BookRiot just published a list of 100 memoirs you just have to read before you die. It's a pretty good list - it definitely has some of my recent favorites on there - but they missed out on some of the best memoirs ever, they don't even tell me why I should read the books on their list...AND they titled Ward's book wrong - for shame!
So. In no particular order, here are ten terrific memoirs you should add to your TBR stack this very minute. If you have others to suggest, please let me know in the comments section!
1. An American Childhood by Annie Dillard (1987)
Dillard's peek inside her mid-20th century childhood years is hilarious, poignant, and liberating in turns. My few of my favorite moments in the book: what her mom used to do to the baby when she was wearing sleepsacks, the trials and tribulations of pre-teen boy/girl dance lessons, and her mother's instance on never changing their mailing address, even after they'd moved several times. Makes me wish I had been a Cold War kid (the Truman/Eisenhower kind, not the Reagan kind).
2. H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald (2015)
MacDonald has an unquenchable love for birds of prey. Here, she shares how her relationship with a certain falcon leads her back to the living following the unexpected death of her dad. Exquisite writing - it's not only the characters that spring to vivid life, but the landscape around her as well.
Poet Elizabeth Alexander's book made me cry, but don't let this put you off reading it. Although the death of her husband, chef and artist Ficre Ghebreyesus, was horrible indeed, Alexander manages to take the grief and love she and her children experienced and make of it a holy and beautiful portrait of a life. I can't wait for my book money to replenish so that I can buy myself a copy of one of her poetry collections.
4. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903)
The truly remarkable Helen Keller has been a hero of mine since I learned how to read. Not only does Ms. Keller overcome nearly insurmountable odds and graduate from Radcliffe, but she goes on to use her intellectual gifts to become one of the most well known political activists of her time. Despite her great genius, the book offers nothing but humble appreciation for Annie Sullivan and others who helped her achieve a very full and rewarding life. Her reminisces of experiencing the ocean for the first time, for mastering concept of communication despite her very limited abilities, and her deep friendships with some of the country's most talented human beings never cease to amaze, delight, and inspire me.
5. Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America by C. Nicole Mason (2016)
Nicole Mason's memoir of growing up poor and black in Los Angeles, cuts to the quick. Here is a child who did not know she was poor, even as she knew the invisible lines between her neighborhoods and those of white Californians were not to be crossed. Born with curiosity and intelligence to spare, Mason fights her way out of the neighborhoods and expectations that dominate the lives of herself, her siblings, and her peers, making it to Howard University (she goes on to earn her doctorate and today is an education and public policy expert). Her work shines a bright and significant light on the stark complexities involved with breaking the cycle of poverty and smashes the notion that the vast majority of those who live in poverty "don't do enough" to try and escape it. Truly a must-read for anyone interested in trying to untie the Gordian knot of poverty and hopelessness that engulfs significant portions of our nation still today.
6. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (2013)
Delving into Ward's memoir of young men she loved and lost between 2000 and 2004 allows readers who aren't from the rural black South into contemporary life in those communities in a way that no other source has been able to do. Like Moody, she recounts Ward recounts her childhood and early adult years, but she is able to do so with a steely kind of resolve and level of intellectual and philosophical analysis that Moody's work does not seek. Unlike another well-known recent work about black life in 21st century America (I'm looking at you, Ta-Nehisi Coates), Ward does not shy away from discussing the problems within the black community as well as beyond it; her razor-sharp intellect and observations left me more than a little depressed and forlorn, but my heart was fairly bursting with admiration as well; every so often, in the midst of her tightly controlled narrative, she would allow herself to indulge in writing just for the beauty of it, and her abilities and imagery truly took my breath away. Ward's book, by the way, would be an excellent pair with Mason's work if you're interested in exploring the (mis)matching borders of the urban/rural poor.
