12 Great Memoirs

Nathan S. Holmes
7 min readMar 10, 2020

In the past few years, I’ve really enjoyed reading memoirs. So I decided to compile a list of my favorites.

A few guiding principles:

  • Life is too short to read long books. All of these can be finished within a month, and I put a * by the ones you can read in days.
  • I learned from my dad to put down books if I’m not into them. These are books I found deep, genuine pleasure in reading.

The List

The Glass Castle — Jeannette Walls. This book is the standout recommendation on my list. I picked it off the shelf of my local library on a whim last year, and my goodness — I could not put it down. Walls writes about her unconventional family in short, memorable chapters — each one documenting a different home (AZ, CA, VA, NY) or experience. One year later and I still can’t get her characters out of my head. A dazzling tale — my family also loved this one on audiobook.

North of Normal — Cea Sunrise Person. After reading “The Glass Castle,” I looked around for other books about unconventional childhoods, and this book proved just as remarkable. Person first lived with her extended family in the wilderness, and later out of a truck and in shabby apartments with her mother. Her childhood was full of direct exposure to drugs, sex, and irresponsible adults — it’s amazing she made it out to become a healthy adult.

The Color of Water — James McBride. My long-time friend Romel first recommended this book to me, and I later taught it to my 10th graders when I was a high school teacher. The book juxtaposes the author’s childhood growing up black in NYC against the backdrop of his white mother’s orthodox Jewish upbringing in Virginia. McBride’s mother is a fascinating character — her strength and perseverance in escaping a troubled childhood to raise twelve children while mostly by herself and while working a job (!) is simply amazing. When I’m tired dealing with my own kids, I will think of her and get a little perspective.

Barrio Boy — Ernesto Galarza. This is another book I read with my 10th graders, and though most students didn’t love it (a bit dry for them), I adored it. It has marvelous descriptions of people and their places — there are meticulous descriptions of daily life in the tiny Mexican mountain village where he was born and the dense urban neighborhood (“barrio”) in Sacramento where his family landed in the US. I sometimes wonder if this played a sub-conscious role in my getting into the field of urban planning.

Paris to the Moon — Adam Gopnick + Italian Neighbors — Tim Parks. Both of these books are primarily about places. “Paris to the Moon” is about an American writer’s life in Paris with his wife and small child, while “Italian Neighbors” is about an English writer’s first year living in a tiny Italian town. Gopnik and Parks are excellent writers who capture all the interesting people, humorous experiences, and cultural idiosyncrasies of their new surroundings.

To read each book is to disappear into these places — they are perfect books for just dipping into a few times a week and not having to worry about remembering the plot. I should also put in a nod here to the charming memoir/travel/food hybrid book Eating Rome, by the American author Elizabeth Minchilli, who lives in Rome. That book also has recipes, so it’s hard to categorize. But it’s great!

Stitches — David Small*. I found this author’s memoir by accident. His artwork appeared in some children’s books that I read to my daughters— The Gardener is a wonderful book — and when I went looking for more of his work, I found Small’s graphic novel memoir. This true-life tale of his childhood is terrifying. Small ends up running away from home and his cruel family while in high school. He is a brilliant artist, and this is a powerful book.

MAUS — Art Spiegalman*. This is another graphic novel memoir (one I taught to my students), and it centers on the experience that Spiegelman’s mother and father had during the Holocaust. That story would be powerful on its own, but what makes this book a work of genius is the way Spiegalman weaves his own difficult relationship with his father into the story, as well as his self-doubt being an artist making comics about the Holocaust.

Fierce Attachments — Vivian Gornick. The structure of “Fierce Attachments” weaves back and forth between the author’s walks around NYC with her mother in the present day, and flashbacks to events from her life growing up with her mom in a Jewish neighborhood in Manhattan. I’m breaking my my “easy read” rule a bit here, because this book can be challenging (some abstract imagery, symbolism, etc.) and the intense focus on her mother becomes a bit much for my taste. But some of the sentences and passages are so beautifully written, and the “fierce” relationship is conveyed with honesty and complexity.

The Memory Chalet — Tony Judt*. A short book from the historian Tony Judt that he wrote as ALS ravaged his body and he ceased being able to even move his hands to write. At night Judt would sit is the dark, unable to sleep yet unable to move his body, and reflect on his past. This book is a collection of those reflections, and describes an assortment of things from his life: the food in post-war London, the English bus system, his time as a student in France during the 1960’s. I loved this book, which moves seamlessly between personal memories and intellectual ideas.

Once upon an Isle: The Story of Fishing Families on Isle Royale — Howard Sivertson*. I found this gem on the shelf of a used bookstore, and its pages capture a place and and culture that are now gone forever. Isle Royale is a collection of islands in Lake Superior that would fill up with fishermen and their families during fishing season. Sivertson is an artist who grew up on one of these islands, and this book shows what their rough, rustic life was like through his paintings and a very brief essay that accompanies each painted scene. It’s a simple book, but the blend of art and descriptions of the island’s daily rhythms evoke what life was like in these simpler, leaner times.

Humans of New York: Stories — Brandon Stanton*. Okay — this is not technically a memoir; rather, it is a collection of photos the author took of people around New York City, combined with excerpts from a short interview of each person. But I’m counting each one as a miniature memoir, and they are almost without exception all wonderful: some are deep, some are whimsical, some are joyful, some make you want to cry. I was so moved by this book. It shows people as we are. I enjoyed the original Humans of New York Book too, but this second “Stories” book expands on the interview portions and is more powerful for it.

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There you have it — a list of great memoirs and memoir-type books. These are not the “best” memoirs out there, just the ones I happened to come across and enjoyed. Perhaps you will too.

See an overview of the other things I’ve written at the link here.