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Memory Lane: 10 Worthy Memoirs for Winter Reading

Among the hundreds of books I’ve enjoyed since retiring five years ago, I somehow keep gravitating to memoirs — those fascinating accounts of lives well lived. Or not so well, as the case may be.

In this genre, you might encounter history; a little romance, comedy, or nostalgia; interactions with famous figures; or perhaps just the feel of what life was like so many years ago.

Here are 10 suggestions for your wintertime reading:

Phil Collins, Not Dead Yet (2016) – Front man for Genesis — with a fabulously successful solo career to boot — Collins recounts his storied life with self-deprecating humor, plus a vast array of celeb encounters (Eric Clapton, Tony Bennett, Robin Williams, Queen Elizabeth). Equally engaging are similar memoirs from Genesis bandmates Steve Hackett (A Genesis in My Bed, 2020) and Mike Rutherford (The Living Years, 2015).

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) – Swift, enthralling and brilliantly written account of Douglass’s youth in slavery — together with his journey to emotional, intellectual and (at long last) literal freedom. One of our key autobiographies, this little book should be required reading for every American.

Ron & Clint Howard, The Boys (2021) – Co-written by sibling stars of TV and film, The Boys is chock-full of cool history and trivia on Andy Griffith, Star Trek, Roger Corman, Gentle Ben — and two of the most inspiring parents you will ever encounter.

Charles Johnson, Another Watchman (2022) – For a local angle, check out this recent release from beloved Williamsport-area pastor Johnson, who served many pulpits (including Oman and Bahrain!) over a 54-year career. Offering ample photos, as well as tributes from various grandkids, Johnson’s book tells — as he phrases it — “the journey of an ordinary (sometimes reluctant) man in the hands of an almighty and extraordinary God.”

Marilyn Monroe, My Story (1974) – Among the countless books on this American icon is one she penned herself. Cowritten by legendary Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, My Story was not published till 12 years after Marilyn’s all-too-early death — and in fact, that tragedy kept her from finishing this book, which covers her early career. Thoughtful and well written — a wake-up call for anyone who thought of this actress as just “a ditzy blonde.”

Farley Mowat, Owls in the Family (1962) – Brief, hilarious and charming tale of Mowat’s childhood adventures with two rescued (and largely flightless) owls. It was tough to pick one title from the famed Canadian naturalist, whose other nonfiction includes the World War II memoir When No Birds Sang; his own coming-of-age story Born Naked; the spellbinding Whale for the Killing; and of course, Never Cry Wolf — made into an award-winning 1983 movie.

Jean Shepherd, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (1966) – A few chapters from this uproarious book were adapted into the beloved holiday movie A Christmas Story — with Shepherd himself handling voiceover narration. But there’s much more to enjoy here; Shepherd covers such old-time topics as night-fishing and the Fourth of July with the same charming irreverence we know so well from the story of Ralphie and his Red Ryder BB gun.

Carly Simon, Touched by the Sun (2019) – The popular singer-songwriter here recounts her long, unlikely and heartfelt friendship with Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Full of surprising encounters, little-known details, and celebrity tidbits. Nicely written, too.

Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle (2009) – In my long teaching career, I constantly struggled getting teens to read; but there was no difficulty with this electrifying story of Walls’s hardscrabble childhood — and her appallingly dysfunctional family. It’s amazing not only that she survived the death-defying neglect (Glass Castle opens with Walls setting herself ablaze while boiling hot dogs — at age three!); but what’s more, she emerged still able to love and connect with her half-crazy parents. The 2018 movie with Brie Larson, Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson is good; but not this good.

Louis Zamperini, Devil at My Heels (2003) – One of those stories you’d scarcely believe if you didn’t know it was true: Zamperini’s life encompasses the 1936 Olympics in Berlin (where he met Hitler); a World War II plane crash, followed by 47 days in a tiny life-raft on the Pacific; ghastly mistreatment in a Japanese prison camp; then later, alcoholism and despair — followed by conversion to Christianity at a Billy Graham revival! Laura Hillenbrand’s better-known Unbroken tells the same story; but this book is shorter, and a bit more teen-friendly.

Now curl up with a nice warm beverage and take a step back in time….