Wednesday, December 28, 2011

#101: Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right by Lisa McGirr

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. 395 pages

Lisa McGirr takes on the central role of Orange County in the development of the "New Right" in the 1950s and 1960s. Want to now where most of the Right Wing (or now Mainstream) of the Republican party came from? I give you the California Republican Assembly talking points in 1964:
1. Economic Freedom: As Reagan said in 1963, if a man did not want to rent his place to Negroes, it was his right not to do so.
2. States Rights: the ol' familiar bull shit.
3.Communism Bad!: Now it is Secular Humanism Bad!
4. Divine Intent Ruled Society: God Made Me Rich and Made You Poor. So Suck It. God Made Me An American and You a Nigerian. You Can Suck That Also. BTW, thanks for the oil. And mind the gunboats, you Communist.
5. Freedom From Filth: Unless of course it is a Mormon Church Approved Dating Site or perhaps Christian Singles. Or the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.  This is the biggest complaint I have about what Saint Carlin called "These Fucking Church People". We can't have any fun, but they can spank it to the Victoria's Secret fashion show when not spanking their kids.
6. Vigorous Law Enforcement: See Wall Street, Occupy. (130)

In the development of the New Right, McGirr points to several causes, the most important one in my opinion being "Mode of development". Sprawl and the materialistic emptiness it entails flavored the development of the movement. McGirr's cogent analysis of the development of Mega Churches in Orange County is spot on. Bob Schuller's "Tower of Power" told his wealthy congregants that "Jesus did not praise poverty" and it was quite right to be rich.

Well, Fuck You Reverend Bob. I give you Matthew 19:23-4: “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

This book is right on if you want to see the current Republican party in action. McGirr writes that "they railed against Federal interference in the west...even while eagerly contending for federal funds." (37) The goals of the John Birch Society (impeachment of Earl Warren, getting the US out of the UN) sound astonishingly familiar to the blithering idiocies of the Bachmans and Santorums of the world. Why? They love Ronald Reagan, but are too stupid to tone down the rhetoric. In other words, Reagan may have believed some of these things, but was smart enough to not look like Goldwater. Parents in the OC in the 1960s "feared losing control over their children due to liberal schooling." (180) Hell, they still do, except they are widespread throughout this damnable state.

Perhaps the most important item that McGirr writes is in one of her end notes. In writing about the conception of the family, she states "calls for strengthening the family meant shoring up parental (and particularly patriarchal) authority within the smaller family unit." (313) She finds this as a change from a more traditional idea of the American family, and I agree. This leads to the development of a pseudo-tradition of family on most of the Right which nicely dovetails with the majority of the Republican parties view of gay rights, the resistance to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and 1980s and their view of abortion. All in all, a great book with a fantastic bibliography. Highly Recommended.

Friday, December 23, 2011

#100: The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Proseprity by Matt Miller

Times Books: New York. 258 pages

Well, this is it, 100 books in one year. Would it be that this book was in the top 10 of the year, or the top 50. The first half of the text, which deals with Mr. Miller's Dead Ideas, is excellent, reasoned and well argued. I found myself nodding in agreement with most of his points, especially those about taxes (should be higher) and schools (should be nationalized). Most of Miller's points are diametrically opposed to the talking points of both parties.

Take taxes, for instance. He quotes Wagner's Law, which posits that as people get more affluent, they demand more of the services (police, schools, strong military) that only government can provide. (90) He also points out the idea that taxes have little or no effect on income levels; the argument of "putting more money in consumer's pockets" is misleading. (102) The real problem is one of low wages, which torpedoes his arguments on globalization.

If Wagner's law is true, then as wages drop or remain stagnant (as they have in real dollars for the vast majority of people since the 1980s) then we should be asking for less government services, not more. Defense spending is still through the roof, and the money bomb that is Medicare and Social Security is not far off. Miller does allow that we need less protectionism and more protection for those who get hurt. I agree, but we will not get that in an age where

1. The average hedge fund CEO makes 12,000 times as much in a year as the average American family. Why would they give that up without a Progressive movement making them do so? Meaning a Progressive Movement with actual balls, not limos. (141) To his credit, Miller quotes historian Michael McGerr, who wrote that people will revolt only when the plutocrats attempt to set themselves up as a new aristocracy. I agree, but that has to come from the bottom. The political elites and the plutocrats are the same people. Why else would Mitt Romney not want to release his tax returns? Why else are 54% of the US Senate millionaires as of 2010?

2. With businesses paying multiple millions in lobbying costs to get billions of federal dollars, who do you think will be protected? The owners of these businesses. The rest of us will get low paying service jobs with little or no bennies. I do agree that business needs to get out of the health insurance business, which may allow higher wages. But I doubt it. Call me cynical, but since corporations are people (shareholders, that is) they have been proven over and over again to be more important than the workforce.

In any event, the Dead Ideas that Miller points out are right on, but his remedies are vague and uninspiring. For example, this on making education better: "institutionalize skeptical thinking, challenges to orthodoxy and questioning of fundamental premises." (232) That sounds great! Have you ever actually tried it? I have multiple times, and am tired of reaping the "benefits": charges that I indoctrinate students, am a liberal bull shit artist, a fraud, cruel and a jerk. And that is just from the parents in the last 4 years. God knows what my bosses think, but I have a pretty good idea. America loves individualism but abhors the individual. Unless they are rich or a celebrity. Then we are supposed to forgo our individuality and act like them. I suppose this is what Miller is railing about.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

#99: Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker

New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008.  576 pages.

This is not your normal book. It is about the beginning of World War II from the view of a pacifist. It has no chapters. It is arranged chronologically, beginning in 1892 with a statement by Alfred Nobel about the power of explosives. It ends on December 31, 1941, a date "which most of the people who died in World War II were still alive." (473)

If the goal of a book is to make you think and question your assumptions, this book succeeds on every level. No book I have read this year (or possibly in the last 10) made me think and question as much. The knee jerk reaction to this book may be to want to smack the author, yell Hitler was a monster and Churchill was a good guy. This misses the point. Some readers will no doubt be aghast that FDR and Hitler are compared. All readers (including me) will be/were pissed that FDR does not come out looking too good. This is also not the point.

If I could change one thing about this book, it would be the afterward. It was not needed and seemed anti-climactic. This book is about pacifism and the state of Jews during the time before the war, and I do not need to be told that. Most reviewers of this book miss the point. Baker never says that negotiation was thrown out, or that the Holocaust was a direct result of the failure of Britain, the United States and every other fucking country on Earth to accept Jews as refugees from Europe. If a reader wants to draw those conclusions, go ahead. I don't, as I believe the Holocaust would have happened anyway. What escapes most of the critics of the book is the conflation of Jews and Communists in the 1910s and 1920s. Take a look at the Red Scare propaganda in the United States. Or, better yet, try these quotes on for size:

1. He was a Jew, he was still a Jew. Nothing could get over that." -- Winston Churchill in 1937, from a article entitled "Leon Trotsky, Alias Bronstein". (71)

2. "No doubt Jews aren't a lovable people...I don't care about them myself; but that is not sufficient to explain the Pogrom." --Neville Chamberlain (128)

3. "Horrible as it is, some starvation in Europe now, under the British blockade, may be necessary to break the Hitler stranglehold on free men." Milo Perkins, December 1940 (259) This as he argued against any food shipments to occupied Europe, even after the Red Cross and the Friends Assistance Committee agreed to employ mediators to make sure the Nazis took no food. Of course, Milo Perkins was the supervisor of the US Food Stamp program.

The central theme of this book is not about assigning blame for the war, nor is it about equating the deeds of FDR and Hitler. It is the bald truth that no one wanted the Jews from Europe, no one cared about what happened to them. FDR said that "to send Germans back would be against civilized thought" in 1940, but then why was it civilized to deny the entry of Jews from Germany at the same time? When German nationals were rounded up in England in 1939 and 1940, over 75% of them were actually Jews who had escaped Germany. The overwhelming theme of indifference to the suffering of others is a theme here, as is blaming whole peoples for the actions of a few. 

One of the many unspoken arguments in this text is how this blaming leads to the attitude of mass bombing and murder of civilians of any stripe. It is in this sense that the book pisses readers off, especially American and British readers. It holds the cruelties of the past up for inspection. Regardless of the justness of World War II (it is the only conflict in our history, besides perhaps the Civil War, that even begins to remotely rise to the level of just) the baseline of war is death and destruction. This is unquestionable, regardless of who is to blame for the conflict. Who is to blame is often used for justification for further violence and the creation of martyrs (See: The Iraq War, The KKK, the bombing of Dresden, the Blitz, et al.) with no addressing of that baseline fact. That is the real issue this book raises, and why it matters.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

#98: Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides by Christian G. Appy

New York: Penguin, 2004. 608 pages
This is perhaps the best book that I have ever read concerning Vietnam, the only other one that comes close is Tom Wells's The War Within. That text focuses on the anti-war movements and domestic politicians, while Appy's text is an oral history covering every conceivable group that took part in the war. The interviews are organized into several sections: Introductions, Beginnings (1945-64), Escalations (1964-67), The Turning Point (1968-70) Endings (1970-75) and Legacies (1975- ).

This is the first book about the war that I have read that includes many Vietnamese veterans, which is the best reason by itself to go out and find this book. Appy makes the statement in his introduction that American writing about the war has tended to focus on American soldiers and decision makers while paying little attention or downplaying the contributions or hardships of the South Vietnamese, or the hardships of the North Vietnamese. Reading multiple accounts from not only North Vietnamese civilians but also military veterans was eye opening. Appy's reason for the title is as follows: I was repeatedly struck by how forcefully patriotism shaped the lives and people on all sides of this war...and many of the people in this book have wrestled with patriotism's hardest questions." (xxvii)

The themes of country, faithfulness to its values, patriotism as a moral good or evil and faithfulness to individual values are as timely now as they were in the 1960s. One of the most moving interviews was with flight attendant Helen Tennant Hegelheimer. The Army, since there was no full unit rotation in and out of Vietnam, used commercial jets to ferry troops to the country. Whether or not this was to hide the escalation from the public, who knows. Hegelheimer said that the troops did not really cheer when they left Vietnam, there was just a group exhaling. She also said this: "These weren't guys who were going back to their '55 Chevys and their girlfriends...their youth was gone. You could see that." (107) Another woman interviewed, nurse Sylvia Holland, said that "I heard about sexual harassment in Vietnam, but never saw was like being Queen for a Day everyday." (170). Compared with statements of treatment from Vietnamese women (and some American officials) this was interesting to say the least. Nancy Smoyer, a "Donut Dollie", who described the troops she met as "Cute little boys who were surprised to see girls and did not know how to act." (188) There is a great deal of innocence here and throughout the book, maybe the last gasp of it in American culture.

