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One of my neighborhood’s charming features is a “Little Free Art Library” where passersby are encouraged to both take and drop diminutive works of art. I have gleaned several such works from the library and now, I will be able to return the gift with the help of Sarah J. Gardner’s projects in Share Your Joy. Mixed-media is this artist’s sweet spot; for her, it’s about gathering your materials, “surrendering to the process” and shifting focus away from the outcome. In the end, you’ll end up with a greeting card or small journal to mail to a friend. Gardner’s projects are an art-supply lover’s dream (I’m convinced I must add both a brayer and stencils to my stash), allowing for wide exploration of color and pattern and effects, such as introducing salt to wet watercolor pigment. Collage and layering are employed frequently, and while there is abundant room within these projects to assert personal style, they provide ample direction to finish something and see the results of your playful process.

With both abundant room to assert personal style and ample direction to finish a piece of art, Sarah J. Gardner’s projects are an art-supply lover’s dream.

Roadways are one of the best examples of how civilization can paradoxically both give and take away. The millions of road miles that crisscross our planet have greatly enabled the mobility of people and goods, but they also have impacted the DNA of wildlife, are a major contributor to climate change and create a significant amount of noise pollution. In Crossings: How Road Ecology is Shaping the Future of Our Planet, Ben Goldfarb (Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter) confronts this conundrum head-on, like an 18-wheeler barreling down an interstate. As he states, “North America and Europe constructed their road networks with little regard for how they would affect nature and even less comprehension of how to blunt those effects.”

Organized into three sections: “Killer on the Road,” “More than a Road” and “The Roads Ahead,” Crossings is a comprehensive guide that uncovers the many different factors that led to global road transportation systems and their continued impact. Goldfarb’s synopsis includes lots of important dates and statistics, such as how “between 1807 and 1880 the U.S. Army carved twenty-one thousand miles of roads through prairies, forests and mountains, cracking open America’s interior to mail delivery and agriculture” and the history behind terminology coined as roads became mainstream such as “Sunday drivers,” “road hogs,” “juggernauts” and “flivverboobs” (inconsiderate motorists).

Through commentary from experts such as ecologists, biologists, historians and government officials, Goldfarb examines the severe impact of roads on wildlife populations and their migration and reproduction, causing localized extinctions of reptiles and amphibians and disruptions among mountain lion populations known as “genetic drift.” He also goes into great detail explaining the game-changing significance of deer collisions, which have made deer North America’s most dangerous wild animal, and discusses roadway interference outcomes noted by researchers, such as the wildlife patterns changed by traffic noise.

Now embedded in human culture, roads have contributed to major change, a fact made blatantly evident through Goldfarb’s extensive research and analysis. Roads aren’t going away anytime soon, but Crossings will spark conversation around the future of motorized vehicles and transportation in general.

Roads aren’t going away anytime soon, but Crossings will spark conversation around the future of motorized vehicles and transportation in general.

Kristi Coulter (Nothing Good Can Come From This) details her 12 grueling years as an Amazon executive in Exit Interview, her funny, candid memoir. In 2006, Coulter felt stalled in her work and life. She had earned an MFA in writing at the University of Michigan, but now worked in management, marketing DVDs in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “I’m thirty-five and can’t remember the last time I changed or learned in any big way. I’m bored with my job and my town, but also—especially—with myself.” When she spotted an opportunity at the then still-newish Amazon, she went for it, getting hired to manage the team that merchandised books and media. Soon, she and her husband, John, had begun a new West Coast life.

Coulter takes us along on her wild Amazon ride, from her first days at a company where desks were made of plywood scraps, where there were pointedly no perks like free food or on-site child care and where the crises came fast and frequently, to the moment years later when she knew she’d had enough. Early on, she notices that there was “something lumpy about Amazon’s demographics. When I’m in a room with people beneath me in seniority . . . a solid third of them are women. But when I’m with my peers or senior leaders, men usually outnumber women at least three to one.” Working seven days a week, Coulter found that the feeling of failure rarely left her, and she needed three or more glasses of wine every night to calm down from the day’s stresses. Coulter adds depth to the narrative by braiding the story of her Amazon years with her slow journey to sobriety, which changed her sense of herself and her life. Nevertheless, over the next 10 years, she rose through multiple departments, including Amazon Publishing and Amazon Go.

