Patti Smith’s M Train inhabits a space so intimate that it’s typically found only inside our own minds–a swirl of dreams, longing, pithy observances, profound confrontations, mad wishes, spontaneous convictions, and ruminations on the tasks and artifacts of life. A place where we make sense of a life’s worth of words consumed. A place where we imagine what we might make and in that imagining make something else. This book is a love story, a catalogue of art, an ode to lost objects, a process journal, a coffee-drinking manifesto, and yet also none of these things. Smith’s voice is that of a woman who transcends definition and is so sure of her own course that she fairly manifests it out of thin air. She comprehends her own power in a way that is staggering. This book is the same: it is impossible to describe, but it makes meaning in its own way, on its own time.
This absorbing oddity of nonfiction starts out as an inquiry into the absurd and even dangerous obsession with a single species and ends up broadening into an exploration of the human view toward categorizing and assigning value to all kinds of species. It is an odd and thrilling amalgam of real-life adventure with an eccentric cast of modern explorers and the retraced steps of some of biology’s defining pioneers of taxonomy. The lengths that Voight undertook to get her story are a testament to the dark power of the quest for near-unobtainable rarity. It is a strange, colorful, and oftentimes quietly sad portrait of the human need to “own” the world around us.
The truth is, the pleasure of finding new species is too great; it is morally dangerous; for it brings with it the temptation to look on the thing found as your own possession all but your own creation… as if all the angels in heaven had not been admiring it, long before you were born or thought of.
I’ve never read anything like Freshwater, and I’m so grateful that I did. This semi-autobiographical novel presents a rotation of narrators who all share the same body: the Nigerian college student Ada and the multiplicity of ogbanje children who shift in and out of her consciousness. The way that the author’s spiritual beliefs help frame the characters’ experience is fascinating… a metaphysical look at an identity as multiple, that a Western understanding might otherwise call fragmented, is presented in a way where we understand the motivation, the cruelties, the protection, and the pain of all the spirits within the “marble room” of the mind in an entirely new way. It was a difficult book to read purely because of the unceasing emotional pain of the narrative. But the writing is boldly inventive and captures a unique human experience of self-finding through the dark. A sensational debut.
A lovely collection of short essay/memoir writings from a highly specific part of the American (and Canadian) landscape. A variety of voices and experiences are present here. Some of the pieces feel dated for the modern reader while others remain poignant and fresh. If you have love for the north woods, you’ll find something to enjoy at some point in this book. I would recommend reading it in small bites at a time. The volume is split between nature-focused writings and more human encounters–my preference was for the former.
Lara Prior-Palmer’s Rough Magic is a disarmingly contemplative memoir. It is a very satisfying book for two opposing reasons. 1. It is a horse book that is actually about horses in a very major way–the way they move, look, communicate, feel. The horse race referred to in the title encompasses the bulk of the book, and that’s what we all truly want if a book has a horse on the cover. 2. The book also is a joy to read because of its human narrator, who treats the story as looking glass, postcard, forecast, and saga. She looks ever inward, sparing us no qualm or thorn as she faces her immediate inner and outer landscapes. It is a quiet, meditative, foggy book. Prior-Palmer lets us get lost with her, and the result is quite lovely, quite true.
North by Scott and Jenny Jurek is inspiring and insane. Being a runner myself makes me typically love running adventure stories on a visceral level, but Scott is a master of the sport at distances I quake to even imagine. His record-breaking trek northward on the Appalachian Trail is something to behold–North lets us in close, showing how the Jureks used a journey longer and harder than any runner really has the natural-born right to attempt as one of restoration, in the sense that sometimes we need to break ourselves before we can heal. This portrait of Scott’s tenacity as the ultimate ultrarunner will hurt you, humor you, and make your heart soar. The alternating perspectives between Jenny (also a superathlete!) and Scott show a portrait of a deep, deep marital love, and what it takes to show up for one another. The photos are also a great addition. The one of Scott touching the sign at Katahdin made me cry–anyone who has undertaken and conquered an intense physical challenge will know that special kind of heartbroken pride.
In looking at the cover of Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl and reading the back blurb, one might expect to learn a lot about plants and how one woman grew her scientific career around them. And it does deliver on those fronts. But it’s also about much, much more. This memoir is about families who refuse to express pain, about the stigmas surrounding mental illness and poverty, about the funding crisis for scientific research in this country, about motherhood, and about how gender impacts the trajectory of a career. Above all, in the unforgettable portrayal of Jahren’s decades-long friendship with her lab partner, it is one of the most touching stories of platonic love between a man and a woman that I’ve ever read. Anyone who reads this book will be richer for it. And yes, you’ll also learn things about plants along the way.
For Olympics nerds and running history nerds (like me!), this read is an absolute win. Full disclosure: Shorter fully admits in the book that he is not much of a writer, and the prose can be accordingly repetitive and flat now and again. However, I find a lot of value in hearing someone’s story straight from them, and Shorter’s story is a remarkable one. He’s one of the greatest American runners of all time, soundly crushing competition at many levels and distances, ultimately medaling in two Olympic marathons. Shorter also shows great bravery in how he weaves the account of his childhood abuse with that of his rising star in the running world–it’s a great reminder of persistent human strength and the shadows that can lurk behind success.
Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a quiet little masterpiece of a memoir. The book, centered around a year of the author’s life when she finds herself bedridden with a debilitating illness, takes us deep within an introspective, spiraling path that echoes the pattern of her small friend’s shell. The life of a small woodland snail unexpectedly frames and obsesses Bailey’s vision of her limited world, leading her to learn all she can about its unique life, senses, and consciousness. Peppered with quotations from 19th century naturalists, Bailey’s narrative is, like a snail, meditative, humble, lovely, and downright amazing. Beware: reading this book will almost inevitably lead to a sudden uptick in the desire to keep a snail of your own.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s written tribute to his 50-year friendship with legendary basketball coach John Wooden is a gift to sports history. While the author may be the NBA’s reigning all-time leading scorer (with scores of other athletic accolades also to his name), this memoir about his basketball career veers away from stats and records. Instead, it drives straight into the core of one of the most incredible mentor relationships ever seen in sports. The writing, honest and witty, is the linguistic equivalent of a subtle, knowing smile. Abdul-Jabbar reminisces about Coach Wooden’s aphorisms and Midwestern quirks, his winning strategies, and his quiet struggles. Most of all, through the kaleidoscope of Abdul-Jabbar’s memories, we see the vision of a unique friendship where two men were perfectly suited to learn from each other, challenge each other, support each other, and become masters not just of their sport, but also of living a life that fills each “minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.”