Kate’s Reviews: “Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman”

34506909Book: “Is This Guy For Real?: The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman” by Box Brown

Publishing Info: First Second, February 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: Comedian and performer Andy Kaufman’s resume was impressive—a popular role on the beloved sitcom Taxi, a high-profile stand-up career, and a surprisingly successful stint in professional wrestling. Although he was by all accounts a sensitive and thoughtful person, he’s ironically best remembered for his various contemptible personas, which were so committed and so convincing that all but his closest family and friends were completely taken in.

Why would someone so gentle-natured and sensitive build an entire career seeking the hatred of his audience? What drives a performer to solicit that reaction? With the same nuance and sympathy with which he approached Andre the Giant in his 2014 biography, graphic novelist Box Brown takes on the complex and often hilarious life of Andy Kaufman.

Review: One of my favorite memories of going down to Iowa to visit my grandparents was what my sister and I would do after the rest of the house had gone to bed. We would lie on the pull out couch turned bed, turn on the TV (low so as to not disturb anyone), and watch “Nick at Nite” well into the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes our Mom would watch with us at least for a short while, and I remember the night that I first saw Andy Kaufman. “Taxi” was up next on the schedule, and my Mom was visibly excited for it. When an awkward mechanic came on screen and spoke in a strange and high pitched voice, she said to me “That’s Latke. He’s hilarious.” And he was. As I got older I learned a bit more about Andy Kaufman, his beloved characters as well as his not so beloved characters, and I wasn’t totally sure of what to think of him. I knew I thought he was funny. But I also knew I thought he was nuts. “Is This Guy For Real?” is a graphic biography that examines both aspects of Kaufman, from his childhood years until his untimely death from lung cancer.

Brown is probably most known for his graphic biography about Andre the Giant, and this book is kind of a similar set up: it tries to strip down the affectations and public persona that Kaufman had, and show what drove him. It mainly focuses on his wrestling career, in which he first started wrestling women and then eventually started a ‘feud’ with Jerry Lawler, a popular Tennessee wrestler. Kaufman was VERY MUCH a heel, or a villain character, saying sexist shit about women and playing up the ‘Hollywood Elitist’ persona that really pissed off the wrestling fandom, especially those in Tennessee. To the public he was a complete jerk who harassed and abused people for a laugh. It was kind of a pattern in a way, as one of his characters, Tony Clifton the obnoxious lounge singer, was also excessively cruel. But by all accounts from those he was closest to, this was not who he was in his personal life. I think that Brown does a good job of framing his performance art personality by juxtaposing his love for transcendental meditation and yoga. The other ‘well known’ take on Kaufman’s life is the movie “Man on the Moon”, a Milos Foreman biographical story starring Jim Carrey. “Is This Guy For Real” almost feels a bit more subdued, as it is less about the conflict that Kaufman created with his antics, and more about the drive and creativity behind it. When you see the thought process and the need to entertain and create that was behind it, it puts Kaufman in a new light, and makes his untimely death all the more poignant.

What struck me about this book is that it’s main focus is on Kaufman’s wrestling career, which was controversial in many ways. I actually had no idea that his ‘feud’ with Lawler went on for as long as it did, and that they had been hyping each other up from the beginning and all the way up until Kaufman’s illness. We got to see how Lawler started out as well, and how even though he was a heel himself he and Kaufman crafted a role switch for him. I, too, had no clue that Kaufman was so engrossed in wrestling that it probably could have become a second career for him had he not become ill. It doesn’t focus as much on his time on “Taxi”, nor does it touch on the fact he was banned from SNL, or that he had a very public meltdown on the show “Fridays” (the veracity of this meltdown is disputed, however: some say that it was all planned). This book definitely takes the position that while a lot of people, Lawler included, didn’t really ‘get’ Kaufman’s motivations and performances, or his need to perform in such a way, he was ultimately far more self aware and grounded than his reputation would imply, and his relationship with Lawler is evidence of this. I don’t know how I feel about Brown leaving that more controversial stuff out, though. It felt a little dishonest to omit these abrasive and unpleasant facts about him.

I do have to wonder, though, how much of that is actually the case. In the last few pages of this book Brown refers to a conversation he had with Michael Kaufman, Andy’s brother, in which Michael says that he didn’t like “Man on the Moon” because it portrayed Andy as a self centered buffoon who was lost in his own performances, and he didn’t agree with that. I do concede that that film, as much as I like it, definitely had to pull out a narrative of conflict, and that’s a popular angle to take when talking about Kaufman. But Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s comedic partner and close friend, had a HUGE hand in that movie. It kind of hits home that perhaps neither Zmuda NOR Michael really had a grasp on who Kaufman was at his heart. There was also one little ‘fun fact’ that I had a problem with, and it’s only because I have deep feelings about it. Brown says that none of Kaufman’s “Taxi” co-stars were at his funeral, and that’s not true. While most of them didn’t go, thinking he was playing a cruel joke on them, Carol Kane did attend. She played opposite Kaufman on the show, and by all accounts they got along very well. So to erase her from his life like that, even if it was just a side note to make a point about how misunderstood he was, felt wrong.

The artwork is pretty cool too! While Brown’s style is kind of simplistic in some ways, I think that it’s very unique, and just kind of adds to the whimsy that is already abundant.

