Book Review: Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman


Author: Neil Gaiman
Title: Fortunately, the Milk
Narrator: Neil Gaiman
Publication Info: HarperCollins (2013)
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

We listened to this with the kids on a road trip this weekend, once in each direction.  The narrator is a boy whose Dad goes out to buy milk at the corner store and after a long absence returns with an outlandish tale of where he’d been.  His adventures include encounters with aliens in flying saucers, pirates, vampires, colorful ponies, and traveling as a companion to Professor Steg, a very wise stegosaurus. They travel through time, escape an erupting volcano, and never fail to hold on to the milk, all while on board a Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier (a.k.a. a hot air balloon).  It’s all delightfully silly and a good follow-up to our previous favorite audio book for road trips, Gaiman’s The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, which very likely features the same family.

Rating: ****

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Book Review: Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston


Author:  Zora Neale Hurston
TitleBarracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo
Publication Info: Amistad (2018), Edition: 1st Edition, 208 pages
Previously read by the same author:

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography
  • Mules and Men
  • Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston

Summary/Review:

This recently published biography/ethnography is by the great author, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, based on interviews she conducted in 1927.  Her subject is Kossola, also known as Cudjoe Lewis and by other names, who was the last known survivor of the African slave trade.  The Constitution outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808, but slave traders were able to smuggle in enslaved people from Africa without consequences right up to the Civil War.

Kossola was born in West Africa in what is Benin in the present day around 1840. In 1860, he was captured by the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey and sold to American slavers on the ship Clotilda.  Hurston expresses Kossola’s story in his dialect, allowing him to tell his story.  He talks of his childhood in Africa, capture, passage across the Atlantic, and enslavement in Mobile, Alabama.  After Emancipation, Kossola and other former captives of Clotilda pooled together money to buy land near Mobile from their former captors and created a self-contained community called Africatown.  There he tells stories of his marriage, children, his unsuccessful lawsuit after a train crashed into his buggy, and the death of his son, also in a train crash.  Kossola became known as a storyteller, and the appendix includes a sample of his stories.

The book is an interesting piece of overlooked American history.  It’s also a glimpse into the ethnographic practices of the time, good and bad, as Hurston relates her visits to Kossola and the negotiations that went into planning their interviews. More than once Hurston uses terms like “primitive” to describe Kossola, a shocking judgement for an anthropologist and African American. Critics of the work suggest that parts of Kossola’s narrative are fictionalized – either by himself or by Hurston – and note that she plagiarized and earlier interviewer’s work in an article she wrote about Kossola.  Nevertheless, this is a valuable historic document to read both for Kossola’s story and as an addition to Hurston’s work.

Favorite Passages:

Here is the medicine: That though the heart is breaking, happiness can exist in a moment, also. And because the moment in which we live is all the time there really is, we can keep going. It may be true, and often is, that every person we hold dear is taken from us. Still. From moment to moment, we watch our beans and our watermelons grow. We plant. We hoe. We harvest. We share with neighbors. If a young anthropologist appears with two hams and gives us one, we look forward to enjoying it. Life, inexhaustible, goes on. And we do too. Carrying our wounds and our medicines as we go. Ours is an amazing, a spectacular, journey in the Americas. It is so remarkable one can only be thankful for it, bizarre as that may sound. Perhaps our planet is for learning to appreciate the extraordinary wonder of life that surrounds even our suffering, and to say Yes, if through the thickest of tears. – Alice Walker March 2018

From 1801 to 1866, an estimated 3,873,600 Africans were exchanged for gold, guns, and other European and American merchandise. During the period from 1851 to 1860, approximately 22,500 Africans were exported. And of that number, 110 were taken aboard the Clotilda at Ouidah. Kossola was among them—a transaction.

Hurston’s manuscript is an invaluable historical document, as Diouf points out, and an extraordinary literary achievement as well, despite the fact that it found no takers during her lifetime. In it, Zora Neale Hurston found a way to produce a written text that maintains the orality of the spoken word. And she did so without imposing herself in the narrative, creating what some scholars classify as orature. Contrary to the literary biographer Robert Hemenway’s dismissal of Barracoon as Hurston’s re-creation of Kossola’s experience, the scholar Lynda Hill writes that “through a deliberate act of suppression, she resists presenting her own point of view in a natural, or naturalistic, way and allows Kossula ‘to tell his story in his own way.’”

Kossula was no longer on the porch with me. He was squatting about that fire in Dahomey. His face was twitching in abysmal pain. It was a horror mask. He had forgotten that I was there. He was thinking aloud and gazing into the dead faces in the smoke.

“Poe-lee very mad ’cause de railroad kill his brother. He want me to sue de company. I astee him, ‘Whut for? We doan know de white folks law. Dey say dey doan pay you when dey hurtee you. De court say dey got to pay you de money. But dey ain’ done it.’ I very sad. Poe-lee very mad. He say de deputy kill his baby brother. Den de train kill David. He want to do something. But I ain’ hold no malice. De Bible say not. Poe-lee say in Afficky soil it ain’ lak in de Americky. He ain’ been in de Afficky, you unnerstand me, but he hear what we tellee him and he think dat better dan where he at. Me and his mama try to talk to him and make him satisfy, but he doan want hear nothin. He say when he a boy, dey (the American Negro children) fight him and say he a savage. When he gittee a man dey cheat him. De train hurtee his papa and doan pay him. His brothers gittee kill. He doan laugh no mo’.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: RISK! by Kevin Allison (Editor)


Author:Kevin Allison (Editor)
TitleRISK!: True Stories People Never Thought They’d Dare to Share
Publication Info: Hachette Books (2018)
Summary/Review:

I started listening to the Risk! podcast years and years ago.  I was already listening to The Moth and other storytelling podcasts, and at first I thought this was just a tawdry attempt to have people tell the most prurient details of their sexual escapades.  But for some reason I kept listening and soon grew to realize that this was storytelling at its most raw.  People told stories of their abuse and trauma, the transitional moments of their life, as well as hilarious tales of everyday escapades gone wrong. Risk! was a podcast that brought out the humanity in every person brave enough to speak into the mic and the many people who could relate to their stories.

The Risk!  book gathers together some of the stories from the podcast as well as stories written specifically for the book.  In some cases, the stories lose something when you don’t hear the author’s voice, whether it’s someone who is a master of the live storytelling art who brings things out with their voice and mannerisms, or if it’s someone’s who uncertainty and nervous laughter of someone daring to speak words they never thought they’d utter before an audience.  On the other hand, some stories gain an extra something on the printed page.  I liked being able to skip back and review some details that I overlooked earlier in the story that become significant later on (granted one can rewind a podcast but it’s not as easy as flipping back the page) or catch the words lost in the audience laughter or mumbled by the storyteller.

My favorite stories include:

  • “The Gift” by Michelle Carlo -remembering a perfect moment with a boy while growing up in the Bronx shortly before he was murdered.
  • “Dressing the Wound” by Jim Padar – a Chicago cop remembers staunching the bleeding of a murder victim, keeping him alive along enough for his family to say goodbye.
  • “Always a Woman” by Morgan – a construction worker falls two stories in a building and realizes that she needs to recognize her identity.
  • “High Fidelity” by Jonah Ray – a story set in in a Venice Beach, California record store with shoplifters, on September 11, 2001.
  • “The Downward Spiral” by JC Cassis – the storyteller recounts the feelings of loss and regret during the final days of life of his depressed and isolated Uncle Fred.
  • “Doing Good” by Chad Duncan – a special education teacher with a gift for reading people deals with suddenly going blind.

It’s a terrific book and highly recommend that anyone who cares about their fellow humans read it (and listen to the podcast regularly, even if some of the stories feature the prurient details of sexual escapades)

Rating: ****

Book Review: Dog Man by Dav Pilkey


Author: Dav Pilkey
Title: Dog Man
Publication Info: New York, NY : Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic, 2016.
Summary/Review:

From the creator of Captain Underpants, comes Dog Man, the adventures of a police officer with a dogs head (surgically joined together in the origin story).  Dog Man is present as a comic written by George and Harold of the Captain Underpants‘ books, and is equally crude (as in the drawings and the potty humor) and subversive as the previous series.  Dog Man fights against the evil cat Petey, and some of my favorite parts are when Petey erases all the books in the world and makes everyone dumb, as well as when he brings a crew of evil hot dogs to life.  I read this to my six-year-old; she was delighted.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe by Ryan North and Erica Henderson


Author: Ryan North (Author), Erica Henderson (Illustrator)
TitleThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe
Publication Info: Marvel (2018)
Summary/Review:

The first Squirrel Girl graphic novel offers the same offbeat humor and upbeat positivity as the comics. Iron Man has a mysterious technology that accidentally traps Squirrel Girl and creates an identical twin.  Obviously in any story with cloning technology there has to be an “evil” twin, and Allene (as Doreen’s duplicate is named) inevitably plots to take over the world. The twist here is that Allene has good intentions, noting that humans are destroying the environment and killing squirrels with their cars, so her plan is to have squirrels rule the world in place of humans.  Thus begins a series of gags where Allene uses her wiles and acquired technology to beat up every Marvel superhero while Doreen tries to stop her.  It’s fun, but it’s also a one-note joke, and the story seems just a notch below the quality of the comic book story arcs.

Rating: ***1/2

Related posts:

Book Review: The Third Coast by Thomas Dyja


AuthorThomas Dyja
TitleThe Third Coast
Narrator:  David Drummond
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, 2013
Summary/Review:

Watching television and the movies, one could be fooled into thinking that everyone in the U.S.A. lives in either Southern California or a very large apartment in Manhattan.  When I was a kid, some of the more “ordinary” people I saw in tv and movies were instead from Chicago, ranging from the working class family on Good Times, to the professional couple on The Bob Newhart Show, to the suburban teenagers of John Hughes movies.

In this sprawling work of cultural history, Thomas Dyja explores how mid-century Chicago became the template for a lot of what was considered the typical American experience for “regular” people.  Freed from the restraints of New York and Los Angeles to be extraordinary, Chicagoans could excel at being ordinary in architecture, books, music, arts, and television.  At the same time, though, racist white communities rose up in violence against the increasing number of Black families moving into the city (or they fled the city entirely) and the Richard Daley political machine rose up by exploiting the city’s divisions.

  • Nelson Algren becomes Chicago’s leading writer through his gritty novels and also has an on-again/off-again affair with  Simone de Beauvoir.
  • Gwendolyn Brooks wins the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry informed by the experience of growing up on the South Side.
  • Chess Records unleashes electric blues music and early Rock & Roll with artists like Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Chuck Berry.
  • Hugh Hefner commodifies sexual liberation (for men).
  • Mahalia Jackson sings songs of praise and fights for civil rights.
  • Ray Kroc introduces order and consistency to dining through the McDonald’s franchise.
  • “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” “Stud’s Place,” and other innovative and influential early television programs of the “Chicago School of Television” before New York and Los Angeles completely took over television production.
  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe heads the architecture school at Illinois Institute of Technology and inspires the adoption of the International Style of architecture in Chicago and then throughout the U.S.
  • Elaine May and Mike Nichols improvise a new form of comic theater.
  • Sun Ra creates jazz for the space age.

For a book that is all over the place in the topic it covers, Dyja is good at focusing in on the details of the characters’ stories and connecting them to the theme of the mid-century Chicago aesthetic.  He also has a lively writing style that incorporates quotations in their unvarnished vulgarity.  This is an interesting book for understanding a city at certain time, and an entertaining read.

Favorite Passages:

“Daley’s retail politics was to democratic government what McDonald’s was to food and Playboy to sex: a processed and mass-marketed simulation.”

“Before they were even completed, the Near South Side projects – which had started the city toward its Daley-era regeneration, and whose strategies, laws, and designs had created the template for much of the nation’s urban renewal – were quietly deemed not worth repeating. In the end, the planners had loved their theories more than they loved Chicago.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Set Piece by Kate Orman


Author: Kate Orman
TitleSet Piece
Publication Info: London Bridge (1995)
Summary/Review:

This is Kate Orman’s second contribution to the New Adventures line and much like The Left-Handed Hummingbird she puts the Doctor and his companions in torturous scenarios that push them to their limits, physically and psychologically.  An organic vessel known only as The Ship is exploiting a Time Rift to abduct starliner passengers with the help of robotic Ants and harvest their minds for The Ship’s systems.  The Doctor and Ace make a plan to get themselves captured by The Ship to find out what’s happening and stop the abductions.  But when Bernice comes to rescue them the Time Rift throws them into three different eras.

The heart of the story focuses on Ace, as this is her farewell story, putting her in a situation where she has a long time to think about her travels with the Doctor, accept that they may be forever separated, and begin to use how she’s learned and grown to continue on her own.  Ace finds herself in Ancient Egypt, and unwilling to accept the cultural norms for women at the time, tries to prove herself as a soldier and a bodyguard.  She even tries to overthrow the tyrannical reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten, as you do.

Meanwhile, Berenice ends up in France in 1798 and ends up befriending the Egyptologist Vivant Denon and traveling with Napoleon’s army to Egypt. The Doctor also ends up in Paris but in 1871 during the Paris Commune, suffering PSTD from his experience on The Ship and slowly recovering under the care of a mysterious frenemy Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart.  It’s no spoiler that the three of them do find a way to get back together, but this book is more of a study of characterization and relationships in extreme situations than plotting.

This is the type of story that would be unimaginable in the original run of the television program, and although the New Adventures strongly influenced the revised series, I can’t see it done there as well.  It’s certainly difficult to imagine Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred in these parts as I read the book.  Not that they were not fine actors who could certainly give it a go, just that the characterizations of tv have evolved so much over the course of the New Adventures, so this is a satisfying farewell for book Ace that seems inexplicable for TV Ace.

While I’ve been enjoying going back and reading these books from the 90s to revisit an overlooked but transformative period in Doctor Who, it’s also frustrating how much continuity there is within the New Adventures.  Set Piece is the 35th of 61 novels and there is no way I’m going to find time to read them all (especially the one’s I’ve been told are not worth reading).  This is full of references to previous adventures and Kadiatu enters the story with no explanation of who she is or her significance, having previously appeared in the 10th book Transit.  I’m griping a bit too much, but I am grateful that I’m reading these in the time of Wikipedia, otherwise I’d be lost.

Rating: ***1/2

Previously Reviewed:

Book Review: Once Upon a Team by Jon Springer


Author: Jon Springer
TitleOnce Upon a Team: The Epic Rise and Historic Fall of Baseball’s Wilmington Quicksteps 
Publication Info: Sports Publishing (2018)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Mets By the Numbers
Summary/Review:

Generally, I would not be prone to pick up a book about 19th-century baseball in Wilmington, Delaware, but I know the author, and I appreciate his writing on baseball.  Jon Springer uses a wealth of primary documents to provide a lot of detail and quotes about the rough and tumble early era of professional baseball.  It’s common to think that “baseball as a business” is a recent phenomenon, but in these pages are stories of players jumping from team to team for better contracts, teams moving to new cities hoping for more profits, and snarky sportswriters covering it all.

With a preamble on the history of amateur and professional baseball clubs in Wilmington, the heart of the book focuses on the 1884 season of the newly formed Wilmington Quicksteps.  1884 is a year where professional baseball supersaturated America’s cities. The National League and their rival American Association were joined by the upstart Union Association.  The new league set out to challenge the reserve clause, the means by which teams retained rights to players after their contracts expired, keeping players in a state of indentured servitude.  Nevertheless, the Union Association found it difficult to lure away talented players from the two existing leagues.

The Wilmington Quicksteps began 1884 as part of the Eastern League, a minor league that was a forerunner of today’s International League.  Lead by colorful characters like Oyster Burns and The Only Nolan, the Quicksteps dominated the rest of the teams in the league.  The downside to this is that the team was so far ahead they had trouble drawing spectators and found themselves in a financial pickle.  The Quicksteps played exhibition games against major league teams passing through Wilmington in order to bring in spectators and money, and often played competitive games.

