Saturday, 23 December 2017

Advance Book Review: All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams

Release Date: February 13, 2018

The Wire has aged remarkably well. Almost 10 years after airing its final episode, the show's themes and subject matter are just as relevant as ever, if not more so. It has also played a huge role in ushering in the era of "peak television" and slow-burning narrative dramas like Breaking Bad and House of Cards. While there are plenty of encyclopedic volumes analyzing episodes and story arcs and critically assessing the show through various academic lenses, there are no comprehensive accounts chronicling The Wire's history and production. Jonathan Abrams' All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of the Wire adeptly fills this gap, providing an illuminating and insightful oral history of the groundbreaking series. With participation from co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns, studio executives, production staff, and essentially every major actor involved with the show, Abrams is able to cobble together a captivating history of the show that should delight all of its fans. 

The book traces the history of the show from creator David Simon's experiences as a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun through its five seasons and its enduring legacy. Proceeding largely chronologically, Abrams explores the show's influences, its major themes, turbulent relationship with HBO, and more, largely through the eyes of those directly involved with it. One recurring subject in All the Pieces Matter is the show's obsession with realism and the painstaking lengths it took to cultivate it. From the first day of shooting, actors and production staff were taking steps to present an accurate depiction of the streets of Baltimore. Actors such as Felicia Pearson (Snoop) were able to bring their personal experiences into the show and help foster its authenticity, and this verisimilitude actually compelled a real-life criminal in Baltimore to surrender himself to Wire actors portraying local cops, believing he had come into contact with the real deal.

Although this is a departure in both format and subject matter from Abrams' last book (the excellent Boys Among Men about the preps-to-pros era in the NBA)he wrote several definitive oral histories on Grantland about basketball (my personal favorite is his history of the 2005 Pacers-Pistons "Malice at the Palace" brawl). Abrams clearly admires The Wire and writes knowledgeably on the subject, to the extent that I was surprised to realize he basically exclusively focused on basketball during his time at Grantland. Abrams begins each chapter with some exposition but then lets his prose take a backseat, letting the players tell their stories. Additionally, Abrams is able to get his interviewees to open up to him, admitting mistakes and offering candid opinions that greatly enrich the reading experience, and he logically organized his book by keeping things reasonably chronological but diving deeply into particular broader areas when applicable. 

Staying consistent with its title, Abrams is able to hunt down virtually every major player involved with the show and the reader discovers the pivotal roles that supporting actors such as Andre Royo (Bubbles) and assistant directors had in the show's success. The only actor with a substantial role missing was Robert Chew (Prop Joe), who tragically died from a heart attack in 2013, and many of his castmates recounted stories about his valuable role as a mentor to younger actors such as the four young teenagers who were central to Season 4. Like many other fans who started watching The Wire after the show's conclusion (invariably after finally caving in after repeated fervid recommendations from friends) and it was strange to see how frequently the show flirted with cancellation. Not just after its languidly-developing first season or the dramatic departure from Season 1 to Season 2, but for virtually each of its 5 seasons (the city of Baltimore compounded matters by threatening to pull the show's shooting permits right before Season 2). Abrams is able to talk with several HBO executives about such matters and get their takes, but their explanations don't make this fact any less mind-boggling.

I have always enjoyed oral histories for their quick pace and colorful insider stories, but I also readily acknowledge their flaws. The two biggest problems with most oral histories is their disjointedness and limited participation. I Want My MTV was a fun read but plagued with random non-sequiturs and James A Miller's mammoth tomes on Saturday Night Live, ESPN, and Creative Artists Agency were generally entertaining but hindered by some key players such as Eddie Murphy sitting out. Thankfully, Abrams is able to avoid both pitfalls through herculean wrangling efforts and adopting a sound structure and format. Sometimes I wish Abrams would chime in a bit more and provide extra background in certain sections, but overall the book flows well, especially given its format. Talking with so many different players allows for multiple perspectives and opinions, and thankfully everyone seems to largely agree on most matters and stories and Abrams is not forced to mediate between multiple conflicting viewpoints. Simon and Burns and the actors (rightfully) are the biggest contributors to the book, but I also liked hearing from writers such as George Pelecanos and Richard Price about their roles in shaping the show. 

The book is packed with anecdotes and trivia (John C. Reilly was one of the early actors considered for McNulty and actors were often prevented from interacting with their real-life inspirations). Yes, some of the trivia such as Omar being originally intended as a bit player are likely familiar to fans, but the insights from David Simon about his thought process about whether a gay character would fit in his gritty, inner-city world and how actor Michael K. Williams interpreted his role add extra color and new revelations to such stories. There was a period in college where I became obsessed with the show and devoured virtually every piece of content related to the series, which like most pop culture minutia has remained moored in long-term memory and crowded out bank passwords and other far more important information, and the book was still quite revealing.

All the Pieces Matter is designed with fans in mind, chock-full of spoilers and references that will fly over the head of the uninitiated, and it is a treat for those who have watched and enjoyed the series (even if they didn't care much for Season 5, like this particular reviewer). The Wire was one of the greatest television shows ever and All The Pieces Matter is the definitive history it deserves. Not only is it an excellent book, it also inspired me to restart the show on HBO Go with an even greater sense of appreciation for its craft and attention to detail. Perhaps this is a bit pessimistic given we're still in December 2017, but I would not be surprised (or bummed out) if All The Pieces Matter ends up being my favorite book published in 2018.

9 / 10 

Friday, 15 September 2017

Advance Book Review: Homogenic by Emily Mackay

Release Date: October 5, 2017

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Bjork's Homogenic, and while the album was not her most commercially-successful or ambitious release, it was her first truly thematically and musically-cohesive album and many fans (this book review author included, though Vespertine makes a strong challenge for the spot every now and again) believe it to be her best full-length. Clearly this is an important work deserving its own entry in Bloomsbury Press' long-running 33 1/3 series, which are generally light and breezy critical explorations of seminal albums. There is no set template for 33 1/3 books, leading to a good amount of diversity, but Emily Mackay, a writer for the likes of NME, The Guardian, and The Quietus, adopts the popular "let's briefly analyze this album from every possible relevant angle" framework and executes it quite well. Her end result is a highly readable look at a classic album that should offer insights and new material for even the most devoted Bjork enthusiasts.

Homoegenic is divided into nine chapters that each study the album from a different perspective. Mackay starts by examining how Bjork's turbulent experiences in the mid-90s, including receiving a letter bomb from a mentally-unstable fan and attacking a reporter at an airport, influenced Homogenic. The middle is devoted to the album itself, looking at lyrical and musical themes and how everything was constructed. The book ends with a study of Bjork's boundary-pushing music videos and experiments with virtual reality and how Bjork has always been at the forefront of technical innovations (her official website launched in 1994 on the same month as the U.S. government's) and places Homogenic in the context of Bjork's discography.

Mackay draws heavily from Bjork's interviews, and the book benefits considerably from Bjork being such a prolific interview subject and so open and honest with music journalists. In addition to the usual magazine interviews, Mackay also mines chat logs and other communications and all of the quotes she shares are relevant and thoughtful. A good bit of them were also new to me, which is a considerable achievement given I have devoured a substantial chunk of the content on the outstanding fansite (as Mackay did over the course of writing her book). That is not to say that this is just a rehashing of old interviews, as the author provides her own analysis when breaking down the album's lyrical and musical content and she also was able to interview major players who worked on the album including composer Eumir Deodato. Some 33 1/3 books fall flat with die-hard fans of the album because a lot of the content is old hat to them, but Homogenic does not suffer from this as there is plenty of original material.

The best 33 1/3 books cause listeners to increase their appreciation for their subjects and Mackay succeeds in that area as well. She identifies several subtle musical flourishes that such as how a short synth riff emulates whale noises during Bachelorette and how the electronic whines that open "Hunter" are actually distorted samples of an accordion that I wasn't aware of even after listening to the album tons of times. Homogenic made me want to jump back into the album and look for all the themes and elements Mackay touched upon in her book as well as look for other things I might have missed. Fans of Bjork will really enjoy this and Homogenic is one of the stronger entries in the series.

8.5 / 10 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Advance Book Review: Greater than Ever: New York's Big Comeback by Daniel Doctoroff

Release Date: September 12, 2017
Amazon / Goodreads

In some respects, Greater than Ever: New York's Big Comeback could appear to be the victim of bad timing. This summer the city has struggled with especially frequent subway delays, due in part to unprecedented levels of overcrowding. It should be noted, however, that the increased ridership is largely a result of the tremendous growth the city has enjoyed as it recovered from the September 11th attacks. At the start of the Bloomberg administration in 2002, the future of the city seemed much bleaker and the prospect of subway crowding far unlikelier. New York had lost 43,000 jobs in the wake of the attack, 18,000 small businesses were destroyed or displaced and vacancy rates in lower Manhattan skyrocketed. Fifteen years later, the city has seen tremendous development in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn has enjoyed spectacular growth in both population and purveyors of artisan mayonnaise, and new developments such as the High Line, Barclays Center, Hudson Yards, and Brooklyn Bridge Park have revitalized neighborhoods and driven sizable economic growth. Daniel Doctoroff served as the Deputy Mayor for economic development and rebuilding during the first six years of the Bloomberg administration, and in Greater than Ever he reflects on his tenure in the role and how the city achieved such impressive, subway-clogging growth. It is an enlightening and engaging peek into the messy world of urban politics and one of the better books I've read on the subject.

Doctoroff's book is essentially a memoir of his tenure under Mike Bloomberg and touches upon all of the major projects he worked on. It details efforts such as re-zoning 40% of the city to foster growth in neighborhoods such as Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, building new stadiums for the Mets and Yankees, attracting businesses to locate in the city, and improve the lives of New Yorkers through environmental regulations and pedestrianizing streets. The author was a political neophyte when he initially took on the role, having worked in investment banking and private equity before being tapped by Bloomberg. He quickly learned the importance of schmoozing and vote-trading and developed advanced politician mollification techniques to help manufacture the sausage known as urban policy. Doctoroff was at the front lines of many massive initiatives conducted by the Bloomberg administration and describes the often contentious behind-the-scenes negotiations with state and city politicians to get his ideas off the ground.

The book is not afraid to get into the policy weeds, and Doctoroff spends ample time analyzing the rationale for his redevelopment strategy and the intended effects of his policy interventions. Greater than Ever is intended for the lay reader, however, (basically if you are a regular reader of the "New York" section of The New York Times, liked The Power Broker or The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or have any interest in New York City or urban development in general, you'll really like this book and nothing is going to go over your head from a reading difficulty perspective), and Doctoroff is an amiable and intelligible guide through urban economic development concepts. While he may have a business background rather than an academic one, Doctoroff delves into topics such as tax increment financing and selling air rights with a clarity and lucidity that college students probably wish their professors had.

Greater than Ever also offers an account of life in the Bloomberg administration and some insight into how the mayor ran the city (very much like a business, it turns out). Calculating, analytical, and hyper-rational, Bloomberg comes off very well in the book and is portrayed as someone with the best interest of New Yorkers at heart. He was willing to make the tough call on politically-unsavory measures such as raising property taxes and restricting smoking if it meant that overall quality-of-life would improve for the city. The reader also learns about Bloomberg's management philosophy, which is largely based around finding smart, talented, and passionate people and trusting them to make the right calls, which is how Doctoroff had a brief stint as head of Bloomberg L.P. after stepping down as deputy mayor. Doctoroff acknowledges that Bloomberg had his flaws and wasn't the perfect mayor, and while he clearly admires the man Greater than Ever doesn't ever feel like a hagiography of Bloomberg or the city. Greater than Ever is fair-minded and objective throughout, quick to admit mistakes and Doctoroff and Bloomberg's foibles.

Doctoroff was criticized by some in the press as being too preoccupied with the city's 2012 Olympics bid, and his efforts at wooing the International Olympic Committee receive several chapters in Greater than Ever. While his Olympic role may seem unrelated to his deputy mayorship, he viewed the games as a way to galvanize action and development. The thinking is that every city wants to put their best foot forward while hosting the world and hosting the Olympics both motivates considerable new construction and improvements and creates a hard deadline for their completion. Doctoroff specifically wanted to leverage the games to get a new stadium and convention center built on what would eventually become Hudson Yards. The book covers all the wining-and-dining necessary in an Olympic bid and navigating through all the national governing bodies and greasing and/or fawning over them, as well as the campaign's pitches to the IOC and other bodies and how absurdly stubborn former MLB Commissioner and head of the 1984 Los Angeles games Peter Ueberroth was throughout the process (even Donald Trump comes off better in the book, as while he had a few petty spats with Doctoroff he sent him a nice thank you card (albeit with a typo) when he stepped down and was occasionally cooperative with Doctoroff). I'm not sure such extensive coverage of the selection process and other minutiae really contributed to the book's major topic, but the Olympics were central to some major redevelopment processes and I also am personally interested in all the work that goes into such a bid. Readers less enthusiastic about sports and/or associated selection processes in order to attract sporting events can find solace in the fact that these passages are interwoven throughout the book (because again, the Olympics was intended to serve as a catalyst for development to achieve Doctoroff's development goals) and it's not like Greater than Ever turns into a book about the IOC for 100 consecutive pages or anything.

Ultimately, Greater than Ever does a splendid job at outlining New York's economic comeback that began in the 2000's. Doctoroff worked tirelessly on New York's development and its Olympic bid and his passion for both areas comes through on every page, as well as his deep knowledge on such subjects. His book is an excellent read and benefits greatly from his prominent role in the rebuilding effort as an insider and trusted confidante of Mike Bloomberg. If you are looking for an enlightening and at times even engrossing read about urban policy and development you should pick up Greater than Ever. 

8.0 / 10 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Advance Book Review: Betaball by Erik Malinowski

Release Date: October 3, 2017

Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History is a decent chronicle of the Golden State Warriors' recent run of success, though I was disappointed by its light treatment of the "how" in its subtitle. The reader doesn't gain much insight into how the team utilized cutting-edge analytics and technological platforms to forge its success, with the book instead focusing largely on season-by-season recaps with little additional analysis. At its worst it reads like a digest of game recaps with details the average Warriors fan is likely already familiar with. There are a few compelling passages when author Erik Malinowski covers some of the innovations and strategies leveraged by the Warriors' players and front office, but I can't recommend the book too strongly to the casual NBA fan. Warrior fans should get some enjoyment out of Betaball, though they should be forewarned that there may not be a ton of new material for them. 

The book does start out strongly, outlining the storied history of the Warriors and how former owner Chris Cohan helped drive the team deep into the Western Conference doldrums, at one point going 19 seasons without reaching the playoffs. There are also detailed profiles of major actors in the team's turnaround, such as new owner Joe Lacob, a former Silicon Valley venture capitalist who attempted to apply his business philosophies to running the Warriors. The Warriors have their fair share of quirky and engaging characters, and when Malinowski describes how Lacob built his front office or covers coach Steve Kerr's cosmopolitan childhood Betaball at times feels like Michael Lewis' book chronicling another Bay Area professional sports franchise looking to gain competitive advantages through unorthodox means. Malinowski is the lead writer for the Warriors on Bleacher Report and has been published in Wired and Rolling Stone. He clearly has a lot of passion for his subject and to his credit the book is well-researched and comprehensive. There are brief mentions of how Lacob tried to change the company's culture and emphasize analytics and apply the business principles that served him so well in the VC world to basketball. 

From time to time Malinowski will mention advanced new technologies utilized by the Warriors, though he is frustratingly light on details or analysis. The Warriors were early adopters of player-tracking software such as SportVU, developed proprietary performance metrics, and even tracked player psychographics to help manage cultural fits and personalities. They even gave Kevin Durant virtual reality goggles to simulate the experience of walking out onto the Oracle Arena as a Warrior when they were recruiting him, and while the technology fritzed out during their meeting it seems that it didn't turn off KD from the team. As someone who is fascinated by such technologies, I wish Malinowski spent more time outlining how the Warriors employed such tools. I understand that team officials might be tight-lipped about such matters, but Malinowski could try to reach out to the founders of such platforms and tools to speak in broad terms about how their stuff works (readers interested in learning more about such things should check out Brandon Sneed's Head in the Game, which features many company founders more than happy to tout their products). Many of the "season recap" books can quickly descend into monotony and read like box scores tied together with a tiny bit of prose, and Betaball succumbs to this at times. The Warriors' unorthodox approach to running a team offered Malinowski a compelling angle to enliven the rather staid recap genre and I feel like he could have done more with it. 

The bulk of Betaball is season-by-season reviews of the Warriors' campaigns, beginning with Steph Curry's rookie season in 2009-2010. Malinowski highlights notable games and off-court happenings and draws heavily from primary sources. To my knowledge Malinowski didn't conduct any additional interviews for the book, so what you get is basically a series of game recaps without much additional insight. As someone who likes basketball but is not a Warriors fan, this format grew tiresome as I became bored by Malinowski reciting Curry's shooting performances, describing a few key plays, and noting controversial/incendiary/insightful comments uttered in press conferences. The book covers the 2009-2010 season through the 2015-2016 season (with a brief epilogue covering the Warriors' Finals win in 2017) and there is no real suspense or tension for any reader who paid one iota of attention to general basketball happenings over the last few years. Will the Warriors break the record for best regular season record? Will the Warriors blow their 3-1 Finals lead to the Cavs? Will Kevin Durant come to Oakland? Spoiler Alert: Yes, Yes, Yes. I realize that society's collective memory and attention span seems to get shorter and shorter, but the average reader is probably well aware what went down in the 2016 NBA Finals, and rehashing events without much additional analysis isn't going to be all that engaging. 

While parts of this review can be rightly interpreted as harsh, Beta Ball is a fine entry in the "season recap" genre. My disappointment is a result of Malinowski devoting too many pages to the "what" (the Warriors winning a lot) and not enough to the "how" that helped them turn around the franchise. If you're a fan of the team you will probably enjoy rekindling these largely positive memories, but average fans may be left wanting more. 

5.5 / 10

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Advance Book Review: 4th and Goal Every Day by Phil Savage with Ray Glier

Release Date: August 29, 2017

Dating back to the start of the 2008 season, Alabama has played in exactly three regular season games in which it had been eliminated from national title contention. This is an absolutely mind-boggling factoid and a testament to the outstanding job Nick Saban has done leading the Crimson Tide since he arrived at the team in 2007. Despite ridiculous levels of staff turnover, he has managed to churn out dominant seasons year after year. In 4th and Goal Everyday, former Saban co-worker (the two worked together as assistants under Bill Belichick with the Browns), ex-Browns General Manager (the less said about that the better, to his credit he did draft Joe Thomas), and current Alabama radio analyst and Executive Director of the Senior Bowl Phil Savage investigates the secrets to Saban's success at Alabama.

I approached the book with some trepidation because its presumably publishing house-decided title seemed ridiculously cliched and portended a slew of clunky metaphors and hagiographic prose. And yes, Saban comes off very well (there is a brief section on his less-than-stellar tenure with the Miami Dolphins, but it's not particularly long or thoughtful), but there is some substance between talking about how great and successful he is. Savage is able to leverage his connections with Saban to share stories from their days as NFL assistants and how working under Belichick shaped Saban's coaching philosophies. He is still very close to Saban and even writes up film notes for Saban to help prepare for games, but this isn't a fly-on-the-wall account of a season in the life of Saban. Rather, Savage relies mostly on anecdotes and interviews with former players and coaches to help the reader understand how Saban operates. Thankfully, he is able to get a wide array of former Tide players to open up about their experiences and his stories from the Browns also help the reader learn about what shaped Saban during his formative coaching years.

So what makes Saban so great? Savage offers several reasons, dividing his book into the various contributors to the Tide's dynastic run over the last few years. Some factors include emphasizing fundamentals, a tremendous emphasis on recruiting (which has to be helped by the Tide's status as a SEC juggernaut, it's much easier to get talented players when you're located in a high school football hotbed and are consistently the best college team in the country), and constant desire for improvement and innovation and adapting to and setting trends. He is also excellent at developing talent, to the point where some NFL scouts ding Alabama prospects because they assume that Saban has milked all he can out of them and they have basically hit their skill ceilings.

The reader gains considerable insight into Saban's quirks and personality. He is obsessed with little details and perfectionist puts a lot of pressure on himself and his players and fellow coaches, with this high-stakes ethos serving as the source for the (rather cheesy, to be honest) title of this book. Anecdotes such as how Bill Belichick forced Savage to run tryouts for Browns ball boys illustrate the "no detail is too small" philosophy that Saban adheres to at Bama. Savage also details several coaching innovations over the last several decades that Saban is leveraging, such as the Cowboys' data-driven approach to drafting players that began in the early days of the franchise.

Overall, 4th and Goal Everyday is a pleasant read for Alabama fans and anyone interested in how dominant college football programs operate. Savage devotes plenty of time to X's and O's such as why Saban stopped recruiting traditional Nose Tackles and how he coaches defensive backs but also how he fosters a culture of winning and more off-the-field matters. It definitely seems geared towards Alabama supporters, and even die-hard fans may get a bit bored by Savage monotonously detailing recent major Alabama games, but all in all it's a decent read. You're not going to get a deep psychoanalytical investigation into Saban (I doubt he's the kind of person to really open up all that much about anything anyway) but you will finish with a better understanding of how he has been so successful for so long at Alabama.

6.5 /10

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Advance Book Review: Wiggaz with Attitude by Andrew Emery

Release Date: August 21, 2017

The basic premise of Andrew Emery's new memoir Wiggaz With Attitude isn't particularly earth-shattering. The author chronicles his experiences growing up as a white hip-hop fan in an ethnically vanilla region where his music preferences were met with confusion and occasionally derision from his peers. He also goes into considerable depth on his dabblings as a rapper during his teenage years, which, as the "My Life As a Failed White Rapper" subtitle might suggest, resulted in little more than a few random recordings and performances at sparsely-attended shows. While Emery occasionally lapses into self-indulgence when he deeply examines his old recordings that even he acknowledges often aren't particularly high-quality, his writing chops and clear passion and knowledge for all things hip-hop caused Wiggaz With Attitude to exceed my expectations and made for a quite entertaining read.

Emery grew up in 1980s England and following the music was a dramatically difficult endeavor during its early years. He writes of scrounging for whatever bits of hip-hop he could find on obscure radio stations, immediately befriending the few schoolmates who had an interest in the music, and poring through the pages of Hip-Hop Connection, a British monthly that actually predates The Source as the world's first hip-hop magazine. The music had a huge impact on his worldview and eventually inspired ambitions of rap stardom. Emery began to write rhymes in his early teens and performed in a few local groups. The bulk of Wiggaz with Attitude centers around Emery's limited rap career, detailing his music evolution (Emery cycled through several different hip-hop lyrical personas, including an especially amusing period as an uber-conscious, albeit somewhat hypocritical and misguided, rapper) and attempts at making it big while balancing music with making money and school.

Emery combines wistful nostalgia with reflective embarrassment and is an engaging guide through his rap career, teenage years, and hip-hop music in general from the 1980s through the early 90s. He brings an encyclopedic knowledge on the subject, getting way into the weeds on hip hop arcana and trivia such as the legendary 1981 battle between the Cold Crush Brothers and the Fantastic Romantic Five at Harlem World and his favorite songs about cars in the book's frequent footnotes. My personal highlights while reading Wiggaz were the passages where Emery riffs on random hip-hop minutia or goes off on topics like why live rap is often so underwhelming. He's also a gifted writer, perceptively noting that rappers will often request the crowd to make substantial amounts of noise, preferably of "the 'motherfucking' variety" and taking KRS-One (Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everybody) to task for never specifying the few individuals who are above knowledge over his thirty-plus years as a recording artist. Wiggaz also benefits from the fact that U.K. hip-hop fans are rather underrepresented in the genre's limited literary canon, and it was interesting for me to read about how the music was received and followed in the country.

