2014 was a big year for memoirs for me. One of the first I read and enjoyed very much was The Mistress’s Daughter, by A M Homes. I totally agree with Zadie Smith’s blurb. ‘Furiously’ is a good word to use because the author is furious quite a bit throughout this book – and for good reason.

I saw A M Homes talk at The Wheeler Centre (great Melbourne institution) early in the year. This led me to re- read her novel, may we be forgiven and enjoy it all over again. In fact I enjoyed it more on the second reading after hearing her speak about her interest in exploring things from a male perspective and knowing that aspects of the novel (his web based sexual adventures) were based on real life according to her research). But hearing her talk about her own life made me interested in this memoir. And I liked it a lot. I am amazed by the capacity demonstrated by the best writers of memoirs of looking coldly and clearly at oneself. How hard must it be to write objectively about these most personal of circumstances including your own emotional responses to rejection. A M Homes is, as the title of this book suggests, the daughter of a mistress. She is told this by her adoptive mother one day – out of the blue – when she is a young woman. It comes as a something of a bombshell. She takes us with her on her own mental journey about what to do with this knowledge. And goes on to describe her meeting with both her natural mother and her natural father. Both of whom display major inadequacies in the parental department. But it is her interrogation of herself that is quite arresting. Trying to work out what she wants, expects and is entitled to. So brave I think. She is very discreet about her adoptive parents. This is not about them. And they come over as decent, loving people. But knowing her ‘real’ parents turns the author’s life upside dow. It discombobulated her. And she has to find her own way through it. Mostly on her own. Sometimes with help from friends. She finds she looks like her father – the evidence is there in the photos. He draws her in, pushes her away. Her mother is fragile – alone, disappearing before her eyes. It’s all heartbreaking. Beautifully written – with a cold, clear eye.

Gary Shteyngart, he of the unpronounceable name, is another author I saw speak at the Wheeler Centre, but only after I’d read is memoir, Little Failure. I love the cover of this book and there are other great photos inside.

I’d never heard of him before reading this, but he’s written a number of best- sellers apparently. I loved this book. He’s so self deprecating. Also ruthlessly honest about his personal failings through adolescence and early adulthood. Who could bear to be so truthful about such awkward times. The title comes from the the nickname his parents coined for him. Great for his self esteem! But according to Gary it’s a common thing within immigrant families. His parents were Russian Jews rescued from the clutches of communism by, of all people, Jimmy Carter. Gary was born in Leningrad. A place I’ve visited when it was still known by that name. This book is a wonderful depiction of the trials and tribulations of any immigrant family. But overlaid with the additional anxieties and misapprehensions of those escaping communism and those who are Jewish. I wanted to know more about his parents – they seem to be amazing characters. The boy juggles high parental expectations and acceptance by his peers – an impossible task. He goes from outcast to comedian at primary school – depicted here as a completely outlandish place. Then gains some measure of acceptance at an incredibly competitive high school before ending up at the quintessentially liberal university depicted in the movie The Liberal Arts. The book includes visits by the author back to Leningrad and eventually a family visit. It is in turn extremely funny and inordinately sad – and evokes all the emotions in between. The author is a bit hazy about how he came to be successful – but successful he now certainly is.

I really enjoyed Love Nina: Despatches from Family Life, byNina Stibbe.

I knew a little about the family that Ms Stibbe was baby sitter for because I’ve read The Ettingons by Mary KayWilmer, the editor of the London Review of Books. This is a memoir written entirely in epistolary form – that is, through letters. These are presented as contemporaneous notes written by Nina to her sister over the course of years she spent as a nanny to Mary-Kay’s two sons. One of whom has an undisclosed medical condition that requires pretty intensive medical treatment or therapy. You can google it later and discover more detail about that, but it’s not necessary for the book. Which stands on its own. I wonder how much re-working of the original letters was required. They describe the daily goings on in the household – mostly through verbatim recollections of dinner conversations. Mary-Kay comes across as highly original and quirky on most matters on the domestic and parenting front. The playwright Alan Bennett is a regular guest. Other moderately famous people come and go such as Jonathon Miller who is a neighbour. The tone throughout is of the simple country girl observing these sophisticated but strange city folk going about their daily lives. The conversations recorded are very funny. A really delightful book. With a very upbeat ending as our nanny goes on to bigger and better things.

The Impossible Exile, by George Prochnik is mostly biography but has autobiographical elements interspersed. There should be a name for such books. It

is an excellent complement to Stefan Zweig’s own biography, The World of Yesterday which I loved. It doesn’t repeat the ordinary biographical details beyond the barest outline. Rather it focuses on particular episodes to demonstrate the impact these had on the writer. Fleshing out the context in which Stefan was operating as a way of explaining the reasons for his actions and attitudes. An innovative and sophisticated approach to biography. I suppose it is really for aficionados of the subject of the biography who have a good knowledge of the person. I’m not sure how someone who knows nothing about Zweig would find this book but I loved it. George Prochink’s own family history is included where it replicates or reflects similarities with Zweig’s. There are also pictures of the places that were important in Zweig’s life that Prochnik visits. In particular the book seeks to explain, or at least throw some light on, the reason why Zeig took his life in far away Brazil towards the end of the war. I think the explanation for that almost incomprehensible act, is that he couldn’t bear to recreate himself all over again, having already done so once after the First World War. Either way this wonderful book helps us make some sense of what was an amazing life. One that should be better known.

I found Shy, by Sian Prior both entertaining and illuminating.

Once again it has that detachment from the self that allows a really honest account of very personal things. Like heartache and the end of a relationship. In this case it includes what it’s like to be in a relationship with a well known figure in the public eye and then have to deal with the ending of that relationship. At the same time Sian describes what seems at first glance to be incomprehensible – how an accomplished journalist and broadcaster can suffer from crippling shyness. It’s very educational but in an engaging and entertaining way. Information about different aspects of shyness are delivered in a variety of ways. What causes a person to be shy? What sorts of strategies can help a shy person manage to do things that come naturally to most people? The tiny word ‘shy’ doesn’t seem sufficient to describe what is a real affliction. Sian proposes answers to some of the questions she puts through conversations with people – Sian’s mother, psychologists. And by quoting from research or correspondence with academics on the subject. It’s all very interesting but never stodgy. Alongside we get details of her life – a very ‘Melbourne’ sort of life it is too. The Trade Union choir, St Kilda, Carlton, the ABC. I don’t really know why I think that but I do. I think this is a very courageous book. And I learnt a lot from reading it.

Not My Father’s Son, by Alan Cumming was quite confronting in its depiction of emotional (and in some instances, physical) abuse by a father towards his sons and wife.

Cumming is an actor (on the Good Wife Television series amongst other things) but I’m not familiar with his work. However he can write and put together a compelling story. Reminisces from his brutal childhood are interspersed with his experience as a subject on the BBC documentary show Who Do You Think You Are?. He’s following up his mother’s forebears and at the same time dealing with more immediate questions arising from a claim his father throws at him. At a time when family violence is coming under the public and hopefully political spotlight this memoir shows how it can be an intensely private thing. It’s hard to understand why those around a child victim, as Alan clearly was, can’t, or won’t, recognise it and do something to help out. A man’s home is his castle still. And as Alan shows, his family conspires to help him make it so. I hope the State Government’s Royal Commission will provide some answers. The real triumph of this book is how it shows the pervasiveness of emotional abuse – he describes the all pervading atmosphere of fear generated by his father. The not knowing what sort of mood he would be in – then the clear knowledge that he’s spoiling for a fight and there’s nothing you (or anyone) can do to prevent it. Terrible. This makes the book sound grim but it wasn’t. There’s plenty of humour and strong and loving relationships between Alan and his brother and their mother that give light against the shade. The book is also a whodunit of sorts – due to the curved ball thrown by the father which is hinted at in the title. It keeps you guessing until the end. And the family history that Alan is uncovering for the television show is interesting – as is the way the producers put the show together. The celebrity family member is kept in suspense at critical points – including being carted around the globe – so the shock and other emotion you witness when identities or circumstances are revealed at last are real. Who knew?!

I have read some of Lynn Barber’s interviews from time to time – there’s one of a woman politician that is cringeworthy (for what it reveals about the polly) – but not enough to appreciate why she is so lauded by her peers. Those collected in A Curious Career illustrate exactly why.

