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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.

Bald in the Land of Big Hair by Joni Rodgers

Rodgers was just 32 and raising two young children with her husband when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. While many cancer memoirs have been published since Bald in the Land of Big Hair came out in 2001, few can match Rodgers’ candor and her wise-cracking, laugh-out-loud humor. Perhaps laughter was her best medicine, as Rodgers is alive and well today.

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

Solnit redefines—and defies—genre. The Faraway Nearby opens with her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, then takes us on an entirely unexpected journey encompassing everything from fairytales and myths to a trip to Iceland to the birth of Frankenstein. The result is both wholly original and deeply moving.

In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of the Lost War by Tobias Wolff

Wolff is well known for his award-winning fiction and for This Boy’s Life, his extraordinary coming-of-age memoir, but the sequel, In Pharoah’s Army, about his service in Vietnam and the carnage of the Tet offensive, is also essential reading.

The Boy He Left Behind: A Man’s Search for His Lost Father by Mark Matousek

At 38, Matousek hired a detective to help him find the father who abandoned him at age four. Matousek’s reconstruction of his parents’ lives and his remembrances of a painful childhood are as searing as his survival as an HIV positive man are triumphant. Unflinching honesty and compassion set it apart from other dysfunctional family memoirs. 

The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes

Homes was in her early thirties, with a well-established career as a novelist, when she met her birth parents. What she found surprised and unsettled her, and sent her digging deeper into her geneology. The Mistress’s Daughter is important not only for those who’ve experienced adoption but also for anyone interested in exploring personal and family identity.

The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok

After a traumatic brain injury, Bartok, along with her sister, reconnected with their mentally ill mother, whom they hadn’t seen in 17 years. The family’s reconciliation makes for a powerful story of forgiveness—and the discovery of a locker the mother kept holds a key to many of Bartok’s missing memories. A National Book Critic’s Circle winner, the book is beautifully illustrated by the author.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

No story about memoir would be complete without the sublime Maya Angelou, who chronicled her long, remarkable life in a riveting series of books. Start here and keep reading.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest