I first sought to read this book when its author was still alive. I couldn’t get the galley, and so I obtained a copy of the audiobook from Seattle Bibliocommons, by which time Trebek had left us.
It’s a curious thing, the attachment so many of his viewers, myself included, felt toward him. He was a game show host. There are other game shows that have longstanding hosts, but when they die—if they haven’t already—it will register as nothing more than a footnote, a handy answer in Trivial Pursuit. But somehow, with his polished yet soothing demeanor, Trebek found his way into our hearts. Go know.
The audio is read alternately by Trebek and by Ken Jennings, a record-breaking champion that found a measure of fame himself. It works nicely. Here are the things that surprised me. First, Alex’s family lived in a small town in Canada near Ottawa. They struggled financially, and so in order to pursue higher education, Alex had to have a scholarship. He got one, but while enrolled, he got into a power battle with a particularly hated teacher. Alex was expelled. That was a good school, though, in spite of the man Trebek so hated (and about whom he never changed his mind!) In the end, he and his father returned to the school, met with the administrator, and begged. A more sympathetic teacher/mentor agreed to be in charge of young Alex, and he was able to go back and complete his degree.
His career started in radio, working as a disc jockey. He had a love of classical music, and found his way to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. Later, he was invited to audition for a game show in the States. So much more money! From there he hosted quite a number of game shows, finally landing his berth in Jeopardy in 1984. Later on he briefly considered trying to move into acting, but he came to know some actors that worked on the same set where Jeopardy was filmed, and he soon found out that they were making the same money as he was or less, but he only worked for a couple hours each day, home in plenty of time to eat dinner with his family and pursue hobbies and whatnot, whereas the actors were keeping grueling schedules. At that point, he decided he liked it just fine right where he was.
In parting, he reminded his listeners that everybody dies, and he is in his nineties. He’s had a good life. It’s time to go. I found this tremendously graceful, because pancreatic cancer has a reputation for being one of the most painful forms of the disease. But maybe that was Trebek’s magic: always putting the other person at ease.
Egil “Bud” Krogh was one of the men known as the “White House Plumbers,” which was a small group of operatives that dressed as tradesmen in order to illegally break into and ransack private offices for the purpose of digging up dirt on political opponents. Krogh’s job, together with E. Howard Hunt, was to lead a small team of men to burglarize the office of Dr. Fielding, the psychiatrist that treated journalist Daniel Ellsberg, in search of a way to discredit Ellsberg, whom President Richard Nixon regarded as an opponent.
My thanks go to Net Galley, St. Martin’s Press, and Macmillan Audio for the review copy and audio book. This book is for sale now.
Few people shy of the Boomer generation will have personal recollection of the Watergate scandal that brought down a sitting U.S. president for the first time, and the burglary of Fielding’s office was the first illegal event that set it all in motion. Nixon was furious that the Pentagon Papers had been released and that the U.S. Supreme Court had come down on the side of the First Amendment and the free press. Consequently, the president decided that the executive branch must go it alone, and sought a way to discredit the journalists behind it. That was how all of this came about. He howled about national security, and may or may not have believed it; or, he may have sought to cover up lies he had told to the American people about the war in Indochina, and since he couldn’t force the publication out of circulation, the next best thing would be to persuade the public that its authors—or annotators, at any rate—were crazy and not to be believed. This background information comes from me, not from the book.
At any rate, this political memoir comes to us courtesy of Bud Krogh, and also his son Matthew, who completed it after Bud’s death. For the purpose of this review, I will use the name Krogh to refer to Bud, unless otherwise noted.
Krogh was brought into this mess by John Ehrlichman, one of the two advisors that were nearly as close as a second skin to Nixon during his time in office. Other accounts refer to both as cold-blooded thugs, and my earlier reading leads me to agree with them, but to Bud, Ehrlichman was a noble soul dedicated to his country and his president, a fine, devout individual that was like a second father to him growing up. It didn’t occur to him, initially at least, that anything he was being asked to do was corrupt or scandalous; here, I find myself shifting in my seat. Surely he must have wondered why this secret little group of men, not even government employees, were being tasked with this job, rather than the agencies that ordinarily do the cloak-and-dagger jobs? He claims that Nixon couldn’t trust FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who was a slimy character, and that makes at least a little sense to anyone familiar with him. Yikes.
The writing as well as the accountability are uneven throughout this book. The prologue sounds sketchy to me. Those of us that have spent any time at all watching criminal trials take place is familiar with the vaguely nebulous language I see and hear at the beginning of this thing. Instead of saying that he has done something very wrong and is sorry, he says he has made bad choices, and he is sorry about “what happened.” This is the language that guilty people use when their attorney has told them to show remorse. Someone not listening carefully might think that the speaker has apologized, but they’ve actually distanced themselves from wrongdoing. During this portion of the memoir, I glanced at the text and also the device playing the audio, half expecting to see a little slime leaching from its margins.
And yet, at the end, the prose is more eloquent, and the accountability rock solid. Krogh goes to the psychiatrist in order to apologize in person, once he is out of prison. He visits Nixon to apologize to him (which baffles me, but okay.) He claims to have declined a presidential pardon. He never loses an opportunity to put on a hair shirt prior to his many speaking engagements. And so it goes.
One could surmise that the early portion was written by Krogh, and the end written by his son, but even if that is true, those speaking engagements were taken by Bud, not by Matthew, and likewise the specific apologies rendered. So who knows?
The narrator for the audiobook is Peter Krogh, who does a fine job.
If you are interested in studying the Watergate scandal and haven’t read any other books about it, this is not the one. Krogh’s involvement ended with the break-in to Fielding’s office, and he helped cover it up, lying under oath as he was told to do, but he had nothing to do with the Watergate Hotel burglary of the Democratic National Committee’s offices. In short, though famous enough to be remembered for his actions, he was not a central player. For those interested in reading just one book about this scandal, I’d go with All the President’s Men, by Woodward and Bernstein; The Nixon Defense, by John Dean; or Nixon: The Life, by John A Farrell. These are all fairly lengthy; if you are looking for something less lengthy, try One Man Against the World, by Tim Weiner.
As a general read for the uninitiated, I’d give this book 2.5 stars. For Nixon and Watergate buffs, I rate it 3.5 stars.
Marked for Life is the legal memoir of Isaac Wright, Junior, and it is a compelling story. At age 28, Wright was framed as a “drug kingpin,” though he had never used or sold drugs, and when he rejected the plea deal offered him, he was convicted and sentenced to life plus seventy years. Through his own efforts, he was able to prove his own innocence and regain his freedom. This book is for sale now, and you should get it and read it.
My thanks go to Net Galley and Macmillan Audio for the review copy. Listening to the recorded version is all the more powerful, because the author reads it himself. Readers should know that this book starts out painfully harsh, with the blow-by-blow events of the day he is arrested, and his subsequent treatment. There’s not a tremendous amount of physical violence, but the emotional toll could just about bring me to my knees; imagine how it must have been for Wright, who lived through it! I begin to fear that I will dread listening to it, and so I promise myself that this will be my car book; I will listen to it while I am driving around, and when I get home, I will turn it off. However, only the beginning is harsh, and once I am twenty percent of the way into it, it becomes so interesting that I quickly change my mind, and it joins me in the kitchen. So reader, don’t be afraid of this book. The rough part is all in the first few chapters.
Wright is targeted by corrupt local officials, who are under the misapprehension that he has a small fortune socked away in the safe in his bedroom. In fact, Wright is a successful businessman; he starts as a music producer, then moves into management, touring with Run DMC, and indeed, he and his family live well. Although he doesn’t say as much, part of me wonders if that is his crime, in the eyes of the local cops and courts: he’s a Black man with money. As soon as he is arrested, the shakedown begins. Give us the money, Wright, and we’ll make it all go away.
He doesn’t, and they don’t.
The most fascinating part of this is learning how a prisoner is able to study the law and represent himself. Obviously, not everyone is as literate and intelligent as Wright is; he makes himself indispensable to other prisoners by assisting them with their own cases also. His ability to juggle a lot of moving parts—his own appeal, his fellow inmates’ cases, and the rigors and restrictions of the prison system, along with the endless pressure on him from those that framed him—is impressive. A lot of his success lies in his perception of what other people want. What does the warden want? What do his fellow prisoners want and need? If this had been me, I don’t think it would have gone well. I’d have been good with the research and the paperwork, but I doubt I could have read the wishes and intentions of those around me as successfully as Wright has done. Ultimately, it is an inspirational story, and I highly recommend it to you.
Priscilla Presley is the ex-wife of the king of Rock and Roll. I was a teenager when he died, and neither I nor most of my peers were fans; in the event his name did come up, we’d invariably ask, “Wait. Do you mean young hot Elvis, or old pudgy Elvis?” But I do love a good memoir, and those written by or about musicians are high on my list. My thanks go to Net Galley and Macmillan Audio for the review copy. This audio version of the author’s 1985 memoir is for sale now.
The relationship between Priscilla and Elvis took place in a completely different time, with completely different sexual mores and assumptions. That said, this was still a truly messed up pairing. Today, Elvis would probably be considered a predator, but within the context of the American South in the 1950s and early 1960s, he was regarded as a romantic, and women threw themselves at his feet. A quick online peek at old film and television clippings says it all.
Priscilla grew up in a strict but loving household. Her stepfather, the only father she knew, since her own died when she was an infant, was a military man, and so the family moved often. It was while they were stationed in Germany that one of Elvis’s employees saw Priscilla and invited her to meet with Elvis, who was doing his own tour of duty.
I have to feel for the bind her parents were in. On the one hand, she was just fourteen years old, and Presley was twenty-four, a grown man. On the other hand, if they refused to let her go, she would never have forgiven them; this was an invitation that literally millions of girls yearned for. Seeking a happy medium, her stepdad set boundaries: they were to be chaperoned, never alone together, and he wanted her home at a certain time. He groused about the fact that someone other than Elvis would be transporting her, but the reason was a legitimate one: Elvis could not drive himself anywhere without the car being mobbed. It was genuinely unsafe.
Rather than being the single event that the family anticipated, Elvis made their visits regular ones; when her parents balked, Elvis spoke to them personally, turning all of his charismatic charm on them, and telling them everything they wanted to hear. Most of it was untrue, of course, but the one thing he adhered to was not having sexual intercourse. During this time period, the Madonna-Whore dichotomy was alive and well, and any girl or woman known to have sex outside of marriage was likely to be ostracized by former friends and in some cases, family. It’s hard to imagine now, but at that time, no birth control pill had been invented, and a pregnancy outside of marriage was likely to ruin a young woman’s entire life.
Priscilla reads this memoir to us herself, and that makes it much more fun to hear. As we age our faces and our bodies change a lot, but our speaking voices change very little. Remembering some of the silly moments from that time, the author lets out a brief, girlish giggle, and it’s almost impossible to believe that she is now a grandmother.
Priscilla acknowledges that this was a monstrously unequal relationship. Elvis dictated whom she could talk to, what she wore, and sometimes even what room in the house she was supposed to be in. At one point, when he is going to be touring for months on end and she will be left at home with his grandmother, she goes out and gets a job. She’s so proud of herself. He makes her quit immediately. When he phones from the road, she had by God better be there. Priscilla compares this to Pygmalion. He has all the power, and she is in his thrall before she has even had a chance to grow up.
I have read two other Elvis biographies, and as dreadful as all of this sounds, the other authors were less gentle. In fact, this is part of Priscilla’s stated reason for deciding to tell her own story.
There are advantages to reading this particular biography. The official version of events is often what is published, but Priscilla is positioned to know the real story, more often than not. For example: when Elvis is drafted, the official story is that, although stars of his caliber are often offered soft assignments that involve singing to the troops, or making inspirational training films, Elvis insisted on doing the same job as every other American man. On the other hand, Priscilla states that this is all his manager’s doing, because it will make Elvis appear noble. Enough new songs were taped in advance for there to be regular new releases on the radio throughout his tour of duty; toward the end, Elvis feigns illness because he’d prefer to be in the hospital being swarmed by nurses than marching around and getting dirty.
Her memory of Elvis, despite everything he put her through, is mostly a tender one. The spiral that led to his death, his issues with mental health, back before much was known, coupled with the immense number of strong prescription drugs he used to wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night—or to NOT go to sleep at all, and just stay up, night after night—set him up for relationships with unscrupulous characters, and nobody could rein him in, because he was the King.
Recommended to those that like vintage rock music or well-written memoirs of famous musicians.
Saloma Miller Furlong is the author of two memoirs that focus on her decision to leave the Amish faith and community; this is her third. I received a copy for review purposes from the author; this book is for sale now.
Furlong hasn’t had the typical Amish childhood. In her earlier works, she explains that her father was unable to function normally; given to sudden, inexplicable rages, he was a frightening man when he was angry, and he was angry often. Sometimes his rages occurred at predictable times; other times, they came from nowhere. He was unable to do the necessary work to support the family, as is usual in Amish households, and Saloma’s mother, siblings, and Saloma herself had to scramble to pick up the slack. These things are described in Why I Left the Amish and Bonnet Strings. Her experience is also featured in two PBS Experience films, “The Amish,” and “The Amish Shunned.” These documentaries are available free of cost online.
None of Saloma’s books provides light reading; her experience is a brutal one, her childhood traumatic. She is assaulted numerous times, and some of these involve sexual assaults. She tells her mother, who does nothing to protect her. And so, if you are looking for a book that details the typical Amish life, its cultural and religious practices, what technology is acceptable and what is forbidden, and so forth, this is probably not the book you’re looking for, although the two documentaries mentioned above will provide a good overview. Instead, her books demonstrate what happens when an Amish household or some of its members are in crisis.
The extremity of her trauma is glaringly obvious by the fact that her first two memoirs completely overlook her mother’s own brutality towards Saloma, as well as her complicity in assaults by Saloma’s father and older brother. For more than fifty years, this author buried this part of her own trauma, the betrayal she experienced by the person most responsible for her protection as a child. Only recently has she permitted herself to acknowledge it within her own mind, let alone write about it. In the email she sent me requesting that I read and review this new memoir, she told me that she wishes there were a way to recall every single copy of that first memoir, because it omits so much. But I believe one can also read it, and for that matter, all three of these books, with the understanding that we learn as much by what is not said, as by what is.
Saloma’s decision to leave home, to abandon the culture that is all she’s ever known, is driven by two factors. The first and greatest, of course, is self-preservation, the need to find physical safety. But another strong motivator is intellectual inquiry. Amish girls do not attend school after grade 8. This isn’t a general rule; it’s an absolute one. In rare cases an exception may be made for a young man, if his course of study will ultimately benefit the community, but at the end of eighth grade, girls are done. Informal study and reading are also nearly impossible. Amish homes contain the Bible and essential Amish teachings; novels, art books, even resource materials have no place there. An Amish family member that is curled up with a book or newspaper is a slacker at best, using time that could instead be used to benefit the family. At worst, it is a sign of moral corruption, reading worldly content that is not necessary and may even be regarded as evil. No, Saloma couldn’t get away with such things; she once purchased a magazine subscription of the tamest variety, and that was allowed, though it was seen as strange.
