Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (2011).
I devoured Winterson's first book, the roman à clef Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, when it was published in 1985. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a fascinating memoir that considers the same period of Winterson's life that she shared in the novel. I've found it an invaluable book when I teach memoir writing to prisoners.
The Dead and the Living by Sharon Olds (1984).
I have owned a copy of this book for my entire adult life. I return to these narrative poems again and again because Olds' exploration of private and public conflicts leaves me gasping every time.
Until We Reckon by Danielle Sered (2019).
For the U.S. to end our failed policy of mass incarceration, we must reconsider our response to violence in communities. Sered leads a pioneering restorative justice program called Common Justice. Here she shows clearly and thoughtfully how our criminal legal system fails survivors of violence, and how accountability that does not rely on banishment helps break cycles that harm us all.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (2013).
This elegiac book stands as a memorial to five young men lost to Ward and to her close-knit small-town community in Mississippi. It is a personal reckoning with death, with family history, with racial inequality, and with the undeniable pull homeward.
Survival Math by Mitchell S. Jackson (2019).
I love Jackson's singularly insistent and inquisitive prose style. Here he applies it to a searing examination of family history, masculinity, and race in America. He's a challenging and rewarding polymath who, with unforgettable style, can zoom you into the survival moments he and his intimates must navigate in an impoverished neighborhood in Portland, Oregon.
Harley Loco by Rayya Elias (2013).
Elias, who died of cancer a year ago, was a Syrian immigrant raised in 1970s Detroit — as well as a lesbian, a punk rocker, and a survivor who earned the nickname Harley Loco inside New York City's Riker's Island jail. Much more than a recovery memoir, this big-hearted, funny book is a truthful American story.