book reviews, LDS, religion

Repost: A review of Harvest: Memoir of a Mormon Missionary by Jacob Young…

Here’s another repost of a book review I wrote for my original Blogspot blog. This one was posted October 6, 2013, and reappears here as/is.

 I just finished Harvest: Memoir of a Mormon Missionary, an interesting book written by returned Mormon missionary Jacob Young, who spent two years serving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Russia.  Young was a missionary at the tail end of the 1990s.  I was especially interested in reading about his experience because I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Armenia in the mid 1990s.  Although Russia and Armenia are different places, they were both once part of the Soviet Union.  In the 1990s, there were still some things going on in both countries that made the experiences of living there somewhat similar.

Young’s job as a Mormon missionary was to convince Russians to join the LDS church.  Given the culture in Russia– especially given that during Soviet times, religion was pretty much discouraged or even outlawed– being a missionary in Russia must have been tough.  Russians are notoriously fond of tea, alcohol (especially vodka), and cigarettes.  Convincing locals to give up these things so that they could be Mormons must have been very difficult.  And Young does confess that he and his ever changing companions did have challenges in getting potential converts past the first discussions, even if they managed those.  However, I was surprised to read that Young was a reasonably effective missionary who did baptize a number of people, a few of whom stuck with the church.

Despite his successes, Young suffered through some annoying and eccentric companions.  He had one companion who sang and hummed incessantly, annoying Young to no end.  He had another who would use a mirror to spy on Young when he used the toilet, checking to make sure he didn’t masturbate during the few minutes he was alone.  The companion would aim the mirror at a small, high window in the bathroom.  Having lived in Armenia, I am very familiar with the type of window Young writes of.  My first apartment in Yerevan had one.  Since missionaries are supposed to be with their companions at all times, dealing with the very hard core ones was a real challenge for Young.

Young also suffered a crisis of faith.  He writes of missing music that wasn’t church approved, reading books that weren’t religious in nature, and not having to spend all his time knocking on doors, pestering people who weren’t interested in Mormonism.   Young wrote to his parents about his sliding faith and talked to his mission president, who seemed to be a good guy.  He also confesses to “cheating” on a few rules.

As I finished reading this book, I wondered where Young stands on Mormonism today.  I got the sense that he might have left the church or at least gone inactive.  I did not get the impression that he got a big sense that Mormonism is “true”.  He does, however, concede that while the mission was not really the best two years of his life, he did gain a lot from the experience.  Having had my own tough trials over the 27 months I spent in Armenia, I could definitely relate to that sentiment.  There were many days when I wanted to escape Armenia… and I didn’t even have to deal with the constraints that Mormon missionaries have to deal with.  I lived alone for most of my time as a Volunteer and could drink all the liquor, coffee, and tea I wanted.  If I had wanted to smoke, I was welcome to do that, too.  Masturbation was also not forbidden to me and I was allowed to dress pretty much as I saw fit.  Armenia in the 90s was just a tough place to be, though; and I think Young’s time in Russia was similarly difficult.

And yet, there’s not a day that passes that I don’t think of those days in Armenia.  They changed my life.  I came away from the experience with more than I put into it.  While Young may not have appreciated the job he was there to do, he does write about all the things he did take from his mission experience.  He apparently became quite proficient in Russian and was able to read, write, and speak it.  While I was able to speak and understand passable Armenian (smattered with a few Russian words), I could never write it and reading it was always a painfully slow exercise.  There were times when it was actually easier for me to read Russian, which is a language I have never formally studied but sort of rubbed off on me.

I admire Jacob Young’s writing, which is personal, confessional, and very fluent.  His book does have a few comic moments, but it’s mostly very introspective and revealing.  Young puts a human face on Mormon missionaries, who probably aren’t looked at as humans by the masses trying to avoid being hooked into a conversation with them.  Young concedes that he didn’t enjoy pestering people for the Mormon church, even though there were a few people who joined the LDS church and appreciated it.  Young admits that as a missionary, he pressured people who weren’t sure.  He and his companions targeted people who were lonely and vulnerable.  He baptized married women, even if their spouses didn’t want to join the church.  He sowed dissension within families when he baptized single people whose families weren’t interested in being LDS.  There were also times when he was “schooled” by Russians who had spent a couple of hours on the Internet and learned more about Joseph Smith than he knew, just by reading sites that weren’t “church approved”.  Young admits he was embarrassed when a Russian told him about Joseph Smith’s habit of bedding and marrying teenagers and women who already had husbands. 

