Quick Review: THREE-RING CIRCUS by Jeff Pearlman (HMH)

PearlmanJ-ThreeRingCircusUSAn amusing, irreverent account of the Lakers of Kobe, Shaq, and Phil Jackson

The story of the Lakers dynasty from 1996 through 2004, when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal combined — and collided — to help bring the Lakers three straight championships and restore the franchise as a powerhouse 

In the history of modern sport, there have never been two high-level teammates who loathed each other the way Shaquille O’Neal loathed Kobe Bryant, and Kobe Bryant loathed Shaquille O’Neal. From public sniping and sparring, to physical altercations and the repeated threats of trade, it was warfare. And yet, despite eight years of infighting and hostility, by turns mediated and encouraged by coach Phil Jackson, the Shaq-Kobe duo resulted in one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history. Together, the two led the Lakers to three straight championships and returned glory and excitement to Los Angeles.

I’m not sure I can remember a time when I didn’t know the names “Kobe Bryant” and, especially, “Shaquille O’Neal”. This despite not having access to NBA games (in person or on TV) until Kobe’s final year in the League, and after Shaq had retired. I knew they’d won the championship together at least twice, but that was it. When Pearlman’s Three-Ring Circus popped up on my radar, I knew I had to read it. And I’m very glad I did: it’s a detailed, irreverent and (seemingly) balanced account of the tense years leading up to and including the Lakers’ three-peat. I really enjoyed it. Continue reading

Very Quick Review: KG: A TO Z by Kevin Garnett (Simon & Schuster)

GarnettK-KGAtoZAn interesting and unorthodox memoir from one of Boston’s Big Three

A unique, unfiltered memoir from the NBA champion and fifteen-time all-star ahead of his induction into the Hall of Fame.

Kevin Garnett was one of the most dominant players the game of basketball has ever seen. He was also one of its most outspoken. Over the course of his illustrious twenty-one-year NBA career, he elevated trash talk to an art form and never shied away from sharing his thoughts on controversial subjects. In KG A to Z, published ahead of Garnett’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, he looks back on his life and career with the same raw candor.

Garnett describes the adversity he faced growing up in South Carolina before ultimately relocating to Chicago, where he became one of the top prospects in the nation. He details his headline-making decision to skip college and become the first player in two decades to enter the draft directly from high school, starting a trend that would be followed by future superstars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. He shares stories of playing with and against Bryant, James, Michael Jordan, and other NBA greats, and he chronicles his professional ups and downs, including winning a championship with the Boston Celtics. He also speaks his mind on a range of topics beyond basketball, such as fame, family, racism, spirituality, and music.

Garnett’s draft decision wasn’t the only way he’d forever change the game. His ability to play on the perimeter as a big man foreshadowed the winning strategy now universally adopted by the league. He applies this same innovative spirit here, organizing the contents alphabetically as an encyclopedia. If you thought Kevin Garnett was exciting, inspiring, and unfiltered on the court, just wait until you read what he has to say in these pages.

Kevin Garnett — long-time Minnesota Timberwolves star, member of the Boston Celtics championship-winning Big Three. KG is one of my in-laws’ favourite players. As I’ve mentioned (probably too frequently, now), I grew up loving the game of basketball, but completely cut off from access to the NBA. So, after reading Michael Holley’s The Big Three, I was keen to learn more about the eponymous trio. Garnett’s memoir, which I ‘read’ as an audiobook, offers an interesting, well-told, and engaging insight into one of the NBA’s great players. Continue reading

Upcoming: ALWAYS CRASHING IN THE SAME CAR by Matthew Specktor (Tin House)

SpecktorM-AlwaysCrashingInTheSameCarUSBack in 2013, I read and enjoyed Matthew Specktor‘s American Dream Machine — a novel about Hollywood, fathers, and the ways in which the entertainment industry has evolved over the decades. This year, Specktor has a new book coming out: Always Crashing in the Same Car. It’s pitched as a blend of memoir and criticism that “explores family legacy, the lives of artists, and a city that embodies both dreams and disillusionment”. I’m really looking forward to giving this a read. Here’s the synopsis:

In 2006, Matthew Specktor moved into a crumbling Los Angeles apartment opposite the one in which F. Scott Fitzgerald spent the last moments of his life. Fitz had been Specktor’s first literary idol, someone whose own passage through Hollywood had, allegedly, broken him. Freshly divorced, professionally flailing, and reeling from his mother’s cancer diagnosis, Specktor was feeling unmoored. But rather than giving in or “cracking up,” he embarked on an obsessive journey to make sense of the mythologies of “success” and “failure” that haunt the artist’s life and the American imagination.

Part memoir, part cultural history, part portrait of place, Always Crashing in the Same Car explores Hollywood through a certain kind of collapse. It’s a vibrant and intimate inspection of failure told through the lives of iconic, if under-sung, artists — Carole Eastman, Eleanor Perry, Warren Zevon, Tuesday Weld, and Hal Ashby, among others — and the author’s own family history. Through this constellation of Hollywood figures, he unearths a fascinating alternate history of the city that raised him and explores the ways in which curtailed ambition, insufficiency, and loss shape all our lives.

At once deeply personal and broadly erudite, it is a story of an art form (the movies), a city (Los Angeles), and one person’s attempt to create meaning out of both. Above all, Specktor creates a moving search for optimism alongside the inevitability of failure and reveals the still-resonant power of art to help us navigate the beautiful ruins that await us all.

Matthew Specktor’s Always Crashing in the Same Car is due to be published by Tin House in North America and in the UK, on July 27th, 2021.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

Upcoming: EVERYTHING NOW by Rosecrans Baldwin (MCD)

BaldwinR-EverythingNowUSLike a lot of people who don’t live there, I am fascinated by Los Angeles. It’s a city I’ve visited only three times, but each time it captured my imagination. My favourite crime series is set there (Connelly’s Bosch), many other favourite novels are set in or around Los Angeles, and I’m also fascinated by the workings and behind-the-scenes of Hollywood. I have not, however, read much general history or non-fiction about the city and/or region. This summer, there are a couple of books that have caught my attention. The first is Everything Now by Rosecrans Baldwin. Here’s the synopsis:

A provocative, exhilaratingly new understanding of America’s most confounding metropolis — not just a great city, but a full-blown modern city-state

America is obsessed with Los Angeles. And America has been thinking about Los Angeles all wrong, for decades, on repeat. Los Angeles is not just the place where the American dream hits the Pacific. Not just the end of the line anymore. Not just the vanishing point of America’s western drive. Not just a city.

Los Angeles is best understood as a city-state. Functionally, aesthetically, mythologically, even technologically — a small independent territory, a sovereign place, a city and surrounding regions bound together by population density and an aura of autonomy and a sense of unfurling destiny. This is Los Angeles.

Deeply researched and reported, provocatively argued, and eloquently sung, Rosecrans Baldwin’s Everything Now reveals the borders and probes the ecology of this Great American City-State, enumerates its cultural treasures and economic prowess, hails its heroes and charts its landmarks, plumbs its social and economic history, catalogs its canonical literature (from John Fante to Joan Didion to Mike Davis to Octavia Butler), probes its religions and spiritual practices, its languages and cuisines, and seeks the keys to its future. It is a protean, vibrant place — vastly more than its many, many parts.

Welcome to Los Angeles, the Great American City-State.

Rosecrans Baldwin’s Everything Now is due to be published by MCD in North America and in the UK, on June 15th, 2021.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

Upcoming: WATCHING DARKNESS FALL by David McKean (St. Martin’s Press)

McKeanD-WatchingDarknessFallI’ve been reading a lot of German history for work, this year. Starting from the formation of a unified Germany, and stretching to the end of the Cold War, it’s been an interesting exercise. I’m always on the look-out for new books that offer something slightly different to recommend to students and others who might be interested. There are, of course, entire libraries available covering Hitler’s rise and WW2. Many of these books follow a similar approach, which is fine but a tad repetitive. So, when I spotted David McKean‘s Watching Darkness Fall on Edelweiss, it caught my attention: it is an account of FDR’s ambassadors in Europe’s response to Hitler’s rise. I’m really looking forward to reading this. Here’s the synopsis:

The story of how the United States government underestimated the deadly rise of fascism before World War II.

