Do you enjoy reading biographies and memoirs? If you’re like me, you enjoy finding out about other people’s lives to discover similarities and differences with your own. It’s a way to satisfy one’s curiosity without being a voyeur.
I’ve been reading Roger Ebert’s biography, Life Itself: a memoir, and finding it very hard to put down. I’ve always been an admirer of Mr. Ebert’s writings and appreciated his and Gene Siskel’s film review show “Sneak Previews” after finding it on my local PBS station many years ago. I also watched their subsequent shows, through Gene Siskel’s death in early 1999, up until 2006, when Mr. Ebert was treated for thyroid cancer. Because of this treatment he lost his ability to eat, drink, and speak but, happily for us, he knows how to write well and this memoir is a delightful compilation of stories of and from his life.
It’s not a chronological retelling, but conversationally written about growing up in a time of innocence in the Midwest. He writes of his loving family, the loss of his father at an early age, and the loving but troubled relationship he had with his mother. He writes of his relationship with alcohol and the effect it had on him and his relationships with women, especially his mother, who also became an alcoholic. He writes of his time spent learning the newspaper trade and the mentors who helped him with his career as well as his venture into reviewing films and the ultimate step of appearing on television.
Throughout the book there’s amusing anecdotes of and about his many friendships and acquaintances, many of them famous. His tales of get-togethers with people we know from the movies are fascinating, as we glimpse the personal side of those whom we’re only familiar with from film. Their true personalities come through in Mr. Ebert’s reminiscences. He also writes lovingly of his relationship with his wife, Chaz, and his association, often tempestuous, with his film review partner, Gene Siskel.
But, for me, the most interesting parts of this book are his memories of growing up, his school years, his studying in South Africa during apartheid, and his many visits and revisits to his favorite haunts in different cities of this country and the world. His favorite city being London, which he, and Daniel Curley, wrote affectionately about in The Perfect London Walk.
This wonderful collection of memories is inspiring yet heartbreaking as one remembers that no longer can Mr. Ebert eat or speak, but he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. As he puts it:
What’s sad about not eating is the experience…the loss of dining, not the loss of food…that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.
Indeed we are, Mr. Ebert, and such a feast it is.