Category Archives: 100 Must-Read Memoirs

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters by Laura Thompson

The Six Title: The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
Author: Laura Thompson
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 9781250099549
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir,
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

When a non-fiction work reads like fiction, you know you have struck gold on so many levels. “The Six” is a brilliant example of that. First, it is the story of the Mitford sisters. Second, it is superbly written by Laura Thompson. Third, the pace. I have often realized that I get bored in the middle of a memoir or biography and that did not happen even once during the read of this book.

“The Six” as the cover tells you is about the life of the famous Mitford sisters. Born to the 2nd Lord Redesdale between 1904 and 1920, their lives have become synonomous with the darkest periods of history. The Mitford sisters comprised of Nancy, a highly succesful historian and novelist; Pamela, who lead a quiet life suffering from polio and other diseases; the glamorous Diana who broke all rules and divorced her husband; Unity – the most infamously famous who was so taken in by Hitler and his philosophy; Jessica, the communist and Deborah who finally married a Duke and became a Duchess. These were the six Mitford sisters. The book is not just about them though. Thompson magnificently covers history – sneaking up on you between the pages and blending it beautifully with the sisters’ stories.

Thompson covers it all – the glitz and the glamour and the riches to the failed loves and relationships. Nothing has been left out conveniently. A lot of analysis of each sister and their relationship with each other is honestly told and that to me is the highlight of this rivetting read. Thompson does not leave any stone unturned and like I said the writing is easy and yet intense, covering it all and somehow leaving so much room to imagine the ongoings. A read that perhaps may not be for all, but a great one nonetheless.

History of Violence by Édouard Louis. Translated from the French by Lorin Stein.

History of Violence by Édouard Louis Title: History of Violence
Author: Édouard Louis
Translated from the French by Lorin Stein
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374170592
Genre: Literary Memoir, LGBT, Biographical
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It came out of the blue. A sudden kick to my stomach, reverberating throughout my body. It felt personal. It couldn’t have been more real than this. The book had been on my radar for a while now, however, I did not imagine that it would trigger so many emotions or that it would leave me more bereft than ever, once I finished reading it. “History of Violence” by Édouard Louis isn’t an easy book to stomach. Well, any book on rape and its aftermath isn’t easy to digest. You are left with that sinking, horrid feeling and you want something good to happen, but that most of the time isn’t possible, because it is life and it takes its time to heal and repair.

“History of Novel” is a meta non-fiction novel. Yes, it is a genre that I just got to know of once I started reading this book. The review isn’t about the genre. The book is about rape and its aftermath. Édouard Louis was raped in December 2012 on Christmas Eve. “History of Violence” charts the incident in the author’s voice, his sister’s voice (in some chapters) and the way life goes on or doesn’t sometime.

The pathos and the indifference in the book are startlingly dichotomous. Indifference mainly because in so many ways Édouard just wants to distance himself from the incident and yet he cannot stop talking about it to anyone who will listen. That is another way to disassociate, by the way. Pathos because literally no one can understand or maybe no one will. The ideas in this book are many: Of being gay, of racism that is deep-seated in Paris (because the novel is set there and in the author’s home village), of anxiety and fears, of the post-trauma and what it truly means to come back home.

“History of Violence” is very disturbing in most places and rightly so. You can sense Édouard blaming himself, of hating what happened, of trying to make sense of it all and in all of it wondering if life will ever be the same. At the same time, places and interactions seem more intense – be it the nurse at the hospital or the homeless man the author meets in the waiting room, or a basic taxi ride, or even a walk that triggers memories. This book has been written in narratives that shift – past and present merge, so it might seem like a difficult read but it isn’t. If anything, it will make you more empathetic to people around you, if a book is capable of doing that.

What it means to be humane. When the author doesn’t feel anger anymore toward the perpetrator Reda, but pities him, also even feels sorry for him if anything. Everything isn’t about just the good or bad. There is the in-between and “History of Violence” quite stunningly manages to convey that. I remember during the novel when the narrator can’t bear people being happy, after the incident. And another time, all he sees is Reda – in almost every face he comes across on the street. Such scenes remain and almost haunt the reader. At least, that’s what happened to me.

The translation shines. Not once did I feel that I was reading a translation. Lorin Stein has encapsulated it all brilliantly from French to English. No emotions are lost. Nothing seems out of place. Stein understands every emotion, every scar, every memory and is able to seamlessly bring us this read in a language we understand.

“History of Violence” is a book that is not for the weak-hearted. I don’t say this to make you shy away from reading it. In fact, if anything I want you to read it. I want you to understand perspectives. More so because Édouard has done a stellar job of putting his heart, body and soul on paper and nothing can beat that.

