Quick Review: CAN’T KNOCK THE HUSTLE by Matt Sullivan (Dey Street Books)

SullivanM-CantKnockTheHustleUSA behind-the-scenes account of the 2019-2020 NBA season, by way of the notorious Brooklyn Nets and basketball’s renaissance as a cultural force beyond the game.

The Nets were already the most intriguing startup in the NBA: a team of influencers, entrepreneurs and activists, starring the controversial Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But this dynasty-in-the-making got disrupted by the unforeseen. One tweet launched an international scandal, pitting the team’s Chinese owner and the league’s commissioner against its players and LeBron James. The sudden death of Kobe Bryant, after making his final public appearance in Brooklyn, sent shockwaves through a turbulent season.

Then came the unimaginable. A global pandemic and a new civil-rights movement put basketball’s trend-setting status to the ultimate test, as business and culture followed the lead of the NBA and its empowered stars. No team intersected with the extremes of 2020 quite like the Brooklyn Nets, and Matt Sullivan had a courtside view.

Can’t Knock the Hustle crosses from on the court, where underdogs confront A-listers like Jay-Z and James Harden, to off the court, as players march through the streets of Brooklyn, provoke Donald Trump at the White House, and boycott the NBA’s bubble experiment in Disney World. 

Hundreds of interviews — with Hall-of-Famers, All-Stars, executives, coaches and power-brokers across the world — provide a backdrop of the NBA’s impact on social media, race, politics, health, fashion, fame and fandom, for a portrait of a time when sports brought us back together again, like never before. 

Matt Sullivan’s Can’t Knock the Hustle is, quite possibly, one of the best basketball books available. Counterintuitively, this is in large part because it’s not all about basketball — rather, the Brooklyn Nets and other athletes and personnel who make an appearance, are a lens through which readers see the changing political and social landscape of America. Expertly written, I really enjoyed this. Continue reading

Quick Review: EVERYTHING NOW by Rosecrans Baldwin (MCD)

BaldwinR-EverythingNowUSLessons from the city-state of Los Angeles

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. (It has its own dreams.) Not just the vanishing point of America’s western drive. (It has its own compass.) Functionally, aesthetically, mythologically, even technologically, an independent territory, defined less by distinct borders than by an aura of autonomy and a sense of unfurling destiny — this is the city-state of Los Angeles.

Deeply reported and researched, provocatively argued, and eloquently written, Rosecrans Baldwin’s Everything Now approaches the metropolis from unexpected angles, nimbly interleaving his own voice with a chorus of others, from canonical L.A. literature to everyday citizens. Here, Octavia E. Butler and Joan Didion are in conversation with activists and astronauts, vampires and veterans. Baldwin records the stories of countless Angelenos, discovering people both upended and reborn: by disasters natural and economic, following gospels of wealth or self-help or personal destiny. The result is a story of a kaleidoscopic, vibrant nation unto itself — vastly more than its many, many parts.

Baldwin’s concept of the city-state allows us, finally, to grasp a place — Los Angeles — whose idiosyncrasies both magnify those of America, and are so fully its own. Here, space and time don’t quite work the same as they do elsewhere, and contradictions are as stark as southern California’s natural environment. Perhaps no better place exists to watch the United States’s past, and its possible futures, play themselves out.

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

It’s not just America that’s obsessed with Los Angeles. I’ve long been fascinated by the city (even though I’m not sure I’d like to live there). It’s one of my favourite fiction locations, and its diverse and fragmented nature allows for incredible variation in the novels, TV series and movies set within it. In Everything Now, Baldwin does a very good job of showing us the city from a number of different angles — some familiar, some new, all interesting. An interesting and engaging journey through various facets of Los Angeles, I enjoyed this. Continue reading

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

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

Upcoming: WHILE JUSTICE SLEEPS by Stacey Abrams (Doubleday/Harper Collins UK)

AbramsS-WhileJusticeSleepsUSBest known as one of the most charismatic, capable, and compelling American politicians of the day, Stacey Abrams is also an author of fiction, and has been for quite some time. I haven’t had a chance to read any of her novels, yet, but While Justice Sleeps — due out later this year — looks very interesting. I’m really looking forward to reading this one:

