Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Battle for Las Vegas by Dennis N. Griffin


The Battle for Las Vegas: The Law vs. The Mob: Griffin, Dennis N ...
Why I Read It: My wife and I went to Vegas and when she asked me "What's the one thing off the beaten path you want to do?" I answered unhesitatingly: go to the Mob Museum.

Summary: Law enforcement's fight to bring down Vegas mob boss Tony Spilotro.

My Thoughts: I think I've always associated the mob with Las Vegas, but living as far from Vegas as humanly possible in the United States, I never thought deeply about it. I had some vague notion of the hotels and mob control, of shady dealings, of money secretly being shifted around, Al Capone-style. But I really had no clue.

Then, we went. My wife and I found out that Aerosmith would be doing a residency at the MGM, and decided, what the heck, let's make a long weekend of it. We wandered up and down the strip, did the sights, ate the food, got swept up in all of it. And then we went to the Mob Museum.

I was hooked, I wanted to know more, and purchased this book.

Griffin's story quickly recounts the backstory of the growth of Las Vegas and brings it into the 1970s and 1980s, where he does most of his work. He follows the life of Spilotro, Lefty Rosenthal and others on the crime side, and law enforcement members on the other. He deftly covers the politics of the various departments - from federal to local - working the cases, and the struggles for power that faced both sides. He covers the court cases, the media members who covered the mob scene and more.

He finds out the graphic details of the murders, uncovers the strategic tactics that led to the arrests, the ties that stretched all the way back to Chicago. The book ends when Spilotro's life does, but Griffin doesn't let it go as an evil erased. He is very fair to his legacy, and shares the thoughts of those who knew and loved him. He allows for the humanization of a demonized man. He could have let it go, but didn't.

I've got a clearer picture now of this storied chapter in Vegas history. I wonder how many people passed through the city clueless to what was happening around them at all time. I wonder what I missed when I was there.

Flight Calls by John R. Nelson

Flight Calls: Exploring Massachusetts through Birds: Nelson, John ...
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Why I Read It: Obligated. I've been birding Massachusetts for 25 years.

Summary: A collection of essays that intersects the worlds of birds and literature, with all thoughts pointing toward Massachusetts.

My Thoughts: This is the book that I am going to write in twenty years.

I first knew John Nelson and I were kindred spirits when he approached the subject of Brown-headed Cowbirds, birds that drop their eggs in other birds' nests and take off. The young are raised by their new "parents" and yet, somehow, the young Cowbirds seek out other Cowbirds and perpetuate the species. How do they know who they really are?

I then knew we were forever tied together because I realized that not only did I know the same people he did - many, many of them, at least - but because we had chased the same birds in Massachusetts. And I don't mean species; I mean individual birds. We've traveled the same paths, scoped the same birds, asked the same questions, braved the same weather.

But then, John has a twist to him. As a professor of literature, he has a whole different perspective on birds and birding. He has researched and read through the literature of Massachusetts, through the centuries, and knows the references, both in poetry and prose to the birds of the Bay State. We have a common friend in Edward Howe Forbush, the great compiler of New England bird knowledge in the early part of the twentieth century. I, too approach the bird world differently than most birders. My life work is in history. When it came time to write the second Breeding Bird Atlas for Massachusetts, I was privileged, honored, to write the history paragraphs for the 220 species we were profiling. It was research that made my head spin, learning so many small details about the ebbs and flows of bird populations in Massachusetts over time, trying to encapsulate them in a few sentences per species.

And so, I was surprised, after learning so much about the Massachusetts bird landscape from John, to see that he had learned from me. He references the Atlas and the State of the Birds reports we produced at Mass Audubon. I had the great honor of breaking down a half century of Christmas Bird Count data to look for any unexpected trends for the first SOTB, a true labor of love . I'll never forget when we discovered the obvious plunges of the Great Cormorant as a winter resident and tied them to open bag limits in Canada, and other such details. I have no idea why I like statistics so much, but I do.

I feel like I should have been speaking to John R. Nelson for years, that we should have bumped into each other somewhere on the birding trail. Perhaps we have. We found each other on social media long before the book came out (perhaps he was grooming me for a future sale) and give each other thumbs up from time to time. I hope we do get to share a bird in person some day.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Storytellers by Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson


The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Storytellers (From the ...
Why I Read It: Storytelling is becoming more and more important culturally; wrestling has long gotten it right.

Summary: Instances and examples of the best stories told in professional wrestling rings through time.

My Thoughts: What it comes down to is this. You don't need the best body. You don't need the best mouthpiece. You don't need the best gimmick. If you can be believable, if you can make the world truly believe that you are crazy, foolhardy, noble, or chivalrous, if you can capture the imagination of the general public while forcing them to suspend their suspension of disbelief, especially in the post-kayfabe era of professional wrestling, you will go far.

The best storytellers through time have influenced future generations. Gorgeous George was not the biggest or most skilled man ever to hit the ring, but by the time he got to it, with all the preening, the music, the spraying of perfume, fans hated his guts. See Ric Flair. See Randy Savage.

Some, though, have used gimmicks, from animals to valets to managers. Others have crafted stories through newspapers and magazines to draw heat, or attention, to themselves before an event. Still more relied on the prowess of enhancement talents, "jobbers" whose job it is to simply make their opponents look good, either by being squashed in the ring, or putting up just enough of a fight to allow the star the opportunity to show his or her guile or wit in cutting off that effort and claiming a victory.

With thousands of examples from which to choose, Oliver and Johnson zoom in on their favorites, from sideshow freaks to rings full of smelt, from ladder matches to monkey-wielding wild men. From end to end, it's all about the story. We can all learn a little from this journey, whether in advertising, running nonprofit organizations, or running the social media account for a pro sports franchise.

Stories sell.

100 Things WWE Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die by Brian Alvarez


100 Things WWE Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (100 Things ...

Why I Read It: Because Hulk Hogan pinned the Iron Sheik at Madison Square Garden on January 23, 1984, when I was 12 and I've never been able to remember life before it happened.

Summary: Pretty self-explanatory title. It's an unauthorized gathering of backstories and more about the WWE for the modern generation to understand how things got to where they are today.

My Thoughts: What I love most about this book is that it could be about any federation or any association at any time. But I do have to admit that I also like the fact that it doesn't have to hide behind the veil of what the organization approves of or not.

Most of the "100 Things" are wrestlers themselves. Those wrestlers who are successful today have typically been through hell two or three times on the way to the top, under various names and varied gimmicks. Each of these individuals has a backstory as varied and crazy - and outside of the WWE - as could make for a novel in itself. Most of it vanishes the second they sign the contract, but is revived once they leave the WWE, if they ever do.

The result is a gathering of a cast of characters in the locker room that can talk forever about bad promoters, stupid gimmicks, works and shoots and even crossing paths under different names in different promotions.

And, the most amazing thing is that this book was outdated when it hit bookstore shelves, as new talent had arrived and old talent had moved on. Pro wrestling is about riding waves of momentum in the moment. What's hot today is gone tomorrow if the ratings aren't there.

War Fever by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith


War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the ...


Why I Read It: Boston, baseball, World War I, Babe Ruth...do you even know me at all?

Summary: Three lives twisted and turned by World War I: Babe Ruth, Karl Muck and Charles Whittlesey.

My Thoughts: It must have been an amazing time to be alive.

The Great War affected millions of lives worldwide, whether they came under trench mortar fire or not. There were hardships all around, in hundreds of thousands of homes in dozens of countries. But it was by no means an even playing field.

Just like the luck of the battlefield, where one man watched untouched as the man next to him blew to pieces, the pull of public sentiment picked and chose who it brought down. Anti-German feelings appeared in posters, in newsprint and on the lips of Americans across the country. For men like Karl Muck, the German-born Swiss national conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that sentiment meant doom. Forced into untenable positions - why, detractors asked, would he not play "The Star-Spangled Banner" during BSO performances? - Muck ended up deposed from his perch, imprisoned and eventually deported, simply for his Germanness. The government and the press made headline news out of a suspected affair with a younger American woman, in order to drag his name through the mud.

But what of George Herman Ruth, the wayward, boozing and outwardly womanizing son of a German-American saloon keeper? Those same Boston pundits who excoriated and ruined Muck cheered Ruth. After all, he could hit home runs like no one ever had before, and his Germanness was hidden behind his nickname: the Babe.

In the midst of the hatred, sharing the spotlight with the influenza pandemic that ravaged the world, America's Lost Battalion had pushed through enemy lines only to find itself isolated and cutoff on the French front. Its leader, a bookish Harvard man named Charles Whittlesey, fought on tirelessly amidst diminishing amounts of ammunition, food and men. He came home to spend the rest of his life attending funerals and memorials and assuring family members that their sons, fathers and brothers died nobly and heroically, not in one of the far too numerous horrid endings he had personally witnessed on the battlefield.

Muck wanted to make music. Ruth wanted to play ball. Whittlesey wanted to serve his country. Fate would say who got what he wanted.

This is a total aside driven completely by my baseball history nerd-dom. The authors mention Massachusetts-born "Harvard" Eddie Grant, a friend of Whittlesey, in passing toward the end of the book, down to the detail that he had been killed by a direct shell hit in the Argonne. For some reason, they declined the opportunity to point out that he had been a professional baseball player for a decade before the war, a contemporary of Ruth. It would have made for an interesting linkage.

Born Round by Frank Bruni


Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite ...
Why I Read It: Gotta be honest, the Italian surname.

Summary: One man's struggle with food and the problems that caused in other areas of life.

My Thoughts: It seems to me that there is an interesting, if yet unexplored cultural dynamic at work here.

Frank was born into an Italian-American family, very much like the one in which I grew up. There was food everywhere. Now, whether or not he, or I, can claim that that atmosphere or environment had anything to do with the way we ate as kids, or the way we continued to eat as adults, I'm not sure. But the food was there, and there was, and still is, even guilt in not eating to excess.

Frank, I get it.

Ironically, it's a pilgrimage, through a work posting to Italy, that sets him on a healthy track for good. He had tried everything to lose and maintain a safe weight: exercise, diets, pills, forced vomiting. And now he was set to head to Italy, the land of his gastronomic dreams. But it was there that he found a key to life success.

