Sunday, 27 October 2013

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 20 October 2013

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

Bats are Not Bugs Header of Book Excellence

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, 14 October 2013

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

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

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

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

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