Monday, October 8, 2018

Forever Nerdy by Brian Posehn

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Why I Read It:
 I looked at the cover, and, like lots of people, said "Hey! I know that guy from TV!"

Summary: An autobiography of growing up in the 1970s and '80s and surviving to make it to stardom.

My Thoughts: Posehn delivered one of my all-time favorite lines on television. When asked by Ray Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond what he had been up to since they graduated high school together, Posehn's character answered, "I'm studying to be a rabbi. It's so freakin' hard!"

The line totally fits his offbeat style. And that style is rooted deep in his past.

Posehn tells all, from a cross-dressing suicidal babysitter to a creepy uncle, from exposure to scenes of death at an early age to ongoing war with his single mom, who had lost her husband when Brian was just 2. With this whirlwind swirling around him, with an oversized, somewhat uncoordinated body that leads to his relentless teasing and bullying, he withdraws into realms of fantasy - horror movies, Star Wars and the heaviest of heavy metal music around at the time, staring with the band KISS.

He launches into full chapters on his passions, making the book part nerd's lament, part nerd's manifesto. As with any of us, it's the combination of all of these things that form his personality, which comes out behind the microphone as a stand-up comedian, and eventually on film and even as a voice in a video game. He survived all of the crap from his youth to make it to the top, giving all of us - especially the nerds - the will to carry forward and charge toward our goals.

As horrible as his story is at points, it's ultimately inspiring, as the nerd finds happiness.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Pluto Files by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

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Why I Read It: 
A dedicated stargazer, with a passion for science in general.

Summary: The story of the demotion of Pluto from an insider's point of view.

My Thoughts: First, let me just say this one (what I consider to be a) fact. Astronomers have too much fun naming celestial bodies.

It's really a fascinating sidelight to the deeper story of scouring the universe for new planets, dwarf planets, comets, asteroids and the debris floating around out there clogging up the spaces in between. Tying in classical mythology to our stars is an interesting phenomenon on its own, but it makes one wonder, had the first planets not been discovered until today, would we have gone that route? Since the ancients knew "the wanderers" and gave them names they knew, would we have done the same today? Since we (many of us, anyway) don't believe in pantheons of gods, would we have gone with kings and queens? with Olympic athletes? with composers? Could the old mnemonic device (some version of My Very Elegant Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Porcupines) have stood for "Mozart, Vivaldi, Elgar, Mahler...?

I think also that the question of astronomical classification, which is generally the crux of this book, is interesting when juxtaposed with the processes for such with biology today. The latter science has a key to work from: DNA. We know - or are slowly getting to the point where we know - where all living things fall in the great tree of life (and where that tree should be listed as well). Every year, for instance, the august ornithologists of the world announce new changes to the global bird taxonomy, with the list being shifted around to accommodate the latest learning. Astronomers don't have that luxury. In fact, a few years before this book was written, they didn't even have a formal definition of the word "planet." In other worlds, it's entirely subjective, springing solely from the human brain, though based on the soundest scientific principles they can throw at the problem.

We all know what happens in the end. Pluto loses planethood. Sentimentalists do their best to fight off logic, but it prevails. Tyson, who was in the midst of redesigning the exhibits at New York City's Hayden Planetarium, became the public face of the museum's decision not to include Pluto as a planet before the formal vote was taken. The New York Times outed the museum, and the emails and letters started to fly in (he does a great job of formally recognizing in print many of the people who took the time to send them, including, I was surprised to see, a science teacher from a local school a few towns over from my current home). And, by the way, he writes with a lot of wit, making the book a fun read.

As for me, personally, I believe the right decision was made. But I remember feeling that twinge at the time. Really? Something I've "known" my whole life is wrong? I remember seeing a small exhibit at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum announcing that Pluto was no longer playing with the big kids, and thinking, "This can't be right!" But scientific evidence is what it is. I still feel a little nostalgic now and then, but then I realize that Pluto hasn't gone anywhere, and (probably) won't in my lifetime.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Marvelous: The Marvin Hagler Story by Damian and Brian Hughes

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Why I Read It: Marvelous came straight out of Brockton, right here in Plymouth County.

Summary: A straightforward, in-ring heavy account of the career of the greatest middleweight champion of all time (my opinion).

My Thoughts: Hagler was nearing the end of his reign when I was coming of an age to truly understand and respect the sport of boxing. Unfortunately, the sport itself went on a long decline in the following few years and lost its relevancy with the American public, and I drifted away, too.

