Saturday, October 3, 2015

Mad Dogs, Midgets and Screw Jobs by Pat Laprade and Bertrand Hebert

Why I Read It: A continuing fascination with the history of professional wrestling.

Summary: "The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped the World of Wrestling" - also the subtitle.

My Thoughts: There's a belief out there (a cheap way of saying that I don't remember where I read it or heard it first, but I know I didn't make it up) that says that in whatever age you became a fan of a particular sport, you consider that the "golden age" of that sport. For instance, if you were a Yankees fan in the '50s, in the '70s you looked back with wistful reverence at Mantle, DiMaggio and the gang. You probably don't like the designated hitter rule, free agency, etc.

I used to think that I was stuck that way as well, but I think my broad perspective as a historian has steered me clear of such pitfalls. But, in a weird way I long for the old days that happened before what should have been my golden ages.

Let me explain.

I was 12 when Hulk Hogan ran over the Iron Sheik and took the WWF title.I witnessed the beginning of the end, when professional wrestling's territorial system broke down and Vince McMahon's monopolistic machine ran roughshod over North America. One day I was in my living room watching the Grand Wizard lead Sgt. Slaughter down to a little television studio ring in Connecticut to put the cobra clutch on Salvatore Bellomo and the next I was tuned in to Wrestlemania with millions of other people.

But get this - I miss what happened before those days. And this book just fuels that fire.

In those pre-Hulkamania days, wrestling was local. We had the northeast, Stamford, Connecticut, based territory, which was, incidentally, the old WWF. We also received broadcasts from Dallas, Texas, but the worlds were one hundred percent separate. There was no way in hell that Kerry Von Erich would ever wrestle "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka. No way, no how, never, ever. Neither organization admitted the other existed, at least not on the air. In those days, pre-cable, pre-internet, you could do that. And so, in that way, Montreal was a territory unto itself.

It was a beautiful thing. You could build a storyline without having to rely on facts. A wrestler could come in from the outside and start fresh, or with a backstory of having terrorized some other part of the world, and barely anybody would care to check; you suspended your disbelief, whether you thought it was all real or not. Wrestlers changed names, gimmicks, gear and nobody ran reports to expose who they were in former lives.

But the amazing thing about the wrestling world is its transitory nature. Wrestlers did move, from territory to territory as storylines or drawing power ran out. And because so many of them had long careers, coming in and out of "retirement" into their 70s, for some, they bumped into each other all over the continent and the globe. As such, any singular territory was a crossing ground. Montreal was such a place. The best wrestlers in the world moved through, or stayed permanently: Andre the Giant, Abdullah the Butcher, Hulk Hogan and more.

Montreal, too, was a proving ground. Many of the world's best known wrestlers of the '50s through the '80s were born and bred in the area, men like the Vachons, the Martels and the Rougeaus. This book shows how they started local, made their marks elsewhere and returned to continue the long legacy of professional wrestling in the province of Quebec. In short, while this book is about wrestling in Montreal, it is full of familiar names. If you watched the WWF in the late 1970s, you will now get the rest of the story of who Dino Bravo was before he headed south for Connecticut, and learn that Rick Martel had a brother who wrestled, too. Moreover, you will learn that the Rougeaus, who we in the '80s knew as Jacques and Raymond, were, and are, just one generation of Montreal's dynastic wrestling family.

Wrestling has more or less come and gone for Montreal. Its heyday is definitely over, though there are still points of pride, like Kevin Steen, now known as Kevin Owens, the current WWE Intercontinental champion, born in Saint-Jean-sur Richelieu, and there will always be the start-up indy organization that can never compete with the WWE. But it has a glorious past, one that I miss, even though I wasn't there.

The authors bring the book forward through time and fill each chapter with mini biographies of the many wrestlers, Quebec-born and non-Quebecers, who made the scene great. There are comical moments, like when the Chicago area promoters first get a glimpse of Jean Ferre, and immediately change his name. "In Montreal you're calling him Giant Fairy?" And so, Andre the Giant was reborn. The format lends itself to repetition of information, but it's worth it once one is engrossed. It reinforces the melting pot history of the territory, and of professional wrestling in general.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Why I Read It: Correction - re-read it.

Summary: The quest to regain a homeland is complicated by competition between several races of beings in Middle-Earth.

My Thoughts: For some reason, I had forgotten how much of a hero Bilbo actually is.

I guess that when you read something at 13 and then read it again three decades later, things change. My broader view of the world in my 40s definitely impacted the way I viewed this book this time around, though I have to admit that I have trouble pulling myself away from thoughts of World War I when thinking deeply about this tale. It just seems too symmetrical when the Battle of the Five Armies finally breaks out in the end, and the flying force of eagles swoops in at the last second to save the day. But that's a whole different topic of discussion.

As much as I had misremembered Bilbo's level of heroism, I also had overplayed in my mind the role that Smeagol played. Perhaps I've got the stories jumbled, but I kept waiting for him to come back into the tale. Perhaps, so, too, did Tolkien. His story seems like such an open, unfinished portion of this book, that it only makes sense that his trail is picked up again in the Lord of the Rings series. Maybe the scenes of the early animated movie representation of the book stuck with me in a major way, influencing the way I've always thought about this tale. I know I expected more dwarves to die in the end, and that is a direct result of the first movie. I can still see the "camera" panning over the wounded warriors after the battle.

I think what I love best about the story is the level of mystery with which Tolkien taunts us, particularly regarding the life of Gandalf. He comes and goes, and for much of the book is dealing with "other business" in a separate, vaguely-defined world. He doesn't care to let the adventuring party know exactly what it is he is doing and where, and they don't press him on it; they know they shouldn't. His stiffness and brook-no-interference attitude lends a bit of subtle comedy to a book that is otherwise engrossing for its pure fantasy aspects. (There was, of course, the blatant joke about the founding of golf! Beyond that, the humor is masterfully masked within the personalities of the characters).

Tolkien excels at placing his characters in binds, and figuring out how to have the smallest and supposedly meekest and least-equipped character pry them free in believable ways. While we are supposed to carry with us a suspension of disbelief anyway when we read SciFi and Fantasy, if things get too far-fetched from what we consider humanly possible an author will lose us. Tolkien never does.

We end with triumph and tragedy, and must accept the latter with the former. It's something American audiences are only now starting to accept. As isolationist as many of us believe we are - does the average American really know what's happening in the world? - we have begun to see that the good guys do not always win and that sometimes victory is tainted with unexpected loss.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

On Writing by Stephen King

Why I Read It: Recommended by m brother-in-law, a fellow writer.

Summary: Stephen King tells us how he began writing, what he avoids, what he has in his writer's toolbox, and all about the accident that nearly took his life.

My Thoughts: Stephen King can make my skin crawl writing about himself.

I have, like many Americans, a long term relationship with Mr. King. My dad and I decided to read one of his books concomitantly, planning to share our thoughts after the last page had been turned. We loved it. I went to college to a heavy workload, studying to be the historian I am today; my dad went into the winter as a hibernating landscaper, reading everything he could get his hands on. The books I couldn't read because I was thrust deeply into the worlds of the Renaissance and the Early Roman Empire, my dad practically read to me over the phone.

Now, two decades later, my dad gone, Mr. King and I meet again, yet on a more professional course. And I find, amazingly, we have much in common.

No, I am not making millions, and no, I haven't even dabbled in fiction - yet. But we share a passion that he describes artfully, the simple joy of letting words flow from our minds onto the page. We write.

More than that, we share the art of the writer. In this book he definitively tells us all to read if we want to write, and to become obsessive about it if we want to succeed. I'm there. I never leave the house without a book in my hands. Heck, I bring one to bed and carry it around the house with me all day. He instructs us to read in long lines at turnpike tollbooths; I can do him one better. I read at stop signs if there are cars stretching out into the distance. I guess in a way it's validation. I can now point to Stephen King and say to my wife, "See? If he says it's what I should do..."

Even so, he surprised me with some original thoughts about writing that I will take to heart. My first slap-in-the-face lessons came from a college professor, who in one corrected paper on the life of King Henry V of England changed my life. This book is along the same revelatory route. King dropped a few "Eurekas" on me, making me look at writing from new perspectives.

And as exciting as that is for me, as I read the book I couldn't help thinking about my dad and how much he would have loved it, how learning about where the ideas originated for some of my dad's favorite King tales would have made him laugh out loud. And it would have led to phone calls, and laughter on my end of the line.

As much as King makes me squirm, he makes me laugh. His no-nonsense, downeast Maine personality shines through this book in a way I wasn't expecting. In a way, I hate admitting to my brother-in-law that I've finished reading it, as that means I have to give it back.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Francona: The Red Sox Years by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy

Why I Read It: This season, reading about the Red Sox was better than watching them.

Summary: A bio of the Red Sox manager, focused on the years 2004-2011.

My Thoughts: For a long time, I couldn't stand Dan Shaughnessy. I always felt like he was that smarmy, needle-nosed kid in high school who had to point out that you did your math homework wrong, or that you had used the wrong version of to, too or two. Many of his article themes in the Boston Globe seemed to be prying, making more out of minor little topics than they really needed to be.

But Dan (Boston sports fans who follow the literary side have lived with him as part of their community for about three decades now; the first name feels appropriate, though there are many that call him simply "Shaughnessy") grew on me with this book. Perhaps he has softened with age. Perhaps I have. But there was one key to that change for me.

Dan has a long-running feud with pitcher Curt Schilling when he was in town, the two often at odds on many topics. It would have been very easy for Dan to take shots at Curt in this book, but he didn't. He treated him very fairly, even praising his pitching performances when warranted (as I'm sure he would say one should). I have a personal reason for standing in defense of Curt, and will always look to him with respect. I was heartened by the even presentation of Curt's ups and downs, flaws and successes, as they related to Francona's time in Boston.

As to the main content of the book, it was fabulous, bringing truth (at least as seen by one set of eyes, Francona's) to many of the longstanding stories around the rise and fall of the Red Sox. I'm sure there are plenty of points in the book to which Red Sox ownership might point with a furrowed brow and a shake of the head, but until that happens, I'm happy to have read these pages.

The Red Sox went on a pretty damn good run with Terry Francona at the helm. The team applied new game day prep strategies to get the edge they needed, and sometimes different divisions within the team (baseball ops, field staff, ownership) found themselves at odds with one another as to what was appropriate and what was just too much. Somehow, with too many cooks, this kitchen served up two World Series championships in four years.

This story, though, digs deeper than the Red Sox and into the life of the manager, openly exposing his personality (as if after eight years with the Sox he had anything left to hide) and sharing his brightest and darkest moments. It details, too, how insular the baseball world is, the ways in which the constant shuffling of players and coaches from city to city from year to year causes paths to cross numerous times in the sporting life. Being second generation, having grown up in clubhouses, Terry Francona has a network almost second to none. There are very few degrees of separation between him and most of today's Major League Baseball players.

A bonus is the in-depth reporting on the general manager at the time, Theo Epstein, and the story of his relationship with Francona. Having parted ways with the Sox shortly after Francona, Epstein lets his opinions fly as well.

I'm trying to place this book in the pantheon of "best baseball books I've ever read," and can say it's right up there at or near the top. I'm not sure exactly where it falls, but, wow, was this one fun.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mahler

Why I Read It: On a baseball kick, and the year the book covers was one of the first I remember.

Summary: "1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City" (the subtitle)

My Thoughts: As a kid, I knew that folks around me had a distaste for New York City. Yes, there was a particular Boston bias that festered around the sports world, about the Yankees, the Rangers and Knicks, but it ran deeper than that. New York City wasn't safe, in the sweeping, all-encompassing sense of the word.

This book has helped me understand why all the adults I knew felt that way. I've since come to love New York City for what it is and what it represents on the grand American scale, though I will be honest. I can't stand the traffic. Heading south from New England either means sitting in it or driving around it. We're bottle-necked up here, but then, New Englanders are like many other people on the planet who see their little corners of the world as the "most estimable place" on earth, to quote Thoreau. Perhaps we don't mind.

What an amazing year 1977 was for New York City. Bella Abzug, Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo were all competing for the mayor's seat. A single night without power led to millions of dollars' worth of looting that set the city on edge. David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, finally came to justice, telling the world that his neighbor's dog told him to kill. Add to this mix George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin and the Yankees' newest purchase, Reggie Jackson.

I remember the three home runs against the Dodgers in the single game in the World Series. I remember all the other names involved with the Yankees that season - Rivers, Randolph, Guidry, Hunter, etc. (heck, they were all on my baseball cards) - and even remember listening to one game mentioned in the text, blanket pulled up over my head, radio pinned close to my ear so my mother wouldn't hear. Gator Guidry struck out the first three Red Sox batters in succession on ten or eleven pitches to the rousing - and what I remember sounding pretty belligerently scary to a six-year-old - cheers of the Yankee Stadium crowd.

What I didn't know at six was the undercurrent. I had no idea what "race" even meant in those days unless used with qualifiers such as "three-legged" or "motorcycle." I knew Reggie Jackson as a ridiculously powerful left-handed hitter; I did not know he felt he was feeling the strain of being the first black superstar to wear pinstripes. I had no concept that elections could swing one way or the other based on how a person stood on issues that pertained to the needs of a community of people with different color skin. I was clueless, as a six-year-old probably should be. We grow up soon enough.

Their is bliss in ignorance, for sure, and I probably could have gone my whole life just remembering 1977 as the Year of Reggie, but I am so glad I read this book, as Reggie is now in context for me.

I love when things are in context.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Game by Ken Dryden

Why I Read It: Got the bug for a good hockey book, and this one came highly recommended.

Summary: Ken Dryden walks us through the last days of his NHL career, with an amazing perspective on the game, its players and the way they've both changed through time.

My Thoughts: Having grown up in the hockey boom in the northeastern United States, when Bobby Orr was king, I've always loved the sport. I played on the street, I played in rinks, I played right up into high school before an odd, ancient injury pulled me from competing with the pack out on the ice. My dad never played, but instead coached, on a very high level, with the 1980 junior Olympians.

I grew up in the Boston area, so hockey life was Bruins life. The Canadiens were the enemy, the Yankees to our Red Sox. I might not have ready this book twenty years ago. But now I'm older, wiser. I have perspective. I only hope someday to have the amazing breadth of perspective that Dryden does.

Dryden shared the same youth I did. A ball, some sticks, a bunch of kids and a net, and it didn't matter where we were, a hockey game could break out at any moment. We even brought our Italian exchange students into the mix one summer. We had to. They were here, and we had to play hockey. We couldn't just stop for three weeks because they were here. When we went to Siracusa, we played soccer, because they had to.

It was all-consuming, for him and me. But he had the skill to go to the top. His teams, with him in net, won six Stanley Cups in eight years, a remarkable achievement. They were the Yankees of the '50s, the Celtics of the '60s. After that, he burned out on the sport, packed it in and walked away. Next came time for reflection, and reflect he did. In this book - touted as the best sports book ever written solely by an athlete - he speaks openly and freely about fame, about fans and about owners. He shoots straight on how he believes yesterday's superstar athletes would fare today, and on how the Canadiens "got up" for games against the Bruins. A good opponent made the game worth playing. This fact, for me, was a wonderful revelation. Sports talk radio hosts in Boston love to downplay rivalries, saying that teams like the Canadiens don't care about the Bruins when they are at the top, that they see them as just another team on the schedule. Dryden says otherwise.

In the end, it's "the game" - not hockey, but whatever sport one ties himself or herself to for life - that is the subject of the book. It's the whole lifestyle that comes with it, the locker room, the personalities, the travel, the ups and downs. For Dryden, the sport was hockey. The game was much more.

In this edition, the 20th anniversary, he adds another chapter on life after hockey, with a fantastic review of where hockey has gone globally since he stepped off the ice. His perspective, as stated, is grand, the text magnificently written. Having lived with hockey my whole life, I've watched it change, but never really stopped to truly look at how. It has blended through time, one phase melding into the next, but it is certainly not the same game I started with four decades ago.

I went looking for a great hockey book, and I found it.

(Extra note - there is a quick, really-not-noteworthy mention of my hometown of Hull, Massachusetts, in the book. He mentions it in relation to landing at Logan Airport in Boston. It has no bearing on the story in any way, but it was certainly a strange moment reading the book and seeing the name of the town in lights in this way!)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

Why I Read It: Needed a small paperback to keep in my pocket while waiting; found it in the boxes in the garage.

Summary: The author has a theory and carries out an experiment to attempt to prove it.

My Thoughts: This may be one of the most remarkable adventures undertaken in the name of anthropology of all-time.

Heyerdahl's theory, in a nutshell, is that the islands of the South Seas were populated by ancient people who had sailed the Pacific currents from the western coast of South America on balsa rafts. But when he tried to promote the theory, he was told it was impossible, that despite the overwhelming evidence of linkages between the people of modern-day Peru and the people of the South Seas, there was just no way that a balsa raft could survive the trek across the Pacific.

So, he decided to try it. He gathered friends who, like him, had survived World War II, men who had fought underground, behind enemy lines, made makeshift radios, and had done anything to stay alive. He knew that if anybody would be up for the challenge, it would be this crew.

They gathered materials, with the help of several governments, built their raft and hit the open ocean.

Among my favorite parts of the book are the interactions with wildlife, such as the whale shark that visited them, and the flying fish that constantly leaped on deck. What an odd and sad turn of events for that fish. Imagine all the work that went into the development of the defense mechanism over thousands of years. The species learned to propel themselves out of the water in order to avoid predators, or at least throw them off their track. And for thousands of years, as far as we know, it worked. Then, along came men, and boats. Suddenly the fish flew away from their enemies into the hands of those with just as much hunger in their bellies. The fact that the fish landed on the Kon-Tiki helped prove Heyerdahl's theory. Food from the sea was abundant and easily gathered during this mid-20th century journey; in earlier times, before factory ships and overfishing, it must have been more so.

One of the lingering feelings I get about this book is that in some way it had to be an inspiration for Gilligan's Island (there was a 1930s movie that definitely resembled the idea, with a handful of people of different backgrounds stranded on an island). The story may just have been tucked in the back of Sherwood Schwartz's mind as he was creating the show a few years later, but it feels like it was there. America had a growing love affair with Polynesia at the time. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers, sailors and Marines had visited the islands, had eaten the foods and generally fallen for the culture. The 1950s saw the great rise of tiki restaurants in America. By the time the Gilligan showed his face the first time in the early 1960s, South Pacific had been presented as both a Broadway play (1949) and a movie (1958), taken directly from a James Michener collection of stories.

I may be way off with my theory, but if you read Kon-Tiki, you will understand how spot on Heyerdahl was with his.