The best memoirs are written by writers, unlike the hundreds of books authored by people who think it would be cool to write a book. The market is flooded with mediocre work. Yet, sometimes mediocre is good. Mediocre can be entertaining: perhaps eye-opening, perhaps educational, perhaps a sopher to help you sleep at night. It just isn’t good literature.

To illustrate, here are three memoirs I’ve read in succession: The Good Girls Guide to Getting Lost, by Rachel Friedman (holds an MFA), Nothing to Declare, by Mary Morris (writing prof), and Living in a Foreign Language by Michael Tucker (actor in Law and Order).

Nothing to Declare towers over the others. Written with economy, each word has purpose. No syllable is wasted. Morris’ rhythm, cadence, rises and falls, prods you to keep reading. Compelled me to keep reading. Her physical story is woven with insights, with flashes of understanding. I ask, was Lucy Grealy her teacher? Morris’ tone oozes with melancholy, leaving my mouth tasting bittersweet. Was that her intention? I’m a relatively happy person (yes, believe it or not, you can be an artist and still be happy – check Haydn), but I left feeling slightly depressed.  If you are already depressed, I’d pass.

In contrast Good Girl has a happy-go-lucky nature. The narrator starts off naive, grows into travel and adventure, and ends so much wiser. Is this Friedman’s first book? If so, congratulations. Getting your first memoir published deserves accolades. The book succeeds where many fail. The narrator becomes more endearing in the second half of the book. It is entertaining, although her reflections are shallow at best. My advice to Friedman? Keep reading, keep writing, keep studying, and I’m betting your books will get better. Number five will be “Hot, damn!”

Living in a Foreign Language is written by LA Law star Michael Tucker. He is the husband of actress Jill Eikenberry, which he doesn’t let me forget for a paragraph. The story bounces along in what is presumed to be an authentic voice, although I have my suspicions. I quickly ask, why am I reading this book? The answer never comes.

In contrast, Morris has a thesis statement tucked into page 211 in Nothing to Declare:

”I thought to myself the whole time I had been away that there would be a moment when everything was clear, when I would understand what I had not understood before. I had been waiting for a clear moment when I would know that I’d traded cruelty for kindness, passion for companionship, anger for love. But now I knew it that it would not happen this way.

As I sat out on that porch, I understood that growth comes over time. Change happens step by step. All along things had been changing inside me, bit by bit, in small imperceptible ways. It had been subtle, not sudden. It had been happening over time.”

Clear. I know why I’m reading this book.

  1. The Liars Club by Mary Karr
  2. Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert
  3. Eat, Love, Pray by Elizabeth Gilbert
  4. A Country Year by Sue Hubbell
  5. Tender Mercies by Anne LaMott
  6. Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
  7. Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott
  8. Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
  9. Lit by Mary Karr
  10. Cherry by Mary Karr
  11. Mennonite in the Little Black Dress
  12. Some Girls
  13. Newjack – Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover


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Carlene Cross, author of Fleeing Fundamentalism, advised Theo Nestor’s memoir students to “read one hundred books of your genre.” I am plodding along towards my “read one hundred memoirs” goal. I’m now at forty-seven and a half. I’ve read some enchanting books, some entertaining, some tear jerkers, some best for starting campfires.

Why a “half?” I believe in finishing books. I really do. But, one book I picked up by a well respected author and her daughter, I just couldn’t get through. I tried. I did. But in the end, I felt I’d wasted three weeks of my life. I put it down half way.

Travel memoirs are tricky. Do I really care how crowded your bus was in Fez, Morocco? I will if you’re a good story-teller. My favorite memoirist is still number twelve – Tobias Wolff. How can you not love someone raised in Concrete, Washington?

  1. Fleeing Fundamentalism by Charlene Cross
  2. Anatomy of Loss by Abigail Carter
  3. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
  4. 21 Dog Years by Mike Daisy
  5. Growing Up by Russell Baker
  6. The Same River Twice by Chris Offut
  7. The Lover by Marquerite Dumas
  8. A Year in Provence by Peter Myles
  9. One Bullet Away by Nathaniel Flick
  10. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  11. How to Sleep Alone in King Size Bed by Theo Nestor