Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Life stories

Fiction is my preferred reading most of the time. After that, some history, some scientific (laid out understandably for a lay mind like mine) books, some social/cultural works. This leaves what is arguably the most popular genre in this country, memoir. I do on occasion read biography or autobiography. Because I started reading an autobiography (or memoir--the line blurs) this morning, I also started thinking about other lives I've read. Of course there's no way to remember them all, especially since many were no doubt library books so a look at my shelves can't remind me of them. But just for fun, well it's fun for me anyhow, here's a look at some of the more memorable life stories I've read.

Today's his birthday so I've got to be honest and admit I've never read a biography of Lenin. I have, however, read about some other radical or revolutionary lives, including that of his closest comrade: The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed, and The Prophet in Exile, the great three-volume biography of Leon Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher, and My Life by Trotsky himself. Then there's Karl Marx and Frederick Engels by David Riazanov. The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman by Alexandra Kollontai. The Rebel Girl by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. W.E.B. Du Bois 1868-1919: Biography of a Race by David Levering Lewis. John Brown by W.E.B. Du Bois, and John Brown, Abolitionist by David Reynolds. Rosa Luxemburg, Her Life and Work by Paul Frolich. Comrade Chiang Ching by Roxane Witke. My Life by Fidel Castro. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. J. Robert Oppenheimer was no revolutionary, although for a period during the 1930s he may have been a bit of a fellow traveler, but because of how he was pretty much destroyed during the 1950s red scare despite his loathsome service to U.S. imperialism in the creation of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer is a fascinating figure and American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin is a fascinating book.

For some reason I don't seem to read many biographies of or memoirs by writers. I should remedy that. These are waiting on our bookshelves: Virginia Woolf, an Inner Life by Julia Briggs. Federico Garcia Lorca: A Life by Ian Gibson. Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One that I did read over 20 years ago, and that I liked a lot, is Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson by Judy Oppenheimer.

Here comes my dirty little secret.

The life stories I do read, probably more than any others, are those of, oh god, celebrities. OK, now you know the worst. In my defense, I am picky. I only read about those actors, singers, musicians whose work I admire. And I only read books whose literary quality is at least halfway decent. But read them I do. In fact, I find them a fun break from the mostly much more serious reading in which I mostly engage. Here are some highlights of my famous-lives reading list as far as I can recall. Between Each Line of Pain and Glory by Gladys Knight. Natalie Wood by Gavin Lambert. Judy Garland: the Secret Life of an American Legend by David Shipman. Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme by Mary Wilson. Rock Hudson: His Story by Rock Hudson and Sara Davidson. Ava Gardner: "Love Is Nothing" by Lee Server. I Feel Good by James Brown. Chronicles, Volume 1 by Bob Dylan (which by the way I hated, in fact I no longer admire him after reading it).

The book I started this morning is The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood and Paris by Betsy Blair. Blair, who just died on March 13, about five years after her memoir was published, was an Oscar-nominated actor and committed leftist who was blacklisted during the McCarthy period and eventually left this country for good to live in Europe. She was also, for about 20 years during the height of his career and hers, married to Gene Kelly--who, it turns out, introduced her to Marxism. A friend loaned me the book and I dug right into it on the way to work this morning.