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review 2019-11-19 20:37
Beautiful on the Outside (Rippon)
Beautiful on the Outside - Adam Rippon

Like most memoirs of figure skaters written at peak saleability (i.e. right after an Olympics), this is a book about someone with most of their life - and possibility the most interesting part - still ahead of them. So I didn't come to "Beautiful on the Outside" with particularly high expectations, and I'd say, without being mean, that my level of expectations was met. This is the somewhat gossipy sentimental history of a young gay man negotiating the various levels of a competitive sport that requires concentrated effort for ten to twenty years (in Rippon's case, closer to twenty) in order to reach - or possibly not reach - the prize of an Olympic medal.

 

The difference between this memoir and, as a good point of comparison, Brian Orser's "Orser: A Skater's Life" (1988) are largely the differences between society in general 30 years ago and now. Orser's "autobiography" is heavily filtered through a co-writer's authorial voice. His public persona (as it existed at the time, through the press and television) was similarly heavily controlled, and certainly - by general consent - did not include revelations about his sexuality, let alone any youthful indiscretions such as drinking or drug use. While both books feed into the notion of the skater as a marketable commodity, Rippon's marketability is based upon the candour (some would say the excessive candour) of the world of social media in which he exists as a personality far beyond his actual accomplishments as a competitive skater. Far from being considered a drawback, his status as the "first openly gay athlete" to compete for the US in the Olympics is a selling-point for Rippon. His public twitter spat with notoriously homophobic Vice-President Pence just before the 2018 Olympics only fed into that particular identification of Rippon as the [sassy] gay one, an identification he doesn't particularly seem to mind.

 

Rippon's voice here is almost certainly pretty much entirely his own. He sets the tone (and probably alienates a generation or two of readers) by dropping his first f-bomb on the first page. He withholds (in a half-hearted sort of way, easily circumvented by Google) the names of a few people about whom he has uncomplimentary things to say, such as Nikolai Morosov, his first major-league coach. His story is far less the "I entered competition X, placed 2nd, and then dealt with injury" formula of the memoirs of Orser's generation, and includes far more of the "I spent several weeks sulking in bed (or partying, or refusing to work with coach Y)" of, say, Johnny Weir's generation of memoir. Not that there aren't competition results and nasty injuries chronicled here - it's just that they're not the entire narrative. This makes for a more interesting read, though I doubt very much whether the life itself was more interesting.

 

Despite his public life, Rippon appears to be still fairly much enwrapped in a celebrity bubble of sorts; and it's entirely possible he'll make a career out of that. If he does find a path to more interesting, if somewhat more low-profile things (as Orser has done, becoming a truly world-class coach), I hope that he ends up writing about that too. He can even leave in the f-bombs, if he feels he has to!

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review 2019-03-19 21:13
Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star (Hunter)
Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star - Tab Hunter

Tab Hunter (real name Arthur Gelien) was only vaguely known to me as an actor - his movie acting career was essentially over before I became aware of such things, and his TV appearances were too infrequent and minor to register. However, his name came up now and then, as I grew interested in figure skating culture and history, as a fairly long-term partner of Ronnie Robertson, perennial silver medalist and quite possibly the greatest spinner of all time (check out youtube if you don't believe me). Hunter skated competitively himself a bit in his youth, enough that he was cast (with Dick Button!) in a Hans Brinker movie. After this biography was published in 2005 - and again after it received publicity with the release of a documentary about him in 2015 - I also learned to link his name with that of Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowall, and other closeted Hollywood leading men.

 

I quite enjoyed most of this autobiography. It is neither morbid nor thoughtless (the blond good looks of his youth do not indicate a brainless bimbo). The details of the staged romances with up-and-coming actresses like Natalie Wood are told matter-of-factly. There is definitely a hint of self-pity in his recounting of the way the studios treated him, but it's no more than you'd expect, and it's clearly mitigated by the older actor's understanding that he had a very good ride in the jet set era, financially and in terms of lifestyle. He name-drops like mad, of course, and we'd expect nothing less. And a warning to readers of the e-book/Kindle version - the photo section has been shunted unceremoniously to the end of the book, without any sort of table of contents entry, but it is there. The photos are interesting, though small in their e-version, and the beefcake ones, aimed explicitly at the female population, provoke admiration and wry smiles at the same time.

