Saturday, June 7, 2008

Book Review: "A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein" by Lisa Rogak

Always admiring of famous geniuses in history, I enjoy occasionally reading about the men and women who do great things and create a legacy that lasts long after they're gone. So when I saw "A Boy Named Shel" by Lisa Rogak in the library, I just had to check it out. Silverstein's poems and drawings were always a favorite of mine growing up, but I really knew nothing about him. Now I probably know more than I ever wanted, having read this detailed story of his life.

Perhaps I always had the hunch that, being a children's book writer, Shel Silverstein would have been a classic "kids' kinda guy". You know... the guy who's always running, laughing, and playing with kids, bubbly and outgoing. Well, sometimes hunches are wrong.

In a nutshell, Silverstein was a bit of an enigma. He grew up with an angry father and was very withdrawn, relying mostly on the comfort of reading and drawing, which never pleased his dad, though his mom was very supportive of him doing what he wanted. As he grew up, he worked hard at drawing and eventually served in the Navy as a traveling cartoon artist overseas, and later became a cartoonist for Playboy, which was just the rocketship he needed to travel to the stars.

His career skyrocketed in all different directions, having made his name in cartooning, children's books, country music writing, playwriting, and more. I never really realized the breadth of work he had done, but this book surely gave a comprehensive overview of all that he did. And it also gave much insight into his personal life which really caught me offguard, quite frankly.

In six words, this book portrayed Shel Silverstein as a: woman wooer, world wanderer, and workaholic writer.

Never one to settle down, Shel became a master at reeling-in women (a la Austin Powers, perhaps), and managing to move on after short periods of time of being with them, yet staying friendly with many of them over the years. He hit it off with jaw-dropping Playmates and was always on the prowl for new women wherever he went. He never married, but did have two kids with two different mothers. Unfortunately his first child, his daughter Shoshanna, died tragically at a young age. And while he did love his kids, he didn't seem to spend a whole lot of time with them, which kind of surprised me.

Never one to settle down, Shel lived and traveled all over the world, having lived in Chicago (where he was born), New York, San Francisco, Key West, Martha's Vineyard, etc. Thanks to the marvel of air travel, he would up and leave at the spur of the moment and fly somewhere else whenever he wanted. He would even up and leave in the middle of a conversation if it became boring. He just kept on moving and never collected dust.

Never one to settle down, Shel would write at all hours of the day, jotting notes or drawings on whatever he had nearby, be it a cocktail napkin, a notepad that he always carried, or his shirt sleeves. Ideas seemed to pop out of his head and he would write them down in a flash. He also seemed really intense with his work and never took a day off from creating SOMEthing. And his body of work shows it. Not only that, but he would constantly try new creative outlets, be it learning a new intstrument, teaching himself a different type of writing, or something entirely different. His mind was restless.

These traits were repeated over and over again in this biography to the point of becoming trite. He seemed like an incredibly interesting fellow and a one-in-a-million genius at what he did. But definitely not the person I had pictured in my mind. But ultimately, his works became worldwide gold, though to him fame was never important and he shunned the limelight whenever he could.

If you enjoy reading biographies, this one is well put together and quite in-depth, despite the fact of not having much to work with in terms of interviews of Shel. This is becasue he was very elusive and rarely talked to the media. Rogak paints a vivid picture of Shel's life, which is commendable, though by the end I found myself saying "Okay, I get it already" about his life. This is not necessarily a knock on the writer, but more on the fact that his life was such a revolving cycle, and there also wasn't a lot to work from, just quotes from other people. (And that was a challenge as well because there were SO many people that he became involved with over the years, that it was difficult to remember which person was which and what he or she had in connection with Shel whenever someone else was quoted.)

Having read biographies of many celebrities and historic figures, ranging from Andy Kaufman to Ben Franklin to P.T. Barnum, Silverstein most definitely fits into the category of a fast-moving, never-stopping, genius at work. He was like a speeding train that everybody else just tried to catch up with. And few, if any, really could.

No comments: