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.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Ali vs. Inoki by Josh Gross


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Why I Read It: I saw pictures of this fight in magazines as a kid.

Summary: Muhammad Ali, world champion boxer, met Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in a bizarre sport vs. sport match.

My Thoughts: It just seemed so strange to me. There they were, a wrestler, who I knew as "just another guy," but who, in reality, was a megastar in his home country of Japan, and the most famous boxer of all time squared off in the ring. Their juxtapositioning was just...weird.

But what would a 12-year-old know?

This book puts it all in context. I now see a heavyweight champ who had run through all his contenders and wanting to test his limits. I see a champ who had the final say, who could arrange the fight without listening to the real fears of his handlers. I see a wrestler who knows that this is the chance of a lifetime, to grab onto the coattails of the greatest entertainer in sports.

The author carries us through the history of mixed martial arts, meaning all the way back Ancient Greece. He brings us to the days when Muhammad Ali first encountered the outlandish wrestler Gorgeous George, and realized he could take his own game a notch higher. He brings us through the California wrestling scene that Classy Freddie Blassie dominated on the way to becoming one of Ali's seconds during the big fight (though he secretly wished the wrestler would beat the boxer). He introduces us to the man who will referee the bout, and fleshes out Inoki as well.

We're taken round by round through the fight, and then given the trails to follow afterwards. Unsurprisingly, the McMahons were involved, Vince, Sr., and Vince, Jr., tying the closed circuit broadcast to a major live wrestling event at Shea Stadium that included the return of the legendary Bruno Sammartino from a broken neck and an Andre the Giant vs. Chuck Wepner wrestler vs. boxer undercard match. The seeds of Wrestlemania were planted here, as were the notions that would eventually grow into today's fertile mixed martial arts landscape.

The irony is that in the short term, nobody won (except maybe for the promoters who swallowed the money owed all around). The match was a dud. Ali soon thereafter slowed down, lost the title and retired. In the long term, Inoki and Ali became friends.

And now, thirty years later, I get it.

Shakespeare and the Resistance by Claire Asquith


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Why I Read It: Always found Shakespeare fascinating as a historical character.

Summary: New evidence points to the Bard as a rabble-rouser.

My Thoughts: Henry VIII of England, we know, was a bad man. Once upon the throne, he changed the game, consolidating power within his own hands, taking it away from the people of England. And he changed the religious landscape forever (well, so far), outlawing Catholicism and creating the church that met his personal needs. Echoes of that change - with imprisonments, land confiscation, questions of succession, and more - reverberated for decades.

Shakespeare came to his own type of power about a half century later, while the Tudors still held the throne. He became the world's most famous playwright, often dealing with historical themes, writing many plays about England's monarchy. It seems that he wrote more about them than we knew.

This book focuses on two poems, lesser read works that are lesser read for a reason. They never made sense, seeming to ramble on, un-Shakespeare-like, with no real point. It turns out that, like the old breakup line goes, it was us, not him, that was the problem.

When interpreted from an anti-Tudor standpoint, the poems, about the ancient themes of the Rape of Lucrece and a chance encounter between Adonis and Venus, make perfect sense. They're even quite daring. Shakespeare put his own neck on the line in writing the poems in the first place; how far he decided to go with his parallels to modern-day characters (Queen Elizabeth, for instance) proved a bit of his own haughtiness.

Aside from providing wonderful in-depth literary criticism of the poems, from this new point of view, the author also delves deeply into British history to explain to us the decades-long rule of the Tudors and the effects it had on the English people, to introduce us to the other characters involved and carry us beyond the poems to the end of the Tudor reign.

For those who believed that Shakespeare was in it just for the sake of his art, think again, or, at least, give this book a try

The Year of the Pitcher by Sridhar Pappu


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Why I Read It: It's baseball, dude. Game on.

Summary: The year 1968 changed the world. Baseball was a part of it all.

