Tag Archives: Biography

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

notThis is an autobiography which reads like a novel, and an excellent one at that. Through parallel narratives of the past and present, Cumming describes his difficult childhood and the influence his father’s ire had on his adult life. The startling discoveries he makes about an ancestor through the BBC genealogy show ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ are matched with doubts and revelations in the present day.

Despite the darkness of some of the subject matter, Cumming’s voice is funny and brilliant. He is an endearing and talented writer, with a story worth telling. The central mysteries make it near-impossible to put down.

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Marilyn by Gloria Steinem

“When the past dies, there is mourning, but when the future dies our imaginations are compelled to carry it on.”Marilyn - Gloria Steinem

I’ve just finished the new ebook edition of this 1986 biography and I sort of miss it. I want more of it to exist, perhaps because of Steinem’s sensitive style, perhaps because mysteries which remain unanswered. More than a simple biography, this felt like a thesis on why things fell apart for Marilyn Monroe, or Norma Jeane. Steinem’s starting point is the sad young life of Norma Jeane: abuse, foster homes, her mother’s mental health issues. Steinem hypothesises how these experiences coloured Marilyn’s adult choices including her career and unsuccessful marriages. It is an intelligent study of fragility and celebrity.

Talking of intelligence, one of the most interesting aspects of the book was learning the depth of Marilyn and her love of reading and her natural intellectual curiosity.

“Her searches after knowledge were arbitrary and without context. It was as if she were shining a small flashlight of curiosity into the dark room of the world.”

She never finished high school as she was forced into an early marriage and always regretted her lack of education. She studied acting with great drive and devotion, striving to be better and brighter in every aspect of her life. She wanted children, but medical complications made that impossible. My heart broke with the description of her sitting alone on a park bench, disguised so that she could watch the children play.

The most profound moments of the book are when Marilyn’s own words are used. This includes passages from her unfinished autobiography and an interview conducted just weeks before her death. She cared little for money and turned down the offer of an older male friend to marry her so that she would inherit his fortune.

Marilyn_Monroe_by_George_Barris_1962‘Because she was sometimes forced to give in, to sell herself partially, she was all the more fearful of being bought totally.“What have you got to lose?” asked a friend who was urging the marriage to Hyde.
“Myself,” Marilyn said.’

Marilyn Monroe felt to Norma Jeane like a fictional construct: a person separate from herself that she often referred to in the third person and ‘turned on and off’ by doing the walk or adopting the mannerisms. This means that a lot of what she said is contradictory, unreliable, and probably not the truth. Steinem has done a thoughtful job of sifting through the claims and looking for evidence to piece together her life story. What is interesting about the book is that it critiques other biographies and seeks to get as close to the truth as possible, while recognising its limitations. Steinem used it to make wider points too, about the social construction of femininity, fame and psychoanalysis, with varying levels of success. There were pictures too: poignant, beautiful pictures.

I found it fascinating and deeply memorable. My ever-patient loved one listened to me recount the entire life story and then proceed to evaluate the book for a whole car journey. Be delighted, my dear readers, that I provide you with the condensed version!

Many thanks to NetGalley and  Open Road Integrated Media for the copy.

Have you read it? What did you think? I haven’t read a huge amount of biographies: do you have any recommendations? Do let me know in the comments!

As always, liking and sharing is hugely appreciated.

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International Women’s Day

To celebrate Women’s Day, you can have my ebook about inspirational women for free!

This uplifting illustrated collection warmly celebrates inspirational women from comedians to global campaigners. Entertaining descriptions of remarkable and ground-breaking achievements explain how these women have made particularly significant contributions. Admirable personal qualities form the theme of each biographical chapter: strong, inventive, cooperative, genuine and determined.

Download it now! Please share with anyone who might be interested! Thanks!

The Brilliant Women Collection

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An Evening with Diane Atkinson: Author of ‘The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton’

Happy International Women’s Day!

Any regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of women’s history (in fact I wrote a little book of it), so I was delighted to have the chance to listen to Diane Atkinson speak about her book ‘The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton’. Here’s the blurb:

The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton

Caroline Norton: beauty and wit, poet, pamphleteer and blue stocking. She was married to a boorish minor aristocrat at 19, who accused her, for his own political ends, of an affair, or a ‘Criminal Conversation’ as it was know, with Lord Melbourne (the Prime Minister) which ended in the ‘Trial of the Century’. Pilloried by society, cut off and bankrupted by her family she went on to be the most important figure in establishing women’s rights in marriage. This is the startling story of how one woman changed marriage and revolutionised women’s rights.

Atkinson relayed a brief history of Norton’s life from her marriage, and subsequent political struggles, to her death. I was most compelled by her vociferous legal battle to gain access to her children and extend this right to all separated mothers (in the past, children of divorced parents were considered the father’s alone: the mother had no legal rights to see them). The question and answer section was very interesting at Atkinson spoke more about her research; she spent two years going through over a thousand letters written my Mrs Norton. Atkinson was confident and knowledgeable – she held the room beautifully. 

It was heartening in my small town to see a room full to bursting of people interested in women’s history. 

Find out more about Diane Atkinson here.

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