Here is a list of memoirs I (mostly) recommend. These titles are in addition to the 125 books I list in the back of The Memoir and the Memoirist. Click on the link for either the Amazon page or the author's website.
- The Tender Land Kathleen Finneran (2000). This is a masterpiece of emotional narrative; it moves between past, present, and future times in the author's memory; and the work embodies the haunting presence of her brother who suicided at fifteen.One of the best memoirs ever written by an American author. Please see my Kindle collection, What Exactly Happened: Four Essays on the Craft of Memoir ($2.99), for an in-depth discussion of the emotional structure of Finneran's memoir.
- It's hard to pick which of Roger Rosenblatt's two grief memoirs, Making Toast (2011) or Kayak Morning (2012), is the finer read. They are very different books: the first, a narrative of the events following the sudden death of his 38-year-old daughter; the second, a hybrid of reflection and angst that follows the narrative verve of the first book, as if he hadn't said all he needed to say nor realized how lasting her loss is. I like the messiness of Kayak; it seems more like it's the person (less the family) to whom the thing happened. Both are gems.
- Donald Morrill's The Untouched Minutes (2004) is another masterpiece. At 99 pages, the book achieves depths of insight rare for a short memoir. Morrill and wife are held hostage by an intruder whose terrorizing topples their secure homelife for good. His way of ascribing meaning is to fragment the perspective, mostly using two styles—a third-person expository voice chafing against a first-person letter to the intimate "you" of the invader. Set during 2001, the book meditates on that year of terror, the author's own unresolved helplessness, and a strange fascination with the crime Morrill can never quite expunge.
- In the garden of the truly strange is Greg Bottoms' The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art (2007). Profiling three religiously cantakerous painters, Bottoms makes the world of immersion journalism both fun and frightening as he spends time with self-taught visionaries and their claustrophic ideologies, soemtimes Christian, sometimes just whacked. The best part of the memoir is his trying to understand his thralldom with the fringes of his own art, writing. With unpredictable storytelling, he finds what he thought he was going out in the world to get close to exploding before he can get away.
- I wish I could be more positive about Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty: A Friendship (2005), her hagiography about Lucy Grealy. My problem with the book outdid my interest in its smart scenes and dutiful love for her subject. The book is a one-dimensional biography of a two-dimensionally-rendered person (unlike Grealy's astounding Autobiography of a Face). Patchett falls in love with Grealy, sticks by her through Grealy's operations and addictions, and peaks before Grealy overdoses. End of story. Patchett never changes and neither does Grealy. A precooked relational narrative with so little authorial insight maketh this one un-book-length-worthy.
- Though I can't know it, I suspect there are no other memoirs that use the I pronoun (the subject is me) as much as Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008). At least 75% of the piece is I-centered; the rest is "you" (which may as well be I) and some short descriptions of where he runs in Boston and Japan. Still, the work can be engaging with its simple, direct prose of a man who is obsessed with his 10Ks and a yearly marathon. There's a kind of loopy inelegance to the writing. It's hard to figure if that's the uninspired translator at work or if Murakami publishes such first-draft stuff as a matter of course.
- No other memoir reads like The Two Kinds of Decay (2008) by Sarah Manguso, in part, because no one went through the blood-poisoning disease and attendant depression that she did in her twenties and which she writes about in this aggressively sparse book. How does she do it? Manguso fuses two styles: very short theme-based yet chronological chapters, unsentimental and wholly self-absorbed, with powerful sentences or short grafs, spaced apart like graves in a cemetery. The effect: each small chunk earns its emotional weight since each feels written with pain and release, deserving of the air above and beneath it.
- Battlefield: Farming a Civil War Battleground Peter Svenson (1992). Svenson's history/memoir interweaves two stories: his buying the property to farm and his discovery that it is hallowed Civil War ground.
- Stephen Haven's The River Lock: One Boy's Life Along the Mohawk (2008) is a marvelous then-now drama as Haven returns to his boyhood home, Amersterdam, New York, for a three-week visit, there to struggle less with the adolescent he was and more with the man who has changed and who must find out how.
- Kay Redfield Jamison's Nothing Was the Same (2009) is an exquisite portrait of her marriage to, and the eventual loss of, her scientist-husband, Richard Wyatt. I was particularly impressed with how she narrated his absence in her life the year after he died.
- I think Michael Greenberg's Hurry Down Sunshine (2008) is a family-systems classic: the Greenbergs (ex-wife, mother, new wife, father, son, brother) are held hostage during the daughter's psychotic breakdown while their attempts to help her point out how nearly impossible it is, without drugs, for loved ones to do anything constructive than to express their own guilt and frustration.
- One of the best Americans-in-a-foreign-land memoirs is Tony Cohan's On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel (2001). Cohan and his wife, fleeing L.A., make the naive plunge into purchasing a house in San Miguel, where buyer protections do not exist and all craft and graft is stacked in favor of the seller, especially when his documents are as recondite as his promises. More than a travel guide, Cohan is forgiving and tolerant, the only way to survive as an exile.
