5 Profound Memoirs That Will Change the Way You See the World
We asked professional bookworms to share the personal stories that stuck with them.
Looking for Mary, by Beverly Donofrio
This is the second memoir from Riding in Cars With Boys author Beverly Donofrio, and it is about her pilgrimage to Medjugorje, a city in Bosnia and Herzogovinia, where, since 1981, people have claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. Like Donofrio, I’m a lapsed Catholic, but as a child, the ritual and the icons were so important. I still collect the memorabilia; in Mary, Donofrio does too. At the time, she is 40, with an iffy career, living in a rented house out on Long Island, and not getting along with her kid. She goes to Medjugorje as a journalist, with no intention of being knocked off her feet. And yet she really feels something.
What makes this memoir stand out is Donofrio’s wonderful prose (she’s profound, but awfully funny) and her ability to really tell a story. Even though I think that all religions are basically the same—love your neighbors and be kind and be good—this book does show that whatever you put into a child, good or bad, doesn’t go away. It helped me realize what religion added to my life, and how rich it made it.
– Louisa Ermelino is the reviews director at Publishers Weekly and the author of the short story collection Malafemmena ($10, amazon.com).
To buy: $12.50, amazon.com.
Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl
After I lost my son, Kadian, I was shocked by how bad the literature for grieving was. I found the idea of “five stages”—the sense of progress and diminishing pain—totally untrue. As I began writing about my experience, someone recommended that I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, an account of the author’s time in a concentration camp. Beyond the story of this terrible moment in history, what struck me was the extraordinary way Frankl describes a traumatic situation almost scientifically, using memoir not only to communicate, but to give himself a tool for understanding. That gave me permission to describe my own experience as if I were an observer. I began writing with very little forethought—the words just came out. Through the experience, I learned that with loss, there’s no diminishing the pain, just accommodating it. When talking about grief, people often say “there are no words.” Now I have 70,000 words for my son.
— Thomas Harding is author of Kadian Journal, his account of his 14-year-old son’s death in a cycling accident ($11.50, amazon.com.)
To buy: $9, amazon.com.
I Await the Devil’s Coming, by Mary MacLane
Four hours after I picked up I Await the Devil’s Coming by Mary MacLane, I was done with the book. But it’s stayed with me: Born in the late 1800s in Butte, Montana, MacLane was a 21st century woman. In the winter of 1902, when she was 19, she declared herself a genius, wanting to escape the drudgery of her life. She wrote with great exuberance about things we still talk about now: power, radical feminist politics, and bisexuality. She was such an impressive character, making a direct assault on the status quo. And having grown up in a small West Texas town with the sense of wanting more than a life along a dusty road, I related to her struggle. It’s a good reminder that we are more than our pasts.
— Jeremy Ellis is the general manager of Brazos Bookstore in Houston.
To buy: $11, amazon.com.
The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson
I read The Argonauts shortly after my daughter was born. I was not writing—I couldn't really imagine writing again—but I was reading throughout the early months of my daughter's life. The Argonauts is perhaps the book that I remember best from this period. It's a book that defies categorization: a love story about identity, motherhood, sex, and family. The writing is as bold and fearless as Nelson herself seems as she chronicles an intricate and tumultuous period in her life.
— Katie Kitamura, a novelist and critic, is the author of Gone to the Forest, The Longshot, and most recently, A Separation ($15, amazon.com).
To buy: $9, amazon.com.
Dream Songs, by John Berryman
People who think poems are automatically personal may not understand that they’re a performance, like a Shakespeare play, and not necessarily an outpouring of unrefined emotion. In the same way, memoirs are often not totally verifiable—but they’re always a good story. Though it’s not a traditional memoir, John Berryman’s Dream Songs has strong autobiographical elements: The poems are mediated through a character named Henry who is and is not John Berryman; they’re hilarious and dark, changing registers quickly. They deal with weighty topics, like the death of Berryman’s father, while also constantly signaling to you that you’re not getting the unvarnished truth. Most importantly, they’re fun to read—and include of the greatest opening lines in the past 60 years of American poetry: “Life, friends, is boring.”
— David Orr, the poetry columnist for The New York Times Book Review, is author of the essay collection You, Too, Could Write a Poem ($12, amazon.com).
To buy: $14, amazon.com.