Memoirs with Benefits: A Reading List of Hybrid Narratives
Courtney Maum Recommends Memoirs That Seesaw from Past to Present, Personal to Universal
To determine what defies the memoir genre, we first need to agree what memoir is. Originally stemming from the Latin memoria—to remember—in the broadest terms, memoirs see us committing our memories to paper. But a memoir isn’t a diary—it’s a curation of past experiences; an intimate collage. Though life is lived chronologically, a memoir rarely progresses in sequential order, but rather moves in shifts between the narrative present and past experiences to better replicate how memory works, and to provide a richer, more emotional glimpse into the author’s life.
I love reading nonfiction that seesaws in this way. When I set out to write a memoir, I knew I wanted this back-and-forth motion in my own book. But I also wanted to offer my readers a little something extra: the main event plus sideshows. To pull this off, I started revisiting memoirs with benefits, the kind of hybrid projects that educate or call to action, incriminate or shout—books that take you up close and personal with the author, then zoom out to visit the larger world that the story is taking place in.
While I imagined my journey back to mental wellness as the principle narrative arc in The Year of the Horses, I also wanted to explore the patriarchy’s attempts to keep women away from horses so that I could give my reader a little breathing room while also paying homage to the women who broke gender barriers so that I could ride. I found solace and inspiration in the diverse timelines and educational material that pushes the following titles out of memoir territory into something wilder. I hope that you do, too.
Alicia Kopf, Brother in Ice
I’m not the only person who thought this prize-winning book should have had the moniker “autobiographical” in front of “novel” (the author herself has talked about her discomfort with the book’s genre in interviews), but whatever you want to call it, this collage of arctic expedition notes, photographs, reported research, and excerpts from Kopf’s diaries—both fictionalized and not—ice picks at the narrator’s relationship with her brother, whose autism keeps him at a remove, and at the frozen walls us humans sometimes choose to live behind.
This enchanting genre-buster has something for everyone. Are you an east coaster wondering what life is really like in LA? Suffering from imposter syndrome as an artist or a writer? Wondering whatever happened to the brainy author behind the cult favorite Speedboat? Using the darker moments of Hollywood darlings such as Tuesday Weld, Renata Adler, and Thomas McGuane to shed light on his own upbringing in Tinseltown, Specktor has crafted a mesmerizing exploration of ambition, popularity, and real life after fame.
Chloe Caldwell, The Red Zone
A mix of memoir, medical investigation, and group therapy, Caldwell’s latest is a red-hot probe into the biology, ramifications, and politics of menstruation. Using her personal struggles with premenstrual dysphoric disorder as a vehicle to explore the way that other women experience their periods, Caldwell takes us from Reddit threads to the halls of her own marriage with the candidness and bravery that has made her a standout memoirist and teacher.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
This prize-studded graphic memoir guides us through Bechdel’s childhood interactions with “The Fun Home,” the euphemism her family used for the funeral home her father, Bruce, was a director at—a profession that encouraged Bechdel to think deeply about life’s meaning even as a child. When the college-aged Bechdel finally summons the courage to disclose her queerness to her parents via letter, her father one-ups her by admitting his own gayness, and dies unexpectedly shortly thereafter. A heartbreaking look at love, identity, and family firmly buttressed by Bechdel’s generous humor and artistic talent.
Dr. Rebecca Hall, Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts
This tribute to the unsung women who fought back against their enslavers is also a testament to the basement heroism of academic researchers. Candid, rageful, educational, and ground-breaking, this hybrid text sees Dr. Hall forced to fictionalize the lives of some of her heroines because so many of her research efforts were thwarted by the very institutions that kept most of these womens’ existences from being documented at all. Hall found a perfect partner in illustrator Hugo Martinez, whose own fury and tenderness bursts forth from the page.
Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence
In much the same way that filmmaker Charlie Kauffman’s inability to properly adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into a screenplay turned into a movie of its own, this hilarious book sees Dyer traveling around the world to research, plan, and write a D.H. Lawrence biopic that he just can’t seem to nail. Irreverent and deeply human, this memoir speaks volumes to the creative byproducts of procrastination.
Annabel Abbs, Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women
While Geoff Dyer was wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, journalist and author Annabel Abbs was walking in the footsteps of Lawrence’s long-suffering wife, Frieda. Part travelogue, biography, memoir, and feminist call-to-arms, this warmhearted book follows in the actual footsteps of five women celebrated by the world for many things, but never for their walking. Did you know that Simone de Beauvoir hiked for miles in espadrilles because outdoorsy footwear wasn’t available for women? You do now.
Nuar Alsadir, Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation
As a survivor of Clown School myself, Alsadir’s Granta essay on the emotional flagellation of clowning is one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read, and her longer interrogation into the act—and release—of laughing is equally powerful and moving. Using her professional background as a psychoanalyst and a poet, Alsadir shares the many ways that laughter is provoked and experienced around the world.
Rebecca Solnit, Recollections of My Nonexistence
Tracking Solnit’s coming of age as an artist and feminist in a San Francisco that was changing just as much as she was, this memoir explores Solnit’s moral formation—and erasure—while also acting as a biography of an American city that silences women, still.
Ada Calhoun, Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me
In her last book, Calhoun explored why women have such a hard time sleeping. In her latest, Calhoun navigates equally fraught territory: her relationship with her father and their shared obsession with the poet Frank O’Hara. After finding recorded interviews with O’Hara for a biography on the poet that her art critic father never finished, Calhoun decides to finish the book herself. What starts as a behind-the-scenes look at the art of ghostwriting soon veers into the landscape of an emotional whodunnit, weaving literary criticism with a nearly archeological excavation of a complicated father/daughter bond.
A radiantly urgent look at the way the American medical system has treated—and continues to treat—black women and black mothers, this stirring memoir shows Harris discovering a vital secret about her own chemical makeup that changes the way she thinks about the mysterious illness affecting her toddler. As moving as it is educational about the emotional and physical repercussions of endurance, this memoir explores the stamina it takes to successfully navigate medical bureaucracy, systemic racism, and the churning seas of motherhood.
Courtney Maum’s The Year of the Horses is out now from Tin House.