Laughter’s Gentle Soul

November 23rd, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Laughter’s Gentle Soul, The Life of Robert Benchley” by Billy Altman, published in 1997. This is the biography of Robert Benchley, literary humorist and Hollywood writer and actor in the first half of the 20th century.

Born in 1889, Benchley had to pass a three-day battery of exams to get accepted to Harvard in 1908. He was known for witty, wiseass writing, and playing pranks. In the late nineteen teens, when the editor of Vanity Fair magazine went on vacation, Benchley and his coworkers dispersed “…outlandish banners, streamers, signs, crepe paper, and assorted parade paraphernalia” around the editor’s office. The editor was not amused when he returned.

In Benchley’s generation, the American populace read columns and essays in newspapers and magazines– major sources of information and entertainment then. Benchley was a member of the “Algonquin Round Table,” also called the “Vicious Circle” formally named in spring 1919. The group consisted of writers of various genres, leading ladies, artists and women’s rights activists. Its members regularly met at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City for dinner and drinks, and some, through connections with the super-wealthy, went on jaunts to Great Neck, Manhasset and Syosset on Long Island in New York State, and overseas, into the mid 1930′s.

In October 1923, the Algonquinites acquired a permit to play croquet in Central Park in New York City. They were incurable hedonists. In 1926, Benchley was best man at a friend’s wedding in California, at which he appeared with a broken leg he’d gotten from a fall at a party. “That the [plaster] cast had been profusely autographed with lewd comments by most of the guests at the bridegroom’s bachelor party only added to Benchley’s embarrassing popularity at the ceremonies.”

In 1928, an acquaintance of Benchley chartered a private plane to fly them from London to Paris. At that time, such aircraft was extremely noisy, even for the passengers, and there was no heat in the cabin.

Benchley became a Broadway theater critic for The New Yorker magazine. “With hundreds of productions surfacing each season, the theater critics of Benchley’s era had the ill fortune to confront, over and over, shows with identical or nearly identical plots, character types and even dialogue.”

Read the book to learn other details of Benchley’s professional and personal life on both coasts.

 

Sirio

November 16th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Sirio, The Story of My Life and Le Cirque” by Sirio Maccioni and Peter Elliot, published in 2004.

Sirio, born in spring 1932, came from a poor family in the resort city of Montecatini in Tuscany. His immediate family members could read, unlike most other people his family knew. His father had been a multi-lingual concierge who worked long hours at a hotel. His uncles worked long hours on the farm. Since he was orphaned at an early age, and was short on education, he felt his career options were limited. He therefore fell into the role of waiter at a hotel restaurant. In the 1930′s, waiters were required to dress elegantly, be multilingual and actually prepare food in front of diners at the table.

In the 1950′s, Sirio was receiving training the traditional French way as a hotel chef. But he was part of a trend later labeled “nouvelle cuisine”– meaning preparing food creatively– putting a regional, personal touch on the food. “…And they [the chefs] refused to treat people badly… Paris was still ruled by the hotel mentality.”

The French had an elitist system whereby the trainees slaved away long hours and were bullied unmercifully so only the most dedicated ones survived. If they were courageous, they started their own restaurants and repeated the cycle with their underlings. As was common for aspiring chefs of his generation, Sirio paid his dues in a few different European cities. In the 1960′s, he basically played the role of greeter at an upscale hotel restaurant in New York. He was skillful at this job, given his diplomatic temperament with the rich and famous diners.

Sirio has these words of wisdom for the reader: “There’s a saying, ‘The customer is always right.’ Not true. Not always. The customer always gets what he wants. Very different. All I do is try to understand what they want.” and “You know, if you talk to a real man, not a phony, they tell you where and how they learn things… So many chefs I know just pretend to know things… Many times in the kitchen they don’t want to learn anything at all, especially not from an owner…”

Read the book to learn how Sirio finally got to run a restaurant of his own; of the chefs he employed (including his falling-out with Daniel Boulud who behaved  unprofessionally at the end); his adventures in the business; and how Sirio’s co-author gets a bit full of Sirio when he boldly proclaims, “By 1981 Le Cirque was the most famous restaurant in the world.”

Bonus Post

November 12th, 2014

This blogger skimmed “Too Late for the Festival” by Rhiannon Paine, published in 1999. This ebook recounts the expatriate experience of the author, a tech writer, at the Hewlett-Packard office in Japan starting in 1985.

