Maybe it’s the fact that we’re reading about an actual person – not a character – that makes memoir so engaging. Perhaps it’s that memoir lets us inhabit someone else’s mind during their most important, insightful, and often painful moments of realization or discovery. We get to see what shaped them, their demons and their dreams, and most importantly, how they came out on the other side.
There are two kinds of memoir. The celebrity memoir - pop stars, politicians, athletes - is often, but not always, written by a ghost writer who shapes that person's story into something readable. Of course, not everyone who should hire a ghost writer does so (I’m talking to you Neil Young) and the result is often a rambling, incohesive rant. But when the celebrity memoir is done well, it's an exciting glimpse into a world so unlike our own.
The other popular memoir is by someone who has lived through an unusual and challenging ordeal or who has worked/lived in a unique capacity with exceptional people. Again, these extraordinary accounts of other people's lives have the unmistakable fascination of peeking through the curtains.
Here are a few of my favourites (sorry it’s so long - it was really hard to stop at just 10):
DREAMS FROM MY FATHER by Barack Obama
This memoir explores Obama’s childhood and early years in Honolulu and Chicago up until his entry into law school. Never self-pitying or playing the blame game, he searches for his father’s meaning to his life and how this abandonment shaped him. As expected, Obama is an extremely good writer, articulate and intelligent, and his eventual trip to Africa allows him to reconcile what his father was and how it’s made him who he is today. A great companion read to his wife’s book.
COCKTAIL HOUR UNDER THE TREE OF FORGETFULNESS by Alexandria Fuller
This is a delightful memoir about a young family in Africa in the 1960s. The author recounts the story of her childhood with her Scottish mother and British father who met in Kenya in 1964. As the British Empire wanes, the family grows and moves around Africa in a trail of revolution, tragedy and poverty. At times, it’s hard to believe it’s a true story but the author is clearly aware of her parents’ inadequacies and failures and it’s told with love, understanding and humour.
LIFE by Keith Richards
Often the butt of old-age rocker jokes, there’s no denying that the famous guitarist has lived an extraordinary life. Filled with music, alcohol and more drugs than anyone has lived to talk about, Keef recounts the story of his life and strangely enough, remembers it all! From earliest childhood to current day, this is a man who’s lived life to the max. Entirely entertaining, his story focuses primarily on the music - his #1 love. There are a few interesting insights into Mick Jagger and the rest of the band, but it’s Keef’s story all the way. And what a ride he’s had. A must read for any Stones fan.
A WOMAN IN BERLIN by Anonymous
I won’t lie - this book is very hard to read. Subtitled “Eight Weeks in the Conquered City”, it’s a journal kept by a young woman in Berlin in the final weeks of WW2 when Russia invaded the city and drove out the Germans. It details the mass rapes, the starvation and poverty of the city’s residents, the bombing, the disillusionment with Hitler, and the struggle to stay sane and moral amid the utter destruction of all that’s good in humanity. Unusually candid and honest about Germany’s complicity and guilt, it’s also important to see the suffering of the other side. A Woman in Berlin is widely regarded as one of the most important books written about the war.
WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA by Carlos Eire
A truly remarkable book - so beautiful and so heartbreaking. A Cuban refugee recounts his childhood growing up in Havana and his exile from his family and his life in the wake of the Cuban/Castro Revolution. Humourous, mesmerizing and so vivid, you feel like you’re there. Beautifully written, this is an incredible story of a time in history and the personal cost to Eire and his family as well as all Cubans. A wonderful memoir of a shattered world.
A HOUSE IN THE SKY by Amanda Lindhout
Written by a young and inexperienced freelance reporter, A House in the Sky recounts Lindhout’s traumatic experience in Somalia when she was captured and held captive for 15 months by a group of teenage militants. This story left me reeling with emotion but ultimately her strength, hope and courage shine like a beacon through the darkness. Although a harrowing and unimaginable ordeal, it is also an extraordinary triumph of forgiveness and the power of the human spirit.
THE NIGHT OF THE GUN by David Carr
An amazing memoir of Carr’s decades-long addiction and eventual recovery from alcohol, cocaine and crack. What makes this story different from other addiction chronicles is that Carr uses his razor-sharp journalism skills to go back and interview witnesses, dig up legal and medical records, and otherwise document the real story - which differs significantly from his memory of events. Filled with self-effacing humour, Carr never lets himself off the hook. An intriguing journey that redefines memoir.
RECKLESS DAUGHTER by David Yaffe
This is the second biography I’ve read on legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. The first, ‘Joni: The Creative Odyssey’ is part biography, part music criticism and a look at the psychology behind her creativity. Reckless Daughter is instead a detailed account of her life, her loves and especially her music from childhood to present day. Like many creative forces, Mitchell is exacting, demanding, difficult and uncompromising, but also a romantic with a never-ending search for love and its meaning. A great read for anyone who truly loves music.
EDUCATED by Tara Westover
Raised in rural Idaho by a tyrannical Mormon, Westover’s story is both heart-wrenching and inspirational. Believing anything government-related is evil, the children are prohibited from going to school, seeing a doctor, or having other forms of social contact. Uneducated and with no sense of the outside world, the family works at their father’s junkyard salvaging scrap metal and barely surviving his antiquated methods and their older brother’s violent abuse. Despite this, the author not only manages to get a birth certificate and educate herself, she goes on to earn her PhD. The cost of this was abandonment by her parents and those of her siblings who depended on them economically. A sad tale of religious zealotry, family loyalty and the grief that comes with severing our closest ties.
BECOMING by Michele Obama
Intimate, powerful and inspiring, this is an amazing book by someone who has become a beloved icon throughout the world. Obama is a captivating writer, with unwavering hope and humour. She recounts her childhood growing up in working class Chicago with a close-knit loving family, and her diligence and hard work achieving success as a lawyer. Meeting her husband and finding her voice during her time in the White House offers insightful details and establishes her as a powerful advocate for women and girls. She doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of race and politics but there is always a sense of optimism. With a keen awareness of the nuances of human emotion, Obama exudes warmth and compassion. I can’t wait to see her next chapter!
The best biographical narratives help us see the world a little more clearly through someone else’s eyes. If you’re looking to read more memoir, there are so many fascinating people who have penned well-written, engrossing stories of their journey.