Book Review: So Many Ways to Lose by Devin Gordon


Author: Devin Gordon
Title: So Many Ways to Lose
Publication Info: New York City : Harper, 2021.
Summary/Review:

So Many Ways to Lose is a history of the New York Mets by a long-time fan and writer who happens to live near me in Massachusetts. Gordon’s thesis is that the Mets are a team that is known for their futility and for losing in creative ways, and yet that has only made their moments of greatness all the more endearing.

Since I’ve read a lot about the Mets (and of course, spent most of my life watching the team), I was familiar with many of these stories.  But I was impressed with the angles Gordon took on telling the stories. I particularly liked:

  • connecting Cleon Jones story to the history of Africatown in Alabama which was founded by people brought from Africa on the last known slave ship the Clotilda
  • How Mackey Sasser got the yips and had trouble returning the ball to the pitcher
  • While Bobby Bonilla Day has become a day to mock the Mets, Gordon explains that it was a good deal with positive outcomes for the Mets
  • the greatness of the Endy Chavez catch
  • How Bernie Madoff bamboozled the Wilpons, owners of the Mets, but nonetheless a somewhat sympathetic portrait of the Wilpons

The parts on the Mets success in 2006 (and subsequent flops in 2007-2008) and 2015 feel rushed.  But then again I’ve read about those accomplishments in other books.  This is an enjoyable sports book and a requirement for every Mets’ fan’s library.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Class Action Park (2020)


Title: Class Action Park
Release Date: August 27, 2020
Director: Seth Porges, Chris Charles Scott III
Production Company: Pinball Party Productions | Strategery Films | Warner Max
Summary/Review:

As a kid growing up in Connecticut, ads for Action Park were constantly on the tv and radio, but my requests to go there were denied.  My mother was not fond of driving to New Jersey nor did our family budget have much room for visits to theme parks.  It was only until years later that I learned that I may have dodged a bullet since Action Park had such a reputation for guests getting injured and sometimes killed.  In fact, back in the 80s, I remember New Jersey’s other theme park Great Adventure having the reputation for danger since several teens were killed in a fire and one person fell off a roller coaster.

Class Action Park features interviews with former employees and guests of Action Park mixed with archival news footage and old home movies.  The general theme of the movie is “can you believe how dangerous this place was” and the strange nostalgic feeling of having survived it.  The jokey tone of some of the commentators is placed at odds with survivors of people who died at Action Park, with the ending of the film actually featuring the most uncomfortable contrast of narration and film.

The villain of the piece is Gene Mulvihill, a shady investor in penny stocks who opened Action Park as a summer activity at his ski resort in 1978.  Action Park was a pioneer of the modern waterpark, so a lot of the rides were  experimental to begin with, but Mulvihill refused to hire professional ride engineers and often redrew the plans himself to make them more extreme. If the rides weren’t dangerous enough, the park was run almost entirely by teenagers with underage drinking and drug use common among the staff.  Mulvihill’s libertarian emphasis on freedom and profits with his callous disregard of people injured and killed at the park becomes emblematic of the USA in the Reagan Era.

I found this movie to be interesting in how it showed how the most unbelievable aspects of Action Park came to be and persisted.  But I also don’t think it is a very well-made documentary.  For one thing, it could’ve used a wider of variety of commentators as the handful involved said mostly the same things.  Also, the frequent reuse of b-roll footage throughout the movie feels lazy and unprofessional.  Still it’s an interesting movie to watch if you’re curious about how an experiment in pure libertarianism in Greater New York City went horribly wrong and why regulations may be good, actually.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Highly Irregular by Arika Okrent


Author: Arika Okrent
Title: Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme―And Other Oddities of the English Language
Publication Info: Oxford University Press (2021)

Summary/Review: I always love a good book about why English seems to make no sense.  Okrent breaks down English’s oddities into conflicts of words usage changing among the different languages of various invaders of Britain, the biggest being the Norman invasion which lead to centuries of the elite speaking French while the commoners spoke English.  The introduction of the printing press lead to attempts of standardization for words that previously had no standard spelling, but localized so that they didn’t always end up logically applied.  Then in the 19th century, classically trained scholars tried to apply the standards of Greek and Latin to the unruly English language, causing more problems in the long run.  Event today English is evolving and changing in weird ways while still oddly being a successful means of communication among people who use the language.  The book is broken up into short chapters so it can be read all at once or broken up to be read at one’s leisure.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The China Mirage by James Bradley


