Can you recommend some AMAZING memoirs by women?
January 17, 2014 5:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm suddenly overcome by the urge to take a break from novels and read some interesting memoirs by women. I have read "Don't lets Go to the Dogs Tonight" by Alexandra Fuller and I really loved it because of how richly she described the setting, the humor and the tragedies her family went through. I felt like I was there. And that's really what I'm looking for- memoirs by female writers that are so alive that I feel like I'm there. Mefi Readers, what amazing memoirs can you recommend that have made you feel that way???
posted by misspony to Writing & Language (65 answers total) 142 users marked this as a favorite
Personal History, by Katherine Graham. She owned the Washington Post during Watergate and the Pentagon Papers and it's a fascinating story of her transformation from a sheltered, inexperienced wife to a woman who was at the center of politics, making decisions that affected the entire country.

Wild Swans by Jung Chang. She tells the story of three generations of women in China, covering the period before and after the Cultural Revolution. I found it absolutely riveting.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 5:48 AM on January 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

It's been a while since I read it, but I remember enjoying Margaret Bourke-White's Portrait of Myself.

I'd especially recommend it for those interested in photography.
posted by o0dano0o at 5:48 AM on January 17, 2014

Glass Castle is an amazing story by a journalist who grew up in a spectacularly dysfunctional family and went on to have an education, career, marriage. Then Jeannette Walls wrote a memoir/novel about her grandmother in the Old West, Half Broke Horses.
posted by RoadScholar at 5:52 AM on January 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

For Victorian times to World War II, the memoirs of Mary Vivian Hughes.
posted by JanetLand at 5:54 AM on January 17, 2014

I really liked "Drinking: A Love Story" by Caroline Knapp. (It is very much steeped in an upper-middle-class Boston milieu, but I enjoyed it despite being neither upper-middle-class nor ever having been to New England.)

Also, "Life Among the Savages" by Shirley Jackson is utterly hilarious, even to someone without kids (it's all about her kids).
posted by whistle pig at 6:02 AM on January 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion, her account of the year following her husband's death, very sad but beautiful, moving writing.
posted by symphonicknot at 6:02 AM on January 17, 2014 [6 favorites]

Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro: A young woman spends her time as the mistress of her college roommate's father, a white-collar criminal, until her parents are involved in a fatal car crash.

Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt: A ranch wife in Montana dreams of becoming a writer.

Lit by Mary Karr: A portrait of the artist as a young alcoholic, in Boston.

Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp: Also a portrait of the artist as a young alcoholic, in Boston.

Almost There by Nuala O'Faolain: A journalist and author (best known for Are You Somebody?) struggles through late middle age without a long-term romantic partner.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:03 AM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Liar's Club, Mary Karr's first memoir. I was a bit skeptical because it was a mega-best seller that spawned dozens if not hundreds of mediocre "Here are tales of my horrible childhood but I am a survivor" memoirs, but it's an engrossing story, beautifully and intelligently written.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:06 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm terrible at summing up basic plot lines, but all of these memoirs have made me laugh, cry, cringe, rejoice, and ache.

Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler

Poster Child by Emily Rapp

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell
posted by divined by radio at 6:10 AM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I recently read The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day and thoroughly enjoyed it.
posted by jquinby at 6:12 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I came to recommend Glass Castle as well.
posted by Night_owl at 6:16 AM on January 17, 2014

My absolute favorite is Daughter of Persia: A Woman's Journey from Her Father's Harem Through the Islamic Revolution, the story of the first social worker in Iran (and she's a woman). The story is fascinating and the writing flows easily. There are rich settings, family dramas, funny cultural insights, and political tension. Like divined by radio, I'm also weak at book summaries but I loved this one and for once was disappointed that I read a library book and thus could not keep it (I'm not a rereader, but I am a keeper). Highly recommended.
posted by whatzit at 6:17 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

OH! Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett: Two writers, one somewhat troubled, and the deep friendship they shared.

Also, if you are interested in two authors same story kind of stuff, you can read Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy (the second writer in Ann Patchett's friendship) and Nell by Nell McCafferty (she and Nuala O'Faolain were romantic partners for many years).
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:24 AM on January 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

A bit left field, but I found Carolyn Steedman's Landscape for a Good Woman fascinating. She's a historian, and it's an exploration of her childhood and her mother's early life, discussing how they don't fit neatly into the histories or the historical theories that existed when Steedman started work in academia - it's about silenced voices and untold messy stories, and the faliability of history.
It's more a close psycho-history of individuals than a 'get a feel for the period' book though.
posted by AFII at 6:26 AM on January 17, 2014

If you want really different, how about some graphic novels? Persepolis and Fun Home are both excellent, very different lives and very different art styles but both compelling.

