Thursday, December 1, 2011

Books, books and more books

The calendar has turned to December. Which means that it won’t be long before panic sets in. What to buy so-and-so for Christmas?
Well, if you happen to be shopping for a book lover or two, here is a brief look at some of the books I have read in 2011, and, no, they aren’t all sports-related:

Back in the Bigs: The subtitle is How Winnipeg won, lost and regained its place in the NHL, and the subtitle pretty much sums it up. This is an over-sized book — although not quite coffee-table size — written by Randy Turner of the Winnipeg Free Press. It is loaded with anecdotes involving the Jets, going back to the days of Ben Hatskin and the Junior Jets and taking you through the times in the WHA with Hull, Hedberg and Nilsson, to the NHL with Hawerchuk and onto the AHL and the Manitoba Moose. Turner spins some fine stories and the photos are awesome. If you look closely enough, you will even find F Jordan DePape of the Kamloops Blazers in one of the photos taken at The Forks. (Viking Canada/Winnipeg Free Press, hard cover, 208 pages, Cdn$35)
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The Big Short (Inside the Doomsday Machine) — Written by Michael Lewis, who also wrote Moneyball and The Blind Side, this is the story of the fall (?) of Wall Street in 2008. Upon finishing this book, you will pause and say to yourself: “This is a work of fiction, isn’t it?” . . . Unfortunately, it isn’t. And, as a result, you will never look on politicians or Wall Street-types the same way again. (Norton, soft cover, 291 pages, US$15.95, Cdn$20.00)
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Blood, Sweat and Chalk — If you are a football fan, you won’t want to miss this one. Written by Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated, it is subtitled The Ultimate Football Playbook: How the Great Coaches Built Today’s Game. Layden visited with a number of football’s most influential coaches and numerous other footballers and produced a real gem. It will help you understand the genesis of such things as the Wildcat, the Wishbone, Air Coryell, the West Coast Offense, the Zone Blitz, the BYU Air Raid and on and on. Layden does it in layman’s terms, too, so it’s a fun and easy read. (Sports Illustrated Books, hard cover, 255 pages, Cdn$31.95)
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The Devil and Bobby Hull — Long-time hockey fans think of Bobby Hull and see him, adorned in a Chicago Black Hawks’ sweater, swooping down the left side of an NHL ice surface and firing a slapshot from the top of the circle. Or playing tic-tac-toe with Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg while with the Winnipeg Jets. Author Gare Joyce, however, knew there was a lot more to Hull’s story than that, and he tells that story right here. Subtitled How Hockey’s Original Million-Dollar Man Became the Game’s Lost Legend, this is the mostly sad story of a one-time hockey superstar. Upon reading Chapter 11 there are 12 chapters you will have tears in your eyes as Joyce draws obvious inferences between Hull’s inability to maintain some thoughts and the possibility that he may have suffered an untold number of concussions during his playing days. (Wiley, hard cover, 274 pages, US$26.95, Cdn$32.95)
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Eight Million Ways to Die — Written by Lawrence Block, this book won the Shamus Award and was short listed for the Edgar. It was first published in 1982 and introduced private eye Matthew Scudder to the masses. You can’t lose with this one. Awesome. I stumbled on it on a discount shelf somewhere; see if you can do the same. (William Morrow, hard cover, 318 pages, Cdn$23.50)
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Evel (The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend) — No less an authority than the late Jimmy (The Greek) Snider once said of Evel Knievel that the odds were about “three-to-one this guy is crazy.” Veteran writer Leith Montville proves it in this book. When I started reading this book, I wondered why I was bothering. But it quickly became a page-turner. Why? Because it was amazing what Knievel, who wasn’t something of an oaf and a boor, was able to accomplish simply with his overly abrasive personality and perhaps the biggest set of cojones in American history. By the way, when you get to the end of this one you realize Jimmy The Greek was wrong. The man was crazy. Period. (Doubleday, hard cover, 398 pages, Cdn$31.00, US$27.50)
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I Am Not Making This Up — Al Strachan covered the NHL and its teams for almost 40 years. He was on the Montreal Canadiens beat for a time, but he made his name in Toronto where he wrote for The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Sun. He also was a regular on Hockey Night in Canada’s Hot Stove Lounge it hasn’t been the same since he departed and a regular thorn in the side of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. You can bet, then, that Strachan has lots and lots and lots of stories, some of which are related here. At 224 pages, this is a quick, light read, one that will keep you enthralled if you are a veteran hockey fan. It also leaves you wanting more and thinking that there just might be a sequel or two or three or four to come. And a recent visit to a bookstore did indeed find a new Strachan book. (Fenn Publishing Company, soft cover, 224 pages, Cdn$22.95)
