By Roger Ebert
(Grand Central Publishing, Paperback, 9780446584968, September 2012, 448pp.)
The Short of It:
Written with humor and heart.
The Rest of It:
Everyone is familiar with Roger Ebert, right? His characteristic “thumbs-up” rating for movies he enjoyed, his battle with cancer that destroyed his face and took his voice forever, his antagonistic but often funny interactions with Gene Siskel? I grew up watching him. I spent hours in theaters watching the movies he recommended and he was probably one of the main reasons I entered college as a film major. But what I didn’t know and really didn’t begin to know, was the man behind the famous rating system. I didn’t really get to know him until his battle with cancer and I didn’t read this book until he passed away this past April. What a life.
Life Itself is a treat for anyone who enjoys small town life and nostalgia in general. Ebert’s small town of Urbana, Illinois provided a safe, comforting backdrop for his childhood. His trips to the local movie theater are written about with the care and gentle handling of a man in love with his childhood. He was always a wonderful writer, but the sense of place he conveys in this memoir will bring tears to your eyes for what once was. I loved these glimpses into Ebert’s life. His funny perspective, his awkwardness and his ability to break it all down into pleasant digestible bits.
There are some things I learned that I was not aware of before reading his book. I had no idea that he was a recovering alcoholic. The section on him joining Alcoholics Anonymous was told with such honestly, that I wanted to just reach through the pages and offer him a gentle, guiding hand. I also didn’t know that Gene Siskel, the critic that was forever (in my mind) arguing with Ebert over the movies they reviewed, was actually a very close friend and that their success on TV came quite accidentally. Additionally, I had no idea that Ebert was such a reader! Lots of book love in this one.
What I did expect and did not get was more insight into his battle with cancer. This part of his life is told in a very matter-of-fact way and details are kept to a minimum. He doesn’t dwell on what he lost. In fact, I’m not sure I expected him to be as optimistic as he was in the book, but in the end, I am glad that the cancer did not rule his life even though on the outside looking in, it certainly seemed that way.
I don’t read many memoirs but this book was a real treat. There’s quite a bit of humor and the stories from his youth are told with a lot of heart. I found myself yearning for simpler times and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the man is missed. I never look at movies quite the same way. His sense of wonder, his ability to appreciate the small, creative nuances that directors injected into their films and his knack for saying exactly what he means is what made him a favorite in my eye.
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