Thursday, July 13, 2017

Book 85: Life Itself

"Every time I see a dog in a movie, I think the same thing: I want that dog. I see Skip or Lucy or Shiloh and for a moment I can't even think about the movie's plot. I can only think about the dog. I want to hold it, pet it, take it for walks, and tell it what a good dog it is. I want to love it, and I want it to love me."

Dates read: August 30- September 4, 2016

Rating: 8/10

When I joined Twitter, what feels like a million years ago, I joined for one reason: to follow Roger Ebert. I've loved movies for years, and there were no one else's reviews I enjoyed reading like Ebert's. He had a way of honing in on the essential truth about a film with understanding and eloquence. When I started reading his blog that he wrote after cancer complications took his physical voice, he brought the same style to his reflections on life. I know there's this showy public mourning that goes on when someone famous dies, but when Ebert passed, I felt a real sense of loss that I'd never be able to read something new from him again. Before he was gone, though, he wrote an autobiography: Life Itself. It was made into a documentary, which I watched but didn't think was particularly special. But I bought the book, hoping it would be better. And for me, it was. Not only was it better, it was wonderful.

Life Itself is structured loosely chronologically, beginning with Ebert's family history and going through to when he was near the end of his life and knew it. The first few chapters, which detail how his ancestors came to the United States and his parents' upbringings as well as his own early years, are probably the weakest. While most of us are interested in these details for ourselves and sometimes our loved ones, reading about someone else's is not exactly captivating stuff. Once Ebert gets to his own life, though, the book really finds its footing and takes off. He recounts his life with insight but largely without excess sentimentality: his father's early death and his mother's alcoholism, his experiences on the college paper at the University of Illinois, his journalism career, his international travel, his own alcoholism, the joy he found with his wife Chaz, his relationship with Gene Siskel, his meetings with prominent actors and directors, and his own insistence on an aggressive course of cancer treatment that likely lost him his jaw and ability to speak. He clearly knew that this book was his last chance to put his own story out there and it's obvious that he didn't want to squander the opportunity. Given that he spent his final years in a painful and uncomfortable situation, it's remarkable how little bitterness his writing contains. Instead, he uses his last testament to to reflect on a full life, with all the moments of joy and sorrow it contained. 

If you're thinking about reading this book, you're probably already interested in Roger Ebert and his writing. But if you haven't, I recommend going to his blog (still online) and browsing around a little. If you like what you find and enjoy autobiography/memoir style books, this will likely be a win for you. If that's not something that intrigues you, you may appreciate the writing but find it a largely pointless exercise to read. For me, I found it moving and a likely future re-read, but I could completely understand if it's not for everyone.

Tell me, blog friends...who would you like to read an autobiography of?

One year ago, I was reading: The Shipping News

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