Lisa Brennan-Jobs' heartfelt memoir about growing up with (and without) her father Steve simply can't be written off as a quick cash grab capitalizing on the late Apple founder's fame - on the contrary, Small Fry is a stunning portrait of how growing up in Silicon Valley, falling in love, going to college and having multiple families is not supposed to look like; a valiant, brave, often overwhelming book full of brilliant moments and sharp, painful words. An incredible debut, and an absolute must read.
You know who I am?” he asked. He flipped his hair out of his eyes.
I was two and a half. I didn’t.
“I’m your father.“ (“Like he was Darth Vader,” my mother said later, when she told me the story.)
“I’m one of the most important people you will ever know,” he said.
Lisa Brennan-Jobs' Small Fry riffs on an overarching thread, which is her relationship with her diametrically opposite parents. Her mother Chrisann is a loving - but also borderline depressed - hippie artist. Her father Steve is absent, awkward and often cruel; he's also one of the most well-known figures of this century as Apple Computers' founder and CEO.
Upon this delicate scaffolding Brennan-Jobs builds one of the best books of the year. Eschewing each and every potential pitfalls (is this book a cash grab? Is editor Grove Press banking on a morbid portrait of Jobs?), Small Fry turns out to be one of the best memoirs of 2018 - a deeply poignant book where each and every word gets the weight it deserves.
“Perhaps you’ll mention my book in your book someday,” she said, surprising me with the idea that one book might refer to another like Russian dolls; and that there might be room for more than one book about the same people, and the same time.
Rising up from the challenge of providing a simple recollection of facts, and moving into the realm of deep and thoughtful introspection, Small Fry covers almost four decades, ranging between the early 80's to the present day. Changes in the world at large are reflected in Lisa's smaller world, with computing advancement and Jobs' own fortunes being reflected into the smaller universe in which Lisa lives.
Even then, Small Fry is not a book about technology: it's a book about humans first and foremost, and all of its brilliant moments have an own life, far away from the shifting technology landscape which prominently features in most written material about Steve Jobs. The main reason for this is that Small Fry is not a book about Steve Jobs; rather, it's a book with Steve Jobs in it. The lion's share of the scenes - and some of the book best moments to boot - are small and poignant. Without any doubt, these moments would make for some incredible set pieces whether or not Apple had ever existed.
Indeed, Small Fry is more than anything a book about growing up, coming to terms with one's legacy, heritage and identity, and struggling to find one's place in the world.
Sometimes, in the late afternoon after school during the weeks when we were not producing the newspaper, Josh and I went to Windy Hill preserve, up above Skyline, hills wide and yellow and soft like the humps of camels, on one side more hills like a blanket thrown out into the wind all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
The town was a miniature below us, silent and still except for the singing, rasping wind that flattened the tall grasses. A clear day, too much to take in, the glassy air, and the feeling of great freedom and grace, the world opening.
I looked north and I could see San Francisco sparkling in the distance, but clear like it was close. It was like the way I’d seen it in the hovering dream, both close and far away, something to do with the angle from this hill to those hills, the refraction of the light.
That’s how I felt about my parents now that Josh was around, not that I didn’t worry about how my mom would earn money, or about my father mocking me, or even what would happen when he realized that I was really leaving for college.
I was simply hovering above it all, so it didn’t pinch or press. Now Josh was the one who drove me to doctors’ appointments or between houses. He did not keep a calendar, forgot about homework assignments, and missed dentist appointments and other appointments, but never the ones with me.
I was protected inside his teal Supra.
After the spring rains, when the grasses came up out of the clods of dirt under the oak and eucalyptus trees around Stanford—viridian fuzz like whiskers, stripes of gold light in long bright ribbons—I thought, This is my town.
I walked home after school, and noticed the seasons change. Before this it was my father’s town, or my mother’s town, or the town where I’d been placed by accident and shifted around.
Now I was in love, and the land was dimensional and heavy and particulate; it belonged to me.
