Biography and memoirs: Literary or showbiz, foodie or rude: 10 stories of journeys out of the jungle

It's a funny year in which the most successful showbusiness biography, the funniest, cleverest and most insightful, the one that says the most about the art of memoir-writing and the human condition, is the one that was written by a chimp. It is also a curious state of affairs when a highly paid television presenter, as if to promote his new book called Why Do I Say These Things?, says something so stupid and utterly crass that he nearly loses his squillion-dollar job.

But then, it's an unusual year that promises three books in one month about life history, colonialism, multiculturalism, faith, family and the Asian diaspora, all explained through the medium of curry. (One of these books, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's The Settler's Cookbook, has since been postponed until next year.) The other two, Ziauddin Sardar's Balti Britain (Granta, £20) and Hardeep Singh Kohli's Indian Takeaway (Canongate, £16.99) are deftly spiced and meaty concoctions that leave a largely positive taste in the mouth: Kohli is ""Neither Indian nor British", he concludes, "just Hardeep"). And yet still we end November with the non-fiction top 10 showing predictable sales for the standard celebrity autobiography: Dawn French, Michael Parkinson, Paul O'Grady, Julie Walters...

Not that the standard celebrity autobiographies are all as predictable as the format usually seems to dictate. Indeed, many of this year's bestsellers were even written by the person whose name is on the front. While the ace foreign correspondent Ann Leslie, in her smashing tale of history and handbags and the role of the bra in a danger zone, was Killing My Own Snakes (Macmillan, £20), slebs are holding their own pens, and proud of it.

The customary working-class childhood is common to most – council estates, coal mines, the rainforests of Liberia, for Cheeta the chimp – but none is recollected with more charm than Michael Parkinson's. "I remember thinking it wouldn't bother me," says the nth-generation miner's son of his expected trajectory into the Grimethorpe pit, "provided I could marry Ingrid Bergman and get a house much nearer the pit." The name-dropping in Parky (Hodder & Stoughton, £20) starts early – one of his mother's knitting pattern designs was modelled by Roger Moore, he says proudly. But the early chapters about his childhood and early career, back in the day when the Express represented the height of glamour and before all the bits we already know about – Billy Connolly, Bette Davis, Posh and Becks, Emu – are disarmingly modest and offer a proper glimpse into another world.

Even critics of Parky's gentle style of interviewing might recently be nostalgic for his more innocent era. Your view of Jonathan Ross's Why Do I Say These Things? (Bantam Press, £18.99) will probably depend entirely on what you already think of Jonathan Ross. So, to be open from the outset, I would rather be stuck in a lift with Russell Brand than read another word by this self-satisfied, lazy oaf. This isn't an autobiography, he says, because he wouldn't want to embarrass his kids. Therefore he confines most of the finer details about masturbation, porn and sex with vacuum cleaners (yet another rather pathetic steal from his pal Brand) to a single chapter, after which you will "know more than you'd probably care to about sex and me". Yup. Still, if chapter headings along the lines of "I Date-Raped Myself" amuse you, by all means buy this book – and may I also recommend Frank Skinner's On the Road (Century, £18.99). "For the first time we read a comedian's account, in his own words, of how his act is put together." This means some technical stuff about how "the technique itself certainly pre-dates Leno" and "a paedophile routine I'm still not sure about".

By comparison, Sheila Hancock's Just Me (Bloomsbury, £18.99), the follow-up to her 2004 memoir about John Thaw, The Two of Us, is practically a work of Shakespeare, with an actress's empathy and a fine eye for detail. The story of the bleak years since her husband died is touching and witty, with perhaps the most heartbreaking conclusion of the year: "I used to be fearful. There was a lot to lose. Now I've already lost a lot of it, I'm less afraid. I survived, and will again."

Literary biographies have struggled with technique as much as with some slippery subjects in the past year. Rodge Glass sums up the biographer's dilemma in Alasdair Gray: A Secretary's Biography (Bloomsbury, £25), as he begs indulgence of his "unorthodox, affectionate book" about his mentor, employer, one-time bar patron and hero. "A biography is a joint effort," he writes, and indeed he acknowledges that fact shades into fiction as Gray sits in his kitchen, dictating his childhood to the eager stenographer with a copy of his 1981 masterpiece, Lanark, as a prompt.

Patrick French's The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul (Picador, £20) also wrestles with a great writer and his reputation. "Naipaul's outrageous denunciations were less interesting than the work which preceded them," he states. Of course, not every reader agrees with this analysis, and much has been made of the not-very-surprising revelations in this book about the Nobel laureate's treatment of his wives and mistresses. The trick of this clever and exhaustively researched biography (French examined 50,000 documents, including journals by his first wife that even Naipaul had not read) is that readers who respect Naipaul's writing will come away ever more devoted, while those who think that he is an utter shit will find even more reason for doing so. Linton Kwesi Johnson summarises well: "He's a living example of how art transcends the artist because he talks a load of shit but still writes excellent books."

Still more visionary wisdom comes from the seminal autobiography, Me Cheeta (HarperCollins, £16.99), the story of Cheeta the chimpanzee's journey from Africa to Hollywood, via Tarzan. Cute and fluffy but with a sharp set of teeth, it is a viciously funny view of human life. "Who could possibly, I thought, want another memoir by anyone?" Cheeta (or his ghost) writes at the outset. More celebrity memoirists should ask themselves the same question.

Arts and Entertainment
Britain's Got Talent judges: Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral