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Ten Great Biographies and Memoirs

I read a lot of non-fiction, and although I sadly don’t have the time to review it all separately, I wanted to collect together ten recommendations in today’s post. These are all books which I have thoroughly enjoyed over the last year or so. They vary somewhat in their focus, but each delighted me, and kept me interested throughout.

  1. The Robin: A Biography by Stephen Moss

‘No other bird is quite so ever-present and familiar, so embedded in our culture, as the robin. With more than six million breeding pairs, the robin is second only to the wren as Britain’s most common bird. It seems to live its life alongside us, in every month and season of the year. But how much do we really know about this bird?

In The Robin Stephen Moss records a year of observing the robin both close to home and in the field to shed light on the hidden life of this apparently familiar bird. We follow its lifecycle from the time it enters the world as an egg, through its time as a nestling and juvenile, to the adult bird; via courtship, song, breeding, feeding, migration – and ultimately, death. At the same time we trace the robin’s relationship with us: how did this particular bird – one of more than 300 species in its huge and diverse family – find its way so deeply and permanently into our nation’s heart and its social and cultural history?

It’s a story that tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the robin itself.’

2. Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter

‘In 1934, the painter Christiane Ritter leaves her comfortable life in Austria and travels to the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen, to spend a year there with her husband. She thinks it will be a relaxing trip, a chance to “read thick books in the remote quiet and, not least, sleep to my heart’s content”, but when Christiane arrives she is shocked to realize that they are to live in a tiny ramshackle hut on the shores of a lonely fjord, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement, battling the elements every day, just to survive.

At first, Christiane is horrified by the freezing cold, the bleak landscape the lack of equipment and supplies… But as time passes, after encounters with bears and seals, long treks over the ice and months on end of perpetual night, she finds herself falling in love with the Arctic’s harsh, otherworldly beauty, gaining a great sense of inner peace and a new appreciation for the sanctity of life.

This rediscovered classic memoir tells the incredible tale of a woman defying society’s expectations to find freedom and peace in the adventure of a lifetime.’

3. A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Sweeney

‘Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend; think Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the world’s best-loved female authors are usually mythologized as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses. Coauthors and real-life friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney prove this wrong, thanks to their discovery of a wealth of surprising collaborations: the friendship between Jane Austen and one of the family servants, playwright Anne Sharp; the daring feminist author Mary Taylor, who shaped the work of Charlotte Brontë; the transatlantic friendship of the seemingly aloof George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, most often portrayed as bitter foes, but who, in fact, enjoyed a complex friendship fired by an underlying erotic charge.

Through letters and diaries that have never been published before, A Secret Sisterhood resurrects these forgotten stories of female friendships. They were sometimes scandalous and volatile, sometimes supportive and inspiring, but always—until now—tantalizingly consigned to the shadows.’

4. Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

‘Shirley Jackson, author of the classic short story The Lottery, was known for her terse, haunting prose. But the writer possessed another side, one which is delightfully exposed in this hilariously charming memoir of her family’s life in rural Vermont. Fans of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Cheaper by the Dozen, and anything Erma Bombeck ever wrote will find much to recognize in Shirley Jackson’s home and neighborhood: children who won’t behave, cars that won’t start, furnaces that break down, a pugnacious corner bully, household help that never stays, and a patient, capable husband who remains lovingly oblivious to the many thousands of things mothers and wives accomplish every single day.”Our house,” writes Jackson, “is old, noisy, and full. When we moved into it we had two children and about five thousand books; I expect that when we finally overflow and move out again we will have perhaps twenty children and easily half a million books.” Jackson’s literary talents are in evidence everywhere, as is her trenchant, unsentimental wit. Yet there is no mistaking the happiness and love in these pages, which are crowded with the raucous voices of an extraordinary family living a wonderfully ordinary life.’

5. Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood by Christa Parravani

‘Christa Parravani was forty years old, in a troubled marriage, and in bad financial straits when she learned she was pregnant with her third child. She and her family were living in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she had taken a professorial position at the local university.

Haunted by a childhood steeped in poverty and violence and by young adult years rocked by the tragic death of her identical twin sister, Christa hoped her professor’s salary and health care might set her and her young family on a safe and steady path. Instead, one year after the birth of her second child, Christa found herself pregnant again. Six weeks into the pregnancy, she requested an abortion. And in the weeks, then months, that followed, nurses obfuscated and doctors refused outright or feared being found out to the point of, ultimately, becoming unavailable to provide Christa with reproductive choice.

By the time Christa understood that she would need to leave West Virginia to obtain a safe, legal abortion, she’d run out of time. She had failed to imagine that she might not have access to reproductive choice in the United States, until it was too late for her, her pregnancy too far along.

So she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Keats. And another frightening education began: available healthcare was dangerously inadequate to her newborn son’s needs; indeed, environmental degradations and poor healthcare endangered Christa’s older children as well.

