Some call it navel-gazing. We call it too good to put down.
As much as we adore fiction, a good memoir really has a huge emotional impact on the reader, because it has the benefit of being true (unless it's by James Frey, in which case, never mind). Whether it's Maya Angelou or Tina Fey or Barack Obama, everyone has a story to tell, and it's just a pleasure to be invited in. The memoirists featured range from acclaimed poets to former slaves to humorists to rock stars. Their stories are engrossing, heartbreaking, unbelievable at times, and often hilarious. They're honest and raw, inviting you to chew on their own highly personal experiences as you meditate on your own. They're just filled with life. With an adaptation of The Glass Castle out on Friday, August 11, there's never been a more appropriate time to delve into, and learn from, the life experiences of another. Ahead we’ve gathered our favorite memoirs and autobiographies. Book reports are due next week, okay? Read These Stories Next: If You Liked Gone Girl, You'll Love These Suspense Thrillers 30 Stunning Coffee Table Books Inspiring Books That Are Not Chicken Soup For The Soul Ordinary Girls , Jaquira Diaz (2019)
Themes: Coming-of-age, Puerto Rico, Latinx experience
Jaquira Diaz grew up between Puerto Rico and Miami Beach, and she grew up without a cushion. Hers was a childhood marked by a mother’s battles with schizophrenia, encounters with drugs and violence, murders on the street. Diaz’s resilience and writing abilities are far from ordinary; she’s an emissary from an experience that many young women have. Listen.
More From Scratch, Tembi Locke (2019) Themes: Intercultural romance, grieving, love Tembi Locke met Saro, the love of her life, while studying abroad in Italy as a young woman. Their love is an extraordinary one — strong enough to withstand his Sicilian family's strong disapproval of his marrying a Black American woman, and long distance. They have a daughter and each go on to have thriving careers. Yet neither could've predicted, on that street in Florence, what would come for them: Saro's long struggle with cancer defines the end of their relationship. This memoir will reaffirm your belief in strong, enduring love. More All That You Leave Behind, Erin Lee Carr (2019) Themes: Fathers and daughters, grieving, mentorship By page 1, we were drawn in. By page 3, we were weeping. Erin Lee Carr is a documentarian by trade, but this memoir proves she's also an incredible writer. Clearly, she takes after her father, legendary journalist David Carr, whose sudden death in 2015 is the basis for this memoir. Carr combs through her 1,936 emails with her father to create a story of their relationship. More Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, Lori Gottlieb (2019) Themes: Psychology, breakups, career, mental health In prose that's conversational and funny yet deeply insightful, psychologist Lori Gottlieb is here to remind us that our therapists are people, too. Gottlieb situates us in her office, which functions as a revolving door of life stages— a patient wth cancer, a jaded Hollywood producer. In between portraits of patients, Gottlieb also examines herself. Gottlieb writes in bite-sized and easily digestible chapters, but she tackles big ideas about the human condition. More Joy Enough, Sarah McColl (2018) Themes: Mothers and daughters, marriage, love "I loved my mother and she died. Is that a story?" So opens Sarah McColl's wrenching and beautiful memoir, which chronicles her unimaginably deep love for her mother — and what caring for her mother as she was dying was like. Sarah's mother, Allison, leaps off the page. More Jell-O Girls, Allie Rowbottom (2018) Themes: Family history, dysfunction, Americana Jell-O conjures up childhood memories of desserts at summer barbecues, and the jiggly substance you ate when you were sick. For Allie Rowbottom, the connotations of Jell-O are of a different sort entirely. In 1899, Rowbottom's ancestor Orator Francis Woodward bought the Jell-O patent, eventually leading to tremendous fortune – and as Rowbottom's family considers, tragedy. Rowbottom especially looks at the way the family business warped the women in her family. More The World According to Fannie Davis, Bridgett M. Davis Themes: Family, mothers and daughters, inner city life, gambling Bridgett M. Davis' mother built a fortune on an illegal underground betting scheme calling the Numbers. She eventually became a banker in the system, rising to power — and moving her family into the suburbs. But Davis and her siblings had to keep this part of their lives a secret, until now. Davis, a novelist by trade, imbues this portrait of her extraordinary mother with heart, honesty, and attention to detail. A must-read. More , Melanie LaForce Corn-Fed: Cul-de-sacs, Keg Stands, and Coming of Age in the Midwest
Themes: Coming of age, the Midwest, humor
We all have coming-of-age stories. Just some of us can turn typical milestones into memorable, hilarious events. Melanie LaForce certainly can. In this hilarious, heartfelt memoir, LaForce recounts the hallmarks of childhood in the Midwest — an after school job at Dairy Queen, keg parties, and roller derbies — and uses specifics to craft a universally relatable story. Don't fly over the Midwest — stop and hang out for a while, won't you?
