Book Review: Small Fry

Lisa Brennan-Jobs is a good writer: quick-witted, poignant, and observational. Her style reminds me of her aunt’s (Mona Simpson) novels. This is no surprise, since she mentions her in Small Fry as an inspiration. Also of note, is that her aunt has written a fictionalized account of the same period in Lisa’s life as is largely covered by Small Fry. I read that novel, A Regular Guy, when I was a teenager. In fact, I’ve been reading books about Steve Jobs for about two decades now. Like many readers, Steve Jobs is the reason I picked up Small Fry, but Lisa’s journey resonated with me almost as much as the moments about her father.

When you become interested in a historical figure and start watching and reading about them, there’s a cast of characters—their family, their friends—that you’re introduced to along the way. My first exposure to Lisa came through the 1999 film Pirates of Silicon Valley, in which the story of her relationship with her father plays prominently. By the time I had read The Second Coming of Steve Jobs by Alan Deutschman the following year, to me she was an important sidenote—his initial denial of paternity of her following her birth, a significant blemish, for an otherwise heroic figure. The deeper you go in a canon (and there is a Steve Jobs canon—at least fifteen books), the more you become interested in those peripheral characters. And somewhere along the way I became interested in Lisa’s story.

Lisa’s story is intertwined with that of her mother, Chrisann Brennan, Jobs’s high school girlfriend, first love, and financial dependent for a large portion of Lisa’s life. She wrote a memoir a few years ago, The Bite in the Apple. So, in actuality we have three books—A Regular Guy, The Bite in the Apple, and Little Fry—which overlap very significantly in the period and relationships that they capture. Each comes from a different perspective, and I think it was likely important to Lisa that she recapture her own narrative through this memoir. It’s not only a chance to correct the record, but also can provide some kind of closure.

Ostensibly this is more than a memoir about her relationship with her father. It’s a memoir about growing up with that as a backdrop, but I frankly found the first half of the book pretty slow. That’s probably because there’s less of her father in the first half, and the parts with her father were the parts that interested me the most.

Lisa has a tendency to write about events that occurred to her 30 years+ ago in great levels of detail. Levels of detail so great (exact words, imagery, and small happenings) that one has to conclude she either has a photographic memory, or is remembering things in the most dramatic way to suit her narrative. The Bite in the Apple also suffers from this flaw—overly exact ancient memories that cause the reader to question the veracity of their content. It is of course possible that both mother and daughter have incredible memories, but it’s also possible that there’s a little bit of dramatic license in their accounts.

Small Fry is emotionally powerful. The story is dramatic enough that even readers more interested in Lisa’s emotional journey than Steve Jobs will get something out of it. Ultimately, as most memoirs by definition tend to be, it’s also one-sided. The low points with her father seem awful, and the high points seem agreeable and fascinating but dulled. Mona Simpson and Laurene Powell Jobs (Steve Jobs’s widow) have put out a statement questioning Lisa’s harsh treatment of her father. I think, in wanting to recapture her narrative, Lisa did have something of an agenda in writing this book, even if she’s not willing to admit it to herself in its pages. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good book, that doesn’t take you on a meaningful emotional journey, and further develop your understanding of Steve Jobs.

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I teach Computer Science to college students, develop software, podcast, and write books about programming including the Classic Computer Science Problems series. I'm the publisher of the hyper local newsletter BTV Daily.

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Based on tdSimple originally by Lasantha Bandara and released under the CC By 3.0.