Archive for the ‘Autobiography/Biography’ Category

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.

Daring

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.

My Crazy Century

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “My Crazy Century” by Ivan Klima, published in 2010. This ebook discusses the life of a Czech writer from the 1930′s to the tail end of the 1980′s.

Luck was a major factor in why Klima survived WWII. His family was sent to the forced-labor camp in Terezin because his father, all-around handyman and mechanical engineer, was reputed to be an expert who proved useful to the Nazis. His father believed in socialism because “… he realized our society was corrupt, that it bred inequality, injustice, poverty, millions of unemployed, who then put their faith in a madman.”

After the war, there was momentary joy for the winners, but in Europe, people also possessed “… hatred and a longing for revenge.” The author, a teenager, had been conditioned to think of the Red Army as virtuous and the Germans as evil. In high school, he watched weekly newsreels of Comrades Stalin, Gottwald, Slansky, and Zapotocky; plus black marketeers, who were blamed for the consumer-goods shortages in Czechoslovakia. People who were considered war criminals– members of the old regime, traitors and collaborationists– were brought to justice through summary executions.

The author’s family had their house raided several times for subversive materials. Klima got a job with a construction crew, where he got his first taste of socialism in action. “No one could earn more than was necessary for daily subsistence.” The government was stealing the economic surplus from the people. That was why corruption came into play. He was pressured into joining, surprise, surprise, the Communist Party. He said, “I was stunned by how the environment bubbled over with rancor, continual suspicion, malicious gossip, and personnel screening.”

Housing in Czechoslovakia, as in other countries under Soviet influence, was hard to come by. The author, his wife and three-year-old son lived in his mother-in-law’s house for years. There was an average fifteen-year wait for better accommodations (a tiny apartment), unless one was prepared to spend about two years’ salary and join a co-op, or engage in a housing swap with strangers.

Read the book to learn the details of how Klima became a dissident reporter, novelist and playwright, how he: came to be invited to teach in the United States, and became disillusioned with the kibbutzniks in Israel and with the Communist Party; how he “… had been kicked out of all organizations and deprived of the possibility of working anywhere [he] might be able to employ [his] knowledge and skills.”

You Might Remember Me

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “You Might Remember Me, The Life and Times of Phil Hartman” by Mike Thomas, published in 2014. This biography has a spoiler in the introduction that ruins the suspense of the ending, if the reader is unfamiliar with Hartman’s life.

Hartman was a multi-talented actor. He did eight seasons on Saturday Night Live, voiced various characters on the animated TV show “The Simpsons” and appeared in various movies. A middle child with seven siblings, he had a difficult childhood.  He thought that people are filled with rage, but many do not know how to express it in healthy ways. As an aside (unrelated to Hartman), if the truth makes one angry, one is living a lie.

Read the book to learn of a major incident involving Hartman in the spring of 1998. His brother John kept a hounding press away from the family. His brother Paul explained why “If it bleeds, it leads”: “People are miserable, and when they see more misery than they’re experiencing [themselves], it makes them feel good.”

Rita Moreno

Sunday, March 15th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Rita Moreno, A Memoir” by Rita Moreno, published in 2014.

The author was originally from Juncos, Puerto Rico. She and her mother, without her father and younger brother, came to America in 1936, when she was five. It was traumatic for her to be uprooted from a tropical paradise to her aunt’s overpopulated, freezing, dirty Bronx tenement with its vermin and noisy steam heat radiator, the noisy el train nearby, and Irish and Anglo gangs roaming the neighborhood.

Moreno had a high-pressure mother who recognized and nurtured her talent by enrolling her for Spanish dancing lessons when she was six. She was performing in a range of genres the rest of her life.

Read the book to learn Moreno’s life history– the discrimination against her for her ethnicity, the awards she won that reflected her genre versatility, her lovers, and what led her to attempt suicide, among other details.

Bonus Post

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

This blogger read “The Coconut Latitudes” by Rita M. Gardner, published in 2014.

Until her early twenties, the American author was a shrinking violet. Throughout her childhood in the 1940′s and 1950′s, she was verbally abused by her alcoholic father, suffering physical symptoms of anxiety, thinking she had no recourse. This could partly have been due to the culture of her generation and unusual place of residence– the Dominican Republic, to which the father moved her, her mother, and old sister when she was five. Ironically, the father, an electrical engineer-turned coconut farmer, believed in education for his daughters. After a series of traumatic events in her two decades of existence, she says, “It hasn’t occurred to me that I might have a say in how I’m treated.”

