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The personal essay boom of the past decade or so certainly makes sense as part of the ongoing explosion of internet content. The current landscape is ideally conducive to, well … talking about yourself, taking the old adage “Write what you know” to its most extreme logical conclusion.

This isn’t always a good thing. Too often, this sort of writing devolves into solipsism, a kind of self-celebratory navel-gazing that winds up reading equal parts indulgent and disingenuous. But on those occasions that it works, it’s as impactful as any formal autobiography, giving readers a glimpse at the kind of unexpected truth that can only come from someone else’s experience.

The essays in Lauren Hough’s new collection “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing: Essays” (Vintage, $16.95) work. This selection of 11 stories drawn from Gough’s checkered and fascinating life coalesces in a remarkable way. Through these tales of a unique journey – a childhood spent in a cult leads to a turn in the military followed by a rough-and-tumble awakening of her sexuality, all while simply trying to understand the world in ways many of us take for granted.

Hough’s lacerating wit hits many targets, though none so often or so bitingly as herself. There’s a brutality to her honesty and to her self-deprecation that is compelling as hell to engage with. These alternatingly heartbreaking and hilarious tales stand strong on their own, but as a unit, they form a multi-faceted memoir-in-stories that is a true delight.

Published in Style

“Life’s a journey, not a destination.” It’s a sentiment that we’ve all heard a million times before, this idea that where we wind up is less important than how we got there. And it’s a true one, albeit a bit of a cliché at this point.

Sometimes, though, we have no idea what someone’s journey actually entails until that person shares their story.

Erin French is known for her celebrated restaurant The Lost Kitchen, based in a renovated grist mill in the tiny Maine town of Freedom. She has received accolades from all over the culinary universe, with big names and big outlets all clamoring to shower her with praise for the amazing dining experience that she has built in her tiny corner of the world.

What you might not now is just how much she went through to get here.

“Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story; Remaking a Life from Scratch” (Celadon Books, $28) is the story of French’s journey in her own words. It is a story of one woman’s voyage of self-discovery and the many dizzying highs and shattering lows that came along the way. It’s a work of reflection and at-times brutal honesty, dotted with revelations and confessions. There are tears aplenty, but also more than a few laughs as well; it’s a portrait of a sometimes fractured and always full life.

Through it all, the indomitable spirit of Erin French shines through. Even in those moments where she seems to be at her lowest, when her world is crumbling around her, that fortitude is obvious. This is a woman who took every shot that life could throw at her and simply refused to stay down. That resilience is on full display throughout this book, and it is only that resilience that allowed her to become the person that she is today.

Published in Style

Ever since we became aware of there being something beyond the confines of our world, we have been fascinated by the idea of aliens. We are compelled by these thoughts of life on other planets, and in an infinite universe, that life is almost certainly out there.

But what form will that life take?

We have no way of knowing the specifics – the universe is too vast and varied for that – but one scientist argues that what we know about our own world can give us some general ideas about the life that may exist on others.

Dr. Arik Kershenbaum’s “The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal about Aliens – and Ourselves” (Penguin Press, $28) is an attempt to use what we understand about the rules of this planet and apply that understanding to the potentialities of alien life. He does so through simple extrapolation, taking into account fundamental laws of nature and spinning them forward into general theories about the life that might be found elsewhere.

Published in Tekk

Of all American professional sports, baseball is the one that is most enamored of its own history. Celebrating the past is a big part of the game, looking back at the legends and comparing the players of today with those from previous generations.

The thing with history, however, is that it isn’t always good. And baseball isn’t immune from that reality; there are plenty of unfortunate truths scattered throughout the misty fictions of the game’s rose-colored retrospect.

Among the most scandalous of the pastime’s past times is the throwing of the 1919 World Series by the Chicago White Sox. Dubbed the Black Sox scandal, this was the story of eight players from the White Sox conspiring with gamblers to fix the Series in favor of the Cincinnati Reds. But despite rumors and whispers about the fix that began before that Series even reached a conclusion, it wasn’t until the fall of 1920 that the wheels of justice truly began to turn.

