Category: Memoir

Lab Girl

Cover image for Lab Girl by Hope Jahrenby Hope Jahren

ISBN 9781101890202

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.” 

The daughter of a community college science professor, Hope Jahren always felt at home in the laboratory, playing there while her father worked. After obtaining her PhD from UC Berkeley, she would go on to become a geobiologist, founding multiple laboratories, and winning honours from the Fulbright to the Young Investigator Medal. Part memoir, and part science, Lab Girl shares Jahren’s experiences from graduate school to tenured professor, and all the bumps along the way, including funding cuts, bipolar disorder, and changing institutions.

Lab Girl began its life as a text book, but Jahren found herself unable to separate what she had learned from how she learned it. So it became a memoir, and Jahren’s chapters alternate between describing her life and work, and waxing poetic about trees, plants, and nature more generally. When she reveals, late in the book, that she also writes poetry, it comes as no surprise. With her descriptions, she is able to make processes like photosynthesis and flowering both beautiful and interesting. Through her words you can fully appreciate the stunning feat that is a plant’s ability to make sugar out of light, or that fact that a tree that is one of the few living things—flora or fauna—that can stand motionless through a cold winter, and not die. Using the metaphor of the struggle a seed undergoes to become a plant, Jahren chronicles her own struggle to grow into a scientist, in a profession where money is short, and women are not always welcome, and others don’t always see the significance of what you are doing.

Jahren’s relationship with her parents is distant and cool, even as she describes her father as the inspiration for her interest in science. After the chapters on her childhood, they are rarely mentioned again. She does eventually marry, but she meets her husband late in life, and even then he features little in the text. The primary relationship in Lab Girl, and one of the most interesting parts of the story, is the decades long friendship with her lab assistant Bill. The two met when Jahren was a PhD student and teaching assistant, and Bill was an undergraduate. He is an odd but compelling character, and a constant in Jahren’s life as she moves from Georgia Tech to Johns Hopkins to the University of Hawaii. After they completed their degrees at the same time, Bill followed her to Atlanta to work in her first lab, and has remained her right hand ever since.

Another clear theme that emerges in Lab Girl is the ongoing difficulty of funding scientific research, particularly research that does not have any immediately identifiable practical application. A huge part of Jahren’s job is not doing the science or teaching she was hired for, but writing grant applications to ensure the continued operation of her lab, and the salaries of Bill and their ever-changing cast of student assistants. Without money, there is no science, and though Jahren secured a salary for herself, universities do not generally pay for labs, beyond some start-up funding for new professors. Jahren even slips a line into the book apologetically soliciting patrons, adding that she would be “absolutely crazy” not to include it.

I listened to Lab Girl as an audiobook, which Jahren performs herself, reading in a soft voice with a few pleasant traces of her Minnesota childhood. Her voice is quiet and unassuming, until she comes to the more difficult parts of the text, such as describing her struggles with mental illness. Then her voice overflows with emotion, giving the audiobook a personal touch that would not have been possible if it was performed by a voice actor. It perfectly embodies the way Jahren blends the personal and the scientific.

___

Cover image for The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth KolbertYou might also like The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Advertisements

Just Mercy

Cover image for Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson by Bryan Stevenson

ISBN 978-0-8129-8496-5

“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

As a young law student, Bryan Stevenson was somewhat adrift at Harvard Law School, unsure of his direction or his future. He wanted to do something that would help people, but he was having trouble connecting his theoretical education with meaningful action. Then, an internship at the Southern Prisoner’s Defence Committee led to work helping inmates on death row in the Deep South. Most of these prisoners were indigent, and could not afford legal counsel to help review or appeal their cases. The experience made a profound impression, and led him to found the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama in 1994. Stevenson would go on to appeal countless death sentences, and challenge the practice of sentencing minors to life without parole. Just Mercy recounts his experiences representing people who have been written off by society.

The main case threaded through Just Mercy is that of Walter McMillian, who was convicted in 1988 of the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison, and sentenced to death in Alabama. Stevenson’s association with the case began with a call from the original trial judge, who got wind that Stevenson had been looking into McMillian, and called to try to scare him off of representing him. Stevenson took the case anyway, and the result is an investigation that seems like something out of a television crime drama. The tenuousness of the evidence on which McMillian was convicted is scarcely believable, the racism poorly concealed, and the unwillingness to admit an error simply stunning.

Just Mercy draws interesting parallels to one of American’s most beloved classic novels, To Kill a Mockingbird. McMillian was from Monroeville, Alabama, home to author Harper Lee. The town continued to publicize and celebrate the work, even as a wrongful conviction took place in their midst. While To Kill a Mockingbird lionizes Atticus Finch for his defence of Tom Robinson, Stevenson encountered repeated obstruction from the community, and even received death and bomb threats for his defence of McMillian. The irony is not lost on Stevenson, who also notes the unhappy ending for the accused in Lee’s novel.

Walter McMillian in the main thread running through the book, appearing in every second chapter, but his is not the only story. In the chapters between, Stevenson highlights other types of abuses that lead him to do this work, such as life without parole sentences for children, the incarceration of the mentally ill, and the prosecution of women who have suffered still births. While this results in a book that is less focused on a particular case, it ultimately proves to be a strength. These chapters serve to show that Walter McMillian is not isolated or even a particularly extreme case, and give a better idea of the breadth of the problem. The alternating chapters even serve to provide some sense of suspense in McMillian’s case, despite the fact that the outcome was widely publicized and is therefore probably generally known to readers.

Beyond specific cases, Just Mercy also serves to highlight the how short legal services are for the poor, and the lack of re-entry programs for exonerated prisoners. Every time Stevenson took on a new case, other prisoners would hear about his work and seek his help, creating an impossible case load. Once, in a case where Stevenson was representing a veteran who suffered from PTSD, and injured two children by setting off a bomb, the victims’ families asked for Stevenson’s assistance seeking financial aid they had been promised but never received.  They sought his help even though he was representing the man who had caused the injuries in the first place.

Even when prisoners get help and are able to win their release, they face problems reintegrating into society. Someone who is convicted of murder and then later found to be innocent remains ineligible for services that exclude people who have been convicted of felonies. Originally setting out to provide legal help, Stevenson subsequently found himself also doing social work, providing assistance and support to those he had helped set free. Thus Stevenson paints a broad portrait of a problem that goes beyond any one wrongfully convicted prisoner, and serves to highlight a broken system in desperate need of reform.

___

Cover image for The New Jim Crow by Michelle AlexanderYou might also like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Black Man in a White Coat

Cover image for Black Man in a White Coat by Damon Tweedyby Damon Tweedy

ISBN 978-1-250-10504-2

“When I started medical school and learned about the adverse health outcomes that afflicted black people, I had assumed these disparities were chiefly due to genetics. To be sure, there are diseases like sickle-cell anemia, lupus, and sarcoidosis, which appear to preferentially target black patients at a biological level. But what had become abundantly clear to me during my years in medical school and as a doctor, however, were the many ways that social and economic factors influence health, and, more than anything else, account for the sickness and suffering that I have seen.”

The son of a working class African-American family from Maryland, in 1996 Damon Tweedy accepted a scholarship to Duke University Medical School. As he began learning about various diseases and conditions, he was soon bombarded by a familiar refrain: “more common in blacks than in whites.” Tweedy initially assumed these problems were genetic vulnerabilities, but his experiences soon led him to realize that social and economic factors were, in most cases, much more significant, and in turn these factors play out “along racial lines.” Initially intent on avoiding drawing any attention to his race, Tweedy instead becomes interested in reducing these disparities.

