Telling Their Stories: My All-Time Favorite Memoirs

I have written way too much already, so I am just crisscrossing it out, the yellow legal tablet looking worse each hour. I'm trying hard not to list too many titles, and I'm trying to be brief. I will skip my lengthy essay on the significance of memoir, that storytelling genre that isn't exactly formal autobiography, but more comprised of daily reflections on life and times by the usually not-so-famous.

Although I most often recommend standard nonfiction works in this column, and we always have a few good novels going around here, I must say that I think my favorite genre is memoir. I love these books. They have made me laugh and cry and care for the lives of others and even to understand myself. They have altered my worldview and renewed my faith. The following list includes great books--every one of them.

I really hope you order a few of these as they each are remarkably written, uniquely interesting and altogether enjoyable. It truly is my pleasure to introduce you to these titles. I think they matter. You most likely won't find most of these in any Christian bookstore you've ever been in, but, despite some raw language and real-world candor, I commend them to those who not only care about good writing but who care about the ways in which grace embodies itself, if even for a bit, in the lives of ordinary folks. Memoirs often show us how that works. (Of course, the opposite is true as well; writers who tell the tale of their brokeness help us see how sin works itself into our world and lives. Such writing is meritorious; the Bible insists that we should be truthful, after all.)

So, here is my list, in no particular order:

The Last Days: A Son's Story of Sin and Segregation at the Dawn of a
New South
by Charles Marsh (Basic, $14).
I list this first because I most recently read it and met the author, a brilliant scholar from UVA. This spectacular book is all a great memoir can be--describing his faith development in a fundamentalist home that is informative and touching (whether one knows that world or not), set in a tumultuous time (imagine being a white evangelical kid in the world of KKK murders!) and, significantly, a whole lot of father-son and coming-of-age stuff. My, my, this is a great book. One of my favorite authors, Dennis Covington, has written: "...a stunning portrait of family love. It moves me to even talk about this book." That's how I feel.

For a gloriously-written background to that awful and complex time, told in prose as clear as a siren, see Marsh's award-winning God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith & Civil Rights (Princeton University Press, $16.95). The haunting stories he tells ask, finally, of us all, questions about our own moral development. Superb!

Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington (Penguin, $14). A liberal New York Times journalist with guts and an aching heart respectfully enters the world of snake-handling Pentecostals in the very rural South. In my review here when I first read it, I called it "high octane." The Times called it, "A book of revelation--brilliant, dire and full of grace." Another prominent review said "Some of the best writing about the South--and about the nature of faith--to appear in decades." The Washington Post notes that "Covington journeyed into a place where most of us would fear to tread, and acting on his instinct, faith and heart, he wrote a book that is unmatched in a man's attempt to understand who he is." You've never read anything quite like it!

I was deeply moved by, and so would also list, the exceptionally honest book (also noted here a few years back) that Covington wrote with his novelist wife, Vickie, about their very troubled marriage, entitled Cleaving: The Story of a Marriage (North Point, $13). The word cleaving, of course, can mean splitting apart or clinging together. Hold on to your hat if you dare read this one as it, too, is pretty high-octane stuff.

An American Requiem: God, My Father and the War that Came Between Us by James Carroll (Mariner, $13). I told anyone who would listen about this a few years back and have declared that this is one of my favorite books of all time. Studying to be a priest in the mid -'60s, Carroll--who has gone on to be quite a renowned essayist and novelist--takes up with the radical edge of the religious anti-war movement. The well-told story of such a journey of heart makes for worthy reading, but the bigger issue is that his father was a very, very highly-placed warrior in the Pentagon, and their opposing convictions increasingly tore the family apart. This is one of the few books I would truly call breathtaking. The judges who awarded it the prestigious National Book Award declared it to be "a flawlessly executed memoir" while another called it "shattering yet ultimately healing."

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott (Anchor, $13). This has happily become nearly a cult classic these last few years. At times hilarious, this punchy tale tells of the bohemian, alcoholic artiste coming to a reluctant and eventually vibrant faith in Christ. Wonderful. See also her book on writing, Bird By Bird, and her memoir of being a single parent, Operating Instructions.

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris (Mariner, $13) and Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris (Riverhead, $12.95). It is hard to choose between the two and so I recommend them both to be read in order. Many critics seem to most like the sparse telling of her journey to faith set in the rural Dakota landscape, although many people have benefited from her memoir of being in a Catholic monastery for a season. Both are lucid and gently written with exceptional spiritual insights. I know I should mention similar spiritual memoirs, like Thomas Merton's renowned Seven Story Mountain, which is a 20th century classic, but Norris is every bit as good! Highly recommended.

Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith by Nora Gallagher (Vintage, $12). I tell folks that this could almost be described as Anne Lamott meets Kathleen Norris--not quite as feisty as Lamott and not as demure as Norris. This nominal seeker ends up joining an Episcopal parish in San Fransisco and tells the wonderful story for all to read. Annie Dillard says, "This is a wonderful book. I laughed more often than I cried, but I did both. Nora Gallagher is perfect company, both witty and deep, and she describes church life and spiritual life with absolute accuracy." Very nicely done.

The Starlight Lounge: Stories From A Boy's Adolescence by Deborah Digges (Doubleday, $23.95). Digges is a writer, her son a rebellious, urban teen in deep, deep trouble. The back jacket is laden with rave reviews like this: "a memoir so powerfully charged and exquisitely textured that I found it transcended its medium and drew me unequivocally into its world, as only the best books do. In delineating with passion and precision the difficult passage of her son, she has give us a gift: a story that is heartrending yet utterly unsentimental and clear-eyed." Another good writer, talking about the book's transformative power, says her prose is "bracingly direct, alive with fear and doubt, alight with tenderness and hope."

Augusta, Gone: A True Story by Martha Tod Dudman (HarperCollins, $12.95). Before reading Starlight, I was amazed by this very similar story--equally as harsh and redemptive--and it gave me immense empathy for those with prodigal or troubled teens. I am not sure why I found this so very compelling, but I was truly moved by the harried single mom who did everything to try to keep her rebellious and exceptionally troubled daughter alive. The writing, and story, is painful, at times searing and fragile... One reviewer wrote, "This manic, wrenching memoir is a staggeringly honest and compelling portrayal of the highs and hells of motherhood." I loved this book.

Liars Club (Penguin, $12.95) and Cherry (Penguin, $14), both by Mary Karr. These were massive bestsellers the last year or so, based on the buzz of how well they were written and what a hard life this young and gritty writer faced. Upon picking them up I soon learned why--what a pair of books! What a kid! This thoughtful and poetry-loving young woman tells of growing up poor in a hard-scrabble, red-neck town in southeast Texas in the early '70s, with the sincerest affection for her hard-living father and family. The second book (Cherry) chronicles her teen years and a foray into the world of sex and drugs and all the etceteras. I could write for pages listing the spectacular rave reviews these memoirs have garnered in the mainstream press. I really could not put either one down, and I want to know more of this woman!

Blue Sky Dreams: A Memoir of America's Fall from Grace by David Beers (Harcourt, $13). I raved about this when I reviewed it here for CCO several years back. I really think folks ought to read it, as it contains not only the wonderful unfolding plot of a good memoir, but immensely perceptive insights about American culture--one reviewer said it was "a stunning eulogy for the American Dream." I keep coming back to his descriptions of growing up in the optimistic suburbs of the mid-twentieth century and the ways in which, in half-a-lifetime, the culture has so changed. The author's father was a leader in the upbeat aerospace industry and he mines that nearly iconic symbol for all it's worth, with delightful forays into his happy-go-lucky youth, the future-oriented tone of middle America, and the encroaching loss of meaning as he rejected the faith in science of his father and the old-line Catholicism of his devout mother. This blew me away and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia by Mark Salzman (Vintage, $13). This quirky guy is renowned as a memoirist--he wrote the classic story of his travels in Asia called Iron & Silk--and here tells very moving stories of his rather unusual coming of age in the 1970s. What an eye for detail and what a sense of framing things within his own search for meaning and purpose. Cultural criticism at its most enjoyable. I laughed right out loud over and over again, and I want to read it again soon.

Cliff Walk: The Story of a Job Lost and a Life Found by Don Snyder (Back Bay Books, $12.95). I have recommended this in workshops on vocation and work--some of the writing about the glories of harsh physical labor are extraordinary! The author is a rather self-satisfied English professor who suddenly loses his job. He is so confident that he will find another classy job worthy of his calling in academia, and when it doesn't happen, he seriously devolves--lying to his wife and family and refusing to look for other work. As the family crashes into despair and poverty, Snyder comes to his senses and discovers what appears to be his true vocation: being a carpenter/builder. What a wondrously odd and glorious book.

