“I often have to cut into the brain and it is something I hate doing,” neurosurgeon Henry Marsh confesses on the first page of his refreshingly frank memoir, Do No Harm (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, $25.99). Later in the book, there are more troubling admissions — of doubts, medical errors, half-truths sold to desperate patients and irrevocable medical errors. Of an operation that left a woman partially paralyzed, Marsh writes: “I must have been too sure of myself.” But for Marsh, there is only one way to get past this: simply to continue. With scalpel in hand again, “morbid fear disappears,” he writes, “and I feel in control of what is happening.”His book, nominated for several literary awards in his native Britain, is an engrossing mix of compassion and arrogance. It also showcases his graceful writing style: Neurosurgery, he writes, is appealing for its “controlled and altruistic violence.” The book details numerous delicate procedures, but it is more than just a series of case histories or a medical primer (although you will learn a lot). Like the work of his fellow physicians Jerome Groopman and Atul Gawande, “Do No Harm” offers insight into the life of doctors and the quandaries they face as we throw our outsize hopes into their fallible hands.
Two years ago, Joseph Kim mesmerized an audience — in person and online — with a speech about his experience in North Korea. He described being alone, homeless and hungry as a young teen, after his father had died of starvation and his mother and sister had gone to China looking for work. “My daily life became very hard, but very simple. My goal was to find a dusty piece of bread in the trash,” he explained. In his bracing memoir, Under the Same Sky (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28), Kim fills out the harrowing details of his personal transformation from North Korean pauper to American college student and author. You will learn, for example, that his mother may have sold his sister as a bride-slave and that, out of desperation, he joined a band of thieves and was later sent to a detention center. Written with Stephan Talty (the co-writer of “A Captain’s Duty,” the basis for the 2013film “Captain Phillips”), the book traces, in plain but affecting language, the slow evaporation of Kim’s happy childhood and his fall into destitution during the great famine that began in the early 1990s: “We entered a kind of brownout, a time of slow starvation. Your mind is partially numbed but your stomach is racked with pain, and each day is lived on the wire between the two.” Kim, who came to America via China in 2007, still faces challenges of adjustment and survivor’s guilt. For instance, on the way home from that famous speech, he reveals that out of “a curious nostalgia” he slept in the airport. “Under the Same Sky” is not an easy book to read. But like Blaine Harden’s 2012 bestseller, “Escape from Camp 14,” it is vital to our understanding of life in North Korea.
In her best-selling 2010memoir “Some Girls,” Jillian Lauren chronicled her wild times as a suburban girl turned college dropout and then concubine in a sultan’s harem. In her new memoir, Everything You Ever Wanted (Plume; paperback, $16), Lauren’s life has done a 180. Now she’s a drug-free, married homeowner yearning to be a suburban mom. (Never mind that her husband is the bassist for the band Weezer and their house is in one of L.A.’s hippest neighborhoods.) “I have always wanted kids,” she writes, but she feels undeserving and inadequate. Complicating matters is her fraught start in life: “My own childhood began as an unwanted pregnancy,” writes Lauren, who was adopted in 1973. Becoming a mother herself, she writes, “is going to be the story that justifies my life.” Anyone who sets the bar that high is bound for a letdown; thankfully, this is not lost on Lauren, who is endearingly self-deprecating. Still, when the setbacks come, they come hard. She and her husband can’t conceive, and, after failed fertility treatments, they adopt the “perfect” child: Tariku, a baby in an Ethiopian orphanage. Here the book takes an anguishing turn. Traumatized in infancy, Tariku struggles to thrive in his new home, and Lauren struggles patiently — and with humor — alongside him. If there is a message in this wry and honest parenting memoir, it’s to toss unrealistic hopes, to stop parenting with such intention, or, as Lauren puts it: “Sometimes, you have to be content.”
Nora Krug is a contributing editor of Book World and writes about memoirs every month.