Category Archives: Memoir/Biography

John by Cynthia Lennon

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Hodder and Stoughton, Copyright 2005, 393 pages.

I’m a fan of Beatles songs, but not really knowledgeable about their personal life. So it’s not surprising that I did not know about Cynthia Lennon, John Lennon’s first wife.

This book is not really a biographical attempt on John Lennon’s life (as the cover and title might suggest). Rather, it is more of a memoir of Cynthia’s life with the famous Beatle.

Cynthia Lennon is quick to admit that the public has long viewed her as “that girl who got pregnant so John Lennon would marry her.” Yet, as she has revealed in this book, that is far from the truth. She has long kept her silence, enduring having to deny that she was Lennon’s wife at the height of Beatlemania (upon the instruction of their road manager), and having to deal with a painful divorce. And so, she says,

” The time has come when I feel ready to tell the truth about John and me, our years together and the years since his death. There is so much that I have never said, so many incidents I have never spoken of and so many feelings I have never expressed–great love on the one hand; pain, torment and humiliation on the other. Only I know what happened between us, why we stayed together, why we parted and the price I paid for having been John’s wife.”

Those looking for an objective and thorough life story of John Lennon will be disappointed. This book was written with a mission: for Cynthia Lennon to air her side of things.

Cynthia Lennon’s writing style is very personal, and it is evident that she loved (and still loves) and cared very deeply for John Lennon. From her narration, one can feel the pain of a woman whose love for a man is almost on the brink of martyrdom. Though her personality is very simple, steady, and un-eccentric (in her own words, she admits she lacks confidence , and she prefers, and endured to be the wallflower while John was in the limelight), it radiates through her writing. It seldom happens to me, as I am aware these kinds of memoir/biographies could be one sided, but I found myself sympathizing with her.

The hurt, pain and confusion that she felt when John started drifting away from her and their son Julian is very raw.

I finished reading this thick book overnight–very engrossing, and filled with tidbits such as how the Beatles’ song, “She Loves You” could be inspired by John’s very first chirstmas card to her, on which he wrote, ” I love you–yes, yes, yes”, and that “Hey, Jude” was written by Paul Mc Cartney for young Julian Lennon (Cynthia and John’s son), when his father left him and his mother for Yoko Ono (it was originally titled, “Hey, Jules” but for better musical compatibility decided “Jude” would be better). And a whole lot more Beatle trivia that are interesting to know.

As the wife scorned, it is obvious that Cynthia Lennon has written Yoko Ono out to be cold, strange, manipulative and cruel. Though there may be some truth to it, I would love to read Ms. Ono’s take on things for a better rounded view.

The book left me feeling quite sad, but at the same time glad to see an honest and refreshing view on her overall life with John Lennon:

“I never stopped loving John, but the cost of that love had been enormous. Someone asked me recently whether, if I’d known in the beginning what lay ahead, I would have gone through with it. I had to say no. Of course I could never regret having my wonderful son. But the truth is that if i’d known as a teenager what falling for John Lennon would lead to, I would have turned right round then and walked away.”

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John and Cynthia Lennon. Happier times.

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Cynthia Lennon with son Julian.

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The Toyboy Diaries: A Memoir by Wendy Salisbury

0732286905.jpgHarper Collins Publishers. 293 pages.

“I like older men but I couldn’t eat a whole one. A younger man? That’s another story.”

So claims Wendy, an over 60 year old woman with a vigor for younger (much much younger) men.

This whole..er…sex memoir (?) is like a rated-R blog that panned out in book form. I honestly can’t say very much about it. Other than its  like watching/reading a marathon run of SATC+DESPERATE GRANDMA.

Ok for one, I do admire her brazen personality, she who doesn’t care what others may think. The last words of this book were, “Fuck you very much!” (quoting Eric Idle). But at times it seems very much like harassing and exploiting younger men.

But as she explains, its just nature’s way of redressing the balance. Throughout history, it’s always been an older man + much younger woman pairing. But with more empowered women nowadays, many of them take the lead and get in control.

If you are tempted to tell her ‘Shag someone from your generation!”, here’s her reply:

“Although they’re my generation, I feel totally disconnected from them. They’ve let themselves go which is really unappealing. I know loads of attractive, sexy, vibrant older women but the men…eeuw! They think they can pull you because they’ve got money and a pulse and that any single woman is desperate for a man at any cost. Personally, I’d rather eat pizza with (younger men) than caviar with any of them.”

the very happy. author.

Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit by Sean Hepburn Ferrer

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 Simon  & Schuster; Hardbound. 230 pages.

Has anyone of you read Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim? My Lord, I have given up on the fifth chapter. It’s like listening (or reading in this case) to a drunk man’s non-sequential blabbering!

I already have a general concept on what its about — very simple plot actually. Yet the manner of storytelling has gone abit haywire in my opinion. There was even a foreword (more like defensive prologue) from the author saying that some reviewers have criticized that the book has gone too far. He admitted that he started writing it as a short-story for a newspaper but got ‘carried away’.

Anyhow, I’m going to tune off from reading classics for a while. I’ll take a backseat and enjoy light reading for now. And I started it with reading Sean Hepburn Ferrer’s Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit: A Son Remembers.

Sean H. Ferrer is Audrey Hepburn’s son from her first husband, Mel Ferrer. If you are planning to read any book or biography about/of Audrey Hepburn, let this be the only one you get your hands on. So many paperback biographies of the actress have come about but none of them are authorized. This book is sort of a memoir that is so intimate and personal you can feel Sean Ferrer’s emotions and feelings rise above the (lack of) literary style or writing.It has over 300 photos from the Hepburn Family Estate collection–some of which have never been published before.

I have yet to come across an actress (present Hollywood) who has the grace and charm of Audrey Hepburn. She may be known for the gamine face but what is most remarkable about her is humility and compassion. Her early years were spent in war and famine and this made her very grateful to every opportunity that graced her life. She may not have belonged to any formal religion but her compassion and work with the UNICEF spent during the last years of her life had truly made a difference. She died from intestinal cancer–which was brought about by taking an extremely strong antibiotic in Somalia. And that is just Audrey the humanitarian. There’s still the Audrey who’s the fashion icon, the dancer, the actress, the artist, mother, daughter, companion, and friend–all of which are perfectly illustrated in the book.

A perfect article on describing/appreciating Ms. Hepburn was written by Cecil Beaton, photographer and visual consultant for the issue of Vogue November 1, 1954:

‘It is always a dramatic moment when the Phoenix rises anew from its ashes. For if “queens have died young and fair”, they are also reborn, appearing in new guises which often create their own terms of appreciation. Even while the pessimists were predicting that no new feminine ideal could emerge from the aftermath of war, an authentic existential Galatea was being forged in the person of Miss Audrey Hepburn. no one can doubt that Audrey Hepburn’s appearance succeeds because it embodies the spirit of today. She had, if you like, her prototypes in France–Damia, Edith Pilaf, or Juliet Greco. But it took the rubble of Belgium, a British accent, and an American success to launch a striking personality that best exemplifies our new Zeitgeist. Nobody ever looked like her before World War II; it is doubtful if anybody ever did, unless it be those wild children of the French Revolution who stride in the foreground of romantic canvases. Yet we recognize the rightness of this appearance in relation to our historical needs. And the proof is that thousands of imitations have appeared. The woods are full of emaciated young ladies with rat-nibbled hair and moon-pale faces. What does the paragon really look like? Audrey Hepburn has enormous heron’s eyes and dark eyebrows slanted towards the Far East. Her facial features show character rather than prettiness; the bridge of her nose seems almost too narrow to carry its length, which flares into a globular tip with nostrils startlingly like a duck’s bill. Her mouth is wide, with a cleft under the lower lip too deep for classical beauty, and the delicate chin appears even smaller by contrast with the exaggerated width of her jaw bones. Seen at the full, the outline of her face is perhaps too square; yet she intuitively tilts her head with a restless and perky asymmetry. She is like a portrait in Modigliani where the various distortions are not only interesting in themselves but make a completely satisfying composite. Beneath this childlike head is a long, incredibly slender and straight neck. A rod-like back continues the vertical line of the nape, and she would appear exaggeratedly tall were it not for her natural grace. Audrey Hepburn’s stance is a combination of an ultra fashion plate and a ballet dancer. Indeed, she owes a large debt to the ballet for her bearing and abandon in movement, which yet suggest a personal quality, an angular kinship with cranes and storks. She can assume acrobatic poses, always maintaining an elegance in her incredibly lithe torso, long, flat waist, tapering fingers and endless legs. With arms akimbo or behind her back, she habitually plants her feet wide apart-one heel dug deep with the toe pointing skywards. And it is more natural for her to squat cross-legged on the floor than to sit in a chair. ‘

I come close to crying every time I think of that scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, playing Holly Golightly, she peacefully strums her small guitar and though her voice is not that of a songbird, she very earnestly sings “Moon River”.

Beautiful.

 

 

 

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Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

orange.jpgVintage;1998, 171 pages

The first book of Jeanette Winterson, this is a semi-autobiographical novel about her growing up years in a small town in London. Adopted and raised by an extremely puritanical mother obsessed about cleansing sins living a ‘pure’ life (“…[my mother] had a mysterious attitude towards the begetting of children; it wasn’t that she couldn’t do it, more that she didn’t want to do it. She was very bitter about the Virgin Mary getting there first…”)

Expressing her environment through school works (art and writing), Winterson stood out even at an early age, among her peers, always being singled out by school teachers, in fear of poisoning the minds of other children.

