10 captivating memoirs about life’s ordinary (yet extraordinary) moments

Memoirs are full of wisdom, humor, and heart

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. 

P.S. In What Should I Read Next Episode 195: Wanted: book enthusiast at large, I recommended several of these ordinary, everyday memoirs to a special guest. Mary Laura Philpott will join us at Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club later this month to discuss her latest memoir in essays, Bomb Shelter. This Summer Reading Guide pick quickly landed on my all-time favorites list—and there is SO much to discuss. If you can’t make it live, our conversation will be recorded for members to rewatch and enjoy.

10 memoirs full of wisdom, humor, and heart

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The Light of the World: A Memoir

The Light of the World: A Memoir

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 →
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The Book of Delights: Essays

The Book of Delights: Essays

Author:
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 →
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Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life: A Memoir

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life: A Memoir

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 →
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Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say

Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say

Author:
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 →
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These Precious Days: Essays

These Precious Days: Essays

Author:
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 →
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And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready

And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready

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 →
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Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted

Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted

Author:
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 →
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What We Carry: A Memoir

What We Carry: A Memoir

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 →
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I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet: Discovering New Ways of Living When the Old Ways Stop Working

I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet: Discovering New Ways of Living When the Old Ways Stop Working

Author:
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 →
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Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives

Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives

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 →
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Do you have a favorite slice-of-life memoir to add to our list? Share your suggestions in the comments.

P.S. Sample these 20 tasty and tantalizing food memoirs, try a memorable memoir in essays, or take a trip around the world with these 20 travel memoirs.

10 captivating memoirs about life's ordinary (yet extraordinary) moments

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45 comments

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  1. Barb says:

    It’s not precisely a memoir, but Maggie Smith’s ‘Keep Moving’ is a year of Tweet and some essays about life after divorce. In the wake of my own separation after 40 years of marriage, her words were a lifeline. I write different ones on my bathroom mirror for inspiration and comfort.
    I’m also currently reading Bomb Shelter and I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet and enjoying both.
    Also just finished The White House Doctor by Connie Mariano. Not the best writing, but an interesting behind the scenes story of the first military woman to head up the White House medical team. Her Philippino father was a Navy steward and there is so much family pride in her rise to Rear Admiral.

    • stefanie race says:

      thank you Barb, i submitted a WSIRN submission looking for just these sorts of books as im going thru a separation and need supportive books like this.

  2. LauraMc says:

    I was SO happy to see Elizabeth Alexander’s at the very top! I read that book a few years ago, and wondered why I had not been a fan of the memoir before? It was spectacular, she is an amazing writer. And now, I think I will read it again.
    Thanks for this list!! And for all the work you do to bring books to our attention. I think 75% of the books I read are from your recommendations.

  3. Nick Ertz says:

    I always like the essays/memoir of Sarah Vowel. She has such a dry and acerbic wit. Always a good story.

  4. Dee says:

    I’ve just started reading “I guess I haven’t learned that yet” on audio, and I’m probably already half-way through. I love listening to Shauna read her books.

    And in hardcover I’m reading “Rage Against the Mini-van” which is turning out to be more enjoyable than I imagined. It’s much deeper and more literary than I anticipated.

    I also love “I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death” by Maggie O’Farrell.

  5. What a great list to share! One that I absolutely loved–especially in audio–was Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, “A chillingly personal and exquisitely wrought memoir of a daughter reckoning with the brutal murder of her mother at the hands of her former stepfather, and the moving, intimate story of a poet coming into her own in the wake of a tragedy.”
    The writing is very accessible, yet so beautiful in its telling even as the story breaks a reader’s heart. Author Natasha Trethewey narrates the audio. She is a former US poet laureate and Professor of English at Northwestern University; she has also won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

    • Shelli says:

      Thank you Tori. I was just about to suggest that one! I got to meet Natasha earlier this year and her memoir is stunning.

