Sunday, January 16, 2011

#3: The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven: How a Ragtag Group of Fans Took the Fall for Major League Baseball by Aaron Skirboll

Recently, Major League Baseball has been embroiled in a drug scandal related to steroid use by a number of players. Mostly lost in all of the discussion about steroids is that this is not the first major drug scandal in baseball. While I am not old enough to remember what went on in baseball in the 1980's, it seems after reading this book that MLB was able to do a much better job of sweeping the scandal under the rug for a variety of reasons, probably starting with the fact that cocaine is considered a recreational drug rather than a performance-enhancer.

In The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven, Aaron Skirboll investigates how in a scandal that included several star players admitting to cocaine use, none were convicted of any crimes, and few faced any punishment from the league amounting to more than a slap on the wrist.

Early on, Skirboll describes the prevalence of cocaine use in society. Baseball players used cocaine not just because they were rich, but because many other people also did and because they had a lot of down time during road trips. The drug was considered by many to be harmless and not addictive, which is incomprehensible to me after the many lessons of the evils of drugs that I went through in school. Skirboll also connects the rise of cocaine use to the larger history of baseball, in which drug use has been commonplace for decades as players took any substance provided to them by doctors and trainers so that they could stay on the field and reenergize themselves during long seasons. He describes the use of painkillers, amphetamines and other drugs by players dating back for decades.

Skirboll tells the story by focusing not just on the players, but also on the ordinary people involved in the saga. He begins with Kevin Koch, who worked as the Pittsburgh Pirate Parrot mascot for several years, fulfilling the dream of many people of becoming closer to their heroes. He goes on to tell the stories of others who became close to professional baseball players in a variety of ways, and how these men got into supplying the players with drugs. He points out that most were not doing it to get rich, as the players were notorious for being cheap, but for the prestige of being associated with the athletes.

Skirboll's book contains extensive research. Besides looking at the details that came out of the trials of the seven men prosecuted by the government, he interviewed many of the principal figures, including the men themselves, family members, law enforcement, lawyers and professional baseball insiders. The result is a thorough look at the proceedings that was very interesting to read.

The most disturbing aspect of the book was the clear parallels between this and the steroid scandal. In this case, exactly as would occur 15-20 years later, figures such as managers and front office personnel ignored the obvious signs until public pressure mounted to the point that they had to be dealt with. It seems that while the villains sometimes change, many things will stay the same.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

#2: In Fifty Years We'll All Be Chicks by Adam Carolla

In this book, Adam Carolla explains how guys should live their lives. I can't think of a whole lot to say about this book, so I am going to keep it short and simple.

Carolla starts by describing his early life and how he got into comedy. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley with divorced parents, never excelling in school with the exception of football. After graduation, he worked a variety of jobs, mostly in construction, before breaking into comedy. He illustrates his change in lifestyle by including a copy of his social security statement, showing his income rising from near zero into the millions in a short period of time.

The remainder of the book is Carolla's description of what is wrong with society today. It takes the form of a series of lists, with the points of the lists being explained in more detail. For example, under Movies, he explains why he thinks Little Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation and all of Tyler Perry's movies are overrated, while Fargo, Saving Private Ryan and Election, among others, are underrated. He does this for a variety of subjects such as music, cell phones and restaurants.

I was definitely amused by this book, but it is not something that is going to stick with me for very long. It was a quick read, and a good way to pass some time during vacation.

#1: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

It's time to try out my book reviewing skills again - the goal is a total of 52 by the end of the year. Reading the books is definitely easier than keeping up with the reviews.

If you are unfamiliar with the writing of Bill Bryson, he is very inquisitive, and it shows up in his work. The good side of this is that you learn a lot of interesting trivia by reading his books. He also has the tendency to go off on tangents, which is very evident in At Home: A Short History of Private Life.

