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Feb262022

Book Review: “Monday Night Mayhem: The Inside Story of ABC’s Monday Night Football” (1994)

Monday Night Mayhem: The Inside Story of ABC's Monday Night FootballMonday Night Mayhem: The Inside Story of ABC’s Monday Night Football by Marc Gunter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bill Carter will go on to write better books about late night television, one of which would become the mini-series THE LATE SHIFT. But he cut his teeth, along with co-author Marc Gunter, on this thorough yet swift look at a television and sports phenom that’s really the larger story of capitalism: innovation leads to sameness which results in the innovation left behind in the file room of history. The drama is Shakespeare meets high school lunchroom, with everyone wearing their egos and insecurities on the outside of their clothes. But MONDAY NIGHT MAYHEM leads us, gently, yes, to a difficult question: Are those the kind of people who make great things? Not jerks, per se but people with half formed ideas but full tanks of ambition, people with rough edges who make stupid mistakes, which seem stupid but the risk is higher? There isn’t an answer at the end of this book but its a question and a conundrum that hasn’t aged a bit since this book came out in 1994.

Postscript: Can you enjoy this book if you don’t care about football? Yes. If you care about business, media, entertainment and human drama. But MONDAY NIGHT MAYHEM has a natural limitation: Announcing and broadcasting is all about smoothing over errors. And at a national television network level, errors are small and rarely noticed by the viewer. Which means its pretty much impossible for the authors to describe the “fiascos” the characters in this book commit while announcing football games, mistakes that were so pivotal to their fates. Why? Because they seem like petty nothings to us, the reader, even though they seem career-ending to the characters.

Feb232022

Book Review: “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton

Ball FourBall Four by Jim Bouton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jim Bouton isn’t nearly as clever or funny as he thinks. Maybe he read that way in 1970 when BALL FOUR came out, but here in the present, it’s 500 pages of chit-chat with a conversation partner way too pleased with his own half of the occasion. As he grew though, so did his writing. Read the epilogues and you get a great sense of baseball, the book and its history and the man who wrote it. That’s really all you need.

Feb112022

Book Review: “Common Ground” (1985) by J. Anthony Lukas

Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American FamiliesCommon Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families by J. Anthony Lukas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Common Ground” is nearly 700 pages of original reporting about three families living through the integration of Boston’s public school in the mid 1970s (look up “Boston Busing Riots” if you don’t yet know what a shameful chapter of recent American history this is). Let’s get that on the table right away. It’s dense, epic, terribly important and has aged not a second in its importance: We are at each other’s throats as a nation over precisely who America belongs to and what it means. The kids throwing rocks at a bus full of black students newly attending their high school and shouting about how it is their freedom in danger are the Proud Boys of yesteryear.

What “Common Ground” is not is a great reading experience. It has moments when you stop and simply cannot believe the depth of work Mr. Lukas has done and the kindness and soul he brings to it. There are way too many more when you say two pages would have worked just as well and he gave us two chapters.

Though I am positive Mr. Lukas got the best editing publishing could buy for this project, there still feels like no interview was left out, no lede unfollowed no matters how little in the end it actually mattered. My firend whom I read it with compared it to accelerating one mile per hour at a time. You’re still driving/ But you’re missing many of the pleasures of driving.

If dense, chewy, epic, important and sad are your bag, none of those complaints will matter to you. Myself, I’m sad that while I am so fortunate to have read “Common Ground” I cannot recommend it with a full heart. Somewhere in all of the magnificent things it is doing, it sacrificed the common ground an author must also have not just with their subject and the demands of the story but their reader too.

Jan102022

Book Review: “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese FalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading pulpy noir is so fun and seductive and delicious that you can whip right past how appallingly sexist and retrograde it can feel. Or you can not care about all of that and then I’d wonder if you hate women as much as Sam Spade clearly does.

Mr. Hammett spent the better part of his life romantically involved with Lillian Hellman, a mid-century force of nature, author of many of the greatest plays of the American theater and a survivor of the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s. I doubt Ms. Hellman would have put up with the kind of misogyny we see here in her lover’s protagonist: Sam Spade only sees women as objects to be kissed, banged, lectured to or slapped.

Ok, so know that gong in. Since this is perhaps the most famous noir novel of all time, you probably know the rest already: A murder, a femme fatale, men in black raincoats and shadowy glances across darkened streets. But its famous because it perfected most of those cliches and made them so tangible you feel as though you could visit the Stockton Tunnel in San Francisco and, at its base, find the body of the first victim of “Maltese Falcon” still lying on the pavement below.

If noir and its tics are your thing, this is the only place to start. And if you love San Francisco, that’s even better. The mystery and seduction of perhaps America’s most photographed city laid down in “The Maltese Falcon” holds on to us, nearly 100 years after Bridget O’Shaunessy walked into Sam Spade’s office that morning.

View all my reviews

Jan42022

Book Review” “The Practice: Shipping Creative Work” by Seth Godin

The Practice: Shipping Creative WorkThe Practice: Shipping Creative Work by Seth Godin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I do wish the scope of Mr. Godin’s heart and its philosophy matched that of his ability to express it. I love what he says but often don’t synch up with how he says it. Maybe this is preference. Maybe wiring. He means so well and “the practice” (I am two days in to trying it) in a useful one. But in keeping with his message of “keep going, don’t stop” maybe a sustained argument rather than a bound volume of 200 snippets, thoughts and anecdotes?

I don’t know. It’s working for him and I’m happy to report its working for me. Which ultimately is the point. As a reading experience though, I’d say apply the old AA philosophy of take what you like and leave the rest and the newer Seth Godin of whatevr you need to do to get started, pivot or make a real change to become your authentic creative self, do it. Even if it means picking up this book a page at a time, circling back, underlining, and not quite understanding how it all adds up.

Don’t stop.

 

Jan272020

Books v. Movies: Not an Either/Or

Lithub alerted me to a fascinating statistic that in 2019, more Americans went to the library than to the movies.

That’s wonderful news but let’s bear in mind a few things;

1. Books are not superior to movies. There are brilliant movies and terrible books. And both are magic. Being forced to chose is a false choice no one really has. And if I had to chose between them, I’d chose a quick death by firing squad instead.

2. Going to the movies isn’t fun anymore. Movie studios are having a tough time getting people to come to theatres for all but the loudest splashiest movies. And this is not the citizenry’s fault. How often do you have a pleasant evening at the movies watching something where nothing blows up at a price point you can repeat more than say once a quarter? Unless every single person who likes going to the movies in America is a 14 year old boy, this is leaving a lot of the paying audience out in the cold. 

3. “That doesn’t mean people are reading at libraries.” This sentiment is elitist and historically wrong. Libraries since the beginning of their history have functioned as levelers between classes so the economically disadvantaged may have the same tools, resources and access to information as everyone else. Read Susan Orlean’s magisterial “The Library Book”. It turns out, the earliest public libraries loaned farm equipment, tools, livestock supplies, as well as newspapers and books. Now they also provide internet access, musical instruments, toys to kids who can’t afford them and vinyl records (hooray!)

4. The public good. Use of libraries for whatever reason equals belief in something called the public good, the commons, a nation we are all part of instead of “give me mine and screw you” they have changed so many lives for the better including mine. So have great movie theaters.

Our lives are better for both. Make them a part of yours!

May92019

Top 5 Books I Read in 2017:

This year I read 31 books. Bear in mind I don’t often read new books. So I won’t say then this is my “Top 5 of 2017” but instead my…

Top 5 Books Read in 2017

(which I’ve written in reverse order)

5. The March Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Ayon & Nate Powell (2017).

A three-volume graphic memoir of Congressman John Lewis. Starts with his youth in Alabama to his work as a young man in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.

You’d have to work to muff this story. Simply put, John Lewis has led one of the great lives of the 20th Century. But here, he and his collaborators have done something, in stark, almost-wordless black & white–bold, epic and beautiful.

This book won the National Book Award in 2017 for Young People’s Literature.

With good reason.

 

4. The Odd Woman & The City by Vivian Gornick. (2015)

I only know Ms. Gornick’s name and her legendary standing as a critic and intellectual of the Second Wave Feminist movement. Then I picked up this short memoir/essay collection, released in 2015. Now I know a little of how sure and effortless her prose is, how conversationally perfect. Now I know how she seems, despite being pointed at times, like a marvelous traveling companion.

This book anchors itself to her late-in-life friendship with a man named Leonard. Her own relationship with New York City having grown up there nearly 80 years ago and gone to school there in the early Eisenhower era follows right behind.

Read if you simply love a writer at the very top of her game even after being at it for a good 40 years.

 

3. Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello (2017)

One of my favorite writers’ new essay collection about famous animals throughout human history (including Jumbo the Elephant and the Starlings that colonized America). This fast little compendium plays funny, sweet, sad and ridiculously smart.

It’s fair to say that if you love animals, you’d missing out not to read this book. Afterwards, you’ll will never see them the same way again.

 

2. Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (2005)

A short, indispensable essay collection that should be required reading by anyone who considers themselves politically left-of-center. Rebecca Solnit simply argues that to be progressive and to be cynical means living a stupid self-defeating contradiction. To be politically conscious and humorless makes an argument against being politically conscious in the first place.

The first must-read book of these insane political times.

And finally…

The Best Book I Read in 2017

 

1. Bluets by Maggie Nelson (2009)

A mediation on both the color blue and having your heart broken this is the kind of book where you say “OMG!” on every 3rd page. Maggie Nelson is so smart, so gifted and so good at what she does that I immediately spent the rest of the year binging on her books, one after the other, in a spirit of reading ecstasy and joy.

 

May92019

Something I’ve been trying out: “Reading Tri-Laterally”

To explain:

Lately I’ve been trying to read more than one book at a time, picking them up depending on my mood. And while my problem in the past has been losing track of what characters, which story, belonged where, this time it’s been working. Also, I don’t get confused if, among those multiple books, one is a novel, the other nonfiction, the third a poetry collection and so forth.

This means you may feel like you’re never going to finish a book and get to some future read you’ve been dying to get to. But what ends up happening is you finish your three books all about the same time, which then feels like your birthday because you get to restock three books at once.

Try it!

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