Category Archives: reviews
The Chicago Tribune Book of the Chicago Cubs: A Decade-by-Decade History edited by Joe Knowles (2017)
No longer the “lovable losers,” the Cubs finally overcame their 108-year drought by winning the World Championship in 2016. With the team poised to make another run at the title this year, there is no better time to revisit the team’s rich history. The Chicago Tribune Book of the Chicago Cubs: A Decade-by-Decade History goes all the way back to the team’s beginnings as one of the charter members of the National League in 1876. Those first 24 years, during which they changed from the White Stockings to the Colts to the Orphans, are covered in just a few pages. Beginning with the 1900s, the book goes into much more depth, featuring several player profiles, decade highlights, and a “Team of the Decade” feature.
The Cubs were first called the Cubs in 1902, but that did not completely settle the name of the club. It was not until 1907 that the nickname was officially adopted due to the support of Frank Chance. Replete with photographs from the Tribune’s vast archives, this volume is a treasure trove for fans of baseball history, the Cubs in particular. Add to the player profiles a number of topical articles of interest, including “Tinker to Evers to Chance” and “Babe Ruth’s ‘called shot’,” and the history of the franchise comes alive.
Of course, the book features the all-time greats like Greg Maddux, Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg, and Fergie Jenkins, but there are also stories about lesser-known players, such as Jeff Pico, who held the Reds to only four hits in his big league debut, and Chuck Connors, who is better known for his role as “The Rifleman” on television. The decade break-downs conclude with the celebration of the Cubs’ World Championship in 2016.
But wait, there’s more! In a section called “Extra Innings,” The Chicago Tribune Book of the Chicago Cubs delves into everything else: the ballparks, the award winners, the postseasons, no-hitters, best and worst trades, and the legends, curses, and myths that surround the team.
Pound-for-pound (and it is a heavy one, measuring 9.5×11 and 344 pages), this is the best book on Chicago Cubs history on the market. Cubs fans will absolutely love it, regardless of the results of the 2017 season.
Guitarists love to hear other guitarists talk about their craft. Jas Olbrecht, former editor of Guitar Player magazine, has had the honor of speaking with some of the most famous guitarists in history from diverse genres, and a number of those interviews are collected in the volume Talking Guitar: Conversations with Musicians Who Shaped Twentieth-Century American Music. From the blues guitar of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown to the rockabilly stylings of Ricky Nelson, the philosophy of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia to the two-handed tapping of Eddie Van Halen, Talking Guitar has a little bit for everyone.
The Van Halen interview is especially interesting as it was an unscheduled sit-down with the up-and-coming guitarist after Olbrecht was blown off by Pat Travers. After playing a game of one-on-one basketball and explaining his predicament, Van Halen said, “Why don’t you interview me? Nobody has ever wanted to interview me?” He introduced himself, Olbrecht started recording, and Eddie Van Halen’s “first major interview” was underway.
Johnny Winter went on record about open tuning and slide technique, Carlos Santana speaks to the importance of tone and emotion, while Tom Petty talks about understanding rhythm guitar and how important Mike Campbell’s lead work was so important in Petty’s success. Talking Guitar also features interviews with Nick Lucas, Ry Cooder, Barney Kessel, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, Carol Kaye, Stevie Ray Vaughan, James Gurley, Gregg Allman, Neil Young, Eric Johnson, Joe Satriani, and Ben Harper.
Also included is an audio CD that includes excerpts of the interviews, including Eddie Van Halen explaining how “Eruption” ended up on the debut Van Halen record, and James Gurley explaining how John Coltrane influenced psychedelic guitar.
Talking Guitar is a fascinating collection of interviews, highly recommended for aspiring rock stars.
Ask any baseball fan about rivalries, and you will likely hear about the Yankees and Red Sox, or the Giants and Dodgers, or the Cubs and Cardinals. But four decades ago, the answer may have included the Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers. Both teams played in the National League West, and consistently battled for a postseason spot. From 1970 to 1979, with the exception of 1971, these teams finished first and second in the division; seven out of ten years, one of these teams made it all the way to the World Series. If you were a Reds fan, you hated the Dodgers, and vice versa.
