The best lyrical memoirs that act as salve to the soul

The Books I Picked & Why

The Light of the World: A Memoir

By Elizabeth Alexander

The Light of the World: A Memoir

Why this book?

I absolutely love when poets write memoirs. They bring their vision and facility for sparse and exact language to the task, and Alexander’s memoir about the loss of her beloved husband is a shining example of a story that is both full and tightly woven with imagery, emotion, and action. Her words and sentences slay you, then, like a battery, or rather, lightning, shock the stunned thing in your chest back to life again. How can we write beautifully about grief and pain in a way that also heals by the sheer power of language and deep reflection? This. This is how.


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Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother's Time, My Mother's Time, and Mine

By Emily Bernard

Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother's Time, My Mother's Time, and Mine

Why this book?

Faithful to its title, this brilliant book starts with the body — an unspeakable injury to the narrator’s body, a crime, a horror. Bernard writes with a specificity that is gut-wrenching without being sensational. And all along, running alongside the sensory language is the author’s intellectual river, constantly washing over and over a moment, a scene, a feeling, a thought. This book includes twelve interconnected essays, each building on the other despite how many years – and miles – separate them.


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Season of the Body: Essays

By Brenda Miller

Season of the Body: Essays

Why this book?

Brenda Miller, a former professor of mine, was one of the first people whose work opened up for me the endless possibilities in creative nonfiction and memoir. Season of the Body is a sumptuous collection of lyric essays that can teach the close reader how to come at a subject “sideways”. A flash essay offered by Creative Nonfiction magazine had a subtitle that reminds me of the genius of Miller’s book, “Distill experiences, big or small, into their purest essence.” Whether she’s writing about heartbreak or meditation, Miller’s poetic attention to detail and philosophical tone act as distiller.


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The Names of All the Flowers: A Memoir

By Melissa Valentine

The Names of All the Flowers: A Memoir

Why this book?

I have not read a book like Melissa Valentine's The Names of All the Flowers, which is a beautiful, painful, and exquisitely written narrative about her brother Junior, who was gunned down on the streets of Oakland when he was 19. "Say his name, say her name," we chant when yet another one of our brothers or sisters is killed. In this memoir, Valentine gives us not only Junior's name but an intimate look into his head, his heart, his fears, his dreams, his joy.


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Heart Berries: A Memoir

By Terese Marie Mailhot

Heart Berries: A Memoir

Why this book?

This slim volume of a memoir packs a punch in its sheer power, structure, and sentence-by-sentence craft. It is innovative, and it is a story this country needed. People talk a lot about the importance of “voice” in writing. Mailhot’s voice is searing; it lifts off the page and soars right into your soul.


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