The best books combining memoir, culture, myth, and poetry

Lance Lee Author Of Family Matters
By Lance Lee

Who am I?

Quite young, I realized my life was based on the fantasies and wish-fulfillments of my parents. As a teenager I turned to science fiction and fantasy whose stories so often engaged imaginatively and decisively with fundamental issues of good and evil, truth and falsity, courage and deception, unlike my reality. In my struggle to portray that reality and its transformation something Freud wondered about proved helpful, whether our careful effort to reconstruct the past was wholly true or in part illusory. If it was effective as an explanation, then he felt it was valid, and I have written in the same spirit.


I wrote...

Family Matters

By Lance Lee,

Book cover of Family Matters

What is my book about?

Family Matters is a generations-long reckoning with family myth, loss, and transformation from 1865 to the 1970s, showing how family suffering metamorphosized into comedy on an abiding public, cultural scale in the original The Addams Family television series of 1964-1966 created by the author's father, David Levy, from the original Charles Addams New Yorker cartoons. It is also the story of how the author's parents though drawn from widely divergent backgrounds strove to realize the American Dream. Levy's ancestors derived from Jewish Eastern Europe, Lucille Wilds' from Anglo-Welsh aristocratic, and German roots. The breakdown of that effort both as a slow ebbing and with an abrupt jolt provides the narrative drive and climax of Family Matters.

The books I picked & why

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Educated: A Memoir

By Tara Westover,

Book cover of Educated: A Memoir

Why this book?

Our circumstances were very different, but I feel a real kinship to her description of a childhood with oppressive/overwhelming parents and the ways in which they attempted to constrict and cripple her future simply by imposing their own world view as a matter of course on their children. Her need to break from them to find herself also echoes my own need to do the same, which I did at the same age, leaving home to go to college, in my case to work my way through college on my own despite coming from an affluent background. But as I write in my own book, living with my parents was crazy making, and my steps to assert reality simply grew over time until by late adolescence they became irresistable.

Educated: A Memoir

By Tara Westover,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Educated as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE MULTI-MILLION COPY BESTSELLER

Selected as a book of the year by AMAZON, THE TIMES, SUNDAY TIMES, GUARDIAN, NEW YORK TIMES, ECONOMIST, NEW STATESMAN, VOGUE, IRISH TIMES, IRISH EXAMINER and RED MAGAZINE

'One of the best books I have ever read . . . unbelievably moving' Elizabeth Day
'An extraordinary story, beautifully told' Louise O'Neill
'A memoir to stand alongside the classics . . . compelling and joyous' Sunday Times

Tara Westover grew up preparing for the end of the world. She was never put in school, never taken to the doctor. She did not even have a birth certificate…


Memoirs of Hadrian

By Marguerite Yourcenar, Grace Frick,

Book cover of Memoirs of Hadrian

Why this book?

This splendid work of fiction recreates the times of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. I list it as one of the perceptions I relate in my book is how when I began reading intensely from 12 on I did so first to escape the reality around me, and then, with growing astonishment, to explore how extraordinarily varied reality was, and that what seemed impossible, or fantasy, had in many cases and at other times, been real—as the life of Hadrian had been. This had the effect of reducing the force of the claims of those around me that our reality was Reality: I began to realize 'Reality' contains multiple realities, both in the past and present, and that I need not be bound by the one I found myself within.

Memoirs of Hadrian

By Marguerite Yourcenar, Grace Frick,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Memoirs of Hadrian as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Framed as a letter from the Roman Emperor Hadrian to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian is translated from the French by Grace Frick with an introduction by Paul Bailey in Penguin Modern Classics.

In her magnificent novel, Marguerite Yourcenor recreates the life and death of one of the great rulers of the ancient world. The Emperor Hadrian, aware his demise is imminent, writes a long valedictory letter to Marcus Aurelius, his future successor. The Emperor meditates on his past, describing his accession, military triumphs, love of poetry and music, and the philosophy that informed his powerful…


Doctor Zhivago

By Boris Pasternak, Richard Pevear (translator), Larissa Volokhonsky

Book cover of Doctor Zhivago

Why this book?

