Book Review: Greed and Glory by Sean Deveney


Author:  Sean Deveney
TitleGreed and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Doc Gooden, Lawrence Taylor, Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump, and the Mafia in 1980s New York
Publication Info: Skyhorse Publishing (2018)
Summary/Review:

Sean Deveney follows up his book about New York City in the 1960s through the lens of local politics and sports, Fun City, with this book about New York City in the 1980s through the lens of local politics and sports.  Fun City focused on two figures, Mayor John Lindsay and Jets quarterback Joe Namath, both handsome, young men who rose to prominence alongside the 60s youth culture and offered the promise of a great future (for themselves and the city) but also had hubris that lead to colossal failures.  Greed and Glory, as evident by the extraordinarily long subtitle is not so focused.  Greed and Glory cuts from storyline to storyline with no clear theme, and often is not even arranged chronologically.

The sports angle is covered by the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets and 1987 Super Bowl champion New York Giants.  Star players Dwight Gooden for the Mets and Lawrence Taylor for the Giants each struggle with their celebrity in New York and each end up with cocaine addictions that mar their careers.  But Deveney just can’t seem to focus on these two players and what they mean to the larger story of New York in the 1980s, and instead spends a lot of time describing the experiences of other Mets and other Giants and play-by-plays of important games in their championship seasons.  And while this kind of narrative can be interesting, there are whole other books dedicated to these teams’ champion seasons, whereas this one promises and fails to tell a more relevant story of Gooden and Taylor in 1980s New York.

The other storylines focus on New York mayor Ed Koch as his third term is rocked by scandals among the Democratic party leaders throughout the city.  Future mayor Rudy Giuliani makes his mark as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York by aggressively pursuing cases against the Mafia as well as the political corruption in the Koch administration.  And Donald Trump carries out a convoluted plot to get a NFL team and a domed stadium in Queens (paid for with other peoples’ money, naturally) by suing the NFL on behalf of the USFL.  The plan fails, but he somehow redeems himself by restoring the Wollman skating rink in Central Park.  Pretty much every sketchy detail of his character (and lack thereof) was evident in the 1980s, but for some reason people still decided to make him famous and then elect him President.  Ugh!

These storylines – if the Mets/Giants stories were excised – could almost make a good book, but there’s still too much and it just comes out messy. Granted, the 1980s in New York were a mess and it’s still difficult to make any sense of it.  Deveney doesn’t make a dent in that mess, but I will give him credit for at least making it a pageturner of a read, if ultimately too fluffy for its own good.

Recommended books:

  • The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo-chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, The Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform–and Maybe the Best by Jeff Pearlman
  • Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler
  • Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
  • New York Calling : From Blackout to Bloomberg edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.

Rating: **1/2

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Photopost: Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island


This Thanksgiving weekend, my family & I visited the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island. I’ve been to Ellis Island twice before as an adult, but my last visit to Liberty Island was when I was a small child in the 1970s.  Every child should get the chance to visit the Statue of Liberty at least once, so I purchased tickets well ahead for the full experience.

The ferries are efficient at getting visitors to the island although the experience of slowly disembarking with the “huddled masses,” hearing dozens of languages spoken around you, and being barked at to keep moving along is perhaps an unintentional living history experience of our immigrant forebears.  Once on Liberty Island, we were able to move more freely from the crowds.  We had tickets to go all the way to the crown, but first we circled the island listening to the excellent audio tour which told us about the history of the island, the statue, and the many things the Statue of Liberty has come to represent.  My favorite new thing I learned is that since women were prohibited from attending the dedication ceremonies in 1886, a group of women activists hired a boat to circle around the island and shout protests to disrupt the event.

It was an overcast day and rather blustery, but the warmest day of the weekend, so it was a good day to take in the views of the harbor.  The wall of skyscrapers spanning the Hudson River is particularly spectacular from this angle, and made me realize how much it has changed since my childhood (especially Lower Manhattan and the spectacular growth of Jersey City).  Finally we got out of the wind and headed inside to scale the Statue (having to fuss with some unfriendly lockers and crowds before entering).

