Top 10 Non-Fiction Memoir Recommendations

Tammi Salas mama's list

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In 2008, shortly after I sold my wine bar and retail shop, we moved to a small farming town on the Sonoma Coast with a population of 126. After working with the public for so many years, I craved peace and quiet. I relished my newfound anonymity and silence in our 1950’s farm-house at the top of a dead-end lane. I had grandiose ideas (delusions, maybe?) about how life would be for us as we embarked on this new chapter.

My son was about to start kindergarten and we took a road trip to Portland before school started. One of the things we noticed on this trip was how much our son asked Can I watch a show? It quickly became evident to us that we had too often used the TV as a babysitter and that back-to-back DVD movies were our saving grace to get us through an all adult dinner party. Our son sounded like a broken record and we felt like bad parents.

We talked it out and ultimately decided to cancel our cable TV. My husband would miss watch-ing sports and I would miss reality TV and Jon Stewart. In an effort to get my dose of real life stories, minus the trash TV stigma, I turned to memoirs to serve as the replacement. I discovered that I really liked reading stories about  how others live their lives and, ultimately, the tri-umph of the human spirit helped strengthen mine.

Here are a few of my favorites: 

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News form Small-Town Alaska by Heather Lende
This story is told from the unique perspective of a small town journalist who writes obituaries and manages the social column for the local paper in Haines, Alaska. She does so with grace and respect for those families left to grieve. Along the way, she shares the lessons she’s learned from living in a small, offbeat, rural town and shares her views on life, parenting and the beauty of the great outdoors. 

This was my selection several years ago for book club. We discussed small town living in my own living room and ate Baked Alaska. I highly recommend this combination.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
I was drawn to the unusual title, but was quickly pulled into the story by the author who is bed-ridden by an unusual illness. When she is gifted a small terrarium with a snail in it, her keen sense of observation is honed and the correlations between the small animal and the author, Bailey, are examined. This is book about slowing down, observing the natural world and realiz-ing that you can learn something new even in the most dire or mundane of circumstances.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
Sometimes I wonder why I want to read sad books. In particular, books about people dying. I had never read any novels by Elizabeth McCracken, but the artwork and cover of this book made me pull it from the library shelf. 

While living in France, during the author’s ninth month of pregnancy, she learns that her baby boy has died. The pain and sadness is unbearable. Being in a foreign country and so far from home is isolating.  How she goes on is a lesson in loss and grief. If you or a loved one has ever experienced this kind of pain, I believe this book would help navigate those feelings and pave a  way to go on.

Bossypants by Tina Fey
Tina Fey lets you know it’s okay to be a nerd and bossy. In fact, it’s all she’s ever known. She shares her insights into the anxieties passed down from her father to letting you in on who her girl crush is (spoiler alert—Amy Poehler). The book is comprised of a series of short stories that reveal her path to making her dreams of being a comedian come true. She has mastered self-deprication as an art form and cracks open her fears and phobias in a way that I think all readers can relate to.

Name All the Animals: A Memoir by Alison Smith

This memoir examines how a family tries to put their lives back together after the untimely death of their 15-year-old son, Roy. Yes, I have selected another sad tale. The author, Roy’s sister, delves into the nature of life and death, while digging deeper into the manner of faith.

I borrowed this from a review on, but I think it will help you to understand the title and tone of the book: The title comes from the author’s childhood memory of wondering why her father blesses her and Roy every morning, touching a relic to their foreheads, mouths, and hands, mentioning each individual body part. “He's got to name us, like Adam named the animals,” Roy explained. “To keep track of them.”

The Rules of Inheritance: A Memoir by Claire Bidwell Smith

I picked up this book prior to attending a writing workshop earlier this year. Ms. Bidwell Smith was slated to be one of the presenters at the workshop and I was eager to read her words and examine her craft.   My appreciation for memoirs and truth-telling made it an easy task.

Claire’s straight-forward, honest and raw approach made it a compelling read. The heartbreak she feels when she loses her parents is palpable, as is her love for the both of them. Her wanderlust and struggles with alcohol spoke to me and made me want to cheer her on as I gobbled up her truth. This book is about so many things and you can’t help but hope she achieves some sort of peace in the end. It is a book about grief, but it is also laced with compassion, self-acceptance and the story of making your own way in this big, beautiful (and sometimes scary) world.

Still Points North: Surviving the World’s Greatest Alaskan Childhood by Leigh Newman

I’m intrigued with Alaska and love reading about women who come from a place nicknamed The Last Frontier. This memoir follows the author as she tells the story of her family unraveling and the two very different worlds she lives in as a young girl. She is tested throughout the book and writes in such beautiful prose. I found myself rereading paragraphs and wishing to be her friend. This book is like a love letter to her Alaskan childhood and even though I never lived in Alaska, she transported me back to my own childhood and I finished the book with a new ap-preciation for where I came from, too.

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen
Anna Quindlen’s insight into parenting, marriage, getting older, girlfriends, our bodies and “stuff” is spot on. She frames this book around her real life experiences and ponders her past, present and future, as well as generously sharing her wisdom with her readers. One of my favorite pas-sages was about her work-life balance with kids.  She writes from home from about 9am – 3pm every day, stopping at 3pm to meet her kids after school.  ow that her children are grown, she still fondly thinks of them around 3pm every day. The ritual and routine have never left her and I really liked that way of looking at a non-so-glamorous task with love and reflection.

Settled in the Wild: Notes from the Edge of Town by Susan Hand Shetterly
Again, I’m a sucker for a beautiful book jacket and this one does not disappoint. This sweet little book is one full of short stories that are about a great many things. The author’s economy of words used to describe nature blows me away. Her storytelling conjures up such intimate im-ages of the natural world and her keen observations enlighten and inform the reader. I feel like I’ve gone on a short vacation after I’ve read a page or two and I find I’m immediately more in tune with my surroundings.  I keep this book on my nightstand year-round and read a short chapter whenever I want to be transported to her tiny little cabin in rural Maine.

The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne
It’s no secret, I love me a librarian. The title and cover on this book grabbed me and the author’s story about his struggle with Tourette’s Syndrome was intriguing and eye-opening, along with his religious upbringing in the Mormon Church. His mother’s daily library visits shaped the adult he would become and I really loved that. I think this book revealed a lot about humanity, perseverance, labels and strength—both physically and spiritually. It made me look past his disability and into who he really is and I think that is a lesson that many of us can apply in our own lives with people we encounter that are different from us.

Do you have any favorite must read memoirs? I’d love to add them to my reading list.


About the Author

Tammi Salas

Tammi lives in Valley Ford, CA (population: 126). She is a former wine bar owner, lifelong seeker + recovering perfectionist. She makes art everyday + credits this practice as the path to her spiritual overhaul. She documents her creative forays + monthly sobriety milestones on her website and co-hosts The Unruffled Podcast, which focuses on creativity + recovery from alcohol. ------- Website --------- Podcast

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