Coulter is a delightful, funny guide, giving us an insider’s view of Amazon’s quirks and toxicities, and she’s alert to the personalities and characters around her (including glimpses of Jeff Bezos and his management style). Occasionally, the memoir uses alternative forms, like the chapter “Events in the History of Female Employment” that mixes memoir and women’s history to funny and infuriating effect.

An engaging, well-paced, and thoughtful memoir, Exit Interview takes a cleareyed look at women in corporate America, particularly tech, noting how far from parity they remain in those worlds.

Exit Interview is a cleareyed look at women in corporate America, particularly tech, noting how far from parity they remain in those worlds.
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Certain memoirs are easily devoured, practically in one sitting, leaving the reader breathless. Such is the case with Meg Kissinger’s While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence. Like Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road, it sheds light on the vise-like grip that mental illness can have on generation after generation. In this case, however, Kissinger—an investigative reporter and a Pulitzer Prize finalist—writes from an insider’s point of view, describing how mental illness ripped her family apart.

Born in 1957, Kissinger spent most of her childhood in Wilmette, Illinois, in a large, rollicking family whose zany anecdotes are at first reminiscent of Cheaper by the Dozen. The many scrapes, mishaps and family tales are entertaining and often poignant, such as Kissinger’s description of how much she enjoyed an eye doctor’s appointment because it afforded a great rarity: one-on-one time with her mom. Kissinger gradually ups the tension, noting that her mother was taking medication “for her dark thoughts” before she was married, and that throughout Kissinger’s childhood, her mother would disappear from time to time for hospitalizations that were neither discussed or explained. Kissinger explains her family’s situation in a nutshell: “Take two alcoholics—one with bipolar and the other with crippling anxiety—and let them have eight kids in twelve years: What could possibly go wrong?”

Plenty, of course. A number of Kissinger’s siblings began having difficulties in high school or college, especially her older sister, Nancy, who, at age 24, shortly after having her stomach pumped for taking too many tranquilizers, slipped out of the house and ended her life in front of a train. Kissinger’s father instructed his family to tell others that Nancy’s death was an accident. Kissinger recalls her devastated and stunned thoughts at the time: “More secrets, more lies, just like when my mother disappeared years earlier. Why couldn’t we just tell the damn truth? By hiding what really happened, we’d not only be dismissing Nancy’s suffering but fortifying the notion that her mental illness was a choice, one that we should all be ashamed of.”

In 1987, Kissinger wrote an essay for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Nancy’s suicide. “Meg needs to tell this story,” her mother told her horrified father. Indeed, she did—especially when, 19 years later, a similar family tragedy happened once again. Kissinger then spent 25 years traveling across the country to explore the state of mental health issues in families like hers.

While You Were Out is a spellbinding account of one woman’s experience living through family trauma and a thoughtful attempt to reckon with the past. Kissinger asks tough questions and freely admits her own regrets while pointing out systemic problems with no easy answers. Her best advice comes from a letter from one of her siblings, a piece of wisdom that became her mantra: Only love and understanding can conquer this disease.

In a thoughtful attempt to reckon with the past, Meg Kissinger delivers a spellbinding account of how mental illness and addiction ripped her family apart.
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From the outside, Prachi Gupta’s life looks self-directed and accomplished. After winning awards for her writing as a political reporter for Cosmopolitan and Jezebel, she now makes a living as a freelance writer in New York City. Gupta is successful, like her father and her late brother, Yush, but behind these public victories is Gupta’s mother, whose role was to support her husband. The family believed in a powerful myth of Indian American exceptionalism: They were destined for greatness. It came at a high personal cost.

In They Called Us Exceptional, a complicated and emotional memoir written as a letter to her mother, Gupta unearths the impact of this foundational myth on the lives of her family. She explores the ways she was taught to accomplish things—learning complicated words, winning prizes—at a very young age, an orientation toward success that had also driven her father and her aunt (both medical doctors) and her grandfather before them (who immigrated from India to Canada looking for economic opportunity). A brutal racial hierarchy underlies this emphasis on accomplishment: It is through force of will and education that members of Prachi’s family have broken through economic barriers in America. Gupta grew up mostly in Pennsylvania and shows how being a minority in a culture of whiteness is deeply disorienting. Simultaneously, the gender hierarchy within their home—an intensely manifested patriarchy in which her father held the economic, social and intellectual power—caused Gupta to initially identify with and worship her father. As she began to question the roles laid out for women and to experience her father’s unpredictable wrath, her attitudes toward home, culture and identity began to shift and her brother, Yush, Gupta’s closest confidante in childhood, began to feel like a stranger.

