Reading time: About 8 minutes (you can scan much faster, though)
This list of the 50 best memoirs I’ve read over the last several decades might help you become a fan of the interesting and often sophisticated genre.
My reading tends to fall upon fairly predictable lines: literary fiction (with the occasional mystery or thriller) and memoir. In fact, I’d say memoir is my favourite category. I enjoy learning about other people’s lives, challenges and successes. And I especially enjoy seeing how they choose to present themselves.
Many of my clients are working on memoirs and they often ask me for recommendations for titles they can read as examples or models for their own writing. I heartily encourage exactly this kind of research but when people make this request of me, I usually end up spending 20 to 30 minutes scrolling through the journal in which I document my reading, trying to pull out a list of the best memoirs. And I always worry that I’m missing something important or useful in my quick scan.
For years, I’ve promised myself to prepare a proper list and post it on my website so that I can simply direct people to it. And, at long last, I’ve found the time to do it. Here it is, listed in alphabetical order, by last name of the author.
Some of the books are very well known, but I’ve also tried to include the work of excellent, lesser-known authors. And I’ve marked my top-10 in red, again trying to favour the less celebrated books or less famous writers.
- Agassi, Andre. Open. I’m not even interested in competitive sport and yet I found this book gripping. Fascinating memoir about a young tennis star whose life was controlled by his father.
- Armstrong, Karen. The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness. At the age of 17, Armstrong withdrew and entered a convent to become a nun. Plagued by health problems and self-doubt, she returned to the secular world seven years later — in 1969 England— when the entire world had changed. A very thoughtful, moving book from the perspective of an “outsider” who isn’t afraid of self-examination.
- Bailey, Elisabeth Tova. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. This is an exquisite little book. Very gentle, filled with interesting facts and observations about snails and the author’s own story about a life-changing illness.
- Barr, Damian. Maggie & Me. A funny and, also, deeply sad memoir about a young man who grew up in hardscrabble poverty in small-town Scotland during the late 1970s and early ’80s. The Maggie he writes of is Margaret Thatcher, whom (as you can imagine) he loathed.
- Beck, Martha. Expecting Adam. The American author, life coach and speaker (you may know her as a columnist for some national magazines) sometimes gets a bit woo-woo with her mystical stuff, but her sharp observations and wry sense of humour provide a good balance for the story of giving birth to and raising a child with Down’s Syndrome.
- Bourdain, Anthony. Kitchen Confidential. I read Bourdain’s famous book shortly after it was published in 2000. As a lifetime foodie, I found the book — which launched Bourdain’s writing and television career — to be absolutely unputdownable. He was a multitalented man and I mourned his 2018 death.
- Brown, Ian. The Boy in the Moon. Beautifully written, heartbreaking little book about his profoundly disabled son who is one of only 300 people in the world with an extremely rare genetic mutation known as cardiofaciocutaneous (CFC) syndrome. Brown is a journalist and he writes the heck out of this story.
- Caldwell, Gail. Let’s take the long way home. A lovely memoir about friendship. I discovered the author via an article she’d written in the New York Times and thought, “I must read more that this person has written.” I’m so glad I did.
- Coetzee, J.M. Boyhood. Evocative memoir about growing up in South Africa, in a new development north of Cape Town. The Nobel-prize winning author adopts a third-person voice to tell the story, which lends it a certain sharp, unsentimental air. Interestingly, there is almost no figurative language in this book, still he is able to communicate his love of the high veld and his discomfort with apartheid.
- Copaken, Deborah. Ladyparts. Well written memoir about the life of a writer and how the American health care system failed her and fails many other women, as well. I enjoyed it even though I thought it was about 30% too long.
- De Rossi, Portia. Unbearable Lightness. The first two-thirds of this book is incredibly well written and a sobering glimpse into the mindset of an anorexic. The final third, billed as an “epilogue” is much weaker. I suspect the stronger part was written by a ghost.
- Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. I avoided this book — the story of the death of Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne — for more than a year, fearing it would be too sad. But it was wonderful and not the least bit maudlin. It’s also worth reading her later book on a similar theme (the death of her daughter), Blue Nights.
- Ephron, Nora. I Remember Nothing. Ephron, who is best known for her funny, romantic comedies (When Harry Met Sally) was born in New York to a Jewish family and achieved significant fame for her talent and hard work. I find her writing to be screamingly funny and recommend this book as a lesson in writing humour.
- Fitzgerald, James. What Disturbs our Blood. Fascinating exploration of mental illness and health in the form of memoir by the son and grandson of a pair of doctors who had a profound impact on public health in Canada.
- Friedman, Rachel. And Then We Grew Up. Interesting reflections on the value, use and worth of “creativity” and how to deal with childhood dreams (Friedman was a serious violinist as a kid) that don’t quite come to pass.
- Fuller, Alexandra. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood. Captivating memoir about a dysfunctional family in rural Rhodesia as it was becoming Zimbabwe. She’s written a number of memoirs but I liked this first one the best.
- Gilbert, Elizabeth. Committed. I found Gilbert’s more popular first memoir, Eat, Pray Love, to be a bit too heavily “packaged,” and much preferred this second effort, which had more interesting content and compelling reflections on the concept of marriage. Not quite so relentlessly ME-ish, either.
- Gildiner, Catherine. Too Close to the Falls. A precocious child, Gildiner grew up in 1950s Lewiston, New York, a small town near Niagara Falls. She started working at the age of four (really!) and her story is both funny and captivating. She eventually became a clinical psychologist and has written several memoirs, but this first one is a keeper.
- Ginsberg, Debra. Raising Blaze: Bringing Up an Extraordinary Son in an Ordinary World. This very moving 2002 memoir tells the point of view of a mother who goes against all the odds to pursue an education for her son, who has special needs. Sad and uplifting, too.
- Gottlieb, Lorri. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. Interesting book showing a therapist dealing with her own problems (a potential husband who dumped her) via therapy herself. Remarkably candid and often funny.
- Grealy, Lucy. Autobiography of a Face. Wonderful memoir by the late poet Lucy Grealy, who had faced cancer of the jaw as an adolescent, which left her with some significant facial disfigurement. With its clean, sharp and easy-to-read writing, her book is far superior to Ann Patchett’s remembrance of their friendship, Truth and Beauty.
- Harris, Dan. 10% Happier. Pretty funny, useful book about meditation framed by describing how it helped improve Harris’s own life. Like many TV people, Harris is a little self-obsessed but his advice is both solid and entertaining.
- Israel, Lee. Can You Ever Forgive Me? This memoir of literary forger Lee Israel is even more delightful than the movie (of the same name) starring Melissa McCarthy – witty, charming and very clever. Just don’t buy it for your Kindle! Many chapters begin with photographs of (forged) letters and there is no way to enlarge them, which is both frustrating and disappointing!
- Jaouad, Suleika. Between Two Kingdoms. This remarkably insightful memoir tells the story of a young woman struck by an especially deadly form of leukemia. (She survives.) She is a marvelously vivid writer and a thoughtful person who has profound insights.
- Kimball, Kristin. The Dirty Life. Entertaining story about a New York writer who falls in love with a farmer, marries him and becomes a farmer herself. Fascinating!
- Knighton, Ryan. Cockeyed. Fantastically well written memoir about being a teenager and going blind. Perhaps unbelievably, it’s also very funny! Another equally charming book of his, C’mon Papa, which is the story of fatherhood, would be a great gift for first-time parents.
- Konnikova, Maria. The Biggest Bluff. A journalist with a smart idea for a delectable book concept, Konnikova took herself from someone who had never before played poker in to a poker expert in less than a year, including winning a major title. She also absorbed some terrific life lessons — about luck and chance — along the way.
- Laveau-Harvie, Vicki. The Erratics. Despite the fairly heavy material (a mother who is a monstrous narcissist) this book is well written and exceptionally readable. The author uses some interesting techniques with respect to chronology.
- LeCarré, John. The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life. I enjoyed this interesting and elegantly written memoir of the life of a spy turned writer. Would be of particular interest to LeCarré fans who are familiar with his novels.
- Lee, J.J. The Measure of a Man. A lovely little memoir about growing up to become a tailor and dealing with a difficult father. Interesting history relating to fashion, too.
- Lockwood, Patricia. Priestdaddy. Exceptionally well written and funny memoir about a poet who grew up as the child of a Catholic priest. (All legit. Her father had been a Lutheran minister, allowed to marry and have children and he subsequently converted to Catholicism, which doesn’t exclude previously married religious members.)
- McBride, James. The Color of Water. I discovered this book from a New York Times list about the best memoirs of the last 50 years, and I second their endorsement. This is a charming memoir about growing up in a mixed-race family in the 1960s and ’70s. The subtitle — A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother — only hints at the complexity, for in addition to being white, McBride’s mother was also the daughter of a rabbi. Beautifully written.
