Category Archives: Memoir

Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging By Dick Van Dyke

Keep Moving: And Other Tips and Truths About Aging is a rambling discussion of life, specifically the life of actor Dick Van Dyke, reflecting on the aging process as an eighty nine year old man. With some trips down memory lane including quotes, poetry, and an interview with his “older friend” Carl Reiner, the author shares his viewpoints on religion, politics, and show business with some heavy duty name dropping where appropriate. His philosophy to “Keep Moving” and enjoy everything life has to offer reflects his positive attitude despite the various hardships he has faced. Upbeat even when discussing the death of his first wife and then that of his long time partner, he has found happiness with his third relationship and subsequent marriage to a much younger woman. Little tidbits about his various acting experiences, such as Bert in Mary Poppins, Rob in the Dick Van Dyke Show, and Caractacus Pott in Chitty, Chitty, Bang Bang as well as his role as an elderly doctor/detective in the television series Diagnosis Murder, are interspersed throughout the narrative. Most importantly, Van Dyke’s lovable, charming personality shines through the telling, making the reader feel like an old friend sharing secrets.

While I was given an ARC from Netgalley (in exchange for an honest review), I also picked up the audiotape narrated by the author. I was disappointed that Dick Van Dyke at this point in his life has a speech impediment which at times made him difficult to understand, even though he made a great effort to clearly enunciate his words. I wanted the Dick Van Dyke of days of yore, although I did get used to his current voice and enjoyed his reading talents (minus the diction issues). The advanced reader’s copy was truly a rough draft, ignoring capitalization and punctuation, although I’m sure the final copy was “cleaned up”.

A short book, almost a novella, perfect for fans of this remarkable man, but nothing too exciting or dramatic. Don’t expect any life changing advice. Three stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

It’s as if Carrie Fisher came to my house and initiated a conversation right in my living room. The free-falling intimacy-sharing format of her memoir, The Princess Diarist, brings the author to life, despite her fairly recent death.

This particular book touches on Fisher’s experiences as Princess Leia in the first of the Star Wars films. She takes us back to the seventies and relives those days of her teens. At that time she was naive and self conscious, despite growing up in a Show Biz family with mother Debbie Reynolds (and her divorced father Eddie Fisher).

Anyone aware of Carrie’s numerous books and talk show appearances knows about her transformation over the years from a shy, reticent girl to a pull-no-punches, shoot-straight-from-the-hip woman who faced life straight on, not dodging any bullets while sharing the truths in her life, including her drug addiction (or self-medicating to control her bi polar disorder).

But at nineteen, Carrie was fresh and talented and still a bit of a baby. Somehow she allowed herself to over imbibe at a cast party and almost got herself into a real mess with several of the rowdy crew when costar Harrison Ford “rescued” her right into the bedroom.

Thus began their location liaison lasting for three months until the last day of Ford’s filming when he left London to return home to his wife and two children.

Through the diaries which Carrie kept during that time frame, we hear the thoughts of a young girl who can’t believe that this handsome, older, more worldly man would choose her. Terrified she’d do or say the wrong thing, Carrie obsesses about her mostly silent partner as they spend their weekends together. She fantasizes about a future as a couple even while realizing that theirs is only an affair of convenience.

After thoroughly exploring this relationship, Carrie goes on to discuss the after effects of the Princess Leia role, including her interactions with the fans

Despite their instant fame, the young cast members had signed off all rights to the Star Wars merchandizing, so to fund her passion for shopping, Fisher found herself in need of ways to fill the coffers, including selling her signature (which she called the celebrity lap dance) at various events including Comic Cons.

While Fisher’s writing style is breezy and easy to read, full of anecdotes reflecting her twisted sense of humor and allusions to her youthful insecurities which spilled over into adulthood, too much time is spent on the “Carrington” affair (lots of attention, not too many details). The diary excerpts are difficult to read. I was nineteen once and I personally don’t want to read anyone else’s rambling reflections and anxieties involving their first love, especially this confusing relationship between Carrie and Harrison – two such disparate personalities. It’s just too personal.

The diary entries, especially the poetry, are often pretentious (although there are a few good lines) and embarrassingly over the top, although the reader gets an understanding of what Carrie was feeling during that interlude. Fisher is nothing if not open and honest, willing to kiss and tell while leaving out the actually sex (beyond a mention of their numerous make out sessions).

Despite the run on sentences and other flaws, Princess Leia fans will enjoy this trip down memory lane. An added bonus is the photographs interspersed throughout the book.

I’ve always been a Carrie Fisher fan (more the person, than the actual roles she portrayed), so this book was difficult to read knowing that she had tragically died of a heart attack at the age of sixty, not even old enough to collect social security. A close family, Carrie’s mom had a stroke and died while planning the funeral with her son. Fisher’s beautiful twenty five year old daughter is left to carry on the family tradition. Perhaps she’ll also have some stories to share so their family legacy lives on.

Check the internet for a tour of Carrie’s home full of amazing collectibles which are slated to be auctioned (along with items her mother/next door neighbor Debbie Reynolds accumulated over the years).

Three stars.

Thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodread.

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss by Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper

There are numerous books, photographs, articles and newsreels, along with “gossipy fairy telling” about Gloria Vanderbilt and the Vanderbilt family saga. This particular book approaches the topic from a different angle. Anderson Cooper, the son of Gloria Vanderbilt, begins to realize his mother is mortal after she develops respiratory problems at the age of ninety one. Looking back on his life, he realizes that his mother has never really talked about her childhood and young adult years and that much of his knowledge about his family legacy has been through media sources.

Keeping in mind that Anderson has a career with CNN which requires him to travel all over the world, it is lucky that Gloria is savvy enough to be able to correspond through emails. These interchanges become the basis of The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss as a mother shares a retrospection of her life with her son, providing a give and take with explanations of past occurrences, many which happened prior to Cooper’s birth.

This format also gives Anderson a chance to ask questions and discover similarities and differences between their views of life. While Gloria is what one would call a free spirit, Anderson tends to be a type one personality searching for stability in a world full of chaos. While his mom thrives on mayhem, Cooper cringes at the thought. Life was far from tranquil after Anderson’s father, Wyatt Cooper, passed away during heart bypass surgery when he was only ten, so it is not surprising that he craved stability. Perhaps in a normal household that would have been a reasonable expectation but we are talking about Gloria Vanderbilt, a woman surrounded by wealth and prestige. Cooper’s life was far from ordinary with a nanny to take care of his needs while his mother ran her design empire. Yet Anderson decided at an early age to retain the name of his father and earn his worth through his own endeavors, not his heritage.

It’s amazing the depth of Gloria’s thoughts at the age of ninety one, looking back and trying to make sense of who she was, what she did, and why she felt compelled to choose the various paths her life took (or rather how she drifted from one situation to the next, seemingly at random, taking advantage of the opportunity of the moment). This in contrast to her son who instituted a life plan which he tries to follow. Of course, it’s easy to look backwards, after the deeds are done, to try and justify one’s actions. Despite all the pandemonium in her childhood, it is difficult to feel sorry for what some people call “the poor little rich girl” who lived in the lap of luxury yet yearned for love and affection from her socialite mother. Still, we all make choices and her admitted wildness at the age of seventeen is that of a headstrong teenager determined to have a good time on the social scene of Hollywood, not the fault of an absentee parent.

While some felt the back and forth of these notes between mother and son distracted from Gloria’s narration, they miss the purpose of this book. It is not a biography of Gloria Vanderbilt, especially since there are dozens of those containing more salacious tidbits, but a year’s worth of sharing between parent and child which we, as the reader, are privileged to view. A third voice gives the reader some background explanations including references to events which might be foreign to us. Perhaps these three separate voices could have been labeled, although Cooper’s responses are in bold and the narratives are in italics while Gloria’s musings are in a regular font. Many recommend the audiobook, narrated by the authors, which provides a more intimate voice.

If these interchanges peak an individual reader’s interest, there are plenty of sources to read which fill in the blanks about both Gloria and the entire Vanderbilt family. My main complaint is that the photographs sprinkled throughout the book are not labeled, nor are there enough of them. Greedy me, I wanted more. Three and half stars.

