The Compelling Memoirs You Have To Read

Some call it navel-gazing. We call it too good to put down.

As much as we adore fiction, a good memoir really has a huge emotional impact on the reader, because it has the benefit of being true (unless it's by James Frey, in which case, never mind). Whether it's Maya Angelou or Tina Fey or Barack Obama, everyone has a story to tell, and it's just a pleasure to be invited in.

The memoirists featured range from acclaimed poets to former slaves to humorists to rock stars. Their stories are engrossing, heartbreaking, unbelievable at times, and often hilarious. They're honest and raw, inviting you to chew on their own highly personal experiences as you meditate on your own. They're just filled with life.

With an adaptation of The Glass Castle out on Friday, August 11, there's never been a more appropriate time to delve into, and learn from, the life experiences of another. Ahead we’ve gathered our favorite memoirs and autobiographies. Book reports are due next week, okay?

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Corn-Fed: Cul-de-sacs, Keg Stands, and Coming of Age in the Midwest, Melanie LaForce (2018)
Themes: Coming of age, the Midwest, humor

We all have coming-of-age stories. Just some of us can turn typical milestones into memorable, hilarious events. Melanie LaForce certainly can. In this hilarious, heartfelt memoir, LaForce recounts the hallmarks of childhood in the Midwest — an after school job at Dairy Queen, keg parties, and roller derbies — and uses specifics to craft a universally relatable story. Don't fly over the Midwest — stop and hang out for a while, won't you?
Small Fry, Lisa Brennan Jobs (2018)
Themes: Parenthood, single motherhood, Steve Jobs

For years, Apple founder Steve Jobs denied his daughter's parentage. But his daughter existed, all right — and she's here to tell her story. Small Fry is an exquisitely written book about, first and foremost, growing up in a complicated family structure. Jobs, enigmatic and cold, orbits the exterior of Brennan-Jobs' life.
Choose Your Own Disaster, Dana Schwartz (2018)
Themes: Growing up, being young and millennial, dating, mental health

Dana Schwartz, the writer behind the iconic Twitter account guyinyourmfa, has built a career off hilarious, wry observational humor. In this memoir, she turns her sharp eye on her "disastrous" early 20s. The book takes on an original quiz format. You can choose which of her disasters to go on.
The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater, Alanna Okun (2018)
Themes: Knitting and crafting, adulting, growing up, writing

If you’re not already a crafter, Alanna Okun’s fantastic memoir about the role knitting has played in her life will make you want to become one. Okun dismantles the stereotypes that have calcified around crafting (it’s not just a “grandma’s” activity, and so what – what’s wrong with grandmas?), and reveals the important role hobbies can have in a person’s life. Knitting is how Okun makes sense of her life. It is, excuse our metaphor, the thread that holds her memories together. It's a must-read for millennials, especially looking for those with restless hands.
The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel Levy (2017)
Themes: writing, womanhood, monogamy, thirst for adventure

New Yorker writer Ariel Levy was 38 years old when she leaves on a trip to Mongolia. At the time, her life was in order: She was married, she was pregnant, and she was professionally successful. In a phrase, she had it all. But all within the span of the trip, Levy has a miscarriage, breaks up her spouse, and loses her house. In this incredibly self-aware and compelling memoir, Levy spills out her life until then, and shows that the unpredictable is often just around the corner. She's funny, she's honest, and she's a paragon of resilience.
The Color of Water, James McBride (1995)
Themes: Race, identity, family, religion

Look, Oprah called it one of the best memoirs of a generation. But in case you need convincing, listen to McBride's story. James McBride grew up in the all-Black projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, along with his 11 siblings. His father was a minister. And his mother was the white daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, who emigrated to the U.S. from Poland. The Color of Water delves into McBride's family history, his relationship to his mother, and his own path to becoming a journalist.
Where the Past Begins, Amy Tan (2017)
Themes: writing, family, culture

Where the Past Begins is probably unlike any other memoir you'll ever read. Tan approached the memoir with spontaneous prose. This is the journey into a writer's mind, as much as it is an overview of Tan's life events.
The Bridge Ladies, Betsy Lerner (2016)
Themes: mothers and daughters, card games