The American soldiers interviewed actually were matter of fact, not like the REMFs (Rear Echelon MFers) of the State Department and civilian apparatus. Those guys came off as a bunch of sleazebags. If anything, I wound up having less respect for LBJ, McNamara, Nixon and the rest after reading this. I used to think that the inability to push ones thinking beyond the next election was a product of the 24 hour news cycle, but that's bull shit. LBJ could (his Civil Rights Bill of 1965 proved that) but in matters of foreign policy he could not. Principles matter, but only if they jibe with what they think the country wants. This is democracy at work, but exactly who are the people to whom  they are listening? In this case, it was people protecting their status. We all do this; in situations governing war and destruction, that itself can be the most destructive thing one can do.

Chalmers Johnson, Chairman of the Center Chinese Studies at Berkeley from 1967-72 does point out that his problem with the protesters in the US was in some way class based, which is another theme of the book; Johnson was "a lot more sympathetic to black protests, and worked with black students in my classes." (423). One protester spent the night after a march in Washington at a house with only three beds and 22 people. "All of them wanted the floor. I thought 'Why?' They said a bed was to bourgeois...or I'd be in jail with a bunch of people and say "I have to get out and go home" and they would be happy to stay there...they could afford to stay there." (413) Class haunts this book, and usually those who grew up poor or Vietnamese really understand that. It goes back to the idea of protecting your status while not giving up what you have.

Friday, December 16, 2011

#97: Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World by Eduardo Galeano

Henry Holt, New York: 1998 (Translation 2000 by Mark Fried). 358 pages

Where was this fantastic text before I went of to graduate school? Where was this poetic smashing of consumerism? Why was it not on my bookshelf? Perhaps then I was not ready for it. I have long thought that books show up when you are ready to read them. The two biggest examples of that for me have been The Hobbit and A People's History of the United States. The first remains my favorite book, the second reinforced what I was already thinking and pushed me to go back to school.

What did this book do? It pissed me off for questioning my left-leaning beliefs in favor of going along to get along. In the first ten pages, there were quotes that adequately described the community in which I work:

1. Education of the wealthy "trains us to view our neighbors as a threat rather than as a promise." (8) Galeano leaves the promise unsaid, but for a Latin American author there is the remnant of FDR's "Good Neighbor" policy that withdrew Marines from several countries in the 1930s. This ended with the Cold War, when the United States started to see Communists behind every bush trying to nationalize banana plantations and mines. Individually we are taught to fear our neighbors in this world where we are connected to everyone but literally do not know who our next door neighbors are. On a national scale, look at the Bachmanns and Romneys of the world.

2. Galeano writes that the rich of Latin American countries "grow up rootless, stripped of cultural identity, aware of society only as a threat." (12) Same can be said of many wealthy students in this country, who care only for the next vacation, go to San Francisco only to visit Union Square and shop and gawk at the Gay Folks. They cannot find New Haven on a map but can tell you in 2 pages why they should go to Yale when they grow up.

The text is a series of musings, the type of book like Walden that is best picked up when you feel removed from the spiritual. When you feel removed from the decency of your fellow man, angry at the world and want to scream "Go take a Flying Fuck at a Donut" when you hear someone blathering about what they did on Black Friday, this book should magically appear on your bedside table. What fired me up, pithy comments such as these:

--"Now, poverty is the reward for inefficiency; it may cause pity, but it no longer causes indignation." (32) Did it ever? Think about this quote, most know from the Civilization IV computer game: "When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist." -- Dom Heldar Camara. Will Rogers in the early '30s was about as blunt, pointing out there are 40 people in the United States who could buy the world but 40 million who didn't have enough to eat.

--"The State should not give orders to banks." --Michael Camdessus, President of the IMF in 1997. (151) Well, well well. Honesty in a "public" servant. If the American People knew anything about history, they would realize this was tried.....during the fucking McKinley administration. It did not work then, either.

--Democracy is afraid of remembering and language is afraid of speaking (59). How did a person writing in 1998 coin a very concise description of what passes for political speech among the ruling classes and their servants? He was paying attention.

The most important quote in this book? "Impunity is the child of bad memory." (211) Exemption from punishment leads to the repetition of awful things. Tell me that Goldman Sachs did not know this in 2008, or that cops busting the Occupy Protests don't understand this. Read this book and get angry.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

#96: 31 Days: Gerald Ford, the Nixon Pardon and a Government in Crisis by Barry Werth

Anchor Press, 2007. 416 pages

Most people my age and younger don't know anything about Gerald Ford. We know that he was clumsy, had a stuffed dog named Liberty and invited Homer over for salsa and football. I never really considered his presidency that important; this is quite foolish, coming as it did directly after The Great Evil of Politics (Nixon) and during the Great Evil (Disco). Throw in the tail end of Vietnam, inflation and Henry Kissinger, and this caretaker between Nixon and Nixon's Reaction (Carter) becomes downright important.

Ford steps from these pages as what seems like a genuinely decent and kind-hearted fellow. He and Betty were a little scared of the White House at first. None of the staff would talk to them. When Betty asked the head steward about this, he told her that the Nixons viewed the staff as better seen and not heard. Ford was in an impossible situation. He was painfully aware that he had not been elected either VP or President, many looked at him as illegitimate, Nixon thought he was an oaf and Ronald Reagan told him "I'm going to remain an independent" when he was approached as a possibility as Ford's VP.

The book is in many ways a discussion of the rightward move of the Republicans. Looking at Ford (and Nixon's) policies in comparison to the current batch of Potato Heads, they look When Ford chose Nelson Rockefeller as his VP, it pissed off the right wing of the party, who focused on Ronald Reagan as a candidate to beat Ford in 1976. One of the people also looked at for the VP position was George H.W. Bush, who was "devastated" when he did not get the call. Notable among Ford's staff are Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, but they are sideshows for most of the text.

While the title focuses on the pardon of Nixon and the decision making that went into it, the real meat of the book is the transition between two very different styles of management and governance. In the middle of this is Al "I'm in Charge Here" Haig, who was basically the de facto president during Nixon's last weeks and months in office. He made Ford nervous, and rightfully so. Nixon was an autocrat while Ford was more of a consensus builder. Werth does an excellent job of fleshing out what the difference in Ford and Nixon meant for the cabinet members, White House staff and the press corps. It was literally a whole new system for everyone involved. It also shows the benefits and perils of having a lifelong Representative in the Oval Office. While the book kind of drags, it is a good up-close look at how the government worked in a very strange time.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

#95: The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, The '70s, and the Fight For America's Soul by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne

New York: Gotham Books, 2010. 324 pages

The Dallas Cowboys symbolize rich, snobbish entitlement. Need evidence? I give you the nickname "America's Team". No one I know voted on that. They were everything that was wrong in the 1970s and everything that is wrong with the NFL and the society in general now. Tom Landry, who blamed Duane Thomas for a Super Bowl loss after he got them there, was a prime example of the bull-shit, no emotion, corporate football that epitomized these assholes year after year. Tex Schramm, who regularly gets his ass kissed by everyone involved with the NFL, was even worse. "The whole system is based on insecurity" according to Renfield Wright. (113) One needs only look at the Republican Presidential hopefuls and President Obama to know who actually came out on top in this fight.

As I grew up, I idolized the Steelers because of their working class vibe, their anger and their absolute visceral hatred of losing. I idolize them for the same qualities now. In the 1970s, the Steel Curtain was dominant because of athletic talent to be sure. But, they were also dominant because they were highly talented men doing the best job they could do. Millman and Coyne paint a picture of a city in the 1970s on the decline, with small whiffs of the perpetual bull shit money machine that would typify the US in the 1980s and 1990s. The Burgh lived for the Steelers. One nice counterpoint in this book is the Steelers moving into Three Rivers Stadium and the creation of Franco's Italian Army. The Cowboys move to Irving, Texas (find that fucking place on a map) and then jack ticket prices up so the fans who had supported them from the beginning cannot afford a seat.

At least Clint Murchison, owner of the team, was honest. "If we discriminated against them (people making 12-20,000), we discriminated against them, but no more than all America discriminates against people who don't have enough money to buy everything they want." (98). Want some standing room only tickets at the new stadium that Texas taxpayers put $350 million towards building, not including tax hikes of .5% to their sales taxes? Cheap ones are $38. Of course, you can't see 1/3 of the field. But, you'll be in the same building as your roided up heroes! Good for you! I have been to one pro football game in my life, and that was enough.

In other words, the Cowboys are for the rich assholes and the Steelers play the role of working class hero in this text. And I say, right on! The book is a painstaking look at the value of a sports team to a city in counterpoint to the value of a city to a sports team. Many people hate the Steelers and their fans, partly because we have been so good for so long, but partly because they don't like the blue collar violence. I can't stand 49er fans because they tend to be chardonnay drinking pussies. Yes, Raider fans may knife you in an alley, but they command respect. Even the 49er fans are better than those miserable bastards who root for who wins. Ask a Patriot fan sporting a Tom Brady jersey outside of the North East who Steve Grogan or Mosi Tatupu was and you get blank stares. Ask a Raider fan who Jon Matuszek was and you may get the saying "The Tuz is Big News". That is the difference in real fans and jack offs. Real fans know history and revel in it.

This book starts off with Joe Namath snubbing Pete Rozelle after the Jets won Super Bowl III. I found that interesting because the NFL does not give a fuck about its fans unless they buy the latest jersey or the "Official NFL Draft Hat". During the 1970s, the trope of one blue collar team against a bunch of wealthy fucknuts would work. Now, it's all wealthy fucknuts. The NFL is a corporate hive of scum and villainy, but it was not always that way.

