Book Club / Culture

A life in words: These are the 37 memoirs that will stay with us forever

best biographies

Memoirs, autobiographies, even biographies — these are as close as we'll ever get to walking in another's shoes. And oh, the paths they've trodden. From Joan Didion's late and lonely nights spiralling with grief to Kim Gordon's painful and public break up from Thurston Moore, 37 of our favourites take our hand and walk with us through the peaks and troughs of their personal histories. Some are triumphant, others sobering, all are introspective and worthy of your time. Below, we present you with the stories and lives close to our hearts, delivered straight from the horse's mouth.

1. Pour Me: A Life - A.A Gill

Whenever I need a pick-me-up I open a book by A.A Gill and strap in for a ride. Reading his work is like being a pinball flung about, trying to catch a thought and latching onto another before the first lands. Each time you finish a sentence of Gill's you realise you've been set you up. It's a joy. Pour Me is the serious effort people like Sue Lawley had been harrassing the man for. A romp through the author's life, the memoir muses on his time at Central Saint Martins before digging into his blackout years, then leading into his time as a food writer and foreign correspondent. If you're into famous cameos, there's plenty to be found in this tale of London in the 70s.


2. Just Kids - Patti Smith

Rarely are we afforded the chance to slip into the minds of our personal heroes. Especially those with lived experienced as vibrant as Patti Smith's. In her first memoir, the poet and musician recounts her early years as an artist trying to survive in New York City in the 70s. Just like Pour Me, the book is rife with famous cameos, from the fabled Chelsea Hotel and Max's Kansas City, to encounters with Allen Ginsberg, Susan Sontag, Lou Reed, and most importantly her tender relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.


3. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl - Carrie Brownstein

Titled after song lyrics taken from the Sleater-Kinney track Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein's memoir reflects on her time as a member of the band, which was one of the pioneering forces behind the Riot Grrrl movement. With a laconic tone and unfussy self-awareness Brownstein shares stories from her turbulent childhood, her experience as woman in the male-dominated world of punk, feminism and band politics. Each tale is underpinned by her ferocious love of music and the space it creates for reinvention, belonging and self-expression.


4. The Return - Hisham Matar

Libyan author Hisham Matar is a gentle writer who is never guilty of giving into melodrama – the facts of his personal history speak for themselves. In this memoir Matar returns to his home country of Libya determined to shed light on the kidnapping of his father Jaballa twenty years earlier. He is met with dead ends and the incompetence of bureaucracy, and as a reader you're rendered heartsick as Matar explains the crimes of Gaddafi and how they stole his father from him when he was only 19.


5. How to End a Story - Helen Garner

Helen Garner terrifies me. In a good way. Anyone who has read her work will understand this. She's a merciless writer, sparing no one – not even herself from her own critical eye and sharp conclusions. How to End a Story is the best example of this. Garner gives permission for the reader to do the unthinkable: flick through a stranger's private diary. As the third instalment in her diary series, How to End a Story shadows the period between 1995-1998, a time defined the pain of Garner's crumbling marriage.


6. The Andy Warhol Diaries - Andy Warhol

In a period spanning over a decade, Warhol would phone close friend and journalist Pat Hackett and dictate the contents of his journals to her, which she later edited and published in the wake of his untimely death. The contents of those journals reveal a glamorous lifestyle; time Warhol spent between The Factory and Studio 54, at the Oscars and always chaperoned by heavy-hitters like Edie Sedgwick, Jim Morrison, Calvin Klein, Nico, Jean-Michel Basquiat – the list goes on and on.


7. Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee

Bri Lee has swiftly become a powerful voice in Australian literature. She's dogged in her pursuit of the facts and of holding the right people accountable. In her first novel and memoir she traces her experience of the Australian legal system from differing perspectives. The first as the daughter of a policeman to law student then judge associate until ultimately finding herself in the position of complainant. It was during her work as a judge associate the Lee went through a sort-of awakening. Enraged by the injustices and trauma women face in our legal system, it was by bearing witness to their pain that she was emboldened to deal with her own, laying it all out in court.


8. Everything I Know About Love - Dolly Alderton

The book that has millennials and zillennials in a perpetual chokehold. If you love Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth then this bad boy will deliver a similar flavour with the added sharpness of lived experience. The journalist and author reflects on growing up in the suburbs of outer London, the friendships that forged her, sex, modern dating, sharehouse living and yes, love, with comforting recipes peppered throughout à la Alderton's hero, Nora Ephron.


