Book Review: The Way We All Became the Brady Bunch

Published in 2019 on the 50th anniversary of the series, the overall theme of this book is how an unsuccessful TV series (never cracking the top 30 in ranking) went on to become a syndication and cultural juggernaut.

Alice from the cover the book

Like many of my generation, I grew up as a latchkey kid who came home from school and immediately plopped down in front of the television to watch reruns of The Brady Bunch (and Sherwood Schwartz’s other masterpiece, Gilligan’s Island). So the nostalgic appeal of this book was immediate, although ultimately I was slightly disappointed, as I had hoped for more sociological analysis and less Hollywood Reporter or, sometimes, TMZ.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading it, and some highlights include:

  • The Brady house is the second most photographed house in America, after the White House.
  • The secret sauce of the show is its simplicity and the mirror it held to the viewer. If you had a similar family, there was a character for you to identify with. If you didn’t have a family like theirs, you wanted one.
  • The earworm of a theme song served an important purpose — it was a cleverly disguised exposition of the premise before every episode. A technique also used by Schwartz for Gilligan’s Island.
  • It was revealed that Mike Brady was a widower, but like the fate of Fluffy the dog, what happened to Carol’s husband is still a mystery.
  • The show was filmed using a single camera to minimize the time that the children needed to be on set, so they could attend school classes between scenes.
  • Lucille Ball plays two major roles in the history of the show. First, the success of her movie Yours, Mine and Ours got the series green-lit by the network. Secondly, her invention of recording shows for later playback allowed the Bradys to be syndicated, which is where it flourished.
  • The show invented the “family vacation” trope with its trip to Hawaii.
  • The pornographic parody of the show is the best-selling adult video series of all time.

On the less interesting side, the author’s insistence on detailing cast lists (including those who didn’t get the roles) for the various spinoffs and reunions didn’t hold my interest. Furthermore, as a pop culture writer, I would expect Kimberly Potts to know more accurate years for defining “Generation X.” (Douglas Coupland, who wrote about his generation using the name, was born in 1961.) Finally, this book incessantly reminds the reader that Robert Reed was difficult to work with. Yeah, we get it; TV’s favorite father was frequently a little bitch.

I found my copy of the book in the closeout section of Unabridged in Boystown. You can get yours from the Amazon, of course. The photo I’ve included here is detail from the excellent jacket design.

Book Review: The Case of the Grinning Gorilla

This book is the fortieth in the Perry Mason series by Erle Stanley Gardner. If you’re more of a television person, it is featured in season eight of the show. (I’m slowly working my way through the episodes via streaming, which I’m loving, but man those were long seasons back in the day.)

The basic premise of the story seems to be that a medical researcher is mistreating his primate subjects and a brilliant gorilla turns to thievery, and I presume, eventually to murder. I’m a little fuzzy on the details for reasons that will become clear below. Mystery File has a nice plot summary with minimal spoilers, if you want a more reliable summary.

The writing is sharp, the plot flows well, and I didn’t mind hearing the voices of Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale in my head as I read the snappy dialog. This is my first encounter with Gardner’s writing, and I want to come back for more at some point.

But that point is not now. I didn’t finish reading this book. It was engaging and enjoyable, but current demands on my time have me in “short attention span reading mode”, and a sweeping mystery — with its cast of many characters — is not conducive to irregular consumption. Every time I picked up the book to read a chapter, I found myself a little lost in who was whom and what they had done. Rather than continue to struggle, I asked for a continuance (see what I did there?) and returned the book to the Little Free Library where I found it. (You can begin your search for a copy on the Amazon.)

But now I know that Gardner should be on my reading list, and I have a new appreciation for the television series too.

Please and Thank You

Today I noticed a new book at Barnes & Noble: Please, Sorry, Thanks: The Three Words That Change Everything. (Amazon link) The cover says: “Those three words are the foundation of all healthy relationships and successful careers.”

I haven’t read this book, nor do I need to because my parents raised me correctly. It’s astonishing to me how many people don’t ever express their gratitude to others.

I worked in a retail store for a dozen years. By decree of the owner, every customer was thanked. Either for their purchase, or just for visiting the store. Today, most clerks don’t even say “thank you” when concluding a transaction. (If you haven’t noticed this before, you will now.) Sometimes, in a show of only mildly satisfying passive-aggression, I'll cheerfully tell them “you’re welcome” as I depart. This probably makes me a jerk.

And the lack of gratitude is not just at the individual level, but organizationally too. I spent years editing, writing, and publishing a monthly newsletter for a local neighborhood group. I did it because I love my community, but I never received a thank you or acknowledgment from the leaders of the organization. Not even when I resigned my position.

Just the other day, I dropped off several boxes of household goods at the local Salvation Army Donation Center. A person working there accepted my items, told me where to pile them, but never expressed any gratitude for providing them with free goods. This, from a business that relies entirely on the kindness of others!

It is sad that a book reminding people about expressing simple, cost-free courtesy has to exist, but I hope it changes the world.

Book Review: God, Human, Animal, Machine

This 2022 publication by Meghan O'Gieblyn is subtitled Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning.

gordon meyer holding book cover

I’m not certain how to categorize this book. If the book is journalism, it’s overly dense and repetitive, but appropriately neutral in its perspective. If it’s intended to be an academic tome, it’s superficial, omits too many important precedents, and lacks a thesis. But it does raise several significant questions and offers some interesting insight.

The author is a former fundamentalist who seems to have replaced her Christian belief system with fundamental materialism. (I should clarify that I am not a fan of either position.)

As I was reading this book, there were many occasions when I almost decided to quit and let it go unfinished. But, I kept reading, as there were just enough intriguing (but largely underdeveloped) tidbits to pull me along. By the time I reached the end, I felt like I had finished a big tub of movie theatre popcorn. I enjoyed it, but with some shame, and I knew I probably should have stopped myself sooner.

What kept me going was the contemplative observations about technology, and my heart sung at citations to the work of the great sociologist, Max Weber, and more rarely, Hegel. But throughout the book, I couldn’t help notice the complete lack of references to Marxism. At first, I was irked that the book ignores a wide swath of relevant scholarship, but I eventually chalked it up to the author’s Wheaton Bible College education, where the writings of Marx were probably forbidden.

Aside from Weber, I was also glad to find discussion of Ray Kurzweil. Clearly the singularity is relevant to her discussion and perspective, and she addresses it quite well. But there are a few other relevant works that I was hoping she’d bring into the conversation. The writings of philosopher Robert Anton Wilson would provide broader context to her observations, and the books The Soul of A New Machine and What The Dormouse Said would steel her arguments.

Here are just a few of the tasty nuggets that I collected from the book:

  • Our brains can’t fundamentally distinguish between interacting with people and interacting with devices. (Clifford Nass, Stanford)
  • Metaphors die when we forget that they are metaphors and take them literally. This has happened to the “computational theory of mind.” Our brains are not computers; our computers are not brains. But you’d never know it by listening to people talk about A.I., and other technologies.
  • For most of human history, we accepted that our lives were being watched, listened to, and supervised by gods and spirits. Not all of them benign.
  • Science set aside consciousness because it is too difficult to study objectively. This led to metaphysical avoidance, and eventually, metaphysical denial.
  • If the fascists in Florida want to protect people, they should focus on transhumanism (a concept born of the 1800s) instead of transgenderism. (This sentiment is mine, not the authors, to be clear.)
  • Wikipedia goes to great lengths to obscure the human authorship of its articles to imbue itself with the aura of a holy text.
  • The theory of a “participatory universe,” briefly mentioned in the book, led me to this interesting summary.
  • The author’s college offered only one course in Literature, and it was focused exclusively on works with Christian themes, such as stories by C.S. Lewis.
  • Standardized testing is all about making students look good to an algorithm.

I know this review has a bit of a negative tone, but ultimately, I was left with 35 notecards of compelling tidbits or references to explore. That’s a successful book, even though I didn’t always enjoy it. If you’d like to dive into this book for yourself, pick up a copy at the Amazon. I found mine at Barbara’s Bookstore.

Book Review: Dictionary of Imaginary Places

How does one write a “review” of a dictionary? I’m not certain, but that hasn’t prevented me from trying to do so previously. (And if you’re not already familiar with Magic Words: A Dictionary, be sure to remedy that gap in your knowledge.)

