Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Book Review: Going Deep by Cris Carter and Jeffri Chadiha


Going Deep by Cris Carter with Jeffri Chadiha is a conventional player memoir with some additional analysis of the recent evolution of the receiver position. While the second half of that premise may sound appealing, Carter's NFL reflections fall firmly into the realm of David Foster Wallace's mass-market "sports-star-'with'-somebody-autobiography and the sections on the position in general contain little original insight. There were a few interesting sections and the book was a quick and rather painless read but there is little for me to recommend for the general football fan because Carter is treading on very familiar territory.

Despite being subtitled "How Wide Receivers Became the Most Compelling Figures in Pro Sports" the book is primarily focused on Carter's playing days. He begins by noting the increasing prominence of wide receivers beginning with rule changes in the late seventies but then follows the rather generic template of the athletic memoir. Carter guides us through his youth career, college career at Ohio State, and sixteen years in the NFL with the Eagles, Vikings, and Dolphins. Thee are some candid passages on his dealings with agent Norby Walters that caused him to leave Ohio State before his senior year and enter the supplemental draft and dealing with substance abuse, but unfortunately even these portions are marred by pedestrian prose and cliched athlete platitudes common to the genre.

 Carter does intersperse his life story with some analysis of the position in general.Carter did witness the transformation of the position first-hand over his sixteen seasons in the league, as players such as Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, and Randy Moss and the development of the West Coast Offense and multiple-receiver sets changed how receivers were utilized and perceived on and off the field. He looks at several players who changed the position such as Owens, Moss, and current players such as Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson. However, he doesn't go far beyond the surface level in explaining how this phenomenon came about. His sections on Moss and Fitzgerald are decent because he knew both players personally but in general he just recounts career highlights that will be familiar to the casual football fan. Going Deep feels geared towards the average fan and anyone looking into more insight into strategic developments on the gridiron should look to books such as Ron Jaworski's Games That Changed the Game and Tim Layden's Blood Sweat and Chalk. He does share a few amusing anecdotes about his teammates and a cogent overview on the increased emphasis of television promoting stars (Carter himself is an active participant given his current role on NFL Countdown) and I wish he devoted more ink to both.

In Sum

Going Deep offers a few amusing insights but in general is a pretty generic account of a career in the NFL. It does contain some additional sections on the position in general but there is nothing new in Carter's explanation of the phenomenon, which is a shame given his knowledge and experience as a receiver. It wasn't a boring read and I finished it quickly but there is very little original content (especially to fans interested in higher-level football strategy) and thus I can't recommend it very strongly.

5/10

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Advance Book Review: A Nice Little Place on the North Side by George Will


Wrigley Field was originally built in 1914 to house the Chicago Whales baseball team of the upstart Federal League. Over the next 100 years it has been the site of the second-most regular season NFL games in the league's history (behind only the old Giants Stadium), though the stadium is best known as the home grounds of the Chicago Cubs, who have been tenants since 1915. George Will's breezy A Nice Little Place on the North Side provides a history of the stadium's first hundred years and the monumental, quirky, and oftentimes incompetent events that occurred while the Cubs have called the friendly confines of Wrigley home. Authored by a lifelong Cubs fan with a passion for the game and an eloquent and knowledgeable writer (I definitely need to finally get around to reading Men At Work now), A Nice Place on the North Side is a tribute worthy of Wrigley's stature.

A Nice Place on the North Side is loosely organized into a series of short chapters on a wide-ranging series of topics. Will explores topics such as humanity's history with alcoholic beverages and the social history of Chicago, and such passages may come off as tangential in the hands of weaker writers, Will is usually able to segue nicely back into his primary subject matter. As such segments might suggest, the book is really about far more than a particular ballpark, and is really a reflection the Cubs and being a sports fan in general. Will views the field as a frame for viewing baseball, and while he acknowledges how Wrigley's idiosyncrasies affect the game (old owner P.K. Wrigley saw investing in stadium upgrades and emphasizing the general fan experience (the Cubs were also the first team to allow fans to keep batted balls that fell into the stands) as a more economically viable than paying top dollar for talent) he devotes most of the book to on-field events and the colorful characters who worked as Wrigley employees, from Cubs stars like Ernie Banks to concessionaires such as Jacob Rubinstein, who briefly worked as a vendor in the stadium and was known to place programs into unsuspecting fans' hands and then demand payment (Rubinstein later changed his name to Jack Ruby - yes that one).

The book is very well-researched and contains some fascinating trivia tidbits. While famous for its leisurely introduction of lights and night games, lights were originally supposed to be installed in 1942, but the already-purchased materials were donated to the war effort. In the twenties the Cubs used to let fans stand in the outfield grass behind ropes held by ushers. Fans would move back and pull the rope out (and thus the de facto outfield fence) when opponents hit long fly balls and pull the fence in when Cubs hitters would do the same. I don't know how novel many of the book's factoids will be to die-hard Cubs fans but as a casual baseball fan I found many of them compelling and they my favorite parts of the book. My only real quibble with A Nice Little Place on the North Side is that it is weaker on some of the ballpark's more recent history. Will always draws heavily from primary and secondary sources, but there are times when he leans especially strongly on mainstream (at least to sports fans) works like the 30 for 30 documentary Catching Hell when discussing the Steve Bartman incident and the excellent book Scorecasting in trying to explain the Cubs' overall ineptitude. Both sources offered plenty of insight into their subjects, but Will doesn't provide much additional analysis after summarizing them. Still, the book combs through some obscure and old materials and even major baseball historians should get quite a bit from A Nice Little Place on the North Side.

In Sum

As Will elegantly states late in the book "baseball fans are disposed to live with cricks in their necks from looking backward." I have noticed that more than any other American sport, hardball fans are particularly interested in the history of the game and learning about the legendary players (and stadiums) of yesteryear. Any baseball fan interested in the game's past, regardless of rooting interest, should check out A Nice Little Place on the North Side. It is a quick and light read and Will is able to pack a good bit of history and interesting anecdotes into the book even with its brevity.

7/10

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Advance Book Review: Showtime by Jeff Pearlman


Jeff Pearlman has carved out a nice little niche for himself chronicling the more sordid off-the-field aspects of some of the most beloved teams and athletes of yesterday. From Sweetness, a very complicated portrait of Walter Payton that pulled no punches, to books such as Boys Will Be Boys (covering the athletic, litigious, and criminal exploits of the 1990s Cowboys and their staff) and The Bad Guys Won (doing much of the same for the 1986 Mets) the former writer for Sports Illustrated sticks to this rather sound formula for his latest book Showtime, a comprehensive look at the Los Angeles Lakers of the eighties. It is a solid effort that will appeal to basketball fans and readers interested in the glitz, glamor, and excessive amounts of sexual escapades and cocaine in the NBA of the 1980s. 

Pearlman's books are generally longer than the average sports book (for what that's worth) and thus finding engaging subjects is especially crucial. The 1980s Lakers certainly deliver on that front. 
The team was full of enigmatic and idiosyncratic players and leaders such as the womanizing owner Jerry Buss, the egomaniac head coach Pat Riley, the aloof and curmudgeonly Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the preternaturally charismatic Magic Johnson. I could go on but my sentences run on enough as it is. The book is filled with insights and anecdotes from almost everyone associated with the organization over the period and the first-hand accounts are really where the book shines. Chronicles of past seasons can often devolve into re-hashings of the major events of a few seasons without any real additional material provided. To fans of the franchises in question (presumably the bulk of the target audience for something like this) the entire book can feel like a tired recap of events that are already very familiar to them. Showtime is able to mostly avoid this pitfall by featuring constant commentary from individuals such as Magic Johnson and Jeanie Buss among many others. Some of the subjects are incredibly open with the author, especially Spencer Haywood, who admits to a strong cocaine addiction and attempting to have head coach Paul Westhead killed. So while there were certainly times where the season summaries blended into each other and I lost some of my interest, these instances were usually quickly ended by a truly entertaining story or trivia tidbit and the book would then get back on its rails.