My Thoughts: It must have been something to live through. Baseball 50 years ago was struggling with the same issues it has today: it's too slow, it's not relevant for the new generation, football's better. Yet, somehow, the game survived. The game, though, went through one of its worst offensive seasons ever. In other words, if you liked to watch baseballs fly out of ballparks, 1968 was just not the year for you. It was in many ways the year of the pitcher.

Pappu takes us through the remarkable season by following two of the most dominating pitchers of all time, the ridiculously juxtaposed Bob Gibson and Denny McLain. Bob was no-nonsense (and that's an understatement); Denny was all nonsense. Yet, despite their diverse approaches to life and the game, they both accomplished incredible things on the diamond in 1968. Partially because of their dominance, Major League Baseball figured that the pitchers had too much of an upper hand and made the drastic change of dropping the height of the pitcher's mound the next year, taking some of that advantage away. For one short year, pitchers dominated the game.

But when we look at 1968 beyond the foul lines, outside the stadiums, we recognize it as a year that, for better or worse, changed things. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated (just moments after mentioning Dodgers' pitcher Don Drysdale and his scoreless innings streak). Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. The Civil Rights movement was stunted and reaffirmed. Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color line in baseball, was actively campaigning on behalf of his candidate during the presidential race. Detroit rioted.

Pappu reminds us in the end that though baseball players made news in 1968, their impact was minimal; larger issues carried the real headlines. The Tigers - more behind Mickey Lolich than McLain, whose arm was suffering from overuse by the time the World Series came around - took the championship, but the game was never more than just a sideshow in a year that made us all wonder what the world was headed to.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Is Wrestling Fixed? I Didn't Know it was Broken! by Bill Apter


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Why I Read It: I've been a mark since before Hulk Hogan took out the Iron Sheik at Madison Square Garden.

Summary: The autobiography of the man who represented the Golden Era of professional wrestling magazines.

My Thoughts: My closest friends and I created a Strat-o-Matic style wrestling game. We used twenty-sided dice mixed with six-sided to create, or recreate, the great matches of the 1980s. It was the time of the expansion of cable television, when WTBS started to reach the northeast, when we could watch the NWA, WCCW, WWF and even at times the AWA in our own living rooms. We had jumped from five to six good local UHF and VHF stations to a whole new world.

And it was the time, after the passing of Vince McMahon, Sr., when the WWF was breaking the rules, moving out of the historic territory system and taking over the wrestling world. The WWF didn't even acknowledge that the rest of the wrestling world existed. It was, from a fan's perspective (I was 13 when Hulkster took the WWF title), frustrating. We could never again see a WWF superstar face a champion from the NWA.

Thank God for PWI (Pro Wrestling Illustrated). And The Wrestler. And Inside Wrestling.

Like good comic book collectors, my friends and I gathered each issue each month, read them cover to cover, and eventually cut out the pictures for use in the upper right-hand corners of our wrestler profile sheets for the game (which we hyper-creatively called "The Wrestling Game").

Although he wasn't behind all of it, Bill Apter was a major, visible component of the wrestling magazine landscape. He was the photographer at ringside, navigating the wrestling world during those glory days, making friends across the country, and elsewhere on the planet. He oftentimes was mistaken for a one-man operation; some wrestlers believed the other writers on staff were just his alter egos, or pen names.

But as much as we learned from the magazines...well, this book speaks for the rest of it. There are plenty of behind-the-scenes stories to more than fill the pages. There are tales within tales. I laughed when, after finishing the book, I picked up the most recent copy of Pro Wrestling Illustrated (for which Apter no longer writes) and read an article on the 25 greatest Bruno Sammartino covers, the "Living Legend" having just passed away. There, in the bottom left corner of one cover was the teaser for the story of how a "midget" (actually, Jerry "The King" Lawler) had beaten Andre the Giant. Apter tells the story of how the pictures came into the office, the magazine ran with the story, and then fielded heat from the elder McMahon, who was furious over the notion that anybody had been credited with defeating Andre. As McMahon property, Andre was supposed to remain undefeated, invincible, in fact.

