Looking for suggestions of really great memoirs to read
June 28, 2011 6:50 PM   Subscribe

I have been enjoying reading memoirs lately and would like some suggestions for more books I might enjoy.

I am an avid reader (can do a book a day when I am on vacation!) and lately have been going through a memoir phase---not so much the 'autobiography of a whole life' kind but more the kind that's about a person setting out to have a certain experience or to recount a type of event or situation or circumstance that is unique. I enjoy a lightly off-beat topic with a little bit of humour and an author who is entertaining. Here are some books I read recently and enjoyed:

- You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers: a bit serious, but a very interesting topic (author has condition where she cannot differentiate faces)

- On the Outside Looking Indian by Rupinder Gill: author sets out, at 30, to experience all the childhood things (sleepovers, swimming lessons, etc) that her over-protective 'traditional' parents did not let her do.

- Sh*t my Dad Says by Justin Halpern: author moves back in with parents, including wise-cracking dad, and recounts childhood growing up with this character. Funny, and the cursing didn't bother me.

- Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua: parts of it horrified me, but there was some food for thought underneath it all and this is a book that has stayed with me.

- The Winter of our Disconnect by Susan Maushart: author disconnets self and teenaged children from television, internet etc. for six months. Good mix of facty researchy stuff and humourous anecdote. Author writes really well.

So, given that these are the sorts of books I have been enjoying what else can the hive mind recommend to me? I prefer books available as ebook from Kobo or Kindle.
posted by JoannaC to Grab Bag (50 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Grant's Memoirs aren't read much anymore. Pity. Great stuff, from a dying man, writing with discipline and courage in the very last days of his life, to set down history from his unique perspective, and to provide an inheritance for his family, after some late life disastrous business dealings.
posted by paulsc at 6:57 PM on June 28, 2011

The Glass Castle really turned my crank. The kind of memoir you wish you never read... so you could read it again.
posted by Cat Face at 7:02 PM on June 28, 2011 [6 favorites]

Really enjoyed Infidel. An incredible story, easy to read and well told.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 7:02 PM on June 28, 2011

Running in the Family. Pretty quirky.
posted by astapasta24 at 7:03 PM on June 28, 2011

Sorry, should have said Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 7:04 PM on June 28, 2011

It sounds like you might enjoy A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Or just about anything by David Sedaris.
posted by mauvest at 7:06 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've heard great thing about The Glass Castle myself. My suggestion is A Leg To Stand On. It was wonderfully written. Here's the description:

Dr. Oliver Sacks's books Awakenings, An Anthropologist on Mars and the bestselling The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat have been acclaimed for their extraordinary compassion in the treatment of patients affected with profound disorders.
In A Leg to Stand On, it is Sacks himself who is the patient: an encounter with a bull on a desolate mountain in Norway has left him with a severely damaged leg. But what should be a routine recuperation is actually the beginning of a strange medical journey when he finds that his leg uncannily no longer feels part of his body. Sacks's brilliant description of his crisis and eventual recovery is not only an illuminating examination of the experience of patienthood and the inner nature of illness and health but also a fascinating exploration of the physical basis of identity.
posted by Raichle at 7:06 PM on June 28, 2011

I came in to say the Glass Castle as well. The last two funny off-beat books I read were both half-price from the Strand. They were House of Cards by David Dickerson and My year with Eleanor by Noelle Hancock. The Dickerson book was very funny but no memoir humourist writer can compare to the all-time great David Sedaris of course!!
posted by bquarters at 7:08 PM on June 28, 2011

Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs

John Lydon (with help from friends, band mates, and hangers on) talks about going form a sensitive kid in England to becoming Johnny Rotten. Touches on the death of Sid Vicious, media stereotyping, his reinvention with Public Image Limited, and other things that should be of interest even if you're not a punk fan
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:11 PM on June 28, 2011

I really enjoyed A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less.

Oh! And Metafilter favorite Bill Bryson kills in his book about walking the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods.
posted by thebrokedown at 7:12 PM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've read Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road and The Dutchess of Bloomsbury Street so many times, I can still quote parts by heart. Charming books about a friendship that springs up between a New York writer and a London bookseller post WWII.

