My Ideal Bookshelf book review

May 12, 2015

Although I spend a large proportion of my life reading from (and writing on) screens, I am old enough to believe that books should have physical form. I delight in a well-printed book and have collected … well, let’s just say that I have somewhat more than I need but not nearly as many as I want.

One of the most charming books I have found in years is “My Ideal Bookshelf”, a coffee table book of paintings of “ideal books” selected by a mixed set of 100 cultural figures, from Hugh Acheson to Jonathan Zittrain.

“My Ideal Bookshelf” does everything a coffee table book should do: encourage you to pick it up and browse, as well as delight, entertain and stimulate. The paintings (book cover below) by artist Jane Mount are a special delight: clever, slightly quirky, colourful, friendly, warm, clear and inviting. The text – edits of interviews with the 100 contributors – by Thessaly La Force contains enough content to be interesting, but easy to read in a couple of minutes.

Contributor Malcolm Gladwell (page 75) captures my attitude towards books:

I’ve probably acquired 150 books just for this project. I haven’t read all of them, and I won’t. Some of them I’ll just look at. But that’s the fun part. It’s an excuse to go on Amazon. The problem is, of course, that eventually you have to stop yourself. Otherwise you’ll collect books forever. But these books are markers for ideas that I’m interested in. That’s why it’s so important to have physical books. When I see my bookshelf expanding, it gives me the illusion that my brain is expanding, too.

Like all good books, “My Ideal Bookshelf” also stimulates the reader to go further. I first jumped to my favourite authors and personalities to see what they placed on their bookshelves: film director Judd Apatow (Bellow’s “Seize The Day”, Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life”), writer Michael Chabon (“Dune” by Frank Herbert, “Gravity’s Rainbow”, along with works by Chandler, Cormac McCarthy, David Mitchell, Barthelme, Cheever, Joyce and Melville), Jennifer Egan (Doris Lessing’s “Golden Notebook” and works by Jane Austin, George Eliot, Emile Zola and Edith Wharton), James Franco (Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Williams, Albee, Melville, Faulkner, Nabakov, Kerouac, Steinbeck and Joyce), Malcolm Gladwell (a set of crime books, his current obsession), Lev Grossman (T.H. White, C.S. Lewis), Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Lethem (Thurber, Calvino and Leonard Cohen), thriller writer James Patterson (a truly eclectic list), African-American author Ishmael Reed (who I once studied with), humourist David Sedaris (three by Tobias Wolff and two by Richard Yates) and Ayelet Waldman.

What a great set of insights as to what has shaped their thinking. What’s next for me? Tracking down many of their favourite books, of course.

“My Ideal Bookshelf” was published by Little Brown in November 2012, and is still in print. Artist Jane Mount also accepts commissions to paint your own “ideal bookshelf”, and sells a range of prints. Their website also lists all contributors and their books, with links to the Amazon pages: a lifetime of reading recommendations at your fingertips.

My Ideal Bookshelf cover high resBack in September 2014, I made a list of ten books that “impacted me”.  Perhaps not quite my “ideal bookshelf”, but a good start.  You can read the list here.


Books that made an impact

September 13, 2014

Not long ago, I was “challenged” on Facebook (simultaneously from Israel and Washington, D.C.) to list ten books that have impacted me in some way, with the following rules: only take a few minutes to pick the books, they don’t need to be great works of literature, but books that have stayed with you. So here’s my book list. It’s not chronological, just the order that they came to me.

“A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway: I adored Hemingway when I was in high school. Spare, muscular prose, very “male”. But yet “A Farewell to Arms” is terribly romantic. I remember this as his best.

“The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand: Ayn Rand is, admittedly, one of the darling authors of the far libertarian right. This 1943 best-seller is about an architect, Howard Roark, and his striving to express his individualism. Dynamite stuff when you are 17.

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt: Probably the best American college “campus” novel I have read. Neatly captures life at a school (Bennington in Vermont, where I visited once, so I could picture the setting), but adds an intellectual mystery thriller. Great prose, highly engaging, strong characters. I envy people who have not read it already: an experience awaits.

