Book Review: Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick


Author: Anna Kendrick
TitleScrappy Little Nobody
Narrator: Anna Kendrick
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2016
Summary/Review:

Anna Kendrick is a talented actor, singer, dancer, and writer who also happens to be funny and very attractive, so it’s reassuring to read her memoir where she shares her insecurity and feelings that she is a misfit.  On the other hand one my wonder why someone who is a  talented actor, singer, dancer, and writer who also happens to be funny and very attractive has anything to complain about.  Luckily, Kendrick’s memoir is full of humor and perspective on her life story.  She tells of being a child actor on Broadway commuting from Maine to New York for auditions and living in a tar-stained Los Angeles apartment with several roommates even as her fame grew, but she’d still not seen the financial reward.  There’s a lot of insight on her relationship to boys and men and how she’s grown to assert herself.  And then there’s her hilarious takes on celebrity life such as the ridiculous things a woman has to go through for photoshoots and red carpet occasions.  It’s a different type of celebrity memoir, funny, honest, and beneath the surface, a little bit sad, but ultimately persistent.

Recommended books: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost) by Felicia Day and Bossypants by Tina Fey
Rating: ***1/2

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Book Review: Our revolution : a future to believe in by Bernard Sanders


Author: Bernard Sanders
TitleOur revolution : a future to believe in
Publication Info: New York : Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2016.
Summary/Review:

This memoir/political treatise starts with a short background of Sanders’ life and then a more detailed account of the 2016 election campaign. It’s still pretty remarkable how in a short time a little known Senator from a small state was able to bring together so many people and win 23 primary elections, get millions of votes in other primaries, and win nearly half of the elected delegates.  Although the 2016 election ended in the triumph of evil, there’s a lot of inspiration of reading this story of what can be done when bringing together a movement based on equality, progressive values, and social democracy.  The second part of the book diagnoses the political ills of America and what can be done to heal them.  It’s preaching to the choir for me, but a handy guide that I hope will be relied on in the coming years.

Recommended books:
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy


Author: Tara Clancy
TitleThe Clancys of Queens
Publication Info: New York : Crown Publishers, 2016.
Summary/Review:

Tara Clancy is one of my favorite storytellers from shows like The Moth, Risk, and Snap Judgment, so I was delighted to receive a free advanced review copy of her memoir through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Clancy describes her childhood in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s moving around to live with her cop father in a repurposed boat shed in Broad Channel, a virtual commune of elderly relatives at her Grandparent’s house in Brooklyn, and weekends at her mother’s wealthy boyfriend’s estate in the Hamptons.  Young Tara navigates these three different worlds with aplomb and even with the tough challenges of poor kid in the city manages to maintain a sense of humor and adventure.  This is an inspired memoir and a joy to read.
Favorite Passages:

“By then, age ten, I was already a tried-and-true child chameleon, a real-life little Zelig who knew how to go from being barfly at a Queens local hangout to a summertime Bridgehamptonite to an honorary septuagenarian at the drop of a dime.  Despite all that (or maybe  because of it), there was one role I didn’t always like to play: kid.  More specifically, rule-abiding kid.”  – p. 111-112

Recommended books:

Talking to Girls About Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield, Lost In Place by Mark Salzman, and All Souls by Michael Patrick MacDondald

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman


Author: Francis Parkman
Title: The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life
Narrator: Robert Morris
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2012, originally published in 1849)
Summary/Review:

This narrative describes 23-year-old Parkman’s travels west in  with fellow Boston Brahmin Quincy Adams Shaw.  Together they travel with settlers adventurers through the future states of of Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas (the title is a misnomer as they never go to Oregon), and spend three weeks hunting buffalo with the Ogala Sioux.  It’s a well-written narrative that captures the flora and fauna of the prairies, the lives of settlers, soldiers, and Native Americans, and the uncertainty of so much change happening in the region at one time.

