Reviews of autobiographies, biographies and memoirs
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With reference to the title of her new biography, Sheila Nevins does not look her age, which is 78 years. When I saw her interview with Charlie Rose last Friday on PBS, I was struck by how beautiful she is, in the same class of timeless good looks as Elon Musk’s mother, Maye Musk (69), and Carmen Dell’Orefice (85) who are both (still) models. She was also funny, self-deprecating, and sharp as a blade, so I immediately ordered her new book, You Don’t Look Your Age…And Other Fairy Tales, published two days ago. It is a very short, slight production and, contrary to Nevins’ stated intent, reveals only the well-disguised, carefully curated thoughts and back-stories that Nevins, who has spent her career behind the scenes as a producer of documentaries for HBO, wants to reveal. (Continue reading…)
It was Auster’s stated intention to describe the “human condition”, the state of everyman, as small and young humans in this book. But, Auster is “an exceptional object of study” – despite what he thinks of himself. He, more than many other writers, is justified to write a straightforward autobiography. His mind is, like William Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, such a “seething brain, such shaping fantasies that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends.” By choosing such a difficult writing style for this book, he has placed barriers to understanding and empathy between him and readers. On the other hand – that’s Auster for you – always a challenge. (Continue reading…)
A Million little Pieces, by James Frey
Someone left this novel in the kitchen of our office before the December break. So I took it home to read it. It is the completely au naturel stream-of-consciousness mental workings (like free form poetry) of an alcoholic drug addict and his rehab. First person narrator, present tense, lots of random capital letters, and short sentences. Typical example: “I walk into the Lounge and I sit down on a couch. I’m alone and I watch television and the latest batch of pills kicks in. My heartbeat slows. My hands stop shaking. My eyelids drop. My body is limp. Nothing registers.” (p. 22) There’s a lot of that, and a lot of swearing, blood, pain, vomiting and general nihilism. Towards the end of the book, and his rehab, the sentences, like his mind, seem to hang together better and form paragraphs. If it is real (and some people have said it is a fake), if this is what is really in James Frey’s mind, I am ever so sorry for the man. Just reading this depressed, scared and nauseated me in equal measures. If you want to get put off for life from using any kind of drug, read this. It’s mighty successful aversion therapy.
I laughed ’til I cried when I read this book. I really did. I had to read it with a roll of toilet paper at hand. I read it on the train and tried to stop laughing because the other people were looking at me like I belonged in a hospital ward. I am afraid I shrieked with laughter in a most uncivilized way and ended up having to restrict myself to small doses of a couple of pages at a time. Despite being – as the subtitle of her next memoir goes – a funny book about kinda horrible things like psychological problems. There are authors like Augusten Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, whose lives are/were one long mental aberration, and then there are the enfant terribles, like Jenny Diski, who spent time in an institution, and then there are the depressives, like Sylvia Plath, Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka. (Continue reading…)
Julian Barnes slices the subject of death open as cleanly and as deeply as a professional forensic pathologist. Not one angle, not one idea stays untouched. He writes what most of us simply do not want to hear or think about. But it’s not all down-beat. Writing about death means writing about life leading up to it. The descriptions of people’s interesting lives and ways of coping with impending death are fascinating. It is still a discomforting read, but really, really well done – not a word out of place, not a superfluous, phrase or concept, each idea neatly segueing into the next one. You laugh at some witty anecdote, and in the next line, wham!, he drops a profoundly and distressingly accurate observation. It’s unavoidable – like literary bait-and-switch. (Continue reading...)
I grabbed this book because it is set in Reykjavik, and I’ve always been fascinated by Iceland and Reykjavik, even since seeing (and now owning) the decidedly odd Dogme 95–type movie, 101 Reykjavik, directed by Baltasar Kormákur. Having worked my way through quite a few novels and movies set in Iceland and (by inference) Denmark, I was intrigued to know why someone would go and take a sabbatical in Reykjavik at the height of the world financial crisis in 2009 and the particularly severe aftermath of that in Iceland in 2009. (Continue reading…)
Colonel Chris Hadfield made the subject of outer space popular in social media, while keeping it real. This is not sci-fi. This is real science, real space flights and real man’s stuff. I saw the video of him singing and playing guitar inside the International Space Station, and thought – like millions of people – Cool! I thought the man behind the autobiography should be cool too, and it turned out he is, and how! As most people know, he is a retired Canadian astronaut who was the first Canadian to walk in space. An Engineer and former Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot, Hadfield flew two space shuttle missions and served as commander of the International Space Station. He lived on the station for five months, transferring control to Pavel Vinogradov and going back down to earth on 13 May 2013 – and then he retired and wrote this book. (Continue reading…)
People who know Stephen Fry will want to read this despite of, or because of, the fact that he’s a famous actor, writer, comedian, television host, outspokenly gay and passionate about English. I read it because of. That being said, this is precisely what his autobiography is about: what made him what he is today. Let’s see, that would be; a very tall man, with a very nice, deep voice, lovely pronunciation, a charming smile, an off-kilter nose, a sharp wit, and a huge fan base. So, despite what he says about being horribly unattractive and hating his body – which he feels is a mere carrier for his mind – he must be attractive one way or another. Parts of the book are so very sad, it really gave me the morbs, but there are laugh-out-loud witticisms too. But dear reader, you must pay attention, because Fry expects his readers to come up to his level. (Continue reading…)
