Memoir Preview | Titles and Trends

In LJ’s yearly examination of this reader-favorite genre, we found four leading trends that examine trauma and mortality, offer insight into the impact of war, readily confront mental health concerns, and experiment with hybrid forms and genres.

One can learn a lot about current trends in memoir by taking note of which titles and authors have become the standard-bearers of the genre, such as Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, Craig McNamara’s Because Our Fathers Lied, Melissa Bond’s Blood Orange Night, and Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. In LJ’s yearly examination of the genre, publishers were interviewed and surveyed about the field of upcoming memoirs in the next several months. LJ found four leading trends that examine trauma and mortality, offer insight into the impact of war, readily confront mental health concerns, and experiment with hybrid forms and genres. Each aligns with iconic examples that prove that the genre is forging a deep sense of itself and demands from the memoirists themselves. This preview also reflects a list of subjects, approaches, and concerns that librarians can use to expand their collections.

Trauma & Grief

Brooke Warner, publisher at She Writes Press and SparkPress, observes, “Stories surrounding trauma [are burgeoning], as trauma and its resounding ripples are better understood as central forces that shape our lives.” Part of the appeal of Prince Harry’s story, as relayed in Spare (Random), for example, is his willingness to speak frankly about his grief and the trauma surrounding his mother’s death.

This fall, in My Hijacking (Harper), Martha Hodes remembers being a passenger on an airliner hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in 1970; she was only 12 years old and spent six days and nights in the Jordan desert. She explores this trauma but also notes that, as a historian, she is particularly attuned to the fallibilities of memory. Rod Nordland, a longtime war correspondent for the New York Times and someone used to life at a frenetic pace, meditates on his diagnosis with terminal brain cancer and ultimately finds reconnection and perspective in Waiting for the Monsoon (Mariner: HarperCollins). In How Far to the Promised Land (Convergent), Esau McCaulley, the author of Reading While Black, describes generations of his family’s struggles in the South. In Grief Is for People (MCD: Farrar), Sloane Crosley contemplates the functions of grief as she reckons with the death of a friend who died by suicide. Hadley Vlahos, a hospice registered nurse, muses about life, death, acceptance, grief, and gratitude in The In-Between (Ballantine). Poet Rose Styron, the widow of award-winning novelist William Styron, reveals their many collaborations in Beyond This Harbor (Knopf). Therapist Meghan Riordan Jarvis takes readers through her journey of grief and healing after losing both parents within two years in End of the Hour (Zibby).

The Impact of War

Jamison Stoltz, editorial director for Abrams Press and Overlook Press, is “a huge believer in memoir’s ability to unlock subjects for general interest readers—someone might find the idea of a book on Ukrainian history and identity daunting, but a beautifully written and emotionally powerful family story like Victoria Belim’s The Rooster House (Abrams) opens a door to better understanding our world.” Belim interweaves her family’s story with that of Ukraine, including the Russian invasion. In No Ordinary Assignment (Mariner: HarperCollins), Jane Ferguson parses her experiences of war, from a childhood in Northern Ireland marked by the Troubles through her work as a correspondent covering conflicts like the Arab Spring and Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Lauren Wein, editorial director at Avid Reader Press, says, “The memoirs I am drawn to…encompass a movement from not knowing to knowing, an act of self-discovery, a sense of oneself moving through space and time and gaining traction in the process.”

That’s evident in the upcoming—and an increasing number of—memoirs from Afghan women fighting for basic rights. Sola Mahfouz (with the help of coauthor Malaina Kapoor) recalls her clandestine efforts to achieve an education under Taliban rule and also reflects on her current status as a quantum-computing researcher at Tufts University in Defiant Dreams (Ballantine). Pashtana Durrani is the founder of LEARN Afghanistan, which provides preloaded e-readers and Wi-Fi access to girls and young women who, like Mahfouz, were forced underground. In Last To Eat, Last To Learn (Citadel), she shares (with the help of award-winning journalist Tamara Bralo) her journey as a refugee and activist fighting to educate women. Ian Fritz, a U.S. Air Force linguist fluent in Dari and Pashto, reckons with his involvement in the United States’ war in Afghanistan in What the Taliban Told Me (S. & S.).

Ruth Sheppard, publisher at Casemate, says, “Some might be surprised that there are still new stories to tell about World War II, but our readers are hungry for books that come from the perspective of America’s Greatest Generation.”

Tom Brokaw, who has famously commemorated the WWII generation, returns with Never Give Up (Random), in which he contemplates his parents and their contributions to rebuilding the country after the war.

Sheppard adds, “Children of deceased veterans are discovering their parents’ previously unpublished writings.”

Vivian Clark-Adams resurrects her father, Lt. Col. Major Clark, by editing his unfinished manuscript with her niece Wenona Clark. The resulting book, Derricks’ Bridgehead (Casemate), is the history of the 92nd Division, 597th Field Artillery Battalion, which was an all-Black U.S. Army unit.

The battle for democracy is also covered in this year’s memoir offerings. Wein says, “Often the memoirs that speak to us as editors are ones that seem to reverberate in the discourse around us.”

On the heels of the January 6 hearings, two memoirs are coming out this fall by officers who defended the Capitol that day and provide sober perspective from inside the chaos. U.S. Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn, who testified against the Oath Keepers in a seditious conspiracy trial, revisits his actions on the day of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in Standing My Ground (Hachette). Similarly, in American Shield (Catapult), Sgt. Aquilino Gonell (with the help of Susan Shapiro) traces his arc from the Dominican Republic to U.S. Army vet to defender of democracy.

Mission: Remove the Mental illness Stigma

“We are seeing a trend of memoirs that seek to destigmatize mental [illness], whether it’s coming from esteemed literary critic Bethanne Patrick sharing her story of double depression or beloved poet JoAnna Novak tackling mental health challenges surrounding pregnancy,” says Megan Fishmann, VP, associate publisher, and publicity for Catapult/Counterpoint Press/Soft Skull.

To illuminate that point, Patrick confronts a midlife diagnosis of depression in Life B (Counterpoint). In Contradiction Days (Catapult), Novak describes an intense engagement with a complex, solitary artist as she navigates prenatal depression. In No Time To Panic (Doubleday), Matt Gutman, a reporter for ABC News, considers the consequences of an on-air panic attack as he discloses his history with anxiety and attempts to alleviate it. Emmett Rensin laments a society in which depression and anxiety are more culturally acceptable than diagnoses such as schizoaffective disorder in The Complications (HarperOne). Mental health is one of the resonating themes in Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult (Gallery), which showcases Maria Bamford’s attempt to belong to something as she tackles show business. Meg Kissinger describes her family, besieged by mental illness diagnoses, and the systems that failed them in While You Were Out (Celadon).

Hybrids & Essays

Zibby Owens, CEO of Zibby Books, states that more and more memoirs are being presented “as a sketch of a certain period…of life rather than a retrospective. Memoirs in essays are on the rise.”

In Everybody Come Alive (Convergent), Marcie Alvis Walker, the creator of Black Coffee with White Friends, a popular Instagram feed, offers essays on everything from the “Jim Crow matriarchs” who raised her to her body dysmorphic disorder. David Shih contemplates what it means to be Asian in a segregated Black and white United States in his memoir in essays, entitled Chinese Prodigal (Atlantic Monthly). Stand-up comedian Aida Rodriguez writes essays, both heartwarming and heartbreaking, that depict the power that comes from overcoming tragedy and pain in Legitimate Kid (HarperOne). Aisha Harris, cohost of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, takes stock weighty issues such as representation in Wannabe’s (HarperOne) nine essays.

Amy Hundley, VP and executive editor at Grove Atlantic, echoes the sentiment that the memoir genre is “taking on many exciting new forms, with authors crossing back and forth between memoir, reportage, personal essay, biography, history, and other genres to deliver works that hit at a deeper truth.” For example, in Seeing (Astra House; tr. from Chinese by Yan Yan and Jack Hargreaves), Chai Jing divulges the complexities of reporting in China, where topics such as pollution and climate change are subject to state censorship.

Coming of Age

Christen Karniski, senior acquisitions editor at Rowman & Littlefield, says, “Memoirs aren’t for the sake of saying, ‘Look what I accomplished,’ but really pulling others up and providing inspiration.”

That’s what some coming-of-age stories do, according to Chris Jackson, EVP, publisher, and editor-in-chief at One World. He perceives that these types of stories “illuminate the question of how we construct meaningful, creative, purposeful lives from the fragments of our experiences, even our most traumatic ones.”