Author: James Bradley
Title: The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia
Publication Info: New York, NY : Little, Brown, 2015
Summary/Review:

This is a book I read with my colleagues at work, as the early parts of the book relate to some of the collections in our archival depository.  Bradley’s work is a sweeping account of the flawed policy of American government toward China from the mid-19th century until the rise of Mao Zedong to power in the 1940s.  The early part of the book focuses on the American merchant class who set up trading posts that the were deliberately isolated from the ordinary Chinese people by the Chinese government.  The American merchants all made wealth in the opium trade creating an opiate crisis in China (It made me realize that the Sackler family were not the first Americans to get people hooked on opiates while also acquiring Asian art).

Among these merchants were Warren Delano, the maternal grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The foreign policy of both Theodore Roosevelt and FDR are key parts of this book as they operated on false assumptions of China as a place where the Chinese peasants were eager to be Americanized and convert to Christianity.  This view was promulgated by what Bradley calls the China Lobby, lead by influential and wealthy businessmen like the publisher Henry Luce.  Key figures in the China Lobby were the Soong Family, Charlie Soong and his daughters Soong Ai-ling, Soong Ching-ling, and Soong Mei-ling who were American educated and Christian converts. Soong Mei-ling married Chiang Kai-shek and together and gained power by deluding the China Lobby and American government for financial support while in fact creating a cruel but ineffectual dictatorship over China.

I found this book very illuminating about the history of China and Chinese-American international relations.  Bradley also has a lot of suppositions about how a more realistic approach to China by the US government could’ve prevented the severity of the Pacific theater of World War II as well as the wars in Korea and Vietnam.  He certainly makes a good point that the US could’ve responded positively to calls for alliance from Mao, a more effective fighter against Japan than Chiang, and someone who was no less a communist or tyrant than America’s World War II ally Josef Stalin.  On the other hand I am very turned off by Bradley’s snarky tune and frequent use of jokey nicknames for the figures in this book. For all I know,The China Mirage may be 100% factual, but Bradley’s writing style makes me doubt it.

Favorite Passages:

“On the American side, generations of missionary dreams about New China created an assumption in the United States about a reality that never existed in Asia. The China mirage took hold in the nineteenth century, affected U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics in the twentieth century, and continues to misguide America. Perhaps the cautionary tale revealed in this book will motivate people in both countries to strengthen that bridge across the Pacific before it’s too late. Again.”

 

“…a procession of American sea merchants made their fortunes smuggling opium. They were aware of its poisonous effects on the Chinese people, but few of them ever mentioned the drug in the thousands of pages of letters and documents they sent back to America. Robert Bennet Forbes—a Russell and Company contemporary of Delano’s—defended his involvement with opium by noting that some of America’s best families were involved, ‘those to whom I have always been accustomed to look up as exponents of all that was honorable in trade—the Perkins, the Peabodys, the Russells and the Lows.'”

 

Certainly some missionaries knew that Chiang was a one-party despot with legions of Blue Shirt thugs terrorizing the populace. They also knew that Chiang’s government was still a weak collection of warlord states held together by Ailing and Chiang through financial payoffs. But for reasons of either blind faith or strategic amorality, these men of God overlooked Chiang’s shortcomings. The Missionary Review of the World wrote, ‘China has now the most enlightened, patriotic and able rulers in her history.’”

 

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Major Labels by Kelefa Sanneh


Author: Kelefa Sanneh
Title: Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres
Narrator: Kelefa Sanneh
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
Summary/Review:

Kelefa Sanneh, a former music critic for the New York Times, and writer for the New Yorker, revisists the history of popular music from the 1970s to today in a series of essays focusing on genres.  These genres include the venerable traditions of Rock, R&B, and Country as well as the upstarts Punk, Hip-Hop, and Dance.  The final essay focuses on the amorphous genre of Pop.

Sanneh is a fan of all these types of music so he brings in his personal experience when discussing them.  I find that appropriate since music is such a personal thing.  Sanneh does a great job at summarizing the history and the struggles of artists within these genres to remain true to their style.  He also notes that over the past 50 years that each of these genres is converging to create a new “pop” music even at a time when streaming music platforms should allow greater splits.

