Posts Tagged ‘autobiographies


The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle

The Bronx ZooThe Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle

1978 was a pretty great year for baseball, especially in New York. The Yankees, down by 14 games in July, roared back and took the AL East pennant in a one-game playoff against Boston. Anyway, if you’re a baseball fan, you probably have some knowledge of that. And here, in The Bronx Zoo, is the other side of that season: what happened off the field, away from the cameras and inside the clubhouse.

Lyle’s book is a wild read, ranging from raunchy clubhouse tales to keen observation. He’ll go from a story about sitting on a cake to pointing out why his pitches aren’t working, sometimes even in the same paragraph. Written as a diary breaking down the season day-by-day (think Ball Four), the season seems to take forever sometimes as losses mount and drama in the front office keeps mounting between Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner, both of whom come off as high-strung, insecure and made for each other.

This team’s packed with personality, too: between the sensitive, and quiet Thurman Munson and the bombastic, publicity-loving Reggie Jackson, this Yankee team just drips with colourful characters. Jackson really steals it as the prototypical 21st Century superstar, always happy to give a sharp quip into the microphone, even if it’s less than truthful (“You guys heard that?” he asks the assembled media after one scathing comment on a radio broadcast, “if I’d known you were listening I’d have said something different.”)

There are the occasional flashes of insight between the day-to-day: Lyle occasionally explains why a pitcher’s pitches aren’t working, the little ways a fielder is making great plays and at the little differences made by a team on a hot streak; there’s also the occasional show of casual ballplayer misogyny, too. And while he’s never removed from the shenanigans in the clubhouse, he’s something of a bemused observer, cataloging the pranks, off-hand comments and tension on one of the most memorable seasons in baseball.

Unfortunately, the book starts to fade near the end. Maybe the work of keeping a diary was too much for Lyle or maybe he just wanted to stay focused on the 1978 playoffs (his line: 1.1 Innings Pitched, 2 Earned Runs, zero strikeouts). I would’ve liked something of a wrap-up, but instead it ends a little abruptly. I think the 2005 edition has a new afterward, but I can’t speak to that.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted my review of Marty Appel’s biography of Thurman Munson. And before that, a post about Jonathan Mahler’s The Bronx Is Burning. In terms of baseball colour, Lyle’s book has them both beat. Munson has flashes of personality, but largely relies on Appel’s memories or long interviews while the best parts of Mahler’s book focus more on politics and the media, not the Yankees. But as a history, The Bronx Zoo isn’t much: it’s a very personal book, almost unconcerned with anyone else. It’s what makes the book stand out from the usual jockish autobiography, a drab 200-page paperback farmed out to a PR rep or beat writer (see: Appel’s first book on Munson). But don’t come here expecting a blow-by-blow look at the AL East in 1978 or anything.

Rating: 7/10. A day-to-day, inside look at one of the most colourful teams in baseball history and hilarious to boot, Sparky Lyle’s memoir of the 1978 season is great. Recommended, especially for Yankee fans.


The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

The Autobiography of Malcolm XThe Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

A gripping account of a divisive life and one of the most important figures in 20th Century America, the Autobiography is a hell of a read. The anger and frustration are articulated in a way that still comes through, nearly 50 years after his death. So does his passion, which evolves throughout the book.

Born Malcolm Little, he grew up mostly in a single-parent family, his father having died when he was young. His mother struggled, often falling into poverty. Children’s Aid workers were often around and X argues their constant prodding and questioning, not to mention playing the siblings against each other, pushed his mother over the chasm into insanity. Soon he was living in a foster home, where he again encountered casual racism: history classes that skipped over cultures, teachers telling him to aim low. It’s death by a thousand cuts, a system that systematically crushed people.

Eventually, he winds up in Boston, hanging with a saxophone-playing friend and shining shoes for a living. But soon his life starts swirling out of control: booze, drugs and the stresses of the nightlife. He goes into debt, starts working as a criminal and a pimp. And he winds up in prison, where he spends him time devouring books and finds religion.

It’s a familiar back-story and Alex Haley tells it with ease: he generally presents Malcolm X as he was at the time he’s covering. His early years in the Nation of Islam is marked with his hard work to build the organization up and a devoted loyalty to its leader. His tone towards white America is harsh and uncompromising. Over the book, it gradually changes. His falling out in the early 60s mirrors a hardening attitude towards the group and his pilgrimage to Mecca shows a wider understanding towards the world and how to enact change in America.

Events are sometimes repeated and presented with a different attitude, reflecting his new beliefs. One comes midway through the book, when a young white woman who asks if there’s anything she can do to help approaches him after a speaking engagement. “Nothing,” he flatly replies, reducing her to tears. Later it’s revisited with a new attitude, where he says he regrets that treatment with a comment on how she could help.

His passion and energy are never far from the surface of the Autobiography. Even at his most uncompromising, he’s absolutely devoted to his words and speaks with an energy that’s absolutely gripping. While he was constantly evolving on a personal level, changing right up until his death, his anger and beliefs never come across as less than absolutely genuine.

