The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams

Julie Yip-Williams always sensed that she was living on borrowed time. After she was born blind with cataracts in 1976 in Vietnam, her grandmother ordered her parents to take her to an herbalist to procure poison that would end Yip-Williams’ life. Thankfully, the herbalist refused. Yip-Williams went on to live an extraordinary life until she died of colon cancer at age 42 on March 19, 2018. Her book, The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After, is equally exceptional.

After immigrating to America as a child, Yip-Williams underwent surgery that restored partial sight. She later graduated from Harvard Law School, traveled the world alone, married, had two daughters and worked at a prestigious New York City law firm, only to be diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in 2013. Her exquisite, honest memoir about living with and dying of cancer is equal parts practical and philosophical.

Yip-Williams writes unflinchingly of learning to move forward with the disease. “Life can and does go on after an appalling diagnosis, even an incurable one,” she writes. She never sugarcoats, however. She purposefully aims “to depict the dark side of cancer and debunk the overly sweet, pink-ribbon facade of positivity and fanciful hope and rah-rah-rah nonsense spewed by cancer patients and others, which I have come to absolutely loathe.” She plans her death carefully, just as she planned her life, teaching her children not to be afraid, that death is part of life. In the last chapter she writes, “I have lived even as I am dying, and therein lies a certain beauty and wonder.”

Full of love, humor, insight and tragedy, her book resonates with wisdom. As her husband so aptly notes, “For the little girl born blind, she saw more clearly than any of us.”

Hollywood's Eve by Lili Anolik

Hollywood's Eve by Lili Anolik

When Joan Didion’s iconic novel Play It as It Lays came out in 1970, it was widely hailed as the ultimate Los Angeles story. But Didion’s friend Eve Babitz didn’t see it that way: Didion was from Sacramento via New York; Babitz was the real LA woman. So she wrote her own book.

Her book of lightly fictionalized autobiographical sketches published in 1974, Eve’s Hollywood, didn’t get the notice that Didion’s work did, but it was fresh, witty and buzzy. More books followed—some great, some not. But then Babitz became a drug addict. And after she got clean, she suffered a life-changing accident. The books stopped coming.

Babitz is still very much alive at 75 and is enjoying being rediscovered, thanks largely to Lili Anolik’s 2014 Vanity Fair article about her. Anolik has now written a smart, fast-paced meditation on Babitz in Hollywood’s Eve. Unsurprisingly, Babitz remains a complicated subject. Here’s a fractional list of Babitz’s lovers, back in the day: Jim Morrison, Steve Martin, Jackson Browne, Ahmet Ertegun, Annie Leibovitz, Warren Zevon—and so on. She appears nude in a photo with Duchamp, playing chess. Igor Stravinsky was her godfather. For a while, her best friend was the guy who inspired BZ in Play It as It Lays.

But Anolik argues that Babitz’s va-va-voom looks and sexual adventurism belied brains and talent. All those men weren’t exploiting her; she was exploiting them for writing fodder, like Proust and his duchesses.

Anolik’s own writing is jazzy and insightful, and her quest to find Babitz—both physically and psychologically—is an integral part of the book. Anolik notes that many of Babitz’s contemporaries misread her as a 1960s Carrie Bradshaw, yet Anolik sees her as ruthless, unencumbered, unapologetic. In other words, an artist.

It Was All a Dream by Reniqua Allen

It Was All a Dream by Reniqua Allen

With the election of President Obama in 2009, many young black men and women saw hope in the promise of the American dream—the belief that hard work and unrelenting persistence guaranteed a seat at the table. But as the years passed, the envisioned path of upward mobility proved impassable. And yet, the reality of the lives of black millennials in a post-Obama nation isn’t a portrait of total despair. For Reniqua Allen, Eisner Fellow at the Nation Institute, the demystifying of the American dream represents a chance to abandon the expectations of white America and forge a new path. It Was All a Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promise to Black America is a portrait of young black people grappling with the enduring legacy of white supremacy. Combining nuanced reporting with the intimacies of personal experience, Allen showcases the lives of black millennials, which are rarely portrayed with accuracy in mainstream media.

