Whats your favorite memoir?
July 8, 2014 2:35 PM   Subscribe

Hoping to get some suggestions for really great memoirs. Bonus points if after you've read them you can't stop thinking about them!

Memoirs I've read & loved: tender bar, lit, glass castle, wild, year of magical thinking (not sure if that counts as a memoir?) & recently orange is the new black.

Any and all suggestions are appreciated!
posted by kmr to Writing & Language (77 answers total) 148 users marked this as a favorite
Giving Up The Ghost by Hilary Mantel is fantastic. Experience by Martin Amis is also surprisingly riveting.
posted by Grunyon at 2:39 PM on July 8, 2014

Travels with Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets, by Lars Eighner. See this review (incidentally, there's one, small artistic NSFW photo on the review page).
posted by alex1965 at 2:40 PM on July 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Earlier this year I read and really enjoyed Romance is my Day Job by Patience Bloom. She's a romance novel editor who was unlucky in love, and it's a lightish but very personable and affecting story of her dating travails over the years. (Disclaimer, I know the author.) I devoured it in just two long sittings.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:42 PM on July 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maybe not precisely a memoir, but I enjoyed and recommend "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman" (and, to a lesser degree, "What Do You Care What Other People Think?") by Richard Feynman.
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:43 PM on July 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

"A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" by Dave Eggers would be my immediate answer. Although the title is a joke, the work basically delivers what the title promises. There was a lot of baggage for a while that was more about what people thought about Eggers as a person than his work; hopefully that has subsided enough by now that you'll be able to give it an impartial reading.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:48 PM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Kitchen Confidential is a classic of the genre.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:49 PM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read Persepolis and Persepolis 2 this past weekend and very much enjoyed them. They're memoirs in a graphic novel format about a young woman growing up during the Iranian Revolution. Very, very well done.
posted by Ufez Jones at 2:51 PM on July 8, 2014 [13 favorites]

I bought a copy of At Your Own Risk by Derek Jarman as a fifteen year old gay man and found it revelatory.

The Film / sound piece Blue all about his last few years living with HIV is also pretty good too!
posted by Middlemarch at 2:51 PM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having Our Say. You absolutely must read this. It's charming and serious and funny and sad - I read it in 1996 and I still think of it often. This book is so magical - I think I need to read it again.
posted by umwhat at 2:53 PM on July 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I loved (and constantly re-read) Poster Child and The Still Point of the Turning World (both by Emily Rapp) and Oleander, Jacaranda by Penelope Lively.
posted by janepanic at 2:53 PM on July 8, 2014

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Chilling and heartbreaking.
posted by damayanti at 2:54 PM on July 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

Autobiography of a Face, by the flawed, brilliant, and tragic Lucy Grealy - and then when you can't get it out of your head, Ann Patchett's memoir of their friendship, Truth & Beauty.

Truth & Beauty is, oddly, the more famous work, but I would recommend that order.
posted by Juliet Banana at 2:56 PM on July 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

Blood, Bones and Butter is a fantastic memoir about cooking, but I loved it more for her descriptions/reflections on an unusual early adulthood and family life.
posted by magdalemon at 3:00 PM on July 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

The upcoming Pioneer Girl (not being released until November, alas).
posted by Melismata at 3:02 PM on July 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I've only read 2 of the books suggested so far (kitchen confidential & the glass castle), which is why I love this place for these kinds of recs! Thank you, please keep em coming. Can't wait to start reading all of these!!
posted by kmr at 3:06 PM on July 8, 2014

Bill Buford's Heat is a great cooking/travel memoir.
posted by quince at 3:06 PM on July 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy.
posted by pheide at 3:08 PM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Devil in the Details by Jennifer Traig. It is a humorous look at her childhood where her childhood OCD and Jewish faith contribute to some hilarious situations.
posted by soelo at 3:09 PM on July 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

My absolute favorite is Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels.

