Monday, April 3, 2017
Byrne, G. (2016) Crisis of Character: A White House Secret Service Officer Discloses His Firsthand Experience With Hillary, Bill, and How the Operate. Center Street, New York.
*Editor's Note: this review is for the audiobook, reading by Brian Troxell.
Bill and Hillary Clinton can be seen two ways, depending on your political persuasion. They can be seen as a loving couple who have devoted their lives to public service, working towards making the world a better place (that would be the liberal point of view). They can be seen as a cold, calculating pair interested only in holding on to the power they think is their divine right, enriching themselves in the process (that would be the conservative point of view). Crisis of Character comes from former Secret Service Agent Gary J. Byrne, who was part of then-President Bill Clinton's protection detail and was ensnared in the tumultuous Starr investigation that nearly brought down his Presidency.
Those on the Right or Left who might expect a no-holds-barred takedown/monstrous slur of the Clintons may be in for a surprise. While we do get some disturbing new information about President Clinton's liaison with former intern Monica Lewinsky, Crisis of Character reads more like the unpublished memoirs of MITCH RAPP than a tell-all on the machinations, real or imagined, of the 42th and almost 45th President.
Most of Crisis of Character is really about Byrne himself and his experiences working at the Secret Service and later, the Air Marshall Program. He talks often about how inept the Secret Service was when kowtowing to political correctness (such as putting physically unfit people in guard positions to fill quotas) or in how their hands were tied due to civilians who thought they knew better (such as when staff to then-candidate Bill Clinton would push the Service to wave in people instead of inspecting them, or when a gay activist visiting the White House became incensed when told he couldn't put gay-themed stickers around the Mansion or the artifacts within them, insisting that 'they had won').
It should be noted that whenever the Service would screw up, or indeed whenever anyone would screw up, Byrne himself was not the person who did the actual screwing up. When it came to President Bill Clinton's extramarital assignations, Byrne didn't do the screwing either.
Instead, we see that to a point, Crisis of Character actually backs up the former President and First Lady's story: White House intern Monica Lewinsky, not the brightest bulb who if Byrne had had his way wouldn't have ever set foot on the grounds, was a stalker of sorts. She would go into restricted areas, constantly coming up with weak excuses to be where she knew she shouldn't be (she got lost, she was looking for the restroom, she was visiting a friend, she was dropping things off). It was an irritant to Byrne and the other agents, but eventually she managed to snare herself a President (and was unaware that she wasn't the only mistress gallivanting about, former Second Daughter Eleanor Mondale getting in on the action too).
The grotesque nature of the liaison (I'm not sure it would qualify as an actual affair) involves having the President's semen not just on that infamous blue dress, but on White House hand-towels that a Navy officer was forced to wash as part of his duties. This whole thing disgusted our agent, especially given the difference between our Baby Boomer President and the last President from The Greatest Generation, dear Poppa Bush, who was dignity and kindness itself.
We then get the long, sordid saga of the Clinton impeachment, and how it wrecked his life when he got dragged into it.
Apart from this and the assertion that then First Lady Hillary Clinton knew of the liaisons (down to throwing things at the President), Crisis of Character really has little to nothing to do with the Clintons, in particular with how Hillary Clinton plotted for sixteen years to return to power in her own right as the first female President.
Instead, Crisis of Character tells us of the various exploits (both exciting and mundane) that Byrne went through. I couldn't help think of the late Vince Flynn's most famous character: superspy and super-Patriot MITCH RAPP, a man who is the embodiment of the American Assassin.
Let me digress slightly to say that as much as I liked Flynn personally and found him to be highly talented, I never liked MITCH RAPP (the caps are always because he struck me as a staccato, monotone, monosyllabic person). MITCH RAPP, in the two novels I read/heard about him, has no personality. He has no family, no friends, no outside hobbies, no quirks, no sense of humor, no personal foibles, no life apart from kicking ass and killing people, especially if it means going against those in power.
Sure, he might have been motivated by his girlfriend being killed in the Pan Am bombing, but MITCH RAPP, at least the one I encountered, doesn't even appear capable of any human emotion, let alone love. He doesn't appear to enjoy sports, doesn't read books, binge-watch shows, have any guilty pleasures, laugh at anything...in short, he to me is so cold and unlikable I really have a hard time getting through a MITCH RAPP book.
Listening to Crisis of Character, one feels that Byrne seems himself as a MITCH RAPP-type: tough, take-no-prisoners, at permanent guard, a master at weaponry and hunting down evil beings. It borders on the comic, and to be honest, I skipped some parts because he went on and on about his various trainings, which might have been interesting if I went into the book wanting to learn that.
I went into the book wanting a reason to not have Madam Clinton be Madam President, why Hillary Clinton was unfit to follow Poppa Bush or even her own husband a la Evita Peron. What I got was how great Gary Byrne was at his job.
If you want to learn about the machinations of the Clintons (real or imagined) or why she was not fit to have been Commander-in-Chief, skip Crisis of Character.
Monday, February 20, 2017
Zoglin, R. (2015) Hope: Entertainer of the Century. Simon & Schuster, New York.
In the nearly fifteen years since his death at age 100, I venture to say that the name Bob Hope is slowly being forgotten. I'm old enough to remember Bob Hope specials, even his last USO tour during the First Persian War. If he is remembered, it is with a certain disdain, a relic who was both politically incorrect and politically repulsive to the current leading lights of laughter. With left-wing comics Bill Maher, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Sarah Silverman, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Will Ferrell, and Jon Stewart ruling comedy, Hope's brazen conservatism is essentially the final nail of the coffin of his reputation as a comedy master.
Richard Zoglin would have a long argument with you on Hope's legacy and importance. Hope: Entertainer of the Century is an impeccable biography of the all-around star who found success in every field of entertainment he entered: vaudeville, Broadway, film, radio, and television. Hope's fortunes (financial) were assured, but his fortunes (career and reputation-wise) faded thanks to a mix of time and Hope's own inability to stay with them. Hope: Entertainer of the Century covers both Hope's public and private life, one that was filled with sex, ego, and pettiness, but also one that had kindness, generosity, and shrewd management.