9. Girl in a Band - Kim Gordon

Along with the memoirs of fellow Cali local-turned-East Coast transplant Joan Didion, you can count on a copy of Kim Gordon's autobiography lining the RUSSH team's bookshelves. We have long adored her, and we're fairly certain you won't find anyone working in the arts who doesn't. Girl in a Band was the follow up response, if you will, of Gordon to the public shock of her split from fellow Sonic Youth band-member and now ex-husband Thurston Moore after 27 years of marriage. But while her broken marriage is a focus of the book, it's not all she muses on. Touching on her relationship with her daughter Coco, New York City in the 80s and 90s, art, the men in her life and above all, the profound role of music also.


10. The Faraway Nearby - Rebecca Solnit

A favourite of RUSSH Brand Manager Lucienne Bambridge, Rebecca Solnit examines the way we use fairy tales and storytelling as scaffolding to attach meaning to our lives, using her own as a case study. In The Faraway Nearby Solnit dredges up her relationship with her mother, touching on her memory loss while weaving these experiences into other fabled stories such as Che Guevara among the leper colonies and Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein.


11. The Autobiography of Malcolm X - Malcolm X

A treasured personal record. The story of Malcolm X in his own words has been a source of essential reading for non-white, Muslim folks for years and if you consider yourself an anti-racist ally, it should rise to the top of your reading list too. Here Malcolm X writes on his early years hustling and being thrusted into violence leading to a decade serving time in prison. It was from jail that he converted to Islam and went through a radical reawakening, growing privy to the systemic and social injustices against Black folk. Read this account to cut through the noise of salacious media headlines and untruths that still linger after his assassination.


12. How to Build a Girl - Caitlin Moran

Beanie Feldstein's joyful performance in the filmic adaptation of How to Build a Girl is an education that must be followed up with original text. After all, the only person who could make you laugh harder than Feldstein is whizz-kid-turned-accomplished-author, Caitlin Moran. The coming-of-age novel is a semi-autobiographical account of her early life in a council flat in Wolverhampton. It's hilarious, moving and warm. The equivalent of a ticklish hot water bottle on wheels.


13. Kitchen Confidential - Anthony Bourdain

If you've ever dated a chef, the kind who sleeps on a mattress on the floor and smells like an ashtray, chances are this book lay tattered on their makeshift bedside table. It is the bible of the male chef and the torment of their female colleagues. Anthony Bourdain even admits it himself in the Insider's Edition. And while the male bravado wouldn't fly in a kitchen today, Bourdain's first biographical novel detailing the unsanitary, foul-mouthed, debauched experiences of cooks was as close to a universal experience as it gets.


14. Blue Nights - Joan Didion

This could have very easily been The Year of Magical Thinking or The White Album, even South and West. But it is on the subject of childhood and motherhood that Didion cleaves our hearts in two. Following her daughter Quintana Roo's death, which in turn followed her husbands own departure, Didion is transparent about her capacity as a parent and the fears and doubts that inevitably surface.


15. Nothing But My Body - Tilly Lawless

One of the most anticipated Australian novels of 2021. After reading Tilly's words exclusively through extended Instagram captions, it was a delight to hear of her debut novel. In Nothing But My Body Lawless writes candidly about romance, the power of friendship, queerness, Australia's Black Summer, sex work - the story of a young woman who came to Sydney with nothing but her body. Read an interview between Tilly Lawless and RUSSH's Ella Jane, here.


16. Astragal - Albertine Sarrazin

Like many, I came to this book after inhaling Patti Smith's Just Kids. Part autobiography, part fiction this slim volume opens with a waifish character called Anne after she breaks her ankle from a daring prison escape. Somehow the 19-year-old makes it to the highway where she's found by a motorcyclist name Julien. He too is on the run and what follows is tale of survival and lust, which cannot be separated from Sarrazin's own untimely death aged 29.


17. The Lebs - Michael Mohammed Ahmad

Set at Punchbowl Boys during the early aughts – a time in Australia that was blackened with anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment – The Lebs is a semi-autobiography and satire of the homogenising paint brush of White Australia. Using the patois of Punchbowl Boys, Ahmad paints a brutally honest portrait of masculinity and violence, all learned behaviours from a country intent on denying the students humanity. Author Michael Mohammed Ahmad is the director of Sweatshop, a literacy movement based in Western Sydney that creates space for culturally and linguistically diverse communities to have agency over their own stories.


18. Know My Name - Chanel Miller

When Chanel Miller was assaulted by Brock Turner a furore broke out over his meagre six month sentence. In the courtroom, it was his humanity that was centred and advocated for. However, it was Miller's then-anonymous letter that spoke to a phenomenon felt by so many survivors of assault, of not being believed and of having your account torn apart by past arbitrary past behaviour. Know My Name is the unabridged account following her assault, and the systems intent on allowing sexual crimes to go unchecked.


19. Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood - bell hooks

In her memoir, bell hooks speaks candidly and with precision on growing up Black in the American South. Books became her refuge, as did solitude, both ingredients essential in shaping her into the intellectual she is renowned for. From her stowed away memories of childhood, hooks plucks out her experiences like strings on a harp, and weaves them together as though song notes, shedding light on the vulnerability of children, the imbalance between sexes and using it all to determine her place in the world.


20. In The Dream House - Carmen Maria Machado

There are little more formative texts than queer writers finding their voices in a vastly under-explored genre. Carmen Maria Machado does this in the most stunning way. Chronicling the dynamics of an abusive lesbian relationship in a gothic fairytale format, Machado shows just how little context there is for her experience in the world of literature, and in doing so, provides a bible for queer folks everywhere on desire, power, love and queerness.


21. My Name is Why - Lemn Sissay

Having been raised in care with only half the facts, poet Lemn Sissay is determined to mine his past and the past misdeeds of others to speak his truth. Everything from his birth name and the whereabouts of his mother were kept from him, growing up instead as Norman Greenwood the child of a white foster family that would inevitably reject him. This is his story, one of cruelty, neglect, perseverance and ultimately triumph.


22. Eve's Hollywood - Eve Babitz

Often compared to her contemporary Joan Didion, the only line I can draw between the two is that the famous picture of a naked Babitz playing chess alongside Duchamp graced the cover of Didion's Play It As It Lays. Where Joan observed coolly from the sidelines, Babitz flung herself into the mess. The latters writing was just as sharp and brimming with charisma and party-girl exuberance. In Eve's Hollywood, the LA woman and goddaughter of Stravinsky whisks us into a world of sex workers, rock stars and surfers in Santa Monica, laying bare Los Angeles as she knew it.


23. Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell

Remember that chef I spoke of earlier? Well this volume is guaranteed to sit underneath Bourdain's memoir. A klaxon call to the vagrants and penniless, and to the upper classes who romanticise this lifestyle, Orwell's early memoir recounts his experience as a struggling writer in Paris working as a dishwasher. With sensitivity and clarity Orwell speaks on poverty and the untruths that surround it.


24. Holding the Man - Timothy Conigrave

As with most things, it begins with a story of love. Young, queer love that blossoms from inside an all-boys Catholic school in Melbourne. At the centre of this tale is Timothy Conigrave and John Caleo; and it trails their love affair as it spanned fifteen years, weathering disapproval, separation, bigotry, before ultimately being cut short by the AIDS pandemic. Holding the Man is evidence of their bond and a celebration of the lives Conigrave and Caleo shared together. If you weeped endlessly while reading A Little Life, fair warning - you're about to repeat the experience.


25. Crying in H Mart - Michelle Zauner

best biographies

It brings me both joy and immense envy to see creatives who are adept in multiple disciplines, Michelle Zauner is one of those people. Both the vocalist of Japanese Breakfast and now an author, her memoir is beloved by third culture Korean kids the world over. Crying in H Mart – an expansion on an essay she wrote for The New Yorker in 2018 – delves into Zauner's upbringing as a Korean-American, losing her mother, and reflects on the importance of food in her life and the moments she shared with her mother over meals.


26. The Vanity Fair Diaries - Tina Brown

best biographies

Ever wanted to sit in the brain of an editor and talk a walk in their office? Introducing The Vanity Fair Diaries. Back when magazines meant big money in the 80s, Tina Brown crossed the Atlantic to steer the drowning ship at Vanity Fair. She shares her diaries from this period; giving us a candid look into Reagan-era New York City. Names like André Leon Talley, Anna Wintour, Annie Leibovitz, Nora Ephron and Joan Didion step into focus, all while the AIDS crisis reaches boiling point in the background. Stay to find out about that pregnant Demi Moore cover and more business lunches at the Ritz-Carlton than you can stomach.