At times Wiggaz felt like it dwelled too much on Emery's rap career. This isn't a book like Hot Karl's Kanye West Owes Me $300 where he seemed on the precipice of fame and just had a few bad bounces that doomed him to relative obscurity. Outside of a brief flash of interest from Gee Street Records (who released P.M. Dawn's eclectic and critically-acclaimed 1992 album Of the Heart, Of the Soul, of the Cross: The Utopian Experience), Emery's rap groups never came anywhere close to making it big, medium, or small. Which is totally fine, and doesn't detract from his reflections on what the genre meant to him as a white kid growing up in Leeds and small-town England or his sense of wonder at finally traveling to the hip-hop mecca of New York City. And Emery is self-effacing and is always willing for the reader to have a laugh at his teenage rapper self's expense when sharing some of his old lyrics. Still, the book would occasionally drag when Emery would analyze seemingly every song put out by his rap crews. I liked Emery's review of his forays into didactic and super-political hip-hop and his posse cut about drinking tea was clever but a lot of his other songs were kinda bland (a fact that Emery willingly points out) and grew tiresome to read through.
One frustrating aspect of Wiggaz is that there are times it feels like Emery is holding back on the reader. Early on there is a footnote about a time when he punched Woody Harrelson at a party without much further context, and I understand why he didn't elaborate much on that (though as he tells it the True Detective star was in the wrong) in what is ostensibly a memoir about growing up as a hip-hop head. I'm more referring to how the book's narrative arc basically ends after Emery graduates university and gives up his rapping career. This would have been fine and understandable if he became an accountant or something similarly un-hip-hop, but Emery instead worked at the aforementioned Hip-Hop Connection magazine, eventually becoming its contributing editor. He teases the reader by mentioning in passing activities like playing pool with the Beatnuts, a disastrous interview with Method Man, Prodigy falling asleep on him, and conducting a phone interview with Lauryn Hill while she was in the shower. I would have loved for him to have elaborated on at least some of these and share some of his other adventures in hip-hop journalism. We can at least take solace in the fact that this isn't Emery's only book (he previously penned The Book of Hip-Hop Cover Art and is currently working on a book about hip-hop memorabilia.

As part of doing due diligence and adequately performing my duty as a book blogger, I perused Emery's website and found that he does in fact have plans to eventually release a book called Adventures with Rappers, and it's safe to say that I'll being pre-ordering (or better yet requesting a review copy) the first second I can. Wiggaz showcases Emery's wit and deep knowledge about hip-hop and his ability to entertain the reader. It's a funny and reflective paean to hip-hop that refreshingly doesn't take the genre (or Emery's limited contributions to it) all that seriously but does an excellent job at capturing how the music has captivated generations of fans from the Bronx to Bingham, Nottingshire.

8 / 10

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Advance Book Review: Truth Doesn't Have a Side by Dr. Bennet Omalu with Mark Tabb

Release Date: August 8, 2017

A 2016 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling found that only 19% of NFL fans had favorable opinions of Commissioner Roger Goodell. Less statistically-minded readers just need to tune into the NFL Draft when Goodell is met with a loud chorus of boos every time he steps on the stage, even when accompanied by the likes of NFL legends and sick children (though the booing fans are at least polite enough to make an effort to demonstrate that their sonic opprobrium is only intended for the commish). It wasn't always like this. Goodell was largely unknown among casual followers of the sport when he took the job in 2006 and there was a time where he could interact with fans without requiring the constant watch of a massive security team. There are a few factors behind Goodell's vilification, but perhaps the NFL's tremendously poor handling of the concussion issue is most responsible for his current unpopularity (at least outside of New England). Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who made the initial link between football and chronic tramautic encephalopathy, has been one of Goodell's biggest bugbears as he paved the way for further research into the dangers of football. In Truth Doesn't Have a Side, Omalu recounts his experiences working to uncover the relationship between football and CTE and the frightening health consequences of the sport, as well as his unlikely path from war-torn Nigeria to the United States and the the impact and outcomes of his findings both within his field and his personal life. Omalu's story is a remarkable one, but the book largely follows the general paint-by-numbers celebrity memoir and lacks enough depth or introspection for me to strongly recommend it, though it's a decent read in general. 

The first third of Truth Doesn't Have a Side cover Omalu's childhood and his winding route from an undernourished child in Nigeria to a doctor in America with a Will Smith movie based on his work.  Born in a refugee camp during the Nigerian Civil War, Omalu was born while his father recuperated from a bombing attack in the same hospital. Omalu's family lost all their savings in the conflict, but his parents were able to provide for him after the war and instill into Omalu the value of education. After earning his degree in Nigeria he was able to secure a fellowship at the University of Washington and eventually ended up as a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh.

Omalu's interest in exploring the health impact of football after the death of former Steelers Center Mike Webster. Webster, a local favorite who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, had struggled with depression and a host of other psychological issues that sprang up after his retirement from the game. Omalu had his own personal struggles with depression and sought to understand how Webster's personality had changed so dramatically, eventually leading him to discover the link between playing football and CTE. Since Webster had conclusively passed from a massive heart attack, Omalu's pursuit of probing deeper into Webster's health woes was completely a pet project that was done on his outside time, out of his desire to set the record straight on Webster. Omalu conducted further research and was able to link many other former football players to CTE, drawing the ire of the NFL. Truth Doesn't Have a Side describes the ramifications of going up against a sporting behemoth, including claims that he was trailed on several occasions and having his credentials and research challenged and contending with roadblocks on getting his results published. The NFL doesn't come out looking very good in this, but none of Omalu's claims in the book are particularly new. This highlights one of the biggest problems of the book for me: it's an interesting story and covers a huge topic with ridiculously important implications for the long-term health (literally and financially) of one of the biggest sports leagues in the world and a long-running institution, but the book itself doesn't cover much new ground. I wish Omalu went into more insider detail on his research and battles with the NFL rather than providing a surface-level summary and moving on to the next chapter in his life. There just simply isn't enough depth or new information given that his work has been chronicled before in magazines, books, and movies.

Truth Doesn't Have a Side is more of a memoir than an anti-football manifesto, but Omalu does make his opinions on the safety of the sport known. His medical advice seems completely sound (not that I'd ever be in a position to quibble with him on such matters) and his more philosophical and ethical arguments seem reasonable. Omalu contends that, due to a variety of factors including the fact that the brain is one of the few human organs incapable of healing itself, humans really shouldn't play football, and if they do they should wait until they are 18 and responsible enough to decide for themselves. Seems fair enough, and Omalu answers a plethora of questions about the safety of contact sports at the end of the book outlining the various risks and why he takes such positions. Still, it's a bit naive to think that this would ever fly in football-mad states like Texas, and assuming that some parents and kids are willing to skirt any restrictions, it would be quite difficult for any player to try to make a college team without any prior football experience given the technical nature of the game.

Overall, Truth Doesn't Have a Side is a pleasant and quick read and a worthwhile read for anyone interested in CTE research and/or who enjoyed the Concussion movie. It never really transcends the celebrity memoir genre though and is unfortunately a bit shallow. Outside of his childhood and his thoughts about how it felt to have a Will Smith movie based on his life (spoiler alert: he thinks it's pretty cool), Omalu doesn't bring much new insight into his research on CTE that hasn't been covered elsewhere.

