Fifteen Great Memoirs to Read


View of Earth during a moon walk

View of Earth during a moon walk

Empathy relies on a willingness to step into the shoes of another person and leave our own world behind. We do this when we read memoir. When we understand what moves another, we are taking a giant step towards felling barricades. Barricades of racism, poverty, mental illness, zenophobia and all the other phobias. Indeed, what a ‘giant step for mankind’, as Neil Armstrong said when he walked the moon, if we could all do this.

Read, read, read! If you want to write well, reading a lot is more important than writing a lot. In the bibliography of my book The Gift of Memoir I list sixty memoirs that I refer to in examples throughout the book. Most of these fifteen titles come from there, although a few I have read more recently, or decades ago. It was excruciating to select only fifteen.

Dare to be a moon walker! Read memoir, and enjoy the new view.

Small Wonder: Essays by Barbara Kingsolver

Ru, by Kim Thuy

I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey by Izzeldin Abuelaish

The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism by Kristine Barnett

They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson

In My Mother’s House by Kim Chernin

Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy by Carlos Eire

One Native Life by Richard Wagamese

Walden or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

A Good Home by Cynthia Reyes

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: A True Story by Elizabeth Bailey

Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer

Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Night by Elie Wiesel

The White Masai by Corinne Hofmann

Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal

by Conor Grennan

And I can’t resist adding one more, part memoir, part essay, part you tell me when

you read it. The Truth About Stories by Thomas King.


      Memoirs bring light into the world.

            What’s the best memoir you have read recently?

Written by Diane Taylor, author of The Gift of Memoir – a guide book for memoir writers.


Death as a Doorway into Memoir

For Judy Fong Bates, the death of her father by his own hands when she was twenty-two, is a painful shame that hangs over the days of her adult life. The prologue of A Year of Finding Memory opens with this startling, but somehow serene, statement.

“Not long after my father hanged himself in the summer of 1972, I found a small cardboard box far beneath his bed.”

There is a once-upon-a-time tone to these words, as if Bates is floating in a fantasy far away. Indeed, much of her childhood is filled with stories her parents told her about the many relatives and hardships of war that happened in faraway China. She is six when her mother brings her to small town Acton, Ontario where her father, already sixty-four, ekes out a living of drudgery washing other people’s dirty clothes by hand, a business her educated mother hates. Constant bitter arguments ensue, against the back drop of racism, isolation, humiliation, hopelessness and homesickness. A worthless dog life, her father complains endlessly. Any extra pennies are sent back to relatives.

Bates was not able to talk openly about the way her father died – her anger and sadness, the lashing out at inconsequential things—not until she and her husband make a trip to China to look for answers. There she finds welcome, connection to the centuries with age old Eastern rituals, and connection to a sister she hasn’t seen in fifty years. There, her parents are remembered, and to her surprise, respected. Those extra pennies from Gold Mountain (as the West was known in China) kept many of them alive during the starvation and brutalities of the Cultural Revolution.

Towards the end of her year of finding memory, she says “I … watched my parents grow into fully fleshed human beings” and discoveries of history and family “have turned my doubt and arrogance into a richer sort of knowing.”

But still, she cannot reconcile the diminished man she knew as the father who took his life and the sharp-tongued bitter mother with the people they were before they emigrated. “I am left aching to know the man and woman who knew each other before I was born.” In the end, although she is left with unanswerable questions, her memories have been enriched and enlightened. Her heart has found some solace.

A death can be a doorway into the most complicated parts of oneself, and into all sorts of other things that happened in the larger world. Balancing these two worlds can make for a very rich memoir. The Year of Finding Memory by Judy Fong Bates exemplifies how this can be done. Please enrich your life by reading this memoir.

Judy Fong Bates

Judy Fong Bates

DT   When you started writing The Year of Finding Memory, did you know right away you wanted to open with your father’s suicide and the contents you found in the box under the bed?

JFB   No. The manuscript went through several drafts before I came to that decision. I actually had two writer friends suggest opening with my father’s suicide. After thinking about it for some time, I decided to follow their advice and re-wrote the opening.

DT   What other openings did you consider?

JFB    For one, I began with my arrival in Canada with my mother, and another with my father’s arrival in Canada. To name just a couple.

DT  Talking about the circumstances of your father’s death was not possible for many years. What changed?

