Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

18 Uplifting Memoirs

Some memoirs just leave you feeling better than you did before you read them. Even when the author describes going through terrible times, their voice and their attitude turns the worst of times into the best of reads. Here are eighteen uplifting memoirs to turn to when you need a boost.

18 Uplifting Memoirs - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Becoming by Michelle Obama

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Becoming is surely one of the best-selling uplifting memoirs of recent years. Michelle Obama – the first Black First Lady of the United States, the engine behind the Let’s Move campaign, and one-time Grammy winner (for Best Spoken Word Album, 2020) – has become the poster child for ‘being the change you want to see in the world’ (or, at least, in the White House). Tracing her childhood (comfortable, but not perfect), her early life in corporate law, her marriage and her time at the most famous address in America, Obama’s tone is affirming and encouraging throughout. You’ll finish this one inspired to get your hands dirty and fix the problem in front of you. Read my full review of Becoming here.

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This Is Not A Book About Benedict Cumberbatch by Tabitha Carvan

This Is Not A Book About Benedict Cumberbatch - Tabitha Carvan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The title of this uplifting memoir – This Is Not A Book About Benedict Cumberbatch – begs the question, ‘what the heck is it about, then?’. Well, it’s about women reclaiming their identities, and what happens to our various passions and interests as the generic domestic responsibilities of life pile up around us. As per the blurb, Carvan’s thesis is that “there’s true, untapped power in finding your “thing” (even if that thing happens to be a  British-born Marvel superhero) and loving it like your life depends on it”. Read this one when you need to feel better about your intense compulsion to binge-watch ’90s rom-coms.

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am - Maggie O'Farrell - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Nothing changes your life (or makes better fodder for an uplifting memoir) like a brush with death. Maggie O’Farrell has had seventeen of them. In I Am, I Am, I Am, she describes each of the near-death experiences that she has faced, and how they’ve come to define her life. The childhood illness, the could-have-been psycho killer, the teenage mishap… It seems strange that a memoir about death (or, almost-death) could leave you feeling good, but O’Farrell manages to use these terrifying ordeals to highlight the beauty and mystery of the time that we do have on this mortal coil. Read my full review of I Am, I Am, I Am here.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild - Cheryl Strayed - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You’re probably already familiar with Cheryl Strayed’s story – traumatised after the death of her mother in the mid-90s, she undertook a crazy 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. You’ve seen the movie, or the Oprah interview, so you might figure you don’t need to read Wild. That’s a mistake. You’re missing out on one of the most wildly (ha!) uplifting memoirs of recent years. Strayed set out on this grueling trek almost entirely unprepared; she had essentially no prior hiking experience, and while she didn’t exactly have a ‘good’ time, she sure learned a hell of a lot – and she’s very generous in sharing it with her reader. Pick this one up when you feel a little lost and need some direction from someone who’s been there. Read my full review of Wild here.

How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran

How To Be A Woman - Caitlin Moran - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Caitlin Moran has a way of taking the trauma of womanhood, forcing it through her wry filter, and somehow making it feel funny and uplifting – if nothing else, you’ll find something in her writing to relate to. How To Be A Woman is really a memoir-slash-manifesto, laying out Moran’s case for feminism in the modern world. Covering everything from the workplace, to strip clubs, to love, to fat, to abortion, to popular entertainment, to children, not much escapes Moran’s keen eye and sharp wit. Even though books about womanhood and feminism don’t tend to age well with the rapid progression of social norms, this one is still worth a read ten years after publication.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Everyone who has ever found solace in books needs to read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Angelou was dealt a more difficult hand than most. She was abandoned by her parents, raised by her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, which (as a young bookish Black girl) was not always the safest or easiest place to be. When she was reunited with her mother, she was subjected to horrific sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend. She faced an uphill battle, overcoming that trauma, then continuing her education when the world expected her to enter a lifetime career of domestic service. Despite all of this, her memoir is relentlessly positive, and Angelou’s perspective on everything that has happened to her will inspire you to view your own troubles in a similar light. Read my full review of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings here.