1500x1500_96dcc08b3013d180adaa516621ab732e61407b5030fb78cf8cad2d7c
(source)

All in all, “Is This Guy For Real?” was an enjoyable graphic biography about an entertainer that I really love. I feel like I learned more about him, and that perhaps I understand him a little bit better. Maybe. Because who knows with Andy Kaufman?

Rating 8: A poignant and well told biography about one of the strangest comedians of the 20th Century. While it left out some of his more notorious moments, it reveals a side that tends to get lost.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Is This Guy For Real?” is still new and not on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think it would fit in on “Non-Fiction Comics and Graphic Novels”, and “Best Eccentric Characters”.

Find “Is This Guy For Real?” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Disaster Artist”

17404078Book: “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside “The Room”, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” by Greg Sestero, Tom Bissell

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster, October 2013

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it on audiobook!

Book Description: From the actor who lived through the most improbable Hollywood success story, with an award-winning narrative nonfiction writer, comes the inspiring, fascinating and laugh-out-loud story of a mysteriously wealthy outsider who sundered every road block in the Hollywood system to achieve success on his own terms—the making of The Room, “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” (Entertainment Weekly).

In 2003, an independent film called The Room—written, produced, directed, and starring a very rich social misfit of indeterminate age and origin named Tommy Wiseau—made its disastrous debut in Los Angeles. Described by one reviewer as “like getting stabbed in the head,” the $6 million film earned a grand total of $1,800 at the box office and closed after two weeks. Now in its tenth anniversary year, The Room is an international phenomenon to rival The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Thousands of fans wait in line for hours to attend screenings complete with costumes, audience rituals, merchandising, and thousands of plastic spoons.

Readers need not have seen The Room to appreciate its costar Greg Sestero’s account of how Tommy Wiseau defied every law of artistry, business, and interpersonal relationships to achieve the dream only he could love. While it does unravel mysteries for fans, The Disaster Artist is more than just an hilarious story about cinematic hubris: It is ultimately a surprisingly inspiring tour de force that reads like a page-turning novel, an open-hearted portrait of a supremely enigmatic man who will capture your heart.

Review: As a bad movie connoisseur, it will probably come as a huge surprise to people that I have not actually seen “The Room” in it’s entirety. My first experience with “The Room” was while at a midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, as they were advertising a special screening of this piece of cinematic napalm. I’ve seen plenty of clips online. I’ve seen lots of references to it, gifs, parodies. And I had heard of the book “The Disaster Artist”, written by Greg Sestero. Sestero was one of the stars in the movie, and decided to write a memoir about the making of it, as well of his friendship with Tommy Wiseau, the man behind the film. With the new movie out based on this book, I felt that before I saw it, I needed to read the original memoir to get the full effect. So I got my hands on the audiobook, read by Sestero himself.

And it was more surreal than I ever could have imagined in the history of surrealness.

giphy12
No, Mark, that’s a compliment!! (source)

Okay, for the super uninitiated, “The Room” is a nonsensical, poorly written, poorly directed, poorly acted vanity project written, directed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau. I would say go watch it, but… HERE, see some scenes for yourself. Greg Sestero, who plays Mark in the movie, had known Wiseau for some time before he was emotionally manipulated asked to appear in the film by him. The memoir he’s written takes two different timelines and juxtaposes them into the narrative: the actual making of “The Room”, and his strange friendship with Wiseau, from it’s inception in an acting class to the moment Wiseau decided he was going to make his own movie after success eluded him. I had heard plenty of stories about the bizarre antics of Tommy Wiseau on and off the set, but none of prepared me for the ‘what the FUCK’-ness that was this memoir. I walked away from it thinking that either Sestero has the patience of a saint, or has found himself totally within the clutches of an incredibly toxic friendship and doesn’t know up from down anymore. I really hope it’s the former.

So many of the stories in this book read like they should be fiction, and yet I have no doubt in my mind that they absolutely occurred the way that Sestero said they did. They are just too outlandish and random to have not. Be it a moment where Wiseau reads a key code to Sestero telling him it’s very complicated, only for it to be ‘1234’ (and written down because Wiseau ‘can never remember it’), to descriptions of Sestero coming home to find Wiseau hanging upside down from a pull up bar and just kind of lingering in stasis, to Wiseau telling Sestero to meet him in downtown San Francisco, only to surprise him by saying they are running The Bay to Breakers Race THAT VERY MOMENT (poor Sestero was only wearing sandals), the anecdotes are stranger than fiction. And laugh out loud funny. I had it on my phone as I was setting up for work one morning, and one of my coworkers needed to know why I was laughing so hard. And, of course, the descriptions of the antics on the set itself were mind boggling in their hilarity. Wiseau would take hours upon hours to get a seven second line correct; he would perform his suicide scene, and then writhe around and moan in spite of the fact his character had just eaten a gun; he would insist upon green screens for simple shots that end up looking out of place at best, ridiculous at worst. And he had a knack for getting the absolute worst performances from his players. In the moment it had to be absolutely maddening; but Sestero tells it in such a way that the humor is always there, and it is entertaining as hell.

giphy14
What a story indeed. (source)

But along with that, Sestero does a great job of capturing the darker and more poignant sides to Wiseau and their complicated friendship. Behind the oddities and eccentricities, there is definitely a dark side to Tommy, one that is hard to completely understand, if only because he is so private with his past and his personal life. He is desperate for friends, he is desperate to be loved and admired, and he latches onto Sestero out of what appears to be sheer loneliness. Unfortunately, like most of the time, this makes for a very tempestuous, and unhealthy, friendship. Wiseau could switch from being supportive and whimsical, to threatening and abusive should he think that Sestero, or anyone, was crossing him. Hell, “The Room” itself seems to be a reflection of how Wiseau sees himself in the world, as the one truly pure person who is taken advantage of by the people he loves. Wiseau insisted that Sestero play Mark, the best friend of Johnny (played by Wiseau), who betrays Johnny by having an affair with Lisa, Johnny’s fiancee. When you look at that in the context of a deep resentment that Wiseau potentially had for Sestero due to his perceived ‘success’ in Hollywood pre-“The Room” (booking a few roles here and there is success in this case), the casting makes perfect sense. There were moments where I felt deeply uncomfortable about the toxic nature of their friendship, as in some ways it hit a nerve. I’ve been in Sestero’s shoes before, as I’ve been in the position of having a friend who is so completely draining and yet you don’t know how to extricate yourself from them. One review I read thought that Sestero either had to be lying, or downplaying his own ‘leech’ status to Tommy (who provided him with an apartment at a reduced rate), because how could he continue to put up with the abusive nature of their friendship for so long if there wasn’t something in it for him? To that reviewer, I say that it is far more realistic than one would think. To Sestero’s credit, this could have been a complete hatchet job towards an unstable and narcissistic asshole. But instead, by giving some insight into what sort of (potential) experiences Wiseau went through in his early life, he writes of him in such a way that while you are repelled by some of his actions, you also understand why he acts in certain ways. I don’t feel that Sestero ever makes excuses for it, either, as he is VERY clear when Wiseau goes over the line against him and others. But he’s made peace with this relationship, and shows the good with the bad.

giphy13
Patience. Of. A. Saint. (source)

As mentioned previously, I listened to this book, and Sestero reads it himself. I HIGHLY recommend it. At first he sounded a little bit wooden and I wasn’t totally sure… but the moment that he started imitating Wiseau, well, that sold it for me. It’s pretty much the perfect imitation as only a friend can do.

“The Disaster Artist” was easily one of the most bizarre and entertaining books that I’ve read. It says a lot about the need for acceptance, the desperation for fame, and how sometimes being just off the wall wacko can pay off, even if it’s in ways you never intended.

Rating 10: A hilarious, outlandish, and at times incredibly pathos ridden and disturbing romp about dreaming of stardom, acceptance, and success… no matter how you define it or achieve it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Disaster Artist” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books ABOUT Movies”, and “Best Eccentric Characters”.

Find “The Disaster Artist” at your library using WorldCat! And here is the link to the Audiobook version because TRUST ME.

Book Club Review: “Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries”

30781490We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for bookclub. We’ll also post the next book coming up in bookclub. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own bookclub!

Book: “Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries” by Kory Stamper

Publishing Info: Pantheon Books, March 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 400s (Language)

Book Description: Do you have strong feelings about the word “irregardless”? Have you ever tried to define the word “is”? This account of how dictionaries are made is for you word mavens. 

Many of us take dictionaries for granted, and few may realize that the process of writing dictionaries is, in fact, as lively and dynamic as language itself. With sharp wit and irreverence, Kory Stamper cracks open the complex, obsessive world of lexicography, from the agonizing decisions about what to define and how to do it, to the knotty questions of usage in an ever-changing language. She explains why small words are the most difficult to define, how it can take nine months to define a single word, and how our biases about language and pronunciation can have tremendous social influence. And along the way, she reveals little-known surprises–for example, the fact that “OMG” was first used in a letter to Winston Churchill in 1917.

Word by Word brings to life the hallowed halls (and highly idiosyncratic cubicles) of Merriam-Webster, a startlingly rich world inhabited by quirky and erudite individuals who quietly shape the way we communicate.

Kate’s Thoughts

So it will surprise no one here that I love to read. What may surprise people is that even though I love reading and the words that ultimately come with it, I don’t have much interest in the history or said words. When this was picked for book club, I will totally own up to the fact that I basically groaned internally. I have a hard enough time with non fiction as it is (unless it’s narrative, memoir, or true crime), so I worried that this would be a terribly boring slog to get through. The good news is that I wasn’t totally correct in this. The bad news is, like the scorpion in that old folktale, it’s in my nature to have a hard time with this kind of book no matter how engaging it is.

But I’m going to focus mostly on the good since the bad isn’t any fault of Stamper’s. “Word By Word” was a well done, and at times quite funny, overview of what it’s like to work at Merriam-Webster, and the intricacies that go into adding words to and defining words for a dictionary. I guess that until I read this book it never occurred to me that there would be questions and consistently changing definitions to words, or that sometimes it can take months to settle on a most representative definition. Stamper not only talks about what it’s like to work at Merriam-Webster in this capacity, she also talks about how people like her have to take so many different variables into account just to function in the best way possible. For some, some of the most interesting concepts were focused on how society perceives dictionaries, and how they actually are supposed to function. Within this was the authority myth, in that if a word is defined one way in the dictionary, this is the bottom line because the dictionary said so. Stamper points out that this just isn’t the case; dictionaries are not supposed to be authorities on definitions, they are merely there to record and relay these definitions. Language is always changing, and therefore the meanings of words are changing too.