The book is written in short, disjointed chapters, not chronological at all, like a random collection of magazine columns, but it works. There are some repeated themes, but the stories are so much fun that it doesn't matter. Wrestling was still in its "kayfabe" stage when Apter started, meaning that the old carnival-style secrecy that it was all fixed still existed. Apter was in on the secret.

He's still going strong, by the way. Check him out at WWE.com, at www.1wrestling.com, or on Twitter at @apter1wrestling.

The Wrong Stuff by Bill Lee with Dick Lally


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Why I Read It: Re-read it, actually. It was s good the first time around I sought out another copy.

Summary: The autobiography of the Spaceman as of the mid-1980s.

My Thoughts: There are baseball biographies and then there is this one.

Yes, it helps that I grew up in the Boston area and that Red Sox history is familiar to me, but the fact is that there is no one else in baseball history like the Spaceman. To be fair, by this time in baseball history, the first "tell all" autobiographies had emerged. Warts had been exposed, about drinking, drugs, extramarital affairs and more. But nobody had ever shared the details in such a stylish way.

Lee is as individual a thinker as anyone on the planet, with sometimes what amounts to his own dialect. He played during a transitional time in American history, the late 1960s and 1970s, when the United States broke out of the staid 1950s of crew cuts and straight flying. Long hair, wild clothes and outspokenness had trumped coloring within the lines.

And even at that, Lee still stood out, oftentimes for his stances on roster moves, when his teammates were released or traded. He was as anti-authoritarian as any player in history. And he had some of the greatest one-line comebacks in history. When told that Sparky Anderson, manager of the Cincinnati Reds, opposing the Red Sox in the World Series, had stated that his starting pitcher was going to the Hall of Fame after the game, Lee said that he didn't care, that he was going to the Eliot Lounge.

We still get some Spaceman here in the northeast, as he regularly checks into a Boston area radio show. He still has that same warped sense of reality that made him such a standout.

I bought the copy of the book I currently have on Amazon for about $3. Boy, was I surprised to find out that it was a signed first edition. But there it was in blue ink: "Bill Lee, Earth."

Viva el astronauta!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Indy 500 Memories by Art Garner and Marc B. Spiegel

Why I Read It: Had a conference in Indianapolis, my first visit to the city; I always try to read something of local interest when I am away.

Summary: An oral history of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing (also the subtitle).

My Thoughts: I believe it was the movie City Slickers in which the cowboy character, named Curly (and played by Jack Palance), said that the secret of life is "one thing." That's what this book is about.

But the thing about this "one thing" is that it has levels of interest for people all around the world. It's not my one thing, but I certainly recognize many of the players in the game. I don't know a damn thing about Indy car racing, but I know who A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears are as much as I know who Helio Castroneves, Arie Luyendyk and Emerson Fittipaldi are. That says something about the sport, and the race; even casual fans retain at least some recognition. The last Indy 500 I watched end-to-end was in 1982. I remember because Rick Mears had the pole position and I remember the TV I watched it on (he was on the pole six times, but that is the only one that fits all the criteria!).

The authors collected the memories of more than 150 people, from fans to drivers to owners to pit crew chiefs and more. Interestingly, they reiterate the same handful of items - Jim Nabors singing "Back Home Again in Indiana," the horrific 1964 crash that killed two drivers, the winning driver drinking the milk - which makes the book somewhat repetitive, but, in truth, it's what the authors asked for. What do you remember most about the Indy 500?

The authors stage the book well, with chapters on first experiences at the Indy 500, on the women who broke the gender barrier, with special attention paid to the dynastic families and superstar drivers who made the race famous. The book ends with a chapter on tragedies and rides off into the sunset with a chronological chain of triumphs, leading up to 2015.

If there's one disturbing aspect of the Indy 500 story, it's the recurring topic of  death and the nonchalance with which it was accepted in the 1960s and 1970s. One statistic, quoted in the book, said that there was a time period when one in seven drivers was expected to die in competition. One belief, also reported by one of the interviewees, stated that the World War II mentality of "we all have to go sometime" made the drivers push themselves without regard to consequences. It's difficult to accept today, the notion that a man could be killed right on front of thousands and the race would go on.

