Jonathan Lerner: Swords in the Hands of Children

October 30, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary – Jonathan Lerner – OR Books – Hardcover – 9781944869472 – $22 – 224 pages – December 5, 2017. Ebook versions available at a lower price. Order direct from the publisher, OR Books.

As Writerscast listeners doubtless know, I am interested in books about the sixties, a period in our history that shaped so much of what is now our current worldview and world situation, for better and for worse. This was a period in American history marked by social and political conflict, sparked principally by the Vietnam War. For many young people, it was the time in their lives when political and social idealism flourished, yet for some, directions taken and decisions made, acts committed, that would later appear misguided and wrong.

In the early sixties, Jonathan Lerner was a student at Antioch College, who almost accidentally became a full-time staff member of Students for a Democratic Society, the most powerful organization of the New Left (among its founders, the recently deceased Tom Hayden). In this book, Jonathan recounts the story of his life during the most fraught years of the political upheavals of this era.

Jonathan Lerner was at the center of many of the most important political events of that time. He became a founding member of the Weatherman faction of SDS, which ended up taking over the organization in 1969, and was the editor of its newspaper Fire! and an “above ground” representative of the Weather Underground organization, that was responsible for much of the far left spawned violence of the era.

The Weather Underground ultimately carried out a campaign of bombings across America. Some of its members died, many stayed underground for years, and some went to jail. Lerner tells some compelling stories about this time in particular and the people he worked and lived with. Overall, he seems to have been almost an accidental radical, who like many in the sixties, “went with the flow” of events and people around him, trying to find his place in a complicated environment.

Jonathan tells his story with brutal honesty, questioning much of what he once took for granted, as an insecure gay man existing in an environment that was not supportive in any way. This memoir has much to offer to those of us still seeking to understand the politics and culture of our youth, as well as for those too young to have experienced the sixties directly.

Lerner is the author of the novels Caught in a Still Place and Alex Underground, and is today a journalist focusing on architectural, urbanist and environmental issues. He lives in the Hudson Valley of New York state with his husband.

We had a great conversation in our wide ranging conversation. Visit Jonathan’s website here.

“Imagine if your favorite uncle, a brutally honest, worldly, self-reflective gay raconteur, had been, as a twenty year-old, a lieutenant in an underground guerrilla army dedicated to the violent overthrow of the government of the United States. Jonathan Lerner is that favorite uncle you never had, telling unbelievable true stories―no bullshit―from the ‘revolution’ fifty years ago. This is the closest you’ll ever get to being there.” ―Mark Rudd, national secretary of SDS, founding member of the Weather Underground and author of Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen

Elizabeth Farnsworth: A Train through Time – A Life, Real and Imagined

October 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

A Train through Time: A Life, Real and Imagined – Elizabeth Farnsworth – Counterpoint – Hardcover – $25.00 – 160 pages – February 14, 2017 – ebook versions available at lower prices

“I began this book with a sense of discovery and finished it in a state of exaltation. Along the way it broke my heart. It has been a long time since I read a book so moving, plain spoken and beautiful. The instant I finished it, I went back to the beginning and started in again.” ―Michael Chabon

This slim – and gorgeously produced – memoir is one of the most striking and memorable books I have read recently. I have to simply echo what Chabon said about it – Elizabeth Farnsworth has written something very special, a book that does not fit easily into our conception of book categories – and that is a good thing. Her book is an exploration of childhood memories of loss and of family life that woven together with more recent stories of her work as a journalist and documentary film maker, are built into a fictional structure. The book forms an almost dream state to carry the author (and the reader) through her story.

Farnsworth interrogates her own understanding of events, real and imagined, to understand the arc of her life. It is a truly magical journey of self and psyche.

A Train through Time is illustrated with the remarkable photo art of Mark Serr, whose works contribute to the ethos and sensibility of the book, as well as providing us with a beautiful and dreamy cover image.

Of course it helps that Farnsworth is a fine writer and a terrific storyteller. I was deeply moved by this book, and really enjoyed having the opportunity to speak with the Ms. Farnsworth about her story, about trains, journeys, and life in general. As an experienced television personality, she is very comfortable in recorded conversation and we had a great talk together, which I hope you will enjoy.

Elizabeth Farnsworth is a filmmaker and a foreign correspondent. For many years, she was the chief correspondent on the PBS NewsHour hosted by Jim Lehrer. During her career, she traveled widely to report on stories in Cambodia, Vietnam, Chile, Haiti, Iraq, and Iran and many other places. Farnsworth grew up in Topeka, Kansas, has a B.A. from Middlebury College, an M.A. in history from Stanford University and now lives in Berkeley, California.

Her documentaries include The Judge and the General (2008) and The Gospel and Guatemala (1983).

You can learn more about the author and A Train Through Time at the Counterpoint website here.


George Gmelch: Playing With Tigers, A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties

August 1, 2016 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

george-gmelch-playing-wth-tigers9780803276819 – University of Nebraska Press – 288 pages – Hardcover – $26.95 (ebook versions available at roughly similar prices)

Today, George Gmelch is a successful anthropologist, with a number of books to his credit. But when he was a young man, he was a very good baseball player, with the typical dreams so many shared of becoming a professional baseball player and making it to the Major Leagues. Growing up in an all-white suburb in California in the late fifties and early sixties, George led a fairly sheltered childhood, playing ball and having fun. In 1965 he signed a contract to play professional baseball with the Detroit Tigers organization and so began a four year period of coming of age, during which George experienced the challenges of life in baseball’s minor leagues.

While learning to be a professional athlete, he also became aware of the realities of race and class; minor league baseball in the nineteen sixties was often played in small towns in the south where segregation was still in effect, despite the advances of the civil rights movement. And as an adolescent on his own with other boys in the cocoon like world of pro sports, he also had his first experiences of sex and romance, living, traveling and playing ball. Somewhat unlike most of his teammates, George paid attention to the events of the era, including the Vietnam War, the rise of the counter culture, and civil rights protests.

Playing with Tigers is a memoir certainly unlike most others written by baseball players. The sixties was a time of turmoil involving young people of all backgrounds and professional baseball was not immune from its disruption. George was likely more socially aware than most of his compatriots, and his direct experience of racial issues ultimately led to the end of his professional baseball career.

To write this book, George relied on the journals he kept as a player, as well as letters from that time, and in addition he used his skills and experience as an anthropologist to interview thirty former teammates, coaches, club officials – and even some former girlfriends. This is a unique story, documenting a socially disrupted period in American history through the lives of many of the young people who lived through it. We get to experience first hand the naivete, frustrations and joys of a young man trying to find his way in a complex time. And clearly, some of the motivation for writing this book was unfinished business, events, relationships with people, his baseball experience, on which George wanted to gain some closure.

I read alot of baseball books, as many listeners know. Among the many I have read the past couple years, I found Playing With Tigers extremely compelling, and one I had fun reading. I very much enjoyed the opportunity to speak with George Gmelch for the second time – in 2013, George and I talked for Writerscast about another of his baseball books, Inside Pitch. In addition to being an intensely personal memoir, Playing With Tigers opens a door to a period in our history that deserves a lot more exploration than it seems to have been given. George has some great stories and a deep understanding and love for the people and places he’s experienced. This is a fine book and you do not need to know anything about baseball to like it.

George Gmelch is a professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco and at Union College in Schenectady, New York. His books include In the Ballpark: The Working Lives of Baseball People, with J. J. Weiner (Bison Books, 2006), and Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball (Bison Books, 2006). He is the editor of Baseball without Borders: The International Pastime (Nebraska, 2006). His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Society, and Natural History.baseballtalk_gmelchGmelch

Harry Hamlin: Full Frontal Nudity

March 13, 2011 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-1439169995 –  Hardcover – Scribner – $24.00 (e-book edition available)

Harry Hamlin’s autobiographical memoir is not what you might expect if you are looking for a traditional “famous actor” tells-all but really tells-very-little story.  Full Frontal Nudity is a completely honest, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad, sometimes mind-boggling story about Hamlin’s growing up in suburban California and coming of age through two different college experiences and the beginning of his life as a professional actor.

This book is a thorough pleasure to read; Harry is a fine writer, and has a remarkable sense of the accidents and sometimes mysteries that go into making us who we are.   And it’s also true throughout, whether intentional or not, by telling his own story, he becomes part of the larger social fabric of the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s, and thus helps us understand what it was like to be alive during that now famous era of history.  And for those many of us who were also there then, his story will remind us of some of the beauty and dangers we lived through.

The subtitle of this engaging memoir is important too: “The Making of an Accidental Actor.” Hamlin is clear that who he is today and how he got there represent the sum of a long series of accidents and choices with unintended consequences.  As the book opens, we discover that Harry has an arrest record from 40 years ago that has suddenly prevented him from traveling to Canada, where he actually now lives part of each year.

