GIRL IN THE DARK
By Anna Lyndsey. (Doubleday, 258 pages, $24.95.)
Had Anna Lyndsey (a pseudonym) written her illness memoir in a conventional way, she notes, it would have read like this: "Monday: stayed in dark. Tuesday: stayed in dark. Wednesday: stayed in dark." So instead she tells her story in almost random chunks, writing about remissions and relapses, dreams, phone calls, visits from her mother.
The result is a narrative that carries a mysterious, almost disorienting feeling — perhaps the same feeling that one would have living day after day in a darkened room, as she says she has done for years.
Lyndsey's illness began as a sensitivity to the light from her computer screen. It affected her face, making it burn. "Burns like the worst kind of sunburn," she writes. "Burns like someone is throwing a flame-thrower to my head." Over time, the condition worsened to include all kinds of light, and her entire body.
She retreated to a room where she blocked the windows with blackout material, stuffing towels into the tiny cracks where the sun peeked through. And then what? She was in the pitch dark for months, for years, playing word games, listening to books on tape, trying to keep her mind and body active, sneaking down to the dim kitchen at twilight to brew a quick cup of tea, daring, during remission, to go for a run at night, in the dark.
This is an odd book, fragmented, with characters you never really get to know and dialogue that feels slightly stilted, but what stays with the reader is the author's gutsiness, her imagination and fortitude. She doesn't give up, but keeps looking for ways to stay sharp.
In one of the book's most affecting passages, Lyndsey and her husband, Pete (a saint, the reader thinks, to live this way — he married Lyndsey during a brief respite of remission), tour a rose garden late on a moonless night, where "the fragrance wraps us in a private cloud."
Pete is jubilant at their private visit, alone with the "glorious flowers … the ghosts of their perfume," but Lyndsey is only reminded of her solitude. "I would quite like to be part of a horde now and again, to rub up against my own species, in the mass. It does not happen anymore."
A Cup of Water Under My Bed
By Daisy Hernández. (Beacon Press, 185 pages, $24.95.)
Author and anthologist Daisy Hernández has carved out a career writing about issues of race, class and gender identity, first as a columnist for Ms. Magazine and later as an editor of ColorLines.
In this memoir, she charts her journey toward that activism, from her childhood in an immigrant New Jersey family, daughter of a Cuban father and Colombian mother, to her years working in New York's publishing industry and a stint on the metro desk of the New York Times.
The memoir begins with her first day in a Catholic kindergarten, where Hernández is placed in an English-only classroom. The language is a shock and a separation. In her immigrant enclave, "English has a place," but "Everything real happens in Spanish," she writes.
A central section of the book traces Hernández's growing feminism in college and her negotiation of a bisexual identity within a Catholic Latino family. This section often feels like a gloss rather than a deeper engagement with her young-adult dating experiences.
The book is most powerful when she writes about her childhood navigating two languages and two cultures, the cost of assimilation and what she was forced to leave behind.