While I’ve been lucky enough to read many excellent memoirs this year, seven easily stand out as my top favorites from 2018.
(1) Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan
A writer’s memoir, Where the Past Begins details the author’s childhood and the origins of her career as a novelist. Whether sketching vivid portraits of her parents or reflecting on her love of music, Tan is engaging and eminently readable. There are a few chapters in the collection that come across as rushed, but many of them rank among the best writing I’ve read this year.
(2) How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
A memoir-in-essays about becoming a writer, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel focuses on the author’s coming of age as a gay Korean-American. Chee addresses everything from the loss of his father during his teens to the process of writing his first novel, Edinburgh. Chee’s lucid style is clearly influenced by his former teacher, Annie Dillard, and these personal essays are expansive and thoughtful.
(3) Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
In her debut memoir, famous novelist Jeanette Winterson reflects on her experience of growing up gay in Accrington, England, inside the household of her adoptive mother, a Pentecostal fanatic prone to abusive tendencies. The memoir comes across as a collection of loosely related stories about overcoming great adversity, all of which are witty and incisive. Winterson’s life story is astounding and moving, and her memoir’s one of the best I’ve ever read.
(4) The Recovering by Leslie Jamison
A collage of memoir, literary analysis, and cultural history, The Recovering reinvents the traditional recovery memoir. Across several fast-paced chapters, Jamison places her experience of alcoholism against the backdrop of American attitudes toward addiction in general; all the while, she surveys the literature of substance abuse, and sketches the lives of famous addicts, from Billie Holiday to David Foster Wallace. The book sometimes has pacing issues, but the strongest chapters are brilliant.
(5) Hunger by Roxane Gay
In understated but moving prose, Roxane Gay in Hunger reflects upon her life as a fat woman living in a misogynistic society that regiments and shames “unruly” bodies. The six-part book consists of eighty-eight short essays, and like The Recovering, Hunger alternates between memoir, cultural criticism, and social analysis. Gay’s style is precise and thoughtful, and her memoir’s consistently excellent.
(6) When We Rise by Cleve Jones
Dynamic and urgent, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement tracks the rise of progressive politics, sexual freedom, and gay activism in the Castro district during the 1970s and 1980s. Having been a leader of the early gay rights movement, Jones skillfully interweaves history with his personal experience, and his vibrant style brings to life a transformative era of American history.
(7) Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif
Daring to Drive follows Manal al-Sharif’s journey to becoming a leader of Women to Drive, a campaign protesting Saudi Arabia’s now-overturned ban on women driving. Early chapters detail the author’s working-class childhood, while later parts reflect on the independence she struggled to gain as a young woman. Al-Sharif writes precisely, with a matter-of-fact tone that registers but glosses over the pain of the harrowing experiences she recounts. Her perseverance is astounding, and her memoir’s well worth checking out.