January 12, 2017

Great Summer Read: Read a memoir or a biography. Part I: Memoirs

From Daniel Nester's Shader: 99 notes on car washes, making out in church, grief, and other unlearnable subjects:

     May 2010. My mother handed me a manila folder with a sticky note that said 'For Danny,' written in her immaculate cursive.
     "Maybe these will help with, you know, your memoir." She pronounced "memoir" like "mem-wah," in exaggerated French, accompanied by a hand motion and a cigarette waved in the air.

Mrs. Nester, and everyone else out there, I totally get how talking about a memoir could sound affected, and how the annoyance would be quadrupled by a son correcting your New Jersey pronunciation, as Daniel Nester confesses he had been enough of a jerk to do.

But memoir is actually a good English word. Only its origin is French: mémoire, a memorandum, a note, just like in Daniel Nester's book title. And this is why it's different from autobiography, from the Greek for recounting your life. A memorandum records something not just for the record, but for future use. In the case of a good memoir, I see the future uses as things like making sense of something, or dealing with it, and especially, finding the story.

One of the best memoirs of recent times (in my opinion), Carrie Brownstein's Hunger makes me a modern girl: a memoir, opens like this:

"I've always felt unclaimed. This is a story of the ways I created a territory, something more than just an archipelago of identities, something that could steady me, somewhere that I belonged."

And here she is on her and her band's contribution to rock'n'roll (I can't help but notice that the adjectives apply to her book as well): "Sometimes the works were smart or pithy, profound, poetic, and often they were really messy. But they formed a boundary and a foundation for a lot of the girls who had been undone by invisibility, including myself."

Rock'n'roll is of course a classic genre in the body of memoir literature, along with misery (Angela's ashes being the mother of all misery memoirs and also an undeniably good read, unlike many of the children it spawned), celebrity, addiction, canine, mean-mothereccentric-mother, bad dad, outlaw, redemption, sexuality, mental illness, and apparently one called Shtick-lit, from the Yiddish-derived term for a gimmick, which is when someone goes off and does something for a year just to be able to write about it. Fake, however, is not a memoir genre.

I've been exploring a contemporary genre which as far as I'm aware has not yet been given a name, but I'd suggest  "Funny books about horrible things", from Jenny Lawson's Furiously happy: a funny book about horrible things. One could argue this book belongs in the mental illness memoir genre, but I think it needs a different category, to respect the author's creed that you should be defined not by your life's "imperfect moments", but by your reaction to them. I enjoyed it, though it was a bit exhausting.

Jeanne Darst's very funny Fiction ruined my family was instead an energising read which I'd also place in this genre, where I expected Jennifer Weiner's Hungry heart would also go, though after reading it (most of it), I'm not sure. I hadn't read her novels and picked it for its title and because she'd had a feud with Jonathan Franzen. I wanted someone excavating the humour in horrible experiences, but her style is more about playing it for laughs from the start. My intuition is that with personal memoirs you should look for an author you're compatible with and not at what everybody's reading -- pretty basic for anyone who's been in a relationship!

Read by the author 

Did you know you can get an eAudiobook of Furiously happy read by Jenny Lawson herself? Here are some other popular eAudiobook memoirs read by their authors:

The lady in the van by Alan Bennett  (you can also see the movie version for Challenge 8!)
Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Fear of fifty: a midlife memoir by Erica Jong
Unsinkable: a memoir by Debbie Reynolds
Moab is my washpot by Stephen Fry
Instant Mom by Nia Vardalos (of 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' fame)
An improvised life by Alan Arkin
Where am I now? True stories of girlhood and accidental fame by Mara Wilson (star of the movie version of  Roald Dahl's Matilda)

and many more which you can find on the 'Read by the author' list curated by our Collections team on the Overdrive home page in our Digital Library.

If you like perusing recommendations, here are some of my favourite memoir genres and writers:

Obsession (possibly my favourite memoir genre)

My Judy Garland Life (2008) by Susie Boyt. "Speaks to anyone who has ever nursed an obsession" says the cover blurb. Non-obsessives will find it over the top. I loved it.

What to look for in winter: a memoir of blindness (2010) by Candia McWilliam. If you haven't ever suffered from self-doubt, we probably couldn't be friends. Candia McWilliam's self-doubt was crippling, or more correctly, blinding.

Double down: reflections on gambling and loss (1999) by Frederick and Steven Barthelme. The addictive land of possibility. "We would have been willing to win, but we were content to lose."

