As a child, the difference between biography and autobiography is laid out in basic library classifications. One is a book about a person written by someone else. Autobiographies, on the other hand, are books about a person written by the subject themselves. Whatever happened to autobiography? How did we end up with memoir?
Biographers are figures of stature akin to historians. They possessed gravitas. Their work required the skills of detective and an archivist. Professionalism marks their studies and publications. Readers are familiar with the role and occupation. By turn, no one assumes the title of autobiographer. A slippery role, it assumes that only the subject could tell the complete story of their life. Objectivity is secondary to capturing essence and intention. It’s a curious occupation with a charged mission.
Circling these forms, one begins to wonder: do they share the same goal? What does it mean to write about a person’s life? Is there more to gain from being inside one’s own head or is there something to allowing someone else to contextualize a life without personal attachment? Memoir removes formality from the genre. This is not to deride the seriousness of their projects. It frees the writer to think of it less as a linear study of a life, dependent on uncovering clearly defined milestones and turning points. Memoir allows for an unstructured sense of self outside the boundaries of typical expectation and accomplishment. The best memoirs aren’t afraid to be messy. They disrupt established histories and create new ones. They make space for possibility.
This season, the slate of memoirs is a diverse and eclectic lot. Many center around a perennial theme: family. Others occupy themselves with work, health, criticism, society, culture, and institutions such as marriage. It was impossible to cover all that caught my eye; I look forward to reading Tanaïs’ In Sensorium, Amy Bloom’s On Love, Taylor Harris’ This Boy We Made, and Christina MacSweeney’s translation of Jazmina Barrera’s Linea Nigra in time. That said, this shelf of memoirs will shake up your idea of formality and interior reflection.
I Came All This Way to Meet You: Jami Attenberg (Ecco, January 11)
After writing seven works of fiction, the consummate storyteller Jami Attenberg has written a memoir. Those who follow her newsletter, “Craft Talk,” and participate in her #1000wordsofsummer writing projects can testify to incredible work as a literary champion regardless of genre. In many ways, this memoir is the story of how she reached this benevolent and audacious position.
The peripatetic nature of Jami Attenberg’s life and family history informs this terrific memoir’s nonlinear storytelling. This narrative and its accompanied pacing gives I Came All this Way to Meet You a marvelous energy, alternatively destabilizing and grounding. Charting her life as a writer, Attenberg doesn’t spare the reader. You see the circuitous but steady path she’s taken over the years. Her devotion is infectious.
All of this heady talk aside, it’s a fun book to read. For those of us who have spent the better part of the last two years at home, Attenberg takes the reader on the road—cross country and internationally—then back to Brooklyn, looking at Manhattan from the Williamsburg waterfront, before heading to New Orleans, where she is “spreading out a little bit, making myself comfortable, making myself feel right at home.” Settled in her now-not-so-new city, Attenberg discovers places that few locals have haunted. A trip to a regional airport uncovers a story about Amelia Earhart who was greeted there (her second stop on her fateful trip around the world) by an old friend whose flight school was located at the airport. She seizes upon this moment as the actual story—not the run-in with celebrity. “That’s what I was looking for,” she says, about “the friend who came to meet her.” Attenberg offers transport while also spinning feeling and history into the fabric of an outstanding story.
Aurelia Aurélia: Kathryn Davis (Graywolf, March 1)
The Aurelia was a cruise ship which Davis took to travel to Europe from Philadelphia at age 16. On it, she assumed the persona of a Russian woman in dark glasses. She wasn’t a girl and she wasn’t a woman, but she was trying a new life on for size. It’s an arresting image that leaves you wondering about the significance of transition and creative self-invention.
In the wake of her husband’s death, Davis tracks through pivotal encounters where life and art intersect. “Time Passes,” the middle section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse figures prominently in the book as she plays with the notion of time as well as memory. Marriage can trigger transitions of identity. Death demands transitions. There’s an imaginary perception of place as the embodiment of transition that surfaces throughout this book. In case it wasn’t already clear, this is not your conventional linear memoir.
What makes this slim idiosyncratic book work is its incredible pull. Davis (whose fiction I have never read and clearly need to) weaves together memory and literature in such a direct manner. It’s not romantic or flashy. This is writing that isn’t interested in proving anyone’s intelligence or establishing some loftier understanding. It reveals the honest work of a writer coming to terms with the elements that have influenced her life: memory, loss, illness, fairy tales, Flaubert, the Cloisters, Greece, Lawrence Durrell, CP Cavafy, Bergman’s films, the TV show Lost, Gérald de Nerval, suppressed family life in the 1950s, dogs, the allure and disillusionment of travel, a fascination with transitions.
