Apr 03, 2019

The Best Memoirs Ever Published

Michelle Obama’s autobiographical memoir Becoming sold more copies than any other book published in 2018. It’s a rare occasion that an autobiography or a memoir is responsible for more than 1.4 million in sales in the first week alone. The former first lady’s popularity, as well as her enduring legacy as a politician and activist, has brought attention to this genre like never before. If you recently read Becoming and are interested in exploring the work of other talented memoirists, look no further. There have been some truly incredible memoirs published in the last century. Here are some of our favorites.

  • Written in 1969 by American author Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of six memoirs that she wrote about her life. Angelou’s work is a great showcase of the difference between an autobiography, which factually recounts the events of a person’s life, and a memoir, which is a truthful but creative retelling of a specific time or sequence of events.

    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings tells Angelou’s story from ages three to sixteen. While it does recount the events of her life during that time, it’s also a beautiful piece of creative literature, and masterfully incorporates the themes of identity, racism, and sexual politics in mid-century America.

  • Blue Nights, by Joan Didion, is a memoir about the author’s grieving process following the death of her daughter at the age of 39.

    The book, which is a little more challenging to read than some of the author’s other work, is repetitive, non-linear, and often disturbingly detached from reality. The book’s form mirrors the authors’ absolute inability to process the grief of losing her daughter and husband within a year and a half of each other and her struggles with the mother-daughter relationship, the process of aging, and adoption.

    Like Maya Angelou, Didion is most famous for her autobiographical work. The Year of Magical Thinking won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

  • Novelist and New York Times opinion author Roxane Gay published Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body in 2017. The book focused on Gay’s relationship with her body and her struggles to build a positive relationship with food after a childhood full of sexual violence and trauma.

    Gay called it “by far the hardest book I’ve ever had to write.” Readers and critics alike found the book deeply vulnerable and incredibly intimate to read. Her unswerving commitment to dealing with complex subject matter without diving into sentimentality makes this one of the most important books a young person with body image issues can read today.

  • Anthony Bourdain was a long-time authority on food. In 1999, he published Kitchen Confidential, his memoir that told the story of his rise through the restaurant industry. While the book follows Bourdain himself and how he rose from being the fry cook at a seafood restaurant in Provincetown to the “chef at large” at Brasserie Les Halles, it also lifted the curtain on what really goes on in restaurant kitchens.

    This is a must-read for would-be chefs who have a rosy view of their future profession. It even has some useful tips for restaurant patrons, including what to avoid ordering from most major restaurants. It’s the perfect introduction to the brash, fanatical way that Bourdain writes about food.

  • Japanese author Haruki Murakami is well-known for his continued use of certain themes within his work, as well as his ability to integrate parallel worlds, magic, and other supernatural devices in a way that seems completely natural and sensical.

    His memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is exactly what the title states — a travelogue and diary about his running training. He started running in 1982 and has since run more than 20 marathons and long-distance ultramarathons. It’s a great read for both fitness and literature fans alike.

  • Dave Eggers’ book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was published in 2000. Since release, it has been declared one of the best books of the decade.

    The book follows Eggers’ attempts to raise his younger brother Christopher after the deaths of their parents from cancer. While the events of the book are factual, Eggers’ takes great license with the timeline. In fact, later printings of the book even include a section entitled “Mistakes We Knew We Were Making”, which categorizes all the omissions and changes in the timeline in an effort to help readers better understand the storyline.

    Characters within the story often break the fourth wall and Eggers’ himself butts in to analyze his thoughts and actions with the benefit of hindsight. It’s one of the most complex and interesting memoirs ever published.

  • Brain on Fire follows young journalist and author Susannah Cahalan through the harrowing experience of waking up in the hospital with absolutely no memory of the past month. She was told that she had been having violent episodes, delusions, and a host of other bizarre psychiatric symptoms, and had been given diagnoses ranging from schizoaffective disorder to simply “partying too much.”

    Cahalan doesn’t stint in describing the complex emotions surrounding her search for a diagnosis and her struggles to process the feeling of losing almost a month to a condition that was eventually diagnosed as anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

  • Comedian and satirist David Sedaris has always been known for his dark humor and for unstintingly using his own life as fodder for his short stories and essays.

    Me Talk Pretty One Day follows Sedaris through his youth in Raleigh, North Carolina before he moved to France with his partner Hugh. The title of the collection is taken from one of the book’s most popular stories, which chronicles Sedaris’s disastrous French lessons.

    This is one memoir that’s even better as an audiobook. Sedaris’s drawling Southern accent really brings out the dry, witty nuance of each story.

  • Author J.D. Vance uses his own upbringing and early family life to explore the idea of upward mobility and what it really means to grow up poor in America today. The former Marine turned author turned venture capitalist’s Hillbilly Elegy chronicles the story of his upbringing living with his grandparents and how their choices affected the trajectory of his life and career.

    So many politicians today love to talk about what it’s like to grow up among the working poor, but Vance’s book breaks it down in a way that’s humorous, relatable, and deeply moving. It’s a must-read book for anyone who professes to believe in the American Dream. Many critics believe that Hillbilly Elegy helps to explain some of the reasons why Trump rose to power in 2016.

  • Anthropologist and author Zora Neal Hurston’s book Dust Tracks on a Road begins with her childhood and ends with the publishing of her first anthropological work Mules and Men in 1935. The fact that Hurston was researching, writing, and publishing work in the middle of the segregated American South is remarkable, and although her work languished for a time, it was brought back into the public eye by Alice Walker in the 1970s.

    Dust Tracks on a Road is her only biographical work. It is a bold, honest, and unflinching look at her early years to the middle of her life. Hurston died penniless in a welfare home in 1960.

  • MSNBC reporter Jeannette Walls astounded the literary community with the release of her memoir The Glass Castle in 2005.

    The book followed her early life as the child of a quirky, alcoholic father and a depressed artist mother. Although the audience never doubts the precarious situation that Jeannette and her siblings are in, there’s always a sense that their parents are doing everything they can to make their lives an adventure.

    The book was on the New York Times Bestseller list for an astounding 421 straight weeks and has consistently received rave reviews from readers and critics alike.

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