I am impressed that Young realizes and admits to doing these things in the name of scoring more baptisms and being a more successful missionary.  I am especially impressed that he realizes that doing these things may have caused problems for the converts.

I don’t know what Elder Jacob Young is up to now, but I did really like his book, Harvest: Memoir of a Mormon Missionary.  I would certainly recommend it.  Four and a half stars from me…

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book reviews, LDS, religion, sex

Repost: A review of Happiest Misery: My Life As A Mormon by Jared Lonergan

In light of Mormon sex therapist Natasha Helfer’s excommunication, I’m going to repost a couple of relevant book reviews. Keep in mind, they are unedited and posted as/is. This first one was posted on the Blogspot version of The Overeducated Housewife on September 7, 2014.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been keeping myself occupied with reading, playing computer games, watching re-runs on iTunes, drinking beer and listening to music.  After I finished reading about Betty Broderick, I decided I needed to read something that wasn’t true crime.  Some time ago, I downloaded Jared Lonergan’s book, Happiest Misery: My Life As A Mormon (2013).  I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading this book, especially since I love “exmo lit”.  But now I have read it and overall, I thought it was good reading, though perhaps a bit unconventional.

Jared Lonergan is a talented writer and I was definitely interested as he described being raised LDS in Kansas and Chicago.  As Lonergan explains, it’s not so common to be Mormon in those places.  Like many faithful Mormons, he was very much involved in his faith and did his best to follow its many rules.  One of the many rules of Mormonism is that sex before marriage is prohibited.  So is masturbation.  For Jared, these rules turned out to be very difficult to follow.

Jared starts his story as a nine year old youngster, noticing the pretty women in the church.  One of his older friends goads him into telling an older girl how “hot” she is in a rather vulgar way.  He gets away with it because he’s so much younger and cute.  It seems to ignite a sexual obsession within him; but then, Jared is obsessive about a lot of things, like weight and physical attractiveness, his own and that of other people.

Most of this book consists of an almost obsessive, stream of consciousness-like spew of Jared’s thoughts.  As someone who has studied a lot of psychology, I found Jared’s thoughts very interesting. He’s always thinking about sex, but he knows he’s not supposed to indulge.  So he tries to distract himself or shame himself into thinking about other things.  He doesn’t use a lot of official swear words– only occasionally does he slip up and utter the word “fuck”, for instance.  Instead, he uses the Mormon equivalents to swear words like “fetch” and “frick” and “crap”.  I’ve always found it amusing that some folks think it’s better to say “fetch” rather than “fuck”.  The intent is the same; it’s only the letters that are different.  But Jared dutifully avoids officially swearing, just like he avoids sex and other “sinful” behaviors to the point of driving himself mad.

Jared also has an eating disorder.  He is obsessive about food, his weight, and exercise.  He gains and loses weight, especially on his mission to Bordeaux, France.  He describes his mission as a terrible time in his life and spends the whole time obsessing over the girlfriend he left behind, Annie.  Annie is also Mormon and has dreams of a temple marriage and perfect family life.  Jared wants to give her that, but he has trouble fitting into the Mormon mold.  That inability to conform causes him heartbreak, although maybe in the long run, not conforming was for the best.

Jared’s parents were Mormon converts and they joined the church before Jared was born.  He explains that a couple of missionaries came over one day and impressed them by being respectful and upstanding.  According to Jared’s parents, he wouldn’t have been born had it not been for the Mormon missionaries, who impressed them by convincing them how important family is.  Three brothers followed Jared’s entrance into the world.  Perhaps because his parents were converts, Jared’s upbringing seemed to be a mixture of hardline conformity to Mormon ideals and familiarity with life outside of Mormonism.  Jared writes about his brother, Aaron, who requires multiple brain surgeries.  Mormonism probably helped his family cope, since the church believes that families can be together forever… as long as everyone pays, prays, and obeys, that is.  And Jared does his best not to disappoint.   