Italians (I speak from experience) prefer to have the best of everything, from footwear to music to food. They don't care to have it in abundance, and, as far as food goes, are very happy to let a small taste magnificence of the best piece of prosciutto in the land or the most potent espresso linger on their lips rather than eat or drink unseemly amounts of it. Americans, on the other hand, prefer giant Vegas-style buffets. I don't even know if there is an Italian phrase for "all you can eat."

But something happened when Italians hit American shores in large numbers just more than a century ago. It's almost like they found they could have the best of both worlds: magnificence in abundance. Every function I attended with Old World Italians as a kid featured way, way too much food.

Did America corrupt Italian culture?

Frank learns to eat in Italy, and soon gets the call to a new assignment, food critic for the New York Times. Did he dare go for it? Would his old ways come back to haunt him? Born Round covers this story and Frank's search for love as he travels up and down the waist size ladder.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

At Home by Beth Luey


At Home: Historic Houses of Eastern Massachusetts: Beth Luey ...
Why I Read It: I help run an historic house in Eastern Massachusetts (see "Summary").

Summary: The histories of eight historic houses in Eastern Massachusetts.

My Thoughts: The beauty of this template is that it can be used in any county in any state in America, and even in regions around the world. The author has profiled the life histories of eight historic homes. She's spread them out from the North Shore of Boston to Concord to New Bedford to Cape Cod, and stretched them from the early 1600s to the year 2000.

Working in the historic preservation field, I can see why she chose what she did, but can also see the breadth of what she left out. There are so many more historic houses being kept alive by preservation groups of all kind in the region that this is a mere sampling of what is out there to explore. That said, she chose the obscure - like the Fairbanks home in Dedham - and the famed, like the homes of John and John Quincy Adams, the Alcotts, Mary Baker Eddy and Edward Gorey. The obscure is where most of our history lies, in historic structures in which everyday people lived everyday lives. But a little bit of celebrity certainly helps tell a tale.

I found the biographical sketches of several of the characters - Bronson Alcott, Eddy and Gorey, in particular - to be fascinating. Ultimately, the book is about the homes, but they are what they are, from construction to decoration, because of the people who lived in them. Kicking off the book with the Fairbanks house and its grisly murder story was a great idea.

The author begs us to break the 60-mile rule. We tend to live in bubbles, seeing anything local as mundane. But as soon as somebody from the outside arrives, or we travel 60 miles distant, we find experts and new adventures. We need to look right in our own backyards. This book encourages us to explore our home regions, to come face-to-face with our local history. I've visited every town in this book; I've never visited any of the homes. I've got some work to do.

Find your local book, and explore your local world.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Self Help by Al Snow


Amazon.com: Self Help: Life Lessons from the Bizarre Wrestling ...
Why I Read It: Because Hulk Hogan pinned the Iron Sheik when I was 12 years old.

Summary: The bizarre wrestling career of a member of the J.O.B. Squad.

My Thoughts: Al Snow's career was mostly in that black hole of my wrestling viewing life. I was away from the game for the nineties, only finding WWF's Smackdown when it moved to the UPN network. No, I didn't have cable television as a kid.

So, I missed Al's high spots, which I think is a shame, because I've always thought of him as a good worker and one who understood the psychology of the fans at ringside and at home better than most. When I came to know him, he was already fighting his way out of the J.O.B. Squad. Call them what you want (jobbers, enhancement talent, etc.), there are wrestlers who have historically been dropped down to a level at which they will never win against superstars getting a push from a promoter. They are there to make the top guys look good. Some accept it and collect a paycheck week to week. Others reinvent themselves and seek new pastures if they feel they still have something left to give the sport at a high level.

Al's book is, as any of his fans might expect, really funny. There is one line I will never forget, about a trip across Canada with a van full of little people wrestlers, that just summed up the whole book, Al's whole life, for me. There were times I had to stop reading and run to tell somebody, anybody, what I had just read.

That said, I was surprised at the persecution complex Al displays throughout the book. It feels like every chapter (an exaggeration, I'm sure, but it feels that way) ends with a "woe is me" moment: nobody listened to me, if I had my way it would've turned out better, Vince left me high and dry. But I guess it's all part of what makes Al, Al.

I loved this book for who Al is and for what Al has done. He had his low times, like every wrestler does, but he has reinvented himself as a businessman several times over. Generally, wrestlers who write autobiographies are survivors, men and women who have faced down adversity in dozens of ways and lived to tell the tale. Al's been there and back again.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda


If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My ...
Why I Read It: I've read everything Alan Alda has ever published, and I don't intend to stop.

Summary: Getting to the roots of why scientists can have trouble communicating with laymen.

My Thoughts: M*A*S*H had a major impact on my life as a kid. It connected me to my dad in ways I'll never forget. Until the day he died we could quote lines back and forth to each other, or use them in disconnected situations to convey specific messages tat only we would understand. Alan Alda, and Hawkeye Pierce, had a lot to do with that connection.

Alda followed M*A*S*H with a long career that included, among many other roles, the role of grand inquisitor on Scientific American Frontiers. It was interesting to watch him explore his interest in and enthusiasm for science with each episode. There was always this vague, ethereal connection in my mind. "Of course he's interested in science. He played Hawkeye, a doctor." The fact that he was not a real doctor came back to me in this book when he mentioned surgical procedure he "performed" in a M*A*S*H episode as if he was hearing the term for the first time. Someday I'll get this all straight in my head.

