Books for Summer: Lives and Times

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

If the happiness experts are to be trusted, we should take time every day to count our blessings. What better way to spend a holiday, then, than wallowing in the misery of others? Weird though it sounds, perhaps it's time to chuck out the chick-lit and the Chardonnay and curl up with a piña colada and a nice copy of I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors.

"My parents were in Auschwitz. What do you have that can top that one?" asks Bernice Eisenstein, author of a book that is indeed called I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors (Picador, £14.99) and which grapples with the now familiar burden of memory and its legacy. It starts, unusually enough, with a picture: of a quintet of Holocaust luminaries (Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt etc) sitting around a table and musing on the problem of evil and the inadequacies of language. It's a finely judged, and ironic, reminder of the weight - intellectual and philosophical as well as emotional - bearing down on any child of a survivor and of the sheer chutzpah needed to tread where so many have trod before.

It's a challenge that Eisenstein, an artist, neatly sidesteps, by making pictures as central to her memoir as prose. Woven among her memories of a 1950s childhood with Yiddish-speaking parents are fresh and, yes, funny, pictures of family feasts and funerals, of her Western-loving father as John Wayne outside the gates of Auschwitz, and of a teetering pile of the Holocaust classics which were fast becoming an addiction. Eisenstein can't, of course, hope to match her eminent literary precursors, but she writes with wry honesty and, perhaps bravely, wit.

"Something in me was almost consoled by comparison with the horror of the camps, by the radiant silence of tragedy," says Kate Holden, another Holocaust junkie, in her extraordinary memoir, In My Skin (Canongate, £9.99). For her, this particular addiction is merely a sideline. It is heroin, the drug that "first blesses its users with enchantment and then parches them of sensation", which drags this middle-class English graduate, who was "going to be an archeologist who read Virginia Woolf in a tent", into life in a brothel. Holden's talents as a prostitute won her a large and loyal clientele. Her gifts as a writer should do the same.

Holden dedicates her book to her "brave and beautiful family". Other families don't get off quite so lightly. "Parents, if you do not want your children to write tell-all memoirs when they grow up, do not name them KhrYstYll, Pebble, or Shaka Zulu," says Rachel Manja Brown firmly in All the Fishes Come Home to Roost (Hodder, £12.99). Her jaunty and, at times, poignant account of a childhood in an Indian ashram boasts an array of eccentrics that are clearly more fun to read about than to live with.

The same applies to a trio of troubled fathers, a species that seems to be spawning its own sub-genre. In Falling Through The Earth (Picador, £14.99), Danielle Trussoni describes a childhood dominated by her father's violent, drunken rages. When she discovers a human skull, and trophy photos of a man riddled with bullet holes, she decides to find out more about her father's experiences in Vietnam. The result, written without a trace of self-pity, is extremely moving.

Hugo Hamilton's father, first described in his wonderful memoir The Speckled People and now in its equally wonderful follow-up, The Sailor in the Wardrobe (Fourth Estate, £16.99), showers his children with tough love, hitting them for imagined misdemeanours, forbidding them to speak English and encouraging them to muse on Ireland's future and past. John Burnside's father, a pathological liar and drunkard, spins tales of future prosperity while his wife begs the butcher for offcuts for their "imaginary dog". Burnside's journey into his father's heart of darkness, and his own, A Lie About My Father (Cape, £12.99), is a stunning example of writing as some kind of redemption. It's also the best memoir I've read this year.

In a crowded genre, certain books have already taken on the mantle of the classic. One is Augusten Burroughs' Running with Scissors, which Rachel Manja Brown names as the inspiration for her resurrection of her own extraordinary childhood. Another is Lorna Sage's Bad Blood, a clear precursor of Elizabeth Speller's The Sunlight on the Garden (Granta, £14.99). Speller's sensitive and clear-sighted account of blue-blooded idiosyncrasy and mental illness across three generations even includes a relative's reference to the family's "bad blood".

If truth is stranger than fiction, it is also often more dramatic. It's therefore something of a relief to turn to a book in which there's no drama at all. "Sometimes I think that anything, even a sweet packet, is worth spending the rest of one's life meditating on" says Jenny Diski in On Trying to Keep Still (Little, Brown, £15.99). Her account of a year cultivating idleness in New Zealand, Lapland and the Quantocks flirts with self-indulgence, but is weirdly mesmerising. "Keeping still" is an activity which Diski has elevated into an artform. Reassuring stuff for those slumped by the pool.