By Sally Allen
As I contemplated which memoirs to include on this list, I casually polled my fellow mom friends. My hope was that their favorites might help me cull my list. Was I wrong! Rather than narrowing my list, their wonderful suggestions (arriving via text, email, and social media) served to expand it … exponentially. It was the figurative equivalent of that scene in Miracle on 34th Street, when the judge insists on seeing the defense attorney’s evidence on his desk, and a cavalcade of postal carriers carts in mailbag after overflowing mailbag, proceeding to bury the judge under the bags’ contents. What else should I have expected when it comes to books that speak to one of, if not the, most foundational relationships of our lives: mother and child?
All this is to say, in selecting the fifteen books on this list, I could not hope to be exhaustive. Instead, I’ve sought to acknowledge the diverse ways we become mothers and to capture as many of the various, beautiful, and aching experiences of motherhood as possible.
Russian Tattoo by Elena Gorokhova
Released in January, Gorokhova’s melancholy memoir explores three generations of women—her mother, herself, and her daughter. Raised in Leningrad, Gorokhova emigrated to the U.S. in 1980 when she married an American man. With candor and sensitivity, her memoir explores her conflicted feelings for both her mother and her motherland and how becoming a mother herself shifted those feelings. At the heart of these three women’s stories lies a fundamental paradox: that we long both for freedom and to be part of something larger than our individual selves.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Longtime New Yorker cartoonist Chast charts her parents’ final years in this 2014 National Book Award finalist. As both of her parents, who are deeply devoted to one another, enter their 90s, their health begins to decline. Her mother takes a bad fall while her father descends into dementia, and Chast gradually assumes more and more responsibility for their care. Through her signature cartoons as well as photos and her mother’s annotated poems, she captures the frantic late night phone calls, the decision to move them into assisted living, cleaning out their apartment, and more. Her combination of wit and pathos leaves readers smiling as the wipe away tears.
The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
Growing up, McBride knew little about his mother Ruth’s past. When he asked her questions about where she came from and why she looked different, she would shrug them off and change the subject. Gradually, McBride uncovered her story—her early life in Poland as Rachel Shilsky and emigration to the U.S. at the age of two, growing up in the segregated South then moving to New York, marrying then losing her husband then marrying and losing her second husband. Through her trials and loss, she raised twelve children who would all go on to earn college and advanced degrees. In alternating chapters, McBride and his mother take turns sharing their stories of self-discovery and invention.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen
In 1974, Von Bremzen’s dissident mother made the decision to emigrate from the Soviet Union to the U.S. with her then eleven-year-old daughter, motivated at least in part by a dire medical (mis)diagnosis. As suggested in the title, food is the book’s lodestone that pulls in Von Bremzen’s exploration of Soviet and personal history. At the heart of so many of her vibrant and witty scenes is her mother, who felt keenly the strictures of Soviet life and sought to escape them for herself and her daughter, no matter the cost.
Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou
At the beginning of her memoir, Angelou tells us, “This book has been written to examine some of the ways love heals and helps a person to climb impossible heights and rise from immeasurable depths.” Mom & Me & Mom covers Angelou’s early years in the South where her grandmother raised her, her move to San Francisco at thirteen to live with her mother, and her initial resentment at the mother by whom she felt abandoned. That resentment eventually gave way to a bond that grew deeper over the years as Angelou, with her mother’s advice and support, pursued opportunities as a dancer, singer, and writer. In sharing her inspiring story, Angelou also pays homage to the mother who encouraged her to live fiercely and pursue her dreams against all odds.
Dinner With Doppelgangers: A True Story of Madness and Recovery by Colleen Wells
Wells’ stark prose poems build an affecting portrait of living, and parenting, with bipolar disorder. Her scenes shift so seamlessly from moments of lucidity to mania that they initially catch the reader off guard. We are left unsure of what is true and what is Wells’ mania, which then puts us on edge. These swings of emotion, their confusion and uncertainty, mirror the experiences of Wells herself and those closest to her, including her children. Underlying her battle with panic attacks, depression, and mania is a salient reminder for us all: “Time flies when you’re a parent./And there are no do-overs.”
Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Journey to the Sacred Places of Greece, Turkey, and France by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor
In alternating chapters, novelist Kidd and her daughter tell the story of their eponymous trip, taken at a time in their lives when both were on the cusp of something new. At fifty, Kidd was reflecting on her journey as a writer and facing the second half of her life. Meanwhile twenty-two-year old Taylor had just graduated from college and was confronting the question of what to do with her life. Their parallel and intersecting journeys make for a touching memoir of self-discovery and the mother-daughter bond.
We’ll Always Have Paris: A Mother/Daughter Memoir by Jennifer Coburn
Also a lovely mother-daughter travel memoir, We’ll Always Have Paris chronicles Coburn’s European adventures with her daughter, Katie. Coburn initiated their first trip, to France when her daughter was eight, because she was terrified of dying young and wanted to create happy memories for Katie to remember her by. If this sounds morbid, Coburn lightens the mood considerably with wry asides and a steely ability to poke fun at herself. Underneath the laughs lies a heartfelt journey into the self. Over the course of eight years and four trips, the phrase “we’ll always have Paris” takes on new and uplifting meaning, for Coburn and readers.
Carried in Our Hearts: The Gift of Adoption, Inspiring Stories of Families Created Across Continents by Dr. Jane Aronson
Adoption advocate Dr. Jane Aronson brings together seventy-five adoption stories, including from familiar figures Shonda Rhimes, Mary-Louise Parker, Kristin Davis, and Deborra-Lee Furness. Divided into seven thematic sections, the collection captures the various stages of the process. Parents, children, and siblings all have a turn sharing their experiences with adoption in essays that are at turns moving, funny, and inspiring.
The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe
Schwalbe’s touching tearjerker recounts his mother’s battle with cancer and the book club of two they formed as he accompanied her to her treatments. Through the books he and his mother read and discuss, Schwalbe revisits the lessons his mother taught him while he was growing up and how she continued to inspire and uplift him as an adult.
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
McCracken gives beautiful, aching voice to grief and how the experience of loss irrevocably changes how we move through the world. Her memoir tells the story of her first son’s stillbirth and the birth of her second son just over a year later. Framing her story is her encounter with a woman who asked her to write a book about “the lighter side of losing a child,” which McCracken comes to understand means, “permission to remember her child with pleasure instead of grief. To remember that he was dead but to remember him without pain: he’s dead but of course she still loves him, and that love isn’t morbid or bloodstained or unsightly, it doesn’t need to be shoved away.”
Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
In her harrowing memoir, Winterson’s gorgeous prose pushes against the gut-wrenching horror of her childhood. Adopted as an infant and raised by an abusive, unstable woman she refers to as Mrs. Winterson in her narrative, Winterson struggles with the pain and rage of feeling unwanted and learning to give and receive love. Though resolution proves elusive, hope abounds, as Winterson so eloquently expresses: “The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.”
Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace by Ayelet Waldman
Waldman found herself on the receiving end of “bad mother” accusations (hence the title) after proclaiming, in a New York Times essay, that she loves her husband more than she does her children. These accusations provide the lens through which Waldman explores hot-button parenting issues—breastfeeding, mother-in-laws, homework, parenting through our personal demons. At times fiercely opinionated and political, at times reflective, Waldman’s overarching question is quite poignant: “couldn’t we at least attempt to forge a positive and humane attitude toward mothers, one that takes into account their welfare as well as that of their children?”
Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting! by Sandra Tsing Loh
A mommy memoir that’s a little like a high-octane car chase? I didn’t know such a thing existed, until I read Loh’s fire-breathing screed that follows a year in her life as a mom. Take the mood of the title, expand it into three hundred plus pages, and you get the idea. Often side-splittingly funny, Loh tackles the sacred cows of contemporary parenthood, offers trenchant insight into class and race, and skewers herself as often as those around her.
Sally Allen holds a PhD from New York University. She writes about the reading life at Books, Ink (http://books.hamlethub.com/booksink/) and teaches communications. Her book “We Are Not Alone: A Reader’s Companion for Book Lovers” will be published this summer.