Amy Winehouse  (14 September 1983 – 23 July 2011) was one of the more notorious female singer songwriters of her generation. Her looks – 60′s inspired as her dad reminds us – her lyrics and her bouts of drunken and drug induced madness. In the end she (probably) died of an alcohol overdose, after having finally kicked the harddrugs habit. 

Her father Mitch Winehouse started writing this biography not long after he lost her in 2011. As a result, her drug and alcohol dependence, which he was closely involved in monitoring and trying to help her curb, figure closely in the biography he wrote. In fact, the book reads like a train wreck waiting to happen from day one: Amy Winehouse was the spoiled and willful second child who did everything in her power to amuse everybody, including herself. She loved pranks and didn’t get the time to outgrow them, really. 

This book is decently written, though not a literary masterpiece. The interest in it should depend on two things: first off, of course, the fact that it’s an AMY WINEHOUSE biography, and written by her father no less. As such it’s also testimony to the life of one of the many music artists today who get famous too young to be able to handle it. Amy Winehouse went from precocious music student to huge audiences practically overnight. She had no time to learn to deal with stage fright, finances etc. She wasn’t the typical child star, as she created her own music and her own looks, but she was still too young to handle what fame does to life. 

We’re used to these stories by now: whether it’s Justin Bieber or Michael Jackson, child stars never seem to grow into the most balanced human beings. Of course it’s probably a biased picture because the child stars who do NOT fall into the traps fame offers, don’t make as many headlines. 

Anyhow, the second interest group for this biography is anyone who is interested in learning about the cycle of drug abuse and alcoholism. Mitch tells his tale of trying to deal with his daughter’s problems realistically and without sparing himself. We are witnesses to his struggle to accept that ultimately it’s Amy that has to decide to quit. It’s Amy that has to realize how deadly her habits have become. In the end she died, because she didn’t realize strongly enough that binge drinking on an already vulnerable body (wracked by too much drugs and alcohol) was lethal. For her friends and family it must have been all the more poignant because she was in fact doing well in her recovery, overall. 

It’s the sad story of the loss of a talented and generous person who had much to offer the world. Mitch tells this story in a way that brings us almost uncomfortably close to both his daughter and himself. 

Disclaimer: I read a bloggers preview version of this book. The editing wasn’t fully complete and the images present in the hardcover version were absent. 

I love reading biographies. I’ve been looking, recently, for biographies of strong women. After all, we do make half the world’s population and our story needs to be known. Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters tells the story of the second ‘first lady’ in American history. 

As a European, I never learned American History in school. So the name John Adams didn’t mean anything to me before reading this book. I learned that he was the second American President and an important factor in developing the constitution of the United States. However, that’s not really what this book is about. Instead it’s about the women in his life: his wife Abigail, her two sisters and their offspring (children and grandchildren). We’re talking mid to late 18th century, a time when the USA was in it’s infancy. Indians were still independent and a threat to those traveling West and England was the parent nation the USA became independent from. France first supported the new country and later, when it no longer had a monarch, threatened it’s peace. And yes, I learned all of that from ‘Dear Abigail’. 

I found myself fascinated to read the female side to this story. Disease, raising kids, having strong opinions without the ability to vote or even have a public presence except through your husband. These intelligent sisters and their female offspring struggled with life and it’s limitations, religion and it’s inspiration, philosophy and it’s broadening horizons. 

Abigail lived a life of stature, but always had to struggle to make ends meet. After all: consequence has to be lived up to in terms of servants, cloths and houses. We see her struggle first in the USA as her husband is an upcoming lawyer, then in France where he’s an ineffective diplomat to the French court, next in London where she meets the king and queen and last in the USA where she supports him first as vice-president under Washington and then as president. However, her place as wife to her husband often comes second to her place in her larger family: second daughter, mother to her kids, aunt to her nephews and nieces and prominent member of the community in her own right. The same can be said of Mary, her older sister and near-mayor of the town she lived in and Elisabeth, their younger sister. 

This book is based on the letters these women and their offspring wrote one another. Diane Jacobs does a good job of selecting relevant quotes from their letters and creating a compelling narrative from them. The letters themselves are often a bit ponderous and even Diane’s prose is sometimes a bit forced. I had to look up several words and though English is my second language, that doesn’t often happen in my reading. 

For me that didn’t detract from the book. I read it in a few days. It’s a look into the lives of strong intelligent women of the 18th century that had me ponder the differences between my life and theirs. Whereas my generation of feminists struggles to change the public narratives around women (no, we don’t always like pink and yes, many of us are good math and able to solve technical problems), these women had to live in world that severely limited their scope.

A woman’s life was her husband’s, both legally and factually. When you married someone you became dependent on them, as you had no chance of earning your own keep. We see Mary struggling to manage her smart and socially important but impractical husband while Abigail enjoys the fruits of a successful mate. Their brother was a drunk and he sets a clear example: when your son, or your husband, didn’t take care of himself and his family, the whole family suffered. As I read this book that story is repeated several times. 

Even a smart educated woman was not able to vote (that right would take more than a century to materialize – at this time even slavery was still legal), and the church actively discouraged women from even talking at the dinner table when there were men present. As a life long student of religion I was interested to read about the social side of 18th century protestant church politics. 

All in all I do recommend this book to anyone who wants to know about the human story behind the founding of the United States of America and it’s prominent families – women and men. 

Disclaimer: I read an advanced reader’s copy

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