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As a literary genre, a memoir is a subset of autobiography. Memoirs are more focused and more flexible than traditional autobiographies and can provide a powerful understanding of how the author views one defined aspect of their life.
Listed below are some of my favorite memoirs:
The color of water : a Black man’s tribute to his white mother by James McBride The Color of Water tells the remarkable story of Ruth McBride Jordan, born Rachel Shilsky, a Polish Jew who immigrated to America soon after birth. She met and married an African American man in Harlem and raised 12 amazing children. The book is a testament to one woman’s strong heart, solid values and indomitable will. She battled not only racism but also poverty. The book an inspiring tribute written by her son, National Book Award winner, James McBride (The Good Lord Bird).
Truth & beauty : a friendship by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett met her friend Lucy Grealy at the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1981 and began a friendship that would last the rest of their lives. In Grealy’s acclaimed memoir, Autobiography of a Face, she wrote about losing part of her jaw to childhood cancer, years of chemotherapy and radiation, and endless reconstructive surgeries. This memoir is not about Ann Patchett’s life or Lucy Grealey’s life but is about a twenty-year, committed, loving friendship. It is both a tender and brutal book about loving a person we cannot save but also being inspired by someone who knew how to live life to the fullest.
Into thin air : a personal account of the Mount Everest disaster by Jon Krakauer
In May 1996, journalist-mountaineer Jon Krakauer joined a team to climb to the summit of Mt. Everest. This expedition became one of the most deadly in the history of the mountain as a freak storm claimed five lives. Krakauer’s investigation into what went wrong is haunting and deeply personal.
I know why the caged bird sings by Maya Angelou
With the recent death of Maya Angelou, our country has lost a national treasure. In this memoir of her childhood, the author captures the longing of lonely children, the cruel insult of bigotry and the strength of the human spirit to survive. Author James Baldwin is correct when he describes the power of Angelou’s writing. He says she liberates the reader into life as she confronts her own life with “a moving wonder and a luminous dignity”.
Beautiful boy : a father’s journey through his son’s addiction by David Sheff Beautiful Boy is a fiercely candid memoir that brings immediacy to the emotional rollercoaster of loving a child who seems beyond help. Journalist David Sheff describes the wrenching experience of journeying with his son Nic through addiction to crystal meth. Before he became addicted, Nic was a charming boy, a varsity athlete and an honor student adored by his two younger siblings; after meth, he became a liar, a thief and a homeless wraith. This book is heart-breaking, beautiful and full of hard-earned wisdom.
Night by Elie Wiesel
Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel has written about his experiences with his father in the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Although not technically a memoir because Night is narrated by Eliezer, a fictional Jewish teenager, Eliezer serves as Elie Wiesel’s representative and experiences all that he underwent. Much has been written about the Holocaust, but Night is able to reawaken the shock of seeing evil at its most absolute.
Beth Pocock is a library assistant at the Sawyer Free Library.
The graphic novel format has produced some of the most compelling fiction and nonfiction of the last thirty years. Many think of superheroes when they think of these works, but there are a number of excellent more “down to earth” graphic novels.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Showa 1926-1939 : A History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki
The first in a three part series tells the important tale of Japan slipped from a rapidly modernizing constitutional monarchy into a militaristic society that viewed all of Asia as it’s natural territory. The second and third parts are equally compelling, detailing the destruction of the war and how the Japanese national identity changed after the war to what it is today.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Perhaps the most well known “real world” GN is this autobiographical account of Marjane Satrapi. Satrapi writes about growing up as an upper class girl during the Iranian revolution and its aftermath. Her simple high-contrast art-style show her growth from a young girl living during the horrific war with Iraq and its aftershocks, to her teenage years in Austria, and finally to her return to her homeland of Iran as an adult.
Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughn
Vaughn’s tale takes a real event, the escape of a lion pride from the Baghdad zoo after the breakdown of society during the toppling of Saadam Hussein in 2003, and anthropomorphizes the newly freed lions into an analysis of various viewpoints on the Iraq war, its after-effects and the nature of being “free”.
Palestine by Joe Sacco & Edward Said
A premiere piece of “graphic journalism” Sacco spent months living with and interviewing Palestinian Muslims and Christians, as well as Israeli Jews in order to create a picture that before could only be captured by a photojournalist or a documentary crew.
Waltz With Bashir by Ari Folman
A book adaptation of the Academy Award Nominated film of the same name, Waltz With Bashir tells a powerful tale of an IDF soldier searching his memories for his role in the 1982 Lebanese war. Waltz with Bashir explores PTSD, the faults of memory and carries a powerful anti-war message.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Three stories interwoven around the life of Jin Wang, a lonely middle schooler explore what it means to be proud of who you are, no matter how others might perceive you. Humorous, thought provoking, and an important message for teens and adults.
Lewis Parsons is a library assistant at the Sawyer Free Library.
I love visiting New York City. There is hustle and bustle, but also beautiful parks in which to slow down and enjoy nature. Some of the novels I chose are historical fiction. I learned about some events that shaped Manhattan and ultimately the country as a whole. Others are set in present time, where I could enjoy imagining myself in the locations mentioned.
Go for a stroll down city streets with these titles:
New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd
The intertwining fates of characters rich and poor, black and white, native born and immigrant, brings to life the momentous events that shaped New York City and America: the Revolutionary War, the emergence of the city as a great trading and financial center, the excesses of the Gilded Age, the explosion of immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the trials of World War II, the near-demise of New York in the 1970s and its roaring rebirth in the ’90s, and the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Innocence by Dean Koontz
Addison lives in solitude beneath the city, an exile from society, which will destroy him if he is ever seen. Gwyneth dwells in seclusion, a fugitive from enemies who will do her harm if she is ever found. But the bond between them runs deeper than the tragedies that have scarred their lives. Something more than chance — and nothing less than destiny — has brought them together in a world whose hour of reckoning is fast approaching.
The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
Accompanying a future famous actress from her Wichita home to New York, chaperone Cora Carlisle shares a life-changing five-week period with her ambitious teenage charge during which she discovers the promise of the 20th century and her own purpose in life.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
A young boy in New York City, Theo Decker, miraculously survives an accident that takes the life of his mother. Alone and abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by a friend’s family and struggles to make sense of his new life. In the years that follow, he becomes entranced by one of the few things that reminds him of his mother: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the art underworld. (This book has been awarded the American Library Association’s Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.)
Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
Coralie, the daughter of a Coney Island boardwalk curiosities museum’s front man, pursues an impassioned love affair with a Russian immigrant photographer Eddie who, after fleeing his Lower East Side Orthodox community, has captured poignant images of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. In the tumultuous times that characterized life in New York between the world wars, Coralie and Eddie’s lives come crashing together.
Tinderbox by Lisa Gornick
Myra is a Manhattan psychotherapist. A quick study and an excellent judge of character, she thinks she knows what she’s getting when she hires a nanny–it’s her job, after all, to analyze people. Her phobia-addled son has just moved back in with his wife and child, and the new nanny, Eva, seems like a perfect addition: she cleans like a demon and irons like a dream, and she forms an immediate bond with Myra’s grandson. But as Eva, a Peruvian immigrant, reveals more of herself, what seemed a felicitous arrangement turns ominous.
Valerie Marino is a library assistant at Sawyer Free Library.
She is your mirror, shining back at you with a world of possibilities. She is your witness, who sees you at your worst and best, and loves you anyway. She is your partner in crime, your midnight companion, someone who knows when you are smiling, even in the dark. She is your teacher, your defense attorney, your personal press agent, even your shrink. Some days, she’s the reason you wish you were an only child. ~Barbara Alpert
The relationship between sisters makes for great reading. Here are a few of my favorites:
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Elinor and Marianne are as different as sisters can be. One wildly romantic, reckless, and wears her heart on her sleeve; the other dependable, steady, but with a secret heartache. Despite being total opposites they are devoted to each other. As their world crumbles around them they cling to each other for support and guidance.
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
Anna was conceived to help her very ill older sister live. But by thirteen, Anna has been through countless medical procedures and she’s had enough — she is suing her parents for medical emancipation. How much is owed to your sister? Where does her needs end and yours begin? These sisters are connected by more than their genetics.
In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner
Bonded by their mother’s death early in their childhood and their mutual hatred of their stepmother, lawyerly Rose and flighty Maggie Feller are a mismatched pair. When Maggie betrays her sister, both their lives are shattered. Can finding out a family secret mend the terrible rift?
The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls
‘Bean’ Holladay is twelve and her sister Liz is fifteen — and their mother has never really grown up. When their mother does yet another disappearing act, and afraid they will be sent to foster care, the two sisters decide to look up their long-lost uncle across country. Despite being the younger, Bean easily adjusts while Liz struggles. And then something happens to Liz, and it’s up to Bean to defend her.
Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
Morning talk show host Meghan Fitzmaurice is on top of the world with a job that brings her fame and fortune, a loving husband, and a terrific teenage son. Her sister Bridget is in awe as she slogs through her life as a single social worker. Their life has never been easy — orphaned young, and left to be raised by loving, but older relatives. Their roles seem to be fixed, megastar and quiet follower, until Meghan has an on air disaster. Perceptions are changed, roles are challenged, but their love and connection to each other never falter.
Helen Freeman is the Technical Services librarian. She has worked for Sawyer Free Library for over 25 years.