Who are your favourite memoir writers?

I need your feedback!

As a life writing mentor I’m often asked who are my favourite memoir writers. So, I’m creating a list starting with five of my old favourites. I’ll eventually post the list on Skeletons & Dirty Linen

After a lifetime of reading it was quite hard to narrow down my choices, and it was only after I made my selection I realised every writer I had chosen has their own unique voice.  This showed me where my heart really lies when it comes to reading. I’ve included some examples so you’ll see what I mean.

Let me know your favourites so I can add yours to the list. Tell me why if you have the time.

1. Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi
“Greece is not a small country – it is impressively vast. No country I have visited has given me such sense of grandeur. Size is not created by mileage always… Greece could swallow both the United States and Europe. Greece is a little like China or India…”

2. Amos Oz
“The city, Jerusalem, where people schlepped along the streets: “If we picked up our foot someone else might come along and snatch our little strip of land. On the other hand, once you have lifted your foot, do not be in a hurry to put it down again… time and time again we have fallen into the hands of our enemies because we put our foot down without looking where we were putting them.”

3. Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”

4. Janet Frame, Angel at My Table
“From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction always toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.”

5. Austin Burroughs, Running with Scissors
“My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished and ready; like Jean Nate, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick. Her white, handgun-shaped blow-dryer is lying on top of the wicker clothes hamper, ticking as it cools. She stands back and smoothes her hands down the front of her swirling, psychedelic Pucci dress, biting the inside of her cheek. “Damn it,” she says, “something isn’t right.”

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9 Responses to “Who are your favourite memoir writers?”

  • What a pleasant task it is to think about your question, Eileen.

    There are some memoirs that I hold dear for their message–Paul Rusesabagina’s An Ordinary Man, ghosted by Tom Zoellner, telling the events filmed as Hotel Rwanda, springs to mind, as does Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness.

    In others, as with those below, the world-view is still important but the writing alone would be reason enough to read them. Thinking about them as a group, the common thread is compassionate curiosity. In no particular order:

    1. Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham and
    2. Unstrung Heroes by Franz Lidz.
    Both deal with great loss in childhood and both feature much loved uncles who are eccentric to the point of mental illness. In lesser hands these stories would have been (no doubt heartfelt but that’s never enough) misery memoirs. Instead they are funny and sweet as well as very moving. Both writers capture the child’s point of view wonderfully, with never a false note. Along with the deftness of the writing, the sense of perspective and love that each author brings to their own story, as well as the oddball details of their day to day lives, has stayed with me for a long time.

    3. A Fence Around the Cuckoo and 4. Fishing in the Styx by Ruth Park.
    Ruth Park is the embodiment of compassionate curiosity. In her two volumes of memoir she often describes times that are very had indeed, but her focus is always on others: she looks, notices, thinks and yearns to make things better. She’s fallible and funny, but her spirit shines through and her eye for the telling detail is a gift she honed.

    5. About This Life by Barry Lopez, 6. I Came, I Saw by Norman Lewis and 7. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
    The brilliant nature writer Lopez hasn’t turned out a traditional memoir here, but I couldn’t omit this book of essays which weave together formative experiences from his own life with his deep and deeply intelligent observations about the natural world. It is memoir and its control of form is estimable.
    Norman Lewis and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books are often classified as travel rather than memoir, but don’t be fooled. They each had experiences which are literally unrepeatable because the world has changed so much since they undertook their extraordinary journeys (Fermor across Europe on foot in 1933; Lewis in North Africa and Europe during and after the war, preceded by his often bizarre childhood in Wales).
    PLF can be descriptive to the point of stretching a friendship if you were to approach the book in an impatient mood. But if you sink into it and follow his lead it’s a sheer delight. Like A Time for Gifts, Lewis’ book is also historically valuable (French troops massacring Arabs in Philippeville, etc) and very beautifully written, thanks to that all-important eye for detail and his ability to find just the right image: “The sluggish old Army Norton copes somehow with the gradients and carries me into an entranced landscape from the dawn of history, pristine and empty of humanity, massed with cork oaks, with deer and wild goats scrambling on the mountain sides and eagles swinging like pendulums in the sky.”

    Then there’s Nabokov, Jessica Mitford and many other personal touchstones, but I’m sure that’s enough to be going on with.

  • Eileen:

    What a brilliant contribution Hazel. I had forgotten about Jessica Mitford and Ruth Park. Most of my books are in storage at the moment, as are these two. I’ve just joined the local library and I’ll go and borrow a couple of these shortly. Your nature writer Lopez reminded me of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

  • Hi Eileen:

    I only have one contribution to this discussion at the moment. My absolute favourite teller of her own story is Maya Angelou. She’s written two: “Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now” and “Even the Stars Look Lonesome”. Both excellent, engaging and touching reads.

  • Kris Olsson:

    Vivian Gornick, ‘Fierce Attachments’; Rick Moody, ‘The Black Veil’; Michael Ondaatje, ‘Running in the Family’; Mary Karr, ‘The Liars Club’, Raimond Gaita, ‘Romulus, My Father’, James McBride, ‘The Colour of Water’. More of course, but these were on my desk over the past several years…and mainly for their voice too, Eileen. What a lovely idea; yours and Hazel’s have taken me back to old friends and introduced me to new ones.

  • Eileen:

    Hi Kris

    Thanks for your picks. This is turning into a veritable feast. I’ve read Vivian Gornick’s ‘The Situation and the Story’ and the lovely Raymond Gaita, but not the others.

