Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Arlen Specter Redux

The Party’s Over – How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat – Charlie Crist (Dutton Books)

The late Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter was a legendary master of self-serving politics at its worst; a Philadelphia liberal, who loved to lay claim to being a moderate Republican, who in reality wouldn’t take a principled stand if his life depended on it. Not able to muster the spine to vote to remove the impeached President Bill Clinton, Specter famously chose to wipe his backside with the Constitution by citing Scottish law and voting “not proven.” Specter later whined that the Republican had somehow abandoned him when in a desperate attempt at re-election; he finally swapped political parties to become the Democrat he truly had always been.

Now along comes former Florida Governor Charlie Crist to attempt to lay claim to the Specter mantle in his new political memoir The Party’s Over – How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat. While Crist is a well tanned, slick looking package, he can’t quite muster half the political savvy and cunning that Specter demonstrated on countless occasions.

His actions are so outrageously ham-fisted and self-serving that he can’t even bring himself to point out that his departure from the Republican party didn’t reach it’s Democrat party destination until it made a pit stop as an independent. If he was the true believer, convert that he claims, why not go big; rather than licking a finger and sticking in up in the breeze? Crist’s self-serving desire to remain in office has caused him to delude himself into believing that his incessant flip-flopping isn’t at the root of his problems with the Republican Party.

Crist tries mightily to re-write his history; unfortunately his very public sideling up to Barrack Obama clearly defined exactly who the former governor really was. He utilizes so many Democrat talking points and ridiculous lies like the claim the Ronald Reagan wouldn’t be conservative enough for the Tea Party and his allusions to race and his empty claims to “values I hold dear.” As if to reinforce his status a master flip-flopper Crist recently changed his stance on Cuba, a political issue near and dear to Florida voters. Here’s hoping that Sunshine State voters demonstrate the wisdom to keep Crist on the political unemployment rolls this November.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Subterranean Two City Blues

The Race Underground – Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway – Doug Most (St. Martin’s Press)

Rail mass transit in the form of underground subways seems so synonymous with New York and Boston that it may seem hard to believe the difficulties and hurdles that had to be overcome for it to become a staple of those two cities.
Author/journalist Doug Most explores those difficulties, the numerous early incarnations and the tale of two cities that dueled to develop the first underground rail system in, The Race Underground –Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway.  It is a story of dogged determination, startling innovation and a strenuous rivalry.

While the story centers on brothers Henry Melville Whitney of Boston and William Collins Whitney of New York, the cast of colorful characters included in the mix Boss Tweed, Thomas Edison, Fredrick Law Olmstead and Grover Cleveland.
The tale includes political intrigue, insider manipulation, high level real estate transactions, and financial shenanigans. While most folks consider today’s political machinations to be at an all time low, they pale in comparison to the underhanded actions that stifled and road blocked these projects.
The Race Underground is an interesting look not only at the subway story, but also provides a snapshot of the times and the growth of the nation.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Master’s of the Universe…Not So Much

Young Money – Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits – Kevin Roose (Grand Central Publishing)
Tom Wolff offered up his not-so-fictionalized take on Wall Street’s titans labeling them “Masters of the Universe”, in Bonfire of the Vanities;  Michael Lewis offered a more cautionary tale of his Wall Street experience in Liars Poker and now Kevin Roose stakes his claim to an “insiders” perspective on the post-crash world of Wall Street in Young Money.
Roose focuses on the future finance titans as he follows a group of rookies as they venture into the brave new world of Wall Street  following the 2008 financial meltdown. The tales sound oddly familiar to those laid out in both fiction and non-fiction accounts of freshly minted lawyers; with tales of excess in everything from workloads to alcohol intake and the oversized paychecks garnered by these relative youngsters.

Roose can’t quite seem to leave his New York Times and New Yorker Magazine bred liberal bias as he questions the morality of Wall Street deals, portraying these young Wall Streeter’s as being either lacking in moral fiber or willing to simply willing ignore any question of the legitimacy of a deal in search of a payoff. While I certainly have questions about much of the Vegas like crap-shoot the Wall Street has become, I am also pragmatic enough to know that investors willingly choose to play the game.
By the same token, I don’t feel sorry for these new masters of the universe, when they complain about the long hours, lack of personal time and the intrusive nature of their career choice. CHOICE being the optimum word here; no one put a gun to their heads and forced them to choose a career in finance.
While so much has been written, spoken and testified about since the Wall Street crash, the bailout, the scams and the government response, the one thing that Roose points out that is not surprising; at the end of the day not much has really changed about Wall Street.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Heroic Sacrifice

Code Name: Johnny Walker – Johnny Walker and Jim DeFelice (William Morrow)

For years we have heard about sacrifice in times of war. By in large we in the United States have been spared from making major sacrifice due to the commitment of members of our military forces and their families. Because the battle against Islamic terror has been thankfully focused off of our shores thus far our sacrifice has been minimal.