“The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs: I am one of many for whom Jane Jacobs is an icon. This 1961 polemic attacks the excesses of urban renewal, and voices the joys of mixed neighbourhoods such as New York City’s Greenwich Village. I read it in my first year of graduate urban planning study at UC Berkeley and will never forget it. Do you think Jane Jacobs is outdated? No way, There’s a fascinating current literature analysing her still.

“Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard is also a UC Berkeley revelation, assigned in a design social factors course by my then teacher and mentor Clare Cooper-Marcus, a landscape architecture professor of uncommon ability, insight and depth. I still have my original copy; it sits about two meters from where I write. What is this book? An poetic essay on nature or a spiritual autobiography? Both and more. The subtitle is “a mystical excursion into the natural world.” It is.

“Flicker” by Theodore Roszak is, genuinely, one of the creepiest books I have read. Roszak is a historian, sociologist and a philosopher who taught at Cal State Hayward. He is best-known for his “The Making of a Counterculture”, but he clearly loved film – thus this book. This mystery – loosely based on the life of film critic Pauline Kael – is, thrillingly, back in print. Unbeatable.

“Stop-Time” by Pat Conroy is one of those novels you read at age 19 and never forget. I did and I have not. It’s sitting on my bedside table for a re-read right now.

“Goodbye Columbus” by Philip Roth has influenced me in more ways than I can count. I am happy to say that I was an early predictor of Roth’s later success, based on this book. I adored “Goodbye Columbus”, and I equally adored the 1969 movie version starring Ali McGraw and Richard Benjamin. Who else has captured suburban American Jewish life better than Roth? Like Woody Allen in film, Roth has covered so much territory that almost every American-Jewish author since gets compared to him. This is his first book, and although possibly not his best, it is one of his most autobiographical.  Here’s more of what I have to say about Roth’s books and influence.

“An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” by Neal Gabler: Some books set you on a twenty year quest. This one did for me. This is, in essence, a “group biography” of early Hollywood Jewish moguls who started film studios. I used Gabler’s thesis for years in my lectures on American Jewish film history, and it has underpinned my film reviewing for the “Australian Jewish News” for more than 25 years.

“The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” by Malcolm Gladwell. The world falls into two categories of people: those who love Malcolm Gladwell, and those who are not yet aware of his work. The second category is getting smaller every day. I am part of the first. My copy of “The Tipping Point” is still heavily annotated. I used it for my PhD thesis; I have referred to it in almost every job I have done since it was first published in 2000. I even have a “Gladwell” category on this blog. Need I say more?

Four women and six men: not a bad gender breakdown. Five novels – although all of them published before 1993; one autobiography (Conroy), one impassioned essay on urbanism (Jacobs), one historical group biography (Gabler), one poetic meditation (Dillard) and one marketing/social psychology/”new age” business book (Gladwell).


Book review of Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings

July 12, 2014

This book review of Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings, edited by Harriet Margolis, Sean Cubitt, Barry King & Thierry Jutel. Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2008 (358 pages), originally appeared in Metro Magazine, issue 165, July 2010, pp. 142-143.  I am reprinting it here to make it more accessible.

*****

Although the term ‘blockbuster’ has been in use since the 1920s – describing queues of patrons that extended beyond a city block – it is widely accepted that the films The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and the first Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) ushered in the modern age of blockbuster films.  These also were ‘film events’, creating a whole new way of reaching audiences quickly and, not coincidentally, making loads of money.  Thomas Elsaesser points out how blockbuster films in North America have now even become miraculous phenomena in that they ‘rival nature, by dividing the year and ringing the changes of the seasons.  The movies now colonize the holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, and they announce the summer vacation or the start of fall’ (see reference below).

A prime example of this phenomenon is the Peter Jackson The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy (2001, 2002 and 2003).  According to the Box Office Mojo film website, as of September 2009 the trilogy had grossed more than US$2.9 billion in cinemas, and is one of the most successful film franchises of all time, rivalling James Bond, Harry Potter, Shrek and Spider-Man.  Between them, the three films won seventeen out of the thirty Academy Awards they were nominated for, and – using box office figures unadjusted for inflation – sit as the second, ninth and sixteenth highest grossing films worldwide.

