The Fragments of my Father by Sam Mills is a memoir about the author’s experience of being a carer for both of her parents in different circumstances. Her father has had mental health problems including schizophrenia since she was a child. Her mother was later diagnosed with cancer and died in 2012, after which Mills became the main carer for her father. Mills interweaves a bit of literary biography of Virginia and Leonard Woolf and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and how their relationships were shaped by caring responsibilities. I might have expected the literary biography elements to feel like unnecessary padding to the book, but Mills makes a convincing case that Leonard has sometimes been unfairly portrayed as a controlling husband when Virginia’s illness meant that he had to make difficult decisions in her interests in his role as her carer. Mills also explores the impact of being a carer on her own creative life as a novelist as well as setting up and running the indie publisher Dodo Ink. She is very frank about the guilt she feels when taking even the briefest break away from her caring duties and how this has affected her relationships with other people. With around 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK alone, ‘The Fragments of my Father’ makes an exceptionally strong case towards the need to improve financial and emotional support for those making personal sacrifices every day in order to provide care for their loved ones.
Tag Archives: Autobiography
In between books from the Young Writer of the Year shortlist, I have been reading a lot of non-fiction during the November lockdown. The Cubans by Anthony DePalma is a narrative non-fiction account of the everyday lives of Cuban citizens in recent decades. It follows a handful of families based in the Havana suburb of Guanabacoa including an artist called Arturo, an engineer and company vice-president called Cart, and Jorge, who lost several close relatives when the 13 de marzo tugboat sank off the coast as dozens of Cubans attempted to leave for the United States. DePalma explains he has “set out not to bash the Cuban regime but to give voice to individuals whose lives have been overshadowed by those towering historical figures”. It is certainly true that Fidel Castro is instantly recognisable outside Cuba, whereas the dire economic consequences of the Special Period in the early 1990s and the reality of the restrictions placed on Cuban citizens are not as widely known or understood. This is reflected in the range of English-language books about Cuba which almost always focus on the country’s leadership rather than modern Cuba more generally, and this excellent account is a step in the right direction towards redressing that balance. Continue reading
I have read two memoirs written by actresses recently, namely Zawe Ashton and Mara Wilson. Despite their very different career paths, both clearly have mixed feelings about the industry and how it operates.
Zawe Ashton’s memoir ‘Character Breakdown’ has an unusual but brilliant structure switching between prose sections about different auditions and roles she has played, and scenes from her life in the form of a play script as she makes the transition to roles in Hollywood. Each chapter begins with the “character breakdown” of the audition – in other words, a short description of the role and the type of actor they are looking to cast. Some chapters are about the auditions or roles themselves, and others draw on events in her life at the time. Continue reading
‘Gotta Get Theroux This: My Life and Strange Times in Television’ is Louis Theroux’s memoir reflecting on over twenty years of making television documentaries. His career began in 1994 with a one-off segment on Michael Moore’s ‘TV Nation’ on apocalyptic religious sects followed by the ‘Weird Weekends’ series which focused on odd aspects of Americana. More recently, he has moved towards documentaries about hard-hitting topics such as eating disorders and addiction. Continue reading
I have read two non-fiction books recently which both draw on regular newspaper columns penned by their authors. In April 2010, at the age of 52, journalist Melanie Reid broke her neck and fractured her back after falling from a horse, spending nearly a year in a high-dependency spinal unit. She is now a tetraplegic, permanently paralysed from the top of her chest downwards and will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. She has documented her experience of adult-acquired disability in her ‘Spinal Column’ in the Times for several years now. Her memoir ‘The World I Fell Out Of’ draws on those articles but also provides a fuller account of how her life changed following the accident. Continue reading
‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama is already one of the bestselling memoirs of all time selling nearly 10 million copies just four months after it was first published towards the end of 2018. Rebecca, Laura and I optimistically attempted to get tickets for the former First Lady’s sell-out talk with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Southbank Centre in December along with a mere 44,000 other people. We were, of course, unsuccessful, but I eventually got hold of a library copy of the much talked-about memoir which is split into three parts. “Becoming Me” covers her childhood growing up in the South Side of Chicago, college years at Princeton and Harvard and early legal career. “Becoming Us” begins with her meeting Barack Obama in the late 1980s through to the 2008 presidential election and “Becoming More” which covers the two terms spent at the White House. Continue reading
I had heard of ‘Educated’ before it was longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize but hadn’t considered Tara Westover’s widely acclaimed memoir of her childhood growing up in a Mormon fundamentalist family in rural Idaho as a possible contender. Although not immediately obvious from the title or basic premise of the book, there are numerous connections to the main thematic criteria of the prize related to health. Isolated from mainstream society by radical survivalist parents, Westover and her six older siblings didn’t attend school and the family never saw doctors – even serious incidents like car accidents and third degree burns were treated at home with her mother’s herbal tinctures rather than at hospital. She didn’t receive a birth certificate until she was nine years old and spent most of her time working at her father’s junkyard, later studying independently at home. Continue reading
2018 marks the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth and I have recently read her autobiography ‘Curriculum Vitae’ and one of her most famous novels ‘The Driver’s Seat’ which was first published in 1970. The main protagonist, Lise, is in her mid-thirties and is unhappy with her dead-end job. She hops on a plane to an unnamed southern European city looking for adventure and has a series of odd interactions with even odder people she meets along the way. Spark ingeniously drops a massive spoiler at the beginning of the third chapter in which it is casually stated that Lise “will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.” The narrative then continues as if this information had never been mentioned and the mystery of who the perpetrator is and how and why the murder occurs isn’t revealed until the final paragraphs. Continue reading
Shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize earlier this year and winner of the Wainwright Prize, The Outrun by Amy Liptrot is a memoir about her descent into alcoholism and subsequent recovery after returning to her childhood home of Orkney at the age of thirty. There is a stark contrast between Liptrot’s hipster lifestyle in east London in her twenties where her addiction to alcohol led to relationship breakdowns, job losses and a driving conviction and the contemplative days spent observing corncrakes and living on the remote island of Papa Westray with a population of just seventy. Above all, it is a book which explores the meaning of connections, whether it is through people, places, drugs, wildlife or technology. Much like the excellent H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, it successfully brings together a moving narrative of trauma with nature appreciation and could be a contender for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction (formerly known as the Samuel Johnson Prize) ahead of the longlist announcement next month. Continue reading
Jean Lucey Pratt was born in October 1909 and began writing her journal in 1925, filling up 45 exercise books until her death in 1986. Her diaries have been edited by Simon Garfield in the collection ‘A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt’. As a young woman, she lived with her widowed father in Wembley before going on to study architecture and pursuing a career in journalism in London. She moved to a cottage near Slough in 1939, taking a job in the publicity department at a metals company during the Second World War and later ran her own bookshop. However, it was her ongoing search for a husband which preoccupied her the most throughout much of her adult life. Continue reading
‘Dead Babies and Seaside Towns’ is Alice Jolly’s memoir about her attempts to have a second child. When her first son Thomas is two years old, Jolly falls pregnant again but a scan reveals that the placenta has become partly detached. Her daughter, Laura, was stillborn in 2005, twenty-four weeks into the pregnancy. After several miscarriages, rounds of IVF treatment and failed attempts to adopt, Jolly had a daughter named Hope born in 2011 to a surrogate mother in Minnesota using a donor egg. Continue reading
‘In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom’ is Yeonmi Park’s account of how she escaped from North Korea when she was thirteen years old. Born in 1993, Park left Hyesan with her mother in an attempt to track down her older sister Eunmi who had already defected. However, they were sold to traffickers in China where they both experienced horrific abuse. Two years later, they fled across the Gobi desert to Mongolia before arriving in South Korea where Park has since become a leading human rights activist. Continue reading
I’ve been reading more non-fiction and more translated fiction this year but not very much translated non-fiction. After reading Flemish author Erwin’ Mortier’s ‘While the Gods Were Sleeping‘ earlier this year which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, I got hold of a copy of ‘Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book of Hours’ which is Mortier’s personal memoir documenting his mother’s diagnosis, decline and death from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 65. Originally published in 2011, it has recently been translated from Dutch into English for the first time by Paul Vincent and has been longlisted for the Green Carnation Prize this week which celebrates LGBT writing.
The longlist for this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction was announced today. The twelve books are:Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance by Robert Gildea Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World by Oliver Morton Guantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia by Peter Pomerantsev They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper by Bruce Robinson The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World by Laurence Scott Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How to Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently by Steve Silberman The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq by Emma Sky Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Tim Snyder This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War by Samanth Subramanian
‘This Boy’ is Alan Johnson’s memoir of his childhood growing up in poverty in North Kensington during the 1950s and early 1960s. His womanising father Steve was mostly absent and his mother Lily struggled to provide a better life for her children whilst suffering from a chronic heart condition. After she died at the age of forty-two when Johnson was thirteen, his sixteen-year-old sister Linda fought for them to stay together in their own council flat despite their young age. Continue reading
As a commuter in London, I automatically assume that strangers who are trying to talk to me or distract me are probably attempting to pickpocket me. However, for the first time ever on my way home from work recently, I was briefly stopped by a stranger at a train station who commented on the book I was reading. He noticed I was holding a copy of ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald and just said “Great book! Really great book!” At the time, I was just over half way through it and had already arrived at this conclusion. I quickly said “Yes, I’m really enjoying it!” before we went our separate ways. Continue reading
I enjoyed ‘The Circle‘ by Dave Eggers earlier this year but it has to be said that the core message about the evils of the Internet was pretty overdone. However, what Eggers lacks in subtlety, he makes up for in irony and it’s therefore unsurprising that he gave his memoir the title ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’. First published in 2000, this was Eggers’ first book which is a loose account of his life following the deaths of his parents from cancer in the early 1990s within six weeks of each other. At the age of twenty-one, Eggers found himself to be the unofficial guardian of his eight-year-old brother Christopher known as Toph. They moved from the suburbs of Chicago to California where Eggers later co-founded the satirical magazine ‘Might’. Continue reading
‘Hard Choices’ is Hillary Rodham Clinton’s account of the challenges she faced as America’s 67th Secretary of State between 2009 and 2013 during Barack Obama’s first term as President of the United States. Covering major world events including the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and the continuing global challenges of climate change and poverty, ‘Hard Choices’ charts Clinton’s first-hand experience of foreign affairs and outlines her approach to diplomacy based on “smart power” using a combination of “hard power” in the form of actions and “soft power” through discussions. Continue reading
‘A Man in Love’ is the second book in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle six-part autobiographical series of novels. This particular volume focuses on Knausgaard’s relationship with his second wife, Linda, and their life in Stockholm with their three young children. At the time, Knausgaard had recently published his first novel to widespread critical acclaim but was finding it difficult to balance the demands of his domestic life with his writing. Continue reading
Even though I love music, I rarely seek out autobiographies or biographies about musicians. In fact, I don’t think I have read any books even vaguely related to music since starting this blog over eighteen months ago. However, I love love LOVE Tracey Thorn and was very excited to get hold of a copy of her memoir ‘Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a popstar’ at the library this week. If her writing was half as eloquent and understated as her songwriting, then I knew I would be in for a treat. Continue reading