10 More Brief Book Reviews for Memoir Readers and Writers

by Jerry Waxler

Here are ten more of the memoirs I have read in my research to learn about people and their stories. To see a longer list, click here.

“This Boy’s Life: A Memoir” by Tobias Wolff

“This Boy’s Life” is a story of a young boy growing up with a single mom.  It’s a Coming of Age tale that pried open the door and started allowing in stories of ordinary people, presaging the Memoir Revolution. (He was noted as Alice Sebold’s Creative Nonfiction professor in her memoir “Lucky.”) By publishing the story of his childhood, Wolff offers our generation a new opportunity to explore that period of our own lives.

“She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts” by Haven Kimmel

This is about an ordinary girl living in a small town in the Midwest. Her brilliant authorial voice commands attention and offers entertainment. It’s an excellent example of how great storytelling can turn ordinary life into compelling reading. It’s also a good example of a memoir sequel, following Kimmel’s first equally engaging memoir “A Girl Named Zippy.”

“What I know for sure, My story of growing up in America” by Tavis Smiley

This is a classic tale of rising from poverty into fabulous success through the power of personal charm, hard work and relentless ambition. Unique features of the book include a highly disciplined black family in a mostly white town in the Midwest, and a crossover story of a black man succeeding in white America, starting with his election as class president of his almost all-white high school. In addition, it is an example of a ghost or co-written book with David Ritz.

“The Liar’s Club: A Memoir” by Mary Karr

Mary Karr grew up in a complex childhood filled with emotional drama, including alcohol, mental breakdown, and economic hardship. But equal to the power of her circumstances is the power of her voice. It is one of the most commanding voices of any memoir I have read, filled with clever observations that ring true. Her insights provide a new way of experiencing childhood. I would go anywhere with Karr, which is why I ordered her second memoir, Cherry. (I’m falling behind. She has already released her third.) I consider “Liar’s Club” to be one of the canonical Coming of Age tales that launched the revolution. (Others are “Glass Castle,” by Jeanette Walls, “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt, and “This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff.)

“The Last Lecture,” Randy Pausch, Jeffrey Zaslow

Randy Pausch was invited to give a “last lecture” at Carnegie Mellon University, not because he was retiring but dying of pancreatic cancer. In his lecture, he shared wisdom he acquired during his brilliant but brief career as a professor. The lessons were picked up by Wall Street Journal Columnist Jeff Zaslow and turned into a book called “The Last Lecture” in which Pausch shared his experience of life in short essays that translate life experience into rule the reader could live by.

The fact that the book was so fabulously successful is a testament to Pausch’s insights. Its popularity also hints at an unspoken respect for those who offer wisdom as they approach death. Like a hero soldier who throws himself on a grenade, offering a model of superhuman generosity as his final legacy, Zaslow proves you can do good things even when you are going to die.

“The Kids are All Right: A memoir” by Diana Welch, Liz Welch, Amanda Welch, Dan Welch

“The Kids are all Right” was written by an ensemble cast of four siblings. Their mom was a Soap Opera star so it may look at first like this is a “celebrity memoir,” in which case the only reason to read it would be to learn more about mom. But the memoir doesn’t belong to the mom but to her four children who, after both parents died, had to come of age in challenging circumstances. It’s an example of the experience of becoming orphaned, an example of the transition from privilege to suffering and confusion. It’s an example of a memoir written from more than one voice. And it is a portrait of siblings who turned towards each other in order to survive adversity.

“True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall” by Mark Salzman

Mark Salzman was a successful author who volunteered to teach creative writing to violent juvenile offenders. As he teaches them to write, they teach him who they are and how they landed in this prison, offering an amazing window into their world, their dreams, their youth and confusion, and their suffering. It’s also a window into the power of writing to reveal inner worlds. The author authentically reproduces street language, and captures individual voice tone and rhythm, slouches and expressions. Judging from the title of the memoir, it’s an amazing display of how a writer can use writer’s notebooks to capture the tone of real experience.

The book raises awareness about a segment of our population that most of try to shut out of our mind. The author was recruited into this work by Sister Janet Harris, of the Inside Out Writers program, an organization in Los Angeles that tries to humanize imprisoned kids.

