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“Second hand books are wild books, homeless books,” wrote Virginia Woolf. “They have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.” Perhaps this is why Sotheran’s, one of the oldest rare and antique bookstores in the world (“One year away from closing since 1761,” as the store’s running joke goes), seems like a dark forest full of adventure.

In Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller, satisfyingly named book dealer Oliver Darkshire extends an invitation into the shadowy and ever so slightly dangerous realm of this London bookshop. Health and safety hazards lurk around every turn. Towers of forgotten boxes rustle without prompting. Crumbling esoteric publications must be delivered to nameless agents on train platforms. As Darkshire portrays it in his humorous and hyperbolic memoir, bookselling is as far from a tame profession as you can get, more akin to joining MI6 or the CIA, or perhaps taking up professional snake handling.

Oliver Darkshire tells the surprisingly modern story of how his book about a 262-year-old bookstore came to be.

Darkshire insists he simply stumbled into a career at Sotheran’s by responding to an advertisement after a series of failed attempts to land or hold down other jobs. His quirkiness, his adoration of history and his wide-eyed sense of wonder at the magic of books marked him as uniquely suited to the position (which largely entailed sitting behind a postage stamp-size desk by the door, as a first line of defense against customers). As Darkshire leads readers through the stacks, opening and closing various mysterious cupboards, we experience the thrill of being invited into his secret world. Peopled with taxidermied birds, a resident ghost and a band of frazzled booksellers, Sotheran’s constitutes its own small, puckish kingdom. Darkshire’s prose is so confiding in tone that the reader feels firmly included in this insular, bookish underworld.

For the devoted book hoarder and hunter, reading Once Upon a Tome is similar to the deliciously bewildering experience of wandering through a rare bookstore, not knowing what treasure might be just around the corner. Darkshire’s chapters are helpfully labeled with headings such as “Natural History” and “Modern First Editions”—but upon closer scrutiny, they are stuffed with stories that sometimes connect to the subject they are filed under only by the thinnest thread. In some books this would tangle the narrative into a volume of pure chaos, but through some kind of cheerful alchemy, it only adds to the magic of our journey through Sotheran’s. One is never in control in a bookstore; this is an indisputable fact long known by all book lovers. The sooner you surrender to the curious internal logic of this world of books, the sooner the magic begins.

In his memoir, Oliver Darkshire invites readers into one of the oldest antique bookstores in the world and acts as their hilarious, bookish guide.

Bozoma Saint John’s list of accomplishments is long. She has built a career as a marketing executive, most recently at Netflix, and filled her resume with hall of fame memberships and other accolades. You could be excused for wondering if her memoir is an executive’s story of professional success; this reviewer asked the same question. But no, The Urgent Life isn’t an executive’s guide to anything. It’s Saint John’s personal story of grief and survival.

In 1982, Saint John’s mother fled Ghana with her daughters. Their father was taken into political detention, and Saint John didn’t know when she would see him or their home country again. Her father rejoined the family in the United States months later, but from that point on, the young Saint John was familiar with loss. She later became acquainted with death after her grandmother’s passing, and more intimately so following the death of her college boyfriend.

When Saint John’s husband, Peter, received a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2013, her perspective on loss quickly changed. The couple had been separated and in the process of divorcing, but in light of this development, they called it off. With limited time left together, they knew they wanted to live in the here and now. “We had to make haste, whether that meant moving back in together after being separated for years, booking a trip to our favorite getaway, or eating lasagna before it had time to cool,” she writes.

As Saint John vividly recounts the couple’s waning time together, she also reflects on the path that led them to each other. Their first meeting was acrimonious, but Peter quickly won over Saint John by reading her favorite book, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and taking her to dinner to discuss the novel. His insights impressed Saint John.

The couple fell fast after that, but the differences in their life experiences and upbringings—hers Ghanaian American, his Italian American—became difficult to sort through. Although Peter hadn’t previously been in a relationship with a Black woman, his 6-foot-5-inch, redheaded self fit into Black spaces with ease. He was content to watch Saint John and her friends dance at a club, nodding in time with music he didn’t otherwise listen to as he waited along the wall. She appreciated his comfort in her world while acknowledging that it was because of his whiteness that he was at ease. “There was no place that would deny him entry,” she writes.