Sometimes we know a book is good because of the thinking it inspires after we finish the final page. So it is for me here. I find myself wondering why there aren’t more Amish youngsters that are unable to turn away from the written word. Surely there are other bright, intellectually curious boys and girls that chafe at being forcibly wrenched from their education? Initially I assumed, as many non-Amish do, that most Amish youth might slip through the open door represented by Rumspringa, hit the road, and never look back, but I learned that this isn’t true. The overwhelming majority of Amish teens remain Amish all of their lives, and the majority that do leave, return home later and stay put. And so I wonder; have they simply bred for passivity? It’s a conundrum.
I am initially surprised by Furlong’s decision to use the same book cover here that she used on her first, but I believe it may have been done with an eye toward replacing the old memoir with this new one.
As for the writing quality here, I like the quality of her analysis, and so for those that enjoy a memoir with depth, I recommend this book to you.
I enjoy a good memoir, and so I was all in when I saw this singular work; my thanks go to Bloomsbury and Net Galley for the review copy. It’s by “the beloved founding editor of Buzzfeed Books,” but somehow, I either missed that part or forgot about it, so I read it and assessed it as if he were just some random guy, and ultimately, that’s probably the fairest way to do so anyway. This book is for sale now.
Fitzgerald has seen and done just about everything. His family life growing up is dreadful, and he is delighted to bail out of the screaming, wretched mess called home in order to attend boarding school. He is the scholarship kid, but he benefits plenty from the largesse of his classmates. Post education, he takes himself to San Francisco, with an entire continent stretching between himself and his family. Upon arrival, he continues his favorite pastime, drinking, which he began doing with his older brother when he was just twelve. His parents didn’t do it, so he figured it might be a good choice.
The promotional blurb says that this is the story of the author’s “search for a more expansive vision of masculinity.” Perhaps this is why I find it so hard to relate to. There are moments, though. A huge chunk of the first half in particular describes his affinity for bars, which he identifies as his safe spaces. My notes from the start of this segment say “Oh boy, I always wanted to read yet another alcoholic memoir.” Soon afterward, though, he says, as if reading my mind, that if we expect him to discuss the way he quit drinking, we’ll be in for a long wait, because he still drinks, though not nearly as much. That much was good for a chuckle. Then there’s another segment about his period with the porn industry. I confess I straight-up skimmed some of that, although again, there’s a moment, when he talks about the importance of consent, and how the porn industry, in his experience, is more careful and respectful of this boundary than anyone else he’s encountered.
The book is billed as being humorous, but this is a massive overstatement. Most of the content is dead serious. But then again—yes, you guessed it. There are moments.
What takes me by surprise, and happily so, is the message that he’s spent the whole book building toward, and I never see it coming until we’re there. I highlighted it in case I wanted to use it as a quote here, but that would be an epic spoiler. You didn’t know that memoirs can have spoilers? Oh yes. They can. And when I see this one, my disgruntlement fades and I am once again a perfectly gruntled reader and reviewer.
One aspect that I appreciate, and particularly appreciated during the rougher patches, is that the brief essays that, strung together, make up the memoir, make very short chapters, and they’re clearly marked. This is a terrific bedtime book, because I am able to find a reasonable stopping place when I need to turn out the light (or, as it happens, turn off my Kindle.)
If you’ve read this review and are interested, then I recommend it to you. I anticipate that men will enjoy it more than women.
Seamas O’Reilly is an Irish journalist; as far as I can tell, this is his first book. He was just five years old, one of the youngest of eleven children, when cancer claimed his mother, leaving his father—an extraordinary man, if even half of Seamas tells us is accurate—to raise them all. This is their story. My thanks go to Net Galley; Little, Brown and Company; and Fleet Audio for the review copies. This memoir is for sale now.
Of all the ways in which one can write about the death of a parent, this is one that I never considered. O’Reilly describes his family, his mother’s demise and the impact it has on his family and the community; and the subsequent years of his own and his family members’ lives, and he is hysterically funny. How he manages to achieve this without breaching the boundaries of good taste and respect is nothing short of pure alchemy. Somehow he finds just the right combination of irreverent humor, poignant remembrance, and affection, and it’s pitch perfect.
