Anna Campbell

June 2021

Recent Reads Part 11

Some more nonfiction this month, three intriguing and heartfelt memoirs that I very much enjoyed and I think you will too.

First up, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (2019) by Lori Gottlieb, which is a moving, funny, and frank description of what it’s like to be a practicing psychotherapist.

I’ve always found psychotherapy fascinating, the “talking cure” as Freud called it. It was wonderful to get some insight into the nuts and bolts of the process, not least how psychotherapists need to be in analysis themselves to make sure that they’re not inflicting their own problems on their patients.

What emerged from reading this book for me was a recognition of the intimacy of the relationship that patients and therapists develop and how trust is at the heart of any successful treatment. This book also provides some really interesting character studies of slightly fictionalized versions of Gottlieb’s patients. Among the most entertaining sections are her descriptions of a few awkward sessions with a horribly self-involved Hollywood producer. Among the most moving are the chapters where she writes about working with a brave, vital young woman dealing with a terminal illness.

Gottlieb is a wonderful writer and her warmth and sensitivity make this story stand out. This book is a touching expose of the human condition that is well worth your time!

My second choice this month is another medical memoir, The Beauty in Breaking (2020) by Michele Harper. One of the things I love about medical memoirs is that they take me into a world that’s so far removed from my everyday to a place where snap decisions really can make the difference between living and dying.

Michele Harper is an African-American ER doctor, making her way in a profession that is largely white and largely male. So every step she takes to forward her career means tackling institutionalized sexism and racism that at times reach appalling levels.

This book also details Dr. Harper’s battle to come to terms with her difficult personal history. Her father was abusive and her first marriage broke up because of her dedication to her field of medicine. She has a lot of grief and anger to deal with. Her ability to rise above her circumstances and put herself at her patients’ service is inspiring.

Dr. Harper comes to realize that we’re all broken in some way and that often in that damage, there’s great beauty – which is where the lovely title for this book originates. Like Lori Gottlieb’s book, The Beauty of Breaking includes fictionalized portraits of desperate people living on the edge. Many of the stories are sad, some are triumphant, all of them are interesting. I wouldn’t say this was an easy read, but it opened my eyes to so many things. I’m not surprised that this book won a stack of awards. Its stark honesty and emotional clarity and generosity of spirit are remarkable.

My last choice this month is another book about a woman making her way in a profession that’s largely male. The Smallest Lights in the Universe didn’t just take me into a new world, it took me into a new cosmos.

Sara Seager is an astrophysicist at MIT who dedicates her working life to the search for planets in deep space. I loved this book, partly because of it’s message of hope, not just on a scientific level but on a human level as well. Sara Seager comes across as just so darned interesting! Gutsy, unusual, and clever.

Like many brilliant people, Seager felt like a misfit when she was growing up. Her solace for her loneliness was diving into her education and pursuing her increasing interest in the stars. Her joy when she fell in love with the man who became her first husband is so poignant – it’s like reading about two lost souls finding each other.

Then tragedy strikes and her husband dies of cancer, leaving her a widow at 40 with two small boys. The story of how she finds her way and eventually triumphs as a woman and a mother and a scientist is so moving and life-affirming. I also love how life has a couple of wonderful surprises in store for her, not least the discovery of a new love.

Even if astrophysics isn’t your thing, give this one a go. It’s a wonderful story of heartbreak and courage and generosity and inextinguishable creativity.