Monday, January 27, 2014

Book Review: Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (October 15, 2013)

In Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, author Anita Elberse shows why betting on the mega-hits is the most bankable business strategy today.  Elberse is the resident expert on entertainment at the Harvard Business School.  His knowledge comes off very well in Blockbusters.

The simple, compelling argument brought forth by Elberse is this: The entertainment business does not reward playing it safe.  Just look at what Jeff Zucker and Ben Silverman did while at the helm of NBC.  This was a network that had huge audiences in the 1980s, 1990s, and early part of the 2000s.

But what happened to NBC?  They stopped going after the highest-paid producers and stars and their dismal efforts showed in the ratings.

The case was just the opposite at Warner Brothers Studios, where Chief Operating Officer Alan Horn decided to identify just a few projects that , with major budget-squeezing investments of money and resources, had the potential to be huge. They did just that with the Dark Knight saga, the Harry Potter series, The Hangover, and Million Dollar Baby, to name a few.

It shows that the networks and studios must be willing to take risks if they really want to attract an audience.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Book Review: Hanukkah in America: A History

Hardcover: 350 pages
Publisher: NYU Press; 1St Edition edition (October 14, 2013)

Hanukkah in America: A History was written by Dianne Ashton.

Everyone knows the story.  There was not enough oil left in the Temple after its destruction but miraculously, the oil burned for eight days.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Ashton provides a very thorough cultural history of Chanukah as she traces the holiday's importance to American Jewry.  The main argument is that the holiday is so popular because of when it tends to fall in the Gregorian calendar but also because of the focus on family and the opportunities that the holiday provides when discussing assimilation.

Her book explains just how the minor holiday became one of the most visible holidays.  In doing so, it teaches is about America, religion, and Jews.  It's not a holiday mandated by the Torah.  It was one that came about following the building of the Temple in Jerusalem.  There are no Yom Tovim during Chanukah that require a day off from work unlike the major holidays of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot.

Different people have different customs when it comes to Chanukah and Ashton writes about those, such as in New Orleans, Texas, and Cincinnati.

I won't lie in that Pesach is my favorite holiday--it always falls in the spring and I have it on good authority that one of my ancestors is Aaron, meaning that Moses is a great-uncle to the nth degree.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Book Review: That's Not Funny, That's Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream

Hardcover: 464 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (June 24, 2013)

That's Not Funny, That's Sick: The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream is from journalist Ellin Stein.  What Stein does is give us the definitive portrait of what is, perhaps, the greatest revolution in American comedy.

Stein had exclusive access to firsthand interviews with all the key players to give us this genius of a book.  Several of these interviews were done in the 1980s with the likes of Chevy Chase, Lorne Michaels, Doug Kenney--with memories were fresh and wounds were...raw.  This is what makes Stein's access unparallelled.

It all started back in 1969 when Kenney and Beard assumed the roles of chief editors at a new magazine named The National Lampoon.  Their partnership was complex as Stein writes.

Soon, the Lampoon would have a record deal and later, a theater production.  But just as all was thought to be over, Animal House helped the brand get new life.  Stein writes that the film "scattered box office gold over everyone connected with it."

National Lampoon had a meteoric rise as it shifted from being a popular humor magazine to a cornerstone of American culture.

Stein gives us the eccentric personalities, hard partying, and those moments of sheer comic genius.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Book Review: The New American Zionism

Hardcover: 229 pages
Publisher: NYU Press (November 29, 2013)

The New American Zionism was written by Theodore Sasson.

I have bad news for Israel's critics.  With the American Studies Association boycott in the news of late, the American Jewry relationship with Israel is stronger than ever.

Sasson's analysis of the modern-day American Zionism is thoughtful, subtle, and compelling.  It's deeply researched and well-written.

Going into this book, one obviously wonders if American Jewish support for Israel is waning.  The answer?  It's not.  Look at the scores of college students and young adults that make the trek to Israel through Birthright Israel.

The early days of Zionism saw American Jewry playing a key role in establishing the Jewish state.  Albert Einstein was offered the job of being the first Israeli Prime Minister but he turned it down.  They created the framework that paved the way to raise funds and there's no denial of what it means in Washington to go against AIPAC as Israel is one of America's strongest allies abroad.

True, Jewish Federation funding is declining but what isn't during this age of tough economic times?  Yes, there are some differences in the two-state solution and it can be devisive at times but Jews support Israel's right to exist even if they may disagree with the government policies at times.  Some might fear that support is waning but it isn't.

Sasson's argument is that we are misunderstanding the new relationship between American Jews and Israel.  He shows that the approach is shifting from a "mobilization" approach to an "engagement approach."  This latter approach is done through direct and personal relations with Israel.  Many Jews are traveling via Birthright, the March, or other organized trips.  A growing number consumes Israeli news and culture, not to mention connecting online with Israelis.

The support has not been abandoned.  Philanthropy and lobbying may have changed over the years but Israel is more meaningful than ever before.  However, its the ability to impact policy that will diminish as there is no longer a unified voice.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Book Review - Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof

Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1 edition (October 22, 2013)

Alisa Solomon gives us Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof.  This is a book that fans of the stage and film musical will certainly enjoy.  It goes hand in hand with the recently published biography of Sholem Aleichem.

