Review: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show A Classic (Encore Post)

In honor of the groundbreaking work of Mary Tyler Moore, who died today at age 80, here’s my book review of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All The Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. Originally written and posted on 3/4/2014.  

As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

There’s a good reason for that.  When this groundbreaking sitcom premiered in 1970, I was not quite 2 years old – not exactly the target audience. But I was a stubborn enough toddler (or so I’ve heard) that, had I understood what “MTM” was all about, I bet I could have made a pretty convincing case to my parents to let me watch it.

Instead, I saw it during its resurgence on Nick at Nite in 1992, when I – as someone with my first job out of college – could appreciate it much better. (Never mind that I usually watched Mary and Rhoda while my fiance watched sports with his best friend in the other room, but that’s besides the point. I was happy, he was happy, and we’ve been married ever since. We must be doing something right.)

It helps to have some knowledge of and appreciation of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when reading Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, but this isn’t your usual television/celebrity retrospective. Sure, there’s a decent amount about the actors, which was interesting. But this is mostly about the women who wrote for the show and why having a team of female comedy writers was so groundbreaking in 1970.

In today’s anything-goes television environment, it’s almost quaint to remember just how revolutionary “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was. The idea of Mary being divorced and having a career was – to put it mildly – a hard sell to network executives. The CBS execs replied with, “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a series lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.

Yeah. Those were the good old days, right?

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted explains how the writers and producers got around that (some reviews suggest that the book should be called “Jim and Treva and Allan and Susan,” for the writing and producing team that made the show happen). It also explains how having a female writing team significantly shaped the issues portrayed on the show – as well as the edgy ones on future shows produced by MTM Enterprises.

Ironically, my childhood dream was to grow up and be a screenwriter for “St. Elsewhere” – the critically-acclaimed medical drama that, like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” also saw its share of firsts and also was produced by Grant Tinker’s company MTM Enterprises, named for his then-wife, Mary Tyler Moore.

(In high school, I entertained the crazy idea of sending Mr. Tinker an unsolicited script. I talked about this a lot. Now, after reading the story about how superfan Joe Rainone would write detailed, weekly letters to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” cast analyzing each week’s show and how Marilyn Miller from Monroeville, PA (just outside of Pittsburgh) wrote a spec script for MTM and became a writer for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I kind of want to kick my own ass.)

Regardless of my lost dreams, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted was entertaining – and the audiobook proved to be a good choice as I lived vicariously through the characters on my way to and from my real life, slightly-less-exciting-than-a-scriptwriter-but-hey!-still-a-writer! job as I listened to this on my commute to work.  I enjoyed this for the inside stories and especially the focus and perspective on the writers. I was glad that they included what they – the writers and the actors – have done since “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” went off the air.

It was also so goddamn nostalgic, almost sad to a point. So many magnificent shows of television’s Golden Age of Comedy are referenced in this book as well as how the show that almost wasn’t going to be on the air wound up inspiring so many others.  The end of the book gives a nod to Mary Richards’ “cultural daughters” like Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon of “30 Rock” and “power ensembles” as found in “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “The Office.” Truly, Mary Richards’ influence and that of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” is more far-reaching than anyone probably ever imagined.

Still, although we have indeed come a long way (baby) from the days when a writer couldn’t pen an episode about a New Yorker who was divorcing someone who was Jewish with a mustache, it makes one wonder if all the hard fought gains are truly appreciated by the talent we have today. Probably by some, yes. But I think the further we get away from television’s Golden Age, and the less communal our viewing experience becomes, the fuzzier those golden days will seem.

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic
by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong 
Simon and Schuster
2013 
298 pages
Narrated by Amy Landon 
11 hours, 22 minutes 

roar

That’s the cover of today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, with a photo of thousands of people taking to the streets for the Women’s March on Pittsburgh. We actually had two marches yesterday in our fine city: the one above and the Our Feminism Must Be Intersectional Rally/March.  (Virginia Alvino Young explains why Pittsburgh had two marches.)  Seeing the photos and posts from more than 600 marches across the globe–including Antarctica! — was so powerful and moving.

I didn’t attend either gathering because large crowds and me don’t always get along.  (Also, The Girl had Sibshop yesterday at the same time. It’s a support group for kids who have a brother or sister with a disability and we try not to miss these workshops.)

