Thursday, August 27, 2015

Francona: The Red Sox Years by Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy

Why I Read It: This season, reading about the Red Sox was better than watching them.

Summary: A bio of the Red Sox manager, focused on the years 2004-2011.

My Thoughts: For a long time, I couldn't stand Dan Shaughnessy. I always felt like he was that smarmy, needle-nosed kid in high school who had to point out that you did your math homework wrong, or that you had used the wrong version of to, too or two. Many of his article themes in the Boston Globe seemed to be prying, making more out of minor little topics than they really needed to be.

But Dan (Boston sports fans who follow the literary side have lived with him as part of their community for about three decades now; the first name feels appropriate, though there are many that call him simply "Shaughnessy") grew on me with this book. Perhaps he has softened with age. Perhaps I have. But there was one key to that change for me.

Dan has a long-running feud with pitcher Curt Schilling when he was in town, the two often at odds on many topics. It would have been very easy for Dan to take shots at Curt in this book, but he didn't. He treated him very fairly, even praising his pitching performances when warranted (as I'm sure he would say one should). I have a personal reason for standing in defense of Curt, and will always look to him with respect. I was heartened by the even presentation of Curt's ups and downs, flaws and successes, as they related to Francona's time in Boston.

As to the main content of the book, it was fabulous, bringing truth (at least as seen by one set of eyes, Francona's) to many of the longstanding stories around the rise and fall of the Red Sox. I'm sure there are plenty of points in the book to which Red Sox ownership might point with a furrowed brow and a shake of the head, but until that happens, I'm happy to have read these pages.

The Red Sox went on a pretty damn good run with Terry Francona at the helm. The team applied new game day prep strategies to get the edge they needed, and sometimes different divisions within the team (baseball ops, field staff, ownership) found themselves at odds with one another as to what was appropriate and what was just too much. Somehow, with too many cooks, this kitchen served up two World Series championships in four years.

This story, though, digs deeper than the Red Sox and into the life of the manager, openly exposing his personality (as if after eight years with the Sox he had anything left to hide) and sharing his brightest and darkest moments. It details, too, how insular the baseball world is, the ways in which the constant shuffling of players and coaches from city to city from year to year causes paths to cross numerous times in the sporting life. Being second generation, having grown up in clubhouses, Terry Francona has a network almost second to none. There are very few degrees of separation between him and most of today's Major League Baseball players.

A bonus is the in-depth reporting on the general manager at the time, Theo Epstein, and the story of his relationship with Francona. Having parted ways with the Sox shortly after Francona, Epstein lets his opinions fly as well.

I'm trying to place this book in the pantheon of "best baseball books I've ever read," and can say it's right up there at or near the top. I'm not sure exactly where it falls, but, wow, was this one fun.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mahler

Why I Read It: On a baseball kick, and the year the book covers was one of the first I remember.

Summary: "1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City" (the subtitle)

My Thoughts: As a kid, I knew that folks around me had a distaste for New York City. Yes, there was a particular Boston bias that festered around the sports world, about the Yankees, the Rangers and Knicks, but it ran deeper than that. New York City wasn't safe, in the sweeping, all-encompassing sense of the word.

This book has helped me understand why all the adults I knew felt that way. I've since come to love New York City for what it is and what it represents on the grand American scale, though I will be honest. I can't stand the traffic. Heading south from New England either means sitting in it or driving around it. We're bottle-necked up here, but then, New Englanders are like many other people on the planet who see their little corners of the world as the "most estimable place" on earth, to quote Thoreau. Perhaps we don't mind.

What an amazing year 1977 was for New York City. Bella Abzug, Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo were all competing for the mayor's seat. A single night without power led to millions of dollars' worth of looting that set the city on edge. David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, finally came to justice, telling the world that his neighbor's dog told him to kill. Add to this mix George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin and the Yankees' newest purchase, Reggie Jackson.

I remember the three home runs against the Dodgers in the single game in the World Series. I remember all the other names involved with the Yankees that season - Rivers, Randolph, Guidry, Hunter, etc. (heck, they were all on my baseball cards) - and even remember listening to one game mentioned in the text, blanket pulled up over my head, radio pinned close to my ear so my mother wouldn't hear. Gator Guidry struck out the first three Red Sox batters in succession on ten or eleven pitches to the rousing - and what I remember sounding pretty belligerently scary to a six-year-old - cheers of the Yankee Stadium crowd.

