David Kushner’s early childhood was near idyllic. Born in 1968 to observant Jewish parents with liberal ideals, Kushner and his two older brothers Jon and Andy had license to roam free in their Tampa suburb. Days were filled with bike rides, games and exploration of the natural world that surrounded both their home and school. But one October afternoon, Jon took a solo ride to the 7-Eleven to buy Snappy Gator Gum for David and himself. He never returned. Alligator Candy: A Memoir is the story of the tragedy that affected not only the Kushner family, but the entire community.
David, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, a journalism professor at Princeton and an author of several nonfiction titles, tells this deeply personal story with candor and generosity. What does he remember about the last time he saw his brother alive, and can he trust that memory? Would Jon be alive today if almost-5-year-old David hadn’t asked for that gum? The rest of his life from that point forward, was marked by having a brother who had been abducted and murdered. Childhood was no longer safe; his bogeyman was real. Actually, he had two bogeymen — the men who had confessed to treating his brother in a way that was far worse than anything he’d heard from his old edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
How does a family move on? Kushner credits his parents for allowing him and his older brother the freedom to move beyond the fear, to continue to have as normal a childhood as possible. He acknowledges his Jewish faith, but most importantly the community that came forward to support his family from the moment Jon went missing. As he got older, he knew his memories of his brother’s murder were incomplete, and much of what he thought he knew was based on a combination of overheard conversations, conjecture and rumors. And although he craved answers to what was a mystery to him, he didn’t want to subject his parents to painful recollections.
At 13, he went to the library to request microfilm of The Tampa Tribune from October 1973. What he read satisfied his need for more information, but also led to further questions. One fact remained: He was becoming a man, a bar mitzvah, while Jon would forever remain a boy. Kushner talks about other famous cases involving missing and brutalized children, explaining how laws have come into being as a result. An existing legal loophole allowed for a parole hearing for one of Jon’s killers, compelling David and Andy to testify. The thought of this man possibly getting out into the world was stupefying. The family found justice and some solace in knowing the mastermind of the crime had been executed under the death penalty.
Alligator Candy is a memoir that marks a lifetime of remembering, searching and gathering. The processing will always continue. Kushner's evocative prose took me back to my own early '70s childhood, with just the right period details and nostalgia. Despite its difficult topic, Alligator Candy is compulsively readable and highly recommended.
Memoirs are a popular form of bibliotherapy, not only for the authors who find therapy in sharing their thoughts and words, but also for the readers who are lucky enough to come across the right one at just the right time. This is the case for Reasons to Stay Alive, a kind of hybrid self-help/memoir by British novelist Matt Haig. Even if you’ve never experienced clinical depression, it’s certain that someone in your life is struggling with it right now.
Haig’s warm confessional tone and conversational prose makes this an easy book to pick up, despite its heavy subject matter. The author recalls a moment at age 24 when a thought led to a strange, tingling sensation in his head that was followed by an immediate, suffocating state of depression — anxiety and anguish so horrific that the only way he felt he could deal with it was to end his life. Haig lays out what it’s like to fight battle upon battle in your own mind, barely making it from one day to the next. He also shares the things that saved him, his own “reasons to stay alive,” which included his family and the dedicated girlfriend who eventually became his wife. Haig allows that while he has come a long way from this lowest point, he hasn’t completely gotten over depression, and never will. He shares his coping mechanisms, but is forthright in telling readers that depression is not the same for everyone, as minds are unique.
He informs readers that depression is one of the most deadly diseases on the planet, and that suicide accounts for over one in every hundred fatalities in the U.S. and the U.K. He speaks from personal experience when he says that, despite this statistic, “people still don’t think that depression really is that bad.” This accounts for various unhelpful directives he’s been given along the way, like “Chin up!” and “Mind over matter!”. These fall under a chapter entitled “Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations.”
Reasons to Stay Alive takes on its delicate subject matter with heart and humor, giving readers a sure-fire gambit for starting conversations about what it means to battle depression. Matt Haig’s honesty and candor are a welcome gift.
Film critic Owen Gleiberman, best known for his two-decade stint at Entertainment Weekly, reflects on his passion-turned-career in Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies. His movie obsession began in the late 1960s when his parents loaded him and his younger siblings into the family Buick for a night at the drive-in outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The experience held a “disturbingly sinister excitement” for the young Gleiberman, who was just seven years-old. Did his father choose wholesome family viewing? Oh, no — these were movies HE wanted to see, with no regard for whether they were appropriate for his young children. Gleiberman recalls many adult-oriented drive-in movies he experienced as a third-grader, most notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Boston Strangler. Although they never discussed these films afterward, the experience made him feel closer to his distant parents.
By junior high he was addicted to monster movies, and then in high school he gravitated to scandalous films like Last Tango in Paris and A Clockwork Orange, which left a big impression. But the movie that shifted his entire worldview was John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, which he admits scared the “bejesus” out of him, and fulfilled his craziest drive-in dreams for the extreme.
His first forays into criticism came during college at The University of Michigan. He was obsessive in his film viewing, referring to it as “the religion that sustained me.” He muses that the true movie buff leads a solitary existence, even when they are with other people. Movies help you leave yourself behind, and the essential experience has almost nothing to do with the quality of what you’re seeing.
Readers who love pop culture will enjoy Movie Freak. Gleiberman has always been a critic who speaks his own mind, proud of the fact that he doesn’t go along with the crowd when it comes to his reviews. He isn’t swayed by the Hollywood machine — he calls it as he sees it, even when that leaves him as odd man out, as it did when he panned the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere romantic comedy Pretty Woman. He is proud of championing indie films like the documentary Crumb, and unapologetic in his general dislike of foreign films.
Digressions into his personal life could have been left out, but when Gleiberman sticks to the business of Hollywood and the changing face of film criticism in the time of relentless blogging and social media, Movie Freak shines.
In the small Kentucky town where the miner’s son grew up to be a miner and the bootlegger’s son grew up to be a bootlegger, no one was surprised when the writer’s son grew up to be a writer in Chris Offutt’s new memoir My Father, the Pornographer.
Imagine that your father dies and you, as the eldest son, are tasked with the responsibility of cleaning out his office. Now imagine discovering that your father, who passed himself off as a science fiction writer, also wrote hundreds of pornographic novels. After clearing out decades’ worth of garbage and searching the vents for hidden treasure that turns out to be nothing more than his father’s last practical joke, Offutt quickly realizes that his father’s writing career wasn’t merely supplemented by pornography — it was the bulk of it. In an attempt to understand his deceased father’s perverse obsessions, he packs and transports nearly two tons of his father’s work from his childhood home to his current residence in Mississippi.
But more than just a story of Andrew Offutt’s career as a pornographer, this is also the tale of Chris Offutt’s childhood and a meditation on his contentious relationship with his father. As Offutt acts as archeologist, reconstructing his father’s career and life, he realizes just how much they have in common. Offutt is struck by his father’s unique writing method: He kept a catalog of descriptions filed under various (frequently vulgar) categories and when writing a novel he plugged the passages in where needed. When the younger Offutt considered joining the military, he prepared for basic training by filling a notebook with amusing anecdotes pilfered from Reader’s Digest’s “Humor in Uniform,” divided into specific categories, that he could pass off as his own experiences in letters he wrote to his family back home. Although he himself is not a purveyor of pornography, Offutt is dismayed at the similarities he finds. He isn’t sure what he hopes to learn from immersing himself in his father’s “private and unfiltered fantasies,” but the deeper he digs, the harder it is to walk away.
For another memoir about the father/son relationship, check out Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.
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.
Video gaming is one of the most rapidly growing and ever evolving hobbies of the 21st century. The gaming industry grosses more money each year than the movie and music industries combined. With figures like this, it’s no surprise that a gaming counterculture has arisen, eager to create and share games that shun traditional styles in favor of a more indie appeal. In The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture, notable game designers, players and critics sound off their opinions on the current trends and directions of both the AAA and indie game movements.
One of the topics most frequently discussed in The State of Play is the concept of player identity. Evan Narcisse’s “The Natural,” Hussein Ibrahim’s “What It Feels Like to Play the Bad Guy,” and Anita Sarkeesian and Katherine Cross’ “Your Humanity Is in Another Castle” all make great arguments for more diversity in every aspect of the characters players control and interact with.
Zoe Quinn, creator of the notable indie game Depression Quest, details her harrowing experiences developing, launching and living through her game and gives readers a glimpse into what it was like to come under fire during the infamous #Gamergate movement of late 2014. Merritt Kopas’ essay “Ludus Interruptus” makes a great argument for much more open-minded views of sexuality and acts of sex in Western gaming. Despite making massive strides in both technical and creative compositions in the past few years, video games have still remained very old-fashioned when it comes to sex and how it’s initiated, portrayed and perceived in media.
Readers who identify as gamers or are interested in the increasingly complex culture of video games should read The State of Play. Games are currently one of the most powerful creative mediums for expression, offering users the chance to become fully immersed in their experiences through interaction. The State of Play is a fantastic, unprecedented collection of reflective literature on different experiences from every angle. Every essay is spliced with Internet links and footnotes leading to resources for further exploration, and there is much to be learned.
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.