Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “xoxoxoe”

xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #52: The Spiderwick Chronicles, by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black

Cannonball! Book 52 (actually 52-56, but who’s counting?)

I was happy when the kid took a break from the smart-alecky Wimpy Kid series and became enchanted with The Spiderwick Chronicles. We listened to the whole series on CD in the car, and really enjoyed the characters and the worlds created by authors Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black.

Jared and Hogsqueal

The Spiderwick Chronicles are a series of five illustrated books which tell the story of the Grace children, 9 year-old identical twins Jared and Simon, and their 13 year-old elder sister Mallory, who discover that their new home is populated with creatures they never would have believed existed. The books are:

1. The Field Guide – After their parents’ divorce, the Grace kids and their mother move into their great-aunt Lucinda’s decrepit old mansion and find her father’s guide to faeries and other creatures, Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, which leads them into another, extremely dangerous, world.
2. The Seeing Stone – Mallory and Jared must rescue Simon, who has been kidnapped by goblins. They meet Hogsqueal, who becomes a sort of associate, and Byron, a griffin, who Simon adopts as a pet.

Mallory, Thimbletack, Jared, and the seeing stone

3. Lucinda’s Secret - The Grace children visit their great-aunt Lucinda at the mental institution where she lives. She tells them how she got there and what became of her father, Arthur Spiderwick.
4. The Ironwood Tree – Jared and Simon must rescue mallory, who is being held prisoner by dwarves, associates of the evil ogre Mulgarath.
5. The Wrath of Mulgarath – Hogsqueal and the brownie Thimbletack help the Grace children rescue their mother, who is being held captive by Mulgarath.

With all of the kidnapping and rescuing the series does have a Saturday morning serial feel to it, but it is all in god fun. It’s nice that a book, the field guide, is such an important item. The power of words and pictures should never be underestimated. The illustrations by DiTerlizzi are quite engaging, and the otherworldly characters, especially Hogsqueal and Thimbletack, enchanted my daughter. There is a quite dark side to Spiderwick, as the Grace kids are frequently in deadly trouble. But there is also quite a bit of magic, and some of the creatures they encounter are nice to them and each other. The way that the kids bicker but then risk everything to save each other and the creatures that they meet is very appealing. Especially after the whiny wimpy ramblings of the Jeff Kinney series that dominated the kid’s sumer reading.

A griffin from Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You

The kid has since picked up the first two books to read on her own, as well as the beautifully illustrated companion volumes, Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You  and Care and Feeding of Sprites. We checked out the movie version too, which she loved, but it is of course very different and truncated. Most of her favorite parts of the books had to be left out. There is a second Spiderwick book series featuring another group of kids and their adventures. So far she hasn’t shown any interest in that (she really loves the main character, Jared), so we’ll see how far into Spiderwick she gets …

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #51: Black Diamond, by Martin Walker

Black Diamond is the third book in a mystery series by author Martin Walker. Dubbed a mystery of the French countryside, the recent paperback release from Vintage once again features Detective Bruno Courrèges, the only policeman in the small town of St. Denis, in Périgord, a former province of France, now called the Dordogne.

Detective Bruno is not just a smart cop, but a connoisseur of fine wine, food, and the inestimable local black truffles – black diamonds. Perigord truffles are a multi-million euro business and are at the heart of this entertaining mystery. Walker takes readers behind the scenes of the truffle trade, where one may be surprised (or not) to learn that there is a lucrative black market for substituting inferior Chinese truffles for southern France’s local gems.

A murder, a father-son feud, and Bruno’s own romantic complications with British girlfriend Pamela (and a woman from his past) keep the charismatic detective quite busy throughout this mystery. Black Diamond starts off at a leisurely pace, and although Walker includes some exciting scenes and intrigue, the overall feeling one gets from the book is similar to one of the long, multi-course dinners that Bruno is so fond of enjoying or preparing. The mystery and supporting characters are intriguing, but what really makes the story is its love and indulgence of the local setting, and especially its appreciation for fine food and wine.

Walker is the senior director of the Global Business Policy Council, a private think tank based in Washington, D.C. He lives in Washington, D.C. and the Dordogne. In Black Diamond he writes eloquently about such diverse topics as “green” cuisine, local politics, ethnic struggles, and organized crime. Readers familiar with the Dordogne region of southern France or dreaming of a future visit will enjoy following Bruno around St. Denis and its environs (and restaurants). His clever crime-solving is just an added bonus. After reading Black Diamond readers will definitely want to check out or revisit the first two installments of the series.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #50: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo

“Once there was a princess who was very beautiful. She shone bright as the stars on a moonless night. But what difference did it make that she was beautiful? None. No difference.”

Why did it make no difference?” asked Abilene.

Because,” said Pellegrina, “She was a princess who loved no one and cared nothing for love, even though there were many who loved her.”

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is a children’s book, geared towards ages 7 and older, but after reading it, I’m not sure what kids might think of it. It is ultimately uplifting, but also, quite frequently and unremittingly sad. It’s a lot like life. The tale will resonate with adults, as love and loss are beautifully examined. But children may just focus on the dangers and sad moments that befall hero Edward Tulane.

Edward is a unique china rabbit, beloved by a little girl named Abilene Tulane. She adores him and dresses him in beautiful clothes and takes him everywhere with her. Edward is also exceedingly vain. He doesn’t consider himself to be a toy. He is something beyond, something special. He accepts Abilene’s love, as something one so fine as himself should deserve, but doesn’t seem to even consider returning it. He is very observant of the world (as his painted eyes are always open), and is especially fond of glimpses of the night sky and the stars, but not very interested in the humans that populate it.

Abilene gives Edward a hug

But one day Edward is separated from Abilene, and his world is never the same. He is buffeted by weather, chance and other circumstances to a series of new homes and relationships. Through a series of trials and separations he finally finds himself interested in others. Like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, Edward must discover whether a china rabbit can have a heart at all.

Author Kate DiCamillo’s prose is compact but lyrical. Edward is exasperating, but readers will still care about what happens to him — and especially what happens to the people that he encounters. Edward has an effect on everyone he meets, and eventually they begin to affect him. Illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline’s black and white and color drawings are a perfect accompaniment to the story, their style lending a vintage touch.

“Open your heart. Someone will come. Someone will come for you. But first you must open your heart.”

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is bound to be a classic. I think it might be best for an adult to read the book to a child first, so one can discuss some of the darker aspects of the story — and there are darker aspects. But once a child knows the story and china bunny Edward’s fate, it will certainly be a book to read and re-read. Adults may find they want to pick it up again and again too, as a reminder about love and loss, and how special some things and some people can be in our lives.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e
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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #49: The Making of Some Like It Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie, by Tony Curtis

“Some people say that Some Like it Hot is the funniest movie ever made. I don’t know. All I know is that it gave me a chance to work with four comic geniuses: I.A.L. Diamond, Jack Lemmon, Billy Wilder, and Marilyn Monroe.”

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon

In Tony Curtis’s memoir, The Making of Some Like It Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie the well-known Hollywood actor tells his version of what went on behind-the-scenes of one of the funniest movies ever made. Written with the assistance of film historian Mark Vieira, the book is packed full of great color and black and white photos from the set.

Curtis, who died in 2010, had already written two memoirs, Tony Curtis: The Autobiography (1994) and American Prince: A Memoir (2008). So why write a third? Two reasons. Some Like it Hot’s recent heralding as the #1 American comedy of all time by The American Film Institute (AFI).  And cashing in on the enduring popularity of Marilyn Monroe, which would certainly guarantee book sales.

While Curtis is always an entertaining read, his never-ending ego does grow tiresome after a while. He tries to sound humble, but can’t help pondering that he was possibly “the handsomest” actor in Hollywood: “Some Like it Hot did a lot for my development as an actor. It was enough for me to be a handsome actor, maybe the handsomest in town. It wasn’t enough to learn the lines and show up. Being around artists like Jack and Billy and Marilyn affected me. I wanted to know more. I wanted to get closer to the source of the art. I wanted to know how to create that magic, like stars did in the pictures I’d seen when I was a kid.”

Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, and director Billy Wilder

He complains endlessly about the “special treatment” that Marilyn received. “I looked at the film and I thought that in the beginning of it I was weaker than I really was. Everything was done to keep Marilyn happy. She was chosen, favored over Jack and me. That’s what colored my perception of the film for a long time. Too long. But I finally got past that.” He may have gotten past those feelings, but that didn’t stop him from writing about them, repeatedly. He clearly felt that Lemmon was director Billy Wilder’s favorite and that Marilyn’s difficult behavior earned her special privileges. But for all of the stories about Marilyn’s reputation for keeping people waiting or blowing lines, Curtis has just as many instances where she was letter-perfect or got a scene in one take. The scene where Sugar meets Shell Oil, Jr. on the beach had to be filmed quickly, as noisy jets from a nearby naval base were taking off every ten minutes. Marilyn got everything right on the first take.

Marilyn seemed to flub her lines more often when the camera shot was a close-up, when the pressure was on her and her alone. There are numerous accounts of how well she did in group scenes, getting everything right, and right away. As Curtis recounts, “I had seen her last picture, The Prince and the Showgirl. She did long scenes where the camera kept moving and there were no cuts. She was excellent, holding her own against the great Laurence Olivier. We saw the same thing in our film. She did well in uninterrupted scenes, yet when it came to two-shots or close-ups, she suddenly lost confidence.” Billy Wilder observed, “I’ve noticed that if she gets past the first two or three lines she sometimes can go on and on, even if it’s a long speech. She doesn’t seem to get tired. She’ll do take after take. She poops out the other actors, but she blooms as the day goes on. She’s at her best in the late afternoon, when the other actors are dropping like flies.”

Jack Lemmon had a different perspective on why Marilyn needed multiple takes to get a scene right: “Marilyn had a kind of built-in alarm system. It would go off in the middle of a scene if it wasn’t right for her, and she would stop. It would look like she was doing exactly what she’d done in the previous take. But for her, something wasn’t clicking. She knew she was limited. She knew what was right for Marilyn. She wasn’t about to do anything else. So would stand there with her eyes closed, biting her lip, and wringing her hands until she had worked it out.”

Joe E. Brown and Lemmon

Curtis repeats the now-infamous anecdotes of the “Where’s the bourbon?” scene which took 59 takes; and how the studio wanted a “big name” like Frank Sinatra to star (who didn’t seem at all interested). What I hadn’t heard before was that Danny Kaye wanted to be in the film, but that Wilder turned him down and requested Jack Lemmon. Curtis comes up with an elaborate explanation for his “like kissing Hitler” quote; and is still smarting from jokes about his line reading, “Yondah lies da castle of my faddah,” from an early film, Son of Ali Baba.

Even with all of his grand-standing, Curtis can’t help but be interesting on how Hollywood shaped his life. He describes how intense ambition for Hollywood success was the cornerstone of his marriage to Janet Leigh, “Our marriage changed that [feeling like he was a long way from stardom]. The explosion of publicity pushed both of us much farther than we would have gone in the same amount of time if we hadn’t gotten married.” He is unapologetic about his countless affairs — he had a reputation for having affairs with his leading ladies, and wife Leigh was used to it — it was part of the territory.

But he always comes back to Marilyn, which does make for the most interesting stories in the book. He claims to have had an affair with her, when they were both just starting out in Hollywood. That seems possible, but all such claims are suspect when they appear so long after the other party has died. What doesn’t ring true at all are his claims that later he had a one-night stand with her on the set of Some Like it Hot,which resulted in her becoming pregnant, complete with a show-down scene with her husband Arthur Miller.

Curtis signing autographs

Curtis clearly had no love lost with the famous playwright. He repeats a wicked quote from Wilder about Miller, “In meeting him, I had at last met someone who resented Marilyn more than I did.” Ouch, but observant. Curtis can’t wait to share another story which shines an unflattering light on Miller. At at a pre-movie Hollywood party he witnessed Miller being pretentious to Billy Wilder and co-writer I. A. L. “Izzy” Diamond, pontificating on comedy and tragedy. “Billy and Izzy just stood there, with faces down, listening to this bullshit. Finally Billy rolled his eyes and shifted his weight. Arthur backed off. I could see Marilyn. She was standing off to the side, watching. She looked uneasy. She knew that her husband had made a fool of himself and had insulted Billy’s intelligence. It was not a happy scene. It was not a happy way to start a picture.”

He’s alternately full of praise for Marilyn and knocking her down, saying she had hips “like a Polish washerwoman” and “an incredible, unique body.” Like so many, he couldn’t understand why she found some things so difficult. “She was the most important star in movies, she didn’t really understand that. She had so much power. She could have used it in so many ways, become so great. … So much of Some Like it Hot rested on her. If only she used her power to bolster her self-confidence. But she didn’t. Even if she was turning in this miraculous performance, she was losing her sense of self.”

Fun facts he includes about Marilyn:

Marilyn “stole” one of Jack Lemmon’s black dresses from wardrobe for herself to wear in the film.

She recorded her songs for the picture and then, unsatisfied, re-recorded them, “A picture has to be great to be good.”

She posed for countless publicity stills but only approved a few, as she was self-conscious about her weight gain — of which the press was unremittingly unkind. Marilyn had to put up with a lot of crap during filming about her weight. Wilder asked if she would consider losing a few pounds. She used humor to deflect the insult. “You want your audience to be able to distinguish me from Tony and Jack, don’t you? And besides, my husband likes me plump.” She was pregnant at the time.

She traveled with an entourage — secretary May Reis, acting coach Paula Strasberg, dance director Jack Cole, and hair designer Sidney Guilaroff.

Marilyn was unsatisfied with her first scene in the film, which consisted of just walking past the train, and complained to Wilder. He and Diamond then came up with the burst of steam that gooses her — and makes a much funnier, more memorable entrance.

Everyone came to see Marilyn on set, from extras to Montgomery Clift and Maureen Stapleton — they all were enthralled with her.

Curtis, Lemmon, and Montgomery Clift

Possibly the most important thing that Curtis reminds us of is that the two guys being in drag for most of the picture was quite daring and unusual for its time. That edge is exactly what makes Some Like it Hot still so brilliant, so entertaining, so funny today. But Curtis can’t just end his story there. His ego demands additional soothing. He quotes a review of the film by Philip Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times: “‘Curtis is good enough … But his Cary Grant accent (not his doing) annoyed the hell out of me.’ Some actors never read reviews. I do. Mr. Scheuer’s review annoyed the hell out of me. To make myself feel better, I bought the rights to the autobiography of the Italian poet Gabriel d’Annunzio, a wild, sexy artist not unlike myself.”

Photos from Some Like it Hot

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #48: The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down, by Andrew McCarthy

Andrew McCarthy is a familiar face to anyone who grew up in the ’80s, for his film work with the “Brat Pack” and beyond, with contributions to movies that have entered American pop culture — Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, and Weekend at Bernie’s. McCarthy has been acting steadily since his first film, in 1983, Class, which co-starred Jacqueline Bisset. But what some may not be aware of is that McCarthy is also a director (a short film and television) and has found a second career as an award-winning travel writer, contributing articles to such publications as National Geographic Traveler (where he is an editor-at-large), Travel+Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Slate.

His new book, The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down combines his flair for writing about exotic locales with his personal quest to commit to marrying his long-time girlfriend.

The Longest Way Home is an interesting combination of memoir and travel writing. McCarthy is engaging whether he is telling stories about his childhood in New Jersey, his early Hollywood success, trying to conquer his demons, or recounting his trip to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

McCarthy is unfailingly honest as he confronts his fear of commitment. He had already been married and divorced, an although deeply in love with his new partner, is wary of taking the next step towards marriage. Prone to self-examination, he realizes that he has always been a bit of a loner and an outsider, and doesn’t want to repeat his previous mistakes of distancing himself from his wife and family. As he and his fiancée plan their upcoming nuptials, he accepts a series of travel assignments, which at first may seem like an escape from home and planning their wedding, but which actually helps him confront his fears and prepare him for his future life with her and their children.

He takes the reader along with him as he walks the route of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, hikes across a glacier in Patagonia, travels the Amazon via boat, explores Baltimore with a close friend, and climbs Kilimanjaro. Most of McCarthy’s traveling is done solo. He doesn’t tend to want to share his travel experiences with others — his trips are more personal quests. Most of the time he feels rather separate from the world he is visiting. After strolling by houses in Patagonia with families crowded around the TV or doing some domestic chore he observes:

“I’ve seen similar scenes in small towns in Brazil and Cambodia and even the American West — lives being lived with unselfconscious deliberateness. There’s no desire, or no energy, to pretend anything. I see desperate disappointment and loneliness in such scenes of domesticity and routine. I feel far removed and want no part of them. Yet I can’t look away. What hunger of theirs is being fed, when they seem to me instead like scenarios of slow decay? What is it about these scenes that I don’t understand?”

He is always interesting in his descriptions of the sights he sees, finding hidden treasures in unfamiliar and familiar places. A visit to Baltimore and the house where Babe Ruth was born is an opportunity for McCarthy to talk about one of his favorite things — the home as micro museum. He first visited such a museum with his first wife in Stockholm, Sweden — playwright and novelist August Strindberg’s house.

“What I feared would be a dreary and dull hour proved be a fascinating look inside the writer’s life. His desk and chair, his pens and notebooks and letters, his eyeglasses and walking stick, relics of his life, proved fascinating. I have sought out home museums ever since.”

The more McCarthy travels, the more he finds himself being pulled towards people, and wanting to involve his family in this part of his life. As the book progresses, he’s no longer quite the loner that he used to be. Readers will enjoy taking this journey with McCarthy, and may be tempted to plan some soul-searching travel of their own.

Article first published as Book Review: The Longest Way Home: One Man’s Quest for the Courage to Settle Down by Andrew McCarthy on Blogcritics.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #47: Catwings & Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings, by Ursula K. Le Guin

These are both short, so I am counting them as one entry.

The kid and I have fallen in love with audio books for our driving around town and beyond. We first tackled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which we owned. That kept us busy for quite a while. Then we discovered our local library has quite an extensive selection of audio books in the children’s library, so we grabbed a few titles we thought would be fun. She loved Catwings, by Ursula K. Le Guin, when her kindergarten teacher read it to the class, and I’m happy to report that now that she is a big third grader she still loves it, as well as one of its sequels, Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings.

Mrs. Tabby and her winged kittens

Not only are they both charming books to listen to, but they are read by the author herself, which adds another layer of fun. Catwings features four little city kittens, Thelma, Roger, James, and Harriet, whose loving mother, Mrs. Jane Tabby, sends them out in the world, to the country, away from the harsh and dangerous city. The kittens are unique, in that they have all been born with wings. The neighbors don’t hesitate to speculate, “I suppose their father was a fly-by-night.” Mrs. Tabby, who doesn’t have wings herself guesses, “Maybe they have wings because I dreamed, before they were born, that I could fly away from this neighborhood.”

Kittens having wings can be a convenience, and a boon, but can also prove to be dangerous, as other animals that they encounter are not too thrilled to meet cats that can fly. Catwings is a gentle story, for the most part, full of great imagery, as the cats learn to fly and interact with their new environment. But Le Guin does not shy away from the real dangers of a stray cat’s existence, even one that has wings. A few dangerous and exciting moments are provided by one of the kitten’s interactions with a large owl, but my daughter, although scared for the cats, was also enthralled. It’s a great little book.

The other book was just as fun. In Alexander the Wonderful and the Catwings a ginger kitten named Alexander gets lost in the woods on a winter’s day — a terrifying situation for a little cat. Luckily he also meets one of the Catwings, and his feline life will never be the same.

These books are definitely geared towards children, but they were highly enjoyable for me to listen to as well. Le Guin has wonderful enunciation and connects with each of the characters in her narration. After we listened to the books we had to dig out our hard copy versions, as they have some great illustrations by S. D. Schindler. I was trying to picture them while I listened to the author relate the Catwings’ adventures.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #46: My Story, by Marilyn Monroe

In 1954 Marilyn, at the height of her fame and popularity, was persuaded by friend and publicist Sidney Skolsky to publish her autobiography. They enlisted screenwriter Ben Hecht (The Front Page, Monkey Business, A Farewell to Arms) to ghostwrite, and sat down for a series of interviews which they intended to have published in a magazine, not in book form, in The Ladies Home Journal. The interviews focused mainly on her rough and tumble childhood. Hecht’s agent, without his or Marilyn’s knowledge or approval, sold it as serialized articles to the London Empire News, who ran it between between May 9 and Aug 1, 1954. In 1974, twelve years after her death, photographer and former business partner Milton Greene produced a copy of the manuscript and had it published in book form.

There has been much debate about the authenticity of the book. Some of the stories may have been embellished or streamlined by Hecht, but the overall feeling rings true to Marilyn. Marilyn was well-known for telling and retelling the stories of her life, frequently heightening the drama. She was a born actress. According to Monroe biographer Sarah Churchwell (The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe), “Hecht reported to his editor during the interviews that he was sometimes sure Marilyn was fabricating. He explained, ‘When I say lying, I mean she isn’t telling the truth. I don’t think so much that she is trying to deceive me as that she is a fantasizer.'”

Norma Jean in 1946, photographed by Andre de Dienes

Marilyn may have pumped up some of the pathos in her early life and Hecht may have cleaned up the text, but of all the books on Marilyn Monroe that I have read recently (and I have been reading a lot) this is the best. Is it the most well-written? Absolutely not. But does it come closest to capturing the woman who fifty years after her death is still an icon, a movie goddess? It actually does. So many of the other books, by authors good and not-so-good, have quoted liberally from My Story, but somehow have missed Marilyn’s voice and personality in their desire to catalog her inevitable road to death. When read in full, My Story gives a far better impression of Marilyn, how she talked, how she thought, than any picked-and-chosen snippets could.

The articles were clearly originally intended as a Cinderella story, cataloging Marilyn’s “orphan” childhood to her fame and marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. With all of the emphasis on the waifdom, a palpable sadness does comes through. After readingMy Story the reader learns that Marilyn could never forget her youth, her deprived existence as Norma Jean. “My own costume never varied. It consisted of a faded blue skirt and white waist. I had two of each, but since they were exactly alike everyone thought I wore the same outfit all the time. It was one of the things that annoyed people — my wearing the same clothes.”

It may have been intended as a publicity piece, but Marilyn and Hecht don’t hesitate to touch on the seamy underbelly of trying to get ahead in Hollywood, “I’ve never heard anything about the Hollywood I knew in those first years. No hint of it is ever in the movie fan magazines. … The Hollywood I knew was the Hollywood of failure. … We ate at drugstore counters. We sat in waiting rooms. We were the prettiest tribe of panhandlers that ever overran a town.” A story about trying to cash her last paycheck, a mere $40, after her [first] firing from Twentieth-Century Fox, points to the easy availability of drugs, “After doing my shopping, I stopped in a doctor’s office. I had a cold, and I had not slept for several nights. The doctor gave me a sleeping pill. ‘I don’t usually recommend sleeping pills,’ he said, “but you been having hysterics too long. A good sleep will not only be good for your cold but cheer you up.” She shares an amusing story of her first Hollywood feud, with Zsa Zsa Gabor, apparently as a result of husband George Sanders’s love of “pneumatic” blondes. Reading My Story gives the impression that Marilyn had a lot of Hollywood stories to tell and would have been very amusing company.