My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir by Chris Offutt

I was intrigued by the title My Father, the Pornographer, not knowing what to expect, but surprised to find myself drawn into the tale of a dysfunctional family with an unconventional father the center of the strife. Andrew Offutt, a science fiction author who found fulfillment in writing situational pornography under numerous pseudonyms, was, what I would call, a genius with a way with words. Having myself worked with gifted children, from my experiences I oftentimes observed that the brightest among us have idiosyncrasies or quirks which many would consider antisocial. Andrew, while talented, focused his energies on describing sexual encounters (he even had a notebook with various descriptions and vocabulary to assist him in his goal of completing a book a month) many of them focusing on BDSM, including psychological and physical degradation. A connoisseur of his craft, Offutt used his well honed research techniques to create compelling, complex plots intermingled with smut. In the midst of this flurry of “erotica”, was the publication of some renowned literature in the SF genre.

Known as Andrew J. Offutt, he found his niche in the world of fanzine, attending Science Fiction conventions in the Midwest. Here is where our lives intersected. During my college years I was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club at the University of Buffalo where I was introduced to the world of “Cons”. My first exposure was at the 1973 WorldCon in Toronto – Torcon. Here I got to meet my favorite SF authors (please note true science fiction fans never use the term sci-fi), discuss details of our favorite books with other fans, buy SF parphanalia, and watch various relevant films, both old and new. The hi-light of the event was the Hugo Awards voted on by the fans who attended at least one the WorldCons over the previous two years (vs the Nebula Award which is presented by the professional organization SFWA – Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). While WorldCons are held at locations throughout the United States and other countries, the 1974 WorldCon was held in Washington DC – DisCon. It was huge (centrally located so that both the Midwest and Northeast – including the NYC crowd – attended) and I was there. The handsome Andrew Offutt was the Toastmaster at the Hugo presentation. It was with the adulation of the science fiction crowd he felt a kinship.

While my viewpoint of the conventions, which I found exciting, and the author’s, who found them boring, did not merge, I still was brought back to my late teen years when I was immersed in the field of literature. Not only did I recognize the SF authors mentioned, I had also read and enjoyed some of Andrew Offutt’s works. My BA in English from UB and involvement in science fiction included a stint in organizing Anonycon I in Niagara Falls and Anonycon II in Buffalo. (Anonycon stood for Another New York Convention). My memory is fuzzy, but I remember Samuel R Delaney (Chip), a visiting professor at UB, was the guest of honor at the later event.

Needless to say, I disregarded the porn aspect of the story and focused on the SF tales. As far as the family dynamics, I believe Andrew truly loved his children, but that he had narcissistic tendencies along with a sort of OCD which made him an irascible, verbally abusive parent who demanded complete fidelity including an unrealistic stillness from his four young children while he worked in his Appalachian Kentucky home. His attraction to pornography only added to his unreasonable demands. My personal reflection is that what society considers the norm for sexuality, does not exist. The so-called variations and permentations, including homosexuality, transexuality, fetishes, BDSM, sadism, masichism, etc. are more common than admitted. Pornography has been around since biblical times and I agree with the elder Offutt that the fantasies serve a purpose, fulfilling a need and keeping the viewer/reader from acting on their impulses. I personally have no problem with porn, unless it involves any acts of pediphilia which I consider abhorrent. Luckily, Andrew Offutt kept his sexual encounters between adults. If you are picking up this book hoping for numerous erotic excerpts, you will be disappointed, although there are a few scenarios shared which I personally found disturbing.

At times this book reverted to a psychology session as the author tried to come to terms with his inability to connect with his dad. Even though Chris Offutt is also a published author talented with the written word (reflected in the easy, story-telling tone of this book), it was only through third party comments that he received evidence of his father’s approval. By taking on the archival task of cataloguing the entire 400+ collection of his father’s 1800 pounds of published and unpublished works (many of them written solely for private use), as well as a multitude of correspondence, Chris must also deal with his feelings towards the past, many of them negative. In the back of forth of his saga, he often gets up close and personal, sharing the good with the bad. Since the reader is asked to serve as therapist, my advice is to “let it go!”. At one point, an individual grows up and begins to take responsibility for their own actions, leaving parent/child relationships behind. The abuse, whether real or perceived, is in the past and with the death of a parent the past is moot – so move on and stop internalizing regrets.

