Truly great memoirs don’t just catalogue the events of a life; they address things that matter, not just to the author but to the world at large.
By Stephen Lovely
Memoirs are always a lifetime in the making, but their arrival can seem perfectly timed. So, while there’s always a reason to go back and read The Glass Castle or The Liars’ Club, we tend to pick up brand-new titles that have just hit shelves.
With that in mind, we drew up a list of the best memoirs of 2019. These must-read books tackle themes like depression, drug use, and immigration injustice. They’re powerful stories with important messages, and they all deserve space in your bookcase.
Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares by Aarti Shahani
The best memoirs manage to feel retrospective and of-the-moment at the same time. That’s certainly the case with Aarti Shahani’s Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares, a story of immigration and family that is at turns unsettling and deeply moving. The Shahanis’ journey from India (by way of Casablanca) to Queens, and their subsequent journey through America’s culture and immigration system, form the backdrop to what is ultimately the story of a daughter, a father, and a family.
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land
Memoirs are at their best when they illuminate lives and stories that might otherwise go unnoticed and unheard. Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid is an essential example of this. Land’s story is that of the working poor, a group that is all too invisible to policy makers and the public alike. This memoir makes the plight of the working poor much harder to ignore for each reader that it finds — and it ought to find each of us.
Lori Gottlieb’s book about therapy and the people who benefit from it does an incredible job of explaining therapy in concrete, no-nonsense terms. It also gives readers a moving and ultimately optimistic look at the struggles we face in our daily lives and within our minds.
Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America by Nefertiti Austin
When Nefertiti Austin decided to adopt a Black boy through the California foster care system, she could not find representation in books or film of her journey as a Black single mother. She set out to change that with this memoir that chronicles her heartbreaks, struggles, and triumphs of motherhood. Touching on universal parenting topics, such as choosing a name, finding a community, and answering tough questions, Austin presents a much-needed view of being a Black single mother that crushes stereotypes and tackles racism head-on.
Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith
Smith’s works of nonfiction and memoir are always a treat, and the National Book Award-winning memoirist has another big release scheduled to be published this year. Focusing on a solitary year on the California coast, this volume promises to be a particularly introspective one from the former punk rocker.
The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia by Marin Sardy
Marin Sardy grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. Her mother had schizophrenia. Later in life, her brother, too, was diagnosed; he lost his life to the disease. Sardy’s memoir of family and mental illness is beautiful and heartbreaking, and it gives readers a new perspective on the treatment of the mentally ill in American society.
They Called Us Enemy by George Takei
Before George Takei became famous as a cast member on Star Trek, he was a little boy of Japanese descent who was detained in an American internment camp during World War II. Takei uses the graphic memoir format to tell his story of injustice and triumph in America. This is a relatively quick read that will stay with readers, and it’s a particularly poignant story for our time.
Me by Elton John
Elton John’s official autobiography hasn’t been released yet, but it’s not too soon to get excited about it. It has already been a big year for Elton John thanks to the release of Hollywood biopic Rocketman. And given that Elton John insisted the film not overlook the more controversial aspects of his life, there’s reason to hope Me will be honest and revealing.
When We Were Arabs by Massoud Hayoun
Massoud Hayoun’s family traces its roots back to Egypt, Tunisia, and Palestine. They were, and are, “Jewish Arabs” — a designation that was once not considered a contradiction in terms. Hayoun’s memoir and family history makes the case for a broader and more nuanced sense of Arab identity through the story of his family’s experiences in the Middle East and Los Angeles.
The Scar: A Personal History of Depression and Recovery by Mary Cregan
Mary Cregan’s courageous memoir of mental illness is indeed a “personal history,” but this book is broader than that: It discusses the history of our understanding and treatment of depression. Through the lens of her own experience, Cregan talks about mental health in a way that resonates with readers even as it informs. Those struggling with depression will find things to identify with here, and all readers will gain more insight into how depression affects its victims.
Play Hungry: The Making of a Baseball Player by Pete Rose
It has been a big year for memoirs from controversial baseball figures. In addition to former commissioner Bud Selig’s book, 2019 has seen the arrival of Pete Rose’s Play Hungry. Rose — who set the all-time Major League hits record before being banned for life from baseball for gambling on the sport — is a fascinating guy, albeit not a very likeable one. Take his self-evaluation with an extra-large grain of salt, but don’t miss it.