Monday, December 5, 2011

#94: The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Harding White House and Tried to Steal the Country by Laton McCartney

New York: Random House, 2008. 368 pages.

Warren G. Harding is my favorite President. Not simply because he was the worst president of all time (I don't think anyone else is in his league) but because he was known as "The Bloviator" and was one of the few presidents between 1876 and 1960 that advocated education and voting rights for African Americans in the south. He also released Eugene Debs from prison, signed the first child labor law and appointed William Howard Taft as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

At the same time, he managed to actually get blackmailed by two different women during the 1920 presidential campaign. He openly lived cavorted with his mistress in....The Oval Office! On the desk! He told noted Prohibitionists that drinking in the White House was his own damned business. Oh, and his Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall leased oil fields belonging to the Navy Reserve (including the Teapot Dome in Wyoming) to oil companies at low cost with no competitive bidding. He is like Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all rolled into one person. Laton McCartney's text is laden with research, sometimes making for tedious reading, but is overall an outstanding work. I learned much about something I thought I knew well.

Only in this country could you get a group called The Ohio Gang: a group of hangers on that land cushy jobs in Harding's cabinet. Then, these groups secretly meet at what came to be known as "The Little Green House on K Street" to plot nefarious deeds. While Harding is boozing away in the White House or playing poker with some cronies, the Ohio Gang is selling off oil reserves, delaying paying of veterans and acting like general ne'er do wells. McCartney provides a lot of background to these men and the women behind them, which makes the book more like a series of character studies than history. Fall, for his part, was not Harding's first choice as Sec of Interior. Harding's first choice was gunned down by his mistress in a hotel in Oklahoma. She shot him in the chest while he was lying on a bed, unarmed, in his underpants. She was then acquitted on accounts of self defense.

When every misstatement by whatever flavor-of-the-month is trumped up as a scandal, it is refreshing to read about some honest to god crooks, cheats and liars. A good book to read as the election season gets under way in earnest.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

#92: Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole and Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers

New York: St. Martin's Press, 2008. 286 pages

Only one of these men is left alive, which is a pity. One may be able to tell a lot about how these men lived by how they died.

Richard Harris was living in the Savoy Hotel when he died of Hodgkins disease. As he was being wheeled out on a stretcher to an ambulance, he propped himself up on emaciated elbows and shouted "It's the food! Don't touch the food!" (270)

On May 2, 1999 while filming Gladiator in Malta, Oliver Reed was leaving a pub when he spotted a group of Royal Navy sailors. Reed "bellowed "let's have a drink" and downed 12 double measures of rum before he retreated to his more accustomed double whiskies. He also challenged the sailors to a number of arm wrestling contests and won several matches." He was 61 years old (264)

Richard Burton was plagued by a bad back in his later years; when undergoing surgery for the problem, it was found his spine was encased in crystallised alcohol. The night before he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, we wrote the following line from The Tempest on a napkin next to his bed: "Our revels are now ended." (230)

Much of what occupies this book is drink stories that one only sees in shitty movies. These guys did all of these things and more. This is by turns a funny and incredibly sad book. Ultimately what saves it is that these fuckers are so likable. The least likable is Oliver Reed, who was a violent chauvinist pig when drunk but a most generous man when sober. The most likable is, of course, Harris. Imagine what the kids would think if Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape and Gilderoy Lockhart engaged in a "pub invasion" and still being at it at 4 AM.  By the 1990s, people were in awe of O'Toole and Harris, less so of Reed because he was unemployed and damn near broke.

Of course, what draws people to stories like this are two items. One, most of us could never hope to consume 2-3 bottles of vodka a day for six months (Harris, Burton) or drink 126 pints of beer in a 24 hour period (Reed). Two, these men are an antidote for our plasticine, bull shit celebrities of today. Harris openly mocked Hugh Grant, and once told Bruce Willis politely to "fuck off, I am talking to my ex-wife". The only one of today's movie stars that holds a candle to them is Russell Crowe. Harris made this comment about Crowe: "He irritates the shit out of those Hollywood bigwigs, but he's much to good for them to ignore." (267)

Crowe gets in fights, acts like an ass sometimes, but seems a decent enough fellow. In other words, he acts stunningly like a guy you would meet in a pub. The "Hellraisers" are genuine people, not about to be handled by publicists and studio douchebags. Burton went that route with Liz Taylor, and she comes out of this book looking like a booze-soaked old hag. Hollywood does not like real people, they like fake ones. Never was that so much in plain view as it was in this text. At his height in the 1950s, Burton could consume a fifth of brandy and still play Hamlet with little or no ill effects. Burton became a movie star and made some great films and some incredibly awful stinkbombs, but he had presence, as did the rest. What makes them awesome is not the amount of liquor they can drink or the women they can bed, but that they can function not only like human beings but like talented actors. That's why Harris bagged on Hugh Grant; Hugh Grant has played the same damned nitwit character in every movie since 1989. Harris played himself to the hilt, and it was the only role he never varied.

Friday, December 2, 2011

#91: The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters by Rose George

New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008. 277 Pages

This book is about shit. Rose George quotes a study wherein 7 categories of euphemism are used for that word, and points out that sanitation is a taboo subject in no small part because it concerns shit. (11) I don't know anything about sanitation. I push the lever and away the shit goes. I don't know where it goes, nor do I care how it gets there. So what if the readers of the British Journal of Medicine  voted sanitation as the most important single development in public health over the last 200 years?

Of the many statistics, stories and people who dropped my jaw while I was reading this book, this is the biggest: "diarrhea kills more children under 5 than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria...and 4 in 10 people on earth defecate in fields or on roadsides." (67) 2.6 billion people do not have a toilet. George's description of the public toilets in Mumbai slums or Chinese villages or some South African schools have to be read to be believed. The next time some student asks me to go to the bathroom, I will unhesitatingly say "Yes". UNICEF points out that many students in Sub-Saharan Africa and India drop out of school in no small part because the school has incredibly filthy bathrooms. (83-84)

George goes from the International Toilet Expo to Tanzania, China, India, South Africa, London's sewers (most of which are not mapped) and finds that shit is everywhere, consumes incredible amounts of water and that Americans have shitty toilets. Meaning not that the Thrones are covered in the brown stuff, but by and large they do not function as well as European toilets. Nor do they cook breakfast and sing Tom Jones songs like Japanese made toilets.

I looked up the TOTO made "Neorest" model, and for $3400-$3800 bucks, you can have a remote controlled toilet with a heated seat and "Front and rear warm water washing". It is this thing, the "warm water washing" that frustrates Westerners. You can also buy a washlet that has a self cleaning extending wand that will provide "the ultimate in personal cleansing" according to the TOTO USA website. George writes "in modern Japan, washlets are as taken for granted as band aids" (39) I do know that toilet paper is nasty and I dislike the stuff. After her escapades in shitdom, George has adapted her own toilet habits. Nothing says nasty like FOG (fat, oil and grease) that congeals in a sewer and actually closes it off. Nothing says eat some fries like a man in a hazmat suit hammering at solidified fat in a sewer. Good Lord. I felt filthy reading this book, but it was worth it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

#90: A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

New York: Bantam, 2005. 784 pages

OK, I am running out of gas on this series. This books swings away from the stories of Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys who are not heard from, while Cersei Lannister and Brienne of Tarth get a little more than 40% of the chapters. This has its benefits and drawbacks:

The Good!
Brienne is a fantastic character. She encapsulates the plight of females in Martin's world and in some small way our own. What is valued is beauty and youth in women; there is nothing else. How female characters react is limited: they can live out the stories of valiant knights and virtuous ladies, scheme from behind the throne, or strap on a sword and kick some ass. Sansa takes the first route (less so in this book), Cersei the second and Brienne the third. Brienne cannot take the other two because of her physical self. She appears more manly, so she acts manly because of the men in her life. At the beginning to spite them, and then to earn their respect. Of course, neither of these works. I find her, along with Tyrion, as the most compelling characters in this series. They are both MUCH more than they appear because of circumstances beyond their control. Brienne is ten times the "strong female character" than the Arwen that was created for the Lord of the Rings films.

Arya Stark makes great strides in this text. Methinks she will be a complete and absolute Bad Ass by the end of the series. 

The Bad!
Alas, too much Cersei. As much as I love Brienne's character, the "power behind the throne" motif is old and tired. Throw in a pinch of wicked stepmother and you have Cersei. Samwell's character does not develop very much in this text, which is shitty. The cloud hanging over this text are the dual specters of Winter and The Others, and they are not developed very much. This pissed me off.

The Ugly
I don't buy the shift in Jaime Lannister. In fact, the more I read these books, the only characters I do not want to see get a dagger up the strap are Arya, Brienne, Jon Snow and Tyrion. Is it poor to want a lot of characters to die in hideous ways? I can't get on board with Daenerys either. I just don't care. One thing is certain, and that is this thing better show some wrapping up in the next book. I don't mind the length, as this is the first of the series that has made me question whether or not it needs to be this long. That thought may creep into my little head if the next book does not tie up at least a few strands.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

#89: Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground by Jonathan Kay

New York: Harper, 2011 368 pages

Leave it to a Canadian to offer what may be the most intelligent critique of American Political Discourse in this Age of Competing Horseshit Noise:

"The war is not only shrill, but endless: Since most American conservatives would never actually accept the much smaller government they claim as their goal, their war demands will never be instead, populist conservatives send waves of culture warriors into an unending series of proxy battles...all without much changing of government or preventing it from performing the functions on which we have come to depend. This has pathologized political debate--turning every discussion about legitimate policy areas into a screaming match." (145-46)

I found this book to be mistitled; anyone looking for a in depth treatment of Conspiracy Movements in this country is going to be disappointed. If you want some top-notch political analysis of the effects of conspiracies on the current discourse, this is the book for you. One of the things that most of the Amazon reviewers tend to miss about this text is the emphasis on "pseudo history". I enjoyed Holy Blood, Holy Grail as much as the next guy, but it contained no evidence to support anything. Of course, in this culture, opinion masquerades as fact, and the lack of evidence is consigned to some nebulous conspiracy.