This too is a work of fiction that accurately reveals Pasternak's own attitudes to the Russian Revolution, and uses poetry to reveal the real stature of the novel's hero, Yuri Zhivago. I felt the attraction of a powerful alternate reality, as in Yourcenar's work, as well as an emphatic and unbending attempt to live truly. A few years after its publication, in 1957, my own drive for the same drove me to leave home traumatically. I too use my own poetry to flesh out personages and my feelings about them. Using poems within the main text with a collection at the end of the book is partly inspired by Pasternak's use of poetry in Dr. Zhivago.

Doctor Zhivago

By Boris Pasternak, Richard Pevear (translator), Larissa Volokhonsky

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Doctor Zhivago as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in Italy in 1957 amid international controversy, Doctor Zhivago is the story of the life and loves of a poet/physician during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. Taking his family from Moscow to what he hopes will be shelter in the Ural Mountains, Zhivago finds himself instead embroiled in the battle between the Whites and the Reds. Set against this backdrop of cruelty and strife is Zhivago's love for the tender and beautiful Lara, the very embodiment of the pain and chaos of those cataclysmic times. Pevear and Volokhonsky masterfully restore the spirit of Pasternak's original—his style, rhythms,…


My Family and Other Animals

By Gerald Durrell,

Book cover of My Family and Other Animals

Why this book?

Many enjoyed The Durrells of Corfu TV series, and Gerald was the young man so obsessed with local wildlife he eventually created a private zoo. He put his and his family's years in Corfu into this memoir combining his love of Nature with sharp-edged portraits of family members. He creates a vision of an 'earthly paradise,' and his contrasting evocation of those around him to that paradise immediately felt at home to me. I survived my childhood in part by turning to the natural world, not to classify but simply to become part of its own natural rhythms which I found so much more benign than the tense family currents within my home. I write of my own "Earthly Paradise" in my book.

My Family and Other Animals

By Gerald Durrell,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked My Family and Other Animals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The inspiration behind ITV's hit family drama, The Durrells.

My Family and Other Animals is Gerald Durrell's hilarious account of five years in his childhood spent living with his family on the island of Corfu. With snakes, scorpions, toads, owls and geckos competing for space with one bookworm brother and another who's gun-mad, as well as an obsessive sister, young Gerald has an awful lot of natural history to observe. This richly detailed, informative and riotously funny memoir of eccentric family life is a twentieth-century classic.

Part of the Macmillan Collector's Library; a series of stunning, clothbound, pocket sized classics…


Captain Horatio Hornblower

By C.S. Forester,

Book cover of Captain Horatio Hornblower

Why this book?

This was published as three separate novels that tell one coherent story (I. Beat to Quarters, II. Ship of the Line, III. Flying Colours). I spent a lot of time in the Hornblower world as an adolescent, an imaginary reality I sensed wasn't wholly imaginary—The Napoleonic Wars were real—although Hornblower is fictional. But we're all heroes of our own stories. What especially appealed is the portrait of a hero divided between alternating bursts of confident action and moments of intense self-doubt. That accords almost exactly with how I was made to feel as a child, at once supremely able and a second later, consumed by doubt and a sense of inadequacy.

Captain Horatio Hornblower

By C.S. Forester,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Captain Horatio Hornblower as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This omnibus edition of the Hornblower Saga contains the first three novels C.S. Forester wrote about Horatio Hornblower — Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours. During the Age of Sail, mastery of the art of naval warfare was daunting — the necessary knowledge and skill required was massive, the need for resourceful leadership essential, and the ability to face war and savagery critical. The complexity of the ships will stagger, the battles will haunt your dreams, and the men will consume your imagination. C.S. Forester brings it all to life.

Beat to Quarters: (The Happy Return…


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