Recommended Memoirs

Memoirs I Recommend because of the Good Writing


  • Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings–This is the first of five volumes of autobiography by the poet whose gift for language illuminates this story of a black girl’s struggle for independence against a backdrop of disappointment and tragedy.
  • Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle–One can hardly conceive how a child could survive an upbringing with such flawed, self-absorbed parents, let alone write about it with such charity, humor, and forgiveness. Yet this is Walls’ achievement. Recommended for anyone grappling with how to write fairly about the prickly people in their lives.
  • Russell Baker’s Growing Up–The former New York Times journalist wrote this Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir growing up with a domineering single mom during the Great Depression.
  • Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’I loved this book and underlined dynamite sentences and paragraphs throughout. Bragg has a gift for language, and here he tells about drawing strength from his strong, stoic mother to overcome an upbringing in Depression-era Appalachia.
  • Jill Ker Conway’s The Road from Coorain–This is a riveting story about an intelligent, independent girl trying to find herself while growing up on an isolated, male-dominated sheep station in the Australian outback. A beautiful example of how setting helps create the story.
  • Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club–Karr, a poet, writes here a darkly humorous story about growing up in an east Texas oil refinery town in a family with a weakness for alcohol, violence and insanity. Nominated for the National Book Award.
  • Jennifer Lauck’s Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Found–An excellent model for authors interested in writing from a child’s point of view in the first person, present tense. This is the story of a child with way too much responsibility for the needs of an ailing mother.
  • Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes–McCourt grew up in Limerick, Ireland, the son of a chronoically unemployed alcoholic father. His family lived in poverty and suffered the humiliation of the dole, yet McCourt infuses his story with humor and compassion, making it a satisfying read and placing it on the bestseller lists for more than a year.
  • Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican–This is an example of how to use scene and dialogue to make a memoir read like a novel. Santiago writes of her impoverished childhood in Puerto Rico, and the family’s escape from their father to a Brooklyn apartment–a poignant account of the triumph of the human spirit.
  • Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life–Dark and amusing, this is an account of barely surviving adolescence adrift with a mother and her new, abusive husband. The author’s forthright telling of how he coped contributes to the memoir’s refreshingly honest and upbeat tone.
  • J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar–The author crafts an engaging story about his fatherless youth and the surrogate fathers he finds among the men who gather at the neighborhood bar.
  • Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys–A story about meeting girls and rocket building during the end of the coal mining era in Hickam’s West Virginia home town. A charming story, later made into a movie.
  • Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch–A humorous and poignant account of growing up in Moreland, Indiana, population 300, in the 1970s/80s. She’s good at capturing her quirky, flawed parents and bringing to life a place in a specific era. I listened to these books rather than read them and found the narrator/author’s voice as original and delightful as her words. Laugh-0ut-loud funny and lump-in-your throat poignant: a real tour de force!

    Family Histories

    • Leslie Huber’s The Journey Takers–This exceptional, engrossing family history won the 20110 “Best Family History Award” by the Mormon History Association because it traces the journeys of her Mormon ancestors to America. The book will likely win prizes from other associations and societies because Huber’s interesting narrative breaks important ground in showing how genealogy data and imagination can combine to create a family history people will actually want to read. Read it and see what I mean!
    • Ian Frazier’s Family–The author captures the complexities and eccentricities of his family history atainst the backdrop of American history. Family members, long dead, seem like real people in Frazier’s skillful hands.
    • Lisa See’s On Gold Mountain–This book combines stories from See’s childhood in Los Angeles’ Chinatown with a mountain of research to produce a compelling multi-generational history of her father’s Chinese-American family.
    • Rick Bragg’s Ava’s Man–This is about the grandfather the author never knew, but somehow Bragg makes you feel like they had a long history together. Shows how facts combined with imagination and research can create a compelling and realistic story.
    • Morris Thurston’s Tora Thurston: The History of a Norwegian Pioneer (yep, the author belongs to me!)–Winner of the Dallas Genealogical Society’s Best Biography award, this family history chronicles the life and family of that author’s great-great-grandfather, his immigration to America in the 19th century, conversion to Mormonism, embrace of polygamy, and colonization of Southern Utah communities under the direction of Brigham Young. See author’s website at
    • John Colletta’s Only a Few Bones–Colletta takes his readers on an exciting journey through documents, interviews, and on location to investigate a family mystery. He shows you how a pro makes a long-deceased ancestor feel like folks you know.
    • Bill Griffith’s By Faith Alone–The author tells the story of various ancestors against the backdrop of America’s Protestant heritage.

    { 3 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Diana Mae Kightlinger June 13, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    I’m reading All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg and am very impressed with what he refers to as his charmed life as he goes from one newspaper to another and from one scary news site to another. When I finish the story I will buy my own copy and mark all the statements I found so thought provoking. As I began reading his story, I could not resist writing my thoughts in response. I enjoyed it so much. This study is going to be one of the special part of my summer.

    2 Memoir Mentor June 13, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    I’m always pleased when someone new discovers Rick Bragg. He’s a great teacher–showing through his superb descriptions how to make people come alive for readers. I’m glad you’ve found him inspiring, Diana.

    3 Willie Wilburn Walker December 21, 2010 at 8:20 am

    Though I’m from the generation before Rick, the stories he tells are very real to me because I come from the same area he writes about and can vouch for the truth of what he writes. It’s great to read about that class of society and the people who struggled through it with pride and honor despite the obstacles of poverty and pain. Sometimes I feel he is telling the stories I would have written had I had the talent he has. I have read all his books and they pretty well tell the story of those, my people, who managed to grow stronger because their roots were set in the deep red clay of the South. Those who read his books can enjoy the adventure of dealing with the world from a different prospective or who can relate to the stories he tells. The stories about his younger days state pretty much how things were in that southern world that hopefully has finally faded away

    Leave a Comment