Autobiography, Entertainment, Memoir, Nonfiction

Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin

If you grew up in the 1970s and 80s, you will remember a specific group of comedians that rose to fame during that time. There was the unparalleled original Saturday Night Live cast and there were those who worked from a different direction, like Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman, and Steve Martin to name a few.

The older I get, the more I appreciate Steve Martin’s brand of comedy, which has also matured. His depth and brilliance is equally apparent when he takes on serious film roles. If you’ve never seen him in The Spanish Prisoner, see it. Recently I watched Shopgirl for the first time, with a screenplay written by Steve Martin based on his novella of the same name. These are worthwhile departures from his earlier films and he surrounds himself with cerebral, high quality actors in both.

I knew Steve Martin was originally from Waco, Texas. I knew he once worked in the magic shop at Disneyland. I knew he played the banjo with great proficiency. I knew it was a delight and an honor to see him perform live twice with the Steep Canyon Rangers (in Los Angeles and Eugene, Oregon.) But I knew nothing about his childhood and the years of paying his dues.

Like many comedians, Steve Martin’s humor was born out of pathos and melancholy, partly innate and partly inflicted upon him by others. His mother was his shining light while his father was critical, moody, and envious.
Success brought other demons, as it often does.

In a brief two hundred pages and with a deft, fluid style, we travel in that time machine called memory back to simpler decades when a young boy and then young man sought escapism and validation through performing. Never delving much into his personal life except when it intersected with his career, Martin confirms his status as one at the top of his profession. He is a student of the science of comedy, always working to refine, improve, and evolve his technique. In a time where modern celebrities are often famous because of their lifestyles, it was refreshing to read about someone whose success came because of tenacity and a doggedly determined work ethic. In this ever-increasingly serious world, we need people like this.

9/10 Stars

Biography, Black History, Entertainment, History, Nonfiction

Mobituaries, by Mo Rocca

You might recognize Mo Rocca and wonder where you’ve seen him before. It could be on The Daily Show or CBS News Sunday Morning. Maybe you’ve heard his unique voice on NPR. He’s a very smart, Harvard-educated, somewhat caricature-ish person, a description I think he would embrace. Funnily enough, I first saw him as the dimwitted newscaster, Ted Willoughby, on The Good Wife.

So imagine my surprise when I was browsing podcasts, looking for something that didn’t have an “E” for explicit language attached to it, and found that Mo (short for Maurice Alberto) hosted a show called Mobituaries. I listened to the episodes on Lawrence Welk, Audrey Hepburn, Marlena Dietrich, the Bunker Brothers (the original Siamese twins,) and a few others that escape me at the moment. They were clean, they were entertaining, and they were really interesting. When I found out he had a book that delved even deeper into these “great lives worth reliving,” I did what I rarely do…I actually bought the book.

Mo has vast interests, but his favorites are pop culture and US presidents. He also likes people who were the first to do something (Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks were preceded by others, who knew?) and famous siblings (Billy Carter, we hardly knew thee…) There are those famous people who died the same day, one always eclipsing the other (Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett both died on June 25, 2009. You can guess who took “center stage.”) There are also those people for whom the term “disambiguation” was created. (I’ll give you a second to look it up.) I’m talking about Audrey Hepburn vs Katherine Hepburn, Joan of Arc vs Joan Van Ark (do people really get those two mixed up?) and the whole Andrew Johnson/Andrew Jackson/Stonewall Jackson confusion. Honestly, distinguishing the difference between any of those people is not something that has ever kept me up at night, but it’s still fun.

There are places in the book that, admittedly, I skimmed. Some chapters are identical to their podcast counterparts. Some just didn’t interest me. The more I read, the more I realized that this would make the ideal “bathroom book.” That’s the book you put on the back of the commode where you and your guests can read whatever chapter they prefer when they need a little extra time to do their business.

If I had to choose between the Mobituaries podcast and the book, I would probably choose the podcast for two reasons. 1. It’s more succinct. The book gets a bit wordy. 2. Just to hear Mo’s voice. There is no comparison. Still, it’s a fun read, probably a good gift for certain history buffs, and a great literary addition to your bathroom.