Kay puts this ideology into politics, and there are quite damaging repercussions for politics. If opinions are taken for fact (Bush=Nazi, Obama=Socialist), reason cannot exist. Glenn Beck is a past master at this sort of shit, simply because he does what I call the ol' "Chapter and Verse" trick. Whenever someone challenges Beck on the Fed, or Woodrow Wilson, he pulls out a somewhat obscure piece of legislation about it and challenges the person to explain it to him. When that person cannot, he pounces. It is the same trick used by the Fallwells and Swaggerts of the world; when someone says "The Bible says love your neighbor" they ask "what is the chapter and verse of that?" When that person cannot answer a very obscure question, the loudmouth becomes expert and their opinions carry the weight as facts for people who have limited knowledge.

Watch the Republican Debates or the President's pedantic soundbites. No one ever challenges these people on anything; when they (or anyone else in this fucking country) is questioned, it is a personal attack. We label and do not analyze because we are lazy and really enjoy a good story. Kay finds this a toxic brew for most anything, and I agree completely.

#88: The Games that Changed the Game: An Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays by Ron Jaworski, Greg Cosell and David Plaut

New York: Ballantine Books, 2011. 313 pages

Do you like the football? Large men running around smacking the crap out of each other? Is football just about who can get more 350 pound men away from the nearest buffet table long enough to strap on pads to play a game? Ron Jaworski plumbs seven games for coaching styles and developments that cast a long shadow over the NFL. The book is very rewarding, and proves that Jaworski is perhaps the best color commentator on TV today; he has a unique ability to explain what you are seeing on the field.

Jaworski looks at seven different games, breaks down the film, and explains what was the important development of the game for the NFL. I watched several of these games:

Game #5: The 44-0 beatdown of the Cowboys by Buddy Ryan and the 46 defense (11/17/1985)
Game #6: A painful loss by the Steelers to the Bills in the playoffs (1/9/93)
Game #7: The upset of the Rams by the Patriots in the Super Bowl (2/3/2002)

Jaworski puts games in their historical context. The Bears 46 defense (in which the defensive tackles cover the center and guards) decimated the Cowboys, and hastened the demise of the core 1970s and 1980s "pro set": two backs and 2 WR with a tight end. The Dolphins beat the Bears that year by using Nat Moore as a slot receiver to create matchup problems. Doug Plank, who wore #46 with the Bears, said "the 8 man front (of the 46) can't defend a spread offense." (189) The spread offenses of the 90s and today have their start as a response to the Bears and then the Eagles playing the 46, which funnels everything inside in an effort to knock the quarterback on his ass.

Four of the seven feature defenses (the '74 Steel Curtain, '85 Bears, Dick LeBeau's zone blitz and Belichick's hit Marshall Faulk plan) which all deal with pressure. The offenses (vertical stretch, Air Coryell and the West Coast Offense) all deal with the passing game. All of the strategies strive to create pressure on single players or sections of the field. Jaworski does an excellent job in making the difficult much easier to understand. One thing I do not understand (nor does Jaworski) is the NFL's reluctance to allow fans to see the "All 22" film angle that shows all the players on the field at the same time. "This is the only true way to see all the assignments" Jaworski writes in the introduction, and he is correct. It is much the same as viewing a baseball game from the center field camera with only the pitcher and catcher in view. This makes baseball on the radio MUCH better than on TV, as you can picture how the fielders are playing the batter.

In any event, if you like the football, read this book. You'll learn quite a bit. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

#87: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

Whooooooooa Boy. So much happens in this text that it is sort of unfair to do a "review" of it. I don't want to ruin anything for people who have not read the book, but I want to go on and on about how good it was. How the hell do I do that?

So, there were a lot of killings. I mean, A LOT. Heads chopped off and crushed, throats slit, arms cut off at the elbow, eagles taking out eyes. So many in fact that there was some yahoo running around with bone armor. That's right, bone armor. Bad Ass! Martin is called the "American Tolkien". What is fascinating about these books is that there are several small homages to Tolkien in these pages, but there is a lot more of several things, violence and destruction being two of them. It fits, however.

That is the thing that gets me about these books. No matter how I might squirm at the destruction of someone by The Mountain that Rides, the severe disfigurement of The Hound, the deflowering of maidens of any name, it all fits in the broader scope of the tale. It is not gratuitous, which is something that many authors need to learn. Martin's world is brutal. This is in some way why this series is so good. Many readers have some intuitive understanding that the Middle Ages would not have been "romantic" for many of us and our modern sensibilities. Violence was not done from long range, but up close and personal. People died from infections that are now treatable. People stank, were dirty, poor, could not read. People worked hard for most of their lives, the exception being the rich men and women at the top.

Martin does not romanticize this at all, and it makes his characters believable. The Hound is the antithesis of King Arthur's knights, because he sees the hypocrisy of the system. Knights blather about honor and do their best to fuck over anyone who actually has it. It reminds me of the treatment of the samurai by most people who have no conception about the samurai. Would a samurai stab someone in the back? Does a bear shit in the woods? War is not a beauty contest about honor. As Sherman said in the U.S. Civil War: "War means fighting, and fighting means killing." Honor is for those who have a choice about survival or 12 year olds with black belts who will never use their karate moves in anger.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

#86: Everybody Loves our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm

Crown, New York: 2011. 567 pages

At first I thought this was by Mark Arm, lead signer of Green River and Mudhoney. Either way, this was an excellent piece of oral history; it is up there with Legs McNeil's book on punk. The book focuses on more of the little known yet important bands to the grunge movement: The U-Men, Green River, The Melvins, Skinyard, Malfunkshun, 7 Year Bitch, The Fastbacks. In a word, excellent. I am planning on using this in the future in my rock history class.

The main source of tension in this book is, of course, Courtney Love. I actually am kind of afraid that she will Google "Courtney Love", see my blog complaining about her, and then attack me. I mean, she is batshit insane. Her comments for this book sound about as coherent as a 5 year old who broke into the parents liquor cabinet and drank that Peach Schnapps that has been sitting in the back since that party in 1994. Most people in the book have nice comments for her, with the most common being "gold digger". There is a of hate here for her. Frankly, it is absolutely deserved. Second to her is Candlebox, which is described "not as the nail in the coffin of grunge, but the actual fucking coffin". (344)

If anything, one of the few voices of reason in this text is fucking Bret Michaels. He says this "My career didn't end with grunge. My career with the media ended with grunge." (303). That is the real thing to take away from this text, that after Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Candlebox, most folks in the corporate rock world did not care about anyone else. Eddie Vedder and Mark Arm both describe a sort of "scorched earth" Seattle, where ex-members of pioneering bands wander around in confusion after the trend muffins have left town. A land in which the punk roots of grunge were overlooked in the race to sign "the next Nirvana" and where shitty derivative bands got fat record deals. Exhibit A: Stone Temple Pilots, who weren't even from Seattle. Far be it from me to wish for a return to the spandex and Aqua Net days of the 1980s, but this book, as the Michaels quote points out, is about the bloodsucking creeps that are most record executives.

Cobain is quoted as labeling Mark Arm and Jeff Ament as "careerists", honing in on the one thing that I could never stand about Kurt Cobain. As Arm put it, "For me, playing music is the difference between me having a career and working in a restaurant for my entire life. If that makes me a careerist, fine." I agree with that assessment; Cobain never wanted to be popular and was never happy when he was. He is the archetype of the tortured artist. Without "Teen Spirit", Cobain is the 90s version of Alex Chilton. With Teen Spirit, he becomes a self-righteous prick. That's not to say I don't like his music. Perhaps in this way he was the Bob Dylan of his generation, someone you could absolutely dislike and mock as a person who continued to record music that ranged from awful to transcendent regardless.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

#85: A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

New York, Bantam Books 2011 Mass Market Paperback. 1009 pages

Good Lord, this book was long! It is one of those small paperbacks that weigh about 2 pounds. This installment of the series focuses on three characters:

1. Tyrion Lannister: the dwarf with the taste for women, food and saving his own skin.
2. Arya Stark: youngest daughter of Edd Stark, and a regular "tomboy" in the Medieval mode. You know, swords and roughhousing and general thievery.
3. Jon Snow: member of the Night Watch and bastard son of Edd Stark.

This book is filled with acts of rapine, food throwing, sex, sex involving food, magic (the darkest magic), burnt down castles and farms, ghosts, fuckers rising from the dead. It's got it all, and I could not stop reading. Martin seems to have two sources of stories and culture. One is 15th century England, one is 13th century Mongolia. As it is, I want more magic. This is not Gandalf's shining of a light to make evil run away or fireworks (cool as that is). It is not something that renders its users invincible or superhuman (with one possible exception). I like that. In this world, if you screw with the Old Gods, magic or anything supernatural, debts have to be paid. It is not something to simply cure your problems; the law of unintended consequences overhangs the use of magic in this text.

The action is fast and furious; the more I read this series, the more I notice that the main characters are decidedly female and young. Many of the characters are children thrust into terrible situations. That is becoming a real draw for me, as each of the characters reacts differently. Not all the knights are noble, not all the ladies are lady like, not all the villains are evil just because they are evil. All the characters have their own motivations, which is the sign of a fully fleshed out an developed world. I have already started the third novel.

#84: All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera

Portfolio Books: New York, 2010. 400 pages

If you are interested in what is going on behind the occupy Wall St. movement, read this book. It will piss you off, make your hair stand on end, make you want to punch anyone attached to Goldman Sachs or Countrywide or any other one of these collective groups of greedy bastards. Not that the government is completely blameless, as regulators "looked the other way" while AIG hid $750 million in bad loans connected to PNC bank in 2002. The deal should not have been made, but it was anyway. (198)

Nocera and McLean are longtime Wall St. reporters, well respected and widely read. In this book they do not throw certain people or companies under the bus. They treat all people in an evenhanded fashion, giving a blow by blow account of the financial crisis of 2008. This may cause some people problems, but who cares? This is a book full of flat out good reporting. Reporting in this day and age grinds axes and inserts opinions for fact. Nocera and McLean do NOT do this, and the result is an excellent book.

What makes me want to punch these greedy bastards? It is passages like this: the American Financial Service Association stated in 2005 that "it would be unnecessarily stringent to assess whether or not borrowers could repay a loan." (214) So, banks and lenders thought that it would hurt business if they were actually required to perform "due diligence" on borrowers.Add in that more than 35% of all mortgages in 2004 were actually refinancing loans, and any person could see that the housing market was a true house of cards. (255) Just like Madoff and his ponzi scheme, the traders at AIG betting on short sellers to not ask for their money back all at once. (193)

The biggest question the reader is left after reading this book is "How much is enough?" It should never be a bad thing to make money (even though it seems as if it is sometimes). What is important is how the money is made. For me, Bernie Madoff is a common thief and nothing more. He was a simple con man who used what people wanted to get what he wanted. The fuckers who ran Goldman, AIG and the rest are just greedy elites who saw riches and wanted more. Is there any sort of coincidence that 5 former Goldman execs had joined the government between 2004 and 2006? No, there is not. That's what occupy Wall Street is about; the federal government enables Wall Street fraud. Is this new? Of course it isn't. The history of this country is littered with financial scandals that implicated members of the Federal Government: Credit Mobilier and the Tea Pot Dome to name only two. This was a crisis created by greed and hubris, two of the defining elements of this country the last time we acquired a shoddy empire: 1890-1915.

Glenn Beck and most of the Republican Right wing should read a little more about that era, instead of the knee jerk reaction that Woodrow Wilson was a socialist. I'm sure Big Bill Haywood is spinning in his grave every time he hears that. In today's America who wrote something is just as important as what they were saying, so it would not matter anyway.

Friday, November 11, 2011

#83: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

New York: Bantam (Mass market Paperback) 1997. 831 pages

I picked this up after having several people (John, Jersey among them) recommend it. I was not disappointed in the least, and have subsequently run out and bought the next three volumes of the series. There are multiple strings in this textual weave, some of which are weaker than others. Most are very compelling.

The nominal "main character" of the first text is Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell. The Stark family and their role in the intrigues of the Court of the King of Seven Kingdoms is the actual "main" character. Each chapter concerns the point of view of a different character, named at the beginning of the chapter. These are from different royal houses, each with different motives and backgrounds. Martin is influenced quite heavily by English history, specifically the Wars of the Roses, I am guessing. However, this book is NOT your average fantasy novel. People get killed in brutal ways, knights are not always what they seem, there is lying, intrigue and death everywhere. All this makes for an incredible story.

Ned Stark becomes "The King's Hand" and goes to court, against his own judgment. This begins the tale, and it careens out of anybodies control. As with most things political, it seems the intrigues beget more backstabbing until the violence and paranoia have lives of their own. Everyone gets caught up in it and is forced to take sides, regardless of their place. Martin's descriptions of the different areas of the kingdom are so vivid that you can feel how the environment shapes the people; in reading about the Starks, I was reminded of Sam Houston's remarks to a crowd in Galveston in April of 1861. He told them "The (Yankees) are not a fiery or impulsive people, as they live in colder climes...but when they decide to move in a certain direction, they move with the speed and determination of a mighty avalanche." That is Ned Stark and his family. Others (such as the Greyjoys and Tyrells) bedeck themselves with symbols of their homes, all described in incredible detail by Martin. I actually do not want to see the mini-series, as it will ruin the visualizations I had whilst reading this book.

The other main family is the Lannisters, who have the most compelling character in my humble opinion, the dwarf Tyrion. At first I hated his living guts, then I respected the end of the text, it was both. But I couldn't stop reading this book no matter who was being written about, and that is the take away. I put it down and instantly picked up volume two.

#82: Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon by Craig Nelson

New York: Viking, 2009. 404 pages.

I am a sucker for books about the Space Race. I picked this up when I finally broke down and bought "A Game of Thrones". I saw this book with the picture of Buzz Aldrin next to the U.S. flag during Apollo 11 flight, and I saw the discount price of $5.98. SOLD!

Oh well, would that it were worth it. Don't get me wrong, it is not a bad book. Craig Nelson wrote a very well received biography of Thomas Paine, and his writing is crisp and detailed. What this one lacked was really anything new that one could not get out of any of the other 75,000 books about the Apollo program. I made the mistake of actually thinking it was solely about Apollo 11. That was my mistake, as Nelson's text careens through the timeline of the mission, interspersing anecdotes with stories about Robert Goddard, JFK, Werner Von Braun and Sergei Korolev. The info on Von Braun, whose record of service with the Nazis has been classified and then expunged, is quite well done.

But again, there is little here that is new. Besides some excellent quotes from Alan Sheperd concerning JFK (actually using the term "Space Cadet" with its original connotation) and a couple of anecdotes about the years after the mission, a reader should check out "Moon Shot" by Deke Slayton and Shepard.

For those (like me) who constantly bitch that the US put men on the moon 42 years ago and that we are now a country whose own citizens think can do nothing right, Nelson does offer some hope. He does point out that it took roughly 60 years to get from the Wright Bros to reliable jet travel. Of course, space travel is much more difficult than jet travel. It also took roughly 120 years between Columbus "discovered" a continent with millions of people on it and the founding of Plymouth colony. We could do more; the question as always is are we willing to pay for it? In the 1950s, it was "Hot damn! Let's go!" Now it appears to be "Waaaaaaaa!  We can't afford stuff like space flight! We can't afford ANYTHING! Good lord! That SOB Johnson and that even bigger SOB Roosevelt ruined this country with their damn Socialism! I'll cut three departments from the Federal government: Commerce, the EPA and that one what deals with school lunches. Do you know lunch ladies have a UNION!?!?!?! What in the Blue Blazes of the Left Nut of St. Reagan is wrong with these people?"


Thursday, November 10, 2011

#81: 101 Places Not to See Before You Die by Catherine Price

New York: Harper Collins, 2010. 249 pages.

This little red book with a snake on the front curled about a suitcase is peppered with a bunch of places the author deems unworthy of a waste of your precious time and cash. Within is some inspired writing, interesting travel anecdotes and filler. Sort of like early Beatles albums; on their second you get inspired (She Loves You, You Can't Do That, Money), interesting (Roll over Beethoven) and filler (Please Mister Postman, You Really Got a Hold On Me). Not that those last songs aren't good, but I prefer The Marvellettes and Smokey Robinson, respectively.

Catherine Price is an intrepid travel author, and it runs in her family. Perhaps her best story here is #14, "An Overnight Chinese Train on the Day of Your First Period." Suffice it to say, there is not a drugstore in sight. Or maybe it is about the two places I have actually been (The Winchester Mystery House and Bay Area Rapid Transit -- BART). Both take your money, but only one smells like a wino that has not showered in three months. She was spot on with those places. I looked so forward to going to the Winchester House after I came to the San Jose area. I went, walking roughly 4 miles from my hotel in 95 degree heat to get there. Perhaps I could not read the map (check), perhaps San Jose is a giant sprawling monstrosity (check), perhaps it was because I was hallucinating by the end of the walk due to heat exhaustion. Even if I was hallucinating, my tour guide sucked and it was a huge let down. My ass is more haunted than that place. Why? My ass has produced unexplained noises, olfactory sensations best not repeated and has led to people leaving a room exclaiming "My God!". I rest my case.

The filler is just that. "Jupiter's Worst Moon" and "An AA Meeting When You're Drunk" seem like cop outs to push the number to over 100. On the whole, the wheat outnumbers the chaff here: a theme park in Argentina with a 59 foot plastic Jesus who rises after his crucifixion to the dulcet tones of the "Hallelujah" chorus, a former IKEA now filled with steamy piles of excrement, the "Testicle Festival".

#84 is the state of Nevada. I am not sure I agree with this, and Price states that she included it for the "Nevada Haters" and asks persons of Nevada to "please forgive me." (196.) Frankly, I can think of worse states than Nevada. Arizona for one, Maryland for two. Maryland does have Baltimore and does not take 776 hours to drive across like Arizona does. So, I guess I would include Arizona. Could we move Meteor Crater to New Mexico? Please?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

#80: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

New York: Knopf, 2006. 506 pages

The Book Thief was given to me by a colleague. It is written for a high school audience, and I blew through it in about two days. It left me wondering several things:

1. Where the hell was this book when I was in high school? I would have read this cover to cover 57 times.

2. Don't like Slaughterhouse Five? Then give this one a wide berth. If you like Vonnegut, you will like this. The Book Thief centers on a period in the life of a young German girl, sent to Munich to live with foster parents during World War Two. The narrator, in an incredibly interesting twist, is Death. The Grim Reaper. Who? THE GRIM REAPER.  Some of this book is just downright hysterical, mixed with horror, sadness, disbelief. In other words, what good fiction should be. Along the way, the girl meets several people. all of whom will stay with you one way or another.

3. It is really NICE to see a book for high school readers that does not involve vampires, wizards, Greek Mythology and other assorted Bull Shit. This book is about, of all things, a teenager who likes to read. This is about the power of books to allow the escape from real monsters, not about the power of escapism from the awful pit of daily drudgery. Whining teens? Toss 'em this, and then say that in Caesar's day, children like them were left to die on windswept crags.

4. Going more on that theme, when I was younger I was reading Zelazny, know, honest to God high quality fantasy and science fiction. This book is excellent, with a great story that is compellingly written. Much more so than all but the last Potter books, and more than any of those abysmal Percy Jackson tomes. What happened to good authors? I know they are out there, and I do not read a lot of fiction. Partly because I was turned off from it over the last 10 years. Only Vonnegut or Isabel Allende could have turned out  book like this. Have a kid that likes Percy Jackson? Throw Jack of Shadows or Changeling at them for a real book.

5. Anyway, The Book Thief is about the love of reading. How could you argue with that?

#79: High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed by Michael Kodas

New York: Hyperion, 2008. 357 pages

I have always had this strange fascination with Mt. Everest. I don't want to climb the damn thing and really do not want to go there. I'm perfectly happy to live vicariously through the people who attempt to get up to the high point. Michael Kodas is a writer for the Hartford Courant who went on an expedition to the mountain with a team funded by his newspaper and the state of Connecticut. The story that Kodas unfolds during his 2004 expedition is terrifying.

In 2004 seven people died on Everest; at least one of them was left on his own by a man he paid more than $10,000 to guide him to the top. One was a 63 year old Japanese woman who slipped 1000 feet below the summit and dangled off a rope, dying before her colleagues could save her. What emerges from this text is a place where no one is safe. It's a place that if you go alone (like David Sharpe in 2006) you will be left to die by other climbers. It is such a money maker that theft seems endemic in the high altitudes, with food, head lamps and even fucking crampons stolen from other climbers.

More importantly, it seems to be "a source of bragging rights" according to one climber (187). It is a source of bragging rights for many wealthy westerners; some guide companies ask for more than $30,000 for a trip that may or may not be successful. It is wonderful when a blind man climbs Everest, or when a double amputee does. This book does not come out and question whether or not they should have been there in the first place. In both those instances, they were experienced mountaineers who knew what they were in for. In that case, they absolutely should be there. The real question becomes should all of these fucking people be there? The answer to that is a resounding "NO"

Kodas's expedition fell apart in a blaze of recriminations, fistfights and anger. In Kodas' text, it is not the environment that is in the most danger (even though it is in a perilous position) but in some cases the humanity of those that undertake the climb. This is what makes the book so scary; imagine falling into a tent you cached food at at the 7200 meter level only to find it looted. Night is coming on, but your sleeping bag has also been stolen. What do you do? Some poor bastards have had to ask this true life and death question. Read this book to find out their answers. I could not recommend this book enough.

#78: The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien

Silver Jubilee Edition, Ballantine Books.

Well, this is it. I put these away for another year. In some ways, this is the most difficult book to plow through, as the temptation to just get to the parts where:

--Gollum bites Frodo's finger off
--And Saruman (nee Sharkey) gets stabbed by Wormtongue for being a general bastard.

In some ways, the reader is carrying a burden along with Frodo. Tolkien was in love with using the phrase "Behold!" and words such as "splendor" and "beauty" and "puissant". I remember the first time I came across that word, "puissant".  It means "powerful" or "having high influence". How has the writing changed since the 1920s and 1930s?

1. Eowyn, you sought the Lord Aragorn's love because he was high and puissant
2. Eowyn, you wanted to bang Aragorn because he is hot dirty or clean and can kill 400 orcs with his two day old stubble alone.

I can hear it now: "Did Faramir call Aragorn a pussy??????" Well, no he did not, you illiterate baboon! I love the fact that Frodo could not go through with destroying the ring in the end. The passage in the book reads almost matter of factly, as if you should have expected it all along. No one really destroys the ring in the end, as Gollum just pulls it off and falls over the edge. It destroys itself. I don't know what that means exactly, but evil and bad experiences can't really ever be excised. They remain, no matter what you do or how hard you try to forget them.

This is what makes the Battle for the Shire, left out of the film, so poignant and meaningful. The Hobbits, much like the generation of men such as Tolkien who went off to World War I, came home having seen things that no person should ever have to see. Death, destruction, waste, fear, hate; all of these take a toll. As they know these things, jack asses who play act like Bill Ferney hold no power over Pippin, Sam, Frodo and Merry. What is wonderful is how the Hobbits use a terrible experience as a positive. They clean up the Shire and become great leaders; they could have just as easily became bitter, angry and hate filled.

That being said, the experience changed them utterly. This is hinted at in the film when the four mates share an ale and look very uncomfortable in a place where a year earlier they would have been dancing. They have become part of a wider world and a wider narrative, which I think is what Tolkien was really getting at. We have a choice whether to leave home, to go where we are asked by friends, countries, governments. That journey changes our expectations as we become part of a wider tale, whether it is war, making friends from far off places, meeting people not of your race or class. Our minds can incorporate these things or not, and we can choose to return home. But those things stay with us and endanger the safety of the memories of our home. It may seem smaller, meaner, less important and wrapped up with meaningless things like fun, drinking, dancing and the rest. The important idea is to not be ashamed of where you are from if it is filled with frivolity, and not to begrudge those who know only happiness. Those of us who have seen sadness, loss and pain in great measure must protect those who have not from the very things we have experienced. That is the lesson I take from Frodo Nine Fingers and the Ring.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

#77: Pigskin: The Early Years of Pro Football by Robert Peterson

New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 256 pages

Robert Peterson is best known for his excellent treatment of the Negro Leagues, Only The Ball Was White. This text breaks down the history of pro football until roughly 1950. The first two thirds of the text is excellent, with a great amount of info about the pre-1920 pro game and the infancy of the NFL.

Who was the first professional player? The first to be paid for tackling someone? The perfectly named William "Pudge" Heffelfinger, that's who. No, I am not making that up. Pudge Heffelfinger; what a great fucking handle for a football player. Just like old baseball players, old football players had better names. Who is on my all Name Team? I'm glad you asked!

1. Carlester Crumpler, Tight end 1994-1999. It would have been better if he had been a defensive tackle, so people could say "Crumpler Crumples the Ball Carrier."
2. Pudge Heffelfinger, Tackle 1892: Would you make fun of him? "Hey, pull my Heffelfinger!" That's a whoopin'.
3. Johnny McNally: member of the Hall of Fame, better known as "Blood". Blood McNally! Sounds like a drunk Irishman who would just whip some ass. He was and he did. This made him an excellent player, but a terrible coach.
4. Bulldog Turner: 1940-1951. 237 pounds of spit-knocking blocking power on a 6'1 frame. One of the Monsters of the Midway in the 1940s.
5. Dick "Night Train" Lane. I would give my right nut to have the nickname "Night Train". How cool would that be? I would walk into a room, men would say "Hey Night Train!" I would nod at them but not say anything, women would swoon and I would nod some more. But only in that I'm-cool-back-off sort of way. I got stuck with Barney. Damn it!

Anyway, back to the book. The one complaint I have in Robertson's treatment of the development of the league is the lack of diagrams of such things as The Flying Wedge, The Single and Double Wing, The T Formation, The Flying J and the Double Buffalo Wing With Dressing. That's a small complaint, and they are easily found online. Robertson's style is straightforward and his research is excellent. The first few chapters about football before the advent of the NFL is the true strength of the book. The Rust Belt is the true home of professional football, and why the Big 10 does the best tailgating. The SEC can suck hot dogs on that one. What were the football hotbeds of the Wilson Administration? Ohio and Indiana.

Robertson also includes an excellent bibliography, which I am finding is becoming a lost art in this day and age. Lousy internet.

#76: The Unthinkable: Who Survives Disasters and Why by Amanda Ripley

Crown Publishing, New York: 2008. 266 pages

This ranks as one of the most fascinating books that I have ever read. Amanda Ripley takes the question of why certain people survive disasters and spins it into a discussion of human nature, genetics, relationships and socialization. The disasters stretch from plane crashes, 9/11, the Virginia Tech shootings and the Halifax explosion of 1916 to such mundane things as traffic accidents and people shouting in a supermarket. 

As it turns out, you should take all of those fire drills, earthquake drills and airplane safety lectures seriously. The biggest thing to take away from this book is that most people in a disaster don't freak out. One of Ripley's chapters focuses on a busboy who worked at the Beverly Hills Supper Club outside of Cincinnati. On May 28, 1977 the building burned to the ground, killing 177 people. Ripley points out that "most people were more friendly during the evacuation", even while they were trapped by locked doors. Ripley's statement that "civilization holds" is chilling, in that most people will simply freeze and wait to be told what to do in these situations. Hierarchy holds; in the supper club fire, a busboy led the way for several people because "he had no vested interest in the club."

Ripley also takes on why certain people tend to run toward danger. They tend to be male, single and have no children. In other words, this may be an evolutionary thing; the idea that people freeze certainly is an evolutionary thing. This was the most interesting and frightening part of the book. A million years ago, when our biggest threats were large animals who viewed us as food on the hoof, playing dead or going limp was perhaps our best defense. It would lower our threat; in some cases, lions would not eat us because they wanted fresh meat. This same response is deadly in a fire in a plane or a skyscraper, as it takes time. Ripley describes a survival arc and plots each of her witnesses and examples along the arc, making the book easy to follow and digest.

This is in the top five of the year and cannot be recommended enough. What would you do in a disaster? Read this book and get some idea about what you might do whether you want to or not.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

#75: The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy by Bill Simmons

ESPN Books, New York: 2009. 715 pages

I did not expect to like this book as much as I did. I like Bill Simmons' writing quite a bit (he and Jason Whitlock are my favorite sportswriters) but I felt this was going to be roughly 700 pages of stroking the collective cocks of the Boston Celtics. It was roughly 200 pages of that, but at least it was entertaining.

Simmons book revolves around "The Secret", explained to him once in a pool in Vegas by Isiah Thomas. "The Secret" is what makes good players great, great players transcendent, and championship teams candidates for elite-all time status. Along the way, one gets opinions, stats, more opinions, Johnny Wadd references, Michael Buffer references, a comparison of pre-1980s stars to old time porn stars. Simmons does not take himself very seriously, as evidenced by this footnote "Nothing's worse than being trapped in a room with someone who is creating dumb arguments, trying to prove impossible to prove things...unless it's this book." (674) This is what I would call a "Bar Book"; a collection of awesome arguments to have whilst watching sports over a beer with some friends.

This makes it different than many books of this type, looking for the "best ever" anything. Most of these books are overloaded with obscure statistics which sort of prove the point, but leave readers with that cloud of "Yeah, but...". This works in baseball, as SABR and Bill James have done most of the heavy lifting by figuring out the historical meaning of statistics. Simmons is on the leading edge of this with the NBA, as are the people who run the great Pro-Basketball reference website.

Simmons spins many sordid tales of NBA greats, but that is not what this book is all about. The book is about the game, and Simmons treats the game as sacredly as John Thorn treats baseball. I don't watch a lot of NBA basketball anymore, but it is refreshing to see someone keeping the '86 Celtics and '92 Bulls alive. Not to mention people such as Elgin Baylor, George Mikan and Dave Cowens; people who did not benefit from the extreme amount of coverage of today's bland corporate superstars. The strength of this book is that non-corporate, vaguely sexist and downright profane tone that Simmons has always employed. Dan Biasone gets a LOT of attention; the man saved the NBA by inventing the 24 second clock, and the Hall of Fame let him die without inducting him. I find this outrageous, as does Simmons. The best authors are in touch with the history of their subject and celebrate it warts and all. Simmons is certainly one of those authors.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

#74: The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien

Silver Jubilee Edition, Ballantine Books. 447 pages

OK, so after Needham I went back to the well to finish my annual reading of three of my five favorite books (The Hobbit and Catch 22 are the others, with a shout out to The Illuminatus! Trilogy). And, even after not watching the Two Towers movie for several months, I still see Faramir saying the one thing that made me gasp and develop a seething rage against the film franchise:

"The Ring goes to Gondor."

Of course, Faramir never says this in the book, and never would say this in the book. Why? Because he is noble in thought and deed, a true descendant of Numenor. His brother was a weaker man, and destroyed by temptation before he had a chance to redeem himself. Maybe movie audiences would not understand. Certainly in this world of Tron, Footloose and Dirty Dancing remakes, no one would understand that some people can master their own feelings! I am not one of them, which has always made me look up to Faramir. Even Frodo gave in at the end; Bombadil and Faramir are intriguing because they do not.

This book reads the fastest with the Three Hunters chasing the Orcs to the border of Fangorn, the awakening of the Ents and the downfall of Saruman. Then, it slows down when swinging to Samwise and Frodo. I have always been of two thoughts on this, that the Sam and Frodo action is slow (until Shelob shows up), or it is slow because it should be. Sam and Frodo are moving more slowly, their sense of doom is increasing (at least Frodo's) and the threat to them is growing every step they take. This time through I came down on the second of these, which again the movie fucks up by "sending Sam home". Frodo would never do this, as he trusts Gollum only through shared experience. This does not cloud the fact that Gollum is a sneaky little bastard. Frodo has no illusions. What makes Samwise a beautiful character is his ability to keep his head when all about are losing theirs. There is also a true tenderness to their relationship that the movie's change undermines.

My favorite line? The oft repeated "We are the fighting Uruk-Hai". That's always been up there with "Fool of a Took". When I was little, I wanted to go against the Uruks with Faramir. Lousy Dungeons and Dragons.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

#73: Stuntman: My Car-Crashing, Plane Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life by Hal Needham

New York: Little, Brown and Co. 2011: 307 pages

I looked at this book several times before I picked it up. I thought "Hal Needham is one of the best stuntmen in the history of film. But, he did direct Hooper." He also gave us Smokey and the Bandit I and II, Stroker Ace and The Cannonball Run. Under no circumstances did I anticipate a good book, well written and interesting. I thought it would be filled with crashes and stories about Burt Reynolds.

I was right except the stories were all about Mr. Needham and name dropping. Burt Reynolds, Kirk Douglass, Arnold Shcwarzenegger...even Have Gun, Will Travel makes an appearance. This has got to be the single most boring book about a man who has broken 56 bones that has ever been written. Here is a sample:

"He sounded like Burt Reynolds and looked like Burt Reynolds, but why was he talking to us (the women wondered)...Burt was always ready to help a couple of buddies in need." (201) or "I scratched him (the horse Alamo) affectionately under the chin. Arlene walked over and said if I treated her that well, maybe we'd have a better relationship." (131)

No crummy hotel in the country was safe from Hal Needham in the 1970s as long as Burt Reynolds was around. Needham's first marriage is summed up in about 3 pages, wherein he manages to say that "Hollywood types don't like cowboys". Probably because the fuckin' cowboy is chasing tail as Burt Reynold's wingman. When this magic association began to wear off (around the time Evening Shade became popular) Needham was owning a stock car team, which he calls "the second most popular in to The King, Richard Petty." Before the advent of ESPN and TNT, this was somewhat akin to saying you were the second most popular football team in Alabama. Personally, I thought Harry Gant was one hell of a driver, but I liked Dale Earnhardt's Wrangler machine more.

Even the description of the stunts in his films are devoid of any sort of emotion. I suppose that is good, as a lesser man (me) would have been scared shitless to fall backwards off a 45 foot cliff. Believe it or not, even Smokey and the Bandit is based on a real event, namely "a maid stealing Coors beer out of my fridge in Miami." What got Needham the money to do these films was one man, Burt Reynolds. Needham would probably never have become a director without him, and Needham seems a little wary of this. Reynolds had to be talked into doing the Cannonball Run because he did not want to do another fast car picture. I mean, who the fuck is going to give you money to do a movie about a fucked up race across the U.S.? Even if Needham is the man who tried to bring Jackie Chan to an American audience, that film is not made without Reynolds.

By that time, Farrah Fawcett had left Charlie's Angels and would not make a post-Run film for more than three years; Roger Moore had three unremarkable Bond films left in the tank. The Rat Pack leftovers were reduced to doing shtick. Needham acts as if this was a "cavalcade of stars" when in fact it was a group of people whose careers were in decline. This book would have been much better if it stuck to the stunts and the technical details and dangers of making films. In some ways, Needham seems least comfortable in writing about these things. We actually hear more in Needham's autobiography about who Burt Reynolds was dating. That's sad. Needham is due a lot of respect for his tireless work on behalf of stuntmen and women in Hollywood; give him that but don't bother with this book.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

#72: Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper by Geoffrey Gray

Crown, 2011: 320 pages

Remember that show In Search Of.... with Leonard Nimoy? I first heard about D.B. Cooper on that show, and have been moderately interested in the crime ever since. On Nov 24, 1971 a man calling names Dan Cooper hijacked a 707 flying to Seattle. After it landed and refueled, the Feds loaded $200,000 and parachutes on the plane. It took off for Mexico; somewhere around Portland Cooper jumped out the back of the plane. He has never been seen again.

In researching the crime, Gray meets with several people who are convinced that they know the identity of Dan Cooper. Several are, predictably, complete nutbars. A few have compelling cases. Gray handles most of these folks gently, which is better than how they handle each other. This is pretty common for folks on the trail of Bigfoot or Nessie. The book is about "the hunt for DB Cooper", so I thought it would be about the actual hunt for him. It wasn't. The second 1/2 of the book read like a jumbled collection of some very funny anecdotes, absolute 100% bull shit and a damn travel guide.  In that, I was let down.

The actual case is lost in the crazies that dominate the end of the book, which subtracts from the overall quality of the text. And crazies they are. You know 'em, the ones that maintain that James Earl Ray was a CIA operative under Raoul's mind control, that the black ops helicopters are actually behind all the cattle mutilations of the 1970s and that LBJ had JFK killed. We all know of course that Ray was hired by the FBI, UFOs actually butchered up those cows and JFK was killed by the Mob. It begs the question of why in hell would you go down the rabbit hole? Everything you ever find is contradictory to what you already know. These people waste their lives; at least three of the are chuckleheads that Gray runs into are "writing their own books". Well, I won't read them. They will not be professional writers like Gray. At least his prose is worthy.

Gray sees the edge of the rabbit hole and does not go down, which is good for him and the reader. I could not take much more conjecture, unsupported claims and assorted crap. What I did like about this book was too short and what I did not like went on for dozens of whiny, paranoid, I know that person from somewhere pages. The whole "I know something that flies in the face of reason and evidence" shtick is getting old, and smacks of hubris. Well, good for you, Mr. Smartpants! Show me proof, not a bull shit story from some random guy who knows this woman whose husband said that his brother was a friend of a guy who worked at United that disappeared in 1972 after taking a parachute class in Ohio. FUCK! That guy must be D.B, Cooper! He could be living on your street, spending the last of the Cooper Money...oh yeah, that's never been found. Because he buried it in the yard of a friends house for safekeeping and is "waiting for the case to be closed". Irritating.

Monday, October 3, 2011

#71: America's Quarterback: Bart Starr and the Rise of the NFL by Keith Dunnavant

Thomas Dunne Books, 2011: 386 pages

Keith Dunnavant is a very respected football researcher who brings to light much that I did not know about Bart Starr. I agree with Dunnavan't assertion that Starr is perhaps the most underrated QB in the history of pro-football. However, I do not think that he was in any way the best QB in history. Dunnavant turns to the "Hardware" equation, meaning Starr won more NFL championships than anyone else did. I respect that, but do not agree with it. Overall, this book is quite good. Bart Starr seems like a true mensch.

The title is both a statement and a swipe at Johnny Unitas, the subject of a book entitled "America's QB" in 2004. Starr and Unitas were compared throughout the 1960s; Starr had the hardware, Unitas the stats. Between 1961 and 1967, the Green Bay Packers were the best football team on earth. Period. End of Story. In those years, Starr's record as a starting QB was 78-18-4, a winning percentage of .780. Starr was 9-1 in the postseason. Unitas was no slouch, earning a record of 63-29-3 in the same span, a .663 winning percentage. The Packers were an excellent team, consistently in the top five in the league in both running offense and defense. When other QBs started for the Packers, they put up a record of 5-2 during those years. When others besides Unitas started for the Colts, they were 2-3.

The single most fascinating thing in this book for this reader was a comment from Starr himself. Starr was (still is) heavily involved in charity work in Wisconsin and Alabama. While working for a home for troubled youth in Wisconsin, he has this exchange with a student:
Starr: I hear you're a tough kid.
Tough Kid: So?
Starr: I hear you like to beat people up in the street.
Tough Kid: I like to get in fights (insert you're next, oldster, right here)
Starr: If you do that on the street, you're a thug. If you do that on a football field, you're a hero.

