8 favorite memoirs I keep coming back to.

8 favorite memoirs I keep coming back to.

I recently read Mary Karr’s excellent book The Art of Memoir, and it of course got me thinking about my favorite memoirs.

I love the genre; I’ve read many over the years. Today I’m sharing 8 of my favorites, “favorite” in this case meaning the ones I keep coming back to. I’ve read these 3 or 4 or even a dozen times.

For those getting started in the list: I love the following, of course. Karr also includes a terrific (and long) list in the back of her book.

8 favorite memoirs I keep coming back to
A Homemade Life

A Homemade Life

After her father died, Molly Wizenburg didn’t know what to do with herself. So she went to Paris, and later, she started a blog. No spoilers here, so let’s just say I especially loved hearing about how the internet introducedthe author to new, life-changing relationships. This memoir made me laugh, cry, check airfare to Paris, and curse my gluten-free diet. Completely and utterly charming, accompanied by tasty recipes. More info →
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life Of A Critic In Disguise

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life Of A Critic In Disguise

Author:
This ostensibly foodie memoir is as much about identity as it is about fancy restaurants. When Ruth Reichl takes the plum job of New York Times food critic, she’s determined to let ordinary diners know what the city’s great restaurants are really like. She soon discovers that the Times food critic is no ordinary diner: her headshot is pinned to the wall of every kitchen in the city so the staff can recognize and wow her. So Reichl goes undercover, enlisting the help of an old theater friend to become a sultry blond, a gregarious redhead, and a tweedy brunette, each with her own backstory. A fascinating read for any foodie, or student of human nature. More info →
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Author:
This is by far my favorite of Miller's works, and one I think about often. When he plunged into the world of screenwriting to translate his memoir Blue Like Jazz into a screenplay, he learned what elements are needed to make a story great—and realized his own day-to-day life lacked those elements. This is Miller’s chronicle of how he started living a better story. He’ll inspire you to do the same. More info →
The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work”

The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work”

“Quotidian” means “ordinary,” or “everyday,” and in this slim volume (88 pages!) Norris affirms the inherent worth of the mundane tasks that consume our everyday–the cooking, the cleaning, the dishes, the diapering. “What is it about repetitive acts that makes us feel that we are wasting our time?” Norris asks. Yet she insists that our daily activities are anything but trivial, and have the power to shape our souls, if we let them. A beautiful book worth reading over and over again. Take note: the text is largely contained within Norris's longer memoir Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life. More info →
A Circle of Quiet (The Crosswicks Journals)

A Circle of Quiet (The Crosswicks Journals)

This is my favorite Madeleine L'Engle book. Reading these pages, I feel like she gets me. (She coined the phrase “the tired thirties,” which makes me feel like she can be trusted implicitly.) On these pages L'Engle is clearly a work-in-progress, but she's working it through, and this peek into her thought process gives me hope that I can work it through, too. More info →
On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft

On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft

Author:
This is an exceptional book for book lovers and a must-read for writers, and I'm saying that as someone who has read a grand total of two books by King. (The other is 11/22/63.) I thoroughly enjoyed his descriptions of his fiction writing process (although his descriptions convinced me that I never, ever want to read Carrie.) I especially enjoyed the anecdotes he shared about his marriage, and I couldn't turn the pages fast enough when he explores his devastating car wreck and recovery. More info →
Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster

Author:
Krakauer climbed Mt. Everest while on assignment for Outside Magazine in 1996, which would become the deadliest year in the history of the mountain. 8 people died on the mountain the day Krakauer himself summited; 15 died that season. Krakauer made it back down to tell the tale of what it was like on the mountain that May. Of note: known for his journalistic integrity, Krakauer has revised his story over the years as new information has come to light about the disaster. A first-class adventure story. More info →
Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes

Bread & Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes

Imagine the best of the Food Network, with a lot more girl talk mixed in. Niequist's food writing will make your mouth water, but this book isn't just about the food. Her recipes are vehicles—to conversation, community, and all good things that happen when people gather around the table. Bread and Wine contains some great-looking recipes (Green Well salad, Michigan blueberry crisp, magical white bean soup) that will inspire you to get cooking. My ten-year-old loves this book, especially the blueberry crisp recipe. More info →

8 favorite memoirs I keep coming back to

More highly regarded memoirs that are still on my To Be Read list: Angela’s Ashes, The Glass Castle, The Tender Bar, The Year of Magical Thinking.