6/ 10 

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Advance Book Review: The Fall in The House of FIFA by David Conn

Amazon (Release Date: June 20) / Goodreads

David Conn begins his exhaustive chronicle of FIFA's recent sordid affairs on an uncharacteristically bright note, spending the first chapter describing how he was enraptured by the 1974 World Cup as a 9 year-old. Every four years the World Cup comes around and mesmerizes and brings joy to fans across the globe and reaffirms that soccer is at its core a game designed to offer pleasure to players and spectators. 1974 marked a transitional year for the sport's global governing body, FIFA, as Brazilian business Joao Havelange won the presidency over Englishman Stanley Rous, who embraced a purer, less commercial approach to soccer. In The Fall in the House of FIFA, Conn gives an exhaustive account of FIFA's indiscretions over the last 40 years and describes how the organization strayed from its humble beginnings. Conn reported on much of FIFA's recent misdeeds, including corrupt bidding processes for the World Cups in Qatar and South Africa, misappropriations of development funds for domestic Football Associations, rigged presidential elections, and the like, for The Guardian and serves as an able guide through FIFA's bad behavior. Conn's book is an authoritative tome on FIFA corruption, though it occasionally gets a bit dry. I would put it front and center of the syllabus of any college course on the dark sides of Swiss-based international sporting organizations worth its salt, but it can become a grind for the more casual reader.

Given the massive sponsorships and television audiences attracted by global soccer today, it is remarkable how modest FIFA's origins were. Formed in 1904 in the backroom of the Union Francaise de Sports Athletiques building in Paris, FIFA started with only 7 members (with snooty England sitting out) and was designed for the express purpose of facilitating games between nations. Somewhat ironically, FIFA ruled that "no person should be allowed to arrange matches for personal profit." Over the years, FIFA would morph into a sporting and economic juggernaut, consisting of over 200 nations (as anyone who has ever been exposed to one iota of FIFA's self-congratulatory behavior already knows, the organization features more members than the United Nations). Conn tracks the evolution of the organization and the figures who shaped its trajectory. While Conn peppers in a few on-field accounts of various World Cups, much of the action in his book takes place in backrooms, hotel rooms, and offices, and he focuses mostly on off-field affairs.

The meat of Fall in the House of FIFA understandably centers around the organization's nadir that had its roots in its initial forays into mega-sponsorships with a deal with Coca Cola in the early 70s and eventually culminated in Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner, Chuck Blazer, and other FIFA officials' downfalls over the last few years. Blatter took over from Havelange in 1998 running against a more reform-minded candidate, and winning the election under rumors of vote-buying. While Qatar's successful World Cup bid was the last straw for Blatter and is probably the misdeed most familiar to Americans likely still sore over losing hosting rights, Blatter's term was marred by a plethora of other problems, including funneling/bribing local FAs with humongous sums of money for grassroots soccer. Blatter did not act alone and there are substantial chapters devoted to other major players such as CONCACAF executives Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner and UEFA President Michel Platini. Conn is evenhanded with his writing, acknowledging the good that these officials did to promote the sport in their regions in spite of their less-magnanimous activities that earn the most of his attention. The book reads like an extended investigative newspaper article, meticulously researched with ample detail, though it can begin to feel like a slog if you are less interested in reading about political corruption. I wish there was more analysis into the psyches of these executives and what compelled them to take bribes and otherwise behave poorly, but in Conn's defense the vast majority of his subjects have clammed up and aren't willing to divulge much at all, basically leaving him stuck detailing the "what" over the "why." Conn does offer some analysis on what mechanisms helped facilitate FIFA's corruption, including the odd voting policies that often granted nations such as Montserrat (population 4,900) just as much voting clout as Germany.

The book ends on an especially strong note with an extended interview with Sepp Blatter. While Blatter was evasive and guarded when Conn reached out to the former FIFA head earlier in the book, he is far more open to the author in his later interview, reflecting on his tenure and final days as president. He's not the most regretful person in the world and still makes some effort to protect his character (though it's safe to say he's probably ruled out ever winning the Nobel Prize by now) but it's still a good read and was the highlight of the book for me.

Overall, your enjoyment of The Fall in the House of FIFA is going to depend on how interesting you are in the subject. If you are looking for a one-stop book that outlines the history of FIFA and an encyclopedic account of its recent corruption and the fall of Sepp Blatter, you'll probably love the book. If you are interested in soccer as a sport as well as an economic and sociological phenomenon but you aren't that keen on reading about FBI investigations and accounts of executives behaving badly, then I'd advise you to stay away. Having said that, The Fall in the House of FIFA deftly accomplishes what it set out to do and is an authoritative and informative account of FIFA's recent activity.

7 / 10 

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Book Review: How to Watch Football by Ruud Gullit

Some aspects of soccer, such as a brilliant run by Leo Messi or one of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's ridiculous karate-kick goals, are intrinsically delightful and do not require any knowledge about the sport to enjoy. Others, like Portugal's stultifying style of play during the 2016 Euros, are intolerable to even the most ardent and sophisticated soccer fans. Most of the time, however, soccer operates between these two extremes, and like virtually every entertainment medium, a greater understanding of the nuances of the sport makes for a more rewarding viewing experience. Ruud Gullit's How to Watch Football sees the legendary player and current pundit attempt to impart some of his wisdom about hte game to the curious fan. It's a decent, albeit slightly disorganized and cliche-ridden read, and does leave the reader with a better understanding of the sport.

The book is organized a bit haphazardly, beginning with a not-entirely-necessary autobiography/memoir of Gullit's early years and playing days. It is at least mildly interesting fare, and the reader gets a feel for Gullit's ego and opinionated nature, on everything from PSV Eindhoven's kit design to the Netherlands' tactics in international tournaments. Gullit transitions from his personal reflections to the meat of the book: offering a reasonably comprehensive analysis of the major elements of soccer. There are sizable passages on topics like the most popular formations and tactics, the role of each position, and the playing styles prevalent in each major soccer nation. Gullit draws heavily from his playing and coaching days (though perhaps unsurprisingly he basically ignores his rocky managerial tenure in the MLS with the Los Angeles Galaxy), sharing heaps of anecdotes. Most of the time these are illuminating and help further support his concepts and assertions, though he can get grating when he constantly rails on Jose Mourinho and how much tougher players were back in his day (and don't get Gullit started on the amount of time contemporary youth spend on their cellular phones).

How to Watch Football attempts to fill a niche that is surprisingly underserved, at least in the US market, of an intermediate-level soccer viewing guide. In terms of how advanced the content is, I'd put it somewhere between Soccer for Dummies and Jonathan Wilson's outstanding Inverting the Pyramid (which is solely devoted to formations and tactics). On the whole, I did pick up some nice random tidbits about the intricacies of the sport like position play and the evolution of the Dutch talent development system, though it's too uneven overall to recommend too highly for the average reader. You will probably gain some insight about the game though, and it's worth checking out if you want to better understand and appreciate the game.

6.5 / 10 

Monday, 27 March 2017

Advance Book Review: Ballplayer by Chipper Jones

Release Date: April 4
Amazon / Goodreads

Ballplayer, Chipper Jones' somewhat-generic entry in the "star athlete memoir" genre, will probably entertain Braves and/or Jones fans but doesn't offer a ton for the casual baseball fan who never performed a Tomahawk Chop. Jones had a long and illustrious career with its fair share of ups and downs, but Ballplayer is hurt by shallow writing and many tired athlete memoir tropes. It has a few positive moments and is overall an average read, but it's hard to strongly recommend the book to the general fan. 

The book follows the tried-and-true player memoir format. Jones recounts his early years growing up as the son of a baseball coach in rural Florida and describes some impactful moments from his childhood. We learn that his switch-hitting was encouraged by his Mickey Mantle-idolizing father and how his regret about leaving his local high school for a snootier prep powerhouse in Jacksonville contributed to him staying with the Braves for his entire professional career. The bulk of the book concerns his tenure with the Braves, and gives a chronological overview of his professional career and his experiences on the field and in the clubhouse. Jones offers insight into the personalities of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Bobby Cox, and other Braves staff and also shares some run-ins with other players such as Barry Bonds (unsurprisingly a bit of a jerk to Jones). The broad synopses of each season drag a little bit as many of them blend together but there are a few amusing anecdotes, such as how Jones decided to go deer hunting on the day of his first-ever World Series game. The reader will also pick up some useful nuggets of baseball wisdom along the way, which is probably the best aspect of the book. Jones was a true student of the game (his future certainly lies in some kind of coaching or analyst role assuming he still wants to work) and he also has an astounding memory of his playing history. He shares tidbits such as how the major benefit of becoming a switch-hitter is preventing sliders going away from the batter and that hard-throwing pitchers with better "stuff" outperform more control-based hurlers in colder weather because batters are less warmed-up. 

