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Old 09-05-2013, 09:01 PM   #1
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Biographies & Memoirs Vote • September 2013

Help us choose the September 2013 selection to read for the MR Literary Club! The poll will be open for THREE days (we have added an extra day to see how it goes).

The vote is multiple choice. You may vote for as many or as few as you like.

A discussion thread will begin shortly after a winner is chosen.

In the event of a tie, there will be a one-day non-multiple-choice run-off poll. In the event that the run-off poll also ends in a tie, the tie will be resolved in favour of the selection that received all of its initial nominations first.

Select from the following works:

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
Published in 1933

From Wikipedia:

Down and Out in Paris and London is the first full-length work by the English author George Orwell (Eric Blair), published in 1933. It is a memoir in two parts on the theme of poverty in the two cities. The first part is an account of living on the breadline in Paris and the experience of casual labour in restaurant kitchens. The second part is a travelogue of life on the road in and around London from the tramp's perspective, with descriptions of the types of hostel accommodation available and some of the characters to be found living on the margins.

From Amazon:

What was a nice Eton boy like Eric Blair doing in scummy slums instead of being upwardly mobile at Oxford or Cambridge? Living Down and Out in Paris and London, repudiating respectable imperialist society, and reinventing himself as George Orwell. His 1933 debut book (ostensibly a novel, but overwhelmingly autobiographical) was rejected by that elitist publisher T.S. Eliot, perhaps because its close-up portrait of lowlife was too pungent for comfort.

On the issue of memoir vs. fiction, Orwell said:

I think I can say that I have exaggerated nothing except in so far as all writers exaggerate by selecting. I did not feel that I had to describe events in the exact order in which they happened, but everything I have described did take place at one time or another.

Orwell is public domain in Canada and Australia and for those fortunates, here’s the link to the download page at Adelaide.

Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey
Published in 1921 and winner of the James Tait Black Memorial prize

A review posted on Amazon 31 August this year is the best issybird found:

I cannot praise this biography of Queen Victoria too much. Like all of Strachey's work, it is a gem of English prose style: sometimes mordant, often subtly sarcastic, but always spot on. He does in 100 pages what other biographers seem to fail to do in 1000 pages in capturing the essence of his subject's personality, the zeitgeist of the time in which they lived and so forth. His tongue in cheek description of Prince Albert's marital fidelity (all the while implying that he was gay and just not interested in women to begin with) is typical of Strachey's style and his wit. I say again, a real gem of English prose style and biographical art. A must read for anyone interested in English literature or the Victorian era in general.

And from the Guardian:

Hilarious social commentary… If all biographies were like Stracheys, they would probably kill off the novel altogether.

Available at Manybooks in all formats, free.

The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway
From a review by Carolyn Heilbrun:

This beautifully written narrative of Conway's journey from a girlhood on an isolated sheep farm in the grasslands of Australia to her departure for America (and eventually the Presidency of Smith College) is both new and universal. If few of us have known an eight-year drought in New South Wales, many of us have felt the despair of an ambitious young woman facing a constrained female destiny. This book, an extraordinarily gripping and inspiring work, will take its place as one of the few heroic stories of girlhood.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys
The diary which Samuel Pepys kept from January 1660 to May 1669 one of our greatest historical records and... a major work of English literature, writes the renowned historian Paul Johnson. A witness to the coronation of Charles II, the Great Plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of 1666, Pepys chronicled the events of his day. Originally written in a cryptic shorthand, Pepys's diary provides an astonishingly frank and diverting account of political intrigues and naval, church, and cultural affairs, as well as a quotidian journal of daily life in London during the Restoration.

This is in the public domain and available here at MR.

fantasyfan comments:

The Pepys Diary is one of those works that can be read in a non-linear way. I have the three volume Warrington edition from Everyman Library that runs to over 1500 pages and I've always found it sufficient {though Warrington removes the spicier bits}.

Pepys lived in a very eventful time and most people might well want to begin with his vivid description of the Great Fire of London or the Black Death which ravaged London at that time. He mentions the two dramatic Comets that appeared over the London skies and the coronation of Charles II. His literary tastes come through in an interesting way--he tends to regard Shakespeare as a lesser dramatist than Dryden.

Wikipedia gives a useful overview of it and one can simply browse through it with an index of some of the important characters. "Penn" his professional partner, for instance, was the father of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, who made for a short visit {as a child} to Ireland.

Night by Elie Wiesel
Warning: the subject matter is not light. Available as an ebook in the stores (~$5 at and Synamon found a library audiobook.

In Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel's memoir Night, a scholarly, pious teenager is wracked with guilt at having survived the horror of the Holocaust and the genocidal campaign that consumed his family. His memories of the nightmare world of the death camps present him with an intolerable question: how can the God he once so fervently believed in have allowed these monstrous events to occur? There are no easy answers in this harrowing book, which probes life's essential riddles with the lucid anguish only great literature achieves. It marks the crucial first step in Wiesel's lifelong project to bear witness for those who died.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by June Chang
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, by June Chang. Along with the stories of the authors, her mother and her granmother, it also sweeps through the history of 20th century China. As for its literary value, Penelope Fitzgerald praised it in the London Review of Books. More reviews extracts here and here.

Available as ebook, it is originally in English.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
From Wikipedia:

Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell's personal account of his experiences and observations in the Spanish Civil War. The first edition was published in 1938.

Orwell served as a private, a corporal (cabo) and—when the informal command structure of the militia gave way to a conventional hierarchy in May 1937—as a lieutenant, on a provisional basis, in Catalonia and Aragon from December 1936 until June 1937. In June 1937 the leftist political party with whose militia he served (the POUM, the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification, an anti-Stalinist communist party) was declared an illegal organization and Orwell was consequently forced to flee or face imprisonment.

The book can be downloaded here from the University of Adelaide site for readers living in life+50 countries.
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