The Best Memoirs & Autobiographies of 2015
Hold Still—Sally Mann
In her photographs, and now in her memoir, Sally Mann has tackled subjects whose names are always capitalized: Home, Family, Death, Time. But with few exceptions, she has found ways, in prints and print, to illuminate those subjects without falling into pomposity or generalization. This account of her life—how she became the woman who took her acclaimed photographs—is searching and often poetic but never less than straightforward and honest. There is even a chapter about the murder-suicide of her in-laws that rivals the best true-crime writing. This beautifully produced and copiously illustrated narrative is a peerless introduction to the creative life.
If the Oceans Were Ink—Carla Power
Both concerned about the vehemence and distortion curdling debate in the debate between Islam and the West, journalist Power and her longtime friend Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi sat down and together went through the Quran for a year, debating differences, finding common ground, each learning from the other. A story of cultures, of friendship, of hard truths, and compromise, it is a book about a journey of discovery that almost never goes in expected directions. Many books are lazily labeled illuminating. This one truly is an eye-opening experience.
Barbarian Days—William Finnegan
When most of us think of addiction, our responses are usually pretty limited—sex, drugs, alcohol, food. In his utterly captivating memoir, Finnegan, a New Yorker writer, takes us into an addiction to surfing. In it, surfing becomes his salvation, and a place where he grapples with the messy world back on shore. It is also a window into the world of growing up in Hawaii, a state that despite being part of the U.S. for decades, still seems like an exotic “other” land.
H Is for Hawk—Helen Macdonald
Grieving after the death of her father, with whom she shared the bond of birding, Macdonald adopted and trained a goshawk, and this book chronicles those events. But somehow, in blending the usually predictable genres of grief memoir and birding books, the author transcended every usual pitfall and delivered a book like no other. You don’t have to give a damn about bird-watching to get caught up in this meticulous and often hair-raising account of life in close quarters with a feathered killer. On the other hand, if you don’t come away from this book with a new appreciation—not to say awe—for the natural world, then you simply have not been paying attention.
Dear Mr. You—Mary-Louise Parker
A celebrity memoir about the men in her life—how many ways could this book have gone south? Instead, Parker has written a book that deserves an audience even if its author were anonymous. Each chapter is a letter to a male—her father, teachers, mentors, doctors, boyfriends, son, neighbor, emergency contact, cab driver—and each missive addresses what the male in question means to her. A couple are scathing, but mostly she’s a fan of the men in her life. Throughout her tone is celebratory but not gushing, and she’s nothing if not a shrewd judge of character and what warrants holding dear: the loving letters to her father could draw tears from a stone.
Fortunate Son—John Fogerty
For thirty years now, Fogerty feels like he has been answering the same questions. Does he regret the acrimonious split from his brother Tom and fellow bandmates Stu Cook and Doug Clifford? Why wouldn’t he perform with them at the band’s Hall of Fame induction? How does he feel about the latter two still touring on the “Creedence” name? Now, those answers can be found in his revealing autobiography named after his iconic 1969 anti-war anthem.
We Were Brothers—Barry Moser
Maybe someday the preeminent illustrator of our time will give us the story of how he became an artist, or even how, before that, he preached the gospel. In the meantime, he has delivered a crystalline memoir of sibling love, hate, rivalry, and reconciliation. The brothers Moser, growing up in a racist South in the ’50s and ’60s, were tied together by little more than name and circumstance: Tommy, the older, more extroverted Moser, was a boy and then a man who questioned little about the time and place that formed him, while the inward-turning Barry would feel less and less at home as he grew up. The story of their quarrelsome and ultimately bitter relationship is quietly but beautifully rendered in prose as delicate but durable as one of Moser’s indelible drawings.
Blue Eyed Boy—Robert Timberg
Horribly disfigured after a landmine blew up an Amtrac he was on—it was carrying hundreds of gallons of fuel—Timberg would go on to have a successful career. Regarding his memoir, writes The Daily Beast’s foreign editor Christopher Dickey, “one approaches it with a certain reserve, ready for all the Oprahesque clichés of survival, struggle and redemption. But, mercifully, many of those don’t apply here.” It is searingly honest, painful, but also redemptive.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl—Carrie Brownstein
It is no surprise to the fans of cult show Portlandia that Brownstein is actually a Pacific Northwest native. In her memoir, the singer and successful actress goes back to the time when everything that was relevant in rock history was happening around her. Music was her chance—as it is for so many—to escape a home life that was far from perfect.
On the Move—Oliver Sacks
The qualities that made the late Oliver Sacks a natural motorcyclist, an essential paradox of a person—he who heads out in order to head inward, who by binding himself tightly to the earth through every sense seeks the frisson of escaping it—are those that made him a great neurologist, thinker, friend, and writer. Sacks is the doctor we all wish we could have. The one who listens patiently, endlessly, concerned about our experiences in the hospital as well as all that we experience without. Compassion above all marks his work, his interests, his books, including this final account of his love affair with motorcycling. He created his own genre, the case history as prose poem/medical mystery. Ultimately, his writing, here and elsewhere, embodied life itself: the mysterious complexities of how we work are explained by way of the myriad ways we break down.