Thursday, October 27, 2011

Rin Tin Tin by Susan Orlean

Finished reading the other day Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean and found it to be an interesting book.

Orlean is also the author of The Orchid Thief (which I reviewed here) and each book features as part of the storyline specific individuals and their obsessions. In the case of The Orchid Thief, it was a guy and his devotion to a type of flower and in the latest Orlean effort, it’s actually several different people (with one primary) and devotion to a dog. Beyond that, though, the story of Rin Tin Tin is about devotion to what Rin Tin Tin meant.

The story began on the battlefields of WWI with US solider Lee Duncan rescuing some German shepherd puppies and then bringing them back home. From there, Duncan developed a deep attachment with one of the pups and he eventually got the idea of and was successful at getting a silent film made starring the dog.

This spawned many other feature films with Rin Tin Tin performing amazing feats and saving the day countless times. As a result of this, the dog became inextricably tied with the hero persona for countless movie goers who could be completely entertained in a silent film by this concept. Eventually, talking pictures came to Hollywood and that signaled a decline in Rin Tin Tin’s career with Warner Brothers cancelled with him in 1929 and then Rin Tin Tin dying in 1932 at 14 (when Lee was in his late 30s).


Lee was unquestionably devoted to Rin Tin Tin and even though there were Rin ancestors, none resonated with him as much as did his original dog. Rin Tin Tin Jr. performed in smaller budget movies earning less and then Rin Tin Tin III was born in 1941 and eventually become known through promoting the US Dogs for Defense effort during WWII.

After the war, came The Return of Rin Tin Tin in 1947 and though the movie was a success, things were relatively quiet for both Lee and his dog until Bert Leonard met the trainer in 1953. This was during the time that television was exploding in popularity and Bert convinced Lee that the traits of goodness and heroism personified by the character of Rin Tin Tin would translate perfectly to the new medium. The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin television program was a Western set in 1870 and once again made Rin Tin Tin a household name.

One interesting distinction between the show and the original silent films was the actual character of Rin Tin Tin was being played by a dog completely unrelated to the original dog brought back from WWI. Bert and the backers of the television show didn’t view the current Rin Tin Tin dog to be smart or physically capable enough to star in the show so brought in another dog to play the role of Rin Tin Tin. Lee didn’t seem to mind (or at least left no record of his objection) so maybe the point is that he realized the original dog was his favorite and all of the descendants were about representing rather than actually having the traits of the original.

The show started in 1954 and was an immediate hit and then Lee got wealthy once again and passed away in 1960. A key point that gets made in the book by Orlean is how Lee seemed a good person, but one who seemed to have less of a connection with his family than he did first the original Rin Tin Tin dog and then with the idea of the dog's qualities and legacy. It's interesting reading about someone completely devoted to a thing or idea, but an effect of the devotion often seems to be that other areas of their life suffer.


At this point, the Rin Tin Tin legacy on television was being carried on by Bert Leonard with episodes being rerun in syndication at various points and Bert unsuccessful seeking to have another Rin Tin Tin movie made, but this one being the story of Lee and his life with the dogs.

The story of Bert then becomes a sad one at the end as in addition to his lack of success in continuing with Rin Tin Tin entertainment, he become entangled in a web of lawsuits with people around the name of Rin Tin Tin and what could be done with it. Primarily legal combatant was Daphne Hereford, the granddaughter of someone who got Rin Tin Tin puppies in the 50s and then bred them.

It’s a good book by Orlean and really it’s about the ideal of Rin Tin Tin and how it became such a strong narrative through many decades in people’s lives. As part of this, she wrote about her grandfather who cared so much for a Rin Tin Tin figurine (and his attachment would have come from the original silent films), but also how writing the book made her feel like Lee Duncan in the way she became consumed by the story.

Solid read on the human condition and devotion to a concept.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Brandon Sneed Writing

Having followed him on twitter for a while now, I've been seeing more and more interesting content lately from freelance (aren't we all, I suppose) journalist Brandon Sneed.