My respect grew for Alda as I read this book and learned how he has taken his passion for science and coupled it with his other love, the stage, to create a pathway to a better world.

In this book, Alda explores the simple question of why the scientific community cannot always effectively communicate with the public, and how to bridge that gap. The answer, he finds, rests in empathy, reading the emotional responses of listeners and adjusting language to find the right way into that person's, or audience's, basic comprehension. But, like a good scientist, he doesn't just throw out a theory and a hypothesis. He puts his ideas into action, taking scientists through improv exercises and testing the results. He even financed a school dedicated to the study on Long Island.

Understanding, empathy, connection. These are all words the world needs right now. Take it from Alda, a master communicator if there ever was one.

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Strenuous Life by Ryan Swanson


Amazon.com: The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making ...
Why I Read It: I was introduced to the "Strenuous Life" through a local story, about a writer named John Boyle O'Reilly, who believed in vigorous exercise two decades before Roosevelt took office.

Summary: President Teddy Roosevelt's effects on American sports, and on how Americans view athletics in general.

My Thoughts: So, some of this I already knew.

I had done a study on the evolution of football as I attempted to interpret the news of an 1890s series of games on a local field for my local paper. It led me to the Roosevelt summit with college coaches and the rule changes enacted to reduce the brutality of the game at the time. So I knew that Roosevelt found the game manly enough for his tastes, but in need of reform (his own son was seriously injured in a game).

I knew, too, that Teddy was a boxer in college. But here's what I didn't know.

I had no idea that he had been given the Golden Ticket by baseball, invited to attend any games anywhere in the country. He, though, had no respect for the sport, finding it below his personal machismo threshold. Baseball never forgave him. Check out how many times the Teddy character has won the Presidents races at Washington Nationals games.

But his impacts didn't end there. He championed the New York City public schools' physical activity and the Public Schools Athletic League. He played tennis at the White House religiously, and took his cabinet and visiting dignitaries on brisk, somewhat insane walks through the wild places of Washington D.C. He also balked at connecting his name to the Olympics in any way.

If it was a sport extant during Roosevelt's tenure at the White House, he had an opinion of it or an effect on it. We can trace at least a portion of our enthusiasm for sport in the United States back to a man who believed that every American, whether he or she lived in the growing cities or the vanishing countryside, to Teddy. Bully!

Children of Nazis by Tania Crasnianski


Amazon.com: Children of Nazis: The Sons and Daughters of Himmler ...
Why I Read It: Birthday present from someone who knows my passion for World War II history.

Summary: The lives of the children of eight of the most notorious Nazis.

My Thoughts: Yeesh.

Even though World War II is a subject I've studied in depth, there's always another book out there that plunges me deeper. The one overriding learning I took away from this book was that there was no end to the depravity of the leaders of the Third Reich. What started out as a groundswell movement in the 1920s eventually led to untold excesses by the people at the top by the 1940s, the classic case of absolute power failing absolutely. The story is repeated in the tales of Himmler, Goring, Mengele and others.

The book, though, is about the children, and how each one dealt with the legacies their fathers left behind. The author doesn't state this as such, but there is a pattern. Children who were old enough to understand what was going on - save, perhaps, for the hidden horrors of the concentration camps - and who bought into the idea of Fascism and all of the Third Reich's strategic priorities stood by their fathers. The children who were too young to buy in typically learned of their fathers' crimes after they came to light publicly, and did whatever they could to escape their shadows.

Such an act was not easy when one carried specific surnames: Bormann, Hess, Speer, etc. Some chose to change their names, others did not. Some lost employment opportunities because of their fathers' past. Most spent the rest of their lives - some still do - trying to live down what their last names stand for historically.

The book is not for the faint of heart. It's yet another reminder of what can happen when tyrants are allowed to rule. Beyond that, it's also a study in the generational impacts of World War II.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The Boston Massacre by Serena Zabin


The Boston Massacre: A Family History: Zabin, Serena ...

Why I Read It: Growing up where I did, this is local history.

Summary: The author's specific focus is "A Family History," following the lives of Bostonians and soldiers up to and through the event.

My Thoughts: When I was a kid, it was another checkmark on the list. Why did the Revolution occur? The Massacre, the Stamp Act, the Tea Party, etc. For all we knew as young students it was a simple act of slaughter perpetrated by the "bad guys."

The author reminds us that these were real people, on both sides of the guns, who had led lives that brought them to this horrific moment. She brings us down to the ground level, away from the bird's-eye-view presented in Henry Pelham's drawing, and walks us through several important themes.

We meet the soldiers and their families. We learn what life was like for the wife of a soldier in the British army, which generally included families in their movements. We also learn how the soldiers and officers interacted with the local residents. It was a mixed bag. There was drunkenness, there was brawling, there were insults, but there also were marriages and babies.

Herein rested a problem. With supporters and detractors of the King waging wars of words and ideologies through both printed and shouted words, some welcomed the unions of soldiers and local women, others shunned them. One rebellious daughter of an outspoken dad defiantly married a soldier against her father's best wishes.

Strangely, there is another layer. When troops went AWOL, they often found themselves harbored and protected by residents in outlying communities. The locals would grab torches and pitchforks and form mobs hell-bent on protecting the wayward soldiers. The army made an example of one runaway - executing him on Boston Common - before catching onto the sentiment and going with lesser punishments, and even more clandestine approaches to retrieving AWOLs.

When the massacre does happen, we have a greater understanding of why, as well as a deeper understanding of multiple layers of impact it had on individuals, families, communities, governments and empire.

Fire in Paradise by Alastair Gee and Dani Anguiano


Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy: Alastair Gee, Dani Anguiano ...
Why I Read It: For the Amazon Vine project, but I'm also working on a firefighting history with a friend.

Summary: The November 2018 fire that consumed the town of Paradise, California, its causes and aftermaths.

My Thoughts: There are so many layers to this story.

First, there is the California landscape. As the outer edge of the arid southwest, it is extremely dry in many places, perfect for the dreaded combination of combustible material + oxygen + a spark that creates fires. Without decades of proscribed burning, which by now has become prohibitively expensive, considering the amount of land that needs it, the landscape has just become more and more adapted to that fatal spark.

Then, there is climate change. Higher temperatures are making things worse.

Third, we have to consider aging energy infrastructure, steel towers carrying power lines through the aforementioned landscape which have not been replaced for decades.

Finally, it's people. We are an old country now, with Baby Boomers retiring in great numbers. Some places, like Paradise, were "older" than others.

When the fire broke out near Paradise in November - caused by failing energy infrastructure sparking a brush fire in 60 mile-per-hour winds - even the best-laid escape plans were no match. People burned to death in their cars and houses. One man wheeled himself outside in his wheelchair to wait for a ride, and burned to death on the spot. Many older folks who had little capacity to move as quickly as needed died doing the best they could.

The authors cover Paradise from gold rush town to modern day, cover the landscape and all that affects it, the corporate entity whose misguided actions led to more than 80 deaths, the heroic actions of firefighters and volunteers, and the victims of the fire themselves.

I made the mistake of finding the town on Google Maps, just to situate myself. The satellite imagery currently used is from a time after the fire. We can walk down the streets mentioned in the book and "see" the empty lots where houses and businesses once stood, and remember the horror that consumed this once beautiful California town.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Super Mario by Jeff Ryan


Image result for super mario jeff ryan
Why I Read It: I was there when it all began. We had Pong.

Summary: The story of "How Nintendo Conquered America."

My Thoughts: Meager beginnings. We all have them.

I was working in video arcades when the Mario revolution began. Back then he was known as Jumpman, but it doesn't matter. The overalls and mustache have always been telling. We carried all the Donkey Kong games, the early Mario Bros. and anything else that Nintendo of America pushed out.

When Mario moved to the home market, we were there, too. I had an N64 in my dorm room in college, although we chose other, more involved games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms as our boredom killers. But I was there the first times that Mario saved the princess, by whatever name and whatever method. Super Mario Bros. was in my stack.

I didn't know then, of course, that it would get so big, or that the Mario superstorm almost never happened. Nintendo of America had to deal with failed games, conversion kits, warehouse rentals, a jumping, mustached angry landlord, corporate directives from Japan, and more. They had to learn how video games fit into American culture beyond dedicated arcades. And they had to figure out the home market.

Luckily the company had a lesson to follow in that respect. Atari had failed miserably, crashing in on itself under the weight of poorly designed games for the 2600, with little quality control over products produced by outside developers. Nintendo played its cards closer to the vest and, what's more, built itself an iconic figure. You never knew where Mario would pop up next. He hopped from platform to platform, game to game, keeping the singular goal of saving the princess through most of his trials.

Ryan details the ups and downs of the Mario story, the hits and misses (and there have been numerous of the latter). He covers the stories here and there, in the U.S. and Japan, where Mario games have been released that never crossed the Pacific. He puts personalities behind the developers and Nintendo executives, making us better understand how Mario took over the world.

We are seeing a Mario revolution in these recent years. Mario is playing with the Rabbids. He has his own Minecraft world. He has even joined forces with his old nemesis, Sonic, for trips to the Olympic games. He's finally comfortable in his own skin, and, as long as there are princesses to save, he'll be here.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Fluff by Mimi Graney


Image result for fluff mimi graney
Why I Read It: It's a Boston area success story, and someday I hope to be, too.

Summary: The deep, sticky history of the Durkee-Mower brand of marshmallow fluff.

My Thoughts: I loved this approach to the history of the subject, or, in fact, any subject.

The straightforward tale of Fluff could be told in a few pages: names, dates, benchmarks, etc. And in a way, the book follows the formula that most twentieth century American histories have to follow. What happened with the study's protagonist in World War I? the Roaring '20s? the Depression? World War II? the Baby Boom? Fluff was there for each of the century's greatest and worst moments, and the company had twists and turns that were driven by them.

But Fluff, as an American foodstuff, lives in a world deeper than just its own vats of gooey white gold. The author delves deeply into the marketing world of the 1920s and 1930s, showing how Durkee-Mower innovatively experimented with radio, spokespeople and more, understanding branding from the earliest days. (Even prior to the '20, during World War I, Fluff tried to cash in on a new concoction, a peanut butter and Fluff sandwich called, of course, "the Victory Sandwich.") She dives into the evolution of the marketplace, from corner stores to supermarkets, product placement and distribution. She walks us through the legislation that has affected Fluff over time, and of the true meaning of "manufacturer's suggested retail price."

