Tag Archives: memoir

Must Read TV

It’s no secret that I love TV.  LOVE IT.  I know that as a book nerd I’m supposed to snottily claim that I only watch HBO or that I don’t even own a TV or whatever, but screw it. I make no apologies for the many hours I spend in front of my TV and I think the DVR is the greatest invention since, I don’t know, fire. I used to just enjoy watching it, but ever since I started working in an industry that also has to balance the creative side with the business side, I’ve been fascinated with the behind the scenes machinations of the entertainment industry. So I basically had to read Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV by former NBC president Warren Littlefield with T.R. Pearson, an oral history of the shows that dominated my teenage years in the 90s.  Well not including 90210, but that was on Fox so it doesn’t really fit the theme.

Littlefield and Pearson (well in all likelihood, mostly Pearson) interviewed dozens of actors, directors, writers, producers, and network executives to get the dirt on how the top shows of the Must See TV era on NBC were developed. I’m always fascinated by oral histories because instead of one author saying, “here is what happened,” you get a bunch of different people’s versions of what happened, and people often see the same events differently. And yes, there is an author (usually a journalist acting as cultural anthropologist) shaping the interviews into a cohesive narrative, but it’s still up to the reader to come to their own conclusions about what truly happened.  This is the first oral history that I have read where the person shaping the narrative as a whole is actually a key participant in the story. There are times when Warren Littlefield seems to be either directly responding to or setting up someone else’s quote. It’s almost like a hybrid of the memoir and oral history genres and I’d really love to learn more about how they put the book together.

And now a few of my favorite tidbits from the book:

  • In most of the oral histories I’ve read, there seems to be one person that everyone else interviewed gleefully trashes. The SNL book has Chevy Chase, the ESPN book has Keith Olbermann, and this book has Don Ohlmeyer, former President of NBC West Coast operations. He’s described as a smart businessman and charismatic guy, but comes across in their stories as a drunk buffoon. Ohlmeyer was not actually interviewed for the book (the co-author explained why in the comments of Alan Sepinwall’s review), but considering that Littlefield was fired instead of Ohlmeyer, I can’t say I blame him.
  • It was Littlefield’s brainstorm to cut back shows’ running time in favor of more ads.  BOO!
  • Seinfeld was originally run out by the late night and specials department of NBC because they didn’t have any room in the budget in the regular comedy department.
  • David Schwimmer kind of comes off as a douche.  He goes on and on about his theater company and how he kept telling the rest of the cast that they had to act like a union and negotiate together.  Which turned out to be very smart, but do you have to be so pretentious about it?
  • Littlefield threatened to cancel Law and Order after the third season unless Dick Wolf added a female character.
  • There was a LOT of thought put into Benton’s fist pump in the pilot (and opening credits) of ER.  Who knew? Also, Noah Wyle had his first three-way after the first ER presentation at the up fronts. Random.
  • Despite what the subtitle suggests, there’s not actually a lot about the fall of Must See TV.  The explanation seems to be that Warren Littlefield was fired and everyone after him ruined everything, especially Jeff Zucker.  And I guess the way people watch television has changed.  But mostly that other thing. I will say though that if NBC was in better shape, then we would only have gotten a handful of episodes of Chuck, The Office, Parks and Rec, and Community, and that would have been tragic.

There are times when it gets a little too inside baseball and there were some stories that I, as a TV junkie, had already heard, but overall I think it’s a good read.  There are lots of great behind the scenes gossip and gives the average TV watcher a better idea of how much work (and ego) goes into developing and making a successful TV show. I think pop culture junkies will really enjoy this book.

And in conclusion, that’s not even a word!


Roam If You Want To

I have an embarrassing number of books on my shelf about people who quit their jobs/commitments/lives and travel the world. Or at least, I would be embarrassed if my bookshelf didn’t hold an equally enormous collection of chicklit. Next to the entirety of the Shopaholic series, my stack of travel memoirs looks downright intellectual. Anyone who knows me knows that I love to travel, and that I look forward to vacations for weeks with giddy anticipation. So when I’m not jumping a plane myself, it makes sense that I would love to bury myself in a story where someone lives out my ultimate fantasy – living a life, at least for a time, on the road.

The Lost Girls (Harper Collins, 2011) is a bit unique in my collection in that it’s the only book I have about a group of friends travelling together. Also unique is that there’s not a bit of Europe in the entire book. Instead, New York City twenty-somethings Jen, Holly, and Amanda, after over a year of careful saving and planning, put their lives on hold to backpack through parts of South America, Africa, Asia, New Zealand, and Australia.

I really enjoyed this book, mostly because it was an interesting look at traveling through countries and cultures much different than our own. I liked that the story was told from the points of view of all three women, and that the journey they took was a collaboration between them, stopping in places that each had dreamed of visiting. Their destinations were interesting as well. They would often stay places for weeks at a time to soak up the local culture and really immerse themselves in the country. In Kenya, they volunteered with a rural school, where they met and worked with a group of pre-adolescent girls who lived at the school because they had been attacked walking back and forth from their homes. In India, they studied at a Buddhist ashram. The didn’t just visit temples and the Inca Trail, but also local markets and tucked away beaches. They made friends with fellow travelers, ex-pats, and locals. And through it all, they had the same worries that any traveling group would have – money, the lives they’d left back home, and their determination to spend a year in constant companionship and still come out as friends on the other end.

The book is not perfect, of course. The authors can all get a little simile-heavy at times, and because it’s told from different perspectives, the story can sometimes feel slightly disjointed as they travel from one place to the next. But overall, I thoroughly enjoyed hitching a ride with the Lost Girls  as they traveled the world. If you’re the type of person with a passport at the ready and a list of places you’d like it to take you one day, I think you’ll enjoy their journey as well.

Also, because I know you’re singing it now too…

Who Would Hang Out Without Mindy Kaling?

Story time! A few years ago, on a very important milestone type birthday (we’ll say it was my 21st) (it wasn’t), my lovely mother decided that she was going to send me and a friend on a trip together to celebrate. Since Anastasia Beaverhausen and I have the same birthday (mid-July is where it’s at for birthdays), I asked her to accompany me to Los Angeles and San Diego. I’d been to L.A. once for about a day on the way to San Franscisco, and AB had never been to California at all, so we were very excited.

In preparation for this trip, we did much research on important topics like taking a studio tour, locations where we could drive and feel like we were rich for a little while, and food. You know, the crucial stuff. The most important part, however, was the map and detailed instruction that got us from our hotel in Beverly Hills (!!) to Van Nuys, to the small tucked away studio where they film The Office. Because what we wanted out of this trip, right up there with dipping our toes in the Pacific Ocean, was to take a picture in front of Dunder Mifflin and possible spy some of the cast.

Sadly, we did not get to see Dunder Mifflin. It turns out that the studio is in a part of town where I was fairly certain we were going to get shot, and there was a guard posted at the beginning of the street. He was a perfectly nice guard, and he might have let us drive back there based on the sheer fact that we didn’t look like we were packing heat, but I got so flustered by the locale and the unexpected guard that I blurted out, “Oh, we just need to turn around! We were… looking for something. And this isn’t it. Sorry!” Thus ended our stalking of the cast (for that day, at least), but I have never ceased to love them. I love the show The Office, but even more, I love the cast. They seem like such funny, smart, down to earth people who are dorkily smitten with their show, and my secret dream is to be friends with all of them.

That’s probably why I loved Mindy Kaling’s book so much – reading it felt meeting a new friend who shares all their big stories, little stories, and day to day quirks with you. Of course, Mindy’s big stories are things like how she moved to New York to become a comedy writer and how she eventually became a writer/producer/actor/director on The Office. But the charm of Mindy Kaling is that she’s so funny and real that she makes her totally awesome life accessible to the rest of us – like even though she’s got a killer job in L.A., she’d still dish with those of us who aren’t walking the red carpet. Because most of the time, she isn’t either.  As a person whose favorite part of any celeb magazine is the page where movie stars are shown at the grocery store with no makeup and their hair in a messy bun, this book was obviously right up my alley.

