Monday, May 8, 2017

Italy: A History by Vincent Cronin

Why I Read It: I'm Italian.

Summary: A thorough, straightforward history of the two millennia that forged the current Italian nation.

My Thoughts: It's good to know that my professors as UMASS were correct.

I had the chance to study Italian history under two professors who were, as we like to say, "fresh off the boat." They had no doubt been here in the States for a long time, but like my great-grandmother and others in my extended family, they retained heavy accents and occasionally threw in an Italian word where it fit better than anything English had to offer. Hearing them speak about their native history was inspiring, even if the Italian people have struggled to make their way through the centuries. I think that was the biggest takeaway from this book for me, that Italian history is not a simple path, and for huge chunks of time it's not even Italian.

It's glorious at the start, if we can confidently connect the dots between ancient Rome and modern Rome. Like much of European history it falls silent after the fall of the Roman Empire, and wide chasms of time pass without any, or much, documentation. But when Italy arises again, in its many nation states, it becomes the cultural center of Europe, from Michelangelo to Galileo and beyond. Napoleon - who was Italian in all but official nationality (born on an island that became French just a few years before his birth, he spoke Italian and had an Italian surname, Buonaparte) - forged the idea of unity picked up later by Mazzini and Garibaldi. Since that time, there has been a single Italy, even if it has struggled for national identity.

If there was one fact that I learned in this book that I will remember for the rest of my life it's that my name, or one very close to it, once sparked fear in the hearts of people across Italy. Gian Galeazzo (as compared to John Galluzzo) was the first Duke of Milan in the late 14th century, just before the Renaissance, and dreamed of unifying Italy. He led numerous military campaigns toward that end, and is credited with setting up the first modern bureaucracy. It all came to naught, as he died of a fever before he could finish off his plan.

This book, in my case, was refreshing, both in the sense of being pleasant, and also in reaffirming the value of my college education.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting

Why I Read It: Always up for a baseball book.

Summary: The experiences of American baseball players playing in Japan (as of the late 1980s).

My Thoughts: The cultural divide between the United States and Japan is enormous, and I applaud those folks who travel either way to forge a new life.

For baseball players - keep in mind this book was written in the late 1980s - the experience has been, simply put, testing. The Japanese at that time had a deeply strong belief that they were all middle class, but that no matter what the circumstances, they were better people than any gaijin, or foreigner, treading on their soil.

Their sacred traditions of respect and "face," as well as the bushido code, the realm of the ancient samurai, all play roles in the Japanese baseball world. They train until they can barely move, throw fastballs until their arms no longer work, even through injury, and run antiquated stamina drills because history mandates that they do so. Managers and owners make decisions based on how they look to other people rather than on sound baseball strategy. Pitchers will intentionally walk American batters numerous times to avoid the shame of giving up home runs, especially when a gaijin is chasing a record held by a Japanese star, and even when the bases are already full.

And then there's wa. The Japanese believe in team harmony, whole American teams have won World Series riding "25 players in 25 cabs." Anything that disrupts wa can be seen as a hindrance on the pathway to a championship. Many times that disruption has been an American in a Japanese uniform, living as an individual, as Americans do.

Some Americans have fared well under these circumstances, others have completely fizzled out. Some have challenged those sacred records (like Saduhara Oh's all-time home run title; Oh, by the way, was half-Chinese, and never fully respected by the Japanese). They've become the greatest American baseball players of whom we've barely heard.

Robert Whiting brings us through everything from the American perspective to the Japanese. He tells us what the umpires think, how the managers - both Japanese and Americans heading up Japanese teams - deal with the owners, and gives us a straight history of the Japanese game from the start of the Meiji Restoration in the middle of the 19th century to the late 1980s. Purists who follow the American game will shake their heads as they read, much like Japanese fans shake their heads at the American version.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Samurai Warriors by David Miller

Why I Read It: When I was a kid, I watched the Shogun mini-series on television with my father. Then, when I was on my back healing my surgically repaired ankle with the other one freshly sprained, I read the novel.

Summary: The samurai: who they were, what they carried, their ethos, the wars they fought and their role in Japanese history.

My Thoughts: The author's research was spectacularly done, and this book shines because of it.

The author, who was inspired by the examination of a single samurai sword, carries us through the length of Japanese history, and sets us in place with a topography of the country. He examines the rise of the samurai class and its ultimate demise. And he introduces us to the shoguns, the samurai, the ronin and all of the others who played parts in the sweeping pageantry of Japanese feudal history.

The book is lavishly illustrated with ancient tapestries and modern photos of the weapons, armor and ceremonial dress of the samurai, as well as the castles they built, stormed, decimated and rebuilt.

Several themes stand out. First, the overwhelming sense of loss of life is ubiquitous. Battles were huge, and nobody was spared. Thousands died through time in the name of one master or another, with many innocents slaughtered along the way. And many more took their own lives in a suicide culture that was revived with the kamikazes of World War II. To a westerner, it's unnerving.

Second, the ingenuity and creativity in warfare is interesting, to say the least. During one battle, samurai lashed burning torches to a herd of bulls and sent them charging into the enemy (fire was a major weapon throughout Japanese history). Once, in a show of force, an army cut off the noses and ears of fallen enemies, loaded them onto a ship and let it drift downriver to their surviving opponents.

Miller explains, too, how under the Tokugawa shogunate, the country saw an unprecedented period of peace, lasting for two and a half centuries. During these days the samurai, as warriors, were marginalized, and sought other ways to retain their societal status. Western contact led to a crumbling of the class, as the Japanese found out how much more advanced other countries were in terms of weaponry and military tactics. (The story of Will Adams, on whom James Clavell's Shogun is based, is included). The last medieval-style battle in the world was fought in Japan. By the 1870s, the samurai were officially gone, by decree.

The history is laid out in a straightforward style, on timelines and, in the appendices, in tables. There are tales and themes of Japanese history into which I'd like to dig deeper, thanks to Miller's work.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

What Now, Lieutenant? by General Richard I. "Butch" Neal, USMC (Ret.)

Why I Read It: General Neal is my hometown hero.

Summary: Subtitle: "Leadership forged from events in Vietnam, Desert Storm and beyond."

My Thoughts: Well, we have this in common: we have both delivered commencement addresses at our common alma mater, Hull High School, in Hull, Massachusetts. Beyond that, though...

Yes, I grew up in General Neal's hometown, a small community in Boston Harbor (literally, it's a peninsula) where life was exactly as he describes it. For the colder months, the town was always pretty quiet. Nobody had to drive through Hull to get anywhere, especially the Village, a neighborhood near the end of the peninsula. But then, come summertime, the population doubled, due to the 3.5 miles of beach the town sports. Due to its small population and tight-knit nature, everybody knew everybody.

"Butch," as his grandmother called him, toughed out his childhood and found his calling in the military, with the Marine Corps. He lost his dad while he was young, but because the community was what it was - a collection of people watching out for each other at every turn, as family roots ran very deeply - there was no shortage of father figures around. To make his way through college, for instance, he rode the local garbage truck of Ernie Minelli. He got to Vietnam as a lieutenant - about the same time that my father did - and lost good friends in a terrible situation...just like my father did. Neither one of them ever forgot.

He learned a lot from the "Battle of Getlin's Corner," in which he was summarily thrust into leadership upon the deaths of his immediate commanding officers, all eyes turning to him as if to say, "What now, lieutenant?"He carried those lessons with him for life. Throughout his narrative he stops to explain where and when more such "What now, lieutenant?" moments arise, and how he used them to teacher younger Marines the right ways to do their jobs. He believed early on in the strength of "eyeball level leadership," looking a man square in the face and delivering whatever feedback had to be delivered. Up the chain he went, all the way to 4 stars and the role of Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps. If you watched any of the Gulf War on TV, you saw him as the briefer for General Norman Schwarzkopf.

And here's where the book gets weird, for me personally. I covered his retirement ceremony for our hometown newspaper, the Hull Times. Reading about it in this book was beyond deja vu. I got to relive, through this historic document, an episode I witnessed firsthand, but this time I got to see it from another person's perspective. And I can tell you that for readers of the Hull Times, the ceremony did not disappoint (no thanks to my writing skills). The General has never forgotten his hometown. He referred right back to Ernie Minelli, and out there in the crowd that night at the Marine Barracks in DC were many other faces familiar to me, Hullonians who had made the trek to DC. Hull has never forgotten "Butchy" Neal, either.

A few days after the ceremony I was at the Hull Lifesaving Museum, where I worked at the time, when a car pulled up to the front of the building, and out hopped the General, in his civvies, truly retired. He walked into the building, looking for me. He handed me a framed photograph of the two of us at his retirement ceremony, me handing him a photo on behalf of the local Coast Guard station crew. He had signed it with a thank you for my presence at the ceremony; it still hangs in my office, twenty years later.

I told him that I had wanted to tell him about my dad and his service in the Marines. My dad was wounded while there (he carried shell fragments in his leg his entire life from a grenade thrown by one of his own guys), and finished out his tour in September 1967, leaving the Corps, though it never left him. Four star General Richard I. Neal, retired Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, looked me square in the eye, firmly shook my hand, and said, "I would like to meet your dad someday." I was floored. Sadly, it never happened. My dad died in 2012 in a VA hospital, surrounded by comrades.

I have no idea how this book will affect you. I had the privilege of being swept along in a sea of familiar landmarks and familiar names, and learning intimately about the man I consider my hometown hero.

My Seinfeld Year by Fred Stoller

Why I Read It: Because "Seinfeld" was in the title.

Summary: A Kindle single, a short book about the experiences of writer/actor Fred Stoller, someone you know, but just not by that name.

My Thoughts: The face, the voice, the sad sack characters. You can't miss them. They have become the Fred Stoller trademark. He's the guy who can't remember Elaine on Seinfeld, despite the fact they've been on a date. He's the jerky waiter in Monica's kitchen on Friends. He's Cousin Gerard on Everybody Loves Raymond.

