Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is a publishing phenomenon. Released mid-January, it debuted at number one on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list, where it remains. This poetic memoir of life and impending death has the feel of an important book, one that will be read and talked about for years to come. It shines a light on what it means to be human.
Kalanithi was about to complete his residency in neurosurgery at Stanford, when he began experiencing crippling back pain and weight loss. Initial X-rays looked fine, but the possibility of cancer was always in his mind. He chalked up his symptoms to long, grueling days in the operating room and his aging 36-year-old body. He admitted that while he was an authoritative surgeon, he was a meek patient.
Weeks later, when fierce chest pains began, he was forced to confront what he knew all along. A CT scan and subsequent tests revealed stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air is a beautiful examination of a life cut short, a memoir rich in introspection and unsparing in emotion. When his health problems began, Kalanithi was under a tremendous amount of stress. The completion of his residency was all-consuming. His wife Lucy, an internist herself, had some doubts about their marriage and was planning some “alone time.” His diagnosis proved a game-changer.
Not only did his wife stay, but the couple decided to accelerate their plans to have a baby, continuing the circle of life. Kalanithi shared his most intimate hopes and fears with readers, as he witnessed his daughter’s birth from his own fragile, uncertain state of health.
He underwent various treatments, soldiering forward not knowing how much time he had remaining. He continued to work on the manuscript that became this book, all the while buoyed by faith and his large family. When he died in March 2015, Lucy completed the book, adding an epilogue of her own to fill in her husband’s last weeks. This section is both wrenching and cathartic for anyone who has sat with a loved one during their final hours. Kalanathi’s dying wish was to leave behind a legacy in print. A true polymath, Kalanithi held both a BA and MA in English literature; he was also a student of philosophy. All of this informs his writing. When Breath Becomes Air ensures he will live on, remembered not only for his story, but for his eloquent words.
Some books take a little while to get going, but that’s not the case with the Ruth Wariner’s memoir The Sound of Gravel. It’s hard to stop reading after the first stunning sentence: “I am my mother’s fourth child and my father’s thirty-ninth.” Wariner grew up in what was supposed to be a utopian Mormon colony, founded by her grandfather. The rural farming community Colonia LeBaron was established in Mexico as a haven for those who believed in Joseph Smith’s original teachings — including polygamy.
Wariner never knew her father, once the prophet of the community. He was murdered by a member of a rival church — headed by his own brother — when she was just three months old. Her mother Kathy’s remarriage as the second wife to a colony member three years later defined her chaotic, hard-scrabble childhood. Short-tempered and selfish, Lane showed little fatherly attention to his stepchildren and children, eventually becoming predatory. He was a poor provider despite his strong work ethic, housing Kathy and her children in a rodent-infested, two-bedroom house with one unfinished bathroom, an outhouse for the meanwhile, and no electricity.
Wariner’s unique coming-of-age story is marked by poverty as much as it is by belonging to a religious cult. While Lane worked on their farm, it was up to Kathy to travel with the kids by bus to pick up government assistance checks over the border in El Paso like other colony wives as part of a complex, necessary scam.
Complicating life was a “difficult” older sister who was prone to fits of violence, a developmentally delayed older brother and a constant stream of new half-siblings to help take care of. Although her mother was loving and devoted, she always chose her husband over her children when it came time to take sides, defending Lane time and again for repeated abuses.
The Sound of Gravel is as engrossing as it is horrific. Wariner’s honest, revealing prose transports the reader to a world few would choose to visit, let alone live in. Wariner’s grit and rejection of a god that would will such horrible things gave her the strength to leave the community at the age of 15. Readers who enjoyed Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle or Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club will want to pick up The Sound of Gravel.
But Enough About Me: A Memoir is Burt Reynolds' no-holds-barred account of the people he has known throughout his life, including childhood friends, mentors and, of course, Hollywood celebrities. Sharing both his viewpoint and notable stories, you learn as much about those he has come in contact with as the man himself.
Told mostly in chronological order, Reynolds begins with his childhood in Rivera Beach, Florida, just south of Palm Beach. He then moves on to his time as a football player for the Florida Seminoles, with the remainder of the book focused on his career as a Hollywood stuntman and actor. Stories about the movie Deliverance, Gore Vidal and Johnny Carson are mesmerizing. You will savor his thoughts on Bette Davis, Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood. And you will feel his strong sense of regret as he discusses his relationships with Dinah Shore and Sally Field. Sparing no details, he also shares the embarrassing aftermath of posing nude for Cosmopolitan magazine, and the hesitation he had about working in the movie Boogie Nights, the role for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod.
If you are a fan of Reynolds or just like Hollywood stories, you'll enjoy this memoir. You'll smile, laugh and at times shake your head in disbelief! Reynolds delivers an entertaining yet honest portrait of himself and those he has known over the years. Humorous and even embarrassing, this book is definitely worth the read!
Readers who like this book may also want to check out Make ‘Em Laugh: Short-Term Memories of Longtime Friends by Debbie Reynolds or Judy & Liza & Robert & Freddie & David & Sue & Me: A Memoir by Stevie Phillips.
