Books of the Year: Biography and Memoir

There's nothing stodgy about the unconventional approach taken to this year's crop of profiles

Last month, the judges of the Costa Book Awards announced a shortlist for the biography prize with only three, rather than the usual four titles, raising questions about whether the genre had lost its verve. Perhaps the plodding recounting of a person's life has become staid, but a review of this year's biographies shows much experiment with the traditional form, and some lively results.

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Vintage, £16.99) by Sarah Bakewell is one such book and it rightly deserves its place on the Costa shortlist. It blurs lines between philosophy, biography and even self-help on occasions, something Montaigne (right) may well have approved of. Bakewell is present as a witty interlocutor between 16th-century France and the modern day. It is part humane portrait of Montaigne - his idle attitude to the management of the family estate, his love of women, and the significance of the untimely death of a dear friend from the plague - and part gentle guide to philosophy. Most importantly, it is written so that the reader cannot escape the very questions Montaigne poses, the biggest of which is in the title.

A different radical approach comes in another book about a philosopher. Bettany Hughes's The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Cape £25) was a challenge to write, she admits, as it is a "doughnut" subject: the barefoot philosopher is only known through the writings of others, resulting in a profusion of material around her subject and a big hole in the middle. So Hughes recreates the dusty streets of Greece in which his dialogues took shape, and revisits archaeological sites around the glittering city of Athens. It reads like an investigation and, in trying to find the man, Hughes uses the skills of historian and documentarian combined to create a fresh and surprisingly pacy biography.

Looking inward, there have been a number of memoirs about family this year. Rupert Thomson's This Party's Got to Stop (Granta, £16.99), the story of the extended, wild and morbid home that he and his brothers make in their dead father's house, stands out for the unusualness of the story.

On a similar theme - absent parents - are Michael Frayn's My Father's Fortune: A Life (Faber, £16.99) and Jackie Kay's Red Dust Road (Picador, £16.99). Born out of wedlock to a Scottish woman and a Nigerian man who had studied at Aberdeen University in the 1960s, Kay was given up for adoption; Red Dust Road describes her journey to find her birth parents. Her father meets her in a hotel in Abuja, sermonises feverishly for hours, and tries to cleanse Jackie of the sin of her existence as an illegitimate child. To boot, he is too ashamed of his earlier life to introduce her to his second family. Kay finds some weary humour in her disappointment of a father, but her journey to her mother is heart-rending. The woman has wilted into a nervous fragile creature, and when they finally meet, after many cancelled appointments, rattles on about a neighbour with a heart condition. The book goes further than a search for roots. It is a meditation on what it is to have a history, how that history shapes a person, and at what point they stand alone from it.

My Father's Fortune is uncharacteristic of Frayn. Unlike his usual, very careful prose, this book has a looseness about it. It is a gathering together of his family myth, told through relatives' recollections, his own impressionistic childhood memories and those of his reflective adult self. At the heart of the book is Frayn's father, Tom, born into poverty in 1901 and crammed into two rooms off the shabby Holloway Road in north London with his parents and three siblings. At a tender age, Tom acquires a swagger, a decent job, a Homberg hat and a wife a station above him in life, and moves them all out to the suburbs, where Frayn's life begins. From this promising start, the story turns dark when Tom's beloved wife, Vi, drops dead suddenly after a glass of sherry. The book is Frayn's tribute to his father, a posthumous message of love that Michael had not expressed when Tom was alive, and a brilliant piece of writing.

Also of note is a work on Stieg Larsson by his friend Kurdo Baksi. Slim by comparison with Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, Stieg Larsson: My Friend (MacLehose, £14.99) nevertheless goes back to the roots of their friendship. Editors of separate Swedish magazines which eventually merged, the two men were professional colleagues as well as friends, and Baksi writes knowledgably about Larsson's work as a passionate campaigner against racism. It is an intellectual, unsentimental portrait.

There are some doorstoppers in this year's crop, too: David Brown's Palmerston: A Biography (Yale, £25), a hefty, statesman-like life of the 19th-century prime minister, and Rosamund Bartlett's academic but impressive Tolstoy: A Russian Life (Profile, £25).

Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin (Cape, £25) edited by his widow Elizabeth and his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, doesn't skimp on pages either, but every drop of Chatwin is worth it. The same exquisite observations found in his novels and the penetrating ideas found in his essays infuse even his most casual letters. The volume also reveals much about his guarded personal life and his sudden passions, all augmented by humorously exasperated footnotes from his long-suffering wife.

With this level of quality, publishers and readers of biographies need not worry too much about the Costa's shortlist.

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

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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


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

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

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

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

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'

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

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    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