She tried to abide by her church’s rules, until she reaches her teens and she falls in love with another woman. Following this is a series of prosecution and abomination from her mother and the church. With pastors coming over in an attempt to ‘exorcise’ her.

She moves out of the house and works for a funeral parlor. In the end, “reconciles” with her mother. Whats amazing about this book are Winterson’s views, beautiful writing and how she takes the blows of life. She tries to see herself in other historical figures, and uses that as a method to move on with life. Not like most autobiographical books on growing up / adolescent years, Winterson is not confused. She does not feel mixed up about her sexuality, knowing well what she wants, “..I would cross seas and suffer sunstroke and give away all I have, but not for a man. Because they want to be the destroyer and never be destroyed. That is why they are unfit for romantic love.”

Everytime she finds herself down, her mother always gives her an orange, and at one time, the fruit has become an icon of her ‘evil side’.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit gives a good insight to survival mechanisms (rejection, loss, etc) and undeniably, her writing will draw you in.

Asked if this is an autobiography, Winterson states, not at all and yes of course. Hence, she beautifully wrote in the book that,

“People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history, which is fact. They do this so that they know what to believe and what not to believe. Very often history is a means of denying the past. Denying the past is to refuse to recognise its integrity.To fit it, force it, function it, to suck out the spirit until it looks the way you think it should. We are all historians in our own way. People have never had a problem disposing of the past when it gets too difficult. Flesh will burn, photos will burn, and memory, what is that? If we can’t dispose of it, we can alter it.”

She does not wallow in self pity or depression, but also humble enough to say that “Cats can count on fire brigade, and Rapunzel was lucky with her hair. Everyone thinks their own situation is most tragic. I am no exception.”

Tales From a Broad: An Unreliable Memoir by Fran Lebowitz

fran.jpgBantam (2004)

At some point in our lives, we meet her. She talks loud enough for you to wince everytime she speaks, and she yaks at a rate of 600 words per minute. Yes, she loves to talk–about me, me, me (herself), and complain about everything. She has a temper that makes a matador’s bull demure, and most of all, she is your friend.

This whole book is like an unedited one-sided conversation with a loud friend who doesnt know how to use the comma or period. She also thinks that the world revolves only around her.

So this American woman, Fran Lebowitz, a famous (or so she claims) literary agent in New York, whines to her husband (a music copyright lawyer) about being burnt out. So the dutiful husband takes her and their 2 kids along to Singapore, when he gets sent there by his boss for a long business trip.

Lebowitz now focuses her radar on the people of Singapore, locals and fellow expat wives alike. This lady bitches just about everything, its irritating. She is right in a lot of ways though–like very candidly advises “don’t forget the ‘LAH!'” when communicating with Singaporeans, and how these people are so square and move through their lives like a robot under command. Example: she went down to her condominium’s tennis court, and was greeted by a “No reservations, cannot play ,lah” So she offered to make a reservation now, on the spot. “Madam, cannot, lah” Losing her temper, she asks how to make a reservation then, and the receptionist tells her, through a phone call. So Lebowitz flips out her mobile phone on the spot, calls the guy who is in front of her, makes the reservation, and gets the court.

Then her husband announces that the boss decided to station him in Singapore for three more years, hence Lebowitz grudgingly becomes an expat’s wife. Her adventure ranges from looking for a Filipino maid, and the headaches that go with it, and living the life of a frat student–partying with other expats almost everyday. Reading the book is like going through the thoughts of a 13 year old school girl who has yet to overcome the perils of adolescence. (Mood swings and pure grade A bitchiness)

No nationality is spared from her sonar, imitating her Canadian friend, “Will you give me that baig please?”, checking out her Swede friend’s grand breasts and butt, and introducing an Irish friend “She has 3 daughters whose names are Caoughin, Byrehrn, and Siebheidn, but of course, they are pronounced as Lisa, Kim, and Ann, respectively” Ok, the last one I found funny, but there’s more criticisms of her surroundings (both places and people) than storyline. The only thing that is appreciated is the food.
And she’s in Singapore, for crying out loud. I can’t imagine how many verses of whinings she will have if she goes to the neighboring countries. She did go to Malaysia, and her accounts are predictably like a high school composition. (“I can’t believe we’re eating this icky food and feeding it to my children”)

The story ends (thankfully!) with her joining a triathlon, and placing fourth. At last, something productive from her runnung/excercise addiction. The husband also announces that the boss is cutting their 3 year placement short, and to her surprise, she is reluctant to leave Singapore afterall.

I don’t believe that all expats are fat pampered pumpkins, but this ‘memoir’ is a bratty and ungrateful diary that just about fortifies the generalization that expats are indeed, spoiled.

