Elizabeth – J. Randy Taraborrelli (2006) – A Real Life Review

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This is the fifth showbiz biography I have read by J. Randy Taraborrelli. Around this time last year I was enjoying his 2015 publication “Becoming Beyonce” knowing that I had this earlier work on my shelves.

Taraborrelli’s study of the life and work of Elizabeth Taylor was published five years before her death at the age of 79 in 2011. Reading this confirmed something I’d always felt about her- it was amazing that she lasted as long as she did. There were so many health scares throughout her life, so many times it was reported that she was teetering on the edge, the first time fifty years before her demise when in London she collapsed from pneumonia and according to the author “thousands gathered in the streets in front of the hospital to hold vigil for her.” She bounced back (until the next major health crisis), a true survivor.

I realised when I started this book that I didn’t know a huge amount about Elizabeth Taylor, I just thought I did because of the amount of publicity she stirred up in her lifetime. Born in England (which was why in 2000 she could be made a Dame) I never knew her American heritage, that both of her parents were American and who returned home with their young daughter as war was breaking out. I have seen a number of her films over the years. I of course knew about her relationship with Richard Burton (recently re-watching the involving “Burton & Taylor” TV dramatization with Helena Bonham-Carter and Dominic West piqued my interest enough to pick up this book). I also knew about her AIDS work, her jewellery, her perfumes all of which gave her greater celebrity at an age when most actresses would be finding leading roles harder to come by, but to me she was always one of those larger-than-life people who do not seem to function in the real world. I needed Taraborrelli’s work to give me a grounding of her reality, what it really meant to be Elizabeth Taylor.

I never fully appreciated how devoted her fans were towards her, especially in America. In a lengthy film career her movies nearly always made money, no matter how patchy they were (even if it took years to turn a profit like the expensive “Cleopatra”). She was forgiven for breaking up the marriage of sweetheart showbiz couple Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher despite this being a huge scandal at the time. Taylor was still reeling from husband Mike Todd’s death in a plane crash turning to Eddie, his best friend, with him too rapidly becoming husband number 4 (and the one she had so little positive to say about in subsequent years).

The relationship with Richard Burton was central to Taylor’s life and career in the public eye. Everyone knew of their passion, their turmoil and manipulations of one another during their two marriages. He was the man Taylor could not let go. The section in the book which focuses on their marriage is perhaps the least absorbing. It was the time before, in-between and after the marriages which makes for a far more fascinating depiction of two people who just couldn’t stay away from each other and for whom the other person was both essential and toxic. Taraborrelli is too awe-struck by his subject to really join in with the tabloid frenzy some of Elizabeth’s actions stirred up, her friendship with Michael Jackson is played down as two kindred spirits with troubled childhoods and husband #8 (I’m counting Burton twice) Larry Fortensky, a younger construction worker she met in rehab which provoked an avalanche of sneering is handled sensitively and Fortensky (who died aged 64 in 2016) certainly does not get the ridicule he got at the time.

In fact, Taylor crammed in so much into her life that it’s hard to keep up and this book could easily have been twice its length. There’s a whole section on references and acknowledgements which goes on for 40 pages where Taraborrelli cites his sources. Elizabeth Taylor certainly generated a phenomenal amount of copy in her lifetime and we will never see anyone quite like this unique woman again.

four-star

“Elizabeth” was published by Sidgwick and Jackson in the UK in 2006.

The Rough Guide To Soul And R&B – Peter Shapiro (2006) – A Real Lives Review

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I’ve read this before back in 2008 when I thought it was okay but this is a book which cranks up to another level in this music streaming era. An alphabetical listing of key figures in Soul and R&B over a span of approximately 50 years with recommended albums and playlists of their best work. Back when this was written it meant downloading tracks onto I-Pods or splashing out on CDs which would have turned out to be prohibitively expensive. Nowadays, it’s risk-free with streaming services. That is why after reading this a second time I now have placed the massive total of 101 albums into my Spotify playlists to see if I agree with the author’s judgements.

I wasn’t really intending to re-read this. First time round it was a library copy but I spotted it pre-lockdown in a charity shop and thought it would be a useful book to have as research (I do use another of Shapiro’s books“Soul: 100 CDs” quite a lot) . I just pulled it off my shelves this week to browse and found myself reading from cover to cover.

I have read Peter Shapiro before and he does come across as quite grumpy for a music fan. There’s loads of opinions here- very few artists seem to come away with unqualified praise, he is often dismissive of their bigger commercial hits, he’s certainly not a huge fan of much of 90’s R&B especially anything resembling “piercing whining” or excessive melisma or histrionics (Boyz II Men get a rough deal here and actually I have no issue with this). He can be sniffy about the type of soul music favoured in the UK and Disco can be love it or hate it (surprisingly as he wrote one of the seminal works in this genre in his study of the Disco Era “Turn The Beat Around” (2005) I actually felt that his individual style was to the detriment of this book. I said of it “He praises and snipes in the same sections. It’s obviously the journalist in him which is leading him to be controversial and overstate matters.”. Here, because his brief is wider and he cannot be expected to like everything from Aaliyah to Zapp it didn’t grate as much and I occasionally laughed out loud at his viewpoint. He is good with adjectives, which certainly gives his work his personal slant. Take Diana Ross, after acknowledging her star power and “unquenchable force” we get “wretched”; “surprisingly acceptable”, “mediocre”, “uptight”’ “disastrous”, “ generic, “rather hideous”, pointless” and “shockingly awful” all for an artist he acknowledges as significant and even can form a recommended playlist for. (True, it is only 8 tracks when he normally gives 10). Slightly more disturbing are textual inconsistencies, an example of this is Stevie Wonder and his 1972 album “Music Of My Mind” which was the first time he was given more control and independence by Motown. In the Wonder entry it is described thus ; “It was no masterpiece, it didn’t have the songs to back up his mercurial wanderings across the boundaries of texture, timbre and taste.”. Underneath the entry it is highlighted as one of his greatest recordings saying “he unleashed a set of songs that demanded attention, incorporating soul and gospel, melody and funk, every track is a smash.” Now we can all change our minds, but on the same page?

I do like the format of these musical Rough Guides but I think that this is the only topic that I would be interested about in reading all the way through. Shapiro also authors “Drum N’Bass” although it does seem that the company has abandoned its music titles in favour of the obviously more lucrative travel guides with none of them (on the back cover Jazz and Hip-Hop are advertised) being readily available. I would certainly pick up other copies if I came across them. I’ve enjoyed this more as a re-read than I did first time round and expect it will be staying quite a bit longer in my collection.

four-star

The Rough Guide To Soul And R&B was published as a Rough Guides paperback (distributed by Penguin) in 2006.

Keeping On Keeping On – Alan Bennett (2016) – A Real Life Review

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Alan Bennett’s autobiographical and diary collections are no strangers to my end of year Top 3’s with his earlier volume of TV plays “Objects Of Affection” (1982) also being one of my favourite books the year I read it (2005).

Perhaps Britain’s best-loved and most recognised living playwright whose work also encompasses the extraordinary screenplay adaptation based on the biography of Joe Orton “Prick Up Your Ears” perhaps in decades to come Bennett will be best remembered for his occasional sizeable publications of a mixture of diaries and other writings which have really established him at the top of best seller lists and are highly critically acclaimed. This is the third such collection following “Writing Home” (1994) – my 3rd best read of 1996 and “Untold Stories” (2005) my 2nd best read of 2006.

I was put off from buying this in hardback because of its size, waited for the paperback and bought it in the first few days after publication, put it on the shelf and forgot about it until I decided last week it was the perfect coming-to-the-end-of-lockdown (hopefully!) reading treat. It fitted the bill and is every much as enjoyable as the preceding volumes.

Diary-wise this encompasses the years 2005-2015 and inevitably reflects the slowing down of a man in his 70’s/80’s (although I’m sure Alan Bennett would be the first to say he was never exactly speedy). Here we get a lovely domestic life in London, regular trips to Yorkshire and the professional demands which continue to push him more to the forefront than he would naturally want to be. There is the filming of “The Lady In The Van” (which, to be honest, I didn’t love) and “The History Boys” (which I thought was a much better film) which is contained in its own separate diary found after the main one. There is also his work on his Benjamin Britten/WH Auden themed play “The Habit Of Art” which I don’t know much about probably because the subject matter does not appeal.

More than the professional it is the domestic side of life which I find most enthralling here. There’s always the feeling, perhaps more than anybody in his field, that we, the readers, know Alan Bennett and are comfortable in his company. I am sure this must infuriate this private man as much as it fascinates him. Of course, the vast majority of us will live our lives having never met him, it is the quality and style of his writing that fools us into thinking otherwise.

The diaries are definitely the star turn here (lots of eating of sandwiches and visits to old churches) but the collection of other writings once again flesh out what we know about him. Whereas his diaries are never going to be as showy or as unputdownable as the diary superstars (the posthumous collections of Noel Coward, Joe Orton and Kenneth Williams immediately springing to mind) they illuminate the man and go a long way to explaining why Alan Bennett is a British national treasure.

four-star

 

Keeping On Keeping On was published by Faber & Faber in 2016. I read the 2017 paperback edition.

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark -Michelle McNamara (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have an uneasy relationship with the true crime genre. I’ve mentioned this before and I think it all boils down to one book which so disturbed me – the account of Muswell Hill killer Dennis Nilsen in Brian Masters’ “Killing For Company” (1985). However, a couple of times in the last week I have held a copy of this in my hands and contemplated buying it and re-reading it. (I lent my copy to someone years ago and it never came back). So far I’ve held back the temptation but the reason for Masters’ book shifting back into my focus is this 2018 true crime publication.

I’ve also been thinking about true crime in relation to author Carol Ann Lee whose five star account of the Bamber killings “Murder At White House Farm” has deservedly ascended the best seller lists since the impressive recent ITV reconstruction of the case. When this book came out nearly five years ago I reviewed it and Carol Ann became an early interviewee in my Author Strikes Back Thread. I asked her for recommendations and I was convinced that reading-wise I would begin a true crime spree but this hasn’t happened. However, the on-paper bizarre mash-up of an arson case and a love letter to the public library system Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book” made it into my current Books Of The Year Top 10 but that’s been about it. I only read “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” because friend Louise whose book opinions I very much value (she put both “Count Of Monte Cristo” and “Sanditon” my way) told me this was her Book Of The Year and I highlighted it in my “Looking Around….” Post.

Michelle McNamara’s obsession (and it was an obsession) was an individual who committed around 50 sexual assaults and at least 10 murders in California in a decade long frenzy (mid 1970’s -mid 80’s). Michelle dubbed him “The Golden State Killer” and he featured heavily in her true crime blog before she began to put this work together. She sadly died aged 46 in 2016 before completing the work.

This, unavoidably, does give the book a haphazard sketchy structure which did mean I kept having to refer back to the list of known victims and crime locations. The sheer number of offences and the lengthy period of time the killer was active also made for at times a stilted and repetitive read and affects the flow but I really can’t just judge this on how I feel it read as a book (I was also very aware of a surprising number of linguistic differences with many terms I was unfamiliar with) but the motives behind the work is what makes this extraordinary.

Michelle McNamara over the years became an expert on the case, came to have access to evidence even investigators did not have and pooled much of this vast amount of material for the first time. The thing I just cannot get out of my head as a British reader in 2020 is how was this man not apprehended at the time? There were a wealth of traits and characteristics that led nowhere. It’s hard I suppose for us looking back to what were largely pre-DNA days to appreciate how much luck was needed to solve cases and luck was certainly not with the many investigators. They could not seem to tap into the extraordinary level of planning that must have foreshadowed many of these crimes and the structure of US state policing at the time means evidence was not shared nor links made. If this was fiction we would deem it unbelievable.

Through her determination to unmask the Golden State Killer it is Michelle McNamara herself who shines through this work and it is this which will see it as an important and perhaps ultimately game-changing addition in the realm of true crime writing.

fourstars

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was published in 2018 in the UK by Faber & Faber.

Blonde – Joyce Carol Oates (2000)

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Prolific American author Joyce Carol Oates writes across many styles and genres and back in 2000 published what can very easily be seen as her contribution to The Great American Novel. “Great” in that it comes in at 939 pages in the paperback edition and with its concerns of a woman conquering and then being destroyed by that most American of institutions the Hollywood film industry it surely fulfils all the criteria for consideration of being up there amongst the ultimate American epic. For this is the fictionalised story of Marilyn Monroe.

But, perhaps word didn’t get round because this remained under the radar for me really until I was casting around for other fictional biographies having enjoyed my current Book of The Year the Truman Capote led “Swan Song” by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. I’ve never read Joyce Carol Oates but know that with a writing career spanning well over 50 years and 58 novels that she is one of America’s most significant living writers. “Blonde” was shortlisted for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction but it was beaten by another “Great American Novel” consideration “The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay” by Michael Chabon which breezed into my end of year Top 3 when I read it in 2006.

On paper I was pretty sure I was going to love “Blonde”. Fiction featuring real life characters is something I do have a predilection for . Hollywood always has an appeal in my non-fiction choices (less so with fiction) and the air of tragic glamour which would inevitably permeate this novel was always going to get my attention. I think I was anticipating a kind of literary Jackie Collins! I was, however, daunted by the length. Anything over 600 pages brings me out in a sweat and I knew it would mean giving over at least a couple of weeks to this one work (it took me 19 days to read but I have been busy and struggling to allocate as much time to reading as I wanted).

First things first, this is fiction. I don’t know enough about the life of Marilyn Monroe to ascertain just how much was from the mind of Joyce Carol Oates but it has certainly whetted my appetite for a biography but it would need to be extremely thorough and well-written to match this and I’m not sure that such a work even exists. Oates has an interesting (if inconsistent) way of distancing us from the central character. Men that we do know that she married such as Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller are just referred to as the Ex-Athlete and The Playwright with her adopting the role of the Blond Actress for the duration of their relationship. However, with a long-lasting and somewhat scandalous menage a trois set up with the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G Robinson names are revealed . Some characters are referred to by a single letter, C is Tony Curtis (who here dislikes Marilyn) W is Billy Wilder and H John Huston who both had the (mis?) fortune of directing Monroe in more than one of her movies. I was a little perturbed by this haphazard naming (or not) but it does give the effect of making the reader a spectator to the action rather than feeling part of it, which seeing the theme is the mirage of Hollywood may very well be appropriate.

One aspect which I certainly appreciated was how much the actress tried to put between herself, Norma Jeane and the studio’s creation. I don’t think this was anything I’d really considered before. Norma Jeane was not Marilyn but fame dictated that Marilyn take over in almost a parasitical way which certainly doomed the host.

Of course, the character of MM is always going to draw in the reader just as she drew in a generation of movie-goers. Oates certainly keeps us on our toes with a range of narrative styles and techniques which considering the length of this novel is no bad idea. At times I did feel frustrated and challenged but I also loved it and applaud it as a major achievement and probably one of the best fictional deconstructions of “celebrity” I have read.

fivestars

Blonde was published in 2000. I read the Fourth Estate paperback edition.

Me – Elton John (2019) – A Real Life Review

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One of my should have read in2019 choices  was this long-awaited autobiography which appeared in many Christmas stockings over the festive period. It also appeared on lots of “best of” year lists with both The Guardian and The Daily Mail heralding it as the celebrity memoir of the decade.

None of this is surprising given Elton John’s stature and celebrity. The focus of many biographies over the years 2019 also saw the well-received “Rocketman” film so this book from Elton’s perspective is very timely. I wickedly cannot resist the observation that the title is short of a few words and that “Me Me Me Me” might have been more fitting!

In the dedication Elton thanks Alexis Petridis, rock music journalist, who has obviously ghost-written the work. I don’t know what the share of the work was between them but Elton must have done enough to be acknowledged as the sole author on the cover and for copyright purposes.

We all know quite a bit about Elton John although the worldwide level of success he has enjoyed makes for staggering reading. I like that he is a chart nerd who knows the positions his records have achieved and lots of statistics about his career. But, also, with Elton it is the things we don’t know that appeals. This, together with his celebrated frankness and fondness for gossip is what made this such a tantalising prospect. I was a bit disappointed that since publication so much of this has been shared within the media and in his TV interview with Graham Norton that it has lost a lot of its power to surprise. I wasn’t quite able to hold with The Telegraph’s opinion that it was “as eye-popping as his wardrobe.”

Where I do agree with The Telegraph’s verdict is how “self-aware” it is and that is pretty amazing for someone who has lived in a mad celebrity world for close to 50 years where you would imagine all sense of reality would be strained. Perhaps much of this sensitive reflection has come about through therapy and treatment for his much reported-on addictions. The great appeal is that Elton knows everyone and has done everything someone in his world can do and luckily he is able to convey much of this to his readers.

The only area of his life he purposely plays down is his inexplicable first marriage to Renate which seems so out of character. Here he respects his ex-wife’s continued determination never to publicly discuss matters to do the same. Other relationships are more thoroughly explored, the “open secret” of his relationship with manager John Reid, at a time when an admission of homosexuality could have damaged his career, with husband David Furnish and their children and perhaps most fascinatingly with his mother who famously hired an Elton John tribute act for her 90th birthday party because she knew the real thing would not turn up. Now, here is a complex, difficult woman who Elton himself could never fathom. Both she and his father were prone to the same explosive temperament as the singer which has made Elton something of a figure of fun in the past as tales of his petulancy became commonplace. Another complex relationship is the one with lyricist Bernie Taupin. I never knew they were as close as they were, at one point, before fame kicked in sharing bunk beds in a bedroom in Elton’s mum’s house. I did know about the long-distance writing partnership this evolved into. This was for me, most memorably lampooned by Matt Lucas and David Walliams in one of their “Rock Profiles” where Matt as Elton turns lyrics Taupin has just faxed over into a song incorporating the “PS: Can you tape “Lovejoy” for me tonight?” That, joking aside, is pretty close as to how this legendary partnership came to function.

I’m no huge Elton John fan, if I was I think I would find this book pretty amazing. For the general music/celebrity bio fan it is a highly memorable, rich, entertaining read and it  livened the early days of the New Year.

fourstars

Me was published in hardback by Macmillan in October 2019

Little Me: My Autobiography – Matt Lucas (2017)- A Real Life Review

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There were elements of the life story of comedy actor Matt Lucas in the 2006 publication “Inside Little Britain” written by Boyd Hilton with input from Lucas and then comedy partner David Walliams. At this point they were probably the top comedy duo around and I really loved this book placing it in the Top 5 of my best books of 2006.

A lot has happened in the 11 years between then and this, particularly for Walliams who has become a phenomenally successful and extremely wealthy children’s author publishing his own autobiography “Camp David” (which I haven’t read) in 2012. Lucas’ work is a less showy affair than either of these two aforementioned books and is an honest, at times raw account in which the author’s voice comes across so clearly it’s like having an audiobook in your head.

Lucas has eschewed the chronological approach to go alphabetically writing sections such as E is for eating, G is for Gay, J is for Jewish which gives him a chance to focus in on certain areas and leave others undeveloped. He has a right to do this, one of the shorter sections K is for Kevin focuses on his ex-civil partner who died 18 months after their split. Lucas has already told us at the outset that he will largely leave this subject alone because of the pain it causes him but because it has had such a significant effect on his life he can’t help but touch on it, especially in T is for Tardis where work on “Dr Who” became overwhelmed with Kevin’s (a huge Dr Who fan) passing. The K is for Kevin section is largely taken up with colour photos of the man who was Lucas’ love of his life and this provides a fitting, touching and thorough tribute.

There is no doubt that this event has influenced Lucas’ life and work since. He has moved to the US to escape memories and rebuild his life in a country where he is less well known. If this sounds depressing it’s not, he handles this appropriately and sensitively but much of the rest is written with his undeniable enthusiasm and vivacity. (There’s even a song with music and lyrics at the mid-way point).

The structure allows us to piece together the events in Lucas’ life and go off with him at tangents. This must be the first autobiography to rate the chocolates in a box of Celebrations in eating order (I’d get round to polishing off those Bountys for you eventually, Matt, but you’d have to do the Galaxy Caramels for me and we’d fight over the Malteser one.) It made for an unpredictable, entertaining read. There’s none of the gloss many autobiographies have which will the reader to like the subject, Lucas is happy to put in things which will no doubt rub us up the wrong way. He has a section I is for Idiot to explain some of his behaviour and often cross-references us back to this section of the text.

“Little Britain” and “Come Fly With Me”, the works most associated with Lucas and Walliams were very much of their time and he admits some elements have not dated that well and he has been accused of racism, trans and homophobia because of some characterisations and the way these were interpreted by viewers and he acknowledges that he would do things differently today. I don’t think he needs to beat himself up over this, the same could be said for his contemporary comedy heroes The League Of Gentlemen and Vic and Bob, who were central to Lucas’ early professional career but at the time we really laughed and we’d also laugh a lot today. In fact, Matt had me if not laughing then smiling throughout from the warmth within this book as well as misting up my eyes on quite a few occasions.

fourstars

Little Me was published by Canongate in 2017. I read the 2018 paperback edition.

America’s Mistress – The Life And Times Of Eartha Kitt – John L. Williams (2013) – A Real Life Review

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I very much enjoyed John L Williams’ thorough examination of the early years of Shirley Bassey in his 2010 publication “Miss Shirley Bassey” when I read it back in 2015. Williams, who has written about and lives in Cardiff seemed well placed to offer his perspective on the Welsh diva’s rise to fame. With “America’s Mistress” he’s kept to the theme of the black female entertainer in the white dominated world of the 1950’s yet here the Brit commenting on the life and background of the American performer gives it a different  viewpoint to the one he had in the previous book. Shirley Bassey was a great supporter of Eartha when she visited the UK and both performers had much in common- a rise from poverty to fame; song stylists with a heightened sense of drama unafraid of using  their sexuality in a straight-laced era and their uniqueness as there was nobody else out there like them which gave them an air of the exotic. This helped them achieve a level of fame denied others of their skin colour.

It’s the American background which gives Eartha more issues with her skin colour. Williams portrays her as the woman wealthy white men fell in love with but felt unable to marry- this explains the “America’s Mistress” of the title. These romances led to a backlash from black audiences who saw her aspirations to move in white high society as betrayal whereas, in fact, Eartha did become active within the Civil Rights movement. Eartha often spoke of this dilemma saying that she was too light skinned to be accepted by African Americans and too dark skinned to avoid prejudice and segregation. She wasn’t especially light-skinned. The issue was probably more to do with the kind of performer she was, a feline 50’s glamour puss who became anachronistic and was sure to find herself at odds with society.

It does seem that Eartha could be difficult, not everyone warmed to her. I would have liked to have read more about that. Was this the case or just another maligned woman who showed she did not need men to handle her career and was criticised for it? Paradoxically, despite this career independence she was always on the search for love from a powerful wealthy man (which in this era would largely mean a white man). The asides she made in her songs about wanting material things from her man were not far from the truth. There was a short-lived marriage which produced daughter Kitt, who from then on became the central focus to Mama Kitt’s life.

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Williams is better on Eartha’s early career. Most of my generation would remember the perfect casting of her as Catwoman in the third series of “Batman” TV show (amazingly only five episodes but which got me feeling so nostalgic that I went and ordered the complete series DVDs off Amazon) yet by this time Williams is hurtling on a bit and this wasn’t given much attention. He takes as his nominal finishing point Eartha leaving the US for Europe in 1970 and that’s a great pity because the Kitt story is far from over and the rest is left pretty much to a hasty epilogue, but actually, it’s the days when the star starts to wane that I find most fascinating.

