Sunday, January 25, 2009

Street Gang by Michael Davis

"If Sesame Street is the most successful show on television, it is also the most analyzed, criticized, evaluated, debated, debunked, championed, viewed with alarm, pointed to with pride, interpreted, misinterpreted, and overinterpreted media event since William Randolph Hearst declared war on Spain:---Ron Powers, television critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, 1970 (one year into the life of "Sesame Street").

Conceived in 1965 by television producer Joan Cooney and experimental psychologist Lloyd Morrisett, and born in 1969, "Sesame Street" became an overnight success after four years of gestation.

In Street Gang, Michael Davis takes us through the entire history of "Sesame Street". From research into how children watch television and learn (short segments, "jingles", colors, animation) to the decision to have Sesame Street, itself, an inner city street, to funding, to hiring everybody both in front of and behind the cameras.

Davis includes small biographies on each of the players as they arrive on the scene. The reader gets to know "Gordon and Susan" (Matt Robinson/Roscoe Orman and Loretta Long), Jim Henson and Frank Oz, Joe Raposo and Jon Stone, and countless other professionals and entertainers who strove to make "Sesame Street" the most innovative children's program on television yet.

Street Gang also gives a bit of background on earlier children's programming..."The Howdy Doody Show", "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" and, possibly most importantly, "Captain Kangaroo".

Writers and producers (including Jon Stone) from "Captain Kangaroo" were involved in the development and production of "Sesame Street". The character of Mr. Hooper (portrayed by Will Lee) was created as homage to Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo). Although, reading through Street Gang, one would think it was actually Oscar the Grouch (brought to life by Caroll Spinney) who was meant to mirror Keeshan.

This is probably the most comprehensive book you will ever read about any television show. Yet, far from being a dry tome, author Michael Davis keeps Street Gang flowing (much like "Sesame Street", itself) with quick moving scenes, so the reader is never bogged down in the details that could easily become tiresome, such as the financial and political wranglings in creating and keeping this show on the air. Davis gives us just enough at just the right time to keep the story flowing.

If you have any doubt about whether you should read Street Gang, pick it up, read the prologue...and then enjoy the rest of the book.

Title: Street Gang
Author: Michael Davis
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0-670-019960

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The James Boys by Richard Liebmann-Smith

Imagine the possibilities, if the intellectual Henry and William James of the east, were brothers to the villainous Frank and Jesse James of the west.
This is the premise of Richard Liebmann-Smith's farcical book The James Boys.

Working from the premise that the two youngest brothers of the east coast James family did not, in fact, die fighting in the civil war, but instead deserted, taking on the names Frank and Jesse and disappearing into the wild west, Liebmann-Smith weaves these two families together with the help of a free spirited young woman by the name of Elena Hite.

While on a return trip from a book tour, Henry James makes the acquaintance of Ms. Hite only to have their flirtations interrupted by the arrival of Jesse James, in the midst of robbing this very train. To Henry's surprise, he not only learns that his brothers are, indeed alive, but are notorious and about to take him on the ride of his life.

As an alternate history, The James Boys is a lot of fun. Liebmann-Smith takes these characters on a fascinating ride through 19th century America and into Paris at the height of it's artistic era. Introducing many historical figures, seamlessly, throughout the story.

Unfortunately, the seams not only show, but rip wide open when the author insists on noting actual biographical works, as he does throughout the book. This technique works fine in the introduction, before the story begins. And it works well again in the epilogue, once the story has ended. But, within the story itself, this practice only distracts the reader and sends one's mind into wondering, among the unfamiliar names, who is and isn't real.

This is Richard Liebmann-Smith's first novel and, even with this critique, I look forward to his writing another. I think he just tried to do more than was needed with this one. The idea, itself, is original and well written enough without the extra "gimmick" of noting his research.

Title: The James Boys
Author: Richard Liebmann-Smith
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-0-345047078-2

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Economist Book of Obituaries by Keith Colquhoun and Ann Wroe

"A bad man in Africa"
"A brain as well as a body"
"A possible victim of alien abduction"
"A Beatle"

These are among the lives chronicled in The Economist Book of Obituaries.

Unlike most newspapers, where the job of obituary writer is given to rookies or "burnt out" reporters, Keith Colquhoun and Ann Wroe, of The Economist have turned this position into a job for artists, and, as a result, are highly respected journalists in their field.

As Ms Wroe explains in her introduction, obit writers in Great Britain began a bit of a rivalry in their reporting in the late 1980's with Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd of the Daily Telegraph and James Fergusson of the Independent.

No longer is the obituary a solemn rundown of how one died, who they were "survived by" and a stale report of careers and volunteerism.

The obits of The Economist are literary biographies. Rarely is the "cause of death" even mentioned in these pieces. The focus, instead, is on the over-all mark that each subject has left on the world. Be it, good or bad. But never, indifferent.

Colquhoun and Wroe have the daunting task of choosing only one subject each week to honor in the final pages of this publication. Though, they sometimes "cheat". Most creatively, in the combined obit of Robert Brooks ("Hooters") and Mickey Spillane told in the pulp narrative voice of a Mike Hammer mystery.

Another challenge to their creativity is selecting a mix of subjects. Among the 200 life stories in this book, you will find men and women from all over the globe. Politicians, artists, psychics, cooks, authors, entertainers, scientists and a parrot in addition to many, many people you've never heard of but whose lives will fascinate you.

These works are creative, honest, amusing and, yes, sometimes, opinionated.

Each entry is two pages (four columns) long, making this an excellent "bathroom reader".

However, if you should choose to read in bed, just be careful that you don't fall asleep with this book in your hands. At about 3 pounds, this is an incredibly heavy book. If it hits you in the head when your arms relax, you could be The Economists next subject...

Title: The Economist Book of Obituaries
Author: Keith Colquhoun and Ann Wroe
Publisher: Bloomberg Press
ISBN: 978-1-57660-326-0