One shouldn’t take this book seriously, and its not hard to do that with a cover And a title as such. The problem is, even if you do take it lightly, it will still weave its way into your nerves.

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

Anchor (September 22, 2005), 448 pages

Another ‘accidental’ book. I was having some documents photocopied at the bookstore, and, not surprisingly, just 4 pages took an hour to photocopy. While waiting I found this on sale, and well, not that I rely on Oprah’s Book Club, but it being a non-fiction memoir plus the reasonable price made me get it.
I struggled to read this book not because it was of deep literary content. Hell no. If its possible that reading a book can give you a beating, I would say that true to this one. The first half of the book is painfully, excruciatingly detailed and dragging. James Frey is 23 years old, addicted to drugs and alcohol. Story opens when he is brought to rehab and ends when he gets out of it, only to serve a 3 month stay at the county house (jail).
Plot has absolutely no say in this book. Character development is what makes up the entirety of it. At the start, James is realistically cynical about the rehab program, and like a wounded animal (physically and literally), he shuns away and bites at anyone who crosses him. Although he changes predicably at the end, its admirable how he adheres to his own principles still, and doesnt follow the so-called ’12 Step Program’ of the center. He still manages to cure himself of his alcoholism in his own way. James is crass and “fuck” and “asshole” pop up every 5 words. It doesnt change until the last page but it can be seen that in the latter part of the story, the words are used in a wizened sort of  way.
He develops a special fraternal bond with the other men in the center. His best friend being a mafia boss, Leonard (to which this book has a sequel, “My Friend, Leonard). His friendship with him is more of a fahter-son relationship and they look out for each other’s asses.
James’ struggle to be clean (of his addictions) and be human at the same time (fell in love with a fellow AA)  is as real as can be. Frey’s narration of feelings are as detailed as can be. I was brought back in time when i was 12 and I had bad teeth and had to undergo a number of frustrating fillings. But this guy had to undergo fillings and root canals without any anesthesia. And his unusual narration–raw and long sentences, can both be refreshing and leaving you gasping for a comma or a period.

“I stay still as someone’s hand pulls my bottom lip out abd stuffs the space between my lip and gum with cotton. I can feel the stitches stretch and blood start to seep. The same procedure is done with my upper lip and my cheeks and it feels as if my mouth is full of fibrous dirt and almost instantly, everything is dry. A spray of water moistens it, but not enoough. It is dry and it will stay dry no matter how many sprays I get.
I close my eyes and I try to settle in and make myself comfortable. There are wads of cotton in my mouth and there is throbbing agony from the earlier drilling. The drill is back on and its working through the fragment of my left tooth. It is moving  through a thinner, more fragile section of bone, so it workds quickly. It shoots the grit, makes the hole, penetrates. At the point of penetration, a current shoots through my body that is not pain, not even close to pain, but something infinitely greater.
Everything goes white and I cannot breathe. I clench my eyes and I bite down on my existing teeth and I think my jaw might be breaking and I squeeze my hands and I dig my fingers through the hard rubber surface of the tennis balls and my fingernails break and my fingernails start to bleed and I curl my toes and they fucking hurt and I flex my muscles in my legs and they fucking hurt and my torso tightens and my stomach muscles feel as if theyre going to collapse and my ribs feel as if theyre caving in on themselves and it fucking hurts and my balls are shrinking and the shrinking fucking hurts and my balls are shrinking and the shrinking fucking hurts and my dick is hard because my blood hurts and my blood wants to escape and is seeking exit through my dick and my dick fucking hurts and my arms are straining against the thick blue nylon straps and the thick blue nylon straps are cutting my flesh and it fucking hurts and my face is on fire…”

Frey has been admired for his lack of self pity, and unlike most ‘trashed up’ people who credit bad childhood and fucked up families for their addiction, he takes full responsibility of his being messed up. His parents are well off, in love with each other, gives him too much money and attention.
Frey also refuses to accept the principles and steps of the center, which is veered towards Catholicsm, as he has had a very bad experience with a homosexual priest.
He defines religion in a simple, logical manner that makes atheism understood:

“I think God is something that people use to avoid reality. I think faith allows people to reject what is right in front of their eyes. which is that, this thing, this life, this existence, this consciousness, or whatever word  you want to use for it, is all we have, and all we’ll ever have. I think people have faith because they want and need to believe in something, whatever that something is, because life can be hard and depressing if you don’t. ”

To sum it up, my feelings towards this book is sort of like a hate-like thing. I hated it because it was full of negativity (atmosphere, words, theme) and I cannot relate to the addictions, and it was just too dragging. I began to like it when it started picking up, when his parents came over and the rehab nurse explained why seemingly perfect parents still do damage to a child. I couldnt wait to finish the book because I was just too exhausted, needless to say, I was definitely Not addicted to it.