Tuesday, February 2, 2016

For Cause & Comrades by James McPherson

Why I Read It: A Civil War topic with which I've always been fascinated.

Summary: A deep examination of the reasons of why northern and southern soldiers alike fought in the Civil War,

My Thoughts: The author, a talented Civil War historian, dove into this subject with vigor and determination, much like the men of whom he wrote approached the war they fought over a century and a half ago. His tally was somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 letters read, from all the states that existed at the time, plenty of occupations, different levels of social class.

I approached the book with some preconceived ideas. To me, the main reason men stood shoulder-to-shoulder and fired their guns at armies doing the same a few dozen yards away was the fact that most units were formed from hometowns. If you skedaddled, news beat you home, and you couldn't go home. And that notion was validated by McPherson's research. It was a factor. But it was only one.

Men signed up at the beginning of the war for different reasons than they reenlisted for three years later. At the beginning there was a cause, and though they were different on either side of the lines, causes were equally as powerful whether you wore blue or gray. Plenty of other factors
- ideology, religion, patriotism, etc. - all came into play, as did loyalty to one's comrades. Many men couldn't pull themselves away from their friends, couldn't fathom leaving them at the front and returning home. Some fought for the people at home. Some fought because they were more scared of their own officers than they were of the enemy. Northerners fought to hold together what the Revolution had wrought; southerners fought against the tyrannical rule of the North, to maintain their rights as given to them by the Declaration of Independence. It was all in the interpretation.

As the war moved on, reasons changed. Slavery became an issue, where before it was masked under states' rights. Politics heated up in 1864 with the presidential election, and the North feared a loss of professionalism as original enlistments ran out and the idea of bounty men filling the ranks permeated. Why did men fight? It depended on the year, the occupation, the personal conviction.

What this book really asks, if you read deeply enough, is why would you have fought (or would you fight today, and why)? Do we carry the same nobility of spirit as we believe they did, and as they believe their American Revolution forbears did?

It's been almost 80 years since manpower was needed in a war to the extent that the Civil War claimed it. I wonder how I would have reacted had my name been called.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Andy Warhol was a Hoarder by Claudia Kalb

Why I Read It: Grabbed from the Amazon Vine program.

Summary: An exercise in historical diagnoses of some of the world's greatest minds.

My Thoughts: The author lets us know right off the bat that there is nothing binding in what she says. Her musings are not true diagnoses. We have to accept it, that everything in the book is conjecture, retroactive dabbling.

So let's have fun with it.

There are certain famous figures at whom we look back - Howard Hughes, for instance - who we know had their issues. And then, there are others, like, say, Abraham Lincoln. Sure, he looked morose, but then he was President at the most trying time in American history, when war raged across its landscape. I think you or I might be pretty stressed out, too. But who knew that long before he took the oath of office he was suicidal?

Who knew that Dostoevsky was a gambling addict?

This book is full of such juicy tidbits, and really, that's a lot of what this book is about. It's dead celebrity gawking, with the added twist that we're looking inside their heads. The celebrity bit gives the book its power; if this was a tome about twelve Joe Schmoes, we wouldn't care nearly as much. So, we look at George Gershwin, and we think about Porgy and Bess and An American in Paris (for reference, look up 1990s United Airlines commercials and listen to the background music). But did anybody in his time consider him to "be ADHD"? The signs are all there, today, as we look back. And was Einstein on the spectrum? Boy, it sure looks like it. We always have just taken him as brilliant, quirky, but not a candidate for autism or Asperger's. Yet, try to talk your way out of it after reading this book.

It's all here, from Frank Lloyd Wright's narcissism to Betty Ford's alcoholism. The question is raised about the connection between fame and extreme behavior. Can you be a superstar in any field without a little bit of, well, something? Usually, when I read a book like this one, I start to look in the mirror and tremble just a little bit. But not this one. Nope, these people are way too far out there.

Guess I'm not headed toward a life of fame. My mother will never believe it.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend by Colin Duriez

Why I Read It: I've been a fan of Hobbits for three decades.

Summary: A biography of the master.

My Thoughts: Tolkien himself seems to have been quite an interesting character, somewhat stereotypical of the post-Victorian British society learned types, yet somehow deeply intriguing in his ability to lose himself in his own mind in a rigid world shaped by the harshness of two world wars.

I've read the classic Tolkien biography, by Humphrey Carpenter, and remember it as quite enlightening itself. I wondered what could be new with Duriez' assault on the topic. What I found was that it certainly fit the way that my mind works.

Duriez pieces together the life of the author and academic much in the way that others before him have, but expands his research, or his presentation of that research, to include the physical world that shaped Tolkien's mind. Throughout the book, references are made to the places on which Tolkien patterned his mythical landscapes, and the landmarks of his life. The photographs in the book are of those places - of the inspiration for the Two Towers, of the apartments and other homes in which he lived, and more. The book, more so than any other I've read on the master, gives us Tolkien historicity. We could almost design a Tolkien driving tour of England, to revisit the places that remain - and even those that don't - as inspiration highlights.

This book, more than others, also leads one to believe that Tolkien's life was one of fellowships. Although the direct connection is not so written, the fact is that from the T.C.B.S. to the Coalbiters to the Inklings, Tolkien surrounded himself with friends of differing strengths, and believed in the power of such fellowships. His first group, the T.C.B.S, even pledged to change the world for good, and then lost two of its four members in the First World War. Those dark days definitely shaped the future of Tolkien's writing career.

Duriez brings us a little different focus on the life of Tolkien, allowing us to see a little deeper into the mind of the master storyteller, and to appreciate his work just that much more.

One Breath by Adam Skolnick

Why I Read It: Grabbed from the Amazon Vine.

Summary: A freediver dies in competition, opening a world of questions about his sport.

My Thoughts: Once before I was forced into a reaction about a book's protagonist, and found that I flat out didn't like the guy. So here we go again.

The thing is that I find that it's all for the same reasons. Nick Mevoli may have been a hell of a guy, and according to many, many people quoted in the book about his life, he was. But I'll tell you what it was about him - only through the interpretation of his personality presented in this book - that completely turned me off.

Nick was a risk taker; no big deal there. The world is full of them. In fact, in today's world, many professional athletes have to lay aside risk of severe injury to play their sports (football players, boxers, etc.). That's not what turned me off to Nick.

Instead, it was his immaturity when things didn't go his way. We all feel frustration, and for someone driven as hard as Nick was, perhaps that frustration was harder to control when he came up short - I hardly think the word "fail" is appropriate, considering the incredible things he did - in his sport. But the descriptions of his tantrums in the water when that happened just push me to the point of dislike, from the safety and confines of the paper world of a book.

And so, the reading of this book is a second reflection on myself, and my reaction to its contents. The story of Everett Ruess, the young southwest wanderer who got himself killed despite the pleas of those around him to be safe was the first to get me angry at the hardheadedness of youth; and now Nick, who would not listen to his friends, is dead, pushing himself too far. So in the end, it's my anger at promising life snuffed out that drives my review of a book.

I wish Nick had lived to achieve the things he could have. Instead, he gave us a bright flash, and sent shockwaves through his sport of what can happen to its athletes. It's a sad fact, but true; Nick died for the future safety of others. Freediving is a sport in dire need of research into the limits of the human body's capabilities, and of codified safety procedures.

All puns aside, the book is an immersion into the world of freediving, its longer-than-you-think history, and its troubling present and future. Who knows, if you're more tolerant than me, you might even find Nick a martyr or a hero. I just wish he had heeded the advice of his friends and stuck around to tell his own story, rather than have it published posthumously at far too young an age.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Sea Mark by Russell M. Lawson

Why I Read It: Reviewed it for Sea History magazine for the National Maritime Historical Society.

Summary: A scrutinizing look at what John Smith, adventurer, said about his journey to New England in 1614, and not what critics have said since.

My Thoughts: John Smith certainly left a paper trail, but unfortunately, most of it was written with audiences in mind. His journals were meant for public consumption, for future funders to consider backing one of his excursions or his proposed settlements; for future adventurers to think about joining him in the New World; and for other men of what he believed to be his class to sweat when mulling their comparison to his manliness. He wrote with technical skill where needed, he grovelled before kings and princes when necessary, and, most of all he boasted.

