Category Archives: Memoir

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is not your typical self help book. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert does discuss deep philosophical questions about life and the choices we make, but her main focus is herself. It’s HER spiritual quest and if the reader finds comfort or develops a similar reality base, well good for them, but that is not her purpose for this saga. Trying to deal with a difficult divorce and the end of a torrid relationship, Gilbert finds herself on a one year journey divided between Italy (where she eats her way through the country while learning the language), India (finding some answers while exploring her spirituality at her Guru’s Ashram) and Bali, Indonesia (where she splits her day visiting a medicine man, a healer, and her lover since, despite her vow of chastity, she is having an affair with an older man from Brazil).

Gilbert is a beautiful, intelligent, witty, well traveled woman with an eye-opening way of expressing herself. I listened to the audiotape read by the author which is well enunciated and extremely literate, perfectly capturing the essence of her words.

This is one of those books I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t read when it was first published. To make matters worse, I didn’t see the movie either, although I hope to remedy that situation soon. However, the one advantage of coming late to the table with this one, is the irresistible tidbits of information which have recently been disclosed to the public.

Elizabeth Gilbert is a woman who has led a fascinating life and continues to astound us with her choices. She was a bartender during her youth at a bar in the East Village of NYC (revealed in an article entitled The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon, Gentleman Quarterly, 1997), and the movie Coyote Ugly (2000) is based on those experiences where she met her first husband. Divorced after almost nine years of marriage, Gilbert took a sabbatical from life to figure things out (on her publishers dime of $200,000) which resulted in Eat, Pray, Love (2006). She ended up marrying her fellow world traveler in 2007 (after he was detained and threatened with deportment), despite his multi-country connection – children in Australia, family in his native Brazil, a gem business in Bali, and then her, a wife in New Jersey, where they jointly owned an East Asian Decorative Import Store (Two Buttons) which was sold in 2015. In between Gilbert has written a best selling fiction book, The Signature of All Things (2013) which I have read (but not yet reviewed) plus in 2015 published another “self help” tome, Big Magic, whose audio was sent for me to review although it is still waiting unopened in its box. In addition, Gilbert wrote another memoir in 2010, Committed, which examines her life and marriage after Bali. A 2015 article for the New York Times, Confessions of a Seduction Addict, scrutinizes her obsession with flirtation and the results of the lustful urges which destroyed her marriage. However, the juiciest bit of gossip is the fact that she has recently divorced husband number two to be with the love of her life, her hairdresser and girl friend Rayya Elias, (remember Liz’s unmanageable mane) who was mentioned several times in Eat, Pray, Love. She has shared with the public that Rayya has terminal cancer and Gilbert wants to be there to provide love and support, which included a recent Ceremony of Love, although not a formal marriage.

Let’s just say that Elizabeth Gilbert has been living her life between the pages of her memoirs and needs some time to catch up with herself.

My immediate response to Elizabeth Gilbert after reading her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, is for her to relax and use that innate sense of humor to lighten up. The search for truth and the meaning of life is overrated, so just sit back, enjoy, and stop fussing. With all the pray and meditation, one would think she’d have had her problems put back in their place, but no – her regrets constantly reared their ugly heads. Move on and don’t look back or at the very least, let it catch up with you instead of looking for trouble since no matter how hard you try to hide from it, it will always find you. As far as any guilt for not wanting children, I think Gilbert made the right decision. Some women aren’t meant to be mothers and her career path and egocentricity (and I mean that in a nice way) would interfere with a fulfilling family life. Better to focus on being the favorite aunt and spoil those nieces.

Elizabeth Gilbert has a delicious way of looking at life and is the master of a well turned phrase making anything she writes a pleasure to read (or listen to on tape). While some might think this book is boring since, plot wise, not much happens, her pilgrimage along with the fascinating people she meets along the way more than make up for the lack of action. I especially loved the irascible Texan Richard (real name) who is full of droll advice and nicknamed Liz “groceries” to boot. For those readers who consider Gilbert a narcissist, well, if I had two popular movies based on my life released before I was forty years old and got to travel the world hobnobbing with all sorts of intriguing individuals while also making a bundle of dollars, I’d also be a little full of myself. (It’s not as if anyone pays me for what I write here on my blog).

Four stars. This review also appears on Goodreads.

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Shirley Jones by Shirley Jones

Shirley Jones is a Kiss and Tell book told by Shirley Jones, the ingenue who first appeared in the musical Oklahoma with Gordan MacRae. Trying to over-ride her reputation as a sqeeky clean actress, she gives us a peek into her sexual side, with interludes with her costars (mostly innocent) and her marriages to Jack Cassidy and Marty Ingels. Shirley confides that Jack, the love of her life, was well endowed and a considerate lover. Together they had three children despite his philandering ways and their frequent separations as they both pursued their acting careers. While both were successful in their efforts, Shirley compared their relationship to that found in the movie, A Star is Born, especially after she won the 1960 Academy Award as Best Actress for her role as Lulu Baines in the movie Elmer Gantry which signaled the slow road to the end of their marriage.

Jones touches upon her childhood then focuses on her acting career in various roles over the years with an emphasis on her sexual dealings or lack thereof with her leading men. She goes into detail about her marriage with Jack, her relationship with her step son David, and her three sons, Shawn, Patrick, and Ryan. When her marriage to Jack falls apart, she finds love with Marty Ingels, a brash comedian who clashes with her children. There is a sense of foretelling about the accidental death of her first husband, but no expression of guilt that they were already divorced when the tragedy occurred. At eighty some years old, the reader gets the sense that Shirley Jones is still a vital woman ready for any challenges thrown her way.

Whether you enjoy this memoir or not depends on your expectations. I felt like a voyeur listening to gossip about some of my favorite movie stars ranging from Richard Burton to Burt Lancaster to Marlon Brando. While it was titillated reading about Shirley Jones’ sex life, I would rather have heard anecdotes about her acting career and not so much about whether she was attracted to her costar. Her husbands left something to be desired as Jack Cassidy sounded like a scum bag while Marty Ingels came off as crude and disrespectful. She could have made better choices, but I guess love isn’t always rational.

You can tell Shirley wrote Shirley Jones without a ghost writer as the writing is simplistic and repetitive (at one point the same paragraph appeared twice in a row). The stories were not in chronological order, bouncing back and forth, confusing the reader who couldn’t help but wonder “did this happen before or after she appeared in such a such a role”. An annotated list of her various appearances on stage and screen would have been helpful.

After finishing this book, one wonders – leaving us wanting more about her story and less about her intimate relationships. Perhaps there will be a sequel. (My ninety year old mother read this book and was extremely disappointed, as well as scandalized. She wanted to hear more about Shirley’s sons. She gave it one star, but I’ll give it 2 and a half).

Two and a half stars. This review also appears on Goodreads.

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.