Superb anthology of sports photographs, coupled with an illuminating text exploring the making of images both iconic and unknown.
Of the iconic imagery, most readers of a certain age can conjure in their minds a facsimile of, say, Olympic athletes raising clenched fists on the podium, Muhammad Ali smacking Joe Frazier, or American women’s soccer player Brandi Chastain raising her jersey to celebrate her team’s World Cup victory. “The missing link…is the photographer,” writes photo curator Buckland (History of Photography/Cooper Union; Who Shot Rock & Roll, 2009, etc.), who remedies that by including biographical and critical sketches of the photographers behind the lens at those climactic moments. Some of her choices are comparatively unknown, however, such as a wonderful image of two young players, shrouded in dust, sliding into home plate in the 2006 College World Series. If carved into marble, it might have been a study for the Laocoön Group, but as it is, Damian Strohmeyer’s photograph is a perfect capture of bodies in motion, shot “high enough to show the gradations of color, textures, and markings on the field, but close enough for the viewer to feel part of the action.” That photograph is followed by one just as impressive, this one taken by “the only official Austrian photographer at the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” Lothar Rübelt, who preceded that accomplishment with a stunning image of Jewish runners crossing a finish line in a 1921 contest. There’s also a great shot of a young Cassius Clay emerging from the ocean like Poseidon, caught by Flip Schulke, a Sports Illustrated photographer who never caught on that Clay/Ali couldn’t swim. This is a collection of superlatives, with both subjects and artists in the finest of forms; it’s difficult to single out highlights, therefore, but one surely is David Burnett’s diving photographs, some taken with an old Speed Graphic camera “like the press photographers of yore used.”
Essential for all students of sports history and of photography and a fine gift for buffs as well.
Juicy, provocative latest installment in the comprehensive life of a self-destructive genius.
In his first two volumes of the life of Orson Welles (1915-1985), actor and author Callow captured the scope of a life that always seemed to promise more than it delivered. In The Road to Xanadu (1996), Welles was the boy genius whose Midas touch literally transformed theater, radio, and then film, reaching the pinnacle of his life at the age of 25 with Citizen Kane. In Hello, Americans (2007), Callow charted the way down, exploring how Welles’ sprawling ambitions ran up against both studio interference and his own restless inability to see projects through to the end. During the period recounted here (1947-1964), Welles fell into the pattern of his adult life: constantly trying to get a new play or film off the ground and taking acting jobs to help finance them. The results were ridiculously mixed, with success and failure jostling each other from year to year. Welles made quirky box-office duds (Othello, Mr. Arkadin), staged an ambitious version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, and got fired by Laurence Olivier. He also made a classic film noir, Touch of Evil, and a long-gestating masterpiece, Chimes at Midnight. Welles thought of himself as Falstaff, but he seemed a good deal closer to King Lear: a royal in exile, howling at the winds as well as actors, crew members, studio heads, and anyone who crossed him. He was, also, a paradox to the critical establishment: a failure to his countrymen, a hero to the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd. Callow, with his own extensive theatrical background, remains Welles’ most astute observer, with an unerring sense of both his subject’s brilliance as a visual artist and the comparable limitations of his (often hammy) performances.
Welles rightly imagined that people would never stop writing about him after he died. Callow continues to set the standard in this increasingly crowded field.
Attorney, journalist, and bestselling author Cohen (Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America, 2009, etc.) revisits an ugly chapter in American history: the 1920s mania for eugenics.
Among “the most brutal aphorisms in American jurisprudence,” Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1927 pronouncement in Buck v. Bell—“Three generations of imbeciles are enough”—marked the high point of a shameful enthusiasm among the social elite for ridding the species of so-called mental defectives. With the nation anxious about changes wrought by unprecedented immigration, industrialization, and urbanization, and with marriage laws ineffective and segregation and warehousing of defectives too expensive and castration too barbaric, eugenics enthusiasts turned to mass sterilization as the solution to prevent the feebleminded from reproducing. The movement attracted its share of crackpots, racists, and conservatives intent on preserving an Anglo-Saxon heritage, but a shocking gallery of the very best people—professionals, intellectuals, feminists, and progressives—formed the vanguard. From this class came the principal players in Carrie Buck’s case: the physician/supervisor of Virginia’s Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, the drafter of the state’s sterilization law who defended it in the Supreme Court, the national scientific expert who affirmed its utility, and the celebrated justice who upheld its constitutionality. The stories of these four men and that of Carrie herself—a teenage girl neither mentally nor morally deficient, as her caretakers charged, and never informed of the purpose and effect the operation Virginia demanded—form the spine of Cohen’s compelling narrative. Through them, he also tells a larger story of the weak science underlying the eugenics cause and the outrageous betrayal of the defenseless by some of the country’s best minds. Carrie Buck died in 1983. The 8-1 decision, joined by the likes of Chief Justice William Howard Taft and Louis Brandeis, has never been overruled.
A shocking tale about science and law gone horribly wrong, an almost forgotten case that deserves to be ranked with Dred Scott, Plessy, and Korematsu as among the Supreme Court’s worst decisions.
A tour de force history of the Olympics in romanticized myth and politicized reality.
As thousands of athletes and hundreds of thousands of spectators and tourists prepare to descend on Brazil for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games this summer, sports fans are getting a daily dose of information about potentially toxic waters clogged with human waste and tales of how facilities will not be completed on time. This all takes place against a backdrop of political and economic chaos in Brazil. There is nothing new in this intersection of Olympic planning gone awry and controversial political machinations in host countries. Indeed, as Goldblatt (The Game of Our Lives: The English Premier League and the Making of Modern Britain, 2014, etc.) shows in this fantastic history of the Olympics, far more rare were the instances of smooth planning and a lack of political chaos. The author traces the games back to their Hellenic roots, but he also places them in the context of the myths that emerged around them in the 19th century, as various efforts to revive Olympic-style games picked up pace, finally gaining a foothold with French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a self-mythologizing romantic who laid the foundation for many of the Olympic ideals that in most cases embody little more than invented traditions. Goldblatt, best known for his unparalleled books on soccer, has a fine grip on sports in general and an even better understanding of the politics of sport. He shows the myriad ways in which the attempts by International Olympic Committee power brokers to separate sport from politics were themselves deeply entrenched in conservative political mindsets, and he reveals the barrenness of most demands that participating athletes be pure amateurs.
Gracefully written and compellingly argued, this is one of the best books of the year and one of the best sports books ever written.
Think baseball is slow? Then imagine football without a passing offense, which, as historian/journalist Gwynne (Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, 2014, etc.) ably shows, is no mere thought experiment.
In the early days of American football, quarterbacks did not have to pass the ball. The rules allowed them to, but, as the author writes, “overwhelmingly, they chose not to.” Of course, this meant it was mostly a running game. There were exceptions—Carlisle Indian School coach Pop Warner’s passing game being the textbook case—but it wasn’t until recent years that the passing game came into its own, courtesy of Gwynne’s coach heroes. Hal Mumme and his assistant Mike Leach led the small, not terribly distinguished school of Iowa Wesleyan to legendary status by developing a fast passing game that admitted only a few variations: “Hal’s ultra-minimal playbook,” writes the author, “allowed the quarterback and receivers to repeat it hundreds of times in practice.” The explanation that follows is a touch geeky, with mathematical variants based on man-to-man coverage in the classic Y-cross formation, and so forth, but that makes this book just the thing for the true football aficionado in the house. What makes the narrative more generally invaluable is its portrait of how football politics can bring down even the winningest coach. Although every team on the planet now emulates the playbook developed by the two coaches—a playbook that of course has a genealogy stretching back into football history—their own careers went into a downward spiral (beg pardon) when their numbers didn’t post well. Still, it is undeniable that the Air Raid, the fast passing game, and the frequency of the forward pass are now imprinted on football, especially, as Gwynne notes, on the college level though also in the NFL. That makes his subtitle all the more fitting, for undeniably, the two coaches changed the game—and brought glory to their institutions.
New York Times Magazine writer Heffernan considers the mighty Internet in all its terrible beauty and power.
