Since my elementary years, I’ve been as much a fan of nonfiction books as fiction—perhaps even more so. Even as a child, I read biographies by the armload. Back in the 70’s, a memoir was just a specialized autobiography. But in the late 20th century, memoir moved up from subcategory to full-fledged genre. While autobiography attempts to be a cumulative life story from birth to point of publication, memoir never tries to tell every detail of a person’s history. Instead, it’s more narrow, more focused, and tells its story for a particular reason.
I had twice as many memoirs to share when I began this piece, but the post was getting way too long so I cut my list down by half. (In an upcoming newsletter, I’ll include the names of the ones that didn’t make this post.) Left here, though, are brief reviews of seven memoirs that I found riveting and even transformative. They are in alphabetical order by author’s name.
Thin Places, by Mary E. DeMuth, Zondervan, 2010.
I was interested in Celtic theology at the time I read this one, so the title grabbed my attention. DeMuth explains in the introduction to her memoir, “The Celts define a thin place as a place where heaven and the physical world collide, one of those serendipitous territories where eternity and the mundane meet. Thin describes the membrane between the two worlds, like a place of vellum, where we see a holy glimpse of the eternal—not in digital clarity, but clear enough to discern what lies beyond.” What makes DeMuth’s recollection of thin places unique, is the thick and heavy circumstances surrounding her glimpses of the Kingdom. She offers not lovely incidents of good fortune and joy, but painful realities of abandonment and abuse, seeing in many of the horrors of her childhood, the infinite grace of God. I was fascinated by her story, by her writing, and mostly by her testimony which proclaims the presence of God’s Kingdom right here in this often messy and ungodly world.
The Liars' Club: A Memoir, by Mary Karr, Penguin Books, 2005 (first published in 1995);
Lit by Mary Karr, HarperTorch, 2009.
I actually read these two in reverse order; Having done that, I’d definitely recommend starting with The Liar’s Club, a memoir about Karr’s childhood, and then pick up Cherry about her teen years. (I’ve not read Cherry yet but imagine it is as gripping as the other two.) And only then finishing out the trilogy with Lit. Anyway, in The Liar’s Club, Mary and her sister Lecia squeeze joy out of despair, raised as they are by a psychotic mother and an alcoholic father. Mary’s perspective favors her father, pities her mother, and empathizes with Lecia. In Lit, we find a grown-up Mary who has overcome many obstacles, but is still plagued by results from the inequity of her earliest days. Both books are page turners that rival the best of fiction. Karr is considered a master of the memoir form; these two works certainly support that designation. (In fact, her latest book, The Art of Memoir, is next up in my Audible queue.) Here’s just one example from The Liars Club of her writing style which is both picturesque and yet somehow also unpretentious.
By dusk, we were on the spaghetti freeways looking for Highway 73 home, and I kept cutting my eyes between my window, where the new glass skyscrapers going up just slid past, and the small rearview mirror, where Mother’s eyes were still eerily blank. Nothing showed in those eyes but the road’s white dashed lines which seemed to be flying off the road and into the darkest part of her pupils, where they disappeared like knives.
The Liar’s Club ©2005 edition, Penguin Books, page 56.
Amazing right? So very rich!
The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride, Riverhead Trade, 1997.
Probably my favorite memoir of all time for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that when I emailed the author to praise the book, he responded within 24 hours with humility and warmth. Additionally, McBride’s mother is a seriously white chick (I mean Orthodox Jewish White) from the South and his father is an African American Baptist from Harlem. How could you not be drawn into that? McBride’s mother who he calls “Mommy,” is determined, resilient, and committed despite obvious and not so obvious threats to her strong spirit. McBride tells about a conversation he has with Mommy about the color of God’s skin that suggests the origin of his mother’s fount of hope.
“Oh boy . . . God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.”
"What’s a spirit?”
“A spirit’s a spirit.”
“What color is God’s spirit?”
“It doesn’t have a color,” she said. “God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.”
This theology, that God’s spirit can reside in vessels that differ widely in form and hue, surely helped to sustain Ruth McBride Jordan throughout the adventure of her complicated life. McBride’s tribute to his beloved mother is extraordinary. I loved it.
Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard, by Liz Murray, Hyperion, 2010.
