David Talbot survives stroke with humor

Editor’s journalistic memoir a quick, heartfelt read

By Hannah Bennett

David Talbot went to hell and back in the last two years, and he’s lived to tell the tale.

In his memoir “Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke,” the San Francisco author recounts his experiences after suffering an ischemic stroke in November 2017. The founder and editor-in-chief of Salon.com and author of the best-selling San Francisco history “Season of the Witch” is still doing what he knows best: writing.

With a Jan. 14 release date, the book is Talbot’s first publication since his recovery. Short and to the point, only 177 pages, it offers a lighthearted look at myriad effects that a serious medical trauma can have on a person’s life. There’s no better way to ring in the new year than with a quick, heartfelt read.

While nonfiction and textbooks about strokes abound, there are few memoirs written by people who have survived them. Talbot notes this absence of reading material, describing the difficulty he had in tracking down others’ firsthand experiences. Yet given the fatal and often mentally debilitating nature of strokes, it makes sense that such memoirs are so few; Talbot’s accomplishment is rare and that much more impressive.

Memoirs that approach tragedy with humor are important as comfort and guidance for the writers and readers; humor also works to destigmatize the disabilities suffered by stroke victims. For Talbot, reading about how other people coped with their strokes played an instrumental role in how he chose to cope with his own.

Talbot’s funny, conversational tone is exactly what people might find on their Facebook walls — well, maybe a little better. The book reads like an extended Facebook post for good reason. In the introduction, he says, “This book began on [his] Facebook page,” when he “began tentatively posting this chronicle (…) not long after returning home from the hospital.”

While this informal approach is perfect for social media, it feels incongruous in a memoir about a life-changing event, especially when the content doesn’t stretch beyond surface value. Talbot never allows the reader a glimpse into the gruesome and intimate details of his condition. Instead, the story is told in sweeping generalities. Rather than sharing brutal everyday effects, Talbot reassures us that a lot of things have changed, making for a fast, enjoyable read, but that’s it.

Talbot hits his stride when the narrative moves from his personal life to areas that require a journalistic style. He slides easily into a series of interviews conducted with a local neurologist to learn more about what happened. Suddenly the prose is grounded in concrete details: about the doctor, the room, etc. Through the description of that subject, his own character emerges. The reader gets something to hold on to after pages of broad, fast-moving strokes.

Just like Talbot, his book “feel[s] more spirit than flesh.” But in the sections that burst with the writing of a seasoned reporter, the flesh is solid.

BOOK NOTES:

Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke

Written by: David Talbot

Published by: Chronicle Prism

Pages: 177 Price: $22.95

UPCOMING APPEARANCES

Jan. 14: McRoskey Mattress Co., third floor, 1687 Market St., 7 p.m.; free

Jan. 16: Commonwealth Club, 110 The Embarcadero, S.F.; 7:30 p.m.; $20-$55

Jan. 22: City Lights Booksellers, 261 Columbus Ave., S.F. 7 p.m.; free

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