Some of the best podcast conversations I’ve had in 2021 were with authors. The six listed below seized this pandemic predicament by hunkering down and writing great books either about their own life experiences or, in one case, a biography about one of Canada’s best storytellers.
I thank them all for helping me to read at least six books this year. If you’re still looking for last-minute holiday gifts, or some boxing day treats for yourself, I’ve read and heartily recomment the following:
Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life (Sutherland House). Ira Wells spent three years working on “Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life.” A full year of that was pouring over the filmmaker’s papers, annotated scripts and other manuscripts at Victoria College at the University of Toronto — where Wells is an assistant professor of literature.
Of Jewison’s 24 feature films, two of them — “In the Heat of the Night” and “Moonstruck”– were Best Picture Oscar winners. Still, for the Toronto-born director, landing the next film deal never got any easier.
It helped that behind Jewison’s nice guy, all-Canadian persona, beats the heart of a lion. As Burt Reynolds once mused, “He must be able to kick the shit out of people in meetings.”
Jewison’s other talent was to be the director he needed to be in relation to the talent at hand. He could be, as Wells describes him, “a nurturing father figure, a wise older brother, on old fling.” Sometimes he was all three on the same film, as he was on the set of “Agnes of God.”
Wells book goes further than anything else I’ve ever read (including Jewison’s own autobiography) in delivering a complete portrait of the filmmaker, a remarkably complex and deeply personal storyteller who never made the same film twice.
All Over the Map: Rambles and Ruminations from the Canadian Road. (Doubleday Canada). Just as a handyman’s house is seldom finished, Ron James once told me that a comedian’s isn’t always funny. With “All Over the Map” you get plenty of laughs for your buck, told in James own, inimitable, verbally virtuosic style. You also get notes from a comedy road warrior who has seen a thing or two and survived a few idjits along the way.
A live comedy workhorse, James suffered more than most from two years of social distancing and isolation — in the pocket as well as in the head. “Streaming gigs from my living room certainly kept my mojo workin’,” he writes, “yet every performance felt as if I was delivering my set to fellow earthlings from a space capule orbiting the Nebulon galaxy. Authentic connection is not the medium’s strong suit.”
This book is for all of us who have felt zapped through the zoom era. It’s packed with funny stories, but also with wit, wisdom and compassion. It’s also a way to ride shotgun with a hell of a storyteller. Buckle up as James steers his way across an amazing country, on what he aptly describes as “a road trip between one comedian’s ears.”
Off the Record (Simon & Schuster). Don’t be fooled by Peter Mansbridge’s impressive news anchor pedigree. He’s got a comedians knack for timing and delivery, especially when it comes to taking self-effacing shots at himself.
Look closely at the captions under the many photographs throughout the book. There he is in his young twenties in Calgary, or as Mansbridge calls it, “The hair days.”
Another shot shows him standing between US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “They’re laughing,” Mansbridge writes, “because I asked them where I should send them a copy.”
Mansbridge writes about his ridiculously unlikely break into the news business as a 19-year-old baggage handler overheard on a P.A. system by the right person at the right time in Churchill, Manitoba. That led to a spectacular career involving prime ministers, princesses and At Issue panelists.
Readers will gain insights into politicians of all stripes. Best of all, his stories are told in four- or five-page bites. Trust a retired TV news anchor to understand the attention span of today’s average reader.
An Embarrassment of Critches: Immature Stories from my Grown-up Life (Viking). There are many reasons to read Mark Critch’s latest autobiography. One is he asked former prime minister Jean Chretien to write a cover blurb and the man who won three consecutive majority governments wrote an entire forward that had to be boiled back down to a blurb.
How crazy is that? It’s a wonder Chretien didn’t put him in a choke hold!
The Newfoundland native wrote an earlier book, “Son of a Critch,” that’s been turned into a soon-to-premiere CBC series. Here you get Critch as he stumbles through his years “Paying Dues and Bouncing Cheques,”
That’s also the heading of a chapter with a hilarious true story about young Critch the budding stand-up comedian, desperate for cash with no job and a young child on the way, taking a corporate gig up north. I don’t want to spoil it, but how he somehow manages to charm and amuse a room full of strangers fresh off grief counseling sessions is laugh out loud funny.
Critch is now into his 18th season on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. It’s a job that took him a couple of cracks to land but once he got it, he held it for longer than anyone so far except Cathy Jones.
Star Struck: My Unlikely Road to Hollywood (GoodKnight Books). Starting back when he was a teen in New York, Leonard Maltin has written some of the most treasured books about the movies. His early works on Disney and animation are still the texts to have in those fields of study. His book on short subjects of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s made me love Joe McDoakes before I ever saw a Joe McDoakes short.
For the first time, Maltin has written a memoir chronicling his many years interviewing a Who’s Who of Hollywood. Imagine getting to interview Fred Astaire — and he knows you from Entertainment Tonight. Clint Eastwood, Mel Brooks, Sidney Poitier, Meryl Streep, Katharine Hepburn, Brad Bitt, Will Smith, George Lucas — there are great stories about all of them in “Star Struck.”
What sets Maltin’s book and his whole career apart is, as he puts it, the fact that he has remained “an unabashed fan.” Trust me though, that doesn’t mean fawning. I’ve had the good fortune to know Leonard, a fellow 16mm film collector, for 35 years. His affection for the movies and the people who make them is all earned and genuine. That’s how they feel about him, too — even the guys who worked him into a hilarious episode of South Park.
Growing up in New York, Maltin would pounce on his dad’s weekly copy of the trade magazine Variety. As a critic (for several years, at Playboy), an author (Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide was an annual bestseller for a generation) and an academic (he’s taught for years at USC) he has always championed movie magic with a strong critical voice. You’ll find it on every page of “Star Struck.”
“It’s not exactly ‘Angela’s Ashes,’” Rick Mercer says of his childhood. He writes about it in his engaging new memoir, “Talking to Canadians” (Penguin Harper Collins).
When he first sat down to write the book, he worried that he lacked the harrowing childhood needed to pen a comedian’s memoir.
Brace yourself then, reader. Mercer’s tome is filled with mischief but also happy memories of growing up with his family in Middle Cove, Newfoundland, 25-minutes outside of St. John’s. Crowding around dinner tables were his mother, Patricia, father, Kenneth, an older sister and brother and eventually a younger sister adopted into the family. He writes generously about all of them.
I’ve been interviewing Mercer for over 25 years since meeting him way back when This Hour Has 22 Minutes first launched in the mid-‘90s. Like most, I know the story of his 25 years on CBC, right through the 15-season run of The Mercer Report.
It was fun, therefore, to read about those first 25 years, leading up to a challenge a special teacher gave Mercer — never exactly a fully engaged student.
“My life changed forever on that day,” says the 52-year-old, who stepped up to comedy at that point, “and that’s all I’ve done ever since except for a few stints washing dishes.”