My reservations and hesitations about this book (aka why it was a slog) was going back to my nature: I am very picky about my non fiction. I merely want to reiterate that for my ultimate rating, because it was based on form, not substance. This book also gave our book club a LOT to talk about, which was really, really excellent. So while “Word By Word” wasn’t really my cup of tea, I can see it being very appealing to a lot of people who aren’t me.

Serena’s Thoughts

As evidenced by the content of this blog, neither Kate or I are big nonfiction readers. If anything, Kate is more of a nonfiction reader than I am, and as seen in her thoughts above, she’s still not that into it. At least she has true crime to back her up as not completely stuck in the “fiction only” section that I am. I don’t think I’ve reviewed a single nonficton book on this blog. I don’t say this out of pride or anything. I really wish I liked nonfiction more than I do. There are a few exceptions to this, but usually it’s when books are thrust upon me my trusted friends and family. So, while I would never have picked up this book on my own, I’m so glad that our fellow bookclub librarian, Katie, recommended it! I found myself very much enjoying it, and while it isn’t changing my mind on nonfiction as a whole, that’s too big of an ask for any book.

I’ll also confess that I didn’t read this book in the traditional front-to-back method, and I really think this is one of the reasons I enjoyed it more than I would have otherwise. Instead, I picked a chapter here and a chapter there, skipping forward and backward through the book based on my interests. For example, I started with the “irregardless” chapter, because, yes, that word and all the controversy around it does intrigue me! From there, I found myself in a chapter document acronyms and how rarely the much bandied explanations for words’ origins having to do with acronyms is true. We’ve all probably heard of some acronym for the “f” word, for example. The author does an excellent job exploring why acronyms are so rarely involved with a word’s definition.

As I read, I mostly found myself gather ammo for word-related conversations. As a librarian and book lover, these are the exact sorts of disagreements and discussions that I regularly find myself in, and I loved getting some more detailed background knowledge on my side going forward. As Kate said, for this reason, I’m sure, our bookclub probably had more to say with regards to this book than we’ve had for many other books recently. In this way, this book is an excellent choice for other bookclubs out there. Especially for those that have members who may not be totally bought into nonfiction. I recommend my reading strategy, specifically, for those folks. I think I had an easier time than Kate just because of this. By hopping around, picking it up to read a chapter here and a chapter there, I never had to confront the general dismay about the long slog ahead that results from starting in the beginning, especially starting with a non-enthralled position.

I also really think that had I not found my calling as a librarian that working on a dictionary like this like may have been another dream job. I had an assignment in a publishing class back in undergrad to create an index for a book, and similar to that, dictionary work seems appealing nit-picky and focused on organization. I also would have had a lot of fun writing snarky answers to the people who wrote in with complaints about the inclusion of the word “irregardless” in the dictionary. Really, could I just have that job? Answering dictionary-related complaint mail?

Kate’s Rating 6: An enlightening examination of how dictionaries are compiled and the role they play, as well as fascinating questions raised about language in modern society. It was a bit of a dry read for me at times, but overall a worthwhile one.

Serena’s Rating 8: I was shocked by how much I enjoyed this! There was a lot of history of words and details of dictionary work that I didn’t know, and by reading it one chapter at a time I was able to hold off my own non-fiction antipathy.

Book Club Questions

  1. Were you surprised about anything about this job? Would you want it?
  2. Grammar snobs: heroes or obnoxious?
  3. What do you think about the social justice implications of language/dialects?
  4. Does the history of words, or etymology, interest you? Why or why not?
  5. What words do you hope get added to future dictionaries?

Reader’s Advisory

“Word For Word: The Secret History of Dictionaries” is on the Goodreads lists “Microhistory: Social Histories of Just One Thing”, and “Best Non-Fiction Books About Books and Reading”.

Find “Word For Word: The Secret History of Dictionaries” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “The Best We Could Do”

29936927Book: “The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui

Publishing Info: Abrams Books, March 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.
 
At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.
 
In what Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “a book to break your heart and heal it,” The Best We Could Do brings to life Thi Bui’s journey of understanding, and provides inspiration to all of those who search for a better future while longing for a simpler past.

Review: Stories of refugees and immigration are incredibly relevant these days. Between certain world leaders trying to impose travel bans, to the threats of building a wall all along a border, to the devastating refugee crisis being seen due to instability in Syria, the very thought of people finding a safe place to live, while leaving their home behind, has become incredibly politicized. When I first heard about “The Best We Could Do”, I knew that I needed to immediately get it on my request list so that I could read it as soon as it was available to me. It’s heartening to see that graphic novels are becoming more and more used to tell personal stories, and a story as personal as this one was only bolstered by the imagery that we found on the page. Oh boy was this a wonderful book.

And a very sad book as well. Thi Bui was born in Vietnam, just around the time that the Vietnam War was starting to wind down. Her family history is intwined within the stark differences in the Vietnamese society up to and during the war, as her mother was from the bourgeois class and her father was decidedly less well off. But this story isn’t just about a family trying to escape a violent and unsafe situation; it is also about a family that is forever affected by society around it, and a family trying to fit in in a new place that is completely new and different to them. By giving the context of her mother’s background, her father’s background, and the culture and society of Vietnam during their childhoods and her childhood as well, we get a story that is tragic, hopeful, devastating, and important all at once. She also does a very good job of showing how Western Imperialism and Colonialism, of course, had a large effect on how Vietnam dealt with a cultural conflict of the North versus the South. I really appreciated that she pointed out that for people in America during the war (those fighting it aside), it was more of a concept and something to support or speak out against. But for the Vietnamese, it was the life they were living every day, and that somehow kind of got lost in the narrative.

I also really liked the stories of her family, as imperfect and in some ways dysfunctional as it was. She has a very conflicted opinion of both her parents. Her father wasn’t a very good parent to her, and he wasn’t a very good husband to her mother either. But seeing his childhood that was filled with turmoil, poverty, instability, and broken family ties, we can completely understand why he turned into the man he became. We also see that her mother was in many ways a remarkable person who had ambitions and dreams, but then found herself in a marriage she wasn’t completely invested in, and with a family that, as cherished as they were, put an end to her ambitions, ambitions that absolutely could have been backed up by talent and know how. Bui contrasts her own journey into motherhood against the story of her own mother, and it is incredibly effective and bittersweet.

I think that what I found most effective about this story is that it has a powerful message, but it is wrapped in a family memoir. I was expecting far more about the fall of South Vietnam, and the journey out under cloak of darkness. But while that certainly does play a part, it’s really a story about a family, and how having to move from one life to another, whole new life in a whole new place caused damage that never quite repaired. Trauma, war, and displacement isn’t something that is forgotten just because you move to a new place and start a new life, and sometimes adapting to that new life can be a challenge in and of itself.

The art in this book is absolutely gorgeous. It is fairly simple at first glance, but images pop out and really take the reader’s gaze into them. I loved the colors and I loved how detailed it was, even though it looks like it’s fairly straight forward.

bestwecoulddo_p030-031_734a3facdf080b764c8fc9de660144ac-nbcnews-ux-2880-1000
(source)

I really cannot recommend “The Best We Could Do” enough. In a time where I think empathy and understanding are sorely needed when it comes to trying to understand the refugee experience, Thi Bui’s memoir will engage readers and show them how much is lost and how much is sacrificed just to stay alive. This is an incredibly important book.

Rating 9: A personal and powerful memoir with gorgeous illustrations, “The Best We Could Do” is an important book with a relevant message to the issues of immigration and the refugee crisis we are seeing today.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Best We Could Do” is included on the following Goodreads lists: “Required Reading: Graphic Novels”, and “Vietnamese-American Novels and Memoirs”.

Find “The Best We Could Do” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “American Heiress”

28007903Book: “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst” by Jeffrey Toobin

Publishing Info: Doubleday, August 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Jeffrey Toobin, the definitive account of the kidnapping and trial that defined an insane era in American history

On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a senior in college and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a ragtag group of self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The already sensational story took the first of many incredible twists on April 3, when the group released a tape of Patty saying she had joined the SLA and had adopted the nom de guerre “Tania.”

The weird turns of the tale are truly astonishing — the Hearst family trying to secure Patty’s release by feeding all the people of Oakland and San Francisco for free; the photographs capturing “Tania” wielding a machine gun during a bank robbery; a cast of characters including everyone from Bill Walton to the Black Panthers to Ronald Reagan to F. Lee Bailey; the largest police shoot-out in American history; the first breaking news event to be broadcast live on television stations across the country; Patty’s year on the lam, running from authorities; and her circuslike trial, filled with theatrical courtroom confrontations and a dramatic last-minute reversal, after which the phrase “Stockholm syndrome” entered the lexicon.

The saga of Patty Hearst highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown. Based on more than a hundred interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, American Heiress thrillingly recounts the craziness of the times (there were an average of 1500 terrorist bombings a year in the early 1970s). Toobin portrays the lunacy of the half-baked radicals of the SLA and the toxic mix of sex, politics, and violence that swept up Patty Hearst; and recreates her melodramatic trial. American Heiress examines the life of a young woman who suffered an unimaginable trauma and then made the stunning decision to join her captors’ crusade. Or did she?

Review: I grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, and my usual stomping grounds were also in upper middle class areas. One of those neighborhoods was one that I could bike to, to hit the local Barnes and Noble, get a Starbucks mocha, and maybe go see a movie. This neighborhood also happened to be the same neighborhood that Sara Jane Olson, aka Kathy Soliah of the Symbionese Liberation Army, was found in after decades on the lam. My parents, both former anti-war protestors and pinko liberals of the 1960s and 70s, were pretty stunned, and when they explained who Soliah and the SLA were, I was stunned too. It was around this time that I was first introduced to the story of Patty Hearst, the heiress to the Hearst Fortune who was kidnapped by the SLA, only to join up with them. Sure, Hearst has kind of entered the pop cultural zeitgeist after all these years, that famous ‘Tania Picture’ pretty recognizable to even those who don’t necessarily know the significance of it. Hell, I had this picture on my bedroom door in high school (in vague protest of local gun legislation, but I digress). But outside of knowing the very basics of the case, I knew very little about Patty Hearst outside of this photograph. So when “American Heiress” ended up at my library, I decided it was time to learn more.

Toobin, a writer for the New Yorker, tells a comprehensive and detailed story not only about Patty and her kidnapping, but the crimes that the SLA committed before, during, and after, the trials and scrutiny that Patty faced, and the social and political climate of the United States in the 1970s. Gone were the idealistic days of the 1960s, and the 1970s was a time of much anger and frustration, as well as uncertainty. Nixon had recently been exposed for his corruption with the Watergate Scandal, gas prices were astronomical, and tensions were high. The Symbionese Liberation Army fancied itself a revolutionary group, but was less akin to peaceful protest and discourse, and more interested in bombs and murder (including the assassination of school superintendent Marcus Foster). Toobin does a great job of profiling our main players in the SLA, and his profiles are expansive and in depth. He also does a very good job of profiling Patty and her life pre-kidnapping. She was a student at Berkeley, engaged to an older man, and already feeling a little bit unappreciated and approaching a stagnancy. His descriptions of all these factors, as well as explanations of various societal events and views, all mix together to bring the reader right into this setting. I could almost feel the tension in the air.

What I also liked was that Toobin was pretty good at presenting a lot of this neutrally and seemingly without a conclusion he wanted the reader to draw. That may be in part to the fact that Patty Hearst didn’t have anything to do with this book, and declined to work with him on it. Because of that, Toobin has to work with other sources. He still managed to present a well thought out analysis of many factors within this crime. One of the biggest turns of the crime was the fact that Patty ‘joined’ her captors and began to commit crimes with them, releasing propaganda images and films denouncing her former life. She was eventually tried and convicted, in spite of the defense’s arguments that she was suffering from Stolkholm Syndrome. Eventually she was pardoned by President Carter. Toobin has really set out just to tell the story as it was, and how the SLA could have influenced her choices to cooperate. While the SLA didn’t have the competence to actually systematically brainwash her, it was, in a way, their short sightedness in their plan that may have led to her cooperation. They kidnapped her with no plan, and were constantly threatening her life and waffling with what to do with her. Because of this, through a need to survive and adapt, it could be argued that Hearst decided that to save herself, be it consciously or not, she needed to become one of them. But not once does Toobin go so far as to suggest that there is no responsibility there. After all, he also points out that she was angry with her parents for how they seemingly handled her kidnapping, and felt that they had turned their back on her. And by the end, I don’t really know where I fall in the argument. I jumped between ‘If she wasn’t a Hearst, or a white woman, or rich, she would have been in prison for far longer than eighteen months’, and ‘this poor girl was a complete victim and was completely railroaded!’. I still don’t really know where I stand, but I appreciate that. It shows that Toobin knows that it’s almost too complex for any solid answers to come out of it, especially after all this time. Honestly, it’s a combination of all those things. She was certainly a victim. But many victims don’t get the luxury of being seen as one.

The book is a little dense, so I hard a slower time getting through it, but in it’s density we get a whole lot of really interesting facts. I had no idea that so many familiar names were involved in this case. This runs the gamut from perhaps obvious people, like Ronald Reagan who was the Governor of California of the time (who said some pretty wretched things about poor minorities in relation to this case, surprise surprise), to the less obvious like Desi Arnaz (who was a family friend of Patty’s parents and whisked them away on a vacation to help them take their mind off of things). While sometimes this book could get a little off track with these things, I found it all pretty engrossing.

I think that true crime fans would like this book, but so would history buffs, and possibly even people interested in psychology and sociology. Patty Hearst is still around, making public appearances here and there, be it at the Westminster Dog Show or on TV. I don’t think anyone can really know everything about her outside of her, and she isn’t going to address it anytime soon. Nor should she have to. That said, Jeffrey Toobin does a great job of postulating and assessing various factors in her kidnapping fairly and in an insightful way. “American Heiress” was a good read, and I’m happy I know more about the poor girl whose chilling photo was on my bedroom door.

Rating 8: An in depth and interesting book about a notorious crime that never goes for sensation or salaciousness, “American Heiress” looks at the Patty Hearst Kidnapping through many lenses.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Heiress” has not been out long, and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. It can be found on “Fresh Air 2016”, but I think it would also fit in on “California True Crime”.

Find “American Heiress” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Altamont”

28435534Book: “Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, and Rock’s Darkest Day” by Joel Selvin

Publishing Info: Dey Street Books, August 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In this breathtaking cultural history filled with exclusive, never-before-revealed details, celebrated rock journalist Joel Selvin tells the definitive story of the Rolling Stones’ infamous Altamont concert in San Francisco, the disastrous historic event that marked the end of the idealistic 1960s.

In the annals of rock history, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, has long been seen as the distorted twin of Woodstock—the day that shattered the Sixties’ promise of peace and love when a concertgoer was killed by a member of the Hells Angels, the notorious biker club acting as security. While most people know of the events from the film Gimme Shelter, the whole story has remained buried in varied accounts, rumor, and myth—until now.

Altamont explores rock’s darkest day, a fiasco that began well before the climactic death of Meredith Hunter and continued beyond that infamous December night. Joel Selvin probes every aspect of the show—from the Stones’ hastily planned tour preceding the concert to the bad acid that swept through the audience to other deaths that also occurred that evening—to capture the full scope of the tragedy and its aftermath. He also provides an in-depth look at the Grateful Dead’s role in the events leading to Altamont, examining the band’s behind-the-scenes presence in both arranging the show and hiring the Hells Angels as security.