Loved and Wanted is the passionate story of a woman’s love for her children, and a poignant and bracing look at the difficult choices women in America are forced to make every day, in a nation where policies and a cultural war on women leave them without sufficient agency over their bodies, their futures, and even their hopes for their children’s lives.’

6. A House in the Country by Ruth Adam

‘Six friends have spent the dark, deprived years of World War II fantasising-in air raid shelters and food queues-about an idyllic life in a massive country house. With the coming of peace, they seize on a seductive newspaper ad and take possession of a neglected 33-room manor in Kent, with acres of lavish gardens and an elderly gardener yearning to revive the estate’s glory days. But the realities of managing this behemoth soon dawn, including a knife-wielding maid, unruly pigs, and a paying guest who tells harrowing stories of her time in the French Resistance, not to mention the friends’ conscientious efforts to offer staff a fair 40-hour work week and paid overtime. And then there’s the ghost of an overworked scullery maid . . .

Based on the actual experiences of Ruth Adam, her husband, and their friends, A House in the Country is a witty and touching novel about the perils of dreams come true. But it’s also a constantly entertaining tale packed with fascinating details of post-war life-and about the realities of life in the kind of house most of us only experience via Downton Abbey.’

7. We’ll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to be French by Emma Beddington

‘As a bored, moody teenager, Emma Beddington came across a copy of French ELLE in the library of her austere Yorkshire school. As she turned the pages, full of philosophy, sex and lipstick, she realized that her life had one purpose and one purpose only: she needed to be French.

Instead of skulking in her bedroom listening to The Smiths or trudging to Betty’s Tea Room to buy fondant fancies, she would be free and solitary, sitting outside the Café de Flore with a Scottie dog at her feet, a Moleskine on the table and a Gauloise trembling on her lower lip.

And so she set about becoming French: she did a French exchange, albeit in Casablanca; she studied French history at university, and spent the holidays in France with her French boyfriend. Eventually, after a family tragedy, she found herself living in Paris, with the same French boyfriend and two half-French children. Her dream had come true, but how would reality match up? Gradually Emma realized that she might have found Paris, but what she really needed to find was home.

Written with enormous wit and warmth, this is a memoir for anyone who has ever worn a Breton T-shirt and wondered, however fleetingly, if they could pass for une vraie Parisienne.

8. Hungry by Grace Dent

‘From an early age, Grace Dent was hungry. As a little girl growing up in Currock, Carlisle, she yearned to be something bigger, to go somewhere better.

Hungry traces Grace’s story from growing up eating beige food to becoming one of the much-loved voices on the British food scene. It’s also everyone’s story – from treats with your nan, to cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, to the exquisite joy of cheaply-made apple crumble with custard. It’s the high-point of a chip butty covered in vinegar and too much salt in the school canteen, on an otherwise grey day of double-Maths and cross country running. It’s the real story of how we have all lived, laughed, and eaten over the past 40 years.’

9. Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man by Thomas Page McBee

‘From an award-winning writer whose work bristles with “hard-won strength, insight, agility, and love” (Maggie Nelson), an exquisite and troubling narrative of masculinity, violence, and society.

In this groundbreaking new book, the author, a trans man, trains to fight in a charity match at Madison Square Garden while struggling to untangle the vexed relationship between masculinity and violence. Through his experience boxing—learning to get hit, and to hit back; wrestling with the camaraderie of the gym; confronting the betrayals and strength of his own body—McBee examines the weight of male violence, the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes, and the limitations of conventional masculinity. A wide-ranging exploration of gender in our society, Amateur is ultimately a story of hope, as McBee traces a new way forward, a new kind of masculinity, inside the ring and outside of it.

In this graceful, stunning, and uncompromising exploration of living, fighting, and healing, we gain insight into the stereotypes and shifting realities of masculinity today through the eyes of a new man.’

10. Two Trees Make a Forest: Travels Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts in Search of My Family’s Past by Jessica J. Lee

‘Combining an immersive exploration of nature with captivatingly beautiful prose, Jessica J. Lee embarks on a journey to discover her family’s forgotten history and to connect with the island they once called home.

Taiwan is an island of extremes: towering mountains, lush forests, and barren escarpment. Between shifting tectonic plates and a history rife with tension, the geographical and political landscape is forever evolving. After unearthing a hidden memoir of her grandfather’s life, Jessica J. Lee seeks to piece together the fragments of her family’s history as they moved from China to Taiwan, and then on to Canada. But as she navigates the tumultuous terrain of Taiwan, Lee finds herself having to traverse fissures in language, memory, and history, as she searches for the pieces of her family left behind.

Interlacing a personal narrative with Taiwan’s history and terrain, Two Trees Make a Forest is an intimate examination of the human relationship with geography and nature, and offers an exploration of one woman’s search for history and belonging amidst an ever-shifting landscape.’

Have you read any of these books? Which titles pique your interest? If you have any biographies or memoirs to recommend, please do!

