What Are Your Favourite Memoirs?
The Nonfiction November topic this week is an opportunity to take advantage of the wisdom of the crowd. The host, Katie at Doing Dewey, suggests we can “Be the Expert/Ask the Experts/Become the Expert”).
I’m going to take the “Ask The Expert” path and ask for help with a newly- acquired reading interest I want to develop further.
Most of my non fiction reading this year has been in the form of memoirs. I never planned it that way and in fact until this year I wouldn’t have even predicted this genre would be a favourite.
But that’s how it’s turned out.
I’ve read some stunning books, vastly different in scope but every one of them written by a person with insight and the ability to let me into their world.
From Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt, I learned how medical practitioners get burned out to the point they give up the profession despite their passion for healing. Through The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, I appreciated how easily you can lose everything – home, money, career – and yet maintain your dignity and courage. And from Becoming by Michelle Obama I saw how, even when you have a high profile role on the world political stage, you can still have doubts about your abilities.
I know I have barely touched the tip of an enormous iceberg. But my appetite has been whetted and now I want more.
So here’s my request to you all.
Give me your recommendations for killer memoirs.
i’m looking for the memoirs that are breathtaking, spell-binding, unmissable etc etc They could be But – and it’s a very big BUT – you’ll have to avoid those from so-called ‘personalities’ or people in sports, show-business or politics. The reminiscences of a member of a girl-band/boy band have zero appeal to me. Nor am I particularly fond of the ‘misery memoir’ which deals with the abuse someone experienced as a child (I find them too painful to read sorry).
What I’m really looking for are books by people who witnessed or achieved extraordinary things. And they can relate this to me in a way that is memorable, engrossing and thought-provoking.
If you know just the thing to fit my requirements, do leave me a comment and tell me why you think your suggestion is special.
50 thoughts on “What Are Your Favourite Memoirs?”
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Hmm you might not be interested as he is a TV presenter as well as a naturalist, photographer and author, but as soon as I saw your request for brilliant memoirs, I thought of Chris Packham’s Fingers in the Sparkle Jar. As I thought it magically brought to life his happy if unusual childhood; his passion for nature and obsessive personality (not till he was an adult was he diagnosed with Asperger’s).
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One of my all-time favourites is In My Skin by Kate Holden, I’ve re-read it many times. It’s pretty heavy thematically (focuses on her life as an addict and sex worker), but so beautifully written and so complex, it always moves me.
Sounds unusual – I don’t think I’ve read anything from the perspective of a sex worker before
It’s well worth checking out if you come across a copy!
Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman was absolutely wonderful and hard to put down. Here is my review: https://grabthelapels.com/2019/05/07/sounds-like-titanic/
The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss is an older book, one that I found delightful when I was young and even funnier as an adult. Here is my review: https://grabthelapels.com/2019/03/28/the-family-nobody-wanted/
Just read your review of Sounds Like Titanic. What an extraordinary story. Has the identity of The Composer ever been discovered??
It was super easy for people to find out who he was even though the author never revealed his name. His personality is so distinct that it was impossible for him to remain a mystery!
I bet his reputation has plummeted
My favourite memoir that I read this year was After the Eclipse by Sarah Perry. Sarah’s mum was murdered when Sarah was a young teen and this book is all about the years after. It’s so well-written and very thought-provoking. It’s one of those books that stays with you.
Is that the same Sarah Perry that wrote The Essex Serpent?
Becoming and this is going to hurt were both brilliant! I did read an incredible memoir lately- in order to live- but I’m not sure it fits your requirements, since it’s about a girl growing up and escaping from North Korea, so it can get dark.
This is one I would like to read. North Korea is such a strange place but we know little really of what life is like there because of the way everything is controlled by the state.
Oh I can’t recommend it enough!! One of the best books I’ve read this year!! It was so informative and moving!
I have not read a lot of memoirs. However I just read two kind of interconnected memoir type books by Thomas Chatterton Williams, Losing my Cool and Self Portrait in Black and White. Williams interlaces his memoir with musings on social issues and philosophy. I got a lot out of these books. I will be posting about them soon.
The name didn’t ring any bells with me so I had to look him up – just shows you how out of touch I am with the music scene Brian !
The memoir I recommend most often is Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World. I find her amazing! Another recent read is Dear America by Jose Antonio Vargas about growing up in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant. I just feel his story is so important, at least here in the U.S.
These are exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. Sotomayor’s story is quite extraordinary when you consider the circumstances in which she was raised.
I suspect that undocumented immigrants have similar experiences in UK so this would be very relevant
Crikey! My best ‘memoir’ of the year (and one of the best books I’ve read) is Victor Serge’s Notebooks which was my big summer read. I accept it wouldn’t be for everyone but I found it fascinating and moving, and he did indeed live through dramatic times and huge events!
I knew I could rely on you to bring me something with a Russian flavour
Teffi’s memoir of her flight from the revolution/civil war is pretty amazing too, and probably a little friendlier for anyone who’s not so well versed in Russian history….
That would probably suit me more then Karen. My knowledge of Russian history is sketchy – it was one topic I couldn’t get my head around in school.
I think you will like this one: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. My review is here: https://franklparker.com/2017/06/12/meditations-on-mortality/ (and on Good reads)
This would make a good companion to one I read last year which was the memoir of a neurological surgeon – it was called Do No Harm. I’ve just put Kalanithi’s book on reserve at the library. Thanks for the recommendation Frank
I really liked Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. She’s a botanist who’s based in the US. Her memoir is partly about being a woman in science (I found a lot of it pretty relatable), but what I loved the most was how it conveyed the excitement and wonder that happens when you are conducting your experiment or analysing your results and you discover something new – completely new – that no-one else has discovered before. I found the memoir patchy in places, but that sensation was so well-described that it more than made up for it.
