Sunday, November 30, 2014

Choose Your Own Autobiography - the many routes to success

book review

Book: Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography
Author: Neil Patrick Harris

If you have ever been a child - and chances are quite high that you have - then you are probably familiar with the Choose Your Own Adventure series, the set of children's books that see the reader assume the role of the protagonist and make choices that determine the story's outcome.

And if you happen to own a television set and have even a cursory interest in international entertainment, then you have almost certainly heard of Neil Patrick Harris, the American actor who has had a successful career spanning nearly three decades.

Put these two elements together, and you get Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography, the unconventional memoirs of the multi-talented entertainer.

Harris takes inspiration from the aforementioned children's series (which he discovered while working in a bookstore at his very first job), and tells the story of his "twisty-turny" life by styling it as an adventure book with multiple options that lead to alternative endings. Choose wisely and you get to read all about his enviably amazing life and career. Take a wrong turn and you might find yourself meeting an early (and ridiculously fashioned) demise.

The reader assumes the guise of Neil Patrick Harris, as the second-person narrative puts "you" in the middle of the action. Over the course of the book, you get to read about "your" childhood and upbringing, foray into the world of acting as a child star in the 1980s, and gaining global recognition for playing the titular role in the television series Doogie Howser, M.D., consequently becoming inextricably associated with the character.

Luckily, Harris manages to "navigate the waters of child stardom without crashing into the rocks of egomania, the shores of self-entitlement, or the cape of cocaine," and goes on to star in a number of made-for-television movies before returning to global prominence by portraying everyone's favourite womaniser Barney Stinson on the popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother.

Television isn't the only medium Harris has conquered, and we also get an insight into his love for theatre and his stage career (which recently pinnacled with a Tony win for best lead actor in a musical for his performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch) as well as a look at his big screen, voice-over, and online projects. In addition, we are given a behind-the-scenes peek at his hosting career as he helms various award shows, find out about his fascination with magic, and get a glimpse of his personal life. He talks about his sexuality, perhaps revealing more about his hook-ups than you might care to know, before gushing about his partner David Burtka and their twins Gideon and Harper. Interspersed throughout the text are testimonials from his friends and co-stars, including Kelly Ripa, Sarah Silverman, Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Fillion, Seth MacFarlane and (former nemesis) Perez Hilton, which range from saccharine to bizarre.

Put together with the help of former The Daily Show head writer David Javerbaum, Choose Your Own Autobiography is warm and witty, full of good natured humour and propelled by an affirmative take on life. Just like his public persona (as well as that of many of the characters he portrays), Harris comes off as extremely likable and incredibly charming, and it's the charm that makes you plough through the book even when its gimmicks start to wear off. After a while of shuffling back and forth to follow the narrative, the Choose Your Own Adventure idea starts to feel unnecessary and tiresome; after a few pages, the only choice you'll make is to ignore the detours and read straight through the tome, which works just as well, if not better, than following the different paths (which of ten just lead you to a different part of his story instead of actually changing the course of his life).

The second person voice also feels distracting. Combined with his humour and the presentation style, the prose keeps the portrayal from being truly intimate, as the writer seems more like an observer of events instead of the actual subject of the text. Additionally, the testimonials seem a tad too self-serving, and some parts of the book might be overly suggestive for certain readers` taste.

Overall, Choose Your Own Autobiography sees Neil Patrick Harris exude his trademark charm while giving us a fun, entertaining look at his journey so far, as he discusses his friendships, rivalries, missteps, and successes. Just like Harris himself, his book is pleasant and different. Instead of going down the conventional autobiography route, Harris employs a number of devices to keep the book interesting, but in the process also loses some of the personal touch that comes with a more direct approach. Yet it still makes for an amusing read, and his fans are very likely to enjoy the book's of f beat look at the life of this overachieving multi-hyphenate.

- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 30th November, 2014 *

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