When Betsy Lerner moves home to take care of her mother, she expects a week of awkward small-talk. Instead, she gets roped into her mother's 50-year-old game of bridge. Lerner had once written off her mother and her Bridge Ladies — now, though, she realizes they have wisdom to offer, too. It'll make you reconsider your relationship with your parents, and the generational divide between you and them, big time.
Stitches, David Small (2009)
Themes: Family dysfunction, cancer, disability

When David Small, acclaimed illustrator and children's book writer, was a kid, his two frigid, unaffectionate parents decided not tell him that he had cancer. Instead, he got surgery to remove the lump on his neck, which had gone untreated for years, and turned out to be cancerous. When he woke up, he'd lost a vocal chord, and his neck had scars like Frankenstein. After that, David descends into a tormented, difficult adolescence. This graphical novel tracks his spiral downward, and his emotional recovery through art.
Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat, Patricia Williams (2017)
Themes: addiction, single motherhood, comedy

Now, Patricia Williams has a thriving comedy career, and goes by the stage name Ms. Pat. It's miraculous, considering how astoundingly difficult her childhood was. Williams was born during the height of the crack epidemic in Atlanta. The child of an alcoholic, she had to grow up fast. By seven, she was involved in the drug trade. When she was 13, she had her first child. At 15, she had her second. Williams tells her story with humor, wisdom, and honesty.
A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway (1964)
Themes: travel, literary movements, Paris

Hem's recollections of hanging out with the other ex-pat literati in 1920s Paris will make you yearn for a different era — or, if you're all right with the 21st-century, make you want to mingle among an equally interesting crowd.
Out of Egypt, Andre Aciman
Themes: Immigration, world wars, the tail end of a cosmopolitan Alexandria

As an adult, Andre Aciman looks back at his childhood during the waning days of Alexandria's cosmopolitan population. His rambunctious, eccentric Jewish family was neighbors with Greeks, Syrians, and Italians. People switched languages all day, and brushed shoulders with individuals of many different religions. With the prose of a tall tale, Aciman walks us through three generations of his family, from their triumphant economic rise in Alexandria to their reluctant exodus.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997)
Themes: Disability, childhood, literature

Before experiencing a rare cerebrovascular accident, Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle, the father of two kids, and a renowned member of the French intelligentsia. Then, he has a stroke. After a 20-day long coma, Bauby wakes up without control over any part of his body, expect for blinking his left eye. With the help of a patient nurse, Bauby was able to dictate this entire book, one wink at a time. Bauby narrates the experience of life with lock-in syndrome, and speaks of his life before.

Bauby died two days after the book was published.
Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood (2017)
Themes: dysfunctional families, marriage, Catholicism

After experiencing financial hardship, Patricia and her husband must move into her childhood home. Though Patricia is used to her father, a married Catholic priest who plays electric guitar, her husband certainly isn't. While she tries to make a safe haven in her chaotic household, she realizes she's much more like her family than she'd thought.
Yes, Chef, Marcus Samuelsson (2015)

Every week, a young boy learns to cook in his grandmother's kitchen. The grandmother is Swedish; the boy is adopted from Ethiopia, and will go on to become a renowned chef. In this love story to food and family, Samuelsson tracks his path from grandma's kitchen to his acclaimed restaurant, Red Rooster, in Harlem.
Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year, Anne Lamott (1993)

Themes: pregnancy, motherhood, religion, writing

When the writer Anne Lamott becomes pregnant by a man who wants nothing to do with her child, she surprises herself by keeping the baby. In her singularly honest, humble, and hilarious prose, Lamott chronicles how she, a single woman in her 30s sleeping on a futon, fared with an infant baby boy. Lamott puts the emphasis on her own growth, as well as Sam's. As if having a child weren't enough of a life change, Lamott finds out that her best friend in the whole world faces an overwhelming medical diagnosis. The book will make you gape at the changes a year can hold.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir, Joyce Johnson (1999)
Themes: The 1960s, New York City, Beat Writers