Previously I had posted on his interview with newly published in Sports Illustrated writer Tommy Tomlinson and now Sneed has made the same author jump to national magazine (well, least first national mag piece I've come across). The October 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine has Sneed's story Nobody walks alone on former NBA player Mike Williams and his near-fatal injury and learning to walk again.

It's an excellent piece of unfairness, struggle, courage and determination (yep, those oft seem to travel in a pack). What really strikes me about Sneed, though, is the process of writing posting he's done on his site Love me some good content on the topic... as evidenced by my month-ago post Five for Writing Posts from Son of a Bold Venture Blog.

Sneed has certainly reached a level of success (published in ESPN The Mag at a young age), but he seems really grounded around the process and work required. To this point was his blog post The Giant in the Wheelchair III: It's Out. It's REALLY Out. about the ESPN piece and since then he's done three insightful posts on the writing process...

- Making It As A Writer: Remember, It's All Relative

- Progress

- Why You Should Write A Book

Really cool content in all of these...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Luke Dittrich on the Joplin Tornado & Other Esquire Pieces

Remarkable feature on the Joplin Tornado in the October 2011 issue of Esquire (which includes an interesting, but not linked to online cover story by Chris Jones about his time hanging in full Bert & Ernie costumes with Justin Timberlake at Comic-Con).

Really, though, what stood out from the issue was the Luke Dittrich feature from Joplin, MO. It's one of those stories that pulls double-duty with being very well written, but also about an absolutely gripping topic. The storm killed 160 in Joplin and Dittrich profiles the experience of a dozen or so whose lives were saved by taking refuge in a convenience store walk-in cooler. Several times during the reading I felt a bit choked up reading about the decision points that led each person to that convenience store and just how arbitrary the difference between living or dying was for many hit by the tornado.

Two other Esquire pieces I found interesting recently...

- From the same Oct 2011 issue was the brief vignette on the Esquire Economy Car of the Year - the 2012 Ford Focus. Much less profound than the Dittrich piece (or Pierce one noted below), but I have grown fond of Ford lately and like quite a bit the looks of this car.

- Mentioned in the same issue's Note from the Editor was a Charlie Pierce profile on Barack Obama some six months prior to his November 2008 Presidential victory. The piece is titled The Cynic and Senator Obama and Esquire editor David Granger referenced the below passage on Obama from Pierce...

"There is a remove to his movements and a distance to everything he does that mutes his charisma and dampens what might be a frenzy in his crowds into a patient, well-behaved enthusiasm."

It's an interesting view and may well factor into how Obama seems to have garnered admiration for his efforts, but has also taking quite a bit of criticism (even from ardent supporters) for not selling his ideas well enough and even for not trumpeting well enough his successes.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

GQ October 2011 Issue - Devin Friedman on Hip Hop Artist Rick Ross & Other Features

One tremendous and several other solid as well features from the latest issue of GQ Magazine.

Piece that stood out the most was that on hip hop star Rick Ross by Devin Friedman. It's an entertaining recount of the author's time spent hanging out with Ross and his entourage, but also featured some really good writing... with below being from Friedman's profile.

Where Rick Ross really separates himself is that he inhabits the cliché completely while also seeming to know it's a cliché. You can like him if you think you're hard, and you can like him if you think being hard is ridiculous. Because Rick Ross is always both inside and outside a joke he's making about hip-hop music. I mean, look at him in the Lil Wayne "John" video. The man is sitting in a wheelchair that has big silver spinner rims on it. But at the same time he looks so freakin' boss in that burgundy velour suit."


Couple of other pieces of note from this issue...

Cover feature was an interview with Leonardo Dicaprio and Clint Eastwood leading up to the release of J. Egdar (with trailer linked) on the former FBI head. Currently GQ is only posting an excerpt of the interview, but Eastwood as the Director and Dicaprio as movie's star both come across as people having interesting views on solid movies and the folly of chasing box-office success.

