The author of multiple genre-bending autobiographies of her own, including The Mother Knot and the best-selling The Kiss.
Boyhood: Scenes From a Provincial Life (1997)
By J. M. Coetzee
I reread this once a year and am always surprised by his inspired use of the third person. It’s so simple an artifice, the apparent vantage of a consciousness other than Coetzee’s own, and has such profound effects, granting the narrative a necessary sense of distance.
The Lover (1984)
By Marguerite Duras
I admire cool renderings of hot topics. Her detached, almost documentary account of the illicit affair she had as an underage French girl with an older Chinese man is often called an “autobiographical novel.” As it’s written, the strangeness of her story has less to do with its exotic setting—Indochina in the thirties—than with an erotic fixation so profound it destroys the lovers’ autonomy.
A Fan’s Notes (1968)
By Frederick Exley
One of the few long narratives that unfold on a knife edge of comedy and anguish, never tumbling into one at the expense of the other. Exley renders the epic mishap that is his life with a keen appreciation of the absurd. As difficult as this talented, despairing alcoholic must have been to live with, there is no better company on the page.
To the Is-Land (1982)
By Janet Frame
The first of a trilogy best known by the title of its second installment, An Angel at My Table, Janet Frame’s vision of childhood is entirely her own, sui generis, and her talent is akin to alchemy: Somehow she turns trauma, poverty, and alienation into suspenseful and soaring beauty.
Fierce Attachments (1987)
By Vivian Gornick
A lot of writers dwell on their relationships with their mothers, but only a few are worth reading. Gornick is one of them. The attachments she describes are funny, volatile, crazy-making, and … unkillable.
The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976)
By Maxine Hong Kingston
Kingston grew up in California’s Central Valley as a Chinese-American for whom her cultural inheritance—the characters and myths from the Old World—was as real as the material world. Perhaps not every reader’s childhood was a ready vessel for her grandparents to overfill with stories and superstitions, but mine was, and reading this was both familiar and strange, vertiginous in a way I enjoy.
Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story (1992)
By Paul Monette
Monette grew up gay and closeted, and his courageous and honest struggle to embrace himself for what he is applies to every human being who has ever tried to live a life of secrecy or amputate a portion of their soul.
Speak, Memory (1951)
By Vladimir Nabokov
A self-consciously artistic rendering of the author’s early life in Tsarist Russia, and a book I love because its subject is memory rather than experience.
Running in the Family (1982)
By Michael Ondaatje
A celebration of eccentricity—Ondaatje’s impressionistic rendering of growing up in Sri Lanka among a willfully idiosyncratic cast of characters. I love any book that makes my family seem almost normal.
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990)
By William Styron
Short and stark, every strand of ego peeled away, this is Styron’s lucid commentary on his own depression. I admire writers who succeed at what I consider the first demand of art: that the artist vivisect himself without pity, without hesitation, determined to reveal whatever he might find.