You know what it’s like. You’re passing a home and you can see through the windows because it’s light inside and dark outside. For an instant, you glimpse something about the life of another. You see a family gathered around a dinner table, a couple sitting on the sofa watching television, or a person reading in a dark-paneled room filled with bookshelves.
I got to thinking that this peek into someone’s home is an illustration of a memoir. Whereas in an autobiography the writer tells their life story chronologically, a memoir focuses on a specific time in or aspect of the writer’s life. A memoir gives the reader a glimpse into the life of another.
I like memoirs. I like reading about how other people live, and hearing how they think. Sometimes what the author has to say contributes a new way of thinking to my own life. As I compiled this list of some of my favorites, it struck me that most are about self-discovery and finding one’s way, especially after loss. I hadn’t noticed that personal leaning before, but it makes sense because I’ve had many losses in my life.
Not all memoirs are serious. Some have made me laugh aloud. As with all genres, there’s something for everyone’s tastes. If nothing in my short list of favorites entices you, come into the library and we’ll be happy to introduce you to others.
“Gift from the Sea” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I’ve read “Gift from the Sea” several times, and although it was written in 1955, it’s still relevant today. During a stay on Florida’s Captiva Island, Anne took time to reevaluate her life. “I began these pages for myself, in order to think out my own particular pattern of living, my own individual balance of life, work and human relationships,” she wrote in the book’s introduction. The wife, mother, pilot, and author of more than two dozen books died in Vermont in 2001.
“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion
“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
Joan’s husband died of a heart attack at the dinner table. “The Year of Magical Thinking” is a record of her grieving process during the succeeding year. During that year, she also cared for their only daughter, seeing her through an induced coma and life support. Joan’s writing is a poignant reflection on life, death, relationships, and self.
“The Delicate Art of Whale Watching” by Joana McIntyre Varawa
I bought this book used at a bookstore on Cape Cod, and read it on the back deck of my rental home the day before going whale watching in Provincetown. “This guide will caution you about carrying too much baggage, for we all burden ourselves with extra things that we think we need, but then our time becomes one of caring for our luggage,” Varawa writes. She prepared me for whale watching, and gave me a new perspective for navigating life.
“A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson
This hilarious travel memoir follows Bryson and his out-of-shape buddy Stephen Katz as they hike the 2,100- mile Appalachian Trail. Need a laugh? Read this book.
“A Year by the Sea” by Joan Anderson
Frustrated by the lack of connection in her many-year marriage, Anderson decides to take a year for herself at her family’s Cape Cod home. Thus begins a journey of self-discovery, beautifully recorded in these pages.
“Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” by Trevor Noah
In apartheid South Africa, Trevor Noah was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother. Mixed-race births were a crime. Because the union was punishable by five years in prison, and because little Trevor could be taken away by the government at any time, he was kept indoors most of his early life. “Born a Crime” is Trevor’s story of a mischievous boy struggling to find his place in the world.
Milton Public Library Director Susan Larson writes Book Bits as a monthly column for the Milton Independent. It is reprinted here with permission.