A couple years ago, I went on a memoir reading binge. The idea of people who have ended up in some kind of celebrity status talking about their lives and how they got to where they are seems like good fluff reading. I don’t want gossip magazine stories. What I want is interesting stories that are well written. I eventually stopped reading these because they were all pretty much the same. Vague, non-specific stories that glossed over the truth. I just got bored with them. But in early 2014, I read that Jason Priestley was releasing a memoir. I never liked the Brandon Walsh character, but I really like some of the work he’s done as an adult (especially in Haven). And he’s Canadian. This was a book I wanted to read. When I plugged it into my Goodreads, and got my list of books I might also want to read and Jennie Garth’s memoire popped up. I liked her in 90210 and What I like About You. The library had it, so that went on my list as well. And then I went on the very long waiting list for Neil Patrick Harris’ new take on the memoir. Three memoirs. Three very different responses.
The Good – Neil Patrick Harris – Choose Your Own Autobiography
Written in the style of the popular 70’s & 80’s Choose Your Own Adventure series, this book allows the reader to pretend they are NPH. It reads in the very strange second person POV – something rarely found in fiction, except the aforementioned book series. You get to choose your way through Neil’s life and rise to fame. Sexual discovery. Wild nights with Stephen Dorff. Sensible parents. Tony Awards musical number. Drowning in quicksand.… Not everything in the book is true, but it’s very, very clear which parts are fiction.
It’s not just the format of the book that makes it an excellent read. It’s just as witty and charming as I expected from NPH. Now, I’m going to admit bias upfront. I love Harris. I enjoy him in pretty much everything, and I love when he appears as himself. But, there’s more to this novel than that. It’s sweet, and touching, and thoughtful. Harris manages to tell less than flattering stories about fellow celebrities without seeming like a gossip. I got better 90210 stories out of this book than I did either of the other two I read (but more on that later). He has no qualms about saying when he doesn’t like someone (Dustin Diamond) and explaining exactly what he doesn’t like that person. Other books pussyfoot around personality conflicts. Harris’ openness allowed me to relate to the book in a way I’ve never related to another memoir. It never feels like he’s name dropping. He is talking about people who have come into his life and made an impression for one reason or another.
The stories about NPH coming to terms with his sexuality are explicit without being overwrought. The German gymnast story was super entertaining, and somehow, I kept ending up on paths that lead back there! There are a few sections in the book that stood out. The one where Neil writes about meeting David for the first time, with David’s annotations, is funny and sweet. These two men clearly love each other very much. Another is when he talks about meeting Elton John and his partner (now husband – they got married over Christmas) and getting to spend time at their home. NPH tells this section in a pseudo haughty tone that only emphasizes how clearly he understands that he lives a charmed life.
This book reads well, provide lots of entertaining stories, and makes the reader feel like they could possibly be friends with Harris. Other memoire writers should take note. You don’t have to use this structure, but use this style. Open. Honest. Real.
My only problem with the book is that I’m not 100% sure I actually read the whole thing. I think I got most of the paths, but feel like there might have been a couple that I missed. I read hardly anything about HIMYM, but I don’t know if that’s because I missed the paths or there just wasn’t much there.
The Bad – Jason Priestley: A Memoir
This was the book that kicked off this trilogy of reads. I waited for it for a long damn time. I was the one who requested that my library order it and it still took almost six months for me to get the book in my hands. I was drawn to the super pensive, heart throb photo on the cover. It was like I was about to dive into a full length version of a Teen Beat magazine article. Let me just start by saying – those Teen Beat Articles are better written than this book. It is chockfull of errors and so terribly overwritten. It’s a teen drama without any intrigue.
Priestley name drops like it’s his job. Every page. This guy has apparently met everyone who’s everyone, even if it’s just in passing. And he wants us to know about every single meeting. He used to be roommates with Brad Pitt before either of them were famous. This should have been a fun story, but instead, but the time I got to this part (which isn’t that far in), I was so done with the name dropping and back patting that I just rolled my eyes. Priestley takes credit for pretty much everything that’s ever happened ever. And 90210 was the most iconic show ever. Responsible for everything that happened on tv afterwards. It was iconic, guys! Yes, admittedly, I think it was the first teen series to successfully transition from high school to university, but Priestley gives the show way more credit than it deserves.
Now, I’m going to admit, as much as I don’t need salacious gossip, I was reading this for stories from the sets of 90210 and Haven. Those were the two pieces that interested me. I know the Haven role was small, but it doesn’t even get a mention. The show gets mentioned once in a sentence about another show he’s in, and that’s it. Annoying, but okay, I can live with that. But Priestley’s entire career was built on 90210. Without this show, would anyone even know who he was? Maybe he would have gotten something else, but in this life, this is why we know him, and he spends maybe two chapters talking about it. The show lasted for ten damn years. And the chapters he does talk about it in are nothing more than surface. He tells exactly one story from the set – a story about a red dress the girls argue about. What I took away from the book was that Aaron Spelling is some kind of saint… Between Priestley and Garth, the man is praised to such excess that it made me start to wonder if they had some kind of contractual obligations about talking about the show.
This book is a cautionary tale. Beware. Sometimes people let you down. Priestley is so fucking cocky in this book that I now actually have a hard time watching him. I kind of wish I’d never read this book.
The Mediocre – Jennie Garth: Deep Thoughts of a Hollywood Blonde
I read this book because the Priestley memoir was so damn angering that I needed something to try to redeem 90210. Just like Priestley, Garth’s career was made on this show and again, she spends almost no time talking about it. She tells the EXACT SAME story that Jason told in his book – the red dress they all wanted to wear. Lame. That’s really the only conflict you experienced? Unbelievable. Garth does spend a little more time talking about her time on set. About how much time she spent alone. And her friendship with Luke Perry. We get a little, just a tiny, tiny, little bit. It’s all very whitewashed. The more I write about it, the more certain I am that they must have signed some kind of confidentiality agreement. Otherwise, how could they both just gloss over everything and randomly pick the exact same story?
Garth uses her book to talk about being a quiet, introvert in an extrovert’s world. It actually could have been a really interesting read, but she suffers from the exact opposite of Priestley’s cockiness. She’s so worried about coming off as anything other than the every woman that she tells us almost nothing. She alludes to people, but almost never says a name (you can usually figure them out with a little research). It makes the stories feel unfinished. This is what the whole book suffers from – incompleteness. Garth talks about meeting and falling in love with Peter Facinelli. Their whirlwind romance. Their amazing wedding. How much she loves him. Their great daughters. What a great dad he is. Then she just glosses over everything until after their divorce. When she marries him, she’s one of the most famous young actresses in America. When they get divorced, he’s one of the stars of a movie franchise that blows 90210’s popularity out of the water. I wanted to hear how that dynamic shifted their relationship, but she barely even mentions him other than in passing.
Gath also suffers from some timeline problems that distract from the reading. She talks about the pains they went to to hide her first pregnancy on 90210. How they couldn’t show a teenager pregnant on the air. Except, that when she was actually pregnant, Kelly had been out of high school for quite some time and Andrea’s character had already had a baby. Yes, writing in a pregnancy for Kelly’s character probably wouldn’t have fit in with the plot, but the reasons for hiding the pregnancy are not what Garth claims.
Her book is full of a bunch of half stories. It feels unfinished. She needed to push further. She talks about being honest with herself and doing this as a personal growth tool. I honestly hope she took something from it. She really sounds like a nice person. But, the book feels like an exercise, not a complete project.
So, we’ve got three memoirs here. And they all read very differently. One excellent. One terrible. One meh. I’ll probably be taking a memoir break again – except for Yes, Please by Amy Pohler. I cannot wait to get my hands on that one. I guess the wrap up of all of this is for readers to be weary. Honesty is the only thing that makes a memoir interesting. If the writer isn’t willing to share themselves openly, they should probably consider keeping a journal instead of publishing a book. A memoir that reads as false will not earn anyone fans – and may in fact lose them some.