As I read this book, it occurred to me how utterly distressing, frustrating, and impossible it must have been for Jared trying to grow up in the church.  He’s obsessive, sexually frustrated, and seems terrified of doing something that will get him sent to the wrong echelon of Mormon Heaven (which frankly, to me, sounds like a really boring place).  He tries to act and look the part of the perfect Mormon, but no one is perfect and some people are less perfect than others.  So on top of trying to come of age and mature into a healthy adult, Jared is trying and failing to become the perfect Mormon male.  He doesn’t measure up and it leads to depression and rejection, since other people expect him to be who he’s not. 

Parts of this book were annoying to read.  For instance, Jared doesn’t like fat or ugly people and he liberally insults them.  But then he turns around and acknowledges his own shortcomings and his inability to be perfect is a kind of torture for him.  It ends up being poignant and kind of tragic.  At one point, he visits a doctor who tells him he needs to masturbate because his prostate is enlarged and causing him pain.  But Jared can’t do that because it’s “wrong”, according to his faith.

Parts of this book are kind of funny, too.  I thought Jared’s overuse of “swear words” like “fetch” and “crap” were humorous, if only because to a non-Mormon, they just sound silly.  I mean, in most ways, Jared is a normal, red-blooded teen with hormones running through his body and sex on the brain.  But he has to substitute the word “fetch” for “fuck”.  So when he has a “nightmare” about almost indulging in lustful sex with a supermodel, he says “Fetch off!” and “Fetchin’ hell”…  and it seems ridiculous.

I thought Jared’s thoughts on his missionary experience were interesting, too.  It seems like being a missionary might have opened his eyes a bit about how others see the church.  He also had his eyes opened about some of the church leaders, recognizing that they were really just men. 

Overall, I liked Happiest Misery, though I thought the ending was a bit abrupt.  I’m not sure how Jared feels about the church now.  I got the feeling he had turned into an exmo, but I’m not really certain about that.  I do think it’s a fascinating look into the psyche of a young man growing up Mormon, especially since I suspect Jared may have had something else going on mentally besides simple growing pains.  I recommend it.

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book reviews

Repost: A review of The Beauty Experiment by Phoebe Baker Hyde

This is a repost of a book review I wrote September 21, 2015. It appears here as/is.

In February 2014, I purchased Phoebe Baker Hyde’s book, The Beauty Experiment: How I Skipped Lipstick, Ditched Fashion, Faced the World without Concealer, and Learned to Love the Real Me.  I don’t remember why I bought it.  I probably read an article about it and decided it would be an interesting read.  I just got around to reading it and finished it the other day.  I see from Hyde’s Web site that she is multi-degreed, having earned dual BAs in English and anthropology at UPENN and an MFA in creative writing from the University of California at Irvine.    

In 2007, Phoebe Baker Hyde was a wife and a mother living in Hong Kong with her husband, John Liang, and their daughter, Hattie.  Hyde’s husband is an accountant of Asian descent and traveled a lot to Asian countries for his job.  Consequently, Hyde was left alone frequently with their daughter and felt bombarded with the idea that she should look a certain way.  She should be thin, wear makeup, and designer clothes, a notion that seemed even more prevalent in hyper fashion conscious Hong Kong.  She notes that when she went to a hospital to give birth, she brought along mascara for the after birth photos.  

As Hyde is trained in cultural anthropology, she started thinking about how women are programmed to abide by the rules of society.  She decided to embark on what she calls “The Beauty Experiment”, which basically meant that she was going to stop wearing makeup, shaving her legs, wearing jewelry, and painting her nails.  She stopped having her hair cut and styled at expensive salons.  Instead, she cut her hair short, like a man’s.  She threw away the night cream and hair mousse, and stopped buying new clothes.  Finally, she covered up the mirrors in her home.  For about a year, she lived this way, chronicling her experiences until she had enough to write her book.

