The Compelling Memoirs You Have To Read

Some call it navel-gazing. We call it too good to put down.

As much as we adore fiction, a good memoir really has a huge emotional impact on the reader, because it has the benefit of being true (unless it's by James Frey, in which case, never mind). Whether it's Maya Angelou or Tina Fey or Barack Obama, everyone has a story to tell, and it's just a pleasure to be invited in.

The memoirists featured range from acclaimed poets to former slaves to humorists to rock stars. Their stories are engrossing, heartbreaking, unbelievable at times, and often hilarious. They're honest and raw, inviting you to chew on their own highly personal experiences as you meditate on your own. They're just filled with life.

Ahead we’ve gathered our favourite memoirs and autobiographies. Book reports are due next week, okay?

Out of Egypt, Andre Aciman
Themes: Immigration, world wars, the tail end of a cosmopolitan Alexandria

As an adult, Andre Aciman looks back at his childhood during the waning days of Alexandria's cosmopolitan population. His rambunctious, eccentric Jewish family was neighbours with Greeks, Syrians, and Italians. People switched languages all day, and brushed shoulders with individuals of many different religions. With the prose of a tall tale, Aciman walks us through three generations of his family, from their triumphant economic rise in Alexandria to their reluctant exodus.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997)
Themes: Disability, childhood, literature

Before experiencing a rare cerebrovascular accident, Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle, the father of two kids, and a renowned member of the French intelligentsia. Then, he has a stroke. After a 20-day long coma, Bauby wakes up without control over any part of his body, expect for blinking his left eye. With the help of a patient nurse, Bauby was able to dictate this entire book, one wink at a time. Bauby narrates the experience of life with lock-in syndrome, and speaks of his life before.

Bauby died two days after the book was published.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir, Joyce Johnson (1999)
Themes: The 1960s, New York City, Beat Writers

Joyce Johnson may be best known as Jack Kerouac’s longtime girlfriend, but she rises above this reputation in this wholly realised, poignant memoir about growing up in a bygone New York. Johnson recounts her journey towards independence in an era that made it downright difficult to be an independent woman. Fans of Beat writers Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac will love seeing the literary figures in such a raw light — but everyone interested in tracking a woman's journey into self-actualisation would enjoy this remarkably well-written book.
Photo: Courtesy of Little, Brown Book Group.
Bossypants, Tina Fey (2011)
Themes: Comedy, work, womanhood

Fey charts her rise from geeky student to Saturday Night Live standout and the queen of 30 Rock. Like all the best books, it's both hilarious and wise.
Photo: Courtesy of Atria.
Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup (1853)
Themes: Slavery, race

The basis of the Oscar-winning film from 2013, this memoir follows the life of Solomon Northup, a free Black man from New York who was kidnapped and forced into slavery in the South. It’s horrifying and hugely important.
Photo: Courtesy of Mariner.
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell (1933)
Themes: Poverty

Though not strictly a standard memoir — Orwell wrote about his own experiences in a fictionalised nature — this account of living on the streets and in shelters in European capitals is both entertaining in tone and humbling in subject matter. Your landlord may be hassling you about your overdue rent, but it's unlikely you've ever experienced poverty like this.
Photo: Courtesy of HarperCollins.
Black Boy, Richard Wright (1945)
Themes: Race, religion, poverty, communism

Wright's autobiography of growing up in the American South in the Jim Crow era is a classic for good reason. Expect tales of extreme poverty and racism, as well as Wright's eventual interest in the arts and Communism.
Photo: Courtesy of Bantam.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank (1947)
Themes: Adolescence, the Holocaust, faith

If you haven't already read this in school, write your old teachers a stern letter. A heartbreaking classic.
Photo: Courtesy of Everyman's Library.
Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov (1951)
Themes: Russian revolution, family, politics, literature, travel

The man who gave us Lolita had quite the childhood.
Photo: Courtesy of Random House.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou (1969)
Themes: Race, adolescence, rape

This celebrated autobiography has some sections that are very hard to read, given the subject matter (racism, sexual violence), but it's a literary touchstone for a reason. Full respect to the late, great poet.
Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston (1976)
Themes: Feminism, Chinese culture, womanhood

A frequent entry on many a feminist's syllabus, this genre-spanning work incorporates Chinese folktales into its examination of modern women's identity.
Photo: Courtesy of Grove Press.
This Boy's Life: A Memoir, Tobias Wolff (1989)
Themes: Adolescence, family, abuse

Such a good read, even if you've already seen the Leo film. Toby/Jack's stepdad is the ultimate villain to root against.
Photo: Courtesy of Penguin.
Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby (1992)
Themes: Sports, adolescence

Nick Hornby also wrote the screenplay for the 1997 film version starring Colin Firth, but the book has so much more going for it. The true love story here is Hornby's devotion to the Arsenal football club, written about so enthusiastically that it's hard to not walk away a fan yourself.
Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
All Over but the Shoutin', Rick Bragg (1991)
Themes: Poverty, family, the Deep South

Consider this a rich, engrossing tale of survival in the Deep South.
Photo: Courtesy of HarperCollins.
Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy (1994)
Themes: Health, self-image, beauty, depression

Grealy, who endured numerous operations on her face after the removal of her Ewing's sarcoma left her disfigured, died of a drug overdose eight years after this book's publication.
Photo: Courtesy of Penguin.
The Liars' Club, Mary Karr (1995)
Themes: Family, adolescence, Southern culture

As eccentric as Mary Karr makes her parents out to be, you'll no doubt wish you knew them personally after reading this incredibly honest and wry account of growing up in small-town Texas. Karr's lively language and Southern-fried quotes are a joy.
Photo: Courtesy of Three Rivers Press.
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Barack Obama (1995)
Themes: Race, identity, politics, idealism

Long before he became POTUS, Barack Obama published this thoughtful memoir about growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia as the child of a white single mother and a Kenyan father he barely knew. It's a moving, fascinating story, whatever your politics.
Photo: Courtesy of Scribner.
Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt (1996)
Themes: Poverty, family, loss, Catholicism

Cheery it's not, but it certainly deserved the Pulitzer Prize. Brace yourself for serious heartache, and, yes, some levity, too.
Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers (2000)
Themes: Death, family, survival

Eggers becomes guardian to his young brother when their parents die. A long story short: You'll laugh, you'll cry.
Photo: Courtesy of Ecco.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Anthony Bourdain (2000)
Themes: Cooking, addiction, travel

The former chef/current TV personality gets gritty about his life in food.
Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris (2000)
Themes: Humor, family, gay identity

Picking your favourite David Sedaris book is like picking your favourite child. They're all too good. Will the Sedaris family go ahead and adopt us, please?
Photo: Courtesy of Random House.
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, Alexandra Fuller (2001)
Themes: Loss, Africa, war, family

The straight-shooting Alexandra Fuller details her eccentric family's life and losses during Rhodesia's fight for independence. It will grab you even in the darkest moments.
Photo: Courtesy of Scribner.
The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls (2005)
Themes: Poverty, adolescence, family, survival

The former gossip columnist had a doozy of a childhood, fending for herself as her parents turned to alcohol and their own interests.
Photo: Courtesy of Back Bay Books.
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, Peter Godwin (2006)
Themes: Death, war, fathers and sons, Robert Mugabe

This follow-up to Mukiwa, Godwin's story of growing up as a white Rhodesian, is engrossing on both a personal and political level. Godwin's relationship with his dying father will have you choking back tears, while his accounts of president Robert Mugabe's abuse of power will leave you fuming.
Photo: Courtesy of Hyperion.
The Tender Bar: A Memoir, J.R. Moehringer (2006)
Themes: Family, adolescence

Hilarious, endearing, and poignant, this memoir will make you wish you spent your childhood hanging out with your wisecracking uncle at the local bar.
Photo: Courtesy of Anchor.
My Life in France, Julia Child (2007)
Themes: French cuisine, travel, joie de vivre

Let's hear it for late bloomers. Julia Child's lively tales of experiencing fine French dining for the first time, failing her final cooking exam, and living in Paris with husband Paul will have you booking the next Air France flight.
Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Crichton Books.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah (2007)
Themes: Africa, war, violence, survival

Beah became a boy soldier in Sierra Leone and came out the other side. His story offers insight into the violence of the region, which leaves young boys with few choices and little hope for survival.
Photo: Courtesy of Harper Perennial.
Lit: A Memoir, Mary Karr (2009)
Themes: Alcoholism, relationships, parenting, family

Yes, yes, it's another Mary Karr selection. This searingly honest memoir details Karr's battle with alcoholism and a failing marriage, warts and all.
Photo: Courtesy of Ecco.
Just Kids, Patti Smith (2010)
Themes: Art, creativity, rock music

The poet and rocker chronicles her life in New York City in the late '60s and '70s, during which time she lived in the Chelsea Hotel, dated artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and connected with stars like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
Photo: Courtesy of Random House.
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, Gabrielle Hamilton (2011)

Julia Child she ain't. Chef Gabrielle Hamilton reveals all as she chronicles the several odd jobs and relationship woes endured along her way to culinary stardom.
Photo: Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.
Wild, Cheryl Strayed (2012)
Themes: Loss, relationships, personal strength, nature

In case you missed out on the Reese Witherspoon film, here's a primer. Reeling from the death of her mother and the breakup of her marriage, Strayed sets out to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. Gorgeous, riveting, and open-hearted.
Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan (2012)
Themes: Health

Cahalan was a young reporter living in New York City when she was struck by a mysterious, debilitating illness with seemingly no cure. Her fight to regain control of her mind and body is inspiring, and an important reminder to never take your own health for granted.
Photo: Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai (2013)
Themes: Education, Taliban, women's rights, survival

Be honest: This has been on your to-read list for quite some time now. We assure you that the story of resistance and perseverance is too good to let slip by.
Photo: Courtesy of Random House.
My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem (2015)
Themes: Feminism, politics, advocacy, travel

The feminist icon delves deep into her upbringing and chronicles her early days of fighting for women's rights both here and abroad.
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