10 of My Favorite Memoirs
I like to take a break from fiction once in a while and read something true written by someone who lived through the story. They don’t necessarily have to be about famous people or tortured people, and I really like it if they overcome some kind of obstacle, especially if they deal with the struggles of fellow writers. If you feel the same way about your taste in memoirs, I recommend you check out these 10 books.
1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
By: Stephen King (2000)
Synopsis: This is book is half memoir, half guide to writing. King spends the first half of the book reflecting on his childhood and early writing career, including the first self-published short stories that he sold to classmates, his first stories published in professional literary journals and the surprising success of his first novel, Carrie which couldn’t have come at a more desperate time in his life. He also reflects on his early drinking problem, teaching career and other ups and downs in his life, showing us struggling writers that Stephen King was not always famous and successful. The second part of the book goes through King’s tips on writing. He advises aspiring authors to write every day, offers writing mistakes to avoid and reminds readers of basic writing mechanics. Even if you are not a writer, the second half of this book is just as appealing as the autobiographical chapters in that it shows non-writers exactly what a writer is like in action.
Notable Section: King creeps me out more than any scene of fiction that he has written (and that’s saying something) when he goes into detail about a chronic ear problem that he had as a kid which required multiple trips to the doctor. There, his physician would stick a syringe in little Stephen’s ear to suck out the infection. This chapter literally made me scream out loud.
2. Still Me
By: Christopher Reeve (1998)
Synopsis: Even now that he is gone, people see actor Christopher Reeve as a true hero, but in his memoir, Reeve gives you good reason to admire him beyond the image of the red boots and cape. The chapters flip flop between events that took place both before and after his tragic horse riding accident in 1995 that left him completely paralyzed for the rest of his short life. He shares memories from his days at the Julliard School studying acting and then goes on to reminisce about stories from the sets of his films as well as his beloved stage work. Reeve also touches on details of his personal life including fatherhood and marriage and then delves into the life he lead being frozen from the neck down. Determined to walk again, Reeve relives his slow rehabilitation process, his quest for furthering spinal cord research, and the painful day-to-day struggles that he faced just to get through a day. Here, Reeve shows the true hero that he was and the hardships that he endured to continue to be a contributing member of society despite not being able to move.
Notable Section: Reeve’s explanation of his typical bedtime routine really got to me. It makes you feel fortunate even on your worst day to be able to dress yourself, brush your teeth and use the bathroom on your own. It also makes you admire his ability to share these embarrassing moments with dignity and determination.
3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
By: Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997)
Synopsis: Just like Christopher Reeve’s book above, anyone who says that they can’t write will not be able to say that after reading this book. In 1995, the editor of Elle magazine suffered a massive stroke that left him so paralyzed that he couldn’t even speak. Learning to communicate through a series of blinks with his left eye, Bauby dictated his memoir letter by letter, giving readers an insight into his life before and after his stroke. His chapters consist of short little snippets of his life. Still, he has a large life to reflect on, and this book gives him back his voice, his ability to share his emotions and his need to rejoin society, even if non-verbally.
Notable Sections: Despite his glamorous life as a big time magazine editor, it is the quiet moments from his hospital bed that stuck with me. How does one survive staring at a ceiling or a TV set all day? Bauby manages this better than I ever could. Sadly, he passed away two days after his book was published.
4. The Glass Castle
By: Jeannette Walls (2005)
Synopsis: This is a book that I cannot put down every time I read it. Journalist Jeannette Walls reflects on her childhood growing up with two unconventional parents who moved she and her siblings across the country whenever it was time to do the “skedaddle”. They lived all over, from the deserts out west to the streets of New York City. Sometimes they lived comfortably, and sometimes the children ate out of dumpsters when Mom couldn’t be bothered to cook and Dad couldn’t control his drinking habit. Still, it’s funny and adventurous more than it is heartbreaking and pathetic. This is the way it was, and Walls made the most of it. Throughout the text, you can see her sorting out the life lessons and experiences that shaped the adult she grew into.
Notable Chapter: In Section II of the book, Walls tells of her earliest memory. At three years old, she attempts to cook herself some hot dogs for lunch (with her mother’s distracted permission) and ends up spilling a pan of scalding hot water on herself, permanently scarring her. After her reluctant mother takes her to the hospital to receive skin grafts, her family shows up at the hospital one day and rushes her out of the hospital to avoid paying the bill.
5. My Life in France
By: Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme (2006)
Synopsis: It may sound like you’re going to be reading about the host of a PBS Cooking Show, and you are, but this book chronicles Child’s early years learning how to cook in France and eventually writing a French cookbook with her friends, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. This book later became the best selling, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which was published in 1961. Child details the struggles that she overcame in writing and publishing this book. In this way, it is more of a book about the writing process and the struggle to be heard in the publishing world, especially when selling such an unconventional book. It also makes you hungry for French food throughout, a sensation which is both enjoyable and irritating at the same time.