The product of twenty years of exhaustive research and dozens of interviews with many key players, including medical staff, Hells Angels members, the stage crew, and the musicians who were there, and featuring sixteen pages of color photos, Altamont is the ultimate account of the final event in rock’s formative and most turbulent decade.

Review: I’m going to take on a new responsibility here, guys! I’ve decided that I’m going to start reviewing the occasional non-fiction book as well as the other genres that I’m tackling. I don’t read non-fiction as much as fiction, but I have been reading enough pretty good stuff that I want to share it with you guys! So I’m starting this off with “Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, and Rock’s Darkest Day” by Joel Selvin. I went through a phase in high school where I listened to a lot of rock and roll from the mid to late 1960s, and went so far as to try and dress up like a hippie when I went to school (though admittedly I probably was more akin to an anti-war protester, as my Mom was my inspiration and I went off old photos of her as my template). Hell, my first ever concert was CSNY in 9th grade (also because of my folks). I had heard of the Altamont Concert in passing by my parents and the cultural impression it left, but didn’t know much beyond the Hells Angels stabbing Meredith Hunter to death while the Rolling Stones played. But that’s where Selvin comes in. Because he taught me quite a bit.

What I liked about this book is that it didn’t just cover the concert: it covered events that influenced the decision to have the concert, and the days leading up to it. I had not realized that by the time Altamont rolled around, The Rolling Stones were practically broke. I’ve never lived in a world where The Stones weren’t legends, so to think that at one point they were having monetary problems was mind blowing. They were still kind of living off the image of being a tour that packed in teenage girls, even though they had started to experiment with harder and edgier sounds like ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. They hadn’t toured in awhile, and the tour that Altamont was part of was going to be a quick effort to make some cash. I also hadn’t realized that Altamont was basically thrown together in a short period of time, and moved locations in even shorter time. The information that was provided in this book really opened my eyes to how the poor planning happened, and why everything was so haphazard.

Selvin also did a lot of good research about the people who attended this concert, from Meredith Hunter (the victim of the stabbing), to his girlfriend, to other people in the audience who were injured or killed during or right after Altamont. Everyone hears about Hunter’s death, but I had no idea that some drugged out people jumped into ravines, off bridges, and had terrible car accidents. Not only that, a member of Jefferson Airplane was knocked out by an Angel, and poor Stephen Stills was repeatedly gouged with a bike spoke by another one WHILE HE WAS ON STAGE SINGING.  It all seems like such a contrast to Woodstock, which has gone down in legend as a peace, love, rock and roll fest…when in reality, it sounds like it really just got lucky that it didn’t have the same awful stuff that Altamont had. Though admittedly, the Hells Angels played a part in that. But even the Angels Selvin really looked into. While it would certainly be easy to chalk it all up to these guys being violent thugs (and hey, they were), he also makes sure to point out that they too got pretty screwed over in a way here. They were not prepared to work security for such a huge show, and their own biker culture was in direct conflict with the druggie hippie culture, with neither side trying to understand the other (I too would be pissed if I had a motorcycle that a bunch of drugged out kids kept touching and knocking over).

My one qualm that I had with this book is that Selvin, while trying to ease blame off of the usual suspects and showing it as a perfect storm of nonsense, kind of throws the Stones under the bus a little bit. Do I think that the Stones were idiots to agree to this entire thing given how shoddily planned it was? Totally. Do I think that Jagger was disingenuous in his dealings with the press when asked about pricing for their tickets? Yes indeed. But Jagger was twenty six. Richards was twenty five. Grown men, yes, but young, and they had been surrounded by yes men for a few years whose jobs were to shield them from this stuff. It’s not fair to humanize the Hells Angels, who were stabbing, beating, and roughing up concertgoers, and then imply that the Stones were to blame for all the violence. I call bullshit on that. And I also wonder how witnessing this traumatic event, liability in question or not, affected the members of the band. After all, shortly thereafter at least Richards starting doing heavier drugs than he usually experimented with. It may not be connected but it did raise some questions.

Overall, this was an engrossing book that intrigued and disturbed me. I appreciated learning more about this notorious rock concert, and looking into how things can, and will, go wrong, to the point where there’s no turning back.

Rating 8: A very well researched book about a shitshow of a rock concert that has become notorious. Selvin gave more info than I expected, and told me many new things about Altamont, all messed up and disturbing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Altamont” is not on many lists yet, as it’s a fairly new book. But I think it would fit in on “Best Books on Rock and Roll”, and “The Rolling Stones”

Find “Altamont” at your library using WorldCat!.

 

Kate’s Review: The “March” Trilogy

Book: The “March” Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Top Shelf Production, August 2013 (1), January 2015 (2), and August 2016 (3).

Where Did I Get These Books: The library!

Book Description: Congressman John Lewis (GA-5) is an American icon, one of the key figures of the civil rights movement. His commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.

Now, to share his remarkable story with new generations, Lewis presents March, a graphic novel trilogy, in collaboration with co-writer Andrew Aydin and New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell (winner of the Eisner Award and LA Times Book Prize finalist for Swallow Me Whole).

March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement. 

