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North of Toronto, South of a championship

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Book Review: The Power Broker – Robert A. Caro

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New YorkThe Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro

A towering, monumental biography of a huge, powerful civil servant, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is a hell of a biography. It illuminates all the aspects of Robert Moses, who build up New York in a way nobody else had before and probably never will again.

Here’s a good way to sum up Moses. Right from the earliest points of his career, he led crusades to build parks for the general public, arguing with the robber barons who controlled the land he wanted and had the money to fight him. At the same time, he worked in ways of keeping the urban poor – minorities, generally – from using his parks and wasn’t above lying to people to get them to do what he wanted and dropping them the second they stopped being useful.

Or consider this. At one point, Moses was simultaneously building a huge hydroelectric dam, the world’s longest suspension bridge and planning a world’s fair. When he was in his 70s.

Caro’s book has all this and more. It’s huge and impressively detailed. It goes the gamut of his life, going through Moses days at Oxford and up to his fall from power in the late 1960s. It covers the ups, downs and many, many moves of power that Moses made to crush people in his way. They could’ve been anyone: newspaper reporters, mayors and other elected officials, even entire neighbourhoods. He didn’t care about anything, anyone but himself. Caro captures this arrogant, aloof attitude, which is why this book is so compelling: the average writer might have simply written off Moses as someone who grew old and out of touch; Caro shows him as a ruthless manipulator who was unwilling to bend to anyone, even the President of the United States.

It’s more than just that, though. Caro’s book doubles as a history of New York City through the 20th century, from the days when Tammany Hall controlled the city, up through the troubled mayoralty of John Lindsay. He explains the shifts in population, the way the city’s power shifted between parties and the rise of a more outspoken media. But where he comes through most is the rise of the automobile and it’s relationship to the city.

Which was Moses doing. More than anything – even the parks which made him famous and powerful – Moses was a highway-building man. He built parkways, highways and bridges. Toll-collecting made his Triborough Authority richer than any other authority in the city and Moses extensive ideas and planning for highways gave him a grip of power on the city. He didn’t just have the ideas for how cars should flow through the city, but he was the only guy with both the power and the money to get it done. And he did. His parkways gutted homesteads, slashed through neighbourhood and caused more congestion than they did relieve drivers.

It goes deeper: the specific ways in which Moses built his highways defined how the city would be shaped long after he was gone. He built bridges so low that buses couldn’t use the parkways, limiting them to the middle-class and higher. He evicted scores of people, pushing them into already-packed slums and public housing and destroyed neighborhoods. And his refusal to even consider public transit meant subways and trains wouldn’t have a part, but they never would: by the time he was finished, the land would be too expensive to buy.

Did Moses care? Hardly. As Caro relates, this was a man who laughed at people who were angry with him, scorned those who dared challenge him and refused to talk to anyone who wasn’t there to help him. He was arrogant, yes, but he had built himself so powerful he didn’t need anyone’s help, really.

And, as Caro relates in the book’s final sections, this arrogance undid Moses. He fought with the press, with the city and even people who wanted to put on free plays in the park. It’s a cliche, but I kept thinking of Lord Acton’s old line about power.

At well over 1,000 pages, Caro’s book is pretty weighty (even makes a nice dull thud when you drop it on a desk), is packed with numbers and figures and can occasionally get a tad overwhelming. But it never lets up on the drive and once Moses drive for power and arrogance towards everyone starts getting in his way, the book takes on a new power. Perhaps it’s because Caro was around for those battles, but maybe it’s just because Moses started losing these fights.

But the last quarter of this book is as exciting, as riveting as anything Caro’s written in his Lyndon Johnson biographies – if I had to rank it among those, it’s slightly behind the third volume, which is my favourite of the four, and just ahead of volumes two, four and one (in order). Granted, I would’ve liked to see more maps and maybe a postscript of what’s happened since this was first published, but those are minor gripes. If you’re looking for a political biography, how people carve out a position of power for themselves and keep it, this is your book. Recommended.

Rating: 8/10

Book Review: Please Kill Me – Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of PunkPlease Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

An oral history of the punk movement, Please Kill Me is a gossipy, entertaining read but one with a small scope and stories that’ve circulated for years.

The thing about punk rock is how ingrained it’s become in music culture, which is kind of surprising when you think about it’s origin as backlash to more pompous forms of 70s rock.

After all, back in the mid 70s, bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer could sell out Madison Square Garden and were featured on TV specials like California Jam. This was a band that didn’t have a guitar and played covers of classical standards like Pictures at an Exhibition! It wasn’t exactly the greatest time for rock, really.

Punk was kind of a reaction to that; it was simple, loud, aggressive music. But it went deeper, with influences ranging from Chuck Berry to The Velvet Underground to The Stooges. And it wasn’t just a reaction, it was often musicians finding their own styles and then co-mingling with other, like minded musicians and sharing influences. After all, punk only really became punk after bands like The Ramones, Blondie and Television started playing at CBGB’s.

Please Kill Me starts with the influences but generally sticks to New York City and even then, generally to a handful of bands: Iggy Pop, The Ramones, The Heartbreakers, Television and a few others. By no means is it complete: there’s scarcely a mention of Talking Heads, for example. And other cities almost barely get into the picture: there’s nothing about the scene in Toronto, Boston or Los Angeles.

And really, it seemed like most of the stories here followed the same general format: some male musician got really loaded on booze or heroin and made an ass out of themselves, usually in public. The characters and setting change, but the story’s the same, be it with Iggy Pop, Sid Vicious or Stiv Bators. There’s a lot of behaving badly; maybe when I was 15 I’d have read this and thought they were cool, self-destructive people but now? I just see them and get kind of sad.

Because at it’s heart, this is a tragic, almost mournful book. There were a handful of geniuses involved in punk and a bunch of talented musicians. But, by and large, they all burned out and faded away without leaving too much behind. It’s really kind of sad.

Take Johnny Thunders, for example. Here was a hell of a guitarist and someone who could write a pretty good song when he set his mind to it. And, as is noted in the book, bands throughout the 80s and beyond made tons of money by aping his style, both in clothing and on the fretboard. But what did Thunders leave behind? A good New York Dolls album and a couple of memorable singles: “You Can’t Wrap Your Arms Around A Memory,” and “Chinese Rocks,” which he didn’t even write.

Indeed, Iggy Pop looms large in these pages, both as a character and as an influence. When he came into the picture, there wasn’t really anyone like him: Iggy was dangerous, in your face and captivating. But he also was addicted to, well, whatever you had on hand and probably almost died more times than anyone can bother to count. And the thing about him is, people tried to be him. They did as much smack, drank as much booze and lived as hard as he did. Iggy was lucky; he’s still alive. Many of his followers featured from this book aren’t.

At the same time, some people were able to leap out from the fringes and into the mainstream thanks to punk. Take Patti Smith, for example: in only a few years, she went from performing in front of small crowds at St. Mark’s church to selling out stadiums in Europe, while still generally sticking to the same material. (But then again, Patti was a shark; there’s more than a few stories here about her poaching talented musicians from other groups for her own! David Bowie would be proud!)

Still, for music nerds and people generally interested in the history of punk, there’s plenty to chew on. There are stories about the Dolls playing at the Mercer Arts Center, fascinating looks into the early days of CBGB’s and many legendary bands and, most interesting of all, a look at how a jokey, almost goofy scene in New York took on a life of it’s own, becoming political and tapping into a cultural vein in England.

He’s not as prominent as many of the other people here, but Malcolm McLaren stands out as the most important figure here. Without him, it’s likely punk would’ve come and gone like so many other scenes; the way he was able to take a scene and tie it into England’s culture essentially changed the way punk was perceived; it was a stance and a style, not a genre. The bands come and go, but the look and attitude McLaren worked to promote have outlived even him.

There are other histories of punk that generally cover the same ground. But Please Kill Me has a loose, rambling and gossipy vibe to it that other books lack. It’s fun, it’s opinionated and even if the same stories are available elsewhere – Phil Stongman’s Pretty Vacant or Victor Bockris’ Transformer come to mind – a bunch of the stories here were new to me.

Rating: 6/10

A Busher’s Lasting Legacy – You Know Me, Al reviewed

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Okay, it’s been a while since I last updated the Sports Illustrated Book Challenge. In fact, it’s been close to a year since it’s last update (not counting a review of Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars I hated so much I trashed it). I’m jumping back into it in haphazard fashion – with a review of the fifth-highest ranked book, Ring Lardner’s “You Know Me, Al”, one of the best and funniest novels in all of literature, not just sports books.

Baseball has a very solid spot in the annals of American fiction. Philip Roth wrote a great novel – The Great American Novel – about the Rupport Mundies, a team of misfits that play an entire season on the road. Shoeless Joe and the Bingo Long Travelling All Stars are two novels which any sports fan should read.

But they all trace back to Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al.

Set in just before the first world war, You Know Me Al is a collection of letters by a semi-literate pitcher entering the big leagues, ego and stomach-first.

Jack Keefe is caricature of a turn of the last century ballplayer. He’s brash, acts on impulse and is astoundingly self-centred. He treats women badly, can’t stand left-handed pitchers and can only barely string together a sentence. If he wasn’t so supremely self-confident yet unaware, he would be a hard guy to like. But that’s what sets him apart.