Notable Chapter: Julia explains with such enthusiasm the experience of eating her first French meal after stepping off the boat in Paris. She and Paul dine on osysters, rye bread with a Beurre de Charentes spread, sole meuniere, salade verte and fromage blanc for dessert. Read the book to find out exactly what it is that she ate.
6. Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table
By: Ruth Reichl (1998)
Synopsis: This is another book about food, though in this case, the author, a NY Times food critic, uses recipes that she has learned to shape the telling of her life story. Reichl is another writer who has lived so many different lives and has many interesting stories to tell. She also has a lot of pain to share, including dealing with her mother’s mental illness, coping with change and dealing with her own anxieties. The book is littered with complicated recipes that you want to try but are content for now to lead you to the next phase of Reichl’s young, food-driven life.
Notable Chapter: In the middle of the book, Ruth’s mother enrolls her in an all French-speaking school in Montreal during her middle school years. Just when it seems like she’ll never adjust, Ruth begins to adapt to the customs and language at the school by befriending another student. Eventually, she begins to speak the language and conform to the rules to the point where she doesn’t want to go home.
7. Girl, Interrupted
By: Susanna Kaysen (1993)
Synopsis: I don’t usually like to read books if I’ve already seen the movie, but this book is much different from the 1999 film. The story is told in disconnected chapters, describing the two years that Kaysen spent at McLean Hospital after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder following a suicide attempt. Some of the dramatic moments from the film turn out to be completely untrue according to Kaysen’s memoir, but the message is the same. What is it that labels a person “crazy” and worthy of being locked up in an institution until they are deemed mentally stable? Kaysen explores this in her book as a recovered patient of McLean, telling stories about herself and her fellow patients and sharing both funny and horrific stories about her life during these two years.
Notable Chapter: After a fellow patient is released, Susanna has a breakdown and attempts to pull off the skin in her hand after believing that the bones beneath her flesh have disappeared. It’s a horrific story that makes you see how confusing and traumatic her illness made her life.
8. My Movie Business
By: John Irving (1999)
Synopsis: In his memoir, writer John Irving explains the process of bringing his novel, The Cider House Rules to life on the big screen. Despite being a successful novel, it was not an easy to sell to studios, going through several companies, scripts and directors before finally being made into an award winning movie. Irving goes through the script changes, disagreements and casting challenges that occurred throughout the making of the movie. It shows just how involved the process of making a movie really is and how success in the book world does not mean immediate success in the film world, though Irving’s experiences in both genres turned out well for him.
Notable Chapter: In discussing the research that he did for the book, Irving give some unknown history of the abortion issue, including the fact that abortion was legal in the United States until 1821 when individual states began to pass laws deeming the procedure illegal. I was also intrigued by the methods and mindsets of doctors who delivered babies and performed abortions on women back in the day. It’s definitely worth a look, no matter what side of the issue you are on.
9. Thanks Jack, In Need of a Miracle
By: Jack Rose (2006)
Synopsis: Jack Rose is not famous like most of the writers on this list. Still, he has written a captivating book about his life growing up after the death of one of his older brothers who died two years to the day before the author was born. Rose has always felt his brother watching over him, and in the book, he highlights times that he miraculously got out of trouble with the help of a brother he never met.
Notable Chapter: In one of the smaller incidents that Rose’s brother helps him, Jack (who was called John when he was younger) and a group of friends (including some girls) skip school to go swimming. They come back with terrible sunburn, especially his young date, who will get into big trouble if caught skipping school. Using every lotion and cream in the house, they cover the girl until her sunburn fades just enough that she and Jack avoid getting in deep with their parents.
10. How Starbucks Saved My Life
By: Michael Gates Gill (2007)
Synopsis: We all like stories about the underdog coming out on top, but how would we root for someone on top becoming an underdog? Michael Gates Gill manages to elicit this sympathy from the reader. Once the son of Brendan Gill, a writer for the New Yorker and himself a creative director at J. Walter Thompson Advertising, Gill finds himself in his mid-60’s, a broke, divorced man desperate for a job. When he is (almost jokingly) offered a job working at Starbucks, he takes it and learns the value of hard, physical work as well as the value of a class of people he never would have interacted with in his old life. By the end of the book, he considers working at Starbucks the best job he ever had.
Notable Chapter: Gill’s first day working the register is a nerve-wracking scene. You see just how complicated taking orders at Starbucks can be as well as how organization, timing and following procedures are so critical to a successful day. Still, Gill comments on how friendly both his co-workers and the customers are to him and what a difference that makes in learning a job that he would have found otherwise impossible with his poor math skills and an admittedly pompous attitude to shed.
What are your favorite memoirs? Leave your answers in the comments below!