Saturday, December 29, 2012

Best Geek Non-Fiction I Read in 2012

My biggest fault is that I am primarily a fiction reader.  When I read non-fiction, it's usually about the making of things (comics, tv, movies, games) that I really like.  Terrible, I should read about economics or history, but I just can't help myself.


Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend Out of all the non-fiction books I read this year, I liked this one the most and it surprised the heck out of me.  I had been aware of Rin Tin Tin as a kid.  I can't remember if I ever saw reruns of the Rin Tin Tin television show, but I have always been mystified by the popularity of this cinema dog. This book opens up a story that seems almost mythical: Lee Duncan, an orphan, discovering an orphaned dog in the midst of a WW1 battlefield. How they went from that moment to being the most famous dog in the world is an amazing story. I like stories about dogs & about Hollywood, this book is the perfect intersection of both. Lee Duncan always wanted to see a movie made about his life with Rin Tin Tin. Perhaps due to the popularity of this book, there will be one.

The quest to find the story of Rin Tin Tin is a personal one for the author, Susan Orlean.  Her grandfather had a toy figure of the dog that he refused to let his grandkids play with--which I can relate, as I nearly went ballistic when I saw a nephew of mine playing with my Planet of the Apes Cornelius action figure.  She visits many of the places where Rin Tin Tin and Lee Duncan lived.  The book also explains how Rin Tin Tin helped bring dogs into the homes of families, and how it became more of the norm to actually train dogs to become more functional members of a household.

Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto  I always like reading about how things are made: movies, products, and video games. Jacked was especially tantalizing because I didn't really know much about Sam Houser, the chief behind Rockstar Games. This book has the full scoop on Houser, David Jones (from DMA who also created Crackdown), and other early staff members. One of the most devious and ingenious moments is how a veteran marketing executive uses politicians, upset over the violent game content, to market the very first Grand Theft Auto. When Houser moves his operation to New York City, it coincides with the development of GTA III, also set in New York. The development behind GTA III, Vice City, San Andreas is covered, along with the details on how the "Hot Coffee" mod code was left buried in the final release and how a hacker uncovered it. This scandal nearly brought down Take Two and Rockstar. Equal attention is given to some kids who may have been influenced by GTA to snipe at cars on a Tennessee highway. Jack Thompson's crusade against violent video games is also well detailed, and if you wondered why he hasn't been active lately, that is explained here too.

A few things I didn't like. At times this book felt like a compilation of magazine articles. I wish Kushner had included more details of the last GTA game, which was 100 times more immersive than any open world game to date. Kusher starts off chapters with a cute POV line bringing the readers attention into a scene like a video game, which mostly fell flat for me.

My Mother Was Nuts  I'm always interested in behind the scenes Hollywood stories and I remember watching Penny Marshall even before Laverne & Shirley. Marshall recounts her journey from being a teenage mom to actress to TV star to film director with a lot of humor and insight. Part of her career was owed to nepotism (her brother was Garry Marshall, producer on The Odd Couple & Happy Days) and part of it was due to hard work and talent. I had forgotten that Penny was married to Rob Reiner for years and that relationship is fully explored. Before that, she was married as a teenager and had a daughter that was largely raised by her relatives. Penny moved within several high profile circles: the Reiner circle that included Richard Dreyfuss & Albert Brooks; the Saturday Night Live circle with John Belushi, Lorne Michaels; the Carrie Fisher circle with Art Garfunkle & Paul Simon; and the CEO circle with Barry Diller and Ron Perlman. You get some insight into the lives of all these people. When Penny transitions into directing her first film, she doesn't even know what the term "pre-production" means which is kind of shocking. But she covers the making of her most famous movies: Big, Awakenings, and A League of Their Own. Highly recommended for fans of her movies and the stars of the 1970s.

Marie Severin: The Mirthful Mistress of Comics Marie Severin was one of my favorite artists from the classic 1960s Bullpen at Marvel Comics.  She worked on many things for Marvel: covers, coloring, inking, pencilling, etc.  I loved her renditions of the Hulk and the few times she worked with her brother, John Severin.  But most of all I loved Marie's humor work: Not Brand Ecch, which satirized Marvel's super-heroes with such insane delight.  Marie's cartoons filled in for the fan club magazine FOOM with such things as Jarvis the butler cleaning up the Avengers' costumes or roasting Len Wein and Chris Claremont over a fire.  There has been a lot of talk about Marie in various comics history books, but never one centered on her until now.  This volume contains some interviews with Marie as well as her contemporaries: John Severin, John Romita, etc.

While everyone interviewed, including Marie herself, don't mention anything about discrimination to a woman in the comics world, there is one glaring piece of evidence that there was.  Marie Severin should have been a comics superstar along with Kirby, Romita, Buscema, etc.  She should have been taken off the back office stuff and put on a regular monthly book that was suited for her.  There is an interesting anecdote here where John Buscema asks not to see any more of Marie's cover sketches, because they are just too good.  Even Kirby said he could not get the flow of the cover as good as Marie.  It's a shame that someone like Marie couldn't have worked on Mad Magazine.  Eventually Marvel did Crazy Magazine, which gave her a place to shine, but it wasn't very successful.

At any rate, this book is a must-have for the classic Marvel fan and the Marie Severin fans.  Chocked with lots of cool sketches and illustrations.  For a different take on this book, check out the Hooded Utilitarian's blog.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story I reviewed Sean Howe's book over at Giant-Size Marvel. In short, I think it belongs on the shelf of any die-hard Marvel Comics fan, although you may already know a lot of the story, there are some surprising pieces of Marvel history.  Read the full review here.

Feel free to follow my reading activity over at GoodReads.  Nuff Said!

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