Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Road Warriors: Danger, Death and the Rush of Wrestling by Joe Laurinaitis



Why I read it: The Road Warriors hit the wrestling scene as I was coming of age, when wrestling was still all too real to me.

Summary: With Kay Fabian dead, Road Warrior Animal tells all. (Wrestlers used to get access backstage at their shows by saying that they knew a fictitious "Kay Fabian"; remaining in character in public and pushing the notion that the sport was real became known as "kayfabe." That wall was finally broken when the WWF (today's WWE) let the world know it was fake, or, at least, scripted, in the early 1990s. With "kayfabe" dead, once-sacred secrets were revealed, and suddenly thousands of behind-the-scenes stories could be told).

My Thoughts: They were as advertised, larger than life, both physically and as a box office draw. When the first strum of "Iron Man" hit, you knew mayhem was on its way. They were just so damned dominant. It seemed they would never be beaten.

As a young kid growing up in the northeast, the WWF (as it was then called) dominated my Saturday morning airwaves. Wrestling once worked in territories: the AWA in Minnesota, WCCW in Texas, etc. Owners and promoters respected boundaries, some even shared talent. And thus, at first, the Road Warriors were a magazine-based story for me, and not something I saw on television. That was Bob Backlund, the Wild Samoans, Chief Jay Strongbow, Sgt. Slaughter, the Moondogs, Hulk Hogan taking down the Iron Sheik, Roddy Piper smashing a coconut on Jimmy Snuka's head.

But then, we got cable, and Gordon Solie told us all about the new faces we were seeing from the south: Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Buzz Sawyer. Enter the Road Warriors. They crashed wrestling's party like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Today's wrestling scene is nothing but run-ins and unpredictability. Thank the Road Warriors for setting the trend. Today, heels (the bad guys) often get cheered for being counter-culture. Thank them for that, too. They were so badass, you had to root for them.

Animal keeps nothing in reserve in telling his tale. It starts with steroids, ends in the death of his partner, Hawk (Mike Hegstrand). He shares with us the personal side of his life, tales of his kids, his wife, his newfound religion. He turns from Animal, superhero in facepaint and spiked shoulder pads, to Joe, loving dad and husband.

If you were ever in a crowd awed by the Road Warriors; if you know your Nikita Koloff from your Ivan Koloff; if you watched wrestling at all in the 1980s and 1990s, you have to read this book. I came away from it with a touch of sadness at the loss of Hawk, and how it affected Animal. Their story shouldn't have ended the way it did. But Animal lives to tell the tale. And I'll bet you that if he walked through the curtain today in any stadium in America, he'd still get that Road Warrior pop from the crowd.

Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by Sabine Baring Gould



Why I read it: Focused on medieval history in college, sort of an undeclared minor.

Summary: An attempt to debunk the longstanding myths of medieval times.

My Thoughts: I once had a professor at UMASS Amherst, a dear friend who has since passed on, who took a statement from a student and stood it on its head. The student, when asked a question about medieval history, said, "I wouldn't know. I only study American history."

Professor Ware looked at him and said, "Oh, I see. What's that, like 400 years, in one language?"

Gould escorted me back to those days at UMASS, but brought my studies to a whole new level. We didn't get into myths. We didn't have time. The beautiful tapestry of life in the Middle Ages - which, of course, featured the Bayeaux Tapestry - was too complex, too interwoven to complete in twenty-eight weeks (broken into early and later Middle Ages courses). Myths were just a theme we didn't get to.

But we all know so many of them - the Wandering Jew, William Tell, etc. Some have survived to the modern day as folk tales, but we know them to be just that - tales. There was a time, say, in the Middle Ages, when folks believed them to be true. That's because they had never met Sabine Baring Gould.

Gould was the nineteenth century destroyer of Medieval European myths. He wrote this particular study in 1866, and didn't just debunk them, he proved that across international borders the same stories had been told for generations with just names, faces and minor themes changed. The book is fascinating in the sense that first he tells the myth, then rips it apart before our eyes.

