Category Archives: 100 Must-Read Memoirs

Read 226 of 2021. Featherhood: A Memoir of Two Fathers and a Magpie by Charlie Gilmour

Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour

Title: Featherhood: A Memoir of Two Fathers and a Magpie
Author: Charlie Gilmour
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN: 978-1501198502
Genre: Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

I first heard of this book by going through the Wainwright Prize 2021 shortlist in the Nature Writing category. I was taken in by what the synopsis said and couldn’t wait to read it. Also, I didn’t realize till much later that Charlie Gilmour is the adoptive son of David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame and all that.  

Featherhood, however is not about David Gilmour and his relationship with Charlie. It is about Charlie, his biological father Heathcote Williams and of Charlie being a parent to a magpie named Benzene. This is why Featherhood. This book of course reminded me of H is for Hawk as it should, but only at the beginning. When Charlie’s voice took over, I forgot everything else. 

Why do people abandon people? Why do biological fathers leave? What happens when you do not love enough? Charlie attempts to answer these questions and more by also taking care of Benzene and also somehow figuring his biological father. Charlie is left to figure Heathcote after his death – through papers, by meeting people, and his memories of him. And there are no closures. That is the beauty of the writing. 

Charlie doesn’t focus much on his relationship with David. So fans of Floyd might be a bit disappointed there. However, my favourite parts are the ones with Benzene. How does one take care of a magpie? How does it become a part of your world, almost becoming your world? As Benzene grows up, we also see a change in Charlie’s perspective to life and he finds humour in things than being pensive. Benzene provides Charlie with love, care, empathy, and more than anything confidence and self-esteem.

Having lost a parent, I know what it is like. I could sense Charlie’s confusion to some extent, since he wasn’t close to Heathcote and hadn’t known him at all. At the same time, the way he raises Benzene is so reflective of what he has with David.

Featherhood is beautiful. I read it slowly and took time with it, page by page. It is one of those books that left me with a smile at the end of it.

Read 225 of 2021. Strangers on a Pier: Portrait of a Family by Tash Aw

Strangers on a Pier by Tash Aw

Title: Strangers on a Pier: Portrait of a Family Author: Tash Aw
Publisher: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins 
ISBN: 978-0008421274
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 96
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

I will now read more of Tash Aw. There is something about reading another’s family, their lives, their experiences in a new country, of how it was, and maybe it is still the same for people who aspire to move, to find roots elsewhere.

When you read about generations of a family and how they live, you relate. Families all over are just the same. Sure, we are different in our own way, but the intersections matter. Whether it is the Malaysian and Chinese heritage of Tash Aw or an Indian Pakistani heritage, somehow it all merges into one big identity.

Strangers on a Pier manages to fit so much in its mere ninety-one pages. From birth to death, Tash Aw tackles it all. These are stories of a family that range from the villages to night clubs to cities and traverse various dialects, customs, and traditions that won’t let go.

The writing is flawless. Every sentence, emotion, and every word are in place. When he speaks of rain, or of exams that have to be given, or explaining the differences between the East and the West, all you want to do is read and when the book ends so soon, you wish it were longer. Through other cultures, Tash Aw bares his culture. Through other ways of being, he speaks of his – dating back generations, and about futures that are so intertwined to the past.

Brother & Sister: A Memoir by Diane Keaton

Brother & Sister - A Memoir by Diane Keaton Title: Brother & Sister: A Memoir
Author: Diane Keaton
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0451494504
Genre: Memoirs, Autobiographies,
Pages: 176
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3/5

I finally got a chance to read Diane Keaton’s memoir of herself and her brother. It brought out a lot of emotions in me as a sibling. This book is of course about the love she has for her brother Randy, but it is also about the love that doesn’t see after a while, the kind that is oblivious to what is going on with the other.

The book starts off with them being an ordinary family – one big sister, one little brother, Mom, Dad, and some more siblings, all in the middle-class California of the 50s. Things are obviously fine on the surface – the picnics, the family trips, the camps, and such as the other side beings to reveal itself. Of how things go wrong – when you grow up, do not keep in touch, become involved in your respective lives, how the brother is diametrically opposite of his sister, and how he lives a life that isn’t considered “normal”.

