The Book of the Week is “Confessions of A Prairie Bitch” by Alison Arngrim, published in 2010. This is the autobiography of the actress who played Nellie Oleson on the hit American TV show, “Little House on the Prairie” which aired from 1974 to 1983.
On the show which was set in a small town in the late 1800’s, Arngrim played the role of the spoiled, rich teenage daughter of the owners of a general store. She frequently got into fights with a goody-goody girl from another family in the neighborhood. Arngrim was twelve years old when she started the show. Prior to that, her show-business parents had afforded her the chance to play some small parts in TV commercials and movies. Starting when she was six, she was subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of her much older brother.
Read the book to learn how Arngrim was able to deal with the trauma from her early childhood in positive ways later in life through her acting career and social and political activism.
The Book of the Week is “I Got A Name, The Jim Croce Story” by Ingrid Croce and Jimmy Rock, published in 2012. This is a career biography of the singer-songwriter Jim Croce.
In struggling to be his own man, Croce’s strengths and weaknesses emerged. In the early 1960’s, Croce rebelled against his parents in various ways. He broke free of his strict Catholic upbringing by converting to Judaism, marrying a Jew and pursuing a music career irrelevant to his Villanova University education in psychology and German.
He was able to stand up to his family but not the music company he chose to represent him and his wife. Although Croce had incredible talent and passion for composing and singing folk songs about working class people and love, the couple got swindled due to their phobia for dealing with attorneys. For years, Croce’s music made only his promoters wealthy. The couple stayed dirt poor even after there was widespread purchasing of his music.
In the late 1960’s, the Croces were pressured by the music company to go on concert tours at colleges. In the early 1970’s, Croce, without his wife, went on long, grueling road trips, during which he adopted the stereotyped rock-star lifestyle– taking drugs (not the hard ones, though) and philandering, but without the luxury accommodations and high pay.
Read the book to learn the full story (that ended tragically) of the suffering that Croce and his family endured in order for him to pursue his dream.
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 “Shakespeare’s England,” a Cassell Caravel Book, by the editors of Horizon Magazine, published in 1964.
This book recounts English cultural, theatrical and royal-family history of the late 1500’s through 1616– the years of the height of Shakespeare’s fame.
In the late 1580’s, Shakespeare’s acting company performed for Queen Elizabeth. At that time, the status of acting company members was divided into three groups: veteran actors who were shareholders in the theater, weekly wage-earning minor-role actors who doubled as stagehands and writers, and young boys who played girls’ and boys’ roles (as females were banned from theater careers).
There were two kinds of playwrights: university-schooled, and non-; the plays of the former were more stiff and serious than that of the latter. All intellectual property rights to a work were transferred from the writer to an acting company upon purchase of a play. Nevertheless, works were pirated all the time, with no adverse consequences for the thief.
Read the book to learn about the events and issues that affected the fame and fortune of Shakespeare and his colleagues– the plague, censorship, a theater fire, playhouse construction, political intrigue and more.
The Book of the Week is “One More Time” by Carol Burnett, published in 1986. This is an emotionally rich, memorable autobiography. Its author had a tough childhood, as the older daughter of two alcoholic parents. Raised by her grandmother on welfare in Texas, she enjoyed a few happy times nevertheless.
Burnett experienced excellent luck on days when it was pouring rain. For example, on a rainy day, a benefactor appeared in her life to allow her to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. He provided her with two years’ worth of funding in which to succeed. She met the deadline.
Read the book to learn how her life experiences provided tons of material for her comedic TV show.
The Book of the Week is “Growing Up Laughing” by Marlo Thomas, published in 2010. This book is part memoir, part biography of the author’s father, part snippets of conversations with comedians of different generations, and lots of jokes.
Marlo’s famous father, Danny, ran with a crowd of live entertainers, which included, but was not limited to George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Don Rickles, the Marx Brothers, Joey Bishop and Sid Caesar. Danny was mistaken for Jewish due to his nose and the company he kept, but he was actually of Lebanese, Catholic extraction.
In this book, Marlo chats with various personalities– Lily Tomlin, Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld and Stephen Colbert among them– about how they started their comedy careers, and why their acts are funny.
Marlo is probably most famous for starring in the sitcom “That Girl” and co-creating– along with a group of other celebrities– the book, movie and record, “Free to Be You and Me,” a hodgepodge of songs and skits for kids.
The Book of the Week is “Audition” by Barbara Walters, published in 2008. This is Walters’ autobiography, a detailed account of her personal and professional life. She had a long, illustrious career in TV News. She started out as a behind-the-scenes writer for the “Today Show” on NBC in the early 1960’s, when there was still a lot of discrimination against women. Nevertheless, her hard work at, talent and suitability for her job, over the course of decades, afforded her the opportunity to interview countless famous people; some, multiple times.
There were occasions when Walters received special treatment by her interviewees. In the spring of 1977, she was personally driven for six hours around the Bay of Pigs vicinity by none other than Fidel Castro. Later that year, she witnessed multiple Middle Eastern politicians gather all in one place when Egypt’s Anwar Sadat made (momentary) peace with Israel’s Menachim Begin. ABC interrupted a college football game with the “breaking news.” Viewers telephoned the network to express their displeasure, and after seven minutes of complaining, the viewers got their game back.
Walters was lucky to have helped pioneer the art of the TV interview and enjoyed its best years. She asked hard-hitting, sometimes personal questions that hosts do not ask anymore. She writes that nowadays, TV ratings rise with guests who are attention whores or criminals– whose stories are tabloid articles. Political leaders or celebrities with substance have become a rarity. “We really seem to care only if they are outrageous and call our president a devil or declare that the Holocaust never existed. Stand up and scream and we will interview you, or be reasonable and unheard.” Fortunately, the internet has become a source of intelligent discussion in some quarters– a source that is not under pressure to generate ratings.
The Book of the Week is “Here Comes Trouble” by Michael Moore, published in 2011. This is a collection of stories from the life of a passionate political activist. The author has used various ways to inform the public of injustices, including running a newspaper, producing a TV show and movies, and writing books and articles.
At the end of Moore’s freshman year at a Catholic seminary, he was asked not to return. It was an academically challenging environment, but he was a good student. He committed no serious infractions.
However, Moore was a frequent questioner of authority, as he had been from a very young age. He grew up in a generation of Americans whose early childhood was still innocent, having been born in the mid-1950’s. He asked his religious instructors pointed questions such as “Why don’t we let women be priests?” and “Do you think Jesus would send soldiers to Vietnam if he were here right now?” and “In the Bible, there’s no mention of Jesus from age twelve to age thirty. Where do you think he went?”
Moore had changed his mind about becoming a priest, anyway. Read the book to find out about some of the more entertaining episodes in his life, religious and otherwise.
The Book of the Week is “Too Fat to Fish” by Artie Lange, published in 2009. This is Lange’s autobiography. He discusses his father’s untimely death, his mother’s saintliness, bouts of cocaine addiction, being a dockworker, career as a television and radio comedian, and the title of his book, among other topics.
He claims his mother, who embodies the idiosyncratic stereotype of an “Italian mama,” was cleaning the house at the crack of dawn on a Saturday, when his friend called regarding a fishing trip that day. His mother got on the phone and aggressively gave the friend an earful about how Lange, who was 23 at the time, was “too fat to fish” and would fall off the boat and drown. She thus would not let him go. Having a bad hangover, he was secretly glad that her concern for him, even if a bit overprotective, gave him an excuse to go back to sleep.
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.