Go-To Memoirs: Recommended books for readers & writers

Another question I get asked by readers and writers alike: What are your favorite memoirs? Whether you read memoirs to pass the time or to study the form for writing your own, these six favorites show off a range of voice, approach, style, and story. You may not like them all, but you will like at least one. If not, let me hear it!

Soldier: A Poet's Childhood by June Jordan. Jordan grew up in 1940s New York City, the sole child of West Indies immigrants, and she writes here from that wondering child's POV. Her complicated relationship with her ambitious father--he treated young June more like a son than a daughter--takes center stage, with equally complex race relations in the background. Because she is a Poet (and I do mean with a capital "P," given her stature in the world of arts & letters), even Jordan's prose is poetic. How is this lovely, piercing memoir like a poem? Let me count the ways: lots of airy white space and one-line paragraphs; a structure that is sometimes roundabout but always captivating; every word counts. Highly recommended.

In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country by Kim Barnes. Barnes writes fiction as well as memoir, and she brings a novelist's lush sense of story to her portrait of coming of age in rural Idaho in the 1950s and '60s. Like Jordan, she looks particularly closely at the father-daughter relationship; in this case, the father is a loving but stubborn lumberjack who becomes a domineering born-again Pentecostal right before his daughter's eyes. (Barnes' follow-up memoir, Hungry for the World, is just as captivating, but less universal, as it details a strangely abusive relationship she got entangled with after she left home.) Need I say this is a highly recommended memoir?

Janet Frame

An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame. Born into a poor family in rural New Zealand in 1924, the novelist and short-story author was occasionally incarcerated in mental hospitals because her creativity struck some as a form of craziness. What I love, in addition to her emotional and intellectual intelligence, is her defiance: she had no choice but to pursue her art, regardless of the consequences. Eventually she became one of New Zealand's most acclaimed writers, but this is a window peek into the heart and mind of someone who grows up a Have Not. This is the second slim volume in a trilogy; it was made into one of my favorite movies by one of my favorite filmmakers, Jane Campion. Read it; see it; swim in it. Yep, this, too, is a highly recommended memoir.

The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard. Proving that a Midwest suburban-ish childhood can indeed be fodder for a gripping memoir, Beard astounds with fourteen essay-like chapters that loosely add up to a life. It's the telling more than the tale that carries this: the concrete imagery and direct voice that put you right there sitting on the dock at the lake, watching your mom smoke Salems at the kitchen table, and leaning your forehead against the window screen, "breathing in the night air and the funereal scent of roses." I must give this a "highly recommended memoir" star, as well.

Maybe someone Mary Karr once knew in Texas wore these boots.

The Liar's Club by Mary Karr. Another poet, and therefore another memoir as stunning as a poem, with pitch-perfect prose. Plus, Karr's got the kind of life story that's just begging to be made into a book: raised in East Texas to larger-than-life parents (her mother was married seven times) who drank and fought and pulled guns and generally raised hell. Still, someone else could have told this story and made a bad book; it's Karr's how, as well as her what, that makes this so astonishing. Simply put: a highly recommended memoir.

To Have Not by Frances Lefkowitz. Sorry, how could I not? Growing up poor, white, and female in urban San Francisco in the 1970s, Lefkowitz (that would be me) looks at the nuances of race and class in America and tries to make sense of the cosmic sense of deprivation that affects even the Haves. This also peers rather deeply into the nuances of a complicated mother-daughter relationship. Like Boys of My Youth, these chapters could easily stand alone--and many of them did, as personal essays first published in The Sun magazine. Would it just be too too to place this on the highly recommended memoir list as well? I don't want to try your patience...

Now, let me put the question to you: What are your favorite memoirs? I mean the ones that you would call, with no hesitation, highly recommended?

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