7 Quick Takes: Memoirs You Should Read

 I love memoir as a genre. First, I believe that there are no boring people in this world; only bad storytellers. Everyone has a great story to tell, but some people are better at it than others. Second, memoirs need not be strict autobiographies. A memoir can pick and choose events to suit a theme, motif, or idea. Many people use the terms "memoir" and "autobiography" interchangeably, but I tend to think of an autobiography being a bit more "just the facts, ma'am" and chronologically bound. In a memoir, anything goes, as long as it is true (or at least true to the memory of the teller.) Also, an autobiography seems to require the writer to be at the end of the life they are writing about, but a memoir can be written by a young person or just about the young years. I've taught several units to both elementary and middle schoolers on memoir, and would enjoy doing that for adults as well. Personal essay and memoir go very nicely together, I think. Homeschooler moms, private/public/charter school teachers, or anyone else: if I wrote a memoir lesson unit eBook, would you buy it? Thinking about it… Anyway, here come seven great memoirs that I've enjoyed so far. Obviously, it's a far from complete list, but it is a good start. And I noticed that Haley's doing a Reading Goals for 2014 link up at her blog, so maybe read these suggestions and then plan to add one or two to your reading goals!
I can't say that I'm an obsessive Amy Tan fan (i.e. I have only read one or two of her well-known books and liked them but don't have a passion to read everything she writes), but I definitely enjoyed her memoir. She picks interesting, humorous, and even harrowing life events to reflect on, and I'm a sucker for almost any memoir that discusses parent-child relationships, especially when you add in the culture-shock of having Chinese immigrant parents whose ways and customs don't always mesh with American ones. I haven't read it in a while, but I think it probably would be best for mature teens and up.
  The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life
I don't usually LOL when I'm reading. In fact, I would hate to see me reading, because I'm told I have a furrowed brow and a look of intense concentration (which, alas, for my particular physiognomy means I look like I'm pissed off). Even when I read something funny, I usually just crack a smile. So when a book can actually cause me to laugh out loud while I'm reading, it's remarkable. A Walk in the Woods is just such a book. I love Bill Bryson's wry style and the mishaps he gets into on his midlife crisis-y quest to walk the Appalachian Trail (joined by his not-very-fit neighbor) are truly giggle worthy at times. Warning: this book does contain some swears, so it may not be for you or the kiddies (I first read it as a senior in high school). Rated TAAWDMRAFSNAT for Teens and Adults Who Don't Mind Reading A Few Swears Now And Then.
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
 BONUS: If you want a cheeky look back at the 1950s, you simply must read Bill Bryson's actual memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. What I particularly liked about it was that he would include actual advertisements or newspaper clippings from that decade to show how much (and how little) America has changed.
I am not a devoted Francophile, wine connoisseur, or avid world traveller, but I enjoyed these two memoirs by Peter Mayle about his life in the Provence region of France. Allen found them for in a free pile on the side of the road and noting that they were memoirs (and that I was going to teach a unit on memoirs to my 8th graders) he passed them on to me. These books were a pleasant way to while away the hours nursing baby Ben in his first few weeks of life, and the dry witticisms of Peter about the odd characters he meets in his rural French village were very amusing despite my aforementioned lack of connection to Provence. The bonus was that it gave me a chance to try to remember some French that I learned in college. There was nothing wholly inappropriate for teens (although everybody drinks wine all the time, so if you are a teetotaler this might not be your book), but I don't know how many teens would enjoy it.
  A Year in Provence Toujours Provence
I loved Beverly Cleary's Ramona books as younger reader (and still find that I enjoy them as an adult, which is always a good sign), and now that I live in Cleary's home state of Oregon it feels almost like a citizen's duty to read this memoir. Fortunately, it is very engaging and full of wonderful details that help capture life as a young girl in 1920s and 1930s Oregon, both rural and urban. Although I believe the book to be eminently excerptable for younger readers, I caution any parent who sees that the author is Beverly Cleary and then hands it off to the eight year old who just read "Ramona and Her Mother." Cleary is far from salacious but she does deal with some adult themes (a male relative who attempted sexual abuse; her difficult relationship with her mother; serious illnesses), so I would recommend this book (in its entirety) for mature teens, not elementary school kids (unless you are ready to field questions about such matters). There is a sequel-memoir to this book called "On My Own Two Feet", describing her early adult life, but I have not read it yet.
  A Girl from Yamhill
This is a truly hidden gem of a memoir. I never would have heard of it, had I not been put on to it by Holly Walsh, the 8th grade English teacher at Catlin Gabel School. I took over her post for a year so she could enjoy a year off with her firstborn, and she said that I just had to do this book with the kids. I read it and loved it. The author even came to do an assembly at our school (she arranged that visit, I can't take credit for it). It is a very moving story and well-written. It is a coming-of-age story as well as a reflection on race relations in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s. Be forewarned, it deals with sexual coming-of-age (although not in a raunchy way) as well as intellectual and philosophical changes. I definitely recommend that this be a book to be read AND DISCUSSED, not just handed off for a book report. It could lead to some very fruitful discussions, especially since the author/main character really struggles with religious doubts as he is growing up. I considered doing it with my 8th grade students but feared that it might not go over as well in Molalla as it does in the much more progressive/liberal NW Portland. It is a good book for a good think, though. NB: I believe this book is out of print and perhaps the only place you might find it (aside from a library) is on Amazon or other online book stores.
  Flying over 96th Street: Memoir of an East Harlem White Boy
Wow, wow, wow. Read this book when you want to have your faith restored in humanity (but you're going to have to cry, too). The ten Boom family lived in Holland during the Nazi Occupation and made it their work to hide Jews and others whom the Nazis wanted to round up and exterminate. It was about the last thing you'd expect from an elderly watchmaker and his two middle-aged spinster daughters, but their faith compelled them to go to great lengths to help the persecuted Jews in various ways, including hiding them in their house. Eventually (spoiler alert) they are all arrested and sent to concentration camps. Obviously Corrie lived to tell the tale, but you simply have to read this book. Corrie and her sister Betsie's motto from this experience was: "There is no pit so deep that God's love is not deeper still." It was also made into a non-Hollywood movie which was quite good, which you can watch on Youtube at this link . Obviously there is some very dark subject matter, seeing as it is the Holocaust, but this book makes a great read-aloud for families with mature pre-teens and teens and perhaps would be an appropriate complement to studying some other Christians who resisted the evils of the Holocaust (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, etc.)
  The Hiding Place
What, I'm at number 7 already??? I haven't even mentioned any memoirs that are perfect for kids. Maybe I'll do a whole memoirs-for-kids series next week. So, I'm just going to cheat and put a tie for my 7th pick. Because I CAN!
This book is a masterpiece that gets better upon rereading. In fact, on my first read-through, I really did not get that deeply into it. Her prose can be dense and takes some brainpower to work through it, but it is worth it. Her sense of place and how important place is to her childhood memories is exquisite. A must-read, in my humble opinion. Mature teens may be interested in it, or at least in some chapters of it. Very excerptable, I'd say.
  An American Childhood
Allen and I had the privilege, some years back, of hearing Susan E. Isaacs do her one-woman show that is based on this memoir. It was hilarious. When I bought the book at the book table after the event was over, I was sort of afraid that the book would not be as funny as hearing her perform it. But my fears were unfounded; the book was funny and equal parts sweet and tart. Most of this story covers her adult life, so a lot of it deals with looking for love in all the wrong places, perhaps not for the younger teens but plenty of cautionary tales for the older ones. She also talks some about dealing with her eating disorder, which I imagine a great many actors and actresses struggle with but do not speak about publicly. She was a really nice lady in real life, and if she ever comes to your town doing her show, get tickets! I would go again.
  Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir
 Okay, next week I'll cover memoirs more meant for the younger set. Thanks for reading along with me! By the way, if you click any of the Amazon links I provided and end up buying the book, you'll be contributing a few pennies to our family income, so thanks in advance…and I don't think you'll be disappointed with any of the above purchases!
For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!


  1. wow! The Hiding place is my favorite!! may I suggest this book? I just finished it and it is an excellent read.

  2. I haven't read any of the others but oh my goodness The Hiding Place is amazing. I think about the fleas all the time.

    "Rated TAAWDMRAFSNAT" is my new favorite book categorization.


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