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Author Picks: 6 Memoirs That Stuck with Me Long after the Last Page

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The writer Graham Greene was recovering from an appendicostomy in Westminster Hospital when a ten-year-old boy on his ward suddenly died. The boy’s mother was inconsolable, and all the other patients plugged their ears to block out her cries—all except Greene, who watched, and listened, and almost certainly made detailed notes.

“There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer,” he writes in his memoir, A Sort of Life. “This was something which one day I might need.”

It’s a chilling scene. But as I discovered when working on my own memoir—Featherhood, a story about fathers and birds—writing can often feel like a crime. What sort of monster, after all, publicly dissects life’s most intimate moments—the death of a father, the birth of a child—for the pleasure of an unknown reader? A storytelling monster. A writer. Below are some of my favorite line-crossing, boundary-challenging memoirs, which expand the territory of the written word—and thereby our minds.

All My Cats
by Bohumil Hrabal

In 1965, the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal had it made. His first published works had sold well enough for him to buy a weekend cottage an hour’s drive from Prague, which he filled with a herd of adoring cats. Except the cats came to colonize his mind, with terrible consequences for both the author and the cats. By turns shocking, brutal, and tender, this is an animal memoir like no other.

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All My Cats
Bohumil Hrabal

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Author Picks: 6 Memoirs That Stuck with Me Long after the Last Page

By Charlie Gilmour | February 25, 2021

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Patrimony
by Philip Roth

“I won’t tell anyone,” Philip Roth says to his father, Herman who, thanks to a debilitating brain tumor, had just “beshat himself” and sworn his son to secrecy. “Nobody,” the writer promises—on page 122 of this unsparing account of his father’s final years. Roth’s explicit intent in writing the book was to keep his father alive—in print at least. “I must remember accurately,” Roth tells himself. “Remember accurately so that when he is gone, I can re-create the father who created me.” The result is a stunningly vivid dual portrait of father and son.

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Patrimony
Philip Roth

While Roth is best known for his fiction, PATRIMONY might just be his most emotional and thought-provoking work. As he watches his 86-year-old father suffer from a brain tumor that will inevitably kill him, Roth documents and details each stage of the fight, revealing a much larger history of stubbornness and survival.

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The Chronology of Water
by Lidia Yuknavitch

Like water, this story of love, loss, and the healing power of art is powerfully unpredictable: sometimes buoying the reader blissfully along, at other times threatening to drown. This is an elemental tale that probes swimming, motherhood, desire, addiction, abuse, and recovery in free-flowing prose.

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The Chronology of Water
Lidia Yuknavitch

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The Argonauts
by Maggie Nelson

Author Maggie Nelson becomes pregnant by IVF at the same time that her transgender lover, the artist Harry Dance, has testosterone treatment and breast removal surgery. Nelson’s account of that time is radical in both form and content, defying definition.

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The Argonauts
Maggie Nelson

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Mind on Fire
by Arnold Thomas Fanning

This truly extraordinary memoir by Irish playwright Arnold Thomas Fanning places the reader immediately in the driving seat of a vehicle that is wildly out of control. The opening pages hurtle through a manic episode, during which the author spares himself no humiliation. A brave story of illness and recovery.

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Mind on Fire
Arnold Thomas Fanning

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Zami
by Audre Lorde

Is it a memoir? Is it a novel? The author herself called it a “biomythography” and in it she tells of growing up in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s, the (often harsh) love of her mother, and the love she finds as a gay black radical in Mexico and New York—all told in vivid, often poetic prose.

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Zami
Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde’s poetic memoir winds its way through the gay girl bars of the West Village in the 1950s. “It was hard enough to be Black, to be Black and female, to be Black, female, and gay. To be Black, female, gay, and out of the closet in a white environment...was considered by many Black lesbians to be simply suicidal.‎” Published in 1982.

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Featherhood
by Charlie Gilmour

FEATHERHOOD is out now!

One spring day, a baby magpie falls out of its nest and into Charlie Gilmour’s hands. Magpies, he soon discovers, are as clever and mischievous as monkeys. They are also notorious thieves, and this one quickly steals his heart. By the time the creature develops shiny black feathers that inspire the name Benzene, Charlie and the bird have forged an unbreakable bond.

While caring for Benzene, Charlie learns his biological father, an eccentric British poet named Heathcote Williams who vanished when Charlie was six months old, is ill. As he grapples with Heathcote’s abandonment, Charlie comes across one of his poems, in which Heathcote describes how an impish young jackdaw fell from its nest and captured his affection. Over time, Benzene helps Charlie unravel his fears about repeating the past—and embrace the role of father himself.

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Featherhood
Charlie Gilmour

“I loved every single page.” —Elton John

“The best piece of nature writing since H is for Hawk.” —Neil Gaiman

​In this moving, critically acclaimed memoir, a young man saves a baby magpie as his estranged father is dying, only to find that caring for the mischievous bird saves him.

One spring day, a baby magpie falls out of its nest and into Charlie Gilmour’s hands. Magpies, he soon discovers, are as clever and mischievous as monkeys. They are also notorious thieves, and this one quickly steals his heart. By the time the creature develops shiny black feathers that inspire the name Benzene, Charlie and the bird have forged an unbreakable bond.

While caring for Benzene, Charlie learns his biological father, an eccentric British poet named Heathcote Williams who vanished when Charlie was six months old, is ill. As he grapples with Heathcote’s abandonment, Charlie comes across one of his poems, in which Heathcote describes how an impish young jackdaw fell from its nest and captured his affection. Over time, Benzene helps Charlie unravel his fears about repeating the past—and embrace the role of father himself.

A bird falls, a father dies, a child is born. Featherhood is the unforgettable story of a love affair between a man and a bird. It is also a beautiful and affecting memoir about childhood and parenthood, captivity and freedom, grief and love.

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