Memoirs Most Charming, Part 1

I’ve read a handful of charming memoirs lately, and more are on the way!

luckyguyI’m a Lucky Guy by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.
This was a reader suggestion from Anne!

Here, Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. (writing without sister Ernestine, his sometime collaborator) recounts various happenings and misadventures from his early adulthood, beginning in 1929 when he’s headed off to college and ending somewhere around 1946, when he has returned from serving in the Navy and resumed his career as a newspaperman. These include things like going out for football whilst scrawny, being mistaken for a gun-toting gangster whilst attempting to hide booze (prohibition was still on) from the cops, pranking an odious professor (and, later, an odious superior officer), and repeatedly failing to live up to the standards of a demanding admiral to whom he has been assigned as aide.

On the whole, I found all of these stories entertaining, though the sole moment that made me laugh out loud was when Frank’s soon-to-be wife and mother-in-law completely excused the lascivious behavior of his friend, which a moment before had scandalized them, upon learning he was Methodist (their preferred denomination).

“You don’t think he’s a Ten Commandment breaker?” I asked.
“Why, I’d trust him any place,” Liz said indignantly.
“So would I,” said her mother. “I’ve always said that people shouldn’t be judged by circumstantial evidence.”
“You’re so right,” I assured her.
“Probably,” she continued, fishing around for a likely excuse, “probably—well, probably the doctor sent that girl over to your apartment to change the boy’s bandage, again, before he went to bed.”
I was tempted to break into a high-pitched giggle, but I looked at Liz and caught a warning.
“That’s probably just the way it happened,” I nodded gravely.

Unfortunately, it does seem Frank shares a little of the antipathy toward overweight people that his sister possesses. I don’t mind when he accurately describes a person’s physical characteristics—if a bosom is ample and an abdomen abundant, there’s really no getting around that—but when he makes comments about fellow student Sallye—whom he later proclaims to be “a real friend”—like no “male student in his right mind” would give her their fraternity pen, it’s just unnecessarily mean. True, Sallye has a tendency to be loud and overbearing, and I’m fairly sure that’s part of what he meant, but not the whole of it.

That criticism aside, I did enjoy this book and I’m glad I read it. Thanks, Anne!

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography by Eric Idle
Initially, although it was an enjoyable read, I wouldn’t have classified this “sortabiography” from the Monty Python co-founder as charming. Idle recounts his childhood, school days, introduction to the world of comedy, the formation of Monty Python, the run of the original series, and the Python movies without a tremendous amount of detail. He does elaborate more about his independent endeavors, and I especially appreciated learning more about the creation of The Rutles. Using the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” as a sort of framework, Idle chronicles the various circumstances after The Life of Brian where he was called upon to sing it, ranging from Graham Chapman’s funeral to the Royal Variety Performance to the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

As is common for a book of this type, there is a lot of name-dropping, but in this case a lot of the names were people I genuinely like, like Harry Nilsson, George Harrison, David Bowie, Stephen Fry, Peter Cook, Robin Williams, and Eddie Izzard. And, too, Idle toots his own horn rather frequently, which is admittedly justified when you’ve accomplished as much as he has, and makes sure readers know there were times in his life when he was having loads of sex.

Where he really shines, though, is penning touching tributes to friends who are no longer with us. My husband and I listened to Idle read the unabridged audiobook version together, and by the end of the chapter entitled “George,” we were both in tears. The chapter about Robin Williams is no less lovely. I cannot stress enough how wonderful these two chapters are; they alone are worth the price of admission. It does make one wonder why he doesn’t delve so deeply into the character of his comedy partners, and only makes a few mentions of Terry Jones’ dementia, but perhaps it is because they were all still living in 2018, when the book was published. I shall have to find out whether Idle penned any tributes to Jones on the sad occasion of his passing last year.

savagesLife Among the Savages and Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
I’d heard such good things about these books, but my reaction to Life Among the Savages wasn’t what I expected. True, some of the “lightly fictionalized” anecdotes Jackson relates are somewhat amusing, like the family’s struggle to find a house to rent in Vermont, or insisting to the hospital intake person that her occupation is “writer” as opposed to “housewife,” or her son’s fascination with all the gory details after he gets hit by a car. But the vast majority of the stories involve her children behaving badly, and I had very little patience with these at all.

I imagine that other mothers sympathize with these episodes. Perhaps they see their own experience reflected, and so they laugh but also feel all warm inside, in a loving, maternal way. Not so me, I’m afraid. No, whenever the son showed arrogant condescension toward his mother, or her daughter became intolerably fixated on proper decorum, or one kid or the other was insolent and disrespectful, it just made me angry. In fact, I might have said “Shut the fuck up!” aloud a time or two. This is why it is probably a very good thing that I am not a parent.

