Readings (and Viewings) in Memoir, Personal History and Family History: Suzanne’s Personal Favorites
2. Books of Fiction
It seems paradoxical to mention fictions in a list intended to capture works based on real life. Yet practically speaking, the line between nonfiction and fiction is not as sharp as you might assume. Many novels and short stories are based entirely or in part on real-life experience, while virtually all successful nonfiction works use some degree of fictional dramatization, compression, or manipulation. To further blur matters, many writers treat their real life experience in both fiction and nonfiction works.
In other words, though there are exceptions, more often that not the choice to call a work “nonfiction” or “fiction,” then shape and publish it accordingly, does not arise from the veracity or “reality” of the source material. Instead, the author is guided by some simpler and more pragmatic issue. Which way will the work be most salable? How best to minimize legal and ethical issues? These are just two of the many considerations that can “tilt” an author toward the choice of one genre or the other.
I have not listed specific novels or short stories here, as they are beyond the scope of this reading list, and also subject to a certain amount of interpretation. A biographer, for example, might point that one or more of an author’s novels are based on her real life, while the author herself denies this emphatically.
Instead, I offer just these brief comments by way of reminder that your reading in “real life stories” need not necessarily be limited to books officially designated as nonfiction. Indeed, exploring the possible real-life sources behind a fiction writer’s work can deepen and enhance the experience you have from their books.
3. Books of Memoir
While I am classing the books here under the general term “memoir,” the works listed are often described by a variety of terms, from confession to autobiography and more. My choice of works to list, and the brief thoughts I share on each, are both unabashedly personal. Significant, powerful, and otherwise valuable books that have been omitted far outnumber the ones actually listed here—that’s how rich this writing tradition is. I don’t present this list as any kind of objective or academic treatment of the subject. Rather, I just hope to inspire you to some reading of your own in memoir. Whether you look at some of these books or find your own, it will be a rewarding journey.
This list skews heavily toward recent or contemporary memoirs, though I have added in a few earlier works of special interest or significance. My purpose in concentrating on “modern” works was to discuss books that would be readily accessible. Many if not most of the works listed here are available in libraries as well as in new and/or used bookstores. Some of the earliest examples I’ve listed—Mary Rowlandson’s memoir of her Indian captivity, for example—are less readily accessible today. I chose Rowlandson’s work, along with historical narratives by Frederick Douglass and Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša), because they have been collected in relatively recent publications.
In the notes I’ve offered on each book, I’ve tried to convey at least a small sense of why the work, its author, its style, or its circumstances are either interesting and/or significant. Because my annotations are so brief, they are necessarily both general and incomplete. I urge you to read further about any author, work or tradition that interests you.
Anderson, Joan. A Year by the Sea. This memoir covers a year Anderson spent alone in a remote cottage, reflecting on her life and marriage and the possibilities for growing, deepening and transforming both. The book captured an unexpectedly wide audience, appealing to a large number of women readers who, like Anderson, were reflecting on their choices at mid-life. In response, Anderson has gone on to do popular workshops on this issue, and even written another book, A Weekend to Change Your Life, which covers some of the more practical, “how to” material she shares in the workshops.
Jean-Dominique Bauby. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. When any of us as writers complain that our craft is difficult, we might want to consider Bauby. He wrote this book by blinking one eyelid—the only part of his body that moved—at cards marked with letters of the alphabet while a helper transcribed the results. Following a massive stroke when he was only 43, Bauby—before then a journalist and editor of French Vogue—was afflicted with “locked in syndrome,” a condition which shuts an active consciousness into a body that is unable to move. His memoir uses brief, compressed vignettes to evoke that experience, as well as to convey his evanescent impressions of life before his illness. Bauby died not long after this work was published. Despite the obvious horrors of his situation, the book is a joyous and richly sensual read; its evocations of sensory impressions may be all the more powerful because Bauby could no longer take them for granted. I have not seen it, but the book has recently been made into a film by director Julian Schnabel.
John Bayley. Iris. Bayley’s memoir of his wife, the celebrated writer and intellectual Irish Murdoch, moves between the early days of the couple’s courtship and Murdoch’s late-life slide into severe Alzheimer’s disease. The extraordinary result is heartbreaking and poignant. I shied away from this book when it first appeared despite the widespread praise it garnered; the thought of a husband revealing his famous wife’s sometimes humiliating incapacities in print seemed unfair and even exploitative to me. Well, I was wrong (not, I should add, for the first time!) Whether he is showing Iris thriving as a young woman or ailing later on, Bayley’s respect for Murdoch is unforced and genuine, infusing even the most painful material in the memoir with exquisite tenderness. In the end, the book is a powerful affirmation of the endurance of love despite the ravages of time, age, and illness. Stylistically, the book is a model of texture and attention: apparently simple and even naïve in tone, yet full of telling details.
Blixen, Karen, writing as Isak Dinesen. Out of Africa. This complex and lyrical memoir of the Danish author’s life in then-colonial Africa demonstrates how “fictional” techniques of compression, heightening, omission, and more can help a memoir move from a mere recording of events to a shapely, enduring, and emotionally charged vision of them. Dinesen’s life, in Africa and beyond, is one of those “stranger than fiction” stories, filled with colorful incidents and even more colorful characters. Some of the writing style in this memoir feels a bit over-formal to modern readers, but Dinesen’s wisdom, poetry, and profound love for the setting still come through powerfully. Blixen has also been lucky in her biographer: Judith Thurman’s Isak Dinesen: Life of a Storyteller is an excellent exploration of a very complicated life.
Rick Bragg. All Over But The Shoutin’. “Anyone could tell it,” Rick Bragg says of his family’s story, “anyone who had a momma who went eighteen years without a new dress so her sons could have school clothes…” That’s a signal that we are entering into a memoir about both a memorable character and memorably hard times. One of Bragg’s great gifts is his ability to portray his mother’s immense strength of character and her marked eccentricity. She emerges vividly from his pages neither as a plaster saint nor a generic “good mommy,” but as a formidable, funny, and fascinatingly odd woman. For a book of very different style but similar theme, see Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes*.
J.M. Coetzee, Boyhood. The notable South African writer’s clear, simple, unsentimental and powerful memoir of his boyhood, expressed in a very unusual—but here, very effective—third-person viewpoint. With the profound changes that have taken place in South African history during our lifetimes, accounts like Coetzee’s provide invaluable witnesses to a painful and complicated past and a nation’s most marginalized population.
Colette. Sido and My Mother’s House. The French writer Colette is known and loved for her sensuous, lyrical writings in both fiction and nonfiction. At their best, her works have a kind of shimmering luminosity that is lusciously beautiful even in translation from the original French. These two works, collected in a single volume, deal with the author’s childhood in nineteenth-century rural France and the nurturing, passionate mother who shaped her life and the community around her. Judith Thurman, whose biography of Karen Blixen I praise above, also wrote an excellent biography of Colette called Secrets of the Flesh.
Collins, Judy. Sanity and Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival, and Strength. It is extraordinarily hard work to survive the suicide of one’s child, and just as hard to write about that painful journey. Nevertheless, that’s what Collins attempts to do in this memoir. In that sense, you could call it an example of the best kind of celebrity memoir—a book in which someone uses their public “platform” to humanize and help with a problem rarely discussed. This is not a great book in the literary sense—Collins is a good writer, but not a particularly memorable one. But it is a deeply healing book nonetheless, with a power that comes not from the shape of the words but from leap of faith the author makes in making her immensely private pain public. The best of celebrity writings in this vein do the same thing that Collins’ book does: they reassure us that even the “rich and famous” share our problems and failures, and make it more permissible to experience and share the most painful chapters in our lives.
Conroy, Frank. Stop-Time. A wild and funny look at the author’s boyhood, and an evocation of the many complexities of a child’s experience. Conroy is a colorful and inventive writer, and an example of the many ways that childhood material can be shaped in fresh and memorable ways. He is also a wonderful storyteller who was blessed, or cursed, with the kind of family situation that makes for great narrative. Here is the way the book begins: “My father stopped living with us when I was three or four. Most of his life was spent as a patient in various expensive rest homes for dipsomaniacs or victims of nervous collapse. He was neither, but rather the kind of neurotic who finds it difficult to live for any length of time in the outside world. The brain tumor discovered and removed near the end of his life could have caused his illness, but I suspect this easy out. To most people he seemed normal, especially when he was inside.” Who can read this and not want to read more?
Crawford, Christina. Mommie Dearest. Okay, so this is not a literary gem. I include it here as a reminder of the power of memoir to change society. This book—better known as a film starring Faye Dunaway and the source of the famous cry “NO MORE WIRE HANGERS!”—chronicled the author’s long sufferings at the hands of her adopted mother, the intensely ambitious actress Joan Crawford. It talked about child abuse before the subject was openly discussed—in fact, before that term was even commonly used. In doing so, this book (and a number of books on different “shocking” topics by other celebrities) helped put formerly hidden issues on the front burner of discussion.
Day, Clarence. Life with Father and Life with Mother. I loved Life with Father when I first read it as a teenager, and I still love it today. It evokes the era, place and class of the author’s childhood (he was born in 1874) perfectly, right down to details such as the fact that his father used only a steel pen for letters he wrote longhand in his Wall Street Office, only a quill pen at home. Even better, however, is the mingling of humor and wisdom with which Day evokes his father, a blustery and persnickety patriarch who could nevertheless be undone by the rebellion of his children or the unaccountable irrationality of his much-beloved wife. Day wrote for the early New Yorker, and while the subjects in the magazine are different today, you can still find the same kind of ironic, dry and rather understated humor there.