Looking on Amazon.com, I see that The Beauty Experiment gets mixed reviews.  A lot of people gave it high marks because they were able to relate to feeling the need to be pretty all the time.  Some people found Hyde’s writing funny.  A couple of people were dealing with personal issues as they read the book that made it more interesting for them.  

Those who didn’t like the book seemed to think that it was boring to read, Hyde was spoiled (as in, she didn’t “work” for a living), hadn’t actually learned anything, or jumped around too much.  Personally, I agree with those who didn’t like the way this book jumped around.  At different times, Hyde would slip into the future, after her stint in Hong Kong, and write about her life post experiment, after she’d had Orson, her second child.  While I didn’t have a problem following Hyde, I did find the jumping around a bit distracting and occasionally annoying.

On the other hand, there were a few times when I caught myself marveling at Hyde’s ability to turn a phrase.  She really does have a talent for writing vivid passages that, at least for me, were a pleasure to read.  I happen to be a sucker for creatively written prose and I found Hyde’s writing style very appealing throughout most of the book.  She frequently refers to her “inner voice”, which many of us have.  She hears her voice saying things that diminish her confidence or criticize her.  I think a lot of women can relate to that, especially when we stand in front of a mirror and feel ugly or fat.

For those who like facts and statistics, Hyde includes commentary on research regarding the beauty habits of women.  Frankly, I could have skipped those passages because I don’t really care about charts and graphs.  But I realize that some people enjoy those types of visual aids and I appreciate that Hyde took the initiative to back up her experiences with data.  She also includes a reading list.  I was glad to see that I’ve read a couple of the books she suggests, including Naomi Wolf’s classic, The Beauty Myth.

It took me awhile to get through this book.  I mostly enjoyed it, especially since I usually don’t wear makeup unless I’m going out in public.  Even then, a lot of times I’m tempted not to “put on my face”, though the inner voice usually gets the upper hand and I take a few minutes to apply makeup.  The older I get, the more I feel like it doesn’t matter.  I can thank Bill for that, because he loves me regardless.

Anyway, I think I can recommend Phoebe Baker Hyde’s book, The Beauty Experiment.  I’m not sure if the experiment really changed her life, other than giving her something to write about, but maybe others lives will be changed by Hyde’s observations on beauty and the pressure many women feel to look a certain way.  As a matter of fact, tomorrow I am having a tooth extracted.  I dread the way I will look during the months before the implant goes in, even as I realize that I will be healthier without that tooth. (ETA 2021: Implant was quite a success!)

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Reviewing Landing On My Feet: A Diary of Dreams, by Kerri Strug

Bill is off on another business trip and will be gone until Friday. He got me up really early yesterday. He didn’t mean to, but his alarm went off, and once it went off, I was mostly awake. So I decided to read Kerri Strug’s 1997 era book, Landing On My Feet: A Diary of Dreams. I don’t know why I am so fascinated with women’s gymnastics, especially since I can’t so much as turn a cartwheel myself. I never could, even when I was much younger, thinner, and more limber than I am today.

Actually, I can’t say I’m that fascinated. I really only have an interest in the gymnasts who are close to my age, and some of the ones who testified against Larry Nassar, the perverted physician who was imprisoned for tormenting hundreds or many even thousands of athletes. Kerri Strug was, indeed, one of his patients, and she does mention him in her book. But her mention of him is more in passing… as this book was published about 20 years before Nassar finally got nailed.

I think I bought Kerri’s book on a whim, too. I had decided to read Bela Karolyi’s book, which hasn’t yet gotten to me. It’s only available in a print edition. I noticed Kerri’s book, which is also only available in print. I decided to chuck a used copy of it in my virtual cart. It got to me pretty quickly. Anyway, on with the review.

Who is Kerri Strug?

