4 Memoirs So Compelling, They Read Like Novels

Looking for a true story, with a gripping plot and gorgeous writing? We've got the books you've been looking for.

09/16/2015 12:00 pm ET | Updated Oct 23, 2015
  • Wondering Who You Are
    Courtesy of Tin House Books
    What happens when your high-school sweetheart, husband of more than two decades and the father of your children undergoes a medical procedure commonly known as the mother of all surgeries -- and comes out the other side with his brain altered, rendering him a near-stranger? "The man who survived on smarts, charm and looks has vanished," writes Sonya Lea. "Who he was, isn't." In this deeply honest memoir, Lea attempts to refind her husband, now that she and he can no longer communicate with, or relate to, each another. Though Lea's prose style can, at times, lack grace, it's the details and the honesty of her self-interrogation that make this memoir as addictive as a thriller. Structured in sections that alternate between Lea and Richard's early years and Richard's diagnosis, operation and recovery, you'll race through these pages, eager to find out if Richard's memory will return, and whether Lea will be able to find peace in her transformed marriage. Lea doesn't shy away from writing the difficult scenes—central to the narrative is her struggle with alcoholism and a gutsy investigation into how the illness decimated her and Richard's sex life (and how they put it back together). An admirable and heartening story about love, the resilience of marriage and what "in sickness and in health" really means.
  • After a While You Just Get Used to It: A Tale of Family Clutter
    Courtesy of Gotham
    In Gwendolyn Knapp's debut, humor is as multi-layered as the junk-filled houses where she was raised; and, scatological jokes butt up against sophisticated turns-of-phrase in this wonderful and fresh take on the dysfunctional-family memoir. Knapp grows up in redneck Florida with her mom, Margie; her sister, Molly; and, her mom's boyfriend, John, a man unused to Knapp-style chaos. "John didn't know that getting involved with our family was a lot like getting initiated into a street gang. You might get kicked in the forehead, pistol-whipped, or sliced with a box cutter, sure, but most definitely you'd pierce an extremity with a fishhook, dislocate your shoulder with the recoil of a shotgun..." This novelistic collection of vignettes follows Knapp from Florida to the Big Easy, and from one unforgettable anecdote to another -- fights between Margie and Molly that teeter between violence and hilarity, Knapp's many failed relationships and even an encounter with a slumlord who runs a penis-of-the-day listserv. A rollicking, sharp-witted, laugh-out-loud sitcom of a read, with lovable characters, bawdy jokes and heartbreak galore -- even if you're blessed with a perfect family, you'll find something to relate to in Knapp's immersive and fast-paced book about the baggage (or should I say junk?) that makes us who we are.
  • Lord Fear
    Courtesy of Pantheon
    Lucas Mann's brother Josh died of a heroin overdose at age 30, while Lucas was only 13. Using memories and remnants of Josh's journals, Mann examines how those left behind make sense of someone lost, when all they have is what they remember. Using interviews with friends and acquaintances of his brother, Mann brings Josh back to life as the tortured kid on the bus; the promising future rock star, all sexual bravado and bluster; the kid driving his babysitter insane; the broken son; the revered sibling. These many versions of Josh collide in a portrait that, even in its fundamental incompletion, feels both moving and intimate. "I think he would have liked that, the meeting of fantasy and reality, captured, vivid, in moving strips of light," Mann writes. “It's flickering, fast, but I see him." It's rare to find a book that reads as if it were written out of necessity. This book is one; absorbing and with an undeniable current of truth.
  • Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home
    Courtesy of Avery
    Calling a recovery memoir charming and fun to read may seem strange, but the story of how Jessica Fechtor put her life back together after suffering a sudden aneurysm is both. Twenty-eight-year-old Fechtor (Harvard grad student, newlywed) was up early for a morning run one day, when she collapsed on the treadmill. Despite multiple surgeries, losing vision in her left eye, and then a significant portion of her skull, plus the temporary erosion of her sense of smell, Fechtor remained determined to get her life back—one comforting meal at a time. She seamlessly weaves family recipes into her narrative—her husband Eli's oatmeal cookies, her friend Julia's sesame noodles, her mother's chicken soup—evoking character, place and Fechtor's passion for cooking. And the combination of practical, easy-to-replicate recipes and Fechtor's warm, witty voice makes Stir a page-turning pleasure, as well as an inspiring reminder of the healing power in our everyday routines. "I had to get back in there," she says, referring to the kitchen, shortly after a surprise infection left her sicker than ever. Flour, sugar, almonds, butter, family and lots of love -- Fechtor's ode to cooking as a means of salvation will make you want to cheer her on, all the way to the end.

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