Tweedy divides his books into three parts, proceeding chronologically, first from his medical training at Duke, onto his internship, and then into his practice as a psychiatrist. Each stage presents new challenges. As a student, one of his professors mistakes him for a maintenance worker come to change the lights in the lecture hall, then tries to pretend that the error never occurred. In medical school, Tweedy must balance the well-being of his black patients against the problems that might be caused if he confronts his superiors. He is relieved, in one case, when the supervising doctor is the one to challenge a white nurse who asserts that a nineteen-year-old black woman who suffered a placental abruption after smoking crack cocaine should be sterilized. Later, in his own practice, he confronts new challenges, such as treating a biracial woman who is afraid of black men because of how her black father treated her white mother.

As a scholarship student, Tweedy starts out with an inferiority complex, afraid that people will think he does not deserve to be in medical school. He fears anything that will draw attention to his race, and cringes at every mention of racial medical statistics. This initial fear tempers somewhat, but it leads to his very cautious and measured approach in this book. Tweedy largely skirts around more controversial topics such as the war on drugs and discriminatory policing, both factors which contribute to the shortening of black lives.

Through a more personal lens, Tweedy also examines his own health problems. He discovered his high blood pressure when he and a classmate were practicing taking vital signs in their first year of medical school. A follow-up visit to the doctor also revealed early signs of kidney failure, prompting Tweedy to rethink his diet and exercise routines. This helps him relate very personally to the difficulty patients have making lifestyle changes for the sake of their health. But while he realizes that his own blood pressure and blood sugar are more important health metrics than his weight, since he remains naturally thin throughout, he doesn’t seem to extend this insight to patients, often remarking on their weight. He also fails to stand up for a black patient who wants to try lifestyle changes before going on blood pressure medication, afraid that he will be considered a racial agitator if he challenges the other doctors.

This book felt particularly relevant at the time of reading, as news went viral of a Delta flight attendant refusing to believe that Tamika Cross, a Texas obstetrician and gynecologist, was a doctor. Tweedy’s experience makes it abundantly clear that there are disparities for black doctors and patients alike, and that they play out in subtle ways throughout the medical system, but add up to a large gap in care. What is less clear is the path forward. The Affordable Care Act is acknowledged as something that may help some patients, but not enough. Nor does Tweedy feel that every black patient needs a black doctor; he more than once trips over his own assumptions about black patients, and encounters skepticism of his credentials among both black and white patients. But his stories provide a window for issues that deserve broader consideration.

___

Cover image for When Breath Becomes Air by Paul KalanithiYou might also like When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Where Am I Now?

Cover image for Where Am I Now by Mara Wilsonby Mara Wilson

ISBN 978-0-14-312822-9

“The grown-ups around me talked about my ‘anxiety’ but they never said ‘disorder.’ Nobody seemed to want to acknowledge that there was something wrong with me. It was just my age, they said, or a stage of grief, but one that would pass. I would grow out of it.”

When I first joined Twitter back in 2009, I didn’t really know what I was doing with it. I followed a few famous people and media outlets, and mostly used it as a news feed. For three years that was about all I did, until I started blogging in 2012. Suddenly I was using Twitter on a much more regular basis, following dozens of new people every day. As I got more familiar with the platform, I started becoming more selective however, honing the type of account I followed, and unfollowing many of the accounts I’d started out with. Actors and other celebrities were among the first to go. But I held onto at least one, a former child star named Mara Wilson. She and I were about the same age, and she had starred in a lot of films from my childhood, like Mrs. Doubtfire, the remake of Miracle on 34th Street, and my personal favourite, Matilda, based on the Roald Dahl novel I’d reread countless times. Of course, this might have had something to do with one interviewer describing her as “a writer who once had an acting phase.” Her Twitter feed was funny and relatable.

Nowadays, Wilson is a writer and storyteller, occasional stage performer and voice actor. Where Am I Now? is her first book, a collection of essays that span from her child actor days to the death of Robin Williams in 2014. In between, she writes about her mother’s death from cancer, her own years long struggle with depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder, and the time after her 2010 graduation from NYU when she was trying to figure out what to do with her life. From high school show choir performances to being the only storyteller in rooms full of stand-up comedians, Wilson has undoubtedly led an interesting and varied life, and she shares it here with a candid vulnerability.

For those who arrive at the collection because they remember Wilson from her child actor days, there is plenty here, including reflections on her on-set experiences, and reminiscences about her former co-stars. Particularly noteworthy is the inclusion of the essay she published on her blog following Robin William’s death in 2014, after she refused to appear on any news media outlets to speak about him. In it, she frankly addressed mental health, including her own struggles with anxiety and OCD. She gives equal depth to her reflections on the experience of being a child actor, such as the “Hollywood induced body dysmorphic disorder” that left her extremely insecure and critical of her personal appearance long after she had given up film acting. She was also left with a profound fear of her own sexuality, having been trained to constantly worry about what any hint of scandal might do to her squeaky clean reputation. She dubs this the “Matilda-whore complex.”

Wilson has a wandering, tangential style that skips across time and connects disparate topics and events. It is loose, while never quite losing the thread. She delves into relationships of all kinds, from the difficulty of making friends when you leave school for months at a time to film on location, to being a member of “the saddest sorority,” women who lost their mothers very young. With a sister six years younger than herself, Wilson also found herself trying to fill that unfillable gap in her sister’s life, and I particularly enjoyed the pieces that dealt with her siblings. She recounts the difficulty of dating other child stars, or for that matter, any boy, because no one wants to think about Matilda having sex. And that, for her, is the most complicated relationship of her life, with a character she loved and wanted desperately to play, but then also had to live alongside for the rest of her life. She grapples her way through this in an essay called “A Letter,” which begins “Dear Matilda,” and goes on to address the character directly.

This isn’t a salacious memoir, in that Wilson is mostly exposing herself, not others. One high school friend and a first boyfriend do not come off particularly well, but Wilson uses this mostly to reveal her own insufficiencies in these situations. The boyfriend was a fellow child actor, and the friend was caught up with her in a toxic and competitive high school show choir environment. Wilson is willing to lay her awkwardness and anxiety bare, and as someone with a strong aversion to awkwardness—I basically suffer vicarious embarrassment—some of these pieces were hard to read, but the honesty and humour kept me going. And I can’t wait to see what Wilson will write next, now that she has dealt with the most obvious material.

Year of Yes

Cover image for Year of Yes by Shonda RhimesShonda Rhimes

ISBN 978-1-4767-7709-2

“Judging by some of the reactions I’ve gotten to stories I’ve written for my characters on TV, a woman not wanting to marry or not wanting to have children is cause for a good old-fashioned witch hunt.”

In the fall of 2013, Shonda Rhimes was, by all accounts, extremely successful. She had two popular TV shows on the air, a third that had just been retired after six seasons, and a new program was in development. She also had three children, including a three month old baby. Over preparations for Thanksgiving dinner, Rhimes was telling her older sister, Delorse, about all the invitations she was receiving to parties and awards shows as a result of this success, none of which she had any intention of accepting, when her big sister said six words that stopped her dead in her tracks. “You never say yes to anything.” It would take several weeks for those six words to percolate, but by Christmas they would be waking her up in the middle of the night. By her birthday in January 2014, she was making a public declaration to her closest friends and family that she was going to spend a year saying “yes to anything and everything that scares me.”

In the opening pages, where she comes to the realization that she is miserable, Rhimes is extremely hard on herself about how unhappy she was despite all her success. She seems to believe she has no right to be unhappy, because she wasn’t shot in the face like Malala, or kidnapped like the Chibok school girls. Perhaps this is an effort to inoculate herself against inevitable criticisms about her privilege. Something that is never mentioned even as a possibility, despite literally losing her memory of stressful social situations, is social anxiety. There is nothing like depression or anxiety to make you feel unhappy in spite of all the good things in your life. Obviously I’m not trying to diagnose Rhimes with anything here; I simply wish we could have more compassion for the fact that sadness and anxiety aren’t necessarily about external causes.

Rhimes definitely acknowledges her privilege, and take the reader behind the curtain. She literally dedicates and entire chapter to the subject of her nanny, Jenny McCarthy (and the Mommy Wars more broadly). Although Rhimes is factually a single mother, she openly acknowledges that practically speaking, she is not. She has a nanny, and several sisters and other family members who live nearby. She also slays fearlessly on the subject of women’s appearances, after learning that the hair she so admired on Whitney Houston when she was a teen—and spent hours trying to replicate—was actually a wig. “Remember that the only reason I look like this when you see me is because THREE people worked a minimum of TWO AND A HALF HOURS (plus shopping, fitting, tailoring the clothes) on me. I did not wake up like this,” she remonstrates. But during in Year of Yes, Rhimes also struggles with the question of whether to say Yes to being fat and accepting herself, or Yes to trying to lose weight.

Mixed in with all of this are reflections on Rhimes’ writing process and popular television shows. The character of Cristina Yang from Grey’s Anatomy serves as a particular touchstone. It was through Cristina that Rhimes said the hard things before she decided to say Yes to difficult conversations. Surgery is to Cristina what writing is to Rhimes, and both women defy society’s expectations about what a woman should want from life. Overall, however, this is not a book for those who are hoping for a look behind-the-scenes of Scandal or How to Get Away with Murder.

The topic of a Year of Yes was interesting to me because I have a soft spot for books about year-long experiments. But I was also intrigued because I felt the topic of such a book could just as easily be a Year of No. Just as many people need to learn to say No to inappropriate requests as need to say Yes to scary opportunities. I was worried that this book might be reductive on that score, but Rhimes addresses it ably in her chapter entitled “Yes to No, Yes to Difficult Conversations.” This chapter really crystallizes the fact that Year of Yes isn’t about Yes, so much as it is about not saying either Yes or No simply because you are afraid. Don’t say No to an awesome career opportunity because you’re afraid of public speaking. But equally, don’t say Yes to a friend’s request to borrow a large amount of money just because you’re afraid of what will happen if you say No. Rhimes has quite a roundabout way of saying things—she spends eleven pages at the beginning of the book explaining her tendency to embellish, and her forgetfulness—but the idea of not deciding based on fear is really the truth at the heart of the book.

___

More Year of _______________

The Year of Reading Dangerously

Year of No Sugar 

MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend

 

Open Heart, Open Mind

open-heart-open-mindby Clara Hughes

ISBN 978-1-4767-5698-1

“The extreme physical pain I was able to endure was a distraction from my emotional pain. I was like a traumatized person who slashes open a vein or with a razor to let the despair, the guilt, the repressed anger bleed out. I would cut myself to the bone, grinding and hammering before I’d give up.”

Clara Hughes is a prominent Canadian athlete, known for winning medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics in cycling and speed skating. In 2010, she was the flag-bearer when Canada hosted the Olympics in Vancouver. That year, she also became the public face of the Bell Let’s Talk initiative, which aims to raise funds and awareness for mental health issues. This was the first time that many people learned about the depression and self-doubt that lurked behind Hughes’ megawatt smile. Open Heart, Open Mind chronicles Hughes’ journey from party kid in Winnipeg, to Olympic athlete, to public health advocate and humanitarian.

Open Heart, Open Mind opens on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. As flag-bearer, Hughes was at the centre of media attention in the lead up to the opening ceremony. Although she was elated by the honour, no one had prepared her to be a de facto spokesperson for the Games. This moment on the steps of Richmond City Hall serves as the perfect illustration of the contrast between her public persona, and her private struggles. The Vancouver Olympics proved both a high and a low point, celebrating her athletic career, but also showing the hurt that came from not having her achievements acknowledged by her alcoholic father.

From the Vancouver Olympics, Hughes circles back to her childhood in the Elmwood neighbourhood of Winnipeg, with her divorced parents and rebellious sister. Hughes shares the fact that she partied a lot, cutting school, drinking, and doing drugs. She gives only a very general description of her behaviour, offering few specific stories to bring it home and make it feel immediate. We get hints that her sister was also getting into trouble, but throughout the book Hughes protectively deflects attention away from her, trying hard to maintain her sister’s privacy while also acknowledging the impact of her troubled family environment. She is more open about her father, who died in 2013 of dementia, a life-long alcoholic.

In 1988, watching Gaétan Boucher skate for Canada at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary inspired Hughes to take up the sport. However, this only lasted a year before her coach moved to Ontario. The significance of a coach will be no surprise to any sports fan, and Hughes highlights it repeatedly throughout the book. Her next coach would shape her into an Olympic-calibre cyclist, but also crush her spirits and injure her body with his brutal methods, permanently tainting her love of cycling, and leaving her feeling like she was “rotting from the inside.”

In many ways, taking up sports was only trading one form of self-abuse for another, something it takes Hughes many pages to finally acknowledge outright. Whereas before she was using drugs and alcohol to mask her pain, sports created a socially acceptable way for her to drown emotional pain with physical pain, through brutal training regimens, and disordered eating. Cutting would have been frowned upon, but grueling workouts were a sign of dedication in an athlete. Closely controlled diets were also to be expected. Even as she writes, Hughes seems to be struggling to come to grips with the way her greatest achievements were also expressions of self-hatred. This is less surprising when you realize that she was still struggling to accept help for herself even while she was serving as the public face of a campaign to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. Her reluctance about medication is evident, and she repeatedly uses the word “crazy” in a way some readers may find off-putting.

One thing this book does very well is demonstrate that depression isn’t about causes. Hughes acknowledges the damage her coach did, while also noting that finally leaving him didn’t fix her. She shares meeting her husband, the man who would support her through all her ups and downs, but admits that love couldn’t fix her either. She pushed herself to extremes in training, becoming known as an endurance athlete, but even Olympic medals couldn’t instill self-worth. She got out of a sport she hated to pursue the one she originally fell in love with, but still fell back into partying and alcohol when the strain of the sporting lifestyle took its toll. She isn’t miraculously cured by sports (quite the contrary) or anything else, for that matter. Open Heart, Open Mind is part of the journey of coming to terms with living with depression.

___

More Canadian Biography:

Cover image for The Reason You Walk by Wab Kinew The Reason You Walk by Wab Kinew

 

Love, Loss, and What We Ate

Cover image for Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmiby Padma Lakshmi

ISBN 978-0-06-220261-1

“I didn’t know then, of course, that the crossing from New Delhi to New York was more than a crossing of oceans and continents; it was a crossing of cultures, of lifestyles, of ways of being and knowing. I would be debarking in a New World. I would never be fully at home in India again or ever fully at home in America. I couldn’t have looked back, even if I had thought to.”

Padma Lakshmi has had a varied career. In her twenties she was a model, and then a television host and actress. She published a cookbook about what she ate to lose weight after a movie role required her to put on twenty pounds, and as a result made the improbable transition from model to foodie, co-hosting the popular cooking competition Top Chef. Love, Loss, and What We Ate is a chronicle of the role food has played in her life, through times of love, and times of loss, and how she navigated the jump from a career that was based on her looks to one that engaged her heart and her mind. From a childhood in India, to an early adulthood spent traveling Europe, to a second career in America, she shows how food can be a source of comfort, a connection to identity, and an occasion to examine our biases about beauty.