What are YOUR favorite memoirs? What highly rated memoirs are on your TBR list? 

118 comments | Comment

118 comments

  1. Ginger says:

    I got excited for a moment when I had read aallllmmoost all of one of your lists, but alas, I haven’t hit King’s On Writing. So close!

    But this is a great list! I love a good memoir! Nothing better.

  2. Christine says:

    Great list! I especially agree with the first two. I’d also second The Glass Castle. It’s superb, and the whole time I had to keep reminding myself that it was true! I was hooked from the very first line of the book. One other to add… My life in France by Julia Child. It surprised me at how good it was!

  3. Jeannie says:

    Thanks for this list, Anne. I read quite a few memoirs, yet I’ve actually only read one of these, the Jon Krakauer one. Time for some more library holds!

    Two of my favourite memoirs are Katy Hutchison’s Walking After Midnight and Shannon Moroney’s Through the Glass. They are both Canadian women whose lives were shattered by traumatic crimes and who worked through their losses and toward forgiveness and justice. Tough but inspiring books.

  4. Oh, how I loved Into Thin Air! It was a book that kept me company with a newborn years ago.

    Because I was never a Wrinkle in Time fan ( though I gave it a second chance a few years ago and was pleasantly surprised ), I erroneously thought L’Engle wasn’t for me. Loved Walking on Water, though, so I know I need to read more.

    Can’t wait for you to read Angela’s Ashes and The Tender Bar!

  5. Jessica says:

    I too believe Madeleine L’Engle to be a kindred spirit. Both of Joan Didion’s memoirs, Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking, are wonderful. You should read both!

  6. Allison says:

    Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh is #1 on my list for memoirs. I’ve read it several times and it is a true classic and must read for this genre!

  7. Sharon says:

    Angela’s Ashes is a must read!! It was a story I consider instrumental in re-igniting my love of books in general and a newfound love for memoirs. It is funny, heartbreaking and inspiring – all at the same time.

  8. How did I not know about Madeline L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet? Definitely adding that to my list. As a middle school teacher, I have enjoyed several YA memoirs. Roald Dahl’s “Boy” and Gary Paulsen’s “Guts” stand out. The kids love them, too!

  9. Dana says:

    Reading Homemade Life now and loving it. I love food memoirs! I read Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good last year and I loved that one as well. And Stephen King’s book is the best book on writing EVER! I re-read it often. I agree with a PP that Bird by Bird is also good, as are Lamott’s books on faith. They are a bit gritty in places, but I love her honestly as she works though coming to terms with what she believes. Regina Brett’s books are really good , too. They are memoir/essays with lovely thoughts on living. She is cancer survivor and she writes honestly but hopefully about her battle. My favorite of hers is God Never Blinks.

    Thanks, Anne…there goes my ever expanding TBR list again! 🙂
    The Art of Memoir is high on my list.

  10. liz n. says:

    Just a few, and in no particular order, and all of them excellent:

    Julia Child: “My Life in France”

    James W. Gerard: “My Four Years in Germany”

    Charles Wilson, Lord Moran: “Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran”

    Timothy B. Tyson: “Blood Done Sign My Name”

    Myrlie Evers-Williams: “Watch Me Fly: What I Learned On Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be” (This one still makes me shake my head in amazement every time I read it. Possibly the most personally inspiring memoir I’ve ever read.)

    Steve Martin: “Born Standing Up”

    Adeline Yen Mah: “Falling Leaves”

    Azar Nafisi: “Reading Lolita in Tehran”

    Letitia Baldridge: “A Lady, First”

    Stewart Copeland: “Strange Things Happen”

    Honestly, I could turn this into the longest comment, ever! I have an entire bookcase that contains only memoirs!

  11. Lauri says:

    Great list. I plan to read On Writing. I am a newcomer to Stephen King also, with no desire to read ‘It’. I recommend ‘Joyland’ if you want to read another of his. 11/22/63 is also on my list!

  12. Sarah R says:

    Memoirs is one of my favorite genres. I loved Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions (great for first time parents) and Liz Murray’s Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard.

  13. donna says:

    I was so excited when this post landed in my inbox this morning.? Memoirs are definitely my first love!
    I haven’t read any of these but Garlic and Sapphires is on my fall reading list. I am considering trying it as an audio book. Thoughts?
    I’ve read a ton of memoirs so far this year. A few of my
    favourites:
    A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout
    They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson (highly highly
    recommend!)
    Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr
    It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario
    My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (finally!)
    Sous Chef by Michael Gibney
    Currently reading:
    The News Sorority by Sheila Weller (a triple biography.
    I’m loving it!)
    Also gonna read ‘Five Days At
    Memorial’ (finally!) this fall.

