The Wife’s Tale: A brutal but beautiful memoir

In The Wife’s tale, Guardian journalist Aida Edemariam recounts the life of her grandmother Yetemegnu, an indomitable woman who lived through the most extraordinary century in Ethiopia’s history.

Edemariam first introduces readers to Yetemegnu on the day of her wedding, when she is just eight years old. Barely aware of the vows she is making, Yetemegnu is being married to Tsega, an ambitious priest more than two decades her senior. Over the next thirty years, Tsega is varyingly tender and brutal to his wife – a tyrant who beats her when she returns home from merely buying food, and a father who..

‘…when I was a child braided my hair.
Trimming the rough edges, teaching me manners.
My husband who raised me’

Edemariam heartbreakingly evokes Yetemegnu’s secluded marriage, (as a child bride and a clergyman’s wife), and her difficult motherhood which consisted of ten births, infant deaths, and difficult partings to give her children a better future. Edemariam brings her grandmother’s voice to life with vivid descriptions of her daily routine, observations of the world around her, and her prayers offered to the Virgin Mary. Edemariam’s narrative is  filled with rich prose that perfectly evokes her grandmother’s life, such as:

“The dry season wore on… Wild figs darkened in the trees. The peaches mellowed.”

Edemariam also gives a fascinating and unique perspective into the events of the time. Born over a century ago, Yetemegnu lived well into her nineties and bore witness to the 1930s Italian occupation as well as famines, revolutions, and political coups. She vividly recounts events such as Yetemegnu fleeing her city during allied bombardment, her audiences with Emperor Haile Selassie to defend and avenge her husband; and her battles in a male dominated court to protect her property rights. With a housewife’s unique perspective, Yetemegnu also bore witness to economic and educational changes, as well as the huge changes in culture and attitude Yetemegnu herself had to struggle to understand.

Edemariam’s distinctive narrative manages to delve not only into the mind of her grandmother, but also into the rich history and culture which surrounded her. Elegant, and superbly researched, ‘The Wife’s Tale’ is both a rich panoroma of 19th century Ethiopia, and an inspiring tribute to the courage and importance of seemingly ordinary wives like Yetemegnu.

The Wife’s Tale
by Aida Edemariam
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780007459605

Is this the real life?

Confession time. My reading tastes tend towards non-fiction. Not exclusively, but you’re far more likely to see me curled up with a good gardening book or a lush costume history than a weighty fantasy tome. This can make things slightly awkward when it comes to reader advisory (“You work in library – you must have read [insert novel/bestseller/literary worthy here]!”) All I can say is thank goodness for Novelist Plus and Fantastic Fiction for easing the stress of fiction read-alike queries!

I like to liberally sprinkle my reading fare with a good serving of memoirs, and this year has thrown up a few really good (and quite varied) reads. Often I pick up a memoir knowing absolutely nothing about the person concerned, just because that can be bizarrely fun. For instance, the first I’d ever heard of Russell Brand (some years ago now) was reading My Booky Wook – yes, I live in a hole. I just liked the title.

Cover of The girl with the lower back tattooAmongst this year’s finds, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo wasn’t quite such a stone-cold intro. I’d seen some stand-up by Amy Schumer and had enjoyed it the point of snarfing my drink (always a sign of good comedy). I find her “oversharing” comedic style both endearing and fascinatingly horrifying, and her writing is much the same. I did find it a bit patchy, but her story has definitely gone on my list of female voices I’ve enjoyed hearing. I laughed a lot, I felt for her, and I admired her honesty.

Honesty (or the appearance of it) is I guess what we look for in a memoir. Reading memoirs can feel voyeuristic as a reader, sometimes to the point of discomfort but (unlike the nastiness of tabloid journalism) it is at least consensual voyeurism. I don’t mind that someone might only be telling what they want to tell (a somewhat odd criticism often levelled at autobiographists and memoir-writers, as though they are under an obligation to bare all). I’ve always figured that that is their right and I listen to their story knowing that the bias is part of the story.

I’ve just started Little Me: My life from A-Z by Matt Lucas, and I’m enjoying it very much. Again I knew little of the man other than some of his television appearances (I’ve particularly enjoyed his character on Doctor Who and his appearances on QI), but I saw the book go past in a transit crate, read a page or two, and was engaged enough by his friendly and straightforward writing style to place a hold.

Matt’s take on the whole “telling the truth but not the whole truth” thing is this: “I’m only forty-three. If I spill ALL the beans, then no one will trust me, no one will hire me and I’ll have no option but to go into the Celebrity Big Brother house.” More seriously, he talks about not breaking his promises to those he’s loved – which makes me like the guy.

In an about-turn sharp enough to cause whiplash, my other favourite memoir of the year is about a dog and his gardener. Nigel: My family and other dogs by Britain’s Gardeners’ World host (and one of my personal gardening heroes) Monty Don, is a delight.

Nigel, a gorgeous retriever, shot to fame as a result of his scene-stealing, haphazard appearances in Monty’s garden tutorials. He has his own social media sites and fan mail, and caused great concern amongst viewers recently when he disappeared off camera for some weeks due to a back injury. I have always loved Monty Don’s visible love of, and delight in, his garden.

In Nigel we learn of his love for the generations of dogs that have been a part of his life, in all its highs and lows. Ostensibly a piece about the special place dogs can hold in our lives, the book is also an open and honest look at Monty’s personal and business highs and lows, his struggles with depression and how his garden and his dogs help him through.

I’m not sure what 2018 will throw in front of me in the way of memoirs, but I hope they continue to be refreshingly random and varied. Peering into other lives life might seem a bit voyeuristic, but on the whole I think being invited to take a look makes for an enriching and more empathetic view of the world.

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A natural quartet

I’ve recently been delving into some “recreational non-fiction” reading!

Recreational non-fiction is what you might call stories based on fact that read as easily as a novel. This can be particularly true of memoir or biographies, and I’ve come across four such titles that I would like to recommend to you, the Christchurch reading public!

They’re all based around the topic of the natural world, they all read like adventure tales, and they all have a common link; the idea that we should all spend more time in and around nature, observe, engage, and enjoy.

We certainly don’t all need to go to the extreme lengths that these authors do – you don’t, for example, need to be the man responsible for dangling Sir David Attenborough 180ft in the upper canopy of one of the world remotest rainforests! You also don’t need to chase errant wild stags through the outskirts of London during the storm of the decade! And you definitely don’t need to be the man behind the push for Cpt. William Bligh to set off on his ill-fated voyage in the Bounty to take breadfruit from the Pacific Islands and take it to the Americas as cheap fodder for slave owners!

No, we can just sit back on a sunny spring day and enjoy stories of nature and travel, real stories told by real people who actually wrote the words themselves (apart from Linnaeus and Banks of course, their stories are ably told by Oxford historian Patricia Fara)

A Natural Quartet

List created by DevilStateDan

Four books about the natural world that you just can’t miss!

Cover of Sex, Botany and EmpireSex, Botany & Empire

The amazing story behind two giant names in natural science; Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks. Just how great were they? Were they true champions of natural science, conservation, and preservation? Or were they subject to their own particular biases and egos in their work, striving to become something more than they were..? This book is a great insight and a brilliant read, giving context to the lives and journeys of these two names so famous now that we forget how recent their work actually is!

Cover of The man who climbs treesThe Man Who Climbs Trees

This is a series of stories that follows a man around the globe as he climbs some of the tallest trees in the world! He regularly works for the BBC to help produce some of the amazing images of the flora and fauna to be found in forest canopies seen in their Planet Earth series, he has a brilliant outlook on nature and conservation, and is a very talented storyteller – his tales read like boys-own adventures as he navigates all kinds of perils (weather, insects, primates, you name it!) to provide safe vertical passage through the forests of the world. If you like the natural world then this is a memoir too good to miss!

Cover of Adventures of a young naturalistAdventures of A Young Naturalist

The story of David Attenborough’s fist major nature assignment as he travels into remote parts (pre-internet or mobile phone coverage!) to obtain vision of some of the creatures of the earth that humans have only ever read about in books. Written by the man himself, his voice is clear and present in every word as he deals with the perils of travelling the wilds of the earth for the betterment of natural science.

Cover of Park lifePark Life

John Bartram stands as the longest serving gamekeeper of the illustrious and ecologically-fragile Richmond Park – a secluded nature reserve in the midst of the busyness of London. He tells of his journey to get to the job and the lifetime of work and memories he has obtained along the way. It is written in a very matter-of-fact manner which serves well to remind the reader that nature is on our doorstep and to stop now and then to treasure it.

And if these stories have piqued your interest in the natural world but you’re wanting to read more about OUR natural world, then perhaps try one of these beaut magazines available through Christchurch City Libraries… they’re full of the same fascination and excitement of discovery as the old stories but with the added advantage that they’re the stories of our own generation, in and of our own region.

Can you handle the truth?

The truth can be rough, can be inspiring, or depressing, or fascinating – or all of the above. Good biography writers know that, and know exactly how to grip you in with stories of real people and the astonishing lives they’ve lived – or are still living.

Biographies are a way to see history and culture in a new way, through the eyes of someone who has lived it. Here’s four stories of four very different moments in time, straight from the top of my ever-growing For Later list.

Cover of "In Order to Live"

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park.

The story of how two brave woman, Yeonmi and her mother, escaped from North Korea through China. I’ve heard this book is equal parts harrowing and inspiring, as it gives her account of her escape, plus the story of her life in North Korea and her new life as a human rights campaigner in the US. She sounds incredible. An important book.

Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, by Laura Thompson.Cover of

“Enthralling” “charming” “scandalous”  are three descriptions I’ve heard of the sisters in this book. I had vaguely heard of the Mitford Sisters before but it wasn’t till a couple of months ago when I was travelling with my cousins when someone (charmingly) compared us to the six Mitford sisters that I started looking into them and hoo boy, they’re marvellous! This is going to be a good one.

Cover of The Girl Who Stole Stockings: The True Story of Susannah Noon and the Women of the Convict Ship Friends by Elsbeth Hardie.

Because stories of the women who were sent to Australia as convicts promise to be fascinating! This ship full of women, from murderers to pickpockets, shipped to the other side of the world. Honestly, what a story. Susannah Noon, who wasn’t even a teenager when she was convicted of theft, had an amazing life, from England to Australia and then over to New Zealand, as one of the first hand witnesses to the conflict between Te Rauparaha and the New Zealand Company!

Cover of 'A Life in Secrets'

A Life In Secrets; The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, by Sarah Helm.

Ok so, a couple of years ago I read this amazing book called Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, a story about two young female operatives in World War Two, a pilot and a spy. It was incredible, so when I found out that this book, A Life in Secrets, was highly recommended by the author, it was immediately part of my to-read list.

So, got any true stories on your For Later lists?

Biography and Memoir: picks from our November newsletter

Our November Biography and Memoir newsletter brings you a bumper crop of biographies and memoirs for your reading delectation.

Cover of Fatherland Cover of Born into The Children of God Cover of Daring Cover of Henare Wiremu Taratoa Cover of Carsick Cover of Love My Rifle More Than You Cover of Duchamp Cover of My Grandfather's Gallery Cover of Wild Westie

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For more great biographies and memoirs, check out our lists of winners of  the Costa Biography Award.

Biography and Memoir: picks from our March newsletter

Some picks from our March Biography and Memoir newsletter. Don’t miss Mum’s The Word, the fascinating life of Eve Branson, mother of Ted, and Jung Chang’s extensive biography of the oft-maligned Empress Dowager Cixi.

Cover of Phil CrossCover of Glitter and GlueCover of Faster Than LightningCover of An Italian Down UnderCover of Alfred Queen Victoria's Second SonCover of Empress Dowager CixiCover of Mum's The WordCover of UglyCover of Mermaid

Subscribe to our newsletters and get our latest titles and best picks straight in your inbox.

For more great biographies and memoirs, check out our lists of winners of  the Costa Biography Award.

Biography and Memoir: picks from our February newsletter

Some picks from our February Biography and Memoir newsletter:

Cover of A Life od Barbara StanwyckCover of And A Voice to Sing WithCover of A Hell for HeroesCover of A Story Lately ToldCover of Kansas City LightningCover of Undisputed TruthCover of The GirlCover of Sophie PascoeCover of Strings Attached

Subscribe to our newsletters and get our latest titles and best picks straight in your inbox.

For more great biographies and memoirs, check out our lists of winners of  the Costa Biography Award.

Biography and Memoir: picks from our January newsletter

Some picks from our January Biography and Memoir newsletter:

Cover of Elizabeth of YorkCover of Lady Catherine and the Real Downton AbbeyCover of Alone TogetherCover of CoopCover of Alex Ferguson: My AutobiographyCover of A Woman in BerlinCover of Johnny Cash: The LifeCover of  An American Bride in KabulCover of Biko: A Life

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For more great biographies and memoirs, check out our lists of winners of  the Costa Biography Award.

I’ll have what she’s having…

Cover of The Most of Nora EphronWhen Meg Ryan mimed an orgasm in a diner in When Harry Met Sally and a nearby customer said: I’ll have what she’s having, that was Nora Ephron making her mark as one of the soon-to-be most quoted contemporary authors.

Nora Ephron (May 19, 1941 – June 26, 2012) was a screenplay writer and director of such formidable movie successes as Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally,  and Julie and Julia, as well as the author of several books, columns, reviews and blogs.

Ephron made me  feel OK about growing up (Wallflower at the Orgy), breaking up (Heartburn) and growing older (I feel bad about my neck). She didn’t write to change our lives; instead her writing retells our lives to us in a way that sparks recognition, affirms who we are and makes us laugh while we are at it.

From this you can tell that I am a huge Ephron fan and the arrival of her biography  The Most of Nora Ephron is therefore a great joy to me. In fact, my life story can just about be summarised in Ephron quotes:

  • On education:If you love architecture, you need to do more than marry an architect.
  • On betrayal: If I had to do it again, I would have made a different kind of pie. The pie I threw at Mark made a terrific mess, but a blueberry pie would have been even better, since it would have permanently ruined his new blazer, the one he bought with Thelma.
  • On growing older: Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck.

I love her writing. I want to write like this.

How about you, do you have an author of whom you can honestly say:

I’ll have what she’s having?

Biography and Memoir: picks from our December newsletter

Some picks from our December Biography and Memoir newsletter:

Cover of PaikeaCover of The Wharf at Waterfall BayCover of Pope FrancisCover of Shirley JonesCover of An Appetite for WonderCover of Life is So GoodCover of DilemmaCover of DukeCover of Angela Merkel

Subscribe to our newsletters and get our latest titles and best picks straight from your inbox.

For more great biographies and memoirs, check out our lists of winners of  the Costa Biography Award.