I’ve been on something of a memoir kick recently. I’m usually a fiend for fiction and rarely pick up books in the nonfiction section of bookstores. But I thought I’d try something different, and I happily discovered the power of memoir in forging human connection and recounting remarkable life stories. Here are 13 of the most powerful, inspiring, and touching memoirs I’ve ever read.
13 of the Most Powerful Memoirs I’ve Ever Read
Everyone has been raving about this memoir-and for good reason. Astounding and incredibly moving, EDUCATED is Tara Westover's story of growing up in the mountains of Idaho with her survivalist Mormon family and leaving them behind in search of an education and a new life. It's a powerful tale of fierce family loyalty and the paralyzing grief that comes from severing one's closest ties.
In his memoir of being a child soldier in Sierra Leone's civil war, Ishmael Beah describes how, at the age of only 12, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land that was marred by violence. By age 13, Beah was picked up by the government army and turned into a killer armed with an AK-47. Told with heartbreaking honesty, A LONG WAY GONE is a rare and mesmerizing account of how one person went through hell and survived.
What is war like through the eyes of a child soldier? How does one become a killer? How does one stop? Never before has there been a first-person account from someone who went through this hell and survived. In A LONG WAY GONE, Ishmael Beah recounts his story with heartbreaking honesty: how at the age of 12, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By 13, he’d been picked up by the government army and found that he was capable of truly terrible acts. This is a rare and mesmerizing account, told with urgent importance and literary force.
As someone severely afraid of dying, I was a little nervous to read Maggie O'Farrell's memoir about the 17 near-death experiences that punctuated her life. But I ended this book feeling oddly hopeful and grateful to be alive. This one's perfect for fans of WILD by Cheryl Strayed or THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion.
Edith Eger is one of the few living Holocaust survivors to remember the horrors of the camps. She was 16 when the Nazis came to her hometown in Hungary and took her Jewish family to an internment center and then to Auschwitz. Though she says without pause "it was hell," she has chosen not to remain a victim and to find joy in her life every day. Eger's message is powerful and important: Your pain matters, but you can choose to be free.
New Yorker writer Ariel Levy thought she had life figured out at age 38. She was married, pregnant, finally secure, and successful. A month later, none of that was true. Levy hurls readers through her story of building this life and watching it all fall apart with debilitating speed. THE RULES DO NOT APPLY is brutal and revelatory and unflinching and deeply intimate.
I decided to read THE COLOR OF WATER after Ann Patchett recommended it during an interview with Reese Witherspoon. To be fair, I'd buy almost anything if Patchett and Witherspoon told me to-but this book is truly exceptional. James McBride writes about his mother's remarkable life, as well as his own upbringing as a mixed-race child of poverty. THE COLOR OF WATER is a vivid portrait of growing up, a haunting meditation on race, and a love letter from a son to his mother.
As a young man, James McBride saw his mother as a source of embarrassment, worry, and confusion—and reached thirty before he began to discover the truth about her early life and long-buried pain. Here, he retraces his mother’s story and her searing, spirited voice.
As someone who also grew up in a Baptist church in small town, I was immediately intrigued by Garrard Conley's story. BOY ERASED chronicles Conley's struggle to be accepted as a gay man in his community. When outed to his parents at age 19, Conley was given a choice: attend a church-supported conversation therapy program to get "cured" or lose his family, friends, and religion. This is a stunning testament to love that endures despite all odds.
You always know you're in for an incredible experience when you read Roxane Gay. In her most vulnerable and candid book yet, Gay explores what it means to be overweight in a world that doesn't accept unruly bodies. She uses her own emotional and psychological struggles to explore our shared anxieties and to examine how a devastating act of physical violence forever altered her life.
The Tragic Wives' Swimming Club meets to cope with the extreme challenges of life. Swimming is one of the many ways Ruth Fitzmaurice copes with her husband's ALS diagnosis. As she recounts the story of their marriage and her husband's decline, Fitzmaurice also describes her passion for swimming in the wild Irish Sea. This is a book that beseeched readers to love as hard as they can, and to live even harder.
MOTHERS OF SPARTA is not a parenting book and it's not a blow-by-blow of Dawn Davies's life. It's a beautiful reflection on the exquisite, often painful moments of a life. Davies writes about being a young girl who moves every few years-feeling adrift in her twenties and alone in a new city, having difficult pregnancies and postpartum depression, being a divorcée who unexpectedly finds new love. This is a surprisingly funny book about carving out a place for oneself in the world.
An instant sensation, H IS FOR HAWK is Helen Macdonald's story of adopting and raising a hawk while she deals with immense grief after her father's death. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.
I know I've already professed my love for THE BRIGHT HOUR many times, but it wouldn't feel right to omit it from this list. Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, this exquisite memoir by a woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 37 is a gentle reminder how to live and love every day.
This is the true story of a fiery young woman's heartwarming and hilarious healing journey that takes her from near-death in California to a trip around the world in search of her ultimate salvation. Along the way, she discovers a world of cultural mayhem, radical medical treatment, an unexpected romance, and, most importantly, a piece of her life she never even knew she was missing. This travel memoir is perfect for fans of EAT, PRAY, LOVE.