Sunday, January 31, 2021

A Short History of the Victorian Era by Gordon Kerr

Why I Read It:
Fascination with British history.

Summary: The Victorian Era, decade by decade, in about 250 pages.

My Thoughts: I've read a lot of British history, I've read a lot about the Victorian Era. I've traveled through London looking at Victorian Era landmarks. This was the first time I really thought about the concept of a Victorian era.

What, other than the life of one woman, was it that bound the 1837-1901 timeframe together? Nothing.

And yet, somehow it strangely compels us to look at it as if it matters. Consider the ends. At the beginning of the era, the main mode of transportation was the horse. At the end, airplanes were in development. Victorian society did not march from a place of woe to a place of greatness. The timeline is filled with peaks and valleys, victories and horrible losses. And yet, we consider it an era.

And so, we roll with it. '

The book is mostly a political history, with Gladstone and Disraeli and even the first Churchill. If Queen Victoria truly had an influence during this time, across the great expanse of it, it was in her political work, of calling for governments to be built, and interacting with the men she believed would help England over the next hurdle. The politics typically involved class struggles, but just as often had to do with problems beyond the borders of England, with famines in Ireland, with the struggles of empire in India, South Africa and more.

But the author dives into the social history, the major authors of the day, like Dickens and Trollope and Eliot. He explores the rise of sports and sporting clubs, gender, race, religion, the Crimean War, the Boer War and more. He does all that he can with 250 pages. We are left with a thorough narrative of the political changes, a dash here and there of the rest, but in the end it's a big question we're left with. Did life really change in England once Victoria was gone? Was the end of her era really the end of an era?

Right now it is, because we said so.

The Fighting Bunch by Chris DeRose

Why I Read It:
My unending fascination with World War II.

Summary: How World War II veterans won the only successful armed rebellion since the Revolution (also the subtitle).

My Thoughts: If this book doesn't get your blood boiling as an American, nothing will.

Before you read it, drop political affiliations. Understand that corruption happens under any banner as long as a path is available. In this book, the political machine was Democratic. In my hometown a hundred years ago, it was Republican. It doesn't matter. What matters is this basic premise: thuggery ruled.

The political machine that ran McMinn County and the town of Athens Tennessee, was as bad as it gets, a portion of a statewide kingdom ruled by, believe it or not, a man named Crump. They murdered when they had to, they overlooked those murders and they ensured they would forever line their own pockets with taxpayer money by fixing elections, despite a harassing public that tried to figure out how to break the hold the party had. Appeals went to the federal government, but nobody helped the beleaguered and beaten - often physically beaten - people of Athens.

It got worse during World War II. But the war was about the best thing that could have happened to Athens, in a strange, twisted, sad way.

The boys went off to fight. When the came home, they had no rights. They got bullied with the rest. They voted, but their votes didn't count. They took the situation into their own hands. They went the political route with the next election, setting up a non-party affiliated "GI ticket," and when that didn't work, they fought fire with fire. It was what they had been trained to do.

The author builds the story by following multiple paths to the final conflict. We train and fight with the boys of Athens overseas as their parents and loved ones are roughhoused at home. We travel to Guadalcanal and Northern Africa, to the French beaches and beyond, until that fateful day they come home. The intensity builds as the election draws near and when the final explosion hits, we're on the edge of our reading seats.

The fact that it had to come to what it did, a pitched battle and bloodshed in the streets, is deplorable. But I now have to go to Athens. I have to stand on the site and consider what lengths Americans had to go to to retain their basic freedoms. Democracy is based on equal freedoms; we all have the right to vote. Anybody who says otherwise, or tries to limit groups of people from voting because they might vote "wrong," needs a refresher on the Revolutions, the one in 1776, and the one 170 years later in Athens, Tennessee.

DC Comics Cover Art by Nick Jones

Why I Read It: One of those things where you look back on your life and realize you can associate with much of what is being presented.

Summary: 350 of the greatest covers in DC's history (also the subtitle).

My Thoughts: When I was born in 1971 I was only about 35 years removed from the beginning of DC Comics. The Golden and Silver Ages of American comics had come and gone, and most of the characters we know today had been introduced. Comics had gone mainstream, into TV, movies and more, and were soon to transition from newsstands to dedicated comic book shops.

So, there is a definite insertion point. I never was a serious collector, though I followed a few series (mostly Marvel) until I realized how out of hand everything could become if I traced every step of the characters I wanted to read; every crossover meant a few more dollars each month that I really didn't have to spend at the time. My brother, though, engaged with the Batman mythos and has never looked back. Therefore, there are certain covers in this anthology that caught me dead in my tracks. I'd held them in my hands before. I remember when Bane broke Batman's back.