Like the best athletes, Keefe is completely free of self-doubt. When something bad happens to Keefe – a poor game or a girl dumps him- it doesn’t inspire a letter of self-loathing, but just rolls off him, like water off a duck’s back. He doesn’t think he’ll be back, he knows that he will and when he’s there, he’ll embarrass them – be it Ty Cobb or an ex-girlfriend:
I looked up the skedule and I seen where we play in Detroit the fifth and sixth of September. I hope they will let me pitch there Al. Violet goes to the games and I will make her sorry she give me that kind of treatment. And I will make them Tigers sorry they kidded me last spring. I ain’t afraid of Cobb or none of them now, Al.
This happens time and time again. He pitches a poor game, but it’s always an oddity. Next time he’ll get them. Keefe seems to be a good enough pitcher for teams to take a risk on him and he even has a few good games here and there – he kind of reminds me of Jamie Moyer or Tim Wakefield. When he wins

His most memorable encounters come against Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers, who in both real life and in You Know Me… is kind of an asshole:

Cliched as it sounds, Lardner’s Jack Keefe is a timeless baseball player. The sheer ineptitude and poor judgement of the pitcher. He’s quick with a comeback, often in the worst settings possible. He insults, demeans, drinks and pitches his way through the majors, pissing off almost everybody he comes into contact with, on or off the diamond.
Even now, almost 100 years after it’s initial publication, baseball players are still coloured in Larder’s lines – just look at Eastbound and Down’s Kenny Powers.

As a just-hanging on pitcher, Keefe is often just above the poverty line. Pleas for money are a common element in his letters to his friend Jack – but he’s always careful to mention he can pay his friend back once he gets a break in the majors:

Al old pal that $25.00 you give me at the station the other day is all shot to peaces and I must ask you to let me have $25.00 more which will make $75.00 all together includeing the $25.00 you sent me before I come home. I hate to ask you this favor old pal but I know you have got the money. If I am sold to Detroit I will get some advance money and pay up all my dedts incluseive.

On top of this, he’s at the mercy of his team’s owner, Charles Comiskey. In many ways, he’s owned by Comiskey. When Keefe hears how much be could be making in the upstart Federal league, he weighs jumping leagues:

Comiskey ought to feel pretty good about me winning and I guess he will give me a contract for anything I want. He will have to or I will go to the Federal League.

But Keefe can’t actually jump, since he signed a contract with the Sox. Soon, Cominsky puts him on waivers and threatens to send him to Milwaukee if he doesn’t agree to his original contract – $2800 a season. Compared to today’s multi-millionare athletes, such a fight over $200 is otherworldly quaint.

In 1914, when Lardner wrote You Know, baseball was just beginning as a professional sport; large sums of money had yet to pour into the game. It was decades before Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause and years before players started making enough money to live a whole year off of. As a player, Keefe was far from in control of his own destiny.
That’s a telling in it’s own way. Just a few years after Lardner’s book was published, eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox took payoffs from a gambler and threw the World Series.

Even in YKMA, the roots of the scandal can be seen growing: the team, and especially the owner, hold all the cards of a player. They dictate what the pay is and when they play. They can bench you for almost any reason, a move that can (and did) cost players a bonus. And if the player didn’t like it, it was tough beans: the team held your baseball rights in perpetuity. It was their way or leaving baseball.

That feeling is what makes Lardner’s book still relevant in the era of the multi-million-dollar athlete. He’s playing and working hard for what seems like such a small sum of money, but he loves the sport too. His happiest moments in the book are when he’s pitched particular well.

After all, Keefe’s eternal confidence and bull-headedness still feel fresh; in more ways then one, he’s like Don Quixote, tilting against the windmills of major league baseball. He has more then a few moments where everything is going wrong and lesser, probably smarter people would pack it in. And Keefe never does. And, as readers, we’re the better for it.

Quick review – John Feinstein’s Open

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Open: Inside the Ropes at Bethpage Black Open: Inside the Ropes at Bethpage Black by John Feinstein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Every couple of years, it seems, Feinstein pumps out another golf book. His first, A Good Walk Spoiled, remains his best… but his other books aren’t awful, either.

Open is about the US Open at Bethpage Black in New York state. Notable for being the first major to play at a public course in years, this is less about the tournament itself then it is about how ideas can become reality; in this case, a beaten down public course getting a complete makeover and becoming a major.

So why does that matter? If you’re a fan of the sport, there’s a special thrill in seeing somebody like Tiger Woods play on the same grass you have. As Feinstein writes, there were certainly people at home, explaining how they would play certain shots, what the break in the green is and knowing from their time playing there. That certainly doesn’t happen at the Masters.

Ultimately, this is a book that’s more for golf fans then anybody else. Casual fans of the sport, people who can’t name more then a few golfers or courses, will find little to grip their interest here. On the whole, Feinstein’s book is fairly average.

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Written by M.

April 15, 2010 at 12:06 pm

#100 – Little Girls in Pretty Boxes

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Just finished book #100 of the challenge this afternoon. It was Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, an expose of the cruel and chilling world of figure skating and gymnastics.

Coming from my utter lack of knowledge of both of those sports, perhaps I found the book a little too shocking. Things have surely improved since it was first published, but still, I wonder how much of these changes cannot be undone? The ages of the athletes have plummeted, the skills they need have climbed through the roof and the methods are brutal and primal at best.

It blew me away ,more then anything I’ve read in a long time, that a grown man could scream in the face of a 12-yea old girl that she looks like like a swollen cow.

It was a pretty bleak book to start off with. The next book on the list – Joe McGinniss’ The Miracle of Castel di Sangro – promises to be a little lighter. One down, 99 to go. Review after the break.

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