Act One

The Book of the Week is “Act One” by Moss Hart, published in 1959.

In his teen years in the 1920’s, the author had a passionate desire to work in the theater on Broadway in some capacity. However, his childhood of dire poverty, limited formal education and dysfunctional family were hardships he had to overcome to achieve his dream.

It was a major triumph for him to snag the position of office boy for a booking agent by a random twist of fate. However, he tempted fate too early. He then tried his hand at acting. He was an eighteen-year-old playing the role of a sixty-year-old man. When that gig ended, another chance occurrence with an acquaintance led him to directing plays in the evenings, and slaving away as a social director at various summer camps for several years, while plugging away at the part of aspiring playwright.

Read the book to learn all the sordid tribulations Hart endured in order to find fortune and fame, as well as the secret to how he fixed the third act of his first Broadway play, and how he came to be assisted by one of the great playwrights of his generation.

A Backpack, A Bear, Eight Crates of Vodka

The Book of the Week is “A Backpack, A Bear, Eight Crates of Vodka” by Lev Golinkin, published in 2014. This is the autobiography of a Soviet immigrant from a Jewish family fleeing oppression in Kharkov, in the U.S.S.R. in late 1989, when he was eight. They ultimately ended up in the United States, thanks to the assistance of the nonfprofit organization HIAS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Two atypical aspects of his family’s situation, were that they were kept at the refugee-hotel near Vienna, Austria for six months rather than a few weeks, and were placed in American Midwestern suburbia, in a college town, instead of in an urban area with other Jewish families who spoke Russian.

There were stark cultural differences between what they left behind, and their new world. You can take the people out of Russia, but you can’t take the Russia out of the people. A simple fund-raising call from the local Police Benefit Fund in America evoked panic in Golinkin’s father, because in Russia, all government authorities were to be feared as those who could ruin one’s life arbitrarily. The Soviets so persecuted Jewish families by singling them out for their religion that when the immigrants settled in the United States, they opted to exercise their freedom NOT to practice their religion. The author’s much older sister was warned she was going to be rejected from medical school for no other reason than that her family was Jewish. So she, like her father, was forced to study engineering instead. In sum, their outlook on life was extremely pessimistic, having been beaten down in their native country from the cradle.

In the United States, the quality of life of Golinkin’s family significantly improved. But they had to learn English and how to navigate American financial matters. And his parents had to take low-level jobs, when previously, they had been an engineer and a doctor. They were adamant that their son would be a failure in life if he did not become a doctor.

Read the book to learn how the author’s family adjusted to their new identity as Americans.

Cathedral of the Wild

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.

My Crazy Century

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.”

Even This I Get To Experience

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.

So Anyway… – Bonus Post

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.

Here’s the Deal – Bonus Post

This blogger read Howie Mandel’s autobiography, “Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me” published in 2009.

Mandel has been a TV and movie actor, game show host and stand-up comedian. In this ebook, he reveals all of his psychological issues– ADHD, OCD, desperate need for attention, etc; “I was constantly consumed with my own pranks. I had no sense of boundaries.” Although his creative antics are amusing, he has poor impulse control. This has led to damaged relationships.

Read the book to learn how he became famous, despite, or arguably, due to his various mental and physical problems– he has used entertaining others as a coping mechanism to forget about the negative aspects of his identity.

All or Nothing

The Book of the Week is “All or Nothing” by Jesse Schenker, published in 2014. This suspenseful, eloquently written ebook tells the exceptional life story of a member of America’s “Generation Y” who has beaten the odds for survival, considering his situation.

“I had two jobs and no place to stay, but I literally cared more about having drugs than even a roof over my head… at night I slept outside, swathed in a blanket of newspaper… ”

The author describes in vivid detail his ordeal in connection with substance abuse– of his own making– and how he got through it. He wrote that in Fort Lauderdale, sellers of illicit drugs diluted their wares with “… laxatives, Benadryl, sugar, starch, talc, brick dust, or even f–g Ajax” and how all junkies commit thievery against each other.

Schenker also recounts his experiences in the restaurant industry, where he encountered other addicts in the kitchen. The culture is also one of an abusive hierarchy; the justification for this is that everything must be perfect. On more than one occasion, when the author’s food preparation was less than perfect, he was loudly berated and had a tray with his creations violently thrown at his chest.

Read the book to learn how Schenker transferred his skills at manipulating other people, from getting high to getting his career in gear. Malcolm Gladwell would categorize him as an “outlier.”

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

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.

Drama

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.