I read this treasure as I was learning about homelessness and poverty in my region. I was captivated, and I learned so much about what can cause homelessness and what it might take to overcome it. Liz Murray and her sister Lisa were raised by coke addict parents whose priorities leaned more towards their next scam than the needs of their children. Somehow, despite unfathomable odds, Liz realizes that education is the answer to a better life. As a high school student, Liz couch surfed her way out of street life, often retreating to apartment stairwells to do her homework when the activities inside became too distracting (or, ya know, llegal). Her unlikely escape from poverty and addiction left me slack jawed in its poignancy. Even as I write this review, I’m shaking my head in disbelief at all Liz Murray faced. Hers is an incredible story of survival.
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, Scribner, 2006.
Yet another story of a girl who had a pathetic childhood who grows up to be a bestselling author. (Despite my own more or less idyllic childhood, I seem to be drawn to these types of memoirs.) Mary DeMuth of Thin Places suffered sexual abuse; Mary Karr’s childhood was drenched in alcohol and drugs; and Jeannette Walls’ was plagued by chronic poverty and astounding parental negligence. After a quick intro section, The Glass Castle hurls readers right into the appalling conditions of the author’s childhood. Walls is hardly old enough to be potty trained, much less cooking for herself, when her pink tutu catches fire at the stove, and she is immediately engulfed in flames. She is taken immediately to the hospital where she remains for a full six weeks. If only that were the worst of her story. Not so. She and her siblings face persistent hunger and neglect to the point of abandonment until one by one they escape to improve their lives. It’s a story that will, at the very least, keep you from complaining about your own daily inconveniences for a very long time.
Night, by Elie Wiesel, McMillian 2012.
Published originally in 1955, this brief volume took me just an afternoon to read, but will stay with me forever. Elie Wiesel’s personal account of his holocaust experience presents a picture of radical extremes. In the German oppressors, we see humanity at its most vile; in Wiesel’s poignant retelling of loss and grief, of torment endured and faith restored, we see humanity at its most vulnerable. While it won’t take you a long time to read Night, if you are like me, you’ll need a good bit of time to process the content. Don’t shortchange yourself. This one is worth the emotional investment it exacts from readers. A singular work, unparalleled in its genre.
What about you? Do you enjoy reading memoir? Tell me what your favorite is below.
It’s hard for me to pick a favorite. All of them cluster around number one, ordering themselves by publication rather than preference. Dr. Seuss’ books are just that good: they all deserve first place.
As soon as my oldest was old enough to tell one book from another, she would reach for Mr. Brown Can Moo every time. As we read it to her, she bounced along to the rhythm, expectant and delighted. All three of my kids felt sorry for poor Hooper Humperdink and were not a little concerned about what they themselves might see on Mulberry Street. On their birthdays, we read Happy Birthday To You, and okay, we read it on my birthday too because really: who would want to miss out on the Official Katroo Birthday Bird saying:
“Shout loud at the top of your voice, ‘I AM I! ME! I am I! And I may not know why . . . But I know that I like it. Three cheers! I AM I!’”
But I guess I’d have to say The ABC Book is the Seuss book most indelibly impressed on my memory. Aunt Annie’s Alligator. Barber, Baby, Bubbles, & a Bumblebee. Ear, Egg, Elephant, Kitten, Kangaroo, Painting Pink Pajamas, and that lucky Rosy Robin Ross. (I wish I could ride a red rhinoceros.) Dr. Seuss’ ABC’s took me away to places where camels walked on ceilings, mice mumbled at midnight, and tired turtles climbed tuttle-tuttle trees; to lands where lazy lions licked lollipops, and young Yolanda Yorgenson yelled on the back of a yawning, yellow yak. When I climbed into Dr. Seuss’ ABC book, absolutely anything could happen.
Those early journeys into Seuss’ imaginary world prepared me for later travels of all kinds. I made maple sugar with Little Runner. I solved mysteries with Boxcar Children and solved relationship woes with Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’ve visited Cold Sassy Tree, Mitford, Hogwarts, the City of Ember, and District 13. I also met Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Florence Nightingale, and Clara Barton. I experienced Gettysburg through Abraham Lincoln’s words, the Holocaust through the writings of Ellie Wiesel and Corrie Ten Boom. I learned about a different kind of darkness from Helen Keller, and how to deal with all these bad things happening to good people from Rabbi Kushner. And, as you can plainly see, it all started with a book that ended with a Zizzer Zazzer Zuzz.
Thanks Dr. Seuss. “There is no one alive who is you-er than you!”