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Biography and Memoir

Page history last edited by JanieH 15 years ago

All Will Be Well: A Memoir by John Mc Gahern

This is a haunting memoir of Mc Gahern's Irish childhood, which was shadowed by the death of his mother when he was eleven and the subsequent family move to his father's police barracks. Two aspects of this memoir will stay with me. One is the way Mc Gahern evokes the beauty and sweetness of the Irish countryside, through his lovely descriptions of the lanes and byways he walked as a child. The other is the heartbreaking recounting of his childhood love of his mother and the desolation he felt when she left him. Mc Gahern is known for his justly famous novels, but "All Will Be Well" is my favorite of his writings. Reviewed by: Francesca B.


Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

Lucy Grealy suffered horrible physical and emotional pain because of the ravaging bone cancer found in her jaw when she was a child. I understand too that she was beloved by her friends, including novelist Ann Patchett, who wrote Truth & Beauty, an homage to their complex friendship.

Nevertheless, I found this book mostly dull -- I skimmed through large sections. It may be that the narrator just wasn't an appealing personality. Perhaps difficult people are more appealing in novels than in autobiographies. Reviewed by: K.J.

Lucy Grealy bravely tells her story of living with cancer of the jaw: enduring multiple surgeries and procedures, surviving disfigurement. She’d a poet who writes with wit and talks of her favorite holiday when everyone wears masks: Halloween. At times repetitious, but very moving. Reviewed by: L. Sandburg


The Autobiography of Malcolm X Malcolm X, with the assistance of Alex Haley

This book is among the most powerful accounts of human insight, transformation and empowerment. Malcolm X describes his transition from a midwestern boy to a petty thief to one of the greatest religious and civil rights leaders in this country. This book provides the highs and lows of his life and he was never afraid to state the truth. Reviewed by: C. Balejesik



Ava Gardner: Love Is Nothing by Lee Server

An entertaining and, in the end, quite moving biography of Ava Gardner, whose personality of contradictions is fascinating. My chief complaints were a very deficient collection of photos and an occasionally leering tone, which I guess is par for the course in a book which depends so much on gossip quotes. In a way, fiction would have served Gardner better! Reviewed by: J.A.


The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz

This massive chronological narrative (992 pp.) took Spitz about seven years to research and write. Its chief virtue lies in Spitz's industry in interviewing hundreds of friends and acquaintances of the Beatles in his effort to tell the band's story fully, accurately, dispassionately. He even succeeded in speaking with George Harrison and Paul McCartney (no small feat given their general inaccessibility in the late '90s). Spitz is especially good at reconstructing the lives of the Beatles in the years before their success. (We learn, for example, that Paul planned to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Dot Rhone, in 1962, only to break up with her after she miscarried.) But, for the most part, this book covers familiar ground--only more completely--and therefore is simply the most recent in a long line of synoptic Beatles gospels. This book, which closes just short of the dissolution of The Beatles in 1970, is enjoyable and capably, though not gracefully, written. Solid narrative, but not much analysis: Recommended.

Reviewed by: D. Venturo


Bob Dylan Scrapbook, 1956-1966 by Robert Santelli

This coffee-table book was produced with Dylan's cooperation. Santelli's serviceable prose recounts the familiar story of the furniture store owner's son from Hibbing, Minnesota, who changed his name, moved to New York and transformed rock 'n' roll by writing songs designed to make his hearers think, not just dance. The book contains dozens of reproductions of Dylan memorabilia--ticket stubs, posters, handwritten lyrics, his high school yearbook entry. Fluffy but fun. Reviewed by: D. Venturo


Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich

Anyone who is a fan of Louise Erdrich, as I am, knows that her writing combines a love of earth and spirit with a love of words. This delightful memoir is no exception. In its early pages, for example, the author talks about the trees she has named around her house: Guarding Elm, Old Stalwart, Pensive Love, Serene Darling... But this time Erdrich is on a journey, rather than earth-bound. She travels with her baby daughter and her Ojibwe partner through the many-islanded lakes of Minnesota and Canada, seeking the ancient rock paintings of her people and heading for the island library of a brilliant eccentric Harvard graduate named Ernest Oberholtzer. His 11,000 books, left for future generations, inspire Erdrich to wax eloquent about the delights of books. "The point of books", she says, "is to have way too many but to always feel you never have enough..." (Of course she's not a member of the Princeton Public Library, or she might feel differently! In fact, this book is not yet in the PPL, though I have requested that the library purchase it and the request has been approved.) Reviewed by: Francesca B.