As a member of a pre-millennial generation that can rightly say its maturation process paralleled the Internet’s own, the author is in excellent position to declare early on, “if it’s ever fair to say that anything has ‘changed everything,’ it’s fair to say so about the Internet.” Heffernan’s digital odyssey began personally and warmly in the glow of an inchoate social networking platform at Dartmouth College called “Conference XYZ,” which the author used while still a preteen. The ensuing decades have only served to deepen the author’s initial wonder with the Internet. Deeply contemplating the aesthetic meaning behind the Internet’s early interface, Heffernan exercises the same sort of intellectual curiosity more commonly ascribed to things like string theory and quantum physics. She similarly treats popular time killers like “Angry Birds” and “Frisbee.” “But when things settle down in reality, the Frisbee game is too exciting,” writes the author. “It does nothing to teach the all-important patience and tolerance for boredom that are central to learning.” The author’s cerebral, literary approach also informs her discussion of YouTube’s inaugural clip from 2005, titled “Me At The Zoo,” in which one of the site’s founders vaguely talks about elephants at the San Diego Zoo. Heffernan, however, is also sober about the Internet’s negative aspects. At one point, she calls it a “graphic mess…designed to weaken, confound, and pickpocket you.” Still, the author steadfastly defends the Internet from myopic critics who are all too happy to jeer it. “Asking what’s to become of poetry in the age of Twitter is like asking what will become of music in the age of guitars,” she writes. In melding the personal with the increasingly universal, Heffernan delivers a highly informative analysis of what the Internet is—and can be.
A thoroughly engrossing examination of the Internet’s past, present, and future.
A sweeping, perceptive biography of the influential director.
Jones (Jim Henson: The Biography, 2013, etc.) sets the stage for this impressive biography with a short prologue set in 1976. Lucas was in the Tunisian desert starting his 84-day shoot of Star Wars. The weather was terrible, and sand got into everything. The machines, including R2-D2, wouldn’t work, and the studio was stingy with funds (at that point, Lucas pledged to always control the money). About a year before the release date, Lucas was “certain” the movie “was going to be terrible.” Jones’ extensively researched, unauthorized biography—he wasn’t able to interview key people, including Lucas—lays out in luscious detail the path Lucas took to become one of film’s most successful directors. Born in Modesto, California, in 1944, he grew up in the 1950s and loved comic books, TV serials, and building things. A mediocre, bored student in high school, he managed to get into the University of Southern California. When he discovered their film school, he “fell madly in love with [film], ate it and slept with it 24 hours a day.” He also met Francis Ford Coppola, who helped him get his student film, THX 1138, made into a movie. He also helped him make the popular American Graffiti, which provided Lucas with much-needed money. He could now focus on his “Flash Gordon thing,” Star Wars. Jones wisely eschews unnecessary plot summaries to focus on where the ideas for Lucas’ films came from and how he wrote them and how he dealt with studios and contract negotiations, funding, casting, filming, and marketing. This in-depth portrait of the “modest and audacious” Lucas, a “brilliant” and “enigmatic” technological wizard, and those who were crucial to his success—his editor wife, Marcia, Stephen Spielberg, Haskell Wexler, Garry Kurtz, John Milius, John Dykstra, Harrison Ford—is never less than fascinating.
Masterful and engaging: just what Lucas’ fans and buffs, who love the nitty-gritty of filmmaking, have been waiting for.
National Book Award winner McBride (The Good Lord Bird, 2013, etc.) dissects the career, legacy, and myth of the Godfather of Soul.
One of the most iconic figures in pop music, James Brown (1933-2006) is also one of the most unknown and falsely represented figures in American cultural history. Taking the recent biopic based on his life as an example, McBride shows how Brown’s late-career downward spiral into drug abuse, erratic behavior, and jail time is exaggerated and how it overshadows his legacy as a hardworking and dedicated singer who was a positive cultural force. Part of this misrepresentation was caused by the mystery of Brown, which he perpetuated during his lifetime. As the author points out, Brown was constantly on the run from himself, careful never to reveal too much of his personality in public or private. As Brown put it to his young protégé Al Sharpton, “come important and leave important.” McBride traces Brown’s philosophy of “keeping ’em guessing” through his upbringing in rural South Carolina and Georgia and back to a telling myth of a local ancestor. As the author sums it up: “you can’t understand Brown without understanding that the land that produced him is the land of masks.” Anecdotes and digressions are the preferred narrative mode for McBride, as he eschews an overarching, linear structure in favor of the rhythm of vignettes. Through his adventures to uncover the “real” Brown, there is significantly little discussion of Brown’s musical career; instead, the author focuses on the people around him and the defining moments of his life outside the spotlight. But for McBride, the story of Brown is the story of money and greed—not on Brown’s part, who put his $100 million estate toward the education of poor children, but of his heirs and family members who have tied up that money in years of litigation.