(And seconding Wild Swans very thoroughly)
posted by Coobeastie at 6:31 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Reading Lolita in Tehran is pretty amazing.
"Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. "
posted by SLC Mom at 6:40 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner is technically fiction but it is strongly based on the story of her life as a child in Cambodia during their civil war. Her writing is beautiful and you feel as if you are there.

Manic: A Memoir by Terri Cheney about her life with bipolar disorder.

I also recommend highly Glass Castles.
posted by maxg94 at 6:53 AM on January 17, 2014

Seconding The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.
posted by barnoley at 7:04 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

West with the Night by Beryl Markham, describing her childhood and youth in colonial Africa, her work as a bush pilot in the early days of flight, culminating in her successful East-to-West solo transatlantic flight. It's beautifully written and engaging.
posted by alms at 7:05 AM on January 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also recommending: Glass Castle and Fun Home. Adding Just Kids, Blood, Bones & Butter, and The Horizontal World: Growing Up in the Middle of Nowhere: A Memoir.
posted by wintrymix at 7:14 AM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Secret Daughter by June Cross.
posted by foxjacket at 7:19 AM on January 17, 2014

There's a book on my shelf that I haven't read in years but I remember loving called Chasing Grace about a woman who grew up Catholic. I lent it to a friend who did not grow up Catholic and he loved it.

Also, I fondly remember crying poolside in Mexico while reading Saving Graces by Elizabeth Edwards. I had lost my mother six months earlier and she had lent me the book so it was especially hard reading about her losing her son but it was a good read.
posted by kat518 at 7:21 AM on January 17, 2014

Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamott.
posted by brujita at 7:25 AM on January 17, 2014

Seconding Wild Swans - what a great (and depressing, and eye-opening) read.

I just finished and adored Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened. I went in thinking it would be mostly her funny blog essays, but it's built like a memoir and she had a pretty hilarious life experience.

If you like to cook (or eat), I highly recommend Ruth Reichl's memoirs (3 books - Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples and Garlic and Sapphires) - she was a food critic during exciting times in American cuisine, and lived a very cool life while doing it. I also love Miriam's Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlic, which I often recommend to people who are looking for books about Judaism - it's a woman's memoir about her mother-in-law's experience as well as her own family's, which span a surprisingly wide breadth of Jewish experience, both religious and atheist, told through recipes (many of which seem to start with First render the goose fat..., so it's not really something I would consider a cookbook).
posted by Mchelly at 7:31 AM on January 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would recommend Haven Kimmel and Jennifer Lauck.
posted by cass at 7:33 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also by Alexandra Fuller, revisiting similar ground to Let's Not Go To The Dogs Tonight but including POV of mother and sister in the present as well.

Also story of the decline of her marriage.

Also Angel At My Table-one of the greatest autobiographies of the 20th century according to many.
posted by claptrap at 7:48 AM on January 17, 2014

I loved Leah Vincent's new book, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood.
posted by BibiRose at 8:15 AM on January 17, 2014

The artist Tina LeMarque has written two stunning books: Warrior Woman: A Journal of My Life As an Artist and Coyote Woman, the continuance.
posted by Riverine at 8:16 AM on January 17, 2014

A Russian Childhood: Sofya Kovaleskaya. She was a 19th century Russian mathematician who went to great lengths to do math, although sometimes also was interested in other things like theatre when people wanted her to do math.

I am Malala: Malala Yousafzai: Just listened to the audiobook and thought it was fantastic. It does kind of seem like it was written by a 15 year old as it seems a bit disjointed. But it's also charming, horrifying and inspiring.

Call the Midwife: Jennifer Worth. I recommend this on this site all the time but I read all three of these and loved them. It's just like being in a bundle of kindness.

My Life in France: Julia Child. Julia Child's memoir, again really happy and charming.

