Harpo Speaks!

book cover to harpo speaks, the autobiography of Harpo Marx

Harpo Speaks is the autobiography of Adolph (Harpo) Marx

Harpo Speaks!
1962

I’m writing this review on-purpose for a book I read by accident.

I received “Harpo Speaks” as a Christmas present in 2012. It looked okay, but nothing I’d want to write home to mother about. So it went into my stack to be read one day.

A few days ago I was cleaning the bedroom and went to move parts of my book stack. I picked up the book and thought I’d read a few pages. Why was this in my stack?

I found it to be such an enjoyable book that I couldn’t put it down. I read the whole thing in a day or two.

Harpo Speaks is a nice conversationally-written story of the life of Harpo Marx. If you’ve ever seen a Marx Brothers movie, you’ll know Harpo. He’s the silent one who’s the clown. The title of the book then is a bit of a pun: Harpo never spoke in any public event. Now you can hear what he had to say.

I think the book works whether you are a fan of the Marx Brothers or not. I’m not much of a fan. After reading the book I went back and watched a couple of their movies. It was okay comedy, but it didn’t hugely impress me.

So it’s not a fan book. Instead, it’s a story of a kid growing up in New York around the year 1900. What was the city like? What was it like being a kid?

I found this fascinating. From there we move into what it was like growing up poor in a family where the mother was convinced that they were all going to be in show business. Even though they weren’t.

This is a classic “rags to riches” story, and Harpo and his ghost writer do it up very nicely. I think I would have been happy with the book just like that, but the themes kept coming, each of them executed professionally.

There’s a great section on how the brothers slowly crafted their act, using the audience as a live gauge of what worked and what didn’t. (Great lessons for startups there). Then, once they started hitting it off, Harpo, a second-grade dropout, somehow fell into a band of literary and intellectual leaders in the 1920s. Amazing stories from what the 20s were like for those folks who were rich and smart.

I found this such an oddball turn that I refused to believe it, going to Google to verify key parts of the book.

We get a great overview of what being famous is like. After Harpo moves to Los Angeles, he became quite the social butterfly, and the book has lots of vignettes of him meeting more famous people and how his life went. Finally, the last part is about his marriage and kids. It ends with him in the early 1960s. His kids are almost grown, he is in his 60s, and suffering recurring heart problems. (He died just a short time after the book was published)

So it’s really his entire life.

This was a great book. I would classify it as a history book. Lots of interesting insights into how things used to be. If you like reading about famous people, historical events, and how one person makes it big against all odds, you’ll like this book. Wonderful quick read.

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    Wartime

    cover picture of the book wartime by Paul Fussell

    Understanding and behavior in the second world war

    Wartime is a history book unlike any other history book I’ve read. It’s about World War II, but it’s not about battles, or strategies, or famous generals, or heroic or tragic narratives. Instead it’s about how things were: how people acted, what their opinions were, what they read and what they sang. It’s a “social history” — an overview of the lives that soldiers and civilians lived. In this way I found it a much more personally meaningful book than many of these other types of books.

    Fussell covers every topic imaginable. Things like condom usage and sex, drinking, popular magazines, rationing, listening to the radio, the horrors of combat. Yes, at times he does get a bit tedious: he seemed to go on and on at length about the WWII-era magazine “Horizons”, and he (to me at least) also seems to be a bit of a snob.

    My opinion of the overall tone at times was this: old cranky academic surveying the social landscape of the war.

    But for those flaws, it still was a very good book. It was filled with great anecdotes and pieces of trivia. Many times I got to read how people lived through it in their own words. For the first time I started to feel that I knew what it was like to have lived through the war, instead of just being able to recount various stories about the conflict.

    More importantly, it allowed me a better view of some of the things people complain about today, like the allied fire-bombing of Dresden or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. It’s been more than 70 years, and all of the people who participated in these events are now gone. If we are to understand the reasons for the things they did, we need to read more books like Wartime.

    So if you have a bit of patience, this is a book that will make you think about important things. The Second World War was an incredible event that left lasting scars on humanity. Wartime is highly recommended.

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