A List Of Recommended Memoirs
I’ve read dozens of memoirs in the past decade. I’m drawn to this format because it offers a true story, yet how the author chooses to tell his or her story fascinates me. As a writer, I often look beyond what is written and wonder what wasn’t written instead. I also think about the many pivotal moments in my life which can be interpreted in several ways when I am reading a memoir. This list of recommendations is obviously not comprehensive. Moreover, my individual tastes may mean that what I recommend will not appeal to certain readers.
The memoirs I recommend are:
- 1. Angry Conversations with God by Susan E. Isaacs
- 2. Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet
- 3. Sy Montgomery’s The Good Good Pig
- 4. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love
- 5. Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter
- 6. Conita Jernigan Lyle’s Letters From England
Angry Conversations with God is not, despite the title, only a memoir about the author’s search for God and a more authentic faith. It is also about Susan’s journey into the world of acting. She is notably frustrated by her realization she may be too wild for church, yet too tame for the arts. Her other frustrations included failed romantic relationship, and, as the memoir title implies, her struggles relating to and with God. Having grown up watching her mom pray earnestly every morning, she is no stranger to faith. At the same time, however, she is upfront about her moments of doubt and disbelief. She writes, “Have I sought God’s will? At times I had, in moments of gratitude and naivete. Back when I was young and silly, when I thought the answers to all my questions were Yes and Amen. I joined Jesus because he promised me a big life, filled with adventure and meaning.” After having been brought up in the church, she wants to move beyond the overly simplified God she was taught about in Sunday school to a God who perhaps isn’t as reasonable or as eager to solve her problems as she once believed. Her refreshing honesty, combined with strong, clear writing, results in a thoughtful and memorable volume.
Daniel Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day tells the story of what life as an autistic savant. Instead of offering general commentary about what it means to have autism, this book offers, in haunting and occasionally humorous detail, what it is like to live inside his mind and world. I savored reading about his many childhood routines—such as precise routes he would walk to and from school, or when he would organize his younger brothers and sisters so they could iron and fold laundry in an orderly procession—as well as about how days to him have colors attached to them. He also wrote about how numbers have more personality to him than they do to other people, and I found this fascinating. This memoir, though not necessarily fast or overly easy to read, is worth reading if you want to know what it is like to live with such a unique mind.
Sy Montgomery’s memoir The Good Good Pig tells the story of how Sy and Howard, her husband, decide to adopt a baby pig. Christopher, as they name their pet pig, was the runt of the litter, and, since they were renting a farmhouse with a barn in rural New Hampshire, it seemed like a hopeful gesture during an otherwise difficult time. This book isn’t solely about having a pet pig, however, and instead manages to include topics ranging from family dynamics, unexpected moments of community (which sometimes took place when Christopher ran away and they had to go in search for him), Sy’s writing career, and the tension between her love of travel and the desire to be home with Howard and Christopher. She writes, “I loved travel, I loved exploring, and I loved wildness. But now, in Hancock, with a pig in the barn, I would find the other piece of my heart’s lifelong yearning: home.” A quick, engaging, and ultimately heartwarming read, this memoir should appeal to a wide variety of readers.
Daniel Tammet on David Letterman
Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir, has been critiqued, recommended, and, on occasion, reviled in the decade since it was released. This memoir appealed to me partly because she is shockingly honest about her experiences and even her flaws. She refuses to blame her divorce solely on her ex-husband’s shortcomings; in addition, she is quick to admit that she is a directionally-challenged traveler who doesn’t like to do much research before she arrives somewhere. She is also a person who explores her budding spirituality in a way that suits her without resorting to the more tried and tried methods offered by certain religions. Finally, I greatly enjoyed her descriptions of the people in her life. While other readers may prefer a writer who spends pages describing the famous churches in Rome or offering a historical analysis of solo travel, I savored the detailed and gracious descriptions of her characters. I’ve included the following quote from the memoir to give you a sample of her writing style: “But I was always coming here. I thought about one of my favorite Sufi poems, which says that God long ago drew a circle in the sand exactly around the spot where you are standing right now. I was never not coming here. This was never not going to happen.”
Patricia Hampl’s memoir The Florist’s Daughter tells of her life as the daughter of a florist who worked in St. Paul, Minnesota during the middle of the 20th century. Her father was a florist before florists faced the competition of grocery stores offering relatively cheap bouquets of flowers and other plants. When her father was a florist, it was mainly the rich who would request his services, and for this reason she writes in glowing detail about the magnificent large homes in St. Paul where her father’s floral displays were recruited for Christmas parties and other celebrations. This memoir, however, is about much more than her father’s vocation. It is also about her parents’ strained marriage, life growing up in St. Paul in the 1950s and 1960s, and about the fact she never understood her mother’s wishes until her father had died and she could see her mother more clearly. Written with the eye of a poet and the compassionate, however wounded, heart of an adult child, this is a luminous volume. She writes, “Nostalgia is really a kind of loyalty—also a sin when misapplied, as it so often is. But it’s the engine, not the enemy, of history. It feeds on detail, the protein of accuracy. Or maybe nostalgia is a form of longing. It aches for history. In its cloudy wistfulness, nostalgia fuels the spark of significance. My place. My people.”
Who is one of your favorite authors?
Letters From England is Conita Jernigan Lyle’s memoir about the years immediately before, during, and after she spent a year living and working in England. She begins the story by establishing her pronounced sense of adventure and desire to explore. She starts teaching in the early 1960s, and, not surprisingly, she feels restless teaching in Lubbock, Texas. Someone suggests she apply to teach at a military school in England, and she jumps at this opportunity. As fate would have it, she falls in love with a man a few months before she is supposed to leave for England. Despite the heat of this romance, she cannot convince herself to change her plans. The middle section of this memoir contains the letters she wrote from England, as well as the letters friends, family, and her boyfriend wrote to her while she was abroad. Since letter writing used to be much more common than it is now, it was pure delight for me to read these missives because they reflected the importance of communicating in this way during that moment in history. Throughout the book she writes about the power of the choices we make, and whether we really understand what we are doing when we make certain decisions. She writes, “If we had the power to know which choices would have lasting repercussions and which would be inconsequential, would we live differently?” Knowing from my own experience how much of life can change based on seemingly inconsequential decisions, reading about the consequences of her decisions was entertaining and thought-provoking.