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Growing up in Florida, with roots in Puerto Rico and Nicaragua, Edgar Gomez was confronted very early in his life by a culture of machismo—a glorified, aggressive masculine pride. Within such a culture, “men must marry, spawn children, and head their households.” If it weren’t for his queerness, Gomez writes, “which made many of the benefits awarded to men who uphold machismo unappealing, I would have likely accepted them without question.” With alternating notes of gut-wrenching emotion and humor, High-Risk Homosexual chronicles not only Gomez’s coming-of-age and coming out, but also his choppy navigation of a culture and family that refused to accept him.

Much of Gomez’s memoir recounts his struggles to find guides to help him growing up, gay and Latinx in a world that often violently rejected gay men. His mother and stepfather couldn’t live with the thought that Gomez was gay. His uncles tried to “reform” him by setting him up with a woman one night after a cockfight. Along the way, Gomez found solace in conversations with trans women in Nicaragua, with people in the Castro District in San Francisco and with drag queens at gay clubs in Miami and Orlando—including at Pulse, before the shootings that killed 49 people and wounded 53.

It was when he visited his college health clinic that he was dubbed a “high-risk homosexual” for sleeping with more than two sexual partners a week—a label he knew would not be applied to people who had a similar number of opposite-sex partners per week—and given pills to mitigate HIV. When he learned that taking the pills might be more dangerous than the disease, he dumped them down the toilet and vowed to “live a life that acknowledges [AIDS] as a possible outcome.” Gomez concludes that “what you do when you’re not afraid anymore is the same thing you do when you are: keep going.”

In High-Risk Homosexual, Gomez’s incandescent prose flickers with an intensity that illuminates his insecurities, his disappointments and his courage.

Edgar Gomez’s incandescent prose flickers with an intensity that illuminates his insecurities, his disappointments and his courage.

Reading Jami Attenberg is like hanging out with a friend who encourages you—through their own example—to be your messy, vibrant, glorious self. Attenberg’s voice is equal parts wise auntie and wise-ass, sincere and profane, whether on social media or in any of her seven increasingly well-received novels (most recently, All This Could Be Yours in 2019). With I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home, Attenberg turns to memoir to explore the hustle and chutzpah with which she has built a successful career as a working writer.

Writing isn’t magic, but it can do magical things. The preface to I Came All This Way to Meet You reminds us of this in an inspiring manifesto about the power of committing to the work of writing. Creating a life of travel and work, rather than a life more domestic and rooted, requires creativity and grit, especially as we age, and especially for women. For Attenberg, in lieu of traditional stability, writing became the portable home she always returned to.

Attenberg’s travels around the country to promote her books form the backbone of this book, which is written as a series of short, interlinked essays that touch on themes of work, solitude, friendship, heartbreak, risk and itinerancy. A stunning scene in a chapel constructed out of bones in Portugal exemplifies the beauty and peril of the writer’s life. Communing with the dead offers the writer stories and companionship; connecting with the living can be far more difficult.

Attenberg’s memoir ends in New Orleans, that magical city of eccentricity and art, where she has only recently created a home for herself and her dog, Sid. The “ultimate privilege,” Attenberg finds, is to have a house she can open up to visiting friends, returning the favor from her own periods of wandering. Attenberg extends this hospitality to her readers, too, as she invites us into this funny, perceptive portrait of a life well-lived.

Jami Attenberg’s voice is equal parts wise auntie and wise-ass as she explores the hustle and chutzpah with which she built her successful writing career.

Pulitzer Prize winner and New Yorker staff writer Kathryn Schulz’s first memoir, Lost & Found, is an eloquent meditation inspired by the end of her father’s life and the beginning of the romance that led to her marriage. This probing, multifaceted exploration of two universal phenomena—grief and love—is both a revealing account of defining moments in Schulz’s life and an eloquent map of the pathways connecting them to our shared human experience.

In the first section of the book, Schulz’s reflections on the profound grief provoked by the peaceful passing of the man she describes as “part Socrates, part Tevye,” at the end of a decade of slowly failing health, illuminate the “essential, avaricious nature of loss.” She examines the complexity and uniqueness of each person’s bereavement, giving the lie to clichés like “moving on” and “closure” that are offered to comfort those in mourning. “Everything felt fragile, everything felt vulnerable,” she observes; “the idea of loss pressed in all around me, like a hidden order to existence that emerged only in the presence of grief.”

The poignancy of these reminiscences is more than balanced by the exuberant account of Schulz’s love affair with C. in the second section of the book. Though C. is a fellow writer, she is also a woman whose cultural roots—as a devout Lutheran from Maryland’s Eastern Shore—are so different from Schulz’s—a nonpracticing Jew from Cleveland—that Mars and Venus can barely encompass them. The affectionately candid story of their instantaneous attachment and deepening relationship allows Schulz to probe some of the ineffable mysteries of human attraction and ponder the wild improbability that two people ever find each other and fall in love.

Concluding her memoir with a section entitled “And,” Schulz skillfully melds the two profound subjects that animate her story, attempting to reconcile herself to an undeniable reality at the heart of life’s beauty and pain: our limitless capacity to love, undiminished by the inescapable knowledge that one day every one of us will inevitably lose all we cherish. “Of every kind of ‘and’ that we experience,” she writes, “I find this one the most acute—the awareness that our love, in all its many forms, is bound inseparably to our grief.”