As German tanks rolled toward Paris in late May 1940, the U.S. Ambassador to France, William Bullitt, was determined to stay put, holed up in the Chateau St. Firmin in Chantilly, his country residence. Bullitt told the president that he would neither evacuate the embassy nor his chateau, an eighteenth Renaissance manse with a wine cellar of over 18,000 bottles, even though “we have only two revolvers in this entire mission with only forty bullets.”

Watching Darkness Fall will recount the rise of the Third Reich in Germany and the road to war from the perspective of five American diplomats in Europe who witnessed it firsthand: Joseph Kennedy, William Dodd, Breckinridge Long, William Bullitt, and George Kennan, who all served in key Western European capitals — London, Berlin, Rome, Paris, and Moscow — in the years prior to World War II. In many ways they were America’s first line of defense and they often communicated with the president directly, as Roosevelt’s eyes and ears on the ground. Unfortunately, most of them underestimated the power and resolve of Adolph Hitler and Germany’s Third Reich.

Watching Darkness Fall is a gripping new history of the years leading up to and the beginning of WWII in Europe told through the lives of five well-educated and mostly wealthy men all vying for the attention of the man in the Oval Office.

David McKean’s Watching Darkness Fall is due to be published by St. Martin’s Press in North America and in the UK, on November 2nd, 2021.

Follow the Author: Goodreads

Quick Review: BUBBLEBALL by Ben Golliver (Abrams Press)

GolliverB-BubbleballUSAn excellent account of life in the NBA bubble

A captivating account of the NBA’s strangest season ever, from shutdown to championship, from a prominent national basketball writer living inside the bubble

When NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020, the league shut down immediately, bringing a shocking, sudden pause to the season. As the pandemic raged, it looked as if it might be the first year in league history with no champion. But four months later, after meticulous planning, twenty-two teams resumed play in a “bub­ble” at Disney World-a restricted, single-site locale cut off from the outside world.

Due to health concerns, the league invited only a handful of reporters, who were required to sacrifice medical privacy, live in a hotel room for more than three months, and submit to daily coronavirus test­ing in hopes of keeping the bubble from bursting. In exchange for the constant monitoring and restricted movement, they were allowed into a basketball fan’s dream, with a courtside seat at dozens of games in nearly empty arenas.

Ben Golliver, the national NBA writer for the The Washington Post, was one of those allowed access. Bubbleball is his account of the season and life inside, telling the story of how basketball bounced back from its shutdown, how players staged headline-grabbing social justice protests, and how Lakers star LeBron James chased his fourth ring in unconventional and unforgettable circumstances. Based on months of reporting in the exclusive, confined environment, this is an entertaining record of an extraordinary season.

“March 11, 2020, the day that the balls stopped bouncing.” After Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the 2019-20 NBA season was brought to an abrupt end. For the billion dollar business/league, this led to a frantic period of planning and strategizing to find a way to safely save the season. I love watching and playing basketball, but I would be lying if I said the paused season was at the forefront of my mind in the early days of the pandemic. For Ben Golliver, however, the abrupt end to the NBA season was potentially life-changing: the Washington Post‘s NBA correspondent, it meant his job came to a screeching halt, too. As the NBA maneuvered to save the season, Golliver was approved to attend the whole Bubble-season in Florida. This is his engaging, well-written account of those three months.
Continue reading

Quick Review: STRANGERS ON THE PRAIA by Paul French (Blacksmith Books)

FrenchP-StrangersOnThePraiaAn interesting and well-written history of the Wartime immigrant experience in Macau

Based on true stories and new research, Paul French weaves together the stories of those Jewish refugees who moved on from wartime Shanghai to seek a possible route to freedom via the Portuguese colony of Macao – “the Casablanca of the Orient”.

The delicately balanced neutral enclave became their wartime home, amid Nazi and Japanese spies, escaped Allied prisoners from Hong Kong, and displaced Chinese.

