The best memoir books to show human life in its reality—the good, the bad and the survivable

Karen Elizabeth Lee Author Of The Full Catastrophe: A Memoir
By Karen Elizabeth Lee

Who am I?

I have a great interest in personal stories, well written. My memoir, The Full Catastrophe, was published in 2016. I wanted an answer to my own question “How could a well-educated, intelligent woman marry an abusive man?” Writing allowed me to find my answers. From that time on, I have taught people to write their own memoirs, have lectured on memoir, facilitated group discussions on memoir, and written articles on memoir. I am now in the process of writing another memoir. 

I wrote...

The Full Catastrophe: A Memoir

By Karen Elizabeth Lee,

Book cover of The Full Catastrophe: A Memoir

What is my book about?

In 1998, after a fourteen-year marriage to Duncan—a bully who’d been terrorizing and controlling her for all the years they’d been together—Karen Lee thought divorce was in the cards. But ten months after telling him that she wanted that divorce, Duncan was diagnosed with cancer—and eight months later, he was gone. Karen hoped her problems would disappear with Duncan’s death; instead, she found that, without his ranting, raving, and screaming taking up space in her life, she had her own demons to face. Luckily, Duncan had inadvertently left her the keys to her own salvation—a love of Jungian psychology, and a book that was to be her guide through her journey to healing. The Full Catastrophe is the story of a well-educated, professional woman who finally resurrected her life. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Pieces of My Mother: A Memoir

Why did I love this book?

Both a captivating and heart-breaking memoir, this book is the story of a woman and her motherthe mother who abandoned her and her siblings and father. It moves back and forth in time from when the mother leaves and we hear stories of what happened to each of her children, to the present day as the mother lies dying. This memoir is beautifully told, with details so sharp and clear you can almost watch the action as it unfolds to finally tell you how Cistaro copes with the mother who refused to stay. This story is for all mothers and daughters, ones that stay and ones that go.

By Melissa Cistaro,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pieces of My Mother as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A story that lingers in the heart long after the last page is turned." —HOPE EDELMAN, bestselling author of Motherless Daughters and The Possibility of Everything

This provocative, poignant memoir of a daughter whose mother left her behind by choice begs the question: Are we destined to make the same mistakes as our parents?

One summer, Melissa Cistaro's mother drove off without explanation Devastated, Melissa and her brothers were left to pick up the pieces, always tormented by the thought: Why did their mother abandon them?

Thirty-five years later, with children of her own, Melissa finds herself in Olympia, Washington,…

Book cover of Gone to An Aunt's : Remembering Canada's Homes for Unwed Mothers

Why did I love this book?

I read this book for two reasonsI have two adopted siblings and I am in the midst of writing a memoir about growing up in a rural Ontario village in the 50s and 60s. Petrie tells of her own experience as an unwed mother and the stories of six other women she has managed to locate after all this time, who talk about their experiences of being young and pregnant in the 50s and 60s. At that time, unwanted pregnancies brought shame onto the girl herself and her family, so they had to be carefully hidden. Often the girl was sent to a mother and baby home run by churches and the Salvation Army, where judgment dictated the responses to these girls. Petrie breaks through her own desire to remain separate from the other girls to tell an honest and heartbreaking story of what life was like in the 50s and 60s when so many illegitimate babies were given up for adoption.

By Anne Petrie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gone to An Aunt's as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Thirty or forty years ago, everybody knew what that phrase meant: a girl or a young, unmarried woman had gotten herself pregnant. She was “in trouble.” She had brought indescribable shame on herself and her family. In those days it was unthinkable that she would have her child and keep it. Instead she had to hide. Most likely she would be sent away to a home for unwed mothers, where she would stay in secrecy until her baby was born and given up for adoption. “Gone to an aunt’s” was the usual cover story, a fiction that everyone understood but…

Book cover of By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz

Why did I love this book?

Eisen was a fifteen-year-old boy in 1944 when the Nazis sent him and his family to Auschwitz-Berkenau to become slave labour. He tells the story after seventy years, recalling the back-breaking work and his survival through luck or chance and the kindness of some good people. This is a “must-read” for anyone who thinks that this atrocity didn’t or couldn’t happen in our modern world, and an inspiration to those of us who sometimes feel our own struggles are insurmountable. This book touched me personally because my own children’s grandfather was sent to the same concentration camp.

By Max Eisen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked By Chance Alone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An award-winning, internationally bestselling Holocaust memoir in the tradition of Elie Wiesel’s Night and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz

In the spring of 1944, gendarmes forcibly removed Tibor “Max” Eisen and his family from their home, brought them to a brickyard and eventually loaded them onto crowded cattle cars bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau. At fifteen years of age, Eisen survived the selection process and was inducted into the camp as a slave laborer.

More than seventy years after the Nazi camps were liberated by the Allies, By Chance Alone details Eisen’s story of survival: the backbreaking slave labor in Auschwitz I,…

The Glass Castle

By Jeannette Walls,

Book cover of The Glass Castle

Why did I love this book?

The Glass Castle tells the story of a family of children and their survival in modern U.S.A. Though the family had some means, the dysfunction of the parents led to terrible deprivation. They were almost unbelievably selfish, with addiction and mental illness issues, leaving the children to fend for themselves. The story is told in a very straight-forward matter of fact manner, that allows the readers their own reactions to the shocking circumstances in which the children lived, and their eventual survival.

By Jeannette Walls,

Why should I read it?

17 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,…

American Bastard

By Jan Beatty,

Book cover of American Bastard

Why did I love this book?

This recommendation returns to one of my most passionate intereststhat of adopted children and the families they are placed in. Beatty is a poet and this is reflected in her memoirit is not the usual chronological narrative as most memoirs are. She breaks the myth of the “special” or “chosen baby” to tell her truth of the lives of adopted children. Beatty exposes, through vignettes and her poetry, her meetings with her birth mother, her adopted family, her attempts to know who she is and where she came from. She breaks open the belief that you can “create” a perfect family using children from other birth mothers, when all her life, she feels, is a lie and she has no grounding in the world. This memoir is her quest to find out who she is.

By Jan Beatty,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

American Bastard is a lyrical inquiry into the experience of being a bastard in America. This memoir travels across literal continents-and continents of desire as Beatty finds her birthfather, a Canadian hockey player who's won three Stanley Cups-and her birthmother, a working-class woman from Pittsburgh. This is not the whitewashed story, but the real story, where Beatty writes through complete erasure: loss of name and history, and a culture based on the currency of gratitude as expected payment from the adoptee. American Bastard sandblasts the exaltation of adoption in Western culture and the myth of the "chosen baby." This journey…

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