Troublemaker, by Leah Remini and Rebecca Paley****

TroublemakerActor Leah Remini was a child when her mother discovered Scientology; the church was in many ways her parent. When she rebelled against it, she was smart and very public, and she spells the entire thing out for us right here.

Scientology is a cult that relies heavily, as cults do, on secrecy and peer pressure. Children are seen as adults in children’s bodies; they have more agency than kids in normal families do, but they also have absolutely no support system. This is a thing that the states should have been all over a long time ago, but money talks, and the church cultivates relationships with people in key places. No wonder they didn’t want Remini—or anybody else—to talk about it. In turns her memoir is incisive, shocking, and sometimes very funny. Remini discovered that the emperor isn’t wearing a stitch when she challenged the double standard the church uses with regard to big names, in particular Tom Cruise. Her candor and wit make the story shine.

Should you buy this book? I did, thanks to a gift certificate from Powell’s City of Books. Had I known that there was an entire television series, in documentary format, I might have decided to buy something else, but it’s a well-written memoir, albeit with the assistance of someone else.  It flows well with never a slow point, and there are a lot of interesting pictures.

An interesting memoir, and a fast read.

Petty, by Warren Zanes*****

pettyI posted this review almost two years ago, and at the time most of us considered that Petty had a lot of gas left in his tank. Of all the musical memoirs and biographies I have read–and there are many–this is the one I loved best. The loss of this plucky badass rocker hit me harder than the death of any public figure since Robin Williams died, so reposting this here is my way of saying goodbye to him. Hope he’s learning to fly.

https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2015/11/02/petty-by-warren-zanes/

Infinite Tuesday, by Michael Nesmith****

infinitetues

Michael Nesmith is a veteran of the entertainment industry, but his name is most recognizable as the wool-beanie-wearing member of The Monkees. Nesmith has a treasure trove of experience and insight, and he’s very articulate. I really enjoyed this memoir, and if American musical and cultural history interest you, I recommend you get a copy when it comes out April 18, 2017. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Archetype for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this honest review.

Nesmith came of age in Texas, the child of a single hardworking mother, and was mentored by the profane elderly Uncle Chick, whose spoken cadence Nesmith would later find in his own sense of musical rhythm. Because Texas was the exclusive province, at the time, of country and gospel music, Michael and his pregnant girlfriend loaded themselves and Mike’s guitar into his mother’s car and took off for Los Angeles. It proved to be a good move.

Those that cannot remember the birth of rock and roll have no idea how polarizing it was. The cliché term “generation gap” represented a genuine source of friction and alienation in a lot of families; some parents decided that rock was not an art form but instead a type of devil worship. Some disowned their children over it and didn’t take them back later. I’m serious. And so when Nesmith credits his mother for her patience and forbearance—he actually didn’t ask if he could take her only car, for instance—he’s not just being gracious. Here, let him tell you:

 

It was unthinkable to everyone who had just fought World War II that the music…the whole cultural imperative of the victorious warriors would be torn down by their kids as if it were ugly curtains in the den.

 

Soon Nesmith would be chosen as a member of The Monkees, which catapulted four little-known young men to instant fame; Nesmith recalls that although seventeen to twenty-year-old Beatles fans were incensed by the TV imitation, the nine to twelve-year-old television kids—of which this reviewer was one—saw them as a fact:

What followed was what Nesmith calls “Celebrity Psychosis”, a sense of disproportion and entitlement caused by instant stardom, obsequious handlers, and bizarre social circumstances. He humorously recounts strange experiences, such as singing at a local school and being pursued by screaming adolescent girls, and being “sighted” shopping in a grocery store.

He recalls his experience as John Lennon’s house guest in London, and he cites Jimi Hendrix as the best rocker that ever lived. He also drops a rather nasty slam at Bob Dylan without any real explanation, and I confess that is part of the missing fifth star. What the hell?

Bette Nesmith, Michael’s late mother, invented Liquid Paper while he entered show business, and her fortune helped finance some of his creative products. Nesmith was a pioneer in the field of country rock as well as the music video. He produced movies and won a Grammy for “Elephant Parts”, an early music video:

 

He is also an ardent feminist, and his recollections show that he was one before it was cool. Thank you, Mr. Nesmith.

I have to admit that I find the first half of the memoir more interesting than the second half. The author goes on in the latter half of the book to speak at length about his spiritual experiences with Christian Science and the ways in which wealth distorts a person’s character, though he recognizes the latter doesn’t garner a lot of sympathy.  “Never complain about the air-conditioning a private jet.” He also does a lot of brow-beating about having stolen a friend’s wife, and attributes the failure of that marriage—his second, or his third maybe—to guilt.

Despite the aspects that I didn’t enjoy, I do recommend this memoir, because it eloquently describes a wide, enormously dynamic period in American film, music, and television. Nesmith unspools the last half of the 19th century with the wisdom of his experience, and it’s a perspective completely unlike any other I have seen.
Recommended for those with an interest in contemporary American cultural history, as well as to fans of Nesmith and The Monkees.

The Animators, by Kayla Rae Whitaker*****

 “I always heered that art was for ugly girls and queers.”

theanimators

The Animators is the right story at the right time, outstanding fiction that is too impossibly good to be debut fiction, and yet here it is. I nearly let the DRC pass me by, because apart from its female main characters, there is nothing here that would ordinarily hook me. I am too old, too straight, and too un-artistic to be part of the target demographic. But I had been in a rut lately, reading too many mysteries, and so I decided to step out of my comfort zone; in doing so, I hit the jackpot. Sometimes rewards come when we aren’t expecting them, and it would be a sad thing to let a golden moment pass by unmet. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the advance copy, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Our story revolves around the lives of two women that meet at art school. Sharon Kisses is a shy kid from Kentucky, self-conscious but ambitious. Mel Vaught is hilarious, outrageous, and riotously extroverted, a noncomforming thrill-seeker from Florida.  Mel appreciates Sharon’s art in a way that no one else does, and Sharon is grateful to finally have someone understand her. Together they form a team that will become famous.

The entire story hinges on development of our two characters and the relationship that unfolds between them. The plot is original and interesting, but it wouldn’t go anywhere if I didn’t believe Sharon and Mel. I buy both of them immediately, and before we’re even halfway through the story I am making predictions—mostly unsuccessful ones, and it’s the chewy ambiguity that makes the whole thing so fascinating—about what one or the other of them will do. I made one accurate prediction midway through, but nothing else went where I expected it to. That being said, however, everything here made complete sense, and these are two such viscerally relatable characters that I carry them in my head still, though I’ve read at least half a dozen other books since I finished this one. In fact, a hallmark of the very best fiction is that I have to let what I have read cook in my head for awhile before I am ready to describe it. I take notes, but they aren’t enough.

Mel is gay, but Sharon isn’t. On the other hand, Mel is also about ninety percent of everything that Sharon has in this world, once the partnership develops. Sharon always introduces Mel as “my business partner,” and this is both true and safe, but here I wrestle with my own thoughts. Is there anyone else alive that Sharon can love the way she loves Mel, whether she recognizes it or not?

How many women of days gone by—let’s say the early twentieth century—lived with another woman their entire adult lives, never even considered touching one another sexually for fear of their mortal souls, and maybe propagated a myth to the neighbors that they were related? I think there were a lot of them. Being a lesbian was on a par, back then, with having barnyard sex with Old Bessie. No decent person was; no decent person did. So instead, they labeled themselves ‘spinsters’ and invented a story, and just lived together, decade after decade. And when I look at the community from which Sharon has sprung, I can understand how this mindset carries over to some people even today.

Yet there’s another reality, too. Sharon really likes having sex with men. When she isn’t doing it, it’s on her mind.  How many women have pledged their lives to someone that does not physically attract them, because they find the person good company and don’t want to break their heart? And so when I think of Sharon, I remind myself that perhaps Sharon really isn’t gay. Maybe she will never want Mel sexually, and maybe that’s a fair thing to recognize.

The story contains so much life, so much sorrow, and it’s so damn funny at times.  And the rage! Both women carry a tremendous amount of anger, and it provides fuel for their creativity. Hearing their stories is like peeling an artichoke, one layer after another to get to the best part, which is way deep inside.