More , Lisa Brennan Jobs Small Fry
Themes: Parenthood, single motherhood, Steve Jobs
For years, Apple founder Steve Jobs denied his daughter's parentage. But his daughter existed, all right — and she's here to tell her story.
is an exquisitely written book about, first and foremost, growing up in a complicated family structure. Jobs, enigmatic and cold, orbits the exterior of Brennan-Jobs' life.
More Choose Your Own Disaster, Dana Schwartz (2018)
Themes: Growing up, being young and millennial, dating, mental health
Dana Schwartz, the writer behind the iconic Twitter account
, has built a career off hilarious, wry observational humor. In this memoir, she turns her sharp eye on her "disastrous" early 20s. The book takes on an original quiz format. You can choose which of her disasters to go on.
More The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater, Alanna Okun (2018) Themes: Knitting and crafting, adulting, growing up, writing If you’re not already a crafter, Alanna Okun’s fantastic memoir about the role knitting has played in her life will make you want to become one. Okun dismantles the stereotypes that have calcified around crafting (it’s not just a “grandma’s” activity, and so what – what’s wrong with grandmas?), and reveals the important role hobbies can have in a person’s life. Knitting is how Okun makes sense of her life. It is, excuse our metaphor, the thread that holds her memories together. It's a must-read for millennials, especially looking for those with restless hands. More The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel Levy (2017) Themes: writing, womanhood, monogamy, thirst for adventure New Yorker writer Ariel Levy was 38 years old when she leaves on a trip to Mongolia. At the time, her life was in order: She was married, she was pregnant, and she was professionally successful. In a phrase, she had it all. But all within the span of the trip, Levy has a miscarriage, breaks up her spouse, and loses her house. In this incredibly self-aware and compelling memoir, Levy spills out her life until then, and shows that the unpredictable is often just around the corner. She's funny, she's honest, and she's a paragon of resilience. More The Color of Water, James McBride (1995) Themes: Race, identity, family, religion Look, Oprah called it one of the best memoirs of a generation. But in case you need convincing, listen to McBride's story. James McBride grew up in the all-Black projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, along with his 11 siblings. His father was a minister. And his mother was the white daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, who emigrated to the U.S. from Poland. The Color of Water delves into McBride's family history, his relationship to his mother, and his own path to becoming a journalist. More Where the Past Begins, Amy Tan (2017) Themes: writing, family, culture Where the Past Begins is probably unlike any other memoir you'll ever read. Tan approached the memoir with spontaneous prose. This is the journey into a writer's mind, as much as it is an overview of Tan's life events. More The Bridge Ladies, Betsy Lerner (2016) Themes: mothers and daughters, card games When Betsy Lerner moves home to take care of her mother, she expects a week of awkward small-talk. Instead, she gets roped into her mother's 50-year-old game of bridge. Lerner had once written off her mother and her Bridge Ladies — now, though, she realizes they have wisdom to offer, too. It'll make you reconsider your relationship with your parents, and the generational divide between you and them, big time. More , Stitches David Small (2009) Themes: Family dysfunction, cancer, disability When David Small, acclaimed illustrator and children's book writer, was a kid, his two frigid, unaffectionate parents decided not tell him that he had cancer. Instead, he got surgery to remove the lump on his neck, which had gone untreated for years, and turned out to be cancerous. When he woke up, he'd lost a vocal chord, and his neck had scars like Frankenstein. After that, David descends into a tormented, difficult adolescence. This graphical novel tracks his spiral downward, and his emotional recovery through art. More (2017) Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat, Patricia Williams Themes: addiction, single motherhood, comedy Now, Patricia Williams has a thriving comedy career, and goes by the stage name Ms. Pat. It's