 

There were moments when I didn't much like Mr. Hunter, from his own account, though they were relatively few. One of those was his entirely uncalled-for use of "fag" (twice) to describe certain hangers-on in his social circle when he was at the height of his financial success. Yes, yes, I know, re-appropriation, but this was clearly a dismissive use, and perhaps not unexpected from a man whose conventional masculinity was his major selling point. And perhaps this usage might not have grated quite so much when the book was published, 13 years before I read it.

 

Those interested in the shenanigans of the Hollywood studio system (Hunter and Natalie Wood were the last actors put under those famous long-term contracts), and the creepy world of agents, with sidelights on the spaghetti western scene in Italy and the world of Hunter's real passion, raising and training horses for show-jumping, will find lots to interest them in this book. Those interested in salacious details of the lives of actors like Rock Hudson (for whose career Hunter is convinced his own was sacrificed) and Tony Perkins (with whom he had a relationship for a while) will have to look elsewhere, since this is a man of the mid 20th century after all.

 

Recommended as a useful counteractive to the official Hollywood narrative of the time, for its unexpected little additions to figure skating history (he has nothing but good things to say about Dick Button, by the way), and as a rather interestingly reflective late-life autobiography of someone you might consider to be a bit of a Salieri; a mediocre career (and he knows it) but still celebrated.

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review 2018-05-04 17:29
Only With Passion: Figure Skating's Most Winning Champion on Competition and Life (Witt)
Only With Passion: Figure Skating's Most Winning Champion on Competition and Life - Katarina Witt,E.M. Swift

OK, once I got past the highly debatable subtitle and rather ridiculously sexed-up cover picture, this little book from 2005 was actually quite an enjoyable read. A full biography it is not, but Katarina is not the first female skater - see, for instance, Barbara Ann Scott - to combine scattered biographical facts and philosophical musings into an advice-to-a-young-skater format. At least Katarina's book doesn't include an entire chapter on the details of school figures!

 

I like Katarina, based on her pretty consistent public persona here and on tv - she's generally very down-to-earth and seems to have a strong grasp on realities both interpersonal and financial. What's more, she appears to have the capacity to form strong female friendships - notably with Sandra Bezic and with her business partner, Elizabeth. She also somehow seems to have maintained a strong relationship, though perhaps part of that is unacknowledged dependency, with a coach, Jutta Muller, whose methods in this gradually-awakening day and age would likely be described as borderline abusive. The strictures on Katarina's weight - and the skater's defence of those strictures - I found troubling. Anyway, it's clear that even 10 years after her last amateur skate, Muller was still a valued part of Witt's career. She takes her fictional young skater friend, "Jasmine" to see her training with Mueller for her latest professional project.

 

One of the self-revelations I most enjoyed was Katarina's complete awareness that she's addicted to showboating. She doesn't seem particularly worried that she thrives on being the centre of attention, and doesn't perform her best unless she's aware of multiple eyes upon her. I'm not sure she quite makes the full connection between that and the fact that she has never settled down into a marriage, but she comes close in the few fairly guarded sentences that she devotes to her longish relationship with Richard Dean Anderson. In fact, rather too much of this narrative is slightly defensive about being an independent single woman, although I can completely understand that she has had to deal with this same narrative for years from the media; all that emphasis on her femininity and her beauty (often at the expense of acknowledging her real athletic chops). That aspect of her life interested me far less than her stories of growing up in East Germany, and also the stories she introduces about some of her East German friends, at least one of whom made the dangerous crossing from East to West Berlin while the wall was still up.

 

About other skaters of her era, Katarina generally speaking follows the "if you can't say anything nice" rule; she has respectful words for Debi Thomas, and also for Nancy Kerrigan, and she openly regrets that she was so aggressively competitive with Rosalynn Sumners in the pre-1984 years, given how well they got along in the pro years that followed. And then there's this:

 

"And what was Tonya Harding like?"

"Tonya," I chuckled ruefully. "She was an impressive athlete, I must say. Her jumps were so high. She was very talented, except not in the head. Really, I don't care two cents about her."

 

She's careful, but it's not North American media-speak. I like that.

