Sunday, December 13, 2020

In That Time by Daniel H. Weiss

Why I Read It: I'm the son of a combat-wounded Vietnam Marine. Stories of the war help.

Summary: The story of an artistic soul crushed out and lost in the stupidest war of all.

My Thoughts: The author throws out a disclaimer at the beginning of the book, saying that as he's no expert on the grander themes of the war, he won't get into it. But, then, he efficiently and effectively describes the war in succinct fashion. It was surprising how easily he did explain it.

Anyone telling the story of Vietnam has a choice to make: back the war or don't. More than once, he makes the point that while Americans thought they were fighting a war of containment, it wasn't the war that the Vietnamese were fighting. Their belief was that they were fighting off yet another imperialistic nation-state, attempting to avoid oppression.

Caught in this mess were hundreds of thousands of American military men and women, pawns of the political games being played in Washington, D.C. (My dad, at 19, volunteered, thinking the war was a noble effort; he came home dismayed).

Michael O'Donnell was one of those unwitting men. He tried to preserve his life, finding a profession - helicopter pilot - that would take a lot of training, and hopefully buy time for the war to come to an end. He wasn't a warrior. He was a poet, a songwriter. He shouldn't have been there.

In the end, he was a hero.

His death shocked his family, but his mother and father never found out how he died. He was listed as missing in action until the family begged the government to change him over to deceased, so they could find some peace. But, three decades after his death, word finally arrived that his remains had been found.

The story is about an era that we'd like to forget, and an America we wish never existed, from the top of the federal government on down. The war took far too many Americans who didn't have to die, or be wounded physically, mentally, spiritually, like Michael O'Donnell, and like my dad.

Famous Lost Locomotives of North America by Thornton Waite

Why I Read It: It was authored by a sibling of a friend, and I always want to support fellow authors.

Summary: A collection of short tales about just what the title says.

My Thoughts: What a fun collection.

I'm sure it wasn't fun for the people who plunged off bridges, sank into lakes, dropped into the ocean or otherwise vanished with these locomotives. But it does make for some interesting reading.

It really is fascinating how many - this is just a sampling - locomotives were lost over time, trapped in collapsed tunnels, simply left in place when funds ran out to build railroads, whatever. It seems that the methods of becoming lost were endless, as are both the preservation efforts and the search and rescue missions.

This book is written more for the avid enthusiast than the locomotive layman, but with just a little bit of knowledge about wheel configurations and other details, or a willingness to let such statistics slide by, the book is very readable. The author does a great job of spreading the story around, choosing representative tales from all over the United States, proving that, unfortunately, these problems were by no means local in nature.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Ten Innings at Wrigley by Kevin Cook

Why I Read It: Baseball is in my blood, and I've read and loved another book by the author, so I figured I'd give it a shot. 

Summary: Phillies 23, Cubs 22. 1979. Mike Schmidt. Pete Rose. Dave Kingman. Need I say more?

My Thoughts: The first half of this book just flies. After giving brief introductions and histories for each team in the fight, the author turns to an at-bat-by-at-bat account of a wind-driven slugfest at Wrigley Field, featuring some of the biggest and most memorable personalities of 1970s baseball. If you grew up in the '70s or '80s, you'll fall in love from page one. Garry Maddox. Bake McBride. Larry Bowa. Bill Buckner. Bob Boone. Greg Luzinski. Tug McGraw. Bruce Sutter. The list of familiar names goes on and on.

Some of the guys came up eight times in the game.

In order to fit every at-bat in, to tell the story of this crazy ten innings - yes, they were tied 22-22 after nine - the tale has to move quickly. But then, after the final run is scored, it slows. The author moves into aftermath mode, both short-term and long-term. We move from the 1979 season to the "Miracle on Broad Street" and the 1980 Phillies World Series championship. We go to the tale of Tug McGraw and his son Tim, to the attempted murder-successful suicide of Donnie Moore, to the multigenerational story of the Boone family.

Forty-five runs scored between the lines that windy day at Wrigley, but hundreds of stories flowed outward from the result. 

Thirty-six players took the field that day. Cook captures them all, from a line to a few pages of text, fleshing out a box score, turning the players from lines of stats into living, breathing beings with faults, dreams and goals.

And you don't need to be a Cubs or Phillies fan to enjoy the story. It's just baseball, plain and simple.