Marilyn in 1954

On her changing her name to Marilyn Monroe, “When I just wrote ‘This is the end of Norma Jean,’ I blushed as if I had been caught in a lie. Because this sad, bitter child who grew up too fast is hardly ever out of my heart. With success all around me, I can still feel her frightened eyes looking out of mine. She keeps saying, ‘I never lived, I was never loved,’ and often I get confused and think it’s I who am saying it.”

Marilyn may have been one of the first well-known women to talk publicly about childhood sexual abuse. She claims her first sexual encounter happened when she was nine and was molested by a man named Mr. Kimmel, who rented a room from the foster family she was living with. The incident had ramifications on her dealing with the casting couch later in Hollywood, “Maybe it was the nickel Mr. Kimmel once gave me … But men who tried to buy me with money made me sick. There were plenty of them. The mere fact that I turned down offers ran my price up.”

The only bum note in My Story is the introduction by Andrea Dworkin, “She kept trying to hold on for dear life with a man, some man, who had his feet solidly planted in achievement. Instead, they had their feet solidly planted on her neck or other exposed flesh.” Although she tries to cast Marilyn in a good light, Dworkin regurgitates lots of unsubstantiated gossip about Marilyn in her introduction, including the rumored affairs with both Kennedy’s and 20 abortions. Disappointing.

“I didn’t think of my body as having anything to do with sex. It was more like a friend who had mysteriously appeared in my life, a sort of magic friend.”

Marilyn’s own observations about her sexuality are far more interesting and revealing. Her discovery of her own beauty and voluptuousness seems to have been as much a revelation to her as to everyone around her. “Why I was a siren, I hadn’t the faintest idea. … The truth was that with all my lipstick and mascara and precocious curves, I was as unsensual as a fossil. But I seemed to affect people quite otherwise.” She developed early physically, but was unprepared emotionally, “My admirers all said the same thing in different ways. It was my fault, their wanting to kiss and hug me. … I always felt they were talking about someone else, not me. … I not only had no passion in me, I didn’t even know what it meant.” An early marriage at the age of 16, to neighbor Jim Dougherty, “Was a sort of friendship with sexual privileges. I found out later that marriages are often no more than that. And that husbands are chiefly good as lovers when they are betraying their wives.”

Marilyn photographed by Philippe Halsmann

Much of My Story is written in hindsight, with Marilyn telling what she currently thinks and feels about her past, and trying to remake her future, “[When married to Dougherty] the thought of having a baby stood my hair on end. I could only see it as myself, another Norma Jean in an orphanage. … I feel different about having a child now. It’s one of the things I dream of. She won’t be any Norma Jean now. And I know how I’ll bring her up — without lies. Nobody will tell her lies about anything. And I’ll answer all her questions. If I don’t know the answer I’ll go to an encyclopedia and look them up. I’ll tell her everything she wants to know — about love, about sex, about everything!”

As much as her youth as Norma Jean haunted Marilyn, My Story is a very hopeful read. Marilyn’s dreams and her never-ending desire to improve herself come through loud and clear. Everyone knows how her story ended, which is the focus of most books about the star. My Story is how her story started, with hints of how it might have gone differently.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #45: The Pirates!: In an Adventure with the Romantics, by Gideon Defoe

Author Gideon Defoe’s fifth and latest Pirates! adventure, the soon-to-be-released The Pirates!: In an Adventure with the Romantics is as silly and amusing as his previous entries in the series.

The Romantics in question are Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Godwin, who are bored out of their minds in a villa they are sharing in drizzly Geneva, Switzerland, and just raring for some adventure. Enter the Pirate Captain and his crew, including the Pirate with a Scarf (his first mate), the Pirate with Gout, Jennifer, the Albino Pirate, and all the rest. For a reasonable price, the hard-up Pirate Captain charges the Romantics for an adventure they’ll never forget.

But there are complications. The Pirates don’t exactly know how to produce an adventure, besides hoping one will turn up on their doorstep. And the Pirate Captain seems to be developing quite a crush on Mary. Is it possible that their shared interests in monsters might bring them closer together?

The Pirate Captain and his crew, as they appeared in the recent Aardman Animations film, The Pirates! Band of Misfits

As in his other books, Defoe peppers the story with eccentric notes to the reader. If it happens that one is unfamiliar with Mary Godwin, Defoe tells the reader that “Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Her father, William Godwin, who was a bit better at titles, wrote Jack and the Beanstalk.” Funny and informative.

Defoe’s depiction of Byron, with a booming voice, reminiscent of British actor Brian Blessed, is always amusing. Mary Godwin comes across as smart and even sassy. Shelley fares the worst — possibly Defoe is no great fan of his poetry. He certainly casts doubt on why Godwin and Shelley ever managed to get together.

Their adventures take them from the Lakes of Geneva to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University and to a remote and ghostly castle in the Carpathian mountains. We learn a little bit more about the intrepid and always self-confident Pirate Captain, such as his flair for writing pulp fiction and a mysterious belly tattoo.

Defoe, who, as his bio states, “is a bit of a one-trick pony,” is definitely onto something good with his Pirates! series. The books are a rollicking read, full of laughs and lots of fun for readers who spot some of his literary in-jokes. The Pirates! In an Adventure with the Romantics is most entertaining, and hopefully The Pirate Captain and his crew will continue their adventures for some time to come.

 

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

Article first published as Book Review: The Pirates! In an Adventure with the Romantics by Gideon Defoe on Blogcritics.

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #44: Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters, by Marilyn Monroe, edited by Bernard Comment and Stanley Buchthal

In 1982, after his death, Actor’s Studio Director Lee Strasberg’s widow, his third wife Anna, found two boxes of poems and other writings by Marilyn Monroe. Monroe had named Strasberg the primary beneficiary in her will. Strasberg, however, had not followed Marilyn’s final wishes:

With the exception of two letters, which he returned to their authors, during his lifetime Lee Strasberg never sold or gave away any of Marilyn’s personal effects — this totally contravened the instructions in Marilyn’s Will. It is clear that she did not intend for Lee Strasberg to keep her possessions, which included clothing, letters, documents, furniture, all her personal effects that she absolutely clearly stated, that she wanted distributed amongst her friends. — from Loving Marilyn

Although this action, or more accurately, inaction on Strasberg’s part would have disappointed Marilyn, it is because of his neglect that so many of her personal items remained intact, and are able to be viewed as a whole. Anna Strasberg, who had never even met Marilyn, asked family friend Stanley Buchthal to help her determine what to do with the boxes’ contents, and he soon enlisted the help of editor and essayist Bernard Comment. Together the pair sorted through the materials and created Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters a glimpse into Marilyn’s life and mind in book form.

photo

Buchtal and Comment have tried to present Marilyn’s writings in as straightforward a manner as possible, keeping things chronological. A photograph of the original item, in Marilyn’s handwriting,is presented on a left-hand page, while their transcription, sometimes joined by notes of explanation, appears opposite, on the right.

Black and white photographs of Marilyn, frequently reading, also accompany the text. Marilyn wrote poems, letters, and kept journals. While perusing Fragments it is unavoidable not to feel as if one is prying, sneaking a peek at her diary. We are. But it is undeniably fascinating. Her notebooks contain notes from classes she took on Italian art, as well as from acting class. Some of her note-taking seems to meld with her poetry and become stream-of-consciousness prose poetry, as does this fragment, c. 1955:

On the stage — I will
not be punished for it
or be whipped
or be threatened
or not be loved
or sent to hell to burn with bad people
or feeling that I am also bad
or be afraid of my genitals being
or ashamed
exposed known and seen —
so what
or ashamed of my sensitive feelings — they are reality
or colors or screaming or doing
nothing
and I do have feeling
very strongly sexed feeling
since a small child — think of all the
things I felt then

Some of her notes are like puzzles or maps. Talk about fragments. She writes a paragraph in her notebook on the left hand page, and then continues, sometimes at an odd angle, on the opposite page, and then back again, drawing arrows, linking one thought to the next. She may not have been writing continuously, and went back to add ideas at a later time, or she may have purposely wanted to keep her writing difficult to understand and more private.

photo

Especially revealing are two poems she wrote, on Parkside House stationery, during her stay in England when she was filming The Prince and the Showgirl. Marilyn, newlywed to playwright Arthur Miller, was already feeling insecure about the marriage:

I guess I have always been
deeply terrified to really be someone’s wife
since I know from life
One cannot love another,
ever, really.

where his eyes rest with pleasure — I want to still be — but time has changed
the hold of that glance.
Alas how will I cope when I am
even less youthful —

Back in the U.S., at their home in Roxbury, CT in 1958, her life with Miller hadn’t improved much:

starting tomorrow I will take care of myself for that’s all I really have ever had. Roxbury — … I think I hate it here because there is no love here anymore. I regret the effort I desperately made here. … what I could endure helped both of us and in a material way which means so much more to him than me. … When one wants to stay alone as my love (Arthur) indicates the other must stay apart.

