Category General Nonfiction

Conform or Die: The Maoist Travail of Anchee Min’s “Red Azalea”

There was a saying that made the rounds back in the day (and daze) of the late ’70s, courtesy of the Grateful Dead’s second album, “What a Long Strange Trip It Has Been.” Having now read Anchee Min’s harrowing, urgent memoir of her experience in China during Chairman Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” of roughly the same era, I am here to say: The Grateful Dead don’t know squat about “long strange trips.”

Originally published in the United Kingdom in 1993 and the U.S. a year later, “Red Azalea” is the kind of coming-of-age story that is initially much less about triumph than it is about mere survival.

By the end of her tale, that survival nevertheless qualifies as triumph aplenty, given the travails she contends with and eventually escapes from in the merciless, rigidly proscribed world engineered by the personality cult that was Mao Zedong. Mao founded the modern “People’s Republic of China” in...

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Answering Alzheimer’s: Amy Bloom’s “In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss”

Amy Bloom gets right down to it in her 2022 memoir, “In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss.” The city of Zurich and the fact of her husband Brian’s Alzheimer’s disease comes up in the first paragraph as the couple boards a plane headed to that Swiss city. Their purpose for the trip is revealed in the fourth paragraph, which begins with these two stout declarative sentences:

“Dignitas’s office is in Zurich, and that’s where we’re headed. Dignitas is a Swiss nonprofit organization offering accompanied suicide.”

Through the subsequent 200+ pages, the multi-talented, much-honored Bloom (novels, short stories, non-fiction, journalism, children’s books, screenplays, television scripts, college professorships, longtime clinical social worker) takes us along with her on that journey whose end she telegraphs to us in the book’s opening lines.

She does so by skillfully moving back and forth in time in short chapters th...

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Great Art From Bad People: Claire Dederer’s “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma”

The theme, rendered in the form of a question, recurs over and over again in the history of the arts: Why are so many creative geniuses such terrible, mean-spirited human beings? Then the second question rising from its wake, forcing a decision by all admirers of any given artist’s work: “Can I still love the art if I come to hate the artist for all his misdeeds?”

(I use the masculine pronoun there with purpose, given that most artists whose creations have been admitted to the canon of so-called Great Works over the centuries have been male [and been chosen by other males, surprise surprise!]. That bare and sorry fact means vastly more of them present the archetype of the rebellious, inner-directed artist than do women, and do so in a much more dramatic, outward-bound way.)

The critic (and creative artist in her own right) Claire Dederer has been rolling these questions over in her fertile mind for man...

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A Larger Vision: Frank Bruni’s “The Beauty of Dusk”

“We have no control over what happens to us; we have enormous control over what happens to us. I’ll spend the rest of my life better understanding and better accepting that paradox, which I understand and accept better today than I did before October, 2017, before that first day of incomprehensible blur, before an education in neuro-ophthalmology that became an education in so much more.”

That sentence near the end of “New York Times” columnist-turned-college-professor Frank Bruni’s 2022 memoir, “The Beauty of Dusk,” underpins most all the reflections on his ongoing experience of a rare stroke that robs him of vision in one eye and forces him to live under a portentous cloud of possibility that his other eye may suffer the same fate. It could happen at any time for the rest of his life, his doctors tell him, and it would leave him functionally blind.

Or if his luck holds, it may not happen at all.


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Two Black Men Learn to Read…and the Rest Is History

In case you didn’t recognize it, that’s a picture of an aardvark off to the left. Can’t say that I know or have ever thought much about aardvarks in my life, though the oddity of their physical appearance—halfway between a pig and an anteater, it seems to me—makes them worthy of at least some note.

But “aardvark” is important here for an entirely different reason: As the first actual word in the English dictionary, it stood as a kind of gateway drug from which civil rights icon Malcolm X commenced, with an insatiable, addictive lust, one feverishly ingested word at a time, to devour the majesty of language and the reading, writing, thinking and speaking that are its constituent parts.

A  slave boy laden with bread, which he uses as currency to purchase literacy lessons from poor, under-nourished, ‘free’ white boys? We see Douglass here again soaring to visionary heights of perspective, while also swi...

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