Bettyville by George Hodgman (Penguin, $17).
Hodgman's story mirrored my own in many ways: We both left big cities (New York; Chicago) to move back to tiny hometowns (Paris, Missouri; Freeville, New York) to take care of our irascible mothers (Betty; Jane). Hodgman is mordantly funny about holding up the twin pillars of elder care (indignity and intimacy) while running into everyone you went to high school with.
Growing Up by Russell Baker (Berkley, $9).
When I first read this book, published in 1982, I was fresh out of college, and the author's wisdom — "Make something of yourself" — sliced through me. Baker's pastiche of memories contains unforgettable female characters (mother, aunt, wife), up-and-down luck (the Depression, World War II), plus humor and pathos.
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (Beacon, $10).
Frankl's account of his imprisonment at Auschwitz is both clear-eyed and heartbreaking. The tone is free of rage and full of humanist insight, and his profound awareness and experience of horror is somehow delivered gently. I have reread this book several times; its raw wisdom continues to inspire me.
The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff (Vintage, $16).
Wolff's father, "Duke," was a liar, a high-class grifter, and a man whose entire life was a fiction. As the daughter of a master disrupter, I identified with Wolff's attitude of fascination, revulsion, and love as the son unspools his father's many colorful narratives and uncovers the (actually quite ordinary) truth beneath.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (Mariner, $16).
Bechdel's memoir is graphic — it is told through comic-book-style drawings and text. And its contents are graphic, covering her growing awareness of her own sexuality, as she is discovering the truth about her father's. The layers of artifice in the family's grand home don't fool this brilliant and humane observer.
This Old Man by Roger Angell (Anchor, $16).
I read Angell's wonderful title essay just after my mother's death, and his description of life in extreme old age — full of limitations, losses, and little joys — resonated deeply with me. Angell's essays are not suffused with old-man nostalgia; they have a masterful and modern sense of aliveness, and they're delivered from a wise and witty perspective.
— Amy Dickinson's advice column, "Ask Amy," runs in more than 150 newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post. Her new book is Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home.