Home, A Memoir of My Early Years, by Julie Andrews

Home, A Memoir of My Early Years, by Julie Andrews. Yes, this memoir is written by *the* Julie Andrews, the chanteuse extraordinaire in Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, etc.

It’s a nice book. And no, I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise. I just mean that the book is as nice as we always hoped Julie Andrews truly was, in real life. What is startling is the very difficult childhood Andrews came through – and came through well, which many may not have.  Alcoholic parents, poverty and neglect, hard work from a very young age, half-siblings to care for from the new marriages of both parents, being the primary bread-winner for her mother’s family from adolescence on – Andrews relates all this frankly and calmly. You can tell from her detailing of many difficult events that she was a sensitive child and adult. But there isn’t a hint of self-pity or recrimination anywhere. Life was what it was and most of all, she is grateful for the opportunities that came to her life, and the abundance of love in it. It’s a very British tale in some ways. No whingeing Pom here though, only the stiff-upper-lip sort!

Her professional-life stories are great. I didn’t know she was a stage actor as much (more actually) as a movie star. Her stories about acting with Rex Harrison, Richard Burton, Canadian Robert Goulet, etc., are a book highlight – brutally honest, but affectionate  and amusing too.

I enjoyed it very much. I also enjoyed the writing, which is crisp and clear.

Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern

Good morning, memoir readers. Today we have a guest column from author and journalist Silver Donald Cameron, who just finished reading a Xmas-time book gift, Sh*t My Father Says, by Justin Halpern. He says it is a memoir “of sorts,” and of course it is a hit TV show right now, too, starring ever-energetic William Shatner. So here is the book review.

“I hadn’t expected to enjoy this book. In fact, the first time I tried to read it, I set it aside in the give-away pile after reading the first few pages. Here’s a guy, 28 years old, dumped by his girl friend, and he moves back in with his mother and his fierce, foul-mouthed father. We’re amused? We are not. Jesus Christ, I can let drive with a fuck-shot as well as the best of them when I need to, but I also know other ways to make my point. This flathead evidently doesn’t.
“Then I was reminded that the book came from a friend whose taste in humour — and in books —  was excellent. I picked up the book again. I read. I read a little more.
“After a bit you get over the poverty of the guy’s vocabulary. It’s just part of who he is. Then you start to see his capacity to put the bald truth in stark terms, garnished with cussin’, and before you know it you’re howling with laughter.
“On kindergarten: “You thought it was hard? If kindergarten is busting your ass, I got some bad news for you about the rest of life.”
“On table manners: “Jesus Christ, can we have one dinner where you don’t spill something? No, Joni, he does do it on purpose, because if he doesn’t, that means he’s just mentally handicapped, and none of the tests showed that.”
“On his son’s proposed tattoo: “You can do what you want. But I can also do what I want. And what I’ll be doing is telling everyone how fucking stupid your tattoo is.”

“I want to go back to being a young father, and try the whole fucking thing again. I was way too fucking polite.”

Changing my Mind, by Margaret Trudeau

This was a Xmas gift memoir, which I asked Santa for and was kindly given. I am glad I read it – I think….

It will always be a slightly dicey matter for me to read about mental illness. Those who have it want (and sometimes demand) endless sympathy, love, support, understanding and forgiveness; those who live beside it mostly just want peace and an end to the drama and neediness. Compassion gets stretched thin when you live with someone with mental illness for many years. For most healthy-minded people, their  own survival instincts eventually push to the forefront….

And so I wonder how Margaret Trudeau’s family feels about this latest memoir effort of hers. I am curious about *their* take on living with someone with mental illness – though somehow doubt they’ll take pen to paper. How did they cope, what prices have they paid for her illness? Were her children worried when they chose to have children themselves? Do they worry still, watching their young ones for signs of mental illness? Or do they, as perhaps we all should, accept that mental illness is so prevalent everyone will deal with it sooner or later?

Margaret Trudeau has two previous memoirs, Beyond Reason and Consequences. Which brings me to a new topic of discussion, something I’ll call “re-memoir.” When a person writes a series of memoirs over a lifetime, they must perforce return to major life events such as marriage, the birth of children, moves, deaths, etc., in brief or expanded manner, in each new memoir. Each time they do this, they are older, and presumably have different insights and thoughts on past events. Margaret Trudeau writing about her marriage and divorce in her 60s, is a very different woman than she was in her 30s. At least she is different is some ways – and surprisingly unchanged in others.

This leads neatly to the book’s title, Changing My Mind. Why do I find this so off-putting – even disturbing? You see she can’t really change her mind, she can only work very hard to keep it from harming herself and others. With the right medications, with the right balance of a nutritious diet, enough sleep, regular exercise, etc., Margaret Trudeau can keep her dual demons of mania and depression at bay. But she isn’t “changing her mind” to “get over” or be cured of her bi-polar condition. That can never happen. It’s a permanent as the bright blue of her eyes and a good deal less lovely to look on at times.

Again, on the issue of “re-memoir” –  I found many of her musings on Pierre much more forthright than in her previous books. She didn’t pull many punches this time. He sounds quite nasty in some ways, especially in his miserly tendencies. (On a different subject, Margaret is resoundingly quiet on the subject of sex with Pierre. This stands out, as she is detailed on most other subjects you can think of. One can only hope their intimate life had its good moments. And no, it’s none of my business!!) Pierre Trudeau is dead now and can’t be harmed by her words (or any others). Only her children can be harmed by those, and on the subject of her children, Margaret Trudeau voices only the warmest love and enjoyment. I presume she now believes they are old enough to bear a little more candour on the subject of their father. Fair enough, says I.

But I still didn’t warm to the book and Margaret herself the way I might have – if I hadn’t lived with someone with mental illness myself. Because of this I have a good “bullshit detector” – and sometimes I felt that bullshit was definitely coming my way. Like me, like me, I’m really not that bad a person….in fact, I am really quite charming and fun, despite abandoning two husbands and two different sets of children….Margaret Trudeau has spent a lifetime trying to be understood and liked by the Canadian public. Her need for this is still much in evidence. The fact that I can write such a snide little comment might indicate that she hasn’t won over all of us. The problem with mental illness is that you are only supposed to feel sympathy and compassion. This overlooks the fact that the person with mental illness has what every other person has too, and that is a personality and character that you may or may not like.  Try as I might, I just don’t like Margaret Trudeau all that much. Maybe trust is a better word. I can wish her all the best, and I do. I can even feel tenderness to that impossibly slim and beautiful 19-year-old who came on the Canadian public scene so many years ago.  I just don’t want to be friends with her…or ever share a roof with a mentally ill person again.

The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss

I loved this book! I was actually concerned that with a title like The Hearts of Horses, it might be a western romance of some sort. I found it at Value Village, where I find so many good books. In this case I was willing to take a chance that it might disappoint, because good or bad, I just felt like reading fiction that focused on horses. What was it all about, I wondered.

A true cowgirl and her experiences as a horse “gentler” (as opposed to breaker) in frontier Oregon, WW I era. The writing is excellent, the character memorable, the story fascinating and the history real. I couldn’t put the book down!

Author Molly Gloss has published three other books (novels). You can bet I will be reading them too! No, this isn’t a memoir. But I really need to intersperse fiction now and again as I read memoirs. Reminds me of so many important factors, such as pacing, drama, “character” development, and always, always, placing good writing front and centre of any book.

tell-all memoir, by Toby Young

A friend gave me the 2001 tell-all memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, by Toby Young, because she found it amusing, and thought her celebrity-conscious friend (blush) might enjoy it too.

I did, and I didn’t. I  somehow wanted to take a shower after reading it – not so much pertaining to the celebrity-worship factor, as to Young’s seedy and “sotted” (he is a drunk) character. He deliberately chose a self-deprecating stance, which actually became grating not ingratiating after a while. I guess because his true stance – he thinks very well of himself – kept surfacing.

It was fun to learn more about the magazine scene in New York city, and more about Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, one of my favourite if guilty reads. Carter is Canadian born. He makes director James Cameron sound self-effacing and retiring. Whoa, if even half of what Young reports is true, what an ego!

At any rate, my overall feeling about the book is…so what? The “wit” is nasty and the story tawdry. I’ll allow that Young made a pleasant dollar with it, and became a household name in the NY magazine world for a very short while. He’s back in England now, though, having scorned the world he so desperately wanted to shine in – and never truly succeeded in. Perhaps the most interesting parts for me were Young’s observations on the differences between American and British cultures. These were acutely noted and rang true in my experience.

