“All the Answers” by Michael Kupperman

All the AnswersWho were the Quiz Kids? I had never heard of them, but my guess is that the name will definitely ring a bell for anyone who was around in the 1940s and 50s. The Quiz Kids were brainy children who answered tough questions on a radio program based out of Chicago, and eventually a TV show, that ran between 1940 and 1956. It was a phenomenon, especially during the WWII years, when the Kids toured the country to sell war bonds and boost morale.

The Kids hobnobbed with celebrities like Milton Berle, Bing Crosby and Henry Ford. When each Kid turned 16, now more of an adult than a cute child prodigy, he or she “graduated” and left the show. Except for one, the most famous Kid of all: Joel Kupperman, the math genius who first appeared on the show at the age of six and continued until he was in college. Despite his dad’s decade-plus of fame, Joel’s son Michael knew very little about the Quiz Kids years; now a college professor, Joel shunned Quiz Kid reunions and didn’t give interviews, and treated his childhood as a “forbidden subject.”

After Joel is diagnosed with dementia, Michael realizes that it’s his last chance to find out what really happened to his father. An exhaustive search of the family home finally turns up several scrapbooks stuffed with Quiz Kids memorabilia. Michael begins to research the life of Joel Kupperman, kid genius, and makes some disturbing discoveries.

This graphic novel is a quick read, with bold, simple and effective black-and-white drawings, but the author manages to develop a lot of big themes in the book’s 220 pages, including the importance of several of the Kids’ Jewishness (particularly during WWII and its aftermath), the way “special” children were commonly put on display back then (the Quiz Kids had some things in common with the Dionne quintuplets, who were a tourist attraction in a sort of human zoo until they turned eight), and the game show scandals of the 1950s.

Quotes at the beginning of each chapter show what a pop-culture phenomenon the Quiz Kids were in their day. (Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth referenced Joel Kupperman in his 1983 novel The Anatomy Lesson.) All the Answers is often tragic, and constantly fascinating.

“Boys Keep Swinging” by Jake Shears

Boys Keep Swinging by Jake ShearsI picked up Jake Shears’ memoir Boys Keep Swinging because I was a fan of his glam-rock/disco band the Scissor Sisters, who have been M.I.A. over the past few years. (In case you’ve never heard them, here’s a popular track from 2009.) Shears also wrote songs for the “Tales of the City” musical that I loved so much back in 2011; I still nurture a hope that it’ll go on to have a second life someday.

As it turns out, Boys Keep Swinging doesn’t deal at all with the band’s lengthy hiatus, or “Tales of the City”—it stops around the time he’s about to start working on the Scissor Sisters’ second album. So this is really a book about how a kid named Jason Sellards, who grew up feeling like an outcast, became the platinum-selling rock star Jake Shears, and hints at why he had to walk away from it all for a while.

I’ve seen Shears on Dan Savage’s husband Terry Miller’s social media, but until I read Boys Keep Swinging, I had no idea that Shears was a frequent caller to Savage’s radio call-in show when he was a high school student. Savage became something of a mentor to Shears after telling him on air that he should come out as gay to his parents; he took the advice, but it didn’t go very well, unfortunately. Savage even brought young Jason to the funeral of someone who had died of AIDS to demonstrate the importance of staying safe.

Eventually, Shears moved to New York and studied fiction writing at the New School, picking up gigs as a go-go dancer at clubs and writing for the fashionably hip Paper magazine. (He also dated Anderson Cooper back when the future CNN newsman was hosting a TV game show!) In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Shears and his pal Scott Hoffman made their first appearance as the Scissor Sisters—”People were sad,” he writes. “They needed to be entertained.” Performing a goofy song called “Bicycle of the Devil,” while wearing nothing but a kimono plus “a leather G-string, combat boots, and a harness,” a star was born. “When the number ended, people clapped and hooted. I felt like my heart was going to explode out of my body.”

Relentless hard work and self-promotion paid off with a record deal and enormous success in England, where the band’s self-titled debut became the best-selling album of 2004. However, Shears’ self-doubt, personality clashes within the band and the physical and mental grind of constant touring took its toll. Shears was forced to come to terms with the fact that he was suffering from depression. Of course, this is a rock star’s memoir, so that process was a little bit different than it is for the average guy: “It was Elton [John] who finally had the talk with me about going on antidepressants,” he writes, going on to quote Sir Elton: “David [Furnish, John’s husband] and I are very worried about you. If you don’t like them, then just get off them. But you have to at least try it.”

Fortunately, Shears today seems like he’s in a pretty good place: he’s starring in Broadway’s “Kinky Boots” and he has a solo album due out later this year (“some of the best music I’ve made,” he notes in the epilogue to his book). Boys Keep Swinging does a great job of capturing the highs and lows of rock stardom, as well as providing a moving coming-of-age story.

“Vacationland” by John Hodgman

VacationlandI had planned to be seasonally appropriate and review a Christmas novel this week. Then I read two of them, and found them to be corny and predictable. (I later found out one of the books I read had been adapted into a Hallmark Channel movie.) I didn’t want to spend the day before Christmas Eve slamming novels that are loved by people who are more merry and bright than I am, so instead, I picked up John Hodgman’s memoir Vacationland, which he has described as “white privilege mortality comedy.”

My copy of Vacationland was procured at the author’s book event in San Francisco; he had pre-signed all the copies, so I was spared the agony of saying something dumb to him after the show and the subsequent lingering feelings of shame. The memoir itself was born out of Hodgman’s one-person show, which I attended a couple years ago. I say these things to establish the fact that I am something of a John Hodgman superfan. (I also listen to his weekly podcast, “Judge John Hodgman,” and have tickets to attend the live JJH taping at the Castro Theatre next month.)

For those who have not followed Hodgman’s career as closely as I have, the Yale alum quit his job as a successful literary agent to become a writer, producing three books of fake trivia, including The Areas of My Expertise. An appearance on “The Daily Show” to promote that book led to a regular gig on the show, and he was also cast as the PC in a popular series of Apple Computer commercials. His career has made him plenty of money, and he is white, and middle-aged, and he owns two summer homes, one in rural western Massachusetts and one in Maine. The former belonged to his parents; his dad essentially gave it to him after his mom died. The latter was purchased fairly recently, because “the mercilessly painful beaches” of Maine are his wife’s favorite place in the world, and it has thus become the place, he says, “where I will eventually accept my death.”

Coastal Maine is not cool or hip, explains Hodgman. “Maine’s population is the oldest in the Union. On our peninsula the young people tend to flee for Portland or points away, leaving their parents alone and embittered.” This may be true, but Brooklin, Maine—that’s where his house is; he goes to great lengths never to come out and say the name of the town, but about two seconds of Googling will reveal it—sounds pretty nice. His fellow summer residents in Brooklin include literati like Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, Heidi Julavits and Jonathan Lethem.

There’s a chapter which focuses on the E.B. White House, onetime home of the celebrated writer, which is now privately owned (he never mentions E.B. White by name, either). “He did not want it to become a museum… the location of this particular local point of interest is not celebrated and definitely not advertised. It’s usually not discussed at all. It was a long time before we knew about the house, and longer before we knew where it was. But eventually the information was slipped to us, and we received it as a gift of trust.” (I will pause to mention here that the house has its own Wikipedia page, and the exact coordinates of its location are also divulged there.) Hodgman states that he once saw photos of the house on a young woman’s Instagram page, which made him “feel desperate and mad,” and he left a nasty comment on her feed. “I am the villain of this story,” he admits, mentioning that he eventually took the comment down; shortly after that, she set her account to private.

I would be very interested to hear Hodgman’s reaction to the fact that the E.B. White House is now for sale, priced at $3.7 million, and there are lavish photos of it available online. Time marches on.

One of my guilty pleasures is gossip blind items, but Hodgman’s avoidance of naming names sometimes struck me as eye-rollingly coy. (I would love to know the identity of the “famous movie star” who once gave his wife a Scientology “touch assist.”) In some cases, it couldn’t possibly matter; a chapter about his visit to a “lovely, small liberal arts college” to deliver its annual “Samuel Clemens Address” is hilarious, and yet for some reason, I felt deeply compelled to figure out the identity of the school (it’s St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and it’s actually called the Twain Lecture Series on American Humor & Culture). I’m probably a monster and one of the reasons we can’t have nice things.

Do I nitpick this book too much? There were parts that made me laugh, and parts that are genuinely moving, such as the chapter about his mother’s death. I’m actually quite happy that Hodgman feels compelled to wrestle with his self-consciousness about being a rich white middle-aged man in today’s America, because it proves he is a sensitive and caring human being.

I was going to say that it would only be fitting if next summer, Perry’s Nut House, a historic souvenir shop described in the book, stocks copies of Vacationland, but then I looked it up online and found that like the E.B. White House, Perry’s is also for sale. As Hodgman states early in the book: “Everything ends. Nothing lasts.” If you don’t want to face those facts, there’s always the Hallmark Channel.

“Party of One” by Dave Holmes

Party of OneI picked up Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs because I am a fan of Dave Holmes’ comedy podcast “International Waters,” but reading it was like a trip back in time. You see, while I am now a demographically-undesirable Gen X’er, long ago, I was a proud member of the MTV Generation. This was back in the days when the network still devoted the bulk of its programming to videos, presented by a stable of video jockeys (VJs). On-air personalities like Kevin Seal, Martha Quinn, Matt Pinfield and newsman Kurt Loder may have been reading from teleprompters, but they seemed genuinely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about music.

Then came the dark day in the 1990s when MTV held its first “Wanna Be a VJ” contest. One of the entrants was a guy named Jesse Camp. I thought he was the most irritating person I’d ever seen on a TV screen. Seriously, see if you can make it through this 15-second video of Jesse without lunging for the pause button. Camp was born Josiah A. Camp III in Connecticut, where he attended a fancy boarding school, but on MTV, he presented a spacey, burned-out street kid persona. Somehow, Jesse managed to win the competition—later, there were claims that the voting was rigged by a hacker who “did it because everyone else at MTV is just corporate bullshit”—but at the time, the fact that MTV viewers had chosen this teenaged clown made me so angry that I decided I had finally outgrown the channel and I was done with it forever.

The second-place contestant was none other than Dave Holmes. “I looked like Walter Cronkite in cargo pants” next to Jesse, he writes in a chapter called “Notes on (Jesse) Camp.” “If I was a little disappointed to lose the job to him, the Talent Department was straight up confused and frightened. Like, who is this guy, and how exactly do you take care of him? What does he eat? Does he eat? What, if anything, is he on? Who’s going to get him to work? Most pressingly: is he always going to be like this?”

The powers that be wisely decided to hire Holmes as well as Camp, and the runner-up went on to enjoy a successful career at the network (“His MTV career lasted about three years longer than Camp’s,” per Wikipedia). Since his MTV days, Holmes has worked steadily as a TV host, radio personality and actor; he’s currently a writer-at-large for Esquire, and has contributed some pieces I’ve just adored, like his hilarious reviews of “mother!” and “The Emoji Movie.”

Party of One is a fun read for Holmes’ fellow pop-culture obsessives; the book contains one of the best celebrity stories I’ve ever read (about actress Tara Reid and her friend at an MTV spring break shoot in Cancun), along with candid tales about growing up gay and Catholic, experimenting with drugs (only twice! but both incidents were memorable), and getting advice at a critical juncture in his life from the pop duo Indigo Girls, whom he happened to run into at an Applebee’s (“It was as though they had seen some kind of gay distress signal in the Atlanta skies and reported for duty”). And I’ll admit to a teensy bit of schadenfreude over the fact that Holmes has a great, wide-ranging career, whereas Jesse is the topic of occasional where-are-they-now pieces.

