Book Review: Jim Henson: the Biography by Brian Jay Jones


Author: Brian Jay Jones
Title: Jim Henson
Narrator: Kirby Heyborne
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2013)
Summary/Review:

Brian Jay Jones writes a straightforward account of the life and work of Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets, and one of the most beloved figures in entertainment in the second-half of the 20th century.  I won’t go into a full summary, but here are five interesting things I learned from reading this biography:

  • Jim Henson’s career started when he was only 18 years old in 1954 when he had a show featuring puppet characters on local Washington, DC television called Sam and Friends, which aired for five minutes, twice per day.
  • Henson never considered himself as primarily a puppeteer and worked on projects such as experimental film, animation, and even an attempt to open a psychedelic nightclub.
  • Similarly, Henson fought against the perception of him being a children’s entertainer and his work for Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Show, and movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were all made to entertain all ages.
  • Henson’s wife Jane Nebel worked as a puppeteer on Sam and Friends but stepped down for a more domestic role when they had children.  Jim and Jane’s marriage was very strained by Jim’s dedication to his work and they were separated late in his life.  They never divorced and remained close friends despite the failure of the marriage.
  • Henson wanted to cast Sting in Labyrinth but his kids convinced him (correctly) that David Bowie would have more staying power.

This is an enjoyable and entertaining work of biography and worth reading if you love The Muppets and Henson’s other creations.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: When We Were Kings (1996) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: When We Were Kings
Release Date: October 25, 1996
Director: Leon Gast
Production Company: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
Synopsis:

On October 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman met in a heavyweight title bout in Kinshasa, Zaire, an event nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali, an Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champion in the 1960s, lost three prime years of his career after he refused to be conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War.  Meanwhile, Foreman, also an Olympic gold medalist, was younger with a strong punch and a history of overpowering wins over the top boxers of the era.

Holding the fight in Zaire was a historic choice as the event became a coming-out party for post colonial Africa.  In addition to the boxing match, which was viewed on tv by a record 1 billion people worldwide, there was a concert featuring top African musicians alongside African American stars like James Brown and B.B. King.  The fight itself is delayed after Foreman injures his eye in training, allowing everyone to spend more time in Zaire.

The documentary captures a fascinating intersection of sport, culture, civil rights, and politics.  There is a great amount of archival footage from the time, including Ali in awe of flying on an airplane with a an all-Black crew for the first time. In addition to the historic film and photographs, the film includes interviews with Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Spike Lee, Malik Bowens and Thomas Hauser who also provide narration for important events.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I was flying home from Great Britain in 1998 and watched this movie on the seatback television on Virgin Atlantic. I was so engrossed that the flight attendant chastised me to turn the screen off since the plane was approaching landing.  I later rewatched it on video so I could find out what happened at the end.

What Did I Remember?:

I think I remembered it pretty well.

What Did I Forget?:

It was less about forgetting things and more that in the intervening years I’ve learned more about Ali, and some of the musical artists and interviewees in the movie so things seemed more significant.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

You don’t have to care about boxing to like this movie.  This documentary captures the feel and excitement of a major event in the history of Africa and really the first big media event that focused on African people and African descendants as the key figures.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

The lack of interviews with Ali and Foreman at the time this movie was made is a big loss. Also, most of the people they did interview were old white men which is kind of jarring with the African diaspora theme.  The movie leans in favor of Ali, which is a bit of a shame since Foreman is a very interesting figure, one who would reinvent his public persona by the time this movie was released in the 1990s.  Throughout the movie, Ali leads Zaireans in the chant of “Ali Bomaye” which means “Ali, kill him.”  One of my favorite parts of the movie is a clip where Foreman says he’d not want people to chant “Foreman Bomaye” but instead “Foreman loves Africa.”

Is It a Classic?:

Yes. This is an all-time great documentary and sports film.

Rating: ****1/2

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with W:

  1. When Harry Met Sally…
  2. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
  3. Winged Migration
  4. The Wizard of Oz
  5. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

What is your favorite movie starting with W?  What is your guess for my X movie (Hint: my “X” movie will actually start with a number and involves a submarine)?  Let me know in the comments!

Classic Movie Review: The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1963)


Title: The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Release Date: October 2, 1964
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Production Company: Arco Film | Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France
Summary/Review:

Director Pier Paolo Pasolini was an atheist, homosexual, and Marxist, but took seriously Pope John XXIII’s invitation to dialogue with non-Catholic artists.  And after all, despite many Christians acting otherwise, the gospels (especially Matthew) tell a story of someone not unlike a Socialist revolutionary.  Pasolini used the techniques of Italian neorealism and cinema verite to film his retelling of the gospel.  And he cast ordinary farmers and working people, and even his own mother to star in the movie.  Jesus is played by Enrique Irazoqui, a Spanish economics student and communist organizer.  With olive skin, dark hair, and an impressive unibrow, this is not the the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus of Hollywood biblical epics.

The dialogue in the film is almost entirely taken directly from the gospel of Matthew.  It was filmed on location in southern Italy, with minimal effort towards creating sets and costumes of the Roman province of Judea 2000 years earlier.  In fact, I think the poverty and decrepitude of 1960s rural Italy is very effective for telling the story of Jesus.

This is a long movie, but is artfully done with amazing composition in every shot.  I ended up watching it in bits and pieces over several days which worked fine since the gospel is episodic by nature.  But I’m sure this movie could also be enjoyed in a single setting.  Either way it’s more of a movie to let wash over you and to feel a familiar story in a new way. It’s also interesting that this is clearly a modernist take on telling the Christ story on film, but so very different from Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell which were a decade away (maybe they’re postmodern?).

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King


Author: Maxwell King
Title: The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers
Narrator: LeVar Burton
Publication Info: Oasis Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

I know a bit about the life of Fred Rogers from watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor and reading articles about him.  But I couldn’t resist listening to the first book-length biography of Mr. Rogers narrated by another PBS hero, LeVar Burton.  King does a good job of getting a clear picture of Rogers’ background, starting from childhood.

His family was wealthy, which allowed Rogers the opportunities to try his new ideas, but his parents’ philanthropy and noblesse oblige also contributed to his humility and simple lifestyle.  Rogers was also affected by instances of childhood bullying and the sense that he could find support in the neighborhood of his hometown of Latrobe, PA.

As a young man, Rogers learned television production and studied for the ministry, with the unorthodox plan of putting both callings toward educating children.  The big question of this book is whether the Mister Rogers we see on tv represents the real person, with the unanimous response of “yes” from people who know him.  So this book won’t expose any “dark secrets” but it is a very good glimpse into how a wonderful man formed his philosophy for teaching children.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Reviews: Cartoon County by Cullen Murphy


Author: Cullen Murphy
Title: Cartoon County: My Father and His Friends in the Golden Age of Make-Believe
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
Previously Read By the Same Author: Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage (with William Rathje)
Summary/Review:

Cartoon County is a memoir/biography/history by Cullen Murphy of the comic strip cartoonists and illustrators who lived and worked in Fairfield County, Connecticut in the post-World War II era. The book focuses on his father, John Cullen Murphy, who illustrated the comic strip Big Ben Bolt and took over Prince Valiant from its creator Hal Foster in the 1970s.

I feel destined to read this book, primarily because I grew up loving newspaper comics and fascinated by their history (although these days I exclusively read the comics’ mockery blog, Comics Curmudgeon). I also grew up in Fairfield County myself, and as a kid was proud that Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker lived there. My father took us to the Museum of Cartoon Art in a castle-like house that Walker opened in nearby Port Chester, NY.  The author of this book was even of the most famous alumni of my high school – along with Broadway actor David Carroll, baseball player Tim Teufel, and publicist Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy – and a customized panel of Prince Valiant graced our school’s trophy case.

Murphy writes about growing up in a community of comics illustrators of the “Connecticut School” where his father and the other fathers he knew did not join the crowds of men in gray flannel suit taking the commuter rail to New York City.  Many of these men (and for the most part, the comics was a man’s trade) came of age during World War II where they used their artistic talents in their military service.  After the war, Connecticut was an affordable place where they could get homes with studio space near the publishing houses of New York (it’s alarming to think that Fairfield County was ever affordable!). These cartoonists include Mort Walker, Jerry Dumas, Stan Drake, Dik Browne, Ernie Bushmiller, Milton Caniff, and Crockett Johnson, among many others.  The School included daily comic strip cartoonists, New Yorker cartoonists, editorial cartoonists, and magazine illustrators.

The book covers a lot of territory.  First, it’s a personal memoir of Murphy’s father, who had the practice of using a Polaroid camera to photograph himself (and any family members or friends in the vicinity) in various poses to use as models for his illustrations. Starting in the 1970s, Murphy would work with his father as the writer of Prince Valiant.

