I read A LOT of memoirs. They're kind of like the Pringles of the book world: y' know, once you pop, the fun don't stop. There's just something super-appealing (and OK, maybe a tad intellectually voyeuristic) about reading a beautifully written memoir. Who doesn't love inhibiting other lives and lands for a few hundred pages? Or how about that great moment when a memoir writer says exactly what you've been thinking about your own life? Plus, there's something pretty badass about a writer who is brave enough to take ownership over her own story.
Sure, maybe everybody doesn't love memoir as much as I do. And maybe everybody's life shouldn't become a memoir. But love or hate the genre, you'll be hard-pressed to argue that the gorgeous stories below aren't worthy of the paper they're printed on. From 1900s China and Civil Rights-era Alabama, to a mysterious Moroccan haram and an African country that no longer exists, these memoirs will transport you across time and space in a way that only the very best novels have been known to do.
Ready to take a trip down memoir-lane with me? Then check out these 13 memoirs that are so beautifully written, you'll think they're actually novels.
Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith
This first memoir from the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet is a quiet storm of gorgeous, colorful prose that will pull you into Smith's story and make it difficult for you to leave. Ordinary Light is one writer's coming-of-age story, framed by tensions of race and religion, illness and heartbreak, and the bonds of family. Smith's story traverses generations and cultures, taking readers from Civil Rights-era Alabama — the backdrop of her parents upbringing, to her own formative experiences growing up in California, and later attending Harvard. Smith writes in voice that is both raw and humble, honest and beautiful. Don't miss this one. A word to the wise: Don't read it on an empty stomach, either.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
This entirely heartstopping memoir opens when the author, Jeannette Walls, sees her homeless mother rummaging through a dumpster on the streets of New York City, from the window of her passing taxi cab. She does not ask the driver to stop. From here the author's unbelievable childhood is untangled, as Walls writes of her unpredictable and bohemian upbringing — her parents’ unbearable irresponsibility, their personal failings and violence, their ill conceptions of childrearing, their stubbornness, and ultimately, their wholly imperfect beauty. This memoir, filled with characters you will simultaneously love and hate, tests the limits of forgiveness, and survival.
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
If you've never heard of memoirist Alexandra Fuller's homeland, Rhodesia, don't go looking for it on any map. During her childhood there, it was a conflict-torn, unrecognized state in the southern heart of Africa, and has since become Zimbabwe. It is this backdrop of civil war and political tension that informed Fuller's nomadic upbringing, as she and her European-born family move across Africa, fleeing one conflict zone after another. There is something Gatsby-esque about this memoir, filled with intensely vibrant imagery that places you directly on the African continent alongside Fuller. Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight tells the story of one family's inescapable, unfailing love for a land that is not their own, but that they cannot bare to part with, even though staying might kill them.
Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mernissi
This memoir tells a story of the Muslim world rarely seen — even by those who live in it. Author Fatima Mernissi grew up in 1940s and '50s Morocco, behind the tall, marble walls of a harem. Forbidden from accessing the outside world, save the illicit glances stolen from the harem rooftop, the women of Mernissi's insulated existence created worlds of their own instead. This memoir reads like a real-life telling of Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights , though Mernissi makes clear that the luxury and exocitism of her childhood existed almost entire through story, and not in daily harem life. Dreams of Trespass is a spellbinding testament to the power of imagination.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
From quickly learning that "fun home," contrary to what the name might suggest, is actually how author Alison Bechdel and her siblings refer to the funeral home their father owns, there is no end to the unexpected twists and turns that this impeccably illustrated graphic memoir has to offer. Bechdel, a polisher of caskets who wishes to be a cowboy, tells of being raised by her emotionally distant father — a closeted homosexual who only manages to bond with his daughter over the occasional sharing of books. By the memoir's end, you'll learn that Bechdel's father isn't the only character with secrets to share.
