The best books about trying to understand your parents

Tom Bissell Author Of The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam
By Tom Bissell

Who am I?

I'm a journalist, fiction writer, and screenwriter, as well as the author of ten books, the most recent of which is Creative Types and Other Stories, which will be published later this year. Along with Neil Cross, I developed for television The Mosquito Coast, based on Paul Theroux’s novel, which is now showing on Apple TV. Currently, I live with my family in Los Angeles.

I wrote...

The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam

By Tom Bissell,

Book cover of The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam

What is my book about?

In 2003, my father John and I traveled to Vietnam together. My dad was a Marine Corps combat veteran of the war, and the trip marked his first return to the country that shaped and nearly destroyed him. The Father of All Things is my account of our journey, but also an examination of the myths, history, and complexity of the war and how it affected generations of families, both American and Vietnamese.

In March of this year, my father passed away at 79. I loved my father deeply and am still coming to terms with understanding how it is that this man could be gone. In the aftermath of his death, I picked up and reread the books you'll read about below, looking for ways to understand what I was feeling and how I could cope with my loss. They helped. Every single one of them helped.

The books I picked & why

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The Suicide Index

By Joan Wickersham,

Book cover of The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order

Why this book?

This striking, intense, and beautifully meditative book offers a daughter struggling to understand her father in the wake of his suicide. It’s structured, yes, like an index, which does nothing to dilute its immense emotional power. There’s a lot of love and anger in this book, yet it’s told with extraordinary calm and exemplary clarity. Simply put, The Suicide Index is one of the most inventive, affecting memoirs I’ve ever read—a drop-everything-and-read-this-now book if there ever was one.

Always Crashing in the Same Car

By Matthew Specktor,

Book cover of Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California

Why this book?

This is a memoir about being a writer—and failing. With scholarly rigor and tenderhearted sympathy, Specktor excavates the lives of artists forgotten (Carol Eastman, Eleanor Perry), underappreciated (Thomas McGuane, Hal Ashby), and notorious (Warren Zevon, Michael Cimino), while always circling back to his own benighted Hollywood upbringing, complete with a lovely tribute to his mother, a failed screenwriter. This is an angry, sad, but always somehow joyful book about not hitting it big, and I've never read anything quite like it.


By Martin Amis,

Book cover of Experience: A Memoir

Why this book?

My favorite literary memoir of all time, filled with sentences that make you put down the book and applaud and insights that shake you to your core. It’s also a searching account of Amis’s relationship with his father, the novelist Kingsley Amis. Martin and Kingsley always loved each other, sometimes battled each other, and frequently envied each other. But the pure line of filial love Amis draws in the book will bring consolation to anyone who’s ever lost a parent.

Borrowed Finery

By Paula Fox,

Book cover of Borrowed Finery: A Memoir

Why this book?

Paula Fox, the late great novelist and revered children’s book author, wrote a wonderful memoir of effectively not having parents. Oh, Fox’s parents were around, but they were drunk, careless, and inattentive, often shuffling young Paula to and from locales as varied as Hollywood and pre-Revolutionary Cuba. Her parents are depicted in this memoir as both monstrous and sympathetic, providing aspiring memoirists with a model of artful ambivalence. The book is also filled with extraordinary walk-ons by Orson Welles, James Cagney, Stella Adler, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s a beautiful book by one of the most effortlessly commanding writers this country has ever produced. (Full disclosure: As a twenty-eight-year-old greenhorn editor, I had the pleasure of line-editing this book, which wasn’t editing so much as polishing silver.)

Blood Horses

By John Jeremiah Sullivan,

Book cover of Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son

Why this book?

Sullivan is probably best known today for his instant-classic essay collection Pulphead, but I actually prefer his first book, Blood Horses, a memoir he wrote in the aftermath of losing his beloved sportswriter father, whose special focus was horse racing and the Kentucky Derby. Sullivan, who cares nothing about horses and horse racing, tries to get closer to his lost father by covering the grand race and learning everything about the sport, and horses, that he can. This puts Sullivan on the grounds of the Kentucky Derby on the morning of September 11, 2001, while standing next to the Saudi owner of a celebrated racing horse. What happens when the Saudi’s phone starts ringing is too good to spoil here. An extraordinary memoir.

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