Summer Reading List: The Year of the Memoir

Summer Reading List: The Year of the Memoir June 6, 2019

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Well, that’s a lie. Fall is the most wonderful time of the year. But summer is a close dang second. Past the blizzards, beyond tornado season. Free of the crush of the school year and activity schedule. Free of manic May and its endless cascade of Very Important Events and extra junk to remember to send to school with your kids to ensure that no 2nd grade slacking costs them that college scholarship, ten years hence. (If you have kids in school these days, you know I’m only half joking). Vacations on the horizon; weekends grilling and chilling with friends; and hours and hours of extra daylight for– yes! reading!

You know I’m a stickler for “fiction only” in the summer. But lately I’ve been on a narrative memoir kick. They seem to be the in-thing in popular lit right now.

‘Narrative memoir’ is not the same thing as straight biography. This is not the book that middle schoolers will groan to see assigned for the midterm exam (which, much like their 2nd grade rock project, will make-or-break their college prospects). This is one person’s reflective experience of the world. Some greater vision of shared human experience, told through the lens of their own story. No droning, tedious “musings on life” from a sanctimonious point of view. But real, raw, vulnerable life that points to a larger truth.

I get why this genre is popular right now. The world is coming unglued. Some new horror dominates the newsfeed every day, and we move through the world with a growing sense of helplessness. The healthcare industry and the field of higher education are inevitably going to destroy the economy (which is why the 2nd grade rock project MUST BE DONE, so we don’t have to take out more student loans); but it’s cool because the climate is past repair and this whole star we’re living on will probably implode in like 30 years anyway so… guess those student loans aren’t such a huge problem! And also it’s about to be another election year and we are already in toxic meltdown mode. Our collective relationship with the “truth” in this season is–shall we say–loose. From climate change to women’s reproductive rights, the field is already cluttered with misinformation. It is no small wonder that we long for some small escape; but at the same time, we long for the transformative powers of truth-telling.

A good memoir gives us just that; a bit of escape into someone else’s world, held in balance with the redemptive art of giving testimony. Here are a few that I have read lately, am actively reading, and/or have lined up in the queue for the long summer days ahead.

  1. Educated, by Tara Westover. Shew. You can’t put it down. But sometimes you can’t put it down in the same sense that you can’t look away from a train wreck. The author takes us through her harrowing childhood with Mormon parents in a remote part of Idaho. It’s a study in religious fanaticism, unchecked mental illness and–one of my very favorite topics– the tension between where you come from and who you become. This is for anyone who’s got a complicated relationship with ‘home;’ and/or, anyone whose doubt and faith struggles have estranged them from beloved family and friends.
  2. Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, by Stephanie Land. A single mother narrates her experience of homelessness, near homelessness and just getting by as she tries to raise a  young daughter alone. You will love this author’s grit, strength and spirit. You will also appreciate, as I did, the profound insights about life and the world that she gleans from years of doing the only work she could do to survive– cleaning people’s homes. It’s a riveting book, but what I most appreciate is the truth it tells about the cycles of poverty: once you are in that hole, our economy makes it nearly impossible to climb out again. At least, without help.
  3. My Father the Pornographer, by Chris Offutt. A beloved voice in Appalachian literature, Chris Offutt shares his experience of going home to Kentucky to go through his father’s belongings. That thing about clearing out the house after a parent dies might be a common shared human experience; but not everyone’s father was a prolific author of erotic fiction.
  4. Becomingby Michelle Obama. Y’all, this book is everything the prophets foretold. It is real and raw; it is hilarious at times, and heartbreaking at others. It is a vulnerable journey behind the curtain, as the author shares her journey from Southside Chicago girl to First Lady in the White House. In between, she had this whole life, education and career of her own; you don’t always hear that part on the campaign trail. My favorite part so far is when she and Barack–co-workers, not yet dating–ditch Les Mis at intermission and sneak out for ice cream, because it is just so sad and heavy they can’t even. Also, the part where he (eventually) proposes is just about the best thing ever. It’s a delightful read (or listen, as Michelle narrates it herself). But fair warning: mostly, it will just make you sad that these brilliant, civic-minded, compassionate people are no longer in charge. (sigh). But– onward!
  5. Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah. The author, well-known comedian Trevor Noah, was born of an interracial relationship in the last days of apartheid. His very existence was evidence of broken law, which led his parents to literally hide him for the first years of his life. Want to know how he grew from that dark beginning to be so hilarious? So do I.
  6. Everything Happens For a Reason, And Other Lies I’ve Loved, by Kate Bowler. Miss me with that whole Girl, Wash Your Face situation–which, from what excerpts I’ve read, is dripping with privilege and bad theology and possibly plagiarized anyway. I’m reading instead this book, which takes a popular Christian cliche and explores more deeply the raw pain of real life. Nobody can write like a theologian living with cancer. Bowler explores the tensions between faith and doubt, the spiritual and the physical, and ultimately debunks the toxic prosperity gospel that can rob us of all true meaning.
  7. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girlby Carrie Brownstein. I’d never heard of this until a friend recommended it recently. But you had me at punk feminist rockstar. I’m in.
  8. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, by Elizabeth Catte. Speaking of books you can miss me with– Hillbilly Elegy is right up there. Yes, I know Ron Howard is making a movie of it. I trust that movie will deal in unfairly stereotyping the locals every bit as much as the book did. If you are contemplating reading J.D. Vance this summer–or, more importantly, if you already have–please pick up Catte’s book instead, where she explores the place, people and politics through a more authentic and nuanced lens. Also read this piece in Salon about why her’s is better.
  9. Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, by Jenny Lawson. Also known as “The Bloggess,” Jenny Lawson is known for hilarity, and also for pull-no-punches truth telling. And isn’t that the theme of the summer? I haven’t read this one yet, but loved her other one: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. 
  10. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, by Rachel Held Evans. This book hit #1 on the NYT Best Seller list after the author’s recent untimely death. In it, the author shares her own struggle with faith and the place she came from; and, in true RHE fashion, makes it all come right and redemptive somehow. Whether you are reading in memory of her life and good work, or still searching for your own Sunday, this book will have all of the truth and beauty we are looking for this summer; and in every season.

We love a good memoir because, deep down, we are all looking for a way to tell our own story. There’s a power in finding your voice that can truly change the world; or at least, it will change your life. Take in the words of those who have harnessed that power, and maybe it will help you find your own. If nothing else–you’ll have found a smashing good beach read.

Happy June, y’all!


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