Woody Guthrie

Poet of the people

Aside from the song “This Land is Your Land,” I don’t really know that much about Woody Guthrie. I know he’s hailed as an American folk legend in many circles, and I’ve seen his quotes on t-shirts and bumper stickers, but otherwise I don’t remember ever studying about him in music class. In fact, most of my musical education came from my parents (which I am so grateful for, by the way!), so I suppose they didn’t know much about him, either.

So I decided to check out Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People by Bonnie Christensen from the library. I tried reading it aloud to my daughter, but she’s seven and doesn’t sit still for text heavy books just yet (with the exception of Fablehaven, apparently). The book jacket promised short text, but the book is really heavy with it. Still, it’s a very enjoyable book about Guthrie and his music that many older kids might enjoy very much.

In the book, we learn about Guthrie’s family and early life during the Depression. Life was hard for them, but he learned about music from his parents, who both loved to sing. He learned to play the harmonica and created songs about his life and the different experiences that he had while in town. He also suffered greatly as his sister and mother both died, and his father continuously lost jobs until his family farm was eventually lost to him as well.

Guthrie lived alone in an abandoned shack when his father left for better jobs elsewhere, and after he sold newspapers and danced for money, he used what he needed and gave the rest away. That’s pretty inspiring, particularly for someone during those times. After traveling with migrant workers, he settled down with his father for a while, and while living with him he learned to play more music and started his own band.

You can read much more about Guthrie in the book, which is made up of large, bold paintings of him and his family. The dark contrasting art helps display the Great Depression, and the lyrics of Gurthrie’s songs displayed across the top of each page helps it come alive. I was saddened to learn that Guthrie died in his fifties after being diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, but the joy in his music remains. He loved music that made people feel happy, and I think that his legacy still does that today.

Poor Widow Me

If I were to pick a favorite genre of book right now, I would have to make up the genre humorous tragedy and grant it most favored status. There's nothing I like better than a sad story told in a humorous, or at least bitter, or at least ironic way. Perhaps the perfect example of the sad tale with humor without bitterness is Widow's Walk by Maria Fontane, one of the 9/11 firefighter's wives. The best example of tragic humor with bitterness is adulthood misadventures of Augusten Burroughs, who is (surprisingly) charmingly always one small tragedy after from utter self destruction. And perhaps the best example of tragic comedy without any actual funniness is Poor Widow Me.Perhaps I'm disgruntled because I paid full price for Poor Widow Me. As a writer I should know the importance of paying full price for books and, as a writer, I can't afford full price for books so it's a bit of quandry to start out with. But then I also really desperately wanted to love this book. I wanted this book to be the one I'd hand off to other widows saying “this book will make you laugh at even the most desperate times.” Sigh. Poor Widow Me is definitely not that book.

An example of the non humorous humor include “ [when talking about going to a bereavement group] if I had died, Jimmy [her husband] wouldn't be caught dead here.” I loved some of the other passages where she talks about her anger with her husband or with her the stupid things people say to her. But it's like with her humor, she's afraid of going deeper than a third grade birthday card joke.

Developing An Appreciation For Charlie Chaplin

Although many adults know the name Charlie Chaplin fairly well, one can't help to wonder how many people in the current generation know who he is and have an interest in his contribution to the film industry. His style was something very unique and is almost completely different from the type of comedy that most people are used to seeing in our modern world. Yet, I think there are still many people who enjoy his works and are curious about him for that reason -- because he's so different in comparison to what they've usually seen.

I remember the first time I saw Charlie Chaplin in a film, I was completely fascinated. I found myself instantly captivated by him for two reasons; his stage presence during his acting in his movies is undeniable, first of all. It's impossible to watch a Charlie Chaplin film and not notice Charlie! He's always the star of the show in his own unique way. However, another reason I found myself drawn to his work was because there was no sound initially -- and this made it interesting for me, because it meant that I had to devote all of my attention to the film in order to make certain that I didn't miss anything important. Considering this, you might say that we really take sound for granted in films these days, because we abuse it so much with sound effects and altered noises.

For the percentage of the upcoming generations that don't yet know about Charlie Chaplin, I think they would be fascinated once they were finally exposed to his works. In a sense, everyone should be exposed to him as an educational resource -- not only because he reminds us that we're all capable of laughter, but because much of what he did in those days laid the groundwork for film and comedy as we know it today.

Exploring Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin is an artist that has always had a strong positive affect on people throughout the decades. Although many people do not realize it, he was a film director and composer, as well as an actor. He became the most popular and well-known through his work in silent films, though he still continued to create films even as sound had eventually began to become used in the movies. Another common fact that most people do not know about Charlie is that he is one of the individuals who founded United Artists. Other founders included Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith.