Gathering the stories of more than 75 black Americans living everywhere from sprawling cities to contained suburbs, Allen dismantles the conditional terms of a lie that has been peddled for decades. The American dream says that the road to success is built upon meritocracy, but black millennials soon discovered that education alone couldn’t fully shatter institutional racism and systemic discrimination. Allen shares the experience of Michael, a former college athlete with a crippling amount of undergraduate student debt. Like many of his peers, Michael did everything “right.” But Michael lost his athletic scholarship due to injury before graduation. He was determined to finish his education, despite the mounting debt. Although he doesn’t consider his experience “a sob story,” it’s in line with the stories of many black Americans who followed the rules put in place by white America.

In this insightful book, the idea of the American dream is proven to be a fairy tale at best, and a nightmare at worst.

Queen Victoria by Lucy Worsley

Queen Victoria by Lucy Worsley

During her unprecedented 63-year reign, Queen Victoria grew up in front of the nation she led. After a gloomy and isolated childhood, she happily married her cousin Albert and gave birth to nine children. She reigned through multiple global conflicts and survived assassination attempts. Her popularity waxed and waned.

The subject of countless books, television shows and movies (who else has been portrayed by Emily Blunt and Dame Judy Dench?), Victoria is the very definition of an icon. Her correspondence and diaries have been pored over since her death in 1901 at age 81. But what is left to say about the much-documented life of Queen Victoria, perhaps the most scrutinized of monarchs?

Historian Lucy Worsley manages to offer a fresh look by focusing on 24 days throughout the monarch’s life. By zooming in on key dates to examine Victoria as a queen, wife and mother, the book is simultaneously fast-paced and substantial. Some scholars have tried to reframe Victoria as a feminist, a strong leader decades ahead of her time. But Worsley concludes Victoria was deeply traditional, gladly allowing Albert to influence her political decisions, parenting style and even home décor. Theirs was a complicated yet symbiotic relationship. Victoria struggled with depression, including after several of her pregnancies when she felt “lowness and tendency to cry.” Albert was a generally restrained man, and he encouraged Victoria to repress her own emotions. “Slowly, gradually, she began to check her feelings, to avoid angering or clashing with Albert,” Worsley writes. Victoria herself wrote, “My chief and great anxiety is—peace in the House. . . . God only knows how I love him. His position is difficult, heaven knows, and we must do everything to make it easier.”

Worsley’s portrait of the queen is unflinching. One can barely fault Victoria for being at times self-centered and bristly—her childhood was one marked by solitude and scheming adults who saw her as little more than a symbol of their own potential future power. Yet through Worsley’s clear-eyed and graceful writing, we also see a woman aiming to do right by her subjects and her family, even within the confines of the times.

Fault Lines by Kevin M. Kruse & Julian E. Zelizer

Fault Lines by Kevin M. Kruse & Julian E. Zelizer

When Americans woke up on November 7, 2016, it seemed as if we were not one country, but two. There were the red states and the blue states; the pro-Trumps and the anti-Trumps; the Republicans and the Democrats. In the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s election, it seems to some that we are no longer a united nation, but the uneasy yoking of enemy camps. However, in Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, Princeton professors Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer demonstrate that the current crisis is nothing new. Instead, it is the result of fissures that have been deepening for decades.

In the 1950s, there was an expectation that middle-class white men would be the dominant breadwinners, women would be relegated to the home, and people of color would continue to be treated as second-class citizens. However, as underrepresented groups demanded and fought for equal rights and opportunities, cracks in the status quo began to emerge—sometimes explosively. Like volcanic eruptions along a fault line, the Watts riots in LA, the Stonewall riots in New York City and the Kent State shootings were symptoms of a deeper schism. Aided by advances in technology such as the internet and cable news, along with a growing distrust of politicians in the wake of Watergate and subsequent scandals, the cracks deepened, and American opposition hardened into enmity. President Trump may very well be an accelerant of this process, but he is also a product of it.

Fault Lines started as a series of lectures by Kruse and Zelizer offered at Princeton. Judging from the resulting book, the class was no doubt a wonderful introduction to a critical era in our history. Even for those who lived through these events, Fault Lines gives brilliant context to help us understand how Americans have become so fragmented and rigid in our beliefs. Perhaps, with understanding, we can begin to soften our divisions and heal.

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