Memoir is where writers use their gift for creating a world on the page to elaborate on a world they knew. Great memoirs take us along on a journey through something we can barely imagine and often deliver us at a point of peace, if not triumph.
Falling into the hands of a really good memoirist is like sitting by the fire with someone who has lived through life-changing experiences and knows how to talk about them in a compelling way.
No wonder memoirs make such very good gifts.
Here are some of the most lauded memoirs written by women in 2013, and a few of the evergreens as well.
Published in 2013
A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett. Held in captivity, raped, and tortured for 460 days, Amanda Lindhout was in Somalia in 2008 as the realization of a dream. She had imagined traveling to the most remote destinations as redemption—a way of creating a life of understanding after growing up in a household of chaos and violence. This is her story of clinging to compassion, of creating a private “house in the sky” far removed from her experiences in captivity, and of never losing the lifeline of her intellect and imagination. In reviewing this book for The New York Times, Eliza Griswold said, “Lindhout’s resilience transforms the story from a litany of horrors into a humbling encounter with the human spirit.”
Primary Lessons, by Sarah Bracey White. After a stay with a strong and loving aunt in a comfortable home in middle-class Philadelphia, young Sarah was transplanted to the segregated South of the 50s and 60s to live with her single mother, who has chosen keeping her children safe over breaking out of the crushing social system. White, now a motivational speaker, never lost her determination or sense of self or her powers of expression, as this lauded volume attests.
Bough Down, by Karen Green. It is nearly impossible to believe that the examination of a marriage that ended with the husband’s suicide could be described as “luminous,” but you will find that praise in the Goodreads description of this volume, in which Green is credited with telling her story with “poetic precision.”
Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by Katy Butler. At root this is one woman’s story of how misguided medical intervention prevented her father from having the dignified end of life he deserved, and how her mother demanded the opposite. Well beyond that is a factual account by a gifted investigative reporter. Butler realizes that decisions about dying are made in the theater of terror. No matter what courage enters the room, the determination to triumph over death trumps a decision about when ending life is better than going on living.
Not to Be Forgotten
The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr. There is a reason why this memoir is taught by every writing teacher who wants to get to the heart of writing memoir. It is Karr’s ability to present brutal truth while offering the safety net of knowing the storyteller is a survivor. More than a survivor, Karr is a straight shooter with a machine-gun style and a deadeye aim at the love within the lunacy of her childhood. She followed with Cherry and Lit—two more volumes for the pantheon of the memoir form.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell. Pulitzer Prize winner Caldwell manages to maintain forthrightness while conveying the emotion of finding and losing the kind of friend who comes along once in a lifetime. You can read our 2010 review here.
The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston. In this 1975 memoir, Maxine Hong Kingston presents Chinese folk tales, her mother’s Chinese “talk stories.” She carries us in the company of those persistent ghosts into the all-too-real world of being different in a city (Stockton, California) where one version of being the same included having an aggressive distrust of difference. The Modern Language Associations reports that The Woman Warrior is the text taught most often in modern university education.