Does it get very heavy on the science? I have only basic knowledge….
It’s not aimed at scientists – I am not a botanist and I followed it easily. In fact, I sometimes found it pitched a bit below my level of knowledge, though not patronising (I’m a health scientist, so there is some overlap). I think it is really aimed at people with fairly basic knowledge.
Fairly basic knowledge you say – that’s me!
I read LOADS of memoirs (mostly misery memoirs and grief memoirs), so I’ll try to avoid those and keep my list of others short.
– Maybe You Should Talk to Someone y Lori Gottlieb
– History on Trial by Deborah Lipstadt
– Small Wrongs by Kate Rossmanith
– Turning by Jessica J. Lee
– In My Mothers Hands by Biff Ward
– The Green Bell by Paula Keogh
– Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
– The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke
If you decide you want misery/ grief, let me know….!
Well this should keep me busy for a little while :). Just requested the Matt Haig from the library as a starter….
Matt Haig writes so well (I wonder how much his memoir benefits from the fact that he also writes fiction?).
I would think it would make a significant difference – the text is likely to flow better and he will understand how to vary the pace between dramatic incident and reflective moment
From the indie/ small publisher set:
Hit The Road Jac!: Seven years, twenty countries, no plan by Jacqui Furneaux – for her 50th birthday Jacquie bought a motorbike and went travelling across the world.
River Queens: Saucy Boat, stout mates, spotted dog, America by Alexander Watson – two men recondition a boat and sail it from Dallas to Cincinnati. The pace of the river life and those who they met was quite interesting.
In Foreign Fields: How Not To Move To France by Susie Kelly – Susie had a life-long ambition to live in rural France, and when the recession of the 1990s took away everything that Susie and her husband Terry owned, they made the decision to leave England.
Trusting the Currents by Lynnda Pollio – this was different A type of memoir from Addie Mae, a Southern African-American woman from the 1930s who chose to speak about her own teenage life through Lynnda.
Hit The Road Jac! and Trusting the Currents appeal most from this list, thanks Rosie
Well, I have to say two of the best memoirs I have read ARE from people in sport. BUT WAIT! Both of these are ordinary people who have achieved extraordinary things.
Lisa Jackson in “Your Pace or Mine” shares her epic adventures at the BACK of the racing pack and the marvellous people she meets there. She does all sorts of things but has fun and supports people through their own battles.
Ben Smith’s – “401: The Man who Ran 401 Marathons in 401 Days and Changed his Life Forever” is not so much a story about running as a story about community.
Neither of these people is a well-known celeb or star; both of them are decent people with a story to tell. So sorry but not sorry!
Also Harriet Harman’s “A Woman’s Work” was excellent.
Never having run even 1 marathon I struggle to understand how its humanly possible to run 401 let alone on successive days. So this one is going on the list purely out of curiosity how he managed it..
Half of one of them with the help of me!!! And he did break down a bit. But he was doing it all from the most lovely of motives.
I’m thinking of The Years, memoir of a woman and a country: https://wordsandpeace.com/2019/03/29/book-review-the-years/
And this one, in nature: https://wordsandpeace.com/2013/09/10/the-consolations-of-the-forest-book-review/
I second Say Her Name. Quite extraordinary. It is sometimes hard to find a memoir that does not include a sad, bad childhood, though some of those are favorites with me. Let’s see. Witnessed or achieved extraordinary things: Country Girl by Edna O’Brien; The Years by Annie Ernaux; Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir.
I’ve read the Edna O’Brien – what a woman, and still writing well into her 80s. de Beauvoir is one I really should read..
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
A Life’s Design: The Life and Work of Industrial Designer Charles Harrison My reasons can be found in my review. https://www.exurbanis.com/archives/485
This book still amazes me ten years after having read it. It’s very American-centric (being in Canada, I related to most of it anyway) but I’m sure there must be some parallels with Wales.
Hi Debbie, just read your review of Charles Harrison’s book. It does sound interesting – like you I’m frustrated by the way stuff just doesn’t last ( last week I returned a bread maker that failed after 9 months). This book will make me nostalgic for a time when things did work AND they were attractive. The perfect combination of form and function
I’ve just acquired two memoirs and biographies of accomplished photographers from the mid 20th century. I am looking forward to them. I loved the Salt Path as I’ve mentioned before. Most of the memoirs I read are travel writers. Anne Mustoe is my favourite. Look her up, you might enjoy her. British Retired Headmistress that bicycled around the world and wrote fascinating books until her death. Intelligent writer, great adventires and fascinating history.
Have you come across a memoir by Don McCullin – he was a photojournalist who captured some astonishing images of war zones such as Vietnam.
No, I have not heard of him. Thanks for the tip.🤠🐧
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman
A man writing the story of his recently deceased wife (surfing accident) and how he struggles with guilt, blame from her family and how to keep her memory alive.
It’s incredibly well written and thoroughly fascinating as well as deeply moving.
A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt
It’s a collection of diary from this woman’s childhood (age 15 if I recall correctly) right through the war years and up until her death in the 1980s. And it is brilliant. You really feel that you live Jean’s life with her. And what an incredibly interesting life she did lead. Both ordinary and extraordinary all at once.
So neither are traditional memoirs but I do think both are well worth checking out.
A Notable Woman is calling to me – I just read some comments on Goodreads about the book which just reinforced your comments about how good it is
It’s one of my all time favourites. Well worth the read