Sunday, December 1, 2019

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Eric Idle

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Why I Read It: I wasn't the seventh Python, but I was the ninth. Actually, they started before I was born, but who's counting? Probably Eddie Izzard. He probably thinks he's the ninth.

Summary: Eric's "sortabiography."

My Thoughts: I will say this right up front, and I'm sure Eric Idle will appreciate it: I don't want him to die.

I say that because when I read a good autobiography and it creeps toward its inevitable end I always become a little bit too morose, a bit too nostalgic. Yes, I fall in love with people. Unfortunately, I was already in love with the Pythons as dear old friends before I opened this book. It is, in fact, the reason I bought it. So, yes, toward the end of this book, the feeling washed over me again.

And let's face it, there's a weird energy at work with our relationships with celebrities; we feel like we know them. And for me, we're now talking about more than 40 years of "friendship" with the Pythons. I've grown with them, checked in on them, followed them on Twitter, seen all their movies, bought all their merch, from cassette tapes to this book. They've been there for four decades of my life, whether they know it or not (they don't).

But, as it is, I've known the public face of Eric Idle through all these years, or should I say, the many public faces, from "Nudge Nudge" to Sir Robin to the man Chevy Chase continuously injured in European Vacation to the Nun on a Run. This book exposes the private side of life that most of us never really knew. Yes, I knew about his friendship with George Harrison, but not so much Robin Williams. I've followed the post-Python years closely, but never knew certain intricacies about the creative relationships the boys shared. This book gives those insights.

Surprisingly, I didn't know that Eric had performed "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"  at the closing ceremony for the London Olympics (the song, not the book, which would have been harder and taken MUCH longer). When I found out, I Googled it and must admit that tears came to my eyes as I watched. It was a piece of my youth, up there on the screen...forty years later. It brought me such joy to see him still bringing the world together in laughter and enjoyment.

That's when the realization hit me. Eric Idle will never die. He and his iconic song will live forever. Besides, at least one person in my familial home town of Hingham, Massachusetts, has already beaten him to the epitaph, so he can't die until he finds another one just as suitable:

So, it's settled then, Eric. The show must go on.

Don't Make Me Pull Over! by Richard Ratay

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Why I Read It: 1970s history is hitting me right where the nostalgia is.

Summary: "The Informal History of the Family Road Trip."

My Thoughts: See, what you have to imagine is being at the specific crossroads in time this book highlights. America's great transcontinental highways system was built in the 1950s (as a military measure, copying the German system). Great destinations existed, from the warm South to historic New England to the National Parks in the West. Trains once got us to all of them, but had gone out of fashion. Flights could get us there, but were ridiculously expense for a family to afford. So, in the 1970s, we drove.

The author's experience varies from mine, and from yours, but the basic underlying story is true, of, at first, long stretches of open highway on which dads pushed the limits of gas tanks, hoping to make just one more exit. It's the story of the rise of chain restaurants that promised the same food we could get near home, and of strings of hotels across the country offering the same exact room you found on last year's vacation. And it's the story of the stuff that you brought with you as a kid to pass the time, in days when you could sit up in the back window with your Mattel football game and wave to policemen passing by, before seat belt laws came to exist.

The day came when it all came to an end, in the 1980s when the price of flights dropped low enough that a family of four could finally pay for tickets and save a day or two of travel, to be spent at the destination rather than in the car. The days parodied in the National Lampoon's "Vacation" movies eventually died; only a relative few of us will truly understand why they were ever written in the first place. Now, to take a trip like those we took in the 1970s, a family has to plan to do it for the nostalgia, for the desire to see America like we can't from a plane, to experience the country from mountains to plains and sea to shining sea.

I'd do it again, for every glorious, sweaty, cramped memory of days gone by.

Moon Rush by Leonard David

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Why I Read It: Ongoing fascination with astronomy, the fault of an excellent professor at UMASS Amherst.

Summary: Things we all should know as we head back to the Moon (in this, the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing).

My Thoughts: There are questions of which I hadn't even thought. What is the Moon's origin story? It turns out I don't know because nobody knows. Did it race out of the heavens and fall into place in orbit around our planet? Did it break off of our planet as it formed? How the heck did it get there?

Why haven't we gone back after the first glorious series of landings a half century ago? As technology advanced, shouldn't we have been going more frequently? Why did we stop?

The author does a wonderful job of tackling the basics of Moon history and science, taking us all the way to the modern day and the fact that numerous other nations now have eyes on it like never before. Just this year - after reading the book and becoming hooked on the story - I watched with great interest as India attempted to land on the Moon and begin exploration. I was somewhat dumbfounded to find out that China had germinated cotton seeds on the Moon; the plants died, but it was an amazing start.

I now know more about what the future of the Moon can be. And I'll be paying a lot more attention than ever before.

Palm Beach, Mar-A-Lago and the Rise of America's Xanadu by Les Standiford

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Why I Read It: Advance copy from Amazon, and an interest in the history of the southern half of Florida in general due to past writing assignments.

Summary: The whole story, from Flagler to Trump.

My Thoughts: It would have been easy to target the current "lord of the manor" in today's political climate, but the author did a wonderful job of covering the entire tale from start to the modern day.

And by "start," I mean the Native tribes that lived in the area that became Palm Beach. We today forget, or just never knew, that the southern Florida story is a relatively new story. While we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims settling Massachusetts in 2020, we should think about how the southern Florida phenomenon really only began in the late 1800s. It took one man with vision, and lots of cash, to continue to stretch his empire southward and create the world we see as a sunny playground today.

Not all has always been rosy. Access was an issue for many, but then, that made it more exclusive for those who could afford it. As with other retreat enclaves around the country, hotels came first, then private homes. In Palm Beach they came on a grand scale, the likes of which most of us will never experience in person. The author reminds us of the heydays of the Posts and Huttons and Stoteburys, the 1920s market collapse and the many, many scandals that ran through the community.