Leslie Towns Hope (Zoglin insists that the more traditional "Townes" spelling is wrong, even when Hope did it) was an immigrant, born in England but who was brought along with the rest of his family to join his father in Ohio. He was a bit of a scrapper, not one for school (Zoglin uncovered that Les, as he preferred to be called, had even done a stint in juvenile correction school), but one who loved his family.
Encouraged by his mother, who loved playing her piano, Les started entering dance competitions and soon built up an act with other partners, who for various reasons, didn't stay long. Still, Les Hope kept plugging away at showbiz, and soon he was working his way up the various vaudeville circuits, from regional to national. He also started honing his comedy skills, where it was his quips, not his dancing, that got the attention.
Already at this point, Zoglin would argue, Hope was creating a new style for comedy, one that didn't depend on what had gone on before in vaudeville (comedy duos, ethnic stereotypes, or standard jokes). Instead, Hope started doing more topical humor, tailoring quips for the regional audiences. As a side note, Hope was among the first to not try any ethnic humor, his Midwestern manner being an odd fit to try anything ethnic, though he tried once with such awful results he never ventured into it again.
As his career kept building, Hope indulged his other great passion: women. He had a secret first marriage, and his marriage to Dolores Reade (born Dolores De Fina) is shrouded in mystery. Despite a wide-ranging search, no marriage license or wedding photo has ever been found or produced. Zoglin argues that as a devout Catholic, Dolores would not have 'lived in sin' for long, so the likelihood of a Church-sanctioned wedding must have happened, but when, how, and under what circumstances no one outside Bob and/or Dolores knows.
Hope, for his part, continued his rise in showbiz, and after a failed first attempt finally got into the movies at a relatively old age of 34. Not a splash at the beginning, it was The Big Broadcast of 1938 that bolted Hope's career: not the movie itself, but its theme, Thanks For the Memory (a title which most people erroneously refer to as Thanks For the Memories), which he lucked into to be his signature song.
Out of his movie success came radio, where Hope became a pioneer: having to create a whole radio show out of whole cloth versus other radio comics like Jack Benny and Burns & Allen, who already had definitive personas. Hope's humor was also unique in that it was more down-to-earth, more the 'everyman' than a particular type like the cheapskate Benny or cerebral Steve Allen.
Hope managed his career smoothly, open about using writers (whom he wasn't the most generous with and whom he expected to be on call 24/7). His radio and film career built up, and eventually a "Bob Hope" type emerged: the brave coward, one who appears courageous but turns chicken at first sign of danger, who pursues women but crumbles when he manages to get a response.
This of course was different from Bob Hope in real life, who had no problem getting almost any woman into bed (if it is believed, among his conquests were Ethel Merman and Doris Day, the latter never commenting on this curious liaison). What Dolores knew, or wanted to know, is also unknown.
The Second World War was Hope's finest hour. A man who didn't have any great angst, he thrived on the live crowds and threw himself into entertaining the troops (having done a wide variety of charity events for years prior). Hope was undeterred, crisscrossing Europe and Asia to find an audience (even if sometimes troops would rather get home than get Hope).
After the war, things slowly changed, but Hope didn't. He didn't become an ideologue until the Nixon years, and his support of both Nixon and the Vietnam War, along with his mocking of the youth movement in his various USO and television specials, began to sour larger groups of audiences. His film career began to fade, and his specials became the like man himself: more rigid, more scripted, more cautious, and finally a sad parody.
Bob Hope ruled NBC, with only Johnny Carson being anywhere near his equal. However, whenever Hope wanted to promote something, Carson had to give him time on The Tonight Show. Carson, more withdrawn and moody, didn't gel with the generally bon vivant Hope, and Carson hated how scripted their 'spontaneous encounters were', to where if Carson skipped a question Hope would answer it anyway.
Bob Hope, once nicknamed 'Rapid Robert' for his quick-fire monologues, would not give up the limelight. As he entered his 90s, he stubbornly insisted on doing his TV specials, where it was getting harder and harder to hide his advancing age, poor eyesight, and hearing difficulties. Hope, to the end, wanted to be the center of attention, even if it was accidental. When Dolores, who had given up her singing career to be Mrs. Bob Hope (and where despite the ability to Bob would not put her in his specials until very late in his career), made a 'comeback', Hope's hearing caused him to virtually shout when she sang. Even worse, he would loudly order Dolores to stop being romantic with him after her set.
Given that at least until his 60s or 80s (I can't remember which), he had no problem being romantic with other women, it seems all so unfair.
In the end, after meeting his goal of living to 100, he died a couple of months later in 2003. By that time, Bob Hope might have been an institution, but one that fewer and fewer remembered (his death merited one page in Time Magazine, but that of 'third-best Beatle' George Harrison got the cover). Zoglin argues that Bob Hope had simply lingered too long: the prepared obituary for The New York Times had been sitting there so long that the author of the obituary himself had been dead three years).
I figure that many people nowadays do not know who Bob Hope is, or why he matters. Zoglin's brilliant biography brings Hope back to life, showing us both his comedic brilliance and the hard, sometimes unfeeling man he was.
I say sometimes because Hope was more complex than 'selfish comic'. Hope could be unpleasant (such as an early stunt where he would make paper planes out of his writer's paychecks and send them floating down, a practice he quickly dropped once it made the rounds). He had no qualms about not just seeing other women on the side but forcing others to be party to such antics (in one incident Zoglin compared to a real-life The Apartment, he cajoled a young writer to let him have the key to his apartment for an assignation, leaving at the arranged time).
However, Zoglin tells a story that reveals another side of Bob Hope. Hope, unlike other stars then and now, would reply to almost all his fan mail, adding personal touches, particularly whenever a soldier or his/her family were involved. In 1967, as the Vietnam War escalated (and Hope's popularity diminished), he got a letter from a friend of a seven-year-old girl he had posed with for a cystic fibrosis campaign. The letter detailed that she was dying and that if he could write to her it would mean so much.
Bob Hope replied, and not just with a form letter, but with a brief note that even threw in some humor at his expense (opening with, "Remember me?").
