More and more memoirs seem to come out every year — a product, perhaps, in our unslakable interest in the human condition — but as far as we’re concerned, 2011 was a particularly great one. We had actually wonderful celebrity memoirs, unusual and experimental prose, and particular standouts in the traditional memoir fields of family history and tragedy. Click through to read about our favorite memoirs of the year, and since we can’t possibly have read all the great ones out there, be sure to chime in with your own picks in the comments. One note: the last entry on the list — a really fantastic book — may be slightly NSFW. Proceed with caution.
Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia , by Blake Butler
Like any self-respecting insomniac, Blake Butler is obsessed with his own inability to sleep, and this memoir of sleeplessness often feels like an immersive experience, the loose form evoking a neurotic mind running through all the options while lying in bed and staring at the ceiling. It’s not just an endless red-eyed run-on, however — Butler has clearly spent his many waking hours researching insomnia, and the memoir weaves through fascinating sections on the history and cultural impact of the phenomenon, dissecting the way sleep and wakefulness slide together and apart, whether gracefully or in fits and starts, and the impact this has on the mind.
Reading My Father , by Alexandra Styron
In her brilliant first memoir, the youngest child of William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice, tells of growing up the child of one of the most acclaimed Big Male Writers of the century. “For years they perpetuated,” she writes, “without apology, the cliché of the gifted, hard drinking, bellicose writer that gave so much of twentieth-century literature a muscular, glamorous aura.” But of course, it isn’t all intellectual conversations over whiskey and turned down pages. The memoir is both a coming of age story (her own) and tragic tale of a spiral into illness and depression (her father’s). Beautifully written and touching, Reading My Father is recommended both for fans of Styron and those new to his story.
Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War , by Deb Olin Unferth
If you’ve ever seen Deb Olin Unferth in the flesh, squeaky and minute with a permanent grin and a bemused self-assuredness, it’s hard to imagine her dropping out of college to run away to Nicaragua with the hazy goal of joining whatever revolution she could find. There was the influence of the boyfriend, we suppose. Regardless, this memoir of two middle-class white kids getting in way over their heads is a funny, poignant tale of self-discovery and soldiers, teenage love, and getting sick for days. Perhaps most importantly, as in her fiction, Unferth’s prose is a searing, self-deprecating delight — just try not to love her by the end.
Bossypants , by Tina Fey
“What 19-year-old Virginia boy doesn’t want a wide-hipped, sarcastic Greek girl with short hair that’s permed on top?” asks Fey in her already well-loved memoir. “What’s that you say? None of them want that? You are correct. So I spent four years attempting to charm the uninterested.” Luckily for her (or maybe for us), now everyone seems to be interested, and with good reason. However smart and funny you find Fey on 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live reruns, rest assured that you’ll still be impressed with her in prose, as she tackles important topics like sexism, her rise to stardom, and who will save your life (or shoot you) on a cruise ship.
[sic]: A Memoir , by Joshua Cody
In this semi-hallucinatory, rather filthy, completely wonderful look at an insanely smart young composer’s struggle with cancer, Joshua Cody holds nothing back. Or if he is holding stuff back, we might not want to know about it. In a way unusual for stream-of-consciousness style prose, each sentence seems to hurt more than the last one, and like the illness itself, it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Happily for us, however, unlike a serious illness, we’re talking about the good kind of hurt, the kind you can’t stop poking. No pun intended.
Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef , by Gabrielle Hamilton
As far as we’re concerned, the blurb on the front of this book says it all: Anthony Bourdain gushing, “Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.” Maybe that’s because Hamilton isn’t only a great chef (you can almost taste the truth of that fact in her sentences) but because she’s also a great writer in her own right, a quality that’s not always a given in these kind of careerist memoirs. She also understands food for not only its taste, but its social and emotional import: “To be picked up and fed, often by strangers, when you are in that state of fear and hunger, became the single most important food experience I came back to over and over,” she writes. This book may give you the same feeling — but we recommend a snack to accompany your reading, just in case.
One Day I Will Write About This Place , by Binyavanga Wainaina
This inside view into the realities of a middle-class childhood in Kenya is as perfectly rendered as it is illuminating and unusual. As author Teju Cole wrote, what makes this memoir great “are Wainaina’s beautifully elastic sentences which fizz and crackle, pounce on their meanings, stretch and snap back into place, and evoke not only the self-replenishing wonders of childhood but the more complex wonders that follow. An outstanding book, bursting with life and full of love.”
Blue Nights , by Joan Didion
There’s been much ado about this memoir — as there is, deservedly, about any new release of Didion’s — but we couldn’t make this list without mentioning it again here. We basically consider Joan Didion a national treasure, and like much of her work, the memoir is pitch-perfect, heartbreaking, and absolutely wonderful, destined to be a literary classic for years to come.
Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in the Seventies , by James Wolcott
“How lucky I was,” Wolcott writes, “arriving in New York just as everything was about to go to hell.” That is, in 1972, in an era that is currently being fetishized all over town — but no matter. We can always use another memoir about the Patti Smith/Lester Bangs/Norman Mailer heyday, especially one as well-written and clear-eyed as this. It’ll make you yearn for the old days — or, as the case may be, just make you wish you were around for them.
The Chronology of Water , by Lidia Yuknavitch
This memoir, about the complexities of female sexuality, family, and rebirth, is desert-island good. As Roxane Gay described the book, “The writing is relentless and the ferocity of the language is so immediate that the experience of reading the book is physical and, at times, overwhelming. There’s a really interesting juxtaposition of the poetic and the profane.” Much like life, really.