Ballplayer's biggest drawbacks center on Jones' limited writing abilities. On the prose front, Jones isn't particularly strong at describing things and my Kindle counted 6 separate instances of the phrase "shit-eating grin" (and I'm not entirely convinced it captured all of them). Jones simply isn't all that great at articulating his feelings and the writing in general often came off as clunky. Even when dealing with his off-field troubles (Jones got divorced twice and had an affair with a Hooters waitress in 1997 that resulted in a son) Jones' writing reads like a public apology statement. I'm not going to play armchair psychologist and try to understand whether he's truly remorseful or not, but I will play armchair book reviewer and say that these passages weren't interesting or insightful.   

In recent years Jones has had some incendiary and foolish tweets, including suggesting the Sandy Hook school shootings were a conspiracy, making tasteless jokes about illegal immigrants, and challenging an army veteran who was angry about being snubbed for an autograph over 15 years ago to a fistfight in an extended and inane stream of threats and insults. That said, his tone isn't absurdly arrogant over the course of Ballplayer and his personality didn't bother me. Jones' peak performance coincided with my formative years and it was nice to relive some of the biggest moments of 90's baseball and read about some of the game's stars during the period, and I appreciated the times Jones shared some of his substantial wisdom about the game. Still, Ballplayer is a typical player memoir, and suffers from the same problems that plague most offerings in the genre. Braves fans will like it, but for the general fan it's just an average read. 


Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Best Books About Football

Football has set itself pretty firmly on top of the American sports pantheon in terms of national interest and economic success, but the sport's literary oeuvre doesn't have the best reputation (I blame Just Give Me the Damn Ball!). While there is ample evidence for the argument that "most football books aren't very good," there are a handful of works that are actually worth reading, which will be highlighted in the list below.

The "rules" and structure of this post are basically the same as when I wrote about the best hip-hop books: everything is loosely ordered by topic rather than rank, starred entries are especially recommended, and my personal 5 favorite books are included at the end. I stuck to non-fiction books only (which wasn't too hard, I found North Dallas Forty and Semi-Tough to be pretty overrated, though to be fair neither aged particularly well. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk was decent but isn't really a football book.), and there are no limits on author appearances. Every entry includes an Amazon link in case you want to learn more about the title, this site is a labor of love and they aren't affiliate links, it's just for the benefit of the reader.

The Classics: Books Your Dad Would Recommend (That He is Justified in Recommending)
There are a few books, generally older ones, that are held in high regard by football fans and considered "required reading" by any dad or grandfather worth his salt. Sometimes (see blurb about Semi-Tough and North Dallas Forty), they are wrong, but here is where they are justified.  

Paper Lion by George Plimpton* 
For whatever reason, baseball has historically attracted the more literary types, which is why it is always an absolute treat when a writer of Plimpton's caliber decides to write about gridiron-related matters. In Paper Lion, Plimpton suits up for the Detroit Lions, joining them for training camp and participating in an intrasquad scrimmage. Curious, perceptive, and willing to make a fool of himself for the sake of journalism, Plimpton is an engaging guide through the Lions' 1963 training camp, and does an excellent job at demonstrating how a regular Joe would fare in the NFL of the early 60's (spoiler alert: not incredibly well) and giving a peek into training camp life. Plimpton also strikes up friendships with many Lions, showing the more personal sides of legends such as Dick "Night Train" Lane, Dick LeBeau, and Alex Karras (who was actually suspended for the 1963 but features in the stories of many a Lions player in the book).

Plimpton wrote a follow-up of sorts to Paper Lion with Mad Ducks and Bears, which is mainly Lions linemen Alex Karras and and John Gordy reflecting back on their careers in the game. It's not worthy of inclusion on this best-of list, but there's worse ways to spend a few hours if you really enjoyed Paper Lion.  

Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer with Dick Schaap*
Yes, another behind-the-scenes account of a Midwestern NFL team from the 60's. Kramer was a mainstay at guard for the Green Bay Packers (one of the pulling linemen for the team's fabled Power Sweep) and Instant Replay chronicles the Packers' 1967 season, in which they would win the NFL Championship in the famed Ice Bowl game (in which Kramer featured prominently in the final play) and thump the Raiders in the Super Bowl. Similar to Paper Lion, Kramer's book transports the reader back to the NFL of the 60's, which was a truly different time. It's obviously dated if you want to understand what current NFL-ers have to contend with but if you're interested in how the sport has evolved and how it was to play for Vince Lombardi you should pick this up.

About Three Bricks Shy... And the Load Filled Up by Roy Blount Jr.  
Coming only a few years after Jim Bouton's Ball Four, Blount's classic book chronicling the Pittsburgh Steelers' 1973 season presents an intimate portrait of the team and its remarkably colorful players, warts and all. This was the period right before the team would achieve juggernaut status, and most of the core that would win 4 Super Bowls from 1975 through 1980 was in place, and the reader gets a look inside one of the best NFL teams ever. Blount is a witty observer of affairs and writes with a freewheeling, semi-rambling style with frequent injections of humor. He also had loads of great material to work with, from the sartorially-advanced Frenchy Fuqua (who wore shoes with goldfish in the heel) to the inaccurately-nicknamed Mean Joe Greene to the kinda crazy Ernie Holmes (who once shot at a police helicopter with a shotgun). Blount is able to ingratiate himself with most of the team and many Steelers open up to him, including a surprisingly blase description of several players' steroid regimens (it was truly a different time).

Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger*
Anyone with an iota of perspective knows that there are more important things in life than football. Fans of the Permian Panthers in the economically-depressed town of Odessa, Texas in 1988 may have quibbled with this notion, however. Bissinger, then a writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer (if you're interested in urban policy check out his book on then-Philadelphia mayor and future Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell) uprooted his family to Odessa to follow the Panthers' 1988 campaign and reveal what life is like in the football-mad regions of Texas (i.e. Texas). Part sociological study, part football book, Friday Night Lights excels at showcasing the team's huge impact on local morale and business and the experience of playing for a huge and elite Texas high school football squad on and off the field.

Friday Night Lights is enhanced by the elements of uncertainty and tension for the reader. The book isn't recounting a major NFL or college football team's campaign, and unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of west Texas high school football in 1988 you probably don't know how the Panthers' season is going to go. I won't spoil anything (though if you showed enough interest in the list to get this far you've probably already read Friday Night Lights) but it is quite exciting. The reader also becomes really connected and emotionally invested in these players from decades ago, and I found myself actively rooting for the team and reacting to the team's ups-and-downs like any self-respecting Odessa resident would (passionately).

Bissinger wrote a post-script of sorts with After Friday Night Lights which mainly focuses on how former Panthers star Boobie Miles has fared after the book's publication and coming to terms with reconciling his football dreams with the harshness of "depressed west Texas" reality. It's a very quick read (probably clocking in under an hour) but worthwhile if you want to see how Miles is faring today.

Books You Should Buy for Your Dad: Football History and Biography
There aren't a ton of selections here, as a good amount of football histories and biographies are team-specific and aren't compelling enough to recommend to the general football fan. Here are 2 notable exceptions.

America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation by Michael MacCambridge
Anyone reading one of the older selections from this list will realize that the NFL has evolved tremendously from its humble beginnings as a smattering of Midwestern teams in the 1920's to a money-minting (more on that later) economic powerhouse that has somehow managed to turn even the 20-hour conference call that is the NFL Draft into a flashy television spectacle. MacCambridge has penned the authoritative tome on the complete history of the league and its development over the years. The book is strongest when it covers the war between the NFL and AFL in the 60's, when the leagues bitterly fought for the attention and dollars of the American populace, occasionally through some kooky means. While I felt the chapters on more recent NFL developments were a little weaker, this is still the best history of the league by far.

When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss
Maraniss is an Associate Editor at The Washington Post and perhaps best known for his hefty and meticulously-researched biography of Bill Clinton. In When Pride Still Mattered, he provides a richly-detailed biography of the legendary Packers' coach that showcases Lombardi's personality (including his religious devotion, stringent perfectionism, and openness to race and sexual orientation, among others) and his experiences coaching the Packers and Redskins. It's a long read but if you want to better understand Lombardi (he is one of the few football figures who really warrants such a comprehensive biographical treatment) and why the Super Bowl trophy is named after him you should give this a read.

X's, O's and Prose: The Strategy of Football 
Starting an MBA program has provided me with a lot more exposure to people from other cultures, and thus, the opportunity to explain the basics of American football. These often-bungled attempts at education have reaffirmed that teaching the sport is hard (though not as hard as cricket, of course, which is completely impossible to grasp and I reject any contentions stating otherwise). The sport is remarkably complex, and I find it enriching to delve deeply into the tactical weeds to better understand why teams and coaches do the things they do. These next few books are for advanced football fans who are looking to deepen their knowledge of the X's and O's of the game.

The Games that Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays by Ron Jaworski 
Jaworski has been a mainstay on ESPN's excellent NFL Matchup series, breaking down game film and analyzing the strategies employed by NFL teams and excitedly narrating the continual playing and rewinding of a few seconds of a play. In The Games That Changed the Game, Jaworski traces some key strategic developments in the sport through deep-dives on seven transformative games. The selections aren't always Super Bowls or playoff games, but rather the best examples of each concept: the magnitude of the game is less important that the gameplans employed therein. The book covers strategies such as Sid Gillman's Vertical Stretch, Dick LeBeau's Zone Blitz, and Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense, which all have influenced current NFL schemes. Each concept gets its own chapter where Jaworski provides a bit of background and then gives an in-depth breakdown of what happened in each game. Everything is explained clearly and Jaworski will also frequently diagram plays and formations to help comprehension, and the book definitely improved my knowledge around the sport, as well as a greater sense of appreciation for some of its coaching trailblazers.

Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look by Pat Kirwan
I'm not going to provide a laundry list of achievements and feats of nerdiness to establish my football knowledge bonafides, but I will mention I played high school football, made a 7-round mock draft in eighth grade, and have read enough football books to feel sorta qualified to write a long post about my favorites in the genre. Having said all that, Take Your Eye Off the Ball was the book that most improved my understanding of the game and taught me a huge amount about a sport I already knew pretty well. Kirwan began as an NFL scout and worked in a couple of NFL front offices in the 90's before moving to journalism, and he brings a wealth of insider experience on the game. Kirwan's goal with this book is to improve fans' viewing experience by providing tools to learn about the game at a higher level. Even if you balk at adopting his involved game-charting system while you watch games, there is a lot to take away from the book.

The book is structured similarly to something like "Football for Dummies," providing a comprehensive overview of virtually every aspect of the sport (the quarterback, the NFL draft, special teams, officiating, and so on) with the occasional "Ask Pat" where he riffs on some random point about the game. The basic format and topics covered isn't original, but Kirwan goes deeper into these subjects than any book I've read. Some of the material is probably going to be review for die-hard fans, but there should be enough novel material for virtually any reader to learn a good bit about the finer nuances of the game.

The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football by S.C. Gwynne
This book doesn't fit as well into the category as the other 2 books. While Hal Mumme's "Air Raid" offense does feature prominently, and Gwynne adeptly devotes some pages to explaining the offense and how it transformed the modern passing game and led to today's pass-happy offenses, The Perfect Pass is more than an instructive tome. The heart of the book is the dual-narrative of coaches Hal Mumme and Mike Leach and the peripatetic paths they followed up and down the ranks of college football. Mumme bounced from high schools and NCAA minnows such as Iowa Wesleyan to developing 1999 first overall pick Tim Couch as head coach at Kentucky, with Leach eventually landing the head coaching gig at Texas Tech and leading some absurdly-proficient passing attacks based on "Air Raid" fundamentals. A lot of the book is about being a coach on the lower rungs of college football and the tremendous chasm between effort put in and actual take-home pay (the mind boggles at how any small-school college football assistant in the 80's and 90's stayed married). Mumme, a stubborn genius who has seemingly bounced around everywhere, and Leach, a well-read law school grad who can converse extensively on anything from pirates to World War II battles, are both fascinating characters and it is enjoyable to track their personal and professional development as well as the evolution of their offensive approach.

Fly on the Chalkboard: The Best "A Season With _____" Books
There existed a time when journalists offered some degree of protection for athletes when it came to off-field activities and indiscretions and their writing was strictly limited to what happened during the game. In the 60's, a new generation of journalists pejoratively dubbed "chipmunks" by the sportswriting establishment began to peel back the curtain and leverage their access to provide a rounder portrait of players and teams and offer more intimate reporting on franchises' inner-workings. The release of Jim Bouton's Ball Four in 1971 both further advanced this "all-access" approach as well as illustrated its economic potential, selling like crazy. Teams across all sports began to broaden their access to reporters, allowing for a plethora of "fly-on-the-wall" books. Many of these aren't particularly good and are merely beat writers cashing in on a successful season by recycling some columns. These selections don't fall into that trap and are actually quality reads.

Bringing the Heat by Mark Bowden* 
Although Bowden is probably best-known for Black Hawk Down, which was eventually adapted into a movie, he spent many years at The Philadelphia Inquirer and was on the Eagles beat for the 1992 season. Bringing the Heat is more than a tired retelling of a reasonably-successful-but-not-spectacular season of a professional football team told by a beat writer. Rather, it is an in-depth look at the Eagles' players, coaches, and ownership and a raw and honest examination of playing in the NFL. The on-field descriptions are vivid, intense, and exciting but Bringing the Heat makes this list for the quality of its richly-detailed profiles. The book is more about the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles than their season. This was a team chock-full of personalities, including the fiery Buddy Ryan at head coach, the egotistical Randall Cunningham at quarterback, and Reggie White leading the defense. Defensive lineman Jerome Brown died before the 1992 season, and Bowden does a phenomenal job writing about how the team reacted to Brown's death and its impact on the team.

Bowden was not a football expert coming into the book, which is actually a positive for Bringing the Heat. He brings an objective, outsider's perspective to the team and the book is refreshingly free of the trite metaphors and cliches spouted by many sportswriters. It also doesn't hew to the set formula of these kind of books, emphasizing the characters over the plot if you will, but this makes for a refreshing take on a rather tired concept of football book.

Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football by Nicholas Dawidoff*
This is the best example of the traditional "fly-on-the-wall" genre, and probably my favorite football book released over the last 5 years. It has all the necessary components: a skilled writer, a compelling team filled with personalities (the Rex Ryan-led New York Jets), and gripping on-the-field activities, including a pretty spectacular collapse to end the season. Dawidoff spent most of his time with the Jets' coaching staff, and is able to get seemingly every member of the staff to open up to him. The amount of access Dawidoff had to the team, sitting in on meetings and clocking in almost as much as the actual coaching staff, really enriches the book and separates it from the many similar "A Season With..." books out there. Collision Low Crossers truly captures what it is like to work on an NFL coaching staff and the tremendous emotional and time investments staff make in their careers.

You're Okay, It's Just a Bruise: A Doctor's Sideline Secrets About Pro Football's Most Outrageous Team by Rob Huizenga 
This is a tough one to classify, but I'll stick it here because creating a "Memoirs by Football Doctors for the Raiders" category seems somewhat limiting. Huizenga has apparently now made a nice career for himself as a doctor on The Biggest Loser, but in the 80's he served as the team physician for the Raiders. He found that there was widespread drug, alcohol, and steroid abuse among the players and that the franchise wasn't the most organized establishment in the world. You're Okay is basically a memoir/expose of Huizenga's experiences working for the Raiders from draft preparation to treating players during games. It is a breezy read clearly geared towards the general sports fan, with medical terminology kept to minimum. The book is peppered with ridiculous anecdotes (including further insight into the unorthodox way Al Davis ran things and a particularly graphic description of Matt Millen's questionable parenting skills), but it's not a hatchet job. Yes, Huizenga has some gripes with his past-employer and how the league deals with injuries, but his beefs seem justified and in some cases prescient. You're Okay, shines a light on a vital yet underappreciated element of an NFL team and gets bonus points for being one of the more original picks on this list.