Delafield, E.M. Diary of a Provincial Lady. This “diary” of an Englishwoman—published as columns in the British periodical Time and Tide before appearing as a book in 1931—is a small humorous gem…hence its periodic re-publication in more modern times. Unlike conventional memoirs, this one has almost no detail. Instead, it focuses on the small challenges that make up the daily lives of many women of the period. She has nannies and cooks, children at boarding school, and other upper-class luxuries. Yet beyond these trappings she is at heart an Everywoman, overridden by her staff and children, beneficently ignored by her phlegmatic husband, frowned on by her local banker, and snubbed by the local titled lady. Is this a real diary? Probably not; it is too humorous and too condensed to be one, although it paints a quite vivid picture of the life of its era. Does it matter that it’s not really a diary? Not really. The pleasure here is in the amusement of the author’s “take,” coupled with the dry but very funny writing.
Diamant, Anita. Pitching My Tent: On Marriage, Motherhood, Friendship, and Other Leaps of Faith. Diamant wrote the novel The Red Tent, which became a bestseller mostly through word of mouth. This book collects her essays, which tend to focus on the relationships in her life. It’s a good example of how a collection of short pieces can become, in effect, a memoir. Here, the brief pieces are organized with enough thematic consistency to help them hang together as a whole, but without the linking material found in a traditional memoir narrative.
Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, were dealing with the illness of one of their (adult) children when Dunne died suddenly, at home. This book is a memoir of their marriage, a chronicle of the months after his death, and a reflection on the way tragedy and change strike right in the heart—and at the heart—of ordinary life. The range and intelligence of Didion’s body of work is extraordinary. Her oeuvre spans many decades and writings on everything from the Central Park Jogger case to the architecture of Miami. In this book, she turns her focus inward, to memorable effect; her combination of intelligence and vulnerability have touched many readers, especially those who like the author have dealt with painful loss.
Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life. Pulitzer Prize-winner Dillard has written a variety of books, including several good memoirs. The Writing Life is one of many books—May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude* and Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings* are others—which bring together memoir material with thoughts on the practice of writing. As is true of all the best books of this kind, Dillard’s allows readers to glimpse her life, her thoughts and her art more intimately. In addition, it is full of thoughtful and thought-provoking comments on the practice of writing generally. Among my favorites—there are far too many to quote here—are these two thoughts: “….it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” And: “Nobody whispers it in your ear. It is like something you memorized once and forgot. Now it comes back and rips away your breath. You find and finger a phrase at a time; you lay it down cautiously….and wait suspended until the next one finds you: Ah yes, then this; and yes, praise be, then this.”
Donofrio, Beverly. Looking for Mary, Or, The Blessed Mother and Me. By turns funny and poignant, this clever and entertaining memoir chronicles an unexpected spiritual journey that begins with the author collecting religious kitsch, but then deepens. It is precisely Donofrio’s irreverence that made this book so successful; it’s a story of spiritual growth, conversion if you will, with which even the most secular reader can identify. Equally appealing is her sharp, lively, and colorful writing, which perfectly evokes the mingling of moods and perspectives in this book.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Literature played a powerful role in America’s bloody and painful abolition of slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin isn’t one of the best written books you’ll ever read, but it has rightly been called one of the most influential works ever published in our country. This memoir by Frederick Douglass, which was published in 1845, was another work that helped change the course of history. Douglass was born into slavery, but escaped into a life as a day laborer. Naturally eloquent, he caught the eye of those in the abolitionist movement, for whom he became a hugely successful speaker. The book I’m noting her was the first of his three autobiographies, a first-person story of his years in slavery. Douglass’s writings and speeches reached not just America but Europe, helping to expose injustices of slavery in a way that Americans could not deny.
Erlich, Gretel. This Cold Heaven. This stark but hauntingly beautiful book arose from the author’s visits to Greenland over seven years, and the impressions of life and nature there she gathered from many sources including her own travels. The author of the celebrated memoir The Solace of Open Spaces (about her life in Wyoming), Erlich is fascinated by place and writes wonderfully about it. Yet she neither a mere describer of the tangible nor a chronicler of experience. Instead, she has much of the poet and the philosopher in her nature, and she always subtly makes clear that of all her journeys are progresses of the mind and the soul. The match-up of her searching and wide-ranging mind with her spare, minimalist writing style makes for memorable and beautiful work. I include this work in my memoir listing not only because is such skillful work but also to stand in for the many, many wonderful works that combine memoir and travel writing. Pico Iyer, Freya Stark, Mary Morris, Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, Bill Bryson, Frances Mayes: the list of writers who merge the two forms to brilliant effect goes on, and on, and on.
Fisher, M.F.K. The Gastronomical Me. Beginning with her first publication in 1938 and going on for decades thereafter, Fisher wrote about food, life, memory, love, and place in a variety of essays, memoirs, and cookbooks. She is less widely known today than she was during her lifetime, but those who love writing, food, or writing about food tend to know and revere her name. (The late poet W.H. Auden, no slouch when it came to good writing, said of her that “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.”) Fisher is a powerful memoirist in part because she so well understands the metaphorical as well as literal meanings of food and eating. In her hands, even a “simple” cookbook can become a celebration of life, love, community, and common sense.
Fox, Suzanne. Home Life. My own small contribution to the memoir genre. As this book demonstrates, a strong and distinct focus can materially affect a memoir’s publication prospects. My “life story” is humdrum and ordinary when considered as straight autobiography. Looked at through the much more focused lens of home, however, it becomes both more distinctive, and more universal. Given its focus on rooms and homes, it demanded considerable texture, and I therefore used more visual and sensory description in the work than I might have in another book.
Gilbert, Elizabeth. Eat, Pray, Love. This luminous example of strong memoir structure follows Gilbert on a journey to reconnect with three aspects of her nature: pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and balance (in a complex sense) in Bali. At once funny and wise, the story resonates with the many readers who find themselves, like Gilbert did, marooned in a middle age that is externally successful but internally empty. The combination of her strong writing and the book’s wonderful settings makes for a fun and thought-provoking work.
Grandin, Temple. Thinking In Pictures. Despite being autistic, Temple Grandin became a successful designer of livestock-related equipment and then a successful author. Thinking in Pictures offers us one of the first full length accounts ever written about autism from the inside, as well as a moving self-portrait of a real woman living behind autism’s opaque façade. Along with Kay Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind*, Grandin’s work demonstrates the openness of modern memoir—and modern memoir publishers—to “strange” and unexpected lives. Followed by Emergence: Labeled Autistic, which Grandin wrote with a co-author, and a number of subsequent books, Thinking in Pictures is a watershed in modern memoir history.
Grealy, Lucy. Autobiography of a Face. As a child, Grealy was diagnosed with a violent case of an intractable cancer which attacked the bones of her face and jaw. The good news is that she survived; the bad news was that the cancer and its various “cures” left her with a horribly damaged face and a lifetime marked by ongoing treatments, physical pain, and psychological damage. Like Mary Karr*, memoirist Grealy is also a poet, and she has the poet’s capacity to let details speak. Her book is a fascinating look at an ordinary girl growing up in extraordinary circumstances, as well as a moving meditation on how all of us “face” our world. Grealy died in 2002 at the age of only 39, apparently of an accidental overdose of the drugs—both prescription and illegal—that she had become addicted to. Those interested in Grealy might also want to look at Truth and Beauty, a memoir of her by her longtime friend, the novelist Ann Patchett. Grealy’s family was irate at the publication of this unflinching and intimate book, but it is nevertheless a beautifully done if often painful look at the women’s lives, the difficulties Grealy experienced in both her body and her soul, and the nature of deep friendship.
Harrison, Sabrina Ward. Spilling Open and Brave on the Rocks. Harrison is one of a growing number of people using a combination of words and images to create collaged books that are both works of visual art and memoirs. Harrison’s deliberately loose, naïve process juxtaposes brief bursts of often untidy handwriting with a colorful mélange of drawings, documents, photographs and other layered materials. The result? A youthful, colorful, and memorable look at periods and issues in a creative young woman’s life.
Hayward, Brooke. Haywire. Unlike Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest*, this celebrity memoir works as not just gossip but writing. The daughter of actress Margaret Sullavan and Hollywood agent extraordinare Leland Hayward, close friends with the Fondas and others among the rich and famous, Hayward lived a life filled with opportunities many of us would envy. Yet her family’s story also includes divorce, distance, addiction, and even the tragically early death of the writer’s sister. Hayward writes of both the pains and the pleasures of her life beautifully, celebrating the glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age yet also evoking the waste and pain its lifestyles trailed in their wake.
Hong Kingston, Maxine. The Woman Warrior. This is a quintessentially American memoir, precisely because the author’s life is not just “American.” Instead, she grew up with one foot in the everyday life of suburban California and the other in the eons-old Chinese tradition of her parents, a dual identity further complicated by the very different views of female roles held by her two different cultures. First published in the 1970s, this book helped usher in an era of wonderful Asian-American writing by Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and others.
Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin Stories. The two novels which comprise The Berlin Stories are really heightened memoirs, in which Isherwood himself appears under his own name. They evoke the Berlin of 1931, the era in which Hitler was first becoming a force in German and world politics, and were later turned into the stage and movie musical Cabaret (which Isherwood loathed, by the way.) Isherwood had a habit of treating the same material in both fiction and nonfiction. He did so with The Berlin Stories, later publishing a memoir called Christopher And His Kind that dealt with the same period but spoke more honestly about his homosexuality, among other issues.
Jamison, Kay. An Unquiet Mind. This exploration of bipolar disorder is a brilliant and groundbreaking book. First, on the most basic level, it’s a suspenseful and very well-written story. Then, it is a brilliant memoir of mental illness written from a very complex viewpoint, since Jamison is both a sufferer of the disorder and a doctor specializing in treating it. Sometimes she writes as a trained scientist. At other moments, she writes entirely as an ordinary human being: a woman who has come terrifyingly close to suicide during her depressive periods and made her own and others’ lives a living (if sometimes hilarious) hell during her manic spells. It’s a difficult task to move seamlessly between the opposing modes of the patient and the expert, but Jamison balanced the two modes perfectly in this book. In the process, she created a work which has helped broaden our culture’s understanding of a complicated disease, as well as make it more socially acceptable to admit one’s mental and psychological issues in a public forum.
Kaysen, Susanna. Girl, Interrupted. Later made into a film featuring Angelina Jolie, this fascinating and disturbing memoir deals with Kaysen’s psychological problems and the stay in a clinic which resulted from them. Unlike Kay Jamison*’s seasoned, mature memoir of mental illness, Kaysen’s work is hip, edgy, unabashedly “odd,” and sardonic. That is, its voice and style are both perfect for the troubled adolescent she was during the period she chronicles. This book is also a good example of how to use brief vignettes and scenes—rather than the more traditional chapters—to structure a compelling memoir.
Karr, Mary. The Liar’s Club. The 1990s were a kind of heyday for what I call “memoirs of extreme experience.” Sex addiction, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, incest, molestation, spousal abuse, murder, deception: if it was lurid, there was a memoir published about it. Naturally, some of these books were better than others. Karr’s memoir is among the best ones. It’s one of those rare books that is at once sparkling and harrowing: harrowing because so much of the early life experience Karr chronicles is woefully grim, sparkling thanks to her intelligence, humor and literary skill. Her language flashes, gleams, and sizzles, creating unforgettable pages. And extreme as some elements of her story are, Karr’s tale also emerges as quintessentially American and deeply, simply human.
Kidd, Sue Monk. Dance of the Dissident Daughter. Kidd became famous as the author of the bestselling novels The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair. Also an essayist and memoirist, she wrote the book noted here about her journey from a conventional religious faith to a more personal and feminist one. Stories of religious conversion have a long and venerable tradition in memoir, beginning with St. Augustine’s Confessions and running right through such books as Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain.*Such narratives typically show the author or subject changing from a life without religious direction into one shaped by some religious tradition. In contrast, Sue Monk Kidd’s traces what is in some sense an opposite journey: the equally difficult progress from a “received” faith into a looser and more personal, but no less authentic, belief.
Knapp, Caroline. Drinking: A Love Story. This book’s excellent title says it all. The author is scrupulously honest about the destruction, waste and shame her severe alcoholism brought into her life. She never glamorizes the disease. Yet her book also manages to convey what it was about drinking that felt appealing to Knapp during the years when it was, indeed, the great love of her life. Pulling this kind of complex, contradictory material off isn’t easy; it took considerable guts, painful honesty, and some plain old good writing to do it so well. This memoir demonstrates the importance of balance when writing memoirs that touch on extreme or potentially controversial topics; it is powerful because Knapp so effectively kept one foot in the crazy world of her alcoholism, the other in the saner mind of her recovering self. Sadly, Knapp died of lung cancer in 2002.
Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air. This bestselling book began as an assignment from Outside magazine, which asked the writer (author of the excellent Into the Wild and a lifelong mountain climber) to climb Everest at their expense in order to write about the new practice of offering costly guided ascents of the mountain. As it happened, that month on the mountain, and the expedition Krakauer himself joined, were plagued by a record number of deaths. Physically damaged and psychologically affected as well, Krakauer went on not just to write the article he had been commissioned to create but also this memoir. It melds a riveting adventure story, a memoir of some of the people (some of whom survived, others who did not) who climbed alongside him, and an expose of the dangerous modern practice of selling guided ascents of the mountain to anyone who can afford them, rather than restricting access to the peak to those genuinely qualified for such a dangerous challenge.
Lindbergh, Anne Morrow. Gifts from the Sea. This classic book of reflections by the wife of famed pilot Charles Lindbergh is lyrically written and beautifully thoughtful. It’s also a good example of focus. The author uses a solitary visit to a seaside cottage as a chance to reflect on the complexity of life and the many conflicts we face in managing our time, our energy and our commitments. (As a mother, writer, and the wife of world-famous Charles Lindbergh, she knows all about these issues!) Originally published in 1955, this focus on handling busy-ness, finding the deeper shape to our lives, and honoring our need for silence and privacy makes the book just as timely in 2008 as it was when it was first written.
Merton, Thomas. The Seven-Storey Mountain and The Asian Journals. Thomas Merton was introduced to readers in 1948 through his successful memoir The Seven Storey Mountain, which chronicled his early life from its confused beginnings to his decision to join a Trappist monastery. So successful was the book that it helped inspire a new wave of monastic vocations and turned Merton himself into something of a celebrity. Merton continued to write prolifically despite the rigorously limited life of his monastery, turning out a variety of works (with, as he himself always pointed out, a varying level of literary quality) including enduring books on contemplation and spiritual growth. As he aged, Merton felt less and less fettered by the specifics of Catholic theology and more connected with other spiritual traditions, including both Zen Buddhism and the antiwar movement boiling over late in his life (a movement which, though secular in purpose, was driven by spiritual principles). Merton died of a freak electrical accident during a long journey through Asia. His writings about this trip were later collected in the book posthumously published as The Asian Journals.
McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes. This is another “mom” story, and a very good one indeed. McCourt’s childhood was poor and difficult, qualities which brought out the awesome strength of his mother. The grimness and poverty of the family situation, as well as their strengths, are brought to memorable vitality by the skill of McCourt’s writing, which pulses with energy and intelligence no matter how difficult the scene being depicted. As this memoir proves, material about poverty, lack or limitation is sometimes more accessible in writing than in visual and narrative forms such as film; the movie made of this book, though thoughtfully done, is actually much less successful in conveying the “feel” of McCourt’s subject than his book itself.
McGuane, Thomas. The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing. Fishing is one of those things you either get or you don’t. I don’t, but I was nevertheless captivated by this memoir. The family elements of its story are universal, and McGuane has perfect command of the technicalities of his fishing material and its balance with the more personal narrative. This book is an excellent example of the importance of texture and specificity in memoir. It works precisely because McGuane knows fishing, loves fishing, and pays attention so well; he never fudges or generalizes, but rather evokes his material with appealing precision and perfect clarity.
Monette, Paul. Borrowed Time: An Aids Memoir. Borrowed Time was the first full-length personal account of AIDS brought forth by a major publisher. When it appeared, in 1988, fear about the illness was everywhere, misinformation was rife, and no medical treatment was available to reverse or even manage the disease. Monette’s memoir of his lover’s illness and death became part of a series of events that helped make prevailing attitudes more compassionate. It also succeeds as a moving human story, written from a balanced viewpoint which is sad but not self-pitying, dramatic but not sensational. Monette himself died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 49, seven years after this book appeared.
Morris, Jan. Conundrum. The author of this memoir was a celebrated English travel writer. Under the name James Morris, he covered the historic first full ascent of Everest that coincided with Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, among other events. This book speaks about a different kind of journey: travels across the boundary of gender, culminating in Morris’s sex-reassignment surgery and her subsequent decision to live as a woman under the name Jan Morris. The book sometimes feels old-fashioned today thanks to the vast alterations in both gender attitudes and literary style that have occurred since it appeared in 1974. Yet it is worth noting, both as a part of the oeuvre of a wonderful writer and as a book that helped broaden social understanding of a complicated life path.
Nicolson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage. While clearing out the estate of his mother (the English writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West) writer Nigel Nicolson came upon an intimate journal she had hidden away. The diary told the sometimes joyous, sometimes anguished story of a long affair Sackville-West had in the earlier years of her marriage to his father, the diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson—an affair with another woman. The book Nigel Nicolson produced from this discovery presents this diary amid his own memoir of the family’s background, Vita’s life and work, and her unconventional but enduring union with his father. Nicolson deals with complex and potentially “sensational” material extremely well, a difficult enough feat even if one is not the son of the participants. His introduction speaks eloquently of his reason for publishing the journal: the hope that the story will help broaden society’s understanding of the many variations possible in marriage, friendship, and love.
Norris, Kathleen. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Like Gretel Erlich’s* memoir, The Solace of Open Spaces, this is the story of an educated, sophisticated woman who moves to a remote and unfamiliar place, discovering new things about both herself and her new home in the process. Appealingly and appropriately spare in its style, it evokes both character and setting beautifully. It also introduces the spiritual themes Norris later visited more thoroughly in her book The Cloister Walk.
Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. This lovely little memoir was originally conceived as a series of individual essays, but it comes together beautifully as a whole. Palmer’s theme, as the title notes, is vocation—a word that encompasses both religious callings and ordinary jobs. He sees vocation as the mysterious process through which we are “called” both to our professions and our lives, and he describes the progress toward it as both arduous and touched with grace. Among the delights of this book are the humility and dry humor with which the author writes of his own many emotional and professional missteps. (His evocations of discussions with fellow Quakers are particularly fun.) It is not easy to write about one’s own failures honestly and without either self-blame or self-pity, but Palmer does so perfectly.
Plimpton, George, and Jean Stein. Edie: American Girl. Born among the American elite, Edie Sedgwick became a muse and star for Andy Warhol before dying of a drug overdose at the age of only 28. Published in 1982, this book collaged together comments, anecdotes and impressions of those who knew her to evoke Sedgwick’s character and life. In doing so, it offered a rich, nuanced and realistic look not only at Edie herself, but also at the colorful promise—and the terrible waste—of the glittering1960s. As it proves, a good memoir of a person can also be a memorable memoir of an era.
Pollan, Michael. Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Like Thom McGuane’s fishing memoir* and M.F.K. Fisher’s works on cooking*, Pollan’s book uses an external subject—in his case, gardening—as a way to write about himself, his life, his family, and human nature in general. He re-envisions himself as a child beautifully—there is a luminous description of the cathedral-like place underneath a forsythia bush, to name just one of many possible examples. He is equally deft in evoking adult life, adult gardening, and adult decision-making. Since this book appeared, Pollan has published interesting books on plants, food, and his own amateur building projects.