Whether the Indy 500 is your "one thing" or not is immaterial; just know that going into this book, it is the "one thing" for thousands upon thousands of Americans, and this book is their voice.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Collecting Evolution by Matthew J. James



Why I Read It: A review for Sea History magazine.

Summary: The 1905-1906 California Academy of Sciences expedition to the Galapagos Islands and its aftereffects.

My Thoughts: Oh, how the world has changed.

In 1905, it was acceptable - expected, even - to kill off the last individual of a species on an island under the notion that "if we don't kill it now, we might just lose scientific knowledge of it forever." It is possible, in the case of this particular expedition, that the collectors from the Academy (sailing on the eponymous schooner Academy) killed off one species of tortoise forever under this guiding ethic.

And so they killed. Eight young men with machetes and guns and bullets killed and killed and killed.

Ironically, had they not, the Academy might not exist today. While spending their 366 days in the Galapagos Islands, the collectors were spared the horror of the San Francisco Earthquake of April 1906, and the fires that burned for the days that followed. They missed the destruction of the Academy, and its collection. In the end, they carried the new collection in their hold. Their safe return to San Francisco kept the Academy afloat.

The author details how the expedition was guided by both the work of Charles Darwin and that of Georg Baur, a paleontologist who believed that the islands were not volcanic in nature, but instead the result of a gradual separation of land masses driven by rising waters. The notion would be debated for a few more years, but ultimately proved false. Still, it held merit as the biologists of the day debated how very similar species could be found on the various islands with slight differences. Birds could fly, sure, but could snakes swim, or lava lizards ride driftwood and colonize new islands?

The story has a modicum of testosterone, as eight young men in a ship for a year and a half eventually will blow off steam and throw some lefts and rights. It is riddled with scientific discovery and even has some maritime history credibility. It's not for the squeamish, unless one can put aside modern sensibilities and understand that the study of animals a century ago and beyond involved a whole lot of slaughter.

Doughboys on the Great War by Edward A. Gutierrez



Why I Read It: Fascination with the centennial anniversary of World War I.

Summary: A thorough, detailed study of documents filled out by returning American soldiers after World War I.

My Thoughts: Gutierrez deserves a medal.

When the boys came marching home from the trenches, from the desecrated fields of Europe in 1918 and on, some - in four states at least - were given opportunities to fill out forms detailing their experiences, even sharing their opinions.

Mostly they said the same thing. They confirmed the utterance of General William Tecumseh Sherman: "War is hell."

But it's interesting to see what else they had in common. Soldiers from Connecticut, Utah, Minnesota and Virginia left the most detailed records, because their states were the most diligent about the process. Across the country, men reacted the same way. They charged happily into service, influenced by the writings of Stephen Crane, and an ethos of manliness and devotion to country. They ignored the imagery in the newspapers of the day of war-torn cities. They came out jaded, yet they said they would do it again if their country needed them.

Gutierrez went through them all, checked with the other states, and ultimately codified and boiled down the thoughts of every soldier who left behind comments. His work considers the various groups - African-Americans, recent immigrants, etc. - who put on the AEF uniform and entered combat. He picks up the anger, the patriotism, the pensive reflection and even the humor of the war. He brings the war back to life, through the eyes of the average soldier.

For the enormity of the task and for the wonderful read he crafted for us all to enjoy, Gutierrez deserves that medal.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

My Days, Happy and Otherwise by Marion Ross




Why I Read It: Come on, she was Mrs. C! I grew up with her as a constant presence on my TV as a kid.

Summary: The autobiography of a television legend.

My Thoughts: I personally picked up n the Marion Ross story in the mid-1970s, which, coincidentally, was when her biggest break hit. She had, by then, already had quite a career, so therefore it's inevitable that reading this book filled me in on details I never knew about the acting life she had led before she joined the Happy Days cast. That last statement has to be couched, though, by the fact that we no longer have to wait for biographies to come out to put the pieces of an actor's career together; if I was more of an IMDB cruiser, I would have had more of the picture.

That said, I would have had more of the picture superficially had I taken that route, but nowhere near as deep. The author is frank about her life, and that includes all facets of it. She tells us all about her family life, from growing up through marriage and divorce. She tells us everything we need to know about the road she traveled to Hollywood (when she believed she was actually on the road to Broadway). And so, when we learn about her roles in movies and television, we read about how she got them, the ins and outs of casting, of Hollywood networking and more. One of her early crowning moments comes when she is invited to a reading at the home of the Bogarts to read with Noel Coward, Lauren Bacall and Claudette Colbert.

One of the happy surprises of this book, and there are many, is the 100-page or so block of interviews with the author's Happy Days co-stars and her children. They're almost all there (Tom Bosley, Pat Morita and Al Molinaro having already passed on), with even Garry Marshall and Erin Moran sharing some of their last words for the book. Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Anson Williams, Donny Most and more speak openly about both the show and Marion herself.

Ross' overwhelming message is "it can be done." From the time she was young she had a dream. Taking the strength of her mother's character to heart, she never gave up on that dream, forging a wonderful career for herself and instilling in her own children the same spirit.

She is correct in the notion that not all days are happy, but when you live your life like Marion Ross, they can be overwhelmingly so.

Gator by Ron Guidry



Why I Read It: Ron Guidry was one of the most dominant pitchers I ever saw play baseball.

Summary: The autobiography of one of the Yankees most legendary players.

My Thoughts: The book is obviously ghostwritten, and unfortunately not the best written work out there.

That said, Gator was one of the most fearsome pitchers of his time. I'll never forget the feeling of utter helplessness I had as a kid one night, all hyped up for a Red-Sox-Yankees game, and listening in the top of the first inning to "Strike one, strike two, strike three! Strike one, strike two, strike three! Strike one, strike two, STRIKE THREE!" coming from my radio. In that one game, he was a man playing against boys.

I don't feel this book told the full story of his life, but I do feel like I know him at least a little bit better than I did before I read it. He is a true Louisianan at heart, and takes a lot of pride in his heritage. I was touched by his relationship with Yogi Berra, something I knew nothing about. And I respect his distancing himself from the "burning Bronx" shenanigans in the George Steinbrenner - Billy Martin - Reggie Jackson days. The stories have been told several times about the interactions between these three and more in the late 1970s. Guidry's book doesn't dwell on the negativity, bit focuses instead on his personal baseball story.

Despite what he did to my Red Sox, I have high respect for the Gator, as any true baseball fan should. He was a standout in his time, someone who made the game much more interesting just by standing on the mound and firing that nasty fastball of his over the plate.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis




Why I Read It: Found it in a discount rack at a local independent bookstore, and couldn't believe it. Like most Americans, Peanuts has been a part of my life since my earliest days.

Summary: A biography of the master comic strip artist.

My Thoughts: I've waffled back and forth a bit since finishing this book when attempting to determine my true feelings about Charles Schulz. I think I've come to a decision.

But first, a few facts. The book is a monster, about 560 pages of nonstop inspection of the life of "Sparky" Schulz, the man we all better knew as Charles M. It takes him from his earliest days (and his family from their original immigration to America) through his death, as any good biography should. But it brings us to a level of perception we didn't know we needed to have about his life. It shows us how Schulz bared his emotions to us through his two-dimensional characters.

More than we know of Schulz's life played out in the dailies and Sunday strips. He was an amalgam of many of his main male characters. He thought the world was against him, or didn't love him, as does Charlie Brown; he was a classical music aficionado who wished he could tune out his wife, like Schroeder does with Lucy; he had his religious and philosophical side, like Linus; and he played out his heroic fantasies and desire to break free from societal constraints - to just be a bad boy - like Snoopy.

There was a little red-haired girl, in real life. Lucy had her real-life origins. Even his quieter, supposedly secret relationships played out through the strip. It became a medium through which he could communicate without real worry.

But there is, I believe, more than Michaelis discussed. Now, I'm no nickel-a-session psychiatrist, but it seems to me his loneliness in life had far more to do with his father's lack of closeness and his mother's early death (though Michaelis is correct in keying in on them). I've been around many "only children" in my own life, and notice the same constant desire for attention from them, almost to a fault. Schulz exhibited those behaviors, to me, in spades. It manifests itself in the same way that our great stand-up comedians display their insecurities. They constantly seek the reassurance of laughter to fight their own demons. Schulz, the man, was calling out for attention like a little boy. We can all debate whether or not we are better off with siblings, growing up, but can't deny that they at least have an effect on us as we age. Once we stop arguing about who pushed who and who ate the last cookie, we get to share memories that no one else ever can. With both his parents gone, and no siblings, Schulz had no real connections to his formative home life.

His "woe is me" routine got to me by the end of the book, and had me teetering on the edge a bit. I have a tendency to build up some harsh feelings toward such behaviors, for what reason I don't know. But I think spending so much time with him, through the pages of the book, gave me my own breakthrough. There's a hill we all have to climb to reach a state of self-confidence; Schulz' hill, for whatever reason, was bigger than most. With all his achievements, all his accolades, all his money, one would think there would reach a point of contentment, but it was not to be.

Whether he did it for his own selfish reasons or not, Charles Schulz brought - and brings - joy to millions upon millions of people. I don't go a day without seeing his characters, never mind his influence. My sons and I make up our Charlie Brown Thanksgiving dinner every year (toast, popcorn, pretzel sticks and jelly beans) as we watch Snoopy wrestle the lounge chair. Schulz' impact is not going away any time soon.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Coast Guard Heroes of New Orleans by Captain Robert Mueller



Why I Read It: I've been studying and writing about Coast Guard history since 1996.

Summary: The surface operations undertaken by the Coast Guard in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

My Thoughts: As usual, there was much more to this story than meets the eye.

The problem is that the eye can only see what it can see; television news stations only cover what they want to cover. In this instance, with the largest Coast Guard rescue operation in American history, the service assisted approximately 34,000 people. Nine thousand of them were hoisted to safety by helicopters, which made for dramatic TV footage, especially when one shot might show a dozen helicopters hovering over roofs in a particular area, rescuing people one by one.

Why didn't we see the other 25,000? The answer is simple. The footage wouldn't be as homogenized and clean as that of the helicopter rescues. The rescue boats, mostly small punts, did not carry cameras because of the death factor. We didn't see dead bodies floating on TV. We didn't see dead animals floating on TV. Had there been cameras on boats, we might have, and in the case of dead humans, so, too, might have family members of the deceased watching from afar. As such, the boat crews didn't get their fair share of the plaudits for their efforts, in my opinion (not the author's).

Captain Mueller was there, overseeing those boats, and his matter-of-fact descriptions of the situation in New Orleans after Katrina are jarring. One Coast Guard station was destroyed during the storm, others severely damaged. Crews lost their own homes yet worked night and day, living in tents on station grounds. Looters ransacked the stations, with more than 60 brought to justice at Station New Orleans alone, where they had urinated on beds and smeared feces on walls.

As crews headed out to rescue anyone they could find in a house-to-house search, snipers fired at them. PSUs (Port Security Units) and MSSTs (Maritime Safety and Security Teams) arrived and their members, fully armed and armored, took up positions on the bows of the boats to deter them. Other unsung heroes arrived, like the PGA (yes, the Professional Golfers Association), which set up a massive cooking station to feed the Coasties as they worked.

Katrina was a time of unfathomable effort. Can any of us truly say we understand what it took to rescue the amount of people the Coast Guard, FEMA and other partnering agencies did? This book attempts to share that knowledge.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Vernon Dent: Stooge Heavy by Bill Cassara



Why I Read It: Growing up in the 1970s and '80s, before cable television the Stooges were what Sunday mornings were all about.

Summary: The biography of the one man the Stooges seemed to always be taking down, actor Vernon Dent.

My Thoughts: He just always seemed to be there. If it wasn't Emil Sitka, it was Vernon Dent.