Imagine if the conditions were exactly opposite of what they are and the battle was being waged in your country and the sacrifice you were asked to make put not only your life but the lives of your family in harm’s way. Now kick it up a notch and plunge yourself into the middle of the action with some of the most highly trained, highly motivated operators in the world, the Navy Seals.

That is the story detailed in Code Name: Johnny Walker by Johnny Walker and Jim DeFelice. “Walker” and DeFelice were brought together after the later heard some details of his story from SEAL sniper Chris Kyle during some of the writing sessions for Kyle’s bestselling story American Sniper. “Walker” was desperate to try and find a way to support his family in the early stages of the Iraq war. He was rejected for a position as an interpreter, but soon found himself thrust into the middle of a situation between members of the U.S. military and a handful of Iraqis. With a cool demeanor, “Walker” defused the situation and with the recommendation of those members of the military soon found himself, being tagged with the scotch inspired moniker.

From that point “Walker” became one of the go to “terps” and a favorite among Navy SEAL Operators. The book details his cool customer demeanor in numerous high pressure situations; the volume of which got ratcheted up given the speed that the special operators worked at. Kyle, the late sniper legend, along with many others credit “Walker” with not only helping to defuse tense situations, but also saving many U.S. lives.

His is a true story of not only heroism, but one of sacrifice. What makes a story of sacrifice even more valiant, is the fact that it is made without concern for the negative impact it might have, but for the positive one it will have. It makes for a truly great story.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Satchmo Redux

Louis Armstrong – Master of Modernism – Thomas Brothers (Norton Books)

Author and music professor Thomas Brothers picks up where he left off with his first exploration of the coronet master in Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans by detailing Armstrong’s arrival in Chicago and his career moving forward from the point in Louis Armstrong – Master of Modernism.
Brothers paints an intimate portrait not only of Armstrong and his music, but of the era when he became a legendary performer and star. Following his trek north from New Orleans, Chicago proved to be not only a safe haven from the racial tensions and bigotry of the era, but also a catalyst in inspiring one of Armstrong’s most creative outbursts, set against the back drop of the Depression.

Brothers follows Armstrong through everything from his time on the road to his creative and innovative side and even into his personal life, often weaving in detail and observations culled from many of Armstrong’s friends and musical contemporaries. He delivers a true sense of the time with a historians practiced tone.
It is from that racially charged landscape that Armstrong emerged as not only one of our greatest musical innovators, but also one of the best known, most prolific performers. Brothers tells this amazing story by compiling a miraculous amount of detail from a tremendous range of source material to offer up new insight into oft-told story.



Friday, February 7, 2014

11 Bands Better Than the Beatles…Really?

I love lists. I love lists more for the debates they often spawn, than for the lists themselves. However I really hate when some dumbass thinks that they are being clever and they compile a list purely to tick people off and raise hackles. The contrived controversy that they often shoot for ends up not working anyway, because more often than not the theory behind the list can be flicked away like an annoying bug, because most don’t take them seriously.

One such list appeared on the Fox News website from writer Mike Mettler in the form of his piece entitled, 11 Bands Better Than the Beatles. With all of the hubbub and focus on the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and their first visit to our shore some 50 years ago, Mettler clearly thought he could stir the pot by kicking a sacred cow in the shins.
The problem…most, if not all of Mettler’s list is laughable at best. Let me be perfectly clear; I am not a fan of the Beatles. In case that wasn’t completely clear…I AM NOT A FAN OF THE BEATLES! Yet I still find Mr. Mettler’s list absolutely without merit.

So who’s on the list? Here you go:

1. Led Zeppelin

2. The Rolling Stones

3. The Velvet Underground

4. U2

5. Radiohead

6. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

7. Rush

8. The Band

9. The Clash

10. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band

11. The Replacements

While many of the bands on the list are among my favorites, I’m not certain that any of them would qualify for the title of “Better Than the Beatles.” For me U2 comes the closet, with their continually evolving style, monster live shows and influential impact on generations of musicians to come.


Zeppelin? Sorry to Zep fans, but overblown bombast, Tolkien-like lyrics and recycling the blues just doesn’t get it done for me. The Stones? Certainly this is a time honored debate and the timing is right because the Beatles and the Stones came about at the same time. I certainly think the case can be made for the bad boy Stones being better than the good guy Beatles.

Velvet Underground? Laughable at best. The darlings of music critics everywhere and often cited as an influence to curry favor with music critics, does anyone really listen to this bilge? Sorry, but I may be among the few who don’t really think Lou Reed was a genius and that the Velvets are basically unlistenable. Radiohead? See comments on critics above...sorry just don’t hear it.

Love Tom Petty and listen often...but really? Rush? I like the band, but my only reaction to them being included here is...HA! The Band? See Rush. The Clash? They among my favorite bands, but these guys really were more about the raw edge they brought to their music than for their song craft. Keep in mind; they could barely play when they first started.

Bruce Springsteen? Great songwriter, awesome live performer, simply not in the same league with the Beatles. The Replacements? Similar comments to those about Velvet Underground and Radiohead regarding critics, but at least the Mats where entertaining to listen to.