What I didn't know at six was the undercurrent. I had no idea what "race" even meant in those days unless used with qualifiers such as "three-legged" or "motorcycle." I knew Reggie Jackson as a ridiculously powerful left-handed hitter; I did not know he felt he was feeling the strain of being the first black superstar to wear pinstripes. I had no concept that elections could swing one way or the other based on how a person stood on issues that pertained to the needs of a community of people with different color skin. I was clueless, as a six-year-old probably should be. We grow up soon enough.

Their is bliss in ignorance, for sure, and I probably could have gone my whole life just remembering 1977 as the Year of Reggie, but I am so glad I read this book, as Reggie is now in context for me.

I love when things are in context.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Game by Ken Dryden

Why I Read It: Got the bug for a good hockey book, and this one came highly recommended.

Summary: Ken Dryden walks us through the last days of his NHL career, with an amazing perspective on the game, its players and the way they've both changed through time.

My Thoughts: Having grown up in the hockey boom in the northeastern United States, when Bobby Orr was king, I've always loved the sport. I played on the street, I played in rinks, I played right up into high school before an odd, ancient injury pulled me from competing with the pack out on the ice. My dad never played, but instead coached, on a very high level, with the 1980 junior Olympians.

I grew up in the Boston area, so hockey life was Bruins life. The Canadiens were the enemy, the Yankees to our Red Sox. I might not have ready this book twenty years ago. But now I'm older, wiser. I have perspective. I only hope someday to have the amazing breadth of perspective that Dryden does.

Dryden shared the same youth I did. A ball, some sticks, a bunch of kids and a net, and it didn't matter where we were, a hockey game could break out at any moment. We even brought our Italian exchange students into the mix one summer. We had to. They were here, and we had to play hockey. We couldn't just stop for three weeks because they were here. When we went to Siracusa, we played soccer, because they had to.

It was all-consuming, for him and me. But he had the skill to go to the top. His teams, with him in net, won six Stanley Cups in eight years, a remarkable achievement. They were the Yankees of the '50s, the Celtics of the '60s. After that, he burned out on the sport, packed it in and walked away. Next came time for reflection, and reflect he did. In this book - touted as the best sports book ever written solely by an athlete - he speaks openly and freely about fame, about fans and about owners. He shoots straight on how he believes yesterday's superstar athletes would fare today, and on how the Canadiens "got up" for games against the Bruins. A good opponent made the game worth playing. This fact, for me, was a wonderful revelation. Sports talk radio hosts in Boston love to downplay rivalries, saying that teams like the Canadiens don't care about the Bruins when they are at the top, that they see them as just another team on the schedule. Dryden says otherwise.

In the end, it's "the game" - not hockey, but whatever sport one ties himself or herself to for life - that is the subject of the book. It's the whole lifestyle that comes with it, the locker room, the personalities, the travel, the ups and downs. For Dryden, the sport was hockey. The game was much more.

In this edition, the 20th anniversary, he adds another chapter on life after hockey, with a fantastic review of where hockey has gone globally since he stepped off the ice. His perspective, as stated, is grand, the text magnificently written. Having lived with hockey my whole life, I've watched it change, but never really stopped to truly look at how. It has blended through time, one phase melding into the next, but it is certainly not the same game I started with four decades ago.

I went looking for a great hockey book, and I found it.

(Extra note - there is a quick, really-not-noteworthy mention of my hometown of Hull, Massachusetts, in the book. He mentions it in relation to landing at Logan Airport in Boston. It has no bearing on the story in any way, but it was certainly a strange moment reading the book and seeing the name of the town in lights in this way!)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

Why I Read It: Needed a small paperback to keep in my pocket while waiting; found it in the boxes in the garage.

Summary: The author has a theory and carries out an experiment to attempt to prove it.

My Thoughts: This may be one of the most remarkable adventures undertaken in the name of anthropology of all-time.

Heyerdahl's theory, in a nutshell, is that the islands of the South Seas were populated by ancient people who had sailed the Pacific currents from the western coast of South America on balsa rafts. But when he tried to promote the theory, he was told it was impossible, that despite the overwhelming evidence of linkages between the people of modern-day Peru and the people of the South Seas, there was just no way that a balsa raft could survive the trek across the Pacific.

