From a sports anchor to a housing policy expert to a major movie star, these new autobiographies double as manifestoes.
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In her debut book, UPHILL: A Memoir (241 pp., Henry Holt and Co., $27.99), Jemele Hill, the former co-anchor of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” opens with the “tumultuous” episode in 2017 when she posted a tweet calling then-President Donald Trump a “white supremacist,” and the White House responded that it was a “fireable offense by ESPN.” Written in insistent prose, the remainder of this memoir is concerned with how to speak the truth, regardless of backlash.
Hill traces her tenacity back to her difficult Detroit upbringing, with a teenage mother and a heroin-addicted father. When Hill is in eighth grade, her mother beats and threatens to abandon her after reading her diary. “As harsh as my words were, I needed to release them,” Hill confesses with precision. “I needed her to know that her actions were hurting me.”
She narrates her career trajectory just as fearlessly, using this book as an opportunity to respond to a backward office culture wherein Black women are treated as “disposable,” shut out from the highest echelons of sports media. She recounts some of the specific injustices that have made her and her Black female colleagues feel “undervalued, ignored, disrespected and belittled”: from the time ESPN suspended her and spared a white football coach for essentially the same mistake, to the network asking her to apologize to the commentator Chris Berman for pointing out that he was balding to Sports Illustrated — after he’d left Hill a “disturbing” voice-mail message. With a skilled hand, Hill captures the nuances of workplace discrimination and its toll while also providing a guide for others — especially women of color — to persevere.
HOME BOUND: An Uprooted Daughter’s Reflections on Belonging (239 pp., Astra House, $28) is Vanessa A. Bee’s ambitious, 12-chapter answer to the question posed to her by the French consulate in Washington, D.C., in the opening pages: “Where are you from?” Frequently a stranger in a strange land, Bee was born in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and raised from the age of 10 months old by her aunt and her aunt’s white French husband in Châtellerault, France, until they divorced. From there, Bee and her adoptive mother converted to evangelical Christianity and experienced housing insecurity as they moved from Lyon to London to Reno, Nev. “Each place where I lived demanded a piece of me in exchange for acceptance,” she writes. Her fragmented upbringing left her feeling stateless, fatherless, nameless and identity-less. It’s no wonder that at 17 she created an “outline” for her future, a “meticulous” plan for her education, marriage and “a home with a foundation so solid, so deeply rooted, that no surprise could shake it into disarray.”
By 20, newly married to a fellow Christian, Bee is accepted to Harvard Law School, where she humbly ditches her “outline,” divorces and restructures her system of belief. This moving book is both an act of defiance — a way to construct a home outside of borders — and a timely manifesto on the need for more equitable housing policy in America, weaving her scholarship in economic justice together with her firsthand experience of the many places she’s lived. “Home Bound” is not just a resonant personal history, but also a thoroughly researched investigation of home.
Marion Nestle ate tomatoes like candy from her family’s victory garden as a child; six decades later, as an N.Y.U. professor and a leading advocate for healthier and more sustainable diets, she was depicted in an ad for the Slow Food movement — alongside figures like Alice Waters, Michael Pollan and the then-mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom — hugging a supersize tomato. SLOW COOKED: An Unexpected Life in Food Politics (278 pp., University of California, $29.95) recounts Nestle’s path to her later-life career exposing the influence of the food industry on our dietary choices.
By the time Nestle (no relation to Nestlé) received her doctorate in molecular biology in 1968, she’d been married and divorced, dropped out of college, worked as a lab technician and been a stay-at-home mom of two. Navigating the politics of academia and the food industry with the added hurdle of gender bias proved difficult: Child care meant she had no time to find a needed mentor in her field; the divorce left her without a credit score; and fellow faculty members wrote her recommendation letters that “barely mentioned anything I’d done.”
Throughout, her prose exhibits the same accessibility she strives for in her academic work: “I try to write so anyone can understand what I’m saying, just the same way I speak.” In “Slow Cooked,” she holds nothing back as she details moments of doubt — like when the Sugar Association threatened to sue her after she published “Food Politics” in 2002 — with both humor and suspense. A chronicle of hard work and a public health resource, “Slow Cooked” is also proof that it’s never too late.
It’s taken decades for the actor Constance Wu to accept her big feelings, but now it’s her depth of emotion that makes her debut memoir both captivating and tender. MAKING A SCENE (321 pp., Scribner, $29) feels lovingly labored over, like the dough she kneaded as a teenager at “my favorite job I ever had,” at a bakery in her hometown of Richmond, Va. In non-chronological essays recounting her coming-of-age, relationships, and roles on the ABC television sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” and in the movies “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Hustlers,” Wu writes with unsparing honesty about her shortcomings, revealing a complete person. Embarrassed by her differences from her peers in “all-white suburbia,” she admits her childhood discomfort when watching Asian American characters on TV (“I didn’t want to be associated with them”).
The two best sections are also the longest. In “You Do What I Say,” named after a phrase often spoken to her by a male producer, Wu ably portrays the everyday harassment women endure. “I thought I’d ‘handled’ all the fear and intimidation of that first year by swallowing it, or by playing along,” she writes. “But repressed feelings don’t just disappear,” and over time, “the smallest slight produced a disproportionately large reaction.” Later in the chapter, Wu is methodical, respectful and ultimately forgiving as she addresses the tabloids that “capitalized on the onslaught of internet hatred” after the release of “Crazy Rich Asians,” by “vilifying me with groundless, salacious lies.” Wu ends her dazzling memoir with the chapter “Unfinished Mansions,” about the lingering threads of her past romantic relationships and the rise and fall of her parents’ marriage. Bursting with revelation and reckoning, it’s a fitting end to a memoir about finding meaning in messiness.
Rajpreet Heir is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at Ithaca College.
Book Review: ‘Uphill,’ by Jemele Hill; ‘Home Bound,’ by Vanessa A. Bee; ‘Slow Cooked,’ by Marion Nestle; ‘Making a Scene,’ by Constance Wu – The New York Times