Some quibbles aside, this is sports escapism brought to new and entertaining heights.




More than 30 what-if stories that reinvent sports history, and perhaps the greater national history.

Former NPR sports reporter Pesca, host of the Slate podcast The Gist, asked his contributors to give the full trajectory of the what-if, not just how one game may have played out had Bill Buckner not booted a routine ground ball or Drew Bledsoe not gotten hurt and given way to Tom Brady. The author wants the bigger picture: how it might have changed the sport, a life, the politics of a nation, or paved over major cultural roadblocks, like racism. That is a tall order for rather short fantasies—roughly five to 10 pages—but a surprising number pull it off. “What If Nixon Had Been Good at Football?” by Julian Zelizer, is a wonderful little psycho-sporting profile that presents Nixon as a confident, honest, comfortable-in-his-own-skin man. “What If Roger Bannister Trained Today?” asks Liam Boylan-Pett. Instead of squeezing in a few hours per week between medical school classes, what if he had followed today’s rigorous training regimens? Probably a new world record. What if Muhammad Ali had gotten his draft deferment? What if professional football were invented today? With what we know about head trauma, we might have very different play and players. For those readers who are intimate with a particular event—e.g., what if Billie-Jean King had lost to the huckster Bobby Riggs? What if Brady hadn’t stepped in for the injured Bledsoe?—these counterfactual stories may feel thin on the bone. There are, for instance, lots of reasons besides Brady that the New England Patriots are the dynasty they have become, and it does feel like coaches, other players, and the general state of the sport at the time get short shrift. Other notable contributors include Leigh Montville, Jeremy Schaap, Will Leitch, and Mary Pilon.

Some quibbles aside, this is sports escapism brought to new and entertaining heights.

Pub Date: May 15, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4555-4036-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Twelve

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2018

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An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.


A study of swimming as sport, survival method, basis for community, and route to physical and mental well-being.

For Bay Area writer Tsui (American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods, 2009), swimming is in her blood. As she recounts, her parents met in a Hong Kong swimming pool, and she often visited the beach as a child and competed on a swim team in high school. Midway through the engaging narrative, the author explains how she rejoined the team at age 40, just as her 6-year-old was signing up for the first time. Chronicling her interviews with scientists and swimmers alike, Tsui notes the many health benefits of swimming, some of which are mental. Swimmers often achieve the “flow” state and get their best ideas while in the water. Her travels took her from the California coast, where she dove for abalone and swam from Alcatraz back to San Francisco, to Tokyo, where she heard about the “samurai swimming” martial arts tradition. In Iceland, she met Guðlaugur Friðþórsson, a local celebrity who, in 1984, survived six hours in a winter sea after his fishing vessel capsized, earning him the nickname “the human seal.” Although humans are generally adapted to life on land, the author discovered that some have extra advantages in the water. The Bajau people of Indonesia, for instance, can do 10-minute free dives while hunting because their spleens are 50% larger than average. For most, though, it’s simply a matter of practice. Tsui discussed swimming with Dara Torres, who became the oldest Olympic swimmer at age 41, and swam with Kim Chambers, one of the few people to complete the daunting Oceans Seven marathon swim challenge. Drawing on personal experience, history, biology, and social science, the author conveys the appeal of “an unflinching giving-over to an element” and makes a convincing case for broader access to swimming education (372,000 people still drown annually).

An absorbing, wide-ranging story of humans’ relationship with the water.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-61620-786-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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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...


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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