I want to hold off on my latest musical excursions, so why not a piece on some of the books I've read over the past couple of months?
Eric Idle, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (Random House)
Five of the six members of Monty Python have now published memoirs of one sort or another - the sixth, Terry Jones, due to his illness now alas never will - and I've read all of them. Terry Gilliam's Gilliamesque, despite its eccentric packaging and title, is the most conventionally written, discussing its author's wild imagination in a clear and sober tone. Michael Palin, though an excellent writer of many other books (see below) has never published a memoir per se, but has put out several volumes of diaries. I find their abbreviated style and discursive topics make them hard to read, but I did manage to get through an edited version called Monty Python at Work, which was just the entries about Python, concentrating on their business meetings. Graham Chapman's A Liar's Autobiography, which I got at a bookstore in Canada in the early 80s and have never seen another copy of since, contains much blunt self-revelation mixed with wild excursions into complete fantasy, and it's not always easy to tell which is which. John Cleese's So, Anyway ... is a self-analysis of what influences and character traits made him the person he became, consisting of detailed and very entertaining discussion of his baroque childhood and promising early professional experiences, drifting to a close with the formation of Python, though he's suggested a sequel may be in the works.
So now, Eric Idle. His is a descriptive account of his entire life, less self-analytical than Cleese or Gilliam or even Chapman, consciously a funnyman attempting to be serious for once. He doesn't want to spend too much space on his oppressively and tediously Dickensian childhood, and things brighten up when he gets to university and can finally learn to be himself. But when Python hits the big time - which Idle dates to their Canadian tour of 1973 - the book suddenly shifts into prolonged recounting of his subsequent life hanging out with his numerous celebrity friends. Mind, they're all creative celebrities, and a lot of valuable creative work gets done, and it is sweet revenge for his childhood, but it's not that much fun to read about.
Michelle Obama, Becoming (Crown)
This Obama claims not to be a politician, but this is a political memoir. But unlike most American political memoirs, which feel like they were put together by ghostwriters out of pre-existing bricks, this reads like a genuine personal account. Up until her life was derailed by her husband's run for President, Obama was a driven, professional career woman. She thinks her life made its big turn when she met Barack, but while that enabled the future change, it didn't interrupt her career. Not even the big personal crisis when she realized she didn't like being a corporate attorney, which is the job she'd been aiming at since schooldays, was a real hiccup. She just pulled out her contact list, switched careers, and went on without a pause. Obama is aware that she has far more options than her mother had, but like most people with enormous privilege, seems unaware of how enormous it is. I also don't think an aspiring politician would confess so much personal ambition, still less tell stories like the one from her childhood about convincing some other ten-year-old girl to respect her by beating her up.
Once Barack becomes President, we learn more than I ever had before about what it's actually like to live in the White House, of which the biggest revelation is that the staff will order more of anything they perceive you like to eat without even asking permission, no matter how exotic, and then at the end of the month they give you the bill. For while the staff services are free, the First Family has to pay for their food, though apparently they don't get to make out a shopping list. Obama also discusses all the public program initiatives she undertook as First Lady, so since this was genuinely worthwhile work it's unfortunate that it's not very interesting to read about.
Tom Shippey, Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings (Reaktion)
There is no more entertaining guide to the old North than Tom Shippey. Presents itself as an analysis of the Viking character, very strange to us (see the book's title), but is most enlivening delving into literary and archaeological sources. For instance, Shippey tells us there are five source texts for the tale of the Volsungs (and when he enumerates them, I realize that I have copies of four of them) and then goes into the plot differences between them, and what the authors are trying to accomplish and to reconcile, with the same zest that he once employed on varying Tolkien drafts. Very like, in fact.
Michael Palin, Erebus (Greystone Books)
I picked this up at the library because of the author (see above). He's a good writer of narrative history, less interesting when recounting his own travels to these exotic places. I knew that Erebus was the ship (actually one of the ships) of the Franklin expedition that was lost in the Canadian Arctic in the 1840s, but this is the ship's complete biography from manufacture on, of which the best part is its earlier quite successful explorations of the Antarctic. Frustratingly, Palin ends with the ships' recent rediscovery, but says nothing about any revelations about the crews' last days that may have been learned thereby.
Joanne B. Freeman, The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War (Farrar Straus & Giroux)
Another book I happened to see on the library shelf. An outstanding study in my special period as a history student, early to mid 19C American politics. Anyone conversant with that period knows about the time a Southern congressman, infuriated by a Northern senator's anti-slavery speech, stalked onto the Senate floor and beat the guy to a bloody pulp, and then was cheered in the South for his efforts; or the time one senator pulled a gun on the floor on another senator, who responded by whipping open his jacket and crying, "Let the assassin fire!"; or the one time a congressman was actually killed in a duel with another congressman. All these occurred between 1838 and 1856; Freeman's genius was to say, "These may have been outstanding instances, but they can't have been the only ones," and putting together a thoughtfully analytic, not a tediously narrative, account of the quite extensive history of violence in Congress in those years. Her key discovery was a first-rate diary by a congressional clerk, who knew all the secrets but was separated from the conflict, and using that to throw light on the politely restrained descriptions of uproar on the floor in the printed congressional records.
Chris Offutt, My Father the Pornographer (Atria Books)
Offutt's father was Andrew J. Offutt, known to those who've heard of him, including me, not as a pornographer but as a science-fiction writer of considerable talent and imagination but whose career never took off. Turns out that, like some other SF writers, he kept the income flowing by churning out porn. This book barely discusses the writing, and that more the SF. It's mostly a description of what it was like having a childhood in the home of an eccentric and driven writer, regardless of what he was writing. The book itself is written in the pretentiously precious style of a modern realist novelist, which is evidently what the younger Offutt grew up to be. (I haven't read any of his fiction.) The most interesting chapter is of spending his pre-teen years being dragged to SF cons by his parents, who craved the social validation they couldn't get anywhere else. The son, however, bluntly states that he found SF fans to be totally obnoxious and repulsive people. He reports being stunned when, after publishing a note that his father had a grudge against Harlan Ellison, he gets a phone call from Ellison assuring him that the grudge was not mutual. What surprises him is that anyone would care that much about it, but it sounds to me exactly like what Harlan would do.