Writing About Illness Without Platitudes

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At 22 years old, Suleika Jaouad was a recent college graduate who had moved to Paris, looking forward to everything life might offer. Then she received a diagnosis of leukemia. In her new memoir, “Between Two Kingdoms,” Jaouad writes about the ensuing years. On this week’s podcast, she discusses her experience with the disease and her effort, in writing the book, to avoid the many platitudes that surround serious illness.

“When you’re sick, you get bombarded with all kinds of bumper-sticker sayings,” she says. “You’re told to find the silver lining, that everything happens for a reason, or — the one that I hated the most — that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, because in my case it certainly felt like I had been given more than I could handle. So I was really focused on writing toward the silence and toward the shadows, and writing about the experiences that maybe aren’t as palatable but that, from my perspective, needed to be unveiled.”

The Times’s comedy critic, Jason Zinoman, visits the podcast to discuss his favorite memoirs by comedians, including books by Harpo Marx, Joan Rivers and Tina Fey, and to discuss the genre as a whole.

“The comedy memoir is the worst genre of book that I can’t get enough of,” Zinoman says. “I gobble up comedy memoirs, even though the vast, vast majority of them are terrible.” One reason for that, Zinoman says, is that “you don’t need to make a great book to become a best seller. It’s the same with political books; most books by politicians are bad because they don’t need to be good to be successful, and the same logic applies here.”

Also on this week’s episode, Tina Jordan looks back at Book Review history during this year of its 125th anniversary; Alexandra Alter has news from the publishing world; and Gregory Cowles and John Williams talk about what people are reading. Pamela Paul is the host.

Here are the books discussed in this week’s “What We’re Reading”:

“Let Me Tell You What I Mean” by Joan Didion

“Her First American” by Lore Segal

“A Promised Land” by Barack Obama

We would love to hear your thoughts about this episode, and about the Book Review’s podcast in general. You can send them to [email protected].

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