One of the reasons memoirs are currently selling so well is that they promise the reader life lessons passed on by writers with the courage to tell the truth about their experiences.
The lessons presented so elegantly in My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff include how to write a successful book based on the slenderest of connections with a famous writer – in her case, J D Salinger. In 1996 Rakoff, aged twenty-three, got a job as an assistant to Salinger’s literary agent and ended up replying to the letters of fans whose lives had been touched by his books, in particular The Catcher in the Rye.
Rakoff’s raw, honest descriptions of her life in Brooklyn and her loser boyfriend turn this book into a coming of age tale, as Catcher is. But My Salinger Year is more than just a snapshot of a particular time and place. The most powerful and original parts of the book describe the intimate relationships Rakoff establishes with the readers through their letters and explore her theory that ultimately writing is an anatomy of loss.
From Brooklyn to the badlands of London’s Southall and life lessons of a more depressing nature from another struggling young female writer. In Music Night at the Apollo by Lilian Pizzichini we meet the heroin-addicted author living in very unpicturesque poverty on a houseboat on the non-trendy part of Regent’s Canal with absolutely nothing going for her – apart from an exceptional talent as a writer.
This book makes you greedy for more from the first page. Pizzichini’s ability to bring the characters and the underworld of this area to life rivals Jimmy McGovern and Coronation Street at their best. The gangs of Somalis and Punjabis, the washouts living on the boats and the everyday squalor of the junkie lifestyle are all realised without clichés and with real passion.
Underpinning Pizzichini’s story are familial and personal displacement and dissolution. The parts where she revisits these are not as gripping as the contemporary scenes, but they are skilfully knitted together and she makes convincing connections between the past and present. Reading the book is like watching a documentary thanks to Pizzichini’s ear for dialogue and her eye for detail. She can bring even minor characters to life in about three sentences. Along the way she delivers a vivid social commentary on a mostly unknown world.
The insider’s account of a hidden world is also one of the more satisfying elements in Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter by Maria Venegas. Fourteen years after their estrangement, Venegas returns to the mystery and violence of rural Mexico to visit the father who abandoned her; she also records her time at home in the US, where she moved illegally at the age of four. She is explicit about her feelings concerning her father from the start, and writes in the prologue that she hears of his death on the phone while continuing to browse a menu deciding what to order for lunch.
It is a brutal, if slightly misleading, introduction: he actually survives and her trips to rebuild their relationship alter her attitude towards him and her sense of self. Her father’s story is compelling. Having shot someone at the age of twelve, he becomes hooked on a life of continual violence. There is no shortage of drama. Venegas also writes in harrowing detail about her own horrific experience of being raped as a teenager and undergoing a late-term abortion.
But there is something about the distance she keeps that never quite wins you over. She survives her appalling childhood to go on and study for an MFA at Columbia and this more or less coincides with her visits to her father’s ranch. You begin to think that, for all its technical excellence, there is something a little too contrived about this memoir. That may explain its rather cold tone.
A disturbed childhood is almost mandatory for a bestselling memoirist. In A Conversation About Happiness: The Story of a Lost Childhood, American artist Mikey Cuddihy reveals her experience at the experimental Summerhill School in Suffolk in the late 1960s. She arrived at the age of nine; her memories of her time there are formed to the soundtrack of Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger on the Shore’. Abandoned with her siblings at a school where the children are allowed to do as they please and there are no compulsory lessons, she revels in shared copies of Bunty and Judy and learns how to play ‘fuck chase’. This is a hint of what is to unfold in the book, which unpicks the damage done by the school both to her and to her siblings in adult life.
There is a rush of shocking revelations for the reader towards the end, while some central chapters lack pace. But as a chilling portrait of the abuse of children – especially read in the context of all the current outrage – it is an impressive and disturbing work.
Food, like a bad childhood, is another common theme for memoirists – though it is unusual for the food in question to be caviar. It is difficult to feel sorry for someone being force-fed caviar at kindergarten, as Anya von Bremzen was. But Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food, Family and Longing is a serious attempt to tell the history of the Soviet Union using three generations of her family and their love of food. Von Bremzen is a popular food writer who arrived in the US when she was nine, so much of what she writes depends on the memories of her family. Nevertheless, the book is well researched and full of good anecdotes.
Finally, a memoir about not being able to remember. David Stuart MacLean’s The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Tale of Amnesia tackles the engrossing story of a 28-year-old man who loses his memory and nearly his mind as a result of taking the anti-malarial drug Larium. There was, he explains, something about his own biology that interacted with the drug and deleted whole sections of his life.
The book starts with a psychotic episode during which he collapses at an Indian railway station and forgets his identity. He believes for a while that he must be a drug addict. When he eventually returns to America and his parents, he has to try and remember who he is and what he feels – especially about his girlfriend.
It is a gruelling and unhappy personal journey, presented alongside alarming scientific evidence about Larium, including the fact that its liberal use in the US is thought to be the cause of many of the mental problems of veterans. MacLean’s research into the side effects of Larium and the science of what happened to him contributes much to the poignancy and power of this original and beguiling book. Perhaps it would have been improved by more from this very capable writer on the subject of memory itself – developing, perhaps, on the idea expressed by Virginia Woolf and quoted at the opening of this book: ‘the things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important’.