For a nontraditional book review this month I thought I would talk through some memoirs that I recommend giving as gifts (since it is gift buying season). Since I am writing my own memoir, I have been reading a lot of them. Some of these I have read and some are on my own list of books to read based on good reviews.
So if you have a nonfiction book lover or just a book lover on your gift list (or, if you’re just looking to add to your own wish list), this blog may give you some ideas.
I have split them up into three lists 1) Memoirs I’ve Read & Recommend; 2) Memoirs Highly Regarded; 3) Memoirs I Have… Need To Read. (Note: I didn’t worry about when the book was published so I was able to include a wide mix of books instead of just covering newly released books).
Memoirs I’ve Read & Recommend
(In no particular order)
“The Liars’ Club” by Mary Karr (Read my review here.) Amazon summary: “The Liars’ Club took the world by storm and raised the art of the memoir to an entirely new level, bringing about a dramatic revival of the form. Karr’s comic childhood in an east Texas oil town brings us characters as darkly hilarious as any of J. D. Salinger’s—a hard-drinking daddy, a sister who can talk down the sheriff at age twelve, and an oft-married mother whose accumulated secrets threaten to destroy them all. This unsentimental and profoundly moving account of an apocalyptic childhood is as “funny, lively, and un-put-downable” (USA Today) today as it ever was.” Why I am including it: As I began writing my own memoir I began to read memoirs by writers because I was looking to see examples of how it was done successfully. Karr’s memoir (this is the first of several) came up several times as an example of a very successful memoir.
“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah (Read my review here.) Amazon summary: “Winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor and an NAACP Image Award • Named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Esquire, Newsday, and Booklist. Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.” Why I am including it: This isn’t a celebrity memoir. In other words you aren’t compelled to keep reading it because Trevor Noah is famous (maybe that’s why you started reading it but it’s certainly not what keeps you riveted). His fame may have got you to start reading (for me, I knew it was highly acclaimed) but Noah’s story and his sparkling wit and intelligence keep you riveted and reading until the last page. (This book has been in development for a movie adaptation in Hollywood for a while. Lupita Nyong’o is to play Trevor Noah’s mother, Patricia).
“Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt. Amazon summary: “A Pulitzer Prize–winning, #1 New York Times bestseller, Angela’s Ashes is Frank McCourt’s masterful memoir of his childhood in Ireland. “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” So begins the luminous memoir of Frank McCourt, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank’s mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children since Frank’s father, Malachy, rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. Yet Malachy—exasperating, irresponsible, and beguiling—does nurture in Frank an appetite for the one thing he can provide: a story. Frank lives for his father’s tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland, and of the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother babies.” Why I am including it: I read this ages ago in college and as I went to write my own memoir I thought of very successful ones that I have read and this was clearly one I remembered. Angela’s Ashe’s was adapted into a movie in 1999. I see that McCourt wrote two more memoirs (that I didn’t know about): ‘Tis (a memoir of his early days when he first immigrated to the United States). Teacher Man (a memoir of his years teaching).
“Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain (Read my review here.) Amazon summary: “Almost two decades ago, the New Yorker published a now infamous article, “Don’t Eat before You Read This,” by then little-known chef Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain spared no one’s appetite as he revealed what happens behind the kitchen door. The article was a sensation, and the book it spawned, the now classic Kitchen Confidential, became an even bigger sensation, a mega-bestseller with over one million copies in print. Frankly confessional, addictively acerbic, and utterly unsparing, Bourdain pulls no punches in this memoir of his years in the restaurant business.” Why I am including it: I read this book ironically months before Bourdain died unexpectedly. Like many I was of course saddened by his death but it felt really fresh to me since I had just finished reading this memoir and had his voice (and lovely Voice Over ability) in my head. This memoir spawned his very successful TV career.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou. Amazon summary: “Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide. Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.” Why I am including it: I was lucky enough to see Ms. Angelou speak TWICE when she was still alive. Her story and her life are absolutely compelling but it is her very powerful voice (both written and spoken) that makes her story, her words and her thoughts an unmistakable treasure. She is an excellent memoirist and writer to model after (even if her brilliance is impossible to hold a candle to).
“Wild” by Cheryl Strayed Amazon summary: “#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • One of the Best Books of the Year: NPR, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, Vogue. At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and she would do it alone.” Why I am including it: This was adapted into a very successful film starring Reese Witherspoon in 2014. I read it then before I saw the movie because as a book fan before I am a movie fan I often do that with movies that were adapted from books. Before my accident in 2016 I really didn’t read a lot of memoirs so this was probably the last one I read before my accident. I remember loving her voice and writing style and for me that’s always a big draw.
(In no particular order)
“Educated” by Tara Westover. Amazon summary: “Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Her family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent. When another brother got himself into college, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.” Why I am including it: I will always be drawn to a compelling story. Especially when the storyteller comes alive in the telling of the story. From what I have read about this account, this is very much the case with Westover and her memoir. And at the end of the day if someone can say the same about me (compelling story and storyteller), then I would be VERY HAPPY.
