Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Big Three by Michael Holley

Why I Read It: I lived it.

Summary: The story of the triumphant 2008 NBA champion Boston Celtics, complete with all the highs and lows.

My Thoughts: I remember every play. At least, that's how this book made me feel.

We had been through a lot as Celtics fans, in the years leading up to the Big Three, the Pitino crash, the sense of steadiness under Jim O'Brien, and the sense that magic could happen again with Danny Ainge in charge. Doc Rivers signed on as coach, and then the deals started to fly. I'll never forget listening to Glenn Ordway on WEEI sports radio when the news broke. He predicted that it wouldn't be just two; there was going to be a third superstar coming to Boston. And so he was right. When the dust settled, it was Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Like Bird, McHale and Parrish. The Celtics had returned to their old winning formula.

Holley brings us through that timeline, the build-up, the construction of the team, through the draft, through trades, through the free agent signings. He takes us behind the scenes, though he really didn't have to; the story as it played out publicly was thrilling enough. But he does shed some light on a number of shorter contextual tales that explain some gaps in the public story. He confirms a few things - like how mad the players were when Ainge traded Kendrick Perkins away while the team was on a run to the finals - and exposes a few more. We learn more about the people behind the scenes, the analysts, the coaches, those people who influenced the player and coach acquisitions.

We know what happened. I remember exactly where I was when Ray Allen threw the ball into the air as the final buzzer sounded, and it landed in Cedric Maxwell's hands. The Big Three got their world title.

But we also know what happened afterward, how it all fell apart after a few more years. Holley doesn't spare us the denouement. As painful as it was to relive, I had to read it. I lived that, too. I watched Garnett turn his back to Allen as he tried to greet his old friend and teammate in his Miami Heat uniform after taking a free agent offer. I, like so many of us, wished it had ended differently.

This book relates the tale of the three, but also of Rivers and Rondo, of Kobe and Lebron. It captures an era. It takes us back, even just a decade, to a different time in pro basketball history.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Too Sweet by Keith Elliot Greenberg

Why I Read It: I've watched AEW since day one, and have been fascinated by how its story has played out.

Summary: Wrestling's "indie revolution," leading to the formation of All Elite Wrestling.

My Thoughts: There are so many strings to pull, stories to unravel, that it seems like an impossible task to tell this story, but the author pulls it off.

I have to admit that I'm one of those wandering wrestling fans who simply got bored with WWE programming. The storylines got stale, the in-ring action completely predictable, the fact that it was simply all to take my money out of my hands just blatantly obvious. I drifted. I grew up on pre-Hulk Hogan WWF and World Class Championship Wrestling programming, decidedly two different animals, for sure. I found solace in the past, revisiting old books and videos. I found safe harbors in homes where the storytelling was good, even if it had to be in a different language. I switched over to New Japan Pro Wrestling, to Major League Wrestling. Anything but WWE.

I was not alone. As Greenberg relates in this book, this groundswell started a long time ago. It used to be that every wrestler in the world aspired to work for WWE. That tide has started to turn, and with every wrestler who prefers to bear the badge of honor "indie performer" there is a legion of fans who are glad that he or she has stuck with them on the smaller stages.

Greenberg walks us through the end of the territory era, quickly, as it's all been told before. But it is a precursor to where we are now, a story that must be understood. We travel through the ECW days, when the "upstart" promotion shook the foundations of the sports entertainment world, daring to go places few others would. We move into an era of "money marks," people who have enough money to start a wrestling organization, but don't truly understand the commitments needed to make it successful. We even wander around the world, to Japan, and Germany and England, to see the grassroots leagues come together. 

We see how specific performers learned their trade, formed a vision, and came together. AEW is born with an indie feel - and even now, as I write this, during the COVID-19 pandemic - reaches out to indie performers with offers for paychecks when most of the world's wrestling shows are indefinitely postponed. We understand how this rival promotion comes to be, but we have to ask ourselves a question that Greenberg doesn't deeply explore. Is the success of AEW the culmination of the "Indie Revolution," proof that indie wrestling can compete with WWE, or is it simply proof that the deep pockets of the Khan family have created a competitor that will eventually just become the WCW to the 1990s WWE?

We are left with the hopeful notion that as long as AEW - all of its performers, its executives (who are  wrestlers themselves) and other staff - remembers its indie roots, that philosophy of openness will remain, and wrestling fans the world over will have options that meet their tastes, needs and desires for entertainment.

The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

Why I Read It: No idea. The mood just struck me.

Summary: Modern studies in Asia, political, military, industrial and more, and their effects on the West.

My Thoughts: We're in for a rude awakening.

The author makes a specific point over and over again, one that can be seen symbolically as well as it can be deduced logically. The West is falling as a home to world leaders. The age of imperialism is long over, and even the post-World War II era of United States dominance has come to an end. The world's finances have shifted, and have been shifting for a long time, from the West to the East. China, at the core of a rising East, is poised to take a new role on the world's stage.

Ironically, its happening in much the same way it always has. The author points out the U.S.'s way of using language that promises a benign U.S. presence in a new country, but is instead simply opening doors to American businesses to exploit new markets. Today, it's the Chinese who are buying up land in countries all over the world for various purposes, making promises and deals that ultimately will fall apart, leaving cash-starved countries in positions to have to turn over land for Chinese military bases and more.

The book focuses on the major reengagement of the ancient "Silk Roads" philosophy, harkening back to the wondrous days when the world's major trade routes ran through the region. China has excited many other countries into believing this world can be revived, strengthened, pulled together for common success. 

Meanwhile, in the West, the United States is "building a wall" to keep its neighbors out. England is pulling out of the European Union. The West is fracturing, as the East is coming together. The Trump administration ridiculously accelerated the process. We may never see things return to the "normalcy" of the last century in our lifetimes. Is that a bad thing?

It all depends on where you stand.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

In That Time by Daniel H. Weiss

Why I Read It: I'm the son of a combat-wounded Vietnam Marine. Stories of the war help.

Summary: The story of an artistic soul crushed out and lost in the stupidest war of all.

My Thoughts: The author throws out a disclaimer at the beginning of the book, saying that as he's no expert on the grander themes of the war, he won't get into it. But, then, he efficiently and effectively describes the war in succinct fashion. It was surprising how easily he did explain it.

Anyone telling the story of Vietnam has a choice to make: back the war or don't. More than once, he makes the point that while Americans thought they were fighting a war of containment, it wasn't the war that the Vietnamese were fighting. Their belief was that they were fighting off yet another imperialistic nation-state, attempting to avoid oppression.

Caught in this mess were hundreds of thousands of American military men and women, pawns of the political games being played in Washington, D.C. (My dad, at 19, volunteered, thinking the war was a noble effort; he came home dismayed).

Michael O'Donnell was one of those unwitting men. He tried to preserve his life, finding a profession - helicopter pilot - that would take a lot of training, and hopefully buy time for the war to come to an end. He wasn't a warrior. He was a poet, a songwriter. He shouldn't have been there.

In the end, he was a hero.

His death shocked his family, but his mother and father never found out how he died. He was listed as missing in action until the family begged the government to change him over to deceased, so they could find some peace. But, three decades after his death, word finally arrived that his remains had been found.

The story is about an era that we'd like to forget, and an America we wish never existed, from the top of the federal government on down. The war took far too many Americans who didn't have to die, or be wounded physically, mentally, spiritually, like Michael O'Donnell, and like my dad.

Famous Lost Locomotives of North America by Thornton Waite

Why I Read It: It was authored by a sibling of a friend, and I always want to support fellow authors.

Summary: A collection of short tales about just what the title says.

My Thoughts: What a fun collection.

I'm sure it wasn't fun for the people who plunged off bridges, sank into lakes, dropped into the ocean or otherwise vanished with these locomotives. But it does make for some interesting reading.

It really is fascinating how many - this is just a sampling - locomotives were lost over time, trapped in collapsed tunnels, simply left in place when funds ran out to build railroads, whatever. It seems that the methods of becoming lost were endless, as are both the preservation efforts and the search and rescue missions.

This book is written more for the avid enthusiast than the locomotive layman, but with just a little bit of knowledge about wheel configurations and other details, or a willingness to let such statistics slide by, the book is very readable. The author does a great job of spreading the story around, choosing representative tales from all over the United States, proving that, unfortunately, these problems were by no means local in nature.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Ten Innings at Wrigley by Kevin Cook

Why I Read It: Baseball is in my blood, and I've read and loved another book by the author, so I figured I'd give it a shot. 

Summary: Phillies 23, Cubs 22. 1979. Mike Schmidt. Pete Rose. Dave Kingman. Need I say more?

My Thoughts: The first half of this book just flies. After giving brief introductions and histories for each team in the fight, the author turns to an at-bat-by-at-bat account of a wind-driven slugfest at Wrigley Field, featuring some of the biggest and most memorable personalities of 1970s baseball. If you grew up in the '70s or '80s, you'll fall in love from page one. Garry Maddox. Bake McBride. Larry Bowa. Bill Buckner. Bob Boone. Greg Luzinski. Tug McGraw. Bruce Sutter. The list of familiar names goes on and on.

Some of the guys came up eight times in the game.

In order to fit every at-bat in, to tell the story of this crazy ten innings - yes, they were tied 22-22 after nine - the tale has to move quickly. But then, after the final run is scored, it slows. The author moves into aftermath mode, both short-term and long-term. We move from the 1979 season to the "Miracle on Broad Street" and the 1980 Phillies World Series championship. We go to the tale of Tug McGraw and his son Tim, to the attempted murder-successful suicide of Donnie Moore, to the multigenerational story of the Boone family.

Forty-five runs scored between the lines that windy day at Wrigley, but hundreds of stories flowed outward from the result. 

Thirty-six players took the field that day. Cook captures them all, from a line to a few pages of text, fleshing out a box score, turning the players from lines of stats into living, breathing beings with faults, dreams and goals.

And you don't need to be a Cubs or Phillies fan to enjoy the story. It's just baseball, plain and simple.

Friday, November 27, 2020

The 300 by Daniel Wasserbly

Why I Read It: I read an interview with the author in Air & Space Magazine.

Summary: The story behind America's missile defense system.

My Thoughts: It's kind of scary, actually.

We live in a time when missiles can fly across oceans, up into space, and crash into major cities carrying nuclear warheads. It wasn't that long ago when to take out an enemy you had to be facing him; now it can all be done electronically, digitally, facelessly, anonymously.

It also wasn't that long ago when we thought Russia was the main threat. Then we added China. Now we have to consider Iran and even North Korea.

That's where it gets scary.

The stories in this book are twofold. First, there is the long road to where the United States is today with strategic missile defense (or, if not today, up until recently, as I'm sure there is classified info the author could not get his hands on). While the concept of intercontinental ballistic missiles has been around for half a century, it's really been the last two decades where we have seen a real ramp up in the country's focus on defense. People laughed at Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" system, though it played a major role in ending the Cold War. But here we are today with a defense system that does what was once considered to be science fantasy.

Meanwhile, in North Korea, weapons systems have gone from duds to true threats. The author parallels the U.S.'s series of failed intercept tests with the ever-growing capabilities of North Korean assets, from simply getting a rocket off the ground to the launching of multi-stage rockets capable of carrying nuclear warheads long distances. 

There is a real human element to all of this work. Thanks to Wasserbly, we know the stories and personalities on the American side. We also know how both sides of the American political landscape have viewed the threat over time, how missile defense has been prioritized, de-prioritized, funded and de-funded. And, by reading this book, we know how close we may someday come to the true threat of mutual assured destruction.

How will it all end? Hopefully it won't. The watch continues, and may it go on forever.