Ham: Slices of a Life

By Sam Harris
Published on January 14th 2014
Published by Gallery Books
Source: Netgalley
For fans of David Sedaris and Chelsea Handler, these stories and essays about friendship, celebrity, growing up and getting sober will have you laughing and crying in equal measure.With a wry style that evokes comparisons to Carrie Fisher, David Rakoff, and Steve Martin, Sam Harris proves that he is a natural humorist. Even The New York Times, in a review of one of his musical performances, called his stories “New Yorker-worthy.”

Brilliantly written, these sixteen stories span Harris’s life from growing up gay in the buckle of America’s Bible belt to performing on Oprah’s first show after 9/11. In “I Feel, You Feel” he opens for Aretha Franklin during a blizzard. “Promises” is a front-row account of Liza Minnelli’s infamous wedding to “the man whose name shall go unmentioned.” In the title story, “Ham,” he describes how he was upstaged by a young child actor, unknowingly addicted to the spotlight.

Taking on issues as diverse as addiction, fame, and parenting with his hilarious and deeply human voice, Harris’s entertaining tales trace an arc of personal triumph that is universally accessible and inspiring.

I feel like I have been on a bit of a kick lately with reading memoirs and collections of essays.  Sometimes, I think I like them because it's easy to read one story, then put the book down and do something else for a little while.  They're definitely great for reading during down time at work (shh don't tell).  I'm just not-so-secretly a fan of short stories, I suppose.

Sam Harris first found fame in the '80s when he won the first season of Star Search, and went on to release multiple albums, and perform on Broadway and across the world.  Ham takes a look back at his life and career, from childhood to present day, in a no-holds-barred series of essays which are often funny, deeply personal, and occasionally sentimental looks at his family and close friends. (If you've never heard him sing, I've included a Youtube video of his performance way back in the day on Star Search, below!)

At first, I didn't actually know who Sam Harris was, so when I got to the third essay, all about attending Liza Minnelli's wedding, I was a little confused, like, what is this, I did not know this was some sort of celebrity tell-all.  (Have I mentioned that I am really bad at remembering the summaries of books I've acquired? If I'm not reading something on a deadline, I usually just pick at random and let things like genre be a total surprise.)  Once I filled myself in on the backstory, though it was smooth sailing.

The essays that follow are an interesting and touching overview of Harris' life: growing up in a small Oklahoma town, his early and enduring infatuation with the stage and stardom, coming to terms with his alcoholism, etc.  One of the most touching essays touched on Harris coming out when he was a teenager, dealing with the fear and shame of being different, and how one person could make the difference to help him through that time.  Other stories focus more on the present day, including the story of the birth and adoption of his son.  Through it all, Harris writes with a very engaging, witty voice with a flair for the dramatic, just like the author himself.

A note to readers: one essay ("The Zoo Story") focuses on Harris telling his young son about all the various animals he grew up with.  This one was hard to read because, while I don't think the stories were animal cruelty per se, the Harris family of long ago did seem to be pretty neglectful pet owners, with multiple deaths, run aways, abandonments, etc.  As a pet owner who would (and has) gone into debt to care for a pet's mysterious ailments, it made me sad for all of the animals who weren't properly loved.  If you're sensitive about pets, you may want to skip that essay.

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