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Gift Guide 2020: Memorable Memoir

A lifelong pursuit of knowledge - both intellectual and emotional - is one of our greatest privileges as humans. What better way to continue learning than by reading the stories of others both alike and different from ourselves. For the readers in your life who love stories and are invested in the lives of others, here are some inspirational memoirs sure to stimulate, challenge, and enrich their days.

A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt

Billy-Ray Belcourt is a member of the Driftpile Cree Nation. His memoir, A History of My Brief Body, deals with the violence of colonization, the complexities of traditional gender roles, specifically in the NDN home in which he was raised, and his experience as a queer NDN man. It is a mix of poetry, academic analysis, and deeply personal rumination on his life. I always love when poets write outside of their genre - Hanif Abdurraqib and Ocean Vuong, to name a few. Belcourt’s tender reverence for language is palpable, each word carefully chosen as he is more aware than most of the real power of language. This one is a bit more experimental, so pass it along to friends and loved ones who love words and are excited by their endless possibility.


Officer Clemmons: A Memoir by Dr. François S. Clemmons

Dr. François S. Clemmons's memoir, Officer Clemmons, is authentic storytelling at its finest. Clemmons, a trained opera singer who became one of the most beloved neighbors on Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, shares the story of his life with exuberance and authenticity. As a gay, Black man, his presence on a children's television show was revolutionary. Readers are admitted into his close and personal friendship with Fred Rogers. We are also invited into the most painful and humiliating parts of his life as he deals with prejudice against both his race and sexuality. While Clemmons is honest about his feelings of frustration and fatigue regarding the racism and homophobia he has and still does encounter, readers are left with a portrait of a man who has spent his life pursuing the things that he loves.

The Dragons, The Giant, The Women: A Memoir by Wayétu Moore

When Wayétu Moore was 5-years old, the First Liberian Civil War forced her family from their home in Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia. With her father, grandmother, and other young siblings, Wayétu walked for three weeks to the village of Lai. There, she and her family are smuggled over the border into Sierra Leone where they are able to come to the United States to be reunited with her mother who was studying here at the time. If you’ve read Moore’s debut novel, She Would Be King, you know that not only is she deeply tied to Liberia and its people, but she uses Afrofuturism and magical realism to tell the story of its founding. Moore very effectively uses these literary devices to tell her own story from her 5-year old perspective. The Giant is her father; a very tall man who relentlessly fights to ensure his family’s safety. The Dragons are the leaders of the various political factions at war - stalking the forest the Moore family runs through, sure to set fire to everything they know and love. And The Women are the women who surround her, keep her safe, direct her path from Liberia to the United States and back to Liberia. They shape her story in ways large and small and everything in between. 

Becoming by Michelle Obama AND A Promised Land by Barack Obama

I read Becoming, Michelle Obama’s story of her life before and after Barack Obama, and I was inspired by it. It was fun to hear about how Mr. & Mrs. Obama met, dated, and fell in love. It was exciting to go behind the closed doors of the White House, and to have a clearer idea of all of the good that Mrs. Obama did as First Lady. Beyond that, the full picture of the sacrifices that she made as a woman with a high-powered and successful career - a career, at many times, more successful than her husband’s - and a mother of two young daughters is the story not often told. She gave up so much to support the man who she believed was best for her country. She is a public servant of the highest order. Her belief in and contribution to the moral fabric of this nation cannot be overstated. 

Obviously, after reading Mrs. Obama’s perspective on her family's journey to the White House, I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first volume of President Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land. You can pre-order this book until November 11. After that, you’ll be taking a chance on whether we’ll have the book available at any given time. We’ve been assured that any orders that we place before the book’s November 17 release date will be fulfilled. After that there can be no guarantees made about when more books will be shipped or printed. 

This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman by Ilhan Omar

I wish that everyone would read this book. Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative. Everyone. Ilhan Omar was born in Somalia. She and her six siblings were raised by her father and grandfather after her mother died when she was very young. Moderate Sunni Muslims, Omar was quite young when she and her family fled Somalia for a refugee camp in Kenya. They lived there for four years. She came to America at the age of 11. When she was 14, she attended her first caucus with her grandfather. She has been committed to the idea that the government should be committed to representing all people - no matter their race, religion, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender. And she has worked tirelessly to ensure that she hears the voices of the people she represents in Minnesota. 

This is one of the most inspirational books I’ve read in a long time. And while the President and the Republican party hurl hateful rhetoric her way, often putting her in physical danger, she continues to work. And while I do understand that her politics are liberal and progressive in a way that alienates some, her work ethic cannot be denied. She has more faith in democracy than I can muster these days. And for those who disagree with her, reading her story sheds much-needed light on the reasons she believes what she believes. I hope that someday I’ll be able to cast a vote for Ilhan Omar. 

Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

Memorial Drive is another memoir written by a poet, former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize Winner Natasha Trethewey. When Trethewey was nineteen, her mother was shot and killed by her ex-stepfather; a man who had terrorized her and mother for the entire time he was in their lives. Her mother repeatedly went to the police for help with the situation, and repeatedly nothing was done. Throughout the book, Trethewey reckons with her mother’s experiences in the segregated American South and her own place in that society as a child with a Black mother and white father. Many years after her mother’s death she still seems to be searching for her place in the story. This is a beautiful and devastating book about loss, grief, racial identity, and the roots of a white supremacy that does not take seriously the pain, suffering, and fear of Black people in the United States. 

The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang

For years people have been recommending The Latehomecomer. We finally read it in Book Club this year and I was left speechless. This book is exquisite in every way. Kao Kalia Yang is one of the best storytellers I’ve ever had the privilege of listening to. Her words are thoughtful, carefully chosen, and full of all of the love and hope and endurance and heartbreak that her family experienced when they fled Laos for Thailand, and then Thailand for the United States. I haven’t found the right words to express how much this book meant to me and how much I learned from it and how much I still think about it. I’ll just say that it was a pleasure to learn more about Hmong culture, and since Wisconsin and Minnesota have very large Hmong populations, it also felt necessary to learn more about our friends and neighbors. I’m sorry that it took me so long.