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Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

SystemLooking at the cover of The System, you see a striking image of college football – an enormous stadium filled with cheering crowds awaiting the contest to begin on that emerald green field.  As you zoom in on that field, that crowd, that contest, the reality gets dirtier and dirtier, until it seems that field is the Astroturf covering the edge of an open grave. Benedict and Keteyian have climbed into that grave, and The System is the report they’ve sent back.

Football has long been the hallmark of college education in the United States. It is the rare institution of higher learning that doesn’t field a team. At the top of that pyramid, where iconic names like Notre Dame, Alabama, and Oregon reside, football is a big part of the college experience, and a successful program can seemingly make or break a school. And it shows in enrollments, donations, and construction.

Benedict and Keteyian seemingly had complete access to every aspect of the schools they covered. Meetings between coaches and players, athletic directors and boosters, students and inquisitors, victors and victims are recounted in incredible detail. And every detail seemed to come down to money.

The contrasts are staggering: a booster can give $185 million to support an entire program, but a player can be sanctioned for a $3.07 (yes, that’s three dollars and seven cents) accidental overpayment on a summer job. Coaches are routinely the highest paid state employees (even before the product endorsement deals and speaking engagements) when teachers, cops, and librarians are losing their jobs and pensions.  T-shirts, jerseys, hats, and memorabilia bring millions in revenues, while student athletes supposedly earn nothing. An athlete accused of criminal activity can get legal advice from top-tier law firms, while their victims must rely on poorly paid prosecutors, and face threats and shaming for jeopardizing the program. And over it all is the mantle of the NCAA, which screams about teams offering cream cheese on bagels but misses the flagrant violations of their arcane regulations.

The authors present each chapter as a story in and of itself, but the overall narrative is connected by the story of Mike Leach, the coach who created the stellar program at Texas Tech, but was fired for his tactics in disciplining a weak player. After an extended absence from football, he was hired by Washington State University, where he once again laid the foundations of a successful program, but also underwent another abuse investigation, in which he was exonerated. From the coach recruitment process to the creation of a team, through the discovery and recruitment of players to the relationship with the school administration, readers see Leach in every aspect of his professional life. We even get a glimpse of the difficulties Leach’s wife Sharon faces as a coach’s wife.

Even for people who don’t care anything about football (and I count myself among their number), The System is a penetrating look at a dominant part of American culture. Whatever you feel about the game, you are sure to come away rethinking your position. There’s a lot that needs to be scrapped, some things that can be fixed, and some profound positives that deserve highlighting. Let’s hope real change can come from the discussion The System ought to start.

Check the WRL catalogue for The System

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naturalThis week’s posts are written by staff from the Circulation Services Division.  Today’s review is written by Alan.

The 15 years following the end of World War II are considered by many to be one of baseball’s golden eras. Attendance skyrocketed, great players returned from the war, the leagues were integrated, no other professional sport seriously competed for the affection of sports lovers, and television brought the game into millions of households. This same time brought forth the birth of a new development – the literary novel about baseball. Before, baseball writing consisted of newspaper reports and sports columns, inspirational sports novels for boys, and colorful and entertaining short stories about characters who inhabited baseball land.

The first, and to many still the best, literary novel is The Natural by Bernard Malamud, which appeared in 1952. It was the 38-year-old author’s first published novel. On one level it is the story of the ups and downs of the sensational rookie season of Roy Hobbs, a superb natural athlete, who enters the big leagues at the age of 35. On another level the book is a commentary on the American dream – or more specifically on the dark side of that dream. Roy Hobbs wants to live that dream, but he has failed to obtain it, through a combination of bad luck, bad choices, and an inability to understand how the game of life is played. He has a gargantuan appetite (literally and figuratively) for life, but he does not know how to live it. He is alone within himself, wary and distrustful of others, standoffish, and incapable of true affection – in short, not a people person, a team-mate, not a team player. There is a sort of redemption at the end of the novel when he realizes that he has learned nothing from his past life, and that he has to suffer again. The question left hanging and unanswered is whether he is, indeed, capable of learning from his past and putting his suffering to good use.

In 1984 The Natural was made into a movie starring Robert Redford. The movie emphasized the mythic aspects of baseball at the expense of character development and granted Roy Hobbs the bucolic and idyllic resolution and ending that he wished for in the book but that Malamud denied him on the printed page.

Two other literary novels about baseball worth mentioning appeared just a few years after The Natural. Both were written by Mark Harris – The Southpaw (1953) and Bang the Drum Slowly (1956), which was adapted first for television and then in 1973 for the movies. These books are concerned with the human aspects of the characters that inhabit the pages, not the profounder issues that concerned Malamud.

Check the WRL catalog for The Natural

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lynnExcoriating. Funny. Philosophical. Cynical. Crude. Lyrical. Obnoxious. Charming.  Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk manages to be all of these and more in a powerful story that encompasses about five hours in the life of one nineteen year-old boy/man.

It’s Thanksgiving Day, and in Texas Stadium eight enlisted men are sitting in the freezing rain waiting for the biggest moment of their young lives.  Along with Destiny’s Child, Bravo Squad (which isn’t its real name, but that’s what everyone calls them) are to be featured in the Dallas Cowboys halftime show.  Why this particular group of eight?  Because they were involved in a brief firefight in Iraq, Fox News caught in on videotape, and they are now bona fide All American Heroes, complete with medals pinned on by President Bush himself.  A two-week national tour to build support for the war, a few hours with their families, the halftime show, and Bravo is headed back for the war zone.

It’s hard to think of these men as men – they indulge in the timeless adolescent male hobbies of insults, play wrestling, lusting after women, and eating and drinking everything in sight.  There’s no question that Iraq has changed all of them, but Billy in particular has matured beyond his nineteen years.

A restless, somewhat rebellious and indifferent student, Billy was no star in high school, and when he committed an act of vandalism he was told to join the Army to avoid prosecution.  But whatever it was – training, maturing, innate courage – Billy was a leader in the firefight and was awarded the Silver Star.  But he also lost a friend and mentor, and while the fight itself seems unreal he remembers every detail of Shroom’s death.  Now Billy is questioning everything he sees in his country.

Because there’s no question that Bravo is being used.  Used by politicians looking for a cheap way to bolster their troop-loving images, used by the Cowboys’ owner to prove his patriotism, used by a movie producer looking for a big score, used by a megachurch preacher looking for street cred (this guy? Fountain doesn’t exactly say), used by ordinary people to demonstrate their love of country.  All this, as Billy points out, for a bunch of guys making under $15,000 a year.  It’s hard to tell which is the most insidious, but Bravo rolls with the attention in their best All American Hero fashion, revealing their true selves only in front of each other.

In some ways, Billy’s interior monologue sounds a little too mature, but I doubt he’d be able to articulate the things he’s thinking.  He’s observant and aware, understands that there is much he doesn’t know (like how someone can just up and buy a professional football team), and understands just as well that there’s no way he is ever going to move in the rarefied circles of people who attend state dinners with Prince Charles, own huge corporations, or even those who will pay $700 for a leather jacket with the Cowboys logo on it.  He’s also hungry for relationships that mean as much as the love he carries for Bravo’s dead and wounded, and there’s a remote possibility that he may have found it in Texas Stadium.

Billy is an unforgettable character, partially because he has an uncomfortable way of looking at his fellow Americans and partially because the reader wants so much for him to survive and succeed.  Ben Fountain gives him some wonderful lines (“Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached.” And of Texas Stadium, “Give bigness its due, sure, but the place looks like a half-assed backyard job.”).  Fountain also renders the conversation of the people Billy meets in a phonetic shorthand offset from the regular text, just as the flow of cliches must sound to someone who hears them ad nauseum.  The story’s pacing makes it difficult to put down – it’s as fast a read as any thriller – but Fountain’s language deserves close examination, or even multiple readings, to catch his observations and intentions.  One warning for those who might mind: Billy and his comrades are pure id – all those insults and all that lust is as crude as you can imagine.

Check the WRL catalog for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

It will also be available as a Gab Bag in April 2014.

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Muck CityI’ve become accustomed to a certain kind of contemporary story about high school and college sports.  It involves programs where wealthy donors court spoiled players and break school and NCAA rules with impunity, where a jaded professional attitude infects even young players and every resource is put into creating stars.  There are good and bad examples of this story, but it’s getting a bit familiar.  In the end, I feel a little jaded after reading about another collection of athletes with disproportionately high opinions of themselves.

