15 Gripping Memoirs by Women Who Overcame the Impossible
These riveting books guide you through the hardest stuff you can imagine with the grace and grit you can expect from strong women.
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Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Readers fell in love with Cheryl Strayed’s lovely and lyrical prose in this best-seller about finding healing when you’re out on your own—like really on your own. Strayed’s best-seller recounts her months on a solo hike on the Pacific Northwest Trail. She comes to terms with a past filled with the wrong men and other choices she’d rather forget. Most of all, her epic hike allows her the time and space to grieve the loss of her beloved mother who passed way too young. A nature trail provides the path for what becomes an incredible journey. You’ll also love these novels featuring strong fictional female characters.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
This is the book that launched Maya Angelou’s astonishing literary career. Her gorgeous memoir debuted in 1969 and captured the experience of growing up as a young Black girl in the South. Angelou’s poetic language expertly portrays details and events that are riveting and powerful. Though the book chronicles pain, it’s also about strength and resilience in the face of trauma. The book is a truly inspirational force about self-love and finding your intrinsic courage. Maya Angelou is actually one of the heroes of inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, another incredible woman who also has a couple of upcoming books that are selling out.
The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
Mary Karr’s funny and moving memoir about a tough childhood was hugely successful when it debuted in 1995. Readers connected with Karr’s witty and masterful storytelling about life in a volatile Texas family. She writes about drama and dysfunction with a poignant eye that captures details that will stay with you long after you’ve finished. It’s a story of a child’s resilience in the midst of alcoholism, mental illness, and other assorted chaos. Here are 9 more life-changing books everyone should read.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya
In this powerful memoir, subtitled “A Story of War and What Comes After,” Wamariya writes about fleeing the Rwandan genocide as a young child, traveling through multiple African countries with her sister as refugees, and eventually ending up in the United States. Her circumstances do a complete 180 as she ends up being taken in by an affluent family and attending Yale. In this New York Times bestseller, she tries to reconcile the vastly different experiences of her life. Have you read these 25 bestselling books of the decade?
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne were a happily married literary power couple. Then suddenly, within a period of a few days, the famed writer lost her husband to a heart attack while her daughter was gravely ill with a sudden infection. Didion’s beautiful and acclaimed memoir records the year after these events during which her daughter continues a long and difficult recovery. Didion takes us through the heartbreak and shock of loss and love in this meditation on surviving grief. Sadly, Didion’s daughter passed after the book’s completion—the tragedy she chronicles in the companion book, Blue Nights. Here are 50 of the best quotes from our favorite books.
Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
Sonali Deraniyagala’s devastating memoir recounts the unthinkable losses she endured during the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami. She’s on holiday with her parents, husband, and two young children when everything changes forever. With generous clarity she relays a peaceful, normal morning, and then the confusion that turns to horror as the wave comes in. Deraniyagala’s account takes you through unbearable, agonizing losses. Her straightforward narration pulls you close to what would otherwise remain unimaginable. Learn about 16 incredible women you didn’t study in history class.
The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham
Joan Wickersham’s riveting memoir goes over the circumstances of her father’s unexpected death by his own hand. She artfully captures the enigma of this unbearable act and its aftermath. In doing so, she takes the reader along on her attempt to make sense of her father’s passing. She structures her book like an index as a way to organize her father’s life and understand its mysteries. Wickersham’s beautifully haunting narration keeps you riveted. Here are 20 true crime books you won’t be able to put down.
Tomorrow Will Be Different by Sarah McBride
If Sarah McBride’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she just made history (or, herstory) as the first-ever transgender person elected to the United States Senate. Sworn into office in January 2021, she’s also the National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign. Before she ran for office, she wrote this moving book, telling her own coming-out story, her journey into activism, and her husband’s tragic battle with cancer. Also, not for nothing, but now-President Joe Biden wrote the foreword. Learn about these 12 LGBTQ+ activists who changed American history.
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron
The screenwriter responsible for Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless in Seattle was also an insightful novelist, director, and essayist. This hilarious essay collection depicts Nora Ephron’s reflections on aging. As usual, Ephron is relatable and charming while dishing out insights on parenting and relationships and their inevitable changes. You can’t go wrong with Ephron’s wit and charm showing you how to deal. You’ll get a laugh from 37 of the funniest books of all time.
Blackout by Sarah Hepola
Sarah Hepola’s memoir is addictive as it chronicles the ups and downs of the drinking habit she needs to curb. It’s one of those can’t-put-it-down, just-one-more-page, keep-you-up-all-night books. Her voice is relatable and funny, honest, and open. Hepola manages to be critical of her alcoholism while at the same garnering all your sympathy. The book is also about how the author finds her voice as a writer and a woman. It’s a stunning debut from a fantastic writer. Here are 23 other contemporary writers you should have read by now.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward writes about coming to terms with the loss of five young men she was close to—including her brother. Each young man comes from her close-knit community in small-town Mississippi—a location fraught with a racist history. Ward’s acclaimed and award-winning memoir captures a strong sense of place and the cultural problems that ensnare it. Her moving account honors the lives lost as it examines them. It’s a poignant call to understand the intricacies of history and its constant impact on the present. Find out the essential books you should read for understanding race relations in America.
Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies
You may recognize author Isabel Gillies from Law & Order SVU where she played Det. Stabler’s wife. The actress has writerly talents that come out in her can’t-put-it-down memoir about her husband’s affair. He was a poet-professor who took up with a colleague. Meanwhile, Gillies was trying to be the perfect homemaker in their big house with their two small children. The book’s title comes from what the “other woman” told Gillies when she mentioned fears that her husband was straying: happens every day. Gillies fills her story with strength and humor in the midst of a shocking loss that leads her and the kids back to her parents’ New York City apartment after the truth comes out. Here are more books that will definitely make you cry.
Under Red Skies by Karoline Kan
Kan, a former New York Times reporter, tells the story of strife in China as the country grows into a global superpower, through the stories of three women in her own family, and her own story. Her grandmother struggles to support her family during the Great Chinese Famine; her mother gives birth to her in defiance of the one-child policy; and her cousin, who works in a shoe factory, is scraping by on wages equivalent to 88 cents an hour. Kan examines their legacy in her journey to make her way in a changing country and world. Learn about 11 young women who are about to change the world.
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke
Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye is a lovely meditation on grief itself and how to do it. She chronicles her mother’s shocking diagnosis and eventual passing. The book is a moving companion for anyone dealing with the loss of a beloved parent. O’Rourke’s background in poetry gives her memoir a lyrical quality that captures the layers of grief. This acclaimed book tells the author’s personal story as it examines the ways our culture is often inept at preparing us to go through the demanding and intense process of grieving. These are 41 of the highest-rated books on Goodreads.
Comfort: A Journey Through Grief by Ann Hood
Ann Hood’s beautiful and unbearable book begins by relaying the tragic circumstances that led to the passing of her young and vivacious daughter. You’ll mourn the loss with her as you learn about the infection that arose without warning. Hood writes with generosity as she carries you through the details of an unthinkable shock. This book will clutch your heart and stay with you long after you’ve closed the cover. Next, check out 20 of the best books by female authors, of all genres.