Thankfully, Raising Demons contains less of that sort of thing (though significantly more than none). I really loved the section in which Jackson waxes nostalgic about her adolescent obsession with making clothespin dolls and her snarky description of life as a faculty wife (who is expected to have “hemming dishtowels” among her hobbies). The story of how she got a new refrigerator was a highlight, as well.

You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories About Racism by Amber Ruffin & Lacey Lamar
Having seen and adored whimsical clips from The Amber Ruffin Show, I was very excited to see that Amber Ruffin and her older sister Lacey Lamar had written a book together. Although the topic is racist incidents the sisters have endured (mostly Lacey, who lives and works in Omaha), the approach at least attempts to be light-hearted. These aren’t stories where someone gets hurt or dies; instead, they elucidate the kind of crap Black people are just expected to swallow or forget.

I did laugh a few times, particularly at Ruffin’s effervescent line delivery—I listened to the unabridged audiobook read by the authors—but after a while, the unrelenting wave of absolutely flagrant ignorance and hate becomes overwhelming. The commentary on the stories is funny, but the situations themselves are stressful and horrible and eye-opening in the most abject, despair-inducing kind of way. I have never been one to deny that racism exists, but I admit to being surprised and horrified by a lot of these stories, espcially the awful things done to kids. A beautiful drawing torn to shreds, a group of teens accused of stealing car keys when none of them is old enough to drive, kids threatened at gunpoint by a crazy neighbor but nobody calls the cops because who will the cops believe… I also feel terribly naive for being surprised.

I’m glad I read this.

nutsinmayOur Hearts Were Young and Gay and Nuts in May by Cornelia Otis Skinner
Note: The former was co-written with Emily Kimbrough.

Our Hearts Were Young and Gay recounts the three months in the early 1920s that two young American women spend abroad in Europe, written when they are older (“Emily and I have now reached the time in life when not only do we lie about our ages, we forget what we’ve said they are.”) and nostalgic for more innocent days. It’s written in Cornelia’s voice, though Emily provides many of the details, and tells of the time their ship ran aground, the time Cornelia caught the measles and evaded quarantine, the time they met H. G. Wells and Emily made an embarrassing first impression, the time they mistook a brothel for a boarding house, the time bedbugs gave Cornelia a swollen lip “shining like a polished tomato,” the time their dogs piddled in a swanky Parisian restaurant, etc. For the most part, it’s quite amusing, but there are a few comments that expose the girls’ ignorant attitudes regarding people of other races and sexual preferences.

Rather than focusing on one particular adventure, Nuts in May is a collection of humorous yet unrelated anecdotes Skinner wrote for publications like The New Yorker. Topics include but are not limited to: actors being asked to lend their talents in aid of charitable organizations, a Protestant family’s audience with the Pope, people who laugh at anything, dizzying real estate transactions, and being interviewed by Dr. Kinsey. Occasionally, the tone turns more domestic and reminds me some of Shirley Jackson, such as in “Bag of Bones,” when Skinner’s son insists that the bones they find on a Colorado trail belong to a dinosaur, or “Those Friends of His,” about her son’s reticence on the origins of his friends who come to visit. The latter also makes reference to a car “teeming with hamsters,” which is a phrase and a visual that I adore. Indeed, there were quite a few giggles to be had, and I reckon I might seek out more of Skinner’s work in the future.

Tales of the Gilbreth Family

Mention the title Cheaper by the Dozen and most folks know it refers to a story about a family with twelve children. Before there were completely unrelated movies starring Steve Martin, however, there was the original book about the unique Gilbreth family, written by two of the children. This was followed by Belles on Their Toes, set after the death of the family patriarch, and later by several others, including Time Out for Happiness, a more serious family biography, and Rings Around Us, in which Ernestine writes about her own married life. Three out of the four are quite charming, and those aren’t bad odds!

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
When I embarked upon reading Cheaper by the Dozen, I figured I was in for a warm-hearted memoir about the clever antics of twelve mischievous kids living in the early 20th century. And I did get that. There are stories here about playing pranks on the psychologist evaluating their intelligence and about young boys saying impertinent things to guests at dinner, about rousting a peeping tom from a tree and manipulating the family council system in order to get a dog.

What I didn’t anticipate, however, was that the real purpose of the book is to lovingly depict the Gilbreth parents, Frank and Lillian. I am a sucker for awesome dads, and have loved quite a few, but Mr. Gilbreth might just take the cake. He’s voluble, loud, and charming, with a zest for life and learning that leads him to devote his career to developing time-saving measures for various industries. He teaches his kids all manner of things, from languages to Morse code to nifty multiplication tricks, and at first it seems like he’s doing this just to satisfy his own curiosity—and, yes, that’s part of it—but in reality, it’s so that they’ll be able to get along without him and not be a burden to their mother when he is gone. For, you see, he hasn’t told them that he’s got a bad heart.

There is much to smile and laugh at in this book, but the end had me sobbing. In a good way. In the way that makes you want to read the book again so that you can love it even more intensely. I feel like fans of this book could meet each other and exchange a single word—mumblety-peg—and understand each other perfectly.

