Tag Archives: biography

Come In From The Rain

our-song-sager

They’re Playing Our Song: A Memoir by Carole Bayer Sager (Simon & Schuster, $28.00, 352 pages)

“I loved my parents, but I didn’t want to be like them.  I didn’t want to be afraid of life.  The trouble was, it was all I knew.”  Dani Shapiro (“Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life”)

“Music saved my life and gave me life.  It was where I allowed myself to feel fully alive, where it was safe…  As long as I stayed in that lane, I was protected from the frightening stories I would otherwise tell myself.”  Carole Bayer Sager

Carole Bayer Sager’s memoir – which, in an ideal world would have been accompanied by a CD of her songs (performed by Sager and others) – is an entertaining but somewhat bewildering work.  It’s interesting to read about how her songs, beginning with “A Groovy Kind of Love” were written, but there’s an odd dichotomy that pervades her life story.  On the one hand, Sager portrays herself as a person unnaturally afraid of almost everything, from flying to performing.  But then there’s the ultra confident Sager who writes songs with the likes of Marvin Hamlisch, Burt Bacharach, Carly Simon, Carole King, Bob Dylan and so many others.  This is the Sager who hung out with Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Dylan, David Foster, Peter Allen, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Melissa Manchester, David Geffen, and so many others.

There’s no co-writer listed, no indication that this memoir is an “as told to…” work.   Perhaps if a professional writer-editor had been directly involved, he or she would have pointed out the inherent contradiction in the telling.  In addition, a writing assistant might have advised Sager to cut down the long, long list of famous people in her account; this book transforms name dropping into an art!   In fact, it might have been easier for Sager to have listed the famous people she has not run across in her existence.

And there are other issues.  One is that Sager repeatedly discusses her body image concerns with the reader.  Although she is a small woman, Sager has viewed herself as battling weight issues since childhood.  Mentioning this a few times would have been understandable.  However, it arises time and time again.  The repetitiveness tends to wear the reader down.  And there’s the matter of her sexual encounters.  She’s determined to tell the reader intimate details of her relationships with famous men.  Not only is this unnecessary – but for the fact that titillating details may sell a few books, it’s boring.

Where They’re Playing Our Song succeeds is in establishing the case for Sager as an extremely talented and successful songwriter.   The book was the impetus for this reviewer to listen to her songs as originally performed and/or covered by many talented recording artists.  Before reading this memoir, I was unaware of the song she wrote for Frank Sinatra, “You and Me (We Wanted It All).”   For someone less blessed and talented than Sager, writing a song recorded by the Chairman of the Board would have been in itself a life’s work, a definitive achievement.

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Recommended, if hesitantly, for music fans and prospective songwriters who will take what they need and leave the rest.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on October 18, 2016.

 

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Trouble in the Heartland

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 528 pages)

“It’s a town full of losers/I’m pulling out of here to win…”  Thunder Road

Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run (what else?) is not for the faint of heart.   But, then, neither is his music.

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Springsteen fans have heard many of these tales before, but not directly from The Boss, and not in this format.   The stories of his complex relationship with his father and his battle with depression are quite gripping.   The coming of age tales of his early days trying to break in to the music business are more engaging than his tales of the E Street Band, though many of those are interesting.   (Note for the current generation – there was a day before The Voice).

Springsteen essentially lived as a vagabond for a decade, including after he signed his recording contract with Columbia.   It is hard to believe that after Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town he was not in the clear financially until after The River tour.   This was due to many things – not making much money at first, signing a very one-sided contract, legal fees, and studio time.   It is still rather hard to imagine.

One can hear the song in his prose, and it compels the reader to go back and listen to his records.   Springsteen had a vision.   He put himself on the line until this vision was all he had left; he relentlessly pursued it until it became a reality.   This book reminds us that Springsteen and the E Street Band were singularly unique.   The concert I saw in April of 1984 was the greatest performance I have ever witnessed.

Springsteen impresses with his candor.   Although careful at times, he comes across as genuine and forthright.   Springsteen did not set out to write a fluff book of nostalgia; rather, in his words: “I fought my whole life, studied, played, worked, because I wanted to hear and know the whole story…  I wanted to understand in order to free myself of its most damaging influences, its malevolent forces… and its power.”   This is some undertaking.

Though his personal relationships were often tumultuous, he views the E Street Band as his family.   He professes his love for wife Patti Scialfa.   And he admits that he did not always treat everyone as he could or should have.

Springsteen speaks with reverence of those that have passed.   He writes of the death of organ player Danny Federici – who asked to play “Sandy” on the accordion at his final concert.   He also writes of Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons, who had to sit on his last tour and be helped on and off the stage.   Springsteen may be driven, but one comes to like this book because of his honesty.   If he’s not honest here, he may be the biggest con man of all time.

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One thing that does not quite jibe with me is Springsteen’s commentary on drummer Max Weinberg, whom he categorizes as both a great timekeeper and soloist.   I’ve never viewed Weinberg as being in the class of innovative drummers like Keith Moon. But, then, who am I to question The Boss?

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

This book was delivered to the reviewer by Santa Claus.

Dave Moyer is an educator, the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel, and a drummer who has yet to be asked to join The Who.

 

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A Noble Life

James Madison Lynne Cheney

James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney (Penguin Books, $18.00, 576 pages)

Every law student begins his or her studies by reading the case of Marbury v. Madison, in which the U.S. Supreme Court invoked its right to strike down governmental actions which violate the law. As James Marshall strongly stated, “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” It was a decision that the then-defendant and Secretary of State James Madison – later the fourth president of the U.S. – was to disagree with: “This makes the judiciary department paramount in fact to the legislature, which was never intended and can never be proper”

The average person is not likely familiar with the life and political career of president Madison, something which is remedied by reading James Madison: A Life Reconsidered by Lynne Cheney. Cheney’s book builds a fine case for the greatness of the man known as the “Father of the (U.S.) Constitution.”

He had used his remarkable gifts in one of the most important ways a man could, by playing a key role – the key role, one might say – in creating a framework for laws and establishing institutions that would secure liberty and happiness for generations (of Americans) to come.

Madison may not have been as charismatic or attractive a figure as others of his time, such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, or Thomas Jefferson, but he was clearly – along with Jefferson – one of the most intelligent humans alive at the time. Madison was to join with Jefferson in giving birth to a new form of democratic government.

Each was probably the brightest person the other ever knew, and both were well schooled, giving them a vast fund of common learning on which to draw as they talked and planned. Both continued to study throughout life and considered books of mighty importance. Each was known to buy them whether he had ready cash or not.

It was the team of Madison and Jefferson – as Cheney clearly details in her account – that was largely responsible for creating the Constitution of the United States. And Madison, who was initially opposed to the Bill of Rights, was later to play a key role in its enactment. Madison was, as one speaker stated, a man who produced “Power and national glory… without the sacrifice of civil or political liberty.” He was to die as the final living signer of the Declaration of Independence.

There are some fascinating details supplied by Cheney, such as when she describes the secret code that Madison and Jefferson used to communicate with each other. Since mail was often lost or misdelivered in those days, they developed a system in which they assigned telephone number-like digits to each major figure they came in contact with. This meant that if anyone got hold of their correspondence, they would not be able to determine who the writers were referring to when they made less than complimentary remarks about an individual. And Cheney turns the rivalry between Aaron Burr, Jefferson, and Madison on one side and Hamilton on the other into something so dramatic, it reads like one of Gore Vidal’s history-based novels.

A major concern about this nonfiction work never comes into play, the fear that Mrs. Cheney – the wife of Richard (Dick) Cheney, would bring modern day politics into the telling. This is never an issue; there’s not a single instance in which she attempts to analogize between the past and present, or in which she is critical of a modern day political figure. Cheney on occasion does use academic language, such as the term “inquietude” (physical or mental restlessness or disturbance), but this is easily remedied by access to an online dictionary.

For the majority of readers, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered will be James Madison: A Great Life Encountered.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released in a trade paper version on May 5, 2015.

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“Compelling, elegant, original… Lynne Cheney brings the great, elusive James Madison back to life.” Michael Beschloss, author of Presidential Courage.

