Now Is Not the Time to Panic! by Kevin Wilson****-*****

Now is Not the Time to Panic is, according to its author, Kevin Wilson, “a book about friendship, about memory, and about what it means to hold on to the person who we were, even as we become someone else. It’s about the ways in which art is the door that lets us walk into a new life, one that never seemed possible.”

Frankie is kind of a quirky kid, friendless and grieving her parents’ divorce and her father’s abandonment of his kids. She has nothing but time this summer, and so when Zeke, an even quirkier new kid, moves into the tiny town of Coalfield, Tennessee, the two are drawn together.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Ecco Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Frankie invites Zeke over one day; her dad has flown the coop, and her mom is at work, so in order to make it clear that she hasn’t invited him over for carnal purposes, Frankie talks to him about her love of writing. Zeke says that he likes to draw, and so together, they make a poster. The words are Frankie’s, and they are indeed well written for a kid of sixteen years: “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” Zeke fills in the rest of the page with his artwork, and for good measure, they prick their fingers and comingle their blood on the poster. Then they dig out an old photocopy machine in Frankie’s garage, and make copies with which to furtively festoon the whole town. (After all, Coalfield isn’t a big place.) They don’t tell anyone it’s theirs, and enjoy the reactions to their guerilla art as sly observers.

The two teens share a lot in common. Both are outsiders; both are creatives; and both are living through the implosions of their families, with fathers that cheat and then leave, and mothers that are beside themselves with anger and shame.

Once the posters become noticed around town, rumors begin, and then copycats come along and make improvements, sometimes. There’s a hysterical piece in the local paper suggesting that their work is Satanic. Frankie and Zeke don’t say one word to anyone. They watch and they listen; they talk about it only with each other.

The crafting of these two characters, and their relationship, is well done, and I ache for both of these kids. The only time I see character slip is with regard to Frankie’s attitude toward sex. Her dispassionate take on it—she isn’t sure she really wants to, but maybe she should just do it and get it over with? Is not a mindset I’ve ever seen in a teenage girl, and believe me, I’ve known plenty of quirky ones. No, that’s a male attitude, and I suspect that Wilson would do better to use male protagonists, or else run his female ones by several very honest females in his chosen field, prior to publication.

As the summer goes on, I keep expecting the two to launch another joint project, but they don’t. She does some writing, and he draws, but there is no sequel, no follow-up. The poster is the poster. Shantytown, gold seekers, fugitives, hunger. Boom. That’s it. But years into the future, Frankie is still putting these damn things up. The heck…? I believe this of her; she is one strange person. Zeke’s mental health deteriorates that summer, and where that goes is completely credible. Those that work in the field will recognize Zeke, who is by far the better drawn of the two main characters.

This fascinating novel can be enjoyed by young adult audiences, because both of the protagonists are teenagers; however, this is also fiction that can be enjoyed by anybody. If you don’t read YA—and the truth is, I don’t, not anymore—you can still appreciate this one, and I recommend it to you.

Elvis and Me, by Priscilla Presley****

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.

Lies My Mother Told Me, by Melissa Rivers**

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.

Not recommended.

In On the Joke, by Shawn Levy****

Shawn Levy has taken on an ambitious project, researching and writing about the pioneers of women’s stand-up comedy. In his author’s note, Levy says that while it may seem counterintuitive for a man to write about women comedians in this era of #MeToo, nobody else has done it, and because they are heroes, forging the way forward, performing for audiences that were frequently hostile. The result is in On the Joke, a well-researched book that tells the stories of the women that emerged from the vaudeville era to make history, roughly between the World War II era and Watergate.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

There are eight chapters in this book, each dedicated to a particular type of comic. He starts with Moms Mabley, whom I had never heard of, and continues down the line with Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller, and several others, and ends with “The Scrapper,” Joan Rivers. I confess it was Rivers’ face on the cover that drew me to this historical work.

Levy has cut no corners, and the documentation is flawless; his style of reporting is conversational and written for a general readership. All told, he’s done a fine job here.

My only sorrow—and one that isn’t the author’s fault—is seeing what horrible things these women had to do to themselves in order to meet with success. One after another, women comics have mounted the stage, day after day, night after night, to make self-deprecating jokes, many of them downright vicious. They tell about how ugly they were as children, and how ugly they are now; they tear themselves apart like Christians diving voluntarily into the colosseum pit where the lions await. I expected to laugh my way through this thing, but most of the time I wanted to sit down and sob for these artists.

