One of the blessings (?) of the pandemic is that I’ve been reading more books – and finishing those already stacked high on my bedside table!
Loads of studies show a direct connection between reading on paper (not screen) and stress relief, concentration, and mindfulness. But it’s also incredibly enriching, if memoir is the genre you want to write in, to really read a wide range of books in that genre!
I made a conscious decision to read more paper books this year, as too much screen time leaves me feeling scatty and stressed. It’s also UBER important to read widely if you’re pitching or writing a memoir. Why? Because you need to know where it ‘sits’ in the marketplace, how others tell a true story, what works, and what doesn’t!
True stories have always gripped me much more than fiction, which is just one of the reasons I love to read memoir.
So, what have I been reading this year?
Read on for my honest reviews of the memoirs I’ve been reading!
Links to purchase each book are in the title.
Inside Out – Demi Moore
This was actually ghost-written by Ariel Levy. I tore through Moore’s memoir. I actually don’t know how Levy managed to contain it to under 80 000 words. A more dramatic life you couldn’t imagine – her parents were lawless addicts who moved her interstate multiple times a year (usually when their fraud caught up with them), her father turned out not to be her father, her mother did something so horrendous when she was 14 and they’d moved to Hollywood (where Natassja Kinski became a close friend) that I had to put the book down and sob uncontrollably after that scene. The insights into her breakthrough role in St Elmo’s Fire, her time in rehab and the marriage to Bruce Willis are fascinating, too. This is a true celebrity memoir in the old sense of the word.
I remember going to libraries in Melbourne with my mum when i was young to stock up on Hollywood memoirs. Hollywood – and that single-minded pursuit of fame always fascinated me.. Something was imbalanced – and that was why the extreme nature of gruelling auditions, rejections, living off popcorn and apples until they got their ‘big break’ etc
But Demi Moore articulates it well. Hollywood is so dysfunctional, so abusive, so misogynistic and hierarchical and unbalanced in how the money and power is doled out, it actually attracts people who come from these types of upbringings. Moore was made for acting, really, she describes the horrendous audition process of 1980s Hollywood as being much like her school years – moving to a new school every month, having to play a new part and work so hard just to make friends she would only know for a month or two.
Highly recommend this memoir.
It may not be highbrow literature but it’s a fascinating (slightly unbelievable) true story, very well-told.
The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
After learning Levy had ghost-written Demi Moore’s memoir I was intrigued – and it was another book I had on my bedside table that I’d bought over a year ago and forgotten to read. The hardest part of ghost-writing is condensing and structuring the story – the way she did it with something as wild as Moore’s story was fantastic.
The Rules Do Not Apply is a small book, and I learned midway through reading it (at the most harrowing part – in Mongolia – I won’t give it away by saying what happened) that she had secured that book deal through her essay Thanksgiving in Mongolia, published in the New Yorker in 2013.
The writing is exquisite – particularly the nuanced way she observes grief and its aftermath. YES there is a hook – I don’t want to ruin the story by giving it all away….
BUT – and this is a huge but – I couldn’t get over the enormous privilege inherent in her experiences – both of American healthcare and life, in general.
I did identify with her ideas about keeping a journal:
My lined notebooks were the only place I could say as much as i wanted, whenever I wanted. To this day i feel comforted and relieved of loneliness, no matter how foreign my surroundings, if i have a pad and a pen.
Ultimately, this felt like an extended version of the New Yorker essay, not meaty enough to be a book-length memoir. There were some beautiful descriptions of grief and shock and how people behave around trauma and miscarriage (trying to pinpoint something the mother did so they can distance themselves), that will stay with me.
I Feel Bad About my Neck by Nora Ephron
This lovely little essay collection by the late journalist, scriptwriter and director behind When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail perhaps Meg Ryan was her muse?!) gives bite-sized essays on topics around life as an American woman.
My favourite essay in the collection is Moving On, about living at the Apthorp, in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It was originally published in the New Yorker in 2006.
High Achiever by Tiffany Jenkins
I ordered this memoir after seeing a post on instagram, reading the blurb and loving the cover, and really wanting a parcel or delivery to brighten up my life in lockdown!
I honestly ordered this on a whim, thinking it would be one type of memoir. It was like when you go to a movie (or – when we used to go to the movies, le sob) and know nothing except the title and maybe a couple of the stars. I was in for a surprise!
The blurb I read said “the incredible true story of one addict’s double life”. And – since the title is High Achiever, I was expecting her to be a high-flying barrister or politician etc. I thought it was going to be about the double life itself.
Hm. I ploughed through the book because I was determined to finish a new memoir, but there was quite a lot that I didn’t enjoy. The thing about memoir is that you’re in the narrator’s world, you’re hearing their ‘voice’, and you need to enjoy the awareness and reflection of that world and that voice.
I’ll start with the language (and the narrator’s voice). It was a bit like watching an episode of Orange Is The New Black, which I did enjoy (in small doses) when it came out, but ultimately the US prison world is a depressing and broken system. I didn’t ‘sign-up’ to read a book set in a prison!
Almost 90% of the action of the story takes place in prison, which gives you an idea of the kind of action you’ll be reading about. It was really unpleasant.
Secondly, there wasn’t much by way of introspection – as in, I finished the book still completely baffled as to WHY the author had chosen to steal from her partner (a cop) and only a little wiser as to why she developed the addictions she did (she mentioned her father having alcohol issues). It really read much like a redemption memoir set to sell the benefits of 12 step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
The title was misleading, too. One thing I learned, through ploughing on through this one is that there’s four different factors that make a memoir ‘work’ in my opinion.
