Memorable memoirs

In “The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes that “memoir done right is an art, a made thing.” If memoirists are artists, their work is elucidated through truth, narrative, voice and vulnerability. Vulnerability is allowing yourself the opportunity to be open and honest, disguising your strength as weakness. It is a virtue that relies on mutual trust. It says, for better or worse, “this is me, and please don’t fault me for it.” It must be a scary undertaking for an author to bare all in such a permanent way, virtually stamping their life story onto the pages. A memoirist puts an enormous amount of trust and faith in the readers and asks them to read their words with an open mind and an open heart. I find this amount of authors’ trust in their readers refreshing.

I am also drawn to the sense of human connection I feel when I read memoirs. We are taught from a young age to hold individuality at a high regard, but it is also comforting to embrace the qualities that make us similar. It is sometimes easy to feel misunderstood or alone in our feelings, but good memoirs seem to hit us with familiarity of the emotions that the authors express. Memoirs make me feel understood and connected. They are a great reminder that regardless of circumstance, we are all human and we all experience the same thoughts and feelings.

I would like to share some of the memoirs that I connected to the most. Some of these are lighter than others and some are heavier and more introspective, but all of them resonated with me in different ways. Perhaps you will find the honesty and vulnerability in these books as valuable as I do.

The Glass Castle – This memoir by Jeanette Walls documents her childhood with an alcoholic father, an inconsistent, flighty mother and her three siblings. Throughout her childhood they move around from one town to the next before finally settling down in a poverty-stricken town in an old, dilapidated house. Although the author’s stories are heartbreaking, she still describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that, despite its profound flaws, gave her the tenacity to carve out a successful life on her own terms.

The Argonauts – The gifted critic and scholar Maggie Nelson breaks ground with her work of “auto theory,” which offers a glimpse into the writer’s mind, body and home. She weaves gender theory in her life experiences, her marriage and experiences as a mother to enrich and empower her words.

Furiously Happy – Jenny Lawson explores her lifelong battle with sometimes debilitating depression and anxiety in a humorous way. You’ll be laughing aloud at Lawson’s wild stories and how she flips a serious topic upside down.

Hyperbole and a Half – This illustrated graphic novel by the blogger Allie Brosh is as funny as it is thought-provoking and reflective. Brosh hilariously depicts her life with her two dogs, her childhood experiences, her struggle with depression and other idiosyncrasies about herself.

Fun Home – Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir is a darkly funny family tale about Bechdel’s childhood experiences and coming-of-age as a woman and lesbian. At its center lies her heartbreaking relationship with her distant father, which produces emotionally complex and poignant reflections and images.

The Light of the World – This is the poet Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir about the grief she experiences from the sudden death of her devoted husband. She reflects about her married life, being a mother and the void she and her two sons feel from this sudden loss. Her rich but lucid prose style is both deeply sorrowful and beautiful.

Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance exposes the gritty truth of life in Appalachia and how a whole culture fell to ruin. Vance uses examples from his life, as well as articles and studies, to explain how families seeking the American dream in the Rust Belt have left families in ruin.

I hope you enjoy some of these titles and others in our biography, autobiography, and memoir collection.

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