As I expected, my favorite among them is Rivers. Eventually she eased up somewhat on the self-attacks and began roasting other public figures. I saw some of her work when she was still alive, and at the time, I thought some of her jokes were too mean to be funny, but as Rivers pointed out to her critics, she always “punched up.” Using her well known catch phrase, “Can we tawk,” she eviscerated the most successful celebrities, politicians, and other newsworthy public figures, and a lot of her material was absolutely hilarious. In fact, I’d have finished reading and reviewing this book much sooner had I not kept setting it aside to watch old footage of her routines, as well as some of the others Levy covers.

If you are looking for a book to make you laugh your butt off, this isn’t that book, but it’s an excellent history of the women that paved the way for the likes of Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Hannah Gadsby, and many others.

Recommended to feminists, and those interested in entertainment history.

Ten Steps to Nanette, by Hannah Gadsby*****

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.

Highly, hugely recommended.

Queen Meryl, by Erin Carlson**

I read this biography free and early thanks to Net Galley and Hachette Books.

I have enjoyed Streep’s movies and her feminist moxie since the first time I saw her, and so I figured this would be a good fit for me. Sadly, there’s nothing new here at all. There’s no depth of analysis, no stories of inner struggle or insight into her development. The overall tone is uniformly adulatory, which is fine as far as it goes; I don’t enjoy seeing a journalist do a hatchet job on a performer, so if she has to lean in one direction or another, I’m glad it’s on the positive side. But once again—I have seen every single thing in this book somewhere else already. I knew about the friction between Streep and Dustin Hoffman (who is also a great favorite of mine,) and I knew she takes roles that show strong women. I knew she wanted to sing, and she did it in Mama Mia. Readers that have followed this actor’s career over the decades with a magazine article here and there can’t expect to cover new ground. It’s shallow and superficial for the most part, and for me, the only good thing is that I didn’t pay for this book.

Streep’s fans that haven’t followed her career in the press may find more joy than I do here; nevertheless, my advice is to read it free or cheap if you decide you want it. It will be available to the public September 24, 2019.

So Close to Being the Sh*t Y’all Don’t Even Know, by Retta**

SoClosetobeingtheshHuh. Go figure.

Although I don’t watch Parks and Recreation, the television show for which this comedic actor has become famous, I thought I would enjoy her memoir. For one thing, she’s a big woman, and I love it when well-padded women have the courage to go on stage for a purpose other than disparaging themselves. At least one reviewer on Goodreads hadn’t watched her program, yet loved this book. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the DRC; I want to like this book too, but I don’t.

Retta is the child of Liberian immigrants who sacrificed a great deal so that she could receive a stellar education. They had no clue that life would lead her to show business instead of medical school. She began her career by doing stand-up routines, and so I went to YouTube and watched a clip from Comedy Central, and I thought it was pretty good. But much of the humor she uses is in the delivery. Without the pauses, without the facial expressions and other body language, things that cannot be conveyed in writing, that routine comes out flat. I watched her perform her signature line, and whereas I didn’t feel the magic, I suspect context would improve it.

If the memoir were simply a little dull, I could likely go with a third star here, but there are aspects that I found abrasive. I don’t need to know all about the many thousands of dollars apiece that go into her handbag collection, and I wonder why anyone would find that kind of self-indulgence amusing. How many good causes could use that money? I don’t need all the details of what she does on the toilet; ew. And why insert a chapter complaining about the gifts she has received from others? Was she raised to be so ungracious? So much of the collection includes her great love for booze that I found myself wanting to hire a skywriter to fly over Southern California to say, GET HELP.

On the other hand, I’m a member of the Boomer generation. I suspect that a lot of Retta’s fan base is younger than I am. So if you already a big fan, you may like this book, but unless your pockets are deep—not deep enough for fifteen thousand dollar purses, but deep—I suggest waiting until you can get It free or cheap. Others may want to read something else. 

Robin, by Dave Itzkoff*****

robinWhere were you when you heard that Robin Williams had died?

I was so stunned and grieved at this loss that I honestly wondered if something was wrong with me. I had admired Williams since Mork “uncorked” in the late 1970s, and for decades I enjoyed his work, but after all, he was a complete stranger. I had never met him; why did my heart drop to my toes and stay there for a while when he left us? But as the internet exploded and friends also responded, I understood that it wasn’t just me. He was so raw, so vulnerable in so much of what he did on screen that he became, in a way unlike most entertainers, a part of who we were.

