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. 


Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Book Review: The Hollywood Economist 2.0 by Edward Jay Epstein

A few years ago I read an article in the Wall Street Journal explaining that many American blockbusters were set in Manhattan because the location was a familiar one to foreign audiences, who were becoming increasingly important in studios' revenues.  I thought it was a fascinating piece on a rather under-reported aspect of the entertainment industry: the dynamics of the business itself. Edward Jay Epstein's The Hollywood Economist 2.0 attempts to fill this knowledge void and describes the current state of the film industry and the economics driving it. Epstein has written about the film business for The Wall Street Journal (though I don't think he penned the aforementioned article about movie settings) and The New Yorker and his articles seem aimed to the curious moviegoing layman with a cursory understanding of business. The Hollywood Economist 2.0, which builds off of several of his pieces, is a quick and oftentimes entertaining read about the basic concepts of how the industry generally operates and (sometimes) makes its money. 

The book is organized around several main areas, including film financing, the studio-theater dynamic, and talent contracts. Many segments of the book appear to be fleshed-out versions of previously-written pieces from the author, but I felt everything was well-organized and nothing felt very disjointed. While Epstein spends a good bit of time on some unsurprising and basic elements of the film business, like the generous subsidies offered by particular localities to attract film shoots and how risk-averse studios like to stick with franchises and sequels, there is plenty of material that will appeal to readers with a large amount of background knowledge as well. Some more startling revelations include how onerous ADA regulations which kicked in once a theater hit 300 seats led to the development of multiscreen cinemas and how studios would raise revenue through extracting and selling the silver from old film prints. I thought Epstein's breakdown of actor contracts, such as the plum deals secured by Tom Cruise for Mission Impossible and Arnold Schwarzenegger for Terminator 3 were especially interesting and covered rather uncharted territory. I do wish Epstein mentioned whether such arrangements were par for the course for megastars like Cruise and Schwarzenegger or rarer anomalies. As a result of its article-y foundation, the book proceeds at a fast clip but I feel that Epstein elaborates enough on every main concept to do it justice. Even when he delves into topics such as film financing and contract legalese, Epstein maintains a nice balance between being informative and entertaining.

Epstein also offers some insightful analysis about the industry and its current trends. He notes that studios' reliance on foreign audiences has shut down many potential villains for screenwriters, as using former stock evildoers such as sinister Chinese and Russians is now commercial suicide. The book also provides a brief overview of premium cable channels and how their shift towards exclusive series such as The Sopranos and The Wire freed them from being as beholden to studios for content. While the "expanding upon previously-written articles" makes some sections seem slightly antiquated (such as the first chapter that discusses the rather horrid 1998 Godzilla remake and other similarly-atrocious late 90's fare) the book was published in 2012 and Epstein's chapter on Netflix and the future of the business is enlightening and does not feel dated.

The Hollywood Economist 2.0 is designed for a mass audience and Epstein doesn't employ any obscure economic or accounting jargon within its pages. As long as you have a cursory background understanding of business you will get a lot out of this book. I have found that most film industry books are "how-to" works geared towards aspiring directors or actors and I am thankful that Epstein aimed his book towards the general film-interested reader. Some sections drag a little bit and sometimes he touches upon some of the industry's more commonly-known elements, but the book is ultimately a quick, entertaining, and informative read.

In Sum
A very readable account of how films are financed, talent is compensated, and basically how money is earned by the film business. The Hollywood Economist 2.0 is worth a read if you have any curiosity about the innerworkings of this topic that is surprisingly underserved by the literary industry.


Note: The Kindle edition of this book is currently $2.79 on Amazon as part of its Big Deal sale which ends on August 4th. Now if you look at my view counter you will see that this blog is not a shill for Amazon (and if it were it would be a pretty terrible one at that) and I am only pointing out this fact because I think its a pretty good deal.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Book Review: Pacific Rims by Rafe Bartholomew

Having read and enjoyed Jim Yardley's Brave Dragons, which covered Chinese professional basketball, earlier this year I was eager to further explore the genre of "books about Asian basketball written in English," assuming such a thing was possible. Thankfully after some cursory research I learned about Rafe Bartholomew's Pacific Rims, which focuses on the Philippines' notable and somewhat-curious obsession with hoops. I finally got around to reading the book and believe that it is one of the best basketball books I have ever read. Bartholomew, currently a senior editor at Grantland, provides an incredibly entertaining look at the country's fascination with the sport with a book that is equal parts fly-on-the-wall season chronicle, deep examination of Filipino culture (athletic and otherwise), and travelogue, all of it worthwhile.

Unless Bartholomew is lying to the reader, Filipinos are remarkably into basketball and the sport has found its way into virtually every aspect of life in the country. Soccer never really caught on, and basketball is unquestionably the nation's most popular sport. Courts can be found even in the most remote areas and are viewed as centers of social life, the country's ubiquitous jeepneys are often adorned with a random assortment of NBA team logos or just Jerry West's silhouette, and players in the very popular Philippines' Basketball Association (and some Americans like Clyde Drexler, who is revered by Filipinos for some reason) are cultural icons that hawk a plethora of products to consumers.