So, he decided to try it. He gathered friends who, like him, had survived World War II, men who had fought underground, behind enemy lines, made makeshift radios, and had done anything to stay alive. He knew that if anybody would be up for the challenge, it would be this crew.

They gathered materials, with the help of several governments, built their raft and hit the open ocean.

Among my favorite parts of the book are the interactions with wildlife, such as the whale shark that visited them, and the flying fish that constantly leaped on deck. What an odd and sad turn of events for that fish. Imagine all the work that went into the development of the defense mechanism over thousands of years. The species learned to propel themselves out of the water in order to avoid predators, or at least throw them off their track. And for thousands of years, as far as we know, it worked. Then, along came men, and boats. Suddenly the fish flew away from their enemies into the hands of those with just as much hunger in their bellies. The fact that the fish landed on the Kon-Tiki helped prove Heyerdahl's theory. Food from the sea was abundant and easily gathered during this mid-20th century journey; in earlier times, before factory ships and overfishing, it must have been more so.

One of the lingering feelings I get about this book is that in some way it had to be an inspiration for Gilligan's Island (there was a 1930s movie that definitely resembled the idea, with a handful of people of different backgrounds stranded on an island). The story may just have been tucked in the back of Sherwood Schwartz's mind as he was creating the show a few years later, but it feels like it was there. America had a growing love affair with Polynesia at the time. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers, sailors and Marines had visited the islands, had eaten the foods and generally fallen for the culture. The 1950s saw the great rise of tiki restaurants in America. By the time the Gilligan showed his face the first time in the early 1960s, South Pacific had been presented as both a Broadway play (1949) and a movie (1958), taken directly from a James Michener collection of stories.

I may be way off with my theory, but if you read Kon-Tiki, you will understand how spot on Heyerdahl was with his.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson

Why I Read It: Pulled from the Amazon Vine line-up. Shipwreck books are usually of great interest for me, with my background in maritime history.

Summary: A team of divers set out to find a treasure ship, then switches course to look for a pirate ship.

My Thoughts: I met John Chatterton, one of the main characters in the book. He has no reason to remember me. He was filming an episode of Deep Sea Detectives for the History Channel in Boston Harbor and the Coast Guard invited me out onto the water with them as he and his on-screen partner read their lines. I stood by and watched from behind the camera on the top deck of a 47-foot motor lifeboat.

The book carries an interesting narrative, even if I find fault with one main issue. The ancient pirate whom they - divers John Chatterton and John Mattera - chase is over-inflated in historical importance. If Joseph Bannister was as notorious in the pantheon of pirates as the author professes he is, wouldn't we have heard of him by now?

In his defense (the pirate's), he pulled a badass move, for sure. He turned from regular seagoing merchant to pirate and forced a showdown with the Royal Navy that left the latter in retreat. His story is certainly interesting, now that it has been dusted off, but does he belong, as the author states, with William Kidd and Blackbeard?

We are treated with views into the lives of the two divers. John Chatterton is a Vietnam vet who took battlefield chances others would not, a medic who ran through enemy fire to retrieve his wounded comrades. John Mattera grew up with New York mob ties and his own entrepreneurial illegitimate businesses, until turning to police work and ultimately his own protection agency. They find their common ground in diving work.

The story brings us through their journey, from the moment they decide to abandon a treasure ship search to find a pirate ship instead to the ultimate successful conclusion of that search. The journey includes all sorts of side adventures, from gun play in the streets of the Dominican Republic to quiet moments of discovery in Spanish archives.

The story is oozing with bravado and machismo, both modern and historical. And it moves well, as the divers seek to read the mind of their 17th century prey, Bannister. If they find him, mentally, and understand how he thought, they find the ship.

If you pick it up, read it like an adventure novel, and you won't be disappointed.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Why I Read It: I think technically it's illegal to be American and not read it.

Summary: Teenager Holden Caulfield is booted out of yet another school and finds his way home, stalling for a few days to arrive about the same time as the letter he expects is being sent to his parents.

My Thoughts: I knew him.