Now estranged from her parents and grieving the sudden death of her brother, Gupta has written a memoir that is part olive branch and part reckoning. It recounts her journey toward herself, which entailed shedding familial half-truths and cultural baggage, and recognizing her story as both an Indian American and a woman within a larger historical and cultural context. As she details her growth, Gupta also explores the complicated development of each member of her immediate family, who all struggle to fulfill their roles at the expense of their own wellbeing and wholeness. For readers interested in complicated, thoughtful and beautifully written family stories that explore the cost of the model-minority myth, this book is as good as it gets.

Prachi Gupta explores the complicated development of her immediate family members, who all struggle to meet societal expectations at the expense of their own wellbeing and wholeness.

The most persistent plot in literature—from Homer to Tolkien—portrays individuals journeying away from home in search of some object, only to eventually return, sometimes tattered and torn, but always wiser. In the South, musicians and artists record the meaning of home as a place that people carry with them in their hearts, that shapes them and to which they long to return. In her poignant memoir, Up Home: One Girl’s Journey, Ruth J. Simmons carries readers with her as she recounts the contours of her own journey from sharecroppers’ daughter in Grapeland, Texas, to president of Smith College and Brown University, memorializing the many individuals who guided her.

Simmons chronicles her upbringing in Grapeland with her brothers and sisters, where they explored dirt roads and nearby fields, observed wild animals and the animals on the farm and played various games when they weren’t toiling in the fields and keeping up with the drudgery of household chores. Her parents fell into the rigid marital patterns typical of the 1940s and 1950s. Her father was a severe disciplinarian who did not think women should be educated or work outside the home, and he “did not act like a caring husband who appreciated my mother’s love and sacrifices.” Her mother was a “homemaker who managed the household and reared her children,” but Simmons and her sisters did not want to be like her.

When the family moves to Houston, Simmons begins to excel in the classroom and in various extracurricular activities, discovering new facets of the world and launching herself on the journey that carries her from the limiting factors of home in Texas—race, poverty, segregation—to the expansiveness of Europe and eventual leadership in higher education. Along the way, she introduces readers to teachers who helped her, such as her first grade teacher Ida Mae Henderson, who shows Simmons “for the first time . . . the kind of independence of spirit that made life free, happy, and meaningful. If learning could lead to such a result, I wanted it to be a part of my life forever.” Her high-school drama teacher, Miss Lillie, encourages her, working to schedule a one-woman show for Simmons. At the same time, Simmons reads “as many books as possible of every genre . . . wanting to learn specific ways language could open doors to unfamiliar worlds.”

Up Home recalls a life richly shaped by experiences with languages, literature and mentors that helped Simmons become a person she never expected to be. Her sparkling prose and vibrant storytelling invite readers to accompany her on her journey.

Ruth J. Simmons recalls her journey from sharecroppers’ daughter in Grapeland, Texas, to president of Smith College and Brown University in this sparkling memoir.

With five novels to her credit, Martha McPhee has well-established credentials as a storyteller. In her memoir, Omega Farm, she drops the veil of invention to share an intensely personal tale of her attempt to reclaim a troubled past amid a ceaselessly demanding present.

In mid-March 2020, McPhee, her husband and fellow writer, Mark, and their children Livia and Jasper, decamped from their New York City apartment to the eponymous farm—a 45-acre property about 10 miles outside her birthplace of Princeton, New Jersey—to escape the COVID-19 pandemic and help provide care for her mother, well-known photographer Pryde Brown, whose decade-long dementia was deepening. McPhee, the youngest of four children of Brown and famed New Yorker writer John McPhee, had spent most of her childhood at the farm after her parents divorced when she was four and her mother began a romantic relationship with Dan Sullivan, the farm’s owner, that lasted until his death in 1994.