The GLobe and Mail’s Top 100 Reads of 2010

I am a little late posting this – but it should be easy enough to find online the November 27, 2010 issue of the Globe and Mail, which lists the Top 100 Best Reads of 2010. The biographies and memoirs sound delicious. And the variety is wonderful! Everything from Margaret Trudeau’s latest memoir, Changing my Mind, to memoirs by Christopher Hitchens and Antonia Fraser (her life with Harold Pinter), and biographies on Thelonious Monk, Willie Mays and Emily Dickinson and her family.

I am particularly interested in The Paper Garden, by Molly Peacock. Reviewer Victoria Glendinning writes: “Peacock has structured her book about a Victorian widow who more or less invented collage in the form of botanically accurate cut flowers, as metaphor, a collage about collage, and a meditation on sexuality, friendship and creativity. The book is a craft object, sumptuously presented and designed. It will be everyone’s favourite Christmas present this year.” I might even hint to receive it myself!!

“Mark Twain stripped bare”

“Mark Twain stripped bare” ….read the header on a review of Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume I, published in the Globe and Mail on November 13, 2010.  And what a review! The book sounds delish! I may have to buy this one for a Christmas gift for my husband, a Twain fan in the first place, so I can borrow it to read next! I love the whole idea of writing a book with no holds barred and then having it held back from publication for 100 years, as per Twain’s command.

Of equal interest is the great care taken by the editor, Harriet Elinor Smith, her associate editors and the general editor, Robert H. Hirst, to publish the exact book Twain wrote, in the exact way he wanted it published: uncut and unexpurgated.  (Raw and raging Twain, from the sounds of it.) This is noted with palpable gratitude and excitement by the reviewer, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, an expert on Twain herself, who further notes that Twain’s work has not always received such respectful care. Other editors have merrily tweaked or deleted passages of his writings, finding some bits “uninteresting,” and other bits apparently at risk of “tarnishing” his reputation.

Fishkin lists the adjectives Twain uses to describe Helen Kelller’s writing – “simple, direct, unadorned, unaffected, unpretensious… moving, beautiful and eloquent” – and says in her opinion, they describe Twain’s writing. She can’t wait for Volumes II and III.

News bulletin: there is not a single copy of Autobiography of Mark Twain in any bookstore in Halifax! I just phoned Chapters Bookstore and was informed that I could not even order the book, as another print run was currently being organized by the publisher, University of California Press. I am out of luck for now!

The Way of a Boy – A Memoir of Java

War-time memoirs are numerous and popular. I have a friend who for a long period, read little else, focusing particularly on WW II and the stories of Jewish Holocaust survivors. I recently read The Way of a Boy, A Memoir of Java, by Ernest Hillen, a 1993 memoir which chronicles Hillen’s experiences as a seven-year-old boy, when he and his family were interned by the Japanese, on their island home of Java. Hillen’s father was Dutch, his mother a Canadian. Hillen has one brother too and writes tenderly about him. The family are separated early on: Hillen and his mother are kept together, the father and older son are sent away to an all-male internment camp.

The story covers the war years of 1942-1945. I couldn’t believe how ecstatic I felt when I realized, nearing the end of the book, that not only would the whole family survive, they went onto immigrate to Canada, where Ernest eventually ends up as an editor at Saturday Night magazine. Talk about happy ending!

The writing in this book is lovely. I am convinced I am listening to a young boy relate a story. The reader is 100 per cent in the here and now, not the long-ago.

It is Hillen’s memories of his mother that touched me the most. What an extraordinary woman! Her courage and sanity resonate from the pages. You can’t help but think, Could I do as well? And answer, Not likely.

I highly recommend the book. It is fascinating and as Mordecai Richler said on the front of the dust jacket, “I was absolutely hooked by page three.”

Haven Kimmel; dry humour, fine writing

I am reading Haven Kimmel’s second memoir – a book of personal  essays – called She Got Up Off the Couch. I really enjoy this woman’s writing. In my view, she is quite unique in her ability to write so fluidly and well about happiness and ordinariness of all and every sort. When the writing does darken, you really pay attention. She also has a lovely dry sense of humour.  A friend recommended that I read, if nothing else in this book, the essay Haven wrote for her brother. It is a wondrous bit of love committed to paper – it is so tender and vibrant, it nearly shimmers above the paper. Great stuff.  Not surprisingly, I am reading the whole book. http://www.purityofheart.org/