Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Key to Mastery

The Escape Artist – Brad Meltzer – (Grand Central Publishing)

Bestselling author Brad Meltzer is one of those interesting characters that bring a masterful set of skills to the table when tackling writing entertaining reads. He mixes part high octane thriller, part puzzling mystery and part historical detective; focused on getting even the minor details correct.

For his latest outing, The Escape Artist, Meltzer utilizes all of his skills to brew up a highly entertaining read. While some are great thriller writers, not all bring a level of mystery to their stories like Meltzer can. He has almost singlehandedly mastered the art of weaving historical artifacts, in this case on multiple levels including things like magicians in government including mysterious friends of Harry Houdini, the Army’s Artist-in-Residence (hard to believe, but very real) and the folks at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware who play the oh so important role of caring for or military dead and by extension their families.

Who else but Brad Meltzer could turn an artist and a mortician into the lead characters in a novel; not only does he make that happen, but he does it to spectacular result. Nola Brown is a gifted, misfit; a skilled artist on a mission to uncover the mystery behind plane crash that supposedly left he for dead in the Alaska wilderness. She is one of those tortured souls that you can’t help but be compelled to pull for and is drawn in palpable detail by Meltzer’s skilled hand.

Equally tortured by his past and haunted by the memory of his dead daughter, Jim Zigarowski, is driven by his ghost to serve the needs of the military dead and is willing to go to the extreme to do right by them. Zig and Nola share a past that propels them together in a search for the true story behind the intrigue surrounding the plane crash. Perfection when it comes to seating the small details, Meltzer nails it on this one.

Box Office Throwdown

The Big Picture – The Fight for the Future of Movies – Ben Fritz (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

It is a frequent question when the weekend rolls around, “anything good playing at the movies?” The answer more often than not is a resounding NO! Just to be clear, I am not a movie snob by any measure; I take guilty pleasure in regularly watching re-runs of Die Hard, the Resident Evil series or The Italian Job, so I am not easy to please. My scale to measure my interest in heading down to the movie plex runs along the lines of is the movie based on one of the book series my teenage daughter has read or do I really want to shell out 60 bucks for tickets and overpriced concession stand popcorn, to see this movie? Hence the regular NO!

Ever wonder what happened to the good old days where you actually looked forward to a whole slate of movies that would being rolling into your local theatre? You remember when you and a gang of friends would truck down to the theatre on a Saturday and catch the latest offering. Well it seems those days are no more…unless you are a fan of movies that come complete with a full slate of toys, sheets and pillowcases and side order of sequels and spinoffs. Veteran Hollywood reporter Ben Fritz takes inside the current studio thought process to show how the formula to decide what movies get made and what gets passed on. It is an amazing tale of insider insight and an eye opening look at how Hollywood works with an eye firmly on the bottom line.

Fritz utilizes info he gleaned from the infamous Sony Pictures hack from a few years ago as his jumping off point. While most in the media focused on the more salacious tidbits in the tens of thousands of leaked emails, Fritz delved deeper to see if there was more of a story to be had in this treasure trove. While certainly not on the scale of the Pentagon Papers or Deep Throat’s Watergate, Fritz was able to piece together a great story about the current state of the movie business.

Fritz also details the impact of non-traditional moviemakers like Netflix, Amazon and Marvel Comics have had on the business of movies. He paints a picture that is both enlightening and a bit frightening about where this all leads when it comes to fans of films that fall out of the current franchise rules approach to movie making. He raises the thought provoking question about whether some classic films would have ever got off the drawing board in the current state of things. Fritz manages to give an inside story without coming off as too much inside baseball, which makes this a great read for movie fans.


One Goal – A Coach, A Team and the Game that Brought A Divided Town Together – Amy Bass (Hachette Books)

There is a tired old cliché about sports being a metaphor for life. Like almost all old clichés, they become clichés because they tend to be true. Some of the greatest moments in sports don’t occur during the game itself, but often after the game or off the field. Sports can divide us in the case of rivalries and can unite us in many cases, probably most vividly the so-called Miracle on Ice, the 1980 U.S. gold medal hockey team.

It is the commonality and the community of sports that can best impact the social fabric of our society and break down real or imagined barriers of race, class and background. Amy Bass does a wonderful job of focusing on that commonality in the new book, One Goal, that tells the tale of a group of Somali immigrants and the small town of Lewistown, Maine.

Lewistown, while it sits in a northeast coastal state has a sense of small town, middle America about it that sits at the center of the story of how the town and the team came together to unite around the pursuit of their first statewide soccer championship. With so much national focus, often misunderstood or mischaracterized by the media on President Trump’s approach to national security and immigration, this story could have easily drifted off into ridiculous social commentary. Bass manages to walk a fine line and focus on what matters in this story.

Some say it characterizes how America should work and I can’t disagree; America and American immigration works best when immigrants work to integrate into our society and add to the social fabric rather than try to pull on loose threads. One Goal is a triumphant tale that you could dub soccer’s Friday Night Lights.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Sailing Takes Me Away

The Yacht Rock Book – The Oral History of Soft, Smooth Sounds of the 70s and 80s – Greg Prato with foreward by Fred Armisen (Jaw Bone Press)

I have to admit that even as a pretty eclectic music fan I had never heard the term yacht rock used to describe a genre of music before coming across the The Yacht Rock Book – The Oral History of Soft, Smooth Sounds of the 70s and 80s, by Greg Prato. When I gave it some thought the description fits…with some exceptions in my mind.

I think that yacht rock doesn’t necessarily equate to so-called soft rock, but rather in my mind to a slice of the genre that has that California, Pacific feel; music that makes for the sound track of the easy going life on the shore in the sun, music coming from the back of a boat or a beach boombox. So for me the inclusion of bands like the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Hall and Oates don’t seem to fit. The Eagles are more of the whole Laurel Canyon sound.

Prato does take a completist approach to delving into a wide range of topics that fall into the yacht rock realm. While it’s not necessarily my favorite approach as he stitches together subjects/chapters with a multitude of interviews with insiders, fringe players and outsiders in attempt to tell the yacht rock story.

For me the true yacht rock feel is epitomized by songs like:
  • Seals and Crofts – Summer Breeze
  • Christopher Cross – Sailing or Ride Like the Wind
  • Jay Ferguson – Thunder Island
  • Orleans – Still the One
  • Pablo Cruise – Love Will Find a Way
  • Little River Band – Reminiscing
  • Player – Baby Come Back
  • Michael McDonald – I Keep Forgetting

The Yacht Rock Book, is a fun reminder of what for many is a guilty pleasure.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Bound To Piss You Off

It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear – Gregg Easterbrook - (Public Affairs)

As I was working my way through Gregg Easterbrook’s latest book, It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear, I found myself alternately nodding my head, scoffing out loud, and groaning at some of the conclusions he was drawing and the commentary he offered on a wide range of things. I think the agreement was spurred more by what I feel is my inherent optimism than anything Easterbrook pointed out.

On further reflection I think that It’s Better Than It Looks will probably offer something to piss off everybody who reads it at one point or another. It may be as simple as this book being more of a macro worldview in a time when we have become more and more micro focused.

On guns, always a hot button issue, Easterbrook bemoans “lax gun laws.” Thinking logically, laws inherently cannot be lax – only enforcement of laws can be lax. If Easterbrook is claiming that the laxity is that we are somehow short of laws regarding guns, I would argue that the 20,000 current laws on the books regarding guns are probably far short of anything I would describe as lax.

When you boil it down, reality is never really as it seems; it is the perception that counts with most folks. Easterbrook focuses a chapter of hunger, or more specifically why we don’t starve and makes the case that we live in an abundant world that produces enough food so no one should go hungry. It may be the difference between starvation and hunger and the words we use to describe both of those states of being.

We are inundated with a constant stream of messaging about the number of children who go to bed hungry every night and the national programs proclaiming that a donation will be made to feed kids for every ________ purchased. Add to that the outcry over potential cuts in school breakfast and lunch programs and the new advent of backpack programs where kids get sent home on the weekend with a supply of food to get them through the time without those breakfast and lunch programs. All this in a day and age when 45+ million are on food stamp programs. The whole why we don’t starve may be a tough sell.

What gets missed in the mix is the massive decline in two parent families, climbing illiteracy rates, the declining results in public education paired with skyrocketing costs and the utter lack of personal responsibility/accountability. It begs the question…is it really Better Than It Looks?