Archive for the ‘Autobiography/Biography’ Category

Trouble Man

Sunday, October 4th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Trouble Man” by Steve Turner, published in 1998. This is a biography of Marvin Gaye. His father, a Pentecostal preacher for the House of God church, and violent drunk, was the third oldest of thirteen surviving siblings, born in October 1914.

Gaye was born in April 1939. His full name was Marvin Pentz Gaye II. “His Motown image was still that of a polite, handsome black man who believed in fidelity, success and family life… like his father, Marvin was misogynistic. The function of women, he believed, was to serve and obey men.”

Unfortunately, his life spiraled downward into drug addiction and promiscuity, not unlike another famous and popular peforming artist of a later generation– Richard Pryor. Read the book to learn the details.

UPClose: John Steinbeck

Sunday, September 20th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “UPClose: John Steinbeck” by Milton Meltzer, published in 2008. This is a brief account of Steinbeck’s life, in the context– superficially described– of the historical backdrop of his generation, including labor unrest, migrant farmworkers, political elections, The Great Depression, wars of various nations, and the then-literary taste of the United States. The author fails to mention stock market speculation as a cause of The Great Depression.

Steinbeck was born in 1902. At different times in his life, he was a journalist, novelist and short-story writer. He covered wars, wrote neutrally about unionization in America, and sympathetically about migrant farmworkers and their deplorable living conditions. When his novel “Of Mice and Men” was released, his publisher “… insisted John submit to the usual publicity projects for launching a new book: press conferences, interviews, book signings, cocktail parties.”

Read the book to get an overview of Steinbeck’s life and his times.

Bonus Post

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

This blogger skimmed “Genius on the Edge” by Gerald Imber, MD, published in  2010. This long book describes the career of Dr. William Halsted.

Halsted was born in 1852 in New York City. There was still much ignorance about medicine in his generation. Fatal diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever and tuberculosis were rampant. He developed a passion for medicine at Yale University. The most prominent doctors of his age included Pasteur, Lister, Morse, Hunter, Wells, Koch, Morton, Young and Warren. They spurred progress in sanitation, anaesthesia, and the collection of new information and techniques for treating patients.

In the 1870′s, Columbia College, Physicians and Surgeons didn’t require undergraduate degrees for entry because it was seeking revenue from student tuition. The three-year program was all lectures– no labs, no interaction with patients. In the 1870′s, during Halsted’s internship at Bellevue Hospital, many personnel didn’t wash their hands before operating, and smoked.

In late 1884, Halsted started using cocaine as a local anaesthetic in dentistry. He displayed, “…hyperactivity, rambling speech, inattention, and suspended decision-making ability.” Medical students and their teachers started using cocaine as a pick-me-up. They became addicted. “The drug was readily available in Europe, through Merck, and there was no stigma associated with its purchase.” In late 1886, Halsted went to work at Johns Hopkins Pathological– the “Bell Labs” of medicine. He went to Baltimore because his addiction had wrecked his career in New York. He substituted morphine for cocaine.

It is unclear how much better Halsted could have performed were it not for his addiction. He did have a brilliant career, but there were bouts of irresponsibility, socially and teaching-wise. He missed classes, started surgery at 10am instead of 8 after a while, failed to show up for meetings, and retreated to his country home for almost half the year. One positive side effect of his addiction was that Halsted delegated complete patient care to residents when he had morphine withdrawal symptoms. So the residents got a golden opportunity they would not have had otherwise, to learn their craft.

Sidenote (There’s nothing new under the sun.): “As a group, they [nurses] felt themselves underpaid and overworked.” The Training School taught them to cook and clean. They were required to wear brown Oxford shoes.

Halsted experimented on dogs on and off for a couple of years, between months-long stints in drug rehab. He began seeing human patients for surgery in early 1889. He pioneered the medical-school residency program. He instituted the training of surgeons to train other surgeons. Three other doctors at Johns Hopkins who wrought major change in medicine in the U.S. were William Osler, William Welch, and Howard Kelly. Halsted specialized in surgery for breast cancer and inguinal hernia.

Johns Hopkins wanted to remain on the cutting edge of medicine by opening a medical school but it needed money to do so. Female heirs of prominent, wealthy families raised the money and placed conditions on the school’s opening, requiring gender equality. After much controversy, it opened in the fall of 1893.

Read the book to learn how medicine in America changed through the years of the late 19th into the 20th century, and how, according to this book, Johns Hopkins led the way.


