In her exquisite memoir, poet Diana Goetsch harnesses the power of language to describe the evolution of her identity and her late-in-life transition.
In her exquisite memoir, poet Diana Goetsch harnesses the power of language to describe the evolution of her identity and her late-in-life transition.
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Jody Rosen’s Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle is not an “early conception to modern-day racing and e-bikes” type of history book. How could it be? For Rosen, the bicycle is “the realization of a wish as ancient as the dream of flight.”

The history here emerges from the edges of the byways that Rosen follows in pursuit of his next ride. In one chapter, he manages to humiliate himself in front of the dazzling trick cyclist Danny MacAskill while on a mountain bike ride in Scotland, which leads to a brief, engaging history of stunt bicycling. In another chapter, Rosen writes about going to Bhutan to participate in a one-day, 166.5-mile road race, reputed to be the most difficult bike race in the world. He does not finish and does not, as he had hoped, meet Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country’s fourth “dragon king,” who abdicated the throne in part to pursue his interest in mountain biking.

What develops out of these entertaining chapters is a story of the bicycle as a great disrupter. It was pedaless in its earliest form, like an adult-size Strider. In the 1700s, it became the plaything of dandies such as foppish Prince George of England, who offended the earthbound populace just as some lycra-clad weekend bike warriors do today. Later bicycles were decried by cart drivers and horse riders for disrupting the flow of traffic—but by World War I, bicycles were replacing horse cavalry in some battles. National bicycle organizations led the movement to grade and pave the roads motorists now believe are for their exclusive use. During the pandemic, stationary bikes “merged the old-fashioned act of bicycling with that quintessential twenty-first-century experience: staring at a screen.”

Bicycles also gave women greater freedom. One amusing chapter quotes 1890s newspaper editorials about the immorality and—gasp—implicit sexuality of bike riding. Girls and young women could pedal on their own, by themselves, away from the surveilling gazes of parents and community. Worse, they left their dresses behind and wore pantaloons!

In a chapter about his own bicycling experiences, Rosen says he’s not a gear head. “To this day, I can barely patch an inner tube,” he writes. But he is crazy about bicycles—“If the pedals turn, I’ll ride it”—and that love shines through in these pages. In fact, it glows so brightly that even a confirmed nonrider may give in to the urge to make her next grocery run on an e-bike.

Jody Rosen’s love of bikes shines through in this amusing, unconventional history of the bicycle as a great cultural disrupter.

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.

For LGBTQ+ people coming of age in the 1970s and ’80s, there were often no words for the experience of discovering one’s sexuality or gender, and usually no family support—much less legal protections—to nurture an adolescent’s emerging identities. A person muddled through and, with any luck, found community in adulthood, while the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic often compounded the traumas they incurred.

In her exquisite memoir, This Body I Wore, poet Diana Goetsch harnesses the power of language to describe truths that went unspoken for too long. Goetsch’s skill as a poet informs the beauty of her prose as she recounts the decades she spent evolving alongside the trans community, until her own late-in-life transition in her 50s. As the language used by and about trans people changed over time, so too did Goetsch’s understanding of her own identity.

This Body I Wore spans Goetsch’s abusive childhood on Long Island, her entrallment with the beauty of women as she grew up, confusing sexual encounters she had in college, and her professional work as a teacher, both for privileged students at Stuyvesant High School in New York City and for incarcerated youth. Goetsch’s talent for teaching rests in her deep compassion for her students and her sense that finding the right words, for the students as well as for herself, is the key to unlocking one’s identity.

I was utterly riveted by the narrative Goetsch crafts and was reminded of many now-lost friends and acquaintances from my own college years in New York in the 1980s. Goetsch’s memoir, like Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show, offers a significant contribution to the documentation of LGBTQ+ history and culture in New York during that era. But perhaps more importantly, the hard-won wisdom contained in This Body I Wore offers a new generation of trans and nonbinary youth a guiding hand from a previous generation.

In her exquisite memoir, poet Diana Goetsch harnesses the power of language to describe the evolution of her identity and her late-in-life transition.

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.

The Nile’s mythic reputation as the longest river in Africa, and arguably the world, once inspired generations of European explorers to seek its source—and exploit Africa’s vast resources in the process. Now, thanks to this richly detailed story well told by historian Candice Millard, a colorful and controversial chapter in world history resurfaces. In River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile, 19th-century explorers’ egos loom godlike over expeditions, their abused local guides save lives and prompt discoveries, and the second largest continent on Earth finally gets mapped.

Millard, the prize-winning author of Hero of the Empire, among others, introduces a cast of characters and succeeds in making each of them unforgettable. Richard Burton, “an army of savants in a single man,” was chosen by the Royal Geographical Society in 1856 to head the expedition to locate the source of the Nile—“one of the most complex and demanding expeditions ever attempted.” But he soon ran afoul of his quirky colleague, John Hanning Speke, and barely survived their quest. It was Speke who earned the discoverer’s fame and glory, though his character flaws (paranoia and narcissism among them) marred his reputation and may have cost him his life. Sidi Mubarak Bombay, the previously enslaved man who guided the expedition and repeatedly saved them from treachery, disease, injury and themselves, didn’t immediately receive recognition for being integral to their success. Burton’s wife, Isabel Arrundell, was a fervent Catholic who defied her mother to marry Burton, a proclaimed agnostic who proposed by dropping off a note on his way to Africa.

Millard excels at describing it all, balancing narrative flow with abundant details that give a vast landscape its weight and power, clarify complicated people and arduous journeys, and add those who have gone largely unseen to the historical stage. Take, for example, such memorable details as a beetle burrowing into Speke’s ear; the thieves, deserters and raiders thwarting these yearslong expeditions; diseases and infections leading to blindness, deafness and death; the hardships of Bombay, who was once traded for cloth; and two huge, breathtakingly beautiful lakes, one of which, it was finally proven, spawned the Nile.

In River of the Gods, a mythic and unforgettable history of the Nile, European explorers’ egos may loom godlike but East African guides save lives.

If you’re not familiar with Jon Mooallem’s writing, his new book of essays, Serious Face, is calling your name. Mooallem (This Is Chance!) has been writing for The New York Times Magazine for more than 15 years, and his latest book rounds up 11 of his best pieces from those years, plus one more written in 2022, into a transporting series of deep dives into surprising characters and situations.

Mooallem excels at writing about everything from climate change-fueled natural disasters to eccentric individuals. In “The Precise Center of a Dream,” for example, readers meet a man named Jacques-André Istel, who happens to be the father of modern skydiving and who created his own town (Felicity, California) in the middle of the desert. Mooallem’s observations can be beautifully delicate; about Felicity, he writes, “It was as if the entire town had sprouted from some preverbal place in his imagination—some need for beauty and meaning.” From that quirky end of the spectrum, Mooallem’s range as a writer stretches all the way across to quieter, more poignant essays like “A House at the End of the World,” his portrait of noted hospice worker B.J. Miller of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco and of a 27-year-old man who died from mesothelioma under Miller’s care.

Mooallem can also be deeply personal. The title essay describes his uncanny resemblance to the Spanish bullfighter Manolete, who was hugely famous not only for his bullfighting skills but also for being ugly. “Why These Instead of Others?” is his completely captivating, edge-of-your-seat account of a remote kayaking trip he took with two friends at age 23 to Glacier Bay, Alaska—and the life-and-death rescue that ensued. His writing is equally riveting in “We Have Fire Everywhere,” about a group of people’s narrow escape from the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, in 2018. Mooallem typically lets his subjects speak for themselves and isn’t one to make many pronouncements, but here he writes, “It was all more evidence that the natural world was warping, outpacing our capacity to prepare for, or even conceive of, the magnitude of disaster that such a disordered earth can produce.”

Like the very best essay collections, Serious Face takes readers to unexpected places, exploring a meaningful mix of joy, tragedy and downright absurdity. The subjects vary widely, but Mooallem is such a gifted storyteller that it almost doesn’t matter what he’s writing about; readers like myself will be ready to follow.

The subjects in Serious Face vary widely, but Mooallem is such a gifted storyteller that it almost doesn’t matter what he’s writing about. All of it is gripping.

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