Showtime is structured as a chronological history of the Lakers during the period ranging from 1979 (when Jack McKinney took over as head coach) to Magic Johnson's 1991 retirement announcement. It is equally interested in the team's on-field performance as it is with its extracurriculars, of which there were plenty. In addition to winning several championships and introducing "three-peat" into the sports lexicon (and US Patent office) the team engaged in heaping quantities of marital infidelity and featured a seemingly revolving door of truly strange characters (and I'm showing some restraint here by avoiding steering clear of an obvious central casting reference). The team once employed players such as Mark Landsberger who upon joining the team asked Pat Riley "do you guys have any rebounding plays?" and Earl Jones, a two time high-school All-American who decided to attend the Division II University of District of Columbia. Recollections such as how Jones decided to skip a practice and take a $100 fine rather than pay $50 for a taxi to the arena (interesting cost-benefit analysis there) were some of my favorite sections of the book. Pearlman also predictably devotes significant quantities of ink to stars such as Kareem and Magic and he is so meticulous with his research and approach that he is able to share quality material about them as well. 

Overall, while Showtime lacks the shock value of a book like Sweetness (its not like there was ever a Spencer Haywood Man of the Year Award), it is a worthwhile read for basketball fans. Pearlman is a strong writer who diligently mined the media of the era to fill in any gaps from his plethora of interviews. I found some of his on-court descriptions to be generic at times which made the book drag during some portions but on the whole the book was an enjoyable read. There is also definitely enough new information here to appeal to even the most die-hard Laker fans.  

In Sum

Readers familiar with Pearlman's other books will know what to expect here. Showtime is a readable, informative, and entertaining look at the 1980s' greatest NBA team and their associated exploits. There may not be enough interesting material to propel a general sports fan through all 450+ pages but basketball fans will get a lot out of Showtime.

7/10

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Book Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2013 Edited by Glenn Stout and J.R. Moehringer

It is impossible for all of the selections of The Best American Sports Writing to equally grip the reader's interest and keep them engaged. Different people have different tastes and preferences, and diverse collections such as this will inevitably contain a few articles that just don't do it for a reader for whatever reason. Unfortunately for me, the book started off with what I found to be one of the least compelling picks, Karen Russell's piece about a Spanish matador's gruesome goring injury and comeback. I have nothing against obscure sports but I simply didn't enjoy Russell's article all that much compared to the other picks. The collection is ultimately a solid mix of articles from a variety of sources from Deadspin to Sports Illustrated to The New Yorker. As is to be expected, the book is somewhat uneven but it does contain some true gems that make it a worthy read for sports fans. 

Best American Sports Writing is surprisingly consistent from a thematic perspective, and the general themes of loss and deception make an appearance in many of these stories. Athletes are tragically struck down in their prime, steroids injected and pills popped, businesses go bankrupt, and team employees are wiretapped and mistreated, to name a few. Sometimes these stories celebrate perseverance in the face of adversity and tragedy, such as Chris Ballard's story in Sports Illustrated about a high school baseball team rallying to a state championship after the death of a star pitcher, and other articles like Jason Schwartz's account of the demise of Curt Schilling's gaming company are more bleak but not less interesting.Though there are some lighter pieces like Jeff MacGregor's clever appropriation of Waiting for Godot to examine the NFL lockout, the bulk of the articles are pretty dour.

Frank Deford has a great quote that "When people hear you're a sportswriter they assume you're more interested in the first half of that word than the second." And having read my fair share of sports media I can attest that I understand where these aforementioned "people" are coming from with such perceptions. Most of the book's articles are remarkably well-written, whether it is a sportswriter like Wright Thompson's ESPN article on Urban Meyer's efforts to balance family and football or Mark Singer's gripping New Yorker story about a Michigan dentist suspected of being a serial marathon cheater. Editor J.R. Moehringer culled from a wide array of sources, from longform stalwarts like The New York Times Magazine and the Washingtonian to more predictable sources such as ESPN the Magazine and Runner's World, and I enjoyed the mix. The book does not seem to be organized exactly by sports though several running and football articles are grouped in succession. The book tops out at almost 400 pages and while some of the articles didn't do a ton for me, I still found plenty of enjoyable material.

In Sum
Best American Sports Writing 2013 is a diverse and largely enjoyable collection of some truly excellent pieces on sports. I'm certain that there were some phenomenal articles on sports with upbeat and rosy outlooks printed in the past year, but they were generally excluded in this volume. Not all of the articles are equally interesting (which has to be expected really) and I found the book to be a worthwhile read and recommend it to any sports fans looking for quality longform on the subject.

7/10

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Advance Book Review: Newton's Football by Allen St. John and Ainissa Ramirez


Bats are Not Bugs Header of Book Excellence

The slate of football books released in a given year are usually rather predictable. You will have a fair share of memoirs from players and coaches associated with Super Bowl winners or national champions striking while the iron is hot, historical books playing off of the nostalgia for a particular team and/or era, and a few exposes decrying the big business of football and the physical and mental dangers associated with it. I have nothing against these books, and recently quite enjoyed Nate Jackson's memoir Slow Getting Up, but I still get excited when I find more distinctive books like Newton's Football.Written by a journalist and a former engineering professor at Yale, Newton's Football applies pop science to the gridiron with largely engaging results. It is a light and breezy read worth the attention of any inquisitive football fan.

While its title may suggest a physics-heavy approach, Newton's Football actually covers a very wide scope of the natural and social sciences (those solely interested in the physics of the game should seek out Timothy Gay's sometimes dry but generally enjoyable The Physics of Football). Topics range from what the uncanny valley can tell us about the game's violent nature, how prospect theory explains coaches' risk-averse natures, and what Schrodinger's cat teaches us about the effectiveness of the West Coast offense. Drawing illuminating connections between seemingly unintuitive concepts is a hallmark of many nonfiction books, but very few of these books to my knowledge deal exclusively with football. Newton's Football can best be described as Scorecasting with more of a natural sciences focus, and I think both books are some of the best sports works released in the past few years.

Despite running the scientific gamut, Newton's Football is actually very well-organized. It begins by analyzing the evolution of the rules of the game from the game's early roots when games were contested with a pig bladder to the A-11 offense. This might sound dry but the authors do an excellent job describing the strategic and health consequences of rule tweaks large and small. They also offer up the intriguing hypothesis that Paul Brown's invention of the facemask (originally intended to protect quarerback Otto Graham's much-maligned face) had the unintended consequence of making the game more dangerous by decreasing the costs of reckless play, similar to how seatbelts might actually increase driving injuries due to encouraging riskier automotive behavior. It proceeds to cover aspects of the current NFL and its players and concludes with a look into the future of the NFL and the safety issues threatening the viability of the sport. The book never drags and is consistently engrossing, whether it is describing why woodpeckers don't get concussions and the ridiculous explosion in 300 pound players starting in the eighties.

Academics writing for a general audience sometimes struggle at maintaining a balance between providing sufficient academic heft and keeping the reader from getting bogged down in unnecessary detail and abstruse concepts. Additionally, as evidenced by the flood of journal articles I had to slog through as an undergraduate, some academics aren't the best writers out there. Newton's Football avoids this pitfall by employing the writing talents of an academic and sportswriter. The prose is breezy and all scientific concepts are explained very clearly with excellent examples. The book also calls upon other experts to explain particular concepts and how they relate to football, allowing them to draw from a huge knowledge base. This is probably the only book containing interviews with former Bengals coach Sam Wyche and particle physicist and math homework godsend Stephen Wolfram within its pages. While they tread some familiar territory regarding subject matter, the scientific emphasis allows the reader to glean some insight from most sections. For example, I already knew about how Greg Cook's injury led to Bill Walsh creating the West Coast offense with the Bengals, but I did not know that the offense's binary-esque decision process led to Dwight Clark's perfect positioning during "The Catch" when Walsh coached the 49ers. While the book deals with some advanced football and scientific subjects, I wish they went more in-depth on particular sections, such as explaining Vince Lombardi's decision-payoff matrix and risk aversion of fourth down. These topics have been covered in more detail in other books and don't add as much to the discussion as other chapters in the book. But really that is the biggest thing I can knock the book on: I wish it was longer. Which is definitely one of the better problems a reader can have. 