The Liars Club by Mary Karr
Told in the spirit of a great, classic wild West story, The Liar's Club is the unflinching tale of writer Mary Karr's rough-and-tumble Texan childhood. Her father is a brusque man of the oil industry; her mother is flighty, and rather out of place in the Texas terrain; and her younger sister is a character who punches first, asks questions later, and is quick to brandish a firearm. Beautiful in a dusty, unsparing, skinned-knees kind of way, Mary Karr's memoir is ultimately the story of a woman whose life is informed by the landscape she left behind.
False Papers by André Aciman
In this memoir told through essay, writer André Aciman explores what it means to be an exile — geographically and emotionally. Aciman travels from Egypt to the United States, Italy, Bethlehem, Paris, Rome, Manhattan, Cambridge and Naples, only to realize that no matter where he is on the globe, his heart and mind will always live in his homeland of Alexandria, Egypt. The sense of loneliness, loss, and displacement is palpable, even as Aciman describes the beauty of his much-traveled world. He is a man whose surroundings are always informed by the things that aren't there, and this book is stunning in a heartbreak-that-hurts-too-good kind of way.
Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick
Few relationships are more fraught than that between a mother and daughter, and this memoir is almost savage in the way it dives into the dynamics between writer Vivian Gornick and her heartsick, willfully-depressed mother. In this memoir, Gornick looks back on the contrasting influences of her childhood — two women who were both widowed, but who engage with their suffering in drastically different ways. This memoir zeroes in on what it means to become a woman, and what it means to continue to evolve that sense of self, even well into adulthood.
Island of Bones by Joy Castro
As a baby, writer Joy Castro was adopted by a family of Cuban-American Jehovah’s Witnesses, a wholly uncommon experience that undoubtedly left the writer questioning where she came from, where she belongs, and what her true identity might be. This memoir, told through essay, almost seems to vibrate with Castro's anger and sense of loss, as she describes running away from home at fourteen, her young pregnancy and subsequent single motherhood, the suicide of her father, and the power (and failed promises) of a college education. Castro wields language, both English and Spanish, so stunningly that her words are best read slowly and lingered over.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
Memoirist Jung Chang's grandmother was a concubine to a Chinese warlord, her mother a member of the Chinese Communist elite, and Chang herself led a varied existence, beginning with her teenage membership into a radical, counter-revolutionary youth group known as Chairman Mao's Red Guard, to her experiences in one physically laborious trade after another. So, this lady definitely needed to write a memoir. Chang offers a unique perspective on the history of modern China, as experienced by three generations of women who could not have been more different from one another, but whose strength of spirit ties them all together.
The Caliph's House by Tahir Shah
The Afghan-English Tahir Shah writes about moving his family from London to Casablanca, a decision made on a whim, which almost immediately takes their lives from commonplace to extraordinary. The Caliph's House is the stuff of fairytale — from the exotic landscape; to the cast of characters Shah employs, who are set to defy his wishes at every turn; to the much-revered jinns who are believed to cause trouble left and right unless catered to with old-world rituals. Culture shock doesn't even begin to describe what this memoir has in store for you.
An American Childhood by Annie Dillard
This memoir reads something like Little House on the Prairie for grown ups. Minor switch, though: writer Annie Dillard's childhood is set in 1950s Pittsburgh, instead of the late 1800s midwest. Dillard's prose, which seamlessly wavers between the voice of her childhood self and her adult perspective is both sensitive and hilarious. Dillard was the kind of self-aware child who is adored, albeit approached with a bit of wary skepticism. Her writing elevates baseball games and babysitting to the stuff of great art.
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
If you don't have a serious girl crush on Beryl Markham by the end of this memoir, then you simply haven't read it right. Markham, who grew up in the British-colonized region of Kenya as an adventure-sports aficionado and pilot, is the ultimate hero of her own self-made story. Amongst myriad other accomplishments (including being know as an all-around quintessential beauty... check out that cover photo, right?) Markham became the first woman to pilot an airplane across the Atlantic east-to-west entirely on her own. Beautiful and inspiring.
Image: Simon Cocks/Flickr