our enterprising American ancestors hated swamps, which they saw as obstacles to travel and agriculture. In the timeless war between swamp folk and swamp drainers, most were firmly in the latter camp—supported with vigor by the government.

Count Annie Proulx as one of the swamp folk at heart. The acclaimed author of The Shipping News, Barkskins and “Brokeback Mountain” turns her perceptive eye to the calamitous destruction of the world’s peatlands in Fen, Bog & Swamp, an information-packed short history that argues for their preservation and restoration.

As a nonscientist, Proulx explains in accessible language how fens, bogs and swamps differ by water level and vegetation, and how crucial each of these ecosystems is to a balanced environment. The very short version is that they store carbon dioxide and methane, so when peatlands are disrupted, those gases are released and contribute to the climate change crisis, which is itself one of the things causing those disruptions. Peatlands are also home to a staggering number of plant and animal species integral to a healthy ecological community.

One of Proulx’s chapters is called “Discursive Thoughts on Wetlands,” which sums up her approach. She ranges widely, both thematically and geographically, from the small Limberlost Swamp in Indiana to the huge Vasyugan Swamp in Siberia. She considers plenty of archaeology (the Shigir Idol), history (the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) and literature (A Girl of the Limberlost) along the way, sprinkling in reminiscences of her own wetland encounters as well. Among the most interesting discussions are her explorations of the interactions between human and peatland, as in the ritual sacrifices later turned up as “bog bodies” by terrified peat cutters.

In truth, Proulx argues, humans are able to coexist very well with peatlands if they harvest their bounty with respect. When the drainers win, they’re usually sorry in the long run. She notes that luckily, there are a number of promising restoration projects around the world, but they’re small. It turns out it’s a lot harder to re-create a swamp than to preserve one.

Acclaimed author Annie Proulx is one of the swamp folk at heart, and in Fen, Bog & Swamp, she argues for the preservation and restoration of peatlands the world over.
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 The Curanderx Toolkit

In her expansive look at ancestral and herbal healing and wellness, Atava Garcia Swiecicki introduces us to curanderismo, a multifaceted approach to healing that draws from the folk medicine traditions of the Latinx diaspora. In The Curanderx Toolkit, readers will learn about the teyolia, or heart center, akin to the soul. Teyolia is one of our four energetic bodies; when it is harmed or imbalanced, we may experience depression or sadness. As founder of the Ancestral Apothecary School of Herbal, Folk and Indigenous Medicine and an expert in herbal medicine, Garcia Swiecicki provides an overview of herbalism and brujeria, or witchcraft, in Mexico and profiles the healers she has studied or practiced in community with for decades, most of whom are based in California. As Garcia Swiecicki observes, the effects of white supremacist patriarchy are all but impossible to ignore, and as a result, space is being claimed during this cultural moment for traditions and ways previously sidelined, silenced and dismissed. This book is part of that important work.

The Future Is Fungi

A few years ago I watched the documentary Fantastic Fungi and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Meanwhile, Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind is currently on my TBR pile. Which is to say: Count me curious about the mysteries, magic and medicine of mushrooms. There’s so much to learn—and so much yet to be unearthed by science. If this is the kind of thing you like to geek out about, too, you’ll be captivated by Michael Lim and Yun Shu’s The Future Is Fungi, with its 360-degree view of shrooms, spores and such. As if mirroring the depth and range of a mycelial network, the book covers mushrooms’ culinary and medicinal uses, psilocybin and even mycorestoration and mycoremediation (fungi deployed to fight pollutants and break down plastics). While this is a text-rich book, not scrimping on research and detail, the visuals are equally stunning.

Mission Vegan

Mission Vegan, the inventive new cookbook from Danny Bowien, co-founder of Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco and New York City and subject of the sixth season of “The Mind of a Chef,” makes my mouth water for dishes I could have never imagined, like smashed cucumbers with tingly granola and microwave mochi with sesame ganache. A Korean adoptee with white parents who raised him in Oklahoma, Bowien made his way to Korean cuisine peripatetically via kitchens on both coasts, and along the way he laid off the beef. While his new book doesn’t limit itself to straight-up Korean food—there’s a pomodoro recipe tucked within, in fact—it does draw fond inspiration from Korea’s traditions and ingredients, including many takes on kimchi and other banchan. With Mission Vegan, Bowien is, in his own words, “embarking on a new journey rather than documenting one I’ve already been on.”

You’ll find healing wisdom from Mexico, plant-based flavor from Korea and more in this month’s roundup of lifestyles books that are glossy, colorful and beautiful to behold.

Documentary filmmaker Tom Mustill has seen all manner of wondrous things. But those awe-inspiring experiences, including collaborations with David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, still could not prepare him for the astounding close encounter that fundamentally changed his life.

As the British debut author details in How to Speak Whale: A Voyage Into the Future of Animal Communication, the year was 2015; the location, the waters off Monterey Bay, California; and the context, a kayak tour with his friend and co-paddler, Charlotte, wherein they witnessed 120 humpback whales, each “the size of an airport shuttle bus,” enjoying a massive group buffet. Suddenly, one of the whales breached and landed atop the duo with “a release of energy equivalent to about forty hand grenades.”

A YouTube video of the event went viral, and Mustill found himself the subject of news reports and memes, as well as “a lightning conductor for whale fanatics.” He became a bit of a fanatic, too, when his whale specialist friend Dr. Joy Reidenberg said it seemed as if he and Charlotte had survived because the whale decided to veer to one side in midair. Of course, Mustill mused, there was no way to really know if the whale attempted to spare them. It’s not like he could ask—or could he? 

In How to Speak Whale, a mix of thoughtfully explained hard science and colorfully described hands-on adventures (a beachside whale dissection is particularly memorable), Mustill chronicles his incredible journey into the fascinating and profound world of animal communication. He interviews and observes people who are specialists in everything from whale song to bat chirps to interspecies sign language, as well as psychologists, computer scientists, historians, cryptographers, artificial intelligence experts and more.

Thanks to Mustill’s gift for storytelling, it’s as interesting to learn about these experts as the creatures they study. Reidenberg is a particular delight, as is Dr. Roger Payne, whose album of whale song recordings went multiplatinum in 1970. Through it all, there runs an undercurrent of appreciation and wonderment as Mustill gulps down knowledge and determinedly questions whether “decoding animal communications [is] no longer a fantasy but a technical problem.”

Wild (and thrilling!) as that may seem, Mustill’s findings offer hope that someday a book called How to Speak Whale might be more dictionary than discussion, more conversation than exploration.

In How to Speak Whale, Tom Mustill chronicles his incredible journey into the fascinating and profound world of animal communication.

Climate change is now ingrained in our daily lives. Newscasts almost always have a climate-related segment, whether it’s about a new science report on the status of the world’s temperatures or about natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and droughts. Most of today’s children will not know what life was like before the world began to change so drastically, but for now, many still remember the world as it used to be.

There are a huge number of books on the scientific aspects of global warming, from pleading calls to action to sustainability guidebooks. But what about essays and memoirs from everyday people? Stories about how climate change is personally affecting us and about its emotional impact on our lives? In their new book, The World As We Knew It: Dispatches From a Changing Climate, editors Amy Brady (executive director of Orion) and Tajja Isen (editor of Catapult magazine and author of Some of My Best Friends) have pulled together a diverse, impactful set of essays that explore the climate crisis from these more intimate angles. Kim Stanley Robinson, Melissa Febos, Lacy M. Johnson, Omar El Akkad and 15 other writers from around the world share how familiar landscapes are becoming unrecognizable and how the rhythms of their daily lives are being forever altered.

Each author brings a unique style and focus to their topic, with prose that is in varying degrees lyrical, reflective and urgent. Some relay extreme weather events, such as Mary Annaïse Heglar in “After the Storm,” about the blatant systemic racism that emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “Structural racism and inequality collide with fearsome extreme weather to reveal the grotesque unnaturalness of disaster,” she writes. This concept is continued in Rachel Riederer’s “Walking on Water,” which covers the displacement of people, usually people of color, that’s happening more and more as sea levels rise.

It’s not only deadly weather events that are highlighted in The World As We Knew It. Chronicling the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, “How Do You Live With Displacement” by author Emily Raboteau discusses the parallels between COVID and climate change. In “Leap,” journalist Meera Subramanian writes wistfully about how the nature she loves most keeps changing, especially as ticks carrying Lyme disease keep multiplying in the Northeast as temperatures and carbon dioxide levels climb.

As Subramanian writes in her essay, “We used to be a story in nature. Now we are the story.” This statement reverberates throughout all the essays in The World As We Knew It, providing one example after another of the ways climate change has affected every region of the Earth. It is a warning that commands the full attention of every reader.

