Book Club Books: Memoirs

Memoirs are packed with struggles, tragedies, and triumphs, which makes them a perfect book club pick.

By Jessica Dukes

Memoirs offer an incredible opportunity to immerse yourself in another life with the author as your guide. The true story of how someone overcomes incredible obstacles also allows you to wonder, What would I do? on a deeper level than fiction.

For a good book club memoir discussion, choose a book that’s a bit outside of your group’s comfort zone. And if discussion questions aren’t provided with the book, ask each member to come with one or two of their own. These memoirs — stories of survival and even triumph — would all make excellent book club books.

Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares by Aarti Namdev Shahani 

In a way, NPR correspondent Aarti Shahani has lived the American dream. She and her family immigrated to New York City, she received a scholarship to a top Manhattan private school, and eventually she landed a successful career. But the Shahani family’s struggles equally define these years, especially when her old-world shopkeeper father inadvertently launders money for the Cali drug cartel. This immigrant story presents a look at a controversial topic that is not as black-and-white as some might think, which makes for a thought-provoking dialogue. Discussion questions are here.

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She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan 

For 40 years, Jennifer Boylan was James Boylan. Ultimately, she admitted to herself and her family that she intended to live her life as a woman. This is the incredible story of her transition and its consequences, both daily and lifelong. Published in 2003, She’s Not There quickly became an important Trans trans literature title. Discussion questions are here.

Related: Read more about Boylan’s upcoming memoir Good Boy

Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After by Heather Harpham

Harpham is thrilled by her new relationship with Brian until she gets pregnant … and Brian balks, leaving her alone and disillusioned. New-mom joy turns into a nightmare when baby Gracie grows suddenly, gravely ill. Brian returns, commits to helping Harpham and Gracie, and their relationship slowly resuscitates. How this fragile family grows strong is almost unbelievable, yet it’s true … and it has a happy ending. Discussion questions are here.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

In a letter to his 15-year-old son, Coates seeks to teach one important lesson: how to be a black man in America. He recounts his rough childhood, the importance of black history, and the moment he learns that education and wealth can’t protect you from racism if you’re black. Coates doesn’t put much faith in the American Dream; instead he urges his son to build strong community ties and surround himself with the love he finds there. Discussion questions are here.

The Light Years by Chris Rush

In the late 60s, at age 12, Rush is introduced to psychedelic drugs. From that moment, the counterculture of hippies and nomads becomes his family. Once a colorful decade of peace and love, the years soon dissolve into the 70s’ raw and violent hedonism. Rush survives his quest for meaning —– but just barely. Discussion questions are here.

Night by Elie Wiesel

Wiesel’s Nobel-prize-winning memoir is more than just the story of his years as a prisoner at the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. It’s also a study of faith, and how it gets redefined in the face of one of the worst crimes against humanity in modern history. Even if you’re among the millions who have read Night, this story is worth a re-read at different points in your life. Discussion questions are here.

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

Laymon pulls no punches when describing the abuse he suffered as a child. He places blame squarely in two places: his mother, and America’s institutional racism and sexism. His mother’s strict insistence on good grades, his obesity, and his career struggles are the stressors that lead to hism writing. In doing so, he uncovers generations of family abuse and condemns those who did nothing to stop it. It’s a harrowing but important read. Discussion questions are here.

Hillbilly Elegy a memoir of a family and culture in crisis by J D Vance

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

Growing up in a family of rust-belt have-nots has left Vance with some clear opinions on why some people make it in America and others don’t — specifically within the white working class. He shines a harsh light on the psychology of a region that champions the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” maxim, while simultaneously dishing out plenty of blame for their inability to do so. Discussion questions are here.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Obama is the first to admit that she would never have predicted her journey from Chicago’s working-class South Side to the White House. Her memoir is a fascinating peek behind a heavily-guarded curtain—from her concerns about how the Presidency affected her marriage and family, to the closing moments of her tenure as First Lady. These stories are riveting, and her honesty has made Becoming a book club favorite. Discussion questions are here.

Educated by Tara Westover

Education — the 13 or so years most Americans receive — was never a given for Westover. Raised in a remote survivalist camp in Idaho, her parents considered the public school system to be a waste of time. So when Westover ran away and started school at age 17, she had a lot to learn. And she did, eventually working her way into Harvard and Cambridge universities. After her incredible escape and global adventures, can she ever go home again? Discussion questions are here.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Magical thinking is how Didion describes the mental gymnastics required of her during the most challenging year of her life. Her daughter falls ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, and shortly thereafter her husband suddenly dies of a heart attack. Both of these events send her spiraling into a world of medical journals and existential crises, all beautifully and miraculously captured in this memoir.  Discussion questions are here.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah 

When he was 13 years old, Beah was recruited as a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s government army. As he’s asked to perform increasingly violent acts, he shuts down emotionally. Childhood is reduced to a past dream; the war an inescapable nightmare … until one day, he’s shown the way out. Written at age 25, Beah’s story is shocking but so important to witness. Discussion questions are here.

Maid by Stephanie Land

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land 

Being single and pregnant, Land learns, has an immediate impact on your ability to make a living. Working as a maid keeps her small family fed and clothed, and along the way she discovers surprising lessons about the upper class and what it means to be their servant. Discussion questions are here.

Before Night Falls: A Memoir by Reinaldo Arenas

Arenas escapes poverty in rural Cuba to become one of the country’s most popular writers in exile. His rise to fame is treacherous, though. Once outed as a gay man, his writing is banned, he’s sent to prison, and he eventually flees his homeland. In New York, he faces the ultimate fight for his life: AIDS. Before Night Falls is considered his deathbed memoir.

First They Killed My Father

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung

In 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge ended five-year-old Ung’s childhood as she knew it. Her father worked in government, which put them all in immediate danger. Indeed, as the family attempted to escape Phnom Penh, they were separated. Two years later, Ung is a child soldier and her siblings are struggling to survive in various labor camps. Their sudden uprooting and slow, uncertain reunion makes for an intense read. Discussion questions are here.

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