Best of: Memoirs

Stack of five books, photographed at an angle on a thick wooden shelf. In the background is the back of a hardback book: the backcover is grey with white writing. This book is leant against a grey/blue wall. The other books are against a green/cream wall. From bottom to top of the book pile (spines only showing): My Name is Why by Lemm Sissay (hardback, white spine), The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell (cream with an illustration of part of a red scarf), Educated A Memoir by Tara Westover (Orange), I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell (mint with an illustration of a red heart in the middle), In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (Orange Spine)

Although in 2020 I read more fiction – probably as a way to escape from the doom of real life – memoirs are one of my favourite genres. Unlike biographies or autobiographies, in memoirs the author only details a particular event or a number of significant events that have shaped their lives thus far. In a way blogs are like mini memoirs; you are providing personal accounts of life events that shaped you and can often be providing an education on an area which the reader has little prior knowledge of.

The year ended and a new year began reading memoirs, reigniting my love for them. It was difficult to whittle the selection down, so I have excluded more of the obvious choices including Eat, Pray, Love, Becoming and This Is Going To Hurt.

My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay

Front of hardback book on a wooden shelf. The top part has a cream background, in black says "Lemn Sissay", underneath that says "My Name Is Why" in orange, then in smaller black text underneath "A Memoir". Underneath this is an image of a black boy with a hand on his hip, he wears black shorts and a cream t-shirt, he has short afro curls and wears a small smile. Behind him to the left is a white boy with curly brown hair, he is also smiling. He is wearing a blue shirt and blue shorts and his arms are gently crossed. To the right of the boys is a little white girl who is not facing the camera, her hands are gently clasped, her eyes are closed and she has a closed smile, she wears a mint cardigan and a blue dress, her hair is in a bowl cut bob. They are standing in front of a wall with blue, metal bars, that has green foliage behind it.

A heartbreaking portrayal of being brought up in the care system as a black child in 60s and 70s Britain. In My Name Is Why, Sissay is failed by everyone and it comes as no surprise that he becomes servilely depressed. Lemn uses grainy photocopies of his social service notes as evidence of the corrupt system he was forced to endure. In all honesty it’s astounding that Sissay has gone on to become a PEN pinter prize winning poet and play write after his turbulent upbringing. This memoir will leave you absolutely fuming at local authorities and the failures of a government that is meant to protect and nurture children.

I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell

In I am, I am, Iam, O’Farrell documents her 17 near misses/brushes with death. Each chapter is named after the body part that was most affected at the time. It’s rare that a book moves me to tears but O’Farrell managed to make me cry on a couple of occasions. However, it’s not all doom and gloom; I Am, I Am, I Am gives reason for living and high praise for how unexpected life can be.

Hunger by Roxane Gay

Whilst reading Hunger you feel inherently uncomfortable, Gay’s vulnerability is so strong, you feel like you have accidentally come across her private diary. I read Dolly Alderton’s: Everything I Know About Love at the same time because I needed to escape into something contrived and frivolous (anything would have been when you are reading Hunger). This isn’t to say that Hunger isn’t an exceptional read, it is brilliant. After being gang raped at a disgustingly young age, Gay turns to food as a way to silently cope. Hunger is a lesson to all on racism, consent, fat phobia, mental health and about any other humanistic problems you can think of.

The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

A heartwarming true story of a penguin who refuses to leave Michell’s side after he rescues the penguin from an oil spill in Uruguay. As I have an unhealthy obsession with penguins, this memoir was a delight to read.

Educated by Tara Westover

When reading Educated it often feels like you are reading a work of fiction; the reality is so hard to fathom. Westover is born into a mormon family, to a father who is convinced that doomsday is coming and an abusive brother. This is the story of how she escapes by educating herself, not stepping into a classroom until the age of 17 but going on to gain a PhD at Cambridge University. It’s not just a traditional education that she gains, Tara also educated herself out of the warped and historic belief systems she was brought up with. At times Educated will leave you feeling incredibly uncomfortable, like all you want to do is put the book down and walk away. But I came to realise that that was the point. Throughout her life this is what she was struggling with; to stand up or turn a blind eye and play ignorant.

My Thoughts Exactly by Lily Allen

It is rare that a memoir by a pop star is any good; more often than not they are ghost written or the celeb glosses over hard truths. In My Thoughts Exactly, Allen doesn’t hold back from any trauma and gives us complete access to the often brutal truth of coming of age in the limelight. Everyone has an opinion of Lily, often unfavourable – after being bullied by the press for most of her career – and My Thoughts Exactly is Allen’s chance to recount her version of events and close the curtains on ‘cartoon Lily’. Here is an honest memoir about the realism of fame, media attention and the detrimental effects from the insecurities of constant attention.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

The Salt Path will completely change your view on what it means to be homeless. This is a story of battling lifes hardships head on, of fighting the elements and leaves you feeling full of hope for better days. 
Winn makes me want to grab a rucksack, chuck on my walking boots and trek the south west coastal path, all 650 miles of it!

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

There are rare occasions that a book comes along and shakes up the genre it has been entitled to; where others keep within the lines of what this genre does, their our authors that show there are still ways to give it new lease of life. Machado describes abuse in a queer relationship using multiple genres and writing styles – there is even a Choose Your Own Adventure® section, further evidencing how the cycle of abuse is so complicated to escape. Whilst Machado plays with different literary devices, the abuse slowly creeps up on you. Suddenly you feel suffocated by it, desperately trying to find a way out but unable to figure out how. Without giving anything away, hope turns up in the most surprising turn of events. In The Dream House is quite honestly a work of genius that shines a light on lesbian abusive relationships.

Are there any memoirs that have stayed with you, that have changed your views?

13 Comments

  1. Wow! Adding the penguin lessons and educated to my TBR list. I’m not huge on memoirs/autobiographies, I usually stick to reading fiction mainly because reading is like an escape from real life for me but definitely going to give these two a try. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I loved ‘Educated’ and have ‘The Salt Path’ in a pile by my bed. After I’d read ‘Educated’ I did some further online reading about the family which was interesting because obviously they disagreed with much of the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, thank you for these recommendations. I enjoy reading non-fiction a lot. I have heard about Educated and am really interested in picking it up. Your good review encourages me more. I like Born a crime by Trevor Noah. Have you read it?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m looking forward to reading In The Dream House and just finished Maggie O’Farrell’s poignant I Am, I Am, I Am – Seventeen Brushes With Death.
    My favourite memoir or work of creative nonfiction in 2020 was Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s A Ghost in the Throat and I also absolutely loved Sanmao’s Stories of the Sahara. Also loved Sara Baume’s Handiwork and Alice Tarbuck’s A Spell in the Wild.
    Looking forward to what 2021 brings in this genre!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow that is an extensive list! Thanks so much. I will have to check all of those out and add them to my want to read list. I’m also looking forward to what memoirs come out in 2021. Hope you enjoy In The Dreamhouse x

      Liked by 1 person

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