Friday, June 28, 2013

The Other Side of the Story

The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story (Grand Central Publishing)

Over the course of time barrels of ink, forests of paper, and miles of film have been used to tell the tales of NASA’s original seven Mercury astronauts. These brave men were the subject of countless books, magazine profiles, photographs and films. Yet aside from what amounts to a passing glance in Life Magazine, the women behind these men have never been the front and center focus.

Until now.  The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story is a terrific concept from bestselling author Lilly Koppel; as she tells the story of the women who were in most cases thrust into the national spotlight because of their proximity to this new breed of hero, cast more from the pages of comic books than from America’s armed services.

It’s difficult to imagine in this day and age with comparably massive computing capabilities at our fingertips in our homes the lofty advances that were being undertaken to hurtle these men into outer space and for their families to be idealized for the outfits and makeup they wore and favorite recipes they served up. It’s equally striking the impact those advance had on our everyday life and the relative ease that most Americans cast these heroes aside as the space program continued to evolve.

For NASA purists seeking insights into the life of these women whose lives paralleled their heroic husbands from a space program perspective The Astronaut Wives Club will likely prove disappointing from the frothy, tabloid-like approach to portions of the story. For me the book is an interesting time capsule portrait more of American life, that it is the tale of space program. It is a snapshot of life in a different era; pre-dating so-called women’s liberation, and focusing on patriotism, family and domesticity before the mantra became “you can have it all.”

The distinct differences in the wives are highlighted early in the book, but as the story evolves and the relationship bond between these unique women grows and the danger and the tragedy that is part and parcel of their husbands career choice combined with their front page existence comes home to roost; their membership in this unique club rallies them together. It is a truly striking story of courage and a different era in our history.  

The Need for Speed

The Billionaire and the Mechanic: How Larry Ellison and a Mechanic Teamed Up to Win Sailings Greatest Race, The America’s Cup. – Julian Guthrie (Grove Press)

By most accounts from folks who have crossed paths with Oracle co-founder and Hawaiian Island owner Larry Ellison is a self-centered, self-important asshole. Add to that an ordinary average guy mechanic, one of the most elite, expensive spots enterprises known to man and you have the makings of a story that would have most people running from the room screaming!

But with The Billionaire and the Mechanic: How Larry Ellison and a Mechanic Teamed Up to Win Sailings Greatest Race, The America’s Cup award-winning, San Francisco Chronicle journalist Julian Guthrie has managed to create a fascinating story full of intrigue and insights into the inner workings of the high profile America’s Cup racing competition. Guthrie walks a fine balance to juggle the stories of both the billionaire, Ellison and Norbert Bajurin the mechanic.

Contrast the strong personalities with science and technology of the development of these high speed craft, the politics and rivalry that are front and center in this high stakes sport and you end up with an interesting storyline even for those non-fans of the sport. The striking dynamics of what goes on behind the scenes leading up to the competition and the crisp insider perspective of what impacts the participants makes for great storytelling.

With the unimaginable, for most, price tag that is attached to the pursuit of the America’s Cup, personal success is a given for most of the participants. Their drive and unquenchable desire to succeed at the highest levels of the sport is a thread that truly propels the story forward.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Beach Read: The Good, The Bad and The Quirky

Bad Monkey – Carl Hiaasen (Knopf)

There’s just something different about a Carl Hiaasen book. When you peel back the layers of the story he tells, there is a certain eclectic mix of characters, setting and style all sprayed on the unique canvas that is his vision of Florida.

Hiaasen’s latest Bad Monkey is a heady mix of quirky characters that will leave you never looking at your vacuum cleaner attachments the same way ever again. I can’t think of another author who could craft a lead character that is a twice disgraced police detective who avoids a fall on felony charges only to land on his feet has a health department restaurant inspector. Given Hiaasen’s graphic description of what Yancey encounters behind the kitchen door, is it any wonder that he’s lost his appetite?

 Where else but a Hiaasen novel could a charter fishing boat scam to fleece unsuspecting tourists, feature a unique twist in the form of severed arm, which with a little help and rigor mortis setting in, has permanently left it flipping off the story’s main players. Add to the mix a dose of voodoo queen, a pinch of scorned daughter, a touch of sexy medical examiner and the usual sprinkling of Hiaasen’s south Florida environmentalist sentimentality and you end up with a tasty little treat, perfect for the beach this summer.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

In the Footsteps of a Legend

Ace Atkins – Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland (Putnam)

In a career that spanned nearly four decades, author Robert B. Parker created some of the most iconic and memorable characters in print. His passing in 2010 has left a legion of fans with a huge hole carved neatly in the center of their literary hearts. Like the author, the larger than life characters and snappy dialogue will never be replaced; so it’s easy to understand some reticence on the part of fans when new writers, interlopers to some, have been tasked with picking up the Parker mantle and continuing the legacy of his characters.