Kerri Strug was born and raised in Tuscon, Arizona, where her father, Burt Strug, was a cardio-thoracic surgeon and her mother was a housewife. At the beginning of her book, Kerri writes that her father overcame very long odds to become an esteemed surgeon. His father was also a surgeon, but was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who landed in New York City, where Kerri’s great grandfather worked in the garment district. Burt Strug joked that all of the men in the family made their livings sewing things.

Kerri Strug is five years younger than I am, but she has an older sister named Lisa, and a brother named Kevin, both of whom were also gymnasts. Kerri has a natural ability for the sport and would watch her sister, who was several years older than she was, at her high level classes. Then she’d come home and try some of the skills herself. She also watched the cheesy film, Nadia, over and over again, annoying her friends who weren’t into gymnastics. I’ve seen that movie, too.

Kerri Strug is now a retired Olympic class women’s gymnast. She competed in both the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain and Atlanta, Georgia, respectively. But, as she is the youngest child in her family of origin, I got the sense that her parents were initially reluctant to let her do what her big sister was doing. According to Strug, many people in the gymnastics world approached her parents in a bid to get her into the higher echelons of the sport, but living away from home. It wasn’t until Kerri was about 13 years old that she finally got her wish, and was sent to Houston, Texas to train with Bela Karolyi, the flamboyant Romanian-American coach who brought the likes of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to greatness.

Back 1990, when I was finishing high school and starting college, young Kerri was moving in with her very first of several host families. She was quiet, shy, and soft spoken, but she was a very hard worker with a lot of talent and grit, as the whole world saw firsthand at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Kerri Strug famously sprained her ankle during her first attempt at the vault during the vault competition. She was the last gymnast to perform, and two gymnasts before her had also fallen. With just one more chance to score high enough to clinch the gold medal for the “Magnificent Seven”, Kerri shook off the extreme pain she was in, having heard her ankle pop after falling on her first vault. She heard Bela shouting from the sidelines, bore down, and took off running…

And the rest is gymnastics glory history… This was the moment 18 year old Kerri Strug finally stopped being the bridesmaid and became a bride.

Up until that star defining moment in Atlanta, Kerri Strug was known as a very solid and dependable gymnast, who was always being outshone by someone else. She was in the shadows of Kim Zmeskal and Shannon Miller especially, but I think she also got less attention than some of the flashier women on the ’92 and ’96 women’s gymnastics teams. In 1992, the Olympic teams included exotic Betty Okino, who was mesmerizing on the balance beam, and Dominque Dawes, who was an incredible all around performer, but especially shone on the floor exercise. Dawes had a remarkable career and competed in THREE Olympics! When I think of how much physical, mental, and emotional trauma these young women go through to be gymnasts, I’m amazed anyone ever does more than one Olympic stint in women’s gymnastics. Kerri laments that she was often dependable in her competitions, but she always wound up just missing the cutoff for all around competitions in major meets, or she’d wind up being the alternate. Fortunately, that didn’t happen in 1992 or 1996, when it was time to name the Olympic teams.

A rather fuzzy Strug memory from the ’92 Games.

Kerri mentions that after the 1992 Olympics, she thought maybe she’d like to retire from the sport and be a “normal” teenager. Bela and Marta Karolyi had said they were going to retire from coaching, and it appeared that they were staying true to their word. Kerri’s dad had come up with a plan for making major decisions– to give them 24 hours before acting. After the ’92 Games, Strug’s family took a vacation in Europe, then Kerri went back to Arizona… and decided she wasn’t finished with her career as an athlete. But unlike a lot of her friends, Strug meant to stay a gymnast– she wouldn’t go on to be a cheerleader or a diver, like some of the other gymnasts she knew had after they quit elite gymnastics. But who was going to coach her, if the Karolyis were quitting?

One of the most interesting passages in Kerri Strug’s book is about how she “coach hopped” after her first Games. After consulting with Bela Karolyi on who should be his successor as her coach, Kerri started off at Kevin and Rita Brown’s gym near Orlando, Florida. The Browns had also coached Brandy Johnson, who was an ’88 Olympian, as well as Wendy Bruce, who was one of Strug’s teammates on the ’92 team. But that arrangement didn’t work out, because Kevin and Rita Brown were having marital difficulties and Kevin Brown stopped coming to the gym.

