Memoir Mashup!

Image Credit: Timothy Goodman

Every once in a while, we like to do a little “roundtable,” in which we discuss several books in the same category. Wait. Have we actually ever done it, or have we only talked about doing it? We have thought about a YA forum; we’ve gotten close to a graphic novel forum. And here we are! All memoir-ed up! This month, in an effort to offer some gems and discuss this chic category, we read a lot of memoirs—some together, and some individually.

Here’s what each of us read:

Memoirs for this Challenge — Lara

  • You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
  • The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell
  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
  • My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul
  • Educated by Tara Westover

Memoirs for this Challenge — Jennifer

  • The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell
  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
  • The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison
  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
  • The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs
  • Calypso by David Sedaris
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever by Jamie Wright

Lara: You read way more than I did for this challenge. But I feel like I have to confess that I have read over sixty memoirs since 2003. It is one of my FAVORITE genres!

Jennifer: I pretty much had to catch up with you, which is why I read so many. No such luck!

Lara: I was surprised I had read that many. But thanks to Goodreads, now we know.

Jennifer: Why so many? (I do like them, but I only dip in every so often.)

Lara: That’s a good question. I like the conversational aspect that comes from a well-written memoir and the proximity it feels like you get to the author. I also like the idea that one person’s truth is shaped by so many things. I guess I like getting an inside look at the human condition and having an experience that feels a little more intimate than fiction.

Jennifer: I hear you, for sure, but I think good fiction can do that. I can say that I just like to hear people tell their stories honestly. For the purposes of this forum, I’ll define memoir as a focused slice of a life, as opposed to an autobiography which attempts to cover the entirety of a life. By “focused,” I do not mean, necessarily, a short-term period. It might be years and years. I’ll give a particular example from a memoir we both loved: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. That memoir covers a lot of terrain—childhood into adulthood. However, we are especially looking at parent-child relationships, not other things like how Jeannette experienced college life or negotiated romance. Another super important—and great—feature of memoir is candor. A good memoir is intimate, honest. That said, do you read memoirs by individuals you do not agree with or do not especially like?

Lara: I like your definition! And I agree that it is very different than an autobiography. As for your question . . . hmmm. I would say I haven’t sought out memoirs with the sole purpose of reading about someone I don’t agree with or like. I prefer memoirs by people who can actually write or have a history of writing or good storytelling. (Rick Bragg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Mindy Kaling and W. Kamau Bell write—as well as perform—for a living, Mary Karr too). I also like memoirs that are coming-of-age stories (Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy is one of my very favorites) or overcoming personal tragedy (Abigail Thomas’s A Three Dog Life highlights the traumatic brain injury her husband suffers after getting hit by a car when walking their dog). What draws you to a particular memoir?

Jennifer: I, like you, prefer memoirs by people who can actually write—so I’m always a little wary of the celebrity memoir—or the memoir of famous people. Sometimes, though, they’re very good. One goofy one that I’m thinking about right now is Rob Lowe’s Stories I Only Tell My Friends. It’s surprisingly good. I still wonder, however, if it was ghost-written. I like to think it was not. But I’m not prone to pick up books by people I think can’t write, even if I’m super curious. Like say Melania Trump wrote some tell-all book, I’d blow it off. I will read a memoir by someone I don’t like, if I hear he or she can write. But I can’t think of any examples! What about celebrity memoirs? Thoughts? (Incidentally, I loved Mindy Kaling’s first memoir, and I put down the second one.)

Lara: Celebrity memoirs are fun—and I agree with you. I will never pick up sTORItelling by Tori Spelling (even though I was a die-hard 90210 fan) or They Made a Monkee Out of Me by Davy Jones (even though I liked the Monkees). I am more likely to pick up a celebrity memoir if I think the celeb has an interesting story to tell and I like their persona (real or not). I loved Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and totally identified with her nerdy, pop culture-obsessed childhood. I liked it better than Tina Fey’s very good Bossypants, mainly because I felt like Mindy and I could be friends after reading it. Conversely, I don’t know a lot about Anthony Bourdain; I don’t think I have seen a full episode of Parts Unknown, but I felt like reading Kitchen Confidential was timely and valuable. He was smart and articulate, while being brash and unruly—a shock jock of the culinary world. For the record, I think Rob Lowe is probably smarter than his decades’ old sex-tape would indicate. I mean, he was on the West Wing and was a long-time neighbor of Oprah.

So let’s get dicey… do you read political memoirs?

Jennifer: First, more on celebrity . . . I love that you said that it’s a testament to Rob Lowe’s intelligence that he was Oprah’s neighbor!

(And I liked Tina Fey’s memoir better than Kaling’s because I wish Tina and I were friends. . .)

But also this: some celebrities are either writer-types or wannabe writers. Anthony Bourdain had lots of experience and quite a few books. I also think that comedian memoirs are often good-writing-bets, because they’re often writers (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert, Steve Martin, Trevor Noah—the list could go on and on). I do need to ’fess up to reading Rick Springfield’s memoir, Late, Late at Night, and, well, it was pretty good. But he’s one of those writer-types, actually. (I read his novel too; I can’t really say that you need to read it.)

Political memoirs? Yes, if they can write! And I’ll go in any political direction. Recently, I read Hillary Clinton’s What Happened? I thought it was great! And I also read GOP Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult—which was another winner. I did read Michael Woolf’s Fire and Fury, out of curiosity, and I have James Comey’s memoir on my TBR pile. I’m interested, but my litmus test really is connected to their writing abilities. How about you?

Lara: I don’t read a lot of political memoirs (as in “written by politicians”), but I read memoirs that cover politics or political subjects. I especially liked W. Kamau Bell’s memoir, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (on audio is a must), and Lindy West’s Shrill. One of the most important political memoirs I read was Representative John Lewis’ March trilogy, which he wrote in partnership with an illustrator–a graphic memoir.

Jennifer: Yes, I loved March, and I’d say that should be required high school reading. And that opens us to an important area of consideration, the graphic memoir. In all honesty, I love a good graphic memoir (Maus I and II, Roz Chast, etc.), but I’ve never known what box they go into in my head. I suppose I need to think outside of the box!

Lara: Graphic Memoirs are GREAT. And I take pride in exposing you to this genre. I have to highlight some of my favorites: David Small’s Stitches who movingly tells how he was over-exposed by his radiologist dad, lost his voice, and shared a grim life with his brother growing up. Small has gone on to become an award-winning children’s book illustrator. Marjan Satrapi wrote and illustrated The Complete Persepolis: Volumes 1 and 2, about growing up in Iran, first under a democracy, and then after the Shah took over. It covers her parents’ brave decision to send her to the U.S. for safety. Lastly, Laurie Sandell’s The Imposter’s Daughter is fascinating and her illustrations are in color so it’s like getting the Sunday comics, just a lot more serious.

Jennifer: Let’s talk about some that we read for this specific column. Educated. Do you recommend it? The Glass Castle. Loved it. Do you think it’s all true? How important is that to you?

Lara: I recommend both books. First, they are written by really strong women who have endured extremely challenging and dangerous beginnings (cultic religious affiliations and physical abuse in the former, and homelessness and poverty in the latter) with dysfunctional families suffering from mental illness, and these women have come out on the other side. As for the truthfulness in their accounts, I would say the books cover their truth. Their perceptions and memories are their own, and likely were influenced by a number of additional factors. But it doesn’t mean that what they shared isn’t true. Just because something is shocking or unlike anything we could imagine doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. Unfortunately, I think Westover has gotten some criticism over the validity of her story. We don’t ultimately know, but I err on the side of believing her. I don’t think she has much to gain from lying. I don’t think this book is intended to launch a literary career. She had a story to tell and it probably provided some context and closure for her sheltered and violent upbringing.

Jennifer: Well, I’d recommend them both too. I’d really need to think about this truth-thing. I’m not much of a relativist (your truth is your truth, and my truth is my truth). I am, however, very much into seizing upon the truth in any given situation. What I mean is that both Educated and The Glass Castle struck me as emotionally true, or true to what I know about human nature. Stories exist out there that are wild and nuts—but do they say true things about what it means to be human? (We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention James Frey’s 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces—famously revealed to be made up. It was, indeed, pretty good and quite literary, maybe both true and false. There are, perhaps, kinds of veracity? But we need to be upfront about them?)

So, yeah, for me that might be the heart of it: does a memoir shed light on the human condition?

Lara: Sure, it does. And listen, we all have blind spots to our behavior and our choices and that can be really fascinating to read about. Take Mary Karr. She’s a solid writer and she’s battled the bottle. Her first memoir, The Liar’s Club, is probably required reading for anyone studying memoir. As is Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’. These are flawed individuals—like we all are—and they stumble and survive and stumble and survive. I think when you read memoirs about tough or unimaginable experiences that are survived, we are reminded that people are resilient. We have much more buried deep down that we can use when we need to. I think memoir is great at showing that.

Jennifer: Another thing to highlight is that we might read a memoir to learn more about ourselves or some facet of the world. I read both Paul Kalanithi and Nina Riggs to hear, frankly, how others process their own cancer experiences (deaths, in these cases). Both were enlightening; I think Kalanithi’s resonated more so with me.

