More Memoirs I've Loved
I love a good memoir, one that offers a glimpse or a deep dive into the life and pivotal experiences of another person. For me, the best memoir makes you feel some of the author's feelings and understand their perspective. This is a genre of books I often like to listen to in the form of audiobooks read by the author, because I love hearing a person tell their own story.
My to-read list of memoirs is so long it's crushing and overwhelming, but some of those I'd like to read next include:
The Ugly Cry by Danielle Henderson;
Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile;
Speak, Okinawa by Elizabeth Miki Brina;
Somebody's Daughter by Ashley C. Ford; and
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig.
Have you read any of these books? I'd love to hear what you thought! Which other books should I add to my memoir to-read list?
01 A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa
Ishikawa, who is half-Korean, half-Japanese, and who lived under oppressive totalitarian rule for thirty-six years, tells a fascinating story of his life in North Korea--and of his gripping escape.
The promise of better work and stronger education for the children lured Ishikawa's family from Japan to North Korea. But reality was a far cry from the promised utopia. The author traces a tragic cycle of bureaucratic ignorance and force, hunger and desperation, cruelty, and resignation.
This short memoir digs into the author’s repeated experience with North Korean horrors and despair—and sets these experiences in contrast to his prior life and heartbreaking knowledge of the free, if difficult, world of his youth in poverty in Japan.
The version of this book that I read was riddled with typos, which I imagine came about during the translation from the author's original Japanese account.
For another set of accounts of life in North Korea, try Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. My book club read this fascinating book, and I think Demick does an excellent job of exploring the brainwashing, isolation, and fear in North Korea, while building the stories of caring families and their everyday lives in which the madness is normalized.
02 This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps
Celebrity memoir time!
I first saw Busy Philipps acting on my beloved Dawson's Creek many years ago, and since then, I've remained vaguely aware of her best-friendship with Michelle Williams, her various acting roles, and her candid social media presence.
In This Will Only Hurt a Little, Philipps conversationally takes us through her youth in Scottsdale, Arizona, her awkward years, her discovery of her comedic leanings, her friendships, and her loves, mistakes, victories, and joys. She's frank about her missteps and she embraces an active-work-in-progress approach to her personal growth and learning.
I listened to Busy read this in audiobook form. It’s interesting to hear experiences a person believes has shaped his or her life, and in This Will Only Hurt a Little, Philipps offers tales from childhood and Hollywood that affected her positively or negatively, while never flinching from laying bare her own regrettable, brave, stumbling, or confident decisions, trials, and adventures.
03 Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Lockwood is a poet, and her view of the world is entertainingly quirky and off kilter. Her father the priest is an outrageous real-life character in Priestdaddy, and Lockwood works to present him as appealingly so. Late in the book she openly laments at how difficult this is (she worries, “I️ can only write down what you say”). Her tone is loyal while remaining brutal and honest. Her mother is presented sympathetically while coming off as odd, and Lockwood herself takes on a somewhat unhinged tone while recounting off-kilter periods for the family.
There’s silliness, dark humor, and life-and-death tragedy—for example, the discovery of a nearby toxic waste dump as a likely reason for widespread and devastating health effects in the community.
Lockwood notes that she is not a Christian but is very much “of” the church because of her upbringing. Her exploration of rituals, abuses of power in she's witnessed, and her own present-day participation in traditions felt most interesting to me.
Lockwood is also the author of No One Is Talking About This, a book that is odd, disturbing, and likely not everyone's cup of tea. But it's truly unlike anything I have ever read, and the second section, which is an enormous departure in tone from section one, brought me repeatedly to tears. Please let me know if you've read this one!
04 Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
Shapiro shares her shock at discovering (via a DNA test taken on a whim in her mid-fifties) that her biological identity as the descendant of two lines of Orthodox Jews is not accurate.
The parents who raised her are no longer alive to question, and with this discovery, Dani voraciously challenges her own sense of self and is shaken to her core.
She wonders about whether she has a claim to beloved extended relatives who shaped her life but are not, after all, blood relations; she reflects on her religious and cultural integrity and identity; she worries about her predispositions to heretofore unknown genetic health issues; and she considers her potential legacy to her own child—all while panicking about who she is after all and how she can possibly trust what she has believed to be the truth about almost anything anymore.
Through practical research, lengthy reflection, and delving into the grief and the increasing layers of loss she feels, Shapiro eventually allows herself to feel hope and a growing peace regarding the likely truth—as well as a sense of freedom in having a more fluid sense of herself as a person.
I thought Inheritance was fascinating, thoughtful, jarring, and just lovely.
05 Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur
Brodeur was always captivated by her mother and her magnetic personality. Her mother confided her darkest secrets to young Brodeur as though she was a friend, and she drew the teenaged Brodeur in as an accomplice to her longtime extramarital affair.
I feared that reading this memoir was going to make me feel like the worst type of voyeur—that the details of the affair at the center of this story might make me feel uncomfortable at best and would feel tawdry at worst.
But the story was ultimately more about an emotionally stunted mother, her codependence on her adolescent daughter, and how the author unraveled the many smothering ties to the woman whose conditional love and affection directed her life for too many years.
Brodeur is a measured writer who thoughtfully considers her youth, her infatuation with and reliance on her mother (who throughout her life is only concerned with her own impulses and desires), and how her own eventual personal growth drove a rift between her and the mother she idolized, a shift that changed everything forever.
Wild Game was really interesting and a quick, engrossing read that surprised me with its depth.
I was given a copy of this book by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
06 My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul
Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, writing in her mid-forties, recounts her dedication to a single book, one of her own making. She's carefully taken this book to Thailand, Paris, and London, shuffling it from apartment to apartment where it holds a place of honor and has for twenty-eight years. It's a book listing each of the books Paul has read to date.
The Book of [Read] Books (which she affectionately calls Bob) reflects the author's hopes, dreams, adventures, and searches for meaning, while her life and the conditions within it affect the books she seeks out and dives into at different points of her life.
My Life with Bob is also an examination of a reader's relationship with books, with reading, and with the paralyzing, never-ending, constantly expanding list of titles that make up a to-read list:
“At this point, there is no human way that I could read even those books I've deliberately marked as absolute must-reads. . . . This is every reader's catch-22: the more you read, the more you realize you haven't read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing. There is no way to finish, and perhaps that shouldn't be the goal.”
Paul delves fully into her meandering post-college years--during which Bob provides more structure in her life than anything else does. She dabbles in exploring her more recent life and reading habits as well in this thoughtful, unpretentious, gloriously nerdy, and lovable book.