Moon Walk, by Michael Jackson ****

1062902Moonwalk was written at the height of Jackson’s fame, in the wake of Thriller and the 25th anniversary Motown TV special. It is a fascinating read, and was the #1 New York Times bestseller at the time. I give it only 4 stars because there is a ghost writer here. It’s understandable; Jackson had his finger in so many pies at the time, and also was somewhat reluctant to breach his own privacy by speaking candidly about his own life. Ultimately, though, the writer-behind-the-writer says that Jackson decided it was time to set the record straight about some things. He still nearly pulled the plug at the dead last minute, after editing and approving the final copy, leaving his ghost writer with an immense amount of time and effort that nearly came to nothing. I’m glad he decided to follow through.

At the time this was written, Jackson had no children. His name is associated with more than one book, and I may see if I can get a copy of a later one.

I am not much of a pop music fan, but the sheer enormity of Jackson’s accomplishments and his role in music history makes his a must-read for a memoir reader like me.

I came out of this convinced that though (through the lack of a normal childhood) Jackson’s social skills were sometimes off a notch and his judgment not always sharp, he was not a pedophile. I believe him when he says that children are the only people he can talk to who don’t seem to have ulterior motives (beyond a particular circle of family members and close friends), and that he enjoys making them happy. I really do think he was naive enough to think that a child would find it fun to sleep in the host’s big bed rather than be all alone in a room he wasn’t familiar with (and assume that the oh-so-grateful parent would remain such). Beyond that, I think that at some level, his involvement with children had to do with his own lack of a childhood that involved the fun and freedom usually associated with that time. My best guess is that he brought kids home, or went to their homes and hospitals, and spoiled them rotten, and enjoyed the experience vicariously.

Jackson’s own upbringing, though he loved the music and turned out to have a genius for it, was grueling. He is diplomatic in the things he says about his father, and gives him credit for finding the resources to bring not only musical instruments but microphones into their 3 room home in Gary, Indiana, so that his talented tribe would understand how to handle them and move with them by the time they were on stage. They began with talent shows that had cash prizes, and worked their way up to auditions. They played in some really raunchy clubs at an age where most first-graders would not even be watching R rated movies. But Jackson took to the life, and grew close to his brothers. Motown signed them, and they were off to California.

Jackson was instantly enthralled by all things Californian. The trees had oranges, he says, and there was the ocean, and Disneyland! Welcomed to the “Motown family” by singing legend Diana Ross and by the vice-president of Motown, who lived just down the street, they were house guests until they were settled and established, and ran freely between the two fabulous homes. Ross was like a second mother to Jackson,and she introduced him to the art world, which would later become not only a love of his, but a source of smart investments also.

In Gary, he and his family had all been practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he mentions this only briefly, to show that some of the corruption and profanity that young performers take on was not going to be part of his own life, because that was not how he was raised. He doesn’t mention the religion again after his move to California. This left me curious. Could a man like Jackson have truly believed that only a certain number of people are allowed to go to heaven?

He writes about his break with Motown,which he and some of his family precipitate when Motown is not receptive to having him write music, and about his lengthy, fond collaboration with Quincy Jones. He is able to get in on the ground floor once MTV breaks loose, and spends his own money in order to create music videos of the highest caliber. (“Bad” used real gang members from South Central LA; the massive security was loosened a bit once they found that since the gang members pretty much just wanted recognition, respect, and lunch and were getting all three, they were courteous and cooperative. I’ll admit I really liked this part, having taught young people with similar issues.)

His hair and skull catch fire due to negligent fireworks use while making a commercial for Pepsi. He knows he could have sued them and won big, but he chose not to.

Without a trace of irony or hubris, he states that he is thankful he never got involved using any sort of drugs, since he had seen what this does to others. (To be fair, he specifically refers to street drugs like marijuana and cocaine; I suspect that some of the drugs that would later plague him were due, in part, to the pain he experiences after accidents on the job such as the Pepsi adventure.)

A star like Jackson could have used his life story as a vehicle for payback, but he goes out of his way to avoid any semblance of that, and when he has to talk about people who did rotten things, such as a management-level person who stole from him, he does not name names. I thought this was really nice. He briefly mentions his father and the belt, but also gives the man credit for the early start he and his brothers had, and the fact that they were the first big family act to enter the pop scene.

Later he simply mentions that his father was no longer representing him at a point in the story. He makes no reference to the marital discord between his parents.

The one place we can almost see the hair rise on the back of his neck is when he speaks about the controversy regarding the changes in his facial structure. He owns that he had a nose job and a chin cleft added, and points out that entertainers all over Hollywood do exactly the same thing, and he asks why this is such a big deal, when after all, he is a musician. The man has a point. On the one hand, those with the most fame get the most scrutiny, but on the other, it also (though he never says it) sure seems as if a black man who makes it big gets more scrutiny than others. He adopts a vegetarian diet, and of course, as we grow older, our faces lengthen anyway, thus the harder planes to his face and loss of baby fat. And in thinking about some of the bizarre things printed in tabloids…who is really going to have the bones in his face broken and reset? Even if vain enough for something of that nature, it would be extremely risky, and involve a huge amount of time away from work.

I believe that Jackson is telling the truth; a nose job, a chin cleft, terrible acne as a teen that started the habit of hiding his face at times, and then later (not in this book), the skin disease. I think this is true, though it doesn’t make as good copy for selling sensationalistic news rags.

The one really unsettling note was that Jackson seemed to think it was a hilarious practical joke to surprise people who were afraid of snakes with Muscles, his boa constrictor, and chase them around the room. I have the same phobia, and once had (honestly) a science teacher who chased me around his 7th grade classroom with a big snake, ordering me to “touch it.” I did not, and I had nightmares for weeks. But it’s too late to tell Jackson that this particular thing is not funny.

Jackson’s songwriting partnership and friendship with Paul McCartney led the latter to recommend that he consider investing some of his money in song rights. This had not occurred to Jackson before, and turned out to be a strong move financially, as most of us now know. And he says that although he knows others in the business discourage their own children from performing, if he ever has children, he will tell them to follow their dreams, and if they want to perform, they should go for it.

The artist, with all his eccentricities and extraordinary talent, can’t talk to us anymore. For those who enjoy memoirs and autobiographies of musicians who have made historical strides in their field, this is highly recommended.

Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan*****

GLITTERANDGLUE

Whoops, nearly forgot! Thank you, thank you to Ballantine Books and the First Reads program at Goodreads for permitting me to read this book free and in advance!

This isn’t Corrigan’s first book, and it shows. At first it appears to be light, fluffy material, a beach read. The confidential one-gal-to-another tone may create the illusion that we’re going to sit down over a cup of coffee and have a little chat, just us, and the book.

It goes deeper than this, though. The complexity of relationship between mother and daughter is not a new topic, but Corrigan is a strong writer, and she makes it feel new. She recounts how she had saved her money so that she could leave home to find out who she was, following college graduation. She needed to go out into the world to do that, she explained to her mother, who thought she should do something more practical with her nest egg.

In Australia, Corrigan runs low on money, and she finds herself signing on as a temporary nanny. The dad has just been widowed, and his 5 and 7 year old children are smarting from the loss. Reminders of “Mum” and mortality seem to be everywhere. And Corrigan, who is for better or worse playing the role of surrogate mother, finds herself channeling her mother. Everywhere she goes, her mother is still in her head. I recognize some of the truisms and turns of phrase from my own mother, though I am about a decade older than Corrigan. And gradually, Corrigan comes to realize that what her mother had said before was true: her father, who always praised her and was always positive, but didn’t deal with any of the details of raising her or disciplining her, was the glitter. Her mother was the glue.

Later she comes to realize that there is not one woman inside each woman, but dozens of them: the mother who has always seemed a trifle harsh, undemonstrative, curt, and (my word) anal at home is “a hoot” at the office. Everyone finds her hilarious there. She isn’t trying to be anyone’s role model, so she cuts loose. What a revelation!

Two favorite moments: toward the beginning when she is a “classic” snoop while babysitting. Whoa, I totally did that, and my friends did too! We used the house phone where we were babysitting to call each other up and announce our findings! Funny. Another favorite was toward the end, when the author, fuming a bit at home in San Francisco because she has been back home to her folks many times, but her mother hasn’t visited her, is told by a friend that she needs to invite her mother. “Maybe she thinks you don’t care.” Again, hell yes! My own mother instilled in me the notion that once your kids are grown, you don’t push yourself at them, sure as hell don’t drop in on them. I have been inside my own son’s house just once, and last summer he made an ironic remark about it. Hey, I was waiting for the invitation! Last thing any mom wants is for her kid to pull back the curtains and hiss to whoever is present, “Oh crap. It’s my mom.” *cringe!*

Ultimately, Corrigan experiences the role reversal that inevitably must come, and she becomes her mother’s glue when she falls ill. Her father is still the glitter.

I end a lot of reviews by saying that the reader shouldn’t pay full cover price, but consider reading it if your library or used book store has it. Not so this time. If you love an accessible yet intelligently written memoir as much as I do, cut loose and buy this when it’s released. If not for yourself, read it for your family. You’re bound closer than you may think.

The Lieutenant Don’t Know: One Marine’s Story of Warfare and Combat Logistics in Afghanistan, by Jeffrey Clement

thelieutenantdontknowClement is a rough-and-ready type of guy. He comes from a military family, and grows up under the assumption that he will join the US Navy after he graduates. It is something of a shock to the family when he joins the Marines instead.

Most of the books I review are ones I receive free in exchange for a review, and my finger surprised me when it tapped the button requesting a copy of this title from Net Galley. See, I am a Marxist. I never support an imperialist war, which means every war the USA has been involved in since the end of the American Civil War, and for me, even the horror of 9/11 didn’t change that. So why did I want to read a soldier’s memoir of Afghanistan?

I hadn’t read far, once I received the book, when I realized that part of the hook for me was the journalistic black-out that has been imposed for many years, ever since the flag-draped coffins hit the front pages of local newspapers and everyone rose up for various reasons; some of them were against the war in general, and some were families of the deceased who felt it was disrespectful for their loved ones to be displayed this way. But one way or another, the Pentagon and those who stand behind it decided that this would not be another open-access war; there would be no more photographs of anything that took place in Iraq or Afghanistan in print from even the most mainstream media. It was a giant blow to the First Amendment. And now, though he was required to change a lot of details for security reasons, a Marine lieutenant has come forward to tell us about his experience there. It was as if the wizard had stepped out from behind the curtain; finally, someone was writing about the war.

Many people, especially those of us on the left, get the false notion that the US military wants to round up all of our young men and send them off to fight. It isn’t quite like that, at least in this man’s experience. From among those who sign up for ROTC, there are those who are culled. Some are tossed for academic reasons; some for physical weakness or unfitness; and others simply aren’t team players. And the amount of absolute obedience and conformity that the training requires leaves no room for the free thinker, that’s for sure. Either you do it, or you’re out!

I had never heard before of someone who genuinely loved every minute of his training experience. I think that part of that mindset has to be a really strong physical constitution; people who get sick easily just can’t do this. But a large part of it is also the culture, the stories that are handed down by the family, and the things he isn’t supposed to ask about. I have had friends from military families also, and I recognize common traits among them: they are reliable, punctual, and they don’t whine. Clements comes across readily as one of them. But he is a natural. He works hard, takes responsibility, and passes with flying colors, though the tale is told with a certain humility in which he owns his mistakes and laughs about some of them, lightening the overall tone.

When he is asked why he prefers to be a military engineer (in charge of logistics, so that he is out in the field with the men rather than driving a desk), he says that his skill set points toward engineering or teaching, and he does not want to teach. As a retired teacher, I could only grimly nod, and think, “So this is what it’s come to. Men would rather go out in the desert and get shot at than deal with the current climate in teaching.”

Long after bin Laden has been found and is dead, US forces continue to serve in the most maddening of conditions. Everything there seems to be in short supply. Nobody has a truck, and if they do, it runs badly; after all, trucks were designed for roads, not sand. Nobody can drive anywhere other than behind a minesweeper, because incendiary devices are planted anywhere and everywhere, or nearly so. Open desert is scary to cross because an attack could come from anywhere anytime, and just what will the convoy hide behind? But hills are worse, because gunners may hide behind them, and they too can conceal horizontal exploding devices. And while traveling in a large convoy, often speeds are limited to 3-5 miles per hour. Twilight is the Taliban’s favorite time to attack, but it is almost impossible to get anywhere at these speeds without having to travel during that time. If someone shoots at you, you aren’t allowed to shoot back unless you can see them; nothing creates an international incident faster than deaths due to friendly fire among allies. All you can do, when shots come out of nowhere, is run, and sometimes, that is at the speed of a walk.

But it has to be done. The village must be secured.

Clement has a gift for story, and the wisdom to let his experience gel to where he could write about what he did and saw with a measure of professional distance. He engages, but does not rant. It’s a good book, well paced and organized, with some (approved) photographs to further enlighten the reader.

What is it that “The Lieutenant Don’t Know”? The phrase is mentioned early in the text, but not fully explained till the end of the book, and it is done with the care and precision of an accomplished writer. You’d better order a copy right now, because not just anyone can explain it the way Clement can.

Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, by William T. Sherman *****

memoirsofgeneralwmtshermanIt’s important to admit bias up front, and I will tell you that I went into this with a strong sense of near-adulation. Sherman has long been my greatest hero among American generals (and it’s a short list). I have no use for Civil War literature that waxes nostalgic for the “lost cause” of wealthy Southern Caucasians, nor can I stomach the revisionist notion that the war was really just a sad, sad misunderstanding that might have been averted with a little more discussion. I don’t see it that way. I see it as an historic necessity with material roots. Marxist historian George Novak wrote that the opportunity to avoid war and let the Industrial Revolution march forward unfettered by slavery was lost when the slave owners firmly declined all offers to compensate them for “their” slaves and let them go free, so that progress and humanity might take a great leap forward. And so I am a great fan of Sherman’s. His march through Georgia was correct and righteous, and the anger his soldiers unleashed upon the state that began the whole process in a premeditated and aggressive manner, South Carolina, was well placed.

Now that all of that has been dealt with, I can talk about his written record.

Sherman’s memoir is remarkable. He was one of those rare beings, both a soldier and an incredible scholar (in the mold of Lewis and Clark, perhaps). He headed a military academy in Louisiana when the South seceded, and after giving a moving farewell speech to his students–the man gives a sense of being capable of really creating personal bonds, while at the same time knowing that if he has to say goodbye forever, he’ll do it–and went to Washington to seek orders.

Sherman is an outstanding writer, and his voice comes through loud and clear. I confess my affection for him is marred slightly by his horrific perspective (probably not unusual, but this guy never did anything halfway) toward the American Indian. I decided enough was enough, and skipped forward to the Civil War. My husband, whom I will call Mr. Computer, was also reading it, as we had accidentally procured two copies, and he did the same.

The opening years of the war are incredibly frustrating to study. McClellan had been a big-deal general during the war against Mexico, and he was initially placed in charge, while Grant and Sherman lingered in the background out west, each having left the military under a cloud, Grant for his drinking during the Mexican war, and Sherman as having been perceived as crazy. (Today I think a nice bottle of Xanax or Valium would’ve done wonders for the man in peace time years, but I believe he merely suffered from anxiety, and there’s a lot of that out there)!

By reading Sherman, one does not get an account of the whole Civil War; he can’t rightfully provide such a thing, because this is a memoir, so he writes about the places he went and the battles in which he took part. He is lavish in his praise of competent or even excellent officers, and takes pains to mention as many as possible by name, sending them down in history as heroes alongside himself.

His most famous contribution, the 3-campaigns-in-one march of some 425 miles, from the siege of Atlanta, to its invasion, and his willingness to tell the truth and avoid the senseless pussyfooting of his predecessors, who had stupidly believed that by firing over the heads of the Confederates, they could scare them into submission, is an inspiration. He understood that in order to win a war and have it be over, the gloves must come off, and ugly things had to be done. He limited his attacks to Confederate soldiers until the local population began to sabotage his efforts, at which point, without hesitation, he burnt local homes, measure for measure. Inside the city, he endeavored to destroy any and all infrastructure that would aid the enemy, since Confederate weapons, clothing, and food were nearly all warehoused in this city. He personally supervised the destruction of the railroads that would otherwise keep supplies moving between Atlanta and the field, and cut his own supply line, a gutsy move unheard of previously. He soon learned not to trust Cavalry to destroy the railroads, because they’d just tear the tracks off, and someone else would put them back on. Sherman supervised the heating of the rails till they were white-hot and pliable, and created a tool for bending them around the trunks of trees, or into knots when no trees were nearby, so that no one would ever use them again.

Sherman has an unfairly tainted reputation regarding the Black people of the South, perhaps because he discouraged newly-freed families from following his train. The issue was a logistical one; he had enough food for his soldiers, thanks to their resourcefulness in foraging, and he welcomed single Black men to assist in noncombatant ways in order to free up his soldiers. (He was not willing to arm his Black enlistees, and was pleasantly surprised when he found others had successfully done so later). But when someone from Washington came down and privately interviewed former slaves to see who they trusted and who they didn’t, they gave their unilateral trust to Sherman. This is the proof for me, that although he was later unsure they were ready for the ballot before they became literate (with which I disagreed), he treated them with kindness and they revered him, viewing him alongside President Lincoln, as their liberator.