Never Simple: Liz Scheier (Holt, March 1)
Liz Scheier grew up in Manhattan in the 1980s and came of age there in the 1990s with her single mother, Judith Scheier, a former lawyer and fabulous liar. Almost everything Scheier knew about her late father was untrue. Given that her mother didn’t hold a job, she also had no idea how the rent or bills were paid. This debut book is about a search for facts and families, coming to terms with grief and trauma, forming new relationships to love and trust while always struggling to unravel a coherent origin story from an unreliable, mentally ill mother.
On its own, Scheier’s story is a jaw-dropping story that would stop conversation at a dinner party. What makes this story a book is her vibrant, funny, unsparing voice which forcefully propels the narrative forward in time as New York City changes as does society.
Scheier writes about what it’s like to know only so much about the people you love—and whether or not you can still love someone who hurts you. There’s a lot to this book that will spark necessary conversation about transparency, mental health, abuse, addiction, housing, parenthood, egg donation, elder care, but also questions about love, sexuality, friendship, obligation, responsibility, devotion, and freedom. While this sounds like one kitchen sink of a book, what Scheier does is reveal the way these issues so often are impossible to untangle from one another.
This book rearranged the way one looks at relationships and life. There’s a limit to what any of us can share of ourselves—though this portrait is perhaps unlike any other you will encounter. Her mother was a force and a legend but she was also a person. Scheier captures this tension so well. There’s a certain grace we need to carry for each other.
Ancestor Trouble: Maud Newton (Random House, March 29)
In the early aughts, literary readers flocked to writer Maud Newton’s blog for her sharp and insightful criticism. As much as readers checked their mailbox for weekly magazines, it was as crucial to refresh her blog for a new post. She became known beyond the world of blogs when she became a contributor to the New York Times Magazine. But it was her 2014 essay in Harper’s (“America’s Ancestry Craze”) that served as the launching point for her first book, Ancestor Trouble.
Like many Americans, as digital archives became more prolific and websites surfaced to aid searches, Newton became caught up in researching her roots in search of a truth beyond well-worn tales and fabulous characters. This book draws together many of the threads of family and legacy explored in these fellow memoirs. Hers was an entirely unconventional Southern family. Her maternal grandfather allegedly married thirteen times. While that staggering fact begs countless questions, it takes the air of a tick when you consider that her maternal great-grandfather was said to have killed a man with a hay hook. Her father took pride in a family legacy of slaveholding. Drawing from a long standing family tradition of female preachers, Newton’s mother established a “holy-roller” church in their living room. Yet, it was also said that there had been a witch in the family during the seventeenth century. There were also whispers of mental illness.
With the rigor of a historian and the voice of a mystery writer, Newton pulls the reader into a philosophical exploration of trauma and heritage. It’s a magisterial memoir that brings to bear America’s original sins and the bonds that endure despite all manner of wrenching tests.
Easy Beauty: Chloé Cooper Jones (Avid Reader Press, April 5)
Incredibly accomplished, Cooper Jones has a PhD in English and, by now, I presume she has finished her philosophy PhD. She has a rare congenital disorder called sacral agenesis. Hers is a body that also offers her considerable pain and functional challenges, yet, despite this, she has always been independent and mobile. These details frame but do not define her memoir.
It’s in the nature of Cooper Jones’ writing to touch upon several stories before landing. Hers is a steady voice that threads together various ideas and histories in order to analyze her motivations and thoughts, the lack that gnaws at her and her ongoing search to define and (perhaps in doing so) contain the notion of beauty.
Though an academic, she can’t help but become a critic and this journey from graduate student to unlikely mother and wife then professor and—upon achieving an unbelievable prize of a position—jeopardizes it (and possibly her marriage) to travel, observe, interrogate, and write because in many ways her life depends on it.
I loved her incredible encounters with Peter Dinklage, Geoff Dyer, Beyoncé, and Roger Federer, but her moments in Italy and Cambodia really touched me. As she mulled over philosophical writing on the sublime and beauty, I thought as well about the sublime, a concept I found as challenging to define now as I did in college. We may grapple with or know concepts intellectually, but accepting them in practice with our hearts and bodies is another. It can take years and miles to fully absorb the lessons we most need to learn. Easy Beauty is a memoir that uncovers beauty in community while finding the courage to push one’s self beyond one’s limits. Cooper Jones kept searching as should we.
Tasha: Brian Morton (Avid Reader Press, April 12)
Brian Morton is a tremendous writer’s writer. A professor at Sarah Lawrence College, he is known for his novels A Window across the River, Starting out in the Evening, and Florence Gordon—the last of which bears revisiting after reading his memoir about his mother’s later years.
Like the heroine of Florence Gordon, Morton’s mother was a fierce feminist. Morton’s mother was a cantankerous, strident, outspoken activist for education. She herself took great pains to return to school later in life, building visions for experimental classrooms that she herself executed. After her time in the classroom, she worked on her local school board to create and support audacious policy. She was a woman who had run away from home at a young age, then left for Israel when her boyfriend wouldn’t commit to marriage. She wasn’t afraid of bold actions or compromise, but life has a way of slowing one down over time. This memoir examines Tasha’s final years following a stroke as Morton and his sister struggled to help Tasha.
Health and independence are too easily taken for granted. Creating boundaries around difficult parents is essential until needs shift. Tasha is in many ways a tribute to a complicated woman, but also an examination of the dearth of options for ailing, aging people—regardless of cost. There’s an incredible passage in which Morton imagines his mother’s last thoughts. It’s not sentimental, but deeply reflects her spirit—and frustrations. We spend so much of life torn between wanting to be understood and true to ourselves and compromise to live a life in community with others. Finding that balance is hard and different moments in history make it more challenging for idiosyncratic women. I thought about this book in relationship to Liz Scheier’s Never Simple; Tasha was no liar, but that alone didn’t make her easy to like.
Constructing a Nervous System: Margo Jefferson (Pantheon, April 12)
For decades, Pulitzer prize winner Margo Jefferson has stood out as a vital critic whose critical eye has helped us better understand American culture, but in 2015, she turned that gaze upon herself in 2015 with the National Book Critics Circle award winning memoir Negroland. Unpacking the social restrictions surrounding African-Americans upholding the notion of DuBois’ Talented Tenth, Jefferson reveals the contradictions and challenges experienced before then throughout the social changes of the mid-20th century.
This new memoir explores her family history through American culture, applying her lens as both a critic and memoirist. It’s an exacting and ruthless but also a generous examination of the spaces where cultural history overlaps with what we consider traditional history, which is to say everywhere, but her sites of interrogation are so striking. Deceptively slim, this is a book to reread in order to uncover more resonance with each reading.
Speaking about the singer and performer Josephine Baker, Jefferson writes, “She knows that love without ‘understanding’ is careless, reckless love. She knows that understanding comes from unending hard work, and that without some infusion of love it can stall at anger and despair.” Rather than be passive, Jefferson compels us to look more closely at the world around and everything you assume and take for granted. Shed your docile nature and think fearlessly for yourself and the emotions and complications surrounding the media we ingest.
Interrogating the conventional wisdom surrounding the writer Willa Cather, Jefferson considers, “I let several years pass without speaking directly to Cather’s whiteness rapture. The old stratagem, devised in childhood: not wanting to exclude myself from the cultural access whites had; not wanting to look damaged by what had been offered grudgingly or compensatorily. This no longer served. My inner life had to keep pace with the facts and furies of the world.”
The Red Zone: Chloe Caldwell (Soft Skull, April 19)
Back in the 1990s, there seemed to be a preponderance of books centered around self-image and empowerment for girls. Mainstream media co-opted zine culture/publication and produced a lot of books that felt vaguely encouraging. . . But how were we supposed to exercise that empowerment in a world that was still pretty closed off. If you wanted to be a doctor, astronaut, lawyer, or an engineer, great! But what if you just wanted time and space to figure out what it was you loved, make a living, and just feel good about yourself? Now there was a challenge.
Being exceptional and settling for nothing less was the message I took to heart. It’s not an easy thing to accomplish. 25 years later, there are podcasts, social media groups, group chats, websites, normalized therapy and medication; and it’s still hard!
Caldwell’s book harkened back to those books that urged me and my peers to be their best selves—with no granular facts or road map. Now, sure, there is no road map to life, but it does help to have a common language and knowledge about one’s body. This memoir explores finding the language and communication skills to come to terms with emotions and physical pain beyond anything we have ever encountered in media, social or familial conversation, medical treatment. The book pinpoints PMDD (Premenstrual dysphoric disorder), but also touches upon divorce, marriage, step parenting, queerness, and more things that escape visibility or nuance. I wish it was around back in the 1990s. I’m glad it’s here now. This is one you’re going to buy for the teenager as well as your friends and colleagues in their twenties and thirties. With a love story entwined with a chorus of voices, this is compulsively enjoyable and empowering memoir.