STARRED REVIEW

September 29, 2021

The best debut memoirs of 2021 so far

Shoutout to all the first-time memoirists whose words have made us clutch their books to our chests so far this year. Here are the personal stories of family, tragedy, love and identity that stand above the rest.

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Debut author Chloe Shaw traces her own emotional development through the roles dogs have played in her life. There was Easy, whom Shaw’s parents had before they had children. Then there was Agatha 1, the Christmas puppy who, days later, went to the veterinarian and never came home. Her replacement was Agatha 2, whose name hinted at the family’s tendency to plow forward through difficult times. As an only child, Shaw turned to her dogs for entertainment and companionship. She wanted to “be the dog,” to lose herself so deeply in connection with an animal that human problems and obligations fell away.

Shaw was exploring these tendencies in therapy by the time she met Booker, the dog who came along with Matt, the psychoanalyst whom Shaw would marry. Together the couple adopted Safari, who seemed the canine embodiment of Shaw’s anxieties. Booker taught Safari how to be a good dog, and both dogs bonded with the couple’s children.

After Booker’s death, Shaw insisted on adopting Otter. Shaw was the family member who clung to the idea of another dog, so she tried to assume all responsibility for Otter’s care. But raising Otter shows Shaw that she can’t be completely self-sufficient. Otter reminds her that she is human, not canine—and that her humanity is good. “When we open ourselves to the possibility of love,” she writes, “we open ourselves to the possibility of breaking; when we open ourselves to the possibility of breaking, we open ourselves to the possibility of being made whole again.” 

What Is a Dog? is a tender memoir that showcases the vulnerable self we often risk revealing only to our pets. The dogs in Shaw’s life show her how to love another being, yes—but that love also leads her deeper into the human experience, flaws, risks and all. Shaw’s sensitive recollection of a lifetime of anxiety and curiosity will invite readers to examine their own insecurities and to find acceptance in the process.

Chloe Shaw’s tender recollections of anxiety and curiosity will invite readers to accept their most vulnerable selves, which we often only reveal to our pets.

“When emotional truth is the goal, and courage is part of the equation, the process is deeply therapeutic, but it’s not therapy,” writes Grammy-nominated folk singer and songwriter Mary Gauthier in her debut book. Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting is memoir, autobiography, creative process guide and journal of spiritual formation all in one. It’s a true expression of the inseparability of songwriting, spiritual practice, recovery and relationship that have been endemic to Gauthier’s 25-year career.

Saved by a Song is organized topically, with each chapter pairing a song title with an element of craft; for example, “Drag Queens in Limousines: Story/Meaning.” Starting with the song’s lyrics, Gauthier recounts her personal connection to the song through concrete, accessible personal narrative. By the end of each chapter, readers have gained a behind-the-scenes scoop on the real-life experiences that influenced the song and a wise takeaway for their own lives.

Readers also get a play-by-play of how to put art into practice. One of the biggest questions novice writers have is, “How did the artist get from this (their own experience) to that (a polished work)?” The elements of craft can seem like puzzle pieces that don’t fit together. Gauthier creates an external map of the mysterious internal songwriting process not once but 13 times throughout the book.

Alongside these gems from her lifelong study of creative practice—think Anne Lamott meets Julia Cameron meets Patti Smith—Gauthier also shares all the gory details of her recovery from addiction, plus quotations from the artists and writers who influenced her own development. In Gauthier’s words, “I believe songs that heal come from a higher place. They help us with the struggle of being human and by letting us know we are not alone. This is the greatest gift a song can give a songwriter and a songwriter can give the world.”

Anyone who can still write from the heart about writing from the heart after being in the music business as long as Gauthier has is the real deal. Her book invites seasoned artists to deeper authenticity, new artists to deeper craft and all readers to deeper self-reflection.

Mary Gauthier’s debut book invites seasoned artists to deeper authenticity, new artists to deeper craft and all readers to deeper self-reflection.

When Alexander Lobrano arrived at a Paris bistro one evening, the maitre d’ led him to a table where an older woman sat sipping a glass of white wine. Eventually, with “an avalanche of awe,” Lobrano realized his companion was none other than Julia Child. After confessing that he hoped to someday become a food writer, she replied, “That’s a good boy. But you don’t want to get too big for your britches.”

That memorable scene epitomizes Lobrano’s memoir, My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris. It’s a scrumptious, humor-filled love letter to Paris and its food, written by a James Beard Award-winning writer who is the first to admit that his life’s trajectory sounds highly improbable: “suburban Connecticut guy becomes a restaurant critic of a leading French newspaper.”

Lobrano’s childhood memories are rich, although laced with sadness, loneliness and sexual abuse. His father worried that Lobrano was “a bit of a fruit loop” and sent him off to a two-month “Adventure Camp” in hopes of transforming him into a “regular boy.” Gradually, food became Lobrano’s savior: “my muse, my metaphor, and my map for making a place for myself in the world and finding my place at the table.”

By happenstance, as a young man in 1986, he landed an editorial position at Women’s Wear Daily in Paris to write about menswear, a topic he found “excruciatingly dull.” His slow, steady attempts to transition to food writing are fascinating fun, and Lobrano’s nonstop curiosity and enthusiasm are particularly engaging—especially when they lead him to a dinner with Princess Caroline of Monaco and several encounters with Yves Saint Laurent.

Lobrano’s culinary heritage is hardly sophisticated; in fact, his mother was a Drake of Drake’s Cakes fame. (Remember Ring Dings and Devil Dogs?) At one hilariously recounted dinner with renowned food writer Ruth Reichl, Lobrano’s mother told her, “Andy’s favorite foods when he was little were Cheez Doodles and Sara Lee German Chocolate Cake.” But by the end of Lobrano’s transformation into a cosmopolitan restaurant critic, readers will find themselves longing to be seated at a Parisian table alongside him. (If this can’t be achieved, his memoir contains the next best thing: Lobrano’s list of his 30 favorite restaurants in Paris, with descriptions.)

Lobrano concludes that “gastronomic expertise is dull and can be irritating unless it’s leavened by humility, humor, and emotion.” Rest assured, there’s never a dull moment in My Place at the Table. It’s a veritable feast of humility, humor and emotion.

There’s never a dull moment in Alexander Lobrano’s memoir of becoming a food writer in Paris. It’s a veritable feast of humility, humor and emotion.

In one of the most disturbing and tender scenes in Somebody’s Daughter, a middle-aged Black woman lights a match and sets a snake nest ablaze. “These things catch fire without letting each other go. We don’t give up on our people,” Billie Coles explains as her granddaughter, the author Ashley C. Ford, looks on. Coles is attempting to demonstrate how families shouldn’t abandon each other, but Ford’s memoir offers an alternative survival strategy—one that sometimes depends on a person leaving.

Somebody’s Daughter is part Midwestern Black girl bildungsroman and part family saga about the rippling effects of incarceration. Ford’s father was jailed shortly after her birth, and her mother’s quests for new love often ended in frustration, which she unleashed on her eldest child. Their relationship was so volatile that after an adult kissed Ford when she was a child, and later when her first love sexually assaulted her, it took decades for her to reveal the truth to her mother.

In the meantime, she coped with her pain through daydreaming, dissociation and wandering the halls of her local high school, a precursor to the peripatetic life that would lead her away from her family in Indiana. It’s tempting to view Ford’s mother antagonistically throughout this book, but the author’s familial bonds aren’t that simple. Ford’s contentious relationships with her parents—a mother who often withheld affection and a father who was physically unavailable to express it—loom large, and it’s fitting that the book begins with a phone call from one parent and ends with a reunion with the other.

This book’s title is deceptively simple. In African American Vernacular English, it can be a euphemism for a woman in danger; but when Ford reunites with her father, it becomes a revelation of the author’s self. Finally, it makes clear that the life one builds in the aftermath of a tragedy can, in time, coexist with the life left behind.

After returning to her hometown near the end of the book, Ford writes, “However complicated, I could exist in both [New York and Indiana], as me, fully me.” Perhaps the greatest lesson of Somebody’s Daughter is that a Black child marked by poverty and sexual violence can create multiple spaces in which to thrive—and that anybody’s child can do the same.

Somebody’s Daughter is part Midwestern Black girl bildungsroman and part family saga about the rippling effects of incarceration.

In Danielle Henderson’s memoir, The Ugly Cry, she renders her family with searing honesty and wit. There’s the brother whose greatest gift is flouting all the rules and surviving the damage; the abused mother who cannot protect her children or herself; and the mother’s boyfriend, the malevolent Luke, who ravaged the family with verbal and physical abuse.

And then there’s Grandma—foulmouthed, hardworking and loyal, whose favorite television show is “The Walking Dead.” She delivers frequent smacks to the head alongside gusts of equally fierce unconditional love. She also advises 9-year-old Henderson that she “should never get married, but . . . sleep with as many people as possible before settling down.” This is the family that, in the tumultuous 1970s, Henderson somehow survived. Now she brings them to life with her indefatigable sense of humor, which is as quick and sharp as the violence she lived with as a child.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Danielle Henderson reflects on a memoir’s ability to create connection, and connection’s ability to heal old wounds.