In her introductory chapter to the new book Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Harriet Margolis notes the numerous ways we have attempted to describe this phenomenon, including the terms ‘experience film’, ‘dispersible film’, ‘megapic’, ‘popcorn film’, ‘tentpole film’ and ‘franchise film’.  It is clear that our own language is struggling to catch up with rapid changes in film marketing, distribution and the widely shared cultural spectacle the biggest films have now become.

Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) is an edited collection which ‘sets out not to study LOTR itself so much as to use the trilogy as an acceptable example of a significant development in the history of filmmaking’. Although it is generally well-known that the films were all produced in New Zealand in a project that lasted more than eight years, the economic, social, cultural and tourism impact on New Zealand was profound in a way that few films have so influenced one country.  In their chapter entitled “Dossier: economics”, Sean Cubitt and Barry King point out that the films’ production budget was close to NZ$500 million and ‘was directly responsible for 23,000 film industry jobs’.  Again and again, this book makes the unique nature of these films clear.

Studying the Event Film is loaded with this sort of fascinating information, and students of non-Hollywood film production will be engrossed in the details.  What this book also shows is that the production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy had – and still has – profound meaning to New Zealand, almost a decade after the filming took place, easily outstripping the importance of the James Bond or Harry Potter films to the United Kingdom, or any equivalents to Australia or Canada.

This book has twenty-three contributors, nineteen of whom teach in New Zealand universities, and almost all of them also attempt to deal with what makes the LOTR trilogy particularly New Zealand-ish.  As a result, this particularly ambitious book deals not only with event films, but also the process of film study itself, Peter Jackson the film-maker, New Zealand filmmaking, and the development, production, marketing, distribution and reception of LOTR.  It is a rich brew.

The book has twenty-eight chapters divided into seven sections entitled ‘A gathering of materials’, ‘Creative industries/national heroes’, ‘Stardom and the event film’, ‘Making a film trilogy’, ‘Reading for meaning: The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth and Aotearoa New Zealand’, ‘There, back again, and beyond: production infrastructures and extended exploitation and ‘The Lord of the Rings: credits, awards, reviews’.

Studying the Event Film is unashamedly a detailed academic collection, clearly intended more as a reference book on LOTR and event films, and will be of great value for students of film marketing and especially New Zealand film history.  In common with many academic collections, it does suffer from ‘time lag’, but unusually so in this instance. Most of the research for the collection was completed by early 2005, but the book was only published in 2008.  As a result, no recent literature has been included or reviewed, a distinct drawback in what is otherwise a high-quality set of references and bibliography.  For a book with such a wealth of detail, the index is also needlessly brief and not well-structured, making it difficult for the casual reader or researcher to access the riches it contains.

Studying the Event Film is filled with information, although has an odd structure: the first three chapters are about DVDs followed soon after by LOTR reception in Germany (why only Germany?).  These chapters are all well-written to be sure, but this is not a strong start to a book about film ‘events’ where you would expect to examine the nature of such events before delving into such post-release reception detail.  It is also delightfully quirky, making connections that surprise and delight.  For instance, Danny Butt’s chapter is entitled ‘Creative industries in Hobbit economies: wealth creation, intellectual property regimes, and transnational production’.  Brett Nichols’ chapter on the trilogy’s integration with the game and film industries is also notable.

But in fact all of the chapters are good without exception.  Although a bit messy in structure, and somewhat outdated even prior to publication, Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings is an unusual approach to a phenomenon many of us are attempting to understand.  This book’s scope gives much to ponder and savour.

Reference:  Thomas Elsaesser, ‘The Blockbuster: Everything Connects, but Not Everything Goes’, in Jon Lewis (ed) The End of Cinema as We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, New York University Press, New York, 2001, p. 21.


