Wolf

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.

You Might Remember Me

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.”

Molly Ivins

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.

The Gentleman From New York – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed “The Gentleman From New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan” by Godfrey Hodgson, published in 2000.

It is a long biography that details Moynihan’s careers as a Navy officer, sociological researcher and writer, Harvard professor, ambassador to the UN and four-term senator from New York State. Throughout, he received invaluable assistance from his wife, Liz.

In the early 1960’s Moynihan received a quality education, thanks to a scholarship and the GI Bill. He assisted several presidents, starting with JFK, in generating reports on social policy. Lyndon Johnson wanted to right the historic injustices of slavery and segregation. Moynihan was known as a thoughtful, moderately liberal Democrat.

After the Watts riots in the mid-1960’s, “urban studies” were trendy. Moynihan jumped on the bandwagon, teaching and writing about them. Professor James Coleman at Johns Hopkins University led a study of 570,000 children, 60,000 teachers and 4,000 schools, whose results were controversial. It found that student standardized test scores were higher when students were in classes with others who were more affluent and had better home environments than they; facilities and resources across schools were largely the same. A statistically significant number of the students who scored lower were of certain ethnic groups.

In 1966, Moynihan ran for president of the New York City Council, even though he and his family still lived in Washington D.C. In summer 1967, major urban areas in the U.S. saw rioting over Vietnam and racial tensions. Ironically, liberalism was the order of the day in the policies of legislation, political officeholders and reports from the media.

Moynihan shocked his contemporaries when he went to work for the Nixon White House in 1969. He and the president both wanted to implement solutions to American social and economic problems. He stayed a Democrat, though, and opposed the Vietnam War. Moynihan wrote a report that prompted accusations of racism, possibly due to misinterpretation. He suggested that people take a break from discussing racism, allowing the issues “benign neglect.” Amid the furor, a few people theorized that differences in “intelligence” between blacks and whites were due to genetics. He was still needled about his report decades later.

There is a bit of sloppy editing in the section describing the Moynihans’ and Clintons’ relationship in 1993. The latter were trying to push through the bill for national health care in the U.S. Moynihan repeatedly raised the issue that the costs of labor-intensive social programs, such as “… Medicaid doubled in the eight years of the Reagan administration, then doubled again in the eight (sic) years of the Bush administration.” That said, the following page might confuse readers when it says, “… slow the projected rate of growth in the cost of Medicare by one-half after years of double-digit growth…”

Nevertheless, read the book to learn everything you ever wanted to know about Moynihan’s viewpoints and writings.

Laughter’s Gentle Soul

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.

 

Stephen Sondheim

The Book of the Week is “Stephen Sondheim: A Life” by Meryle Secrest, originally published in 1993. This is the biography of a Broadway composer who was born in spring of 1930.

In 1946, when Sondheim was attending Williams College, he was finally accepted to a fraternity on his third attempt. Many fraternities automatically prejudged people who had last names that were perceived as Jewish, and rejected them. Throughout this entire book, there was mention of neither Sondheim’s religious observances, if any, nor of his beliefs. Nevertheless, in the spring of 1948, Sondheim religiously wrote more than twenty musical numbers for a show that parodied the school.

After graduation, Sondheim wrote an entire musical. Oscar Hammerstein, a family friend in his childhood, became his mentor. He taught Sondheim that “an author was not writing to satisfy himself… or even the actors… His main consideration should be how to relate the work to the audience’s experience… if the sympathies of the audience were not engaged, it did not matter how brilliant the work was.” The musical, on the initial draft, was angry and bitter, and had no likeable characters– they were all jerks. This blogger is reminded of various unfunny works of that nature: the plays, “Art” and “Some Americans Abroad” and the TV shows, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Office.”

On a more entertaining note, Sondheim also invented a board game called “Stardom” in which players have sex with show-business celebrities in order to reach the peak of the social ladder. There were different levels of fame and real properties (like in Monopoly) of stars’ homes. However, a player would regress when an opposing player leaked a rumor of a love affair to a gossip columnist.

Sondheim’s score of West Side Story (both a musical and a movie-musical) became popular largely due to the movie’s expensive ad campaign; people had a chance to get to like it. Absent the making of the movie, the songs would have languished in obscurity.

In 1960, Sondheim bought a house in the Turtle Bay section (East 40’s) of Manhattan, five stories high, for $115,000. It was next door to Katharine Hepburn’s. He and the other creators of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” learned from producer/director Jerome Robbins that the opening number of a musical is crucial for setting the tone for the whole show, so it must be likeable and indicative of the nature of the show.

At age 29, Sondheim formed his own publishing company in order to make significantly more money than other composers. By age 32, he had three hit Broadway shows under his belt. During his career, he wrote more than eight hundred songs.

Read the book to learn the rest of the intimate details of Sondheim’s life.

Louis Renault, A Biography

The Book of the Week is “Louis Renault, A Biography” by Anthony Rhodes, published in 1969.

Renault, an automobile entrepreneur, was born in February 1877. When he began his career, there were only two classes of any real importance in France– the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. Renault sold vehicles initially for commercial purposes like taxis, public buses and milk delivery trucks.

By 1905, there were 22 intensely competing European automakers. The year 1908 saw six-cylinder engines made by eight French, ten American, three Belgian and one German manufacturer. In 1909, Renault sold his cars in New York. The goal was to sell 1,200 to 1,500 of them.