And she lets us know that Fluff happened here in New England for a reason. New England had long been the "cradle of American confections" for the New World, dating back to colonial days, when Archibald Query began peddling his marshmallow creme door-to-door. We've always had a sweet tooth in this part of the world.

One aspect of this book that I truly enjoyed was the imagery, and not just for the content. The quality of images chosen for historical books sometimes can be sketchy; if they're the only pictures that can support the story, we have to use them despite scratches and graininess. The clearest images in this book appear almost three-dimensional. They have an almost cinematic quality. They really helped enliven the story, not that it really needed any help.

And, before you ask, yes, the full recipe remains a secret.

If These Walls Could Talk: Boston Red Sox by Jerry Remy and Nick Cafardo


Image result for if these walls could talk boston red sox
Why I Read It: I've been a baseball fan since Fisk waved it fair.

Summary: Jerry Remy's baseball life and times.

My Thoughts: It should be established from the start that this is mostly a Jerry Remy autobiography more than a book about Red Sox insider history.

That said, taken for what it is, it is really enjoyable. While some sections, like the recounting of the Red Sox' recent World Series wins (still can't believe I'm using the plural for that fact), read somewhat dryly as just recaps of the roads to the titles, others are pure gold for Red Sox fans.

Jerry's story of growing up in the Boston area and his years as a Major League Baseball player is wonderful. His self-deprecating humor and straight-shooter style has been his hallmark as a broadcaster. He tells it like it is. He knew what he was as a ballplayer and played his career out to the best of his abilities. He knew, due to his size, he should not swing for the fences, but find other more creative ways to get around the bases. He played the game in a smart way.

That approach continued into his broadcasting career. He knows the game like most do not. He lovingly remembers his former broadcast partners and brought me to tears of laughter as he reminded me of some of my favorite moments in Red Sox history: when his tooth fell out in the middle of a broadcast, the pizza-throwing incident, the boob grab, etc. When he and Don Orsillo got on a silly streak on the air, when a game was out of hand, they made Red Sox fans all over New England roll with laughter with them. These moments were absolute treasures, and stories I've passed onto my kids. Through the magic of the internet, I can show them to them, as they are all preserved.

There are some very touching aspects of this book. He talks about his son, Jared, in a separate chapter. I can see the conundrum he must have faced in approaching the manuscript. If he talks about Jared and the horrible murder he committed, he exposes himself emotionally; if he doesn't, he's called to task for avoiding the topic when he had a proper forum. The result is a feeling of solemnity and ever-lasting respect for his courage. He talks about his battles with cancer and depression. And the book is coauthored with a beloved Boston sports writer, Nick Cafardo, who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly during the book's production. Jerry dedicates pages to him at the end of the book, saying he hopes the book will stand as a tribute to Nick.

Sean McDonough writes the foreword and Don Orsillo the afterword. Jerry starts the book with the words, "So, how lucky am I?" stating that he's spent his entire career following his passion. Both McDonough and Orsillo feel the same way about working with Jerry. After reading this book, Red Sox fans will think about all RemDawg has given us over more than four decades and think, "How lucky are we?"

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Rising Son by Sandra Vea


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Why I Read It: My never-ending fascination with World War II.

Summary: The tale of a life flipped over - twice.

My Thoughts: Our general failure as a world community to see beyond skin tones and other differences is as pronounced today as it was in ages past. Try as we might, we just can't seem to break racism the world over.

Masao Abe's tale, told by his son's significant other, reminds us that simpler times weren't all they were advertised to be. Abe, an American-born, Japanese-educated American soldier in World War II not only had to face the fact that his country was fighting Japanese troops during the war, he came face to face with them in the field as an interpreter for captured Japanese soldiers in combat in the Pacific. His family lived in Japan during the war, while his uncle and aunt faced internment in detention camps simply for being of Japanese descent.

The author moves back and forth from modern day and historical settings, and admits in some cases she had to recreate scenes and dialogues as she believed they must have taken place, based on Abe's memories. We end up with a story of a man divided, alone, tormented, never knowing whether or not the bullet that would get him would come from the front or back.

Let's Play Two by Ron Rapoport


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Why I Read It: While I'm a Red Sox fan, I always felt for Ernie Banks, a longtime superstar ballplayer who never made the World Series.

Summary: A great biography of Mr. Cub.

My Thoughts: Ernie Banks remains one of the most enigmatic figures in baseball history, a half century removed from his heyday, and this beautiful reflection on his life perpetuates that story line. Here was one of the most prominent black athletes of his day, and his day was the moment of truth for civil rights in America; however, he shied away from the spotlight of the moment, despite encouragement from his peers.

On the field, he reinvented the shortstop position, a fact that seems to have gotten lost over time. We look at today's heavy hitting shortstops and think of how they are redefining the position from the defense-first slap hitters of the 1970s and 1980s, almost forgetting the way Banks mashed the ball for two decades prior to that time.

The book is a sympathetic look at the life of one of baseball's greats. At times it dives more deeply into the "times" of Ernie Banks, and becomes more of a "life and times" than a biography, but the book never strays too far from the central figure. It ends sadly, as his life did, with claimants to his legacy fighting over this and that. The book proves, without saying it directly, that he should have been granted more dignity in the end, at least reflective of the amount with which he treated the rest of us.

Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks


Why I Read It: I knew plenty about Churchill, not as much about Orwell beyond 1984 and Animal Farm. I was interested in the juxtaposition of the two.

Summary: Two men, two approaches, two lives and careers, fighting for the same freedoms.

My Thoughts: One might think that it's obvious that Orwell and Churchill would have met. Both played such large roles in British history and lived concurrently. On the other hand, examining the facts of birth and class - Churchill in the aristocracy, Orwell anywhere but - it makes sense that they never did.

But they fought the same fight for freedom.

Each man had his military moments. Churchill served in the 1890s in India and the Sudan when "empire" was the word of the day. Orwell served much later, in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Orwell, in particular, fought based on ideology; he saw right and wrong. Along the way, though, he realized that extreme leftist beliefs and propaganda are just as damaging as similar far right activities. Churchill was on an adventure, fulfilling his expected role as a nobleman.

They unite over a common cause, fighting fascism in World War II. They both believe in the same ultimate end game: the preservation of the notion of individual freedoms. Churchill expressed it in political speeches. Orwell thinly veiled it in his fiction writing. He attacked both communism and fascism at their roots.

The author demonstrates that, in his opinion, Orwell left a longer lasting legacy on society. Perhaps in American society that is true; every American high schooler reads either Animal Farm or 1984 as a basic primer on dissecting political thought. And, perhaps, his far future ponderings actually had some elements of prediction to them. Interestingly, though, he was providing commentary on totalitarian regimes of his own time, and not predicting what would come in years to come. In fact, he was warning us.

They Bled Blue by Jason Turbow


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Why I Read It: I was ten when the strike happened. This book is right in my baseball wheelhouse.

Summary: The 1981 Dodgers, a strike-shortened season and the stories behind the mega-superstar personalities of the year's greatest team.

My Thoughts: When we look back on baseball history, it can sometimes become a blur: so many names, so many teams, so many games. Without the use of quick reference guides, it can be hard to remember which teams did what, when. But there are teams that easily stand out in the memory.

Author Jason Turbow has grabbed a second such team (after his book on the early 1970s Oakland A's) with the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers. You don't have to be a Dodgers honk to know that this was the team of Garvey, Lopes, Russell, Cey and Yeager. And, if you lived through it, you certainly will remember Fernandomania, as Mexican rookie pitcher Fernando Valenzuela stormed out of the gate and mowed down hitters all across the National League.

The wonder of the story of the season is intensified by the strike that occurred right in the middle of it, and the story of what the players did in the interim while their reps fought the owners on key issues. Turbow balances the labor situation with the baseball season, carrying us on a final wave as the Dodgers win the World Series.

A prominent figure throughout the book is the man who was in charge of the team, manager Tommy Lasorda. To say this was a team of personalities (adding in Jay Johnstone, Jerry Reuss, Pedro Guerrero, Dusty Baker and others) is a simple understatement. This gathering of ball players was representative of its era, the outlandish '70s and early '80s.

Here's the Catch by Ron Swoboda


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Why I Read It: Well, it seems like I'll pick up anything that has to do with baseball in the 1960s and 1970s.

Summary: The autobiography of a regular guy who made it to the land of the giants.

My Thoughts: Ron Swoboda goes down in baseball history as an everyman, a guy who - though supremely talented as a ballplayer - seemed to overachieve in the biggest moment of them all on the biggest stage of them all: the World Series. He made "the catch," an all-out, hat-flying-off diving grab of a Brooks Robinson line drive that symbolically sealed the Mets' first World Series win in the miracle 1969 season.

But here, in this book, is the backstory: how he grew up, who influenced his life and who he ran with. It's the story of his teammates and best friends, Tug McGraw and Ed Kranepool, of Tom Seaver, Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan and so many more. (Talk about a loaded pitching staff!). It's his mea culpa moment in regard to his second manager, Gil Hodges, as he, fifty years later, comes clean about his guilt over his relationship with the man who brought a World Series title to the Mets' faithful.

Most of all, this book is funny. There was a lot of "crap" going on in the world of the late 1960s, and it's not ignored. Yet Swoboda somehow finds the positive and leads us laughing all the way to the championship and beyond.

Tough Luck by R.D. Rosen


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Why I Read It:
 An early piece of NFL history, a name I always knew but a player I knew nothing about.

Summary: "Syd Luckman, Murder, Inc. and the Rise of the Modern NFL" (also the subtitle).

My Thoughts: We've reached a point in time when the 1940s and 1950s are starting to fade from collective memory; fewer and fewer of us lived during those days, so fewer memories linger. While baseball stars of the day may remain forever etched in our minds (DiMaggio, Williams, etc.), the football stars played before smaller crowds and enjoyed a lower echelon of fame. Still, if someone mentions Sammy Baugh or Syd Luckman to a hardcore football fan, there is an inkling of a notion of what the name once meant.

Luckman's story runs deeper than most people ever knew, even in his own day in the sun. The son of a convicted murderer, he somehow overcame the odds of making it to and shining in the NFL. He lucked out from numerous factors: playing for George Halas, becoming one of the first true passing quarterbacks in the sport's history, with the adoption of the T formation, and living in a time when the press, even if it knew something it shouldn't, generally erred on the side of keeping that information silent out of respect for the players.

