James Joyce once wished for an “ideal reader with an ideal case of insomnia”; a reader of Joyce Carol Oates similarly needs an ideal insomnia to plow through the 50-plus novels of this legendarily prolific writer. As it turns out, Oates herself suffers from insomnia, and has since she was a girl, using her night hours productively and well. Her new book, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, offers an exquisitely rendered glimpse of her own childhood in rural upstate New York.
Ah, alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems (to misquote “The Simpsons”). In Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, Sarah Hepola reveals the ugly side of addiction with humor and honesty. She writes gracefully of blackouts, junk food binges and unnerving sexual encounters. Along the way, she touches on loneliness and cats and hangovers and alternative weeklies. Although she claims that alcohol made her fearless, her true bravery emerges in this memoir’s witty candor.
Joseph Luzzi’s new memoir, In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love, transforms unthinkable tragedy into literary gold. In November 2007, while Luzzi was teaching at Bard College, his beloved pregnant wife Katherine was in a car accident: She died later that morning at the hospital, shortly after their daughter Isabel was born. In the space of a single morning, Joseph Luzzi became both a father and widower.
The Folded Clock, as crafted by novelist Heidi Julavits, is intricate and delicately worked. Time doesn’t flow linearly in this memoir as we might expect. What at first glance appears to be the diary of a writer in her 40s living an enviable life—an apartment in Manhattan, a house in Maine, sabbaticals in Europe—turns into a structure more complex, like an origami crane. Meditations on marriage and friendship appear and reappear. Diary entries might skip six months, or jump back a year. Julavits arranges the raw material of her diary in such a way as to provoke insight across the units of time that we normally experience: the day, the week and the month.
Quirky and raw, Kevin Sessums’ new memoir, I Left It on the Mountain, has all my favorite survival themes, plus cameos from Hugh Jackman and Courtney Love.
In St. Augustine’s Confessions (one of the first spiritual memoirs), he famously prayed “Lord, make me good, but not yet.” In his powerful, visceral new memoir, celebrity journalist Kevin Sessums, like a modern St. Augustine, testifies to the life-threatening pull between carnality and spirituality in his own life.
Alexandra Fuller’s hardscrabble African lyricism returns in her third memoir, which focuses on the push-pull of her marriage to American adventurer Charlie Ross. Although much of Leaving Before the Rains Come is set in Wyoming, where Fuller settles uncomfortably into American domesticity, her war-torn childhood in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the drunken pragmatism of her parents continue to shape her worldview.
For women of a certain age, Brooke Shields was our more perfect sister. In 1980, I didn’t understand what “nothing comes between me and my Calvins” meant any more than Brooke herself did. But I knew I needed a pair of those jeans.
A few years ago, I taught Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild in a college freshman writing class. I thought the story of Chris McCandless, who turned his back on civilization to hike into the Alaskan wilderness, would resonate with undergraduates. Chris’ tragic journey may have ended with his death, but his quest for purity and adventure was inspirational. Or so I thought.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones is a stunning coming-of-age story that tracks New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s rise from a poverty-stricken childhood in Louisiana to the respected journalist he is today. An introspective and poetic memoir about race, masculinity and sexuality, it also reckons with the impact of childhood sexual abuse on the core of his identity.