Book Reviews: Biography, Memoirs

Listed alphabetically by author. See also my Anaïs Nin page for her diaries.


Dibs: In Search of Self

Affecting and effectively written story of a young boy's progress through play therapy. Unfortunately often tedious because it's one-on-one Rogerian therapy (therapist simply restates the patient's comments). Dibs's mother has the most affecting scenes, but Dibs himself is the star, a memorable character, not unlike Fynn's Anna. Less affecting than Torey Hayden's books, but still OK. 3/11/98

Syd Banks

Second Chance

A very absorbing story, but finally disappointing. The mumbo-jumbo never quite comes together, and the "philosophy" remains meaningless. 7/30/87

Helen Caldicott

A Desperate Passion

An unexciting, uninvolving autobiography. [Where's the passion?] The history is interesting to a point, but the nitty-gritty seems to be lacking. Given Caldicott's powerful speech making and her powerful writing in If You Love This Planet, this desiccated book is a big disappointment. People and events simply don't come alive here. Too bad. 1/14/97


P.S. Your Not Listening

Compulsively readable, often shocking, harrowing story not unlike many of Torey Hayden's, though not quite so moving or "full of love" as her books. The children seem somewhat less memorable, perhaps. Often very funny and very sad at the same time. Quite violent, too. Memorable and rereadable . . . but short! 8/26/94

Michael Deakin

The Children on the Hill

Fascinating tale of a "child-centered" couple and their four home-schooled children. Raises some questions (in my mind, not much in the book) about the purposes of education and the self-sacrifice of parents. The children are undoubtedly exceptional, but they are hothouse-grown, not paradigms for any kind of public educational policy. Still, a suggestive and thought-provoking book. A pity the author seems content to tell the tale and not much interested in waxing philosophic. 7/11/95

Agnes de Mille's autobiographies

Prior to getting into Anais Nin's Early Diaries, I was VERY taken with the extensive autobiographical writings of choreographer and dancer Agnes de Mille (1905-1993). I read them all and recommend them highly, though if you're not interested in ballet or modern dance you may find them less interesting (my wife read one or two only). Titles (in chronological order) are: Dance to the Piper; And Promenade Home; Speak to Me, Dance with Me; Where the Wings Grow; and Reprieve, written after her stroke. She also wrote Lizzie Borden: A Dance of Death, about the Lizzie Borden case and de Mille's ballet, Fall River Legend. I have been unable to obtain a copy of her Russian Journal, which I presume details her experiences with dance in the Soviet Union.

Diana Fredericks

Diana: A Strange Autobiography

A stunningly good book. All the suspense and passion of the best of novels. Written with intelligence and insight, humanity and wisdom. I'm tempted to believe that it is fiction written by a man . . . it's almost too good to be true. [Which is not to say that men write better than women, merely that I distrust its veracity and so say "a man" to emphasize my lack of trust.] If there is a weakness at all, it's in the characterization. A few of the characters (Carl, D's mother) are either flat or zeros. The main characters are fascinating, however. 6/16/89

Torey Hayden

Somebody Else's Kids

1st Review: The most excruciating reading I've ever done, but also a book more full of love than any I've read. Much more satisfying, in the end, than the fairy tale of One Child. This is a story of small successes, large successes, and small and large failures. Horrifying and wonderful, a book to reread, a book to change your life. Profoundly moving. 2/9/92

2nd Review: Upon rereading, I'm inclined to call this the best book I've ever read. White hot. An incredible achievement. 8/29/94

Just Another Kid

Another winner from Torey Hayden. The main focus here is on Ladbrooke, the mother of one of the children [in Hayden's Special Ed class]. Less traumatic and less moving than the others of hers I've read, but in a way also more interesting. Ladbrooke is a wonderfully interesting and touching character. Very readable. Very satisfying.

A lot of people would shun such a book, feeling that it would be too depressing or something. To me, the intensity of the experience is compelling. I want to be shocked out of my complacency---it makes me feel intensely alive and aware. I end up loving life more. Something like that.