Friday, November 27, 2020

The 300 by Daniel Wasserbly

Why I Read It: I read an interview with the author in Air & Space Magazine.

Summary: The story behind America's missile defense system.

My Thoughts: It's kind of scary, actually.

We live in a time when missiles can fly across oceans, up into space, and crash into major cities carrying nuclear warheads. It wasn't that long ago when to take out an enemy you had to be facing him; now it can all be done electronically, digitally, facelessly, anonymously.

It also wasn't that long ago when we thought Russia was the main threat. Then we added China. Now we have to consider Iran and even North Korea.

That's where it gets scary.

The stories in this book are twofold. First, there is the long road to where the United States is today with strategic missile defense (or, if not today, up until recently, as I'm sure there is classified info the author could not get his hands on). While the concept of intercontinental ballistic missiles has been around for half a century, it's really been the last two decades where we have seen a real ramp up in the country's focus on defense. People laughed at Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" system, though it played a major role in ending the Cold War. But here we are today with a defense system that does what was once considered to be science fantasy.

Meanwhile, in North Korea, weapons systems have gone from duds to true threats. The author parallels the U.S.'s series of failed intercept tests with the ever-growing capabilities of North Korean assets, from simply getting a rocket off the ground to the launching of multi-stage rockets capable of carrying nuclear warheads long distances. 

There is a real human element to all of this work. Thanks to Wasserbly, we know the stories and personalities on the American side. We also know how both sides of the American political landscape have viewed the threat over time, how missile defense has been prioritized, de-prioritized, funded and de-funded. And, by reading this book, we know how close we may someday come to the true threat of mutual assured destruction.

How will it all end? Hopefully it won't. The watch continues, and may it go on forever.

Full Dissidence by Howard Bryant

Why I Read It: Impulse grab off Amazon Vine. I'm a fan of Bryant.

Summary: A series of essays on race issues and sport.

My Thoughts: Man, can Howard Bryant write. I'll start there.

But there is too much to unpack in a short review like this one, so I'll pick one topic that made me want to drive out to Western Mass and engage the author in a conversation.

In one of his essays, Bryant covers the topic of "colorblindness" and individuals who, though black or partially black, do not necessarily acknowledge their black heritage and culture. He wraps the topic up under the banner of "The Worst Thing in the World," but I feel like I have to disagree with this sentiment.

While he covers two individual athletes in O.J. Simpson and Tiger Woods who obviously disassociate themselves with being black ("I'm not black, I'm O.J." and "I'm Cablinasian"), he lumps in a third that I do not feel belongs. While O.J. was driven by pure ego and Tiger was searching for something all-encompassing to explain who he is, tennis player Madison Keys was simply stating that she was the product of a biracial union, a black father and a white mother. Her declaration is "I'm not black or white, I'm Madison."

I don't think that's wrong. In fact, I feel like Bryant's underlying demand that Keys has to "pick a side" feels very, very old school. He feels that by not choosing to acknowledge her black side, she is choosing a default white side (in fairness, he states she does not have to choose, but if she doesn't, this is the statement she is making). But if she chooses black, is she not disavowing white heritage? She's both. Why not choose both?

My thought is that Bryant should skip ahead a generation.

America is rapidly becoming a minority-majority country, and the more Madison Keys's we see in the world the better off we will be. Today, white and black people barely live each other's realities. They barely live in each other's neighborhoods. Few people truly understand the differences and similarities in white and black existences. Won't we be in a much better place if we do? Shouldn't we be moving toward more people like Madison Keys and not away from her? Picking sides means there are still two sides, and the fight continues.

White America needs to have a mirror nearby when reading this book, but so, too, does Black America, as Bryant has no problem calling out anybody impeding the path to true social justice.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Birder on Berry Lane by Robert Tougias

Why I Read It: I'm a sucker for books about birds, birding and ornithology.

Summary: A year in the life of the birds of a small patch of a small town in southeastern Connecticut.

My Thoughts: The cynic in me says, "Really? Another month-by-month encapsulation of the birds of a specific location? Hasn't it been done to death?"

Then, the citizen scientist in me speaks up. We need more of this style book, not less, I say. And we need them everywhere.

Bird populations change over time. The birds in your yard today are not the same mix that were there 150 years ago. There are multitudinous factors at work causing these changes, including climate change, reforestation, deforestation, "development," toxins that humans have released into the environment and more. We have killed off some species entirely, and are doing so to others.