“Teach with Your Heart: Lessons I Learned from The Freedom Writers” by Erin Gruwell

This is the memoir of Erin Gruwell, the mastermind behind the Freedom Writers, a band of Los Angeles high school students who delved into the meaning of their lives by writing and sharing their diaries. In “Teach With Your Heart” Erin Gruwell offers deeper insight into a world I have already started learning about. Combined with “The Freedom Writers Diary” book and movie, I now have an excellent appreciation for Gruwell’s work and her world.

Click here to see my essay about the Freedom Writers Diary.

“Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House” by Miranda Seymour

Miranda Seymour as an almost-aristocrat just when the British Aristocracy was breathing its last gasp. “Oh, no,” I thought, when I first saw it. “Not another book about the demise of aristocracy! I thought I knew it all after watching the fabulous television shows “Brideshead Revisited” and Upstairs Downstairs.” But those were nearer the beginning of the Twentieth Century when the class system was starting to crumble. Miranda Seymour’s memoir takes place at the end of the century. Miranda’s father George was the last of a dying breed, while Miranda herself grew up in the post-aristocratic era. She needed to find her own way, and become her own person, making it a terrific Coming of Age story of a woman who had to move from the old world to the new one. Her transformation was captured in a memorable line. “I was dancing topless in Los Angeles, in a bar where I was the only white.” She uses research into her father’s life, including extensive use of his diaries and letters.

“Courage to Walk” by Robert Waxler

(Publishedby Spinner Publications )

Jeremy Waxler, a vibrant young athlete and lawyer, loses control of his legs, and becomes paralyzed. The search for the cause and cure of his mysterious illness reads at first like a medical thriller, except it’s not a book about medicine. It’s about the love of a father for his son. In a previous memoir, “Losing Jonathan,” published in 2003, Robert Waxler recounts the loss of his first son to an overdose. In this current memoir, Waxler watches in horror as his second beloved son teeters on the edge of life. Waxler again travels into the abyss, trying to make sense, telling the story as a reporter, a father, and a philosopher. Robert Waxler is a professor of literature, and he uses this vast reservoir of wisdom offered by other writers to help maintain his balance.

Links to Amazon Pages

“This Boy’s Life: A Memoir” by Tobias Wolff

She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel

“What I know for sure, My story of growing up in America” by Tavis Smiley

“The Liar’s Club: A Memoir” by Mary Karr

“Last Lecture,” Randy Pausch, Jeffrey Zaslow


“The Kids are All Right: A memoir” by Diana Welch, Liz Welch, Amanda Welch, Dan Welch

“True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall” by Mark Salzman

“Teach with Your Heart: Lessons I Learned from The Freedom Writers” by Erin Gruwell

“Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House” by Miranda Seymour

“Courage to Walk” by Robert Waxler
(Publishedby Spinner Publications )

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

9 thoughts on “10 More Brief Book Reviews for Memoir Readers and Writers

  1. I, too, love these short and tantalizing reviews. They not only encourage me to read, but also to get busy on my own memoir.

  2. Thanks to both of you for your appreciation. Shirley, I love the statement in your blog that you are writing about memoirs in order to research your own. Me too! And the same time, we are building community and sharing what we’ve learned. Marie, thanks for sharing your inspiration. These are wonderful benefits of living in the Internet Age. Jerry

  3. Thanks for this comprehensive and well organized list. I have never really been tremendously interested in memoir writing until recently when I realized I needed to write one myself about my life and climate change.

  4. Great site, Jerry! And your list of recommended memoirs is excellent. Might I suggest a recently published memoir that is getting a lot of attention. The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok.

  5. Thanks for the compliment Dee. I heard Bartok interviewed and the book does sound interesting, although the situation sounds a bit terrifying. Do I really want to read about this daughter’s terrifying relationship with her schizophrenic mother? It’s easy to pass by, but in the end, the answer is a resounding yes. I do want to understand, and I want to experience what life was like for her. Memoirs for me are far more than entertainment. They are an opportunity to become personally immersed for a couple of hundred pages with the amazing variety of human experience, participate, turning personal challenge into community enlightenment. Thanks for the recommendation. I have to update that list. I recently finished an interesting one by Jeanne Denault “Sucking up Yellow Jackets” about raising three kids, one of whom was emotionally disturbed. Jerry

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