Author Tom Van Riper goes back in time in Cincinnati Red and Dodger Blue, revisiting the rivalry of these 1970s powerhouses, taking a particularly close look at a game in late September when the Reds visited Dodger Stadium. Cincinnati won that game in extra innings, and refused to relinquish first place the rest of the year. Van Riper spotlights all of the major names from each team: the Hall of Famers (Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Don Sutton), the superstars (Pete Rose, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey), the executives (Al Campanis and Bob Howsam), and even the announcers (Vin Scully and Al Michaels).
Van Riper also touches on some of the off-the-field history revolving around these teams, including the surgery named after Los Angeles pitcher Tommy John, the free agency fiasco involving Andy Messersmith, and the late-‘80s gambling woes of the Hit King.
Covering so many players from two teams, Van Riper is unable to go into much depth in this relatively short volume, just over 200 pages. As such, some of the anecdotes seem disjointed and forced, even if they are relevant to the rivalry. There are better historical accounts of the Big Red Machine out there, and I’m sure the ‘70s Dodgers have had similar superior treatments as well. Cincinnati Red and Dodger Blue is a good primer on both teams, but I would not consider it a must-have if your library already boasts other Cincinnati or Los Angeles team histories.
Chuck Klosterman is a seemingly intelligent man with a knack for putting words together in sentences that generally make sense. His latest release, Chuck Klosterman X, is a collection of essays written over the past ten years or so for various outlets, including GQ, Esquire, and the too-soon defunct Grantland. He weaves narratives from the worlds of sports and music and often intertwines them seamlessly, writing about Gnarls Barkley (to whom an entire essay is dedicated) as easily as Charles Barkley (who is only mentioned in connection with Gnarls Barkley).
Klosterman’s thought process can be confusing, such as his examination of nostalgia and what he terms “false nostalgia” in the piece, “That’s Not How it Happened.” At the beginning of the essay, I was nodding in agreement, but by the time he asserts that the Internet has effectively destroyed nostalgia because what we consider nostalgia isn’t really nostalgia anyway—I’m lost. I’m sure he understood where he was going and how he was getting there, and many of his readers likely understood as well, but I got so hung up on hearing Ozzy Osbourne’s “Centre of Eternity” that I lost my concentration.
No doubt, Klosterman writes what he writes many times just to get a reaction. Introducing an essay from 2011, he writes, “By the time this book is released, many people will not even remember who [Tim Tebow] was or what he did, unless they really care about God or Florida or minor league baseball.” I care about God, but I am theologically at odds with Tebow’s general understanding of Him. That’s beside the point. How could anyone forget about Tim Tebow in a five-year span? Am I supposed to be insulted, or am I simply naïve about society? Or is Klosterman’s opinion of the world that far off, bringing his credibility into question? He shows his hand in the final paragraph without apology, painting himself as anti-religious by calling faith “illogical,” “a warm feeling that makes no sense.”
Is Klosterman a good writer? Absolutely. Is he entertaining? Most of the time—especially in his footnotes. He sprinkles obscenities here and there, and his sometimes not-so-subtle attempts to undermine faith are annoying. But when he sticks to sports and music without straying into politics and religion, his essays are enjoyable. His interviews with Jimmy Page of the legendary Led Zeppelin and Eddie Van Halen of one of the greatest American rock acts ever are particularly fun reads, and his epic piece on KISS (including a review of all of the band’s records, and all of the band members’ solo records) is only diminished by the profanities that litter it. Perhaps I enjoyed this particular essay a little too much, but how could I not love it when someone besides myself recognizes the first Vinnie Vincent Invasion record as a masterpiece (Klosterman rates it an A+).
