Every now and again I pick an autobiography and remember just how much I usually enjoy reading real stories of people’s lives. I’ve also been watching with fascination the story of Lance Armstrong play out and got thinking about how that changes his own autobiography for those that have read it – I have not. With all of this happening I thought a Tuesday’s Top Five on autobiographies (or biographies) might be interesting. I’m not going to claim that these are among the best because I really haven’t read that many, but they are my top five, the ones that have stood out the most for me. I’d love to know if you’ve read any really great autobiographies.
1. Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom
I read this weighty memoir when I was at University studying the colonial and post-colonial history of Africa. I saw it on the recommended reading list, immediately borrowed it from the library and sat holed up in my room for several days with my nose stuck in this book. Three days and roughly 650 pages later and I was finished. Wow, it was amazing as of course the story of such a great man had to me. But there was a lot more to his story than I was aware of prior to picking up this book.
2. Roberta Syke’s Snake Cradle, Snake Dancing and Snake Circle
Another one that I was introduced to thanks to my university studies, Roberta Syke’s three part autobiography tells how this strong Aboriginal woman came to be an activist for Aboriginal rights and story-teller. She has written several other books including the biographies of other Aboriginal women (they are also worth a look). The first of the books focuses on her childhood, the next follows her politicisation and the start of her studies and the final book takes her to becoming the first Aboriginal women to complete a doctorate – at Harvard no less!
3. Sally Morgan’s My Place
This was the very first autobiography I read sometime during school (the early years of high school perhaps) and it was a great introduction. It’s an easy yet fascinating read as Morgan recounts her own childhood growing up as an Aboriginal girl without knowing that’s what she is! In the process of telling her own story she also finds out about her mother’s and grandmother’s lives. It’s funny and moving and has become a classic in Australian literature.
4. Dawn French’s Dear Fatty
This one is a departure from the more serious ones above and is written with Dawn French’s renowned witty and humour. The title comes from an ironic nickname French has for her partner in comedy Jennifer Saunders – ironic obviously because she is anything but fat. I like the way this book was written as letter to her friend, it was like getting a sort of secret glimpse into someone’s life, one that you wouldn’t normally get to read. Somehow this made her story seem very personal and some of the content was really very moving and quite sad. Thankfully the funny, uplifting and optimistic parts acted as a counter weight to these incidents.
5. Hospital by the River, by Dr Katherine Hamlin
I’ve included this one because it’s the one I’ve read most recently and the story is inspiring. Dr Katherine Hamlin and her husband Reg were both Australian gynecologist and and obstetricians who move to Ethiopia and eventually set up a hospital to treat women who have suffered horrific injuries during birth. The work they have done and that Katherine continues to do (at 87!) is completely amazing and they lived through some of the most tumultuous years in Ethiopia’s political history all the while continuing their important and life changing work. Having said that it’s not all that well written (being a doctor rather than a writer) and it reads in a sort of disjointed way.
There are a few on my to read list at the moment, including The Happiest Refugee, but there are so many out there that really that list could be forever filled with just biographies. So what has been your favourite, is there one biography that has stood out for you for it’s inspiring or moving story or perhaps for it’s humour.