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 & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit