Book reviews: new non-fiction by Oliver Sacks, Illeana Douglas and Carly Simon
Sacks delivers four slight essays from his final years, Douglas spills the movie-biz beans, and Simon recounts a life in music and more
by Oliver Sacks
If you are a fan of Oliver Sacks (who died aged 82 in August), or if you started on his books after learning he had terminal cancer – something he revealed in a New York Times piece published just months before his death – you will know of his autobiography On the Move. That volume is required reading. This slight collection of essays, written in the last two years of his life, is more a taster and will be unsatisfying if read after the memoir, as some of its content is repeated (for example, his mother calling him an “abomination” after being told he “liked boys”). The four essays are short and reveal Sacks to have found clarity after he learned about his death sentence. “There is no time for anything inessential,” he wrote, explaining that his focus would be on himself, his work and his friends. Most interesting of the pieces is “My Periodic Table”, which reveals how in times of stress he returned to the physical sciences, “a world where there is no life, but also no death”. His musings about bismuth, element 83, a number of years he would never reach, is especially touching.
I Blame Dennis Hopper
by llleana Douglas
Flatiron Books (e-book)
Illeana Douglas tells a great story. There are no shaggy dog tales here but funny, heartfelt yarns about how movies have shaped her life. The most significant came during her childhood and involved Dennis Hopper, whose counterculture film Easy Rider persuaded her father to drop out. Rather than live the American Dream, he started a commune and had his family live in poverty because “this is what it’s all about, man!” Douglas thus grew up with hippie hangers-on, goats and soon, no father: he took off with his new girlfriend and her two kids. Douglas, whose grandfather was the actor Melvyn Douglas, later finds herself working with Hopper on a low-budget film and comes to the realisation that he hadn’t ruined her life after all. The other stories she tells not only underscore that fact but will whet the appetites of film buffs. Some movies serve just as place setters (David Cronenberg’s horror fest They Came From Within); others, including Peter Sellers’ Being There, have deeper significance. Then there are her stories about such luminaries as Richard Dreyfuss and Martin Scorsese, her partner for eight years. There won’t be a reader who doesn’t warm to Douglas.
Boys in the Trees
by Carly Simon
Macmillan Audio (audiobook)
Listening to this, you’ll wonder how singer-songwriter Carly Simon kept fans guessing for 40-plus years who You’re So Vain was about. Her autobiography is a no-holds-barred account of her life and loves, including Warren Beatty (the mystery man of the song). Most amusing about the chapter on him is the session she had with her shrink after a night with Beatty: the doctor revealed Simon was not the first patient that day who had had a booty call from the actor the previous night. Almost more interesting than her account of relationships – with, among others, Mick Jagger, at the same time as she was seeing James Taylor, whom she later married, and divorced – are her memories of her parents. Her father, half of Simon & Schuster, came from a musical family and surrounded himself with his own Bloomsbury group of creative types. Her mother, from a different social class, was no match intellectually and at age 42 took into the family home her 19-year-old lover. Simon, who narrates the book over original music, has obviously inherited her father’s love of writing, although he might have balked at her tendency for hyperbole.