Eartha was always a real trouper. She was a regular visitor to Britain in the 80’s and I believe my sister saw her perform once in Finland. I saw her completely stop the show when she sang “I’m Still Here” in Steven Sondheim’s “Follies” in the West End. I saw her perform in concert a couple of times and she was terrific. There’s scant mention of her chart career revival which drew her a whole new audience that wasn’t even born when she was at the height of her fame. The high-energy hit “Where Is My Man?” gave her a first UK Top 40 hit for 28 years, there’s no mention at all of the startling collaboration with Bronski Beat on the Divine referencing in-joke of “Cha Cha Heels” a number 32 hit in 1989, nor of her return to a big Hollywood film with Eddie Murphy’s “Boomerang” and that is a shame because these omissions left me feeling dissatisfied. Williams seems to more or less write off the last 20 years of her career which I find surprising for a British writer as she was still a big draw over here who would always make headlines. So not as comprehensive as I would have liked but he does go some way in trying to capture the essence of this unique performer, a woman he describes aptly in his closing words as “the most feline of revolutionaries”.

threestars

 

America’s Mistress was published by Quercus in 2013.

Unicorn – Amrou Al-Kadhi (4th Estate 2019) – A Real Life Review

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Subtitled “The Memoir Of A Muslim Drag Queen” this book will be unlike anything that you’ve read before. It’s an extraordinarily unflinching account of a search for acceptance from an individual hunting for answers at odds with practically all aspects of life and the crushing need to find a place to fit in.

The title refers to a tattoo Amrou Al-Kadhi had inked because “ they are the ultimate outsiders, destined to gallop alone. They share the body of a horse and are similar in form, but are of a different nature, almost able to belong in an equine herd, but utterly conspicuous and irrefutably other.” This fits in with the author’s self- perceptions exactly as well as the unicorn being “also a symbol of pride, of a creative flaunting its difference without shame.” I’d be hard put to think of a more fitting image in any book this year.

I’ve read a lot of coming out tales and accounts of individuals feeling out of sync with society. Amrou Al-Kadhi has battled with issues of sexuality, gender (preferring to be referred to as “they”), family, religion, drugs, mental health issues and OCD and I’ve probably not covered all of them. If this sounds depressing, wrong, the result is an uplifting extraordinary read.

As a young boy in Dubai and then Bahrain Amrou was totally obsessed with his mother and would do literally anything to keep her attention, which provides the first of the book’s many jaw-dropping moments. His behaviour, perceived as feminine, damaged the relationship with his father and an early declaration of his sexuality cemented that sense of rejection as it was so at odds with the family’s view of Islam. A move to the UK saw Amrou obsessively adopting the new Western culture and a determination to succeed in a manner which could only reinforce his sense of isolation.

This desperate striving for academic achievement led to time at Eton (which was equally miserable) and Cambridge University where the formation of a drag night and then a troupe of performers provided both a reason for being as well as bringing all the underlying tensions up to the surface.

This is Amrou’s first book but there is a background in writing and direction in film work, unsurprisingly, as Amrou is a born story-teller who can vividly recreate events that are often painfully honest in every muscle-clenching detail. It’s a journey towards accepting the self and also beginning to acknowledge situations from other’s points of view. At one point this is likened to quantum physics and parallel events which is a little over my head but allows the author to make some sense from the life story. As a writer, there is definite talent and the emotional intelligence with which difficult issues are conveyed shows great potential for future work. It’s touching, very powerful, outrageous, laugh out loud funny and extremely sad. As a read it both shocked and entertained. Whatever Amrou might have felt at the time the life experiences are almost certainly not unique but they have never been aired in this way before. The search for love, especially within the family and the potential catastrophic pitfalls when this is not forthcoming are expertly expressed. The subtitle, appropriate as it is, might suggest something different but this is a thoughtful, learned, literary work.

fourstars

Unicorn was published by 4th Estate on 3rd October 2019 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Donna Summer: The Thrill Goes On – Nik A Ramli (2012) – A Real Life Review

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What is the right thing to do when just as your biography is going to press the subject dies? Do you hold back publication and revise its contents? I think I would probably say yes to this. Do you carry on and publish anyway after all, knowing that not many readers will know when a book actually came out, that’s a possibility. What Nik A Ramli does in his first piece of biographical non-fiction is acknowledge the passing in an author’s note at the start of the book, use the dates of the life (1948-2012) prominently on the cover but does not change the main text one iota. I’m not sure whether that’s appropriate.

