Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Ten Years After

As mentioned before, this blog started first as a desire to count how many books I read in a year then as a way to inform friends and acquaintances about what to read next. The first list was compiled in 1999 but by 2002 I was adding comments to each entry and emailing them at years' end.  I looked over that first batch yesterday and was struck by what a banner year it was.  That's not to say 2002 wasn't without some dogs and disappointments (and I'm not writing about them today) but, as Frank sang, it was a very good year. 

Two books that jumped out at me have been made into movies that will soon release: Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being A Wallflower and The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  Buzz on both films is quite high and I'm anxious to see them.  Best of all, it will cause people to read the books, some for the first time, others again, and I envy them that.  

Perks was new ground for me because I didn't read YA fiction which was just starting to shirk off the taint of being 'crap for kids' and gain an honorable reputation. I wrote: 

Squarely aimed at the young adult market, Wallflower rises well above the typical teen fare even for a cynical former teenager like me.  Consisting of letters written by Charlie to someone whom we never meet, we get a glimpse into those horrible junior/senior high school days when you haven't a clue how to live but have a great need to be loved.  Throughout, it feels as though Chbosky somehow read our diaries and journals as he evokes all those emotions that were then so near the skin.
I remember finishing the book and immediately mailing my copy to my dear friend, Rocky, with whom I had shared so many of those experiences, imploring him to read it.  That the book was set in Pittsburgh further endeared it to me.

To see that ten years later author Chbosky has somehow managed to write and direct the movie version with a major studio and cast Hermione herself as one of the leads, gives me hope the film succeeds and gets this book in the hands of readers again.

An even more striking work, The Life of Pi completely knocked me on my ass.  Deservedly, it went on to win the Booker prize and sold millions.  Now as a big budget movie directed by Ang Lee, the film should lead millions more to read this absolutely remarkable and original work. 

Some of the other notables worth a read or re-read that I wrote about in 2002 include: 
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Wow!  And a debut, too)
Empire Falls by Richard Russo (My first Russo. Hardly my last)
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Oh, the ache)
Summerland by Michael Chabon (Proof he can write just about anything)
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (a delight for wordsmiths)
Shopgirl by Steve Martin (Steve proves he's a writer)
Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken (a haunting tale of friendship)

Less acclaimed but still terrific: 
The Half-Mammals of Dixie by George Singleton (where are you now George?  Please write)
Tepper Isn't Going Out by Calvin Trillin (love that man) 
McCarthy's Bar by Peter McCarthy (damned shame he passed away a couple of years later)

To say the least, looking back has been well worth it. 

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

When Penny met Pepi

Two showbiz memoirs, one with broad appeal, the other strictly for me.

Joseph Schildkraut was a famous stage actor in Europe who had considerable success in Hollywood, including a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola.  He also played Otto Frank on Broadway and on film in The Diary of Anne Frank.  His father, Rudolph Schildkraut was an even bigger star in Europe and later a marquee name in the Yiddish theater here in the States.  Josephs' memoir, My Father and I, published in 1959, tells both their stories.  

Rudolphs' was a rags to riches story.  From nothing, he went on to become one of the most acclaimed actors of his time.  He was also a serial womanizer, an egomaniac and lived well beyond his means despite earning vast sums of money.  Put simply, the guy was nuts.

His son, Joseph, studied to be a musician but the lure of the stage drew him into the family business despite his fathers' protests.  Not surprisingly, Joseph had some difficulty getting out from his father's shadow but ultimately succeeded on his own, including work for D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille.  An Oscar ain't bad either. 

For a memoir from 1959, Joseph is quite forthright about his own skirt-chasing (though juicy details were omitted) and he is unapologetic about these as well as his failed marriages. 

Perhaps best of all, I was able to glean some important genealogical information from the book that will aid my own research into my family tree.  You see, while not a household name to most, Joseph was an important name in our house because he was my mother's cousin.  She referred to him by his family nickname, Pepi, and always had fond memories of him.  My parents remembered going to see Anne Frank on Broadway and Pepi taking my father's hand and running it over his bald head which he had shaved to make him appear older.  In fact, Pepi's honest portrayal and physical resemblance to Otto Frank led the the two men to become friends in their remaining years. 

Quite different in tone, My Mother Was Nuts is a funny, fast, and often surprising read.

So often, humor is born of pain and that can certainly be said of Marshall.  Her parents' marriage was unhappy at best and her mother made it clear that Penny's birth was neither planned nor wanted.  In fact, the frankness of Mrs. Marshall is alarming and uncomfortable, making it all the more remarkable that Penny didn't end up a basket case.  Instead, she simply stuck her head down and plowed forward.  

Having grown up in her mother's dance studio, she wasn't a shy kid.  She was likable, fun-loving and boy crazy.  While it was never her dream to be on TV, things have a way of happening for Penny Marshall and she was unknowingly wise to take chances since so many of them panned out so well. Laverne & Shirley was a huge success as were films she directed like Big, Awakenings, and A League of Their Own.  In fact, she was the first woman director to have two films gross over $100 million each.  

Unlike the Schildkraut memoir, My Mother Was Nuts contains lots of juicy stuff--drug trips with Carrie Fisher (no surprise there), benders with Belushi and Aykroyd, her marriage to Rob Reiner (whose success with All In The Family was eclipsed by his wifes' when Laverne & Shirley knocked Reiner's show from the top spot and became the number one comedy in America), her relationship with Art Garfunkel and others.  It is a memoir that is really charming, moving, and unexpected.  

Finally, below is the book trailer for My Mother Was Nuts, which is the funniest I've seen in ages.