Avery Keene, a brilliant young law clerk for the legendary Justice Howard Wynn, is doing her best to hold her life together — excelling in an arduous job with the court while also dealing with a troubled family. When the shocking news breaks that Justice Wynn — the cantankerous swing vote on many current high-profile cases — has slipped into a coma, Avery’s life turns upside down. She is immediately notified that Justice Wynn has left instructions for her to serve as his legal guardian and power of attorney. Plunged into an explosive role she never anticipated, Avery finds that Justice Wynn had been secretly researching one of the most controversial cases before the court — a proposed merger between an American biotech company and an Indian genetics firm, which promises to unleash breathtaking results in the medical field. She also discovers that Wynn suspected a dangerously related conspiracy that infiltrates the highest power corridors of Washington.

AbramsS-WhileJusticeSleepsUKAs political wrangling ensues in Washington to potentially replace the ailing judge whose life and survival Avery controls, she begins to unravel a carefully constructed, chesslike sequence of clues left behind by Wynn. She comes to see that Wynn had a much more personal stake in the controversial case and realizes his complex puzzle will lead her directly into harm’s way in order to find the truth. While Justice Sleeps is a cunningly crafted, sophisticated novel, layered with myriad twists and a vibrant cast of characters. Drawing on her astute inside knowledge of the court and political landscape, Stacey Abrams shows herself to be not only a force for good in politics and voter fairness but also a major new talent in suspense fiction.

Stacey Abrams’s While Justice Sleeps is due to be published by Doubleday in the US and Canada (May 11th), and Harper Collins in the UK (May 27th).

Follow the Author: Goodreads, Twitter

Upcoming: AFTER THE FALL by Ben Rhodes (Random House)

RhodesB-AfterTheFallUSBen Rhodes was one of President Obama’s longest-serving aides, and is a frequent contributor to various Crooked Media podcasts — in particularly, Pod Save the World. He is also the author of the excellent The World As It Is, his memoir of government service and also examination of foreign policy during the Obama years. In 2021, he has a new book coming out, which I am very eager to read: After The Fall: Being American in the World We Made.

Why is the world turning away from liberal democracy? And what can we do about it? The former deputy national security advisor to President Barack Obama and New York Times bestselling author of The World as It Is travels the globe in a deeply personal, beautifully observed quest for answers.

In 2017, as Ben Rhodes was helping former president Barack Obama begin his next chapter, the legacy they worked to build for eight years was being taken apart. To understand what was happening in his own country, Rhodes decided to look outward, at the wider world. Over the next three years, he traveled to dozens of countries, meeting with politicians, dissidents, and activists confronting the same forces that produced the Trump presidency: spreading nationalism, authoritarianism, and disinformation. Along the way, he was spied on by former Mossad operatives and the Chinese government, met with Hong Kong protesters and Russian oppositionists, and found people from Europe to Asia to the United States struggling to reconcile their own identities with the crude nationalism of their leaders — all while pursuing new strategies to fight back.

Equal parts memoir and reporting, After the Fall is an ambitious and essential work of discovery. Throughout, Rhodes reflects on how the 2008 financial crisis completed a collapse of public confidence in America, globalization, and democracy itself, opening a door to the wave of strongman leaders who have transformed our world — men like Viktor Orban in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Xi Jinping in China. He wrestles with how peoples’ yearning for identity and belonging has been weaponized by nationalists. And he learns from a diverse set of characters — from Obama to rebels to rising politicians–how we can choose a more hopeful story going forward.

Ben Rhodes’s After the Fall is due to be published by Random House in North America, on June 1st, 2021. (I couldn’t find any details of a UK edition at the time of writing.)

Follow the Author: Goodreads, Twitter

Quick Review: TO START A WAR by Robert Draper (Penguin Press)

DraperD-ToStartAWarUSHCAn interesting, well-written, and extensive investigation into what the US went to war with Iraq

Even now, after more than fifteen years, it is hard to see the invasion of Iraq through the cool, considered gaze of history. For too many people, the damage is still too palpable, and still unfolding. Most of the major players in that decision are still with us, and few of them are not haunted by it, in one way or another. Perhaps it’s that combination, the passage of the years and the still unresolved trauma, that explains why so many protagonists opened up so fully for the first time to Robert Draper.