The fact that basketball is so huge in the Philippines is enough to make for an interesting book. If Bartholomew just traveled across the country and noted the country's prevalence of courts and games, how random NBA games from the nineties serve as midday filler on television networks, and the strong following for the PBA (the second-oldest professional basketball league in the world) he could have made for a decent read. Bartholomew goes far deeper in Pacific Rims, however, much to the reader's benefit.

A good bit of the book covers the 2007 "conference" (season) of the Alaska Aces, a PBA franchise led by American coach Tim Cone. This gives Bartholomew an excellent opportunity to describe the nature of idiosyncrasies of the country's major professional league. As was the case in China, Filipino professional basketball leagues do things a little bit differently than the NBA. Teams are limited to one "import" on their roster, though some cutthroat coaches will often bring in multiple foreigners to compete for a roster spot or hire a new import in midseason. Imports must also meet a height restriction, which appears to change from year to year and is far from impervious from abuse or corruption. Franchises are all run by business owners, leading to some unfortunate names such as the Burger King Whoppers and Rain or Shine Elasto Painters (the Alaska Aces are naturally named the Alaska milk company). There are musings about referee corruption and some fans are imbued with elements of soccer hooliganism. Bartholomew's sections on the league's history and his analysis of its present iteration are truly captivating reflections on how the professional game has been appropriated across the world. The author manages to develop a close connection with many Aces, especially their import Rosell Ellis, and he is able to provide a very intimate account of what turns out to be a rather exciting campaign for the team. Bartholomew possesses a very deep understanding of the game (he is a decent player who was recruited to play as a ringer in an amateur tournament in the resort island of Boracay) and his game descriptions are vivid, suspenseful, and entertaining.

In addition to following the Aces, Bartholomew devotes many pages to describing general life in the Philippines. He spent three years in the country on a Fulbright grant and was able to explore much of the country and its culture over the period. His hoops focus is not limited to the professional ranks, and Bartholomew plays many pickup games with various cross-sections of Filipino society and travels across the country (the PBA is based entirely in the Manila metropolitan area) to see that the national obsession extends far beyond the PBA's borders. These sections read more like travel writing, as he describes driving and biking across precarious terrain in pursuit of some court in the remote mountains, game where midgets face off against drag queens, or similarly-intriguing basketball attraction, and they are just as strong as the more conventional Aces chapters. Bartholomew also occasionally detours into discussing racial and cultural aspects of Filipino society, such as his guest appearance on a rather racist Filipino telenovela and the complicated relationship between the Filipino-Americans in the PBA and their countrymen. I felt that these off-court sections enriched the book more than anything else and provided a fuller account of Filipino culture.

In Sum
I highly recommend Pacific Rims to anyone interested in basketball or just learning about a foreign sports culture in general. You certainly don't need to be able to recognize former PBA imports like Cedric Ceballos or Darvin Ham to appreciate the book. Bartholomew can repeat himself at times and sometimes injects too much of himself into the book, but he ultimately has crafted one of the best basketball books I have read. The book's scope extends off the court to the sport's cultural and social impact and he is equally strong in covering both. Pacific Rims is  ultimately a very well-executed book on a fascinating subject that is a pleasure to read.  


Sunday, 14 July 2013

Book Review: Inside the Helmet by Michael Strahan and Jay Glazer

What came first - the NFL memoirs or the misery? Do I read such fare because I feel miserable while mired in the peak of football's offseason? Or is my football-deprived misery just compounded by the invariably insipid nature of most/all of the genre? (dearest apologies, Mr. Hornby). I grapple with these questions every time I pick up a book like Michael Strahan and Jay Glazer's Inside the Helmet, which always happens when I have exhausted the library's supplies of all other football books. For some reason I have always had a soft spot for such works, though I usually finish them lamenting about how many Economist articles I could have read with the time I spent reading reflections on a player's high school days and some "hilarious" anecdotes that I guess must not really translate to print. Strahan's book actually reads much less like an autobiography and more of a broad but sometimes insightful overview of what playing in the NFL entails. This is by no means uncharted literary territory, as NFL rules stipulate that the Super Bowl must be played every year and publishing rules mandate that the stars and coaches associated with the winner of said event must flood the book market with their co-written and bland accounts of their "magical and inspiring season whose lessons can easily be adapted to the meeting room and child rearing etc. etc." Like most other books penned by players, Inside the Helmet isn't particularly well-written and at times it reads like a litany of complaints from a curmudgeonly veteran. But Strahan is also able to cull from over ten seasons of anecdotes and personalities like Lawrence Taylor and Tom Coughlin, and there are times where his book even borders on the insightful. I would almost deem it a worthwhile read, even though it required being held it at a ninety-degree angle when read it on the subway. 

