Sarah Hepola’s memoir Blackout would make for a thought-provoking book club choice. Hepola is an enchanting storyteller who writes in a chummy voice. She’s that smart, witty friend you want to have dinner with. But leave the bottle of wine at home: Blackout is a cautionary tale about drinking. Hepola had her first taste of alcohol at age 7, when she started sneaking sips of Pearl Light beer from her parents’ refrigerator in Dallas. Through high school, college and beyond, she searched for solace and confidence in booze.
“When I was a child trapped in loneliness, it gave me escape,” she writes. “When I was a teenager crippled by self-consciousness, it gave me power. When I was a young woman unsure of her worth, it gave me courage. When I triumphed, it celebrated with me. When I cried, it comforted me. And even in the end, when I was tortured by all that it had done to me, it gave me oblivion.”
In her case, the oblivion was literal: When drinking to excess, she suffered from blackouts, leaving her with scant memories of herself at her most debauched. She’d re-emerge in a netherworld: in the arms of a man she hadn’t remembered meeting or, once, in a dog bed in someone else’s house.
Now 40 and a Salon editor, she is eloquent in her honesty as she traces her wild days from the perspective of newfound sobriety. Alcohol was “not a cure for pain,” she now sees, “it was merely a postponement.” Like Caroline Knapp’s powerful 1996 memoir Drinking: A Love Story, Blackout is not preachy or predictable: It’s an insightful, subtly inspiring reflection by a woman who came undone and learned the very hard way how to put herself back together.
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‘In a Dark Wood’
In a Dark Wood begins amid the author’s life-altering nightmare: Eight years ago, Joseph Luzzi’s pregnant wife, Katherine, was in a cataclysmic car accident. Doctors were able to save the couple’s daughter, but Katherine died 45 minutes after giving birth. “I had left the house at eight thirty,” Luzzi writes. “By noon, I was a widower and a father.”
Don’t be dissuaded by this somber setup. In a Dark Wood is not so much a meditation on grief as a tender chronicle of how Luzzi slowly built a new life. It is also an engaging primer on — of all things — Dante, the poet whom Luzzi, a professor of Italian at Bard College, relied on to help find his way through this thicket of loss. (As Helen Macdonald’s bestseller H Is for Hawk has reminded us, consolation can be found in the most unusual places.) Luzzi deftly weaves his personal story — of how he adapted to single fatherhood and eventually found new love — with an intimate interpretation of The Divine Comedy. He is as humble and erudite a guide through 14th-century Italian poetry as he is through his own shifting psyche.
Dante “had taught me that you can love somebody without a body in a certain way, but that you must reserve your truest love for somebody whose breath you can hear and feel — your child’s, your wife’s,” he writes. “He also taught that self-pity is no substitute for free will, just as the electric air of grief is not the kind that can sustain your breathing in real life.”
‘The Seven Good Years’
Fans of This American Life will be familiar with Israeli author Etgar Keret, whose stories — real and imagined—- have aired on the show for years. Keret’s deadpan tales, collected in such books as Suddenly, a Knock on the Door and The Girl on the Fridge, often blur the line between the real and the surreal. (In an interview with Ira Glass, Keret said, “When I meet someone and I feel like I am levitating, why should I not write that I am levitating, just because some guy in the front row doesn’t agree with me?”)
This unusual perspective makes Keret’s new autobiography especially intriguing. While bodies don’t rise in The Seven Good Years the book, translated, sometimes haltingly, from Hebrew, offers an inventive approach to memoir. Loosely organized around two seminal events — the birth of Keret’s son and the death of Keret’s father — the book brings together his engagingly cockeyed observations on a variety of subjects, from his disparate family to run-ins with cabdrivers and pushy moms at the park.
The precariousness of life in Israel hovers over the narrative, but Keret keeps the tone darkly comic. When one of those pushy moms asks whether Keret’s 3-year-old will join the army someday, he writes: “That question … thrust me into a different, surreal world in which I saw dozens of sturdy babies swathed in environmentally friendly cloth diapers sweeping down from the mountains on miniature ponies, weapons brandished in their pink hands.”
Nora Krug reviewed these books for The Washington Post.