Greatest hits compilations and biographies: the twin pillars of half-arsed Christmas gifts. They are easy to wrap, easy to find and require only limited knowledge of an individual’s taste in order to choose.
But (most) biographies deserve better than that. They are inspiring, moving and relatable tales. These are books that can be revisited and recommended to friends.
A well-written autobiography provides intimate insights into the psyche of the writer. Heck, even the Z-list ones by ghostwriters are often a blast of gossipy joy to read.
The BitchBuzz team love a good read and they especially love a great autobiography. With this year’s crop of celebrity stories piled high in bookshops around the nation, we’ve put together a list of our favourite autobiographies from years gone by. Some will make you laugh out loud; some will make you cry and some will leave you agog with their extraordinary tales of lives less ordinary.
This was the first book I had ever read by a funny female author that was completely open about how uncool her life was. I read this when I was about 18-years-old and knew that I wanted to be a writer. In a world before blogging and writers like Caitlin Moran and Chelsea Handler, being introduced to Nataro's writing changed the way I viewed being a writer, and what was acceptable to write about. Plus, this book is just damn funny.
Jenn rcommends: Open Secret by Dame Stella Rimington
Dame Stella is the inspiration behind Dame Judi Dench’s James Bond character, M. Open Secret tells the story of her rise through the male-dominated intelligence service, from the famous tap on the shoulder to her leadership of one of the most well-known spy organisations in the world.
Criticised for revealing secrets many felt should be kept within the MI5 (my copy bears Bernard Ingham’s charming quote, “She should shut up”, on its cover), its publication was pretty controversial. But for all its fascinating tales of Cold War spooks and counter-terrorism, the heart of this book is a woman balancing life as a single mother with a seriously high-pressured job.
First published in 2008, years before CatMo taught the world How to be a Woman, Chelsea Handler was writing about her misadventures, beginning (of course) with an awkward childhood spent in the company of numerous brothers and sisters. Handler's bald descriptions, first of her family and later of her lovers, are both cringing and magnificent. Her use of profanity can be overwhelming even for the most expert foul-mouth. I read this book--one of many which detail her booze-soaked, sex-filled lifestyle--in about two days and I swear I finished with six-pack abs I laughed so hard. Every time I tried to read an excerpt to my mother I either had to stop because I was dying of shame, or I was choking on the tears from my laughter. For sheer crude, honest, lady-bro enjoyment, I would say Handler even has CatMo beat. Having said that, don't expect any declarations of feminism; Chels would just as soon tell you to kiss her ass as take any ideological criticism seriously. This is a confident, raucous woman who knows exactly what she wants, and who won't let even an ill-fitting M&M costume stop her from getting it. Final warning: stock a bottle of vodka for your read; with Handler, you'll find yourself feeling that vodka in your latte is a f&*%ing great idea!
Hannah recommends: Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford
This is the classic story of the incredible, eccentric Mitford family and the early life of the author, who also happens to be J K Rowling's heroine. Jessica, or "Decca" as she was known, was an original society badass. Uncomfortable with her privileged background and the life expected of her, she embraced communism as a teenager, and shenanigans ensued that saw her eloping to Spain with the aim of fighting in the civil war. Her father organised for a warship to be dispatched in order to fetch her, but Decca wouldn't play ball. In the decades that followed, our heroine ended up in the USA, becoming an investigative journalist, civil rights activist and left-wing agitator. Fabulous stuff for lovers of "the Mitford girls" and Decca's professional exploits alike.
Charlotte recommends: Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry
When Stephen Fry published this autobiography in 1997 – the first of two, and no doubt more to come – he was rapidly earning the 'national treasure' status with which we Brits cherish him. But what is so special about this installment is that there is nothing “celebrity” about it. Chronicling the first 20 years of his life, it is as insightful an examination of the human condition as I have ever read.
From the innocent underdog, sent off to the bizarre world of the British boarding school, the adolescent discovering his body's sexual impulses and falling in love with a boy, to the tormented young man who attempts suicide, and is imprisoned for fraud – this is an honest account that enriches a world still so dogged by prejudices. What's more, with a unique narrative voice, at once lyrical, comical, and geeky, it is a pleasure to read. Or rather, listen to. After all, presented with a voice like Stephen Fry's, who can resist buying the audiobook and bathing in its animated, comforting tones?
I’m a massive fan of the band, Eels – mainly because of the bittersweet brilliance of Mark Oliver Everett’s lyrics. His autobiography matches the tone of his music – sad and dark, yet oddly pretty at the same time. Tim Burton should totally buy the film rights to it.
Mark’s life has involved a lot tragedy – from the death of his genius father (he created the first theory of parallel universes) to the suicide of his much loved sister. But this is by no means a "misery memoir".
This book sheds light on some of Eels’ most loved songs, casting light on the darkness that sits just beneath the surface. What makes this book so amazing is that it also manages to be a thoroughly entertaining, funny and life affirming read. I’m not sure how he managed to pull that off!