Most people love Charlie Chaplin because he was creative and talented during a time when humor was needed the most. He had an influential role in many of the silent films of the era and his ability to create visual comedy at the time was well embraced by a world that was frustrated from wars and the great depression. He is considered to be the 10th Greatest Male Screen Legend of All Time by the American Film Institute.

Additionally, it is impossible not to recognize the amount of people that he eventually influenced. Individuals such as Benny Hill, Peter Sellers, Johnny Depp, The Three Stooges, and Milton Berle are all remarkable examples of how Chaplin's work was powerful enough to leave a lasting impression on others and inspire them to explore their own self-expression through comedy. If you would like to learn more about the wonders and comedic works of Charlie Chaplin, please check out this blog each week!

Steve Martin: Born Standing Up

I remember when I was in sixth grade when my mom picked me up from a Girl Scout's meeting.

“Guess what” she said, in a voice that conveyed I wasn't going to be able to guess what, “your dad said you can stay up late to watch the Steve Martin special..”We were a farm family, so staying up late, because it interfered with getting up early, was basically unheard of. We only usually broke our bedtime rule for New Year's Eve, when we would stay up late and eat bean soup and watch the ball drop in Times Square. Steven Martin, I reasoned, must be a very big deal.

I realize now that my dad wanted us to stay up late to watch Steve Martin because he wanted someone else to enjoy it with. Since my mom wasn't interested, the youngest of his kids seemed the next best thing.

We all sat mesmerized as the man in the white suit strode on stage. Yeah he was being goofy, but this was something different, something more than goofy. Steven Martin's recent autobiography Born Standing Up, reveals some interesting things about the man who wasn't afraid to put an an arrow through slash over his head on stage. And it's very refreshing as celebrity memoirs go, because it isn't full of name dropping or worse yet, defenses for indefensible behavior.

The book will be of interest to Steve Martin fans but it will be of even more interest to comics who have built their career on hopes of rising to his level of fame. The era of comics filling stadiums is probably over, at least for now, but Martin's advice “it was easy to be great. The real trick is to be good night after night” still seems very true.

book Review: Truth and Beauty

A Fascinating Account of A Painful Dyad

Truth and Beauty is fairly controversial as biographies go. Lucy Grealy's family objected to Ann Patchett's presentation of Lucy Grealy; some critics felt there was an obvious lesbian aspect to the relationship between Grealy and Patchett that was downplayed and/or deliberately ignored, others felt that Patchett should have been more open about her own behavior and mistakes she made within the friendship.These are all fairly interesting questions and I am sure very important to the people most closely affected by them. However, I feel most compelled by the question that the book Truth and Beauty itself asks “what is the limits of friendship? What are the limits of love? Of saving?
It is an interesting comment on their friendship that even at the beginning it was never easy. So when things began to unravel, it's notable that Patchett is neither surprised nor even exactly, dismayed. One of the criticisms leveled at the book is that Patchett doesn't turn a critical eye on her own behavior both outside of, and within their friendship. But I don't think Patchett needs to call out her own behavior, the simple description of it is often enough to convey the message: this was not a person who was entire well, entire balanced.

One simple scene described in the book, a scene where Greeley tricks Patchett into wearing her skirt by first insulting it is fairly mild example of what I'm referencing: for the sake of the friendship, Patchett allowed herself to be manipulated, or at the very least, benevolently controlled. Was it for the greater good of Grealey, to sustain their friendship and ultimately rescue her? Or was it because Patchett was unable to say no for other reasons? Does it matter that their was ultimately, no saving Grealy from her life circumstances or from herself?

The Tragic Clowns: An Analysis of the Short Lives of John Belushi, Lenny Bruce, and Chris Farley

I wanted to like this book, oh how I wanted to like this book. In fact, I wanted to love it. When I first read the description while perusing something else on amazon, I wanted it so badly, right then, at that moment that I created a kindle account and downloaded the kindle app to my iphone for the sole purpose of reading this book immediately.It's an ambitious undertaking, to compare and contrast men with such large personalities and who lived (in the case of Bruce) in different time periods and worlds. As an alternative to the standard method of biography writing, it is certainly unique and theoretically compelling. Additionally, the book contained information about all three of the comics profiled that I had no seen or read anywhere else, even though I have read extensively about each of them.