Not every boast was self-directed. Smith boasted widely about the lands and waters of New England, beckoning others to come across the Atlantic and see for themselves the potential for fortunes to be made in fishing, whaling and mining. It must have been hard to sit by in England and not make at least one journey to the New World, for the adventurous spirited. I know that given the right circumstances, I might have been swayed.

Consider it! An entire continent of open space. We today try to find nooks and crannies of nature on which to walk for a half an hour (ask me about my books on the topic), and so it was in early seventeenth century London. There may have not been an environmentalist ethos in those days, but there was overcrowding. And plague. And pestilence. And lack of opportunity.

So, when we read his work, says author Russell Lawson, we should read his words only and take them for what they are. Critics have had 400 unfettered years to jab at him, and have piled on each others' words. Give John Smith a chance to speak for himself.

That said, try to think about a few things. He campaigned for the job that went to Myles Standish, to be the military escort of the Pilgrims in 1620. How different a world would that have been? Would relations with the Native American have been different at the start, with Smith already having years of good rapport? Consider the depths to which he had explored the New England region. If he had been on the journey to Boston Harbor in 1621, he would have been going back to Boston Harbor. But the Pilgrims turned him down for a military man who came with less personal fanfare.

Then again, there is the skirmish with the natives at what became the town of Cohasset, north of Plymouth. Lawson reports on the confrontation and says that there were no casualties; locals have always believed that Smith's men killed one of the Natives attacking them on the way out of the harbor. As Lawson states, Smith was a violent man in a violent age.

Lawson's book reopens the story of  John Smith in New England by starting us back at page 1. We see the rocky coast of Maine through only Smith's eyes, and live only in his world. We are not jaded by what naysayers, both contemporary and modern, have had to say. It's a refreshing way to look at an four century old tale.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Dusty: Reflections of Wrestling's American Dream by Dusty Rhodes with Howard Brody

Why I Read It: I've been kind of stuck on memory lane, reliving my childhood, all the way down to Saturday morning television.

Summary: The life and times of one of pro wrestling's unlikeliest heroes.

My Thoughts: I took two things away from this book. Dusty Rhodes had a huge ego, but he balanced it with a self-deprecation that sprang from his own awareness of that ego. Second, there was an overall sadness to the book that stemmed from the fact that late in life Dusty lived in the past and couldn't shake it.

But what a fun ride.

Dusty's career spanned the 1960s to the 2000s, and as such he crossed paths with all the greats of the last half century. He moved from the territorial era to the modern day in which the industry is generally controlled by one man. He likened the old system to one run by the mafia - an idea I've since seen echoed on a film about World Class Championship Wrestling. Each local boss was a don, and you didn't cross him whatever you did. Ironically, a second theme - itinerant wrestlers being screwed out of money by local promoters - was echoed in a book I read by a stand-up comedian who lived the same sort of travel-by-day, perform-by-night life. Perhaps it was his simple upbringing in Austin, Texas (a place of dusty roads) or maybe that early struggle to collect what was owed to him, but Dusty definitely sticks to the theme of money throughout the book.

The most beautiful aspect of this book for me is the voice, and I don't mean that in the traditional artsy way of an author searching for one. Dusty had his speech patterns and mannerisms (and his lisp) that made you know, without even seeing the screen, that you were tuned into the right place. His voice was unmistakable. And so it was in this book. I could hear his words as if they were coming directly out of his mouth. It made the book fly. One line has stuck with me, making me giggle every time I think of it, but I can't repeat it here because of a few words in the sentence. It was just so Dusty.

Dusty Rhodes came, too, with a blurred racial story. He grew up in a mixed neighborhood, where the upbringing meant that race meant nothing to him; people were just people. He picked up a lot of African-American mannerisms that stayed with him throughout his career. It was something lost on me at the time, but I understand it now. In order to mock him, Vince McMahon, Jr., took a white wrestler known as the One Man Gang and turned him into a mumu-wearing "African Dream." When Ted DiBiase needed a "valet" to go with his "Million Dollar Man" gimmick, Vince assigned a black wrestler he named Virgil - as in Virgil Riley Runnels, Jr., Dusty's real name. When Virgil went to the rival company, WCW, he became Vincent.

Aside from the frustrations of an aging wrestler seeing his era pass, and once you get past the obvious ego issues, Dusty's recounting of his life is filled with love and good times. The man knew how to party and to just generally have fun. He makes outrageous claims throughout the book about his escapades that are supported by quotes from others involved in the episodes. His carriage race with Andre the Giant must have been a sight to see, two gigantic men with humongous afros dueling their way down a New York City street. One of my favorites is from Mike Graham, a Florida wrestler who took Dusty out on a boat. He instructed Dusty to hop off the bow and carry the anchor up the beach so they could ground the boat, and Dusty jumped too early. Sinking to the bottom, he turned and marched out of the water and up the beach, still clutching the anchor and without losing his baseball hat and cigar. Turning, he said, "Damn, is that really what you wanted me to do?"

There are touching aspects to the book as well, especially as they concern his family and his relationship with his son Dustin. If nothing else, Dusty lays it all out in this book, and doesn't mince words. And his legacy lives on, through his sons Dustin ("Goldust") and Cody ("Stardust").

Reading this book, one gets the notion that despite the odds, being born the plumber's son, digging ditches to earn his first wages, Dusty Rhodes laughed his way through life, like I laughed my way through his book.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Foxcatcher by Mark Schultz with David Thomas

Why I Read It: I was an amateur wrestler.

Summary: The story of the rise to prominence of the Schultz brothers, Mark and Dave, and Dave's murder, all seen through the eyes of Mark.

My Thoughts: The year that Mark won his gold medal at the Olympics, I was an amateur wrestler. My career was brief, really just that one year as a Bulldog 157 at Rockland (MA) High School, but I still carry the highs and lows of that year with me wherever I go.

I wish I could say the Schultz brothers inspired me in some way, but I was too obsessed with other things happening in my life at that point, including my parents' divorce. In all honesty, my dad encouraged me to get involved with the sport, knowing I was a budding pro wrestling fan. He wanted me to see what wrestling, not "rasslin'," as he would say in an over-pronounced way, was all about. I loved the sport, the teamwork and the league championship that our varsity won that year. And I did more than hold my own against my opponents, some of whom I remember to this day, 31 years later.

It's always odd to me to consider where I was in my life when other events in other people's lives were playing out.

There's a strange wall that goes up when we consider our Olympic heroes. We tend to see them on stage, on TV, geared up with all the sponsored equipment from their chosen sports, and see dollar signs. The Schultz brothers story flips that imagery on its head. At least for the wrestlers, support was always minimal. Life was tough. As a non-revenue college sport (when compared to football, for instance), it never translated into big dollars after NCAA eligibility ended. While outstanding wrestlers could still compete on the national and world stages after college, the best jobs they could hope for in the sport were coaching gigs at the diminishing number of universities that hadn't canned their programs in the face of Title IX. A few of the bigger amateur wrestlers could go pro - Steve Williams, a teammate of Dave and Mark became "Dr. Death" to a generation of fans - but going "pro" in wrestling is not the same as going pro in football or baseball. In 2013, the IOC announced wrestling was done as an Olympic sport, only to reinstate it seven months later. It all had to do with its money-generating capabilities.

Faced with these financial barriers, Mark and Dave put up with a lot to follow their passion when they signed on with John du Pont's Team Foxcatcher. Du Pont's madness is a central theme of the book, and is somewhat parallel to the madness of King George. Du Pont's money and fame bought him any indiscretions he wanted, save for murder.

One of saddest aspects of this book, apart from the obvious one, is Mark's personal history of distrust for his fellow human beings. There were undoubtedly people in his past who had his best interests at heart, but whom he targeted as enemies. It worked for him; it fueled his fire and got him three world championships. But one wonders if he could have found his inner peace, the stability he craved so much, had he just let down his guard a little.

I hope he's found his peace.