A Roundup of the Best Memoirs

Because it is within the stories of others that we discover ourselves.

image by Fred Pixlab from Unsplash.com

It is within the stories of others that we unearth both how to live, as well as discover ourselves.

Through the experiences of others, we learn empathy, new ways of thinking and novel ways of being, we can find inspiration, alternate approaches to life, as well as imagine how to walk in the shoes of another.

Memoir is crucial to humanity.

It is through experiencing and hearing the stories of others that our minds widen and our hearts grow.

Here is my own list of favorites falling under the “memoir” umbrella.

This book is jaw-dropping, heartache inducing, riveting, and a much-needed story to be told. A crucial contribution to the slim pickings world of memoirs and nonfiction writing on mental illness.

We live within a culture steeped in stigma on this topic. Anyone with a mental illness is deemed “crazy,” “a lost cause,” “disabled,” a person to be feared or approached with much caution, someone unable ever to think straight or clearly, and as less intelligent or capable than others. These are all stigmas, prejudices, and limited, overly simplistic perceptions.

The Center Cannot Hold is a memoir of one woman’s journey through her experience of living with schizophrenia.

Parts of the book will send chills through your body. Other parts will crack your heart. The entirety of the story will move you emotionally and fill you with empathy. It’s a heartbreaking, harrowing account of what a person with this disease might and likely does experience. Offering the reader a semblance of and glimpse into what living within such a mind might be like.

You simply cannot imagine, and even on reading this and being given the barest, most removed impression (as in, from an outside perspective as the reader), just, wow.

Ready for a book that will change the way you look at both life and people? Well worth a few hours of your life (and really, what isn’t the best about curling up under a cozy blanket with a mug of steaming tea or coffee and a gripping story).

Jeannette Walls delivers the retelling of a childhood, her own, packing a wallop you won't soon forget.

For a full review (without spoilers), here you go.

While initially hesitant about this story, as I wasn’t immediately grabbed by the subject matter, I was astonished to find myself gripped, moved, even enamored by this one. Where Heather Harpham excels is her prose, which is poetic, lyrical, even beautiful.

A story about two people who fall in love, seeming well-matched in numerous ways, and with a poignant connection. However, one wants children, the other does not. She remains convinced he will eventually change his mind- a dangerous wish and assumption, to be sure.

Yet, when she becomes pregnant, they must decide what to do in the midst of this crossroads, and further, how they will get through it when their child falls extremely ill.

While the dilemma and heartbreak in this story aren't especially unique, nor shocking (the death of a parent and the author, Cheryl Strayed, experiencing emotional upheaval and chaos because of it), what is riveting and compelling in Wild is how Strayed writes about the contradictions of human emotion and experience. She is a poetic, raw, honest writer of the human soul.

Strayed writes with poignancy about the nuances of her relationship with her mother, following the death of her mom. This moment, unhinging her heart.

Strayed spirals into depression, even dancing on the edge of drug addiction, lurching within a grasping wildness amidst the shadowy aftermath of losing this person she so loved. Hollowed out inside, empty, and desperate in her aching, Strayed seeks the filling of this hole in her heart in all the wrong places. In the very ones that, in fact, will simply widen its chasm. And then finally, she turns in the direction of light and moves toward healing and self-discovery.

For a more in-depth review, click here.

This book is mind-blowing. About a girl who grows up, entirely uneducated in any official or traditional way, within a survivalist and even delusional family, who goes on to then get her Ph.D. at Harvard.

Even further though, it’s a story of growth, personal discovery, of the coming to painful realizations about those we love, and of breaking free. The prose is phenomenal. The story, utterly gripping.

An inspiring, thought-provoking, much-needed book on the topic of how women are spoken of, perceived, and treated, still today in our culture. Lindy West is a compelling, articulate, and empowering voice. Bravely saying so many things which have been needed to be voiced for far too long.

I loved this book, blowing through it in like 3 days. Underlined and highlighted something close to half of it. And read aloud numerous passages to my boyfriend, who agreed it was thought-provoking and inspiring.

Man, is Mary Karr a badass writer and a distinct voice. Her memoir about the descent into and recovery from alcoholism is compelling, but more so, told with a voice that is memorable, witty, poetic and unique, just the bomb.

Here is a short review of her book “The Art of Memoir,” which I cannot recommend enough.

Though semi-similar in theme to Educated, with the down and out child ending up at Harvard, the stories are different. This one, taking place largely on the streets, her being a child to drug-addicted and largely absent parents. Several gritty and heartbreaking scenes of this, permeating the book.

When her mother dies of AIDS, Lizzie is left even further alone. Determined to succeed, she squeezes four years of high school into two, while homeless and often sleeping in subway stations. It is also, though, and ultimately a story of how in the end, it’s the love of healthier others, those who believe in her with both action and word, that saves her.

One of my favorite books ever.

“Patti Smith has graced us with a poetic masterpiece, a rare and privileged invitation to unlatch a treasure chest never before breached.”- Johnny Depp

This story can teach us so many deeply relevant and invaluable life lessons. Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as a breathtaking conclusion of two people who were soul mates in the truest sense of the word. It also serves as an incredibly visual and fascinating salute to New York City, during the late sixties and seventies. This book is wonderfully written, it's poetic and honest, it's gripping, deeply inspiring, and fascinating.

For a full review, click here.

This is a book that will change the ways in which you look at both love and relationships. Whether you personally identify with her mindsets and relational model(s) or not, it’s still a worthwhile, eye-opening, and meaningful story to read. Just because we do not choose a particular lifestyle or value set for ourselves doesn’t mean it isn’t one worth knowing about or being curious towards. On the contrary, the more open and inquisitive one is, the likelier a richer life you will lead.

For a full review of this one (no spoilers), here you go.

This is a powerful story and a necessary one, told by a young woman whom many attempted silencing and dismissing. Instead, she spoke out, both for herself and for the millions of other women (as well as men) who have been silenced, not believed, dismissed, or treated as though them being harmed with a trivial thing, and/or something for which they are to be blamed.

This one takes place at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, so it hit quite close to home (as I grew up in Concord).

This is an empathy inducing, thought-provoking, research laden book. Following the trajectory of one woman’s inner battle with body image, eating disorders, and ultimately, her emergence into self-love.

The book is also an exploration of how our culture handles and views attractiveness and our bodies in general. A fascinating and engaging read. One that I am sure many women will identify with, as well as some men.

As a teen, this was a favorite of mine. A memoir told via the outlet of an anonymous diary of sorts. A young girl who is desperate for feeling accepted and to be a part of the in-crowd finds her way into experimenting with drugs, which ultimately leads to her death. It’s a dark, sad, though important read, as I imagine many young adults can identify with both her emotional experience and teen year choices.

Part memoir, and part how-to on writing, Natalie Goldberg has a way with words. She is able to take the ordinary, the daily details, the minute of our lives and make them rich, nuanced, compelling, even romantic.

The way in which she writes about, say, a woman in a blue dress, or a man waiting for his lover to arrive, the candles burned down to a waxy pile in their sticks. Dew scattered among the grass or the scent of sweetly burning wood in the wind. She writes about such things in a way that moves and engages us, in a way that makes us care.

In the event of this young woman’s death, an impassioned, hopeful, would-be writer, her family took essays and manuscripts she had been working on and stowed away, and published them.

The result is a beautifully written, whimsical, wonderful read of non-fiction essays and short stories.

Part exploration of the history and purpose of marriage, part memoir of her love affair with the man she met on her adventure (from Eat, Pray, Love), I found this to be an interesting delving into how marriage is perceived in other cultures, as well as one person coming to terms with what marriage might mean for her (both, inside and out of the box). And, as a woman who is generally against the idea of getting married again.

This is a harrowing, powerful book of the author's account of his time spent in a concentration camp. What makes it pack an especially poignant punch is his writing, coupled with a lens of thinking stemming from his degrees including a Doctor of Medicine and Doctor of Philosophy.

What he came to understand and found during his three years spent in concentration camps was that when we have a sense of meaning in our lives, a beacon towards which we strive, something for which we are living, this was what made the difference (most of the time) between those who survived and didn’t. When man or woman has meaning and purpose in their lives, when they are living for something and striving toward it, they tend to be survivors.

Part memoir, part writing how-to, this is an engaging, witty, easy to read, excellent book. Both, for impassioned writers, and for those who just want to read a great memoir about a well known, eccentric author. It is fascinating, gripping, as well as inspiring. A great read.

Boy, did Keith live a rollicking life, as one can expect from the guitarist of the Rolling Stones. Told in his own voice, this is a gravelly, poetic, wild ride of a read.

Incredibly powerful. In terms of a memoir detailing someone's experiences during World War 2 and their imprisonment in a concentration camp, this is the most affecting one I’ve ever read. Riveting, incredibly moving, dark, and powerful. This is a must read for all.

Originally published at http://brunchesandbooks.com on February 28, 2019.

Fervent writer. Ravenous reader. Impassioned with words. Relationship researcher. Social Scientist. Social Justice Advocate. Author. www.brookeenglish.com

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