The author of the popular book and Tumblr Feminist Ryan Gosling, Henderson grew up poor, mostly motherless and often left to figure things out on her own, in a small New York town that made it difficult to be different—and Black. But Henderson opts for mirth over pathos, and the results are often shocking and funny simultaneously.

Her unflinchingly honest voice especially shines through when treading softly around the sexual abuse she endured. Luke, her abuser, is villainous, too mean to even share a single takeout French fry while a hungry child watches. As she lays out the details of their relationship, Henderson uses understatement so masterfully that her pain acquires the force of a snowball careening downhill. When she finally reveals how Luke has treated her, Grandma says, “I’m going to kill him, and then I’m going to kill your mother, okay? . . . Good. Can I give you a hug?”

Henderson survived a terrible childhood, and it’s her resilience that comes to define her. She has girlfriends who know her better than she knows herself and an aunt who teaches her how to nurture and display her differences. And Grandma hangs on no matter what, steadfastly following, if not leading, Henderson toward something better.

Danielle Henderson brings her family to life using humor as quick and sharp as the violence she survived as a child.

When Krys Malcolm Belc sees pregnant women, he turns the other way. He doesn’t want to hear pregnancy stories and finds it difficult to share his own. But in The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood, the transmasculine author doesn’t turn away from his story. Instead, he lays it out page by page, with pictures and legal documents juxtaposing his poetic prose.

Belc’s process of becoming himself—the growing realization that he identified as male, the move toward a nonbinary and eventually masculine presentation, the decision to start taking hormones—happened alongside the rest of his life, as he married his partner, as she bore children and as Belc decided to carry a child as well, only a few months after his wife gave birth. 

The result is a family that looks one way now—a father, a mother and three boys—but looked another way several years ago. This is the story of how that family came to be, and of the erasures (often painful) that happened along the way, including the legal erasure of the friend who donated sperm for all three pregnancies. There’s also the erasure of the body Belc had, which he generously laid out to birth his son Samson. “He has permanently altered my composition,” Belc writes.

But in the midst of these erasures, something new emerged: an identity and presentation that was always there but in shadow, just beyond view. Bearing Samson clarified the man Belc wanted to be.

The Natural Mother of the Child refuses easy stories or pat answers. Instead, Belc tells a counterstory that resists hegemonic narratives and pushes toward something messier and truer. Belc’s devotion to his son—and especially his bodily devotion—comes through powerfully, a clear signal. By comparison, some of the other signs that supposedly tell us who we are—birth certificates, marriage certificates, adoption certificates—seem desperately incomplete.

Krys Malcolm Belc’s growing realization that he identified as male happened as his wife bore children and as Belc decided to carry a child as well.

Trent Preszler’s memoir, Little and Often, opens with a phone call. It’s from his dad, Leon, from whom Trent has been estranged for years, inviting him to come home to South Dakota for Thanksgiving. At 37, Trent is at a high point professionally. He’s the CEO of a Long Island vineyard, he mingles with celebrities and his house has an idyllic view of Peconic Bay. But his personal life tells a different story: Divorced after a brief marriage, he’s working too much, drinking too much and has distanced himself from his friends.

As Trent makes the long drive home, he contemplates his years growing up in flyover country. His parents eked out a marginal existence raising cattle on a South Dakota ranch, 145 miles from the nearest McDonald’s. Leon was always the strong one, a former rodeo champion whose favorite book of the Bible was Job. Long ago, Leon made it clear that he didn’t accept Trent’s sexuality as a gay man—but during this visit, Leon surprises Trent by asking about his ex. Not long after this, Leon dies from cancer, and Trent loses his chance to reconnect.

Leon has left Trent two items, his toolbox and a taxidermied duck. As he ponders his dad’s tools, Trent makes an odd decision: He will build a canoe. The remainder of the memoir details Trent’s quixotic project as he teaches himself about different kinds of wood, power-tool skills and the patience to fail and try again. “Little and often makes much,” he remembers his dad saying, coaching teenage Trent through a difficult project. Throughout the book, the narrative returns to such father-son episodes, evoking ranch life with its biblical weather, rattlesnakes, long horseback rides, cattle auctions and rodeos.

The writing in Little and Often is lucid and sometimes lyrical, building on unexpected connections, such as the geological links between South Dakota and Long Island. As the narrative walks the reader through the process of hand-building a canoe, we see Trent reconsidering his parents’ lives and his own, and finding calm and trust in himself.