But, I had a personal connection that made me want to watch Hagler fight, and win in those days. Through the machinations of parents' second marriages and the instant familial connections made to other kids of similar age, I suddenly found myself in the mid-1980s the stepbrother of a kid who was friends with one of the Hagler children, on my first go-round as a resident of Hanover, Massachusetts. Here was a champ who was not only local - he grew up in Brockton, a few miles away - but lived in my new hometown. (I've since donated my copy of the book to the Hanover Historical Society, as the town is mentioned a few times).

I'll never forget how stunned I was when I watched the Hagler-Leonard decision come down after watching the fight, thinking how he was robbed of his title. It was my first true taste of sports injustice.

The authors of this book, both British boxing aficionados, take us on a blow-by-blow journey through Hagler's career, bringing us into the ring for almost all of 67 pro fights. The book focuses quite a bit on his pre-fight strategies, his methodical training and the classic banter that shot back and forth between the fighters and their camps until the bell rang to start each contest. They do an excellent job of characterizing the champ's inner beast, the monster that drove him to be as ferocious as he was in the ring, and capture a sense of his home life as well. But this book is written for boxing fans, those who will revel in tales of Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, John Mugabi and Vito Antuofermo.

I wish it ended differently for Hagler, that he got that 15th successful title defense, so he could claim, once and for all, to be the greatest middleweight champ of all time (Carlos Monzon had 14). But it didn't happen. It took a while for him to adjust to life after being the champ, but Hagler moved on. In my eyes, he always was, and always will be, the champion.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Boom Town by Sam Anderson

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Why I Read It: Outside of my comfort zone; it seemed like something I would never read if I didn't grab it when I did.

Summary: The history of Oklahoma City told through the comparative juxtapositioning of a season with the local NBA franchise.

My Thoughts: OKC has always been a place of big ideas, and the author will have us believe that for the most part they have been too big. The Land Run shouldn't have happened, the crazy scramble that founded the community in the late 1800s. I.M. Pei's urban renewal project in the 1960s and 1970s should never have been attempted. In the end, he tells us through his narrative, OKC is in the wrong place. As tornadoes grow in power with climate change - a phrase he never uses in connection with their growth, as the state is the farthest right in the union - they have made an increasing habit of attacking the city and its environs.

OKC, he says, has been built on a series of boom moments - the Land Run, the head-scratching agreement to allow sonic booms overwhelm the city in order to get a major airport, the spiriting away of the Seattle Supersonics to the middle of the country - and processes. The processes of chamber of commerce directors and mayors are mirrored by the Process of Sam Presti, general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who makes personnel moves calculated for an end-goal and not short-term effect. But it's the negative booms, including the biggest of all, Timothy McVeigh's terror attack on the Alfred P. Murrah federal building, and the impacts of major tornadoes, that overwhelm the narrative in the end. We are left to think that hope is gone.

It's easy, thanks to the author's witty style, to get on board with Angelo Scott, a city founder, with Stanley Draper, long time head of the chamber of commerce, with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, with civil rights activist Clara Luper, as they create, scheme and dream for the betterment of their city. It's hard to watch them crash when things go horribly wrong, but it feels like the story isn't over yet. Despite blight, unrealized dreams, terror attacks and tornadoes, it feels like the next kooky idea, the next it could only happen in OKC idea, the next scheme to bring the city back is only a train ticket away. Someone will step off a train, or rise up through the local schools, to bring excitement and enjoyment back to the city.

The story is told through the lens of the year that the Thunder traded away their star in waiting, James Harden, when they put all their eggs in the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook basket. When Westbrook is injured and lost for the season, the Process is tested. Can the team rise again? In microcosm, the story of the Thunder becomes a stand-in for the story of the city.

Will the city rise again? Or should it fade away? We are left to answer this question on our own.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Ali vs. Inoki by Josh Gross

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Why I Read It: I saw pictures of this fight in magazines as a kid.

Summary: Muhammad Ali, world champion boxer, met Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in a bizarre sport vs. sport match.

My Thoughts: It just seemed so strange to me. There they were, a wrestler, who I knew as "just another guy," but who, in reality, was a megastar in his home country of Japan, and the most famous boxer of all time squared off in the ring. Their juxtapositioning was just...weird.

But what would a 12-year-old know?

This book puts it all in context. I now see a heavyweight champ who had run through all his contenders and wanting to test his limits. I see a champ who had the final say, who could arrange the fight without listening to the real fears of his handlers. I see a wrestler who knows that this is the chance of a lifetime, to grab onto the coattails of the greatest entertainer in sports.