This was a fun an informative book for a music fan.

Recommended books

Rating: ****

Book Review: Revolution Song by Russell Shorto


Author: Russell Shorto
Title: Revolution Song
Narrator: Russell Shorto
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Recorded Books: 2017
Summary/Review:

This history of the American Revolution is in fact the parallel biographies of six individuals whose lives came in contact with the war and the underlying ideologies of American independence.  I really like this approach to writing history because while it is unwieldy to attempt a comprehensive history of the American Revolution, by focusing on six individuals you get a better sense of how the war affected different kinds of people.  And as Short tells their entire life stories we get a lot of detail beyond just the 8 years of the war of their lives before and after the conflict.  Finally, we also get to see how these six historical figures dealt with the ideals and challenges of freedom.  I should add, and Shorto makes this explicitly clear, that these six individuals are not representatives of greater populations but simply their own American Revolution stories.

The six subjects of Revolution Song are:

  • George Washington – The most obvious figure of the story of the American Revolution, and yet Shorto is able to get beneath the “great general and first President” story to get an understanding of a many struggling to find his place in society and the opportunities that military leadership bring.
  • Venture Smith – Born in modern-day Ghana as Broteer Furro, Venture Smith was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery, eventually living in servitude in Rhode Island, New York, and Connecticut.  Venture purchased his freedom and that of his wife and children and became a successful farmer in Connecticut. One of his son’s would serve in Washington’s army during the war. His A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America was one of the first published slave narratives.
  • George Germain – The only figure in the book who never set foot in the Americas is George Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville.  Having been court martialed during the Seven Years War, he was disgraced in aristocratic circles.  Nevertheless he was a favorite of King George III and was able to claw his way into politics and get appointed Secretary of State for the American Department. His aggressive approach to attempting to suppress the rebellion and lack of familiarity of the reality of the situation in the colonies is blamed for the British failure in the war.
  • Cornplanter – The chief warrior for the Seneca people who fought in both the French & Indian War and the Revolution allied with the British forces. He and his people suffered greatly when General Washington instructed Major General John Sullivan to carry out a scorched earth campaign destroying Iroquois Six Nation villages throughout New York. After the war, Cornplanter protested against the Treaty of Paris ceding Iroquois land to the United States that had never been under control of Britain, and met with President Washington in person in 1790.
  • Abraham Yates – A revolutionary lawyer and politician from Albany, Yates took a more radical position on individual liberty and mistrust of government.  He became a rival to Alexander Hamilton and a staunch opponent of Federalism and the Constitution.
  • Margaret Moncrieffe – The only woman in this book, Margaret Moncrieffe was a child when the Revolution started living in New York as the daughter of a British officer.  Her father arranged her marriage to the cruel British Lieutenant John Coghlan although she was in love with Aaron Burr. After moving to Britain, she separated from her husband and found a measure of independence as the mistress of several prominent men in Britain and Europe.

I think the stories of Venture Smith, Cornplanter, and Margaret Moncrieff are the most interesting since they are the type of people that don’t appear in histories that focus on military and political leaders.  Nevertheless, the whole book reads very well and is an interesting addition to Revolutionary War historical studies.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Picturing America : The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps by Stephen J. Hornsby


Author: Stephen J. Hornsby
Title: Picturing America : The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps
Publication Info: Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, in association with the Library of Congress, 2017.
Summary/Review:
I’ve always loved those little maps you get for free at tourist destinations that have lots of little comical people doing touristy things on plan clearly not drawn to scale.  In fact, when I was a teenager I had two pictorial map posters, one of Greenwich, CT (the town next to my own where I attended high school) and one of Williamsburg, VA (where we went on lots of vacations before eventually moving there).  Stephen Hornsby breaks down the history of pictorial maps in this book which he says peaked in the United States from the 1920s to the 1960s.  Pictorial maps were used for education, for civic and industrial promotion campaigns, and to help people on the homefront keep up with the battles of World War II among other things.  Although this is a richly-illustrated coffee table book, my one complaint is that the images were often still too small to see the details.  Nevertheless this is a fun and interesting book about an esoteric topic of my interest.