 

 

Giving up the Ghost: A Memoir by Hilary Mantel

Giving up the Ghost Title: Giving up the Ghost: A Memoir
Author: Hilary Mantel
Publisher: Picador Modern Classics
ISBN: 978-1250160669
Genre: Biographies, Memoirs
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Hilary Mantel is an author that should be read by everyone. I don’t mean it because she is a Booker-Prize winner (twice at that, and consecutively so), not because her fiction is par excellence, but because of her memoir. The memoir that will break you, make you smile, make you relate, and feel all sorts of emotions. At the same time, it is about feminist literary circles, about women who write and without fear, and literally about “Giving Up the Ghost”.

I cannot talk about the book in a linear manner because it is also not written that way. This memoir is about how a poor child of Irish origins, from a disadvantaged family, grew to become one of the world’s most celebrated novelist. Through her story, Mantel touches on other stories – the ones that we can relate to the pinnacle and back. She speaks of home, growing up, books, and more books and above all how she was subject to visions, to “seeing things” that weren’t there. Spooky, isn’t it? Were they real or just a condition because of her hormones as she had undergone an early hysterectomy?

The pain and clarity in the writing is astounding. She speaks of her novels as the children she would never have. All along she speaks of women – literary women mostly and their lives – and also strangely ties in the century and its on goings.

At no point does Mantel’s writing become pitiful or self-loathing or wanting attention. It is what it is and she has written it in a very matter-of-fact tone. The book doesn’t meander or amble and combines all of it quite beautifully. Honestly, you don’t even have to read her novels to read the memoir. Just dive in and be prepared for a fantastic, heck of a ride!

 

Meatless Days by Sara Suleri

Meatless Days by Sara Suleri Title: Meatless Days
Author: Sara Suleri
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0241342466
Genre: Biography
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Books that are reread are mostly far and few in between and when that happens often, you must rejoice. “Meatless Days” by Sara Suleri is one such book. I remember reading it for the first time, a couple of years ago and loving it. It was unlike something I had ever read. A memoir that was so irreverent and profound at the same time. Well, it was refreshing to hear someone write like that, as though Sara was in my living room having a conversation with me about herself and her family.

“Meatless Days” is a book that perhaps cannot be even bracketed into a genre and yet for all practical purposes, we must. The complexity and intricacy of both her language and the content of the book astounds the reader, makes you laugh and sometimes make you introspect.

The book is about Pakistan, postcolonial, post-independence and a world that treats its women way differently than its men. It is about Suleri’s Welsh mother, her Pakistani father, her tenacious grandmother and her five siblings. She writes about the wandering soul with such soul that you can only empathize.

Her journey out of Pakistan, the gaze of an outsider and yet strangely an insider is a universal emotion that perhaps every reader can relate with. At the same time, for some it might prove to be a difficult read as the nine chapters are completely disjointed and string together beautifully through Suleri’s distillation of experiences of love, loss and family, and takes form in powerful poetry-like prose.

“Meatless Days” changes with every chapter – the form does, the writing to some extent and so will your emotions as you turn the pages. Suleri’s prose is unique, may rarely come across as too complex (but that’s only because she has so much to say) and yet so liberating and rewarding at the end of it all. A lost-classic for sure, which I am glad has been revived as a part of Penguin Women Writers initiative.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele

When They Call You A Terrorist Title: When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir
Authors: Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
ISBN: 978-1250171085
Genre: Non-Fiction, Social Rights
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

This book will not be an easy read. Not because it is written in a difficult to understand manner, but because the lives spoken of haven’t been easy. So, if you get squeamish easy, then this book isn’t for you. This book is about the world and how it is, how it always was – how racism is so deep-rooted that it might take ages before it is wiped out completely. And yet, this book does not only deal with the issue of racism or schizoaffective disorder, it deals with identity and the basic right to live, which should not be taken away from anyone at all.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors life has not been an easy one at all. Being sheltered and fed wasn’t easy while she was growing up. As I have mentioned, her brother who suffers from schizoaffective disorder and a mother who works from dawn to dusk, just to ensure the kids are fed and clothed.

What upsets me the most is the involvement of the police when it comes to mental health organizations when it comes to checks or emergencies. I mean how would they know what it means to be mentally unstable and what one goes through? But that is just one part of the story.

The crux of the book is what it means to be black in today’s world and how unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality causes havoc in people’s lives. Patrisse outraged the most in 2013, when Travyon Martin’s killer went free, which led to the formation of Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.

Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele give you insights into how it is to survive in the face of violent racism. We think nothing is going on, that we live in evolved times, but that is all well and good in the comfort of our homes. What happens in the world is simply horrific.

“When They Call You A Terrorist” hits hard (like it should) and will make you think twice about how sometimes we behave when it comes to people who are different from us. This is a book that is most needed for our times. The situations and people will always remain the same, till an entire culture changes, the one that says Black Lives Matter.