A memoir of the author’s struggle to find the words to mourn her son’s death.
On March 16, 2015, Aidt’s son, Carl, died after throwing himself out of a fifth-floor window; he had suffered a psychotic break after consuming psilocybin mushrooms. It takes a long time—nearly halfway through this slim, devastating book—for Danish poet and fiction writer Aidt (Rock, Paper, Scissors, 2015, etc.) to state those facts so plainly. But her sense of grief is present from the first page, and she deploys multiple rhetorical elements—poetry, literary criticism, journals, all-caps, exclamatory text—to reckon with her loss. She returns over and over to her memory of the phone call delivering the news, adding new details each time, as if bracing herself to express the fullness of the event. Between those moments, Aidt bemoans the impossibility of putting her feelings into words through run-on anger (“I hate writing don’t want to write anymore I’m writing burning hate my anger is useless a howling cry”), unusually structured poetic passages (“Panic like a geyser inside the body / shoots its poison-water / up / from underground / to / the reptilian brain”), and sober contemplation of other grief-struck books such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, and Anne Carson’s Nox. The difficulty of articulating grief is itself a cliché of the grief memoir, but Aidt’s shattering of genre forms both underscores the feeling of speechlessness and gives it a palpable shape. (The book’s orthography bolsters that sense, playing with font sizes, line breaks, and italicization; translator Newman handles these rhetorical shifts with grace and clarity.) Carl’s death thrusted Aidt into a world where “nothing resonates or can be established, where nothing in the entire world is recognizable.” Yet this book is an alchemical feat, giving shape to the most profound sense of absence.
A remarkable story of a mother whose “ingenuity and talent and dogged pursuit of happiness made possible [her family’s] beautiful home, brimming refrigerator and quality education.”
Fannie Davis was an amazing woman. Sharp and unwilling to be hemmed in by the dual restrictions of race and gender, she did what it took to raise a family and to uplift a community. In 1960s and ’70s Detroit, she ran the “Numbers,” an illegal lottery that was nonetheless central to many urban and especially African-American communities, especially in the era before states realized that licit gambling could be a lucrative trade and even as they cracked down on the gambling they defined as illicit. Above all, Fannie Davis was a mother. In this admiring and highly compelling memoir, Bridgett Davis (Creative, Film and Narrative Writing/Baruch Coll.; Into the Go-Slow, 2014, etc.) tells the story of her beloved mother. The author knew that her mom’s role in the Numbers had to be kept secret, but she also knew that it was not shameful. Placing her subject in the larger historical contexts of the African-American and urban experiences and the histories of Detroit and of underground entrepreneurship embodied in the Numbers, and framing it within numerous vital postwar trends, the author is especially insightful about how her mother embodied the emergence of a “blue collar, black-bourgeoisie.” Although there was considerable risk in running the Numbers, it also provided a path forward to a comfortable lifestyle otherwise nearly unimaginable. While critics liked to paint the game as a path toward dissolution, for the author—and many others—it was anything but. This is not a story about capitalizing on degeneracy. It is one of hope and hustling in a world where to have the former almost demanded the latter.
This outstanding book is a tribute to one woman but will surely speak to the experiences of many.
Love and yearning, independence and community recur as salient themes in this debut collection.
In her first book, Hopper (English/Yale Univ.), a contributor to New York magazine and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications, gathers essays notable for their intimacy and warmth. Raised in an evangelical family by “anxious, God-obsessed parents,” the author and her siblings were home-schooled, with little exposure to TV, movies, and radio. “We shared a unique set of cultural references,” she writes, “or perhaps a unique lack of them, which amounted to a secret language.” In high school, she began boning up on popular culture and, gradually, assembling a “found family”: people who “know you and love you for who you are—not for who you once were, or who you never were.” Many essays meditate on varieties of sentimental attachments—to friends, lovers, and, in “Hoarding,” to things. Hopper rejects the idea of a “hoarding disorder,” which “pathologizes an entire deep-rooted orientation toward the material world, an orientation that constitutes my lifelong experiences of creativity, attachment, safety, and joy.” Both hoarding and writing, she suggests, depend on what is “serendipitously discovered and rediscovered and collected and stored.” In the lovely “Lean On,” Hopper regrets that dependence is “despised in our culture, from psychology to politics,” implying weakness and shame. Self-reliance, on the other hand, is extolled by Emerson, Joan Didion, Ayn Rand, noir novels, and most Westerns. Hopper begs to differ, celebrating the gifts of “shared daily life.” Praise for community underscores her admiration for the classic sitcom Cheers, whose theme song, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” seems to her “a kind of love song.” Whether she is writing about her fraught decision to become pregnant with donated sperm, a friend’s bout with cancer, baking (“a code for conveying care safely without the ambiguity of words”), the collective energy of the Women’s March, or a visit to the Foundling Museum, Hopper’s essays seem like love songs, as well: delicate, thoughtful elegies to friendship, compassion, and grace.
