Beyond the High Blue Air

By Lu Spinney. (Catapult, 258 pages, $16.95.)


Lu Spinney’s memoir opens with a scene that she invites readers to imagine with her: Her 29-year-old son, Miles, “a young man in his prime,” awakens on the last day of his ski trip to the Alps. He packs his bag, thinks about his ex-girlfriend, ponders the fact that he must head back to work, goes out and buys a helmet. A helmet: The helmet is key.

The scene really happened, though perhaps not precisely as Spinney recounts it; she doesn’t know what he was thinking, for instance, because she wasn’t there. What she does know is that her son decided to do one last snowboard jump before he and his friends headed home — “the notoriously high jump … that they haven’t yet tried.”

The jump goes wrong, and Miles soars through the air, twists, lands violently on his head. If not for the helmet, he would have died instantly. With it, his skull is protected but his brain is jarred so hard it rotates inside its case, shearing the neutrons. Miles lives, not a bruise on him.

“Beyond the High Blue Air” is the story of the next five years of his life, five years that he spends in hospitals and care homes in a sort of twilight consciousness, unable to speak or move. His mother’s memoir is moving, detailed and unforgettable as she goes from hoping passionately that her son will recover to gradually realizing that it might have been better if he had died.

Spinney, her husband and her children are devoted to Miles. They visit him daily, fight endlessly for better care and new treatments, bring him home on weekends and for special occasions — holidays, weddings, birthdays.

In his twilight state, Miles can feel things — pain, boredom, helplessness. He is, however, unable to communicate or scratch an itch or make even the simplest of wants understood. He is, as his mother writes, “left suspended between life and death.”

Through her close observations and beautiful words, Spinney makes the reader understand vividly what life was like, for Miles and for her. “Beyond the High Blue Air” is wholly a mother’s story, written with passion, anger, grief and great love.


Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology By Ellen Ullman. (MCD/Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 306 pages, $27.)

Published two decades ago, Ellen Ullman’s classic memoir “Close to the Machine” recounted her experiences in the very new, very male world of algorithms, systems and code. A digital pioneer and later a novelist, Ullman distinguished herself with her nuanced view of the tech revolution.

“To program,” she writes at the beginning of her new memoir, “Life in Code,” “is to translate between the chaos of human life and the line-by-line world of computer language.” In the book’s forceful conclusion, Ullman raises the role of technology in President Donald Trump’s unexpected election, and what she describes as the “unspooling of a thread” that led to disintermediation, the removal of gatekeepers and middlemen in economic and social relationships.

“Websites could proclaim whatever truths they wished,” Ullman argues, in this often brilliant book. “Anyone who stood between you and your desires was an interloper.”

Elizabeth Taylor, National Book Review