Born Round (Penguin Press, $25.95) is a remarkable memoir about Frank Bruni’s lifelong struggle with two obsessions: fitness and food. For many of us, Bruni, as chief restaurant critic for The New York Times, has helped frame our dining-out and eating-in habits. His descriptions of elaborate Thanksgiving dinner preparations and the various “food periods” that marked his childhood are every bit as mouthwatering as his retelling of a 20-course dinner at the French Laundry. But what makes this book so compelling is Bruni’s ability to take our most wistful “wouldn’t-it-be-great-to-get-paid-to-eat” daydreams and disenchant us. His tips on selecting the perfect ice cream treat, guidelines for taking Mexican diet pills, and accounts of the chronic yo-yo of weight loss-and-regain, draw a vivid and unexpected self-portrait.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his novel, Things Fall Apart, the Nigerian-born Chinua Achebe reflects upon his life in The Education Of A British-Protected Child (Knopf, $24.95), a collection of 16 autobiographical essays. Few authors manifest such diverse influences as does Achebe. An African passionately embracing his Igbo tribal heritage, but also the product of a colonial education who praises the colonizer, he speaks eloquently for the complexities of postcolonial Africa. Nothing more symbolizes the tensions of such a diverse heritage than Achebe’s need to justify writing in the English language. Since 1990 he has been living in exile from his country’s civil war, and the cauldron of emotions stirred up by his inability to be proud of his country permeates these intelligent, ambivalent essays.
His wife and their children evacuated New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina swept the Gulf Coast, but Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-born contractor, stayed behind to look after his house and those he was working on. When the storm had passed and floods inundated his city, Zeitoun believed he was meant to help as many people as he could. Eventually, though, he was arrested on an unspecified charge and taken to a makeshift jail where his pleas for understanding and justice were met with indifference and mistrust. Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun (McSweeney’s, $24) is a gripping piece of narrative non-fiction, recounting just one personal story in a disaster that affected millions of people. Zeitoun’s story of altruism countered by prejudice and violence, though, is one all too representative of our recent history.