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Lost in America: A Journey with My Father

Lost in America: A Journey with My Father

by Sherwin B. Nuland

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A writer renowned for his insight into the mysteries of the body now gives us a lambent and profoundly moving book about the mysteries of family. At its center lies Sherwin Nuland’s Rembrandtesque portrait of his father, Meyer Nudelman, a Jewish garment worker who came to America in the early years of the last century but remained an eternal outsider. Awkward


A writer renowned for his insight into the mysteries of the body now gives us a lambent and profoundly moving book about the mysteries of family. At its center lies Sherwin Nuland’s Rembrandtesque portrait of his father, Meyer Nudelman, a Jewish garment worker who came to America in the early years of the last century but remained an eternal outsider. Awkward in speech and movement, broken by the premature deaths of a wife and child, Meyer ruled his youngest son with a regime of rage, dependency, and helpless love that outlasted his death.

In evoking their relationship, Nuland also summons up the warmth and claustrophobia of a vanished immigrant New York, a world that impelled its children toward success yet made them feel like traitors for leaving it behind. Full of feeling and unwavering observation, Lost in America deserves a place alongside such classics as Patrimony and Call It Sleep.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Riveting. . . . A classic second-generation immigrant memoir. . . . A great book, full of feelings and memories that ring true.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A tale with universal resonance. . . unsparing, deeply felt and searching.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Intensely attuned to small gestures of suffering and consolation, Nuland studies his family . . .with pained, humane attentiveness. A supremely gentle book.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Remarkable. . . . A tragic portrait that is both terrible and beautiful in its clarity.” —Seattle Times

The New York Times
Hardly your evocative memoir, mellowed and illuminated by the years. The author's grievances are not retrospective; they are told as if still present. And that is the point. The book is defective as a memoir; it is something else in fact.

Dr. Nuland's iciness chills until we come to realize it is directed at himself. He had to reject his father's pain and humiliation, had to hold them at a distance; it was a vital need. And he is guilty and ashamed, which is not the same thing as apologetic because that would imply that things could have been different. Shame goes deeper; it is a tragic recognition of the inevitable. — Richard Eder

The New Yorker
The Yale professor of medicine Sherwin Nuland begins Lost in America: A Journey With My Father by evoking the depression that in his forties so debilitated him that only one doctor protested against his being lobotomized. This was, he thinks, the culmination of his unresolved relationship with his father, who "walks with me through every day of my life, in that unsteady, faltering gait that so embarrassed me when I was a boy." Meyer Nudelman cowed his family with his rage, but a mysterious, crippling illness also made him insecure and dependent. Only later, in medical school, did Nuland guess that his father had suffered from syphilis.

It is hard to imagine men with more to hide from their sons than those who participated in the Third Reich. Sigfrid Gauch's 1979 memoir of his Nazi father has been translated into English by William Radice, under the title Traces Of My Father. Gauch describes his "schizophrenic" situation, in which he had to learn "to love my father as a person but to be horrified by his personality."