The drama critic traces Fiddler back to its days as a 1905 Yiddish story through the days of its inception as a Broadway musical and a Hollywood blockbuster hit.

Fiddler is a cultural landmark.  It's frequently performed in high schools and rented by many today.

The songs are familiar to many, whether it's the opening to "Tradition" or the chorus of "If I Were a Rich Man."  People identify with Tevye's desire to maintain his faith and family in a changing world.

Solomon's book is the first such critical analysis of the iconic cultural status.  She explores how and why Fiddler was reborn as blockbuster entertainment and a culture touchstone--not only for Jews and Americans.

It's expansive, delightful, original as it reveals the surprising and enduring legacy.

Book Review: The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem

Hardcover: 464 pages
Publisher: Schocken (October 8, 2013)

Written by Jeremy Dauber, The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem: The Remarkable Life and Afterlife of the Man Who Created Tevye is the first comprehensive biography on the Jewish version of Mark Twain.  If not for Sholem Aleichem, we'd never have Fiddler on the Roof.

Aleichem was one of the founding giants in modern Yiddish literature.  He was a novelist, playwright, journalist, essayist, and editor.  He created a pantheon of characters that have been immortalized in either books or plays.  Through his short stories and other writings, he provided a window into the world of Eastern European Jewry at a time of changes during the close of the 19th century.

His own story is just as compelling as the fictional lives that he wrote about.  Aleichem was born into poverty, married into wealth but would lose it all during bad luck and a horrible business sense.  It was his decision to start writing in Yiddish that would forever change history.

When he died in 1916, it was news all across the world.  But his fame would grow as the English-speaking world began to discover his work.

Book Review: Red Sparrow

Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: Scribner (June 4, 2013)

Red Sparrow: A Novel is from Jason Matthews.  Matthews joins the ranks of Ian Fleming and John Le Carre in going from intelligence agent to novelist.  Because of his 33 years working as a CIA field operative, it gives a sense of authenticity, vivid characters, detail of the trade, and a plot that deals with spy versus spy.

For a first-time novelist, this is an excellent debut.  He uses his real-life field experience and turns it into a remarkably vivid, rip-roaring read.

The setting is Russia.  Two spies are targeting each other.  Nate, the young and ambitious CIA office, goes up against Dominika, the beautiful and brave Russian spy.  One more thing:  the two spies have fallen in love.

The novel has already been optioned by 20th Century Fox.

Book Review: The Town

Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Blue Rider Press (July 16, 2013)

This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America's Gilded Capital was written by Mark Leibovich.  Leibovich's book is a stunningly frank, witty, and perceptive account of the DC establishment and shows how it's become more self-serving than any other time in history.

The author calls out a score of names for their hypocrisy.  These people include politicians, journalists, and lobbyists.  Unfortunately for those people, there is no index.  The only way for thm to find out if they are in the book is if they read it themselves.

The book stretches from June 2008 at Tim Russert's funeral and goes until January 2013.  It's a critical profile of "This Town" during a time of turbulence and decadence.

Remember how President Obama campaigned to change Washington?  Didn't happen.  It's still politics as usual.  Lobbyists had their most prosperous year in 2009, Obama's first year in office.

Leibovich writes how punditry has replaced the idea of reporting.

Characters include Mike Allen, Tammy Haddad, Terry McAullife, Harry Reid, Trent Lott, Tom Daschle, Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett, Richard Gephardt, Chris Christie, Kurt Bardella, Richard Holbrooke, Hilary Rosen, Andrea Mitchell, Alan Greenspan, Tim Russert, and the Clintons.  That's not all the names but only a handful.

This account is dazzling, insightful, but also very entertaining.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

2013 Solzy Awards

I started tweeting these the other day but here are the 2012 Solzy Awards.

Best Movie-Related Book (tie): Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective by Richard Schickel, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business by Lynda Obst

Best TV-Related Book: Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic by Jennifer K. Armstrong

Best Baseball Book (tie): Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes by John Rosengren, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America's Game by Edward Achorn

Best Comedic Book: Let Me Off at the Top!: My Classy Life and Other Musings by Ron Burgundy

Best Fiction Novel: The Fifth Assassin by Brad Meltzer

Most Anticipated Book of 2014: Fightin' Words: Kentucky vs. Louisville by Ryan Clark and Joe Cox

Best Album (tie): My Mother's Brisket and Other Love Songs by Rick Moranis, Frozen (soundtrack)

Best Kentucky Sportswriter: Larry Vaught

Best National Basketball Writer: Mike DeCourcy

Best Baseball Writer (Tie): Derrick Goold, Rick Hummel

Best Group of Sports Bloggers: United Cardinal Bloggers

Best Kentucky Broadcaster (Tie): Tom Leach, Bob Valvano

Best New Television Comedy:Brooklyn 99

Best New Television Drama: Agents of SHIELD

Most Annoying Person on Television...Period: Skip Bayless (ESPN)