The walk up the pedestal was not bad and then there was a nice view from the balcony, albeit exposed to stronger winds.  Then we continued up the spiral staircase to the crown.  This is something that was changed significantly during the renovations in the 1980s and a glimpse of the remnant of the old staircase actually brought back a memory of climbing them as a child.  The stairs were long and steep but didn’t feel all too taxing to climb.  The greater challenge was keeping my head down to avoid getting clocked.

And then suddenly we were at the top!  The crown is much smaller than I imagined (or remembered), basically a small platform no bigger than a landing between the upstairs and the downstairs.  We briefly took in the view, took a few pictures, and I banged my head a couple of times, and headed back down.  After a visit to the museum at the base, we took a crowded ferry to Ellis Island.

We had lunch in the cafe which had tables and chairs modeled on those used at the immigration processing center, thus once again giving a living history experience.  The audio guides lead us through the Great Hall and surrounding rooms following the experience of newly arrived immigrants processed through the buildings.  Even my 7-year-old was able to maintain interest through the whole thing.  There were several other exhibits we did not make it to that focused on the history of immigration before and after Ellis Island, as well as hard hat tours of buildings not yet renovated.  But it had already been a long, and tiring day.

Before departing we visited the Wall of Honor, the only wall we should have for immigrants in this country.  The kids were able to find the name of their great-great grandmother Bridget King Sullivan who arrived at Ellis Island from Ireland in 1908.  We sailed back to Manhattan followed by a flock of seagulls, hopefully to return another day.

Vista of New York

 

Ms. Liberty
A ferry cruises in front of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.
Liberty’s foot steps free of her chains.

The interior structure of the Statue.
The Great Hall on Ellis Island is perhaps the most important room in United States history.
The kids find their great-great grandmother’s name on the Wall of Honor.
The Main Building on Ellis Island.

Sailing back to Manhattan.

Book Review: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney


Author: Kathleen Rooney
TitleLillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
Narrator: Xe Sands
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

In this delightful first person-narrative, the octogenarian Lillian Boxfish celebrates New Year’s Eve 1984 in New York City goes to a bar,  dines out at Delmonico’s, drops in at a party of a pair of young artists, and faces down some potential muggers.  Lillian walks everywhere she goes amid the decay of 1980s Manhattan with the then current Subway Vigilante story a repeated warning of New York hitting bottom.  But Lillian’s charm and curiosity means that she consistently is meeting and engaging with ordinary people in meaningful conversations – bartenders, clerks, security guards, drivers, a mother-to-be going into labor, and yes, even would-be muggers. Despite the city’s flaws, she despises the suburbs, Lillian admires the city’s energy and the opportunity to take her walks.

Along her walk, Lillian reflects upon her life in New York, starting in the 1930s when she became a successful writer of advertising for R.H. Macy and a poet.  Eventually she marries and has a child, but the loss of her career and a troubled marriage lead to depression.  These autobiographical details are sprinkled well throughout Lillian’s walk and experiences.  For audiobook listeners, Xe Sands is terrific in capturing Lillian’s whimsical and thoughtful voice.

This book is a tribute to New York set at a transitional time that reflects on the city’s golden past and emerging future.  It’s also a portrait of a fascinating woman who may be ahead of her time, but I think Lillian Boxfish would say she was right on time.  Better yet, the novel is inspired by a real life person, Margaret Fishback.

Favorite Passages:

“…the suburbs had always seemed mealy and unresolved.  I understood that their in-between-ness — neither town nor country! — was supposed to be their very appeal, but I didn’t find it appealing.  I always wanted either to be in, or get away from the city, not just be close to the city. Were I off in the pastoral hills shingling my own roof or riding a horse, well then, what fun.  And were I catching a subway for a night at the opera, well then, hooray.  But in the suburbs I could enjoy none of those pursuits with ease.” – p. 185

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Fun city by Sean Deveney


Author: Sean Deveney
TitleFun city : John Lindsay, Joe Namath, and how sports saved New York in the 1960s
Publication Info: New York : Sports Publishing, 2015.
Summary/Review:

Jonathan Mahler’s excellent book Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning examines New York City in 1977 through the lens of that years highly contested mayoral election and the New York Yankees championship season, despite the high conflict within the team.  Deveney takes a similar approach to New York City in the 1960s, albeit over a longer period of time. The political point covers the election and first term of liberal mayor John Lindsay, perhaps the last good Republican. The sports angle focuses on quarterback Joe Namath who would lead the New York Jets to an unlikely Super Bowl championship in 1969.  Both men are characterized by their youth, good looks, individuality, and celebrity that defines the “New Breed” of 1960s New York.  They also both make a lot of mistakes are subject to hefty amounts of criticism.

