Friday Faves: Memoirs

I rarely read non-fiction but one form I am drawn to is the memoir. I recently enjoyed Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild (the starting point for my my most recent Six Degrees of Separation post). I am currently reading Gary Shteyngart’s hilarious Little Failure. But perhaps my favourite memoir is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

For this month’s Friday Faves, I invited some writers to share their favourite memoirs:

Anna Spargo-Ryan on Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave

When I was 18, I walked into an airport and I had a carry-on bag and a twenty in my pocket. I stood amongst the people and I listened to their intimacies, and I wondered about who I was and where I was going. What I really wanted was a Woman’s Day cryptic crossword and a bit of chocolate, but within the paper aisles I found a yellow cover that promised “A fine, tender and sexy book”. I grabbed it, hopeful I might get a little soft erotica and maybe a love story, and I busted that spine and I read. I read for an hour. I read every crack in the type and every flaw in the paper, and I touched each page. By the time I even made it to the plane, I had sat with this man and the man that he loved, and I had seen them look right into one another and find the people that they were.

I read every tiny word and each one broke my back and I turned to dust. The plane became nothing. By the time I landed in my new life, I had drowned in everything this man’s had been. And he had given me something to take into the places I would look to find my own.

Anna Spargo-Ryan is a writer and social media strategist whose first novel will be published by Picador this year.

Lee Kofman on Mandy Sayer’s The Poet’s Wife

Mandy Sayer’s memoir The Poet’s Wife is one of the few memoirs I know of that deals with the theme of marriage that is also the topic of my memoir. The story of Sayer’s cross-cultural and interracial marriage to a famous black poet from America’s South was so raw, revealing and engrossing that I devoured the book in two days. Yet this memoir is more than a gripping narration of a marriage gone wrong. It is also a story of Sayer’s coming into her own as a writer and a story of her relationship with her eccentric father, a jazz musician – two themes vividly explored.

Lee Kofman is the author of four books, the most recent of which is the memoir The Dangerous Bride.

Natasha Lester on The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

I could not give away the rest of his shoes.

I stood there for a moment then realised why: he would need his shoes if he was to return.

On reading those two sentences on page 37 of Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, my tears began. And they didn’t stop until long after I had finished the book. That something as mundane as a shoe could carry so much meaning. That two sentences could convey the despair and bewilderment of Didion as she realised that, even though she knew her husband to be dead, she was still expecting him to walk through the door and put on his shoes. I’d long been of the mind that Didion was the most brilliant writer ever to have tapped out words on a typewriter. The Year of Magical Thinking only served to reinforce my opinion. It’s an elegy to grief, a book that dissects grief, laments it, celebrates it. No person could read this book and fail to be moved not only by Didion’s loss—that of her husband and only daughter within less than two years—but by the way she writes about living with those losses. This book sat on my desk while I wrote my second novel, If I Should Lose You, and while I knew I could never achieve the perfection of a Didion sentence, it made me try harder than ever to write about the ordinary things that can, through our own experiences, become something extraordinary.

Year of Magical Thinking

Penni Russon on Madness: A Memoir by Kate Richard

Madness is a universal theme in literature. Madness and creative writing have close, sometimes inextricable links. Madness lurks in Plath’s metaphors, in Woolf’s puzzling plots, but does either author attempt to face her madness head on and understand it? So often the mad lady is the object in the text, and not the speaking subject. So Kate Richard’s Madness: A Memoir is a surprising and confronting proposition, a first person non-fiction account of depression and psychosis (the book begins with Kate attempting to cut off her right arm). Kate Richards prose is lucid and intelligent, capturing vivid sensory details of daily life at all stages of illness and recovery. A trained medical doctor herself, Kate offers insight into the treatment of the mentally ill in the Australian health system, including heartbreakingly detached – sometimes cruel – health professionals. The harrowing read is compensated for by the knowledge that the threatened consciousness that is the narrative voice will recover sufficiently for Richards to write her beautifully poised, reflective prose. Also offering hope is Winsome, the psychologist Kate eventually accesses, who guides Kate on her journey towards insight, offering the connectedness and compassion Kate needs in order to become well.

Penni Russon is the author of several novels for young adults and is currently doing a PhD with the Centre for Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne.

Louise Allan on Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes

My favourite memoir, which has stayed with me for  two decades, is Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. This is the story of a poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland in the 1930’s. Even now, I feel emotional when I think about it. I read it when our eldest was only a few months’ old, which isn’t the ideal time to read a story in which a couple of infants die of preventable illness. A few chapters in, I was howling. I didn’t think I’d be able to finish it without needing trauma counselling afterwards, but I couldn’t put it down. I remember thinking, If this is affecting me like this when I’m just reading it, imagine living it.

Louise Allan is a writer, mother, and former medico, currently seeking a publisher for her first novel, Ida’s Children, which was shortlisted for the 2014 TAG Hungerford Award.

Whispering Gums on Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite Your Tongue

It’s possibly cheating to select Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite Your Tongue as my favourite memoir because it’s more novel-cum-memoir, or fictionalised memoir, than a traditional memoir. I’ve chosen it, however, for two reasons: one is that it’s a darned good story about a very particular mother-daughter relationship, and the other is that its form raises some interesting issues about memoir. Rendle-Short chose to tell her story in third person, using different names for herself and the rest of her family, except that occasionally she intercedes in first person as herself. She chose this form because it was a painful story: she wrote that “[I] had to come at it obliquely, give myself over to the writing with my face half-turned; give my story to someone else to tell.” I like books that dare to play with form, that recognise that the line between “fact” and “fiction” is very fine, and that the important thing is the “truth”.

Whispering Gums is an Aussie lit-blogger with dilettantish interests across the cultural spectrum.

Your turn: What’s your favourite memoir?

21 thoughts on “Friday Faves: Memoirs

  1. Like Whispering Gums, I’m partial to the is-it-or-isn’t-it? fictionalized memoir. I don’t care if every detail actually happened in the writer’s life – I just like it to be “true” to the writer. To that end, I loved The Bell Jar when I first read it in high school, and enjoyed both Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Anais Nin’s Henry and June when I encountered them in college. I also love the blurring of the personal and the fictive in much of poetry.

    1. I love all the books you mentioned Nicole. How do you feel when a writer claims a book is memoir and it later turns out to be largely made up> Eg James Frey’s A Million Tiny Pieces. Do you think it matters?

      1. I would much rather find out that every word of a novel was actually autobiographical – that allows for false memory, distorted perception, embellishment etc. But I think it’s wrong to pass something off as a memoir, with all the implications that has for everyone and everything else mentioned therein, because you’re effectively saying that your ego is more important than anyone you might hurt in the process of publishing your false history. I guess if someone wants to go off in the woods for a year and then completely falsify the story of what went on without implicating anyone else then fair enough, but how often does writing emerge from a vacuum? What’s your opinion?

        1. I’m not sure how I feel about it. On one level it’s misleading, but not in a way that really does anyone any harm, and from a marketing perspective it certainly made sense! The distinction between fiction and non-fiction is a fairly false one anyway, but one we are attached to as readers. If the book reads well, i don;t think it should really matter how it is described. Unless it is egregious in some way.

  2. I have to read Joan Didion’s memoir—it sounds like a must-read. And I haven’t read Jeanette Winterson’s fictionalised autobiography yet, either, which is another must-read. I agree with Nicole about autobiography/memoir and truth. I don’t mind changed names, or if a character is disguised or blended, and I appreciate not everyone wants to read about themselves in a book, but the memoirist has promised the reader that they are telling the truth. That’s part of the deal. I agree with Nicole, too, that if you can’t tell the truth, then why not call it fiction, and go for your life with your imagination.

    1. It absolutely is. I read it on my honeymoon which was rather gloomy! I read Jeanette Winterson’s works in my very early twenties. I adored them then; I’m not sure how I would feel about them now.

      I’m not sure that it is always true to say that the ‘memoirist’ has promised the reader that they are telling the truth. In some cases, I think how the book is labelled is not even in the writer’s hands. And in others, they admit to playing fast and loose with the truth.

  3. Thanks for asking me to be part of this Annabel. It was fun thinking about the topic. Clearly Nicole and I are of the same ilk – I too like The bell jar and Oranges are not the only fruit. I agree with Nicole too on the Frey business. I don’t mind if a novel turns out to be autobiographical, but it’s dishonest to call something memoir that is not your life at all.

    Of the memoirs listed here, I love both the Didion and McCourt. Didion’s book is beautiful. McCourt’s is gut-wrenching. I’ve never read such a description of poverty before. I have Mandy Sayer on my virtual TBR, but I haven’t heard at all of Holding the man. It sounds like something well worth reading too.

    1. Dear Whispering Gums, I also enjoyed your discussion of blurring fiction/ nonfiction boundaries and myself do this sometimes in my work. As to Mandy Sayer, it’s actually not my favorite memoir ever full stop, but a favorite I read in 2014. I’d recommend to start with Sayer’s ‘Alice Dreamtime’ if you haven’t read it yet – it’s even better than Poet’s Wife. As to my favorite memoir ever (oh, a difficult one…), Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters (another boundary blurring book!) will be up there with Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage. I myself also a huge fan of Didion, but mostly of her early works. Her recent books work less well for me.

      1. Is Dreamtime Alice the tap dancing memoir? I think I have read that. I am just about to pick up my copy of Out of Sheer Rage from my local bookshop – I can’t wait.

        1. Annabel, yes, it’s the dancing one 🙂 So glad you’re going to read Dyer! You’re an amazing reader – managing to read soooo much. x

          1. I really enjoyed that. I was quite into tap dancing when I read it so felt I could appreciate it more. When your baby grows up a bit you’ll get to read more too, I swear it!

    2. In the Frey case, I think large parts of it were true, and there were also lots that was invented. So it wasn’t entirely fictional. It didn’t bother me. But I read it after the scandal so I think my expectations were different.

      It’s hard to read about poverty but there was such warmth in McCourt’s book too, wasn’t there?

  4. My favourite memoir is A Fortunate Life by A B Facey, a historically important book about our history as well as a fascinating read about an extraordinary man. Having said that I was bowled over by Kate Richards’ book Madness – such a unique account about the symptoms of mental illness. Angela’s Ashes was also amazing. I have put the Didion book on my wishlist as I’d not heard of it and it sounds amazing.

    1. For a brief stint I read to the blind in an aged care home and the book we chose was A Fortunate Life but I never finished it. I’m looking forward to reading the Kate Richards.

  5. I thought Kate Richards’ book was fantastic, as of course is Didion. Another one I’ve really enjoyed is Michelle Dicinoski’s ‘Ghost Wife’. She does a good job of integrating the history of lesbians & marriage with her own narrative. ‘Bite your Tongue’ is now on my TBR list!

  6. Loved this post as I have just recently finished Madness: A Memoir (fantastic but definitely confronting) and am currently reading The Year of Magical Thinking! Really enjoying that too but, as with Madness, I’m finding I can only read it in small parts at a time. So raw and a perfect expression of the reality of grief.
    One of my all-time favourite memoirs is Off The Road by Carolyn Cassady – an account of her life with husband Neal Cassady, lover Jack Kerouac and all the Beat Generation characters. When I first read it twenty years ago, I loved that it gave a female perspective that was usually missing in Beat memoirs. I was then lucky enough to meet Carolyn at a book signing in London in 1997.

  7. Oh that’s a coincidence! Yes, I don’t think books that deal with subjects like grief and mental illness can be read in a single sitting. They can be quite overwhelming to process. I’ve heard of Off the Road – what a great title.

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