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.