It becomes clear that many of these fragments are first drafts for notes or letters. One page in her notebook, scribbled in pencil, which she signs with multiple pet names, was confirmed by close friend Norman Rosten as a letter he received from her. Some of her notes seem to be character studies. There are also thoughtful observations about not just the character she would be playing, but other characters in a film with her, like this one about The Misfits:

I feel the camera has got
to look through Gay’s [the character played by Clark Gable]
eyes whenever he is in a
scene and even when he
is not there still has to be a sense of
him
He is the center and the
rest move around him
but I guess Houston [sic - director John Huston] will
see to that
He is both subtle and overt in his meeting them
and in his cruelty and his tenderness
(when he reaches out of himself for her – R. [R stands for Roslyn, Marilyn's character in the film])

There is a really interesting letter to Lee Strasberg, dated December 18, 1961, where Marilyn tells him she is forming an independent production company, possibly jointly with Marlon Brando, and that she would like him to be a part of it. Marilyn definitely had some big plans for her future, and was constantly trying to get more control over her career.

Strasberg wouldn’t accept Marilyn as a student unless she agreed to undergo psychoanalysis. This led to a whole additional host of problems for the already insecure star, and doctors who may have done her more harm than good. After her break-up with Miller, her New York psychiatrist Marianne Kris had her committed to Payne Whitney’s psychiatric ward — Marilyn thought she was only going to a hospital for a rest cure. This was one of the most traumatic events of Marilyn’s life. She reached out to Kris and the Strasbergs, but only ex-husband Joe DiMaggio was able to secure her release. Once she moved to Los Angeles, her psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson crossed all the boundaries of doctor/patient relations by having Marilyn socialize with his family. He may also have been instrumental in her taking more barbiturates than were necessary on the day of her death.

Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters stresses Marilyn’s love of books and her lifelong respect for writers. Writers also seem to have admired her greatly, as Buchtal and Comment take pains to point out.

In 1959 Karen Blixen asked to meet her, “… she radiates, at the same time, unbounded vitality and a kind of unbelievable innocence. I have met the same in a lion-cub … I shall never forget the most overpowering feeling of unconquerable strength and sweetness which she conveyed.”

Truman Capote, who met her in 1950, dedicated his short story “A Beautiful Child” to her.

Through husband Arthur Miller Marilyn befriended Carson McCullers, who wrote about her in “Illumination and Night Game.”

Norman Mailer tried to cultivate her friendship, but she demurred. He wrote the controversial “Marilyn,” which started the unsubstantiated-by-fact Kennedy/Marilyn rumor mill going on 1973.

Somerset Maugham approved of her proposed role as Sadie Thompson in a television production of “Rain,” which was never produced.

She admired British poet Edith Sitwell and met with her both in Hollywood and London, while filming “The Prince and the Showgirl.”

Marilyn met Carl Sandburg in 1959, and their appreciation of each other was very mutual. She loved his biography of Abraham Lincoln and he wrote, “She was not the usual movie idol. There was something democratic about her. She was the type who would join in and wash up the supper dishes even if you didn’t ask her.”

Buchtal and Comment also include some selected book covers from her personal library, which included:

Mme. Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Fall by Albert Camus
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Once There Was A War by John Steinbeck

Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters is an interesting, even unexpected look into Marilyn’s life, with the accent not on glamor, but on her thoughts and aspirations. Marilyn was always trying to learn new things and improve herself, and many of these fragments show her progress.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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xoxoxoe’s #CBR4 Review #43: The Power of Tai Chi, by Master Shao Zhao Ming

The book and DVD of The Power of Tai Chi, featuring Master Shao Zhao Ming is a nice introduction to basics of tai chi, including philosophy, breathing and forms. Concepts like qi (personal energy) and Dan Tian (where energy is stored in the body) are explained in easy-to-understand words, pictures and exercises. Shao even includes some basic qi gong concepts and exercises, demonstrating them with and his wife Ching, recommending doing qi gong before starting to practice tai chi. He also demonstrates the martial applications of tai chi, an aspect it is good to remember that underlies all of the seemingly serene postures.

This is a nice biographical video on Master Shao (not included on the DVD)

Warm-up and cool down exercises and a relaxing meditation are also included. The meat of the package is Tai Chi 8-form, an extremely shortened version of Yang-style tai chi. I’m not sure how purists would feel about his routine, but it does include some of the well-known postures — Repulse Monkey, Brush Knee, Parting the Horses Mane, Jade Lady, Cloud Hands, etc. The book presents step-by-step photos with explanations of each exercise and routine. It is best to read the book first and then watch the DVD which is structured in exactly the same sequence. Viewers will be able to follow along more easily after they have read and seen examples of the main concepts.

I have been learning the long-form of the Yang style for the past few months and have come to feel that it is just too much for me. I’m about a third of the way through the 108 moves and have been looking around for some other resources. I don’t think this Tai Chi 8-form will do the trick. I need something a bit more challenging, but not as intense and exhaustive as the 108-form. There is a 24-form version that I hope will be what I’m looking for. But for someone who is just starting out and would like to dip their toe in the tai chi waters I think this book and DVD combo would be a good place to start. Just the meditation section at the end of the DVD is a nice, peaceful, thing to do.

 

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

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