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.


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. 


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 (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.


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 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, 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.


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 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.


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


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.


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.