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Each New Years Eve, the major news networks play highlight reels from the year that is about to pass. The defining moments. The tragedies. The inspirations. They tend to run down the list of stars who have passed away, and look at the major gaffes experienced by the ones who are still alive. But it will be interesting to see what celebrities make the list this year. Mainly because the three biggest stars going into the fourth quarter are not actually people; they’re books about people. Two autobiographies and a collection of personal writings to be exact. And if you’re skeptical, that’s fine. Because once you see who they’re about, you’ll believe the same thing we do. 

marilyn monroe book coverThe Monroe Doctrine: Fragments. When you look at stars, particularly Hollywood legends like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, you have to question if what you’re seeing is real or a controlled spectacle. They are actors; they know how to manipulate perception. Monroe was and still is America’s sweetheart—the tragic beauty who continues to capture the imaginations of men and women to this day, as if there is some mythic quality to the vulnerable, “dumb,” and sensual blonde character she portrayed in her films. But it’s shallow to think that’s all she was. It’s too easy. There’s always something more.

And that’s what we’re shown in young marilyn monroeFragments, the side of Marilyn Monroe that few were lucky enough to know. Through diaries, letters, and poems, which she left to Lee Strasberg, the acting coach and father-figure who so influenced her artistry, appears a woman opposed. A woman who was playful, humorous, curious, and hopeful, who was determined to raise her acting to an art form, yet was burdened by a debilitating void of loneliness. This Monroe is not the “dumb blonde” we expect; she is an intelligent, cognizant, and self-analyzing genius.

Fragments is both a fulfilling and haunting insight into one of our most legendary pop culture icons. It is Monroe at her barest. Alluring and dangerous. Stripped and exposed. Captured not by the lens of a camera. But by the ink of a lonely pen. (Farrar, Straus, Giroux; 256pp; $30)

life Keith RichardsKeith Richards by Keith Richards: LifeDon’t let the simplicity of the title mislead you. Life. Because a rolling stone may gather no moss, but when you’re a member of the Rolling Stones, particularly the ex-heroin addict, ex-alcoholic, death-defying excess enthusiast Keith Richards, you gather an abundance of moss—moss used metaphorically, here, for trouble, which Richards had a penchant for finding.

Life, which was co-authored by James Cox, who spent three years interviewing Richards and individuals close to him (including Ronnie Spector, an early love, and saxophonist Bobby Keys), is a interchanging diptych of the two constant narratives in Richards’ life: the music, the misbehavior and the survival and his fond, perplexed, and at times outraged recollection of his relationship with fellow band mate and best friend, Mick Jagger.

Beginning with his years growing up in Dartford, England, Life chronicles the beginnings of the Stones—in a run-down apartment with Jagger and original Stones guitarist Brian Jones where they studied the blues, particularly the Chicago blues—to Richards’ bizarre love triangle with Anita Pallenberg, who dated Jones for some time before she and Richards fell in love, to the blaring realities of touring and the regrets he still feels decades later. “Leaving a newborn is something I can’t forgive myself for,” Richards says in Life, about his son, Tara, who died while the guitarist was on tour in 1976. But it’s this kind of poignancy—keith richards playing guitarthis kind of truth—that Richards is trying to deliver with his story.

It’s not the glitz and glamour that are often associated with being a rock & roll musician; it’s the pain, the hardship, the conflict that are punctuated by times of utter ecstasy.  Life is an in-your-face, gristly account of one of rock & roll’s most legendary figures. But what else would you expect? It’s Keith Richards. And—more importantly— it’s Life. (Little, Brown & Company; 576pp; $29.99)

mark twain autobiography book coverTwain Unexpurgated: Autobiography of Mark Twain. It is fitting that the last piece of literature that Mark Twain worked on was titled No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger: Being an Ancient Tale Found in a Jug and Freely Translated from the Jug. Because for a man who was so widely read in the 19th century, and is still so revered in American culture, he is just that: a mysterious stranger. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, he evolved from a steamboat pilot, a silver prospector, and a journalist into Mark Twain, one of the world’s most beloved humorists, essayists, and lecturers. But who this man really was—or even more puzzling, who Sam Clemens really was—is hard to pinpoint. To many of us, he’s the wrinkly, white-haired, old man we see in photographs. Or, he’s the jocular author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, considered by many, including Ernest Hemingway, to be American literature’s piece de resistance. He isn’t thought of as a ready dealer of invective, or unpatriotic to the nation he worked so hard to define. No, not Mark Twain. The  American writer.

But due out at the end of the month is the first volume of his more than 500,000 word autobiography, and with it will come a side of Twain that has yet to be revealed. Beginning in 1906, Twain spent the next four years leading up to his death in 1910 dictating anecdotes, experiences, and opinions, abandoning his love of the pen for a more colloquial verbal history. He paid no care for chronology, nor for the censorship of his thoughts, going as far to refer to soldiers who led an attack on a tribal group in the Philippines as “our uniformed assassins.” mark twain seatedFor the latter reason, and the fear of what such statements might inflict upon his public image, he instructed his publishers to hold the autobiography for one hundred years. “There may be a market for that kind of wares a century from now,” he wrote. “There is no hurry. Wait and see.”

That didn’t stop versions of the autobiography from being published after his death—three have been released since, in 1924, 1940 and 1959. But the editor, Albert Bigelow Paine, took it upon himself to remove material that he considered offensive, and might damage Twain’s image. This ranged from commentary on politics, to sexuality, to the Bible, to other products of the human race Twain found detestable. Now that a century has passed since his death, though,  the complete, unrevised version of his autobiography is being released. Twain finally has the one thing that life deprives us all of—the thing only death can guarantee. Freedom of speech.  (University of California Press; 743pp; $34.95) / Issue 115 - September 2018
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