So then, Kerri moved to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to work with Steve Nunno. Nunno was once a coach at Karolyi’s gym before starting his own. He was Shannon Miller’s coach, and Miller was, at that time, the most decorated American women’s gymnast in history. But Nunno’s gym was also not a good fit for Strug. She tore a stomach muscle working with him and also vaguely alludes to flirting with an eating disorder. Her parents– dad in particular– were not going to allow Kerri to neglect her health in the name of pursuing Olympic gold.

Strug worked with a couple more coaches before the Karolyis decided they weren’t done with coaching gymnastics, after all. Apparently, Karolyi was the right coach for Kerri Strug, even though so many people have decried his methods, calling him abusive and manipulative. She went back to Houston and prepared for the Atlanta Games, much to the consternation of at least one coach who was apparently pissed off that he wasn’t going to get a chance to prove himself with an Olympian.

My thoughts on Kerri’s book

As I was reading Strug’s story of her life as an elite gymnast, it occurred to me how very long ago the 1990s were. When the 1996 Games were going on, I was living in Yerevan, Armenia. I think I saw Strug’s historic vault replayed on AFN (Armed Forces Network) more than a couple of times. It was huge news, and in the wake of Kerri’s triumph, there was quite a media sensation. This book, no doubt, was a result of the huge interest in her story.

Overall, I found Landing On My Feet to be a well-written book. Strug had help from ghost writer, John Lopez, who managed to make the story sound as if it came straight from Kerri Strug. She includes a couple of generous photo sections, which have pictures of other famous gymnasts of yore. Strug is fairly humble, and I noticed that her manuscript is meticulous about the finer points of grammar. For instance, more than once, she writes something along the lines of, “… was five years older than I”. I realize that’s technically correct, but it comes across as kind of awkward, particularly when it happens more than once in the span of a page or two.

Another thing I noticed is that the tone of Strug’s book is mostly very positive. Women’s gymnastics, as a sport, has gotten a lot of negative press lately, thanks to the abuses uncovered by people like John Geddert and Larry Nassar. Even in Strug’s day, people were talking about how abusive Bela and Martha Karolyi could be in their methods. But back in the 1990s, there wasn’t such a huge spotlight on the hidden horrors of women’s gymnastics.

The young women who participated were seen as powerful waifs– uniformly pretty in their leotards and ponytails, with toned, muscular, and tiny bodies that seemingly defied physics and gravity. Nobody was thinking about what Larry Nassar was doing in the name of “treatment” to scores of women. Strug does mention Nassar, but there’s no dirt on him at all. In fact, she keeps her comments about the sport very upbeat, save for a few passages about getting hurt. But even those passages are kind of minimized– except for when she describes the pain she felt after her second historic vault at the ’96 Olympics.

So… I wouldn’t call this book gritty or totally realistic, per se. But it is well-written, a fast, easy read, and Strug comes off as a wonderful person. And I think that was what she and her ghost writer, along with the publisher, were going for when they wrote this book. It may not be too interesting for today’s gymnasts, although it was an interesting walk down memory lane for me, a half-hearted gymnastics fan of a certain age. It’s been awhile since I last managed to devour a book in one day.

Where is Kerri Strug now?

Kerri Strug got married in 2010 to Robert Fischer, a lawyer and devout Republican… or, at least he was in the days before Trump. I don’t know how they feel about Republicans now. The two have a son named Tyler William Fischer, who was born in 2012. Unlike a lot of her teammates, Kerri initially opted not to become a professional gymnast and, instead, kept her amateur status so that she could compete as a college gymnast. I read in another article that Strug eventually did go pro, so she wasn’t a college gymnast, but worked behind the scenes as a team manager. Although she enrolled at UCLA, Kerri Strug eventually graduated from Stanford University, where she also earned a master’s degree in sociology. At one time, just after college, she was an elementary school teacher in San Jose, California. She now works full-time, splitting her time between Washington, DC and Arizona, although I’m not sure if she’s still doing now what she was doing last year, when Trump was still president. At that time, she was working for the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Repost: A review of Dave Itzkoff’s Robin

I posted this review on my original Blogspot version of this blog on August 30, 2018. It appears here exactly as it was posted then.

