Saturday, 23 January 2016

Advance Book Review: Boys Among Men by Jonathan Abrams

Release Date: March 15, 2016

This April will mark the 10th anniversary of when the NBA set their current age limit of 19, effectively banning the practice of players jumping directly from high school to the pros. Unless Gerald Green has a late-career renaissance or something we all have a decent idea of how these prep-to-pro players have generally panned out in the pros. The route has yielded some major hits (Moses Malone, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James) and misses (Lenny Cooke, Taj McDavid), though a 2004 study conducted by Michael A. McCann of Harvard Law School found that such players enjoyed longer careers and larger contracts than their (at least semi-)college educated counterparts. While we can debate about whether this age-limitless-era was good or bad for basketball and the players that took advantage, these players undoubtedly had a huge impact on the game. In Boys Among Men, Grantland alumnus Jonathan Abrams chronicles the history of the prep-to-pro movement, from trailblazer Moses Malone in 1974 to Amir Johnson, the final high schooler selected in the 2005 Draft. Abrams' accounts of the players that took the plunge and how they influenced and were influenced by the evolution of the business and strategy of the sport make for remarkably compelling reading.

Abrams mentions in the acknowledgements that his interest in the subject was peaked while working the Los Angeles Clippers beat right out of college. He was curious as to how these young players four years his junior handled playing in the NBA and handling the pressure and business of the sport (especially given that financial hardship is often one of the biggest reasons for high schoolers forgoing college). This curiosity frames his approach to Boys Among Men. While Abrams clearly possesses encyclopedic knowledge of the game and is adept at describing on-court happenings (his account of a matchup between cautionary tale Lenny Cooke and Lebron James at an all-star camp for prep stars is one of many such examples), the focus is more on how the players handled themselves off the court. What made them consider and eventually opt to skip college, how did they handle the pressure of performing for scouts in pre-draft workout sessions, and how did they acclimate to the NBA and what hurdles did they encounter? Agents such as Arn Tellem and apparel marketing executives such as Sonny Vaccaro also feature prominently, as they were instrumental in raising salaries to stratospheric levels and making it more appealing for players to declare early. The book also traces some of the developments that helped lead to the age limit, such as the Malice in the Palace brouhaha that severely harmed the league's image.

Abrams devotes most of his book to the second wave of prep-to-pro in the mid-90s (there was a 20 year gap between Bill Willoughby taking the plunge in 1975 and Kevin Garnett in 1995), especially Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal, and Tracy McGrady. The less successful flameouts such as Korleone Young and Taj McDavid receive almost equal coverage, and learning about what went wrong almost makes for better reading. After proceeding chronologically through the high-school-to-pro era, Abrams concludes with analysis on how the pro and college game has adapted to the age limit, including a look at John Calipari's efforts to build a one-and-done assembly line at the University of Kentucky.

43 players have jumped directly to the NBA from high school. In the wrong hands, an authoritative account of the prep-to-pro era would turn monotonous well before the reader got to Lebron James and Dwight Howard. However, Boys Among Men benefits greatly from Abrams' abilities as a writer and exhaustive research and interviews and the fact that some very colorful and varied characters involved in the story of the movement. From the laconic Moses Malone contending with recruiters such as an Oral Roberts coach that promised committing to the evangelist-founded school would heal his mother's tumors to the charismatic Kobe Bryant to the boisterous Lenny Cooke, the only common thread between high school draft prospects is their roundball skills. This diversity helps keep things from getting stale as there is no typical archetype for such players. Similarly, there is no typical "high-school-to-pro-rookie" experience, as while some players benefited from "Team Moms" and substantial support networks others were largely left to fend for themselves. Additionally, Boys Among Men is remarkably well-crafted and will undoubtedly be one of the best-written sports books of 2016. Abrams wrote the book over four years and this effort is evident on every page. he draws from numerous interviews with primary actors such as Tracey McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal, and even former NBA commissioner David Stern. This means there is plenty of new insight for even die-hard basketball fans, and the book is greatly enriched by insider tidbits such as how ridiculously close the Nets came to selected Kobe in 1996 and the actors that eventually quashed the pick (and as a result the Nets' success for the next few years) and quotes from Kevin Garnett's high school teachers about his diligence and personality.

Boys Among Men will likely go down as my favorite sports book of 2016. It's well-written, objective (Abrams acknowledges that the lack of an age limit had a complicated impact with pros and cons, this is not a hatchet job or rhapsody to the halcyon days of prep-to-pro draftees), and never drags despite its decent length. There is definitely enough original analysis and insights to appeal to even the biggest basketball fans, but anyone remotely curious about the the sport or the business around it will greatly enjoy Boys Among Men. Because at its core it's the stories of a bunch of wildly different players brave enough to take the leap from high school to the pros, and whether it's Kwame Brown trying to take his whole family out of poverty or the tragic story of Lenny Cooke or Kobe Bryant's 5 am shooting sessions and 100 point half-court games, these stories make for excellent reading.

9 / 10

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Advance Book Review: Better Living Through Criticism

Release Date: February 9, 2016
Amazon / Goodreads

Critics have it rough right now. Those at major old media institutions are seeing their employers scrambling for revenue, aggregators are diluting their individual influence, and artists of all mediums continue to skewer them, especially when they get lambasted by the critical establishment. As a blogger with a Lilliputian viewer count (especially when you take away the Russian referral spambots) who generally just doesn't review books I dislike, I'm largely shielded from/oblivious to such problems. That said, I'm still interested in A.O. Scott's Better Living Through Criticism, which details what "criticism" actually means and the purpose and societal value of such a thing.

Scott is currently the chief film critic at The New York Times and one of the most-respected and blurbed critics in film today. His book covers major topics of criticism: is there an objective standard for quality or is enjoyment subjective to individual preferences, what makes someone a "good" critic, should everything be subject to intellectual incrustation, and so on. Scott examines all of these with an abundance of support from essays, works, and thought experiments. It should be noted that Better Living Through Criticism is concerned with criticism as a whole, not film criticism specifically. Scott has a literature degree from Harvard and started out at The New York Review of Books practicing the honorable craft of book reviewing. He's clearly a very well-read guy. Besides drawing examples from Ratatouille in his concluding chapter, Scott's sources rely less on Pauline Kael and her ilk and more on thinkers such as Kant and Aristophanes. Many of his cultural examples are from plays, poems, and literature. There are of course a few mentions of films and an interesting fictional dialogue (one of several throughout the book) of what initially got Scott interested in film criticism specifically) but this is by no means a book about film criticism specifically. If you're only interested in learning what it's like to review movies and Scott's criteria for what makes a good movie and so on you will not really find that here.

I found Scott's strongest argument on the role and value of the critic to be the critic serving as a guide to what works are worth a busy person's time. When I was younger I had tons of time but non-tons of money, and as an adult these factors have been (relatively) reversed. In both cases, professional reviewers ranging from Electronic Gaming Monthly as a kid to The Quietus (and yes, Pitchfork too) as an adult were vital to identifying what cultural works I might like to consume with my allowance/hard-earned money. The best reviewers are able to articulate what makes a book/album/movie/video game etc. unique, what the consumer can expect, and the quality of such works, and Scott additionally notes how some of his favorite reviews imbued the reader with a vicarious sense of actually experiencing the content through prose. Critics never/rarely serve as the be-all and end-all to such decisions, but I consult them on a regular basis to see whether they can turn me onto some new media I'll probably like, and given the fact that sites like Rotten Tomatoes draw tons of traffic and Pitchfork effectively launched bands like the Arcade Fire through laudatory reviews I'm not alone in this sentiment. That is the same function I'm trying to serve on this ad-less blog (not driving tons of sales for authors or web traffic but that whole "I'm going to read a ton of books so you don't have to/because my subway commute is terribly long and let you know about the really good ones and some stuff I don't like as much").

Getting back to that aforementioned function on the non-ad-supported blog, Better Living Through Criticism is a heady read and will likely appear in quite a few college syllabuses in the future. This is both a testament to the fact that the book is thoughtful and well-articulated and also that it's a a pretty heady tome. The book is not an easy read, and I had some flashbacks to college lit classes and there were some parts that I struggled with. However, if you are a huge fan of dense and deep discussions on the nature of criticism and have a huge pre-existing knowledge of and interest in art of all kinds then there is a lot to like in Better Living Through Criticism. It's well-written and smartly constructed that will likely leave you with more respect for critics (thanks A.O.).

6.5/ 10

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Advance Book Review: Streetfight by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow

Release Date: March 8, 2016
Amazon / Goodreads

While his mayoral reign was by no means perfect, Michael Bloomberg did some cool things over his three terms as Mayor of New York City. Many of these aforementioned low-temperature initiatives made lives easier for pedestrians (car-free plazas and curb islands in busy intersections), bikers (tons of designated bike lanes and a huge bike-sharing program) and even bus riders (select bus service).  Janette Sadik-Khan, commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation from 2007 to 2013, was the major architect behind such projects. In her (and co-author Seth Solomonow's) new book Streetfight, Sadik-Khan chronicles her tenure in the Bloomberg administration and offers a practical guide to implementing her sustainable and human-scale planning initiatives in other cities.

