Our favorite memoirs, criticism, and narrative nonfiction, presented in no particular order.
Posted on December 22, 2017, at 4:06 p.m. ET
Gay's memoir is a work of unraveling the thorny contradictions in body (positivity) discourse — especially those which become apparent when we move from the theoretical to the real. Gay traces her size to an early, unthinkable trauma, which led to compulsive eating as an attempt to make herself safer by being larger. In the 30 years that follow, food and eating, for Gay, have become inextricably linked to identity, comfort, and shame — but she doesn't examine only these internal conflicts. In analyzing the culture of bodies, food, diets — deftly, as always — she reckons with the fact that none of the as-yet-established sects of body positivity make sense for her.
To read Sunshine State – Sarah Gerard's essay collection ruminating on her home state, Florida — is to fall into something like a trance. Gerard's writing transports completely, thanks both to the eerie, atmospheric prose itself and to her thorough investigative journalism; each essay carries the reader to a seemingly foreign world. There's her parents' membership in the Christian Science-esque New Thought Church, their departure from it, and then their (related?) journey into Amway sales. There's the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, its glory days as remembered from Gerard's youth juxtaposed with its current dismal ("post-apocalyptic") state. There are cogent analyses of legislation, activists, and aesthetics, always grounded by Gerard's connection to her subjects, always led by her distinct voice. Florida's role as an oddball state may not seem like anything new, but in Gerard's capable hands Florida becomes not so much a geographical state but a state of being, something which can leave an indelible mark on those who call it home.
If forced to say most succinctly what Afterglow is about, I'd say it's about Rosie, Eileen Myles' beloved, late pit bull. But that description doesn't even scratch the surface of this book, which is truly resistant to category. It's Eileen Myles' memoir, but it's also Rosie's memoir. (Myles lets you know when Rosie is speaking, and when Eileen is. They also let you know when it's another entity entirely, which sometimes is the case.) It's about the human-dog relationship — from the minute details of their shared home, to the big questions about the nature of their companionship — and it's about human-human relationships. It's about consciousness, grief, and love, and what it means to not just experience these states but to probe and reshape them, to ultimately (hopefully) reach some peace.
Juli Berwald's Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone is as much about jellyfish (which, it turns out, are fascinating) as it is about Berwald — her reflections on following this esoteric passion for years, on deciding to lay claim to this kind of scientific exploration. Berwald's clear, delectable, and accessible prose takes the reader around the globe, plunging them into the mysterious depths of the ocean, and placing them in the worlds of these misunderstood creatures. The book forces the reader to reconsider the future of our planet, and of our role in it.
In his essay collection They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib navigates American history and culture through music. Whether diving deeply into the meaning of Carly Rae Jepson's catchy pop, celebrating the transcendence of Prince's halftime show, or — in his most moving essays — ruminating on the "link between black music and black survival," with a specific focus on Freddie Gray, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, and Trayvon Martin, Abdurraqib writes about the music he holds dear, and the experiences which have embedded this music in his life, with such lyricism that the writing nears music itself — and his love of the subject is palpable.
Ariel Levy's memoir has loss at its core — of a home, of a marriage, and, most significantly, of a son, who lived just a few minutes after being born at 19 weeks. It isn't surprising, then, that The Rules Do Not Apply is a book of gut-wrenching sadness and disillusionment; Levy writes with strength and precision about her grief. And though this grief is also for the life she (misguidedly) believed she was owed — a belief she argues was bred by the "women-can-have-it-all" brand of feminism — Levy stops short of moralizing. Loss is catastrophic, whether anticipated or not. Levy's memoir is a testament to the strength and adaptability of human nature.
In her latest essay collection, Samantha Irby seems hell-bent on convincing readers she's "boring and terrible" — kind of curmudgeonly, prefers the company of her cat over most people. Ironically, though, it's nearly impossible to leave this book without the overwhelming need to be new BFFs with her. Irby's voice is what makes these essays as funny as they are poignant, and she's as skilled discussing romantic misadventures as she is ruminating on the long-lasting effects of growing up with an abusive father. Fans of Irby's beloved blog "Bitches Gotta Eat" will know what delight they're walking into, but for new readers: what a wonderful surprise.
