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“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read,” wrote the late, great, and infinitely quotable James Baldwin. In these six memoirs, writers lay bare their own stories—and may even help you make sense of yours. Some of their experiences are almost universally relatable, like Maggie Smith’s quest to rediscover who she is as an individual in the wake of heartbreak or Alice Robb's revaluation of her childhood passion in light of her adult feminist awareness. Others seem, at least on the surface, totally singular: like growing up as the only living child of famously talented (and famously troubled) writers Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
These true stories—all written with mastery and compassion—will make you cry, make you laugh, make you think, and make you keep reading way past your bedtime. They may even make you rethink the events of your own life. Or inspire a memoir of your own.
Owner of a Lonely Heart, by Beth Nguyen
In this achingly beautiful look at her relationship with her mother, Nguyen unpacks the toll of the Vietnam War, when, due to the chaos, her family was split apart. She, her father, and her sister eventually land in Grand Rapids, and her mother, in Boston, Nguyen only rediscovering her whereabouts at age 10. Just how the legacy of their loss divides them is told with wrenching emotion and exquisite controlled prose. A soon-to-be classic with implications about immigration in any era. —Leigh Newman
A Man of Two Faces, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
After channeling his experience as a child refugee into fictional projects, this Pulitzer Prize–winning writer tackles his material head-on, in bursts of lyric prose and poetry, in rants of outsize fonts, in collaged excerpts from interviews and lectures, ultimately creating a profound tribute to his parents—which he says only his own experience of fatherhood has enabled him to write. —Marion Winik
George, by Frieda Hughes
The woman who feared she would never be known to the world for anything beyond her tragic childhood as the daughter of Sylvia Plath has produced a magical, endearing memoir of her relationship with a baby bird she rescued and raised in her kitchen. The improbable relationship between the unruly and intelligent magpie George and the witty Hughes is the literary romance of the year. —M.W.
You Could Make This Place Beautiful, by Maggie Smith
Poet Smith’s memoir unpacks the complexity of her husband’s infidelity and their ensuing divorce with nuance and grace. “This isn’t a tell-all,” Smith writes in the prologue, “this is a tell-mine.” Out of the darkness of heartbreak, Smith discovers a narrative that is all her own—transparent in its absences, raw in its emotional resonance, and universal in its themes. —Charley Burlock
How to Say Babylon, by Safiya Sinclair
After a blissful early childhood in her mother’s Jamaican coastal village, the author and her siblings were increasingly hemmed in by their father’s strict, sexist Rastafarian culture and the family’s painful lack of resources. Rebelling, the author cut her dreadlocks and found freedom in her gorgeously wrought poetry. Beautifully written, deeply felt. —M.W.
Don't Think, Dear, by Alice Robb
A former ballet dancer, Robb shines a spotlight on all the places where the art form lurks in our cultural shadows: from the rise of the NXIVM cult to the resonance of Fleabag to the pattern of successful women settling for domineering men. Expertly choreographed and long overdue, this is the nuanced reckoning ballet needs, ballerinas deserve, and all feminists should note. —C.B.
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