I’ve never really understood readers who say they don’t like memoirs. For one thing, the genre theoretically comes closer than any other to granting us access to another mind on the page — the very reason so many readers turn to literature in the first place. For another, memoirs aren’t one thing: In subject and style and subjectivity, there are as many kinds of memoirs as there are kinds of writers. If you say you don’t like memoirs, you might as well say you don’t like books, or people.
Around here, we like both. And we have lots of memoirs to recommend this week, with revealing looks at the lives of everyone from the first lady of Iceland to a reporter who went undercover with Afghan refugees to a woman who grew up with a pathologically deceptive mother. Amy Bloom’s “In Love” and Kathryn Davis’s “Aurelia, Aurélia” both grapple powerfully with the death of a spouse, and prove that memoirs can be wildly distinct even when they address the same topic. So too Meghan O’Rourke’s “The Invisible Kingdom” and Frank Bruni’s “The Beauty of Dusk,” which offer different takes on physical infirmity, and the far from formulaic show business memoirs “I Was Better Last Night” (by Harvey Fierstein) and “Run Towards the Danger” (by Sarah Polley). And just in case you really and truly hate memoirs, or are just in the mood for something else, we also recommend a couple of thrillers. Happy reading.
Senior Editor, Books
IN LOVE: A Memoir of Love and Loss, by Amy Bloom. (Random House, $27.) This memoir by an acclaimed novelist is about her marriage with Brian Ameche, his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and the couple’s search for a painless and dignified way for him to end his life. They discover that trying to die in America, in a rational and pain-free manner, isn’t easy at all. They end up turning to a Swiss nonprofit organization called Dignitas, where the process can be painless, peaceful and legal. “Bloom tells this story with grace and tact,” our critic Dwight Garner writes. “She doesn’t go overboard in explaining her moral reasoning. She doesn’t have to. Her title is her explanation.”
AURELIA, AURÉLIA: A Memoir, by Kathryn Davis. (Graywolf, paper, $15.) Davis’s eight novels bear little relationship to anything that might be lassoed into the category of “contemporary fiction,” and “Aurelia, Aurélia” — her first work of nonfiction — is also an outlier. The central subject is the death of her husband, Eric, from cancer, but the book unfolds in time-shifting episodes that include scenes from Davis’s early childhood and adolescent years. It alights on Flaubert and Beethoven as well as on the knotty contradictions of grief. Our critic Molly Young writes: “‘Aurelia, Aurélia’ is only 108 pages long, and a mystery presents itself: How could so much consciousness be packed into such a small object?”
I WAS BETTER LAST NIGHT: A Memoir, by Harvey Fierstein. (Knopf, $30.) In his memoir, the actor, writer and consummate New Yawker Fierstein looks back on growing up in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, his earliest experiences with dress-up and make-believe (he now recognizes that he was a “7-year-old gender warrior”) and his smash successes in “Torch Song Trilogy” and “La Cage Aux Folles.” It’s a “warm and enveloping” memoir, our critic Alexandra Jacobs writes, with two sides to it: “One is a raw, cobwebby tale of anger, hurt, indignation and pain; flip it over and you get billowing ribbons of humor, gossip and fabulous, hot-pink success.”
GIRL IN ICE, by Erica Ferencik. (Scout Press, $27.) Ferencik, who sets her thrillers in extreme landscapes, has placed this one at a climate research station in the Arctic Circle. There a little girl has been found frozen in the ice, very much alive, speaking an unknown language. As a linguist attempts to communicate with her, it becomes clear that nothing less than the fate of the earth may be at stake. “Like Peter Höeg’s ‘Smilla’s Sense of Snow’ and Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life,’ ‘Girl in Ice’ uses the subtleties of translation to draw us into different worlds and ways of thinking,” Sarah Lyall writes in her latest thrillers column. “It turns out that the word for ‘climate change’ in Inuktun, a language of northern Greenland, translates to ‘a friend acting strangely,’ which is sad and apt.”
SECRET IDENTITY, by Alex Segura. (Flatiron, $27.99.) In this clever homage to classic noir — partly a love letter to New York City in the seamy 1970s, as well as an immersive tutorial in comic-book publishing of that era — a young woman investigates the murder of a colleague. “Witty and wholly original, the book is also surprisingly moving,” Sarah Lyall writes in her thrillers column. “It’s a delight to see Carmen push back against the casual sexism of the era.”
THE INVISIBLE KINGDOM: Reimagining Chronic Illness, by Meghan O’Rourke. (Riverhead, $28.) For most of her 30s O’Rourke was terribly sick, with strange neurological spasms and abrupt agonizing sensations that sometimes confined her to bed for days on end; her memoir of the experience, in probing the links between illness and the self, becomes almost existential. O’Rourke deftly avoids both cynicism and romanticism, Andrew Solomon writes in his review, “achieving an authentically original voice and, perhaps more startlingly, an authentically original perspective. A poet by choice and an interpreter of medical doctrine by necessity, she brings an elegant discipline to her description of a horrific decade lost.”
THE BEAUTY OF DUSK: On Vision Lost and Found, by Frank Bruni. (Avid Reader, $28.) In 2017, Bruni, a longtime editor, critic and columnist at this newspaper, had a stroke while sleeping and woke up to find he could not see well out of one eye. Determined not to let blindness leach the purpose or joy from his life, he began seeking the counsel of others who had faced similar physical declines. “What makes ‘The Beauty of Dusk’ far more remarkable than one man’s triumph over life’s cruelties is how Bruni persevered,” Min Jin Lee writes in her review. “This isn’t the sad story of a man who lost his sight; it is the generous narrative of a student who sought wisdom when trials appeared in his life.”
NEVER SIMPLE: A Memoir, by Liz Scheier. (Holt, $26.99.) Scheier was raised on a steady diet of lies and entered adulthood unclear on basic facts about her own life. Eager to do better for her children, she decided to set the record straight. This powerful, conversational and — above all — honest memoir shakes hard truths out of the family tree. “The book reads like a Nancy Drew mystery where everyone’s favorite amateur sleuth has done intense personal work and now possesses the courage and the self-awareness to turn her magnifying glass inward,” Elisabeth Egan writes in her latest Group Text column.
RUN TOWARDS THE DANGER: Confrontations With a Body of Memory, by Sarah Polley. (Penguin Press, $27.) In six candid essays, Polley — a filmmaker and former child star once known as “Canada’s sweetheart” — analyzes her early fame, her largely unsupervised adolescence and her complicated relationships. “The little girl who carried the weight of Hollywood movie budgets and theater actors’ salaries on her shoulders is now a grown woman whose stolen childhood has made her at once a stunningly sophisticated observer of the world and an imperfect witness to the truth,” Meghan Daum writes in her review. “Her willingness to embrace such paradoxes, in this book as well as in her films, is the mark of a real artist.”
THE NAKED DON’T FEAR THE WATER: An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees, by Matthieu Aikins. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) When Aikins, a Kabul-based journalist, set out with his translator on the perilous crossing between Afghanistan and Europe, he didn’t realize how it would change him. What started as an act of undercover journalistic brio grew, in the reviewer Jessica Goudeau’s words, into “an expansive, immersive work that reads like the most gripping novel but is all the more compelling because the events are both true and ongoing.”
SECRETS OF THE SPRAKKAR: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World, by Eliza Reid. (Sourcebooks, $26.99.) For a dozen years, Iceland has outranked all countries in terms of gender equality. Reid, the Canadian-born first lady, explores why. “At its heart, Reid’s book is also a ‘love letter’ from an immigrant,” Cindi Leive writes in her review. “Like all love letters, it shines when it’s personal. The most vivid sense of Iceland’s unique approach to gender comes through Reid’s own experiences: How in her first job there, she walks by the conference room to see the board chair nursing a baby while running the meeting, no one batting an eyelash.”
11 New Books We Recommend This Week – The New York Times