McPhee’s memoir takes stories of growing up amid the “big sprawling chaotic mess” of Omega Farm with her three sisters, Sullivan’s five children and a 10th child produced from the Sullivan-Brown union, and seamlessly connects them to reflections on how the echoes of those experiences complicate her struggles with the demands of caregiving and her own present-day familial relationships. Sullivan, an unlicensed Gestalt therapist, is “something of a con man, [a] serial philanderer,” and a charismatic, if sometimes disordered figure. It soon becomes clear that Sullivan’s repeated sexual abuse of his stepdaughters lies at the core of her difficulty coming to terms with her memories.

If all this weren’t enough, urbanite McPhee is called upon to shoulder the burden of superintending a haphazardly cared-for property that includes a 35-acre forest. While confronting an unruly strand of bamboo and a failed septic system, she learns that Omega Farm’s population of ash trees has been infested with a devastating pest: the emerald ash borer. Soon, she devotes herself to the task of forest preservation, dealing with a land steward, unscrupulous loggers and the management hunter she hires to help suppress the ravenous deer population. Throughout, McPhee candidly discloses the frustrations and satisfactions of this worthy but all-consuming project.

McPhee is an efficient, graceful writer, who makes no effort to spare her own flaws even as she searches for the roots of her mature turmoil in the shortcomings of adults who failed in the fundamental task of protecting her younger self. In barely three years since its onset, the COVID-19 pandemic already has produced a small shelf of impressive memoirs. Martha McPhee’s Omega Farm easily earns itself a place in that collection.

Novelist Martha McPhee’s debut memoir details her work on herself and a family farm, candidly disclosing the frustrations and satisfactions of these worthy but all-consuming projects.

If you’re a Maria Bamford fan, you’ve probably already ordered your copy of her hilarious, devastating, fascinating new memoir Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult: A Memoir of Mental Illness and the Quest to Belong Anywhere. If you aren’t yet clued into her comedic stylings, you might look at the wide-eyed, beautiful woman on the cover and think, “What do I know her from?”

The answer is: loads of things, from stand-up specials to “Arrested Development” to “Lady Dynamite” to iconic Target commercials (or perhaps you’ve heard her in “Adventure Time” and “Big Mouth”). She’s an accomplished comedian who’s brought joy to countless people—and she also has from mental illness, having battled debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders and bipolar disorder since childhood.

The author is a winsome and unapologetic tour guide through her life thus far, musing on her “splintered, discomfiting need to reveal all my thoughts and flaws—which is either radical honesty or narcissistic showboating” and sharing her hope that “if I can be grandstandingly open about something taboo, maybe someone else might feel a little less isolated by knowing my own sad story (and have a few laughs)?” Bamford reflects on the groups she’s joined in search of achievement, belonging and healing, including Suzuki Violin, Overeaters Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous. She’s also a self-taught expert in the work of Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way) and Richard Simmons (Richard Simmons’ Never-Say-Diet Book).

Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult is the definition of kaleidoscopic: In addition to loopy riffs, career insights and beautifully sad recollections of her mother’s illness and death, there are painfully honest chapters about the time period in which Bamford’s “mind/body had become a vibrating razor blade of electric psychic pain.” The resulting psychiatric hospitalizations were often grueling, but ultimately offered a hopeful path forward.

The importance of getting such help is central to Bamford’s story and at the heart of her hopes for readers. She writes that, rather than a book about triumphing over obstacles, Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult is more of a “series of emotional sudoku puzzles . . . I haven’t figured it out.” And no matter where readers are on their own puzzle-solving journeys, she wants them to internalize something the late Jonathan Winters said to her after her first hospitalization: “You just keep going, kid.”

Celebrated comedian Maria Bamford is a winsome and unapologetic tour guide through her own life, reflecting on her search for achievement, belonging and healing.
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Three months after her father died, Canadian author and artist Kyo Maclear took a DNA test from a genealogy website. Her resulting memoir, Unearthing: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets, could have taken its subtitle from the test’s disclaimer: “You may discover unanticipated facts about yourself or your family.” Nothing was more unanticipated than the discovery that her beloved father, journalist and documentary filmmaker Michael Maclear, was not her biological father.

Maclear is able to piece together the facts of her biological father’s identity, even the names and locations of her half siblings. But she knows she is unable to uncover the truth of her origins—the hows and whys of her birth—without the help of her mother, her father’s unruly, Japanese ex-wife. And that is where her quandary lies, because her mother is firmly rooted in the present with no interest in reconstructing the past. Furthermore, even if her mother wanted to tell Kyo the entire story of her origins, her ability to piece it together fades as she gradually succumbs to dementia.