Unfortunately, the huge problem is that Parkman is deeply prejudice against the native peoples, which yes is a characteristic of the time, but there were more sympathetic contemporary white American writers of the time as well.  Parkman also is dismissive of a number of white settlers he encounters.  I kind of imagine that Parkman and Shaw were like Charles Emerson Winchester haughtily looking down on those around them.  So, yes, this is a terrific descriptive narrative, but there are a lot of aspects that will be hard to stomach for modern readers.

Recommended booksThe Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
Rating: ***

Book Review: Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello


Author: Elvis Costello
TitleUnfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink
NarratorElvis Costello
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

The memoir of Declan MacManus, better known by his stage name Elvis Costello,  is more of a collection of thematic essays than a birth to present memoir.  Like the lyrics of his song, Costello’s way with words is evident. His father Ross MacManus, a band leader and musician of some note in his own right, is central to the narrative and an influence on Costello’s life and music, if not readily apparent from his punk/new wave days, but more evident in his latter days as pop/jazz/fusion collaborator.  Speaking of collaboration, Costello name drops an awful lot of musicians and songwriters, although he comes by it honestly having worked with so many of them. Thankfully his stories tend towards the creative process rather than idle gossip.  I can’t help but feel that Costello comes of as something of jerk which is an unexpected outcome for a self-penned biography.  I don’t know if I should admire his self-awareness or just dislike that he’s such a jerk. At any rate there are some interesting aspects of this book if you’re interested in musicians or a fan of Costello, but it’s a bit too long and pompous to recommend to a general audience.

Recommended booksLife by Keith Richards, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? by George Clinton, and My Song: A Memoir by Harry Belafonte.
Rating: **

Book Reviews: Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? by George Clinton


Author: George Clinton
TitleBrothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?
Publication Info: New York : Atria Books, 2014
Summary/Review:

The memoirs of George Clinton, the talented songwriter and band leader and creator of P-Funk, starts with a story of band members and their costumes having trouble getting to a show in Richmond in 1978.  This is coincidental in that I saw George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars play in Richmond in the 1990s, although that was at University of Richmond which felt incongruous since it’s about as far from Richmond’s black community as one can get.

Clinton traces his story back to coming of age in New Jersey and from his barbershop pulling together the singers and musicians of the area to create The Parliaments, a 50’s-style doo-wop group that evolved into a Motown-style soul act.  Inspired by the likes of James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone, as well as psychedelic blues rock acts like Cream and Jimi Hendrix, Clinton creates the blueprint for P-Funk.  Two bands with largely the same personnel would alternate recordings with two takes on funk: Funkadelic inspired by the psychedelic rock and Parliament taking the soul/R&B approach.  With a revolving roster of performers, a whole new mythology of P-Funk, stunning stage shows, and an innovative approach to music, Clinton would dominate the 1970s music scene.  The volume of music released not just by Parliament and Funkadelic, but many of the offshoot bands like Bootsy’s Rubber Band, is remarkable, and they all toured together on a tireless schedule of concerts.

The wheels come off in the 1980s, and while Clinton has some success as a solo artist and with new versions of the P-Funk All-Stars, much of the later part of the book is consumed by descriptions of Clinton’s drug abuse exploits and endless legal squabbles.  And yet, Clinton becomes something of a respected elder statesman of funk, writing and producing for the early Red Hot Chili Peppers whom he saw as the white band that would bring funk to the mainstream.  He also had a great influence on hip-hop, encouraging sampling of P-Funk sounds, and working with young rappers.

Clinton is one of the great musicians of the 20th-century, and this book is at its best when he’s talking about creating the sounds of funk, his love of music, and the talented musicians he worked with.  This book is at it’s worst when Clinton describes smoking another vial of crack or belabor his legal vendettas.  If you like funk or are interested in music and how it’s created, this book is worth a read.
Favorite Passages:

“Even without the music, I loved living in Newark, in part because I was royalty. All you had to do was look at the signs. One of the main drags in Newark was called Clinton Avenue, and there was a whole area called Clinton Hills. They were all named after the early American politician George Clinton, who had been the governor of New York and the vice president under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Some days the world seemed to revolve around me, a George Clinton who could go walking down a street named for him in an area named for him.”