If you’re an Office fan, you’ll definitely want to pick up a copy, because she devotes an entire chapter to the show and many of her stories feature her nemesis, Rainn Wilson. But even if you aren’t a fan of the show, I think most anyone would enjoy this lighthearted look at Mindy’s life. A few highlights that I personally loved:

  • A collection of self portraits from her Blackberry, because… come on. We all have these.
  • Each and every story she told about her childhood. Trust me, you’ll love it.
  • A list of things every guy should wear. YES.
  • The whole Office chapter, but in particular all of the stuff about the writer’s room shenanigans. Also the picture of her with my TV boyfriend, John Krasinski*, cracking up in the middle of a take.
  • That one part where she says she prefers to write while looking like she’s recovering from tuberculosis. I think I snorted Coke out of my nose at that one and the accompanying picture.
  • The cupcake story. Oh Mindy, we’ve all been there.

This isn’t heavy duty reading, but it’s fun and well written and you’ll put it down with a smile on your face. And sometimes, that’s all I really need out of a book.

*Dear Emily Blunt, I’m sorry. He was my TV boyfriend long before he was your husband. I promise not to go crazy stalker on him or anything, but I’m not ready to give him up as TV boyfriend just yet (though every time John hangs out with George Clooney, Zachary Levi does edge closer to that top spot). I hope you understand. P.S. We have an index of searches on this site, so if I see “people who want to marry my husband John Krasinski” pop up, I’ll know this message was received.

My Dirty TV Secret

I mentioned earlier that Covert Affairs is TV crack that I can’t stop watching, and I bet you all thought that I had divulged my dirty TV secret to the world, but I didn’t.  I have even an deeper, darker TV secret, for which Robin Sparkles is entirely to blame.  Are you ready for this?  I love Hot in Cleveland.  It is a sitcom devoted entirely to sitcom tropes, but it’s pretty well done for a show that focuses on cliches, and there are always great guest stars (hello, Carl Reiner) or completely random guest stars (a Jonas brother. Don’t ask me which one.  I don’t know.  IMDB it if your Jonas brother affection is limited to one of them).  So when I was in the library and saw Betty White’s latest memoir on the new books shelf, I knew that it was something I needed to read, and I snatched it up before any other closet Hot in Cleveland fans could get their hands on it.

As expected, If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t) (Penguin 2011) is completely adorable.  The book consists of Betty’s thoughts on a variety of topics in two- or three-page snippets, with a focus on 2010, The Year of Betty White, although she doesn’t call it that, more’s the pity.  There are also a LOT of photographs, which is good because I like to look at pictures.  It makes it read more like a children’s book, which you know we support here at Rampant Reads.  You’ll learn about Betty’s affection for Robert Redford – he wrote her a poem!  She didn’t share it, unfortunately, but I suppose she doesn’t want to share all the bits and pieces of her life with the world.  I’ll hold on to the hope that she’ll change her mind one day, and I’ll be able to read Redford’s opus.   If you are an animal lover, you’ll probably get a big kick out of anecdotes about meeting the beluga whales at the Georgia Aquarium (rhymenocerous, take note) or the way that random people bring their dogs to meet her when she’s working on location.  The story about her becoming an honorary forest ranger made me tear up a little.  She was so excited about it, and she looked really cute in her hat.  She got to meet Koko the gorilla on multiple occasions, so now Koko knows her and has named her Lipstick, which might be one of the coolest things ever.  I don’t even like animals (step back, animal enthusiasts.  I don’t hate animals, nor do I want bad things to happen to them.  I just don’t want them on my lap), but I think I’d like to have a gorilla christen me with an appropriate nickname.  I’d go around telling people to call me Ginger because Koko does.  Or whatever she decided to name me.  Betty, perhaps you should consider going by Lipstick all the time.  Of course, I can see where you might be concerned that people would think you were a member of Vanessa Huxtable’s band The Lipsticks, and Claire has made it perfectly clear how unacceptable the amount of makeup and lack of clothing inherent in being a member of the Lipsticks is, so it’s probably safer to stick to Betty so that there’s no confusion.  (Sidebar – why did Bill Cosby not get Betty White on The Cosby Show?  Maybe he tried and she declined.  I learned that she declined SNL all those years because she didn’t think she was New York enough.  Perhaps she didn’t think she was New York enough for The Cosby Show, either.  If that’s true, then it is a very unfortunate state of affairs because by now we’ve seen that her performance on SNL was epic.  I would think that Betty White + Bill Cosby = Comedy Gold.  I suppose we’ll never know.)

