This semester, I’m taking a class called Readings in Essay and Memoir, so I thought I’d dedicate a post to some of the texts we’ll cover. You’ve probably noticed that memoir is one of my favorite genres. In fact, I’d like to write a memoir, and the second-best way to become a better writer is to read. (The first-best is to actually write.)
None of these are new releases, but they represent different styles of memoir and essay writing and I know I will learn a lot from them. One day, perhaps my name will be on this list! (Or a list like it. Maybe not this list exactly; that would be a little weird.)
I intend to review all of the books on the list, as well as a few that I discover along the way. Here they are, in no particular order:
8. I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
Wry, hilarious, and profoundly genuine, this debut collection of literary essays is a celebration of fallibility and haplessness in all their glory. Together, these essays create a startlingly funny and revealing portrait of a complex and utterly recognizable character that’s aiming for the stars but hits the ceiling, and the inimitable city that has helped shape who she is. I Was Told There’d Be Cake introduces a strikingly original voice, chronicling the struggles and unexpected beauty of modern urban life.
7. An Exclusive Love by Johanna Adorján
Chain-smoking, peculiarly stylish, stubborn, and eccentric—Vera and István were anything but ordinary grandparents. Sixteen years after their death, Johanna Adorján fills the gaps in their story. An Exclusive Love is a brilliantly constructed memoir and a gorgeous romance, a tale of two people who died as they lived: inseparable.
6. This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
This unforgettable memoir, by one of our most gifted writers, introduces us to the young Toby Wolff, by turns tough and vulnerable, crafty and bumbling, and ultimately winning. Separated by divorce from his father and brother, Toby and his mother are constantly on the move, yet they develop an extraordinarily close, almost telepathic relationship. As Toby fights for identity and self-respect against the unrelenting hostility of a new stepfather, his experiences are at once poignant and comical, and Wolff does a masterful job of re-creating the frustrations and cruelties of adolescence.
5. The Pharmacist’s Mate by Amy Fusselman
Fusselman’s first book weaves surprising beauty out of diverse strands: death and sea shanties, guns and artificial insemination, World War II and AC/DC. Highly personal but always engaging, this book reveals the humor and beauty throughout Fusselman’s grief following her father’s death.
4. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
Who is Ruth McBride Jordan? A self-declared “light-skinned” woman evasive about her ethnicity, yet steadfast in her love for her twelve black children. James McBride, journalist, musician and son, explores his mother’s past, as well as his own upbringing and heritage, in a poignant and powerful debut. Interspersed throughout his mother’s compelling narrative, McBride shares candid recollections of his own experiences as a mixed-race child of poverty, his flirtations with drugs and violence, and his eventual self-realization and professional success. The Color of Water touches readers of all colors as a vivid portrait of growing up, a haunting meditation on race and identity, and a lyrical valentine to a mother from her son.
3. If You Knew Suzy: A Mother, a Daughter, a Reporter’s Notebook by Katherine Rosman
Faced with the loss of her mother, Suzy, to cancer at sixty, Wall Street Journal reporter Katherine Rosman longs to find answers to the questions that we all wrestle with after losing someone we love. So she does what she does best: she opens her notebook and starts investigating. With a reporter’s eye for detail and nuance, Rosman creates a vivid, unflinching, and unforgettable portrait of a privately remarkable mother and woman. In the process, Rosman tells a universal tale of loss and love, capturing the angst families confront when wading through the world of doctors and hospitals, the poignancy and pain that come as a life ends, and the humor that helps transform sadness into a new and powerful brand of happiness.
2. Angelhead: My Brother’s Descent into Madness by Greg Bottoms
A taut, powerful memoir of madness, Angelhead documents the violent, drug-addled descent of the author’s brother, Michael, into schizophrenia. Beginning with Michael’s first psychotic break—seeing God in his suburban bedroom window while high on LSD—Greg Bottoms recounts, in gripping, dramatic prose, the bizarre disappearances, suicide attempts, and the shocking crime that land Michael in the psychiatric wing of a maximum security prison. A work of nonfiction with the form and imagery of a novel, Angelhead enables the reader to witness not only the fragmenting of a mind, but of a family as well.
1. Up for Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over by Cathy Alter
By age thirty-seven, with a failed marriage under her belt, Alter was continuing down the path of poor decisions, one paved with a steady stream of junk food, unpaid bills, questionable friends, and highly inappropriate men. So she dedicated her life to the women’s magazines for the next year, resolving to follow their advice without question. By the end of her subscriptions, she would get rid of upper-arm jiggle, crawl out of debt, host the perfect dinner party, run a mile without puking, engage in better bathtub booty, ask for a raise, and overhaul her apartment. At least that was the premise of her social experiment. What actually happened was much less about cosmetic change and much more about internal transformation. Singular in its voice and yet completely universal, Up for Renewal appeals to all who have ever wondered if they could actually make their life over.
Leave a comment if you have already read one or more of these titles. I plan to read all of them by May, so please feel free to join me in a memoir/essay readathon!
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