I remember the first memoir I ever read. It was Gypsy: Memoirs of America's Most Celebrated Stripper by Gypsy Rose Lee. I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, and it was one of those books that completely stuck with me (and not just because of the age inappropriate content). There's something about a well-written memoir that's just as magical as any fantasy. You're completely pulled into someone else's life, and you walk away feeling that you know that person inside and out, even though you've never even met. (Or at least, you walk away having vicariously experienced one stripper's rise from obscurity to international fame.)
Memoirs can remind you that everything is going to turn out OK, and you're not alone, even when you're going through rough times. Memoirs can introduce you to cultures, families, and lifestyles that are completely outside of your day-to-day existence. Memoirs can inspire you to go out there and do that thing that's going to make for a great chapter when you write your own memoir one day.
And there are just so many memoirs out there, from every walk of life: quippy showbiz memoirs for when you need a laugh, overcoming adversity memoirs for when you need a lift, dysfunctional family memoirs for when you need reminding that your own family isn't so weird. So check out just a few of the truly great memoirs that every woman should read:
1. Bossypants by Tina Fey
OK, I have to confess that I just can't resist a good showbiz memoir. But Tina Fey's Bossypants truly is required reading for any fan of comedy or anyone who's every struggled with trying to have it all. Tina Fey is candid about her early days as a full-on nerd, her climb up the comedy ladder, and her apathetic beauty regimes. She's just as funny as ever, and quite insightful when it comes to reminding young women that beauty standards are nonsense and being the boss is tough (but so worth it).
2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
There's a reason that you'll find Maya Angelou on almost any list of great memoirs. This is not an easy book to read — Maya Angelou is heartbreakingly honest about the challenges and abuse she faced throughout her childhood. And yet, her prose is so transcendent, and her story is so powerful, that this is ultimately a book of resilience. She survives through abandonment, violence, and bigotry, and lives to write about her own childhood trauma with incredible strength.
3. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Yes, this is the same Bechdel from the "Bechdel Test." But Alison Bechdel is much more than that: Fun Home is the graphic memoir of her childhood, and her complex relationship with her father. Because both Alison and her father grew up in the same small town, and both of them were gay, and he killed himself, and she became a lesbian cartoonist. Bechdel writes and draws with great intelligence and humor, and her "family tragicomic" is beautifully touching.
4. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
If you only know the Disney version of the Mulan myth, Maxine Hong Kingston is here to set you straight. She weaves her personal memories of growing up in California with her family's past, and stories from Chinese mythology. The result is a memoir of female strength across countries and centuries, merging fiction with non-fiction in a dazzling coming-of-age story. Kingston's search for identity delves deep into her own ancestry, but the emotions she explores are entirely universal.
5. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
If you've somehow managed to make it this far without reading Persepolis, drop everything and find your nearest copy. It's a graphic memoir about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, and it's a story about growing up in general, and it's a hilarious and gut-wrenching book that everyone needs to read. Satrapi herself just happens to be a great-granddaughter of one of Iran's last emperors, and her childhood is wrapped up in the historic turmoil of her country. But her sharp wit and bold artwork are identifiable across the globe.
6. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
I warned you that I'm a sucker for showbiz ladies. If you need a break from memoirs about war, suicide, and child abuse, may I suggest Mindy Kaling. Look, you don't necessarily need to write about the heavy stuff to write a hysterical, wildly relatable memoir about being a young comedy writer and being a young woman in general. Kaling is just so damned witty and wonderful, all without sacrificing the candid details that make a memoir worth reading over and over again.
7. Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
Janet Mock is basically a goddess, and her memoir does not disappoint. She writes with such kindness and understanding about her own turbulent youth: She navigated her teenage years largely without parental support, struggling through a gender transition on her own. But from a rocky start, she went on to earn a master's degree, find love, and become a passionate political activist. Just try to read this book and not be inspired by her radical self-acceptance. It can't be done.
8. Thinking in Pictures: My Life With Autism by Temple Grandin
Temple Grandin is an incredibly successful animal scientist. She also lectures on autism across the country — because she herself is autistic, and she wants everyone to understand her unique perspective on the world. This book is essential to understand the many, many different perspectives that make up the human race, and Grandin explains her own worldview with clarity and detail. She does, in fact, think in pictures, but it has never stopped her from being a gifted scientist and writer, and one who is so willing to share her brilliant life with others.
9. Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher
Who doesn't love Carrie Fisher? I mean... she's Carrie Fisher. And this is her autobiography. Or as she calls it, a "really, really detailed personals ad." And that's why you should read it. Her parents were celebrities, she was in Star Wars, she's struggled for years with addiction and bipolar disorder, and she can take all of that and spin it into a deadpan laugh riot. She's just the best. Read this book.