The Business of Football 
Jay Berwanger, a football star from the University of Chicago and the winner of the first Heisman Trophy, was also the first player selected in the inaugural NFL draft in 1936. Berwanger ultimately opted for a career in sportswriting, which at the time was more remunerative. 80 years later, payscales for both occupations have changed dramatically. I can't recommend any good books on why writers currently earn peanuts, but here are some of my favorite works on the big business of football.

The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football by Jeff Benedict
Penned by an investigative reporter, The System is a revealing look at big-time college football. Some of these findings will likely be old hat to fans of the game, (coaching politics, facilities arms races, questionable recruiting practices), but Benedict offers a remarkable level of depth and detail and at least some of The System should surprise most readers. He is also able to get some key figures to open up to him and speak frankly about current issues facing the game. The book provides an excellent overview of the current media-institutional-NCAA complex and some of its less savory practices.

The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America by Gregg Easterbrook
Easterbrook has written the outstanding Tuesday Morning Quarterback column since 2001 (it is coming back in 2017 after a temporary hiatus in 2016) where he riffs on gridiron affairs as well as an eclectic bunch of other topics that are only sometimes football-related. King of Sports is a bit of a downer in that it highlights many of the negative impacts football is having on society: public funding for stadiums, concussions, and the poor treatment of retired NFL-ers, among others. These chapters are all thoughtfully-written and Easterbrook makes some compelling points, and Easterbrook is evenhanded with his analysis. Easterbrook also spends a year with the Virginia Tech Hokies football team and holds the school up as an example of an institution doing things the right way. While Benedict's The System also looked at the problems football creates, Easterbrook outlines many similar issues but also prescribes potential solutions. Easterbrook is a real fan of the sport interested and invested in its future success, and hopefully the ideas posed in The King of Sports get into the hands and heads of major decision-makers in the sport.

SOC 350: The Sociology of Football

If I was to teach a class about the culture of football and its supporters here is what I'd include on my syllabus.

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip Into the Heart of Fan Mania by Warren St. John*
Remember that sensible statement I made earlier about football not being the most important thing in the world? I think Alabama Crimson Tide fans are another group that might disagree with that idea. In Rammer Jammer, St. John, an Alabama native who was then a reporter for The New York Times, returns to his home state to follow the Crimson Tide for a season as a fan. St. John joins the throng of Alabama supporters who travel via RV to all of the team's football games. Rammer Jammer is basically an anthropological study of the especially passionate Alabama fans and aims to discover how a college football team can engender such strong emotions from grown adults. St. John is able to write with a sense of detachment but also compassion and empathy for his subjects and he clearly respects them. Consistently thoughtful and occasionally hilarious, Rammer Jammer is my favorite examination of why and how football teams can generate such passion among its fans.

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis*
The Blind Side showcases 2 of Lewis' biggest strengths as a writer: his ability to adeptly juggle multiple threads in a coherent and cohesive way and shine a spotlight on truly fascinating people and ideas. You're probably already somewhat familiar with Michael Oher's story at this point, but if you've never read The Blind Side you should seek it out. In addition to covering Oher's byzantine and legitimately unbelievable path to the NFL, Lewis touches upon the evolution of the offensive line in the NFL, the nature of big-school football recruiting, and the life of a student-athlete at a major school. Moneyball had a much larger impact, but I think The Blind Side is Lewis' best effort based solely on the reading experience (the recently-released Undoing Project is also up there).

Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game by Allen St. John and Ainissa Ramirez
Based on the title you may think that Newton's Football exclusively deals with the physics of football (there actually is already a book about that, and it's an okay read but can be a bit dry in parts), but it actually draws from principles from a wide range of the natural and social sciences. There are passages explaining how Prospect Theory accounts for coaches' risk-averse natures and what Schrodinger's cat teaches us about the West Coast Offense. St. John is a journalist and Ramirez is a "science evangelist" with a Ph.D. from Stanford, and everything from why woodpeckers don't get concussions to the game theory of playcalling is described cogently and in layman-friendly terms. This is another questionable fit categorically but it does draw heavily from the social sciences and I don't think it's the end of the world if my theoretical sociology students get some grounding in the harder sciences that will make them (just slightly) more employable after graduation.

Trashy Player/Coach Memoirs
What kind of low-rent, disreputable blogging establishment do you think I'm running here? These books have no business appearing anywhere on this list. That said, Rex Ryan's book, despite being poorly-written and irrationally pro-Mark Sanchez, it actually kinda entertaining.

My 5 Favorite Football Books
1. Bringing the Heat by Mark Bowden
2. Collision Low Crossers by Nicholas Dawidoff
3. Paper Lion by George Plimpton
4. Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger
5. Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer by Warren St. John

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Advance Book Review: One Nation Under Baseball by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro

Release Date: April 1, 2017

Sports are seen by many people as escape from the real-world and any social and political issues that might exist therein. And while a day at the ballpark can be an immersive experience, the game is shaped by (and occasionally shapes) societal forces. Perhaps no decade demonstrates the particular connection between baseball and American history better than the 1960's, which was a transformational time for both sectors. In One Nation Under Baseball, John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro present a readable and insightful look at this intersection.

The notion that "sports are divorced from politics" is a bit unbelievable in this day and age (and the same largely held true 60 years ago). Rather than beat down on this strawman, Florio and Shapiro chronicle the political and cultural forces that shaped baseball during the 60's, taking the connection as a given and looking instead at how these forces impacted the game. One Nation Under Baseball touches on the major subjects of the period, including integration and civil rights, the elimination of the reserve clause and embiggening of the player's union, and the Vietnam War and the rise of the counter-culture. Each movement is placed in its proper historical context, though sometimes I felt the authors went into too much detail describing some basic information about events such as the March on Washington and suburbanization of America. The reader is likely already pretty familiar with those events and the authors didn't tread upon any new territory. The book does shine in linking baseball to these shifts, such as Hank Aaron's account of listening to restaurant workers smashing the dinnerware he just had eaten on because none of the restaurant's patrons wanted to eat off the plate of a black person.

The book reads like a documentary film (which isn't surprising given that co-author Shapiro has worked on a handful of them), frequently relying on extended passages of quotes from interviews as well as primary source materials. Everything on baseball is well-researched and the book is greatly enriched by drawing from these sources.

One Nation Under Baseball especially shines when discussing the evolution of baseball media. The 1960's marked a transitional time for newspaper writers. Impacted tremendously by the rise of television and an extended newspaper strike in New York, a new generation of writers called  "chipmunks" realized that they needed to shift their approach. Now that fans could figure out who won through watching the news, these new scribes (including George Vecsey of The New York Times and Larry Merchant of The Philadelphia Daily News) focused instead on more long-form articles that provided details on the players' personalities and offered deeper analysis. Also benefiting from primarily writing for afternoon papers with later deadlines, these writers really leveraged their access to players and managers and presented a unique perspective that other mediums couldn't match at the time. The decade also saw the first real efforts of some players to pull back the curtain of big-league life and expose the life of a player, warts and all (but especially the warts) to the general public. This reached a fever pitch(er) with the publication of Jim Bouton's diary of his 1969 season, Ball Four, with its tales of beaver-hunting, drinking, and other sordid affairs (at least to his early-70's audience that hadn't yet been desensitized to athletic indiscretions through exposure to countless incriminating athletic Instagram selfies). The old-guard sportswriters of Dick Young and Jimmy Cannon adhered to a code that generally protected players from such scrutiny, and the 1960's marked the start of a movement of player exposure that would only get more and more intimate (see previous parenthetical statement about incriminating Instagram selfies) as time went on.

Overall, One Nation Under Baseball was a quality read that is worth seeking out for anyone fitting into the Venn diagram intersection of being interested in baseball and history. This is the second baseball-related book I've read from University of Nebraska Press this year and both were considerably entertaining and light reads. Definitely seek this out if the premise sounds intriguing to you.

7 / 10