Tag Archives: Three Rivers Press

Hollywood Nights

Reagan: The Hollywood Years by Marc Eliot (Three Rivers Press, $17.00, 375 pages)

“(The Hollywood social scene) was…  made up of Republicans.   The Powells, the Murphys, the Steins, the Bergens, the Taylors, all were conservative-leaning Republicans; Reagan was the only die-hard registered Democrat among them.”

It’s hard to associate the following words with our mental perception of President Ronald Reagan:  hardy Democrat, union leader and uber-supporter, heavy drinker and womanizer…  And yet, this is the picture of a young Reagan – the man before he met and married Nancy, painted by Marc Eliot, who specializes in writing biographies of famous actors.   It’s the shock attached to this portrait of an untamed young man who later became a stabilizing leader that will make the prospective reader of this account choose sides.

Some will refuse to read or even consider Reagan: The Hollywood Years since it does not mesh with the majority view of Ronald Reagan, the man.   This is a person’s right, just as it’s fair for some of us to refuse to read (or believe) the worst stories about the Kennedys.   Some will love that the account casts a disparaging view of an early Reagan; although, Eliot does not deny that Reagan experienced tremendous personal growth after marrying Nancy, settling down in every sense of the word, and entering politics.   And some, as I did, will find it to be a very engaging read, a quick read except for the fact that so many of the actors mentioned will be unknown to anyone not alive in the 1940s.   (You’ll need to have ready access to Wikipedia to continually look up the facts about actors and actresses; very few of whom are now living.)

Is Eliot’s biographical account credible?   Well, there are arguments to be found on both sides of the issue.   On the side of plausibility, Eliot’s not a hack writer.   He earned his MFA from the Columbia University School of the Arts, and then studied for a PhD in film history.   It’s not clear if he actually earned the PhD at Columbia, but he knows his films and he’s written some generally praised biographies, including American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant: A Biography and Jimmy Stewart: A Biography.   Eliot’s also packed Reagan: The Hollywood Years with an immense number of source notes, specific references and a detailed index.

In addition, at least one of the then young actresses who was said to have had a sexual fling with Reagan back in the day confirmed Eliot’s account after the book’s publication.   On the flip side, a number of individuals have challenged the “facts” in this unique account, and Eliot more recently published a biography of Steve McQueen that many have found to be a bit implausible, to say the least.   (There are better biographies of Steve McQueen.)

In Eliot’s version of his early life, Reagan was a minimally talented actor who became extremely well-known even though he was not even in the Top 40 actors of his time – one poll listing him as the 82nd favorite actor in 1939-40, when Clark Gable was number 1.   But Reagan was always a lucky young man, always getting the right break at the right time, which brings to mind what Paul Newman was to call “Newman’s luck.”   Mr. Reagan had Reagan’s luck.

“…he chose to spend most evening with young, willing and always beautiful starlets.”

This Reagan had a very contentious marriage to Jane Wyman.   He once said to  her, “We’ll lead an ideal life if you’ll just avoid doing one thing:  Don’t think.”   But his divorce from her almost destroyed him and led him to become a man who went through young starlets like a hot knife through butter.   He also was at one time, allegedly, a man who loved his drink.   In Eliot’s telling, Reagan sometimes met William Holden in the early evening at Ciro’s Nightclub on the Strip in West Hollywood where they would drink until the place closed.

Whether this all sounds plausible or not, it is one of Eliot’s most interesting accounts and it’s highlighted by some details that will not be found anywhere else.   For example, Eliot writes about the run-ins that Reagan had with the Kennedy brothers going back several decades; information that I’ve never come across before.

In the end, this is what Newsweek termed “A fascinating portrait.”   It may or may not be an accurate one; that’s not my decision to make.   One of the fascinating tales told in Eliot’s version of events in the life of the young Ronald Reagan came about when Reagan blasted Motion Picture magazine for violating his privacy – something that had not bothered him previously – once he began dating one Nancy Davis.   The magazine returned fire by printing an open letter to Mr. Reagan which sternly reminded him that, “Yours is a business, Mr. Reagan, which is built on publicity.   In this sense, actors are like politicians…”

Recommended, with the caveat that for some reading this book will require a suspension of disbelief.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   Here is a link to our review of Marc Eliot’s bio of Clint Eastwood:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/12/30/american-rebel-the-life-of-clint-eastwood/

The best biographies of Steve McQueen are Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel by Marshall Terrill, and Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of Hollywood Icon by Marshall Terrill and Peter O. Whitmer PhD.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Reagan: The Hollywood Years by Marc Eliot.

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Nowhere Man

Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton (Three Rivers Press, $15.99, 352 pages)

Ethically, it was never a problem for me…

The noted writer-reviewer John Updike once said, “Review the book, not the reputation.”   If this memoir had been written by an average Joe, it would likely draw comparisons to James Frey’s fake memoir (now labeled fiction), A Million Little Pieces.   Like that work, this account is filled with descriptions of inhaling massive quantities of illegal substances, of dangerous behavior and of hurting oneself and others no matter the consequences.   But this memoir is written by a multi-millionaire musician, one who treats near-priceless Ferrari automobiles like disposable coffee cups, one who walks on 30-story hotel ledges, and one who repeatedly and tragically hurt others:  “I suddenly told Pattie I was leaving…  I was like a flame in the wind, being blown all over the place, with no concern for other people’s feelings or for the consequences of my actions…”

Suffice it to say that the Eric Clapton found here is not a very nice or likeable person.   He’s a person, who until the end of this account in near present times, sees the world as existing to serve only his own pleasures; so this is at times both an immoral and an amoral telling of the events in his life.   If this sounds too harsh, here are Clapton’s own words:  “I was off having one-night stands and behaving outrageously with any woman who happened to come my way, so my moral health was in appaling condition and only likely to get worse…  I was already trying to sabotage my relationship with Pattie, as if now that I had her, I didn’t want her anymore.”   (emphasis added)

The person who knows little about Clapton prior to picking up this book – something that is not recommended – likely is aware that Clapton took Pattie Boyd Harrison away from George, one of Clapton’s very best friends.   That says volumes about his behavior, behavior which is only ampiflied in the 328 pages of this autobiography.   One might hope that this version of events, written by a spirited musician, would contain some life in it, but it’s flat and omits many of the details that were provided in Pattie Boyd’s earlier-penned memoir, Wonderful Tonight.

We must presume that Clapton wrote this memoir on his own as there’s no attribution to another writer (“Eric Clapton with…”) nor an “as told to” credit.   Frankly it reads as if it were dictated to a stenographer or into a recording device.

There’s little for the rock music lover to discover here, as Clapton’s accounts of playing with certain bands/musicians are sparse, and he never does describe how he came to learn his own brand of playing.   A lot of time – too much, it seems – is devoted to explaining his love of the blues, even though (despite his insistence here) most of his career has centered on playing rock rather than traditional blues music.   And there are many odd and questionable statements throughout the book…  For example, when Cream plays one of its first dates opening for The Who.   Clapton wonders then whether Cream could possibly succeed with just three musicians in the band, even though they saw that The Who (a musical trio – Roger Daltrey generally being just a vocalist) had already proven the success of this musical business model.   Odd.

Bad choices were my specialty, and if something honest and decent came along, I would shun it or run the other way.

Ah, yes, Clapton (in a style reminiscent of John Lennon) blames his bad choices in life on the fact that a parent abandoned him “all those years ago.”   This seems like an excuse that was used for far too many decades.   In his mind, because his mother abandoned him, he was free to seek revenge by abandoning everyone who came into his life; except, of course, that he’s now happy with a third wife and four daughters.   Good for him.

I remember when I was considering reading Boyd’s memoir Wonderful Tonight, and I came across an online comment to the effect that if one read her book one might well cease to be a fan of the musician Eric Clapton.   I feel the same way here – it will be much harder to listen to Disraeli Gears or 24 Nights or Derek and the Dominoes or Journeyman after this.   At one point, Eric Clapton seemed like Forever Man.   In this autobiography, he comes across more like Nowhere Man.

Joseph Arellano

The reviewer was lent a copy of this book.

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My Little Red Book

Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud (Three Rivers Press; $16.00; 432 pages)

“…the pursuit of his sexual impulses and attractions caused him undeniably conflicting feelings.”

The appropriate title of this book, based on its content, might well – and should have – been Sal Mineo’s Sex Life.   Because, yes, boys and girls, that’s what you get in well over 400 pages of its content – lurid accounts of Sal having sex with women, with men, with prostitutes, and engaging in three-ways, etc.   And you also get the bonus of Sal having sex with (and almost having sex with) some well-known actors and musicians.   Fun, huh?

Well, truthfully, not so much.   At least not for the reader who purchases this book thinking it’s going to be a conventional biography, one dealing with the late actor’s childhood, his teen years, his adult years and – most importantly – with the details of each film and television show that he appeared in.   We get some information about all of this here but it’s hidden under the tons of details about sex, sex, sex.   No matter what aspect of Mineo’s life is being touched on, it’s overwhelmed by sex.