Additional feature story from GQ this month was The Man Who Sailed His House by Michael Paterniti. It's a lengthy piece on someone found at sea floating on his roof days after the Japan tsunami... and is as amazing a tale as the description would indicate. Actually, reading it made me think of the even more amazing story of Louis Zamperini told in Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken (which I reviewed here), but it's certainly a good piece on it's own merits from Paterniti.

Final piece to mention here didn't necessarily stand out for it's writing (wasn't meant to be about the prose, I'm sure), but for the topic written on. Josh Dean did a interesting short piece on the need to walk as a way to overcoming health problems brought about by the largely sedentary jobs most of us hold.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"Life Itself" by Roger Ebert

Just finished reading Life Itself by Roger Ebert and found it to be a very interesting, if somewhat peculiar memoir.

What struck me as peculiar is the writing seems to be a a set of ruminations on life, life experiences and people rather than traditional autobiography. In this regard, it made sense to me that I was told while reading about someone who loved Roger Ebert's writing, but didn't care for the book. That said, if a reader accepts that it follows a somewhat meandering non-traditional path, the book can then be an excellent and thought-provoking read.

I first developed an interest in Ebert from the highly regarding Esquire piece
"Roger Ebert: The Essential Man" (which I posted on here). What caught my eye was the profile being written by a writer I like in Chris Jones, but it revealed a pretty fascinating individual as the subject. From there, I started reading with some regularity Ebert's Chicago Sun-Times blog and found some great work by him. Some of the posts that stood out (and all of which I posted on and linked to) were "How do they get to be that way?" on racism, "All the Lonely People" on... that, and one on the value of a great video game vs The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

It was from an Ebert blog entry that I first heard about this memoir with him posting online the beginning of the book back in July. The writing both in this first chapter and throughout has very much a lyrical and pensive quality to it and Ebert definitely reveals himself as a intelligent if not brilliant guy from a young age up to and including today.

In this regard, it was borderline annoying reading about how he knew at a young age he wanted to be a writer and then devoted himself tirelessly (and with success) to the goal. Stephen King wrote in On Writing of basically having the same goal and approach at a young age. Good for both of them that they knew, but the annoying part is that most of us don't know the life or career goal that early on...


Anyhoo... not Ebert's (or King's for that matter) fault, and he wrote with this memoir an interesting almost stream of consciousness book about his life, relationships and experiences. Those people noted in the book as huge influences included the writers Studs Terkel and Thomas Wolfe and his wife Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert. In terms of experiences written about, good portions of the book came across almost as travelogues with detailed descriptions of Venice, London, and Boulder... specifically the Conference on World Affairs on the University of Colorado campus.

Additionally, a huge part of Ebert's story is his health problems and the aforementioned Esquire story made them known to many. It's a bit of an aside to note here, but reading of the various surgeries and rehabilitation involved made me feel Ebert fortunate to have the resources available for what I'm sure has been an incredibly costly process.

All of this said about the book, it did seem to be written by Ebert for himself as a record of his life, it's experiences and relationships... and as long as reader is fine with that, the book is a fascinating portrait of the man.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Steve Jobs Writing... On & By Him

There's been some extremely solid writing on Steve Jobs published or brought back up with his passing last week. I'm sure more great content out there I haven't seen, but below is the best from what I have...

The cover story from the latest issue of Time was American Icon by Walter Isaacson. Formerly Managing Editor of Time, Isaacson's short piece on Jobs gets at the man as well as what he accomplished... and is a good indicator that the upcoming authorized biography Steve Jobs from Isaacson could be excellent.

From Michael Kruse for the St. Petersburg Times came As Apple grew, so did an entire generation. Kruse seems to do very good human impact writing (another example being this on the Tampa Bay Rays a couple weeks back) and he writes of Job's death through the story of someone that's grown up using the devices conceived of and supplied by Jobs and Apple.

