Morgan Jerkins' first essay collection is a reflection on her life and how identifying as black, a woman, and a feminist have affected her. Each essay reveals to her readers an intimate look at her life and her vulnerability. As someone who greatly enjoys personal essays, I related to many of her experiences ranging from street harassment to being a black woman in an Ivy League university.
After three successful books, all of which offered fake news and invented facts in almanac form, John Hodgman has produced a largely autobiographical work. Vacationland consists of a collection of essay-type stories that chart Hodgman’s progress through both time and space, tracking his experience from childhood to his forties and his movement from his youth in western Massachusetts to his later forays in Maine. His topics range widely, from such major themes as death, drugs, and adulthood, to such particulars as the singular lack of appeal of Maine’s beaches, the horrors of freshwater clams, and the purpose of the mustache. The book is filled with hilarious asides, wry anecdotes, self-deprecating quips, and whimsical observations, but the overall image of Hodgman that emerges is of a middle-aged guy struggling with the realities of aging and trying to make sense of the absurdities of life.
Manal al-Sharif’s journey in Saudi Arabia, as told in her memoir, Daring to Drive (Simon & Schuster, $26), is an extraordinary story of perseverance and transformation. Her book begins with al-Sharif’s arrest in the Saudi city of Khobar for driving while being a woman. As the events unfold, al-Sharif makes the danger she faced quite clear. A lone woman in the Saudi criminal justice system has few allies or resources, to say nothing of rights. She leaves us in suspense concerning the outcome of her trial in order to recount how she became a feminist activist. Al-Sharif endured poverty and abuse in Mecca. Over the years her burgeoning sense of self, especially as it was expressed through art and literature, was squashed under the heel of an ultra-conservative Saudi interpretation of Islam. Amazingly, all was not lost. Slowly al-Sharif became an opponent of oppression. She got an education. She learned the skills needed to obtain a highly technical job in Saudi Aramco, the nationalized oil company. She learned how to drive. She became independent in a culture that effectively forces women into isolation. Finally, when all she had achieved was again threatened by a man reminding her of her place in Saudi culture, she began to fight back. Through this incredible memoir, al-Sharif illustrates that change is possible or, as she puts it, “the rain begins with a single drop.” Even in the desert, the rain will come.