Of all the genres one could read, biography and memoir has to be my favorite. There is nothing quite so fascinating to me as someone else’s life story, or parts of a life story. Memoirs in particular seem to resound with the strongest emotional landscapes, as they are recounted by the person who has experienced them. Besides my all-time favorite (if I had to choose only one) Refuge, by Terry Tempest Williams, here are more titles that stayed with me long after I closed the books.
Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje
I am particularly enamored with Ondaatje’s poetry (Rat Jelly 1973, and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid 1970), but most readers may remember him more for The English Patient. Yet what remains most strongly in my mind is his semi-fictional memoir about his childhood in Sri Lanka, where he lived until he was eleven. Wildly exotic, outrageously laughable and elegantly presented, this memoir has been further embellished with a sprinkling of the author’s lovely poems and old family photographs. The story unfolds in a non-linear arc; there are short vignettes and family stories rather than a classic narrative style. It written after Ondaatje visited his native country in the 1970’s (he is Canadian, born of a Dutch mother and Sinhalese/Tamil father). Charming, exotic, and bittersweet, plus written by an acclaimed writer who deserves all the awards bestowed upon him over the years.
A Match to the Heart, by Gretel Ehrlich
An acclaimed nature writer, Erlich deserves to be more widely read. This breathtaking memoir, about being hit by lightning years ago during a storm near her Wyoming ranch, was published in 1994. It is part thriller, part medical science, and a wholly human story. Erlich struggles to understand what happened to her, after realizing she is in a hospital, and how to heal against huge odds. She is aided by an immensely talented and perceptive cardiologist, and an immensely perceptive dog in her healing. For anyone who has had heart surgery, her description of the process (the lightning did the most damage to her heart) should be required reading. And for the rest of us, it is a fantastic story of a near-death experience, coupled with her luminous nature writing.
When I discovered this book years ago (published in 1981) I was jealous of the journey Koller was undertaking at age 37. It sounded almost romantic–alone with a new puppy in a rental house on Nantucket, walking daily by the sea in winter, virtually cut off from the outside world. Then I realized–I would have to face myself and my thoughts day after day after day. And train a new puppy. No thanks! However, Koller’s story is not romantic; it is insightful, brave and wholly convincing. What she does, in short, is to analyze herself during this withdrawal from the world: the pain of past relationships and mistakes, what she contributed to those challenges in her life, and what she decided to change. The story is laced with her observations about a newly developing love for her dog, which gives it empathic comic relief. While we do not find out what happens to her once she returns to civilization after a number of months, that seems unimportant in the context of this “woman’s Walden”.
West with the Night, by Beryl Markham
Considered a classic, and well-loved for years, I cannot review this genre without including this story that I so cherish, and bookstores (particularly Darvill’s) still carry. Even Ernest Hemingway proclaimed himself “ashamed of myself as a writer” when comparing Markham’s writing to his own. She was a remarkably able and brave young woman who was born in England, grew up in East Africa, then became an aviator. From 1931 to 1936 she carried mail, passengers and supplies to and from Kenya, the Sudan, Rhodesia and Tanganyika, and in 1936 became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. If there are any among you who have not read this treasure, please consider yourself intellectually impoverished. But there is a quick and delightful cure for such an affliction!
In the Wilderness, by Kim Barnes
Barnes, an award-winning poet from Idaho, wrote this memoir of growing up in a logging camp in the northern Idaho forests, from which she has created a rugged and tender story. Life as a young girl was steeped in poverty, yet joyful and free as she and her family explored nature and made their home in the woods. As logging started to decline in the 1960’s, her father lost his job and moved the family to Lewiston, where he tried to assuage his anger and hurt at losing his work by turning to a pentecostal religion. From playing in the woods and exploring with abandon to adopting paternalistic and rigidly enforced rules, Barnes felt she had to rebel against her family’s change. Eventually, she went to live with with a family who, who helped her move from rebellion to reconciling with her family with less judgment and more maturity and understanding. Beautifully written and deeply moving, it is both a coming of age story and one about the profound effects of economic and cultural change.
Journal of a Solitude, by May Sarton
I admit it, I am a fool for almost anything by May Sarton; poet, fiction writer and creator of some of the most honest and fascinating memoirs. Sarton (1912-1995) kept journals for most of her literary life, and published many of them. This was probably her best-selling non-fiction title, and I found it strangely comforting, gentle and quiet. But Sarton was living and writing in a different time and a very different world. She muses on her writing, visits with (or from) friends, gardening, birds, weather, and particularly the vagaries of her own personality. Known as a “difficult” person, Sarton tries to mine her own emotional landscape for clues as to how to behave with others, and that is part of her journal’s appeal. She can make the most mundane of daily activities seem fascinating and enriching. I also loved Plant Dreaming Deep and The House by the Sea.