8.5/10 stars

Here is a fun interview Mo does with Trevor Noah talking about Mobituaries, the book:

Autobiography, Entertainment, Nonfiction

No Time Like the Future, by Michael J. Fox

Confession: Michael J. Fox was my childhood celebrity crush. When Family Ties hit the airwaves in 1982 I was 11 years old and I…was…hooked. Alex P. Keaton was the MAN–smart, charming, and oh, so cute. When teen magazines were the rage (Teen Beat, Tiger Beat, etc) my friends and I would divide up the photos. Ricky Schroeder went to my friend, Cathy. Tom Selleck to my friend, Carol. John Taylor of Duran Duran went to my friend, June. Michael J. Fox went to me. My bedroom wall was nothing short of a shrine. Even his birthday–June 9, 1961–has been branded in my mind since I was a kid.

Movies, starting with the blockbuster Back to the Future trilogy, followed the TV show. And, while shooting Doc Hollywood in 1990, Michael was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He was 29 years old and had only been married to his wife, Tracy Pollan (girlfriend Ellen on Family Ties,) for a couple of years. Everything changed.

This book, No Time Like the Future, is Michael’s fourth autobiography, so the reader will not be getting a lot of the history of his Parkinson’s diagnosis, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. It starts with his recovery from the latest of many surgeries. Most are to either slow the effects of Parkinson’s or mend the results of multiple falls. But this one was delicate surgery to remove a tumor on his spinal cord. What was he told after this most recent surgery? “You have one job. DON’T FALL.” What does he do? You guessed it.

The rest of the book is a series of, for lack of a better word, anecdotes. Some involve family vacations, some involve work projects, some involve hospital stays and home health care. All of them show the way Parkinson’s and its effects are a part of everything Michael does. Standing, walking, playing golf, going up and down stairs, traveling, timing his medication, the list goes on and on. His life truly revolves around his incredible family (his wife and 4 kids are AWESOME,) work, Parkinson’s, and his foundation to raise money for Parkinson’s research. They’re a set. (FYI, his foundation has raised more than $800 MILLION. Impressive.)

Like many other celebrity autobiographies, there is some language. I would rate it a PG13 level. But I hung in there until the end because, hey, it’s Michael J. Fox. I haven’t seen all of his movies and I was never a Spin City fan, but I loved it when he guest starred on The Good Wife, one of my all-time favorite shows. He played slimy lawyer Louis Canning, who suffers from tardive dyskinesia. The effects are similar to Parkinson’s and Louis completely exploits his condition, using it to every advantage in court. He’s awful, but you love him. Why? Because it’s Michael J. Fox.

Although I cannot see myself reading it again, I found No Time Like the Future enjoyable. I listened to it on audio (which I recommend doing with headphones because the Parkinson’s has affected his voice.) I felt myself emotionally invested in his medical highs and lows, grateful that he has an amazingly supportive wife (they’re going on 35 years together) and kids, happy to see how much he loves his feisty 90-something mother, and inspired by his optimism. Although not a religious person, it is very obvious that Michael knows he is blessed, and so are his enduring fans.

9/10 stars

Visit the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research HERE.

I watched several videos of MJF promoting his newest book on the talk show circuit in late 2020. This is one of my favorites:

Autobiography, Entertainment, Nonfiction

The Time of My Life, by Patrick Sawyze and Lisa Niemi

If you were a teenager in the 1980’s, then Dirty Dancing is a staple of your pubescent years. If you didn’t see it then, like me, then you probably did later. A few years following Dirty Dancing was the romantic fantasy, Ghost. That was the film where I discovered Patrick Swayze. Who doesn’t love that movie? He’s buff, he’s graceful, he’s sensitive, he’s masculine–all of those qualities that make for a hero. So when Patrick died in 2009 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57, it was one of those celebrity deaths that really hurt. He was a good guy who still had a lot more to give.

His autobiography, The Time of My Life, written in his last months with Lisa Niemi, his wife of over 30 years, has been on my radar for a while. Movie star autobiographies can be tricky. I’ve read several. They’re usually either really satisfying or truly terrible. Often they are peppered with profanity (Carrie Fisher, Judy Greer, Mara Wilson) or just feel like one long brag (Anjelica Huston.) Fortunately, this is one of the better books with language coming in at a mild “PG” rating. With just the right balance talking about his early years, family, the struggle to achieve success, and his final illness, I was quite impressed. The reader is left knowing a decent, driven man with a great sense of humility who adores his wife and loves animals and nature. Kind of an old-fashioned dancing cowboy.

