The eleventh category in the 2018 Reading Challenge is “a memoir, biography, or book of creative nonfiction.” I love all three genres, but when it comes to books I’m likely to keep coming back to, memoir takes the cake.
I love the genre; I’ve read many over the years. Today I’m sharing 15 of my favorites, “favorite” in this case meaning the ones I keep coming back to. I’ve read these 2 or 3 or even a dozen times. (I’m looking at you, Kathleen Norris.)
A special note for audiobook fans: I love listening to memoirs, especially when the author reads her own story. I’ve made a special note below of the books I loved on audio.
I’d love to hear your favorites in comments. For those who’d like to pile even more titles on their TBR list, Mary Karr also includes a terrific (and long) list in the back of The Art of Memoir.
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 →
I LOVED THIS. 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. Her source material is fantastic: Alexander is an American, born in Harlem. Her husband was born in Eritrea, in East Africa, and came to New Haven as a refugee from war. Both were artists—and their home sounds like this amazing, vibrant, multicultural extravaganza with food and friends and music and art. I could barely put this down, and while sad, it exudes joy. Heads up for audiophiles: Alexander's narration of her own work is magnificent. More info →
This is one of my favorite Jane Austen memoirs. (Yep, that's a real genre.) Deresiewicz had zero interest in reading Jane Austen—he thought it was chick-lit, fluffy and boring. But then as a young grad student he was forced to read Emma for class, and actually reading Austen shattered his preconceptions. Part memoir, part literary criticism: Deresiewicz reflects on the path of his own life through each of Jane Austen’s novels in turn. You'll want to go back and re-read Jane after finishing this book. A good thing, I think. More info →
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 →
I’ve adopted Madeleine L’Engle as an honorary mentor (which I'm sure is obvious if you've read I'd Rather Be Reading. Anyone who can coin a phrase like “the tired thirties” and admit that her kids told her to sit down at the typewriter and write when she got cranky is worth listening to. Reading these pages, in which L'Engle muses on her life and her career, it's clear that L'Engle sees herself as a work-in-progress. But she's working it through, and this peek into her thought process gives readers hope that they can work it through, too. This is my favorite L'Engle book. More info →
“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. More info →
I love this memoir about making recipes and making a 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 introduced the author to new, life-changing relationships. This memoir made me laugh, cry, check airfare to Paris, and curse my low carb diet. More info →
You know it's a good sign when you want to read a book out loud to anyone close enough to listen, and that was me with this new Anne Lamott book (which, as a bonus, is completely gorgeous). The guiding principle here, as she expresses in her "Humans 101" chapter, is: "Almost everything is screwed up, broken, clingy, scared, and yet designed for joy." I laughed, I cried—sometimes on the same page. This is one I'll want to read again soon. More info →
Such a gem I wanted to make sure it was on your radar for the 2018 Reading Challenge (or perhaps as "a book you can read in a day"). These 52 "micro-memoirs" are by turns quirky, witty, poignant, and laugh-out-loud funny, and so different from pretty much anything else I've ever read. More info →
Karr unpacks the key elements of great literary memoir and breaks down her own creative process. It’s not just a book for writers: of the book’s 200 pages, only 35 or so are devoted to “how-to.” Frequent readers will also enjoy a peek behind the curtain of Karr's work and that of dozens of other memoirists: what differentiates good work from mediocre, and why do some stories ring true while others falter? For those who'd like to read more, Karr provides a terrific (and long) reading list in the back of the book. This was a great reading experience. More info →
Austin Channing Brown is one of my favorite follows on twitter: I appreciate her perspective so much and have been eager to get her words into my hands in book-length format. I'm Still Here was worth the wait. The book opens with a story from the library, but it's not a warm and fuzzy one. Austin reveals that her parents named her Austin so that future employers would believe she was a white man, thus opening doors that would typically be closed to a black woman. She writes extensively about how white, middle-class Christians, though well-intentioned, perpetuate racial tensions—and provides guidance on what genuinely effective perspectives and behaviors could actually look like. A great read, important and timely. More info →
McBride speaks directly and poignantly of his childhood, growing up in Brooklyn with a white Jewish mother and black father. McBride's parents didn't hold race or religion in common, something that was exceedingly rare in 1940s America. The story is told from two points of view: one voice belongs to McBride, who tells the story of his childhood; the other to his mother, who also begins her story in her childhood. Each voice is beautifully done; for the reader, the combined effect is greater than the sum of its parts. This is excellent on audio. More info →
This is an incredible book, and a timely one. Coates frames this series of essays as a letter to his son, exploring what it means to be black in America, and how issues involving race have shaped and continue to shape the country in which he lives. The audio version, read by the author, is fantastic. More info →
The haunting story of Angelou's childhood in the American South in the 1930s. The prose is incredible, and the story is by turns heartwarming ("I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare") and utterly heartbreaking. If this is one you've been meaning to read, give the audio version a try: Angelou's lilting voice brings her powerful, touching story to life. More info →
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 →
What are your favorite memoirs? Which ones compel you to return to them again and again?