Perhaps the most difficult task was placed in the hands of Ace Atkins, who was given the challenge of carrying on Parker’s scar tissue laden, wisecracking P.I., Spenser. Since his introduction in 1974, Spenser has been a staple for many readers who have fallen into an almost fan-boy thrall with the tough guy character who haunts the streets of Boston. When TV came calling in the form of the short-lived series Spenser of Hire, I am certain most thought actor Robert Urich; “just wasn’t quite right” in the lead role. (Although Avery Brooks darn near embodied Hawk!) Later in the made for TV movie series, Joe Montagna wasn’t even close!

It is from that perspective that many fans approach Atkins continuation of the series. Not an enviable task. Since his passing, I have undertaken the Herculean task of re-collecting the Parker catalog, one book at a time in hardcover and along the way I have revisited many of the Spenser novels. And while I am still a diehard fan, I am honest enough to admit that some the later books in the series where not quite up to the level that I had come to expect from Robert B. Parker’s legendary status.

So it is from that perspective that I approached Atkins latest effort, Wonderland. While at the time of its release it escaped me, I started out by tracking down a copy of Atkins first Spenser outing Lullaby before diving into the new book. While Lullaby trod on familiar ground and with familiar characters, Wonderland looks to add depth and development to Parker’s last character creation Zebulon Sixkill. While I am certain that Parker had plans to carry on the Sixkill character as mentored by Spenser, this had to be the most difficult challenge for Atkins given the relative lack of detail on this new player in the mix. Like so many of Parker’s characters, there is a peeling back of the layers as new wrinkles are revealed in the Sixkill persona.

Has for the story in Wonderland, having witnessed firsthand the slimey underbelly of gambling enterprises and real estate dealings when gaming expanded in Pennsylvania, the story Atkins lays out rings true and Spenser finds himself right where he feels most comfortable; right in the middle of the action.

Is it Robert B. Parker good? No. but it is pretty darn good! And for the doubtless legion of doubters, I might remind them of Parker’s efforts to pick up where the equally legendary Raymond Chandler left off with Poodle Springs and Perchance to Dream, it isn’t an easy task to fill big shoes.

Dick Wagner – Not Only Women Bleed: Vignettes From the Heart of a Rock Musician (Desert Dreams Publishing)

Late in 2011, Rolling Stone magazine published their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time it was one of those rare issues that I held onto, more so because their choices were often laughable at best. As I started working my way through Dick Wagner’s new autobiography Not Only Women Bleed and learning not only more about his work with Alice Cooper, but some of his other credited and un-credited recordings, I pulled the magazine off the shelf and found that Wagner was among the missing on Rolling Stones clearly debatable list.

Not Only Women Bleed has everything you’d expect from a rock bio; great insights into the musicians early days, inside stories from the studio and the road and of course the lifestyle, some cool photos and did I mention chicks?! Yes…there are plenty of tales about Wagner’s interactions with the ladies.

Wagner’s approach to writing these tales, in a rambling series of short, easy to read remembrances makes this book a quick one to digest. Despite his chronicled excesses, Wagner clearly displays a long memory for even some of the more trivial interactions and encounters. In a few instances he recounts the same time period from different perspectives which can be both confusing and enlightening.

Wagner gingerly touches on Cooper’s decent into addiction and the impact it had not only on his ability to perform, but also on that of the members of his band. Wagner tells the story of a tour winding down where Cooper’s condition had his management team toying with the idea of sending a doppelganger roadie who bore a striking resemblance to the singer out to perform and lipsynch while Wagner played and sang off stage. So concerned about Cooper’s reputation with the fans and the possible disaster that might unfold, Wagner flat out refused the request. Cooper managed to pull it together and wrap up the tour.

While Wagner pulls back the curtain on sessions with Kiss and Aerosmith where his muscular playing was featured on recognizable hits, some fans might be disappointed that he doesn’t spend more time talking about his guitar work. I think on balance, Wagner hits the right notes all around.  Not Only Women Bleed is an entertaining romp that packs a musical punch in the form of a pair of music CDs including Wagner’s Full Meltdown.


Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Rock ‘n ’Roll Life

It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll: Thirty Years Married to a Rolling Stone – Jo Wood (It/HarperCollins)

We’ve seen shelves full of rocker autobiographies. Groupies, managers, roadies and even hangers-on have all checked in with thoughts on the rock ‘n ’roll life. While I am certain that it is not a first; Jo Wood, who spent 30 years as the girlfriend/wife of Rolling Stone guitarist Ron Wood checks in with her tale from a unique perspective.

With, It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll: Thirty Years Married to a Rolling Stone, Wood paints an interesting portrait of the seemingly anchor free life with what some have dubbed the “World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll band.” Not shockingly, young Josephine got her start in the world of modeling, that whirlwind existence, often hand to mouth, but seemingly more often chemical to mouth (or nose) lead her to the attention  of often older paramours.

It was that high flying lifestyle that had her crossing paths with the then married guitarist. A handful of interludes later and Wood found herself in the regular company of the Stones sideman. Fueled by copious amounts of alcohol, cocaine and other chemical habits, Wood details the lavish, high end lifestyle one would expect to accompany the life of a Rolling Stone. I have often heard folks wonder aloud “how much money do they need” when aging rockers set out on the road for “one more tour.” I guess I’m not shocked that they would hit the road when you read about the endless shuffling from place to place and home to home and addiction to addiction; it still seems almost amazing when Wood details ducking bill collectors.

While most if not all rock bios offer up details of the seemingly endless parade of available flesh that these stars encounter; you still have to wonder what makes these women stand by their man when they succumb, often with regularity to those desires. Turns out that while they live in a different stratosphere, the simple fact is, like ordinary people, they do the basic thing of staying for the family. That said, there is still a breaking point, which Wood details involving an 18 year old trollop that broke the camel’s back.

Earth shattering or insightful? Probably not. But in the end, It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll is an entertaining romp and almost instantaneously forgotten; just what you want from a rock ‘n’ roll biography.


The History of America: A True Story of Guns

American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms – Chris Kyle (William Morrow)

Chris Kyle was the top sniper in U.S. Military history, having served for combat tours in Iraq, earning a chest full of military hours for his bravery in battle. His sacrifice and dedication to the United States of America is unmatched by anything with the exception of his love for family. Running a close second would be his knowledge of the tools he used to ply his trade;  it is with that background combined with his desire to tell the true story of the impact of firearms on our nation’s history, that he set out to tell the story of American Gun: A History of the U.S. in Ten Firearms.

With the same pride that he brought to his craft as a sniper, Kyle paints a in depth portrait detailing not only the history of the ten weapons and their development, evolution and implementation, but the impact that they had on this nations in varying points in our history and in many cases are still having to this day.

 I hesitate to say that Kyle has a love of guns, because knucklehead gun controller types will try to portray him as some sort of gun-loving nutcase, but the truth is Kyle brought a healthy respect for and an incredible knowledge of these weapons combined with a desire to teach others about the safe use of them. He doesn’t glorify weapons, merely places them in their proper and impactful place in our history. The information he imparts will make any who try to ignore or warp the impact of firearms on history come off as laughable at best.

There is a “been there, fired that” quality to many of the ten varying firearms detailed in the book. That experience brings a level of trust to the statements Kyle makes about each of these weapons. He doesn’t attempt to paint a glorified picture of each weapon, noting the negatives of the weapons where appropriate as they went through the various stages of design and development.

While guns certainly are the focal point and the perspective from which this book is directed, it is much more than simply another book about guns; it is as much a book for history buffs, placing each of the weapons in their rightful place in our history.


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Finally! The Truth About Guns

Glenn Beck – Control: Exposing The Truth About Guns (Mercury Radio Arts/Threshold Editions)

I remember the conversation vividly. The national director of one of the nation’s largest gun control advocacy groups was in town for a second straight year to appear on at a local college campus to preach the need for gun control.

It was at a time when guns were a hot issue, with a spate of school shootings ranging from Pearl, Mississippi to West Paducah, Kentucky and Jonesboro, Arkansas had hit home with the shooting death of local Edinboro teacher John Gillette. As with all high profile incidents, the push was on for new, allegedly tougher, gun control measures to be put in place to “prevent this tragedy from ever happening again.” You never want to let a good crisis go to waste.

I had desperately tried to get the gun controller to appear on my show to debate the issue. On his first pass through town I got no returned phone call from his DC based office or from the local folks at the college. I had debated a wide range of folks on the issue of gun-control; capped I thought by a discussion with children’s book author Stan Berenstain, who had authored one of his Berenstain Bears books entitled No Guns Allowed; during which my responses to his silly points so enraged the author that he gutlessly slammed down the phone, leaving me to finish the debate with a dial tone.

On his second trip through Erie, the gun controller choose a different venue, where I had better contacts and while I still got the cold shoulder on him appearing on my show, I did manage to get in the same room with him prior to his appearance. When I asked him why he would appear on my show, he took my arm and took me to an empty corner and quietly said to me, “I’ve heard you debate the issue and I know I can’t win, so I won’t do [the show] it.”

And that is truly the cornerstone of the debate over gun control for me and the basis of Glenn Beck’s new bestselling book; Control: Exposing The Truth About Guns. Beck cites example after example after example of how gun controllers frame their case for more laws and more control based on fiction, half-truths and outright lies. It’s as if they borrowed a page from Joseph Goebbels, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

I can see the impact that the repetition of the lies has had on family and friends. At a holiday gathering shortly after the Newtown, Connecticut shootings, the inevitable discussion of “doing something to put a stop to this” came up. While I try to keep things on the lighter side with family, the hockey lockout was still in full effect so I could avoid the discussion. I may have let my blood pressure slip just a bit when I heard the standard lines about “assault weapons” and the need for background checks; I calmly (or so I thought) asked exactly what my family member thought an assault weapon was? Like most clueless members of the media, I received a blank stare and a shrug of the shoulders and a limp, “like the kid used in Newtown.”

I’d like to personally thank Glenn and his team for saving my familial relationships and my blood pressure! Now instead of trying (!!) to remain calm and explaining the where my family and friends have been mislead, I simply visit the truck of my car, take out another copy of Control: Exposing The Truth About Guns, hand it to the misguided individual with the promise that I will gladly discuss guns and gun control with them after they have finished reading the book. If I ever have the opportunity to cross paths with the likes of sniveling Piers Morgan or Rachel Maddow (that guy really pisses me off!) I plan to slug them in the nose for all the money they have cost me for these books!

One little addition I would make for those who end up arguing with idiots on gun control that truly stops these gun control nitwits in their tracks; ask them if they truly are so set against guns if they would be willing to post a small sign outside their home stating “NO GUNS ON PREMISIS.” It would show how strong their beliefs truly are and act as an open invitation for bad things to happen.

The Book of Beer

Tom Acitelli – The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution (Chicago Review Press)

I often proudly proclaim; “the older I get the less beer I drink, but the better beer I drink,” the secret is quality over quantity. Instead of quaffing pails of the watery thin stuff like I used to, today I choose from a huge variety of tasty, amber and dark brews that offer a range of flavors. No I’m not a beer snob, pontificating about an “oakey nose” or “hints of dark chocolate” I’ll leave that to the wine snobs. I just like the fact that I get to sample a huge selection of highly quality brews.

With that as the back drop I was intrigued to learn that I had truly come of drinking age in an era of real revolution and huge growth for what is labeled craft brewing. Author and beer-lover Tom Acitelli tackles the tale of the history making revolutionaries who grew the craft brewing industry from one lonely outpost in 1975, the San Francisco based Anchor Steam, to more than 2000 craftsmen who ply their trade today; in the book The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution.

When you look back at America’s history of brewing, it started out as a very locally driven industry; with many larger cities having a number of brewers and taking on an almost neighborhood by neighborhood quality. If you lived in a certain section of town, you were a dedicated follower of the local beer, which was “always” better than the other guys neighborhood brew. That local tradition disappeared with the advent of huge, mass-produced and shipped “national” beers slowly but surely shuttered hundred of local brewhouses.

Acitelli outlines in great detail the start of the revolution that spawned not so much a re-birth of local beers, but the birth of a new attitude; that locally brewed, small batch beers could find fans (and buyers) on a much wider scale than just the neighborhood and could compete side-by-side with mass marketed and distributed products being poured out of the huge national brewers. It was seemingly largely driven by beer tourists, those folks that traveled the world and sampled beers that were crafted in a variety of styles.

The colorful cast of brew-happy and driven personalities who really got the ball rolling for the legions of brewers to follow, are what make The Audacity of Hops the interesting tale that it is. My suggestion is find a comfortable chair, crack open your favorite libation and enjoy the story.