I love to read, and I love to read memoirs. There are loads of lists out there of great memoirs, and, well… this is another one.
Some titles will be familiar & common, though I’ve left out some faves that I’ve already mentioned (many times) before — Born A Crime, The Glass Castle, Bossypants — in favor of other titles [though, truth to tell, I have also mentioned some of these before.]
I hope that you can find something to read over the holidays! Happy Reading!
Greenlights — Matthew McConaughey
I listened to this one on audio last month while editing thousands of photos of kantha blankets! The book was full of sidebars (“bumperstickers”) and how-to-do-life slogans, which I found often a bit eye-rolly, BUT, I could overlook that because McConaughey is a *great* storyteller. The pro’s of reading the physical/e-book: the book has an interesting, unique format, including loads of photos. The pros of listening to the audiobook: his voice, like climbing into a velvet chair!
Eat A Peach — David Chang
[Pairs well with Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential + Medium Raw (must read both!)]
Do I like David Chang? Do I loathe him? Does his earnest admission of his personal failings (mostly: being an intolerable perfectionist & workaholic, and flying into rages) absolve him from those flaws? Long after finishing the book, I still haven’t answered those questions.
But, there is something disarming about his honesty & unique style. Read it if you are a foodie, or read it as a character study. In any case, the out-of-your-ordinary setting is fascinating! (and mouth-watering)
Born to Run — Bruce Springsteen
Another one I listened to on audio, while I (interminably, it felt) painted our brick fireplace. Very poetic, very fascinating (the Boss can’t read music?). I never listened to Bruce before (except for the few songs we all have heard Dancing in the Dark, Born in the USA, Hungry Heart ) But, this didn’t diminish his storytelling. I may not love the sound of his music (Except Born to Run! Love that album… now), but reading this book gave me insight into why his words & insights have captivated so many over so many decades.
Extreme Religious Upbringing
The Sound of Gravel — Ruth Wariner or The Polygamist’s Daughter — Anna LeBaron
Two takes on a similar story (Ruth and Anna are cousins), these books give a glimpse into the poverty & neglect that is endemic to polygamist families. I think what is fascinating (and for which I have so much empathy) is the tension of deep love & loyalty for family (especially siblings) alongside a child's growing understanding that the life they are living does not reflect the care that love is supposed to provide.
If you choose one, go with The Sound of Gravel.
Where the Light Fell — Philip Yancey
Best-selling Christian author tells the story of his Southern, fundamentalist upbringing alongside his brother and their widowed mother. When Philip was just a baby, his father, ill with polio, left the hospital & his iron lung in an act of spiritual trust in faith healing. He died 9 days later. And, he only found this out when he brought his girlfriend (now wife) home to meet the family!
From that startling beginning follows his intense journey through church life in the 1950s & 60s — ultimately leading to his writings about pain, disappointment, grace, and the goodness of God.
Unorthodox Deborah Feldman
A raw, fresh-from-Williamsburg account of growing up in the ultra-orthodox Satmar community. You may have heard the title from the Netflix miniseries, based on this book and Feldman’s follow-up, Exodus, Revisited.
Her account is shocking and has been much criticized from the community for adding fuel to anti-Semitic biases. How much of the truth in the book is objective is hard to know — she wrote the book, desperate for money, less than a year after a dramatic departure from the insular community.
In any case, the peephole into a very specific cultural experience is an interesting read!
Infidel — Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Infidel (2007) much preceded Unorthodox, but the response & criticism levied has been the same for Hirsi Ali (She is an activist & politician and, personally, is much more controversial than Feldman). In Hirsi Ali's case, the villainy was the extreme islamic upbringing of her youth in Somalia.
Strange, But True
Born Round — Frank Bruni
Man with an eating disorder becomes New York Times food critic? (yep.) Bruni relives his childhood as his Italian family’s best eater, and into his young career life which led eventually to a post as the paper’s famed food critic. Faced with the enviable job, he had to confront his lifelong (disordered) relationship with food.
For another account of this unique job, read Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl (or any other number of her food-related memoirs); for a less humorous telling of disordered eating, try Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi.
Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me — Ian Morgan Cron
As unusual as the title is, it really describes exactly what this book is about… though perhaps should include "The Bottle" as much of the Cron's story wrestles with his father's alcoholism (as well as his secret life, only discovered by the author in his teens, after his father's death) needs to wrestle through the impact of that history.
Here are a couple that I already wrote about in the spring, but the memory for me endures!
Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me — Adrienne Brodeur
The author discovers, as a child, that her mother and a family friend are having an affair. Overcome with the excitement of a shared, special secret with her mom, she aids and facilitates years of clandestine meetings, guised as a gourmet food project between the adults, labeled "Wild Game". The whole tale is wild, indeed.
Inheritance — Dani Shapiro
Born to orthodox Jewish parents, Shapiro (a celebrated memoirist even before this one) was constantly questioned about her blond hair and generally non-Jewish appearance. Only a few years ago, after taking an internet Ancestry DNA test, did she discovered — in her 50s — that her late father was not, after all, her biological dad.
With her beautiful prose, she entwines readers into the knot of her identity as she wrestles through the mystery (how did this even happen?) and meaning of this discovery.
[A+ audio, read by the author]
Life from Scratch — Sasha Martin
From her small kitchen in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Sasha Martin decided to cook her way around the globe. She spent years preparing 675 recipes from 195 countries, cooking meals for her picky husband and young daughter.
This book is not a stunt project. It's a reflection on how the meditative act of cooking through the world helped Martin process her difficult, nomadic childhood, as well as bond with her family and redeem motherhood. There are parts that are darker than I expected, so be prepared. But, well worth it! The book includes some recipes, but the rest are still at her blog, Global Table Adventure.
From The Ashes — Jesse Thistle
Of all the memoirs here, this may be the toughest in terms of content. Thistle is a Métis-Cree Canadian who recounts his long road through trauma, prejudice, and addiction to ultimate overcoming. I love a great redemption story, though I will disclose that the book was 90%+ struggle!
But, if a memoir's goal is to sow compassion and increase empathy, then this was a necessary & enriching view into a life I will never lead.
When Breath Becomes Air — Paul Kalanithi
Beautiful prose, heartbreaking, raw & honest. A book about life, illness, and death. Fun pitch, right?
My Left Foot — Christy Brown
If you are older than a millennial, you may have seen the film version of this book, with Daniel Day Lewis's Oscar-winning performance as the author. Brown has cerebral palsy, and his early life is dominated with assumptions that he had little to offer to the world because of his physical limitations.
What you read in his autobiography (written in 1954 with his left foot) is a window into his rich inner life, thoughts, intellect, disappointments, and wisdom.
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This is a wonderful list. So appreciated. I would add A Mythic Life by Jean Houston. Although it’s been around for a while, it’s a really insightful read about an unusual life with touches of the author’s humour. And Truth Be Told: My Journey Through Life and the Law by Beverley McLachlin – a former Chief Justice of Canada, the longest-serving Chief Justice in Canadian history and the first woman to hold the position and one of the finest legal minds in the history of the Supreme Court.
Thanks for all the recommendations. I recently read a wonderful book by Carol Off. She’s on CBC As it Happens.
It’s called,All we leave behind, I can’t recommend it enough, so good. I have never looked at Afganistán the same. It’s about her fight to get an Afghan family into Canada, their lives being in danger due to her interview of The Father
Hope you read it sometime, would love to hear what you thought of it.