Sunday, September 3, 2017

Once Upon a Town by Bob Greene

Why I read it: Impulse buy. I saw it as yet another story in the biggest story of them all, World War II.

Summary: A small town train station is turned into a place of joy for America's military men as they cross the country on troop trains in World War II.

My Thoughts: So, what happened in North Platte, Nebraska, in World War II? Meet just about any veteran you meet (sadly, they are almost all gone), and he will tell you.

As a stop on the east-west rail line across the country, the North Platte station suddenly became a place that just about every serviceman knew. He had a precious few minutes to get to know it, but the locals were ready.

They set up the train station as a canteen, and stocked it with whatever they could make: coffee, pleasant sandwiches, cake,s pies and more. The local communities took turns manning - or womanning, technically - the canteen, making sure that every train, sometimes as many as 32 per day, was met, with smiles, positive vibes and home style nourishment for young men with the most uncertain of futures.

Bob Greene went to find it, and found it was gone. But the people were there, and the spirit lived on. He let them tell their own story, in this partial oral history of the North Platte Canteen, and sought the men who went through and made it home to tell the story of the miracle they witnessed in Nebraska.

If you have read and are a fan of The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim Defede, you will love this book. It's as feel-good as it gets.

Playboys and Mayfair Men by Angus McLaren

Why I read it: It was an Amazon Vine opportunity, plus the interwar period has always interested me.

Summary: "Crime, Class, Masculinity, and Fascism in 1930s London" as studied through the lens of the Mayfair Men diamond theft case.

My Thoughts: So, the basic story is that four young men, from well-bred stock (as defined by the social structures of interwar England) stage a robbery, are caught, tried and punished. From these simple, straightforward moments spring innumerable storylines.

Who were they, and why did they do what they did? Were they typical of men of their generation, or were they just four wayward souls who sank to the lowest of the low? As the subtitle, quoted above, states, there was a lot more to it, mostly driven by the sensational coverage by the newspapers of the day. The perpetrators' pasts were paraded across the front pages, their failed relationships, their speeding tickets, their soured business dealings. From these details the concept of a "Mayfair Man" hardened: a lover of speed, a self-made adventurer, a risk-taker.

But there was more. Despite the carefully constructed "butch" facade, the typical Mayfair Man, was a little effeminate by the day's standard. The men in the robbery was described as such by the hotel staff that encountered them before and after the act. But were they trendsetters, or followers of fashion trends sent forward by men like Noel Coward and Fred Astaire?

The discussion, too, focused on politics, with each side, liberal and conservative, blaming the other for the rise of the Mayfair Man.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the story pertains to the punishment for the crime. Two of the men were sentenced to flogging. The should-we-or-shouldn't-we debate raged. Should capital punishment be allowed? Was it really a deterrent? And should the sons of England's socially superior families be subjected to it? Their masculinity would be on trial when the cat-o'-nine-tails struck, too, especially when watched by the generation who came before them, those who fought in World War I, and gave up friends, limbs and more for their country.

My thought on the topic was that I was surprised that it was even an issue. For centuries, death had been a spectator sport in Great Britain, with public executions, in many gruesome, gory variations, always attracting crowds. These punishments were not public, beyond the results published in the newspapers (which varied from paper to paper). But England was in the throes of growing its conscience, at least questioning whether or not physical punishment - from flogging to execution - should even be alternatives any more.

The author presents us with much more than just the case, as he offers us the life histories of other "Mayfair Men" who fit the mold, rich, young men who wanted more and were not averse to taking it.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Under the March Sun by Charles Fountain

Why I Read It: A baseball fan through and through, major league spring training is something I've never experienced.

Summary: A history of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, focusing mostly on the musical chairs game at play among the many cities hosting and hoping to host big league clubs.

