(A version of this post was originally published at BlogHer.com.)
“Experience is not always the best teacher, only the most painful.” I read this quote years ago and it stuck with me. I don’t remember where I read it or who said it. (I looked it up at one of the sites that finds quotations but they didn’t have it.)
The experiences of people as told through their memoirs are riveting. People have lived through amazing things and have such varying approaches to managing the daily doings and challenges of life. I wish I had discovered this genre earlier in life, although the memoir genre has really exploded over the last decade or so.
I find memoirs and autobiographies useful:
- For learning what people survived.
- For learning how they handled life and its many sticky situations.
- For learning about choices they made and how they made those choices.
- For realizing that I’m not alone in whatever I’m facing.
Many of these memoirs have also made me “thankful for what it ain’t.” This was a favorite saying of my grandmother’s. After reading a few memoirs, I’ve phoned my mother and said, “Thank you so much for being you.” While sometimes given to dramatic outbursts, she was a consistently responsible and loving parent.
In the past couple of years, I’ve read a number of memoirs from my fellow travelers in this journey of life. They are written by women and men, old and young, wealthy and poor, and by people of varying ethnicities. These folks have had good parents, bad parents, disinterested parents, and parents who did the best they could at the time – although more people from challenging childhoods write memoirs than those who had gentle upbringings.
I’ve connected to each story in some way. They are listed in alphabetical order.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers (When his parents die of cancer within five weeks of each other, Mr. Eggers has to raise his younger brother. He recounts his efforts to be a good parent while being a young man in brilliantly written prose.)
Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (He wrote the lyrics to Lift Ev’ry Voice & Sing – also known as The Negro National Anthem. He was a diplomat, teacher, and novelist. His take on race relations still resonates today.)
Angela’s Ashes – Frank McCourt (Prize-winning tale of growing up in abject poverty in Ireland that manages to make you laugh and cry often in the same paragraph. It’s one of the best memoirs ever written!)
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City – Nick Flynn (Very well-written memoir of a son’s love for and commitment to a ne’er do well father who didn’t raise him or his brother. His father was an aspiring writer. He achieved his father’s goals. The title tells you alone that this is no ordinary story.)
Black Girl Next Door: A Memoir – Jennifer Lynn Baszille (Ms. Baszille grew up in a high-achieving, proper family tthat was usually the first blacks in the suburban neighborhoods in which they lived. Her parents unhappy marriage fueled by her father’s infidelity and abusiveness toward her meant that there were cracks in their facade. She survived despite this and became head of the History Dept. at Princeton University.)
Colored People: A Memoir – Henry Louis Gates (Mr. Gates came from good stock. He recounts growing up in the small Southern town of Piedmont, W. Virginia)
Committed – Elizabeth Warren (An exploration of the institution of marriage through the reluctant marriage of Ms. Warren to the adonis she found in her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love)
Cooked: From the Streets to the Stove, from Cocaine to Foie Gras – Jeff Henderson (His Chef Jeff Project show on The Food Network made me want to learn more about this former drug dealer and incarcerated man who found his life’s purpose through cooking.)
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race & Inheritance – Barack Obama (An extraordinarily varied childhood gave him the perfect background to become the first black US President.)
Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Warren (She ate in Italy, prayed in India, and found love in Indonesia. It was a best-seller with good reason. She has a unique voice if at times she succumbs to giving readers ‘TMI.”)
Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer – Novella Carpenter (A novice farmer takes a trash-strewn, abandoned lot she doesn’t own and creates a far in Oakland, CA.)
Garlic & Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic In Disguise – Ruth Reichl (Sequel to Tender at the Bone, recounts Ms. Reichl’s tenure as a food critic for the NY Times and the various disguises she concocted to keep her cover.)
The Glass Castle: A Memoir – Jeannette Walls (Ms. Walls’ parents were eccentric, neglectful and loving and they moved their four children around, about, up and down, often at a moment’s notice. What the children endured and mostly triumphed above is absolutely mind-boggling.)
The House at Sugar Beach – Helene Cooper (Descended from Liberian aristocracy on both sides of her family, this memoir recounts her life of ease until the coup, her hardscrapple existence in the US and her achievement as a world-traveling journalist.)
Mississippi Solo – Eddy Harris (This is the first travel memoir written by Mr. Harris. He journeys down the Mississippi River in a canoe. Unusual for anyone, especially a black man. I’ve read four of his books. He’s a provocative writer, thinker, loner.)
Mixed: My Life in Black & White – Angela Nissel (Laugh-out-laugh funny observations. I also recommend, Broke Diaries by her.)
Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World* – Tracy Kidder (Saints walk among us, Dr. Farmer is one such saint who had an absolutely extraordinary, if difficult and complex childhood.)
My Life in France – Julia Child & Alex Prud’homme (What a love story! Reading how Ms. Child developed her culinary skill and the loving marriage she had was so encouraging and lovely.)
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek – Annie Dillard (I found this book plodding at first – it’s really about her year observing nature, especialy small creatures and insects. There are passage of sheer joy, faith, and humanity.)
The Pursuit of Happiness – Mim Eichler River, Quincy Troupe & Chris Gardner (The movie sanitized his life a bit. Very encouraging example of how to triumph through adversity.)
South of Haunted Dreams – Eddy Harris (This adventurer decides to travel South on his motorcycle, facing his stereotypes and fears of what that journey will bring as a black man.)
Space Between the Stars – Deborah Santana (She was married to and had long-term involvements with Sly Stone and Carlos Santana – nuff said!)
Step Out on Nothing: How Faith & Family Helped Me Conquer Life’s Challenges – Byron Pitts (Very inspirational memoir by the 60 Minutes correspondent. He was functionally illiterate and hid it. The reproduction of a letter his mother wrote him when he planned to drop out of college is priceless and classicly strong black mother reasoning.)
Street Shadows – Jerald Walker (Very well-written, if too short, memoir of a current college professor and how he almost didn’t make it because of fighting the lure of the streets and drugs. Lots of humor.)
Teacher Man – Frank McCourt (His life after the period recounted in Angela’s Ashes. Great storytelling about a self-doubting but clearly incredible teacher.)
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table – Ruth Reichl (Food critic and former editor of Gourmet magazine)
Triangular Road: A Memoir – Paule Marshall (wonderful novelist, I especially liked her memories of traveling with Langston Hughes)
The Urban Hermit: A Memoir – Samuel A. Macdonald (remade his life by restricting his food intake to 800 calories and following an austere budget of $8/day I believe. When he took control or his life, the universe opened up some goodies to him.)
Unbowed – Wangari Maathai (Nobel Peace Prize winner and green activist)
What Becomes of the Broken Hearted – E. Lynn Harris (best-selling novelist recounts his Southern upbringing and being gay.)
The Women who Raised Me: A Memoir – Victoria Rowell (actress who was adopted pays tribute to the women who raised her)
(Not listed here is the seminal, Autobiography of Malcolm X (Alex Haley & Malcolm X) because I read it many years ago. This list is restricted to books from the last two years.)
Believe it or not, I also read a lot of fiction as well but am looking to read more autobiographies and memoirs. Reader recommendations are welcome. (Hint-Hint!)
I have not had an interesting enough or conflict enough filled life to write a memoir and prefer to fictionalize actual events in writing. Fiction allows me to move beyond the actual as well as to fill in the considerable gaps in my memory. Fiction also lets me give a three-dimensional view from the voice of an omniscient narrator. I like that view.I consider this blog a living record of what I’ve lived through and what interested me enough to blog about it. I hope that my progeny will read it to find out more about it one day.
Don’t forget to send me suggestions. Thank you in advance.
*Not a memoir but a biography too moving to leave out.
Thanks Candelaria. Your list is just in time for my next residency. One of the benefits of the time away is to read heartily everyday. While in Vermont I read, “In Black and White, the Life of Sammy Davis Junior” by Will Haygood. It was riveting! From the cover design to the supportive quotes on the back. I lived though several decades with Sammy, his wives and family, his friends and enemies. What a fascinating man. I may think of others later …
Oh, thanks for mentioning this one. I’ve read other books by Wil Haygood who is quite a wonderful writer. I will definitely check out this one on Sammy Davis, Jr. I’m sure I’ll learn more about the man behind the image. Have a producitve residency.
Great post! I really appreciate your list.
I would encourage you to rethink your closing comment though. You said your life was not interesting or conflict-filled enough to write a memoir. What makes memoir such a rich genre is that it allows the reader to view the world through the eyes of the author. Each individual has a unique perspective and gains unique insights from her individual experiences. The memoir is a process of exploration and self-discovery that can sometimes lead to a greater understanding of the human condition. I think what you (and other memoir readers) find “riveting” is not so much the experiences but the insights and most of all the unique voice with which memoirs express them. Frank McCourt won the Pulitzer for his voice not his experiences. As Pilgrim at Tinker Creek illustrates a strong voice expressing personal insights and emotions can elevate relatively mundane experiences to art.
Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you like this post. If I ever were to write a memoir, it would be because your comments convinced me. Like many writers of fiction, my stories have an autobiograpical launch point and then they take on a life of their own!
I was surprised by your comment about your own life. Based on your blogging alone, i’d surmise you’ve had (& are having) a most interesting life, that would make for great reading, in–what i hope will be–the near future.
How nice of you to say so. I don’t think there’s been enough turmoil for me to write about my life and I don’t carry enough anger or angst. I do, however, have periods of my life that I am using as a jumping-off point for fiction. These stories will be published some day.
Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.