The Other Side of Me

The Book of the Week is “The Other Side of Me” by Sidney Sheldon, published in 2005. This ebook is Sheldon’s autobiography.

Born Sidney Schechtel in 1917, Sheldon showed a talent for writing at an early age. However, during the Depression, he was forced to work day and night at a series of dead-end, soul-killing jobs, such as courier in a gear factory and coat-check clerk at a hotel. Sheldon was unafraid to approach strangers, and at that time, low-skilled jobs could be obtained in a simple five-minute conversation.

One day, he went to a Chicago radio station to inquire about an amateur talent contest sponsored by a band leader, and by chance, was asked to be the show’s announcer. It was then that he changed his last name to Sheldon, thinking it sounded more show business-y. His excessive talking caused the show to go fifteen seconds overtime, so he was not asked back, but from that experience, he thought he wanted to become a radio announcer.

On another day, he wrote a song with the help of his family’s spinet piano. He went to a hotel to try to sell the song. “In that year, 1936, the major hotels in the country had orchestras in their ballrooms that broadcast [on radio] coast to coast.” He was introduced to a manager at a big-name music publisher who directed him to another hotel with a better-known band leader. Perhaps naively, he never signed a written contract. His song was played and aired, but was never published. He therefore never received a penny in royalties.

Sheldon encountered many more episodes similar to the above, in which he was at the mercy of powerful people who made arbitrary decisions on the use of his creative works– Broadway musicals, screenplays and TV scripts and novels. Read the book to learn more about his bipolar disorder that had a hand in his self-doubt and despair, baseless optimism and persistence, missed opportunities, failures and successes.

Memories Before and After The Sound of Music

The Book of the Week is “Memories Before and After The Sound of Music” by Agathe von Trapp, published in 2002. This ebook describes the real lives of the members of the family depicted in the legendary movie and musical “The Sound of Music.” The shows were Hollywoodized versions meant to appeal to American audiences.

Agathe, born in 1913, was the second-oldest child, and oldest daughter of an Austrian family of seven children by the first wife of a WWI commander of a submarine in the Austrian navy. The wealthy, farm-owning family had ties to royalty, and so had plenty of household help. Nevertheless, the family encountered some hardships during the political, financial and social upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century.

The author tries to set the reader straight on her family history. For example, she writes, “… we did not flee over the mountains into Switzerland. There is no mountain pass that leads from Salzburg, Austria into Switzerland. We simply took the train to Italy.”

A nanny taught Agathe and her siblings German and English. They found low-tech ways to amuse themselves. “…We used our imaginations to turn a row of chairs into an express train and a sofa into a hospital.”

They enjoyed natural wonders during their daily walks. They visited relatives, such as their maternal grandmother, Gromi, who had a spacious garden along the lakeshore. Agathe took an interest in beekeeping, mentored by the headmaster of the local elementary school, on “how to catch a swarm and how to extract honey.” He provided her with the necessary equipment, including bee hood, gloves and smoker. She harvested twelve pounds of honey a few months later.

Agathe played the guitar, while her father and siblings played the violin and accordion. They formed an amateur Schrammel Quartet; if it had been professional, it would have played Viennese folk music in “… little restaurants in Grinzing, a suburb of Vienna, during the time of harvest when the new wine is served.”

The von Trapps became a famous traveling singing group by chance. In the 1930’s, they were encouraged to enter a yodeling competition, and they won. Then came singing on the radio. Austria’s chancellor just happened to be a regular listener of the show they appeared on, and the rest is history. The “Trapp Family Singers” sang in concerts all over the world into the early 1950’s.

Read the book to learn of the von Trapp family’s adventures through the years, among them– how most of the family members lost their Austrian citizenship but were automatically granted Italian citizenship, how they stayed alive even after refusing to comply with specific Nazi orders, and what led the family to start a lodging business and music camp.

Model Patient

The Book of the Week is “Model Patient” by Karen Duffy, published in 2007.  In this ebook, Duffy describes her mid to late 1990’s bout with sarcoidosis, a life-threatening illness that is difficult to diagnose.