My Thoughts: When I was a kid, Winter Haven was the byline. The Red Sox trained in Winter Haven. Always had, always would. I had no understanding that spring training did not come with the advent of baseball. It seems so obvious; they must have trained somewhere warm before the season started, even the old Boston Beaneaters. Yet, at some point in my life, they moved to Fort Myers. It was the result of negotiations regarding the needs of a club and the needs of a community, of the optimum number of practice fields and fan accessibility. It was part of the regular shuffling from city to city, from state to state, through time. But it had major economic impacts on Winter Haven. There are only so many major league teams to go around. Without the best package to offer, a community may find itself without one for a year, and a facility in waiting is a facility stagnating.

And yet, from Boston, when I found out the Red Sox moved, I reacted like someone who had no idea of any of the above. "Huh, they moved." And I went on my merry way.

Politics and economics both play major roles in the spring training game. From the beginning, pioneers in Florida saw spring training as their economic salvation. Six weeks of bylines in major northern cities were seen as untouchable marketing opportunities for tourism boards. Now, a century on, it's all a multi-million dollar affair. It's Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Boardwalk and Baseball in Haines City. It's the celebration of baseball that sometimes goes too far to be sustainable. It's about understanding the fan experience as a part of the grander scheme, but that the bottom line still trumps everything.

It's also the competition between cities in Florida, and between Florida and Arizona. And it's the story of the briefly considered Oasis League in Las Vegas. The sting of gambling kept the sport away, but now that the NHL has broken down that barrier, with a new team in the desert, has the game changed? The author also deals with the trials of racial integration. Florida is the Deep South, and as such, spring training was a battleground in the integration war.

To keep it all straight, the author includes a thorough appendix, by team, of the spring training locations of the past 120 years. After reading this book, I'll never give the news of a move a "Huh" again.

Finally, let me just say how fun it is to read all the way through a book, and have the author sign off the acknowledgments from a spot fifteen minutes from your house. It brings the whole reading experience full circle, and makes one feel like there is somehow magic nearby.

Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

Why I Read It: Had an Amazon gift card and wanted t o load up my Kindle with some good history reads.

Summary: A straightforward biography of the General.

My Thoughts: It might be hard to find anyone who shaped our 20th century way of life more than Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The author takes an even-handed view of the life and times of Ike, from his personal relationships (including his alleged affair with Kay Summersby) to his political dealings. The result is an opus, a sweeping, epic journey through a half century of American history.

What we find is that Ike knew better than most how to leverage personalities against each other, and how to call in favors when needed. When he saw his Army career stagnating, he would call on superiors he knew were sympathetic to his cause and would find the next great job. Although he missed World War I, on the sidelines as the troops marched off and returned, he was, from the 1930s to the 1960s, tied into many of the most important moments of American history. He served in Washington D.C. during the dispelling of the Bonus Army. He served under MacArthur in the Philippines. And he was given supreme command of the combined allied efforts in Europe in World War II.

It's here that we see his strengths and weaknesses, according to Smith. Dealing with Roosevelt, Churchill, de Gaulle, and the political scene, he excelled. As a military strategist, he lacked polish; it would be interesting to read a biography of Ike written by a British military man like Montgomery. To be fair, sadly, the British had a two-year head start in combat on the continent, and were therefore battle-hardened by the time the Americans joined the conflict. Still, it was when he pulled back from coordination of combat tactics and focused on political relationships that would be important after the war that he shined.

It was, of course, perfect training. Ike would return to regular army duties after the war, would work as president of Columbia University and as Supreme Commander of NATO and ultimately would spend eight years in the White House. He traded in Patton, MacArthur and Marshall for Roosevelt, Churchill and de Gaulle; he then traded them for McCarthy, Stevenson, Nixon and the rest of the 1950s cast of domestic political characters. His years in the White House included the opening days of the Civil Rights movement (he demanded desegregation of the Army) and the Space Race; unrest in both Asia and the Middle East; the Dien Bien Phu incident; the rise of the CIA; the expansion of the American highway system; and more. He worked hard - oftentimes to the dismay of his fellow Republicans - to avert war. Having seen it up close, he felt that funds poured into defense could better be spent elsewhere in the U.S. He exhorted the Soviets to think the same way.