My only disappointment in reading this book is the loss of my friend. If only I could have sat with Professor Ware one morning in his office and started the debate. "Yes, I've heard of the Wandering Jew, but according to S. Baring Gould..." I so miss those days.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Pinocchio, The Tale of a Puppet by Carlo Collodi



Why did I read it? Stuck on reading the books that inspired the early Disney movies.

Summary: A wooden puppet strives to become a real boy, but has to learn some lessons along the
way.

My Thoughts: Well, it had to come from somewhere, the movie, that is. And there's a lot of the original story that made it into the Disney film.

And it's understandable why Disney changed the character of the protagonist as he did. Pinocchio as written by Collodi in the earliest chapters was a brat, a petulant and self-absorbed youngster who did anything get out of school, work or responsibility in any form. Disney - and this was a Walt Disney production in its truest sense - made him more gullible, hapless, easily-swayed by the people and talking animals that came into his life. And there were a lot of talking animals.

Consider this one little change: Pinocchio meets Talking Cricket early in the book, and flings a hammer handle at him and kills him; Disney turns that cricket into Jiminy Cricket, and makes him the conscience of the puppet. Jiminy becomes one of the earliest and best-loved animated characters of all time.

As for the book itself, if you read it back-to-back with Voltaire's Candide, you would swear they were written by the same author. Action comes fast, and it's always overly dramatic. Every few pages, Pinocchio - being very Italian (as one, I feel confident saying it) - is on his knees weeping and begging for somebody to spare him his life if only so he can see his papa again. Characters weave in and out of the story, returning and disappearing, as Pinnochio moves from one venue to another over a wide expanse of time. He gains and loses small fortunes. It's as bizarre a fantasy world as any other.

The moral? Be a good boy and good things happen to you, just like my mama always said. He gets there in the end, but, wow, what a rough road!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie


Why did I read it? A sudden interest in the stories behind the Disney movies.

Summary: A collection of stories about the mythical world of the Kensington Gardens, including the genesis of the Peter Pan legends.

My Thoughts: There's more to J.M. Barrie than meets the eye. Now, I'm no big city psychiatrist, but if I had to guess, I'd say that he had some deep issues.

But first, Peter. No, he's not the Peter Pan you're thinking of. He was definitely Disneyized, and it's probably a good thing. This Peter Pan was a lost boy, "Betwixt-and-Between" the worlds of humans, fairies and birds, and he did have a set of pipes, but beyond that, he had some sad experiences that to me would never make it into a children's book today. And he's tiny, bigger than the fairies, but small enough to sail the ponds of Kensington Gardens in a Thrush's Nest.

The stories are mostly cutesy, dealing with those fairies and life in the Gardens after the gates are closed at night. The saddest, I believe, describes how Peter decides he wants to return home to his mother, but finds he's been replaced. Ugh. This one tale I'm going to let my sons read when they're good and ready. There's a lot of magic in Peter Pan for them right now, what with his occasional appearances on their favorite show Jake and the Neverland Pirates. They don't need to know his depressing beginnings.

I guess what's most amazing is how Disney took these tales and made what he did.

Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas


Why did I read it? I visited Walt Disney World with my boys, and kept up my string of unending curiosity with every place I ever visit by buying a book about its history.

Summary: A biography of Walt Disney.

My Thoughts: Disney was always a little spooky to me, and still can be. I wonder, though, how I would have reacted sixty years ago to the wonderful world he created.

Let's face it: since the assassination of John F. Kennedy, our lives have turned. I wasn't alive to witness the change, but there was a time, before television, when life was more controlled, information held back if deemed necessary. We didn't know about FDR dying in his mistress' arms. War casualties came through the newspapers as photographs of stoic young men in uniform, bracketed by tiny printed American flags. With Kennedy's death, all bets were off. The Vietnam War marched right into our living rooms in color. We began serious distrust of our own government. We became jaded. We became skeptics. We became wary. The nuclear bombs were on the way at any minute. We became distrustful.

That's the world I grew up in. It was a world that had been forged in battle. The twentieth century was the bloodiest ever: WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars. There was a lot of death, grief, pain from 1900 onward.

And then there was Walt Disney.