This review was originally posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-james-madison-a-life-reconsidered-by-lynne-cheney/

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Becoming Steve Jobs

Becoming Steve Jobs

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli (Crown Business, $30.00, 464 pages)

“You cannot connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.” Steve Jobs

Schlender and Tetzeli Connect the Dots

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” These words from Maxwell Scott seemed to have come to life in Walter Isaacson’s earlier-released biography of Steve Jobs. Isaacson’s version of Jobs’ story relied on commonly stated “facts” about Jobs, which have become the stuff of legend. And these facts strongly emphasized the less desirable aspects of Jobs’ personality and aggressive leadership style.

This new bio by Brent Schendler and Rick Tetzeli presents a kinder, gentler account of the man who co-founded and led Apple Computer; it seeks to get past “The cliche that Steve Jobs was half genius, half a–hole.” And it largely succeeds by emphasizing that any shortcomings on Jobs’ part were due to his dedication to Apple Computer: “He put the needs of the company ahead of any (personal or) work relationship.” That dedication produced the most successful technology company in the world. (It may also have led Jobs to delay cancer surgery that might have spared his life. When he later had the surgery, he was given only a “50-50” chance of living for five years; he survived for seven post-surgery years.)

This excellent account allows one to get to know Jobs as a living, breathing human being – an imperfect, fully goal-oriented man full of “deep restlessness.” Becoming Steve Jobs is such an effective telling of Jobs’ life story that at the conclusion of the book the reader will grieve his death – the world’s loss, all over again.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Becoming Steve Jobs was released on March 24, 2015.

“In this deeply researched book, you’ll find the most truthful portrait of the real Steve Jobs.” Marc Andreessen

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The Patriarch

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Tubulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw (Penguin Books Reprint Edition, $20.00, 896 pages)

The Patriarch paper

“If this was fiction, no one would believe it,” historian David Nasaw quipped on NPR’s Fresh Air about the extraordinary life of Joseph P. Kennedy, the subject of this biography, which is now available in a trade paperback.

In this 800-page tome [this refers to the hardbound edition], The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, Nasaw, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York’s Arthur M. Schlesinger Professor of History, captured one of the most enigmatic figures of the twentieth century. Although the length of the book might turn away readers, this Shakespearean tale – which was six years in the making – is surprisingly a page-turner. As he did with another larger-than-life twentieth century character, William Randolph Hearst in The Chief, Nasaw goes into depths previously not explored about Kennedy’s strengths and weaknesses.

Nasaw puts to rest many of the lingering myths about the patriarch. As the first biographer to be granted full acess to Kennedy’s papers, Nasaw left no rock unturned. What one gleans from The Patriarch is that Joseph P. Kennedy was a complicated man, full of contradictions.

Joe Kennedy and sons

He was an attentive, loving father, anxious to meet the needs of his nine children. Whether it was a school assignment or a common cold, Kennedy was engaged and quick to offer help, but he was hardly present in any of their lives. He was either off conducting business in Hollywood, serving in Washington and later in London, or vacationing in Palm Beach.

Kennedy adored his devoted wife, Rose, though he was unfaithful even when he was courting her. The infidelities would not let up until he had his stroke.

His view of Jews varied. On the one hand, he was ambivalent about saving the Jews from Nazi Germany and always had an anti-Semitic joke at the ready. On the other, some of Kennedy’s closest confidantes were Jewish, including his chief liaison to the media, New York Times columnist Arthur Krock (whom Nasaw discovered had an unusually close relationship with Kennedy, which for a journalist was borderline unethical).

Austere in his personal life, Kennedy rarely drank, exercised regularly, took few financial risks once his wealth was established and attended mass as often as he could given his hectic schedule. But in public life he was unable to restrain himself and could be viewed at times as self-destructive. Kennedy had little regard for social etiquette or political deference. Against the wishes of the FDR administration, he aired his opinions before they could be vetted, views that eventually had an adverse effect on the political futures of his sons.

In the same vein as David McCullough’s Truman or A. Scott Berg’s Lindbergh, Nasaw has produced a book that will appeal to the scholar, the book critic, and more importantly the general reader. The book’s scholarship is unmatched and its prose flows effortlessly. For those infatuated followers of the Kennedy family or interested in twentieth century American history, I could not recommend a more gratifying read – just make sure (due to its weight) it’s the electronic version.

Highly recommended.

