Oliver Sacks's On the Move (Knopf) and Vivian Gornick's The Odd Woman and the City (FSG) share an unflinching candor earned by squarely facing advancing age.

In February, best-selling writer and physician Sacks announced he'd been diagnosed with metastatic cancer and had only months to live. In his latest work, he looks back on his extraordinary life. Sacks comes from a family of doctors but always had an artist's temperament. When his surgeon mother learned he was gay, she exclaimed, "I wish you had never been born." Sacks has forever carried the sting of that moment; it prompted a "need to have different selves for day and night," a "doubleness" that may explain the unique blend of scientific precision and openhearted observation that characterizes so much of his work, including his modern classic of neuroscience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

It was at Oxford that he came to realize he wanted to write "essays presenting individuals with unusual weaknesses or strengths," though before pursuing that goal, he made one last attempt to gain a foothold in the world of medical research. It ended so disastrously, his bosses told him. "Sacks, you are a menace in the lab. Why don't you go and see patients—you'll do less harm," which is perhaps the nudge he needed to focus on writing.

Gornick is an activist and writer raised in the Bronx by left-leaning parents. "From earliest adolescence I knew there was a center-of-the-world, and that I was far from it," she observes in The Odd Woman and the City. "Far from it" is a matter of several miles by land and light-years in consciousness. With a youthful excitement reminiscent of her earlier memoir, Fierce Attachments, Gornick writes of discovering the streets of Manhattan, which hold her with their magnetic grip. She is a modern-age Walt Whitman, traveling in divergent circles and then letting those chance encounters tell the story of her experience of the city.

Someone sitting on the sidewalk with "a face full of broken blood vessels" shares the stage with the socialite who "held his wineglass in such a way that he seemed more aware of the feel of the crystal stem between his fingers than of the words coming out of his mouth." Only an "odd woman" brave enough to live alone at the periphery could so accurately nail the pitiless intensity of New York and make so strong a case for wanting to live there, despite—or because of—it.


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