As the story progresses, we come face to face with the pasts both women carry with them. Mel’s tortured upbringing is the subject of their first animated film, and it’s clearly therapeutic; yet good therapy can only do so much. And as we see the world through Mel’s eyes, the depth of analysis is both brainy as hell and absolutely riveting.

Sharon is the introvert, and so it makes sense that her own story comes out more slowly, and it may never have done so without Mel’s assertive nature insisting that they stop by Sharon’s home town on the way back to New York.

The critical thinking here is deep and dark. Those that have regarded art as a soft discipline will have to sit up and take notice.

This story is for geeks, artists, and anybody burdened by at least one dark secret. It’s a story for strong, unapologetic women and those that love them.  And it’s for sale Tuesday, January 31, 2017. Get a copy. You can’t miss this one!

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, by Robert Matzen****

missionjimmystewartIn Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, Robert Matzen provides an engaging, compelling memoir that focuses primarily on Stewart’s time as an aviator during World War II. Thanks go to Net Galley and to Goodknight Books for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review.

The book begins with Stewart’s childhood in a small Pennsylvania town. His is a close knit family with a strong military tradition. An outstanding student, he is educated at Princeton and falls in love with theater one summer. He hits the road for Hollywood to fulfill his dream.

Because of the title, I am taken aback at the amount of celebrity gossip that is included in the first portion of the biography. Matzen wants us to know that Stewart used his skinny-awkward-young-man routine as a sort of foreplay to work his way between the sheets with one well known actress after another; he lists many of them. I could have lived without this part, but maybe you’ll enjoy it. If like me you are really only interested in the military aspect of it, skip the Hollywood part at the start and pick it back up when he enlists. Eventually this is what I did.

Once there, the story is fascinating. Stewart resolutely straight-armed studio efforts to keep him in the USA or use him to entertain troops, as some actors that are drafted chose to do. He angers a studio head who actually tells him, “You’ll never work in this town again”. He decides he is going to do his part like any other man, apart from the fact that he had always wanted to fly and now has the money for a private plane and flying lessons. Once he is actually in uniform, he is able to become the aviator he has dreamed of being as a youngster.

As Martzen unspools Stewart’s story, which had to be difficult to research given Stewart’s resolute refusal to discuss that period, I am instantly engaged. I had known at one time that the planes were not heated back then, but hadn’t fully appreciated the dangers and challenges posed by the cold alone once in the air. A man could suffocate if he didn’t regularly break the ice off of his mask. Men could and did lose body parts to frostbite.

The stories of the men that would eventually serve under him as he rises in rank, not due to strings pulled by authorities but as he has wished, by merit and leadership capability, are also both interesting and poignant. Reading the way the pilots name and decorate their planes, how individual aircraft with idiosyncrasies that make them handle differently so that the pilots strongly prefer to fly their own ships, is interesting, and  reading the personal details and in some cases, the deaths of these men is wrenching in some places, poignant in others.

When Stewart has completed his military service, he looks at least ten years older than he is. He’s seen a lot. If he returns to Hollywood, there’s no chance he will play the same roles he used to do. He stalwartly refuses to exploit his time in the service by making World War II films, which are enormously popular, and for a long time, his phone doesn’t ring. He’s sleeping at his parents’ house in his old childhood bedroom, wondering what will happen. But in time he hears from Frank Capra, who has an idea for a picture “based on a story titled ‘The Greatest Gift,’ about a man from a small town who wishes he had never been born. Jim was the only actor in Hollywood whom Capra considered for the role.”

Despite the sense of alienation he experiences with his return to the other-worldly, glitzy city after his gritty, intense experience in the war, Stewart is glad to be back, and he plays what will become an iconic role, that of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He credits Capra with saving his career, and is overjoyed to be back:

“He was engaged in something magical again, something to interest people in the art of living, rather than the art of dying.”

The book also discusses Stewart’s lifelong friendship with Henry Fonda, and his marriage. We get a brief overview of the peacetime lives of the surviving members of Stewart’s first crew.

