Sinatra by Earl Wilson

I've been fascinated with Frank Sinatra's voice for a long time and in the past few years began to be curious about his life, so when I happened upon this book at a used bookshop I snapped it up. Unfortunately it turned out to be twenty-four chapters of bad behaviour. In truth I wish I'd never seen it; it left me feeling like I needed a shower.

It's hard to believe anybody could be as much of a jerk as this book makes Sinatra out to be, but there's no reason other than disappointment not to believe it. His gigantic ego, wild mood swings, heavy drinking, gambling, arrogance and contempt for other people must have made him miserable to be around and yet people hung on and seemed happy to take all the crap he dished out.  I couldn't keep track of the good friends he suddenly dropped when they said the wrong thing then let back into his inner circle on a whim. I don't know how he could remember who his friends were on any given day.

He expected everybody to feel honoured to serve him and for some inexplicable reason many did, in spite of his insults, name-calling and childishness. The authour says: "He has more likability than anybody I ever met. If there is such a word as unlikability, he has that too, but when he turns on his likability you think you must have been wrong about him ever being unpleasant."

The book does talk about good things he did, charities he supported, people he helped, but those things seem less impressive in light of the awful way he treated people. He used women - dames and broads he called them - and was proud of it. He was married three times, but even then never hesitated to sleep with any woman who caught his eye. His friends joked that they would "give his zipper to the Smithsonian" when he died.

The authour hints at Sinatra being bi-polar and having a "God complex". He never believed himself at fault even when he was violent; someone else was always responsible because they had made him angry.  When he made a scene at a hotel, throwing things and screaming at the staff, it was because a hotel employee hadn't done everything just the way he wanted it. He saw it this way: "...the frustrations and anxieties resulting from his failed marriage, plus his manic-depressive makeup caused him to explode; he couldn't help it and shouldn't be blamed."

As tedious as it was to read about one Sinatra tantrum after another, the writing didn't help the experience either. It was choppy at times and hard to follow. The story is told in a generally chronological way, but often the authour would suddenly drop back a few years and that made it confusing. And some pages read more like lists of facts than a story.

The writing is brash, even harsh, with little subtlety. Was that the style of the era perhaps or is it more a result of Wilson's being a  reporter? Or maybe it's just not very well written. Sometimes things are referred to but given no explanation. For example, when Sinatra's father died, it is mentioned he had been a "devoted son to his father", but we aren't told how he showed his devotion or anything much about that relationship at all so it doesn't go very far toward softening our impression of him. There are things in the writing that an editor should have caught, like saying on one page that Frank "looked trim, rested and sexier....than when he was a young man" then just a few lines later "the lean Sinatra face was now round and puffy."  There were other inconsistencies and inaccuracies like referring to John Denver as a "young rock star". Rock, huh? Did Wilson ever actually listen to Denver's music? That particular bit of bad research leaves me wondering how much of Sinatra's story in this book is just guesswork. Would another authour have a different story to offer?

I may try another one someday but for now I've had my fill of Frank Sinatra. He was completely obsessed with fame, money and power, and yet told people that he'd had "a great life." His wish for his first grand-daughter - his tiny, newborn grand-daughter - was that she would have "a hundred times as many guys as he'd had women". Could he be more obnoxious?

If you're considering reading one of his many biographies try something other than this first. I fear you won't like him much after this one. Fortunately I can still enjoy his music. I feel lucky to have gotten through the book with at least some part of my "fan" status intact. If he's a particular favourite of yours, tread carefully through this book, or even better, skip it altogether.

"How To Talk With Anybody About Practically Anything"

How To Talk With Anybody About Practically Anything by Barbara Walters

I am an introvert, so the title of this book sounded to me like a ticket to the promised land. Thinking it was like all the other "How To" books I've read, I was ready for lists of techniques to practice, neat little instructions, maybe even illustrations. 

I missed one crucial little fact: Barbara Walters is an extrovert. To an extrovert "How To Talk With Anybody About Practically Anything" means "How To Be Delightful And Interesting And Charming At All Times".  Sure, that'll happen. I need somebody to tell me what to do; this book is about how to be.