Another piece of writing on Jobs that stood out to me wasn't even directly about him, but rather the concept of forward-thinking entrepreneurship best exemplified by him. The Steve Jobs MBA Unit 101: Don’t think about the present was published in June 2011 and part of a series for Wired Magazine. What got me to read the piece (and truth be told, what also influenced my enjoyment of it) was it being written by Alain De Botton... author of the fascinating book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (which I linked to and posted on here).

Finally, it's been referenced over and over since Jobs passed away, but his June 2005 Stanford Commencement address really is deserving of the all the attention as a testament to the guy and his ideas.

Working... & Writing on Michael Lewis Working

Having previously done a number of posts on work (the most involved probably being Working on the Railroad... with help from Robert Fulghum & Patrick Swayze), it seemed high time to revisit the subject... and link to a guy doing work very very well right now.

A couple of concepts around work have been floating in my head lately... that of everything counts and taking a path.

Everything counts as a perspective is something to employ (pardon the pun) when looking at where we want to go or want we want to be doing career-wise. It can oft be a daunting task looking at something new, but the past shouldn't be discounted when looking to the future. Past experiences (whether those be education, past jobs held or roles within those jobs) can very well provide the linkages to the go-forward ideal.

The old jobs held may not related to the future jobs sought, but the connections and relationships from those prior roles could well provide that entree to what is desired... just gotta be proactive about looking. At the same time, skills from the past may not necessarily be the skills that a desired job would employ, but perhaps the skills learned could either get a foot in the door of something new, or even be used in the finding of thing new.


Taking a path in relation to careers and job changes is the principle of just doing something. In cases of uncertainty as to how to reach an end goal (or even knowledge of of what that goal may actually be), it's best to just... do something and be going forward. One may not know whether it's the right path or not, but if the current state isn't an ideal one, it's best to be moving... and maybe the ideal will reveal itself eventually.

So... if you want to do something not done previously, think of what you have done and how that can help and then just start doing something new. Maybe it will work out, maybe it won't, but the movement probably won't hurt.


Granted, all of this can seem a bit fluffy and hypothetical, but it should be noted that with talent, work, utilization of past efforts and action-taking, work efforts can come up roses.

To that point in the writer world, there's the subject of It’s Good to Be Michael Lewis. Pretty fascinating on the author by Jessica Pressler for New York Magazine. It's a solid piece and Lewis an excellent writer deserving of success... and he's certainly knee-deep in success right now.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Cover Story on Amazon... & Other Businessweek Pieces

Excellent cover story from the Oct 3 issue of Businessweek.

Amazon, the Company That Ate the World is written by Brad Stone and details the company's tablet entry, the Kindle Fire. The company as a whole has done a lot right over the years and early indications are that they've created a compelling offering.

Not quite as profound in terms of it's potential reach to consumers, but also from this issue of BW was a profile of New York City based drugstore Duane Reade. Written by Susan Berfeld, It's pretty interesting reading on a retail chain that previously could do no right and now seems to make the correct move with every step.

Finally, I found noteworthy the short piece How to Give the Perfect TED Talk by Sebastian Wernicke. TED is a fascinating concept and it was interesting reading about what types of things help make some TED talk speechs stand out over others.

Money and Related to $ Writing from Time

Some solid writing on money, the economy and jobs in Time lately... particularly in the recent Special Money Issue.

Leading off the section was a piece by Rana Foroohar titled No. 1 A new Era Of Volatility. Good writing on the current economic climate and it's ramifications for economies and people. Also on this subject was the Jeffrey Sachs essay Why America Must Revive Its Middle Class. It's certainly an argument brought up by others as well, but Sachs does an excellent job discussing the divide in haves and have nots in the U.S. as well as takes to task the opt-trumpted idea of "Reagan economic policies were great... need to go back to those."

Two other pieces from the prior week's issue of Time that stood out as interesting and related to the same topic of money...

At a macro level, Michael Grunwald provided Street Smarts on how widespread infrastructure work could help revitalize the economy. This notion of long-term improvements being done on public-works projects such as highways and electrical grids has been certainly talked about, but seems to be on a limited basis and only at a city level.