Huge thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Williams grew up in a well-to-do family, an only child that didn’t learn he had half-brothers till adolescence. His invented characters began in private during childhood with his large collection of toy soldiers, for which he invented complex lives and scenarios; in middle school he began assuming the voices of invented characters as self-defense socially. From his school days all the way through his life, those that spent time with him personally or professionally said that he was unknowable, and he admitted in an interview that in many ways, he was “performing to avoid.”

But none of us knew that when he burst onto the airwaves; all we knew was that this actor was manic, hilarious, audacious, insightful, and unpredictable. Itzkoff deftly segues in and through each period in Williams’ life, through his marriages, parenthood, and friendships, and of course, through the enormous body of artistic work that he amassed over his lifetime. There are perceptive quotes by those that knew him, some wry, some surprisingly hostile, and many of them pithy, and it boggles the imagination to consider how many of these the author began with before he whittled them down to just the right size and number, to provide as complete an account as is possible without allowing the pace to flag.

Here is one favorite clip taken during Robin’s early career:

Some of my favorite sections of the book share behind-the-scenes vignettes from the Robin Williams movies I most enjoyed. One interesting anecdote concerns the making of Dead Poets Society. Disney deemed the title to be too risky; nobody wants to watch something dead, they figured, and so why not change the title to “The Amazing Mr. Keating”? Robin and other cast members laughed; the producers laughed; then they told the Disney people that production would stop immediately if such an attempt were made.

Although usually even well-known movie actors have to audition for Disney animation voice roles just like anyone else would, an exception of great proportions was made for Williams, and in fact, the role of the genie in Aladdin was written for him specifically. Try to imagine that movie without him. Impossible!

I tore voraciously through this absorbing biography of this truly brilliant performer, but as the end neared, the pace of my reading slowed, because I knew, more or less, how it would end. I would have liked the chance to change it, but nobody can do that. It’s a sad, rotten thing to see such a bright star fall so tragically.

Itzkoff’s sources are strong ones, and his tone is intimate without being prurient, affectionate but not fawning. I would read this biographer’s work again in a heartbeat.

Highly recommended.

Hank & Jim, by Scott Eyman****

HankandJimFans of Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart will want to read this biography, written by the author that recently wrote a biography of John Wayne. I was invited to read and review by Net Galley and Simon and Schuster, and so I read it free in exchange for this honest review. It’s for sale now.

The book is well crafted, and multiple aspects contribute to its success. The first is the unglamorous but essential research. Eyman used extensive interviews with both actors’ families as well as directors and other actors that had worked with them. The second is the thoughtful analysis. Eyman’s insights are intelligent and fairly measured, never becoming prurient, gossipy, or mawkish. The third is his friendly, congenial narrative, peppered with telling anecdotes that keep the pages turning.  It’s well organized and doesn’t rely on photographs to tell the story.

These actors belonged to my parents’ generation, and so for a long time I was not much interested in them. More recently, though, I’ve found it’s interesting to see their craft, their lives, and their work  as creatures of the time in which their careers blossomed, and as part of American entertainment history.

The truth is that I never cared much for Henry Fonda. The only one of his movies I saw in the theater was On Golden Pond, and the harsh way he spoke to his daughter on the screen—who was also his daughter in real life, Jane—was so brutal that I never wanted to see anything more that he’d done, apart from the occasional old movie I ran across on television.  Learning later that he was more or less the same father to her in real life didn’t help much. Eyman is unsparing as he describes this aspect of the Fonda family, but he also points to the mellower man he became later in life, and to the tremendous loyalty he showed his friends, Stewart foremost among them.

I was more interested in Jimmy Stewart, who left a more timeless body of work. Harvey is a film I loved enough to search out and watch in turn with each of my children.  Of course, at Christmas time I am inclined to pull out It’s a Wonderful Life, although none of my kids would watch it with me more than once. There was such heart in his roles.

Because I like Stewart’s work, I had already read one biography fairly recently. Robert Matzen’s Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe dealt well with his war years as well as the early years of his life, and so I didn’t enjoy the first half of Eyman’s book—which covered the same ground again—as I did the second half, which I found both comforting in places as well as mesmerizing.  The second part also has more quotes by his children, who weren’t around for much of the stars’ earlier lives. And I came away with renewed respect for Jane Fonda, who had a harder road than I had previously understood.

Now I have half a dozen movie titles I want to watch, or watch again; that’s a sure sign of a strong biography. And it makes me think warmly of my own longstanding friends, some of whom I’ve known and loved almost as long as the 50 years that Hank and Jim were friends.

Recommended to fans of Fonda and Stewart, and to those that love good biographies; this would also make a nice Christmas gift for older relatives.

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.