On dropping acid for the first time in Harvard Square, which I believe should be on a Cambridge historic plaque: “The next day we went over to Harvard Square and all of us took some. That was a Noah’s Ark day, rain so hard you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face, and the gutters were filling up with water, making little rivers in the street. We dropped acid and stood looking at the rain: sometimes it seemed to slow down, sometimes each individual drop came into perfect, sharp focus. And then, all of a sudden, everyone started taking off their clothes and wading in the rivers the streets had become. There were students, but there were faculty members, too. There were couples and there were single girls. There were fat people and skinny people and every other kind: older white women naked there in the water, with polka-dot freckles on their titties, and dozens of cute little girls getting bare-ass naked. Everyone was in the water, flopping around like fish, just feeling it.”

“Somewhere along the way it became clear to me that we had a strong young group of players who were, to us, what the Funk Brothers were to Motown, and because we were so deep into psychedelic rock we started adding the -delic to it. The result was Funkadelic. I think I had the idea for the name first, but you’ll probably get a debate from two or three others. Everyone knew that it felt right, though. White rock groups had done the blues, and we wanted to head back in the other direction, to be a black rock group playing the loudest, funkiest combination of psychedelic rock and thunderous R&B.”

“In truth, underneath the image, I was a much more reserved, centered, circumspect person. In fact, that’s why I was able to carry off those crazy looks. It was freedom generated by misdirection, and it allowed me to focus on my real self, the identity I was nurturing away from any kind of spotlight.”

“For that matter, the two bands could continue to function as separate entities, where Parliament was a group of singers backed by a band and Funkadelic was a band backing a group of singers.”

“When you parody something, you have to pay attention. When you pay attention, you’re taking something seriously. So isn’t parody the most serious form of imitation?”

“Funkadelic had always been a hybrid of other things—at first, of the original Parliaments and the psychedelic rock that was happening all around it—and the second wave of musicians reaffirmed my belief in the way to grow. Absorb youth and you will be absorbed by youth. Take on new influences without fear and you need not fear what is new. Change the people around you by changing the people around you.”

“I never wanted that responsibility, not the responsibility of a political spokesperson like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, and not even the responsibility of a musical spokesperson like Bob Marley. He was almost like a Dalai Lama. Critics and fans were thrusting him into that position even before he knew he was in it. We went the other way, played so crazy that nobody wanted to be connected to us at that level.”

“So in my mind, the concept of Mothership Connection wasn’t just Star Trek in the ghetto, but pirate radio coming in from outer space. It’s not thought of in that way as much, at least anymore, but that’s at the heart of the album.”

“When I got money, I didn’t think about jewelry or cars or houses. I thought about experiences. Again, some of them were sex, and some were drugs, but most of them were rock and roll. I kept studios running all the time. I cut tracks with all the artists I knew and shaped them into songs, which in turn were shaped into records. What did I need with possessions? I had a spaceship and that was going to be enough for a long while.”

“Maybe funk itself was a form of evolution. Maybe if you refused to participate in it, you were holding yourself back. We had already created and deployed Star Child, an agent of interplanetary funk. Did he have the secret for improving the species, funkateer by funkateer? There had always been a strain of self-actualization in our music, though it had also always been sharpened by humor and irony and dirty jokes.”