Lakshmi begins at an ending, with her divorce from the famous Indian author Salman Rushdie after eight years together. Rushdie was twenty years her senior, and she was his fourth wife. Stepping back in time to their meeting and courtship, she shows how his intellect and smart circle of friends appealed to her at a time when she was looking for something more substantial than modeling in her life. Rushdie gave his much more critical account of this time in his own memoir, Joseph Anton, characterizing Lakshmi as ambitious and moody. Here Lakshmi provides her own side of the story, recounting her deep insecurities about trying to launch a new career after leaving modeling, and sharing her crushing diagnosis with advanced endometriosis. Taken together, the two books provide an account of how a marriage can fall apart, and as Lakshmi puts it, “at the end of a marriage, no one wins. There is only anger, sorrow, guilt, emptiness and defeat.”

It is easy to see how a career in modeling could make a person at once vain and insecure, hungry for approval and yet longing to live up to a higher standard. In her role as a host of Top Chef, Lakshmi faced pressures the other, male, hosts did not. Where they wore boxy suits, she had to don fashionable dresses. Eating all of the food they were judging would cause her to gain several sizes over the course of a season, something a suit could hide, but a dress did not. Whereas she felt the larger size fit an Indian standard of beauty, filling out a sari nicely, her television career was in North America, where she struggled to both do her job and “still look good by Western standards of beauty.” She describes how the two conflicting idea of beauty mingled “to create mutant, unachievable standards.” And this was the second time she had to confront such a contradiction; during her modeling career the source of her insecurity was the jagged scar on her right arm, the result of a surgery that saved the limb after a serious car accident.

Self-doubt was her emotional burden, but physically she was also carrying another cross. Anyone who has coped with chronic pain should be able to relate to Lakshmi’s very painful account of her diagnosis with endometriosis. Because her mother and grandmother had both suffered deeply with their periods, she was raised believing this was simply part of womanhood, and that she had to live with it. Although she had check-ups regularly, a diagnosis did not come until after one of the growths choked off an intestine, leading to hospitalization and surgery. Her account highlights just how difficult it can be for even a well-off person to get proper care for women’s issues that are considered distasteful. By that time, she had also lost part of an ovary, and a fallopian tube, imperiling her fertility.

Much of the book takes place in India, as Lakshmi travels back and forth for various occasions and family visits, though she last lived there when she was four. As a result, she “didn’t identify with the collective experience of children in either place” when she was growing up, and instead had “one foot in each culture, but no firm footing in either of them.” Yet India is obviously deeply important to her, influencing her cooking and her traditions. Though she no longer keeps vegetarian, and repeatedly describes herself as largely secular, as the book goes on it is clear that she is still holding on to Indian religious traditions emotionally if not always practically. On her way to India for a ceremony where her daughter would eat solid food for the first time, the baby accidentally drank some beef broth. Not only was her first non-milk food not vegetarian, it was from the flesh of a sacred animal no less. Lakshmi describes this as “karmic retribution for all the bodies of animals I had consumed in my life and career in food.” Underneath her pragmatism and ambition there is a deeply superstitious person. This is evident once again in her account of the birth of her daughter, after which Lakshmi decided to consume her placenta.

Lakshmi has published two recipe books since embarking on her culinary career, but Love, Loss, and What We Ate isn’t really one. She includes the occasional recipe, but this book is far more about our relationship to food than the food itself. Lakshmi admits that the few recipes that are included, “especially for an Indian market, they are kind of basic.” But they are obviously her comfort foods, that ones that have deep emotional connections to significant moments in her life. They include the applesauce she made for a sick loved one as he underwent chemotherapy, and the kumquat chutney that was the first thing that she cooked, alone in her new apartment, after her divorce.

Structurally speaking, Love, Loss, and What We Ate  follows the common hook of starting at a critical moment and then circling back in time, but the progression from that point is not plodding or strictly chronological. Lakshmi freely connects related ideas and memories across time. When she takes her first flight in a private jet, this leads her to reminisce about the crossing she made from New Delhi to New York when she was four years old, to join her mother in America. Lakshmi not only recounts events, she gives a deep impression of their emotional significance, and their broader place in a culture that values thin, light-skinned, female bodies, and pretends they never bleed.

