STARRED REVIEW

May 2, 2023

12 hybrid memoirs you won’t want to miss

Hybrid memoirs mix the author’s personal story with broader explorations of history, science, social science, criticism or spirituality. These 12 books are excellent examples, each one a unique blend of research and first-person narration that is more than the sum of its parts.

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The photograph taken after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Lorraine Motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, is one of the most recognizable of the 20th century. As the civil rights leader lay dying, people nearby pointed to something out of frame while one man knelt at King’s side. The photo captures a tragic moment in history, but for Leta McCollough Seletzky, the image is particularly haunting—because her father was the one trying to administer first aid. As she writes in her absorbing memoir, The Kneeling Man, “For my family, the assassination was a lifelong wound, something we didn’t touch for fear of aggravating it.”

Leta McCollough Seletzky reveals that it took her nearly 35 years to ask her father why he was present on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Seletzky wasn’t born until eight years after King’s death, and her parents split up when she was 3. Her father, Marrell “Mac” McCollough, took a job with the CIA, moved to Washington, D.C., and didn’t see much of his daughter. As an adult, however, Seletzky began questioning him about his life, especially about his time working for the Memphis Police Department before she was born. In 2015, she began an intensive interviewing, research and writing project that resulted in this account, which not only chronicles her father’s life but also reckons with his role in history.

Mac was the ninth of 12 children born to parents who rented 40 acres of Mississippi farmland from a white man who lived in Memphis. Growing up, his focus was on getting his high school diploma and then his college degree, goals that were not easily achieved. At the time of King’s assassination, Mac was 23 years old and beginning to take part-time college classes while working as an undercover cop to infiltrate a group of Black activists called the Invaders. Seletzky’s detailed yet fluid prose shapes her father’s story into a compelling narrative arc—beginning with his birth in Mississippi and ending with his 1999 retirement from the CIA—while holding space for her to grapple with Mac’s history as a Black man spying on Black Power activists for the police.

While Seletzky keeps the focus on her father’s story, his experiences and observations make intriguing contributions to the MLK assassination canon. For example, Mac observed that the bullet that killed Dr. King exploded on impact, which is the sort of technology he believed wasn’t sold in gun stores at that time. When Seletzky told civil rights activist Andrew Young that she wanted to know what really happened that night, he advised, “No, you don’t.” In a later conversation, he indicated that he wasn’t convinced that James Earl Ray, King’s convicted killer, was the one who pulled the trigger.

Near the end of her book, Seletzky admits, “I’d jumped into Dad’s story not knowing what I’d find and afraid of what I might uncover.” Thankfully she persevered, growing closer to her father in the process. The Kneeling Man will enlighten generations to come about a pivotal, disturbing moment in our nation’s history.

For Leta McCollough Seletzky, the famous photo of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination is particularly haunting—because her father was the one trying to administer first aid.
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Dr. Alexa Hagerty, an associate fellow at the University of Cambridge and an anthropologist with a Ph.D. from Stanford, can read bones. In Still Life With Bones: Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains, Hagerty explores the close connection between bones and words. Like words, bones can be articulated (arranged into a coherent form, such as a skeleton) and become articulate (capable of clear expression). Using sight, touch, smell and even sound, Hagerty can interpret the stories that bones conceal. For example, she can tell by touch if a bone’s fracture took place before, during or after its owner’s death. She can piece together the shattered remnants of a little girl’s skull to reveal the bullet hole in the middle of her forehead. She can even determine how a person’s occupation shaped their bones. A dairy worker might have compression fractures in their neck from leaning their face against a cow’s flank. A grooved incisor might once have held a tailor’s pins.

Still Life With Bones is in part a memoir of how Hagerty gained this extraordinary expertise, recounting the physically and emotionally draining work of meticulously searching for bones and identifying the dead and how they died. It sounds bleak, but there is also pleasure in these pages: the camaraderie of co-workers, the friendly competition among fellow students and the joy when a skeleton is reunited with the community who believed they would never see their beloved again. 

However, Still Life With Bones is more than just a memoir. Woven throughout these memories and lyrical reflections on bones, anthropology and storytelling are the actual horrors that some particular bones reveal. Hagerty did her fieldwork in the mass graves of Guatemala and Argentina; her subjects are the victims of genocidal wars committed by dictators against these countries’ citizens. Her colleagues are forensic anthropologists committed to reclaiming the dead and returning them to their grieving families at great personal risk and cost. Every beautifully written page of this extraordinary book affirms the individuality of each victim, and honors the living who serve them and their survivors.