Joyce Johnson may be best known as Jack Kerouac’s longtime girlfriend, but she rises above this reputation in this wholly realized, poignant memoir about growing up in a bygone New York. Johnson recounts her journey towards independence in an era that made it downright difficult to be an independent woman. Fans of Beat writers Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac will love seeing the literary figures in such a raw light — but everyone interested in tracking a woman's journey into self-actualization would enjoy this remarkably well-written book.
Photo: Courtesy of Little, Brown Book Group.
Bossypants, Tina Fey (2011)
Themes: Comedy, work, womanhood

Fey charts her rise from geeky student to Saturday Night Live standout and the queen of 30 Rock. Like all the best books, it's both hilarious and wise.
Photo: Courtesy of Atria.
Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup (1853)
Themes: Slavery, race

The basis of the Oscar-winning film from 2013, this memoir follows the life of Solomon Northup, a free Black man from New York who was kidnapped and forced into slavery in the South. It’s horrifying and hugely important.
Photo: Courtesy of Mariner.
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell (1933)
Themes: Poverty

Though not strictly a standard memoir — Orwell wrote about his own experiences in a fictionalized nature — this account of living on the streets and in shelters in European capitals is both entertaining in tone and humbling in subject matter. Your landlord may be hassling you about your overdue rent, but it's unlikely you've ever experienced poverty like this.
Photo: Courtesy of HarperCollins.
Black Boy, Richard Wright (1945)
Themes: Race, religion, poverty, communism

Wright's autobiography of growing up in the Jim Crow South is a classic for good reason. Expect tales of extreme poverty and racism, as well as Wright's eventual interest in the arts and Communism.
Photo: Courtesy of Bantam.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank (1947)
Themes: Adolescence, the Holocaust, faith

If you haven't already read this in school, write your old teachers a stern letter. A heartbreaking classic.
Photo: Courtesy of Everyman's Library.
Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov (1951)
Themes: Russian revolution, family, politics, literature, travel

The man who gave us Lolita had quite the childhood.
Photo: Courtesy of Random House.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou (1969)
Themes: Race, adolescence, rape

This celebrated autobiography has some sections that are very hard to read, given the subject matter (racism, sexual violence), but it's a literary touchstone for a reason. Full respect to the late, great poet.
Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston (1976)
Themes: Feminism, Chinese culture, womanhood

A frequent entry on many a feminist's syllabus, this genre-spanning work incorporates Chinese folktales into its examination of modern women's identity.
Photo: Courtesy of Grove Press.
This Boy's Life: A Memoir, Tobias Wolff (1989)
Themes: Adolescence, family, abuse

Such a good read, even if you've already seen the Leo film. Toby/Jack's stepdad is the ultimate villain to root against.
Photo: Courtesy of Penguin.
Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby (1992)
Themes: Sports, adolescence

Technically, this inspired the very meh Jimmy Fallon-Drew Barrymore rom-com of the same name, but the book has so much more going for it. The true love story here is Hornby's devotion to the Arsenal football (er, soccer) club, written about so enthusiastically that it's hard to not walk away a fan yourself.
Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
All Over but the Shoutin', Rick Bragg (1991)
Themes: Poverty, family, the Deep South

Consider this a rich, engrossing tale of survival in the Deep South.
Photo: Courtesy of HarperCollins.
Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy (1994)
Themes: Health, self-image, beauty, depression

Grealy, who endured numerous operations on her face after the removal of her Ewing's sarcoma left her disfigured, died of a drug overdose eight years after this book's publication.
Photo: Courtesy of Penguin.
The Liars' Club, Mary Karr (1995)
Themes: Family, adolescence, Southern culture

As eccentric as Mary Karr makes her parents out to be, you'll no doubt wish you knew them personally after reading this incredibly honest and wry account of growing up in small-town Texas. Karr's lively language and Southern-fried quotes are a joy.
Photo: Courtesy of Three Rivers Press.
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Barack Obama (1995)
Themes: Race, identity, politics, idealism

Long before he became POTUS, Barack Obama published this thoughtful memoir about growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia as the child of a white single mother and a Kenyan father he barely knew. It's a moving, fascinating story, whatever your politics.
Photo: Courtesy of Scribner.
Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt (1996)
Themes: Poverty, family, loss, Catholicism