Belles on Their Toes by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Where Cheaper by the Dozen serves as loving tribute to Frank B. Gilbreth, Sr., Belles on Their Toes is “primarily the story of Mother.” Overshadowed somewhat by her charismatic husband in the previous book, Lillian shines here as a strong and capable mother defying social conventions and attitudes by taking up the reins of her husband’s business in order to secure sufficient income to not only keep the family together but send each child to college, as Frank wanted. There’s a marvelous passage early on that explains how Lillian overcame her timidity that left me sniffling.

There was a time when Mother wept easily, when she was afraid of walking alone at night, when a lightning storm would send her shuddering into a dark closet.

All that ended the day Dad died. It ended because it had to end. It ended because of the realization that what she really feared was that something would separate them.

Well, what she feared had happened, and tears would not wash out a word of it. So she gave his speech in London and presided for him in Prague. And she was not afraid any more.

I get a bit verklempt now, just typing that.

Belles on Their Toes also focuses a lot on the oldest daughters, as they develop into women and eventually bring beaus home to meet the family. I’m particularly fond of sensible Martha, who has no idea she’s become shapely and sought-after and devotes herself to principles of frugality. That’s not to say that pranks and mischief are entirely absent, however! Near the end, the pace of the story picks up a great deal, skipping over some of the middle children to cover the high school graduation of the youngest (Jane), followed by a family reunion in which three of Lillian’s grandchildren are christened in the same church as their parents.

It’s a very satisfying conclusion and most people would probably feel content to stop here. With a little research and a couple of interlibrary loans, however, I’ve unearthed a couple of other books about the family that are less well known.

Time Out for Happiness by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.
Whereas the first two books “stressed the comical aspects of raising a big family by Motion Study methods,” Time Out for Happiness puts the emphasis on Frank and Lillian’s work in the field of “scientific management.” You might think this sounds dull, but actually there are enough amusing anecdotes and big personalities (like “plump and boisterous” Frank) to make for quite an absorbing read.

Time Out for Happiness also dwells more on the family backgrounds for Frank and Lillian, as well as the early days of their courtship and marriage. Some of the material is familiar, but most of it is new. (Interestingly, a few small details are different here, like which child made what remark or what handyman Tom named his cats. Were those embellished the first time around?) I welcomed the insight into what Frank and Lillian were hoping to accomplish with Motion Study, especially the fact that Lillian was very much an equal partner.

Indeed, while gregarious Frank initially captures one’s heart, by the end one realizes how truly remarkable Lillie was. For a woman to get a Master’s degree in 1902 (followed by a PhD in 1914) was no small feat, and she was the first woman to receive honorary membership in several influential engineering societies. After Frank’s death in 1924, Lillie continued to espouse the Gilbreth method for over 40 years, eventually earning the public recognition of their endeavors that she’d long been seeking.

The one drawback to reading this book is that it makes one feel a serious underachiever. There were so many opportunities to think and do new things in the early 20th century that I don’t know now whether such chances simply don’t exist anymore or if I am just not personally bright enough to see them.

At any rate, this may be a more factual account of the family history, but it’s no less entertaining.

Rings Around Us by Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Out of the four books on the Gilbreth family that I read, I liked Rings Around Us—the story of Ernestine’s married life—the least. I found it to be lacking the warmth of the earlier books, and I’m not sure whether to attribute that to the lack of Lillian or to the lack of Frank, Jr. as writing partner. Probably it’s a combination of both.

In September 1929, when she is a 21-year-old working girl in New York City, Ernestine Gilbreth meets Charles Carey. They hit it off immediately and are married in 1930. The book recounts their many apartments in the city, the many nurses they hire to take care of their daughter while Ernestine works, and the eventual decision to move to Long Island, where the kids have plenty of friends and room to roam and where the Carey parents experience the joy of tending a garden and the sorrows of home maintenance.

The problem is… Charles (called “Chick” by Ernestine) is a product of his time, in that he is a sexist git. He frequently makes comments about women and though he occasionally condescends to help Ernestine with meals and dishes, his attitudes eventually begin to wear off on his son. Ernestine chafes at his notions, but doesn’t get her dander up as much as I would’ve liked. But no matter, because she herself is sizeist. Many, many times she describes a person by their weight, be it the nurse whose bosoms she compares to watermelons or the dance teacher her daughter adores, “all two hundred pounds of her.” This attitude, too, wears off on the kids, as a later chapter dwells upon a game they invent wherein you score points for spotting fat people on the beach. The game is called “Whale.”

Nice. Really nice. Thanks for leaving me with a sour taste in my mouth, Ernestine.

The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson: B

From the front flap:
The world needed a hero, but how would an editor with no off-switch answer the call? For Jeff Deck, the writing was literally on the wall: NO TRESSPASSING. In that moment, his greater purpose became clear. Dark hordes of typos had descended upon civilization… and only he could wield the marker to defeat them.