In this book, Bryson uses a tour of his house to describe the development of many things we take for granted today. For example, the chapter about the bathroom describes the history of hygiene and the chapter on the kitchen describes how the way people eat has evolved over time. Bryson's thorough research answers questions such as why salt and pepper are the most prevalent spices. He also looks into the lives of numerous people who contributed to the way we live, both famous and obscure.

Much of Bryson's research focuses on England, where his house, a 19th century parsonage is located. He describes the story of his own house, as well as the development of urban life in London and the palatial country estates of the aristocracy. Other than England, he looks at the rise of America over the second half of the 19th century and how that led us to where we are today.

At Home was an enjoyable book to read, as I enjoy learning trivia. However, it did meander quite a bit - some of the chapters were connected only very loosely to their intended rooms. While it is not my favorite of his works, it is one I would recommend to others.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Reading List

Last year, I had the goal of reading 100 books in one year. While my reviews tailed off, I finished book 100, although a couple weeks late (I started in early December last year). Things went crazy in September and October, and my reading slowed down a lot. Here is the final list (in parts), and I may post more detailed reviews at some point.

55. Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich
The author tries working a variety of low wage jobs with the goal of surviving on the wages. She makes interesting commentary about the struggles of the working poor. Rating: 4/5
56. Heart of the Game - S.L. Price

A writer for Sports Illustrated looks into the life of Mike Coolbaugh, a minor league coach killed by a line drive, as well as that of Tino Sanchez, the player who hit the ball. The narrative is very well written and depicts the tragedy, as well as the culture of players struggling in the minor leagues. Rating: 5/5
57. The Year of Fog - Michelle Richmond

Abby, a photographer, loses track of her fiance's young daughter while briefly looking away during a trip to the beach. The story chronicles the search for Emma, and the the difficulties Abby and Jake face in their relationship due to the tension. The novel is set in San Francisco, hence the title. Rating: 4/5
58. Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer

Krakauer was on a trip to climb Mt. Everest and describe it for Outside magazine. Krakauer describes the trip, but also what happened when disaster struck and several other climbers were killed. This is an exciting first-person account of this unusual experience. Rating: 5/5
59. When Men Become Gods - Stephen Singular

This book describes Warren Jeffs and his reign of terror over his followers in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), the polygamists centered in the American Southwest. Rating: 4/5
60. Little Pink House - Jeff Benedict

This book describes a struggle between homeowners and the city of New London, CT over eminent domain. Benedict does a great job in portraying the city and its allies bullying the homeowners who were trying to simply preserve their hard-earned lifestyles. Rating: 5/5
61. The Jury - Steve Martini

A murder mystery in which one scientist is accused of killing another. I don't remember too much of it, other than that it was slow paced and not especially interesting. Rating: 3/5
62. The Taking - Dean Koontz

Another supernatural thriller by Koontz - strange weather phenomena begin occuring as aliens invade Earth, while a couple living in the woods in California try to do what they can to save themselves and others. The book was pretty good, but the ending was less than satisfactory. Rating: 3/5
63. Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit - Matt McCarthy

McCarthy, a Princeton graduate, describes his fish out of water experience as a left handed pitcher in the Angels' minor league system. His anecdotes were interesting, although there has been a bit of controversy over the validity of some of the details. Rating: 4/5
64. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J.K. Rowling

I read this prior to the movie coming out. I had read it at least three times before, but I enjoy the series. Rating: 5/5
65. Extra Credit - Andrew Clements

Abby receives an extra credit assignment to write to an Afghan pen pal so she can pass her class. Her pen pal is a boy from a village where it is unacceptable for a boy to correspond with a girl, so he has his sister sign the letters. A friendship develops, and the kids learn about each other's cultures. The story is interesting, but not my favorite by Clements.
66. Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy! - Bob Harris

Harris has appeared on Jeopardy several times, competing in various Tournaments of Champions. He humorously describes his experiences on the show, as well as his process for studying for the show and the relationships he developed with other contestants. As a fan of the show, it was an enjoyable book to read. Rating: 5/5
67. Sag Harbor - Colson Whitehead

The novel, set in 1985, describes the experiences of 15-year-old Benji spending the summer in the predominantly upper middle class, African-American area of Sag Harbor on Long Island. This is in contrast with his experience in the city in which he is surrounded by white people. The story progresses at a leisurely pace to match its summer setting and is filled with pop culture references. While somewhat slowly paced, it is an interesting coming of age story. Rating: 4/5
68. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold

The novel, recently adapted into a movie, begins with the brutal rape and murder of 14-year-old Susie Salmon. Susie watches her family from the afterlife as they deal with the aftermath over the next several years. The ending didn't quite measure up to the rest of the book for me, but the novel definitely kept me enthralled throughout. Rating: 5/5
69. Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops - James Robert Parish

As the title states, this book describes how several of Hollywood's biggest failures were made and how costs spiraled out of control, mainly due to huge egos or impractical ideas. As someone who enjoys making fun of bad cinema, this appealed to me, although I have seen very few of the movies described such as Ishtar and Last Action Hero. My biggest issue with the book was that it did not include Gigli, which was a horrible movie and colossal flop. Rating: 4/5
70. Kodak Guide to Digital Photography - Jeff Sheppard
A book describing basic photography techniques. It was written very clearly, but I (unsurprisingly) learned a lot more from the photography course I recently completed. Still, this is a good book for a beginner. Rating: 5/5

Sunday, September 27, 2009

#54: Blonde Roots

Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo is an alternative history that imagines what would have happened if Africans had enslaved Europeans instead of the other way around. It tells the story of Doris, the daughter of English farmers, who is captured by a slave trader and sent overseas. She ends up at the plantation of a wealthy landowner, but desires freedom, so much of the story concerns her attempts to escape and what happens because of these plots.

I found the premise to be interesting, but the story was hard for me to finish. The plot seemed to move slowly at first, and I put the book down for a while before eventually finishing it. Still, there were some interesting facets, especially the reimagining of American culture if it had been based upon African traditions rather than European ones. Overall, I found the book to be intriguing, but not a must read.

#53: Teacher Man

Teacher Man is Frank McCourt's memoir about his career spent teaching high school English in New York City's public schools. As a teacher, I found his story to be very interesting and entertaining. McCourt described all of the difficulties and rewards of being a teacher. The thing that stuck out was his willingness to find unconventional solutions to problems, even when it caused him to butt heads with administrators. His main concern was connecting to his students, but some of his superiors frowned upon his methods. This lack of flexibility among administrators and overseers of schools is a major source of what is wrong with schools today. Overall, I found McCourt's writing to be humorous and inspirational.

Monday, August 3, 2009

#52: Notes From a Small Island

Notes From a Small Island is another example of travel writing by Bill Bryson. In this case, after living in England for a number of years and just before returning to his native U.S., he decided to explore everything that the United Kingdom had to offer. He began at the English Channel and traveled to John O'Groats at the tip of Scotland, and visited points in between throughout England, Scotland and Wales.

As with Bryson's other books, he looks at things in a humorous way. He uses trains to travel throughout the country and spends time musing on the vagaries of British Rail. He also spent time commenting on his lodging and the historical sites he visited, as well as the odd sites that attracted him like on all of his other journeys. He makes a special point to marvel about just how old many of the things are in Britain, such as numerous footpaths and hedgerows dating hundreds of years and an abundance of churches and other buildings dating to medieval times. However, in one instance, he went to a decrepit ruin of a house to see a Roman mosaic, only to later find out that it was a replica.

While the book does a great job in describing what it is like to travel through Great Britain, Bryson also serves another purpose. He expresses his appreciation for his adopted land. While he sometimes points out the quirks of the British, he does so in a gentle, rather than mocking way.

While I did not enjoy this book as much as some of Bryson's other work (such as In a Sunburned Country and Thunderbolt Kid, I would recommend it to others, especially if you enjoy travel writing.