So, retreating back to the earliest days of the genre, I had fun watching the characters evolve through this book. I had seen the famous Action Comics cover that had started it all, Superman lifting the car over his head, but didn't realize how it - or, actually, the next Superman cover that followed - transformed the marketing of comics themselves. The author does a wonderful job of walking us through the history of the industry as well as of the characters and artists wo depicted them. We learn everything about the art of the cover - who did it, what techniques and materials they used, where they fell in the pantheon of artists - and a few other funny things along the way, like the repetitive use of certain themes.

I think we see a bit of America changing in there as well. When comics started, super heroes grinned from ear to ear, all the time, it seemed. Even Batman smiled. Somewhere along the way, America lost its innocence (we can pinpoint it to the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, mostly). Today, superheroes don't smile. Only villains smile, and they do so with evil aforethought. America has gone from utter confidence to general wariness and deep skepticism and distrust.

So they are all there, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, the Teen Titans, Nightwing, the Green Lantern, Hawkman, the JSA, the JLA and so many more. The covers capture social history, too, with the first black superheroes, gender-swapped roles (a Hispanic female green Lantern?) and more. Comics continue to be a world where the odd man - or woman - out is invited in, where everybody can find a face in which to see one's own reflection.

It's a beautiful thing, and so is this book.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Pain and Passion: The History of Stampede Wrestling by Heath McCoy

Why I Read It: Like many wrestling fans, the players are familiar from their post-territory days successes.

Summary: The story of Stu Hart, the Hart family and the brand of wrestling they brought to the world.

My Thoughts: The author doesn't get into it too much, but I do wonder how much Stu's childhood played into his desire to inflict pain upon others. But that's way too deep of a subject for me to even consider getting into myself. I'm no psychiatrist.

What I did find interesting about this book was seeing the lengths to which a father would go to drive his kids, and those kids would go to please their father. In many ways, the same story played out in Texas, with the Von Erich family.

This tale, though, covers the entire run of Stampede Wrestling, from Stu Hart's Olympic dreams to the final days of the shell of a promotion clinging to the once-proud name. It covers the many roller coaster-like bumps up and down the path of the promotion's history, from days flush with cash to moments when new clothes were hard to come by for the kids. And the kids. There were so many kids.

If it needed a third alliterative word to add to the title, it would be pride. The Hart family, many of the people with whom they worked and especially the fans of the Western Canadian promotion loved their brand of the sport. But the pain was real. The travel was difficult, the days long. The drive to succeed got the better of many of the beloved performers, like Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith. The death of Owen Hart is wrestling's greatest tragedy. Finding peace in its aftermath was near impossible, and will probably never be fully achieved.

And yet, somehow, a third generation of Harts has continued the tradition. The expended and updated version of the book (or e-book, in my case) brings the story into the days of Natalya Neidhart, and her drive to succeed despite the many tragic lessons of the family's past. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Big Three by Michael Holley

Why I Read It: I lived it.

Summary: The story of the triumphant 2008 NBA champion Boston Celtics, complete with all the highs and lows.

My Thoughts: I remember every play. At least, that's how this book made me feel.

We had been through a lot as Celtics fans, in the years leading up to the Big Three, the Pitino crash, the sense of steadiness under Jim O'Brien, and the sense that magic could happen again with Danny Ainge in charge. Doc Rivers signed on as coach, and then the deals started to fly. I'll never forget listening to Glenn Ordway on WEEI sports radio when the news broke. He predicted that it wouldn't be just two; there was going to be a third superstar coming to Boston. And so he was right. When the dust settled, it was Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Like Bird, McHale and Parrish. The Celtics had returned to their old winning formula.

Holley brings us through that timeline, the build-up, the construction of the team, through the draft, through trades, through the free agent signings. He takes us behind the scenes, though he really didn't have to; the story as it played out publicly was thrilling enough. But he does shed some light on a number of shorter contextual tales that explain some gaps in the public story. He confirms a few things - like how mad the players were when Ainge traded Kendrick Perkins away while the team was on a run to the finals - and exposes a few more. We learn more about the people behind the scenes, the analysts, the coaches, those people who influenced the player and coach acquisitions.

We know what happened. I remember exactly where I was when Ray Allen threw the ball into the air as the final buzzer sounded, and it landed in Cedric Maxwell's hands. The Big Three got their world title.

