Over the last couple of days, while I've been assessing my year, I've also been assessing my reading year. Books are such an important part of my life - not only do I work in them but I also consume them rabidly - that it would be a sad twelve months indeed if I didn't come across a number of works that had touched me, and at least a couple of books to add to my all time favourites list.
I remember saying to someone at the beginning of this year that I'm not a big memoir person. Too self-indulgent perhaps, or too limited. But as I reflect on my reading year I realise that I've actually read some bloody brilliant memoirs this year. In fact over the years I've read some seriously great memoirs which I would unreservedly recommend to any other readers: The Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion), Truth & Beauty (Ann Patchett), Lucky (Alice Sebold), The View from Castle Rock (Alice Munro - part memoir, part history, part fiction) and Borrowed Finery (Paula Fox).
I guess that, because I find novels so expansive and so representative (and because of that so TRUE), they are the books that overwhelmingly make up my top 10, 20 or 50 books of all time. Having said that though, when I look back at 2011 I would be hard pressed not to include these three beautiful memoirs in my ten favourites of this year.
Emma Forrest's memoir Your Voice in My Head focuses, essentially, on the author's relationship with her therapist. Suffering from depressive episodes throughout her young life (and she is still young) this therapist had seemed to be the only person who had really made a dent in Forrest's sadness. But then he died.
Your Voice in My Head is really Forrest's way of writing out her grief and her feelings are so raw and honest and beautifully drawn you can't fail but be moved. There is also a lot in this book about family and familial legacy as well as romantic love (and lust). Oh, and an awful lot about self esteem. There is much in here that any woman who has had her heartbroken could relate to. And haven't we all at one time or another?
Jeanette Winterson is a tremendously talented writer. Her way with prose is sigh inducing, in a majorly good way. There are passages in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? that had me wishing I had a pencil with me so I could do some serious underlining. If you've read Winterson's debut novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit then her memoir will definitely intrigue. The first half is basically the true story from which that novel was drawn; the story of a working-class childhood of a bookish little girl adopted by a fiercely religious (and completely mad) woman. If it's possible, the real version of Winterson's mother is even madder than the fictional one. The second half of the novel is Winterson's very affecting story of her search for her birth mother. And finally Joshua Cody, a young 'un on the literary scene - he claims this will be his one and only book - has written a story about mortality and a brush with death. An intellect and musician living the life in New York, in his 30s Cody was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.
This book is such a pastiche; it includes musings on poetry and art interspersed with diary entries from himself and his mother during his stay in hospital, as well as deeply personal remembrances of his father, existential crises, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and lots, lots more. The prose style is actually quite pretentious but I kind of loved it. I found it deeply original and honest in its affectation, if that makes sense. I felt, when I read it, that this was REALLY HOW THIS GUY WAS. He was someone I would want to sit down and have a meal with. I actually really hope he writes some more.
And what of fiction, you may say? Well my runner up for my Book of the Year (only including novels I've actually read, mind you) is Malcolm Knox's The Life, an unfortunately little read story about an Australian surf champion from the 60s and 70s battling mental illness. Simply brilliant. And my number one is most definitely Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit From the Goon Squad. What I wouldn't give to write like her.
I used to love writing. It was my default activity (that, and reading); everything else something I endured in order to get to the writing. I would hide my...