The Best Memoirs of 2016

The inspiring real-life stories that changed the way we think—and read.
Becoming Unbecoming
By Una
216 pages; Arsenal Pulp Press
Available at: | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | IndieBound

No words appear on the opening page of this graphic memoir. Instead, we see the silhouette of a woman climbing a hill that echoes the curve of the earth, toward a single tree at the top. Slung over the woman's shoulder is the outline of an object that could be an oversize duffle—suggestive of heavy emotional baggage. But here's the thing: That oval could also be a thought balloon waiting to be filled. On the following page, the first line of dialogue is written on a cloud: "I am Una." That simple declaration begins a searing indictment of sexual violence. Growing up in northern England in the '70s, Una saw the police spend years bungling the investigation of a serial killer who preyed mostly on prostitutes. Meanwhile, young Una learned to avert her gaze. "Girls had to be sexy, but not too sexy. ... They had to be careful not to let their breasts and thighs alarm people. ... Slut was the worst thing a girl could be." As a preteen, she suffered not only sexual abuse but also blistering shame, which made her believe she was damaged. But Una survived, and her book is a roar on behalf of women all over the world. Weaving her story together with headlines about the killer, crime statistics, images of disembodied paper doll clothes and stunningly beautiful drawings of nature, she fills our own thought balloons with more than words can express.
— Dawn Raffel
Avalanche: A Love Story
By Julia Leigh
144 pages; W. W. Norton & Company
Available at: | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | IndieBound

When Julia Leigh walked into a fertility clinic, she had no way of anticipating the harrowing journey that was about to begin. In spare, scalpel-sharp prose, Leigh describes the intersection of primal desire and wildly inexact science. Treatment after treatment failed and her marriage ended, yet she continued the quest. One surreal conversation with her doctor about whether to mix fresh with frozen eggs for insemination goes: "Is there a difference between fresh and frozen? / There are no second-class children. / I mean, is one more viable than the other? / Not much difference. / OK, I'll just do frozen./Whatever you want." In other words, Leigh writes, "Pick your own misadventure." As the losses (financial and emotional) mount, the pursuit resembles gambling: Just one more try might yield the winning ticket. While much has been written about infertility, Leigh's memoir stands out because of her raw honesty and canny eye for the absurd (stopping at the grocery store to buy eggs en route home from the clinic). Above all is the writer's courage to let go: "Did I need to place my own child at the center of the world? Was it enough that other beautiful children existed?" Perhaps the longest journey for all of us is the one that, in her words, leads from I to we.
— Dawn Raffel
Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself
By Julie Barton
234 pages; Penguin Random House
Available at: | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | IndieBound

"I believe that when I was suffering most dearly, the universe sent me a healer in the form of a dog," Julie Barton writes in the prologue of her moving canine love tale. In her early twenties, Barton seemed like any twenty-something woman working in New York—until the depression building up under the surface engulfed her. In childhood, her older brother had bullied her incessantly; more recently, her boyfriend had cheated. But nothing was harsher than her own internalized judgments: "Ugly, Weird, Stupid, Fat, Unlikable." Paralyzed with despair, in the throes of a breakdown, she called her mother, who drove from Ohio to bring her home. Therapy and medication helped, but it was the unconditional love of a puppy named Bunker that made the biggest difference. "He didn't judge me; he simply saw me. So I told myself: Bunker understands. But this was a whole new kind of understanding," she writes. "It was wordless, and it let me be sad until an amazing thing happened: the sadness began to dissolve."
— Dawn Raffel
When Breath Becomes Air
By Paul Kalanithi
256 pages; Random House
Available at: | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | IndieBound

Thirty-six-year-old medical student Paul Kalanithi is about to become a practicing neurosurgeon, when he's diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer—on X-rays he can read himself. For most of us, such news might produce paralyzing fear or rage. But Kalanithi not only continues to work as a surgeon, he also begins to write about the experience of illness and to reflect on the choices that define him. The result? An elegiac but never despairing chronicle of the short period between finding out about his terminal illness and his passing two years later. What elevates this memoir to greatness—and perhaps accounts for why it's rocketed to the top of best-seller lists—is not just how it confronts life's most difficult questions with the humanity of a philosopher, the expertise of a medical professional and the language of a poet, but also its generosity. Kalanithi invites us to accompany him on the toughest of our journeys, to look into the abyss and wonder with him, "If the weight of mortality does not grow lighter, does it at least get more familiar?". — Leigh Haber
Lab Girl
By Hope Jahren 304 pages; Knopf Available at: | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | IndieBound Jahren's debut is a chronicle of her lifelong love affair with science—her sanctuary—and the people and plants she's kept company with along the way. — Natalie Beach
Boy Erased
By Garrard Conley
352 pages; Riverhead Books
Available at: | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | IndieBound