Yes, the Trump Mar-A-Lago ownership era is included. He has brought change, and challenges, but not nearly as much scandal-ridden gossip as past owners. Well, perhaps he has, but one would not guess so after reading this particular book.

The book fills us in on the whole story, from the first Flagler railroad tracks to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit in April of 2018, from construction of the marvelous mansion to the question of how to preserve it in perpetuity.

A History of Video Games in 64 Objects

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Why I Read It: I witnessed the revolution.

Summary: 64 objects in the collection of the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York and their places in the history of video gaming.

My Thoughts: It's simply amazing how many of the items in the book touched me personally as I grew up, and continue to today.

I was born in 1971, and as such, I was a personal witness to much of the video game revolution. I wasn't there for the first few items in the collection, but from that year onward, I crossed paths with almost every item. We hooked up Pong to our TV set. I was working in an arcade - it was the "career" of my teen years - when everything from Pac Man to Mortal Kombat went live. I watched the rise and fall of the Atari 2600 (though never knew why the latter happened, which is explained here) and remember when the NES came home with Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt.

Strangely, I can also see where my interest waned, or, should I say, life took priority over such things. My college years were spent cheaply, frugally. My NES came with me, but never got upgraded. I left arcades in the mid-1990s and never looked back. The book presents a little bit of a black hole for me in those years, but after 2000 I felt right back at home again, thanks to the arrival of the Play Station 2.

So, yes, the book provides a nostalgic opportunity for readers, but it's highly packed with information we never knew, or even considered, while playing the games. I loved Activision's River Raid on the 2600, but never knew it was a milestone achievement for female software developers. The book helps humanize this highly technological world, to put names behind the revolution, the fortunes and the crashes.

Tales of a Low-Rent Birder by Pete Dunne

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Why I Read It: Dunne is one of the classic American birding writers.

Summary: A collection of short stories about birding.

My Thoughts: Birders have to gain a certain level of confidence before they can truly enjoy what they do. We can be marginalized and thought of as weirdos, and, a half century ago, even Communists sympathizing subversives.

There's a general wariness that American birders carry with them when they set out. But once a birder gains that confidence that sets him or her free, that feeling that whether or not someone sees you as different doesn't matter one bit, the future is golden.

Pete Dunne's book, now part of the growing older canon of birding and birdwatching titles, reminds us of all the people that we run into "in the field." They're not always friendly at first, but most will admit to some level of observation, if not birding. They often have their own names for birds they haven't studied in depth but have seen in the wild during the normal course of their lives. They even can tell you tendencies, behaviors, and what other birds they interact with. Read Edward Howe Forbush's works from the early 1900s, and just how many names he curated from birders across New England for individual species. More than birders are paying attention. Birders just do it in parkas and sunhats and whatever they need to be out in all sorts of weather at all times of the year.

I think that one of the most symbolic lessons in Tales of a Low-Rent Birder is the story about finding a kite string in the dunes, and the feeling he couldn't shake that he had to follow it find out what was at the other end. That's what birding and wildlife observation is all about: curiosity. As I write this review, I'm fresh off a "life bird" sighting in Plymouth, Massachusetts, just hours before a snowstorm. What was I doing out at all? Satisfying my curiosity. Spending time observing the world around me. Not caring a damn what other people think.

Pete got it.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Chumps to Champs by Bill Pennington

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Why I Read It:
 Morbid Curiosity. I'm a Red Sox fan.

Summary: How the Yankees rebuilt in the early 1990s while the Boss was away and achieved greatness once more.

My Thoughts: I like to get these things out of the way first. I really liked this book, but the author had me for exactly 301 pages, Then, he lost me, with one simple line.

"The franchise desperately needed a twenty-third championship."

There is no North American sports franchise, no North American city, that ever "desperately" needed a twenty-third championship. I'm sure that Yankees fans all over the world would be perfectly happy holding 22 World Series championships over the heads of all other baseball fans. Think about it. Even today, the Cardinals are a distant, poor second, with 11 championships. The Yankees were never desperate for another title.

OK. Purged. Onward.

This was a fun read, Red Sox fan or not. It reminded me a bit of Mike Shropshire's Seasons in Hell in that it covered not a championship season, but those in-between years when a plan is put in place and a million things have to go right for a team to reach the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, for Shropshire's Texas Rangers, it never happened. For the 1990s Yankees, it all worked out in the end.

This was the era of growth for the Core Four (Posada, Jeter, Williams, Rivera), who should have been the Core Five (had Brien Taylor made it). But, more importantly, it was the era of Gene Michael as general manager and Buck Showalter as manager, an they are really the stars of this story. Michael sought players with the best on-base-percentage and Showalter forged a new Yankee identity and culture.

The author pulled from a wide array of interviews and other sources, some contemporary and some recently recorded. In the end it's a rags to riches tale complete with good guys and bad guys, tragedy and comedy. And for baseball fans from any city, the list of names provide a time machine within itself, offering safe transport back to the mid-90s, mostly pre-steroid era.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Somebody to Love by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne

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Why I Read It: I think my interest was piqued by the recent Queen movie (which I haven't yet seen).

Summary: "The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury," as stated in the subtitle.

My Thoughts: One of the first album covers I ever really examined was A Night at the Opera, back when I was a child, at a friend's house. Rock music was new to me, my parents having been born in the '40s and firmly entrenched in late '50s, early '60s safe, clean music. The giant robotic-looking creature on the cover was enough to make me want to know more. The needle hit the vinyl.

Queen was definitely part of the background soundtrack of my youth.

I bought their greatest hits 1 & 2 compilation on cassette as an early teen. I knew all the songs, and can still sing them to this day, even learned to play a few on the keyboard. I was 14 when they blazed a new star across the sky at Live Aid, and in college when Freddie died. I remember the fact that he was a Zoroastrian being delivered in a history class discussion lab as a tidbit of information I should know. For some reason, it was one of the few facts that stuck with me through the years about his life.

