Feb 15, 2012

Perhaps the most popular current category (save for vampires and zombies—which must fade soon…right?) in the publishing world, memoirs are an odd sort. There is no shortage of well-written, heartrending chronicles of horrible and tortured pasts where the writer ultimately finds some degree of solace, if not forgiveness, for those responsible (often the writer him or herself). Occasionally there comes along a thoroughly pleasant story such as J.R. Moehringer’s in “The Tender Bar,” a wonderfully told memoir (the first half being particularly interesting) and the inspiration for Andre Agassi to hire him as ghostwriter for his own memoir, one of the best sports books of recent years.

And let’s not forget the celebrity memoir. Often self-serving and vapid, they nonetheless hold so much delightful dirt (otherwise why else waste the time?) that we blissfully breeze through them with all the thought-provoking strain of drinking a strong screwdriver. Of course, once in a while something special comes along and last year it was Keith Richard’s “Life.” Even if not a Stones fan, the book chronicles such an amazing expanse of recent popular music culture that you can’t help but get sucked along in total enjoyment. (The contrasting waste of time is Steve Tyler’s “Does The Noise in my Head Bother You?”, which while as jumpy as his personality, pales in comparison as a great read—and I’m a huge Aerosmith fan!)

Which brings me to Roger Ebert’s “Life Itself,” one of the best books—of any category—I’ve read in recent years. It certainly helps that I’ve always found Roger Ebert’s movie opinions dangerously close to my own, but that’s beside the point for this book. Struck, in recent years, by a disastrously insidious cancer that has left him disfigured and incapable of taste and smell (among other maladies), Ebert nonetheless tells his story with the literary skill one rarely associates with a film critic. I’ve always thought his movie criticism to be quite a few steps above the competition, but the writing in this memoir is nothing short of poetic and haunting. Roger Ebert was and is a brilliant master of language and who knows how many masterpieces he may have written had he not followed a path into journalism (and Chicago journalism at that—unforgettable stories await on that front). Sadly, I think he wanted to get it all down before any further relapse and that possibility hangs heavy, particularly towards the book’s end. But if you like great memoirs—read it! And check out Ebert’s blog while you’re at it…


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