Review: John Lewis, noted Civil Rights Activist and Georgia Congressman, can now add another fabulous moniker to his name: National Book Award Winner. On November 16th, 2016, he won the National Book Award (in the Young Readers category) for his book “March: Book 3”, the conclusion to his autobiographical graphic novel series about his time during the Civil Rights Movement. I caught his acceptance speech, and like many other people, cried deeply because I was so happy for him, and it clearly meant so so much on so many levels. By total coincidence, I had just read “March: Book 2” that morning. It had been awhile since I read “Book 1”, and was playing catch up. So then all I had to do was wait for “Book 3” to come in, vowing that once it did I was going to review the entire work as a whole. Because that’s what the “March” Trilogy is: it’s one large story about a remarkable man during a tumultuous time, a story about a movement that changed the nation and a movement that seems all the more relevant today. So I waited. And “Book 3” finally came in for me. So now, let me tell you about this fabulous series.

“March: Book 1” starts with Lewis’s childhood as the son of a sharecropper in rural Alabama and goes through the Lunch Counter Protests in Nashville. From a young age Lewis had a drive and a passion to lead and learn, his early aspirations of being a preacher evolving into the leadership and commitment that he put forth while in the Nashville Student Movement, and then into the broader Civil Rights Movement as a whole. “March: Book 2” talks about his time with the Freedom Riders and the violence they faced during their non violent protests and demonstrations, all leading up to the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. This book deals more with the growing aggression of the white citizens and government, as well as the Federal Government starting to waffle and teeter and struggle with the role that it should be playing. It’s also the book that shows Lewis and his own inner struggles, as while non violence is always the mission and the goal, his resentment and anger threatens to boil over. “March: Book 3” is the conclusion, and addresses Freedom Summer, Voting Rights, and Selma. And this story is told all within the frame of the Inauguration of President Barack Obama. Stunning framework, absolutely beautiful. There are multiple parallels between things in “Book 1” that come up again in “Book 3”, and there are themes that link all of them together not just with Lewis, but with other prominent figures as well. Lewis sets out to tell all of their stories as best he can, and the result is one of the best damn graphic novel series I have ever read.

This series is so powerful and personal, and it goes to show just how remarkable John Lewis is. He’s one of the ‘Big Six’, aka one of the most influential members of the Civil Rights Movement, and one of the only ones left, as he reminds us in “Book 1”. These books are very straight forward and simple, but they are so honest and personal that the power they have is immense. I found myself crying many times during my reads of all these books, but also laughing, and cheering, and seething. Lewis brought out so many emotions in me with his story, and his immense talent as a storyteller comes through, just as his charisma does. We get to see the story of the Civil Rights Movement through his eyes, and he tells us the stories of those involved within the movement and those who influenced it from the outside as well. Yes, at times these books are violent, and upsetting, but they need to be, because the horrors that fell upon many people during their non violent protests must never be forgotten. I think that the entirety is an accomplishment, but I understand why they gave the National Book Award to “Book 3”. After all, while it is probably symbolic of awarding the whole darn thing, I think that “Book 3” was the most powerful in terms of emotion being served, be it pride, fear, rage, or determination. It certainly was the one that had me weeping from the get go, as the very first moment was the bombing of the 16th Baptist Church that killed four little girls. The violence is absolutely horrifying, but it cannot be forgotten or glossed over. It absolutely cannot. “March: Book 3” also was the one to really address the differences of ideologies within the movement as a whole, not just between King and X, but Lewis and SNCC as well. And Lewis also has no qualms addressing the fact that LBJ, while he did ultimately get things going on a Federal level, was incredibly reluctant to do much in terms of help until he absolutely  HAD to. I think that realities get lost in the historical narratives that come in our educations, and that is absolutely why the “March” Trilogy is fundamental reading when it comes to the Civil Rights Movement in this country.

And, like other graphic novels before it, I want to address the artwork in this series. Because it is beautiful in it’s simplicity, and yet powerful in it’s design. It’s all black and white, and stark and striking on every page. Nate Powell brings the story to life on the page, and he did it both with bits of humor to go along with the hope, horror, and courage. There were bits of realism to accompany the distinct style, but it always felt very tangible and very authentic. As I mentioned before, the illustrations do not gloss over the violence that was prevalent during the time, and while it certainly is disturbing, it’s done in a way that could never be dismissed as exploitative or ‘over the top’. It is incredibly honest and upsetting, but it needs to be. The reader needs to be upset and outraged by it. Because it IS upsetting, and it is outrageous.

march3

I cannot stress enough how important the “March”Trilogy is in these uncertain and scary times. John Lewis is a treasure and an inspiration, and I feel that this is required reading. Get this in schools, get this in curriculums, get this in peoples hands. And you, you should likewise go out and get your hands on this series. You will not regret it. You will learn something. And you will be moved. Thank you, John Lewis. Thank you for so much.

Rating 10: A phenomenal and deeply personal series, John Lewis tells his story of activism through this astounding graphic novel trilogy. He speaks on the Civil Rights Movement from his perspective, and shows parallels to recent fights for rights and freedoms.

Reader’s Advisory:

The “March” Trilogy can be found on the following Goodreads lists: “Civil Rights Reading List”, “History Through Graphic Novels”, and “Activist Memoirs”.

Find The “March” Trilogy at your local library using WorldCat! Book 1; Book 2; Book 3.