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Saturday, December 8, 2012

Books, books and more books

If you’re getting ready to do some Christmas shopping, you may get some ideas from what follows. These are some of the books I have read over the past year, and, no, they aren’t all sports-related. . . .

11/22/63: I have no idea why I chose to read this book, but, boy, am I glad I did. I am not a fan of the horror genre so had never read any of Stephen King’s books. Once upon a time, however, I had read and enjoyed his columns in Entertainment Weekly. So when I spotted this book and we all are curious about JFK to some degree, aren’t we? -- I just had to give it a go. Not to give too much away, but this is about time travelling and an attempt to change history. But it‘s about so much more than that because King is able to sneak in all sorts of social commentary. This is a marvellous work of fiction. (Scribner, hard cover, 849 pages, Cdn$39.99, US$35.00)

The Art of Fielding: This is author Chad Harbach’s debut novel. Let’s just say he has set the bar awfully high. This is about baseball, and yet it’s more about life. This is slow and delicious, like baseball at its best. It’s about Henry Skrimshander, who has the skill and learns work ethic to become a terrific shortstop for the Westish College Harpooners, a Division III U.S. college team. (Harpooners? There is a Moby Dick connection here.) Skrimshander is on the verge of greatness when life gets in the way. But there is so much more to this book than Skrimshander and baseball. If you like wonderful prose, give it a read; you won’t be at all disappointed. (Little, Brown, hard cover, 509 pages, Cdn$28.90)

The Code: There are very few hockey-themed mysteries out there Bryan Gruley’s The Hanging Tree comes to mind so that makes The Code an intriguing read for a hockey fan. And if you are someone who is at all close to major junior hockey, or to the NHL and its world of scouts, you definitely should give this book a gander. You will recognize the people, the teams and, most of all, the clich├ęs. Brad Shade, a grinder during his playing days, now scouts for the Los Angeles Kings and is the main character here, as he, while preparing for another NHL draft, ends up working on a double murder involving the OHL’s Peterborough Petes. The Code is the work of writer G.B. Joyce, who is perhaps better known in hockey circles as Gare Joyce. (Viking, hard cover, 341 pages, Cdn$30.00)

Cold a Long Time An Alpine Mystery: Former Saskatoon Blades defenceman Duncan MacPherson was to coach a team in Scotland starting in the late summer of 1989. He never arrived. Fourteen years later, his body was found on in the middle of a recreational area on a glacier near Innsbruck, Austria. This is the story of the search by his parents, Lynda and Bob, for answers to the many questions surrounding their son’s disappearance. Author John Leake, an American who lived in Austria for 10 years, does a terrific job of putting together an amazing story. Were I to put together a must-read list, this book would be on it. (Soft cover, 231 pages, available at www.coldalongtime.com)

Fighting the Good Fight: Subtitled Why On-Ice Violence is Killing Hockey, this one is written by Adam Proteau, who is a columnist with The Hockey News. The subtitle is rather self-explanatory. But it still is mind-numbing to read this book and have it all hit you right between the eyes. Proteau does an excellent job of spelling out how violence (fighting, headshots, etc.) has damaged the game and what needs to be done to get it back on the rails. (Wiley, soft cover, 234 pages, Cdn$26.95, US$21.95)

Fire in the Hole (and other stories): The great Elmore Leonard is one of my favourite writers. No one in the world of fiction comes up with more interesting character than does Leonard. This is a collection of nine short stories, including Fire in the Hole, the story that spawned the TV series Justified. If you aren’t watching Justified, you’re cheating yourself. If you haven’t read this book, you’re cheating yourself. (William Morrow, soft cover, 228 pages, US$14.99, Cdn$16.99)

Gone Girl: If you’re into thrillers that toy with your emotions, you will find this to be a real page-turner. A wife goes missing in on the day of her fifth wedding anniversary and the husband is the prime suspect. But perhaps not is all what it seems. Author Gillian Flynn throws in more than a few twists and turns. (Crown, hard cover, 432 pages, US$25.00, Cdn$29.95)

In Pale Battalions: Author Robert Goddard has it all in this novel that is wrapped in and around the First World War. Goddard is a tremendous writer who provides a most enjoyable read, some unforgettable characters and more twists than a bag of Twizzlers. This is a murder mystery but really is a whole lot more than that. This one won’t disappoint you. (Delta, soft cover, 342 pages, US$12.00)