Grant was so eager to have Sherman back to help him fight Lee across the Potomac that he nearly boarded him and all his men onto ships once he reached the sea. Sherman talked him out of it, saying that he must go THROUGH the Carolinas in order for those insulated in die-hard South Carolina to see the might of the American army, and understand that resistance truly was futile. The newspapers (and Sherman’s feelings toward the press were as plain as everything else; on the one hand, I do love a free press, but they were publishing his battle plans, which were supposed to be secret, and so I can understand his hostility toward them!) of the South printed lies, saying that the South was winning its quest for separation, and Sherman felt that personal experience was the only thing that would really convince those who had first seceded, who had fired on Fort Sumter, and perhaps since they started all this, it was appropriate that they not be spared the privations that the people of Georgia, who were much less enthusiastic toward the Confederacy, had experienced.

Grant was smart enough to listen to him, and let him follow what he considered the best course of action. Lincoln was a true friend and leader who knew when to stop delegating. Again and again, lies came to him about Grant, that he was drinking again, etc. and should be removed, and Lincoln, who was well and truly done with the likes of McClellan, Pope, and Burnside, said, “I can’t spare this man. He fights”. I mention this, not as a digression but because Grant and Sherman were hand in glove. This partnership, this blending of mind and purpose, is part of what made victory possible.

Sherman and his men fought their way through woods, swamps, over quicksand, through areas previously considered impenetrable, and unlike many high-ranking officers, he gave himself no perks that he did not share with his men (apart from the rare invitation to dinner with a Union family). At the very end of his memoir, he devotes perhaps 20 or 30 pages to what constitutes effective leadership, and one thing I was struck by is that he believes a commanding officer should ride up front, because the men leading it have pride in the fact that they are leading, and that disorder and bad behaviors are limited to the rear. In short, he is safer with the men in front, and he has to see what is ahead to draw the correct conclusions about what should be done next. He sleeps on the ground, just like his men. At one moving point, he and his men sought refuge from a storm by sleeping in a church, and some of the soldiers found carpets and made him a little bed up by the altar. Sherman told them to give that bed to their division leader, because he was used to sleeping hard. “Then I fell down on a pew and was instantly asleep”.

After Lincoln’s assassination by a Confederate sympathizer, and attempts upon the lives of Seward, Secretary of War, and others, newly-minted President Johnson suddenly knocked Sherman’s legs from beneath him. Without a hint or clue as to why, Sherman was suddenly vilified, and the orders to his subordinates NOT TO OBEY HIM were released to the press. Such lack of appreciation for a man who gave his all to the Union took my breath away. Apparently Secretary of War Stanton, who replaced Steward once he was injured, was filled with paranoia and behaved both irrationally and unfairly. This was primarily his doing, and Sherman knew it. He reported to Grant, and ONLY to Grant.

Upon reaching Washington DC, each leading general paraded with his army before a massive crowd, and Sherman had his rightful place on the review stand once he reached it. He passed down the line, shaking hands along the line of others who’d been seated there…until he reached Secretary Stanton. At this point, he states that he publicly brushed past the outstretched hand offered him, thus returning the public insult that had been dealt him in the press. He snubbed the guy in as public a manner as possible, and I once again wanted to cheer. Well done.

“War is war, and not popularity seeking”, he responded to someone who questioned his destruction of Georgia, and the sieges that left rebel cities on the brink of starvation. And he was right. It can’t be over until someone has the courage to wage real war. His frankness and his affection for his troops, even though he knew some of them would fall, or maybe even more so because of it, was deeply moving, and I came away feeling that I had read one of the best memoirs ever.

One more thing I’d add, for those who get the edition that I read: if you flip to the last page, it says 490. Hmmmm. The book appears to be longer, but then, there’s a lot of small print, where he documents everything meticulously, using primarily the telegrams and letters from himself to his superiors and vice-versa.

But there’s something more. This was originally a two volume set. It’s less expensive to buy just one book, but it remains two volumes under one cover. Once you reach the FIRST page 409, There is a page that says VOLUME II and then you start on page 1 again, so that you are actually reading over 800 pages.

Put together with Southern historian Shelby Foote’s less-apt and rabidly pro-Confederate trilogy, this was a meal, yet I don’t regret reading them together, since it provided two perspectives (and I am finishing Burke Davis’s book on Sherman’s march to the sea, a smaller volume with a third perspective that is closer to Sherman’s own).

But if you ask me who I believe when facts collide: I believe Sherman.

Post script: Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy is not reviewed on this blog, because I only give space to work I respect and have rated at four or five stars on a one-through-five star scale.