Books

Review: ‘A Hard Place to Leave,’ by Marcia DeSanctis; ‘All Down Darkness Wide,’ by Seán Hewitt; ‘Into the Inferno,’ by Stuart Palley; ‘Crying in the bathroom,’ by Erika L. Sánchez

Woven into this portrait of depression’s maelstrom is the author’s own queer coming-of-age. Of his abandoned Catholicism, Hewitt confesses that “the shape of myself was molded by it, the routines of my body colored by its sounds and movements, the imagery of my mind rinsed with it,” and to our benefit; even his depictions of cruising have a holy aura. As a dedicated nonfiction writer, I sometimes meet poets’ memoirs with a caginess that is utterly disgraced by a book like this, whose structure is nearly as immaculate as its sentences. Near the book’s end, the lovers collaborate on a poetic translation and work to “piece together a voice in the space between us.” Writing is always an act of translation, and Hewitt beautifully illuminates his own darkness so that we might also see our own.

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A photographer by training, Stuart Palley understands the power of opening a story in medias res. His debut memoir, INTO THE INFERNO: A Photographer’s Journey Through California’s Megafires and Fallout (259 pp., Blackstone Publishing, $28.99), A kind of narrative companion to his stunning 2018 volume of photographs, “Terra Flamma: Wildfires at Night,” opens: “A wall of fire careened toward me from a few hundred yards away.” It is 2013 and the Powerhouse Fire is ravaging Southern California, prompting the then-novice wildfire photographer — who almost died in the blaze — to get proper training for his vocation. Though it was “scorched earth,” Palley reflects that the Powerhouse “pales in comparison to fires now. It was but an ominous foreshadowing.” Part California bro-odyssey, part education in fire science, the book asserts its early thesis and delivers on that promise: to tell a thrilling tale that persuades its reader to mind the devastating consequences of climate change.

Aspiring photographers and wildfire fetishists will be eager for the bountiful details of Palley’s routines and training, as well as the litany of his dances with “the gods of fire.” More relevant to a broader audience is Palley’s rousing argument about human for the crescendo of megafires that are rendering his home state uninhabitable. In all his buoyant thrill-seeking, Palley has seen more wreckage than most of us will in a lifetime, and the psychological consequences render him a veteran of sorts. “The camera is not a shield,” he writes. Like a book, it is a portal through which we might perceive a greater sense of our own responsibility, to both our planet and our fellow creatures.

The poet and best-selling YA novelist Erika L. Sánchez’s CRYING IN THE BATHROOM: A Memoir (239 pp., Viking, $27) is quippy, earnest and occasionally “prone to reaching George Costanza levels of pettiness.” She describes growing up in Chicago as the precocious and sensitive daughter of Mexican immigrants, and how “when you don’t belong, you learn to make a nest in the unknown.” The book traces her triumphant if turbulent trajectory, from her years as a tormented teenage misanthrope to her adult life as a successful writer who has suffered severe depressive episodes and anxiety attacks. Her candid divulgences about sex, vaginal infections, abortion and body shame reveal how “when you’re a young woman, simply having a body is a hazard”; and these plainly told personal truths are as absorbing as a deep and wide-ranging conversation with a trusted friend. On the heels of an annihilating depression, she admits: “I always believed that I felt too much, cursed my sensitivity, but who would I be without it?” The counterpoint is her joyful exuberance: “The thought of a laughing baby sea otter gives me so much irrational hope and happiness that it makes me want to kick a table over.”

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