Another aspect of the author’s coming-of-age environment was the unstable political situation in the Dominican Republic. At her fifteenth birthday party (1961), her friend told her about five men who were spying on them behind the shrubbery outside their house, in a rural village (like a small town) called Miches, many miles from the capital (currently called Santo Domingo). The teenagers thought it was “special government forces” looking for subversives. Incidentally, around the same time, under J. Edgar Hoover’s watchful eye, the United States’ own citizens were under scrutiny even though Joseph McCarthy’s systematic effort to purge the country of “Communists” was long over. Nowadays, it is no secret that the latest spying method is electronic surveillance through the World Wide Web. Spies no long have to go through the trouble of planting listening devices in people’s homes. In America, citizens are supposedly “innocent until proven guilty.” When the government is spying on its own citizens through electronic or other means without probable cause, it is treating them as though they are already guilty.

Anyway, the author writes, “I don’t worry that anyone will think Daddy is a Yanqi imperialista or that our family is in any kind of danger. We’ve been here too long.” It is ironic that the author was unconcerned that the government would oppress her family for perceived seditious utterances. For, her father was the one who tyrannically kept her family’s embarrassing incidents secret by suppressing any talk of them and forcing her to lie to anyone who asked about her sister’s whereabouts; she felt internal pressure to lie about her own well-being.

The author’s family was sufficiently “street-smart” to stay mute about politics. There had been stories in the news about deaths of certain people who spoke ill of the dictator who ruled the country. Nevertheless, the family was not harassed for dispensing with attending the Catholic church on Sunday. Other than that one episode of spying and surveillance of their mail, the family had basic freedoms.

The author’s mind was opened to career possibilities when she was living with her friend’s family (which was significantly less dysfunctional than her own) near Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In 1966, the Apollo-Saturn projects and the race to land a man on the moon were creating jobs in the region. At that time, she was in the “eye” of the metaphorical hurricane that was her life. The calm eye “…has the lowest sea-level atmospheric pressure on earth” but it is ephemeral.

Read the book to learn of the author’s sister’s whereabouts, and the numerous “storms” in her life.

Even This I Get To Experience

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Even This I Get to Experience” by Norman Lear, published in 2014. This is the autobiography of an alpha male.

Lear had a difficult childhood– had conflicted feelings about his irrationally optimistic, charismatic yet swindling father, and emotionally distant, narcissistic mother. He was: a creative intellectual typical for his generation, an excellent judge of people, and astute about human nature. He wrote comedic scripts with a partner starting in the 1940′s, when it was easy to get in touch with the performers of comic material.

Later, the workaholic author wrote and produced the TV sitcoms that characterized and changed the zeitgeist of America in the 1970′s. He created controversial dialogue and episode plots on ethnicity, religion and sex on “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons.” He learned that a fairly small number of fanatically religious people could cause CBS to phobically censor his work. However, at the first attempt of the network to stifle him, Lear stood his ground because if he didn’t, he knew the TV-ratings-obsessed (and money-from-advertisers-obsessed) “suits” or an ideological actor, would win all arguments from then on. More than once, situations became so heated, he threatened to quit.

From the mid to late 1970′s onward, Lear became politically active, meeting with politicians and starting his own patriotic groups. He also submitted all sorts of ideas for campaigns but, he writes, “… no matter how sincerely they seemed to listen, or how grateful they were for suggestions they couldn’t wait to put into effect, no one ever acted on a single idea I ever presented, not ever. Every bit of contact following versions of that speech had to do with my checkbook and my Rolodex.” This blogger thinks that in this area, perhaps the author naively failed to realize that a number of factors needed to come together for him to succeed: timing (his ideas needed to be recognized during an election year), money (he should have made a sufficient donation to the campaign); and content (his ideas needed to be on hot-button issues).

Please note: the book’s last section is a name-dropping bragfest. Granted, the man has bragging rights and is not an “outlier” by any stretch of Malcolm Gladwell’s definition. Lastly, unfortunately, this book lacks an index. But read the book to learn the details of: Lear’s trials and tribulations with the above, his acquaintances with U.S. presidents and entertainers, his business ventures, and his families, consisting of six children he had with three different women.

Bonus Post

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

This blogger read “So, Anyway…” by John Cleese. The author initially thought he was going to be an attorney, actually acquiring a legal education. But he changed his mind and became a comedy writer.

Cleese is a rare bird, in that he possesses capacity for analytical thinking and comedic absurdity in equal measure– the former has kept him sane, and the latter has made him funny.

The author had the luck of entering the field of British television comedy around 1960 when it was in its infancy. He worked with David Frost– a TV executive who undeservedly grabbed writing credits by listing his name first in large letters on his own show, while there were tens of other writers, contributors of original material, whose names appeared in small type thereafter. Cleese comments that people harbored little or no jealousy over this because Frost had a hands-off management style, never said a mean word about anyone, ignored his immature critics, and sincerely believed people were cheering for him rather than trying to cut him down.

The author, a major contributor to the BBC TV show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and some funny movies, also writes, “I regarded swearing as a form of cheating, a lazy way of getting a laugh out of material that wasn’t intrinsically funny enough.”

Read the book to see Cleese’s other words of wisdom on comedy writing, and how he has been able to continuously contribute creative content to various shows through the decades– a major feat for someone with a career such as his.

The Real Deal

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

The Book of the Week is “The Real Deal, My Life in Business and Philanthropy” by Sanford Weill and Judah S. Kraushaar, published in 2006. This career memoir describes how, over the course of about fifty years, Weill became a major change agent in the American financial services industry. His specialty became leading the execution of mergers and acquisitions for the investment, banking, and insurance companies of which he was an executive and board member.

In spring 1960, he started a securities brokerage, actually on Wall Street, with three partners. The stock market was bearish in 1962 and 1963. Interesting sidenote: “The typical stock in the Dow Index had a price 23 times its earnings as this downturn began, compared to a multiple of only 10 times in the early 1950s.”

Through the years, he gained more and more power and accumulated more and more wealth. When he attended events at which he had to speak to stockbrokers, he adopted a policy of brevity, saying, “You’ve heard enough speeches– what questions do you have for me?”

Although the author fostered a corporate culture of informality and “Management By Wandering Around” at his own company, in many instances, he failed to take into consideration the culture of the target company. His strengths lay more in bringing the top executives of the parties together to do the deals, and negotiating the new management structures. It was ironic that he was such a poor judge of how the two cultures would mesh once the integration process began.

At times, Weill tapped the power of his friends in high places, one of which was the government. It helped him change federal law to allow transactions to proceed. For instance, prior to 1999, certain banking and investment banking services could not be legally offered by the same company, due to financial conflicts and possibilities for abuses. He and his cohorts had a hand in making the historic change so that people within the same company could offer their clients all kinds of financial services.

Weill describes a whole bunch of instances that provided evidence for the necessity of strict financial auditing laws. In just a few years at the turn of the 21st Century, greed had spun out of control in the industry, leading to the accounting scandals of Enron and WorldCom, the dot-com crash, and a major hedge-fund crash that required a bailout. A terrorist attack didn’t help, either. By 2002, the chickens had come home to roost in the form of a bear market. “The regulators, the press, and politicians of all stripes…” played “the game of pointing fingers.”

And yet Weill writes, “…governance rules mandated by Sarbanes-Oxley (enacted in summer 2002) made it seem likely that bureaucratic needs would trump the fun of the business.” He also complains that businesses would have to spend more money preparing their financial statements. Sorry about that, Mr. Weill. Yes, pesky, bureaucratic, expensive laws reining in greed are no fun.

Six years later– same song, different verse… a whole lot worse. Need it be said– The more things change, the more they stay the same. History will continue to repeat itself, given human nature.

Read the book to learn the details of Weill’s career ups and downs and trials and tribulations. This blogger skipped the last chapter, in which Weill merely rambles on stating his opinions, and the endnote, which is an interview with his wife, whom he lavishly praises as loving and supportive throughout this ebook.

Molly Ivins

Sunday, January 11th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Molly Ivins” by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith, published in 2009. This is a biography of Molly Ivins– witty, brash journalist.

Born in 1944, Ivins was someone whom Malcolm Gladwell would characterize as an “outlier.” Her daddy was a social climber in the oil industry in Texas. The family was good friends with the political Bush family. They lived in the wealthy area of River Oaks. Ivins and her older sister and younger brother went sailing on her father’s yacht and their house had a swimming pool.

In the 1960′s and 1970′s, female journalists were relegated to writing about food, the country club and fashion. Except for Ivins. She did years-long stretches writing about urban issues and politics for newspapers in Minneapolis, New York and Austin. While at the New York Times, she wrote, “I am becoming a Yankees fan, that’s how low I’ve sunk.”

Ivins was morally repulsed by the conflicts journalists had. She thought objectivity in reporting was virtually useless. Her irreverent, wickedly funny articles, frequent participation in the nicotine- and alcohol-fueled social culture of journalists, and her generosity in her personal life earned her a large following.

Read the book to learn the details of how Ivins achieved her fame and eventual fortune.