    Happy reading!?

    • Anne says:

      Hmmm. My first about Garlic and Sapphires on audio was that there are a lot of recipes in the book, and that wouldn’t do well in that medium. But the reviews on audible are fantastic, and several people said they listened to G&S because they specifically loved the narrator (who also read The Devil Wears Prada). Sounds like it’s worth a shot to me.

      That’s an impressive list of memoirs for just one year!

      I thought Five Days at Memorial was great. A tough read, but great.

      • donna says:

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts.? Definitely gonna try G&S on audio. Will let you know what I think.
        Oh and completely off topic. I finished Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce last week and Oh! You Pretty Things by Shanna Mahin on Saturday and they’re on my list of favourite reads this year. Highly recommend both!

  14. I used to dislike reading memoirs, but every since I read The Glass Castle, there is something intricately beautiful about them. Thank you for helping me add more books to my list!

    Also, Into Thin Air is one of my all-time favorite books. I was gripping the corners waiting to know what was happening next. I was invested completely.

  15. Grace says:

    What a great list! I also recommend Ann Patchett’s memoir “Truth and Beauty”. It is one of the first I ever read and would read it again. It is the perfect companion to “Autobiography of a Face” by Lucy Grealy.

  16. Ansley Hamilton says:

    I love memoirs for long drives. I listened to Mindy Kaling’s “Why Not Me?” on my most recent drive and felt like a good friend was talking to me instead of just listening to an audiobook.

  17. Hannah Beth Reid says:

    This list helped me get some gift ideas for some family members…thank you!
    I am surprised you haven’t read “The Glass Castle.” It is definitely a thinking memoir that sticks with you. It wasn’t an easy read for me, but I am glad I read it.
    Thank you for sharing so many lists on interesting subjects!

  18. Laurel says:

    I obviously have a thing with food-related memoirs because two of my favorites you have here–A Homemade Life and Bread & Wine–are just that. Laurie Colwin’s are great too. I also like memoirs that are set in Paris (it’s my francophile heart!), especially Kate Morton’s Paris: A Love Story.

  19. Liz says:

    I skipped A Circle of Quiet and went right to The Summer of the Great Grandmother while I coped with my grief relating to my mom’s illness and death. It was enjoyable and comforting to read Madeleine L’Engle’s reflections on her relationship with her mother. She also discusses the writing process and how family members show up in her fictional characters. Now I need to go back and read A Circle of Quiet. Another of her great memoirs is Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage. I read it in college and it helped me clearly frame what I expected in a life-long relationship.

    Sports memoirs are not usually my type, but I really liked Open, by Andre Agassi. His ghost writer is great, and it’s such an interesting look at someone who is truly gifted at something they hate doing. (It’s almost a story of continuous rebellion against tennis.)

    • SoCalLynn says:

      I just received Two-Part Invention from PaperBackSwap. I loved A Circle of Quiet and The Summer of the Great Grandmother so much I’ve decided to keep my copies forever.

  20. Anna says:

    “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” to follow your foodie delights. It’s so entertaining! At one point I had to call my mom cry-laughing from work because it was so hilarious.

  21. Bethany Beck says:

    I’ve read several of the books on your list and love them all, but would add “A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Moorland, Indiana” by Haven Kimmel, along with the sequel, “She Got Up Off the Couch.” Pure gold. Also, Katrina Kenison’s “The Gift of an Ordinary Day.” A little melancholy, but filled with honest, beautiful writing.

    • Katie says:

      Oh, I loved “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” too. My children are smaller than her sons in the book, but I feel like I see them, and their fleeting childhoods, more clearly after reading it.

  22. Bethany Beck says:

    I’ve read several of the books you mentioned and loved them all. Others on my personal list are, “A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana,” by Haven Kimmel, along with the sequel, “She Got Up Off the Couch.” Pure gold. Another one I enjoy is Katrina Kenison’s “The Gift of an Ordinary Day.” It’s a little slow and melancholy, but has beautiful, honest prose.

  23. Malia says:

    You must read Maude by Donna Mabry if you haven’t–my favorite memoir ever, and the absolute best book I’ve read in the last year.