Here is one quick and specific example, from the text (as Sal is working in London):

On February 4, Conrad Shadlen received Robin Maugham’s proposed contract to write a screenplay from his novel.   That evening, Sal and Courtney discussed their concerns about Maugham’s monetary demands over dinner in the restaurant April and Desmond’s.   The proprietress, April Ashley, was Britain’s most famous transsexual.

Now what possible relevance is attached to the sexuality of the restaurant owner?   None, except that titillation, constant and lurid titillation, is on the agenda for the writer.   It became far more than enough for this reader during the first 90 pages, and was quite tiring and overloading in the space of 400+ pages.   (You’ve heard of the phrase, a one-trick pony.   This is a one-note biography, and – it might be said – a bio about tricks.)

The author claims to be lucky by having had the cooperation of Jill Haworth and Courtney Burr, two people involved in Mineo’s life personally and romantically.   I think not.   I think that without their involvement Michaud might have produced a more traditional biography.   But we will never know.

One point that needs to be made is that several pages of photographs of Mineo are included – the majority of them without his shirt – and one of them appears to be made out to the author by Mr. Mineo.   Yet the author never touches upon the circumstances of having received this autographed photo, something that might have provided some perspective.

“I think to have success so young made the rest of his life unfulfilling…”

Michaud also misses a great opportunity here.   While writing about the filming of Rebel Without a Cause, he fails to focus on the curse of this film that made three actors mega-stars very early in their lives, but that also seemed to doom each one of them (James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood) to an early death.   And it stretches things a bit to place Mineo’s talent at the level of Dean’s.   James Dean was a once in a generation, if not once in a century, actor.

The most entertaining, interesting and well written portion of this work is the Afterword that describes the trial of Mineo’s killer.   Unfortunately, one has to plow one’s way through 373 sexaholic pages to get to this point.   And although it appears to be well written and factual, the author was never in contact with the prosecutor in the case, one Michael Genelin, formerly of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

If you’re the type of reader who believes that a person’s life is best defined by their sexual practices, then you may enjoy this  bio.   However, if you feel that a person’s sexual life is that person’s private business, then you will very likely not get this work.   I did not get it.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Sal Mineo: A Biography was released in a trade paperback version on October 10, 2011.

Note:   We mentioned in this review that the writer did not contact former prosecutor and author Michael Genelin (Requiem for a Gypsy).   We asked him to give us his impressions of the accuracy of the content presented in the book’s Afterward.   Here is his response:

“The facts, as presented by Michaud seemed, in the main, to be correct.   There were a number of things about the case that he was incorrect on, most of them minor; however, he also got much of it right…  with two exceptions.   Michaud said we played tapes of (Lionel) Williams wherein he made numerous boasts of the killing.   Nope!   We had no recorded statements of Williams boasting of the killing.   We also did not, as alleged, bring in the defendant’s past criminal record – commencing with a juvenile conviction when he was 14 – to establish a ‘pattern of criminal behavior.’   That would not have been allowed, and would have been reversible error.”

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Talkin’ Baseball

Parents Behaving Badly: A Novel by Scott Gummer (Touchstone, $23.00, 224 pages)

You can observe a lot by just watching.   – Yogi Berra

Parents Behaving Badly is a solid, if not spectacular, offering by Scott Gummer.   Gummer has likely drawn from some of his experiences as a participant, parent, and youth sports coach to craft a story familiar to most people with sons – the saga of a summer spent on the diamonds of Little League baseball.

The main character, Ben Holden, is the son of a local coaching legend known to everyone simply as, you guessed it, Coach.   Though the entire town reveres the man, as is often the case, the emotions of his own children are a bit more complicated.   Ben’s older brother, Fred, is the talented screw up, while Ben – the moderately talented overachiever – quits baseball to run track.   Sister Nancy spends  most of  her life moving from man to man with speculation that her hang-ups somehow trace back to her relationship with her father.   Ben is clearly the most centered and focused of the three children.

When Ben and his wife Jili return to their hometown in California from a stint out East, their two boys express an interest in playing Little League ball.   About two-thirds of the way into the season, their oldest son Andrew’s coach gets suspended by the league for inappropriate behavior, and Ben is thrust into the role of being the team’s coach.   His players and parents are forced to adjust to a new philosophy – going from “win at all costs” to “have fun playing the game.”   The shift is far from an easy one, and you can guess for yourself whether the “good guys” win at the end.

Along the way, past relationships and high school memories are revisited (Ben and Jili went to the same high school and started dating in college), and many local characters resurface throughout the story.   Middle age adult behaviors, lifestyle adjustments, and sexual obsessions are as much or more of the story as is our country’s troubled evolution of youth participation in sports (and the often  misguided parental attitudes associated with it).

The author appears to rush through the plot’s action in order to get at the complicated themes that line the story.   The reader nevertheless is interested in turning the page to find out what happens next.   Characters are introduced in rapid succession in the initial two chapters, making it a bit difficult to truly get to know them.   They’re a bit stereotypical but, in fairness, easy to relate to.  

Anyone who has spent as little as five minutes at a Little League game has seen these people:  the coach who has to prove his self-worth by winning baseball games featuring 12-year-olds; the parents who drive their children to the point of quitting; the mom-slut who thinks that everywhere she goes, someone is dying to look at her scantily clad body; the daughter who spends every waking moment texting and Twittering; the middle-aged male who spends much of the day daydreaming about having a sex life, etc., etc., etc.

When Ben first takes over as the team’s coach, he comes across as completely clueless, which is hard to believe considering his father’s history.   The fact that he quickly develops a reasonable degree of competence is not the most believable portion of the tale, although it may be a logical outcome.   As one who has experienced the shenanigans of Little League draft rooms and the frequently politically motivated – and arguably unethical selection – selection of post-season All-Star teams, these sections are quite strong.   Also, they are either hilarious or sadly pathetic depending on your perspective.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Mr. Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only, a novel of baseball and Bob Dylan.   A recommended memoir that covers much of the same territory is The Opposite Field by Jesse Katz (Three Rivers Press, $15.00, 352 pages).

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A Furry and Feathered Giveaway

Thanks to Diane S., Munchy has two copies of a new book to give away!   This is Being with Animals: Why We Are Obsessed with the Furry, Scaly, Feathered Creatures Who Populate Our World by Barbara J. King.   This hardbound release from Doubleday has a value of $24.99 ($29.99 in Canada).

Here is a synopsis of the book:

We surround ourselves with animals, and yet rarely do we truly stop to think about the pull they have on us.   Animals have dominated our lives for tens of thousands of years and continue to rule our existence, but why?   Why do people the world over respond to a cartoon mouse named Mickey?   Why do sports teams name themselves the Bears and the Eagles?   Why does the pet industry thrive even in difficult economic times?   Why are we compelled to share our lives with cats, dogs, fish, snakes, turtles, or any other kind of domesticated creature?

In Being with Animals, King offers answers to these questions and more.   She looks at this phenomenon, from the most obvious animal connections in daily life and culture and over the whole of human history, to show the various roles animals have played in all civilizations.   She digs deeply into the importance of the human-animal bond as key to our evolution, as a signficant aspect of understanding what truly makes us human, and looks ahead to explore how our further technological development may affect these important ties.

King’s fresh look at the human-animal relationship will resonate deeply with animal lovers, the environmentally minded, and the armchair scientist.

Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist and Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary.   She has studied monkeys in Kenya and great apes in various captive settings.   Together with her husband, she cares for and arranges to spay and neuter homeless cats in Virginia.  (To this, Munchy says Yeowk!)

To enter our giveaway contest to win one of two copies of Being with Animals, you can either post a comment here or send an e-mail with your name and e-mail address to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, answer this question, “How is it that an animal has added value to your life and/or to the lives of your loved ones?”  

Munchy will pick the 2 winners at random.   In order to be eligible for this giveaway, you must live in the United States or Canada and have a residential mailing address.   Books will not be shipped to a P. O. box or to a business-related address.   You have until Monday, February 28, 2011 at Midnight PST to submit your entry or entries.

This is it for the “complex” contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!

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Two of Us

The Last Will of Moira Leahy: A Novel by Therese Walsh (Three Rivers Press; $15.00; 304 pages)

Therese Walsh’s first novel is a story of twins; a pair of near mystical sisters who call to mind the twins in Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.   The twins share thoughts, a unique language and their lives until an accident with tragic consequences for the piano-playing prodigy Moira.   Maeve, the narrator, must then find the means to continue her life on her own.   She’s assisted on her journey by finding a magical keris sword, and this leads her to Europe, where she finds out special things about her life and her sister’s life.

Maeve blames herself for the accident involving Moira and the journey that she takes provides her with a new perspective and much-needed forgiveness.   This is a well-told and very entertaining read from Walsh, although the reader must be willing to suspend reality as parts border on magic and science fiction.   There’s also a tremendous amount of jumping around, jarring the reader’s patience with the lack of chronological order.  

Sticking with the story until the end will, however, reward the reader with a satisfying conclusion to this unique tale by a very promising writer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

   “This tender tale of sisterhood, self-discovery, and forgiveness will captivate fans of contemporary women’s fiction.”   Library Journal

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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