The Best Memoirs You’ve Never Heard of

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Ashley Holstrom

Staff Writer

Ashley Holstrom helps make books at Sourcebooks. She lives near Chicago with her cat named after Hemingway and her bookshelves organized by color. Newsletter: Crooked Reads. Twitter: @alholstrom.

Memoir will always be one of my all-time favorite genres, and it’s even better when you come across a lesser-known title. Sure, we all know Wild and Eat, Pray, Love. But what about the rest of the world of travel memoirs, grief memoirs, mental health memoirs?

These memoirs you’ve never heard of have 1,000 or fewer ratings on Goodreads, which is not a perfect barometer to judge by, but that’s what we’re working with. Most were published by small presses, and they deserve all the praise in the world. 

The books on this list cover a variety of life stories, dealing with grief, racism, violence, trauma, family history, and so much more. Read about a man who transitioned at age 51, a girl in Pakistan who refused to be a child bride and instead empowered other girls in her rural community to get an education, and a woman who toured the world’s death festivals in the wake of her almost-father-in-law’s sudden and devastating death.

Tour the world through these stories and the variety of voices that tell them. 

The Best Memoirs You’ve Never Heard Of

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All the Way to the Tigers by Mary Morris

Mary Morris took a spill while ice skating and ended up spending three months in a wheelchair, with two surgeries and plenty of rehab along the way. While she was laid up, she read endlessly and got stuck on this line from Death in Venice: “He would go on a journey. Not far. Not all the way to the tigers.” She decided that she would walk again (despite her doctor’s suspicions), and she would go to the tigers. All the Way to the Tigers is her stunning travel memoir that came out of that healing time.

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Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition by P. Carl

P. Carl spent his first 50 years living as a girl and queer woman before realizing he was not being the truest version of himself. Becoming a Man covers all the tumultuous changes that came with his transition, such as his relationship with his wife of 20 years and the devastating ends of friendships with little reason. This gorgeous memoir will blow you away with its honesty about society, bodies, and gender.

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Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like “Journey” in the Title by Leslie Gray Streeter

Leslie Gray Streeter finally met her person when she was in her late 30s. They had spent a handful of years together, moving in and getting married and adopting their son, when her husband had a fatal heart attack. During a late-night kiss. Black Widow is a devastating and funny memoir about loss and grief that will have you crying and laughing in equal measure.

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Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land by Toni Jensen

Carry is a powerful memoir about living as an Indigenous woman in America, told through the lens of gun violence. She grew up with guns, shooting birds with her dad as a girl. But now the guns are pointed at her, people like her, and people who live on neighboring Indigenous lands.

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Catalogue Baby: A Memoir of Infertility by Myriam Steinberg, Illustrated by Christache

At 40, Myriam Steinberg realized she was done waiting to be a mother. But it wasn’t an easy road. She suffered multiple miscarriages and struggled to decide whether going the route of sperm donor or medical procedure was the right choice. A sad and beautiful memoir, Catalogue Baby tells the all too common — yet quiet — tale of infertility.

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Committed: A Memoir of Madness in the Family by Paolina Milana

When Paolina Milana gets the chance to go to an out-of-state school, escaping the rampant mental illness in her family, she takes it. But her family sends her incessant letters while she’s away, reminding her of what she left behind. When her father dies suddenly, she heads back home to care for her schizophrenic mother. Committed is a memoir about resilience in the name of familial mental illness.

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A Fish Growing Lungs by Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn

Alysia Sawchyn was disanosed with bipolar I when she was 18, but found out seven years later that she had been misdiagnosed. A Fish Growing Lungs is the story of her journey to rediscovering herself through recovery from an illness she never really had to begin with. It’s funny and smart and full of medical and mental health references from history, literature, art, and more.

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Headstrong: Surviving a Traumatic Brain Injury by JoAnne Silver Jones

JoAnne Silver Jones was assaulted by a stranger wielding a hammer, and the attack left her with a severe traumatic brain injury, fractured hands, and PTSD. Headstrong is the story of her healing and what it’s like to live in fear of a world full of physical and vocal violence.

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The Heart and Other Monsters by Rose Andersen

The Heart and Other Monsters is a moving memoir about the opioid crisis. Rose Andersen’s younger sister became addicted to heroin and died of an overdose at 24. It set Rose in a tailspin, trying to relive their childhood to figure out how her sister ended up in such a situation. She goes on a heartwrenching emotional journey trying to piece together her sister’s final days while also struggling with the heavy grief of losing kin.

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High-Risk Homosexual by Edgar Gomez

Edgar Gomez loves the irony of being a gay, Latinx man alongside a machismo society. His uncle has a cockfighting ring in Nicaragua, after all. At 13, Gomez was sent there to become a man. High-Risk Homosexual — the title comes from a diagnosis he received from an actual doctor — is a delightfully witty memoir about finding and loving queer spaces.

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I Should Have Honor: A Memoir of Hope and Pride in Pakistan by Khalida Brohi

Khalida Brohi grew up in a world where arranged marriage was the norm; her parents were married as children, and Khalida was promised as a bride before she was even born. But her father focused instead on her education. Khalida was on a unique path toward empowerment when the unexpected happened: her cousin was murdered in an “honor killing” because she fell in love with a man who was not her betrothed. It inspired a whirlwind of activism and the creation of a foundation to empower women in rural communities to strive for education and careers.

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Let’s Never Talk About This Again by Sara Faith Alterman

Sara Faith Alterman grew up in a house where sex was never discussed and bad words were never uttered. When, as a teen, she discovered a slew of raunchy books — written by her father — crammed in the back of a bookshelf, she was scandalized, but kept it a secret. Decades later, her father began acting strange, lost his job, and decided to revive his writing career. As her father sinks into the tidal waves of Alzheimer’s, Alterman struggles to navigate the waters of new motherhood in her own life. Let’s Never Talk About This Again is a funny and weird and sad memoir about a dad with Alzheimer’s.

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The Mason House by T. Marie Bertinea

Theresa’s only real safe place after her father’s death when she was young was her grandmother’s home in Mason, Michigan. But when her Gram dies, Theresa is again stuck with her destructive Ojibwe mother and white stepfather, trekking across the country to find a better life. The Mason House is a memoir about the importance of home and the struggles that bring us there.

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Nine Moons by Gabriela Wiener, Translated by Jessica Powell

Gabriela Wiener is thrilled when she finds herself pregnant at 30, because it gives her a giant new writing assignment. The Peruvian essayist dives into all the information and misinformation surrounding pregnancy, and all the things no one talks about, like how morning sickness feels like a hangover. Packed with humor and truth, Nine Moons turns the classic idea of pregnancy upside down.

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PMSL: Or How I Literally Pissed Myself Laughing and Survived the Last Taboo to Tell the Tale by Luce Brett

Luce Brett’s life changed after the birth of her first son. There was the glow of new motherhood, of course, as well as the darkness of postpartum depression and another thing: incontinence. Brett takes a hammer to the taboo, telling her story with snark and candor in PMSL.

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The Rumi Prescription: How an Ancient Mystic Poet Changed My Modern Manic Life by Melody Moezzi

Melody Moezzi shared her experiences living a “bipolar life” — Iranian and American, and diagnosed with bipolar disorder — in Haldol and Hyacinths. Now, in The Rumi Prescription, she’s sharing her journey to recovery aided by the poems of Rumi. She translated his works, focusing on isolation, distraction, depression, fear, and the most important: love.

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The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod

Zoe Zolbrod didn’t tell anyone about her childhood molestation for nearly a decade. As she grew up and began to experience life, she realized the impact it had on her sexuality, relationships with men, and motherhood. The Telling tells her truth and also goes a step further, detailing research that encourages sexual abuse victims to speak up and empower themselves.

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This Party’s Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World’s Death Festivals by Erica Buist

When her partner’s father was found dead at home, Erica Buist began to spiral, spending an entire year in the clutches of grief and fear. Knowing she had to escape, she researched how the rest of the world handles death, and thus began her journey to seven countries to experience the death festivals around the world, where death truly is a celebration. The Party’s Dead is the kind of travel memoir that will likely change the way you view the world, too.

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We Are All Shipwrecks by Kelly Grey Carlisle

Kelly always had a hunch that her family life wasn’t normal. Most kids don’t live with their grandparents or sleep on a boat in the marina, surrounded by dysfunction. But would she succumb to the chaos that led to her mother’s death? To find the answers, she digs up old crime reports and tries to get to know her mother. We Are All Shipwrecks is a moving memoir about family and history and how we all fit together.

Book cover for When She Comes Back

When She Comes Back by Ronit Plank

Ronit was only 6 when her mother left to follow a guru in India. The guru preached that children were the problem in society and encouraged his followers to get sterilized. Luckily, her father came to rescue Ronit and her younger sister, settling in New Jersey. But being the elder daughter came with a price: She filled the role of partner and confidant to her father, and acted as a mother to her sister. When She Comes Back is a poignant memoir about family and resilience.

On the other end of the spectrum, check out these most influential memoirs of all time.