While I certainly think that the fawning attitude that many have about the Beatles is more than a little overblown, I really think that Mettler is trying too hard to stir controversy and fails miserably in trying to make his case.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Iconoclast

The Agent: My 40 Year Career Making Deals and Changing The Game – Leigh Steinberg (Thomas Dunne Books)

The folks at Merriam Webster define an iconoclast as a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions; and while he may not have “attacked” traditions, Leigh Steinberg certainly changed and had a major impact on the business of, most notably, professional football, but also sports management in general.

In his new autobiography, The Agent: My 40 Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game, Steinberg details his astonishing rise to become one of the most highly respected and highly sought after figures in sports representation.


Said to be the inspiration behind the movie Jerry McGuire, the reality is Steinberg’s story makes the Tom Cruise flick seem like for a caricature, than a realistic portrayal of the inner workings of high stakes deal making in professional sports. While the book certainly serves of some interesting inside baseball on the front office dealings, it is the story of Steinberg’s youth and his calamitous fall from grace that makes for the most stirring reading.

The Agent ends up being an all-to-familiar account of a respected business powerhouse, who’s rise to power is eclipsed only by his precipitous downfall and serves as a lesson that even those who try to deal in an above board fashion, can fall victim to not only their own devices, but of insider backstabbing. The harrowing story paints a portrayal of a man whose comeback you can certainly get behind and root for.

Brain Droppings Maxed Out

The Rhino Records Story: Revenge of the Music Nerds – Harold Bronson (SelectBooks)
True confession: I was a record nerd. Growing up a spent countless hours and the equivalent of the national budget of some small island nations searching for and buying up a wildly eclectic collection of albums, 45s and later CDs. At it’s peak my vinyl collection bulged to a floor board busting 10,000 pieces! Some of my favorite places on earth were dusty, old record shops where is could spend hours hunched over rack after rack of musical gems.

So to say that I can totally relate to Harold Bronson’s story of Rhino Records, both the store and the record label, is an understatement. In The Rhino Records Story: Revenge of the Music Nerds, Bronson details the beginnings of the legendary used record store that later evolved into a seminal boutique record label, famed for releasing a variety of novelty tunes and re-issuing classic recordings and repackaged collections.


In short, Bronson ended up with my version of a dream job. What collector has dreamed of the opportunity to search through the vaults of record labels then pull together not only great music, but cool packages; complete with awesome liner notes and great photos? Bronson provides some interesting insights into how some of the classic Rhino releases came into existence; unfortunately that’s where the story tends to slide off the rails.

Bronson’s narrative is so overloaded with asides and off ramps that Google Maps would find it hard to track the story. He drops in so many names and so many little anecdotes that that you never quite get the full picture of what went into the process. Don’t get me wrong; there is some great stuff in here, but it seems like Bronson wrote every story he could remember on individual 3 x 5 cards then tried to strong them all together in some coherent form, but somewhere along the way to publication, the rubber band broke and the cards flew all over the place.


Despite it’s lack of narrative cohesiveness, The Rhino Records Story: Revenge of the Music Nerds, is a fun read for a recovering music nerd, if taken in short bursts.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Taking Out the Trash

Shovel Ready – Adam Sternbergh (Crown Books)

Don’t let the title fool you; this isn’t a recounting of Obama’s failed, so-called economic recovery plan. I would take the bet that that my opening line would likely piss off author Adam Sternbegh, based solely on his creds as the culture editor at the New York Times Magazine and as the former editor at large of the New Yorker.  I’m okay with that because Sternbegh’s caricatures of evangelical Christians and too hip for the room writing style piss me off.  

While at first I wanted to dislike Shovel Ready, in the end I found myself attracted to the devastated, dystopian, New York City and Sternbegh’s gritty, disconnected, characters. The storyline mixes an all but deserted, post terrorist dirty bombed Big Apple with park protestors oddly reminiscent of the Occupy movement, a rag tag bunch of denizens with a range of specific skills who cling to the City and the overtly rich who check out of reality and into the brave new futuristic world of the limnosphere.

While not science fiction, there is a certain Philip K. Dick quality to slipping into a sleek, coffin-like bed, strapping on a “feed bag” and checking into a cloud based reality that the user can design and create to his or her liking. Driving the story is a former garbage man, turned killer for hire Spademan, who for the right price will take out the trash. Spademan answers his burner phone, takes his next job and ends up crashing headlong into a religious huckster peddling a slice of heaven here on Earth in the form of a trip into the new reality.

Sternbergh uses the omnipotent point of view that not only takes the reader into the characters conversations, but also into their thoughts and fears. At times he uses spare style that allows the reader to fill in the blank and take the leap to where the character will turn next. At times he falls into a liberal stereotype trap; of course the fallen from grace former youth minister ends up being gay, as if that mattered to the storyline. While I had to muddle through the bits of liberal know it all, I did find Shovel Ready to be intriguing and entertaining and could certainly see it being adapted for the big screen.