The Tender Land: A Family Love Story by Kathleen Finneran (Houghton Mifflin, $24). I nearly shudder as I describe this book, one of the most moving and brilliant and luminescent books I have ever encountered.
It is the memoir of a young woman reflecting on her family and how they coped with the suicide of her younger brother. I cherish this book as a friend, the author (whom I do not know) as an ally, and her art--of telling a story that matters in spectacular prose--makes this work a true gift to the world. What a writer! I noted this book and its effect upon me two years ago in these pages, after the death of my father, and I still believe it to be one of the finest pieces of writing I have ever encountered.

The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (Penguin, $12.95) and Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality (Norton, $12.95), both by Thomas Lynch. These may not exactly be memoir, although there is much memoir contained; they may be considered essays, although his ruminations are deeply connected to his daily work as a funeral director, so they are naturally autobiographical. One learns here about the undertaking trade, the business of dying and the work of grief. One also learns about Lynch's marital struggles, his parenting, his writing and his travels (amongst many other things important and
sublime). That the writer--himself a decent and good man--is also an award-winning poet helps make these books among the best-written of our time. Nearly everyone I sell them to comes back for more. One reviewer nicely suggested that "Lynch's vivid prose has the electricity of writing that tells us what is going on in the secret places of the
community--and the secret places of the heart." No wonder he won the
coveted American Book Award.

How can I stop? I haven't even mentioned Madeline L'Engle fine "Crosswicks Quartet," significant writers who have given us reflections on their own lives like C.S. Lewis or Frederick Buechner or Annie Dillard. I haven't mentioned missionary memoirs (you've got to read Elizabeth Elliott's fine works, or Bruchko by Mark Olsen or the recent epic journey of four college students traveling around the globe, Four Souls). We've loved the reminiscences of Edith Schaeffer about L'Abri, which were significant in our lives. Although it is out of print, I was amazed at the perception in Virginia Stem Owens' marvelous memoir of her time in a hippie commune in the late "˜60s, Assaulting Eden, and how she and her husband came to Christian faith.

Another whole sub-genre (which I may do another entire column on someday) is the literature of grief. Memoir about loss is especially powerful and compelling and it deserves -- the authors deserve! -- its own listings. Many are deeply moving and some written without maudlin sentiment. These are stories that cry out to be told.

There are important books like those by John Perkins or others about racial reconciliation, historically significant works like The Autobiography of Malcolm X or my favorite Martin Luther King book, Stride Toward Freedom or the heart-stopping Dead Man Walking. Do Jonathan Kozel's astonishing stories of working with inner-city children count as memoir? How about the remarkable and inspiriting testimony about peace in the Middle East by Christian Arab Elias Chacour, Blood Brothers? Dorothy Day's description of her inner-city work surely is classic stuff.

And then there are the books by nature writers--women writing about their simple lifestyle homesteading, guys writing about being Amish-style farmers, essays by those who just observe God's weird and wondrous creation (is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek a memoir?) I will never forget the thrill of reading feisty eco-activist Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness) and have enjoyed several in that genre. All good memoirs revel in a sense of place (you must know about Staying Put by Scott Saunders) and the nature writers help us immensely here. Perhaps you will recall the lengthy piece I did last year in this space on Reading the Mountains of Home by John Elder. (If you didn't read that major review of a favorite and insightful memoir, I'd recommend it.)

Quite popular these days also is the delightful and fascinating book by Bruce Feiler about traipsing around the Holy Land--half travelogue, half spiritual pursuit, called Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses (Harper, $14.95). We have just received a book by a former Jubilee conference speaker, Calvin College English professor, Debra Rienstra. This highly literate work -- with a stunning dust jacket black and white photo of her hands folded over her very pregnant belly -- is called Great With Child: Reflections on Faith, Fullness and Becoming a Mother (Viking, $23.95). It looks quite serious-minded, deeply reflective and yet tender, so will be a good read, I'm sure. Well-written memoirs about marriage, parenting, and family are numerous, and perhaps I will note more another time.

And lastly, I am currently loving the immensely well-written (if morally perplexing) memoir of food critic Ruth Reichl called Comfort Me With Apples, which has reminded me to enjoy the sensuality of God's good created order of food and taste and smell and color. I intend to back up, reading the earlier book about her girlhood, deliciously entitled Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table. I figure you can't let a title like that get away.

So, I'm telling you, this is a genre that lends itself to creative writing and to sharing the quest for meaning and purpose in ways that are at once personal and universal. This is a genre that I don't tire of--there is always something new, as folks with the ability to remember, reflect and retell their stories help us to piece together the nature of a life well lived.