At first I felt a bit guilty about not going to the march, and while scrolling down my Facebook feed, I noticed several other friends voicing similar sentiments. It struck me how ironic this was; that on a day that was all about love, respect, power, value and dignity, we were so quick to diminish and invalidate ourselves. It’s so easy to feel like we’re not doing enough or participating in the right things.

But the reality of these times is that we will need all kinds of advocacy in all forms.  This resistance is only just beginning, and there are a lot of different ways to contribute and try to make a difference.  It’s impossible to do everything, but we can all do something.  My activism might take the form of a blog post protesting a woefully unqualified and dangerous nominee as secretary of education while yours might be to participate in a march. We all do what we can, in whatever ways we can.

And we will be called upon to do so, again and again and again. This revolution and resistance requires all of us and many individual actions that make a collective roar.

 

Hell, No, to Betsy DeVos (Said the Angry Mama Bear)


If one values sleep, it’s probably not a good idea to watch Senate confirmation hearings before going to bed. Certainly not ones like that which occurred Tuesday evening when Betsy DeVos, filthy obscenely rich nominee for secretary of education, told Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut (where Sandy Hook Elementary School happens to be located) that guns are a good idea in schools because, you know, bears.

It was laughable, the stuff of insta-memes, indistinguishable from The Onion fodder or an Andy Borowitz post. And part of me even wonders if there was some impetus from the power brokers-that-be, some nudge to say something kind of goofy that would prompt the Internet to lose its collective shit — all the better to distract from the real issues. Because that’s how this new regime operates.

Make no mistake: plenty more than bears are at stake here.

For me, the most egregious comment (and it is hard to choose just one) had to do with the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act, known as IDEA.  Clearly, Ms. DeVos didn’t have any idea what she was talking about when she told Senator Tim Kaine (a.k.a. The Man Who Should Be Vice President) that she would allow the states (or, in her high-falutin’ parlance, “locales”) to decide whether to implement the federal law mandating that children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education. Later, in an exchange with Senator Maggie Hassan, whose son has a disability, Ms. DeVos admitted she might have been “confused” about said law.

Confused, my ass. When it comes to this particular nominee, there’s no confusion. Through her prior actions and financial support of school choice, she represents a clear threat to the laws, standards, and policies that comprise public education in the United States of America. She puts us on a path to potentially dismantling the provisions that have guaranteed for four decades the same educational rights to every single child in this country.

Ever wonder what $200 million bucks can buy?  A hell of a trip back in time to when children with disabilities were forgotten and treated as less than by our government. We can’t afford to go back to those days. Our children deserve better than that. Now more than ever, they need us to be their advocates and their voice.

For weeks, my friends have been lighting up the phones–some every day–calling their elected representatives and others across the country. My Facebook feed has been full of daily actions, of phone numbers and sample scripts, of suggestions to put our representatives on speed dial.

And aside from banging out political social media and blog posts, I’ve stayed silent.  I’ve never, not once, called my elected officials despite being urged to do so. Mine were the usual bullshit reasons: I hate talking on the phone, my call won’t make a difference, blahdeblahdefuckingblah.

After watching Ms. DeVos’ utter ineptitude and lack of understanding, that changed.

By 7:15 a.m. this morning, I had left messages for my Senators, one of whom is Bob Casey, a member of the HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee faced with Ms. DeVos’ nomination. I didn’t have a script and I was less articulate than I would have liked. But you know what? I didn’t care.

I realized that by staying silent I am giving way too much power to the Betsy DeVos of the world. The people who think that their money and their privilege can buy them access and power and the ability to trample on the rights of those less fortunate. I know people like Betsy DeVos. I know Betsy DeVos doesn’t care about my child with autism or Maggie Hassan’s child with cerebral palsy or your child or any other child in this country who currently receives an education.  She doesn’t care about your daughter who was sexually assaulted on her college campus. She doesn’t care about making that college affordable. She doesn’t care about existing policies that help to protect kids from harassment and bullying and threats much more serious than one of Goldilocks’ three bears coming to life and walking into a classroom.

This angry mama bear is pissed as hell and speaking up for her cub and every other cub because it’s my responsibility as a parent and as a human being who cares about what’s right and what’s just to do so with every fiber of my being.  And while there are days when it is too much and too overwhelming and everything feels futile, that’s when I will try to speak up even louder.

Because the alternative is simply far too much to bear.

Two New Reviews: House of Silence, by Sarah Barthel and Nowhere Else I Want to Be, by Carol D. Marsh

Two new books to share with you, via my reviews in the 1/13/2017 issue of Shelf Awareness.

House of Silence by Sarah Barthel is “an engaging, fast-paced blend of historical fiction and suspense.” Before reading this, I didn’t know much about Mary Todd Lincoln’s stay at Bellevue Place, a sanitarium where her son Robert had her committed 10 years after President Lincoln’s assassination. This novel weaves Mary Todd Lincoln’s story with the fictional Isabelle Larkin, a socialite whose fiancé Gregory is a political hopeful and one of Chicago’s most eligible and attractive bachelors. When Isabelle catches Gregory committing a crime, she’s trapped … until being sent to Bellevue where she befriends — you guessed it, Mary Todd Lincoln. You can read more under the Fiction section in the Shelf Awareness issue.

Nowhere Else I Want to Be is Carol D. Marsh’s memoir of her 14 years as executive director of Miriam’s House, a community of women who are addicted to drugs and dying of AIDS. She lived on the premises with her husband Tim and together with their staff, provided the women with a home and cared for those forgotten by their families and society.  Along with the many heartbreaking stories of the women she came to know at Miriam’s House, Marsh shares her own story of growth in this role as she learned to confront her naiveté and false assumptions.

Although I didn’t work in a direct service capacity, a lot of this reminded me of my time working at a domestic violence shelter. More of my review in the Shelf Awareness issue, under the Social Science heading, as well as a review with Carol Marsh by my writing colleague Katie Noah Gibson, who blogs at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

 

 

Currently…Hibernation Sunday

Currently
It’s a day for staying indoors, given that it is all of 11 degrees outside as I write. Such is January in Pittsburgh. I skipped church because of the weather and a morning migraine that has, thankfully, subsided. We de-Christmased the house earlier, then I spent most of the day on the couch with a cup of rooibos tea with the Steelers-Miami game on as background (whooooo hoooo, Steelers!) while I caught up on some blog reading and perused Pinterest for some meal planning ideas. You know, the usual lazy Sunday.

The upcoming week will be busier than usual because I’m immersed in a big project at work. This will likely require a few later evenings, on top of several hours of work yesterday during a rare Saturday in the office to try and get ahead of the game.  I took today as a break from the work project which will wrap up this coming Friday the 13th … hopefully a luckier day than the date portends). The intensity is a short-term thing, but this has been in the works for a year, so it will be good to have some semblance of completion.

Reading …
I need to spend some time this evening with a new short story collection which I’m reviewing. (That deadline is Friday, too.) This one will be my first book of 2017, not to be confused with Sheila from Book Journey’s annual First Book of the Year project. I had all good intentions of participating in that but had to temporarily set aside my choice (The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes) to focus on the review book.

Watching…
I spent a good chunk of my two-week Christmas break binge-watching “This Is Us” and am completely hooked on this show. I don’t watch much TV to begin with and I certainly didn’t need a new obsession, but here it is.  I have two more episodes to watch, which I plan to do right after hitting publish on this. Perfect timing for the season premiere this Tuesday.

Blogging … 
I’m planning to participate in the Winter 2017 Mini-Bloggiesta, scheduled for Jan 14-15.  If you’re new to Bloggiesta, it is described as “a blogging marathon revolving around ticking off those items on your to-do list and improving your blog while in the good company of other awesome bloggers doing the same thing.”

The timing is great because I’ll have a four-day weekend, thanks to the MLK holiday and a vacation day that needs to be used this month. To-do’s for this Bloggiesta include updating my Book Review page (and revising some others) and writing some posts. If you missed it last week, I shared my selections for the Best Fiction books of 2016 (meaning, those I read in 2016, not necessarily ones published during the past year). Even though the window of time for 2016 wrap up posts has pretty much closed, I still want to finish my Best Nonfiction post. I read a lot of stellar nonfiction last year that I’d really like to share with all of you.

OK, I’m off to finish watching “This Is Us” with a case of Kleenex at the ready. Hope your Sunday is going well and that you have a great week.