To understand the changes, though, we need snapshots in time. We need citizen science programs, large and small, from all-encompassing statewide breeding bird atlases to hyper-localized species-specific studies that capture moments in time for comparison to others. And we need the prose. We need the books that detail the daily lives of the birds, without breeding codes and gender and age charts. We need personal memoirs that ask questions and pose theories about why birds do the things they do.

And that is what this book is. Tougias knows his land, from his driveway to his garden to his woodlot, and lives in it in concert with the birds of which he writes. He mixes known scientific facts with personal observations and queries, the wonderment that comes with dedicated focus on nature in all its forms.

Let's hope the next resident of Berry Lane has the same sensibilities.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Vikings by Kim Hjardar

Why I Read It: Back in college I wrote a paper on King Alfred the Great and the Viking invasions of 871-878, and I've been fascinated ever since.

Summary: A personal history of the Vikings.

My Thoughts: I really enjoyed the flow of this book. The concept, a short history of "the Vikings," who ranged over a wide area, and spread out through time, lends itself to cutting out the fat and focusing squarely on what has true meaning to paint the picture. The author does not mince words, and does an excellent job of personifying what a Viking was in about 140 pages.

The chapters are laid out  to describe basic Viking society - what they ate, where they lived, who was in charge, how they governed, gender roles, the life of children, etc. - and the "culture of combat" inherent in that society. We then explore religion and myth, the pantheon of gods, Odin, Thor, Freya, and so many others. Evidence is pulled from sagas and burial sites, and these myriad pieces are woven together to bring us a snapshot of the daily life of the Viking.

All of this background material brings us to the diaspora, the ultimate advancement of Viking kind on the British Isles and other places in Western Europe (the author also does a great job of highlighting interactions between Vikings and Middle Eastern cultures, a topic of which I'd had no previous knowledge). Those invasions, beginning in the 700s, lead to centuries of discord, especially in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The ending of the great Viking age always surprised me, the notion that they just settled down and became farmers, but I guess you can't go on raiding forever. When the last Vikings were pushed out of England in the 12th century, an age certainly ended, but think of what they have left behind, and how the concepts and imagery of the Vikings still sticks with us today, nearly a millennium later.

What I'm finding I love abut this series (Casemate Short Histories) is the inclusion of a timeline in each one, the liberal use of imagery and the essential compactness of the storytelling. A wayward author could wander all over the place and get a reader lost, but a talented one, like Hjardar, keeps us engaged and entertained.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Knights by Rosie Serdiville and John Sadler

Why I Read It: I studied British history in college, lo these many years ago.

Summary: A "Casemate Short History" (the name of the series) of knights, predominantly British.

My Thoughts: It was fun to revisit this topic with a specific focus and a timeline.

I had never thought about when knights came to be. Obviously it was a gradual process, and obviously during the Middle Ages. Other than that, I would never have put a date on it. The authors choose the Battle of Hastings in 1066 as the moment of arrival.

That, I suppose, is certainly up for interpretation and debate. The ending of the era, on the other hand, is more obvious. If we consider armor and heraldry and specific modes of combat to define the knight's era, then it's when those things go away or become outdated that we can consider the age over. When warfare moved from swords and pikes and lances to artillery and firearms, armor became less useful. When wars were fought on grander scales with massive armies that required drilling and uniformity, the individual knight, with his ego and desire to do things his own way, became less useful. The authors do a great job of outlining this change.

They also seem to have fun tracing the history of the knight in combat, and this book becomes primarily a military history, mostly of British kings and their wars (the Crusades, the Hundred Years' War, the Wars of the Roses). They do profile a few knights from other countries and dabble in the literary works that have shaped our view of the knight through time, like Ivanhoe and the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. But, for the most part, it's a story of Richard the Lionheart, Edward Longshanks, Henry V and the others in the English line.

The subtitle is "Chivalry and Violence," and it delivers.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Why I Read It: Saw it on the displays at bookstores too many times; had to grab it and dive in.

Summary: Growing up in South Africa under Apartheid, and then not under Apartheid.

My Thoughts: This book has so many layers to it.

We can start with race. We tend to think in America of race being, literally, black and white. Apartheid confused the issue with, for instance, Asians being placed in different classifications based on what benefit their nations brought to the government (e.g., as trade partners). With the many race-based rules and laws in place, it became utterly confusing; a Japanese guy could do something that a Chinese guy would be arrested for, but the Japanese guy would be exempt from punishment. Throw in the way that all the native groups looked at each other, and you have a mess. 

Now try being a light-skinned black child from a mixed conception, and no marriage.

Then, throw in the fact that the institutionalized racism that marked the era came to an end during your childhood. Theoretically, things should even out, right? But we know that such things don't happen over night (ex. United States). Add poverty.

Noah's childhood was one of not belonging anywhere, and finally having to find his way however he could. He had trouble making friends, and in staying out of trouble. And he had a hyper-religious mom, who loved him to pieces, but let him wave in the wind when he was caught red-handed doing something wrong. She wanted the best for him, but knew there were lessons he had to learn himself if he was truly going to succeed in the world.

He uses a startling literary device at the beginning of the book, giving away a portion of the ending that makes the reader's head spin with anticipation. Ultimately, this book is about the many relationships that shaped Noah's life, but predominantly the one he shared with his mother, complicated, but always grounded deeply in love.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Junkyard by Dieter Rebmann and Roland Lowisch

Why I Read It: Impulse grab off Amazon Vine.

Summary: A pictorial catalog of the many hidden treasures in a secretive Southern California European car graveyard.

My Thoughts: There's a whole backstory about the owner of the junkyard, a transplanted German named Rude Klein who found his way to the Los Angeles area via Canada. He obviously had the collector gene, maybe even that of the hoarder. Or perhaps he was a genius. It's hard to tell on which side of that line he stood. Yet, he was able to selectively monetize his odd collection, so perhaps it's the latter.

What he did was find broken down, beaten up European cars of all kinds - German, Italian, English, etc. - and gather them here under the shade of barns and even out in the open exposed to the the dry, hot sunshine of the arid southwest, some piled on top of each other. He kept it a secret, but eventually word leaked out, and collectors seeking parts begged and negotiated with him, often paying exorbitant prices, often not getting anything at all.

His collection has long outlived him, and has essentially corroded in place.

The team putting the book together - one writer, one photographer - have given us a moment in time. And it's here that my wonderment begins. Where do you begin? There are thousands of potential images to capture, and with each burned out driver's seat, smashed windshield and crumpled fender there is a story to tell, potentially of death and heartbreak. Rebmann, the photographer, focused on entire bodies and the smallest details, down to hood ornaments. Mostly the subjects are of loss and desolation. The cars have rusted. The pigeons have left their corrosive marks. The paint has curled in the heat. Here and there an isolated intact headlight looks like the car just came off the line. The entire collection is a study in browns and grays, with occasional faded original paint jobs.

They're all here, Mercedes, Rolls, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Volvo and so many Porsches. Some belonged to celebrities. Some are one-of-a-kind. Most are beyond restoration. 

Ultimately, the book shows us about 200 images of the current state of the graveyard. We're left to wonder what the authors left out.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Fire in the Sky by Gordon L. Dillow

Why I Read It: I read Smithsonian Air & Space magazine cover-to-cover with each issue; a recent issue featured a conversation with the author.

Summary: The next big asteroid is coming to hit Earth. Someday.

My Thoughts: Sometimes, we just have to take a long, logical, science-based approach to life.

When boiled down to bare numbers, our planet makes sense. We understand predator-prey relationships better with math (more seals bring in more sharks; when the seal population shrinks, the sharks move elsewhere to feed). The same goes for our bodies (more calories in than expended, we gain weight, and vice versa). And the same goes for our universe. 

There is a lot of activity happening well above our heads. There are innumerable natural objects already swirling around in space (not to mention the thousands of manmade satellites and other space junk we've put up there) and eventually, when trajectories finally come together at the same time in the same location, collisions do occur. So ended the tale of the dinosaurs (mostly) on Earth 65 million years ago. The author uses the following analogy to describe the impending next asteroid collision with Earth. Imagine two flies in the Superdome in New Orleans. They've got a lot of room in there to live peacefully coexistent. But the chance does exist that one day they will find each other.