- McCracken, Elizabeth. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. McCracken is a remarkably gifted writer. I did not love this book quite as much as her novel The Giant’s House, but she was able to take a horrible incident — the stillbirth of a child — and turn it into a moving and insightful memoir.
- Macdonald, Helen. H is for Hawk. Even though I’m not much interested in birds (my husband plays that role in our family) I enjoyed this beautifully written book and her remarkable eye and ear for figurative language.
- Marsh, Henry. Do No Harm. After hearing Marsh interviewed on Fresh Air, I rushed to the library to order his memoir. I found his book, which is simultaneously depressing and uplifting, was able to offer a highly nuanced view of the life of a neurosurgeon, and his patients. He’s a lovely writer, too.
- Martin, Steve. Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life. Interesting insights into hard work vs talent (hard work is the winner) and into celebrity life. Steve Martin is not only a very funny guy, he’s also a fine, clear writer.
- Miller, Chanel. Know my Name. Beautifully written and very persuasive memoir about sexual assault. Explains the concept of consent thoroughly. And you can’t get consent if your partner is drunk.
- Noah, Trevor. Born a Crime. Don’t read this book. Or at least don’t read it first. Instead, listen to it on audio, and you will be blown away by Noah’s writing AND his delivery. What a brilliant guy. What an intelligent and affecting memoir.
- Ollestad, Norman. Crazy for the Storm. I loved this story of a young boy thrown into the different worlds of surfing and competitive downhill skiing by his driven father, whom he both idolized and resented. Gripping story, well told.
- Polley, Sarah. Run Towards the Danger. Canadian actress, writer, director and producer Polley became famous as a youngster, first by playing Ramona Quimby in a television series based on Beverly Cleary‘s books and later in the famous Canadian television series Road to Avonlea. Her autobiographical essays explore both the physical and emotional challenges she has faced, including her own assault by Jian Ghomeshi.
- Richards, Keith. Life. Overly long but nonetheless interesting story from one of the baddest boys of rock and roll. He needed a better editor but, overall, I could only conclude he was smarter than I’d ever given him credit for being.
- Ruhl, Sarah. Smile: The Story of a Face. A Broadway playwright, Ruhl is distraught to be diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, a disease that stops you from being able to smile. Ninety percent of Bell’s patients recover in three to six months, but Ruhl falls into the unlucky 10 percent with no recovery. The book describes her many-year struggle with the diagnosis.
- Salzman, Mark. The Man In The Empty Boat. Well-written and true story about anxiety and writer’s block and one writer’s battles with this twin monster.
- Smith, Patti. Just Kids. The provocative photographer Robert Mapplethorpe was songwriter Patti Smith’s best friend when they were in their 20s until he died at the age of 42. A lovely and heartfelt book about love and friendship and creating art.
- Stevens, Nell. Bleaker House. Deeply engaging book about the perils of devoting your entire life to writing on an island where you are the only person living on that island. Stevens has a tremendous ear and eye for metaphor and knows how to tell an engaging story.
- Szalavitz, Maia. Unbroken Brain. A thoughtful and sensitive exploration about how we ought to understand addiction — not as a moral failing or a disease but as a learning disability. Beautifully written.
- Wearing, Alison. Moments of Glad Grace. The story of a father-daughter pilgrimage to Ireland, this memoir offers charming reflections on aging and love.
- Westover, Tara. Educated. This is the story of a young woman raised in a large isolated family where scavenging in the family scrap yard and making herbs into medicine were the only sources of income. A remarkable writer, Westover escapes and goes on to win a fellowship from Cambridge university and graduates with a PhD.
- Winterson, Jeanette. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? What an interesting memoir about growing up in northern England to become a famous and successful novelist — even while working to overcome the burden of a nasty and unsupportive mother. (The line “why be happy when you could be normal?” is something her mother asked of her.) Skillfully written and both funny and heartbreaking at the same time.
- Wong, Jan. Out of the Blue. I briefly worked in the same newsroom as Jan although our desks were at opposite ends and we had no more than a passing acquaintance. Her book, which addresses clinical depression, gave me a more sophisticated understanding of it, especially the variety caused by workplace dysfunction.
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What are some of the best memoirs you’ve read? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Penny O’Donnell, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a March 29/22 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, Penny!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!