The 19 lyrical, reflective and urgent essays in The World As We Knew It command the full attention of every reader.

Ellyn Gaydos’ meditative Pig Years mixes memoir and nature writing as it details her four years of seasonal farm work in New York and Vermont. In punishingly long days as a farmhand, she planted seeds, tended vegetable plots (weeding, watering, coping with pests, harvesting, sorting and selling) and raised chickens and pigs. The book opens right in the middle of things, describing the pigs on a small farm in New Lebanon, New York, and zooming in to consider Gumdrop, an accidentally pregnant pig, and her piglets, who “came out like torpedoes all attached through different stems to one briny umbilical cord. . . . Nature, being unsentimental, accommodates the reality that some sows eat their young, but Gumdrop is gentle in her new domesticity, tenderly positioning her body so as not to squish anyone. She is a good mother.”

The book’s loose narrative proceeds chronologically through the seasons, and through Gaydos’ relationships with other farmworkers and with Graham, her partner. Gaydos’ close eye on the natural world allows us to vividly see the cycle of a farm’s blossoming and dying seasons. She doesn’t look away from any part of it, either from newborn pig life, for instance, or from the pigs’ later deaths—the procedures of slaughter and the preparation of the pork that she will eat and sell. “I keep seeing death’s face in different ways,” she writes. “It is funny to choose a profession, like farming, in which death is taken into the fold and yet nothing is clarified. It does not steady me for loss even if I have held a pig’s head in my hand or seen a chicken collapsed in the dirt. It is like a blunting of the real.”

The bulk of Pig Years takes place on the farm in New Lebanon, which is part of a former Shaker settlement that’s now a Sufi commune in decline. Throughout the book, Gaydos turns to 19th-century Shaker farm journals for comparison, and we can see the similarities between the current-day farm’s gains and losses and those of the long-ago Shakers. There’s a coming-of-age aspect to Pig Years, too, as Gaydos, a young woman in an unsettled phase of life (and an inherently impermanent field of work), studies the women and moms around her. She reflects on her own path, imagining possible futures as a parent and life partner.

Gaydos’ cleareyed, sometimes intense perspective reminds us that farm work is not always pretty: It often involves constant near-poverty, injuries, even desperation. Still, Pig Years is a poetic meditation on fertility, loss and the farmworkers who eke out a marginal living as long as they can. It’s a narrative that evokes the pleasures and perils of life and work on a small farm.

Ellyn Gaydos’ debut memoir, Pig Years, is a poetic meditation on fertility, loss and the pleasures and perils of life and work on a small farm.
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★ Edible Plants

In Edible Plants, Jimmy W. Fike takes native North American plant specimens—such as dandelion, rocket, sassafras, spicebush and pawpaw—out of their natural surroundings and meticulously digitally photographs them against black backdrops. In each image, the stark contrast makes visible the magical potency and potential of these common living things, many of which are often dismissed as weeds. Fike colorizes the edible portions of each plant, while the inedible parts are kept a delicate, even eerie gray. These striking photographs seek to inform, similar to the horticultural photography and illustrations of eras past, perhaps making foragers of us all. But what’s more, they are painstakingly beautiful. This book would make an impressive gift for the naturalist in your life.

Cats & Books

How can we not give a shoutout to Cats & Books, a slim-and-trim, adorable celebration of felines sprawled amid TBR piles and perched on bookshelves? This is a hashtag-to-print project: The photos are crowdsourced from Instagram users worldwide who tagged their photos #CatsandBooks. Now compiled in print, short captions give glimpses of these kitties’ personalities. For example, George from Germany “is a gentle soul and the best office buddy one could ask for.” (Sweet George is shown with a paw flung possessively over a copy of Sally Rooney’s Normal People.) Any person who loves cats and also loves books obviously needs to own this small treasure.

Things You Can Do

Last night at dinner, my daughter complained about the absence of meat in her tacos, which led to a discussion of sustainable eating. She didn’t grasp the connection between a carnivorous diet and climate change, so I brought to the table Things You Can Do and read from Chapter 3, “A Climate-Friendly Diet.” I daresay I got through to her, and I imagine New York Times journalist Eduardo Garcia’s compact, well-sourced guide to fighting climate change and reducing waste will continue to help us play our small but mighty part. Grounded in science, this approachable book offers a 360-degree view of the causes and effects of a warming planet, from reliance on coal to the excesses of modern life, including the overuse of air conditioning, increased meat consumption, car culture and much more. I for one am glad to have this resource, rounded out by beautiful watercolor and gouache illustrations by Sara Boccaccini Meadows, at my fingertips for family meals and beyond.