Eight players – first baseman Chick Gandil, third baseman Buck Weaver, shortstop Swede Risberg, utility infielder Fred McMullin, pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams and outfielders Happy Felsch and Joe Jackson – would ultimately be banned from the game for life for their actions, though they took varying degrees of responsibility; some confessed, some recanted and some professed their innocence until their dying day.

Baseball historian Don Zminda’s “Double Plays and Double Crosses: The Black Sox and Baseball in 1920” (Rowman & Littlefield, $36) offers an in-depth look at the White Sox during that 1920 season, digging into the details in an effort to illustrate how the looming shadow of the scandal may have impacted the team – both on the field and off – all while also addressing the other historic happenings of that season, from the cultural explosion of Babe Ruth’s record-breaking bat to the tragic death of Ray Chapman, the last MLB player to die from being struck by a pitched ball.

It’s also a look into the convoluted path that justice took, with backbiting and infighting among the game’s supposed guardians leading to sham investigations and other CYA behaviors that would ultimately result in the powers that be deciding that baseball needed an arbiter, thus leading to the creation of the office of the Commissioner, first occupied by Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, whose lengthy tenure would create ripple effects of its own.

Published in Sports

How much thought have you given to your voice?

Not the way it sounds, mind you. We’re not talking about the words that you might say or the notes that you might sing, but rather the actual voice itself. The physiological and neurological underpinnings of how we as human beings are able to harness its many complexities.

If you’re at all curious, then you desperately need to sit down with John Colapinto’s “This Is the Voice” (Simon & Schuster, $28). It is a deeply researched and incredibly informative plunge into what proves to be a surprisingly robust topic, one that digs into not just the nuts and bolts of how our voice works, but some ideas about WHY it works the way it does.

This unapologetically wonky book is rife with fascinating facts about the origins of human voice, packed with interviews that address the topic from all angles. Through delving into the physical, emotional and cultural connotations of voice, Colapinto illustrates just how vital a part the voice plays in our world – who we were, who we are and who we may yet become.

The fundamental idea that this book explores is a simple, yet far-reaching one. Basically, Colapinto argues that the ability to speak – not just to make sounds, but to SPEAK – has been the key to humankind’s evolutionary journey to the top of the heap. That ability to communicate concisely and flexibly is what truly separated us from the pack and allowed for the many developments that led us to our current status.

And it all started with a song. Kind of.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 23 December 2020 12:13

‘From Hang Time to Prime Time’ a slam dunk

The NBA is big business these days.

Players are global icons, recognizable to billions of people. They are literally world famous, making eight figure salaries and signing even bigger endorsement deals. On the ownership side, TV contracts and ever-escalating franchise values mean big profit for anyone with a piece of an NBA team.

It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way.

Pete Croatto’s new book “From Hang Time to Prime Time: Business, Entertainment, and the Birth of the Modern-Day NBA” (Atria, $27) takes us back to a time, not so long, when the NBA was a pro sports afterthought, a league that struggled to gain any sort of foothold in the cultural consciousness. The public perception was mixed and the product on the floor was uneven; outside of a few cities, the league was barely holding on. You couldn’t even watch games live; even the Finals were infamously aired on tape delay.

But thanks to some savvy league officials, some smart business moves, a handful of transcendent players and a few lucky bounces, the NBA transformed itself. The period from the early ‘70s through the ‘80s was transformative, a time when the league went from also-ran to clubhouse leader. It was a long journey, and not without obstacles, but ultimately, the NBA got where it wanted to go.

Published in Sports
Monday, 30 November 2020 14:46

Turn the page: 2020’s recommended reads

Despite everything that we’ve been through this year, it hasn’t stopped the literary machine from continuing to churn; we’ve seen many tremendous literary offerings hitting shelves in 2020.

