17 Memoirs Everyone Should Read
Looking for something splendid to read? These brilliant stories, old and new, stand the test of time: We could call them Life 101.
Beloved Strangers by Maria Chaudhuri
Chaudhuri’s gorgeously written debut chronicles her childhood in Bangladesh, her education in New England, and her search, between two cultures, for joy. She manages to turn every detail into poetry while moving her story powerfully forward.
All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
Bragg grew up dirt poor in Alabama, the son of a violent, hard-drinking father and a mother who went 18 years without a new dress so her kids could have clothes. WIthout losing a sense of where he came from, Bragg became a Pulitzer-Prize winning New York Times reporter. But this memoir isn’t just “worthy”—Bragg’s pitch-perfect storytelling makes for stay-up-all-night reading.
Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family by Patricia Volk
With so many memoirs centered on hard times and family dysfunction, it’s sheer delight to encounter Volk’s quirky, loving, exuberant restaurant family. Volk’s great-grandfather introduced pastrami to America in 1888; her dad remained in the restaurant business in New York until 1988. As we all know, food and family go great together, and in this perceptive and witty book they’re a winning combo.
The Snow Leopard by Peter Mathiessen
Literary giant Peter Mathiessen died in April, 2014; he left behind a legacy of great works, both fiction and nonfiction. The Snow Leopard, published in 1978, is considered a modern classic. It recounts his 1972 journey deep into the heart of the Himalayas in search of the elusive Asian snow leopard—and also in search of self. A brilliant mixture of nature writing, cultural journalism, and spiritual seeking, this is a book to read and re-read.
Still Points North by Leigh Newman
Newman’s exhilarating memoir moves through an unconventional Alaskan childhood to a lifetime of travel, and ultimately, to a true sense of home. Her quest for courage, connection, and life’s deepest adventures is not to be missed.
Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen
Iversen was raised near a top-secret nuclear weapons plant in Colorado; she later worked there and became increasingly troubled by the safety risks and health hazards, especially as people in the area became ill at an alarming rate. Here she’s entwined two narratives: one about environmental peril and the other about her own family’s toxic secrets. The result is a compelling, moving, and deeply thought-provoking book.
Warrenpoint by Denis Donoghue
Literary scholar Donogue grew up Catholic in largely-Protestant Northern Ireland; Warrenpoint is an extraordinary hybrid of personal reflection, theology, philosophy, and intellectual adventure. If that makes it seem forbidding, it shouldn’t. This short book has at its heart the love between a father and son.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Mention Irish memoir, and it’s hard not to think of Angela’s Ashes, McCourt’s blockbuster, Pulitzer Prize-winning account of a cruel childhood, rich only in storytelling—and surprising humor.
When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago
Santiago’s 1994 account of growing up in a large family in rural Puerto Rico, moving to Brooklyn, translating for her mother at the welfare office, and ultimately graduating from Harvard with high honors, has become a welcome staple in schools. If you’re too old to have read it in class, you should pick it up now. The warmth and palpable tenderness of Santiago’s story feels like an invigorating embrace.
About Alice by Calvin Trillin
At 78 pages, About Alice is a small book with a big heart. It’s a kind of love letter to the humorist’s late wife, who died in 2011. You can read this tender, good-humored portrait of their marriage in an hour, maybe two—but you won’t forget it anytime soon.