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ten loved memoirs

I'm loving peeking at people's bookshelves across the web this week.  My "to-read" list is getting out of hand, and the local interlibrary loan service is getting a workout.

Memoir is one of my favorite genres, and I have an especial weakness for spiritual memoir and foodie memoirs.  Here are ten memoir-ish books that I've loved.

1. The Crosswicks Journals by Madeleine L'Engle.  These three memoirs about life and writing set by Madeleine L'Engle in her ancient farmhouse are beautiful.  I remember the first, "A Circle of Quiet," inspiring me to learn how to "be" instead of "doing" all the time.
2. The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris.  I've always been fascinated by the monastic lifestyle.  Here Norris uses the structure of the liturgical year to frame her memoir and meditations inspired by three years spent living in a Benedictine monastery as an oblate. The writing is gorgeous.
3. Letters of Vincent Van Gogh  These letters, mostly written to his brother Theo, reveal Van Gogh to be a sensitive, thoughtful man of faith. I started reading this because I wanted to know how Van Gogh had gone from missionary to miners to artist to cutting off his own ear.  I kept reading them because I found a beautiful soul.
4. These Strange Ashes by Elizabeth Elliott is her account of her first year in missionary work (before she was married to Jim). At the end of the year, all of her work was destroyed, and in this book she reckons with that reality.  I read it after going through a similar experience, and it helped me immensely.
5. A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken is a memoir of love, conversion, and tragedy.  One of my favorite scenes is when Sheldon and his wife buy their first car.  They take a hammer to the front, denting it as a way to remind themselves that it's just a thing, not a god. The love story here makes for addictive reading, but so does the conversion story, which takes place in England where Vanauken and his wife are friends with C.S. Lewis.
6. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  Kingsolver writes beautifully about a year in which her family vowed to eat only food from their own farm or raised locally.
7. Under the Tuscan Sun by Francis Mayes.  This is kind of a guilty pleasure.  Don't watch the movie, but do read the book.  My girlfriends and I read it as we traveled to Tuscany for a semester ourselves, and we called Frances Mayes our patron saint.  One weekend, in fact, we traveled the 15 km from our little convent-turned-dormitory to Cortona, and searched until we found her house.  We giggled and giggled and knocked on the door, and me her husband.  It was one of my favorite adventures.
8. Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton.  Hamilton, chef at Prune in New York, writes about her unique childhood, the unromantic work of catering, and gorgeously, gorgeously, about food and life.
9. Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott was the first conversion memoir I read that was funny and irreverent and so honest about the difficulty of the life of faith.  I love Blue Like Jazz, too, but I feel like this is the book that made Blue Like Jazz even possible, so I chose it instead.  And while we're on the subject of recent spiritual memoirs that people my age love, let's go ahead and say that I've also loved each of Lauren Winner's books (and have not yet finished her newest).
10. Surprised by Joy & A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. Lewis's conversion memoir, and his account of the grief he experienced at this wife's death, are profoundly moving and, well, perfect.
11. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (Since I've already actually listed about 15 books, I'll go ahead and add one more...) A memoir of marriage and loss, the writing is beautiful, and will make you cry.


And there are so many more...what are yours?

ten books that shaped me in childhood

Sarah Bessey writes some of the most beautiful blog posts on the internet, don't you think?  This week she's inviting her readers to join her in posting about 10 Books a Day, and how can I resist?  Talking about books is one of my favorite things to do, and I'll take any chance I can get to peek at other people's bookshelves.

I'm going to try to chime in every day this week.  Today I'm going to highlight one book, and then list (in no particular order) the others.


I'm starting with my favorite place to start:

10 Books That Shaped Me in Childhood


1.The Betsy-Tacy Books– Not enough people have read the Betsy-Tacy books.  I read them approximately once a year when I was growing up. No other series shaped me as much as these stories of Betsy, who grew up around the turn of the century (she graduates from high school in 1910) in a small town in Minnesota.  Like Betsy, and in large part because of her, I’m a writer, a feminist, and an Episcopalian.  Like Betsy, and because of her, I thirst for travel and adventure, and love learning about other cultures.  Like Betsy, and because of her, I like to throw caroling parties, invite tons of people over on Sunday evenings, and slouch (Betsy called it the “debutante slouch”).

(Incidentally, Nora Ephron was a great fan of Betsy-Tacy books, too.  Go re-watch You’ve Got Mail.  You’ll see.)

Originally published in the 1940s, Maud Hart Lovelace's autobiographical series starts when Betsy is five years old, and Tacy moves into the house across the street. They become best friends.  There are four books about their childhood, four books about their highschool years, and two books in which Betsy travels and gets married.

This week I’ve been re-reading Betsy and the Great World.  It’s my first reading since the advent of Google, and thus the first time I’ve been able to see the Azores Islands Betsy visits, or the print of Lenbach’s Shepherd Boy that she pins on her wall.  It’s also my first reading since I went to Europe myself.
At the age of 21, Betsy travels –with a chaperone, but mostly on her own - on an ocean liner to Europe.  She lives in Munich, Venice, and London, studying languages and culture and writing stories.  She turns 22 alone in Germany.  I was 20 when I flew to Tuscany for a semester.  When it was over I traveled, with friends, and then alone, through Europe for six weeks.  I turned 21 alone in France.


2. The Narnia Books  by C.S. Lewis. Duh.  Dad read these to us before bed, and I listened to them on audio cassette, and, well, I've probably got portions memorized.

3. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. Plucky orphans, sisters, hard work, ambition. A lovely story.

4. Emily of New Moon by Lucy Maud Montgomery.  Of course I love Anne of Green Gables, but I identified even more with Emily, who was dreamy and shy where Anne was hard-headed and passionate.

5. The Oz Books - There are actually fifteen Oz books written by L. Frank Baum, and they are filled with delightful characters and worlds. We had the original hardbacks that my grandfather had bought for about a dime a piece; now you can get all fifteen for a dollar on kindle!

6. Missionary biographies - I read all kinds, but Amy Carmichael was my favorite.

7. A Wrinkle in Time - Anything by Maddy L'Engle basically makes my favorite books of all time list. She helped me think about God in new ways.

8. Nancy Drew - the original series by Carolyn Keene, written in the 1920s and 1930s.

9. Maida’s Little School by Inez Haynes Irwin.  The Maida books are sweet, and this one actually strongly shaped my philosophy of education!


10. Little Women and everything by Louisa May Alcott.  This is also free on Kindle now.


What's your favorite book from childhood?