How this happened is a great story, but what I liked most about it was the way that Harry told it on himself, unafraid to bare the truth about his life.  I know that really good actors must learn how to do this, but they’re usually acting someone else’s drama, and thus are always protected on some level.  There’s no hiding here, and it’s a refreshing turn.  Hamlin is an actor, and a good one

Hamlin grew up in California, in a not quite normal household, and after high school headed for Berkeley at what some would say was just the right time – 1969.  On the way to college, he managed an accidental detour that got him, shall we say, distracted.  Intending to sign up for an architecture major, he found that there were no courses available, and the only ones available were drama, thus he embarked on what would eventually become his career.  His time at Berkeley was suitably exotic, and included the drug possession arrest that later caused him so much trouble with the Canadian immigration folks.  His time at Berkeley came to an untimely and early end because of a fire at the fraternity whose president he had become, and almost by magic, and again accidentally, he headed for Yale, where he flourished.  Then another more or less accidental turn – he gives up a safe job as a PBS production assistant and takes an offer from the American Conservatory Theater, where a role in the play Equus ultimately led him to an outstanding film and TV career (notably LA Law, many others).

Overall Full Frontal Nudity is a terrific and wonderfully enjoyable book, and unsurprisingly, we had a thoroughly interesting and revealing conversation about the book and many of the stories he wrote about.

Mickey Leigh: I Slept with Joey Ramone

January 28, 2011 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-1439159750 – paperback – Simon & Schuster – $15.99 (ebook versions available $12.99)

Mickey Leigh grew up in Queens in the 1950s and 1960s as Mitchel Hyman.  His brother was Jeffrey Hyman, more famously known as Joey Ramone, lead singer of the great American punk rock band, The Ramones.  I Slept with Joey Ramone (subtitle: a punk rock family memoir) tells their story from the beginning to the end of Joey’s relatively short life and just a bit farther into the almost present day.  Mickey had some writing help from rock journalist Legs McNeil, and throughout the book, the story is told compellingly in Mickey’s voice and from his perspective.

We start in Queens where the boys grow up somewhat rockily.  Their family situation was never easy, and Mitchel and Jeff were bullied misfits.  Joey had both physical and psychological issues that manifested early in his life. Music became their savior very early, but at the beginning it was Mitchel (Mickey) who was the musician, and it took some time before the very complicated Jeff got together with the band that became the Ramones and found not only his voice, but his new identity.

The Ramones story as told by Mickey Leigh, is pretty incredible, even for fans who know something about the band and were there during the glory days.  The relationships between the various band members were legendarily terrible.  How this band stayed together and made such incredible music is still a mystery.  Mickey was there at the beginning; John Cummings, aka Johnny Ramone, was initially his best friend.  Mickey ended up being the band’s first roadie, while Joey, the quintessential misfit outsider, became the front man singer of what eventually became one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Later Mickey had his own career with a number of bands, as well as being a songwriter too.

The many stories and incidents recounted in this book are never boring, even when the sometime strange and complicated elements of Joey Ramone’s personality begin to repeat themselves over years.  There is a tremendous amount of love here, and some not so nice things as well.  Mickey’s own story is complicated and he has alot to say about alot of the people he worked with, for and sometimes against throughout the years.  Nothing here is ever boring.  It’s sometimes sad and frustrating to know how things were for Joey Ramone and his family, friends and associates, as it was often difficult, confusing and painful for all of them.  Even years later, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Ramones created an emotionally complicated scene.

Ultimately, Mickey (and doubtless Legs too) has captured beautifully a unique and special part of modern musical history, that is also the story of redemption, which is after all, the real story of rock and roll.  And at the end Joey and Mickey always did make up.  As Mickey tells it, the last time really counted the most. “He pulled me down to him, and he just didn’t let go. I can still feel that hug.”  This is a book well worth reading for anyone interested in New York punk rock.  I had a great time talking to him about the book and his experiences in rock and roll.

Alice Eve Cohen – What I Thought I Knew: A Memoir

August 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction

51t2hdnv1kl_sl500_aa240_978-0670020959 – Hardcover

Viking – $24.95

Alice Eve Cohen’s memoir tells an incredible story – a writer and playwright, she was diagnosed as infertile in her thirties, she adopted a daughter with her then-husband (whom she later divorced).  At 44 she began to experience strange physical symptoms – after six months of suffering she was finally recognized as being pregnant.  In many ways that was only the beginning of her story – which is an incredible, honest, sometimes funny but as often a painful journey of discovery.

I generally am not that interested in the modern memoir – most people’s stories are just not that interesting.  But I was attracted to Alice’s story right away, partly because of my own experience with DES and its damages to the children whose mothers took that fertility drug.  Alice’s persona shines through her story.  She is vivid and clear about everything that happened to her and how she felt at the time, and later, and she pulls no punches, including her own foibles, fears, and weaknesses throughout.

Overall What I Thought I Knew is a wonderful book that holds our attention throughout.  It’s transformative for the author and for the reader.  In my interview with Alice Eve Cohen, we talked in detail about the book and her experiences then and now (the events took place several years ago).  She’s not only a wonderful writer but a great interview subject as well.