The best books to read in the waiting room

Alex Witchel Author Of All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia. With Refreshments
By Alex Witchel

The Books I Picked & Why

Brooklyn

By Colm Toibin

Brooklyn

Why this book?

The story of Eilis, a young woman who immigrates from her small town in Ireland to Brooklyn, is deceptively simple. And you, possibly new to the waiting room, sitting outside the chamber in which your beloved parent is undergoing a CT scan or MRI, feel a perhaps unwelcome kinship with Eilis: You are in a scary new country of your own. In New York, Eilis falls in love though she is forced to return home following a family tragedy. Of course, there’s no place like home to bring out the worst in people. Toibin writes with restraint and grace about longing and belonging, and his often ambivalent, always imperfect, characters make for excellent company. 


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A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir

By Norris Church Mailer

A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir

Why this book?

Norris Church Mailer, a former pickle factory worker from Arkansas where she grew up in poverty, became the sixth and last wife of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Norman Mailer. Here, she tells the stories of their 33-year marriage which included his five ex-wives and her seven stepchildren. Norris came to the marriage with a son, had another son with Mailer, and while being a wife and mother to nine, she published two novels, endured Mailer’s countless affairs and generally egregious behavior, and did it all with a big old Southern-girl smile on her gorgeous face. As you sit in the waiting room, marvel at how much of life is a mess, and marvel even more at how love can make people, even you, endure more than you ever imagined. 


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Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

By Gabrielle Hamilton

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

Why this book?

Hamilton’s memoir recalls her turbulent family history, her sexual ambiguity, her love of Italy, and more unexpectedly, her Italian mother-in-law, who nurtured her passion for cooking. It doesn’t hurt that outside the kitchen, Hamilton earned her M.F.A in fiction writing from the University of Michigan and can write about the devastating fallout from her parents’ divorce with the same acuity and poetry she deploys about cooking an egg. In the waiting room, where her galloping curiosity and generosity of spirit suffuse you, be reminded that there is a whole world out there, and that past this unhappy day, there remain a million choices of how to be alive in it. 


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The Long-Winded Lady: Notes from the New Yorker

By Maeve Brennan

The Long-Winded Lady: Notes from the New Yorker

Why this book?

“I saw a little boy on the street today, and he cried so eloquently that I will never forget him.” Maeve Brennan wrote for the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section as ‘The Long-Winded Lady’ from 1954 to 1968. She roamed the city’s streets, bars, and restaurants, eyes wide open, weaving stories of vivid emotional detail from the most seemingly mundane moments. None of these are too long – in the waiting room concentration can be fleeting – but each sketch engages. Her story of the crying boy ends this way: “He might have been the last bird in the world, except that if he had been the last bird there would have been no one to hear him.”


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Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family

By Patricia Volk

Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family

Why this book?

“My family struck me as larger than life, bigger than news,” Volk once said. This memoir imbues her relatives’ stories with all the wonder and glamour children confer on the mere mortals who raise us. In the waiting room, you may still feel that way about the person inside. Volk’s family ran restaurants in New York City – her grandfather owned 14 – and four generations lived within five blocks of each other. The details of their clothes, their couches, and their craziness (Uncle Al had an affair with Aunt Lil for 11 years then refused to marry her because she wasn’t a virgin), hark back to those Sundays forever ago when families chose to visit each other on their only day off. Reading this feels like home. 


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