The best memoirs about big topics that won’t totally depress you

Who am I?

As a journalist I have seen and experienced amazing things. As a memoirist my job is to make you shiver as I take you down a crumbling Ukrainian coal mine, laugh in frustration as I argue with a customs agent charging me $100 for a few bootleg CDs and smile with happiness when I finally locate my Ukrainian date after a classic miscommunication. I’m recommending memoirs that will take you on adventures, tackle serious topics, but leave you with hope, and oftentimes a smile of understanding. Even if you haven’t covered a war, faced death, or disappeared, these writers speak to the universal hopes, fears, and disappointments of human life. 


I wrote...

From Chernobyl with Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union

By Katya Cengel,

Book cover of From Chernobyl with Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union

What is my book about?

In 1986 an explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic helped trigger the collapse of the Soviet Union. Three and a half decades later, in 2022, the plant’s capture by Russian forces reminded Ukraineand the worldthat, for Russia, it isn’t over. 

In between an American reporter fell in love with a Ukrainian photographer. At Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. They met while witnessing the plant’s last working reactor being switched off in 2000. Later the discovery of another journalist’s corpse and audiotapes that seem to implicate the government in his murder spark a movement that topples the government, setting off revolutions that ultimately end in war. Before that though, there was something else—hope.

The books I picked & why

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Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life

By Katherine E. Standefer,

Book cover of Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life

Why this book?

Having been called an “enigma” by a doctor on more than one occasion, I know well the frustrating battle of rare medical conditions. What I like about this book is the way Standefer finds beauty and wonder in physical ailments. 

Standefer wasn’t struck by lightning; she has a heart defect that could kill her and leads to her being fitted with a defibrillator while she is still in her 20s. Instead of becoming a passive patient, Standefer questions everything about her condition from her treatment to the metal that is now inside of her, traveling as far as Africa to track down where the metal is mined. Ill health has not shrunk her world, it has expanded it, an inspiring outlook for anyone who has ever spent time as a patient.


Loving before Loving: A Marriage in Black and White

By Joan Steinau Lester,

Book cover of Loving before Loving: A Marriage in Black and White

Why this book?

As a woman, I have experienced my share of sexism but it dims in comparison to what Lester faced in the 1950s and 1960s. When applying for a job at a bookstore, a young Lester is told the store can’t hire girls because they only have one toilet. Her plucky response—she could use the same toilet as the men—is one reason I enjoyed this book so much. 

Lester is repeatedly pushed to the sidelines even as she takes up the fight for civil rights, devoting herself to bettering the lives of others while setting aside her own dreamsfor a time. Luckily Lester never completely loses her nerve. Her second act is a fun adventure to follow for those who have faced their own setbacks, no matter their gender.


Floating in a Most Peculiar Way: A Memoir

By Louis Chude-Sokei,

Book cover of Floating in a Most Peculiar Way: A Memoir

Why this book?

I have a fascination with countries that don’t fully exist and have visited a few myself. So when I learned that Chude-Sokei was from a country that really no longer exists, I was hooked. The country in question was not one I recognized. Biafra was a short-lived African state that declared independence from Nigeria in 1967. 

What kept me reading the book though was the humor Chude-Sokei uses to describe his unique situation as the “first son of the first son” of a leader of a country that was “killed” in 1970, as his mother puts it. Chude-Sokei’s tales of growing up an African in Jamaica followed by his yearning to become a Black American in Inglewood, Los Angeles will resonate with anyone who ever struggled with their identity.


The Year We Disappeared: A Father-Daughter Memoir

By Cylin Busby, John Busby,

Book cover of The Year We Disappeared: A Father-Daughter Memoir

Why this book?

When I was 10 I disappeared from my life for a while. I left school, home, and my family to live in a hospital for several months. This break in my own childhood narrative is what got me into the Busby story. Cylin Busby was nine years old when her dad, John, a police officer, was shot. Her father survives, but the family is forced to disappear for their own protection. 

While the book is written by a father and daughter, it is Cylin’s young nine-year-old voice that pulled me in, reminding me what it is like to be a child and powerless as the world around you falls apart. That sounds dark, but children have a way of finding hope. This story has a happy(ish) ending.


Girls Don't: A Woman's War in Vietnam

By Inette Miller,

Book cover of Girls Don't: A Woman's War in Vietnam

Why this book?

As a female journalist who has lived and worked abroad, including in sometimes unsafe situations but excluding war, I was drawn to Miller’s story about covering the Vietnam War. In 1970 young American women were not supposed to go to Vietnam. They were supposed to get married, and Miller didto a member of the military whose job proves her ticket to Vietnam.

As one of the rare female reporters in Vietnam, Miller captured stories her male colleagues couldn’t or wouldn’t cover such as how young Vietnamese girls were often tricked into the sex trade. An outsider in the “old boys club” of news and war Miller is able to understand better than her male colleagues how the war is impacting the locals who have in some ways been made outsiders in their own country.


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