Hope was complex and complicated, at times self-centered, even vain. He was also, Zoglin would insist, a true genius: not just in comedy, but in the art of career management. He set up Hope Enterprises to further his career, always venturing into new media when given the chance (he didn't run away from television when others were terrified of it). He invested wisely in real estate (though bristling at reports of exactly how wealthy he was). He brought an intimacy between himself and his audiences that made him appear approachable, even if he wasn't.
For all the disdain Colbert, Maher, Silverman et al may have towards Hope's politics, there would be none of them if not for Hope. He set the standard of the modern late-night talk show: the monologue, the skits, those were all from Hope.
Bob Hope should not be forgotten or relegated to a small place in comic history. Apart from Woody Allen, no major comedian/comedienne mentions Bob Hope. With Hope: Entertainer of the Century, Richard Zoglin gives us the whole Hope: brilliant, petty, easy-going and difficult. Bob Hope was a true comedic genius.
With luck, Hope: Entertainer of the Century will spark a revival to restore him to his rightful place in comedy.
Bob, Thanks For the Memory...
Thursday, February 16, 2017
Oakley, T. (2015). Binge. Gallery Books, New York.
According to the back flap of Binge, the author, Tyler Oakley, is both a 'pop culture tastemaker' and 'an Internet icon'. The logical question therefore might be, "Who is Tyler Oakley"?
A more pertinent question should be, "Why should anyone outside Tyler Oakley's circle genuinely care what he thinks on anything?" By his own admission, he doesn't have the skills that would normally vault someone into a sphere of influence: he doesn't sing, he doesn't act, he doesn't dance (though he's given them a crack in his high school days). Oakley's claim to fame is the way most Millennials gain fame: he is on YouTube. In his various YouTube videos, he follows, or perhaps leads, the Millennial march into oversharing, discussing everything that pops into his little head with nary a thought as to whether everything that pops into his little head should be discussed.
Oakley, in various essays, does so, giving us his thoughts on everything from sex (among his favorite topics) to his high school days (where he would get sex), his early work experiences (which inevitably led to more sex) and the constant surprises of his life as a YouTuber (one of those being, surprisingly, not sex, but on how fickle a fanbase can be). Oakley, however, doesn't make a case as to why HE in particular should be heard. Apart from a few moments where we can see genuine hurt and joy, where we got a bit of Mathew Tyler Oakley, Binge seems a trifle calculated, as if it isn't a real revelation into Oakley's life but a continuation of how he is on YouTube: cheery, irreverent, and willing to have lots of laughs.
This may be how he is in real life as opposed to YouTube life (and I figure he'd argue there's no difference between Tyler Oakley: YouTube Icon and Tyler Oakley: After Dark), but again, Binge won't answer the more important question, not 'Who is Tyler Oakley?' or even 'Why is he famous?', but rather, 'Why should he be famous?'
In various chapters we're told what are embarrassing stories that I was told would be 'hilariously sidesplitting'. I didn't laugh while reading Binge. My reaction instead was one of slight puzzlement as to how someone so young (he's a mere 27 at the time of this writing) can insist his views, his experiences, can be of such importance to anyone whom he isn't personally connected.
Sometimes though, my reaction was slight repulsion. Of particular note is the appropriately titled section Fecal Matters, which starts out "Over my lifetime, I've had an interesting relationship with poop". After regaling us with his various nicknames for the anus, he talks about how in his earlier days he had difficulty defecating. As a Gen-Xer, though not one as filled with angst and apathy as most of my peers, I'm not sure how to read something like Fecal Matters. It wasn't funny to me. It was both bizarre and a bit disturbing.
Another section is Disney Princes; I should have mentioned off the bat that Tyler Oakley is gay. Nothing wrong with that, we're all free to live our lives however we wish so long as no lives are actually being taken or abused, but Oakley does remind me of that quip, 'the love that dares not speak its name is now the love that won't shut up'. Hence, Disney Princes, where Oakley marks down his Top Twelve Princes in Disney animated films according to how attractive he found them.
One of them, Eric from The Little Mermaid, loses points because he killed, "the best Disney villain of all time, the drag queen that is Ursula. Unforgivable. RIP" (emphasis his).
Allow me to digress to say that when I saw The Little Mermaid, a.) I didn't think of sexually desiring any character, b.) I wouldn't know what a drag queen was, and c.) I think Maleficent and the Queen from Snow White are greater Disney villains. Furthermore, while I can't say I know many gay men, the few I know don't talk or haven't mentioned their erotic fixations on animated figures. I guess I could ask.
I suppose it's just because my viewpoint comes from someone older who didn't obsess about sex at age 12 (or obsess about it now). That brings me to yet another chapter, Brace Yourself. Here, he talks about how his parents made him get braces and that they took Oakley to have them tightened by dental students to save money (his family's poverty being something he mentions often). At age twelve, he finds nirvana. A quote:
"Dental students used poor kids like me as their practice dummies, and when I met mine, I was ready to surrender all control. My student was tall, handsome, charming, and had muscles bulging under his scrubs. He had to be more than a decade older than me, but that didn't stop me from thirsting".
Already fantasizing about living a life together with this dental student, his body finally allowed him to taste a touch of temptation. Tightening braces requires the person to spit, so in his own words, "I did what any twelve-year-old flirting with a man twice his age might do--I licked his fingers".
The dental student quickly pulled his hands from Oakley's mouth, asked (perhaps nervously) if he needed to spit, and when told no, kept going.
Again, be it me, but at age 12, I wouldn't have known what the concept of flirting was, let alone flirting with anyone twice my age or wanting reciprocation from someone twice my age.
The entire essay, one of the shortest, was one I found rather uncomfortable. The idea a twelve-year-old would 'thirst' for an adult, male or female, dream of a life together as the closest thing possible to 'wedded bliss', or flirting with a man twice his age is, well, I leave it up to you to decide what you think of such things.
Most of Binge follows in that vein: Oakley discussing his favorite things (sex), absolutely mundane things (one section revolves about what he'd do if he were Beyoncé for a day, another on holidays he'd get rid of), and the rigors of being a YouTuber (mentioning other people I've never heard of, whom I figure are famous via YouTube). It even shows him to be a bit of a diva: one section is about how he threatened an employee over his Cheesecake Factory order, another when he threw his name around a Verizon shop, and one where he berated fans at a convention when they surrounded the bus he was in to sing him Happy Birthday (a song he doesn't care for).