By August, with clubs in the Union Association folding, and the Quicksteps seemingly too good for the Eastern League and in need of a financial boost, it seemed like a natural decision for Wilmington to join the Union Association as a replacement team.  But fortune was not on Wilmington’s side.  They played only 18 games in the Union Association and won only 2 of them.  The experience brought the Quicksteps to their demise, and the Union Association was unable to return for the 1885 season.

This well-researched book is an engaging read and will be of interest to anyone curious about baseball history.

Recommended booksA Game of Brawl by Bill Felber, Ed Delahanty in the Emerald Age of Baseball by Jerrold Casway, and Connecticut Baseball: The Best of the Nutmeg State by Don Harrison
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Human Nature by Paul Cornell


AuthorHuman Nature
TitlePaul Cornell
Publication Info: London : BBC Books, 2015 (originally published May 1995)
Summary/Review:

In this novel, the Doctor has himself genetically modified so he can experience life as a human. Forgetting his real identity, the Doctor believes he is a Scottish teacher named John Smith at a boy’s school in rural England in 1914.  If this sounds familiar to Doctor Who tv viewers, it’s because Cornell adapted this book as the two-part episode “Human Nature/Family of Blood” in Series 3 with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor/John Smith.  It’s best not to think of the television adaptation while reading the book as the stories differ in many ways.

Cornell’s basic idea was to have a story featuring the Doctor in a romantic relationship with a fellow teacher, Joan Redfern.  Again, in the present day we’ve seen the Doctor fall in love with Rose, snog Madame Pompadour, and marry River Song, so the elaborate plot of making the Doctor a human for him to experience romance would be excessive. Apart from the love story, this book is a good exploration of being human and the Doctor’s character.

On the one hand this is a brutal and gory story. The villainous alien Aubertides are merciless in slaughtering (and eating) anyone who gets in their way.  In response, the leaders of the school are willing to mobilize the boys into a military unit to fight back. There’s even a disturbing scene early in the book where the school boys murder one of their own.

On the other hand, John Smith, while still in a human guise is able to determine a better way.  To throw away the guns, lead the children to safety, attempt diplomacy, and then win through guile.  The willingness of the human characters in this book to support and sacrifice for one another shows our species at it’s best.

Like many Virgin New Adventures, there’s a surplus of side characters and interwoven sideplots that could be excised to make a tighter, more focused adventure.  But it’s still a gripping read and Doctor Who at it’s best.

Favorite Passages:

“I can see why Rocastle thinks that way.  It’s attractive.  Imagine, never having to make any decisions.  Because of honor. And etiquette. And patriotism. You could live like a river flowing downhill, hopping from one standard response to the other. Honour this. Defend that.”

“‘Isn’t it odd,’ opined Alexander, ‘how close masculinity is to melodrama?'”

Rating: ****

Book Review: White Tears by Hari Kunzru


AuthorHari Kunzru
TitleWhite Tears
Narrators: Lincoln Hoppe, Danny Campbell, Dominic Hoffman
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This novel is narrated by Seth, a young white man working as a studio engineer as a partner to Carter, a friend from art school who shares his love for music.  Carter comes from a wealthy family and is a douchey bro who claims to only listen to Black music from the analog era because of its “realness.”  Seth is the narrator but Kunzru leaks through that he’s also not the most admirable person.

As part of his work, Seth records ambient sounds around the city that are digitally edited into musical recordings. On one occasion, he records a man singing a blues song and on Carter’s prompting, Seth edits it to sound like a scratchy 78 from the Twenties and they release it as a lost blues song by a musician named Charlie Shaw.  They are then contacted by a record collector who informs them that he last heard this recording in 1959 and that Charlie Shaw is real.

This sets off the narrative in which Seth loses everything, possibly even his mind.  It’s never clear if he’s beset by a phantasmagorical punishment for cultural appropriation or if it’s a story told by an unreliable narrator suffering mental illness. Seth’s narrative is interrupted by the record collector’s story (one in which he has a subservient relationship with a partner paralleling Seth and Carter) and Charlie Shaw himself.  It’s a clever and creepy and gory and unsettling book, that’s nevertheless hard to stop reading.

Recommended booksWelcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson, Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, and Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Rating: ***

Book Review: Upon Further Review by Mike Pesca


AuthorMike Pesca
TitleUpon Further Review
Publication Info: Twelve (2018)
Summary/Review:

This collection of essays posits many “what-ifs” from American sports history, focusing less on “what if this team won the game instead of the other team” and more on general trends in sports history that changed on split decision or error.

Some of the essays are just really silly and played for laughs.

“What if the Olympics Had Never Dropped Tug-of-War?” – Nate Dimeo.  Honestly, a world in which the world’s top athletes fought for the gold in tug-o-war would be a good place.

“What if Basketball Rims Were Smaller Than Basketballs?” – Jon Bois keeps the one-note gag going for EIGHT PAGES.

“What if Game 7 of the 2016 World Series Had Turned Into Every Sports Movie Ever Made?” – Josh Levin. If that final game of the Cleveland Indians-Chicago Cubs World Series wasn’t absurd enough, imagine if it had ghosts, a dog, and an ape joining in?

Some posit that the long term outcome wouldn’t change much.

“What if the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Had Lost the World Cup?” – Louisa Thomas recounts everything that actually happened after the USWNT won the 1999 World Cup with the idea that the attention the team drew was a bigger motivator in what did (and didn’t) happen in in the aftermath.

