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
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
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

An American Requiem: God, My Father and the War that Came Between
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,
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
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,
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,
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

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 &
–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.

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

Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade
$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 “Ëœ60s, 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
? 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

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.