Our goal with every 25 Books to Read Before You Die list (this edition marks our fourth!) is to call attention to books that readers may have overlooked. When we set our sights on memoirs this year, it occurred to us that many standouts are already well-represented in school curricula (The Diary of a Young Girl, Black Boy, The Woman Warrior, to name a few). We opted to leave such classroom staples off our list. That gave us extra room for some underappreciated memoirs that we earnestly believe everyone should read. All of the books on our list have two qualities in common: exceptional writing and a willingness to divulge both the beauty and the ugliness of one’s experiences. We hope you enjoy our selections.
Poet/playwright Nick Flynn’s 2004 memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, is a poignant, wrenching account of the author’s time spent working in a Boston homeless shelter — and therein encountering his estranged, ex-con father. Flynn’s story is a compelling one, but as dark as it sometimes gets, it is tempered by ample humor and self-actualization. Candid, trenchant, and stylistically invigorating, Flynn’s memoir was the basis for the 2012 film Being Flynn, starring Paul Dano and Robert De Niro in unforgettable roles (Flynn later recounted the making of the film in a follow-up — and equally wonderful — memoir, The Reenactments). Another Bullshit Night in Suck City hums with vibrancy and a lyrical voice, with Flynn laying bare emotion and hard-won insight in equal measure.
– Jeremy G.
A seamless blend of memoir and cultural commentary, Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts is, among many other things, a book about relentless introspection and transformation, about confronting one's own truths and biases and finding meaning in collisions big and small. Nelson explores the course of her relationship with the transgender artist Harry Dodge, along with their attempts to get pregnant, her experiences with academia, and her roles as mother and stepmother. Told in brief, loaded sections and referencing everything from gender theorists to parenting books to philosophers, The Argonauts is a book that is best read slowly; there is much to savor in this urgent, fiercely intelligent work.
– Renee P.
Autobiography of a Face is the beautiful, heartbreaking, harrowing memoir of Lucy Grealy, an incredibly insightful, articulate woman who, at age nine, lost part of her jaw to cancer. Through diagnosis, treatment, surgery, struggles with her disfigurement, alienation, and numerous agonizing, less-than-successful reconstructive surgeries, Grealy details her experience without sentimentality or self-pity. It’s a book about pain and struggle, but more than this, it’s a testament to the human will and to the beauty of acceptance and coming into one’s own.
– Gigi L.
Not only is The Best We Could Do a beautiful story about family; it is also a great overview of the history of Vietnam. Thi Bui is about to have a child of her own, so she sets out to try to understand her parents and their history. Their stories of living in a war-torn country are full of struggle and loss and hope as they escape to the United States, where they strive to start their lives over. I highly recommend this moving memoir.
– Jennifer H.
In his slim but by no means slight memoir, William Styron stresses: “The disease of depression remains a great mystery.” What is striking about Darkness Visible is how clearly and eloquently Styron is able to describe such a perplexing disease. Likening the illness to “a veritable howling tempest in the brain,” he chronicles his descent into the abyss of depression with a nakedness that is hard to look away from. Anyone who has grappled with mental illness (either personally or with a loved one) will find passages that not only resonate but have a healing, embracing effect, as Styron gracefully puts into words what so many find to be unspeakable pain.
– Renee P.
Long before Animal Farm and 1984, George Orwell wrote about a time in his life when he was alternately barely scraping by and penniless. I have to admit, I wasn't expecting a book about poverty to be so enjoyable to read, but the author’s wonderfully animated writing style had me racing through his (mostly true) memoir. From 1929 to 1931, Orwell ventured deep into the squalor of two very glamorous cities, revealing the appalling working conditions of a dishwasher in Paris and the realities of life as a tramp in London. Serving as both a relic of its time and an enduring reminder of the trappings of class systems, Down and Out interweaves scathing social commentary with candid firsthand accounts of what hunger and poverty can do to a person.
– Renee P.
Hilary Mantel's Giving Up the Ghost is one of the most unusual memoirs I've ever read. In addition to being an extraordinary writer (she is the first woman to have been awarded the Booker Prize twice), she has had an extraordinary life, strewn with loss, pain, and the supernatural. Mantel moved to Botswana and Saudi Arabia with her husband, whom she divorced, then later remarried. She suffered much of her life with an extremely painful form of endometriosis, which was misdiagnosed as psychosis at one point, and the treatment caused her weight and body to transform dramatically. And since she was a child, she's been drawn to and plagued by ghosts (including those of her stepfather and a daughter she never had). But what really makes this (admittedly sometimes bleak) memoir remarkable is Mantel's voice — her wry, pitch-black humor and ferocious intelligence shine from every page.
– Jill O.