After a college reunion spurs the realization that he hasn’t done anything to change the world, unlike some of his impressive former classmates, Jeff Deck decides to play to his strengths—editorial skills—and embark on a cross-country trip to correct typos. A few friends join the initiative and TEAL (Typo Eradication Advancement League) is born. With his trusty vehicular steed, Callie, and stalwart companion, Benjamin (and armed with a kit full of markers and correction fluid), Deck sets out on his quest.

The Great Typo Hunt chronicles his journey, both physically and figuratively. In simplest terms, he and Benjamin travel from town to town, spotting typos and attempting to fix them, aiming for a correction rate of 50 percent or higher. Sometimes they correct typos on the sly and sometimes request permission to do so. It’s pretty satisfying when a fix has been achieved, especially when pictoral evidence is furnished. Alas, many of the people they talk to are apathetic—one actually says “I would rather have a sign spelled incorrectly than a tacky-looking sign”—while a few are downright hostile. Happily, some also prove receptive and appreciative of TEAL’s efforts.

Meanwhile, Deck has much cause during the trip to consider the real purpose of his mission. In an early interview he states, “It’s not about making anyone feel bad or… look stupid or something, it’s just really about going after the errors themselves.” And that’s pretty much where he ends up at the end, though it takes time for his thoughts to coalesce into a mission statement that has more to do with clarity in communication than in adherence to specific rules. After a setback involving federal charges for vandalizing a historic sign in a national park, TEAL seems poised to embark on future endeavors that revolve more around education than correction.

It’s a worthy goal and one with which I can sympathize, as a some-time editor myself. Still, I will admit that reading encounter after encounter in which willful ignorance rules the day becomes extremely depressing after a while. I, too, lay the blame at an education system that has failed to provide people with the tools they need to make sense of writing in English. This shaky foundation has made people feel insecure about writing, which in turn makes them feel stupid—or like they’re being called stupid—when an error is pointed out to them, when that was never anyone’s intent. Thankfully, Deck and crew do not feel as hopeless about the situation as I do!

To conclude, I shall share a personal story of typo correction:

Back around 2002 or so, my husband and I went out for subs at a place with a sign shop for a neighbor. On their street-side sign, the sign place was advertising a “Crazzy Eddie” sale. Hubby penned a note and slipped it in the door. A few days later, I was driving by and happened to spot this. A return trip with a camera was clearly called for.

I suppose this could have been done in the spirit of fun, but to me it seems to say, “Screw you, buddy.”

Additional reviews of The Great Typo Hunt can be found here.

Memories of the Future 1 by Wil Wheaton: B

memfuture1From the back cover:
The away team returns from the planet with some very good news: it’s clean, it’s beautiful, it’s populated with friendly humanoids… and they really like to do the nasty.

“At the drop of a hat,” according to Geordi.

“Any hat,” Tasha says knowingly.

Picard sends a second, larger team down to the planet to see exactly how many hats they’re going to need.

From “Encounter at Farpoint” to “Datalore,” relive the first half of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s unintentionally hilarious first season through the eyes, ears, and memories of cast member and fan, Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher) as he shares his unique perspective in the episode guide you didn’t even know you were dying to read.

I came a little late to Star Trek: The Next Generation. I don’t come from a family of Trekkies and didn’t know anyone who watched the original show, so I was not glued to my set for TNG‘s 1987 debut (like I’d later be for Deep Space Nine‘s). Instead, I got into it in 1992, when my brother was watching the episodes in syndication every afternoon and hanging TNG action figures (still in the package, of course) on his walls. I began watching with him and was soon hooked, acquiring Larry Nemecek’s The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion so that I could read all about the making of the episodes and keep track of the ones I’d seen. (Side note: I still haven’t seen 1.5 of them, but I kind of like it that way. It makes it seem like it’s not quite over.)

Although I eventually came to prefer DS9, TNG still holds a place in my heart. Like many people, I never did much care for the character of Wesley Crusher, but when I spotted Wil Wheaton’s episode reviews on TV Squad, I did read a few of them. In his introduction to Memories of the Future, Wheaton explains how the site lost a chunk of its funding and, therefore, the ability to pay him, but that he wanted to at least complete reviews for the first season, and so this book was born.

If you’re looking for a tawdry tell-all book, you’re not going to find it here. Wheaton doesn’t talk specifically about his castmates much, but when he does, he has nothing but positive things to say about them. Instead, his vitriol is reserved for the writers; he critiques the way various characters are written (Wesley, primarily, but also Worf and Troi, who are particularly one-dimensional during the first season) and points out many logic flaws and other problems with episode construction. I found his arguments to be compelling—especially how, contrary to many fans’ beliefs, Wheaton himself was in no way responsible for Wesley’s tendencies to save the day and be smug about it—and insightful.

