The Prince of Darkness by Robert D. Novak (2007, Crown Forum)
Autobiographies are dicey propositions. They usually fall into three categories: tell-alls, where the author is exposing every dirty secret they can remember (either in an attempt to make restitution for misdeeds or, more often, in an attempt to cash in on people’s taste for the salacious); promotional, where the author may admit to making mistakes but never with anything but the best of intent (this is where most political autobiographies fall) and candid, where a person is attempting to make an honest record of either their life or a key portion of it.
Those who want to know truth seek out the third style, but they’re the rarest. Most of them are written in the same format: a small remembrance of childhood followed by a small remembrance of schooling followed by anecdotes they believe the reader will find interesting. This is the format followed by ghostwriters for media and sports figures throughout the years.
Novak produced a candid autobiography without bogging down into the common trap of bouncing from anecdote to anecdote. His decades of experience at Washingtonian journalism served him well. He kept his writing uncluttered and informative while alternating between personal anecdotes, his interpretation of events in Washington D.C and philosophical musings.
The book deal was likely triggered because of Novak’s direct involvement in the Valerie Plame investigation. However it came about, readers interested in recent history were benefited. Novak died in 2009 of brain cancer, and the stories in this book are worth preservation.
Tales From the White Hart by Arthur C. Clarke (1957, Ballantine)
In the days before Hitchhiker’s Guide and Red Dwarf, there was a firm belief among many that the science fiction genre could not produce humor. This was Clarke’s attempt to prove the naysayers wrong.
This collection of stories centers around a bar frequented by authors and scientists, and the tall tales related by a regular, a man named Harry Purvis. The stories followed a general pattern of Purvis telling the crowd about a scientific breakthrough and an attempt to use the breakthrough in regular life. The scientist would neglect to consider one repercussion of using his device and disaster would strike, eliminating the device, the evidence and often the scientist.
Clarke would have been described today as a futurist. He looked at then-modern science and extrapolated out from there based on his knowledge of human nature, his belief in progress and his understanding of scientific principles. The stories were not intended to be believable; they were designed to be entertaining, even funny, and to skirt the edges of the possible (usually completely ignoring the plausible.)
Further enjoyment can be found for those well-versed in classic science fiction, particularly UK authors of that era. Many of them find their way into the White Hart stories, getting cameos from Clarke.
Ultimately, they’re bar stories. They’re excellent bar stories, though.