A bit of memoir mania

I’ve never investigated if publishers push autobiographies and memoirs to a particular time of year. All I know is they’ve dominated my reading lately.

Four of the last five books I’ve read (and five of the last eight) are autobiographies/memoirs. (Who decides when a work crosses the line between autobiography and memoir?) All four were released between Sept. 18 and Oct. 8. Since they’ve been consuming most of my reading time, I thought I’d throw in my two cents on each, listed in the order I read them. The bottom line is they made for some enjoyable reading but I can’t say any of them really grabbed me.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir, Salman Rushdie — Rushdie provides an at-times inspiring recollection of his life since Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for his death because The Satanic Verses was “blasphemous.” He takes us into the difficulties he faced living as Joseph Anton, his nom de plume for security and illustrates the ramifications of and his struggles against the seemingly increasing tendency for such claims to trample free speech. Too often, though, the book feels like a recap of his social diary (with plenty of name-checking), making it longer and more of a struggle than it should be.

Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young — As an artist, Young has never hesitated to explore musical styles, sometimes seemingly jumping quickly from one idiom to another. His memoir might jump around as much, if not more. Although providing some insight into his life, music and family, his book tends toward a stream of consciousness. That alone isn’t bad and Young’s prose is highly readable. Yet what seems to interrupt the stream is occasional promotion of Pono, his high-resolution digital-to-analog conversion technology intended to present music as it sounds during studio recording sessions.

Life After Death, Damien Echols — If you don’t recognize the name, Echols is one of the West Memphis Three, three teenagers convicted in 1994 of the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Ark.. Echols’ trial portrayed the murders as part of a fascination with or actual Satanic ritual. Echols was sentenced to death but, thanks in part to a series of HBO documentaries, a plea agreement was reached last year that freed the three from prison. Although much of the book centers on prison life, it is also a firsthand account of what can only be described as a “white trash” childhood. While Echols spends little time on the trial itself, it is clearly the most introspective work of the four.

Who I Am: A Memoir, Pete Townshend — One of the things we learn from Townshend’s memoir (which is, to me, really an autobiography) is that his songwriting process isn’t a simple one. He blocks out entire backdrops to create a setting into which the music will fit. Tommy and Quadrophenia are just the most realized executions of that style. Unfortunately, Townshend provides too much backdrop and detail in the book while not being as elaborate when it comes to matters like his belief that he was sexually abused as a child or his relationships with other members of The Who. All in all, though, it is a keen look into his music and a unique time in rock history.

There is no such thing as spell-check for life.

Neil Young, Waging Heavy Peace

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