 

If you are curious about how she would describe her Playboy photo-shoot, or the '87 Worlds, '88 Olympics, the '94 Olympics, or Carmen on Ice, you'll find a bit about each of those in here, though none of them is terribly deeply examined. E.M. Swift (the same man who "co-wrote" Gordeeva's My Sergei) has done a good job eliminating any Germanic-sounding glitches from the smooth first-person narrative. There is a photo section, in black and white, not in itself a reason to buy the book, but with some fun novelties (including pictures of Katarina and Anett Poetzch wearing the same competition dress).

 

I hope we do someday get a more substantial memoir or biography, but in the meantime, this little book has earned its spot on my shelves.

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review 2018-04-27 19:07
Our Life on Ice (Torvill & Dean)
Our Life on Ice: The Autobiography by Jayne Torvill (2014-10-09) - Jayne Torvill;Christopher Dean

With the publication of this follow-up volume (on the heels of John Hennessy's "as-told-to" biography from just after the '84 Olympics, and of "Facing the Music" which was about events leading up to the '94 Olympics), I think we can safely add Torvill and Dean to the ranks of serial autobiographers. What is more, they have kept the format more or less consistent with earlier books: segments headed "Jayne", segments headed "Chris", and more general narrative headed "Jayne and Chris".

 

Although it has a general chronological sweep, much of the book is arranged into subject-based chapters which, I assume, is to disguise the fact that the book is necessarily a bit thinner than its predecessors where it revisits the amateur and early professional career covered in the other books, while still giving the opportunity to revisit and perhaps recast the previously narrated events from the an older (and wiser?) perspective. One subject that stood out to me because I was actually a little surprised at how undiplomatically it was handled was Chris' brief and unhappy marriage to Isabelle Duchesnay, and specifically the wedding, which was apparently made into a spectacular production against Chris' wishes by Isabelle's overbearing family. He is much more restrained (to the point of reticence) on what went wrong in his second marriage, to Jill Trenary, presumably because (a) there are kids and (b) they're still on good terms.

 

The major new material in this book relates to the British television show "Dancing on Ice", a "Strictly Come Dancing" clone, similar to "Dancing With The Stars" in the US - a reality competition where somewhat courageous celebrities learned basic skating and then performed highly-produced numbers weekly for judges, with regular eliminations. The "hook" of the show, of course, was that Torvill and Dean also performed regularly and, from my youtube explorations, sometimes with gimmicks not entirely necessary, given how very well they seem to have kept up their basic skills. Though there are obvious and expected declines in speed and flexibility, it's really remarkable how good they still were during this decade-long run, and it was a remarkably smart substitute for the rigours of touring in large-ice arenas where they would always have been measured against the audience's memories of their competitive prime (not to mention worn out by travelling). I was pleased also to see some discussion of Christopher Dean's choreography, for other skaters and for his brief venture into (autobiographical) modern dance. It wasn't terribly satisfying discussion - he seems to be one of those people who are much better at doing it than talking about it - but at least it's there.

 

Amongst the other fairly lengthy tributes to mentors and collaborators, we get a much better sense than before of the importance to the team of Jayne's husband Phil Christensen, who was a sound engineer on one of their professional tours (he came via the rock music world), and who eventually ended up in a central management role for their career. Among the least interesting aspects of the book - although it's been something that's been shoved in their face over the years, so I suppose they felt they had to address it yet again - is the rather uninteresting question of whether Torvill and Dean had a romantic relationship themselves. If you believe them, it amounted to one exploratory kiss in the back of a tour bus, and a mutual decision that anything more would mess up their working relationship and career. I see no reason not to believe them.

 

There's nothing shocking about this book because Torvill and Dean remain obstinately unshocking. Just two people who have been remarkably good at what they do for a remarkably long time, and who have taken the trouble to give us a bit of serial-autobiographical context to their main legacy which is, of course, all that wonderful - and fortunately for us, recorded - ice dancing.

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review 2018-04-26 11:26
The author knows her sport!
Gold Rush - Jennifer Comeaux

If you want to read a book with a figure skating theme where the author actually KNOWS all about the sport, then give Gold Rush a go. This book is about a skater in her late teens going for gold at the 2014 Winter Olympics, and Jennifer Comeaux knows pretty much everything about the sport, making it all seem so authentic.

 

Even though the characters are university-aged, this is a tame little contemporary romance with a very sweet hero, and reads a little more like young adult fiction.

 

The author has other ice skating books available, and I will definitely be checking them out.

Source: nataliaheaney.wordpress.com/2018/02/21/gold-rush-by-jennifer-comeaux
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