Brother & Sister is a book about relationships, and how mental health illness and alcoholism can be and is a real threat. This is also seen through the scrapbooks, journals, letters, and photographs kept by Diane’s mother – it is almost a progression of sorts.

Brother & Sister isn’t about judgment as much as it is about trying to understand someone you love so deeply, about what went wrong with them, why did the relationship suffer, and perhaps a way to piece it all together. Sibling relationships aren’t easy at all. But the idea of perhaps confronting demons and deep-diving into the family history to understand relationships and people makes this book so readable, relatable, and extremely relevant.

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid Title: A Small Place
Author: Jamaica Kincaid
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374527075
Genre: Nonfiction, Jamaica Caribbean & West Indies History, Memoir
Pages: 81
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

So, this is my first Kincaid read, and all thanks to the 2020 Reading Women Challenge. Their first prompt is an author from Caribbean or India. Since I’ve read a lot of women from India, I thought let’s give the Caribbean a shot and started with A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid – a rather short, but extremely powerful and engaging book about colonialism and its effects in Antigua. There were so many things I wasn’t aware about Antigua till I read A Small Place, and like I said I was only too happy to read something out of my comfort zone and thereby discover the writing of an author I had intended to read for a while.

A Small Place is a memoir, it is also a history of Antigua in a way, it is also an essay of anger against the people who colonised Antigua, it is also a voice of great empathy that Kincaid has for her country and people. The book begins with an attack on tourists who visit Antigua – what they expect and choose to see versus what the place is.

A Small Place is a short book – but extremely powerful and angry. Kincaid writes about home – about what it meant to her, and what has become of it. Of how the English ruled them, and how their independence has only worsened the situation because of corruption and bureaucracy. Jamaica Kincaid speaks candidly – almost to the point of being brutal – there are no holds barred. The prose comes from an extremely personal space and therefore the writing shines the way it does.

For instance, when she speaks of lack of clean water in the country or even about the beloved old library that was destroyed in an earthquake and how nothing was done to build the new one. And now that there is a new one that has been built (way after the book was published), but there is still doubt if it is open to public or not.

Kincaid’s book is large – very large not only in its scope but also in what it has to say – and how she manages to say it in all in less than hundred pages is nothing short of a feat. That explains the writer she is – succinct, bare-boned, and yet so deeply emotional that every emotion is reflected on paper, and in turn is felt by the reader.

When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt. Translated from the Danish by Denise Newman.

When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back- Carl's Book by Naja Marie Aidt Title: When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book
Author: Naja Marie Aidt
Translated from the Danish by Denise Newman
Publisher: Coffee House Press
ISBN: 978-1566895606
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 152
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

You cannot overcome grief. Grief hangs around, till it decides to leave you. Till such time you cannot get rid of it. It will not let go. As Naja Marie Aidt puts it so eloquently, that it breaks your heart: “Sorrow cannot be cured”.

When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back: Carl’s Book is a book about Naja’s son Carl and how she and her family lost him when he was twenty-five years old. Lost him to what? Lost him to whom? How does one overcome such a loss? Does one really? The answer is always no.

The book is about Carl. His life, his loves, his innocence, his need to be there for everyone, and his love for his friends and family. Naja bares it all. She gives it all to the reader – in the form of Carl’s notes, his poems, her poems, other writer’s works on death, grief, and loss. From Whitman’s poetry (which she found in her son’s green jacket afterward) to Anne Carson and Gilgamesh, this quest is also personal (only personal) – that of understanding the nature of loss and how to cope with it (if there’s a way to it).

We all have different ways to deal with death. How many of us acknowledge the loss and speak of it again and again and again? How many of us choose to ignore what we feel and continue as though nothing has happened? The loss of a loved one cannot be contained. The loss of a child more so.

Naja’s book made me see how I deal with death. How I manage my emotions, what I feel, how I communicate, and what happens to me when someone beloved is no more.

The book tore me severely in so many places. The times she speaks of her son – always so lovingly, the way she speaks of who he was and what he was made of, her anger at her son not being present in the world, how he was buried, the future he could’ve had, the reactions of the family, and more – all of them shook me, made me weep, and made me realise how important it is to tell people you love them – to make them know it again and again and again. Death isn’t easy. Living without is most difficult. We all hold on to scraps of memories. That is all what remains.

And here is Naja Marie Aidt’s interview about the book. A must-watch: