Sunday, November 25, 2018

Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, John Peterson and Sam Witwer


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Why I Read It: 
The old Dungeon Master inside me was powerless to resist when I saw it on the shelf.

Summary: The history of the Dungeons & Dragons brand told mostly through imagery.

My Thoughts: I have no idea of whether or not I can relate to the modern, 5th edition, of Dungeons & Dragons. All I know is that it took me no time at all to flip through the pages of this massive, beautiful book and find my zone.

I started around 10 or 11 years old, with the first edition. Yes, as stated above, I was the Dungeon Master, the King of the Geeks. I had to study up before each adventure. I had to know every nook and cranny of the dungeon module. I had to know the tendencies and capabilities of each and every monster the party would come across. I read the Monster Manual, Monster Manual II and the Fiend Folio from end to end.

I generally played with my friends Dan and Mike, but also with my brother and sister and at least two other groups of kids around town I can think of today. At that time, in the early 1980s, D & D was everywhere.

This book, from the cover inward, brought back waves of memories. It created cravings for a return to not only those days, but those worlds. And, as I dove into the material, I realized how much I've retained. I can rattle off the names of the modules - that was the classic era of the dungeon module - and tell you their backstories, where the traps were, what the final bosses were. We - Mike, Dan and I - had all of the hardcovers, stacks of dungeons, and reams of generated characters through which we lived and died.

We had a general idea of the game's history, of Gary Gygax and his group of friends. I wasn't old enough to really pay attention to the corporate side of things, to understand power struggles and declining revenues and corporate buyouts. Quite frankly, I didn't know there would be future editions of the game; it was perfect as it was. Besides, life went on. My parents divorced. I moved out of town, lost touch with Danny and Mikey, was forced to mature faster than I should have. D & D faded out of my life. In later years I read a few novels, but basically stopped reading fiction when I became a historian, later a naturalist, now both.

This book brought it all back, in those waves I mentioned. My heart has been confused for several days now. Isn't this where I belong? Can I somehow get back?

The power of the artwork is incredible. The book is huge, with vivid imagery on every page, with explanations behind their origins, and a running history of the brand. If you've ever had a D & D zone, like I did, you'll find it in this book, and you may start to understand how this game has affected your outlook on life in general. We learned a lot of skills through D & D, from basic teamwork  to critical thinking on up. I've written fifty books. Fifty books, by 47 years old! Can I really say that the way Dungeons & Dragons inspired my imagination, it had no impact on my chosen path?

No way.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Not For Long by Robert W. Turner II


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Why I Read It: Reviewed for Amazon Vine. Like many, I've become very concerned in recent years with the lack of player safety and security in the NFL, and whether or not I should commit time and any money to the sport.

Summary: The life of an NFL athlete from first dreams to shattered dreams, as seen through the eyes of a sociologist who also happens to be a former player.

My Thoughts: Ugh. It's hard to say more than that.

The system is so messed up. The people making money at the top are looking for more and are doing so at the expense of the athletes who play the game. Those athletes sacrifice their bodies for the sport, with the average career expectancy being just over three years. Most of the players who play in the NFL don't last long enough to qualify for benefits, and many have no clue what to do when they involuntarily exit from the game.

In reality, by the time that they make a team, these athletes should be thinking about what is going to happen to them after their time is done, but they can't. They become part of a totalizing institution - like a prison or a branch of the military - that controls their every move. Their focus is supposed to be on the next workout, the next practice, the next game, not on the next phase of life. Their livelihood, week to week, depends on it. Contracts are not guaranteed, and only the best of the best qualify for signing bonuses and other such guaranteed perks.

The owners want as much of the pie as they can get, and the players want their share. Prof football is a $9 billion industry heading for $25 billion within a few years. But there is the third player: college football. Itself a multi-million dollar industry, college ball is a sham at best; many of the athletes are steered through paths of least academic resistance to bring money into the schools. Many of them end up without real educations and without career options beyond football. The best possible alternative would be the development of a minor league system, but would USC or Alabama ever want to watch the best athletes going straight from high school into a professional football developmental system that bypasses their Saturday afternoon experience?

And then there's race, and economic disparity that helps determine who even gets the chance to live a portion of the dream. It's all a nasty puzzle.

With each Sunday that passes in the fall, another career comes to an end, and another one starts. A young boy watches the game and gets inspired and takes the first steps toward an NFL "career." He joins the millions that winnow down to the thousands to the hundreds. An injury occurs on an NFL field that ends the dream for a young man who has no idea what to do next. He loses his job, his livelihood and in many cases his identity.

It feels like this book is just the beginning of a very needed, very hard look at the game.

Monday, November 12, 2018

White Pine by Andrew Vietze


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Why I Read It: The perfect blend of history and nature. I stand at that intersection, constantly looking around for new information.

Summary: The story of the "King's Pines" and the impact they had on American history, mostly in New England.

My Thoughts: I know that our elementary and secondary school history books simplify the stories for us, and as we march forward in time, more will be left out; the history I learned in school will not be the same as even my own sons learn. And that's just a page count synopsis, having nothing to do with political influences as to what "should" be learned, and what shouldn't.

I've long known about the "King's Pines," that prior to the Revolution the King of England claimed the tallest, straightest white pine trees in New England for his own, for "mastidge" for Royal Navy ships. Yet, I did not know how deeply the story ran.

As with anything else in colonial times, there was a price to be paid for making such claims. The King believed the trees belonged to him. The colonists believed that they had their right to lands granted to them and that no trees should be exempted from that. There was too much to be lost. A mast for a Royal Navy ship might be more valuable (in sale price) as a mast on a merchant vessel. The colonials rebelled, as early as the 1600s and right on through the Revolution.

Vietze brings us through a multi-century journey with the White Pine as the focal point. He explains how and when violence erupted in the conflict between crown and colony over the trees, why logging communities came and went, and how the industry shaped - literally, on maps - our oldest towns in New Hampshire and Maine. And he explains how the White Pine became the symbol of New England, even flying on a flag that was supposedly flown at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

He brings the story up to the modern day, tracing how one company is even fishing old logged trees out of river bottoms for reuse today.

I wonder if any of the old signs exist today, if a tree struck with the King's marker, a three-ax-chop arrow, still stands today? I'm willing to walk the woods of New England to find out.

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.