Small Fry is incredibly well-written: it's a debut book, and yet feels and reads as a much more mature ouvre. Brennan-Jobs' fascination with words is portrayed in a number of episodes in the story (which I don't want to spoil) - and she is, after all, a literature graduate at Harvard - but even so, it's fascinating how vivid and powerful her descriptions and dialogues are.
Even more striking is Small Fry's structure. While revolving around Steve Jobs' persona, the book manages to give enough space and life to a whole cast of side characters, which are arguably much more interesting and important than Apple's late founder. Chrisann's character - Lisa's mother - in particular is incredibly well-written and pierces through the page as one of the most heart-breaking recipients of collateral damage in Steve's wake.
“You’re a Simpleton,” I said, as a joke, a few days later when we were stopped at a gas station filling up and she said she liked the smell of gasoline. I’d never called her that before. I might have gotten the word from the Mock Turtle’s Story in Alice in Wonderland, parts of which she also liked to read aloud to me.
When I said the word, I wanted her to deny it. I wanted her to get mad at me: how dare I call her Simpleton—it wasn’t true. But she only laughed.
A couple months later, the new couch, chair, and ottoman arrived upholstered in the dun-colored linen with down-filled cushions and pillows. She gave the old ones away. She wore the skirt and sweater together a few times, for me, and then she must have given those away too.
I called her Simpleton when she made mistakes—forgetting directions, insisting that Italian ice cream wasn’t different from or better than the American variety. It made her laugh. I’d been spending more time with my father and Laurene, absorbing their ideas, their sophistication. I’d been to New York, I understood the importance of low-fat, watched Laurene add oil carefully and sparingly to salad dressings. I’d learned that gelato was different from, and better than, ice cream.
One day, driving somewhere, I noticed a speck of paint on her jeans she hadn’t noticed to wash off and said it again: “You’re a Simpleton.” This time she burst into tears, pulled over, and leaned on the steering wheel, surprising us both, and I never said it again.
In the end, however, each and every character in Small Fry is such an achievement in and of itself that it begs the question whether the personas in Lisa Brennan-Jobs' very own Odissey are so vivid and well-written just because she's such an amazing writer to boot.
And this is, in a nutshell, what makes Small Fry stand out from the endless list of books written for or about Apple's founder. Any other book about Steve Jobs couldn't have existed without Steve himself: a charismatic figure, bigger than life. But in Small Fry's case, it is clear that the driving force behind the book's power and beauty is not Steve, but Lisa.
Small Fry is Lisa Brennan-Jobs's masterpiece about her father. That her father also happens to be Steve Jobs is irrelevant, for Small Fry is such an incredibly poignant and inspiring book, so incredibly written and beautifully brought to life that it basically shines on its own as one of the best memoirs ever written.
By the time you'll reach the last page, you'll probably have trouble seeing through your tears. A book can be great because of what it is about, or because of how it's written. For Small Fry, however, the two claims to greatness blend and merge until you're no longer sure where the book stops and where life begins.
More importantly, you're no longer sure whether the book is about Lisa, or about all of us. With such a peculiar childhood, strong characters, at an unique moment in time in Silicon Valley, Small Fry could have easily turned into yet another hagiography. Because it doesn't, and because it's endlessly relatable, beautiful, sad, cruel, witty and poignant, and incredibly well-written to start with, Small Fry deservers a place in your bookcase, and in your heart as well.
When people speak and write about my father’s meanness, they sometimes assume that meanness is linked to genius. That to have one is to get closer to the other. But the way I saw him create was the best part of him: sensitive, collaborative, fun. The friends he worked with got to see this more than I did.
Maybe the meanness protected the part that created—so that acting mean to approximate genius is as foolish as trying to be successful by copying his lisp or his walk or the way he turned around and wagged his hands around his back and moaned to pretend he was making out.
“Look at those clouds,” he’d said once when he was sick but could still walk, in a sweet mood, pointing up out of the window on a sunny day. “Those clouds are approximately ten thousand feet up. That’s about two miles. If we wanted, you and I, we could walk—let’s see, a twenty-minute mile.
“We could be there in forty minutes,” he said.