Since you seem to like books where the author does something wacky for a while and then writes about it, you might enjoy AJ Jacobs. That's basically his whole career.
posted by Georgina at 7:13 PM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Liar's Club by Mary Karr and Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs are righty your wheelhouse, from the sound of it.
posted by sideofwry at 7:15 PM on June 28, 2011

I've been on a similar kick lately, for no reason I can identify.

Your list reminds me I've been wanting to read Cinderella Ate My Daughter, about how little girls today are raised in an environment with less variety than ever before to feed their imaginations and role play. Similar to The Winter of our Disconnect, it's a mix of research and anecdote.

I've recently liked:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - about the woman behind the first cells that could be infinitely reproduced in a lab. I'm not typically into sciencey books, but this one was a great story.

Open - Andre Agassi's memoir of his career in tennis. I loved it, and I'm not a fan of tennis. It's very well written, and tells a deeper story about the struggle to find himself when so many other people had a stake in what he would become. Lots of funny anecdotes. Not your typical celebrity book.

All 3 of these are available on kindle.
posted by nadise at 7:16 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I very much enjoyed Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King.

I also liked Out of Africa by Karen Blixen (as Isak Dinesen).
posted by Leezie at 7:17 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tina Fey's "Bossypants!"

And having just returned from listening to Jerry Stahl tell a horrifically funny story in Central Park, I'm inclined to give Permanent Midnight a try.
posted by sestaaak at 7:24 PM on June 28, 2011

Snake Hips by Anne Thomas Soffee

The Devil, The Lovers and Me: My Life in Tarot by Kimberlee Auerbach
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 7:28 PM on June 28, 2011

Seconding Confessions by Florence King. That's a book I return to time and time again. In fact, it's been loaned out and never come home so many times, I've stopped buying it.

Also, Jennifer Traig's Devil in the Details and her second one Well Enough Alone are both fabulous. And then, for just plain fabulous-ness all the Chelsea Handler memoirs are fun reads.
posted by teleri025 at 7:28 PM on June 28, 2011

I just lost all my links on preview but I listed the "changing life through working with food" genre books- including my favorite "The Sharper the Knife the Less you Cry" by Kathleen Flinn, "Julie&Julia Project" by Julie Powell, and "Spiced" by Dahlia Jurgensen. There are also the waiter books called "Waiter Rant" and "Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter".

Oh and of course on a totally different note...David Foster Wallace's "Another Supposedly Fun Thing I will never do again". You will end up quoting from that.
posted by bquarters at 7:29 PM on June 28, 2011

Ooh, and how could I forget?

Just Kids - It's Patti Smith's memoir about her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe and the then-emerging art scene in NYC. I liked it because I enjoy relatively modern art history and pop culture. It could be tediously full of name-dropping and obscure references if you're not into that, but it might still resonate if you are part of the same generation (I'm not).

And I was going to recommend Bossypants, but I see sestaaak beat me to it. A good, quick, funny read.
posted by nadise at 7:31 PM on June 28, 2011

TWO of my all-time favorite books happen to be in this category!

Charlie Wilson's War, written by George Crile, a producer on 60 Minutes. God I love this book. Never saw the movie because there is no way it could have been 1/10th as good as the book. Really.


King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire. This book was written by 2 reporters from the LA Times and actually contains a fair amount of info about the Chandler family, as well.

In short, this book is really about the history of California, and also the political/financial shenanigans that shaped Los Angeles, and to a lesser degree maybe, Sacramento since the turn of last century. After reading this book, I understood how California was really the epitome of the Wild Wild West.
posted by jbenben at 7:31 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thank you! I have read Cinderella Ate My Daughter (it was okay; could have been shorter) and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (loved it!) I am checking out all of your suggestions. Any more suggestions would be most welcome.
posted by JoannaC at 7:36 PM on June 28, 2011

And right up there with those two are a few more that are shorter and funnier...

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character), written by Physcicist Richard Feynman.

And anything by David Sedaris, especially Me Talk Pretty One Day.
posted by jbenben at 7:36 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

To comment on above comments:
- I loved "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" when I was in college, but not so much when I read it again last year (late 20s). I think it might be one of those books that really speaks to you at a certain time in your life. YMMV.
- "The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio" is great.
- "Running With Scissors" is hilarious. The accurateness of the story has been contested, but that doesn't make it a bad read.

jbenben just beat me to David Sedaris, and I also second both Feynman and Bourdain. Another interesting food memoir is "Tender at the Bone" by Ruth Reichl.

If you haven't read "Marley & Me" and you're an animal lover at all, I highly recommend it. I laughed audibly several times. Yes it's about a dog but it's also about Grogan and how Marley affected him.
posted by radioamy at 7:46 PM on June 28, 2011

I could list lots more because I love memoirs, but here are three of my favorites.

Hats and Eyeglasses by Martha Frankel - story of how she started gambling to research a screenplay and then became semi-obsessed.

Chosen by a Horse by Susan Richards - subtitle: How a broken horse fixed a broken heart

Let's take the long way home by Gail Caldwell - a memoir of friendship between two writers
posted by daikon at 7:54 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just finished The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of his Life--His Own by David Carr. New York Times reporter interviews various people from his life (friends, family members, lawyers) and digs up old documents (court records, drug rehab reports) in order to reconcile his memory of his life with what actually happened. Some of the videos, pictures, and documents from his investigation are on the book's website.

You can read a bit of it here.
posted by soupy at 7:55 PM on June 28, 2011

The Making of a Chef - Michael Ruhlman

Going to Extremes - Joe McGinniss

Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder - Sam Fussell

The Good Life - Scott and Helen Nearing
posted by Trurl at 7:58 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

speaking of Bryson
posted by spinturtle at 8:13 PM on June 28, 2011

Moon's a Balloon by David Niven
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 9:15 PM on June 28, 2011

Loved Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone, but Garlic and Sapphires was even better.
posted by islandeady at 10:22 PM on June 28, 2011

If you want something a tad bit more challenging, "Speak, Memory" is one of my favorite works by Nabokov. The writing is beautiful and the story is absolutely compelling. People dig on Lolita, but this one is divine.
posted by troublewithwolves at 11:12 PM on June 28, 2011

Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. She's very funny.
Bird by Bird is good too.
posted by BoscosMom at 11:42 PM on June 28, 2011

Yes, anything by Bill Bryson. And, I recently read Between A Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston after I saw 127 Hours. The book was more in-depth than the movie in that Aron talked about his experiences as an "extreme outdoorsman," with an emphasis on lessons learned. His stories were entertaining and well-written as well as introspective. The part of the book that the movie is based on is pretty close to a direct relationship, but there's so much more to the book, including the people he met and talked to during his rescue and the adventures leading up to his fateful trip. The movie affected me enough to buy the book and the book affected me even more. Two thumbs up.
posted by bendy at 12:45 AM on June 29, 2011

Hitch-22 by (of course) Christopher Hitchens. Very entertaining and written in Hitchens's usual style.
posted by kasparhauser at 2:55 AM on June 29, 2011

it's fake, but the absolutely funniest memoir you could find has to be Little Me by Patrick Dennis (author of 'Auntie Mame')...it tells the 'true' story of Belle Poitrine, notorious Hollywood actress, and all-around stinker...plus, it's illustrated with tons of hilarious staged photographs...
posted by sexyrobot at 3:06 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Boy and Going Solo by Roald Dahl. They are more of a straight autobiography, but Dahl could write and he has some stories to tell. The stuff from the war in Going Solo is great.

Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs by Hunter S Thompson. Thompson spends a year with the Hell's Angels in the early 60s.