In the 1920’s, Citroen, Renault’s chief rival, employed many women in his factories. He conducted an ongoing direct-marketing campaign, mailing letters to potential first-time and new car buyers who had visited the local showroom and expressed interest in a purchase. He also made toy models of his cars for kids. Renault and Citroen competed in starting bus lines between cities in France. Citroen was taken over by Michelin after going bankrupt in 1935.

Read the book to learn of Renault’s accumulation of wealth, his company’s corporate culture and labor troubles, what transpired among automakers during the World Wars and through the decades, and how history dealt Renault a serious blow toward the end of his life.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

The Book of the Week is “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, published in 2009.

This ebook is the inspiring autobiography of a boy born in 1988 in Kasungu, Malawi. He grew up on a farm where corn, tobacco and pumpkins were grown and livestock was raised. The people there believe in witchcraft, but his father believed God protected his family from it because they were Presbyterian. Nevertheless, he wrote, “Sadly, our country’s constitution doesn’t have a clause that protects us from witchcraft.” He recounted incidents in the single-digit 2000’s in which people were put on trial for witchcraft and when deemed guilty, heavily fined.

In the mid 1990’s, entertainment in the “trading center” near Kasungu consisted of “… a thatch hut with wooden benches, a small television, and a VCR” on which to watch movies.  The author and his friends played a game they called “USA versus Vietnam.”

The Malawians celebrate their independence from Great Britain on July 6. Throughout his childhood, the author was a fan of the MTL Wanderers, aka the Nomads, a professional soccer club– the enemy team of the Big Bullets, in the Malawi Super League. He listened to the games on Radio One on a battery-operated radio. There was only one other radio station, Radio Two. Both were run by the government. The author wrote, “Only 2% of Malawians have electricity, and this is a huge problem.”

Read the book to learn of the extreme hardships Kamkwamba and his family faced with respect to famine and his education, and learn of his ingenuity, resourcefulness, persistence and industriousness in doing a project that was eventually noticed by people halfway around the world.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

The Book of the Week is “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” by Crystal Zevon, published in 2007. This is a biography of singer/ songwriter/ guitar player, Warren Zevon, written by his ex-wife.

Born in 1947, Zevon started partying like a rock star in his teenage years. He and fellow musicians partook of a variety of controlled substances, including marijuana, acid and hash. Warren later became addicted to alcohol and prescription painkillers. Philandering was a lifelong part of Zevon’s persona. Nevertheless, he was well-versed in what developed nations consider “the classics” in literature and in classical composers. As an adolescent, he was afforded the opportunity to meet Igor Stravinsky.

The many people interviewed for this ebook who drifted in and out of Zevon’s life all said he was immensely talented at writing imaganitive song lyrics. However, the reason most of them had a relationship with him that was rocky, or permanently severed, was due to his temperament when he was drunk, or his taking offense at a remark they made. He would ignore their communications for weeks or months.

At times, Zevon could utter witty lines, such as a) the title of this ebook, and, b) in the author’s recollection, “I can’t eat on an empty stomach.’ He’d down a little more vodka and we’d go have breakfast. Of course, every afternoon we spent hours in the cocktail lounge…” Sometimes, his self-destructive tendencies were insane, such as when she observed him playing darts in his bedroom; absent a dartboard. “There were all these holes in the wall… they were knife holes. He was lying in bed throwing a knife at the wall.” He also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, for which he received no treatment. Various of his residences were a disaster.

The songs Zevon became most famous for include “Werewolves in London” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” Read the book to learn about a) his music career making albums; b) his composing music for movies; c) playing in the band on a prominent TV show as a fill-in musician; and d) whether he was able to turn his life around and repair his severed relationships with his family, friends and colleagues.

The Undiscovered Paul Robeson

The Book of the Week is “The Undiscovered Paul Robeson”  by Paul Robeson, Jr., published in 2001.

This is a biographical account of Paul Robeson from his birth until the start of WWII, written by his son. At times, it is like a soap opera. This ebook is mostly commentary on the diary entries, letters and notes of Robeson and his wife, Essie, and covers the following topics:

  • Robeson’s runaway success as a scholar and athlete in the nineteen-teens in the United States
  • how Robeson came to choose his ultimate career of professional actor and singer, starting in the mid-1920’s
  • how Essie’s identity was dependent on Robeson’s because she gave up her own career to manage his career
  • anti-black discrimination the couple encountered
  • his extramarital affairs
  • the intimate details of their relationship
  • Essie’s health problems
  • Robeson’s on-and-off presence during his son’s early childhood years
  • Robeson’s philosophy on life and international political activities

Robeson took up the cause of fighting for civil rights for African Americans, but his son writes, “He lived a pampered, aristocratic life, far from the radical humiliations endured daily by even the highest-ranking blacks in the United States.” In the 1930’s, the Robeson family was living in the Soviet Union because the country showed no racism, colonialism or fascism; thus, Robeson was able to overlook the atrocities committed by Stalin at a time when the behavior displayed by other nations was ugly.

Also in the 1930’s, Robeson decided he did not want to act in theatrical or movie roles that portrayed negative black stereotypes. His mythic status, which eventually brought him great wealth, afforded him flexibility in deciding the course of his career.

Read the book to learn all you ever wanted to know about Paul Robeson up until WWII.