I really enjoyed Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples.
posted by bcwinters at 3:13 PM on July 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Fun Home - another graphic memoir.
posted by bunderful at 3:17 PM on July 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

In many ways, most of the work she was famous for was memoir-ish, but the best introductory book for MFK Fisher is As They Were.
posted by monopas at 3:18 PM on July 8, 2014

Moab Is My Washpot: An Autobiography by Stephen Fry and the follow-up, The Fry Chronicles
posted by Ideefixe at 3:20 PM on July 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Part memoir, part advice column, the imitable Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things and her actual memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, are not to be missed.
posted by sockermom at 3:29 PM on July 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

autobiography of malcolm x is really fascinating and easy to read.
posted by monologish at 3:30 PM on July 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just Kids by Patti Smith was fabulous, as well. I couldn't put it down, and I don't even care much for her music or anything - she's just a great, great writer.
posted by sockermom at 3:32 PM on July 8, 2014 [11 favorites]

I've posted about this before, but I enjoyed "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi. The author, a female professor of English literature at various Iranian universities during and after the Iranian revolution, speaks candidly about her life and the lives of her female students (with whom she started a secret book club during a time when she withdrew from officially teaching under pressure to wear the veil), intertwining themes from the literature they read and the reality of their various situations. It is rich and often complex, and as a side effect encouraged me to read the discussed works of literature I had not yet read.
posted by spelunkingplato at 3:36 PM on July 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Lots of good suggestions so far. I loved A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when I was in college, but it really disappointed me when I read it again later in my 20's. YMMV. Orange is the New Black is quite good although not that well written.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is quite entertaining.

I recently read The Bloggess's memoir and found it quite funny. (If you want to get a taste of her, one of her best pieces from the book is the chicken story.

Bossypants by Tina Fey is great. So funny.

Would you consider Marley & Me a memoir? If so, it's really funny and touching, even if you don't like dogs.

Okay don't judge me, but I really enjoyed Jenna Jameson's (probably mostly ghostwritten) memoir. I mean it's a total beach read but she's actually not a total dingbat and she's worked hard to get where she is.
posted by radioamy at 3:36 PM on July 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm currently devouring The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez. I was also thrilled to see he has a second memoir out in the fall.
posted by klugarsh at 3:37 PM on July 8, 2014

I adore Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx. He knew everyone - he even had a regular seat at the Algonquin Round Table - and has a really funny, sweet take on old Hollywood and vaudeville.
posted by Mchelly at 3:37 PM on July 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Life, on the Line by Grant Achatz, about his battle with tongue cancer and starting his restaurants, is really good.
posted by xingcat at 3:39 PM on July 8, 2014

Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Best Book Ever!). I like Molly Wizenberg too, books are shorter & lighter than Marquez though.
posted by jrobin276 at 3:39 PM on July 8, 2014

A Girl Named Zippy had me crying with embarrassing-level laughter on an airplane one time. It's good stuff.
posted by something something at 3:48 PM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mary Karr's The Liar's Club and Rick Bragg's All Over But the Shoutin.
posted by shoesietart at 4:01 PM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I really liked Open by Andre Agassi. And I don't even like or follow tennis.
posted by tatiana131 at 4:02 PM on July 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

Since you mentioned Wild (which I just loved and read, as well!) you might want to check out Breaking the Limit. It's been a few years since I read it, but iirc it's written by a woman who motorcycled across the US/Canada and met her birth mother along the way. There's a great scene when she visits Sturgis.
posted by mostly vowels at 4:05 PM on July 8, 2014

Also, I loved Keith Richards' Life
posted by mostly vowels at 4:07 PM on July 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Act One by Moss Hart. The funniest, most heart-wrenching, harrowing, autobiography I've ever read.
posted by BostonTerrier at 4:08 PM on July 8, 2014

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell (and sequels). I first read this quite young but have re-read it several times as an adult and enjoy it each time.
posted by shelleycat at 4:08 PM on July 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage. An almost unbearably eloquent memoir of the unlikely childhood and adolescence that shaped her. The working class upbringing of a very bright girl in a seriously backward place.

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi largely a memoir of the years before and after Primo Levi’s transportation from his native Italy to Auschwitz as an anti-Facist partisan and a Jew.

A Country Boy by Richard Hillyer. An intense beautiful book with a sharp political sensibility (understated.)

