It was the year of the memoir, friends.
Five out of the eleven books I read in 2015 were memoirs, one was on how to write a memoir, one was a book of essays (half of them personal/memoir-esque), and one a collection of true-life letters. (The other three fall under fiction, home style/decor, and…a guide to de-cluttering. What genre is that?) Despite proclaiming in last years’ ‘books’ post that I would “mix up my choices with some male writers” this year, all but one of my 2015 picks were written by women. Oops. Oh, well.
The fact that I’ve been leaning (heavily) toward memoir isn’t surprising: I write non-fiction, I love to read non-fiction, and I’m fascinated by stories of people’s lives, whether in book form or being told to me by a close friend during a long conversation. I read memoir both to understand something about the writer as well as to better understand something about myself. Good writing does that. Not everything on my list this year was literary gold (though some of it was!) but each of these books helped me grow, even if that growth was in a simple discovery, a fact of life I had never known or put words to before.
Let’s dive in:
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
This was the first book I read this year, and I wrote this post about it. It’s a collection of letters from an advice column Strayed wrote under the pseudonym “Dear Sugar”, and it dives into almost every human emotion you can imagine: despair, frustration, love, loss, betrayal, guilt, anger, loneliness…you get the idea. It’s like a warm hug and a wade into an ice-cold river all at once. (Strayed gives it to you STRAIGHT, in the kindest and most beautiful way possible.) You will cry more than once, or at the very least sustain a giant lump in your throat. You will see yourself in the people who have written to “Sugar” and apply her insights to your own life. Then you’ll want to tell everyone you know to read it too.
“You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt with. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you’re holding.”
The Liars Club by Mary Karr
This book is what set off my whole memoir-themed year, as it was so original, distinct, and arresting that after finishing it, I wanted more. Published in 1995, it positioned Karr as the leader of the memoir genre, and was a New York Times bestseller for over a year. Her childhood in Southeast Texas is an almost unbelievable (yet true) story of growing up with an alcoholic, emotionally unstable mother, gambling (also alcoholic) father, and older sister. Karr’s cutting humor and memory for detail drops you into the industrial wasteland of her hometown and the raw landscape of her chaotic family life.
“Those are only rumors of suffering. Real suffering has a face and a smell. It lasts in the most intense form no matter what you drape over it. And it knows your name.”
Then Again by Diane Keaton
Recommended by my friend Kate, Then Again was my one summer read. If you’re a fan of Keaton, you’ll no doubt appreciate discovering her perspective on (as I wrote in this post) her childhood, early acting years in New York, struggle with bulimia, her close relationship with her family (particularly her mother, whose own letters and journal entries are woven throughout), her romantic ties with Woody Allen, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino, and raising the daughter and son she adopted as a single woman in her fifties. The tone is lighter than some of the other books on this list, and the writing is fairly straight-forward/simple, but Keaton’s charm comes through on every page.
“Memories are simply moments that refuse to be ordinary.”
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
We all know Amy Poehler is funny. But she’s also really inspiring, particularly in the gutsy way she has handled her career. Between bits of childhood history and thoughts on sex, parenting, friendship, divorce, drugs, and childbirth, Yes Please details her early days doing improv in Chicago and her time at SNL. She’s proud of her success, and in sharing the stories behind it she made me feel like more women should claim their space on the stage, so to speak. As with Then Again, the writing didn’t astound me, but it’s a fun, funny read with some advice to take to heart, and Poehler is a woman to admire.
“Because what else are we going to do? Say no? Say no to an opportunity that may be slightly out of our comfort zone? Quiet our voice because we are worried it is not perfect? I believe great people do things before they are ready.”
Styled: Secrets for Arranging Rooms, from Tabletops to Bookshelves by Emily Henderson
I consider L.A.-based home stylist/blogger Emily Henderson to be my home-style guru. I read her design blog daily, and it has influenced not only the way I choose pieces for my home, but in how I approach ‘styling’ everything from throw pillows to tabletops to bookshelves. I pre-ordered her book the second it launched this fall, and savored every gorgeous photo, style tip, and inspirational vignette. She’s a genius at mixing new and vintage pieces, and her funny, conversational voice draws you in throughout. Plus it looks beautiful on my desk. Buying this book made me feel grown-up in a very good way.