Second, it’s a broader history of the Connecticut School cartoonists who were his father’s friends and colleagues. Murphy details their experiences in WWII, settling in Connecticut after the war, and the interplay between their comics.  Events like Look Day at the New Yorker (the one day each week when cartoonists gathered in New York to show their gags to the magazine’s editors) and National Cartoonists Society brought together cartoonists for business with a heavy side of socialization. The men came together for parties and games of golf (which seems to be the origin of the all-too-many golf gags in newspaper comics) as well.

Finally, the book is a tribute to newspaper comics as a unique American art form of the 20th century.  Murphy has some interesting observations on the cartoonists.  While his father was a strong Republican, most of the cartoonists were politically liberal and lived lives of noncomformity for their time. Sentaro Este Kefauver conducted a congressional investigation of the comics industry in which Pogo creator Walt Kelly declared that being a “screwball” was a badge of honor for cartoonists. The comics were innovative for time, and I learned about a short-lived strip of the 1960s called Sam’s Strip (predecessor to Sam & Silo), which Jerry Dumas created as post-modern, metatextual experiment that left comics readers scratching their heads. And yet newspaper comics on the whole tended to be conservative, and as the generation of cartoonists died (many passing on the legacy strips to their children and grandchildren) and newspapers themselves went into decline, comics failed to adapt to the new reality. Murphy mourns the past but still sees hope in the underappreciated work of graphic novels.

This books is richly illustrated with comics panels, original works of art, and photographs.  It’s a great way to dip one’s toe into a time and place when kids gleefully anticipated the Sunday papers wrapped in the full-color comics section.  It tells the story of the men who brought this joy and some of the behind the scenes secrets of their craft.

Recommended books:

  • Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman by Patrick McDonnell
  • Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist by Chuck Jones
  • The Mad World of William M. Gaines by Frank Jacobs

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


Author: Steven Johnson
Title: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Narrator: Alan Sklar
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: [United States] : Tantor Media, Inc., 2006
Summary/Review:

This book explores the ideas of urbanism, epidemiology, and social networks through the lens of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in the Soho district of London.  Dr. John Snow, with the help of Reverend Henry Whitehead, created a map of where people infected with cholera lived and drew their water to trace the infection to a water pump on Broad Street.  That Snow and Whitehead knew the neighborhood and its people well proved advantageous in creating the connections needed to document the spread of disease. Snow also had to fight an uphill battle against the prevailing scientific belief that diseases like cholera were spread through the air, known as the miasma theory.

Johnson details how the evolutionary response to putrefaction and vile odors made such beliefs plausible, but practices such as “cleaning up” the city by deliberately washing waste into the water inadvertently caused infections to increase.  Johnson also depicts the urban environment as a unique battleground for humans and microorganisms.  All in all this is a fascinating account of an historic account, with broader implications for how we live today and into the future.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar


Author: Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Title: Never caught : the Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
Narrator: Robin Miles
Publication Info: [New York] : Simon & Schuster Audio, [2017]
Summary/Review:

Ona Judge was a woman born into slavery around 1773 at Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.  Mount Vernon is, of course, famous as the home of George Washington, soon to be commander of the Continental Army and later the first President of the United States.  Ona would become lady’s maid to Martha’s Washington in her mid-teens, and in that role would travel with the Washington to the new United States’ capital in New York City, and then to Philadelphia when the capital shifted there in 1790.

Living in Philadelphia provided Judge with new opportunities, including free time while Mrs. Washington was entertaining, and even the opportunity to attend the theatre.  More importantly she became acquainted with Philadelphia’s growing free Black community and abolitionists. Judge’s legal status was in question due to Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Act which provided that slaves brought into the state by new residents from out of state would be eligible for emancipation after six months.  It was an open question of whether this law applied to the President, but nevertheless, the Washingtons arranged to rotate their slave staff back to Mount Vernon every six months.

In 1796, Washington announced he would not run for reelection and Martha Washington informed judge she would be given as a wedding gift to her granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis Law.  Faced an uncertain future Judge made the decision to run away.  Abolitionists put Judge on a ship to Portsmouth, NH where she attempted to make a new life for herself as a free person.  Washington had a local customs officer, and later his nephew, attempt to capture Judge but in both cases the growing abolition sentiment meant that she couldn’t be captured without drawing unwanted publicity to Washington.

Washington freed many of his slaves in his will when he died in 1799.  Judge, however, was legally considered still a slave of Martha Washington, and even after Martha’s death in 1802, Judge’s ownership status reverted to the Custis estate.  Judge lived until 1848, enjoying her freedom, but always a fugitive.  Despite freedom, her life was still full of struggle.  She married a free black sailor, Jack Staines, in 1797, but he died in 1803, and Ona Judge Staines would also outlive her three children.

