In an artful new book that's as much an absorbing memoir as an object worthy of aesthetic praise, celebrated graphic designer Tamara Shopsin takes us on an adventure from Mumbai back home to New York City, with stops in between to her adopted home of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where she lives in a carriage house with her photographer husband and collaborator, Jason Fulford. Mumbai New York Scranton moves through these places and through different periods in Shopsin’s life; she’s still a part-time short-order cook at her father’s beloved and beguiling restaurant Shopsin’s in Lower Manhattan, but the narrative ultimately covers four tumultuous weeks in her life, when—unbeknown to her—a tumor was growing in her brain and had begun to block her vital arteries.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Shopsin recounts her experience, which culminates in successful emergency brain surgery, with deft prose and playful design. Her delight in details, especially in the harsh world of the hospital, is what keeps this tale fresh, like her pre-operation plea to her twin sister for origami paper; musings on whether Capri Sun juice packs were invented by someone inspired by an IV pouch; and photographs of the “heaven”-like wet sponges rubbed on her lips in the recovery room.
With this memoir, Shopsin’s mix of art, storytelling, and quirkiness has clearly become her trademark. To describe her growing obsession with appam, an Indian rice flour, and coconut bread, she draws us a stick illustration comparing it to other local breakfast treats. To describe her growing love for Scranton, she tells us of its ring-pop factory and giant lump of coal in a city square that wears a Santa hat come Christmas time. And to describe her increasing wariness and dizzy spells, which she only later discovers are the result of her growing tumor, she tells us of a harrowing bell-less bike trip across the Brooklyn Bridge where, believing something was faulty with her wheel alignment, she hopelessly calls out “bicycle, bicycle, bicycle” to avoid veering into unsuspecting pedestrians.
Even before her life-threatening health crisis, Shopsin had a lot of material to draw upon. Fans of the restaurant were already curious about her experience growing up in the 1970s and '80s in a one-bedroom Greenwich Village apartment with her parents and four siblings (she slept on a bookshelf) amid a quirky restaurant where her father famously still turns away non-regulars and creates more than 900 concoctions from scratch for its ever-changing menu (the mac & cheese pancakes have a cult-like following). As an adult, Shopsin has travelled the world and designed pieces for major newspapers and magazines (including GOOD) on topics from Canadian donut chains to book reviews on Theodore Roosevelt. But it’s her deceptively light turns of phrase and images that are the most compelling.
“People study meditation for twenty years to clear their minds of worry and distraction. Jason and I go to Wegman’s,” she writes. Shopsin’s journey within—to the recesses of her brain—is perhaps the most arresting exploration of all.