Is David Spade’s memoir Almost Interesting? No way, I say! It's actually extremely interesting. Filled with hilarious childhood stories, Saturday Night Live anecdotes and embarrassing tales of life in Hollywood, it's both entertaining and quick to read. He serves up his life story, warts and all!
Told chronologically, he takes us on wild ride through his childhood in Arizona, to his days as a struggling L.A. comic, followed by his tenure at SNL and ends with his life as a Hollywood celebrity. Uncontrollable laughter will overtake you as you read his account of pledging a fraternity, losing his newly purchased car in Hollywood and being catfished by a model’s parody account. Seriously, that happened, and quite recently, too! Even the story of his crazed assistant Skippy attacking him is hilarious. You'll also enjoy his tales of working on SNL. He candidly offers up both his favorite and least favorite hosts and musical guests. Trust me, he goes there! My favorite is his account of the infamous Sinead O’Connor performance. Finally, you will feel his overwhelming sense of loss when he discusses his best friend, Chris Farley.
If you’re a fan or just like to read about celebrities, I encourage you to get your hands on a copy of Almost Interesting. I’m not kidding. Do it! You can read it in quick bursts or in one long sitting, but since Spade is a comedian be prepared to laugh out loud, and even more so if you listen to the audiobook, since he narrates it. Be forewarned though, at times he is raunchy, but nothing wildly inappropriate. To see Spade in action on SNL, check out the DVD Saturday Night Live: The Best of David Spade. Knowing the backstories makes it much funnier.
In her new memoir Find a Way, long distance swimmer Diana Nyad tells of her epic swim from Cuba to Key West, which she completed at age 64 after failing to do so in her 20s.
The seeds for her extreme dream were sown when she was just a child. On his daughter’s 5th birthday, Aristotle Nyad opened the dictionary and pointed to their last name: Nyad (naiad), from Greek mythology, a girl or woman champion swimmer. Nyad doesn’t believe in fate, but she locked onto the word “champion” and knew that it would one day describe her.
She also became interested in Cuba as a child, when the Cuban Revolution brought an influx of refugees to her hometown, and her new friends introduced her to their culture. She recalls standing on the beach at age 9 with her mother and looking toward the horizon. Her mother told her that Cuba was so close that she could almost swim there.
After enjoying numerous other successes as a swimmer, Nyad began to plan and train for her Cuba swim when she was in her 20s. She made her first attempt from Cuba at age 28 utilizing a shark cage, but after swimming for 42 hours and covering 76 miles, strong winds and swells had knocked her so far off course that she was heading not for Florida, but for Texas. The following year, after training for a repeat swim but being denied entry to Cuba, she instead swam 102 miles from North Bimini Island, Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Florida, this time without the shark cage.
At age 30, Nyad figured it was time to retire as a professional athlete and instead pursued a career as a sports broadcaster and journalist. Then at age 60, a Mary Oliver quote forced her to reevaluate her priorities: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” After pondering that question, the extreme dream was reborn. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy. She no longer had the body of a world-class athlete. There would be grueling hours of training. There would be complicated logistics to work through. She would need to sell her dream to a support team of 35 people. There would ultimately be setbacks and failures and nearly fatal encounters with jellyfish. But Nyad’s mantra was: Find a way.
This isn’t just a story of an impressive athletic feat. Like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Andre Agassi’s Open, Nyad’s story also delves into her family history and personal struggles, and how they informed and shaped her future. Nyad is an impressive storyteller — here’s one of her several TED talks — and this book will leave you feeling inspired to pursue something amazing with your own wild and precious life.
As if the cover featuring a deliriously excited raccoon wasn’t enough to get you laughing, every vignette in Jenny Lawson’s new memoir Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things will certainly do the trick. Based on her wildly popular blog The Bloggess and follow-up to her New York Times bestseller Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson’s thoughts about living with mental illness have touched readers who identify with her daily struggles.
Chock-full of helpful advice on how to properly approach the Australian government with a request to hug a koala while wearing a koala costume and featuring chapters titled things like “Things I May Have Accidentally Said During Uncomfortable Silences,” Lawson’s sense of humor never overshadows the fact that dealing with mental illness is difficult, but rather celebrates her uniqueness and tenacity in getting through the toughest days.
Recently, Lawson made international headlines by admitting to her hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers that she replied, “You, too!” to an airport cashier after being told to enjoy her flight. What followed was an avalanche of embarrassing moments, tweeted in by thousands of people, which started trending worldwide. The particularly cringe-worthy tweets are available on her blog. In Lawson’s world, we may all be crazy and flawed, but at least we’re not alone.
Devoted fans may also want to check out It Sucked and Then I Cried by Heather Armstrong or Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh.
December 12 marks the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth, and three new books celebrate his legacy. Ol’ Blue Eyes remains an iconic figure in American culture with his mystique enduring long after his death in 1998.