When I say sex is a big deal in Binge, it isn't an understatement. Let me refer you to his essay, Ten Cummandments. Among his tips are to shave the armpits, not squeal like a fangirl when/during/after sex with Oakley (he states one encountered ended with him asking for a selfie, another Millennial invention I don't understand), and know whom you are actually having sex with.
I figure that is one of the primary difference between Oakley and myself: I wouldn't discuss my sex life with anyone, let alone everyone. Further, I don't see a need to do so.
However, there was one section that had me if not riveted, at least gave me a greater insight into Mathew as opposed to Tyler. The One That Got Away, the longest of his essays, details his first great love affair with a man named Adam. Adam said he was straight, but as time went on it took only one drunk St. Patrick's night to show that at least he was flexible. As time went on, Adam came to admit slowly to himself and Oakley that he was gay and that he was in love with Tyler. However, Adam was not ready to come out to his family, and Tyler respected that...at first.
However, the push and pull of the relationship began to wear on Oakley. Oakley wasn't ashamed of who he was (rightly so) but also knew that you shouldn't push someone to come out until they are ready. Still, they were boyfriends, and this cloak-and-dagger business of having to hide their relationship from the world, especially as Oakley was gaining fame as an LGBTQ+ advocate, was making things impossible for Oakley.
Eventually, they did break up, but a break up is hard no matter who you are or how old you are. Oakley cried for hours, days on end, even contemplated suicide. Eventually, with some help from the Trevor Project, he pulled through.
The One That Got Away was one of his best sections because it wasn't about something silly or superfluous. It was about something I understood, about something deeper than a romp or his latest run-in with a famous (or at least somewhat known) person. It was about the joy and pain of love, in its confused, confusing form.
Speaking of pain, there is one last section I'd like to tackle. That is Pleasure and Payne, referring to his ups and downs with former boy band One Direction. Now, again, while I know of them, and even have learned their names (Harry, Zayn, Liam, Niall, and Louis), I wouldn't know one from the other, but that's beside the point. Being introduced to 1D by friends, Oakley because obsessed (part of being in his own words, a 'professional fangirl'). He promoted them on his social media, went on about them, and eventually got their good graces.
The One Directioneers (I think that's what the fans are called) soon embraced him as one of their own, a high priest/priestess in the cult of these former Britain's Got Talent participants (if memory serves correct), even chanting HIS name when spotted at a 1D concert, with Oakley getting swept into the mania by waving his ass at them while wearing his "Professional Fangirl" shirt.
However, how fickle are fangirls, even professional ones. After rereading Pleasure and Payne, it's still a bit murky what exactly happened, but from what I understand, one of them (Liam Payne, hence the title) retweeting something from someone who said things that were interpreted as homophobic, and Oakley, out and proud, tweeted Payne and expressed concern/hoped for clarification.
Payne took issue with this, tweeted that Oakley was never a real fan, and the Directioneers, lemmings to the end, went after Oakley. The tweets against Oakley were harsh to say the least (things like #WeWantTylerOakleyDead and #RIPTylerOakleysCareer were probably the nicer things), so much vitriol slung that even Oakley was unnerved and pulled away from social media for a while. Eventually he came back, stronger and more sure that one had to stand their principles no matter what...even if it meant getting cut off from five pretty British boys.
Binge, I suppose, is interesting reading to those who think Tyler Oakley and/or his views are important. He isn't going to discuss such things as what steps to take to disarm North Korea, how to improve American education or whether it's macaroni & cheese or cheese & macaroni. As I finished Binge, I got some sense of who Tyler Oakley is: a person who likes to talk a lot about himself and how he meets famous people, can accidentally throw away expensive clothes used for some red-carpet event, and his early fixation with penises that continues unabated.
I just never got a sense as to why I, or anyone, really should care.
It brings to mind something I heard on NPR, I think, a profile of Girls. In the clip, Lena Dunham's character is shocked when her parents cut her off financially. She protests that they shouldn't, using the idea that "I don't think I'm the voice of my generation. I think I am a voice, of a generation". I figure Tyler Oakley thinks if he isn't the voice of Millennials, he is a voice, of a generation.
Maybe next time, he can tell me why I, Generation X, or anyone not Millennial, should listen.
And we wonder how Mama Hillary lost...
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
Sherr, L. (2014). Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Sally Ride is an icon, an American heroine, yet also a figure cloaked in mystery. Her friend, journalist Lynn Sherr, has taken it upon herself to reveal the public, private, and secret world of the first American female astronaut in the biography about Dr. Ride. The title I believe is appropriate to how Dr. Ride saw life: direct, with no excessive details. Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space reveals as much as it can about the woman who broke barriers but still kept the world far more distant in her life than she was when she floated among the stars.
Sally Kristen Ride, the oldest of two sisters, came from a family that encouraged intellectual pursuits and did not hold the idea that a person's gender held one back from anything. In fact, the only time Sally was told she couldn't do something because she was a 'girl' was when she was told that she couldn't play for her beloved Los Angeles Dodgers.
No matter, as she found a true passion in tennis, playing fiercely and well enough to seriously consider a future as a professional (even going up against legendary tennis player Billie Jean King, who would become a friend and a sort of mentor in business years later). Ride, however, also had an analytical mind, and had a tremendous passion for science. If asked to find the term that best described her, she would answer "physicist", loving the logic of the natural sciences.
Ride would not think that being an astronaut would be within possibility until 1978, when while studying at Stanford, she saw a notice in the school newspaper announcing that NASA was looking for female astronauts. Ride sent her application, and was accepted as part of a new class that dubbed itself TFNG (Thirty-Five New Guys, though Sherr states it really came from another, less flattering term). The TFNG had six women and four minorities: three African-Americans and one Asian-American.
The class went through a battery of tests, drills, and training, and ultimately, Ride's mastery of the Remote Manipulator System (RMS), the robotic arm that would dispatch material from the shuttle, that got her into history.