In Sum
Newton's Football is a fun and breezy read that is easy to read but has some intellectual depth. It is a highly-enjoyable romp through the intersection of the natural sciences and football and is likely to change how you think about the game and may even teach you something about the behavior of prolate spheroids and the neurological benefits of practice reps. I wish the authors went into greater detail analyzing certain subjects, but the fact remains that this is one of the most entertaining football books I have read in a while and narrowly beats Slow to Get Up as my favorite football book released this year. If you didn't catch the Bats are Not Bugs Header of Book Excellence at the top of the review I would like to reiterate that I highly recommend this book to any football fan with intellectual curiosity about the sport.

9/10

Monday, 14 October 2013

Book Review: The New York Nobody Knows by William B. Helmreich

William B. Helmreich has accomplished a rather remarkable feat. Over the course of four years, the graduate professor of sociology at City University of New York has covered all 6,000 miles of New York City's streets by foot. While his book includes the subtitle, "Walking 6,000 Miles in the City," his pedestrian (here I am obviously referring to the noun rather than the adjective) accomplishment is not the focal point of The New York Nobody Knows. Instead, he presents a detailed and insightful examination of the various sociological aspects of the city. He bolsters his analysis by drawing from his experiences walking New York's streets as well as from his day job as an academic. Helmreich's book is an engrossing and very informative sociological study of New York that is especially strong when covering the less-popular boroughs that are far less popular in the literature about the city. It was published by Princeton University Press and is certainly a valuable resource for any student of the field but The New York Nobody Knows is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in learning more about the city and its various and often colorful inhabitants.

The book is ordered thematically rather than geographically, further demonstrating that Helmreich's purpose is not to merely outline his four years of constitutionals. Instead, it is organized thematically. Helmreich looks into sociological subjects such as immigration, gentrification, and crime as they relates to New York. He devotes some time to the built environment, but he mainly concerns himself with getting to know the people of the city. Helmreich often stopped various people on the street for interviews, including in the more dangerous areas such as East New York and South Bronx. These impromptu conversations really enrich the book as they are able to provide additional perspective, and Helmreich's sit-downs with former mayors Dinkins, Giuliani, and (soon-to be former anyway) Bloomberg are highlights as the author is able to spend quality time with all of them. The book is filled with compelling anecdotes from his travels and the various characters he encounters, such as a converted Orthodox Jew from Colorado who shills special kosher cheese to Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn and what they can tell us about the city. In addition, he did plenty of homework in the bibliographical department and he draws from a plethora of other studies when making his points.

Helmreich is incredibly knowledgeable about the city, having grown up in Manhattan and previously worked as a cabdriver as well as a sociological researcher on urban issues such as homelessness. He writes well and my interest did not lag at any point. There were, however, certain passages that read a bit dry and reminded me that this is a professor writing a book published by a university. Though the title was likely tacked on by an editor (neighborhoods such as Williamsburg and Harlem get their fair share of ink and feature prominently in several sections (not that they shouldn't)) Helmreich does not gloss over the more obscure boros and neighborhoods. He draws many examples and anecdotes from neighborhoods in Staten Island and Queens which helps separate the book from other urban sociology books on the city more focused on more popular areas.

In Sum
One great thing about graduating college was that I could bypass informative articles and books on my academic fields without any guilt. I could really cherry pick the economics and urban policy literature to find works that actually interested me and abandon those that didn't. The New York Nobody Knows definitely falls into that "actually interesting" category. While I learned quite a bit about the city and its citizens, I also had a legitimately good time while doing so. The book is worth seeking out for any fans of Jane Jacobs or books such as Sidewalk by Mitchell Duenier and The Power Broker by Robert Caro. 

8/10

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Advance Book Review: Blockbusters by Anita Elberse


I am generally leery of books where the author posits a provocative wide-ranging thesis. Its probably largely Malcolm Gladwell's fault. So naturally I approached Anita Elberse's Blockbusters with some trepidation. She makes the claim that focusing on high-stakes major campaigns is essential to succeeding in today's entertainment industry and she employs a plethora of examples and research from movies, sports, books, music, and television to support her case. While it can be a bit dry at times, Blockbusters is a very informative and often fascinating examination of the current and future state of the entertainment industry and the increasing importance of tentpole products and campaigns.

Elberse is a professor at the Harvard Business School who understandably brings a wealth of knowledge regarding the industry. She also has experience researching topics such as the economic effects of the unbundling of songs from albums on the music industry (bad for record labels). Elberse  has built up quite an impressive list of contacts (she actually just co-wrote an article with Sir Alex Ferguson), which greatly enriches the book. Blockbusters is able to glean insights from major players such as Maria Sharapova's agent and Alan Horn, the former president of Warner Bros. Rather than speculating on the strategies behind campaigns, Elberse is able to pick the brains of decision makers.

The book's main concept is an intriguing and seemingly counter-intuitive approach to entertainment. Essentially, the strategy of hedging bets with a diverse portfolio of products is not the path to profitability for entertainment entities. They should instead promote a few projects and bet big on their success. Elberse illustrates this point with a huge amount of well-argued statements backed up by data and examples, often with commentary from major players. Her book is wide in scope and ranges from Youtube to major opera houses and Argentinian soccer, yet she manages to explore all subjects in considerable depth. She is also refreshingly objective, acknowledging the drawbacks and inherent risks of the blockbuster strategy and why smaller-scale projects are still valuable (largely to facilitate the continued success of blockbusters). She explains the impact of blockbusters on producers and stars, and her chapters on endorsement deals are especially enlightening. I really enjoyed learning about the rationale behind athletic sponsorships for star athletes, such as when Elberse describes how Lebron James weighed three endorsement deals with different compensation models and King James' thought process behind his decision. And as would probably be expected by a new book, Blockbusters explores how recent technological innovations such as original content on Netflix and YouTube and speculates how they will impact the blockbuster model in the future. 

Despite the author's academic background, her book is largely readable and suitable for mainstream audiences. Her target audience seems to be the kinds of people who are at least slightly interested in following entertainment trends in places like the Wall Street Journal and Economist. Some basic business knowledge would be nice to get the most out of Blockbusters but there are no complicated formulas or anything and she explains everything in a clear fashion that a layman can understand. She is more concerned with communicating the conclusions resulting from her complicated statistical analyses rather than how she derived them. While the epilogue looks at ways to apply her blockbuster thesis to other fields, this is (mercifully) not the kind of book with workshops every chapter detailing how to apply these lessons to your job. The book is meant to inform and entertain, and it largely succeeds on both counts.
At times Blockbusters reads like a case study, which is fine as far as imparting information goes but it doesn't always make for the most captivating reading material. Sometimes the book drags as she explains the nitty-gritty of particular financial details, but it is generally readable and many of the book's conclusions are fascinating. She is able to pack a ton of information and insight into the book and it improved my understanding of the entertainment business more than any other book. 

In Sum
Anyone interested in learning about the current state of the entertainment industry and how it is being affected by technological innovations will get a lot out of Blockbusters. Elberse is able to combine the expertise of an academic with the clarity and eloquence of a journalist. She definitely subscribes to a higher burden of proof than many other books based on supporting a major thesis but even if you remain unconvinced about the blockbuster strategy you can still derive quite a bit of enjoyment and knowledge out of the book. Blockbusters ultimately maintained my interest through most of its pages and is worth seeking out for those interested in the topic.

7/10

Full Disclosure: I received a free copy of the book as part of a LibraryThing.com giveaway. 

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Book Review: Slow Getting Up by Nate Jackson

Slow Getting Up on Amazon

Bats are Not Bugs Header of Book Excellence

There is a good amount of well-written football books. There are also many football books penned by current and former players. Unfortunately, there has generally been little overlap between the two. NFL memoirs are often cash-outs after particularly improbable seasons or impending bankruptcy or financially-ruinous divorces. The player's voice is generally diluted by a co-author who invariably has a penchant for lame cliches and generic athlete platitudes. Thankfully, Slow Getting Up, Nate Jackson's reflections on his eight years on the fringes of the NFL, features quality prose and brings a fresh and insightful perspective to a rather stale format. It is one of the most entertaining football books released in the past few years and is a worthwhile read for football fans interested in learning more about the trials and tribulations facing professional football players.

