The memoir is a unique genre of literature. Unlike its brother, the biography, it relies more heavily upon reflection than fact. And while biographies are most successful when they relate the adventures of truly epic lives, memoirs can be powerful even when they record the existence of the most humdrum individuals.
All of us need a little inspiration, especially as we leave home and, as Huck said, light out for the territory. Memoirs are strong guides, if not for the specific life we want to lead, then for the knowledge that others have come before us and found their way.
In the memoirs that follow, you’ll find a boxer, an aviator, world travelers, a surfer, a former Secretary of State, and a warrior. More importantly, you’ll find seven individuals with the capacity and the bravery to hone their minds and their pens and put the tales of their lives down on the page for the rest of us.
A note: it is my belief that boys and young men benefit from being exposed to two central ideas. One, that women are equally capable in all areas as men. And two, that the best life is one that pursues both physical and intellectual challenges. The choices that follow reflect this belief.
Townie by Andre Dubus III
And I felt more like me than I ever had, as if the years I’d lived so far had formed layers of skin and muscle over myself that others saw as me when the real one had been underneath all along, and I knew writing- even writing badly- had peeled away those layers, and I knew then that if I wanted to stay awake and alive, if I wanted to stay me, I would have to keep writing. — Andre Dubus III
Best known for his novel House of Sand and Fog, Andre Dubus III’s memoir is a stunning feat of sharp writing and brutal honesty. Dubus didn’t have it easy growing up. He was small, scrawny and a target for bullies. The Massachusetts mill town where he lived was a tough neighborhood, awash in poverty and drugs and violence.
Townie details Dubus’ long affair with violence, how as a boy he chose to reshape his body, turning himself from a weak victim into a strong, aggressive young man who hit first and asked questions later. He joined a boxing gym, learned to fight, and began using his fists first to deal with altercations.
The pain in Dubus’ life is visceral: the divorce of his parents, the rape of his sister, the death of his father. And Dubus is excellent at showing how pain and fear and restlessness swirled together to fuel violence. What is distinct about Dubus is that he eventually recognizes that the violence he endorses will eventually ruin his life, and he makes a conscious choice to step away from it.
In interviews, Dubus freely admits that had he not become a writer, it is likely he would have ended up in prison.
Few memoirs are as powerful or as beautifully written. Townie stands, for me, as a top ten book of any kind, and a perfect entry into Dubus’ unequaled writing.
How It Was by Mary Welsh Hemingway
Worry a little bit every day and in a lifetime you will lose a couple of years. If something is wrong, fix it if you can. But train yourself not to worry. Worry never fixes anything. — Mary Welsh Hemingway
It’s not uncommon to find, on lists of great memoirs, Ernest Hemingway’s fine remembrance of his days in Paris as a young man, A Movable Feast. Hemingway’s life was a fascinating one, and his exploits are well-documented.
A work that is less well-known is the long, insightful memoir of his fourth wife, Mary. How It Was details the final decades of Hemingway’s life, the years in Cuba, the African safaris, the eventual suicide in Ketchum, Idaho.
And while Ernest’s adventures are noteworthy, How It Was is more worth reading because Mary herself is an intelligent, insightful woman. A journalist and war reporter before her marriage to Hemingway, Mary was no bumbling sidekick. It is too easily forgotten that “great men” are often accompanied, supported, and buoyed-up by women of equal stature, talent and resources.
How It Was is ample evidence of that fact, and an uncommon reminder that women are as capable of men when it comes to living adventurous lives.
Mary’s memoir begins with her childhood in Minnesota but moves swiftly to her years as a war reporter, and on to her marriage to Hemingway and their 17 years together. It is altogether a warmer, friendlier and more interesting work than Hemingway’s own memoir, as Mary provides far more detail and insight into their lives together, commenting upon politics, literature, entertainment, and world events without Ernest’s constant awareness that he was a Great American Writer.
Life Itself by Roger Ebert
To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. — Roger Ebert
Who would have thought a life spent watching movies could be so rewarding and fulfilling? Or that a memoir by a man whose life revolved around Hollywood could be so uplifting and so totally lacking in crass cynicism?
If there was any doubt concerning Roger Ebert’s skills as a writer, Life Itself puts those doubts to rest. Few memoirs are this funny, this revealing, and this much sheer pleasure to read.
Perhaps what is most fascinating about Ebert is that the man didn’t begin his life as a movie critic. Nor was he in his youth obsessed with movies. In fact, he was a voracious reader and a dedicated journalist. Time and again, Ebert writes about his love of books (everything from Erle Stanley Gardner to Philip K. Dick to Thomas Wolfe to All the King’s Men), about reading Life magazine and Reader’s Digest every week as a boy, and about the world of brilliant stories found in classic fiction digests like Astounding Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories.
Also noteworthy is that a man who came from such humble beginnings eventually became friends with so many of the world’s most famous stars. Ebert knew practically everyone in the movie industry: actors, directors, screenwriters, producers…And he was well-known and respected nearly across the board.
But it is the end of Ebert’s life that is the most compelling. Struck with cancer, he would lose a significant portion of his jaw, as well as the ability to speak. Unable to communicate in the same manner as before, Ebert did not spiral into bitterness and depression, but instead took up his pen more than ever, finding even greater depths on the page. He remained, til the end, a man thankful for and happy with his life and all that he’d been blessed with.
Ebert’s life is a powerful reminder that following what you love and holding tight to your optimism are worthwhile pursuits for all of us.
West With the Night by Beryl Markham
If a man has any greatness in him, it comes to light, not in one flamboyant hour, but in the ledger of his daily work. — Beryl Markham
Not many people know Beryl Markham any more. Which is unfortunate, for she was a remarkable woman. Born in 1902 into a world with very definite ideas about a woman’s propriety, Markham would defy those conventions and live a life fuller than most women dreamed of.
Markham was born in England but grew up in Kenya. She had a zebra for a pet and spent part of her girlhood scouting elephants by plane, excellent training for her later adventures. Adventurer is as good a word as any for what she was, although you can add to that racehorse trainer, pilot and world-class writer.
It was as a pilot that she would make her mark: Markham was the first person in history to fly nonstop from Europe to America, a feat of aviation that paved the way for pilots who became better known, such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. But Markham broke the barriers first.
And as a writer, Markham was also stunning. So much so, in fact, that no less of a writer than Ernest Hemingway said this about her memoir: “Written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer…She can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.”
Markham’s memoir, like Mary Walsh’s, serves as a sound example of how women are often just as accomplished as men. West With the Night is the story of a woman who mastered multiple worlds, that of outdoor adventure as well as that of studious learning.
Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton
When I got old enough to understand all this, I asked my mother how she survived abuse and abandonment without becoming embittered and emotionally stunted. How did she emerge from this lonely early life as such a loving and levelheaded woman? I’ll never forget how she replied. “At critical points in my life somebody showed me kindness,” she said. — Hillary Clinton
Some will disagree with this choice, given the current political season. Which is fine. We can’t all agree. But I did not add it to this list for political reasons. Regardless of how you feel about Hillary Clinton’s politics, I believe her memoir is one of the most compelling examples of the reality of a woman wielding power in our world today.
Hard Choices is not an examination of Clinton’s life, but rather her time as Secretary of State for the Obama Administration. Clinton has the distinction of being the most traveled Secretary in the history of the United States, and her memoir reads like a whirlwind travelogue. The list of countries she visits is nearly endless, and her insights into the political, social and economic challenges facing various parts of the world is incredibly adroit and engaging.
I have placed on this list memoirs by accomplished women who have proven through their lives that they can “hang with the boys” as it were. But very, very few women have ever made it into the halls of power as Clinton has. And thus few memoirs offer as much insight into the international scene and the powerbrokers who work there as Hard Choices.
What stands out more than anything else is that, in spite of her reputation as a hawk, Clinton consistently seeks out peaceful diplomatic solutions to international problems. Aside from saying something about her character, this approach reveals much about the robust strength and the clear limits of American power abroad.
Hard Choices is a clear-eyed examination of how diplomacy works, where it breaks down, and why negotiation is about meeting people in the middle, not simply making demands.
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan
All surfers are oceanographers, and in the area of breaking waves all are engaged in advanced research. — William Finnegan
Finnegan’s memoir won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015, and for good reason. It is a dazzling display of craft, a beautifully written work about a truly epic life.
Finnegan’s memoir is subtitled A Surfing Life, and Barbarian Days gives us much of the finest writing ever penned about surfing. But this is not a surfer’s guide. Rather, surfing would become for Finnegan a means by which to travel the world. Chasing waves around the globe, Finnegan ventured to Hawaii, the South Pacific, Asia, Africa and more.
Surfing, however, was not his only pursuit. He would go on to be a renowned war reporter, author of multiple nonfiction books, a National Magazine Award finalist, and winner of two Overseas Press Club awards.
Barbarian Days then is a potent mixture of memoir, travelogue and anthropology, as Finnegan details not just the beaches and the waves he finds around the world, but also the people he encounters in the nooks and crannies of our planet: the fishermen in a small Samoan village; the black market of Southeast Asia; the sexual politics of Tongan interactions with Americans and Japanese.
What stands out is both Finnegan’s spirit of adventure and his incredible attention to detail. His life is a stunning blend of the physical and the intellectual: a surfer-writer combo rarely seen (and rarely imagined).
Few books are as penetrating into the world of sport as this one. Finnegan excels at communicating the passion and the drive inherent in surfers, the romantic but also very real pull the ocean has for so many. And he is equally commanding when it comes to describing the arc and contour of his travels.
Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovich
But it is the living deaths I am smelling now, the living deaths, the bodies broken in the same war that I have come from. — Ron Kovich
Born on the Fourth of July is the story of young man inspired by patriotism (Kovic took to heart Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” rhetoric) to join the Marine Corps, his subsequent tours in Vietnam, and the brutal realities he faced in war. It is one of the most visceral and searing memoirs ever written about the battlefield, as well as the high costs paid for such bloodshed.
Kovic would serve two tours in Vietnam. He was eventually shot and paralyzed, and upon his return to the United States, he would become one of the most well-known anti-war advocates in the world.
He would write: “I wanted to share with them as nakedly and openly and intimately as possible what I had gone through, what I had endured. I wanted them to know what it really meant to be in a war — to be shot and wounded, to be fighting for my life on the intensive care ward — not the myth we had grown up believing. I wanted people to know about the hospitals and the enema room, about why I had become opposed to the war, why I had grown more and more committed to peace and nonviolence.”
Kovic’s story would inspire the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, as well as singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, who would channel Kovic’s anger into the Boss’s best known hit, the anti-war protest Born in the USA.
Kovic’s memoir is a powerful and moving testament to what is lost in war, to the bitter realities that are never mentioned by politicians in the lead up to armed conflict. It is a much needed reminder that there is a price to be paid when diplomacy fails, and that the myth of battle is quickly shattered by pain, loss, and blood.
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