Thursday, August 8, 2013

Mark Burnett's larger-than-life experiences will inspire

Jump In! Even If You Don't Know How To Swim
By Mark Burnett, published by Ballantine Books (2005)

Mark Burnett is a famous television producer who is credited with introducing the reality TV genre to audiences around the world. His shows – Eco-Challenge, Survivor, The Apprentice, Shark Tank – have revolutionized the medium.

In his 2005 autobiography, Jump In!, Burnett chronicles his rise from obscurity to the top of the entertainment industry with honesty and candor.

This rags-to-riches story is inspiring. After arriving in Los Angeles in 1982 with $600 in his pocket, Burnett soon found employment as a nanny for a wealthy couple. He sold T-shirts on Venice Beach, founded a marketing company and eventually got involved in producing the Eco-Challenge series for Discovery Channel.

Clearly, Burnett has a passion for the outdoors and for embracing the unknown. His personal philosophy of jumping headlong into a project, despite his naiveté or lack of experience, didn’t deter him from tackling bigger and bigger challenges. With a sheer determination, chutzpah, courage and creativity, Burnett embarked on a journey to produce exhilarating TV according to his unique vision.

His story is most compelling when he describes the various trails and tribulations in filming Eco-Challenge and Survivor episodes. His descriptions of exotic lands, from the primitive cultures of Borneo to the snake-infested jungles of the Amazon, make for some fun reading.

Burnett recounts his many adventures in a plain, engaging style presents nuggets of wisdom and lessons learned in adages, which appear as sidebars throughout the book.

Here’s a sample:

  • Choose your companion before you choose your road;
  • Always be brave enough to change your mind when you know you should;
  • Jumping in is all about having conscious faith in your own abilities;
  • Little victories: When setting long-term goals, benchmark your progress. 
Disclosure: I’m not a big TV watcher. I’ve seen one episode of Survivor 1 and half of an Apprentice episode (I can’t remember which season). That’s not to say that the programming that Burnett has produced has not had tremendous value for the shows’ legions of fans and advertisers over the past 14 years.

Jump In! provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a modern-day TV pioneer, along with enough thrills and chills to qualify as a page-turner.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

How the Midwest was won

The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson
Published in Canada by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited (2006)

Best-selling author Bill Bryson grew up in Des Moines, Iowa during the 1950s and '60s, and in his playful memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, he recreates his childhood and teen years with humour and pathos, and sometimes a touch of nostalgia.

With tongue firmly in cheek, and a near encyclopedic knowledge of arcane comic book titles, TV shows and Hollywood stars of the era, Bryson describes the head-scratching fashions, politics, fears, customs and preoccupations of the Midwest following the Second World War. This was a time when detonating hydrogen bombs was a spectator sport and the fear of Communism pervaded every nook and cranny of American life. To be fair, it was also the era of pea shooters, hula hoops, Howdy Doody, Bing Crosby, the New York Yankees and drive-in restaurants.

In all seriousness, this is a fun read, particularly if you grew up in the years Bryson chronicles and can relate to the fads and fashions of the time. I was born eight years after Bryson, but many of the cultural references and world events are somewhat familiar to me. To give an example of Bryson's exquisite eye for detail and his talent for highlighting absurd fashion trends of the day, here he describes a haircut that suddenly became vogue in the '50s:
"...In 1955, my father and brother went to the barbershop and came back with every hair on their heads standing at attention and sheared off in a perfect horizontal plane in the arresting style known as a flattop. They spent most of the rest of the decade looking as if they were prepared in emergencies to provide landing spots for some very small experimental aircraft, or perhaps special delivery messages sent by miniature missile. Never have people looked so ridiculous and happy at the same time."
There are countless anecdotes like that, each more hilarious than the next. One word of caution before reading The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid: This is a laugh-out-loud book that really demands to be read in private. To read it in a public space would be to invite scrutiny and concern from passersby. You could very well find yourself laughing aloud so often that strangers could be forgiven for suspecting that you were certifiably insane.

If you're looking for a book that provides a glimpse of the formative years of one our best contemporary writers, and a history lesson on a generation which seems to have been stuck in neutral and heavily influenced from visitations from other planets, then find this book and read it today -- preferably in private.