Rollin, Betty. First, You Cry and Last Wish. Rollin was a well-known NBC correspondent in the 70s. First, You Cry was one of the first detailed memoirs about the experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer, written at a time—1976—when women were still too full of shame and fear to talk about the disease publicly. Last Wish chronicles the final illness of Rollins’ mother, which ended with her mother’s decision to take her own life. As the Schiavo case reminded us, the issue of end-of-life choices remains controversial to this day. Rollin’s straightforward, honest, and loving memoir adds to the body of literature which helps us understand our options and their costs.
Rowlandson, Mary. A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. This memoir has sometimes been called the first American bestseller. Rowlandson—an early, English-born settler in the Massachusetts Bay Colony—and her children were captured by the Narragansett Indians in 1676, then held for eleven weeks before being safely returned to colonial authorities. Her account of her captivity was published in 1682 and remains one of the most famous narratives of its kind. I include it here by way of acknowledging that memoirs from this period, while relatively rare, do exist, and at times pay homage to lives that were much more complicated than we assume.
Rybczynski, Witold. The Most Beautiful House in the World. This architect-author’s Home: A Short History of an Idea is a polished journey through many centuries of ideas about what “home” is, and a book I referred to often in writing my own memoir about houses. In The Most Beautiful House in the World, he writes just as urbanely about a personal project, the building of a small house he designed from start to finish. It’s fun to have this inside glimpse of his budgeting and planning, successes and failures. Like all successful memoirs of its kind, this book’s very narrow subject becomes a way for the author to reflect on much wider, deeper issues and themes.
Sarton, May. Journal of a Solitude. This is one of a whole series of journals this poet and critic published later in her life. In it, Sarton invokes the touchstones of her life—her home, her garden, her creative work, her friends—and meditates on how they (and her reactions to them) change over time. Some of her musings are lyrical, others edgy or angry; she consciously decided to allow anger and unhappiness to remain in this book, and one of its themes is that powerful, passionate emotion does not disappear as we age. Though presented in journal form, it’s clear that this book is not the publication of mere daily jottings. Instead, it is a thematically rich and stylistically polished collection of rigorously considered prose.
Schreiber, Le Anne. MidStream and Light Years. These two memoirs by Schrieber, formerly the first female sports editor of the New York Times, counterpoint the illnesses and deaths of several of the author’s family members with her quiet life in upstate New York. By balancing these two themes, she ensures that painful medical detail will not overwhelm her stories. At the same time, she gives us a rich look at life, loss, and the many decisions we adults make in negotiating both.
Scott-Maxwell, Florida. The Measure of My Days. Scott-Maxwell went on the stage at age sixteen, became a writer at twenty, and trained with Carl Jung as an analytical psychologist in her fifties. This memoir was written in her eighties and published when she was 85, a decade before she died. Organized as a series of brief vignettes, the book is a little-known treasure. Embarking on old age as though it were another adventure, the author scrutinizes her life and her reactions to it with candor, freshness, and energy, proving in the process that old age is an adventure of its own, rather than merely an ending of life’s earlier phases.
Silverstein, Amy. Sick Girl. Amy Silverstein was diagnosed with heart failure at the age of only 24. Numerous months of drug treatment did not help, and she received a heart transplant while still in her twenties. The extreme difficulty of life after such a transplant—life which can only be sustained by powerful immuno-suppresants with hosts of serious side effects—is rarely given a public face. Silverstein’s memoir does so clearly and courageously, right down to what she acknowledges are her sometimes unfair or unlikable reactions to doctors or family members. Post-transplant infertility, the constant feeling of sickness created by the combination of strong drugs and constant infections, the necessity of working with doctors who often dismiss patient questions and needs: she limns both the medical and psychological aspects of her experience with honesty and unforgettable detail.
Styron, Wiliam. Darkness Visible. The treatment and understanding of depression have come a long way since the 1980s, and Styron’s book helped create this welcome change.
The author of Sophie’s Choice and many other successful books, Styron “had it all” at the time he was struck by severe clinical depression. In chronicling his deep personal struggle and reflecting on the many others who have suffered the disease, Styron helped Americans understand that depression is more than mere sadness, and that it can afflict anyone, regardless of wealth or fame. Some books serve that kind of social purpose without having much (or any) literary merit; Styron’s classic memoir offers both.
Trillin, Calvin. Alice, Let’s Eat. Trillin, often and rightly referred to as a classic American humorist, has written wonderfully clever and amusing books on all sorts of people and situations. He is an ironic writer, who keeps his tongue firmly in cheek. But he is also a very warm one, whose fundamental good humor comes across in almost everything he writes and whose insights into life and human nature are deeper than the label “humor writer” might suggest. This book chronicles the adventures in eating he enjoys all over the world in search of what he calls “something decent to eat.” The Alice of the title is his wife, whose common sense serves as a kind of foil to the author’s drive and hunger. Alice is featured as well in several of Trillin’s other books, all of which offer amusing reads.
