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.

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.

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.

 

MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson, by Steve Knopper****

MJthegeniusofmichaeljacksonJackson was a musical prodigy whose talent was almost limitless. His brilliant career was derailed by scandal, and his final 50 city tour was aborted by his death the night before it was to commence. Knopper does the best job of objectively recounting Jackson’s life and death that I have seen so far. His portrait is intimate without being prurient. Thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Jackson was born in the 1950’s, a time when the race barrier kept Black performers from being seen by a general audience, with only the rarest exceptions. Black folks could play music for Black folks, and nobody else. The family was terribly poor, with eight or nine people crowded into a house better suited to three or four. They lived in Gary, a steel town in which Black poverty was more the rule than the exception. His father was a struggling musician until it became obvious that his sons had inherited his talent plus some. By the time Michael was five years old, he was the charismatic center of the Jackson Five, who soon were contracted to Motown, the center of African-American music in the USA.

Knopper explains how the family’s progression from a Motown act, where they were not allowed to actually play their own instruments on stage and could not use music they wrote themselves; to an independent family act, apart from one son who chose to remain with Motown; to the final day when Michael got himself an agent and a lawyer and set out on his own, divorcing his family so that he could have full control over a solo act. Until he was independent, iconic creations such as Thriller and Smooth Criminal would most likely never have been launched. And he recounts the family drama that ensued, with bodyguards pulling guns to discourage Michael’s angry brothers when they tried to force their way past the gates of his estate, shouting that he owed them money.

As a fan of excellent music and performance, I was sucked into the maelstrom produced by the press both during his life and afterward. It’s embarrassing to admit how completely I was played. For years I would not permit Jackson’s music to be played in my home because I thought he was a sick creep who used his fame to gain private, inappropriate contact with smooth-faced young boys. Somehow it escaped me that he had never been proved guilty in a court of law; on the one hand, it made sense to pay one family off in order to take the heat off his career, and Knopper documents the advice experienced, famous musicians gave Jackson to do whatever he had to do to shut that shit down so he could go back to focusing on music. But the press was merciless, and the payoff, which came too late to do damage control effectively, was portrayed as a tacit admission of guilt. And I bought it.

A few months after Jackson’s death, I was in a hotel room on vacation with my family, and my youngest son, who is Black, turned on the television, and there was the second round that Knopper documents, the round of memorial tributes that brought a lump to one’s throat as we saw Jackson’s miraculous career unspooled. He pioneered music videos in so many ways I had failed to appreciate, and he employed so many Black musicians that might never have had a steady job, while at the same time reaching out to Caucasian performers as well, creating a bridge between Black music and Caucasian sounds, transitioning from disco-like R and B to the “King of Pop”. I was horrified at the way I had misjudged him.

About a year ago, I read Michael Jackson’s memoir, Moonwalk, and while I took parts of it with a grain of salt, I also came to believe that the guy just didn’t know what was socially appropriate at times because he had never had a normal childhood. I was sold. Poor Michael.

Knopper has a more realistic take on all this. He certainly should; he used over 450 sources, and he wasn’t anybody’s mouthpiece. And so the truth turns out to be more complicated.

What left me somewhat stunned, in the end, was not the sex scandal, and it wasn’t the postmortem resurrection of Jackson as some sort of musical saint. Instead, I was absolutely floored at the number of people that worked for the guy, some of them for a lot of years, who he left without paychecks for weeks, then months on end. Jackson had a tremendous load of debt, was on the verge of bankruptcy and was saved only by his investment in song publishing, a piece of advice given him by friend Paul McCartney that he had followed through on. Yet he continued to buy one extreme luxury estate after another, holding residences he would likely never use again, shopping extravagantly (the example of taking a new friend shopping and telling him to do it “like this”, as he swept entire shelves of merchandise into his cart, astounded me) while leaving his employees, regular working folk with bills to pay for the most part, with no paychecks. There was money for shopping, but not for them, and some of them took him to court for it. It made me a bit sick. This man knew what it was like to be poor, and he knew what hunger was like, but as long as he didn’t have to see the people that he had betrayed, he could continue to play out the Peter Pan thread, irresponsibly trashing the lives of those he had told they could count on him, then leaving them with empty wallets and eviction notices.

Maybe you think I have over-shared. I have news; this is only the tip of the iceberg. If you have followed this review all the way to its conclusion, you will like this book. It is available for purchase October 20.

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, by Peter Guralnick *****

lasttraintomemphis I belong to the generation that came about a decade after Elvis was king, and so for a lot of years I tended to avoid his music. It was not my music. And that was my mistake.

Whether or not you are an Elvis fan, this biography is best read with internet access to his music, and better still with access to film footage of him performing (and it does exist). It is hard to understand much of what Guralnick writes about unless you can see the body language in the performance. Even if Elvis’s work has served as background music that you’ve never listened to very much, a review is in order to understand any of the tumult that his work created.

Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and garnered other awards and praise as well. It is justified. So much research, so many interviews, so much data has been crammed into an easy-flowing, readable narrative that he makes it look almost easy. Almost.

Presley was not a song writer, he was a performer. It was the style with which he interpreted songs that were already popular and well-known, such as Blue Moon Kentucky, as well as to lesser-known hits that came from the Black community, that rocketed him to fame. It’s hard to get a bead on the man, even with everything the writer has ferreted out from all possible sources. A pair of musicians he worked with referred to him as an “idiot savant”. If he were alive today, he might be diagnosed as OCD (my own conclusion); though his family was poor enough to qualify for the first public housing, he has his very own plate, his very own knife, and his very own fork, and if anyone else had used it, no matter how many times it had been washed, he would not eat. His closer-than-average relationship with his mother probably was the saving factor here. She accommodated this and more, and between this and the fact that there were no other children in the family (apart from his twin, who was stillborn), no diagnosis was necessary. He was ostracized at school, but found his greatest love was not in the halls of academia anyway. He began with a child’s guitar that his mother scrimped and saved to buy for him, and worked his way up the ladder. (He later said that he had found some of his ideas by sneaking out of the church his parents took him to on Sundays and sneaking over to the “Negro” church service, where he could listen at the door. He went for the music.)

His dance style had never been seen  by any wide audience. His hair and clothing, while fodder for a whole lot of jokes up the road, had found their time and place. Somehow he knew exactly what would work, and those who worked with him also said that he was always aware of what individual components of his act resonated with his audience, and which fell flat. He wore makeup on stage to enhance his features before any other known male American musician did; some of his fellow musicians wondered what that was about. Someone else asked him why he put glop in his hair; he said it was so that a lock of it would fall forward in a particular manner when he snapped his head. Once he got the opportunity to make a movie–an opportunity he actively sought–he spoke with hairdressers about its color. One of them told him black would look wonderful on film against his pale skin tones, and so he dyed his blond hair black from then on. (I had always thought that was his natural hair color.)

As a young woman, I often heard about how tragic Elvis Presley’s life had been. I was not yet twenty, clerking in a convenience store nights to augment my student financial aid, when the newspaper delivery van came with the evening newspaper and there was the headline. Elvis–the older, heavier Elvis–was dead. I was young enough that most adults seemed pretty ancient, but I mused, “Huh. He wasn’t THAT old yet.” My boss came over to look, and was surprised also.

But in reading this biography, I am more struck by how many dreams came true for this young man. He got to do exactly what he wanted to do for a living, and he loved having fans scream out his name. He wanted a Cadillac; he had half a dozen of them. He was able to provide well for his parents, and he built his dream home, complete with a real soda fountain. He had women on his arm everywhere he went.

…and he scared conservative America half to death! Oh, the panic! “New York congressman Emmanuel Celler, chairman of the Antitrust Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee” labeled Elvis Presley and his “animal gyrations…violative of all that I know to be to good taste.” He and several other prominent politicians managed to work some racist demagogy into the mix as well. Elvis later let everyone know exactly what he thought of that by showing up at the fairgrounds in the Jim Crow south on the one day of the month designated as ‘Colored Day’ and buying a ticket. He was the only white boy at the fair. He was allowed to attend and widely welcomed, though there was some push-back later in the local Black press complaining that too many young ladies at that same fair had been screaming after him instead of young men of their own skin tone. Ah well.

This marvelous book is volume one of two. It ends when he is drafted and goes to Germany (a peacetime draft that his agents decided it would look bad for him to avoid). Maybe it is just as well. We send young Elvis off to Europe still full of youth, joy, and hope. (Your reviewer confesses that she has ferreted out the second volume, gently used, from her personal book temple, Powell’s City of Books, and will read it when time allows.)

Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys biographies of famous musicians. I loved it!

Cosby: His Life and Times, by Mark Whitaker *****

Now that it’s on the shelves where you can buy a copy, I thought I’d post this one more time.

Seattle Book Mama

In the lateCosby twentieth century, Americans trusted “God, Walter Cronkite, and Bill Cosby”. Cosby is an icon, and Mark Whitaker is his biographer, author of the first comprehensive biography of the great comedian, actor, author and humanist. I have admired Bill Cosby my entire life, and it was an honor to be able to advance-read this well written, thoroughly documented biography. Kudos to Whitaker for a job well done.
Cosby grew up really poor, the child of a man his friends later described as a “wino” and a hard-working, ambitious mother who valued education. His teachers could tell he was very bright, but he had no interest in school work during his formative years, enjoying sports, friends, and jazz music more than academia. He would later change his mind. His college degree and graduate work were done legitimately; he respected education too much to ever accept an honorary degree anywhere…

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