The lives of others

What makes biographies so very interesting? Looking at some popular examples, Jean Morley, Kara Furr and Liz Farrelly attempt to find out

What makes biographies so very interesting? Looking at some popular examples, Jean Morley, Kara Furr and Liz Farrelly attempt to find out

What cosmetic procedures has Jordan undergone? What brand of milk does Parkinson use on his cornflakes? What makes one time ex-factor judge Sharon Osborne tick? We need answers to these questions, and fast. So fast, the biography section of most bookshops cannot cope with the amount of publications coming their way. A recent visit to Hodges Figgis exposed a biography section nine shelves long by five shelves high; at least 20m worth of confessional ramblings.

But what makes biography such a popular form? That’s easy. We need to see the ordinary man mythologised. We need to believe that Mr Joe Soap can invent the Model T Ford, buy Man United, marry Angelina Jolie and own a Labrador dog. Maybe we want to learn from others’ experiences; through a complex analysis of stars’ lives to date, we realise what we should, or most definitely should not be doing. Maybe we just want to laugh as we flick to photo insets, of the gap-toothed toddlers to the dodgiest mullets.

Given our fascination with the form, we had a lot of fun reviewing biographies and autobiographies this week. What do Barack Obama, Russell Brand and Jeff Buckley have in common? They’re all available and cheap; about €12.95, at a bookshop near you.

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Crown Publishing, 2006

Okay, I may as well admit now that, being overjoyed to call Barack Obama my next President, I may be a bit biased when it comes to his autobiography. I was quite excited, on being asked to review it, at the prospect of curling up with Barack Obama (now, now, let’s bring our minds out of the gutter, shall we?). Having read it, I was pleased, but not surprised, to discover that it was quite good! This autobiography is far from traditional; rather than accounting his own life, he uses the book as a forum for discussion about the issues he sees in the political system and society of America, using examples of his experiences to illustrate his point. Using a highly conversational tone, Obama considers the strengths as well as the pit-falls of politics in the US, casting a critical eye over even the dealings of his own party.

The book contains chapters on, among others, politics, the US Constitution, faith, race, and one especially interesting chapter entitled “Values”. The theme that is brought up continually through these many chapters is what Obama sees as the dangerous divide between Democrat and Republican, “conservative” and “liberal”, which pervades both the politics and everyday life of Americans. He sees this as threatening the historical ideals of what he has always emphasized as the United States of America. The man’s intelligence and dedication to his dream of America are apparent in his detailed writings on how to mend this rift.

Perhaps this is not a book for every reader, but if you find yourself interested in the thoughts of the next President of the United States on the direction his country needs to take, The Audacity of Hope is an honest and thought-provoking account. Kara Furr

My Booky Wook: The Autobiography of Russell Brand, Hodder & Stoughton, 2007

Poor, poor Russell.

What with the recent spate of anti-Brand sentiments flying about the place, I felt a certain pressure when asked to review his autobiography, My Booky Wook. As an unapologetic fan of Brand and his antics, I knew I could not let this influence what should be an objective view of the autobiography. However, by the same token, I vowed not to hop on the media bandwagon by criticising Brand for doing exactly what the public have spent near on a decade encouraging him to do: act up. Over the last few weeks, Brand has become a manifestation of everything that’s awful about life in the public eye. He has spent his entire life pandering to the base whims of the masses, and created his entire persona out of the attention they’ve given him, positive or otherwise. Brand’s disgrace (which was not his first, and certainly will not be his last) has served to highlight the capricious nature of his viewing public more than his own indiscretions.
Though I digress, the central point is that when dealing with autobiographical material, the reader’s attitude to the author can often be the essence of the reading. Is My Booky Wook a good autobiography? That completely depends on you. At times, his book can be truly disturbing. There is no point in pretending that his descriptions of his experience with hard drugs are not outrageous, regardless of the length at which he discusses them. Some issues are dealt with in a surprisingly poignant manner, taking into account Brand’s self-fashioning as a contemporary village idiot. However, for the most part, it sounds like a best-of collection from the most debauched confessionals around the country. Brand’s incessant use of pseudo-dadaist writing techniques can be tedious, but is perfectly representative of his exhausting but relentlessly entertaining self. As a piece of literature, My Booky Wook is trifling and inconsequential, but as an autobiography of Russell Brand, it couldn’t be more appropriate. The book is rewarding, but only if you are patient. It can also be hilarious, but only if you understand Brand. The essence of My Booky Wook can best be summed up in the title itself. If you find it endearing or even vaguely amusing, go for it. If you see it as a meaningless piece of whimsy or have completely missed the cinematic reference, then Brand’s peculiar piece of verbose, indulgent writing probably wasn’t for you to begin with. Elizabeth Farrelly

Dream Brother, Fourth Estate 2001

Who was Jeff Buckley? Reading Dream Brothe, David Brown’s portrayal of the young soul legend, won’t answer this question. As with any post-humus biography, we will never be able to gauge the accuracy of the identity recounted. However, going by Brown’s book, Jeff Buckley was a knotty bundle of contradictions; a man who, even in his most lucid moments, could not attempt to truly know himself.

Most of us know the sketchy facts. Jeff Buckley, born in California, was famous for his five-octave spanning voice and the release of the near-perfect album, Grace, in 1994. Of course he’s just as famous for being the son of Tim Buckley, the ill-fated young crooner, who died in his twenties of an accidental overdose. Jeff is usually discussed as an echo of his father; set to reach musical heights with his album, Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunkard, he was killed in a drowning accident in the Mississippi.

But Brown supplies us with what we probably didn’t realise; Jeff’s complete disjunction from his father. Having been the product of an accidental teenage pregnancy, he was abandoned by Tim and grew up on the other side of the States. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jeff sought to sever ties with his father’s memory, announcing complete apathy towards the man and his music.

Given Brown’s recognition of Jeff’s antipathy towards his father, it’s quite ironic that he insists on paralleling the two men’s lives. The book constantly interweaves episodes of Tim’s life with Jeff’s life story, making them into a larger master narrative. Even the happiest moments of Jeff’s life are squished into the “ill-fated life of a sensitive artist”.

Of course, depictions of Jeff’s vulnerability are undoubtedly alluring. From his ‘haunted, wounded deer-look in his eyes’ to his gaunt cheekbones and thrift-shop clothes, Brown makes us want to believe in Jeff, the gentle bohemian. But even the most devoted Jeffites would have their doubts. After all, Jeff managed to secure a one-million dollar deal with Columbia records and was famous for hiring and firing bandmates with a brutal efficiency. But seeing as we will never fully know the truth, we can clutch at this gorgeous, sepia-tinged legend. Jean Morley