I’ve been accidentally reading quite a bit of non-fiction in the past couple of months, so here are some thoughts on four newish real-life releases (and one not-so-new at all).
Jen Lancaster’s self-effacing wit and sardonic outlook on life might not be for everyone – but she’s pretty much my perfect kind of narrator. Lancaster’s written seven memoirs (with an eighth on the way), so start with Bitter Is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry a Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office before embarking on your reading binge. Either you’ll thank me for your new literary friend or hope I never give you a recommendation again.
Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris
How did I choose my own autobiography? Linearly – which sort of begs the question, why would I even recommend this book? Well, it was clever and different and from a celebrity about whose life I think actually warrants writing. If you’re more adventurous – or just less anal about missing stuff by not reading pages in the order in which they appear – you might enjoy the hands-on-ness of this book – and experience it in the way in which Neil Patrick Harris intended. Because, like I said before – Harris has something going for him; what other biography is in the second person and asks you, the reader, to complete the story???
Not that Kind of Girl is a love-it or hate-it kind of book. Some readers, like me, loved the frankness with which Lena Dunham exposed her life and each essay’s wry, self-effacing tone. Others found the level of exposure unnecessary and the language sardonic and borderline pretentious. But that’s the thing about really interesting books – they stick in your brain long after you’ve finished reading them, and you either relish in the memory or find the reminder a nuisance. Dunham’s memoir is probably not for everyone, and I accept that – but it is suited for far more people than what naysayers tag as her target demographic, namely WASP-y twenty-something females who majored in the humanities at an expensive (and probably) private liberal arts school and then graduated and moved back in with their parents so that they could “find themselves” before getting a “real job.” Dunham may hold a level of success that 99% of her readers will never attain, but she still earned that success. And, as she asserts in her introduction, it takes “guts to believe that your story is one that deserves to be told.” She has those guts; why not celebrate her for it?
Oh, this book – it’s fascinating and heartbreaking and will leave you grasping at straws. Before you even start reading, author Jeff Hobbs makes it know that Robert Peace attended Yale University only to move back home and embrace the Newark drug trade before being shot to death at age thirty. And yet you still look for clues as to how this could happen and why it couldn’t end in a different way. Throughout the whole book you’re questioning – the choices Peace makes and the ones over which he has no control; the point at which Peace’s life unravels, never to be turned around; when he’ll make that “fateful” decision that leads to his death; who kills him, and when, and where. Even when Hobbs gives you answers to those questions, you still feel unsatisfied – because understanding implies that everything will be okay – and it’s not. (IT’S TOTALLY NOT.) This story sticks with you, and the first question Hobbs poses keeps nagging at your brain: what does the death of one man mean?
A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre
This book was just interesting enough to keep me reading, but it ultimately fell flat in terms of narrative structure and pace. You would think that a real-life account of a member of the Cambridge Five would be more riveting, but it wasn’t. Was it because Ben Macintyre’s biography was geared to those in the know about this “Great Betrayal” or because, for lay readers like me, Kim Philby’s Communist ties were simply out of touch in a world lacking both the Berlin Wall and a Soviet Union? There are bigger baddies than Communism now, and perhaps Philby is just one of those old relics whose story is best experienced by people who understand the gravity of the Red Scare and blacklists, or for those who view Communism as Other – because, unfortunately, I fall into neither category.