The Wilderness Family: Kobie Kruger. Here's another African one. I loved this book as a teenager and read it many times. I haven't read it in a while but hopefully it's still good. The author is the wife of a park ranger living in Kruger National Park, South Africa.
posted by carolr at 8:25 AM on January 17, 2014

Maya Angelou wrote a series of autobiographical books, starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - highly recommended for just beautiful writing, a heartbreaking story, and an inspiring story.
posted by darsh at 8:27 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

A second for "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafizi! I re-read it periodically and it's on the table beside me right now. I just went rummaging to see if I could find the notebook in which I recorded many of my favorite quotes, but I couldn't find it. Very richly textured writing, seamless moving back and forth between the realities of everyday life in Tehran and the way she and her students experience the books. Wonderful, very moving details. As a bonus, it will make you want to read (or re-read) all of the literature discussed.
posted by spelunkingplato at 8:44 AM on January 17, 2014

+1 for Wild by Cheryl Strayed. And read it now before the movie comes out.
posted by hungrybruno at 8:50 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Argh, my computer spit up on me before I could edit. It's Azar Nafisi.
posted by spelunkingplato at 8:55 AM on January 17, 2014

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (sorry can't get a link to work) is a fictional story but the author drew very heavily on her own experience apparently. So much so that the book was often mistaken for her autobiography. Its a great story about a woman in Australia at the turn of the century choosing between marriage or a career.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:01 AM on January 17, 2014

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter - Simone de Beauvoir
posted by winterportage at 9:17 AM on January 17, 2014

Some of the women's memoirs on my bookshelf:

Autobiography of a Face. Disfigured as a child after treatment for cancer, Lucy Grealy adapts to life permanently marked as "other." Beautifully written.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. After the author's husband dumps her for a man he met on, she returns home to her Mennonite family. Hilarious and smart.

Through the Narrow Gate. A young woman joins a convent in the 1960's and quickly finds it's not the spiritual experience she was seeking. Karen Armstrong, who's now a respected religious scholar, also wrote a follow-up memoir about her recovery process.

Tiny Beautiful Things. This is by Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild (which has been recommended above). While this isn't a memoir per se, it's a series of advice columns answered with Strayed's personal stories, so I'd still recommend it.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 9:36 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hot damn I love these book questions! I read The Glass Castle last week and I was all set to ask this exact question, because wow that was a hell of a story. Cannot believe she made it out of all that and found stability.

Nthing Joan Didion, also.

I am so jazzed to start clicking these links! Thanks everybody :)
posted by polly_dactyl at 10:01 AM on January 17, 2014

Ooh! Ooh! Annie Dillard! An American Childhood.
posted by polly_dactyl at 10:06 AM on January 17, 2014

Nthing Cheryl Strayed's Wild. So, so good.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:32 AM on January 17, 2014

Seconding the Glass Castle. You'll feel like you're there and wish you weren't. It was an amazing story.
posted by cnc at 10:33 AM on January 17, 2014

Bad Blood, Lorna Sage
posted by scody at 10:52 AM on January 17, 2014

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. A memoir in graphic novel form, it is one of the best books I've read in any genre, ever.
posted by spacewaitress at 10:53 AM on January 17, 2014

Written By Herself is an anthology edited by Jill Kerr Conway (I think) that has excerpts from dozens of memoirs of interesting women. Babe Didrikson, Margaret Sanger, Willa Cather, so many more.
posted by Sublimity at 11:08 AM on January 17, 2014

Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi
posted by inertia at 11:51 AM on January 17, 2014

For a different sort of memoir, how about Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl? Or Body of Work by Christine Montross?
posted by lollymccatburglar at 11:51 AM on January 17, 2014

Unafraid of the Dark by Rosemary Bray is a fantastic memoir about growing up poor and black in Chicago. Really changed the way I look at racism and welfare.
posted by clerestory at 1:41 PM on January 17, 2014

Doesn't get more interesting than I'm With the Band by Pamela Des Barres, groupie extraordinaire whose conquests include Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, Waylon Jennings, Chris Hillman, Noel Redding, and Jim Morrison, among others. Oddly non-exploitative, great fun.
posted by thinkpiece at 6:37 PM on January 17, 2014

Tonight at Noon by Sue Graham Mingus. "[S]he seeks to connect with her audience by conveying the feeling of living with such an outsized character as Mingus and of his place in her life. She shares her experience of something great, something horrible, and, really, just something human. The depiction of how intensely life can be lived should resonate..." (Library of Congress)