Who doesn't love Julia Child? Sure, her groundbreaking cooking show and series of cookbooks taught Americans how to appreciate and cook French cuisine, but her personality is what really seals the deal: she's funny, high-spirited, and always leaves me feeling (just a tiny bit) as though Jim Henson must have been inspired to make the Muppets after watching her perform. In this book, the Muppet portion of her personality doesn't make an appearance, but her zest for life and inexhaustable love for her husband, Paul, most certainly does. You'll laugh along with her as she begins her forays into French cuisine at the ripe old age (!) of 36 (after working for the predecessor to the CIA during World War II), and your heart will fill with longing for France, for a long, delicious dinner with good friends, and for a partnership as lovely and loving as the one she and Paul shared for almost 50 years. In with her cooking, she writes with a deft touch and a spirit of joy. This one is sure to brighten your day.
8. Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller (2011)
It's hard to choose a favorite when it comes to Alexandra Fuller, because she both writes beautifully and, due to very full life, has an extraordinary array of experiences on which to draw. But I think this one is my favorite. Here, in the follow-up to Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight, the author sets her sights on the world of her parents, especially her mother, Nicola. The book starts out feeling somewhat glib and suspicious, but as Fuller settles into the narrative, the rich stories of her parents' lives unfold - her mother's childhood in colonial Kenya, her father's rootlessness, their falling in love and decision to stay in Africa, despite the wars for African independence that rolled across the continent in the sixties and seventies. As Fuller recounts the experiences of her family in Rhodesia, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, two feelings settled over me: this was really a love story ("Tubs" and Tim are obviously deeply in love, even after all these years - and the author deeply loves and admires her parents, no matter what), and that none of the family will ever really recover from her parents' decision to stay in Africa no matter what the consequences. Fuller creates an achingly beautiful and heartbreaking piece of work here, which manages to evoke the beauty and horror of the "Dark Continent" as well as the optimism and determination of her parents' personalities.
9. The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2007)
This is the first graphic novel I ever read. Before Satrapi came along, I was pretty well convinced that "comic book versions" of books were not for me. But after falling head first into Satrapi's memories of growing up in Iran in the 70s and 80s, I've become a graphic novel convert. The spare drawings, penned by Satrapi herself, combined with the frank discussions and thoughts of a young Marjane as she and her family watch the Iran they knew and loved fall to pieces around them - and their social network succumb to arrests, torture, and assassination - adds up to a jaw-dropping work that you won't be able to put aside until you've come to the very last page...and then you just might flip back to the beginning and start again. One of my favorite things about this book is that it brings everyday Iranian lives into focus for Western readers, many of whom have been convinced by media and policy pronouncements that all Iranian citizens are radical Islamists who want to destroy America and have nothing but disdain and disgust for so-called "Western values." Instead, it forces its audience to consider that the people of the Islamic Republic of Iran are often a very cosmopolitan lot and are at least as interested in universal human rights, consumer goods, a well-rounded education, and personal freedoms as any American, and that they, too, despise their political and deeply corrupt leadership. Recommended for readers 10 to 110.
10. Wildflower by Drew Barrymore (2016)
Call me a groupie, I don't care: I adore Drew Barrymore. Her latest memoir is insightful, engaging, and enduringly sunny. Despite a very difficult childhood and multiple experiences with addiction, Barrymore has persevered and unerringly always seems to surface with a smile on her face. Here we see her abiding love for her daughters, her ongoing quest for self-acceptance, and her insatiable appetite to learn and explore new initiatives. Any instructor would love to have a voracious, enthusiastic, doggedly determined learner like Barrymore in her classroom/ Although she never managed to attend school for long, she hasn't let that become detrimental to her ambitions and outlook, and has instead challenged herself to become an extremely well-read and thoughtful human being. I closed this slim volume with a new sense of appreciation and respect for a woman who has never given in and instead remains, at heart, the scrappy, determined, in love with the world yet always slightly wary child we all fell in love with back when we met E.T. all those years ago. A surprisingly insightful read!
As I look back at this, I see that each review gets a little longer...I just have no control at all.
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