I didn't know the deep story. The authors of this book bring it to light. What we basically have is a confluence of three major forces. We have the arrival of a deadly virus at the moment that gay promiscuity is at its zenith in hotspots around the world, during a time when governmental leaders are slow to respond with research funding. Freddie Mercury was unfortunate to catch the disease when there was no cure, and when world leaders weren't interested in stopping the spread of "gay cancer."

It's hard to know how to react to Freddie. The authors attempt to connect the dots from his adult lifestyle - the constant search for love, the excesses of drugs, drink and sex, the need for control and power - to his boarding school upbringing, and perhaps they have something. He reveled in the power that his status as a stadium-sellout rock star afforded him, used it and abused it. He had a deeply caring side, but was quick to shun those around him he no longer wanted around.

Nobody could ever say he "had it coming to him," at least not in the specific sense of AIDS draining his lifeforce away at a young age. Aside from being a cruel thought, it's not as if he, or anyone else, ever thought sex-borne diseases could kill; Freddie was in his zone in the gay clubs of New York, Munich and elsewhere as the disease was first being passed around, yet nobody knew "it" existed. There is, though, the sense that the drugs and drinking were going to catch up with him some day. I think it's this sense of invincibility that others exhibit that rubs me the wrong way. It's made me think a little bit less of Freddie, unfortunately.

But Freddie was masterful when in the studio and on stage. If I balance out my personal feelings for his excesses - which I can see now as related to his own inner demons - with my sense of the great, wonderful years of enjoyment his music has brought me, I think there is no competition. I wish Freddie had figured it out and found that somebody to love before it was too late. So many bands of that era are still performing live today. Can anyone imagine another thirty years of original Queen music?

Legacy? He and the generation of people lost to AIDS in the 80s directly led to me sitting in an auditorium at UMASS Amherst for a mandatory "safe sex" lecture with 500 of my classmates in 1991. The world changed in those days.

La Passione by Dianne Hales

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Why I Read It: Sono Italiano...

Summary: The subtitle is "How Italy seduced the world," through the arts, architecture, food, etc.

My Thoughts: I've had the pleasure. I know the Italians. I'm related to them.

Although I'm a few generations removed from "the boat," through most of my youth I worked, ate, lived and did everything else with "real" Italians. And I've visited Italy, seen the passion in person, so I get what the author is talking about.

And she's got a great point. Italians do pour their hearts into what they do, seeking perfection in everything. She brings the point home with one simple sentiment, that whether it's a major commissioned work of art or his grandmother's sauce, an Italian will pour his soul into making it just exactly as it should be: perfect.

That pursuit of excellence comes with raw emotion. While many of the early examples in this book come with tales of debauchery, or just plain old randiness, many Italians that I know have a brashness and outspokenness that is endearing; they want what they want out of themselves, and if they don't get it, they throw emotion at it.

I remember my great uncle, a butcher, who once gave me two small steaks and told me that if they weren't the greatest steaks I'd ever tasted, well, then, I didn't deserve to call myself Italian. I told my wife the story as we prepared them, and we laughed. "Silly old fool," I said. "I'm sure we'll enjoy them anyway." Then we bit into them. As the kids say today, O.M.G.

I remember one night at a friend's house, at a going away party for him as he was returning to his olive trees back in the old country. He had my go with him to pick up the pizzas that he ordered: one large cheese, nine large anchovy. The room was raucous, in two languages. At one point, someone said to me, "Hey, America and Italy, always good friends, right?" Stupidly, I put my history degree on display, stating, "Well, not always. Remember when Socialists were blowing up bombs on Wall Street back in World War I. Even Mussolini..." That did it. The whole room fell silent as the oldest member of the group put has hand high on my wrist, looked me in the eye, paused, and said, "What you say about Mussolini?" The room erupted. Yelling and screaming came from all corners as opinions flew, my dad and I wondering whether or not we would escape alive. In the midst of the furor, our friend looked over at us, big beaming smile on his face, and winked. The very craziness of it all was making his heart explode with joy. Now this was a sendoff.

And I could go on, through aunts, uncles, grandparents, even my great-grandmother. As I read this book, I flashed back to all of them, as the author discussed all of the passions of the Italian people. I nodded my head as I went, and at one point thought to myself, "My god, she hasn't even gotten to wine yet. Or opera. Or cars!" By that point the point of the book was well taken. It's not just one or two things, it's everything. If it's worth doing, for an Italian, it's worth doing perfectly.

I tried to consider another nationality that matches this passion. I feel like the Japanese have the same pursuit of perfection, but that they are much more reserved in their emotional expressions attached t it. I'm sure there are plenty of others, but, boy, could I identify with this book. It made me want to go back "home" and see it all again.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

They Said It Couldn't Be Done by Wayne Coffey

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Why I Read It: 
A review for Amazon Vine, and I'm always in for another baseball book.

Summary: The 1969 Mets. The Amazin' Mets. The Miracle Mets.

My Thoughts: Sadly, the Mets dynasty was gone by the time I started watching baseball. I was born in '71, and the Mets had given way to the Reds as the major National League power by the time I could say "Jim Rice."

But what a team it was! It's incredible to think of having Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman at the front of the rotation with Tug McGraw and - oh, you know - Nolan Ryan, out in the bullpen. Holy cow...

The lineup was not full of Hall of Famers by any means, but it was filled with characters and B+ players who somehow came together to have the best years of their careers. And there were so many different storylines and themes to what happened that year. Woodstock. The moon landing. The Vietnam War and its many attendant protests. What a pivotal moment in American history.

There was, too, the right man for the job at the time, Manager Gil Hodges. Already a baseball hero in the city, he took the reins of the team in time to steer them to their first championship, dragging them out of the depths of...Metdom.

There is a great sadness at the end of the book, as the Mets moment is symbolic of a last burst of positivity for a city about to enter a great decline. By the middle of the 1970s, the city would be bankrupt, even on fire in places. The 1969 Mets hearken back to a simpler time - one replete with its own problems, like turbulent themes around racism and such - but a time of hope, when the impossible was possible. The author weaves in player memories with fan memories, the thoughts of kids who carried off pieces of World Series champion turf, and the children of the stars themselves. This was a World Series victory for all, and the author writes it that way.

Deer's Isle's Undefeated America's Cup Crews by Mark J. Gabrielson

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Why I Read It: 
A trade with a friend.

Summary: The tale of "Humble Heroes from a Downeast Island" who become entangled in the world of the America's Cup around the beginning of the twentieth century.

My Thoughts: I think this is a topic that could be discussed for years.

First, there is simply the basic optics of the thing. Need a good crew? Rather than piece one together through trials and tryouts and the associated tribulations, just go to a great sailing center and find a group of strong seasoned sailors. It makes sense, right?

But, there is a deeper layer to this whole discussion. The fact that the same thing was happening in England at the same time should be the tip off. There were major class distinctions between the haves and have-nots in the Victorian Age, between the monied class and the working class. There is a certain feeling of noblesse oblige involved in this story, of the gentlemen of higher society championing the laborers of the day, and it feels somewhat...dirty.

As for the sailing story itself, it's a good one. It's certainly true that the Deer Isle men knew their stuff. One wonders how well they knew it, though. Allegations of cheating flew back and forth between the competitors, and it would have been easy to pin the blame on the working men without much chance of loss on the part of the boat owners. But were the crews privy to the design elements that made the allegations come to light? At the time, it seemed, no. A half century later, the last surviving sailors seemed to indicate they knew exactly what was going on.

In the end we don't know much about the crews, simply due to a lack of historic documentation. We know they played an interesting role in the history of the oldest sporting trophy in North America, though, and that makes enough for a fun read into a specific moment in that history.

Indianapolis: A Circle City History by Jeffrey Tenuth

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Why I Read It: I've visited Indianapolis twice in a year, after never having been there for the balance of my life. Figured I had to do it.

Summary: A brief overview of two centuries of the history of the city.

My Thoughts: It's an odd thing, when you grow up on the ocean, to consider landlocked life. And by that I don't mean like a few miles inland. I mean hundreds of miles from the ocean. In a strange way, such a history is fascinating to me.

With 148 or so pages to work, in the Arcadia "Making of America" series, the author does a good job of capturing the basics. It's a harder job than one would think, as there is much more left out of the book than can be put into it. what gets excluded? It's not an easy task.

In the end, its a hovering view, a drone's-eye explanation of the life of the city. It's a focus on the economic engines that have driven the city's growth through time, the transportation, the industry, and now the tourism. And it's enjoyable, from the first house (you decide who it belonged to, as the city's historians can't figure it out) to about 2004. That's when the book was published, so there could be a nice addendum capturing the last decade and a half.

I've walked around the city's center, on breaks during conferences, and have had a soaring view of the White River State Park, from high in one of the hotels now capturing the tourists. I've enjoyed getting to know the city, and feel I know it a little better now that I've read this book.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

108 Stitches by Ron Darling

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Why I Read It: I'm a sucker for any baseball bio...even one by a Met.

Summary: A deep dive on the author's teammates.

My Thoughts: All kidding aside about the Mets, I always respected Ron Darling for his accomplishments on the field. I had never looked deeply, though, at his pre-pro ball life. Thankfully, this book cleared up a lot of that for me.

I never connected him to Massachusetts. Broadcasters were always quick to point out that he was born in Hawaii when he played, as that made him seem exotic. But he grew up in the Worcester area, in a little town I've visited on a few occasions. His youthful memories of sports heroes are the same as mine. No matter what story he tells, he has a parallel story that relates back to the Red Sox. And so, it was odd that to get his World Series ring, he had to beat the team of his childhood heroes.

But that, he explains, is baseball. Coddled and nurtured on the way up, all the way through Yale, he had no idea what to expect when he hit the minors, and was rudely awakened to the fact that baseball is at its heart a business, where players are commodities that drive wins and losses, and ultimately gate receipts and other sources of revenue for billionaires. Hometown allegiances mean nothing in the end.

He took a fun approach to this book. He wanted it to be about his teammates, so he sought out a complete database of all of them. He wanted it to show interconnection, like the never-ending seam of 108 stitches that cover a baseball. He links players to stories from different eras, showing how some come around again through time. He tries to show us how transient and, quite frankly, crazy, the life of a ball player can be. There are so many moving parts, from players who get signed, traded and released, to coaches who pop from organization to organization and played with players from the previous generation, and were coached by the one before that.

There are a lot of laughs in this book, as well as some contrition. Darling is a good man, and regrets the way he treated certain teammates in certain moments. He chalks it up to the idiocy of youth, but doesn't use it an excuse.

My one regret about the book is that there is an "in my day" moment at the end of the book, something I just wish he'd avoided altogether. Yes, the game is changing; every American sports fan knows that. But that, too, is baseball. I'll betcha Ty Cobb hated watching Babe Ruth smash all his home runs, But evolution is evolution. It happens everywhere, all the time. Baseball will continue to change, sometimes in an accelerated fashion, sometimes slowly. Let it ride, Ron.

So, think '80s Mets, '90s A's, New York City, broadcasting and growing up a Red Sox fan, and you have the basis for a great book.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Away Game by Sebastian Abbot

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Why I Read It: Impulse buy as I was stepping on a plane.

Summary: Qatar's Football Dreams program targets the next big soccer superstars from Africa.

My Thoughts: A couple of things became unequivocally clear to me while reading this book.

First, there is the link between poverty and soccer. In the United States, the history of sports has always said that there were two avenues out of poverty: boxing and basketball. But the U.S. has never been a soccer playing nation, although the sport is now growing. Oddly enough, there is one major difference between soccer and basketball. The latter needs a ball that bounces; the former just needs something, anything, that can be kicked. Anyone, anywhere can play.

And so, the link between soccer and poverty is borne out. It's the cheapest sport at which one can gain skill as a youngster. And when you're poor in a developing nation, like the many African countries, or Brazil, some kids have nothing more to do than to play soccer. That inherent disadvantage - poverty - becomes a competitive advantage. They get to their 10,000 hours in the sport quicker than most other kids around the world.

Second, there is a deep divide in whether or not sports academies sponsored by developed nations in Third World countries should be allowed to exist. While a nation like Qatar, or a business like a premier team like Barcelona FC or Man United may see setting up a soccer school in Senegal as a natural extension of their player development work, others see it as exploitation, as in the next stage in the exploitation of the resources of the Dark Continent that has taken place for centuries. But, if we set up sanctions and limits for the numbers of athletes a team can sign, are we not robbing athletes of opportunity (not to mention probably running afoul of all sorts of labor laws)?  The question becomes more complicated when we realize that Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup and has a free pass into the tournament. But in a country where the average kid is rich and generally unmotivated (as explained in the book), compiling a team of world class athletes from a small population seems almost impossible. Qatar has turned to training and naturalizing players to become citizens eligible to play. My counter argument here would be to check out how many Canadians play on the Italian national hockey team. Yes, they prove their heritage, but are they truly Italians (just one example)?

So the book provides conundrums, and doesn't settle any, as they are still being debated globally. The author follows the lives of several young men. We want them all to succeed. Some do, some don't. It wouldn't be a good book if they all made it. It dabbles in the growth of pitch performance analytics, and shows how the game is changing on the fly (my favorite note being that shorter, more physically compact players can turn and cut more quickly and effectively; hence why the New England Patriots keep signing 5'10" wide receivers - they can get open more easily).

There is much more to come in this topic, yet I fall on the side of opportunity for all. The rest of the world may debate what's "fair" in terms of sportsmanship and competitive balance, but, in truth, we should be examining the question from the perspective of humanity.

Lion's Pride by Chris Charlton

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Why I Read It: I've become a fan of New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Summary: The history of the organization from its roots through 2015.

My Thoughts: Antonio Inoki is one of those names that seems to have stuck around in professional wrestling "forever," even if it's just back to the 1960s. And although he has moved beyond the sport now, his influence is still felt.

Charlton's approach is both chronological and anecdotal. Chapters are produced as straight history sandwiched by lengthy sidebars on topics that beg more exploration, such as the foreign influence on the organization through time. It's well researched and written.

New Japan, like so many other sports organizations, has had its share of ups and downs. There were times when it seemed it couldn't financially survive, and others, when stadiums were filled to the brim every month, when it seemed like it would never go away. In the end, it's a miracle that it's still here, and under the same name, as so many other similar organizations have made that one wrong move that spelled their own doom.

Inoki was the catalyst, an internationally known athlete who had a vision. Unfortunately, his vision oftentimes clouded its own horizon. He kept, for instance, trying to insert other martial arts into NJPW cards in ways that never worked. He should have known from the beginning that it would be the case. After all, his mixed martial arts match against Muhammad Ali in 1976 will probably go down as one of the biggest pay-per-view flops of all time.

Th beauty of this book, though, is its timing. NJPW is a staple of American television now, on AXS every Friday night. It provides context. American pro wrestling is ridiculously formulaic, with heels and faces (bad guys and good) battling out the eternal contest of good vs, evil. Japanese wrestling generally shies away from this concept and instead pits every man against every other man. The top guys are just the top guys, and they can all face each other on any given night, even within their own factions (which, in itself, is a complicated system). In this way, no top contender is ever barred from truly contending. NJPW gives the fans what they want.

Toward that end, the organization also believes in clean wins now, true pinfalls or submissions, without count-outs or disqualifications, the tools that Inoki hid behind for years to maintain his place atop the company but to ignite the passions of the fans.

To just tune in and see what's happening can be confusing. The first question for the average American wrestling fan will always be, "Wait...who am I supposed to cheer for?" But given a few weeks of viewing, it all makes sense.

Charlton's book is a primer for the company's past, and helps to let the reader understand longstanding Japanese traditions as well as the country's long memories of matches and title changes from the past. Each wrestling match is a story unto itself, but in Japan it hearkens back to previous matches, down to specific moves; fans remember if a wrestler used a submission to take out his opponent the last time they met, or two or three times ago.

I feel a little but more empowered about my new passion for the company after reading this book.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Lightning Sky by R.C. George

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Why I Read It: I collect knowledge about the warbirds of World War II like I collected baseball cards as a kid.

Summary: A flyboy enters the war, becomes a POW and begins his journey home.

My Thoughts: The world had never seen anything like the P-38 Lightning when it took to the skies in World War II. The double-boom design threw everyone for a loop; even the German soldiers who eventually captured the protagonist even asked him where his buddy was.

Unfortunately, the plane wasn't unstoppable. After months of training in numerous different planes, Dave MacArthur shuffles off to war in the European Theater. He fills in for a missing pilot on a strafing mission over a Greek airfield and ends up in the hands of the Germans. He witnesses things no human should ever see, that no humans should ever do to other humans. In the waning days of the war he begins to lose weight, lose his will to fight, but never really loses hope that he will make it home.

The author deftly juxtaposes the stories of Dave and his father Vaughn, a chaplain in the Army, as they both enter combat in Europe. Vaughn is overseas when he hears that Dave has been captured, and makes it his goal to find him.

The author recreates the POW experience in great detail, holding back none of the gruesome, horrifying details. In the end, it seems to be a miracle that Dave survives, but he does. In fact, he fights in two more wars in the decades to come.

It's yet another story from the greatest story of all time, World War II, a conflict that directly impacted millions of lives.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Mobtown Massacre by Josh S. Cutler

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Why I Read It:
I know the author; that was enough reason for me.

Summary: The story of "Alexander Hanson and the Baltimore Newspaper War of 1812."

My Thoughts: It's understated, but it's there.

Josh Cutler had many reasons to write this book, including a family history in journalism. He also happens to represent the town of Hanson, Massachusetts, in our state legislature, a community named for the hero, or anti-hero, depending on your point of view, in this story.

And therein lies the third reason Josh wrote this book. Hanson had an opinion. To many, that opinion was too strong, and to many more, it was wrong. He was pro-British - or, at least anti-war and definitely anti-French - on the cusp of the War of 1812. He had his own forum to share those views, a newspaper that he published in Baltimore, a volatile place that erupted in violence when the mob had enough of his editorials.

The understated story of this book is its parallels with the modern day.

Hanson fought back when the mob tore down the place from which he published his paper, lining up a second establishment and preparing to defend it when the mob inevitably struck. It did, and blood was drawn. The details are numerous, woven together strongly by the author into a riveting tale as seen through the eyes of many of the combatants.

We're left with the final consequences of what happens when the freedom of the press is disrespected.

As a politician, the author faces it every day, the swings too far each way. He knows that the true path to consensus is through respectful debate, not hatred, not violence. He sends a message through this book's publication.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Ninja by John Man

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Why I Read It: 
Constant fascination with Japanese culture.

Summary: A journey, both physical and historically, through the history of the ninja.

My Thoughts: I do believe there were ninjas. And I believe, like the author attempts to prove, that they lay somewhere south of the exaggerated, stylized version we see in print and movies today.

The author sets off into the heart of Japan, particularly Iga and Koga, to find the true roots of the ninja story. He meets descendants who claim to hold the secrets and museum keepers who have questionable collections, and visits the shrines and sacred places associated with the shadow warriors.

Along the way, he explodes the modern day image of the ninja. The ninja didn't wear black, for instance. In fact, he tried to blend in wherever he went. If he needed to use stealth at night, he wore blue, as it worked better with the moonlight. He used some of the tools attributed to him, but definitely not all. And he was almost the exact opposite of the samurai.

Most of us get that, but once in a while things get convoluted. James Bond was one who almost ruined it for us all, in You Only Live Twice. The "ninjas" in the movie act like samurai, choosing to throw themselves into combat to die for their master. That is the work of the samurai. The ninja's main goal was to survive at all costs to bring information back to his chief.

The story is told through first-person exploration and through the long history of ninjas in the warfare that tore up Japan for so many centuries. It's even told through ancient "how to be a ninja" documents that reveal some of the secrets. We learn that there is actually a strong Chinese tie to the ninja story, that it is not entirely Japanese from the beginning.

There may be more to the story, but Man gives us more than enough to chew on as we re-envision the role, the stereotype and the history of this mysterious character.

Capitol Revolution by Tim Hornbaker

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Why I Read It: Hornbaker's style and depth of content is fascinating; having read one book, I had to read another.

Summary: The story of the McMahon wrestling empire from day one.

My Thoughts: It goes back farther than you think.

Students of wrestling history know that Vince, Jr., took over the company from Vince, Sr. (yes, I know they had different middle names; just roll with it for ease's sake) and that not all happened as it should have according to the sport's tradition. Sr. ran an empire under the territorial system of the old days, when promoters had corners or pockets of the country they called their own, and, through a series of gentlemen's agreements, like those that happen at country clubs every day without actual contracts, nobody stepped on anybody else's business. Mostly. There were exceptions, of course.

Jr. blew up the system, claiming the United States, and now the world, as his territory. There are pros and cons as to the notion, but it is what it is. It's also really not the focus of this book.

Instead, this story weaves all the way back to the beginning, when Jess McMahon, Vince Sr.'s father, ruled his portion of the wrestling world. We are taken back to the late 1800s and how the McMahon family came to America. We are walked through Jess' trials and tribulations with the promotion of other sports, like baseball, before he becomes involved in boxing and wrestling. We are carried through the Vince Sr. era, the creation of the National Wrestling Alliance, and his breaking away from it to create the World Wide Wrestling Federation. And we see that sports promotion just remained in the family bloodlines, as Vince Jr. took on Evil Kneivel and his Snake River Canyon jump, and worked with his father to promote the biggest mixed martial arts event of all time, Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki.

When Shane and Stephanie officially take the reigns of WWE, they will be fourth generation kingpins, continuing more than a century of family tradition. Say what you want about any or all of them, the McMahons are an all-American success story, building a business by any means necessary to achieve the American dream of personal freedom through financial independence. Were there bodies and spirits broken along the way? You bet. This book provides more detail than you ever knew.

Gridiron Genius by Michael Lombardi

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Why I Read It: Reviewed for Amazon Vine. Plus, any excursion into the mind of Bill Belichick is worth the price of admission.

Summary: A football career among the greats, notably Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick.

My Thoughts: I wonder how much is being held back.

I figure that someday, maybe, there be a tell-all, here-are-my-secrets book from the coach of the New England Patriots. Perhaps, though, this is it. After all, there's no saying that the coach owes us, as fans, anything. He's already put on a twenty-year clinic on how to win football games and championships.

Lombardi - not related to Vince, as he will tell you - has spent a lifetime in the game, evaluating talent, coaching players, designing schemes, even acting as a driver for one of the greatest football minds of all time, coach Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers. He's seen it all, and sees it all a little bit differently than most of us, especially when he sits down on Sunday to watch the games.

At the end of his coaching/talent evaluation career, he is now a talking head and writer, aid to share his opinions, and in this book he doesn't hold too much back. He goes right at players and coaches still in the game, much like a drive-time sports talk show host does. It's almost as if he's resigned to the notion that at this point, all bets are off, that there are no plans on jumping back in. It makes the book that much more fun for us.

So, yes, much of it is opinion, but there are some truly heavy facts in this book that go a long way to explaining things that those talk show hosts have just been guessing at. I give you the story of the Malcolm Butler interception at the end of the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl. It was no mistake, no accidental moment of inspiration on the part of Butler. The play had been designed, all the way down to goading the Seahawks into making their fateful pass play call, in the preseason. Butler's reading of the play wasn't fully reactive; he had been coached on what to do well, well in advance if the situation arose.

So, that secret is out, but what else is there? Coach Belichick wrote the foreword, but is still deep in the annual Super Bowl hunt (and he just hired Lombardi's son as a coach). Did he give Lombardi free reign to spill all the beans, or is there more left to come?

Let's hope it's the latter.

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery

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Why I Read It: Had a gift card, bought it on a whim.

Summary: A dive into cephalopod consciousness, mostly taking place at the New England Aquarium, a backyard gem for me.

My Thoughts: No matter how much I want to by into the deepest substances of this book, I still have reservations. I think the author does, too.

It's in our nature to wonder what others are thinking. We look at any living thing and contemplate what exactly is going through its mind. A squirrel climbs onto our bird feeder for the 500th time, sees us through the window. Does it feel fear? Anger? Nothing? What is in its head?

This book explores the mind - perhaps the many minds - of the giant Pacific octopus. Unlike many animals, this species gives us more clues than most as to its moods and feelings, as it changes color and shows other outward signs when stimulated in different ways. But how do we truly know what it's thinking?

We don't.

But we can interpret thoughts and feelings. The author and her friends at the New England Aquarium who meet for regular cephaloparties on Wednesdays to interact with the captive octopuses do just that. They interpret the meaning of each touch - yes, they spend lots of time physically interacting with the resident representatives of the species - and become emotionally involved with them. They even break the cardinal rule against anthropomorphization; they name each one and treat it as a friend. But this is no scholarly study, so they are allowed to do so. Much of the story is mirrored in the lives of the humans surrounding the animals - aging, loss, differing abilities and more - making this book more than just straight scientific pondering.

Through repeated interactions, they build their databases, finding that each individual, as expected, is a little bit different from the last. But do they really know, in the end, what the octopus thinks? No. They do the best they can to determine what they think the octopus is thinking. They break down the walls a bit between octopuses being monsters and sentient, emotionally-driven beings. They give the octopus a soul.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Grave Humor by Alonzo C. Hall

Why I Read It: Check out my other blogs...

Summary: A gathering of humorous epitaphs published in 1961.

My Thoughts: Collecting epitaphs became a hobby of mine a few years ago, when I found one in a small Jewish cemetery in central Massachusetts that read "1902-2000: AN UNTIMELY DEMISE." The concept hit me square in the face. What a writing challenge! Name, dates, five words. How do you sum up your life?

So I set out on a quest to read 10,000 tombstones in a year. But I quickly surpassed that and went big, for 50,000. I broke that number, too. The full goal? To figure out what my own epitaph should be.

So, have I read them all? No way. Even at the end of that run I was still finding new ideas, different ways of expressing whatever it was the deceased or their families wanted to express. I've lectured on the topic of epitaph collecting many times and am currently writing my own book about the experiences. In fact, that's how this book came into my hands, from a friend who attended one of those lectures.

It is certainly a funny collection, but in my travels I found that there was a humorous turning point in burial grounds that took place a while after Hall completed his study. Now, when I say humorous, I mean deliberately so. There has to be a certain fatalistic acceptance of the finality of it all on the part of all involved. There are some situations in which humor is not at all acceptable, but there are just some people who want, these days, to go out laughing, and to put smiles on the faces of others in grim moments. I've personally seen "I told you I was sick" and "I want a second opinion" on gravestones near my home. This collection is humorous in a more morose way.

This book is an excellent compilation of some macabre thoughts, some truly unfortunate misspellings and juxtapositions, hilarious breaches of logic and some outright accusations as to who really killed whom. And it draws from many, many places, around North Carolina, England and even here in my native New England. There are even a few within driving distance of my home that I intend to go check out.

I think - no, I know - that I would have liked to meet Mr. Hall. We would have had fun comparing notes. It all reminds me of my favorite line on the Britcom The Young Ones, when a woman pushing a dead vicar in a wheelbarrow around a cemetery finds Neil, the hippie, with a shovel in his hands.

"Do you dig graves?" she asks.

"Yeah, they're alright."

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Death of the Territories by Tim Hornbaker

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Why I Read It: 
This was the era of my youth, and I watched the story inside unfold. There are even specific wrestling events - the first King of the Ring in Foxboro, the Von Erichs' invasion of Lynn, Massachusetts, etc. - I can point to in the book and say "I was there!"

Summary: The story of how Vince McMahon took over the wrestling world.

My Thoughts: All he needed was an opportunity, and he got one.

The rise of the WWF/WWE can be neatly packaged into an economic reality of the early 1980s, the rise of cable television and truly national television networks, but, as Tim Hornbaker points out, there was much more to it than that.

Wrestling had already undergone numerous changes through time, and it seemed as if all it needed was a little push to set it over this final edge. Old time purists will tell you that there was just that, a purity, to the management of the sport that was breached by McMahon and McMahon only during those days of expansion. But that was in no way the case.