27. The Thief's Journal - Jean Genet

best biographies

Anywhere you look, a trail of Patti Smith's admiration closely follows the work of Jean Genet. It's through her (universal) recommendation that I found The Thief's Journal; a portrait of Genet's early life spent begging, borrowing and stealing his way to survival. Set in the lead up to WWII, readers shadow Genet as he recounts his impoverished pilgrimage across Europe, grappling with the darkness of that era with forgiveness and an acceptance that comes only from a man who has made peace with his past.


28. The Chiffon Trenches - Andre Leon Talley

best biographies

A worthy mention for fashion's beating heart. The tale of Talley's fifty year tenure in fashion measures up to his own larger-than-life stature and gregarious reputation. From his time at Interview Magazine to a stint at Women's Wear Daily in Paris, there is much ground to cover and no one better to do it with than the icon himself. Find glamour, celebrity cameos, a candid look at his relationship with Anna Wintour at Vogue all with an underlying vein of faith and race.


29. Not That Kind of Girl - Lena Dunham

best biographies

What does "the voice of a generation" have to share on her experience of early womanhood? If you've plunged into Girls, you'll know the answer is a lot. Dunham shares her encounter of early fame, growing up in New York City and the awkward, embarrassing and deeply cringe. For those who have been deterred by the hubbub around a passage involving Dunham and her brother Cyrus, Roxane Gay will clear it up for you in this article from The Guardian.


30. The Rules Do Not Apply - Ariel Levy

best biographies

A woman is sold the idea that she can do anything—everything— that she is in control over her own life. Having moved to New York City with ambitions of being a writer, and having those dreams fulfilled, this in fact appears to be true until Ariel Levy experiences unimaginable grief and must confront the truth that control is merely an illusion.


31. I Feel Bad About My Neck - Nora Ephron

best biographies

With an introduction from Dolly Alderton and an endorsement from Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Lena Dunham, Nora Ephron has all the hype and for good reason. Her observations are both a comfort and a relief. Relaying concerns both trivial and inevitable about ageing, marriage, motherhood and death. This is one to dole out to your friends.


32. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous - Ocean Vuong

best biographies

A letter penned by a son to a mother who cannot read takes the reader on a journey of a family's history that began before the son was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is an exploration of race, class, and masculinity that asks necessary questions about addiction, violence, and trauma, underpinned by the compassion and tenderness of a mother-son relationship.


33. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou

best biographies

The firsts instalment of six autobiographical works, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings takes us to the very beginning. Here Angelou pens her childhood, growing up under the care of her grandmother in the deep south and soon learning the authority of the white folks across town, including the harrowing story of being raped by her mother's lover. A classic that should be on every list of best biographies.


34. Things I Don't Want to Know - Deborah Levy

best biographies

In the same fashion as many before her, Deborah Levy uses George Orwell's famous essay Why I Write as a springboard for the first volume of her autobiographical trilogy. Bouncing between three countries — Mallorca, South Africa and England — Levy speaks of the turbulence of youth, the absence of her father and ultimately, writing. It's introspective and intimate and will propel you into buy the following two titles.


35. Girl, Interrupted - Susanna Kaysen

best biographies

For those who have only known the film adaptation starring Angelina Jolie, Winona Ryder and Brittany Murphy, it's time to go to the source. Often likened to The Bell Jar, Susanna Kaysen's personal account of two years spent living in psychiatric hospital renowned for its famous clientele — including Sylvia Plath — is eye-opening, raising questions about mental illness, sanity and who is considered either.


36. A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway

best biographies

The romance of Paris is best seen through the eyes of Hemingway. Written during the winter of his life, Hemingway looks back on his early days as a writer; poor yet happy and surrounded by contemporaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce in the City of Love.


37. Scar Tissue - Anthony Kiedis

best biographies

A submission from RUSSH Contributing Editor Kitty Callaghan. While Scar Tissue contains all the hallmarks of a rock biography — drugs, debauchery, music and LA — this is ultimately a tale of redemption. With the help of author Larry Sloman, the two shadow Keidis' formative years; moving to LA to live with his father Blackie — who peddled pills, pot and cocaine to Hollywood's elite — a brief stint as a child actor, the beginning of Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the life that cascaded out from thereon.

For more essential reading, see our list of Australian books, forever must-reads, self-help tomes and sexy novels, as well as the 30 books we encourage all to read before they hit 30.

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