So, My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir represents the reflections of Chris Offutt as he sorts through his father’s works, thinking back on his childhood and looking for positive experiences amongst the sad memories, ones which reflect his father’s love. Discussions with his widowed mother, who sold the family home and moved to be close to her son, fills in some of the blanks. The reader is brought along for the ride.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Atria Books for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Fly Trap by Frederik Sjoberg, translated by Thomas Teal

Reading a book featuring an avid amateur entomology collector specializing in Hoverflies (also called flower flies) was not exactly at the top of my “to read” list, yet I was surprisingly entertained by Frederik Sjoberg’s rambling autobigraphical memoir The The Fly Trap. A best seller in his native Sweden (30,000 copies), over ten years later it has been beautifully translated into English by Thomas Teal for those interested readers in the United States as well as other countries. Ironically I had just finished The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Langercrantz, another popular Swedish book (and a continuation of the original Millennium novels by Steig Larsson). Prior to that series, my last exposure to Swedish writing was Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. I guess I should seek out more authors from this country.

Sjoberg has a humorous style, especially considering the subject matter. Who knew that there were professionals who study flies and that there are specialties within this genre. While The Fly Trap mainly focused on Hoverflies, there are also numerous other species of flies (over 4424 species in Sweden, some which disguise themselves as bees) making entomology a complex scientific endeavor. Probably the best known entomologist is René Malaise (1892-1978) who invented the Malaise Fly Trap (the author purchases the mega version at 6 x 3 meters) capable of capturing a multitude of fly species for investigation. The author spends a good portion of the book exploring the life of his hero who was a pioneer in the field and put fly collecting on the map. Yes, people have been interested in flies for generations.

What appealed to me about The Fly Trap was the way the author expressed himself. His turn of a phrase has the potential to be breathtakingly lovely, such as “The high frequency hum of their wings is like a footnote that makes the experience all the richer for those who know the sound.” His enthusiasm towards flies was infectious, at times I even forgot how much I detest these pests. Why Hoverflies? They are “neither too many (202 species so far found on the island) or too few; neither too familiar nor too exotic”. Plus flies “allay anxiety . . . On top of which they’re free.”

Ultimately, the subject of flies is a take off point to discuss other topics. Of interest is the entire idea of collecting. Some people collect dolls or antiques or art work; Sjoberg mainly collects Hoverflies. Strindberg’s theory of Buttonology, the need to sort, store, and catalog a specific collection, was explored, as well as the question of why people are drawn to island life, and, of necessity for those who study insects, the concept of time – slowness vs speed in our daily lives.

Sjoberg is well read and includes many quotes from renowned and obscure authors who explore the themes in this book, especially ones dealing with his beloved flies.

Definitely worth a look see and, surprisingly, the author leaves us wanting more, so I’m looking forward to the next book in the saga. Four stars.

She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan

In recent days with the media blitz involving Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, our culture has been super saturated with the “T” issue. It’s gotten to the point where we respond – “So you’re transgendered, and what else is new?” Of course, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan was written over ten years ago when transsexuality was still a relatively unknown phenomena. The only sex change operation that was common knowledge was former GI, Christine Jorgensen, who went to Sweden for the surgery in the 1950s, an act which was considered an anomaly. In those days, when the public was exposed to some “guy” dressed up “pretending” to be a woman, it was a situation to be mocked (at least by some).

Jennifer tries to express her “journey” in a humorous manner which is especially difficult since this is such a serious issue, even though it is not a totally unique occurrence. According to the best estimates of science, between 1 and 5 per cent of the population has transgendered tendencies. That means that in a room full of 20 to 100 people, there will be at least one person who considers themselves the wrong gender. In a world of about eight billion, that’s about 800 million individuals who identify with the opposite sex. Research in the Netherlands indicates an estimated one out of 1200 natal born males undergoes sex reassignment surgery. If considered a medical condition, there are about 40,000 in the US who have already had surgery and many more who still struggle with the issue, making it more common than cleft palate and MS. With the current acceptance of LGBT issues, affirmed by the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, it is important to remember that it is illegal to discriminate against a male/female or female/male. However, this does not keep bullies at bay illustrated by the increased violence experienced by the transgendered population – from assault and battery to murder to police brutality to self incrimination leading to a high suicide rate. With more celebrities openly acting upon their inclinations to switch genders, hopefully the future will find more tolerance on a subject which is currently not widely accepted.

In a way, this is a sad story of a little boy looking out at the ocean “praying” that he can find a love which will cure his inner urges. Eventually he finds that love, throws away his female clothing (and with it his female yearnings) and pursues his new life. For a while it even works, but his inner woman’s voice is still there and eventually her roar cannot be ignored. Perhaps James/Jennifer’s worst moments are sharing the news with his/her mother, wife Grace, and best friend Rick. The actually surgery was a relief – a natural ending to a journey preordained at birth. The fact that Jennifer Boylan had so much support from her peers is amazing, although there were those who were openly disgusted by her actions (such as Boylan’s sister who considers her dead). A bigger picture is revealed in the Afterward by Richard Russo who struggled with his best friend’s change from James to Jennifer even as he provided the necessary support. The reader gets the feeling from Russo’s words that some of the more unpleasant consequences of Jennifer’s actions are glossed over by the author, but perhaps the omission of these negative confrontations is a matter of self preservation.

Although a well told, compelling narrative, at times Boylan jumps back and forth between past and present which tends to be jarring for the reader. Despite some confusion at times, there are several important reoccurring highlights from the past, such as when James is involved in a car accident in his Junior Year of High School and the police officer shines a light in his eyes and asks “Are You Okay?” – a question repeated numerous times throughout the book. There are also several important messages mixed into the narrative. One key element is the idea that being transgendered is an identity crisis and has nothing to do with sexual preference. In other words, being a transsexual does not make one gay. So when Boylan and Grace decided to remain married, it was not a decision based on sex, but a way to keep the family unit together. Jennifer’s two young children seemed to easily accept this new relationship with their father, referring to her as Maddy as a way to identify a parent who was half mommy and half daddy. They intuitively knew that Maddy was the same person as before. Grace, who felt gypped over losing a husband, did not want to also lose her best friend. While the relationship between the couple changed, the love remained.

At this point in Jennifer’s life, post op, her political activism involving the transgender phenomenon has lead to additional books, various articles, and numerous speaking engagements. Other autobiographical accounts include Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders (2013). Boylan is currently teaching at Barnard College at Columbia University and appears as a friend and consultant for Caitlyn Jenner on the reality television series I Am Cait. She has also published young adult literature under a pseudonym.

While I feel a better title for this memoir might have been “He’s Not There”, this book is a good choice for anyone curious about transsexuality and a must read for those who are affected by this issue. In a way it’s a coming of age story, even if the self actualization doesn’t begin until Boylan reaches the age of 43. Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Bon Appetempt by Amelia Morris

I don’t know what I was expecting, but Bon Appetempt by Amelia Morris was a pleasant surprise. This “coming of age” (do we ever really get to that “age”) memoir is a delightful path down memory lane starting with her childhood up until the first six weeks of motherhood. In between is the angst of choosing – from choosing which parent to live with to choosing which college to attend to choosing which boyfriend to eventually marry to choosing which career path to follow to choosing (and keeping) a day job to support that career choice, etc., – All told in an upbeat but self-deprecating and honest manner, with a touch of humor thrown in for good measure. I laughed at her father’s comment after she graduated from college, which in essence said “This is as good as it gets, it’s all downhill from here.” So true. Amelia’s goal of becoming a writer is not a simple path, nor is that of her husband, Matt, who struggles to break into the entertainment business with numerous project ideas.

So despite the fact that Amelia’s life consists of the normal ups and downs we all experience, the way she portrays her everyday challenges is compelling enough to keep the reader engaged and invested in her saga. In addition, along the way, Amelia has created a “foodie” blog which explores the difference between the food she prepares and the illustrations of the “professionally” finished product found in various magazines. Sometimes the reality of cooking can be a true adventure as demonstrated not only by Amelia’s Bon Appetempt blog, but also by the descriptions in her book. Interspersed throughout the chapters are some of her favorite recipes, which are thrown into the mix to spice things up a bit. Ultimately, I agree with Amy’s assessment that it’s the process and not the end result that counts, both in cooking and in life.

Needless to say, I breezed through this book and thoroughly enjoyed the “recipe” of Amelia’s life – a success story whether or not she maintains a lucrative career as an author. I hope she considers sharing her stories about motherhood, which is sure to be her next challenge as her young son starts his own adventures. Amelia, I raise my glass of wine to you- Salute!

A thank you to Grand Central Publishing and Netgalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. Four stars.