The Emperor’s New Ethics

This post will likely cost me a few more Facebook friends and/or blog readers, but that’s what happens, I’ve learned, when one decides not to remain silent about the egregiousness that has quickly become business as usual in this new political regime of ours.

I speak of the top news story of the day, that of the House Republicans’ collective “uh, sorry, didn’t mean it, nothing to see here” reverse-course announcement earlier this afternoon regarding their original plan to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics.  This comes less than 24 hours after they announced their intent to get rid of it. After all, we certainly can’t have an Office of Congressional Ethics initiating investigations and speaking to the press, can we? Certainly not.

Appropriately so, people were angry enough about the possible disappearance of the Office of Congressional Ethics that they called their representatives en masse to demand action. Which — let me be perfectly clear here — was the right thing to do.  If there’s anything positive that this godforsaken election has produced, it’s this increased interaction with our elected officials. We should have our representatives on speed dial. We should know their names and they should know ours. And in this brave new world, when there will be countless opportunities for outrage, their phones will likely be ringing off the hook as more people than ever decide to give their friendly Congressperson or Senator a buzz.

This is good. This is what we need to be doing in these unprecedented times and we will be called to do so again and again.

Unfortunately, all the calls had nothing to do with the House Republicans changing their mind about keeping the Office of Congressional Ethics.

As much as we’d like to think otherwise, the people didn’t make this happen.

The country’s Tweeter-in-Chief did, with a two-part missive tweeted at 10:03 a.m.

“With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it……..may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance! #DTS”

For the record — and I’d imagine this will be one of the few times you’ll hear me say this — but I actually agree with the King.  I’m probably not alone; most of us probably read that and, to our amazement, found ourselves nodding and thinking that the guy makes a good point.

And that was exactly the intent.  It’s actually quite masterful, if you think about it.  By embarrassing the servants and letting them know that the King wasn’t happy, what other choice did they have? They created this monster; now they have no recourse other than to obey his every whim by kissing his ring every single day regardless of every destructive, nefarious, malicious, stupid, bigly-assed edict he declares from his throne of tweets. There’s no other choice. He owns them, they know it, and that’s what today was all about — with the added reality show of the King masquerading as a reasonable, rational ruler with a fully-functioning set of ethics and sense of priorities.

It wasn’t about the people suddenly having the power to change, within 24 hours, the minds of the powers-that-be. When have they ever acted so fast in response to the people’s wishes?

We didn’t make this happen.

The King did.

And because he has them in his corner and knows it, we’ll get to watch him do it again and again and again, for as long as he may reign.

 

Reflections on the New Year and My Best Books of 2016 (part 1)

Books Transform in Hourglass

Happy New Year, friends. The beginning of another journey around the sun, a time for reflecting on what has gone before and what the future holds. Given the state of the world, this particular year brings a heightened level of uncertainty. It probably goes without saying that I’m right there with you if you’re feeling a bit (or a lot) apprehensive and anxious about the days ahead and not wanting to embrace the usual spirit of hope and new beginnings that typically marks this day. 

I get that. I don’t tend to make resolutions anymore, preferring to embrace the practice of choosing one word (or three) as a touchstone for the year. (I’m currently vacillating between two words.) I also like the idea of using this time to release those regrets, disappointments, mistakes — and yes, unrealistic resolutions or goals — that we may have carried with us into the new year. Sunday’s service at our UU congregation was “Letting Go” where we did just that with a Burning Bowl ceremony, also known as Fire Communion. In this ritual, you write down on a piece of paper a word or a phrase that represents something you want to release and let go of for the new year. It was all very meaningful and cathartic, especially on New Year’s Day itself. I loved it.

I had much weightier concerns to let go of, but as far as book blogging goes I’m going to try and forego setting a goal for the number of books to read this year. I don’t even think I’m going to join the Goodreads reading challenge. I mean, I read 43 books in 2016 and somehow I feel like that was a lousy reading year because I didn’t meet my self-imposed, twice-revised goal. That’s not a healthy mindset when you consider that the typical American only reads four books a year. Given that, 43 books is an exceptional year and that’s how I choose to look at it. Maybe I’ll change my mind — who knows?