There’s a chapter for each episode including a synopsis, quotable dialogue, obligatory technobabble, behind-the-scenes memory, bottom line, and final grade. The synopses are very snarky, though occasionally he’ll break from that mold to praise a particularly nice piece of acting. Many, many pop culture references abound—Strong Bad, Pulp Fiction, Animal Farm, et cetera—which is okay when I get them but rather annoying when I don’t. I have a feeling I was supposed to find some of the snark funny, but I never did, though I think there was a pretty clever/esoteric shabu shabu joke in there.

Memories of the Future is published by Monolith Press, which was founded by Wheaton “on the idea that publication should not be limited by opportunity.” I’m not sure, therefore, whether anyone else ever read and edited the book before its release. There are a few instances where an incorrect but not misspelled word is used—“marshal arts” or “when Picard apologies or something”—and a lot of inconsistency in the treatment of words that come after colons (don’t capitalize them unless they’re proper nouns!). Also, the header for each episode is accompanied by some grey bars with a lot of random numbers on them. I could never figure out whether they have any significance; perhaps they’re supposed to look like an Enterprise computer display or something? In any case, some tighter editorial controls would’ve provided a bit more polish.

(Update: After realizing that the numbers never go above 26, I tried my hand at cryptanalysis. All I could figure out is that the letters for the Introduction spell “Wesley.” Beyond that, it’s either gibberish or a code too complex for a lazy person like me to bother with.)

Ultimately, while I had some complaints I still wished I had volume two immediately on hand after finishing this one and I wish, too, that Wheaton will continue beyond the first season. While he is occasionally (and rightly) critical of some aspects of the show, his perspective is undeniably interesting and, above all, affectionate.

Additional reviews of the first volume of Memories of the Future can be found at Triple Take.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris: B-

holidaysFrom the front flap:
Holidays on Ice collects six of David Sedaris’s most profound Christmas stories into one slender volume perfect for use as an emergency coaster or ice scraper. This drinking man’s companion can be enjoyed by the warmth of a raging fire, in the glow of a brilliantly decorated tree, or even in the backseat of a van or police car. It should be read with your eyes, felt with your heart, and heard only when spoken to. It should, in short, behave much like a book. And oh, what a book it is!

I’m not usually one for holiday-themed entertainment: I don’t voluntarily listen to Christmas music and, beloved classic or not, the thought of watching Ralphie pine yet again for his Red Ryder BB gun fills me with despair. And yet, who could resist the allure of a piece entitled “Dinah, the Christmas Whore”? Not me, surely!

Holidays on Ice collects six short works, three of which ( “SantaLand Diaries,” “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!,” and “Dinah, the Christmas Whore”) have been published before and three of which ( “Based Upon a True Story,” “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” and “Christmas Means Giving”) have not. Both “SantaLand” and “Dinah” take the form of nonfiction (see note) essays while the others are clearly fiction.

I’ve never actually read anything by Sedaris before, though I’ve heard him on NPR a time or two. Perhaps, then, it was a newbie’s mistake that I expected that these stories would be funny. Instead, most feature unpleasant people doing unpleasant things. I realize that sort of humor is popular with many, but it’s not something I personally find amusing. The worst offenders in this regard are the fiction works, like “Season’s Greetings,” in which the shrill narrator’s shrieking at her slutty new Vietnamese stepdaughter goes on interminably, or “Christmas Means Giving,” in which competitive and outrageously rich neighbors attempt to outdo each other in extravagant generosity. Some unpleasant types turn up in “SantaLand” and “Dinah,” though their stays are brief and much more tolerable.

That isn’t to say there are no laughs to be had at all. At his best, Sedaris possesses a talent for noting absurdity that jives nicely with my own sense of humor. I particularly like his self-deprecating account of his own youthful pretensions in “Dinah,” like how he thought that by wearing black in protest of others’ holiday consumption he could somehow cause them to rethink their ways.

My very avoidance would set me apart and cause these people to question themselves in ways that would surely pain them. “Who are we?” they’d ask, plucking the ornaments off their trees. “What have we become? And why can’t we be more like that somber fellow who washes dishes down at the Piccadilly Cafeteria?”

Of the fiction works, my favorite is “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” in which a theatre critic savagely reviews several elementary school Christmas pageants. Here, rather than feeling like the extended rant of an unlikable person, it feels like the joke is on Thaddeus, who clearly is missing the point of these performances. This impression is aided by Sedaris’ expert imitation of a know-it-all columnist’s style; if this story were excerpted and anonymously posted somewhere I bet it’d fool many into believing it genuine.

While these six stories were hit or miss with me, I’m given to understand that this collection is not considered to be Sedaris’ best. I own a few more of his books, and will surely read them eventually. I’m sure I’ll encounter a few things to make me smile and a few observations to make me nod in recognition of a truth well stated, but I’m also confident there’ll be more of those unpleasant people whom I just simply don’t enjoy reading about. And that rather puts a damper on my enthusiasm.

Note: While I’m in partial agreement with the argument that Sedaris exaggerates too much for his essays to be rightly classified as nonfiction, I nonetheless think they’re nonfiction enough to merit inclusion in that category here. I only hope that the made-up bits are obvious enough that I never embarrassingly ascribe too much significance to them.

Underfoot in Show Business by Helene Hanff: A

underfootFrom the front flap:
“Each year, hundreds of stagestruck kids arrive in New York determined to crash the theatre… One in a thousand turns out to be Noel Coward. This book is about life among the other 999. By one of them.”
– Helene Hanff

In her spirited, witty and vastly entertaining memoir, Helene Hanff recalls her ingenuous attempts to crash Broadway in the early forties as one of “the other 999.”

From the joys of summer theatre and furnished rooms to being Seen at Sardi’s and weathering one more Theatre Guild flop, Miss Hanff recalls the rigors of crashing Broadway with warmth and generous humor. Her exuberant account of a misspent youth will hearten theatre hopefuls and entertain the large, devoted readership she has acquired through her subsequent works.

Helene Hanff’s memoir of her attempts to break into the threatre spans decades from the early ’40s to the early ’60s. Conforming to Flanagan’s Law, a theory advanced by a friend of hers that states, “If you can predict it, it doesn’t happen. In the theatre, no matter what happens to you, it’s unexpected,” Hanff’s career does not go as planned. It starts off well, with Hanff taking top prize in a contest, but soon sputters. Though she wants to be a playwright, and can create excellent characters and settings, she’s never been a fiction fan so her plots are always weak and her plays never sell. To make ends meet she takes a variety of part-time jobs, and eventually ends up writing for television. Just as she accepts that it’s time to give up on plays and focus on TV, all of the writing jobs for that medium move off to the West Coast and she’s left unemployed once again.

Hanff tells the story of her career trajectory with warmth and wit and, though I just used this adjective the other day and am hesitant to do so again, the result is nothing short of delightful. Interspersed with tales of her various odd jobs—including a memorable episode where she and an assistant have to alter 10,000 mimeographed press releases for Oklahoma! by hand when its creators decide it needs an exclamation point—are stories about the places she used to live (garrets with a communal kitchen and colorful neighbors), the free entertainment she and a friend used to enjoy (courtesy of a nifty trick of mingling in with the crowd at intermission), and snippets of wisdom gleaned from so many years in the business.

Toward the end, the narrative overlaps a little with 84, Charing Cross Road, probably the best known of Hanff’s works. At least one story shared with her English penpals is recounted in this book, too—about a dramatization of the life of Aesop and Rhodope—but it’s not tiresome by any means. It’s more like your friend telling you an amusing story and not quite remembering they’ve told you already, but it’s fun and you like them, so you play along and don’t interrupt.

And speaking of not interrupting, this book is so captivating that I very nearly read it in one sitting and would have if not for the pesky necessity of going to bed at a reasonable hour. A special thanks to MJ for the recommendation!

The Happiest Days of Our Lives by Wil Wheaton: B+

happiest-daysFrom the back cover:
Readers of Wil Wheaton’s website know that he is a masterful teller of elegant stories about his life. Building on the critical success of Dancing Barefoot and Just a Geek, he has collected more of his own favorite stories in his third book, The Happiest Days of Our Lives. These are the stories Wil loves to tell, because they are the closest to his heart: stories about being a huge geek, passing his geeky hobbies and values along to his own children, and painting, as vividly as possible, what it meant to grow up in the ’70s and come of age in the ’80s as part of the video game/D&D/BBS/Star Wars figures generation.

In all of these tales, Wheaton brings the reader into the raw heart of the story, holding nothing back, and you are invited to join him on a journey through The Happiest Days of Our Lives.

The Happiest Days of Our Lives, a collection of stories by actor, writer, and blogger Wil Wheaton, focuses primarily on childhood and adolescent memories as viewed through the nostalgic lens of an adult and experienced parent. In “Blue Light Special,” for example, Wil tells the amusing story of how he ended up with a Lando Calrissian action figure. “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Geek” charts his entry into the world of gaming. And in “The Butterfly Tree,” he recounts the story of how he got in trouble at school for the first time, and manages to perfectly capture the painful moment when a child first discovers the fallibility of adults, as his teacher punishes him unfairly and his parents fail to defend him. Having had a similar experience myself once (though, happily, with much parental defense), I thought he nailed the feeling precisely.

I’m not a regular reader of Wil’s blog, so nearly all of this material was new to me. Sometimes this worked to my detriment, though, as there were references to other stories—one about a homemade Star Wars toy and the other an in-joke shared between Wil and Jonathan Frakes—that I just didn’t get. Still, growing up in the ’80s myself, there was much with which I identified, like watching Poltergeist and being scared silly (“Close Your Eyes and Then It’s Past”) or forever being tempted to equate raspberry sorbet with a certain song by Prince (“Exactly What I Wanted”).

I also enjoyed stories like “Suddenly It’s Tomorrow,” which is about Wil’s desire need to spend more time with his family. The story that resonated with me the most, though, was “Let Go – A Requiem for Felix the Bear.” This story, about the efforts of Wil and his wife to prolong the life of a sick and beloved kitty, had me in tears. It also made me love Wil quite a lot, not only for the efforts he made to help Felix, but for how profoundly affected he was by his death.

There’s not much negative to say about the collection. A couple of the stories aren’t really stories, but are more just snapshots of recollections, like “Beyond the Rim of the Starlight,” which is about Wil’s experiences attending Star Trek conventions, and “My Mind is Filled with Silvery Star,” in which Wil puts the ’80s music on his iPod on shuffle and writes about the memories that each song conjures up. While I preferred the tales with linear narratives, I still found both pieces to be entertaining. The only real sour note is the final story, “Lying in Odessa,” which has nothing to do with being a geek or being a parent. Instead, Wil writes about an illegal poker tournament that he participated in. Since I am not a poker aficionado, there were many terms that I didn’t understand and I questioned the choice to end with this story and not one of the warm and fuzzy “family togetherness” ones.

I’m not sure the experience of reading The Happiest Days of Our Lives will convert me into a faithful blog-reader, but it has at least sparked an interest in reading Wil’s other books one of these days.

Additional reviews of The Happiest Days of Our Lives can be found at Triple Take.

Sayonara, Mr. Fatty!: A Geek’s Diet Memoir by Toshio Okada: B

sayonara125When Toshio Okada, co-founder of Gainax (Neon Genesis Evangelion, among others) and Japanese pop culture expert, began to wonder exactly why he was so overweight, he decided to analyze his eating patterns in the hopes of discovering an explanation. What he found was that the simple act of recording what he ate helped him to lose weight. This revelation led to the development of his own method, which he calls the Recording Diet. In Sayonara, Mr. Fatty!, Okada describes the six stages of the Recording Diet while incorporating advice and anecdotes from his personal weight loss journey.

Just to be clear about things, even though this book is written by a renowned otaku, it is still 99.99% about his experiences losing 110 pounds in a year. The references to Japanese pop culture are scant and confined to sentences like, “If I had the time to exercise, I’d rather use it to read manga and watch anime.” For the most part, it’s a lot like any other self-help book. There are some sections that tell you things you already know (“It can be a mistake to follow a celebrity’s style without considering whether it suits you”) and others devoted to proving why the Recording Diet is superior to various other ways to achieve weight loss. Okada tries to make his method sound fun and easy, touting its applicability for “people who are not good at exercise, who are sedentary and fond of reading books and thinking deeply.”

As a geek who has dieted off and on for years, I did indeed find some of Okada’s insights useful—I particularly like how he differentiates between people who eat because the brain desires the experience (D-types) and those who eat only when the body needs sustenance (N-types)—and can see myself recalling them in future. Some of his advice was a bit confusing, however. At one point he says, “Don’t exercise while you’re losing weight!” only to later write, “Exercise is another recommendation.” I think the difference depends on what stage of the diet one happens to be in at the time, but these boundaries are not always clearly delineated. One might think one is in the final stage (Orbit), for example, but upon testing one’s ability to quit eating a favorite dish when the body signals fullness, find that one is actually still a couple of stages back (Cruising).

The bottom line: if you’re a geek who’s looking for a self-help diet book to which you might relate, then Sayonara, Mr. Fatty! may be for you. If you just want to read about a guy who helped introduce the world to Shinji Ikari and Nerv, however, you’ll probably be disappointed.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Sixpence House by Paul Collins: B+

From the book jacket:
Paul Collins and his family abandoned the hills of San Francisco to move to the Welsh countryside—to move, in fact, to the little cobblestone village of Hay-on-Wye, the “Town of Books,” boasting 1,500 inhabitants… and forty bookstores. Antiquarian bookstores, no less.

Inviting readers into a sanctuary for book lovers, and guiding us through the production of the author’s own first book, Sixpence House is a wonderfully engaging meditation on what books mean to us, and how their meaning can resonate long after they have been abandoned by their public.

Books, Britain, and buildings are three of my favorite topics, and when one tosses them together in one book, odds are that I’m going to like it. Even if, as in the case of Sixpence House, there is no real plot to speak of. Seriously, this family moves to Wales, tries to buy a house, fails, then moves back to the United States. Despite the title making one think that they’ll be buying and renovating a particular house, that never actually comes to pass.

I couldn’t really get into the book at first, because the style of writing is incredibly tangential. Collins will be relating a story in which he has just gotten off the Tube in London, and will suddenly switch to a description of a rotunda built in San Francisco in 1915. He never really stops doing things like this, but I got used to the side trips and even came to enjoy them.