“When people start out in groups, everybody imagines making it, but no one thinks hard about what that means. Does it mean being a star, staying in the top hotels, headlining arenas? Or is it enough to be able to do what almost no one in the world does, and sustain a career as a professional musician? The mere fact of surviving in this industry is a huge victory. But survivors forget that the alternative is annihilation. They think that the choice is between a good career and a great one. They reach for stardom. And those unrealistic expectations are compounded by creative ability, or the lack of ability. People don’t have a clear idea of what they can and can’t do as artists. I knew my limits. I knew what I couldn’t do. I couldn’t play an instrument. I couldn’t sing as well as some and I couldn’t arrange as well as some others. But I could see the whole picture from altitude, and that let me land the planes.”

“Living things find nourishment where they can. The point of music is to take what exists and to make it matter again, in your own style, with your own stamp. To talk about “original” and “unoriginal” is as unoriginal as talking about genres or categories. You never want to be in a bag, let alone someone else’s bag. Music is music, and bands become what they are. They play because they want to, and audiences sense that and listen because they want to.”

“The grace note with Public Enemy is that I had something to do with their name. For years, I didn’t know that it was my voice saying “Public Enemy” on their record. They had sampled from “Undisco Kidd” and slowed the vocals down.”

Recommended books: My Song: A Memoir by Harry Belafonte and Life by Keith Richards
Rating: ***

38 Things About Me and Star Wars


38 years ago in May 1977, Star Wars made its debut changing film and cultural history.  I’ve never been a Star Wars superfan, but I liked the movies as a child and grew up alongside the franchise.  With The Force Awakens premiering this week, here are 38 random thoughts about me and Star Wars.