Happy childhoods also have secrets, as Samuel Hynes' The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before The War attests. What did Hynes' father mean when he took his sons driving, without their stepmother and stepsiblings, and asked if they would like to be "just us three" again? What did he mean by saying, on his deathbed, that he "gave up a lot"? The answers are as unrecoverable as Hynes' prewar innocence, which ended when he was called up to the Navy; boarding the train, he looked back at his father, who was already "moving rapidly away through spots of light and shadow toward the dark street." (Kate Taylor)
Publishers Weekly
In his late 30s and early 40s, National Book Award winner Nuland (How We Die) was gripped by a depression so unyielding to treatment he almost underwent a lobotomy (the procedure was halted by a young resident psychiatrist who refused to listen to his superiors). But as haunting as this beginning of Nuland's memoir is, it's eclipsed in power by the story he tells of his relationship with his father, an aging Jewish immigrant whose life was a series of family tragedies and illness. Avoiding the twin traps of nostalgia and emotional overkill, Nuland details, in beautiful, stark prose, his father's harsh life in America. Meyer Nudelman worked, and failed at, a variety of jobs and was broken by the death of his first child, the death of his wife and the near-fatal illness of another son. For him, America was never a land of opportunity, and his life sank into various debilitating physical ailments and unpredictable rages that inflicted terrible damage upon his son. The memoir's deep, shocking, emotional impact comes when Nuland, a student at Yale medical school, discovers by reading a textbook that his father's physical symptoms all indicated that he was suffering his whole adult life from tertiary syphilis. The shock of this discovery-which Meyer's doctors knew, but never told him-doesn't lead to an easy resolution. "In America" the author writes, "Meyer Nudelman was a man with no past," and by the end of the book readers realize that his dreams of a happier future were also impossible. Written with enormous empathy, yet without a hint of sentimentality, Nuland's memoir is both heartbreaking and breathtaking. (Jan.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
How could anyone be lost in America? Nuland's Russian immigrant father, a difficult man whose debilitating illness progressed over the years, never acclimated himself to the America he entered as a young man in the early 1900s. Nuland, his youngest son and now a well-known physician and award-winning writer (How We Die), was so deeply affected by the domineering role his father played in his life that he spent many adult years locked in deep depression. This book is an effort on the part of the son to understand the long-dead father. Lost in America is not a comforting book. The members of the Nuland family are not happy people. They are, however, survivors in a land that had not kept the promise of its fabled golden shores. Their story, full of pain, loss, and misunderstanding, is lovingly told. The reader, who must be willing to share their pain, will gain richly from coming to know these intensely complicated and struggling individuals. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Vintage, 211p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Patricia Moore
Library Journal
Conspicuously absent from Nuland's How We Die, a National Book Award winner in 1994, the author's father dominates this new memoir. In contrast to the graceful How We Die, this book appears conflicted, crowded, and emotion-laden, with Nuland allowing readers no distance from his discomfiting exploration of his relationship with his father, Meyer. Nuland describes his father's troubles as an immigrant from Bessarabia (between Russia and Romania) who struggled with unfulfilling, low-wage work and the early death of his wife and first son. He brings his father's voice to life by reproducing his heavily accented English and occasional use of Yiddish. The journey recounted is a personal and painful one, and Nuland's attempt is not to universalize this experience but to come to terms with it for his own understanding. Raw, personal autobiographies easily find their way to readers, and this book by Nuland, a departure from some of his better-known works, will attract a different audience. Larger public libraries will want to add this to their collections.-Audrey Snowden, GSLIS (student), Simmons Coll., Boston
Kirkus Reviews
A dark, distressful, and deeply felt memoir of life with father—and its aftershocks—by National Book Award–winner Nuland (How We Die, 1994, etc.). Meyer Nudelman, a Jewish immigrant from the Pale, was, to put it mildly, a difficult man: moody with an explosive temper, an outlander in his own home, full of brittle pride. His accent and physical disabilities mortified young Sherwin, while his rages smote the boy to the soul; in one memorable explosion, Nuland (Surgery/Yale School of Medicine) sees that his father, so degraded by the miserable toil of his daily life, must in turn degrade his own son with a flurry of verbal abuse. Yet the Nudelmans’ stormy apartment also provided shelter, and Meyer’s weakness was his power. Impressively evocative of life in the Jewish East Bronx during the 1940s, the story hinges on Sherwin’s move to break away from his father’s smothering emotional grasp by attending medical school at Yale. But anguishing episodes of profound melancholia (like grotesque fogs with the "muffled mocking tones of a vengeful enemy") roil his life so severely that Nuland is slated for a lobotomy while a clinical resident at Yale and barely escapes the knife. The subsequent revelation that his father is suffering from the fallout of untreated syphilis is not enough to erase his feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, his fixations and the guilt, "the din and deluge of that rampaging stampede of obsessional ideations" that resulted in Nuland’s hospitalization. Lost in America probes the effect Meyer had on his life in the hope that by understanding his father Nuland might thereby understand a part of himself that has begged comprehension. The "journey" ends with a measure ofbalance: the author finds his own life by finding a way into and out of his father’s—and if it took 70 years to achieve, the time seems short for the amount of work involved. Charring and eloquent. First printing of 40,000

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.50(d)

Meet the Author

Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D., is the author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. He is clinical professor of surgery at Yale, where he also teaches bioethics and medical history. In addition to his numerous articles for medical publications, he has written for The New Yorker, The New Republic, the New York Times, Time, and the New York Review of Books. He writes a regular column for The American Scholar entitled “The Uncertain Art.” Dr. Nuland and his family live in Connecticut.

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