The best memoirs of August

Al Woodworth on August 20, 2020
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The Best Biographies and Memoirs of August

Identity. That’s the theme of this article on the Best Biographies and Memoirs of the Month. In each these books the authors (scientists, poets, historians, Pulitzer Prize Winners, and mothers) grapple with the notion of identity, home, and place. Where does identity come from? What does it mean if your home does not welcome you? What does it mean when your ancestors have been displaced? What does it mean when the person that you shared a home with dies? Who are you if not for your family? These are just some of the questions that these brilliant writers address in books publishing this month.

Here are five memoirs about the intersection of home and identity, and don't hesitate to check out the full list of the Best Biographies and Memoirs of the Month.


Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

I still can't stop thinking about Memorial Drive by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey. It’s no surprise, but she is a provocative, beautiful writer; the way she describes, unpacks, and shares what it was like to grow up in the South with a black mother and a white father, and to have her mother killed by her stepfather when she was only 19, is tragically clear-eyed. Trethewey investigates her mother’s life, and her own childhood, and in so doing she gives shape to the embedded racism of this country. At the same time, she describes how childhood trauma and the fierce love of her mother shaped her heart, mind, and art.


A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

Elliott’s honest, sometimes darkly funny personal stories illuminate how identity can be both a bludgeon and a backbone. The daughter of a white Catholic woman and a Haudenosaunee man, Elliott is at once part of both cultures and separate from them, crafting and navigating her sense of self as best she can. Thorny brambles block her path: her mother’s severe mental illness, deep prejudice against Natives, and poverty so extreme that Elliott lives with head lice from elementary school until she leaves home. Elliott’s magnetic writing and keen sense of self guides her and the reader through moments that are terrible, wonderful, and ultimately unforgettable. —Adrian Liang


Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots by Morgan Jerkins

Morgan Jerkins, author of the best-selling and acclaimed This Will Be My Undoing, sets out to discover her family’s roots in Wandering in Strange Lands. In doing so, she paints a larger portrait of African American displacement and disenfranchisement during the Great Migration and its impact on her own life. Traveling across the country following leads and the oral histories of her ancestors, Jerkins explores her own cultural identity as a Black woman, shedding her family’s credo of only looking forward and never looking back. Jerkins is a wonderfully articulate memoirist and critic as she shares her own quest to understand the hard truths and actions of her ancestors, interrogating what it means to be Black but light skinned, why the Creole label in her family was “downplayed,” and why the Native American label was “flaunted.”


The Smallest Lights in the Universe by Sara Seager

Sara Seager is an MIT professor, an astrophysicist, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient, and is referred to by NASA as “an astronomical Indiana Jones.” And now she can add brilliant memoirist to her list of accomplishments. In The Smallest Lights in the Universe, Seager shares the landscape of her own cosmos—her childhood and life as an astronomer, discovering companionship when your mind works a bit differently than everyone else’s, having babies, and navigating the loss of her husband. There’s something familiar and hopeful about her words, or maybe she’s just effortlessly channeling her beloved night sky: comforting, limitless, dark, and dazzling.


Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno

Part memoir, part cultural reportage, Tomboyland, navigates the traditions, assumptions, and landscapes of the Midwest and the intersection between place and identity, home and belonging, male and female, the personal and political. Melissa Faliveno’s essays are gorgeously rendered and though she doesn’t always answer the questions she sets out with, she grapples with them so thoroughly that her message is all the more clear: your roots allow you to grow—any which way. Like Sara Seager’s memoir, there is deep comfort in this essay collection that is both an elegy to the ones she’s loved and the home where she spread her wings.


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