Yet, he also believed in the use of overwhelming force as a deterrent. When the people of Little Rock refused to integrate their schools, Ike ordered the 101st Airborne to Arkansas to escort the kids into the building. He held the atomic bomb at bay, wanting never to use it, but also never letting his true feelings be known. He believed that global, open sharing of the science behind it would avert the feared mutually assured destruction its use would inevitably bring. But it remained a chip he could play at any time, if needed.

He maintained good relations with the Russians until the very end, when the U-2 incident destroyed them. Ironically, the last flight caused the uproar. Eisenhower didn't like the idea of American overflights of Russian territory, though the data returned, ostensibly about the Soviets' ability to wage war with intercontinental ballistic missiles, had value. He called for an end to the flights, but the CIA pushed for more. He allowed one more, within a two-week window. It got delayed until May 1, and was shot down, the pilot surviving. Any good will Ike had built up with the Russians for the past decade and a half was gone, leaving the next President (Kennedy) to inherit a highly unstable world.

The author treats Ike's final years as a denouement, as Ike hoped it would be. He had put in his time on the world stage and was ready to fade into the background.

This book left me wanting the story to continue, as I felt like I was losing a friend when the "character" of Ike petered out. I felt the same way reading James Clavell's Shogun. And yet, I move on.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Streak by John Eisenberg

Why I Read It: Ripken breaking Gehrig's record was a remarkable moment for baseball, and it occurred during my lifetime, making it an interesting historical topic for me personally.

Summary: Gehrig, Ripken, and all the others who have tried to break their consecutive games played streaks.

My Thoughts: When you think about it, an iron man streak is a precarious thing. A player can, at times, seem invincible, heroic; at others, he can be seen as the most selfish man in the majors. When averages are up, runs are being knocked in and the position is being fielded cleanly, it's all good. When the average heads for the Mendoza line, fans begin calling for heads.

So it should be no surprise that it took two Hall of Famers to set the records.

But Eisenberg reminds us that Gehrig's streak was by no means the first, and Ripken's was by no means the last - more on that in a minute. The story of the streak predates Gehrig by decades, and continues today. Between the Iron Horse and Cal came a long list of pretenders who never made the grade, for various reasons. Eisenberg shows how health, a dedicated team trainer, sympathetic managers and even luck need to come together to play the game for more than 2,000 consecutive appearances.

But what is an appearance? Is batting lead off and being pulled from the game considered an appearance? What about pinch running? Just playing defense? As you can imagine, it has been debated through time, and even appears in the Major League Baseball rule book.

This record is one that may never be broken. Yes, it's cliche to say that, and also to say, "Never say never," but the fact is that with today's game the rationale no longer exists. Current belief states that players are better with occasional rest, that the 162-game grind is beyond human capacity, if a team truly believes in fielding its best nine every day. Rarely do players play all 162 any more; stringing together 18 consecutive 162s seems utterly comical.

But, the fact is, Ripken set his record just twenty years ago, and in this ageless game, one never knows what will happen next. Still, Ripken and Gehrig are the only two to break 2,000 (Sachio Kinugasa did so in Japan), and Everett Scott's 1,307 was less than half Ripken's total.

Eisenberg examines all angles, bringing us back to the 19th century to seek the genesis of the iron man streak. He turns over every rock in the life of Gehrig to figure out why he did it, and does the same with Ripken's story. When one considers it's been 19 years since the record was broken, this side-by-side telling of their stories was long overdue.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Baseball Meat Market by Shawn Krest

Why I Read It: Whenever I get stitches, I ask the doctor to make them red. Baseball is in my blood.

Summary: Twenty of the biggest baseball trades in history, how they came to be, and how they look in retrospect.