The authorial voice of Alex Haley is never too far from the surface. His lengthy afterward doesn’t read much different from the main section and although it goes on a little long – there’s several long accounts of their meetings, how X opened up to Haley and of X’s assassination and more – it shows a little window into how the book came together. I don’t think it’s unfair to wonder how much he shaped the end result, but at the same time I assume it’s reasonable to think X signed off on most of the book, at least in concept.

I’ve recently picked up Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X, a book which sets out to be “the definitive work on one of the most singular forces for social change,” as it’s description reads. Among other things, Marable’s book sets out to correct the image of Malcolm X created by this book. Until I finish it, I’ll reserve a final judgment on this. But by all means, read The Autobiography. It’s a powerful, moving account from a pivotal figure in the civil rights struggle.


Inside the Ring and Out: Have A Nice Day by Mick Foley

Have a Nice Day!: A Tale of Blood and SweatsocksHave a Nice Day!: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks by Mick Foley

A wild read about a wild career, Mick Foley’s first memoir (he’s since written two others) is an entertaining, lucid look at the crazy world of professional wrestling.

Starting with his college years as an aspiring wrestler and filmmaker, Foley takes readers through a long, strange career: he started by jumping off of roofs, driving for hours and sleeping in the back of his car and within a few years was working in the myriad web of independent wrestling promotions and leagues. Some of these formed connections that’d serve him well into his career, but others are long-forgotten shows in half-filled bingo halls. With a self-aware charm, Foley recounts this matches as his apprentice years, putting in his dues and slowly improving as a wrestler.

And as he makes clear, it’s hard work. Sure, wrestling’s scripted. But it’s not easy either; on the back of the book is a chart of some of his many injuries over the years: concussions, broken fingers, torn muscles and blown knees. Even with a career that – to when Foley wrote this book some 14 years ago – was relatively short, he paid a physical price. But it was working, too: soon Foley was working with the now-defunct WCW and ECW leagues, slowly building a reputation as someone willing to do anything in the ring if he thought it’d make for a good match.

It’s harrowing stuff: before long, Foley’s writing about matches where he’s slammed with a folding chair, pounded into a concrete floor or thrown into barbed wire like he’s writing about the weather. His matches overseas up the ante: in Germany he loses an ear, in Japan suffers burns after standing too close to a C4 explosion. The pictures liberally scattered throughout the book often show a bloodied Foley, almost always with a grin on his face. His unique personality shines through the book: he loves getting battered almost as much as he loves listening to Tori Amos or going to theme parks.

The book climaxes with his famed run in the now-WWE as the iconic wrestler Mankind, running through matches with people like The Rock or The Undertaker. His recaps of these matches are as crazy as anything: getting dropped off the top of a giant metal cage, getting slammed around until he blacks out. The way he writes it makes it come off as an unlikely rise to the title; reading between the lines, you can see it as him and the WWE planning a way for him to go out on top, with him retiring shortly thereafter. Indeed the scripting of matches is something he only gets into a bit, but they’re some of the most interesting stuff in the book: why certain angles work, why some people catch on while others fade away, what goes into making an entertaining match.

His humility towards himself is interesting: he downplays his talent, insisting he’s really that great. And his out-of-the-ring side doesn’t get addressed very often and his vast support for good causes (building schools overseas, his visits to wounded soldiers or his long hours volunteering for RAINN) aren’t mentioned much, if at all. It’s interesting how much he downplays this side of his life since most autobiographies are relatively self-serving.

On the other hand, I found the recaps of wrestling a little much sometimes: I suspect someone who actually watched these when they happened will get more out of them. Finally, his fratboyish tone was occasionally annoying: there’s a lot of dick jokes here.

Rating: 8/10. A fun, refreshing read about a man who may be a little crazy but is a lot more clever and better at the memoir game than you’d think by looking at his photos. Recommended, especially for wrestling fans.

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Comic: Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up

Born Standing Up: A Comic's LifeBorn Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

A short, lean and engaging look from Steve Martin at his past, Born Standing Up is a fantastic autobiography. In a hair over 200 pages, he recounts his early years in a troubled home formative years working at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, his years as an up-and-coming working comic and, eventually his most successful years, when he sold out stadiums and had hit records.

It’s interesting to read about Martin’s years grinding as a standup, especially in a time before comedy clubs existed; he spent most of those days opening for bands in bars. But that really sets this apart is how thoroughly he investigates himself.

It’s kind of like reading a well-researched biography. Martin adopts a neutral tone, treating these years as a part of his life that’s long gone. He breaks down the grind of his touring life, the days plugging away in The Smothers Brothers writing room and the tricks of the trade like he’s speaking about someone else. I can’t think of a similar book by another comedian; usually, they’re either prose versions of their routines or more of a memoir. This is something more than either of those.