If it were up to me, I would remove all of the somewhat jarring photos at the end of the book that show Stewart alongside one actress after another, and I’d replace them with photos and maybe diagrams of the planes we hear so much about. A map here and there wouldn’t hurt, since we follow his flight paths and it’s sometimes hard to visualize where these places are. I used Google, but would like to see these included as part of the published memoir, perhaps in the center, where they’re most relevant.

I recommend this biography to fans of Stewart’s, and I recommend most of this book to those with an interest in military history.  The book is available to the public today, October 24, 2016.

American Gothic:The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family—Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth, by Gene Smith***

americangothicI was invited to read and review this title by Open Road Media and Net Galley. Thanks to them for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title was released to the public October 4 and can be purchased any time you want it.

Although I love a good night at the theater as much as anyone else, I came to this bearing a love of history and a strong affinity for the American Civil War. I didn’t realize to what extent this would be purely a biography of this family of actors, and it was because of this that I became somewhat disillusioned.

Smith has carefully documented the lives of Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth. He talks about their predecessors, their early development, and their careers, and he documents everything he talks about. Those studying nineteenth century American actors will want this book, because these men were the most famous of their time period, tickets to see them perform much sought after.

My problem is with the elephant in the room.

It’s hard not to approach John Wilkes Booth without thinking about military history, and about his role in what was essentially an incipient CIA within the Confederacy. Other sources neatly document the fact that it was not a case of simple mental illness on the part of an assailant that made President Lincoln, the greatest president in the history of the USA, die. There was a great deal of planning involved, of research about where he would be and when he would be there. Contacts were made, and a plot was launched that was initially much more far reaching in scope, but with the surrender of Lee’s army, others within the cadre left town fast and didn’t look back. Booth was the one that decided he was going to follow through, one way or the other. How much of it was due to a longing for an historical spotlight, how much was due to emotional instability, and how much was a calculated effort to revive the Confederacy by assassinating Lincoln, we do not know, but what we do know, and what Smith doesn’t say, is that this was not a matter of simply yielding to impulse, of losing one’s sanity and suddenly deciding to kill a great leader. It was done in a calculated way, and I can’t respect this biography when this information is omitted. All we hear about are references to early signs of “madness”, as if this horrible deed can be swept to the side by the use of one well-placed word.

That being said, The New York Times loved this book. If the history of acting is your wheelhouse, you may want to read it. There’s nothing of method or technique that will help a developing actor, but it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s about the actors’ lives and careers, and that’s pretty much it.

Those that treasure history as a bigger picture, or that are looking for some tiny morsel to help them understand what made John Wilkes Booth carry out this monstrous, well-planned killing will remain as much in the dark when the book ends, as they are now.

In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox, by Carol Burnett****

suchgoodcompany  When I saw that Burnett had published a memoir of her years as America’s favorite comedic performer on The Carol Burnett Show, which ran from 1967 through 1978, my first thought was, what, another memoir? She’s already published at least three others, one of which I have read and reviewed. But the fact is, she hadn’t used up all her juice yet. Each of her memoirs focuses on some particular aspect of her life, and so this book is new, it’s original, and it’s probably the stuff you were hoping she’d talk about in her other memoirs. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Crown Archetype. It was published September 13 and I am sorry to be on the late side, but I scored my own copy just prior to publication; I had no idea it was available till Crown put a promotion up on Facebook and it showed up on my home page.  I genuinely held my breath as I logged onto Net Galley to see if I was too late, and happily, the Literature Fairy smiled on me.

As the memoir begins, I am at first a trifle disappointed, because it appears as if she is just going to list every single person that’s ever appeared on her show and gush about how nice they were.  But she’s just warming up, and it gets more interesting. She describes how she made her way into show business, and though she skims over the early years, knowing that the reader wants to get to the show, it sounds very much as if she was the overnight success that aspiring actors only dream of becoming.  She was on a show that I wasn’t around yet to watch called “The Garry Moore Show”, and she must have made not only a tremendous impression, but also a lot of friends, because she was offered her own variety show—think of it!—and then was able to bring a head writer, a choreographer, a bunch of dancers and some other people west with her from New York to Los Angeles.

This show was a fixture in my childhood and adolescence. One of Burnett’s regular satirical sketches lampooned soap operas, and it was called “As the Stomach Turns”. It was one of the few things that made my parents and me laugh out loud at the same time. My friends and I spent ridiculous, late night hours creating our own satire of a satire, which we dubbed “As the Stomach Churns”, and which featured imaginary illicit relationships among our own teachers along with the administration, janitorial staff, and especially our librarian, a book hoarder that chased away all potential clientele from her sacred gates.  So when I saw that Burnett was writing about the show, I had to see what she’d written, because she had been an intrinsic part of my own development.

All comers that want to read this should do it near an internet source if at all possible, because the comedic sketches can be viewed on television and now also on YouTube. This is fairly new: I tried to view them a couple of years ago and they weren’t there yet, so this is exciting all by itself.

And if you have never seen any of her work and wonder what I am carrying on about, check it:

 

 

and with Robin Williams:

 

The life that she led sounds like something most actors could only dream of. She got up, got her kids off to school, started work on the show mid-morning Monday-Friday, with a single run-through on Thursday followed by a live show before a studio audience Friday, and then they were done at three o’clock and she was done by the time her kids were out of school. It came down to disciplined behavior on the part of the cast and crew, and to the unusually respectful atmosphere in which the show was done. Once a guest misbehaved and when he threatened to storm off the set, she let him go and said good riddance; they did the show without him.  (She won’t give us a name, but he was short. I have been speculating ever since.)

 

She does tell the many spoofs that were done on movies of the past, and which actors called to say they just loved what the show had done with their film, and which either called up and were angry or sent indirect messages that they were not amused. And she  offers a retrospective look at the way women in show business were expected to behave back then; she was sometimes a doormat, and exultantly recounts how Edie Gourmet, on a guest visit, gave some of it back to those that bullied Carol.

 

Some of the funniest bits of writing are included, and some of the regular cast’s best onstage moments are recounted, along with those of favorite guest stars. A complete list of every show and which guests were featured is at the back of the book for those that want to look up particular entertainers, or  peruse it for fun.

 

But the bottom line is that this is pure gold for those that love Burnett and the show, and that can follow along some of the high performance points online. If you aren’t interested in her work, then the memoir won’t mean much to you.

 

Recommended to Burnett’s many fans.

 

War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hertmans***

warandturpentineI received a DRC of this memoir from Random House through its First to Read program. I read the book free in exchange for an honest review. Though it wasn’t a good fit for me, I think there are niche readers out there that might enjoy it.

This memoir chronicles the life of the author’s grandfather, Urbain Martien, a Dutch worker that fought in World War I. The son of a brilliant artist, Martien worked whatever jobs were available until the war broke out. He had hoped to become an artist like his father before him, but instead wound up painting buildings just to earn a living.

Apart from its historic aspect, this title is one that I knew would be outside my comfort zone. Since retirement I’ve pushed myself outside my usual well-worn paths and taken a few risks, and though it doesn’t always work out for me, a few unlikely choices have affected me so favorably and so deeply that I have continued to push my own walls outward. I don’t know a thing about art, but I thought it might not matter. I pushed myself to read The Goldfinch, which was about a stolen museum painting but also much more, and once I did I couldn’t believe I had let the DRC pass me by. So I had this in my mind; War and Turpentine might be one more opportunity that I shouldn’t miss.

The basis for the memoir is a series of notebooks that the author’s grandfather gave him, a journal of sorts, and the memoir itself is done not in the usual linear fashion, but as a series of snapshots. I confess I prefer my memoirs to start at the beginning and end at the end, if not the end of life, then at the end of the period being discussed. But an artist would perhaps not have thought that way; I can see the reason for selecting a different format, but because there was no discernible story arc, I found myself floundering and eventually avoiding the book altogether.

The prospective reader should know that along with some really strong imagery and other word smithery, the memoir contains some very graphic violence.

I suspect the ideal reader for War and Turpentine would be one that loves art, art history, and European history.  It is for this niche audience that I recommend this book.

Only the Road/Solo el Camino: Eight Decades of Cuban Poetry, by Margaret Randall, editor****

Margaret Randall is an old-school feminist and socialist, and I recognized her name when this volume of Cuban poetry became available. Thank you to the author, Duke University, and Net Galley for permitting me to access the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

onlytheroadMany people don’t know much about Cuba, the tiny island nation a mere 90 miles from the coast of Florida. The American media has distorted the Cuban Revolution for as long as I can remember. Before the revolution, which took place in 1959, Havana was like Bangkok, a place where little girls prostitute themselves so they won’t starve to death, where wealthy visitors can experience every pleasure, innocent or corrupt, known to humanity but where most citizens have little chance of even having their basic human needs met. Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union (USSR) helped the Cuban people defend themselves from US efforts to overthrow the revolutionary government, but the alliance also led to a period of Stalinist repression that darkened artists’ worlds for a period of time. Randall discusses all of this in her introduction. Following the period Cubans call the Rectification Period (reference mine), Stalinist practices were peeled away, and more freedom of expression created a more hospitable environment for artists, in addition to strengthening the revolution itself. In Cuba art is not privately sold as a general rule, and artists receive a salary for what they do, paid by the Cuban people.

Randall’s collection of poetry is encyclopedic, including a vast stylistic range representative of a range of generations, some little-known voices as well as a number of LGBTQ writers. Randall translates each poem and gives a comprehensive biographical note for each poet. If anything, I might have preferred a slightly more stripped down version, but what Randall has done is very scholarly she documents well.

Since this reviewer does not speak Spanish, I cannot evaluate the translations personally, but given that Randall’s background I would be astonished if it were not rock solid.

That said, I also found myself lamenting my lack of Spanish, because I know that the flow of sound is an important part of poetry, and even the best translator can’t rectify this. Those that speak Spanish will likely get more from the collection; both Spanish and English versions are included.

Those that love poetry and are interested in seeing the work of Cubans, and especially those that also speak Spanish, should get this excellent collection. It becomes available to the public October 14, 2016.

The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film, by Bruce Chadwick****

thereelcivilwarI found this gem at my favorite used bookstore in Seattle, Magus Books, which is just a block from the University of Washington. Its strength, as the title suggests, is in tracing the story of the American Civil War as told by the cinema. Those interested in the way in which movie impacts both culture and education in the USA would do well to find this book and read it.

Chadwick spends a considerable amount of time and space carefully documenting the myth produced by Gone with the Wind, a completely unrealistic, idealized portrait of the ruling planter class of the deep South. Many of us would, in years gone by, have been inclined to dismiss this concern by saying that after all, the book and movie were primarily intended as a love story, but Chadwick demonstrates that this is not so. He ferrets out actual interviews with Margaret Mitchell herself in which she insists that this is exactly the way it was. Her sources? Former plantation owners, of course.

To this day, if an avid reader goes to Goodreads.com and under the caption “explore”, goes to “listopia” and from there selects a list of readers’ favorite Civil War titles, GWTW will place within the top ten, and sometimes be the foremost title, selected over nonfiction as well as more accurate fiction. I find this horrifying.

The research regarding the Civil War itself is nothing I haven’t seen before, but Chadwick makes excellent use of strong secondary sources to document the fact that Black folks in the pre-war South were neither happy nor well treated. He takes apart the myth Mitchell constructed in a meticulous manner, one damn brick at a time. Hell yes. About ten percent of the way into the book, Chadwick’s removed, scholarly tone changes to one of articulate outrage, and I found this tremendously satisfying.

Chadwick follows Civil War films forward, after first also examining Birth of a Nation, a painfully racist film which was famous at the time because of its length; its original claim to fame was not content, but technology. For those that have not seen the film, this will be interesting reading also, and those that have seen it may pick up some new information as well.

A couple of generations later, the more realistic and highly acclaimed Roots television miniseries told the story of Black America in a way that hadn’t been represented on film before. Chadwick is again careful in his documentation and clear in his explanation.

The book’s final film treatment is of the most positive and accurate film depiction of African-Americans is the film Glory. This reviewer used this film in the classroom. It depicts the Black Massachusetts infantry that tried to take Fort Wagner and in doing so, inspired President Lincoln to order more Black troops to be armed and trained for combat in the American Civil War.

For those interested in the connection between film and American history, and of the American Civil War in particular, this book is recommended.