Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Battle for Las Vegas by Dennis N. Griffin

The Battle for Las Vegas: The Law vs. The Mob: Griffin, Dennis N ...
Why I Read It: My wife and I went to Vegas and when she asked me "What's the one thing off the beaten path you want to do?" I answered unhesitatingly: go to the Mob Museum.

Summary: Law enforcement's fight to bring down Vegas mob boss Tony Spilotro.

My Thoughts: I think I've always associated the mob with Las Vegas, but living as far from Vegas as humanly possible in the United States, I never thought deeply about it. I had some vague notion of the hotels and mob control, of shady dealings, of money secretly being shifted around, Al Capone-style. But I really had no clue.

Then, we went. My wife and I found out that Aerosmith would be doing a residency at the MGM, and decided, what the heck, let's make a long weekend of it. We wandered up and down the strip, did the sights, ate the food, got swept up in all of it. And then we went to the Mob Museum.

I was hooked, I wanted to know more, and purchased this book.

Griffin's story quickly recounts the backstory of the growth of Las Vegas and brings it into the 1970s and 1980s, where he does most of his work. He follows the life of Spilotro, Lefty Rosenthal and others on the crime side, and law enforcement members on the other. He deftly covers the politics of the various departments - from federal to local - working the cases, and the struggles for power that faced both sides. He covers the court cases, the media members who covered the mob scene and more.

He finds out the graphic details of the murders, uncovers the strategic tactics that led to the arrests, the ties that stretched all the way back to Chicago. The book ends when Spilotro's life does, but Griffin doesn't let it go as an evil erased. He is very fair to his legacy, and shares the thoughts of those who knew and loved him. He allows for the humanization of a demonized man. He could have let it go, but didn't.

I've got a clearer picture now of this storied chapter in Vegas history. I wonder how many people passed through the city clueless to what was happening around them at all time. I wonder what I missed when I was there.

Flight Calls by John R. Nelson

Flight Calls: Exploring Massachusetts through Birds: Nelson, John ...
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Why I Read It: Obligated. I've been birding Massachusetts for 25 years.

Summary: A collection of essays that intersects the worlds of birds and literature, with all thoughts pointing toward Massachusetts.

My Thoughts: This is the book that I am going to write in twenty years.

I first knew John Nelson and I were kindred spirits when he approached the subject of Brown-headed Cowbirds, birds that drop their eggs in other birds' nests and take off. The young are raised by their new "parents" and yet, somehow, the young Cowbirds seek out other Cowbirds and perpetuate the species. How do they know who they really are?

I then knew we were forever tied together because I realized that not only did I know the same people he did - many, many of them, at least - but because we had chased the same birds in Massachusetts. And I don't mean species; I mean individual birds. We've traveled the same paths, scoped the same birds, asked the same questions, braved the same weather.

But then, John has a twist to him. As a professor of literature, he has a whole different perspective on birds and birding. He has researched and read through the literature of Massachusetts, through the centuries, and knows the references, both in poetry and prose to the birds of the Bay State. We have a common friend in Edward Howe Forbush, the great compiler of New England bird knowledge in the early part of the twentieth century. I, too approach the bird world differently than most birders. My life work is in history. When it came time to write the second Breeding Bird Atlas for Massachusetts, I was privileged, honored, to write the history paragraphs for the 220 species we were profiling. It was research that made my head spin, learning so many small details about the ebbs and flows of bird populations in Massachusetts over time, trying to encapsulate them in a few sentences per species.

And so, I was surprised, after learning so much about the Massachusetts bird landscape from John, to see that he had learned from me. He references the Atlas and the State of the Birds reports we produced at Mass Audubon. I had the great honor of breaking down a half century of Christmas Bird Count data to look for any unexpected trends for the first SOTB, a true labor of love . I'll never forget when we discovered the obvious plunges of the Great Cormorant as a winter resident and tied them to open bag limits in Canada, and other such details. I have no idea why I like statistics so much, but I do.

I feel like I should have been speaking to John R. Nelson for years, that we should have bumped into each other somewhere on the birding trail. Perhaps we have. We found each other on social media long before the book came out (perhaps he was grooming me for a future sale) and give each other thumbs up from time to time. I hope we do get to share a bird in person some day.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Storytellers by Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson

The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Storytellers (From the ...
Why I Read It: Storytelling is becoming more and more important culturally; wrestling has long gotten it right.

