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11 Must-Read Memoirs Coming Out This Fall

From Patti Smith’s Year of The Monkey to trailblazer Edie Windsor’s epic life story.

Posted on September 24, 2019, at 10:43 a.m. ET

Motherland, Elissa Altman (Ballantine, out now)

Altman, the author of two previous memoirs, including Poor Man’s Feast, born of her James Beard Award–winning blog of the same name, explores her codependent relationship with her mother, a glamorous Manhattan singer named Rita. A lesbian, Altman didn’t fit her mother’s high-femme standards of makeup, fashion, and generally keeping up appearances. When Rita suffers a fall that results in physical disability, Elissa finds herself taking care of her mother again and coming to terms with the reality of looking after an aging parent with whom she has an unbreakable but complicated relationship.

The Yellow House: A Memoir by Sarah M. Broom (Grove Atlantic, out now)

The Yellow House opens with the author’s brother, sitting in a wooden chair at a wooden table on a patch of land in New Orleans East where a house once stood. It ends with this man, Carl, cutting the grass, still the memory keeper. In between, Broom weaves an intricate history of a family, a house, a neighborhood, a city, a country, and a globe. Beginning with her great-grandmother, she tells the story of one black New Orleans family over time and the place where they lived, creating a detailed map, both geographical and metaphorical, and deeply exploring the ways in which identity is rooted to family, family to place, and place to meaning, in a web of beauty and pain. This book is meticulously researched and relies also on interviews Broom conducted with most of the members of her sprawling family. But the through line is her own journey to understand herself in relation to the place, the yellow house that used to be green, the house of her mother’s ownership and her father’s ghost, the house of pride and shame, the house she resented and yet deeply loved and could not escape — even when it literally no longer existed.

I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying: Essays, Bassey Ikpi (Harper Perennial, out now)

Blurbed by everyone from Kiese Laymon to Samantha Irby, Akwaeke Emezi, and Michael Arceneaux, Ikpi’s memoir-in-essays is a stand-alone work of diamond-sharp prose that, despite (and because of) its title, is as honest as any memoir can be. In this stunning work, Ikpi, who describes herself as an ex-poet, writes about her childhood, her move from Nigeria to America at the age of 4, her adolescence in Oklahoma, her time as a spoken-word artist (she appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam), and finally being diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. But the real story in these pages is the beams of light and the cold shadows she is able to paint of what life is like with an unreliable mind. In so doing, she invites the reader to live in the truth that is also the lie, because, as Ikpi asks early on in the book, “What is truth if it’s not the place where reality and memory meet?” I’m Telling the Truth, but I’m Lying joins Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias in the 2019 canon of next-level mental illness narratives that are breaking stigmas with radical honesty and breathtaking sentences.

Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, Imani Perry (Beacon, out now)

Perry is perhaps best known for her 2018 multiple award–winning biography of playwright, activist, and luminous lesbian Lorraine Hansberry, Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. But her scholarly and literary work is abundant; Breathe: A Letter to My Sons is her sixth book. A professor of African American studies, law and public affairs, and gender and sexuality studies at Princeton University, Perry writes a lot of scholarly nonfiction, but Breathe is a much more personal endeavor. In prose that is tender, honest, and lyrical, she explores what it means to parent black boys in America. It is a gift, she writes, and it is necessary for society to embrace black children and people as human, something that does not automatically happen under white supremacy. This short letter-as-memoir is as much an intimate meditation on love, beauty, courage, and possibility as it is a broader reflection on racism and resistance in America.

The Undying by Anne Boyer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, out now)

An award-winning poet and essayist before her diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer at the age of 44, Anne Boyer has crafted a memoir of illness and healing in the tradition of Susan Sontag and Audre Lorde with her 7th book. Writing in clear-eyed yet poetic prose, Boyer probes deeply into the corporeal experience of illness as well as the medical industrial complex, the digital and capitalist cultures surrounding breast cancer and survivorship, and the literary history of women and illness. It’s a gorgeous and unflinching account of sadness, fear, and possibility.

Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith (Knopf, out now)

In this follow-up to her previous books M Train and the National Book Award–winning memoir Just Kids, musician, poet, lyricist, and dream-renderer Patti Smith is back with another memoir that loosely follows her 2016 year. It’s part travelogue, as she traverses the southwest and up to New York, part meditation on grief and aging after she loses two friends, part mourning for democracy as many people thought they knew it. The writing dances the blurry line between fact and fiction, dream and reality, and although it gets abstract, the prose remains accessible. Fans of Smith’s will not be disappointed, especially by the collection of polaroids that accompany the chapters they inspire.

Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, Jeannie Vanasco (Tin House, 10/1)

Vanasco’s previous memoir, The Glass Eye, made a lot of best-of lists for its deceptively spare examination of loss, mania, and the meaning of family. Her second book is an of-the-moment memoir in which she interviews the person who raped her when she was a teenager. Using this as a jumping-off point to push further into the #MeToo discussion, Vanasco prods at the question of whether committing a terrible act makes one a bad person. It’s a thorny and sensitive question, perhaps unanswerable, but in interspersing pieces of her exchange with this man, with personal reflections and a broader meditation on patriarchy and masculinity, Vanasco opens the conversation further. It’s a gripping read and true fodder for the necessary reckoning with toxic masculinity.

A Wild and Precious Life, Edie Windsor with Joshua Lyon (St. Martin’s, 10/8)

In the LGBTQ community, Edie Windsor is known as a vivacious personality and a tireless activist in the fight for visibility and marriage equality. Her case against the United States led to the Supreme Court ruling that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, paving the way for the Obergefell v. Hodges case that would legalize same-sex marriage nationally. But Windsor was more than the headlines, and more than her constant presence at rallies and protests. Her humor and heart were extraordinary, and she never apologized for being herself. This memoir, begun by Windsor and completed by her cowriter Joshua Lyon after her death in 2017, tells the story of her childhood in Philadelphia, her life in 1950s Greenwich Village, her love with (and eventual marriage to) her partner of 44 years, Thea Spyer, and her fascinating rise in the ranks of computing at IBM. Windsor’s life makes for a captivating and inspiring story of a queer woman who believed in her right to take up space and be seen.

Rerun Era, Joanna Howard (McSweeney’s, 10/8)

Do you ever feel like half of your childhood memories are actually from TV shows or the songs that were playing in the background when you were driving? Howard can relate. She grew up in Oklahoma in the late ’70s and early ’80s with her skater/bull-rider brother, her “women’s libber” mother, and her part-Cherokee truck-driving father. This memoir is full of quirky characters, but more than that, it uses sharp, hilarious, and often moving prose to tell the story of what it is to grow up in rural America, both in the pop culture fantasy of small-town wholesomeness and the real world of a harder reality. This is a short, fast, laugh-out-loud read, but it’s sticky; Rerun Era will keep playing in the reader’s mind like the earworms of childhood.

Initiated: Memoir of a Witch, Amanda Yates Garcia (Grand Central, 10/22)

Garcia has made a name for herself as the Oracle of Los Angeles, boasting A-list clients for her life coaching, tarot, and spiritual services; a podcast; and a viral appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight. But Garcia has writing chops and a clear devotion to social justice. Initiated follows several major events in her life, from rejection and abuse at the hands of father figures to sex work to codependent relationships and traveling across the globe. Born into a line of witchy women, Garcia had periods of rejecting and embracing witchcraft. She experienced trauma, deep discovery, and love as she grew into adulthood, with a lot of adventures along the way. She’s also extremely well-read in the history of myths, witchcraft, and folklore from many parts of the world, and effectively draws connections between all of these stories, painting the world as a connected orb rather than a bunch of broken pieces, which is what things like borders and wars make.

Ordinary Girls, Jaquira Díaz (Algonquin, 10/29)

Every once in a while, a truly electric debut memoir comes along, and this fall, Ordinary Girls is it. Díaz, who grew up in Puerto Rico and Miami Beach with a mother who had schizophrenia, a father who favored her older brother, and her younger sister, writes her story in crackling prose that plays with future and past tense, putting the reader in the narrator’s shoes as she navigates lost and found details of life. It starts in Puerto Rico, goes to Miami Beach, into schools and juvenile detention centers, into stronger-than-blood relationships with friends, lovers, and family; it goes into the navy, into familial legacy, and colonial history. It’s the story of an ordinary girl; it’s the story of all of the extraordinary girls. Díaz is a skilled writer; the depth of layering is strong, from the details to the larger structures of identity, white supremacy, colonialism, and brown, queer, and femme resilience and resistance. ●



Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer based in Seattle. She can be found on Instagram @readrunsea, Twitter @sarahmariewrote, and on her website, sarahneilsonwriter.com.

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