The Urgent Life is an unflinching examination of Saint John’s experiences as a Black woman, the difficulties that almost ended her marriage and the love she and her husband clung to in his final days. Facing a life without Peter, Saint John made a decision to live urgently, recognizing that time spent with the people she loves isn’t guaranteed.

The Urgent Life is Bozoma Saint John’s personal story of the difficulties that almost ended her marriage and the love she and her husband clung to in his final days.
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In Will Schwalbe’s memoir We Should Not Be Friends: The Story of a Friendship, the wry writer of books-about-books (see The End of Your Life Book Club and Books for Living) turns his attention to an unexpected friendship that originated in a secret society at Yale. Unlike any secret society I’ve heard of, this one aimed at connecting very different folks in a purposeful community during their senior year of college. And members Schwalbe and Chris Maxey could hardly have been more different.

Early in the memoir, Schwalbe differentiates between nerds and jocks, positioning himself (theater kid, gay, literature major) in the former category and Maxey (wrestler, scuba diver, avid motorcyclist) in the latter. When the two met, they repelled each other like misaligned magnets; something about Maxey’s boisterous masculinity put Schwalbe on edge. But they began to listen to each other, due in part to the rituals of the society, and an unlikely trust began to form.

We Should Not Be Friends then veers from this nostalgic origin story into the rushing sweep of adulthood. Early dreams and uncertain beginnings gather momentum and fling the two friends through various adventures and, as time unfolds, into the stressful compression tunnel of middle age. Health concerns, financial concerns, marital concerns, dreams realized and abandoned, open communication and years of silence: All of it unfolds here, controlled through Schwalbe’s careful narration as he effectively shows how an fragile alliance in college yielded years of rewards.

As Schwalbe and Maxey share their lives, it’s obvious how much they support and even change each other, in part because of how different they are. “Had it not been for Maxey, the me that is here today wouldn’t be me,” Schwalbe writes, and he goes on to illustrate the peculiar familiarity that emerges between long-haul friends who have known each other across life stages, geographies and decades. If you are someone who appreciates the people in your life, especially those whose presence seems serendipitous, this book will feel at once fresh and familiar.

Will Schwalbe’s memoir captures the peculiar familiarity that emerges between long-haul friends who have known each other across life stages, geographies and decades.
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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.
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The word windfall conjures images of unanticipated abundance: sweet apples fallen from the tree, ripe for the taking; money unexpectedly found in a coat pocket; or a surprise inheritance of wealth. Erika Bolstad, journalist and former investigative reporter for Climatewire, offers these kinds of unexpected riches in Windfall, a personal family story wrapped in a history of mineral rights, the oil and gas industry, the hard realities for women homesteading in the early 20th century and the American myths of exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny.

This heartfelt, meticulously researched memoir hinges on the author’s great-grandmother Anna Josephine Sletvold, a daughter of Norwegian immigrants who set up a homestead in North Dakota in the early 1900s. In 1907, according to family lore, Anna disappeared. 

More than 100 years later, Bolstad’s mother received a surprise $2,400 check from an oil company—a payment for leasing the mineral rights beneath the surface of the lands where Anna’s homestead once was, at the edge of North Dakota’s profitable Bakken oil fields. She was jubilant. “We could be rich” had been whispered throughout their family history, starting in the early 1950s when North Dakota began its quest for oil, and when Bolstad’s grandparents entered into a lease agreement for royalties on mineral rights.

A short time later, Bolstad’s mother died, leaving behind a mystery that sparked the author’s investigative bent: What exactly had happened to Anna? And was the possibility of riches from oil-related wealth a reality or a chimera? Bolstad writes that this mystery “was my inheritance, my windfall. My story to tell.”

Into the personal fabric of this memoir, in which Bolstad recounts her search for how Anna was “lost,” the author weaves a robust history of the Homestead Act; the rise and fall of the North Dakota oil fields; the often nefarious practices companies employed to make huge profits at the expense of lands, workers and the public; and the political, economic and environmental implications of America’s never-ending quest for energy—and wealth.

With so much urgent concern over climate change and the impacts—environmental, political, economic and social—we humans have on our planet, Windfall is a timely, insightful and important read.

Erika Bolstad’s heartfelt memoir is also a robust discussion of the environmental implications of America’s never-ending quest for energy—and wealth.

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