JFB   the two trips to China changed my perspective on my parents’ lives, gave me a depth and understanding that had been absent. I found myself with a window into a story which had been closed to me for many years.

DT   I am grateful to you for revealing the many stories of your and your parents’ lives – both the little pleasures and the huge tragedies. How do you feel to have researched and written your parents’ lives, the ghosts of which are part of you?

JFB   The story of my parents is a pioneer story, perhaps not like the ones belonging to the early French/Anglo/Irish settlers, but they nevertheless played a role in Canada’s story. They are not big players like Samuel de Champlain, Tommy Douglas, Laura Secord or General Wolfe. Those powerful people will be remembered and written about. But Canada would not be where it is today without ordinary people like my parents who did all the little things that are also a part of nation building. I like to think of the powerful people as the bricks and the people like my parents are the mortar – the mortar that holds the bricks together. As a writer, the stories of those ordinary people are what interests me. In the case of my parents, I wanted their story told and I knew that if I didn’t write it, it would be forgotten.

DT   Did the writing of this memoir have a healing effect?

JFB   There probably was some, but in my case, it was time that healed the wounds left by my father’s suicide. When I started to write this memoir, time had given me enough distance that I could approach it with love and compassion. Healing might have been a byproduct, but my primary goal was always to tell a story.

These flowers are for all those who have ached to understand their parents’ lives.

A Bouquet of Stories

A Bouquet of Stories


Operation Turtle Migration


Newly hatched turtles

(The environment is a necessary part of any memoir. It is the setting where the narrators story unfolds. Indeed, its existence is why the human species survives at all. Here, activist and naturalist Joan Norris relates how hundreds of doomed turtle eggs and hatchlings were given a chance to survive with strategic intervention.)

Have you ever heard of turtle nests migrating? Is that even possible? Well, it turns out turtle nests can indeed move from one place to another. They just need a little help from their friends.

Turtles ready to dig their nests look for a sunny embankment where the eggs can be incubated by the warm substrate. The Close Point Causeway on the south shore of Rice Lake, Ontario has this and it has a marsh on one side to serve as a nursery for the wee hatchlings. So, scores of  snapping and map turtles travel here each spring to dig their nests. For about ten years now I have been protecting these nests. With help from friends, our success rate has grown each year so that last year almost 2,000 baby turtles hatched out.

This year would prove to be different. The road was scheduled to be paved the first week of September. Even if the shoulders were not paved, heavy machinery would, of necessity, be driving on the shoulders of this one lane road, crushing the nests.

Heavy road machinery

Heavy road machinery

But wait a minute! Aren’t all but one of Ontario’s eight native species of turtles at risk? Isn’t it against the law to disturb or destroy their nests? Well, one of the things I found very disheartening was to find out that even though snapping turtles and map turtles are listed as Species at Risk, they are given no protection under the Species at Risk Act. They are being “watched” but hunters can still legally trap them. Yep. List them as at risk and then give them no special consideration.

During a six-week period leading up to the road work, a friend and I explored every conceivable avenue and option to save the nests. We talked to the Ministry of Natural Resources, Conservation Authorities, experts in the field … hitting one dead end after another. As the deadline loomed and all other possible recourses dried up, we began to realize we had no other choice but to dig up and relocate the nests. So, at the proverbial two minutes to midnight, the decision was made, and the word went out for help. Word of mouth, phone calls, and emails.

And help came in spades! Within a day or two, a troop of turtle heroes armed with buckets and hand shovels descended on Close Point Road.

They answered the call.

They answered the call.

A biology professor from Trent University showed up with a dozen grad students who wanted to help. Members of the local naturalist club came by the carloads. Another biologist not only showed up with his co-workers, but they knew the ideal spot for the nests – a safe turtle nesting habitat newly created a few kilometers down the lake! People I didn’t know just showed up, saying they found out about the project from other people I didn’t know. Everyone rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Operation Turtle Migration had begun!

turtles #2

Each nest site had to be carefully opened and explored. Once the soft-shelled eggs were uncovered, they were delicately removed and placed in a temporary nest (bucket or other container) for transporting to their new site.

