Other people’s lives are endlessly fascinating to me. I like to know what they eat for breakfast, what they do for a living and if they get on with their siblings. If someone eats peanut butter on toast every morning, I want to know about it.
This makes memoir my ideal genre. Over the last decade, I have devoured a whole assortment of written recollections, some very insightful, others heartbreaking and a few, prime examples of desperate self-advertising. Below is a cross-section of autobiographies, selected from a variety of people, all of which will enhance the lives of those that read them.
Hunger by Roxanne Gay
Roxanne Gay’s autobiographical work, ‘Hunger’, does not make for comfortable reading. In particular, the scene from the aeroplane haunts me. The author, who is morbidly obese, describes the terrible shame of not fitting into standard size seats, the look of relief as fellow passengers pass by her, and the inevitable humiliating drama created by unsympathetic neighbours.
In her memoir, Gay chronicles the story of her life delving into the reasons for her obesity with great clarity. By sharing the story of her childhood, which featured heartbreaking abuse, she invites her readers to see fat not as a symptom of slovenliness, but also as a physical outcome of much deeper physiological pain. Her nonfiction writing is fierce and astute, much like her equally arresting fiction.
The Richard Burton Diaries by Richard Burton and Chris Williams
Technically not a memoir, Richard Burton’s published diaries are a force of nature, much like the famous Welsh actor himself. Each entry conveys, with poetry, charm and often brute strength, the juxtaposition of normal life spent in the unflinching gaze of the public eye. His best entries focus around his wife Elizabeth Taylor, (who he married then divorced, then married, then divorced) who he describes as an “eternal one night stand”.
Watch out for the delightful entries from Taylor herself as she answers some of Burton’s more one-sided accusations about their relationship. This is a mighty tome made for anyone with an interest in the early beginnings of celebrity, great love and the reality of acting for a living.
Ghosts by Daylight by Janine di Giovanni
Janine di Giovanni’s memoir, ‘Ghosts by Daylight’, delves into the war correspondent’s tumultuous personal history and explores her journey to motherhood set amongst the human stories of conflict, famine and war she famously reports. The book tracks her shift from academia to war correspondent starting in the civil war of Sarajevo and charting her encounters in Chechnya, Rwanda and Bosnia.
While her memories of the horrors of war make weighty reading, it is her love affair with Bruno, a cameraman for France 2, who dropped to his knees in front of her when the pair first met in Sarajevo in 1993, that brings her story to life. Their romance is a great tale of passion and pain offset against some of the most violent backdrops in history. If this subject matter is of interest, Lindsey Hilsum’s masterful biography, ‘In Extremis: The Life of Marie Colvin’ is also brilliant.
“Morning pockets” were a constant source of surprise for AA Gill at the depths of his alcoholism. He once found a pigeon in his coat pocket after a particularly eventful evening.”
Pour Me by AA Gill
If you want a masterclass in writing from life, look no further than the autobiography of legendary critic AA Gill who spent the majority of his youth creating chaos as an alcoholic in 80s London. The writer, who was famously dyslexic and had to have his copy transcribed over the phone by Sunday Times typists, exerts eviscerating honesty in this memorial of a troubled past.
“Morning pockets” were a constant source of surprise for AA Gill at the depths of his alcoholism. He once found a pigeon in his coat pocket after a particularly eventful evening. Darkly funny anecdotes like this can be found in his book, as well as the bizarre disappearance of his brother who came to his home, took a warm winter coat and was never seen again. His words are strung together like pearls on a necklace. He is undeniably good.
D.V. by Diane Vreeland
“There is only one very good life, and that is the life you know that you want and you make it yourself,” once mused groundbreaking magazine editor Diane Vreeland (pronounced Dee-anna). This fanciful memoir doesn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Vreeland is more interested in the atmosphere and style portrayed by her written memories than accuracy. This makes for fabulously enthralling reading.
As editor of Harper’s Bazaar for 25 years, Vreeland pioneered the ‘Why Don’t You?’ column, still in use today. Some of the suggestions which give a flavour for her charm include: “Rinse your blonde child’s hair in dead champagne to keep it gold, as they do in France?” and “Have the most beautiful necklaces in the world made of huge pink spiky coral with big Siberian emeralds?” I found my now much-loved copy at a vintage bookshop but you can certainly find copies on Amazon or eBay.
Life by Keith Richards
It is surprising to me that, despite years of serious drug abuse and rock-and-roll, the closest Keith Richards, lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones, has ever been to dying is when he was hit on the head by a coconut in his beloved Jamaica. The sheer audacity Richards has to have lived with such velocity and then survived to tell the tale in print, is miraculous. Some pages left me shaking my head in disbelief. This is not a memoir pre-approved by a PR.
Richards has you rooting for him from his childhood in Dartford to the moment he met fellow original Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger on the train as a student, to scoring the purest heroin and cocaine by the pound at the peak of his fame. His knowledge of chord structure and the technicalities of music are evident throughout though. He may have been rebellious but he remains an obedient disciple to his craft.
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa by Peter Godwin
Peter Godwin journeys back to his homeland of Zimbabwe following his Father’s heart attack in the first instalment of his series of autobiographical work centred around Africa. He places the personal amongst the wild political landscape of a country in turmoil while simultaneously bringing the humour and frustration of African life to the page.
Despite Mugabe’s reign of terror taking hold in Zimbabwe, Godwin’s parents remain on their farm, fighting daily to survive their increasingly hostile homeland. Those who have struggled with stubborn parents, albeit not in an environment of civil war, will acknowledge the lucidity of Godwin’s prose as he navigates the natural circle of life.
All books are available on Amazon and at most good book shops. Try and buy pre-loved if you can.