On books—Collins very clearly loves them, and delights in quoting passages from obscure publications. I enjoyed all of the excerpts from these forgotten tomes and felt a momentary stirring of desire to hunt for such abandoned treasures myself. He also talks a good deal about the capacity of books to live on far beyond the span of their author, leading to different reflections upon mortality. That’s not a subject I prefer to dwell on, but he handles the topic thoughtfully, and with a practical bent seemingly influenced by the practices of the Brits themselves.

On Britain—More than any other source, Sixpence House has provided me a good idea of what life in Britain can really be like to one coming from an American perspective. Some things are better—television and print media assume a far greater level of consumer intellect than their American equivalents, for example—and some worse, like the lack of right to privacy laws in the UK. My one complaint is that sometimes I couldn’t be sure what was actually true and what was just dry humor. For instance, when I looked up a thoroughly silly-sounding practice called gazumping, I found that it was genuine, but I’m still about 95% sure that a comment about Welsh pronunciation isn’t.

On buildings—now I understand why some people I have known who tried to move to the UK have ended up returning to America! I could never grasp it before; it seemed such a wonderful place! But it turns out there are no agents to look after the buyer during the sale of a property, no contract to keep all of your work from being for naught, and no requirement for the seller to share information about the property, forcing the seller to pay for an expensive survey for any house in which they might be interested. To an American, this seems crazy!

Collins does an excellent job in describing all of the quaint old buildings around Hay, as well as the village and its denizens. I appreciated that he and his wife wanted a home with a lot of history, but understood completely when they eventually gave up their search after being stymied by outrageous asking prices, weird stipulations about proceeds from land sales, and daunting renovations. My desire to visit the UK is as strong as it ever was, but I’m also left with the impression that I really wouldn’t want to live there. Even if their TV is awesome.

Collins has written several other works of nonfiction, including one called Banvard’s Folly (subtitled Thirteen Tales of People That Didn’t Change the World) that gets mentioned a good bit in this narrative. It seems he also is instrumental in bringing forth some of the lost gems that he loves so much, like English as She is Spoke, a phrasebook written by men who didn’t actually speak English. I hope to read both of these at some point, if the library is successful in acquiring them on my behalf.

Additional reviews of Sixpence House can be found at Triple Take.

Between Good and Evil by Roger L. Depue and Susan Schindehette: B

From the back cover:
No one gets closer to evil than a criminal profiler, trained to penetrate the hearts and minds of society’s most vicious psychopaths. And no one is a more towering figure in the world of criminal profilers than Roger L. Depue. Chief of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit at a time when its innovative work first came to prominence, he headed a renowned team of mind hunters. In a subbasement sixty feet under the Academy gun vault in Quantico, he broke new ground with analytical techniques and training programs that are still used today. After retiring from the FBI, he founded an elite forensics group that consulted on high-profile cases.

But coming face-to-face with the darkest deeds human beings are capable of took a horrific toll. After suffering a devastating personal loss, Depue, on the brink of despair, walked away from the outside world and joined a seminary. And it was there, while counseling maximum security inmates, that he rediscovered the capacity for goodness in people, and made the decision to return to the world to resume his work.

Here is Depue’s extraordinary personal account, from growing up as a police officer’s son to tracking down some of today’s most brutal murderers. With its harrowing descriptions of human depravity and passionate call to fight against evil, Between Good and Evil is both a riveting dispatch from the front lines of a war against human predators… and the powerful story of one man’s journey between darkness and redemption.

Between Good and Evil was pretty good, but wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. Reading over the back cover blurb again, I see that it’s not at all deceptive; I simply got the wrong impression.

The book chronicled Depue’s professional career, including the development of the FBI Behavioral Science Unit. Depue wrote of the struggle to get profiling accepted as a legitimate investigative technique and how it proved its worth time and time again. Quite a few specific cases were featured as were the research efforts (primarily interviewing the notorious perpetrators of heinous crimes) the agents undertook in order to ensure they could devise the best possible profile. Without a doubt, profiling is useful, but I wanted to see how it is done.

For example, in one case, the Unit concluded that a kidnapper likely drove a conversative family vehicle, a sedan or station wagon, four years of age or older. It turned out they were right, but I wanted to know what about the crime made them come to that conclusion! There was only one such detailed analysis included—of the ransom note in the Jon Benet Ramsey case—and I would’ve liked more examples.

As a memoir, it was pretty interesting, though Depue seemed to take special pride in his high school fighting prowess and was fond of anecdotes wherein he got to say something tough and intimidating to somebody. There were plenty of gruesome crime details, too, including some things that I had never imagined and will probably never forget. The chapter on the death of Depue’s wife was affecting, but a some of the religious stuff near the end was a bit much.

All in all, Between Good and Evil functions better as a life story than it does as an introduction to the actual task of criminal profiling.