Paine describes in detail the then-culture in Japan, which discriminated against women in the office. Fluent in English, “Miyuki had graduated from Keio, the top private university in Japan” and yet could get only a low-level secretarial job with H-P, where one of her tasks was to serve tea twice a day.

Paine was tolerated as a tech-writer because she was a foreigner, but was still treated as an outsider. She was on a long-term temp assignment, for which she was grossly overpaid. However, she felt unfulfilled, as the tech product was obsolete by the time she was done with her role in the project. As is typical at a lot of American companies, the boss was just giving her make-work to justify the department budget and his supervisory power.

One quirk of Japanese culture this blogger found interesting, was with regard to the commuter trains. The author was taking a train, and suddenly informed by a traveling mate that they were going the wrong way. The reason was that some commuter trains are split at a particular station so that one portion departs in one direction, and the other portion, in the opposite direction. That doesn’t happen in the United States.

Read the book to learn of many other aspects of Japanese culture, and the fate of the author.

God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked

November 9th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “God, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked” by Darrell Hammond, published in 2011. This ebook is the autobiography of a professional entertainer who recounts how he has dealt with his serious psychological problems.

As a versatile impressionist of celebrities, Hammond made appearances on the TV show “Saturday Night Live” for about a decade and a half, starting in 1995. He describes the show’s people thusly: “…an incredible staff of Emmy winners– hair, make-up, costumes, writers, producers.”

Hammond grew up in Melbourne, Florida, and moved to the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City as an adult. He erroneously writes that the Javits Center is at Forty-Second Street– an easy error to make for even clear-headed New Yorkers, as the city has so many famous points of interest; keeping their locations straight is a tough job.

However, from his twenties to his fifties, the author was often drunk, high, cutting himself, and/or trying to escape uncomfortable feelings in other ways that resulted in his taking various medications (some self-prescribed), numerous emergency room visits and psychiatric hospital stays. This was because, in his childhood, Hammond experienced extreme psychological and physical abuse at the hands of his mother, and was witness to the violent behavior of his father, a veteran of two wars. Hammond concisely states that he was plagued by alcoholism and trauma– a progressively fatal combination.

Hammond naively went from one psychiatrist to the next, each one misdiagnosing the cause of his behavior by labeling it as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc.  This way, they could write prescriptions for anti-psychotic drugs for him. They were afraid he would commit suicide on their watch, so it was safer for them to minimize his ability to harm himself.

Read the book to learn of: how Hammond beat the odds despite his problems; what happened when he finally found a competent doctor; the three kinds of bipolar disorder; and intimate details of the culture of Saturday Night Live.

Bonus Post

November 4th, 2014

This blogger skimmed “Man Up!” by Ross Mathews, published in 2013. This ebook is the autobiography of the guy best known for appearing as “Ross the Intern” on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Read this bunch of lighthearted anecdotes to learn of the author’s relationships with various female celebrities, the life lessons he was subjected to in high school and college, and how he became famous.

In a Rocket Made of Ice

November 2nd, 2014

The Book of the Week is “In a Rocket Made of Ice, Among the Children of Wat Opot” by Gail Gutradt, published in 2013. This ebook is a personal account of a woman who volunteered to assist with caring for children at a precariously funded orphanage in Cambodia, Wat Opot, that specialized in HIV-positive residents.

The author stayed for about five months at a time in the first halves of 2003, 2004 and 2008. She wrote about Cambodian culture, in which there was discrimination not only against people with AIDS, but also against people with dark skin. Skin lighteners sold well because people did not want to be perceived as poor rice farmers. On the occasion when the children were given Barbie dolls and one dark-colored doll, they played with only the former.

Conditions were less than ideal:  “…heat, bad water, the risk of contracting malaria or rabies, of catching tuberculosis…” a more common illness than AIDS. Plus, limited technology and education, and groups of boys going on “wildings” in the streets. It was theorized that the AIDS epidemic came to Cambodia in the early 1990′s, when men of various stripes (husbands and truck drivers who visited prostitutes, UN soldiers who went on holiday in Thailand, and Vietnamese military families) spread the disease.

The orphanage’s truly dedicated American director, who had been a medic in the Vietnam War, heroically fed, housed, clothed and medicated all of the residents at Wat Opot. They included some sick adults, and tens of children, some of whom were HIV-positive, who had lost their parents to AIDS. There were many other non-profit groups that claimed to take care of orphaned children, but some had greedy owners who committed fraud or inadequately provided for their charges due to inexperience.

Read the book to learn of the author’s interactions with the children and their caretakers, an unpleasant episode with the World Food Programme, religious observances at Wat Opot, its neighbors, and how some of the children fared as they grew older, or after they left the community.

Keeping Hope Alive

October 26th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Keeping Hope Alive” by Dr. Hawa Abdi, with Sarah J. Robbins, published in 2013.  This ebook is the personal account of a driven, fiercely independent Somalian doctor.

Around 1970, Abdi did seven years of medical training in the former Soviet Union. She then returned to her homeland of Somalia to practice obstetrics and gynecology. Through the years, she married, had two daughters and a son, and in August 1983, built a clinic.

By mid-1992, Abdi had made available a farm and campus on which poor people and war refugees could reside, and receive medical treatment. In addition, she was a law school graduate. She also took in her sister’s large family when they were destitute. She risked her life many times during hostilities between and among Ethiopians and Somalian clans ruled by warlords and sheikhs.

Abdi gathered quite a following because she was so generous to her community. Her dream was that the Somalian people would unite as one country, instead of killing each other in tribal infighting. “People who are fighting will never be able to build.” By the early 2000′s, “… after fifteen years of civil war, the women and youth ran everything, while most of the grown men had either been killed or were away– out fighting or somewhere abroad, trying to make business deals.”

Read the book to learn the details of: Abdi’s trials and tribulations in protecting her property and family, how she was betrayed by her husband; how in some ways, she refused to comply with Somalian/Islamic culture; the cities to which she evacuated her children, and of her interactions with relief organizations, soldiers and journalists.

Bonus Post

October 21st, 2014

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “The Law of the Jungle” by Paul M. Barrett, published in 2014.  This is the story of a decades-long court case involving oil contamination in the Amazonian rain forest of northeastern Ecuador, to which a number of cliches apply:

Pox on the houses of both the plaintiff and the defendant;

A man is known by the company he keeps; and

When you lie down with dogs, you get fleas.

Starting in 1993, the plaintiff, represented by a greedy, egotistical, loudmouthed, yet shrewd attorney– Steven Donziger– claimed that defendant, Texaco, and then successor Chevron oil company, had caused illness, deaths, and damage to the quality of life of thousands of farmers and tribesmen in Ecuador. The Amazonians were allegedly poisoned by the oil-contaminated streams where they fished, bathed and gathered drinking water. The oil company had established a presence in their villages since 1964, when it forged an agreement with the Ecuadorian government to drill on 3.5 million and later, 4 million acres in the Oriente region.

The author tells a suspenseful, controversial story that reveals valid arguments on both sides. There was evidence of serious disruption of villagers’ lives. This included cancer clusters and other health issues that plagued the Ecuadorians, pollution of the place where they lived, the unintended consequence of violent fighting for jobs and over income inequality between Indians and homesteaders, etc. directly attributable to the activities of, and inept cleanup of, oil that allowed spreading of toxic chemicals by, the petroleum companies. On the other hand, over the years, the economy of the country of Ecuador made great strides due to the companies’ building of, and heavy investment in, transportation infrastructure and the side effects of job creation and good political relations that would not have occurred but for the corporate presence in Ecuador.

According to the author, the plaintiff’s attorney went after “big oil” rather than “… a struggling national government responsible for letting down its people” because big oil had more sex appeal. It could also be that big oil had deeper pockets.

In sum, “The oil pollution suit was not unique. Ecuador’s judiciary had a well-earned reputation for corruption and chaos.”

Read the book to learn of the various sleazy tactics employed by both sides in the dispute, and to get a concise, eloquent summary of the whole story– read the “Conclusions” section of this ebook.

Drama

October 12th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Drama: An Actor’s Education” by John Lithgow, published in 2011. This ebook is Lithgow’s autobiography.

The author has had a very successful acting career in theater, TV and movies. He learned from his father– a super role model and passionate producer of Shakespeare festivals. His father’s career necessitated the family’s relocating every few years, from Ohio to Massachusetts to New Jersey and elsewhere; a disruptive force in his social life. Nevertheless, Lithgow earned a full scholarship to Harvard, where he continued to hone his acting skills.

Read the book to learn how the author escaped the Vietnam draft, about his 1970′s theater experiences in twelve Broadway shows, his explanation of why actors have trouble staying faithful in their love lives, and his professional and personal trials and tribulations.