Few are writing as incisively about race in the US — about white supremacy and (anti-)blackness specifically — as Ta-Nehisi Coates. In this collection of essays, Coates pulls no punches examining Obama's presidency and its devastating aftermath. His writing pulses with anger — at the cruel (if unsurprising) swiftness with which the hope of Obama's presidency was wiped out, and at the people and systems responsible for this — and though many of the essays have previously been published at The Atlantic, reading them freshly, post-Obama, is especially damning. And white readers: Yes, this book is a reckoning, and necessarily so. It's also captivating, insightful, and not without hope.
Jessica Bruder's Nomadland tells the stories of "workampers" — a growing, albeit still largely invisible, population of American senior citizens who have rid themselves of mortgages and rent, and taken to life on the road. Reading about Bruder's central character, Linda May, as she is pushed out of job after job, moves into an RV, and connects with a veritable tribe through short-term and scattered work at Amazon, state parks, and private farms, kept me perpetually hovering between two extremes — terrified of ending up with the same fate, and energized to buy my own trailer and shake loose the chains of materialism. Linda May's story is so poignant, though, because it's so complicated. She and her friends aren't homeless; they're houseless. They reject capitalism, but their travels are determined by available work. They embrace their freedom, but they live in a nearly constant fear of "the knock" — police coming to ask what they're up to. It's impossible to read this book without being moved to question your own comforts and necessities, to consider what a meaningful life comprises, and how our society hinders the pursuit of it.
Food writer and self-taught historian Michael Twitty has been writing about the role of food in African-American communities on his blog Afroculinaria since 2011. In The Cooking Gene he turns this interest into a journey, one which readers are lucky enough to witness. And it is an expansive journey, spanning centuries, looking at the ways in which enslaved Africans translated their history into their cooking in the American south, and how those traditions continued through abolition and beyond. Alongside this investigation is a more personal one, equally compelling, diving into Twitty's own rich and complicated history (Twitty grew up in Washington, DC, but his family is from Alabama; Twitty also converted to Judaism in his youth), and never straying far from the food that links the two narratives. It's a fascinating book, perfectly blending past and present, personal and societal, private and public, solving countless culinary mysteries along the way.
Scaachi Koul's debut essay collection is cutting and hilarious, drawing out personal experiences to confront, more broadly, systems of oppression. Koul (who is a current staff writer at BuzzFeed News) writes with nuance and frankness, adding fresh insight to conversations around immigration — Koul's confronting her cultural ambivalence upon returning to her parents' homeland is especially affecting — and identity. And then, also, it's just super funny. Koul is incisive in her criticism, but doesn't shy away from poking fun at herself. (See: her survival of what might otherwise seem to be a life-ruining fitting-room disaster.)
At 192 pages, Myriam Gurba's Mean might look like a quick read, but readers will do themselves a disservice by rushing through it. Gurba's stories, which all together make up a refreshingly experimental memoir, are thick with meaning, pulling from Gurba's experience growing up queer and mixed-race Chicana in 1980s southern California, and exploring trauma, politics, identity, and endurance. Her writing pushes the boundaries of genre — her vignettes are spare, resembling prose poetry — but so does her identity push the boundaries of easy categorization. Gurba seems intent on tearing down walls and shaking readers out of complacency; her writing pulls our attention to human cruelty, suffering, and then, resilience. We are better off for it.
Kristen Radtke's graphic memoir is a quiet, stirring meditation on grief, loss, and impermanence. At its core is the death of Radtke's uncle, whose fatal heart condition forces Radtke and her family to reckon with the possibility of their meeting the same fate. From here, Radtke explores abandonment in its more literal, observable manifestation: cities of ruin. We jump through time, following as Radtke moves through sites in Europe, Asia, and the US, watching as she sacrifices relationships to do so. It's a relatable, painful yearning for meaning in all of this randomness, told in spare, down-to-earth truths.
Alana Massey's debut essay collection lives at the intersection of personal, cultural, and academic writing — and expertly so. With wit, sharp insight, and apparent love, Massey pays tribute to some of the women of pop culture, both real and fictional, whom she's idolized throughout her life. These odes would be worthwhile in themselves, but Massey pierces her adoration with criticism of the world in which they (and we) live, and the forces which publicly demean them: Take the stripping of Courtney Love's dignity, the erasure of Amber Rose's autonomy, the delegitimizing of Sylvia Plath's pain, not to mention that of her (female) fans. With Massey's personal stories woven in, All the Lives I Want is a poignant examination of public womanhood, and what happens to those who step outside its acceptable bounds.
David Grann unearths a shameful period of US history in Killers of the Flower Moon — the decimation of the Osage Indian nation in the early 20th century. Grann revisits1920s Oklahoma: The Osage are vastly wealthy thanks to the rich oil fields of their reservations, and slowly they start dying for it at the hands of the white Americans who decide that that wealth should be theirs. Grann's revisiting isn't just in history, though; it is a true reopening of an investigation, including new and previously unpublished evidence, all of which creates a more complete, captivating, and damning portrait of one of America's most monstrous crimes and cover-ups.
Masha Gessen's The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia is a dark and expansive tome, elucidating the events and forces which, over the course of one generation, returned Russia to a Soviet order seemingly stronger than ever. The book reads almost like a Tolstoy novel, introducing a cast of Russian characters — descendants of opposition leaders; philosophers and social scientists — and following them through and beyond perestroika, chronicling, dismally, their loss of hope for freedom in Russia. Gessen outlines the failure of Russia's reform with precision and humanity, thoroughly explaining the strength of an authoritarian government's hold on its citizens' psyche. It's not just history; it is an urgent awakening.
Through prose and poetry, narrative and abstraction, Sherman Alexie creates the stunning memoir You Don't Have to Say You Love Me. The book hinges on grief, specifically for Alexie's late mother, with whom he had a complicated relationship. Alexie lays bare his emotion, recounting (and then returning to —
circles play an important role here) some of his darkest and conflicted memories of his mother. She was poor, but generous. Loving, but quick to punish. An alcoholic who committed to recovery for her family. And then there are the stories of his mother, as told by his mother — a history often embellished. Switching back and forth between internal and external investigations — remembering his mother, and then ruminating on their effects on each other — Alexie's memoir is heartbreaking and true.
Bunk is a wild ride, start to finish. Kevin Young's sweeping history of the hoax is uncomfortably relevant, drawing out the reasons we as Americans can't seem to stop falling for (and thrilling at) all manner of cons. Young's examination spans generations, from the 1835 newspaper reporting the discovery of men on the moon, to today's fake news epidemic. What sets Young's history apart, beyond his painstaking research and conversational voice, is his focus on the role of race and queerness in these lies: Why was Joice Heth, the enslaved woman made to pose as a 161-year-old wet nurse to George Washington, the key to P.T. Barnum's fame? What access do queer characters like JT Leroy earn those playing them? In Bunk, Kevin Young arms readers with a more thorough understanding of the lies they're being sold, and perhaps a strengthened defense against them.
Priestdaddy is a memoir of family and faith, at once raw, obscene, and uncanny. Poet Patricia Lockwood writes about her family, and specifically her Catholic priest father at its helm, with gentle criticism, poking fun — lovingly — at the larger-than-life characters who surround her when she and her husband move back home to save up some money. The reader, in witnessing, feels a kinship with Lockwood herself, who seems outside, though fully aware of, the absurdity of her new(ish) world — the nervous seminarian living at the rectory; her pants-less, guitar-playing father; her ever-quotable mother. It's when she steps away from the lightness of the scenes to hint at their darker histories — the reasons for her separation from her family's lifestyle, the sexual trauma of her past — that the memoir becomes a more contemplative look at religion and belief. When Lockwood writes about faith, she doesn't do so from a place of judgment, but as a family member betrayed, trying to reconcile the comfort of the past with the wrongs of the present.
Arianna Rebolini is the books editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Arianna Rebolini at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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