Not that there isn't helpful information; Barbara Walters has mastered the art of conversation and she's willing to share what she's learned. When I went back through the book to look at the things I'd underlined, I did indeed end up with a list, not of things to do, but of things to remember about how people need to be treated.

In the first half of the book it becomes clear that her "secret" is simply caring about people. She believes it is her responsibility to make people comfortable. Whether she's doing an interview or talking to someone at a party, her priority is making sure the other person is left both feeling and looking good. What her philosophy boils down to is that one should never embarrass, criticize, insult or even inconvenience anyone else, to always allow them to save face, feel good about themselves and keep their dignity. Is it any wonder people respond so well?

Passages like this one sum it up quite well:

"People bursting with good will and an abundance of mental health are charming company; their need for ego-boosting, however, is minimal.  People sinking into self-pity and depression are dreary, but they can't get out of it by themselves. So every now and then, just sit there and listen, and listen, and listen. You're paying your membership dues in the human race." 

The second half of the book was a hoot. She talks about makeup, hair and clothes, but the book was published in 1970 so her suggestions are 42 years out of date. It was a blast from the past reading her advice about sending party invitations, how to properly thank your hostess, arranging seating at a dinner party, whether or not to have a receiving line at your party and even how to arrange for a guest lecturer and how to behave if you are one. This section is Etiquette 101, for a specific class of people in a specific time and place. It was wonderfully entertaining for  someone who has never associated with the rich and famous, never visited New York City let alone lived there and who gets to read all of it with 42 years hindsight.

In the end I did get what I wanted from this book. Talking to people - family, friends or strangers - is not about technique, it's about caring. People know when they are being respected, and when they are just being tolerated, and every person ever born needs to feel they are being taken seriously. This book is worth reading just to be reminded of that. Sure it's dated, but the truths in it will never be out of date. And besides that, it was just plain fun.

"Those Who Serve"

Those Who Serve by Marcia Willett

I think they got the title wrong. It should be called "How Many Extra-marital Affairs Can We Fit Into One Novel?" Seriously. It paints an almost hopeless picture of British Navy marriages.

The story follows two best friends who marry submariners and settle down in Navy living quarters, frequently moving to new postings, socializing with other Navy wives and spending long weeks/months alone while their husbands are at sea.

The first half is more focused on Kate and her poor excuse for a husband, Mark, and their twin sons. Her friend Cass's story is secondary until the spotlight turns on her in the last half. Cass and her husband, Tom, haven't much of a story other than their rotating affairs, which are treated very lightly, more as humour than anything else, except for Kate's rather melodramatic warning that if Cass keeps playing Russian roulette one day she'll take the bullet.

I found the story, the writing and the characters unbelievable. There were awkward places in the writing, like one where the point of view changes not just mid-chapter, but mid-conversation. In one particularly hard to believe scene, Kate runs into an old acquaintance. They comment on how it's been "years and years" since they've seen each other, and that was mostly in passing at social events, then the other woman says she really wants to talk to Kate about the personal problems she's having so they have lunch and she tells all. Not very realistic for people who are just acquaintances. I couldn't get past these bumps in the writing long enough to get into the story.  

The characters seemed flat and disconnected from the emotions they were expressing. Most of them never became much more than names on a page. There were a couple of characters I liked; Cass's father, "The General", becomes a source of comfort and wisdom for Kate in his later years, and The General's housekeeper is a more realistic character who brings a bit of humour to the story.

I didn't like this book at all; I was very disappointed. But - Marcia Willett has a long list of novels under her belt and I'm going to trust that they get better and try again. Question is, which one should I read next? Do you have a favorite? One you tell everybody they absolutely must read? I need a good one, otherwise I'll never convince myself to pick up a third. Please do take pity on me and leave a comment with your suggested title. Thanks!


Mariana by Monica Dickens

This book is a delicious feast of Britishness, which may not appeal to everybody but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's filled with summers in the country, English schoolgirls and tea-times, all in Monica Dickens' light and homey writing.

The story begins with Mary recently married and biding her time through the long days and nights for her husband to return from war. She is sitting by the fire one evening as a storm rages outside, when she hears it announced on the wireless that the ship on which her husband is serving struck a mine earlier that day and has gone down. It is feared that a number of the ship's officers and crew have been lost.

As Mary waits for the night and the storm to end so she can get to a working telephone, her thoughts take her back through the years to her childhood and her life in a city flat with her mother and uncle Geoffrey. She thinks about summers at her beloved Charbury where aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins all gathered for holidays. She remembers "...all the trivial, momentous, exciting, everyday things that had gone to make the girl who lay in the linen-scented darkness waiting to hear whether her husband were alive or dead."

The appealing thing about "Mariana" is that it is about everyday things. It's a satisfying story of an ordinary girl who has friendships, crushes, problems at school and all the little successes and failures that make up a life. It was refreshing after the more serious Edith Wharton and Willa Cather novels.

I wondered right till the end why it was called "Mariana" when the main character's name is Mary. It finally made sense in the last chapter where there are quotes from Tennyson's poem of that same name. I'll stop there and not ruin if for you by telling you how it ends.

Some of my favourite lines:

About a woman she was working for..."With the naivete of wealth, she seemed equally oblivious both of annoyance and ridicule, but Mary suffered agonies of English embarrassment on her behalf."

About a nurse..."She roared with laughter and went crackling and rustling away on her large squeaking rubber soles to arrange the flowers with less artistry than was humanly possible."

"Mariana" was lovely, a pleasant book perfect for summer, which, thank goodness, has finally decided to show up.

"The Professor's House"

The Professor's House by Willa Cather

I could read Willa Cather forever the writing is so good and such a pleasure to read. I have a love/hate relationship with her books though. I put off reading them till I can't make myself wait any longer. I love reading them, then I hate that there's one less left to read. Sure I can re-read them but it's never quite the same as the first time.

This story is about Professor Godfrey St. Peter, a quiet man in a mid-western university town who has spent his life teaching and writing his multi-volume "Spanish Adventurers in North America". He has been a devoted husband to his wife Lillian and father to his two now grown and married daughters, Rosamund and Kathleen. He has achieved academic and financial success and it has brought him to where he is now, moving into a bigger and better house - a house he doesn't want.

He has been content for years working in his study in the old house and has spent countless hours perfecting his garden there. In spite of the rundown condition of the place, it is what he wants and it is what, he decides, he will have. So he lives out of the new house and continues to pay rent on the old house so he can use his study.

This bit of uncharacteristic rebellion opens a door of self-examination through which he walks to meet his first, and what he considers his real, self, the boy he was in the beginning. He is surprised to realize that what he wanted from life then and what he has actually chosen are far different things.

These insights come to him as another story unfolds.  A student of his - now a casualty of war - left behind some research that turned out to have a lucrative practical application. He - his name was Tom - made a will before he went to war leaving everything to his girlfriend, the Professor's daughter, Rosamund. Rosamund and her husband, Louis, are living the high life on that money.

There are problems between the sisters, mostly because Rosamund flaunts her money and rubs it in that she has more than Kathleen. Rosamund is one of those people you love to hate, a real pain in the anywhere you like. A further complication arises when a professor who worked with Tom on the research wants a piece of the pie and expects Professor St. Peter to get it for him.  

I loved the story but wasn't completely satisfied with the ending; for me it raised more questions than it answered. I think a man in his fifties should take some responsibility for his own choices. He comes off sounding a bit immature when it says things like "...all the most important things in his life, St. Peter reflected, had been determined by chance." and "His career, his wife, his family were not his life at all, but a chain of events which had happened to him." He made the choice to marry and have a family, to teach and to write and he says his marriage was "happy" and "joyous" and that he loved raising his daughters. Now though he begins to blame them for his not becoming who he thought he would be. He seems confused about what he believes happiness to be. At one point he says "...that's what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives". Later he decides "Art and religion...have given man the only happiness he has ever had."

I'm going to refer a bit to the end of the book so stop here if you don't want to know. The Professor says "he'll have to learn to live without delight" but doesn't explain what that means or how it will change his circumstances. He says his family probably won't notice any difference in him; to me that just means he lacks the courage to make any real change. It seems the only result of his re-awakening will be that he will be unhappier from now on. I'm not sure what the point is but I'd like to hear from anyone who sees something more in it. Do you think life has "hurt" him or has he simply made the wrong choices?

All in all...

       a good story + good writing + lots to think about = a great reading experience

...and now, on to Marianna by Monica Dickens.