The natural world and all of its delicate delights take center stage in this month’s roundup of the best and most beautiful lifestyles books.

The world is on fire—metaphorically, yes, but also sometimes literally. Climate change is having its way with Earth, altering so many landscapes across the world. Yet our time here is limited; even as we try to intervene, our individual bodies are breaking down.

In the face of these dueling realities, the late nature writer and National Book Award winner Barry Lopez still celebrated the world around him. His posthumous essay collection, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, is an apt swan song, an ode to places both far-flung and close to home.

The essays, some previously unpublished, span from 1989 to the final years of Lopez’s life, which ended on Christmas Day 2020. They spring from a variety of sources—responding to a photography collection depicting the American West, paying homage to the Western writer Wallace Stegner, documenting Lopez’s own global explorations—but together they offer insight into the drive and heart of a thoughtful observer of the modern world. Lopez wrote that his life’s mission was “to know and love what we have been given, and to urge others to do the same,” and that mission is tenderly woven throughout these pieces.

As he explored the planet, Lopez also turned his attention to his interior landscape. In one essay, California’s terrain reminds him of the freedom of his childhood, when the miles around Los Angeles were still agricultural. But it also prompts him to reflect on the pedophile who abused him, and the ways that trauma shaped him for decades afterward.

The collection is organized in a way that brings its focus home, with the final pieces highlighting both the Oregon woods where Lopez lived for half a century and his dawning awareness that the end was near. He wrote, “I have traveled to nearly eighty countries doing research as a writer, and when I am asked where I would most like to go in the world, I always say the same thing: here. Here is where I have had the longest conversation with the world outside myself. Here is where I have tested the depths of that world and found myself still an innocent. Here is where the woods are familiar and ever new.”

Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World is a powerful reminder from a great writer that we can learn about ourselves from the world around us, and that we have an obligation to care for the Earth as we care for ourselves.

Barry Lopez’s posthumous essay collection is a powerful reminder that we have an obligation to care for the Earth as we care for ourselves.
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If you enjoy hiking up and down remote mountains while laden with excessive outdoor gear, then The Hiking Book From Hell is probably not the travelogue you’re looking for. On the other hand, if you enjoy strolling through your city, hanging out in pubs or chatting with strangers, then author Are Kalvø is your man. Kalvø, one of Norway’s most popular satirists, is a cheerful urbanite with little to no interest in nature. In his mid-40s, however, he realized that many of his friends were joining the swelling ranks of people who subject themselves to deprivation and possibly even death in pursuit of an “authentic” experience with nature. This insight brought Kalvø face to face with life’s most profound question: Is it them, or is it me?

Kalvø also had serious questions about Norwegians’ mania for nature. As a committed extrovert, he found their quest for isolation and silence disturbing. Also, nature worship can be exclusionary; the high cost of equipment and clothing ensures that nature is reserved for the well-off, while proposals to make the outdoors more accessible to disabled people are vigorously opposed. And if people went into nature to lose themselves in a transcendent experience, then why were there so many nature selfies on Instagram?

Accompanied by his wife, the “Head of Documentation,” Kalvø went on two nature treks to see what all the fuss was about—but he never really found out. Climbing steep, fog-bound mountains in the rain is as much fun as you would expect. Skiing for miles can be pretty boring. And, as he discovered, there’s something about being one with nature that changes ordinary people into boastful, unbearably smug liars who tell you with a straight face that a hike is “lovely” when they really mean “likely to kill you.”

But Kalvø tells his story with such deft humor and affectionate irony, wonderfully conveyed by Lucy Moffatt’s translation, that all you can do is laugh at his misadventures—and be grateful that you’re reading The Hiking Book From Hell in the comfort of your home.

Are Kalvø, an urbanite with no interest in nature, tells of venturing into the outdoors with such deft humor that all you can do is laugh at his misadventures.

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.

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Carter Sickels’ The Prettiest Star imagines a difficult prodigal son homecoming. It’s 1986, and Brian Jackson has returned to his small southern Ohio hometown. Six years before, Brian left home for New York City, where he found friends, a measure of acceptance and love with his partner, Shawn. Now Brian is 24 and ill with late-stage AIDS. He’s also alone; Shawn has already died, isolated in a hospital ward. 

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