The Book of the Week is “Al Jaffee’s Mad Life: A Biography” by Mary-Lou Weisman, published in 2010.
This book describes the life of the oldest of four sons of neglectful parents. Fortunately, that son had a marketable, incredible talent that allowed him to live a decent life as an adult.
When Jaffee was six years old, in 1927, his mother decided to take her sons from Savannah, Georgia, back with her to a shtetl in an increasingly anti-Semitic Lithuania. The family– absent the father, who stayed in the United States, scrounging out a living as a part-time postal worker– went back and forth between their new and old countries a few times, causing emotional upheaval for all involved.
Read the book to learn the details of Jaffee’s unstable childhood and how he parlayed his experience with hardship into a successful career in cartooning.
The Book of the Week is “Wendy and the Lost Boys” by Julie Salamon, published in 2011. This is a biography of Wendy Wasserstein, award-winning playwright.
Wasserstein grew up in a wealthy Jewish family with a mythmaking, high-pressure mother. Born in 1950, Wasserstein had four older siblings. As an adult, she followed in her mother’s footsteps, carefully orchestrating public relations for herself. For much of her life, she denied the existence of an older brother who was mentally challenged and sent away to a home.
A large number of women of Wasserstein’s generation were fighting for gender equality. She realized that she was attending the wrong college when her classmates at Mount Holyoke knitted sweaters in class and obsessed over getting engaged instead of planning their careers.
Wasserstein became famous through making connections with powerful people she might not have met had she not been born to an upper-class family. Nevertheless, it took her several years to find herself; all the while her mother was needling her about her super-successful older siblings.
At one point, Wasserstein befriended New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. He found himself in a conflict whereby as Wasserstein’s friend, he was inclined to write a favorable review of her plays. A New York Times theater review makes or breaks a new production because it is the bible of theatergoers. One review can hold overwhelming power and influence over the success of playwrights like Wasserstein.
Another factor in Wasserstein’s popularity was getting the right directors for her different works. The wrong director can spell doom for a show while a different one with a certain vision can make it shine.
Read the book to learn about Wasserstein’s relationships, eventual fulfillment of her dreams and her and her family’s sad fate.
The Book of the Week is “One of Us” by Tom Wicker. This is a biography of Richard Nixon, published in 1991.
This book discusses aspects of the late president’s psychology as well as his life story and historical events. Nixon had an inferiority complex. He always felt like an outsider in Washington because he was a Duke University, rather than an Ivy League, graduate. He used an apt phrase to describe the focus one needs to succeed in a law career: a “lead butt” that can sit in a chair for hours, reading.
Despite his shameful crimes and resignation, he still took some actions that benefited the United States, the most well known of which was “opening up” China.
The Book of the Week is “Gore Vidal: A Biography” by Fred Kaplan, published in 1999. This volume geared toward educated readers describes memorable facets of the life of Vidal, who is a political pundit, playwright and author. He is a colorful character. A distant relative of Al Gore, he helped make Anais Nin a famous author.
Additionally, Vidal engaged in heated political debates with Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley. On one occasion, when Buckley had failed to appear for a scheduled debate, the press asked Vidal where Buckley was. Vidal answered, “Mr Buckley? Oh, he’s at Wallace headquarters, stitching hoods.” Also mentioned in this book is Vidal’s dated screenplay about a martian, that contains a disturbing message about human nature. A unique read, indeed.
The Book of the Week is “A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein” by Lisa Rogak, published in 2007. This biography describes the life of the cartoonist, children’s poet and songwriter.
Silverstein was an eccentric, creative thinker who collaborated with other like-minded individuals. He started out as a cartoonist. However, his social skills were poor. One such friend of his who was interviewed for this book remarked that he never stayed in one place for long.
As an adult, whenever he got bored with a conversation he might be having with a friend at an eatery where they met to exchange ideas, he would simply get up and leave without warning. He would also switch residences frequently– he kept several inside and outside the United States. Fortunately, he could afford to do whatever he liked, whenever he liked, once royalties started rolling in from sales of various works he wrote, such as the best-selling classic children’s book of poems, “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” the song “A Boy Named Sue” (sung by Johnny Cash) and the rather depressing children’s book “The Giving Tree.”
Although Silverstein had difficulty getting along with his father, he still grieved at his father’s death. He realized “You never get over it.”
The Book of the Week is “Piaf” by Simone Bertaut, published in 1969. This is Bertaut’s biography of her sister, Edith Piaf. They shared the same father, and both grew up in Paris in the nineteen teens and twenties, with nary a formal education.
Edith spent her early childhood in a brothel whose occupants acted as her surrogate mothers, because her biological mother never cared much for her. However, her father was an artist and street performer, who took her with him as soon as she was old enough to sing so he could earn enough money to survive. Fortunately, she had incredible natural talent. Simone also accompanied her father on his rounds after Edith had left him, but she could only do some simple acrobatics. At fifteen years old, Edith took twelve year old Simone into her employ, and Edith embarked on her quest for fame and fortune as a singer.
The inseparable sisters endured many hardships before Edith achieved fame. Throughout her life, the strong-willed, bossy Edith fell in and out of love with numerous men, some of whom she made into singing stars. Read the book to learn about her antics with them, and other aspects of her edgy existence in the fast lane.