Strangers on the Praia relates the story of one young woman’s struggle for freedom that would ultimately prove an act of brave resistance.

It should come as no surprise to long-time CR readers that I’m a fan of Paul French’s work. He has carved out a niche for himself as one of the best historians of inter-war China and, in particular, Shanghai. In Strangers on the Praia, he takes a slightly different tack, and gives readers a short, engaging look at the life of refugees in wartime Macao. Well-written, informative, and an excellent read. Continue reading

Very Quick Review: BECOMING A FILM PRODUCER by Boris Kachka (Simon & Schuster)

KachkaB-MaW-BecomingAFilmProducerAn interesting primer for anyone interested in a career in movie production

A revealing guide to a career as a film producer written by acclaimed author Boris Kachka and based on the real-life experiences of Academy Award–winning producer Fred Berger and Oscar-nominated producer Michael London — required reading for anyone considering a path to this profession.

Becoming a Film Producer takes you behind the scenes to find out what it’s really like, and what it really takes, to become a film producer. Bestselling author and critic Boris Kachka shadows Academy Award–winning producer Fred Berger and Oscar-nominated producer Michael London to show how this dream job becomes a reality. At the center of any successful film is a talented producer. Producers bring films to life by assembling the major players — from screenwriters, directors, and talent, to, perhaps most importantly, the money. Fly between Los Angeles and New York as movies are developed, filmed, and released. Gain insight and wisdom from Berger and London’s years of experience producing films ranging from the indie darlings Sideways and Milk, to Academy Award–winning blockbusters like La La Land. Here is how the job is performed at the highest level.

This book, part of Simon & Schuster’s “Masters at Work” series, is an excellent introduction to what it means to be a film and/or TV producer. With three producers, at different points in their careers, as case studies, Kachka gives readers a look into this world: what it takes, the various roles a producer must play, and also the shifts and changes in the industry over the past few decades. Well-written and accessible, I really enjoyed this. Continue reading

Reading the Presidency: The Biden Administration

ReadingPresidency-BidenAdmin

Now that America has a new president, those of us who are interested in American politics and the people involved in policy-making have the opportunity to read a whole new raft of books. To help navigate the glut of books, I thought I’d compile a quick list of the books that might be of most interest. The list is not comprehensive, and I hope to update it as administration members are confirmed (I may be jumping the gun with some of these), and also as new books are announced and published. Continue reading

Very Quick Review: BRAT, AN 80s STORY by Andrew McCarthy (Grand Central)

McCarthyA-BratUSLumped in with the Brat Pack of the 1980s, this is McCarthy’s story of the era

Most people know Andrew McCarthy from his movie roles in Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, Weekend at Bernie’s, and Less than Zero, and as a charter member of Hollywood’s Brat Pack. That iconic group of ingenues and heartthrobs included Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, and Demi Moore, and has come to represent both a genre of film and an era of pop culture.

In his memoir Brat: An ’80s Story, McCarthy focuses his gaze on that singular moment in time. The result is a revealing look at coming of age in a maelstrom, reckoning with conflicted ambition, innocence, addiction, and masculinity. New York City of the 1980s is brought to vivid life in these pages, from scoring loose joints in Washington Square Park to skipping school in favor of the dark revival houses of the Village where he fell in love with the movies that would change his life.

Filled with personal revelations of innocence lost to heady days in Hollywood with John Hughes and an iconic cast of characters, Brat is a surprising and intimate story of an outsider caught up in a most unwitting success.

I spotted this book in one of the publisher’s catalogues a little while ago, but I couldn’t place the author. The cover photo didn’t call to mind any movies that I’ve seen — although, after reading Brat, that kind of made sense: I have seen surprisingly few of the movies from the Brat Pack era, despite being quite familiar with the actors’ post-1980s work. After checking IMDb, I learned that I’ve only seen McCarthy in two roles (in The Joy Luck Club and two episodes of White Collar). I have, however, seen a lot of the stuff he’s directed. When the book became available for review, I was in-between books, and decided to dive right in. It’s a short memoir, but one that does offer some interesting tidbits for anyone interested in this particular segment of movie history. Continue reading