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‘Turning: Lessons from Swimming Berlin’s Lakes’ by Jessica J. Lee ****

I picked up Canadian author Jessica J. Lee’s debut work, Turning: Lessons from Swimming Berlin’s Lakes during a lovely warm summer’s day, and it turned out to be the perfect choice.  Since very much enjoying Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, which is partially a memoir of outdoor swimming, I have been keen to pick up more memoirs along the same theme.  The Times Literary Supplement calls Turning ‘a brilliant debut’, and the New Statesman notes that it is ‘filled with a wonderful melancholy as she swims through lakes laden with dark histories.’

9780349008332Although I chose to read this during the summer, it is seasonally appropriate all year round, as Lee swims ‘through all four seasons.  For her, it is the thrill of a still, turquoise lake, of cracking the ice before submerging, of cool, fresh, spring swimming, of floating under blue skies – of facing past fears of near drowning and of breaking free.’ Turning has been split into four sections which correspond to the seasons, and these are formed by separate chapters, which have lovely emotive titles like ‘under ice’, ‘out of air’, and ‘borderland’.

In this manner, Lee charts an entire year, and over fifty lakes, which she swims in around the city of Berlin.  She moved there as part of her doctoral research, and found such worth in outdoor swimming.  Each of Lee’s chosen lakes has been listed at the beginning of the book, along with a series of illustrated maps which show where they can be found.  Her quest, she explains, has been well planned out; an Excel spreadsheet chronicles a catalogue of lakes, along with instructions of how to get to them, and the best time of year to go.

Lee decided to take up outdoor swimming to try and help with her mental health.  Living in a city on a different continent from most of her friends and all of her family began to take its toll on her, and she reflects: ‘… as I was retreating from the deep end of depression, I surfaced with the bizarre notion that the solution to my problems lay in swimming…  [In Berlin] Hundreds of spots of blue multiplied exponentially as the city lines crept into the surrounding land.  These lakes and rivers – their intricate weave of water laid on to the flat North German Plain by retreating glaciers in the last ice-age – had worked a tiny hook into my heart, and I could do nothing for it but swim.’  She goes on to explain her hopes for her new pursuit: ‘Swimming would be a way of staying with my fears, a way of staying in place.  Above all, I sought to find some balance in it.’

Alongside Lee’s personal experience of swimming is research about ‘how the lake came to be in the landscape, or how its seasonal changes take place’, as well as memories from her past.  At first, these memories all revolve around the water, but she begins to open up about relationships as Turning moves further on.  She discusses the displacement and loneliness which she feels, having moved around a lot, and being far away from her family.  She is continually aware that her time in Berlin is temporary, but this does gently encourage her to make decisions about her future which she feels are for the best.  Swimming gives her a place, a purpose: ‘In the middle of the lake, I’m completely present.  I’m no longer afraid to be alone.  I’ve conditioned myself to the lake, to the cold, to the pain of it.  I can hold it.  I’ve made it mine.’

The prose used at the beginning of the prologue, in which Lee is describing the feeling of being in the water, is sensuous: ‘It slips over me like cool silk.  The intimacy of touch uninhibited, rising around my legs, over my waist, my breasts, up to my collarbone.  When I throw back my head and relax, the lake runs in my ears.  The sound of it is a muffled roar, the vibration of the body amplified by water, every sound felt as if in slow motion.’  In this manner, Lee’s narrative throughout the memoir has such glorious description within it.  She employs this particularly when discovering a new lake, or providing comparisons of swimming in distinct seasons.  She writes: ‘You come ton know the consistent feel of spring and the stagnant warmth at the top of a summer lake.  When the water clears in the autumn, you feel it: the lake feels cleaner on your arms, less like velvet and more like cut glass.  And then winter comes, sharper than ever.  Swimming year-round means greeting the lake’s changes.’  Her descriptions have such a vivacity to them: ‘… I dive off the dock’s edge into the amulet blue, feeling so wholly present in the water that I forget I’m alone, and climb out and ump off again and again until I’m exhausted.’

Alongside her musings on swimming in Berlin, Lee reflects on other lakes which she has swum in.  Of the Ladies’ Pond at Hampstead Heath, for instance, she writes: ‘I began to swim there alone, surrounded by women who seemed stronger than me.  I wanted to be like them: sturdy, no-nonsense, unsentimental.  The pond was opaque and slipped around my body thickly, the water a felted brown.  It was cold and open: a bright circle of relief in the middle of the trees.  I swam out into its centre again and again, out towards the willow and then back towards the dock.  I swam to the lane rope at its farthest edge, watching the cormorants glide through the deep.  The movement was an anaesthetic.’

Part-memoir, part-musing on nature, I cannot recommend Turning enough.  Lee sees each new lake as a gift, which I found wonderful; she never takes her swimming for granted, and even when it does not quite go to plan, there is always a positive that she can find in getting into the water.  Turning is a peaceful and thoughtful read, filled with such beautiful prose.

I found Turning both fascinating and inspirational, and would recommend it to anyone who already loves the outdoors, or wishes to become more outdoorsy.  It has fostered in me the desire to try outdoor swimming for myself; I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to do so in Britain, but I’m hoping to work it into one of my future trips.

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