Month: January 2011

Boy on the Moon

Spin: The Story of Michael Jackson
By Sherry O’Keefe
(Morgan Reynolds Publishing, Greensboro, North Carolina, 2011, $28.95)

 Worshipped, reviled, ridiculed, Michael Jackson inspired strong emotions. During his last two decades, his controversial personal life attracted more attention than his music. Was Jacko a pedophile or just a naïve eccentric? In Spin: The Story of Michael Jackson, Sherry O’Keefe presents the entertainer as a childlike man who both craved and hated fame, manipulated the media and felt threatened by its depiction of him.

O’Keefe is strongest when she discusses Jackson’s painful beginnings and its consequences for his later life. His father Joseph Jackson saw a goldmine in his talented children. As the Jackson 5, Michael and four of his older brothers quickly won acclaim. However, life on the road meant the end of Michael’s childhood. Compelled to perform at bars and strip clubs, Jackson also saw his father cheat on his mother – and Joseph beat his sons when they didn’t meet his high expectations. When Michael Jackson achieved success as a solo act, he set about reclaiming the childhood he never had, complete with exotic pets, a personal amusement park, and play dates. His best friends were children and fellow child stars, including Jane Fonda and Elizabeth Taylor. Although he demanded the title “King of Pop” and fed the press stories about his eccentric behavior, he was terrified of fans and rarely gave interviews.

To some extent, O’Keefe also explores Jackson’s less savory side. She reveals how he purchased the rights to other artists’ music, which nearly ended his friendship with Paul McCartney. When his sister Janet attained stardom in the mid-eighties, he was so threatened by her success that he refused to dance in front of he. He was terrified she would copy his dance moves. And although O’Keefe believes in Jackson’s natural talent, she admits his limitations. “For Michael, music was more about commercial success than about artistic expression,” she writes. “He measured his success by the number of albums sold, the number of sold-out concerts on tour, and by the number of hit singles.” However, although O’Keefe touches on Jackson’s oddness, she doesn’t contextualize his most bizarre behavior. Anxious to have his children all to himself, he asked second wife Debbie Rowe to sign away her custody rights to their two children. All three of his children bear his name (Prince Michael, Paris Katherine Michael, and Prince Michael II), and he compelled all three to wear masks in public. O’Keefe tries to be matter-of-fact, even understanding, about Jackson’s parenting decisions, but even sympathetic readers may be disgusted by the star’s tendency to see his children as extensions of himself.

Magazines, newspapers, tabloids, and the web are filled with information and speculation about the late Michael Jackson. In Spin, Sherry O’Keefe shows how a scared little boy became a frightened man.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Batty about Science

The Bat Scientists
By Mary Kay Carson
Photography by Tom Uhlman
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2010, $18.99)

The Bat Scientists is not exactly a biography: rather, it is a profile of five scientists – and the much misunderstood animals they study. In addition to exploring the day-to-day work of bat biologists, author Mary Kay Carson discusses bats’ habits and ecological roles, debunking many myths in the process. Tom Uhlman’s breathtaking photos of individual bats, bat colonies, and bat flight allow readers to marvel at bats alongside researchers.

 Braving beetles, bad smells, and bat feces, Carson and Uhlman follow scientists into caves and under bridges. The researchers discuss how their childhood passion for nature led them to bat biology, but Carson and her subjects are more interested in discussing their present work than their career path. Through Carson, readers meet field researcher Merlin Tuttle, Barbara French, who rehabilitates orphaned and injured bats, cave biologist Jim Kennedy, Mylea Bayless, who researches bat dwellings, and ecologist Liz Braun de Torrez. Each bring a different perspective to the study of bats. Through these experts, kids learn about bat conservation efforts and the tiny mammals’ astounding abilities, including echolocation and insect control. (A single little brown bat can consume up to 1000 mosquitoes in an hour.)

Near the end of the book, Carson lists some simple ways children can help individual bats and the species as a whole. By concluding on this note, she makes the book as much about bats and kids as it is about bat experts. A conservationist, she suggests implicitly, is anyone who cares enough to get involved. Let’s hope a new generation of biologists heeds her call.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Queen of the Scene

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing
By Ann Angel
(Amulet Books, New York, 2010, $19.95)

Janis Joplin, like contemporaries Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, died of an overdose at twenty-seven. For that reason, it’s easy to dismiss her as a casualty of the sixties. But in Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing, Ann Angel breathes life into the rock legend. Refusing to glamorize or condemn Joplin’s drug use, Angel instead explores the conflicts and personality traits that propelled the artist toward excess and stardom.

 In the 1950s, attending high school in Texas was tough – particularly if you supported integration, had friends of the opposite sex, and grappled with acne and frizzy hair. All of the above was true of teenage Janis Joplin, so she developed a reputation for being “loose” and endured bullying from her classmates. After graduation, Joplin vacillated between rebellion and conformity. She embraced bohemia in California and Greenwich Village, where she had a dangerous flirtation with speed, but she also tried working full time and attending college. Although she longed for domesticity and social acceptance, she wanted the free life of a musician. Eventually, her love of performing won out, and she moved to San Francisco to begin her musical career in earnest. There, her earthy voice and powerful stage presence quickly won her a following. Joplin found fame – and alcohol and heroin – irresistible. She cultivated a wild, colorful persona and sought admiration from fans, groupies, and lovers.

Angel discusses Joplin’s many contradictions. Despite her drinking and drug use, Joplin was a perfectionist about her music.  Joplin’s freewheeling lifestyle shocked her parents, but she enjoyed a loving relationship with them and desperately wanted their approval. In a moving introduction, friend and bandmate Sam Andrew describes how Joplin’s outspoken, confident personality belied her insecurity: “She was the Queen of the Scene and the chambermaid, simultaneously.”

Beautifully designed, with sixties-inspired swirls and photos of Joplin and fellow sixties icons, Janis Joplin is an excellent introduction to the artist’s life and work. Today, when bullying is a household word – and popular music has become increasingly banal – Joplin’s story should resonate with many teens. So should her heartbreaking, earthshaking, life-affirming voice.