Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Life Itself: A Memoir" by Roger Ebert

This is one of those books that I somehow managed to download in different formats, and the mĂ©lange of ways in which to read or listen to the it just kind of allowed me to seamlessly switch between them and work my way through. The bulk was probably listened to as an unabridged download from Audible, narrated by Edward Herrmann, a.k.a. The Voice of the History Channel. I admit that I was kind of impressed, given the difficult task that he had. As I once wrote here about why I would sometimes opt for an abridged version of a book instead of unabridged:
When I'm listening to a book written by a well known person, but read by someone else, I have this strange disconnect going on in my head. I work to replace the voice that I'm hearing with the voice that I imagine should be there instead.
Given that Roger Ebert is no longer able to speak for himself but that anyone who grew up, as I did, watching him on TV and knowing his voice so well can still "hear" him as they read his words, I wasn't sure how it would feel listening to someone else. I'm sure that, had his cancer and the surgeries to remove it and repair the damage not robbed him of speech, Ebert would have read this himself. On the other hand, if those events had not happened, Ebert never would have stopped doing his TV show, never would have started blogging, never would have started Twittering, and probably never would have taken the time to write this book, many chapters of which started as posts on his blog. It would always have remained something in his mind to do in the future, perhaps after he retired, as a summing up. But as this book made clear, he never would have retired—he was, is, and always shall be a newspaperman.

So Edward Herrmann read it instead, and did an admirable job. He didn't do an imitation of Ebert, if such a thing was really possible (although some impressionistic imitations of Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne make appearances), but he did a respectful interpretation of the cadences of Ebert's writing.  It never felt as though the narrator was fighting with the writer's words.

As for the words themselves, they're good, if not great. And it's a memoir, not an autobiography. I don't know when a distinction started to be made between the two, but I guess a memoir is just that, a collection of memories. Ebert didn't try to collect them to tell a coherent narrative about his life, although they are arranged in a roughly chronological way, but each chapter seems to have a theme of recollection—his mother, his father, the University of Illinois, drinking at O'Rourke's, Gene Siskel, Russ Meyer, Steak 'n Shake, trips to London, et cetera. Those would all obviously overlap in time with one another, which means that the memoir is probably the best way for someone like Ebert to write his story. A politician or a statesman has a chronology, one event follows another in a cause-and-effect relationship. Most of us don't live like that. We think we do, but our lives tend to be much more fragmented. If any patterns exist, they're to be found in concurrent themes, many of which aren't readily apparent until we look back. As Steve Jobs said in his Stanford commencement address: "[Y]ou can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Wheels" by Arthur Hailey

OK, it's a 40-year-old book. One that even hardcore Arthur Hailey fans, if such a thing exists, have forgotten that he wrote. But it isn't very good.

If you'd asked me to rate it when I was about halfway through, I'd have said it was an 8 on a scale of 1–10. Flat, two-dimensional characters and so-so dialogue, but it seemed to make a sincere stab at capturing the zeitgeist of the American auto industry in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Cheesy fun, but a page turner. 

Then something went wrong. I can't say exactly when, but it definitely lost its way. Characters that seemed to be natural foils to the automotive titans—like a thinly veiled Ralph Nader doppelgänger named EmersonVale—were introduced on the first page, and then never referred to again after the third chapter. Scenarios rife with drama—the highly anticipated new car has a potentially fatal engineering flaw that can only be fixed by either redesigning the whole thing or by adding a crucial part that adds significantly to the cost of manufacturing each vehicle—were just kind of solved there and then, with no ongoing suspense. (They added the part.)

When you consider the complete overhaul that the American car industry underwent in the 1970s, anyone with an ounce of perspicacity would have seen it coming. Except Hailey. He seemed to see nothing but great things coming for Detroit in the 70s. ("White flight"? What's that?)

Out of 10? 5. And that's probably generous.

Is "Hotel" any better?

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson

If Steve Jobs's story had been an Ayn Rand novel, I would mock it as insanely unrealistic. But it really happened.

This would have been a fascinating book even if Steve Jobs were still alive. It might have been extraordinary to have such a warts-and-all biography of a sitting CEO, rather than a hagiographic in house PR piece or a bit of autobiographical self-justification. But the truth is that Jobs would never have cooperated if he weren't faced with, and scared of, his own mortality.

In the book, near the end, Job tells Isaacson that he cooperated because he wanted his kids to know him. He was always so busy and so engaged with Apple and Pixar and all of his other projects that he wasn't the father that he wished he could have been, and he wanted them to know why he wasn't always there. But I suspect that he sought someone to help explain him to himself. He was always so focused on the right now and the near- and long-term future that he rarely took time for introspection and rumination about the past. If he gave someone permission to poke in all the dark corners of his life and shed light on whatever he found there, might he glean some explanation. Not that there was ever any shortage of people who were willing to try and explain Steve Jobs.

The book is not without its faults, though. Early chapters focus a lot of Jobs's "abandonment" and his search for a father figure, which ring hollow when you consider that he was only a few days old when he was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs. His parents were always open and honest about his adoption. Once, when he was about 8, a neighbor girl teased him and said that he was adopted because no one wanted him. His father sat him down and told him that they chose him because they did want him. He was just that special. By all accounts in the book, and by Jobs's own recollections, Paul Jobs was a loving and attentive father. Surely there were generational clashes, as there were between millions of fathers and sons in the 1960s and 70s, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Again, near the end of the book, after Jobs had resigned as CEO of Apple and was homebound and weak, he shared some photographs with Isaacson for inclusion in the book, including one of his father and himself as a toddler. Isaacson says, "He would have been proud of you," to which Jobs replies, "He was proud of me." This is not a man who doubted the love of his father. While he may have wondered about his biological father, he certainly never lacked for a father figure.