I know I'm just an unsentimental bastard, but if there's one thing I hate in the typical biography or auto-biography, it's the standard requirement to spend quality time telling us the in-depth history of the grandparents immigrating to a new country and their trials and tribulations, then the many events that befell their children before one of them got married, had some rough times, became an encyclopedia salesman, then produced the author, who was born in a small hospital before being potty trained...enough already!
After a couple of hundred pages, finally the author starts talking about the special skill or act that is the reason I actually bought the tome in the first place. It's not that back story can't be interesting, but I want some traction with the real person to make me care enough to slog through all the back story.
So I was delighted to discover the first author I've found who really understands this principle, as demonstrated by his memoir, Hamlet's Dresser:
I actually listened to the audiobook, read by the author, which is the ideal way to experience most auto-biographies, and this is no exception.
The author, Bob Smith, does something almost unheard of for a memoir: He starts at the most interesting part, telling a little story from late in his life. Then he jumps elsewhere in time and tells another story. Not unlike Billy Pilgrim of Vonnegut's Slaughter-house Five, Bob Smith seems unstuck in time. He keeps jumping and telling stories, and the reader gets to stitch them together, make connections, and uncover the threads of his life.
It brings to mind staying up all night with a good friend, drinking and listening to him tell random stories, and at the end of the long night you realize you know something deep about this person. That's what this book is. I won't bother summarizing what happened in his life, as that's why you should read or listen to the book; really, nothing particularly big did happen to Bob Smith. He likes Shakespeare a lot, and he got to work as a dresser on productions for John Houseman, and, well, if either of those things means anything to you, read the damn book already.
The next auto-biography in my list was not a person unstuck in time. It followed, in fact, an absolutely standard approach of tracking the author's life from the beginning and moving methodically through every event in her life, in order. And that was the perfectly correct thing to do. The book is Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali:
Again I actually listened to the audiobook, also read by the author. Some may find her accent difficult to parse at times, but it's worth it to get the authentic voice.
I had some vague impressions of Ayaan Hirsi Ali going into this...I knew she'd been in Dutch politics and had authored the short film "Submission, Part 1", which got the director, Theo van Gogh, killed in a grisly manner. Here is the film:
I knew that she had had to live in fear, and had eventually moved to the US. But I didn't know the half of it. Listening to the audiobook I got to immerse myself in Ayaan's entire life, from beginning to her "circumcision" to time of writing, and this is a case where knowing her life in this manner is crucial to understanding her journey through a primitive religious tyranny that should belong only to the dust heap of history, to her escape into the modern world and her flowering into an adult to become one of the most influential people of our times.
Through her sheer will and courage, she made the journey that her religion has not. Reading this book gives ample evidence of what it means for a religion to be taken literally, and any modern Western person can only be shocked to realize how much of the world is mired in ancient thinking. Ayaan makes a powerful case for the idea that fundamentalist Islam is not compatible with the modern world and cannot be tolerated in undiluted form. She puts it in our face that when we tolerant folk of the West talk about Islam as a "peaceful" religion perverted by a few bad apples, we know not of what we speak. Religions typically become peaceful through the process of reformation, and Islam has not had its reformation. And the followers of the unreformed strain of this religion are not few in number, and not interested in our Western ways even as they join our countries.
There is great danger as countries like Canada play with the concept of introducing Sharia law in an ill-fated attempt at tolerance; a danger that these ancient unreformed concepts could spread and touch us all. This may seem a stretch, but read this book and you will see how modern societies have succumbed in our lifetime, and you will get a sense of the vast number of women oppressed and subjected to the veil, and perhaps most importantly, you will see this what this meant to one very real individual, someone who could have easily been lost to us.
There are many more potential Ayaan Hirsi Ali's out there. Women who could be helping shape the world through their wisdom and intelligence. But they have not escaped, and live out their lives in a slavery from another time.