When does this story begin? Elizabeth Alexander muses in the opening of her memoir. She and Ficre Ghebreyesus were the great loves of each other’s lives but all of that was one in an instant when Ficre suddenly died of massive heart failure. And so, she wonders, does this story begin when they met? When they married? When he died?
Alexander — perhaps most famous for writing “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s first inauguration — contemplates all of these different beginnings. More a celebration of Ficre’s life than an elegy, each chapter feels like a vignette focused on important scenes from their lives. The two met in New York City and had a passionate romance that quickly led to marriage and the birth of their first son; they eventually grew into a family of four. Alexander is originally from Harlem, while Ghebreyesus fled his native home of Eritrea amidst violent upheaval and eventually settled in the United States; they found what they needed — culturally, emotionally, and artistically — in each other. She made her mark as a poet, playwright, and academic, while Ghebreyesus was a well-loved artist (that’s his work on the book cover) and a chef. The loss felt by all who knew him is palpable and acute.
Growing up, Amelia Morris was never a foodie, and it wasn’t until she was in her twenties that she decided to test her cooking skills. Despite never having made a cake from scratch — or having much of any kitchen experience whatsoever — she was dazzled by a beautiful chocolate-peppermint cake in Bon Appétit magazine and decided to try the recipe for a Christmas brunch that she was hosting.
Instead of creating a magazine cover-worthy cake to dazzle her friends with, the end result was a confection that had to be scooped out of a serving bowl, “unequivocal proof that if you work hard and follow the rules to a tee, your cake may still fall over and need to be scraped into a bowl on Christmas Day.” She took lots of pictures, was at peace with her epic failure, and ended up creating Bon Appétempt, a blog that’s charted her culinary journey over the past five years.
Katie Heaney’s Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date first came on my radar towards the end of 2014; it was a finalist for the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards in the humor category. By the age of 25, Heaney has had a lot of things: college degrees, a social life, general happiness…but no boyfriend. Ever (and not for lack of trying). The book’s subtitle is extremely misleading — she’s gone on plenty of dates, makeout sessions included, and was even in the unfortunate position of having of one potential boyfriend who kept stringing her along without committing — but Heaney has never been serious enough with anyone to consider having sex with them. Hers is a book about social and emotional awkwardness; her friends are always several steps ahead of her. They seem to intuitively know all of the rules.
At 35, Nicole Hardy was in a different place entirely. She was raised to be devoutly Mormon, and as a woman who had not yet married, she had also never had sex. Unlike Never Have I Ever, Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin grapples with some of life’s bigger questions, especially those relating to deeply held religious beliefs. Unlike Heaney, Hardy has dated. Quite a bit, in fact. The fact that she had to abstain from sex until marriage was never a question, but she did acknowledge her desires and seek out information. She even dated outside her religion, something that put her partially at odds with her faith (if she wanted to get married in a temple — which she did — she’d have to marry another Mormon). For a long time, especially in her twenties, she thought she could wait. As her twenties became her thirties, her natural sexual desires grew stronger, and she remained unmarried, that religiously-mandated waiting game started to become unbearable.
For all intents and purposes, these are two middle-class white women who both seem to have come from fairly stable middle-class backgrounds. They’re each dealing with different subject matter but are similar in that they’re late bloomers, so to speak, in one area of life that’s important to them.
But oh, what a difference a decade and some actual life experience makes.
Since I seem to have been living under a rock these past few months, I heard about Foxcatcher The Book about a month before I heard about Foxcatcher The Movie. And for some reason, even though I tend to stay far, far away from the true crime genre — I seriously went out on a limb here — the book grabbed my attention. Then I saw the trailer for the movie, which sealed the deal: I was interested.
In January 1996, millionaire John du Pont shot and murdered Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz, who worked and trained at the facilities on du Pont’s family farm, Foxcatcher. Du Pont then holed himself up at the farm held police at bay for two days before surrendering. The book is written by Dave’s brother, Mark, who is also an Olympic gold medal winner who once worked and trained at Foxcatcher; he was there to witness many of du Pont’s dark moods.
According to Schultz, du Pont was “a loser” who was always high and constantly needed people to like him. He had once aspired to be an Olympian himself but didn’t have the talent for it, so he threw his money around to buy recognition in the form of buildings named after him, and eventually, a team of elite athletes of that he could gather at his farm and pretend to be in charge of. Enter Mark Schultz, who, like many champion wrestlers, had plenty of awards but no financial backing. He was living in poverty with no insurance, and when an offer came to coach and train at Foxcatcher — where he was supposed to be left on his own — he couldn’t pass it up.
I took French in high school. I took French in college, and my professor was actually French. I love French movies, I have a Paris-themed umbrella, I have a weakness for memoirs in which women drop everything and move to France — Je suis jaloux! — and I hope to be reincarnated as a classy, scarf-wearing Parisian in my next life. I planned the last part of my trip to Europe this past summer around being in Paris for Bastille Day, and I practiced my rusty French religiously for about an hour each night before jetting off. I knew my French would suck, but I at least figured I’d be able to bust out a few phrases without making a fool of myself.
And what happened?
I spoke English (or, in one instance, I panicked and blurted out Spanish…which, mind you, doesn’t even happen back home).
So I could completely relate to William Alexander’s plight: he fantasizes about moving to France and being accepted as one of them, but he can’t even speak the language. He’s determined to learn it, but there are numerous roadblocks. The biggest one is his age; in his late fifties, his far from the ideal age to be learning a new language (about fifty years too far, according to the experts). He throws himself into the language anyway, completing hours upon hours of Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, language meetups, immersion courses, a French PBS series, and social media encounters with French people, not to mention actual trips to France.