An unconventional and fascinating portrait of Soul Brother No. 1 and the significance of his rise and fall in American culture.
A senior Sports Illustrated writer tells a multigenerational story about Aliquippa, a Pennsylvania steel town, and its legendary high school football team.
Heavy industry and football share the same DNA, writes Price (Heart of the Game: Life, Death, and Mercy in Minor League America, 2009, etc.). Both feature a hierarchical management structure; both involve collective striving, with various skills merging to produce the desired result; both “depend on—even celebrate—the implicit trade of health for money” or celebrity. Since the early 1900s, when the J&L Steel Company designed and built the town, until today, as surely as the blast furnaces once reliably churned out pig iron, the Quips have won a succession of regional and state championships, producing an astonishing number of football stars, most notably Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Ty Law, and Darrelle Revis. Price thoroughly explores the football saga, focusing on four particularly successful coaches and their teams, but this is no mere sports story. The author produces an artful mix of history, economics, sociology, and athletics. He makes room for sketches of distinguished, nonsports native sons (composer Henry Mancini), a reform-minded governor’s wife, a J&L official who bossed the town, and Aliquippa’s first black mayor. As he travels through the decades, he packs the narrative with telling episodes: the presidential visits of John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, a landmark Supreme Court labor case slapping down J&L, the high school walkouts of the 1960s, protesting the lack of black cheerleaders. Price’s especially touching engravings of “promise squandered,” those chewed up and spit out by Aliquippa’s tough environment, contrast powerfully with the tales of football triumph.
From the rigidly stratified life in the 1920s and ’30s during J&L’s “despotic prime,” to the brief, postwar golden age, “a moment of civic equipoise,” to today’s “company town without a company,” where the combination of unemployment, drugs, and crime crushes hope, Price’s football story is really that of America’s Rust Belt in poignant miniature.
A Texas essayist goes looking for meaning in all the right places.
The essays in this debut collection by Searcy, who previously published two novels of sci-fi horror (Last Things, 2002, etc.), suggest what might happen if Stephen King somehow morphed into David Foster Wallace. Though there are none of the latter’s signature footnotes, the author’s allusive and elusive writing seeks connections beneath the surface of appearance and the alternatives to conventional wisdom. His mother was an artist, as is his girlfriend, as is his late friend, and their work provides plenty of perspective on the creative impulse, which also permeates these essays. In the opening “The Hudson River School,” a visit to the dental hygienist inspires a visit to her father, a rancher in West Texas, who has been targeting a coyote (or more) that has been attacking his sheep, using a tape of their baby’s cries as a lure. “Out here, you probably need to know a lot more clearly what you’re doing,” writes Searcy. “How to situate yourself. You’ve got your basics here to deal with after all. Your wind, your emptiness, your animals, your house.” Clarity, emptiness, and whatever the basics are remain touchstones throughout these essays, whether the writer is exploring the lunar landscape of Enchanted Rock, touring Turkey in search of Santa Claus, trying to find meaning in his lack of connection with baseball, or rediscovering a piece by his late mother while rummaging through “twenty years of stuff diverted here. Not quite tossed out. You never know.” Searcy also spends plenty of time revisiting childhood experiences never quite resolved, snapshots and notebooks that provide a different perspective on the experience he’s relating, and occasionally discovering, “How cool and dark and clear it is, right here at the heart of things. How clearly things reveal themselves. Who knew?”
Ultimately, meaning and mystery coexist in Searcy’s mind, and his offbeat, exciting writing will resonate with readers for whom “you never know” and “who knew?” might be mantras.
The Boss speaks—and he does so as both journeyman rocker and philosopher king.
Wrapping up his long backward look at a storied life and the anthemic songs that punctuate it, Springsteen examines his motivations. “I wanted to understand,” he writes of the past, “in order to free myself of its most damaging influences, its malevolent forces, to celebrate and honor its beauty, its power, and to be able to tell it well to my friends, my family and to you.” Readers who stick with the story—and there are a few longueurs—will be richly rewarded. Springsteen has lived well, even if he expresses a couple of regrets and, in a newsmaking episode, confesses to having suffered a long bout of depression at the age of 60. “The blues don’t jump right on you,” he writes, but jump they do. Nothing a pill can’t take care of, mind you, and when Springsteen rebounds, he does so with a joyous vengeance. Ardent students of his music might wish for a touch more depth in his account of his processes as songwriter and performer, but there’s plenty of that. In one of the scattered formulas that he tosses out, he allows that the math of rock ’n’ roll is an equation, thanks to the transport and bond between band and fan, through which “when the world is at its best, when we are at our best, when life feels fullest, one and one equals three.” That math may not bear close inspection, but Springsteen is foremost a fan, and nowhere more so than when he had a chance to play with rock gods Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, a fine and rousing moment in a book full of them. Springsteen is gentle with those who treated him poorly—and one imagines those “rah-rahs” of the Jersey Shore writhing in shame each day at the memory—but generous with love for friends and listeners alike.
