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reading the memoir in 2017 (part 1)

This spring and summer seem to be a good time for readers of adult nonfiction, with a good few of those releases belonging to the sub-genres of memoir and biography and coming out right in time for us to enjoy the great outdoors and the lovely, warm weather that we can but hope will follow.

Undaunted as I still am on my learning journey throughout the genre, I intend to read a fair number of memoirs this year. The question now is, of course, which ones and where to start. Isn’t it always?

So how about I start with a beckoning towards old loves? Because, when all is said and done, aren’t loves of old the most enduring ones?

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Women’s memoirs

Jess Phillips, Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking the Truth

It should come as no surprise then, at least to those who know me well or have been following me on social networks for any amount of time, that the first memoir I hope to be reading this year is a book a) by a woman, b) a woman who also loves left-wing politics, and c) who is also, as she describes herself, a feminist and quite gobby.

I recently and quite by accident came across the new memoir by Jess Phillips — yes, the Jess Phillips — Everywoman. For those who do not happen to know of such things, Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for the constituency of Yardley, in Birmingham, and she seems to have made a very good name for herself by doing what most of us girls wish we could do more often: shouting out against what she doesn’t like or agree with, and for what catches her little heart’s fancy. Isn’t that absolutely the best life…?

Well, maybe not so. As she points out herself, the internet seems to attract “a classy crowd” indeed, while on the other hand opinionated women do not seem to go down very well with some people. Putting the two together, as so many of us have found out at one time or another, means we can very soon find ourselves at the receiving end of some extremely focused, unrelenting abuse. But in the end it is all worth our every while. Or so Jess points out:

“So, speaking the truth isn’t always easy but I believe it’s worth it. And I want you to believe it too. The truth can be empowering, the truth can lead to greater equality, and the world would be incredibly boring if we let all of those people who allegedly know everything, say everything.

By demanding to be heard, by dealing with our imposter syndrome, by being cheerleaders, doers not sayers, creating our own networks and by daring to believe that we can make a difference, we can.

We’re women and we’re kick-ass. And that’s the truth.”

Speaking for myself, I can’t wait to find out all about Jess’ truth. Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking the Truth, Random House UK / Cornerstone Digital (23 Feb. 2017), 249 pages, ISBN: 1786330784

Victoria Whitworth, Swimming With Seals

The second memoir is also written by a woman, a book I expect to be radically different from my first choice, though in every way as empowering as Jess Phillips’. It has been described by Amy Liptrot (fellow Orkney cold water swimmer and writer of The Outrun, named by the Sunday Times as one of the 2016 Top 10 bestsellers and winner of the 2016 Wainwright Prize), as an “[a]ttentive, astute and beautiful” book which had “[…]expanded [her] mind and heart. “

Swimming with Seals tells of a woman’s choice to start swimming in the cold waters of Orkney as a means of escaping her failing marriage, a stifling religious environment and her failing health. During that time (four years), she learns the sea and its quirks, she encounters a number of wild creatures, and she makes a series of friendships, All together, these prove to have a transforming and regenerative effect over her life.

“This book is a love letter, to the beach where she swims regularly and its microcosmic world, to the ever-changing cold waters where the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet, and to the seals, her constant companions”, reads the publisher’s advertising — and I for one cannot think of anything more beautiful, or more enticing. It is coming out on April 20th on ebook format, and I am so very, very looking forward to reading this book!

Victoria Whitworth, Swimming With Seals, Head of Zeus (20 April 2017 for the ebook, 2 November for the paperback), 304 pages, ISBN: 1784978396

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

My third choice of memoir takes us definitely across the Atlantic, where we’ll be staying for my next three choices.

Olivia Laing’s book promises to be yet again something else, and again very different from my two previous choices. In it, Laing is said to explore, in the aftermath of moving to New York City in her mid thirties, what it is to be alone and the nature of loneliness.

She does so through her discovery and appreciation of the city’s artists and their art, and how loneliness was portrayed by them throughout time and in its many different manifestations.

Having been in that position myself more than a few times during my life in academia, Laing’s is a perspective that very very much interests me, and I look forward to comparing my own experiences and reflections with hers.

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Canongate Books (2 Mar. 2017), 336 pages, ISBN: 1782111255

Teresa Bruce, The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan-American Highway

My next choice is a memoir that is part travel memoir, and part a narrative of revisiting the past and finally coming to terms with a personal loss.