I’ll leave the rest to you to discover.  Betty touches on topics like awards, acting, friendship, aging and her day-to-day life.  She tells you what to send her fan mail about that will guarantee an answer (don’t abuse this one).  The whole thing reinforces my impression that she is a delightful woman.  Plus, she wrote the entire book out in longhand, which I find especially impressive since my writing style is not conducive to that AT ALL.  I hope you’ll enjoy this memoir even if you are not a Hot in Cleveland fan, closet or otherwise.  At this point, it’s practically un-American not to love Betty White.

It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll

If you know me, you have seen me in my Rolling Stones shirt.  I love it.  It’s super soft, and so I wear it all the time.  I will weep bitter tears when it falls apart and has to be thrown away.  I keep waiting for Target to bring it back so that I can buy a backup or three, but so far they have been uncooperative.  The regularity with which I wear my favorite shirt gives a false impression of my devotion to this band, though.  Don’t get me wrong – I love the Stones.  I was raised right.  However, I am not so enamored that I shell out for the concert tickets, and I’m not familiar with their deeper cuts.  Maybe one day.  For now, I’m satisfied with ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ and ‘Paint It, Black.’

So, when I saw that Keith Richards, guitarist extraordinaire, had written his memoir, I was interested, but I didn’t drop everything to rush to the bookstore to pick it up.  I assumed I’d get around to it one day, either from the library or once it came out in paperback.  It seemed like it would be the perfect beach book, and I was in no hurry.  And then I found out that Johnny Depp read the audio book of Life (Hachette Audio 2010), and I decided to find this sooner rather than later.  I’m pretty sure that Johnny Depp could read a debate about Beta players vs. VCRs and keep me riveted. He’s that good when he wants to be.  (He can also be dull.  Have you tried to listen to his commentary on Pirates 1? Snoozefest.)  He doesn’t disappoint in this little favor he did for his buddy Keef.  His performance of the opening chapter is my favorite part of the entire audiobook.  It involves Keith, Ronnie Wood, and other members of their entourage getting arrested in Fordyce, AR, for a number of trumped up charges that began with them exiting a parking lot in a manner that did not sit well with the local authorities.  The story includes the disposal of various illegal substances in a variety of ways, a drunken judge called into court late at night, and a Free Keith protest outside the courthouse while the BBC was on the phone.  Johnny does a masterful job of recounting it, complete with the Captain Jack voice for Keith’s bits and a spot-on Southern accent for the cops.

After this rollicking intro, the story goes back to Keith’s childhood and moves forward chronologically-ish from there, although there is a good bit of wandering off-topic along the way.  About four chapters in, the narrator changes, and Joe Hurley – also hand-picked by Keith for this project – picks up.  I’m not going to lie, the change was jarring to me.  I had gotten so used to Johnny’s deadpan delivery that Joe’s enthusiastic reading threw me at first.  Honestly, I thought that his British accent was put on when he started, so I googled him to see where he was really from, and it turns out that he’s a Londoner, so I suppose it’s the real deal.  I didn’t find his voice as easy to listen to as Johnny’s, so it took me longer to get through his section of the book.  Also, while the subject matter was usually interesting, occasionally there would be a detailed discussion of something like open tuning that went on for quite some time.  This is probably of interest to other guitar players, but I found it a bit dull.  Sadly, there is no skimming in audiobooks, so I now know more about it than I ever thought I would.  I also learned a good bit about drugs – various nicknames, how one takes them, good stuff vs. bad, how to work the system, balancing your intake of uppers and downers to stay away for days at a time, and the absolute hell of quitting cold turkey.  Seriously, I don’t know how Keith did that multiple times.  I don’t think I’d be able to go through it again once I knew what was coming.