A superb memoir by any standard, but one of the best to have been written by a rock star.
The “vivid and propulsive” life of the wife of statesman and president John Quincy Adams.
Drawing on a rich trove of letters, diaries, and memoirs, historian and journalist Thomas (Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family—a Test of Will and Faith in World War I, 2012) has created an enthralling, sharply etched portrait of Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams (1775-1852), the wife of America’s sixth president. Portrayed by many historians as sickly and delicate, a weak specimen when compared with her stalwart mother-in-law, Abigail, Louisa emerges as a spirited, ambitious woman who grew from a submissive girl to a politically astute writer and thinker. She learned early in her marriage that her husband’s “first devotion was to his country, his second to his parents, and his third to his books.” He could be exacting, supercilious, domineering, and “self-involved in unbelievable ways,” but in times of distress—miscarriages, debilitating illnesses, and the deaths of three of their four children—he was lovingly tender. Louisa was, he said, his best friend. Louisa followed her husband wherever his duty took him: Prussia, St. Petersburg, London, Washington, and the Adams family homestead in Quincy, Massachusetts, which Louisa deemed an insufferable backwater. Travel was arduous: the trip from America to Russia took 80 days; Quincy to Washington, “three miserable weeks.” Alone, Louisa traveled with her 5-year-old son from St. Petersburg to Paris, nearly 2,000 miles over 40 days, as Napoleon’s troops invaded, proving herself shrewd and decisive; adversity, the author concludes, brought out her strength. Her warmth as a hostess helped to soften the effects of her husband’s sullenness. “They must have a President that they dare speak to,” she told him, when he coveted the highest office. Thomas effectively sets Louisa’s eventful life against the backdrop of a nation transforming itself, debating foreign and domestic policy, including slavery, which John Quincy vehemently opposed.
A revelatory biography of the influential “Krazy Kat” creator George Herriman (1880-1944).
Set among the desert mesas of Coconino County, “Krazy Kat” graced the funny pages from 1913 to 1944 and featured the philosophical antics of Krazy and the brick-throwing mouse, Ignatz. Tisserand (Sugarcane Academy: How a New Orleans Teacher and His Storm-Struck Students Created a School to Remember, 2007, etc.) reveals the depths of their age-old rivalry, tracing influences from Cervantes and Othello to minstrel shows and the Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries bout of 1910. “Krazy Kat” always had a racial angle: Herriman was born a fair-skinned boy to African-American parents and grew up in the Creole community of New Orleans. His complexion allowed him to “pass” as white, a controversial practice that Herriman carried secretly throughout his life. Though he penned numerous strips—e.g., "Us Husbands," "Baron Mooch," and "The Family Upstairs"—it wasn’t until the publication of “Krazy Kat”in 1913 that he moved toward the life of a celebrated artist, garnering praise from the likes of e.e. cummings and President Woodrow Wilson. Herriman’s unique racial perspective allowed him to sneak some remarkably potent themes into his cartoons, many of which were likely lost on his readers at the time: Krazy, for instance, is revealed to have been born in the cellar of a haunted house, in a “tale which must never be told, and yet which everyone knows.” In another gag, Ignatz flings a mug at Krazy saying it’s not the black coffee he wanted. “Sure it is,” Krazy tells him. “Look unda the milk.” Tisserand elevates this exhaustively researched and profusely illustrated book beyond the typical comics biography. Seamlessly integrating the story of Herriman’s life, he executes an impressive history of early-20th-century race relations, the rise of Hearst and the newspaper boom, and the burgeoning cross-continental society life of New York and Los Angeles.
Essential reading for comics fans and history buffs, Krazy is a roaring success, providing an indispensable new perspective on turn-of-the-century America.