Streetfight is equal parts memoir and overview of major topics in planning. The book is structured thematically, with each chapter touching upon an aspect of transportation planning, including bike lanes, bike-sharing, and infrastructure maintenance. It begins with some background on transportation planning in New York City and a primer on the theories of urban planners such as Jane Jacobs. Streetfight draws its ideas from around the world, looking at innovative programs in other cities and countries and including a passage on how New York's Summer Streets program was inspired by a similar program in Colombian cities. Sadik-Khan is remarkably fair in her analysis throughout, which is refreshing given that some urban planning books exhibit a decent amount of intellectual inflexibility. Streetfight has no agenda to ban all cars from the island of Manhattan or lead some kind of cycler/pedestrian uprising. The book's assertions are largely driven by data, and she shares some fascinating studies from New York City and the rest of the world, including research from London showing that shoppers arriving from non-car modes of transportation considerably outspend those coming by automobile. At the same time, she understands that regardless of what the data and academics say that these ideas need to be politically appetizing in order to succeed. A considerable portion of Streetfight details how Sadik-Khan brokered political compromises such as removing portions of a bike lane in a Hasidic part of Brooklyn to help win a new larger path on a major thoroughfare and the book also recounts the endless public hearings around her policy proposals. Such political concessions are vital to getting policy wins in today's governing environment, and sometimes even public support isn't enough, as was the case with Sadik-Khan's ill-fated congestion charge proposal for parts of Manhattan.

The strongest parts of Streetfight are when Sadik-Khan goes into detail on methods she used to improve biker/rider/walker and yes, even driver (some of her fixes improved traffic flow and/or got other cars off the road and onto other modes of transportation) welfare. Streetfight is filled with diagrams and pictures illustrating concepts and some jarring before-and-afters of how the city brought about some substantial changes with little more than a can of paint and some chairs. The authors are able to present these concepts in a coherent fashion an clearly outline how solutions such as how pedestrian curb refuges function and help calm car traffic. Moreover, while the book offers practical solutions, it is geared towards a general audience and anyone interested on the general subject can take away a lot from reading it.

Transportation policy may no sound like the sexiest topic in the world (and admittedly it isn't), but Streetfight is a remarkably readable volume that manages to provide practical transportation solutions for cities as well as a peek inside the data-heavy and orthodoxy-eschewing Bloomberg administration. There is some repetition and occasionally the largely triumphalist tone (albeit mostly deserved) got grating, but these are both small nits. Overall, Streetfight is an informative and illuminating look at major street transportation-related developments in New York City over the last several years and any reader looking to learn more about how cities work should give Streetfight a look, regardless of whether they are New Yorkers or not.

8 / 10

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Book Review: Fox Tossing by Edward Brooke-Hitching

When reading through books I plan on reviewing, I often jot down a few tidbits that I find interesting enough to at least consider mentioning in the final review. And I started this practice with Edward Brooke-Hitching's Fox Tossing but quickly abandoned it after tiring out my wrists barely twenty pages in. There was at least one duel conducted in hot air balloons? Aerial golf, featuring one player dropping golf balls out of an airplane for his golfing teammate on the ground to sink, was not only once a thing, but played by the likes of Ty Cobb and former New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia? A tour through odd sports that have been long-forgotten by contemporary society, Fox Tossing is well-written and packed with fascinating trivia that will keep any margin jotter quite occupied. Unfortunately, it is also essentially a well-written and fascinating-trivia-packed alphabetical list of items, and this format gets a little monotonous after a while.

The book was spurred by Brooke-Hitching stumbling upon an article on fox tossing (which is basically what you think it is, for all their ridiculousness, some of these sports are rather sensibly named) while he was conducting other research. This discovery led the author stumbling further down the rabbit hole of preposterous pastimes as he searched for more absurd games of yore. Fox Tossing is the result of his findings, with Brooke-Hitching offering brief descriptions of some of his best finds. Each entry goes for about 3-4 pages and there are a good amount of pictures and diagrams, which can be remarkably helpful as some of these sports are so illogical that they are effectively incapable of being described with the written word. There is no greater thematic organization or more macro sections on larger trends or the evolution of sports through the years; Fox Tossing reads like a superlong version of a drier and wittier Cracked article on "The 100 Dumbest Sports Time Forgot."

As Brooke-Hitching explains in his introduction, there are three factors that caused these sports to go extinct: "cruelty, danger, and ridiculousness." Some pastimes, such as octopus wrestling and donkey boxing even managed the entire trifecta. There are some mentions of freakish mutations of major sports like Stoolball and Baby Boxing, but the majority of Fox Tossing's selections concern the mean and/or strange things humans used to do to animals, including tortoise racing and a ton of ways to incite anger and occasionally injury to bears and foxes. These are absorbing themes to be sure, but the repetition will likely wear on readers. Still, Brooke-Hitching is a more than capable guide through these inane sports. He's clearly done his homework, leaving no strange sporting stone unturned and trawling through Florentine manuscripts from the 1300s and the 1794 edition of The Kentish Gazette for his information.

Despite being packed with some absolutely stellar factoids about ridiculous oldentime behavior, Fox Tossing did begin to lose steam for me about two-thirds of the way in. It's not that tortoise racing or ski ballet were any less interesting than auto polo or bow and arrow golf, but simply because the list structure format wore a little thin as things got more repetitive. The content would probably best be served as a longform magazine article where Brooke-Hitching can cherry pick the most intriguing sports and group things thematically with a bit more broader reflections on such sports. I still enjoyed myself and am glad I read Fox Tossing, but I wish the content was organized differently.

7 / 10