After her successful trips, she retired, slightly disillusioned with NASA's bungling that led to the Challenger disaster, but still enthusiastic as she enters a new phase: academia. She launches a new venture (no pun intended): to bring more interest to children in studying science and making it a career, in particular girls. Ultimately she uses her name and cache to create Sally Ride Science, which sets out to bring girls and boys into an interest in the sciences.
Sadly, Sally Ride was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died in 2012 shortly after her sixty-first birthday.
As Sherr was a friend of Ride, she brings her own insight into Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space. She also benefits greatly from having the full cooperation of all the Ride family: Sally's mother Joyce, sister Karen (better known as 'Bear' due to the young Sally's inability to say 'Karen' and reducing it to first 'Pear' then 'Bear'), and most importantly, Ride's longtime partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, with whom Ride spent the last twenty-seven years of her life.
Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space touches on Rides' very private life: her early lesbian relationships, her marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley, and her life with O'Shaughnessy. What Sherr finds frustrating is that Ride herself never wrote down her own feelings on topics, what she felt about love and romance. This must make getting a fuller picture of any subject frustrating, but Sherr confirms what she sensed in all her interactions with Dr. Ride: that ultimately Sally Ride was a very private person, not one to look back, or perhaps, look within.
Throughout the book, Ride's unwillingness or inability to express emotion publicly or even to others appears almost as a hindrance, forever keeping the subject just a little opaque, even after her death maintaining some semblance of the privacy she yearned for despite her history-making journey. However, once Ride is diagnosed, the cracks in her guarded nature begin to show. It is now, as she comes close to death, that Ride starts slowly making strides towards acknowledging her longtime partner.
This isn't to say that Ride was ever 'in the closet' to where her lesbian or bisexuality was a closely guarded secret. She travelled with O'Shaughnessy, lived with her, and even shared matching rings. However, through almost all their time together, Ride did not introduce O'Shaughnessy as her 'partner', her 'girlfriend', or her 'companion', or any euphemism that would have indicated a romantic relationship. Sherr speculates that seeing their friend Billie Jean King so publicly outed, and the damage that the revelation had on her business ventures, may have influenced their decision.
It is speculation because to a point, even O'Shaughnessy was not able to penetrate the strong guard of privacy that Ride had with everyone. My view is that Ride simply wanted a private life, a space all to her own, where she didn't have to explain herself. She already had a corner of history due to her historic flight (though Ride was technically speaking, the third woman in space).
As such, it is reading how Ride, as she battled her cancer, started chipping away at her own remoteness that moves one. Ride decided to register with O'Shaughnessy as 'domestic partners', something that she didn't need to do as she had already granted her partner the right of inheritance. For me though, the most poignant moment is when Ride told her longtime partner how she wished they could have another twenty-seven years together, a remarkable declaration given how Ride had in all their time together told Tam that she measured their relationship in terms of five or ten years, not a lifetime. That admission of just how important her longtime partner was to her made Sally Ride, emotional recluse, touchingly human.
Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space is, mercifully, not a total hagiography. It is certainly very sympathetic to the subject, but it also does not shrink from pointing out that Ride could at times be unpleasant. She could cut people off whom she considered having betrayed some trust (though to be fair, this is about the only flaw I can remember Ride having).
Sherr doesn't condemn or criticize her for that, nor does she condemn Ride for not revealing her sexuality until after her death or even the fact that her longtime companion endured a somewhat ambivalent relationship (or that they had no children because Sally wished it so, whatever O'Shaughnessy's wishes).
Sympathetic is the best term for Sherr's biography. It isn't fawning, it isn't critical.
The scientific terms are well-explained without being complicated, which is good for the laymen who don't follow NASA-speak.
About the only real flaw in Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space is the occasional snarky asides Sherr cannot resist adding. When commenting on the issue of 'bodily waste differences between men and women in space', Sherr writes the following:
The bodily waste issue was more than timely. Sally was following closely the campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which would go down to defeat two months later thanks, in part, to the fuss kicked up by Phyllis Schafly over the specter of unisex restrooms. You know, like the ones in airplanes. Or in your home. (Emphasis mine).
There is a mocking tone to Sherr's lines, clearly revealing the contempt she has for those who disagree with her (like the late Schafly). I don't agree with Schafly, but I also think Sherr could have rephrased this part or cut it out completely, sticking to placing objections like toilets in space in context of the times and era. She does this well when discussing such things as the 'good old boys' mentality within NASA from almost its inception or how the public at the beginning of the space race didn't conceive of the idea of an 'astronette'. When Sherr interjects her own contempt for those who disagree with her, it takes away from the subject and puts attention on Lynn Sherr herself, and she doesn't come across as capable of being truly objective.
Minor flaw though it is, a flaw it remains.
Ultimately though, Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space is as close to a definitive biography as we are likely to get on this true American heroine. Sally Ride's place in history is not just assured, but preserved with as great an insight into this private woman as we will ever have outside a successful séance. Sally Ride's life was devoted to exploration and breaking down barriers, to show that science was not just for 'men in white coats', but that it could be both a career for women and moreover, fun.
Sally Ride remains a heroine, an icon, and a woman any young girl (and yes, boy) should look up to and admire. Sally Ride: America's First Woman in Space, does Dr. Ride tremendous credit in keeping her memory alive, letting us see as much as possible and giving us not just greater insight into Sally Ride the persona, but Sally Ride the person.
P.S. While I'm sure Dr. Ride and Ms. Sherr would not approve of this, being a cheeky American I'm going to do it anyway. Should anyone criticize me, well, get over it.
Monday, July 20, 2015
Wiles, D. (2001). Freedom Summer. Aladdin Paperbacks, New York. Illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue.
It's a bit sad that Freedom Summer came when it did. I had requested from the El Paso Public Library around March, and it finally came in in July. It took all that time after my request for a copy to be found, despite there being a few listed among the EPPL's collection. In any case, we at last are able to look at Freedom Summer, the story of two boys and their friendship. One is white, one is black, and that is what makes this friendship so unique in its time.
Joe, the narrator, talks about his best friend, John Henry Waddell. He is the son of the family maid, Aunt Mae. Joe and John Henry spend their days going to the local creek to swim, and then Joe gets ice cream for himself and John Henry, who being black, cannot go in.