Adam Henig

Adam Henig is a biographer, blogger and book reviewer. You can read more of his work at:

http://www.adamhenig.com/

This article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-patriarch-the-remarkable-life-and-turbulent-times-of-joseph-p-kennedy-by-david-nasaw/

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Coming Up Next…

The Patriarch

A review of The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy by David Nasaw.

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He Was A Friend Of Mine

TV Review – ‘The American Experience’ – ‘JFK’

The American Experience examines the life and times of the 35th President of the United States.

JFK

The WGBH/PBS two-part four-hour production, JFK, premieres on November 11 and 12. This is a unique and intriguing profile of the life of the 35th president of the United States. It begins with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Why? Because as a college student and best-selling author of Why England Slept Kennedy had argued that, “Democracies have to be ready to fight at all times.” But in late 1962, it was estimated that a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union – and involving China – would result in somewhere between 175 and 300 million deaths “in one hour” (to use Kennedy’s own terms). So John Kennedy stepped back, remained calm and avoided war in his finest hour as the leader of the Free World.

After this opening, JFK takes a traditional biographical, chronological look at the life of the man who, when he took the oath of office, was the youngest president in our country’s history. In this documentary, narrated by Oliver Platt, we hear from multiple historians, writers and former members of the Kennedy administration. Most importantly, we hear from Kennedy himself, on Dictaphone recordings that he made while in the White House.

The Kennedys were raised to be ambitious and to be agents of change. As Platt states, “The past was not the point in the Kennedy family.” It was all about the future – a future that was to rest, in large part, on the shoulders of Joe Kennedy, Jr. As is well detailed in JFK, John Kennedy battled significant health problems his entire life, beginning with a near-death experience at the age of three.

After the death of Joe Jr. in World War II, no one expected that Jack Kennedy would have the strength and stamina to pursue a political campaign. But he successfully did so, campaigning each day from sunrise to midnight in order to become a Congressman at the age of 29. He subsequently became a U.S. Senator at the age of 34, defeating Henry Cabot Lodge in 1952.

Kennedy stated that, “The presidency is the ultimate source of action.” Despite being saddled with constant physical pain he would settle for nothing less than becoming the person who would occupy the oval office.

JFK provides some fascinating photographs and video footage of Kennedy in his youth, some taken while he was in college at Princeton and Harvard. It’s a bit frightening to see how much of John Kennedy, Jr. could be seen in a young, thin John Kennedy.

One of the fascinating pieces of information we learn from JFK is that the prized golden tan he possessed was actually a discoloration of his skin caused by the medications taken to control his Addison’s disease.

This PBS program takes us from the initial difficult two years of the Kennedy administration, when relatively little was accomplished legislatively, to the activist final months of the Kennedy White House. John Kennedy, according to a niece, “loved being president.” Kennedy believed in the Great Man theory of governance, and he was growing in stature and confidence during the last months of his life.

This look at the Kennedy presidency provides a clear explanation of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In this it is exemplary. Where the documentary trips up a bit is in including a brief (fortunately brief) segment on Kennedy’s womanizing. The section feels like something that was added as an after-thought; it would have best been left on the cutting room floor.

The first two hours of JFK and even part of the third hour will be a bit dry for many viewers. But the fourth and final hour justifies the time spent in revisiting history. In that hour we observe the John Kennedy who was accepted by the Free World as its fearless leader – the Kennedy who was as much loved in France and Germany as in his ancestral home of Ireland. We also glimpse a man who enjoyed being a father, and who grew closer to his wife before the journey to Dallas. (This was the first and only time that Jackie Kennedy traveled with her husband on a domestic political trip.)

JFK DC

JFK takes us to the final hours and minutes of Kennedy’s life. Out of respect for the man, no footage of the assassination is displayed. What we do see and share in is the enormous sense of grief and anguish that people around the world experienced after his untimely death. Even Nikita Khrushchev was visibly shaken as he signed a guest book in sorrow.

To this day, John F. Kennedy is a man missed by many – both by those who met him and by those who never did. JFK succeeds in examining and detailing his life, a life which ended in horrific tragedy.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This article originally appeared on the Blogcritics site:

TV Review: ‘American Experience’ – ‘JFK’

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