 The book is structured rather strangely compared to the typical player book. Most follow the frame story setup employed in most mob pictures. The first chapter is inevitably set before, during, or after the Super Bowl (which his team wins, of course). The next chapter begins with something like "as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a football player" (dearest apologies, Mr. Scorcese) and describes from childhood the steps they took towards becoming a Super Bowl winner. Strahan is unable to utilize such an approach, however. The book was written at the end of the 2006 season, where Strahan only played 9 games due to a lisfranc injury and the team went 8-8 and missed the playoffs. At this point you may be asking why Strahan couldn't have waited one more year to write his book where he could end it on an upbeat note when the Giants defeated the then-undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII? Perhaps Strahan was aware the Giants would win the Super Bowl the next year but he wanted to get a jump on Tom Coughlin, David Tyree, and Plaxico Burress(!) and corner the "books by Giants employees" market for the time being. Given the quality of Strahan's prognosticating abilities on Fox NFL Sunday, though, I am guessing he was not aware that his team would win the big game the following year. A more realistic reason for the book's publishing date was the defensive end's ludicrously messy and exhorbinantly expensive divorce that wrapped up in 2007. Strahan was ultimately left on the hook for quite a bit of money and likely thought that writing a book would help him in the process. So while it loosely (to the point where its not even chronologically consistent) follows Strahan's 2006 season he is ultimately drawing from a far broader base.

Since Strahan is unable to follow the generic template afforded to Super Bowl champion authors, the book is focused more with giving a behind-the-scenes look at playing in the NFL and does not limit itself to in-depth coverage of one season. Again, this "inside look" is something that has been done many, many times before. All player memoirs inevitably touch upon the subject. And there are certainly sections in Inside the Helmet that add little to what fans already know. The kind of person who is going to read a book by Michael Strahan on their own volition (and I did not see any copies of Inside the Helmet in the "Assigned Summer Reading" section of my local library) is probably already aware that meetings are long and boring, "most" players are clean and do not take steroids (and of course the author abstains), and that players get excited on game day. Ho-hum. They also probably generally know the basics of the NFL workweek and what days are spent on film, walkthroughs, and practice. These things stay pretty consistent across teams.

Even with such faults, there are some truly interesting sections of the book. I especially enjoyed the chapter on defensive line technique and the various strategies Strahan employs to beat his blocker. The intricacies of line play isn't comprehensively covered by the media as it doesn't translate well to statistics and most people (myself excluded) don't find it all that interesting. While Strahan's general musings aren't groundbreaking (practices are long, practical jokes are common, there is a wide spectrum of intelligence among athletes) he is able to cull the best anecdotes from thirteen seasons of play. He also had the "pleasure" of playing with and for the likes of Lawrence Taylor, Tom Coughlin, and Jeremy Shockey who provide ample sources of engaging story material. Strahan also makes some sharp observations about the changing dynamics between players and coaches. Players are gaining much more power in the relationship, as their salaries have skyrocketed and many stars are aware that teams cannot afford the cap hits associated with dropping them. Additionally, general managers and owners are operating under increasingly-shortened time horizons and coaches, especially new ones feature incredibly short leashes. Strahan posits that players are aware of this and recognize that coaches do not wield as much power as they used to in certain areas. Its something that makes sense to me upon reading it but I never really thought about before. Strahan also mentions how coaches are often reliant on player recommendations to get new jobs and that he has consulted with coaches and front office staff considering hiring his former coaches.

I found it remarkable that Strahan really never goes into much detail at all about his personal background. Normally I wouldn't be too troubled by that omission, but this is a player who grew up in Germany, played one season of high school football, and still managed to be dominant enough at tiny Texas Southern University to be drafted in the second round by the Giants in 1993. That unorthodox path to the NFL seems like it is worth devoting a few pages to. The reader is treated to some chapters on Strahan's personal life, though unfortunately they are limited to him airing grievances related to his fame and what a terrible money-hungry person his ex-wife is. These sections drag quite a bit. Strahan also decides to curiously end with Super Bowl XXXV, where his team was summarily thumped by Jermaine Lewis and the Ravens (six years before the book was published no less). I understand that the Super Bowl is a big deal and that readers may be interested in his recollections, but his analysis is limited to noting how much media attention there was, what a great opportunity he had to play for the league title, and two moments from the actual game itself (which is all he claims he can remember). It appears he rectified this in the paperback edition released shortly after the Giants' XLII victory with two chapters on the 2007 season. I can't speak on these extra chapters because my library was just too eager to get this book on its shelves to even think of waiting for the paperback.

Before my lukewarm praise gets you running out the door to procure your own copy just be aware that this isn't going to knock Paper Lion or America's Game off the best football books pantheon or anything. Strahan has an unfortunately tendency to pepper his writing with words in all caps to emphasize his points which to me displays a VERY poor grasp of adjectives and he uses some truly dreadful metaphors while describing his gridiron exploits. But honestly, such flaws, while annoying, should be expected when one approaches a book like this. And its not like adding Jay Glazer as a co-author is going to help such matters. Still, Inside the Helmet was a fast read and provided some offseason enjoyment. I reckon I could have polished off most of a Technology Quarterly-less Economist in the time it took me to finish the book but I still thought it was decent overall. 

In Sum
Inside the Helmet is a somewhat enjoyable read despite its obvious flaws. There are some legitimately interesting passages and it moves at a very fast pace, which comes in handy when Strahan is complaining about things. It is worth reading if you are really desperate for football reading material (and if you live in the New York metro area I'm guessing your library has several copies) and Giants fans will probably especially like it.


Observations/Interesting Things Learned
According to Strahan (a very important qualifier), rookie hazing was far worse back in the day. Things apparently calmed down after then Saints rookie Cam Cleeland was injured after being hit with coin-filled socks swung by veterans in 1999.

Strahan claims (see previous parenthetical statement), rookies are considered rookies until they have finished the third game in their second season. He offers no further explanation, perhaps assuming (egregiously incorrectly) that this fact is blatantly obvious to the reader.

Offensive tackle Lomas Brown apparently passed a kidney stone during one of his games. That is probably a condition that requires personal experience (which  have thankfully avoided so far) to truly understand the pain associated with such a feat(?) but I imagine it wasn't the most pleasant day of Mr. Brown's life.

I thought Strahan was remarkably candid in expressing his ire and outward frustration towards Jay Feeley after the kicker missed three field goals at the end of a game against the Seahawks in 2005. It was actually refreshing to read, though it didn't help my faith in the inherent goodness of humanity.

The NFL Players Association used to put salary sheets on players' stools in locker rooms that showed what every other player in the league made for their position. It brought up quite a bit of ill-will amongst Giants players and it probably didn't do Jamarcus Russell or the old rookie contract structure any favors in the eyes of professional quarterbacks.

Strahan posits that defensive linemen have to remember a staggering amount of information that is incomprehensible to the common man. That may indeed be the case. But when the strongest support for his argument is that Jay Glazer had difficulty remembering defensive line assignments that Strahan showed to him I felt a little skeptical. Plus I have to question the general intelligence associated with someone whose methodology uses Jay Glazer as the baseline for average human intelligence.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Book Review: Where You're At by Patrick Neate

As Patrick Neate is seemingly eager to point out, hip-hop comprises more than just a musical genre. He outlines early on in his book Where You're At the nebulous four/five elements of hip-hop culture: emceeing, DJing, graffiti, break dancing, and sometimes consciousness. Where You're At concerns itself mainly with the social aspects of the culture as Neate travels across the world to provide a snapshot of how the genre has been appropriated and adapted in different countries. Spanning five cities in four countries across the world, the author focuses on their racial and sociological environments and links them to greater hip-hop culture. Unfortunately, the book reads like an overly academic reflection on urban racial identity and politics and is hindered by Neate's naive obsession with wresting hip-hop from corporations and materialistic rappers and return it to the alienated urban masses who started it.

The book follows a pretty set formula. Neate will travel to some city (he goes to New York, Tokyo, Johannesberg, Cape Town, and Rio) starts each section by providing some background about the history of hip-hop in the region and how it has evolved. The portions where he explains the lyrical and musical nature of the global variations are some of the most interesting parts of the book, such as how Brazillians seem to be far more amenable to overtly political music and the derivative nature of a lot of Japanese hip-hop. He will then proceed to interview several underground artists or activists associated with hip-hop who generally emphasize positivity and eschew the mainstream. Then he goes to a club or two and describes his surroundings. This methodology clearly prevents the book from being very comprehensive in scope, though Neate did seem to do his homework on the history of each city's respective hip-hop scene and I wish he went more in-depth on describing the sounds of global hip-hop. I haven't listened to a ton of hip-hop from outside the US, but in general I have noticed that it is almost impossible to find an artist from outside North America that "sounds" American, and not just due to an accent or language barrier. Furthermore, hip-hop is a largely verbal genre and thus no one in North America is regularly exposed to (non-Psy) hip-hop from other continents. As a result, Neate is really covering unknown territory (to me anyway) when he discusses aspects of each city's hip-hop music. But the author spends most of his time outlining the social and racial aspects of the genre in each city while making sure to take time to cast a disdainful eye towards the shallow nature of the country's more mainstream artists. While Neate states that his intends his book to be a snapshot of what hip-hop was like in parts of cities, I think it may have been better if he tried to give a more comprehensive overview and focused more on the macro than the micro within each city. Some of the individual interviews didn't feel like they really added much to the book. While the book is ten years at this point, if anything I found this to be a plus as it presented a reminder of the state of the genre in 2003 (apparently Fabolous was bigger than I remembered).

Though knowledgeable, Neate can be a rather irritating tour guide throughout the book. I understand why he includes his personal experiences with hip-hop in the introduction, but I felt that he injected too much of himself into the book in other sections, such as when his girlfriend gets groped at Japanese club. Perhaps it his insecurities regarding his UK citizenship or his race, but something compels Neate to constantly drop random unnecessary hip-hop facts to establish his hip-hop bonafides. He assiduously footnotes every musical reference he makes and his prose is ridden with irrelevant parenthetical musings (how dare he!1) And its not like the fun trivia tidbits I include at the end of my reviews. It is far more didactic fare like when he notes how to delineate an "emcee" from a "rapper." I get a similar feeling of "this author really feels like he needs to establish his credibility and knowledge of the genre" with a lot of Pitchfork's rap reviews. It's not too pleasant. He also can be prone to some rather absurd theories, such as how Shrek is actually an allegory for eminent domain where a "negroid" ogre is forced to leave his lovely but ramshackle swamp dwelling by an uptight white guy and how Enron's collapse was a result of the company's failing to "keep it real."