“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi. Amazon summary: “#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST • This inspiring, exquisitely observed memoir finds hope and beauty in the face of insurmountable odds as an idealistic young neurosurgeon attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living. NAMED ONE OF PASTE’S BEST MEMOIRS OF THE DECADE • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BYThe New York Times Book Review • People • NPR • The Washington Post • Slate • Harper’s Bazaar • Time Out New York • Publishers Weekly • BookPage. Finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction and the Books for a Better Life Award in Inspirational Memoir. At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.” Why I am including it: This was published in 2016, nominated for a Pulitzer the following year and is definitely a medical-related memoir that is incredibly highly regarded. The fact that it’s written by a doctor who has become a terminally ill patient makes even more compelling.
“Night” by Elie Wiesel. Amazon summary: “Night is Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece, a candid, horrific, and deeply poignant autobiographical account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. This new translation by Marion Wiesel, Elie’s wife and frequent translator, presents this seminal memoir in the language and spirit truest to the author’s original intent. And in a substantive new preface, Elie reflects on the enduring importance of Night and his lifelong, passionate dedication to ensuring that the world never forgets man’s capacity for inhumanity to man. Night offers much more than a litany of the daily terrors, everyday perversions, and rampant sadism at Auschwitz and Buchenwald; it also eloquently addresses many of the philosophical as well as personal questions implicit in any serious consideration of what the Holocaust was, what it meant, and what its legacy is and will be.” Why I am including it: Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for speaking out against violence, repression and racism. After his childhood survival of the Holocaust he spent his life writing, teaching and speaking about the experience. This is a memoir I have meant to read for years. Truly the ultimate memoir of survival.
“A Moveable Feast” by Ernest Hemingway. Amazon summary: Ernest Hemingway’s classic memoir of Paris in the 1920s, now available in a restored edition, includes the original manuscript along with insightful recollections and unfinished sketches. Published posthumously in 1964, A Moveable Feast remains one of Ernest Hemingway’s most enduring works. Since Hemingway’s personal papers were released in 1979, scholars have examined the changes made to the text before publication. Now, this special restored edition presents the original manuscript as the author prepared it to be published. Why I am including it: Memoirs and autobiographies by celebrated authors will always hold my interest and I always like to learn about that time period.
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Amazon summary: A celebration of the liberating power of consciousness—a triumphant book that lets us witness an indomitable spirit and share in the pure joy of its own survival. In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle, the father of two young children, a 44-year-old man known and loved for his wit, his style, and his impassioned approach to life. By the end of the year he was also the victim of a rare kind of stroke to the brainstem. After 20 days in a coma, Bauby awoke into a body which had all but stopped working: only his left eye functioned, allowing him to see and, by blinking it, to make clear that his mind was unimpaired. Almost miraculously, he was soon able to express himself in the richest detail: dictating a word at a time, blinking to select each letter as the alphabet was recited to him slowly, over and over again. In the same way, he was able eventually to compose this extraordinary book. Why I am including it: An account of survival after coma and brain trauma (much like my story). However, for all the days when I think writing a memoir about brain injury with a brain injury is too hard… Bauby composed this book by blinking one eye to communicate (and I thought my hunting and pecking style of typing post-TBI was a hardship when writing a book)! Adapted into a movie in 2007.
“Dreams from My Father” by Barack Obama. Amazon summary: “#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • ONE OF ESSENCE’S 50 MOST IMPACTFUL BLACK BOOKS OF THE PAST 50 YEARS. In this iconic memoir of his early days, Barack Obama “guides us straight to the intersection of the most serious questions of identity, class, and race” (The Washington Post Book World). In this lyrical, unsentimental, and compelling memoir, the son of a black African father and a white American mother searches for a workable meaning to his life as a black American. It begins in New York, where Barack Obama learns that his father—a figure he knows more as a myth than as a man—has been killed in a car accident. This sudden death inspires an emotional odyssey—first to a small town in Kansas, from which he retraces the migration of his mother’s family to Hawaii, and then to Kenya, where he meets the African side of his family, confronts the bitter truth of his father’s life, and at last reconciles his divided inheritance.” Why I am including it: Written and published before his two term presidency, this memoir isn’t about presidential legacy or politics and for that it must be truly unique to have a memoir by a politician before their celebrated political tenure and purely about their life (I must ask my historian Dad if this is unique).
(In no particular order)
“Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness” by Susannah Cahalan. Amazon summary: “An award-winning memoir and instant New York Times bestseller that goes far beyond its riveting medical mystery, Brain on Fire is the powerful account of one woman’s struggle to recapture her identity. When twenty-four-year-old Susannah Cahalan woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she had been on the threshold of a new, adult life: at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. What happened? In a swift and breathtaking narrative, Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith in her, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen. “A fascinating look at the disease that…could have cost this vibrant, vital young woman her life” (People), Brain on Fire is an unforgettable exploration of memory and identity, faith and love, and a profoundly compelling tale of survival and perseverance that is destined to become a classic.” Why I am including it: I am including it for the obvious reason that it’s a very successfully written brain “injury”/illness memoir. Adapted into a movie released in 2016.
“The Glass Castle “ Jeannette Walls. Amazon summary: “MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS ON THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER LIST. The extraordinary, one-of-a-kind, “nothing short of spectacular” (Entertainment Weekly) memoir from one of the world’s most gifted storytellers. The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family. The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered. The Glass Castle is truly astonishing—a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family.” Why I am including it: It’s one of those books I’ve always meant to read (I purchased it before my TBI and sudden interest in memoir). Adapted into a movie released in 2017.
“Becoming” by Michelle Obama. Amazon summary: “An intimate, powerful, and inspiring memoir by the former First Lady of the United States. #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • WATCH THE EMMY-NOMINATED NETFLIX ORIGINAL DOCUMENTARY • OPRAH’S BOOK CLUB PICK • NAACP IMAGE AWARD WINNER • ONE OF ESSENCE’S 50 MOST IMPACTFUL BLACK BOOKS OF THE PAST 50 YEARS. In her memoir, a work of deep reflection and mesmerizing storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her—from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it—in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning. Why I am including it: I purchased when it was released but have been consumed with reading other memoirs, yet this has remained on my “must read” list.
“Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel. Amazon summary: “Alison Bechdel’s groundbreaking, bestselling graphic memoir that charts her fraught relationship with her late father. Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the “Fun Home.” It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve. In her hands, personal history becomes a work of amazing subtlety and power, written with controlled force and enlivened with humor, rich literary allusion, and heartbreaking detail. Why I am including it: Several months ago I attended a virtual book event that included a talk between Alison Bechdel and “Wild” memoirist Cheryl Strayed (included earlier in this blog). Bechdel’s celebrated memoir is unique on this list because it’s a graphic memoir (told in comics-like panels). It was a fantastic interview and caused be to buy both this book and her next graphic memoir, “The Secret To Superhuman Strength.” “Fun Home” was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2015 and was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won 5.
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley). Amazon summary: “ONE OF TIME’S TEN MOST IMPORTANT NONFICTION BOOKS OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. In the searing pages of this classic autobiography, originally published in 1964, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, firebrand, and anti-integrationist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Black Muslim movement. His fascinating perspective on the lies and limitations of the American Dream, and the inherent racism in a society that denies its nonwhite citizens the opportunity to dream, gives extraordinary insight into the most urgent issues of our own time. The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed but whose message is timeless. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand America. Why I am including it: I did read this in graduate school but it was during a period of time when I was reading so much for school that I think I must have skim-read it because I don’t really remember it. My Dad actually met Alex Haley after he wrote this book and before he wrote his celebrated book “Roots” when Mr. Haley spoke at a graduate-school class that my Dad was taking (he was researching “Roots” when he spoke to my Dad’s class).
“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion. Amazon summary: “NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER • NATIONAL BESTSELLER • From one of America’s iconic writers, a stunning book of electric honesty and passion that explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage—and a life, in good times and bad—that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child. Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill with what seemed at first flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later—the night before New Year’s Eve—the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John Gregory Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of forty years was over. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LAX, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center to relieve a massive hematoma. This powerful book is Didion’ s attempt to make sense of the ‘weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness … about marriage and children and memory … about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.‘” Why I am including it: A memoir by a celebrated author about intense health, life and death situations. This book has been mentioned several times when I read about memoirs.
Final Thoughts: It’s honestly hard to recommend memoirs to someone you don’t know because choosing a favorite memoir is as personal (almost) as writing a memoir. I consulted a few lists to come up with my lists. There are quite a few more books I could have added. Maybe I will do a last-minute memoir gift guide in a few weeks. In addition to being an enthusiastic reader, I am also a very enthusiastic consumer of pop culture. So I think for my pop culture blog next week I will do a pop culture gifts gift guide. This is kind of fun!
Monthly Feature of the Week: Book Review/Recommendation: “The Tenth Island” by Diana Marcum
This isn’t really a normal review/recommendation (I call my reviews recommendations because I don’t write about books that I don’t recommend). I previously reviewed this book “The Tenth Island” by Diana Marcum and didn’t include it in my lists above only because I ran out of room. However, I have thought more about this book after I finished it than most. To me, that is a recommendation in itself. This book also had me add Portugal to my “Countries to See” list. Read my full review from an earlier blog here.
Daily Doodle Weekly Summary
I finally caught up with my Daily Doodle book and none too soon because I finished another Daily Doodle sketch book on Tuesday. This new Daily Doodle sketch book will be my last of 2021 (the first year I have done this project).