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Ironic: Alanis Morissette, the Story

by Barry Grills

Alanis Morissette: You Oughta Know

by Paul Cantin

One has to wonder why two biographies of singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette – by rock critic Barry Grills and Ottawa Sun writer Paul Cantin – are being released now, just as the hoopla over Morissette is starting to subside. However, since celebrity biographies are generally aimed at fans, it’s likely both will fare well since they can tap into a market of millions of people.

The challenge in writing about Morissette is to come up with something new. After all, what has not already been said or written about her? In the last two years she has been interviewed, reviewed, explored, and analyzed in virtually every newspaper and magazine on the planet. So any biography published so long after Morissette’s publicity peak had better be packed with revealing anecdotes and surprising details – with a shocking scandal thrown in for good measure.

Grills’s Ironic fails to deliver on this count. Though fairly thorough, it reads more like a summary of Morissette’s press clippings than a life story. Just when it seems to be heading somewhere good, it veers off in another direction. Grills tries to compare Morissette to the late Jim Morrison and analyzes her role among female artists – but his points are lost in a jumble of irrelevant information. He repeatedly strays from his subject to write about other artists. While it is interesting to note that Paul Anka also came from Ottawa, few Morissette fans will be interested in knowing Anka was born the son of a Lebanese restaurateur (if they’re even old enough to know who Anka is).

The book concludes in early 1997, making mention of Morissette’s vacation in India and speculating on the title and release date of her next album – ideas Grills obviously took from some of the web sites he acknowledges at the back of the book.

Perhaps by accident, Grills offers his own testimony to the fact that Paul Cantin’s book about Morissette is a superior source of information. One of his many sources was none other than Cantin himself.

It is obvious to the reader of You Oughta Know that Cantin has actually had access to Morissette and her family over the years and has obtained much of his information from them. Commonly known tidbits of the singer’s past are explored in detail – her mother’s daring escape from the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary, Morissette’s nervous breakdown on a flight between L.A. and Ottawa, and her lean years living in Toronto. Her determination to succeed and her rise to the top are chronicled, warts and all, without heaping amounts of praise or pages of glowing prose.

Though he refers to other articles about Morissette, the bulk of the information comes from Cantin’s own research and interviews. He reports on Morissette’s life and career without paying homage. The book is filled with interesting anecdotes and doesn’t avoid less-favourable truths. While it is not all news to her fans, they will definitely learn something.

Both bios include the prerequisite tales from the “little” people who knew Morissette before she was a star. There is no shortage of people in Ottawa willing to swallow a handful of jagged little pills for a chance to talk about their connection to the singer, but somehow Cantin seems to have extracted better information from the same people Grills interviewed.

For all their differences, these two books have one thing in common: like magazines in a dentist’s office, Ironic and You Oughta Know would have been a lot more interesting a year ago, but you can’t resist reading them anyway.