Saturday, December 3, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #22


My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business
Dick Van Dyke

Last year Carol Burnett’s book This Time Together made my year end list, so I guess it's no surprise that Dick Van Dyke's really sweet memoir My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business has made my 2011 list.

If Dick Van Dyke had only done one thing in his career, and if that one thing was The Dick Van Dyke Show…well, he would still be an icon. That’s right, no Mary Poppins, no Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Liz’s heart just sank at the mere thought of that!). Without Dick Van Dyke (and of course Carl Reiner, who wrote the foreword to My Lucky Life), there would be no television. Okay, so that is an overstatement, but there wouldn’t have been Mary Tyler Moore, or Rhoda, or All in the Family, or God help us all, no Newhart! [I've never seen any of these shows. How old is Gianna?  Sheesh!] I know, scary right? [Obviously not for me....] All I have done since 1970 is watch television, so trust me, I’ve considered this often.

Anyway, Dick Van Dyke is a trailblazer of the highest order, but this is far from just a career memoir; he writes about his childhood (great bit about his mother trying to sell him a bill of goods about how he was born prematurely, but it turns out she moved his birth date because she got pregnant before she was married – his grandmother sells her out), his marriage, his children and his thirty-plus year relationship with Michelle Triola Marvin who died in 2009. [He's single?  I do love Mary Poppins....]

What I love about this memoir, as well as Carol Burnett’s book, is that it captures a time in Hollywood, and certainly a type of actor (the singer/dancer/comedian) that is so incredibly rare these days (not to mention their amazing grace and class). 

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest
Wade Davis

I'm a mountain person, despite my Houston address.  Some people are recharged by the rhythmic thrashing of ocean waves, but I find sanctuary surrounded by mountains, tall trees, Stellar's Jays darting among branches of evergreens.  If I disappear, (don't) look for me in places like Yosemite and Mount Rainier.  I also find mountain stories captivating, even if I don't really possess the courage or desire to summit peaks myself.  Because of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, there's an entire reading generation enthralled by Mount Everest, a passion that has spread to documentaries and TV shows (if you haven't read Into Thin Air, you must, or listen to the outstanding audiobook version).  One of my college majors was history, too.  And one of my favorite novels is Mrs. Dalloway, in part because of the World War I veteran Septimus.  These interests converge for me into Wade Davis's outstanding tome, Into the Silence.
George Mallory

Davis, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, manages to spin gold from the history of the early expeditions of Mount Everest, and this book should be on every holiday wish list for non-fiction readers.  The larger-than-life George Mallory was a British soldier in World War I, surviving in the trenches during the Battle of the Somme.  He saw horrific things, the birth of modern warfare and inhumanity.  The British Empire, like the surviving soldiers coming home from war (one million died in the war), faced a crisis of identity.  No longer was Britain the impregnable force of global domination.  The soldier and the nation were shell-shocked.  They turned East to the Himalayas and if the nation couldn't rule the civilized world, it could conquer the natural one.  

Mallory, fearless, charismatic, probably pretty annoying in camp, and fellow Britons set off to climb Everest in a series of expeditions in the 1920's.  On the mountain these men faced their war demons and looked to lift their country back to global prominence.  Mallory wrote home often and the expeditions were a source of national pride (even if the native Tibetans found them confounding; why climb a mountain?), and they were scaling the side of the world's tallest mountain without the benefit of modern equipment.  One aspect of Krakauer's book on Everest is that it particularly captures the incredible danger of Everest, and it takes place 70 years after the Mallory expeditions.  

Mallory, of course, never returned.  The mythology suggests that he was last seen making a fearless assault on the summit before disappearing into a cloud.  Did he make it to the top, or was New Zealander Edmund Hillary really the first to summit the mountain?  Into the Silence is the story of a mountaineer and a story of a nation in crisis, a worthy addition to the great history books that make the 20th Century, at least for me, the most engrossing 100 years on record.  While there are other books about Mallory and about World War I, I think that the way that Davis blends together his story is something special.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely loved this book. I have always been a fan of Ms Burnett and so enjoyed reading about her life. I had always watched her show and have many fond memories of it. I remember so many of the skits she talks about in the book and it was fun to relive them again. It was nice to see that she is the down to earth funny lady that she has always portrayed.