Category Archives: autobiography

The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel

The Kindness of Strangers by Salka ViertelTitle: The Kindness of Strangers
Author: Salka Viertel
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681372747
Genre: Autobiography, Memoir
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

If you feel like reading the quintessential twentieth-century autobiography, then this is it. You just have to read The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel. It is everything I expect from an autobiography and it delivers down to the last page. Viertel’s life was not only interesting but also lived variedly and maybe that’s the reason the book shines the way it does. It is almost a pilgrimage of one woman through the twentieth century’s darkest times and also a chronicle of the good times. I could easily classify The Kindness of Strangers as an epic read, mainly because of its sheer expanse.

The Kindness of Strangers is the journey of a woman. It is the journey of a century – all rolled into one – from a province in the Austro-Hungarian empire to Hollywood. Viertel’s book is unique in the sense that it doesn’t try and pack everything in one chapter or paragraph. It takes its time talking about people, events, and their impact. Normally, I have observed myself getting bored of such autobiographies that start right from childhood and unfold against a backdrop of larger events. That wasn’t the case with The Kindness of Strangers. I enjoyed the read and that of course had a lot to do with the writing.

Of course this isn’t an easy read, in the sense of the turn of events – from the First World War to the Second and incidents that are recalled from memory, Salka Viertel’s writing is too detailed. Sometimes that works wonders for the reader and sometimes it is too much trivia. However, it made me think about how should an autobiography be written at all then? Is there a template? Should there be one? I don’t think so though. The Kindness of Strangers as any good autobiography merges the personal and political perfectly. For instance, her concern over her children’s safety during WWII or her time as an actress in Europe to her time in Hollywood and how that merged with political opinions of many is a delight to read.

There is a lot going on in the book and I was only too glad to see timelines so as not to miss the drift of what is being said. I had no clue of who Viertel was till I started reading her memoir. The relationship with her parents, the rebellion, the relationship she shared with her sister Rose, and most importantly leading the life she wanted to. The sense of loss of innocence is spread throughout the book. Nostalgia plays such an important role – not only in its conjuring but also it feels like it is not a thing of the past at all.

My favourite part of the memoir is Salka’s later life, spent in America, where she worked in Hollywood, made friends with Greta Garbo, became an American citizen as well, and helped many artists find homes – the ones who escaped Hitler’s clutches so to say. There are these lost worlds constantly at play of which the reader is privy to. The writing while gives a sense of staying on some details a little longer, still feels hurried. I wish for some parts there was more.

The Kindness of Strangers is full of life and joy. It is also full of instances that demand attention and empathy. It is the kind of book that talks about relationships – the constancy of them and the passing on of most. Ultimately, it is the book that makes us see our follies as humans and also the kindness we are ultimately capable of which sometimes we do not know of ourselves.

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This is How I Save My Life: A True Story of Finding Everything When You are Willing to Try Anything by Amy B. Scher

This is How I Save My Life Title: This is How I Save My Life: A True Story of Finding Everything When You are Willing to Try Anything
Author: Amy B. Scher
Publisher: Gallery Books, Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 9781501164958
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Scher traveled to India for bold and controversial stem-cell treatments for her advanced Lyme disease after exhausting all options back home in the US of A. She had nearly spent a decade trying to find, research and even underwent several treatments, but no avail. She took a leap of faith and decided to travel all the way to India for a treatment – that could work or not. This book is about her life, her battles, her life in India and how she found a way to deal with every hindrance life threw at her.

I normally do not read books in this genre. Either they do not appeal to me or I get scared of breaking down while reading them. I do not know exactly why, but this time I allowed myself to weep and loved the read. This is most certainly not the typical sickness to health kind of book. In fact, how it is different is because Scher takes us through the journey with her and how she emerges as a more confident and independent person.

If you ask me personally it had nothing to do with the country as much as it had to do with Scher. Having said that, the book chronicles India like never before to me as well. It isn’t exotic or flimsy as most books tend to do. I love Scher’s tenacity, her exuberance and most of all her enthusiasm toward life.

“This Is How I Save My Life” is a book that makes you see life on a larger scale and not just limited to our bubbles or what we go through. Scher’s perspectives are unique and she extends it to the world that she encounters, relating it to her illness and recovery. Extremely inspiring and makes you want to live to the fullest, as cliché as it might sound.

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters by Laura Thompson

The Six Title: The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
Author: Laura Thompson
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 9781250099549
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir,
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

When a non-fiction work reads like fiction, you know you have struck gold on so many levels. “The Six” is a brilliant example of that. First, it is the story of the Mitford sisters. Second, it is superbly written by Laura Thompson. Third, the pace. I have often realized that I get bored in the middle of a memoir or biography and that did not happen even once during the read of this book.

