In an age when everyone and their niece has written a tell-all book, when even fictional characters like Ron Burgundy are penning the stories of their lives, how does a memoir stand out among its peers? What qualities make it like nothing we've seen before?
Sometimes truly extraordinary experiences can launch a memoir into uncharted territory. Jewish-Austrian Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal was troubled for years by questions surrounding forgiveness; his book, The Sunflower, became an investigation of these uncertainties. In other cases, such as Joe Brainard's I Remember, the subject matter may be familiar, even mundane, but the author's unorthodox method of storytelling creates a singular, unforgettable experience.
Below is a full selection of what we at Powell's consider to be the best unconventional memoirs. They do things a little differently, and they're better for it.
|Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
by Alison Bechdel
Fun Home, in concert with Craig Thompson's Blankets, was one of the works that proved to my doubting eyes that graphic novels could reach heights every bit as poetic, moving, and magical as the finest prose. Darkly funny but wholly sincere, the story of a young woman coming to terms both with herself and her father's lifetime of secrets (all the while growing up in a funeral home!) is hands down one of my favorite books, and the perfect gateway into a whole new genre. –Patrick D.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
You know you're in for an interesting ride when the memoirist calls her mother "Mrs. Winterson," but this wry, unflinching look at a wildly dysfunctional adoptive family is anything but a pity memoir. Winterson untangles the complexities of her upbringing with clarity, wit, and grace, bringing a redemptive adult voice to her story. –Helen S.
Lisa Kron wrote and starred in this "one woman show with other people in it" that went all the way to Broadway. The play concerns her relationship with her mother — and her mother's chronic ill-health — while also examining the methods, manner, and motivation behind confessional storytelling. Kron expertly uses all the tools of both playwright and monologist to create a completely engrossing hybrid experience. –Keith M.
Both of these books use the deceptively simple "I remember" repetition to build the details of these authors' lives — Brainard, a gay man growing up in Oklahoma in the '50s, and Allison, a gay black man growing up in Florida in the '80s. There are so many moments that will be familiar to a reader's own memory and so many that will be revelations. Both books are sweet, funny, deeply human, and sometimes shocking inspirations. –Kevin S.
Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove
Drummer, DJ, producer, and cofounder of the legendary Roots crew, Ahmir "Questlove" (a.k.a. "?uestlove" and "Questo") Thompson is one of the music world's most virtuosic individuals. Possessing talent in spades, Questlove's accomplishments are many, but it is his encyclopedic knowledge and abiding passion for music past and present that set him in another realm. Mo' Meta Blues is a candid, thoughtful, well-written work full of humility, humor, and anti-hubris. Erudite and entertaining, Questlove's memoir is much more than a mere record of his career — it's a sensitive, observant take on a life lived in, with, through, and surrounded by meaningful music. –Jeremy G.
The London Years
Rudolf Rocker was an amazing man, and his story is an amazing story. A German anarchist exiled to London, he learned Yiddish and organized the radical Jewish community from the time he arrived to the time he was arrested during WWI. From teaching the classics to forming labor unions, from editing papers to organizing mass demonstrations, Rocker was a man whose sole goals were human dignity and total liberation. –Chris F.
Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape
This book tells the story of a woman born and raised into one of the most mysterious and controversial religious organizations in the world — Scientology. Jenna Miscavige Hill's memoir offers a window into the reality of life inside of Scientology, a notoriously secretive religion. It's more revealing than other books on the topic due to Hill's relationship with her uncle, the current leader of the church. Beyond Belief is a powerful read you won't be able to put down. –Natalie R.
Dark Back of Time
In 1989, Javier Marias published a novel titled All Souls. Many readers assumed it to be a fictionalized account of his time as a professor at Oxford. In Dark Back of Time, Marias describes his return to Oxford, and his attempts to reclaim his previous book and its characters as pure fiction. In doing so, he ends up writing an exceptional memoir about the nature of time and perception and the fluidity of identity. –Adam P.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific
While most memoirs speak of a situation a person finds himself or herself in, The Sex Lives of Cannibals is self-inflicted. Troost travels to a tiny island in the South Pacific and tells of his trials. I read this as a Peace Corps volunteer in a tropical climate and was extremely empathetic to the author's frustrations and angst toward the locals, climate, and lack of good beer. The Sex Lives of Cannibals rivals the hilarity of Bill Bryson. –Jeff J.
Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood
After compiling my short list of unconventional memoirs, I discovered that one author was listed twice. While I loved Oaxaca Journal, I found that Uncle Tungsten takes the cake. You just can't go wrong when you read a book by Oliver Sacks. –Carla M.
I Was Looking for a Street
A breezy yet melancholic account of the years Charles Willeford spent bumming around the southern United States during the depression, I Was Looking for a Street is a practical, unsentimental portrait of a very young man in an impoverished country. It's amusing and sad but by no means tragic. Bonus: lots of good stuff about hats. –Jacob S.
While most memoirs explore the intricacies of the self, Holy Land indulges in a different kind of exploration — one specifically tied to place. D. J. Waldie grew up in the '50s in Lakewood, California — a sprawling planned community that signified the beginning of a new era in American living. Through prose as modest as the homes in the Lakewood housing development, we bear witness to the birth of a suburb and come to see that beyond its eerily similar structures and carefully maintained plots of land lies a community with history and endurance and life quietly asserting itself in small gestures. –Renee P.
The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness
In the first hundred pages of The Sunflower, Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal recounts his encounter with a dying German soldier who asked to speak with "a Jew" in order to seek forgiveness. Wiesenthal then invites everyone into the discussion, throwing open his personal experience for judgment in a series of short essays offered by philosophers, theologians, scholars, and religious leaders who offer their thoughts on what Wiesenthal should or could have done. More than a memoir, this is a deep exploration of the very idea of forgiveness. I read it over a decade ago, and it's still with me. –Benjamin H.
The Boys of My Youth
Existing somewhere between a memoir and an essay collection, The Boys of My Youth lives in a genre all its own. It is so addicting, and if you didn't know it was nonfiction, you'd assume it was a book of short stories. The best book I've read in years. –Joshua A.
The second half of Rent Girl captures so well what San Francisco was like pre-dot-com and in the beginning stages of the dot-com revolution. This San Francisco got wiped out in the tsunami of tech cash that washed the alternative culture across the bay and up to Portland, Oregon. Michelle Tea's blunt style is great. –John R.
The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of the Heart
Brian Doyle's memoir tells the harrowing story of his young son being diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Through a collection of essays, each touching upon some aspect of his experience, Doyle shows the absolutely horrifying reality of a parent on the brink of losing his child. His vulnerability and utter terror are palpable as he maneuvers through the medical system while reflecting upon his worthiness as a parent. As usual, Doyle's style is so quirky, amusing, and unlikely, you will be surprised to hear yourself bust out laughing while reading about such a serious subject. Bordering on poetic, The Wet Engine is a slim memoir that is so stunning it will leave you heart-sore, shaken, and breathless. –Dianah H.
|Tibet through the Red Box
by Peter Sis
Peter Sis grew up in 1950s Czechoslovakia, and here he presents the incredible, magical story his father told him as a boy. This tale is a lovely labyrinth of folklore and experience, with mesmerizing artwork bringing it to life. Tibet through the Red Box is so much more than a children's picture book; it is beautiful, exceptional, and thought provoking. –Portia R.
This strange, visceral, haunting memoir finds 83-year-old French writer Nathalie Sarraute looking back on her first 12 years. But, unlike most memoirs, Childhood is not written by a single author; Sarraute gives voice and character to her own memory, and together, in dialogue, they interrogate, tease, and provoke each other as Sarraute attempts to describe, in precise, vivid prose, both the wonders and mystery of childhood and the elusive nature of memory itself. –Caitlin D.
This coming-of-age memoir is told as much through the crisp illustrations as through the text. Thompson's voice and drawings are sweet without being sappy, and despite its unconventional format, Blankets is a very honest, relatable account of falling in love for the first time. This book is unusual among memoirs and also among graphic novels; most graphic novels are several short comics collected in one volume whereas Blankets was written and published as a standalone piece. –Miranda B.
Designed as a companion piece to the documentary film of the same name, this highly unconventional posthumous memoir is functionally a curated exhibit of Tupac Amaru Shakur's short life. Eschewing an outside perspective, excerpts from interviews, previously unpublished lyrics and poetry, prison letters, and assorted documents allow the words he left behind to tell his own story. Further illuminated by accompanying photographs, this book goes a long way toward cutting through the sensationalist hype that dogged his career, revealing the very human and complex Gramscian artist beneath, whose contradictions and passions made being an intellectual something that seemed attainable for those living outside the ivory towers of academia and the gilded halls of established political power. –Brian S.
The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance
Elna Baker is a practicing Mormon and stand-up comic who lives in New York City and says yes to everything but sex and drugs (including alcohol and caffeine), so she's broken some conventions in a spectacular way. And as she says, "Because there aren't very many Mormon men to choose from in the city, I've dated primarily non-Mormons. Only because I don't have sex before marriage, the longest relationship I've been able to sustain in NYC is four weeks. And that's only because for two of those weeks the guy was out of town." For a representative example, see "Top Five Worst Dates" on Powell's blog. –Suzanne G.
My Friend Dahmer
Derf Backderf has a claim to fame besides being an award-winning graphic novel writer and cartoonist: he went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer. Derf combines memories of his adolescence in the late '70s with exhaustive research, exploring the sadness and pain that turned the persecuted young man into one of the late 20th century's greatest monsters. –Matthew S.
Everyone has the relationship they look back on and wonder what the hell they were thinking dating and/or staying with this person for so long. This memoir perfectly captures the feelings that come years after that relationship has ended. You knew the relationship was doomed but you went along with it anyway, and now you can't help but shake your head and laugh. –Amy W.
Autobiography of a Face
I read this during a formative period when I was not a teenager anymore but not quite an adult. It was perfect timing. All of my foibles and insecurities were obliterated with this poignant memoir of a girl who has a rare type of bone cancer in her jaw and undergoes surgery and later reconstructive surgery all through her teens and 20s. Written as fiction but based on Lucy Grealy's real experiences, it destroys all your own personal vanities and superficial anxieties. –Morgan R.
Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny
While The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is my favorite memoir, Growing Up Laughing by Marlo Thomas, daughter of comedian Danny Thomas, is my pick for best unconventional memoir because it is like a mini history of comedy, complete with interviews and stories of comedians of the past and modern day. I was laughing out loud through this wonderful book! –Adrienne C.
Your childhood wasn't based in "facts," was it? A timeline, something dry and tidy and biographical like that? Nah. You probably remember childhood as a series of vignettes informing you of what it felt like to be alive in a fresh new world. Patti Smith gets that, and she presents her childhood here as a gathering of wool from the clouds and its manifestations in the forms of her songs, poems, and dreams. –Jordan G.
Calling Dr. Laura
In this graphic memoir, Nicole Georges shares how she went from believing her father was dead throughout her childhood to visiting a psychic who debunks the family myth to eventually calling "tough love" talk radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Additionally, Georges includes memories from her childhood regarding her mother's marriages and live-in boyfriends as a way to reveal past and present anxieties regarding not only the title situation but George's own relationships. It's beautifully written and hilarious at times, but more often heart-wrenching. Also, I was so excited to read a novel that includes illustrations of Portland cityscapes, cross streets, and bars! –Alicia K.
Drinking: A Love Story
Drinking: A Love Story is about Caroline Knapp's struggle with alcoholism and getting sober after 20 years of hard drinking. This book spoke to me personally and parallels my life closely. Knapp's writing is so stark and honest that anyone in recovery will see themselves in this book. –Betsy B.
Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me
In Marbles, Ellen Forney explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. A working cartoonist in Seattle, she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and must decide whether to accept treatment (and risk sacrificing her art) or continue self-medicating and hope for the best. Marbles is a satisfying read, both as a personal memoir and as a glimpse into the relationship between bipolar disorder and the artistic temperament. –Ashleigh B.
Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet
Mostly about the author Eyres and what he gleaned from Horace's poetry and wisdom, this charming book will inspire one to spend several late summer nights savoring Horace's poems over a glass (or two) of sherry.
You Can't Win
Train hopping, diamond heists, safe cracking, jailbreaks, hobo conventions, opium dens, and murder are littered throughout these pages. Jack Black recounts his stories of organized and honorable thievery in the waning years of the Wild West with such a romantic charm that it's hard not to fall in love with the many characters surrounding his journey. Surprisingly insightful, this book makes a good companion to Iceberg Slim's Pimp. –Paul J.
I'm Not the New Me
It would be reductive to say this is a weight-loss memoir (excuse the pun). Sure, Wendy McClure joins Weight Watchers and starts a diet blog called Poundy, but the memoir is about her life in a broader sense and is extraordinarily entertaining. Bonus: she reproduces lurid photos from 1970s Weight Watchers cookbooks. –Cindy P.
Related posts on PowellsBooks.Blog:
- The Word Memoir by Sarah Manguso
- What If We All Wrote Memoirs? by Claire Bidwell Smith
- Domenica Ruta: The Powells.com Interview by Jill Owens
Books mentioned in this post