  24. Elizabeth Brink says:

    I also love memoirs so much! I took a creative nonfiction class in college and memoir was much of what we covered. I love A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz, Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner, Letters from the Land of Cancer by Walter Wangerin, Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber, and so many more! Thanks for this lovely post, Anne.

  25. JULIE CAVE says:

    Finished this memoir recently: “Life is Mostly Edges.” Author is Calvin Miller, best known for his bestseller, “The Singer,” which is still one of my favorites reads.

  26. Laura says:

    Memoirs are the best!
    All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick bragg is a wonderful tribute. Lenten Lands is the story of CS Lewis’ stepson and is so rich. A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanaukin.

  27. Janet says:

    If you get to The Glass Castle, you have to also add Half-Broke Horses, which is about Jeanette Walls’s grandmother.

    On Writing is on the short list of Stephen King I have read, and I loved it–when he has his horrible accident and comes the the realization that he was “hit by one of my own characters”, that was priceless.
    Didn’t care that much for The Tender Bar, but I think it was over-sold to me a bit..couldn’t live up to the hype. You may feel differently.
    thank you for all the great suggestions!

  28. SoCalLynn says:

    I’ve read three of the ones on your list and two on your TBR list. Besides many others listed here, a couple of my favorite memoirs are Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, Road From Coorain by Jill Kerr Conway, anything my James Herriot and anything by Bill Bryson.

  29. s says:

    I love Katrina Kenison’s memoirs. How do you capture all of the wonderful suggestions and manage your TBR list? I am struggling with a growing TBR list and not losing track of great suggestions…

    • Anne says:

      I use goodreads, and my actual physical books help me remember what I want to read, but I’m sure plenty slip through the cracks.

  30. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned Kelly Corrigan yet. Her first memoir, The Middle Place, is one I travel back to again and again. I also loved Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome, which I read long before All the Light We Cannot See came out. So fun to read the book he was writing during his time in Rome!

  31. So many good ones on your list. I’ve read 7 out of 8 – I especially love L’Engle, Norris and Wizenberg.

    I also loved Four Seasons in Rome, My Life in France, and Home Cooking. (Among others – I love a good memoir.)

  32. Dinah says:

    Twelve Clean Pages by Nika Maples was a beautifully written memoir. I copied out pages and pages into a notebook because I had to think long and hard about her words.
    “Sometimes we loose opportunities to play an active role in the kingdom, because we do not like the part we were asked to play. We are so busy praying for specific circumstances to change that we miss our cues and flub our lines. I have started embracing the whole production, as it was written by the masterful Playwright.”

  33. Marci says:

    Oh this is one of my favorite genres. I love all of Jon K’s books. Into the Wild is also quite good. And on your TBR list I have to echo The Glass Castle (I met Jeannette Walls, she is delightful and that book is jaw dropping and beautiful). And The Year of Magical Thinking is a book I’ve read a couple of times and her writing…sigh….that’s a special book in the grief genre.

    To add a few titles no one has mentioned. The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith. A grief memoir as well and it stayed with me for a long time. The author loses both parents to cancer within months of each other and she’s only 25 years old. Raw. Brilliant.

    I also love It’s Head Came Off by Accident by Muffy Mead-Ferro. She grew up on one of the largest working ranches in Wyoming near jackson hole (her brother is the current governor of Wyoming). She had a larger than life, interesting mother and a somewhat free range childhood, which adds alot of depth to the story. Although the title is funny it is not a humorous story. The book made me long for a childhood I didn’t have. Just loved it. This was a book I discovered on a table at BN and its turned out to be a favorite.

    If you’re a Mitford-ite, I loved Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels. There are wonderful biographies of the Mitford sisters (Mary Lovell wrote my favorite), but the sisters own books are just delightful and Jessica is the most spirited one.

    • Anne says:

      I’ve read several of Krakauer’s other books, but I’m a little afraid that Into the Wild will be heartbreaking. Thanks for the reminder that it’s on my list, if I can summon the courage. 🙂

  34. Leanne says:

    Thank you, I now have several books to add to my Goodreads list! May I also suggest Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller, a memoir about growing up with hoarding parents. The emotions she portrays have stuck with me for a very long time.

  35. Lisa Stone says:

    I always thought I was strictly a fiction reader, but my Goodreads list for the last three years shows almost 50% of my reads are memoirs. Some favorites that I highly recommend:
    A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson
    Why Not Me – Mindy Kaling
    The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look at a Shallow Year
    Glitter and Glue – Kelly Corrigan
    Some Girls: My Life in a Harem – Jillian Lauren
    Love Life – Rob Lowe
    Stories I Only Tell My Friends – Rob Lowe
    The Bucolic Plague – Josh Kilmer-Purcell
    A Little Bit Wicked – Kristin Chenoweth
    The Glass Castle
    Being Miss America: Behind the Rhinestone Curtain – Kate Shindle
    Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight? Confessions of a Gay Dad – Dan Bucatinsky

  36. Love, love, more love. 🙂 Circle of Quiet has been on my wish list for years – guess I will have to break down and buy it for myself. The Ruth Reichl memoirs are my favorite. I just love her writing … and food. So it works.

  37. Katie says:

    I used to think I didn’t like memoirs much and somehow they’ve become one of my absolute favorite genres. I’m astounded by how interesting people are who I might dismiss as ordinary – turns out no one is ordinary.

    My three favorite books from 2015’s readings (and it was a GREAT year for reading!) were all memoirs.

    Beautiful Affliction by Lene Fogelberg is intense, beautiful, poetic. She is sick, but no doctor in her home country of Sweden diagnoses her malady: heart failure. (It’s on the book jacket so no spoiler, don’t worry.) She alternates between her time in Sweden before the diagnoses and after the diagnoses in America. The way she writes about her procedure, her fear, her two daughters catches my breath. This book seems to be entirely under the radar, and I don’t know why.

    Similarly, Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor is a medical memoir with the added bonus of recipes – since you loved A Homemade Life and Delancey by Molly Wizenberg, you will love Stir. My book club had the good fortune to Skype with the author, and she is absolutely lovely, smart, and brave. Also, her challah recipe? Amazing and easy!

    Stable Relation by Anna Blake is a debut book, but Anna is a practiced and brilliant storyteller. She does what I have always wished to do: sell it all for a small farm in the country. Her writing hits home, and I found myself nodding and saying, “Me too. I’ve felt that, I thought that.” The first chapter felt rough, but it’s that rare book that grows stronger and stronger as it continues, and by the end I was cheering her on and not wanting it to end.

  38. Mary says:

    Just saw this list pinned on Pinterest, and so glad I checked it out. I didn’t read ALL of the comments so my contributions may have already been listed, but here goes: Sue Hubbell “A Country Year”, Terry Tempest Williams “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place”, Annie Dillard “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”, Caroline Knapp “Drinking: A Love Story” and “Pack of Two”, Annie Lamott “Operating Instructions”, and Gail Caldwell “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” are all on repeat reads at my house. Now to go back and compile a list of must-reads from all the comments!

  39. SHERRY JOHNSON says:

    I am an new subscriber and was scanning your site. I went to the shop page and saw a small booklet called “What would Kathleen Kelly do?” Is this the Kathleen Kelly from my favorite movie of all time, “You’ve Got Mail”? If so, what is the booklet about? Can I purchase just the booklet?

  40. Grace says:

    I love memoirs, and you’ve just added several to my list! I, too, have only read On Writing and 11/22/63 by King. (Until now, as I’m listening to The Stand– maybe not the best choice during flu season!) I read A Circle of Quiet in college and adore it.

  41. Kathleen says:

    Angela’s Ashes is one of my favorites- so much joy shines through so much heartache! Another favorite is Breaking Night: From Homeless to Harvard.

  42. Janean says:

    I read a ton of writing books in 2017 and King’s On Writing was my favorite. It also made my best of the year list in all genres, along with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. King recounted his childhood and formative years as a writer, as well as how his wife and their marriage influences his writing and who he is as a man. I agree that his description of his accident was gripping and felt like and imbedded novel. I was crushed when I was done.

  43. Sherry says:

    Yes, memoirs are so intimate. I particularly like the “sub-genre” of Christian conversion stories, if they are well-written. Some favorites are:

    Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner
    Surprised By Joy by C.S. Lewis
    The Great Good Thing by Andrew Klavan
    She Is Mine by Stephanie Fast
    Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi
    The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield.

    And some other memoirs (not conversion stories)
    Different by Sally and Nathan Clarkson
    Mission at Nuremberg by Tim Townsend
    The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life by Rod Dreher.

    Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

  44. Kathleen Potter says:

    I loved:
    *Still Foolin’ Em by Billy Crystal (audio – read by the author)
    *All of May Sarton’s journals
    *Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
    *I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (Audio – read by the author)

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