Rosen takes us on dual tracks, along the ride for Luckman's career, and along the amazing journey that led to the breaking up of the Jewish mob in Brooklyn, to which his father apparently was tied.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Dogfight Over Tokyo by John Wukovits


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Why I Read It:
 My never-ending fascination with World War II, especially the warbirds.

Summary: Following the last few men to die at the end of World War II.

My Thoughts: If ever there were senseless deaths, these were them. Four young aviators, flying out on the day the world knew peace was imminent, took to the skies over Japan for one last mission, to put extra pressure on the Japanese to surrender. They simply didn't have to go, and they didn't have to die.

In answering the question "why?" the author is forced to reexamine the life and actions a personal hero, Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey. Despite suggestions to hold back the final morning's attack, Halsey pushed ahead anyway, ultimately sending the four men to their doom. It's not an easy exercise. Halsey had his motives - the world was at war, the enemy still had not technically surrendered - but the atomic bombs had been dropped and the writing was already on the wall. The war was over.

The story is told through the eyes of two of the four men sent on their last mission, their stories shared by descendants and first-person materials such as diaries and letters. The author does a wonderful job of setting the scene, following the young aviators through their training around the United States and finally inserting them into the Pacific Theater combat zone. Overall, it's an immersive tale of World War II.

For me, it was fascinating to see the tale pass straight through southeastern Massachusetts and training fields on Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard, places I know well. It brought the story home, made it real. But as intellectually stimulating as that was (to think I could stand on a spot where these men once stood), in the end it was the heartbreak, and the smoldering anger toward Halsey, that will stick with me the most.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Tommy's Honor by Kevin Cook


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Why I Read It:
 I've become a golf writer.

Summary: The story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris and the legendary beginnings of competitive golf.

My Thoughts: I had no idea the tale was so tragic.

If you study golf history at all, the name Tom Morris is familiar. There'a a connection to Scotland and the beginning of the game. He's a member of the sport's royalty. Like Ouimet and Nicklaus and Palmer and Jones.

But the full story of the father and son has so many layered elements to it. Old Tom was a fantastic golfer, but Young Tom outdid him, making his father proud by claiming the champion's belt. Old Tom was a longtime fixture on the Scottish golf scene. Young Tom was a blazing star that burned out quickly. Old Tom led a good, long life. Youth Tom died way, way too young.

In fact, the loss of Young Tom was just one of many tragedies that marred the long life of Old Tom. He had many triumphs in his career, but the constant recurrence of death, of family members much younger than him, negated them all.

I am glad I read this book, as it greatly enhanced my understanding of not only Old Tom and the first flowering of the game, but of life in 19th century Scotland.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story by Chris Nashawaty


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Why I Read It: A movie from my childhood, a cult classic.

Summary: Everything behind the scenes that you wanted to know, and probably much more.

My Thoughts: I have to remember that though I was born in the '70s, it doesn't mean that they happened the way I remember them. I was way too young to really understand what was happening in the wider world. In some ways, I feel like there's still a lot of childlike naivete to my game.

This book caught me on so many levels. I had no idea Bill Murray and Chevy Chase had such a dysfunctional relationship. I had no idea Rodney Dangerfield was that insecure. I had no idea just how rampant open drug usage was during the days when the filming of what would become an all-time classic comedic film was taking place.

And I had no idea that what should have been a triumph of comedy would turn out to be such a tragedy.

The story runs through the story of National Lampoon and the creative genius who led a major satire revolution in the United States. It ends in Hawaii, at the base of a cliff, with a broken body and broken hearts, but at least one golf course was blown up along the way.

There are so many icons of American comedy connected to the film that the book resonates months after I read it, as some scenes - of people who I thought I "knew" doing things I never thought they would do -  remain shockingly fresh in my mind.

Perhaps it's just my naivete. But if you saw the movie and remember even one line, you have to read the book.

Sting Like a Bee by Leigh Montville


Sting Like a Bee


Why I Read It: Ali remains one of the twentieth century's most recognizable names.

Summary: The other side of the Ali tale, in which he is not a superhero to all.

My Thoughts: Perhaps I was born too late to really understand what the world thought of Cassius Clay, or Muhammad Ali. From my perspective, coming of age in the late 1970s, the Muhammad Ali that I knew was the man who was in all the highlight reels, the rope-a-dope heavyweight champion of the world with the fancy feet and the nonstop mouth. He was brash, he was funny and to me he was larger than life itself.

I knew there had been controversy, that there was his conversion to Islam and avoidance of the draft. As the son of a wounded Vietnam War veteran, even at a young age I understood the controversy when I first read about it. But I didn't live it. I was't there when it happened. I didn't know the political climate, nor the brand of racism still alive and well in the 1960s. I never asked my dad what he thought of the whole ordeal.

So, this book opened my eyes to the deeper story. I learned about the forces exerting control over Ali during those turbulent days, and about the women in his life. I learned that Ali, one of my childhood heroes, had his bad years, too, how he lost revenue during the prime years of his fighting life as he made his stand. But what I learned most was that with healing came acceptance. Ali came back to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996, and stood as a symbol for our country. All may not have been forgotten, but his days as a villain were certainly gone.