I usually write blogs about fiction but as our minds turn towards Christmas, and the dreaded person who it’s so hard to buy stuff for, I thought I’d do a list of entertaining biographies/ autobiographies. Honestly, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these as a present for that hard to please reader.
1 Me by Elton John. Hard to miss Elton John at any time in the last, oh thousand years or so, but he’s been particularly visible recently what with the announcement of his farewell tour and the film biography of his life – Rocket Man. This autobiography covers a longer period than Rocket Man, including the more recent and happier times when he meets David Furnish. The autobiography, like the film, is a wonderful portrayal of Elton’s mad excesses, and evocative of the times.
2. I’m looking through you: Growing up Haunted: A memoir – Jennifer Finney Boylan. Whatever you think about the trans movement, I think this is a beautifully written and gentle account of growing up as a boy who believes he’s a girl. I read this before the eruption of the current toxic debate, and felt it gave me a real insight into how it felt to be trans. I’d thoroughly recommend it. (I’d also recommend Wendy Jones’s biography: Grayson Perry’s Portrait of the Artist as a young girl. Brilliantly alive and intelligent)
3. Motherwell by Deborah Orr. Another recent autobiography, published posthumously. Deborah Orr wrote this account of growing up in Motherwell (south east of Glasgow) with parents who should definitely not have stayed together. It’s a great exploration of class and culture. But despite all the acclaim, I have to say I preferred Janice Galloway’s All Made Up, an account of growing up in Saltcoats (which is south west of Glasgow). But then Janice Galloway is an ace story teller.
4. Wild Swans by Jung Chang. A long book, but every page is necessary. This is an account of three generations of women growing up in China. Jung Chang’s grandmother had her feet bound at age two and was married off at a young age, becoming a concubine to a Chinese warlord, Jung’s mother and father were members of the Communist Party, and then Jung herself joined in with the Cultural Revolution but became disillusioned. She eventually won a scholarship to study in the UK, and wrote this memoir. It’s a gripping and at times harrowing read.
5. Boundless by Kathleen Winter. I saw Kathleen speak at the Ullapool Book Festival and bought this book straight after. Kathleen is a Newfoundlander whose father left Newcastle to live in the wilds – and I guess you can’t get much wilder than Newfoundland. Except perhaps the Arctic, which is where Kathleen went for this book, journeying through the Northwest Passage. I loved the descriptions of the far north, the cold, the wilderness. She has an unobtrusive, quiet voice which lends itself to this sort of adventure. Interestingly enough, a few years earlier at the same book festival, I saw her brother, Michael Winter, introduce his book Into The Blizzard, in which he retraced the story of the Newfoundlander regiment in the First World War. I would also recommend this, again for the similarly understated, quiet voice which adds such poignancy to the account.
6. Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir 1935-1975 by David Lodge. It’s always interesting to read biographies about writers, and this one is especially interesting, portraying the life of a working class boy who becomes a novelist, and how the times made that all happen. It was published recently, despite the time period covered, and it’s worth comparing it to the autobiography of a woman writer during the same period. Doris Lessing’s two autobiographies Under My Skin (up to 1949) and Walking in the Shade (1949-1962.) Born a white woman in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and seemingly thus more privileged than David Lodge, nevertheless her life was one of struggle against convention which led her to abandon her first two children in order to pursue the writing life. (In the same vein, but on a funnier note, you might like Stalin Ate My Homework by the comedian Alexei Sayle which recounts growing up in a working class Jewish atheist communist family in Liverpool in the 1950s.)
7 The World I fell Out Of by Melanie Reid. Melanie was another journalist whose career was cut short when she fell off a horse and became a paraplegic. This is an account of the aftermath of that fall, and it’s a gripping and quite joyful read. Most of us (thankfully) never find out what an amazing job the NHS does in trying to recuperate victims of serious accidents, but the work that goes on is incredible. This is an amazing read.
8. Toast – the story of a boy’s hunter by Nigel Slater. I really adore this book. It’s a childhood recalled through taste and smell, and unlike the other biographies I’ve mentioned so far, I think that these descriptions will be evocative for all readers. We might not have experienced foot binding, or life in White Rhodesia, but we’ve all experienced the smell of burnt toast for instance. Nigel leads you down an amazing journey into childhood.
9 Where did it all Go Right? Growing up normal in the 70s by Andrew Collins. OK so far I’ve given you fame and misery. This is an ordinary life, no drama, but funny and nostalgic and deeply evocative of the 1970s, all possible because Andrew kept diaries from the age of six. And if you loved this, then try The Tent, The Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy (sub-titled my family’s disastrous attempts to go camping in the 1970s)
10 How Not to Be a Boy by Robert Webb. I’m up to ten already and I’ve got so many more to suggest! Ok we’ve done writers, journalists, ordinary people, extra-ordinary people. I’ll finish with some comics. Don’t expect this one to be funny though. I think I may even have cried a few times when I read this. Robert Webb recounts his childhood with an aggressive father, determined to mould Robert into a particular kind of person, a proper boy. If you like this, you might also enjoy Billy by Pamela Stephenson. Pamela recounts the childhood of Billy Connolly, being again brought up with narrow expectations and violence. She’s writing from the point of view of being his wife, of course, but also a psychotherapist, and it’s a gripping read. I noticed only today some adverts for an autobiography of Billy Connolly coming out soon. I wonder how it will compare.
I cannot believe how many books I’ve had to miss out! I mean there’s The Diary of Anne Frank for instance. How could I not mention that? Or Frank MCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. For the first time, I’ve failed to mention any Bill Bryson. I really wanted to include Sara Maitland’s A Book of Silence and Amy Liptrott’s The Outrun, both of which would make ideal presents for the reclusive reader of literary fiction. But I’ve tried to focus on a variety of lives which will hopefully appeal across the board, and which might be new to you. Would love to hear if you’ve bought any of them for the difficult relative, and what they thought of it.
Happy Christmas when it comes, and may your afternoon be spent in utter silence, apart from the occasional sound of a page turning.