In Roxane Gay’s Hunger, she details the horrific abuse that was the catalyst for her weight gain and outlines clearly and painfully what it means to be a woman of size in today’s world. It is both an admission of how her size has kept her safe, and how it has imprisoned her. She perfectly captures the strange mix of visibility and invisibility that she faces as a sizable woman living here and now.
– Mary Jo S.
Whether or not you’re interested in her music or other icons she lived among at Hotel Chelsea, the voice with which Patti Smith lays her life bare in this work is undeniable. She walks in dual worlds as a grounded dreamer, a transparent enigma, but most of all as a truthful storyteller, and conveys these realities with an intimacy so powerful that it completely blew my mind.
– Aubrey W.
First published in 1995, The Liar’s Club is Mary Karr’s account of growing up in an East Texas oil town with an alcoholic father prone to gambling and a mother who had several psychotic episodes. Her childhood was more than slightly dysfunctional, but Karr offers the reader a plethora of darkly comic episodes that help to balance the narrative. Funny and heartbreaking, what truly sets this book apart is Karr’s exquisite and precise prose that rolls pleasingly over the reader’s ear.
– Mary Jo S.
If this book was only what it is on the surface — a memoir of Ward’s experience watching four young men, including her brother, die before any of them turned 25 — it would be among the most deeply felt and moving memoirs I’ve ever read. But this book is also a powerful investigation of how poverty, race, and the history of injustice in the Deep South have all conspired to make simply living one’s life a dangerous proposition for young black men. Ward doesn’t let her subjects off the hook for their behavior and their roles in their own downfall, but she doesn’t let us as a society off either.
– Tim B.
Chris Offutt’s My Father, the Pornographer is a father-son memoir that finds its author searching for clarity and insight following the 2013 loss of his dad, Andrew J. Offutt — noted science fiction/fantasy/porn/erotica author. Raised in rural Kentucky, Chris was forever seeking the attention, affection, and approval of his father, all the while fearing the former insurance salesman who left his business behind to stake his claim to authorial immortality. Verbally abusive and "maniacal," the greater the elder Offutt's reputation grew, the more distant he became to his family. Offutt's memoir, moving and expertly written, is the tale of a single family, but the unhappiness endured, however singular, may well resound for anyone with a less-than-savory upbringing of their own. My Father, the Pornographer, telling the tale of both a literal and metaphorical cleaning out, is a raw, candid, and striving work that offers as much about its progenitor as it does its complicated subject.
– Jeremy G.
This slim volume contains poetic multitudes about time, mortality, motherhood, and writing. (Though very different, it's an interesting intellectual companion to Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts.) Sarah Manguso kept a diary for 25 years, which had swollen to an almost monstrous 800,000 words, as an act against a kind of terror of forgetting. After she had a son, she "began to inhabit time differently," and the result is this jewel of a memoir. Ongoingness is a beautiful, meditative examination of life, beauty, aesthetics, and our (generally false) sense of continuity of identity.
– Jill O.
In Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith (our new Poet Laureate) investigates her struggles with devotion — to family, to religion, to history — on her path to adulthood. The youngest of five siblings, Smith was a model child — sweet-tempered, ambitious in school, and eager to please her devoutly religious mother. But as she grew older, she found herself consumed by doubts about Christianity and, as an African American coming of age in the ’70s and ’80s, increasingly conscious of the deep currents of racism in our culture. An urge to rebel coincided with the heartbreaking news that her mother was battling cancer, leaving her to contend with a mess of guilt, alienation, and pain. Ordinary Light details this story of Smith’s early life with startling clarity. It is a gorgeous book brimming with intellectual curiosity, candid self-reflection, and, above all, deep love for family.
– Renee P.
Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis is a true-life account of childhood against the backdrop of radicalizing Iran. Satrapi doesn't shy away from depicting the brutal, stark truths of the Islamic Revolution and the ensuing Iran-Iraq War, but just as powerful are the moments of a young girl growing: the warm touches on her life by her family, her embattled relationship with the faith she's grown up with, the terrible recklessness of asserting her identity in a fundamentalism regime. For me, this read was as impactful as Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. In a time of outspoken Islamophobia, Persepolis is an essential read.
– Miranda G.
A brilliant, creepy synthesis of family memoir and true crime, Mikal Gilmore’s tale slowly winds its way through his family’s history, from his mother’s Mormon roots and father’s criminal past, to his older siblings’ violent and haunted childhoods in Southeast Portland, to the aftermath of his brother Gary’s notorious execution for murder (memorialized in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song). A profound exploration of the poison at the root of the Gilmore family’s tragedies, Shot in the Heart is a dark and breathtaking attempt to understand why the story ends with a firing squad.
– Rhianna W.