In Sum
Though it has an interesting concept, Where You're At ultimately fell flat for me due to its overly academic nature and what I saw as an overemphasis of social and racial components of hip-hop rather than musical ones. If you are really into sociology and racial identity especially in countries such as Brazil and South Africa then you might like this book more. I suppose a good bit of my disappointment with the book resulted from the fact that it's subject matter didn't really conform to my expectations.


Observations/Interesting Things Learned

Despite what the author may claim, the RZA did not coin the phrase "Rap and bullshit" to refer to rhythm and blues. De La Soul used the phrase way back in 1991 back when RZA was still rapping under Prince Rakeem. I realize mentioning this fact can be seen as pointless and just taking another potshot at an author who I have already made clear that I don't like all that much. Fair enough. But Afro Connections at a Hi 5 is just too good a song to go uncredited.

I was worried that Neate would spend the bulk of his time in New York interviewing obscure rappers and "hip-hop activists" who while providing legitimately helpful services to the community would not be able to provide much insight into any of my favorite hip-hop albums. And he certainly meets a lot with the former in all five cities. But New York was the one city that actually featured artists I have heard of and I kept my fingers crossed that some of them might show up on his pages. Neate actually gets to pay a visit to the Definitive Jux record label in lower Manhattan, responsible for releasing some of the best underground hip-hop of the 21st century from acts like El-P, Cannibal Ox, and Aesop Rock. Aesop and El are even in the building when the author comes by. Unfortunately, El-P seems to do nothing but sleep on a couch and Aes is similarly laconic. While EL-P is a pretty stocky guy who probably doesn't take especially well to having his sleeping habits disrupted this was still the most disappointing part of a book that I didn't really enjoy all that much.

Big L's posthumous album The Big Picture actually went gold, something I was not aware of. This achievement was considerably tainted in my eyes when the book goes on to explain that Rawkus records bought the album back from stores in order to inflate its sales numbers.

According to Neate, France is the second largest market for hip-hop music, or at least it was at the time the book was written in 2003. The country also has a music bureau whose sole purpose seems to be creating an overseas market for French musical product. I couldn't imagine it being that difficult to sell foreign folks on Air or Daft Punk but I hope for the sake of all hypothetical Bureau Export employees that they consider Celine Dion outside of the organization's jurisdiction.

I was always afraid that even with all the weird I books I read I would go through live having never seen the phrase "white Mozambican ska band" in print. Thanks to page 118 of this book I can scratch that one off the bucket list.

Maybe this is old hat for those who had already graduated pre-school before the end of South African apartheid but I found the pencil test to be one of the more absurd government policies I ever read about. Used to determine race in the country, (South Africans can be seen as either white, black, or colored, a concept that Neate spends a lot of time with in the book) the test consisted of sticking a pencil in the hair of child with questionable race. If the pencil stayed in their hair they were considered "colored" while if it fell the ground they were considered "white." Ridiculous.

1 I mean really!

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Book Review: The Last Headbangers by Kevin Cook

The Last Headbangers, Kevin Cook's paean to the violent and freewheeling NFL of the seventies is narrowly-focused, somewhat disorganized, but still a generally entertaining read about (some of) the teams and characters of the period. Cook, whose work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and Men's Health, mines one of the sport's richest eras and the book is full of trivia about the motley individuals on NFL payrolls during the decade and how the decade paved the way for the current NFL. The seventies served as a real transitional period between the run-heavy, no-nonsense, collectivist, NFL of the previous several decades and today's flashy, lucrative, and wide-open NFL as players such as Joe Namath became cultural icons and the sport openly embraced television and the passing game. Though not without its flaws, the book is a light read and worth spending an offseason afternoon or two with.

Cook begins with the Immaculate Reception, when Franco Harris improbably caught a pass deflected off of Jack Tatum/Frenchy Fuqua (depending on your partisanship. Harris' catch should have been nullified if Fuqua touched the ball first) in the waning moments of a 1972 playoff game between the Steelers and Raiders. The game finally established the Steelers as a legitimate contender after spending most of its previous thirty-eight seasons mired firmly in the doldrums of the league standings. It also set the stage for one of the most intense rivalries of the decade, as the Raiders and Steelers were constant fixtures in the AFC playoffs and their meetings/bloodbaths often determined the conference's Super Bowl participant. Covering the league through the Immaculate Reception to the rise of Bill Walsh's more cerebral and finesse West Coast offense in the early eighties, the book chronicles several of the era's dominant teams and the changes taking place in the game on and off the field.

 The Last Headbangers is largely a chronological history of the league in the seventies, winding across several teams as well as off-field phenomena like Monday Night Football, which was emerging as a cultural institution. The sport itself was finally emerging from college football's shadow and it became the nation's most popular sport by the end of the decade. He also examines the various rule changes enacted during the period by the all-powerful Competition Committee. These new rules helped open up the passing game and create a more exciting, high-scoring brand of football. The group brought in "innovations" such as narrower hash marks (to open up both sides of the field), uprights in the back of the end zone (to reduce those pesky field goals), and reductions in contact between defensive backs and receivers (to open up the passing game and bring us the pinball-esque numbers we see from non-Jets quarterbacks today). One change that I was not aware of was that missed field goals from outside the twenty-yard line were actually spotted on the twenty rather than the line of scrimmage. When that rule was changed in 1974, it adjusted coaches' calculus for field goals and also offered shorter fields for teams facing reckless coaches with inaccurate kickers. Cook's analysis of the changes, augmented by comments by Brian Billick and others, is definitely one of the book's highlights.

While it paved the way for the current NFL, the league had several elements that existed only within the seventies. The NFL only introduced steroid testing in 1987, and such substances were legal during the period. Performance-enhancing drug usage was even discussed frankly in books written during the time such as Roy Blount's About Three Bricks Shy of a Load, and Cook explains that steroids were rather prevalent. Some teams took such abuse to higher levels than others, however, like the Raiders and their horse steroids. The league was also took a far more laissez-faire approach to player safety, as late hits and vicious cheap shots were committed without punishment. There was no established concussion policy, and several players recount shrugging off concussions, which will probably strike football fans as more and more remarkable moving forward.

Perhaps influenced by the "Me Decade" surrounding them, players began to embrace their often-outrageous personalities and coaches became more amenable/tolerant to such behavior. There was a notable shift from the collectivist ethos espoused by the likes of Vince Lombardi to the philosophies of coaches like John Madden of the Raiders and Chuck Noll of the Steelers. As Noll said "I want players to be themselves," and thus the coach tolerated Frenchy Fuqua's regal and ostentatious behavior and the loose-cannon Ernie Holmes. The more militaristic strand of coaching certainly persisted, however, and teams such as the Minnesota Vikings, led by Bud Grant, football's answer to William Jennings Bryan as the loser of four Super Bowls (but winner of an NBA Championship as a Minneapolis Laker in 1950), and Dick Vermeil's straight-laced Eagles served as foils to the rambunctious Steelers and Raiders. Much to the delight of Cook's general thesis (if there really is one) the Vikings and Eagles went a combined 0-5 in the Super Bowl against teams that better exemplified the era. 

The book is really at its strongest when it covers the afforementioned idiosyncracies of the players and coaches. When you are dealing with ten years for an entire league I suppose it is rather easy to collect interesting material, but Cook is able share some truly fascinating trivia and anecdotes from the era. Phil Villipiano, Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, and many other former players were very generous with their time and memory banks and they offer up some engaging stories about their coaches and teammates. Learning about Chuck Noll's interest in gardening and classical music (he even conducted the Pittsburgh Symphony at one point), Frenchy Fuqua's goldfish-containing platform shoes, and the story about how the punctilious Jim Otto once painstakingly removed his car from its position wedged inside a bar door to make curfew at Raiders camp are some of the highlights of the book. I could really go on about all of the great stories contained within the books pages but these reviews are long-winded enough already. Just believe me that there are others. Maybe it was a product of the culture of the decade or the fact that lucrative sponsorships (and thus opportunities to put hypothetical sponsorships in jeopardy through reckless behavior) weren't available to most players, but it really seemed like players were far more willing to express themselves in the seventies, much to the benefit of those writers covering the era.

It is worth noting that despite what the book's subtitle ("NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless, '70s) may claim, the book is almost completely focused on the Cowboys, Dolphins, Steelers, Raiders, and 49ers, and the other twenty-three teams that existed during the period go largely ignored. If you are a Redskins fan looking to read up on George Allen and the "Over-the-Hill-Gang," you will be sorely disappointed. I could write twenty-two similar sentences for the other teams (though maybe only twenty-one considering I wonder if a Saints fan would really want to relive those years of futility). While Cook clearly concentrates on the "correct" (i.e. best) teams of the decade, it prevents him from spending more time on players such as Conrad Dobler and Hollywood Henderson, who embodied some of the most prominent aspects of the time (dirtiness and drug usage, (dis)respectively). Additionally, stars like Walter Payton and Earl Campbell (both physical runners whose style could be considered "headbanger-y") The dynasties also didn't really neatly conform chronologically, and as a result Cook has to jump back and forth between teams sometimes which sometimes gives the book a disjointed feel. I also thought there was too many pages blandly recapping Super Bowls, some of which were rather staid affairs. Even the more exciting games have been exhaustively chronicled in other books and I didn't think that Cook's rather generic summaries (with their mysterious fascination with yards-per-passing-attempt) added much. While he is a generally competent writer, Cook is also apparently not above interspersing his prose with some truly lame puns. Though the subject material has been covered more extensively by other writers, I was surprised at the amount of new information contained in the book. If you have not read many of the recent books that have touched upon the dynasties of the seventies you will definitely get a lot out of it.

The final section on the rise of the 49ers and their finesse West Coast offense portends end the headbanging era. Bill Walsh's more cerebral dink-and-dunk offense provided a harbinger of the multifaceted and increasingly complicated offensive and defensive schemes on the horizon. Steroids and stickum were on their way out, and gunslinging quarterbacks such as Bradshaw were being phased out by precise passers with weaker arms like Ken Anderson and Brian Sipe. The league continued to cater to passers and higher-scoring games through the tinkerings of the Competition Committee. Athletes were now making relatively absurd salaries compared to ten years prior, and the league was growing exponentially in popularity and bringing in the television revenue to match. Cook thankfully doesn't end his book with a curmudgeonly diatribe about how today's NFL is far worse than the seventies version. He acknowledges the changes without editorializing them. Cook realizes that the NFL of the seventies was triggered by a perfect storm of the nascent televised sports industry, the greater culture of the era, and ignorance to the physical toll levied by the game and its PEDs, and the league will never be able to return to that. Thankfully we have books like The Last Headbangers to memorialize the players who risked their physical health to contribute to the flashy and entertaining NFL of the the time.

In Sum
Despite being unorganized and poorly-(sub)titled, The Last Headbangers is a light and entertaining read that is worth reading for anyone who followed or is simply interested in the NFL at the time. While it is only focused on several teams I think that fans of other teams can still get some enjoyment out of it, unless they have something against interesting anecdotes.


Observations/Interesting Things Learned
George Halas named the Chicago Bears as a play on the previously-existing Cubs. He decided to go with Bears based on the reasoning that football players were larger than baseball players. Halas also offered fans premium tickets that allowed them to sit on the visiting team's bench in the team's early days. I imagine that this was done without consulting said visiting team.

Bill Cosby was considered for Monday Night Football after Don Meredith left. 

Al Davis did very little as commissioner as the AFL, as he quickly resigned after other AFL owners worked the merger deal behind his back. At least as acting commissioner he managed to insert the phrase "dynamic young genius" to references of his name in the press release announcing his appointment.

I'm guessing this has a lot to do with the fact that the "event" covers many hours across several days but I still find it rather ridiculous that ESPN's Scouting Combine coverage outdrew both the Masters and Indianapolis 500 

Jim Otto wore 00 as a pun on his last name (aught-oh). The AFL originally allowed it as a marketing ploy and it survived the merger intact.

The book briefly describes the 1979 NFL draft and how Phil Simms' selection by the Giants received a poor reception from the 200 fans in attendance. As recounted in Gary Myers' Coaching Confidential, another work filled with trivia tidbits but lacking a coherent focus, Simms was subject to far more ridicule than described. Rozelle actually announced the pick twice. The commissioner was taken aback by the fans' strong negative reaction to the selection and he then realized that the cameras were not rolling. After turning on the cameras (and more importantly the microphones) Rozelle announced Simms' selection again to a chorus of boos to preserve the moment for posterity.

Further Reading
As I mentioned in my review, this is not even close to the only book about the NFL in the seventies. Here is a list of several others organized roughly by how much I enjoyed reading them:

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Book Review: 4th & Goal by Monte Burke

This is probably the only time I will ever be grateful for the dearth of quality football books offered by my local Brooklyn library branch. Its limited gridiron selections forced me to choose between Monte Burke's lamely-titled and generically-covered 4th and Goal and Michael Strahan's Inside the Helmet. Given that the latter was penned on the heels of a very nasty and financially-destructive divorce settlement, I decided to take a chance on a book that, if its cover was any indication, seemed to be a cliched inspirational chronicle of some kind of football executive. I feared it might even have an appendix about applying the general philosophy espoused by this mysterious executive to the boardroom to help businessmen move cheese and tip points and all of that other stuff. Thankfully the book is actually a fast-paced and engrossing account of a pretty incredible story and is mercifully free from any silly appendixes.

4th and Goal focuses on Joe Moglia, the 2011 coach of the UFL's Omaha Nighthawks and the circuitous path he took to wind up with such a position. Burke opens in 1983 with Moglia serving as Dartmouth's defensive coordinator. Recently separated from his wife and kids, Moglia is living in an unheated storage room within the team's field house. While he will be offered an assistant position with the Miami Hurricanes at the end of the season with the understanding that he would eventually become their defensive coordinator, Moglia resolves himself to leave coaching and pursue a job on Wall Street to better provide for his family. He somehow becomes a ridiculously successful executive at Merrill Lynch and then TD Ameritrade. Moglia was intensely passionate about his coaching pursuits and he forced himself to avoid attending any football games for the sake of his own emotional stability. At age 60, almost thirty years after his career epiphany, Moglia leaves his post as CEO of TD Ameritrade to rekindle his dreams of becoming a college head coach. Several years later he finds himself heading a UFL team and competing against the likes of Marty Schottenheimer, Jim Fassel, and Dennis Green. 4th and Goal chronicles Moglia's hardscrabble youth in New York City and early coaching history, his unlikely Wall Street ascendancy and whirlwind return to coaching, and the Nighthawks' 2011 season.

Moglia's ultimate goal upon leaving TD Ameritrade was to land a college head coaching job. After some understandable trepidation from athletic directors, he took a job as an unpaid coach for the Nebraska, where he was hamstrung by NCAA regulations. Essentially barred from performing any on-field instruction, he still spent long hours with the coaching staff studying film and soaking up everything he could from head coach Bo Pellini and the rest of his staff. After two years with the Cornhuskers where he remained unable to attract any college head coaching offers, he got the Nighthawks head job. Initially recruited for his managerial expertise as someone who could save the cash-strapped team and league (from financial ruin, Moglia eventually demonstrated that he would make a capable coach for the team. Moglia treats his stint with the Nighthawks as one of his final opportunities to prove that he is worthy of a college head coaching job. While I still hate the book's title, it is a rather fitting description of Moglia's circumstances.