Book review of The Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents

July 12, 2014

This book review of Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents book review appeared in Media International Australia, issue 136, August 2010.  I am re-printing it here so that it is more easily accessible.

*****

Kemper, Tom, Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2010. ISBN 978 0 520 25707 8, xvii + 293 pp.

It is hard to believe that before Tom Kemper’s book Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents, there were no academic studies of the history of agents in Hollywood.  It’s not that agents have been ignored: numerous “how to” industry books have dealt with them; Nikki Finke’s tell-all Pay or Play: The Rise and Rise of the Hollywood Agent (1998) charts their modern successes; David Thomson’s The Whole Equation (2005) frequently refers to them; and there have been at least two recent books on super-agent Lew Wasserman.

But Kemper stands in a class alone.  He easily disproves “the standard conception of film history” that agents only became powerful figures in the 1950s with the establishment of MCA, and then ICM and CAA in the 1970s, and commences his study in the Hollywood studios of the late 1920s.  As such, Kemper’s work runs parallel to the historical Hollywood works by Tino Balio, David Bordwell, Douglas Gomery, Thomas Schatz and others, and gives unique and highly detailed insights.

With extraordinary detail, Kemper – a visiting lecturer at the University of Southern California – covers the period up to the 1950s, leaving subsequent developments for a future book.  Kemper’s great contribution is in showing how agency practices and business models – strategies like packaging, story approval guarantees, percentage points and freelance deals – were all first developed, tested and implemented in the 1930s.

Although Hidden Talent deals with a number of different agents and agencies, two agents loom large in the history: Myron Selznick (brother of David O.), the leading agent of the 1930s; and the contrasting Charles Feldman.  Kemper’s chapters take a mixed thematic and chronological approach, dealing with “the power of place”, boutique agencies, the contract industry, agents as producers and then finally the “new fortunes” in the 1940s, and the shift to the “corporate era” of the 1950s.

The book contains clear prose, never falling into deadly academic jargon that can drag film history books down, such as this colourful description of Myron Selznick:  “He rudely relished the power and fortune of his victories by grotesquely spilling cash, owning a fleet of cars, and imbibing biblically.” (p. 25)

One criticism:  While most of the agents of his period are Jewish, Kemper simply avoids the topic, noting that dealing with it is “another project” best left to the likes of Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own and Steven Carr’s Hollywood and Anti-Semitism.  But what elements of Gabler’s assimilation thesis applied to the agents?  Part of our understanding of how Hollywood ran then is in fact based on both on who they were and why they became involved in the industry, not just how they did their jobs.  It is, of course, this “how” that Kemper succeeds in describing, with great breadth, depth and clarity.  He has mined extensive archives (accessing materials that will never make their way online) in Hollywood agencies, studios, guilds and associations.

There is a lot of loving – and highly illuminating – detail here, such as the inclusion of the floor plan of Myron Selznick’s specifically designed new agency officers in 1938.  This one graphic gives us more insight into organisational relationships than many thousands of words could describe.

Hidden Talent book cover


New Jersey suffers from de-centralisation syndrome but we love it still

May 3, 2014

One of my favourite subjects is grappling with my childhood identity of growing up in New Jersey in the USA.  What was it about that state at that time (the 1960s)?  What makes my former high school classmates (and yes, me) so nostalgic for our experiences, in what was, after all, a place of high pollution, few exciting natural resources (okay, let’s face it, “the shore”, but what else?) and constant living in the shadow of New York City to the northeast, and (to a lesser extent) Philadelphia to the southwest?

Few people can explain New Jersey better (both to Jersey natives and non-Jersey residents) than Michael Aaron Rockland, a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University.  Here is a quote from Rockland’s essay “New Jersey’s Image”:

New Jersey’s identity problem is, in part, self-inflicted.  The state has not sufficiently fostered centralized political, cultural, and commercial institutions which would provide a focus or sense of community.  The governor’s mansion is located not in the state capitol, Trenton, but in Princeton; the Garden State Arts Center (now named for a bank) is not in a city but just off a major highway exit; and the state’s commerce and industry is spread out along its highways.  The number of New Jersey jokes with the punchline “Which exit?” suggest that key to the state’s uncertain identity is its extreme decentralization. The state still exemplifies, in no small measure, Episcopal Bishop George Washington Doane’s 1846 lament: “We have well nigh forgotten that we have a history.  We have almost lost the very sense of our identity.  We jave had no center.”

For some years, Rockland has taught a course at Rutgers entitled “Jerseyana”, with a required reading/viewing list that includes books Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus (a classic for we New Jersey-types) and John McPhee’s Pine Barrens  along with the film’s Jersey Girl and Atlantic City.  The syllabus starts with a quote from Allen Ginsberg’s “Garden State” and and Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”.

If you really would like to examine what makes New Jersey New Jersey, here’s a strongly recommended book:  What’s Your Exit?  A Literary Detour Through New Jersey, edited by Joe Vallese and Alicia A. Beale (Word Riot Press, Middletown, New Jersey, 2010).  (I found Rockland’s quote above in their introduction, page 17.  You can also read some excerpts through Amazon here.)  The book is organised, in classic New Jersey fashion, by “exits”, and includes fabulous writing (poetry, essay, fiction, drama) by a large number of authors, including well-known names like actor Jason Biggs, poet Alicia Ostriker, novelist Tom Perrotta,  Joyce Carol Oates and of course Michael Aaron Rockland – as well as many many writers you have not heard of yet, but will want to read.

And want a good short “potted history” of New Jersey?  Try this essay by Rockland, which appeared in New Jersey Monthly in January 2014, written in honour of the state’s 350 birthday.  One fun fact from that piece:  I bet you did not know that New Jersey’s voters voted against Abraham Lincoln not once but twice – in 1860 and 1864.

And another point by Rockland, in his entry on New Jersey’s image in The Encyclopedia of New Jersey (Rutgers University Press, 2004):  “Jersey is the only state that so overpowers its namesake, you can drop the ‘New’ when referring to it. Try that with Hampshire, York, or Mexico.”

Take that, you doubters.

What's Your Exit cover


Hollywood, the Nazis and the Jews – the controversy continues

January 27, 2014

Louise Adler’s Sydney Morning Herald review of two books on Hollywood, Hitler and the Jews (“Silence of the Movie Machine”, Spectrum, 25-26 January 2014, pp. 30-31) contains a number of unfortunate misleading and unsupported statements.  She summarily dismisses widespread criticisms of Ben Urwand’s book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler as “turf envy” without dealing with their substance.  She strongly supports Urwand’s charge of how the Hollywood moguls, the majority of them Jewish, “collaborated” with the Nazis, arguing that objections to the word “collaboration” are only “niceties”.  Thus, she follows Urwand’s line of equating genuine collaboration with the Nazis (witness the activities of the numerous puppet governments set up by conquering Nazis of deporting Jews and other minorities to their deaths) with ill-advised business measures by American businessmen.

For one whose life revolves around the printed word (Adler is the chief executive of Harvard University Press), to make a political point (presumably that Jewish moguls were self-serving and immoral), Adler appears remarkably willing to ignore the significant political implications of what the term “collaboration” meant in the World War Two context.

But Adler goes even further than Urwand does.  In one convoluted sentence of her review, she appears to accuse “the American Jewish leadership” of “exacerbating the fate of European Jewry”.  The full sentence reads:

To keep the German market open, Hollywood executives yielded to American moral censoriousness, abetted by the timid, small-target strategy of the American Jewish leadership in fear of home-grown anti-Semitism and exacerbating the fate of European Jewry, a government policy of appeasement and vociferous interference by local Nazi representatives.

This statement veers uncomfortably close to “blaming the victim” (or at least, the victim’s cousins) for the Holocaust, ignoring the facts that the cautious American Jewish leaders of the time felt extremely vulnerable and insecure, and thus were virtually powerless in the face of significant world events.  For more information on this topic, don’t rely on Adler, but look instead to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the books The Emergence of American Zionism by Mark A. Raider and Uneasy at Home: Antisemitism and the American-Jewish Experience by Leonard Dinnerstein.

Finally, note that contrary to the Herald review, Thomas Doherty’s book Hitler and Hollywood, 1933-1939 (which is also reviewed in the same article, although in less detail) is published by “Columbia University Press”, not “University of Columbia Press”.

Hollywood and Hitler book cover Doherty


Missed Pitch But Who Knew

August 18, 2012

At least it’s not just me.  Caught up in the hype surrounding the release last year of Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding (and loving the themes – college and baseball, which I played for years), I bought it in hardcover while in the USA, not waiting for the Australian paperback release a couple of months later.

I got up to page 146 (end of chapter 18); the last words I read were “She nestled into the line of his body, smelled the sweet sweaty odor of his neck, and fell asleep.”  I put it down on my bedside table in February of this year, and have not opened it since (except, just now, to check the page and the last words I had read).

Why was that?  The book is pleasant, but just not very compelling.  No strong reason to keep reading.  Once upon a time, when I was much younger and had more time and more patience … I would have persisted and finished the book.  No longer.  And my view is not alone.  In the May 2012 edition of The Atlantic, B.B Myers (“A Swing and a Miss:  Why the latest hyped-up word of staggering genius fizzles”) analyses the hype, the success and the failure, concluding that the book is “as light and insubstantial as a 512 page book can be … reading the novel through is like submitting to a long and almost imperceptibly light tickling.”  Harbach squanders “flawless if not especially distinctive prose.”

But why such success, despite such lack of substance?  Myers charts this up to a well-timed “puff piece” in Vanity Fair by Keith Gessen, a close friend of Harbach’s, and testimonials from a number of celebrities, including Jonathan Franzen.

Myers also indicts the “literary establishment’s corruption of standards”:  Once upon a time, “people used to expect literary novels to deepen the experience of living; now they are happy with any sustained display of writerly cleverness.”

Interested in following this?  Rarely do book reviews get reviewed, but Myers’ was.  Here’s a piece by Michael Miner (“The Art of Blathering”), who points out that Reeves Weideman gave The Art of Fielding a very positive review in the September 26th 2011 edition of … (wait for it) … The Atlantic.  By the way, Michiko Kakutani wrote a glowing review in The New York Times:  “not only a wonderful baseball novel — it zooms immediately into the pantheon of classics, alongside ‘The Natural’ by Bernard Malamud and ‘The Southpaw’ by Mark Harris — but it’s also a magical, melancholy story about friendship and coming of age that marks the debut of an immensely talented writer.”

Confused?  You might well be.  And I’m still unlikely ever to get past page 146.  There are some truly great American baseball novels.  Sadly, this is not one of them.

*****

Baseball postscript:  I played Little League baseball for three years when I was young (and, unbelievably, I still have my original baseball glove, which has travelled with me since and still works).  The first year I played right field (the position the weakest players are located), and my team – the Mackinney Oilers – went 9-9, coming in fifth out of nine.  The second year I played second base (the weakest infield spot), batted .333 (although not a power hitter), and the team went 9-9 again. My final year, I played shortstop, fielded strongly, but only batted .250 with nevertheless a high on-base percentage due to drawing a large number of “walks” (base on balls) – an ignominious way to get on base, but it happened.  But the team was bad, went 0-18.  We almost won one game, however it was called off on account of rain, and when we replayed it, we lost.  My worst moment:  I came in as a relief pitcher (my only time) in a game we were losing badly, and I promptly walked three batters and then faced Ricky Earle, who was in my year at school (and was later recruited, as I remember, by the New York Yankees, although I do not recall him ever making it to the majors).  Ricky watched me carefully.  I threw the first pitch high and outside but it did not make any difference to him:  he reached over the plate and slammed it over the left field fence for a grand slam home run.  The coach took me off the mound then, and to this day my competitive pitching record is an infinite ERA (earned run average):  three walks, one home run and four runs given up with no outs.  Work that one out.