Vladimir Nabokov once described Speak, Memory as “a new type of autobiography, a scientific attempt to unravel and trace back all the tangled threads of one's personality.” But the book is much more: a beautifully articulated account of the times he lived in, the history-rich days before and after the Russian Revolution. There are so many reasons to love Speak, Memory: its scope, its insights, its poetry, the nonlinear, almost impressionistic approach that so beautifully evokes the feeling of memory, but what I love the most is pure Nabokov: the entertaining frankness of his ego and the audacity of his language.
– Gigi L.
I was assigned this book several times in college and graduate school, so I was shocked to learn that none of my coworkers had read it. Levi’s dispassionate, almost anthropological take on how he survived life in the Auschwitz concentration camp is stark, insightful, and incredibly nuanced. My own slim copy is underlined, highlighted, and tattered; and every time I return to it, I’m amazed by the endurance and acuity of the young Jewish chemist from Turin, who experienced the worst of humanity and was able to create not just art, but understanding.
– Rhianna W.
Tobias Wolff is a writer’s writer known for tight sentences and inventive plots. This Boy’s Life tells the story of Wolff’s youth spent dodging abusive men with his mother, Rosemary. They leave Florida for Utah, and Utah for Washington. In each place Wolff builds on his persona. In Utah he becomes “Jack.” In Washington, he fakes achievement to secure a spot in an elite East Coast prep school. Jack Wolff is a lovable troublemaker in a bad situation. You root for him as you ache for him. Tobias Wolff’s storytelling, combined with his eventful life, make for an exceptional memoir.
– Britt A.
Best known for her award-winning 1959 stage drama, A Raisin in the Sun, playwright Lorraine Hansberry was also an activist for civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, fair housing, and peace (and dear friends with both Nina Simone and James Baldwin). Though she passed away at the age of 34 from pancreatic cancer, Hansberry’s literary legacy looms large. Published posthumously, Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black features a wide range of autobiographical work from throughout her tragically truncated career — collecting letters, essays, play excerpts, and more. Lorraine Hansberry was an extraordinary talent and her remarkable writings, full as they were of fury, outrage, sagacity, humor, compassion, and vulnerability, deserve an even wider and more enduring readership in this age of increasing civil conflict and unrest.
– Jeremy G.
Andre Dubus III is most famous for his third book, House of Sand and Fog, an Oprah's Book Club pick that was made into an Academy Award–nominated movie. Dubus might be almost as well known because of his father, Andre Dubus, who is widely considered to have been one of the best short story writers of the 20th century. Townie, Dubus III's memoir, recounts his days growing up with and without his father, becoming a fighter, and finally becoming a writer in his own right. We chose Townie for our Indiespensable book club a few years ago, and every single person in our office who read it — which was quite a few — was blown away by its beauty and honesty. It is, in a way, a study of and repudiation of male violence, and Dubus treats the subject with empathy, thoughtfulness, and care. Touching, gripping, and mesmerizing, Townie is an exceptional achievement.
– Jill O.
David Sedaris used to dig up his pets’ graves, and is something of a taxidermy aficionado, but in When You Are Engulfed in Flames he discovers his own death. First, a human skeleton he buys as a gift for his partner Hugh begins speaking to him, then he works to quit smoking. The result is a memoir just as funny and idiosyncratic, but more self-aware, more serious, and more emotional than his other work.
– Britt A.
This is the funniest sad book I have ever read. Winterson’s mother — always referred to as Mrs. Winterson — was an abusive, cigarette-smoking, Pentecostal giantess who never let her adopted daughter forget that she was taken from “the wrong crib.” Despite a childhood filled with apocalyptic pronouncements and terrifying mistreatment, Winterson emerges as a writer of startling self-awareness, humor, and empathy for the unhappy woman who made her life miserable. Less a life history than an exploration of a life in process, Why Be Happy captures the writer in her 50s, still trying to figure out how to love and be loved in the absence of a maternal model.
– Rhianna W.
In 2003, Joan Didion suddenly lost her husband of 40 years, while their daughter lay unconscious in a nearby hospital. The Year of Magical Thinking is a powerful and eloquent account of surviving such a profound loss. Didion is especially effective at describing the emotional landscape of grief, its sudden depth charges and vortexes, as she calls those unexpected moments when loss sweeps in from yet another angle.
– Mary Jo S.
To preface, I am an unabashed Sherman Alexie fan. His work — featuring Natives who are caught defining their identity in a modern, white world — is so deeply personal to me. Like Alexie, my father was a Rez Indian turned Urban Indian estranged from his mother. I say this because it’s important to understand that Sherman Alexie’s life and heartbreaking stories are not atypical of Native life. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a deeply raw memoir of Alexie’s complicated relationship with his mother — a woman he both revered and had disdain for, a woman he felt both pride and shame for. In his signature style, Alexie delivers stories of immeasurable pain cut with hilarious candor conveyed in both essays and poems. He shows us that we can learn just as much about ourselves as those we grieve for.
– Kate L.