“What if Major League Baseball Had Started Testing for Steroids in 1991”.- Ben Lindbergh.  Turns out that the 1990s/early 2000s would still have been an era of great offensive output but with fewer outliers, so Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Roger Clemens would not have been quite so great, and Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire probably wouldn’t have been all that remarkable at all. Even the popular idea that the McGwire/Sosa home run race “saved baseball” is challenged by evidence that baseball was already rebounding, and whatever gains it gave were lost to fans who stopped watching after the PED crisis was exposed.

Some decide that on the whole, things would have ended up a whole lot better.

“What if Jerry Tarkanian Had Beaten the NCAA and Liberated College Basketball?” – Jonathon Hock.  College basketball should pay it’s players and in this world they create a successful league.

“What if the Dodgers Had Left Brooklyn?” – Robert Seigel writes from an alternate reality where the Dodgers stayed in Brooklyn and became a dynasty and Brooklyn became a prosperous independent city.  Somehow in this reality, New York still gets the Mets, but the Giants and the Cubs move to California.

“What if Bucky Dent Hadn’t Homered Over the Green Monster in 1978?” – Stefan Fatsis. Technically, Fatsis’ story is from the perspective of his younger self skipping school to cheer for the Yankees at Fenway, so it’s supposed to be disappointing when it results in the Red Sox starting a dynasty and the Yankees wallow in mediocrity, but I definitely think that’s an improvement.

Some see a world where things end up much worse.

“What if Baseball Teams Played Only Once a Week?” – Will Leitch.  Baseball becomes a weekly EVENT like football & Leitch tracks the changes which are all awful.

Some imagine a world where niche sports are much more popular.

“What if Horse Racing Was Still the Most Popular Sport in America?” – Peter Thomas Forntale.  Horse racing maintains it’s mid-20th century popularity by consolidating under one organization, linking tv broadcasts with college football games, and making state lotteries based on horses rather than ping pong balls.  The result is the opening of a luxury track in Brooklyn by Jay-Z and Beyonce.

“What if a Blimp Full of Money Had Exploded over World Track Headquarters in 1952?” – Paul Snyder. A somewhat more ludicrous premise leads to a similar outcome as the horse racing essay, where track & field ends up attracting the nation’s top professional athletes.

Some focus on broader social issues.

“What if Muhammad Ali Had Gotten His Draft Deferment?” – Leigh Montville.  In this essay, Ali regains his prime years as a boxer, but loses his place as a heroic icon.

“What if the United States Had Boycotted Hitler’s Olympics?” – Shira Springer.  It would’ve been the right thing to do, and according to Springer it was both an opportunity to stand up to Nazism and nip the IOC sportocracy in the bud.

“What if Nixon Had Been Good at Football?” – Julian E. Zelizer.  Apparently Richard Nixon loved to play football but wasn’t very good at it.  Zelizer hypothesizes that youthful success on the gridiron could’ve made Nixon less bitter and paranoid, and thus a better leader and President.

These are some fun what-if’s.  Perhaps someday I’ll write my own.  Here are the topics I have in mind if you want to take a stab at them.

  • What if the Mets fully renovated and rebuilt the Polo Grounds and played there for decades instead of moving to Shea Stadium?
  • What if the NASL survived?  Or even, what if the American Soccer League of the 1920s-1930s survived?
  • What if Major League Baseball brought in 2 to 4 complete teams from the Negro Leagues in the 1950s, instead of just signing the best players?
  • What if VAR existed in 2002 and after review, Torsten Frings of Germany was called for a handball in the World Cup Quarterfinal, giving the USA men’s team a chance to score?
  • What if kickball became a professional sport?
  • The New York Knicks have only won championships in seasons when my mother was pregnant.  What if she had a third child?

Favorite Passages:

A better argument can be made in the other direction. What if he hadn’t lost that time? Those missing years were what defined his career, what made his life so different from all the other boxers who came along before or have come along since. How could he have been the Greatest of All Time, the icon of icons, an important figure in politics and art and everyday life if he had plugged along on a normal athletic arc? How could he have been Muhammad Ali if he simply… boxed? Blessed with speed, strength, and charisma, Ali worked to achieve great mastery of the skills of his sport. But it was this ordeal, these troubles, that made him everything he became. – Leigh Montville

Without football, we’d have a lot less to argue about on sports radio, which would possibly mean a lot less sports radio. I admit that does make the demise of football sound like the polio vaccine. – Jason Gay

t should be noted that while gambling adds to racing’s appeal, it is one part of the mosaic. No sane person would lecture you on the history, pageantry, strategy, or majesty of pulling the arm of a slot machine. Racing is built on all of those things. But the lottery, table games, and slot machines do offer a steady dopamine gambling rush that racing can’t hope to compete with. Consider racing a sip of single-vineyard Barolo from a hand-blown crystal glass, whereas a scratch-off ticket is like taking a deep pull off a bottle of Mad Dog. – Peter Thomas Fornatale