Reviewing books is one of the best parts of my job. As part of that job, I’ve read dozens of books over the course of the past year. I freely admit that I tend to seek out works that I know will resonate for me – and hence usually enjoy the books I review – but even with that degree of curation, there’s no denying that there are always some that particularly stand out.

This is not your traditional “best of” list – not my style. Instead, consider this a collection of recommendations. These are suggestions; I enjoyed them, so I thought that you might as well. I’ve also included selections from my writings about these books (please note that the full reviews are available on our website). Bear in mind that this is not a comprehensive list – there are scores more books out there, exceptional works that I simply never got a chance to read.

I’m not arrogant enough to call these the best books of the year – it’s all subjective and this is just one man’s opinion. What I can say is that every one of these works captured my imagination and my attention … and perhaps one or more of them will do the same for you.

And now, without further ado, here are my recommended reads from 2020.

Published in Cover Story

This multi-generationally beloved game show has been on the air since 1984 in its current incarnation and is viewed by many as the current gold standard in the genre.

What is “Jeopardy!”

For millions of people, “Jeopardy!” is a staple, a shared syndicated moment of intellectual rigor and high financial stakes. A combination of encyclopedic trivia knowledge, quick reaction time and the … courage … of a gambler. For 22ish minutes a day, five days a week – “Jeopardy!” is there.

Claire McNear has been writing about “Jeopardy!” for years. However, her new book “Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!” (Twelve Books, $28) delves far deeper than she ever has gone before. Through a wealth of interviews – including over 100 contestants – and significant behind-the-scenes access, McNear offers up a closer examination of the beloved game show than any we’ve seen before.

And count McNear among those who love the show. There’s simply no way that a charming, thoughtful paean such as this one could be composed by someone without a deep and abiding affection for the program. It is a love letter to one of the few remaining monocultural stalwarts, a show that appeals to viewers of all ages and backgrounds.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 11:45

The fastest of them all – ‘Dalko’

Baseball is a sport of legends. The game’s devotion to and celebration of its long history means that titanic figures from the past remain important to the ongoing conversation. Men who haven’t played in a century or more are still vital parts of baseball’s narrative fabric.

And while the majority of those legends are recognized as titans of the game – accomplished hitters and pitchers, deft with the glove or on the basepaths – not all of baseball’s folk heroes show up in the major league record books. Indeed, there are players who, while never appearing in a big league box score, nevertheless became nigh-mythic figures.

Players like Steve Dalkowski.

The new book “Dalko” (Influence Publishers, $26.95) – co-authored by William A. Dembski, Alex Thomas and Brian Vikander – tells the story of Dalkowski, a career minor leaguer whose lightning bolt of an arm could never be properly be tamed. A figure whose career was wreathed in myth and whose subsequent life was one of struggle and strife, many claimed to have never seen his like before or since.

Published in Sports

Quarterback is king in the NFL.

Strong quarterback play has always been an important part of success on the football field. But in today’s pass-prominent game, a high level of performance from the QB has become even more vital. One could make the argument – and plenty do – that the quarterback is the most important single player in professional team sports. You need a good one, if not a great one.

But how do you find one?

Brian Billick is a former NFL head coach with a Super Bowl ring and a current gig as an analyst for the NFL Network – certainly someone with some insight into the importance of having a great QB and what goes into developing such greatness. His new book – co-authored with James Dale – is “The Q Factor: The Elusive Search for the Next Great NFL Quarterback” (Twelve Books, $28), an in-depth exploration of what goes into finding and developing QB excellence.

Using the QB-heavy draft of 2018 as a jumping-off point – five passers were selected in the first round – Billick delves into the specifics of quarterback greatness and some of the tools evaluators can use to determine if the guy they see now can become what they need him to be later. With plenty of attention to detail and some great macro and micro perspectives, Billick deconstructs the path to greatness and how a little improvement in determining that path can go a long way.

Published in Sports
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