Grand old man of Canadian literature dies
Mowat was an environmentalist, squarely on the side of indigenous Canadians and an outspoken critic of attempts to impose Western culture on First Nations peoples. And he wasn’t too kind about the Canadian government either. With People of the Deer, Mowat launched a singular career, advancing the traditions of both exploration literature and narrative non-fiction. This depiction of his encounters with the vanishing Ihalmiut people during a two-year stay in the Arctic is a landmark of Canadian literature. I read both Mowat’s first book, People of the Deer (1952), and immediately after that, his last, 44th (!) book, Eastern Passage (2010). I found People of the Deer gripping, but also confusing, raising many questions, not giving answers, and at the same time intensely personal, passionate, observant and – in places – angry. (Continue reading…)
Ever since I first saw Anthony Bourdain on TV, skidding to a halt in his spiky-tipped boots in the intro to “No Reservations”, I’ve been meaning to read his books. Much has been said about them – particularly about his 2000 début Kitchen Confidential, described as shocking, wild, anarchic, and so forth. Since those days Bourdain has changed from l’enfant terrible of the food industry into its Elder (but not entirely decorous) Statesman. His writing style has segued into a poetic, stream of consciousness food-rap, with the raves and rants downplayed. But like the title suggests, it’s still raw, occasionally rude stuff, and reads like it’s straight from his mind to the printed page, with no stops for editing in between. Bourdain’s style has evolved to the point that his writing sounds exactly like when he talks in his TV series…(Continue reading…)
This is one of those rare things – an author’s first book that does not read like a first book. It is neither amateur nor self-conscious. Not only is it beautifully produced and printed, lovely to hold and look at, but De Waal’s style is smooth and engaging, with perfectly timed pauses and flashbacks. He takes the reader on a journey that is a cross between a detective novel, a family history and a study of art. Whenever the reader feels that all the similar names are becoming confusing and there seems to be no point to the search, he pauses, and reflects, and – echoing his own life – takes the story in another direction. This is about De Waal’s inheritance of a collection of Japanese netsuke, and his search to find out where they, and his family, came from. (Continue reading…)
“Ron Burgundy” is of course not the actual author of this book – it was penned by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. “Ron Burgundy” is a fictional character, and this publication, his “autobiography”, is part of the marketing and publicity campaign for the movie Anchorman II: The Legend Continues which was released in 2013. At 223 pages, the joke flags quite a bit towards the end. However, the depiction of “Burgundy” – his life history, habits, tastes, expressions, attitudes – is surprisingly consistent, detailed and well thought-out, which may have led some people to think he is real. (Yes, there are those.) It has its moments though. I enjoyed the description of the burning coal mine hometown of “Haggleworth” – that was a nice bit of satire thrown in the mix. (Continue reading…)
An autopsy is an examination to find the cause of death. From the title, you can assume the subject, Detroit, is dead. Every example LeDuff gives, every person’s life story, reads like an obituary, and the city is presented as if it were dead, over and done for, not to be resuscitated, been there, screwed that up and got the T-shirt to prove it. Even the harsh black and white photos by Danny Wilcox Frazier underscores the message that the city is beyond saving. LeDuff, a working journalist but a controversial one, grew up in Detroit, Michigan, US, and tells the story of the decline and fall of the city alongside the story of the fall into poverty and death by misdemeanour and suicide of his own family members. It’s not lightweight stuff. It has the ring of truth to it. Still, for every Charlie LeDuff who says the city is dead, another writer or analyst will say the opposite and deny the elephant in the room. (Continue reading…)
(First published 1992, 10th anniversary edition 2002 republished in 2010) Stuart McLean steps outside his alter-ego of Dave of the Vinyl Cafe stories and here writes as himself, an author searching for genuine small towns in Canada. These towns had to have bus-stops, no cash machines, perhaps a ten-pin bowling alley with an actual human pin-setter. They had to be small, run by the people who live there, dominated by whatever resource or source of income the place naturally has, and perhaps have an ice-hockey rink. He was looking for the heart of Canada. In writing about these places, McLean has produced something of a potted history of the nation. It is really, really charming. It is engrossing, every single page of its whopping 633-page bulk. McLean writes in his usual spare, yet eloquent style, with carefully chosen words. He is a master of the final one-liner and he does drop them frequently here with excellent effect. (Continue reading…)
Stephen Fry, in his autobiography The Fry Chronicles, writes of being friends with Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (HG2G) series.”He was never free to play [on Macintosh computers] of course, being eternally under the shadow of a writing deadline and so, naturally, we would play. Douglas’s remark about deadlines has become the final word on the subject. ’I love deadlines, I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by’.” (p. 367) This is the main conclusion I reached after reading Mike Simpson’s exhaustive and detailed biography: Douglas Adams was bad at deadlines and did a lot of his writing with the help of other people, editors in particular. Simpson wrote it after he had been the deputy editor of the British science fiction magazine SFX, writer of two books on Adam, including this one, and the organizer and editor of ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, the official Hitchhiker’s Guide appreciation society. The book contains copious public documents and Simpson’s personal insights. (Continue reading…)