Long before Vince, Jr., was a part of the picture, territories lived and died, oftentimes at the hands of other promoters. If a local promoter struggled to bring in good gates, he might, especially in the early days of the NWA, reach out to a neighbor for some talent sharing, importing fresh faces that might give his shows a boost. But, there were other times when that neighbor would turn predatory and "invade" a city, running shows that directly competed with local promotions, even forcing them out of business. Even the NWA itself, seen as the great unifying force in the sport, was chased by federal anti-monopoly investigators for its exclusionary practices with independent, non-member promotions. The belief that the territorial system was all sunshine and roses was bunk.

Yet the territorial system had its strengths. There were three major federations by the early 1980s, the WWF, in the northeast; the AWA, based in Minnesota; and the NWA, with ties to many regional promotions in the South, West and Pacific Northwest. It worked out that a wrestler could jump from one to the next when his act wore out, and, within the NWA, could even jump from Florida to Texas to Portland, Oregon, to reinvent himself. A touring champion touched all NWA affiliates, bringing cohesiveness to the field. But, in a moment of history repeating itself, there was money to be made in aggressively grabbing space in the marketplace.

It happened in the aftermath of World War II for the first time. The rise of television allowed promoters the exceptional opportunity to showcase their talent before they appeared live in large arenas. Promoters could hype upcoming match-ups, even tease them on air, advancing storylines and feuds. With hours and hours of airtime to fill (and no reruns of any kind to be had) television stations turned to local wrestling promotions to provide a spectacle. The sport exploded in popularity in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

And so came cable television in the 1980s. Closed circuit broadcasts had been tested in the 1970s with the Inoki-Ali fight, Evil Kneivel's Snake River jump and more. The idea of reaching more than just a local audience was no longer just a dream. Exposure and familiarity were the keys, with just enough localization through interviews with wrestlers about upcoming shows making the growing WWF seem like a hometown organization, no matter where one lived. McMahon bought air time on local stations across the country (and in Canada) and got his product onto national cable broadcasts.

The rest fought back, individually and collectively. One by one they folded in front of the steamroller that was the new WWF. Talent jumped ship to join the juggernaut. Those promoters who remained tried new tactics, like Pro Wrestling USA, a last-ditch talent- and content-sharing effort, but to no avail. When the dust cleared, only two major organizations remained, WWF and what would become WCW.

Is wrestling better now? That will always be a loaded question, as "now" is ever-changing. But you can ask yourself this: is baseball better with inter-league play? There was a mysteriousness to the All-Star Game and the World Series in the old days, when the best players in the league opposite your hometown team's were untested against your stars, when there was real rivalry between the American and National Leagues, true drama n screen as a pitchers and batters faced each other for the first time. In the days of wrestling's territorial system, the arrival of a new star from parts unknown brought that kind of mystery. For a long time now, that mystery has been gone.

Tim Hornbaker's storytelling of the business of wrestling is relentless and exceptionally insightful. You will never read a book like this one again, until you pick up Capitol Revolution or his history of the NWA.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Club by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg

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Why I Read It: 
The growth of the Premier League has always fascinated me, as has the business of sports.

Summary: Subtitle: "How the English Premier League Became the Wildest, Richest, Most Disruptive Force in Sports."

My Thoughts: It's amazing how greed continues to rule the world.

I should partially take that back. There is greed, and then there is ambition. Yes, it was greed that started the whole league off, the notion that the top teams in English football wanted a larger slice of the pie, but then there was the ambition of wanting to see how big the sport could get. That's capitalism at its finest. Living in a capitalist, democratic society, I can't say I argue with that. Business owners don't incorporate with the idea of settling into a little niche and struggling to make a little profit after a lot of hard work; why should soccer teams and leagues?

And so the league took off in the 1990s, borrowing a bit from the National Football League, which had just gone through its own period of phenomenal growth. It - the owners of the 20 clubs, collectively - invested in new stadiums and, most notably, broadcast rights, domestic, at first, and then abroad. It went from hooliganism and the working class to suits and champagne, from stadiums without proper bathrooms to palaces akin to the NFL's landmark buildings. With the heavy in-pouring of revenue came a steady stream of foreign-born players, an instant way for fans afar to see themselves and their identities reflected in soccer clubs playing thousands of miles away. Suddenly, Koreans, Uruguayans, Croats and more wanted to wear the colors of West Ham, of Liverpool, of Man City. International ownership became the norm, with absentee ownership being a common factor for fan bases no longer knowing who to direct their ire toward.

But, as Robinson and Clegg explain, once the model was out, and the money evened out, things began to change. For a player from abroad, if the money is the same, why play in the rain in England when one could just as easily play in the perpetual sunshine of Barcelona? Once the Premier League went international, it took on international problems and competition.

And so, 25 tremendously successful years in, the top six teams wanted out. They wanted a larger slice of the pie, as greed raised its ugly head again.

The authors raise numerous interesting points along the way, but one almost throw-away line caught my attention. It's well-known that the game is universal, played literally around the globe. The line came in comparison to the NFL, which, while wildly popular in the U.S., struggles to expand around the world in actual play. It's the damned rulebook. While soccer is watched and understood in dozens of languages, the ever-changing nature of the NFL product, with its ridiculous, catch/not a catch, fumble/not a fumble, tackle/roughing the passer confusion, makes it not worth the while for fans around the world to try to get invested in. If I was starting from scratch in my 20s or 30s, I wouldn't bother either.

Then again, Americans may never feel comfortable with some facets of English football life, like relegation. The bottom three teams in the top league travel downward for the next season, while the top three in the second tier move up. Americans could never grasp this concept, as American sports associations are constructed with farm systems rather than independently owned teams free to float upward or downwards; the big club has rights to all players in its system. The Pawtucket Red Sox could never move up to the major leagues, because they are a dedicated International League, AAA baseball team. We don't mind watching the drama of relegation from afar, because, after all, Man United is not our team. If it was our Red Sox, or Seahawks, or Knicks, that would be a different story.

Of course, this is a story that has simply hit pause, and has not ended. It will be interesting to see where the Premier League stands in another 25 years.