Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after the death of her mother and the dissolution of her marriage, was one of 2012's biggest and best books. Even Oprah thought so—she made it her first pick when she relaunched her book club. With its clear-eyed portrayal of Strayed's all-consuming sorrow and loneliness, and the incredible story of her (some might say foolhardy) determination to seek answers in an unforgiving landscape, Wild was our readers' #4 book of the year (and #2 on the BookPage editors' own Best of 2012 list).
Strayed's memoir encompasses so many different themes—grief, adventure, the healing power of nature, the journey to forgiveness and growth, discovering a community of like-minded misfits—that each reader takes away something different. If you're longing for something in a similar vein, try one of the following:
Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Like Wild, Let's Take the Long Way Home is a heartbreaking but beautifully told memoir of living through loss. When Gail Caldwell met Caroline Knapp, the two formed a quick, deep bond over such shared experiences as the joys and frustrations of writing, long walks with their beloved dogs and their self-destructive, alcoholic pasts. Knapp was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002 and died a few short months later; Caldwell's grief over the loss of her friend knocked her flat. Her book is a powerful testament to a close friendship and the person she has become in its wake.
Claiming Ground by Laura Bell
Laura Bell's life has taken many unexpected turns. After graduating college in the '70s, she had a hard time figuring out who, or what, she wanted to be. So she turned to what she knew to be real and true—her love of animals and the land—and moved to Wyoming to become a sheepherder. It was not an easy job, especially for a young woman, but she learned to face her failures and celebrate her strengths, all the while reveling in the harsh splendor of the Western landscape. Over the years, she turned to different jobs (forest ranger, masseuse) and different people for companionship, surviving divorce and agonizing loss along the way. Inspiring in the best way, Bell's memoir chronicles a lifetime of learning how to be herself.
Townie by Andre Dubus III
The working-class neighborhoods of Lowell, Massachusetts, are no place for a young boy to admit to any weakness. In such an environment, Andre Dubus III grew up poor and, by age 11, the child of an acrimonious divorce. After years of enduring taunts and violence against his family, he fought back, transforming himself into a strong, vicious boxer and brawler. Eventually, he turned to writing as a way to lift himself out of misery and the dead-end life he was living, and also to untangle his relationship with his father after a serious injury. Light reading it is not, but readers who loved Wild for its unflinching look at Strayed's sad and troubled family will appreciate the portrait of love and loneliness that Dubus paints in Townie.
Fire Season by Philip Connors
Philip Connors has spent many summers as a fire lookout in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, a job that allows him to attune himself deeply to the natural world around him. Though the work is not as physically demanding as hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, it requires long hours of solitude and the close, thorough observation of the forest. With nothing but the sights and sounds of the woods to distract him, Connors can achieve a sort of meditative peace that lends itself well to the daily practice of writing. When he observes that natural fires (caused by lightning strikes) are often beneficial, even necessary, to the survival of the forest's ecosystem, readers will realize that the truths he uncovers on the mountain may have meaning in their own lives as well.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
If you're looking for a lighter take on the experience of long-distance hiking, Bill Bryson's modern classic A Walk in the Woods is essential reading. Like Strayed, Bryson is not exactly prepared for the rigors of the journey when he sets out to hike the Appalachian Trail, and his bumbling efforts and dry humor make for an irresistible combination. Along the way, he learns about the history and allure of the AT and meets a number of curious characters—including his traveling companion, a cranky, monosyllabic and somewhat rundown friend from his high school days.
Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs by Heather Lende
Heather Lende, columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, has been compared to writers such as Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard for her gentle but deep-seated spirituality and her love of the natural world—in this case, the mountainous beauty of her Alaska home. In this collection of essays and observations, Lende writes with grace and humor about challenges and triumphs both personal and communal, and captures the spirit of community that infuses her small town. Like Strayed, Lende struggles with big questions, and finds inspiration in the beautiful but unforgiving landscape around her.
Looking for more great book suggestions? Check out the rest of our "what to read next" posts, or share your own recommendations in the comments.
According to our most recent Reader Survey, memoirs are one of the Top 5 favorite genres of BookPage readers. Thankfully, there have been a slew of outstanding memoirs this year. To date, we have recommended 29 memoirs in 2012. The writers' stories are about fatherhood, aging, exercise, cooking, friendship, loss, love—and so much more.
Keep reading to learn more about this must-read collection of memoirs. Which is your favorite? What will you read next? What memoir should we add to our list?
MWF Seeking BFF by Rachel Bertsche
Ballantine, $15, 384 pages
Rachel Bertsche is a 20-something freelance writer and editor who, after following her husband to Chicago, found herself in need of a new best friend.
No Cheating, No Dying by Elizabeth Weil
Scribner, $25, 192 pages
After nearly 10 years of marriage to her husband Dan, Elizabeth Weil still felt “proud, nearly giddy” about being his wife. She also worried: “Because just as I believed that marriages formed slowly over time, I also believed they broke that way.” Read more>>
Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's, $24.99, 288 pages
“Somehow, this time, I would make it work.” That’s the quiet plea of 12-year-old Mikey Walsh, desperate to fit in with his Romany Gypsy family. Read more>>
Immortal Bird by Doron Weber
Simon & Schuster, $25, 368 pages
Weber’s Immortal Bird is a love letter to his son, an account of Damon’s determination to fight a series of medical setbacks while fighting for his life. Read more>>
The Great Northern Express by Howard Frank Mosher
Crown, $25, 256 pages
As a young boy, Howard Frank Mosher would sit at the knee of his honorary uncle, Reg Bennett, and beg him to tell stories. Bennett promised that when Mosher turned 21, the two would embark on a road trip starting in Robert Frost’s New England. Read more>>
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
by Jeanette Winterson
Grove, $25, 224 pages
With Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Winterson pulls back the veil on her life as she really lived it and shows us that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but more painful and more beautiful as well. Read more>>
Burn Down the Ground by Kambri Crews
Villard, $25, 352 pages
As a PR booker for comedy clubs, Kambri Crews developed the slogan “Life’s Tough. Laugh More.” In her new memoir, Burn Down the Ground, Crews reveals the source of this motto in her hardscrabble childhood in rural Texas with deaf parents.
King Peggy by Peggielene Bartels and Eleanor Herman
Doubleday, $25.95, 352 pages
Today, no one raises an eyebrow at seeing a female doctor, police officer or CEO. But a female king? Yet that is exactly what Peggielene Bartels, for more than 30 years a secretary at the Embassy of Ghana in Washington, D.C., is asked to become by the elders of Otuam, a small Ghanaian village. Read more>>
Mad Women by Jane Maas
St. Martin's, $24.99, 272 pages
The Lucky Strike-puffing, martini-fueled “mad men” of the glamorous heyday of advertising are sexy again, thanks to the hit TV show. But “mad women” were also making their mark in the testosterone-dominated advertising industry of the 1960s and ’70s. Read more>>
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 336 pages
A profound and moving pilgrimage through the wilderness of grief, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is one of the best American memoirs to emerge in years.
The Fourth Fisherman by Joe Kissack
Waterbrook, $19.99, 240 pages
The Fourth Fisherman, by Joe Kissack, is a story about men lost at sea—one lost in the sea of worldly success and excess, and the others lost in the actual vast waters of the Pacific Ocean. Read more>>
The Other Side of Suffering by John Ramsey
FaithWords, $24.99, 272 pages
The worst fate most parents can imagine is to live through the loss of a child—especially a child lost to murder. Read more>>
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen
Random House, $26, 208 pages
In the sublime Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, Quindlen, 59, clearly is embracing middle age (with just the tiniest bit of help from the dermatologist). Read more>>
Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott
Riverhead, $26.95, 288 pages
Anyone who read Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott’s seminal book on the trials and tribulations of motherhood, will be flabbergasted to learn that her infant son, Sam, is now a 19-year-old father. Read more>>
Making Babies by Anne Enright
Norton, $24.95, 208 pages
The subtitle of Making Babies, Anne Enright’s marvelously irreverent look at having children later in life, is “Stumbling into Motherhood,” and that is just what the Irish writer did when she and her husband had their first child after 18 years of marriage. Read more>>
Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure by Patricia Ellis
Broadway, $14, 256 pages
I was bracing to be slightly annoyed by the ambitious mother and her overachieving mountain-climbing daughter in Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure. But Patricia Ellis Herr is no tiger mom, pushing her daughter Alex to the brink. Read more>>
Bloom by Kelle Hampton
Morrow, $24.99, 288 pages
As soon as the doctor laid the baby in her arms, Kelle Hampton knew her daughter had Down syndrome. “I will never forget my daughter in my arms, opening her eyes over and over . . . she locked eyes with mine and stared . . . bore holes into my soul. Love me. Love me. I’m not what you expected, but oh please love me.” Read more>>
My Story, My Song by Lucimarian Roberts
Upper Room, $28, 144 pages
My Story, My Song is the slim but lyrical memoir of Lucimarian Roberts, the mother of “Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts. Read more>>
A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez
Algonquin, $22.95, 304 pages
In her humorous and poignant memoir of a wedding and an earthquake in the Dominican Republic, novelist Julia Alvarez (How the García Girls Lost Their Accents) attempts to answer this question as she tells the tale of a young worker on her coffee plantation, Piti, and his efforts to make a life by traveling from his home in Haiti to work in the neighboring country. Read more>>
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
HMH, $22, 304 pages
Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about her mother is not, immediately, a memoir about her mother. Or at any rate, it’s not only that.
Let's Pretend This Never Happened
by Jenny Lawson
Amy Einhorn, $25.95, 336 pages
This is the kind of book where, once you’ve got the lay of the land, a sentence like “[My neighbor] seemed more concerned this time, possibly because I was belting out Bonnie Tyler and crying while swinging a machete over a partially disturbed grave” makes total sense. Read more>>
Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down
by Rosencrans Baldwin
FSG, $26, 304 pages
When Rosecrans Baldwin, author of the critically acclaimed novel You Lost Me There, landed a gig with a French ad agency, his longtime dream to live in Paris came true. Though his French was iffy—and his wife Rachel’s was nonexistent—they packed up and traded Brooklyn for the third arrondissement. Read more>>
How to Cook Like a Man by Daniel Duane
Bloomsbury, $24, 224 pages
It’s hard to imagine cooking as an extreme sport, but that’s what we find in Daniel Duane’s How to Cook Like a Man: A Memoir of Cookbook Obsession. Read more>>
Dan Gets a Minivan by Dan Zevin
Scribner, $24, 240 pages
Humorist Dan Zevin, a 40-something father of two, finds himself totally digging his new wheels in Dan Gets a Minivan: Life at the Intersection of Dude and Dad. Read more>>
Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen
Crown, $25, 432 pages
On its surface, Kristen Iversen’s childhood in suburban Denver was idyllic. She and her three younger siblings had horses to ride, a local lake and a neighborhood filled with kids. But just under the surface lurked dangers that Iversen doesn’t fully understand until she is much older. Read more>>
The Cost of Hope by Amanda Bennett
Random House, $26, 240 pages
While on assignment in China, journalist Amanda Bennett met and fell in love with a complicated man. They married, moved back to the U.S., created a family, and had their reality turned on its ear when her husband, Terence Foley, was diagnosed with kidney cancer.
Coming to My Senses by Alyssa Harad
Viking, $25.95, 272 pages
Woodsy and seductive, with a hint of spice, Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride offers a luscious immersion in the world of perfume obsession. Read more>>
Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
Random House, $27, 336 pages
Marcus Samuelsson made his name as one of the youngest executive chefs in Manhattan and a familiar face on the Food Network. What might be less familiar is Samuelsson’s fascinating personal history, which he lays bare in Yes, Chef. Read more>>
Keith Richards' memoir, Life, is shooting up the bestseller list and making the cover of the New York Times Book Review. It's also available on audio—and listening to Richards' life story just might be the more compelling option. Why? Well, it's narrated by two living legends: Keith Richards and actor Johnny Depp, as well as London musician Joe Hurley.
Keith introduces the book and reads the last chapter. Gotta love that accent.
Depp lends his actor's chops early on in Life. This excerpt is from the opening scene, which finds Richards and the Stones down South in front of a drunk judge on drug charges.
Depp told Entertainment Weekly, "Naturally, a catastrophic understatement would be required in order to fully detail the honor bestowed in being asked to partake in presenting the Life, quite literally, of The Maestro; an individual so legendary, a soul so revolutionary and a friend so dear. It’s quite a tale, as you might imagine." BookPage reviewer Martin Brady agrees, saying that Life is "one of the best pop music books ever assembled." (Read the review here.)
What makes you choose an audiobook over its print counterpart?
Ms. Johnson was the author of a memoir, It Is Well With My Soul: The Extraordinary Life of a 105-Year-Old Woman. Originally slated to be published on April 27, the book's publication date has now been pushed up to March 31. It tells the story of her life, from her early days in Dallas, Texas, living through segregation and the Jim Crow era, to her education (she was the oldest living black graduate of Case Western Reserve University), to her marriage and family life, to her values as a Good Samaritan, and up through her attendance at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration in January 2009.
Another remarkable African-American woman's life is celebrated in a memoir by Ann Nixon Cooper, whom Obama mentioned in his Election Day speech. Ms. Cooper's book, A Century and Some Change: My Life Before the President Called My Name, was also released mere weeks after her death. She passed away on Dec. 21, 2009, at 107 years old.
It's inspiring to read about these women and the incredible change they witnessed over the course of their lifetimes. If you're looking for a similar book, check out Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First Hundred Years, published in 1993. Although the Delany sisters, born in the 19th century, have also now passed away, we are lucky that all of these women have shared their stories with us.
Between a whirlwind trip to NYC and her departure for PLA (if you're there, check out BookPage at booth #1100), our associate publisher Julia Steele passed along a book recommendation for Book Case readers: I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced. "It made me cry. On the plane!" Is there a higher recommendation? (Maybe books that make me cry in the office . . .)
Written with Delphine Munoui, and first published in France, Nujood Ali's story is almost too incredible to be true. With no support from her family, this little girl from Yemen took the money her parents had given her to buy bread and went to to the courthouse to petition for a divorce from her abusive husband, who was more than three times her age. Given the subtitle, it's obvious that Nujood gets her wish, but the convoluted system she must fight to reach her goal makes this a fascinating read. Nujood was, until recently, the youngest divorced person ever, but she has now inspired a handful of girls in similar circumstances to make a bid for freedom. Her story has been told by major news outlets like Time and The New York Times.
Julia's passing the book on to her college-aged daughter next—it would definitely be a great selection for a mother-daughter book club.
If you're interested in military history and loved Band of Brothers, mark your calendar for this Sunday at 9 pm EST—it's the premiere of HBO’s miniseries The Pacific, based on memoirs by two U.S. Marines: With the Old Breed by Eugene B. Sledge and Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie. The series is produced by Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman, the team behind Band of Brothers.
On an HBO message board for the series, a commenter wrote, “Without a doubt Sledge's account is the greatest WWII story ever told.” If you’ve read With the Old Breed, do you agree?
Watch a trailer for the miniseries:
By Gail Caldwell
August 2010, Random House
An unbelievably honest, moving and heartbreaking account of Caldwell’s midlife friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp, who died suddenly of lung cancer in 2002. Caldwell and Knapp shared everything—profound love for their dogs, Clementine and Lucille, a history of alcohol addiction and a passion for writing. Read it—and try not to weep.
"I have a photograph from one of those summers at Chocorua, framing the backs of my dog and Caroline's, Clementine and Lucille, who are silhouetted in the window seat and looking outside. It is the classic dog photo, capturing vigilance and loyalty: two tails resting side by side, two animals glued to their post. What I didn't realize for years is that in the middle distance of the picture, through the window and out to the fields beyond, you can make out the smallest of figures—an outline of Caroline and me walking down the hill. We must have been on our way to the lake, and the dogs, now familiar with our routine, had assumed their positions. Caroline's boyfriend, Morelli, a photographer, had seen the beauty of the shot and grabbed his camera.
I discovered this image the year after she died, and it has always seemed like a clue in a painting—a secret garden revealed only after it is gone . . . . Like most memories tinged with the final chapter, mine carry the weight of sadness. What they never tell you about grief is that missing someone is the simple part."
As a new addition to the BookPage staff, I'm trying to familiarize myself with as many new and recent books as I can. One of the books that caught my eye is an advance copy of Robyn Okrant's Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV's Most Influential Guru Advises (to be released in January 2010). Based on Okrant's blog, Living Oprah, the book chronicles the year she spent trying to "live her best life" as Oprah intends. From reading Oprah's book club selections and cooking Oprah's recipes to trying to love shoes as much as Oprah does, Okrant takes Oprah's instructions to heart, and carefully observes the effects, both positive and negative, her project is having on herself and the people in her life.
A recent book with a similar structure is Colin Beavan's No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process (the accompanying documentary is now in theaters). This book also sprang from a blog (No Impact Man) and is about the year that Beavan and his family gave up everything in their lives with a negative environmental impact. Plastic, television, air-conditioning, even toilet paper was forbidden in their household for a year. Although the rules Beavan followed were radically different from Okrant's, it's a fair bet that they both learned something interesting about the way that many of us live our lives today.
And they're not alone. In the last few years, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of books like these. From books about food (Julie & Julia, of course, which according to Amazon is now subtitled My Year of Cooking Dangerously) to books about religion (A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically) to books with a social or political agenda (Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, by Judith Levine), my-year-of memoirs are everywhere these days.
So it should come as no surprise that at least one enterprising blogger has put his own twist on the topic: Dave Holmes (My Year of Everything) plans to read one my-year-of book every week, and then write a book about his experience. As he puts it: "After 12 months of blogging, I’ll have my own book that will teach you how to be a better person, a better cook, a better lover, and literally everything else. How convenient!" I just hope for his sake that this publishing trend lasts long enough for him to land a deal.
Dear reader: if you could get your own book deal, what would you want to spend one year doing?
Like all of the BookPage staffers, I've always been an avid reader. But after majoring in English in college and then working in publishing in New York, I never thought I had the time to join a full-fledged book club. A few publishing girlfriends and I briefly began "The Bad Girls' Book Club" (where we would only read fun, self-indulgent books we couldn't admit to reading in the office) but we only met twice—and we weren't terribly diligent about our assignments. For the record, we WERE diligent with the delicious appetizers and specialty cocktails—and maybe that was the root of our problem...
After leaving the craziness of New York City for Nashville, I found myself with more time to read outside of work. The idea that I might actually finish one of the many books on my "to read" list was thrilling. And while gleefully explaining to my Nashville friends that I had all this time to read again, just for fun, I decided it was time to start a REAL book club. I pitched the idea to a few friends, who pitched the idea to a few of their friends, and voila—instant book club. We decided our first read will be Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It's almost 1,200 pages long, so I'm a bit worried we've set the bar a little too high for our first meeting. But I have faith in our group. I'll check back in after our first meeting—hopefully in the next month or so!
What are your book clubs reading? Here are a few ideas, just for fun.
Bad Girls' Book Club reading list
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
Lighting Up by Susan Shapiro
From my mom’s "Ladies Who Lunch" book club
Peony in Love by Lisa See
The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan
From my dad’s “Guys Only” book club
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
The Tender Bar by J. R. Moehringer
(For the record, they meet at a bar, and they talk about sports, too)
Henry Holt recently released a new paperback edition of one of my favorite memoirs, Are You Somebody? by Nuala O'Faolain, the Irish writer who died last year of cancer at the age of 68. The new edition includes a foreword by Frank McCourt, who describes O'Faolain as "[a] woman who wore on her sleeve, not only her heart, but her mind and soul and whatever else she could offer." Still most definitely worth reading—or re-reading, if you're already a fan, like me—Are You Somebody? captures the author's feisty, defiant spirit in all its glory.
The new paperback concludes with the text of O'Faolain's final radio interview, which McCourt says "shocked listeners all over Ireland." An iconoclast til the end, O'Faolain said she wasn't having any further medical treatment and proclaimed, "Even if I gained time through the chemotherapy it isn't time I want. Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life."