Sorry about the lengthy intro to this review.  If you just want the review, skip down a few paragraphs.

In August 2014, Bill and I had just returned to Germany so he could start a new job as a government contractor.  That summer was one of the most stressful and horrifying of my life so far.  Weeks before our international move, my father died somewhat suddenly.  And just after our return to Germany, I got the news that my mom had breast cancer (she had surgery and is fine now). 

Robin Williams’ suicide on August 11, 2014 was just one of many traumas during the summer of 2014.  I remember being absolutely shocked to hear about this man, who had been such a big part of my young life, had suddenly killed himself.  From his time as Mork, the gentle alien, on Mork & Mindy to his standup routines featured on HBO, to his many wonderful movies, I had so many memories of watching Williams be a genius.  And now he was suddenly gone.  He was 63 years old.

Robin Williams as Mork.

I seem to have a knack for being in Europe when legends die.  I was in Europe when Princess Diana was killed.  I was also here when Michael Jackson died.  I lived in Europe during 2016, which was when a whole host of legends passed away, and last week, we lost Aretha Franklin.  Still, I was pretty blown away when I heard about Williams’ suicide.  At the time of the announcement, many people thought he had simply been an addict suffering from depression.  Quite a few people were angry about the suicide; some even went as far as to call Williams a coward.  They didn’t know the truth.  Robin Williams suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, the same neurological disease my father suffered from during his final years.  Having seen it firsthand, I really can’t blame Williams for what he did.  It’s a horrible way to live, and ultimately die.

When I saw that Dave Itzkoff had written an exhaustive biography about Robin Williams, I decided I wanted to read it.  I downloaded Robin in May of 2018 and just finished it last night.  It’s taken me a few weeks to get through Itzkoff’s book, mainly because it’s quite long and detailed.  Also, I don’t have the attention span I used to have.  Back when I read real books, I’d whiz through them in a matter of days.  Now, I read most things on my iPad and get distracted by social media, games, or email.  Add in the fact that I usually read in bed and you might guess that sleep often also interrupts my reading sessions.

I see that I bought Robin just five days after it was released.  It was also just weeks before celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain killed himself.  When Bourdain died, many people compared his situation to Williams’ situation.  Although they may seem similar on the surface, I truly believe Robin Williams’ decision to commit suicide was caused by a very real neurological illness.  I have seen Lewy Body Dementia in person.  It really brings the “crazy”.  Not only do sufferers lose their physical faculties, they also have hallucinations, experience paranoia, and lose the ability to articulate their memories, even though they still have access to them.  It really is a special kind of hell. 

I don’t know if Williams killed himself because of acute symptoms of the disease or because he got a glimpse of what was coming.  What I do know is that I can hardly blame him.  In fact, his death was probably a blessing, not just for him, but also for those who love him.  I can speak firsthand about how hard it is to see someone you love turn into a stranger who has lost all ability to take care of themselves.

Anyway… about the book

Robin is an extremely detailed accounting of Robin Williams’ life.  Itzkoff knew Williams, having interviewed him for the New York Times.  I get the sense that they were friendly, if not outright friends.  At the end of the book, Itzkoff reveals that he and Williams shared a love of comics and Williams had even invited him to go shopping for collectibles.  The author notes that many celebrities, hoping that the reporter will be kind to them, will try to ingratiate themselves.  In Williams’ case, the offer to go shopping was genuine and based on a real desire to get to know the man who shared his love for comics.

In Robin, Itzkoff starts at the very beginning, detailing Williams upper class but lonely lifestyle.  His parents each had sons from other relationships– two half brothers, with whom Robin was close.  However, Williams himself grew up by himself, playing in attics in empty mansions and attending private schools.  It was during those years that Williams found his voice as a comedian, which he later parlayed into standup routines at open mics in the San Francisco area.