FOUR PARTS THAT MAKE A MEMOIR ‘WORK’
1: The story. There has to be a hook – and yes, there was a strong one here (even if the title was misleading). She was addicted to drugs while living with a cop, and kept it from him for years (some of the lengths she went to! My god. Addiction is complicated. She literally kept a needle hidden in her bra for toilet breaks?!)
2: The language / writing style. This is where I didn’t enjoy this memoir, and it’s all very personal, how you react to someone’s writing style. For me, the language was so rough and coarse I felt like i was in prison, listening to everyone making tough-girl quips and racist comments. It was all a bit too oversimplified and non-reflective.
3: The overarching message and themes. Jenkins talks about the redemption of the 12 step programs and how they ‘saved’ her. I’m glad they worked for her, but I’m slightly dubious of the 12-step programs which are funded by the US prison system. It felt a little scripted, like the book she felt she had to write to abdicate herself from the wrong-doing for which she ended up in prison. I have huge admiration for her for getting clean and writing a book (both of which are major feats!) but i didn’t really ‘believe’ the overarching theme.
4: The structure. Here I thought she did really well – she kept the story a page-turner by ending each chapter on a question or a new point of tension, and we went through flash-back to present-day and got the whole story that way.
Still, I think language matters more to me than it should. For this reason Ariel Levy’s memoir, which had a much weaker story / plot, was much more enjoyable to read, because her writing was so good.
Quit Like A Woman by Holly Whitaker
I didn’t realise this was a memoir when i ordered it – I read a lot of non-fiction – particularly medicine, alternative medicine, self-help, business, psychology and writing books. But Whitaker’s is part memoir, part research / self-help hybrid, so I’m including it here.
While we go through the memoir part of reading Whitaker’s (high achieving!) life in Silicon Valley and how female ‘high achievers are fed the notion of alcohol as glamour (rose all day etc), she simultaneously dissects and explores the history of the addiction movement in the US.
Learning that alcohol is much like the cigarette movement in how corporate america have pushed it to women (as a mark of ‘freedom’) helped me put a lot of puzzle pieces together in that addiction is very much a social justice issue. This underpins the book.
Aside from her meticulous research into the founding of the AA movement, the links between capitalism, the patriarchy and rising addictions and overwork in younger and younger women, there’s also a lot of basic (and very helpful!) psychology looped into each chapter.
“The thing about cravings is that while they present as almost entirely physical, what makes them so torturous us the stories we build around them.”
Writers – you’ll love how she dissects the ‘stories’ around alcohol in western society, and where they have come from!
What I liked as much as her honesty in sharing her story and dissecting the reasons behind her various falls, was exposing the side to AA that I’ve never really agreed with: that you have a disease you can never be free of.
“To properly heal from addiction, we need a holistic approach. We need to create a life we don’t need to escape.”
I still remember that Mad Men episode where Don Draper’s firm is hired to re-frame cigarettes as glamorous. Until then, what we know now as ‘tailor made’ cigarettes were the habit of hoboes – they would literally scrape around the footpath for leftover tobacco, roll it into newspaper and smoke it. Through a wild budget into advertising (and planting cigarettes in the mouths of movie stars) they made smoking tailor-mades (filled with all sorts of toxic things that aren’t tobacco) a fashion statement.
The same thing has happened with alcohol.
There are so many powerful paragraphs in this book, i don’t know what to include, but if i can sum up, I love how she explores the idea of power and how we frame things.
“Disappoint other people with your no; don’t disappoint yourself with a yes you’ll later resent.”
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb
This is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. It’s just so well-done, and was perfect to read during our first stage of lockdown. It’s as much about the stories we tell ourselves as it is a memoir of psychotherapy. And – I just learned it’s being adapted into a TV series!
I posted a review of it here. Oh – and if you’ve read it, check out this recent podcast she did here!
The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel
This book ticked all the boxes of the four ingredients which ultimately make a memoir work for me: story, style and language, message & themes, and structure.
It really is an extraordinary story – a journalist for the New York Times, Lily Koppel, finds an 70-year-old diary in a dumpster in her apartment block, which leads her through the life of a mysterious Florence Wolferson.
I needed this book – the memoir I’m working on is a combination of my father’s memoir with my own research, and i needed to see some examples of how this has been done well.
Florence’s diary documented love affairs with women (scandalous for the time), a searching and coming-of-age in the pre-WW2 New York years, raised by immigrant parents (her mother a seamstress for high-fashion types on the Upper-East-Side). From summers in the Catskills to a steamer to Europe in 1936 (where she met Mussolini’s troops and men later immortalised in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.)
But what Koppel does so well is to thread the diary excerpts with a second-person account that is so intimate, it could almost be written by Florence. It must have taken years of interviews to really get to know Florence – who was, by then, in her 90s, and Koppel does a magnificent job.
I loved this book for plunging me back into another era through the point-of-view of both Florence and Koppel, who wove their stories together seamlessly. As a competitive title it’s given me lots of inspiration and ideas for how to structure my forthcoming book, too.
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Hi Louise. Thanks for taking the time to share your memoir reading experiences so far this year. I recently read ‘A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings’, by Helen Jukes. It’s a beautifully written, quiet book about how she negotiates a difficult year by “keeping” bees. It covers the process of setting up the hive, getting the bees, and so on, but as she does these things she learns about herself and finds new ways to negotiate life.
Oh, that sounds lovely. It seems the perfect time for a ‘quiet’ book, and we are all negotiating a difficult year, this year. I really like the title! Thanks for the recommendation.
Out of all the books you’ve reviewed here, The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel is the one that really grabs my attention. I’d never heard of it before, but now I really want to read it!
Yes, it’s really well done. Maybe a little like “Blonde” by Joyce Carol Oates, in that she really writes as though she IS Florence Wolferson, to tell the story. It’s a magical, time-travelling read.