Lisa, his wife, is really the unsung hero of the book. What a supportive spouse, never showing any jealousy that his star was rising faster than hers. When Patrick’s alcoholism started to become a real problem, she expressed her concern and extreme disapproval, but she hung in there. Twelve years after his death and now remarried, Lisa still maintains his legacy with love and dignity. A very admirable lady.

Whatever your favorite Patrick Swayze movie may be, you’ll find this book an interesting, in depth look at a talent gone too soon.

8.5/10 stars

Here’s a great 1995 interview with Patrick on 60 Minutes Australia. BTW…Australia’s news shows are so good!

Entertainment, Memoir, Nonfiction

Laughs, Luck…and Lucy, by Jess Oppenheimer

After reading 2 relatively heavy books, it was time for something lighter.  While perusing the memoirs available for borrowing through the Kindle Lending Library on,  I came across Laughs, Luck…and Lucy, by Jess Oppenheimer. This book has been a delight.

Most people give all of the credit of I Love Lucy’s success to Lucille Ball because of her impeccable comedic timing.  Some remember Desi Arnaz as the brains behind the show.  But what few think about is that someone first had to create the show and its memorable stories, and that person was Jess Oppenheimer.

As engaging as a writer of his memoirs as he was while tweaking and crafting the scripts of TV’s most popular sitcom, Jess Oppenheimer takes us on a journey that begins with his childhood and his foray into the world of radio.  But as an expert in human nature, he knows that what readers really want to hear are anecdotes and behind-the-scenes stories of his iconic show.  Without wasting any time, we learn of his first contact with Lucille Ball while she was playing the socialite wife of a bank vice president (Richard Denning) on the radio program My Favorite Husband.  As television started to become a major force of entertainment , My Favorite Husband was reworked by Oppenheimer and the husband was recast at the insistence of Lucille Ball.  She wanted the part to be played by her husband, Desi Arnaz.  As controversial as that request was at the time, it turned out to be a great move.  (For those who are fans of the film An Affair to Remember, Richard Denning played Deborah Kerr’s handsome fiancee’. I don’t think I could picture him as Lucy’s comedic foil, could you?)

It didn’t take long for audiences to take notice of I Love Lucy, which was quickly the #1 show on television.  But the show will be remembered for other firsts as well, such as being the first to have a storyline about pregnancy, the first to show a couple sharing a bed, the first to film in front of a live audience, the first to film and save its episodes, and the first to use 3 cameras.  It was groundbreaking, and Jess Oppenheimer does a clever job of telling about how each of these firsts came to be, how the cast dealt with their success, and about the long hours involved with churning out a hit show week after week. (In those days a season had 36 episodes, not 24 like today.)

If you are a fan of I Love Lucy, as I am, you will enjoy this book very much.  It hearkens back to the days when TV shows had standards, when writing was clever, and when the most famous redhead of all time ruled the airways.

8.5/10 Stars

Entertainment, Fiction, History

The World of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes

As an admitted Anglophile who is completely swept up in the current Downton Abbey craze, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the companion book.  Not only did I expect it to have beautiful pictures (which it does,) but I also thought it would be a fun way to satisfy my hunger for more information on the fictional Crawley family and the time in which they lived.

If you are unaware of what Downton Abbey is, it is a mini-series on PBS set in the years surrounding WWI.  Downton Abbey is the estate belonging to the Crawley family, the patriarch of which is the 5th Earl of Grantham.  The estate, as was the custom, has been handed down to male heirs throughout the years since it was originally bought in the 1600’s.  Robert and Cora Crawley, however, have been blessed with 3 daughters and no sons, which creates an obstacle in the inheritance of the estate.  That obstacle increases when the next heirs, a male cousin and his son, drown during the Titanic‘s sinking in 1912.

What follows is a series of events that are made more intriguing by the fact that they are happening to an aristocratic family with daughters that need to be married off, a family estate that needs a future owner, and a bevy of servants downstairs who are accompanied by their own set of issues. The class system continues downstairs as well, with the butler at the head and the kitchen maids near the bottom.  There are secrets, mysteries, unrequited love affairs, schemes, and other storylines that keep the plot moving forward in a clever and entertaining way.