Anthropologist Alexa Hagerty's extraordinary memoir pays tribute to the victims of genocide in South America, whose bones Hagerty returned to their grieving families.
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In What’s Eating Us: Women, Food, and the Epidemic of Body Anxiety, author and four-time Emmy Award-winning television journalist Cole Kazdin declares there’s hope for those who have tried and failed to quit diet culture. As only someone with firsthand experience can, Kazdin explains in unflinching detail just how damaging dieting can be to our mental and physical health. Although What’s Eating Us centers on Kazdin herself—a journalist determined to reach recovery for her eating disorder—this isn’t just one woman’s story. Neither is it just a fact-based report aimed at finding answers. It’s both of these things: personal and illuminating, subjective yet relatable. Citing medical research alongside real-life testimonies, with a balance of personal candor and well-executed analysis, this book will resonate with anyone who’s ever been critical of their reflection in a mirror.

From body positivity to neutrality to liberation, Kazdin explores the different approaches to redefining our relationships with our bodies. For most people, this journey begins when we challenge our understanding of weight, health and dieting, which are topics mired in misinformation. Separating weight and health, Kazdin explains, becomes even more difficult when you factor in the ways that diet companies misleadingly brand themselves as holistic health and wellness programs. 

But perhaps the real feat of Kazdin’s book is its ability to propel the reader into thinking about their body in a way that feels connected to society—to gender, race and economic class—which makes the individual burden feel a little less heavy. The ways in which the scientific and medical communities have failed individuals when it comes to dietary health, Kazdin argues, is often rooted in systemic structures around racism, sexism and prejudice against larger bodies. For example, the toxicity of diet culture impacts everyone but especially women of color, whose health concerns often go unheard or ignored by doctors.

Folded within the book’s narrative are statements that may seem radical but are actually evidence-based and supported. Yes, people of all sizes can be healthy. No, a person’s weight is not always within their control. And yes, dieting to lose weight typically leads to gaining it back again. With empathy and understanding, Kazdin offers the reader everything they need to better understand this difficult topic. There are the daunting, disheartening facts; the levity of shared incredulity; and finally, the neutrality needed to see the number on the scale as just that: a number.

With its balance of personal candor and research, Cole Kazdin’s What’s Eating Us will resonate with anyone who’s ever been critical of their reflection in a mirror.

Katherine May’s essay collection Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age offers similar meditative pleasures as her previous collection, Wintering—though you don’t need to have read Wintering to enjoy Enchantment. “When I want to describe how I feel right now, the word I reach for the most is discombobulated,” she writes, going on to chart the losses, burnout and anxieties of the COVID-19 pandemic, and of this era. “Time has looped and gathered, and I sometimes worry that I could skip through decades like this, standing in my bathroom, until I am suddenly old.”

In the opening essay, May describes feeling like she had lost some fundamental part of being alive, some elemental human feeling—like she had become disconnected from meaning. Without this missing piece, “the world feels like tap water left overnight, flat and chemical, devoid of life,” she writes. She began to wonder if she could find a solution in enchantment, which she defines as “small wonder magnified through meaning, fascination caught in the web of fable and memory.” So she set out to find and record such moments, beginning with the places where she found beauty as a child, such as the farmland outside her grandparents’ English village.

Enchantment’s essays are arranged into four sections—Earth, Water, Fire and Air—detailing May’s investigations into each realm. For example, a visit to an ancient healing well goes in the Water section. “There are steps down to a pool of dark water about a foot deep, the heart-shaped petals of the [briar] rose floating on its surface,” she writes about this hidden well. As in the book’s other essays, May doesn’t gloss over her feelings of awkwardness and inadequacy. “It has the air of a place that has waited patiently for a long time for someone to come along and worship, and now it has me standing awkwardly before it, at a loss. It crackles with magic, but I have no template for how to behave around it, no tradition or culture that prepared me for this.”

May details the small disappointments and larger surprises she encountered on her journey, and her sentences, plain yet gorgeous, cast a spell. The essay “Hierophany” opens simply, “Just after lunchtime when I was a child, my grandmother would sit down to eat an orange, and peace would fall over the house.” Enchantment mixes nature writing and bits of history, theology and literature with memoir—scenes from May’s childhood, her failures at meditation, ordinary marital discontents—to form a lucid, restful collection. Though May’s search for enchantment seems perhaps better suited to the English landscape, with its fairy tale-like ancient sites and villages, than to our American suburban sprawl, Enchantment offers a lovely, meditative way to begin another tumultuous year.