Muck City isn’t like those stories.  It’s about Glades Central High School and a few other neighboring schools around Belle Glade, Florida, a place that is legendary for the athletes it produces on a regular basis (28 NFL players to date), but where there is no money to pour into the team.  Belle Glade is a broken sugar town, a place where poverty, drugs, AIDS, violence, broken families, and unemployment are the rule, not the exception.  Almost none of the players on the team have two-parent families.  While Glades Central often wins or compete for state championships, its players are often in ragtag uniforms, drinking pickle juice on the sideline where other teams drink Gatorade, still playing both ways because the team can’t afford to travel a big squad.

Yes, the recruiters are after the Belle Glade kids, but Mealer’s book shows a squad driven as much by desperation as by fame.  Football will be the only way out for most of these kids.  Everyone in the community seems to have an opinion about how the team should be run, not just because they are sports-obsessed, but because the team is one of the few bright spots in a bleak place.

Mealer was given good access to the team and he uses it to good advantage, but focuses on half a dozen main characters.  Quarterback Mario Rowley is a minor talent hiding major injuries, but through sheer force of will he competes for a college scholarship and to ease the memory of his dead parents.  Jonteria Williams is a cheerleader trying to do something nobody at Glades Central does, make a better future through academics instead of football. Other players rise to the occasion, surprising their coaches and themselves, while at least one major talent falls prey to too much attention and not enough work ethic.  Coach Jessie Hester, a former NFL player with his own demons, is trying to keep the team together while fending off a thousand second guesses and pressure to win at all cost.

And while other sports stories can turn into repetitive accounts of one game after another, leading inexorably to the big game that you know from the start the team will win, Mealer’s book is more about life, about what sports can solve and what they cannot solve.  About the many tragedies that can befall those who live in the world’s forgotten places and the hard-won triumphs that occasionally can be scratched out.  Yes, there are plenty of game accounts, but the real game here is life.  That’s what makes Muck City a book not just for football fans, but for anyone who cares about the human drama.

Check the WRL catalog for Muck City

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heartI am the first to flee at the sight of blood. As such, I don’t watch boxing and I quickly switch the channel when watching football if the station decides there is a need to show slow motion replays of a player’s injury from EVERY ANGLE. But for whatever reason, I can stomach violence in graphic novels, as the images can be processed as art by my brain, conveniently disconnected from reality.

Browsing our shelves, I picked up a copy of Heart but almost put it back again when I realized that the story revolved around an MMA (mixed-martial arts) fighter. I ended up holding on to the volume, deciding that since I had been in a reading rut recently, something so far out of my normal comfort zone might be just what I needed.

The story throws you right into the middle of the octagon at the beginning of a fight between Oren “Rooster” Redmond and Mike “The Hooligan” Murphy. Glaring and tattooed with muscles tensed, they square off with the cheers, jeers, and bloodlust of the crowd in a roar around them. The story is narrated by Oren, and he baldly presents his adrenaline and bravado as well as his mistakes as he takes us through his journey from slightly overweight office worker to trained fighter. He’s inspired by his older brother, who started out as a college wrestler and progressed to MMA after graduation. From the drudgery of his data entry job, Oren enters a life that finally allows him to live life on his own terms.

It’s Oren’s honesty about how his fighting career progresses that really pulls the reader into the story. He’s not trying to fool anyone, not even himself. His frankness and honesty are refreshing yet surprising, since MMA promotion isn’t known for being austere or unembellished. Oren wryly confesses to prior unkind thoughts about “guys who wore too-tight t-shirts with shiny, metallic crap written on ‘em” before he entered and embraced the culture.

Heart is an engaging and powerful read. I would recommend it to sports fans, readers of graphic novels in general, or any reader who loves stories where the human element transcends the environment.

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junkyardThis is definitely a genre book. It is for people who want to know more about the history of American professional wrestling. Specifically, it is for people who crave more information about wrestling in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even more specifically, the book is about wrestling in the Mid South wrestling promotion (a.k.a. territory). Mid South was the territory run by Bill Watts (an icon in American professional wrestling). In the late ‘70s, Watts turned Sylvester Ritter into the first undisputed African-American wrestling superstar: The Junk Yard Dog, a.k.a. JYD. Klein wrote this book to ensure that Ritter’s legacy as the first big name African-American professional wrestler was not lost. Klein makes an easy case to follow and provides an interesting story along the way, although the author’s thesis is perhaps overreaching.

