CLASS A

BASEBALL IN THE MIDDLE OF EVERYWHERE

In the tradition of football’s Friday Night Lights, a young writer spends a year (and more) following the fortunes of a baseball team: the Class A Clinton, Iowa, LumberKings.

In this impressive debut, University of Iowa writer-in-residence Mann has a busy agenda. He writes frequently about his own doubts, insecurities (he was not much older than his subjects) and failures (in sports, in barrooms). Swimming just below the surface is the dark story of the death of his brother, whose presence emerges periodically to whisper messages of mortality and disappointment. Mann discovered and immersed himself in a group of loyal fans—most notably, an obsessive collector named Joyce, who has nearly 1,000 signed baseballs on display in her home. (She also deals at the local casino.) The author had an uneasy relationship with the players, who came and went (and in one case, came back) during the season. He was among them but not often with them. Mann drank with them and observed the young women flirting with them but not with him. A couple of players, however, did open up a bit—though always on their terms. One night, he dressed up in the LumberKing mascot’s costume and sweat through an odd evening. He drove around the area, looking at the virtually deserted old downtown—the collapse of Middle America and the middle class clearly in his sights. Mann writes about the corn economy, the odorous presence of food-processing giant Archer Daniels Midland, the dilapidated houses and the Mississippi River, which flows nearby. The author provides few pitch-by-pitch accounts but plenty of piquant moments of success, failure, consequence and inconsequence. He tells about other trips (Venezuela, for one) to check out the back stories of some players. Mann’s style is easy, fluid, self-deprecating and always engaging.

A grand slam.

Pub Date: May 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-90754-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2013

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One of the NBA’s 50 greatest players scores another basket—a deeply personal one.

BACK FROM THE DEAD

A basketball legend reflects on his life in the game and a life lived in the “nightmare of endlessly repetitive and constant pain, agony, and guilt.”

Walton (Nothing but Net, 1994, etc.) begins this memoir on the floor—literally: “I have been living on the floor for most of the last two and a half years, unable to move.” In 2008, he suffered a catastrophic spinal collapse. “My spine will no longer hold me,” he writes. Thirty-seven orthopedic injuries, stemming from the fact that he had malformed feet, led to an endless string of stress fractures. As he notes, Walton is “the most injured athlete in the history of sports.” Over the years, he had ground his lower extremities “down to dust.” Walton’s memoir is two interwoven stories. The first is about his lifelong love of basketball, the second, his lifelong battle with injuries and pain. He had his first operation when he was 14, for a knee hurt in a basketball game. As he chronicles his distinguished career in the game, from high school to college to the NBA, he punctuates that story with a parallel one that chronicles at each juncture the injuries he suffered and overcame until he could no longer play, eventually turning to a successful broadcasting career (which helped his stuttering problem). Thanks to successful experimental spinal fusion surgery, he’s now pain-free. And then there’s the music he loves, especially the Grateful Dead’s; it accompanies both stories like a soundtrack playing off in the distance. Walton tends to get long-winded at times, but that won’t be news to anyone who watches his broadcasts, and those who have been afflicted with lifelong injuries will find the book uplifting and inspirational. Basketball fans will relish Walton’s acumen and insights into the game as well as his stories about players, coaches (especially John Wooden), and games, all told in Walton’s fervent, witty style.

One of the NBA’s 50 greatest players scores another basket—a deeply personal one.

Pub Date: March 8, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-4767-1686-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2016

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Effectively sobering. Suffice it to say that Pop Warner parents will want to armor their kids from head to toe upon reading...

CONCUSSION

A maddening, well-constructed tale of medical discovery and corporate coverup, set in morgues, laboratories, courtrooms, and football fields.

Nigeria-born Bennet Omalu is perhaps an unlikely hero, a medical doctor board-certified in four areas of pathology, “anatomic, clinical, forensic, and neuropathology,” and a well-rounded specialist in death. When his boss, celebrity examiner Cyril Wecht (“in the autopsy business, Wecht was a rock star”), got into trouble for various specimens of publicity-hound overreach, Omalu was there to offer patient, stoical support. The student did not surpass the teacher in flashiness, but Omalu was a rock star all his own in studying the brain to determine a cause of death. Laskas’ (Creative Writing/Univ. of Pittsburgh; Hidden America, 2012, etc.) main topic is the horrific injuries wrought to the brains and bodies of football players on the field. Omalu’s study of the unfortunate brain of Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster, who died in 2002 at 50 of a supposed heart attack, brought new attention to the trauma of concussion. Laskas trades in sportwriter-ese, all staccato delivery full of tough guyisms and sports clichés: “He had played for fifteen seasons, a warrior’s warrior; he played in more games—two hundred twenty—than any other player in Steelers history. Undersized, tough, a big, burly white guy—a Pittsburgh kind of guy—the heart of the best team in history.” A little of that goes a long way, but Laskas, a Pittsburgher who first wrote of Omalu and his studies in a story in GQ, does sturdy work in keeping up with a grim story that the NFL most definitely did not want to see aired—not in Omalu’s professional publications in medical journals, nor, reportedly, on the big screen in the Will Smith vehicle based on this book.

Effectively sobering. Suffice it to say that Pop Warner parents will want to armor their kids from head to toe upon reading it.

Pub Date: Nov. 24, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8757-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 15, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2015

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