Friday, April 21, 2017

Die Hard Sports Fans Explained

This is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can learn from the T-Shirt Cannon- L Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers (Crown Archetype)

Quick show of hands…
1.  When you refer to your favorite sports team, do you use the pronoun “We” even if you now nor ever where a member of said team? IE: “We need a touchdown” or “We need a defensive stop here.”
    2. When your favorite team has a game versus a rival, you’ve been known to evoke a visceral “hatred” for the opposition? IE: “I hate the Dolphins” (or Patriots) if you are a long suffering Bills fan
    3.   Despite losing a (sad) record four straight Super Bowls and not making a post season appearance in this century, you remain a dedicated (or is it medicated) Bills fan and remember fondly the “good old days of Kelly, Thurman, Bruce and Andre? But hey, at least they made it to four straight!

So, what could possibly explain this seeming insanity? That is at least in part what L Jon Wertheim, executive editor of Sports Illustrated and Sam Sommers, a psychologist and sports fan attempt to explain in This is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can learn from the T-Shirt Cannon.

Wertheim and Sommers serve up some easily relatable, nod your head things, that sports fans will find difficult to deny they “suffer” from. This is Your Brain on Sports is at turns very funny, in an admittedly sad sort of way, and also nudges up against the at times scary.

The pair hit it right on the head in the chapter about the participation trophy world that we find ourselves in. They make the right point, that it’s never a bad thing to offer praise to our kids, but it is fair to question exactly what form that praise takes. Guess what, it’s okay to lose…just ask a Bills fan.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Bernie Gunther: Ready for His Closeup

Prussian Blue (A Bernie Gunther Novel) – Philip Kerr – (Marian Wood Books/Putnam)

While I hesitate to say it, there is a certain elegance to bestselling author Philip Kerr’s prose that you don’t normally find in the spy mystery genre. The reason I hesitate is that I don’t want to make it seem limp and artsy-fartsy because it is anything but that; his use of narrative, setting and character meld seamlessly together to take the reader back into the time and place of the story.

In the case of the latest installment of what has been dubbed by some as Berlin Noir, entitled Prussian Blue, Kerr drops former detective Bernie Gunther into 1956, post World War II as he struggles to get by on the French Riviera in the employ of a hotel. Gunther palpably yearns for the a return to Germany, but given his checkered history that is not a viable choice. Gunther’s past comes knocking in the form of a deputy from the East German secret police, a former Nazi, Ernst Mielke and a former colleague Friedrich Korsch.

Mielke offers a chance at a return, if not at redemption when he lures Gunther to a decadent dinner, where the Stasi officer prods Gunther into murdering a British female agent, Anne French, (who debuted in Kerr’s The Other Side of Silence) against whom Bernie would dearly like to exact revenge. Gunther’s interactions with Korsch can’t help but dredge up his past and Kerr skillfully blends the narrative between the current and the past, in this case a wartime investigation dating back to 1939.

As he has done consistently throughout the Gunther series, Kerr is a master at weaving his fictional characters into stories involving real life historical figures like Reinhard Heydrich, Martin Borrman and even Adolf Hitler along with locals and infrastructure from the era. Kerr has the unfailing ability to wrench skillful prose out even the most pedestrian of violence and paint a picture of winter in Germany is a series of gray tones you can almost feel.

Prussian Blue offers up great pacing and a steady drumbeat of turns to propel the story forward. There is an almost cinematic aspect to the writing that make me wonder why, to the best of my knowledge, Gunther has never made it to the big screen.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Zurich to Petrograd

Lenin on the Train – Catherine Merridale (Metropolitan Books)

Mix one part historian and one part private detective, add a dash of travel writer and healthy scoop of storyteller and you’ll end up with Catherine Merridale’s new book, Lenin on the Train. It is the tale from a century ago when in the Spring of 1917 when Russian Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication caused ripples half a world away to Zurich where Vladimir Lenin was ensconced in exile.

Merridale clearly racked up some amazing leg work compiling bits and pieces of historical accounts, newspaper stories, journals and diaries, and even works of art from the period that depicted the tale, as she stitched together this story.
If you’re like me, fascinated by history, but at times find reading history books like pulling teeth, then Merridale may have hit on the right formula; mixing all of the facts she has gathered, but telling it in an entertaining style that keeps the pace moving forward.

The story reveals some of the amazing interactions between Lenin and Russia’s sworn enemy in the German government as he traversed the country to return to Petrograd in the Motherland to spearhead the nascent revolution. At times you can’t help but feel like a stowaway in the tight quarters of the sealed train car, where Lenin and his tiny band of like-minded souls hurtled along the countryside towards their destiny.

Merridale includes just enough photos and artwork to add a pinch of flavor to and illustrate the story. If you’re weary of tired historical accounts, Lenin on the Train is a perfect way to spike your interest in history.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Managing the Presidency

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency – Chris Whipple (Crown Books)

With all of the talk about draining the swamp and changing the way Washington does business, there is a built in level of inertia, an ebb and flow to the way things get done in our nation’s capital. While the President of the United States is at turns the Commander in Chief, the Leader of the Free World and the most powerful man in the world, the work load that the person holding that job can be all consuming.

That is where the President’s chief of staff comes in. While the President can certainly dictate his priorities, it is the chief that is tasked with managing and prioritizing those priorities and to manage the personnel and schedule to keep those priorities on track. The people who have been charged with the role of chief of staff have been about as widely varied in in experience and temperament as you can find, and those folks are the subject of Chris Whipple’s new book, The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.

Whipple explores not only the basic job description of a chief of staff, but also delves into the players and personalities of those who filled the role. The amount of power these guys (and I am safe to say guys because women have not filled the chief role to this point) and the manner in which they wielded that power is explored in insider accounts and often in first person interviews Whipple conducted.

Whipple provides great insight into the interactions, the politics of the role and the players, and even how the success or failure of a Presidency can rest on the shoulders of the chiefs. Not sure why, but a gravitated to the section of Jimmy Carter, a man I believe to be among the worst Presidents in our history and I guess I can say I wasn’t surprised that a guy who at the time was cast as an ultimate outsider, bent on fixing the problems after Watergate and President Nixon, floundered because he lacked a strong chief of staff. Instead of trying to tackle the innumerable tasks/problems facing the nation one at a time, Carter tried to tackle a ridiculous agenda and got buried in the minutiae.

Manage, prioritize, worry about the politics and constituencies and keep the President focused is a tall order and The Gatekeepers us an opportunity to poke our nose under the tent and see what goes on in and around the White House.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Cleaning Up the Mess

A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System – T. R. Reid (Penguin Press)

While there have been many variations on the same theme, the actual quote traces back to 1789 when Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

It is now an annual rite of passage that United States taxpayers will gather up mounds of paper kept in files or old shoeboxes and fire up their coffee pots and their computers or sharpen pencils and dust off calculators or for those less daring head out to their accountants office or strip plaza tax service to get their taxes done. It is a frustrating, head scratching, aggravating and costly endeavor whether or not you actually end up owing Uncle Sam or the state or local tax authorities a check.

It is a task that annually finds me flexing my procrastination gene; I tend to put it off until April 15 looms large. We hear the crazy statistics about the countless man hours and billions of dollars that we throw away in the quest to getting our tax returns filed. It is the absolute definition of insanity!

It is that system that longtime Washington Post correspondent and NPR commentator T R Reid places squarely under the microscopic in his new book A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System. Reid’s premise is a simple one; there has got to be a better way!

He lays out the case that much like the trains running on time, the U.S. Congress has taken it upon themselves to tackle “reforming” the tax system on a 32 year cycle. Not sure how that span worked itself out, maybe it takes that long for folks to build a critical mass behind getting fed up with the tax code before they start working in it. If the clock remains true, our next overhaul should take place in 2018.

Reid does a nice job of enumerating the myriad of issues that we have with the tax system; the loopholes, countless ways corporations and high net worth individuals can dodge or limit their tax hit and the Medusa’s head nature of the tax code which only serves to perpetuate the need for tax lawyers, accountants and auditors. He also delivers a synopsis of how we in the U.S. stack up against other countries around the globe when it comes to taxation.

Then comes the hard part; while he does a nice job of spelling out the problem, when it comes to offer suggested solutions it becomes heavy lifting. It simply isn’t a workable solution to scrap the whole thing start over. It is the quest for that sweet spot, landing somewhere between the current epic mess and a more equitable and easy to grasp new state. Here’s hoping that Congress has a better handle on things…but I won’t be holding my breath.

The Beatles by Number

Counting Down the Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs – Jim Beviglia (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers)

Sorry, I can’t help it; every time I see that there is a new book being offered about the Beatles my reaction is, “really, another book about the Beatles?”

Music writer and author Jim Beviglia has staked out his own corner of the music journalism world by focusing on counting down what he perceives as the laundry list of the finest songs by truly classic artists. So far Beviglia has served up books counting down the 100 finest songs from the likes of the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. He also gave us e-books of the 100 Best songs from Tom Petty, Elvis Costello and Radiohead (not sure I could even name 20 Radiohead songs let alone choose their 100 best.)

So it would seem almost inevitable that he would turn his focus towards the Beatles, easily one of the most prolific hit making outfits in the history of popular music. Since I am a huge fan of lists, I think in large part because they are guaranteed to spark a discussion, a debate or a knock down drag out argument, I love these kinds of books because of their subjective nature.

While Beviglia earned his stripes writing for American Songwriter in print and online and other music publications, while working my way through Counting Down the Beatles: Their 100 Finest Songs, I have to admit that I couldn’t quite grasp what he used a yardstick to measure what made these songs the Beatles finest.

I guess it really boils down to one man’s finest is another man’s head scratcher. With a band with such a checkered history and so many great songs to choose from when compiling a list of their finest, I’ve got to say that I started to wear a hat while reading out of fear that I’d scratch myself to the point of drawing blood. Then again…isn’t that the goal of lists and books like this?

Sunday, April 9, 2017


Without Warning: A J B Collins Novel – Joel C. Rosenberg (Tyndale House)

How many times have you heard the phrase “ripped from today’s headlines” uttered about a book, television show or movie? It is with some regularity that writers for all of these mediums have either taken a story directly from the news or have shuffled the facts into their stories.

Now ask yourself how many times have you heard the phrase “ripped from tomorrow's headlines”? Well, readers of Joel C. Rosenberg that he is the often prescient forecaster of things to come, a Joel-stradamus if you will, of the world of Islamo-terrorism. Rosenberg is back with the third installment in the J B Collins series, featuring the New York Times national security writer who all too often finds himself mixed up in terrorist activities.

Without Warning finds Collins freshly recovered from the terrorist attack detailed in Rosenberg’s First Hostage and attending the State of the Union address, delivered by a President who seems to have convinced himself that the Islamic terrorists are on the run; sounding oddly familiar for those who lived through the Obama administration.

Naturally Collins calls it right when he can’t shake the feeling of imminent danger and the U.S. Capitol is attacked during the State of the Union. Here’s hoping the Rosenberg got this one wrong, but it does leave that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you work your way through Without Warning.

With Collins character, Rosenberg has created not so much an anti-hero as an unlikely hero. Unlike so many of the heroes that dot thriller fiction, Collins relies on the brawn of his brain more that the brawn of his body. Once again Rosenberg hits all the marks with the pacing of the story; you won’t be left hanging and waiting for the next action twist with this quick read.