Thursday, March 23, 2017

Spring Reading: Mama and Junior

Remember me? Yes, it's been quite a while since I last opined on a rock star memoir. Believe me when I say I hadn't intended to let Chez BTRU go stale, and though people who advise on the proper way to live as a blogger tell you not to explain long absences, I feel I owe one.

Since starting this blog I've posted reviews every other month - sometimes the gap is wider, but I deliver something. After posting my last review in June I had another book in my TBR and plans for a summer vacation of reading. Then in July, on the day we woke to leave for our trip, we were told my mother-in-law died. Helping to settle her affairs took the rest of the summer.

Fall brought school, more estate stuff, and the day job. During Christmas vacation I felt enough time had passed that I could resume reading and blogging...then I got laid off. The day after Christmas, no less. I lost January looking for work, and February and March dealing with two separate health crises in the immediate family.

So 2016 took some family, a job I loved, and all the cool celebrities, and the gloom left me sliding into 2017 with little desire to do anything. We're almost into April and I'm once again working to resume a productive life - productive in the things I enjoy. This past week I went book shopping and found a few gems to share.

Book Riot clued me in to California Dreamin' by Pénélope Bagieu, a graphic novel covering the first two-thirds of the life of Cass Elliot. As one fourth of the harmonious 60s group The Mamas and the Papas, Cass offered an amazing voice to the music scene. I'm not a die-hard fan, but I could probably name about a dozen hits off the top of my head as they were one of the more important bands of the era, bridging folk to pop and offering serious competition to the British invasion. Had Cass lived, I don't doubt she'd have continued a successful post-Mama career, if not in music then some hybrid of stage, cabaret and TV - hell, maybe a cartoon spinoff from that Scooby Doo special she did. She'd have been a riot on Twitter, too.

Bagieu's illustrative biography is more of a serial in that Cass's story (from early to age to the cusp of TM&TP's breakthrough) is told from the perspectives of the important supporting players in her life. Her sister gets a chapter, then her school BFF, collaborators, would-be lovers and rivals chime in to reveal the evolution of Ellen Cohen to Cass Elliot. Bagieu's artwork is loose and lush, not completely detailed scene for scene, but she gives enough distinction for each person portrayed - Cass's wide-eyed awe, John Phillips' austerity, Michelle's pixie beauty, and Denny Doherty's shaggy hippie charm. It's like Bagieu sketched out Cass's story as gently as possible, as though to provide some comfort to the young woman who put up with so much BS throughout her short life. I enjoyed reading Dreamin', but I would advise if you want to read this spend the money and buy it in print. Reading graphic novels via Kindle, even through the web reader, is a pill.

Rating: A


I picked up Matt Birkbeck's Deconstructing Sammy after seeing it marked down through an eBook deal newsletter. It's not so much a biography of Sammy Davis, Jr. as it is a cautionary tale. I've read similar stories about entertainers, how one can generate millions of dollars over a storied career yet have nothing to show for it by the end. You can have an amazing voice, dance on ceilings without wires, and recite Shakespeare to make people cry, but if you don't have any money sense you're toast. TL;DR - If you want to major in drama, minor in business and read everything you sign.

Deconstructing is the more the story of Albert "Sonny" Murray, a former federal prosecutor whose involvement in settling Davis' IRS entanglements came at the behest of family and friends on behalf of Davis' widow, Altovise. Similar to the aftermath of James Brown's death, as told in James McBride's Kill 'Em and Leave (reviewed here), Davis died with his estate in dire straits, and survivors fighting over rights to exploit. Altovise wanted her Hollywood lifestyle back, Sammy's daughter wanted a musical made, but until the IRS got theirs nobody got anything.

Fixing the seemingly impossible fell to Murray, and as you read you may want to root for him the most, considering how the deeper he gets into Davis' "afterlife" the more unpleasant surprises await him. Davis proves as interesting in death as he did alive, in every sense surrounded by people stuffing their pockets. Birkbeck balances the timelines of Davis' life of extravagance and strife with Murray's determination to finish a job and frustrations in bringing his parents to financial solvency by helping to save their inn - the first in the Poconos to cater to black tourists. It's fascinating to read.

As I write this I'm not yet finished with the book. I wanted to contribute to the blog, and these titles seem to go together in that each tells a bittersweet story, in that you wonder what could have been with a longer life for Cass and a broader legacy for Sammy, a huge star in his time who hasn't enjoyed the exposure of a Sinatra or Elvis after his passing, but certainly warrants it. For now I'm giving the book a B but that rating might change when I finish.

Kathryn Lively is back...for now.

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