Burning Down My Master's House by Jayson Blair

This book is a first-hand account of a brilliant yet flawed man. He started off as a talented news reporter who fabricated stories to save his job. He started working at the New York Times as an intern but stayed on full time after he lied about graduating college. He details how he went about making up stories. In the end, he still doesn't accept full responsibility for his actions. Reviewed by: C.B.


But Enough About Me by Jancee Dunn

Dunn, a former Rolling Stone reporter, combines memoir (coming of age in middle class New Jersey-- her Dad is a devoted JC Penney manager) with rock star interview techniques ("None for me, thanks: gracefully refusing your host's kind offer of heroin") with charming results. Dunn shares largely generous glimpses of the celebrities she interviewed, and Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn come off well. Dunn is a likeable and modest narrator, and gains the reader's sympathy as she hangs on to a deadbeat boyfriend for way too long and makes the occasional professional goof. You don't have to be from Jersey to enjoy this book -- it would be a nice beach read. Reviewed by: K.J.


Dry by Augusten Burroughs

"Dry" is a straighforward account of a twentysomething gay man's struggle to get sober and stay sober through and beyond a 30 day stint in rehab. Though many such memoirs exist ("Drinking: A love story" or James Frey's semi-fictional autobiography) "Dry" is unique and especially touching; the author's delicate, heartfelt and witty candor make it so. Reviewed by: H. Trusler


Elegy for Iris by John Bayley

This book forms the basis behind the Oscar-winning 2001 film "Iris." In "Elegy," Bayley recalls his 40 year-long romance with the late Booker Prize winner Iris Murdoch: from the first time Bayley saw Murdoch as she rode a bicycle outside his Oxford apartment in the early 1950s, to Murdoch’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease in the late 1990s. "Elegy" is not for readers who prefer straight narrative story telling, as the book meanders between Murdoch’s illness and the earlier parts of Bayley and Murdoch’s marriage. Bayley also describes Murdoch’s favorite hobby of swimming in natural waters. He writes of their first kiss in a pond as Oxford students; of a vacation where they were caught naked by Italian villagers and police; and finally of Bayley’s struggles to take his wife’s clothes off as Alzheimer’s robs her of the ability to control her own movements. Murdoch evolves from being a world-renown British novelist to being an Alzheimer’s sufferer who can’t remember writing books but still remembers her husband’s unselfish, undying love for her. I have never read any of Murdoch’s novels. Nevertheless, I highly recommend “Elegy” if you want to dive into the literary imagination. You will emerge refreshed and renewed in love and hope.

Reviewed by: Katherine Tam

John Bayley Read an Excerpt


The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery

Sy Montgomery’s heroines are Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas. She is a self-described naturalist and she is the champion for her underdog, Tess, and especially for her underpig, Christopher Hogwood. The focus of this memoir is the story of her beloved Chris who grew from runt to over 750 pounds on her New Hampshire farm. The author shares many insights gained though her treasured relationships with animals It is a book for friends of the earth of all ages. Reviewed by: J.E.D.


Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope Shirin Ebadi with Azadeh Moaveni

There is plenty of revolution and an amazing amount of hope in this memoir by the Iranian woman judge who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. Marked for death by government agents some years ago, Ebadi was still in danger and under 24-hour bodyguard at the time of this writing. She traces the terrible events of the 20th century in Iran through the eyes of a Muslim woman who believes that it is not Islam which persecutes women, but the repressive interpretation of clerics of the Islamic republic. Ebadi has persisted in staying in her country and fighting with the legal weapons available to her. She finds it hopeful that there are so many educated, conscious women in Iran, but notes, "The price of transforming Iran peacefully... is sacrifice of the highest order." I was inspired and humbled by this book. Reviewed by: Francesca B.


