Memoir is the perfect balance between fiction and non-fiction. On the one hand, you get to learn about a time and a place and the reality of what is like to be a female comedian or a NYC cook. In short, it’s educational. But on the other hand, it comes with the delight of the story. When a memoir is well-written, a voice shines through that has a genuineness and insight that you just don’t find in impersonal non-fiction or in a fictional novel.
These are the books that have captured my heart and imagination. They are full of spirit and a way of looking at the world that is full of humor and delight, even when they are about trying circumstances.
1. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggars
This extremely successful book tells the story of Dave as he takes care of his younger brother following the cancer-related deaths of their parents. Although the premise sounds dark, it’s a wild, vibrant, and colorful story about the two brothers’ new life in the SF Bay Area and their strong bond despite the unusual circumstances.
2. A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel
This charming story about a girl growing up in a tiny town in Indiana is anything but slow and boring. Stories about beloved chickens, mean neighbors, and a new bike capture the spirit of childhood through the voice of curious, trouble-making Zippy. Told through a series of vignettes, it’s one of those special stories of wonder and heartbreak despite being about the simplest of childhoods.
3. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Best-selling humor writer David Sedaris has written several books of autobiographical essays, but this is always the collection I recommend to new readers. From his failed attempts at performance art (only to be heckled by his father) to the challenges of learning French in Normondy, these stories will have you rolling on the floor laughing.
4. Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
The controversial, booze-drinking, women-loving Buckowski may not be for everyone, but I implore you read this book before you judge him. Ham on Rye details the long, difficult years of his youth in Depression-era America, including a cheerless and acne-ridden youth and an abusive father. It is honest and vulnerable and funny and makes you feel compassion for a man you might otherwise find distasteful.
5. #Girlboss by Sophia Amoruso
When this book went viral earlier in 2014, I knew I had to read it. Amoruso, the founder of the wildly successful online fashion site Nasty Gal, tells the story of her professional transformation from runaway rebel to vintage eBay mogul to owner of a successful business. Partly a memoir, partly advice for young women, #GirlBoss sometimes became problematic as an ideal for girls (after all, not everyone can start an eBay store from their parents’ large home), but was entertaining none-the-less.
6. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Told through powerful black and white comic strips, Persepholis is a graphic novel about growing up during the Islamic Revolution. Marjane is an intelligent and outspoken child with communist parents, and she can’t help but be confused by the contradictions between home life and public life. Heartfelt and political, it is both a story of growing up and the story of a country under major transformation.
7. Bossypants by Tina Fey
Out of all the books in the last five years from female comedians, Bossypants is my favorite. Following Fay’s journey from childhood to becoming Sarah Palin for SNL to juggling a kid while running a TV show, Bossypants is roll-on-the-floor funny while still having something to say. Seriously – there are few memoirs as side-splitting as this one, even to those who aren’t fans of 30 Rock.
8. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
I have listened to all of Bourdain’s books on audio and watched every episode of his TV shows. He’s honest, snarky yet well-mannered, and has a gift for describing not just food but the people working in the food industry. Kitchen Confidential was his first book about working in New York City kitchens, living a wild life and working for some incredible characters. It launched him into the spotlight, but the fact he’s managed to stay there for 10+ years is a testament to his incredible skill as a storyteller.
9. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
If you’re not familiar with Allie from her online comic, Hyperbole and a Half, you’re missing out. Hilariously funny stories about her mentally disabled dog, on-point meditations on depression, and a magical window to childhood, the comics are delightfully simple but poignant.
What’s an autobiographical story or memoir that you’d recommend? I’d love to read the ones that have captivated you!