Turtle Eggs

Snapping Turtle Eggs (Chelydra serpentina)

Much to our delight, many of the nests had hatchlings inside. The first to hatch stay in the nest until the rest of their siblings hatch out of their shells so that they can all dig out of the nest and make a run for the water together. But instead of having to run for their lives, these lucky babies got a free lift to the marsh, under the watchful gaze and big smiles of their human helpers.

Twenty-two nests containing hundreds of eggs were transplanted to the newly created nesting site, where they hatched out over the next few weeks, one nest at a time. With any luck, these turtles will come back to this nesting site when it’s time for them to lay, becoming the first of many generations to come.

It’s not always easy to know what is the right thing to do in life. Decisions are not always black and white, but often varying shades of gray. Although I had my reservations about moving the nests, I can look back now and say, yes, we called that one right. A couple of days after the Great Turtle Migration, the graders and rollers came and transformed the gravel road into another “paved paradise” as Joni Mitchell would say. But thanks to a small army of turtle guardians, the nests that had been there just a couple of days before had “migrated” north and hundreds of baby turtles that would have been running out in front of the paving equipment are now swimming around Rice Lake, helping to ensure the survival of a species at risk.

the next generation.

The next generation. And that’s Diane’s hand!

Thank you, Joan, for contributing this wonderful post on my blog!


The Memoir Revolution

In case anyone is still in doubt about whether or not we are in the midst of a memoir revolution, fully half the ten titles on this year’s National Book Awards (American) longlist for nonfiction are memoirs. But within that flexible category is immense variety:

  1. Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s open letter to his son about how to “live free in this black body”.

  2. Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs is Sally Mann’s account of her family and artistic life in the American South, enriched with many historical photos.

  3. If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran is Carla Power’s story of friendship with Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi and their combined efforts at studying the Koran.

  4. Ordinary Light: A Memoir is Tracy K. Smith’s record of growing up in a bookish family surrounded by animals, the dawning of her creative life, and the search for love.

  5. Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir is Michael White’s tale of travelling through Europe and the US to see the Vermeer paintings – while going through a painful divorce.

Just reading the titles is enough to give you ideas for a direction your own story could take. A letter. Freedom. Photos. Friendship. Creativity. Love. Travel. Divorce. Or any combination thereof. Universal themes, but with your own story woven onto the loom of such archetypes, we are invited onto the pages of your twenty-first century truths.

Do the world a favour. Add your voice to the revolution.

A Bouquet of Storied

A Bouquet of Stories


A Fine Farley Moment

Farley Mowat, fellow rejectee

Farley Mowat, fellow rejectee

On July 22 of 1985, my journal has this remark: “Letter from Farley Mowat!” He was responding to one of mine, which I had felt compelled to write because I had recently been turned back at the US border at Pearson International. I’d said goodbye to everyone, had plans in Miami … it was a devastating and humiliating experience. I knew he, too, had been turned back on his way to do a book tour in the States, and thought he might like to know of another instance of such rough treatment. I’m not sure why I knew he’d be interested in my plight, but trusted the good faith of a Canadian whose books I’d been reading for years. He wrote:

“Your case of refusal at the US border is certainly not unique. I now have heard from at least two hundred people who have all had something similar happen to them. I am drawing a lot of this together in a book called My Discovery of America, which will be published in October in Toronto.”

All well and good.

Two years later, on November 21, my journal has this comment on a book signing I went to in a book store in Kingston, Ontario:

Spoke briefly with Farley Mowat as he sat at a table and signed my copy of Virunga that Mom gave me for my birthday. He added an e to Dian Fossey’s name so that we could be sisters. I reminded him he’d written me a letter in response to mine about rejection at the border. He leapt to his feet – hair all askew, held out his hand, and shouted triumphantly, “Fellow rejectee!”

A long line of people had queued up way back to the door, but he took the time to fill me in on the ills of bureauocrats, how the US government had sent him an apology, and how they wanted to meet him half way on the Peace Bridge (he declined). “Down with bureaucracy!” he grinned.

Mr. Mowat turned my defeat into a victory. He welcomed me as an honoured member into an elite and respectable group. As he saw it, we had both somehow outmaneuvered the US government. What a fine moment.

Thirty years later, I sit here smiling at his jubilance. You can understand why I have a fondness for this irrepressible Canadian character.

Written by Diane Taylor, proud rejectee, and author of The Gift of Memoir.