The book starts by offering a brief history of some of the more prominent wrestling territories. Since the machinations of wrestling territories in the mid to late 20th century were convoluted at best, Klein is wise to gloss over them, touching only on the fact that numerous territories existed and that there were battles for fans and profits among them. Klein also puts his story into context with respect to some of the most famous and infamous wrestlers of the period including Verne Gagne, Hulk Hogan, Ernie Ladd, and Andre the Giant.

The most compelling element of Klein’s narrative history is that the Junkyard Dog’s success was prescient in terms of the rise of African-Americans in the professional wrestling industry, as well as their integration into this form of entertainment. JYD had fans of all ages and races which Klein feels was his legacy, at least within Mid South. In the author’s words, “although the Junk Yard Dog was King of New Orleans for the length of his run [1979-1984], it was the decision to base the entire territory around him that really broke barriers.” In this way, Klein suggests JYD’s role as wrestling superstar had overarching civil rights consequences. At the same time, any civil rights stance was unintended, as the territory promoters were motivated by greed, not skin color: JYD was a good draw, and that translated into profits. Klein does note that “wrestling does, in fact, exploit nationality and ethnic stereotypes to create drama,” and JYD’s entire career was directly tied to that reality.

Klein’s writing is straightforward, perhaps reflective of his journalist background. He’s retelling this story to make sure it is preserved. Interestingly, Ritter is almost tangential to the book. Klein focuses on the decision makers and JYD rarely had a say in his in-ring persona. I have the impression he was told where, when, and whom to wrestle. Ritter’s personal life is barely touched upon.

Klein’s The King of New Orleans is a history of Mid South Wrestling and the Junkyard Dog. His story continues into JYD’s more well-known time as a national performer with the World Wrestling Federation, however, Klein notes that by then JYD’s personal and professional lives were unraveling. Fans of professional wrestling who did not watch during the 1980s might learn a thing or two reading this book. However, since i- depth analysis is not something that needs to be vigorously applied to wrestling, one should read for the story, not for the insight.

Check the WRL catalog for The King of New Orleans

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Who could have known a hundred years ago? A major concern in football now is protecting “defenseless” receivers going over the middle to catch a downfield pass. Ironically, as Maggio’s wonderfully researched effort spotlights, rules to encourage passing originally were put in place to reduce violence in football.

The game had become gruesomely brutal because of the mass-running formations in which lines of players sans equipment hurled themselves at each other. Calls for football to be abolished grew after 21 players died during the 1904 college football season and another 19 were killed as a result of playing injuries in 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt called for a conference with some of the leading coaches to encourage rules changes that would limit violence in the game. Columbia, among the early powers in college football, nevertheless dropped its program for 10 years after the 1905 season.

College football leaders grudgingly instituted rules to encourage downfield passing and spread out formations on the field. Even so, major powers in the East such as Yale and Army preferred the running game. Upstart squads from the West started dabbling in the passing game, but the East refused to take notice until new coach Jesse Harper took Notre Dame to play mighty Army in 1913. Little-known Notre Dame, which Army agreed to play largely because it needed a “breather” on the schedule, unleashed a potent passing attack that teams in the East had not seen before and won 35-13.

Harper, hired at Notre Dame as football coach and director of athletics in no small part because he believed football should support itself financially, gained acclaim as a pioneer in the passing offense. His Notre Dame team wasn’t the first to use an aerial attack, but it was the first to topple a major Eastern power doing so. That game also thrust ND quarterback Gus Dorais and end Knute Rockne onto the national college football scene, Dorais for his ability to hit receivers as far as 40 yards downfield and Rockne for his ability to catch the ball with his hands in stride. Previously, receivers typically stopped and cradled the ball before trying to gain more yardage.

This book, subtitled How Jesse Harper Made the Forward Pass a Weapon and Knute Rockne a Legend, will appeal not only to Notre Dame fans but to college football fans in general. Those who like the rough nature of football will especially enjoy the chapters describing the early years of the game. Moreover, Maggio provides some context of the contributions of some of the iconic names in college football, such as Amos Alonzo Stagg, Walter Camp, Glenn “Pop” Warner, and Jim Thorpe in addition to Notre Dame legends Rockne and George Gipp.

Changes in the game off the field also are interesting, including the descriptions of team travel from one region of the country to another and the time it took. Those who think they are die-hard fans today will appreciate the lengths to which fans would get information on the games in the early 1900s before not only television but also radio. For that landmark game at West Point in 1913, Notre Dame students huddled outside the newspaper office in South Bend, Indiana, awaiting telegraph bulletins posted in the window after each quarter of play.

The end of Harper’s coaching tenure at Notre Dame illustrates another stark contrast between today’s game and that of a hundred years ago. Harper turned over the team to Rockne after the 1917 season because his father-in-law promised him the same salary he was getting at Notre Dame to help out on his cattle ranch in Kansas. Nowadays, a coach being put out to pasture means a sports broadcasting gig.

Check the WRL catalog for Notre Dame and the Game That Changed Football

 

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The subtitle of Sports Illustrated writer Ballard’s book may lead readers to think they’ve seen this one before: “a Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magic Baseball Season” sounds like the plot of at least a dozen sports films and books that I’ve encountered over the years. Those like me who are triggered to somewhat embarassed tears by the final scenes of movies such as Hoosiers will find all the same pathos in this new book, but Ballard has enough surprises up his sleeve to make his book special.

The book is set in 1970 and 1971 and the team in question are the Ironmen of Macon High, a tiny school in farmland Illinois in an era when the state tournament didn’t have different population divisions. The Macon boys had never won the baseball title in their own hicksville conference, but surviving that, then getting through sectionals, regionals, and finally competing at the state tournament against teams drawing players from thousands more students was all but an impossibility. But then that’s what makes an underdog story powerful, and for two magical seasons, the Ironmen would make that improbable run.

The players are the usual bunch in such tales, undersized or oddball, with one gifted athlete as their leader, the tough-minded Steve Shartzer who would lead the teams ultimate run with a broken bone in his wrist. The real revelation is their coach, one L. C. Sweet, a counterculture guy in a very square region, a hard drinker and beloved English teacher. He’s the fourth coach of the baseball team in four years, and nobody expects much. Sweet is the opposite of the ex-military coaches to whom the boys have become accustomed. He lets them decide how much or even if they want to practice, what positions they want to play, even what decisions to make in the field. He de-emphasizes competition, and relaxed, the boys start to win. They baffle their heartland competition, warming up to the strains of Jesus Christ Superstar and sporting long hair and peace symbols on their mismatched uniforms.

Read the book for the other suspenseful and fun details of the Ironmen’s rise. This book doesn’t take all the turns a jaded sports reader might expect, making it all the more powerful. Perhaps what makes Ballard’s book most unique is the ending, in which he chronicles what has happened to players and coach in the forty years since the big season, including a reunion scene that has real emotional power. Life goes on after those glorious seasons, and in sticking around to tell that story, Ballard creates a sports story with even more drama than is usual.

Check the WRL catalog for One Shot at Forever 

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I’m not much of a sports fan, although I appreciate baseball more than any other.  Not as in a George Will Men at Work paean to the pastoral roots and nobility blah blah blah, but as a game which is simultaneously simple and incredibly complex and which comes with beer and a hot dog.  And even though every sports novel ever written or sports movie ever made ends with the underdogs defeating the champs, books like Shoeless Joe or The Natural still grab me in a way other novels with the same themes don’t.

But The Art of Fielding isn’t a baseball novel.  Even though shortstop Henry Skrimshander drives the action, the story feels more like a baseball team working behind a pitching machine instead of a human being.  Henry is a cipher – he comes from a nowhere place and it is only an accident that his skill is discovered before he joins the blue-collar life of his home and family.  His presence on the campus of Westish College (home of the Harpooners!) doesn’t leave a ripple.  He is no scholar, ladies’ man, partier, frat boy.  The only book he owns is The Art of Fielding, a Zen-like meditation on the shortstop’s place in baseball.  He exists only for the season, and there he is a certified genius, playing with effortless intuition and bringing his teammates up to and beyond their potential.  He even starts a streak of error-free games that seems destined to match that of Aparicio Rodriguez, author of The Art of Fielding, and that attracts the attention of agents and Major League scouts.  Even as he becomes the center of attention to people in the story, the story does not revolve around him.