There’s a lot of nostalgia by proxy for me in this book as this was the New York City of my parent’s teenage and young adult years, a legendary time in “Old New York” that I would only later realize happened just a few years before I was born. Nevertheless, a lot of the issues in the book are startlingly contemporary: structural racism, angry white resentment that minorities are getting too much attention, conflicts over public education, growing inequality, disinvestment in municipal services, resources going to war taking away from resources that could be used to alleviate poverty, et al  Other issues are from a different time such as the frightening increase in crime or unions with the power to dictate terms to the Mayor while still calling multiple strikes.

The book follows Lindsay and Namath’s careers from 1965-1970, with in-depth details of city politics and the New York Jets football.  Occasionally, Deveney veers into other things happening in New York during the period, such as Muhammad Ali fighting a title bout that would be the last fight  in the old Madison Square Garden and coincidentally would also be Ali’s last fight before his draft protest would get him suspended from boxing.  Deveney also documents the demise of establishment teams, the New York Yankees and New York Giants, contrasting them with the rise of the fresh, new teams the Mets and the Jets. Lindsay, not a sports fan, attaches himself to the Mets’ 1969 World Series drive as part of his reelection campaign, which proves a successful strategy. A final chapter on the New York Knicks also winning their first championship in 1970 seems more an addendum than tying into the themes of the rest of the book.

I think Deveney is more effective as a straightforward sports writer than political analyst, but overall it’s still a good history of an interesting time in New York City history.

Recommended booksLadies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler and Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh
Rating: ****

TV Review: Luke Cage (2018)


Title: Luke Cage
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

The second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage is a lot like the first season in that it has some remarkable high points that make it compelling television, yet is mired with so many writing, storytelling, and acting flaws.  I find myself rooting for Luke Cage to be the stylish, yet socially conscious drama that examines the problems of contemporary Black American communities through the lens of superhero tropes it wants to be, and constantly disappointed when it fails.

Let’s focus on the good first:

Acting – there are once again some excellent performances that help carry this show.  I’m particularly impressed by Theo Rossi as Hernan “Shades” Alvarez who really came into his own in a bigger role this season, and his troubled friendship with Comanche is especially well acted.  I was kind of hoping that Shades wouldn’t so much turn good by the end of the season, but at least become a “frenemy” who works with Luke, which I suppose is still possible in future episodes.

The new antagonist John “Bushmaster” McIver played by Mustafa Shakir is also a good addition.  Bushmaster’s Ahab-like obsession gets kind of ridiculous, so it’s a credit to Shakir that he does so well with the convoluted writing and characterization.  Bushmaster is a brutal and cruel character and yet I was really able to feel empathy for him, and again was kind of hoping he would be redeemed and ally himself in some way with Luke.

Other good performances include: Reg E. Cathey bringing gravitas to underdeveloped role as Luke’s father, James Lucas. Chaz Lamar Shepherd provides a humorous spark as Raymond “Piranha” Jones.  And Rosario Dawson is good as always as Claire.  Alfre Woodward tends to get melodramatic as Mariah this season, but it’s still Alfre Woodward, who is always worth watching.

Direction – The show has a distinctive style of cinematography and staging that I really enjoy.  The show’s makers do a good job of choreographing fight scenes, and filming even simple conversations from intriguing angles. It’s also really good at just showing Harlem, and making Jamaican Crown Heights look distinctively different.

Music – Live performances at the Harlem Paradise are a highlight of any Luke Cage episode.  This season we get to see Gary Clark, Jr., Esperanza Spalding, Ghostface Killah, Stephen Marley, Faith Evans and Jadakiss, KRS-One, and Rakim, among others.  The music used to score the episodes is also universally well-selected and suited to the scenes and stories.

And I’m surprised to say this, but Danny Rand’s guest appearance actually worked well.  Danny and Luke have good chemistry, and if this was a trial balloon for a Luke Cage/Iron Fist spin-off comedy/action/drama, I’m all for it.

And now the bad:

Gratuitous violence – a crime drama is going to have it’s fair share of violence, but Luke Cage seems to revel in depicting it this season, particularly in a key scene of a massacre in a Jamaican restaurant.  Not only does the camera linger on the most gruesome aspects, but the entire scene is replayed as a flashback in the next episode! In a media environment where Black bodies are often seen as disposable, it’s particularly troublesome to see this done in a show that is supposed to be empowering.

Inconsistent characterization – A lot of the characters seem to have their motivations shift constantly to whatever the plot needs them to do.  This is especially true of Luke Cage is constantly said to struggling with things – his father, Claire, being a hero – and then having those struggles easily resolved or dropped until they’re needed again to create “drama.” The apparent heel turn he takes at the end of the season really feels like it came out of nowhere.

Misty Knight was one of the best characters of the first season, but here her story arc is that she’s a renegade cop reacting against the bureaucracy.  Except for most of the season, everything she does makes her look like a really crappy cop, which makes the character look stupid rather than heroic.

Finally, there’s Gabrielle Dennis as Tilda Johnson, Mariah’s estranged daughter.  She goes from compassionate doctor to dupe to righteously angry to femme fatale on whatever whims the plot needs her for.  Could be she’s a bad actor, could be bad writing, probably both.  Regardless, Tilda’s entire story arc is a wasted opportunity.

Repetition – All throughout the season entire scenes take place that give us the exact same information revealed in earlier episodes.  And the speeches – God help us, the speeches – that are repeated again and again. Luke musing on being a hero, Mariah preaching about family first, and Bushmaster relentless tirades on revenge.  The repetition just makes them look ridiculous rather than thoughtful.

Failure to heed the writing advice of “show don’t tell” – Both the inconsistent characterization and repetition are partly the result of the writers wanting to tell the audience things rather than show them.  For example, we’re constantly told that Luke is going through internal struggles, but are rarely shown this excepting a few good scenes such as his fight with Claire early in the season.

So those are my thoughts on a mostly good show that frustrates because it could be a great show.  The final episode of the show felt really out-of-place with the rest of the season, almost as if it were the opening of the next season rather than the conclusion to this season.  I don’t know where they’re going with Luke becoming a crime boss or if that’s a show I even want to watch, but I guess I’ll find out if and when season 3 is released.

 

TV Review: Jessica Jones (2018)


Title: Jessica Jones
Release Dates: 2015
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

I’m not much interested in superhero origin stories, and this whole season is basically a backdoor origin story for Jessica Jones. <HUGE SPOILER ALERT> In this season we learn that not only did Jessica’s mother, Alisa, survive the family’s car crash, but also has powers stronger than Jessica’s and has rage issues that turns her into a mass murderer.  The whole season is uneven and poorly plotted, although I think there are good episodes in the beginning and the end, with a muddle in the middle. While the first season was good at metaphorically good at exploring the ideas of the entitlement of men and the trauma of sexual abuse, this season does a poor job of trying to explore addiction and mental illness in a similar way.  The motivations of a lot of characters, especially Trish and Alisa, just don’t make a whole lot of sense. And Jeri Hogarth’s story seems to be it’s own tv series, one that is intent on showing that a lesbian woman can be a leering creep just like a man, especially in the bizarre episode where Jeri indulges in hookers and blow. Meanwhile, Jessica goes from hating to loving her new super in another incredulous subplot. It’s a good thing that there is a team of terrific team of actors to make all this bad writing bearable.

TV Review: The Defenders (2017)


Title: The Defenders
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

Following up on watching Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, I decided to watch this crossover miniseries because Marvel requires you to watch every single damn thing to have the background for the next thing.  It’s good to see Jessica and Luke working together, although a little disappointing that they seem to be supporting characters to the other two members of the team.  One of them is Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, who is a rich kid with a bad tattoo. He seems to be a dumb character with a dumb superpower and every time he’s on the screen the script gets dumber.  Much more interesting is Matt Murdock – a.k.a. Daredevil – a blind lawyer and devout Catholic with a ambiguous relationship to his superpowers.  I might look into watching his show.

The funny thing about this series is that it seems to pick up for Jessica Jones just after her struggle with Kilgrave, with her apartment still severely damaged and her not taking on private detective work.  Meanwhile, Luke has had time to move to Harlem, have everything that happened to him in season 1 of his own series, and spend a not insignificant time in prison.  Despite these inconsistencies and the shortness of this series, the show is brave enough to set up the plot for each of the four characters to naturally get involved in the mystery and only come together to fight their foe at the end of episode 3. Then they spend much of episode 4 getting to know one another over a meal at a Chinese restaurant.

The villain in this series is well cast, Sigourney Weaver playing Alexandra, the leader of the Hand, a group of people seeking immortality.  Weaver is always calm and measured with impeccable fashion sense and even her hair is never out of place.  This sets her apart from the more cartoonish villains of other Marvel stories, and when she finally gets angry, it really means something.  The other great part of this series is the way in which the supporting characters of the four individual series are brought in to work together.  Sometimes they commiserate over dealing with a super person in their life, sometimes their complementary skills work together to advance the plot.

This series is no masterpiece of television and it has a lot of flaws, but it is a fun gathering of local superheroes saving their city with their combined abilities in a series of action sequences, and sometimes thoughtful, quieter scenes.

TV Review: Jessica Jones (2015)


Title: Jessica Jones
Release Dates: 2015
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

This Marvel tv series picks up with the titular character working as a private detective and dealing with PTSD through avoidance and alcohol abuse.  Jessica Jones has super strength but has abandoned being a hero due to her guilt and trauma, yet still tries to help people in her own way.  The arc of the series relates to the return of the major cause of her trauma, Kilgrave, a man who can control minds who held her captive for six months and caused her to commit murder.

I watched Luke Cage previously and the two shows have a lot in common with their main character coming to terms with their troubled past and making good use of the powers that they never asked for.  They’re also similar in that they do a great job of creating a mood, focusing on the interpersonal relationships, and taking time to let the story breathe.  At least in the first half of the season, but much like Luke Cage, the later episodes of Jessica Jones get too connected to their comic book origins and become just a little silly and overdone.  There’s also far more gore and brutal violence than I prefer to watch.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like about this show. Krysten Ritter puts in an excellent performance as Jessica Jones, seemingly dead on the outside, while boiling over on the inside.  Rachel Taylor plays her adoptive sister Trish Walker, a child star turned talk show host who displays her own form of strength and determination. Ritter and Taylor play well off of one another.  David Tennant is terrifyingly creepy as the evil Kilgrave, and I resent that I’ll never be able to watch him in Doctor Who the same way again. I knew Luke Cage appeared in this show, but didn’t realize he played such a significant role, and it’s interesting to see how Mike Colter plays a supporting character differently than when he’s on his own show.

There are some highs and lows in this season, some ridiculous coincidences, and some side plots that don’t seem to go anywhere, but it was good enough to be worth checking out the second season.

 

Movie Review: The Shot Heard ‘Round the World (2001)


TitleThe Shot Heard ‘Round the World
Release Date: July 11, 2001
Director: ?
Production Company: HBO Sports
Summary/Review:

This documentary goes back in time to when New York City was the capital of baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers fans hated the New York Giants, and the Giants fans hated the Dodgers, and they both hated the Yankees.  The 1951 season was pivotal in that the Dodgers took a huge lead in the National League and went on cruise control.  Late in the season the Giants went on a hot streak and tied the Dodgers on the last day of the season, leading to a best-of-three playoff.

In addition to the heated rivalry among players and fans of the teams, the documentary focuses on the Giants’ elaborate plot to steal signs during home games in the latter half of the season.  The jury is still out on how much this gamesmanship helped them catch the Dodgers since statistics show that their batting average dropped, pitching improved, and they won more games on the road than at home after it began.

The three game playoff is analyzed from several angles.  Many involved seem to point to Dodgers’ manager Charlie Dressen as the real goat for his poor decisions in game.  Special attention is given to the life stories and game experiences of the two pivotal figures of the final playoff game, Bobby Thompson who hit the pennant-winning “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and Ralph Branca, the Dodgers’ relief pitcher who surrendered the home run on his second pitch in the game.

Interviewees include ballplayers like Branca, Thompson, Willie Mays and Duke Snider as well as a number of fans including celebrities like Jerry Lewis and Larry King.

Rating: ***1/2

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: ***