  • Carolynn King:

    Hi Eileen
    Thank you again for taking my mind off on a new little jaunt -thinking now-
    Firstly exactly what is memoir and what is not? Secondly what on earth have I been reading the last five years? Thirdly where are some of my treasured reads – surely I have not handed them out of my possession?
    I think the intrigue of the story can override the uniqueness (or not) of the voice. I know after I had heard a wonderful live interview with Susan Swingler at SWF last year I fed like a glutton on the story as it unfolded in The House of Fiction. I was fascinated with the process of the research and the chase of the history of a possession in The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund da Waal and serendipitously I picked up The Boy with No Shoes by William Horwood at a junk shop in Woolgoolga of all places which simply drove me to tears -humour, horror, truth! In this true story the author explains his reason for changing all names – people and places – this decision allowed him to adopt a disguise, fill in the gaps, paper over the cracks and visit places of emotion he would never otherwise have reached!
    I’m still thinking and I have a whole new list of must-reads thanks to all the other fascinating contributions!

  • bruce Sutton:

    Hi Eileen,

    I can’t say that I have particular favourite writers of memoirs, and I haven’t ever really given much thought to a list of books for this genre. But, as an instant reaction to your question, what comes to mind is:

    Confessions of Anthony Burgess (2 Volumes) – moving past the garish, pop exposè sounding title, this book surprised me. I didn’t have a good impression of Burgess prior to reading, he had always come across as a boozy, self-indulgent, middle-class English snob a la Kingsley Amis, &, more annoyingly, he had been quite dismissive of Australian literature in that old patronising way some English people have with ‘colonials’. But the memoirs were ‘unputdownable’ for me! I found the story of his struggle to evolve from a procrastinating “gentleman hobby writer”, with hardly anything worthwhile published, to a professional writer captivating. I particularly found the catalyst for this metamorphosis fascinating. In the late 1950s Burgess was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, his reaction was to immediately take up writing full-time, and churn out five novels over the course of a single year. The diagnosis eventually proved to be wrong (a “pseudo-terminal tumour” Burgess called it), but he continued to produce a book a year until his death 35 years later. What a way to kick-start your career! Burgess was somewhat elitist & not particularly likeable, but the ‘Confessions’ were a frank, interesting and really well-written self-appraisal of his life and writing.

    Dear Me, Peter Ustinov – I read this decades ago, it was the first memoir I had read where the author had adopted the technique of addressing himself throughout the book, a sort of conversation with the mirror. In less skilled hands this could have quickly become quite tedious, but it worked fine! Ustinov emerges as a modern Renaissance man, accomplished to the point of being a virtuoso at a number of different things. A man with pride, but one who doesn’t take himself too seriously, as his witty insights (ever close to the surface) and self-depreciating manner shows (Ustinov always saw a nexus here, saying that “comedy is simply a funny way of being serious”). It was intriguing to see that Ustinov, something of a cultivated, multilingual outsider (part-Russian, German, Swiss & Ethiopian – from London), was able to fit in so well in the less than cerebral environment of Hollywood in the 50s and 60s (quintessential tough guy actor Humphrey Bogart of all people was one of his closest friends). Ustinov had a testy relationship with his father who was stern towards Peter & extremely strong-willed (so much so, according to Dear Me, that Ustinov Pater willed himself to die one hour before he reached his 70th birthday!). Ustinov’s memoirs are full of wonderful anecdotes about his other eccentric relatives and acquaintances, full of wit and charm and dispaying his great gift for mimicry of others. I remember it as a terrific read.

    Cheers.

    Bruce

  • Denise Davies:

    Somehow missed this e a month ago. Discovered it whilst attempting to come to terms with Windows 8 on my new laptop. I prefer fiction to memoir/biography/autobiography and so my first instinct was to delete and spend an hour clearing my e’s. But first, I told myself, have a quick look through the bookcases and see what’s on the shelves. Oh ho and two hours later I’ve come across five worth mentioning.

    1. Soledad Brother. The Prison Letters of George Jackson. Been in my library since the 70′s. I remember crying my way through this book. It had everything I was passionate about in the 70′s, injustice, underdogs, incarceration, rebellion and revolution.
    2. Lech Walesa. A Way of Hope. And the passion continued through the 80′s.
    3.Clifton Pugh. Patterns of a Lifetime. I had just begun studying sculpture with Tom Bass when I read this and the mixture of politics and creativity (a flow on from Tom’s studio) made this a heady read.
    4.Les Murray. A Life in Progress. And so we move into the 2000′s and Les Murray ticks all the boxes, creative, political, funny and vulnerable. His inner monologues are a treat and his self portrait so apt. ‘Dreambabwe’
    Streaming, a hippo surfaces
    like the head of someone
    lifting, with still entranced eyes,
    from a lake of stanzas.
    I love him to bits.
    5. John Elder Robison. Look Me in the Eye. Brother to Burroughs. I read this in the bus on my way to and from work. Several times I laughed out loud before I could stop myself and three people asked me to write down the name of the book. If I ever have a book published I’ll have to remember that as a marketing tool.
    Well, that was fun. Thanks Eileen.

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About Eileen Naseby

eileennaseby

In 2006 Murdoch Books published ‘Ursula- A Voyage of Love and Danger’, my mother’s memoir. I am now in the process of completing a work of fiction.

Email me at: en(at)eileennaseby(dot)com

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