Long story short (too late?), Chuck Klosterman X is a trip down memory lane, hopping from Tom Brady and the failed Deflategate interview to a eulogy for Warrant’s Jani Lane. You might be amused, you might be offended, but you will not be bored reading this book.
Thirty-day challenges are a fun way to step out of your comfort zone. I have seen several such challenges on Twitter and in the blogosphere for a few years now. Some focus on music, others on photography, and there is even a recent 30-day challenge for baseball card collectors.
If you are a creative type, you may enjoy Creative Sprint by Noah Scalin and Mica Scalin. There is not one, but six 30-day challenges presented in this book to help overcome roadblocks in your thought process. Creative Sprint can be used by any type of artist: writer, photographer, painter, or musician. There is space provided on each page to document how you incorporated the prompt into your work, and several prompts suggest a bonus challenge.
The six challenges focus on different themes: “Dream Small,” “Perfection is Overrated,” “Limitations are Your Friends,” “Work with the Unexpected,” “Expand Your Default Settings,” and “Inspiration is Everywhere.” Throughout the book, the Scalins include testimonials from artists who utilized the Creative Sprint method in their work, and quotes from creative types to help spur you on.
Creative Sprint will challenge and has the potential to improve any artist’s work.
Get a Grip on Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused by Kris Spisak (2017)
It never ceases to amaze me how many people use “there,” “their,” and “they’re” incorrectly. The abuse of the English language is on full display on social media, on blogs, and even in printed materials. Call me a Grammar Nazi if you must (though I rarely point out another’s wrongness), but I cringe when I read “your special” or “its okay.” In light of the preponderance of grammatical errors in the twenty-first century, Kris Spisak’s Get a Grip on Your Grammar should be a prerequisite to obtaining a Facebook account, let alone writing a report for school or work.
The red banner on the front cover says it all: “A Grammar Book for Those Who Hate Grammar.” The English language can be confusing, and Spisak addresses with clarity and humor 250 common mistakes found in modern writing. There are five sections in the book: “Word Usage,” “Punctuation,” “Idioms,” “Business Writing and Etiquette,” and “Creative Writing and Storytelling.” What is the difference between “accept” and “except”? When should you use single quotation marks as opposed to double quotation marks? Is the proper phrase “for all intents and purposes” or “for all intensive purposes”? Spisak concisely explains all of these and more without going over the reader’s head.
Spisak also addresses the use of slang and jargon in professional writing, as well as several habits a writer should avoid. In the last section of the book, she writes about problems aspiring creative writers often face, and offers tips to edit many of those problems out of their pieces. While reading, I was reminded of several mistakes that I commonly make in my blog posts, church bulletin articles, and (for the moment) unpublished fiction. No doubt, I need to use “Ctrl” + “F” more often and trim my writing.
Get a Grip on Your Grammar is an indispensable resource that should be on every person’s bookshelf, whether that person is writing professionally, blogging, or just jotting thoughtful notes of encouragement to their friends and family.
B.B. King’s Lucille. Eric Clapton’s Blackie. Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat. Keith Richards’ Micawber. Over time, guitar legends become so connected with their instruments, that it is difficult to think of one without the other. It seems strange to imagine Slash playing anything but a Les Paul, or Yngwie Malmsteen with something other than a Stratocaster (and a vintage white one, at that). In Ultimate Star Guitars: Expanded Edition, Dave Hunter explains how these musicians became so connected to their instruments of choice, often revealing how such instruments were acquired and why the artists chose them.
This book covers a variety of genres, from classic rock (Duane Allman, Clapton, Richards) to blues (King, Stevie Ray Vaughan), alternative (J Mascis, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo) to punk (Joe Strummer, Steve Jones) to country (Waylon Jennings, Brad Paisley). You will read about Reverend Horton Heat, Ike Turner, Nels Cline, and even see a picture of Billy Gibbons sans beard. One of the best entries describes Randy Bachman’s work on a 1959 Fender Stratocaster he named “The Legend.” The leader of The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive changed nearly everything he could change on “The Legend,” which was stolen years ago. Bachman said, “It would be the thrill of a lifetime to get he guitar back, but it was just a wreck, so unless someone knows what it is…But what a sound and monster it was.”
A fantastic collection of stories and photographs, Ultimate Star Guitars: Expanded Edition shows that music history is not made with pristine instruments designed to be on display in glass cases, but with beat-up, modified, and often underappreciated models.
When I think of the best and worst trades in history, I’ll admit I’m biased. The Reds unloading Frank Robinson at “an old thirty” ranks among the worst in my mind, while the acquisition of Joe Morgan (along with Cesar Geronimo and Jack Billingham) is one of the best. Lopsided deals like these are not the focus of Shawn Krest’s information Baseball Meat Market; rather, the author focuses on deals that generally helped both sides, some immediately (such as Doyle Alexander to the Tigers), and some over the long haul (like John Smoltz to the Braves in the same deal). There are a few bad trades among Krest’s twenty chapters, generally dealing with prospects that were dealt for next-to-nothing and later developed into major talents, such as Jay Buhner and Ryne Sandberg.
I truly enjoyed reading about Pat Gillick’s dealings with Joe McIlvane in the 1990 Winter Meetings, in which the two general managers shook things up by trading four All-Stars —Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez going to San Diego in exchange for Joe Carter and future Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar. Krest masterfully describes the back-and-forth in this and many other deals, and includes several incarnations of trades that never occurred. For instance, before the Tigers traded David Wells to the Reds in 1995, the Yankees offered them a minor league starter by the name of Mariano Rivera. Later in the year, before Boomer was dealt to Baltimore, the Yanks attempted to get the hefty lefty from Cincinnati for Rivera and Jorge Posada. As a Reds fan, I’m in tears at this revelation.
Krest examines a number of trades, most in the past few decades, including both 1998 trades involving Mike Piazza, Florida’s deal sending Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit (and some of the other “what-if” situations that were involved), the Alex Rodriguez debacle, Rick Sutcliffe, Von Hayes, Sammy Sosa, and more. The author does reach back into history a little further a few times, discussing the seventeen-player trade between the Yankees and Orioles in 1954 and the 1969 deal that sent Curt Flood to Philadelphia…where he refused to play, eventually ushering in free agency.
A well-researched and well-written book, baseball fans will love Krest’s Baseball Meat Market and the many hypotheticals trades that could have affected their favorite teams.
The story of He-Man is well-known to children of the eighties, but author Brian C. Baer is able to dig even deeper into the beloved franchise in his recent book, How He-Man Mastered the Universe. Baer examines every aspect of the Masters of the Universe, from the toys to the cartoon to the movie to the reboots and more recent collectible action figure releases. The author looks at the groundwork laid for the success of He-Man by the marketing behind Star Wars, and the influence He-Man had on many subsequent pop culture franchises such as Transformers, G.I. Joe, and the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe.
What impressed me most about Baer’s book is the attention paid to the big screen adaption of the Eternian hero in 1987. The toys and original cartoon have been widely covered over the years, with little more than a passing mention to the live-action film. A good bulk of Baer’s book, however, is devoted to how He-Man was brought to life by Dolph Lundgren. He breaks down the movie with an in-depth review, discusses the financial woes that hamstrung the ending, and even includes conceptual drawings for He-Man, Man-at-Arms, Teela, Skeletor, and She-Ra, who unfortunately was written out of the script.
Baer also discusses the New Adventures of He-Man cartoon that aired in the early 1990s, the 21st century reboot by Mike Young Productions, and the new line of toys that came with that. Baer wraps up How He-Man Mastered the Universe with a look at what many of the film’s actors are doing today, as well as others who were involved with He-Man through the years.
How He-Man Mastered the Universe is a highly enjoyable book; children of the eighties and He-Fans in particular will love it.
Purchase How He-Man Mastered the Universe by Brian C. Baer on Amazon or directly from the publisher at www.mcfarlandpub.com or via the order line at 800-253-2187.