Multiple memoirs by the same author enrich my reading experience. They extend my understanding of the author. In fact, some of the earliest ones are almost like autobiographies, extending the author’s life story feom one book to the next.
My first examples of more than one memoir written by the same author were bestsellers by Frank McCourt, Mary Carr, and Haven Kimmel. These were usually continuations, proceeding from childhood on into the next stage in life. Over the years since those early sightings I’ve found an increasing number of examples. Some of them do continue along a chronological path. Others provide an entirely different insight.
In the following list, I offer memoirs I’ve read by the same author, and a brief synopsis of the way the two memoirs work together.
I have read and in many cases written about all of the memoirs on this list. In some cases, denoted with an asterisk, there were other memoirs by the author which I have not yet read.
A different slant on two memoirs, memoirs that are about the same subject
David W. Berner
Any Road Will Take You There
In the first memoir, Accidental Lessons, Berner says his life has no more meaning. She says “go find yourself” and they separate. Rather than going out and becoming a swinging single, he hunkers down to become a school teacher. The book offers an excellent insight into midlife crisis. On its own, though, it raises many questions, such as why did he leave and where is he heading. These questions are addressed beautifully in his second memoir, in which he goes on a road trip with his sons, following the path of Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road. The interplay between the two stories adds depth and characterization, and a truly unique understanding of an interesting character.
[SEE THIS LINK FOR MY REVIEW OF BERNER’S BOOKS.]
Her first memoir was about a disastrous launching. During her first year at a prestigious college, she was wooed by a wealthy man. As a kept woman she fell into drugs, sex and self-loathing. In the second memoir, as a housewife, mother, and successful author, she searches in midlife for her spiritual truths.
Sue William Silverman *
I Remember Terror Father Because I Remember You
Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew
The first memoir is a serious coming of age story in which she was sexually abused by her father. The second is a more whimsical account of her as an adult, attempting to find a place in American culture, coming to terms with her cultural identity.
* A memoir I have not yet read is Love Sick about sexual addiction.
Victoria Twead *
Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools
Two Old Fools on a Camel
In the first memoir, a woman and her husband move from England to Spain, move into a fixer-upper and assimilate into a small town. In the second memoir, to salvage their independence they take teaching jobs in Bahrain. The memoir chronicles their year as teachers for incredibly rich Arab school students. Both books are light hearted, often funny, and demonstrate that serious memoirs don’t require much gravitas.
Courage to Walk
In the first memoir, the author, an English professor, learns his son is addicted to heroin. He goes on an emergency mission to save the boy, until a drug overdose ends the road to saving his son and begins a road of grieving, during which the two parents must adjust to the terrible reality. In the second memoir, his other son is struck by a life threatening illness. With lightening striking twice in the same family, Waxler must find his own inner strength, turning to religion, philosophy and literature to survive.
Ian Mathie *
Dust of the Danakil
Man in a Mud Hut
Sorcerers and Orange Peel
This series of memoirs is an incredibly intimate view of the African bush culture, some 40 years ago, when the author was a young non-governmental aid worker. His “day job” was to improve water access for tribal communities, but the stories themselves take the reader into these fascinating worlds, where life and customs are so different, reading the books feels a little like entering a dream world. Every page of every book is gripping and gradually I build up an increasing appreciation for the variety of this man’s experience. At the same time, I learn more about life in Africa tribes than I ever dreamed would be accessible to an outsider.
Have You Found Her
A teenager in New York, sickened and threatened by the behavior of her mother’s boyfriend, runs away and lands safely in a homeless shelter where she lives for a year. Her teenage adventures in that environment highlight the various periods we grow through from childhood to adulthood, and what it would feel like to live through one of those periods with no adult supervision. In the second memoir, she pays homage to the first. After she has married and become an adult herself, she volunteers at the same shelter that gave her safe haven. While helping young runaways, she becomes obsessed with a particularly troubled self-destructive girl. Like David Berner’s two memoirs, these two cover very different ground, providing two entirely different looks at the author.
Frank McCourt grew up poor in Ireland, with a deadbeat dad and a culture that crushed him in tradition, religion, and restriction. Despite these many limitations, the boy grew up, developed a sense of self. Then he moved to New York and had to start on the long journey of becoming a fully formed adult. The third book in what turns out to be a trilogy is about the journey of a school teacher culminating in the success of his first book. Many memoir teachers rail against the dangers of the “autobiography.” However, if you think your whole life makes a good, long, multi-part coming of age story, consider emulating McCourt’s trilogy.
A Girl Named Zippy
She Got Up Off the Couch
Haven Kimmel was a little girl growing up in an essentially normal small town in the Midwest. She is adorable, interacting with family, community and friends. Her pleasant meandering through the ordinary process of growing up demonstrates that it’s possible for a great writer, with a great voice, to turn life into story. The second memoir takes place later in her childhood, no longer as adorable, when her mother decides to stop being a depressed middle-aged housewife. Her mother “gets up off the couch” and goes back to school. Her parents, no longer a matched set, begin to drift apart, creating a storm in middle America with Haven Kimmel at the center.
Life Touches Life
Self and Soul
In the first memoir, Lorraine Ash loses her baby in utero after eight months of pregnancy. With her baby room all furnished, and preparing to celebrate this new addition to the family, she was unable to “let it go and move on.” Lost in grief, she embarked on a painstaking journey to discover her own strength and truth, and in the end discovered her bond with many other mothers who could not “get over” the death of an unborn or new born baby. Her journey through soulful recovery from grief, was continued into her second memoir, written years later. In the intervening years, she had studied the deep wisdom about the journey of the soul, and the second book extends the lessons she learned about spirituality.
