Review ~ Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

Cover via Goodreads

Sick of deeply personal accounts written in the first person? Seeking an exciting, interactive read that puts the “u” back in “aUtobiography”? Then look no further than Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography! In this revolutionary, Joycean experiment in light celebrity narrative, actor/personality/carbon-based life-form Neil Patrick Harris lets you, the reader, live his life. You will be born in New Mexico. You will get your big break at an acting camp. You will get into a bizarre confrontation outside a nightclub with actor Scott Caan. Even better, at each critical juncture of your life, you will choose how to proceed. You will decide whether to try out for Doogie Howser, M.D. You will decide whether to spend years struggling with your sexuality. You will decide what kind of caviar you want to eat on board Elton John’s yacht.

Choose correctly and you’ll find fame, fortune, and true love. Choose incorrectly and you’ll find misery, heartbreak, and a hideous death by piranhas. All this, plus magic tricks, cocktail recipes, embarrassing pictures from your time as a child actor, and even a closing song. Yes, if you buy one book this year, congratulations on being above the American average, but make that book Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography! (via Goodreads)

There is one question to ask when reading an autobiography or memoir: does this person have an interesting story to tell?

Neil Patrick Harris has lived a pretty good life in his first 41 years. He’d probably be the first to admit that. He had a happy childhood, has acted in two hit TV shows*, has been able to pursue his passions for stage acting and magic, and has a great family life. So, what kind of story does Harris have to tell? I kind of imagine he asked the same question. Hence, an autobiography with a twist aimed at Harris’s peers–40 something geeks with an appreciation for the old second person Choose Your Own Adventure books.

As a reader, you can bounce around the chronology of Harris’s life and occasionally meet certain doom! Along the way, there are recipes, magic tricks, and half-(quarter- ?)serious testimonials. Harris’s stories about the industries he’s worked are not revelatory, but they are entertaining. In all, it was a fast, fun read.

*Funny thing, I was never really a Doogie Howser fan and I’ve never watched How I Met Your Mother. My favorite NPH TV show? The short-lived Stark Raving Mad with Tony Shalhoub, even if it did portray a totally unrealistic version of author/editor relationships.

Publishing info, my copy: Crown Publishing Group, Oct 14, 2014, Overdrive Read/Kindle ebook from Tempe Public Library

One note, I read this in electronic form. While both the browser version and the Kindle version were both well linked, it was clumsy moving back and forth through the text. Physical book form is probably more fun.

Genre: Autobiography

Deal Me In, Week 50 ~ “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” by Edgar Allan Poe

Card picked: Queen of Diamonds

From: http://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/vldmard.htm

Thoughts:  Our narrator, practitioner of mesmerism, decides to try a daring experiment: hypnotize a man at the moment of his death to see if it can be done and to perhaps stave off death. His patient is M. Valdemar, a man who the narrator has mesmerized in the past (although not to the greatest extent possible) and who is dying rather on schedule from tuberculosis. Our narrator succeeds in hypnotizing Valdemar on the moment of his death and keeps this mostly dead man in a trace-like state for seven months until Valdemar pleads for release.

There was no longer the faintest sign of vitality in M. Valdemar; and concluding him to be dead, we were consigning him to the charge of the nurses, when a strong vibratory motion was observable in the tongue. This continued for perhaps a minute. At the expiration of this period, there issued from the distended and motionless jaws a voice — such as it would be madness in me to attempt describing.

But of course Poe does describe it and a whole lot more. This is one of his more gruesome tales. When published, many readers took the story as fact. Poe truthfully, though rather quietly, admitted that the article was a hoax. The sensational aspect probably helped sell copies.

According to Wikipedia, at the time of the publication of “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” Poe’s wife had been suffering from tuberculosis for four years and his older brother had already died of it. The writing was on the wall for Virginia. This mental exercise, concerning a method to postpone death, ends horribly. There’s no cheating death.

Review ~ Not My Father’s Son

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

Cover via Goodreads

A beloved star of stage, television, and film, Alan Cumming is a successful artist whose diversity and fearlessness is unparalleled. His success masks a painful childhood growing up under the heavy rule of an emotionally and physically abusive father—a relationship that tormented him long into adulthood.

When television producers in the UK approached him to appear on a popular celebrity genealogy show in 2010, Alan enthusiastically agreed. He hoped the show would solve a family mystery involving his maternal grandfather, a celebrated WWII hero who disappeared in the Far East. But as the truth of his family ancestors revealed itself, Alan learned far more than he bargained for about himself, his past, and his own father. (via Goodreads)

I know I’ve read three of them this year*, but I don’t usually read celebrity memoirs. I’m curious about the business and history of show business, but not really the celebrity aspect of it.

I decided to read Alan Cumming’s memoir because, well, he’s a bit of a character. I wondered what story about his past he had to tell. I presumed it would be something along the lines of what it was like growing up gay in Scotland with a father that was not accepting to the point of being abusive. That is possibly part of the story.

~~Spoilers Ahead~~

Cumming breaks his narrative into three interwoven parts: Then, 2010, and Now. Then is recollections from his childhood. Some are stories of abuse, both mental and physical. Some are happier memories, of his mother and grandmother and his brother Tom, who was not spared abuse. 2010 is about the filming of an episode ofWho Do You Think You Are?, a genealogy reality show. During this time, but not related to the show, Cumming’s father reveals that Alan is not his son. This would seem to explain his father’s anger toward the family. Bizarrely, the story is not that straightforward. Juxtaposed with this is the story if his mother’s father, a man who suffered trauma during WWII and was never able to reintegrate into civilian society. Now is the aftermath, several years on.

It is an interesting story, but I felt that the telling sometimes lacked focus. The jumps between time settings didn’t always work for me and I wonder if a more linear telling might not have been better. I never felt the entire weight of Cumming’s past because I was continually being pulled into the world of 2010/now–globetrotting film shoots, hotel amenities, and parties with friends. Regardless, the memoir is a brave one. There are unanswered questions about Cumming’s past. I’m left feeling that this memoir has been part of dealing with those.

*This one, Mindy Kaling’s, which I read earlier in the year, and Neil Patrick Harris’s, which I’ll review next week.

Publishing info, my copy: HarperCollins, Oct 07, 2014, Overdrive Read/Kindle ebook from Tempe Public Library
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir.

 

Deal Me In, Week 49 ~ “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce

Card picked: Three of Diamonds – A Wild Card

From: Found online at http://fiction.eserver.org/short/occurrence_at_owl_creek.html

Thoughts: Growing up, two of my favorite authors were Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. Despite this, I have a gaping hole in my literary knowledge when it comes to their contemporaries. Ambrose Bierce would be one of those holes. In the spirit of winter tales, I thought “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” would be an excellent choice for my last wild card of 2014. I was not disappointed.

It’s hard to talk about this story without being spoilery. It’s very tight. Way back in my writing of fiction classes, we talked a lot about putting the right details in a story, especially a short story when economy of words is necessary. The driftwood, the ticking of Farquhar’s watch, these are details in section one that return without being over explained later on in the tale. The events are visceral. For someone like me who has a thing about suffocation *and* water, it was pretty rough going for a few sentences.

To die of hanging at the bottom of a river!–the idea seemed to him ludicrous.

Bierce packs a wallop in a few thousand words.

About the Author: Civil War veteran, journalist, critic, writer, and general agitator, Ambrose Bierce led one heck of a life and, not to be out-done by death, disappeared mysteriously. Once, when in college, I almost bought The Devil’s Dictionary, but put it back because I still had to buy my textbooks. And did you know that Bierce is a character in  the direct-to-video From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter? I have a feeling that my imaginary version of that movie is a lot different than the reality.

 

Review ~ Soppy

This book was provided to me by Andrews McMeel Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Soppy: A Love Story by Philippa Rice

Cover via Goodreads

The wildly popular web comic SOPPY–with more than half a million notes on Tumblr–is the illustrated love story of author Philippa Rice and her real-life boyfriend. True love isn’t always about the big romantic gestures. Sometimes it’s about sympathizing with someone whose tea has gone cold or reading together and sharing a quilt. When two people move in together, it soon becomes apparent that the little things mean an awful lot. The throwaway moments in life become meaningful when you spend them in the company of someone you love.

SOPPY is Philippa Rice’s collection of comics and illustrations based on real-life moments with her boyfriend. From grocery shopping to silly arguments and snuggling in front of the television, SOPPY captures the universal experience of sharing a life together, and celebrates the beauty of finding romance all around us. (via Goodreads)

From the beginning of November until mid-February, it’s difficult to miss a certain type of TV and radio commercial (at least here in the US). It’s the holiday season and it is assumed that every woman wants not only expensive jewelry as a Thinkgiving/Christmas/New Year/Valentine’s day gift, but the *right* jewelry. Any man foolish enough to not purchase the correct ring/necklace/bracelet/earrings isn’t worthy of the woman’s love. These commercials annoy me because they don’t give either party enough credit. Sure, getting a gift is nice and all, but 99% of being with someone isn’t about the baubles. It is, instead, like Soppy.

Soppy is Philippa Rice’s simple two-color comic.  It’s sweet and quiet and all about those moments that fill living with someone. There’s no hard-fast narrative here, but a reader gets the gist. Two single people with already okay lives meet, court, and move in together. Sometimes thing are great, sometimes they’re not, but the power of pickles and vanilla shakes prevail.

Soppy by Philippa Rice, pg 70

I was unfamiliar with Rice’s online presence. That’s not the case anymore. Soppy is the lovely antithesis of every annoying jewelry commercial that clutters up the holiday season.

Publishing info, my copy: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014, ePub ARC
Genre: Graphic nonfiction

Deal Me In, Week 48 ~ “Switch”

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Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“Switch” by Lucy Taylor

Card picked: Ten of Clubs

From: David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible

Review: After a night of chinook winds batter her home, teenager Erika wakes to her neighborhood scrambled. The man and woman who say that they’re her parents think she’s a girl named Lizbeth. The friendly neighborhood dog doesn’t know her at all. Her kind grandmother is speaking a completely different language and beats Erika in the shins with her cane. The only person  who recognizes her is Mrs. Markson who believes that God has cheated her out of the Rapture and is driving the beloved convertible that belongs to Erika’s molester uncle. And does this have anything to do with Erika’s own dreams of being someone else?

Although fairly widely published, I’m not at all familiar with Lucy Taylor’s work. Her writing is quite good, but this story didn’t work for me. The first section of the story warns that Erika is trapped in a dream, but that sort of ruined my situational empathy. Should I care about all the wackiness when it’s the content of a dream? (This from someone who used dreams extensively in the first novel she wrote… I never said I wasn’t a hypocrite.)

Review ~ The Unpersuadables

The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science by Will Storr

Cover via Goodreads

While excavating fossils in the tropics of Australia with a celebrity creationist, Will Storr asked himself a simple question. Why don’t facts work? Why, that is, did the obviously intelligent man beside him sincerely believe in Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden and a six-thousand-year-old Earth, in spite of the evidence against them?

It was the start of a journey that would lead Storr all over the world—from Texas to Warsaw to the Outer Hebrides—meeting an extraordinary cast of modern heretics whom he tries his best to understand. Storr tours Holocaust sites with famed denier David Irving and a band of neo-Nazis, experiences his own murder during “past life regression” hypnosis, discusses the looming One World Government an iconic climate skeptic, and investigates the tragic life and death of a woman who believed her parents were high priests in a baby-eating cult.

Using a unique mix of highly personal memoir, investigative journalism, and the latest research from neuroscience and experimental psychology, Storr reveals how the stories we tell ourselves about the world invisibly shape our beliefs, and how the neurological “hero maker” inside us all can so easily lead to self-deception, toxic partisanship and science denial. (via Goodreads)

With the subtitle Adventures with the Enemies of Science, I expected something a little different from The Unpersuadables. Something harder and something more neutral. Or, maybe with my own biases, something more skeptical, even though I had been warned.

Will Storr is a seeker. The Unpersuadables is his record of trying to reconcile his nagging feeling of wrongness amid his skepticism. While investigating the followers of some more eccentric beliefs, Storr feels some measure of kinship. He finds it difficult to judge them when he himself has done pretty irrational things. What can be learned from Holocaust deniers, sufferer of Morgellons syndrome, and even the King of Skeptics?

Well, Storr learns that the human brain is incredibly fallible. Even on a basic level, the world we sense is somewhat inferred by the information we already have. On a higher level, we have all developed models of how we believe the world to work and are loath to deviate from them. Our memories are incredibly malleable, which is unfortunate since we rely on the stories we tell ourselves for our sense of being. Storr’s conclusion seems to be that all in all, human’s are not set up to be rational.

To frame this with my own story, I’ve been thinking about the pitfalls of narrative ever since I read Jenette Fulda’s book Chocolate and Vicodin back in early 2012. One morning, Fulda woke up with a terrible headache that would not go away and could not be diagnosed. By the end of her memoir, she still has the headache and I had a feeling of dissatisfaction. I realized, after some thought, that my unease had been caused by a lack of ending in her narrative. And this is something that sufferers of chronic conditions deal with all the time. “Get well soon!” is always the wish. In other words, “Please, end your narrative happily.” Unfortunately, people don’t get the chronic part of the equation.

The scientific method is not narrative friendly. “Conclusions” are always being overturned in light of more data. People want a tight, definite answer. Science is actually, surprisingly often not about those.

“The scientific method is the tool that humans have developed to break the dominion of the narrative. It has been designed specifically to dissolve anecdote, to strip out emotion and leave unpolluted data,” Storr’s writes. “But we can hardly be surprised if some feel an instinctive hostility to it, for it is fundamentally inhuman.”

For me, science is about creating systems. I find a great satisfaction and even joy in cohesive systems. Stories still have their place. I’m a writer; obviously I believe that. But narratives and science can be parsed. I also believe that we can attempt to overcome some of these human deficits, though it takes a certain amount of vigilance to continually question ingrained models. I was surprised by Storr’s hostility toward the skeptic movement, but on the other hand, skeptics aren’t immune to the same biases and failures.

A word about the science: The Unpersuadables was originally published in early 2013, which means the neuroscience theories presented are older than that. Given the pace at which theories are being formed and reformed in this field, the science isn’t “latest,” it’s old. Just sayin’.

On the writing front, The Unpersuadables is a good reminder of what thought processes go into belief. Handy when writing characters that have different beliefs from my own.

Publishing info, my copy: Overlook Press, 2014, hardback, library
Genre: Nonfiction

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