Armed with her mother’s journals, Teresa Bruce drives through Mexico and down the Pan-American highway, retracing the road trip her family had taken thirty years earlier, in the aftermath of her young brother’s death.

From the blurb:

“Bruce is immensely talented in bringing scenery of Central and South America to life—countries from Mexico and Guatemala to Bolivia and Argentina are detailed with her innate attention to detail and sense of storytelling. The Drive details a really incredible journey through these beautiful, at times corrupt and war-torn countries, across roads that are as likely to be barricaded by guerrillas or washed out by floods as they are to be passable. 

The Drive is travel writing at its best, combining moments of deep heartbreak with unimaginable joy over a panoply of unforgettable settings.”

Released on June 13th in paperback, available for pre-order today.

Teresa Bruce, The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan-American Highway, Seal Press (CA) (13 Jun. 2017), 320 pages, ISBN: 1580056512.

Nora Murphy, White Birch, Red Hawthorn: A Memoir

My fifth choice of memoir is the book White Birch, Red Hawthorn: A Memoir by Nora Murphy. It is a collection of essays exploring ethnic, cultural, geographical and economic dispossession, orbiting around Nora Murphy’s 5th generation Irish heritage and roots in land once belonging to three Native American tribes: the Dakota, the Ho-Chunk, and the Ojibwe. I was absolutely captivated by the editor’s description:

““This is conquered land.” The Dakota woman’s words, spoken at a community meeting in St. Paul, struck Nora Murphy forcefully. Her own Irish great-great grandparents, fleeing the potato famine, had laid claim to 160 acres in a virgin maple grove in Minnesota. That her dispossessed ancestors’ homestead, The Maples, was built upon another, far more brutal dispossession is the hard truth underlying White Birch, Red Hawthorn, a memoir of Murphy’s search for the deeper connections between this contested land and the communities who call it home.

In twelve essays, each dedicated to a tree significant to Minnesota, Murphy tells the story of the grove that, long before the Irish arrived, was home to three Native tribes: the Dakota, Ojibwe, and Ho-Chunk. She notes devastating strategies employed by the U.S. government to wrest the land from the tribes, but also revisits iconic American tales that subtly continue to promote this displacement—the Thanksgiving story, the Paul Bunyan myth, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Murphy travels to Ireland to search out another narrative long hidden—that of her great-great-grandmother’s transformative journey from North Tipperary to The Maples.

In retrieving these stories, White Birch, Red Hawthorn uncovers lingering wounds of the past—and the possibility that, through connection to this suffering, healing can follow. The next step is simple, Murphy tells us: listen.”

It is out as paperback on 18 April; I haven’t been able to find any information regarding an ebook edition.

Nora Murphy, White Birch, Red Hawthorn: A Memoir, University of Minnesota Press (18 April 2017), 152 pages, ISBN: 1517901324.

Nasty Women: A Collection of Essays and Accounts on What It Is To Be a Woman in the 21st Century

This last choice of book is, just like the first one, also a feminist read. In common with Jess Phillip’s memoir this book has not just the thread of feminism but that of having a voice and of telling the truth, and of how important that remains — and all the more so in these times of political, social and economic upheaval, where inequality, intolerance and violence against women are increasingly normalised.

Unlike Jess Phillips’ book, however, it is not as much a memoir per se as it is a collection of essays, interviews and memoirs, as the subtitle indicates, on what it is to be a woman in the 21st Century.

The essays cover a multitude of issues and realities, ranging, as the blurb reads, “from working class experience to racial divides in Trump’s America, being a child of immigrants, to sexual assault, Brexit, pregnancy, contraception, identity, family, finding a voice online, role models and more”. It should make for a very interesting and varied read, and I am looking forward to it.

404 Ink, Nasty Women: A Collection of Essays and Accounts on What It Is To Be a Woman in the 21st Century, 404 Ink (8 Mar. 2017 for paperback, 24 March for ebook), 240 pages, ISBN: 0995623821

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These are my first six choices of memoir reads for 2017, but I’m sure I’ll be adding to it as time goes by and I discover new and interesting releases. Suggestions are, as usual, quite welcome.

Next week I’ll be back with a new list of memoirs being published this year, this time focusing deliberately on those written by men. Until then, good reading.

So, what do you think? I'd love to know. Shall we start a conversation?

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