  1. I was 4-years-old when I first saw Star Wars.  It’s possibly the first movie I ever watched in a movie theater.  The earliest I can remember, at least.
  2. I watched the movie with my sister and father at the Strand Theatre in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts (on Martha’s Vineyard).  The seats slid back and forth to allow the user to adjust the seat back to upright or slanted position. My sister and I slid back and forth in the seats a lot, to my father’s annoyance.
  3. I most likely fell asleep during the movie since for years afterwards I thought our heroes escaped from the trash compactor and then got medals.
  4. R2-D2 was, and remains, my favorite character.
  5. It would be another 6 years before I saw the movie again, something that’s hard to believe when movies these days are readily available on video, cable tv, and streaming on the internet shortly after release.
  6. I watched it on HBO at my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn.  The image was very fuzzy because my grandparents didn’t actually subscribe to cable tv, but somehow picked up HBO from their neighbors.
  7. In the intervening years, what I knew about Star Wars was informed by a picture book that had an audio cassette accompaniment.  I’m pretty sure that this audio cassette include scenes & characters cut from the film that were later restored in the Special Edition.
  8. I had a large number of Kenner Star Wars action figures and toys that I played with often, accumulating a large well-loved collection over the next 7 or so years.
  9. I made up my own stories with the action figures, many involving Luke & Han having to work with Darth Vader against a common foe.
  10. We also had a 45 of the disco version of the Star Wars theme by Meco.
  11. My mother got really good at singing the Star Wars theme by clucking like a chicken.  She only does it for family members, so don’t ask her.
  12. Because the movie was called Star Wars when I first saw it (and for 20 years after), I still call it Star Wars even if it’s more fashionable to call it A New Hope or Star Wars IV.  I liked that for the original trilogy at least there were no roman numerals and wish they’d stuck to that.
  13. I saw the Empire Strikes Back at the Ridgeway Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut.
  14. I missed most of the scenes where Luke was training with Yoda because I had to go to the bathroom.
  15. During the climactic duel between Luke and Vader, the film melted and we had to wait for the projectionist to restore it to the screen.  Twice.
  16. I was certain that Darth Vader was lying about being Luke’s father and clung to this belief for three years until Yoda confirmed it in Return of the Jedi.
  17. I saw Return of the Jedi the New Canaan Playhouse in Connecticut.  I had recently touched poison ivy and my body and face were covered with rashes and calamine lotion.  Watching this movie was the first time in days where I was so pleasantly distracted I forgot that I itched.
  18. Return of the Jedi was the first Star Wars film I saw multiple times in the theaters (and after Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the first films to see again and again, period.  It was a novelty back then).
  19. I loved the Ewoks, and while it’s unfashionable to admit it, I still do.
  20. The Ewoks tv movies were terrible, however, and oddly disturbing to my young mind.
  21. I saved up proof-of-purchase tabs from Kenner products to mail in for a free (+ shipping & handling) action figure of the Emperor.  It took a lot longer than the promised 4-6 weeks to arrive.  I checked the mailbox every day for months suffering crushing disappointment every day until it arrived.
  22. There was a time in the late 80s and early 90s when Star Wars kind of disappeared from the cultural consciousness.  I was part of this and didn’t pay much attention to it during that time.
  23. Before moving to Virginia and starting college in 1991, I sold all my Star Wars toys at a tag sale.  The action figures went for 25 cents each.  I hope they’re still around getting loving care and someone is playing with them.
  24. My freshman year of college someone rented Star Wars and we all watched it over and over again.  I’d only seen it maybe 3 times in my whole life, so it was weird to see it several times in one weekend.  I also noticed things about it I’d never noticed about it as a child. Like, Luke Skywalker is super whiny.
  25. In 1997, I enjoyed seeing the Special Editions as they were released to movie theaters over a period of months. I thought the Star Wars Special Edition was a fun alternate take, although it shouldn’t replace the original theatrical run, the changes to Empire Strikes Back were mostly cosmetic, and the changes to Return of the Jedi were too cornball for a film that could use more gravitas.
  26. Unpopular opinion: I don’t really care if Han or Greedo shot first
  27. I saw The Phantom Menace while visiting my friend Vicki in Bowling Green, Ohio.  Like many, I thought it was dumb and disappointing.  I haven’t seen it again.
  28. I mean really though – Jar Jar Binks, the “Yipee!” kid, and endless podracing!  What were they thinking.  Natalie Portman was good though.
  29. My favorite memory of the movie is seeing two shirtless, shoeless dudebros from Cape Cod riding the MBTA Red Line who were planning “to smoke a bong and watch The Phantom Menace.”  At every stop one guy would ask the other if this was their stop and the other one would say “No, my brother, it’s Davis!”  They did get off Davis.  Hope they enjoyed the movie.
  30. A year later I went camping with some friends in Western Massachusetts and some creepy guys in an adjacent tent site where watching The Phantom Menace in their tent.
  31. Speaking of bad Star Wars movies, my wife Susan informed me that there was a Star Wars Holiday Special that frightened her as a child.  I’d never heard of it before, but ordered a bootleg off Ebay.  It’s just as bad as you’ve been told.  But whoever taped it initially did so from a television broadcast in Baltimore so it has all the 1978 commercials in it, which is pretty cool.
  32. I saw Attack of the Clones with Susan at the AMC Loews Boston Common Theatres. The first time we tried to watch it, we had to be evacuated due to a fire alarm just after the opening credits.  I remember watching the fire fighters casually riding the escalator on the way to investigating the fire.
  33. Attack of the Clones was better, but still disappointing. I really hated all the monsters in the pit, and Yoda acting like Robert Duval in Apocalypse Now.
  34. Saw Revenge of the Sith at the same place, and with the same feeling of “this is okay, but could be better.” It is the only one of the prequel trilogy films that I watched a second time.
  35. I’ve read all the novel adaptations of the Star Wars films.  I found the writers of the prequel trilogy actually did a better job with plot, dialogue and characterization than appeared in the film, and wish these books had somehow been adapted into the movies rather than the other way around.
  36. I also read Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy and The Hand of Thrawn books which are excellent stories with some interesting new characters, although I think they would actually adapt poorly to film, so I’m glad they’re going a different route with the new trilogy.
  37. My children don’t like watching movies, so I still haven’t been able to convince them to watch any Star Wars films, but when I do I’m going to try Machete Order.
  38. If things go to plan I will see The Force Awakens while vacationing with my in-laws in Myrtle Beach after Christmas.  I love that I always seem to be in a different city and state when I see these movies.

Book Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet by Felicia Day


AuthorFelicia Day
TitleYou’re Never Weird on the Internet
Narrator: Felicia Day
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

Felicia Day’s memoir is funny and inspiring, and especially good narrated in Day’s own voice.  Day describes her unusual childhood where she was homeschooled and first found community through gaming communities on the internet.  Growing up and deciding to go into acting, she finds herself typecast in roles and ends up writing, producing, and starring in one of the earliest successful web series, The Guild. I first learned of Day watching The Guild, and despite knowing next to nothing about gaming culture, I found it hilarious and accessible (and if you haven’t seen it you should watch it now).  While the documents her success as an artist creating her own niche, Day also has lived with anxiety and depression with a particular bad period coinciding with the end of The Guild and honestly described.  Day also includes a chapter about gamergate, the notoriously misogynist and nasty movement which has split the gaming community Day loves so much in recent years.  All in all, a good, honest, and funny celebrity memoir.
Recommended books: Bossypants by Tina Fey, Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg, and American Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent
Rating: ***

Book Review: Even This I Get to Experience by Norman Lear


AuthorNorman Lear
Title: Even This I Get to Experience by Norman Lear
Publication Info: New York : The Penguin Press, 2014
Summary/Review:

I was born in the 1970s and became aware of television at a time I consider the golden age of sit-coms.  TV comedies were uproariously funny, but also addressed social issues in a way that ordinary people encounter them and grapple with them.  The best of these shows included All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford and Son, Maude, and One Day at a Time.  And all these shows had one thing in common: they were created by Norman Lear.

With this in mind, I figured Norman Lear would have a good story to tell, and I was right.  I was pleased to learn that, like me, Lear spent much of his childhood in Connecticut.  The formative figure in that childhood was Lear’s father, a man he revered as a hero as many children look up to their fathers, but someone who was in many ways a scoundrel and even a criminal.  Lear’s father would become the model for larger-than-life characters like Archie Bunker, Maude, and George Jefferson.

Lear traces the course of his career in this memoir.  After attending Emerson College and then serving in a bomber crew during World War II, Lear enters into the nascent television industry writing for some of the top variety shows of the 40s and 50s.  In the 60s, Lear worked on writing and occasionally directing comedy films.  The 1970s saw his return to television, eventually having as many as seven comedy series in production at the same time (with all of them among the top-rated shows).  In the 1980s and beyond, Lear became more politically active founding People for the American Way and professionally producing movies, including many of the great comic films of Rob Reiner.

Apart from the story of his career with glimpse into his creative process, Lear also discusses his personal life which includes troubled marriages and his children, for whom he wasn’t always present for.  For a show business biography, this is a good book giving some insights into the mind of an influential figure of American popular culture.

Favorite Passages:

“I’ve always divided people between wets and drys. Dry people are cold, brittle, and very certain; they don’t hug well, and if you should hug one you could cut yourself on his body. Wet people are warm and tender, and when they hug they melt in your arms.”

“It was very important to me that Archie have a likable face, because the point of the character was to show that if bigotry and intolerance didn’t exist in the hearts and minds of the good people, the average people, it would not be the endemic problem it is in our society. As the ‘laziest, dumbest white kid’ my father ever met, I rarely saw a bigot I didn’t have some reason to like. They were all relatives and friends.’

“I’ve never heard that anybody conducted his or her life differently after seeing an episode of All in the Family. If two thousand years of the Judeo-Christian ethic hadn’t eradicated bigotry and intolerance, I didn’t think a half-hour sitcom was going to do it. Still, as my grandfather was fond of saying—and as physicists confirm—when you throw a pebble in a lake the water rises. It’s far too infinitesimal a rise for our eyes to register, so all we can see is the ripple. People still say to me, ‘We watched Archie as a family and I’ll never forget the discussions we had after the show.’ And so that was the ripple of All in the Family. Families talked.”

“He was afraid of tomorrow. He was afraid of anything new, and that came through in the theme song: ‘Gee, our old LaSalle ran great / Those were the days.’ He was lamenting the passing of time, because it’s always easier to stay with what is familiar and not move forward. This wasn’t a terrible human being. This was a fearful human being. He wasn’t evil, he wasn’t a hater—he was just afraid of change.”

“The story line for every episode of every show originated at the conference table in my office. I had instructed our writers to come to work prepared to talk about their marriages, kids, family problems, health problems—their lives in the context of what was going on in their communities and the world. The topicality of our work, the personal nature of so much of it, and the serious subjects we chose to deal with grew out of that. The audiences themselves taught me that you can get some wonderful laughs on the surface of anything with funny performers and good jokes, but if you want them laughing from the belly, you stand a better chance of achieving it if you can get them caring first. The humor in life doesn’t stop when we are in tears, any more than it stops being serious when we are laughing. So we writers were in the game to elicit both. My favorite charge to them was ‘Let’s bring the audience to their knees.'”

“When people get upset with the amount of sex and violence on television, they tend to look west to blame Hollywood. Wrong. The content creators—the writers, producers, and directors—are not, and never have been, in control. Television is a business and, as with all businesses, it’s governed by supply and demand. If the demand didn’t exist at the networks, writers would not be supplying it. The blame lies to the east, on Wall Street and on the giant, often international media entities that answer to its short-term interests.”

Recommended booksDangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” by David Bianculli and My Song: A Memoir by Harry Belafonte
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Cheesemonger : a life on the wedge by Gordon Edgar


Author: Gordon Edgar
TitleCheesemonger : a life on the wedge
Publication Info: White River Junction, VT : Chelsea Green Pub., c2010
Summary/Review:

Edgar wanted so much to gain employment at a San Francisco worker’s cooperative that he applied for a job in the cheese department despite not knowing much about cheese.  This memoir/manifesto tells of his two decades learning about cheese, visiting farms, attending conferences, and dealing with customers.  Edgar draws on his past in punk rock to explore the community and ethics of the cheese world.  This may be the least pretentious book about cheese possible, and I enjoyed reading Edgar’s stories and opinions.  I’m also hungry for some cheese.

Recommended booksCoop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting by Michael Perry and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
Rating: ****

Book Review: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh


Author: Allie Brosh
TitleHyperbole and a Half 
Publication Info: New York : Simon & Schuster, 2013.
ISBN: 9781451666175
Summary/Review:

The deliberately crudely-illustrated comics from Allie Brosh’s classic Hyperbole and a Half blog are collected here in book form.  Brosh’s writing and drawing based on her life is both hilarious and poignant.   Her works on depression and motivation (or lack thereof) are particularly brilliant, and make me feel that she gets me.  She also writes a lot about her dogs and their lack of intelligence and a particularly belly-guffawing story of her house invaded by a goose.  The colorful pictures also attracted my two-year-old  daughter who kept picking up that book whenever I wasn’t reading it.  This book should be read by one and all.

Recommended books: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Rating: ****

Book Review: An astronaut’s guide to life on earth by Chris Hadfield


Author: Chris Hadfield
TitleAn astronaut’s guide to life on earth
Publication Info: New York, NY : Little, Brown and Co., 2013.

Summary/Review:

Like many people I was charmed by Chris Hadfield’s social media presence on Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube et al during his time as commander aboard the International Space Station in 2012-13.  So I was pleased to read his autobiography to learn more about the man who reignited my fascination with space exploration.  Hadfield was among the first astronauts selected by the Canadian Space Agency and prior to his time aboard the ISS he flew on two space shuttle missions.  Hadfield describes the hard work he put in to become (and remain) an astronaut, his willingness to learn to do just about anything, and the necessity of working in a team.  A frequent refrain in this book is “being an astronaut is a whole lot more than going to space (although that part is really awesome)” as he relates the significant time spent training and preparing (and sometimes learning skills he may never use, but made him more versatile) as well as public appearances to promote the space program.  Hadfield the memoirist seems as delightful as Hadfield the social media star, and I enjoyed reading this book.
Recommended booksPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach, Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon by Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Jay Barbree, Howard Benedict,  Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jeffrey Kluger, James Lovell, and The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe,
Rating: ****

Book Review: Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg


Author: Simon Pegg
Title:  Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Big Kid 
Publication Info: Gotham (2011)
ISBN: 9781592406814
Summary/Review:

Pegg’s autobiography is another celebrity biography (an unusual genre for me although I read two in the same month) that thankfully transcends the genre.  Pegg is witty and humorous as a reflects on his life but also offers good insight on his life and its impact on his comedy work.  At times he also takes the educated approach to evaluating some of his beloved pop culture such as Star Wars.  He does lose some nerd cred though when he admits to being a life guard and other non-nerdly exploits of his youth.  Pegg also appears to be content with his life and grateful for the many opportunities he’s been given.  If you like Simon Pegg and his work you’ll enjoy this book.  The only downside is some inter-filed chapters which are written in a manner that can only be described as a 12-year-old Pegg writing a fan fiction about his future life.  These chapters may be easily skipped.

Recommended books: Bossypants by Tina Fey, American Nerd: The Story of My People by Benjamin Nugent, and Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years by Michael Palin.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle


Author: Gregory Boyle
Title: Tattoos on the Heart
Publication Info: New York : Free Press, 2010.
ISBN:  9781439153024
Summary/Review:

Not really a memoir, but more illustrative vignettes from Fr. Greg’s work with gang members in Los Angeles.  This beautifully written book is both inspiring and heartbreaking.  Inspiring because of the wonderful humanity of the “homies” the comes to its fullest when they are given some love and dignity.  Heartbreaking because so many of the people we come to while reading are cut down by gunfire and die too young.  This is a book I highly recommend.  Learn more about Fr. Greg and his homies at the Homeboy Industries website.

Favorite Passages:

We all just want to be called by the name our mom uses when she’s not pissed off at us. p. 54

Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it. p. 67

Success and failure, ultimately, have little to do with living the gospel. Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified — whichever came first. p. 172

Recommended books: Respect: An Exploration by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists by Courtney E. Martin and The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw by Michael Sokolive
Rating: *****

Book Review: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank


Author:Anne Frank
Title: The Diary of a Young Girl
Publication Info: Anchor (1996) [Originally published in 1947]
ISBN:0385480334

Summary/Review:

Like many people I thought I knew everything about Anne Frank and her diary and probably like many people I never actually read it.  I did see the movie when I was a kid.  So, of course, I was in for a big surprise.  It is a diary and reads like it was written by a teenage girl concerned with her studies, her changing body, attraction to boys, and asserting independence from her parents.  She was also a teenage girl with a great talent for writing and one who was aware as she wrote that her diary would be published.  It’s fascinating how Anne Frank captures the personalities of the people she is in hiding with, the petty arguments, the greater political issues of the time, and the ordinary day-to-day life in an extraordinary situation.  Knowing what happens, there are a lot of moments of heartbreak.  When Anne accidentally incinerates her fountain pen and says it’s turned to ashes just as she hopes to be cremated one day, I shuddered.  There are several close calls where there hiding place is almost discovered and the relief of their escape is tempered by the knowledge that they would be caught in the end.  Anne hopes to become a writer and journalist, a dream she only achieves posthumously. I kept wishing that Anne Frank had survived the war and lived to tell her story and experience new stories as well.

If you’re like me and haven’t actually read this book, pick up a copy as soon as you can.  I think it’s especially worthwhile for teenagers to read as there is much to relate to and much to learn.
Rating: *****