In other words, there’s solid statistical backing for the intuitive sense that with earlier testing, we wouldn’t have seen the standout seasons that define that era in modern fans’ minds—particularly those by Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa. Those players probably would have aged out of the game earlier or failed to post stats that defied credibility. Which likely means that the home run records of Roger Maris and Hank Aaron would still stand, instead of Bonds’s single-season and career marks looming over the sport like the now-regarded-as-unbreakable women’s track times that suspected steroid users Florence Griffith Joyner, Jarmila Kratochvílová, and Marita Koch recorded in the 1980s (although that trio was tested). While other factors might have made the mid-to-late nineties and early-to-mid aughts a high-offense era regardless, testing could have compressed the range of individual stat lines such that the sport would have looked more like 2016, when the league as a whole hit tons of home runs but only seven players topped 40 (and the leader hit 47). Without the disillusionment caused by those instinctively asterisked 60-and 70-homer seasons, more recent outlier years wouldn’t have prompted as much skepticism from fans and writers. It’s also possible that fewer players would have sought out PEDs, not only because testing could have functioned as a partial deterrent, but also because clean players would have felt less pressure to keep up with their blatantly performance-enhanced peers, as Bonds reportedly did after seeing the fanfare that greeted McGwire’s and Sosa’s home run heroics. – Ben Lindbergh

it’s such a difficult game to play, is the constant churn of games. In Barry Svrluga’s The Grind, a book chronicling the toll a 162-game Major League Baseball season takes on everyone who’s a part of it, most players say that the hard part of baseball isn’t baseball; it’s that there is always baseball. This is why baseball is sneakily as physically taxing as any other sport, if not more so. Sure, in one individual baseball game, players move less than in the other sports. But over a season, one game almost every day for six months is grueling. It is an endurance test in a way no other sport is. The baseball season today begins at the beginning of March for Spring Training and extends into October—late October if you’re lucky. NFL teams play sixteen games a year; the NBA and NHL play eighty-two. Baseball doubles that and occasionally throws in two games in one day. It leads to a numbing, often disorienting march that affects the lives of everyone connected to the game. – Will Leitch

Once-a-week-baseball does up the hype, the excitement, and the drama. It imbues the once pastoral sport with a football-esque insistence. It strips away nuances that can be observed only after repeated viewing. It accelerates the sport’s resting heart rate and obviates the languorous tobacco spitting and sunflower seed expectoration that characterizes optimal dugout bonding. I wonder if the words clubhouse or ballpark would be applied to a pursuit with such crisis-level stakes. I cannot see an organist leading a swaying crowd in a sing-along of a song written in 1908 in a sport with so much on the line; there is nothing languid when baseball is played at this pace. I cannot see the administration of a hot foot being countenanced given the seriousness of every moment. I cannot see a chicken becoming a beloved team mascot. In short, though I am the author of this alternative supposition, I have to say I believe it would be horrible and would ruin everything I love about baseball. Which means, of course, it would be incredibly popular and remunerative. – Will Leitch

Recommended books: The Curious Case of Sidd Finch by George Plimpton, Almost America: From the Colonists to Clinton : A “What If” History of the U.S. by Steve Tally, and It’s Game Time Somewhere by Tim Forbes
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Astral Weeks by Ryan H. Walsh


Author:Ryan H. Walsh
TitleAstral Weeks
Narrator: Stephen Hoye
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

This book’s title is named after Van Morrison’s seminal 1968 album Astral Weeks. The Irish singer/songwriter and his newlywed wife Janet Planet spent much of 1968 living in Cambridge where he wrote many of the songs that appeared on Astral Weeks as well as latter releases such as “Moondance.” The connecting thread of this Secret History of 1968 is Morrison touring New England with a band of Boston musicians, shifting from rock & roll to a folk jazz sound, and being awfully cantankerous and drinking too much while doing so.  The actual album was recorded in New York City with jazz session musicians, Morrison’s Boston band mates only allowed to observe what was happening in the studio, as much as Walsh tries to sell this as a Boston-based album.

A better title for the book might be Things that Happened in and Around Boston in 1968 (and a Few Years Before and After for Context).  What the book lacks in having a cohesive narrative it makes up in having lots of interesting stories of Boston in the age of the counterculture. This history is often overlooked compared with what was going on in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and elsewhere that year, but it is no less interesting for being forgotten.

The other major thread of this book is the Fort Hill Community, a commune or cult based around the Cochituate Standpipe in Roxbury lead by the messianic Mel Lyman.  The Lyman Family seemed to have their finger into every aspect of the Boston counterculture including the folk music scene (Jim Kweskin was a member), avant guarde filmmaking, and the popular underground newspaper Avatar.

In addition to Van Morrison, Walsh covers the Boston/Cambridge music scene which was shifting from the folk revival to psychedelic rock.  Unfortunately, MGM executives targeted Boston as the next big music scene and marketed a number of Boston bounds as the “Bosstown Sound.” Fans and critics saw through the cash grab and roundly rejected the Bosstown Sound.

While Boston bands were flopping, a New York band, The Velvet Underground gained a large following in Boston and played many shows in the area.  A teenage Jonathan Richman recognized Lou Reed on the street and became the VU’s superfan/mascot.  Walsh notes that in later years as original members of the Velvet Underground left the band they were replaced with Boston artists so that the final Velvet Underground album in 1973 was actually the work of a Boston bar band.

The Velvets home away from home was the South End night club The Boston Tea Party (pictured on their White Light/White Heat album).  The Boston Tea Party became the go-to place to see the latest and best music acts of the late 60s.  At the same time WBCN-FM began experimenting with a freeform rock format, first on overnights, then 24-hours a day, playing many of the same bands that performed at the Boston Tea Party and broadcasting concerts.

On television, WGBH broadcasted the experimental television program “What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?” which was part talk show, part film collage, and featured an episode that could be watched on two stations at the same time if you happened to have two TVs.