My Thoughts: I'll state right off the bat (haha) that I'm not a huge fan of the modern statistics. I understand how it happened. Imagine living in the 1920s when the craze for statistics first hit. No longer was a player just what the eyes told you he was. Nope, he was now a bag of numbers, statistically comparable to all others in the game. It was a dehumanizing moment for baseball, and all sports that followed as crazes for the American public. Sports - all sports - became math games.

There's been a recent explosion in the ways we measure baseball players. For decades, we were comfortable with the big three for hitters: Average, Home Runs and RBIs. We checked Wins and Losses for pitchers, Earned Run Average and Strikeouts. Pitchers were judged by Complete Games and Shutouts for starters, and, from the 1970s onward, Saves for closers. Krest throws that all out for the purposes of this book and focuses on Worth Above Replacement, or WAR.

So, for old-timey stats lovers like me, let's move past that and get into the meat of the book.

Krest pulls out 20 of the biggest trades in history and dissects them from inkling to aftermath, ultimately validating his judgement of them by the use of WAR comparisons. It's the area in between that is the most fascinating. Trades can often surprise us, when we hear that player A was moved for player B or player C to be named later. We think, "wow, that came out of nowhere," but, in many cases, there were may iterations of that trade before it was finalized. Different names were thrown around.

Through Krest's research we find out just how detailed and mind-boggling the process can be, with players dangled and pulled back, offers changed and more. This book humanizes the trade process, reminding us that there are wives who want their children to grow up in strong communities, knees blown out in offseason basketball games necessitating the search for replacement players, crabby attitudes on behalf of the players and simple miscalculations and missed projections on the parts of the trading partners.

The book is dense, and covers an era from the 1950s onward, mostly focusing on the 1970s forward. For almost all baseball fans there will be a moment of revelation when they are forced to picture their favorite player wearing a rival uniform, in a version of a trade that never was.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Why I Read It: A check mark on my classics list.

Summary: A condescending and truculent man of science tells tales of dinosaurs living in South America and leads an expedition to find them to quell the doubts of the London scientific community.

My Thoughts: That Sir Arthur Conan Doyle can write.

He starts with a premise that fantastic creatures exist in a faraway place that cannot be fully divulged (thereby setting up an alien world on Earth) lest other adventurers race ahead and find out the area's secrets. A team is assembled: a doubting man of science (Professor Summerlee), a retired military man with a history in South America that will come back to haunt him (Lord John Roxton), and the hero of the day, Edward Malone, the dashing journalist who also happens to be a famous Irish rugby player (described as the last standing of the manly sports, an interesting editorial observation of the time). The pugnacious Professor Challenger surprises them all by arriving on scene to lead the expedition.

They assemble the standard gathering of Star Trek red shirts, the expendable support staff that one-by-one dwindles away via one incident or another. The four major characters make it through the Amazon jungles and up onto the plateau to find the world once depicted in the suspicious drawings of an American albino. They find what they came for, and much, much more.

The story has the feel of H. Ryder Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan stories and other adventure tales of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when exploration into the depths of the jungles of the southern hemisphere was all the rage. Seemingly everything is included from the playbook of the genre, tribal wars, stinging plants, horrific depictions of grisly deaths, unexpected discoveries and run-ins with creatures yet unknown to man, or, rather, long ago forgotten. In one instance, the team is presented with a cliffhanger of mammoth proportions, as their escape route from the plateau is destroyed, which is funny, as Doyle is known as the inventor of the term.

Partway through the story, Malone, the journalist, changes from a first person narrative in journal form and begins a series of dispatches to his London newspaper. We read along like his readers would have, hanging, ourselves, on every turn of the troupe's fortunes.

In the end we are left with the belief that there is more to come. Malone took on the journey to prove his worth to the love of his life, but she is not waiting for him to return. He goes all in on the next adventure.

Jurassic Park be damned. This is where it all began, and where the tale will always remain in my heart. Long live Professor Challenger!