Moglia has a great story and his personal narrative could certainly carry a book on its own. The sense of stubborn determination that he brings to coaching and business is just mind-boggling. For someone to parlay sixteen years of coaching football and an economics degree into a job with Merrill Lynch is just mind-boggling. Its not like he started out in the company's mail room or anything either, he persistently dogged anyone tangentially connected with the firm and landed a job as a trader. He additionally impressed his superiors enough to land in a fast-track leadership program for MBAs (Moglia was the only person in the twenty-four person class missing such a degree). I found myself legitimately rooting for Moglia to succeed in his coaching quest and I had to vigilantly avoid googling his name while reading to "spoil" the book by seeing where he ended up. That being blogged, 4th and Long is full of colorful characters beyond Moglia. UFL rosters were populated with a variety of former college stars and NFL castoffs who will be familiar to anyone who followed football in the early 2000s. The Nighthawks' speed option offense was led by the two-headed attack of former Heisman winner Eric Crouch and troubled Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. While 2010 Nighthawks Jeff Garcia and Ahman Green did not make the cut in 2011, Moglia did bring in Maurice Clarett (who actually made the team) and Burke recounts Clarett's troubled life after leaving Ohio State. As someone who intensely followed the NFL ten years ago it was cool to see where players like Dominic Rhodes, Angelo Crowell, and Stuart Schweigert ended up (spoiler alert: the UFL). 

Burke is a staff writer at Forbes (the book actually grew out of a 2010 feature he wrote on Moglia for the magazine) and the book reads like an extended magazine article. Thankfully there is enough substance in Moglia's story to engage the reader for most of its 271 pages. Many football books that cover one particular season can degrade into a rote game-by-game format that read like a collection of newspaper recounts. Burke is able to avoid this through moving back and forth between on and off-field action. The only I really hit a snag while reading was when Burke delved deeply into Moglia's tenure at Merrill Lynch and TD Ameritrade, but I suppose that is to be expected from a Forbes employee. And as someone who doesn't generally read about finance, Michael Lewis is the only point of comparison I can use on the genre, and I don't think that sets a pretty high bar. On the football side, Burke never goes all Mike Mayock-technical on the reader (which is fine because its not really appropriate for telling this story) but he does offer up cogent explanations of concepts like Nighthawks coordinator Tom Olivadotti's pattern read defense and Burke thankfully never dumbs down his prose to cater to the less football-savvy, which is appreciated given the main audience of the title. The writing can be overdramatic and cheesy at times but as far as football books are concerned Burke shows a mercifully high level of metaphorical restraint and his prose does not detract from the compelling story. 

I realize its difficult to really gauge how I feel about this book without having other reviews on the blog to serve as a baseline. I might be one of those people who gives everything an 8 or above because I refuse to feel like I "wasted" my time reading a bad book. As someone who (quite painfully) finished Romo, however, I can assure you that I'm fine with admitting when I have incurred some sunk literature-y costs. I didn't in the case of this book.

In Sum

 4th and Goal features a unique story about a captivating figure and its written in a breezy and entertaining fashion that is ideal for a football fan with a long subway commute. Its probably the second best football book I read this year, narrowly losing out to Warren St. John's Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer.


Observations/Interesting Things Learned

I was already aware that the Canadian Football League is full of strange happenings, but I did not know that its regular seasons lasts 19 weeks and teams play 18 games.

Bart Andrus, the Nighthawks' offensive coordinator, was once the quarterbacks coach for the Tennessee Titans and tried to convince Jeff Fisher to employ the read option with Steve McNair. Fisher briefly considered it and ran some read option plays for McNair in training camp but ultimately tabled the idea much to the delayed dismay of the late-1990s football watching public.

Drafts for the UFL were held remotely 2 days after the NFL draft with picks being announced on Twitter. Owners and coaches were actually faced with walking the difficult line between picking talented players and those who would not have enough skills to latch on with an NFL franchise. 

NFL Europe was used as a testing ground for several proposed innovations such as overtime rules and one-way radio communication for coaches and players. I was not aware the the NFL's European cousin also awarded 4 points for field goals over 50 yards, something that has not yet been imported across the Atlantic.

Maurice Clarett (who according to Sports Illustrated is now playing rugby and is hoping to gain a spot on the 2016 Olympic team) wore the number 13 in memory of the time he jumped out of a second-story window while robbing a house at age fourteen, which left a gash on his head that required 13 stitches.

The card game bourre was incredibly popular and conflict-inducing among Nighthawks players and both qualities apparently extends across the professional sporting universe. Gilbert Arenas' gun-in-the-locker-room stunt in 2009 was triggered by what I imagine was a very contentious game of bourre with Jarvis Crittendon. Wikipedia tells me that in 2011 bourre was behind a fracas between Memphis Grizzlies players O.J. Mayo and Tony Allen on the team plane.