Boston also played a role in four widely diverse films in this period:

  • The Boston Strangler – a real crime drama starring Tony Curtis filmed at the time the case against Albert DeSalvo was still active.
  • The Thomas Crown Affair – a heist film with lots of scenes shot on location in Boston and vicinity.
  • Titicut Follies – a controversial documentary exposing the poor conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital (or would have if the movie hadn’t been banned for two decades).
  • Zabriskie Point – Italian director  Michelangelo Antonioni’s attempt at a American countculture drama that cast a non-actor found at a Boston bus stop as a lead character.  Both the youthful leads in the movie ended up associated with the Fort Hill Commune.

Late in the book, Walsh recounts the night James Brown saved Boston by playing a concert at Boston Garden broadcast live on WGBH.  The negotiations with the square Boston mayor Kevin White and his young assistant Barney Frank are particularly amusing.  This plays into the bigger story of racial tensions in Boston and a shift to more radical civil rights actions in the African-American community.  The Lyman Family ties in once again as the all-white commune had strained relations with their Black neighbors in Roxbury.  Surprisingly, Walsh does not cover the Tent City protests in the South End which were one of the most significant events in Boston in 1968 (unless I dozed while listening or something).

If you’re interested in Boston history and/or the counterculture, this is a good book that will fill in some overlooked parts of history.

 

 

Recommended booksBaby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years by Eric Von Schmidt, Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, and Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream by Jay Stevens.
Rating: ****

Book Review: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell


Author: Karen Russell
TitleSt. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
Narrators:  Ariel Sitrick, Zach McLarty, Patrick Mackie, Nick Chamian , Jesse Bernstein, J. B. Adkins, Kathe Mazur, Arthur Morey, Kirby Heyborne, Deirdre Lovejoy
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2010
Previously read by same author: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Summary/Review:

This collections of short stories deal with themes of the transition from adolescence to adulthood, loss and grief, and animal nature of humanity.  They are deeply in the magical realism genre as these coming of age stories include fantastical elements. My favorite stories include “Haunting Olivia” about two brothers looking for their lost sister who sailed away on a crab’s exoskeleton, “Z.Z.’s Sleepaway Camp for Disordered Dreamers” where a boy with prophetic dreams goes a camp for children with sleep disorders, “The City of Shells,” told from the perspective of an outsider girl who gets trapped in a giant conch shell,  and “From Children’s Reminisces of the Westward Migration” which is an ordinary boy’s perspective on a pioneer journey when his father is a Minotaur pulling the wagon.

Recommended booksThe Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
Rating: ***

Book Review: Warlock by Andrew Cartmel


AuthorAndrew Cartmel
TitleWarlock
Publication Info: London Bridge (1995)
Previously read by the same author: Through Time: An Unauthorised and Unofficial History of Doctor Who
Summary/Review:

Andrew Cartmel was the final script editor on the original run of Doctor Who on tv from 1987-1989, and is known for allegedly having a master plan for the Doctor’s story that would be revealed over time.  Interestingly, he never wrote a screenplay for a Doctor Who tv  screenplay, so it is in books that one gets to see how he’d tell a Doctor Who story.  And this one’s a doozy.

The Seventh Doctor is living in a cottage near Canterbury with Ace and Benny, using the cottage to carry out research while sending his companions on missions. Benny goes undercover with a top secret drug enforcement agency (called IDEA) in New York to find out about a mysterious new street drug called warlock, while Ace becomes involved in a pair of animal rights activists working to undermine animal testing at a nearby research facility.

What’s stands out about this book is that the Doctor is hardly involved in the story at all, and it can also go chapters at a time without checking in with Ace or Benny.  Full plotlines are carried out by the characters Cartmel invented for the story including the NYPD detective Creed, IDEA agents, the lab researchers conducting experiments, and a couple named Vincent and Justine who have psychic powers (and were introduced in an earlier Cartmel novel).  It’s a tightly-plotted crime drama with just hints of science fiction/fantasy underpinning.  There doesn’t even seem to be an extraterrestrial element unless you consider, …. well I won’t give away the ending, but readers will probably figure it out well before then.

The strangest thing about this book is that a reader with little to no knowledge of Doctor Who could pick it up and read it as a solid, standalone novel.  And it’s a strange book which includes things such as human consciousness entering animals, a woman suddenly forced into prostitution and just as quickly rescued, the complete destruction of Canterbury cathedral, and a couple sneaking into Buckingham Palace to have sex, and these are all relatively minor plot points.  Whatever you’re expecting from a Doctor Who story, this novel will defy expectations.

Rating: ***1/2

Previously Reviewed:

Book Review:  In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Djibouti.

Author: Abdourahman A. Waberi
TitleIn the United States of Africa
Translator: David Ball, Nicole Ball
Publication Info: Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
Summary/Review:

This novel is set in an alternate universe where Africa, unified as a single nation, is prosperous and has colonized the rest of the world. White people try to escape poverty and war as refugees to Africa.  One could put together a concordance as long as the book to all the references of things in this topsy turvy world that are allusions to our world.  After a few pages of this it moves beyond satire and feels more like the author trying to demonstrate his cleverness.

Unfortunately, the plot and characterization is pretty thin.  The main character is Malaïka (aka Maya), a child born in France but adopted by an African doctor.  The story follows her life and her journey as an adult to return to France and meet her birth mother.  To add to the overall experimental style of the novel, it is written by an unnamed narrator addressing Maya.

This novel is short but a complicated read.  I’m sure there’s a lot of good stuff that just went over my head.

