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.
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.
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?