This list is not meant to be a “best of all time” memoir list. It’s just a list of memoirs from the past twenty years that I’ve enjoyed, laughing at the authors’ misfortunes (with the authors’ encouragement), agonizing as they struggle, cheering as they triumph.
The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr—When it was published in 1995, this one really got the memoir back into the mainstream as a book category. It is poet Karr’s completely absorbing page-turner about growing up in Texas. As a Texan son of pretty normal folks, I felt a bit guilty as I read of Karr’s trials and tribulations growing up the daughter of an alcoholic dad and a distracted mom. (Her second memoir, Cherry, is great, too. I haven’t yet made it to the third, Lit.)
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls—This horrifying-but-true (and funny) tale has been on the bestseller lists since it came out in 2006, but I just got around to reading it. Like The Liar’s Club, It’s about life with an alcoholic dad and a distracted mom. As I read it, I kept saying to my wife, “See— we’re not such awful parents!”
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt—Dysfunctional families, Irish-style. I kept rooting for young Francis, knowing his deadbeat dad was, once again, going to blow all the money on pints in the pub and let Francis’s desperate mother down. We kind of have a theme going here…
All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg—And yet another story of a no-good, drinkin’ dad, but this one has a heroic mom to save the son from poverty and pave his way to Pulitzer-Prizewinning journalism. Why all these tales of dissolute dads and miserable moms? Well, they make for fascinating reading, and it doesn’t hurt that all of these writers are exceptional storytellers. Some might argue that it was the adversity that led them to careers in writing.
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Terry Ryan—Ryan, like Karr, is a poet, but her memoir is an homage to her determined and inspiring mom, who kept the author and her nine siblings—and, of course, the alcoholic husband/father—out of the poorhouse. Another mother as heroine.
Big Russ & Me by Tim Russert—Newscaster Russert pays tribute to his dad, “Big Russ,” who was not an alcoholic; on the contrary, Big Russ supported his family and throughout his life gave good advice and support to his son. Not much in the way of embarrassing parental behavior here—just a nice gesture from a grateful son.
Bossypants by Tina Fey—Tina Fey had pretty normal, loving parents, who only occasionally embarrassed her in public. And despite normal parents, she has done pretty well for herself. This is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a while.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed—This is another interesting recent book, the account of the author’s harebrained decision to walk the Pacific Rim Trail solo, with few skills and no experience. She’s exorcising demons manifested following her mother’s death, and mostly blames herself for her troubles. A nice adventure tale.
Any favorite memoirs you’d like to recommend? — Steve