Two very different memoirs within the same cover address memory, identity, history, and mortality from different perspectives.
Having established himself as a brilliant novelist (The Making of Zombie Wars, 2015, etc.) and memoirist (The Book of My Lives, 2013), MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow Hemon offers a structural challenge in these back-to-back memoirs, where the end of the book finds a fresh beginning, with no direction as to in which order they should be read. In My Parents: An Introduction, the author takes a deep dive into the lives and marriage of his Ukrainian father and Bosnian mother and their lives before and after the devastating war that tore apart their Yugoslavian homeland and drove them to Canada. His father is a storytelling natural who rarely reads and disdains fiction: “I am not going to read made-up stuff only because it’s nicely written,” he insists. His mother reads voraciously. As chapters illuminate the cultural significance of food, music, literature, and so much else within their extended families, Hemon rebels against both parents, but what he resists most strongly is their aging and the inevitability of their dying. Ultimately, it is a memoir of mortality, of memory, of what endures. This Does Not Belong to You is more of a series of coming-of-age fragments, some rapturously poetic, covering much of the same ground of the family’s years before the war but with the focus on the author as a young boy and man rather than on his parents. He struggles to understand what he understands better now, and he feels a sense of loss now over what he experienced then. It provides the seeds for his sense of identity and for his germination as a writer. Eventually, he finds his narrative and shows that there could have been many others.
An incisive combination of literature that addresses the function of literature and memories that explore the meaning of memory.
A novelist explores the perils and joys of parenting, marriage, and love in this showstopping memoir about race in America.
When her 6-year-old, half-Jewish, half-Indian son, Z, started asking complicated questions about Michael Jackson's skin color, Jacob (The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, 2014) faced the challenge of being honest about racism in America without giving him answers that might be too much to handle at such a tender age. The result is this series of illustrated conversations between Z and the author, by turns funny, philosophical, cautious, and heartbreaking. "Every question Z asked,” writes Jacob, “made me realize the growing gap between the America I'd been raised to believe in and the one rising fast all around us.” These reflections compelled the author to excavate her formative years in New Mexico and, later, in New York as a young writer struggling through her 20s. Jacob grew up navigating a constant stream of expectations from her parents, who emigrated from India to the American Southwest in the middle of the civil rights movement. Particularly moving are the chapters in which Jacob explores how even those close to her retain closed-minded and culturally defined prejudices. With grace and honesty, the author chronicles how she navigated the racist assumptions of an employer and dealt with Indian relatives who viewed her as "a darkie" with no marriage prospects as well as the devastating decision of her Jewish in-laws to vote for Donald Trump. "I feel awful," Jacob explained to her husband. "I feel like they've abandoned me." The memoir works well visually, with striking pen-and-ink drawings of Jacob and her family that are collaged onto vibrant found photographs and illustrated backgrounds. Occasionally the author reuses a drawing to spectacular effect, as when the faces of a white boyfriend and colleague from her past show up in a collage about the responses of white Americans to Trump’s candidacy. Told with immense bravery and candor, this book will make readers hunger for more of Jacob's wisdom and light.
The visual echoes between past and present make this extraordinary memoir about difficult conversations all the more powerful.
A devastating memoir of a woman’s experiences in Iraq that ultimately reflects how “there is no real end to war, only the absence of it, a lull in the fighting, a time during which another generation is born for the kill.”
At the age of 19, King (It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution in Afghanistan, 2017, etc.) was deployed to Iraq as a “wheel-vehicle mechanic,” which required her to recover vehicles rendered inoperable due to mechanical issues often caused by enemy fire. However, sometimes she also had to salvage the body parts of fellow soldiers who had been killed in those vehicles. “We were told every soldier gets a black bag and every piece of flesh, bone, or body part not connected to a full body was to have its own separate bag,” she writes. As a sergeant explained, “there is no certainty that the leg lying near one body is actually that body’s leg. It’s not your job to figure that shit out. It’s your job to clean it up.” Throughout her deployment she saw soldiers inured to the violence and death, and she tried to be detached and courageous even when she was thrown for a loop by mortar fire that left a fragment of shrapnel in her shin. Impressively, King coolly relates the countless horrors she witnessed. Readers who don’t know certain elements of war jargon—Strykers, nametape defilade, BOHICA, etc.—should consult a dictionary or the internet; this immediate narrative has little room for such explanations. As if her nightmarish experiences in the war weren’t difficult enough, she relates the equally arduous challenge of returning home pregnant with twins and suffering from and denying PTSD. Throughout, King’s descriptions are graphic, clear, and frightening to read.
An absolutely compelling war memoir marked by the author’s incredible strength of character and vulnerability.
In this daringly structured and ruthlessly inquisitive memoir, Machado (Her Body and Other Parties, 2017) examines an abusive relationship with an eye to both personal truth and cultural assumption.
The author begins with a declaration. “I speak into the silence,” she says. “I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.” She is writing to record her experience of queer sexuality and intimate psychological violence; by telling her story, she's committing its existence to history. History has largely ignored the queer experience, particularly the existence of domestic abuse between queer women. As Machado points out, when you are invisible from the collective narrative, it is harder to imagine what your own feelings mean. The relationship at the heart of this memoir is resurrected with visceral potency. Instead of tracing her past with linear continuity, the author fractures it, diving into beautifully or painfully remembered moments with a harrowing emotional logic. As Machado recounts, she fell in love with a woman who seemed wonderful—they had sex, went on road trips, met parents—but who eventually became oppressively terrifying. In other sections, the author recounts an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and illuminates the imagery of abuse in two films by George Cukor. Machado uses slippery changes in point of view and a knack for translating emotion into concrete sensation to slide readers into her space, where they experience the fear and confusion of abuse from the inside. She applies the astonishing force of her imagination and narrative skill to her own life, framing chapters with storytelling motifs (unreliable narrator, star-crossed lovers, choose-your-own-adventure) and playful footnotes. Occasionally, the various parts muddle each other’s trajectories, but the heart of this history is clear, deeply felt, and powerful.
A fiercely honest, imaginatively written, and necessary memoir from one of our great young writers.
In his debut, the winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction, McLeod recounts his childhood and coming-of-age in Treaty Eight Cree territory in Northern Alberta.
Told predominantly in English, with a smattering of French and infused with important moments of untranslated Cree language, the fragmented and seemingly dissonant episodic chapters contain elements that are present in many Native/First Nations memoirs: alcohol, drugs, domestic violence, abuse, racism, religious intolerance, and poverty. However, these details don’t exist to pleasure the white gaze or to satisfy any savior complex. These aspects, delineated in the segmented narratives, reflect candid truths and the brokenness that occurs in a life surrounded by settler colonialism and fueled by historical trauma. They also serve as an acknowledgment, which is the first step to healing. Whether retelling his mother’s stories, such as her escape from residential school, or recounting the grooming and abuse he experienced from his brother-in-law, his search for intimacy, or his desire for reconnection to Cree tradition, the author ably conveys all of the devastating guilt, shame, remorse, and emptiness that he has experienced. Still, it’s clear that McLeod isn’t “looking for pity.” As the title of the opening chapter, “Spirals,” suggests—and just as his mother did in her own “magical way”—the author shares his stories in a spiral, revisiting “each theme several times over, providing a bit more information with each pass,” until it “wash[es] away the heaviness.” Readers able to “just sit back and listen without interrupting” (a lesson young Darrel learned from hearing his mother’s stories) will share in the secret knowledge that coming-of-age has little to do with losing one’s innocence and everything to do with maintaining one’s hope.
Lyrically written and linked by family, compassion, forgiveness, and hope, Mamaskatch sings out as a modern-day celebration of healing.
A victim of sexual assault speaks out in an eloquent memoir.
Miller’s riveting book begins in January 2015, when she awoke in a hospital bed bruised, bloody, with pine needles in her hair. She was 22 and the night before had gone with her younger sister to a fraternity party at Stanford, where she drank enough to black out. Two Swedish graduate students saw her splayed on the ground, unconscious, beside a dumpster, a young man molesting her; he ran, and they chased him and pinned him down until the police arrived. Miller creates a brisk, vivid chronicle of three years, from the assault by 19-year-old Brock Turner, a Stanford student and swimming athlete, to its dramatic aftermath. Called Emily Doe to protect her identity, the author told only two people outside of her family during the first year after the assault and only a few more later. Victim Emily, she writes, “lived inside a tiny world, narrow and confined” to the courtroom and lawyer’s office as Miller—daughter, sister, girlfriend, comedy club performer, art student—struggled with anger, sorrow, depression, and often incredulity. “I didn’t know,” she writes, “that being a victim was synonymous with not being believed.” Victims, she learned, were held “to an impossible standard of purity.” Turner’s high-priced lawyer “littered my night with intentions and poor decisions.” Women claiming assault were always asked if they said no. Although a jury unanimously found Turner guilty of three charges, felonies that could have carried a 14-year prison sentence; although Emily Doe’s 12-page victim’s statement went viral and was read by 18 million readers (including Joe Biden, who sent a supportive message); the judge, noting Turner’s upstanding family and bright future, imposed a six-month sentence, of which he served three. That decision caused an uproar, resulting in an unprecedented vote for the judge’s recall. Despite that outcome, Miller had learned from the trial “whose voices were amplified inside the courtroom, whose were muted,” inspiring her “to expose the brutality of entitlement, gender violence, and class privilege.”
A powerful narrative that couldn’t be timelier and deserves the widest possible audience.
A dazzling debut memoir from artist and designer Rush.
Growing up in a strict Roman Catholic family in New Jersey, the author felt both trapped and adrift as a child, a feeling exacerbated by his neglectful mother and alcoholic father, who was “a dark planet, exerting only vague astrological influence on his offspring.” Introduced to drugs, especially LSD, early on by his loving hippie sister, Donna, Rush continued to chafe under his suburban adolescence before finally setting out on a remarkable journey into the counterculture and across America, from his hometown to the wilderness of the Southwest. By the age of 13, he writes, “I took LSD as often as possible. Taking acid was like entering a painting of a storybook—a glowing dream world, lush and lovely. I felt no conflict between the real and the unreal. It was so easy to slip in between.” In sparkling, lucid prose that perfectly captures the joy, depression, anger, and wonder that characterized his adventures, the author recounts the seemingly endless hills and valleys of his unique tale. Among others, these experiences included countless days getting stoned in his parents’ basement, avoiding his dysfunctional parents; a stint in boarding school, where he became the primary drug dealer on campus; time living with Donna and a group of her friends on a drug compound in rural Arizona; enduring a shocking act of violence; and some weeks living a feral life in caves scattered around the deserts of the West. Along the way, while struggling with significant substance abuse (“sometimes I’d shoot up with…customers who craved a speechless high, who wanted to grow dim with me, become sputtering candles in the dark”) and grappling with his sexuality, Rush continued to draw, an artistic spark that took years to ignite into a career. He also suffered a near overdose. Though the narrative ends on a slight uptick, the author refreshingly avoids tying his story up with a pretty bow, and readers will wish for more from this talented writer.
A captivating, psychedelically charged coming-of-age memoir.
Before focusing on memoirs, Shapiro (Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, 2017, etc.) drew from her family life in her fiction. In her latest, she delves into an origin story that puts everything she previously believed and wrote about herself in fresh perspective.
The author’s relationship with her mother was difficult. “My single best defense had always been that I was my father’s daughter,” she writes. “I was more my father’s daughter. I had somehow convinced myself that I was only my father’s daughter.” Eventually, she learned that she wasn’t her father’s daughter at all, at least not in the way that she had initially understood. Through DNA testing to which she had only submitted because her husband had done so, Shapiro discovered that she shares none of hers with her father’s side of the family and that the sperm that impregnated her mother had come from someone else. But who? The first half of the book trudges through a bit too much day-by-day detail, as the author becomes convinced that there’s no way these results could have been mistaken. It is after she discovers who her real father is, or at least the sperm donor, that the narrative deepens and enriches our deeper understanding of paternity, genetics, and what were then called “test tube tots.” Sperm donors had been guaranteed anonymity, and the man she contacted was initially resistant to upset the balance of his family dynamic because of his participation in the procedure decades earlier. Equally upsetting Shapiro was the issue of what her parents had believed, separately or together, about her parentage. Had they spent their lives as a family deceiving her, or had they also been deceived? Then there was the doctor whom they had consulted when they were having fertility issues, “an outlaw” whose credentials were shaky but whose results were impressive.
For all the trauma that the discovery put her through, Shapiro recognizes that what she had experienced was “a great story”—one that has inspired her best book.
From the time her father died when she was 10, Tsabari (The Best Place on Earth: Stories, 2016) felt out of place in Israel, where she and her family had long lived in a community of Yemeni Jews. “Grief shakes the foundations of your home,” she writes in her candid, affecting memoir, “unsettles and banishes you.” In addition to the loss of her father—whom the author evokes in loving detail—she felt excluded from Israeli culture, where Arab Jews were treated like second-class citizens, even those, like her and her parents, who were born in Israel. “In a country riddled with cultural prejudice,” she writes, “the stereotypes associated with Yemenis over the years have ranged from romanticizing to fetishizing to patronizing.” In 1935, when her grandparents arrived, Yemeni immigrants were considered “savage and primitive”; even today, “Yemenis are often the butt of racial jokes and the subject of mockery.” As in her impressive collection of short stories, which won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, Tsabari examines the cultural and personal forces that result in alienation and “self-inflicted exile.” For nearly a decade after completing mandatory service in the Israeli army, she traveled to Canada, New York, Mexico, India, and Thailand, with few possessions. “Home, essentially, was the act of leaving,” she writes, “not a physical place, but the pattern of walking away from it.” She married, briefly; had affairs; spent years drinking cheap whiskey and smoking dope; and periodically returned to her family home before leaving once more. “Leaving is the only thing I know how to do,” she reflects. “That seemed to be the one stable thing in my life, the ritual of picking up, throwing out or giving away the little I have, packing up and taking off.” It must be lonely, a friend remarks, “needing to be free all the time.” Now in her 40s, grounded by her husband and daughter, she redefines home: an emotional commitment to a place “where love resides.”
Linked essays cohere into a tender, moving memoir.
A standout memoir that digs into vital contemporary questions of race and self-image—among the most relevant, “What is proximity to the idea of whiteness worth and what does color cost? And the reverse?”
Williams (Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, 2010), a 2019 New America Fellow and contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, moves away from the “Black Man” label to offer a chronicle of why he is aiming to think of himself as “an ex–Black Man.” Raised in the 1980s in New Jersey by a “black” father and a “white” mother, the author grew up thinking of himself as black. The trigger for writing this lyrical, incisive memoir was the birth of his daughter in 2013, followed by a son. They are also mixed-race given the author’s marriage to Valentine, a Frenchwoman. (The family resides in Paris.) Though Williams is determined to move beyond categorizations of “black” and “white,” in order to communicate clearly in this memoir, he knows he must rely heavily “on our language’s descriptive conventions,” which he explains in the opening author’s note. We see the author’s psychological struggle as he thinks through the conundrums, including what the confusion might mean for his white-looking children. In the hands of a lesser writer, the back and forth of his pondering could have sunk the memoir. However, it succeeds spectacularly for three main reasons: the author’s relentlessly investigative thought process, consistent candor, and superb writing style. Almost every page contains at least one sentence so resonant that it bears rereading for its impact. The lengthy prologue is grounded heavily in discussions of race as a social construct. Part 1 takes readers through Williams’ adolescence, Part 2 through his marriage, and Part 3 through dealing with his family on both sides. In the epilogue, the author speculates on “the shape of things to come.” Shelve this one alongside Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, Mitchell Jackson’s Survival Math, and Imani Perry’s Breathe.