___

Cover image for Redefining Realness by Janet Mock You might also like Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

Reasons to Stay Alive

Cover image for Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haigby Matt Haig

ISBN 978-0-14-312872-4

“Read anything you want. Just read. Books are possibilities. They are escape routes. They give you options when you have none. Each one can be a home for an uprooted mind.”

Matt Haig and his girlfriend Andrea were spending the summer in Ibiza, working at one of the island’s biggest party destinations when the otherwise reasonably healthy twenty-four year old suffered a mental breakdown, consisting of depression, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts. He had perhaps been drinking too much, and sleeping too little, but the severity of the breakdown seemed out of all proportion to anything that had gone before. After a few very intense days, he found himself standing on the edge of a cliff, contemplating ending his life. In retrospect, there were a few warning signs, but nothing that would have stuck out without the breakdown. From the distance of fourteen years, Haig recounts the experience, and the slow road back to mental and physical health. Presented in a variety of essays, lists, and anecdotes, it offers small, accessible pieces to help digest a difficult topic.

In general this book is much more about the experience of depression in its various stages than about recovery from it. Doctor’s visits, therapy, and medication are mentioned much more passingly. The sections about getting better seem to focus more on self-care. Haig credits not taking pills with being alert enough to observe what made him feel better, or worse, and then act accordingly. He obviously has a complex and conflicted relationship with medication. Early on he states, with several qualifiers, “I am reluctant to come out and be all anti-pills because I know for some people some pills work.” His own recovery took place over a period of years, largely unaided by medication because the thought of taking anything that might alter his mind (potentially making things worse) triggered a panic attack. His depression only allowed him to imagine the worst case scenario of things getting even darker, because it stole the belief that better was possible. The problem was so pronounced that he describes swallowing an ibuprofen as feeling like he had taken “an overdose of methamphetamine.” But over the course of the book, it does seem that his difficulty goes a little beyond that to a general suspicion of pharmaceuticals, and a desire to experiment with alternative medicines. The first suggested book in the Further Reading section at the end is Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre.

When Haig suffered his breakdown, he was in a foreign country with only his girlfriend. Fortunately, she had the strength to drag him to a doctor, pack up their life in Ibiza, resist the pressures of an employer who wanted her to send him home alone, and get both of them back to England where they had a support system.  As someone who has supported loved ones struggling with mental health issues, but never battled them myself, I related particularly strongly to Andrea. I read this book hoping to better understand what it is like to experience depression and anxiety, but also found someone who demonstrated the empathy and resourcefulness we all hope to find in ourselves if faced with the same challenge. Haig both dedicates the book to her, and spends a good number of pages showing how she was instrumental to his recovery.

Haig is a writer, so it is perhaps unsurprising that books were another major pillar of his recovery. Early on, he was too anxious and unfocused to be able to read, and so his illness also stole one of his greatest pleasures from him, one more casualty of a disease that tried to take everything. When he began to feel a little better, he reclaimed that aspect of himself with a vengeance, devouring books as if they were sustenance. Books “weren’t a luxury good during that time.”  Well enough to feel isolated, but still too ill to feel at ease among people outside his family, books were his  “way out of being lonely.”

Reasons to Stay Alive is an account of Haig’s individual experience, however, he sometimes speaks about depression more broadly. A frequently highlighted passage of the book reads “If you have ever believed a depressive wants to be happy, you are wrong. They could not care less about the luxury of happiness. They just want to feel an absence of pain.” But he does also acknowledge unique experiences of depression up front, writing “there is no right or wrong way to have depression or to have a panic attack, or feel suicidal.” Given the overwhelming number of depressed or anxious readers who have praised Haig for capturing their own experiences, this seems like a strong pick for both those who have experienced the illness, and their friends and family who want to better understand it.

___

Cover image for Marbles by Ellen Forney You might also like Marbles by Ellen Forney