This lucid, lyrical memoir recalls father-son episodes in South Dakota, with its biblical weather, rattlesnakes, long horseback rides and rodeos.

In West African Igbo mythology, an ogbanje spirit is a troublesome entity temporarily housed in a human body. Akwaeke Emezi’s stunning debut novel, Freshwater (2018), uses this element of “Igbo ontology” to tell a story of what it’s like to grow up ogbanje, death-haunted and multiple. Subsequently, Emezi has written about identifying as trans and as ogbanje themself—as something other than human.

Emezi’s brilliant Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir develops their ideas about identity and art through a sequence of letters to friends, lovers, students, writers and deities. This book tells of growing up in Aba, Nigeria, witnessing casual violence and injury, and of a childhood shaped by the works of literature brought home by Emezi’s parents. Emezi recounts writing Freshwater, having a breakdown during the ensuing book tour and pursuing surgeries that would free them from a gendered human body. These surgeries, which Emezi accepts as “mutilations,” are how the “spirit customiz[es] the vessel” and have as much to do with being ogbanje as being trans.

Perhaps Emezi’s greatest achievement with this memoir is their insistence on centering Igbo ontology within their story rather than reaching for tired Western metaphors about psychiatric conditions like trauma, PTSD or disassociation. Emezi’s work reminds us that these diagnoses are limiting boxes, shaped by colonialist, racist and sexist assumptions. Dear Senthuran explodes these human limitations by insisting on the imagination’s power to create worlds.

Each letter in Dear Senthuran is hypnotic and poetic, but the letters to Nonso, which read like letters to a student or a “baby writer,” are particularly powerful. These letters discuss “worldbending” with reference to Octavia Butler’s fiction. Writers make worlds exist from nothing—a godlike power available to anyone willing to “face their work.”

In Dear Senthuran, Emezi generously shares both their wounds and their wisdom, offering aspiring writers and artists fresh inspiration for creating new forms of making, loving and being.

In Dear Senthuran, Akwaeke Emezi explodes human limitations by insisting on the imagination’s power to create worlds.

“I had a happy childhood, and my parents were junkies,” writes Lilly Dancyger. “Both of these things are true.” Her father, Joe Schactman, was not a famous artist, but he was prolific and left deep impressions on those who knew him. His sudden death when Dancyger was 12 threw her into a tailspin but also cemented Schactman as an artistic idol in her mind.

In her memoir, Negative Space, Dancyger carries us back to New York City’s gritty East Village in the 1980s as she investigates Schactman’s tumultuous life. She pages through her father’s old notebooks that she saved after his death. She studies his often strange artwork (depicted throughout the book) made from found objects and roadkill. And she interviews Schactman’s friends, colleagues and even her own mother to learn how and why he descended into heroin addiction.

Dancyger’s struggle to escape the need to prove herself to everyone, including her dead father, is moving. Mourning is not linear, and she skillfully shows how grief mutates during different stages of life. The phantasm of closure stalks all of us who have experienced loss, as both Dancyger’s writing and Schactman’s artwork make clear.

The strongest portions of Negative Space explore Dancyger’s experience as the child of addicts. She largely parented herself, and when she builds a more stable adulthood than the one modeled by her parents, it’s a hard-won victory. Other children of addicts who experienced difficult transitions into adulthood will find much to relate to here.

To this end, Dancyger’s bravery in the face of negative revelations about her dad is admirable. She wants the whole truth, no matter how painful it is to reopen these wounds. Dancyger knew little about Schactman’s addiction when she was young, and she knew nothing about his sometimes abusive relationships with women. But in Negative Space, Dancyger allows her father to be an imperfect and much loved person—her idol still, but a troubled and complicated one.

Lilly Dancyger sets out to uncover the whole truth about her late father’s art, relationships and addiction, no matter how painful.

“Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart.” From the moment we read the opening sentence of Michelle Zauner’s poignant memoir, Crying in H Mart, we’re hooked. It’s a rare gift; Zauner perfectly distills the palpable ache for her mother and wraps her grief in an aromatic conjuring of her mother’s presence.

The daughter of a white father and Korean mother in a rural area outside of Eugene, Oregon, Zauner felt closest to her mother when shopping for and eating food together. She shares fond memories of them prowling the aisles of H Mart, the Asian grocery store and food court where she discovered kimchi, rice cakes and tteokguk, a beef and rice cake soup. Growing up, Zauner found that her mother could be distant, but she soon learned that “food was how my mother expressed her love.”

