Just over a year ago, novelist Nicholas Sparks took off with brother Micah on a jaunt around the world, then chronicled their whirlwind trip in Three Weeks with My Brother (Warner, $22). Having lost their parents to a horse-riding accident and a car wreck, and their sister to brain cancer, the men took this journey to reawaken their shell-shocked selves, hoping to recapture lost faith and shore up ailing optimism along the way.
Each chapter begins with their arrival in the country du jour, then flits back in time, the transitions as subtle as swirling calendar pages in an old movie. Sparks does best when recounting his and his siblings' childhood exploits and their entertaining resourcefulness in the face of abject poverty. When their parents gave them carpentry tools as Christmas gifts instead of hiring repairmen, Micah turned the situation to his own advantage. Using his new jigsaw, the ninth-grader carved an escape route through his closet, enabling him to elude curfew.
Plodding prose bogs down the travel portion of the book; Sparks's descriptions of exotic locales have all the flair of encyclopedia entries. His impression of Machu Picchu: "It was the kind of place that one should experience, not simply visit." The reader wonders what made the brothers think that an all-baggage-handled, on-the-bus-off-the-bus, we'll-set-up-a-satellite-feed-so-you-don't-miss-the-Super-Bowl tour would allow time for reflection. Certainly, Micah has no business criticizing fellow travelers for lazing on the beach when they could opt for snorkeling: "Some people just don't know how to have fun. They aren't even willing to try." Surprisingly, despite stilted dialogue and a saccharine tone, Three Weeks manages to be a moving tale of familial solidarity -- Sparks's side story of commitment to ameliorating his son's autism is downright inspiring.
Kids on the Brink
Unlike Sparks, who read 40 books on autism, it took Paul Raeburn, a science journalist and former Business Week editor, four years to begin conducting the research he so deftly blends with personal experience in Acquainted With the Night: A Parent's Quest to Understand Depression and Bipolar Disorder in His Children (Broadway, $24.95).
In fourth grade, Raeburn's son, Alex, began having violent outbursts that, just hours afterward, he would be unable to remember. Three hospitalizations, seven psychiatrists and six years later, Alex began to stabilize. By then, though, Raeburn was deep into the pursuit of treatment for his preteen daughter, Alicia, who was drinking, self-mutilating and repeatedly attempting suicide.
Raeburn's ability to make mental health statistics and the history of American psychiatry utterly engrossing is second only to his unflinching candor about the effects of his blazing temper on his children. Certainly, he writes, his and his wife's failure to contain their fighting -- "We were never able to talk about what was happening . . . without pointing fingers at each other" -- facilitated Alex and Alicia's descents into hell.
The blood-chilling accounts of Raeburn pleading with his 11-year-old son to get off the train tracks or of coming home to find his eighth-grade daughter drunk, enraged, her arms and wrists sliced, are no more horrifying than the details of the insurance companies' systematic obstruction of Alex and Alicia's treatment. Raeburn's mental health plan covered a lifetime total of 90 days hospitalization per child; three days after admission to the hospital, Alicia's therapist was forced to start planning her release.
Raeburn does his children and others like them a great justice by making this book more than just a gritty expose of their private lives. It is also a searing and eloquent indictment of America's insurance industry that ought to land CEOs in jail. Barring that, Acquainted With the Night should reignite the revolution needed to overhaul this nation's approach to health care.
While Raeburn's book is a domestic call to arms, Souad's Burned Alive: A Victim of the Law of Men (Warner, $24; written in collaboration with Marie-Therese Cuny) sounds an alarm on the international stage. Its author, who hides her last name to protect her identity, has been "told" that she was born "somewhere in the West Bank. . . in either 1957 or 1958." She was raised by a mother who smothered the last seven of her 14 infants because they were girls and a father who beat her daily. Souad was not sent to school and did not understand that a world existed beyond her tiny village.
When she was about 18, a man impregnated her and promised to marry her. He disappeared, and when she could no longer hide the pregnancy, her parents ordered her brother-in-law to preserve the family's honor by killing her. He set Souad on fire, burning 90 percent of her body. For two months, she rotted in a hospital, half comatose, prematurely delivering her baby in the middle of the night. The hospital was forbidden to care for her as it would have meant interfering with an honor killing.
In a chance encounter that could make an agnostic believe in angels, a humanitarian worker found Souad, spirited her away to Europe, remained devoted to her and encouraged her to dictate this book. The ingrained behaviors detailed in Burned Alive are far more insidious than mere misogyny: Motherly love, that time-tested source of power and strength, has been beaten out of the women in Souad's village over generations. Unbridled aggression is the norm among men even in homes that escape the trials of poverty. More than 6,000 women are murdered "in the larger world" each year by their families in "honor crimes."
Souad tells her story in an unadorned, childlike voice that reflects her continuing battle to perceive herself as an adult in full possession of her rights, a battle she wages despite being married, employed and the mother of two more children. But her tale is so shocking that it needs to be told plainly; this is not a literary effort so much as it is a rare artifact whose mere existence should be regarded as nothing less than a miracle.
A father who was an Oscar-winning screenwriter, blacklists, letters to parole boards penned by Katharine Hepburn -- with subjects such as these, Kate Lardner's Shut Up He Explained: The Memoir of a Blacklisted Kid (Ballantine, $23.95) ought to be a delicious tell-all. Unfortunately, in this memoir, Ring Lardner's daughter doesn't do justice to her family's difficulties.
Not long after Kate's biological father, David Lardner, was killed in Europe in 1944, Kate's mother, Frances, took her kids to California and married her brother-in-law, Ring Lardner. In 1950, Ring became known as one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of movie men hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, questioned about their affiliation with the Communist Party and sent to prison.
At first, Lardner offers a thoughtful historical context within which we hope the rest of the story will be set: "It was never a question of Communism versus democracy, said Ring. Those who inclined toward Communism . . . were thinking of trying to institute a new economic system. It seemed as if capitalism had come to an end." Quickly, though, the memoir devolves, both in style and content.
Soon Lardner is tripping over herself trying to establish a quirky voice. Her strangely overzealous musings dominate the book. She describes her dieting struggles: "The number on the scale determined success or failure in the weight-dropping endeavor. And I wanted to lose weight, I must have declared to humor the home team who'd indicated there was value in slimness." Though we are occasionally given glimpses of the troubles Frances and Ring had finding work after he was blacklisted -- two-faced producers, manuscripts submitted under pseudonyms -- Shut Up He Explained is a missed opportunity for reader, writer and editor alike.
Look Back in Anger
The twist to Judith Levine's Do You Remember Me? A Father, a Daughter, and a Search for the Self (Free Press, $26), an exhaustive account of her father's descent into Alzheimer's, is that she has, by her own admission, never loved her father. An arrogant, solipsistic man, Stan Levine communicated with her entirely through fights: "He can be artfully angry, sensuously angry, wittily angry, coolly and warmly angry; he even can seem contentedly angry." Levine aims to discover the self, which "cannot exist but in relationship" and whose "demise cannot be accomplished by a brain disease alone." It is as challenging a task as any writer has ever set, and Levine, a dazzling wordsmith, finds her answers in anthropological texts, psychological studies, Cartesian philosophy and social and medical history. But all her research can't cover the memoir's glaring omission: the author's emotional reaction to her grueling situation.
Levine keeps her guard up around her readers, much as she does around her family. She skillfully recounts episodes of her father unpacking boxes her mother has painstakingly packed or reports conversations with her verbally challenged father that would have done Beckett proud. (Of seals at the aquarium: "You see. They sort of dysectrate. . . . But you don't have to worry, because the money is coming out.") We can only infer that Levine is frustrated, pained, unhappy. But she is so diligent in evading the self-fascination that plagues so many memoirs that she creates a debilitating distance between herself and her readers, making this a story that is telling but not affecting. *
Daphne Uviller, who lives in New York City, writes for Newsday and Time Out New York.