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Linda Villarosa grew up in a high-achieving Black family in a mostly white suburb of Denver. When she began writing about Black women's health for Essence in the mid-1980s, her articles were all about self-help and self-improvement, based on the assumption that poverty and poor education were the reasons for detrimental health conditions among Black people.

But then she discovered that well-educated, upper-middle-class Black women were also having underweight babies and higher rates of maternal death than white women. She found herself wondering, “Why is the current Black-white disparity in both maternal and infant mortality widest at the upper levels of education? And what was it about our health-care system that exacerbated this problem?”

Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and the Health of Our Nation answers these questions and many more. In one of the most interesting chapters, Villarosa writes about “weathering,” a concept developed by Dr. Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Weathering is the idea that “high-effort coping from fighting against racism leads to chronic stress that can trigger premature aging and poor health outcomes.” It draws the throughline from systemic failure to a harmful bodily response.

Villarosa, who now writes for The New York Times Magazine, explores many more aspects of American prejudice and health in this book. In a chapter recounting a visit to Appalachia to write about the addiction crisis among poor white people, she suggests that many of these people suffer from the debilitating effects of class discrimination, with similarly negative health repercussions. She examines myths about Black genetics—that Black people are less sensitive to pain than whites, for example—that persist within the medical community to the detriment of Black Americans. She looks at how racism in housing forces many Black families into environmentally hostile neighborhoods. And, based on her reporting, she offers several ideas for improving community health that she believes will change American health care for the better.

Under the Skin is wonderfully written. It's not an inaccessible academic work or a polemic. Rather, its points are made amid moving narratives of real people's experiences. The book also serves as a stake in the ground for Villarosa as she powerfully discloses what years of reporting have led her to understand: “The something that is making Black Americans sicker is not race per se, or the lack of money, education, information, and access to health services that can be tied to being Black in America. It is also not genes or something inherently wrong or inferior about the Black body. The something is racism.”

Linda Villarosa’s wonderfully written book makes stunning points about the health risks of racism amid moving narratives of real people’s experiences.

By most measures, Keri Blakinger lived a charmed life. As the daughter of a successful lawyer and a schoolteacher, her upper-middle-class suburban existence seemed, from the outside, perfect. Her childhood was filled with loving parental support, academic success and a fierce pursuit of competitive figure skating that took her all the way to nationals. But when that pursuit ended in disappointment, Blakinger’s life came undone.

In her exceptional debut, Corrections in Ink, investigative journalist Blakinger reflects on an important decade of her life that took her from figure skating to drug addiction, to selling drugs and sex, to an arrest on a drug charge while she was a college student at Cornell University. She got clean during the almost two years she was imprisoned, but afterward she still had to grapple with the inhumanity of being behind bars.

Blakinger details the cruelties, big and small, that she endured while she was incarcerated. She also acknowledges that, as a white woman, she was in a position of privilege and that Black and brown people are treated far worse, get tougher sentences and have worse outcomes than their white counterparts. It is a sad and powerless position for anyone to be in, as the prison system is designed to slowly strip away one’s humanity. To hold on to her humanity, Blakinger had to find joy in unexpected places.

Corrections in Ink is written with deep insight and urgency, and Blakinger’s gripping insider knowledge and experience is supported by research, strong analysis and a blistering indictment of the criminal justice system. It’s this rare combination of personal narrative and reporting that makes Corrections in Ink such a singular reading experience.

Blakinger’s raw and important memoir isn’t only a drug recovery and success story. It’s a searing condemnation of our cruel and unjust project of caging human beings, a firsthand account of what this entails and a challenge not to look away from America’s flawed and punitive carceral system.

Keri Blakinger’s combination of personal narrative and reporting makes her debut memoir about her life in prison an exceptional, singular read.

Brené Brown invites listeners to get vulnerable in Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience (8.5 hours). Drawing from her research and personal experiences, Brown offers a new framework for building healthy relationships by analyzing common emotions such as compassion, fear and anger.

