Tag 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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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.

Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography by Ruskin Bond

71uPk+sgj5L Title: Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography
Author: Ruskin Bond
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
ISBN: 978-9386338907
Genre: Autobiography, Memoirs
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

When you have grown up reading an author’s work, then to suddenly read his autobiography is a pretty gratifying experience. Ruskin Bond is an author who is at it – from novels to short stories to ghost stories to children’s books to novellas and now an autobiography wistfully titled “Lone Fox Dancing”. I was a little apprehensive initially as I picked this book, but it most certainly grows on you. The book is also magical in a way given the time and place Mr. Bond was born and grew up in. He has truly seen it all and I was most certainly envious of the life has led till now (and continues to) as I turned the pages.

Most autobiographies tend to be a little long-drawn and tedious. But while reading “Lone Fox Dancing”, I just wanted it to go on and on and on and never end. There is this sense of nostalgia (but obviously) that seeps deep into your bones as you read this book. Might I even call it magical to a large extent. Ruskin Bond makes his life seem very effortless and yet there yxzsis so much going on – from his birth in the 30s to his boarding school days in Shimla and the time spent in Dehradun, and of how he discovered some great books and the love of reading to finding his calling – writing.

I was most curious about his craft (he doesn’t speak of it in detail but does to some extent) and how he weaves dreams through his books. The part of how The Room on the Roof came to be is most interesting. The book traverses his entire journey to where he is now – Mussoorie and how content he is amidst the nature and the family he has made his own. With every page, you can feel the years passing and how each phase of life of Mr. Bond’s was different from the next. “Lone Fox Dancing” is full of anecdotes, and why shouldn’t it be, given the rich life he has led. I am sure half of them had to go in the edits.

To me what also was intriguing was the time period – by default the book takes you through the 40s, the 50s, the 60s, so on and so forth till present time. The book oozes with honesty and truth – it has the ring of the whimsical and stark realities of living at times. “Lone Fox Dancing” is the kind of book that deserves to be reread. Well I won’t get back to it immediately, but soon enough for sure.