“The Six” as the cover tells you is about the life of the famous Mitford sisters. Born to the 2nd Lord Redesdale between 1904 and 1920, their lives have become synonomous with the darkest periods of history. The Mitford sisters comprised of Nancy, a highly succesful historian and novelist; Pamela, who lead a quiet life suffering from polio and other diseases; the glamorous Diana who broke all rules and divorced her husband; Unity – the most infamously famous who was so taken in by Hitler and his philosophy; Jessica, the communist and Deborah who finally married a Duke and became a Duchess. These were the six Mitford sisters. The book is not just about them though. Thompson magnificently covers history – sneaking up on you between the pages and blending it beautifully with the sisters’ stories.

Thompson covers it all – the glitz and the glamour and the riches to the failed loves and relationships. Nothing has been left out conveniently. A lot of analysis of each sister and their relationship with each other is honestly told and that to me is the highlight of this rivetting read. Thompson does not leave any stone unturned and like I said the writing is easy and yet intense, covering it all and somehow leaving so much room to imagine the ongoings. A read that perhaps may not be for all, but a great one nonetheless.

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

Hourglass Title: Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage
Author: Dani Shapiro
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0451494481
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

To sit back and see life passing you by. That’s the thought I had while reading, “Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage” by Dani Shapiro. It almost felt as though an old friend was speaking with me – telling me tales from her life, snippets that were hidden, incidents that had occurred a long time ago and were being recounted because she just wanted to let me know how she felt or feels. “Hourglass” though it is only 160 pages long, takes its own time to grow on you, and once it does, there is no way you can tear yourself from it.

So, you might wonder, why should I read a memoir about someone’s life and marriage when I don’t even know anything about the person? That’s a valid question to ask, however, that’s also where the answer is. You have to read the book, because Shapiro makes the disassociations feel familiar. Her emotions are universal (just like all of us) and we can relate to it one way or the other.

There are sweet and poignant moments and then others that are cast with essential sadness. Essential sadness – the kind of sadness that there is no running away from. The exploration of a marriage is so honest, that it almost takes you by surprise and awe at some points of the book.

She puts her marriage under a microscope. Initially, I was a little uncomfortable reading about her personal life (as it always happens to me when I read a memoir) but slowly and steadily for sure, I started looking at it more from the point of the writing, which is staggering. Her prose isn’t fancy or verbose and that to me is the beauty of the book. Marriage is difficult, sometimes impossible and Dani’s marriage to M of 18 years cannot be contained in one book. I hope there are others. For our sake. So we can all learn as we go along life.

In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi

In the Darkroom Title: In the Darkroom
Author: Susan Faludi
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
ISBN: 9780805089080
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Autobiography, Biography
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

To be honest, I had gone blind into this book. I had not read the synopsis or any review online. Nothing. I knew nothing about the book and just went on an adventure with it. Take me where you will, I had almost said and saw through that to the very end.

Faludi’s book to put it simply is about her father and identity. However, it isn’t as simple as it sounds. Susan’s father had left her when she was young. She then set off to investigate him in the summer of 2004 – in the process of discovering and knowing her father, she began understanding her roots and history – Jewish history at that.

Susan found out that her seventy-six year old father – now living in Hungary had undergone sex reassignment surgery. This then led to the questions of identity and gender in the modern world, as seen and observed by her. How could she come to terms with a new parent? A parent who was no longer a man, but a woman? Did it make sense at all? Should it make any sense in this world? At the same time, she had always known her father to be violent. He was a photographer (hence the title and more layers to it which you will figure as you read the book)and the reference to images and the shifting of them is another thing that will leave you spellbound in this book.

The book traverses between the present and past beautifully. Susan’s writing takes you to dark corners of the human heart and soul – when she speaks of politics, she integrates it with the personal and that lends itself so well again to the “question of identity”. Can you escape it? Can you so easily invent another one for yourself? Is it really that simple?

What I also loved is that Susan talked of the trans-gender movement (being a gay man, and it falling under the umbrella of LGBTQIA, I couldn’t help but wonder about it, which led me doing my own research on it) and not only that, the way she speaks of universal father-daughter relationships and how she doesn’t know where she stands in that equation anymore. Through her writing, you can see her struggle to find her father beneath the person he has now become.

“In the Darkroom” is emotional for sure but above all it is a book of such intricate details of relationships – that are strong and fragile and need a voice of their own, which Faludi lends hers to beautifully.