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Winner of the 2021 National Book Award for fiction, Jason Mott's Hell of a Book is a searing portrayal of the Black authorial experience. At the center of the novel is an unnamed Black author on his first book tour struggling to navigate the publishing industry and make sense of the modern world. His narrative is offset by chapters recounting the story of Soot, a young Black boy in the South. Poignant and often funny, Mott's novel draws readers in as it scrutinizes race in American society and the power of storytelling.

Marlon James' epic fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf is narrated by Tracker, a hunter with an acute sense of smell. Accompanied by a shape-shifter named Leopard and a band of misfit mercenaries, Tracker travels through a landscape inspired by African mythology and ancient history on a dangerous quest to find a lost boy. Hallucinatory and violent yet marvelously poetic, this first entry in James' Dark Star trilogy won the 2019 L.A. Times Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction. There are an abundance of potential topics for discussion, such as James' folkloric inspirations and Tracker's unreliable narration.

Following the death of her aunt from an uncommon ailment called Chagas, or the kissing bug disease, Daisy Hernández decided to research the illness. She shares her findings in The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation's Neglect of a Deadly Disease. Hernández talked to physicians and disease experts throughout the United States, and her interviews with patients reveal the human cost of the American healthcare system's inadequacies. Hernández displays impressive storytelling skills in this masterfully researched volume, which won the 2022 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award.

In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado's powerful chronicle of a toxic love affair, won the 2020 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ nonfiction. In the book, Machado reveals that she fell hard for a magnetic, emotionally unpredictable woman who became abusive. In structuring her memoir, she draws upon various narrative devices and traditions (coming-of-age, choose your own adventure and more), and the result is a multifaceted, daring and creative portrayal of a deeply dysfunctional relationship.

Pick a guaranteed winner for your reading group.

No one would expect Chinese Canadian actor Simu Liu's origin story to be as electrifying and action-packed as that of the iconic superhero he portrays on the big screen, but We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story (8 hours) is still compelling, uplifting and, at times, totally unexpected.

In 2021, Liu became a household name after starring in Marvel's first superhero movie with an Asian lead character, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. In the audiobook of his memoir, Liu confidently narrates the story of his rise to stardom, from his childhood living with his grandparents in rural China to his reunion with his parents in Canada, from his failed attempts to fit into the corporate business world to his journey to success as a TV actor. As Liu regales listeners with stories about his early fascination with astronauts and science fiction, his calm, laid-back demeanor and passionate voice are a winning combination.

Discover the three best celebrity memoirs of summer 2022, including ‘We Were Dreamers.’

Marvel actor Simu Liu narrates the audiobook for his memoir, and his calm, laid-back demeanor and passionate voice are a winning combination.

Poet Kendra Allen's Fruit Punch is a sensitive and lyrical collage of the sexuality and violence she experienced during her Dallas childhood. Writing in masterfully composed vignettes as vivid and fleeting as real memories, Allen excavates the anger, powerlessness and wonder she experienced as a young Black girl learning to navigate the world. 

Radiating from Fruit Punch‘s center is a hauntingly precise meditation on the body, as Allen celebrates the vibrancy of childhood play alongside the many ways this joy can be, and was, squashed when she was sexually abused by a family member. It's a skillful observation of how Black female bodies are hypersexualized, objectified and aggressed starting in childhood. Allen's mother, L.A., also survived this pattern and feared it would repeat with her own children. Allen writes about how, when she was 9, “L.A. gets terrified for me this year; fearing for my whereabouts and making sure to ask me about my body and who is touching it or had it already been touched.”

What makes Fruit Punch truly dazzling is how Allen hunts for the slippery traces of celebration amid the visceral pain of girlhood. This is not a straightforward lamentation of trauma and the loss of innocence but a fully rendered vision of childhood's many facets. In that sense, her words both disrupt and sparkle. She doesn't only experience fear; she also dances in laundromats to Brandy and Britney Spears and breaks the rules of her great-great-uncle's “No uncrossed ankles / No questions” Southern Baptist church.

Inside this turmoil is Allen's inescapable sense of irony. As she discusses her childhood abuse for the first time, she shares the fears she has for the next generation: “Especially now since it's a lot of lil girls in my family. I be scared for them. For they voices. But I had more fun times than not for sure.” Fruit Punch is a startling, unique and deeply poetic work from a writer on the rise.

Fruit Punch is a startling, unique and deeply poetic meditation on sexuality and violence. Kendra Allen is a writer on the rise.

“I'm not happy.” Those three words set the end of novelist Elizabeth Crane's marriage into motion. After 15 years of repeated promises from Crane's husband that he wasn't going anywhere, he changed the narrative. During those years, he had also promised to tell Crane before he became involved with someone else. That promise he kept.

But a relationship is a living thing, and as Crane writes her way through her marriage, she reveals shifts that were taking place all along. In This Story Will Change, Crane uses her narrative skills to excavate her relationship.

Crane (The History of Great Things) writes in the third person, creating emotional distance as though she can objectively describe the dissolution of her own marriage. This technique makes the memoir read more like a novel, akin to Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation with short, punchy chapters and unflinching self-analysis. (One chapter is, appropriately, titled “Doesn't This All Seem Pretty Common and Not Unusual or Even Awful at All in a Long-Term Marriage?” Another chapter, which is only three sentences long, acknowledges that this is a one-sided story, the wife's story.) But the occasional shift into first person jars the reader into recalling that this intimate recollection is actually the author's own experience.

Repeating themes surface throughout this retelling, just as a couple often revisits the same arguments throughout their relationship. Among them is Crane's husband's claim: “I don't think you'd be a good mother.” These words haunted Crane for years—until she spent time with an old journal and realized her husband had never actually said that at all. She had sharpened his actual comment—that she would be a good mom but would worry a lot—into a weapon she used for self-flagellation for years. Memory is unreliable, and our own stories shift through faulty recollection.

As Crane recounts separating from her husband and setting up a temporary home with a friend in New York City, pleasure mingles with pain. Sublimely happy moments—a first Christmas without her husband—dissolve into her sadness at being alone. But a post-split tattoo reveals Crane's ongoing optimism: “It says love. With a period after it, like a decree,” she writes. “I still believe in it. Sometimes like Santa. But I do.”

A relationship is a living thing, and as Elizabeth Crane writes her way through the end of her marriage, she reveals pleasures mingled with pain.

Like his acolytes Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell is remembered today as much for his mental illness as for his remarkable poetry. This legacy is an understandable, if regrettable, consequence of our fascination with the tortured and tragic in art. By the mid-1950s, Lowell's bipolar disorder had reached a crisis point. While committed to Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, he began a therapeutic regimen that helped him attain a measure of equilibrium. One element of that therapy was a writing project, which Lowell continued over the next three years by working on an autobiography of his family roots and childhood. This narrative, unfinished and unpolished, composes the first part of Memoirs, a gathering of Lowell's unpublished writings about his life, edited by Steve Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc.

For better or worse, Lowell could not escape his lineage, which dated back on both sides to the founding of New England. His dominant mother, Charlotte, put particular stock in this background, and when his father's naval career dragged the family away from Boston, Charlotte was never silent about her dissatisfaction. Conversely, in Lowell's words, his father was “a gentle, faithful and dim man.” That ruthless paternal appraisal comes from the second section of the writings collected in Memoirs, which the editors call “Crisis and Aftermath.” These pieces are anchored by an essay, “The Balanced Aquarium,” that recounts Lowell's time at Payne Whitney. Written in the wake of his mother's death, the essay also recalls the earlier circumstances of his father's final days. Shifting seamlessly back and forth in time—to childhood, to the recent past and back to the time of his ancestors—Lowell attempts to make sense of these threads with customary biting observations wrapped in elegant phrases, as he watches the traffic far below the window of his hospital room.

Lowell, of course, mined this material a few years later in one of his finest (one might even say iconic) poetry collections, Life Studies, turning the anarchy of his mind into clear-cut verse. Indeed, the best approach to “My Autobiography,” “The Balanced Aquarium” and the other pieces here is perhaps to view them as dry runs for something far greater and enduring yet to come. These writings give us added glimpses into the life of a poet who made a new art form out of baring the soul, even while expertly keeping his words measured and precise. 

The final section of Memoirs collects short pieces Lowell wrote about poets he knew: Plath, Sexton, William Carlos Williams, Allen Tate, John Berryman, Ezra Pound and others. The often sordid specifics of his complicated marriages and romances are skirted, but those coals have been well raked elsewhere. Memoirs should not serve as an introduction to Lowell and his work as much as a supplement, inviting us to discover or revisit his peerless poems.

The writings collected in Memoirs give us glimpses into the life of Robert Lowell, a poet who made baring one’s soul into an art form.

Isaac Fitzgerald grabs readers' attention with the title of his memoir—Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional—and never lets go. He's a mesmerizing storyteller who deploys unexpected delights from his very first line: “My parents were married when they had me, just to different people.” Not only that, but they “met at divinity school, which is a pretty funny way to start an affair.”

Fitzgerald's raucous life started in low-income housing in Boston's South End. In the soup kitchen that he frequented, he was “surrounded by stories of the highest comedy and the deepest tragedy, by the sounds of pealing laughter and suffering silence.” True to that upbringing, he fills the 12 essays in Dirtbag, Massachusetts with heaping helpings of humor, joy, pain, sorrow, grace and insight. Throughout, Fitzgerald writes in carefully chosen prose that reveals “just enough that you know it wasn't pretty.” The topics range from his upbringing in the Roman Catholic Church to life in an old mill town in central Massachusetts where he endured his father's violence and his mother's mania. Despite all of this, his parents instilled him with a deep love of literature, and his education continued when he applied to a nearby boarding school as a means of escaping his home life.

Throughout his gritty life, Fitzgerald has filled an incredible variety of roles: an often drunk, high, shoplifting teenager; a biker who found happiness working in a San Francisco bar; a relief worker in Myanmar; an actor in porn movies. More recently, he has talked books on the “Today” show and written the children's book How to Be a Pirate. Indeed, this is a man who writes equally well about Sara Crewe, the heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, and Gavin McInnes, the founder of the neo-fascist group Proud Boys.

With Dirtbag, Massachusetts, Fitzgerald joins the ranks of some of the very best memoirists, including Tobias Wolff, Tara Westover and Dani Shapiro. This entertaining and thoughtful book reveals Fitzgerald's talents as a master craftsman of unusual insight and will leave readers eager for more.

The 12 essays in Isaac Fitzgerald’s Dirtbag, Massachusetts offer heaping helpings of humor, joy, pain, sorrow, grace and insight.

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