That decision leads to a slightly off taste as Ramli focuses on the legendary disco star’s past, present and future in later chapters such as “Still Going Strong: A New Departure” and “Into The Future” when he makes it clear elsewhere that he knows that there isn’t going to be any future.

Now I, like Ramli, who is better known as a Malaysian Interior Designer who specialises in “laid back glamour” am a big Donna Summer fan. I have included four of her albums in my Essential CD listings. I feel that up to now she has not been served well by the printed word. I read an early 80’s unauthorised biography which said little and even “Ordinary Girl” her 2003 autobiography written with Marc Eliot was a disappointment which just skimmed the surface. There is room for a definitive examination of the life and career of one of the most successful female artists of all time whose record sales reputedly exceed 130 million. I’d always hoped that someone like J. Randy Taraborrelli would apply his thorough, analytical eye to her and produce something very entertaining but this hasn’t happened.

Ramli has produced what is very much a fan’s viewpoint which borders on hagiography. I have no problems with that, the whole work comes across as a labour of love and I always admire these. He’s done tons of research and seemingly watched and read everything and has carried out interviews with people qualified to comment on Donna’s career including DJ Paul Gambaccini, fellow disco-diva Gloria Gaynor and her one-time producer and great supporter Pete Waterman. Unfortunately, what he hasn’t done is put this research all together very well. This is a first-time writer in need of support to structure a convincing narrative and that support (and editing) obviously wasn’t there. The style is breathless throughout, which becomes a little overwhelming, there is so much repetition, an over-reliance on listing the same statistics and song titles to illustrate laboured points, a cheesy use of song titles within the text of the she certainly “works hard for the money” type, factual errors even I’ve spotted, non-sequiturs a-plenty and a tendency to go off on odd tangents, but mainly it’s the repetition that wearies.

He rattles through her whole career in the first few chapters and with a considerable amount of the book to go a clearer structure would have helped matters. He’s read Taraborrelli’s superior music biogs according to the bibliography, it is disappointing that from these he didn’t get a clearer idea of how to put together his work.

What Ramili does well, however, is to get a global perspective. He’s more obsessed about listing chart positions than I am, we get to know how Donna Summer’s work performed in many markets together with listings of weeks spent in both US and UK charts. I also like how he has got contributions from Malaysian performers about the influence of this American girl from Boston who found fame initially in Germany.

The issue that affected the performer was how much “Donna Summer” was a creation of her producers and then her record label. She was created to fit in with the hedonism of mid 70’s disco, with an aura of soft-porn chic which captured the zeitgeist of the time. This image was different to how Donna Summer wanted to be seen both in terms of her beliefs and her need not to be pigeonholed as an act of a moment. Her disco days were glorious with some superb tracks, brilliantly performed, but she wanted to see and she had the talent to see beyond that, sensing that disco might not last forever. When it did end in the US with that notorious record burning in a Chicago sportsfield which I’ve mentioned a number of times before (see “Turn The Beat Around” by Peter Shapiro), Donna was ready to move on and embrace rock, new wave and more mainstream pop. Over time chart positions dwindled and an alleged comment about AIDS alienated a large gay fanbase. That disco ball would never entirely go away, however, and the demand for the back catalogue of the Disco Donna Summer, like the Disco Gloria Gaynor, would keep re-appearing over the decades. In latter years Donna began once again to fully embrace this and saw a career revival and a demand for new material in the years up to her sudden and shocking death from lung cancer aged 64.

She should be seen as one of the greatest performers of her era, alongside Barbra Streisand (with whom she famously vocally duelled with on “No More Tears”), Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Diana Ross. The fact that she does not always share a pedestal with these artists critically means she is still due for reappraisal. Ramli’s work provided a welcome opportunity for this but he doesn’t quite pull it off.

twostarsDonna Summer; The Thrill Goes On was published by Book Guild Publishing in 2012.