The best memoirs that crack open an unknown, brutal, and beautiful world

Who am I?

As a young social worker, I left the world I knew and moved into violent urban centers and traveled the developing world. The suffering and beauty entranced me. Questions reverberated in me: What does it mean to be part of the vast human community? How can I live most fully? When I adopted children, violence and difference confronted me not “out there” but at home. I wrestled, shocked by my own judgment and narrowness—until I accepted in my bones the myriad ways to live a remarkable life. Curiosity became my superpower. Tinderbox, my unflinching memoir, invites readers into my family’s brutal and beautiful transformation through embracing neurodiversity. 

I wrote...

Tinderbox: One Family's Story of Adoption, Neurodiversity, and Fierce Love

By Lynn Alsup,

Book cover of Tinderbox: One Family's Story of Adoption, Neurodiversity, and Fierce Love

What is my book about?

Lynn watched powerless as Clare, newly home from her Haitian adoption, crawled the length of the house, frantic to find her lost mother. Clare alternately lit up the room with belly laughs and shining smiles then, as if a switch flipped, thrashed and wailed. Her own trauma triggered, Lynn crouched on her bed—pillow clutched overhead. She cheered Clare on at theater performances and piano recitals until just before her thirteenth birthday. As they walked hand in hand under neighborhood oak trees, Clare calmly detailed her plan to die. Over the next years, the family wandered through psychiatric hospitals, along the Appalachian Trail, and in and out of residential placements. Marriage, faith, and sanity barely survived. Then a revelation transformed them all.

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The books I picked & why

The Liars' Club

By Mary Karr,

Book cover of The Liars' Club

Why did I love this book?

Mary Karr holds nothing back. She drives us through vast, windswept west Texas of my home to the piney woods 650 miles east with her remarkable, outrageous family. I felt the dust on my teeth and the tingle of danger just around the corner.

She manages to introduce us to her gun-toting mom and alcoholic dad without making them two-dimensional villains. The nuanced characters are clearly deeply flawed humans who are doing the best they can. I gasped, winced, laughed, and cried reading The Liar’s Club.

Her study of memory through the shadowy remembrances of childhood trauma echoed my own. It reminded me I never know all someone has lived through or where they’ll end up. Sometimes, including myself.

By Mary Karr,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Liars' Club as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#4 on The New York Times' list of The 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years

The New York Times bestselling, hilarious tale of a hardscrabble Texas childhood that calls the best memoir of a generation

"Wickedly funny and always movingly illuminating, thanks to kick-ass storytelling and a poet's ear."

The Liars' Club took the world by storm and raised the art of the memoir to an entirely new level, bringing about a dramatic revival of the form. Karr's comic childhood in an east Texas oil town brings us characters as darkly hilarious as any of J.…

The Glass Castle

By Jeannette Walls,

Book cover of The Glass Castle

Why did I love this book?

Walls tells the truth. Just her mom’s advice to, “What do I tell people?”—an ache of a question that’s twisted my own writer’s stomach.

I felt my own family shame as Walls found her mom dumpster diving in the East Village, triggering her escape back to her Park Avenue apartment. And the love that landed them together for Chinese food soon after. Her father, brilliant and inhumane, became a mirror for the contradictions inherent in my family, in us all.

She sets us down smack in the middle of the desert and the Appalachians by engaging all our senses. Writing in a version of the voice I slip into returning home for Thanksgiving, she reintroduced me to the child living inside me, still striving to be free.

By Jeannette Walls,

Why should I read it?

16 authors picked The Glass Castle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now a major motion picture starring Brie Larson, Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson.

This is a startling memoir of a successful journalist's journey from the deserted and dusty mining towns of the American Southwest, to an antique filled apartment on Park Avenue. Jeanette Walls narrates her nomadic and adventurous childhood with her dreaming, 'brilliant' but alcoholic parents.

At the age of seventeen she escapes on a Greyhound bus to New York with her older sister; her younger siblings follow later. After pursuing the education and civilisation her parents sought to escape, Jeanette eventually succeeds in her quest for the 'mundane,…

Book cover of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Why did I love this book?

Angelou’s words sat me in a comfy chair as if in a favorite movie theater as the lights dimmed.

The world unrolling before me enveloped me from the red dirt of Arkansas in the 1930s all the way to the California sun. Her prose read like poetry and led me into each space she inhabited, including the ones in her mind. She slowed down the moment and let me ponder—no sideways judgments or explanations.

Her experience of childhood sexual assault ripped through me as my own had. She didn’t shy away from the horrors or beauty of life as a young Black woman finding her place in the world but projected them onto the screen in my mind. They’ve lingered there a long time.

By Maya Angelou,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Maya Angelou's seven volumes of autobiography are a testament to the talents and resilience of this extraordinary writer. Loving the world, she also knows its cruelty. As a Black woman she has known discrimination and extreme poverty, but also hope, joy,achievement and celebration. In this first volume of her six books of autobiography, Maya Angelou beautifully evokes her childhood with her grandmother in the American south of the 1930s. She learns the power of the white folks at the other end of town and suffers the terrible trauma of rape by her mother's lover.

Book cover of Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation

Why did I love this book?

Starr infuses her language with lyricism and in-your-face honesty. She opened a window for me into the counterculture of the 1970s as a bright young daughter of nomadic parents, landing in Taos among intellectuals and spiritual seekers.

Death crashes into the story in the opening pages with her child’s death and pervades it throughout. It offered me courage to write my own parenting story: fear, mistakes, devastation included. Starr doesn’t hold taboos, facing death, drugs, abuse, and despair as she unveils her story of unfolding adolescence to motherhood.

I felt like I’d kicked off my shoes and tucked my legs under myself to listen to a new friend’s life story, gaining a wise, quirky, compassionate companion.

By Mirabai Starr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Caravan of No Despair as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On the day her first book came out-a new translation of Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross-Mirabai Starr's daughter, Jenny, was killed in a car accident. "My spiritual life began the day my daughter died," writes Mirabai. Even with decades of spiritual practice and a deep immersion in the greatest mystical texts, she found herself utterly unprepared for "my most powerful catalyst for transformation, my fiercest and most compassionate teacher."

With Caravan of No Despair, Mirabai shares an irreverent, uplifting, and intimate memoir of her extraordinary life journey. Through the many twists and turns of…

Book cover of Autumn Light: Japan's Season of Fire and Farewells

Why did I love this book?

Iyer invited me into his two-room flat in the neighborhood of Deer’s Slope, a suburb of Nara in Japan, in the dying days of autumn following his father-in-law’s death.

His descriptions painted scenes of nuanced colors and textures, juxtaposing old and new, thick with metaphor and simile—the only way to talk about the impermanence he explores. His question: “How to hold on to things we love even though we know that we and they are dying?” My question as well.

I watched him play ping pong with quirky Japanese elders at the local health club and wandered through his thoughts on family, spirituality, endings, love, and timelessness. The book has the gentleness, purposefulness, and peace of a slow walk through a Japanese garden. 

By Pico Iyer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Autumn Light as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For decades now, Pico Iyer has been based for much of the year in Nara, Japan, where he and his Japanese wife, Hiroko, share a two-room apartment. But when his father-in-law dies suddenly, calling him back to Japan earlier than expected, Iyer begins to grapple with the question we all have to live with: how to hold on to the things we love, even though we know that we and they are dying.

In a country whose calendar is marked with occasions honouring the dead, this question has a special urgency and currency. Iyer leads us through the autumn following…

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