With a much more individual focus, this same Oct 3 edition contained The New Online Job Hunt. Written by Francine Russo, the piece details how Social Networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter (as well as career site LinkedIn) are taking on a great place of import for both employers and job seekers.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Sports Illustrated Pieces: on Walter Payton, Gary Patterson & the Philadelphia Phillies

There's been a few different feature stories from Sport Illustrated lately with really solid writing on interesting topics.

For the September 12 issue, S.L. Price wrote "The House Of Dream Chasers" on TCU football coach Gary Patterson. While Patterson's tale was an interesting one and told well as Price stories inevitably are, what stood out from the piece was the author's connection to the coach. The sub-heading to the story alludes to the time spent living in the small college town of Davis, CA and it was fascinating reading about how both the author and subject were then living lean and starting out in their desired careers.

"Twenty-five years ago TCU coach Gary Patterson was a tumbleweed assistant clinging to a Division II job. No one expected he would rise to the top of his profession—not even the author, who lived with him then."


Most recently, the Oct 3 issue of SI featured an interesting book excerpt from Jeff Pearlman. "The Hero No One Knew" was taken from Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton and (similar in this regard to most of the books excerpted in Sports Illustrated) a solid read.

Granted, I wasn't Bears and Walter Payton fan, but it's remarkable to me the flack that Pearlman has taken about the contents of the book. Even in this excerpt (which is of course just a portion of the book), Payton isn't portrayed as a terrible guy... just a flawed individual who probably became more flawed after leaving the game that defined him. For someone to think any favorite athlete infallible and then criticize those who would reveal him as less than perfect just doesn't make sense.


Also in this latest issue of SI was 'We're In Baseball Heaven' by Gary Smith on the Philadelphia Phillies and the town's relationship with the team. The piece was the third installment of a series Smith has done of the Phillies this year with the first two being on the starting rotation and then profiling catcher Carlos Ruiz.

Smith writes very well pieces with a strong emotional hook and in describing specific fans and their relationship with the team, he's definitely in his element as a writer. Pretty compelling reading...

Moneyball Movie & Writing On It

In what would seem to be a highly improbable trifecta, the Brad Pitt vehicle Moneyball was an excellent movie loosely based on a great book sort of about a team that was often, but not always a great team to be a fan of. There's of course a lot of modifiers in that statement, but good things don't always come wrapped with tidy bows on top...

With my having attended 20-25 of their games a year from probably 2000-2005, I can say the Oakland A's provided some amazing moments to watch and countless instances of exhilaration as well as heartache (with both being necessary ingredients of fandom (see: Red Sox circa September 2011). One constant on this team of frequent roster upheaval was General Manager Billy Beane and what certainly seemed to be his "smarter than the average bear" approach to building a team.

When the Michael Lewis book Moneyball came out, I eagerly grabbed it like most A's fans and found it to be a pretty phenomenal read. While on-base percentage as a holy grail was the concept generally taken from the book, really what Beane appeared to be doing was using an undervalued asset that could be stockpiled using the limited resources (see: $ for salary) available. The fact that it was on-base percentage wasn't really as important as the approach of exploiting the overlooked.

Either way... a team that provided some great experiences and memories for the fan and a fascinating book.

Now, after several false starts including multiple directors, the movie was made and hit the theaters. I had high expectations going in and not because I expected it to be entirely true to real life (in this case, baseball) or to have the exact book presented in a different medium, but because I was excited to see what was done was the material available. After watching the thing, I walked away a fan... already was a fan first of the team for certain reasons, then of the book for others, and finally the movie for still other reasons.

In many ways, my view of what made the movie so good were elucidated by two pieces from a couple of my favorite sports writers. First Joe Posnanski on his blog and then Austin Murphy in Sports Illustrated wrote about how the story told in the movie didn't necessarily stick hard and true to the events that transpired, but was both tremendously interesting and unlike almost every other sports movie ever made.

Excellent writing from each guy on a very cool film (again, which was pretty much on a great book for the most part about the building of a great team)...