Jimi Hendrix: The Man, the Myth, the Truth by John Mc Gahern

You are wise to avoid this biography of guitar virtuoso Hendrix by Sharon Lawrence, who was friendly with him when she was a young reporter in the late '60s and early '70s. The writing is often sloppy and the narrative filled with reconstructed conversations that, despite the quotation marks, the author couldn't possibly have recalled after more than 30 years unless she had taped them or taken extensive notes at the time. Not recommended. Reviewed by: D. Venturo


Julie and Julia by Julie Powell

I read some entries on Powell's blog a couple years ago, and enjoyed the premise -- in 365 days, she would cook every single recipe in Julia Child's book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The project was ambitious, educational, and just a bit nutty. But Powell is a good writer, with a strong and idiosyncratic voice, and her entries were very readable. I imagined the book would reproduce the blogs. But it is even better. Powell details both the cooking escapades and her struggles to find her place in the world. I liked her, and I liked the book. Highly recommended. Reviewed by: K.J.


Lennon Revealed by Larry Kane

Kane, who, as a young journalist, traveled with the Beatles on their 1964 and 1965 tours of the USA and is the author of a lucid, intelligent memoir of that experience (Ticket to Ride), attempts a combination biography-memoir in this, his second book. Lennon Revealed is affectionate, disorganized, and betrays Kane's limitations as a writer and thinker whenever he moves beyond narrative to analysis. Anecdotes of the author's dealings with Lennon are enjoyable, but he is out of his depth when discussing Lennon's personality and musical achievement. The accompanying DVD (included with the book) containing Kane's 1968 interview with Lennon and McCartney on their business venture, Apple Corps., is a welcome addition. Reviewed by: D. Venturo


The Lonely Empress: A Biography of Elizabeth of Austria by Joan Haslip

Beautiful, carefree fifteen year old Elizabeth of Bavaria is chosen by Emperor Franz Joseph, Holy Roman Emperor of the House of Habsburg to be his Empress. Neither was prepared to deal with marriage or the perilous politics of Europe at the time. The eventual result was World War I. History writing at its best, clearly demonstrating that history repeats itself. Reviewed by: Mary Louise Hartman


Long Life, Honey In the Heart by Martin Prechtel

Fascinating account of one Gringo's encounters with magic and culture in Mayan Guatemala. The author lived with (and married into) a small, traditional village. His stories from the inside present a very different world view. Very eloquent and thought-provoking. Reviewed by: L. Sandburg


The Man Who Made the Beatles: An An Intimate Biography of Brian Epstein by Ray Coleman

Coleman's biography of Epstein, the Beatles' manager who died in 1967 at age 32 of what was probably an accidental drug overdose, is remarkably well written and insightful. The author, a former journalist and editor of Melody Maker magazine, knew Epstein well and interviewed scores of his friends and associates. The book traces Epstein's life from his upper-middle-class Jewish upbringing in Liverpool through his struggles to find a suitable career to the wealth and celebrity that accrued to him after persuading Parlophone Records in 1962 to sign an unknown band named the Beatles. Coleman is best on the intersection of Epstein's public success and private torment--which grew out of his closeted homosexuality at a time when sodomy laws were still enforced. Recommended. Reviewed by: D. Venturo


Meet the Beatles: A Cultural History of the Band that Shook Youth,

Gender, and the World by Steven D. Stark

Steven Stark refreshingly and astutely explores the cultural significance of the Beatles -- instead of rehashing the familiar chronology of events from Liverpool and Hamburg to the dissolution of the band in 1970. He is especially good on the Beatles' extraordinary appeal to women in the '60s and their musical and artistic foundations. He also emphasizes differences from, rather than similarities to, other bands of the time. The book compels the reader to consider a familiar subject in new ways. Stark writes well and includes an helpful, extensive bibliography. Recommended. Reviewed by: D. Venturo


Millicent Fenwick: Her Way by Amy Schapiro; foreword by Thomas H. Kean

Millicent Fenwick was a well heeled New Jerseyians who used her sharp intellect and social contacts to advance humanitarian causes in government and the world. This well written account tells how she persistently and cleverly served in the House and ran for Senate as a grandmother. Everyone, especially New Jersyians, would benefit from reading this book about one of the first women in the US to have a statue in her honor. Reviewed by: Mindy R.


On My Life and Baseball by Honus Wagner, edited by William R. Cobb This little book will appeal to anyone interested in the history of baseball. The editor, William R. Cobb, discovered a forgotten series of articles under the byline of baseball great Honus Wagner published in the L. A. Times in December 1923 and January 1924, carefully transcribed them, and has overseen their reprinting. The book is brimming with stories from Wagner's career, which began in the 1890s and stretched to 1917. Although some stories chiefly entertain, many give fascinating insights into the life of professional ballplayers a century ago and offer Wagner's opinions on teammates and opposing players. Recommended.

Reviewed by: D. Venturo


An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography by Paul Rusesabagina with Tom Zoellner

The autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina, manager of the "Hotel Rwanda" (film title), is the story of a remarkable man. His instincts and actions saved the lives of many Tutsis and Hutus during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. He modestly dismisses praise for his heroic acts of courage as "the normal thing to do." Paul's calm demeanor and ethical leadership provided a safe haven for refugees in the hotel in the face of violence and seemingly hopeless circumstances. It is an emotionally wrenching read. Reviewed by JED


Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz

I couldn't put this book down, despite the fact that it was overly long and often badly written. Written by one of the victims, it tells the story of two young women from Yale who began a bicycle ride across the United States and were attacked while asleep in their tent by an axe-wielding cowboy. Although both women survived, the physical and emotional repercussions were enormous and the author of the book devotes many years to attempting to identify their attacker and also to analyzing the nature of violence in America and rural violence in particular. The book, which could possibly make a fascinating movie, has been likened to In Cold Blood, and there are many similarities, although don't expect to find Capote's elegant language and verbal restraint. Reviewed by: J.A.


Swimming Toward the Ocean by Carole Glickfeld

This story moves from Brooklyn to Manhattan as the author tells her mother's story. She's a Russian Jewish immigrant with an unfaithful husband. As the author looks back, she understands her feisty, curious mother. Though imperfect, she's able to forgive her as she matures. The ending of the book is particularly moving. Reviewed by: L. Sandburg


Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

In this bittersweet yet engaging memoir, Frank McCourt looks back on his years of teaching from the perspective of his late, overwhelming success as best-selling author of "Angela's Ashes". He portrays the thirty years of his teaching career as a time of struggle and failure, when he had difficulty keeping order in New York City high school classrooms and often felt he was not teaching anything worthwhile to his bored students. Yet McCourt punctuates his woeful tale with glimpses of imaginative lessons and educational breakthroughs. A failed marriage and an unsuccessful attempt at a PhD bring McCourt to the discouraging low of substitute "teaching". Ironically, his short-term assignment to the renowned Stuyvesant High School leads to a long-term, productive stint of teaching creative writing to students who choose it as an elective. This story, with its fairytale ending, would probably be considered unbelievable if it were written as fiction, but it must certainly be encouraging to late bloomers! Reviewed by: Francesca B.


The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer

Even if you aren’t a “bar” person you would enjoy this book about a fatherless boy being brought up by a very caring struggling mother. They live with his grandparents in a run down house. The boy’s father, a disk jockey and a drunk, isn’t in the picture except for a few times. He was sent to the bar to buy cigarettes for an uncle and was fascinated by the talk there. He finds his male companionship in the bar and the regulars there take him in and this is where he gets his “education”. The descriptions of the people frequenting the bar are so great that you feel that you know them all personally. The reader of this audio was very good taking on the voices of the people in a very realistic way. I would highly recommend reading or listening to this book I would rate it a 5 star. The author won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and from the book jacket, is an accomplished wordsmith. From Newsweek—the only thing wrong with this terrific debut is that there has to be a closing time.

Reviewed by: D. C.


The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera by Joseph Volpe with Charles Michener

Joseph Volpe started as an apprentice carpenter at the Metropolitan Opera. He rose through the ranks and became the head of the Met in 1990. He gives a full account of his years at the Met and offers many colorful stories of the singers and major players of the great opera house. There is as much intrigue offstage as onstage. He will retire from the Met in August 2006. Reviewed by: Carolyn B.


An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

This moving autobiography explores manic-depression/bipolar disorder from the dual point of view of someone who has been living with it for years and who is also a professor of psychiatry. Her writing is beautiful and really takes you into the world of those who suffer with this problem. Her first-hand experience, combined with her medical knowledge is a powerful combination. Reviewed by: L.F.

*Read more about Kay Redfield Jamison


Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Erie

Beautifully written memoir of a boy yanked from privilege in 1950s Cuba. We look into a paradise lost and follow the author into exile in the US. Beautiful imagery and unforgettable characters are a part of this fairytale life story crudely interrupted by Castro's revolution. There's an underlying message of hope that after everything collapses, we can go on. Reviewed by: L. Sandburg

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