Rating: **

Book Review: Blood Harvest by Terrance Dicks


Author: Terrance Dicks
Title: Blood Harvest
Publication Info: Virgin (1994)
Summary/Review:

Terrance Dicks has a long association with Doctor Who, writing scripts for the 2nd to 5th Doctors, serving as script editor for 5 years, and writing 60 novelizations of TV stories as well as original New Adventures. He can always be counted on for a ripping yarn seeped in Doctor Who lore. This story sees the Doctor and Ace running a speakeasy in Chicago and rubbing shoulders with Al Capone. Meanwhile, Bernice is left on a planet with a medieval culture and an infestation of vampires, and ends up teaming up with Romana. On top of all of this, evil Time Lords are plotting against the Doctor.

The last two plots follow up on TV stories Dicks wrote, the 4th Doctor story “State of Decay” and “The Five Doctors” 20th anniversary special. With the multiple plots and heavy continuity, this book should be a mess, Dicks does a good job of alternating the first two plots while bringing them together with the third at the end.

That said the writing also reflects Dicks’ old-fashioned mentality and casual sexism. This works well in the first-person portions written from the point of view of a Chicago detective, Dekker, less so in the third person omniscient parts. He also repeats the unsettling idea from Timewyrm: Exodus of alien influence causing human violence. In the earlier book it was the Nazis, here it is Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Still, the Prohibition Chicago story is an entertaining read, and it’s fun to have Benny and Romana teaming up.

Rating: ***1/2

Previously Reviewed:

Book Review: The Highest Science by Gareth Roberts


Author: Gareth Roberts
Title: The Highest Science
Publication Info: London Bridge (1993)
Summary/Review:

This is the first published novel for Gareth Roberts who went on to write numerous Doctor Who books, audio dramas, comics, and episodes of the revived tv series and the Sarah Jane Adventures including “The Shakespeare Code,” “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” “The Lodger,” “Closing Time,” and “The Caretaker.”  His stories are known for being clever and funny. Unfortunately, Roberts has also revealed himself as a bigot who rants against LGBT people and I believe the BBC has rightly decided to not have him write for the show again.  If it’s any consolation I got this book second hand so he won’t get any royalties.

As to the book, it features the Seventh Doctor and companion Benny investigating a Fortean flicker, a temporal anomaly bringing together beings from different people from different times on one unremarkable planet.  This includes the Chelonians, a militaristic turtle-like species who clear planets of “infestations of humans,” a group of hippie-like individuals traveling to a music festival; people riding an English commuter train; and a galactic criminal traveling with a stolen organic intelligence called The Cell.  Without giving too much away, the book is largely a parody of the elaborate plots and schemes that the Seventh Doctor is known to create, with the twist of this time the Doctor failing to anticipate someone else’s scheme.  But is it worth it to have to keep up with so many different characters and their plotlines, especially since only some tie in with the conclusion while others are shaggy dog stories?

Rating: **

Previously Reviewed:

Book Review: The True Flag by Stephen Kinzer


AuthorStephen Kinzer
TitleThe True Flag
Narrator: Robert Petkoff
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2017)

Previously Read by the Same Author: All the Shah’s Men

Summary/Review:

This book explores the strains of American foreign policy which veers over the course of history between imperialist and interventionist goals and isolationism. Kinzer argues that these two positions have a long history, and the tension between them has repeated since at least the turn of the twentieth century.  The imperialist urge emerges with the outbreak of the Spanish American War and the United States taking control of foreign territories for the first time in the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The interventionists argue that the peoples of these lands will find freedom under American control, seemingly at odds with the democratic ideals of our own Revolution.  Anti-imperialists then as now try to get Americans to cling to these principles and restrain their militarist impulses, with Mark Twain the most prominent voice.  Theodore Roosevelt stands as the icon of imperialism in this book, although Kinzer describes Henry Cabot Lodge as the actor working behind the scenes of the imperialist cause, up to and including engineering Roosevelt’s rise to the presidency.

Recommended booksThe Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin and The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto


AuthorRussell Shorto
Title:The Island at the Center of the World
Narrator: L.J. Ganser
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, p2004.
Previously Read by the Same Author: Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
Summary/Review:

Shorto composes a brief, popular history of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, specifically focusing on the settlement on Manhattan island.  He contends that the Dutch colony is often overlooked in American history and what is known about it is generally based on English sources that downplay the significance of the Dutch. A decades-long project to translate and publish Dutch records in the state archives at Albany has opened a new understanding of the times when “old New York was once New Amsterdam.”

The narrative examines the history of the Dutch settlements between English New England and Swedish Delaware starting with the exploration by Henry Hudson of the river once named for him.  Relationships within the colonies, to the Netherlands, with other European colonists, and with the indigenous peoples are explored.  Some familiar names such as Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant pop up, but the key figure is the less well-known Adriaen van der Donck, whom Shorto considers a candidate for the founding father of New York.  He’s remembered indirectly by way of his honorific Jonkheer, became the name of the city built on his former estate, Yonkers.

Shorto argues that what the Dutch created in New Amsterdam ended up having lasting influence on the future United States.  Coleslaw and Santa Claus are just a couple of things that the Dutch colony introduced to the Americas. More specifically, Shorto illustrates how Manhattan became an early center of religious tolerance, cultural plurality, and free trade, all things embraced by Americans, albeit awkwardly in balance with the Puritan traditions handed down from our New England forebears.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2