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12 moving memoirs you should add to your reading list

Supercharge your 2020 book list with these powerful personal chronicles by 12 formidable female writers – from former British Vogue editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey

Lifestyle

The Magical Language of Others by E. J. Koh

Poet E. J. Koh writes a powerful “love story in letters” from those her mother wrote to her when her parents moved to South Korea, leaving 15-year-old Koh with her older brother in California. The letters were primarily in Korean, which Koh didn’t fully understand at the time, and were seeking to explain her decision and asking for forgiveness. It is only later, when Koh finds the letters in a box, that she is able to translate them, as she fearlessly grapples with forgiveness, reconciliation, legacy and intergenerational trauma.

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Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey reckons with her mother’s brutal 1985 murder at the hands of her former stepfather in this searing, moving memoir. Exploring her own grief and trauma, along with the wider context of the ripple effects of racism and domestic violence, she details how her own life has been shaped by “a legacy of fierce love and resilience”.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

This funny, frightening coming-of-age tale offers the inside scoop on an industry that’s wormed its way largely unchecked into all our lives. Its author, Anna Wiener, was 25 and broke when she decided she’d had enough of trying to make it in the New York publishing industry. Lured west by a job in a Silicon Valley start-up, she was soon rocking company-branded hoodies and enjoying feeling part of the future. Then she started noticing the less-appealing aspects of the brave new world she’d landed in – the jaw-dropping sexism, for one thing.

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

Fans mourning the loss of Scottish journalist Deborah Orr’s fierce intelligence and keen wit will fall for this memoir of growing up in North Lanarkshire. The dominant influence in her home was her mother, whose hemmed-in horizons made her bitter, but Orr’s cleverness would become a passport to another life. However, her escape came at a cost, and looking back from middle age, herself a mother to grown children, she assesses the chasmic gap between her generation and that of her parents. Laced with guilt, affection and an extra shot of black humor, it’s nothing short of riveting.

Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover and Me by Adrienne Brodeur

Secrets and seduction power this unforgettable tale, centered around a mother and daughter. It opens one Cape Cod summer, when the author, aged 14, found herself cast as her mother Malabar’s confidante. Malabar – complicated and irresistible – had embarked on what would become an epic affair with her husband’s best friend, and she had her daughter, who was on the cusp of her own sexual awakening, play go-between. It’s taken decades for Adrienne Brodeur to fully understand the affair’s calamitous fallout, and her memoir shimmers with hard-earned emotional truths.

The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping by Samantha Harvey

Was it the move to a busy main road? Was it the death of a cousin and the challenges suddenly being faced by close family members, or perhaps the onset of the menopause? Could she blame Brexit? Whatever the reason, when novelist Samantha Harvey was suddenly in the grip of chronic insomnia, nothing – not even Sanskrit chanting – seemed to help. Her cerebral, startlingly clear account of somehow pulling through carries an electric charge and meditates on not only the mystery of sleep but also writing, swimming and dreams.

The Hungover Games by Sophie Heawood

Journalist Sophie Heawood was living the dream in LA when she became pregnant by accident in her mid-thirties. She moved back to the UK to make a life with the baby’s musician father, only for him to dump her midway through her pregnancy. The story of how she figures out the business of caring for a child when she still hasn’t worked out how to look after herself is being pitched as “Bridget Jones for the Tinder generation”, but you can bet it’ll be a good deal messier and sharper.

The See-Through House: My Father in Full Colour by Shelley Klein

Shelley Klein’s father was couture textile designer Bernat Klein. Towards the end of his life, the author began seeking solace in the mid-century modern house on the Scottish Borders that her father commissioned. Weaving her own story with his, Shelley looks back over Bernat’s childhood in an Orthodox-Jewish home in the former Yugoslavia, his education in Jerusalem – where he was kept safe from the Holocaust – and his rebellious flight to art school in Leeds. A journey through loss and questions of belonging, it’s lit with color and light.

Rootbound: Rewilding a Life by Alice Vincent

This tender memoir tells the story of how twentysomething Alice Vincent, who had been dumped and was couch-surfing in London, came to birth the green-fingered Instagram hit Noughticulture. Soothed by memories of childhood happiness in her grandfather’s garden, she began to sow seeds in her cramped urban quarters, filling windowsills and draining boards with plants, and with each fresh shoot came inspiration for her to grow, too. Heartfelt and full of hope, this is a timely tonic for anyone looking to turn over a new leaf, or who just feels in need of some earthy groundedness.

Clothes… and Other Things That Matter by Alexandra Shulman

What do clothes really mean? If there’s anyone who can answer that question, it’s former British Vogue editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman. The little black dress, the white shirt, the bikini – they all get their moment in the spotlight, as Shulman considers their role in her life and in ours – prompting funny, forceful meditations on topics ranging from celebrity and body image to love and failure. When we choose what to wear, she says, we’re not only revealing our personal histories, we’re also shaping our futures. Because, while they might not exactly make us, clothes do help determine where life takes us. Revealing and self-deprecating, the book glints with shrewd social observation and intriguing snippets of fashion history.

My Wild and Sleepless Nights: A Mothers Story by Clover Stroud

Why, on this overburdened planet of ours, would anyone choose to have a fifth child? In writer Clover Stroud’s case, it’s because she was seized by “a ravenous kind of hunger that’s like joy and melancholy and nostalgia and daring all mixed together”. Her eldest had just turned 16 and her youngest was not yet in school when the family welcomed child number five, a baby boy whose first year of life frames this fearless memoir. Powered by sensuous prose and intense candor, it’s a book that captures motherhood in all its contradictory, love-drunk chaos.

How to Make a Dress by Jenny Packham

Word has it that this evocative memoir will be full of the kinds of details to make anyone with even a passing interest in fashion feel a little swoony. As well as sketching the arc of Packham’s own brilliant career, and offering discreet glimpses of her starriest clients, it chattily ponders big questions about how to dress and what impact our daily wardrobe deliberations might have on our sense of self.

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