Posts Tagged ‘memoirs

17
Jun
14

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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18
Mar
14

What A Bitch: My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

My Dog TulipMy Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

A month or two ago, my dog died. He was about 15 years old and admittedly in rough shape near the end, having accidents in the house and spending most of his days sleeping. Still, it’s hard to let go and a couple of days after his passing, I found myself looking for a good book about a dog. Eventually I ended up with JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, an amusing, fun account of life with a skittish, freewheeling German Shepherd. And although it’s a nice read, I can see why it’d also turn some readers off.

For many years, Ackerley was an editor at The Listener, a magazine published by the BBC. In his lifetime he wrote a handful of memoirs – Hindoo Holiday, My Father and Myself – and a novel, We Think the World of You, which prominently features a dog. I think it’s safe to say he was a dog lover, or at least that he loved one dog in particular: Tulip, a German Shepard he insists is more intelligent, beautiful and interesting than the average mutt.

He let her do whatever she pleased, more or less. When they went for a walk, Tulip was off-the-leash, roaming around as she pleased to sniff, scratch and take a crap. If people didn’t like, tough on them. Take this exchange from when a passing bicyclist yells at Ackerley:

“Try taking your dog off the sidewalk to mess!”

“What, to be run over by you? Try minding your own business!”

“I am an’ all,” he bawled over his shoulder, “What’s the bleeding street for?”

“For turds like you!,” I retorted. (pg. 33)

Turds come up in more ways than one, since what this book does best is what some people hate about it: its utter frankness. Ackerley never minces his words, describing Tulip in startling detail: her rambunctious attitude, her fur coat, her bowel movements and her heats. He never once tries to turn her into a human, but never treats her flippantly, either. It’s a full portrait of a canine, warts and all.

Well, sort of. While Ackerley never hides how naughty she was – “I never knew you friendly before,” says one anonymous person when approached by a subdued Tulip – apparently he’s also got the blinders on, too. Sure, he mentions how she takes a dump in front of a greengrocer, chases and kills a rabbit or bites a bus driver, but according to Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ introduction, that’s not the half of it. In real life, Tulip was often so wild Ackerley’s friends stopped inviting him over since he always brought the dog.

But then again, Ackerley was utterly devoted to her and tried to make her life as happy as he could. He tried to find her a “husband,” so she could experience being a mother and he nurses her (and the pups) to health. He takes her for long walks in the woods and along the riverside, even takes her inside the pub when he gets a Sunday pint. When she does something bad, he occasionally yells and gives her a swat, but all she has to do is look at him with her and he just about melts. Truthfully, I did, too.

A note about context: this book is mostly set in the mid-to-late 1940s. This was a time when you fed your dog table scraps (or, as Ackerley does, raw meat), and before getting your dog spayed or neutered was a common practice. I’ve seen more than a few people cringe when Ackerley debates his options with puppies (does he do The Dark Deed, as he calls it?), but such a practice was hardly unknown then – and besides, all the pups get a home, anyway.

Rating: 6/10. I liked this a lot: it’s insistence on a total portrait, its frank language and utter devotion to Tulip. Ackerley certainly loved his dog. But I can see those very same things turning people off, too. This is one of those books that either clicks immediately or repels you. Maybe it was a matter of timing, but it clicked with me.

05
Nov
13

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.




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