After beginning with a 2008 hamstring injury that ultimately spelled the end of Jackson's career (physical maladies and the arduous rehabilitation associated with them will be a common theme throughout the piece) Slow Getting Up chronicles Jackson's improbable journey from Division III star at Menlo College to making an NFL roster and sticking around and contributing in the league for several years. Each chapter generally covers a season and the book moves at a fast clip and reads like a series of fleshed-out blog posts. He devotes early passages to outlining the draft process and his attempts to stick with the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent. Jackson is eventually traded to the Broncos during training camp in 2003 and he initially manages to stick on the practice squad before spending a few years as a backup tight end and special teamer with Denver. The author's relatively long tenure allows him to mine a considerable amount of anecdotal gems from his playing career, such as playing for the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe, losing to the Steelers in the 2005 AFC Championship Game, enduring a surreal training camp with Eric Mangini's Cleveland Browns in 2009, and trying to catch on with the cash-strapped Las Vegas Locomotives of the UFL.

Slow Getting Up is one of the few player memoirs to really focus on an athlete treading the tenuous line between the practice squad and special teams and a career outside of the NFL. Understandably, most publishers are not really enamored with putting out books by authors with only 2 more NFL touchdowns than their general audience. Because Jackson is not able to describe what it feels like to catch a game winning touchdown in the Super Bowl or catch 100 passes in a season, much of Slow Getting Up touches upon activities outside the games. Jackson details life on an average NFL road trip, playing on the scout team, the incredibly frustrating process of rehabilitating from injuries, and extravagant nights of clubbing. That being said, Jackson does go into some depth about the game when he discusses his larger roles on special teams, where he played on kickoff, kick off return, and punt units for the Broncos. Some of his gridiron observations are also insightful, such as how coaches like Gary Kubiak, who spent his entire career as John Elway's backup, is more concerned with concepts than those with more NFL game experience. 

I feel that football players are generally held to lower standards as writers (which makes sense given many of them are pretty poor in the literary department) but Jackson's prose is legitimately enjoyable to read compared to any writer. His writing is peppered with pop culture references and witty turns of phrase. Sometimes his humor can come off as sophomoric and overly scatological, but Slow Getting Up is mostly a pleasure to read. His tone is sarcastic, self-deprecating, and irreverent and it is refreshing to hear a former player be so candid. Jackson even admits to a brief fling with HGH while attempting to recover from an injury. It is hard to think of a better guide (among former NFL players) through Mangini's surreal militaristic training camp, where players watch film cutups of warmups in meetings and are constantly quizzed on team mantras, than the snarky and incredulous Jackson.

Jackson also is able to vividly describe much of his NFL life. This is probably due to the fact that he has essentially been writing this work for several years. Jackson started a journal for the Broncos' website when he played for the Rhein Fire in 2004 and maintained his column for three years. Additionally, Jackson was able to consult with Wall Street Journal writer Stefan Fatsis while the latter attended Broncos' training camp to write A Few Seconds of Panic (a 2000s version of Paper Lion that is worth seeking out for football fans or anyone curious as to the depths of Todd Sauerbrun's craziness). There is a surprising amount of dialogue in Slow Getting Up and while I am guessing most/all of it is based on Jackson's recollections it still demonstrates the robustness of his memories. Jackson also is not bitter about much and does not really have a bone to pick with anyone and he is generally objective and fair-minded. There are no chapters lamenting the physical beatings he endured, rants against the teams that released him, or chastising agents or fans that wronged him. Some may find his portrayals of Adam Schefter (who used to beat a beat writer for the Broncos) and Eric Mangini a bit unfair but who is honestly going to defend those guys? Jackson's riffs on their insufferable personalities were some of the highlights of the book for me.

In Sum
Most NFL memoirs devote at least some pages to describing players' general weekly routines during training camp and the regular season. What separates Slow Getting Up from the pack is Jackson's perspective and insight into such matters. I understand the comparisons to Ball Four, but Slow Getting Up really struck me as the football cousin of Mark Titus' Don't Put Me in Coach. Both books seem geared towards the Grantland-reading demographic who will catch the Radiohead references and appreciate the anecdotes about players and coaches from years past. I don't think it will be added to the literary pantheon of the best football books ever (not that Jackson ever intended that) but Slow Getting Up is a fast-paced, entertaining and enlightening look at life in the NFL that I thoroughly enjoyed.

8/10

Excerpts:

Mangini's Mess

MMQB Excerpt


Saturday, 31 August 2013

Book Review: Swing Your Sword by Mike Leach and Bruce Feldman

 

Mike Leach has always struck me as an interesting guy who possessed the courage to challenge football's status quo and the intelligence to really innovate the game. I started reading his memoir Swing Your Sword with the hope that he would provide a glimpse into his unconventional coaching methods and strategic philosophy in a readable package. And he certainly does offer up a good bit of insight into his views about football and running a program and it makes for generally entertaining fare. The book unfortunately veers from that subject matter halfway through and descends into a mess of damage control and finger-pointing regarding the Adam James incident that led to his ouster at Texas Tech. I found the book to be a worthwhile read despite its rather glaring flaws but the second half occasionally bordered on unreadable for me.

While Leach often takes an unorthodox approach to gridiron matters the book follows a rather tried-and-true template for coaching memoirs. He offers up some amusing anecdotes from childhood and college and describes how experiences such as coaching youth baseball fostered his passion for developing talent and creative strategies to outmaneuver more talented opponents. Leach's followed one of the more unlikely paths to football coaching, as he played rugby in college and entered Pepperdine Law School after graduating from Brigham Young University. He was likely the only member of his class at Pepperdine to pursue a football coaching job after graduating law school (though Rick Neuheisel and Marc Trestman are other coaches with law degrees) and he bounced around various small schools and even endured a stint coaching a Finnish team where players often smoked cigarettes on the sidelines.

Leach eventually ended up at Iowa Wesleyan under the tutelage of Hal Mumme and began to really establish the philosophical basis for his wide-open Air Raid offense at Texas Tech. He followed Mumme around various gigs and reached prominence after helping Tim Couch put up pinball numbers as offensive coordinator at Kentucky. He proceeded to run the offense for Bob Stoops at the University of Oklahoma before signing on as the head coach at Texas Tech.

Leach is refreshingly honest and open about most of his coaching experiences. His book is more insightful than other coaching memoirs I have read, and his musings on the game were definitely highlights for me. He mentions how coaches have more leeway to really stray from the norm in the lower levels of college football, where there is more freedom from fans and boosters, and he also makes a convincing case for abandoning common strategies such as having mirrors for all of your plays (players can specialize in and get more reps from having one responsibility on a play) and having receivers line up on both sides of the field (based on the benefits of specialization again. Maybe it is the economics major in me but Leach's argument certainly makes sense to me). Now Swing Your Sword doesn't contain any diagrams or get into the nitty-gritty of his scheme to the extent of something like Ron Jaworski's The Games That Changed the Game, which may disappoint some Leach fans, but I was impressed by the amount of strategic content offered by Leach for a memoir. I definitely learned more concepts about the game than I did from most other football books, such as how receivers on "go" routes are open several times during their route while those running "curls" and the like are only open at the end of the route.

Leach's chapters on his tenure at Texas Tech are initially fascinating. He outlines how he constructed his program and built his coaching staff. The coach put an emphasis on graduating players and ensuring reasonable academic performance through punishments such as "The Tower of London," where players would answer a gauntlet of scholarly questions while running around the school's campus carrying a cinder block over their head. He also occasionally played mind games against his opponents, such as intentionally dropping a fake play sheet on the field before a game against Texas. The chapters touch upon highlights such as the Red Raiders' 2008 upset victory over #1-ranked Texas and their 31-point comeback win against Minnesota in the 2006 Insight Bowl and such reflections make for decent reading.

Unfortunately, I read the pages with a sense of foreboding that is somewhat common in football memoirs. I had the same feeling reading recent books by Michael Strahan and Rex Ryan. I knew that at some point Strahan would discuss his divorce and probably regale me with tales about how horrendous his ex-wife was and that Rex would eventually stop telling his amusing anecdotes from his assistant coaching jobs (overall I really thought Play Like You Mean It was a fine read for the admittedly low standards of the genre) and draft Mark Sanchez, and then probably spend way too many pages justifying why his decision was the greatest thing to ever happen to the franchise. As Leach moved from the Kliff Kingsbury to Graham Harrell era I realized that there was still a good bit of dead tree matter between my current location and the back cover. Correctly assuming that Swing Your Sword did not contain a 150-page index, I braced myself for an inevitably exhaustive account of the Adam James affair and Leach's firing from Texas Tech.

I'm guessing you are at least somewhat aware of why Leach got fired if you are reading a review of the coach's book. Basically it stems from Adam Jones, a Red Raiders receiver and the son of Craig James claimed that he was put in a dark equipment closet after suffering from a concussion, which resulted in a media firestorm (at least on ESPN) that ruined many a campus meal at college dining halls across the country. According to Leach, the administration (who are not very scrupulous people) used the overblown incident to fire him and avoid paying him a completion clause and negotiating a new contract. Honestly it does appear that Leach got somewhat of a raw deal in the matter, and as a human being I sympathize with him for falling victim to university politics. But as a reader I do not want to slog through way too many pages outlining every reason why Leach is innocent, how Adam Jones is the worst person ever (except perhaps his father), and the pettiness of Texas Tech Chancellor Kent Hance. I can't imagine that my complaining about it all makes for very compelling reading material either. So unlike Leach, I'll show some restraint and just hope I've made my point. The book concludes with the fired coach discussing his life without football and excitement at obtaining a fresh start with Washington State, but Swing Your Sword's last 100 pages are mainly just him explaining how he was mistreated by Texas Tech.

In Sum

If you still haven't read the book at this point you probably aren't the biggest Mike Leach supporter in the world. You are more likely a football fan decently curious about whether his book is worth your time. And my answer to that is yes based on the strength of the first half, though you will be disappointed when it descends into damage control and complaining. Caveat emptor/library patron.

6/10

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Advance Book Review: Qaddafi's Point Guard by Alex Owumi and Daniel Paisner

Searching for "Incredible Story" in the Amazon Books department yields 7,397 results, demonstrating that publishers appear quite keen on pushing products on unbelievable and extraordinary people and stories. Rodale Press adheres to the tactic with Alex Owumi's Qaddafi's Point Guard, subtitled "The Incredible Story of a Professional Basketball Player Trapped in Libya's Civil War." Not to discredit the thousands of books professing to tell incredible tales (though I will call National Geographic Kids out for embellishing things a bit with Saving Yasha: The Incredible True Story of an Adopted Moon Bear) but the story at the heart of Owumi's book is honestly one of the most amazing sports stories I have ever read. Owumi was born in Nigeria, attended high school and college in America, and then bounced around the foreign circuit until he ended up playing pro ball in Benghazi, Libya. His team was bankrolled by the Qaddafi family and Owumi found himself in the middle of the toppling of Muammar's regime. Equal parts memoir, travelogue, and survivor diary, Qaddafi's Point Guard is consistently engaging and captivating.

The book is initially framed around the early events of the Libyan Revolution in February 2011. The author was residing in Mutassim Qaddafi's (Muammar's son) relatively regal apartment, which in addition to being located close to downtown, the practice facility, and arena was near ground zero for the revolutionary activities in Benghazi. Confined to his building without power or any kind of internet connection, Owumi witnessed a slew of atrocities on the streets and to his own neighbors within the building. He even has soldiers break into his own apartment. These passages are told as brief diary entries and are interspersed between autobiographical chapters on his earlier life and career. Owumi is concerned with answering two equally-intriguing questions in his book: what is it like to be Qaddafi's point guard and what path in life does one take to end up in such a position?

The first few chapters describe Owumi's early years and how he went from playing basketball with soccer balls and milk crates growing up in Lagos to starring in high school football and basketball in Massachusetts. Though courted by several top-tier football and basketball schools, he wanted to play both sports competitively in college and thus compromised with a football scholarship to Georgetown that came with preferred walk-on status to the basketball team. After a disappointing year on the gridiron followed by failure to crack the Hoyas' basketball roster, Owumi bounces around two community colleges before finishing his career playing basketball for Alcorn State, where his teams were roundly destroyed by both Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. After going unselected in the NBA draft, he plays overseas in France and Macedonia. I found the sections on foreign professional basketball to be fascinating look at how different countries' quirks manifest themselves in the professional basketball sphere, such as how Macedonian arenas were unheated and featured flaming trash cans by the baseline to warm players before games.

After getting fed up with the violence and disorganization of Macedonian basketball, Owumi contacts his agent to land him elsewhere, and he eventually receives an offer to play for Al-Nasr Benghazi, a Libyan club funded by the Qaddafi family. Owumi unfortunately does not really divulge too many details about his actual tenure with the team and experiences in Libyan basketball. He does mention, however, that if the team had a losing streak they faced beatings from Qaddafi thugs that would undoubtedly make even Mike Rice blanch. You can't blame Owumi too much for his brief summary of Libyan basketball because the Libyan Revolution occurred shortly after his arrival.

Owumi's story catches up with the framed diary entries about halfway through the book. At this point Qaddafi's Point Guard goes from a snapshot of the life of an international basketball journeyman to a harrowing tale of survival and escape. I'm not going to provide any spoilers (though it should be obvious that he survives the ordeal) but Owumi's account of the revolution is just ridiculous. Here is someone holed up in an apartment owned by the Qaddafi family filled with pictures of the patriarch surrounded by the overthrow of their regime. He has no water or power and he is subsisting off of roaches, worms, and accumulated muddy rainwater from a flowerpot for days on end. As noted at the start of my review, "incredible" is thrown around quite a bit in describing books, but it is absolutely warranted in the case of Owumi's escape from Benghazi and all of the hurdles he had to overcome.

Basketball is obviously thrown to the wayside while Owumi deals with more pressing matters such as ensuring his survival, but the book ends with him joining his former Al-Nasr coach on an Egyptian team. Attempting to decompress and put his life together after finally escaping Libya, Owumi is thrown on a team in the middle of the playoff hunt, and the book ends on an absurdly positive note that may well send Hollywood executives banging down his door.

While it touches on a geopolitical event that found more real estate in Foreign Policy and The Economist, Qaddafi's Point Guard was published by Rodale Inc and seems aimed firmly at the Men's Health demographic. The prose is light and conversational and the book moves at a very fast pace. While I never lost interest, I instead wish that Owumi provided more insight into his overseas career, especially in Libya. To my knowledge, Libyan professional basketball is rather uncharted literary territory and I greatly enjoyed its brief overview. This definitely is not the most insightful or best-written basketball book out there, but the story is so gripping that these flaws don't detract from the book too much.

In Sum
 Qaddfi's Point Guard is an entertaining and engrossing account of foreign professional basketball and one man's escape from the Libyan uprising. While it is held back in places by its simplistic and basic narration it is still an outrageous story and Owumi's flight from Libya is exciting enough to make the book appealing to more than just sports fans. 

8/10

Full Disclosure: The nice people at Rodale Press sent me an advance ebook copy of the book to review.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Advance Book Review: Canada's Other Game by Brian Daly


Like most Americans, my knowledge of Canadian basketball essentially begins with the Ontario-born James Naismith and ends with Steve Nash. While comprehensive in terms of chronology, the timeline between those figures is murky at best, basically consisting of Rick Fox and when the Grizzlies used to play in Vancouver. Brian Daly does a commendable job at filling these mental gaps in his enlightening and entertaining book Canada's Other Game. Daly is a Canadian sportswriter who has appeared in The Toronto Sun and the Canadian Press and maintains QHoops.net (devoted to Quebecois basketball). In Canada's Other Game he outlines the country's involvement and contributions to the sport from Naismith to the present and highlights the game's deep history with the country and its most important teams and players across all levels and genders. Canada's Other Game is worth a read for any basketball fan or Canadian curious about the country's connection to the sport.

Canada's Other Game begins with the start of the sport itself, as Dr. James Naismith was born in Ontario and raised in the country. Daly chronicles Naismith's life and his efforts to create the sport to appease some of his unruly students at a Massachusetts YMCA. Like the rest of this book, the passage features a good amount of depth and is well-researched, including insights such as how basketball was heavily influenced by Duck on a Rock, a game that featured prominently in Naismith's childhood. Four of Naismith's eighteen original malcontents were from north of the border and they helped spread the sport upon returning to their homeland. Daly proceeds to describe the early history of basketball in Canada and dynasties such as the 1920's women's basketball powerhouse Edmonton Grads as well as the early history of the NBA. The NBA actually grew out of the desire from major arena owners to fill spaces between hockey games held by the recently-created National Hockey League. The ill-fated Toronto Huskies' 1946 contest against the New York Knickerbockers was technically the league's first ever game.

Daly covers all aspects of Canadian basketball, and he also focuses on the country's performance in international competition under the leadership of coaches such as the legendary (in Canadian basketball circles) Jack Donohue. While some of the sections on amateur basketball in the early decades didn't hold my interest all that much, I really enjoyed reading about the various financial hardships perpetually imposed on the national team by stingy sports bureaucrats, an issue which kept Steve Nash from playing for the team for several years in the early 2000s. Daly shares one especially fascinating anecdote about how national coach Donohue had to share a hotel room with referee Ron Foxcroft during a 1973 tournament in Italy. After the two roommates butted heads during a questionably-called game overseen by Foxcroft, Donahue was locked out of his hotel room by the referee and had to sleep in the hall. 

The book really starts to shine once Daly reaches more recent decades. He delves into the Canadian college game and how top-level college basketball operates on a far smaller scale than in America, causing many talented players to head south sometimes as early as high school. The chapters describing professional basketball were especially interesting, such as the various and sometimes harebrained efforts to create Canadian leagues and bring semi-pro teams to the country, which generally did not fare well. Daly also covers the country's attempts to lure an NBA team, an athletic asset the country lacked after the Toronto Huskies' quick demise. It was quite a difficult task to land an NBA franchise, and cities had to contend with roadblocks such as Ontario's reluctance to ban basketball betting (a term for obtaining an NBA franchise set by the gambling-averse David Stern).

And of course no book on Canadian basketball would be complete without the obligatory Steve Nash chapter. Daly's profile on the (Johannesburg-born, though he moved to British Columbia as a baby) star and his development from a unheralded Canadian high-schooler to NBA MVP is excellent. As with every subject in the book, Daly covers all the bases on Nash including his remarkable tenure at Santa Clara University. Daly clearly demonstrates a passion for the sport throughout the book and this is made evident through his extensive research and well-written accounts of on-court action.The prose is refreshingly well-crafted and occasionally witty and Daly is a gifted writer despite his excessive usage of "quarterbacking" in describing Nash's basketball exploits. As you would probably expect from a Canadian basketball fan, he ends the book with a rosy outlook on the future of Canadian basketball, which all biases aside seems like a reasonable assumption given the influx of Canadians stars such as Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, the latter being selected first overall in the 2013 NBA draft.

In Sum

Canada's Other Game is a comprehensive history of Canada's involvement with basketball that is a worthwhile read for the curious basketball fan. I lost some interest after the Naismith chapters when Daly recounts tales from some of the very early days and teams of the sport and small Canadian regional rivalries (there were some times such as with the Edmonton Grads section where I wish Daly was less generous with his facts and information) but the book really picked up steam as it approaches the present. As an American a lot of the information was new to me but Daly certainly has mined enough sources and done enough research to please the Canadian hoops fan as well.


7/10

Full Disclosure: The nice people at Dundurn Press sent me an advance ebook version to review.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Book Review: Running for the Hansons by Sage Canaday


As the spartan, MS-Paint-esque cover might suggest, Sage Canaday's Running For the Hansons is a largely low-budget and unpolished affair. I even almost broke the book's binding the first time I opened the poor thing. It was edited by one of his teammates and is rife with spelling errors, excessive punctuation marks! and the prose is not always at a level above that of a LetsRun.com message board post. All that being said, I found the book to be an incredibly fascinating read that provided substantive insights into elite professional running programs and their training philosophies. As far as non-instructional nonfiction running books are concerned, I would honestly put it slightly behind Chris Lear's Running With the Buffaloes as my favorite of the genre in terms of pure entertainment value. I can't heartily recommend it to the general runner or reader, but if you fall into his rather niche audience you really owe it to yourself to give this a read.

The book is structured in a series of diary/blog entries that cover Canaday's first year in the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. The program is led by Kevin and Keith Hanson, two brothers who run several running stores in the Detroit area in addition to their coaching duties. It is on a slightly lower tier than groups like Nike's Oregon Track Project but still boasts a roster of impressive athletes such as the Olympian Brian Sell and Desiree Davila. Canaday is coming off a decent college career at Cornell and decided to defer a "proper" career to take a shot at running professionally. Looking to qualify for the Olympic marathon trials, he is given an extensive training program culminating in running the Boston Marathon.

Canaday covers a wide variety of topics in the book. Many of his entries deal with his workout and the progress of his training, but he also diverges to topics like the history of the program, a typical day in the life of a Hansons runner, and profiles of some of his fellow runners. As an actual member of the team, Canaday has tons of access to the rest of the Hansons Project (the male ones anyway. The team has rather stringent regulations on commingling of the sexes) and he gets to pick his teammates' brains about their approach to running as well. He is really pretty comprehensive in describing the life of a professional runner. There aren't many areas that I wish he spent some or more time on, and additionally I don't think he spent too much time on one particular subject either.

He is refreshingly candid in describing his experiences with the Hansons. While he stayed an additional year after publishing the book, Canaday is not always completely satisfied with the lifestyle of a professional runner and makes this point known several times in the book. Canaday doesn't mesh particularly well with Michigan's more conservative culture and the countless miles prescribed by his coaches. Some of his pontificating can get a bit grating at times but it is generally kept under control. And while he doesn't have any real axes to grind (he ultimately seems pretty content with his situation all things considered) he does have some products to shill. As a sponsored athlete, Canaday's prose is peppered with references to his various Brooks training gear. Some readers might find this annoying but it didn't really bother me too much, especially since he just mentions his apparel rather than devoting countless pages extolling its virtues and why it is superior to all other brands.

There is a good bit of meat to the portions on his running and training. While I think a book like Hansons Marathon Method will be more informative in outlining the brothers' training philosophy, Running for the Hansons provides some insight into the brothers' views on training. I knew that the Hansons recommend shorter long runs than some other marathon plans, and learned that the reasoning behind it is that the program stresses cumulative fatigue built up from previous days more than other training plans. Canaday includes plenty of detail about his training and his coaches' elaborate plans to prepare him for Boston. And while Canaday is not always the most cogent or skilled writer, his passages describing the intensity of races and workouts stood out to me.


In Sum

I am far more forgiving to the spelling errors and wonky writing found in Running for the Hansons because the book ultimately offers an incredibly desirable (to me anyway) unique selling proposition: a comprehensive behind-the-scenes account of the life of a professional marathon runner. He is writing from a pretty rare perspective and its not like this literary market is particularly crowded. While it is a bit messy and unrefined and has little to offer the average reader, if you are the kind of person who peruses LetsRun.com, runs marathons and follows those who do so professionally, and knows who Sage Canaday is, you really owe it to yourself to pick up Running for the Hansons for the sheer entertainment value it will offer to you.

8/10

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Book Review: On These Courts by Wayne Drash


On These Courts by Wayne Drash recounts former NBA star Penny Hardaway's efforts at coaching and mentoring the Lester Lions, a team of middle schoolers from a rough Memphis neighborhood to the state championship. Hardaway's involvement grew out of his friendship with the team's old coach, who was struggling with colon cancer and then the chemotherapy that followed. The book is an uplifting and inspirational chronicle of Hardaway's attempts to pursue a championship that eluded him during his professional career and more importantly protect his players from the temptations surrounding them. On These Courts tells a heart-warming story about a commendable individual and makes for a decent read. While it always kept my interest, the book is held back due to its somewhat generic approach to the "inspirational story about a ragtag inner-city team vying for a state title" genre that is a common topic in sports books and movies. It is still a worthy read, especially for basketball fans and high school and youth coaches.