Year Of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

Year Of Yes - Shonda Rhimes - Keeping Up With The Penguins

As a show-runner for multiple Big Time Mega Hit Must-Watch shows, and a single mother to three kids, no one ever doubted Shonda Rhimes when she said she was “too busy” to take something on. But the truth was, actually, she was too afraid. She used “no” to hide from things that scared her, but in Year Of Yes, she deliberately flipped that on its head. She began saying “yes” to things that made her sweaty, things that made her nervous, things that seemed impossible – and her life changed as a result. She discovered that the things that made her scared were also the things that made her feel alive. If you’re stuck in a rut, this is the uplifting memoir that will get you out of it. Read my full review of Year Of Yes here.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

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Remember those theater kids from high school or uni, the ones who made themselves laugh ’til they cried doing improv scenes? Maybe you were one of them, maybe you avoided them, whatever the case: they were onto something with the whole “yes, and” rule. Amy Poehler puts her own twist on it in her memoir Yes Please. She parlayed her skills as a improv star into a career in comedic acting, leading the charge on shows like Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation. She talks about that journey in her uplifting memoir, while sharing sage advice – like “treat your career like a bad boyfriend” and “do great things before you’re ready”. Read my full review of Yes Please here.

My Life On The Road by Gloria Steinem

My Life On The Road - Gloria Steinem - Keeping Up With The Penguins

There are few feminists as iconic as Gloria Steinem. You’d think that, after decades of beating the drum and marching for equality, she would be exhausted (especially given the current state of, y’know, everything). But she remains upbeat and energised, and in My Life On The Road, she explains how she does it. In her own words: “When people ask me why I still have hope and energy after all these years, I always say: Because I travel. Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories—in short, out of our heads and into our hearts,”.

The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

The Happiest Refugee - Anh Do - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Anh Do is one of those “boat people” our government has been trying to make us fear for the last decade or so. I’ll tell you right now that I want to shove a copy of this book into the hands of everyone who has ever purchased a “Fuck Off, We’re Full” sticker. Despite his inauspicious arrival in Australia, Do has gone on to become one of our most-loved comedians and artists. He details this journey in The Happiest Refugee, one of the most uplifting memoirs I’ve read from my homeland. After you’ve read it, you’ll feel like you’ve just had a particularly inspiring conversation with a stranger in a bar – one who always stood his round and was never short a smile and a kind word. Read my full review of The Happiest Refugee here.

My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life by Georgia Pritchett

My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life - Georgia Pritchett - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Well, first off, Georgia Pritchett gets an A+ for her book title: My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life. Isn’t that brilliant? Haven’t we all felt that exact way, at one point or another? The contents of her uplifting memoir absolutely live up to the high expectation it sets, too. This is her story – told in “gloriously comic vignettes” – about learning to live, even thrive, with anxiety. Her short, sharp anecdotes are like particularly hilarious and insightful contributions to a conversation over cocktails. This is a funny read, but a reassuring one too, that shares the warts-and-all highs-and-lows truth of a life lived on the cliff face of your own mental health. Read my full review of My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life here.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

Reckoning - Magda Szubanski - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Magda Szubanski has been making Australians laugh for decades – most often as her alter ego, Sharon Karen Strzelecki. None of us imagined, until we read her memoir Reckoning, how much was going on behind the jokes and jibes. Szubanski’s childhood looked like your average suburban nightmare, except that her family was haunted by the demons of her father’s espionage activities in wartime Poland. Szubanski looked like your average Joe actress, but her queerness was one of the community’s worst-kept secrets. This is one of the best uplifting memoirs to read when you’re sick of putting on a front, and ready to figure out your whole self in the world’s harsh spotlight. Read my full review of Reckoning here.

Pilgrimage To Dollywood by Helen Morales

Pilgrimage To Dollywood - Helen Morales - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Dolly Parton is basically a living saint, so it makes sense that a memoir about tracing Dolly-related landmarks in Tennessee will be uplifting. In Pilgrimage To Dollywood, Helen Morales does just that. She’s a bigger Dolly fan than most (if you can imagine). She narrates her journey through Parton’s Tennessee – with her partner and daughter in tow – while looking for the “essential connections between country music, the land, and a way of life”. As per the blurb: “This celebration of Dolly and Americana is for anyone with an old country soul who relies on music to help understand the world, and it is guaranteed to make a Dolly Parton fan of anyone who has not yet fallen for her music or charisma.”

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

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Alright, alright, alright! Greenlights is actor Matthew McConaughey’s “love letter to life”, drawn from thirty-five years of diaries and notes. He calls it “a guide to catching more greenlights—and to realizing that the yellows and reds eventually turn green too,” (thus, the title). Far from your standard celebrity-anecdote name-drop style of memoir, this uplifting read is more about mistakes made and lessons learned. McConaughey is generous in sharing his hard-won wisdom, and encouraging the reader to find a path to a better life for themselves (whether it looks like the one he took or not). Sure, it might get a bit hippie-dippie for some, but that’s part of the fun when it comes to McConaughey, isn’t it?

Unbreakable by Jelena Dokic

Unbreakable - Jelena Dokic - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Most of us only know Jelena Dokic as the pretty blonde who was pretty damn good at tennis for a while there. It turns out there is a whole other side to her story: one much darker, sure, but also uplifting for the steely nerve and determination it has taken for her to overcome it all. In Unbreakable, she describes her harrowing journey as a refugee (twice!), her experience of poverty, and the horrific abuses she experienced at the hands of the stage-parent from hell – her own father. Triggers abound in this jaw-clenching read, but if you can manage those, you’ll find a remarkably inspirational story that will come to mind any time you face an obstacle on your own path to greatness.

How To Fail by Elizabeth Day

How To Fail - Elizabeth Day - Keeping Up With The Penguins

How could a memoir about failure be uplifting? Well, it turns out, failing isn’t the worst thing in the world. In How To Fail, Elizabeth Day – author, journalist, and broadcaster – offers a holistic view of “everything she’s learned from things going wrong”. She explains the fruit that failure has borne for her in all areas of life, including dating, work, sport, babies, families, anger and friendship. Her thesis is that understanding why we fail ultimately helps us evolve, and makes us stronger (not exactly revolutionary, I’ll grant you, but it’s still motivating when Day explains it!). The book is based on her podcast of the same name, by the way, if you want a taste test.

Your Own Kind Of Girl by Clare Bowditch

Your Own Kind Of Girl - Clare Bowditch - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Clare Bowditch was a pretty anxious kid. Even when she ‘grew up’ and became a popular musician and performer, she did so against the express desires of her harsh inner critic. Your Own Kind Of Girl is “the story [she] promised myself, aged twenty-one, that [she] would one day be brave enough – and well enough – to write”. Her talent for storytelling nearly stymied her, when the stories she told herself (that you must be thin and beautiful to start your ‘real life’, that good things belong to older people) became damaging. This is a beautiful, heart-felt book that every former anxious-kid will relate to, one of the most uplifting memoirs to come out of the Australian music scene.

Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

Everything I Know About Love - Dolly Alderton - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Before you watch the TV series, you must read Everything I Know About Love – an uplifting memoir told the way only Dolly Alderton can. When it comes to ‘growing up’, she has seen and tried it all. She’s been gainfully employed and she’s been flat broke, she’s been in love and she’s been dumped, she’s been drunk and she’s been hungover, and – most importantly – she’s been through it all with her best friends. This is a real-life Bridget Jones’s Diary, a testament to the fact that you can ‘become an adult’ and still come out the other side with your glittering wit and your playful heart. Pick this one up if you’re struggling with early adulthood, and wondering if your friends will ever speak to you again after last night’s drunken shenanigans (yes, they will, it’ll all be okay).


  1. For me, there is something about reading a story about a person who has lived an astonishingly difficult life that reminds me of the grace I’ve experienced.

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