We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses, we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves.
As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.
~ Joan Didion
I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, and, although I do love a good novel when my mood is right, my genre of choice has mainly been the memoir.
As I go through the process of writing and revision my own memoir, reading these compelling, at times entertaining and at times thought-provoking books, has been inspirational.
Here are eight great autobiographical accounts I’ve read so far this year, in order of importance.
The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
I bought this book immediately after Nelson Mandela passed away last December, but then I didn’t read it for months. When I finally picked it back up at the right moment, I couldn’t put it down.
What an awe-inspiring story. And it’s extremely well-written—poignant, descriptive, conversational. Required reading for all compassionate humans. I knew next to nothing about Mandela and South Africa, so it was very illuminating in that sense as well.
A favorite quote (of many): “We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.”
That Bird Has My Wings by Jarvis Jay Masters
This is a sad yet ultimately inspiring life story. I first heard about Mr. Masters because my Buddhist hero Pema Chodron mentions him in some of her books. In his “memoir of an innocent man on death row,” Jarvis describes his childhood and teenage years of heroin-addicted parents, foster homes and escalating crimes.
He ends up in prison yet is able to begin and maintain a daily Buddhist meditation practice. If Jarvis Jay Masters can mediate and find compassion on death row at San Quentin, what excuse do the rest of us have? (p.s. Free Jarvis!)
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”
Written in the wake of her husband’s sudden death, this book is a heartbreaking-without-trying-to-be account of a woman—who happens to be a fantastic writer and mega-successful author—going through the grieving process. Simply brilliant.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
This raw, honest, amazingly-written, rule-breaking memoir blew my writer’s mind in the best possible way. Lidia’s literary account of her life is written in a direct, candid and open style that will surely offend the prudish. She definitely does not shy away from discussing sex and sexuality, and life and death and everything in between.
Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer
Seattle-based yogini and journalist Claire Dederer wrote a sweet little memoir of her life growing up in an unconventional family, finding yoga and raising her young daughter in her sometimes-rocky marriage. I like the way she seamlessly weaves the past and present together to tell the story of her youth, young adulthood and later life.
Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude by Neal Pollack
Neal Pollack is a self-proclaimed asshole, and, as such, his yoga memoir is wildly entertaining, honest and obscene, although perhaps devoid of many deep spiritual realizations. I laughed out loud several times, including at his page-long description of the different types of farts caused by his yoga practice.
His take on the yoga culture and community is worth a read, and he takes the reader from his neighborhood studio in L.A. to Jivamukti Yoga in NYC to the Yoga Journal Conference in San Francisco. My favorite part was when he went to Thailand for a two-week course with Ashtanga yoga guru, Richard Freeman.
Devotion by Dani Shapiro
This is a quiet, lovely memoir and a quick read. Although I was sometimes annoyed to read the woes of an upper middle class white woman living in Conneticut, I was also able to identify a lot with her struggle.
Dani is a blonde Jewish woman raised in an orthodox home who has strayed from her religious heritage and studied yoga, Buddhism and other world religions. As she struggles to find her spiritual home, famous authors and spiritual leaders including Stephen Cope and Sylvia Boorstein help her along the way.
Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin by Nicole Hardy
Though I share precious little in common with Nicole Hardy, a former Mormon who remained a virgin until leaving the church in her mid-30s, I did enjoy her memoir for the most part. For years, especially since reading Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer (highly recommended!), I have harbored a strange fascination with Mormonism.
Nicole’s writing style is friendly and candid. I do wish that she had more directly confronted the problems with her former church, which she really doesn’t, other than pointing out that they don’t cater to single women who don’t want marriage and children, and that they have idiotic views when it comes to homosexuality and gay marriage.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman