The other day the New York Times’ book critics compiled a list of what they thought were the best fifty memoirs of the last fifty years. The critics said they were looking for books that gave them “whiskey, not whiskey and water.” Books that felt like they were bringing a reader along on an “adventure” and had an “unsparing self awareness.” All good qualities for any book, not just memoir.
I write memoir. None of mine made the list. I’m laughing as I write that here in the shed and look around the books on my shelves. Not that I would ever expect to be on such a list, although some of my memoirs have won prizes. They were apparently on someone’s list, right? At least for a short time.
All of this got me thinking. What memoirs are my favorites? What are the ones that I’ve read that knocked me out, pushed me places I have not been or experienced, or made me consider how good the genre can be when the story of the memoir’s theme is in the write hands?
Things to consider.
I think of memoir in the broad sense. Memoir can be thematic or about a specific framework of time, and that can manifest in many ways. But what it must be is honest and authentic, and teaming with reflection and self discovery. I am not a fan of what some call the dysfunctional memoir—focusing on tragic illness, physical or mental, or horrific family events, for instance. I am not a fan of the recovery memoir—the story of redeeming one’s life after drugs or alcohol. There are many that are wonderfully written and important,. They are just not my cup of tea. And lastly, autobiography is not memoir. There is a difference.
So, my all time favorites? But only five.
A Moveable Feast. Hemingway’s account of life in Paris when he was a young and emerging writer. A classic.
The Solace of Open Spaces. Gretel Ehrlich beautifully written story of the author’s personal relationship with Wyoming, her adopted home. Part travelogue; part meditation. She is a master.
Minor Characters. An incredible portrait of the Beat era told from a woman’s perspective. With great insight and extreme clarity, Joyce Johnson’s story is the best about that generation of poets and writers because she was right in the middle of it, observing like a documentarian.
This Boy’s Life. The first chapter of this book by writer Tobias Wolff is one of the best in the memoir genre. The book is a textbook on how to use the craft of fiction in memoir.
Just Kids. A stunning and tender look at the life of artists in gritty, bohemian New York City in the 1970s. Patti Smith is simply one of the best writers I’ve read in the last five years. You should also read M Train. Marvelous.
Runners up: Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, and The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer, a moving story of a young boy’s romance with a neighborhood bar and his struggle to become a man.
I could go on and on, but I needed to limit myself to five just because, well, I could go on and on. Overall, good memoir allows the reader to see themselves in the stories of others without making the story all about the writer. Great memoir includes the element of transformation. What has the author become and how and why did they get there? It doesn’t have to be fantastical (sailing the globe), it only has to be meaningful in some human way. Memoir must sink deep into the reader’s heart to reveal a bigger truth.
What is your favorite memoir and, maybe more importantly, why?
Cover Photo by Glen Noble on Unsplash
4 thoughts on “Memoirs: My favorites and what I’ve learned.”
A moveable feast also my favorite. Did you see Patti Smith when she spoke at the CHF when Just Kids came out? Fascinating
I didn’t. But a big fan! She really is a tremendous writer.
I will cite three, writing I have returned to over the years for its sheer beauty and revelatory power.
The first is Henry Miller’s “The Colossus of Maroussi.” Written in 1939, as Europe was on the eve of another world war, it is ostensibly about spending time in Greece with his pal Lawrence Durrell. Of course, it becomes much more, chiefly a paean to the country and its people. And explores in often stark terms, Miller’s disaffection for his native land, its cities, its conventions and all the myths and trappings of the modern world. It is vintage Miller. His prose dances and sparkles. He deemed it his best book, and who am I to argue?
The other two favorites of mine are both by James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time” and “Notes of a Native Son.” Anyone who has read Baldwin knows so well the sheer potency of his writing, its ferocity, its refusal to allow us to ignore the strength of the indictment that is part of our racial legacy. Baldwin has always forced me to see with his unsparing light. It is rarely comfortable, but I am compelled never to look away.
I must read the Miller work. Although not necessarily memoir, Miller’s THE AIR-CONDITIONED NIGHTMARE is a favorite. More a travelogue but also a sharp commentary of American culture.