Summary: Instances and examples of the best stories told in professional wrestling rings through time.

My Thoughts: What it comes down to is this. You don't need the best body. You don't need the best mouthpiece. You don't need the best gimmick. If you can be believable, if you can make the world truly believe that you are crazy, foolhardy, noble, or chivalrous, if you can capture the imagination of the general public while forcing them to suspend their suspension of disbelief, especially in the post-kayfabe era of professional wrestling, you will go far.

The best storytellers through time have influenced future generations. Gorgeous George was not the biggest or most skilled man ever to hit the ring, but by the time he got to it, with all the preening, the music, the spraying of perfume, fans hated his guts. See Ric Flair. See Randy Savage.

Some, though, have used gimmicks, from animals to valets to managers. Others have crafted stories through newspapers and magazines to draw heat, or attention, to themselves before an event. Still more relied on the prowess of enhancement talents, "jobbers" whose job it is to simply make their opponents look good, either by being squashed in the ring, or putting up just enough of a fight to allow the star the opportunity to show his or her guile or wit in cutting off that effort and claiming a victory.

With thousands of examples from which to choose, Oliver and Johnson zoom in on their favorites, from sideshow freaks to rings full of smelt, from ladder matches to monkey-wielding wild men. From end to end, it's all about the story. We can all learn a little from this journey, whether in advertising, running nonprofit organizations, or running the social media account for a pro sports franchise.

Stories sell.

100 Things WWE Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die by Brian Alvarez

100 Things WWE Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (100 Things ...

Why I Read It: Because Hulk Hogan pinned the Iron Sheik at Madison Square Garden on January 23, 1984, when I was 12 and I've never been able to remember life before it happened.

Summary: Pretty self-explanatory title. It's an unauthorized gathering of backstories and more about the WWE for the modern generation to understand how things got to where they are today.

My Thoughts: What I love most about this book is that it could be about any federation or any association at any time. But I do have to admit that I also like the fact that it doesn't have to hide behind the veil of what the organization approves of or not.

Most of the "100 Things" are wrestlers themselves. Those wrestlers who are successful today have typically been through hell two or three times on the way to the top, under various names and varied gimmicks. Each of these individuals has a backstory as varied and crazy - and outside of the WWE - as could make for a novel in itself. Most of it vanishes the second they sign the contract, but is revived once they leave the WWE, if they ever do.

The result is a gathering of a cast of characters in the locker room that can talk forever about bad promoters, stupid gimmicks, works and shoots and even crossing paths under different names in different promotions.

And, the most amazing thing is that this book was outdated when it hit bookstore shelves, as new talent had arrived and old talent had moved on. Pro wrestling is about riding waves of momentum in the moment. What's hot today is gone tomorrow if the ratings aren't there.

War Fever by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith

War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the ...

Why I Read It: Boston, baseball, World War I, Babe you even know me at all?

Summary: Three lives twisted and turned by World War I: Babe Ruth, Karl Muck and Charles Whittlesey.

My Thoughts: It must have been an amazing time to be alive.

The Great War affected millions of lives worldwide, whether they came under trench mortar fire or not. There were hardships all around, in hundreds of thousands of homes in dozens of countries. But it was by no means an even playing field.

Just like the luck of the battlefield, where one man watched untouched as the man next to him blew to pieces, the pull of public sentiment picked and chose who it brought down. Anti-German feelings appeared in posters, in newsprint and on the lips of Americans across the country. For men like Karl Muck, the German-born Swiss national conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that sentiment meant doom. Forced into untenable positions - why, detractors asked, would he not play "The Star-Spangled Banner" during BSO performances? - Muck ended up deposed from his perch, imprisoned and eventually deported, simply for his Germanness. The government and the press made headline news out of a suspected affair with a younger American woman, in order to drag his name through the mud.

But what of George Herman Ruth, the wayward, boozing and outwardly womanizing son of a German-American saloon keeper? Those same Boston pundits who excoriated and ruined Muck cheered Ruth. After all, he could hit home runs like no one ever had before, and his Germanness was hidden behind his nickname: the Babe.

In the midst of the hatred, sharing the spotlight with the influenza pandemic that ravaged the world, America's Lost Battalion had pushed through enemy lines only to find itself isolated and cutoff on the French front. Its leader, a bookish Harvard man named Charles Whittlesey, fought on tirelessly amidst diminishing amounts of ammunition, food and men. He came home to spend the rest of his life attending funerals and memorials and assuring family members that their sons, fathers and brothers died nobly and heroically, not in one of the far too numerous horrid endings he had personally witnessed on the battlefield.

Muck wanted to make music. Ruth wanted to play ball. Whittlesey wanted to serve his country. Fate would say who got what he wanted.

This is a total aside driven completely by my baseball history nerd-dom. The authors mention Massachusetts-born "Harvard" Eddie Grant, a friend of Whittlesey, in passing toward the end of the book, down to the detail that he had been killed by a direct shell hit in the Argonne. For some reason, they declined the opportunity to point out that he had been a professional baseball player for a decade before the war, a contemporary of Ruth. It would have made for an interesting linkage.

Born Round by Frank Bruni

Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite ...
Why I Read It: Gotta be honest, the Italian surname.

Summary: One man's struggle with food and the problems that caused in other areas of life.

My Thoughts: It seems to me that there is an interesting, if yet unexplored cultural dynamic at work here.

Frank was born into an Italian-American family, very much like the one in which I grew up. There was food everywhere. Now, whether or not he, or I, can claim that that atmosphere or environment had anything to do with the way we ate as kids, or the way we continued to eat as adults, I'm not sure. But the food was there, and there was, and still is, even guilt in not eating to excess.

Frank, I get it.

Ironically, it's a pilgrimage, through a work posting to Italy, that sets him on a healthy track for good. He had tried everything to lose and maintain a safe weight: exercise, diets, pills, forced vomiting. And now he was set to head to Italy, the land of his gastronomic dreams. But it was there that he found a key to life success.

Italians (I speak from experience) prefer to have the best of everything, from footwear to music to food. They don't care to have it in abundance, and, as far as food goes, are very happy to let a small taste magnificence of the best piece of prosciutto in the land or the most potent espresso linger on their lips rather than eat or drink unseemly amounts of it. Americans, on the other hand, prefer giant Vegas-style buffets. I don't even know if there is an Italian phrase for "all you can eat."

But something happened when Italians hit American shores in large numbers just more than a century ago. It's almost like they found they could have the best of both worlds: magnificence in abundance. Every function I attended with Old World Italians as a kid featured way, way too much food.

Did America corrupt Italian culture?

Frank learns to eat in Italy, and soon gets the call to a new assignment, food critic for the New York Times. Did he dare go for it? Would his old ways come back to haunt him? Born Round covers this story and Frank's search for love as he travels up and down the waist size ladder.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

At Home by Beth Luey

At Home: Historic Houses of Eastern Massachusetts: Beth Luey ...
Why I Read It: I help run an historic house in Eastern Massachusetts (see "Summary").

Summary: The histories of eight historic houses in Eastern Massachusetts.

My Thoughts: The beauty of this template is that it can be used in any county in any state in America, and even in regions around the world. The author has profiled the life histories of eight historic homes. She's spread them out from the North Shore of Boston to Concord to New Bedford to Cape Cod, and stretched them from the early 1600s to the year 2000.

Working in the historic preservation field, I can see why she chose what she did, but can also see the breadth of what she left out. There are so many more historic houses being kept alive by preservation groups of all kind in the region that this is a mere sampling of what is out there to explore. That said, she chose the obscure - like the Fairbanks home in Dedham - and the famed, like the homes of John and John Quincy Adams, the Alcotts, Mary Baker Eddy and Edward Gorey. The obscure is where most of our history lies, in historic structures in which everyday people lived everyday lives. But a little bit of celebrity certainly helps tell a tale.

I found the biographical sketches of several of the characters - Bronson Alcott, Eddy and Gorey, in particular - to be fascinating. Ultimately, the book is about the homes, but they are what they are, from construction to decoration, because of the people who lived in them. Kicking off the book with the Fairbanks house and its grisly murder story was a great idea.

The author begs us to break the 60-mile rule. We tend to live in bubbles, seeing anything local as mundane. But as soon as somebody from the outside arrives, or we travel 60 miles distant, we find experts and new adventures. We need to look right in our own backyards. This book encourages us to explore our home regions, to come face-to-face with our local history. I've visited every town in this book; I've never visited any of the homes. I've got some work to do.

Find your local book, and explore your local world.