Buy, Borrow, Bypass: Illness Memoirs

If you’ve been through a serious illness, you know how isolating it is. There’s a reason Susan Sontag said, “Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” Being ill really is like living in a different country–and one where everyone else speaks a foreign language. So reading an illness memoir is communicating in your mother tongue again. You can feel heard and understood, like seeing that best friend who gets what you mean from only your expression. In search of that feeling, I’ve been reading a lot of illness memoirs lately. Here’s what I thought.

The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs

When I first heard about this book, it was being hailed as this year’s When Breath Becomes Air, another beautifully written, posthumously published memoir about metastatic cancer. I loved that book, so I went into The Bright Hour with a healthy dose of skepticism. Nevertheless, I was sobbing within 30 pages and going back for more. It is sad, but it’s sad in the way that makes you want to live more fully. Nina Riggs was the kind of person you’d want to be friends with, and she had a way of looking at the realities of our days–and trying to love them anyway–that was beautiful.

Verdict: Buy.


Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee was only 33 when she had a stroke, left seeing the world upside down and struggling to find her words. This one was an interesting exploration of memory and identity with beautiful writing, although the pacing was a little off for me–at times repetitive, at times a bit disjointed. In a way, that adds to the disorienting experience of illness and recovery. (I read a similar memoir about another young woman with aphasia after a traumatic brain injury, A Stitch of Time by Lauren Marks. I think they’re both worth a read, but not too close together.)

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Verdict: Buy if illness memoirs are in your wheelhouse.


Demon in My Blood by Elizabeth Rains

I’ve noticed a lot of illness memoirs tend to be about cancer or brain injuries, like strokes. So I was intrigued when I saw this one about hepatitis C, something I didn’t know too much about while knowing enough to know how stigmatized it can be. Rains does a great job of balancing scientific information, personal history, struggles with disclosure, and treatment with a new, groundbreaking drug. I knew from the subtitle what the end would be, but I couldn’t put it down anyway.

Verdict: Buy if illness memoirs are in your wheelhouse.


The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

This is a small, quietly lovely book, partly about recovering from an illness and partly about the wild snail who was Bailey’s source of delight while she was confined to bed. I’m not normally a nature person at all, and I don’t think you have to be either to love this book. You’ll be surprised at how fascinating Bailey makes snails, and her insightful, perfectly crafted writing ties those tiny creatures to larger issues of time, home, healing, and survival in such interesting and thoughtful ways.

Verdict: Buy!


Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li

I had such high hopes for this book. I mean, The Guardian called it “a startlingly original memoir from the Chinese-American author on her time in a mental hospital and the healing power of reading.” Time in a mental hospital? Been there. Healing power of reading? Also my life. I’m a sucker for either of those experiences in a book. But for me, it lacked a lot of the personal narrative and connection I like in a memoir, feeling more like a disjointed, distancing, and confusingly philosophical set of essays that merged with literary criticism.

Verdict: Borrow if you’re into philosophical essays.


Will & I by Clay Byars

I stumbled upon this book in Indigo when I recognized the FSG Originals imprint on the spin. They’ve published some favourites of mine, like The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg, so I keep an eye out for their books. This one was another win. After a car accident and then a stroke, Byars works, with the help of singing and writing, to regain his functioning and his life, set in relief by the normally progressing life of his identical twin brother, Will. While it was a little too short for me, I appreciated how real and honest it felt and how he acknowledges that sometimes being sick forces you to learn things you don’t want to learn.

Verdict: Buy if illness memoirs are in your wheelhouse.