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Memoir: True History One Life at a Time

I read a few memoirs each year, looking primarily for works by writers and other real people. In other words, I avoid the tales put forth by politicians and entertainment celebrities.

What is memoir? Memoir is a tiny word for a huge variety of life stories, sometimes comprehensive tales from childhood to old age, other times a few meaningful weeks plucked out of a life that may have changed that life in unexpected ways. We, as readers, often develop the habit of reading only one or two genres, mostly fiction. But real people all over the world have shared something intimate and profound about their lives and times. We can learn something different from memoir than we can from the best of the best in history books because we get a slice of that history from one point of view. History is made up of those unique perspectives. I am grateful to those writers who are brave enough to give us a piece of themselves.

I don’t know anything about writing memoir, but I think it’s safe to say that those who aspire to write memoir must also read memoir. Common advice for any writer of any genre, fiction or nonfiction, it’s a basic truth.

My first recommendation is also my most recent read in the genre. Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, is the poignant and soul-searching story of Natasha Trethewey’s childhood and the horrible trauma of her mother’s murder when Natasha was still in college. This story pulled me into Trethewey’s experience in a heartbreaking way. Writing about tragedy can’t be easy, and that explains why it took the author so many years to revisit her childhood and her love for her mother. Perhaps a Pulitzer Prize winning past US poet laureate (2012-2014) was the best person to deal with the issues of race and violence that molded Trethewey and sealed her mother’s fate. This is the kind of memoir that creates a truth about history, one life at a time.

Last month I posted about The Quarantine Tapes--Good Listening for Black History Month and Pandemic Woes. There you will find the link to the Eddie Glaude interview of Natasha Trethewey.

Memoir can also be sweet and entertaining. Nicholas Sparks and his brother Micah were in their mid-thirties and the last survivors of their family when they undertook an adventure. They tell their story in Three Weeks with My Brother, a book I read several years ago. This one made me wish I’d taken off on a trip with my own brother before it was too late.

With all the adventure-seeking people in the world (and the armchair travelers who follow their exploits), it’s no surprise to find so many memoirs devoted to outdoor experiences. The relatively gentle A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson is fun and funny and sometimes a bit scary, but not too much. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is introspection combined with a fish-out-of-water set of experiences I loved reading about but would never attempt.

An alternative type of adventure memoir will be released in April 2021. The Next Everest: Surviving the Mountain's Deadliest Day and Finding the Resilience to Climb Again by Jim Davidson is high tension and very scary. The book tells of Davidson’s two attempts to summit Everest, the first try foiled by the massive earthquake that trapped many climbers on the mountain and devastated the base camp. How he got through that terrifying ordeal and then went back to the mountain again is high tension as well as educational and motivational. Here’s the link to the book trailer.

 Memoir comes in many forms. Here are four more I enjoyed:

The Summer of the Great Grandmother by Madeline L’Engle. I also love “L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet: Book One of the Crosswick Journals.

I Am Malala : How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World / Malala Yousafzai

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert

I also liked Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace - One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson, but be aware there are questions about the authenticity of some of the anecdotes.


Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017), a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards. This novel is now available in a large print edition, ebook and trade paperback. Her short story, “Good Work for a Girl,” appeared in the Five Star Anthology, The Spoilt Quilt and Other Frontier Stories: Pioneering Women of the West, released in November 2019.

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy, and brown tabby Katie Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was interviewed for the Colorado Sun’s SunLit feature that you can find at the Colorado Sun website.


  1. Great post, Pat. A more subtle way to share memories (good and bad) is through fictional characters in a novel. While it may not work as well for some readers and writers, it's amazing how cathartic it can be. It can also touch the hearts of others and inspire change for the better.

    1. So true. I did a little of that while writing The Prairie Grass Murders but then realized I had a big memory dump problem. Most of it had to go...but I left a little, just for fun.

  2. Terrific post and a great list of books to read. I've read a few of the memoirs you mentioned and saw Memorial Drive on another list last month. Got it marked as one to read soon.

  3. Some good examples, Pat. I was surprised at how many I'd heard of though not read, maybe because they made a couple of them into movies.

  4. Good list! I've read a few, have a few I'd like to read, and learned about some new ones. I'm looking forward to Jim Davidson's release. I've heard him speak about those experiences a couple of times, and I'm sure the written version will be excellent as well.

  5. Hi Patricia, thankyou for these lovely book recommendations.


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