How do you answer when people ask what you like to read? My response is often something along the lines of “Oh, everything,” and for the most part that’s true. Working in the book world exposes me to so many amazing forms of writing from literary novels or epic family sagas to historical arguments and political biographies to pop culture essays and beach reads. But in my heart of hearts, I know I’m always looking for a page-turning story, an emotional connection to the people within the pages, and to learn something new. This means I often gravitate toward novels with big escapist plotlines. But some of my most memorable reads have been memoirs, and of those memoirs, the ones that really resonate are those that use the form in an interesting, fresh way. Here are five of my most recommended, unconventional memoirs.
Newsrooms around the nation wept when news broke of journalist David Carr’s sudden death in 2015, saddened by the loss of a much-loved mentor and brilliant reporter whose writing and guidance touched many over the years. But before he was a lauded writer and editor, Carr was a strung-out cocaine addict putting his life—and the lives of those he loved—in danger in the relentless pursuit of his next high. In this bracingly honest memoir, Carr turns his honed investigative eye on his own history, especially the memories that a combination of blackouts and repression have left blank. The result is a stunning, emotional fact check of the past and utterly gripping journey through addiction, recovery, cancer, and life as a single parent.
Here’s a not-so-secret quirk of mine: I am obsessed with female solo-adventure stories. When I heard about BLEAKER HOUSE, it felt like Christmas: a woman choosing to venture to a desolate and remote island with only penguins and her ambition to complete a novel for her company? Meditations on writing in solitude while fighting the paranoia brought on by living alone on a pile of rocks in the Falklands? Reflections on the memories driving her to write and the mental tangle of confronting the difficulties of pursuing your dreams with absolutely no distractions? Except, maybe, the distraction of living on 1,085 calorie diet of raisins, powdered soup, granola bars, and Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Admittedly, Stevens is more of a writer than an expert meal planner; and she alternates between a chronicle of her island days and the novel she’s penning. This refreshing combination, enhanced by her humor, earnestness, and genuine struggles living alone, is something everyone should experience. On the page, of course, no need for us all to go into island exile . . .
If I told you this was a book about plants, you’d probably just keep scrolling, right? What if I told you this is a book about how one woman found sanctuary, wisdom, and joy in studying the lives of trees, seeds, flowers, and soil? And that its poetic exploration of geo-biology and contemplation of the relationships between all things—roots and earth, man and nature, water and seeds, lab partner and friend—collectively make for one of the most beautiful and thoughtful works of nature writing I’ve ever encountered. I’m allergic to anything to do with a lab (big surprise), but Hope Jahren’s interwoven memories of a stoic Minnesota girlhood and efforts to break into the male-dominated sphere of earth sciences pairs lyrically with her ability to capture just how fascinating the natural world can be and how it deserves our love and attention.
While other books on this list showcase historic moments in science history, this is a memoir by a woman working in science today. Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories around the study of trees, flowers, seeds, and soil, but this book is also a meditation on work, love, and passion.
Remember what I was saying about female solo adventurers? Imagine MOTORCYCLES I’VE LOVED as the love child of Cheryl Strayed’s WILD and Robert M. Pirsig’s ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, but with even more of a poet’s eye for detail and the emotional resonance of a smart young woman who appreciates that all who wander are not lost. Brooks-Dalton found herself at age twenty-one returning to her New England home after years building a life abroad. Heartsick and more than a little unsure about next steps, she’s inspired by a friend’s motorcycle purchase and begins exploring the world of gears, momentum, and life on the open road. Begun as a distraction, Brooks-Dalton’s journey through bikes and self-discovery becomes an empowering search for what drives her and what propels us all.
For the longest time whenever I saw a wine list, my choices were driven by a series of embarrassingly straightforward questions: Was I pairing it with chicken or fish (white) or red meat (red); do I see a pinot noir (first sipped with my parents thus always my go-to); or is there a sauvignon blanc (also often spotted in Mom and Dad’s fridge) on the menu? Did I get paid that week or am I sticking to the house red? Fortunately, my taste and opinions have evolved, largely thanks to multiple viewings of Somm, a willingness to spend more than $20 on a bottle, and Bianca Bosker’s hilarious and informative deep dive into the world of enology and journey to become a sommelier. Bosker’s description of how to taste illuminated flavors I’d never known to look for previously, and her wholehearted immersion into trying every wine she could led to cultivating her own palate far beyond where she began her vino education (Her favorite wine before beginning this project? Ones that came in a bottle). For the record, my new order is a nice chenin blanc, a Riesling, or a Chablis. . . . Bottoms up!