Into the Silence (The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest): The First World War was over and many of England’s sons hadn’t come home. Many who did come home from the battlefields were maimed. The national psyche had taken a horrible beating, even though the war had been won. And then a nation became enthralled with three attempts to reach the summit of Mount Everest; it was on the final attempt that George Mallory and Sandy Irvine died. This is the story of those attempts, all that went into them and the way a nation’s hungry eyes followed along. Wonderfully written and researched by author Wade Davis, it begins with the war and Davis isn’t shy about pointing fingers at military leaders who sent thousands of young people to their deaths while never leaving their ivory towers. All of that serves to set the table for the amazing and improbable stories of the three attempts on Everest’s summit. This is a deep and incredible read. (Alfred A. Knopf, hard cover, 672 pages, Cdn$35.00)

The Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty: When George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees dominated baseball in the late 1990s and early 20002, veteran baseball writer Buster Olney covered the team for The New York Times. In this book, he wraps the collapse of the dynasty around Game 7 of the 2001 World Series and he does it in terrific fashion. The book was published in August 2004 but it hasn’t grown old. There is terrific insight into the way in which manager Joe Torre ran his club, the many clashes between team officials and Steinbrenner and the personalities of various players, like Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius, Mariano Rivera, Chuck Knoblauch and Joe Girardi, who now is the Yankees manager. There are all kinds of interesting tidbits. For example, had the Yankees won the 2001 World Series Rivera blew the save in Game 7 utility infielder Enrique Wilson would have been on American Airlines Flight 587 when it crashed in Queens, killing 265 people. “I am glad we lost the World Series,” Rivera later told Wilson, “because it means that I still have a friend.” (HarperCollins, hard cover, 432 pages)

The Great Leader: Detective Sunderson, who doesn’t seem to have a first name, is retired but he isn’t retired (if you know what I mean) from the Michigan State Police. As his retirement nears, he is in pursuit of the leader of a cult. As he enters into retirement, that pursuit continues. Of course, there are woman problems, an ex-wife, and family woes. Author Jim Harrison takes all of this and weaves it into a really enjoyable read. And it‘s more about a man dealing with life than it is about trying to bring the leader of a cult, who calls himself, among other things, King David, to justice. (Grove Press, Kindle, US$9.99)

The Last Stand (Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn): There have been a lot of books written about all that happened on June 25, 1876. This one, written by Nathaniel Philbrick, stands with the best of them. Impeccably researched and really well-written, it provides great insight into all that went on before, during and after one of the most ignominious days in American history. If you haven’t read anything about Custer, you will find this to be a fairly easy and a really engrossing read. If you have read other works, this one will provide you with even more insight. (Penguin, soft cover, 466 pages, US$18.00, Cdn$21.00)

On A Cold Road (Tales of Adventures in Canadian Rock): If you have ever wondered what it’s like for those rock bands when they go on the road through the hinterlands of Canada, you should give this a read. Dave Bidini, the author, is the rhythm guitarist with the Rheostatics. Bidini kept a diary during a 1996 tour as the Rheostatics opened for the Tragically Hip. There also are reminisces from various musicians interspersed throughout the book. Great stuff! . . . And if you haven’t already read Tropic of Hockey, another of Bidini’s books, get your hands on it and enjoy a Bidini doubleheader. (McClelland & Stewart, soft cover, 278 pages, US$14.95, Cdn$21.00. I found it for $7 at a bookstore in Salmon Arm, B.C.)

Over Time (My Life as a Sportswriter): Frank Deford has the well-earned reputation as one of the greatest writers, sporting or otherwise, to come along in some time. It is a well-deserved reputation. This is his story, and it’s full of Deford-style writing yes, he has yet to meet a comma he couldn’t use and a whole lot of anecdotes. He also offers up some opinions; well, a whole lot of opinions. In explaining why soccer has yet to make it in America, he writes: “Americans also grow up being used to the big play to the home run, to the hundred-yard kickoff return, to the fast break. That’s our meat. In soccer, that’s offside. Blow the whistle, bring it back. Soccer is the coitus interruptus of sports.” (Atlantic Monthly Press, hard cover, 354 pages, US$25.00)

Perfect: This book is subtitled Don Larsen’s Miraculous World Series Game and the Men who Made it Happen. . . . And that pretty much sums it up. But it is so much more than that. Author Lew Paper has delivered what is a wonderful look back at baseball in another age. Through 18 chapters, he writes about those men who figured in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series between Larsen’s New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers, in which Larsen threw the only perfect game in the history of the Fall (now Early Winter) Classic. Paper weaves an untold number of anecdotes and personal notes involving these players around a pitch-by-pitch recounting of one of baseball’s most remarkable performances. There are a lot of great baseball-related books out there and this is one of them. Published in 2009, I stumbled on this book in a terrific used book store in Penticton. (New American Library, hard cover, 421 pages, Cdn$31.00, US$24.95)
The Pope and Me at Yankee Stadium: Subtitled My Life as the Beer Man & Stand-up Comic, this is a nifty little read about Steve Lazarus. He is a stand-up comedian and a vendor at Yankee Stadium. Phil Mushnick of the New York Post provides the foreword and it gets better from there. Split into innings rather than chapters, the Eighth Inning, in which Lazarus discusses some of his many money-making (losing?) ventures is especially funny. This is a small book and a quick read. It’s available at www.ThePopeAndMe.com. (Soft cover, 150 pages, US$14.95 plus shipping and handling)

Sudden Death: The Incredible Saga of the 1986 Swift Current Broncos: The authors, including yours truly, follow the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos from the Dec. 20, 1986 bus crash in which four players were killed through the 1989 Memorial Cup, which they won, and beyond. This book went to a second printing early in December and should be back in stores now. (Dundurn Press, soft cover, 214 pages, Cdn$25.99)
Sutton: Author J.R. Moehringer takes the story of Willie (The Actor) Sutton and weaves it into a beautiful tapestry in what The New York Times described as a “fictional biography.” Written without direct quotes, it may take a few pages to get used to the style. But it’s well worth it. In the early part of the 20th century, Sutton came out of an impoverished childhood to become America’s most famous — and most successful — bank robber. The banks didn’t have a whole lot of friends back then — sound familiar? — which had more than a bit to do with Sutton’s popularity. Oh, Sutton also escaped three times from maximum security penitentiaries. (Hyperion, hard cover, 334 pages, $27.99)
Tabloid City: Author Pete Hamill, who is one of my favourites for whatever that is worth, is a former editor in chief of The New York Post and The New York Daily News. Both of those papers are tabloids. The main character in this work of fiction is Sam Briscoe, the editor in chief of the New York World, a tabloid that is about to shut down its press and go digital. Everything in this book, which is wrapped around a double murder, takes place in a 24-hour news cycle. But it’s Hamill’s writing that is the king. If you are a newspaper junkie, you absolutely have to read this book. (Little, Brown & Company, hard cover, 278 pages, Cdn$29.99, US$26.99)

Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN: I finished this book on a Thursday afternoon. Later that same day, I discovered via the Internet that Al Gore’s TV network Current had dumped Keith Olbermann, a former ESPN anchor. Having learned via this book just how difficult Olbermann could be, let’s say I wasn’t surprised that he was out of work. This book has lots of dirt in it and highlights about every feud and there are a number of them that has ever rattled ESPN and its Bristol, Conn., campus. Authors Jim Miller and Tom Shales have written an oral history of ESPN, the story of the little network that continues to try to take over the world, through the words of those who were there and witnessed. It’s a long read but it’s an enthralling and engrossing read. By the way, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon are getting paid about $1 million each for PTI. Yes, they are. (Little, Brown & Company, hard cover, 784 pages, US$27.99)

The Tin Roof Blowdown: I hadn’t read anything by James Lee Burke before, but I certainly will be finding more of his work. This one features Dave Robicheaux, a detective in the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Department, as he makes his way through post-Katrina New Orleans. This is a great story but, even better, it is great, great writing. For a rainy day at the lake, or a cold winter’s night. Good stuff. (Pocket Books, soft cover, 373 pages, Cdn$16.99)

The Winged Wheel: A Half-Century of the Detroit Red Wings in Photographs: Well, it isn’t all photographs. There are a lot of words, thanks to author Rob Simpson, in between the photos. But I’m a sucker for pictures from the Original Six days, and even after the first expansion, of the NHL, so I really, really like this book. There’s a photo in here from 1968 of Gordie Howe bearing down on a maskless Wayne Rutledge, the Los Angeles Kings goaltender of the day. Rutledge appears to have two black eyes and you wonder when he took a puck to the face. Included in a chapter on Terry Sawchuk is the famous photo of the legendary goaltender in which a makeup artist has done up his face to show the accumulation of cuts, scars and bruises. It’s amazing stuff, just like so much of this book. (Wiley, hard cover, 240 pages, US$34.95, Cdn$39.95)

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