While I appreciated the tips on knife fighting, the best parts of the book by far are about the formation of the band and its heyday.  I loved learning about how the songs were written, who they were about, and the evolution of the music.  I enjoy knowing that they cut ‘Satisfaction’ thinking that it was just going to be a demo, and then they heard it on the radio while they were driving to their next gig.  Once the band is established and they fall to  infighting, the story isn’t as interesting to me.  I’d like to hear Mick Jagger’s take on some of what happened.  Or, even better, Charlie Watts’ impressions of what was going on between Mick and Keith.  Perhaps one day they’ll write their memoirs, too, and I can hear all sides of the story.  I get the feeling that Charlie’s take would be the most objective of the three.  He seems to be the only one who didn’t join in the weird girlfriend merry-go-round that the rest of the band participated in.  He’s also looking very dapper these days, while Keith and Mick look like they died years ago and someone forgot to tell them.  Considering that Keef spent 10 years topping a list of rock stars most likely to die, it’s pretty impressive that he’s still alive and kicking, especially after reading up (or listening to, I suppose) on all of the shenanigans he’s engaged in over the years.  He’s survived wartime London bombings, various car accidents, cohabitation with a paranoid junkie girlfriend, setting fire to the Playboy mansion, a cracked skull, and much more.

The book is a fun ride.  I’d always just thought of Keith as the Stones guitarist with an ever-present cigarette, and it was fun to learn so much more about him – his life, his family, his library.  He’s passionate about his music, a doting father, and a stalwart friend.  It may be time for me to investigate some of those deeper cuts I’ve been ignoring for years in case I tire of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and ‘Honky Tonk Women’ before my Stones kick ends.

Who wants to make pig bladder balloons?

I need to know where to find this edition of Little House in the Big Woods. It seems to have COLOR illustrations.

When I first heard about Wendy McClure‘s opus The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie (Riverhead 2011) a couple of weeks ago, it called to me, much like the Aztec gold in the original Pirates of the Caribbean calls to the crew of the Black Pearl.  If you read my intro post, you’ve seen a picture of my well-loved Little House boxed set.  I re-read these books to this day.  They are the literary equivalent of comfort food.

Reading the first few chapters was like reading about my own life.  I was delighted to know that so many of the bits and pieces that made an impression on me also made an impression on Wendy: Pa’s ability to span Ma’s waist with his hands on their wedding day, twisting hay into sticks for fuel, and exclaiming about the chinook wind to name a few.  I still don’t know how to tell the chinook wind from regular wind, but that seems less important these days.  Wendy did NOT mention the pig bladder balloon in her list, which has long been one of the most fascinating parts of the Little House story to me, especially since it is accompanied by a lovely Garth Williams illustration (see p. 15) of two girls frolicking with their bladder balloon as they get butchering time off to a good start.  Re-reading as an adult, you notice that it’s also a crafty way for parents to occupy small children who may be underfoot during a busy day.  (I actually learned quite a bit about hog butchering one day at my grandparents’ house, but I neglected to ask them if they got to play with a bladder balloon.  I’d call them up now, but I think they’d be confused about the late night call to talk about pig bladders in their childhoods.  Note to self – ask about balloons next time.  All that to say butchering time is BUSY.)  But I digress.  This is supposed to be about Wendy’s story, not Laura’s.

When I read the reviews, I expected this to be like The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, which I love (Sidebar – add this one to your TBR pile right now.  Seriously.  You won’t regret it).  I thought Wendy was going to do the things that Ma and Pa and their girls do: dry corn, braid straw hats, smoke venison in a hollow log, make bullets, and all the other chores that are described in such fascinating detail in these books.  And she does do some of them.  She churns her own butter, takes a stab at the maple candy, makes her own sourdough starter, and grinds wheat in a coffee mill to make a loaf of Hard Winter bread.  She also signs up for a Homesteading Weekend at a local farm, but when she and her boyfriend Chris arrive, they find themselves surrounded by evangelicals who are preparing for the End Times, which distracts from learning to can and blacksmith and make soap because there is a lot of whispering about “all that is going on” and they are trying to keep up a charade that they’re married since they were afraid to tell the nice church folks that they are actually just living in sin.  Wendy already knows how to make her own butter, of course.  I read this bit last Saturday, so it was particularly timely.

Unlike me, Wendy did not re-read the Little House series on and off for her entire life.  She rediscovered the books as an adult, and her interest in Laura was revitalized.  She then went on to read everything else she could find about the life of the Ingalls family and Laura’s adult life.  I understand this.  When I revisit the series, I am never finished with the story when I’m done with the books, so over the years I’ve bought copies of diaries from some of her travels, and I’ve checked books out of the library of the articles she wrote for the Missouri Ruralist.  Consequently, I have learned quite a bit about farm life in the early twentieth century Ozarks.  It makes me feel much better to know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the available literature because there are days when I feel like perhaps I’ve taken it too far.  The bibliography in this book will provide me with a delightful list of further reading the next time I finish These Happy Golden Years and am not ready to leave Laura behind just yet. I know you’re saying, “But, Princess Consuela, there is another book in the series.  Why don’t you just read The First Four Years?  It’s right there in your boxed set.  It’s the little one on the end.”  Well, dear reader, the answer to your query is twofold.  1. It’s not part of the original series, but a book that Laura wrote separately, probably intended as an adult novel.  The voice is different, and it doesn’t feel like a continuation of the story to me.  2. It’s depressing.  Bad things happen to Laura and Almanzo in this book, and it doesn’t have the rose-colored tint of frontier fun that the other books do to put a good spin on the locust invasions, fires, blizzards, and all of the other catastrophes that the Ingalls family deals with.  It’s not what I’m looking for.  If I want to read about how depressing her life could be, I’ll check a biography out of the library, which will inevitably recount the death of her baby brother, a rich woman’s offer to adopt her, the family’s stint working in a hotel, and many other sobering details that Laura omitted from her novels.  Wendy reads everything she can get her hands on about Laura, from children’s biographies to heavily-footnoted scholarly publications.  She subscribes to a newsletter and meets other people who do the same.  Really, I just have a mild interest.  None of my books are footnoted.

When scholarly publications and recipes from The Little House Cookbook can’t satisfy her obsession any more, Wendy and sometimes Chris embark on the several trips to visit Laura’s various homesites across the Midwest.  She’s trying to rediscover the magic of what she calls Laura  World, but it becomes a journey of self-discovery instead.   The poignancy of this book surprised me, and it made the funny parts even better.  Wendy has a great voice, and she makes sure to share some of the more interesting bits and pieces that she learns along the way.  For instance, many Little House fans appreciate the various pantries described in the books.  I don’t even like to cook, and I covet the pantry that Almanzo built for Laura in their first house.  The description of the pantry in the surveyor’s house in By the Shores of Silver Lake is always delightful, too, but I have a preoccupation with food that others may not share.  And Farmer Boy is full to bursting with good eating.  Seriously, I’m craving pancakes just thinking about it.  With butter.  And syrup.  Ahem.  Anyways.   While I may not be up to traveling to rural Missouri to see Pa’s fiddle yet (don’t count me out forever, though), I now have a whole new list of Laura books to check out of the library when I’m also not ready to leave Laura World behind thanks to Wendy’s copious research.  She’s also previewed them for me, so now I know which ones I can’t miss.  One apparently has the entire Ingalls clan pictured with a 70’s spin on the cover, which I have to find and will probably need to own if the art is as amusing as described.  Carrie has a Dorothy Hamill bob.  ‘Nuff said.

And now, I’m going to see what Google has to say about how one goes about making a Half-Pint cocktail, which seems to be a delightful concoction of vodka, acai liqueur, and Sprite that is served at Little House on the Prairie: The Musical.  Wendy and her friend Kara have declared that it tastes like a prairie breeze.  Sign me up.  Plus, this way I’ll have a drink in my hand while I see what Google can tell me about the startling revelation that Cap Garland may NOT have gone on the quest for seed wheat with Almanzo during the Long Winter.  I am fairly certain that I’ll feel betrayed if my beloved Cap did not actually make the trip, and having a drink in my hand will be useful in soothing my frazzled nerves should this prove true.  And this brings us back to the heart of Wendy’s story – does it matter what is true and what was fictionalized?  Why does it mean so much?  It’s the mark of a good storyteller that Laura has touched so many of us so deeply.  I, for one, am always surprised at how invested I am in both the truth and fiction of her life.  Bottoms up.