- A richly intimate and subtly political memoir is Richard Terrill's Saturday Night in Baoding: A China Memoir (1990). Terrill's one year there took place three years before the slaughter of students in Tianneman Square. It's a beautiful book, revealing the hopelessness of the Cultural Revolution's first-born generation whose futures are utterly set and whose despair lies dormat in their stifled selves. Most touching is Terrill's honest struggle with his preternatural individuality in a country that desires and rejects it.
- A remarkable hybrid, part-memoir, part true-crime, Maggie Nelson's The Red Parts (2007) is a deft personal and ethical journey into a kind of grieving testimony for her aunt, whom she never knew, but whose 1969 murder has haunted her manic-yet-mum family and, consequently, the author as well. I also highly recommend her other quixotic, aphoristic, hybrid essay-memoir, Bluets (2009). It is a small masterpiece of the hybrid genre. Look for my full-length essay on Bluets here.
- What an affecting elegy, a marvel of sense-filled descriptive writing, is Ted Kooser's Lights on a Ground of Darkness (2009). This memoir, all the more poignant for its brevity, recalls his mother's family in Guttenberg, Iowa, on the Mississippi River. One by one he looks back on a grandfather, a grandmother, an uncle, and a mother, letting each one live again in the glow of his memory and letting each one die after showing their dutifulness to family—all of it tender and timebending and told in sixty pages.
- I can’t say I didn’t love Diane Ackerman’s One Thousand Names for Love (oh, faint praiser, you) the story of her husband (the novelist Paul West’s) stroke and aphasia, his recovery and her caretaking. But I did find it often overwrought (the title refers to West's poetic nicknames for her, which seem, strangely, beside the point)—yet another example of a Big Book whose trimming by one-third would have made it more powerful. The point—the playfully serious heart of the book—is Ackerman’s devotion, based in the once student/professor, now wife/husband dynamic (Profs: careful whom you marry; they will write about you), to a man whose alcoholic difficulty prior to the stroke is evident despite the author’s de-emphasizing their courtship. I still wonder what she saw in West that so fueled her love. Her passion for healing the chosen other is Vesuvian.
- Think of the best-selling memoirs, and for every one of them there are half-dozen more just as good if not better, in part, because we all, to our shame, follow the herd. Give this one a Parnassian peak: Resisting Elegy: On Grief and Recovery by Joel Peckham. A treasure, a great “failure” memoir, a book that boldly and fiercely takes him into the daily death/loss of a wife (who rejected him) and a young son (he barely got to know). Guilt and redemption wire-walk every page. Its poignancy roils because she died before they could split and resolve their ill-matched love. The subject of this book is the priority of his felt life—half felt in the past and fully felt in the present, that is, in the writing. I urge anyone who writes about the constant surprise of grief to read Peckham and Didion. Both are masters of coal-sitting on contradictory emotions, a slow steam and burn from which neither can move.
- Grab this one, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir, by David Rieff, for many reasons: chiefly his uncompromising self-portrait of personal guilt and doubt for not being fully present during his mother, Susan Sontag's, slow death from leukemia, and for these two sentences: "It may sound stupid to put it this way, but my mother simply could never get her fill of the world. And then, in what, despite, her age, must have seemed like the midst of all that, it was time to die."
- George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier is a curiously atypical species of nonfiction: first, a descriptive panorama of working-class squalor and the helplessness, even boredom, of the industrialized-cum-traumatized poor; then, a memoir-polemic of Orwell's self-consciousness about his own middle-class snobbery, as bone-deep unimpeachable as his Eton pedigree; and last, a phillipic on the virtues of Socialism (such as they are) by one who can muster only one of three cheers for the salvation of his weak-kneed brethren, the Depression-weary English, 1937.
- It’s Richard Hoffman’s relentless passion for his wobbly family that makes Love and Fury so absorbing and affecting. At the center he’s trying to grok his father’s Old World, war-weary, at times racialized consciousness while some of that substrate revisits his life in the form of his daughter’s interracial marriage, Hoffman’s troubled son-in-law, and the surprise of their child, his grandson. I was amazed at how many male lives spill into one another here—brothers, fathers and sons, grandfathers and grandsons, husbands, along with mothers and wives—the blended family we call it in which the blend never quite occurs. Above all I loved Hoffman’s facility with time: I’ve read very few writers who can move so effortlessly from present to past and back as well as a memory inside that past or present. Whatever time he’s in is unsuspectingly infiltrated with the selves of other eras (boyhood, Dadhood, Grandpahood)—you don’t even realize he’s leaping such hurdles so easy are the transitions. Somehow this is all thought out but it doesn’t read that way. The memoirist’s art is to be in it and above it simultaneously. It’s not a magic trick, but rather the actual way body and mind inhabit spacetime—the most mysterious but common shared feeling we have of our transience..