Thursday, April 30, 2015

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis

In high school, I participated in linguistics competitions that pitted students from area schools against each other. I was very good at prepared speeches but extemp was my domain. I owned it. In one of these winners, I referred to kids my age as "the Sesame Street Generation". For some reason, the judges, a panel of smart teachers, thought this terribly clever though I'm not certain why because we were the "Sesame Street Generation". I was only two years old when it debuted on TV but it seemed a constant to me the way the Steelers always won the Super Bowl in the '70's or FDR was always president to my Dad's generation. Michael Davis does a tremendous job of giving us a very complete picture in this worthwhile 2008 history. 

Street Gang is a story of wannabes, gonnabes, lesser-knowns, and more than a few rebels at all levels, Jim Henson and the Muppets the most prominent. However, without the alchemy of Joan Ganz Cooney, Jon Stone, Joe Raposo, Tom Whedon (Joss Whedon's dad!), and others, Henson would likely never have gone into children's TV and without Henson, no Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster or Big Bird, no Frank Oz, Carol Spinney, or Kermit. 

The idea to utilize public television to teach poor, inner-city pre-schoolers began as dinner party conversation in 1966, when Bonanza, Gomer Pyle, and Green Acres were top-rated programs. It was an incalculable gamble though many thought it sheer folly. Remarkably, the right people came together to create a landmark in television, one that broke socio-economic, racial, and educational boundaries forever.

We know now that young kids in poverty have fewer opportunities than other kids and it is accepted wisdom that educating them at such a young age is vital to their academic success, earning potential, and ability to break the cycle of poverty. That kids, poor and otherwise, could learn from television (public television, no less) was astounding in 1968 and that the show succeeded to such an extent was without precedent. 

For kids of color to see themselves on TV was groundbreaking but it was also meaningful to a kid like me who grew up in a world of white. Of course I didn't realize it at the time but seeing those faces made them less exotic, less unusual, more real. They were just kids like me so when I met them later on, I didn't fear them in the manner of the generations before me. 

I was, however, a bit intimidated by the small font size of this generously footnoted, 350 pager but Davis writes with ease and authority. The story is informative, entertaining, and, at times, gossipy. Turns out Bert was sleeping with Ernie. 

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Yesterday, I meandered into my favorite second-hand book bazaar to kill some time before treating a friend to a belated birthday lunch at the diner of a nearby bowling alley (his choice). Pickings were slim on this visit but I was fortunate to find a copy of Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher which I began reading in the car while waiting for the birthday boy to arrive and completed it by beddy-bye. As regular Reed-ers know, I'm a sucker for an epistolary novel and this slender collection of letters of recommendation doesn't disappoint. 

The letter writer, Jay Fitger, is a creative writing professor at the appropriately named Payne University, a small Midwestern school whose English department has seen far better days. He labors in a building that is under extensive construction, mostly for the benefit of the Economics department whose upstairs offices are getting a royal makeover while his department suffers toxic dust, loud noises, and foul, leaky restrooms. Retired professors aren't being replaced, funding has gone the way of the dodo, grad students aren't being added, and the new department head is (gasp!) a sociologist. 

Like the department, Fitger, a once promising novelist whose backlist is largely out of print, is slowly spiraling into literary obscurity. His spark for academia no longer burns brightly and his personal relationships are in tatters. Like Sid Straw in Michael Kun's delightful The Locklear Letters, Fitger can't get out of his own way. Unlike Sid, he is not a likeable man. He is bombastic, cranky, misanthropic, sexist, and unpopular with colleagues and administrators, all of which he is acutely self-aware. Seemingly, he spends more time writing letters of recommendation for students and colleagues than he does teaching or other more literary pursuits. But oh, the letters! 

Schumacher, herself an academic at the University of Minnesota, is obviously no stranger to the folderol but she imbues Fitger's considerable ire with biting commentary on the state of academia and publishing to great effect. In one instance, he writes on a friends' behalf to a Dean of a school he believes entirely unworthy of her. And so:

"Let's consider the facts: Carole is comfortably installed at a research university--dysfunctional, yes; second tier, without question--but we do have a modest reputation here at Payne. Shepardville, on the other hand, is a third-tier private college teetering at the edge of a potato field and is still lightly infused with the tropical flavor of offbeat fundamentalism propagated by its millionaire founder, a white-collar criminal who is currently--correct me if I'm wrong--atoning for multiple financial missteps in the Big House in Texas". Ouch.

Later in the novel, he grudgingly defends his own department head to Payne's Dean of Arts & Sciences: "In my wildest nightmares I never imagined that I would make or endorse such a recommendation, akin to Hamlet naming Uncle Claudius counsel (Hamlet is a play by a writer named William Shakespeare: I'll send you a copy on some other occasion.)"

While it might have been enough to let Fitger froth at the mouth for the entire 180 pages, Schumacher wisely and slowly brings about a sense of decency in the man, mostly in his desire to help a promising grad student in whose novel, a re-telling of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener set in the accounting department of a 1960's Vegas casino, he believes and the reappearance of an old friend with whom he studied at an Iowa-like writing program years before. On their behalves, Fitger reaches out to agents, publishers, and academics in a knowing effort to do something for someone other than himself. While he doesn't spare his spleen with any of these recipients, he makes an uncharacteristically sincere effort with mixed results. 

If I had a criticism, it is that the ending came too quickly, both in the narrative sense and for my own selfish reason that I didn't want the book to end. Both of these are small beer compared to the joy the book brought me. Find a copy soon.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Of Fans and Vans

Sometimes I come across a book that I believe I should have written. Two that come to mind are The Day I Turned Uncool by Dan Zevin and Talking to Girls About Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield. Zevin's book was right on the money and it made me feel cheated that he beat me to it and desperately lazy because not only did I not think of it first, I probably wouldn't have had the wherewithal to actually write it. Sheffield's book missed the mark entirely by my account and so I felt justified and appropriately pompous. With John Sellers' Perfect From Now On, I'm somewhere in the middle. 

Perfect From Now On is Sellers' examination of his own musical obsessions, which are plentiful. Remember that kid in junior high that couldn't stop talking about The Ramones while wearing his Ramones t-shirt and jeans with holes in the knees a la The Ramones with music by the Ramones leaking from the headphones of his Sony Walkman? That was me. That was Sellers, too, only his bands were U2, Joy Division/New Order, The Smiths, Pavement and, ultimately, Guided By Voices.

I remember well the need to know only the "cool" bands before they became so as well as the need to disavow them as sell-outs once they enjoyed mainstream success. I remember the long, stoned discussions with like-minded pals about the "importance" of the music and musicianship. I recall almost going broke buying all the obscure bootlegs of my favorite artist, most of them imports and therefore even pricier than normal. I strove to be a completist and flaunt my musical superiority. Sellers goes even further, seeking to touch the hem of GBV lead singer, Robert Pollard, in which he succeeds and fails brilliantly. 

Sellers writes with honesty and considerable self-deprecation however his "righteous" anger overwhelms any sympathy you might have for him. He also uses copious footnotes, many of them lengthy asides on even more trivial matters, that slow down the book. It's only in the last third of the book that he reveals that his copious footnotes are, in fact, in tribute to Nicholson Baker. Aren't we clever? 

Ultimately, I did enjoy the book mostly because I could see where my path diverged from the authors': I grew up. 

Speaking of the boys from Forest Hills, I thoroughly enjoyed On the Road With The Ramones by the band's long-time, long-suffering road manager, Monte Melnick. This is about as insider as it gets and gives a clear portrait of the band that influenced so many musicians and inspired so many listeners.

With the exception of Marky and C. J., Monte is the last man standing and he was there for the entire ride. Having read most of the Ramones bios out there, I think Monte's version comes across as an honest and loving account of the band especially because he wasn't a performer. The band, even in good times, was difficult and it only became more fractious as their career continued. Here, Monte comes off as the glue that held them together. 

And what a big job that! Dee Dee was crazy, Marky was drunk (then not), Johnny was the all-powerful overlord, and Joey was plagued by insecurity, OCD, and other health problems. Only Tommy comes off as a normal adult human being and he left because he thought he'd have a breakdown because of the others. We're a happy family? Not by a longshot.

Told in the oral history style of Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil, Monte shares the pages with band members, road crew, producers, fellow musicians, and management but Monte is again the glue that makes On the Road... a worthy addition to the story that was The Ramones.