  6. Julia says:

    The Gift of an Ordinary Day by Katrina Kennison…read years ago now but still an all time favorite book….for sure a “right book at the right time.” It was my first experience with the memoir genre and has kept me coming back for more memoirs from a wide range of authors…my favorite memoir format now is audio when narrated by the author. Recent favorites read this way: Anthropocene Reviewed & Bomb Shelter.

  7. Vivian says:

    I am no author, but just reading your list inspired me to pick up my journal, which has lain fallow for almost a year! Thanks!

  8. Nancy Willard says:

    The beloved memoir that got me started on memoirs a few years ago was Inheritance by Dani Shapiro. More recently I enjoyed Left on Tenth by Delia Ephron.

  9. Kelly says:

    I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell is excellent, especially on audiobook. Loved Tell Me More &
    Between Two Kingdoms. 🙂

  10. Nancy Foote says:

    I’m not at all famous and I have no huge following (except on my YouTube channel), but I’m partial to my memoir. It’s Coca-Cola Hot Pants, Cancer and Other Stories of Good Fortune: How Your Attitude Determines Your Destiny. If your TBR pile isn’t overwhelming, give it a read and let me know what you think.

  11. Some of my favorites: Hourglass by Dani Shapiro (memoir about her marriage structured in a genius way), To Shake the Sleeping Self by Jedidiah Jenkins (wonderful writer takes an extended bike trip, also reckons with his sexuality and his upbringing—brilliant storytelling!) and Traveling With Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor—mother/daughter travel to sacred sites in Greece, Turkey and France. Also loving This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley—one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read.

  12. Marna Thompson says:

    Abigail Thomas wrote A Three Dog Life and it’s sequel when her husband was ill. She is a poet, so her books are lyrical and full of heart. Also, A Year by the Sea and sequel by Joan Anderson, highly recommended…

  13. Amy Johnson says:

    I truly enjoyed Stephen King’s “On Writing.” I respected how he was a well accomplished writer but had yet to really read anything he wrote beyond a few short stories as I am not into horror (my brain goes above and beyond in providing me material to keep me up at night). However, after reading his thoughts about novels he had written, I read “Carrie” and “Christine” and realized there was more to his writing than just bloody horror and suspense!

  14. Adrienne says:

    The “Great Ebook Deals” List Anne sent out today has a memoir by Jaqueline Winspear, “This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing,” which looks fabulous!

  15. Emily Levine says:

    I have 3 to recommend, especially if you have someone neurodivergent in your life.
    The Electricity of Every Living Thing by Katherine May (author of Wintering)
    My Mess is a Bit of Life: Adventures in Anxiety by Georgia Pritchett – hilarious and poignant
    Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty – lovely essays on the importance of the natural world by an autistic teen

  16. loribeth says:

    Great list — I love memoirs! (And I am reading Ann Patchett’s right now!) Can I put in a plug for a good one I read recently? “The Bright Side” by Cathrin Bradbury, about the year she turned 60 and everything that could go wrong, did. But it’s not all doom & gloom — as someone who also turned 60 recently, rather I found it funny, uplifting and inspiring. 🙂

    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54227861-the-bright-side?ac=1&from_search=true&qid=z6b5ny9T4f&rank=1

  17. Suzy says:

    I haven’t been totally thrilled with grief memoirs (not for me, at least not at this time), like Light of the World, The Year of Magical Thinking, H is for Hawk, Crying in H Mart…although that one had other interesting elements about the Korean culture. I guess I like just “life” memoirs and essays, so I really enjoyed Mary Laura Philpott’s “I Miss You When I Blink” and I very much look forward to “Bomb Shelter”. I also loved Nora Ephron’s memoir/essays in “I Feel Bad About My Neck”, so I’m excited about Delia Ephron’s “Left on Tenth”! I also was impressed with Andrea Ashworth’s memoir called, “Once in a House on Fire” about her scary growing up days…As well as “The Puma Years” by Laura Coleman. In The Puma Years, she goes from lost aimless teen to finding out what she was meant to do on this earth—advocate for the big cats and exotic trafficked animals, as well as for the Amazon forest, itself. It’s an amazing account and I could FEEEEELLL the jungle all the way thru….makes me sweat, and itch with creepy-crawlies just thinking about it!!

    • Caroline says:

      Thank you for your recommendation of The Puma Years. Sounds perfect for me. I love all cats, big and small and I love reading about the Amazon. Ordered it right away so I could read it soon.

  18. Eileen Nielsen says:

    I really enjoyed Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. Don’t recall the author but everyone I recommended it to loved it. Thanks for the list.

  19. Cady says:

    Recommendations that might fit this topic ……. Sunbathing in the Rain by Gwyneth Lewis, a cheerful book about depression – and she’s a poet so can really write; Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales … about the worst day in a person’s life, one that turns everything upside down – and what happens the next day and the next (more life-affirming than it sounds). Leigh Sales is one of Australia’s most respected journalists and has had to report on awful things that happen on ordinary days to ordinary people for decades so has really thought the questions and interviews through; and The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie, a family memoir like no other I’ve come across, short and amusing in its sheer awfulness, makes you value distance from family members and the clarity it can bring!

    • Erika says:

      I also recommend Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales and the audio of The Erratics read by Vicki Laveau-Harvie. I also loved Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper about how she slowly began to question the teachings of the Westboro Baptist Church and it’s leadership. It provides a lesson for all of us on the dangers of black and white thinking.

  20. Rachael says:

    I loved Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘I am, I am, I am’ about her numerous brushes with death. As a parent, the last story left me breathless.

    And ‘Gift from the Sea’ by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (wife of Charles Lindbergh, mother of the tragically kidnapped Charles Jnr). It’s her musings about womens lives and the phases we go through. First published in 1955, it is still relevant. I’ve gifted it a few times and it’s always well received.

  21. Rebecca Klopp says:

    I loved Bomb Shelter (4.5 Stars) and I really liked The Light of the World (4 Stars). I’ve traditionally shied away from non fiction, but I really enjoyed these two memoirs!

  22. Jo Yates says:

    I’m currently reading Almost Anywhere: Road Trip Ruminations on Love, Nature, National Parks, and Nonsense by Krista Schlyer. After a devastating loss, she took a months-long camping trip around the country with her dog and an old friend. Her writing is amazing, and you feel her overwhelming grief and her awe at nature’s wonders.

  23. Mary Kay says:

    I know that you’ve recommended “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” by Lori Gottlieb in past summer reading guides, and I still love it. I am also partial to “What We Wish Were True” by Tallu Schuyler Quinn.

  24. Patricia says:

    “Life Among the Savages” + “Raising Demons” by Shirley Jackson are two of my most favorite memoirs. So funny.

  25. Ashlee says:

    I loved I’ll Show Myself Out by Jessi Klein! She compares motherhood to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in a way that I really enjoyed. So witty and entertaining, yet also relatable (and heartwarming), even for a non-mother like myself!

  26. stefanie race says:

    i love the ‘classics’ of this genre-wild by cheryl strayed, eat pray love by gilbert, untamed by doyle, gift of the sea by lindbergh..recently read in love by amy bloom about her husband deciding to end his life in europe after an alzheimers diagnosis. beautiful writing. resilience by elizabeth edwards. anything by kelly corrigan. HOW TO SAVE YOUR OWN LIFE by erica jong, although not memoir, loved puma years as well, and small fry by steve’s job’s daughter whose name i don’t have handy. glass castle too.

  27. Julia Doutre says:

    My first recommendation from your post title would be Roots and Sky by Christie Purifoy. She has a magical way of writing the every day life. I love her essays!

  28. Stephanie says:

    And there ya have it. My TBR list just got even longer. Love all the recommendations in the post as well as the comments!

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