One night at dinner, Joe learns that a new law will allow blacks to go to all public places. That includes the local swimming pool. Joe is so excited because now John Henry will be able to go there, and they can swim together at the pool. When they get to the pool, however, they find that the pool was being filled in with tar. The local government has decided to close the pool rather than allow blacks to swim. John Henry and Joe can only sit at the diving board and look on the filled-in pool. Joe tries to comfort John Henry by suggesting they go back to the creek, but John Henry makes it clear he wanted to go into the pool.
With that, Joe decides to take John Henry to get ice cream, and to go in together.
Freedom Summer is a simple story told simply and sweetly. It is easy for children to read, using simple words that they will understand.
The subject matter is hard for children today to understand. We are long gone from the time of legal segregation, and Freedom Summer has an opening statement attempting to make clear what the laws were at the time desegregation took place. Deborah Wiles mentions also that some businesses and locations closed, some permanently, rather than integrate.
I don't see a flaw with Freedom Summer, perhaps apart from the idea that Joe would want to see the world through John Henry's eyes. Try as he might, Joe will never be able to see it with that vision because as a white boy, he has an advantage that John Henry will not have, at least until a generational change allows for it. I do find it a bit odd that Joe wouldn't see the difficulty of integration coming one day to the next.
Again, children are not born with prejudices. They are blessed with being free of preconceptions that plague the 'wiser' adults. They see things from different eyes. As such, Joe might not have understood that people would object to John Henry going to the pool. He knew enough to know John Henry couldn't go into the ice cream shop with him. He did understand how things work, but when it comes to the pool, he didn't. I found that a bit odd.
On the whole though, Freedom Summer has a positive message to give and tells it in a way children will understand. It ends on a positive note, with Joe inviting John Henry to go into the ice cream shop together. It's a small step to racial equality, but they are small boys.
Sunday, July 19, 2015
Green, J. (2005). Looking For Alaska. Penguin Random House, New York.
Has it really been only ten years since John Green's debut novel, Looking for Alaska, was published? Ten years since the Illustrious Mr. Green sprouted his other works, like Paper Towns, An Abundance of Katherines, and the "Citizen Kane" of teen novels (at least to him), The Fault in Our Stars? If you note a certain sarcasm about Green, it's because I have it. I only saw the film version of The Fault in Our Stars, and to be honest, I found much fault in the film. Quoting Shakespeare doesn't mean BEING Shakespeare, even to a group of dimwitted teens. Looking for Alaska, based partially on Green's own experiences at boarding school, is a book beloved by many: readers and critics alike.
Sorry, I'm not in either group.
Miles Halter leaves his public high school in Florida to go the Culver Creek Preparatory High School in Alabama, which was his father's alma mater. He goes seeking "the Great Perhaps", an answer to what is 'out there', beyond this mortal coil. At CCPH, he rooms with Chip Martin, nicknamed "The Colonel". The Colonel takes one look at skinny Miles Halter and instantly dubs him "Pudge". Miles/Pudge also meets three other people who will be important: the Japanese student/beat-box impresario Takumi, the beautiful Romanian student Lara (who has an accent), and Alaska Young.
Ah, Alaska Young. The beautiful, enigmatic, troubled, fascinating, erotic Alaska Young. Pudge is instantly drawn to this figure who is hard to figure out. She drinks, she smokes, she is someone Pudge finds desirable sexually and emotionally (despite her being a basketcase). While she has a boyfriend, a college student named Jake, Alaska can be coy with our innocent narrator Miles. Pudge has a fixation with people's last words, so much so that he only reads the ends of biographies to find what was the last thing they said. Perhaps there are words of wisdom within them that he can draw from (his seeking "the Great Perhaps" comes from someone's last words). Alaska, learning this, gives him what are reportedly Simon Bolivar's last words, "How can I ever get out of this labyrinth?"
This Collective as I call it is forever at war with The Weekday Warriors, those wealthy kids who leave Culver Creek on the weekends. The group Pudge finds himself in performs pranks on the Weekday Warriors, especially after a couple of them, for retribution for something done last year, almost end up drowning poor Pudge (who just got there). As time goes by, with Pudge introduced to the wonders of drinking, smoking, and near the middle part of the book, a blowjob (thanks, Romanian beauty queen), he still can't let go of his idea of Alaska. Alaska: the girl with the tragic history, who watched her mother die and was so paralyzed with fear and shock she didn't call the police for help. The Colonel, a short guy with a chip on his shoulder (get it, "Chip"), wants to show up his hoity-toity classmates.
Then comes The Day. A drunk Alaska finally grants Pudge what he's long longed for: a passionate make-out session. She promises that this is 'to be continued', but later that night an even drunker Alaska comes in, hysterical and screaming. Despite her being visibly intoxicated and highly emotional, Pudge and the Colonel help her drive out of Culver Creek by distracting The Eagle (the headmaster). The last thing she says to them is "God oh God, I'm so sorry."
The next day, the school learns that she was killed in a car accident, her having run headfirst into a police car that was investigating a jackknifed truck. A group of flowers was found in her car.
The rest of Looking for Alaska involves the Colonel and Pudge attempting to investigate the real cause of death. Was it perhaps suicide? Why was Alaska so hysterical? Miles' own questioning of where Alaska went (if she went anywhere, since Miles has no belief in the afterlife) as well as his own guilt about letting her drive off in that condition plague him. He ignores Lara, who was something of a girlfriend to him. The Investigation is about the only thing that keeps him going, that an a posthumous prank from Alaska Young involving a male stripper posing as a Professor of Psychology specializing in teenagers and sexuality. He begins what sounds like a typical speech, but when Lara, preplanned, shouts for him to take his clothes off, Maxx the Stripper goes full Channing Tatum. As no one can be specifically pointed out to be the mastermind, no one gets punished.
In the end, Takumi provides clues to The Investigation. We discover that the night of Alaska's death was the anniversary of her mother's death. She had always placed flowers on her mother's grave on the anniversary, but this year she forgot. In her distraught state, she may have gone to try and place them now, or perhaps Alaska did really aim for the police car out of guilt. In any case, Alaska is dead, as is Miles' idealization of her. He reconciles himself to that.
What I find hard about Young Adult novels in general is the idea that teens have greater insight and wisdom than everyone else despite their lack of actual life. Green if anything, appears to be a master of encouraging teens to think they have special insight into the world. In fact, Pudge's summing up of the whole matter in a letter to the Colonel before he leaves for home at term's end pretty much states so.
"And if Alaska took her own life, that is the hope I wish I could have given her. Forgetting her mother, failing her mother and her friends and herself--those are awful things, but she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct. Those awful things are survivable, because we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be. When adults say, "Teenagers think they are invincible" with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don't know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken, We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die".
Gobbledygook, I says, and phooey on Green for pushing such ideas. I'm tired of teens and the writers who love them too much pushing this narrative that the young know more than the old, and that somehow their own little world is the real world. Teens are quite destructible. Adults are quite destructible. We can choose to be destroyed by the forces oppressing us, or we can accept that the world is something we can make into something beautiful or something awful. We have the power of choice. Alaska's choice was simple: to drink too much, smoke too much, tease Pudge, and then collapse when she remembered what she had forgotten. Pudge and the Colonel, and Takumi's choices were also easy: they could have stopped Alaska from driving. They all had a hand in Alaska's death, and they proved that Alaska was quite destructible.
I tire of teenagers who think they know all the answers to all the questions, and especially of those who coddle such notions.
In a sense, Alaska did kill herself, but not perhaps by deliberately running into the police car. She killed herself long before getting behind the wheel, by drinking too much to drown the guilt she had over something she could not control. It's interesting that Alaska's inability to call 911 when her mother died mirrors Ray Charles' inability to call for help when his younger brother drowned in the tub (the film Ray, which came out in 2004, came to mind for some reason). Ray Charles not only carried the guilt about that, but he even went blind. Yet, despite all that (and being black to boot), Ray Charles not only managed to survive, but thrive. Alaska, a white girl who manages to go to a posh school which probably costs her father a pretty penny, can't.
We all suffer loss, we all suffer pain. We can shoulder it in many ways: family, friends, faith. Alaska had a few of the second, at least one of the first, but none of the third. She did have the bottle and the smokes, which make for a poor substitute.
I never understood Pudge's idealization of Alaska. Yes, she must have been quite beautiful physically, but she was also openly troubled from the get-go. He must be a particularly weak person to not say at one point that Alaska was trouble. He never objected to any of the Colonel's stunts or in the drinking and smoking which he was introduced to (as a side note, I managed to go through high school without drinking or smoking, but then, I went to public high school). Perhaps though, I should not be too hard on that subject. We all have a tendency to romanticize the past, to idealize someone at some point. Most of us though, get over it.
I find it interesting that Pudge is bothered by the fact that he will never know Alaska's final words. Actually, let me field that question. Pudge DOES know Alaska's final words. They were, "God oh God, I'm so sorry". As there was no one else to hear anything else she said, those would be the final recorded words of Alaska Young. I don't understand why Green doesn't allow Pudge to accept that those were her final words.
What I found was that Pudge and Company were themselves a bit elitist. They held contempt for the Weekday Warriors to where they were angered that they would cry at the news of Alaska's death. I found that the Colonel's crew had no compassion themselves. Why couldn't the Weekday Warriors cry? They, and I am speculating on this, weren't crying specifically for Alaska. They were crying for themselves, for the fact that death now had become something real, something they had to face. They now knew they were quite destructible. Also, there is something called empathy. I have cried at the deaths of people I don't know (like those women stoned to death or gay men tossed off buildings by ISIS). According to Green though, I cannot do such things as feel for others. I can only cry for those I know.
OK, I'll grant that perhaps since this is told from Miles' perspective this would be a natural reaction to seeing his 'enemies' cry at the death of his friend. Still, that bothered me, the idea that one could not empathize for someone else.
Looking for Alaska has what I think has become a template for modern YA books: insecure boy, enigmatic girl, offbeat friends fighting against the 'cool kids', some sex, good amount of booze and smokes (legal and otherwise), with occasional dead people thrown in. Based on my memories of the film I don't find much difference between Looking for Alaska and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. There are differences, of course, between them. However, in many respects they share similar traits.
I admit to not finding Catcher in the Rye all that great, primarily because I read it in my thirties, not my teens. Perhaps if I had read Looking for Alaska when I was in high school, I would have been as enamored of it (and of John Green as the literary light he sees himself as) as the many teens who swoon over people their own age who know they are indestructible. I can see the appeal of these kinds of books: with their 'wisdom' about the struggles of rich and middle-class white children (curious how Green has few if any minorities in his books, as far as I know. White privilege, anyone?). For myself, I found Pudge's search for The Great Perhaps dull and slightly narcissistic, as if he was the first to ever fall in love with an idea or know of death at a young age. I found it all a little smug, a little condescending, and frankly I can live with the idea that Alaska died because she drove drunk, not because of her own inward guilt.
Hey, Johnny...I have a few last words for you. They are John Wilkes Booth's final words, as he looked on his hands as he lay dying.
Heaven help us if HE becomes 'the voice of our generation'.
Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Childs, C.J. (2008). I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee. Henry Holt & Co., New York.
As part of the recent Youth Literature class, as well as the fact that after fifty-plus years, Harper Lee is coming out with a second book (Go Set a Watchman), I think it would be nice to look over the life of this intensely private but pugnacious person: Miss Nelle Harper Lee, author of one of the Greatest Books of the Twentieth Century: To Kill a Mockingbird. I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee, is the juvenile version of Charles J. Shields' adult biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, is an excellent read for the target audience. It gives wonderful information and insight into the intensely private author but is written in such a way that it doesn't sensationalize or delve into generally unpleasant matters (the murder of the Clutter Family in Kansas which was the basis of her frenemy Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which Lee was instrumental in creating but which Capote downplayed her assistance).
Nelle Harper Lee's life is covered, beginning with her early years in Monroeville, Alabama. She's the daughter of the South, but no Southern belle by any stretch. Much like her main character in TKAM, she was a tomboy: willing to stand up and fight any boy, as well as play football like one. She forced her way to a game once, and she didn't go down but instead knocked others down. When the captain yelled that they were playing touch, she yelled back, "Y'all can play that sissy game if you want to, but I'm playing tackle!"