Discoursing knowledgeably and often with good humor on subjects that include etymology, poetry, natural history, psychology and more, Schulz displays a capacious intelligence matched only by her boundless curiosity and insight. Lost & Found is a beautiful, life-affirming book that passionately embraces some of the deepest questions of human existence in the fullness of their sorrow and joy.

Lost & Found is a beautiful, life-affirming memoir about love and grief that passionately embraces some of the deepest questions of human existence.

Motherhood is a joyful gift, from a cooing baby’s first smile to a tottering toddler’s first steps, through the school-age years and into adulthood. Yet accompanying this amazing gift is perhaps the worst fear imaginable: that something could happen to your child. This worry resides in the back of every mother’s mind, simmering like a bubbling stew, punching through the joy when a child is sick, injured or suffering.

In her debut memoir, This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown, Taylor Harris beautifully and heartbreakingly describes how this fear struck like a lightning bolt when her son Tophs began to experience a string of health issues that baffled medical experts. She struggled through the highs and lows of one diagnosis after another, all while coping with her own anxiety disorder and the systemic racism that, as a Black woman living in Charlottesville, Virginia, obstructed her path to accessing the best medical care for herself and her son. Tophs underwent test after test, including genetic testing that revealed the presence of a dreaded gene in their family.

Harris lays all these cards on the table, telling her story with raw candor and wit. She delves into her childhood experiences with anxiety and the subsequent assistance that helped her cope, including both counseling and medicine. These honest revelations provide a touchstone to her experiences as an adult, especially the unbelievable stress she faced while dealing with the unknown.

As a result, This Boy We Made is many books in one, combining elements of science and medicine, mental health and wellness, parenting principles and institutional racism. Fusing all these themes together in an entertaining and thoughtful way would seem an exhausting task, yet Harris does it with honesty and grace. With descriptive, poetic prose, her authentic message commands the reader’s full attention.

Taylor Harris beautifully describes how fear struck like a lightning bolt when her son began to experience baffling health issues.

For Tarana Burke, the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017 was a unique emotional journey. As the founder of the movement, she reacted to the use of the hashtag on social media—initially without her awareness or involvement—with alarm, dismay and fear. But she soon moved beyond her protective instinct to a place of gratitude and openness, as she recognized how people were benefiting from the phrase’s transformative power. 

Burke narrates these moments in her memoir, Unbound (7 hours), then goes back in time to her childhood experience of sexual assault and her journey to liberation and activism. Her steady, grounded voice commands the listener’s attention and moves us through time, through emotions, through visceral experiences and psychological breakthroughs. The pain, confusion, vulnerability and, ultimately, power in her story are rendered all the more potent and compelling by her confident voice, distinguishing Burke as a woman who has found her strength and her path to help others heal. This is a listening experience not to be missed.

Read our starred review of the print edition of ‘Unbound.’

In the audio edition of Unbound, the pain, confusion, vulnerability and power in Tarana Burke’s story are rendered all the more potent by her confident voice.

Jordan Salama, a 2019 Princeton University graduate and journalist, comes by his travel instincts honestly. His great-great-great-grandfather led a thousand camels along the Silk Road to trade goods in Iraq, Syria and Iran; his great-grandfather, a Syrian Jewish immigrant to Argentina, rode on horseback through the Andes as an itinerant salesman; and his father became a physician in Buenos Aires before migrating to New York City. Their stories, passed down through generations of a family that spoke “a spellbinding mix of English, Spanish, and Arabic,” have inspired Salama’s own explorations, including the one he describes in Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena.

The Magdalena River, which is over 900 miles long and Colombia’s principal waterway, links the country’s diverse interior to the Caribbean Sea. It has long been a vital transportation mainstay, used and abused by the Colombian government, global industry, paramilitaries, guerillas, migrants, fishers and environmentalists alike. In 2016 the government signed a wobbly peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and other guerilla armies, but the river’s future viability remains as unclear as its sediment-stacked waters. Salama is intent on learning everything he can, while he still can, about this endangered, legendary river that threads its way through Colombia’s history and people.

The Magdalena is central to many tales, both in fiction, as in the novels of Colombia’s revered author Gabriel García Márquez, and in the true stories Salama hears as he follows the river’s course from beginning to end. The people he meets and travels with share their experiences—from a jeweler selling silver filigree flowers, to a teacher delivering books to rural children via his two donkeys (Alfa and Beto), to the ill-fated anthropologist and activist Luis Manuel Salamanca, to Alvarito, the village kite master. They are, Salama writes, “ordinary people working tirelessly to preserve the natural/cultural treasures of a country much maligned by war,” and their fates are interwoven with the Magdalena.

Then there are the runaway hippopotamuses. Imported from Africa for the private zoo of notorious drug king Pablo Escobar, the hippos fled after Escobar’s murder in 1993 and now make the Magdalena and its tributaries their home. They have multiplied and spread over the past three decades, and they will pursue and attack any intruders. As Salama ventures deeper into Colombia, he can’t wait to find them.

By the time Salama ends his riveting journey, scrambling across the treacherous rocks where the Magdalena River meets the Caribbean Sea, he has already enticed readers to follow him on his next one.

Jordan Salama is intent on learning everything he can about the legendary Magdalena River, which threads its way through Colombia’s history and people.

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