Ake: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka A dazzling memoir of an African childhood from Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian novelist, playwright, and poet Wole Soyinka.
posted by glasseyes at 4:11 PM on July 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Emma Goldman's Living My Life is fascinating and well-written. Her politics aren't mine, but she wrote one hell of a book.
posted by Area Man at 4:12 PM on July 8, 2014

Ah, I was wondering if My Family and Other Animals fits the bill. I've not re-read it but there are some hilarious anecdotes.

ps A Country Boy was the one I couldn't stop thinking about. I couldn't read anything else for days. It's quite short as well.
posted by glasseyes at 4:12 PM on July 8, 2014

[All links go to GoodReads]

Breaking the Code: A Father's Secret, a Daughter's Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything by Karen Fisher-Alaniz

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing up Scieszka by Jon Szieszka - aimed at children but it made me, a fully qualified adult, laugh out loud many times

Can I Keep My Jersey?: Eleven Teams, Six Years, Five Countries, and My So-called Career as a Professional Basketball Player by Paul Shirley - and I'm not even a basketball fan!
posted by stampsgal at 4:22 PM on July 8, 2014

I just loved Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster.

Be True To Your School by Bob Greene is one of my all-time favorites. It's the diary he kept in 1964, when he was in high school.

Dear Diary by Lesley Arfin is great too.

I'll admit that I loved Bad As I Wanna Be by Dennis Rodman. Yes, there is some salacious detail but he's very honest and his story is fascinating.
posted by SisterHavana at 4:42 PM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Escape by Carolyn Jessop is riveting.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 4:42 PM on July 8, 2014

Romulus, my father I found profoundly moving, and I bought copies of it for several people because I so wanted them to read it.

Lucia Graves A Woman Unknown, about growing up as an English girl in Franco's Spain, is a fascinating read.
posted by girlgenius at 4:52 PM on July 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

My Life in France, by Julia Child.

Warrior Woman and Coyote Woman are journals by the artist Tina LeMarque, not sure if diary form suits you, though.
posted by Riverine at 5:10 PM on July 8, 2014

I haven't read the ones you mentioned, so I don't know if these will be a good fit, but: I really enjoyed Roald Dahl's Boy and Going Solo (also available in a single volume, here). I read them when I was quite young but particularly Going Solo is quite historical and I've enjoyed it when I went back to it much more recently. I also loved Ruth Park's Fishing in the Styx and A Fence Around the Cuckoo though probably they would have more appeal if you have some NZ/Australian connection and/or have read some of her novels or short stories.
posted by Cheese Monster at 5:22 PM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read Changing by Liv Ullman years ago and bits of it still float to the surface of my mind sometimes. She was a lover of Ingmar Bergman's and, I believe, had a child with him over the course of their relationship. She writes about what it was like to balance this passionate and sometimes terrible love affair with being an artist and a mother. On top of insight, she is also a beautiful, quiet, thoughtful writer.
posted by chatongriffes at 5:23 PM on July 8, 2014

Francine du Plessix Gray's Them - it is saturated in glamor.
posted by Lycaste at 5:37 PM on July 8, 2014

If you like the graphic novel format, I recommend Epileptic by David B. Originally in French
posted by microcarpetus at 6:27 PM on July 8, 2014

My Booky-Wook was surprising.
posted by bq at 6:47 PM on July 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Worst Journey in the World is fantastic. It's by Apsley Cherry-Garard, one of the survivors of the ill-fated Terra Nova Expidition to Antarctica.
posted by Flunkie at 6:55 PM on July 8, 2014

Becoming A Man: Half a Life Story by Paul Monette
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:06 PM on July 8, 2014

I can't wait to put these on my list! Thanks for asking this question.
My recommendations
I Love Everybody (and Other Atrocious Lies) by Laurie Notaro (and all her other memoirs.)
Possible Side Effects by Augusten Burroughs (and the rest of his! I did not enjoy Running With Scissors though...)
posted by missriss89 at 7:23 PM on July 8, 2014

I gave pretty much everyone I know copies of Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones, and Butter as gifts three years ago.

It's really that good.
posted by yellowcandy at 7:30 PM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if you would count it but Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin remains an incredible book.
posted by smoke at 7:37 PM on July 8, 2014

Janet Frame's multi-volume autobiographyis stunning. If you want a quick introduction, Jane Campion made a very good movie based on the books.
posted by BibiRose at 7:38 PM on July 8, 2014

Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp is beautifully written. Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg is a compelling story about having a difficult mother. I also enjoyed Jennifer Traig.
posted by TallyH at 7:59 PM on July 8, 2014

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. I'm not crazy about his fiction, but I listened to this as an audiobook narrated by him and it was really great.
posted by book 'em dano at 8:27 PM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lucky by Alice Sebold
posted by Sal and Richard at 9:06 PM on July 8, 2014

Celebrity memoir recommends:

Self-Inflicted Wounds by Aisha Tyler. A different style from most memoirs, but I liked it.
Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman. I just love his style.
Rob Lowe's memoirs. Stories he tells his friends, indeed.

Non-celebrity but interesting:
I second the Patience Bloom book--was going to mention it until it was already mentioned.
Someday My Prince Will Come by Jerramy Fine. Note: this is probably not going to be to everyone's tastes because it involves hippies, psychic feelings, a past life regression, and the British royal family....but it's also about a girl with a screaming desire to move to England that she doesn't understand, and how she eventually got there.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:11 PM on July 8, 2014

Men We Reaped: A Memoir By Jesmyn Ward was quite good.
posted by doctord at 9:22 PM on July 8, 2014

Martha Beck's "Leaving the Saints is controversial but fascinating.
posted by rpfields at 3:34 AM on July 9, 2014

Another graphic novel memoir: Stitches, by David Small. I rarely cry at books but this one almost got me.
posted by ActionPopulated at 6:01 AM on July 9, 2014

Paul Auster, The Winter Journal
Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography
posted by to recite so charmingly at 8:47 AM on July 9, 2014

I'm on my phone so unfortunately I can't add links, but have some amazing memoirs by badass ladies: Beryl Markham's West With The Night, Isak Dinesen's Out Of Africa, and Margaret Bourke-White's Portrait Of Myself.

(I also adored Douglas Adams's Last Chance to See.)
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:11 AM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff

...and if that intrigues you, The Duke of Deception, by his older brother Geoffrey.
posted by baseballpajamas at 10:57 AM on July 9, 2014

Two I haven't seen on this list yet:

Jesus Land, by Julia Sheeres. She writes about her childhood in an extremely religious family. She had adopted brothers who were black (interesting and complex dynamics there; her family adopted them because they felt it was the "Christian" thing to do, but then didn't really accept them), and she and one of her brothers were sent to a religious reform camp in South America. Unique plot, obviously, but also a moving account of the author's love of her brother.

Woman at the Washington Zoo, by Marjorie Williams. It's a collection of vignettes, not a straight bio, but you learn a lot about her life, including her struggle with cancer (which ultimately took her life) and her complicated relationship with her mother.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 1:11 PM on July 9, 2014

It's more autobiography than memoir, but Sonia Sotomayor's My Beloved World had everyone in my book club riveted and unable to stop talking about it.
posted by metarkest at 6:29 PM on July 9, 2014

This is partly-autobiographical fiction, but I'm mentioning because it jumped instantly to mind when you said "can't stop thinking about them": Cruddy by Lynda Barry. Barry has said only about a fifth of the events in the book actually happened to her, and she presents the book as fiction, but it's an indelible portrait of poverty and deep-rooted family violence.
posted by kalapierson at 9:51 PM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Bertrand Russell's autobiography is amazing.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:13 AM on July 10, 2014

Man, I have read so many good memoirs. If I had to narrow it down to just five six, it would be these:

An American Childhood by Annie Dillard
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
In Memory Yet Green by Isaac Asimov
Have a Nice Day by Mick Foley
Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People by Amarillo Slim
Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

In roughly that order. If I was recommending just one, it would definitely by An American Childhood. And don't dismiss Foley's or Slim's memoirs just because you're not interested in professional wrestling or gambling. They are both astounding works that speak to a general audience.

If you opt to dismiss Slim's because he was by all accounts a violent racist mysoginist asshole, I won't blame you. But you'll be missing a good book.
posted by 256 at 9:05 AM on July 11, 2014

Bad As I Wanna Be by Dennis Rodman

You know, I also really enjoyed this and thought it was very well written. But I didn't feel comfortable recommending it because it was ghostwritten.

I can't help but wonder how much better it would have been as a straight up bio of Rodman by Tim Keown, with Rodman having given the same access but exercising no editorial control.

Maybe if Rodman's renewed relevance (due mostly to North Korea) continues, Keown will decide to revisit his notes and write the definitive Rodman biography.
posted by 256 at 9:10 AM on July 11, 2014

I liked Russell Baker's Growing Up, which won a Pulitzer.

I'm not positive these meet your criteria, but I really loved A Country Year and A Book of Bees by Sue Hubbell.
posted by kristi at 9:50 AM on July 11, 2014

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