The author takes us on a journey of discovery sparked by personal experience. He sees a flash in the night sky and wonders what it could have been. He visits the famed Meteor Crater near Flagstaff, Arizona, and his journey begins. He carries us though the history of the knowledge of meteors and asteroids and their known impacts on Earth, following the stories of scientists who have sought to not only understand and track giant space rocks but to predict when they might be coming our way. He tracks, too, the entrepreneurs who have attempted to gather the nickel-iron from impact fields and those companies that today are considering sending unmanned vehicles to land on asteroids to extract water from them.

He follows the logical steps. Is as asteroid capable of causing a global catastrophe heading our way? How do we know? Can we stop it? He interviews our Planetary Defense Officer (yes, there is one) and runs through the series of proposed interceptions, from blasting asteroids with everything from paint balls to nuclear bombs.

His main point is that it is going to happen. Humanity may not exist when it does, but, then again, it might. Asteroids are difficult to find, and some sneak past us, giving our planet flybys that are way too close for comfort, though most of the world never knows how close we came to real danger.

It just comes down to simple math.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Here's the Pitch by Roberta J. Newman

Why I Read It: My baseball blog got me thinking about the linkages between the sport and advertising; this book promised to satiate my curiosity.

Summary: The history as presented in the title.

My Thoughts: As good as advertised.

There were several points in this book of which I had never thought. I had never seen tobacco cards described as pocket-sized billboards, but as far as the tobacco companies were concerned, they met the same goal. I had never considered the idea that the tobacco companies used the images of ballplayers without their consent, or paying them. From the very early pages and the early history of the intertwining of baseball and advertising through to the modern day, I learned something new.

That said, it was interesting to predict what was coming next: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, radio, television, etc. The author throws a few well-placed curveballs, like focusing on the issues of race during the height of the Negro Leagues and into the post-Jackie Robinson years. Even language plays a role in this production. How have Latino players been perceived through time? Have they been properly included and effectively used to reach the masses?

This is just a personal taste thing, but I found the lengthy page count spent on Derek Jeter to be somewhat too long. I just don't get it. Maybe if I watched Jeter every day as a Yankees fan, I could see what New Yorkers see, but he just never came across to me as the star he's made out to be. About half way through the chapter I'd had enough. The author made her point - he was the everyman, not black, not white, marketable to everybody - but I checked out.

The book is replete with tales of how we got to this point, of how baseball players transcended their sport to become cultural icons known for catchphrases, for never-to-be-forgotten TV spots and linkages to everything from Nuxated Iron to Viagra.

Sting-Ray Afternoons by Steve Rushin

Why I Read It: The '70s, man. You had to be there.

Summary: Growing up the Minnesota in the 1970s, and all of the cultural craziness that came with it.

My Thoughts: This book was almost perfect. Had it been set five years later in Massachusetts, it would have been my life. Then, it would have been perfect.

That minor shortcoming aside, this is definitely a book that will appeal to anyone 45-60 years old in 2020. We grew up in a very interesting time (though I realize that's all relative). But the mass marketing and merchandising that hit us square in the face in the 1970s was unprecedented. When we weren't watching Saturday morning cartoons and being told the myriad ways chocolate and peanut butter came together to make Reese's, we were hitting the road with our families for long car trips, the likes of which we really don't see today. And when we did, we weren't wearing seatbelts. I remember sitting four deep in the front bench seat of my mom's car on the way from Boston to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Rushin brings all of these memories back and explains why each phenomenon hit the way it did, who came up with the ideas (for the Sting Ray, for instance), who dropped each of these magnificent items into our laps, and why they all seemed to appear in the Sears Wish Book.

He shares his 1970s sports passions, mostly having to do with hockey and football, the Purple People Eaters (Minnesota Vikings) and the North Stars, and even some Twins baseball with references to Rod Carew. His story is of a whole family, big brothers who keep him in line, a younger sister who usurps the role of "the baby," a dad who travels for 3M and a mom fighting the best she can to keep them all from becoming "hillbillies" through a lack adherence to basic rules of behavior and cleanliness.

Its a memoir with many recognizable points, from Evel Knievel to Bic pens, Rushin reminds us of a wild time, when something fun and exciting was around every corner.

Ah, the '70s. You just had to be there.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Son of Havana by Luis Tiant with Saul Wisnia

Why I Read It: I was seven when Bucky Dent his the home run in 1978. I bleed Red Sox baseball.

Summary: The autobiography of El Tiante, the most colorful baseball player I ever had the privilege to watch play.

My Thoughts: There's usually more to an athlete than meets the eye. Sometimes, the stuff that gets hidden is better off kept tucked away. Not so with Luis Tiant.

The LOO-EE I knew as a kid was a twisting, twirling, baseball-hurling machine, just another one of my heroes as I grew up a Red Sox fan in Boston. As far as I knew, this was what he did. He existed only on the mound.

I was born too late to know his backstory. Had I been five years older, I might have caught the stories of separation from his family as a young man, as Fidel Castro closed Cuba's border and outlawed professional baseball in the island nation. I might have seen the newspaper articles covering his reunion with his parents as they came to the States late in life. I might have known that Luis was the second great Luis Tiant to pitch professionally. But I missed all of that.

My dad didn't. As lifelong fan himself, he loved to tell a story he read in Peter Gammons' Beyond the Sixth Game, of how El Tiante, short, dark-skinned, somewhat burly, would walk by a mirror in the Red Sox clubhouse after a shower, look at himself with his towel around his waist and a cigar in his mouth, and say, "6'2", blond hair, blue eyes, looking goooood!" Luis brought joy to a Red Sox nation that was getting flat-out desperate for a championship.

And he did it in a time when race relations in Boston were at their worst in decades. The city that produced William Lloyd Garrison and The Liberator, the city of the Fighting 54th Regiment of Civil War fame, was tearing itself apart over busing. Tiant had faced racism in the minors in the south, and he faced it in suburban Milton, Massachusetts, in the 1970s. But when he stepped on the field in Boston, he was beloved. 

Life shouldn't have been as hard as it was for Tiant. And he was one of the lucky ones who escaped Cuba to follow his dream. But he has lived a damned good life, one of sweat and tears, no doubt, but one of philanthropy, mentoring, guidance, family and passion for the sport he loves.

I know I'll never be able to repay Luis for what he did for me and my dad. We could be 1000 miles apart, having not spoken to each other for a month, pick up the phone and start in on Red Sox memories without missing a beat. They all started, for me, watching El Tiante do his thing at Fenway Park as a young boy in the 1970s, and learning that you could go to war every day with a smile on your face. 

I had no idea what kind of wars he was fighting until I read this book.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

A Marvelous Life by Danny Fingeroth

A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee: Fingeroth, Danny ...

Why I Read It: My 8-year-old son is a Spiderman nut, and his mania for Marvel Comics has started to rub off on me.

Summary: A biography of Stan Lee.

My Thoughts: The biggest takeaway from this book for me was the author's reluctance to say that the Baby Boom played a very large role in the success of Marvel. He chalks it up more to some nearly inexplicable nexus of creative genius and audience identification, to the wonders of the mind of Stan Lee and his ability to connect to readers.

But then there are just sheer numbers. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the world's first standalone teen-age superhero at the precise moment that there were more teenagers in existence than at any time in the history of the United States. Teenagers drive popular culture fincncially, and long have, from music to movies to comic books to video games and more. Beatlemania was driven by teenage girls, at almost the exact same time that the core Marvel characters came to prominence. Lee and Ditko hit the right nerve at the right time. Spiderman has been riding the wave ever since. Those Baby Boomers are still here, and have passed down their love of Spidey to their kids and grandkids.

There's also a moment in the book, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when publisher Martin Goodman is vilified for dumping full-time staff for freelancers. The author does a wonderful job of navigating the vilification of comic books themselves during those days, but misses a major moment of American post-war economic instability that may have been the cause of the turmoil, rather than a Machiavellian turn by Goodman.

The author was an acquaintance of Lee and works in the comic book industry, and while it may seem that those facts would perfectly set him up to write a sympathetic book about the man, he is fair. He does delve into the relations between Lee and Timely/Atlas/Marvel's top artistic talents and does not choose to side with Lee at all times, instead laying out the facts of who said what and when, and letting the reader decide.

Lee's character comes through very clearly in this book, and his voice is as recognizable in his quotes as it is in his movie cameos. He certainly had a style all his own as a writer and speaker, and a creative streak the likes of which most of us will never come close to achieving. I came away with a greater understanding of the history of Marvel, of comic books in general, the story of Stanley Lieber, and the origin stories behind each character's origin story.

Fingeroth creates a beautiful portrait of a man who became a legend in his own time.

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 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 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 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 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

Image result for sandra vea rising son
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.