As Maclear probes more deeply into her the intertwined story of her three parents—her mother, her father, and her biological father—more questions are raised than can possibly be answered. What is identity? What obligations do we have to people who happen to share our DNA? As her mother’s memory fades, these questions become deeper, more personal. Reconciliation seems impossible to Maclear, though, when the other person will not or cannot break the lifelong silence. Challenging the idea that our life story follows an arc, Maclear instead posits life as a free-form construction of patches of memory, actions and silences.

Maclear’s writing is poetic in the best sense. Using the image of her mother’s wild, rambling garden as a foundation, Maclear examines these questions in detail, without proposing a pat answer to any of them because, ultimately, they are unanswerable. Instead, Maclear allows the reader to struggle with them as she did, granting her audience the space and silence to reconcile the gaps and secrets in their own lives.

When Kyo Maclear takes a DNA test from a genealogy website, her entire family history is uprooted, leading her on a disorienting yet rich exploration of identity.
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Recently divorced Gillian Armstead-Bancroft has returned to Freedom, Kansas, with two kids, no money, seriously dented self-respect—and a curse that’s robbed her of her magical powers. Nothing in life has turned out as this always-good girl (and secret bruja) thought it would. And when a good girl is under a curse that turns all her good intentions to ash, the obvious fix is to try out being bad. Preferably with her childhood friend, Nicky Mendoza, who is now a successful artist and still the only man who has ever satisfied her in bed. Meanwhile, things are changing in the town of Freedom. The run-down East Side is getting a boost, and Gillian’s noisy, nosy family is leading the charge. There’s a role there for Gillian, if she’s willing to take it . . . and if she can let go of the idea that success looks like the life she left behind, which was all big-city sparkle, name-brand luxury and soul-crushing emptiness.

Angelina M. Lopez’s Full Moon Over Freedom, her sequel to After Hours on Milagro Street, delivers on all expectations. It’s both powerful and sweet to see Gillian and Nicky rekindle their romance. They’ve lived separate lives for the past 13 years, but from the moment they reunite, Nicky is once again the only person Gillian lets herself be truly honest with. And when it comes to her sexuality—her needs, her desires—their compatibility is off the charts. If you’re a reader who enjoys the “healed by the magic of great sex” trope, you will absolutely love this book. Mixing in with all of the classic plot elements is actual magic, which in Lopez’s hands is tangible, present and beautifully imperfect. Refreshingly, it doesn’t solve all of Gillian and Nicky’s problems and it also results in contact with the spirit realm, moments that are alternately unsettling and enchanting—sometimes both at once.

Gillian’s Mexican American identity, which Lopez shares, radiates throughout the book. Full Moon Over Freedom unpacks the Latinx history of Kansas, showing how the struggles of women in the past trickle down into the prejudices of today through an infuriating heartbreaker of a historical story based on a real court case. This is the work of a writer who knows and celebrates her community and her culture. It’s also a love story that embraces the unusual, celebrates the unsung and makes you believe the words of another famous Kansan: There’s no place like home.

Full Moon Over Freedom celebrates the unsung Latinx history of Kansas while telling a second-chance love story that’s powerful, sexy and sweet.
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For a couple of years, I’ve been observing the crows that call my neighborhood home, and I’ve learned that when they’re making a ruckus, there’s bound to be a hawk nearby. So much of watching birds is about being a) still and quiet, and b) familiar with bird behaviors, as one learns in Find More Birds, a book that makes you slap your head and think, “Why has no one done this before?!” Birding books typically center on the what (kinds of birds one hopes to see) rather than the how. As Heather Wolf points out, “the bulk of bird-finding is wrapped up in a multitude of tidbits of experience, knowledge, and intuition gleaned from years of observing birds,” and that’s just what she passes along here in morsels that make birding feel accessible, even fail proof. Wolf shows us how to home in on birds in almost any situation—at a superstore, in the car, on a college campus, by a body of water—and offers sound advice for finding birding buddies, too.

Heather Wolf shows us how to home in on birds in almost any situation—at a superstore, in the car—and offers sound advice for building a birding community.

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