As a girl, Zauner traveled with her mother to Seoul, South Korea, where Zauner met her aunts and grandmother and celebrated life and family with hearty meals. When Zauner was in her 20s, she moved from Philadelphia back home to Oregon to take care of her mother as she died of cancer. As Zauner recounts her mother’s slow, painful decline, she recalls the highs and lows of their life together, often in stories of meals shared with friends and family. After her mother’s death in 2014, Zauner struggled to accept it. She writes, “Maybe we hadn’t tried hard enough, hadn’t believed enough, hadn’t force-fed her enough blue-green algae.”

Crying in H Mart hardly ends in defeat, however. As difficult as her grief is, Zauner celebrates her mother in the very place they shared their most intimate joys, losses and pleasures: H Mart.

Michelle Zauner perfectly distills the palpable ache for her late mother and wraps her grief in an aromatic conjuring of her mother’s presence.

“In every era, it takes a bus of change to lead the way. . . . Thankfully, a change bus is always a comin’.” So says Charles Person in his inspiring account of the 1961 Freedom Ride, Buses Are a Comin’. Person began taking notes when he got on his change bus at age 18. He would later lose those notes during a savage beating by a white mob in Birmingham, Alabama, but he still recalls it all vividly now that he’s in his 80s.

Growing up in the Bottom, a poor Black neighborhood in Atlanta, Person was unaware of racism’s reach. But when he was refused admission to Georgia Tech in 1960, despite an outstanding academic record that was good enough for MIT, he grew enraged. His grandfather prodded, “Do something!” But what could a teenager do?

Soon he knew. As a freshman at Morehouse College, Person witnessed his classmates’ participation in nonviolent sit-ins at Atlanta stores that refused service to Black people. He joined in, was arrested and served 10 days in solitary confinement because he sang protest songs too loudly. 

By the spring of 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was recruiting people for nonviolent tests of two recent Supreme Court decisions prohibiting segregation on interstate buses and trains. Person applied, after assuring his parents he would be safe, and received nonviolence training in Washington, D.C. He admired his cohorts, including a young John Lewis, but was skeptical of their concerns about the trouble they might encounter en route. Before embarking on two weeks of Trailways and Greyhound bus rides to New Orleans, they were encouraged to write their wills. Person declined.

What happened on that trip almost killed these 13 riders, but their horrifying experiences brought global attention to the escalating U.S. civil rights movement. Four hundred more Freedom Riders would join them that summer, and the South would be forever changed. Person tells it all in riveting detail, with help from his friend, historian Richard Rooker.

And why tell this story now? Person writes, “Nothing will change if you, my reader, my friend, my fellow American, do not take Papa’s advice and ‘do something.’ What change needs to happen? Get on the bus. Make it happen.”

A bus ride to New Orleans in 1961 almost killed 13 Freedom Riders, but changed the South forever.

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: These are all words that could describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language. The celebrated playwright calls her language broken, but in this extraordinary memoir she actually remakes language so that it speaks to her world—a world that takes as its point of origin a barrio in West Philadelphia where Hudes grew up surrounded by Perez women, whom she refers to as her own Mount Rushmore, her pantheon of goddesses. The women in her family laugh, cry, eat, dance and mourn, and they do it in a glorious blend of English and Spanish, in language made of flesh and motion. Hudes watches them from the stairs, eager to join in but uncertain exactly where she fits.

Like the best translators, Hudes occupies the in-between—in this case, in between the crowded and uproarious barrio, where life feels like an unfolding tragicomedy, and the staid suburbs, where her white father has settled into a routine life that offers plenty of picket fences but little space for complexity. Hudes’ narrative follows her life story, from living with both parents to traveling between them; from her growing bond with her extended Perez family to her trips back to her mother’s native country of Puerto Rico. Her delight in the musicians and artists of the Western canon leads her to Yale, where she realizes the infuriating limitations of that canon, and ultimately to Brown, where she dedicates herself to telling the story of her people, their bodies, their spirituality and their language. This is a book of bringing together dissonant stories, one that Hudes alone could write. 

Hudes’ first name is an invented endearment, a form of the verb querer, which means “to love.” Her mother had seen the name spelled Kiara or Ciara or Chiarras, but for her daughter she wanted that same sound with a deeper meaning, one that indicated that her daughter was beloved (Quiara) as well as a source of happiness (Alegría). There may be no better compliment to the author of this marvelous, one-of-a-kind memoir than to say she truly lives up to her name. With My Broken Language, she has invented a language of love and to-the-bone happiness to tell stories only a Perez woman could share.

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: These are all words that could describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language.

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