I Remember

Memory is the theme of Human Chain, a collection of poetry published by one of the world’s greatest poets, Seamus Heaney, in 2011. “What is the relationship between writing poetry and memory?” he was asked by a Toronto Star reporter.

“Memory has always been fundamental for me,” Heaney replied. “Remembering what I had forgotten is the way most of the poems get started. At the best times, something wakens, there’s an almost physical quickening. There’s no knowing where a remembered image will take you” (italics mine).

I have developed a memory-retrieval strategy for my writing classes that has had some astounding results. Most recently, when a man read the 200 words that he had written in response to the cue “I remember…” you could tell that he was amazed to have retrieved this memory from his childhood. When I asked him how long it had been since he had thought of that event, he opened his arms wide and said. “Sixty years! I have no idea where that came from!” It was a warm memory about his mother and her concern over his proper use of English when he was a boy.

It’s not the first time this “wakening” has happened when I have given the “I remember” suggestion. The memories are there. They just need to be called into consciousness.

Try beginning your daily writing hour with I remember. Or write it three or four times until an image comes to mind. I remember, I remember, I remember… the day Mom peeled an orange at the kitchen table after lunch, the sudden scent that announced the treat, and how she passed moist section by moist section from her fingers to ours, to each of us until it was gone, the tart taste filling our senses, and how one orange in this way was enough for all three of us – Mom and her two kids over sixty years ago.

Orange in sections

Orange in sections


My friends, the above is extracted from The Gift of Memoir, from a chapter called Four Strategies to Retrieve Memories. I will return to my series on Ways to Begin a Memoir with my next post, which includes an interview with Judy Fong Bates, author of The Year of Finding Memory (Random House, 2010).


How’s the Weather?


How’s the weather? That’s what we ask. Like, how’s Mom, or how’s the baby. The weather is like a close relative, something or someone we care about. Indeed, sometimes we feel embraced by this ‘relative’. Love affairs happen in sun, rain, hail, the hush of no wind, the roar of a tornado, heat waves, cold snaps, fog, smog, flood, drought, ice storms, dust storms, solar storms. The weather can prevent us from eating, working, sleeping—and suddenly that relative friend becomes a foe of sorts. Every one of Earth’s seven billion people was born on a day when the weather was busy doing something.

That’s why we relate immediately to a story that begins with what the weather is doing. Weather conditions are a universal part of the human condition.

                                        Michael Ondaatje — 2011 Phot CR Linda Spalding

I love the opening half page of Michael’s Ondaatje’s memoir (he calls it a portrait) Running in the Family. He has returned to Sri Lanka to make sense of his childhood, after 25 years away.

“Drought since December.

All across the city men roll carts with ice clothed in sawdust.” One night he has a nightmare that thorn trees in the garden send their roots underground towards the house and climb through windows so they can “drink sweat off his body, steal the last of the saliva off his tongue.”

He snaps on the electricity just before daybreak … then it’s dawn and “the delicate light is allowed only a brief moment of the day. In ten minutes the garden will be a blaze of heat, frantic with noise and butterflies.”

Half a page, he comments while writing, and already the morning is ancient.

Feeling the heat?

Simply put, story is a person in a place with a problem. Ondaatje’s details of the drought are the parched place, and they pose a problem for the person telling the story. In Sri Lanka, the two seasons, wet and dry, control human activities, even their dreams. It therefore makes perfect sense to begin the story of his childhood with these inescapable facts.

Some people found Angela’s Ashes depressing, but I’m not one of them. I beg you, please read, or reread, the first two pages. With outstanding choice of words and historical details, Frank McCourt has created a dark beauty that has touches of humour. It’s the gallant determination to reach for humour that raises the misery to elegance. It’s real, it’s wet and he immerses us in all the glorious ugly dampness. Take this one short passage:

“Above all—we were wet. Out in the Atlantic Ocean, great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges. … The rain drove us into the church—our refuge, our strength, our only dry place. Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain.”

The thing about reading a memoir that opens with rich details of the weather is that we are instantly transported from the coziness of our soft chair to elsewhere. And that’s why we read. As writers, these same details take us viscerally back into our memories so we can recreate them on the page.

How has your life been shaped by the weather?


Written by Diane Taylor, author of The Gift of Memoir: Show Up, Open Up, Write.


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