Saturday, 12 November 2011

Confessions of a Memoir-Eater

Since going on a Writing From Life course at Ty Newydd in North Wales this July, I have been reading my way through plenty of memoirs that came recommended on the course, plus some others that I have found, gathering dust, on my bookshelves. Here is a selection:

'Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight' by Alexandra Fuller is an account of the author’s childhood in Africa with her parents and siblings. It is vividly told, saturated in beautiful sequences and description. Indulge me, if you will, in quoting a short section from it recounting the author’s visit to the Cecil Hotel in Umtali in Zimbabwe:

‘The chairs were swallowingly soft, the colours were bubble-gold and shades of greeny-blue. A white lady with hair like a purple-rinsed haystack and long red nails frowned at us from behind the reception desk. I had never been anywhere so comfortable.” (Page 49 Picador, 2002 paperback edition).

In nearly every chapter a new dramatic twist detonates. It had me on the edge of my sofa.

I similarly enjoyed 'Running with Scissors' by Augusten Burroughs over the summer (see this blog post which critically appraises the opening section). I highly recommend it for those who are not feint hearted. It’s an account of a family that goes – or is made – crazy, mainly due to the absurd recommendations of the family mental health doctor, Doctor Finch. It’s high-paced, immediate, unbelievable.

At the moment, I’m reading Margaret Forster’s 'Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir' and I am sad to say – as I have been meaning to read this for many years – that I’m disappointed. I’m finding the writing to be poorly edited; (take, for example, this sentence “I said he was quite right, I was and I was glad I was.”) lacking in emotional depth and resonance, and flatly told. I have to admit that I have not read any of Forster’s fiction, but I feel I should, just to see if I respond more positively to work by her in another genre. It might take me another few years to get round to it.

Over the Ty Newydd course, I revisited an old favourite – the pint-sized 'Hideous Kinky' by Esther Freud. On the creative writing front, I can recommend this Guardian podcast with the author in which she examines the process of writing this memoir of her early childhood in Morocco. 'Hideous Kinky' is a lush, evocative, beautifully wrought account of Morocco expertly told from a child’s point of view.

What are your favourite memoirs? I’d love to hear your recommendations.

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