What I do know is that among those 43 were some excellent fiction and nonfiction. In this post, I share my picks for the Best Fiction of 2016, alphabetical by author’s last name. (I’ll do my selections for Best Nonfiction in a separate post, hopefully later this week.) I don’t limit my selections to works published in 2016, however in the case of my fiction selections all but one was released this past year.  I also don’t limit my annual list to a specified number of books (i.e., my top ten). If I loved all 43 books, I would be highlighting every one.

So, without further ado,  I recommend for your reading pleasure the five works of fiction (among them two novellas) that I consider to be the best that I read in 2016. Links take you to my full review, if I wrote one.

I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, by Jennifer Finney Boylan
In this novella, the dysfunctional Riley family is en route to Washington D.C. where their teenage son Otis, a violinist, will be performing at the legendary Ford’s Theatre. The road trip is symbolic of each family member’s individual journey. The characters — especially Alex, a transgender teen — are brilliantly rendered and with its suspenseful plot, Jennifer Finney Boylan creates a dark-humored gothic mood reminiscent of the best of Flannery O’Connor. (SheBooks, 2014, 81 pages)

Whiskey, Etc. by Sherrie Flick
Flash fiction tends to be accompanied by the assumption that it’s easy to write. Dash off a few sentences, a handful of paragraphs, and a story miraculously appears. But the brevity can be deceptively hard. In this collection of “short (short) stories”, Pittsburgh author Sherrie Flick gives her reader enough details in a sentence — or a phrase — to make a story feel complete while still eliciting curiosity about what happens next or the backstory that led up to the situation. With succinct, tight sentences, Flick tells all that’s needed to know (His divorce settlement reads like an episode of Dallas), using food as simile (Snow covered the ground like a thick milkshake) and hooking the reader with more memorable opening lines than a frat boy. My full review, here.  (Queens Ferry Press, 2016, 224 pages)

This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart
Water defines life in Haven, an island shore community off the New Jersey coast. The residents, among them teenage Mira Birul, her mother, and brother, live among the shore’s natural beauty but know that with it comes the potential danger of storms. With their emergency kits and plans, they’re prepared — until the day they’re not. During a hurricane, everything that Mira knows is questioned as circumstances are altered. Mira must figure out how to reorder everything — or, if not, to figure out how to live and understand and accept her new reality. This Is the Story of You, Beth Kephart’s twenty-first book, uses extreme weather and the topography as metaphor for the major storms of life. It’s about the resilience inside everyone, regardless of age, physical capabilities, or resources. More of my review here. (Chronicle Books, 2016, 264 pages)

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Set in England, this decadent novella takes place in 1924 and centers on Jane Fairchild, a maid to the wealthy Niven family. They are friends with the Sheringhams, whose son Paul is engaged to marry Emma Hobday.  That small detail doesn’t stop Paul or Jane from having an affair. The entire story unfolds over a few hours, making this the perfect book to read over the same amount of time. In fact, I’d say that this should be required to be read in one sitting, as I did. It’s resplendent and luxurious, sexy and suspenseful, with hints of Virginia Woolf and reminders of Mrs. Dalloway.  I loved every word and every minute I spent immersed in this one. It’s also a tribute to the power of book bloggers because I would have never have known of this one if it wasn’t for JoAnn from Lakeside Musing’s enthusiastic review. (Knopf, 2016, 192 pages)

Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer
At 13, Madelyn Branch arrives in Reliance with her mother, Rebecca, who has answered an ad in the Matrimonial Times in hopes of a better life. But because Madelyn has a port-wine birthmark covering half of her face and continuing down one side of her body, Rebecca purposefully declines to mention Madelyn in her response to Mr. Lymon Dryfus, her future husband. Instead, she passes Madelyn off as her sister. Although Madelyn agreed to this deception, that doesn’t lessen her hurt and shame. Mary Volmer gives her reader more than a few characters to keep track of (but not too many that you get lost), several side stories that are connected, and a well-developed plot. Set in 1874, this historical fiction novel covers a lot of ground — women’s suffrage, reproductive rights, love and betrayal — all within the context of a fraught mother-daughter relationship. It’s a solid read that echoes the themes of a changing time. Read my full review here.  (Soho Press, 2016, 354 pages)

 

In an upcoming post, I’ll share my favorite nonfiction books of the year.