It’s not a funny book, although it’s occasionally witty, but it’s endlessly fascinating to read his sober look at how his style of comedy was formed and break down how the sausage is made. He explains how bits came together and why he’d drop them, about his on-stage style, both in performing and in clothing (Always be better dressed than your audience, he says) and explains what it was like being on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show. There’s some harsh truths here about how unromantic a life this is, but he cloaks them with a self-deprecating charm. An example:

“There was a belief that one appearance on The Tonight Show made you a star. But here are the facts. The first time you do the show, nothing. The second time you do the show, nothing. The sixth time you do the show, someone might come up to you and say, “Hi, I think we met at Harry’s Christmas party.” The tenth time you do the show, you could conceivably be remembered as being seen somewhere on television. The twelfth time you do the show, you might hear, “Oh, I know you. You’re that guy.” “

Throughout this book, I kept thinking of EB White’s quote about breaking down comedy. I think it’s to Martin’s credit as a writer that his comedy never quite falls apart under his analysis: while he breaks things down, sometimes even wondering himself what he was thinking, he’s still funny. That alone would make the book worth reading.

But that’s ignoring the memoir side of this book. He explains the pleasures and downsides of this lifestyle, the triumphs (finally getting Carson to laugh at his jokes, meeting like-minded souls like Dan Aykroyd) why he walked away from a wildly successful performing career: years plugging away led to success, but that had it’s own trappings. Reading his intelligent insights into stand-up, acting and being on the cutting edge (aka: the unpopular for a long time) side of comedy is a treat.

There’s a couple things I wish he’d written more about: putting together specials in the 70s, how his life changed once he got into movies and what he thought of people like John Candy (I’ll always think Planes, Trains and Automobiles is his best movie). Maybe he’ll get around to that book someday.

Rating: 9/10. It’s short and sometimes feels lean, but it’s also one of the best books about comedy I’ve ever read; only the SNL oral history comes close. Recommended for biography fans, especially those who like comedy.


Thinkpiece Thursday: On Athletic Autobiographies

Over at Sports Illustrated, there’s an excerpt from Bobby Orr’s new autobiography, Orr: My Story. I haven’t read that book yet, so I’ll leave my thoughts on it for another day.* But it got me thinking about autobiographies of famous athletes and especially why so many of them, well, just aren’t that good. What gives?

*: A stray thought: did Orr decide to write the book after reading Stephen Brunt’s biography about him? As I remember, Orr didn’t want to participate in that book, but I can’t remember why.

The easy answer is something about confidence. Right now, I’m reading a book about the 90s Dallas Cowboys and just finished a chapter about Emmitt Smith. He started his career as a pretty humble man, claims Jeff Pearlman, but as his star rose and he catapulted to fame, his ego grew to the point where he routinely ignored fans and acted like a jackass. In other words: his confidence rose and grew into arrogance.

That happens to most athletes, who are as susceptible to the trappings of fame as anyone. And, as the easy answer would go, it’s why most athletes aren’t good at writing about themselves: they’re self-assured, brash and confident and not very interested in looking at themselves or their motivations. But there’s a couple flaws to this argument.

The first is that almost every athlete’s autobiography was actually written by someone else. Wilt Chamberlain’s first book (the underrated Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door) was more or less written by David Shaw; Shaquille O’Neal’s first book, the quickie cash-in Shaq Attack, was written by Jack McCallum, who’s since written some great books (related: my review of his 2012 book Dream Team). I can only think of a few athletes who’ve written their own books and generally, they’re actually pretty good.

Bill Bradley – Life on the Run

One that immediately comes to mind: Bill Bradley’s Life on the Run. Written a long time ago, back when he was more known for his basketball career, not his political career, it’s a first-hand account of the NBA at an interesting time, before the ABA expanded the talent pool dramatically and before drug scandals brought the league to it’s low point. The travel was gruelling, the money wasn’t anywhere like it is now and yet the appeal was the same. It’s a great read; it’s one of the best basketball books ever.

Another great one: Jim Bouton’s Ball FourFor years I’ve had a soft spot for this book and I’ve read it more than a few times. His is more of a diary than an autobiography, but I think it fits in here. It recounts just one season in the big leagues, where he bounced from the moribund Seattle Pilots to Houston. He writes about living the life of a big leaguer, an account as honest as it is hilarious and profane. He writes about “shooting beaver” with the Yankees, when players would scope out attractive women in the stands. He tells of a prank where a guy shoved popcorn in his foreskin. He writes about boozing, drug use and being bored a lot. It blew apart more myths than any sports book before it and even 40 years after it’s publication, it’s as readable as ever.

The Game – Ken Dryden

Finally, there’s what I consider the best sports autobiography ever: Ken Dryden’s The Game. It’s more or less about his final season as a goalie, but touches on other parts of his life and reflections on the game. It shouldn’t be a huge surprise hat Dryden wrote one of the great sports books, too. He was a man who did things differently than most athletes. He started his career with a hot streak in the 1971 playoffs, going 12-8 as the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. He actually won the Conn Smythe Trophy the year before he named Rookie of the Year. Only a couple seasons later, he took a year off to clerk at a law firm and earn his degree. And after winning his sixth Stanley Cup ring in 1979, he walked away from hockey. In his concise, fluid prose, Dryden covers his unconventional career with an assuming modesty; he never comes across as brash or arrogant, although maybe a little stiff at times.

Like I said, I haven’t read Orr’s book yet, but I don’t really expect it to compare to these three. Still, based on the excerpt I did read, it seems better than your run-of-the-mill one, too. Hope the rest of the book holds up.