Drash, a Memphis native, currently writes for CNN.com and actually played with Hardaway in a high school basketball camp. The book grew out of 2012 article he penned for the site about Hardaway's efforts at Lester. Sometimes books that evolve from articles can feel bloated or fluffed as writers awkwardly attempt to pass the length threshold from magazine feature to book but in this case the elongated format allows Drash to further explore the socioeconomics of Memphis and profile the disparate and often colorful characters inhabiting the team's rough Binghampton neighborhood. On These Courts truly shines when Drash focuses on off-the-court matters such as how Lester Middle School has always been a safe haven from gangs and graffiti artists and outlining the staggering obstacles (abusive parents, drugs, gangs) the players must contend with. Drash also is able to interview two gang members who offer surprisingly cogent insights into the trappings of gangs. The author also provides a rough biography of Hardaway and how he managed to rise from his surroundings (including being shot in the foot during college when he visited a gang-infested neighborhood) to stardom at the University of Memphis and eventually in the NBA. He was helped along by the discipline-heavy grandmother who raised him as well as several positive male role models and mentors, and he was able to develop from an academically-ineligible college freshman to a member of the dean's list with a 3.4 GPA.

The book is primarily focused on the 2012 campaign of the Lester Lions, initially coached by Hardaway's childhood friend Desmond Merriweather. Merriweather was beset by colon cancer and his condition became so bad that funeral arrangements were made and several of his players were erroneously told he had actually died. The coach was able to return to his duties after recovering but he eventually entered a joint coaching relationship with Hardaway after his friend took a strong interest in the team. Hardaway donates enormous amounts of his time into coaching the Lions, even though he has no obligations to do so (and he is doing pretty well for himself financially. He and Michael Jordan are the only retired NBA-ers who retain Nike shoe contracts). Hardaway knows the role that positive adult male figures played in his life and former star likely wanted to pay it forward to the next generation of Binghampton kids. Led by their stars Reggie Green and Robert Washington, the Lions seem primed for a run at the state playoffs under the guidance of their two coaches. Hardaway devotes even more of his time into mentoring his players outside of basketball and stressing the importance of academics to their lives, garnering some impressive results.

The fundamental elements of the book are certainly heartwarming and uplifting, but Drash is also treading on rather familiar territory to sports fans. Hardway's players even refer to him as Coach Carter, as the two share quite a bit in common, along with real-life coaches like Bob Hurley (subject of a recent documentary and book). This makes the execution of telling the team's story especially crucial in order to separate it from the rest of the genre, and it comes up short in some aspects.  Drash's prose is sometimes littered with cliches and lame similes, and the Lions' contest against a school located near the airport (bearing the unfortunate name of the Jets) brings out the worst in him as far as puns are concerned. While there is some profanity and the discussion of some violent and sexual happenings, there are points where it really read like a book for teenagers. Its not something I am going to ding the book for (teenagers should be allowed to have books written for them too) but it is something I feel that is worth mentioning. Thankfully (to make things interesting for the reader anyway), the Lions partake in many competitive games and do not simply drub all of their opponents and even lose a few games during the regular season. While Drash displays a keen eye for detail in describing Binghampton and his environs and clearly knows his childhood city well, his on-court passages are a bit dry and newspaper recap-y, making it harder to get emotionally invested in the action. There are also a few head-scratching strategic moments (particularly in the last game, though I wont spoil anything) that remind the reader that these matchups are ultimately being contested by thirteen and fourteen year-olds. Drash is much stronger when he describes off-court activities like the Lions' support in the neighborhood (including gang truces and carpooling grandmothers) and profiling Hardaway and several other talented Memphians who fell short of their NBA dreams.  

In Sum

Though the basic premise On These Courts will seem familiar to someone who has read their fair share of moving sports stories, I was entertained throughout and largely enjoyed the book despite its flaws. High school readers, coaches, hardcore basketball fans, and the 99% of the population that does not feel obligated to consume every book or documentary (both inspiring and otherwise) tangentially related to sports  will probably enjoy the book even more than I did. A portion of the book's proceeds will go to Fast Break Courts, Hardaway's program to assist at-risk Memphis youth.

7/10

Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary electronic copy of the book from Touchstone Publicity to review.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Book Review: The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs

Napoleon Bonaparte was an avid ice skater.

"Wicked Bibles" were published in Britain in 1631, which neglected to include the word "not" in Exodus 20:14, thus creating the commandment "Thou shalt commit adultery."

Ancient Egyptians used geese as guard animals.

Did those three factual tidbits entertain you? Does the prospect of reading 400 pages of similar fare interspersed with some memoir-ish reflections and anecdotes appeal to you?  If your answers are in the affirmative then you will probably enjoy The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs. The book chronicles Jacobs' attempt to read the complete Encyclopedia Britannica and his more-difficult task of keeping the reader interested during the whole affair. Jacobs' largely succeeds with the latter, and The Know-It-All is a worthwhile read to anyone looking for a light read instilled with plenty of trivia.

The idea was sparked out of Jacobs' wish to reengage with his intellectual side, which had been languishing a bit due to his job as a magazine editor for the likes of Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. Jacobs has found his niche in the "stunt journalism" genre, as his other books include Drop Dead Healthy (where he attempts to become the healthiest human ever in a highly readable and engaging fashion) and The Year of Living Biblically (where he attempts to become the most Biblical human ever I guess, I haven't read that one yet). Reading the encyclopedia (when some skimming is inevitable) clearly is a bit pedestrian in comparison in terms of total commitment and strenuousness. Realizing this, Jacobs doesn't really focus much on the physical act of reading the volume, though he does mention several times that it is often incredibly boring and repetitive.  Instead, the book is largely a vehicle for Jacobs to riff on some fun facts he encounters, pursue some semi-relevant intellectual activities like attending Mensa meetings and playing chess, and reflecting a bit on the nature of intelligence and knowledge with some more personal passages.

The book is organized in a slightly unorthodox fashion. Every chapter covers a letter, and Jacobs recounts his efforts from a-ak (a genre of Korean court music) to Zywiec (a small town of 32,000 in Poland). Each chapter is further divided into individual entries, where Jacobs cultivates several usually fascinating factual morsels, such as the three that kicked off this review. There is never any drama regarding whether he will actually finish the book, which is appreciated given that he could really just have skimmed everything and we would be none the wiser. It's not like we the collective reading public were going to quiz him at the end or something. The format is mainly a success, as it still provides Jacobs with the freedom to tangentially relate particular entries to stories from his past or some of his scholarly field trips undertaken during his quest.

Tackling the Britannica, and describing how one goes about such an endeavor, is something that could easily fail in the hands of the wrong writer. Thankfully, Jacobs does a pretty commendable job of maintaining interest. Like Drop Dead Healthy, Jacobs and his immediate family and friends are featured prominently and these segments that focus on the author's attempts to one-up his intellectual brother-in-law help keep the book from becoming a mere list of random trivia. The Mensa meetings, school visits, and chess games also break up the monotony, though some asides such as Jacobs' appearance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (the book was published in 2004 when the show had already passed any shreds of cultural relevance or importance) fell a bit flat. But overall Jacobs does an excellent job touring the reader through the highlights of the Britannica and the prose is snappy, light, and self-effacing, something he has likely perfected through a career in magazines. While the book is facetiously titled and Jacobs often makes light of his deteriorating levels of "useful" knowledge, he does let his more highbrow and Ivy League education show during some clever and legitimately funny sections. I felt that the book lost some steam near the end but that it was ultimately an engaging mix of memoir and trivia, in a very similar vein to Drop Dead Healthy, which I also recommend.

In Sum
If you are looking for some light reading and enjoy historical facts with some anecdotes and riffs on pop culture thrown in for good measure then you can certainly do worse than A.J. Jacobs' amusing and even sometimes witty The Know-It-All

7/10

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Advance Book Review: Best American Magazine Writing 2013 by the American Society of Magazine Editors


I have always enjoyed longform journalism but often neglect to read random intriguing magazine articles because their completion doesn't come with the same sense of satisfaction entailed by finishing a book. I realize this is a ludicrous and nonsensical reason to curtail one's magazine reading but it is honestly an issue for me. Thankfully every year the fine people at the American Society of Magazine Editors are kind enough to cull together the best pieces in a volume that one can proudly add to their Goodreads shelves. Many works included in the collection have been languishing in my Gmail inbox and RSS feeds for several months and its nice and rewarding to finally knock them off. After finishing The Best American American Magazine Writing 2013 I can state with confidence that I missed out on some great reads in 2012. The collection is overall a dense and wide-ranging read that is enjoyable despite being somewhat uneven.