More than that, he's the guy who wrote one of the iconic Seinfeld episodes, "The Soup." Not the one with the Soup Nazi, but instead the episode in which comedian Kenny Bania gives Jerry a suit that no longer fits him in trade for a "meal,"an entity of which the two have very different ideals. This story was not torn from while cloth; it actually happened to Stoller.

Stoller's autobiography works upward from his youth in New York, through his stand-up years and over to Hollywood. Much of the book focuses on his year as a writer for the show, his interactions with fellow writers and with the cast members themselves, not to mention the "real" Kramer back in New York City. The acting bug hits him again after finishing his Seinfeld year, and in an odd twist, he ends up on the show the following year, playing a guy Elaine is attracted to because he can't remember her.

Stoller gives us a little insight into the life of a Hollywood part-timer, what it's like to seek that starring role but being unable to land anything but bit parts. In the end, though, he lets us know that compared to many other trajectories of a life, his path has not been that bad.

Grunt by Mary Roach

Why I Read It: I think I hooked myself, after reading Stiff. Feels like I'm adding her to the list of authors I will read whenever they publish.

Summary: Subtitle: "The Curious Science of Humans at War."

My Thoughts: Years ago, a friend and I did some research for a book we were writing about a local military base and found that much more went on at the base than we originally expected to find. Underneath the straightforward training for combat in World War II was an undercurrent of experimentation. There were uniforms and equipment, vehicles like the Aqua Cheetah and self-propelled scissor bridges. But at the deepest level was the war against seasickness. A doctor on base even developed a "seasick machine" that recreated the illness so that he could test different remedies on "volunteers." At the heart of it all was a harrowing statistic. The Army expected that for troops landing in amphibious raids casualties could be expected to be as high as 90%, due to seasickness.

And that is generally what this book is about, fine-tuning the American soldier to make him or her as safe as possible in all operations, by wrapping him or her in the most durable and lightest gear available. The author, in her typical graphic but deliberate style, walks us through the testing facilities and labs where the work is being done, on hearing, on fabrics and more. She stays clear of weaponry, telling us this book is about the soldier and how s/he adapts to combat. There is also a focus on rebuilding soldiers torn apart by war, which is not for the squeamish.

The author, as usual, uses self-deprecating humor to tell the story, dropping bad jokes on submarine commanders and exposing her ignorance on specific topics in the most awkward places. It humanizes the process of dealing with topics such as the effects of diarrhea on combat operations.

It's a losing battle, of course. War will take lives. But the goal of the book is to highlight what is being done to deal with the minutiae that may eliminated or controlled in order to lessen casualties in future wars.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic by Jason Turbow

Why I Read It: I grew up thinking I was destined to play third base for the Red Sox. Baseball is in my blood.

Summary: The subtitle says it all: "Reggie, Rollie, Catfish and Charlie Finley's Swingin' A's." The book covers the early 1970s A's dynasty.

My Thoughts: If you did not live through the early 1970s baseball seasons, here is your chance.

Jason Turbow's book about the early 1970s is essentially a collection of biographies, with the keystone figure being Charlie Finley, the twenty-year owner of the A's, first in Kansas City and then in Oakland. The surrounding cast, though, is as important to the central story as the Owner (capital "O" intended): Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Blue Moon Odom, Rollie Fingers, Sal Bando and so many more. And that fact drove the Owner to ridiculously self-destructive acts that somehow never proved strong enough to take down his own team.

It's complicated.

Finley survived early health problems to build his own business empire, eventually buying the A's and creating a baseball dynasty. He played a back-and-forth game with his players, lauding them with riches when they made him look good (oftentimes taking credit right from them, claiming that the only reason they performed well was due to his foresight) and haranguing them when they did poorly (always their fault). His relationships with his managers - 18 in 20 years, including a few repeat customers - were just as difficult. He was both lavish and cheap, depending on the circumstance. And he never could see how his actions affected how people viewed him. He never got out of his own way.

His ego was met head-on by those of his players, including Reggie Jackson. Reggie's rise to stardom was meteoric, and Finley couldn't stand to share the spotlight, despite the fact that Reggie's greatness would help propel Finley's own team to amazing accomplishments. Reggie and his teammates spent most of the early 1970s fighting back against Owner-imposed injustices on the players; how they managed to win three consecutive World Series during this time is one of the greatest puzzles of baseball history.

In the end, the story is one of lost potential. With a core of young superstars and a rising cast in the minors, the A's should have contended for the next decade, but because of Finley's mismanagement - poorly mistimed with the beginning of the era of free agency - the A's fell flat on their faces for the balance of the decade. Had it been anywhere else, under any other owner (save for Steinbrenner, maybe?) the 1970's A's might have gone down as the most celebrated team in baseball history. But alas, they scattered, fleeing Finley whenever they had the opportunity, reuniting here and there, never regaining old glories.

If you don't believe me, trust in Turbow.

After reading this book, I want to re-read Jonathan Mahler's Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, as it more or less picks up the Reggie Jackson story where Turbow's reportage closes. Why not keep this train rolling?