Cheery it's not, but it certainly deserved the Pulitzer Prize. Brace yourself for serious heartache, and, yes, some levity, too.
Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers (2000)
Themes: Death, family, survival

Eggers becomes guardian to his young brother when their parents die. A long story short: You'll laugh, you'll cry.
Photo: Courtesy of Ecco.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Anthony Bourdain (2000)
Themes: Cooking, addiction, travel

The former chef/current TV personality gets gritty about his life in food.
Photo: Courtesy of Back Bay Books.
Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris (2000)
Themes: Humor, family, gay identity

Picking your favorite David Sedaris book is like picking your favorite child. They're all too good. Will the Sedaris family go ahead and adopt us, please?
Photo: Courtesy of Random House.
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, Alexandra Fuller (2001)
Themes: Loss, Africa, war, family

The straight-shooting Alexandra Fuller details her eccentric family's life and losses during Rhodesia's fight for independence. It will grab you even in the darkest moments.
Photo: Courtesy of Scribner.
The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls (2005)
Themes: Poverty, adolescence, family, survival

The former gossip columnist had a doozy of a childhood, fending for herself as her parents turned to alcohol and their own interests.
Photo: Courtesy of Back Bay Books.
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, Peter Godwin (2006)
Themes: Death, war, fathers and sons, Robert Mugabe

This follow-up to Mukiwa, Godwin's story of growing up as a white Rhodesian, is engrossing on both a personal and political level. Godwin's relationship with his dying father will have you choking back tears, while his accounts of president Robert Mugabe's abuse of power will leave you fuming.
Photo: Courtesy of Hyperion.
The Tender Bar: A Memoir, J.R. Moehringer (2006)
Themes: Family, adolescence

Hilarious, endearing, and poignant, this memoir will make you wish you spent your childhood hanging out with your wisecracking uncle at the local bar.
Photo: Courtesy of Anchor.
My Life in France, Julia Child (2007)
Themes: French cuisine, travel, joie de vivre

Let's hear it for late bloomers. Julia Child's lively tales of experiencing fine French dining for the first time, failing her final cooking exam, and living in Paris with husband Paul will have you booking the next Air France flight.
Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Crichton Books.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah (2007)
Themes: Africa, war, violence, survival

Beah became a boy soldier in Sierra Leone and came out the other side. His story offers insight into the violence of the region, which leaves young boys with few choices and little hope for survival.
Photo: Courtesy of Harper Perennial.
Lit: A Memoir, Mary Karr (2009)
Themes: Alcoholism, relationships, parenting, family

Yes, yes, it's another Mary Karr selection. This searingly honest memoir details Karr's battle with alcoholism and a failing marriage, warts and all.
Photo: Courtesy of Ecco.
Just Kids, Patti Smith (2010)
Themes: Art, creativity, rock music

The poet and rocker chronicles her life in New York City in the late '60s and '70s, during which time she lived in the Hotel Chelsea, dated artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and connected with stars like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
Photo: Courtesy of Random House.
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, Gabrielle Hamilton (2011)

Julia Child she ain't. Chef Gabrielle Hamilton reveals all as she chronicles the several odd jobs and relationship woes endured along her way to culinary stardom.
Photo: Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.
Wild, Cheryl Strayed (2012)
Themes: Loss, relationships, personal strength, nature

In case you missed out on the Reese Witherspoon film, here's a primer. Reeling from the death of her mother and the breakup of her marriage, Strayed sets out to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. Gorgeous, riveting, and open-hearted.
Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan (2012)
Themes: Health

Cahalan was a young reporter living in New York City when she was struck by a mysterious, debilitating illness with seemingly no cure. Her fight to regain control of her mind and body is inspiring, and an important reminder to never take your own health for granted.
Photo: Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai (2013)
Themes: Education, Taliban, women's rights, survival

Be honest: This has been on your to-read list for quite some time now. We assure you that the story of resistance and perseverance is too good to let slip by.
Photo: Courtesy of Random House.
My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem (2015)
Themes: Feminism, politics, advocacy, travel

The feminist icon delves deep into her upbringing and chronicles her early days of fighting for women's rights both here and abroad.
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