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Junior Hockey’s Royal Franchise: The Regina Pats: If you’re a fan of junior hockey, you won’t want to miss out on this one. It was written by Darrell Davis, a veteran Regina Leader-Post sports writer whose late father, Lorne, once coached the Pats and later scouted for the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, and Ron (Scoreboard) Johnston, who knows everything there is to know about this team. Johnston spent the better part of 13 years doing the research; Davis later supplied the words. This book is loaded with anecdotes and lots of terrific photos. There aren’t a whole lot of really good books out there that involve major junior hockey or its teams. This is one of them. If you‘re interested in this one, contact the Regina Pats at their office. (Published by The Leader-Post Carrier Foundation Inc., hard cover, 272 pages, Cdn$49.95)
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The Last Boy — Subtitled Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood, this is one of the two best books I read in 2011. I finished it in mid-February and knew then that I wouldn’t read a better one during the calendar year (although, as you will see further into this piece, I later declared a tie). The Last Boy was written by Jane Leavy, who also wrote the terrific Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy. Unlike the book on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ left-hander, though, this is a devastating book if you are of a certain age. If you grew up as a fan of the M and M boys (Mantle and Roger Maris), this will destroy the myth of Mickey Mantle, All-American boy, moreso than did Jim Bouton’s groundbreaking Ball Four. Mickey Mantle, it turns out, was a tortured soul — oh, was he! — and a prime example of why we shouldn’t put our athletic heroes on pedestals. . . . There also is a lot of neat baseball stuff here, and Leavy’s research and writing on some of Mantle’s tape-measure homers is exceptional. The work she did in tracking down Donald Dunaway, the man who as a boy got the ball that Mantle hit out of Washington, D.C.’s Griffith Stadium on April 17, 1953, and the resulting chapter helps make this an exceptional book. (Did you know that Roy Clark, later to become a country music star and a friend of The Mick’s, and his father were seated along the first-base line when Mantle went so deep?) . . . (HarperCollins, hard cover, 456 pages, US$27.99, Cdn$32.99)
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The Lost Dream — Written by Toronto Sun sports columnist Steve Simmons and subtitled The Story of Mike Danton, David Frost, and a Broken Canadian Family, this should be a must read for every parent whose has even one son playing minor hockey anywhere in North America. This is the horrible story of what happened to one family when its hockey-playing son got tangled up with David Frost, a minor hockey coach who later became a player agent. There is a tangled web here and you will be stunned at some of the names that became entangled in it. Danton, of course, later went to jail after a failed attempt to have Frost assassinated. My only real quibble with the book is its title; it should have been The Lost Family. (Viking Canada, hard cover, 255 pages, Cdn$32.00)
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The Man from Beijing — The Los Angeles Times refers to author Henning Mankell as “Sweden’s greatest living mystery writer.” This book is a prime example as to why that very well may be true. Yes, this is a novel and, yes, it is a mystery. However, it is anything but your average who done it. This one involves a Swedish judge, the changing times in China and how that country’s government is/was impacted and a whole lot more. A perfect read for a couple of wintery evenings. . . . (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, soft cover, 454 pages, US$15.00)
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Never Look Away — If you’re into beach/cabin fiction, here’s one you’ll quite enjoy. Author Linwood Barclay, a former Toronto Star columnist, tosses twist after twist at you in the story of David Harwood, a small-town newspaper reporter, in what is a satisfying read. There might be one twist too many near the end, but that really is nit-picking. Great for a rainy day because you won’t put it down. (Seal Books, soft cover, 496 pages, Cdn$10.99)
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No Guarantees — Subtitled An Inspiring Story of Struggle and Success in Professional Sport and with Parkinson’s and Cancer, this is Don Dietrich’s story. From the farming community of Deloraine, Man., Dietrich played for the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings before moving on to play in the AHL, NHL (with the Chicago Blackhawks) and in Europe. He tells some hilarious stories as he wanders through hockey’s hinterlands and, in the end, you will weep as he comes face-to-face with Parkinson’s Disease and cancer. When others wanted to give up on him in hockey and in life, he chose to move forward. Get this book and read it; you won’t be disappointed. (Trafford Publishing, soft cover, 200 pages, Cdn$20.87)
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Playing With Fire — This is Theo Fleury’s story in all its blazing colours. Finish this book and you will wonder how it is that Fleury still is alive. It is absolutely mind-numbing all that he has gone through since he left a rocky childhood life in Russell, Man., to play hockey in Winnipeg for Graham James. The abuse, the alcohol, the drugs . . . something should have killed him. Fleury doesn’t pull any punches here, and he throws a lot of hockey players under the bus. He bares his soul and admits to his mistakes, but doesn’t preach. This book should have come with a language warning. It’s interesting that Kirstie McLellan Day helped Fleury with this book and then moved on to write the late Bob Probert’s book, Tough Guy, which also is freely littered with hockey talk. (HarperCollins, soft cover, 350 pages, Cdn$19.99)
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The Rebel League — Subtitled The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association, this is that story. “No one seems to remember the WHA wrestled the game away from a handful of NHL owners and took it to new markets,” writes author Ed Willes, a sports columnist with the Vancouver Province, “that I opened the door for Europeans, and that it offered a generation of players their first chance at a real payday.” Willes tells that story here and, yes, there are assorted anecdotes, some hilarious, some funny and others unbelievable. If you are a hockey fan, you will enjoy this one. (McClelland & Stewart, soft cover, 277 pages, US$17.95, Cdn$22.99)
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Roger Maris (Baseball’s Reluctant Hero) — Authors Tom Clavin and Danny Peary do a masterful job of portraying Roger Maris, the man who wasn’t sure how badly he wanted to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. This follows Maris from his early years in Hibbing, Minn., to his formative years in Fargo, N.D., from Roger Maras to Roger Maris and beyond. The writers paint a picture of a tortured man, especially in 1961 as he hit 61 home runs, but one whose family meant everything to him. It also is an honest and ugly portrayal of baseball when the owners were the lords of the diamond. For example, the way the New York Yankees treated Maris in 1965 as he struggled with a hand injury was criminal. Front and centre, too, is Maris’s relationship, or lack of same, with the New York media, something the authors claim may well be the reason that Maris isn’t a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Read this book and hear what former teammates have to say and you will reach the same conclusion. (Touchstone, soft cover, 430 pages, Cdn$18.99, US$15.99)
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The Snowman — One of the benefits of the Stieg Larsson trilogy — The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo et al — having been such a raging success in North America is that book nooks have been all but inundated by works from other Scandinavian writers. Jo Nesbø, a Norwegian, is one of those writers. While I had heard of his work, I had never picked up one of his novels until coming across The Snowman. This book involves Harry Hole, a hard-bitten cop who is involved in a number of Nesbø books. But this work has an edge to it that not a lot of other writers are able to capture. I definitely will be reading more about Det. Hole. (Vintage Canada, soft cover, 454 pages, Cdn$19.95)
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The Third Rail — Michael Kelly is a private investigator. He used to be a cop. In this first-rate detective novel, Kelly ends up in the middle of a really messy situation in Chicago. It involves cops and shooters and a female judge. You knew there had to be a love interest. Right? The best part of this novel, however, is author Michael Harvey’s style. Back in the day, Mickey Spillane was the man. With his writing, Harvey has torn a page out of Spillane’s book . . . (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, soft cover, 281 pages, US$14.95, Cdn$16.95)
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Unbroken (A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption) — This was the other best book I read in 2011. Written by Lauren Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit, it tells the story of Louis Zamperini, who may have been the first person to run a four-minute mile had the Second World War not gotten in the way. He ended up on a life raft in the South Pacific and then in Japanese POW camps. His story -- from brawling, thieving youngster to world-class runner to airman to prisoner of war to Christian is emotionally draining and terrifically uplifting. Don’t miss this one; it was named 2010’s top book by Time magazine. (Random House, hard cover, 473 pages, US$27, Cdn$31)
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War Without Death (A Year of Extreme Competition in Pro Football) — I love nonfiction books that are basically diaries, written in chronological order. This one, by Mark Maske of the Washington Post, is a terrific look inside the NFC East during the 2006 NFL season, providing great insight into how the big boys operate. The contrast in operating styles between the likes of owners Daniel Snyder (Washington Redskins), Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys) and Jeffrey Lurie (Philadelphia Eagles) is striking. This really is a great sports book. (Penguin, soft cover,393 pages, US$16.00, Cdn$17.50.)
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Willie Mays (The Life, The Legend) — Willie Mays deserves this book. Written by James S. Hirsch. a former New York Times and Wall Street Journal reporter, it was written with Mays’ authorization. This is a long, well-written book that details Mays’ life and career, from his days as a youngster growing up in Birmingham, Ala., through his major league life and beyond. The best thing about this book, and there are many, is that it clears up the misconception that continues to hang in the air, like fog at Candlestick Park, about the last days of Mays’ career. He didn’t finish up as a bumbling, stumbling outfielder; he really didn’t. But he didn’t finish with the New York Mets, who had a manager, Yogi Berra, who, for whatever reason, chose to forget about him.
(Scribner, hard cover, 628 pages, US$30, Cdn$$36)

gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca
     
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