Nothing to be frightened of  by Julian Barnes (2008). A portrait of a family and a philosophical, intellectually curious, and often funny exploration of our obsession with death.


Just Kids by Patti Smith (2009). Patti and Robert, on their way to becoming legendary. The book is already legendary itself, and rightly so.

Slow days, fast company: the world, the flesh, and L.A. (2016) by Eve Babitz. A look back at the 60s-70s L.A. scene by one of its protagonists.

Sadness and grief

Dog Years (2007) by the American poet Mark Doty was recommended to me as one of the saddest books ever written. (If you wonder why that would be a recommendation, just skip this!). In a time of despair and depression, his long-term partner dying of AIDS, Doty's dogs convey something essential. "It isn't that one wants to live for the sake of a dog, exactly, but that dogs show you why you might want to."

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2012). An idiosyncratic book about grief after sudden loss, from an author at the top of her game.

Nox (2010) by Anne Carson. I found this attempt (half book, half artwork) by a poet to come to terms with the loss of her brother, taking as her departure point an elegy by Catullus, incredibly affecting. 


In the darkroom by Susan Faludi (2016). Faludi describes her book as a pursuit of her father, a man who exited her life as a tyrant and bully, and who gets in touch almost 30 years later to announce that he has undergone sex-reassignment surgery. No happy endings, but some precious understandings.

The Bill from my Father (2006) Art critic Bernard Cooper's father once sent him an itemised bill for his upbringing. One of the best books I read last year. Is articulate an anagram of art critic? Not quite but it should be. Needs an anagram for witty, too, though!

The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Woolf (1979). You may be, or then again you might not be, surprised at how many deceptive dad memoirs there are; for me, this one, from way back in 1979, is unsurpassed.

Boyhood, girlhood, families:

Toast: the story of a boy's hunger by Nigel Slater (2003). I have long championed a ban on the phrase 'achingly beautiful' - whew, this book isn't achingly beautiful, but it is beautiful in its description of an achingly hungry, above all for love, boy.

Skating to Antartica by Jenny Diski (2005)- Another deceptive dad, here matched with an eccentric mother, but it's not really "Families". Probably more "Unclassifiable". I plucked it off a travel books display at the Leys Institute Library, didn't find a travel book, but did find a great memoir writer. Practically everything Jenny Diski wrote was a memoir, up to and including the book she wrote while dying of cancer - In gratitude (2016).

Fun home: a family tragicomic (2006) by Alison Bechdel. Fun home is a memoir in comic format, and that's about as far as the comic in 'tragicomic' goes. Growing up in a funeral home can be funny, a closeted father moves us into irony, and with suicide, we're at tragic. I note that on our catalogue record the publisher is down as calling the ending 'redemptive'. My word of choice would have been 'unforgettable'.

Fun home is actually only one of a large number of memoirs in comic format.  Here are a few more I recommend:

Graphic memoirs

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Stitches: a memoir by David Small
Epileptic by David B.
Tomboy by Liz Prince


Straight life by Art Pepper (1979, updated 1994).  Living the jazz life, with boundless talent, beauty and self-destructiveness.

Poison heart: surviving the Ramones by Dee Dee Ramone (2009) A music journalist I know recommended this one!

And closer to home -- and new: 

Goneville by Nick Bollinger (2016). "Goneville is at once a coming-of-age memoir and an intimate look at the evolving music scene in 1970s New Zealand. It show how this music intersected - sometimes violently - with the prevailing culture, in which real men played rugby, not rock. Nick Bollinger draws on his own experiences and also seeks out key figures and unsung heroes to reflect on the hard, often thankless and occasionally joyous life of the career musician"-- Cover blurb


Grayson Perry: portrait of the artist as a young girl as "caught by" Wendy Jones (2006). Self-deprecating, irreverent and insightful thoughts about growing up by the rebellious artist and transvestite. I'm waiting for my copy of his new book, The descent of man, "exploring everything from sex, seriousness and intimidation to clothing, childhood and power."

Strangeland (2005) by Tracey Emin. Only for people who find a sentence like this appealing: "Here I am, a fucked, crazy, anorexic-alcoholic-childless, beautiful woman. I never dreamt it would be like this.'

My avant-garde education (2015) by Bernard Cooper. The same entertaining Bernard Cooper cited above, this time looking back at his salad days in the pop art and then conceptual art years.

Memoirs have never been as popular as now, in our age of Reality Hunger, and all these are just to make you aware of the range. I'm sure you will find a good one which suits your taste, your mood, your time.

Happy reading!

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 18:29


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