Sinatra the Chairman by James Kaplan is a detailed examination of the life and career of this legendary performer. By delving into his complex relationships and prolific career, Kaplan exposes the multi-faceted layers that made this man —singer, actor, mogul, friend and lover. This is the follow-up to 2010’s Frank: The Voice and picks up in 1954, after Sinatra won an Academy Award and was firmly re-entrenched as a top selling recording artist.
Award-winning author Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Matters was first published in 1999 and is being re-issued in time for the anniversary of Sinatra’s birth, along with a new introduction from the author. This book serves as both a unique homage and an insightful portrait of a complex man. Hamill’s beautifully written portrait brings to life a man whose entertaining touched so many generations.
Frank & Ava: In Love and War by John Brady fully explores this volatile relationship which shaped both their lives. Ava had two short-lived marriages behind her and a succession of high profile suitors when she and Frank met. The spark was instantaneous and the two began a tempestuous affair, despite Frank’s marriage which ended soon after in divorce. Frank and Ava’s subsequent marriage was a series of fights, separations and reconciliations which ultimately ended in divorce. Despite the not-so-happy ending, Brady’s exploration of this glamorous couple is compelling. Gossip columnist Liz Smith said of this duo, "If I had to go back in Hollywood history and name two people who were most desperately and passionately in love with each other, I would say Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner were it."
Want more? Check out this list of music, movies and more books featuring the Chairman of the Board.
Veteran novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux has spent 50 years traversing the globe. In his latest book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, he trades the rickety rail cars of his African and Asian adventures for the dusty, sunbaked, story-rich rural back roads of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas and South Carolina. He calls it a “coming and going” type of book that beckoned him to return time and again. Indeed, he spent over a year and a half traveling by car in the south where only one person had ever heard his name or read any of his previous books. “Anonymity is freedom,” he said.
Theroux provides an intensely evocative look at the complex history of a region, rich in so many ways, abandoned and scarred in others. This is not a story about romantic cobblestone streets, touristy historic districts and prosperous cities. It is about what happens when manufacturing plants close up. It is about the shocking disparity of aid to places where the poverty rivals third world countries. Theroux searched out the cohesive fabric of the region and had hundreds of encounters with those who shared beloved interests, like gun shows, church-going and football. He frequented barber shops for conversations. He explored southern literary voices to understand history.
Known for an eye for detail and local color, Theroux is at his best trying to capture the mood of the places he visited. He does make assumptions in this thought-provoking, dialect-rich narrative that may leave readers asking questions or even shaking their heads. In the end, this 464-page travelogue by the author of the classic The Great Railway Bazaar may have readers wondering whether Theroux’s South is a place they recognize.
Since uploading the first episode of her breakout web series to the Internet, Felicia Day has maintained an omnipotent online presence. Fortunately for all the nerds and geeks of the world, she found the willpower to minimize her browser long enough to share her experiences in her memoir You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost). And according to her twitter, she was so stoked to wear that dress. I would be too.
In You’re Never Weird, Day reminisces about her mother’s unique methods of homeschooling, her countless hours of practicing to become a violin virtuoso and her first obsession with a video game called Ultima. Her uncanny power to dedicate herself to a worthy cause aided her in creating a semi-autobiographical web series called The Guild, which debuted in 2007 and represented a notable portion of the initial traffic on a little site known as YouTube. Reading about Day’s life makes every scene exponentially funnier because readers will be able to attribute her characters’ bizarre quirks and obsessions to things she experienced as her online persona — or in reality, but that’s never as fun.
Day also includes a discourse on the recent movement #GamerGate, in which she details how she felt about the initial scandal and dealt with the brushfire of hate that whipped her way as the online trolls carried out their misguided crusades. Curiously, she didn’t spin many tales from the sets of Buffy and Supernatural, but there are plenty of stories in You’re Never Weird to keep readers laughing as they turn the pages.
Whether readers recognize her from the commercials she did in the mid-2000s to keep her World of Warcraft addiction fueled, or know her as Cyd Sherman — aka Codex the Cleric — Felicia Day’s memoir is a well-written, highly entertaining read that’s perfect for anyone who wears the title of “geek” or “nerd” with pride.
I have long been fascinated by the story of Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede. I was excited when I saw Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an Africa Slum on my desk as I would finally get to hear the whole story of how they came to be by their own accounts. Previously, I have only heard snippets of their lives and what they have accomplished in Nairobi, Kenya and, more specifically, the African slum of Kibera where Kennedy grew up.
Kennedy Odede had a difficult life. He was born to a teen mother, homeless at one point and grew up in the worst slum in Kenya. Most would not, and never do, come out of this same situation alive let alone with a college degree and a non-profit organization, Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), to help the girls of Kibera. Jessica Posner was a junior at Wesleyan University when she decided she wanted to study abroad for a semester and chose Nairobi. She heard about Kennedy and SHOFCO through two of her friends and decided to contact him about doing a theater project for his organization.
Their story is told in alternating chapters, a ‘he said, she said’ of how they met, fell in love and have helped and continue to help the girls of Kibera. The dream of creating the Kibera School for Girls became a reality through a grant, and in six harried weeks, it was built and continues to thrive. This story, their story, is only the beginning of what they have yet to accomplish.