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.