In Necessary Trouble (Farrar), Drew Gilpin Faust, a historian and the first woman to serve as president of Harvard, ponders her Virginia childhood and how her rejection of her family’s Southern conservative values led her to become involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements. In Pulling the Chariot of the Sun (Scribner), Shane McCrae revisits his white grandparents’ decision to kidnap him and hide his true identity, not only from his Black father but from McCrae as well. Award-winning journalist John Blake describes his quest to reconcile with his white mother and the family he’d never met in More Than I Imagined (Convergent). Kyo Maclear discusses the DNA test revelation that she is not biologically related to the father who raised her in Unearthing (Scribner). In Data Baby (Legacy Lit), Susannah Breslin speaks from the point of view of a human lab rat, having attended a UC Berkeley preschool as part of the “Block Study.” The findings from this 30-year psychological experiment would prove highly influential in the field of child psychology, and Breslin wonders how her unwitting participation shaped her. In The Elissas (Legacy Lit), Samantha Leach unravels the mystery surrounding the short life of her childhood friend Elissa. Leach eventually discovers two more deceased girls with the same name and the victimization and abuse they experienced together at a boarding school for wealthy, troubled youths. Liz Ianelli (with Bret Witter) recollects her escape from the Family Foundation, a reform school, and her advocacy for others similarly traumatized in I See You, Survivor (Hachette). Readers can likely expect more narratives from other survivors in coming years.

Musical Notes

Viking has announced a million-copy first print run for EGOT winner Barbra Streisand’s long-awaited memoir, My Name Is Barbra, slated for a November release. The newly formed MCD imprint, AUWA Books, directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, is releasing Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), Sly Stone’s memoir written with Ben Greenman. Sean McDonald, publisher of MCD/FSG and editor of the book, told LJ, “[Sly is] obviously a great and hugely influential icon—he invented a whole new kind of music, and of stardom. But he also plays such an interesting role in even bigger, more sweeping stories: the tumultuous meeting of art and commerce, the connection between drugs and creativity, and, really, the story of race in America.” Tariq Trotter, whom many know as Black Thought, co-founder of the Roots, summons the Philly of the ’70s and ’80s and the forces that shaped him in The Upcycled Self (One World). In Sonic Life (Doubleday), Thurston Moore, who cofounded the influential band Sonic Youth, recollects the No Wave music scene in New York City in the early ’80s. Tell It Like It Is (Hachette) is Aaron Neville’s story of a life that, while marked by poverty and addiction, is also rich due to his faith, his family, and his music. Bernie Taupin recalls his longtime songwriting collaboration with Elton John, plus his own childhood in the Midlands of England in Scattershot (Hachette). John Stamos’s If You Would Have Told Me (Holt) discusses not only his acting career, but also his performances with the Beach Boys.

Personal Histories…

Rachael Small, publicity director for Astra House, says that more and more memoirs “use the authors’ personal histories to explore bigger ideas or…systemic problems.” For example, Jonathan Conyers, whose story of his friendship with his transgender high school debate teacher went viral in Humans of New York, reflects on how education changed his trajectory in I Wasn’t Supposed To Be Here (Legacy Lit). Charlotte Gill wonders why she seemed to prefer her white English mother over her Indian father as a child and delves into life between “race checkboxes” in Almost Brown (Crown). Safiya Sinclair sheds light on a strict Rastafarian childhood characterized by misogyny, which she eventually escapes, in How To Say Babylon (S. & S.). Anne Hull analyzes her childhood spent in central Florida in the 1960s in Through the Groves (Holt). Elliot Page reflects on his improbable beginnings as an ingenue after achieving stardom in Juno. He shucks that identity and becomes his true self in Pageboy (Flatiron). In Sipping Dom Pérignon Through a Straw (Legacy Lit), Eddie Ndopu describes what it’s like to be a queer Black man in a wheelchair. He was awarded a full scholarship to Oxford; his fight for financial aid for his disability accommodations fueled his activism. Andrew Leland discloses his diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa in The Country of the Blind (Penguin Pr.). He writes from the perspective of someone who is on the precipice of completely losing his sight.

…And Systemic Problems

Peter Blackstock, VP and deputy publisher at Grove Atlantic, has observed a “memoirist tradition” that “includes prose writing about larger social phenomena and history that might not be considered ‘personal’ in a narrower sense.” For example, Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose novel The Sympathizer won a Pulitzer Prize in 2016, tells stories of a childhood shaped by his refugee status, shared by many Vietnamese Americans after the fall of Saigon, in A Man of Two Faces (Grove Atlantic). Beth Nguyen reveals her fragmented relationship with her mother, also shaped by the Vietnam War and resettlement, in Owner of a Lonely Heart (Scribner). Nicole Walters appraises her childhood as the first-generation daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, along with her rise to self-made millionaire, in Nothing Is Missing (Simon Element).

Rowman & Littlefield’s Karniski has come across “quite a few memoirs from women who open up about their struggles and the obstacles they faced in their particular careers, in the hopes that their stories can help other women who might feel alone, stuck, or held back in their own lives.”

Kristi Coulter offers readers an outsider-on-the-inside perspective of tech, as well as a scathing portrait of the culture at Amazon in Exit Interview (MCD: Farrar). Aomawa Shields considers her career as one of the few Black women in STEM in Life on Other Planets (Viking). Kate Flannery calls out the sexually exploitative culture of American Apparel and its early-aughts success as a start-up in Strip Tees (Holt). In Hearts of Darkness (Abrams), Jana Monroe, the real-life model for Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, highlights a career spent in the company of serial killers as one of the first women profilers for the FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit. Alejandra Oliva sifts through her family history along the U.S.-Mexico border and considers her career as a translator and immigrant-justice advocate in Rivermouth (Astra House). Before Diana Helmuth became an author, she helped many tech startups. She usually writes about travel, humor, and the outdoors, but her latest book, The Witching Year (Simon Element), involves witchcraft, replete with potions, full-moon rituals, and pilgrimages to witchy enclaves such as Salem and Edinburgh.

More Memoirs Not to Miss

Beyond the highlighted trends of the season, there are many other memoirs about the impact of COVID and people’s relationships with each other, with nature, and with food.

Ronnie Alvarado, editor at Simon Element, says, “It’s almost cliché to reference the pandemic at this point, but in the memoir category, you can’t ignore the aftereffects of this universal experience."

In Joy Hunter (Harmony), Alexis Jones, seeking happiness and resilience after the pandemic sidelined her career, chronicles a year spent on the open road in an RV. Kate Zambreno’s The Light Room (Riverhead) ponders what it means to bring new life and new work into a time of crisis, precarity, and disconnection.

Several new memoirs this year depict marriages and relationships. Harrison Scott Key, for example, tackles infidelity and its provocations in How To Stay Married (Avid Reader: S. & S.). It’s being marketed as “one man’s journey to hell and back,” with self-deprecating humor instead of score-settling. Michaele Weissman struggles to understand how the stories people live and the stories they inherit intermingle and manifest in the form of relationships in The Rye Bread Marriage (Algonquin).

Memoirists are also expressing deeper connections to nature and their joy in food. Frieda Hughes, the daughter of poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, rescues a baby magpie, the sole survivor in a nest destroyed by a storm, in George (Avid Reader: S. & S.). Most people first heard of Christian Cooper in the spring of 2020, when his video of a white woman threatening to call the police on him went viral. In Better Living Through Birding (Random), he seeks to broaden his story, discussing avian adventures, excursions around the globe in search of nature, and his identity as a queer Black birdwatcher. Dwight Garner, a longtime book critic for the New York Times, captures the joys of reading and eating with the help of a literary chorus in The Upstairs Delicatessen (Farrar). I Regret Almost Everything (Gallery) is Keith McNally’s story of his life as the restaurateur behind iconic New York establishments such as Balthazar and Minetta Tavern.

Last Words

Memoirs, a form that portrays humanity’s enduring ability to love and to find beauty in the world, resonate with readers. The genre gives new narratives with which to identify and also demonstrates alternate ways of being in the world. Works that reflect on the self, then upon broader concerns, constitute a key part of one’s literary heritage in that they contextualize history and also create new lineages through shared experiences. How lucky readers are to be part of a thriving culture of memoirs that shows every indication it will continue to grow, diversify, hybridize, and flourish.

Barrie Olmstead is Outlying Branch Dept. Head, Laughlin Library, Las Vegas–Clark County Library District.

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