Sunday, September 6th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Wolf, The Lives of Jack London” by James L. Haley, published in 2010. This is the biography of an American author whose books and short stories were popular at the turn of the 20th Century.

London’s mother died giving birth to him in 1876. He was the eleventh and last child in the family, and the ninth to survive. Due to his stepmother’s gambling addiction, when he was ten years old, he was forced to work at various jobs, such as paperboy, ice wagon boy and pinsetter at a bowling alley, to lend financial support to his family. He quit school after eighth grade.

London was determined to escape a life of hard manual labor via writing, which paid significantly better. In 1898, “… to the average American indoctrinated with the ideals of patriotism– socialists, communists, and anarchists had all become lumped together into a bomb throwing vaguely Slavic cartoon that was inaccurate, and out of which they needed to be educated.” When he tasted success in publishing, ironically, he cruised the globe in a $30,000 yacht, taking with him one hundred books, a phonograph and five hundred records, but his writings were of exploitation by robber barons who were “…oblivious to the havoc they were wreaking in the lives of the have-nots.”

Read the book to learn more of London’s adventures stealing oysters, riding the rails, serving as a war correspondent and socialist lecturer, as well as in the sexual realm and personal relationships.


Sunday, August 9th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Home” by Julie Andrews, published in 2008. This memoir tells of Andrews’ life until just after she turned 27 years old.

The author found her talent and passion as a singer with her parents when she was ten. They traveled around England performing, and even got to sing for the royal family. It was not all fun and games, however, as her parents split, and found new lovers. Her stepfather and mother devolved into alcoholism. As a teenager, she was under pressure to financially support them, plus care for her younger half-siblings. Her education fell by the wayside as a consequence.

Read the book to learn the series of events that led to Andrews’ starring in various hit shows through the decades, and about her experiences in show business.

Life Itself

Sunday, July 5th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Life Itself” by Roger Ebert, published in 2011. This is the autobiography of an American movie critic.

Born in the autumn of 1942, Ebert grew up in Urbana, Illinois. He started his journalism career while still in high school. He attended graduate school in the mid-1960′s to avoid the Vietnam draft. It was by chance that he was assigned to write movie reviews, and later on, team up with Gene Siskel.

Ebert inherited a self-destructive tendency from his parents. “After my father was told he had lung cancer, he switched to filter-tip Winstons… She [Ebert's mother] continued to smoke, and when she was on oxygen would remove the tube to have a cigarette.” Ebert himself became an alcoholic. In 1979, he stopped drinking and joined AA.

The author writes of the culture of his generation. During elementary school summers, “The lives of kids were not fast-tracked…” They would ride their bicycles, mow lawns, open a Kool-Aid stand, or listen to the radio. Movie theaters were one of the few places that had air conditioning.

The author’s take on today’s movie dialogue is: “…the characters have grown stupid… get their laughs by their delivery of four-letter words.”

Read the book to learn the details of Ebert’s life and times.

The Best of Times

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “The Best of Times” by John Dos Passos, originally published in 1966. This ebook is “an informal memoir.”

Dos Passos was sent by his father, a bigwig attorney active in politics and in his community, to a “public school” (what Americans would call private school) in England, and later, boarding school in the United States. His father was of Portuguese extraction, with houses in Sandy Point, MD and Washington D.C. In his youth, Dos Passos communed with nature, capturing small rodents, bullfrogs and garter snakes.

The author became a Darwin Award candidate by choice during WWI– a volunteer ambulance driver in France and Italy, after which he bummed around Spain, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. At times, he lived in New York. “When I found I was late I jumped a bus. In the twenties you could still sit out in the air on top of the [double-decker] Fifth Avenue buses.”

In Dos Passos’ generation, it was easy to make a living as a novelist and playwright. He debated political philosophies with his friends. It is now known which systems of governments are superior to others. But in the hard sciences, “… you could perform your experiment, report the findings. Other men could repeat your experiment to check the results.” The author felt that “developing a humane civilization” involves half communism and half capitalism. This blogger thinks he was conflating politics with economics. He meant “socialism,” not “communism,” because socialism is an economic system, and communism is a political system. But to create a just society, respect for human rights in both governing and allocating resources, is required.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of the author’s adventures abroad and his experiences hanging around with Ernest Hemingway.

Cathedral of the Wild

Sunday, May 31st, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Cathedral of the Wild” by Boyd Varty, published in 2014. This ebook is the autobiography of a member of the family who owned the Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa.

The Reserve was started by the author’s father and uncle. As is well known, the bushveld of South Africa is fraught with sources of life-threatening injuries and illnesses. In the 1970′s, the founders braved these, plus primitive conditions, to regenerate life in the biosphere on land overgrazed by cattle, to build infrastructure and a business. They felt a close connection to the environment. Their endeavors were ecologically friendly in nature. However, they were trying to introduce a concept before its time, so people criticized their making money from realizing their vision. A “…classic Varty Brothers project… was outlandishly ambitious: vast in scope, freighted with complicated logistics, and therefore irresistible.”

During the author’s childhood, his uncle’s focus on his then-project, such as filming wildlife documentaries or preventing species extinctions, took priority over protecting himself and others from dangers. From a very young age, Varty and his older sister Bron were obligated to assist their uncle with various challenging tasks, such as operating the sound system in the presence of wild animals, shooting a rifle (when necessary), driving a Land Rover, etc. When Varty was about ten, their parents pulled them out of boarding school and assigned them a tutor, Kate. “Bron, Kate and I were crossing the Serengeti [in Tanzania] with about two million wildebeests… hundreds of thousands of gazelles and zebras, travels twelve hundred miles…”

Varty recounts morbidly fascinating stories about an elephant’s charging at the Land Rover (a common occurrence) and various other traumatic episodes in his life. He rambles on a little too long about his and his family’s psychological healing from these occasions when they could easily have died.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of these episodes, plus about the celebrity who visited the Reserve, and why.

American On Purpose

Sunday, May 17th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “American on Purpose” by Craig Ferguson. This ebook is the autobiography of the Scottish-American comedian, actor and late-night TV show host, published in 2009.

Ferguson was born in 1962. As a young adult, he started doing stand-up comedy, creating a character called “Bing Hitler.” When he performed at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1986, the Scotsman and Edinburgh Evening News newspapers gave him glowing reviews. This gave him a super career boost in show business.

The author wrote about having to deal with “the network” when he was cast for a TV show, and how “…you get executives who start out with a radical notion, but as the moment of truth approaches, they lose their nerve and go back to what they are familiar with.” He had his share of failures; much of it due to his alcoholism. Even later, though, he spent a lot of time writing comic screen plays on spec with his friends and earning nothing.

Ferguson received good vibes about the United States in his childhood. When he told his mother he had gotten the job as host of The Late Late Show, she thought he “…had become a newsreader in America.”

Read the book to learn how Ferguson eventually became famous, despite his checkered life history. He attributes it to the image projected by America– the country where people can achieve success notwithstanding numerous past failures.


Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Daring” by Gail Sheehy, published in 2014. This is the autobiography of an American writer best known for authoring the book Passages in the 1970′s.

Sheehy, a feminist, achieved great success in her life as a wife and mother with a career. That life was dripping with irony; in her 20′s, Sheehy attached herself to a powerful man– Clay Felker– co-founder of New York magazine. He initially provided her with the professional and personal life she would never have had otherwise. They had an on-and-off relationship for sixteen years prior to their marriage, during which she insisted on having a period of separation because she thought she needed time to grow on her own. She took advantage of numerous opportunities and worked hard throughout her life. However, she was still a product of her time, pressured by society to get herself a man in order to feel whole. As an aside, she established a credit history only in her late thirties(!)

Numerous people the author knew were experimenting with “open marriages.” She observed that those relationships usually erupted in “savage jealousies.” She had had a starter marriage with a doctor-in-training prior to meeting Felker. She was in her mid-30′s when she happened to hit upon a subject that struck a nerve– the different stages of life of American women. At the time, only men were examining the life stages of only their own gender.

Nobody showed up at the author’s first signing of Passages at the independent bookstore Brentano’s in Greenwich Village. In spring 1976, months later, the book hit #1 in the New York Times Book Review. Her friends and colleagues got jealous. “Writer friends now saw me as competition; if I was on the bestseller list, I had stolen their rightful slot.”

This book becomes a bit tedious at times, but the author’s descriptions of her life’s events and minutiae are part of her identity as a Northeastern elitist. For decades, she owned a summer house in the Hamptons, with a trampoline, swimming pool, herb garden, wisteria and linden tree. Her spacious New York apartment had a terrace. Through the years, she and her friends ate at fancy restaurants. She employed a maid and a nanny. She attended countless parties for philanthropic causes.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn how Sheehy coped with the passages in her life.