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford. "The admitted 'rich vein of lunacy' in the Mitford family apparently has done nothing to dim the brilliance of its members among whom Jessica must be included. Although there’s a strong undercurrent of seriousness throughout the book, it’s submerged under downright hilariousness, crackling brash humor and enchanting turns-of-the-phrase." (San Francisco Chronicle)

High Times, Hard Times by Anita O'Day is "like the story of the music itself: rich, exciting, innovative; featuring the primitive beauty of the twenties when one foot was still in showbiz; the thirties with hip sophistication and hard swinging for hard times; the explosive forties of pre-war big-band bashes and post-war bop; and then the fifties, going off in a hundred directions with a needle in the arm.... it is the best jazz autobiography I've ever read." (Jim Christy, Toronto Globe & Mail)
posted by bcwinters at 7:12 PM on January 17, 2014

Red Azalea is Anchee Min’s celebrated memoir of growing up in the last years of Mao’s China.

Mary Chesnut's Civil War is an amazing account of the Civil War, drawn from the diary of a Southern aristocrat who records the final destruction of the Confederacy.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is Annie Dillard's Pulitzer Prize-winning work about the year she spent living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia as a young woman in her twenties (Thoreau was an inspiration).

Each radically different, all stunning.
posted by beanie at 7:16 PM on January 17, 2014

The Tender Land: a Family Love Story by Kathleen Finneran. About the author's teenage brother's suicide, but also about growing up Irish Catholic in St. Louis, sexuality, adolescence, family.
posted by bennett being thrown at 9:56 PM on January 17, 2014

Seconding The Liars Club. Loved it.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:08 PM on January 17, 2014

Jane Fonda's autobiography is pretty interesting.
posted by tanktop at 1:40 AM on January 18, 2014

MFK Fisher writes beautifully - about food and about her life at the same time.
posted by abecedarium radiolarium at 7:36 AM on January 18, 2014

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
posted by Rufus T. Firefly at 8:47 AM on January 18, 2014

The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks.
posted by sock puppet du jour at 8:54 AM on January 18, 2014

Seconding Haven Kimmel. Hilarious writing.

Also, I highly recommend Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth. She served as a nurse during World War I and became a journalist after the war. Just an amazing story. I love memoirs in general, and I think that this one is a standout.

[Excited to check out the other recommendations!]
posted by argyle dreams at 6:35 PM on January 18, 2014

2nding Beryl Markham's "West with the Night."

Ernest Hemingway on the book: "Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West with the Night? ...She has written so well, and marvellously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers ... it really is a bloody wonderful book."
posted by sidi hamet at 9:02 PM on January 18, 2014

In fairness it should be noted that some people believe West with the Night was ghost written by Beryl Markham's third husband.

It's still a great book, though!
posted by alms at 10:49 AM on January 19, 2014

While Fun Home has gotten plenty of mentions, it's worth noting that Bechdel has a second memoir focused more on her relationships with her mother and her therapists: Are You My Mother?
posted by Going To Maine at 1:45 PM on January 19, 2014

Haywire by Brooke Hayward - daughter of Hollywood royalty in the 50's. Great, natural writer with a crazy, privileged, yet dysfunctional life.
posted by cherrybounce at 7:48 PM on January 19, 2014

I really loved Alison Smith's Name All The Animals.

Noelle Howey's Dress Codes is great too - chronicling her experiences with a transgender father, and the struggle to work out who she (the father) would be.

Rhona Cameron is a comedian who is probably best known in the UK for appearing on Celeb Big Brother, but her memoir 1979 was a lovely book - growing up gay in small town Scotland.

Marya Hornbacher's Wasted is a memoir of anorexia, so may be triggering if you have experienced the same, but I found it beautifully written and an excellent insight into how eating disorders affect the mind and the drive to succeed.

I have Drinking: A Love Story on my to-read list, so pleased it's highly rated!
posted by mippy at 3:32 AM on January 20, 2014

I loved Breaking Night by Liz Murray. Ignore that her story was turned into a Lifetime movie before she wrote the memoir; it's a deeply-felt examination of what it's like to grow up in terrible circumstances (drug-addicted parents, poverty, near-starvation) and the tenuousness of even getting a chance to enter society.
posted by psoas at 8:31 AM on January 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I can't wait to read all of these (or 90% of them anyway!) I've bought several on amazon in the last week!

Thank you mefites!

ps- Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher is absolutely amazing!
posted by misspony at 12:00 PM on January 31, 2014

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams.
posted by aniola at 12:57 PM on February 16, 2014

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