A prolonged, severe headache was the first symptom. Numerous tests revealed that she had a growing lesion on her brain and spinal cord. This produced numbness and paralysis in various parts of her body, including her limbs. It took months before she saw a doctor who recommended treatment of steroids and chemotherapy. She writes, “I’d lost the playbook to my life. I had no idea what to do.”

Despite the psychological stress brought on by her inability to continue modeling and working as an on-camera reporter for MTV, she did her darndest to remain positive. Fittingly, she happens to have a facial feature known as “risorius of Santorini”– her cheek muscles form a natural smile, without her consciously trying to do so.

Prior to her entertainment career, Duffy had worked as a recreational therapist at a nursing home. Her job was to improve the psychological states of the residents. She continued to try to volunteer once a week there after she got sick.

Read the book to learn other strategies Duffy used to cope with her illness.

All By My Selves

The Book of the Week is “All By My Selves” by Jeff Dunham, published in 2010. This is the autobiography of a politically incorrect, professional ventriloquist. He developed his career-passion as a child when, by chance, he was given a dummy as a gift.

Dunham auditioned to be a guest for The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” nine times before he was finally accepted in April 1990. His striving to become famous took a toll on his family, but when he “made it” he was afforded an “entourage of management, agents and publicists.”

Read the book to learn of Dunham’s experiences as a professional ventriloquist, that include but are not limited to:  his decades-long struggles to achieve an act of sufficient quality to appear on television (prior to the advent of social media), his learning the hard way what not to do before performing, and being stiffed on compensation by night clubs.

Jokes My Father Never Taught Me

The Book of the Week is “Jokes My Father Never Taught Me” by Rain Pryor, published in 2006. The author is one of the daughters of the late Richard Pryor, the African American comedian; the only child of a Caucasian, Jewish mother.

During her childhood in the 1970’s, Rain struggled with her three identities:  black, white and Jewish. Her biracial appearance caused people to instantly develop biases, making it easy for them to practice tribal exclusion when it suited them. She found she could dispel the discrimination by making people laugh. Rain writes, “Comedy was about connecting with people in places so personal that it actually made them uncomfortable, and then showing the humor in it.”

Rain’s early-childhood circumstances did not allow her to develop a personal relationship with her father until she turned four. But when she finally did, he shamelessly exposed her to the birds and the bees. She commented that one redeeming trait of her father’s call girls, was that they were honest.

“They weren’t there because they loved my Daddy, and they didn’t pretend to love my Daddy… That was life with Richard Pryor. Sex and violence, puctuated by rare moments of family happiness.” In addition, over decades, her father went through five wives, who bore a total of seven children.

Although as a young child, Rain witnessed the seamy side of the adult world, she enjoyed a sense of love and belonging from a large family on both her parents’ sides. Another lucky aspect of her life was that of her father’s fame and fortune. He could afford to, and did take her and her siblings on various luxurious domestic and international trips.

Read the book to learn more about Rain’s issues with her own ethnicities, her father’s and her own addictions, his multiple sclerosis, and her family crises.

Maybe You Never Cry Again

The Book of the Week is “Maybe You Never Cry Again” by Bernie Mac with Pablo F. Fenjves, published in 2003. This is the autobiography of a man who heeded his mother’s wisdom in achieving his life’s dream of becoming a famous comedian.

Foremost, Mac’s mother taught him to be self-reliant. One of her sayings was, “If you want a helping hand, look at the end of your arm.”

Mac listed the four kinds of standup comedians:  mediocre joke tellers, political commentators, observers of human nature, and tellers of personal stories. He exemplified the fourth kind, making audiences of mostly his own ethnicity laugh by comparing his African American experience to that of Caucasians without mincing words. “The most personal is the most universal.”

For example, he told the reader that, as an adult, he became as excited as a kid in a candy store when he flew in a plane for the first time. He said, “White people wouldn’t understand that feeling. White people get on planes all the time. They born on planes. Same thing with photographs. White people, they got pictures of themselves every minute of their lives. Here’s little Libby…Black people, they lucky to have one or two pictures of themselves.”

Read how Mac put his mother’s teachings to use to get through the trials and tribulations he suffered on the way to stardom.

Confessions of A Prairie Bitch

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.

I Got A Name

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.

Wendy and the Lost Boys

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.

Shakespeare’s England

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.