The former first lady, the Academy Award-winning actor and the former host of "The Great British Baking Show" each have memoirs out. Seattle Times arts critic Moira Macdonald tells us their best anecdotes and what it feels like to read them.
Sometimes, you read a book because you want to hear someone’s voice in your ear; someone you want to know better. (And yes, I know I should try audiobooks; stop telling me.) A trio of memoirs have been taking up space on my bedside table and in my travel bags lately. Each of them — from a former first lady, an actor and a television personality — left me feeling as if I’d made a friend.
“Becoming” by Michelle Obama
(Crown, 426 pp., $32.50)
Published Nov. 13, Obama’s book sold more than 1.4 million copies in its first week; the best opening-week sales of any volume this year. In it, she tells of growing up in a modest Chicago apartment with her parents and brother, meeting and marrying a fellow Harvard-schooled lawyer, and spending eight years in the White House.
Voice: Though written with what Obama characterizes in the acknowledgments as “an incredibly gifted team of collaborators,” “Becoming” feels very personal; as if a warm, chatty acquaintance is telling us her life story over wine, still astonished by the path she’s taken. On a plane to Kenya to visit her new fiancé’s family, she was “again struck by how strange my girl-from-Chicago, lawyer-at-a-desk life had suddenly become — how this man sitting next to me had shown up at my office one day with his weird name and quixotic smile and brilliantly upended everything.”
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Though Obama is often circumspect — “I am not a political person,” she writes, declining to analyze the results of the last presidential election — she’s more frequently open, talking of her struggles with infertility, her initial reluctance to support her husband’s run for the presidency (she finally agreed, “because I loved him and had faith in what he could do,” but secretly felt certain that, as a black man, he couldn’t be elected), and of the weight of tragedy during her days as first lady. (After the Newtown shooting of 20 first-graders, Obama wrote that she couldn’t bring herself to travel there with her husband, but instead stayed home and clung to her children. “I was so shaken by it that I had no strength available to lend.”)
But she’s most compelling in the book’s first third, “Becoming Me,” an affectionate portrait of a no-nonsense upbringing in which money was tight and love was abundant. Her touching descriptions of her late, hardworking father Fraser Robinson — young Michelle loved to ride in his beloved Buick Electra 225, leaning on the headrest so her face could be next to his — are among the book’s highlights.
Best anecdote: Should you ever wonder what it’s like to be married to Barack Obama, consider this: Early on, Michelle woke up one night to find him staring at the ceiling, looking troubled, “as if he were pondering something deeply personal.” Concerned, she asked what he was thinking about. “He turned to look at me, his smile a little sheepish. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I was just thinking about income inequality.’ ”
“Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life” by Michael Caine
(Hachette, 273 pp., $28)
This one’s not so much autobiography — Caine’s written his rags-to-riches life story before with “The Elephant to Hollywood” (2010) and “What’s It All About” (1992) — as a how-to book. Caine, now 85 and still busy making movies, writes that he’s been given a lot of useful advice over the years and wants to pass it along, “not just for aspiring movie actors but for everyone.” But it reads rather like a memoir, full of anecdotes from his long career.
Voice: Caine acknowledges ghostwriter Deborah Crewe in the acknowledgments; “without her help,” he writes, “I couldn’t have written the bloody book.” Nonetheless, like Obama’s book, reading “Blowing the Bloody Doors Off” feels like talking to its author; it’s like a down-to-earth, kindhearted ramble from your nice British great-uncle, who’s led a fascinating and glamorous life but never forgot his humble roots. (Here’s where I must insert that I once talked to Sir Michael on the phone, for an interview many years ago, and he was so delightful that I briefly considered changing careers, moving to England and becoming his assistant. Not that he asked.)
The advice Caine has on offer isn’t particularly groundbreaking — show up on time, treat people well, don’t hold a grudge, and “make bloody sure you know your lines.” But it’s nonetheless worth hearing. Caine provides a brief glimpse of his desperately poor childhood (the son of a charwoman and a fish porter, he suffered from rickets and lived in a tiny flat “five flights up from the one toilet in the garden”), but mostly focuses on how his success stemmed from both hard work and great good fortune, for which he seems genuinely grateful.
Best anecdote: This book is full of irresistibly tossed-off moments involving the likes of Cary Grant, Quincy Jones, Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Bette Davis and Stephen Hawking (yes, Sir Michael knows everyone). But my favorite bit was a rather sweet observance, at the end of a section advising on bedroom scenes. “I have to say, though, that the best love scene I’ve ever performed was as Alfred Pennyworth saying goodbye to Batman in ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ ” Caine wrote. “And I got to keep all my clothes on.”
“Spectacles: A Memoir” by Sue Perkins
(Not in print in the U.S., but available online and as an e-book.)
I picked up this paperback, written by the bespectacled former half of the hilarious “Great British Baking Show” hosting team, at a London airport while on vacation earlier this fall — and devoured it as if it were a chocolate mousse cake. A British best-seller upon its publication in 2015, it’s Perkins’ very personal story of her life, told as only a comedian can.
Voice: Perkins, a veteran of several decades of reality television and stage comedy (often with her “best mate” and former “GBBS” co-host Mel Giedroyc, whom she met as a Cambridge undergraduate), is a charming and very funny writer. Warning early on that she has “amplified my more positive characteristics in an effort to make you like me,” she writes of her suburban childhood, her early years doing comedy on the road, her television career (“GBBS” fans learn that Mary Berry’s nickname is “Bezza” and that she’s been known to down tequila slammers), her relationships and her beloved dogs. There’s a feeling of playful performance here — an early chapter irresistibly describes her family as they would like to be described, not as they are — much like Perkins’ screen persona. You get the sense of a naturally funny person, writing from the heart.
Best anecdote: Nearly every passage in this book is that sort that I wanted to instantly share with someone (as a child, Perkins wrote, she looked like Damien from “The Omen” — “if Damian [sic] were a girl and liked psychedelic dresses,” and provides photographic evidence thereof). But I particularly loved Perkins’ description of coming out to her mother. Worried about how things might go, she called to say she’d be coming home to discuss something important. “Is it about you being gay?” her mother asked (“matter of factly while eating what sounds like toast”). A surprised Perkins acknowledged that it might be. “Fine,” replied Mum, still munching. “Well, just whenever you like. No rush. Lots of love, darling,” and down went the receiver. “And that’s why I do what I do,” wrote Perkins. “You’ve got to get your drama somewhere, haven’t you?”