15 Must-Read Memoirs

We’ll never forget these gripping personal stories.
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Circling My Mother by Mary Gordon

This book will resonate with any daughter who has lost, or is losing a parent. Prompted by her mother’s Alzheimer’s-and her inability to talk with her about the past-Gordon goes back in time to retrace her mother’s life as a breadwinner and single mother. In Gordon’s quest for answers about a woman she had only made assumptions about, the reader learns that memory is what you make it, and sees the importance of letting things go. Buy it here.

Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander

In his biting, laugh-out-loud memoir about growing up as an Orthodox Jew, Shalom Auslander exposes his lifelong game of cat and mouse with God. As a boy he savors beef jerky, hoards porn magazines, and drives his car to the mall on Shabbat-that is until a healthy dose of Jewish guilt sends him into a flurry of repentance and the porn literally goes up in flames. His complicated systems of checks and balances-curse God one day, attend yeshiva the next-are hilarious, and all too familiar to anyone who’s grappled with religion. Buy it here.

The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes

Thirty years after they gave her up, her birth parents were still babies. She turned around and wrote her best book. Novelist A.M. Homes was raised by adoptive parents in Washington, D.C., and first met her biological parents when she was 31. For Homes, the reality of these once longed-for relatives was jarring. Her biological mother, a lonely and unbalanced woman, showed up unannounced at Homes’s readings, and her father, who insisted she take a DNA test, eventually cut off contact. In her memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter (Viking), Homes, now 45 and the mother of a preschool-age girl, brings her writer’s eye for the painfully absurd to her own compelling story. Buy it here.

Farm City by Novella Carpenter

Blogger and local food fanatic Carpenter transforms her inner-city Oakland home into fertile ground for a vegetable garden, a chicken coop and two 300-pound pigs. Buy it here.

A Comrade Lost and Found by Jan Wong

At the height of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, Jan Wong was one of only two Westerners permitted to study at Beijing University. When a Chinese student, Yin Luoyi, asked for help in getting to America, Wong, then a Maoist, reported her to the authorities-which could have resulted in Yin’s execution. In Comrade Lost and Found (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Wong recalls her 2006 return to China to find the woman she betrayed-and to apologize. Buy it here.

The Center of the Universe by Nancy Bachrach

Nancy Bachrach was a young American woman living in Paris (with the job of trying to sell deodorant to the French) when she received a life-upending phone call: Her father had been asphyxiated by a gas leak and her mentally ill mother was in a coma. The year was 1983; Bachrach flew home to Providence, Rhode Island and-with her siblings-braced for a double funeral. Against all expectations, her mother survived: delusional, amnesiac, grandiose, demanding-and robustly alive. Bachrach’s moving memoir, The Center of the Universe (her mother’s name for herself), is just out from Knopf. That it’s harrowing isn’t surprising-but that it’s shockingly funny is. Buy it here.

Dating Jesus by Susan Campbell

Susan Campbell’s fundamentalist girlhood in the rural Missouri Ozarks left her yearning for Jesus but troubled by a church that relegated women to the sidelines. In her heartfelt memoir Dating Jesus (Beacon Press), she describes growing up in the 1970s in the Church of Christ, where she was taught that holiness is "entirely masculine." Women couldn’t speak from the pulpit, and they were required to keep silent during services. Campbell went to church three days a week, attended summer Bible camp, knocked on doors to proselytize, and stayed virginal through high school, imagining the litany of her faults that would be revealed on Judgment Day. But as she watched her brothers’ privileged treatment, she began to ask tough questions. As a student at Hartford Seminary, Campbell discovered the work of theologians like Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, who termed Jesus’s egalitarian approach to women "inclusive graciousness." Campbell has since left her church. But she is still "Christhaunted," she writes, struggling to imagine a Jesus who wouldn’t have loved her less because of her gender. Her writing is striking for the compassion with which she views her younger self, a fledgling believer confined in a cage of manmade rules. Buy it here

The Music Room, by Namita Devidayal

The author discovers her sparkling voice at age 10 and begins training as an Indian classical singer. Although Devidayal, a journalist with The Times of India, calls this book a memoir, it’s really a biography of her guru. This is a passionate, lyrical tribute to India’s mystical, melodic history, an inviting tapestry of ragas, goddesses, and Hindu tradition. Buy it here.

The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan

We earn our livings and raise our children, but our parents continue to shape us. So when are we really grown-ups? Kelly Corrigan answers that question in her insightful, often funny memoir about surviving breast cancer only to find that her adored father has been diagnosed with cancer too. Buy it here.

Desire by Susan Cheever

Part memoir, part pop psychology, Cheever’s latest book explores love, obsession, and the perils of compulsive sexual behavior. While her approach to the subject is descriptive rather than prescriptive-she speaks from experience-more detail would have made these anecdotes and recollections more poignant. The book’s most affecting passages reveal how alienation and unresolved trauma are driving forces of addiction, and how for Cheever herself, loneliness in midlife (at age 43) made her sexually restless. She’s a gifted storyteller, but the vagueness of her narrative, perhaps to protect privacy, is a bit frustrating. Still, Cheever is a keenly intelligent writer, and her musings on sex and desire raise provocative questions. Buy it here.

The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham

Sixteen years ago, Joan Wickersham’s father shot himself in the head. Struggling to understand why, she created an alphabetical index to sift through the details of his life and death, studying everything from his business failures to her mother’s friendship with another man. The result is an unsettling if incomplete picture – her father didn’t leave a note – of how little we really know about our loved ones. Buy it here.

Welcome to the Departure Lounge

When the author’s mother, 81, and stepfather, 82, get home care (both have dementia), Federico becomes the reluctant participant in a kind of "Geriatrics Gone Wild" episode. Her parents’ antics include ordering cases of Scotch and sex toys, and climbing inside a fireplace to light the gas. Although she portrays her parents comically, this is a poignant memoir. Buy it here.

The Three of Us by Julia Blackburn

Blackburn chronicles her disturbing relationship with her mother, a sex-crazed eccentric (she preyed on the male boarders living in the family lodge), who treated her daughter as a romantic rival. Miraculously Blackburn’s poetic, poignant journal entries, written at age 51 during the month leading up to her mother’s death, punctuate her memories with the power of forgiveness. Buy it here.

Quick, Before the Music Stops by Janet Carlson

Janet Carlson was a medal-winning ballroom dancer in her 20s when she gave up the waltzes, the cha-chas, and the glory for marriage, motherhood, and a glamorous job in publishing. In Quick, Before the Music Stops (Broadway) she gracefully recounts her return to the dance floor at 46 and quickstep by rumba, finds her bliss. Buy it here.

Trespass by Amy Irvine

It took nine years for wilderness activist Amy Irvine to write Trespass (North Point Press), about her father’s suicide in Utah’s rugged, desolate red-rock landscape. From the chilling opening line, "My home is a red desert that trembles with spirits and bones," Irvine delivers a distinctive, affecting meditation on loss-an amalgam of personal history, natural history, and a search for spirituality (she is a lapsed Mormon) in unexpected places. He was always "a good shot," she recalls, and "on the first night of the new millennium, as the rest of the world toasted a new era, my father put a bullet through his own heart." The book’s title comes to take on multiple meanings-familial, religious, natural. And through her despair at feeling like an intruder in the places where she yearned most for an embrace, Irvine writes her way toward a thin but sturdy hope. Buy it here.

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