The author carries us through the history of mixed martial arts, meaning all the way back Ancient Greece. He brings us to the days when Muhammad Ali first encountered the outlandish wrestler Gorgeous George, and realized he could take his own game a notch higher. He brings us through the California wrestling scene that Classy Freddie Blassie dominated on the way to becoming one of Ali's seconds during the big fight (though he secretly wished the wrestler would beat the boxer). He introduces us to the man who will referee the bout, and fleshes out Inoki as well.

We're taken round by round through the fight, and then given the trails to follow afterwards. Unsurprisingly, the McMahons were involved, Vince, Sr., and Vince, Jr., tying the closed circuit broadcast to a major live wrestling event at Shea Stadium that included the return of the legendary Bruno Sammartino from a broken neck and an Andre the Giant vs. Chuck Wepner wrestler vs. boxer undercard match. The seeds of Wrestlemania were planted here, as were the notions that would eventually grow into today's fertile mixed martial arts landscape.

The irony is that in the short term, nobody won (except maybe for the promoters who swallowed the money owed all around). The match was a dud. Ali soon thereafter slowed down, lost the title and retired. In the long term, Inoki and Ali became friends.

And now, thirty years later, I get it.

Shakespeare and the Resistance by Claire Asquith

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Why I Read It: Always found Shakespeare fascinating as a historical character.

Summary: New evidence points to the Bard as a rabble-rouser.

My Thoughts: Henry VIII of England, we know, was a bad man. Once upon the throne, he changed the game, consolidating power within his own hands, taking it away from the people of England. And he changed the religious landscape forever (well, so far), outlawing Catholicism and creating the church that met his personal needs. Echoes of that change - with imprisonments, land confiscation, questions of succession, and more - reverberated for decades.

Shakespeare came to his own type of power about a half century later, while the Tudors still held the throne. He became the world's most famous playwright, often dealing with historical themes, writing many plays about England's monarchy. It seems that he wrote more about them than we knew.

This book focuses on two poems, lesser read works that are lesser read for a reason. They never made sense, seeming to ramble on, un-Shakespeare-like, with no real point. It turns out that, like the old breakup line goes, it was us, not him, that was the problem.

When interpreted from an anti-Tudor standpoint, the poems, about the ancient themes of the Rape of Lucrece and a chance encounter between Adonis and Venus, make perfect sense. They're even quite daring. Shakespeare put his own neck on the line in writing the poems in the first place; how far he decided to go with his parallels to modern-day characters (Queen Elizabeth, for instance) proved a bit of his own haughtiness.

Aside from providing wonderful in-depth literary criticism of the poems, from this new point of view, the author also delves deeply into British history to explain to us the decades-long rule of the Tudors and the effects it had on the English people, to introduce us to the other characters involved and carry us beyond the poems to the end of the Tudor reign.

For those who believed that Shakespeare was in it just for the sake of his art, think again, or, at least, give this book a try

The Year of the Pitcher by Sridhar Pappu

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Why I Read It: It's baseball, dude. Game on.

Summary: The year 1968 changed the world. Baseball was a part of it all.

My Thoughts: It must have been something to live through. Baseball 50 years ago was struggling with the same issues it has today: it's too slow, it's not relevant for the new generation, football's better. Yet, somehow, the game survived. The game, though, went through one of its worst offensive seasons ever. In other words, if you liked to watch baseballs fly out of ballparks, 1968 was just not the year for you. It was in many ways the year of the pitcher.

Pappu takes us through the remarkable season by following two of the most dominating pitchers of all time, the ridiculously juxtaposed Bob Gibson and Denny McLain. Bob was no-nonsense (and that's an understatement); Denny was all nonsense. Yet, despite their diverse approaches to life and the game, they both accomplished incredible things on the diamond in 1968. Partially because of their dominance, Major League Baseball figured that the pitchers had too much of an upper hand and made the drastic change of dropping the height of the pitcher's mound the next year, taking some of that advantage away. For one short year, pitchers dominated the game.

But when we look at 1968 beyond the foul lines, outside the stadiums, we recognize it as a year that, for better or worse, changed things. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated (just moments after mentioning Dodgers' pitcher Don Drysdale and his scoreless innings streak). Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. The Civil Rights movement was stunted and reaffirmed. Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color line in baseball, was actively campaigning on behalf of his candidate during the presidential race. Detroit rioted.

Pappu reminds us in the end that though baseball players made news in 1968, their impact was minimal; larger issues carried the real headlines. The Tigers - more behind Mickey Lolich than McLain, whose arm was suffering from overuse by the time the World Series came around - took the championship, but the game was never more than just a sideshow in a year that made us all wonder what the world was headed to.