Draper’s prodigious reporting has yielded scores of consequential new revelations, from the important to the merely absurd. As a whole, the book paints a vivid and indelible picture of a decision-making process that was fatally compromised by a combination of post-9/11 fear and paranoia, rank naïveté, craven groupthink, and a set of actors with idées fixes who gamed the process relentlessly. Everything was believed; nothing was true. The intelligence failure was comprehensive. Draper’s fair-mindedness and deep understanding of the principal actors suffuse his account, as does a storytelling genius that is close to sorcery. There are no cheap shots here, which makes the ultimate conclusion all the more damning.

In the spirit of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and Marc Bloch’s Strange Defeat, To Start A War will stand as the definitive account of a collective process that arrived at evidence that would prove to be not just dubious but entirely false, driven by imagination rather than a quest for truth — evidence that was then used to justify a verdict that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and a flood tide of chaos in the Middle East that shows no signs of ebbing.

“Why did Bush et al shift their focus from Afghanistan and al Qaeda to Saddam and Iraq?” This is a question that many have been trying to answer, with varying degrees of success ever since the shift happened. In his latest book, Draper presents an account of how the United States ended up in Iraq. It’s an interesting, wide-ranging investigation. Continue reading

Review: THE PEOPLE, NO by Thomas Frank (Metropolitan Books)

FrankT-PeopleNoUSThe interesting, if flawed history of American populism and its corruption by the elite

Rarely does a work of history contain startling implications for the present, but in The People, No Thomas Frank pulls off that explosive effect by showing us that everything we think we know about populism is wrong. Today “populism” is seen as a frightening thing, a term pundits use to describe the racist philosophy of Donald Trump and European extremists. But this is a mistake.

The real story of populism is an account of enlightenment and liberation; it is the story of American democracy itself, of its ever-widening promise of a decent life for all. Taking us from the tumultuous 1890s, when the radical left-wing Populist Party — the biggest mass movement in American history — fought Gilded Age plutocrats to the reformers’ great triumphs under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Frank reminds us how much we owe to the populist ethos. Frank also shows that elitist groups have reliably detested populism, lashing out at working-class concerns. The anti-populist vituperations by the Washington centrists of today are only the latest expression.

Frank pummels the elites, revisits the movement’s provocative politics, and declares true populism to be the language of promise and optimism. The People, No is a ringing affirmation of a movement that, Frank shows us, is not the problem of our times, but the solution for what ails us.

I’ve been a fan of Thomas Frank’s writing for some time, now. His books have offered plenty of interesting and incisive examinations and critiques of American politics, culture, and economics. In The People, No, he turns his attention to “populism”: a term that has become quite ubiquitous in the age of Trump, but it is a term that is widely misunderstood. Frank provides a history of this movement, and explains how it has been twisted for nefarious ends. Continue reading

Quick Review: BROKEN by Don Winslow (William Morrow)

WinslowD-BrokenUSHCA must-read collection of interlinked crime novellas

In six intense short novels connected by the themes of crime, corruption, vengeance, justice, loss, betrayal, guilt and redemption, Broken is #1 international bestseller Don Winslow at his nerve-shattering, heart-stopping, heartbreaking best. InBroken, he creates a world of high-level thieves and low-life crooks, obsessed cops struggling with life on and off the job, private detectives, dope dealers, bounty hunters and fugitives, the lost souls driving without headlights through the dark night on the American criminal highway.

With his trademark blend of insight, humanity, humor, action and the highest level of literary craftsmanship, Winslow delivers a collection of tales that will become classics of crime fiction

I’m a relative newcomer to Don Winslow’s novels. Since reading The Force, however, he has become a must-read author for me. Broken is his latest book: a superb, gripping collection of six novellas. Each takes a different look at the crime, mystery and/or thriller genres. One of my most-anticipated books of the year, I’m very happy to report that it absolutely met my very high expectations. I thoroughly enjoyed this. Continue reading