But we also know what happened afterward, how it all fell apart after a few more years. Holley doesn't spare us the denouement. As painful as it was to relive, I had to read it. I lived that, too. I watched Garnett turn his back to Allen as he tried to greet his old friend and teammate in his Miami Heat uniform after taking a free agent offer. I, like so many of us, wished it had ended differently.

This book relates the tale of the three, but also of Rivers and Rondo, of Kobe and Lebron. It captures an era. It takes us back, even just a decade, to a different time in pro basketball history.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Too Sweet by Keith Elliot Greenberg

Why I Read It: I've watched AEW since day one, and have been fascinated by how its story has played out.

Summary: Wrestling's "indie revolution," leading to the formation of All Elite Wrestling.

My Thoughts: There are so many strings to pull, stories to unravel, that it seems like an impossible task to tell this story, but the author pulls it off.

I have to admit that I'm one of those wandering wrestling fans who simply got bored with WWE programming. The storylines got stale, the in-ring action completely predictable, the fact that it was simply all to take my money out of my hands just blatantly obvious. I drifted. I grew up on pre-Hulk Hogan WWF and World Class Championship Wrestling programming, decidedly two different animals, for sure. I found solace in the past, revisiting old books and videos. I found safe harbors in homes where the storytelling was good, even if it had to be in a different language. I switched over to New Japan Pro Wrestling, to Major League Wrestling. Anything but WWE.

I was not alone. As Greenberg relates in this book, this groundswell started a long time ago. It used to be that every wrestler in the world aspired to work for WWE. That tide has started to turn, and with every wrestler who prefers to bear the badge of honor "indie performer" there is a legion of fans who are glad that he or she has stuck with them on the smaller stages.

Greenberg walks us through the end of the territory era, quickly, as it's all been told before. But it is a precursor to where we are now, a story that must be understood. We travel through the ECW days, when the "upstart" promotion shook the foundations of the sports entertainment world, daring to go places few others would. We move into an era of "money marks," people who have enough money to start a wrestling organization, but don't truly understand the commitments needed to make it successful. We even wander around the world, to Japan, and Germany and England, to see the grassroots leagues come together. 

We see how specific performers learned their trade, formed a vision, and came together. AEW is born with an indie feel - and even now, as I write this, during the COVID-19 pandemic - reaches out to indie performers with offers for paychecks when most of the world's wrestling shows are indefinitely postponed. We understand how this rival promotion comes to be, but we have to ask ourselves a question that Greenberg doesn't deeply explore. Is the success of AEW the culmination of the "Indie Revolution," proof that indie wrestling can compete with WWE, or is it simply proof that the deep pockets of the Khan family have created a competitor that will eventually just become the WCW to the 1990s WWE?

We are left with the hopeful notion that as long as AEW - all of its performers, its executives (who are  wrestlers themselves) and other staff - remembers its indie roots, that philosophy of openness will remain, and wrestling fans the world over will have options that meet their tastes, needs and desires for entertainment.

The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan

Why I Read It: No idea. The mood just struck me.

Summary: Modern studies in Asia, political, military, industrial and more, and their effects on the West.

My Thoughts: We're in for a rude awakening.

The author makes a specific point over and over again, one that can be seen symbolically as well as it can be deduced logically. The West is falling as a home to world leaders. The age of imperialism is long over, and even the post-World War II era of United States dominance has come to an end. The world's finances have shifted, and have been shifting for a long time, from the West to the East. China, at the core of a rising East, is poised to take a new role on the world's stage.

Ironically, its happening in much the same way it always has. The author points out the U.S.'s way of using language that promises a benign U.S. presence in a new country, but is instead simply opening doors to American businesses to exploit new markets. Today, it's the Chinese who are buying up land in countries all over the world for various purposes, making promises and deals that ultimately will fall apart, leaving cash-starved countries in positions to have to turn over land for Chinese military bases and more.

The book focuses on the major reengagement of the ancient "Silk Roads" philosophy, harkening back to the wondrous days when the world's major trade routes ran through the region. China has excited many other countries into believing this world can be revived, strengthened, pulled together for common success. 

Meanwhile, in the West, the United States is "building a wall" to keep its neighbors out. England is pulling out of the European Union. The West is fracturing, as the East is coming together. The Trump administration ridiculously accelerated the process. We may never see things return to the "normalcy" of the last century in our lifetimes. Is that a bad thing?

It all depends on where you stand.