Leslie Jamison’s memoir on addiction and recovery taught me a ton. It’s part-literary memoir and part-journalism/reportage. It’s absolutely fascinating, and one of my favorite books of the year. I do think it’s probably mostly of interest to those with addiction experience. I’m not the addict in my life, but I wondered if some of this might be a “trigger” for addicts. At the same time, anything might be a trigger for an addict. “Breaking Bad,” for instance. She provided me with some excellent writers and books I want to follow-up with: Jean Rhys, George Cain’s out-of-print 1970 novel Blueschild Baby (Cain, an addict, died in obscurity), Charles Jackson’s 1994 The Lost Weekend, Stephen King’s The Shining. And I was intrigued with some of the questions facing the addict: Is the sober me the “real” me? Am I myself? Are addict artists still artistically-driven in sobriety? I loved this uber-long book.

Lara: I think addict memoirs are the most challenging on the truthiness scale. If they are writing about their experiences in sobriety or under-the-influence, how true is it? Beyond Mary Karr, my exposure to addiction memoirs is limited to alcoholism (The Glass Castle, Smashed: A Story of a Drunken Girlhood, Lit) and food (Hunger).

Jennifer: We both read W. Kamau Bell. At first, I found his voice very amusing and articulate, and his memoir/essay collection partly appealed to me because we’re close in age and I liked hearing his take on the parts of history that we share. Frankly, we’ve both got that TV criticism-thing going. I didn’t find the whole especially fabulous. I liked it, like one might like hearing a smart person say smart stuff. I revised my thinking after a bit, and decided I really liked him because he’s a dork and I related to him. I’d love to be his friend.

Lara: I didn’t know a lot about him at all—I don’t watch his CNN show, nor have I seen any of his standup. However, I think his memoir is great and timely and, though funny, it handles the topic of race very well. He’s super relatable and brings a lot of humanity to his stories. It’s another one that should be consumed via audio.

Jennifer: Well, seriously, Lara has read a ton of memoirs—too many to list. But we end with our Top Ten Memoirs as of This Minute (meaning that these lists are totally subject to change).

Top 10 – In Alphabetical Order by Lara

  • All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
  • The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson
  • The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan
  • Naked by David Sedaris
  • One More Theory About Happiness: A Memoir by Paul Guest
  • A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas

Honorable Mentions by Lara

Top 10 – In Alphabetical Order by Jennifer

  • You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
  • Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
  • The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
  • Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
  • Born A Crime by Trevor Noah
  • This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Honorable Mentions by Jennifer

  • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano by Andrea Avery
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
  • David Sedaris anything
  • There really are a bunch of graphic memoirs I love . . .

And . . . before we go, we do want to offer some mini-reviews to get you going. Each of us chose ten to bring to your attention. Here you go.


  1. Andrea Avery’s Sonata is not just a memoir about self (and living with rheumatoid arthritis); rather, it was a memoir about self in relation to Art—and it’s a love story too.
  2. Why haven’t you read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou yet?
  3. Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is full of verve and spark, with quips like this: “Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans … are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit.”
  4. I admit that I didn’t get a lot of the science stuff in Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, but IT DIDN’T MATTER, because I loved the sound of her voice on audio and the quality of her prose!
  5. I loved listening to the audiobook of poet Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy, because the language is gorgeous with stories, though I felt at times a little like a clumsy prose-writer trying to navigate through her images.
  6. Reviews of David Sedaris’ lovely Calypso keep bringing up how this book is more personal than his other work—and it is, with middle-age ruminations on the suicide of his sister and his alcoholic mother.
  7. After reading Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, I’m still thinking about odd things, like how did these two parents end up together and end up staying together, and how did their children turn into high-achievers, and isn’t it notable that the parents end up following the children–they love their children–to NYC, and isn’t NY amazing with its siren call, and don’t you wonder about Rex who was possibly molested but did not molest his own children but rather drank himself to death?
  8. Can I just tell you that I found Tara Westover’s Educated about her cultic childhood (some kind of Mormon-spinoff) positively riveting, and  I choked up when a Mormon Bishop offered to write her a check from his personal account so that she could get a root canal?


  1. Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’ is one of the first memoirs I ever recall reading and it remains a top favorite.
  2. Another favorite on my short list is James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother and I am so excited my book club is reading it in October.
  3. If you want to be delighted by the simple pleasures and funny observations of childhood, check out Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy.
  4. He’s written a bazillion memoirs, but David Sedaris’ Naked is still the best.
  5. Want to read something that will break your heart into a million pieces? Read either Paul Guest’s One More Theory About Happiness or Abigail Thomas’ A Three Dog LifeI promise you will thank me.
  6. Conversely, if you want to laugh your ass off and cringe a little too, Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is a must read.
  7. Like to cook and want a mouth-watering recipe for slow-roasted Roma tomatoes? Dig into Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life.
  8. If you are going to read Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, stop right now. The only way to read it, is to listen to it. Trust me.

If you made it this far, we should have a prize for you. But we don’t. Consider all of these book recommendations our best gift. Thanks for indulging us. Please come back again.

Next Up!

Join us in September when we are much more reasonable and plan on discussing one book, albeit and important one, Tommy Orange’s There There.

Until then… Happy Reading, Snotties!


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