No matter the outcome of their shorts, whether they ended up triumphing over the Nazis or breaking rocks on a pile in Leavenworth, the Three Stooges always had an authority figure to battle. Veteran actor Vernon Dent had that role plugged to a "T."

Dent was certainly a familiar face to the boys, no matter what face he donned for that particular film. Sadly, to most of us, the first two decades of his work has been otherwise elusive. Growing up when I did I did not have access to the many hours of silent film comedies he made with Harry Langdon and others. I had no idea who he really was, other than the big guy who always wanted to bonk Moe, Larry and Curly's head's together.

And so, as biographies go, I learned a whole lot more about the man, and inwardly wept with his passing. I'm a sucker that way. Even though he died long before I was born, and his death was already an accepted fait accompli, it still saddened me for the journey to come to an end.

Dent was from San Jose, started out in music halls (his musical talents would be displayed once in a while in his films) and moved into silent films, a "Fatty" Arbuckle-style comedian, or Oliver Hardy before there was an Oliver Hardy. He was a hard worker, yet retiring. Had he not gone into film, he would have been at ease as a gentleman farmer. He was noted, as his grave marker said, as a "gentle presence." He died just a few weeks before John F. Kennedy, in November, 1963.

The author has compiled, with the help of colleagues, a 50-page filmography, showing the deep extent to which he worked. You may have last seen him as Santa Claus on I Love Lucy (1951), or in his last Three Stooges 2-reeler, Guns A-Poppin' (1957, and it was a "Joe" if you're asking). Or, you may have seen him this past New Year's Eve, during a Stooges marathon. Maybe you'll see him this Sunday morning.

The author has done a wonderful job of combing the early archives of San Jose's newsprint to find the stories behind not only Vernon, but the generations who came before him, exposing the sorrows that no doubt impacted his life at a young age. We get the story from beginning to end, knowing, full well, that having been on so many sets there had to be much more of import that went on in his life. He was in Hollywood during the Hollywood heyday, appearing in features like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Jimmy Stewart, and others. Had Vernon Dent had the inclination to tell his own story, we might know even more.

This biography shares with us the professionalism, the creativity and ultimately the flaws of the man who gave the Stooges so much trouble on screen, and who helped to propel them to entertainment immortality.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

30 Years of 'Allo 'Allo! by Richard Webber





Why I Read It: Binge-watched the show on Netflix and fell in love.

Summary: Three decades on, where are the cast members now? What's the show's legacy?

My Thoughts: When I was a kid, it was M*A*S*H and the Three Stooges. Later it was Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond. I've always had a background track running in my life.

It's not that I necessarily watch every second of every show. I've always been a multi-tasker, perfectly comfortable to put on a TV show in the background as I do everything but write. I even read with the TV on. In a weird way, the cast members become members of my family. They're the comforting background noise to my life as I go about my work.

And so it came to be with 'Allo 'Allo! Except this time it was a bit different. While I've watched the others on TV, I binged this show on my Kindle on the elliptical. Two episodes per day got me easily through each day's workout. I focused more strongly on the show than I typically do.

Why did I choose it? A few reasons. First, I love British comedy, from Monty Python's Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers, and Are You Being Served? to One Foot in the Grave and even listening to the audio versions of Dad's Army, All Gas and Gaiters and more. They go places American shows just won't. Second, the Jeremy Lloyd/David Croft combination is always worth a shot. As co-creators and writers they just had the magic touch. Third, the setting was fantastic to me: occupied France during World War II. The familiar themes of the war played out in a French cafe frequented by Germans under whose noses escaping British airmen hid, sometimes in plain sight.

But that's the TV show. As for the book, it's wonderful, exactly the type of follow-up one wishes for when reaching the end of a run. The author recaptures the series year-by-year giving behind-the-scenes stories told by the players themselves. We learn of the practical jokes, the special relationships the formed because of the show and the small jealousies that arose as well. Each of the lead actors is profiled, and even some of the lesser lights. It's, of course, sad to know who is no longer with us, but also very interesting to know who has done what since. Yes, IMDB can coldly tell us that, but the book lets the actors tell us the details through the words of the actors themselves.

The book becomes a reference guide to the show, one to be pulled off the shelf when the questions arise about specific episodes. When did General Von Klinkerhoffen lose his mind? When was Herr Flick hit with the poison dart? When did the Communist Resistance first appear? What was Officer Crabtree's catchphrase? It's all there.

And, thanks to digitization, so is the show. May its legacy last long into the future.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Seasons in Hell by Mike Shropshire




Why I Read It: Re-read it. Remembered it as one of the funniest baseball books I'd ever read. Decided to give it a second try two decades later.

Summary: A beat reporter remembers the Texas Rangers of 1973-1975, with (almost) no punches pulled.

My Thoughts: This book was just as fun the second time around.

Shropshire covered the Texas Rangers during a turbulent time, both for the franchise locally and the nation at large. The Rangers, recently the Washington Senators, were trying to establish themselves in a new market, and struggled out of the gate with Ted Williams and then Whitey Herzog as manager. When Billy Martin arrived, things turned around, but there was one problem: Billy Martin. On the national scene, think Watergate, Vietnam, turbulence in the Middle East and more.

Shropshire's story is semi-autobiographical, recounting how a beat reporter earned his money and his chops in those days, when newspapers still mattered. But mostly it's about the individuals on and around the team, from the players to the owners. We may not remember Bob Short or Brad Corbett for their influences on the game, but as owners they left their marks in baseball history for better or worse during their short tenures.

For me, the book is almost perfectly situated in time. I was born in 1971, and really started following the game about six years later. The names are mostly recognizable for me without having to refer to baseballreference,com or some other informational website. It made the read very smooth.

That said, a little backstory is always interesting. I knew of Fergie Jenkins, of course, but had no idea, for instance, that one spring training he picked up a hermit to help him drive from Texas to Florida so he could get some sleep on the way. I knew that the '70s were a 1960s hangover, with remnants of the free-spirited anti-authoritarian nature of the previous decade manifesting themselves in odd ways. It was a time when baseball owners were experimenting with ways to increase their gate revenues, including such harebrained schemes as "Bat Night" and "10-cent Beer Night." Having recently read a book on the Oakland A's of the same period I had some sense of this atmosphere, but Shropshire lets more of the sordid stories fly.

The story has a sad ending that deals several personal blows to Shropshire himself, leading him away from newspaper writing and the day-to-day Rangers beat. There could have been more, but Shropshire certainly gives us plenty of material to ponder and even laugh out loud about.

Sometimes it can be hard to read another fan's favorite team's books; Red Sox fans generally do not read Yankee history. But this is more about a moment in baseball time than it is about any rooting interest. It crosses a boundary into the wide, wide world of sports that existed in the 1970s.

1918: The Year of Victories by Martin Marix Evans





Why I Read It:
 Feeling like I should know more about the stories of World War I, now 100 years in the past.

Summary: A thoroughly military look at the action on the western front in the final year of the war.

My Thoughts: Ugh.

What a horrible war. Evans's narrative follows closely the thoughts and actions of the combat officers who directed the battles that ultimately decided the First World War. The story of 1918 really hinged on the arrival of American troops. The Germans knew they were coming, made a push to claim as much land as possible before they arrived, trying to finally wear down the decimated French and British troops. But it was for naught, as the fresh supply of manpower put the Allies over the top.

As this book is primarily about tactics, it follows the evolution that ultimately leads to the resolution that men should not be seen as expendable as bullets, fired off once and discarded to make way for the next wave. Until that point, though, the losses are appalling; 16,000,000 people died during the war, of all causes. I've often wondered which one of them would have cured cancer, if given the chance to live, which one would have composed a classic concerto, and so on. What a horrible, horrible war.

It's sprinkled liberally with first-person accounts of the action, as soldiers explain what life in the trenches is like, first encounters with tanks, the sounds of bullets flying overhead and what it feels like to know that incoming shells are on their way. These tales humanize the stories of battalions, divisions, salients, and command structures that are focal points of the book.