Books of the Year 2012: Memoirs

From art to sport, poetry to nature, travel to food, history to music: our writers select the best of the year’s books in a comprehensive guide to the highlights in every shade of the literary spectrum – except grey

Those searching for an antidote to the blandly ghost-written celebrity memoir will not only have been relieved by its waning popularity but also pleasantly surprised by the newer crop of autobiographies that showed us how inventive a genre it can really be.

Some of the strongest life stories came in protean forms, as in the case of Albert Espinosa's beguiling Spanish bestseller, The Yellow World (trans. James Womack; Particular Books, £16.99), which is autobiography dressed as self-help manual. Espinosa combines his account of cancer, diagnosed aged 15, which left him without a leg, a lung and part of his liver, with a personal philosophy (the eponymous "yellow world"). The book is written with a wonderful sense of mischief and a steadfast lack of self-pity –he held a farewell party for his leg on the night before its amputation. There are also passages on illness and death which are curiously life-affirming. Dotter of her Father's Eyes (Jonathan Cape, £14.99), Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot's graphic novel, weaves two father-daughter stories together; the thwarted ambitions of Lucia Joyce, the fledging dancer and daughter of James Joyce, who ended up committed to an asylum after she was kept from realising her talents, is spliced with the early life of author Mary Talbot, whose father, James S Atherton – a Joycean scholar – was no less the "cold mad feary father" of Finnegans Wake. Shortlisted for the Costa Award, this is a sad and stunning book which reflects the literary heights to which the graphic novel can rise.

Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton (Jonathan Cape, £25) focuses on the fallout of the fatwa following the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1989. In the storytelling mode of third -person narration, its protagonist is Rushdie - though dramatised in the quasi-novelistic figure of Joseph Anton, who endures a decade of fugitive living. The narrative device allows Rushdie to replay, to great effect, his surreal reality after the fatwa but also, sneakily, gives him absolution from moral or critical self-reflection, though his criticisms of others – including ex-wives – are nothing short of severe. The pay-off, though, is the book's power as a page-turner.

Rupert Everett surprised us with his ability to string beautiful sentences together in the first volume of his autobiography. Vanished Years (Little, Brown, £20), his second, can be defined simultaneously as a celebrity memoir and a meta-memoir on the transient – and silly - nature of celebrity. Almost every sentence is worth savouring with one great anecdote after another. In one near-miss with reality TV, Everett accidentally signs up for The Apprentice without knowing of the much-feared Sir Alan Sugar. A few pages later, he meets him: "Imagine my surprise when I saw Sid James sitting on one side of a large table". A no-holds-barred memoir with everything a fan of the genre could wish for: humour, honesty, self-deprecation, sharp observation and his friend, Madonna.

Edna O'Brien's Country Girl (Faber & Faber, £20) shimmers with heart, soul and literary brilliance. Beginning with the admission that this was the story she never wanted to write, she succumbed after being tested for deafness by a nurse with a foreign accent who told her "You are quite well, but with regard to your hearing, you are broken piano". The image struck a chord, and O'Brien, the octogenarian grande dame of literature, produces a book as resonant and eloquent as any of her fiction. We are taken from childhood and first love to the bathos of lost virginity (it was a disappointment, which led to not one, but two, church confessions). The battle with her ex-husband for custody of her two sons is the book's anguished heart but as a counterbalance, there is a nonchalant glamour in this extraordinary writer's life that few others could deliver. For example: "There were nights when people came unexpectedly. Richard Burton rang the doorbell one Monday evening…". Then there is her night with Marlon Brando. The evening was chaste, "he ruefully confirmed" afterwards. The book is worth reading just for her recollections of an acid trip with RD Laing.

Kandak (Allen Lane, £16.99) is Patrick Hennessey's touching story of the soldiers who form the Afghan National Army (ANA). This book gives Afghan soldiers a face, a personality, and a homage that has hitherto been missing from most Western portraits of the war in Afghanistan. For them, he writes, this is "not a war of choice", and "there are no homecoming parades or X-Factor tribute songs". House of Stone (Granta, £14.99) is the late Anthony Shadid's meditation on the scars of conflict in the Middle East. A prize-winning foreign correspondent and third-generation American, who died when reporting from Syria, Shadid recounts his year-long effort to re-build his great-grandfather's home in the Lebanese town of Marjayoun. The task encapsulates his yearning for a home, and for the rehabilitation of his soul, after years spent documenting the horror of war. Summing up the memoirist's contradictory urge to both tell the truth, and to make the past more palatable – to rebuild it like he does his ancestral house – he writes: "Sometimes it is better to imagine the past than to remember it."

Further reading

Books of the year 2012: Fiction

Books of the year 2012: Crime and thrillers

Books of the year 2012: Music

Books of the year 2012: Celebrity

Books of the year 2012: Natural history

Books of the year 2012: Food

Books of the year 2012: Travel and place

Books of the year 2012: Sport

Books of the year 2012: Art

Books of the year 2012: Children's books

Books of the year 2012: History

Books of the year 2012: Poetry

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas