I’ve often said reading is my favorite hobby, my introvert coping strategy of choice, and a comfort when life becomes overwhelming. Over the last few years, I’ve read piles of escapist novels, disappearing into propulsive plots so I can return to my daily routines feeling refreshed—but I’ve also found heaps of comfort (and entertainment) in the pages of more familiar tales.
A true story of common experiences—friendship, marriage, illness, parenthood—can make me feel deeply seen and encouraged. I so appreciate when an author can put my own swirling thoughts into words in a way that makes me say, Yes, that’s it exactly! Whether they’re writing about beloved pets or backyard plants or a life-changing crisis, talented writers take you on an emotional journey—making you step back and assess the landscape of your own life from a new vantage point.
Inspired by the ordinary-yet-extraordinary lives of gifted memoirists, today’s new book list includes true stories about relationships, health, loss, grief, and the simple pleasures of a life well lived.
If you typically reach for true stories of the more salacious and striking variety, I encourage you to give one of these memoirs a try. You might be surprised at just how absorbing a seemingly average life can be.
In Alexander's words: "The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story." The author's husband died just four days after his fiftieth birthday. A few years later, Alexander looks back on their life together, their love, and the impact of that loss in her life. She was an American born in Harlem, and he was a refugee of war from Eritrea; when they meet in New Haven, a beautiful story begins. I loved reading about how they built a life together. Both were artists—that’s his painting on the cover of the book—and their home sounds like this amazing, vibrant, multicultural extravaganza with food and friends and music and art. As a poet and poetry professor at Yale, Alexander’s way with words leaves a significant impression, and while sad, it exudes joy. Heads up for audiophiles: the author’s narration of her own work is magnificent. More info →
Much like keeping a daily gratitude journal, poet Ross Gay wrote slice of life essays every day for an entire year. A project like this runs the risk of tipping into the trite or overly optimistic, but Gay has a way of revealing how pain and sadness run parallel to delight and joy. This isn’t a poetry collection, but readers will be rewarded with a lovely experience by reading just one passage a day and allowing it to marinate. Nothing is too small or insignificant to cause delight, from candy wrappers to nicknames, to basketball—and this unique format reveals just as much as a tell-all memoir. Plant lovers, take note: Gay is an avid gardener, and many of his essays celebrate the beauty of flowers, bugs, and homegrown vegetables. Please note that while this book is packed with delights there are also some tough moments and hard themes. More info →
In The Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green sprinkles in several references to his dear friend Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a bestselling memoirist and children’s book author who died at age 51 of ovarian cancer. You may have read her New York Times essay: “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” a heartfelt, devastating, and endearing reflection on love and loss. In this collection of wise, witty, and emotional encyclopedia entries, Rosenthal shares small observations and short stories, organized from A to Z. Book lovers must turn to “Books, standing in a bookstore holding a…” to be transported to a familiar moment. Keep reading for quirky, quaint, and poignant snippets of life’s perils and pleasures. More info →
If you’ve ever gone to therapy, you might keep a few key phrases in your back pocket to help you deal with unexpected situations, difficult family conversations, or everyday inconveniences. Maybe you call them mantras, mottos, or personal refrains. Kelly Corrigan calls them the “12 hardest things I’m learning to say” and shares stories around each essential phrase. With essays titled “No,” and “I Was Wrong,” Corrigan gives us a starting point for figuring out how to improve communication skills with loved ones. This book will make you want to be a better friend, and also give you insight into how. I still think about these stories when I pluck a phrase from my mind to use in an interaction with my teens, my close friends, or strangers at the coffee shop. More info →
In this broad essay collection (beloved by booksellers), Ann Patchett reflects on the writing life, significant friendships, bookstore ownership, and taking mushrooms (really!). I had read earlier versions of some pieces before—and maybe you have, too, because we shared them in Links I Love, but I enjoyed both revisiting those and reading her new work. While I adored peeking into Patchett’s writing life, my favorite essays in this collection center not on her authorial pursuits but on complex family relationships. This should come as no surprise to fans of her fiction: Patchett is decidedly gifted when it comes to stories of significant relationships. Flip right to "The Nightstand" and "Two More Things I Want to Say About My Father" for moving pieces on life’s unexpected turns. More info →
Mary Laura Philpott shared this title in What Should I Read Next episode 195—Wanted: Book enthusiast at large, saying she kept waiting for the big twist, but there was no twist. In spite of—or maybe because of—the memoir’s seemingly simple premise of a mother parenting her child when she wasn’t quite ready, Philpott saw her own life in a completely new way after reading it. With humor and candid honesty, O’Connell shares the details of her unplanned pregnancy, entry to the brand new world of parenting, and questioning of nearly everything about her identity. Nothing happens, but EVERYTHING happens, as she experiences the highs and lows of pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. There is no universal story of motherhood, but by sharing the oft-untold (and not at all picture-worthy) bits, O’Connell shows how to have more compassion and gentleness for yourself or the mothers in your life. More info →
Nothing feels ordinary about a cancer diagnosis, yet so many of us have felt worry, pain, and anger for ourselves or our loved ones as we’ve walked through this harrowing experience, making the themes grounding this memoir feel all too familiar. The author was diagnosed with leukemia just after graduating from college; this book details her road to diagnosis and inexpressibly awful treatment, and her struggle to resume some kind of normal existence in the kingdom of the well. I found this book relatable in ways I didn't expect, and deeply appreciate how Jaouad put words to some experiences I've been struggling to articulate for decades. More info →
Maya Shanbhag Lang’s memoir opens with a fable. Her brilliant mother tells the tale in Lang's own early days of motherhood, and its significance unspools through the chapters ahead. The author’s backstory is revealed in vignettes with alternate timelines: born to an Indian immigrant family with an abusive father and a psychiatrist mother, she clings to the relationship with her mom through a divorce and a cross-country move. After having her first child, Lang just wants her mother to be there for her, but she’s met with a cold and confusing distance. It turns out her mother is struggling with Alzheimer’s, and once she steps in as caretaker, stories and long-held secrets begin to emerge. Poetic and moving, this is a story of generational healing, motherhood, and mental illness. More info →
In this warm and wise collection of essayettes, Niequist relates the midlife circumstances that forced her to reconsider many things she thought she knew for sure, and to find new ways of living when the old ways broke down. Along the way she discusses love and friendship, trauma and loss, parenting and being parented, reading (so much reading!), and moving from the midwest town she thought she’d never leave to Manhattan at age forty. I found Niequist’s stories all-too-relatable: my copy is thoroughly dog-eared and highlighted, and I texted a dozen real-life friends one particular passage from the book. You can hear me tell Shauna all about my reading experience in What Should I Read Next Episode 236: Fiction is my first love. Readers, I loved it. More info →
In her second collection, Mary Laura Philpott offers an intimate look at family life and the things that matter most. Her leaping-off point is her teenage son’s middle-of-the-night medical emergency. She never sees it coming, but later wondered, Should I have known? He stabilized, but nothing is the same after that pivotal moment. In the aftermath, Philpott explores her long-held desire to keep those she loves safe through sheer will or worrying—but if that doesn’t work, what can we do instead? She wrestles through the answers in these pages. Witty and candid, deeply relatable, humorous and heartstopping: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll text all your friends. (Nerd alert: the structure of this book is incredible. I can't wait to talk about it in Book Club.) More info →
Do you have a favorite slice-of-life memoir to add to our list? Share your suggestions in the comments.