A couple of years ago I would have probably avoided such books as sappy or sentimental. I have changed. Now I often seem, to myself, sappy and sentimental. In all, I approve of the change. 2/11/92

The Tiger's Child

A good, moving story, though probably the least interesting of Hayden's books. The first five chapters, annoyingly, are a rehash of One Child, the book to which this is a sequel.

I think what makes Hayden's books so good to read is that they are all tales of people who love each other trying to work out their problems. The books overflow with love.

I think Hayden repeatedly makes one mistake with Shiela---she too often fails to level with her, keep her informed, and so on. Well worth rereading, a generally satisfying conclusion to One Child. 12/5/96

Alice Koller

An Unknown Woman

Well worth reading; entertaining and enlightening, up to a point. Some minor complaints: too much walking around to no purpose, too much boring talk about the dog, too much melodrama and tears, etc. But these are mostly minor distractions from a serious and important book. Much like Tolstoy's Confession. One "reason for living" she doesn't consider: religion. Starts slow. Worth reading again. Highlights (paperback edition): 88-90; 104; 109-111; and the rest of the book. 4/28/89

Jonathan Kozol

Amazing Grace

Interesting and affecting picture of life in New York's poorest areas. Quite good, though not as moving as his Rachel and Her Children. Occasionally tedious due to lengthy theologizing by one youngster. Most scenes are not especially vivid. Generally quite depressing, though he makes many tries at finding rays of hope, while simultaneously suggesting it's hopeless. Reread.

More than once I thought this would make a good selection to read to a class. I still think so, though it would require careful handling on all counts. The Bernardo Rodriguez story was most affecting. 4/11/96

C. S. Lewis

Surprised by Joy

A disappointment, though not without interest. Lewis's purpose is to tell the story of his conversion from atheism to Christianity. But there is little here to challenge or even interest the atheist. It seems to me that Lewis converted largely for emotional reasons, apparently because he believed in some kind of Hegelian Absolute. The last two chapters are so vague and poetic (or perhaps poetically motivated . . . ?) as to be very tough to read when trying to find out why he believes and what relevance his conversion might have to me. I never really got clear answers to these questions. 7/27/00

Malcolm X and Alex Hailey

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Totally fascinating story of a remarkable and inspiring man of uncompromising integrity. In many ways he was a great fool and blunderer, but his transformations from total criminal to rabid revolutionary to uncertain pleader for brotherhood make a great human story. One of the best books I've read, maybe ever, but it's hard to say what lessons it teaches. Perhaps it is enough to say that it's a memorable and vivid story of one exceptional man's turbulent career. A book to reread. 3/3/98

Mary McCracken


A Circle of Children

These two books are very like those of Torey Hayden. These are somewhat less vivid, more theoretical and philosophical, less intense, but still the differences are rather slight. So: easy, compelling reading. 7/13/93

Bertrand Russell

The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell

Fascinating and enlightening, though somewhat impersonal. Russell's wives and children are poorly sketched, understandably perhaps, and some of the letters seem rather trivial. The material on the Kennedy assassination was a bonus that reawakened old terrors. Also, the "Greek exercises" in Volume 1 were a pleasant and valuable addition. All in all, a rewarding experience, well worth a second reading eventually.

Highlights: Vol. 1: chapter 6, especially letters. 7/3/98

Barry Stevens

Don't Push the River: It Flows by Itself

Sometimes interesting, often tedious bit of self analysis, autobiography, musings, and talk about Fritz Perls and Gestalt Therapy. Includes three or four short stories, ranging from slight to boring. All in all, a pretty underwhelming book, and quite likely incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with Gestalt Therapy. Really, way too much boring personal trivia here---mostly chaff. Too bad, because the writer seems interesting. 4/19/99

Katharine Tait

My Father Betrand Russell

Despite a too-frequent whiny tone, an absorbing look at Bertrand Russell's home life, especially his later years. Tait's conversion to Christianity is interesting in itself, a real boost to the value of the book. The author is regrettably unappealing, but the book is very readable and absorbing. 11/15/98

Alan Watts

In My Own Way (read to p. 102)

Generally entertaining and interesting autobiography, with occasional excesses of detail. However, a disappointment because I expected a lot. I would probably do better to read his other books. Probably worth a second try some time. 8/25/95