Brown narrates this audiobook with gentleness and expertise, and when she speaks about serious topics, she is sincere without being somber. Because Atlas of the Heart is a highly visual book, she’s taken steps to ensure that the audiobook is just as engaging as the print edition, with extra examples and stories that are exclusive to the recorded version. This small touch is a microcosm of Brown’s earnest intentions as a writer and narrator.

Listening to Atlas of the Heart is like sitting down with a trusted mentor. With both humility and authority, Brown helps readers stay engaged and encouraged, even as her book dives into difficult, tender ideas. Tune in for a challenging and inspiring listen.

Because Atlas of the Heart is a highly visual book, Brené Brown assures listeners that she's taken steps to ensure that the audiobook is just as engaging, with additional stories exclusive to the recording.

Consider all the universal mundanities of caregiving: the endless feedings, diaper changes, cleanups, sleepless nights and confining days, not to mention all the laundry. What if, with the help of journalist, activist and mother Angela Garbes, we could radically reconsider the incredible value of this work? In Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change, Garbes swoops from the universal to the personal to the downright intimate, offering an all-encompassing vision of a more socially and economically just way of caring for one another that, de facto, would improve our individual and collective lives.

The author of the hybrid memoir Like a Mother, a 2018 NPR best book of the year, Garbes serves up her own experiences as a first-generation Filipina, daughter, wife and mother in her second book. She calls Part I of Essential Labor “A Personal History of Mothering in America” and uses it to delineate her social relationship to motherhood, including her own family’s complicated origins in the U.S., beginning when her parents emigrated from the Philippines in 1970. Part II, “Exploring Mothering as Social Change,” expands into the kinds of activism that mothering can and should inspire to create a more equitable world.

Garbes wants so much more for her mixed-race children than the racialized, gendered immigrant experience that her parents endured—yet there is more to mothering than personal circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic, Garbes says, changed how we care for each other, revealing that “mothering is some of the only truly essential work humans do.” She also identifies child care as a political issue—a kind of infrastructure for families that needs bipartisan government support.

At the same time that workplaces gave way to home “offices” during the pandemic, nursing homes became off-limits, schools and child care centers closed, and families were left with the work of finding other ways of caring for young people, elderly people and themselves. The myth of a self-sustaining family was no longer viable, Garbes observes; mothering needed the support of communities and multiple generations. The work of mothering, taking care of ourselves and others, became more essential than ever.

There is a great deal to digest here, and Garbes’ analyses will certainly resonate with people whose caregiving responsibilities increased during the pandemic. Yet by identifying the inherent power of mothering as a force for change, Garbes makes her message relevant to a broader audience. Indeed, as Essential Labor makes clear, all our fates are intertwined.

Angela Garbes swoops from the universal to the intimate as she offers a vision of mothering that would improve our individual and collective lives.

The 1990s may be a decade often lamented for its generation of “slackers” and eternally epitomized in the TV series “Seinfeld” (frequently described as “a show about nothing”), but Chuck Klosterman has found a treasure trove of history, nostalgia and pop culture relics to explore in The Nineties (12.5 hours). Each chapter is devoted to a defining characteristic or experience of Generation X, from VHS tapes and Blockbuster video stores to the strange phenomenon dubbed “the Mandela Effect,” in which whole swaths of people remember things differently than the way they actually happened. Klosterman narrates the audiobook in an almost tongue-in-cheek fashion, with acclaimed voice actor Dion Graham reading the footnotes and quotations.

Klosterman discusses the ’90s with both the intimacy of someone who lived through the decade and the authority of the beloved pop culture commentator that he has established himself as through 12 previous books. The Nineties provides a fascinating, granular look at a defining period of history, and if you’re listening on your smartphone, you’ll connect even stronger with Klosterman’s examination of an era that marked the “end to an age where we controlled technology more than it controlled us.”

The Nineties provides a fascinating, granular look at a defining period of history, and author Chuck Klosterman narrates in an almost tongue-in-cheek fashion.

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.

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