I always have one shelf for the books I am planning to read in the year ahead and when I was putting together one for 2017 I was struck by how little memoir I’d read in 2016. Fortunately the four I read were absolute corkers. I forgive myself for this to an extent. In terms of work last year was really full on. I am grateful to be in demand but every artist needs to fill the well. For writers there is one thing that we must do: read*.
The memoirs I did read are as follows:
A New York Memoir
Brilliant, especially in terms of structure. This book is almost a series of essays on a theme, that being New York. For this reason it was inspiring to some of my students who felt intimidated by a linear structure at that time. I love New York and I loved having a good nose into Richard Goodman’s life there.
Have You Been Good?
Quite simply one of my favourite memoirs. If you’re going to write a memoir do it like this. Just so honest and soul baring. The author, Vanessa Nicholson, left everything on the page. I was thrilled to interview Vanessa for WhitLit 2016. The audience remarked on how open and warm she is and am delighted to be interviewing her again this year. More details to follow for this year’s festival which takes place from May 9-14.
Stuck In The Middle With You
A gift of a book from trans woman Jennifer Finney Boylan. This was the first bestselling work by a transgender American. In it Jenny writes about parenting in both genders and interviews some of the men in her life about what fatherhood means. It’s very thought provoking. Jenny is deeply introspective but has a light touch and the book made me laugh out loud several times. Yay!
The Life Of Rebecca Jones
My lovely Welsh husband bought me the English translation of this simply extraordinary book as he loved it so very much and wanted to share. I feel the same. Just read it. It took my breath away. By Angharad Price.
Among the other books I read last year were A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. More of a short story actually. I found at at the back of Breakfast at Tiffany’s which I am yet to finish. A Christmas Memory is so evocative that I bought several copies as Christmas gifts. Senior Dogs Across America. A photographic love story to old dogs. I love dogs, especially old dogs so this one really hit the old dog spot. Lots of PG Wodehouse, as always. Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History Of The Rag & Bone Shop Of The Heart which came complete with a note from a friendly stranger inside. And We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families which I am reading as research because I am helping a Rwandan genocide survivor to write her story.
This year’s shelf looks like this for memoir and fiction (heavily weighted towards memoir as usual):
And memoir how-to books here. I think it’s important to keep learning.
So this year I have resolved to read a memoir a month. The year has started well (don’t they always!) with the finishing of three memoirs. Having read Jennifer Boylan Finney’s memoir of parenting in two genders I wanted to read more about her transition. I couldn’t put She’s Not There: A Life In Two Genders down. What I love about memoir is that when it’s well done you get the opportunity to live another life, instead of just the one you’ve been given. This is truly the case with Jennifer Boylan. No emotional stone is left unturned. So smart, so self-aware, so funny. I really appreciated this latest version which for the first time featured a chapter by Jennifer’s wife Grace (they never divorced after the transition). Talk about truly loving the essence of someone! I urge you to read this book and follow Jennifer on Twitter @JennyBoylan where she is fighting the good LGBT fight.
She’s Not There was really well-written and left me with no questions about a life so different from my own. That’s as important for me as a reader as when I’m ghostwriting and editing. The other two books did leave me with questions and I feel bad saying this about When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Paul Kalanithi was 36 when he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. He was a neurosurgeon and writes about his transition from doctor to patient. Although the book gave me a great deal to think about, especially regarding the daughter Paul and his wife had while he was sick, I didn’t quite feel the full force of emotion I had expected. Memoir has three essential ingredients in my opinion: the what happened, the context and the emotional impact on the author. I feel this last element was under explored in this book. And I’m sure Paul would have wanted to go there. Maybe as someone who is quite clinical about death he needed more encouragement in this area. Maybe his editor didn’t want to ask him for more. Maybe there wasn’t time. That’s a very sad thought.
The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons from a Life in Feathers by Caroll Spinney, who STILL plays Sesame Street’s Big Bird left me with unanswered questions too – as daft as that might sound. I mean, how many questions are there about Big Bird? Well, a lot if you’re me. The book is as sweet as pie but way too short for such a fascinating and unique life, character and career. Big Bird deserves a Big Book. There’s a film though: I Am Big Bird, so I am going to watch that. And I am yet to give up hope of meeting Big Bird myself.
One thing the book did for me was to make me aware of a man called (wait for it) Kermit Love. Best name ever? Kermit was a Sesame Street costume maker and he made Big Bird, as well as Snuffleupagus. He also played Willie The Hot Dog Man on the show. Jim Henson met Kermit after he named the frog, surprisingly. I frantically searched for a memoir of the late Kermit Love but sadly he didn’t write one. I was fascinated that Kermit made models for my favourite ballet company the New York City Ballet, working with George Balanchine for 40 years. He died in Poughkeepsie which is a quirky little place I visited in 1995. What made me so happy about Kermit, who brought us all so much joy, was to read that he had a great love in his life, Christopher, his partner of 50 years. For all that I don’t know and will never know about Mr Love, I am glad to know that he was treasured.
The next memoir on my list in Madeleines In Manhattan. I’ve chosen something physically and hopefully literally light (as sponge?) as I’m working away for a few days now and I don’t want anything that will make me feel sad. I’ll let you know how I get on and what I read after that. I’ll leave you with Big Bird and look forward to hearing what you’re reading too…
*Disclaimer. My friend Peggy Riley who writes an incredible blog about writing fiction doesn’t read while she’s actually writing, and the same might go for you. Do read Peggy’s most recent post about reading Moby Dick. She’s beautifully honest about the writing life, as ever.