If anything, the novel centers on the almost magnetic appeal of Westish College itself.  Mike Schwartz, Henry’s advocate, coach, and role model, is a dedicated scholar whose skill at sports bought him a ticket out of a Chicago slum to Westish, along with permanent injuries and an addiction to painkillers.  Pella Affenlight, daughter of the college’s president, comes to Westish to escape an oppressive marriage and to find the purpose in her young life.  Pella’s father, Guert, whose academic career began and (he hopes) will end at Westish, has fallen irretrievably in love with a student, who happens to be Henry’s gay roommate Owen.  Only Owen, a  serene and self-possessed scholar-athlete, seems to resist Westish’s appeal and demands,  flagrantly flouting college norms and planning for his post-Westish life.  As Guert learns from Owen about love and about the late-life discovery that he too is gay he also learns Westish can be cloistered and oppressive to some, nurturing and supportive to others.

Either way, the college seems to be an unchanging place even as the characters discover that their lives and purposes are evanescent.  Affairs, dreams, creative expression will all appear and vanish in moments.  But, as one character observes, only Henry’s performances constantly occur in public venues where people are rooting for his failure.  It is at those times that Henry’s intense focus is necessary.  And when Henry loses that focus in a bizarre accident, it seems that his potential professional career will disappear like a fastball into a catcher’s mitt.  Redemption – for Henry, for Mike and Pella, and for Owen and Guert – is possible, and when Chad Harbach achieves it, it is not only organic to the story but points all of the characters to the next act of their lives.

Check the WRL catalog for The Art of Fielding

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Today, WRL Development Officer Benjamin Goldberg takes a look at the world of pro wrestling.

This is a book about professional wrestling, a.k.a. sports entertainment. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It should be noted though that the people involved are showmen and athletes, driven to deliver the best “product” possible. If you want to better understand the appeal of sports entertainment, the main characters in the industry, and the underbelly of the business, Jericho’s book is worth reading. It is among the best pro-wrestling autobiographies available.

Chris Irvine, son of a professional hockey player, had three dreams as a boy. He wanted to play hockey, be a professional wrestler, and have a rock band. He discovered he wasn’t very good at hockey. But, taking on the persona of Chris Jericho he achieved international fame in the ring and (to some extent) on the stage with his band, Fozzy. Undisputed: How to Become the World Champion in 1,372 Easy Steps, picks up where Jericho’s first book, A Lion’s Tale, left off. He continues his story about his life as a pro-wrestler, rock star, and generally entertaining guy.

For anyone unfamiliar with the vagaries of professional wrestling, the action in the ring is largely staged, the outcomes prearranged, and the participants caricatures. Accepting that, matches are dangerous, physical dances that can be impressively choreographed. Wrestlers are athletes, actors, and stuntmen. Jericho is among the best of them and it is a pleasure to learn about the business through his eyes.

For Jerichoholics (you know who you are), the book provides a view of the real person behind Chris Jericho and the pro-wrestling character he plays. In the ring Jericho is obnoxious, cocky, quick with a cutting remark, and often dishonest. In real life those elements are evident, though none are as inflated as when he performs (and he never comes across as dishonest). In fact, as a human being, Jericho is generous, caring, funny, and dedicated to his family.

The book largely glosses over his matches, concentrating more on what happens behind the scenes. He mentions good and bad matches, but never provides details of in-ring action. He does include his impressions of colleagues (such as Hulk Hogan, Vince McMahon and Ric Flair) and stories about traveling and performing with his band Fozzy. He gives readers a frank discussion of who he is, as well as why he loves and hates sports entertainment. Finally, reader beware, while not littered with profanity, Jericho does not shy away from the use of expletives as he deems appropriate.

This book will be especially enjoyable to long-time fans of the craft, but it may also be interesting to people who want an insider’s look at the world of pro-wrestling. Jericho is after all the self-proclaimed “best in the world at what he does.”

Check the WRL catalog for Undisputed

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Laura Hillenbrand’s new book Unbroken is a catalog of human achievement and suffering.  It is hard, almost impossible, to imagine one person undergoing so many trials and emerging from them with even the remotest possibility of recovery.  Yet Hillenbrand’s central character, Louis Zamperini, rises phoenix-like from the worst that one man can do to another to find a measure of peace.

Hillenbrand is famous for Seabiscuit, the bazillion-selling story of an underdog horse who became a champion thoroughbred.  Set in the depths of Depression-era America, it captured both the excitement and cultural impact of horse-racing, and the qualities of resilience that enabled the human and equine team to reach astonishing heights.  Unbroken focuses on the same time period – the 1920s through the 1940s – and deals with the same setting – sports – but from there the two stories diverge completely.

Louis Zamperini was a no-good kid who fought and stole his way through his hometown of Torrance, California, and was probably headed for prison.  His older brother managed to channel Louis’ energies into running, and the outlet proved spectacularly successful.  Within a short time, Louis was setting records in NCAA track events, and got an invitation to try out for the 1936 Olympics in an event he’d only competed in four times.  His stunning win sent him to Berlin, and an eventual meeting with Adolf Hitler.

When World War II started, Louis joined the Army Air Corps, and was assigned to the B-24 Liberator, a notoriously dangerous heavy bomber which nonetheless served in every theater of the war.  After a number of successful missions, Louis’ plane crashed at sea.  He and two other men survived, spending the next 47 days adrift in an inflatable raft, battling sharks, thirst, starvation, and wounds.  They were even machine-gunned by a Japanese seaplane, which riddled the raft but miraculously didn’t touch any of the men.  The third man died just before the raft landed on a Japanese-occupied island.

It was there that Louis’ life went from torment to living hell.  After a short period on the island, he was shipped to the Japanese mainland and held in a secret concentration camp without access to even the nominal protection that the International Red Cross afforded prisoners.  He was assaulted by civilians, and beaten, starved, and tortured by Japanese guards who would go on to be listed as war criminals.  But he also encountered the rare guards who took chances to give prisoners some tiny measure of hope.  For more than two years, he willed himself to live, and when Japan surrendered, he was finally free.  That is, his body was free.

Louis suffered from what is now recognized as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, with its attendant symptoms: alcoholism, bursts of rage, alienation from loved ones, and an inability to cope with the routines of daily life.  Heralded as a hero, Louis’ public face was a mask that hid a man still suffering the torments of the war.  An encounter with evangelist Billy Graham convinced him to seek redemption and salvation, and in the years since, he’s  exemplified those values, going so far as to meet with his torturers and captors and forgiving them.

As powerful as the book is, it also has its moments of humor – Louis gets caught trying to steal the Nazi flag from the Reich Chancellery, stockpiles homemade liquor, and joins other prisoners of war in playing clever but risky tricks on their captors.  As much as those episodes help lighten the narrative, though, it is difficult not to become angry towards the Japanese whose treatment of the prisoners was nothing short of barbaric.  Reaching the moment when Louis, and many of his fellow Americans, were able to achieve peace by forgiving the Japanese gave me a tiny taste of the redemption Louis achieved.

Hillenbrand concentrates on Louis’ story, although he survived his raft trip with another man who also lived as a prisoner until the end of the war.  Other men were brutalized, even murdered, in the camps.  But Louis’ indomitable will is memorable and inspirational.  It truly was unbroken.

Check the WRL Catalog for Unbroken

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Id. Ego. Superego.  Freud divided the human psyche into three parts, and the concept resonates through 20th century culture.  When one man’s id comes to life (or does it?), and his superego can’t deal with it, what will happen?

Alan Zweibel, a writer with great comic chops, takes that idea and sets it against the New York City Marathon, juggling a present-day narrative of Shulman (no first name given) running his race, and Shulman’s training for the marathon with a group of other first-time runners raising money for AIDS research.  The marathon portion of the story introduces themes and memories, along with Shulman’s joyful antics as he maintains his 3-minute run/1-minute walk pace through the welcoming and colorful boroughs.  (At that rate, he calculates it will take him 6 hours and 2 minutes to finish the race; 4 hours slower than the 2009 winner.)

Training for the Marathon is an escape from Shulman’s real life, and it isn’t hard to understand why.  He’s an overweight businessman whose small fine stationery and newspaper store is failing.  His adopted town of Fort Lee, NJ now prefers the big box stores and malls, bypassing the once-thriving community landmark for the same-old brand stores and bins of cheap pens that he won’t carry.  His children have grown up, and he can no longer think of himself as the dad who sponsored their Little League teams and activities.  Worst of all, the wife he loves has lost interest in him.  He’s never been aggressive or ambitious enough for her, and with her own business taking off she’s beginning to avoid him.

So when he spots a poster for the marathon training group, he takes it on as an antidote to his life’s inertia.  Everyone thinks he’s nuts – he’s never exercised and hates running.  He weighs 250 pounds, and jokes that the 35 pounds he has repeatedly gained and lost could be used to make Another Shulman.  Lo and behold, that joke seems to come true, but it isn’t funny anymore.

The Other Shulman starts showing up in his life: knocking him down during training, opening a competing office supply store, luring his one employee away, vandalizing his doctor’s office (on camera), and maybe even seducing his wife.  To top it off, The Other takes credit for the successful fundraising effort Shulman has put in as part of his marathon training.  Everyone around him believes in The Other, but the real Shulman has only one encounter with his id(?) and can’t get others to believe that he’s been doing the good stuff and not responsible for the bad stuff.  When the inevitable showdown comes, Shulman has to make the split-second decision – out-id the id?  Out-ego it?  Or let the superego control his life?

The other characters in the story never really coalesce, but that’s OK because Shulman is at a point in his life where, for the first time, he’s only thinking about himself.  As the story heads towards the finish line, that self-centeredness crashes in on him as he learns that people do care about him and that he is the bond that holds family and community together.  (The fact that he’s known as “GLUE” is a running joke, but its truth becomes clear at the very end.)

Zweibel’s comic touch makes this story a light, enjoyable read.  He has a gift for both extended funny scenes and one-liners that can make the reader laugh out loud (not so great if you have a mouthful of turkey sandwich in public).   Like all good humor, though, the poignancy at its heart doubles its impact and makes the book more thoughtful than it first appears.

Check the WRL catalog for The Other Shulman


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I have a secret past.

In another period of life, I was a huge sports fan, able to spout stats, debate the strengths and weaknesses of different teams and players, manage a fantasy roster to the top of the league, and shout and swear at a television screen with the best of them. I watched my beloved Utah Jazz come up short year after year, beaten by the Lakers, the Sonics, and ultimately that damned Michael Jordan in his prime. I’m not sure whether it was the breakthrough of my equally beloved Boston Red Sox or the continued futility of Stockton and a Mailman who couldn’t deliver that ultimately broke me, but in recent years, I’ve lost interest. But with The Book of Basketball, ESPN analyst Bill Simmons makes me want to pore over the sports page instead of ignoring it; to spend evenings griping at the television, the refs, the endless commercial breaks, and the bad announcers; to endure the cruel ups and downs of fandom again and pass my hours immersed in a game.

This is a whale of a book, more than 700 pages that encompass the roots of Simmons’s fandom (he’s a lifelong Celtics nut), the history of the NBA and ABA, the failures and strengths of the current league, a lengthy excursion into the world of what-if, an analysis of every MVP choice in the history of the league, and an exhaustively analyzed ranking of the pro game’s greatest players.

But you won’t enjoy (and as often, perhaps, despise) Simmons for his analysis alone. He’s crass but hilarious, that crude male friend who never grew up but who you tolerate, even secretly love to be around because he’s just plain funny. The book is full of pop culture analogies, ribald locker room anecdotes, cheap shots at the players he doesn’t like (Kareem, Wilt, Vince Carter), and hilarious footnotes. He drops new top player lists gleefully every few pages (All Time Bad Hair Team, Overrated and Underrated, Rumored to be the Best Endowed, etc.) and can be just as effective with wonky stats or philosophical musings about understanding “The Secret” of the game.

If you are a casual basketball fan, browse through this book and read the sections that provoke your interest. If you are a hoops junkie, dive in and plow through the whole tome. Either way, you’ll finish with a deeper knowledge and greater appreciation for the game. One warning though, if you’re offended by locker room language and smutty stories, this isn’t for you.

Check the WRL catalog for The Book of Basketball

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