The Downton Abbey Companion Book does a satisfactory job of being no more than what it claims to be– a “companion.”  It does not give away any of the plot beyond the first season. There are a few behind-the-scenes anecdotes, some history of the house that is used (Highclere Castle,) and explanation of the work that is done to preserve the time period’s authenticity.

But what I most appreciated in the book are the tidbits on real-life people who lived during that time; people upon whom some of the characters are based.  There are quotes from duchesses, butlers, footmen, maids, and others who lived the time and its required customs.  If nothing else, it makes you appreciate the efforts of the writers and production team to create a realistic setting for a fictional family during a time in history when their way of life was slowly becoming more and more obsolete.

The book’s author, Jessica Fellowes, is an author and free-land journalist.  She is also the niece of Julian Fellowes, who is the creator and writer of Downton Abbey.

If it seems odd to include a television companion book on a book review site, my only excuse is my love for this series and the fact that it reads like a book.  And, because the characters are so well thought out, it is refreshing to read about some of their backgrounds, which is provided in the book.  We learn about the history of the house in the series, the courtship of Robert and Cora, and the expectations of everyone in their distinctive social standings.

In fulfilling its intended purpose, the Downton Abbey Companion Book is quite successful.

9/10 Stars

Entertainment, Memoir, Nonfiction

A Little Bit Wicked, by Kristin Chenoweth

Anyone who is a fan of Broadway musicals, and a fan of Wicked–one of the best musicals ever– has heard of Kristin Chenoweth.  Like Judy Garland, there is a whole lotta talent and a whole lotta voice in her tiny 4’11” frame.   So when Borders bookstores were closing down and selling everything at great discounts, I couldn’t resist picking up A Little Bit Wicked.

Like most entertainment memoirs, this is pretty light reading.  But it is fun to read about her beginnings as an adopted child in the Midwest discovering her love of performing and the way she worked her way to becoming one of the Great White Way’s most recognizable stars.  She is also one of the few who has made a smooth transition back and forth between the stage and TV, although her TV characters are usually “larger than life,” as a stage actor is expected to be.  Flashback to her role on the short-lived Pushing Daisies and her many guest appearances on Glee.  Those are some pretty wacky characters.

While I do admire the talent and tenacity it takes to start from the bottom and make your way to becoming a Tony award-winning Broadway star, I do have an issue with one thing.  Kristin calls herself very religious, yet, at the same time, seems pretty promiscuous.  Maybe it was not her intent to give that impression while writing the book, but give it she did.  Perhaps that is her way of justifying the book’s title, but I just found her beliefs and her actions in life a bit conflicting.  Perhaps it was just a little too soon for her to write a memoir.  I felt, by reading the book, that this is a very talented small-town girl who still needs to decide who she wants to be.

Overall, it is a fun book that needs not be read more than once.

7/10 Stars

Entertainment, Memoir, Nonfiction

Forever Liesel, by Charmian Carr

If you asked my mother which songs I sang the most as a child, she would tell you Top of the World, by the Carpenters, and Doe-A-Deer, from The Sound of Music.  In fact, several years ago when we had the thrilling opportunity to meet Julie Andrews at a book signing in Pasadena, that is one of the first things she told her.

I was embarrassed at the time, but quickly got over it, because I’m one of the millions of people around the world who simply adores The Sound of Music.  One of the really nice things is learning about what decent, upstanding people the young cast has grown into.  Forever Liesel, written by Charmian Carr, is a delightful account of what it was like to be a part of this beloved movie.  In a succinct but entertaining way, she talks about learning when she got the part, meeting the rest of the cast, and working with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer (on whom she had quite a crush.)  Unlike the rest of the “children,” she was of age where she could work longer hours, enjoy the Austrian location with less restrictions, and associate with the 2 stars off the set.

Unlike so many other young stars who shun the very vehicle that shot them to fame, all 7 of the film’s young actors still appreciate the positive impact that The Sound of Music had on their lives.  They spent years promoting it and making appearances without pay, enjoy having cast reunions, and regard each other with warm affection as much as if they were really brothers and sisters.  And, although most have left acting for other endeavors, they still have fond memories of their months working on the project.

Forever Liesel is not especially earth-shattering, but simply a fun behind-the-scenes look at the making of an iconic film.  It is a fast read that will make you want to cuddle up in front of the movie once again and enjoy it with new appreciation.

8/10 Stars