In what might be a contradiction, while she was rough-and-ready, she also had a deeply intellectual side. In one of those fortuitous turns of literature, her next-door neighbor was another future American literary legend, Truman Capote (then known by his birth name of Truman Streckfus Persons). He had essentially been dumped by his parents: the vain status-seeking Lillie May and the ne'er-do-well Archie, in the care of relatives. They were neighbors to the Lee family, which couldn't be further from Capote's chaotic life.
Lee's father, A.C. Lee, was a successful lawyer, Alabama state representative, and newspaper publisher. His oldest daughter Alice followed her father's footsteps, and at first Nelle tried to do likewise. However, her non-traditional ways in forms of dress and disinterest in being the embodiment of the proper lady (she smoked, she swore, and didn't have many if any real friendships/relationships) put her at odds with almost everyone around her. She also had a great passion: to write. The two came into conflict, and eventually, despite the misgivings of her family, she went to New York, where her old friend Truman, now known as Truman Capote (adopting his stepfather's surname), had made a big noise.
Capote, who referred to themselves as 'apart people', was one of the few in her early years to be a kindred soul. As children, they wrote together and were engulfed with books. They would carry around a new typewriter almost everywhere (except to the treehouse, as it was too heavy). As an adult, Lee started out as the prototypical struggling writer, finding a job with BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) ticket seller and trying to write. A fortuitous friendship allowed her to quit her job thanks to a gift of money that would allow her to live while she devoted herself full-time to writing.
With revisions and editing, she cranked out To Kill a Mockingbird, which came at the same time that her old friend Capote came to her and asked her to be his "assistant researchist" (his term) on his 'nonfiction novel'. Her quiet manner and Southern charm smoothed the way for her loud, flamboyant, egocentric friend, who frankly irritated and shocked the conservative Kansans, who were in shock over the Clutter killings. She and Capote didn't record their interviews, relying on their memories which they shared in evenings. Often, Capote would write "See NL's notes" for clarification.
While she helped Capote, she also turned her attention to her novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. She expected it to 'die a merciful death at the hand of reviewers', but instead she appeared to hit the zeitgeist of the rising civil rights movement. The book became an immediate success, eventually winning the Pulitzer, a rare honor for a first-time novelist who hadn't published before. The book redeemed her in her eyes to not having pursued law, and the film version cemented the legend.
As time went on however, Harper Lee became irritated by all the attention she was getting because of TKAM. She worked on a second novel, but with all the publicity for Mockingbird, time just slipped by. Later on, she did declare she was working on a second book, to be titled The Reverend, in the style of Capote's In Cold Blood. Perhaps this was a way to get back at her friend, who downplayed Lee's contribution to his work (and this genteel antagonism might have been mutual, as Capote never "went to any strenuous lengths to deny" having written part or all of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee's disillusionment with her friend, dislike to be connected with In Cold Blood, and general dislike of attention was such that she did not attend the legendary Black and White Ball Truman threw for Washington Post editor Katherine Graham.
As time went on though, the idea of publishing another book slipped. She would not speak at presentations, and her relationship with Monroeville, which has capitalized on their 'golden goose', has been fraught with tension. At one point, she threatened to sue the local historical society when it thought of publishing Calpurnia's Cookbook, basing it on own of the novel's characters. The entire run of the book had to be destroyed. Now in her 80s, she is at peace about her curious place in literature: one book (so far), yet a legend. As Miss Lee wrote to a friend, "People who have made peace with themselves are the people I most admire in the world".
I Am Scout gives us really interesting information both about her and her legendary book; for example, her choice for Atticus Finch was Spencer Tracy, even writing to him to suggest he play the role. The studio for its part, wanted Rock Hudson. Even after Gregory Peck was cast, there were subtle problems. Peck, who had a strong financial hand in the film, insisted on building up his part at the expense of the children's viewpoint (Peck insisted on removing a scene where Jem reads to a dying Mrs. DuBose because it again put the emphasis on the children and not on Atticus Finch, much to the director's sadness). She also lived in New York for several years, but disliked the city itself (she wouldn't go to Manhattan), not living lavishly despite the wealth she probably accumulated through the book. More curiously, though she lived close to friends she did not visit them or encourage visits. It is as if she, like Greta Garbo, wants to be alone.
Lee also has a curious hostility to Mary Badham, who played Scout in the film version. "(Harper Lee) rebuffed attempts by (Badham)...to communicate with her. 'Mary acts like that book is the Bible', Nelle mentioned to Kathy McCoy, the former director of the Monroe County Heritage Museums. According to a terse not in the museum's archives, '(Gregory Peck) told M.B. not to try to contact N.L.". One gets the idea that Lee respects her work, but also thinks that it is simply too difficult to live up to the legend. It is her Citizen Kane, but unlike Orson Welles, she quit while she was ahead.
Then again, she really didn't quit. She had full intention of writing many books, of telling many stories. However, the publicity, the notoriety, the passion Mockingbird was held by the public, in a way pushed Lee to not write. Shields comments that the two essays she wrote for magazines post-Mockingbird had "a strong whiff of self-righteousness", calling them too self-conscious, as if she were trying to already live up to a legend she didn't want and couldn't carry.
Harper Lee has pretty much resigned herself to both the praise and curse of To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that is good, that she knows is good, but that has also pretty much condemned her to endless comparisons, which might have frightened her from going into publishing another one...until now. At age 89, a second Harper Lee book, Go Set a Watchman, is set for publication this July (I already have it on order, though it won't arrive until a few days after initial publication. I'm not in that much of a hurry). It is called a sequel to her first book, though it apparently was written prior to Mockingbird and only recently rediscovered (even Lee apparently forgot all about it).
I Am Scout is perfect for the target audience, providing an interesting portrait of the author who has earned a place in history with only one book to her name (at least until July 2015), written in a simple tone that children will find easy. Adults can also enjoy I Am Scout as a fascinating portrait of the mostly-reclusive writer, who gave the world a wonderful story, then watched it overtaken by others whose intensions were both good and bad.
|Nelle Harper Lee|