“Trying to decorate your house before you understand your style would be like going on a trip to a secluded cabin without any address, directions, or GPS. Sure, you might eventually make it there, but not before some really terrifying things have happened.”
Lit by Mary Karr
I wanted Lit to impress me the way The Liars Club did, but it didn’t come close. It traces Karr’s descent into alcoholism as a young mother in a difficult marriage, her struggle to get sober, and her eventual embrace of catholicism. While I enjoyed learning how the child I got to know in The Liars Club turned out as an adult, I found myself struggling to finish it. She struck me as self-absorbed and incessantly needy, and her overuse of simile was so distracting (and aggravating) I would read passages out loud to Joe to express my opinion on how not to write. Still, it was a bestseller, and some reviewers gave it glowing praise, so it might be worth the read.
“I get so lonely sometimes, I could put a box on my head and mail myself to a stranger.”
We the Animals by Justin Torres
Joe chose this book from the library this fall, and once a week or so for the last few months we’ve been taking turns reading a chapter to each other before falling asleep. It’s the one piece of fiction I read this year, and it’s exquisite. Torres tells the story of three brothers growing up in upstate New York with deeply troubled parents. The writing is vivid, rhythmic, and lyrical, and shows the world of this family through the eyes of the youngest brother, who comes of age amidst chaos, confusion, poverty, and intense yet dysfunctional familial love. One of the best books on this list.
“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
Anyone attempting to write a memoir would be wise to keep a copy of this detailed guide nearby. Even though I was disappointed by Karr’s memoir Lit, the power of her first book The Liar’s Club and the fact that she’s been teaching the craft of memoir at Syracuse University for two decades led me to reading The Art of Memoir, which is packed with concrete tips for the process and analysis of other veterans’ works. The biggest takeaway? When it comes to capturing the reader, voice—original, honest, consistent voice—is everything.
“Whatever people like about you in the world will manifest itself on the page. What drives them crazy will keep you humble. You’ll need both sides of yourself—the beautiful and the beastly—to hold a reader’s attention.”
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
Six weeks ago I posted this photo to instagram, which shows my book collection spread out on the living room floor in an attempt to pare it down. I ended up donating 42 books to the neighborhood thrift store, and our bookshelf is now home only to books that ‘spark joy’. (Don’t worry, I still own over 100.) So goes the driving theme of Japanese tidying expert Marie Kondo’s bestselling guide, which inspired my book clear-out this fall. (Also banished: joy-squelching vases/planters, kitchen ware, coats, scarves, shoes, bathroom products, and much of the contents of Joe’s desk drawers. (I emptied, he sorted.) I plan to do a post about my home de-cluttering process once it’s complete, but for now I’ll say if you are looking for a kickstart to release the ‘stuff’ you don’t need, this book will provide it.
“When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”
A beautifully-designed mix of text and images, Portland Made features profiles of Portlanders who make everything from small-batch brandy to ceramic light fixtures to leather belts. Flip through its 168 pages and you’ll find the creative minds behind such businesses as ice-cream shop Salt & Straw, glass manufacturer Bullseye Glass, and The Portland Razor company, known for its handcrafted straight razors. As Roy explores in the book, each maker is part of a larger maker ecosystem in Portland in which collaboration and partnerships are central to the movement’s progress.
“Portlanders are redefining work. What it looks like. What it feels like. Where and how it happens. What it is. And people around the globe are taking notice.”
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
I’ve been a fan of Joan Didion ever since reading her essay “Goodbye To All That” (on living in New York in her twenties) when I was in university. Her gifts for self-reflection, observation, detail, and an ability to describe place with incredible nuance are all present in this collection of essays, published in 1968. She ruminates on everything from the culture of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury to Joan Baez to morality to why she keeps a notebook. Didion’s an icon of American literature, and this collection reveals what makes her style so memorable.
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
What about you guys? What books did you love in 2015? What’s your top pick for a must-read?
Onto a new year…and a new reading list. Happy 2016, everyone!
p.s. Can’t get enough? If you like, check out the Books I Read in 2014.