His finest bits are assigned to his father. I’m giving you just one example, because I want you to experience everything else in context. This isn’t his most amusing anecdote, but it’s a worthy sample of his voice. After heaping praise on him for other things, he tells us:
“He is alarmingly cocky when it comes to his skill at killing mice, a species he hates with a malevolent, blackhearted glee. It’s an odd facet of his character; a man regarded by his friends as one of the kindest, gentlest humans on earth, and by mice as Josef Stalin. He takes particular joy in improvising weapons for the purpose, and has killed rodents with a shoe, a book, and at least one bottle of holy water shaped like the Virgin Mary. He famously dispatched one with a single throw of a portable phone, without even getting out of bed. I know this because he woke us so we could inspect the furry smudge on his bedroom wall…”
I have both the audiobook and the DRC, and rather than alternate between the two, or listening to the audio and then skimming the DRC for quotations and to answer any of my own questions, which is my usual method, I chose to read them both separately, because this story is good enough to read twice, a thing I seldom do these days. Whereas I usually think that having the author read his own audio is ideal, since the author himself knows exactly where to place emphasis and deliver the piece the way it is intended, this time I am ambivalent. O’Reilly speaks faster than any audio reader I’ve yet heard, and he doesn’t vary his pitch much, and as a result, there are some funny bits that I miss the first time through; I am doubly glad to have it in print also. As the audio version progresses, I grow more accustomed to his speaking style, and I miss less than I did at the outset. Nevertheless, if the reader has a choice and doesn’t greatly prefer audiobooks, I recommend print over audio. Ideally, I suggest doing as I did and acquiring both versions.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this will be among the most memorable and enjoyable books published in 2022. Highly recommended.
I hadn’t heard of Melissa Rivers, but when a friend mentioned that the daughter of the legendary comic, Joan Rivers, had an audio book nearing its publication date, I wanted it. My thanks go to Net Galley and RB Media for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
Joan Rivers was an icon, one of the first fierce women to breach the world of standup, an old boys club if ever there was one. She was scrappy, fearless, and very, very funny. Like all of the early women comics, she incorporated a good deal of self-deprecating humor, a defense against all of the nasty things that reviewers and audience members might throw at her, but she also made fun of the rich, the famous, and the powerful.
Joan died in 2016, and although she was eighty-one years old, news of her passing came as a shock. She hadn’t been ill, and had been admitted to a hospital for surgery of a fairly minor nature; her death was caused by errors made by the doctors and hospital. Her only child, Melissa, had been developing a standup career of her own, and now steps fully into the spotlight left vacant by her mother’s death.
I had never heard of Melissa or her work when I found this audio book, but I expected great things; often a talent is passed down within a family, after all. Sadly, there’s no joy to be had here. Melissa’s tone is grating and abrasive; whereas Joan sometimes veered in that direction, she had the skill and instincts that told her when to pull back or soften things. Joan’s trademark phrase, “Can we talk?” created a sense of intimacy, and drew me in. Melissa’s repels me. Apparently, I am not alone; I was playing this audiobook while preparing dinner, and when other family members came into the kitchen, they either wanted it turned off, or they left immediately. Nothing she said made any of us laugh, or even smile. Nothing. I have never heard a comic so obnoxious.
Wikipedia tells me that Melissa Rivers is known for her work in comedy, and for philanthropy, as heir to her parents’ considerable estate. I haven’t seen or heard any of Melissa’s other work, but if this book is representative, she might do better to focus on her charity work, brightening the world by embracing the causes dearest to her parents’ hearts, and her own.
Hannah Gadsby appeared from seemingly out of nowhere—to those of us in the States—with a searing personal story about her own trauma that was built into her standup comedy routine. Nanette singed our eyebrows and made a great many of us absolutely love her. When I saw this memoir, I knew I had to read it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy; that said, I would have paid an exorbitant price for a personal copy had it been necessary, and I would not have been disappointed in what I bought.
This book is for sale now.
In some ways it seems useless to review this memoir, because those that are interested in reading it are already fans; those that recoiled in horror from her blunt revelations and assessments of the world around us won’t read it, no matter what I say. But for the few that haven’t seen her standup routine, I counsel you first to watch Nanette on Netflix, and then watch Douglas, too. Of course, you can go into this memoir green, but you’ll appreciate it more if you understand her references to the show.
For those that are fans but are wondering whether the memoir is going to be her standup material, recycled—and surely, plenty of other people have done that sort of thing—I can reassure you that it is not. There are references to Nanette, and there are also references to her newer release, Douglas, the show she named after her dog. But there’s a good deal of information here that you won’t get anywhere else, and that’s what makes it worth it.
After discovering that Gadsby made it in the entertainment business despite coming from no money whatsoever, with no connections to anyone in show business in her native Australia or elsewhere, and having a host of disabilities, foremost among them autism, I wondered whether her success was a piece of rare good luck, or the result of hard work and perseverance unseen by most of her viewers. It’s the latter. And not only has she worked long and hard to make it as a comic, she is also one hell of a fine writer. The depth of analysis and critical thinking in this memoir took my breath away.
Since I’ve been reviewing, I have built myself a bit of a reading routine. There are particular times of day when I read, and also times when I put my books down to get other things done. Gadsby destroyed my orderly timetable. It’s been a long time since any book, however enjoyable to read, has caused me to say, Nope. Not stopping. This one did.
I highlighted a lot of passages, but I’ve decided not to use any direct quotes here, because all of them are so much better in context. But I will say that I am truly ashamed at the way that teachers let her down. As a child she was disciplined, bullied, and received everything at school except the help she desperately needed. I am devastated that my profession failed this brilliant woman. I’d love to believe that things have improved significantly since she was a child, but in my heart, I know there are still little Hannahs out there. Some are falling through the cracks, whereas others are pushed. The horror!
Most of her story is not horrifying, however; it is immensely entertaining. Nobody could safely walk through the room while I was reading without having to listen to a passage or two. On the other hand, nobody minded much, either, because Gatsby.
The most engaging aspect of this memoir—and its author—is authenticity. She never pulls punches, whether describing her own poor choices, or those made by others. One or two very popular American performers have taken passive aggressive swipes at her, and she uses this opportunity to swipe back, right at the start of the book, no less! I wanted to stand up and cheer, but instead, I did it sitting down so as not to lose my place.
The only question remaining is whether you should read this brilliant, darkly funny and disarmingly frank memoir in print or audio. I haven’t heard the audio, but since she reads it herself, you know it’s good. On the other hand, there are several passages that are so well written that I went back over them before moving on; you might miss those with an audio book. True fans that can do so should get both versions.
There are books, and then there’s this: the autobiography of an icon that will be read for generations. I passed—perhaps foolishly—on a review copy, because I was afraid there would be large passages of minutiae about tennis, which doesn’t interest me. I was mistaken in my concern, but it worked out well, because I borrowed an audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the author reads her own book. She is an old woman now, and hearing her detail her own remarkable life is a matchless experience. It’s hard to imagine there will be a more important, or more enjoyable book published in the coming year.
Billie Jean Moffitt King is born in 1943 and grows up in Southern California in a conservative working class family; her dad is a firefighter, and her mother stays home, as most mothers did back then. There is Billie, and there is her brother, and the family are devoted Methodists. Who is to know that both children will be famous one day? Brother Randy becomes a professional baseball player, and Billie Jean becomes a record-breaking tennis star and a passionate social justice activist. If you, reader, are younger than sixty, you probably don’t even know how much you owe Billie Jean.
Growing up, King enjoys all sorts of sports, but when she is introduced to tennis, a light comes on. The problem is, tennis is a sport for the elite, even more so back then than now. To find a tennis court, you needed to either have a private court built on your palatial estate, or belong to a country club, and of course, to do that, you also have to be Caucasian. Billie Jean’s family is nowhere near affluent enough to belong. And so, early on, her passion and her obvious talent draw support from people with enough pull, or enough money, to give her access. She takes the time to thank them, but doesn’t let this bog the story down.
Over and over, however, she is shut out on account of her gender. Prize money typically pays enough to help an athlete pay their own travel expenses and buy equipment, but when women are allowed to compete in competitions prestigious enough to offer prize money, it’s only for the men. Women are expected to be grateful that they are included at all. And as King gets better at her sport and her confidence grows, she begins to push back. Nobody wants to watch women play tennis? Since when? And since when should people of color be shut out?
Although she doesn’t say so, it becomes obvious to me that in addition to athletic talent, confidence, intelligence, and almost endless energy, King has one more talent, one that isn’t recognized as such in the mid-twentieth century: she has amazing people skills. Over and over, she is able to reach compromises, make deals, and shorten the gap between conservative perceptions of women athletes, and what all athletes deserve. She discusses the various battles (though she doesn’t use this word) and how they are resolved, and I am amazed at the grace and dignity she demonstrates. Perhaps the most telling moment is when she befriends Bobby Riggs, the obnoxious bastard that she has defeated in front of the world, and later, when he is on his deathbed, takes a call from his wife. Riggs is asking for her, and he doesn’t have much time left. She is too far away to get to him in time, but she tells him on the phone that she loves him. Wow.
If you are or were a girl that participated in high school sports, or if you or your loved ones have benefited from Title IX, thank Billie Jean, who testified before Congress. She also started the first professional tennis circuit for women.
Over the years, King wins 39 Wimbledon Grand Slam titles and a host of others as well. I am a child when she plays Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes,” and she beats him squarely. What I don’t know (and would still not have known if I’d been paying attention,) is that she does her very best not to play this tournament. Riggs is much older than she, and he hounds her—in fact, today his behavior would violate anti-stalking laws. But she calmly tells him, over and over, that she isn’t interested, and then she ignores his calls and turns away from his in-person visits. But when a fellow women’s tennis champion plays him and loses, Billie turns to her husband and manager, Larry King, and with a sigh, says, “Okay. You’d better set it up.”
At this point, I turn away from the audio book and head to YouTube to watch The Battle of the Sexes. This trip back to the society in which I grew up is hair-raising. The ways that men talk about women, in public forums! The remarks by Howard Cosell, who was the most liberal of sportscasters, about her physical appearance, and the patronizing remarks of others are appalling. I wouldn’t go back for anything in this world! But when she is asked antagonizing questions, Billie Jean comments, briefly, calmly, and without showing even the slightest offence. Her coolness on the court is mirrored in her cool public appearances. It’s remarkable.
When Gloria Steinem starts Ms. Magazine, King supports her, but she is always either asleep or busy, so husband Larry handles the mail. When he sees the request to add her name to a list of famous women that support a woman’s right to choose, as the controversy over Roe v. Wade heats up, he signs for her and then forgets to mention it to her; had he read more carefully, he would have noted the line, “I had an abortion!” King doesn’t know it’s about to be public knowledge, and her parents didn’t know she’d terminated a pregnancy. It’s not a good moment.
Later, when her feelings for other women grow stronger, she and Larry separate, but not completely. For years, she stays with him when they both show up in town at the same time, and they continue a romantic relationship, though infrequently. It is when she grows close to South African tennis player Ilana, and Ilana makes her choose, that she divorces Larry; again, they remain friends.
I could carry on all day about this woman, a champion on the court and off, but if you are interested enough to read this entire review, then you’re interested enough to get this book. I’m sure the print version is lovely, but the audio book—which sounds like a garrulous old lady telling her story, like Forrest Gump, but authentic and more accomplished—and hearing her voice wobble when she speaks of her most moving experiences, is simply unmissable.