Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

Why I read it: Closing in on finalizing the Bryson library.

Summary: Bill Bryson grouses his way across "small town America."

My Thoughts: I still haven't figured out the formula yet. Somehow, Bill Bryson manages to insult just about everybody in America - waitresses, state highway patrolmen, Shriners - and in the end remains one of the most popular and widely-read American authors of the modern day. We give him money to write books about how awful we all are. He hasn't hit me yet, so it's not like I'm sitting here in a fez with my Shriner buddies going, "Well, he is right after all, we are a bunch of jerks." So maybe that's the key.

He does hit things on the head, though, and that's the sad part about it. The book was written in the 1980s, so if you can slide past the Ronald Reagan jokes to catch the grander themes, the "dumbening" of America, as Lisa Simpson called it, the vapidness of the American tourist in his own country, it's all there. We just are too polite to say anything about it. Bill's not. Thank god, Bill's not.

I found myself, while wrapped in the pages of this book, anticipating his visits to certain places, places I know well. He nailed Boston. He just talked about its traffic as he drove through in an utter panic. That's so us.When he did write about those special spots I know so well, I wanted to read the passages aloud to my family and friends, ending with "I know that place! I was there last summer with my friend Greg, remember?" It was the equivalent of being in a plane and shouting "I can see my house from here!" Nobody really cared, but me.

So, I secretly laugh aloud to Bill Bryson's books. I'm up to 5 so far, I think. Lots to go. But I want that formula! How can I be a curmudgeon and not lose my standing in the community? When do I get to vent on paper and have people love me for it? As George Costanza's father said on Festivus, "I got a lot to say about you people!"

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Big Hair and Plastic Grass by Dan Epstein

Why I read it: The cover looked like my first baseball card collection.

Summary: A chronological summarization of 1970s baseball, spiked with the baseball-related tales that made the decade unique.

My Thoughts: Although it sounds harsh to call Epstein's book a "summary," in a way, it's true. He gives us the whole picture from '70-'79, sharing the major stories of the baseball seasons from the diamond, then spicing them up with all sorts of cultural references, everything from political campaign slogans to television commercial jingle lyrics. It's a dip back in the pool that was the 1970s, the most funkadelic decade America ever saw.

For a child of the '70s like me, it was fantastic. I was born in 1971, and came of baseball age around 1976. I wanted to be Fred Lynn. Still do when I grow up. While the first half of the book, therefore, was a world of which I knew the characters but none of the plot lines (save for what I could read from the backs of baseball cards as a kid), the latter half was a walk down Yawkey Way to the Fenway Park of yore. It was, in effect, a chance to relive that part of my youth through a different set of eyes.

And one thing struck me overall. Being an historian, I'm well aware of the concept of the Revolutionary War vet shaking hands with the young boy who would go on to the Civil War, who, as a G.A.R. man grabs the hand of a boy who will one day march off to World War II. Baseball has those same ghosts, best personified in W.P. Kinsella's Iowa Baseball Confederacy. In any baseball decade, there is crossover. Players from the 1950s were leaving the game as players who would play in the 1990s were entering it. It's a cycle that runs throughout time, the mixing of the generations. It doesn't happen so prevalently in any other sport, save for with an occasional aging back-up quarterback or an ageless goaltender or two. Hank Aaron out, Rickey Henderson in. As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., woud say, "And so it goes."

Epstein is probably right in singling out the 1970s as untouchable when it comes to baseball history. Defining the decades just by their numbers is, of course, ludicrous, but think "1970s" and certain images pop up. Reggie Jackson's home runs in the 1977 World Series. Carlton Fisk's home run in the 1975 World Series. "We Are Family." Aaron's 715th. Lou Brock stealing bases. Chicago White Sox in shorts. The Houston Astros uniforms. Their Astroturf. Oscar Gamble's afro. Rollie Fingers' mustache. Mark "The Bird" Fidrych. Disco Demolition Night.

But there's more. Free agency. The designated hitter. Expansion. Baseball changed in the 1970s, in important ways.

Still, I'd love to see a "Baseball in the 80s" book written, if just to continue the narrative. Think about it. George Brett's .390. Dan Quisenberry's submarine pitching style. Fred Lynn's 1983 All-Star Game grand slam off Atlee Hammaker. Roger Clemens' 20 strikeouts. Harvey's Wallbangers. Ozzie Smith. The cocaine scandals. The beginning of the steroid era. This story could roll on.

But Epstein's book is a stand-alone triumph. It's one of those books you have to read and then think to yourself, "You can't make this crap up." That's the 1970s in a nutshell.