11 Favorite Memoirs from a Longtime Industry Insider

Last year I shared a list of some of my favorite novels that I’ve read during my fifteen years in the book business.

As much as I love falling into a great novel, I’ve also always been drawn to powerful personal stories from ordinary people. I read them for their piercing loss and the match-lit path they illuminate to move past it. Here are eleven personal stories that brought me to tears, kept me up at night, and stayed with me after. Some are straight memoirs, some are less conventional in form, some are broader in scope, but all are rich and satisfying.

Perfection
by Julie Metz

When Julie Metz’s husband died unexpectedly, she found herself a sudden widow with a six-year-old daughter. She then discovered that her husband had been unfaithful to her throughout their marriage. This is a candid and moving story of loss, grief, betrayal, and reinvention.

Ava’s Man
by Rick Bragg

AVA'S MAN chronicles the life of Rick Bragg’s grandfather, Charlie Bundrum, who died before he was born. Bragg takes us to the backwoods hamlets of the Deep South during the Great Depression when the roads were still dirt and real men never cussed in front of ladies. I am not ashamed to say that I cried my eyes out on an airplane reading this one.

Tiny Beautiful Things
by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed, author of WILD, is as candid and compassionate as ever as “Sugar,” the formerly anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus. TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS is a striking collection of “Dear Sugar” columns, the gentlest tough-love advice you’ll ever need to hear.

Stuffed
by Patricia Volk

The subtitle of Patricia Volk’s delightful memoir is “Adventures of a Restaurant Family.” Her great-grandfather introduced pastrami to America in 1888, and her big, loving family fed New York City for the next hundred years until her father closed his garment center restaurant in 1988. Each chapter showcases another relative you’ll want to invite over for dinner.

The Light of the World
by Elizabeth Alexander

The poet Elizabeth Alexander (she read her original poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration) was married to the Eritrean painter Ficre Ghebreyesus when he died suddenly, leaving her a widow with two adolescent boys. Deeply moving but not sentimental, THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD is their transcendent love story. If you’re a fan of Joan Didion’s THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, pick this one up. And a box of Kleenex, too.

The Lost
by Daniel Mendelsohn

In this powerful, riveting book, Daniel Mendelsohn searches out the truth of what happened to six of his Polish relatives who perished in the Holocaust. This quest to learn the fates of “six of the six million” is part memoir, part mystery, and part scholarly detective work.

Here If You Need Me
by Kate Braestrup

Kate Braestrup was left to parent her four children when her state trooper husband was killed in a car accident. He had been training to become a minister, and after he passed away, she chose to become a minister herself. Ultimately she found her calling as a chaplain for search-and-rescue workers. HERE IF YOU NEED ME is her remarkable journey from grief to faith to happiness.

The Tiger in the Grass
by Harriet Doerr

National Book Award–winner Harriet Doerr only published three books in her lifetime. THE TIGER IN THE GRASS is a hybrid of short stories and personal essays that take us back to her Southern California childhood where we meet her beloved housekeeper, Edie, who helped raise her; to Mexico where her two novels are set; and to her reflections on aging and watching her children age. Wise and eloquent, it reads like poetry.

This I Believe
by Jay Allison

Perhaps you listen to the NPR segment “This I Believe,” where people (some famous, most not) share their personal philosophies and credos in brief essays. I was so moved by these glimpses into people’s lives that I submitted an essay myself. While it didn’t get selected, this book collects ones that did into a textured quilt that reveals what really matters to us as people.

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler
by Trudi Kanter

In 1938, Trudi Kanter was a stunningly beautiful, young Jewish hat designer for the best-dressed women in Vienna, but as Hitler’s tanks rolled into Austria, the world she knew collapsed. This slim, enchanting memoir is the story of how she and her husband fled from Vienna to Prague to London during the Blitz (think “Casablanca,” not “Schindler’s List”).

What Comes Next and How to Like It
by Abigail Thomas

New from the bestselling author of A Three Dog Life comes this exhilarating and superbly written memoir about aging, family, creativity, tragedy, friendship, and the richness of life. Wise and witty, it is a beautiful examination of Abigail Thomas’s life today.