When Ranya Idliby’s daughter was in grade school, she asked whether, as Muslims, they celebrated Christmas or Hanukkah. The question made Ranya think about her own faith and wonder why she knew so little about other religions. She recruited two other suburban moms—Suzanne Oliver, a devout Christian who had been raised Catholic but had converted to the Episcopal Church, and Priscilla Warner, who defined her Jewishness more as a cultural imperative than a religious one—to write a children’s book with her about the similarities, differences, and connections between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
One day in the spring of 1995, when Frank McCourt was sixty-four years old, I received a box from literary agent Molly Friedrich, containing the first 159 pages of the memoir ANGELA’S ASHES. Several of us read the pages, as Frank would say, with alacrity. And loved them, swiftly seduced by the opening sentences: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived it all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood; the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.”
Over the course of my lifetime, several noteworthy relationship guides have emerged from a generally uninspiring landscape. In the early ’90s, it was MEN ARE FROM MARS, WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS. If you came of age in the early aughts, you had HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU. Until now, that was my personal bible on matters of the heart (it’s EMPOWERING, okay?). But then, on a sunny day in June 2015, came the relationship book to end all relationship books: Aziz Ansari’s MODERN ROMANCE.
Alexander Hamilton’s life is perhaps best known for its end: he was mortally wounded in a duel with political rival Aaron Burr. But his personal life and political achievements are fascinating, impressive, and—until recently—underappreciated. Here is a man who, though featured on our ten-dollar bill, many Americans know little about. I was certainly one of them for many years.
I’ve spent much of my twenties trying to come to terms with my awkwardness, cringing months—years, even—after any given social misstep. Enter Issa Rae, the queen of graceless girls like me. Her web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” and hilarious resulting memoir provide an uncannily accurate and helpful guide for navigating the world as an awkward black girl.
Cleopatra: A Life, like all good nonfiction, sticks to the facts and avoids exaggeration. Yet it still reads as part drama, part farce, part tragedy, part thriller, and part romance, bringing new meaning to the old adage, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”
In the mid-1980s my new assistant came to Simon & Schuster from a law firm in Atlanta that specialized in entertainment law. Together, we went over the firm’s list of clients and agreed that one we most wanted to sign up for Simon & Schuster was Miles Davis. I had long been a fan of Miles’s music. As it turned out, Miles was ready to tell his story. Before long we had his autobiography under contract, pending a meeting in person.
After a long illness, my mother died when I was twenty. When your mother dies when you are young, every day is Mother’s Day. When someone hurts your feelings, you think of how she’d comfort you, if she were here. You fall in love, you fall out of love, you marry, you have children, you get a promotion, you are laid off, and you think of her. Unless you can’t forgive her for leaving too soon, you will idealize her love and kindness for all time to come.
In my bookstore, when I pull The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman off the shelf for a prospective reader, I usually say that it’s my wife’s favorite book ever, which it is, or at least was the last time I badgered her to choose (she doesn’t like declaring favorites as much as I do). But really it’s one of mine, too.
In the fall of 1991, I was working on the side of freeways in and around Salt Lake City planting trees. Planting trees sounds a bit glamourous to the uninitiated, or it did to me. I pictured forests, a small shovel, and little saplings to tuck in the ground.