Wintering author Katherine May returns with Enchantment, a lovely, meditative ode to finding connection in a disconnected age.
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John Hendrickson’s Life on Delay: Making Peace With a Stutter is the kind of memoir that educates, endears, impacts and devastates, often simultaneously. A journalist and senior editor at The Atlantic, Hendrickson is best known for his 2019 interview with then-presidential candidate Joe Biden. The resulting piece had little to do with politics. Rather, Hendrickson’s article centered on Biden’s lifelong stutter and its influence on everything from his childhood to public speaking. The perceptible beating heart of the piece is Hendrickson himself, who tackled the subject of Biden’s stutter in a way only someone on the inside could. Hendrickson also speaks with a stutter, one that he deems severe. Life on Delay picks up after Hendrickson’s article went viral, when he was left to tackle media attention focused on the disability he had spent most of his life trying not to think about.

John Hendrickson shares what happened when he stopped regarding his stutter as an obstacle and started viewing it as a fact.

Although the book is predominantly a memoir, covering everything from adolescent bullying to teenage angst, it also includes a wide selection of interviews with other people who stutter. These conversations highlight Hendrickson’s journey from reluctant stuttering icon to a person at peace with himself and his stutter. His writing is unflinching as he depicts the daily life of someone with a disability only 1% of the U.S. population has. Personal yet informative, Life on Delay delves into the internal poeticism of someone who feels perpetually on the fringe while offering tangible advice regarding what to say or not say to someone with a stutter. By combining his own personal narrative with others’ life stories, Hendrickson provides a kaleidoscopic portrait of stutterers’ lived experiences, including creating music and art, facing childhood trauma, having their own “coming out” experiences and accepting disability as a part of their identity.

Life on Delay is not a disability memoir that focuses on trying to find a cure for stuttering, nor does it fall into the category of sentimental, inspirational stories of overcoming impossible odds. Instead, the book promotes a simple message: Obtaining true peace comes from accepting every part of yourself, including the things that bring you shame. It’s a universal message from a voice that has been misunderstood at best, demeaned and diminished at worst, making its impact on the reader all the more profound.

John Hendrickson’s Life on Delay: Making Peace With a Stutter is a memoir that educates, endears, impacts and devastates, often simultaneously.

In many religious traditions, paradise names an otherworldly realm overflowing with lush greenery, luscious fruits, honeyed scents and cascading waterfalls. In others, paradise can be attained in this world, even in the midst of the clattering cacophony surrounding us. Bestselling travel writer Pico Iyer shares his own search for paradise in The Half Known Life, traversing the world’s vibrant religious traditions to uncover paradise’s contours, its purported locations and the role it plays in earthly conflicts. 

With vivid imagery and sterling prose, Iyer documents his wanderings from town to temple. In Tehran, Iran, for example, he learned that Rumi counseled readers to find a heaven within themselves because paradise is not some idyllic place that transcends this world. Rumi’s poetry created a “paradise of words,” Iyer found, amid the unceasing strife of the country’s various Islamic branches. In the Kashmir region of India, which some claim was the location of the Garden of Eden, Iyer embraced a paradisiacal moment as he floated in a houseboat in the middle of a lake. In Sri Lanka, he visited Adam’s Peak, a forest outcropping that Buddhists, Christians and Hindus all claim as sacred ground. In Jerusalem, Israel, he wondered where a “nonaffiliated soul” could find sanctuary and “make peace among all the competing chants.” He tried his luck at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, “a riot of views of paradise overlapping at crooked angles till one was left with the sorrow of six different Christian orders sharing the same space, and lashing out at one another with brooms.” At the end of his quest, Iyer woke to a “thick pall of mist” in Varanasi, India. It was so difficult to see through that it “made every figure look even more like a visitor from another world.” Observing them, he writes, “it was easy to believe we were all caught up in the same spell, creatures in some celestial dream, ferried silently across the river and back again.”

Part travelogue, part theological meditation and part memoir, The Half Known Life shimmers with wisdom gleaned from exploring the nooks and crannies of the human soul and the world’s urban and rural, secular and religious, landscapes.

Part travelogue, part theological meditation and part memoir, The Half Known Life shimmers with wisdom gleaned from exploring the nooks and crannies of the human soul.

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