Truitt, Ann. Daybook, Prospect, and Turn. Sculptor Ann Truitt kept a journal for many years, and these three publications collect those formerly private writings. Entries muse on her life as woman and artist. Sometimes she reflects on one of these roles alone, while at other moments she muses on how they conflict. As is also true of Annie Dillard’s writing memoir* and other books of its type, Truitt’s journals offers the doubled pleasure of peeking into the personal and professional/creative lives of an interesting person. Her observations are quiet and grounded in self-knowledge, as is illustrated in this brief excerpt: “At the beach a few days ago, sitting in my long wrapper and my Pooh Bear jacket on a round piling stump, steaming coffee mug in hand, facing across the pale sand into the rising sun, I thought of what to do with the sunrise. (Why, I incidentally ask myself, do I always feel compelled to turn everything into something else? A tiresome habit of my mind, I sometimes think.)”
Twain, Mark (Samuel Clemens). Old Times on the Mississippi. This account, created in 1875 as a series of articles for the Atlantic Monthly magazine, is a nonfiction version of the same material Twain would make famous in novels including Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. It is a vivid evocation of a way of life now gone, an account of Twain’s own personal training as a steamboat captain, and a wonderfully colorful story that has all of the texture and energy of the best fiction. More broadly, Twain is a fascinating figure, a complex man who exemplifies many of the contradictions of the young America in which he lived. Ron Powers’ Mark Twain: A Life offers an excellent evocation of the man and his times.
Vollard, Ambroise. Degas: An Intimate Portrait. In the days before film, video, and amateur photography were universally available, it is written portraits—memoirs—that gave us our information on what famous people were really like. These documents are especially helpful when it comes to those who insisted on leading very private lives despite public fame. The French nineteenth-century artist Edgar Degas was such a person, an eccentric and sometimes disagreeable loner who extraordinary artwork for almost seven decades. This memoir by Degas’ family friend and art dealer Vollard is a collection of anecdotes that show Degas in a wide range of artistic and social situations. Memoirs like this are rarely entirely objective, and this one is no exception; Vollard admires and cares about Degas deeply. But because it captures a wide range of his reactions and remarks, the book humanizes our picture of the artist, rounding out what we know of his life from documents, records, and his art.
White, E.B. Letters of E.B. White. I include this volume as one of scores of possible examples of the way collections of letters or documents can, in effect, read just like a memoir. (Sadly, this is less true now that travel is so easy and so many of us rely on phones or quick emails to communicate with others.) This collection spans seventy years, and includes everything from the letters White sent as a young boy to those he wrote in “old age.” Some letters are personal, some are professional; some discuss his work at the New Yorker or his book arrangements with publishers, while others describe the life he and his wife built on their farm in Maine. Some of my favorites among his letters are the ones he wrote to those involved in publishing and illustrating Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, the two children’s books he wrote –with great and enduring great success—in mid-life.
Welty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings. This classic memoir of the roots of Welty’s writing life includes a gorgeously rich evocation of childhood, the classic forming-ground for all those who end up “artistic.” I love the specificity and intimacy of this book, as well as its insights into both writing and creative development. One of my favorite remarks from it occurs when Welty comments that it was “startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.”
Wolff, Geoffrey. The Duke of Deception. Wolff’s dad was, to put it mildly, a doozy. In Wolff’s own more elegant words, he was “a bad man and a good father,” though Wolff Senior’s paternal goodness was certainly not of your average milk-and-mittens variety. The son’s exceptionally honest, thoughtful and well written memoir is both an exploration of the truth about a con man’s life, and a wonderful meditation on father-son relationships. Like Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, it gets its power both from excellent writing and from a father who was colorful and strange.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy. Published in 1945, this book did two things well ahead of its time. It talked about a black man’s experience honestly long before segregation ended, and it used novelistic techniques to tell its real-life story. Today, neither of these things seem anywhere near as shocking as they did back then. The falling-away of its “scandal” notwithstanding, the book endures as a classic narrative of injustice and growth.
Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Bonnin). Four Autobiographical Narratives. Native American voices are sadly rare in American autobiography and memoir from the past, an especially tragic absence given these peoples’ crucial and complex roles in our history. Many factors contribute to the rarity of memoir and nonfiction stories from this population, most importantly the oral rather than written nature of their storytelling tradition. The works of Gertrude Bonnin are one of the exceptions to the rule: autobiographical vignettes written by a half-Sioux, half-white girl whose early years on a reservation were followed by Quaker schooling. Bonnin poignantly evokes both traditional Indian culture and the sense of dislocation she felt when she brought home her white-man’s book learning and ideas to a mother who could not read or write. As an adult married to a Sioux man who served in the Indian Service, Bonnin—who was born under the English name but later changed her name to assert her Indian identity—became an early activist for Indian and civil rights.
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