Recommended Books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman 


Author: Rutger Bregman
Title: Humankind: A Hopeful History
Narrator: Thomas Judd
Publication Info: Little, Brown & Company (2020)
Summary/Review:

The thesis of Rutger Bregman’s book is that the vast majority of human beings the vast majority of the time have good intentions.  Not only that, but scientific research backs up this optimistic perception of human goodness.  Furthermore, trusting in the goodness of others is key to the health and success of individuals and societies.  It is the belief that humankind is inherently corrupt that is often manipulated to have people carry out evil. Accepting the “veneer theory” that human society is only a thin layer over the cruel and selfish human psyche is akin to the placebo effect, or in this case what Bregman calls the “nocebo” for its negative psychological effects.

Bregman breaks down what we “know” about human behavior by debunking a number of famed studies such as Stanley Milgram’s obedience tests and the Stanford Prison Experiment, as well as histories of the collapse of indigenous society on Easter Island and the popular story of neighbors indifference to the murder of Kitty Genovese.  After reading the truth behind these stories and how they were manipulated to make the worst possible reading, you might find yourself thinking humans are good but psychologists and journalists are evil.Bregman also contrasts the fictional Lord of the Flies with the real-life experience of Tongan boys who survived being stranded on a desert island for a year through cooperation.

After showing that many cases of humans descending to “savagery” actually had many instances of people wanting to help out, Bregman also explores experimental camps, schools and workplaces where children and adults are trusted to do the right thing with positive results.  Bregman builds on existing philosophy, often contrasting the views of humanity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes.  He also draws on evolutionary biology that shows that cooperation was necessary for human survival and the desire to help is hardwired into humanity.

This is just the kind of book I needed to read right now and it’s something I think everyone ought to read.

Favorite Passages:

Tine De Moor calls for”institutional diversity” – “while markets work best in some cases and state control is better in others, underpinning it all there has to be a strong communal foundation of citizens who decide to work together.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending August 7


One YearMary Shane’s Rookie Season

One Year is a new history podcast that focuses on events from one year in history, in this case 1977.  Coincidentally, 1977 is the first year from my childhood where I have really strong memories.  In this episode we learn about Mary Shane, the first woman to work as a play-by-play announcer for a Major League baseball team, working alongside Harry Caray for Chicago White Sox games.

 

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Awards for 2021

Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)


Title: BlacKkKlansman
Release Date: August 10, 2018
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: Blumhouse Productions | Monkeypaw Productions | QC Entertainment | 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks | Legendary Entertainment |
Perfect World Pictures
Summary/Review:

Inspired by actual historic events, or as the opening titles state “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit,” BlacKkKlansman is the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first Black police officer in Colorado Springs.  Assigned to the intelligence division, Stallworth spots an ad for a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and calls for more information, using a white voice just like in Sorry to Bother You. Stallworth also accidentally uses his real name so a fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), ends up meeting with the Klan members using Stallworth’s name. Flip is a composite character and in the film he’s made an unobservant Jewish man to raise the stakes of his interactions with the bigots.

Meanwhile, Stallworth continues his investigation by phone, eventually beginning a series of conversations with the KKK’s national director, David Duke (Topher Grace).  Concurrently with the investigation, Stallworth begins a relationship with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a Black liberation activist from Colorado College (Patrice is also invented for the film).  He meets her at at a rally where Kwame Ture (brought to life in an excellent short appearance by Corey Hawkins) is the speaker. Michael Buscemi, Harry Belafonte, and Alec Baldwin also appear in small but memorable parts.

The movie is based on absurd events and some of the wildest details are true to life.  The characters seem to be aware of the absurdity, especially late in the film when the essentially dunk on David Duke. Some of the changes are odd, like moving the events to the early 70s when they took place in the late 70s.  But as is typical for Spike Lee films, there is great attention to period details especially the fashions and music.

The movie talks about complex issues in interesting, if not subtle ways.  For example, Ron’s earnest but perhaps naive hopes of being able to change things from the inside are contrasted to Patrice’s more revolutionary approach. Lee also uses excerpts from Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation to critique how popular entertainment reinforces white supremacist mythology.  Finally, the film also incorporates footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia as a chilling epilogue to a mostly comical look at the past.

Rating: ***1/2