Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

A German officer and patriot recalls his service — loyal and otherwise — in the World War II memoir ‘Valkyrie’

August 27, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 27, 2019

Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager, born in 1917, was the fourth of eight children of a prominent and monied German Roman Catholic family. He served as a cavalry officer during World War II and was part of an Army cabal that unsuccessfully attempted at least twice to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the Nazi dictator. Boeselager died on May 1, 2008, almost eight months before the release of a Tom Cruise movie about the conspiracy, Valkyrie.

Nearly a year to the day after the former cavalryman’s death, his wartime memoir, also titled Valkyrie, was published in English. The book is subtitled “The Story of the Plot to Kill Hitler, by Its Last Member,” but this turns out to be somewhat misleading: Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist passed away in 2013 at age 90. (In fairness to the publishers, I found at least two Boeselager obituaries calling him the last or “almost certainly the last” surviving plotter.)

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A lot of hard work went into developing the comedy career depicted in the Steve Martin memoir ‘Born Standing Up’

March 13, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 13, 2017

I missed almost all of Steve Martin’s entire career as a standup comedian while it was happening.

I wasn’t yet born when Martin first performed before paying audiences as a latter-day vaudevillian at Knott’s Berry Farm’s Bird Cage Theater in 1963; the same was true when he struck out on his own as a Southern California comedian and TV writer three years later, before comedy clubs had even been invented. (Folk-music venues hosted many of his shows.)

I was far too young to watch TV when Martin started appearing irregularly on talk shows in the early ’70s. I was also too young to attend any of Martin’s performances when he became a touring comedian a few years after that, or to watch his early appearances on Saturday Night Live. (He’s served as SNL guest host 15 times, starting in 1976, second only to Alec Baldwin’s 17 stints.)

I did have some friends who were very big fans of offbeat comedy, despite their tender ages, and I do remember them mimicking Martin’s best bits and showing me videocassettes of their favorite routines featuring him. So there was something vaguely familiar to me about seeing Martin appear in bunny ears in the cover photograph of Born Standing Up, his account of his childhood and the first two decades of his performing career. And thanks to catching snippets of SNL reruns and later Martin appearances on the show, I was certainly familiar with characters like his wild and crazy guy.

But even if I hadn’t been — even if I’d just known Martin from mid-career movies such as RoxanneDirty Rotten Scoundrels and Bowfinger — I think that I might have enjoyed the actor-author’s 2007 memoir.

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The essays in Eddie Sarfaty’s ‘Mental: Funny in the Head’ are also funny on the page

August 10, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 10, 2016

Mental: Funny in the Head is an engaging collection of personal essays by comedian Eddie Sarfaty. The book, published in 2009, conveys a variety of moments from across the Long Island native’s adulthood, starting with the story of his coming out to his nonagenarian Orthodox Jewish grandmother (a tale that was previously published in the 2005 anthology When I Knew).

The book’s topics range from the amusing to the morose. Both of the opening essays, “Second-Guessing Grandma” and “Lactose Intolerant,” about a milk run gone awry, belong to the former category; among the latter are “Cheapskate,” about a soul-crushingly thrifty boyfriend, and “My Tale of Two Cities,” in which Sarfaty and his mother take his father, who suffers from dementia, on a second honeymoon tour of Paris and France. But even in his darker moments, the author manages to wring some humor out of the situation — a trait he may have inherited from his father, who once told a Jehovah’s Witness, “I’m sorry, but my covenant is with Lucifer.”

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The Jews who made America sing: Virtues of ‘A Fine Romance’ far outweigh its flaws

May 15, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 15, 2014

A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs is a strange gem of a book. This entertaining work by poet David Lehman is a hybrid. Most of the relatively slender volume — the main text runs 222 pages, followed by a timeline and end notes (but no index, alas) — chronicles the lives and work of Jewish-American composers and lyricists who enjoyed huge success from the 1920s through the early 1960s.

Lehman appreciates the work of these musicians on multiple levels. For instance, he praises this clever couplet from Lorenz Hart’s “Mountain Greenery”:

While you love your lover let 
Blue skies be your coverlet.

The “incredibly clever and uniquely sad” Hart, Lehman writes, also hit upon such polysyllabic rhymes as Yonkers–conquers, Crusoe–trousseau, and “sing to him”–“worship the trousers that cling to him.”

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Is unrestrained greed good? Nay, declares Martin Scorsese in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ his sprawling indictment of Wall Street and America

January 10, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 10, 2014

Let me tell you about a Martin Scorsese movie that I recently saw. The protagonist is an unscrupulous young white man who aspires to wealth and luxury. By associating himself with a gang of other similarly avaricious, unprincipled young men, the ambitious outsider achieves wild levels of success. The rewards include free-flowing money, drugs, sex and power. Those outside his circle sometimes pay a heavy price for the protagonist’s triumphs. After the group attracts the scrutiny of the authorities, they’re cleaved by internal divisions. Ultimately, the leading character is humbled, but he does not attain humility.

If this sounds familiar, there’s good reason for that. Squint at Scorsese’s late 2013 release, The Wolf of Wall Street, and one might easily mistake it for his 1990 mafia classic, Goodfellas. In a broader sense, it also matches the outsider-makes-good-before-getting-his-comeuppance template that Goodfellas shares with Scorsese’s 1995 drama, Casino, wherein a Philadelphia oddsmaker becomes a top Las Vegas power broker but is undone by greed, drugs, lust and politics. In all three films, the protagonist’s success is threatened by a profligate right-hand man.

Both Goodfellas and Casino are based on nonfiction books by Nicholas Pileggi. This time around, the source material is a memoir by arriviste financier Jordan Belfort; thugs, guns and violence are de-emphasized in favor of opulence and sex, but the parallels with Scorsese’s early works are unmistakable.

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‘An Ordinary Man’ comes face to face with genocide in harrowing memoir

August 23, 2012

In 1994, Paul Rusesabagina was managing a luxury hotel in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. As civil war broke out and ethnic tensions were ratcheted up by both the rebels and the corrupt government, Rusesabagina sought to maintain a normal life for himself, his family, his employees and his guests.

But on April 6, the president’s plane was shot down, and all hell broke loose. The nightmarish aftermath of that assassination is detailed in gripping fashion by Rusesabagina and co-author Tom Zoellner in the 2007 memoir An Ordinary Man.

The events of spring 1994 are today known as the Rwandan genocide. Perhaps 800,000 men, women and children were slaughtered over the course of three bloody months. Many victims were of the Tutsi ethnic minority; others were members of the much larger Hutu ethnic group who were targeted for trying to protect their fellow Rwandans from violence. As much as three-quarters of the Tutsi population were murdered.

The killers and victims were often acquainted. One widely listened-to radio station dehumanized Tutsis and their sympathizers by repeatedly calling them cockroaches. Once the killings began, Rusesabagina writes, the station would broadcast minute-to-minute reports as certain targets were hunted down in the streets.

In a report on Rwanda 10 years after the killings, The Economist — which estimated that between 500,000 and 800,000 died — wrote: “It was perhaps the fastest genocide in history, although the killers were mostly armed, not with guns or poison gas, but with farm tools.” Read the rest of this entry »

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