The book features finalists and winners from the usual suspects of the highbrow magazine article family: features, essays, reporting, public interest, and one short story by Steven King which feels kinda out of place but isn't a terrible read. Some categories like profiles are scattered throughout while others such as the more political pieces are grouped together and the organization seems logical and makes for a balanced reading experience. Most of these reads are rather demanding and cerebral, the one Esquire profile that made the cut covers Robert Caro, the historical writer who has been churning out humongous biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson every few years (and is responsible for the Robert Moses biography The Power Broker, my favorite book of all-time). There are no sports or humor articles and there is nothing remotely fluffy about most of the selections. The book encompasses some heavy topics like wrongful convictions, pulling the plug on a elderly relative, wars and unrest in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and abortion. While most of these pieces are well done and fascinating the collection can be overwhelming if you attempt to plow through everything in a few days like I approach most books. Most magazines place their feature articles between shorter and lighter fare and Best American Magazine Writing is probably better experienced as something read in many sittings rather than an individual magazine that can often be polished off in an afternoon.

Some of the articles are truly incredible and reminded me that I should do a much better job of maintaining my Longreads and Longform RSS feeds. The aforementioned Caro article profiles a devoted and passionate professional who has been tirelessly honing his craft for several decades in a Jiro-like pursuit of perfection. Chris Jones' feature follows the writer as he makes several attempts at perfecting the fifth paragraph of the 452nd page of his 2012 book Passage to Power and offers insights into the "incredibly productive, wonderful mania" that fuels the humongous biographies. One especially enlightening anecdote tells of how Caro was able to track down a former classmate of LBJ's armed only with the knowledge that the man lived in a Florida town with "Beach" in its name. Caro and his equally-determined wife Ina were eventually able to locate the elusive classmate through scouring phone books and arrived unannounced at his trailer shortly thereafter where he participated in an in-depth interview. Another highlight is Chris Heath's story on the truly outrageous Zanesville zoo escape. Heath had some rather excellent material to work with, but he goes even further by segueing from his reporting to psychologically examining the owner responsible for the devastation and the state of the exotic pet industry. Other standouts include Pamela Colloff's gripping account of the Michael Morton case and the history of DNA testing and Sabrina Rudin's Rolling Stone article on how anit-gay school policies in a Minnesota school district contributed to a wave of suicides. These pieces are all fascinating and written well-enough to be rewarding even to those readers who have never/lack the physical strength required to pick up a Caro book and have no interest in exotic zoology and enough to justify the price of admission.

Unfortunately, there were a few articles that didn't really catch my interest. If I encountered such articles in their natural habitat I would merely skip it and continue to the rest of the magazine but I felt compelled to finish everything in the book (probably due to the fact that I knew I was going be reviewing the book, with my reader(s) expecting me to have actually completed reading it). It is rather disheartening to lose interest early in an article with full knowledge that there are many pages/KB to go until it ends. But I found most of the selections to be engaging and worth the considerable time investment. And you certainly get your money's worth, as the volume includes twenty finalists and winners chosen by the editors.

In Sum

Best American Magazine Writing 2013 is on the whole a worthwhile read if you enjoy longform journalism (and haven't encountered these articles before. It is worth mentioning that my favorite articles from the book were ones that I had heard of and intended to read earlier. I did not generally enjoy the less-familiar articles as much). It is a somewhat uneven but generally excellent read with many well-written pieces encompassing a variety of topics.

7/10

Full Disclosure: The nice people at Columbia University press sent me an advanced e-book copy of the book. It will be released on December 10th.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Book Review: Where the West Ends by Michael Totten


I generally steer away from travel writing about more mainstream locations because I find that the genre can be rather formulaic (I ate here, I stayed here, the people were like this and then I went somewhere else) and I feel that popular destinations like London or Paris are best experienced in person rather than through the page. I can state with reasonable confidence, however, that I do not have any of the areas visited by Michael Totten in Where the West Ends on any upcoming travel itineraries. In fact, it is pretty safe to assume that I probably wont ever make it to the likes of Kosovo, Iraq, or Montenegro or anyplace else visited by Totten while he traverses the nebulous border between east and west. Totten's book reads like a travelogue with a strong geopolitical focus and is ultimately an informative and enjoyable examination of such countries.

Totten and an occasional travel partner ultimately visit thirteen countries in all with each country roughly receiving one chapter. Each chapter can stand alone as a vignette but chapters are further organized by region which helps provide greater context to understanding life there. Where the West Ends adheres to some of the basic structures of travel writing, and Totten offers up some vivid descriptions of the sheer beauty and abject desolation that he finds within these countries. He is a gifted writer and he is also very familiar with his subject matter. Totten is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and he has reported from Iraq, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. 

I came into the book with very limited knowledge about the region. I always plan on reading The Economist cover-to-cover but I can't recall the last time I read more than one article in the Middle East and Africa Section. I generally assumed that countries such as Georgia and Kosovo had their issues and quirks but I never read anything describing life there. Shameful reading habits aside, I remain interested in learning about the area and Totten thankfully is able to provide quite a bit of fascinating information about it. In addition to dejecting post-communist apartment blocks and corrupt officials, many of these countries are filled with factual tidbits. The reception of Totten's American citizenship truly runs the gamut, and there are some surprising members of the pro-American camp. The author is embraced by Iraqi Kurds, who are ideological polar opposites from Iraqi Arabs in terms of America. Kurds (and even the most devout viewers of Fox News) cannot beat the residents of Kosovo in terms of American support, though. The country boasts what is probably the world's only examples of graffiti writing effusively praising George W. Bush and a patisserie/disco (there are undoubtedly numerous typos in this review but that last phrase is not one of them) named "Hillary" in honor of the former first lady, while her husband has an eleven foot statue in his honor on Bill Clinton Boulevard in the capital of Prishtina. That being said, the highlight of the book was still probably learning about a statue of Lenin in Yalta that stares directly at a McDonald's franchise.

While there are plenty of entertaining and somewhat-depressing descriptions of awful hotels, ravaged post-communist environments, shady cabdrivers and other elements of the countries covered, Totten also writes about some of their deeper cultural and political aspects. Totten interviews various professors, journalists, and everyday residents who help provide additional insight into life at the borders between the developed and developing world. I found these sections, such Totten's detailing of the Russia-Georgia conflict to be both comprehensive and enlightening, though not all interview subjects were equally engaging. Several of these sections dragged on a bit as a result. It was still generally nice to understand the historical underpinnings that led to the often dismal surroundings encountered by the author. Totten also makes some astute statements, such as when he posits that nationalism is on par with radical Islam in contributing to the perpetual state of Middle Eastern tension.

I don't want to come across as a pre-schooler but Totten mentions holding a camera or performing the act of photography several times in the book, often while in front of some majestic landscape or peculiar sight. He even risks riling up unfriendly soldiers and officials by having a camera on his person during several instances. If he is going to dangle these pictures in front of our faces and endure so much trouble and risk in doing so you would think he could include some of said photographs within the pages of Where the West Ends. On a more positive note, these reckless camera-holding habits exhibit Totten's freewheeling and adventurous approach to his journey, which helps make for an enjoyable read. He is unafraid to travel to Iraq on a whim (the trip was completely unplanned as he tells it), solicit navigational help from anti-American civilians, and he even attempts to pay Chernobyl a visit during his travels (where he is unfortunately rebuffed). These passages inject more excitement than most books that extensively cover the breakup of Yugoslavia and collapse of Albanian government can muster.

In Sum

Where the West Ends is a worthwhile read that strikes a nice balance between being informative and entertaining as Totten explores the Balkans, Middle East, Caucasus, and Black Sea regions. Simply pointing out their idiosyncrasies in a travelogue would make for a worthwhile read, but the book is further enhanced (in general) with reflections about the factors that shaped each country's politics and culture. 

7/10