I couldn't believe when I started reading the text how much Holden Caulfield, who narrates his story directly to us, sounds exactly like a great uncle of mine, one who was born about the same time as the character. The ego, the disdain for everybody else, what they do and how they do it, it was all there. Even specific repeated words and phrases - phony, hot shot, etc. - were words I heard every day from my uncle. Having heard the language before, I couldn't put it down.

Our protagonist is kicked out of prep school and sent packing. He could never focus on his studies, save for his English. Instead, he spends his time scrutinizing everybody in the world around him, finding them all to be phonies or bastards, to use his words. He holds respect for a bare few, his younger sister and his dead younger brother among them. The book is one long complaint, as he wanders home into New York City, looking down his nose in his twisted illogical way at every person he meets.

The problem with Holden is that he doesn't know when to stop, when to let his thoughts be thoughts and not leave his mouth. Numerous times while reading the book I found myself thinking, "No, Holden, don't say it!" or disbelieving that he had used specific words in specific situations. He is unfiltered, and it costs him time and again.

He is certainly contemptible, in need of intervention-style learning moments. But he has a soft side.

He has a surprising altruistic streak. In one of his many encounters with random people - a pimping hotel elevator operator, young women visiting the city from Seattle, administrators at his old elementary school - he meets two nuns coming to teach at a school in the city. He offers them $10 for their charity and indulges them in conversation. His ultimate dream, even beyond the twice expressed goal of running away to a place way out west, or up in New England, away from all people, is to save children from hurting themselves. He wants to help, in many ways, but can't get out of his own way.

Holden is disillusioned with adulthood, yet is struggling with getting there and trying it out for himself. He talks big about sex, and then when it is practically forced onto him by a prostitute he somewhat mistakenly solicits, he can't follow through and announces that despite his boasts, he's a virgin. He talks his way into a couple of beatings. He generalizes, constantly. He lets the actions of one person represent entire classes of people: the elderly, teachers, guys who visit his room at school, etc. He instructs us on why we should dislike just about everybody.

It must have been wonderful to read this book when it was thoroughly controversial across the United States, in simpler times when even just the language was enough to initiate book burning parties. But it was certainly wonderful to read it now, nearly 60 years after its release.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

Why I Read It: Another "find" in a box I had dusted off. It had long been on the list.

Summary: The introduction of logotherapy told in two parts, a description of the practice preceded with the author's memoir of life in Nazi concentration camps.

My Thoughts: I often wonder how people a hundred years from now will react to stories of the Holocaust. Will it be diluted through time? We are just now losing the last of the "greatest generation," so that means that I have lived among them for nearly half a century. The people of World War II have always been a part of my life.

I guess that's why the stories have always affected me so deeply. People of my grandparents' vintage were among those gassed or otherwise atrociously treated. And when it came to such levels of understanding, it probably helped to grow up in a town with a strong Jewish population.

But Frankl's memoir struck me if just in two sentences. I guess at this point I have no expectations for how low the Nazis could sink; the depths of their cruelty no longer shock me. But Frankl made one statement that jumped out at me. He mentioned how life in the camps was the ultimate game of survival, and that in many cases, the good guys, the men and women who thought of others first, lost. In his words, it wasn't the best among them who survived the ordeal. I think I've always just believed that the prisoners in the concentration camps had no free will whatsoever, but Frankl's book changed my viewpoint on that idea. Some men and women went to great lengths to survive, often at the expense of others.

The second sentence that got me presented me with a physical reality that just struck a chord. He talked about being so weak that to take a step up into a building he had to put his hands inside the doorway and pull himself in. We've all seen the pictures of the gauntness of the concentration camp prisoner. But I guess that that's it; they're still pictures. I never thought too much of what it must have been like to try to do the simplest tasks.

I wasn't as impressed with the second half of the book, but it's not for me to really tear it down. The fact that any man or woman was able to survive the ordeal and think so deeply about the psychiatric side of concentration camp life - of the prisoners, of the guards, of the liberators, etc. - is amazing. To have gained the attention of so many millions and tell the tales as Frankl did, is astounding.

For me, personally, the timing was odd, too. The last line in the book (1984 edition) has to do with Hiroshima, which was the subject of the book I had just put down before picking this one up. I guess, in the end, as long as texts like this one survive, perhaps there will be less dilution than I fear. If we are supposed to learn from history, this is one lesson we should never forget.