Some will take from this the legitimization of thuggish violence. To "legitimate" something is to make it legal, but more importantly to justify it. Starr saw the violence around him, but I don't think he found it justified. It was part of the game. What Starr was, as Dunnavant points out, was on the other side of a great generational divide. Violence, in whatever form, is a defining element from the point of view of a child. Were you ever spanked? Beaten by a parent? Chances are, your parents were of Starr's or the next generation. Starr would spank his kids, but never flat out beat them; Starr's father, gathering from the book, was very similar. There is a huge difference between a spanking and a beating; trust me, I know. Starr left the violence there on the field, likely because he was on the receiving end of some truly brutal stuff; some of the pounding that Starr took courtesy of Tommy Nobis, Butkus, Bubba Smith and the rest were no doubt legal. To steal a recurring and annoying construction from the book:
Men hurting others to win a game?
Men with concussions going back out to play?
Not knowing where they are or who they are?
Is that justified?
That is the question of football, not the bull shit "it makes you a man" crap that peppers the text.

What I wanted far more of in this book was what Dunnavant opens but does not develop. The place of Starr and Unitas as counterpoints to the non-conformist AFC and the anti-war movements is well known, being referenced on The Simpsons, no less (Johnny Unitas! Now there is a haircut to set your watch to!). The writing seemed strained during these passages, as if Dunnavant wanted to punch those dirty hippies for belittling Bart Starr and his "small town values". What Starr thought of the changes in society is mostly hinted at; Dunnavant at one time states he was "a great symbol of Nixon's Silent Majority." Starr himself probably thought this. In any event, while welcoming and a great attempt at citing the historical significance of Starr, this part of the book failed from non-development and author bias. A small gripe, however. In Dunnavant's defense, this is a biography and not a work of cultural history.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Could We See That Game Happening?

My shoulder was aching badly, so as it barked at 6 am this morning I decided to get up. I watched the "welcome to the Big 10, Nebby" beatdown by Wisconsin and began to wonder could we should have predicted that Russell Wilson would outduel the wunderkind Taylor Martinez?

Perhaps. Russell is a transfer senior from NC State while Martinez is a sophomore. Martinez has played 6 games against teams in the top 25 and Russel 5, including last night. Here are their combined performances vs. top 25 teams:

Martinez: 119 attempts, 67 completions, 927 yds, 6 TD, 5 INT passing, 89 carries for 195 yards and 1 TD rushing
Russell: 151 attempts, 87 completions, 1125 yds, 8 TD, 3 INT passing, 51 carries for 124 yds and 4 TD rushing

The game that put Martinez on the map last year was against Oklahoma St in which he threw for five touchdowns and ran for 119 yards. If that game is removed from Martinez's resume, we could see this coming. Why? Look at the rushing numbers:

vs Top 25 teams not named Oklahoma St: 70-113-1, 22.6 yards per game, 1.6 yards per carry.
vs non-tops 25 teams: 156-1252-18, 113.8 yards per game, 8.1 yards per carry.

Stop Martinez from running the ball, force him to throw and he gets uncomfortable. He is an exceptionally mobile quarterback and has a good arm; he is not a passer yet. Oklahoma St allowed him to pile up 119 yards on the ground, which allowed Martinez used to hang 323 yards passing on the Cowboys. The first second quarter interception yesterday doomed Martinez; however, Wisconsin's defense also stiffened up against Martinez's running capability

Martinez Before Pick: 6-10, 98 yards passing, 11-50 rushing with 1 TD
Martinez Post Pick: 5-12, 75 yards, 3 INT passing, 10-11 yards rushing.

Of course, maybe it was Wisconsin's offensive line. Montee Ball usually did not have a finger on him until he was three yards up-field last night. Nebraska better get used to that; teams that play more like Big 10 teams usually give them trouble and the Nebraska secondary is very susceptible to play fakes. Wisconsin used their aggressiveness against them.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

#70: Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by J.A. Miller and Tom Shales

New York, Little, Brown and Co.: 2011. 784 pages

You may balk at the 784 pages, but this book is written in snippets of interviews surrounding a larger theme. It is arranged chronologically; since I no longer enjoy the broadcasts of the Worldwide Leader, I did not know 3/4 of the "talent" interviewed in the last 150 pages. I liked the arrangement of the book and thought that letting the ESPN people speak for themselves was far better than writing a book about the company. Miller and Shales identify eight "steps in ESPN's rise to world dominance", all of which seem to be correct.

I think the best way to review this book is again to let the people in it speak for themselves. Some of the older folks that many of us grew up watching (Bob Ley, Chris Boomer, Robin Roberts, the late Tom Mees) or spent too much time in college watching (Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick, Charlie Steiner) come across as, I hate to say this, regular guys who just happen to be on TV. I have long been a fan of Ley, Roberts and Steiner, and after reading this I am even more of one. Chris Berman's act has been old since 1998. He comes across as playing a character which he now believes to be himself. He's not a bad guy, he's not a good guy. He's just there. But, enough of that, here are some quotes:

1. "Am I a whore? Sure. (Stuart) Evey had money and we needed more of it." -- Chet Simmons on his hiring at ESPN in 1979 after his departure from NBC. Most of the "old timers" have a somewhat caustic view of the industry in general and are not afraid to admit that TV is about cash. This is refreshing. (29)

2."We were sometimes desperate...Bobby Knight had a run in with a Puerto Rican policeman at the Pan Am building, so that was a gift that kept on giving. We talked about that for hours." -- Bob Ley speaking about the early years of the network, in which no lesser lights than he and Chris Berman used a port-o-san in the parking lot because the bathrooms in the building were not finished. This is in many ways the strength of the book, and the difference between the older folks and younger folks. Ley, Berman, George Grande were bored in Bristol, CT shilling pool, Munster Hurling and Australian Rules Football. To reference another bloated sack of crap from the early 80s that has perhaps outlived its usefulness, SkyNet was not yet self aware. (55)

3. "During my first week, I was writing at my desk...I looked up and the Playboy Channel was on, with naked people everywhere, from the monitor right above my desk. There were like 12-15 guys standing there just to see how I would react." -- Karie Ross. This and a quote from Andrea Kremer during her time at NFL films. She asked a producer "What should I look like?" and he responded "Friendly, fuckable and informative." (200) What these people had to put up with on a daily basis in Bristol was akin to a group of Frat Rats at you neighboring university. The only things that mattered were sports and pussy. I have much more respect for the women that worked (and still work) at ESPN; but think of that friendly, fuckable and informative bull shit the next time you see Erin Andrews, Suzy Kolber or someone else. Shit hasn't changed in 25 years.

4."There was an effort by Disney to monopolize all intellectual property coming out of everyone's head while they were working at ESPN." --Jack Edwards. News Flash: Disney sucks. ESPN is a corporate shit heap. 'Nuff said. (352)

5. "Those of us who have that little touch of paranoia in them about a certain group--as I do about management--really are a bit more--comfortable is the right word--in a situation in which management if failing utterly." -- Keith Olbermann. I respect Olbermann, but he is kind of a dick. Most brilliant people are; they are smarter than the suits that will not take a risk. I respect Olbermann, Dan Patrick, Bob Ley and many others because they refuse to play the game. Or, as Mojo Nixon said back in the 80s, "I refuse to play the victim in your big daddy boss theater of the retarded." Berman plays that game well and is an institution. This also leads to gutless attempts at ratings by hiring Rush Limbaugh for a sports show and bringing on Russel Crowe to pimp his latest movie on Monday Night Football.  (262).

6. "The problem with the birth of ESPN2 was, you can't try to be hip. You either are or you aren't. It's that simple. Likewise, you can't try to be smart. You are or you aren't." -- Charley Steiner. (262)

7. "It all comes back to what people say about the place--they don't care about talent. Couldn't care less. "We don't need you, fuck you, we've got NFL games."" -- Dan Patrick (482)

This text reinforced a lot of what I saw on TV. The people whose work I liked I tended to identify with. That list includes Olbermann, Patrick, Ley, John Saunders (a 24 karat badass and one hell of a journalist), Suzy Kolber, Andrea Kraemer, Tom Jackson, Dick Schapp, Ron Jaworski and even Tony Kornheiser. You can see the integrity. The people I thought were schmucks on the air really are schmucks. Stuart Scott, Chris Berman, Joe Theismann; this list consists of people playing a part. But then, there are the executives. If you want to see who runs the show at this beast, peel back this curtain and compare the guys from the early 1980s to Mark Shapiro and the D-Bags at the wheel now. You'll feel dirty.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

#69: The Darkest Summer: Pusan and Inchon 1950 by Bill Sloan

Simon and Schuster, New York: 2009. 383 pages

I don't know anything about Korea, and in this I am pretty close to average. I know my father was active during the war and was in the Air Force. I know that on the show "Mad Men" this is Don Draper's war, one that we somehow lost or no one cared about. Before I read this book, I knew these facts and more:

1. That the Korean War was never ended by an armistice. It remains in a state of cease fire.
2. The Chinese were involved and suffered massive casualties.
3. Douglas MacArthur was fired during the war, gave a maudlin speech and then was never heard from again

The subtitle of this text puts forth the idea that in 1950 the US Marine Corps was in danger of being eliminated. After WWII, the US government did not want to have a large standing army; between 1945 and 1949, the size of the US army dropped by nearly 85%. The Marines were viewed as somewhat archaic. Far from being a cheerleading book for the USMC, Sloan's text provides some answers as to why the USMC survived. To be quite blunt, they were better led and had more esprit d'corps than the army. If anything, the USMC had to save the army's bacon multiple times.

However, this was not the army's fault. One thing that absolutely leaps out at the reader here is the utter craziness of the Korean War in general. This was a war that the US did not want to fight and so did with 1 hand behind its back. In essence, the American public, as well as many soldiers in Korea, asked "Who gives two pinches of shit about this place?" That question is never fully answered and the reasons for that are well investigated in this text.

Also, Douglas MacArthur was a complete and absolute 24- karat asshole. While I was under this impression before I read this book, the text and Sloan's evenhanded description of the arrogant asshole with the corncob pipe reinforced this in spades. I mean, the jack ass literally lied about his ability, and when the Marines landed and kicked ass on Inchon, this prick said "OK, well that's it" and went to drink tea below decks of his ship. There is a phrase for this that was en vogue in Vietnam: REMFS. That stands for Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers. Most generals are those; ask those poor bastards on Corrigedor in World War II what MacArthur was. They'll answer "Oh, that REMF that evacuated to Australia while we went on the Death March?". What a fuck.