Mary Karr, one of the greats of the Memoir Revolution, first wrote and became famous for her coming of age story. In it, she fights against terrible obstacles, with parents on the edge of sanity. Reminiscent of a number of important memoirs at the beginning of the modern memoir movement, this one highlights the courage to grow up despite dysfunctional circumstances. Karr went on to write two more memoirs, one focused on her journey into adulthood, and the third about her struggle with alcoholism. As a de facto trilogy, the memoirs act as a sort of autobiography, embedded within highly crafted, polished storytelling.
Harry Bernstein wrote these three memoirs in his 90s. The first, a coming of age story, is told in the fresh voice of a boy who grew up in England before World War I, demonstrating two facts. Writing a memoir when you’re 92 gives you the opportunity to offer history through a first person account. And you’re never too old to write a memoir. The second memoir is about immigrating to the U.S. and making one’s way through the Great Depression. And the third is about growing old.
This Boy’s Life
In Pharaoh’s Army
Tobias Wolff’s coming of age memoir, This Boy’s Life was one of the first memoirs I read in my exploration of the genre, and also one of the initial books in the Memoir Revolution. Reading his memoir made me ask, “How can someone be so honest about such gritty, clumsy, inconsequential confusions of growing up?” The question must have driven many readers over the years who continue to see the memoir as a classic. His second one, just as gritty, is far more specific, about life in Vietnam, again a not-particularly-noteworthy set of experiences set to the cadence of a well-written memoir.
Susan G. Weidener
Again in a Heartbeat
Morning at Wellington Square
In the first memoir, Susan Weidener meets her husband, they court, marry and have kids. In the thick of life, he gets cancer. Through his deteriorating health, she looks to him as the strength that carried her through those years. How can he leave her now, with two children to raise? She must shift course, and adapt to this loss. In the second memoir, she continues to get her life back in motion. Seeking to climb in her career as a journalist, she must fight against the politics of the organization, and the collapse of the newspaper industry. She also attempts to find a second Mr. Right, but gradually accepts that the men she is finding are never going to replace him. The book ends on a defiant note, accepting that having one fulfilling relationship with a man is good enough for this life.
Popular storytelling relies heavily on the ideal of a person’s completeness depending on the bond of a couple. Susan Weidener’s first memoir is an ode to that formula. Her second memoir lets us explore the option that completeness does not always need to be located in a pair.
Waiting for Snow in Havana
Learning to Die in Miami
The first memoir is a coming of age story about an incredibly privileged little boy, living at the top tier of Cuban society, in a rich and powerful family. His childhood was full of personality, adventure, and intrigue. Like Mark Twain’s Prince and Pauper rolled into one, he had the genuineness of the pauper, and the privilege of the prince. During the course of this charming story, Castro yanks the foundation out from under the family, the island erupts in violent chaos, and the little boy is hurtled out of the country as an exile and orphan. The second memoir picks up on his life as an orphan in the United States, struggling with prejudice, poverty and neglect. Gradually he builds his life back, under the harsh conditions of poverty in the U.S. and a life time of confusing memories of living such a different former life.
Andrew X. Pham
Catfish and Mandala
Eaves of Heaven
In the first memoir, a young Vietnamese American decides to quit his job as an engineer to go on a bike ride through his native Vietnam. The bike ride is a travelogue through the countryside, as seen through the eyes of a Viet-kieu, the pejorative title of those Vietnamese who fled to the West. His bike ride reveals much about his native land, but also lets him understand he is neither American nor Vietnamese but some sort of in-between person. In the second memoir, he dig deeper into his roots by ghost-writing his father’s life. His father, the son of a wealthy Vietnamese land owner, was one of the victims of the communist takeover. He fled south where he was captured by the Vietcong and thrown into prison. His escape to the U.S. required courage, cunning, and luck. Together the two memoirs describe some of the individuals caught in the tragedy of the Vietnam war.
Matt Polly’s first book is about the odyssey of an intellectual college student on an adventure to “become a man” by attending an ancient Chinese monastery and learning to fight. The book is a fascinating journey from ordinary middle-class avoidance of violence straight into the heart of a spiritual, mental, and physical discipline of the martial arts, complete with a look at Chinese culture around the time they opened up to the West. In the second memoir, he has fallen back into his western middle class ways, when he decides to go back for one more round, into the thick of America’s performance fighting culture. (Note: I’m writing this synopsis before I finished reading the second memoir.)
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations
The first memoir is about a woman from a tribal village in Africa who escapes an arranged marriage and flees to Europe to establish a new life. The book became a bestseller, because of the author’s frank criticism of what she considered ruthless, misogynist attitudes in her culture. In the second memoir, the author adapts to life in her adopted culture. The book turns out to be a fabulous explanation of western culture and modernity, offering insight into the differences between tribal culture and modern participatory democracy.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s two memoirs form a set, in which the first one establishes the beginning of her life and the second follows her as she grows into adulthood and draws powerful conclusions from those experiences. This two book set reminds me of the two books written by Lorraine Ash, which achieve a similar goal, establishing the circumstances in the first book and extending the conclusions in the second.
Click here to read my article about Matched Pairs, about memoirs similar to each other or related in some other way.