miraculous, considering how astoundingly difficult her childhood was. Williams was born during the height of the crack epidemic in Atlanta. The child of an alcoholic, she had to grow up fast. By seven, she was involved in the drug trade. When she was 13, she had her first child. At 15, she had her second. Williams tells her story with humor, wisdom, and honesty. More A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway (1964) Themes: travel, literary movements, Paris Hem's recollections of hanging out with the other ex-pat literati in 1920s Paris will make you yearn for a different era — or, if you're all right with the 21st-century, make you want to mingle among an equally interesting crowd. More Out of Egypt, Andre Aciman Themes: Immigration, world wars, the tail end of a cosmopolitan Alexandria As an adult, Andre Aciman looks back at his childhood during the waning days of Alexandria's cosmopolitan population. His rambunctious, eccentric Jewish family was neighbors with Greeks, Syrians, and Italians. People switched languages all day, and brushed shoulders with individuals of many different religions. With the prose of a tall tale, Aciman walks us through three generations of his family, from their triumphant economic rise in Alexandria to their reluctant exodus. More The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997) Themes: Disability, childhood, literature Before experiencing a rare cerebrovascular accident, Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle, the father of two kids, and a renowned member of the French intelligentsia. Then, he has a stroke. After a 20-day long coma, Bauby wakes up without control over any part of his body, expect for blinking his left eye. With the help of a patient nurse, Bauby was able to dictate this entire book, one wink at a time. Bauby narrates the experience of life with lock-in syndrome, and speaks of his life before. Bauby died two days after the book was published. More (2017) Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood Themes: dysfunctional families, marriage, Catholicism After experiencing financial hardship, Patricia and her husband must move into her childhood home. Though Patricia is used to her father, a married Catholic priest who plays electric guitar, her husband certainly isn't. While she tries to make a safe haven in her chaotic household, she realizes she's much more like her family than she'd thought. More (2015) Yes, Chef, Marcus Samuelsson Every week, a young boy learns to cook in his grandmother's kitchen. The grandmother is Swedish; the boy is adopted from Ethiopia, and will go on to become a renowned chef. In this love story to food and family, Samuelsson tracks his path from grandma's kitchen to his acclaimed restaurant, Red Rooster, in Harlem. More (1993) Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, Anne Lamott Themes: pregnancy, motherhood, religion, writing When the writer Anne Lamott becomes pregnant by a man who wants nothing to do with her child, she surprises herself by keeping the baby. In her singularly honest, humble, and hilarious prose, Lamott chronicles how she, a single woman in her 30s sleeping on a futon, fared with an infant baby boy. Lamott puts the emphasis on her own growth, as well as Sam's. As if having a child weren't enough of a life change, Lamott finds out that her best friend in the whole world faces an overwhelming medical diagnosis. The book will make you gape at the changes a year can hold. More Joyce Johnson (1999) Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir,
Themes: The 1960s, New York City, Beat Writers
Joyce Johnson may be best known as Jack Kerouac’s longtime girlfriend, but she rises above this reputation in this wholly realized, poignant memoir about growing up in a bygone New York. Johnson recounts her journey towards independence in an era that made it downright difficult to be an independent woman. Fans of Beat writers Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac will love seeing the literary figures in such a raw light — but everyone interested in tracking a woman's journey into self-actualization would enjoy this remarkably well-written book.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House More , Tina Fey (2011) Bossypants
Themes: Comedy, work, womanhood
Fey charts her rise from geeky student to
Saturday Night Live
standout and the queen of
. Like all the best books, it's both hilarious and wise.
Photo: Courtesy of Little, Brown Book Group. More , Solomon Northup (1853) Twelve Years a Slave
Themes: Slavery, race
The basis of the Oscar-winning film from 2013, this memoir follows the life of Solomon Northup, a free Black man from New York who was kidnapped and forced into slavery in the South. It’s horrifying and hugely important.
Photo: Courtesy of Atria. More , George Orwell (1933) Down and Out in Paris and London
Though not strictly a standard memoir — Orwell wrote about his own experiences in a fictionalized nature — this account of living on the streets and in shelters in European capitals is both entertaining in tone and humbling in subject matter. Your landlord may be hassling you about your overdue rent, but it's unlikely you've ever experienced poverty like this.
Photo: Courtesy of Mariner. More , Richard Wright (1945) Black Boy
Themes: Race, religion, poverty, communism
Wright's autobiography of growing up in the Jim Crow South is a classic for good reason. Expect tales of extreme poverty and racism, as well as Wright's eventual interest in the arts and Communism.
Photo: Courtesy of HarperCollins. More , Anne Frank (1947) Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
Themes: Adolescence, the Holocaust, faith
If you haven't already read this in school, write your old teachers a stern letter. A heartbreaking classic.
Photo: Courtesy of Bantam. More , Vladimir Nabokov (1951) Speak, Memory
Themes: Russian revolution, family, politics, literature, travel
The man who gave us
Photo: Courtesy of Everyman's Library. More , Maya Angelou (1969) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Themes: Race, adolescence, rape
This celebrated autobiography has some sections that are very hard to read, given the subject matter (racism, sexual violence), but it's a literary touchstone for a reason. Full respect to the late, great poet.
Photo: Courtesy of Random House. More , Maxine Hong Kingston (1976) The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts
Themes: Feminism, Chinese culture, womanhood
A frequent entry on many a feminist's syllabus, this genre-spanning work incorporates Chinese folktales into its examination of modern women's identity.
Photo: Courtesy of Vintage. More Tobias Wolff (1989) This Boy's Life: A Memoir,
Themes: Adolescence, family, abuse
Such a good read, even if you've already seen the Leo film. Toby/Jack's stepdad is the ultimate villain to root against.
Photo: Courtesy of Grove Press. More , Nick Hornby (1992) Fever Pitch
Themes: Sports, adolescence
Technically, this inspired the very meh Jimmy Fallon-Drew Barrymore rom-com of the same name, but the book has so much more going for it. The true love story here is Hornby's devotion to the Arsenal football (er, soccer) club, written about so enthusiastically that it's hard to not walk away a fan yourself.
Photo: Courtesy of Penguin. More , Rick Bragg (1991) All Over but the Shoutin'
Themes: Poverty, family, the Deep South
Consider this a rich, engrossing tale of survival in the Deep South.
Photo: Courtesy of Vintage. More Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy (1994)
Themes: Health, self-image, beauty, depression
Grealy, who endured numerous operations on her face after the removal of her Ewing's sarcoma left her disfigured, died of a drug overdose eight years after this book's publication.
Photo: Courtesy of HarperCollins. More , Mary Karr (1995) The Liars' Club
Themes: Family, adolescence, Southern culture
As eccentric as Mary Karr makes her parents out to be, you'll no doubt wish you knew them personally after reading this incredibly honest and wry account of growing up in small-town Texas. Karr's lively language and Southern-fried quotes are a joy.
Photo: Courtesy of Penguin. More , Barack Obama (1995) Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
Themes: Race, identity, politics, idealism
Long before he became POTUS, Barack Obama published this thoughtful memoir about growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia as the child of a white single mother and a Kenyan father he barely knew. It's a moving, fascinating story, whatever your politics.
Photo: Courtesy of Three Rivers Press. More , Frank McCourt (1996) Angela's Ashes
Themes: Poverty, family, loss, Catholicism
Cheery it's not, but it certainly deserved the Pulitzer Prize. Brace yourself for serious heartache, and, yes, some levity, too.
Photo: Courtesy of Scribner. More , Dave Eggers (2000) A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Themes: Death, family, survival
Eggers becomes guardian to his young brother when their parents die. A long story short: You'll laugh, you'll cry.
Photo: Courtesy of Vintage. More , David Sedaris (2000) Me Talk Pretty One Day
Themes: Humor, family, gay identity
Picking your favorite David Sedaris book is like picking your favorite child. They're all too good. Will the Sedaris family go ahead and adopt us, please?
Photo: Courtesy of Back Bay Books. More Alexandra Fuller (2001) Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood,
Themes: Loss, Africa, war, family
The straight-shooting Alexandra Fuller details her eccentric family's life and losses during Rhodesia's fight for independence. It will grab you even in the darkest moments.
Photo: Courtesy of Random House. More , Jeannette Walls (2005) The Glass Castle
Themes: Poverty, adolescence, family, survival
The former gossip columnist had a doozy of a childhood, fending for herself as her parents turned to alcohol and their own interests.
Photo: Courtesy of Scribner. More , Peter Godwin (2006) When a Crocodile Eats the Sun
Themes: Death, war, fathers and sons, Robert Mugabe
This follow-up to
, Godwin's story of growing up as a white Rhodesian, is engrossing on both a personal and political level. Godwin's relationship with his dying father will have you choking back tears, while his accounts of president Robert Mugabe's abuse of power will leave you fuming.
Photo: Courtesy of Back Bay Books. More , J.R. Moehringer (2006) The Tender Bar: A Memoir
Themes: Family, adolescence
Hilarious, endearing, and poignant, this memoir will make you wish you spent your childhood hanging out with your wisecracking uncle at the local bar.
Photo: Courtesy of Hyperion. More , Julia Child (2007) My Life in France
Themes: French cuisine, travel,
joie de vivre
Let's hear it for late bloomers. Julia Child's lively tales of experiencing fine French dining for the first time, failing her final cooking exam, and living in Paris with husband Paul will have you booking the next Air France flight.
Photo: Courtesy of Anchor. More , Ishmael Beah (2007) A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
Themes: Africa, war, violence, survival
Beah became a boy soldier in Sierra Leone and came out the other side. His story offers insight into the violence of the region, which leaves young boys with few choices and little hope for survival.
Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Crichton Books. More , Mary Karr (2009) Lit: A Memoir
Themes: Alcoholism, relationships, parenting, family
Yes, yes, it's another
Mary Karr selection
. This searingly honest memoir details Karr's battle with alcoholism and a failing marriage, warts and all.
Photo: Courtesy of Harper Perennial. More Patti Smith (2010) Just Kids,
Themes: Art, creativity, rock music
The poet and rocker chronicles her life in New York City in the late '60s and '70s, during which time she lived in the Hotel Chelsea, dated artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and connected with stars like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
Photo: Courtesy of Ecco. More , Cheryl Strayed (2012) Wild
Themes: Loss, relationships, personal strength, nature
In case you missed out on the Reese Witherspoon film, here's a primer. Reeling from the death of her mother and the breakup of her marriage, Strayed sets out to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. Gorgeous, riveting, and open-hearted.
Photo: Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday. More , Susannah Cahalan (2012) Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Cahalan was a young reporter living in New York City when she was struck by a mysterious, debilitating illness with seemingly no cure. Her fight to regain control of her mind and body is inspiring, and an important reminder to never take your own health for granted.
Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster. More , Gloria Steinem (2015) My Life on the Road
Themes: Feminism, politics, advocacy, travel
The feminist icon delves deep into her upbringing and chronicles her early days of fighting for women's rights both here and abroad.
Photo: Courtesy of Random House. More
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