I’ve been wanting a copy of Dictionary of Imaginary Places for a long time, and I finally found it for a good price at Half-Price Books. (Which can yield some great deals if you’re a knowledgable shopper and weed out the absurd prices that they sometimes ask)

photo of book cover by gordon meyer

Written in 1980 in the style of a travel guide, it catalogs about 1200 fictional locations from plays, poems, and books. (It does not include television or movies, so even if it were a contemporary publication, Schmigadoon would be omitted.) The authors have also, wisely in my opinion, restricted the selections to earthly, reachable destinations — there are no off-planet or future cities included. (Can you imagine if they didn’t impose these limitations‽ The book would be voluminous.)

Many of the locations are accompanied by delightful illustrations and maps, but for me, the Travel Agent-style descriptions are the star. The book is indexed by author and publication, but I wished for one based on continents, such as North America. (Although I recognize that many imaginary locations are not bound by such concepts.)

My favorite entries are entirely personal and probably not interesting, so I’ll simply cite one example, which from this point forward is my favorite city in the world — Abaton. It’s a city of ever-changing location, and thus is an unreachable destination. It was “discovered” by Thomas Bulfinch in 1892.

Begin your search for the Dictionary of Imaginary Places at the Amazon, but for a more complete experience, let a copy find you.

Book Review: Opus Dei

This 2005 publication by John L. Allen, Jr. is subtitled “An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church.” Allen is a well-established Vatican reporter, and this extensive and insightful book could only come from the pen of someone with his background, creditability, and connections.

I had a hard time finding a copy of this book. I wanted to read it because, unbeknownst to many residents, Opus Dei is deeply ensconced in my neighborhood. My experience with local Opus Dei members and clergy has been nothing but positive and supportive, and I am grateful for all of it. So, it was important to me that I learn more about their organization from a source that wasn’t bent towards the hysteric. Allen’s book is the perfect answer for cutting through that noise.

gordon meyer holding book

Most of you, if you’ve heard of Opus Dei at all, probably know of it from reading or watching The DaVinci Code. (Which, by the way, is not a documentary.) If you’ve never heard of the group, in brief outsider’s terms, it’s an ultra-conservative Catholic order, unique because it reports directly to Rome, and its members — most of which are laypeople — don’t outwardly advertise their affiliation. They have regular jobs, and do ‘the work’ of the Church amongst the rest of us. Privately, many of them live in group homes, give most of their money to the church, sleep on the hard floor, pray several times a day, and occasionally submit themselves to obedience training in the form of self-flagellation.

There are plenty of other salacious details, theories, and sensationalism about “Octopus Dei,” should you care to seek it. In some countries, such as Spain, they are often suspected to be a shadowy political force. Closer to home, my favorite rumor is that due to Opus Dei’s apparent ties to the infamous Knights Templar, they are believed to possess the Holy Grail. (Which may or may not be kept at their only American parish, located in the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago.)

Unless you’re a Roman-Catholic, much of the nitty-gritty in the book will go over your head (it certainly did mine), but there is still plenty that will hold your interest. The book is well written, certainly sympathetic, and interesting. Did I learn some surprising details about Opus Dei membership and practices? Absolutely. But I also gained a new appreciation for their dedication to their deeply held convictions — despite my disagreement with many of their tenants.

Having read this book, my conclusion about Opus Dei is that the organization is both stranger and more mundane than I had previously heard. I have a better understanding of why critics call it a “Catholic cult,” but I also found myself feeling sympathetic towards their organizational secrecy and admiring their ability to embrace the supernatural in everyday being.

I was also left with a feeling of admiration for the author’s accomplishment. Although I’m not convinced of the book’s stated objectivity, it tackled a far-reaching and complicated topic in a well-organized and understandable way. (Just be prepared to look up, or skip, theological and organizational details if you’re not a Roman-Catholic.)

You can get an ebook version of the publication from the Amazon, and if you’re lucky, maybe they’ll have a printed edition too.

Book Review: Polish Robbin’ Hoods

This 1992 book is the story of Chicago’s Panczko brothers — “the gang that couldn’t steal straight.” It’s written by Ed Baumann and John O’Brien, two beloved and experienced Chicago newspaper crime reporters. The book is from a small Chicago publisher, seemingly now defunct, and took me quite a while to track down.

gordon meyer holding book

The Panczko family was, nearly to the person, a blue-collar crime syndicate on the North side of Chicago. The family’s patriarch, “Pops,” was called the Dean of Burglary by the Chicago Police, and in this book he is described as a Thomas Edison of breaking and entering. Among his many innovations were the invention of a tool that yanks the cylinders from door locks, being the first to wear rubber Halloween masks to conceal his identity, and being the reason that businesses starting enclosing safes in concrete. (So he couldn’t remove them and work on entry at his leisure.)