Williams’ big break came in the form of Mork & Mindy, an adorable sitcom that aired in the late 70s and early 80s.  I was a young child in those days and I loved that show, which also starred Pam Dawber.  Williams played Mork from Ork, a kind-hearted, gentle alien who had come to Earth to learn about the ways of mortals.  Every week, at the end of each episode, Mork would communicate with Orson, his boss on Ork.  He’d deliver that week’s theme mallet/moral, often with witty aplomb. 

During and after Mork & Mindy, Williams started making films.  The first one I remember seeing him in was Popeye, which was released in 1980.  I actually remember seeing that one, probably in the theater.  Itzkoff writes that Popeye was one of a number of films Williams did that wasn’t all that popular.  But when Williams hit the right project, there was magic.  I want to say it started with 1989’s Dead Poet’s Society, which was a huge hit.  He went on to make a string of other good movies, as well as a few that flopped.  Itzkoff offers some good analysis about the vehicles that worked, as well as the ones that were less successful.

Williams had three wives.  His first wife, Valerie Velardi, bore their son, Zak.  While Williams was married to Valerie, he hired Marsha Garces as a personal assistant.  They ended up falling in love and Williams divorced Velardi and married Garces in 1989.  Garces had a knack for helping Williams pick out projects.  She kept him stimulated and organized his life.  She also had his daughter, Zelda, and son, Cody.  Twenty years after he married Garces, the marriage fell apart.  Williams’ last wife was Susan Schneider, an artist and fellow alcoholic who had sort of a healing effect on Williams.  He married her in October 2011. 

As lovable as Robin Williams was to so many of his fans, he did suffer from many demons.  Williams struggled with drug addiction, alcoholism, depression, and anxiety.  When he was sober, Williams was unstoppable.  When he was under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or mental illness, he crashed into misery.  Williams would use his experiences in his comedy routines and characters, making him likable and relatable to many more ordinary people who had struggled with the same things.  I appreciated that Itzkoff took the time to explain Williams’ demons and why they helped make him a better performer, even if they also tortured him.

Another important message from Mork…  I have to admit, Mork was probably my favorite incarnation of Robin Williams.

Robin Williams was also a good friend.  Itzkoff includes a very informative section on Williams’ relationship with the late Christopher Reeve, who was his roommate at Juilliard.  The two made a pact that they would always be there for each other.  When Reeves had his horseback riding accident in May 1995, Robin and his second wife, Marsha, where there for him immediately.  Robin even dressed up like a Russian doctor and made Reeves laugh at a time when laughter seemed impossible. Williams was also friends with Billy Crystal, who would call him on the phone impersonating people like Ronald Reagan.  He was friends with Bobcat Goldthwait, too, and appeared in a couple of Goldthwait’s movies.  Williams would go to open mics, even when he was very famous, and hang out with young comedians just getting their start.  He’d be one of the guys.

Robin is basically well written and loaded with details and information, as well as pictures and an extensive reading list.  I really think Itzkoff did a good job capturing who Robin Williams was, reminding me that Williams was a warm, funny, real person who was incredibly unique and irreplaceable.  But he also reminded me that Williams was fallible and did have his disappointments and failures.  As amazing as Williams’ talent was, he was still a man. 

Some readers have pointed out that this book has some factual errors.  I’m sure an obsessive Williams fan would be able to point these out better than I can.  I liked Robin Williams, but I wasn’t someone who studied his life on that level. 

A criticism I could personally make is that this book is very long– to the point of being exhaustive.  It took me considerable time and effort to finish this book, and I’m usually a pretty speedy reader.  If you prefer brevity, Robin may not be the best book for you.  I see on Amazon.com, many people had the same complaint I have.  This book could have used a talented editor to help pare it down just a bit.  440 pages is a long haul, even if a book is enormously fascinating.  On the other hand, as a writer myself, I can understand how easy it is to get bogged down in minutiae.

Overall, I liked Robin.  I learned new things reading this book and got an appreciation for who Robin Williams was.  If I were going to assign a rating, I’d probably give it 3.5 stars out of five.  If it had been maybe 100 pages less, I’d bump it to four stars.

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