Throughout "The Art of Memoir," Mary Karr makes reference to several memoirs that she returns to as models of the form. Richard Wright's "Black Boy," published in 1945, features "a ruthless, unblinking gaze that reports to us with often barely tamped-down fury," Karr writes.
Maxine Hong Kingston's 1976 memoir "The Woman Warrior," about her Chinese-American girlhood, is a brilliant example of merging a fantastic style with real events, Karr writes. "The ghostly comes off as the truest way to render her internal dramas. She doesn't know what to believe and what's myth," Karr says.
Vladimir Nabokov is perhaps best known for intricate novels such as "Lolita," "Pale Fire" and "Pnin." His delicate, elongated style is on display in "Speak, Memory," his 1951 memoir (expanded in 1966) about his life in Russia before and after the Russian Revolution. "He's just your standard virtuoso aristocrat from a gilded age," writes Karr.
Michael Herr's "Dispatches" remains one of the great Vietnam books. Herr, a war correspondent for Esquire in the 1960s, published his memoir in 1977; he later co-wrote the script for Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket." His work, told in a visceral and personal style, is one of just three books in the journalism category to make the Guardian's list of "100 greatest non-fiction books."
George Orwell earned lasting fame as the novelist of "Animal Farm" and "1984," but his brilliant essays and nonfiction are the cornerstone of his reputation. "Down and Out in Paris and London," published in 1933, describes a period in which he was "tramping" around the two cities, living on the margins and keeping a keen eye on everyday life.
Hilary Mantel has won two Booker prizes for the first two books in her proposed trilogy about Henry VIII's adviser Thomas Cromwell, "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies." Karr is also a fan of "Giving Up the Ghost," Mantel's 2003 memoir. "For my money a book as worship-worthy as any of her prizewinning fiction," she writes of Mantel's haunting work.
Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," from 1969, captures the story of Angelou's horrific childhood, including rape, homelessness and teen pregnancy. And yet the tone is ultimately uplifting. The book, which made Angelou famous, has become a mainstay of reading lists.
Frank Conroy's 1967 "Stop-Time" comes up frequently in "The Art of Memoir." Conroy, who grew up poor in Florida and New York -- the subject of "Stop-Time" -- was a writer's writer and directed the Iowa Writers' Workshop for many years. "He takes a small moment and renders it so poetically you can't forget it," Karr writes.
Harry Crews' "A Childhood: A Biography of a Place," which was published in 1978, focuses on his childhood in rural Georgia. Crews says his storytelling may be embellished -- Karr describes his concept of "truth" as "wiggly" -- but his voice and raw storytelling skills make the book a valuable read.
Cheryl Strayed's "Wild," which was published in 2012 and made into a movie in 2014, uses her journey up the Pacific Crest Trail to revisit the loss of her mother and her ensuing struggles.
Robert Graves' "Good-Bye to All That," published in 1929, details the author's experiences in World War I and afterward. He is a "master writer," Karr observes, who blends you-are-there descriptions of trench warfare with distant evocations of his postwar trauma.
Kathryn Harrison's "The Kiss," which concerns her incestuous relationship with her father, was met with shock when it appeared in 1997. "Did Kathryn Harrison's new memoir go too far?" asked a headline in Entertainment Weekly. Karr calls it "one of the bravest memoirs in recent memory."
"Survival in Auschwitz," Primo Levi's memoir originally published in 1947, describes his experiences as a concentration camp prisoner. "While I was in the camp the need to tell the story was so strong that I began to describe my experiences there, on the spot, in that German laboratory laden with freezing cold, the war, and vigilant eyes," Levi later said, though he had to keep his notes hidden until after the war.
James McBride's 1995 memoir "The Color of Water" is as much about his mother -- a white Jewish woman who married a black man from the South -- as it is his own experiences. McBride won the 2013 National Book Award for his novel "The Good Lord Bird."
Both Tobias Wolff and his brother Geoffrey wrote memoirs about their upbringings: "The Duke of Deception" by Geoffrey and "This Boy's Life" by Tobias. Geoffrey's book focuses on their father, a con man; Tobias' is largely about his abusive stepfather. Both found the process of writing their books revelatory. "The things I dined out on weren't emotionally accurate," Geoffrey Wolff said.