“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

Born A CrimeI think Trevor Noah is doing a great job as host of “The Daily Show.” He’s funny, charismatic and attractive, and his accent work is killer. However, I spent eight long years slogging through the George W. Bush administration with Jon Stewart, and when Trump got elected, I just couldn’t bring myself to tune into the madness on a daily basis. So I’m now an occasional “TDS” viewer.

Noah’s autobiography, however, is one I’d recommend to anyone, be they fans of his comedy or folks who have only the vaguest idea of who he is. There are a couple chapters that allude to his success (he was a huge star in his native South Africa before he made a splash in the U.S.), but 95% of the book deals with his childhood. It’s a remarkable tale, and Noah tells it very well.

Born a Crime is truly a singular story. Trevor Noah was in no way a typical South African child, thanks largely to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. She decided to get pregnant by a Swiss-German neighbor, despite the fact that interracial relationships were illegal. Since the son’s skin was conspicuously lighter than his mother’s, Patricia frequently had to find a colored woman willing to walk young Trevor to school (his mother would follow behind, “like she was the maid working for the colored woman”).

Patricia was devoutly religious, insisting that her son accompany her to three separate church services on Sundays, as well as various Bible studies during the week. Despite all of that time spent in houses of worship, Trevor was quite the handful as a child. At age seven, he accidentally burned down a white family’s house (he was playing with their maid’s son). Decades later, Noah is unapologetic: “Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade. But everyone in my family will tell you, ‘Trevor burned down a house.’ If people thought I was naughty before, after the fire I was notorious. One of my uncles stopped calling me Trevor. He called me ‘Terror’ instead. ‘Don’t leave that kid alone in your home,’ he’d say. ‘He’ll burn it to the ground.'”

There are plenty more crazy anecdotes in the book, which is just a delight from start to finish. By the end, even nonbelievers may find themselves convinced that somebody up there is looking out for Patricia, whose terrifying brush with death is detailed in the final chapter.

Noah vividly captures the grit and determination it took to escape poverty and abuse (at one point, Trevor, his mom and stepfather were so broke they had to eat caterpillars, a.k.a. “Mopane worms,” in order to survive: “there’s poor and then there’s ‘Wait, I’m eating worms,'” writes Noah). Born a Crime is a compelling memoir, as well as a loving tribute to the powerful woman who raised her son “as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do”—a fine rebuke to the dehumanizing system of apartheid.

“Hungry Heart” by Jennifer Weiner

Hungry HeartI don’t remember how I first became aware of Jennifer Weiner and her debut novel, Good in Bed, but I attended what must have been one of her earliest bookstore events, at the now-defunct Black Oak Books in North Berkeley. Weiner was funny and engaging, and I wish I’d had the means to purchase a signed copy. But at that point in my life I was pretty broke and couldn’t afford to buy hardcovers. I did check it out of the library, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Her novels have frequently featured autobiographical elements—just for starters, the heroine of Good in Bed has a mom who came out as gay following her divorce, which is also true of Weiner’s own mom, Fran—and Weiner is a regular presence on social media, but Hungry Heart is such a revealing memoir that even her most ardent followers may be shocked at what they learn. Some of the chapters are absolutely heartbreaking, especially one about the death of her mentally ill, frequently-absent father, and one describing her fairly recent miscarriage.

The info about her socially awkward early years will come as no surprise to those who have read her novels. I will admit that I identified strongly with a lot of it. Weiner was a smart kid who skipped third grade (I skipped second). “The trend of skipping grades stopped once educators realized that they were creating a generation of social cripples. By then it was too late for me.” Amen, sister.

Weiner writes about her experience working to open up Princeton’s all-male eating clubs to women; her college writing classes with teachers like Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison; her early, unglamorous journalism jobs before she finally lands at the Philadelphia Inquirer; the fight to publish a novel with a plus-sized heroine; and her own weight loss surgery, which brought her back down to a size 16 after a significant weight gain following the birth of her first child. The only thing she’s pretty circumspect about is her divorce from her first husband (she’s since remarried), but considering that they have two kids together who may one day read this book, it’s probably for the best that she didn’t air too much dirty laundry about that event. It seems like they are amicable co-parents.

Hungry Heart is a brave book, and I really admire the strength it must have taken to write so openly about the lowest points of your life. It’s a fine book for readers of any age, but I hope it finds its way into the hands of her fans in their teens and 20s who will no doubt be reassured that this now-successful woman had to fight very hard and overcome some tremendous obstacles in order to write her own happy ending.

“Troublemaker” by Leah Remini

Troublemaker by Leah ReminiLeah Remini gets right to the point on Page One of her autobiography: “I have done some things in my life that I am not proud of,” including falling in love with a married man and “physically threatening” meter maids. She also reveals that her husband used to deal drugs and her mother was “a self-admitted slut in her younger days.”

Usually, celebrity memoirists don’t deliver info-dumps like this, preferring to gradually roll out the shocking details little by little. But Remini knows that when you leave the Church of Scientology, that makes you a target. The church has no problem attacking “apostates” using confidential information disclosed during auditing (counseling) sessions, meaning that there’s never a shortage of juicy gossip to spill about former parishioners. So Remini decided to beat ’em to the punch by writing a book that airs much of her own dirty laundry.

Remini’s mother joined Scientology when her daughter was a child, so Leah was essentially brought up in the religion. She and her sister Nicole joined the Sea Org (Scientology’s clergy) at a very young age, signing billion-year contracts which were quickly broken once Leah got into trouble for messing around with boys. She went on to bigger and better things, appearing in several dozen failed pilots and canceled TV series before finally hitting the jackpot with “The King of Queens,” which lasted nine seasons and made her a star.

All the while, Remini was forced to spend several hours a day taking Scientology courses and giving huge sums of money (she estimates she spent around $5 million total on services and donations) to the church. Unfortunately, while Leah may have been a big star, she was nowhere near the level of Scientology’s biggest star, Tom Cruise—and when she grew disenchanted with the way Cruise was treated as a sort of demigod within the church, with Sea Org members serving at his beck and call, it marked the beginning of the end for Leah’s own status as a Scientology celeb. Everything came to a head at Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes, when Remini noticed all kinds of irregularities: not just Cruise’s wedding seemingly “being regarded as ‘official church business,'” but Tom’s Sea Org “handlers”—a man and a woman both married to other people—were canoodling at a pre-wedding dinner, and church leader David Miscavige was there with a date who was not his wife. Even people who aren’t obsessive Scientology watchers like me have probably heard the phrase “Where’s Shelly?” at some point; Shelly is Miscavige’s wife, and she hasn’t been seen in public for many years. Leah and Shelly were friends, and Leah’s questions about Shelly’s whereabouts led to a tremendous amount of drama. Leah eventually filed a police report declaring Shelly a missing person (pages from the report are reproduced in the book).

There’s so much dish in the Cruise/Holmes wedding chapter that I can’t possibly detail it all (Jennifer Lopez, whose father is a Scientologist, plays a big part); suffice it to say this was finally the tipping point that caused Remini to break publicly with the church she’d been a part of for 30 years. Due to Scientology’s “disconnection” policy, overnight, she became persona non grata to all of her friends in the church. Amazingly, Remini’s entire family agreed to leave Scientology with her. This is a very rare occurrence. Most of the time, at least some family members stay, separating grandparents from grandchildren, sisters from brothers.

It’s kind of amazing that Remini, a mouthy girl from Brooklyn, managed to last as long in the church as she did. She obviously has a great sense of humor, a trait discouraged in Scientology (L. Ron Hubbard called it “joking and degrading” and even issued a formal statement declaring it off-policy). Her book is a fast, fun read, and provides a rare glimpse of what life is like for a genuine Scientology celebrity; most run-of-the-mill parishioners “will never experience seeing behind the curtain like I and a handful of others have,” she writes. Thank goodness for troublemakers.