Disney never let those things affect his vision. Oh, he participated. He drove for the Red Cross in France just after the end of World War I, lying about his age for the right to participate. As a cartoonist in World War II, he lent his talents - and his facilities - to the war effort. But he never lost that vision for what was good and wholesome in American life. He was an anomaly. He remained corny, happily and knowingly corny, for the sake of the entertainment of the American family. He wanted nothing more than to put smiles on faces, to make life just a little bit better for all of us.

As a teen, I waffled on what Disney produced - that Disney by then being the huge business entity, not the man himself, who died before I was born - but always figured it was not meant for me anyway. Now that I'm a dad, it all makes sense. And it's weird, ever since reading this book, learning how he made his way to the top, I've been adhering to some of his tenets. I don't think "What would Walt Disney do? (WWWDD?)," but I do find myself making comparisons from his life and thinking to mine.

If nothing else, this book gave me a much, much greater appreciation for Disney and what he strove to do. I'm sure there are gaps, as the book is published by Disney Editions, but now that my interest is piqued, I'm sure I'll be reading more about the man.

Bill Bryson's African Diary


Why did I read it? I've read a whole mess of Bryson books. Going for the full sweep.

Summary: A fundraiser for CARE, detailing the author's visit to the Dark Continent.

My Thoughts: It's not easy to write a book with a blatant agenda and still make it enjoyable. The book is intended to be a hook that catches you and reels you in to donating to CARE. To that end it's short, gets quickly to the point, and utilizes one of the world's most prominent travel writers to tell you why it's important we act quickly to help the people of Africa.

Bryson has made a living out of grousing and cantankerousness, and I often wondered when I perused his titles what he would have to say about the African people. But he also has a way of positively judging communities and populations when they claw their way up to his standards; I mean, he's not a total bastard. With as much bleakness as comes from that continent (note to Americans: for information on anything that happens outside of the continental United States at any time, please refer to BBC News), war, starvation, plague, etc., it seemed it would be the one section of the world unworthy of a Bryson book.

Bryson, though, agenda and all, tells it like it is, the scary transportation infrastructure (bitching about the horrors of missed plane connections, trains running off-schedule, etc., is practically a British genre), fears of violence, etc. But he also tells us about the amazing things that both CARE and the people of Africa do in the face of overwhelming odds. In the end, he makes you care.

And, if you bought the book, you've already donated, as Bryson and his publishers made it a 100% donation to CARE. That is, unless you bought it second hand. Like me.

Oops. Where do I send that check?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs



Why I read it: Getting close to finishing the A.J. Jacobs suite.

Summary: A.J. takes his third step in his quest for the betterment of his mind, spirit and body.

My Thoughts: There are a lot of nuts in New York City. And this is not a blind squirrel joke.

A.J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically, My Life as an Experiment, The Know-It-All) took it upon himself to better himself physically in two years. His method? One month, one body part; next month, move onto the next; combine all that was learned into a new, healthier lifestyle. He dives in with his usual zealousness, dragging his family with him.

Along the way, he consults the best in every field, "best" being a relative term; same for "field." There are some real crackpots out there espousing all kinds of remedies and treatments and methods. But A.J.'s lucky. He lives amongst them in New York City. Want to take up barefoot running? There's a group in Central Park, of course. Need acupuncture? Want to try pole dancing as exercise? Don't go far.

The only thing I found missing from the book was the "after" shot. We get a "before," a sad sack affair (very creatively described by one of his doctors as a "python that swallowed a goat"), but we never see the results. Come on, A.J.! You did all that work over two years, did the triathlon, you deserve to show it off.

Putting the book down and thinking about what I wanted to take away from it, I came up with this: we have a long way to go before we understand our own bodies. Evidence is contradictory on almost any biological subject. The same herb that one study says hurts us is touted as salubrious in others. A.J. took it to the extreme, trying to make every movement count, every second of his life productive. No doubt he's since backed off. He found that if you followed all the advice out there, your life would be one of several hours of routine per day. We just don't have that kind of time.

But thank you, A.J., for your pioneering work. I'm already putting your Appendices to good use.