Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Must-read memoirs

Every year, I wholeheartedly welcome Autumn's chilly appearance, reveling in the thick denier tights, chunky boots and cosy winter coats after a summer's worth of my pasty pins being out on display. This time around, though, I'm excited to ring the seasonal changes for reasons other than the merely sartorial. 

What I'm also looking forward to is the fact that over the coming weeks, there are more new book launches than a bookworm such as myself could throw a Kindle at. From David Nicholls and Nick Hornby, to Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami, there'll be more than enough pages for me to wile away the commute with over the chilly season. 

Two of the books that I'm particularly looking forward to this Autumn will take their place in a section of Waterstones that I've found myself visiting more and more over the past year. Lena Dunham's forthcoming Not That Kind of Girl and Amy Poehler's Yes Please promise to be every bit as funny, articulate and entertaining as their authors frequently are on screen.

I've always considered myself a fiction kind of gal, but in recent times, I've developed quite a thing for memoirs. This is probably a combination of two things: 1), my extraordinarily nosy nature, and 2) the happy fact that an increasing number of smart, interesting women are finding their voices, and putting their experiences to paper. So I decided to share a few of my favourites, in the hope that someone else will enjoy reading them just as much as I have. 

How To Be a Woman - Caitlin Moran

"It's difficult to see the glass ceiling because it's made of glass. Virtually invisible. What we need is for more birds to fly above it and shit all over it, so we can see it properly.”

Written in her trademark acerbic and hilarious style, Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman is part memoir, part feminist manifesto, and I absolutely loved it. Featuring almost eye-watering levels of honesty, and extolling the virtues of everything from public libraries to the use of the word cunt, it's absorbing and funny and well worth a read. 

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? - Mindy Kaling

“'Why didn’t you talk about whether women are funny or not?' I just felt that by commenting on that in any real way, it would be tacit approval of it as a legitimate debate, which it isn’t.” 

She was brilliant as the air-head Kelly in The Office, but real-life Mindy has all the wry wit her on screen counterpart lacks. I devoured this book in just a couple of sittings, following the journey that takes her from geeky Bostonian to the writer and star of her very own prime time TV show, with some observational humour thrown in along the way: "Forgive me, but being a guy is so easy. A little Kiehl’s, a little Bumble and Bumble, a peacoat, and Chuck Taylors, and you’re hot.” 

Why be Happy When You Can Be Normal? - Jeanette Winterson

"Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.” 

This compelling memoir tells the story of Winterson's abuse at the hands of her monstrous adopted mother, a fanatical Christian who burns her secret stash of books and arranges an exorcism on discovering that Jeanette has been involved with a girl, at the age of 16. The account of her subsequent depression, first relationships and the journey to find her biological mother is an incredibly moving one. 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou

“Although I had no regrets, I told myself sadly that growing up was not the painless process one would have thought it to be.” 

The first in six volumes of autobiography, this is the story of Maya Angelou's early childhood in the deep South of America during the 30s, and her battles against the misogyny and racism that characterised this period. Charting the various traumas and discoveries of her youth (from her first sexual experiences to a passion for literature), it's emotional and disturbing at times, and makes the extraordinary voice she went on to find all the more impressive. 

I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections - Nora Ephron 

"Every time one of my friends says to me, 'Everything happens for a reason,' I would like to smack her." 

Nora Ephron is quite possibly my all-time favourite female writer. Her style is effortlessly witty, and she has this uncanny ability to be incredibly entertaining and detailed while using a style that's so simple...without being simplistic. Aghh. I would give anything for even an ounce of her talent. The last of her books before her death in 2012, I Remember Nothing features her trademark sparkling wit, as well as an underlying - and distinctly bleaker - examination of what it means to grow old. One of my favourite parts is her list, 'What I Will and Won't Miss.'

Giving up the Ghost - Hilary Mantel 

"When you think you’re pregnant, and you’re not, what happens to the child that has already formed in your mind? You keep it filed in a drawer of your consciousness, like a short story that never worked after the opening lines.” "

At the risk of a cliche Hilary herself would deftly avoid, for me this book comes under the remit of ones that 'change you'. An exploration of the various ghosts accrued in a lifetime - the lover or job or homes that could have been, had you chosen a different path - and in particular, the child she never had (as a result of the undiagnosed endometreosis that dogged her for years), this memoir, where you join her in exorcising them, is incredibly moving. 

A Curious Career - Lynn Barber 

"I love, love, love interviewing pop stars – I wish I’d done more of them. Obviously I mean the ones who write their own stuff and are as mad as snakes..." 

Barber's first memoir An Education spawned the film of the same title, and focused on her relationship with an older conman in the 60s, before moving onto where the film left off - her time at Oxford, her marriage, and her career as a successful journalist. In A Curious Career, Barber focuses solely on the latter, and revisits some of her most famous interviews - the ones with the razor-sharp edge that earned her the nickname the 'Demon Barber', and pioneered the genre of celebrity interview that we know today. Peppered with insight, advice and autobiography, it might not be to everyone's taste, but it makes for some highly compulsive reading.