"When my father said, 'You'll never step foot in this house again if you act on your feelings. You'll never finish your education,' I thought, 'Fair enough,'" Garrard Conley writes. The year was 2004, and Conley, a college freshman, had just been outed, against his wishes. Having grown up in a strict Baptist household, Conley agreed with his parents' plan to enroll him in Love in Action, a program of "ex-gay" therapy intended to "cure" him. Patients were required to make daily moral inventories. When his mother wondered aloud what happened if you ran out of sins to write about, Garrard thought, "What my mother didn't yet know about being gay in the South was that you never ran out of material, that being secretly gay your whole life, averting your eyes every time you saw a handsome man, praying on your knees every time a sexual thought entered your mind" meant you could spend every day repenting. Some people stayed in the program for decades. Conley broke free, at the cost of years of strained relations with his parents—especially his preacher dad, who was ostracized for having an openly gay son. The triumph of this harrowing story lies not only in the reclamation of self but also in the survival of one family's love.
— Dawn Raffel
I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This
By Nadja Spiegelman
384 pages; Riverhead Books
Available at: | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | IndieBound

Violent moods, dazzling talents and fiercely held secrets make Nadja Spiegelman's mother, Françoise Mouly, endlessly fascinating in this intricate memoir. "She could set the universe aflame," writes Spiegelman, "but she used herself as fuel." In an attempt to fathom her mother's impact on her own life and character, Spiegelman interviewed her about her troubled childhood in France, her explosive adolescence, her flight to America, her meteoric career (Mouly is currently the art editor at The New Yorker) and her marriage to Nadja's father, Maus creator Art Spiegelman. Most illuminating, however, is Françoise's relationship with her own mother, Josée, a flamboyant Frenchwoman who lived on a houseboat, entertained like a queen and parented like a demon. But to understand the volatile Françoise, Nadja had to tease out the facts from her mother's fictions, a delicate operation that eventually sent Nadja to Paris, where Josée treated her to her own version of events and, surprisingly, to an ample helping of love. Hearing her mother's and grandmother's contradictory stories can't help Nadja pin down the truth about their lives, but it does free her to create a story of her own.
— Cathy Medwick
I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her
By Joanna Connors
272 pages; Atlantic Monthly Press
Available at: | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | IndieBound

At the age of 30, Joanna Connors was raped by a stranger at knifepoint. David Francis had been released from prison only one week earlier, and her testimony helped put him back behind bars for the rest of his life. But the story was far from over. Although she had a successful career as a journalist and went on to have children, her life was defined by fear and self-blame (for not trusting her instincts). Decades later, she decided to learn more about the crime. Why had this man, roughly her age, gone down a path of violence? Francis had died in prison, but she found his siblings and uncovered a story of staggering poverty and abuse. Her rapist's father was a brutal pimp; his drug-addicted mother fled. The boys in the family turned to crime by age 12 or 13, entering the criminal justice system, while the girls turned tricks. One sister told Connors she'd been raped three times: "But I asked for it, because I was on drugs and I was prostituting." Connors came to understand that despite her nightmare, as far as the legal system goes, she was among the lucky ones—white, educated and middle-class. She had resisted, with bloody cuts and bruises to prove it, and she reported the crime immediately. For many, there is no such justice. Connors has written a story of profound compassion, for others and for herself. Yet, the questions she raises will leave you unsettled.
— Dawn Raffel
Rosalie Lightning
By Tom Hart
272 pages; St. Martin's Press
Available at: | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | IndieBound

Graphic memoirist Tom Hart and his wife lost their daughter, Rosalie, when she was just shy of her second birthday. Nothing had prepared them—not that anything ever could have—for the morning their bubbly, exuberant Rosalie simply wouldn't wake up in her crib. In haunting black-and-white panels, sometimes with all-black backgrounds, Hart depicts the staggering grief that he and his wife, Leela, cycled through: Disbelief, nagging questions (Did Rosalie know she was leaving? Was the sudden thunderstorm that night some kind of portent?), absentmindedness ("I forget how to make coffee," says Tom) and raw pain. "My heart is a blast site," his wife says. The power of this book comes from Tom and Leela's unfiltered honesty, as well as their gradual willingness to allow the light to trickle back in through the broken places. By far one of the most moving books of 2016.
— Dawn Raffel
Born To Run
By Bruce Springsteen
528 pages; Simon & Schuster
Available at: | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | IndieBound

Our favorite working-class hero delivers a hot-blooded, introspective memoir filled with vivid anecdotes of the making of a rock star—air-guitaring in front of the mirror; borrowing his older cousin's clothing style; battling acne, insecurity, depression. He's not the mourning poet of Patti Smith's M Train or the self-styled enigma of Bob Dylan's Chronicles. Instead, he's a troubadour as generous and electric as his every performance.

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