They are deceptively gentle affairs but the accretion of small details builds to an often devastating portrayal. There’s one here of Rafael Nadal that will make you look at him in a different light next time you see him (possibly soon, here in Melbourne at the Australian Open). And poor Martin Clunes from Doc Martin fame! However the book is made up of more than just interviews. This is the second instalment of her autobiography. The film An Education was made out of her first effort (and what an amazing story that was – her telling of it was much darker than the film). This volume includes quite a lot about the art of interviewing. It includes chapters on the quirks and particular characteristics of different categories of interviewees – sportspeople, actors etc. All of which is very illuminating and interesting. She can be generous – as here with Christopher Hitchens (including a funny aside about her daughter’s ignorance about who Hitchens is) and also Hilary Mantel. She’s also prepared to go to great lengths to get an interview – like going on a bender with the lead singer for the Pogues. But she’s ever observant and always perceptive. I’m sure I wouldn’t like to be interviewed by her at all.

Chequered Lives by Iola Mathews and Chris Durant is another biography – of a family and a colony. But it also has an autobiographical element being the story of Iola’s great, great grandfather and great, great-uncle.

And what a compelling story that is! I loved this book. So much historical research has been synthesized into a gripping tale of rags to riches to rags – well perhaps overall from middling income to middling income but there were riches and rags in the middle. The background to the decision to emigrate is drawn from letters and other records. What a big decision that is for such young men. And for a new bride. Mostly for health reasons here. But Australia was such a gamble! Early on entrepreneurial spirit paid off as the brothers hauled newly arrived residents from beach to the new settlement of Adelaide. And they went from strength to strength finally residing in the pretty farm on the cover of the book – one of the earliest paintings of Adelaide. Enthusiastic letters home encouraged more family and friends to come out. Families grow as more and more children are born. But so many die! It’s heartbreaking. As is the fall from grace – I couldn’t bear to read it. The family is thrown out of the great house into bare subsistence in a hovel. This is great human drama, giving real life to Australian history. I loved it.

I read two volumes of autobiography by Angelica Huston ver the course of the year, one early on and the other recently – A Story Lately Told and Watch Me.

She is such a striking looking woman and clearly fiercely intelligent. But what a life! All her father’s fault I’d say. I was familiar with much of what she writes about in the first volume, having read her sister Allegra Huston’s memoir, Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found which covered their childhood up to when Angelica was with Jack Nicholson and having a fling with Ryan O’Neill. But it was interesting to read Angelica’s perspective. Idyllic childhood in Ireland but always at the behest of the domineering father who could be brutal with them all. Then modelling – very clear-eyed about the lack of glamour in that. Hooking up with a photographer who spiralled downhill through drug addiction and paranoia. Why was it so hard for her to escape from him? Dad helped engineer the final split. Then humiliating early years of acting – Dad didn’t help! She eventually made her own way and was accepted on her own terms as a professional. But still dancing around men – Jack, Ryan, Jack. Finally happiness with an artist called Bob Graham – which is when the final volume falls away a bit. It’s hard to write about happiness. I’d have liked more about the making of her films. There are bits and pieces – making The Dead with her father, the television series Lonesome Dove, a film she’s proud of, The Grifters, The Addams Family (mostly about the difficulty with the costume – she couldn’t move) and a snippet about working with Wes Anderson. But I’d have liked more of the craft. There are some nice pictures.

Finally another duo. The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, by Edmund White and his more recent Inside of a Pearl.

I enjoyed the first one very much. Read en route to Paris and we followed many of his suggestions for where to walk and what to see. I found the characters described in the second volume a bit too weird and whacky. But there were still insights into French customs and mores that were interesting.

I also read a biography of Collette while in Paris by an Australian author which I thought was published by Hardie Grant but I can find no trace of it on the Internet which is a mystery. It was beautifully produced with a handsome hard back cover, good quality paper and lovely pictures (the future for paper books I reckon). I left it in Paris as it was too large and heavy to pack on the homeward journey. It told Collette’s story succinctly and well. What a woman! She overcame a lot of hurdles to make a successful life. Ahead of her time. I haven’t read any of her work. But I was pleased to learn about her life and we got to see two of the places she lived in. It also had bits of the author’s own story interspersed – less successfully I think because the parallels with Collette were not as evident.


One Response to Books 2014 (2) Mostly Memoirs

  1. Iola says:

    Thanks for the reviews Jenny! ‘Colette’s France’ is by Jane Gilmour.

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