October 01, 2009

What I'm reading: offbeat biographies

Harbingers of summer, the bumblebees are back in my Scotch broom whirring, foraging and pollinating their little heads off. Is it just a coincidence that I am in an exceptionally fertile book pillaging moment? In particular, I’m having a lucky run of biographies, always a favourite read since my childhood library introduced me to the genre with the “little orange biographies” series of famous Americans, noted for always opening with a foretoken of future greatness: “Ben, where are you?" called Mrs. Franklin. “That boy,” she sighed."Always with his head in the clouds, him and his kite."

Here are three offbeat biographies (actually memoirs) I've been reading:

1. Found by chance: Stuart, a life backwards by Alexander Masters
While snooping in the mending shelf at Parnell Library, my eye was caught by a book cover with a drawing of a man in a big blue armchair, half-consumed cigarette dangling from his fingers, and a spine label saying it was the biography of someone whose last name started with SHO. I picked it up and skimmed the last few pages as I usually do when considering a book. Someone named Stuart was hit and killed by the 11:15 PM London to Kings Lynn train. I read, “Death had just shrieked past like a stinking black eagle and made off with a remarkable man”.

Who was this remarkable man Stuart Sho----- (a quick flip through the pages revealed no mention of a last name) and why was some Alexander Masters writing about him in terms like that? A journalist? A literary agent? Carol, the Parnell Community Librarian and invariably up-to-date reader, was as mystified as I was. We were off to a meeting but not before I made her promise to release the book to me as soon as the bandages came off.

When it duly arrived and I started reading it, I realized that I had actually seen this book reviewed. Stuart is an ex-homeless, ex-junkie, still a “chaotic" as they call it, often funny and at times psychopathic person, and the book is both a narrative by Alexander Masters of how he and Stuart meet and become friends, and a working back through Stuart’s past, prompted by Masters, who is trying to find out where it all went so wrong for him. Stuart isn’t. He wants to be in a Tom Clancy-type novel and he worries that it will be a boring book. It's not, Stuart!

2. By a friend’s orders: Manhattan, when I was young by Mary Cantwell
When Julian Dashper told me, soon after we met, that I had to read this book, I thought that in that way in which people, when they are at an impressionable age, fall in love with a certain place or time through its books, or art, or music, that for Julian it would have been New York in the glory days of the 50s and 60s when Mary Cantwell was clicking through mid-town Manhattan in shoes called pumps on her way to her job writing smart copy for Mademoiselle magazine, living in Greenwich Village, drinking espresso at the Peacock Café.

I did get it out then, but I never finished it, although it was, well, sweet. Then when Julian died I was struck by the urge to go back and read the whole thing. It was checked out to another friend of Julian’s. “I didn’t finish it”, she said when I saw her at his funeral. “But it was sweet.”

Now that I’ve read the whole thing I think that what Julian liked, as much as the descriptions of place, was the feeling which pervades the book of what it’s like when you’re young and romantic and you want something so much it’s palpable. “I look like New York.” Mary Cantwell would say to herself in her giddy teenage moments, checking out her face in the mirror, and that’s where she went, with her “suitcase full of unsuitable clothes”. And what happened afterwards, which as it turns out was not all sweet by any means, she counted a fair bargain.

3. Reserved online after spotting review: The afterlife by Donald Antrim
My grandmother had red hair and “the lovely high cheekbones for arrogance”, as Hemingway said of his first wife Hadley. I’m sure they served her well when she swept all the French perfumes off the counter at Saks Fifth Avenue to shatter on the floor, after the snooty saleswoman insulted her husband who had undergone a laryngectomy for esophageal cancer. In her youth she had studied with the Ballets Russes -- "just long enough to justify a Grand Tour" she confided -- and earned herself the newspaper headline “Student of Russian Ballet Master Enlivens Rather Dull Evening at Nice by Executing Original Steps Before Municipal Casino Crowd”.

She was also an alcoholic, which meant rambling late night phone calls which my father would try to foist off on us kids suddenly unanimously overwhelmed by homework, and in-person appearances and then sudden disappearances as dictated by the quarrel or grudge of the moment, but also funny letters about things like what it smells like if you put out your cigarette in a tube of airplane glue. Donald Antrim’s mother was also an alcoholic, and this is the book he wrote – not so much about what it was like for him, as trying to figure out what he thinks about what it was like. I’m about half-way through. Whatever else happens, just the description of her bizarre “artistic” fashion creation kimono will have made this book worth the read, bringing back so vividly as it does all the feelings, including love, these fantastic and troubling people inspire.

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 04:30


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