The author clearly did his homework in chasing down sources, locating detailed information about events in the comics' lives both those of adulthood and those of childhood. He also describes these events clearly and vividly. However, when it comes to drawing conclusions about the events and how they shaped the comics' lives and decision making, the author lapses into seventh grade guidance counselor mode. For example, in the preface he says “...perhaps these three lives can offer some insight into the kind of personalities that are unable to simply experiment with drugs without becoming horribly and severely addicted” Um, okay, if it was that simple. But it's not. Even the author's own research reveals that there were all poly drug users, and that their patterns of finding the most self destructive way to go about any activity: drinking, performing, finding and having sex, eating using drugs, etc was what ultimately led to each of their demises, rather than simple “horrible drug addiction”

The author's descriptions of the three men's childhoods also smacks of flat moralizing; and in case of the description of Bruce's mother, bordering on misogynistic. The whole effort was noble but ultimately rather 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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

The Missionary Position

Although there has been a great deal of talk about Christopher Hitchen's work since his recent death, no book has been discussed more than his biography, of sorts, of Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position. It's a slim volume with a somewhat ridiculously sensationalistic name that has only one thesis: Mother Teresa was not a saint, and the work she did was not actually charitable.

The book makes two not entirely well supported arguments for this. First, Hitchens said, the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa's order) have a lot of money that they keep in accounts and never use for poor people. The second claim is that the work that they do is so influenced by Catholic theology that it can't really relieve suffering.

Although some information has come to light about the finances of the Missionaries of Charity since Hitchen's book came out, the actual information about the finances of the Missionaries of Charity that Hitchens provides is not entirely convincing. He interviewed Susan Sheilds, a former Missionary of Charity but she she wasn't obviously able to provide bank account numbers or other independent documentation. The point of view of one eye witness is not enough to base a whole book on, although Hitchen sure tries.

The second argument Hitchens makes about the Missionary of Charity attitude towards suffering and the way it informs their choices in providing the care for the people entrusted to them certainly seems valid. However, it is written in some a hyberbolic way (did the Missionaries of Charity always re-use syringes and needles multiple times? That's a claim that doesn't even make logistical sense) that it's hard to take his claims seriously. Although Hitchens' book opened up the social room to question the work of Mother Teresa, the book less a feat of investigative journalism and a more a screed.

The Chris Farley Show

by Tom Farley

Chris Farley is my idol, but he is also my greatest fear. I'm a chubby comic, child of alcoholics from Wisconsin and I really want people to like me. Is that enough to spend a life spiraling into and out of addiction and eventually die from an accidental overdose  saying your last words  to a sex worker-- “don't leave me--” who then promptly leaves you?The Chris Farley Show doesn't exactly answer that question but it does make you realize it's a good question to keep asking. The book, which is a chronological oral biography compiled mostly by his brother, starts with Farley's childhood outside of Madison Wisconsin. His time at Marquette University, and Second City are covered, but the bulk of the book chronicles his time at Saturday Night Live and the two years between his leaving Saturday Night Live and his death.

As oral biographies go, this book is certainly in top form. It doesn't hurt that many of the people quotes are entertainers themselves and so have an entertainer's ear for making a story: Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Conan O'Brien, Molly Shannon and David Spade all talk candidly about what they loved about Chris and what worried them about him. Farley's brothers and other family members also weigh in on their concerns about Farley, about the addiction in their family and how they thought it might have affected Chris. Although he did more than a few stints in rehab and was clean and sober for differing amount of time, he never seemed able to get a good grasp on the skills needed to live a sober life.

Much of the last chapters which detail the last fews of Chris' life contain quotes from his friends who alternately blame themselves, each other and occasionally even Chris for his death. The only common thread of those perspectives seems to be regret in the lack of intervention. Ulitmately, Farley died much like his idol John Belushi, at the same age and from the same cause.

Eminem: The Way I Am

Yes, I know.  Eminem's The Way I Am is officially autobiography more than biography. But my guess  is that it is enough ghost written to qualify, despite the fact that it presented in first person.Like many queer/feminist people I have a hard time with Eminem. His lyrics are grossly homophobic, misognistic, sometimes even racist. He's  not someone I want to give my money to support, especially since he has a lot more of it than I do. At the same time,  as a former mid-westerner (much of my family is originally from Detroit) I am inclined to listen, for a moment at least, to what he has to says. An angry white man is not so unusual, but it is unusual that he is honest about his anger, and its origins in class battles, child abuse and feeling “not enough.”

I was startled by the tone of The Way I Am. In his music, Eminem makes a dramatic point of refusing to apologize, refusing to answer critics except in a general way or by counterattack. In much of the writing of the book (whether penned by Eminen himself or his likely team of ghost writers) the tone if much more consilatory. For example, his account of his relationship with the mother of his child/sometimes lover/sometimes wife/sometimes enemy Kim is measured and doesn't hestitate to address his own responsibility in their ongoing friction which, at times, has been violent. This book will doubtless be an interesting read for fans of Eminem, but it will be equally interesting to people for looking for answers to their own anger and their own feelings of masculined inadequacy.