Ona Judge Staines’ story is drawn from interviews she gave to abolitionist newspapers in the 1840s.  But as with many stories of enslaved African Americans, Dunbar has to piece together the history from sources of the white masters, such as the papers of the Washingtons and runaway slave ads.  It’s a compelling narrative, and one that focuses on the often overlooked nature of 18th-century slavery (compared with the 19th-slavery), the emergence of abolitionism, and popular conception of someone like Washington who represents liberty to so many Americans, but held Ona Judge and many others in perpetual bondage.

Recommended books:

  • Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800.
    by Leland Ferguson
  • The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia by Mechal Sobel
  • North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 by Leon F. Litwack
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
  • Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Dutch Girlby Robert Matzen


Author: Robert Matzen
Title: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II
Narrator: Tavia Gilbert
Publication Info: Blackstone Pub (2019)
Summary/Review:

The most famous story of Netherlands during World War II is, of course, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Hepburn and Frank were nearly identical in age, born just a month apart in 1929, and their narratives of the war share some similarities.  Nevertheless, Hepburn had a privileged position and not being Jewish didn’t suffer anywhere near the level of persecution, and thus survived the war.  Otto Frank actually requested that Hepburn play the role of his daughter in the 1959 film adaptation of the diary, but she demurred, both because she was too old for the part and because she would not be able to revisit the horrors of the war.

A lot of the narrative in this book focuses on people in Audrey Hepburn’s extended family and friends in family,  or just general history of Netherlands during the war.  Obviously these types of details add context, but their prominence in the book seem to indicate that Matzen had very little material on Hepburn herself to work with.  He also overuses the practice of writing what people may have been thinking in reaction to certain invents that relies more on his (informed) imagination than actual historical records. All in all, this book is an interesting glimpse into events in Netherlands during German occupation, but is less effective as a biography of Audrey Hepburn.

Recommended books:

Rating: **

Book Review: The Ultimate Entrepreneur by Glen Rifkin and George Harrar


Author: Glen Rifkin and George Harrar
Title: The Ultimate Entrepreneur
Publication Info: Rocklin, CA : Prima Pub., c1990.
Summary/Review:

This is a book I read for research at work.  It is part biography, part business management book focusing on the career of Ken Olsen, the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC).  Digital was a post-WWII start-up that took advantage of new computing technology from MIT and the military and brought it to the commercial market.  DEC basically invented the minicomputer in the 1960s.  Minicomputers are huge compared to microcomputers (aka – personal computers), about the size of a refrigerator, but they provided users with real-time interactive capabilities they could not get with the massive IBM mainframes.  DEC’s minicomputers sold like hot cakes to corporate and research clients, and by the 1980s the company was the second largest computer company after IBM.  Olsen promoted participatory management at the company which made a lot of engineers loyal to the company because of the creative freedom, although working at DEC also involved heated arguments to defend one’s ideas.  It was a Massachusetts company, part of the Route 128 Tech Corridor that was the center of the computing industry before Silicon Valley took over.  Sadly, Digital didn’t survive the transition to personal computers but this interesting book tells of an innovative company that made great products through unique management strategies.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Hellraisers by Robert Sellers


Author: Robert Sellers
TitleHellraisers
Illustrator: JAKe
Publication Info: London : SelfMadeHero, 2011.
Summary/Review:

This graphic biography tells the exploits of the Irish & British actors Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, and Peter O’Toole.  I’ve long admired the work of Harris and O’Toole, and familiar with Burton by reputation, but Reed was new to me.  What they have in common is that they were part of new class of post World War II actors who were gritty and real, and lived a wild and hardscabble life off the screen and stage.  The book focuses on the legendary exploits of the quartet’s drinking and partying but also their feelings of inadequacy and failed relationships.  It’s common to romanticize their wild lives, but the book does not shy away from the harm they caused, the violence, the sexual harrasment, and general arrogance. Cleverly, the author ties their stories together by having the Burton, Harris, Reed, and O’Toole appear as ghosts to a character named Martin who is drinking his life away. The four hellraiser actors are able to help Martin to focus on his life and family. Oddly, when I checked this book out, the librarian told me he’d read the book and said it was “good, clean fun.” I’d say it’s anything but, a cautionary tale more than anything else.  Burton, Harris, Reed, and O’Toole lived lives of reckless abandon so that you don’t have to.

Rating: ***1/2