I’ve never really been into reading biographies. With the exception of pretty much anything about the life of Kierkegaard, I generally stay away from true stories and read either academic non-fiction, or novels.
But this year quite a lot of biographical accounts have ended up on my reading list, and several of them were amazing enough that I decided to do a whole new Reflections post for them.
I’m defining ‘biography’ quite loosely here, to mean anything where the author draws on personal experience (either their own or someone else’s) to discuss the central premise of the book.
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
This is a book I’ll probably revisit when I feel like I need it. When I read it this time, I was in a frame of mind where the reasons to stay alive seemed plentiful and things were good. Which is great, and I have no desire for things to change, but life is life and so at some point they probably will, and I’ll need a bit of a reminder.
That’s what I’m saving this one for.
I particularly enjoyed the oft-quoted paragraph about capitalism:
“The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more?… To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.”
Lavengro by George Borrow
George Borrow was a writer and a diddikoi, or friend of the Gypsies, in the early-to-mid 1800s. Lavengro, a Romani term meaning “word-smith”, is his autobiography.
I loved it. He’s quite a relatable guy – I keep reading books at the moment where the authors remind me of myself, and that’s always a nice feeling.
A couple of chapters will be difficult to follow if you don’t speak Romani, but on the whole it’s an accessible read for anyone. And it’s fun and interesting, and will make you want to go out and live your life.
The Truth by Neil Strauss
This intriguing book was sent to me by a friend, who thought (correctly) that I’d enjoy it.
The subtitle is ‘An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships’, and it’s by the guy who wrote The Game, which wasn’t a book I’d heard of until I started reading this one but which sounds frankly disgusting. The Game was about how to get women, basically: a sleazeball’s go-to guide.
The Truth is the flipside of the coin: Strauss’ own experience of actually falling in love with a real live woman, whom he therefore realised he wanted to treat like a human being, rather than a piece of ass.
So, having realised he had some kind of problem, he booked himself into a rehab clinic for sex addicts. The Truth is what he learned during his time there, and his reflections on how his attitudes towards relationships changed.
It’s a searingly honest book, one in which the author presents himself as the bad guy and owns up to all the darker parts of his past – both those he was responsible for, and some of the dark parts of his childhood that later affected his adult life.
Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson
I tried to review this book after I’d read it, but instead I ended up reviewing a conversation I had as a result of it.
I’d been sitting on a bench in Brighton, reading it whilst waiting for a train, when the person who’d been sitting on the other end of the bench put her pasty down and started talking to me.
Now, normally when someone tries to speak to me when I’m reading it gives me The Rage, but in this instance the conversation we had gave me hope for the world.
It’s not often you get spoken to in the South-East of England. We’re not very friendly here until you get to know us well. We’re reserved, and Busy and Stressed and Far Too Important To Talk. And yet because of Furiously Happy, a lady reached out to me on a train station in Sussex, and we momentarily became friends, even though I’ll probably never see her again.
Six Car Lengths Behind An Elephant by Lillian McCloy
Expat memoirs can be quite hit and miss. While moving abroad is almost invariably an interesting experience for the people directly involved, it can be quite dry to read about. So when expat memoirs drop through my mailbox, I’m not always thrilled to see them.
This one, though, is a definite exception. For one thing, Lillian McCloy is a talented writer. And for another, her story is absolutely fascinating.
Lillian’s husband Frank was a CIA agent under deep cover. When they moved abroad, they had to pretend to be something they weren’t. They had to live a lifestyle anathema to their paycheques and somehow convince everyone around them that Frank was a successful businessman – all on a CIA salary, which isn’t huge.
The story, of course, is compelling. The McCloys’ life under deep cover was one that few of us will be able to relate to, but all of us will be able to appreciate. It’s easy to think of undercover government agents as a sort of separate class of person – people who don’t have any attachments, who are almost automatons. But they have families too: husbands, wives, children, people they care about and must leave behind and lie to.
And I’d Do It Again by Aimée Crocker
I don’t remember how I first stumbled upon Aimée Crocker’s Wikipedia page, but as soon as I did I knew I had to find out more about this woman:
“Aimée Crocker (December 5, 1864 – February 7, 1941) was an American heiress, princess, Bohemian, world traveler, mystic and author best known for her adventures in the Far East, for her extravagant parties in San Francisco, New York and Paris and for her collections of husbands and lovers, adopted children, Buddhas, pearls, tattoos and snakes.” – Wikipedia
In other words, she sounded like my long-lost twin. Then I discovered she’d written an autobiography called And I’d Do It Again, so I ordered it and read it, and it was just as excellent as I thought it’d be.
I think it’s fair to say that 2016 was the year that sold me on the biography.
What are some of your favourite biographical books?