The book is smartly written, and sometimes laugh out loud funny. It gives a true voice to the era and the participants, and as a result, I learned some new slang and ethic slurs.

You might be wondering how the Panczko story ends. Well, I don’t know. I wanted to read it for research purposes, and while enjoyable, I soon found that the detail of every caper, betrayal, and life event in the family was not a productive use of my time. So, I didn’t finish the book. You’ll have to read it for yourself to find the ending. Let me know, willya?

Briefly noted

"Brevity naturally provides an opening to mystery because the mysterious eludes all explanation. It speaks to something more significant than what can be explained. There is always something beyond. We can feel that anticipation, the suspense that naturally resides between the known and the unknown, the opening up of questions."

Writer’s Digest

Book Review: Haunted Junk Drawer

This 2023 publication by Eric Bartholomew is subtitled “Thirteen tales of objects and strange occurrences.” It’s a collection of short stories centered around a household (mostly) objects that exhibit supernatural characteristics.

gordon meyer holding book

I was surprised and pleased at the variety and cleverness of the objects themselves. And the fun perspectives on how each might manifest its haunted nature. There are stories about bottles, bus tickets, elevator placards, toys, and — my favorite — a haunted pie tin that, under the right circumstances, emanates ghostly scents of past bakes.

The stories are all snappy and fun. They’re just the right length to adequately explore the premise and leave enough things unanswered that they stick with you after you’ve finished. The writing style is first-person anecdotal and feels very much like you’re hearing the tale from a good friend.

I don’t know the author, but I feel like we’ve passed on the street. That’s because many of the tales are set in locations that I’ve visited, some of which are nearby. For me, this familiarity pulled me even further into the stories.

There were quite a few thoughtful concepts that Bartholomew explored, and several more that he conjured within me. Such as:

  • Junk drawers as a place for both artifacts of memory and aspirational futures.
  • The joy of finding an object that has no discernible online presence. It’s like Howard Carter entering Tut’s tomb!
  • Dementia as a form of distorted reality, a person within the world but viewing it from a removed perspective. Is this how a ghost might see us?

I bought my copy of this delightful book at Quimby’s. You can reach the author via his website.

Book Review: Apocrypha Now

This 2016 book, by Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler, is a fresh look at writings that were omitted from the Bible in AD 325. Additionally, the book offers many tales that were included, and from related sources such as the Talmud, but are often overlooked in today’s world.

Comic from book

The stories are retold in contemporary style and language. This makes them more relatable than usual, and the writing is sharp and often laugh out loud funny. Shannon’s clever comics add to the fun, too. (Such as the story of when God turned Abraham into a giant to fight the Elamites. By the way, I call dibs on “Seventy Foot Abraham” as a band name.)

The book even provided me with some unexpected clarity, particularly the Epilogue, which summarizes that history and tribulations of the Jewish people under Greek, Roman, and Christian rule. (It seems like Jared Kushner could have benefited from reading this, too.)

A small selection of other tidbits that I particularly enjoyed:

  • There is a 400-year gap between the Old and New Testaments. Despite two years of religious training as a young man, somehow this fundamental fact was never communicated to me, nor did I notice it.
  • The proper form of “Mary Magdalene” would be “Mary the Magdalene.” Magdalene is not, of course, her surname. It means “reformed prostitute.” So omitting the article is rather disrespectful. Changing the culture to use “Mary the Virgin” when referring to the other Mary would be nicely parallel, but I’m confident that ship has sailed.
  • A lost book, The Gospel of Judas, is a rather contemporary discovery (1990s) and it wasn’t translated into English until 2005. It shockingly states that Judas was secretly asked by Jesus to turn him over to the Romans. It was not a betrayal at all.
  • The great sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were their greed and xenophobia, not buggering. It was for these acts that these (and other) cities of the Jordan Plain were destroyed. Republicans, take note.

The Bible, for better or for worse (mostly the latter) permeates society in both subtle and obvious ways. It’s a good idea to remind yourself what’s in it, what used to be in it, and how just how crazily selective some adherents are to its details. I bought my copy of this highly recommended book at Quimby’s, but of course, it’s also found on the Amazon.