Seconding David Sedaris, but I found the audiobooks to be much more enjoyable than the books. His reading turns it from funny, to laugh out loud hilarious.
posted by lrobertjones at 3:54 AM on June 29, 2011

Have read some of what you've mentioned and enjoyed them, so you might like these, too:

Things to Bring, S#!T to Do... and other inventories of anxiety by Karen Rizzo -- the author's life told through lists; really insightful and enjoyable, plus if you have a habit of making lists you would be able to relate to this immensely

Possible Side Effects by Augusten Burroughs -- Burroughs in small doses; speaks of his life after Running With Scissors. My suggestion is not to read all of the essays in one sitting, because after awhile everything seems to start and end in the same manner.

A Lifetime of Secrets by Frank Warren -- from the creator of PostSecret, I think this is the third book; the secrets are arranged in chronological order (from childhood to growing old)

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron -- She wrote the screenplay for Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King -- about King's earlier life when he was just starting out as a writer; very inspiring.

North to the Orient by Anne Morrow Lindbergh -- "In 1931 Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh set off on a flight to the Orient by the Great Circle Route." The language is really beautiful. One of the most graceful memoirs I've read.

Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell -- massive and hefty book, still not finished reading it; this is about the friendship of two poets spanning years, relationships, marriages, published books, etc.
posted by pleasebekind at 5:24 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Try Francine du Plessix Gray's Them--it's a wonderful memoir about her parents during WWII and growing up very glamorously in NYC.
posted by Lycaste at 6:01 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Frank Conroy, Stop-Time.
posted by Beardman at 6:17 AM on June 29, 2011

Heather Havrilesky's Disaster Preparedness.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:20 AM on June 29, 2011

I haven't read Julie & Julia, but I liked Cleaving.

LEGO: A love story is partially about Lego, and partially about a guy rediscovering something he once loved.

Farm City, a young couple with a farm of sorts in Oakland.

I really liked Tokyo Vice, about an American reporter on the crime beat in Japan.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found Dreams from My Father really interesting, just as a memoir by "some guy" -- even if that guy later ended up as the president.
posted by epersonae at 7:59 AM on June 29, 2011

Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat by Caroline Burau sounds the most like your kind of book.
Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle is about ministering to gangs in LA.

I don't know if you are as interested in historical, but I loved all of these.

For leading up to and World War II:
China to me by Emily Hahn. Also by Hahn, No Hurry to Get Home and England to me. Emily Hahn basically had uncurable wanderlust and travelled the world by herself at a time when few women did. Her memoirs are basically funny essays about life where she's living or travelling.

Outwitting the Gestapo by Lucie Aubrac (wartime France)
Without Vodka: Adventures in Wartime Russia by Aleksander Topolski
With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge is a classic and describes heartbreaking trench warfare.

For fifties and sixties Europe, My Life in France by Julia Child.
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:28 AM on June 29, 2011

We Have Always Lived In the Castle is a fiction book that feels like a memoir to me.
posted by salvia at 9:26 AM on June 29, 2011

Someone else mentioned this above, but Open by Andre Agassi might be the best memoir I've ever read. And I don't like sports. It was amazingly (ghost) written and a real page-turner. A close friend kept raving about this book and I kept teasing her about it until I finally read the damn book and it is really that awesome.

Orange is the New Black, about a upper-middle-class woman going to Federal prison, is also good but gets a bit slow toward the end (I guess like any prison stay would).

I also just read CandyFreak, which is a hybrid of researchy/memoiry and totally fun.
posted by jrichards at 11:31 AM on June 29, 2011

Seconding Muscle (and I have no interest in bodybuilding) and I Feel Bad About My Neck.
posted by wittgenstein at 4:59 PM on June 29, 2011

I'm Down, by Mishna Wolff. About being a white girl growing up in a black neighborhood in Seattle.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:25 AM on June 30, 2011

Bill Bryson is getting a little full of himself these days, but hi book "Notes From a Small Island" about preparing to move back from England to the US was great.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:09 PM on June 30, 2011

My Family And Other Animals by Gerald Durrell is about his family's time on Corfu when he was a young boy. If you enjoy memoir with added animals, you'll love this - his passages about his adopted tortoises and pigeons are hilarious.
posted by chronic sublime at 5:16 AM on July 3, 2011

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